Archive for March, 2007

Throne of Darkness: Slow Progress

tod-diningI mentioned recently that the most numerous game genre on my stack was adventure games, but RPGs are a close second, thanks largely to anthologies. I’ve got the majority of the Wizardry and Final Fantasy series ahead of me, as well as the entire Might and Magic series. (Ultima I finished some time ago.) So, I think I should try to finish up Throne of Darkness so I can start a different RPG without feeling like I’m neglecting it.

When last we left our band of intrepid samurai, they had just gotten through the dungeons under Tsunayoshi’s castle, and were getting killed a lot. They’re getting killed somewhat less now, due to a combination of more XP, better tactics (I’m swapping out wounded characters sooner, and trying to make sure I always have a combination of melee and ranged characters out), and better equipment. Some of the equipment is crafted, but I’m finding crafting to be something of an exercise in frustration at this point: the moment I make myself an Ultimate Weapon, costing half my gold or more, I find a new previously-unseen component that would make it even better if there were any free slots left. Perhaps the better approach to crafting in this game is to just make little improvements to whatever you find.

Even though I’m within spitting distance of the final confrontation, I’m taking things slow. This seems to be the best way to approach this game: going through the castle level by level, room by room, taking the time to process your loot after each room you clear and at the same time letting everyone heal. Impatience gets you killed. I’ve even toyed with leaving the castle to explore the unexplored paths down the mountain, since the last Single Quest is presumably out there somewhere.

And, really, taking things slowly is kind of the right way to play RPGs, MMO or otherwise. To rush to the end is to miss the point. Experience farming is a meditative practice, similar in a way to “casual” games like Bejewelled: simple, repetitive, only partly engaging one’s attention. It’s something you can rest your mind on.

This is pretty much the opposite of the attitude I took the last time I wrote about this game. What can I say, it’s spring now.

Nightlong: Cheating

nightlong-syringeIt turns out that VST is just some unspecified new cyberspace/VR technology, but one with side effects that kill people after a few months. Genesis, under the direction of Hugh Martens (your employer), is still trying to eliminate the problem, but they’re doing this by testing it illegally on prison inmates. Martens, meanwhile, has gone cartoonishly wacko about covering the whole thing up, and has been killing people left and right. If nothing else, this clinches the loyalty thing. If you completed your original assignment and brought Martens the truthmongers, he’d just kill you for knowing too much. Not that the game gives you a choice in the matter.

The final act of the game takes place on the prison island of Rocas Perdida, where the experiments are taking place. And it is at the very beginning of that section that I got very badly stuck. For the first and last time in the game, I resorted to a walkthrough.

This is something I really try to avoid doing. Walkthroughs are a necessary evil at best. The whole point of an adventure game is the pleasure of figuring things out, and using hints robs you of that. Worse yet, to cheat at all is to acknowledge that you’ve lost your trust in the author, that you don’t expect that you’ll be able to solve the puzzle. This lack of trust damages your experience of the rest of the game afterwards; once you’ve started down that path, it’s easy to give up on puzzles too early. I’m not even going to get into the problem of badly-written walkthroughs that give away too much, as that didn’t happen this time.

The problem, and to some extent the saving grace, of Nightlong is that I had a solid notion of what kind of unfairness I expected from it. As I’ve noted before, this is a game prone to tiny, all-but-invisible hotspots. I’d been temporarily stuck in the game many times before this point, and with only one or two exceptions, it was always due to failing to notice a hotspot. At one point, I was actually able to work backward from the expected solution to a puzzle, figuring out what sort of item I’d need, and then where I’d be likely to find it. And sure enough, it was there, and nearly unfindable unless you were looking for it specifically. This was far more satisfying than finding it by waving the cursor around at random would have been. But that was an exception. For the most part, finding something clickable in this game is a surprise. So when I got as thoroughly stuck as I was, I was fairly certain that there was a tiny hotspot that I was missing, despite repeated searching of all available rooms.

It turned out that it wasn’t a tiny hotspot. There were two hotspots with the same name close together, and I had somehow managed to avoid using the right action on the right one, despite revisiting them repeatedly. I probably should have slept on it and come back fresh, but I sometimes find it hard to convince myself of that when I know I’m nearing the end.

When I do resort to hints, my reaction is pretty much always the same, regardless of what they reveal: “That was it? What a gyp!” Even if I don’t cheat again, it can take a while for this minor sense of resentment to fade. Solving tougher puzzles later in the game helps, re-establishing the “you throw ’em at me, I’ll solve ’em” dynamic. That happened here. There was a nice convoluted unrealistic adventure-game puzzle (illustrated in the screenshot above), and the final puzzle of the game was a tasty little cryptarithm — arguably soup cans, but it hit the spot.

