Friday, December 31, 2010

xboxdrv 0.6.2 released

  • merged Xbox360 guitar handling into the regular Xbox360 controller handling, use --guitar to get the old mapping back
  • added generic event filter framework
  • added toggle button filter
  • added invert button filter
  • added auto fire button filter
  • added log filter for button and axis
  • added invert axis filter
  • added sensitivity axis filter
  • added relative axis filter
  • added response curve axis filter
  • added deadzone axis filter
  • added calibration axis filter
  • added ability to send different events depending on how long a button was pressed
  • added ability to launch a program on button press
  • added ability to replay a macro on a button press
  • added ability to launch a child program from within xboxdrv, making wrapper scripts easier to write without race conditions
  • added --option NAME=VALUE to allow INI-style config options from command line
  • added --evdev-debug to print out all received events from evdev
  • added --evdev-no-grab to avoid a full grab on the event device
  • unified ini and command line parsing some more
  • Mad Catz Xbox controller - MW2 controller support added
  • added support for Xbox1 analog buttons, use --ui-axismap with A, B, X, Y, black, white
  • give proper error message when the Play&Charge kit is used

Monday, December 27, 2010

Review: The Void (PC)

The Void was developed by Ice-Pick Lodge and originally released 2008 in Russia followed by an international release in 2009. The game is probably best described as an resource management action-adventure with a heavy focus on artistic expression. While the game shares elements with games like Myst or Flower, it really is quite a different beast.

The game puts the player into a role of a lost soul that hangs somewhere between life and death in a place called the Void. The players tasks is it to collect color that grows the Void and then use it to fight enemies or unlock further areas with the ultimate goal to escape the Void.

Game Mechanics

The game is split into two parts. One is an overworld map on which one travels from realm to realm, this is somewhat reminiscent of games such as Super Mario Bros 3. The other part are the realms themselves, these are small self containing locations through which one navigates in first person view with regular first person controls. Gameplay in those areas is mostly focused on exploration and collecting colors, while enemies are sometimes present in those areas, they aren't the core focus and for most part it is best to simply avoid them instead of fighting. What makes The Void "special" is the way in which color is handled. Color is neither an ever growing resource or a collectible, instead it is a very rare resource that has to be managed by the player with care and that is required for all basic actions in the game. Color builds both the basis for the players survival, as it becomes essentially your lifebar as well as your ammunition when it comes to fighting enemies. Color comes in two forms, the unprocessed Lympha that one can carry around or use in ones hearts to keep one alive and the processes Nerva that is used as fuel for your glyph drawing. Nerva in the hearts get automatically converted into Lympha when on the worldmap, which has the side effect of constantly draining your life energy. Keeping a healthy balance between Lympha and Nerva is one of the core aspects of the game. By filling trees with color the player is able to grow the amount of color available, but as trees only return color at the end of an cycle, the player thus risks running short of color in the meantime.

The world of The Void also contains two faction of inhabitants, the brothers and the sisters. The brothers will wander around on the worldmap and try to steal color from the players garden when they can, but they are not a direct enemy, they see the player as their apprentice and will give him tasks and comment on his actions. Some will gain mistrust later in the game and challenge the player for a fight, while others will become a mentor. The sisters each have an area of their own on the worldmap, neighboring areas will stay locked until a sister heart has been filled with enough color. This happens in two stages, the first heart will unlock the regular realms next to her, while the second heart will unlock the path to the next sister, thus unlocking all of the worldmap over the course of the game.

The goal of the game is to harvest enough color to either free oneself from the Void, free a sister or join the brothers. While one is free to chose which route to take and which sister to free, the game only allows a limited amount of actual freedom as progress throughout the game is tied to specific the cycle, of which there are 35 in the game. A cycle is a unit of time that passes while on the worldmap, inside the realms themselves time is halted and doesn't progress. While waiting for the next story event to happen the player has to collect enough color to survive and prepare for that event.

Collectible color in the realms of the Void comes in multiple forms. The most simple one are small plans scattered throughout the world, these can be harvested with a simple mouse click. Another way to harvest color is by catching small creatures crawling around on the ground, these creatures will run away when one gets to close, but one can lure them in by dropping a bit of color onto the ground. Both of those are the main way to get color at the beginning of the game. Later on the main way to get color is to give color to a tree. A tree that has been filled with color will blossom with color in the next cycle and a few cycles after that, providing you with a return on your investment.

Interaction with the game world happens via mouse gestures. By holding down Ctrl the game will open up a palette of color and allow to draw strokes to the screen. Simple random strokes can be used to throw a blow at an enemy or to activate an object or character. Gestured, called glyphs here and acquired by collecting the 21 hearts in the game, allow to provide more powerful special attacks or to cast shields for protection. The by far most frequently used glyph in the game is the donor glyph, basically the shape of an alpha, that will allow the player to drop color to the ground to lure little creatures, give color to one of the sisters or give color to a tree. Most of the other glyphs stay unused throughout most of the game and only get important in the fights against the brothers. The color that is chosen from the palette only matters when giving color to a sister, a tree or fighting one of the brothers, for regular enemies the color used for a stroke doesn't seem to make a difference.

Where the color of the Nerva however matters is in the hearts. Filling the hearts with green will give better protection in fights, filling it with purple will allow to fill a tree using less color and gold will reduce the amount of color needed to give to a sister. As colors in the hearts get converted to Lympha and thus can no longer be used in the hearts, it is important to properly manage which color is in the heart and which is stored away in the normal containers.

The game does allow to save anywhere and anytime on the worldmap, but doesn't allow to save within a realm. Quicksave and quickload are provided as well.


Where The Void really shines is in its artistry. The game is beautiful in basically every way. Starting from the main menu down to the tiniest corner of a realm. The interaction and contrast between the dark and moody backgrounds with the colorful Nerva is fantastic and seeing a once lifeless garden blossom with color is just beautiful to look at. The game doesn't constrain itself to a consistent world, instead each of the realms follows its own surrealistic theme, going anywhere from dark caves to abandoned houses. The background music and atmospheric effects underline the moody atmosphere of the game and help to give each of the realms depth. This is also one of those rare cases where the voice acting isn't just competent, but genuinely great across the board, putting a lot of the bigger budget titles to shame and again underlining the dreamy and moody atmosphere that the game creates.


The biggest issue with The Void is that it is borderline unplayable, not in a buggy or technical sense, I didn't run into any critical bugs and technically the fantastic graphics work smoothly even on older hardware. No, where The Void fails is in its punishing game mechanics. These days we are used to have games that tutor us into every detail, making it impossible to fail or do something wrong and even when one screws up one always has a reset point just a few meters away. The Void is different. While its game mechanics are not that complex, the game often only gives vague hints as to how one has to use them, thus making important details easy to miss and it doesn't shy away from letting the player just flat out run into an unsolvable dead end that might require to replay multiple hours of previous gameplay.

I went into The Void essentially expecting a Myst like adventure game and played it that way for the first hour. In that first hour I didn't run into any issues at all. The game didn't feel hard or complicated. I collected a bit of color here, planted a bit of color there and everything seemed fine and dandy. I excepted the game to slowly coach me into the details of its mechanics, except that didn't happen, instead I died without even a hint at what was going on. One moment I was walking around on the worldmap, the next the Game Over sequence played before my eyes. So I reloaded from an earlier save and tried again and died again. Still rather clueless as to what the hell was going on. I don't think I have ever seen a single game let you run so blindly into your death.

Reading through the 30 page manual and through this walkthrough cleared things up a bit. What had happened was that I ran out of Nerva in my hearts. The color you collect isn't automatically transferred to your hearts, thus you have to take extra care of managing that there is always some color in there. What makes this especially problematic is that you run out of color in your hearts extremely quickly. When you are in a realm everything is fine, the color in your heart becomes a regular energy bar that only goes down when enemies attack you and there aren't many in the first hour of the game, but on the worldmap time ticks away and with each seconds on the worldmap Nerva will get converted to Lympha, thus essentially reducing your lifebar. This process goes so far that just standing around on the worldmap without doing anything will kill you in just a minute.

Another big issue is that the game doesn't tell you what a color does until after it is already to late. If you want to give color to a tree you have to have purple in your hearts or else you will waste a lot of color. Same when you give color to a sisters, if you don't have gold in your heart you will waste color. The game does tell you that, but only after you already wasted a lot of color. The game also doesn't give you a second chance, if you don't fill a tree full with all the color you can on the first try, the game won't give you another chance to fill the tree for another few cycles and a cycle can easily be an hour of gameplay. Thus it is extremely easy to navigate into a position where there is simply have no color left to harvest in the world, no garden with unused trees where one can grow more color and facing a fight against a brother for which one need all the color you can get.

This is basically what happened on my second try, I restarted from scratch and followed the advice from the walkthrough and the manual, filled trees properly with colors, kept a more close eye on my hearts and managed everything a little better. This again worked just fine for some four hours of gameplay, until I failed to fulfill a task one of the brothers had given me. I didn't realize that the task the brothers give you aren't optional, at least not at this point in the game, so due to not fulfilling the task I had to fight that brother, which at this point was simply impossible to accomplish. I didn't have remotely enough color to do that and there was no way to acquire it in time. The only way to fix that situation was to go back to an earlier savegame and change the way I collected color. At this point I was really close to just give up on the game.

