Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Review: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Demo

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (hereby shortened to KoAR because there's no way in hell that I'm typing it out in full every time) is an action-RPG with what on paper looks like a fantastic cast list: the lead designer of Morrowind and Oblivion; a best-selling fantasy novelist; and the creator of Spore are all on board, and it's developed by the same company who made Rise of Nations and Age of Empires: III. I have to admit, though, that I got all of that from Wikipedia scrounging because I only really took notice of the game after it was so highly praised by Penny Arcade. Like many people, this was the first I'd really heard of it, so my immediate reaction was to download the demo, expecting great things. After the usual Steam faffing about, I fired up Fraps and set up my good microphone, and got ready to produce a fantastic first impressions video.  

However, first I had to create an “EA Infinity Account”. Why, I have no idea, but it's not a good way to start your game. Especially when said account requires my date of birth. Especially when said account creation keeps failing because of an “unknown connection error”. Especially when I then have to un-check around 15 boxes to say “No, please do not sell my information to the Chinese”. AND ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU THEN CRASH THE GAME AND MAKE ME DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN. Sorry. Anyway, not a great start. 

The next joy was the opening cinematic, which, well... look, I don't want to say anything bad about R.A. Salvatore, partly because I know what his usual standard is like, and also because he used to work as a bouncer, but it really was weak. I know that he was hired to do “world-creation” rather than actual dialogue, but the cinematic doesn't make the world look that great either. From what I can gather, there were some Fay folk who turned evil and now everything's on fire. Oh, and the villain has a red glowing goatee and sits on a blood-red crystal throne while doing an evil laugh and occasionally muttering “Oh, yes”. I mean, really. Even the villains in WoW had more character. Maybe I'm being too harsh – at least the ending was interesting. It's not often that you start a game by being dead. Anyway, here's a copy of the cinematic so you can see for yourselves:
  I mentioned WoW in the previous paragraph and it's a comparison I think we'll see a lot of, mostly regarding the graphical style. It's certainly very similar, though considerably more polished. Some people have complained about it, but personally I think it works rather well. Having a brighter, more colourful palette is certainly appealing, and a welcome change from the greys and browns that are so popular at the moment. Skyrim was beautiful, yes, and striking, but after a while I found myself longing for some variety and a landscape that wasn't sparse, barren and mountainous. While I didn't have a chance to move too far out in the demo, there was certainly the indication that we'd have lots of varied zones, which was one of the best things about WoW's visual design.

Cartoony but pretty.

However, I wasn't immediately able to appreciate the eye-candy because the game decided that it would make more sense for me to stay in the dark and have a completely black screen. A quick Google search told me that the solution was to turn off post-processing – apparently this isn't an uncommon bug. The demo in general was buggy to the point of broken. Apart from the aforementioned black-screen issue, it would crash for any or no reason: on Alt-Tab; on opening a door; on starting a cinematic; on leaving a cinematic; on equipping a weapon... the list goes on and on. I mentioned earlier that I'd tried to make a video, but after a while I gave up, because there are only so many error screens that I can expect people to look at. Apparently many of these problems have been fixed in the full game, but it still feels awfully unprofessional to release a demo that's this broken. 

The fleas of a thousand camels.

Wow, 700 words and we've not even reached the gameplay. So, let's get on with it. You start off dead, or on a slab in any case, and while the gnomes escorting you to the incinerator laugh about your ridiculously undersized genitals you can determine your race and appearance. You have a choice of four races – two humans and two elves, all with unpronounceable names – which provide various bonuses, and the option to pick a patron deity, which grants you further buffs to mana or crit chance or similar. Interestingly there's also an option to pick no god at all, which gives you a 1% experience buff for your “self-reliance”. This is all well and good, and in keeping with long-established RPG tradition, but it carries with it the common problem of not knowing what the stats actually mean. Some are obvious (e.g. “Stealth”), but what the hell is “Sagecraft”? Do I need it? Even more commonplace stats such as “Alchemy” are confusing: presumably it makes my potions better, or something similar, but how important is that? Will I be making potions a lot, or relying on drops? All these are things you'll pick pretty fast as soon as you start the game, but asking you to know the answers before you start playing seems rather unfair. At least Skyrim told me what Enchanting actually did, even it it did neglect to mention that it was the single most important stat in the game. 

The character customisation is good if a little basic compared to Skyrim and its ilk, but to be honest I see that as an improvement. I'm not going to be looking at my character's face most of the time anyway, so I really don't care about getting the exact angle of his jawbone right. I will, however, be looking at his hair a lot (you have the option to turn off helm visibility, which is fantastic), and so KoAR gets full marks for providing a male hairstyle that isn't bald, ponytail/really long or a mohican. Anyway, once all the starting mucking about is done you're given a rusty sword and told to hack your way to freedom. 

