Saturday, February 13, 2010

Bargain Shopping: Mount and Blade

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For those of you that wait to buy games when they are incredibly cheap, I would suggest firing up Steam and getting Mount & Blade which is on sale for just $4.99 this weekend. The game is pretty fun; you take on the role of an adventurer in a purely medieval setting (no fantasy, no magic) and build up an army. You can serve a nation, siege castles, trade, and fight in a tourney! I remember getting this game about six years ago (man I'm getting old :P) and I would play it for hours on end.

Grab a copy or check out the game: Mount & Blade on Steam

Monday, June 22, 2009

Review: GOG.com

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I realize that it has been awhile (ten days) since I last made a post, but I have an excuse! Ah, who am I kidding? I got lazy this last week and spent the weekend celebrating my birthday. I had a small little get-together with my college roommate and my Dad. We didn't do much but the home cooked meals were a nice reprieve from the processed foods I usually resolve myself to consume. Anyway, that all is neither here nor there: let's get started with the review.

For this review I shall review a game retailing service, GOG.com. Good Old Games, or GOG, specializes in, you guessed it, good old games. The inventory on GOG's website is older titles that are generally hard to find on store shelves anymore, with some of their titles dating back to the early '90s. However, GOG definition of "old" is debatable; some of the games on the site are from 2005 & 2006, not quite "old" if you ask me but I'm not really complaining. In fact, having new titles on the site just strengthens it. That's because GOG has three and only three price points: $9.99, $5.99, and free. So games that once cost upwards of $40 are now only ten bucks. As if the low cost wasn't enough, all the games on GOG are DRM-free and XP/Vista compatible (presumably Windows 7 will be added to the list, when it launches, as well).

The site has quite a catalog and they are continuing to add titles, sometimes they list the games as "coming soon" but other times they surprise you with new games out of the blue. They also have a fairly good genre representation in their catalog (with racing and sports games being the exception). When viewing the list of games on their site, you can filter listings by genre, rating, price, as well as the original publisher and developer. The list can also be sorted alphabetically, by rating, or by the date it was added to GOG. Additional sort options that would be helpful would be price (although you could just open different windows/tabs for each price point by filtering on them) and the original release date, though these are not necessary or even critical options.

Additional features on the site are a rather standard support system that allows you to select the problem game from a list of the games you own and a general description of the problem along with a space for a subject and message, file attachments, and a place to attach a DxDiag report or manually type in your system configuration. Perhaps one of the most interesting and useful features on the site is the community section: bulletin boards separated by the series of games their about. The community is pretty friendly and if the games you own on GOG have any good mods their will usually be a stickied thread that will tell you about them.

Out of all the features on the site, the best feature is the purchase and downloading system. It goes without saying that this service is present (otherwise what would be the point of the site) but it really seems well-designed and easy to use. After purchasing a game, it appears in the list of games on your account page. From there, you can download the game using your web browser, or add the title to a download queue. GOG has released a small downloading app (using Adobe AIR) that will then download the game and has the ability to pause and restart downloads. Not only is the downloading easy but you are not limited on how often you can download your games, nor do you have to download them within a certain amount of time after purchase; when you buy a game you will always (as long as GOG is in business) be able to download that game.

Among the many other joys of GOG is the extras that usually come along with each game. Most games include separate downloads for manuals, wallpaper, forum avatars, artwork packs, and, my favorite, soundtracks. Perhaps the best example of these goodies would be the original Fallout. The game comes with the manual, an artwork pack, two avatar packs, two soundtracks (in-game and original), the design bible, a reference card, and two wallpaper packs.