What changed my mind was for one simply the great atmosphere of the game, at this point I only saw a small fraction of the game and I wanted to see more. I also wasn't exactly alone in suffering through those issues and somebody already created an Easy Patch (Easy) for that game, which I promptly installed. Technical note: Users of non-English versions of the game need to delete the Properties/Strings/ subdirectory of the patch or else it will screw up the subtitles and dialog timing.

So with the Easy Patch installed I went back to an earlier savegame and continued from there. With that patch installed the game became much more manageable, but it didn't actually become easy, as all the micromanagement of colors in the hearts was still there. The patch also didn't give endless amounts of colors, I still was short of color basically throughout most of the game, but there was always enough to get the next task done and with the patch and the knowledge gained till then I didn't ran into any more dead ends.

I think the by far biggest issue of the game is the way the worldmap is handled. Playing in the realms itself is actually quite fine, in there you don't have a time limit to worry about and you can simply go along at your own pace. In those places the game can feel quite similar to Flower, as it is about the collection and spread of color, not about the fight against monsters. But on the worldmap you are under constant time pressure, so much in fact that even with the easy patch I would call the game flat out impossible to play in a regular manner.

The way I ended up playing was basically like this: Whenever I left a realm and got back to the worldmap I instantly hit the quicksave button, trying to not even waste a single second. Once saved, I went around in the world, looking for places where there was color to collect (displayed when you hover over a realm with your mouse) or where there was a sister to which I could go to unlock further parts of the worldmap. Once I figured out what I wanted to do I hit restored the earlier save and only then actually executed what I wanted to do, as quickly as possible. The reason for this is that every second on the worldmap counts, it is not only that the energy bar goes down quickly, but the main issue is that new colors only comes into the world only when a new cycle starts. This means that one can easily miss a whole cycle when one doesn't manage to fill a garden with color before the end of a cycle and that lack of color might prove fatal in a later fight. There are also only 35 cycles throughout the whole game, so wasting a single one of those can already get problematic.


Overall I don't think I have ever played a game that was so beautiful and yet so frustrating at the same time. Even after I was past the point of initial confusion and understood how the game was supposed to be played, it still felt like the game mechanics where just to messed up, not by technical inadequacies or lack of development time, but by design. Forcing the player on a strict time limit and only giving him small amounts of resources, that when mismanaged can screw him up hours later on in the game can be highly frustrating. What makes the matters worse in this game, then say a regular RTS, is that the effects here are not local to your current mission, they are global to the whole game. Small mistakes in the beginning can screw you up really bad later on and you won't even get a hint that you did something wrong unless its to late. What is especially problematic here is that the game never fells hard. There wasn't a single situation in the whole game that I would have considered hard in the classical sense, in fact most of it is rather relaxing, trying to lure the little creatures in with a bit of color can be a lot of fun and dodging bigger enemies is never very difficult. What makes the game hard is that you can easily run into dead ends with no way out. Color is your only way to fight enemies and when you run out of color while in a fight against a brother you simply will die, as there is no way out of that situation, no way to harvest more color and basically nothing one can do. Those fights don't just become hard, they become impossible when you don't have enough color.

Far to often the game basically expects you to prepare for an event that will only happen a few cycles down the road, without even giving you a hint that you need to prepare. I frequently found myself just fast-forwarding through the cycles to find out what will happen, only to then go back to an earlier save to prepare for that future event. A walkthrough will help here a bit, but as the game contains quite a number of randomized events it can't really tell you exactly what you will need to do. The Easy Patch will make it easier to get yourself prepared for a fight, but it still requires you to take care of the micromanagement of your colors.

Another issue with the game is that becomes quite repetitive later on. Seeing a garden blossom the first time around is beautiful, seeing it the tens time it becomes kind of routine. Some of the gardens also seem to be copy&paste of earlier gardens in the game with only minor variations. And the whole collection of color kind of becomes a grind, as one will have seen everything there is to see in the game quite a few cycles before the end.

In terms of story the game always stays rather abstract and always limited to the Void, so one never really learns what is really going on or how one got there in the first place. The ending is basically exactly what one expects it to be without any big surprise or grand finale. One thing I found a bit of puzzling are the sequences where one chase a ghost girl around rooftops. These sequences happen at specific points in time in the game, without any triggering action from the players side. One can't really get or learn anything in those sequences and stylistically they look a good bit more realistic then the rest of the game. The identity or purpose of that ghost girl is never revealed and it doesn't really integrate much with the rest of the story, which happens to be mostly about the conflict and power struggle between the brothers and sisters in the Void.

For anybody willing to try the game I would strongly recommend to study the manual, read a walkthrough and to go with the easy patch. Those won't remove some trial and error, but they should keep the game manageable and enjoyable. One can even go a step further and outright cheat by using the build in console, while I didn't found that to be necessary, it should allow to skip some of the grinding later on in the end and allow to escape some dead ends.

In the end this is a great game, a deeply flawed one, but a flawed one that still managed to pull me in with its atmosphere and beauty. The game took me around 28 hours to complete, I applied the easy patch around five hours in and restarted twice. Even when you are past the initial hurdles and understand how you are supposed to play the game, it still doesn't fully click as the quickload/quicksave on the worldmap and the grind is certainly annoying. The game also doesn't really offer a lot new stuff later on in the game. But even with those faults, the atmosphere in this game is simply fantastic and the game is definitively worth a look, but it is also a game that one has to be approached with care.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

xboxdrv 0.6.0 released

  • support for reading from evdev, this allows the use of regular regular PC joysticks or the Playstation 3 controllers with xboxdrv, useful if you need configurability or joy2key-like functionality, but don't have a Xbox360 gamepad
  • added KEY_#num, ABS_#num and REL_#num to allow refering to events by number instead of name
  • support for reading configuration from a INI configuration file
  • cleaned up uinput mapping, --dpad-as-button, --dpad-only, etc. are now simple mappings instead of special case hackery
  • --ui-axismap and --ui-buttonmap now work with all axis and button
  • smooth deadzone handling without jumps
  • added --detach-kernel-driver
  • automatically insert dummy events to make input device register as joystick
  • added ability to have multiple configs running at the same time with --ui-new
  • added shifting to --ui-axismap, allows sending of different events when a shift button is pressed
  • Saitek Cyborg Rumble Pad support added
  • Gamestop Xbox 360 Controller support added

Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: Perry Rhodan: The Adventure (PC)

"Perry Rhodan: The Adventure", known in other regions as "The Immortals of Terra" or "Rhodan: Myth of the Illochim", is a 2D point&click adventure for the PC, released in 2008. The game is based on the Perry Rhodan science fiction novel series which has been running in Germany since 1961, knowledge of that series is however not required as the game will provide plenty of background information on the characters and the universe. The game puts the player into the role of Perry Rhodan, who after an attack on the Terran headquarter finds out that his close college Mondra Diamond has been kidnapped and thus goes on a journey to free his friend and unravel the reason behind the kidnapping and thus later on unraveling the mystery behind the ancient race of the Illochim.

Mechanically the game follows closely in the footsteps of other modern point&click adventures. The game uses a single-action interface, where a click on an object will automatically do the right thing. A separate action to look at an object is not provided, except for objects in the inventory, where a right click will bring up a short description. Running is done with a double-click, while quick-travel to another room is accomplished by clicking the right mouse button, made even easier by the small thumbnail that will be shown of the next room when the mouse hovers over an exist. The inventory is presented as a list of items at the bottom of the screen, unless other adventures however here the inventory does not only contains collected objects, but also collected knowledge such as other characters or locations in the game. This little tweak allows the game to work without having a separate dialog interface, as discussions are simply done by using an items of the inventory with another character and thus triggering a short dialog sequence. Dialog can be skipped by sentence by pressing 'space'.

The game does keep track of tasks that need to be completed and general story progress in a very simple but effective log book where each task is summarized by a short sentence or two.

The save system works as usual, but is limited to only seven slots with one additional slot for quick-saves and another one for autosave, while not a big practical problem these days games really should allow an unlimited number of saves.

One mechanical issue with the game is that it doesn't display the name of the object under the mouse cursor, it only changes the mouse cursor to a generic one that indicates interactibility. In addition the game frequently places objects very close together and has hitboxes that sometimes seem overly large, which makes it hard to tell if the game will handle a larger collection as one logical game item or handle each of those objects as a separate item without clicking each of them. A pressing on 'S' will however mark all usable objects in the current scene and thus clear up most of the confusion.

Graphically the adventure is a mix of pre-rendered backgrounds and real-time characters. The backgrounds, especially in the later parts of the game, look extremely pretty. They suffer at times a little from a lack of animation, as only some particle effects and minor things like small rows flying cars are animated, while even things that should be animated, like water, stay completely static. The characters in the game also look very good and are quite a bit more detailed then many other adventure games, featuring good lighting effects and dynamic shadows. In terms of animation however the characters suffer from the same issues as most other adventures these days. The number of animation is very limited and most object interaction is done by generic animation that fails to properly connect to the object. Not much of an issue, as you pretty much get used to it, but some older games such as Broken Sword did a much better job at animation, even so they where hand animated, not 3D characters. The game also lacks a few transition animation when changing rooms. For example entering and starting an elevator just leads to a fade to black, instead of an animation of the elevator accelerating. In terms of art direction the game comes of a little sterile in the beginning, but gets better later on in the game.

