Tales of Maj'Eyal (TOME)

Not sure if I feel like a full writeup on this game, but after playing the hell out of TOME for the better part of a week I have the need to at least spill the basics. I first learned of Tales of Maj'Eyal from Giant Bomb's own Dave Snider when he mentioned it in a video. It took me a little while to even find the thing because of its cryptic spelling, but I finally found it here and downloaded the latest build, number 34 I think it is.
 
TOME is a roguelike that isn't afraid to update the visuals and the interface for people who are a bit tired of an endless list of keystroke commands. It is still a roguelike in the old mode, with a top-down map, static little characters, plenty of powers and random loot to find, tough creatures lurking in higher-level dungeons that will splat you no matter how great you think your level 2 archer is, tons of classes and races to choose from (many you have to unlock by discovering them in the game world), and what I feel to be some pretty good music.
 
It even does something I'd like to see in more Roguelikes, which is vary where you start based on certain factors. Most of the time you get started in a forest filled with the usual compliment of trolls and absurdly angry wildlife (which you can instantly back out of if you want, though it's good to stick with it the first few times you play just to bring your character to level six or so), but dwarven characters start in a very different starting area, and archmages another. These starting areas play out similarly, but are differently configured each time you create a new character, with new loot to find that might help you decide what sort of character you want to build.
 
The game is heavily skill based, and has skill cooldowns and resource points for just about all the skills no matter what the class. Non-magic classes tend to have stamina as their resource and mages have mana, but as you unlock new characters you'll find other powers and power sources. It's kind of impressive to see just how many different kinds of characters you can get, although the racial powers and attribute mods aren't total game changers.
 
Character builds can go in a bunch of different directions, although some choices, at least to start, are certainly better than others. My mage characters didn't survive very long unless I maximized some offensive spells right off the bat, and archers do better if you just stick with stuff that helps them shoot many painful arrows. My most successful character class so far has been the alchemist, which in addition to some cool gem creation and minor offensive abilities, it has a golem pet that acts independently, can shoot beams from its eyes, carry heavy weapons, wear heavy armor, and explode when its master dies, taking out a good chunk of bad guys.
 
Of course death is prevalent in this game; it being a roguelike you normally get one life, although you can pick an optional multiple lives mode where you get a certain amount of resurrects, and you can find items that will give you extra lives. I think this option is really welcome, having been crushed by the loss of some pretty cool characters in the course of play, but so far I've stuck with the single-life option. When I have managed to get brought back to life, I get to keep EVERYTHING I was carrying, which is such a relief. I can't imagine lasting for long if I had to recover my stuff. If you're not into dying at all, those who register (for a fee) with the game designer can actually have unlimited lives as a thank-you for your support.
 
If someone had told me about all this stuff and said it was one of the old ASCII character style presentations I would nod approvingly, but I might not ever play it. I guess I'm a bit burnt out on ASCII style games for the time being because that is often synonymous with arcane interfaces and needless complications. For the most part Maj'Eyal skips all of this, with point and click power usage, movement and attack, a verbose and fully transparent GUI with ways to figure out EXACTLY what powers will do, and you can see how long until the cooldown expires and how much resources you used, with plenty of pop-up explanations when you mouse-over, adequate graphics, and some pretty cool music (don't let the starting area get you down, there's plenty of diversity in environments and music once you explore a bit). 
 
On top of all this, the game has a nice difficulty tree if you're willing to follow it (I'm not, thus I run off and get killed like a dumbass), although some of the bosses can be surprisingly brutal, especially on certain character classes. Still, it wouldn't be a roguelike without nasty surprises. The loot varies decently, and the loot and monsters seem to scale a bit based on where you decide to go first, but not so much that every place seems tailored to your character; some places need to be skipped until you're strong or suicidal enough.
 
Overall I'm quite pleased with TOME. I have encountered what seems to be a memory leak, which makes it so I have to reboot if I play the game too long, but this is on a PC that's nearly a decade old. The crashes did result in the loss of a game or some progress, but you can optionally save it after a major accomplishment, just like you would in a plain old RPG, and even the errors won't be a big deal, assuming you run into them at all. It's still a work in progress, though, so I expect these problems may be smoothed out eventually. 
 
Ask in the comments about the specifics if you want to know more.

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Pet (Gaming's Alteration of Terms)

Wherein Hooded breaks out a few modded gaming terms and examines them, and fires the dog-zooka as a last resort.
 
Pet is generally considered a term of affection. While many people, arguably justifiably, are trying to recast the role of "the family pet" to a family companion, where the human beings are considered the animal's guardian and not so much an owner, it's generally understood that if you have a pet you watch out for it, provide for it, and treat it humanely. Others will say the term owner has a secondary meaning in this case, and is closer to "guardian" than this contentious re-imagining would suggest. Pet as a term can even be used on humans, with the affection usually in place, although it at times can explicitly imply ownership or dominance (I won't get into it; if you want to learn more, the internet is waiting for curious little innocents to wander into its deep, dark forest). The argument against using the term pet often points toward this parallel meaning, where those who call another pet are establishing a hierarchy, and that the "pet" is somehow lesser. This is fine for some people, but others, even though they still use the term pet to describe the animal that lives with them, will still treat this creature as a full member of the family.
 
In gaming, usually in online RPGs, the source of alternate languages the likes of which only crazy cults can rival, "pet" tends to mean something very specific, a semi-NPC companion that travels with or is summoned by the player character, used to supplement the player's arsenal of abilities and, most importantly, act as a secondary tank of sorts, to distract attackers so the main character can pummel them from a distance. Here the hierarchy is obvious: the pet's well-being is sacrificed for the sake of its owner.
 
Contrasted with real life, you would rarely meet anyone who would use a "pet" in such a fashion. Focusing on dogs, some cultures and families can't get past the idea of dogs being little more than trainable guardians, sort of a meat shield for the home, but I like to think that this is usually thought of in a defensive sense. Still, as I began writing this I realized that yes, real life does have examples of animals, most often dogs, being used in ways similar to the way pets are used in MMOs. What's crucial, though, is that the terminology tends to change when they're employed in this way. The term pet gets taken out and replaced with guard dog, police dog, bomb-sniffing dog. If they're at any time a pet, it seems this term would be used when the dog is not at "work", when it's at the home of its caretaker, being treated as a member of a family or at least being given decent food and a place to sleep.
 
