Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Small / Independent Gaming Links (mostly)

I've recently gotten into the whole RSS feed thing lately, and have been subscribed to a number of gaming blogs, which in turn have led me to a plethora of independent games, a very large side of gaming that doesn't get a lot of press but can generate some amazing results. These links have been gathering in various emails and such, and in organizing everything, I decided I should share them there.

Some of these have already generated their own threads, but I included them here just for sake of completeness

Some of these are flash games, most are standalone downloads, some are free, some cost money, but they all have at least some sort of demo and are all worth a look.

Click the link to see the list.

Game Links:

Indie games of the year from Games Tunnel - Lots of good stuff here! I've only tried a handful of the games listed, but every one I tried I found interesting and considered throwing 20$ at it. Even if I only play for a few hours, that's money well spent, IMO. Anyway, the listing is broken up by genre and every game seems to have a free demo download available. This site is an excellent source for finding small games of all sorts.

Toribash - Hard to describe. Its a fighting game, but the player manipulated their fighter by tweaking muscles and joints. I havent even tried to play multiplayer. I just have fun seeing what happens with different combinations of muscle contractions and extensions. And if you cant get into the game itself, you might be interested in simply going to YouTube and searching for videos players have created.

Dwarf Fortress - I've talked about this game a lot, but it always deserves another mention. Still very much an alpha, and still has ASCII graphics and a painful interface. But the sheer genius of it all is well worth the pain. Go here to download a version with pixel graphics.

Tower of Goo - Just what it sounds like! Try to build the tower as tall as you can before it falls apart.

Jello Car - Platformer with some interesting physics.

Orisinal - Collection of odd flash games by one guy. Some are more entertaining than others.

Hoshi Sage - Another flash game. Objective is to 'discover' the star. The interesting part is that each level has different ways you manipulate the objects.

Putty Challenge - Puzzle game involving blocks of putty that you can merge and break apart.

Last Stand 2 - Zombie attack survival simulator. Part strategy, part shoot 'em up. Flash based I believe.

Here are a few links to games that I haven't looked at yet.

7-day rogue - Results from a competition to create a rogue-type game in 7 days. I haven't had a chance to look at these yet, but it seems like there is some nice variation and its not all about bashing monsters in a multi-level dungeon.

Chronotron - This one sounds really interesting. Its a platformer, but you have multiple versions of yourself that you use to accomplish your goals. The copies repeat whatever actions you did before you copied yourself, requiring you to coordinate with them in real-time.

Music Bounce - Don't know enough to make any comment, but it must have caught my attention for some reason!

Fall from Heaven - Mod for Civ IV: Beyond the Sword. Haven't tried this out, but I've seen it mentioned numerous times in various blogs.

Gamma 256 - Collection of small, experimental games

LOTR Total War - Mod for Rome: Total War. Unfortunately, it requires the Alexander expansion. I wish they would do a version for MWII.

And finally, here are a couple of miscellaneous links that aren't games.

Miscellaneous Links:

Dominance War - Concept art competition. There are a LOT of extremely cool drawings here.

Gaijin Smash - This is a blog about being a black American and teaching English in Japan! I found it laugh out loud funny and bizarre! Follow the link and scroll to the bottom to start with the oldest posts and work your way back up. Otherwise you'll lose out on the history which can put some posts out of context.

Monday, May 12, 2008

AoC Beta Impressions: Part II

I had expected to get a few days to play around in the AoC beta after the boost to level 20, but, apparently, this was a one-day only event (thanks for letting us know ahead of time Funcom!).

So here are some various extra observation snippets to go along with my Initial Beta Impressions post.

Open PvP - Funcom has some serious design flaws if they really plan on having open PvP as it was on Saturday. In addition to the numerous zone-in campers (which is easy to do since there is so much instancing), and the res-point camping (which is also easy to do since you get a friggen loading screen everytime you res, even if you died only 3 feet away!), there is also the oh-so-fun, kill you while you're in a cut-scene dialog with an NPC! Not only can you be attacked while you're forced into this meaningless multi-stage conversation (while you are given lots of conversation options, it ultimately all boils down to either accepting or rejecting the quest. None of the other options matter one bit.), but because it is a pseudo cut-scene, you cant even tell that you're being attacked until you finish the conversation and find yourself dead. Very poorly planned.

PvP is fast and furious. Most of my PvP experience involved dealing with the zone campers. Luckily, I had maxed out my hiding skill so as long as they were attacking someone else when I zoned in, I could quickly hide and move away. I jumped in and helped to fight the bastards when I could, but I still died every time, even when I managed to kill someone, resulting in a net experience gain of 0. As with my experiences in the battlegrounds, I felt like I had very little control over the result of the combats. Of course, this was all involving level 20-24 characters, so the ability options were limited, and I didn't get much time to practice, so my player skills were sadly lacking as well.