The puzzle design in the game is overall very solid. There are a few instances where solving a puzzle will trigger a story event that advances the game, without having the puzzle and the continuation of the story have any direct connection, but those aren't that big of a practical problem. The few cases where an objects is small enough to be easily over looked can be solved by pressing 'S'. The only real issue I had with the puzzles in the game was when Perry Rhodan has to investigate an exhibition about the Illochim at the mid point of the game, that section doesn't really give much of a guidance as to what needs to be done, so there was to much trial&error for my taste. Everything before that section and after it however was lots of fun.

In terms of characters the game feels a little impersonal and distant at times. For example Mondra Diamond, the women that got kidnapped at the beginning of the game, and Perry Rhodan never exchange a single line of dialog with each other throughout the whole game. It is hard to feel for a character whom you don't even really know, except through some text descriptions. Perry Rhodan himself also feels a little cold and uninterested in the things happening around him, maybe that's to be expected from somebody who is 3000 years old, but a little more emotional involvement would have been welcome. Where the game however really shines is in its universe. There are plenty of interesting places to visit, races to talk to and items to interact with. The game is filled with little details and plenty of backstory on the characters. The game never takes itself to serious and while the humor come of as a little wooden, there is certainly some fun to be had. The science fiction in this game doesn't aim for realism, but goes straight into the pulp direction and it also happens to be filled with shear endless amounts of techobabble.

Overall this is a great adventure game. It is technically and mechanically very solid and whatever small issues it might have in its puzzle design and story are easily overcome by the detail filled universe. The wooden humor and technobabble might certainly not be everybody taste, but I had good fun with it. I found the 12 hours it took me to finish the game highly enjoyable. The one small gripe I might have with the game is the ending, while everything that leads up to it is perfectly fine, I kind of missed a longer epilogue. Going out with just a short cutscene doesn't feel right after a long adventure and an important discovery.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Review: Overclocked: A History of Violence (PC)

Overclocked was released in 2007 by the now defunct German developer House of Tales for the PC. This review focuses on the German language version. The point&click psycho thriller adventure puts the player into the role of David McNamara, an ex-army psychiatrist, who is tasked with finding out what happened to five college-aged teens that showed up armed, disoriented, confused and without memory in the New York. The memory of the patient is explored in the game in reverse chronological order, with the player backtracking through scenes from their escape to the cause of their current condition, while David McNamara has to fight with marriage issues and other troubles in the present.

Mechanically the game follows classic point&click adventure mechanics, instead of the nowadays popular single-click interface, a simple pie menu is used that allows you to perform different actions on an object. Usable objects can be highlighted with a press on the space key and the double-click for running and quick-travel is present as well. The discussion system follows a topic based approach. One annoying issue with the dialogs is that there is no way to skip individual sentences, the player can only skip whole dialogs/cutscenes by pressing Escape twice.

The game is presented with a mix of real-time rendered characters and fully animated 2D pre-rendered backgrounds. It also throws in a few camera movements here and there, which isn't seen often in a mixed real-time/pre-rendered presentation. Split screens are used frequently by the game in phone conversations or when McNamara is interrogating one of his patients. The game also makes use of a physics engine and real-time lighting of the pre-rendered backgrounds, however these technical gimmicks, while neat, are used only in two short situations throughout the whole game and one has to wonder why they even bothered with them. The graphics themselves are a bit mixed, while the pre-rendered backgrounds look impressive and show some great looking weather effects, the real-time rendered characters leave a lot to be desired. Especially David McNamara, the main character, looks a little off and some more work in terms of character design and animation would have been welcome. Lip syncing is solid, but given the low detail on the characters, that doesn't really help all that much. The German voice work is overall very good.

The game comes in a 4:3 aspect ratio, without a way to switch to 16:9 or 16:10 modes, unless of course you can live with horrible distortion. This is not unusual for adventure games, but is something that could have been easily avoided here, as the game comes with an unusually huge inventory bar at the bottom of the screen and a large black bar, used for subtitles, at the top, areas that could have been easily dynamically resized to allow play in proper wide-screen aspect ratios.

The camera placement in Overclocked suffers from the same issues as House of Tales previous game, The Moment of Silence, namely the game tries to hard to present a full 3d environment with interesting objects in every direction and this forces the game to violate the 180 degree rule of film making in almost every room. This leaves the player often a bit disoriented even in seemingly trivially small locations. The game doesn't have any maze like structures, so this doesn't ever become much of a practical problem, but its an issue that could have been easily avoided with a little more care done on the location planing.

The load/save interface also tries to be more clever then it should be, presenting the save games as a single photograph where one has to flip via forward and back buttons to reach older saves, an ability to view a list of all saves at once isn't available.

The puzzles in this game are for most part logical and easy to do, as the game focuses on the linear storytelling a lot more then on the free form exploration. Large locations with free form exploration basically don't exist in the game as the player is restricted to only those small parts that belong to the currently discussed repressed memory. The game however has issues with making it clear what the player is tasked to do next. Communication with patient works throughout the game by a simple technique, each discussion with a patient is recorded, a recording of one patient can be played back for another and provides hints for him to further explore his memory, thus providing yet another recording that can be used on yet another patient and thus slowly unraveling the whole story by having discussions with each patient. Which recording one has to play to which patient is however frequently not very clear and it is very easy to lose track of the people that interacted with each other in the memory scene. What makes this situation worse is that going through the routine of going to each patient room and playing back all the recordings made takes a lot of time, thus trial and error isn't really an option. Every now and then the game also requires the player to do something in the hospital before further interaction with a patient is possible, but again it is not always made very clear. At the very end the game also throws a basic code input puzzle at the player, while not difficult in principle, the player has at this point no longer access to the hint giving object and is thus forced to load an earlier save to retrieve the hint if he can't remember it.

Overall Overclocked is easily one of the most exciting adventure games I have played in years. Its unusual focus on a mostly static location for both the main character and the patients and the reverse chronological unraveling of the backstory works extremely well. The issues with losing track of what to do next are certainly annoying and probably the biggest issue I had with the game, but they can easily be worked around with a quick peek at a walkthrough. The games linearity might put off some people, but it didn't bother me at all. The game, talking around eight hours, is also not the longest, but given the tight and focused story that is not really a problem here. The few polishing issue that the game has don't really interfere with the main story telling, as you simply get used to them rather quickly. The games ending is also decent, something not exactly a given when it comes to unraveling mysteries. It is however not perfect, as I would have preferred it to go into a little more detail, instead of solving major plot points with a quick cinematic, but all the major plot points get answered. In the end this simply is a very well done gripping take on interactive storytelling.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Review: Memento Mori (PC)

Memento Mori was released in 2008 for the PC and is a classic point&click adventure. The game puts the player into the roles of Larisa Svetlova, an Interpol art theft specialist, and Maxime Durand, an art forger who was caught, but set free in exchange for offering his talents to the police. The two work together and try to solve the mysterious theft of some paintings and a connections of that theft with an ancient religious cult. This review was done based on the German language version, an additional English language version is not provided on the disc.

The game is presented in full real-time 3D with the gameplay itself following classic 2D point&click conventions. The 3D nature of the graphics is only used for a small handful of puzzles and sometimes to provide a split-screen close up of what the character is currently doing, but stays otherwise completely in the background, with mostly static cameras or only very limited panning movements. The graphics themselves are fine for most part, nothing spectacular, but nothing to ugly either. The characters however could have used a little more detail, they lack in polygons and animation and lip syncing is also basically non-existent. Even in the few pre-rendered cutscenes that the game provides the character models don't look much better. Demand on the graphics card is relatively heavy given the relative simplicity of the graphics, but nothing that a bit of tweaking in the graphics setting couldn't fix.

The controls are typical for today's modern adventure games, a left click will do an context sensitive action (use, pick up, talk to, etc.) while a right click will cause the character to look at an object. A double click will cause the character to run or quick-travel between rooms. Pressing the Tab key will highlight all usable objects in the current room. An unusual addition to the formula is that objects can only be looked at once, after that the object marker disappears and the object becomes a part of the background. This doesn't change the gameplay as important objects can be used multiple times as usual, it simply avoids the repeated phrases that one has already heard.

Object in the inventory and sometimes objects in the environment can be inspected up close in a 3D view. That 3D view can be rotated to uncover things hidden on the backside of an object, in a similar fashion as the first Resident Evil game did.

The dialog interface is one of the weirds parts of this game, instead of the regular dialog trees or topic based discussion, the interface is always limited to three choices "positive", "negative" and "question". While this might sound similar to the moral choice systems presented in modern RPG games, the game hardly ever goes in that direction, most dialog in the game is the usual stuff and often neither of the three choices really makes much sense in the context of the game. Additionally it is also not very clear what the choices actually mean, in some situation they are used as "yes/no" style answers, but in many other they seem to reflect the emotional stance of the character or simply have no real understandable meaning at all. The dialog choice is also bound to a time limit, like in other games such as Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, but that time limit feels meaningless, as it is to long to even matter with only three choices and one is hardly ever presented with a dialog that would require time to put thought into the choice.

The voice work in the game is competent overall, with well known professional speakers, but in large parts a bit flat and emotionless. One noticeable issue is that the voice work lacks any kind of dialect, which given that the game takes place in quite a few different countries across Europe, feels out of place.

The puzzles in the game are pretty much all on the easy side, even without using the Tab key to show hotspots I didn't had any issues getting through the game. In addition a large part of the game isn't so much driven by actual puzzles and exploration one the players side, but by phone calls and email conversations. This can sometimes be a bit confusing as every now and then the player is left without a clear task in already explored terrain only to then receive a phone call in the next room that drives the story forward. Some of the puzzles are also a little uncreative, feeling more like something you would encounter at work then in a game.

