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November 22, 2007

Mass Effect Initial Impressions

The long awaited Mass Effect came out this week. It's BioWare's second take after Jade Empire at doing their own IP and... they did a pretty darn nice job.

If you've played other BioWare games, the biggest shift here (as in all of their games) is the combat system, which is always the place where a heavily story & converstaion based RPG can fall down. So let's talk about it first. The combat here is a little impenetrable at first. They borrow from squad-based FPS games this time instead of from the Virtua Fighter class of games. You shoot at people, and can issue orders to your squad, and it seems OK until all of a sudden some dude takes out one of your guys instantly and you don't really understand why. It took me a little bit to get that I did actually want to use cover -- and have my squad use cover -- and the game waited a little too long to explain that I could pause the game with one of the shoulder pads and assign special commands to each person. Once I figured out I could overkill somebody with three special moves at once, combat got a little more interesting.

That being said, in three hours of gameplay, only 30-40 minutes of it has been combat so far, so I also don't really feel like I've gotten a chance to practice the combat much. I kind of expect that to change once I get past the inevitable "that first well developed planet BioWare does before they give you a ship" model. The manual sort of leads me to believe that rather than the normal KOTOR one planet -> three or four planets -> finale planet model, I'm going to be able to explore tons of random planets ala Wind Waker or Oblivion, and get completely sidetracked on alternate missions if I don't follow the main story mission. We'll see.

Next up: presentation. Wow. OK, blah blah, 360 graphics are pretty. But more importantly, the visual design of the game is just incredible. That part of me that wants to nerd out in a cross-breed universe of Star Trek and Star Wars, without having to get bogged down in the decades of continuity and staleness of either, is totally digging this new space BioWare has dreamed up for me. The ship design, the alien design, the enormous space stations, the backstory -- I'm just loving all of it so far.

The conversation system is the real revelation, and it's not because it's new in any way -- it's because they've done some important refinements on what they've been doing all along.

  1. Excellent voice acting, including the main character. This, combined with subtitles off (by default) and good camera placement during the conversations, means that I actually want to not skip the voice stuff.
  2. Queued responses. Your next option shows up while the previous response is still playing out, so you can keep the conversation flowing. I'm not skipping the last phrase just so I can get to the next choice.
  3. Response text is not the same as actual voice response. The response text reflects your character's state of mind more than in previous BioWare games. This is harder to quantify, and might drive some people more nuts, but you basically get a short phrase to choose from that actually turns into a longer phrase that's more... in character? Whatever it is, it works.
  4. Physical placement of phrases. Phrases on the left of the wheel extend the conversation and delve into the tree; phrases on the right bring the conversation to conclusion. Phrases at the top are more selfless; phrases at the bottom are more selfish. This additional feedback can help decoding what a phrase's gameplay impact might be be keeping placement consistent. It's subtle, but effective.

No spoilers in this example. There was a quest/conversation I recently hit that -- well, a man was asking after his wife. He needed some help in talking to another person about this. When talking to both parties, I was given my "charm" option, and in both cases, I could use it for something that seemed like a good and right thing to do -- but the right thing to do totally depended on what my character actually thought was the greater good. So I ended up convincing one of these two that the other was right -- and I actually teared up a little. Yes, in some small subtle way, BioWare finally nailed the essence of small-scale emotional storytelling. I'm not saying the whole game is a masterpiece of storytelling, but you can tell they've been doing this for a while and they're pretty good at it.

The game's not perfect. Combat and character leveling are still somewhat opaque to me. Targeting is a little twitchy. The minimap seems to be kind of useless. But I really like what I've seen so far, and I'm eager to see what the game is like once it opens up and I'm not just exploring a space station, huge and well developed as that space station might be.

November 21, 2007

Virtual Bling

Here, by the way, is what I needed a working copy of Photoshop for:

A Collection of Flying Mounts

My various alts don't really have a chance to hang out together much, you see.

November 20, 2007

Irritations with Photoshop Elements

PE 2.0 doesn't work in Leopard. This sucks.

So I go to Adobe's online store. PE 4.0 is available! It can be bought online and downloaded! Yay!

Weirdness number 1: PE6 is the current Windows version. PE4 isn't even really "supported" for Leopard (but some Googling indicates it'll work, so whatever.)

Weirdness number 2: The full price for PE4 -- today, at least -- is $5 less than the upgrade price. Oh, Adobe. Why are you so crazy about your upgrade prices? Whatever -- full version emboughtened.

Weirdness number 3: I literally just bought this 10 minutes ago -- why did you let me download 4.0 instead of 4.0.1? Why am I going through an updating process that's taking as long as the original download?

Oh, the hate -- it makes me powerful.

I woulda used Pixelmator, but it (a) crashed when I tried to open several images and (b) doesn't seem to have a magnetic lasso. The magnetic lasso is all I care about people. It's. All. I. Care. About.