However, the service is not without flaws. Perhaps the biggest flaw that I see with the service is that the ratings of the games are almost always skewed toward five stars (out of a possible five). I am not accusing GOG of doctoring the ratings for the games, the phenomenon is most likely caused by people buying games they're already interested in and rating them highly. When I'm shopping this requires me to check a different site for reviews. This isn't really a problem that the GOG staff can address (otherwise they would rightfully be accused of rigging the ratings) but it is something that potential shoppers should be aware of. Also, like most online retailers, GOG emails order summaries after a purchase has been made. However, these summaries do not currently list any discounts that were applied (from weekend sales for instance). So if you look at the summary a few months or years later you may be wondering why two $10 games totaled $15.

The flaws that GOG has are very minuscule and, as the service is still only in Beta, will most likely be fixed in the near future. The service, as a whole, is one of the easiest and cheapest out there. The lack of DRM gives the service a big plus. You can download and install the games you own on as many computers as you like. Plus, the selection on the site is pretty good. All in all, I would heartily recommend GOG to any fellow gamer.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Review: Mass Effect (PC)

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Ah, my first review, let's start. Mass Effect is the action RPG created and developed by Bioware and ported to PC by Demiurge Studios. A classic space opera, Mass Effect tells the story of Commander Shepard, who explores the galaxy, becomes entangled in galactic politics, and (of course) uncovers a plot to destroy the galaxy. What follows is a mixture of excitement and pleasantness (and not necessarily the good kind of pleasantness).

You begin as the XO (executive officer, second-in-command) of the Normandy, a hybrid vessel made by the Alliance (the global government of Earth) and the Turians (humanity's first space-borne enemy). The ship is not a front line fighter; instead, it has the ability to trap the heat it would normally emit as a form of stealth, not to mention it is the fastest ship in the Alliance fleet. Your first mission, the tutorial, is fairly good. It allows you to explore the mechanics of the game in relative safety and comfort, then provides you with a nice test of your skills at the end. For the tutorial mission, you and two other soldiers are sent to a planet called Eden Prime, one of Earth's first colonies, to investigate a message sent by forces stationed there. While planet-side, you stumble across a Spectre, an elite soldier that operates above the law and is answerable only to the citadel, the galactic government apparent. While seeing a Spectre is a rare event in itself, it is what that Spectre does that really thickens the plot. But to reveal that would spoil the story for those who haven't yet played the game.

Eventually, you become the first human Spectre and are given command of the Normandy. You are tasked by the Citadel council to stop the plot to destroy the galaxy. In your journeys you come across others that are willing to assist you on your quest mission. The characters you find are all interesting and unique. They have their own perspectives and motives for helping you. Which, perhaps, makes it all the more disappointing when they only seem interested in talking to you, it is only when you are riding an elevator that you even have a chance of seeing them talk with each other. In some ways it makes the game easier because you don't have to worry about figuring out which characters like working best with the others, but it also makes them seem somewhat artificial. Not only do the characters seem to ignore everything except you and the things they help you shoot at, but you never have to worry about them leaving because they disagree with you. There is only one moment, near the end of the game, where you have a possibility of losing one of the characters.

Another benefit of pursuing your mission (and having your own ship to do it in) is that you can explore the entire galaxy. You simply select a cluster, then a system, then a planet within that system (however, there is only ever one planet you can actually land on, the others give you resources and quest items). It is at this point that the aforementioned pleasantness sets in. After you pick a team (of two other characters) you land planet-side to find a bleak, rough, jagged environment, always. None of the planets not in the main quest line have any sort of design to them. To me, it seemed as if the developers just fired up a program that spit out random height maps, picked a color for the ground to be, then decided on a name for the place. That isn't to say the planet exploration is boring, there is always a quest to do and loot to find, but after climbing your 200th cliff face in the MAKO (the all-terrain tank your ship comes with), the experience changes from mildly entertaining distraction in tedium. To make matters worse, some of the quests are rather boring, the kind of quests you find strewn all over most MMOs: go to a place and kill the thing that is there. Sometimes you can use your conversation skills to change the outcome, but the experience feels just as hollow. Admittedly though, the experience still manages to be pleasant, if not fun at times. When a thresher maw (a giant worm-like creature that pops up out of the ground) attacks or you find hostile targets on the mini-map things get exciting again. Don't get me wrong, I love exploring, but it just doesn't really feel like exploring when the planets all look the same with just a different color painted on.

