Thursday, February 19, 2009

Old Lady Simulator

This is one of those games that makes you think. "The Graveyard" is a short shareware game that suggests old people have more going on upstairs than we think. This game is good looking and great sounding. As it also rewards kicking back, I suggest you check out the trail version. Games are Art!

The Graveyard Homepage

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

World of Goo Review

The good people over at have posted my World of Goo write up. Check it out.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Mount and Blade Review

Mount and Blade (MB) is one of the few non-fantasy medieval games I've come across. In it you can play as the leader of a mercenary band, a merchant, or a vassal to a king. MB is the open ended flagship title of Tale Worlds, a independent game developer. The game has been in various semi released beta versions over the years, finally hitting 1.0 in late '08. As a result of its unusual development cycle, MB already has a longstanding community of players and modders. It may have won a cult following, but does this open ended, over the shoulder game deserve your attention?

MB is an action RPG, with a heavy emphasis on the action. It delivers a much greater degree of control than gamers have seen in a long time. The player controls melee attacks based on the cursors relationship to enemies. For example; by aiming a melee attack above your foes head, you implement a chopping type of strike. Blocking with a weapon uses the same system. It's one of few melee combat systems that requires skill. Learning to interact with the world map is not well explained. It is fortunately, fairly intuitive. So seasoned gamers will have no trouble.

During your time with MB you'll escort merchants, transport trade goods, act as a bounty hunter, and pillage towns. A big part of this game's appeal is its sandbox approach to game play, its intentional lack of structure. You're dropped into a huge world with no quests, alliances, and little in the way of direction. Wars are being waged, cities are besieged, trade caravans traverse the map, all in utter indifference to you. What the player does in MB is up to him, there's no storyline and no evil doer. It's refreshing.

MB sounds good. When riding a horse you hear its hooves beating the ground. Towns sound alive with well done ambient noise. The musical scores are beautiful, perfectly fitting the game world. Battles are alive with the clash of swords, and the death cries of friend, foe, and beast. Arrows shriek through the air. Very rarely does a sound repeat too often. Like most RPG's the "level up" noise quickly becomes dear.

MB will appeal most to a certain type of gamer. Those who enjoy being part of a world, rather than its focus, are most likely to have fun. Any gamer will enjoy the directional melee controls, challenging archery, and engaging mounted combat. Some aspects of this title are missing the level of polish gamers have come to expect, but that omission does not condemn it. MB is what a game should be: ridiculous amounts of fun.

The old adage "Don't judge a book by its cover," holds true here. The cities and towns can feel unfinished, the world map is merely utilitarian. Lighting effects are lackluster and many objects look crude. None of that matters when you're on your horse riding down enemy infantrymen. There are areas that have received more attention, and those spots are beautiful. Smoke rising from fire shifts in the wind, ragdoll effects are applied to all combatants (including horses). Mud is kicked up when riding your horse in rain. The graphics engine is good enough. Hand designing such a massive game world must have been a enormous task, but I hope the upcoming expansion addresses the sore spots.

MB is a game of choice. I have now played as an archer, mounted knight, and cowardly merchant. All of these character types were well balanced, and the game is designed to allow a great many play styles. You can ally yourself with any kingdom, and each kingdom provides different troop types. It is also possible to remain an independent adventurer. I found roaming the world's cities, and fighting in tournaments unnaturally addictive. The game has unlimited quests, so work is always available. A dedicated modding community (encouraged by Tale Worlds) adds even more replayability.

Games like MB don't come along very often. Many who try the demo can't help but fall under its spell. With a good RPG system, ingenious combat mechanics, and inspired sandbox design, it's easy to recommend. That MB lacks polish might discourage some, but those who try it will find it has nearly perfect game play fundamentals.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Urban Terror Review

Urban Terror (UT) is a free multiplayer first person shooter. Starting its life as a Quake III: Arena mod back in the year 2000, it is still going strong. Now a stand alone game, UT has a legion of dedicated fans, admiration in the modding community, and recognition in competitive gaming leagues. The game is unique in that people can jump from roof to roof, power slide down stairs, take brutal amounts of damage, and yet it all feels... believable. That said, UT has gotten very little recent mainstream press. Does UT deserve your attention, or is it a fugitive from gaming's past?

UT does the team based shooter genre well. The reds are locked in war with the blues. Matches revolve around these two teams killing each other, stealing each others flag, and occasionally blowing stuff up with C4. This is nothing new. The addition of a stamina bar, trick jumps, and intuitive controls makes for good gaming. Players define their gear load outs, choosing from a variety of pistols, rifles, machine guns and grenades. Body armor, medical kits, and other accessories are also available and seriously impact game play. Gear load outs also effect stamina use, meaning a machine gunner with full body armor is not very nimble. Wounds bleed until bandaged, adding a new consideration to game pacing. It would be nice to see more end of match statistics, such as MVP and most head shots at the end of a round.

