Archive for December, 2009

Majesty 2: Short Shrift

Still on the last map. I’ve definitely spent by far the majority of my time on this game toward the end. Fortunately, that isn’t just because there’s an impossible end boss. It’s because the end is where the correct strategy becomes non-obvious, and therefore the game becomes both more difficult and more interesting than in the previous parts. It would probably have been better for the game’s reputation if the developers had front-loaded this more — as it is, I doubt most reviewers played it this far before reviewing it. Which is fair, because most players won’t either. But it does mean that the game as a whole is probably underestimated.

Even my own judgment so far, that the original Majesty was better, is probably at least partly based on overly-sunny memories. The one thing that I can point to as definitely changed is the lack of randomized layouts in Majesty 2, but in a way, the final level brings that back. The whole level is based around a demon who alternately smashes your city and disappears to the far unexplored reaches of the map. It takes a few play-throughs to figure what he’s doing out there, but he’s creating new monster lairs, ones that spawn elementals. If you let him just keep on creating them indefinitely, the elementals become too numerous to fight. So you have to find them by exploring, just like with every single lair in the original Majesty.

Majesty 2: The Level-1 Elite Lord Gambit

The strategy I was starting to formulate at the end of my last post worked like a charm. And the reason it works all comes down to money. There are six specific hero types (Paladin, Blademaster, Beastmaster, some special kind of archer, and two flavors of specialized priestess) that we can think of as “elite” (although the game doesn’t use that term) — they’re more powerful than normal heroes, especially at higher levels, and they cost more to hire. Every elite type costs 1000 moneys at level 1, ten times as much as the cheapest unit (rogues), and a high-level elite-type Lord from a different map costs positively unwieldy amounts to hire: if you can afford them, you’re probably in good enough shape that you don’t need them. But a low-level elite is good enough, because it doesn’t take them long to become high-level elites. Now, you start most maps with 2-4000 in cash, which is enough to hire a fresh elite and still have some left over for buildings, but before you can do that, you need to build the temple that produces that type (cost: 3000), and the prerequisite for that is a level-3 palace (2000 for the first upgrade, 5000 for the second), so that’s 10k before you can get started, and in the meantime you have to build other units just to defend yourself. But with a level-1 elite Lord in the wings, you only have to build a 1k Lord Tower, well within the starting budget, and well worth it.

The tricky part of this approach is getting a level 1 elite Lord in the first place. You pretty much have to hire a new elite type just before winning, not giving the new hire enough time to either level up or engage the boss and get killed. Also, of course, you can only use each such Lord this way once, because once they’ve done a mapworth of foe-slaughtering, they’re not level 1 any more. Still, it worked so well on the level where I was stuck before that I took special care to do another last-minute hire there to use on the next level, where it also worked beautifully. There’s a tremendous moment when you suddenly realize that your peasants’ houses are actually staying up for significant lengths of time — yes, the poor are the primary casualties and all that, and a good buffer zone of peasant housing around the buildings you actually care about is often the simplest way to preserve them — and that you can start thinking about going on the offensive.

That leaves the final map, which I haven’t yet won. It shakes things up by giving you a ton of cash at the very outset — not an endless supply, but enough to open up options that I hadn’t had to consider before. Hiring a high-level elite lord (or an even higher-level non-elite lord) at the outset is suddenly possible, but so is upgrading the castle and making an elite factory or two. What you can’t do is pursue both of these routes at once. I’ve got some experimenting to do.

Majesty 2: Lords

Three levels from the end, the difficulty spikes. I have now spent long hours on a single map. Forget what I said last time about making steady progress once you’ve survived the initial onslaught. At this point, it seems like the initial onslaught never ends.

The premise of the level is that you’re caught between two rival clans, one of elves and rogues, one of priests and paladins — which is to say, a subset of the hero types available to the player. They’re quite willing to fight each other if they meet, but since your palace is in the way, they both gang up on you instead. Even if you could manage to get them fighting each other, it’s not clear that it would be a good idea: hero types tend to flee battles before they die, and that which does not kill them gives them experience points. Yes, even for non-lethal encounters. Maybe they’re not so much enemies as sparring partners. Regardless, the last thing you want is for them to level up faster than you.