I think in games the term pet is a bit tongue-in-cheek, and may stem from the way MMOs are played. You often show off, even if unintentionally, with your character, so the term pet may be applied just as often when you're showing off the creature to your friends to show what level of ability you've reached. Even affection could be applied, because you know that, unlike in real life, the creature you call a pet won't get mangled or die as a result of combat (even if the pet is a robot, golem, spirit, or shambling undead). At worst you'll need to re-summon it, and it'll be just as dutiful and bright-eyed as the day you first got it. Fallout, Dragon Age, and Fable try to add a bit more consequence to the pets they introduce, but in so doing, I feel, they sort of move out of the feel of the term "pet" and approach companion, because the animals aren't just a source of empathy, however forced, but they're also able characters that love biting genitals for justice. Pet, again, seems only to apply when they're not doing their jobs as combatants or treasure finders.
 
(Don't get me started on how Rinoa treated her pet, though.)
 
No matter how much one protects a real life pet from harm, it will eventually die. In some games, like with main characters, there is an implicit immortality. So, while the virtually brutal treatment of an animal in a game suggests one doesn't care about its welfare, when the rules are such that you can get that animal back without consequences, suddenly the two definitions of pet don't seem so far apart.
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Skyrim: Survival Mode Musings

I don't need games that are arbitrarily harder, but I like it when there are little requirements that make me feel like it's an actual game universe I'm visiting, and not just a colorful screen where I pull a lever and get pleasure pellets.
 

Maintenance in Games

 
When I heard that Fallout New Vegas was going to have a hard core mode with survivalist traits, I think that was the first time that I felt like this generation's big titles were actually aiming for old grognards like myself. But from what I've heard, it's not that intensive an increase in difficulty. Water is plentiful, is the example I usually hear.  Still, I can't say I always like those sorts of requirements in games. The older Ultima games seem ridiculously sped up and my adventuring party a bit too ravenous. I remember fighting to fill their black hole stomachs, hurrying to steal food off tables just to stay alive. Kind of tedious, really.
 
In the Elder Scrolls, weapons have had durability. Even in Arena, the very first ES game, your weapons wore down over time requiring a visit to the blacksmith. Daggerfall continued the tradition, but in subsequent games fixing items actually felt LESS fun to me. The difference was that you could give a blacksmith in Arena a big pile of objects to repair, and then you could pick whether they would be done quickly, or cheaply. The more items you wanted fixed and the cheaper you wanted it, the longer it took. The more items and the quicker you wanted them, the more expensive it was. Those choices actually enhanced the experience for me somehow, that choice made it feel less like a stupid task and more like I was spending my ill-gotten gains for a nice convenience.
 
It all comes down to balance of course, but I DO like a certain amount of maintenance in my games. It helps separate adventuring time from reflective downtime a bit (though of all the RPGs I've played, I think Darklands still does downtime the best), and as long as it's not too much work I think it adds some flavor. I imagine if Skyrim has any maintenance requirements that they'll be minimal, but one of the nice things about recent Elder Scrolls games has been the simultaneous release of content creation tools, meaning that someone with enough time, resources, and knowledge can create some pretty epic mods.
 
I'm not sure if you could ever mod in hunger and sensitivity to cold using creator tools, but it doesn't hurt to hope. Below are some of the things I'd like to see in a Skyrim survival mode:
 

Hunger

 
Since Morrowind, eating has been there to provide bonuses. One of the first items in Morrowind was a loaf of bread that restored stamina, a stat that recovered slowly in that game unless you slept. Potions and edible materials (no matter how gross you imagined they'd taste) would give you basic stat increases or penalties, but they were never really necessary. I guess I like the idea of slow hunger, perhaps represented by stamina drain. In the newer games, Stamina is something that comes back quickly, and is basically used during combat when you're zipping around doing fancy maneuvers, and possibly for running but I don't quite recall. It's used to show short-term exhaustion, but since it refills quickly enough it's not that big a deal. But say that over time it doesn't refill quite as quickly, and maybe its maximum is a bit lower, all until you sit down to a bowl of yeti stew.
 
When in the wild you might prepare food from animals and plants you find, or when in town you could order something from the local tavern, or buy stuff from the market and fix it yourself. It adds a bit to that downtime feeling I'm talking about, making it feel like there's a point to cities other than being a source of quests and gear.
 
Even tougher: When stamina bottoms out, restore it at a cost to health, and don't let stamina recover until you heal properly.
 

Cold

 
In Skyrim this seems especially appropriate to me. Like hunger it doesn't need to be too dramatic, but I like the idea that the cold will wear you down. Maybe in order to avoid freezing in a blizzard, you decide to hide in a nearby cave, which might reveal something to you that you wouldn't have otherwise noticed. Or it might force you to camp every once in a while, instead of walking for days on end with no apparent loss in composure. At the inns you can seek out fireplaces to warm up, or maybe hold your hands over a lit torch in the dungeon. Here I'm thinking of games like Cryostasis.

Even tougher: go ahead and make the cold deadly, and depending on what you're wearing and how cold it is around you, this could cause damage pretty quick. Makes sense given that Nords in this game don't have frost resistance like they did in earlier games. Let me emphasize: should be important what you're wearing. At least in survival mode, I want to be punished for running naked in the snow.

Gear Durability


There may not be a durability mechanic in Skyrim, but when I talk about durability systems I more mean bringing back some of the ideas in Arena, where you can go to a blacksmith (or if skilled in smithing, do it yourself) and get all your gear repaired either quickly or cheaply. Assuming you spend the night in town, perhaps an apprentice will deliver the equipment to you in the morning (for a gold piece), so everything in the downtime portion of a game is centralized around that inn. If you do it yourself, time-lapse it like it does when you sleep. This could open up magical gear which has a self-recovering durability feature (extending this further you could have items that provide you with at least minor relief from certain conditions or diseases; buy an herbal kit that can heal a specific disease, rather than generic curing of all diseases), or gear that can't be repaired (like ethereal items in Diablo, but they don't need to be magical).