Anyway, it’s off the stack now.

Nightlong: VR

nightlong-evaAt the end of disc 2 comes the twist that we’ve been expecting all along: the “terrorists” are not really terrorists and my employer has been hiding the truth from me. To be specific, the alleged terrorists are cyberspace researchers who stumbled on something called the “VST project”. They don’t know much about it, except that it involves virtual reality, that its chief architect, one Dr. Moreau (!), was recently killed, and that the Genesis corporation (and consequently the government and police) will stop at nothing to keep it secret.

The player character makes sympathetic noises and is accepted by the group. So either I’ve switched sides or the infiltration is a success. Either way, I’m still trying to get at the truth, and that involves going into cyberspace to see what Genesis is so eager to keep secret. Cyberspace is of course treated differently by different games. Seldom is the treatment at all sensible, but usually it’s more abstract and stylized than meatspace, with everything made of light and vectors. Not so here. The moment you uplink, you wind up in Moreau’s VR horror theme park.

nightlong-parkBeing a future-tech fantasy of VR, it looks just like the game’s reality. The content is different from the main gameworld — fewer video monitors and flying cars, more floating castles and giant spiders — but the graphical presentation is the same. Even the player character’s cyberspace avatar is indistinguishable from the player character. Also, objects in the VR sim have the same physical and even chemical properties as the real objects they’re simulating: at one point, you mix up some simulated gunpowder out of simulated sulfur, simulated saltpeter, and simulated charcoal. (Which isn’t a surprise: the moment you see saltpeter in a game, you know that the gunpowder is inevitable. Just once, I’d like to see a game where you use it to make nitric acid or something. Not even Chemicus did that.)

Maybe there’s an good in-story reason why the sim is such a good representation of the real world. Maybe the VST project is about doing a brains-in-vats/locked-in-the-holodeck scenario, where people don’t know that their reality is virtual. But then again, maybe this is just a case of the writer deciding that virtual reality is essentially just a parallel universe, and should naturally follow the normal physical laws. Which is stupid, but not uncommon in potboiler sci-fi.

Nightlong: Problems

nightlong_zooI’m well into the second of Nightlong‘s three discs. Infiltrating the terrorists seems to be mainly a matter of locating their hideout. Currently I’m exploring an abandoned zoo on the basis of the slenderest of leads. Well, it’s called a zoo, but it’s really sort of a cross between zoo and museum, with a few robotic animals still in their enclosures. And the leads are only slender in terms of the in-game plot; as a detective, I’d think I was going to too much effort with too little justification, but as a player, I know full well that you have to go where the puzzles are.

I’m also starting to hit errors in a big way. I wrote last time that I had figured out how to get the game to run without immediately exiting with a fatal error saying that it wasn’t installed properly. It turns out I was wrong. I still get the fatal error on startup sometimes, apparently at random. Also, I have now experienced the audio problem in cutscenes that other players described. Or a mild form of it, anyway: it’s just a half-second pause in the audio component every once in a while, which isn’t a terribly big deal, but it wasn’t happening before.

The one problem that worries me the most is descibed at as follows:

Game crashes on CD 2 once you go to the left of the entrance to the zoo. Setting compatibility mode for Win95 buys you a little more time, but still crashes. Read that there is a workaround for this, but you miss a chunk of the plot.

Now, I’ve experienced this crash in exactly the location described, and I’ve enabled Win95 compatibility mode, and I’ve gone back to the same location without crashing. It’s not clear how much “more time” this should “buy” me, but I didn’t experience any more problems until I actually quit the game, at which point it gave me a fatal error dialog. I hope I can get through the game without crashing, or at least past the “chunk of the plot” that the workaround skips.

It’s a delicate balance sometimes, timing when to play PC games. Generally speaking, you don’t want to play them with the hardware you have when they first come out. You want to play them with a machine that takes best advantage of the game’s capabilities. But if you put it off too long, you’ll wind up with a machine whose hardware or operating system is incompatible with it, or that’s more powerful than the programmers planned for. This has been less of a problem under Windows than it was in DOS days, but it still crops up sometimes. Of course, I do still have a number of DOS games on the stack, so we’ll be seeing all kinds of problems in the future.

Nightlong: Union City Conspiracy

nightlong-aptTime for another adventure game! They’re the most numerous thing on the Stack, due to my tendency to put them aside when I get annoyed with them. Today’s selection is Nightlong: Union City Conspiracy, a cyberpunk point-and-click adventure from 1999. The subtitle always makes me think of Union City, New Jersey, but I don’t think that’s what the authors intended; the setting, a future megacity ruled by amoral corporations, could be in New Jersey, but isn’t really that specific. The player takes the role of a private detective assigned to infiltrate a terrorist organization that’s been attacking the Genesis Cryogenetic Enterprise. I fully expect that Genesis will turn out to be the real bad guys, because that’s how these stories go.

