Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Dating Site Trust Issue Blues

I've been single for... Well, a little while now, and, out of curiosity, I recently decided to get back into the online dating scene. Two particular sites from the same family gave me some grave concerns about... Well, the whole group of sites. Specifically, these are Seek-A-Geek, and GeekyDating. Yeah, I know, stereotyping and all that, but it's not amazingly easy to find folks in a service industry and tourism heavy place (IE - Somewhere where you're not going to be able to hang out somewhere most people go without making a £3 cake/drink last for four hours)

In any case, what happened next was intriguing. In all the wrong ways. The profile got set up, was waiting for approval, and... I got a message from another user. Profile hadn't been approved yet, so there's little chance anyone could have seen my picture, or much of anything, for that matter. Okay, that's weird, but not outside the realms of possibility, right?

But then I found that only browsing was free. This is fairly common among dating sites, so I wasn't too worried about that. Although £7.50 a month isn't something I want to pay where there's a total of something like 129 people who actually bothered to upload a photo, and most of those didn't bother to write anything in their profile text.

No, what worried me was that I was, for some bizarre reason, chatted to by tech support. Hadn't clicked the button to chat with tech support, hadn't changed the page, just tried to read a message twice before I realised messaging wasn't really a thing without paying. First thing they say after "Hi" is "Do you want to upgrade?"

What comes next is my thought processes over the chat, and when I looked at my email after deleting my accounts on both sites.

"Er... No, I want to leave, because I don't feel comfortable that support magically appeared."
"Er... I definitely feel uncomfortable now, because you're trying to hard sell me this upgrade, even offering a discount. This is beginning to sound suss as hell. Check, please!"
"Okay, I've deleted my accounts and... wait... Tech support magically messaged me on the other site as well? Why is it I have a distinct feeling I know what they were going to say?"

So... Mega awkward. On the one hand, I don't think any bots were involved here. On the other, that was an oddly specific series of events, with a very odd timeline, and it seemed geared to get me signed up for a monthly fee as quick as humanly possible.

Which was, to put it bluntly, suss as hell.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Some Early Access Games, And Why They're Cool

As you may have noticed, I bitch a lot. But it's nowhere near all negative, as there are genuinely games, both old and new, I am definitely happy about. Bastion, for example, was awesome. I'm kind of hoping Transistor will be too.

So, today, I'm going to talk about a pair of Early Access games that are definitely showing promise, and why they're not the vapourware we're starting to see a lot of in Early Access. Let's begin with my absolute favourite of the lot: Invisible, Inc. by Klei Entertainment.

It's definitely still in Alpha, as evidenced by some drastic changes between updates (the next one's in a few days, as Klei are pretty punctual about the whole "updating" thing), but...

Look at that concept artwork. More to the point, in a paragraph or so, we'll get to how the actual game looks, and it's pretty sweet. But for now, the basic idea. It's a mix of X-COM/Jagged Alliance (so it's turn based, has limited actions, and fog-of-war... And, once they bring it back, research to improve your game), a roguelike (procedurally generated floors/challenges, permadeath), and any stealth/heist game from the early 90s (you steal shit. For reasons. Actually, last update had a sort of backstory, but it disappeared this update, leaving us wondering if it was real or not.)

In essence, you play one of three starter pairs of thieves working for the eponymous Invisible, Inc (corporate sabotage a specialty!) There's ACME, who are great at stealth and hacking, but fall to a stiff breeze, The Cleaners, who specialise in killing everything on a floor (which is actually sort of discouraged, but we'll get into that), and The Soviets, who are a middle ground who, sadly, have to hack consoles in meatspace. Bah.

This is the end of a first turn in Invisible, Inc with ACME. The red tinted tiles are where cameras/security guards/evil robutts can see, the glowy terminal behind that laser barrier is a Console (hack them by standing next to them, or having Dr. Pedler here be near them, to get sweet, sweet CPU, used for hacking everything else), and we may already have a way off this floor, which I won't be taking. Why? Because of the way scoring in this game works.

