Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Trying other origins

After a very frustrating time in Redcliffe, which may not have been so bad if I'd visited there first as Alistair had suggested at Lothering (but which I forgot), I decided to take a break from the main campaign and try out some of the other origin stories. Unfortunately for me, there's really only one origin for mages, so this meant that to experience any of the other ones, I had to go as a rogue or a warrior. Since I've never liked warriors (and it's not like I didn't get a feel for what it was like to play one, since I have several warriors in the party), I went as a rogue.

I tried the dwarven noble origin first, which was pretty fun. I tried a couple of alternative courses of action with the "brother" plot, played to Ostagar, and stopped.

Next I tried the human noble origin (as a rogue again). This one was just excellent. It draws you in, and feels very rich and well-developed. You have a real past in this place, and a loving family (unless you choose to be a smart-mouthed brat, I suppose), and it involves you emotionally. Also nice is that you have a chance to talk a visiting noble and/or his handmaiden into bed.

The only thing that jarred me out of it was a certain heroic sacrifice that "had" to be made during a cutscene dialogue. "Go on without me," says gravely wounded Father. "I'll hold them off and give you time to escape." "No, come with us," says Mother. "We can get you healing magic!" He refuses, not wanting to slow us down. All the while, I'm carrying about 10 healing poultices, and my dialogue options are frustratingly mute on the issue. So mother decides to stay at his side and go down fighting, and here I am, unable to save them, and vowing revenge on the man who did this, when Duncan forcibly conscripts me! Duncan, you bastard, I'm glad you're dead, after this and what you did to Ser Jory.

I played a little longer with my noble, as far as going into the wilds for the darkspawn blood.

Next, I played the city elf origin (guess which class I picked?) Another great, emotionally compelling story, which rivaled the human noble! Once again, Duncan came to recruit me, but this time I played nicely, even though I could have simply killed the 5 guards that came to apprehend me, if the game would have allowed it. Hadn't I just slaughtered a whole castle full of soldiers? But yes, I know, the game is about being a Grey Warden, and that means going with Duncan, like it or not.

I played this one past the Tower of Ishal, all the way into Lothering, where I picked up Dog, Sten, and Leliana! I noticed that when playing as a mage, the two NPCs that joined my party at the Tower of Ishal were warrior and archer, whereas when I played as a rogue, the two NPCs were archer and mage of the Circle. Very handy!

I think my city elf rogue will be a nice alternate to my human mage. Maybe I'll play some of the DLC with the rogue, whenever I buy some, assuming I do.

I still haven't tried the Dalish elf or the dwarven commoner, but I feel like getting back to my mage now.

Important recent mods

Of the mods I've added lately, these are the ones I found most indispensable.

  • Natural Bodies: A true nude mod. No more ridiculous underwear during those love scenes.
  • Dexterity light armour: Light armour (what a rogue would wear) is changed to check your dexterity, not your strength, as a requirement for being able to wear it.
  • DA Modder: A replacement for the DA Content Updater for installing .dazips, which also manages your core override mods.
  • I'm also using a mod that makes arcane warriors able to cast without sheathing their weapons, but I can't find wherever I got it now.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Alistair, you had your chance

This entry is essentially an epistolary fanfic of mine, with spoilers for many plot points in the character romances, so I've put the whole thing into a spoiler block.

Spoiler: Click to display/hide

Do not copy without permission.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Dragon Age comics

Artist Aimo on DeviantArt has several nicely drawn and funny Dragon Age: Origins comics and other illustrations in her gallery. I recommend taking a look, and I hope she keeps it up! (Though actually playing the game is probably taking as much of her time as it's taking mine.)

The earlier comics featuring the player character faceless with a hood are from before the game actually came out, and I saw in some of her comments that she was using information gleaned from the forums and teaser videos to make the characters accurate before it was possible to play them.

Later comics feature the player character as a female dwarven noble, as that seems to be her favourite of the three characters she illustrated in this drawing.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Epic dungeons

I officially love Dragon Age. The elven ruins were already impressive, in size, depth, detail, and story. After a long period of games with disappointingly short dungeon runs (though modders did much to rectify those), it was refreshing to have such an in-depth experience in the vanilla game. But I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I went to the Circle Tower. You know a place is huge when you can't finish it in one sitting, even on a weekend! Not only was it large in scale, but it introduced numerous new and very fun gameplay mechanics, challenging fights, and another puzzle! Another challenge was getting acquainted with a new party member that I picked up at that location, and how she worked into the party dynamics.

I went there mainly because I was constantly running low on mana potions. Vendors only sell a couple, and very rarely do any sell lyrium dust with which to brew my own, so I went to the obvious place to hopefully pick up some more. I was not disappointed. You can get an unlimited supply of lyrium dust there, so I bought up 3 full stacks of 99, and went back to camp and stocked up on about 100 lesser and normal strength mana potions. And it's a bloody good thing I did, too, because as I said before, that dungeon was unimaginably massive, and I would have been seriously crippled in the many boss fights there if I didn't happen to have an ample supply of potions on me (as well as health poultices). In fact, I might have hated the dungeon if I weren't adequately prepared. But as it stands, it was an extremely positive experience, and I hope there's another on that scale yet to come!

