Thursday, 31 January 2008

Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

Yes, it’s the same old Zelda again. You play the young hero link as he battles his way through dungeons and monsters in a quest to rescue the Princess Zelda; Gorons, grappling hooks, and all that jazz. Phantom Hourglass is a delightful adventure with a sense of humour, but it’s also a frustrating joy.

The entire game can be controlled using the stylus, but it goes further than that. Unlike Twilight princess, which was essentially a gamecube port, this is a game that is utterly dedicated to its console, making use of all of the features at its disposal, from the touch screen to the microphone.

Controlling Link is simplicity itself, just drag the stylus in the direction you want to go. Quick slashes for swinging his sword, while a tap on an enemy will perform a jump attack; it doesn’t get more complicated than that. Tapping on objects, or people, will have Link run over and interact with the target, so you don’t have to spend the entire game with the stylus pressed down. All of the items you acquire during the game also use the stylus in some way, from accurately placing bombs, to drawing the flight path of the boomerang.

For such a simple addition, I still can’t quite get over how useful the ability to write on the map is; but the designers didn’t just add it in as a nice extra feature, it’s integral to the game. As well as being a convenient place to write down notes, some of the puzzles require you to use the map to solve puzzles; such as working out the positions of buried items. It took a long time for it to sink in that I shouldn’t just be making notes when prompted, it makes the game a lot more enjoyable when you don’t have to remember switch combinations, or treasure chest locations. It’s easily the best feature of the game, and an example to other developers.

As much as I want to praise them for trying something a bit different with the Temple of the Ocean King, it’s also my least favourite dungeon. The titular Phantom Hourglass gives you a limited amount of time to explore the dungeon, with safe spots scattered about the levels that freeze the countdown and provide respite from the dreaded Phantoms.

I didn’t really take the Phantoms all that seriously, to start with at least. They’re slow, at first, and can generally be outrun or outmanoeuvred, and there are plenty of safe spots to hide in. So, initially, it didn’t feel like the game had suddenly moved into a stealth section and I spent the first couple of levels gallivanting about the place with the Phantoms in tow and generally not caring. Then one of them hit me. Bam, instant time deduction and I’m whisked back to the start of the level. Suddenly they’re a serious danger, especially as you get deeper into the temple and time becomes more scarce, and they get faster and more numerous.

They’ve tried to mix it up by having you uncover a major dungeon over the course of the game, but there are some irritating problems. All of the puzzles are reset every time you enter the dungeon and having to remember and redo all them again, especially with the time limit, is frustrating and this is compounded with by having to revisit the temple a dozen bloody times during the course of the game. Despite allowing you to open up quicker paths as you get new items, it’s still taking the piss that they are expecting you to do them every single time.

Phantom Hourglass also continues on the story from Wind Waker and puts you in command of a ship with which to travel from island to island. You plot a path out with the stylus and the ship follows it, while you are free to look around and defend the ship from enemies with the cannon. Longer journeys can get rather dull though, even after you get the cannon and get to shoot monsters, and random seagulls. Exploration of the seas is rewarded though, with more islands, and, thankfully, shortcuts between the different sea areas. There’s also a salvaging mini game to find the treasures scattered across the bottom of the sea.

The cell shaded style also returns from Wind Waker, the cause of much jeering on the cube, has found its rightful home on the DS. Yes, it’s cutesy, but then this is a game about a young boy and his fairy saving the world. The visuals are big, bold, and charming; perfect for the DS.

There’s a light scattering of story to hold it all together, but it’s missing a central evil presence until you actually fight the final boss. Linebeck is an awesome supporting character, and he’s a damn sight better than fairy clone 256 that’s your constant sidekick throughout the game.

So, aside from tedious sailing sections and repetitive leviathan of a centrepiece dungeon, it’s still a great game. For every misstep there was something wonderful to counter my disappointment. It’s not new, it’s not refreshing, it’s the same old Zelda, but it screams “this is how you make a game for the DS!” and it’s one of the best games of 2007.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Putting the Guild in Guild Wars.

January was a month of playing way to much Guild Wars, so much so that I went from addiction to burnt out in a couple of weeks and haven’t touched it since. In my last few days I was on the lookout for a guild, which involved standing in one of the main hub areas watching the local chat as people spammed requests every three seconds. After a while I started noticing trends in a lot of the ads I saw and guild leaders I talked to.

