Dungeon Siege III Trailer

Perhaps you have heard of Lucas Montbarron?

Did you know that he’s the last in a noble and respected line and that he will not rest until the Legion is rebuilt and his murdered family’s honor is restored.

It’s true.

Remembering Darklands

In last Thursday’s post about “realism in role-playing” a user asked the question, and I am paraphrasing,

“Bill, do you have any modern examples of your so-called perfect RPG?”

I sat there staring at that question and came to the answer: not really.

That forced my brainwaves to wander down another corridor to a door that read: ‘what game best represents the type of RPG you were yapping about?’

Again I sat there and all of the usual names popped in my head. The Baldur’s Gates, the KOTORs, Fallouts, The Witcher, Krondor, and classics like The Bard’s Tale, Ultima, even the truly classic Adventure Construction Set on the C-64. Pretty much the standard canon for a westernized RPG fan.

Then it hit me…

For a guy who was growing increasingly tired of Dungeons & Dragons and its over the top high fantasy style, two games helped redefine my thinking of what an RPG could be – one was the “pencil and paper” role-playing game Warhammer from Games Workshop, which at the time was far and away the greatest RPG of my generation (that and Cthulhu), and on the PC a game called Darklands from Microprose.

Darklands was released in the early 1990s; I was actually in college at the time and installed this monster on 16 3.5” disks and it ran a whopping 25 megs and I thought that was the biggest program on the planet (and it likely was close.)

If you never played this brilliant, yet admittedly terribly buggy game, let me lay out why this was such a revelation for me and also to help explain the style of game I was referring to in Thursday’s post.

Darklands was set in 15th century Germany – the real Germany, only in this game world all of the traditional German folklore written/spoken at the time was very real. This includes creatures like the hermit Schrat, Rock Gnomes, Dwarfs (not the Tolkien kind), Kobolds, Dire Wolves, and so on. There were evil men such as powerful robber knights and thieves, but the biggest “evil” in the game were witches, demons, cultists, and other humans who were lured to the side of, well, Satan basically.

There was no spell casting in this game. You could still perform “magical” feats but it was through alchemy (hurling potions) and divine intervention (prayer). You wouldn’t see a dude with a staff with an eagle’s head walk up and say some words as “chain lightning” flew from his fingers. Not that I have anything against chain lightning but the way in which “mages” cast spells in most fantasy games seems too…easy.

Another neat part of Darklands’ design and something that I felt was borrowed from Warhammer, was that the characters weren’t labeled generically as “fighter”, “warrior”, “mage” or “ranger”. When you think about it, how silly is that?

Hey, “Ragnar”, what’s your job in life?

“I’m a ‘fighter.”

I never understood what the hell that even meant. The idea of being classified as a “mage” or a “warrior” is so generic and flat out boring. What do you DO?

In Warhammer I had characters who, before being thrust into the role of “adventurer” were nobles, pit fighters, herbalists, mercenaries, or town scribes. Maybe even a common footpad.

It just makes sense, doesn’t it?

Darklands was the same way with its character creation. You guided your PCs from birth to the day that they decide to leave the mundane life and become adventurers. But what they DID in life was very, very important. Maybe one was a lifelong soldier? Perhaps a student or a monk or a nun? (Remember religion is a big deal in this setting). Monks could speak Latin, soldiers started with weapon bonuses, nuns were solid with various Saints, etc. –and that’s a small sample.

In the end you started the game knowing more about your characters than you do in nearly all of the RPGs we play today.

The gameplay was a mix of several genres. You had the ‘choose your own adventure’ aspect – as there was a lot of reading in the game backdropped by lovely watercolor artwork. So for example when you were in a city you would be presented with several choices as to where you wanted to go. After choosing a destination either a new screen would pop up with more choices, or you might get attacked by thieves. But here’s another kicker – once you got powerful enough the thieves would notice this and decide that attacking you wasn’t too bright so they’d leave you be.

Wandering bands of thugs were a real problem in 15th century Europe, so this made perfect sense to me. You wouldn’t see an attack in broad daylight but once the sun went down it was a bad idea to wander – especially early in the game.

There was the open world map where you traveled around from city to city finding trouble to stir up, and unlike something like Oblivion – if you left your starting city you were going to die. No auto leveling here. It was tough out there in the wilds of Germany with all of the wolves and pagans running amuck and your merry band of a former monk, a nun, and a 40 year old ex-soldier wouldn’t last too long.

The combat portion which was pauseable real time which for 1992 was SO ahead of its time. Baldur’s Gate? Yep. It took a lot of ideas from Darklands.