You get score by getting money. You get money by 1) opening safes and stealing the cash inside, 2) Exploring 75% or more of each Floor, and 3) NOT KILLING ANYONE. Not even robots. Admittedly, the cash bonus isn't great for doing that, but, more importantly, even a dead robot makes for -50 CashMoneys per "corpse", which can actually result in negative money for the level if you really went hog-wild with the Cleaners. But this isn't what makes me happy about this game. After this screenshot, I quit the game, and thus denied me a resource that I'm assured will be back soon, possibly with the update in 2 days time: Research. Every time you play through to the bitter end (and it will be bitter), you get Research points, which, in the updates where research is a thing (and, hopefully, the final product) allows you to buy teams, extra equipment, and other fun stuff.

There are currently 10 floors, three corporations, and around 4 enemy types/Hidden Fun Stuff per corporation. Sankaku, for example, specialise in Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics and heavily armoured drones, while the rest... Go get the game, support the team. You won't regret it if you like stealth strategy type games.

Next up is... One of the rash of "Dwarf Fortress... IN SPAAAAACE!" we've seen quite recently. MAIA. Capitalisation deliberate. MAIA is very much still an Alpha (all the things I mention here are), but hot damn if it doesn't already have the basic mechanics for Fun (in the Dwarf Fortress sense). Asphyxiation? Check. Vital equipment breaking down? Check. The latest update having the first example of MAIAn Megafauna to screw your day (and crew over)? Check. The ability to replace colonists (if the game's Director AI lets you)? Check! It's surprisingly fair, and, like DF (or Spacebase DF-9, by Double Fine), you have to start small. Worry about power, workspace, and beds before you worry about water. Worry about all of that before you worry about Science. And always, always worry about the planet fucking up your plans with an Earthquake, lightning storm, or Megafauna ragefest. If you've played Dungeon Keeper, most of the basic concepts will be pretty easy for you, and DF covers the rest. It updates a little slowly at times, but the developer is pretty on the ball, and it looks like it might be a hell of a lot of fun.

Also, like Dwarf Fort, some of the bugs have caused unintentional hilarity. Which is awesome.

Are there any other Early Access games I'm playing right now? Sure. But most of them are either in fairly early stages (the Goon led Signs of Life, for example), have an... interesting update history (Xenonauts started... a long time ago), or are not quite what we were promised (Chroma Squad, for example, continues to have the PAX Demo as its "Early Access", despite a tentative release date of, er... Summer 2014. Which is not that far off. Early Access continues to be a bit of a gamble, it seems.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Some Flawed Games Which Nonetheless Showed Promise

So right now, I'm listening to the best of Rainbow. Rainbow, in case you lived in a cave or were born after the 80s, were an awesome band who had the late, great Ronnie James Dio as their lead singer, and mostly wrote fantasy rock. This has absolutely nothing to do with anything, by the way, although tabletop players will be happy to know there's a series of adventures based on Dio's work on DriveThruRPG. It's pretty easy to find, and pretty cheap. I may well give it a go at some point.

But today, I just want to ramble a bit about some games I've had for a while that, while disappointing, definitely had something that makes me come back to them every now and again. We're going to start with Gentrieve 2, by Phr00t.

Doesn't look inspiring, does it? And overall, it definitely isn't. Enemies are a collection of geometric 3d shapes, mostly cubes, spheres, and cylinders, it's hard to see what they can do to you without them going active and attacking you, bosses are a bit random as well (and can mostly be defeated by hiding behind walls and playing popamole), and, worst of all, certain obstacles are such a pain to pass in the area transition rooms that it's better to just go for a customised world and disable certain weapons, so you're guaranteed never to find them (physics gun, I'm looking at you!)

But it at least fulfills part of its mission statement, which is to make a procedurally generated MetroidVania. In fact, many of the weapons are pretty much identical to the famous Metroid franchise. And, masochist that I am, I go back to it every now and again.

Deep Black Reloaded is another one, and I actually did a Let's Try of this game a year or two ago. What does it do right? Underwater. It does underwater combat fairly well, it looks good, and the grappling hook/hacking device idea is a nice one in theory. But it's bogged down in some truly awful writing ("Wait, this is a wetworks mission? FUCK THAT"... "Nope, you're doing this, even though I lied to you"... "Oh, okay... But don't expect me to be happy about it" sums up one of the most retarded early game exchanges), some extremely frustrating cover combat, and, our old friend, fucking Quick Time Events. Good luck dodging those, or the surprise mines that sometimes pop up.

