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Wednesday 16/07/08

Time sure flies past when you're not doing anything. It's not supposed to work like that, but still ..

Using the computer is tricky at the moment. I'm sitting here, one leg sticking up in the air whilst balancing the laptop precariously, still wondering exactly how to take the blog forwards. I've started one article on the dangers of innovation, but that's not really moving as quickly as I'd like. Probably because I hardly ever do any work on it. It's a valid point.

I have picked up a couple of new games - Shiren the Wanderer and R-Type Command.

Shiren the Wanderer is a nethack type game with permanent death and very little continuity. It's fun to play, although fairly simplistic compared to some of the better nethack games, it doesn't offer that much depth of play and strategy. I also find that I wanted better ability to progress. I've played other games of this type where the "bodies" (and therefore equipment) of your previous attempts can be reclaimed by getting to their location, and these games allowed me to get that little bit further each time. Without this, each attempt feels much more like a "new" game, even if you can store items at certain points in time. As a result, a new attempt can easily see me failing much earlier than a previous go.

I think I'll play it more, but a few days ago R-Type Command arrived, and I really wanted to give that a go. I got this from the US as it's not due out for a couple of months, but since I really like Atlus strategy games I thought it was worth an import. My interest was also piqued by the setting as there aren't many turn based futuristic strategy games at the moment.

It's... sort of what I expected, but misses some of the key parts I'd really hoped for. The game plays a lot like a turn based version of an R-type game. The user's ships face right and usually travel from left to right across a map, defeating enemies along the way. Many of the levels you play have their roots in previous R-Type games, especially when it comes to maps where you have to defeat one of the bosses.

The biggest lack for me is that units aren't individual enough. There's very little development of skills, so although you can get "Ace" characters, they function so similarly to normal units that it doesn't really make a difference. I was really hoping for a decent development structure, so I really built an attachment with a particular, skilled unit. Without this, it functions a lot less like my favourite turn based titles like Disgaea and Final Fantasy Tactics, and a lot more like traditional hex wargames.

The other issue is a problem that I'm always encountering with futuristic strategy games - namely the difficulty in applying strategy. In fantasy games/ historical games, most combat is close range, and therefore unit position and formations are incredibly important. However, when most combat is long range, it's vastly less so as opponents can skip front line troops in favour of more vulnerable ones.

I should also point out the overpowering nature of charged weapons. Just like in other R-Type games, some unit types can build up a huge beam shot that does tremendous damage. However, in this game you often get to the enemy with all your ships fully charged (it builds up all the time) and therefore you can let rip and destroy most of the enemy very quickly (or visa versa if they catch you). Again, this reduces some of the tactical options.

More to follow...

Tuesday 01/07/2008 - Crisis Core

I was a huge fan of Final Fantasy VII. Probably more than anything it was the materia system that I was particularly fond of. It gave so much meaningful customisation and strategic input into the skills and equipment that you had that you really felt that you were creating something of worth. For those that aren't aware, the system allowed the user to invest items into weapons and armour in order to add special abilities or skills to that object. On a very basic level it was simple - add a Fire materia to a sword and you added fire damage - add Ice to a piece of armour and it added Ice resistance. However, things got more interesting when you could start linking materia together to make more complex and valuable actions - linking Cover with Counter meant that when a team mate was attacked, the character would cover them (taking the damage) and counter (strike back). Since you could have multiple Counter materia set up, you could then add further detail until you ended up with a complex series of actions that arose from a single cause.

So it was the materia system more than anything that made me interested in Crisis Core.

I'm only a few hours in, so I don't know whether this complexity is still in, but here's hoping...

There are a few things that are already annoying me - most obviously the non-random encounters, the pointlessness of attack magic for the most part and the random feel of progression and combat.

Most areas in the game are split into "rooms" and "corridors", and basically every room has an encounter area in it. When the character hits this area, an encounter is triggered. The frustrating part is that there's no "chance" - when you hit an encounter area, you get an encounter. So basically the user knows what's going to happen. Run into a room, have encounter, run out of room. There is a second related issue in that the encounter areas reset immediately. So you have a fight, get a bit disoriented and run a few steps in the wrong direction, turn around and trigger ANOTHER encounter. Even a short reset time would really help. This system really reduced the tension of exploring for me. I knew when and where fights would occur and I even got to the stage of skipping exploration because I KNEW how many fights it would involve.