You could even RETIRE your aging characters once they reached a certain age ala Pirates. “John, you’re just too damn old for this life. Back to the smithy with you.”

I miss this style of game a great deal. There were so many aspects of Darklands that hit a real sweet spot with me – “realistic” setting, low/grim fantasy, dangerous (extremely dangerous) combat that was built into the core design and not by adjusting difficulty level, and an open world style of play that allowed for a lot of freedom without feeling lost.

There have been various attempts to “remake” the old girl, and you can even grab the game from various abandon ware sites, but when I spoke of realism in role-playing this is the type of game I was talking about: combat that made sense wrapped up in a believable world where gutting a man on the street was murder, characters didn’t try to sleep with every party member, and being an adventurer and leaving your mundane life behind was reason enough to play.

To get a better sense of what this game was like watch this 10 minute clip. It brings back a lot of memories of late night adventuring and missed Sociology exams.

Crysis 2 in Review (360 Version)

Crysis 2, Crytek’s follow-up to their 2007 graphics card-melter is both a technical achievement as well as an amazing piece of gameplay design that boasts a level of tactical and exploratory freedom uncommon among post-Call of Duty shooters. While playing through the game, I almost felt as if the German developers took out a sheet of paper, wrote “What’s Wrong with First Person Shooters Today” and made a checklist of things to avoid in their game and used that as a design document. The result is a truly spectacular example of the genre that may not always hit the level of perfection strived for or the level of innovation aimed at, but it remains a thrilling and forward-thinking game at a time when the genre is desperate need of new direction.

Ironically Crysis 2 moves forward by looking backward, offering a return to the free-roaming, more open-ended gameplay of earlier shooters, due most likely to the developer’s roots as a PC developer. Unlike the current shooter model which is focused on extremely rigid, linear progression with Hogan’s Alley-like shooting segments bookended by set pieces, quicktime events, or cutscenes, the game presents the player with a tactical situation and lets them decide how they want to approach it. At several points during the campaign, you’ll come across observation points and the suit’s inhuman, internal voice will announce that options are available. Flip on the tactical visor, and you can survey the situation, marking enemies on patrol or setting waypoints for optional objectives. These objectives are classified by their utility- “Snipe”, “Destroy”, “Avoid”, “Resupply”, and so forth.

A plan of attack might mean that you go into stealth mode and sneak around, using silenced weapons for a low-profile assault. Or you might tag a climbable ledge which leads to a mounted heavy machine gun. If you’re feeling tough you can toggle the Maximum Armor boost and go in with guns blazing. On a single playthrough, it’s entirely possible to completely miss areas of each section of the game simply by bypassing them based on your decisions.

This kind of freedom can be exhilarating. There was one point early in the game where I was trying to make it into this waterfront lab. I assumed that an invisible wall would stop me from jumping off a pier and swimming around to flank the guards. But I was able to do exactly that, after trying a couple of other unsuccessful approaches. Be warned that on the console version, at least, that the checkpointing can sometimes mean that you’ll have to replay ten or fifteen minute sections if your plan goes awry. It’s usually worth it though. The thrill of overcoming the odds and besting difficult situations feels empowering and is always exciting in a way that simply shooting bad guys is not.

The Nanosuit, with its upgradable abilities and super-human advantages, is key in creating this sense of freedom and power. Much like Arkham Asylum’s conveyance of empowerment and prowess, the suit makes the player feel like a total badass and learning to use its tools effectively is a chief gameplay concept. The abilities include some really neat concepts like a device that traces bullet paths so you can determine where an enemy is and a unit that tracks enemy walking paths. There are four upgrade categories with three selections each, and it’s entirely up to the player as to which items to purchase and equip throughout the game. The suit’s energy level is a constant reminder that power is not limitless and managing resources wisely is a critical directive.

Unlike other shooters where you may often feel like a pair of hands and a gun on a roller skate, in Crysis 2 the player is always aware of their presence in the world as a guy in a super-powered suit of armor. I’m reminded of Metroid Prime and how simple effects like the reflection of Samus’ face in the visor put the player squarely in the game as a participant and not an observer. The game never breaks the illusion- outside of a standard pause menu, all upgrading and cut scenes are presented from the player’s in-helmet viewpoint. This really sells the suit’s power as well as its impact on the game world particularly when the suit breaks down or control is taken away from the player.