Even tougher: Make the expense for keeping your gear in working order a sliding scale. Make consistent repairs cheap, and make last-minute repairs so expensive that you might as well buy new stuff. This actually might not be a whole lot of fun, but it will add a bit of realism if that's what you want.
 

Ingredient Rot

 
Freshly collected potion ingredients should be more potent. You should also be able to prepare ingredients to make them slightly less potent but last a long time, or keep them in treated pouches that slow down decomposition. Tangential to this, I think it might be cool that you don't just loot skins and meat off of your kills; the process should take a little time. I always thought it was weird that you could bash the hell out of a wolf and then loot the hide from it like it was carrying its own skin in a backpack.
 
Even tougher: Not that this sounds appealing to me, but: make stuff become useless if it's out too long.
 

Thirst


In snowy regions this can be solved by just chomping on a little snow, but that will bring down your body temperature. Melting snow at a camp might be a better idea, or drinking ale or water at an inn if that's what's available. If there's ever a desert setting for an Elder Scrolls game this will make more sense, but NV had thirst despite the ubiquity of water so I don't see this as being too big a deal.

Even tougher: Perhaps certain creatures or traps can cause conditions like thirst to get worse, or even extensive bleeding when you've lost a lot of health. And this goes for Hunger, Durability, and Cold: let monsters cause damage conditions that make these survival things worse. Give the player a bit of lore ahead of time maybe, saying these creatures sap heat from their victims, so that players will be prepared with Warmbrew potions and plenty of furs. 

Injuries and Crippling Wounds


I wouldn't want you to be stopped in your tracks, you might as well load at that point, but for those of us stubborn enough to suffer through minor inconveniences, the loss of use of an arm after getting your shield arm smacked by a dragon, or the reduction in speed due to a hit to the leg, would make surviving in time to get healed all the more rewarding.

Even tougher: Let disease creep in more often when you get hurt badly, and let natural healing either take longer, magical healing, or need a bit of the old-fashioned "surgery". Yeah, sounds masochistic, I know.


The Greatest Challenge of All: Convincing Anyone this Is a Decent Idea


A lot of these things can be play-acted, of course. I guess what I like is when the game actually confronts you with these obstacles to see if you can handle it, but doesn't do it so often that it becomes a game about feeding and clothing yourself ( Roman calling you on the cell phone all the time is an example of things maybe going too far). I figure it wouldn't be for everyone, so I'd more like it for the people who get a bit of a rush overcoming these sorts of challenges. It still comes down to balance, and it comes down to variation. Like with the blacksmith example, I think I liked Arena's system more because it wasn't just an obstacle, it felt like it had weight to it, like fixing my gear took a degree of effort that could be ameliorated with money or time, and that if I wanted I could skip it for a little longer, and THAT would be my way around the obstacle for the time being.

What these features would need is a way to figure out when it would be a good idea to bring them in. It might step away from the simulation aspect a bit, but having a "director" or "dungeon master" AI that decides when there's a lull in the game would help with that, inserting a hunger, thirst, or disease obstacle like older games might do random encounters, but do it in a way that only pops up if you happened to be walking a long, long way.

But hey, I don't think random encounters are necessarily a bad thing, so I know I'm not going with the popular sentiments on this! :)

Any games you care to mention with survival or maintenance elements that actually worked for you?
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Might and Magic Heroes Kingdoms of Heroes of Might and Magic

I've spent the last few weeks playing Might and Magic Heroes: KingdomS. (I think the colon should be there, I'm not sure.) It's been said before: how do you judge a game that is ongoing and slow to build? Would one have to play it a year before one could give it a review? If so, some stuff could never be reviewed.
 
I think I've got a good handle on its gameplay now and I can tell you what I think without knowing much about where it's going or what the endgame is.  Here goes.
 

MMKH overview

  

The game is a browser-based, multiplayer strategy game where you build up your kingdom through build actions and brief, managed battles.  You accumulate gold, wood, ore, gems, sulfur, mercury, and crystal to spend on build actions, and find mines that help with this. These mines can be upgraded, effectively doubling their output once the process is completed, and you can build up your town with creature dwellings and their upgrades, resource storage, and a tower for magical research. The surroundings, once cleared of enemies, can also be used to create enhancements that incrementally boost mine output, creature dwelling output, and your defenses.
 
Once you reach enough influence you're able to expand to a completely new town, founding it within your sphere of influence in an untamed region with a randomized set of mines. You always get four mines in each region, and depending upon which town type you have, you will need certain materials more than others. This makes picking a new town crucial to your continued growth, although you can trade in the marketplace with other players for resources, or buy them from NPC merchants who usually charge high prices in gold.
 
Each hero has an attack, defense, and magic statistic, and can upgrade through the use of accumulated skill points they earn every time they level up. Beginning skill fields or starting skills within those fields each cost one point, but the next upgrade of the same skill costs 2 and then finally 3 to max it out. Each hero may have a total of three skill fields, and each skill field has 4 skills that can be upgraded. The skills range from kingdom management stuff to stats that directly affect spellcasting or battle. Depending upon the hero's class, they have access to different skills, and their increase of attack, defense, and magic when they level is based upon different types of progression, so some gain a lot of attack, defense, or magic early on but fail to gain points in the mid-range, while others gain in these stats steadily.
 
If you don't like the way your hero has been going, you can spend two skill points to respec your character's skills, which is something I would have liked to have seen in the original Heroes games that I'd played, although the idea that you could never change them did make your skill choices more meaningful. The skills are not randomly presented to you, however; you choose from all of the skills available and craft your team to suit your needs. Since each hero can do one task at a time, the more heroes you have the more you can do, sending some off into battle to kill monsters for experience and treasure, while using others to build structures outside of town. In a sense, the amount of heroes you have means the amount of actions you can perform, beyond building up your town, which doesn't require a hero to complete.
 