The second point about the uselessness of attack magic is something that I've noticed in a lot of JRPG games recently. Basically, there's a free attack (normal, physical attacks), and then there are costed attacks (magic) that use up a scarce resource. Given that one attack is free, and the other costs, you'd expect the costed attack to be massively more powerful, but it really isn't - especially when you consider that magic attacks use the same base resource as healing. When I hit with a free hit for 400 damage, a magic attack hitting for 700 but using up 10% of my mana isn't that helpful. When you then add in that the mana would supply several thousand HP of healing, it becomes obvious that saving mana for healing is generally the right thing to do. There are exceptions, but 90% of the time it's just healing that happens. As I said, this is not something that's unique to Crisis Core, but I really am baffled by the decisions. I can't help but feel that the entire system needs a rethink - something like just making magic free to cast but giving it a recast timer would be much more effective.

The third thing I don't really like is called the DMW. It's a fruit machine type thing that gives the character bonuses and special attacks when certain reel combinations crop up. These attacks can be very powerful, but can occur at any point, which makes some tough fights quite unpredictable - get a few good power ups and you win easily, but don't get them and you lose. Although I like some randomness, I found this a little too much. This is compounded as this is also how materia and even your character level up. This might reduce an element of grinding, but it didn't give me the same level of achievement when progressing my character.

All in all the game is OK so far. Not great, but not terrible. It should get me through until I pick up Etrian Odyssey at the weekend (assuming I can hobble out).


Tuesday 24/6/2008

Last Friday I decided to join in a kick about at work. Our company has a five a side football team, and since the league had recently finished, we just decided to have a bit of a fun game at lunchtime. I haven't played football in over a year, but decided it would be fun.

Ten minutes into my return, I was in goal, and in the process of saving a shot, hurt my ankle. Deciding it was just a strain, I hobbled off and waited around for everyone to finish. The ankle was swelling up a bit and was very painful, but I figured it was better to wait around than limp back on my own. This turned out to be a good move. I'd never had made the walk back on my own. A couple of friends were kind enough to help me back and, along with help from our office first aid person, all was forgotten (aside from the £38 cab fare needed to get me home).

Over the weekend, the ankle got more puffy and purple, and at a bbq visit at my brother's various people told me that I really, really should be going to the hospital. This was advice that (obviously) I ignored - the pain seemed to be a little less, and I didn't really want to waste anyone's time.

Still, on Monday morning I decided it was probably worth a little visit - just to make sure.

Broke my ankle. Bugger

Technically, it's not ACTUALLY broken. I have a spiral fracture of the tibia. Or fibula. To be honest, I can't remember the names. It's been years since GCSE biology... Anyways, it's the bone on the outside. The doctors and nurses were very confused as to why I'd taken three days to see them, and there were various eye rolls and comments of "men!" that followed my sheepish explanations.

So, it's working from home for a few days for me.


Saturday 14/6/2008 Lost Odyssey – WTF!

Now I like my RPG’s.  I like western style, Japanese style, single player, multiplayer, realtime, turn based etc.  I’ve played them in various guises for decades, so I’m hardly a newbie to the experience.

Still, Lost Odyssey is hard.  Rock hard.  Hard enough that I’ve actually quit playing.

I’d heard a fair bit about the game before I bought it.  The epic storyline, the amazing graphics, and the “old school” nature of the game mechanics.  None of that bothered me.  I’ve just finished Eternal Sonata (another RPG which failed to meet expectations), and was eager to dive into something new (well, The World Ends with You still sits in my DS – must…find…last…darklit…planet…).

But I just can’t play LO.  It’s TOO HARD FOR ME.

I’ve given up after about 8 or 9 hours play.  I’m fighting some infantry and a couple of cavalrymen.  I’m level 17, my fighters have around 700hp, and my heal spell heals for about 100hp.  The enemy generally hit for 120ish, and some have a special attack that hits for 400…

I’ve tried the fight several times.  I’ve tried defending, I’ve tried buffing, debuffing, taking it carefully, going gung ho…  All to no avail.  I get my ass handed to me.