The best method of leveling seems to be by doing quests that involve killing NPCs or venturing into areas with hostile NPCs. A lot of the in-town, go talk to so-and-so quests didn't give much, if any experience. They do have quest hooks that send players to the various main towns for each race.

Traveling between the three major towns is as easy as finding the appropriate NPC and asking for a ride. There was no time limit or cost that I saw. The first secondary town in Stygia also had an instant transport from the main city. I didn't see anything similar in Cimmeria.

I ran into numerous terrain and graphic bugs. From seeing my avatar sink halfway into the ground to jumping into a river expecting a swim, only to find myself walking along the river bottom. And then I had to recall out of the river because the terrain was too steep for me to climb out. At times, my screen would suddenly become a mishmash of screwed up textures making the game completely unplayable. Luckily, I could alt-tab out and back in to fix the problem, but it could have easily resulted in my death if I had been in a fight or someone/something had wandered along and decided to attack me. This happened to me several times in Stygia.

I will give Funcom credit for allowing me to alt-tab out and back into AoC with no problems. Something a lot of other games don't handle very well (TF2 locks up my machine if I try alt-tabbing).

As of Saturday, my client was still throwing errors everytime I hit the esc key. Graphics lag and loading times were still about the same for me.

AoC either has some serious memory leaks or does an extremely poor job of offloading unused textures and graphics. Framerate and responsiveness start to seriously deteriorate after a while. Seems to be especially noticeable after changing zones a few times.

Res points seem to be few and far between, which makes for lots and lots of annoying running. At times, I was reminded of the old WoW days when there was no graveyard in the southern half of the Barrens.

Skills UI. I had numerous lines in my skill list that had no text, but allowed me to put skill points into them. Were these actual skills or just a bug?

I see there being a problem with competition over quest objectives in the early days after release. Not only did I have trouble finding the right types of mobs to kill at times, but I had one quest in town where I was supposed to climb a tower and steal a jewel. After suffering through the awkward, figure-out-the-one-spot-near-the-wall-where-you-can-climb mini-game, I got to the top of the tower to see that the jewel was gone and another player was also already there waiting for it to respawn. I sat around for a minute or so before logging off. When I logged back in later, the jewel was there, so I grabbed it and moved on, but when you have hundreds of players trying to do the same quest after release, its going to be a nightmare.

Didn't get to see any part of crafting aside from finding a couple of pieces of leather on critters I had slain.

I found no method for returning to the character selection screen without going back to the main login screen. And getting to the main login requires the user to hit escape, select exit game, then wait 30 seconds. What year are we in again? How such a simple and expected feature could be missing from a top-end game is beyond me.

In summary, AoC has potential, but it looks like it is being released too early (something that no MMO, including WoW, has really managed to avoid in my experience). And nothing about the game or gameplay made a strong impression on me. I haven't pre-ordered and I don't feel any special need to play at launch. I may pick up a copy later in the month, or I may wait a while to see how they do with the patches and updates, or I may not even play at all. Only time will tell.

To Twink or not to Twink?

Not, its not really a question. At least not for me.

I've thought about this a couple of times in the past but then I always come back to the fact that the whole process of 'twinking' is specifically to unbalance the competition and make the game easier for the 'twink'. Before video games, this was usually the other way around. In order to make the game more fun and engaging, the experienced player would give the newer player some leeway or a small advantage to try and balance out the skill discrepancy. Twinking is the complete anithesis to the concept of fun and fair gaming.

And to top it off, its pretty sad to see that Blizzard is considering adding extra support to the twinking process in WoW...

Tom Chilton: Potentially legacy items, haven’t really talked about those in the past.

We are planning to do certain types of items that essentially bind to your account, so they are deliberately created as twink items. You might be able to find one of these items when you’re doing an end-game instance or raid, something like that.

You might be able to get an item that binds to your account so you are then able to hand it off to your other characters, but, it does have to stay within your account. They can be deliberately overpowered for a low-level character to help level up, or whatever.

That being said, I see no problem with having characters who don't level so that they specifically can stay in a certain bracket for the battlegrounds. But when these characters start sporting level 70 enchants and enhancements, its gone way over the edge in my opinion.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Age of Conan Initial Beta Impressions

Here are my initial impressions of Age of Conan, assembled after playing in the 'Open Beta'* . I started as a barbarian, read nothing about how to play, instead realying on the in-game help and my personal gaming experience. My barbarian has hit the level cap of 13, completed her destiny quest as far as she can in this beta and has participated in a half dozen PvP matches.

