Header

Monthly Archives: May 2012

Diablo III

It could be very easy to see how Diablo III could be described as monotonous.

Click click click click click click.

Hours are spent roaming maze-like dungeons with your sole purpose being to massacre anything you find down there.

Click click click click click click.

With only a limited set of powers, fights begin to form into a series of well-rehearsed and predictable phases.

Click click click click click click.

The backdrops may change, but over the many hours your actions remain the same. Namely…

Click click click click click click.

And yet all I want to do is to keep on clicking. The design wizards at Blizzard have once again taken what the world expects to be a well-worn and predictable formula and put their twist on it to make it shine. Not content with setting the standard in MMOs, or recapturing the RTS market, they have resurrected an almost decade-old franchise and breathed fresh life into it.

At its heart it’s still the same third-person dungeon crawler that almost personifies adventure games. The difference here though is that large portions of the once action-RPG are now more focused on the action rather than RPG. Formerly rigid talent trees whereby you pick certain skills at the expense of others as you level up are forgotten and instead level progression is greeted by a series of unlocks that ever expand the possibilities but never restrict.

Purists have already cried on the forums at this perceived dumbing down, but for the more silent majority this is a wondrous thing. As you progress, powers are slowly opened up to you, sitting in one of six possible slots. Each level brings a new trinket, be it the ability to summon zombie dogs to fight alongside you, or the skill to rain acid down upon your foes. Compared to more traditional RPGs where levelling may mean the excitement of a new stat point to spend in this area of self-improvement or that, the guarantee of a new talent or power is far more rewarding. Almost without fail, just like a child on Christmas day, you’ll be rejigging your loadout to try the new toy.

As is life, not all these gifts are Transformers; some turn out to be Gobots. Although even then that’s not to say you won’t revisit it later on as these powers are modified by a further series of unlockables known as Runes. All will keep the same core ability but, returning to our zombie dogs, they could become poisonous, or highly explosive, even leave life orbs behind as they die. They have the potential to turn a previously considered useless ability and tweak it oh so slightly so it fits perfectly with your character’s build.

Indeed, though a certain flavour has run consistently through my Witch Doctor throughout our time together, the ability to wholescale switch play style, knowing that I’ve not committed myself to anything, has allowed me to experiment and come up with setups that have ranged from the disastrous to variations that have made with cackle with the sheer stupidity of the power at my disposal. My most favourite of which being when I summon a field of undead hands from the earth to tie them in place, send a Frankenstein-esque Gollum to show them what for, before finally summoning a familiar that would turn them into a chicken. Now you tell me seeing an eight-foot, undead servant wailing on a piece of confused looking poultry isn’t delightful.

Diablo however is more than just how you kill things; it’s about the loot they drop. And as ever they drop it in spades. Following a skirmish, the floor can be covered in weapons and armour, most of which can be ignored. Even on normal difficulty all but magic blues and rare yellows can be ignored, the abundance of low value items simply not worth your time ferrying them back to town to sell. Yet still they are critical to proceedings if just to show the value of the rarer items.

Most players will be able to adequately equip themselves with just what they find on the bodies of their victims. Slowly you’ll build up a set of armour and weapons that will mean you have no need of the vendors in town, and indeed money proves irrelevant for the most part except to dabble on the auction house or to level your blacksmith and jeweller. Each is probably the most important person in the village, being able to breakdown unwanted items and craft specifically to your needs, and probably at far a cheaper price than through Diablo’s own eBay.

Given the sheer quantity of items available, it’s unsurprising to see that visually they tend to fall into certain camps, though all are impressive. Indeed, the latest in the series is wonderfully rendered, with an eye for detail and the grand. Most levels will see you trawl the underground lairs of one area of the world or another, but the hard work placed into making each varied is plain to see. Gloomy tombs under the desert that see sand building up in corners are worlds away from the sewers under a royal palace. Gritty, peasants’ basements give way to castle barracks, and all see their own flavour of bad guy, too. In a game so long, it would have been easy to give in to temptation and recycle characters and models but with each passing portion of the narrative comes its own unique set of impressive monsters to squash.