If this sounds a lot like Heroes games you've played over the years, or even an improvement on the formula, hold on a sec. I've deliberately left out details just to show you how the above description can be used to draw you in to a game you may not recognize when you actually get into it. The very strong differences between MMHK and the HoMM/MMH games come in combat, options, and how tasks are completed. Only read below before judging if this is something you want to get into.

Combat

 
Combat in MMHK is markedly different than any Heroes title you may have played. You still get multiple levels of creatures which you can hire from creature dwellings and that you get free when you hire heroes. You also get them as part of the game's reward structure for completing certain "quests" that are there to teach you the game's fundamentals. You place these creatures under the command of your heroes to form an army, and this army can be used to free up mines, buildings within your own town(!) so that they can be developed, and clear areas of wilderness around your town. Destroying a monster army yields experience for the hero and resources if out in the wilderness, or extra troops of your troop type if they're killed within your town. You will rarely also get an artifact from the wilderness armies, which may or may not be useful for your particular heroes (but that you can sell on the market to other players if you want to get rid of it, assuming they'll buy it), and even more rarely, although I've never seen it, if you overwhelm troops of your own type with your forces, you may get a few free troops in the bargain.

Combat itself is rock-paper-scissors, with ranged troops being hit by cavalry (usually flying units like dragons, sprites, and gargoyles, which in Heroes games were often used to neutralize ranged units), cavalry being weak against melee units, and ranged dicing up melee. The bonuses provided for these interactions is that the strength of a unit is one and a half times higher when they're up against a unit weak to their troop type. You organize your army such that the top stack of your army hits first, followed by the next until one army or the other is defeated. A unit's strength is a number that stands for the units attack strength AND its hitpoints. There are no random numbers generated like in Heroes games you know, and once you've committed to a battle you wait a little while and get the results. You do not tactically control creatures; all the tactics are in setting up for the battle, and applying any spells you may know.

This means that the battles are entirely determined. You get modifiers for certain artifacts and for your hero's attack power if attacking units (your defense is only useful when defending against others' attacks, which in a PvE server, the kind I've been playing on, is rare), you can cast spells if you're able, and your skills can provide modifiers to creature strength. But all the thinking is done before you enter battle. The game is so deterministic, in fact, that one can use a third-party online battle calculator to guess what the optimal strategy for a given battle is. You enter troops into the attacking and defending sides, pick spells, define your hero, and then it computes the outcome. Maybe some people are able to do all of this in their head, but I use the calculator when I really want to know what the optimal battle outcome should be, and skip it when I just want to get things over with.

Experience is awarded based on how many casualties you take, and how strong the opposing army was compared to yours, measured in total strength. If you take on a foe much greater than yours, using the rock-paper-scissors system to your advantage, you gain much more experience. If you overwhelm them with strong troops you may not gain a lot of XP, but you do get favor in that you expend less troops to get that experience. Personally I LIKE this dynamic; it adds genuine choice to battles that remind me of the choice you get with treasure chests in HoMM games, where you either got experience or gold.

The problem comes where you realize that the meat of Heroes games, the battles, winds up being more about calculations than desperate ploys and flanking. Since none of the creature stacks have any special powers, they're just a picture with strength and an attack type, it doesn't feel nearly as rewarding or personal as the battles in the old Heroes games. You do, however, feel the sting when you sacrifice troops for your own hero's benefit, which is nice, although the calculator you may use will tell you the optimal choices either way, sometimes counter-intuitively showing that reducing certain troop stacks will reduce casualties. It all comes down to whether or not you find such fiddly systems fun.

Building and Training: It Takes Time

 

In the old Heroes games, you got as much out of it as you were willing to get. You would start a day, get your resources posted in the corner of your screen, send your heroes out, expending their movement points, running into creature stacks and getting into battles. The battles could be long, with huge ones taking quite a while to complete, but the movement was as fast as you wanted it to be. When you built a part of your town, assuming you had the resources, the building basically appears out of thin air, and when a hero trained in a skill they learned it instantly.

In Kingdoms, everything takes time. Real time. It cannot be sped up by paying real money, if that's what you're thinking. If you want to build that peasant hut, it's going to take as long as it's going to take. You can make it go a bit quicker by spending more resources, or longer if you want to save on expenses, but it will take a while. The more advanced a building is, the longer it takes. Since this is a browser game that you can just drop in the middle of play and pick up days later, this makes more sense than it would for a game you play against AI players or in direct competition with others. You can get all your build orders together and leave the game, coming back when you feel like it, but you can't get instant builds, and you can't make build queues. When a character spends skill points to increase a skill, that takes about two hours to complete, and they're going to be doing that until they're done. Some tasks are so huge that they may take a half a day, or even a full day. There's even a skill that reduces build times by a bit, but it's not a dramatic reduction. Battles, however, take a few minutes, unless you're going to trek across the map to attack a player (in PvP servers) or attack an outbreak of creatures from the underworld who are trying to attack the players (in some PvE servers).

I have to admit that if I had read that, I would probably not even have bothered to play because it sounds annoying to get into a game only to have wait; it's less annoying in practice, and you actually feel like you're building a real place, but I think it's designed to keep you coming back. There's a training version of the game, though, limited to an hour of play, where these time limits expire in a matter of seconds and minutes, letting you know if the game is for you without a huge investment in time, although the version of the training mode I played seemed buggy and prone to the occasional crash, unlike the full version of the game. Since this is a PvE server I don't have to worry about attacking players, and attacking NPCs are rare, so it's more about creating this place and managing resources to do it. There's a challenge in making the right decisions on how to upgrade places, what needs to be built next, what territory to occupy, what quests to complete to get bonus resources and which to ignore. But it's not what Heroes was like at all in this regard. The game didn't move at your pace, it moves at its own.
 

Options

 

The elephant in the room is how you pay for all of this. I've built up a town and started in on a second, I have a few heroes with plenty of experience in skills. I've almost wiped out all the hapless NPC monsters in the wilderness around my starting town and have completed a lot of the quests for free loot. I supplement my income by selling off resources I collect to other players, and I have an army strong enough to challenge some of the bigger NPC armies that threaten one of my towns, and I haven't paid a cent.

