Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Torchlight II - The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

So... Torchlight II.  I'm in a bit of a pickle, to be honest, because I have already done a preview and it seems like I'd just be duplicating stuff if I sat here and wrote a proper review.  However, I am sure that is what you are expecting, so here’s a quick one if you’re desperate.  “Wow, look at that!  I can do what?  OMG!  Look at that fire!  Ha, isn’t he cute?  Wait a minute, I can get him to summon zombies?  Jesus.  Look at them!  Fantastic!”

So there you go. 

Instead of a review I’m going to list some of the good and bad things about the game, my own personal reaction rather than a full on review.  There are plenty of those out there already, it's hardly a secret.

The Good.

Explosions.  Lots and lots of lovely explosions.  Some of the Embermage skills, in particular, create very pretty and lethal patterns but all of the classes have access to some spectacular effects.  Monsters are blown backwards by your awesome powers and, if you hit them with a critical, they EXPLODE and their blood splatters all over the scenery.

Choice.  Each of the 4 character classes has 3 different skill trees.  So, for example, the Embermage can use fire, ice or lightning.  The Engineer can focus on 2-handed weapons, sword & board or summoning (or any mixture of the 3).  This means that you have to think and plan and all those other good gaming things, and also that you can replay the game with a completely different character (even whilst using what is ostensibly the same class.)   There is real flexibility in how you play the game, and that is good.

Clicking.  There is lots and lots of clicking.  Make sure your mouse is in good working order.  Click where to go, click on things till they die and then click on the resulting loot that explodes from their bodies.  Click, click, click, click, CLICK.  It’s gaming stripped to its essence.  It’s almost therapeutic in its simplicity.  Clear your mind, focus on the void and click until you achieve Nirvana.

Regular rewards.  Every few minutes SOMETHING comes along.  Whether it’s a new level, a new weapon, a piece of armour, some gold or whatever – there’s always something.  Pretty much constant progression, just by clicking on things.  Your character improves, your gear improves, the enemies improve and it only stops when you beat everything.  BOOM.

Pets.  The pets are great.  Everything about them is quality.  They’re great in a fight, you can give them SPELLS TO CAST (so they can summon things to help you, or shoot fireballs from their little paws) and you can even transform them into other creatures for a bit when you get bored.  Not only this, but they take all the useless tat you pick up from your adventures and sell it for you back in town – which allows you to stay out cracking (or burning, or poisoning or freezing) skulls in the wild.  AND, not only THAT, but they can also pick up supplies for you in town while they’re there.  They’re amazing.  They have more functions than a bloody Swiss Army Knife and I love them to pieces.

Guns.  Torchlight hasn't gone for your standard fantasy stuff.  I mean, sure, there are swords and spells and zombies and things, but there are also guns.  Wonderful, shiny guns which are immensely satisfying to use and which blow seven shades of shit out of your enemies.  I would say that more games need guns but you know... that wouldn't be true.  However, that does lead me on to my next point..

Fun.  The game is just really fun to play.  It gives plenty of "WHOA, DID YOU SEE WHAT JUST HAPPENED?!?" moments and it gives you plenty of really cool things to play with.  I found myself picking skills not because I thought they were the best thing for my character, but just because they looked like they would make me cackle with glee when I fired them off.  This is a good thing.  This is a really good thing.
The Bad

Whoah Nelly!  Sometimes the screen can become overwhelmed with mobs of monsters.  It can be hard to see what is going on and your hero(ine) disappears under a scrum of tearing claws and rending teeth.  However, that is what area of effect spells are for.  Don't be stingy with them, the screen will be clear in no time.

The Boss Chests seem to be a bit of a waste of time.  They sit there looking all golden and sparkly and big and great but then you open it up and a green pistol and a small pile of gold comes out.  It’s a bit of an anti-climax to be honest.