Games like this make me sad, but what also makes me sad is that many of these experiments won't be refined or continued. Deep Black, for example, Biart, while still around, have gone into underwater hunting sims that cash in on the Oculus Rift), and another promising, but flawed start, Hydrophobia, will never see a second part that refines the game, because the company went under due to shitty sales of Hydrophobia and the mostly improved PC port, Prophecy. That one also used water in clever ways, but was marred by a shitty endgame with, surprise surprise, a mechanic that relied on Physics (a tricky proposition at best) and somewhat iffy controls for the SUPER WATER POWER you had.

There's really no winning state there, sadly. Sword of the Stars 2 proved, among many other games, that letting a flawed studio produce big concepts is not a winning recipe, and a different studio with the same license/idea will often produce things in a very different way.

Okay, that's enough rambling from me for today.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Game Things That Make Me Rage Part 1: Hidden Object Madness

There are some spoilers in this post for games you probably shouldn't play if you value your sanity. So, if you're the type of person who actually enjoys this sort of thing, don't read this post, because I'm going to be spoiling something you might actually buy. And I'm not sorry at all for that.

Having been a game reviewer (and technically still being one... It's like being a book critic, you just can't let go of basic skills), there are things that really piss me off, and are guaranteed to have me pan your product. In this post of unwieldy titles, and the ones like it, I'm going to be talking about some of them, and we're going to begin with something that I have a love-hate relationship with. Mostly masochistic hate.

There is an entire genre of games that dare call themselves Adventure Games. They are not adventure games. No. They're Lovecraftian abominations of bad writing, shitty puzzles, and a level of effort best described as "ADHD Stoner who's forgotten what the fuck he was doing."

They are... Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure Games. And I can even recite a fucking checklist that a hell of a lot of them fill. So let's go through it, shall we?

Many of them contain some hackneyed supernatural threat

I'm looking at my "collection" (mostly gotten from Indie Bundles, GG sales, and the poor fools at Cateia who sent me two in a row, despite my reviews), and over two thirds of them involve either demons, witchcraft, psychic powers, ghosts, or a combination of the above. It's enough to make anyone who has even a vague background of occult research weep. This wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the second point.

The writing is moment-to-moment drama, with little to no consideration of overarching plot or sense.

Right, let's start pulling examples out here.

This is The Gift, by Alawar Games. I somehow managed to get what I'm assuming is a third to halfway through before quitting for health reasons (Apoplexy is bad for you, mmmkay?), and part of the reason is that bad writing offends me. Amusing, considering I am told I have a somewhat loose grasp of grammar. But grammar is one thing. Random for the sake of drama is another.

The game begins, sensibly enough, in an alternate 1930s style setting, where our southern belle on the cover, a disgraced occult detective, is called to investigate a murder that may be (is) related to a closed case involving ritual murders by spell. Okay, I can deal with tha-

Oh, wait. a vision from the murder scene leads us to a witch's occult store, who then grabs us and gives us another vision of another place, and somehow it turns out that our ex-partner is involved, along with some dude called Riker who we appear to have no reason to care about, and then it turns out someone in our circle was meant to meet the witch in the diner, and somewhere along the way we got actual magic powers instead of some fucked up version of psychometry, and then it turns out that the serial murder is actually going to kill usssss allllllll, starting with a small child who is the next target because oh-look-we're-pulling-your-heartstrings. Oh, and your partner is suddenly missing around the same time.

Did I mention that this oh-so-scary malevolent force is called... Wait for it... Suspense! The Nothingman.

Even writing that down made me clutch my head in psychosomatic pain. Now, let's look at another example of the genre from another company. Nightmares From The Deep: The Cursed Heart.

This one isn't so much an offender because the plot beats are nonsensical (although they are), but because everyone is a fucking idiot. Let's use the beginning of this "masterwork" to illustrate this point.

Okay, so our main character is a museum curator, who wants to hold an exhibition based on a pirate that's cursed or somesuch. She even manages to get the pirate's body, and his supposedly magical kit that he got in a deal with a demon (see? Ghosts and Demons!). Naturally, she wants to display the pirate with his gear, because a pirate without gear isn't half as awesome. So far, so good.