As for the game world, there has never been a better depiction of New York City in gaming, period. This is also one of the major reasons why I am head over heels in love with this game, because I love Manhattan. No, they’ve not gone so far as to render a Duane Reade on every corner and I still can’t find a Ray’s anywhere, but Crytek has completely nailed the look, feel, and most importantly the scope of the city. The architecture, which mixes old with new, is dead on and I don’t know that I’ve ever played a game in an urban setting where I’ve felt like the buildings around me were literally skyscrapers built to scale. Parks, subways, churches, convenience stores, office buildings, and other locations provide more variety than you might expect.

As beautifully as New York is rendered, what is perhaps more amazing is how fabulously Crytek has destroyed it. The vistas of Armageddon are sometimes breathtaking, with city streets crumbling into subterranean tunnels and skyscrapers collapsing into areas you’ve just passed through. In one level, a multi-level freeway collapses around you leading into a spectacular firefight in a cloud of dust. I’ve been truly blown away time and time again by the sheer scale of the game. There is also a definite sense of size and place.

The work done with Cryengine 3 that enables all of this is truly remarkable, and reports that this is the best looking game yet might be hyperbolic, but they’re not that far from the truth. I don’t have an ultra-high end PC so I can’t comment on that version’s visuals, but I’m stunned at the results the team has accomplished on the aging 360 hardware. Metals gleam, light refracts, and water actually looks like water instead of a viscous gel for a change. Fire and smoke are photorealistic and completely 3D- a very arresting effect when you see a jet of flame pouring out of a broken gas line.

The game seems to run- and don’t quote me on this- around 24 FPS. That may cause some to panic, but bear in mind that feature films shot on film stock are 24 FPS. Crytek has wisely added a slight grain effect coupled with some judicious blurring and the result is actually a very filmic look. It may not be the extremely high resolution, crystalline sheen that a PC running full-bore might be able to produce, but its effective and it looks great on a 1080p television.

With that said, it is clear that compromises were made and you can practically hear the console’s GPU protesting during some sequences. Pop-in is a sometimes major issue. There was one point where a barrier popped in right in front of me, and there are other times when textures are very delayed in loading, thus breaking the game’s immersion. There are also some glitches, the most obvious occurring when enemies will caught in objects or sometimes walk straight through them.

As for the story, it’s somewhat confusing and not particularly great compared to other story-focused shooters but it’s also several cuts above the usual juvenile Bungie or Infinity Ward/Treyarch offerings. Enemies aren’t terribly diverse and it plows the same commandos/aliens plot that Half-Life and other games have mined to great success so it’s hardly groundbreaking in that regard. Despite its near-miss in the storytelling department, there is a compelling twist present given the events of the game and what happens to its central character. But truth told the concept of fighting through a ravaging Manhattan is sometimes enough to drive the uniformly excellent game play so it’s not a tremendous fault.

Multiplayer is outstanding. Just as the suit empowers the player in the campaign, it also imparts a sense of ability, agility, and prowess in the online game. It combines the more acrobatic, looser feel of Halo with the on-the-ground heft of Killzone but with the addition of tons of upgrades and unlocks that offer limitless loadout options. Game modes are fairly standard with objective-based options offering the best combination of action, teamwork, and strategy. I wasn’t impressed by the early multiplayer demos, but after playing the full version it has become my online shooter of choice. It’s just so well done, and the scoring and reward system is among the best on the market.

After the disaster that was Homefront, I was sure that I would be returning to Killzone 3 but after playing Crysis 2, my career in that game has been put on hiatus. Between the replayable and frequently stunning campaign gameplay and the longevity promised by the extremely fun multiplayer, it has become the top shooter on my stack of games edging out last year’s masterful Metro 2033 only by virtue of greater replayability. It’s made me wish that it was Crysis 3 that the punters will be scrambling for come November instead of whatever Call of Duty game comes next. But I’d really rather see Crytek take another couple of years to work and grace our next-generation consoles with the kind of future game that this one seems to point the way toward.

Brad Wardell Talks Impulse Sale

No High Scores

Joystiq has a nice sit down with Brad Wardell over the recently announced sale of digital distribution site Impulse to packaged software behemoth GameStop. From what Wardell is saying, Impulse simply got too big to be something he wanted to stay involved with. Two major questions, namely whether there would be any layoffs from the sale, and whether Stardock games would be available via other means are answered. I’ll give you a hint, the answer is not “yes”. I give Wardell a lot of credit here. It would have been easy to hold on to Impulse and keep raking in the cash, possibly at the expense of Stardock’s success and a lot of companies probably would do just that.

