Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Zoso has left the building

As you might have noticed, the Musings here have been getting rather less MMOG-y. I was thinking of changing the title or setting up another blog or something, and chatting to Melmoth it turned out he'd been contemplating a move too, so he's put a vast amount of effort into getting Killed in a smiling accident going, and I've pitched up on the doorstep to aimlessly burble around a bit. Expect a more diverse array of post subjects, until I get utterly caught up in some game and in a fierce turn of irony blog exclusively about MMOs again there (and post about flower arranging here).

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Charlie don't surf

In between sorting out inventory in Hellgate (I'm not sure what gives the greatest pleasure, shooting a bunch of zombies or arranging weapon modifications in order of rarity, type and effect and deciding which 18 to keep in the stash) and Guitar Heroism (Before I Forget cracked, now trying to work out how the hell to do the second solo of Cult of Personality) I've been getting more into Audiosurf, and have developed a few techniques for maximum fun-having-ness.

Firstly, I've given up on the colour-matching characters, and almost entirely play mono. The representation of the music tends to pick up broad themes, and works best when you step back and look at the whole sweep of the thing. The colour matching aspect forces you into looking very narrowly at what's immediately ahead in relation to what you've previously picked up, and I still can't see the representation of the music in the colours most of the time. If, say, red blocks tended to correspond to vocals I think it would work better, but that's expecting rather a lot from the song-to-track algorithms. My Advanced Brane Science Theory is that the trying-to-work-out-which-colour-to-place-where part of the brain needs so much processing power that it doesn't leave any for the listening-to-the-nice-music-and-going-ooooh-isn't-it-pretty part, though experimental analysis is inconclusive so far (the research consists of shouting "ARE YOU LIKING THE MUSIC? HOW PRETTY IS THE TRACK ON A SCALE OF ONE TO SEVEN? WHY AREN'T YOU COLLECTING THOSE RED BLOCKS? OOH, I LOVE THIS BIT OF THE SONG HOW ABOUT YOU? WHAT COLOURS ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW? DID YOU NOTICE THAT SWITCH TO D FLAT MINOR JUST THEN?", and the only subject I could find is my hamster, who bit me on the finger then went back to eating sunflower seeds). I kept playing the colour-matching characters for a while, as mono felt like a cop-out, like "easy mode" for people who can't handle uber-chrominence, but then I told myself to snap out of it, it's not like there's any peer pressure (aside from the aforementioned hamster, and the derisive squeak was probably more to do with running out of sunflower seeds than me selecting Mono Pro as a character). Plus it's not wussing out at all, it's a perfectly rational action based on Advanced Brane Science.

Actually, a hideous, terrifying vision just floated across my mind of Audiosurf message boards, where a ferocious war rages between the Colour Matchers and the Mono Players over the Right Way to play. Each character doubtless has its own adherents, pleading for buffs to their favoured class and calling for the absurdly overpowered (insert other character here) to be nerfed and there's way too much gold spam and raiding needs too much time plus since pvp got all the best items there's no point and the devs hate me it is a SLAP IN THE FACE AND... erm. Sorry about that. I haven't visited the official forums, I don't know if they're anything like that, but I don't think I'll take the risk.

Secondly, I've chilled out the music I've been playing. I'd been tending towards up-tempo rhythm beat combos; Scum-era Napalm Death, the Prodigy and their titular safety-film-based tune, Slayer, Atari Teenage Riot, Pennywise, Lawnmower Deth etc. After all, faster music, more traffic, more points! And what do points make? A sense of accomplishment as there aren't any actual prizes, per se! Plus there's the mandatory online machismo associated with... well, anything really. Caffeine consumption ("I like a couple of cups of coffee", "A couple? Ha! I have thirty cups A DAY!", "Thirty? Pah. I have fifty cups of SUPER EXTRA HIGH CAFFEINE BLEND!" "Yeah? Well I make SUPER EXTRA HIGH CAFFEINE BLEND in the filter machine then I add three spoons of instant coffee to it and then NINE SHOTS OF ESPRESSO!"), chilli tolerence ("I made chilli con carne last night with a few jalapeƱos, man it had a kick to it", "JalapeƱos, pah, I used nine Scotch Bonnets in mine plus a bottle of Tabasco sauce", "Tabasco? Pfff, I only use Dave's Insanity Sauce", "HA! I drank SEVENTEEN GALLONS of NEVILLE'S EVEN MORE INSANE REALLY YOU'D HAVE TO BE STARK RAVING MAD EVEN TO LOOK AT THE BOTTLE SAUCE for BREAKFAST!"), and, of course, speed of Audiosurf tracks ("I only play TEN BILLION BPM death-techno-hard-bass tracks FROM MARS"). The more congested the traffic, though, the more you have to focus closely, exacerbating the previously outlined Advanced Brane Science Theory. Colour matching at very high speed is madness, mono slightly better but still not optimal for musical appreciation. Instead, I've been delving around my collection for ambient, trance, dub, psychedelia, krautrock and similar (and also realising that since starting to use iTunes to organise my music, the physical folder structures are a right mess). Notable successes I've really enjoyed have included UNKLE, The Olivia Tremor Control and Can; it's a lottery, though. Dylan doesn't work too well, unfortunately, but then much of his genius is in the words and it'll probably be a while before a program can turn lyrical symbolism into playable visuals. Some dEUS songs that I thought would make nice tracks aren't too interesting either. Still, it's a fun journey of discovery; next stop, maybe some late 60s Pink Floyd jams and any Doors song over ten minutes...