The combat in KoAR has been heavily praised, and most of the time this praise is deserved. Melee swings feel meaty and connect well, and the way in which you can cleave enemies standing side by side simultaneously is a particularly nice touch. In the tutorial dungeon most of the combat involves frantically clicking the left mouse button, but once you start learning different moves for each of the many, many weapon types combat becomes much more fluid and skill-based. Personally I found staves to be particularly satisfying. However, there are still issues with the combat, and the most significant of these is aiming. Because the game is being released for consoles as well as for the PC the developers have decided to go for an auto-target system rather than a crosshair, and it's pretty terrible. It's bad enough in a melee situation where sometimes your character will opt to attack a passing butterfly rather than the thug with twin daggers standing behind it, but if you want to use a ranged weapon or a spell it's absolutely atrocious. While it's clear that you're supposed to be able to switch between targets by moving the mouse left or right, half the time it seems to pick one at random and removes your ability to switch unless you're actually walking towards the target. And given that enemies have actual line-of-sight aggro rather than some vague circular range (which is a good thing), the odds are that you're going have your gonads cut off before you have time to line up your power shot.
Claustrophobic combat

Spell casting, by and large, suffers the same problem. There were a number of occasions where I tried to open combat with a spell from a distance, but ended up frying a critter off-screen to the right or left and having to wait a minute before I could continue because casting at low levels completely empties your mana bar.

If you don't want to fight with sword, shield or spells, then you can also try stealth. The toggle-based system earns points for showing how visible you are to individual enemies, but then loses some by having stealth defined by a database entry rather than on line of sight or shadows (partly forgiveable; this is an RPG), and then loses even more by making your reward for successful stealth a canned animation, character incapacitating one-hit kill. There's also a rage-bar mechanic which basically enables you to occasionally kill a mob with a quick-time event to get extra experience. It's fun the first time, but then becomes irritating and ultimately feels rather pointless.
Killing an enemy with the QTE isn't as fun as it looks

There are a host of other minor annoyances: the fact that there's no keyboard shortcut for “Take All” from a looted body; your character can't jump, meaning that you get stuck on gravel; the ridiculous limitations on weapon switching – that last one probably merits expansion. You can define a primary and a secondary weapon (for example, a sword and a bow), and switch between them by scrolling the mouse-wheel, but if you want to change what those weapons are, you have to go through three different menu screens. There's no way of hotkeying weapons; no Skyrim style quick menu (well there is, but it's for consumables only). So if you want to take a melee weapon, a ranged weapon, and daggers for stealth kills, well, you can't. So much for hybrid classes. 

All of these gripes fade into insignificance, however, when compared to the monumental irritation that is the camera – or rather, the camera distance. By default it sits about an inch from the back of your character, and there's no way of changing it. On a 1248x1024 monitor, this means that about a third of the screen is taken up with the character's body, and while I did indeed appreciate his taut, pert rump for about a minute or so, the novelty faded and left me unable to see much of the world. This restraint of vision also means that you're extremely likely to be ambushed by mobs you just can't see. Fortunately it zooms out a bit during combat, or at least it's meant to. It worked for me about half the time, and even then I was still being hit in the back by enemies I couldn't see. For me this was the single biggest problem with the game. The FoV (if that term can be properly used for a 3rd-person game) was so tight, and the character so obscuring, that I felt almost claustrophobic. It made everything irritating; combat became a frustration, exploration awkward and situational awareness just disappeared. I don't know if I'm the only one to find this annoying; maybe if I had a massive monitor it wouldn't be such an issue, but for me it pretty much broke the game. 

Which is a shame, because the rest of the game is pretty nice. The characters are all excellently written and voice-acted and characterised, even if too much of it is done through cutscenes; after ten minutes or so in the starting village I felt that I had a pretty good grip on their fears and motivations, even if I hated half of them (especially that ranting woman by the entrance to the monastery: I could hear her from about half a mile a way and she would not shut up). It's not an open world game by any stretch; about half the map of the first zone was inaccessible because it was a mountain or a giant tree or something else copy-pasted from the Darnassus starting area (I know, I know, WoW wasn't original either); but it's certainly not a linear game, and you're free to wander off and find side quests and dungeons and all sorts of other entertainment. While the interface is a little ugly, the inclusion of the "Junk" feature is very nice indeed.