Stardock’s Brad Wardell talks about selling Impulse to GameStop – Joystiq

New The Lord of the Rings: War in the North Trailer

The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is not your father’s LOTR game. No pipe weed smoking halflings here, no sir. There are a lot of limbs flying around and heads rolling about, though. Developed by Snowblind (The Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance people) this looks bloody as all get out.

Now I have no earthly idea if this will be good or not and I am certainly going to play it, but the idea that this “is truer to Tolkien’s vision” I’m going to lean to the “I really doubt that” side of the debate.

“When you hit an enemy in the head that head is gone! That’s a home run hit!”

I think that line was in The Silmarillion.

Joking aside, the combat looks entertaining, but I’d like to know more about the actual game. You might be thinking, “But Bill, don’t you work in the gaming media?” Why yes, yes I do. But you see this is a Warner Bros. game and, well, there’s a funny story there that hopefully one day Brandon will share with you.

Madden Creator Suing EA for Billions

No High Scores

In 1986 Robin Antonick signed a development contract with EA for his work writing the code for the original release of John Madden football. His work, cribbed together from coding expertise and knowledge of how Madden called plays based on certain situations, was completed in the late 80′s as he sat several cubicles down from EA founder Trip Hawkins. Fast forward over 20 years and Antonick is now suing EA for billions of dollars claiming that the current Madden games still count as the derivative works that would entitle him to royalties per his contract. The complaint mentions that he became aware of the fact that his code is still being used when EA touted the 20th anniversary of Madden, which implies, at least to Antonick, that his code is still somewhere in the bowels of Madden’s current incarnations. Personally, I think that’s a bit of a stretch and someone is confusing marketing materials with technical reality. Apparently EA and Antonick did enter into settlement talks at one point, but I’m thinking they didn’t get very far. Or this guy is looking to speed things up. Either way, it should be interesting.

Seen at the Hollywood Reporter.

Skyrim Interview

IGN has interviewed Todd Howard of Bethesda about the upcoming Skyrim RPG. There’s some good nuggets in here about how conversations happen in real time and not in a different mode, some bits on auto leveling, along with some odd questions like “How many dragons are there?”

It’s worth a read–and to clear up the multiplayer question:

Todd Howard: The two most requested features we get are dragons and multiplayer. We got one of them this time! We always look into multiplayer, put lots of ideas on the whiteboard, and it always loses. It’s not that we don’t like it. I can think of ways it would be a lot of fun, but at the end of the day, that dev time is going to take away from doing the best single player game we can, and that’s where our hearts are.

Platinum Games Calls Out Japan

No High Scores

Platinum Games, makers of such great games as MadWorld, Bayonetta and Vanquish just took the Japanese gaming industry out behind the woodshed. In an open letter posted on their site, Platinum President and CEO Tatsuya Minami decried what he sees as a lack of “fresh surprises” in the Japanese gaming industry and pledges to turn Platinum into “The Japanese Standard Bearer in Global Competition.”

Game developers calling out other devs is nothing new as we’ve seen these past weeks with Rovio and David Cage, however in this situation, if anyone could call out Japanese developers for their lack of original ideas, Platinum would be the one. Love them or hate them, their games are bursting with originality, sometimes to the point of being painful. They have no doubt lost some sales in the process, but I think it’s great that rather than turning away from what they consider to be their strongest suit, they’re digging in and vowing to continue doing what they set out to. Bravo Platinum.

Announcing “Platinum Next” at Platinumgames.com

Telltale Announces Back to the Future Episode 1 is Free

Telltale announced today that the first episode for its adventure game Back to the Future is now 100% free. Woo Free Stuff!

You can grab your free episode for PC or Mac right here: http://www.telltalegames.com/bttf

A brief press announcement follows:

Marty McFly and Doc Brown’s adventures continue in the game, with a completely new story created in collaboration with the film trilogy’s co-creator and co-writer Bob Gale. In Episode 1 “It’s About Time,” Marty is just getting re-acquainted with the 1980′s when he finds out that Doc Brown is trapped somewhere in the past; and that he must travel back in time to save the Doc’s future! The story continues over 5 episodes, with new games releasing monthly. The third episode, “Citizen Brown,” released for PC and Mac earlier this week. After getting a taste of the first game, players can then get the full 5-game series for $24.99. This isn’t an April Fool’s gimmick or prank! And we’re not setting an expiration or cut off date for this free game availability!

Saints Row 3 Trailer

If I am going to be completely honest, and I always try to be that, I think this is a great trailer.

Yes, I’m 12.