Visually they range from skeletons to large, elephant-sized demons wielding equally large clubs, but disappointingly most of them offer no real intelligence or challenge. Some may show obvious signs of an attack that you can then dodge, but overall some of my perceived monotony stems from the onrushing charge that varies little. Only when it comes to the infrequent boss battles or higher difficulty settings does it actually feel as though you are being offered a challenge, be it in attack patterns or actual resistance.

Almost knowingly, Blizzard seem to realise this to and have built in rewards to toast the warrior that crushes these waves under foot. Bonus XP is awarded for chaining kills, massacring large numbers, and taking out multiple demons in a single attack. It’s a pleasant carrot to draw you forward into the heat of battle as you aim to beat your previous best.

With touches like that it’s easy to see how Diablo has taken over so many lives in the past fortnight. Based upon an addictive formula whereby you wield unyielding strength through blade or magic, you are then rewarded heavily; large quantities of treasure, further strange powers, and a strong storyline that ticks over readily whisking you from plague-ridden streets to royal houses. It is simple and yet packed with variety through five character classes and a staggering number of combinations of talents.

Reservation over its repetitiveness remains, but so does something else: click click click click click click.

Minecraft

I once listened to a radio phone-in about the greatest ever toys. Transformers, Barbie and other staples from across the generations were mentioned and lauded, until the show was completely derailed by one irate caller who had particular beef with Denmark’s finest ever export. Lego, he proclaimed, was rubbish. “Well,” he continued over the hoots of derision, “once you’ve built what it tells you to build, what’s there left to do!?”

At that point you could only feel sorry for him. So devoid of imagination was he that he had worked himself up into such a rage over his building blocks and their limited potential that he was forced to ring into a national radio show. Heaven only know what he’d be pushed to with Minecraft.

The PC phenomenon has crept its way onto the Xbox, and although it may be a slightly stripped down version it offers a world full of sandbox fun. It’s a game powered by the user’s imagination, that can see whole worlds spring forth if they only have the time and inclination to commit to it. You can turn a meadow into a village, a bare seascape into Atlantis, or fill the skies with a recreation of the Death Star.

Though I fear I am getting ahead of myself; at the beginning such possibilities seem a long way off. Dropped into a land made of cubes with nothing but the ability to hit things until they break, you must build yourself up a toolset to make life easier. Collecting (read: punching) wood from trees and stone from rocks allows you to create at first a workbench and then spades and pickaxes with which to more easily mine the world about you.

You first hour or so is spent simply harvesting, replacing blades when they dull and break, but mainly gathering resources simply because you can. No tree is safe or rock out of the question from this early frenzy and soon you’ll no doubt survey the environmental damage you have wreaked and decide a little more focus is needed.

That is ably handed to you by the monsters that come out at night. As square as the world about them, they aim to put a stop to your ways and so the only reasonable course to take is to build a house and hide until morning. At first it’s a necessity, a place to cower only to prevent yourself from losing all the inventory you’ve built up, probably no more than some dirt thrown together in a high-sided square. The second night, however, is where the magic of Minecraft gets you. A dull square is no longer good enough; you’ve foraged more materials and maybe you have grand design for a sloped roof? If you extend it a little out back, maybe you can create a mineshaft so the night is as productive as the day? Or how about a castle? If you’re still happy with a dirt hovel, you’re playing the wrong game.

With elements from glass bricks to stairs, working switches to rudimentary water, there are enough bits and pieces to fill any young architect with glee. With enough planning and resources the world is your highly angular oyster.

And so unfolds the other great facet of Notch’s wondrous creation: the world itself. Each land is different, randomly generated and brought into life for you to then mine to destruction. But it’s huge, genuinely vast, and hides some true natural wonders. Above ground the hills rolls out as far as the eye can see, whilst the coastlines teem with sea caves. By sheer chance however, towering cliffs, dramatic valleys and cracks splitting the land also form before your eyes, and all warranting further exploration. For a game based on giant cubes and a random number generator the landscape can prove stunning, and yet it is below ground the true treasures wait.