The Ugly

Dying.  I’m not sure about the dying mechanic.  When you die in the game you are given a choice of 3 outcomes.  Depending on the amount of gold you sacrifice you can resurrect back at the town (no gold), at the entrance to the area you were in (a small amount of gold) or exactly where you died (lots of gold.)  I’ve pretty much always chosen the last one.  I’ve primarily used gold to enchant items.  The shops never seem to have anything better than the stuff I have already – so I’ve found little other use for it.  Losing some for the convenience of not being bothered about dying seems like a fair swap to me.  On the one hand this mechanic provides the player with a choice, which I like, but on the other it makes death a (slight) inconvenience, which I don’t like.

The observant amongst you will have noticed that the good bits vastly outweigh the bad bits.  Torchlight II is a good game.  There is pretty much no thinking involved (really only in deciding what equipment is better, and what skills to choose) and it is quite therapeutic to progress through the game blowing the crap out of stuff and picking up the lovely, shiny loot .  It’s not going to make you re-evaluate the way you see the world or anything, but it will give you many hours of fun and therapy and maniacal giggling.
Or maybe that’s just me.
I give it 9 chakawarys out of 10.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Faster Than Light

Vocab needed for this review:  The roguelike is a sub-genre of role-playing video games, characterized by level randomization, permanent death, and turn-based movement.

Faster Than Light is a roguelike spaceship simulator.  It is available on Steam, Good Old Games or from the developer’s own website, and it costs around £6.  It is also really rather good and I am going to tell you why you should buy it.

The game, at first glance, does not look especially complicated.  The graphics are not super-realistic, in fact they remind me of Mech Quest, and that may put some people off.  You will usually see a plan of your own ship, a few statistics about your current progress and supplies, and possibly information you may have about any enemies.  It’s basic but it does the job because, when you’re playing FTL, you’re going to be too busy worrying about putting out fires, repairing vital systems, keeping  your precious crew alive and just revelling in the whole “I AM CAPTAIN KIRK”ness of it all to be worrying about shiny graphics.

The game is very reminiscent of Star Trek, and I mean that in a really, really good way.  To be clear, I mean the original Star Trek too - none of this “exploring outer space by exploring inner space” rubbish that came along with Jean-Luc.  No.  We’re talking missiles, lasers and “the engines cannae take any more cap’n.” Honest to goodness space combat and exploration – exactly as God intended.  There are aliens, teleporters and lots of boldly going where no man has gone before.  It is majestic.  

The aim of the game is to transport some bit of vital information or other to your federation allies whilst avoiding the chasing rebel fleet who gradually move through a sector -  forcing you to stay one step ahead.  Each attempt is randomly generated, so you will never play the same map twice, and encounters are also randomly created, which can lead to some difficult moments as your pitifully underpowered cruiser is put up against a series of tough enemies -  often resulting in an early, fiery death.  Death is also permanent and means a restart back at your hangar. 

There are 8 sectors to conquer before you get to the end of the game.  On each map an exit is marked on the right hand side and you make your own way there by jumping from star to star.  Each jump uses 1 fuel from your limited supplies – although you can get more by destroying ships, or from stores or other events in the game.

Whenever you jump into a new system you are given a text message to tell you what is there, waiting for you.  Sometimes this is nothing but more often than not you will encounter pirates or rebels or one of the many races which inhabit the universe.  This can lead to combat, trading, investigating a space station or one of a whole selection of encounters.  Once you have cleared the problem, or your FTL engine has powered up sufficiently, then you can jump to the next system and so on.  Almost everything apart from combat is done with text, and by selecting options from a menu – and there’s enough variety to keep you going for a long while.