The story in Memento Mori feels a bit uneven. It starts out with the characters doing basically their routine every day jobs, which is fine for an introduction, but then fails to really accelerate, as it continues to just plot along without anything to exiting happening. The cutscenes that the game inserts between chapters are also a little weird, as they try to go for a spooky horror feel and manage that for most part reasonably well, but then that feel isn't actually mirrored by the actual game itself, which feels more like your typical lighthearted adventure stuff, except without any attempt at jokes. This only really changes right at the end, where a sudden plot twist mixes things up and lets the story take a more dramatic route, but at that point you are just a few minutes away from seeing the credits role and that just isn't enough for a 10 hour game. The twist at the end, even so obviously derivative, is however well done and helps to give a few weird moments previously in the game some meaning.

The game bolsters itself on the box with providing a dynamic story and eight different endings, but you don't really see much of that in the actual game, as it moves along like your regular linear adventure game. There seem to be two main endings with the rest just being alterations of text and voice overs and which of those you get is decided on your performance on a few puzzles in the game and other things you did or didn't do in the game. However the game doesn't really make clear what is a critical decision and what is not and neither of those seems alter the actual route the story takes, so they don't really add replayability.

Overall Memento Mori is a competent, but in large part unremarkable adventure game. I enjoyed the ending, but too much that came before it was just not very interesting and instead of slowly uncovering a mystery, the game basically uncovered it all at once for you right at the end. Too much of the game felt like filler that really didn't have any meaning for the core story that it tried to tell. Also the game remains in large part very stationary, having the player revisiting old locations again and again, without ever really getting anywhere. The typical adventure feel of going around the world and traveling to interesting locations is mostly missing, even so the story would have given plenty of excuse for doing that.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Review: Myst: Masterpiece Edition (PC)

Myst was released back in 1993 and one of the first games to make use of the CD-ROM, featuring pre-rendered backgrounds and video sequences. It turned out to be one the best selling PC game of it time. The Myst: Masterpiece Edition was released seven years later in 2000, upgrading the graphics from 256 to 24-bit and adding hint system, but leaving the game otherwise unchanged. Another version of the game was released the same year called realMyst, featuring a fully realtime environment instead of pre-rendered graphics. This review is about the Myst: Masterpiece Edition.

The game starts out without a big introduction. The player is dropped on the island called Myst, without an explanation, task or goal. A bit exploration will lead to a short speech from Atrus, a person with the ability to create portals into other worlds in the form of books. The player then learns that something went wrong and that the books have been hidden around the island in save places. Some further hints on the location of said books can be gathered in the central library of Myst and the books themselves are hidden in structures around the island, including a spaceship, a regular ship, a large set of gears and a clock tower. The island itself is rather small, featuring not much more then these structures. The players task is now to unlock each book and travel to the world they are connected to. In these worlds, which themselves are of a similar size to Myst itself, the player has to collect pages which are needed to complete books in the library and thus will unlock the final puzzle.

Graphically the game is presented from a first person perspective. Featuring mostly static backgrounds with very little or no animation. While the graphics certainly show their age, they still manage to create a decent atmosphere thanks to the nice wind and water ambient sounds in the backgrounds. Navigation in the world can however at times be a bit confusing, as the game doesn't provide a proper map or compass and lacks transition animations. Often it isn't very clear if a turn to the left will turn you around 180 degrees are just 90 and thus it is not unusual to step past something or miss a turn.

The interface of the game is extremely minimalistic, all the interaction and navigation in the world happens via the mouse, they keyboard stays unused. The mouse cursor doesn't change when an item is usable and an inventory is not present in this game. The few times where you have to pick up an item and use it, it is handled by changing your mouse cursor to that item. Without the ability drop or store those items it however becomes quite confusing as to what happens when you have grab multiple items at once. One noteworthy tweak to the regular pointing and clicking presented in the adventure genre is that in Myst you are not limited to only clicking things, if you want to pull a leaver you have to click and drag it into the appropriate direction. It is a nice little touch that increases the immersion a good bit.

The save system in Myst is a bit weird, as it doesn't save your exact location, but always drops you back at the start of the given world. Accomplishments in the world are preserved, but one has to walk back to the point from where one left. This isn't much of an issue, as one can quickly travel around in Myst and be back to where one left in often just a few seconds, but it is an irritating thing non the less.

The puzzle design in Myst is often not that great, as the puzzles aren't build around logic or item combination, but instead focus on observation. A typical puzzle in Myst is one where you pull a leaver or push a button and then have to figure out the effect that it had on the world. Cause and effect are often times a few rooms apart, so it can get a little tedious at times to figure out what happened. Puzzles furthermore often come in the form of very basic key/door patterns, you see a code or pattern in one place and have to enter it in another to unlock a door or mechanism. Entering those codes can be a bit tedious and also feels uninspired, as none of the mechanisms in the world really has a purpose other then acting as an convoluted input mechanism for said code. Another annoying issue is that the library you visit in the very beginning of the game contains important hints for puzzles you will see only much later in the game and without an inventory to put those books in, you have to basically transcribe those hints yourself, as you can't reach the library easily when you need to.

The thing that saves puzzle design in the Myst: Masterpiece Edition however is its great hint system. A click at the bottom of the screen will give you access to a map of the island and location specific hints in three levels, going from vague suggestions to basically detailed solution. The hints are written in the style of a person accompanying you on your journey, so they integrate very smoothly into the whole experience without feeling out of place. This removes a lot of the tedious trial and error from the game and make the game easily finishable without falling back to third party walkthroughs. The hint system also provides some of the needed track keeping that the game otherwise fails to provide.

Overall Myst is still a decent game, especially taking its age into account. The Masterpiece Edition, while technically being not much of an improvement over the original, is a much more enjoyable experience then the original due to its hint system. The often lacking feedback on actions and basically non-existent track keeping of the tasks you have already accomplished however pulls the game down quite noticeably. So does the almost non-existent story. While the few bits of dialog you get are nicely delivered, they just aren't enough to give your journey much of a meaning and the ending is kind of a let down. You get another piece of dialog and then just get send back to the island of Myst for some free exploration, which however is pointless at that point, as you have already seen anything of that island already. A proper ending cinematic or even a simple credit roll is missing, giving the ending a very inconclusive feel.

Technical notes: The game frequently crashes when showing the transition animations between the different worlds when playing it in Windows 98. This was solvable by uninstalling QuickTime and then reinstalling the version from the Myst CD.

The Masterpiece Edition also contains a glaring bug: In a note for the final puzzle the word "on" got changed to "off", making the note confusing and unusable, the text provided by the hint system however provides the correct answer.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Review: Geheimakte: Tunguska (PC)

Geheimakte: Tunguska (engl. Secret Files: Tunguska) is a classical point&click adventure released in 2006 for the PC, with later ports to the Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS. The story of the game is centered around the explosion of an unknown object over Tunguska in 1908. The player takes control Nina Kalenkov who is investigating the disappearance of her father, who lead an expedition into the Tunguska incident a few decades earlier. Max Gruber, a colleague of her father, also becomes a playable character for a small portion in later parts of the game.

Graphically the game follows into the footsteps of previous modern point&click adventure games, using a combination of pre-rendered backgrounds and 3D animated characters. While the backgrounds themselves look nice, the character animation leaves a lot to be desired, lacking custom animation for actions and instead falling back to generic animations for object use and pick up, so they never really connect properly with the object you are interacting with. It doesn't distract much from the game, as most other adventure games before and after it suffer from the exact same issue, but it shows a lack of polish in the genre, that you don't really see in more mainstream games.

The German voice acting is overall well done, but not really outstanding. The only annoying part is that a few of the character voices sound a little bit to familiar from other games and movies, which can distract a bit from the experience.

Mechanically the game follows modern simplified point&click conventions. A large vocabulary of verbs is missing and instead the player is limited to a 'look at' action on the right mouse button and a context sensitive 'use/pick up/talk' action on the left mouse button. The inventory is presented at a simple list at the bottom of the screen and thus easily available at all times. The mouse pointer changes shape to indicate which items can be used and which items can be combined, this removes the typical "I can't use these things together" voice bits, but it also removes potential for interesting comments. The game avoids pixel hunting by providing a simple function that will highlight objects that can be interacted with. While this function is a welcome addition, one ends up relying on it a little to much for comfort, as objects frequently don't really stand out of the background on their own. Talking in the game follows a topic based approach where the player only selects the rough topic and leaves the individual sentences to the game character.

The puzzle design in the game is a bit convoluted, often requiring rather outrageous things. For example at one point in the game you need a lemon. To obtain it you don't go any direct route, instead you cover up a road sign which in turn will course the lemon transporter to nearly crash and lose a box with lemons in the process. The game is full of puzzles requiring such weird solutions, which especially giving its more realistic tone, doesn't feel quite right. The game however does do an extremely good job at guiding the player into those convoluted solution, so you hardly ever will have trouble finding the solution, as talk with NPCs or the environment will give you plenty of hints.