To build up enough resources for your 1:1 recreation of Hogwarts you’ll need to head through the bedrock, deep into the bowels of the earth. Choose a cliff face or dip in the floor and head down and you’ll gather enough rock to start building those magical walls, but every now and again you’ll chance upon a hidden underground cavern offering possible ores and precious stones, items needed for the more advanced pieces. More than that though, if you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to a maze of caves, looming of into the darkness just teasing you to explore them.

From tiny pot holes to vast caverns that you could fit a cathedral into, poking about and seeing what natural wonder hides round the next corner was a huge draw to me. Collecting essential stones became secondary as I longed for the next underground river or cracking through a rock to be met with the subtle glow of a lava flow. By this point I’d turned the monsters off, I wanted nothing to get in the way of my subterranean adventure.

Objectively, Minecraft seems at the same time nothing and everything. You’re plonked in the world with next to nothing and an objective to survive. There is no narrative, no grand story to “complete.” It is a sandbox where they stories write themselves, be it tunnelling in a cave alone or building a grand structure over Xbox Live with friends, it will be the telling of the stories that is most likely to draw people in.

Like the time my brother and I built a floating castle and tried to create a lava flow from the top turret, only to realise that doing so with wooden flooring might be a mistake, but tried it anyway with hilarious/catastrophic results. Or the time I was struggling blindly through a cave, having run out of torches, only to burst through a wall and find sunlight streaming down on me through a natural opening that ran 100m dead-straight up to the blue sky. The cave of chickens my brother found, or the pub my boss hid under his friend’s cathedral, or the squid that swam into my kitchen, or the cow that stole a minecart, the giant fire-filled floating arrow someone made for their brother who kept getting lost, or the countless other tales that are created by handing us a simple set of tools and letting our imagination and little random luck from the world take its course.

So, to the man on the radio: think. If you could build anything, what would it be?

Museum Embraces New Technology

Last week I was in the city of love and culture, Paris. My wife and I had decided to head to the French capital for a few days for a break away from the office and a chance to take in sights and sounds of the city. Fear not though, faithful reader, I’m not about to walk you through our holiday snaps, instead I want to tell you about what I found at The Louvre.

The Louvre is the most visited art museum in the world, with 8.5m visitors each year. It holds nearly 400,000 objects, including the largest collection of Egyptian artefacts outside of Cairo, and with that kind of scale navigating its galleries can be interesting. Some tourists may opt for the traditional paper map, but I tried their very modern alternative.

Almost a year after the launch of Nintendo’s depth loving console, I was wandering round the hallways of France’s premier museum with a 3DS strapped round my neck, listening as the narrator filled me in on the grave goods associated with the Upper Nile. A tap of the screen here and I’d get a further titbit of knowledge, a swipe there and I’d be able to check where a certain exhibit was, my inner Nintendo fanboy was grinning inanely.

At first I was simply taken in by the novelty of the proposal: using a portable games console instead of an audio guide. The more I used it however the more it became apparent that this was more than just an interesting promotional tie in. There are similar apps for other museums for the iPhone and alike, but the unique properties of the 3DS made this particular app a little more special.

The dual screen for one was fantastic. As per normal for many adventure games on the system, one screen was a dedicated map for the most part, keeping track of which gallery you were in. The other then highlighted the various exhibits of note, allowing you tap for further information and images. It may sound silly that the guide would show you images of what you were already looking at, but given the sheer quantity of objects on display I treated this that I was indeed being told about tableaux X rather than Y.

Also, the local wi-fi constantly updated your position, meaning you were never lost and more importantly always meant your machine was showing you what was in front of you rather than a few rooms back. This same network was also apparently updated on the fly, blocking out rooms that were closed for maintenance and offering guided tours of temporary exhibitions.