As part of the whole free-to-play movement, this game, which has been out for a few years in French speaking servers and has since been passed on to German and English servers, has introduced an optional try before your buy system that exists alongside its subscription service. You don't buy direct in-game advantages, but everything that is free or for a virtual cost for subscribers costs "seals", which must be purchased with real money or earned very slowly through advancing the in-game ladders and defeating creature stacks.

The things you can purchase, though, are largely not very enticing, and seem like mid-game level stuff. You can reduce your aggro such that invading NPCs may not choose you as a target, you can earn the right to build more vaults on your property that you can delve into to gain treasures, you can change what the mines around a given city yield, you can make cosmetic changes to heroes or respec your hero's skills without paying in skill points. You can also hire more than three heroes using this system; you're limited to three if you play for free, although I imagine this restriction is absent for subscribers.

I don't feel that my not subscribing or not paying incrementally has hindered my towns much at all. Shrewd trading in the markets and auction house, resource management, and use of battle calculators has made me jump up the ranks fairly satisfactorily, and I don't feel any strong pressure to buy anything. It's not like other games I've seen where you feel truly hindered, and it shows a bit gentler way to leverage payments than what I've seen in other games. It does feel like a game to me, but it isn't what I like in Heroes. It has Heroes elements, it feels like Heroes at times, but exploration and tactical battles are pretty much absent. It's not a farming simulator, much, but it's more kingdom management and less adventure.
 

Conclusions(?)

 
I'm not sure how long I'll play it, but because I've reached a point where I can make a bunch of decisions and leave it to run for a day I don't feel that it's all that big an investment of my time. I've seen so many free games that actually reduce time duration as part of their payment system, but this is not one of those. For the most part, everyone's on the same playing field, and it makes it feel less oppressive that way. Still, if you subscribe or if you use micropayments you will have little advantages for dungeon delving or a hero roster; it comes down to whether or not that's going to bother you. Since the advantages seem minuscule I don't really care, especially since the world I'm playing in is just PvE.

I guess I keep coming back to the game, despite my misgivings, because I have built this little world up, and I'm proud of the accomplishments I've made relative to other players, and relative to the board. I've made some mistakes, and unlike in old Heroes games I can't really load and try something new, so it creates a bit of a challenge in picking the right action the first time. But underlying this game there seems to be an ideal path. There are random elements in where mines are placed and how you're placed relative to other kingdoms which will affect your progress, but overall I feel like there are paths to follow. Some of the quests feel misleading, in that if you follow them without knowing all the rules you can set yourself back by losing too many troops. And the documentation, to be honest, is spotty, with some entries being decent, and others being full of misspellings and confusing terminology. I learned how to play by doing, but there are still some finer points that are a bit lost on me. I imagine this will get better over time (hey, Ubisoft, you need a document writer? My rates are reasonable), but it pays to read the forums and not just the FAQ or the adequate online strategy guide. I'm not sure if the rules are much clearer for French speakers, though, since if everything would be laid bare, it could be instantly optimized by people who love spreadsheets.

I wouldn't keep playing if I didn't feel there was something to this. It's not a deep game, but there are lots of little threads that combine together that I don't understand as well as others might. If any of this seems interesting you can always try the training mode and see what you think, or play for a day or two, since it's free. I'd not recommend it to anyone who assumed it's just Heroes translated into the world of MMOs. Too much has changed, although some of the flavor is still there. As to whether or not the game is ultimately rewarding to play, I won't be able to tell you definitively for a while yet. Such is the nature of the massively multiplayer online beast.
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Death and Life (Gaming's Alteration of Terms)

Wherein Hooded breaks out a few modded gaming terms and examines them, just in time for Sunday services. 
 
The use of the word death was the very first schism between common culture and game culture that I was aware of. I still remember hearing on the radio explaining that when kids said "they died," they were just talking about video games. It piqued my interest; I'd done the same thing without even realizing it. I'd "died" countless times, and I'd describe it as such to others. It'd never occurred to me how absurd that might sound.
 
In the real world, death is the universal tyrant, driving us to distraction with its constant threats. It holds our loved ones hostage, it taunts us, it fuels our nightmares and our  hopes, and we spend most of our lives avoiding its truth so we don't collapse. Thanks to our ancestors, who pushed through despite death's grin, we carry the torch with the hope that life will be easier, or even better, for us and those in the future.
 
Death in games is rarely permanent. Even the "iron man" mode in roguelikes doesn't kill US or stop our ability to play the game, it only kills our character. (I guess an analogy would be a game you purchase once, can play as much as you want, but if your character dies you have to buy it again. Hmm... sounds like arcade games!) Here, even death is just another obstacle to surmount. It's something we deal out unthinkingly and try desperately to avoid, but we can still examine the phenomenon indirectly, as Perseus had spied Medusa.
 
We've even got "lives", something that was probably always a side-effect of the early arcade game's tension between payment and character death. Rather than tell a player "tough luck" right away, you tease them into thinking they can conquer a game through a little experimentation, allowing multiple tries. You may initially die on purpose or act recklessly to learn the rules of the world, but through multiple lives, or multiple coins, you may be able to master it; death only happens when you give up.
 
God, if only real life were that simple.
 
Even though I use the term "real life" knowing that gaming is part of common reality, there's still a sharp divide between the world we all share, and a hobby where death is a temporary setback, and a new life is awarded every 10,000 points. 
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The Blurbs

I have spent the past few days playing Heroes of Might and Magic: Kingdoms (I know it's not quite called that, but the other title is too undignified).  I'm willing to talk about it, if anyone wants to hear it. It's both not what you expect, and totally what you'd expect.
 
I'm also thinking about talking about Darklands in depth for any RPGrognards out there. If you haven't tried it yet I think you're missing out. I still feel that the menu system in cities, the saints, the alchemy all make the game very fun. I'll probably get it on GOG, but I secretly wish that someone would see what they did and totally make a modern version of it, smoothing out the wrinkles.
 