“No restrictions” seemed to be the main one, which just reeks of desperation. It struck me that most of these guilds were trying to get as many through the door as they possibly can just for the sake of numbers, with little care for quality control. Fleeting memberships in a couple of no restriction guilds revealed another problem; no restrictions also means no direction. Regardless of the amount of people in the guild, everyone was just doing their own thing. No groups being formed, just a band of separate players with a private chat channel. An "Anti-Guild". It’s like they made a guild for the sake of it, rather than thinking about what they wanted to do with it.

“New members made officers” is Chinese for “No Management”. Desperation again, but it means they’re prepared to give promotions without proof of ability. Having a bunch of randoms running the guild is a recipe for chaos.

There were a couple of good ones from players would actually thought things through first, though.

“18+” isn’t a sign of maturity, but you are clearing out a generally volatile demographic, and there is a market for players, like me, who are looking to player with older members. I even saw an ad for a 30+ guild, which is awesome to see; people who actually know what they want out of their guild and are willing to specialise regardless.

“Interviews” aren’t a necessity, but it‘s damn good quality control to actually have a conversation with prospective members, getting an idea of who you are letting in, as opposed to just firing of invites. Build an understanding with them first, rather than herding them in like sheep. It means slower induction, fewer members at a time, and sits at the other end of the spectrum to the “No Restriction” guilds, but it almost guarantees you’ll have players that fit in with your guild, and the direction it’s going in.

Quake Wars: All About the Field Ops

Gone back to Quake Wars this week, and I still love the field ops/oppressor class. One of the main things I like about the game is that if everyone generally does their role, things work out, even with minimal communication. This makes even matches with random strangers run relatively smoothly. The covert ops guys are hacking the objective, the engineers setup turrets to cover the advance, and us field ops guys rain down death on the enemy positions.

Being able to create objectives for your team is awesome; they highlight the turrets and radars, and I take them down. You get experience for yourself, and help the team in the process. Experience points and rewards give everyone the incentive to do their job well; I’m always aiming for the best field ops award. If I can get that, then I’m happy, regardless of us winning or losing the match.

The field ops are the fire support men, and what they lack in direct firepower they make up for in air strikes and artillery bombardment. No other class can match the shear damage potential, and while you won’t be getting kills often, it’s the only class that can easily get big, simultaneous kills from a well timed shot. Which is always nice to see pop up on the screen, and usually results in a “wtf” from the opposing team.

I prefer playing the long range support style field ops, like a sniper, but with an artillery gun that launches flaming plasma every couple of minutes. There are three different types of artillery available for each race, but I always go with the high calibre Dark Matter Cannon/Hammer Missile launcher. A direct hit will pretty much kill anything, with a large, severely damaging, blast radius.

I’m usually tucked away on high ground, with as good a view of the battlefield as I can get. The Strogg have a major advantage with finding the best spots, their Icarus jetpacks can get you some ridiculous vantage points. It can be lonely though, sometimes you are too far away to be of help in-between artillery strikes, but it keeps you safe, mostly. Waiting for a spawn timer while you’ve got loaded artillery isn’t helping the team. This is important because you really need to be ready to call another target as soon as the artillery reloads, keeping up the pressure.

A good overview of the enemy positions lets you call objectives from safety, and you can see where they are moving and where their turrets, and other support, are being dropped. Primarily, I go after the hard targets; turrets, radars, stationary vehicles, then the spawn or choke points. It’s entertaining to watch the enemy drop down into their spawn point, blissfully unaware of the impending doom that’s gracefully arcing through the sky above them, seeing them just about make it to their vehicles and BOOM!

Staying at range isn’t always possible though; some of the maps are flat or have built up areas that deny you a clear shot. In this situation you need to move closer; it’s more dangerous, but it’s the only way to stay effective. You'll want to unlock the scoped assault rifle/accurized lacerator as quickly as possible; it’s ideal for picking off players or keeping them pinned down while a strike is incoming, at the cost of drawing attention to yourself.

The field ops also have a couple of notable enemies. Engineers, with their artillery interceptor turrets, are the bane of my existence. Distracting you from the real targets until it’s taken down; either your team has to come in and assist, or you have to take time out from bombardments to go after it yourself.

The other, is airpower, and how I hate it. Usually sat far away from the rest of the team, the field ops has no effective way of being able to take down enemy aircraft, unless it’s already severely injured. Trying to run from one while on a barren cliff top isn’t fun either. Not only that, but they can kill your artillery pieces too; even while it’s sat in the main outpost they can hit it from outside the range of the defences quite easily. An active pilot is a bloody nightmare to deal with, but, in my experience, they only have a lifespan of about thirty seconds, or the time it takes for someone to get a missile lock.

