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Summer of Gaming

So, it’s been a couple of months since my last games-related post, and while I know that most likely nobody really cares what I think, I somehow still feel the need to waffle on aimlessly about the games I’ve been playing recently. I knew getting a blog was a bad idea.

First up, once again, is Portal. Seriously, if anyone out there hasn’t played that yet, go buy it. It’s my pick for 2007’s Game of the Year, despite only being three hours long. (And yes, at that length the individual price on Steam might be a little too high. But it’s good value as part of the Orange Box, even if you’re not really all that into FPSes.) (And lookit all these special awards (and that’s just from one site).

I’ve also just recently finished a run through of HL2: Episode Two in Developer Commentary mode. Although some of the comments seemed a bit phoned in (and there were large swathes of the game that went completely comment-free, which was disappointing), the comments have as always provided some interesting insights into the game’s design and development. They’re actually quite fascinating — Valve have done their job so well that most of the time you don’t even notice what they’ve done (and the amount of effort that must have been put into getting it just right) until you hear it mentioned in the comments and you suddenly think “oh yeah, someone actually had to sit down and make it do that!”. Well worth listening to. (The game itself, if you missed what I said earlier, is good, although it suffers from a bit of middle-episode-itis, and I didn’t really like the climactic battle sequence very much. Still, well worth playing, and if you don’t believe me, ask Yahtzee.)

A bit of a retro-gaming mood led me to American McGee’s Alice. This is a game that I’ve been meaning to play for a while but had never quite gotten around to. If you can find a copy, it’s well worth it. In many respects it’s more a puzzle/adventure game than anything else; it has a strong storyline (and a fairly dark one) and the combat sequences, while ubiquitous, are fairly easy.

In terms of theme it reminds me a bit of Sanitarium (another game that’s definitely well worth playing, but one that’s even harder to come by nowadays), in that you spend pretty much the whole game inside the head of a “crazy” person. This allows for a certain zaniness and freedom of expression that’s hard to resist.

And that seems like a nice segue to Psychonauts (Amazon, Steam). I originally bought this on PS2 when it first came out a couple of years ago, and really enjoyed it, but for various reasons had never gotten around to finishing it. (I got stuck at the first big boss-fight, since as I’ve previously mentioned, I really hate boss fights.) Anyway, after listening to a recent Gaming Steve podcast and discovering (on New Year’s Eve) that Steam were selling Psychonauts for only US$10 (until the end of the year) — well, I just couldn’t resist, even though I already had the PS2 version. (The price has now gone back up to US$20, but it’s well worth it. Though it appears to be even cheaper on Amazon.)

I loved every moment of it — the game is absolutely brilliant. Like Alice and Sanitarium, much of the gameplay occurs inside people’s heads (although in this case, they’re other people’s heads; and a fair amount occurs in the outside world as well), and again many of them are quite, quite crazy. This leads to wonderfully imaginative level design, and that all by itself would make this a great game. But that’s not all the game brings to the table. It’s full of quirky humour (much of it expressed in the well-written dialogue). I lost count of the number of times this game has made me laugh — and I don’t laugh easily.

The difficulty curve is a bit weird, though. It’s pretty simple all the way up to that boss-fight I mentioned — which is still annoyingly hard — then wobbles around a bit (though still staying reasonably simple) for most of the rest of the game, until the final couple of levels, which are a major pain in the butt. The biggest problem with the boss fights (and this is fairly common with boss fights in general) is that only one strategy really works, and it’s not always obvious what that is ahead of time. So don’t be afraid to go back to an earlier save and try again once you’ve figured out what you’re actually supposed to be doing. Still, I ended up completing it to 100% (getting all the optional collectables as well), so it can’t be too hard. (And yes, you can ask Yahtzee about this one too.)

Then we have SimCity Societies (Amazon, Mighty Ape). This has received a bit of flak in the gaming press recently for “not really being a true SimCity game”. And to a certain extent, that is true. Well, ok, let’s face it, to a large extent. The game has very little in the way of strategic elements (although there’s a patch out now that will inject a bit more into the mix) and it’s fairly easy to game the system. And even if you don’t game the system, it’s quite hard to fail — I wasn’t really trying very hard and I made myself a city that was producing money faster than I could spend it. (Incidentally, I knew most of this before buying it, so I can’t complain too much.)

The difficulty slider is set firmly to the “very easy” side — another example from actual play is that I had accidentally produced a few Slum Lords (who appear after having built certain buildings, and then move in to a random apartment building in town and increase the building’s chance of spontaneous combustion), and sure enough, one of my apartments caught on fire. This was at a time when I had no fire department or any other means of controlling fires, and yet I was still able to build a fire department and get the firefighters over to the blaze before it spread to any other buildings.

While I can’t exactly call it fun, and definitely can’t call it challenging, I still find it interesting. In many ways it’s more of a toy than a game, since it will let you build all sorts of interesting city designs, and the way that the graphics morph to match the sort of city you’re building is quite fascinating (and artsy). What’s more, most of the game’s core scripts are written in C# and XML, which appeals to me since I spend a lot of time programming in C# as it is. So, not for everyone, but it might appeal to some people. (Actually, it’s probably more likely to appeal to “casual” gamers more than the more hardcore types.)