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Now I'm goin' to hell

A couple of weeks in to Hellgate: London, and I'm still rather enjoying it. I've performed a highly complex statistical analysis of what I most like about the game; I'm afraid the results utilise some incredibly advanced theoretical modelling techniques to represent the concept of "fun" in a thirteen-dimensional topographical waveform that might be a bit advanced for you earthlings, but hang on to your hats and and see if you can follow along. Here we go...

There's loads of loot in Hellgate. I like loot.

Hrm. Maybe it's fairly simple after all.

Course it's not just the loot, the general running-around-shooting-demons (and zombies and beasts and freaky floating head things with tentacles that just appear right next to you and go EEEEERRRRRUUURRRURUR) side of things is also good. As a Marksman, and concentrating on passive skills for the most part, it's extremely FPS-y, there's only a couple of active skills I frequently use. Loot, though, definitely gives it an "oh, go one then, just one more round of the mini-game" impetus (the mini-game consists of three icons that appear on screen challenging you to kill x of a certain type of creature, or make x kills using a certain type of damage, or pick up a certain type of loot; once you fulfil the three criteria, voila! More loot!) Aside from the mini-game, rare mobs and named bosses are fairly common (well by definition they can't be that common, but they're common for rare things. If you see what I mean.), and they explode in a particularly satisfying shower of money and, oh yes, loot! I do seem to be getting quite lucky, though; Hellgate uses the good old green/blue/orange uncommon/rare/legendary loot classification, and I'm pretty much kitted out in legendary gear now, whereas Melmoth only has a couple of bits.

Hitting level 20, I wandered off to Stonehenge to make the most of being a subscriber. It's fun enough, plenty more demon, zombie and floating-tentacle-head shooting fun. I got the items needed to unlock Moloch, the super-uber-head-demon-beast chap, so Melmoth and I popped in to say "hi", maybe have a cup of tea, then while there it seemed rude not to unleash a devastating rain of fire and destruction upon him. Unfortunately Melmoth was much lower level than Mr Moloch and scarcely able to scratch him. On the plus side, he made an excellent diversion, enabling me to stand and shoot the beastie for the ten straight minutes to knock his health bar down to around 75%, at which point a bunch of priest things spawned that healed him back to full health by the time we could clear them. Another twenty minutes, Moloch at 50% health, back came the priests... half an hour, 25% health, oh look, it's the priests... If they'd spawned again at 1% health I think I might've gone on a mad rampage around the living room, or at least said "tsk", but fortunately they didn't, so a mere hour and a half of constantly shooting the big ol' demon netted the spoils (of a couple of legendary items for me, and... none for Melmoth. All that +luck gear must be paying off.) Next time, maybe recruiting a few more people might make it a bit quicker...

The best thing about Hellgate, though, is Lucious Aldin and Techsmith 314 (well, maybe second best, after UBER LEGENDARY LEWT). Unfortunately I seem to have finished their missions for now, I'm rather hoping they'll make a comeback later on. As a taster of the crazy madcap japes these two get up to, if you don't mind a few spoilers see the quest walkthrough for "That'll Get Infected". Already, "bio break" has been replaced in our online conversations with "I think I need to use the privy-OF DESECRATION!"