Combat, however, is where FTL really comes into its own.  Each vessel is made up of a number of systems and a hull.  Systems vary from ship to ship but all of them have an engine, weapons, steering and shields.  Some may have a drone control system, or a teleporter; crews require oxygen and a medbay.  All of these are powered by the ship’s energy supply and power can be re-routed to different systems as and when the player requires (although the total amount is finite, if upgradeable.)  Shields protect the ship against various weapons but, once they are breached or knocked down, any damage is taken directly from the hull value and once that runs out then the ship explodes. Systems can also be individually targeted in order to damage or destroy them, and there is a chance (which varies by weapon) that a successful hit will start a catastrophic fire which can hurt both the ship and any crew.  Once systems are damaged sufficiently then they stop performing their function so, for example, if the oxygen supply is destroyed then the oxygen level in the ship will quickly drop, if the weapons are destroyed you can’t fire them etc etc.

Weapons themselves take many forms in FTL.  There are conventional types such as lasers, missiles, beam weapons and ion guns (which disable systems without doing any damage), but there are also drones available which can repair damage, attack the enemy or defend you from incoming fire.  Some ships even have access to teleporters which can send over crew members to attack enemies in their own backyard.  The game gives you a wide variety of ways to kill aliens, with different approaches needed for different problems.  For example missiles can get through shields easily, but a defence drone will instantly make them obsolete.  This means that you need to tailor your attack to give yourself the best chance of winning - you can't just turn up with one great weapon and always win.

Crew are present on most vessels.  They can come from a variety of races (all with their own advantages and disadvantages) and they are vital to the running of your ship.  Usually they will be assigned to a specific station (such as shields, engines, steering or weapons) and their presence improves the functioning of each of those.  They can repair damage, put out fires, fight intruders or board an opponent’s craft in order to cause them some problems of their own.  Each crew member has their own health, which can be depleted by fighting, fires and lack of oxygen.  Once that runs out then they die, but they can heal by going to your medbay.

Combat is played out in real time, although the player can pause the action in order to think about what to do next (or, more likely, try to think of a way out of the mess they’re in) and this makes it an intense, exhilarating experience.  The beauty of it is that you are constantly trying to manage everything.  Will your shields hold out?  When does your powerful missile battery reload?  Will your crew member put out that fire before they die?  And what the hell just happened to your engines?  Battles can ebb and flow, it’s very rare that one side completely overpowers the other.  You often come away from a defeat thinking “If I’d only done THAT, then maybe it would have ended differently”, and this is a good thing.  This is a sign of a great game.  Combat is tough, it is difficult and you will die many, many times but the game gives you plenty of opportunities to try new things.

The game also has its own economic system, with "scrap" as the currency.  There are many ways to get this.  Sometimes you are given it by a friendly soul, but more likely you take it from defeated enemies, and you can use it to upgrade your ship or to trade at stations.  You can upgrade pretty much any part of your vessel, except for the hull.  Invest in engines and you will avoid more incoming fire.  Invest in shields and they will take more damage before leaving you vulnerable.  Increase your power supply and you can run more systems...  you get the idea.  You can also buy augmentations such as a hull repair arm, or improved scrap retrieval – all with their own effects and advantages.

And, not only can you upgrade your ship, but your crew also become more experienced as they do their jobs.  If they fight off invaders they get better at fighting, and if they fix systems their repair ability increases.  This means that, as you progress, your ship becomes more efficient and more able to face the increasingly difficult opposition later in the game.  However, it also means that your crew become even more valuable than they were before, which adds yet another layer to the real-time combat as you need to keep them safe and alive if you want to succeed.

If you add in that there are 9 different unlockable ships available (each with an alternate loadout once certain conditions are met), that different sectors can be controlled by different races with differing levels of hostility to the player and that missiles and drones are also strictly rationed then we can see that a game which looks so simple on the face of it is actually remarkably complex and requires some definite strategic thought if players want to get anywhere.