Paladins in particular are very hard to kill, and overpowered for their nominal level. Creating some paladins of my own would be a fine thing, but just getting to the point where you’re allowed to create the building that produces them takes more time and money than I seem to ever have. The only way I’ve managed to last any length of time is by bringing in Lords. Lords are a device peculiar to this game: basically, when you finish a map, you get to choose one of your heroes to become a Lord that you can call up in other maps, for a fee that fee depends on the Lord’s class and level. (Any experience gained after becoming a Lord persists, too, so if you use the same Lord a lot, it becomes more and more expensive.) It’s an interesting touch that gives a little bit of overarching strategy in a game where levels are otherwise self-contained.

Generally speaking, I’ve been promoting my most powerful warriors to lordhood. On the level where I’m stuck, I can basically afford one of my weakest Lords at the very beginning, and perhaps one more later on if I’m willing to ruin my kingdom saving up for it. I’m starting to think that I’ve taken the wrong approach here — that what I really should do is go back and replay a couple of earlier maps and lordify some level 1 paladins, ones that will be cheap to re-hire and then level up in the map where I need them. At any rate, it’s an experiment that wouldn’t take nearly as long as I’ve already spent replaying the level I’m on.

Majesty 2: Time Limits and Wandering Monsters

Majesty 2‘s campaign mode has 16 maps, each of which is a satisfying length for a single play session, provided you’re not determined to play the whole thing through in a burst like me. And on most maps, one session is all you need: if you do it wrong, if your heroes die and your city crumbles, that’s just a setback. You haven’t lost, you just need to regroup and try again. Time makes you stronger — partly because your heroes are constantly fighting monsters and leveling up (even if you’ve destroyed all the monster lairs, your own city’s sewers and graveyard keep emitting low-level crawlies), partly because more time means more income, which means more upgrades for your surviving heroes. In theory, you can lose if your palace is destroyed, but generally speaking, if you can survive the very beginning, when you don’t have guard towers or powerful heroes yet, you can survive until the designer decides you’ve had enough time and ends it.

Most maps don’t seem to have time limits. In fact, I’ve seen only one that has an explicit time limit, a novelty level where your goal is to accumulate a certain amount of cash on a deadline (while spending enough to stay alive, of course). This, for me, has been the hardest map in the game so far, because of the self-restraint it requires. If I have a failing in strategy games, its my urge to upgrade everything to max, rather than take a considered look at costs and benefits. Really, though, any time-limited level makes you prioritize what you want to do with your money. It’s just that, on most, the worst thing you can do with your money is hoard it.

On most maps, the mission objective is to destroy something, either a building or a boss monster of some sort. And if I read things right, these boss monsters are how the game imposes time limits without making them explicit. For example, I just finished (on my second try) a map involving an undead king, who either wanders the map or periodically appears and vanishes, I’m not sure which. (There were still substantial sections of the map unexplored when I won.) What’s certain is that he eventually shows up at your base and starts demolishing it. There’s no point in trying to rebuild when this happens. All you can do is set a hefty bounty on his head and hope that your forces are strong enough to whittle him down before he runs out of buildings to smash. The resulting donnybrook feels a lot like the “Armageddon” spell in Populous, the finishing move that makes everyone in the world rush to the center and fight until only one side is left, except that you can still meaningfully participate by, for example, resurrecting heroes that die in the dogpile. Now, both of the times that I played this map, the skeleton king found me on day 86 or so. 1There’s a little inconsistency about how time works. The UI reports a number of days elapsed, but the graphics display some maps as taking place in daylight and some at night. Perpetual daylight is something we accept as an artifact of the way time is represented in RTS games, but throw in nighttime and it starts to seem a little weird. Also, there’s one level where you’re told in the beginning that it’s an opportune time to attack because it’s raining, and the rain then continues for however many months you need to finish. This could be coincidence, but it seems more like a time limit. A soft time limit, sure, because it doesn’t end things immediately, but if you haven’t built up your forces enough to win the battle by that moment, you never will.

The problem is that it doesn’t read like a time limit. The first time around, it seemed like I simply had a stroke of bad luck and the boss just wandered into my camp before I was ready. If it’s a time limit, it’s a surprise time limit. And while I can see the need for time limits to create challenge in a game like this, I don’t see any need to be coy about them.