Overall the game provides good solid adventure fun for the almost 10h that it lasted, but it fails to reach the greater games in its genre. The story presented is good enough to keep the player interested through the game, but it doesn't really leave much of a lasting impression once its over. The ending also felt a little cheap, leaving a few of the finer points of the story unexplored. The jokes that the game tries to pull of come across as a bit wooden and most of the NPCs are little more then cliche comic reliefs. The best part of the game is probably the flow that it manages to keep up throughout the game, the puzzles are always manageable and enjoyable, but never so easy that you feel like playing on auto-pilot.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Porting Windstille to Windows via MinGW cross compiler

Once done with porting Windstille over to MacOSX I switched to porting it over to Windows:
  • Windows doesn't seem to have a clear MacPort alternative, so I went with compiling most libraries myself
  • SDL comes in precompiled binary form that is usable with MinGW
  • C++ libraries are incompatible between MinGW and Microsoft Visual C++, C libraries are often compatible, but not always, so building things yourself or downloading the MinGW specific binaries might be required
  • as the whole Windows FOSS landscape ended up looking a little to confusing for my taste, I switched over from native Windows to cross compiling from Linux, which also allowed me to use Linux tools in the build process and not having to worry about building them for Windows
  • Ubuntu comes with a ready to use cross compiler in the package gcc-mingw32
  • cross compiling standard autotools packages works with:
    ./configure --prefix=/home/ingo/projects/mingw32/run/ --host=i586-mingw32msvc --build=i686-linux-gnu
  • GLEW binaries didn't work and GLEW doesn't support cross compiling, using the Makefile.mingw and changing the compiler, linker, etc. names in it manually (g++ -> i586-mingw32msvc-c++) however did work
  • boost cross compile is a bit tricky, but well documented, make sure you only build the boost libraries you need, not everything, as that will cut down the build time from a few hours to a few minutes
  • Freetype, Ogg, JPEG and Vorbis compile smoothly
  • libpng and the required zlib do not cross compile smoothly, hacking the build scripts and hardcoding the compiler, linker, etc. names again did the trick
  • Gtk+ comes in a binary distribution that is usable in MinGW, but as it contains hardcoded path names in its pkg-config files some changes are needed (adjust to your build location as needed):
    sed -i "s/c:\/devel\/target\/.*/\/home\/ingo\/projects\/mingw32\/run\/opt\/gtk
    /" *.pc
  • Gtkmm and GtkGLExt are not part of that binary distribution and have to be build manually
  • with the Gtk+ binaries building Gtkmm wasn't all that hard, just a bit labor intensive due to the many dependencies
  • GtkGLExt is the most problematic and so far I didn't manage to create a working version, as the last release is incompatible with current Gtk+ and the latest development version of GtkGLExt is incompatible with GtkGLExtmm, I managed to produce compilable results by changing the latest release to handle newer Gtk+ versions (just a few macro changes), but the resulting application, while runable was not usable as the OpenGL widget leaked into other GUI elements and redraw behavior was completly broken
  • DLLs have to be in the current path for Wine to find them (still searching for a proper workaround for that)
  • OpenGL libraries have again other names, here its -lopengl32, this same naming convention is also used for GLEW and OpenAL
  • the gcc that comes with MinGW seems to be a lot more picky about the order of static libraries then the Linux gcc, had to reorder the libraries in my SCons file to make things build and fix undefined references
  • Free Software solutions for building Windows installers are: Inno Setup, NSIS and WiX
  • NSIS has the nice advantage that it comes as a Ubuntu package and thus is well suited for a cross-compiling environment, its config file syntax however seems a bit ugly and seems to require a good bit of manual book keeping to make proper uninstall, it also doesn't support .msi install files, only old style .exe
Overall compiling in native Windows seems kind of a mess, as you end up grabbing software from many different places and can never really be sure that they all will work properly together. Setting up a cross compile environment on the other side was reasonably simple, just a lot of manual compiling required and a few hacks here and there to get some libraries through, Wine seems to help a good bit to make most configure checks, that might try to run a .exe, work without hacks. Basic Gtk+ seems to be simpler to get up and running then on MacOSX, as it comes in a nice binary distribution with all the required libraries, lack of a working GtkGLExtmm however prevented the Windstille Editor from being usable.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Porting Windstille to MacOSX

Some notes on porting Windstille to MacOSX:
  • PPC iBooks don't support booting from USB, good luck reinstalling a OS when your internal drive breaks
  • everything earlier then MacOSX 10.4 Tiger seems completely unusable by now, as almost all software won't run on it, no support for building universal binaries either, OSX seems to go obsolete a lot faster then Windows
  • MacPorts provides a good and up to date selection of software, you can almost find anything that you might need to build your software there, but MacPorts requires to compile everything from source, so installing a full build environment can take quite a few hours
  • Flink provides binaries, but is outdated enough to be of not much use
  • some include directives need changes, for example GL/gl.h to OpenGL/gl.h, AL/al.h to OpenAL/al.h
  • native MacOSX libraries come in the form of frameworks, which bypass the usual -I, -l and -L flags and use a "-framework SDL" flag for gcc
  • SDL comes as a native precompiled OSX framework library
  • using the SDL framework requires to hardcode the include path or doing #ifdef's, as there is no sdl-config and the way frameworks requires you to include SDL_image with , which is incompatible with the way things are done in Linux
  • using g++ with -isystem DIR instead of -IDIR results in "error: template with C linkage", so don't do that on older MacOSXs
  • otool is the equivalent of ldd on MacOSX
  • building a standard MacOSX software bundle requires some fudging with the hard compiled path variables
  • Gtk+ is by far the most troublesome piece of software to get up and running, it doesn't come in binary form but only in a fragile jhbuild
  • MacOSX specific code can be isolated with a #ifdef __APPLE__ or on the Python side with a sys.platform == "darwin"
Overall porting Windstille to MacOSX went far smoother then expected, at least as far as Windstille itself is concerned, at first I struggled a bit with manually building many software packages, but once I learned about MacPorts, I switched over to that and had a smooth ride after that. SDL comes as standard MacOSX framework and most of the other dependencies I could grab directly from MacPorts. xcftools was the only exception and that had to be build manually. The Windstille SCons build scripts however need some bigger changes to handle the different naming of some libraries on MacOSX. Building the Windstille Editor is a different story, so far I haven't managed to do that, as that depends on Gtk+, Gtkmm and GtkGLExtmm and all of those depend on dozens of other libraries themselves. I think the Gtk+ libraries in MacPorts all depend on X11 and aren't native, but so far I haven't tried them.

PS: While porting Windstille over to MacOSX I also fixed a few issues with the render path for older hardware, so it should be able to run (or crawl) again on Geforce2MX style hardware.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Windstille Lensflare Test

Quick little test for a lenseflare effect for use in Windstille, still needs some graphical improvements, but the occlusion queries to hide the flare work fine:

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Review: Metroid Prime Hunters (Nintendo DS)

Metroid Prime Hunters was released in 2006 for the Nintendo DS and is a spin-off of the Metroid Prime series for the Gamecube and the Wii. The game takes place after the first Metroid Prime game, but as the story doesn't have any connection with the other games that hardly matters. The game features both a single player adventure mode as well as online multiplayer, I however haven't played the multiplayer, so I will focus on the single player.

The game starts with receiving a cryptic message about some 'ultimate power' with hints at its locations. Following that Samus Aran and six other bounty hunters start the search for that power to gain control over it. Reaching the 'ultimate power' requires the collection of eight Octolith, which in turn unlock the location of the 'ultimate power' and result in the final boss battle.

Unlike other entries in the series Metroid Prime Hunters follows a more linear approach, that is somewhat similar to Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Instead of one huge world to travel around in, the game is separated into four locations, the Celestial Archives, Alinos, Arcterra and the Vesper Defense Outpost. Each of these locations contains a boss at the end that will provide you with one of the required Octolith. Once each location has been visited and beaten, new areas in each location will become accessible and the player has to revisit them again to fight a second boss and gain another Octolith in each location. Travel between locations is possible at any time by using the space ship, travel on food between locations is not possible.

The space ship also acts as the only type savepoint in the game, regular savepoints are not provided. To reduce the amount of backtracking the game however does include teleporter, conveniently placed before each boss fight that will bring you back to your ship, to allowing saving the game and replenishing the ammunition. Those teleporter also allow you quick travel back to the boss area itself once activated. The game also features a checkpoint system, checkpoints are automatically activated and save your current health and ammo, when you die you can restart at the checkpoint with the old health and ammo count. As the game doesn't give any active indication when a checkpoint is activated this can lead to a few annoying situation where a checkpoint gets saved when one is low on health.

The overall structure of the levels is always the same, the player starts at his ship and then has to travel deeper down into the map. Three artifacts are needed to unlock the teleporter to the level boss, these artifacts themselves are protected by a force field and disabling the force field requires collecting a force field key by solving some more or less complicated puzzles. The puzzles in this game however lack any of the good design seen in the other Metroid Prime games, instead they feel like a throw back to gaming a decade or two ago. The problem with the puzzles is that they are hardly ever based in the location or environment around you, instead the puzzles often come in the form of a series of switches that have to be activated and these switches happen to be placed completely randomly all over the map, without any clear rhyme or reason, so you will frequently find yourself looking into each and every corner of the map in the search for a switch. Other times the force field key appear after defeating all the enemies in a room or after going through a morph ball passage on a time limit, again with little hint or reason behind it and it is never really clear which key unlocks which force field.