But the first time she puts one of these artefacts on the pirate, the room starts shuddering and he glows with what I'm sure the creators felt was an "eldritch light". Let's leave the graphics out of this, though, and continue on our theme. Okay, that's weird, but once isn't really a pattern, right?

If you guessed, from that last sentence, that she does this twice more (Rule of Three is, by the way, an important thing in gaming), that the second time has more effects (that she rationalises away), and then, in what is actually a mildly spooky display, all the lights tinkle and break, spooky things happen, and her reaction is...

"Oh, the lights went out, how odd, I'm sure this has nothing to do with the cursed items that have incredibly obvious and dramatic foreshadowing that is apparent to anyone with working sensory apparatus!"

Her sister, by the way, is also at the museum, because family are cool. Unfortunately, in this game, family are not cool, because her sister is afraid of the dark, and the main character's reaction to this revelation? "Nope, need the torch for fixing the fuse. Nope, can't come with, you stay by this dead pirate who might not actually be so dead anymore, but what would I know, I'm a Clueless Protagonist (TM)"

I think you can guess what happens next, at least in general terms. If you can't, then I'm sure this game will suit you down to the ground, along with the joys of removing fleas from your troop-mates and flinging poop.

The Main Mechanic... And Infinite Monkeys.

Okay, so there are two main mechanics to these games. One of them is the standard adventure game "Use object on other object to progress story or remove an obstacle in some fashion", with all the joys and problems therein. This, surprisingly, is not the problem, as many of the solutions are common sense. Not all of them, just many, and frankly, I'm thankful the proportion is that high.

The other mechanic, however, induces fits of rage in me that would surprise many of my close friends. You see, the other main mechanic is the wonderful idea of "Find hidden objects in among a bunch of junk to progress the story... somehow."

Let's go back to The Gift for this one.

Okay. So this one, if I recall, has at least a modicum of sense behind its general placement (being in a home somewhere). But you will find very similar scenes that you have to play through for your reward of more game in the unlikeliest fucking places. An altar. A beach. An alleyway where fuckdammit I've already been here (more on that later). But there are things this screenshot is not telling you. For example, guess how many of these objects you get to keep for solving actual puzzles? At most, three. And most of the time, it's just one. Usually the hardest fucking one to find.

Then there is the fact that the writers often just fling darts at a dictionary, then the artists shrug and draw whatever the fuck comes to mind with that word. In another game by the same company, you have to find a pole-axe. As in a polearm. As in a very long stick with a sharp thing on the end. There is no such thing in among the random junk. But hiding on a tree branch is a bog-standard axe. This is what you're looking for.

You'd think, what with the hiding things to break up their visual profile (a common dirty trick in these games), colouring them exactly the same as their surroundings (a very dirty trick in these games), and literally hiding things inside other things with no hint that they're there (Oh, hi, Cateia!), that the litany of stupid wouldn't end there. But no, even in the HOPA games where you aren't somehow involved with the supernatural, you have a magical ability. It's a magical ability that all HOPA protagonists have: The ability to peel fucking graffiti, etchings, scratches or paintings from a wall, and say "Yup, that was the thing I was looking for, yessiree bob". Sometimes, these are the actual puzzle items for the more traditional adventuring portions. This wouldn't be so bad, if it weren't for the other sins these things pull.

Where am I meant to g- THE FU? THAT WASN'T THERE BEFORE!

Backtracking is a Bad Thing. Most games, nowadays, appreciate this. HOPAs mostly don't. The Gift is an excellent example of this, because, on the flimsiest of contexts, it will send you somewhere you're pretty sure was only a single-puzzle room, where, all of sudden, there will be a pile of garbage you've never seen before, or a thing you just thought was graphical flavour has magically turned into a garbage pile or puzzle. The alleyway in The Gift is definitely the worst offender here... The pile of garbage that you have to sort through has a fucking trolley in it. Guess what you definitely can't see in the alley before you find the general area has changed your context sensitive pointer to "GARBAGE TIME, BIZHATCH!"

Some games in this genre will throw you a bone. Shadows: Price For Our Sins , for example, has an actual map, which also shows whether there's shit to do in a location or not. But most of the time, though, you are reliant on the hint function. Which, once it has led you to the actual puzzle, will shut down for anything up to 10 minutes, depending on difficulty settings. By the way, this is the same hint button that shows you where that one fucking object you can't find because the artist was too creative with the skew function in Photoshop is.