It was an extremely lightweight app and very intuitive, showing what can be achieved when you keep a clear goal and don’t over complicate matters. For all museums and galleries attempting to update their multimedia projects, this goes to show that often simplicity is key. Just because your device has extra gadgetry and spare capacity does not mean you always have to use it, as most of the quality came in the content that it presented.

Risen 2

The world is divided into two camps: those who like to speak like a pirate and those deluded chaps who prefer sneaking as though they were ninjas. The former is obviously the correct choice that all hearty sea dogs should chose, leaving the land lubbers that are fond of tight fitting black suits to never know the joy of a good sea shanty or the wonders of ham night.

Piranha Bytes understands this joy and returns with a sequel to 2009’s swashbuckling adventure with a more piratical focus. Within minutes of the start your nameless character has thrown away the eloquent uniform and privileges he’s earned through service with the Inquisition to don a tricorn and begin whittling a replacement leg. He may be undercover to thwart the threat of titans but this new avenue for adventure opens up a colourful world for the designers to plunder.

This isn’t your usual set of Caribbean islands, either. Though pirates and imperial forces may inhabit the numerous islands dotted around your sea chart, it’s very much a world of magic and fantasy. Rowing boat sized crabs roam the beach, ghouls hide in caves and huge sea monsters lie in wait to tug naïve boats under to a watery grave. With the ultimate aim being that you find a weapon to destroy this kraken, our hero wanders the islands, finding allies, sharing in adventures and turning himself from a cabin boy to a feared and legendary captain.

But to do so, the first task is gaining the pirates’ trust. From the very first island you land upon it’s all about cosying up to your new friends, helping them escape from jail and seeing off a giant termite invasion. Once on speaking terms your involvement opens up, sorting out supplies, searching for treasure and overthrowing rival captains.

Most of these tasks are found out through talking to the locals, with each island having one or two little villages. There gunsmiths and general deckhands will happily talk to you and reveal titbits about island life, passing on any quests they have – but chat is very little more than perfunctory. Once in a while someone you meet might spin an interesting yarn filling in a backstory or expanding on the lore of the titans but quickly you realise only a handful of main characters are worth listening to. Everyone else falls into the categories of being pickpocket targets, salesmen or skip-text-until-I-give-you-a-quest givers. The shame is that the dialogue that was given the attention seems to have a good humour and substance about it.

As with the villagers, the quests also vary wildly in substance. At times where you’ve your captain and ship’s hand by your side and wading in to kill giant lizards, it feels like a proper Saturday matinee as blades are flying and the three of you set to storm the stronghold, or my personal favourite: following orienteering symbols placed by a scout to find out his whereabouts, which showed a lovely change of pace. At those points, when you’re handed motive and direction, Risen 2 does flow nicely as you push proceedings onward, though in equal measures there are stilted and vague tasks that can lead you wandering in circles scratching your head as to what you have to achieve let alone how.

At such points the linearity of the adventure becomes very apparent. For all the lush and wide expanse of environment you can explore through on each island, you realise just how narrowly progression is funnelled. It’s a similar setup to last month’s Witcher 2 but there you never felt quite so enclosed because of the richness of the world. Here the villages never feel alive and the great expanses between homesteads are rarely filled with anything more interesting that the odd pack of boar. Key points take place in only a few areas and the rest of the island seems wasted given the effort obviously put in to creating such a tableaux for your adventure to unfold against.

If this is sounding harsh then it is possibly overly so. I did enjoy and lap up the chance to wander through a pirate’s life, battling giant crabs and making peace with the natives who previously had thrown spears at me. The shortcomings of the quests and conversations were ultimately only tiny drawbacks that just took the shine off an otherwise involving experience. This is all however, heavily tainted by my character’s ability with a cutlass.