Unlike in other games in the series Metroid Prime Hunters is also very low on upgrades. Samus Aran starts out with the morph ball, bombs, missiles and a charge beam. The only upgrades available throughout the game are six new weapons that have to be obtained from the other bounty hunters. The bounty hunters happen to be randomly scattered throughout the maps and act as sort of a mini-boss. They however don't really follow a classic boss pattern that has to be learned, instead they just run around randomly really fast, making them hard to hit. The main bosses in this game come only in two forms that are each repeated four times throughout the game, with some minor variation in the attack pattern.

Just as in other Metroid games, the new weapon can be used to unlock doors that are marked with the color of the weapon. In addition to the normal doors the weapons can also be used to deactivate special force feels, with these force fields there is however the additional problem that, unlike the doors, they are not marked on the map screen, thus it can become hard to remember where a special force feel was. Another issue is that the color coding is to similar, especially on the small Nintendo DS screen. Weapons come in green, blue, purple, yellow, orange and red and telling the different between those can be tricky. This becomes especially a problem on the last boss fight where the color coding plays a crucial part of the strategy to defeat the boss.

The game comes with the same scanning ability as seen in other Metroid Prime games, but unlike in other games the logbook is not available via the pause menu, but only from inside your ship. The logbook interface is also really cumbersome, the text is limited to just three lines and a very small window and lengthy animations make it really slow to switch between entries. The entries themselves also happen to be rather uninteresting and, aside from the final boss, are hardly ever useful.

The demo version of the game, Metroid Prime Hunters: First Hunt, that shipped with early Nintendo DS units, used to feature a simply top-down map on the bottom of the screen, in the final game this map is gone and replaced by a basic and mostly useless radar screen. The level map itself has been moved to the pause menu and works much like the map in the bigger Metroid Prime games. Due to the small resolution and the level design which features many small, potentially overlapping, corridors however the map is much harder to read then on a big TV screen. And as mentioned the force fields aren't marked on the map, only the doors, so it can at times get really tricky to figure out where to go next. The simplified map in the demo version did look a good bit more helpful, especially since that one was always available without pausing the game.

The controls in Metroid Prime: Hunters differ noticeably from the other games in the series, the lock on function is completely gone, instead the game follows more traditional first person shooter controls. The dpad is used for running and strafing, while the touch screen is used to rotate the view around or look up and down. The main weapon is fired by pressing the L shoulder button, which will when held down, produces three normal shots before going into charge mode. These three shots allow rapid fire without a very high frequency of presses on the button. The morph ball, the scan visor, as well as the weapon switching are handled with areas on the touch screen that can be clicked. Jumping is accomplished by tapping the touch screen twice in short order. Zooming on the map screen and using the boost ball ability are done with the R button, which is rather awkward, as that button is rather hard to reach when holding a stylus.

The graphics in this game fail to impress, while they do try to get close to the other Metroid Prime games and even succeed in some areas, they only really look good on screenshots. In the game itself they are simply impractical, the high level of texture detail makes it very hard to properly distinguish enemies from the background, so that one frequently ends up shooting blindly when chasing a hunter or another enemy, instead of doing proper aim. The graphics also lack any kind of light effects, so they feel very static and artificial. On top of that the Nintendo DS hardware just isn't very good at 3D graphics, so all the textures look pixelated and the enemy meshes are very basic. I would have welcome an artistic direction that is build more around the limitations of the hardware, then one that tries to emulate what was accomplished on much better hardware.

Overall the game disappoints on many levels. The level design itself feels basic and random, none of the puzzles really make any sense in terms of the environment and are just typical switch/door situations of the cheapest kind. The separation into four planets furthermore gives the game a linear feel, lacking the exploration of the other Metroid Prime games. Instead of proper free exploration, you spend most of your time looking for the next randomly placed switch or dry to decipher the hard to read map. The other bounty hunters make very weak enemies, as you just end up spamming them with missiles while they run around super fast. The game is also full of doors that are locked till you kill all the enemies in the room and other cheap tricks to artificially lengthen the game. The recycling of the main bosses further makes this game fill really cheap and the fast paced first person shooter gameplay just feels out of place in a Metroid game. Atmosphere in this game is basically non-existent, neither the location nor music invoke any and even if they would, that would quickly be destroyed by the gamey nature of puzzles and enemies. Enemies also only come in a few different forms, so they repeat a lot.

The controls in this game are simply atrocious, while they do work perfectly fine from a technological point of view, they are a complete nightmare in terms of ergonomics. Navigating with the dpad while holding the Nintendo DS and scrubbing around on the touch screen with the stylus just doesn't work in any way, shape or form. What makes the situation even worse is that the game is every fast paced at times, so it will give you hand cramps frequently and it is overall just painful to play.

In the end there really isn't much positive I can say about this game. The checkpoints are certainly a welcome addition and reduce the frustration a good bit and it can be a bit of fun when you finally have figured out a boss tactic that worked. But none of that really saves the game in the end or makes the around ten hours that it will take you to beat it fun. Metroid Prime Hunters feels like a mix of Quake with a Metroid Prime look slapped on, but at the same time it completely fails to actually create a proper Metroid atmosphere. Even taken as an action game it just fails, for that there are to many annoying puzzles in the way and the game is just not straight forward enough to enjoy that way. This game is certainly the low point in the Metroid series and doesn't contribute anything noteworthy.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Review: Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (Wii)

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption was released in 2007 and marks the third and final entry in the Metroid Prime series (ignoring the Nintendo DS spin offs Metroid Prime: Hunters and Metroid Prime Pinball). Unlike its two predecesors this game didn't came out on the GameCube, but on its successor, the Nintendo Wii and large parts of the game design reflect this change in being build specifically around the Wiimote controller and its pointing and motion detection capabilities. The game also takes a more much story driven approach then its predecessor.

The game starts out with a short sequence showing the rebirth(?) of Dark Samus and switches then to to the regular Samus Aran waking up in her space ship on her route to the planet Norion. At this point the player takes control of Samus and can, via the Wii Remote, look around in the cockpit and interact with a few buttons and gadgets, allowing him to deploy a shield, engage the weapons or look at some game statistics. The game then requires the player to input a code via a virtual keypad and engage the docking sequence. After a short cutscene showing the docking with the G.F.S. Olympus, a Galactic Federation spaceship, Samus leaves her spaceship and the player takes control of her with the regular first person shooter controls.

On the G.F.S. Olympus the player can walk around and talk to crew members and have a sentence or two with them. Samus stays however complete silent in these situations, as she will for the rest of the game, but the NPCs are fully voiced. The dialog however still is based in its text origins and the player has to acknowledge each sentence spoken by pressing the A button. The dialog also doesn't go very deep and most talk is either about where you have to go or empty phrases like "I am on duty, I can't talk now". Overall the beginning of the game feels extremely similar to that of Doom 3, not only in the way one can interact with the crew, but also in a short scanning procedure that follows later on.

Once past the initial introductions, which also provided a few tutorial like opportunities to get familiar with the Wiimote controls, the game puts the player into a briefing room where he learns that an Aurora Unit has been stolen from the G.F.S Valhalla and used to hack into the federations network. The Aurora Units are large brain-like super computers that resemble the Mother Brain from the first Metroid and act as control units throughout Galactic Federation facilities. The job of the player and three other bounty hunters that join the fight is to clean the Aurora units of their infection. The briefing however is soon interrupted by a pirate attack after which the player has to fight his way back to his ship and land on the planet Norion to support the ground troops there.

On Norion the player learns that a Leviathan, a Phazon invested asteroid, is on collision course with the planet and in turn has to activate a few power generators to fire an orbital canon to destroy the Leviathan. This leads to a few encounters with the other bounty hunters and to one of the highlights of the game, where Samus fights against Ridley while falling down a generator shaft, being saved by one of the other bounty hunters in the end. With all the generators back online all bounty hunter head to the canon that shall destroy the Leviathan, but they all get knocked out by a surprise attack of Dark Samus. Samus manages to still activate the canon and destroy the Leviathan before falling unconscious.

After this point, that happens at around an hour or two of gameplay, the games story makes a sharp cut and jumps one month forward. Samus Aran wakes up in a medical bay and learns that she has been infected with Phazon. This infection in turn was utilized by the scientists to build a Phazon Enhancement Device device that allows Samus to shot a very powerful Phazon beam for a short amount of time, called Hypermode. Furthermore she learns that multiple Leviathans have hit other planets in the system. All the other bounty hunters, who also have been equipped with P.E.D., have already woken up earlier and send on a mission to destroy each of the Leviathans, but contact was lost shorty afterward. Samus mission now is to find out what happened to the other bounty hunter and to destroy the Leviathans. At this point the game turns from its heavily scripted gameplay of the first part of the game, that in part bear a close resemblance to the beginning of Halo: Combat Evolved, back to more traditional Metroid Prime style gameplay. A few cutscenes with dialog will still happen after this point, but they will be mostly limited to boss fights and dialogs with an Aurora Unit that gives hints on where the player has to go next.

The story thus continues with Samus Aran traveling to the planet Bryyo, an abandoned planet filled with lava and industrial constructions use to produce fuel. Here she has to deactivate a Space Pirate shield generator that protects the Leviathan and following that attack the and destroy the Leviathan from the inside by fighting the corrupted golem Mogenar. After clearing Bryyo the journey continues to the planet Elysia, a floating city in the sky previously inhabited by the Chozo, but now abandoned, leaving only a few robotic maintenance droids. The way to destroy the protective shields of the Leviathan on Elysia turns out to be the building of a nuclear bomb. After being done with Elysia the journey continues to the Pirate Homeworld, where the last Leviathan is destroyed by a united attack of Samus and a group of Galactic Federation Marines. The Leviathans guardian turns out to be Ridley. After short departure to the remains of the lost ship G.F.S Valhalla, where a few command codes to control a Leviathan are recovered, Samus along with a fleet of Galactic Federation ships makes it to the homeworld of Phazon, called Phaaze. Here the confronts Dark Samus again and finally destroys the planet.