Contrasting the dull, cookie-cutter side quest planets, are the luxuriously detailed planets of the main quest line. These planets are expansive, have more than one quest to do, and feel genuinely unique. Although they are not as vibrant or as quest filled as the Citadel, which acts as your home away from home, they an example of the quality that the side quest planets should be close to.

Overall though the game is good. The combat, which, in my opinion is one of the best features of the game, never feels clunky or unfair. The cover system works well and the abilities usable in combat add the right amount of variety, tactics, and fun. While other reviewers complained about the conversation wheel (which only shows the idea behind what your character will say), I only found one or two places where I felt that the wheel lied or misrepresented what I wanted. Regarding the achievements, they met two of my rules for acceptable achievements:
  1. They didn't encourage time wasting
  2. They give in-game benefits
Whether it be more damage, better health, or faster XP gain, almost all of the achievements had something to offer.

To conclude, those who have not played the game should. In spite of its failings, Mass Effect is still a fun game to play. The story, when you are following it and not doing side quests, is gripping and makes you feel important. The side quests for me were still fun enough to keep me playing the game and finishing them (that could be because I have a completionist disorder but we'll give the quests the benefit of the doubt). Final verdict: worth a play through.

I would like to note that if this post is of poor quality or it has obvious errors that it is most likely attributable to my lack of sleep (I have been awake for 24+ hours now). That being said feel free to comment regarding my errors, your impressions of this review, or your thoughts on Mass Effect.

Achievement Unlocked: Started a Blog

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Excellent, another achievement to cherish for the moment and forget the next moment. I was planning on writing a little essay about what I was planning on doing with this blog but I think I will just start out with a diatribe against achievements >:)

Perhaps one of the most strange trends ever: while playing your recenlty purchased gem of gaming goodness you do something heroic/brave/incredible and while you would think that the [insert loot item name here] would be a good enough reward, a little box pops up on your screen informing you of your awesomeness. Is it just me or wasn't the [loot item name] a good enough reward? It is almost insulting--condescending even--to have someone else have to tell you that you did a good job.

What becomes even worse is when the achievements stop becoming achievements. Exempli gratia, Half-Life 2 Episode 2 has an achievement called "Get Some Grub." What does one have to do to "earn" this "achievement?" Squish all of the antlion grub (read: larva) in the game, all 333 of them. Others may disagree but to me this does not seem like an achievement, it seems to be a big waste of time. There is no real reward, no in-game benefit for this genocidal, larval killing rampage (actually, that kind of makes it sound fun); the only reward is another achievement in the profile.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't hate all achievements (just most). I think that when achievements are rewards in and of themselves--a la Mass Effect's achievements that gave in-game benefits--they seem more worthwhile. Maybe it's just me, but when I just took down the toughest monster in the game why does the developer need to explicitly tell me that I did that? Shouldn't the game itself make me feel that what I did was an achievement? Truth be told, achievements don't really bug me; sometimes they do give you a goal to work towards. But I fear that, if developers do not exercise caution, achievements could mutate and grow into this corruption of gaming that changes the purpose of playing games: to have fun. While gamers are searching the antlion caves trying to find every last little grub, are they really having fun? Is it worthwhile to spend your precious time looking for affirmation from a little box that has the word "achievement" in it? The bottom line: games should be a fun exercise on their own. You should always feel that the reason you are playing and working to defeat the challenges you are presented with is because you care about the story, the character you're playing, or you just want to show off your gaming skill. You should never feel like you are spending time, working towards this artificial reward (ironic, coming from a game player).

Woah, that was quite the rant. Well, hopefully any readers that chance upon this will forgive the verbosity and stick around to read more. Or, for those so inclined, you can leave a comment highlighting my stupidity and ignorance of the internal motives of gamers :P