Friday, November 27, 2009

Dragon Age : Origins

That Dragon Age Origins is another quality fantasy CRPG from Bioware is no surprise. But then, "no surprises" describes this game in almost every way. As a fan of the genre, I wasn't disappointed with Dragon Age, but neither did it blow me away.

That's not to dismiss its production values; there are games with nicer graphics than DA:O, but I can't think of any isometric RPG that tops it (personally, I think Mass Effect looks better overall, but that's probably because it has much smaller levels). More to the point, the story is also very well done; if you're a fan of George Martin or Raymond Feist, you're going to love Bioware's latest opus.

Where Dragon Age falls short, however, is in its gameplay. The game style hasn't evolved at all since Baldur's Gate was released ten years ago. I was still running through a limited, fairly linear levels; I was still talking to NPCs with the usual nice/neutral/nasty conversation options and I was still whacking monsters with a +1 sword that I was sure I'd soon upgrade to a +2 and then +3 sword as the game progressed. I knew at some point my closest ally would come to a crisis point and possibly betray me, and that ultimately I'd have a choice between leading the world towards a light or dark ending. It was all enjoyably epic, but it was also terribly, terribly predictable.

I enjoyed Dragon Age enough to play it through to completion, but not enough to even go and play through its much-vaunted "Origin" stories again. The tales may be different every time, but I still know how they are going to end.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Left 4 Dead 2 - First Impressions

After Modern Warfare 2, I think Left 4 Dead 2 was the most anticipated release of the year. Well, neither were "most anticipated" by me but, you know, by the general populace. I liked the original game -I thought it a very high-quality product- hampered only by its lack of content. But none of the previews for the sequel promised anything as exciting.

But, not surprisingly, I ended up buying the damn game on release day anyway (hey, I've resisted buying COD:MW2; I mean, $60? Really? But I digress). My initial playthroughs of the first few campaigns more or less confirmed my initial suspicions: this is basically an expansion pack to the original where the goal was simply "lets give them more" without any real attention to whether more was actually needed.

So, the first impression is the opening cinematic; remember that terrific movie that Left 4 Dead started with? It gave you the setting, the situation, the characters and the mood of the game all in four exciting minutes of CGI battle. Left 4 Dead 2's opening cinematic, however, has none of that. It plays out more like a movie trailer, with snippets of the most exciting moments haphazardly stitched together. If you're not familiar with the original game, L4D2's cinematic is not going to set the stage for you at all.

But forget the opening movie; I mean, okay, how often do you really watch that? What about the gameplay?

At its heart, its basically the original game with more... everything. More zombies, more mini-bosses, more weapons. Unfortunately, the levels lack the same intensity and quality of the first game. For one thing, the level design is not quite up to par with other Valve titles. The levels don't look as good, lacking many of those tiny details that make the levels so appealing, and the flow is not as instinctual (which is my clumsy way of saying I often got lost because I couldn't tell which in direction I was supposed to go).

But the big difference is the game doesn't feel as balanced as the first. Four players, four main weapons, four types of special zombie); it all had a very simple balance. All the additions in L4D2 makes the game feel too busy and complicated. It is starting to play more like Counter Strike with all the different goals and weapon mixes. Now, given Counter Strike's popularity, one might argue that is a good thing but I miss L4D's unique style.

On the plus side, the game does ship with five campaigns as opposed to the original's four; although they still only take about an hour each to complete, at least now you're talking five hours instead of four. A variety of additional game modes which provide some additional length. Oh, and apparently there's a multiplayer mode too. ;-)

I'm not done with the game yet but I don't expect my opinion of the game to change to much. This isn't a bad sequel but it doesn't match the standards of the original. It definitely could have used another six months or a year more of Valve's famous iterative level design to polish off the rough edges and make the game shine.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


If you haven't noticed yet, there's a little slideshow applet running in the corner of this blog. It points to a collection of screengrabs I've made over the years. You can find them at Flickr.

Modern game engines being so powerful, it's hard for developers not to make a good looking game these days, but there is still room for artistry. It takes more simply throwing together a few high-resolution textures onto some high-poly models and and wrapping it all together with HDR lighting and bump-mapping. Good game designers understand how light and color can set mood and style and turn pixels into art.