It’s not the first fight in the game that I’ve had to repeat.  In fact, pretty much every boss battle has required a number of repeats.  I haven’t been rushing through the game, I have good equipment and I know what I’m doing.  Surely it shouldn’t be THIS difficult?

To be fair, I might make more of an effort into persevering, but actually quite a lot of the game leaves me fairly cold.  The graphics style is more realistic than most JRPGs, and the models and textures are generally of a very high quality, but all the characters look creepy/ dead.  There’s no emotion and it makes me feel like I’m just managing a group of zombies (actually, that would be cool!  Upgradeable body parts….

Anyway, I digress…  All the characters just look unreal, and rather unattractive.  Even the “eye candy” semi naked women are unattractive – something which came as a bit of a shock to me.  And don’t get me started on the guy that’s in your party that’s supposed to be the smooth charmer.  He just reminds me of the creepy weasel type guy in Prison Break.  Mind you, he gets all the girls too.  Maybe this is some sort of character trait that I’m missing.

Even beyond the graphics, the mechanics aren’t that engaging.  The timing attacks during battles feel very bolted on and make little difference, the character development requires micromanagement without supplying much that’s interesting, and the magic system and combat options come from a fifteen year old game.

So all in all I can’t say I’m impressed.  I have a feeling that I’m missing quite a lot – I’m still on the first disc for a start, but I really, really have better games on which to spend my precious gaming time.


Monday 9/6/2008 New Car

We picked up the car this evening. Although it's not mine, it great to "own" my first car. Other Half was a bit nervous driving home - not only is it expensive, but she's not really used to driving around London, so the tiptoe home was fraught with tension. Still, she did brilliantly and she's finally got the car that lets her drive to the gym and work. She's happy, I'm happy, car is happy. Everything's good!


Sunday 8/6/2008 - A Request for my Audience (both of you = literally)

After getting a few of the basics of the website up and running, I'm starting to look a little more at the rest of the site. You know, some actual content that's not me babbling on about what I'm doing, watching or playing. Or buying.

So, I'm looking for ideas as to articles on game design that people are interested in, or even any questions that people have to help form my Game Design FAQ that I want to start on.

So, get on into the forums and make any suggestions, and I'll cherry pick the ones I really want to do.


Saturday 7/6/2008 - How We Bought a Car

Another day, another car hunt. However, today there was something different. After hours of discussion and debate over the last few days, we'd finally settled on a budget. A shiny car budget rather than a practical car budget. With our new budget in mind, Better Half and myself spent the morning trawling the internet trying to find suitable places to shop. A couple of hours later we had narrowed down two potential garages that both had suitable automatic Ford Focus' (Ford Focii?).

After zooming across London to Welling, we saw a really good Ford Focus in Honour Green (otherwise known as British Racing Green). Both of us were suitable impressed, and it came in £1 under our top end budget. Great car, good mileage, nice looking and we both liked it a lot. It's always good to start the day with a reasonable option, and I think if this was the only place we'd been planning on going to, it's entirely possible that our quest would have ended here. However, there was another place we wanted to go - a place called A1 Carriages in Dartford that had a number of used automatics - light blue, dark blue, silver, "Tango Red" (otherwise known as orange, or as my brother referred to it, Ginger). After a lot of perusing, studying and heartfelt talk, the Ginger car emerged as our favourite. The colour was more fun than the dark green, and the more we looked, the more we both liked it. Just one small problem. It's 1k more than our upper price limit.


Still, it looked like a great car, and after an executive meeting at McDonalds (the Oreo Flurry Ice Cream is pretty good!) we went back and took the plunge, laying down a deposit on a pretty spiffy Focus. It's the first big thing that Better Half and I have bought together, and whilst my excitement about shiny stuff meant I was deadened to the money we were spending, Better Half was (and still is) far more nervous. I used words like "shiny", "cool", "woohoo", but I'm not sure I managed to pursuade her that this was a sensible decision.

Still, we've layed down our deposit, and are going to pick up the car on Monday afternoon. As I'm sitting here typing this, excitement is still the foremost emotion I have. It will be interesting to see how I feel when we've calmed down and I've looked at my bank balance.