The cutscenes in Metroid Prime 3: Corrupted, while more plentiful then in the previous two games, are not still fully convincingly implemented. The animation timing always looks incorrect with none of the presented movement ever looking realistic and even seeing Samus Aran's spaceships flying around seems to lack proper weight and acceleration. Some of the cutscenes are also just badly written. For example there is one where you enter a room, see a few space marines being attacked and two of them killed, before a third one activates his P.E.D. device to kill the pirates with a powerful blast. This cutscenes serves only to demonstrate to the player the effects of the P.E.D. device, before the player obtains it himself, while at the same time braking the immersion, as Samus is just stands around doing nothing while the pirates and marines fight. Another general issue is that after every fight sequence the marines will go to a 'stand against the wall' position, they look like your standard bored military guard, not like somebody that is right now actively involved in defending the base. It just looks ridiculous.

The games structures differs from other Metroid Prime games in that one is no longer limited to a single planet, instead the player can, via his ship, travel to different locations in the solar system or to different landing spots on the same planet. This freedom is almost unrestricted, with Norion, Elysia and Bryyo being accessible right from the start. This new freedom however comes at a price, the world in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption feels much more linear and less interconnected then in previous games. There are even quite a few points in the game where traveling to another point on the same planet via the ship is required. Thus instead of just having the ship as a faster way to get back to a previous location, it becomes a questionable item to let the player jump from one location to another, without providing a direct connection.

Just like in the previous two titles, this game also again features an item collection at the very end of the game that requires you to backtrack through previous locations. This backtracking comes in the form of energy cells that are needed to unlock pathways on the G.F.S. Vallhalla. Hints for the locations for the energy cells are again provided in the logbook, but unlike before one shouldn't have to much problems collecting all the required energy cells on a regular playthrough, so that backtracking is hardly ever necessary. The only exception to this is the G.F.S. Vallhalla itself, it is not immediately obvious that the ship only really becomes important at the very end up the game, so one will probably have visited it a few times before, just to run into a dead end.

The controls in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption differ noticeably from those in previous titles. The left analog stick is no longer used to turn the character, instead it is used in the classic WASD-style to strafe. Turning is handled by moving the Wiimote cursor to the edge of the screen, while moving the cursor around the center allows to aim. The threshold at which point your character goes from free aim to turning can be configured in three steps, with the largest one requiring almost to put the cursor out of the screen to begin turning. The lock on feature is still present in this game and can be used in combination with the aiming of the cursor to shoot enemies at specific spots, instead of just the center. This new ability is reflected in most of the enemy and especially the boss design, which always features a collection of weak spots, while the plain center remains invulnerable.

Jumping and shooting is handled just as before with the A and B button, while morphball and lockon is done via the C and Z keys on the nunchuck. The visor selection has been moved from the dpad to a pie-menu that can be triggered by holding the minus button. The visors present in this game are reduced to the regular scan visor, an x-ray visor, that works much the same as before, and a new ship visor, that however doesn't really visualize anything, instead it is just used a few times to call your ship to specific landing spots or call in air strikes. The plus button acts to activate the hypermode. With the plus and minus buttons already being used, access to the map, logbook and option menu has to be placed on the hard to reach 1 button. Pressing the 2 button will display a context sensitive help. Missiles are now shot by pressing down on the dpad, while the other directions on the dpad remain without functions. A weapon select is not present in this game, as the weapons no longer have different abilities, a weapon upgrade will simply replace the previous weapon and act for most part simply as a stronger version of what the previous weapon did. The ability to freeze enemies has been moved to an ice missile, just like in Metroid Fusion.

The map system in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption continues to have the same issue as in previous games, namely that different areas on the map will overlap in the 3D view, making it hard to decipher the map. A more structured 2D map view or better hints on the map are still missing, however due to the simplified level design these issues don't become as annoying as they did in the previous titles. The logbook is now back to a regular menu, leaving the misguided rotational menu of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes behind. Another welcome addition is the larger text area and the ability to smooth scroll through the text, instead of being limited to page flips. The ability to view the 3D models of creatures however seems to have disappeared.

Aside from the regular button based controls, the game also features some motion controls. The most basic one would be the jumping in morphball mode that is triggered by jamming the Wiimote upwards. Another motion control comes in the form of the grapple lasso, that is triggered by locking on a target jamming the nunchuk forward or, when already connected to a target, by pulling it backward. The grapple lasso is used to move items around or to rip shields or armor from enemies. While all of these motion controls have the typical issue of a rather large delay between the motion and the action on the screen, they mostly work with acceptable accuracy.

Where the motion controls however fail is in the minigames. These minigames are used to activate controls, open doors or to solve other minor puzzles and involve some simple sequences of actions such as pushing the Wiimote to the screen, rotating it and then pulling it back. The rotation is detected by the accelerometers and accurate. The push and pull however is done via the IR sensor on the Wiimote, and while that sensor is precise when it comes to pointing, it is much less precise when it comes to detecting distance. On top of that it is not immediately obviously that the push and pull actions require that the Wiimote is pointed precisely at the screen, thus it can often happen that a move won't be properly registered. This issue becomes even more problematic as the normal way of holding a Wiimote never leaves enough room for doing a push or pull that is large enough to properly register.

The game is however very forgiving in those minigames, never requires them to be done under time pressure and guided enough that things will often snap into place randomly before even having executed a gesture properly, so that it never becomes an issue of frustration. It however feels awkward when such a minigame pretty much solves itself, without the action on the screen really reflecting much of what the player did. In one minigame, near the end of the game which is used to activate a train, where one simply has to pull a lever up and then back down, the issue become so bad that I would go as far as to say that that minigame is just flat out broken. Not once did I managed to have the actions on the screen mirror of what happened with the Wiimote, random wiggle always seems to have just as much chance of success, which is weird as detecting the tilt of the Wiimote is something that actually should work technically just fine.

From a technical point of view, the graphics in this game are very similar to those in the previous games. The main difference being that they are now full 16:9 instead of 4:3 and that they have a glow filter applied to them. Where they however differ a good bit is in the use of color. While Metroid Prime 2: Echoes was mostly grays and a bit purple, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption is full colors, even the suit got an colorful remake. Sometimes this amount of color gets a little to much, as the Wiimote cursor can become hard to see, but overall it is a nice game to look at and the frame rate remains high throughout the game. Aside from the improvements the new graphics however also have a downside. In the previous two games you had light effects on your beam and missiles, shooting a missile through a dark hallway would light it up in those parts where the projectile was traveling through. In this game those effects seem to be completely gone, the hallway stays dark. There are still light effects left when rolling around in the morphball however, but for missile and power beam they are gone.

Another big graphical difference with this game is that it is now full of open rooms. While the room like level design itself persists and your freedom is still just as limited as before, you have frequently a large panorama in the background that gives a good sense of scale. It also helps that those panoramas no longer suffer from the low texture resolution that they had in Metroid Prime 2: Echoes.

Water sections in this game are completely absent, same goes for nature sections in general. The scenarios in this game are limited to a federation base, a federation spaceship, a pirate base, a sky city, an old lava filled temple and a small Phazon section. So you spend a lot of time in buildings and only very little time in natural caves.

One new feature in this game is how the unlocking of artworks, instead of having the galleries locked to things like finishing the game with 100% items or finishing it on a specific difficulty setting, you earn points throughout the game that act as currency with which you can unlock galleries. The earning of points is similar to the Xbox 360 achievement system, some points get earned by doing special things, other by regular game progression. Where that system however fails is with the 'friend vouchers', these are points that you can't use by itself, but that you have to exchange, via the network, with another person owning the game. What makes this problematic is that the game as no multilayer component, thus the only reason to go through all this 'friend' stuff is to unlock the vouchers, it really serves no other purpose at all. What makes this especially problematic is that you actually need those special friend vouchers to unlock a very large portion of the artworks, so no matter how many other points you collected, they stay completely useless unless you go through the friend setup and exchange procedure.

Another disappointing thing is that the game is still limited to three save games, on the Wii with more then plenty of internal storage thus an artificial limitation really shouldn't exists.

In terms of length the game is a bit shorter then the previous two Metroid Prime games, clocking in around 14 hours on a normal playthrough.

Overall it is a good game, but not a great one. The game certainly tries to make most of the Wiimote with its plenty of mini-games, but in the end, none of those really contribute much meaningful substance to the game and most of them barely function. The ability to enter your spaceship is a nice addition, but again it stays meaningless, as you really can't do anything inside your ship. The only motion control that actually works reasonably well is probably the grapple lasso, it works well enough to not malfunction all the time and does its job to get you a little more involved in the game.

The pointer based controls on the other side work reasonably well, especially with most of the games enemies build around the new precision aiming they are fun to play. I however wouldn't say that they work much better then a classic dual analog setup, having turning and aiming done via the same cursor just feels a little to awkward. And there are moments in the game where you go from a dialog scene back to the game just to find your character spinning around like crazy, as your cursor, invisible through the dialog, might no longer point at the center of the screen. This issue of course gets more problematic the more sensitive you configure your controls.