The same vendor at the Circle Tower also sells some very nice gear, if you can afford it. I bought a new mage hood there, though I already had the best mage robes I could afford from the Wonders of Thedas in Denerim (Tevinter Mage Robes, pictured above, with +5 spellpower, +4% spell resistance, and +1 mana regeneration in combat. Nice looking, too, and not really robes at all). When I've saved up enough, there's an even better outfit yet to buy there.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Party camp chest mod

Before I forget, I should mention this very useful mod that I've been using. Indispensible, in my opinion. It adds a storage chest to your party camp site, where you can add and remove items at will, rather than requiring you to carry all your possessions with you at all times. This was apparently written by a Bioware programmer on the side, judging from the description. So far, it works perfectly. I installed it, and the chest appeared in camp near Leliana. I've stored many things in there and retrieved them later (for crafting, etc.) with no troubles.

Things change, opinions change

It looks like I'm out of "tutorial mode" now. Once I left Lothering, I accidentally found the Dalish elves I was looking for (for the main plot) in the first place I happened to wander into on the map. I'm thinking maybe I wasn't supposed to go to that place first, since even with my rogue at level 3 (of 4) for lockpicking, she still couldn't open 2 or 3 of the locked chests in that area, and a lot of the loot is armour or weapons that none of my characters' stats are high enough to use yet. It also had quite a few tough boss fights, including a couple that I chose to leave alone for now, after wiping on one of them once.

Speaking of Lothering, here's a tip. Don't move on until you've wrapped things up in Lothering. And maybe you won't have to go back to a several hours old saved game like I did.

Sacred Ashes trailer vs. the actual game

Some of my preconceptions of certain characters in the game were strongly influenced by the Sacred Ashes trailer. As I discovered, there were some minor differences. First of all, none of the characters look the same between Sacred Ashes and the actual game. The video shows Morrigan, Leliana, Sten, and a generic man representing the player character. The most notable difference is Sten, who looks like a normal man in the video, with a very expressive face, while in the game he's a hulking giant with a permanent scowl on his face. (He makes a good tank, BTW.)

What the trailer does show accurately is the abilities and tactics of the game. The player character calls out orders and tactics to the other party members, calling Sten to push his way through a line of enemies with brute force, calling Leilana to shoot a hurlock "emissary" (mages who will seriously damage your party unless you take them out early) before engaging other forces, etc. I have seen many of the spells used in the trailer in-game as well. And I notice at least one line spoken by Morrigan ("Let's end this,") is something she says occasionally during fights.

Leliana

And that brings me to Leliana. I've completely changed my opinion of this companion. I initially disliked her because of the way she was portrayed in Sacred Ashes, and because I knew she was a sister in the Chantry (you know how mages feel about the Chantry's templars). Also wasn't looking forward to having a nun in the party. Morrigan, I thought, was more my style. When Leliana showed up in Chantry robes and started blathering about "The Maker", she looked like a priestess. I took her on anyway, just in case I needed her for something, with a vague intention of leaving her in the camp most of the time so she wouldn't irritate Morrigan.

So once I had her in my party, I saw what skills she had available. She wasn't a priest, she was a rogue! A rogue with the Bard specialisation, and most of her combat points in archery. So I got her out of those ridiculous Chantry robes and gave her some leather armour and a good bow, and she became a permanent part of my party. Especially nice are her pickpocketing, chest-unlocking, and trap-detecting/disarming talents. Turns out her religiosity isn't even the same kind as the Chantry. She's more of a "the beauty of the world is what I call 'god'" type of person. I told her I liked her version better than the Chantry version, in one of the dialogue scenes.

After I picked up Sten, I ended up with a more or less permanent party of Sten, myself, Morrigan, and Leliana. The more I learned about her personality and her past, the more I liked her, and her French accent is endearing. (Leliana is pictured here with Eshaye's alternate face for her, which I mentioned in a previous post.)

My only complaint is that she doesn't sing enough. She should have a lute or some other instrument as part of her default gear, in my opinion, or maybe there should be some equippable lutes or guitars in the game that increase the effectiveness of the bard songs (the ones that buff party members or disorient enemies).

Personality-wise, she's a perfect match for my play style. While Morrigan basically disapproves of everything I do, Leliana always approves. She's kind and feminine. I will not be hardening her personality.

Party dynamics

One thing that makes this game so interesting is how much things are different depending on how you begin the game, certain choices you make, and even your party member selection. While just running around the world, the party members just start talking to each other, and depending on who you have in the group, the conversations are different. Morrigan and Sten have a very amusing rapport going on, not to mention Morrigan and Leliana. Before I picked up Leliana, Morrigan and the dog had a few funny chats as well. They also occasionally speak up if you're entering an area they know, or they'll give their opinions of the area.