*Funcom's concept of Open Beta is quite a bit different. Basically, everyone only gets access to the newbie island, and has a max level of 13. As you might imagine, this means that a significant portion of the gameplay is not even visible to the Open Beta Testers.

Continue reading to see my comments on my experiences so far.

Graphics and System Requirements:

First off, I should talk a bit about graphics and game lag. There has been a lot of press about how crappy the AoC client is, and while I experience significant graphics lag, the game never crashes while I'm actually playing, though I do get booted back to the login screen every half hour or so, and the game also crashes everytime I quit, but at least it does so in a nice way, allowing me to continue using my machine without a reboot.

My system is a bit below par. I just last week bought a GeForce 9600 video card, but my CPU is a couple of years old; single-core AMD 3500+. I started playing the game at 1440x900 with effects turned off or low, but the graphics stutter and loading times were just too much. Switched to a lower resolution and still get occasional stuttering, but its definitely playable.

The game does look very nice. The water is beautiful, and the swimming animations are very graceful. I had my first moment of awe at the graphics when I stepped into the Archerion Ruins and stood on the edge of a cliff, looking out over the mountainside at the impressive ruins in the near distance. And this with all of my graphics settings on low! I imagine it looks even more spectacular with some bells and whistles blowing.

World Enviroment and Instancing:

AoC has a LOT of instancing. Not as much as Pirates of the Burning Sea, but more than I like dealing with. Do we really need an entire instance for the main inn in Tortage? There are a total of 6 or 7 NPCs inside, and I rarely see other players there. What is gained by forcing players to zone in and out to talk with their trainers besides extra loading screens?

Annoyingly, I find myself getting hung up on objects pretty often, ranging from rocks to the edges of ramps, to random terrain bumps.

The starting island seems to be a railroaded experience. Sure I can wander off down the beach instead of following the path, but I can't choose to walk up that hill next to the road. There are lots of barriers to free-form roaming. Hopefully this sort of rails-driven outdoor experience will be less obvious in the higher-level areas.

And that brings me to climbing. Climbing is a bit disappointing. I'm not even sure why you have to put points into this skill. You can only climb in very specific areas (which has been certain ladders during the solo quest as far as I've seen). I also found it very difficult to see where I was supposed to climb for some missions. The help topic on climbing stated that 'higlighted' areas, but the highlighting is so minimal as to be nonexistent. The flickering light from torches seemed more like highlighting than the actual highlighting! And then, once I did find the right place to climb, I often had to move around a bit before I could find that sweet spot that would force the game to recognize that I wanted to climb! It really seems to add nothing to the game.

User Interface:

The User Interface is pretty standard, with a few extras thrown in such as target of target, the ability hide your helm (I dont know why they just dont make the helms less obstructive to begin with) and various other minor tweaks. The main action bar is paged, allowing you to set up numerous variations if you so desire. It also has what they call a 'special action bar' that is also part of the main bar, but accessed by holding down the alt key.

However, there is an unfortunate lack of customization available. I can move the two extra action bars on the right side, but I cant move the main bar, the map window, the health bars, etc etc. A lot of the popup windows are movable, which is nice, but I really don't understand why MMOs are reluctant to let advanced users move the basic parts of the interface. You can only setup hotkeys for the main bar and the special action bar. I found no way to hotkey the extra action bars. This, coupled with a lack of support for macros makes me unhappy.

I was also unable to resize any of the UI elements and found the icons in AoC complex and dark-toned, so that they didnt really stand out. I had to look at the mousover text to tell which abilities were which. I would much prefer the default icons be simple, with a nice contrast of colors, and then, give the advanced users the option to change their icons to the fancier ones if they so desire.

On nice feature that AoC has is the option of being able to setup an alternate weapon set that you can switch to at a click of a button (not sure if you can hotkey it or not). This makes switching between ranged and melee weapons easy, as well as just having an alternate loadout for specialized situations (though I would guess that the ability to switch weapons at the drop of a hat and then hit weapon-specific abilities before switching back will be a ripe area for abuse and exploits).


Combat is interesting. Its very heavy on the button-mashing, which is both good and bad as it requires more player interaction, but it might end up being a pain later on. PvE was mostly a button-mashing experience for me. But once I started trying out some PvP, I started putting some more thought and effort into the timing of my swings and the usage of my abilities.