More recently I’ve been dipping my toe back into the RPG genre. These are games that I really need to learn to avoid — because they’re my second-favourite genre (the first being adventure games), and they’re massive time-sinks (most RPGs tend to be ~80-100 hours long). Sadly I just can’t find the will to resist getting one every so often, even though RPGs are the most common games in my “haven’t finished yet, but still want to” list (with a few in the “bought but haven’t even started yet” list too).

First of all I gave Lord of the Rings Online a go (they have a 7 day free trial). Over the years I’ve given several MMORPGs a try; some in beta, some via after-release trials, and some of the free-to-play-but-we-try-to-sell-you-things ones too (I was even in the beta for one of the grand-daddies of them all, Ultima Online). Thus far I’ve managed to resist all of them; I tend to lose interest somewhere around level 10, which is where the multiplayer quests and the grinding tend to kick in, and I’m not really into that sort of thing. (In case anyone cares, my Bartle Test classification is apparently EASK.)

I’m not really sure why I keep trying MMOs — after all, one of their design goals is to be a time-sink (and a money-drain), and I don’t have enough spare time (or money) as it is — but still, there always seems to be something missing, or not quite right, with the whole thing. I guess I keep trying just in case I finally find one of them that really does grab me.

Anyway, back to LOTRO. Although it’s not really my thing (I get frustrated when quests expect me to be playing in a group), it looks like this is an excellent game otherwise (lots of history, areas to explore, and other content). Certainly of all the MMOs that I’ve tried thus far, this is one of the best. Although what’s up with the hats? Perhaps they’re period-accurate, but I absolutely hated the look of every single hat that was available (at least at low levels, anyway). Fortunately the game has an option that lets you hide the hat while still getting its armour benefit. Thus far I’ve tried playing as a Human Lore-master, a Dwarf Champion, and an Elf Minstrel (and I’ll probably try a Hobbit Burglar next), just to get a feel for the variations in gameplay. One good feature of the game is that each race has their own separate introductory quests (although the elves and dwarves overlap a little) and each start in different areas of the world, so playing as each separate race feels like playing different games, in many respects. Supposedly the game also has a good tactic for layering instances, which allows the world to be multiplayer and persistent while still allowing each individual player to experience the whole storyline for themselves. I haven’t had a chance to experience much of that (since I only spent a relatively brief period with each character), but certainly even though the game has been going for several months now my characters started at the beginning of the storyline, and there was every indication that they would be able to meet Strider in Bree before the Fellowship formed, for example, despite other players having progressed well beyond that point. (An example from the FAQ is that if a town is burned to the ground during the course of a quest, then anyone who has done the quest will see the town burned down and anyone who hasn’t will see it still standing. Which indeed did happen during the Human introduction, though I would think that’s more of a special case.)

So at the end of the day (well, almost, my trial period isn’t quite over yet), LOTRO has come the closest of all the MMOs I’ve tried thus far to get me to buy it, but there’s still something missing somewhere that’s making me resist.

Single player RPGs, on the other hand, still quite successfully sap my will to resist. The other RPG I tried out this week was the demo of The Witcher (Amazon, Mighty Ape, Steam). (Although seriously, game developers: a 2GB download for a demo is not a good thing. I mean, ok, the full game is 8.5GB, so clearly you’ve pruned it down somewhat, but there must have been something else that could have come out. Some of us have tiny data caps.) The demo was brilliant, though. It definitely made me want to play the game. And, since I had an hour to kill today (by the time is is published, yesterday) and there was a game shop nearby… well, suffice it to say that I now have the full game sitting on my desk in front of me. (And you wouldn’t believe how hard it’s been to type all this while resisting the urge to install the thing. In fact probably the only thing that’s saved me is that I don’t have enough free disk space right now, so I’d have to find something else to uninstall.) I can’t give much more of a critique than this at the moment, since I’ve only played the demo; but still, it made me want to buy it, so that’s a good sign. And the reviews I’ve seen thus far of it are generally positive.

So, what does the future hold? The game I’m most looking forward to in the coming months is of course Spore. No firm release date has been set as yet, but estimates currently put it sometime around May. Hopefully it won’t have a delayed release here, as games often do. (And if you don’t know why I’m looking forward to the game, you must have been living under a rock. Read the linked article and you’ll find out!)

Another game (or set of games) in the more immediate future is Season 2 of Sam & Max; episode 2 of which comes out in only two days time. (I have of course already played episode 1; it was a lot of fun and I recommend it of course, but I wanted to play one or two more episodes at least before doing a more formal write-up.)

And that’s quite enough out of me for now, I think. So, for any of you who have somehow survived reading down this far: what do you think of the format? Should I keep on going like this, with one post every so often containing brief thoughts about a whole bunch of games (though I’ll try not to cram quite this much into a single post again)? Or should I split everything out so it’s only one game per post (perhaps waffling on a bit more about each one)? Or should I just shut up about games altogether? You, dear readers, can deci… well, no, actually you can’t. But I’ll at least listen. Probably.

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