I didn’t get very far at all in this game when I last played it years ago, and I haven’t yet spent the time to get much farther. The chief obstacle here is hunting for minuscule hotspots, which in some cases are contained inside other minuscule hotspots. The first puzzle in the game involves an elevator with a panel containing a fuse. The crazy thing is that the game contains close-up graphics of the panel, which would make it easier to interact with its components if it let you, which it doesn’t. The close-up is shown briefly when you examine the panel, then taken away. You can only interact with the fuse in the normal full-room view, in which it’s a few pixels in size (at 640×480). The saving grace of this interface is that the game makes it really clear what the cursor is hovering over at any moment by displaying a name next to the cursor.

The graphics are actually pretty nice. It’s all sprites on a prerendered background, but the backgrounds have a very comfortable level of texture and detail, neither too coarse to be believable nor too fine to be discernable. The downside to this is that every detail is a potential hotspot, so I basically have to roll my mouse over the whole screen lest I miss something important.

When I first tried running the game, it terminated with a dialog box stating that it was installed incorrectly. I had to rerun the installer and tell it to install the bundled version of DirectX, even though it told me that I didn’t need it. While researching the problem, I found various websites reporting problems running this game under Windows XP, that the sound stutters in the cutscenes and suchlike. I haven’t had any stuttering, probably because I have better hardware than the people who were playing it closer to when it came out. The only problem I’ve had with the sound in the cutscenes is that the dialogue is dubbed badly from Italian. Most adventure games released in America in the last ten years or so have been European imports, presumably because most American companies take it for granted that adventures are dead.

SS2E: Levels and Levels

I have just passed level 5 of Serious Sam: The Second Encounter. Level 5 culminates in the game’s first boss fight, against a huge wind god that throws tornadoes at you and grows larger as you damage him. When you deal the final blow, you wind up teleporting to a Babylonian ziggurat without your equipment. Clearly this is the end of one chapter and the start of another. Which is a little strange if you think of “levels” as the equivalent of chapters. From that point of view, this should be the end of level 1 (out of 3), not 5 (out of 12).

But of course, plot, theme, and bosses aren’t the only way to think of levels. In a geographically-based game like this, where your overall goal at any moment is essentially just to reach point B from point A (eliminating opposition along the way), it’s reasonable to think of a level as a distinct and unified chunk of the gameworld’s geography: “The Temple of the Moon (and environs)”, for example. In other words, the name of a level would be a reasonable answer to the question “Where am I now?” This doesn’t work either. The levels in this game are large, and just not all that unified. A typical one might start in a clearing in front of a pyramid, continue through the pyramid to the other side, exit into a large valley, cross the valley to an underground tunnel, and finally emerge from the tunnel onto a small lake. And the entire level might be named after the pyramid, the valley, or the lake.

OK, but there’s another reasonable definition, one that depends solely on the physical properties of the gameworld: reachability. If you can reach point B from point A and vice versa, they’re part of the same level. If you can reach point B from point A but not the other way around, then point B is in a later level than point A. This is an important sort of level to consider, because it’s really the essential geographical unit as far as gameplay goes, and defines the potential scope of any single battle. However, Serious Sam makes frequent use of doors that close and lock behind you. Each official level is in effect divided into many mini-levels.

When you come right down to it, this game’s levelization is completely arbitrary, and probably driven solely by hardware limitations. The only way that you can tell when you’re going from one level to another is that you get a “Loading” screen. If I had a special version of the game that loaded everything into memory at once, there would be no way to tell where the level boundaries are.

Still, beating the first boss is far from arbitrary as a milestone. And, having reached it, I think I’ll give Sam a little rest.

SS2E: Cannon

ss2e-cannonI have just obtained one of the most glorious things in Serious Sam: the SBC Cannon. Don’t ask me what SBC stands for. The point is, it’s a cannon. Not in the modern “vulcan cannon” sense, but in the sense of a cast-iron tube, rounded at one end and open at the other, used for launching cannonballs. The only abnormal things are that the cannon is handheld, and the cannonballs are somehow much larger than could possibly fit inside it. It’s hard to judge, because you can’t exactly stand next to them after they’ve been fired, but I think the balls are almost as tall as the player character.