The talent system would take too much effort to explain here, but can be summarised by saying that in addition to the three normal trees of mage, thief and fighter you also have the option of choosing various “destinies” or archetypical roles which are unlocked based on your current talents and provide various boosts (for example, going heavily into magic with a side order of melee would give you a destiny that benefits both to different degrees. The point is that you can hybridise without being penalised for it, which I whole-heartedly approve of.
The first basic destinies.

In conclusion, KoAR is a game that does a lot of things well – story, combat, dialogue, exploration and questing – but which hides its light under a bushel of poor design decisions and minor irritations. I don't know if I'll be picking it up on release (7th February) or waiting for the inevitable sale. I want to like it, but there's just too much holding it back.


Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The 2½ valid reasons to pirate games

Oh, before we begin, I ought to mention: I'm about as anti SOPA/PIPA as it's possible to get. There's no need for you to come and widdle in my azaleas.

If SOPA and PIPA do in fact stay shelved then they may end up having been a huge own-goal for its supporters. Because its effects would be so wide and so strong, it's turned what was previously a multi-faceted debate about piracy into a big, simple, SOPA Vs. Pirates issue, and SOPA is so bad, so unbelievably, stupidly terrible, that anyone whose brain wasn't surgically removed at birth is going to find themselves, somehow, on the side of the pirates. After stories like this, it's not hard to see why people like Jim “Pirates are dirty thieves” Stirling have changed their tune – whether or not their views have actually changed, they've got to appear to be pro-pirate or end up on the dangling end of a virtual lynching.

However, SOPA presents a false dichotomy. Piracy is not a black or white issue, but a minor moral maze. To guide you though it, I present my list of 2.5 valid moral justifications for pirating games.

1: The game in question is not for sale due to geographical location or age.

Amazing as it may seem, not all games can be bought everywhere, especially if you live in Tuvalu or Tajikistan. If the game is simply not available for purchase in your country, and you can't get it via digital distribution, then pirate away. This is one of the very few cases in which “piracy is not a lost sale” is definitely true – the game could not have been purchased.

The second clause concerns games whose studios have either collapsed or stopped releasing the game – the point being that you can't buy it anywhere in a way that would give money to the developers. This used to be a fairly common scenario for older games, and in some cases it still is, but with the advent of Good Old Games and other such services, it is now often possible to buy old games without having to go second-hand. However, if you can't buy it, or it's been abandoned, then again, pirate away. Just check before you do. To borrow a point from TotalBiscuit, abandonware could even be beneficial to the game developers by keeping interest in a franchise alive and increasing the possibility of a sequel.

2: You already own a copy of the game in question

This is a simple one. A lot of my games were bought many years ago and are still on discs. If those discs get scratched or broken beyond repair, I see no reason why I shouldn't download another copy. If you lose a card from a deck of playing cards, you're perfectly entitled to scribble the number and suit onto the joker or bridge score card and carry on playing. This does to some degree cover the issue of emulation, though that's a can of worms I'm saving for my next fishing trip. Also note that this does not cover “I'm going to buy it if I like it when I finish it” or some other equally fatuous excuse. Especially if the buying later consists of a Steam sale or a bundle.

2.5: You could not afford/would not have bought the game in question
There's a reason that this is a half-point, so before you scroll down to the comments and tell me what a dirty free-tard I am, allow me to explain. First of all, let's look at the harm that pirating a copy of the game does.

If it's a straight up decision between clicking on Steam or The Pirate Bay, then the harm is obvious: the developers have lost a sale. They get less money and fewer sales, reducing the likelihood of a sequel and the survival of the studio. That's pretty clear. However, a lot of pirates claim that they either couldn't afford or wouldn't have bought the game anyway, and thus their download doesn't count as a lost sale, and thus there is no harm done. And yes, if that is genuinely the case, and that person would never, ever have bought the game under any circumstances, then it's not a lost sale.


There is a reason that this was a half-point, and it's this: these reasons practically never apply. You say that you wouldn't have bought it, but you were interested enough to go to the effort of pirating it, which is normally more than the effort required to buy it on Steam. You say that you couldn't afford it, but you probably could if you saved up or waited for a sale at some future point. If you really, genuinely can't afford it, then there are a tonne of free and really, really cheap games. I'm currently a student living almost entirely off my student maintenance loan, which is around £5000/year (around $8000, I think?), and I can still afford to buy games. I don't buy many: my most recent purchases, in reverse chronological order, are Magicka, Skyrim, Sequence, Orcs Must Die and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Most of those were bought on or shortly after release (Magicka is the exception), at full price. What I'm saying is that while theoretically these are justifiable reasons, I find it extremely hard to believe that they ever really apply.