Daggerfall is taunting me with its weirdness...  I'm still in a mood to play it so I'll try to see if I can get any further. 
 
ROM Check Fail is now released as open source! If you don't know what I mean, go to farbs.org
 
Solium Infernum has a new content patch, which should be awesome.
 
Hm... I guess that was it.
 
EDIT: The Farbs link was fucked up. Sorry about that.

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A Quest Requiring Patience

Last time I was a bit dumb and saved AFTER I'd taken a quest for the temple of Julianos in my adoptive home of Satakalaam. The quest was to find a church official who was investigating a self-designated prophet who spoke of the lies of the temple. Kinda cool. So I go to the expert, she tells me about a former lover of the self-styled prophet. I got to the lover, he tells me the questy equivalent of fuck off, so I go into the dungeon that the prophet had received her revelation from, find a woman in the dungeon who tells me to talk to the lover (I DID!!). So I go back to the guy, and he refuses to talk to me. 
 
Here I am thinking the quest is busted, and I have every right to think that sort of thing given the game's reputation. But I check the Unofficial Elder Scrolls' Pages and find that the quest is actually kind of complicated...  probably one of the more intricate quests I've seen in my gaming days. 
 
If you have a decent reputation with the lover guy's faction, this one I think is with the Thieves' Guild, then he instantly gives you a clue to what you need to do next. But if you don't, and I don't, then you have to basically give up and wander around doing other stuff, sometimes for up to 20 days, before you get news from the lover about someone being murdered within the church hierarchy. You go to the person who replaces the victim, and the quest continues that way.
 
In other words, at some point, without any hints that the game would allow this, I'm expected to give up, and only THEN will I get anywhere.   All the effort I put into the game will not yield results!
 
In principle I really like this idea, but because the game never gives me a hint that such things are possible within the game's own internal language, I'm left wondering if the game is busted or I'm missing something. So many quests seem designed specifically to force us to micromanage and hit on every clue like a to-do list. Real life investigations often lead to dead-ends or unexpected revelations, and one sort of has to make up the to-do list as they go. I wonder if there's some way to do this right, to let the player know that sometimes things will resolve with a little patience. Is that even possible with the current game design structures? I almost feel as though games are usually made with us as rats in a maze, looking for cheese or ringing a bell for a food pellet. To regard a quest as more than that, pretending these characters are real people, seems to throw a wrench into this pretty simplistic model.
 
Anyone else find some strangely intricate quest, whether or not it was successfully executed? What about one that required the user to be patient, or even go do something else for a little while before a portion resolved?

 
Update: The quest must have expired, because it was gone from my log and the maze I spent an hour combing was empty of questy bits. Bleah!

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Daggerfall: Exploring the Mind of a Mad Data-God

The Survival Kit

 
In Daggerfall, I've taken to counting the saves. You're sort of forced to. Even with all the patches there's still a chance, a dice roll if you like, that your save game will be corrupted, or your game will freak out mid-stream and have to be restarted. It's a game in itself, and not a very fun one, to preserve the work you've done.  I've been playing for a few hours now, and my save count is up to 150-something. 
 
So far I've had only one crash in all that time, although I've had my share of void glitches, including being reminded that a mountain chain has buggy dungeon entrances, such that one time I actually spawned outside of the dungeon, and saw through The Void TWO crypts, one that would have been the normal one, and one that extended from the EXIT. Not only was there another whole dungeon but there were bits of rooms floating in space, unconnected to anything, with orcs and giant bats wandering forever locked in these dimensional prisons. It was actually kind of cool, although I was annoyed I had no easy way to get back out again. 
 
(For the sake of completion I'll mention that I did get out using the tools available to me by levitating underneath the starting room and accessing the exit from there.)
 
The spell Recall is pretty much required to maintain my sanity. It allows you to teleport to any place you've anchored to with the same spell, letting you zip to a point in space, cutting down on return travel time or making navigating its insane dungeons much less taxing once you're done in there. My usual practice is to anchor the spell at the entrance to a given dungeon, but I have sometimes, when I was feeling especially daring (read: stupid), set the anchor at the quest-giver's spot. Anchoring at the entrance, once you have a wagon, is very useful because if you overload on loot you can access the wagon through the entrance without leaving and dump all but gold into it. If you've cleared out the area, you can also rest without fear of anything but random encounters. Anchoring at the quest-giver's spot saves you some time but prevents any of these conveniences. And once you leave a dungeon it respawns, so if you're not done you'll have to start all over if you go back. 
 

Exploring the Mind of a Mad Data-God

 
I can't remember how many times I've started this damned game. I love the little moments, when you enter a room with a weird configuration and marvel at how it all falls together. Or when you manage to knock someone off a cliff, use a spell to get around a trap, or find the next piece of loot that upgrades your gear. Yeah, the game is busted all to hell, but I sometimes feel that instead of playing a messed up game, I'm exploring a ruined virtual space, trying to make sense of a created world so massive that its own creators abandoned it.
 
If Daggerfall were MORE complex, this feeling would only be heightened. There's a sense that, sometimes, you're the first human being to ever see a given dungeon. Maybe a few players have been there before, but most of this stuff isn't fully documented. There could be even more crazy combinations of rooms and monsters, more weird traps, more quests even. If anything, I think the game would be better if it delved deeper into this Lovecraftian madness.  I wish I knew how easy this was to mod.
 
Still, as a game Daggerfall is painful to play, as I've talked about before. Paralysis effects seem to last too long, some of the character creation options don't work, some of the skills are nearly useless, the errors can sometimes be so thick that you'll be screwed out of one or more saved games, and while the crypts feel too small, the random dungeons are just too damned big to be fun if you're looking for something in there, since there are no clues to where a quest object might be. 
 

Where the Architects of Ancient Times Had Trod

 
But, enough of this! What I need to do is try the main game and see if those custom-made dungeons are friendlier. I'm not intimidated any more by this sort of thing, especially after beating Morrowind. I've tried my hand at beating Arena (contrary to myth, there was no Elder Scrolls game before Arena), and I was a bit bored by the lack of variety, although I'd say in some ways Arena is a better dungeon hacking system than any Elder Scrolls game that's followed.
 
