Archive for September, 2007

Radeon HD 2600 XT

So, I’ve been seeing slow framerates on my machine under multiple games lately: first Myst V, then certain brief bits of Lego Star Wars 2 (which was generally pretty smooth, presumably because its style allows for a pretty simple world model), and now large sections of Psychonauts. Worse, I even had speed problems in Eternal Daughter, a retro sprite-based 2D platformer which I tried when it was featured on Play This Thing. Clearly something had to be done.

The problem is, when games are slow, it’s hard to figure out why. It could be either the CPU or the graphics card, and unless you have multiple machines, it’s impossible to test them individually. So I asked myself: If I bought a replacement for one of these things, and the replacement didn’t speed up these games, which one would I regard as less of a waste? And there was a clear answer to that: the graphics card.

See, my nVidia GeForce 7800 GTX card was giving me problems anyway. The GeForce drivers for Windows XP have a known bug that affects 3D objects displayed on a 2D bitmap background: frequently, random patches of the background will cover up any 3D elements. It’s really a quite striking visual effect, reminiscent of the scenes in Labyrinth and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where things that look like background turn out to be foreground, except not done on purpose. I wish I could post a screenshot that captures it, but (a) to get the full effect you really have to see it in motion and (b) to reproduce it I’d have to reinstall the GeForce card. Anyway, it makes several graphic adventures on the Stack unplayable. It’s been a a few years now since I first encountered the problem, and nVidia has issued multiple driver updates, but the problem remains. I’ve contemplated dealing with it by installing Windows 98, which uses different drivers that don’t share the problem, but switching to a non-nVidia card will spare me the trouble.

So, Psychonauts runs perfectly smoothly on my new Radeon, and I confidently expect to start blogging about Myst V soon. The new card has larger numbers associated with it than the old one, but I don’t want to say that that’s the reason for the the performance increase, as the old one was released after most of the games that gave it problems. More likely there was some sort of hardware malfunction. In researching the problem, I saw one person on a support forum who suffered abysmal framerate simply because the graphics card’s cooling fan wasn’t spinning. That wasn’t the case here (I checked), but it could easily be some similar failure.

Psychonauts

psychonauts-battlefieldPsychonauts is one of those games that I’d heard people raving about. And yet somehow it seemed to hit the bargain bins pretty quickly, and is already on Gametap. I don’t know why. It might have something to do with the character designs, which are caricatured to the point of grotesqueness. As always, this is something you get used to over the course of play — by now, I’m actually able to see the protagonist, Raz, as handsome and well-formed 1 Raz actually kind of reminds me of a young Michael J. Fox, but I think that’s more a matter of his earnest manner than his physical appearance. , because he’s really one of the least distorted characters in the game. But seen for the first time, he’s a spindly hypercephalic freak, and I can see that turning off some potential buyers.

The premise provides some reason for making the characters freakish: it emphasizes the fact that they’re not normal. The whole thing is set at a summer camp which is really a secret training ground for tomorrow’s elite psychic warriors. It’s kind of like Harry Potter: kids behaving like kids while at the same time displaying abnormal powers, adults who have mastered those powers giving classes, some kind of secret plot unfolding in the background that only the child hero can unravel.

Structurally, it’s a lot like the Harry Potter videogames, too: you’ve got a largish school/campground hub area containing secrets and collectibles, and various challenge areas accessible from it. The challenge areas in this case are the abstract worlds inside people’s minds. The first such world, in the mind of a drill-sergeant-wannabe coach, is war-themed, by which I mean that the Ditkoesque floating platforms are covered in barbed wire and concrete bunkers and fragmentary bomber fuselages. Interestingly, this level doesn’t contain any actual fighting: war is presented, not as a situation in which you have the opportunity to triumph over an enemy, but merely as a situation of constant danger.

Later scenes do contain combat, but the game is basically a platformer — a fact that must have come as some surprise to fans of Tim Schafer, the creative lead, who’s best known for his work on graphic adventures. (Psychonauts has some adventure-game elements, but what doesn’t these days?) The sense of humor, though, definitely hearkens back to Monkey Island. I’ll note in particular one bit where an unpopular kid with an incongruously deep voice tells a humorously long and boring story: “…Then we went up a hill. Then we walked four miles. Then we walked two miles. Then we walked three miles. Then we walked half a mile. Then we made a U-turn. Then we stood still for a while…” Past a certain point, it’s constructed from randomly-selected phrases, but they’re still delivered with perfect comic timing. That means some coder took the trouble to tweak the delay in a loop for maximum comic effect.