So, there we are. Those are, to my mind, the only morally justifiable reasons for downloading games illegally. If you don't fit those criteria, then please, please, stop trying to justify your actions as being harmless or even praiseworthy in some way. Definitely stop trying to make pirating a game because you're too greedy or lazy to pay for it a political act. Stop using examples of bad behaviour by publishers or politicians as justification. Saying “I don't like that they outsourced the boss fights in DXHR so I'll pirate it” is effectively the same flawed logic that leads publishers to say “I don't like that they keep pirating the games so I'm going to drop DRM on it till it screams”. Yes, they can be dicks. They shouldn't be, and neither should you. One might think that this kind of basic reasoning was taught in kindergarten, but apparently not. If you really disprove of a company's DRM or other actions, then just don't buy the game.

In short, please, please stop making excuses. You're fooling no one but yourself.


Wednesday, 18 January 2012

I wanted to be Sherlock

Inspired by the first series of the BBC's excellent Sherlock, I once ran a small blog in which I would take photographs of random people I saw on the tube/bus/train and upload them along with any deductions I could make. It was hardly a big hit - in the three months it was active it made just enough money for me to buy the box-set of Sherlock Series 1, and then I had exams the like and took it down (oh, there were also a few... complaints). However, I never really got out of the habit of attempting deductions, which, sadly, are rarely accurate. In my defence, it's much harder than Sherlock makes it look.

An example: this morning, walking home from the supermarket, I passed a man standing at the corner of a building talking on his phone. Some things were immediately obvious - his suit and shoes showed an indoor office worker; he was married, neat and careful of his appearance. It was pretty likely that he worked in the bank branch against which he was leaning. It was his phone, however, that caught my attention: it was an iPhone 4S, with a yellowing plastic-rubber cover. This discolouration of the cover started a line of reasoning: it looks old, definitely older than the phone, which could only be four months old at the most (release date was in October). One could therefore assume that he had previously owned the iPhone 4, and combining that with the brand loyalty that Apple products tend to inspire, one could assume that he was a long-time Apple user.

It was a small but interesting deduction, and I was feeling rather pleased with myself before I rounded the corner and realised the obvious flaw in my logic. The case was white. The iPhone 4 was black. A man who took the time to shave his rather odious goatee every morning and polished his shoes so regularly would almost certainly not put a white case on a black phone, and thus the case was either bought secondhand (extremely unlikely), or it was just an unpleasant colour from the get-go.

Oh well.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Voice control of PC

UPDATE: I lost the files for this but re-wrote some of the basics and uploaded them here.

When the iPhone 4S was released a few months ago, everyone seemed to go nuts over Siri. It looked pretty cool, it's true, but I had the sneaking suspicion that I'd seen it before. I had a look on my desktop and found, lurking at the back of the Start bar, Windows Speech Recognition. Now, in its natural state it's pretty limited - you can open and close programs, and in some Microsoft-brand applications do basic menu commands, but that's about it. However, it does come with the option of writing your own macros, and that's what I did. I spent a weekend writing the basic framework, and since then I've been adding features as I thought of them.

Over Christmas I mentioned that I'd been doing this to some friends, who expressed an interest in seeing it in action, so I've put together a brief video showcasing some of its more basic abilities. To be honest, I've kind of forgotten everything that it can do, especially since I taught it how to learn things for itself. Things I'd still like to do include linking it to a chatbot (cleverbot is meant to be quite good, or so I'm told), and adding more options in Google Documents.

Features (that I can think of off the top of my head) that were omitted from the video:

  • Directions in Google Maps
  • Creating events and reminders in Google Calendar
  • File management
  • Router management
  • Tracking visited websites in order to understand commands better (e.g. "Go to Cracked" will open cracked.com, because I've been there a lot).
Of course, there's always more to do. As you can see, it doesn't always work perfectly, but it actually tends to work better when you speak normally than when you over-enunciate your words (see the "When is the next full moon" example).

A few points about the video. It's not fantastically high-quality, I know. I couldn't find any really good free desktop recording software, and the camera was filmed using a decent-ish digital jobby that's really meant for photographs. I do have a much better mic, but it's a stand one, and this really needed a headset. Sorry for the spitting and popping noises, I know it's pretty horrible. The blurring is irritating, I know, but it would be rather rude to display the details of everyone else in my inbox/on Facebook, so there we go.

Hope you enjoy it - if people are really interested I could post bits of the code, but most of it isn't hugely complicated.