Archive for March, 2010

The more things change…

Posted in Uncategorized on March 24, 2010 by lintspeed

While the PC version does look and run substantially better than the console version on my box (Intel Q6600 quad-core processor, 9800 GT, 4 gigs of RAM, Vista 64 for transparency’s sake, not for bragging rights), there are some things inherent to Dragon Age’s art design that are impossible to get around, no matter your specs:

I'm not bad, just badly drawn.

Meet Ines, the freaky-looking. No, she’s not supposed to look insane. She just does.

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Back to the Dragon Age

Posted in Uncategorized on March 24, 2010 by lintspeed

In this special Expansion Pack edition of the Game Tours, I make something between a Return Trip and a New Journey. I’m returning to the well-worn land of Ferelden and to some very character advancement and combat mechanics, but with a whole new cast of characters, a new portion of the realm to explore, and a new lead taking the helm. It’s Dragon Age: Origins: The Awakening (or Dragon-Age-Colon-Origins-Colon-The-Awakening, following The Rule of Two or More Colons.) Game Tours would like to take the opportunity to remind game developers everywhere that there is such a thing as too much branding.

As I wrote not-so-briefly in the dying days of my previous blog, Dragon Age is a game that belongs on PC. I wrote this having forced my way through the PS3 version of the original game. And forced is the operative word. The payoff of the game’s final decisions and conflicts was well-worth it, but playing Dragon Age without the ability to pause the game and hand-assign actions to each of your party members is almost like playing Call of Duty without the ability to manually reload. It’s definitely do-able, but you’re placing a lot on faith in the AI. Worse still, Dragon Age, rather than attempting the admittedly difficult task of programming an AI that was competent without being perfect, pretty much leaves it to the Player to program her own AI, through the use of the tactics screen. This would be fine, if the combats were simpler (and I don’t mean difficulty, I mean complexity here.) There are too many abilities to assign, with too many highly specific situations in which they might be useful. Furthermore, as far as I was able to discover, there was no way to nest logic, which means it was difficult to determine when certain commands would come into play. Would my healer character check whether the creature was a boss before he checked whether he was low on mana or after? This is vital to know if you don’t want your healer chugging mana potions during fights against grunts. The game, especially in its more complex fights, really requires situational tactics, and I found the tactics screen, for all its attempts at comprehensiveness, lacking. I ended up spending a lot of time later in the game, when the difficulty ramps up in some truly punishing boss fights, dying, tinkering with tactics for ten minutes, dying again, tinkering some more with tactics. I spent more time “scripting” my companions than fighting the battles.

So the first thing I did when I loaded into the PC version of the expansion pack (having finally gotten a PC copy of the original game) was turn off the tactics for all my characters entirely. Well that’s not true. The first thing I did was make a Rogue, with the Ranger specialization and a focus on pets, archery, and poison-making; i.e., the most micromanagement-intensive character I could think of. But once in-game, I turned off tactics.

I have died three, maybe four times total since starting, including a couple deaths on one brutal boss fight, but the difference is, when I die it’s because of something I failed to do right while managing my party in the heat of battle. When I die, I learn something about how I ought to play the game.

There’s a fight against a pair of drakes where you get about two seconds of reprieve while they fly in the air, and I learned by the second try that that was my very brief window to top off my characters’ health and revive anyone who’d fallen. I’ve also gotten into fights I wasn’t prepared for where things have gotten hairy, but I’ve managed to react to the situation and hold on. It’s simply not possible to be reactive on the console version. Switching between characters takes too long without the benefit of a pause button and a mouse and the tactics system is, by its very nature, not reactive. The best comparison to playing Dragon Age on the PC with tactics off is controlling your own raid in World of Warcraft. In fact, I have my tank, my dps, and my healer and my job is to make sure they’re using the right abilities and staying out of the fire.

My feelings on the rest of The Awakening are still in formation. The dungeon crawls are sharp, but the main plotline hasn’t made much of an impression. It so far avoids getting too bogged down in long uninterrupted bits of talkyness (I’m glaring at you, Lothering), but I haven’t experienced the new characters well enough to pass judgment. Still, the act of playing the game is such a joy compared to my experience of the original that I think I’ll be staying a while, and maybe even planning a return trip to the original.

Tickets, please.

Posted in Uncategorized on March 20, 2010 by lintspeed

What am I playing this week? This day? This hour? I play a lot of games. I don’t finish most of them. I vacillate between feeling guilty about that and embracing it. Have I given up on some games that deserved better? Probably. But has my weak will and flitting attention span given me a chance to experience a much wider variety of games with my limited playtime? Definitely.

I’m a game tourist. Some games I just stroll through for a visit, a meal, and a few quick snapshots. Others, I go native, immersing myself in the experience, playing to the very end and taking in everything in between. This blog is a travelogue of the games that grab me, and the games that don’t.

Super Laser Racer

Posted in Uncategorized on March 20, 2010 by lintspeed

Mario Kart + Geometry Wars =

I picked this one up for two bucks on a Steam midweek indie games sale. I generally prefer to avoid buying stuff on Steam, especially big box stuff, and especially stuff I have to pay full price for. It has something to do with the power going out at QuakeCon last year, everyone’s boxes re-starting and losing their Steam Offline-mode settings in the process. With the ports blocked to allow us to access Steam’s authentication servers, the whole con lost the ability to play Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2 (not too mention all their single-player games, for those of us who prefer the solo experience, even in a crowd.) But I’d never heard of New Star Games’s Super Laser Racer, and it looked awesome.

It is. One of the upsides of  Steam is the “hours played” counter it keeps for two weeks. Last I checked I was at 20 hours of playtime on this game. Which would be, uh, more hours than it took me to beat  the masterful Uncharted 2, and probably more hours than I sunk into my 2009 game of the year, Time Gentlemen, Please.

Basically you race as a Geometry Wars-esque shape around a neon track, picking up Mario Kart-style power-ups to knock your opponents out of the race (or at least slow their progress), and hitting speed boosts as you go. It’s a simple concept that just works well, and the aesthetic of both the minimalist art and the music make it a joy to play, especially in short half hour or hour-long spurts, working your way through a list of achievements excellently designed to expose you to new and challenging ways to play the game. Try winning a race (even on Easy) without using any weapons: [Pacifist]. Try taking out an opponent in the explosion of your own ship as its destroyed: [Kamikaze]. Or simply try to place first in all the races in the Super Tournament on the hardest difficulty.

The particularly pleasing thing about this game is the spread of difficulties. When I began, I found Easy legitimately challenging, but as I got the hang of the courses, it became a breeze.  On normal, a faster pace and brutal competition requires strategic use of braking and leads to some truly tense races to the finish. Hard is insane, but utterly satisfying. The game’s stroke of difficulty-balancing genius is that the AI screws up in believably human ways, but still runs the track well enough to put up a fight.

Really the only negatives I can give about Super Laser Racer are that there aren’t more tracks, and that there is no multiplayer. The first complaint is alleviated by the presence of a track editor, and the second hasn’t stopped me from going native, seizing every spare couple of minutes I have in front of a computer to run a quick race.

And the best part is, if you pick it up from New Star Games and not Steam, Super Laser Racer is $5, DRM-free.

Rating: Acquired a Visa, staying a while.