Alas, I’m probably missing similar timing elsewhere. Much of the dialogue in the game occurs in the hub areas, where you can talk to the other kids or show them inventory items or try to set them on fire with your mind or whatever, and in those areas I’m suffering from framerate problems. Presumably this is because the campground is harder to render than the mental worlds, being more open and more detailed. It’s not so bad as to make me stop playing, but characters’ mouths often become noticeably out-of-sync with what they’re saying, and the audio playback pauses to let the video catch up. I wish I knew where the bottleneck is here — whether it’s the CPU or the video card or what. All I know is that altering the settings in the in-game video options panel doesn’t seem to help.

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1. Raz actually kind of reminds me of a young Michael J. Fox, but I think that’s more a matter of his earnest manner than his physical appearance.

Heroes Chronicles: Lamplighting

hc2-structuresOutside of the cities, there are free-standing buildings scattered throughout the map. Some of them, such as the training camps that improve the stats of visiting heroes, are intrinsically neutral, and will serve heroes on either side. Others can be claimed. A banner on the side indicates by its color the owner of such a structure, and typically any enemy hero passing by can change the color of that banner by tagging it. It’s possible to leave troops behind as guards to prevent this, but this is seldom if ever worthwhile, as it leaves fewer units in the hands of your heroes.

Some of the claimable structures, such as mines and sawmills, provide resources to their owner every turn, and it’s very important to claim as many of these as possible — even if you don’t need the resources, it keeps them out of enemy hands. Others produce troops on a weekly basis, provided that a hero comes along to pick them up. It seems a lot less important who owns these; it just matters who can reach it, tag it, and recruit the troops first every week.

But on level 3 of Conquest of the Underworld provides a motivation to claim everything you can, even things you have no intention of using. It has to do with the “fog of war”. Every level I’ve seen so far starts out with most of the map dark, revealing it through exploration, as is typical in these games. But in levels 1 and 2, once an area was explored, it stayed explored. In level 3, the only things you can see on the map are the areas that can be seen by your heroes or from your buildings. Dark areas aren’t even considered as navigable by the game’s pathfinding algorithm if you’ve seen them before and know there’s a way through. So keeping those roadside towers under your control is an important convenience, even if you have no intention of ever recruiting what they produce. (Heroes can only have so many creature stacks under their control at a time, so recruiting everything you see isn’t always an option.) And when an enemy hero slips through, he brings darkness.

I don’t remember episode 1 well enough to know if this returning darkness is the state of most levels or if it’s a special feature of the underworld. It shows the game’s age somewhat, though. More recent games with fog-of-war effects tend to have three states: not just “visible” and “not visible”, but “visible”, “not currently visible but explored”, and “unexplored”.

Heroes Chronicles: Futility

hc2-eventI’m back to level 3 of Conquest of the Underworld which is where I was when I decided to start over. So far, it’s proved pointless. My main heroes (Tarnum is allowed to take two other heroes with him between levels) all have Earth Magic and the ability to learn the Town Portal spell, but the spell hasn’t been offered yet.

Heroes mainly learn spells from the mage guilds that you build in your cities. Each mage guild, when built, gets a random assortment of spells. I wonder how random it is? It might be possible to repeatedly load a saved game and rebuild the mage guild until it gives you the spells you want. Which would be cheap. But putting a die roll in the way of crucial permanent effects encourages cheap behavior. That’s why most CRPGs these days don’t randomize hit point gains from levelling: to eliminate the temptation to quit without saving when you don’t get enough.

Somehow, even though I knew the second level better this time, it took me longer to finish. Consequently, I got to see some plot events that I had missed the first time around — events in the form of narration in a dialog box. Some events are just color text (as when Tarnum gets a letter from Queen Allison, his boss for this adventure, asking about his progress), some have effects on gameplay (as when Allison’s letter is accompanied by funds for recruiting more troops). But past a certain point, you know they can’t be essential to the story: any sufficiently skilled player will miss them.

Heroes Chronicles: Starting Over

hc2-increaseSo, I decided to start over from the beginning in Conquest of the Underworld. To explain why, I’ll have to desribe the game mechanics a little.

In the Heroes of Might and Magic system, everything that you do outside of the cities you control is done through entities called “heroes”. Heroes have various stats and skills, can wear magic items to affect those stats and skills, and improve with experience like a character in an RPG, but they don’t participate in combat directly. Instead, they gather troops and creatures under their command.

Creatures are produced every seven turns — every week of gametime — in cities and certain free-standing structures. But they can’t do anything on their own. Any creatures that you recruit in a city will simply wait there and defend it until a hero scoops them up and carries them away. It’s useful to think of them as wargaming minis that the heroes carry around in a box.