Once fired, the cannonballs quickly fall to the ground, where they roll around like billiard balls, careening off walls, crushing anything in their way. Then they blow up. The explosion doesn’t seem to do much damage, if any at all, but at least it’s pretty. Firing cannonball after cannonball at a distant but rapidly approaching horde of monsters is not only the most efficient way to clear them, it’s also the most satisfying. It’s just joyously kinetic.

All in all, it’s a good example of the Serious Sam design philosophy: that fun gameplay is more important than plausibility. For that matter, so is gratuitous silliness.

SS2E: Small Enclosed Spaces

ss2e-bloodbathLast time, I wrote about the Serious Sam‘s use of large spaces. This time I want to address its use of small ones. One of the tricks that this game repeats a lot is temporarily locking the player into an enclosed area, such as a courtyard, and spawning enemies along the walls, in sequence, on a timer. Only when you’ve killed them all do the doors open again. One of the level designers of Doom once described that game as “the computer equivalent of whack-a-mole”. I’d quibble about that as applied to Doom, but it’s a pretty good description of the feel of Serious Sam‘s locked-in-a-courtyard sequences. Things keep popping up, and you just have to try to keep pace with them, blasting them before they blast you.

The level I’m currently on (level 3, “The City of the Gods”) seems to specialize in sequences where you’re confined with large monsters in too small a space for comfort, and even has some new twists on the basic concept. There’s one part with an insignificant health item (one that restores 1 hit point) in a wedge-shaped area between buildings. The health item is bait; picking it up causes three missile-launching Bio-Mechanoids to appear on the tops of the walls, one after the other, in different directions. The area is so small that avoiding splash damage from their weapons is impossible. As far as I can tell, the only way to survive is to (a) sidestep a lot to make them take longer to aim at you (Bio-Mechanoids turn slowly), and (b) when they do fire, avoid getting hit directly by running under the missiles. This works only because they’re firing from above you. Or, of course, you can just refrain from picking up that trivial health item in the first place. Picking it up for the hit point is really counterproductive. But it counts as a Secret, and what kind of completist would I be if I didn’t try to get all the Secrets?

ss2e-werebullThere’s another part where picking up a bonus item at the end of a winding corridor causes a Sirian Were-Bull to immediately appear more or less on top of you. This is one of those charging monsters, a very large one that barely fits in the corridor. The usual tactics are useless here: you cannot dodge something that fills all available space. You just have to blast it twice pointblank with a double-barreled shotgun while it’s still trying to turn towards you. And when I say you have to, I mean there’s really no other weapon that works in that situation: the only other weapons capable of doing enough damage quickly enough also do splash damage, which would hurt you more than the Were-Bull would.

Come to think of it, these sequences are essentially puzzles. Perhaps this game isn’t quite as mindless as I give it credit for. Then again, they’re also both optional.

SS2E: Scale and Chaos

Getting mobbed in a large open spaceThe Serious Sam engine was built to overwhelm the player with scale. The clipping plane (the horizon beyond which things don’t get rendered) is unusually far out, and may not even exist. There are exterior scenes of a size usually seen only in games containing vehicles. Often these areas have some kind of pyramid on the other side that turns out to be much larger and more distant than it looks, and I half suspect that the perspective is manipulated somehow to enhance this effect. Even the interiors are vast and cavernous: a rocket fired at the opposite wall of a chamber can sometimes take upward of thirty seconds to reach it. True, rockets in games aren’t as fast as they are in real life (you have to have an opportunity to dodge them, after all), but I’m not comparing this to the experience of firing a rocket across a room in real life, I’m comparing it to other games.

And all that space isn’t empty. The gameplay is designed to take advantage of it. They throw a lot of monsters at you at once, often from multiple directions. Some of them have ranged attacks that can kill you from very far away. More interestingly, some of them, such as the Kleer Skeleton, the Sirian Werebull, and the new monster in this installment, Cucurbito the Pumpkin, have difficulty stopping. These creatures charge at you, and when they miss (because you sidestepped at the last moment), they continue headlong until they can check their momentum. If you’re facing multiple opponents of this sort in an open area, they wind up scattering behind you in all directions, using more of the available space and increasing the chaos of battle.

This is a bigger deal than it sounds. In most FPS games, the most reliable general strategy is to take things slowly and clear out every area as you come to it, creating a safe area that you can fall back to if things get rough. The reason this works so well is that it all but guarantees that most enemies will be in front of you, where you can keep track of them and aim at them. A good FPS will employ tricks to keep this approach from working all of the time, but in Serious Sam, it fails most of the time without any need for special gimmickry. Screenshots just cannot do justice to the sense this creates of being attacked from all sides, and scrambling to pick off the most urgent threats from every direction at once.

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