And like any good tourist, even one who only visits virtual worlds, whenever I see art I can't help but take a picture.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Twitter, too

In my never-ending quest to modernize myself, I now have a Twitter account as well. Go to Twitter and search for SpallsHurgenson and you'll find me.

Of course, so far the only announcements I've made so far are that I have a Twitter account and that I have a blog, so it's all quite self-referential and circular and, ultimately, quite pointless. But that pretty much describes all of Twitter...

Sunday, November 15, 2009


I'm an unabashed fan of the Gothic series. The first two games were masterpieces; the third game was still an awesome experience despite its numerous flaws. Risen, developed by the same team that produced the Gothic series (and quite obviously so; it is impossible to review Risen without comparing it to Gothic), is exactly the sort of game I love to play.

Or is it? On the surface, there is no doubt about it; it has the same open game-world, multiple character classes, and gorgeous graphics of the Gothic series. Despite its developers insistence that Risen is an entirely new property, the gameplay is the same as in their previous games. And I don't mean "the same" as in "an evolution of work they did before"; I mean, it's exactly the same. The combat uses the same mechanics, as does the magic, the questing, the dialogue and the inventory.

Now, as I said, I loved the Gothic games so this poses no problem for me. But it does start to feel very "samey" only a few hours in; there's nothing new in this game that we haven't seen in Gothic 3 (perhaps the "god ray" lighting effects). There's an incredible reuse of materiel from the original series; sounds, textures, models. The story plugs in fairly well with the direction the Gothic series was headed and even the nameless protagonist is a clone of Gothic's hero.

But what is truly disappointing is how short Risen is; the original Gothic 3 occupied me for an entire month as I explored every corner of Myrtana; I completed Risen in a handful of days. Some replayability is ensured by the different career paths but since those quests only occupy the first third of the game that won't add more than a few additional days of entertainment. The main game-world is smaller than introduced to us in the original Gothic (and less than a third of Gothic 3's massive continent) and much of that area is "dead space" broken into narrow canyons. And just as the story starts to pick up, it suddenly ends with the most embarrassingly poor boss-fight seen in years.

This tighter focus is not without its advantages, however; for all its breadth, Gothic 3 felt bare-boned, populated by space-filling NPCs that had nothing to say and quests that had felt artificially lengthened by having you cross vast distances. Risen offers tighter gameplay; most NPCs have at least one -usually two or three- quests to offer you and the mid-game addition of teleport spells mitigates the travails of back-n-forth questing. Furthermore, the smaller game-world allowed the developers to put more effort into quality assurance; Risen's has fewer bugs and performance issues that plagued their previous series.

Risen feels entirely like an expansion pack, which it was probably was intended to be before Jowood and Piranha Bytes had their falling out. As an expansion, Risen would have been a tremendous value for its money; Gothic fans would have been ecstatic. As a stand-alone game, however, Risen doesn't give its fans enough of, well, anything. It's too short and doesn't offer anything innovative; it's hard to justify paying full price. Fans of the previous series should definitely pick it up (after it drops in price a bit, of course); for all its lack of length, it is, ultimately more of a good thing. Just don't expect anything new.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Google Wave

There's a lot of talk amongst the tech community about Google Wave, which Google announced as the 21st century replacement for e-mail. It incorporates features from e-mail, web-forums and chat into one glorifious multimedia mess. People were begging for invitations to sample this latest masterpiece from Google.

I guess it's exciting for some people, but I'm an old-school curmudgeon who thinks Usenet is still the best way for a community to communicate. But I was willing to give Google Wave the benefit of the doubt, at least until it became publicly available and I could make a more thorough investigation of its advantages. That is, until I saw this.

The above may not be the use that Google intended for Wave, but undoubtedly that is the sort of communication that it is going to be used for once the public gets their hands on it. I'm the sort who will frown at you if you use HTML in your e-mail; I have no interest in that sort of pointless distraction being added to a conversation. Google Wave's primary feature, it seems, is the ability to add unnecessary noise to the signal.