Now, the kind and number of creatures that a city can produce is determined by the structures that have been built there. For example, in order to produce Griffins, a city must have a Griffin Tower. Turn it into an Upgraded Griffin Tower and you can produce Royal Griffins, which are stronger and faster. Build a Griffin Bastion as well and you can get an additional three griffins per week. But it takes time and money to build these things. By the time a city can produce the best units in any quantity, the action has moved far away. Getting your troops to the front as quickly as possible is a big part of the strategy of the game.

One of the basic techniques is to use a “bucket brigade” — a string of heroes stretching from the city to the front, positioned a day’s ride away from each other, ready to pass that box of minis all the way from the castle to the hero who needs them. In this way, troops can travel arbitrary distances in a single turn. But hiring heroes costs money, even if you’re going to just use them as delivery boys, and setting up a bucket brigade takes some time and effort, especially when you suddenly have to shift it to point in a different direction.

Another thing that helps a lot is that some cities — the “inferno” types, the ones that produce demons and hellhounds and the like — can build Castle Gates. Heroes can travel instantly between any two cities with Castle Gates. But these are expensive and not likely to get built until late, and, as I said, only help for transporting troops between Inferno cities. While this scenario has more Inferno cities than may be regarded as typical, there are also an awful lot of Castle (knight-type troops) and Necropolis (undead-types).

What I have just learned is that there’s a spell called Town Portal that could help a lot. In its basic form, it teleports a hero to the nearest friendly city, but a hero with Advanced Earth Magic can use it to teleport to any friendly city. Thus, it is really useful to have the Earth Magic skill. And there’s a seer back on level 1 who teaches this skill, but I ignored it, because you have a limited number of skill slots and I thought I had more important things to learn.

Well, now I know better.

Heroes Chronicles: Losing Balance

It strikes me that Heroes of Might and Magic (as revealed through the Heroes Chronicles) has a balance problem. Not that it’s unbalanced exactly, but that it loses its balance easily. It’s a very high positive-feedback game, which is to say, power is rewarded with more power, so the winners tend to keep on winning and the losers tend to keep on losing. The outcome of a scenario rests on the first few turns. If you can pull ahead then, there’s no stopping you. But there’s no stopping the scenario, either: even if victory is assured, you have to keep playing it out to get credit for it.

This is especially visible in the second level of Conquest of the Underworld. The goal in this scenario isn’t to wipe out all enemies and conquer the map, but to obtain a certain artifact that’s at the end of a sequence of map-spanning fetch-quests. Wiping out all enemies and conquering the map does, however, make the questing much easier. In fact, I find that the easiest way to approach the level is to concentrate on securing the terrain first, hitting the enemy castles while they’re still weak, and not go out of your way to cart plot tokens around until the conquest is complete. This probably isn’t the approach that the level designer had in mind. At least, I hope not, because it’s kind of boring: it leaves you with a bunch of time-consuming tasks to pursue after you’ve removed all challenge.

I suppose this is an example of one of the classic injustices of game design: if there are two ways of accomplishing something, one that’s difficult and interesting and one that’s easy and boring, players will choose the boring way and then blame the designer. But in this instance, I’m not really sure what the other option is. Some of the quests in the chain involved finding particular artifacts, with no clues to their locations. This isn’t something you can really pursue. All you can do is peek in on any ruins you pass by in the hope of lucking out, which is something you’d be doing anyway.

Heroes Chronicles: Making Mistakes

hc2-mistakeSomewhat embarassingly, I haven’t made it past level one of Conquest of the Underworld yet. I could blame this on my stubborn insistence on playing it on the Hard difficulty setting — there are five difficulty levels, which to me means that difficulty level 3 is Medium, darn it, regardless of what the game calls it. But really it’s more about making mistakes.

Heroes of Might and Magic is one of those two-tiered games: specific battles take place in a tactical combat mode, which is mainly about deciding who should attack what, and the battles are embedded in a larger strategy mode, which is mainly about deciding what to build when. The limited resources you need to supply your army are often guarded by monsters, and the enemy warlords are competing with you to reach them first. So there are two fundamental mistakes you can make: going for the treasures before you’re ready and getting killed, and waiting too long and falling behind the competition. I’m generally more prone to the latter mistake — part of being a completist is wanting to have all the buildings built and all the creature types available — but today, I’ve been making both.

And it isn’t just fundamental mistakes, either. It’s stupid litle things. Like going after heavily-guarded things that I don’t really need, and not saving often enough. I’ve never really decided what level of saving is appropriate for a strategy game. Doing it every turn seems kind of cheap, like you’re trying to bring it all down to tactical decisions instead of strategic ones in order to avoid the consequences of not really knowing what you’re doing.

But hey, maybe I really don’t know what I’m doing. In which case I should really dial it down to Normal difficulty. That’s how I passed the first few levels of Warriors of the Wasteland, when I really really didn’t know what I was doing, due to complete inexperience with the game.

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