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1. There’s a little inconsistency about how time works. The UI reports a number of days elapsed, but the graphics display some maps as taking place in daylight and some at night. Perpetual daylight is something we accept as an artifact of the way time is represented in RTS games, but throw in nighttime and it starts to seem a little weird. Also, there’s one level where you’re told in the beginning that it’s an opportune time to attack because it’s raining, and the rain then continues for however many months you need to finish.

Majesty 2: Monetary Policy

I first became aware of Majesty 2 through a series of posts on rockpapershotgun.com. Looking back at them again, one particular passage drew my attention:

The great irony/joy of [setting bounties] is that the only things heroes have to spend their money on is stuff you’ve got up for sale. Build a marketplace to flog potions, a blacksmith to sell armour and weapon upgrades and an inn to booze the night away in. Dimwits – all that gold they’ve earned, given straight back to its source. So, you eventually get a decent portion of your spending back…

…To then in turn spend on new heroes, buildings and upgrades. Nobody gets rich here – the money just cycles around and around. I’ll guess this tongue-in-cheek futility is deliberate…

Fools? Futility? Hardly! Money is not the same as wealth, as anyone in Zimbabwe can tell you. A man trapped on a desert island with a million dollars in a suitcase isn’t “rich” in any meaningful sense, because the lack of things to buy makes it worthless. 1The presence of a half-dozen additional castaways who still believe that the money has value may change this, of course. Likewise, a Hero who’s decked out in the best weapons and armor, with a backpack full of healing potions and charms, is better off than he was before he spent the time accumulating the cash that he spent on it — and the kingdom is better off for having him.

And ultimately, you’re controlling a kingdom here, not an individual. Individuals may value money as an end in itself, but from a national perspective, the whole purpose of money is to keep it running through the engines of commerce like water through a mill-race, generating useful work through its movement. If you can do this without increasing the money supply, that isn’t futility. That’s more like a miracle.

I don’t want to overstate the case here. It’s not like the game has inflation or a business cycle or anything. In sophistication of economic modeling, we’re somewhere above most RTS games, but below the likes of Sim City. The strangest part, when you stop to think about it, is that the peasants in your domain seem to just generate tax revenue out of thin air. These are people who spend most of their time toiling away at new buildings for you, but you never actually pay them. They pay you. It works as gameplay, though, because it gives you an incentive to protect them.

Come to think of it, there’s an interesting contrast there between Majesty and its evil twin, Dungeon Keeper. In DK, your minions are gold-sinks. You have to keep paying them periodically to keep them from leaving, and gold paid in wages just disappears, as if eaten. If I were a more suspicious man, I’d think that they were somehow sneaking it to the peasants in Majesty 2, explaining two mysteries at once. But no, I think it’s just illustrating the nature of good and evil. Good produces; evil consumes. This means that evil’s preferred strategy is the quick strike, achieving victory before the money runs out and then, presumably, leaving things behind in an unsustainable state. Good, on the other hand, wins by enduring. You’ll be unstoppable if you can last long enough. It’s almost as if they really are two different sides of the same game.

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1. The presence of a half-dozen additional castaways who still believe that the money has value may change this, of course.

Majesty 2

There aren’t many game sequels recently that I’d say I’ve anticipated eagerly. Since my backlog numbers in the hundreds, new releases really have to stand out in some way to capture my attention, and anything with a number after its name starts out with a handicap in that regard. But when the original delivers a unique experience, one that the industry doesn’t imitate, sequels offer the only hope of recapturing it afresh. This was my experience with DROD, with Katamari Damacy, and now, although it’s not as in-your-face weird as those titles, with Majesty.

The original Majesty was released during the height of the RTS craze, and it’s one of the few games to take the basic idea of the genre and completely change how it’s played. It’s essentially a fantasy RTS from an alternate universe where Dune II was never made and the primary model for the genre was instead Populous. You build bases, research tech, and hire heroes, but the heroes are self-willed, not under your control. This is the game’s first major subversion. You can try to influence their behavior by setting bounties on particular foes (or even just offer rewards for visiting locations on the map), but this comes out of the same budget that you use for building and hiring, and it takes a hefty bribe to make the heroes move.