Monday, 25 February 2008

There was music in the cafes at night

Still playing Guitar Hero III, I finally managed to beat Lou in the hard career (just; I thought he'd got me as the screen faded to black, then suddenly it kicked back in with "FINISH HIM!" Tried a couple more times after that and didn't get close, so I guess that was a particularly flukey combination of me hitting my attacks and him not getting particularly annoying ones at bad times). On with Expert now, where I managed to pass 3s and 7s for the first time, but Before I Forget still does me in on the bridge.

Since Rock Band for the Wii was confirmed a few weeks back, I've been keeping my eyes peeled for possible release dates in Europe (estimates vary from "March" through "2009" to "sometime after the heat death of the universe"), and news on whether the Wii will support downloadable songs. It doesn't seem terribly likely, what with the Wii's limited internal storage, and a distinct lack of other games supporting downloadable content, but I'm really keeping my fingers crossed. The extra songs available for PS3/Xbox 360 Guitar Hero III so far are rather uninspiring, so I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything there, but there's already some great stuff out for Rock Band with more to come, including the greatest ever song ever in the history of time ever.

In non-plastic-guitar related musical gaming, Audiosurf has been released on Steam. I'd noticed Audiosurf mentioned in a few places before Christmas, signed up for the beta, and played that once or twice but wasn't terribly captivated. There's a demo available on Steam alongside the full retail version, so I gave that a try, and it hadn't changed that much since the beta. It still doesn't really grab me, despite my previously professed love of music games. It's hugely impressive, the way it transforms a piece of music into a "racetrack", a Mahler symphony looks absolutely stunning, but then the colour matching gameplay doesn't quite work for me. When working with multiple colours, I can't really see the correlation between block colour and the "intensity" of the music, so I'm more keeping track of placement and colours than listening to the music. Even in mono mode, the block placement is too random; just occasionally everything really clicks, the track and blocks totally match up in an inspired way, but most of the time the music is a soundtrack than an integral part of the game (even though it created the track). Expecting otherwise would be a bit much; while obviously a somewhat different prospect, it takes a while to produce a decent Guitar Hero/Rock Band/Dance Dance Revolution chart for a single song, and Audiosurf produces a track from anything you throw at it (and I've tried a fair bit) within seconds, but for me it's just missing a final push that would turn it from a neat little diversion into a really addictive game. After saying all that, I still bought it; it's only $10, and innovation like this should be encouraged even if it's not quite the best game ever. Also, it includes the Orange Box soundtrack, and have I mentioned Still Alive being the greatest ever song ever in the history of time ever yet?

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Goldilocks and the Three Devs

Once upon a time, Goldilocks was wandering through the woods when she saw a house with an open door. Going inside for no adequately explained reason, a dev gave her a bowl of porridge. Tasting a spoonful, she spat it back out, shouting "THIS IS AN OUTRAGE! Teh porrij is cold!" A second dev took the porridge and microwaved it, and Goldilocks took another spoonful. "WAHT TEH HELL teh porrij is rilly hot now ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL ME I COULD HAEV BURNTED MYSELF TO DETH" she exclaimed. A third dev added some cold milk to the porridge, so it was just the right temperature, prompting Golidlocks to bellow "OMFG i haet porrij I WANT READY BREK and the chocolate one not the plain rubbish AND WITH SPRINKLES!"

After throwing the porridge on the floor and flinging the spoon through a window, Goldilocks fancied a sit-down, so a dev brought her a chair. "JESUS this chair is TOO LOW dammit my knees are SLIGHTLY TOO HIGH i bet the devs DONUT EVEN SIT ON CHAIRS" she yelled, and so a second dev placed a small plinth beneath the chair. "ZOMGZ now this is WAY TOO HIGH my feet are SLIGHTLY OFF THE FLOOR this is RIDDDDDDICKYOULESSS" said Goldilocks, a vein bulging in her neck as she provided the valuable feedback. The third dev then trimmed the legs of the chair slightly, so it was at the perfect height. "JEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESUS" screamed Goldilocks "you nerfed the chair you sawed the legs of you totally nerfed the chair now the chair is not fun any more what the hell is wrong with you why did you nerf the chair why did you not just elevate the entire rest of the house by a few inches and then cut an indentation in the floor so the chair was the right height I DONUT PAY FIFTEEN DOLLARS A MONTH FOR THIS", and Goldilocks smashed the chair with a hammer and said she was never going to sit on a chair ever EVER EVER again and called for everyone else to boycott chairs.