Being a pirate adventure game, a lot hinges on its ability to portray and execute on swashbuckling. Although rather than excel and allow us to feel as though we can live out Hollywood moments of dancing along the deck with blades flashing in a deadly dance before us, Risen 2 descends into a mix of random chance and rapid mouse clicks. There seems little skill and no finesse at all, as although you’re able to kick opposing duellists away and parry neither seemingly make a difference. They’ll block the majority of your strokes and kicking seems incapable of breaking them out of their own swing, leaving you even more vulnerable. Early on I thought it was because my character was underpowered or inexperienced, but after over a dozen hours to get used to my sabre, I still dread combat.

Success with a sword appears to come down to a number of factors: firstly, hoping you catch them in a recoil animation so you can swing again without reprisal; next, keep enough health potions to hand so you can out last your foe; or finally, hope you’re with a party and let them kick his arse for you. It’s a sorry state to be in and ultimately one that caused more than one or two pounds of the desk in sheer frustration.

Regardless, there are a lot of redeeming factors to this digital journey on the high seas. From the beautifully created islands to the various factions you meet on each of them, there is a core to the world that is worth persevering with. Yet it’s a slow burner: an RPG that on the face of it has a lot of potential and ticks a lot of boxes, but just fails to push on to reach the heights of its fantasy brethren we’ve been so spoiled with recently.

Nevertheless, we return to the combat. Everything you do on the adventure relies on the sword in your hand, and when it’s as unreliable and frustrating as any combat mechanic I have ever come across, Risen 2 is hard to recommend.

Tax Breaks Revisited

With all the interest in the financial strife of high street retails GAME, many of us failed to give the budget the due care and attention that it warranted. On the afternoon George Osborne stood in from of his fellow MPs and delivered his latest financial update, I sat at my desk not particularly paying attention to something about pasties. Soon, a ripple went round the office; the chancellor had announced quite unexpectedly that the games industry would be receiving tax breaks.

This was quite a turn up for the books as after their election the Conservatives had labelled the Labour proposal for similar breaks as “poorly targeted” and thrown them out. Then many thought that in this economic downturn that that was that, and the industry would have to survive the attentions of far more attractive foreign propositions until the country had righted itself financially.

It seems the turning point was when a handful of large and notable names in the computing, animation and entertainment space made it clear to the Government that this was not good enough. Hints were dropped that studios would up sticks and head overseas, taking advantage of favourable tax benefits in France and Canada. Furthermore, foreign studios indicated that they conversely would be attracted to our shores if the right deal was in place. Some may say that Minister’s hands were forced, though whether threats would ever have turned to promises is one thing, but in this stand-off the Government blinked first.

However, in my mind this should not be considered a U-turn or a step down. From what I have heard of the original Labour plans they proved far too limiting, and with the rethink many more creative businesses can be brought under its umbrella. For as much as we like to lambast our officials for getting decisions wrong I feel we should also praise them for showing patience and some consideration on the matter.

The actual meat of the proposals are some way off, however. The announcement this year was to indicate the start of a consultation period during which the Government will talk to the industry. Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries Ed Vaizey says that during this time studios will have to “put a realistic case to Government and have to show how the tax credit can work in practical ways.”

Signs point to something similar to the tax break system already in operation for the British film industry, whereby productions that tick enough “British” boxes qualify. “The games industry needs to look at that and say ‘how can we take that model and apply it to our industry?’ […] as it has prior approval from the treasury.”

Quite whether cultural tests should play a large part in qualification to the scheme is still up for debate in some quarters, but even if it does go through it doesn’t mean we’ll have a spate of Fables on our hands. The film tax breaks allow for British staff, premises and influence to all count towards the final decision, not just the theme of the production itself.

When it comes to the actual numbers involved, I prefer to shy away. The thoughts of creating X jobs or saving Y companies from going abroad is all conjecture and generally spun to suit the speaker. What is solid however are the totals of £50m available to the scheme over the first two-years. How this is divvied out at this point is anyone’s guess. Instead, the most important point is that we’ve started down the road to determining how.

Some say it’s been a long time coming. TIGA and alike have saluted the detail but, as Vaizey himself said, the devil’s in the detail. Let’s wait for 2013.