I've spent enough time in the procedurally generated wilderness. Time to explore the parts of Daggerfall that were actually colonized by the designers and see if it makes any more sense.
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Artificial Intelligence (Gaming's Alteration of Terms)

Wherein Hooded breaks out a few modded gaming terms and examines them, after an inexplicable hiatus.
 

AI (Artificial Intelligence)


We're pretty much alone in the universe. We try to personify all kinds of creatures, inanimate objects, even ideas, and we even pretend we understand more about our fellow human beings than we probably do (although we can still be sadly predictable at times). Most of us wander through life trying to find someone we relate to, grasping through the void until we reach some comfortable equilibrium and hold on as best we can (assuming your hearts are still in it).  While finding someone else, be it friend, companion, lover, or conversation partner, is largely a crapshoot, the idea that we can CREATE something intelligent has fascinated us ever since we created automated machines that can theoretically grow in complexity over time. 
 
The computer really is the greatest augmentation humanity's managed to piece together, and I feel like we're barely scratching the surface of its potential even now. Some progressive-thinking researchers are already making strides in primitive technology that at least mimics human knowledge acquisition, and while many argue quite well that even if artificial "life" (whatever that is) is possible within an electronic environment, we're not really close yet, it's hard not to jump the gun a bit and say we've already got artificial intelligence around us. I can't tell if that's over-selling machines or under-selling human intelligence, but there you are.
 
In the real world, a phrase I'll continue to abuse because you know what I mean (even though everything is in the real world, sorry to say, whether we make it up or not. All the stuff my nightmares have created over the years will cease to exist when I die, but that doesn't mean that those virtual monsters somehow fail to rate just because they're subjective), Artificial Intelligence tends to refer to the rather esoteric quest for a thinking computer, or at least a thinking-like behavior. We're often tempted to push this term into places it doesn't belong, like talking about any old computer being intelligent, but this is largely understood as joking, personification, or naive hopefulness.
 
In games, however, Artificial Intelligence winds up being a word we throw around for ANY independent game behavior. We freely talk about the AI of the dudes we shoot, the opposing nations or heroes, the way animals spread across a map and kill each other or us. But notice how it often applies to the personified. It's less likely, I think, that you would describe a complex process where an environment is created to be Artificial Intelligence by itself. It has to somehow be reactive, and we often have to be able to relate to it in some way. Yet if you have a procedural generation engine that fits everything together, that's probably some of the more intelligent things a computer program can do, it's just that we often think of these things as just strings of equations... and they usually are. 
 
It seems like we really haven't nailed down what intelligence actually means, so we fall back on the animus, the spirit in the machine, that feeling that we're connecting to something, however stupid or blind it might be. We can even be forgiving toward an AI if it's pitiful, or assume it's cheating if it's kicking our ass. The weird thing about Artificial Intelligence, both within games and without, is that it may not be easily personifiable should we actually achieve it. It may "think" in ways that defy easy explanation, even by the people who create it.
 
I describe things in terms of AI myself, no use in denying it. And I actually find it a useful term, even in describing complex systems that wouldn't usually be described as intelligent. But that's in part because I don't believe in the separation between humankind and its tools. I believe there's a continuum between what we are and what we create. So when I think of Artificial Intelligence, I also include the safeguards and features the designers put into the game as virtual extensions of their intelligence, however flawed or incomplete they might feel. Artificial Intelligence then, is a reactive, descriptive term for how we interact with a machine running on its own. It still, in a way, reflects its creators.
 
I'm reminded of the Deep Blue chess tournament against Gary Kasparov. Kasparov himself said, and I think rightly, that it wasn't just Deep Blue he was competing against, but also the programmers, who were adjusting the machine throughout the course of the tournament. You want to talk cyberpunk, think about this: Kasparov was playing against an amalgam of computer scientists and a machine, all at once. Freaky, huh? 
 
So, is Artificial Intelligence abused as a term? Yes, but only in a strictly technical sense. In another way I think we'll only benefit from realizing that machines are an extension of us. We'll learn more about ourselves that way, and the potential of our creations to embody our essence. For all the frightening visions we often see in fiction when we talk about machines taking on human aspects, I think there's great potential for transcendence there, too. Describing the behavior of in-game characters as AI doesn't feel so far afield to me, if you take the long view.
 
Any terms you all can think of that have taken on new meanings in video games? You find these changes irritating, or improvements, or something else entirely? 

Next Up: Death.

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Schadenfreude 2: Time for a New Computer?

This string of failure is brought to you by Getting Up. See the end of this list for why I have taken a break from this game.
 
Last weekend we picked up our cooperative Gladius game after a long hiatus to see if I could recruit a minotaur early, rather than toward the end of the game. We managed to do it fairly quickly, although the deal was that if I was going to have Langston in my party, he was not allowed to have green nipple rings. I conceded the demand, and am now looking forward to building this guy up from the start. He will kick major ass and I am happy.
 
The rest of my gaming experiments of late have been abject failures. I realize that seeing other people fail can sometimes feel rewarding, so I thought I'd share these failures with you as a twisted sort of gift. I imagine some of these problems are fixable without upgrades, but getting a lot of 'splosions in a row is a nice pattern that's hard not to capitalize upon now that I'm breaking my blogging silence. Take this article how you like; I'd prefer people who didn't enjoy watching me suffer to look at this as a way to learn about games you wouldn't otherwise have noticed. I will be upgrading my system eventually so it's hard for me not to just laugh at this stuff, and hope a lot of it will be solved once I get my new Frankenstein's Monster together.

Frayed Knights

 
Egge has already talked in depth about the demo for Frayed Knights, a turn-based party RPG which is like someone read my mind and made a game different than I was expecting but that's perfectly OK. Booting up the demo, it tells me:
Curse you, o' gaming gods!!! (note Skinedit in the corner? That's for Minecraft, another game I can't play yet :) )
 
I can still play it, but the edges of the screen are cut off. It's really weird, but this horrible monitor has always had messed-up compatibility problems with our ancient graphics card. Like my last list of failures I wrote about a while ago, this is probably what's causing most of these issues, so I'm not really surprised.
 