Things sound good in UT. Bullets ricochet convincingly and impact flesh with a sound best described as satisfying. Weapons are acoustically believable. Nothing beats the effect of being yourself shot, starting to limp, and hearing your own labored breathe as you beat a retreat. Even the sound of tape when using the medical kit fits in. The general rule of thumb for sound effects is that they feel natural and unobtrusive. I have the feeling that any abrasive sounds where weeded out years ago.

This is a game you come back to. Once you learn to wall jump and power slide, you're compelled to try and master the art. UT is a hugely competitive game. With a large and growing community dating back to the year 2000, there's a respectable number of skilled players. This means you can always find a challenge. As an actively developed game, UT is always looking forward to improvement. A productive community of level designers also provides new maps.

From the get go, UT is easy to get into. The majority of servers offer instant re-spawn modes, so even those new to the genre avoid frustration. Smoke and high explosive grenades are used often, but almost never in detriment to the fun factor. Most maps have sniper strong points, and the bright colors of character models make camping a difficult proposition. Maps offering unfair advantages exist, but usually do not attract server populations. Ignoring the underpowered shotgun, weapons are well balanced, with appropriate rate of fire / damage ratios. Doing borderline parkour while engaging in gun play is serious fun.

UT has only one real shortcoming. Visually it is noticeably outdated. A product of the prolific Quake III engine, it has largely been ignored by today's masses of graphics obsessed gamers. And that is tragic, because this game deserves more attention. Those who don't mind the lack of sexy lighting effects, insane polygon counts, and rag dolls will be richly rewarded. UT does have blood splatter on walls, effective smoke grenades, and solid character models. Characters are well animated, considering the insane variety of player moves.

UT is a game that has aged well. For those gamers who can look past dated graphics, you'll find the joy of free running while smearing your enemy's blood across the wall is palpable. The nuanced, popular, urban maps are a nice change of pace. Finding a match is easy in the extreme, with a huge amount of servers hosted internationally. And the usually rouges gallery of hackers and campers is surprisingly absent. The player community is helpful, and its all free. You owe it to yourself to give this game a shot.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Runes of Magic Beta Impressions

Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (mmorpg's) have always had to contend with a pitfall called the "grind". The grind is what we call endless monster slaying, farming, or any other mindless game play that only serves to level your character. In addition, mmorpg's have to contend with a sizable portion of gamers who don't play often enough to justify monthly subscriptions fee's, and the hugely dedicated fan bases of games like World of Warcraft. Some free-to-play mmo's now seem poised to tackle these issue. Runes of Magic (RoM) claims to be one of this new wave of titles. Does RoM avoid the pitfalls of the grind and can it appeal to a wide enough a range of gamers, or is it doomed to a quiet and lonely death?

Graphically RoM is surprisingly good. Human character models are nice and creatures look decent. Spell effects are a high point, with molten balls of plasma exploding into flames on impact. The art direction is strange, best described as squeaky clean medieval fantasy. The world is still under construction, but it is odd walking through it and seeing a scene of such Utopian perfection. Even World of Warcraft with its bright color pallet has re-animated corpses walking about.

Good audio draws you into a game, but right now the sound pushes you back into real life. The musical scores are solid high fantasy fare, but they cut in and out much to abruptly. Attacks and spell sounds are still works in progress. The major complaint is the near total lack of ambient noise. In a forest you should hear birds singing, wolves howling, and running water. A dungeon should ring with the primal shrieks of it inhabitants. It is in beta, so these issues are hopefully going to be resolved before the official release.

A mmorpg must be re-playable, as they are supported by periodic and not one time fee's. In RoM it is not monthly fee's you pay, but much smaller transactions like renting horses or buying inventory spaces. These mini-fee's are not required, you can have fun with the items you earn in game. There is a lot to do, unfortunately it mostly boils down to killing some amount of these creatures, or simply acting as a courier. RoM is not alone, most mmorpg's do this, but these types of quests get old quick. Ultimately the repetition started to wear thin before I was tempted to spend real money.

The game is pretty well balanced. No matter your character type, you'll be able to do some pretty substantial soloing. Most necessary items are affordable with your in game gold. Some creatures become easy very quickly, others remain challenging for multiple levels. Completed quests are rewarded with experience points, gold, and gear. Party's form near the most difficult area's, and there is a decent variety of in game player types. Warrior, Mage and Priests players abound. You'll get the impression the developers are paying attention to player feedback.