And this is where FTL really excels.  It forces the  player to make constant strategic choices.  Do I run or fight?  Do I help them or not?  Is that ship too powerful for me to beat?  Do I spend my missiles on this opponent or save them for later?  Where can I get more fuel from?  This is a proper game which makes the player plan ahead, but also makes them react to what is happening right now.  Juggling everything during a particularly even firefight is absorbing, and balancing attack and defence is vital.  It rewards exploration but also instils a genuine fear and nervousness in the player of what might be lying in wait in the next system.  The difficulty of it is so well-balanced, and the randomness and permadeath work so well, that each run through is new and exciting and the urge to have “just one more game” is almost overwhelming.

FTL is a great game.  It’s not flashy.  It’s not something that needs massive amounts of hard drive space and it’s not something that prioritises showy set pieces over gameplay. Unlike some other, more illustrious, offerings it understands what games are all about.  It presents the player with a challenge.  It forces them to make choices.  It makes them play a bloody game.  It is a wondrous, beautiful creation and I would urge you to spend £6 on it.  It’s one of the best things I have played all year.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012


You've probably heard of Steam.  It's Valve's digital content delivery system and it has taken over the PC gaming market, quickly becoming the largest gaming download "portal" in the world.  There are lots of reasons for this - the legendary Steam sales where they sell off everything for low, low prices, the perception of Valve themselves as "one of the good guys" and probably lots of other reasons which people in marketing would be happy to talk about for hours and hours.

But that isn't really important.  What's important is that Steam recently announced "Greenlight" - a new way for people to get their games into what is, essentially, a massively lucrative marketplace.  Developers could submit their creations and Steam users voted on which ones they thought were worthy of being put onto the main site.  Finally Indie developers had a way of hitting the big time - if they could get their games through the selection process.

Now, anybody who knows anything about the human condition can probably guess what happened next.  Overload.  A sea of dross in which anything worthwhile was lost.  Obviously this wasn't Steam's intention, but it was pretty predictable.

So, Steam have tried to clean things up.   Each developer is now asked to pay $100 (about £60) as a one-off fee, with all proceeds going to the Child's Play charity.  That's a one-off fee and it allows people to submit and edit all their current and future games once they have paid it.  Steam say this will cut out the timewasters.

And this has caused uproar.

Accusations of class divides, references to "the money middle-class people have" and lots of people saying that they flat out cannot afford to pay the fee and that this means that the game that they have put hundreds of hours into is worthless.

There is certainly an element of truth to this.  University fees make university education less likely for children from poor backgrounds, they perpetuate the gap between rich and poor and make that harder to overcome.  This is similar isn't it?  This means that rich people can still access something which has the potential to make them even better off, whilst the truly poor are excluded.  No matter if the fee is £60 or £9000, the principle is the same.

And Valve could have achieved their aim through different methods.  A lower fee (although this would fall foul of the same principle), an admissions panel (but who watches the watchmen, and this goes against the whole point of Greenlight), an easier way of viewing submissions (now implemented) or a cut off where the game is removed if it receives an overwhelmingly negative reaction.

However, not being able to afford to register with Steam does not mean that all is lost.  Greenlight is less than a week old.  Indie developers were able to sell their games before it came along.  None of those options are now closed.  Everything else is still the same.  If I was developing an Indie game that I had faith in, that I loved and that I had sacrificed a lot of time and effort to develop then I would try to sell enough copies of my game (typically less than ten) in order to afford the submission fee to something which has the potential to expose my work to about 40 million people.

People make the point that it's a gamble.  That you're not paying to get on to Steam itself, but to have the chance to be voted on to Steam.  OK.  But you're also paying for the chance to have anything you make in the future also get on to Steam.  What's marketing if it isn't a gamble?  How do you expect to sell something if people don't even know about it?  And how do you get that word out there without spending some money?  (The answer is that I'll promote it on here if you contact me, but I don't have an audience of 40 million.  Do it anyway.  Can't hurt.)

Ultimately Steam gives small developers the chance to make it big.  To sell enough and make enough money not to have to worry about $100 fees again.  The cost vs. reward equation seems pretty clear here.  Maybe it's time that people stopped wishing things were the way they want them to be and faced up to the way they are?