I did play through a bit of the demo, right up until I killed off the first group of monsters and saw the little reward system for sticking with the game rather than loading saves all the time (I don't do that, that sounds pretty tedious. Do you do that with RPGs? I only do it if people get disintegrated or I waste a lot of resources on something that was pointless because the game system wasn't dynamic enough. Otherwise I tough it out if I can). I really like the bonuses it gives you, as I read them in the manual, although I was sort of wishing for better loot or something if you never loaded. Anyway, I'd reached a point where I felt like missing the edges of the screen was starting to impact my gameplay so I quit. I think the issue is just because it either doesn't recognize the mode I'm running it in, or that there's something else going on. If it had fullscreen mode maybe this wouldn't be a problem. I dunno.
 

Labyrinth of Crete

 
Originally made for the CDi, Labyrinth of Crete is a puzzler made by the same guy who did The Fool's Errand, (an olde dayes puzzle adventure game with a sequel coming out toward the end of this year). It's available for free along with a bunch of his other old games, and since I was in a Greek Myths mood after acquiring Langston and seeing the reviews of a cool-looking card game called Omen, I thought I'd try it out. Let me know if anyone manages to get it working in their compatibility mode, because mine is apparently not up to the task. It's well-known that there's this period in Windows compatibility that even for XP machines is nigh impossible, and I think old Labyrinth of Crete has hit the sweet spot. With stuff like this I just have to shrug my shoulders and move on.
 

The Black Lodge - 2600

 
Whew, I guess this means I don't have to go in, Agent Cooper. Um... I'll guard the exit.
Some cheeky monkey put together a faux 2600 game that reflects the scenes I loved the most during the series Twin Peaks, the show which was heavily referenced in Deadly Premonition. It's called The Black Lodge, and it can be downloaded from the creator's page hereI'd suggest if you're not familiar with the series and would like to be, to skip this for now and go back to it once you've watched most or all of the episodes (some are better than others; just warning you in advance). They even put together a catalog page and an instruction manual straight from the classic designs, which was a delight for this codger to read. But when I started it up, the "2600" mask dripped away to reveal the "your graphics card is ancient" skeletal face underneath. Pretty funny since it's supposed to be referencing a game system that's nearing 40 years old.
 
Even if you're not interested in playing it, if you liked the series, or at least appreciate its aesthetics (or the 2600's) to take a look at the package they have ready for download. Pretty snazzy.  
 
Next are two titles I tried to boot up for the first time as I was typing this blog. This is how much I love you.

Owl Boy  


D-Pad Studio, a Norwegian-based game developer has released a demo for their game Owl Boy, an action-adventure that has some of the coolest pixel animations I've ever seen. At least, from what I saw in a video I watched. I should have known I might have a problem when their main webpage is basically (WARNING!!) one big page with all their updates splattered in a cascade of content...  ugh, guys... anyway, trying to boot this one up meant I got to learn the miracles of Service Pack upgrading. Here's a narrated video of someone playing the demo; check it out, it looks awesome. 
 

Hide

 
After reading this article on RPS I downloaded Hide, but only tried it out while typing this article up to see if it works. So far, I get the intro that shows you how to move, and then I can hear some creepy stuff, but I only see a completely white screen. Maybe the Unity Engine's too much for this thing? Seems perfect for Halloween, this game. Read the article above if you want to learn more. 

Rant

 
I like that each of the games I tried highlighted a different problem my machine has; a good reminder that an upgrade is necessary. Well, sort of. You know, pretty much all of us are on this upgrade train now, even if some of us are still in the caboose. We get left behind, we get the latest tech, we're back in it for a while, then get left behind again. Only people who blow a lot of money or have good connections manage to keep up with these standards, but while some of these upgrades allow for new levels of beauty, a lot of the game mechanics themselves aren't much more sophisticated. Never mind the much maligned social games, or the lo-fi indie titles, a lot of games seem not to be changing as much as they might. Part of it is game designers being afraid to make the first move in terms of new mechanics, especially if a lot of money is riding on a given game, but game makers are, too, forced to keep up on this tech ladder. 
 
I mean, we roll our eyes when we hear that new consoles are being considered for year X, but the poor old PC doesn't even get those benchmarks. Graphics cards have little fans now, PC's are surrounded by coolant, processors are split into several different processors, and the software that rides on top of these behemoths have a bunch of new little tricks creators have to learn to keep up with their peers.

Moore's Law or not, I wonder how much longer this will go on. Maybe we'll reach a plateau and just stick with it for a while, and stop freaking out every time Direct X bumps up a notch. I think a lot of these innovations are really innovations; when I see Rage, despite all its problems, I'm in awe. I just wonder how much this concentration on tech upgrades means we keep spending too much energy keeping up, and not enough building a solid foundation. I mean, 3D art is fucking gorgeous now, do we really need to worry about the fiddly details so much anymore?

I'm told that, in a way, PCs HAVE reached a plateau of sorts, and that a lot of the upgrades aren't really necessary. Still, though, software leaders often encourage you to bump up your card, or turn your dual into a quad. I'm new at this upgrade thing, at least what it's become in the past few years, but it reminds me a bit too much of the same old trudge, especially since the online gaming boom means that upping your processor and connection might give you an edge over your competitors. At least consoles, for all their goofiness, give you the opportunity to squeeze as much as you can from the same machine to see what you can get. This used to not be that great a thing since most of us were locked out, but now that development platforms for consoles have really opened up, there's a certain advantage there, even for independents and small companies, that wasn't there before. In a way, those limitations help foster creativity.

/Rant

 
Anyway, just want to take this opportunity to thank my readers over the years who've read my stuff and kept me on my toes. It may not feel like it, but I think I've improved as a writer by publishing my ramblings here. Thanks.
 
My next task is to play some Baldur's Gate 2 so I can watch Vinny and Dave's BG2 video. We researched it last night and determined that I'd barely made it into Chapter 2 the last time I played, so I have a ways to go yet. At least I don't have to upgrade to do it! 
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