What I’ve seen so far of Majesty 2 is basically similar to the original Majesty, but with prettier graphics. There are a couple of disappointments, though. First of all, it fails to even acknowledge the original’s second major subversion: its use of terrain. It basically didn’t have any. Aside from some purely cosmetic shading, the maps in Majesty were completely flat and open, with monster lairs and other significant features strewn about at random (subject to level-specific constraints). In effect, though, the flow of monster movement became a kind of terrain variation in itself. It was quite a revelation for me to realize that in fact this is enough to constrain your actions — that you don’t need impassible mountains or rivers to force the player to confine and consolidate their forces. This hasn’t been commented on nearly as much as the game’s first major subversion, but it seems just as significant to me.

Secondly, it seems to me that the heroes in Majesty 2 aren’t nearly as varied in their behavior as they were in the original. Behavior there was largely a matter of character class, and the smart player chose which character types to hire, not just on the basis of how their abilities fit the current map, but also on how they would behave. Rangers like to explore unseen territory, which can be an asset or a liability, depending on what there is out there to find. Rogues are usually the first to try to claim a bounty, even when it’s really too difficult for them. Paladins, in contrast, are unmoved by money, and instead seek out monsters to destroy, which is a good thing on levels with lots of small monsters that they can level up on, but a bad thing when they’ll just wind up charging at a boss and getting killed. That’s what it’s like in Majesty; in Majesty 2, everyone seems to behave more or less the same way, hanging out near the town until you post a bounty, then rushing after it if it’s big enough.

But then, I’m only a few maps into the game at the moment, so perhaps my judgment is premature. I’ll recite one more complaint, one that comes from other reviews I’ve seen of the game: that it’s too repetitive, that every single level is basically spent turtling until you’ve built up enough power to rush the boss. And, well, I can see why that would bother the more sophisticated RTS fan, but honestly, I find it a little reassuring to think that the tactics I’ve already discovered might last me the rest of the game.

Penumbra: Requiem

The third game of the Penumbra trilogy is actually an expansion pack for the second game. Various blurbs say that it “ties up loose ends” in the first two games, but really, the only loose end is what happens to Shelter (as the secret excavation site is called) after Philip’s messages go out, and it doesn’t even address that. I suppose there are probably players asking “What happened to Philip after the second game? How did he escape?” — to which the only sensible answers are “Exactly what you saw” and “He didn’t”. It’s a horror story. Seekers after forbidden knowledge have to pay a terrible price.

Nonetheless, Penumbra: Requiem follows Philip’s further adventures. Just one problem: none of it is real. I’ll avoid spoilers about the precise sort of unreality it is — certainly there are multiple possibilities within the previous game’s fiction — but the game doesn’t take long to start dropping hints of irrationality underlying the world, like in a Philip K. Dick novel. For example, at one point, the automatic PA-recording voice, previously heard issuing GLaDOS-like cheerful reminders about how all personnel are required to bring their cyanide capsules when on shift and suchlike, addresses Philip by name, and whispers advice clearly meant for you specifically. Later, it addresses you as “Player”. (Add Metal Gear Solid 2 to the list of games Penumbra has reminded me of!) It’s surreal, but it also lowers the stakes somewhat: how can you be worried about the effects of your actions in a world that makes no sense?

But then, the stakes are already low, because there are no monsters at all this time around. That means it can’t really be described as a survival-horror or a stealth game any more. (Crouching in darkness produces the now-familiar hiding-in-shadows screen effects, but there’s no one around to appreciate it.) Since there’s no need for places to hide in or flee through, the hub areas made of networks of corridors have been eliminated too. Instead, what we have left is a series of self-contained puzzle scenarios with no logical connections to each other: each segment ends with Philip going through a teleporter. So, it’s more purely a puzzle game than the previous installments — the only thing that breaks it up is the frequent platforming elements (including, at one point, a Donkey Kong homage).

Oddly enough for an adventure game, it doesn’t use the inventory for anything except your standard tools (flashlight, notebook, pain relievers, etc). There are things you need to carry around, but it’s always done by dragging them from place to place in the scene itself, like in Half-Life 2 and Portal. Those games built puzzles around this interface, but didn’t explore it as much as Requiem does, or show how well it works in an adventure context. I’d say it works pretty well, as long as the puzzles are designed for it. It feels more natural than an inventory menu, more like a unified interface of the sort found in Mystlike games, but provides a greater range of action than a pure Mystlike click-on-stuff interface. One key mechanic to support it is the way that objects that have to be put in a particular place (in a slot, say) are guided to that position automatically when you get them close enough. This provides important feedback, letting the player know that they’ve done something right.