Now, this wouldn't be so bad, if it weren't for the fact that most first time players will buy into the whole "ERMAHGERD, TIME LIMIT" thing that all these oh-so-dramatic stories have (The Gift: NOTHINGMAN IS GOING TO KILL EEEEEEEVERYBODEEEEE. Shadows: MY FRIENDS ARE STUCK IN HEELLLLLL. Nightmares from the Deep: MY SISTER GOT KIDNAPPED BY A GHOST PIRATE WHO'S GOING TO SACRIFICE HER TO GET HIS WIFE BACK...).

It becomes a lot less dramatic when you realise how utterly prepared the entire world is to fuck you over, though. Which leads nicely onto my final point.

A World of Puzzle Locks

Puzzles in adventure games, hell, even in roleplaying games, are a wonderful idea when done right. Oh look, the evil Lord Fzqefwuk was a joker, wasn't he? We have to solve this word-play riddle before we're all mashed into pulp! Seriously, a good puzzle or riddle can actually buy a GM time, and still be entertaining. It's cool.

But there is such a thing as "too much of a good thing", and HOPA slamdunks that principle, along with other useful ones like "common sense" or "sanity". I don't remember the pictured puzzle, it's probably from further along in The Gift than I got. But if you thought Resident Evil was bad for puzzle locks and fucking weird shaped keys, you ain't seen nothin' til' you've seen a HOPA! Lemme pull an excerpt from my review of "Where Angels Cry", by Cateia Games. 

"Play towers of Hanoi... again. Rotate pictures to get 1 sixteenth of the items you need to finish the act. Look for other hidden items (angel statues) for dubious achievement awards. While you're at it, why not wince at some truly terrible voice acting (It's-a-me, italiano-stereotype-ah!), and wonder at how these monks (who are obviously involved in some conspiracy, because DRAMA!) ever get any work done."

To get two rooms in one direction, I seem to recall needing something like twelve red and blue gems, a Towers of Hanoi puzzle, some tile puzzle I brute forced, a colour matching puzzle I brute forced, and about six hidden object minigames. The monks, meanwhile, have obviously memorised the puzzles, and have gems coming out the fucking wazoo, for they are freely able to move around. And no, the puzzles don't follow any sort of difficulty curve, why would you think that? You're just as likely to find that one annoying "shuffle shit around till it's right" puzzle near the end of the game as you are the "glorified jigsaw."

In Summary (or perhaps In Memoriam)

Hidden Object Puzzle Adventures are evil. But I keep playing them in the misguided hope I'll find a few that aren't terrible, and because, as much as they are a dark stain against everything that is good in game design, they still fondle our lizard brain enough that the masochism continues. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go to the kitchen and make a nice calming cup of tea...

...Now where did I put my lizard crest, twelve blue beads, and solution to the crossword on the kitchen door?

It Begins

So, it begins. A descent into madness. Or rather, blogging. Which is just as bad. So what is this blog going to contain? No fucking idea, probably game related stuff, bitching about things that fall under the purview of The Evil Daystar, that sort of thing.

Oh, I guess you might want to know who's writing this. Well, let's begin simply.

No, not the hot tall guy on the right. The other one holding the screwdriver. That's little ol' me, a slightly crazed welshman who loves geeky stuff. As if the glasses weren't a dead giveaway. So what else can I say about me? I'm in my early 30s right now, between jobs, I like to do creative stuff, long walks when the weather isn't terrible, and that last bit is kinda rare these days, because I live in the arse end of Pembrokeshire. A scenic little place called Fishguard. Once a year at New Year, there is a street party, and that's cool, but for the rest of the year, unless you really like Folk and Jazz, Fishguard ain't so hot.

Isn't it lucky I'm not too picky about music?

To be fair, Fishguard does have some cool people. But it's also cliquey as fuck, so for someone who's already not much of a joiner (hi!) it's not so grand. But whatever, I get to sing during the day with nobody bitching, I get to carry on with my studies (planning to be an english teacher, a game designer, or a well known games journalist... One of those has been on hold for a short while for health reasons), creative dabblings, and my Let's Plays.

So, if you like unfocused ramblings, you've come to the right place. :P