The shielding concept is intriguing on paper, but doesn't seem to translate well into actual gameplay. I'm not able to easily tell which way my enemies are swinging, oftentimes the differences in swings are very subtle. And its so simple, easy and quick to swing your weapon from a different direction (I tend to use all three types of directional attacks constantly when I'm fighting), that trying to respond equally quickly with shielding AND match up to what your opponent is doing seems impossible. Switching shielded sides is also a little slow. I found the ability to alter my shielding useless, and just left it on the default setting. I suppose if I was familiar with certain classes and knew that XX class has mostly right-attack combos, then switching shielding to that side might help. But that leads to another complaint I have about AoC combat...

There seems to be a lack of visceral feedback during combat. I felt like I had no idea what my opponent might be getting ready to do. I supposed this might change a bit with experience, but I found combat to be mostly just flinging about my abilities. I stealth up to someone, make an attack and see a message about 'attacking from stealth', but then my character waits to swing, and when I do, I dont seem to do extra damage. Am I doing something wrong? I really have no idea.

There seems to be a lack of escape options once you enter combat (at least for me). I felt like once combat started, whether I was going to win or lose was already decided, mostly being determined by how many extra mobs had run over.

I also occasionally had issues with various plants/ferns making it impossible to see what was going on during the fight (this happened while fighting evil plants, so I couldn't draw them out of the foliage). Kind of a pain, but I was able to just mash attack buttons until it died.

The various combat movement actions (activated by hitting a movement direction key twice in quick succession) are an interesting addition. I wasn't ever able to make much use of the sidejump (it doesn't give any visible bonus and takes a couple of seconds to activate), but I did use the jumpback option to get a defense buff and the momentum option (moving forward twice) to get another buff that gives me a chance to stun my target whenever I hit. Both buffs are short, and it seems they have some sort of cooldown timer, but I didn't see anywhere that told me what that timer was.


The only PvP we get to experience in this demo are the arena matches. You sign up for a PvP match by opening the social window, going to the PvP tab and then choosing which type of match you want to participate in. It then puts you into the queue and reports on how many people are trying to join a PvP match, and how many are waiting for the same arena that you are, which is a very nice feature. I initially signed up for a Capture the Flag match, then saw there were 20 people in line and only 1 other waiting for the same match. SO I switched to the more popular Deathmatch and soon found myself inside (more on PvP later in this article). The annoying thing about this interface is the fact that you cant minimize it. I would like to be able to walk around and do things while waiting for a PvP match without having a large, intrusive window getting in the way.

PvP is where I started thinking about how to actually use my abilities and the combat system. Fighting NPCs is mostly a button mash, but when you're taking on player characters that are running around, stunning, rooting, etc, then the game steps up to a different level. I still have the issues with combat mentioned above, mainly that I cant really tell what is going on. Hopefully that will improve with experience.

It still seems to be fairly standard tactics-wise, go after the person standing in back casting spells. Kiting seems to be viable for certain classes, rangers in particular. As a barbarian, I had no crowd control options and no way to easily close with someone who is running away. In reports from the PvP weekend, I heard comments that most melee characters have a charge ability, but it wasnt available at level 13.

I'm a little concerned about how melee will be able to fare in long-term PvP. They are always the most susceptible to crowd control, and given the twitch nature of AoC combat, it might be even more difficult to get in hits. And, of course, there aren't any options for dodging spells. All of the healers I tried to attack seemed to have a several second stun which they didn't hesitate to use.

I've also run into a couple of bugs. Once, when zoning into the start of a match, I was stuck in the brazier next to the resurrection totem and couldnt get out. I had to wait until the other team came along and killed me. Also, there was another instance where a player from the other team was invincible.

I noticed in the end-match summary for the PvP arenas that each player was given a score. This score was entirely based on killing blows! Hopefully, this score doesnt really mean anything, but if it somehow plays a part in the experience you get or otherwise is important in any way, then it needs to be modified.

You accumulate PvP experience separately from regular experience. What this is good for, I have no idea.


Overall, its really hard to make judgments on actual gameplay with such a small preview snippet. Given that AoC has 80 levels, there are obviously a significant amount of character abilities and customization that we don't see. And we don't even get a glimpse at battle keeps, player cities, crafting, open world PvP, mounts, other cities, etc etc. This 'open beta' is really more of a marketing push. It reminds me of Ryzom, which had an unlimited free trial, but you could only adventure in the newbie area. And thats basically what Funcom is giving us at the moment, just a taste to whet our appetites. Unfortunately, that taste has been... well... slightly different, but not overly flavorful. But since I've only taken a little nibble, I'll give it a chance and take a few more bites to see if I can acquire the taste.

Look for a followup post in the near future. I plan on trying some more PvP as well as investigating other classes and maybe a bit of additional exploration on the newbie island.