I should talk about the light. All three games give you three ways of lighting up dark places: glowstick, flashlight, and flares. Overture had text suggesting that the flashlight was the best light source, but the ridiculous rate at which it chewed up batteries meant that you’d sometimes have to resort to the never-dying glowstick. I personally found that this was hogwash: the flashlight may have been better for lighting things at a distance, but since you can’t interact with distant things, the glowstick, with its 360-degree illumination, was more practical. Somehow, though, I found myself using the flashlight more in Black Plague. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was changed to illuminate immediate surroundings better, or maybe the levels just had more long, dark corridors. At any rate, the whole idea of conserving your light fits better with the survival-horror stuff than with a pure adventure game, so Requiem dropped it, and gave you a flashlight with infinite charge. I basically never turned it off.

I notice that I’m talking mostly about mechanics this time, whereas my posts about the previous ones are almost entirely about plot. That’s because there really isn’t much plot this time around. I’d guess that the authors were thinking that, because this is just an expansion pack and not a proper sequel, it can’t have any important plot developments. It’s like the Sunday episodes of syndicated comic strips: since not all newspapers have a Sunday edition, nothing can be allowed to happen that affects continuity. The mechanics, though, are top-notch.

Penumbra: Cured

The ending of Penumbra: Black Plague, and the events leading up to it, confirm some of the speculation in my last post about the role of the virus in ancient times — at least, if you trust the central virus hive mind, which can’t be completely objective on the matter. (Yes, it’s another story about a misunderstood alien hive mind. The more I play of Penumbra, the more I notice ideas from other games I’ve played recently, including ones written later. It’s as if the attempt at so many formal genres at once has turned it into a kind of cliché nexus.) It claims that it was once benevolent, but has been fighting for its life ever since the Archaic (the secret organization that built the laboratories) decided that it was a disease and had to be cured. Ah, but what about the zombies? Just infected individuals sent out to patrol the outer reaches; their zombie-like behavior is a consequence of being too far separated from the core to participate in the hive intelligence properly.

Clarence, now. He’s a different kettle of fish. “Clarence” is the name that the player character’s infection gives to himself, sardonically choosing it after inspecting your memory of It’s a Wonderful Life. A complaining bully with an Oscar-the-Grouch accent, he’s both individually smart and unambiguously malevolent, even if he does sometimes help you survive. Furthermore, he has an unnerving amount of power over your mind. He can occasionally take control of your senses, make you see things the way he wants you to see them — for example, eliminating doors that he doesn’t want you to go through, giving an excuse for Silent Hill-style variable geography. He can even erase your memories to make more room for himself. There’s one bit where Clarence implies that you didn’t actually kill Red in the first game, but that your memory of doing so is just him messing with your head for lulz. He could be lying about that, of course. He lies a lot.

I’ve talked before about how annoying the “disembodied sidekick” in an adventure game can be even when the authors don’t intend it that way, but in this game, they just ran with it. In one scene in a library, Clarence repeatedly gives obvious hints that there’s a secret passage behind one of the bookshelves. It takes a while to find the fake book that triggers it, and while you’re looking, Clarence repeatedly berates the player’s intelligence. In most other games, this would be a bad thing, but here, it serves the authors’ purpose, which is, to make you hate Clarence even more.

When you eventually find a way to cure the virus, Clarence does everything he can to try to stop you, including, in the end, simply pleading for his life. (Strange behavior for a disease!) And despite everything he’s done to you, the simple abjectness of his position provokes some pity. You are, after all, murdering a conscious being, but what choice do you have? You can’t trust him to leave you alone. It’s him or you.

But having been infected once, you retain the ability to contact and be contacted by the hive mind, and thereby get the exposition I described back in the first paragraph. The hive mind isn’t like Clarence — it’s far more menacing. It doesn’t blame you for murder, because it too wanted Clarence dead. Not because he was evil, but because because he was too individual, too human. Fortunately, all it wants at this point is to be left alone, to have the outside world forget that it exists.