Obviously, all the classes have weaknesses, and it does help to have an understanding of the others. I play the field ops because I like the different playing style, and I can’t shoot shit at short range (I’m sure they’re wondering if I’m actually shooting at them, or having some kind of fit.), but there are times when a field ops isn’t useful. Most missions, for example, end with storming a facility of some kind, rendering artillery useless.

At this point I’ve done my job and now I have to switch to the soldier class, because it’s shotgun o’clock.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Salvaging Bastards, I Salute You.

I love EVE.

It says something about EVE that I keep finding posts like this. It’s another example of the potential within EVE, and other virtual worlds, to use game mechanics in ways that weren’t initially expected.

There are a lot of players constantly running missions in high security space and scanning them down in order to salvage the npc wrecks they leave is wonderfully devious, and EVE is a playground for the devious.

Salvaging can be a very lucrative profession, if you’ve got the time. I used to chase hot spots, searching for systems with a high number of ships destroyed, looking for wrecks left behind after a battle; but these guys have taken it to the next level.

Essentially, it’s salvage piracy, and reasonably safe, while salvaging someone else’s wreck doesn’t aggress you to them.

Why didn’t I think of that!?

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Sir Diedalot of Ascalon.

Something’s been bothering me about Guild Wars, the “Defender of Ascalon” title to be more accurate. There are other ridiculously demanding titles (The “Drunkard” title does have a certain charm to it, though.), but the Defender title is a staggering milestone in pointless goals. It looks simple enough: “The Defender of Ascalon title can only be gained by attaining level 20 in pre-Searing Ascalon, the tutorial area in Guild Wars Prophecies", until you realise that you don’t get any experience from enemies that are more than five levels below you and the highest creatures in pre-Searing Ascalon are level ten.

The only proven way of achieving the title is “death leveling”, which involves leveling up the enemy by letting the kill you. I think there was some kind of mistake when they we’re creating the titles; somehow this one was called “Defender of Ascalon” instead of “Masochist of the Realm”.

According to the Guild Wars Wiki article, it takes months of dying in order to level up enemies just so you can kill them for a meagre amount of experience. The only real progress you’ll make in the game is reaching the level cap, which even a casual player can hit in a few weeks. Swirl that around your head for a bit; months of dying, for a title, some text below your character name, a bloody E-Penis.

Now it could be argued that this is the terrifying reality that lies at the core of all MMOs; we’re all putting hundreds of hours into achieving utterly inconsequential goals, but this is just taking the piss. Instead of drawn out, backwards, goals like this they should really be taking note of the x-box live achievement system and adding a larger range of titles that are relatively easy to acquire. They should be a bit of fun to spice up the main game, not encouragement to punish yourself. There’s far more interesting things in MMOs than grinding for a bit of text that says “I got killed for months for a fucking title”. People don’t pay attention to titles anyway; they’re too busy fawning over the guy with the Flaming God-sword of Much Death.

Good for you though, “Sir Diedalot”.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings

I bought Revenant Wings on a whim while I was over in America abusing the dollar to pound exchange rate. Knowing very little about the game- I was under the impression that it was going to be something similar to the tactics series -it was a pleasant surprise to discover that not only is it an RTS, it's also quite good. As the latest spin off of Square-Enix's flagship franchise, Revenant Wings kicks off a year after the conclusion of the previous game. Vaan and Penelo are now living the dream as sky pirates, cavorting around Ivalice in their very own airship.

The core of the game is divided into a series of missions, with your airship operating as a main hub. Missions start with you in control of your team of characters, each with their own unique abilities. Alongside them are the espers, which make up the bulk of your force. Espers are magical creatures that can be summoned to your side and assigned to individual characters, forming a group. It's quite simple to order your forces around the map; each group has its own tab on the top of the touch screen that allows you to quickly select the entire group, or the individual units. Every character and esper has a unit type, either flying, melee, or ranged, with each one being effective against one of the others. There's also a fourth healing type that is weak against the other three, but provides essential support to your front line troops. As well as this, most espers have their own elemental strengths and weaknesses, and since you are limited to only five different esper types it makes it really important to select the right ones for the mission. Handily, you can see the types of epsers you'll be facing before a mission and can plan accordingly.

One thing that stands out is that Revenant Wings is not a cruel game. The learning curve is fairly smooth, with the basic mechanics being introduced over the course of the first half a dozen missions. It gets you used to using the individual characters before giving you espers, and after that introduces the different element types. Despite some hard missions, it's generally an easy game, but not to the point that it's insulting. When you fail a mission there's no progress lost, your characters even gain a little experience, and the short length of the missions means you can quickly reorganise and try again. It's a gentle, if sometimes hectic, experience.