Goldilocks then decided it was time to start playing a massively multiplayer online game, so she sat down at a PC (on a chair, conveniently forgetting the chair boycott) and logged in to the MMO the first dev had worked on. "God this is BOOOOORRRRING" said Goldilocks "there is no PvP I want to PvP games without PvP are rubbish and boring", so the second dev swiftly re-wrote the whole game to be PvP-centric, and Goldilocks was ganked and corpse camped and had all her in-game possessions stolen and Goldilocks screamed "I HAET PVP it is stupid who put pvp in this game they are stupid it is totally unbalanced and rubbish and all the pve game changed to support it i rilly liked the pve game but it is rubbish now this is a SLAP in the FACE", so the third dev unleashed three giant bears who ripped Goldilocks apart to cries of "THIS IS SUCH UNFAIR MOB PLACEMENT i'm totally going to cancel my subscription now just see if i don't".

The end.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

This weekend in hell(gate)

After wrapping up Crysis, I started casting about for something else to play. A few months back, when in the midst of Orange Box fever (note to self: in typing that, I remembered I still have Episodes 1 and 2 of Half-Life 2 to finish), I tried the demo of Hellgate: London and rather enjoyed it, but had a plethora of other games going at the time. With nothing else more tempting around, I thought I'd give the full version a spin.

During installing, updating, and patching I got dangerously bored, so while creating an account I thought I might as well have a look at the subscription option, and decided the benefits weren't earth shatteringly exciting so I wouldn't bother. After another five minutes of thumb-twiddling I figured what the heck, it's only seven quid, and typing in my credit card details would at least kill some time, so I slightly subscribed a bit.

Firing up the game, stepping into the desolate ruins of London was fairly familiar from the demo. It's similar in some ways to City of Heroes, fast paced action on randomly generated maps with a limited number of tilesets, so like City of Heroes it should be fun to hop on for a quick blast now and again. I really like the post-apocalyptic setting of the game, a ruined London with survivors huddling in tube stations is obviously quite evocative of the Blitz, and the scarred barricades and shells of armoured vehicles give the impression a not-insignificant dust-up happened recently, and the people in the tanks didn't come out of it too well. Boxes, crates and barrels strewn around the place sometimes yield money or items when destroyed, and there's something terribly satisfying about vandalism on a grand scale, like City of Villains mayhem missions, or driving around in the late lamented Auto Assault knocking down road signs, barriers and especially pedestrians to gather crafting materials.

Something that wasn't familiar from the demo was the grappler. The demo let you try out the Blademaster and Marksman classes, and I much preferred the ranged weapons of the Marksman to having to get close enough to use a sword. While trying out various characters in the full game, I whipped up a Guardian, and found a grappler, a weapon of some sort. Equipping it and pointing it at a zombie wandering down the street to find out what devastation it would unleash, it shot out a hook, caught hold of the zombie and with an audible "twang!", catapulted the surprised undead shambler over to me, conveniently saving that long hike all the way over there to smite it with a sword. (Actually, I was lying about the audible "twang!", the only tiny flaw in the grappler is that it doesn't do that. Then again, it doesn't really need to, as I shout "twang!" myself every time I fire it now.) The grappler is 39 carat mithril genius, I don't know why nobody's done it before (that I can think of). There's plenty of knockdown and knockback (in CoH, sometimes far too much knockback if you're a Scrapper in a team of Storm Defenders), but no... what's the opposite of knockback? Pullforward? There's hardly any of that; maybe telekinetic type powers like in Bioshock, but it's not quite the same. It solves some of the frustrations of a melee character in a ranged world (sprinting full speed towards the enemy who get shot by your comrades just as you get there, or jumping up and down trying to poke some flying thing), and is just generally fun. I must try grouping up with a bunch of melee types to see you can play Grappler Ping-Pong with zombies... It might even work for tanking; never mind shouting "yo mama" jokes at some demon to try and persuade him to attack you instead of the squishies, twang! him away from them and over to you instead! The major drawback is that the grappler takes up a slot that could be used for a shield or gun, so unless you get very adept at twang!ing an enemy in then switching weapon sets (as well as using all your other hotkey abilities), it's not the most efficient use of gear, and disturbingly twang!-resistant enemies were turning up, even at the lowly levels my Guardian's progressed through so far. Talking of tanking, I gather that's what Guardians are supposed to do (they even have some sort of taunt, not that I bothered reading what it did, 'cos it's a taunt, pah), but I'm not entirely sure how you accomplish the role when the greatest challenge is finding a live opponent. Nothing outside the uber-bosees survives long enough to be taunted, or indeed twang!ed; I guess the fiendish army will get a bit more challenging in future levels.