But that isn’t going to happen. We still have one more game to go.

Penumbra: Black Plague

Black Plague, the second installment of the Penumbra trilogy, starts shortly after the first left off, with Philip, the player character, waking up in a cell in a secret research station hidden under the mines. I’m immediately struck by a number of surface similarities to Half-Life: ruined-laboratory look, mutated zombie-like monsters, booby-traps made of explosives wired to laser tripwires across hallways. It’s a pretty big contrast to Penumbra: Overture in style, but the gameplay hasn’t changed much — if anything, it’s this episode plays less like Half-Life than its predecessor, as I haven’t found anything that can be used as a weapon, except perhaps some bricks I could throw. Presumably the creators got complaints about the awkwardness of melee in Overture and decided to just eliminate it.

This means that stealth is even more paramount, especially since some of those zombies have flashlights. They’re pretty smart for zombies, really, capable of speaking in coherent sentences and everything. “Zombie” is probably the wrong word. Call them “infected” if you like, because documents in the game are pretty clear that we’re dealing with an alien virus here. One that takes over your mind, or, at first, just produces a second mind, which the infected hear as a voice in their head. Red, the madman in the previous episode, wasn’t just insane from isolation, he was infected and knew it. And now Philip is too. There’s a point where you find documents describing the early symptoms of the virus, such as auditory hallucinations and déjà vu, and realize that you’ve already experienced most of them. Shortly afterward, you get a full-fledged voice in your head telling you what to do, taking over Red’s previous role as disembodied sidekick, but more antagonistic.

The interesting thing here is that it seems like the virus-personality might not be necessarily evil. It might, in your case at least, be more of a symbiosis than a disease. It’s certainly capable of being helpful, and there’s been mention made of the virus helping its host to survive (or, as in Red’s case, forcing its host to survive). To a large extent, Philip’s new brain-buddy is as new to this whole situation as Philip is; its whole personality seems to be formed from reading his memories, which means that its notion of what it is and what it should be doing is informed by its host’s expectations. The whole phenomenon is linked somehow to pre-Columbian Inuit superstitions and practices that were abandoned as demonic with the conversion to Christianity (as described in a document in the previous game — this story is starting to pull together elements that didn’t seem connected before). When the infection takes hold, you have a series of nightmarish interactive visions/hallucinations/ordeals involving elements of ritual sacrifice and elements of events in the previous game (with Red’s death qualifying as both). Until you reach the end and come back to the real world, the game basically stops feeling like Half-Life and instead feels like Silent Hill. This whole bit seems like a kind of initiatory passage through the Abyss, and I can easily imagine ancient shamans, who hadn’t yet been told that the spirits are evil, deliberately becoming infected/possessed to share their wisdom.

But then again, zombies. If the infection is supposed to be benevolent, something has clearly gone wrong. If I understand right, the virus has basically killed the original personality in these cases, and, in the process, left itself stunted. But perhaps it did this in self-defense.

Change of Plans

I think I’ve fixed my recent hardware problems. As you may recall, my system was occasionally turning itself off, suddenly and without warning. Graphically-intensive games seemed to be the cause: I first noticed the problem in Team Fortress 2, but later observed it in other games, including ones that I had played without problems before. This is weird behavior for a PC: the sort of problem that can be triggered by running a game generally manifests more mildly, with the game dumping you back to the desktop with an “illegal operation” dialog. At most, you expect a system lock-up, not a system shut-down.

Well, when I was blowing the dust out of the case the other day, I noticed that some internal cables were out of place. This box keeps its wiring tidied up with plastic clips stuck to the metal of the case walls with adhesive pads, and one of those pads had come unstuck. The cables didn’t seem damaged, but they were hanging vary close to where the video card sits, and some of the dust was actually blackened. My theory is that the cables were actually touching the video card’s heat sink. Once the card started really working, the metal of the wires would carry that heat straight into the heart of the PSU, which has to take things like sudden heat spikes seriously and really has only one way of dealing with them.

With the wires re-secured, I was able to get through all of the TF2 Developer Commentary tracks without incident. So I’m ready to give the high-graphics games another try. Now that I know what was going on, I’m pleased that the system handled the situation as gracefully as it did, and apparently avoided permanent damage.

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