It's not with out its flaws though. Revenant Wings is guilty of pre-fight cut scenes that can't be skipped, and have to be played every time you start the fight. While mercifully short to begin with, the later, and harder, battles generally involve the longer scenes. There are also certain features that would have been really welcome, such as the ability to pause the game for issuing orders and a way to target enemies without using the stylus. Selecting characters in a melee is fine thanks to the tabs on the touch screen, but targeting specific enemies is really troublesome and can make the fights a little clumsy. Multiplayer is also notably absent, which is a real shame.

Despite these flaws, they don't detract from what is, essentially, a wonderful game. Revenant Wings feels quite at home on the DS; the stylus is excellent for ordering units around, while the top screen map gives you a helpful overview of the battlefield. The graphics are simplistic and cute, but not offensively so, using the same style as the Tactics Advance series (even reusing the same enemy graphics at some points). As well as the variety of missions that make up the main story there are also a lot of optional side quests that are definitely worth doing in order to unlock the most powerful epsers. As an RTS on the DS Revenant Wings is something a bit different, and although it may scare off some people looking for a more traditional rpg, or turn based experience, I can't help but recommend it.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Romance of the Three Kingdoms VIII

Romance of the Three Kingdoms VIII is, essentially, a management sim of China’s three kingdoms period. The bastard offspring of a drunken three way between Dynasty Warriors, Kessen, and Championship Manager; and the eighth of what is currently an eleven game franchise. Up to eight officers can be picked from a pool of six hundred historical and one hundred user created characters, ranging from wandering free officers to empire controlling rulers. Each one has their own statistics for War, Politics, Intelligence, and charisma, as well as specialist skills for use in work or battles. A selection of starting time periods can be chosen, from the turbulent yellow turban rebellion to the later periods that see the three main kingdoms firmly entrenched against each other. There’s a lot of freedom to setup a nomadic band of officers, serve existing factions, or even start a new force and take on everyone else.

The game is split into officer management and battle phases, both of which are turn based. The game cycles through each character once per month, allowing you to train, forge relationships, and carry out work for your respective force. Every three months a council session, if you are part of a force, decides and executes all diplomatic and military matters. Spying, defections, sabotage, drafting, attack orders, it all takes place in there and is the main area for characters specialising in politics. As a standard officer your goals are determined by the prefect of your province, progressing further up the hierarchy will allow you more freedom and command of your supporting officers.

The battles in ROTKVIII will be familiar to anyone who has played Kessen; each officer in the army commands a single unit of troops and can use any special abilities they have to provide bonuses in battle. However, the level of control you have is dependent on your position in the faction. A low ranking officer will control his unit alone, while the commanding warlord or prefect will have control of the entire army. The battle is preceded by a war council phase where the appointed tactician for the fight suggests a strategy for the commander to approve. Here you can see a map of the battlefield, gather information on the enemy, choose army composition, set traps, and plan your general strategy. Once that’s all decided it’s on to glorious battle! The main problem with the battle part is the unnecessarily zoomed out camera; large fights become a seething mass of pixels and the damage results from attacks are almost impossible to read. Another issue is the computer AI, which can control individual units fine (makes uses of terrain for bonuses, etc), but struggles with using them as a group. Beyond their general strategy the units act too much like a mass of independent units rather than an army and allow themselves to be undone by a coordinated player.

In theory though, you don’t have to get involved with any of the battles if you don’t want to. They aren’t the place for politicians or diplomats, unless you need some reserve troops to bulk up your numbers, and prefects/rulers can designate their warlords to lead assaults without getting directly involved.

Continuing to impress your superiors, or having them drop dead, will open the door for advancement. An officer must take care of his given tasks, but as a prefect they have control of the whole province and can dictate work to the officers under them and have the final say in the council meetings. Above them are the viceroys, they have control of an entire region as well of their own province. Viceroys set general orders to other prefects in the form of policies that give them such task as improving their province or sending support to another within a set time. Ruler is the highest rank in the empire; they have authority over every region and control the strategy for the whole force.

ROTKVIII is definitely an acquired taste, and almost the antithesis of Koei’s other three kingdoms series: Dynasty warriors. People who have played the previous games will feel right at home, but for the uninitiated it is a daunting beast. The tutorials and glossary are easy to access and essential to getting the hang of the game, but it’s still missing more thorough introductions and documentation. As a management game made specifically for console it’s surprisingly deep. It would be possible to lose days, even weeks, to it; especially when controlling a full set of characters. It does suffer from some serious engrish on the translation though and really needs more variety in character events. There are only so many times you can go on a hunting trip with another character, or arrest a corrupt official, before it starts to grate.

(Written April 2007)