Neat though the grappler is, it's not enough to lure me away from guns, guns, more guns, and a couple of spare guns in case the aforementioned guns run out of ammo (which they don't, the game has no concept of finite ammunition, but you can never be too careful), so my main character is a Marksman. I've only been playing a few days, but the story and quests are quite engaging so far, within MMO limitations. There's been plenty of boding, portents, mystery and a bit of a cut-scene, leading up to missions for Lucious Aldin and Techsmith 314, the greatest lunatic NPC double act since Minsc and Boo of the Baldur's Gate series (not that Boo was a lunatic, obviously, Boo was a perfectly normal miniature giant space hamster). I can't remember any specific lines of dialogue, but they've been very funny in a bonkers-in-the-nut way.

I can't see Hellgate as a very long term thing, but it's certainly diverting enough at the moment.

Monday, 11 February 2008

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry(sis)

Back to the present after all that reminiscing, and these past few weeks I have been mostly playing Crysis (interspersed with Guitar Hero 3; I finally beat Raining Blood on Hard, the resultant victory dance being rudely interrupted by the Hard version of The Devil Went Down To Georgia being arse-bendingly ludicrous. Boss battles move gameplay away from being "hit most of the notes, if you can" to being "hit these very specific notes (as well as most of the others) *and* hope you don't get hit with particularly unpleasant attacks in the meantime", altogether too much chance getting into the equation.)

Crysis, though; I hardly need to mention its visual loveliness, which is just as visually lovely as everyone says to the point where you'll quite happily skip down the beach going "ooooh, palm trees swaying in the breeze! Coo, crabs scuttling across golden sands into sapphire-crystal waters! My, look at the detail on the assault rifle that soldier's carrying, you can see the laser sight illuminating a spot between my eyes so clearl*BANG* urgh." Once you've stopped goggling at the beauty of everything, it's a very well-done shooter. Your nano-techno-bio-suit-o thing offers some neat options, particularly the cloak; the weapons are nicely done, particularly being able to customise them with your choice of sights and other accessories; vehicles provide occasional diversions, although they usually seem to include absurdly powerful magnets that attract bullets from kilometres around the moment you climb in. The first half to two-thirds is generally excellent, as you sneak around swathes of enemy troops single-handed (or occasionally double-handed if your nano-suited chum Psycho is around). Then... well. Minor spoilers follow, so look away if you want to be totally surprised (and you've never seen Predator): then, the aliens turn up, as presaged by the various spooky happenings up to that point, and much like Half Life, it's not nearly as good as the pre-alien stuff. The zero-gravity alien ship was a neat trick, for about five minutes then it dragged rather. After you're spat out and have to escape the island, where before you could study the situation, pick an appropriate suit mode and weapons and choose your own approach, once the aliens turn up everything's armour mode (or you die in seconds) and hold your finger on the trigger in an attempt to dispatch the space-beasties. I suppose you could say that's in keeping with the story, of a covert assault that uncovers unexpected opposition leading to a panicked escape, but it's a bit annoying. In general, the story isn't going to challenge for the Nobel prize for literature any day soon, but it's functional enough to keep things moving. The cast include a requisite bunch of shouty Marines/soldiers, your aforementioned team-mate Psycho (or Jason Statham after escaping from Crank) and some archaeologist's daughter to fill the standard Doctor Who assistant role (look pretty for the dads and get captured now and again). There's a segment after you escape the island, on an aircraft carrier, that takes forever to get going as you tromp around from briefing to briefing, but picks up nicely once it actually gets going. In the final battle you're faced with a giant boss, and you have to take out several turrets before proceeding on to the final vulnerable segments, which is rather satisfyingly Old Skool.

All in all, not a bad game, and I might well have another crack on a higher difficulty level, at least 'til ET turns up. After wrapping Crysis up, I was searching for a game, and thinking back I rather liked the Hellgate: London demo, so coming up soon, Actual MMOG[1] Type Posts!

[1] Depending on whether you classify Hellgate: London as an MMOG or not. Which I do. So there.