Oh, almost forgot to say that we also bought a 4 year warranty for £600... We still aren't sure whether it's the best thing, but we're committed now.

So, in summary, we ended up spending £1600 more than the budget we'd had that morning (£1800 if you include road tax), which was double what we'd originally hoped to spend.

Still, from money we'll be car'd up, and cruisin' London in our ginger car. Ah well, it's a good think I'm not needing it as a babe magnet...


June 2nd 2008

Spent part of yesterday evening downloading and installing the forum software (my FTP connection SUCKS!), and I’m just ironing it out at the moment.  I’ve never had forum software on the site before, but I figured if I’m going to start saying controversial things, or things that might be of interest, then it would be a good idea.


I’m nearing the end of Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie at the moment, and so far I’ve really enjoyed it.  When I started the first book, I wasn’t entirely sure I liked the writing style, although the characters and circumstance kept me entertained, but as the series has gone on I’ve warmed to it more. It's also improved significantly, which helps.   I’d happily recommend it to fans of fantasy, although if you get squeamish, then I’d give it a miss.  Pliers, mallets, tongs lopped off fingers and even cannabalism play fairly important parts in the story..


When I’ve finished I’ll probably write a proper set of comments about it, but at the moment it’s occupying a place in my otherwise barren blogspace.


It’s not the only thing occupying my leisure time at the moment – TV and computer games vie for space in our household.  Or at least they did until I had the cunning plan of buying a second TV that I could attach to the 360 or Wii whilst the other half is watch Strictly Come More Talent Brother E! News.  Actually, that’s unfair.  She doesn’t really watch any of those aside from the goddawful E! News.   Although if she reads this maybe she’ll have some sort of payback which involves Sky+ing all of them and cancelling Battlestar Galactica.   Even the thought gives me the shivers.


Back to games…


I have a stack about a foot high of games I’ve still got to play, but at the moment they’re all gathering dust whilst I play The World Ends With You on the DS.  It’s quite frankly the best game I’ve played on any system for a good period of time (I think I’m about 80 hours in at the moment).  I suspect it’s a mix of great game plus perfect timing.  I’d recently finished Call of Duty 4 and Eternal Sonata and was in a bit of a Mario Kart/ Lost Odyssey sandwich.


There’s just so much I like about this game, and it’s got a great bunch of design features that help keep it interesting and challenging.  I’m definitely going to dedicate a topic to it, as it’s not that often that I get so hooked by a game.  Although a very different game, it reminds me of Disgaea in it’s simplicity vs depth.


This evening will see the continuation of the argument between myself and Significant Other over car hunting.  I don’t mean taking pot shots at the chavmobiles as they pass, but actually looking to buy a car.  I’ll be honest.  I get all excited about cars.  I’ve loved them since I was small, but unfortunately don’t drive so I’ve never actually owned one.  Anyways, the argument forms over the fact that she’ll see a car.  A red one.  She likes  that one.  I see the one more expensive  than that one.  And I like that one.  Then I see the one more expensive than that one.  And I like that one.  Eventually I get to a stage where I can’t even see the budget line we’d drawn.  I’m working on a whole new plane of existence, and being brought down to earth with a withering look just makes it all a bit sad really.  Still, she’s being the sensible one, which is good.  God help her and our finances if I ever learn to drive though.  I’ll have the Ferrari and we’ll be living in a cardboard box.  All that does sound rather dramatic, but in reality we’re only talking about Ford Focus’.  It’s just that the original budget is about half what I’m looking at.  Which is about twice what she’s looking at.  The only point in my favour is that she’s now having to take the train to work, and every day that passes is going to make her want a car more and more.  The plan may yet come together…


June 1st 2008

Where to start...

The first blog post. This one's only about six years late, but as my girlfriend says, better late than never.

I'm still a little unsure as to what this site is going to contain. I'd like to write book and game reviews, talk about various aspects of design and the gaming industry and even dip my toe into my adventures in the online poker world - something that I've been experimenting with recently.

Over time, I expect the site will evolve into what I've actually got time and the motivation to do, and this post will just be an example of how intentions change over time.


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