As a collaboration tool, Google Wave might have a future; as a replacement to e-mail I hope it dies a slow and painful death.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Batman Arkham Asylum

Seeing as this is a blog nominally about video games and other geekly esoterica, I suppose I ought to post something about video games. Rather than write up something original, I think I'll just repost a quick review I did of the recently released "Batman : Arkham Asylum". Originally posted on the Usenet newsgroup, in the interest of laziness and sloth I'll simply paste it verbatim to this blog. This isn't intended as a full review; it's just a quick overview.

Enough prologue. Here's what I think about the game itself:

Batman has had a spotted past as a video-game franchise; a few have achieved those the heights of mediocrity, and most have outright stunk. Arkham Asylum, though, may be Batman's first really good incarnation as a video game.

But despite rave reviews from certain quarters, I didn't find this game without fault. It's competent, stylish and unabashedly true to the source materiel and it achieves that delicate balance of combat and platforming that so few similar games match. But the game does have a few flaws. For one, its boss battles are a chore, largely because they often artificially increase the difficulty by locking down the camera at a certain angle (all of a sudden, your reflexive grasp of the controls which served you so well in the other 99% of the game have to be tossed aside to learn a new control scheme). Its reliance on save-points (or, more to the point, the disturbing absence of a quick-save) also frustrated me unnecessarily at points. But most importantly, there is little new to this game that you haven't seen before in other titles; its all very well done, but Batman doesn't break new ground.

But on the whole, these are all minor complaints; Batman Arkham Asylum is a solid title and I had a lot of fun with it. The World's Greatest Detective might not have the World's Greatest Game, but I expect I'll revisit it again and again over the years.

So, there. Something about games at last.

Monday, November 2, 2009

My First Post - VirtualBox

So, I've created a blog. What to write about?

Well, since it's what I'm currently working on, how about I talk about VirtualBox?

I love this thing. I've always had a soft spot for virtualization, whether I was emulating the Sega Genesis with Fusion or a classic soundcard with Timidity or even reliving fond (albeit geeky) moments with DOSBox. There's just something really nifty about software that emulates other hardware.

But VirtualBox is more than a neat toy; its also incredibly useful. I use it to preview software all the time before I actually install it on one of my live systems; why let it run rampant on my "real" computer when it can cause all the havoc it wants in a virtual image? My primary use for it is as a test-bed for different operating systems; I'm the family's resident tech geek so I have to keep up with this stuff, you know? And walking Pop through Control Panel over the phone is hard enough even if I don't have to take into consideration all the differences between, say, Windows Vista and Windows 2000. So I just keep an image of all the operating systems; if I need to help somebody with a Windows98 problem (don't laugh, there's at least one die-hard Win98 user in the family), I just fire up the respective image and I see what they see.

Plus, its a great tool for me to try out various software. Take Windows 7, Microsoft's newly released opus. I'm not ready to dedicate a whole box to it yet, especially since I'm not that familiar with the system. VirtualBox lets me play around with the new operating system first. Same thing with new applications; eventually my job is moving over to Office 2007; I'm getting a leg ahead of the rest by learning the ins and outs of the new interface without cluttering up my primary (and largely gaming-focused) PC with all the extra services and bloat an Office install brings with it.

Security is another bonus; if I have to use Internet Explorer (renowned vector of viruses and malware), I fire up a Virtual image and view the web through that; when I shut down, I erase any changes. Spyware may infect the image, but it won't linger past the reboot. And all my VPN connections are done to the virtual PC; even if the connection does get hacked, they aren't going to find much of use on the image.

So, yeah; VirtualBox. A nerdy toy with lots of potential. Best of all, its free (alternately, you could use VMware or VirtualPC; it's such a cool idea it seems everybody is doing their own implementation.)


After lurking in the dim dark recesses of Usenet for the past twenty years, I've decided to move forward with the times and get a blog. I'm not so self-centered as to believe that anyone will actually read this, but I am ego-centric enough that I want another outlet for my verbal ramblings. I love Usenet (and no, not because its easy access to adult or illegal material) but the audience there is extremely limited.

So, if you've stumbled across this blog, this is a welcome of sorts. How often I'll actually post to this thing I can't say - the current odds are that it'll go the way of my never-used Twitter account in less than a month- but I'll try to post a few things to it before giving up on the whole escapade. Topics will range from the geeky (video-games, computer hardware) to the ultra nerdy (D&D, Star Wars vs Star Trek) so reader beware.