In character creation you choose gender, class, appearance and the name of you're adventurer. There is an optional tutorial that covers basic movement and controls. When you dive into the game you can immediately start hacking at evil mushroom men (no rats here!). Sadly, once you start farming resources and hacking assorted woodland creatures, you never really stop. The game does try to set itself apart by offering dual classing and player housing, but it does not really add much fun to the mix.

Most most games strive for ease of use and intuitive controls, however RoM is not yet user friendly. While most aspects of the interface are customizable, the default settings will probably drive off many prospective players. You can auto-travel using your quest log, which is nice. Another appreciated feature is a straight forward opt in dueling system; its good fun killing your party members while you wait for that boss to re-spawn.

In order to compete with the big boys, a new mmorpg has to be innovative in the extreme, or do the classic genre features better than the rest. Runes of Magic is shaping up to be a good game, just not in the same league as the conventional mmorpg's. For a free-to-play mmorpg still in beta testing, it is impressive. My in game time was mostly enjoyable and crash free. The player community is helpful, which bodes well for the games future. A lot of the criticisms presented here are pretty much normal symptoms of an ongoing beta test. The developers have their work cut out in preparation of the mid March release date. The grind still sucks, but at least now I don't have to pay for it.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Cross Fire Beta Impressions

Competence. It’s something that's often lacking in free-to-play-games: maybe the game is buggy or poorly balanced, maybe the networking code sucks or you cant find a hosted match. But, Cross Fire is surprisingly free of those issues. For the many who don't know this title, Cross Fire is a multi-player, team-based, first person shooter currently in open beta. Its one of the anonymous many online only imported titles from the far east. You run around urban environments, planting and defusing bombs, shooting other people (bloodlessly), and in general reenacting the original Counter Strike mod. It’s done well, it’s technically sound, and it even tries to mix things up a bit. I like this sort of game. There's teamwork, animosity, and the good old headshot. The question is: does Cross Fire do enough to differentiate itself from its many, many team-based predecessors?

The story is non-existent. Both teams are composed of mercenaries working for unnamed third parties, one more evil than the other, but they both kill for money. I usually like moral ambiguity in games, but the fact that in Counter Strike you have Terrorists on one side and Counter Terrorists on the other, somehow adds gravity to the situation. That's part of the fun, isn't it? You end up feeling that Cross Fire is missing soul, and I've got a gut feeling someone’s public relations department is responsible. Nobody wants their kids playing as terrorists, and blood could offend a certain type of backseat gamer.

The controls and game play are going to be familiar to any gaming veteran. You move using the "WASD" combo, press "E" to defuse bombs, and so on down the line. The game play consists of the normal modes: Team Death Match, Search and Destroy (defuse the bomb), and Elimination, as well as a creative new mode: Ghost Match. Ghost matches pit a team of visible mercenaries against invisible ones, and it’s actually pretty good fun. Sadly, Ghost mode is not very popular. Another genre standard, buying weapons and gear between rounds at an in-game shop, is Cross Fire's bread and butter. The currency is earned by performance in game and through cold, hard cash in real life, but I haven't spent a buck and don't feel disadvantaged. I've actually started looking forward to that hard-earned semi-automatic machine gun coming my way. And of course seeing the word "Revenge!" flash across the screen when you've avenged yourself upon a previous foe is a very nice touch.

The graphics are satisfactory. Nothing exciting here; the game looks a lot like the forgotten Counter Strike: Zero Release, but rendered on modern hardware. In-game characters are familiar too, the movement animations decent, and old-fashioned pre-animated deaths make an appearance, rather than the physics-backed rag dolls we now take for granted. Cross Fire is so involving that after a few rounds you forget it's graphically dated. The sound is similarly standard, guns sounds like guns, grenades go boom, and your heart beats when you take damage.

As you play, you start to realize Cross Fire is a game designed by the book. Everything from sound to controls and game play are only slightly different from the endless stream of Counter Strike clones. It mostly follows the almost textbook standards of the genre. That said; let’s remember that this is not the finished product. This is an open beta, and this reviewer did not fund the usual shortcomings common in most open betas. Everything about the game is at least “Good,” but very little new ground is broken. For a free-to-play, item-shop supported game, I've been happily surprised. I look forward to seeing what changes and improvements are made as the beta period comes to an end.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

I'm like you. I've spent $60 on game titles, and I've done it way to many times. The goal of this little project is to track down worthwhile free/cheap games, play them, then try and get you to do the same. I'm hoping to post weekly reviews.