November 16, 2007

Snowing in da burgh

Snowing in da burgh, originally uploaded by tiltology.

Glad I'm Austin-bound.

November 10, 2007

Nerd Gaming Multimedia

Carrie & I, of late, have been spending our Thursday and Friday evenings running what is known as "a raid." Yes, we break open a bottle of wine, order a pizza, and settle in with eight buddies that we've mostly never seen before. And then, we venture into the mysterious tower of Karazhan, in World of Warcraft.

"Kara," as the kids call it, is the centerpiece of this most recent WoW expansion. It's not the toughest thing going, by any means, but it's the first raiding-quality dungeon that Blizzard aimed at smaller guilds. Originally, the game had stuff to do with five people... or stuff to do with forty people. There wasn't a lot of middle ground. So, when at some point you realized you'd exceeded the challenge of the five person stuff, you had to make a huge organizational jump in order continue advancing your character and gets the shiny loots.

There were a few dungeons aimed at 10-15 people, but to really find the interesting boss fights and newer, better rewards, it was 40 or the highway. And forty folks makes it kind of inevitable that the discourse level is going to sink down to the daring wit of "your mom!"

Karazhan fixed a lot of this for smaller guild. We're a pretty active guild, but we also have folks with diverse interests and skill levels, not to mention scheduling conflicts. So, a really big dungeon aimed at ten skilled players? Gravy, baby.

When we started on this endeavor in May, we had interest, but we were kind of lacking in gear and experience. So... we spent a month or two hitting our heads against the first few bosses, feeling frustrated, wondering when the tide would turn. And, little by little, it did. Carrie grokked the roster organizing issues needed to ensure we'd have a good shot against various parts of the dungeon. I fussed with our lineup and folks roles until our tanking and healing were a nice strong base to support our damage-dealers with. We learned strategies. We educated folks on gameplay. And....

Well, this week, I took a couple of movies to demonstrate our progress.

First off, Moroes, the second boss in the dungeon (and the first one you can't skip).
Moroes has four guys helping him. You have to deal with those four guys somehow, by controlling them or killing them, before you can work on the actual boss. Normally we deal with this by bringing plenty of crowd control, and dragging these other guys out of the way. But we've been noticing our main tank is pretty tough lately -- so this is us using raw brute force to blow out this fight:

Sorry, my camera's pulled back pretty far in that one -- first try at this sort of thing.

Second is the guy who lives at the top of the dungeon. We killed him the first time last week. This week, Chris & I both shot video of the fight, and I messed around with the new iMovie to mix it together:

So, if you find yourself wondering what the heck I do in my leisure time... now you know.

November 08, 2007

Seen at chick-fil-a

Seen at chick-fil-a, originally uploaded by tiltology.

November 04, 2007

Random Game Notes

Hellgate London does a surprisingly good job of making the different classes play very differently. Even though it's an MMO, the shooter classes actually feel FPSy. That being said, despite the fact it was developed by some of the guys who developed Diablo -- it's no Diablo. The random environs of the subway tubes are ultimately pretty sterile, especially coming off of a Portal kind of a thing. I also object to having to click 10-12 times on the quest giver to get all of the flavor text -- would it kill you to just give a quick summary and then dump the color text afterward for nerds like me who want to read it in one blow? Or give me some quests that force me to use parts of your game system so I know what they are? You can tell by all the small experience details these guys got wrong that the folks who stayed at Blizzard are the guys who make that company what it is.

Speaking of Portal, I can't believe I never spoke of Portal. It's freaking awesome. Best 2-3 hours of your gaming life. A perfectly designed and balanced little gem. Go play it.

Half Life 2: Episode 2 was a lot of fun, but it was no Portal.

Finally finished Halo 3 last night after a couple weeks of being too irritated with the "rescue Cortana from zombieland" level to get back into it. It was, in the end, Halo -- only three-ier. What can you say? They know how to make that game, and they did it well. My system totally failed to red-ring too, guaranteeing me some deep frustration when Mass Effect finally comes out.

Sam & Max: Episode 1 totally captured the flavor of the original Lucasarts game, and I can't believe I've gone this long without playing these things. I will grant you that these are adventure games, with all of the stupid inventory puzzles and tedious dialogue trees the genre implies. However, the important difference here is that you mostly care about hearing the comedically genius non-sequitorial dialogue, so it's all OK.

In WoW news, we downed two more of the bosses in the dungeon, leaving us one to go:

Illhoof Dead

Prince Dead

(I'm the big tree.)

I'm just incredibly proud of our group -- they've come a long way, they play smart and hard, and they keep bring their A game every week. It's been a really positive experience for Carrie & I to lead this group every week, and watch our team develop over time. Looking forward to downing some trolls in this upcoming patch.

Note to self after re-reading this entire list -- go play Psychonauts you cheap bastard.