The story in this game mostly disappoints, while it certainly tries in terms of presentation, it never really delivers in terms of actual content. None of what happens elevates beyond bare bones video game story telling. And some issues such as killing the three other bounty hunters that you befriended at the beginning of the game are just completely glossed over.

The level design also feels like a bit of a downgrade from previous games, it is to linear and simplified, lacking the heavy interconnected nature that made Metroid Prime 2: Echoes so interesting. The addition of the spaceship doesn't help much either, as it breaks the game into even more non-connected pieces.

Where the game however wins is in accessibility, the addition of reset points before boss fights and a general downgrade in terms of difficulty, makes this an easily enjoyable game. It might not have the depths of its predecessors, but neither does it have the heavy potential to frustrate. It is simply a more streamlined experience overall, for all the good and bad that this brings.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Review: Metroid Prime 2: Echoes (Gamecube)

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes was released in 2004 and is the sequel to the 2002 game Metroid Prime. The game follows directly into its predecessors footsteps, telling another tale in the Metroid Prime triology.

The game takes place on the planet Aether, just like in the first game, a Phazon poisoned asteroid has crashed on the planet, devastating it and this time splitting the planet into two phases, a dark world and the regular light world. Samus Aran arrives at the planet after a emmergency call from a Galactic Federation trooper squad. Once she enters the atmosphere, her ship is hit by lightning and she crashlands. While exploring she encounters Dark Samus, a mutated Phazon copy of herself and follows her into the dark world. In the dark world she is attacked by creatures and robbed of all her power-ups, she barely makes it back to the light world. She soon finds out that the troopers are all dead and that the planet is overrun by creatures called the Ign, violent creatures living in the dark world. A Luminoth, a member of the native inhabitants of the planet, that Samus then meets later on explains her the situation and gives her the task to collect the planets energy from three energy collectors in the dark world and bringing it back to the normal world.

The core gameplay follows the same structure of the first Metroid Prime, focusing on exploration and item collection. The world structure however is more organized then in the first one. The Luminoth that gives you the tasks is located in a central temple from which three elevators branch of which in turn bring you to the three main sections of the world, Torus Bog, Argon Wastes and the Sanctuary Fortress. The whole world exists in a light and dark phase and portals that are scattered around the map allow you to travel between them. In each section of the dark world you have to collect three keys which will open up access to the dark template, which holds the energy you have to collect and bring back to that sections energy collector in the light world. Once you have collected completed all the three main sections of the game, you are required to collect nine keys that will unlock the last level, the Sky Temple, and bring you to the final boss fight. These nine keys are scattered through the regions you already explored and their location hinted at by a few Luminoth logs you scanned as well as some info that the living Luminoth provides.

Your path is regularly blocked by obstacles that require a specific power-up to overcome, power-ups include the regular Metroid items such as morphball, bombs, spiderball and missiles, as well as a few new abilities such as a light beam, a dark beam and an annihilation beam. You also gain the ability to shoot multiple missiles at once per lock on. New visor modes are present as well, including a dark visor and an echo visor. The dark visor serves a similar purpose to the x-ray visor in the first game, showing you invisible objects and hidden triggers, while the echo beam shows you sound waves and is mainly used to unlock specific doors, somewhat similar to the thermal visor in the previous game. One new ability in this game, taken from the 2D Metroid games, is the screw attack, it is triggered automatically when you triple jump and shows you from a third person perspective. It allows you to jump over very large jump gaps as well as to perform a wall jump. It however is only obtained very late in the game, only useful in a few specific spots and allows you very little control. Compared to the previous game, Echoes features a much more interconnected world, where you often have many possible routes to reach a target, in the first Metroid Prime on the other side you would often be forced to backtrack through the exact same path.

The graphics of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes look overall very much the same as the first game. All visor effects are still present and the world is still separated into rather small rooms. The graphics here however are a bit more detailed and the textures look a little sharper. Where it diverts however is in the locations, while Metroid Prime featured lush natural environments, including ice, lava and jungle themes, Echoes mostly features just an rather monotone industrial gray wasteland. Only the Sanctuary Fortress section of the game diverts a bit form that, featuring a high tech, almost Tron like, look, but even here it is mostly just gray, with very little color. In a few places Echoes tries to break free from the closed room structure, presenting open rooms with a sky or a horizon in the distance, but those backgrounds are very low resolution and while providing a nice addition, fail to really make the world feel like a larger place.

The enemies in this game also follow directly into Metroid Primes footsteps. While all the enemies feature a new look, many of them are clearly derived from enemies in the previous games, just with a few tweaks in behavior and a look that fits the new setting. The only real exception are probably the Ing creatures, which come in multiple forms and can basically liquefy themselves and then crawling along the rooms walls. Space pirates, while still present in this game, have a rather minor role and basically are just a third party, most focus is given to the Ing.

The gameplay in the dark world differs quite a bit from the light world. Not only is the dark world filled with Ing, but your health constantly drains while you are there. To solve this issue the Luminoth places crystals in there that create bubbles of light. In those bubbles not only does the energy drain stop, they also replenish your health, but only slowly. Some of these bubbles are only temporary and have to be activated by shooting against the crystal, which can also be used against some enemies, as many of them will take damage when coming in contact with those bubbles of light. A few hours into the game a suit upgrade will lower the energy drain a good bit, so this game mechanic loses a bit of its impact, but it basically stays to be part of the game till the end.

The scanning of objects is present in Echoes as well, providing you with enemy tactics and backstory of the world. In Echoes scanable objects are highlighted as a whole, instead of just with a small icon, making them much easier to spot and much easier to keep track of. The user interface for reading the scanned logs however still has the same issues as before, namely featuring a far to small text area to make reading comfortable. The game also switched to a rather unusual menu design, where you rotate the menu items around a sphere, allowing you to click the one that is in the front. While it looks pretty, it serves very little purpose and makes navigation of the menus substantially harder, as menu items often overlap and are thus hard to read. Menu items also lose any sense of order this way, making it tricky to read the scanned logs in the right order. One nice feature of the game however is that you can now view all enemies in a fullscreen 3D viewer, in the previous game that ability was limited to Samus alone.

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes also uses a good bit more cutscenes to tell its story then Metroid Prime did. While the story is still mostly told via the scanning an the logs, a few short cutscenes, such as a flashback to the troopers getting attack or encounters with Dark Samus, somewhat reminiscence to the SA-X encounters in Metroid Fusion, provide a welcome addition. The task giving Luminoth also has a proper dialog with Samus this time around. Samus herself however stays silent and the Luminoths speech is only represented by text dialog, not voice acting.

Savepoints in Echoes feel more fairly placed then in the first game, I didn't encounter many situation where there wasn't a savepoint near by and most boss fights also had a close savepoint. Checkpoints are however still missing, so the savepoints are your only reset points. There where however two exceptions to the overall well placed savepoints, one was in Torus Bog, where your checkpoint is rendered unreachable, by unlocking the mechanism that opens the path to the boss, requiring a little round trip through the level each time you die at the boss for no good reason. Another case is when you fight the Spiderball Guardian, there you have to visit the temple and learn a new ability before you can fight the boss, with no savepoint between and the path back to an older savepoint blocked. While both of these cases are rather horrible level design, neither of which is an actual challenge to the player, they just waste a bit of your time.

Overall I enjoyed Metroid Prime 2: Echoes a good bit more then the first Metroid Prime game. While the locations are overall more boring due to their constant grayish look, the dark world with its light bubbles provides a great game mechanic, constantly having you to run or jump to the next bubble and providing you with a sense of urgency. The heavily interconnected world of Echoes also makes travel a good bit more pleasant, as you no longer have to always travel through the exact same pathways. While the story still isn't great or even good by any stretch of imagination, it at least provides basic video game plausibility, something the first game failed rather miserably at. Echoes is also much less focused on combat and more focused on puzzles then the first one. Backtracking through old location is only rarely interrupted by a pirated encounter and you can walk past most enemies without to much trouble, this is quite different then in the first game, where you where constantly interrupted by annoying Chozo ghost or pirate encounters, that served no other reason then to annoy you. The bigger pirates encounters that Echoes has, are scripted events, that don't repeat each time you reenter the room.

I also had to rely a lot less on the hints for the next item that the game provides you with, most of the time you can figure out where you have to go without to much trouble. The only part where this got a bit annoying was with the search for the Sky Temple keys, here you have to read through you logs and then find rooms that match the given description. This isn't hard, as it is just a matter of finding a room name that matches the given one, but due to the slow and uncomfortable menu navigation in the logbook, it becomes chore switching from the map to the logbook and back. I had to resort to pen&paper and just write all the hints down, to bypass the slow menu. Another issue with those hints is, that the game doesn't really introduce you to that mechanic, it is just this one point near the end where looking at the logbook becomes important for the core gameplay, for all the rest of the game, the logbook just provides backstory that isn't really needed for the game itself. The game also has a few weird spots where you are required to interrupt your key search and backtrack over half the map to obtain a new power-up, these could have been much better integrated without the backtracking, but at least the map hints made those things obvious.

So while Metroid Prime 2: Echoes won't win a price for originality, taking most of its mechanics and even enemies, with only small changes, form the first game, it does improve in many key areas, leading to an overall much more enjoyable and less frustrating experience. It is not a perfect game by any means, for that the story is just to uninteresting and the combat still to much an annoyance instead of being something that engages, but the puzzles and exploration can be quite fun at times.