And then there are the player's conversations with NPCs. Occasionally, and again depending on who you've picked for your group, your party members may speak up and add to the conversation, even opening up different paths of dialogue if they happen to be previously acquainted with the NPC.

Things like that really add to the atmosphere and a good playing experience, and makes you wonder what would be different if you played differently. Since I prefer to play as a mage, I had been thinking I would never get to see the unique content for the other classes and races, but since you can control any character in your party just as you control yourself, and can level them up and choose their spells and talents, it wouldn't be much different if I created a warrior or rogue character. I could experience the unique content, and still play as a mage once I pick one up for my party.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Lothering Heights

I've arrived at a town called Lothering as a pit stop for supplies before venturing out to some major cities. I really have no idea where I am at this point as far as the story goes, so I can't tell if things are progressing slowly or quickly. If this were a book, I could tell just by looking at the difference between the number of pages on the left side and right side, or if I were watching a movie at home, I could tell by glancing at the elapsed time vs. total running time. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, because I certainly don't want it to end any time soon, and I'm taking things at a leisurely pace. It's just that the game still seems to be in tutorial mode, getting me used to different party combinations/abilities and different numbers of people in my party.

I only wonder because the battles are still pretty easy, even the "boss" battle that was shown in the game previews, so either it's still easing me into the combat mechanics and will increase in difficulty with time, or I just need to switch to "hard" mode. This is why I haven't yet installed patch 1.01: it makes both Easy and Normal modes easier, so I wanted to get a feel for how hard "normal" was before the patch. After having been playing for a while, I can say that I definitely don't want it easier than this. I'll try it out in Hard mode and see how it feels.

The game continues to surprise me with its plot twists and its "anyone can die" approach to storytelling, which I will not spoil here (at least not without a spoiler block warning about it). It's as if the more obvious plot elements that it goes out of its way to foreshadow are just there so that you're not expecting the real plot twist later.

Dialogue options

It's hard to please everyone when writing dialogue choices for the player to use in conversations with NPCs, especially given the 3-5 (maybe up to 6?) slots to which they seem to be restricting themselves, as well as the expense and space requirements of recording responses to every choice with the NPC voice actors (my #2 reason why I don't want voice acting in my games). It may not be as consistent as this, but it seems that they try to give options for various attitudes, so that you can play whatever character alignment you have in mind. Something like "polite/trusting, friendly/compassionate, neutral/uninformed, cynical/rude/possibly evil" on average.

This can cause some problems, of course, since sometimes you can tell someone's lying to you, but the "good" attitude would have you just blunder into their ruse, while you come off as a cynical bastard if you approach the matter with due skepticism. Also, sometimes an option may appear to be meant as a friendly joke, but the NPC may react badly to it, as if you meant to insult them.

But, it's hard to complain about such a thing, as I know from personal experience how hard it is to write branching dialogue.

Texture mod

In a previous post, I had referred to an issue with some low-resolution textures in the game, which I expected would be taken care of quickly enough. I've found one mod called HD Textures that makes an attempt to improve these particular textures, by blowing them up and then adding detail overlays to hide the blurriness -- details like scratches, wood grain, grime, etc. There are about 28 of these in the package (not counting material mapping on the same textures). I've seen the revision of the infamous wagon in-game, but I'm afraid it needs more work, especially on the edges where different materials meet, which are still obviously blurry, and on diagonal lines where jagged artifacts from the low resolution are evident, but it's a good start.

I also installed a "Less Blood" mod, as I had done for Oblivion, to get rid of the ridiculously excessive blood spatters that cover your character after a fight, which take forever to fade away (if they ever do). Come on, carry a rag and wipe off your faces, people! I realise blood is a major theme of this game, but my sense of aesthetics prevails in this case.

Leliana's new face (and Morrigan's too)

I have been using Eshaye's cosmetic mod for Leliana's face, which is very nice, and I see Eshaye has made several additional versions of Morrigan's face as well. I haven't tried those, but first I need to make some tweaks on my own version. Some things about it are bothering me in the game, now. I won't delete the old version, of course. I'll put them both up in the same place.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Morrigan cosmetic mod

Note: This post is deprecated, as it contains outdated information and opinions. See this post instead.

Deprecated post: Click to display/hide

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dragon Age: Origins -- First impressions

Dragon Age: Origins took its sweet time in getting to me. I didn't realise how impatient I'd become for it, or else I might have chosen a faster shipping method. It arrived with the disc out of its holder (the button in the middle of the DVD case), with half of the holder broken off and rattling around in the case. Irritating, but the disc showed negligible scratching, so I just removed the inserts and put them into a new, unbroken DVD case and moved on.

Hard drive space is at a premium on my computer, so I looked for a way to install in "minimal" mode as many games I've played in the past can do, leaving any movies, voice files, etc. on the DVD to save space, and access it (or cache it) from the disc when needed. Since you need the DVD in the drive to play anyway, seemed like a logical thing to add. Alas, no. There is no advanced installation option beyond choosing your installation folder. And it would have been nice if it could have shown me that before making me enter my CD key. But never mind.

An hour later, I had cleared off enough space to install it and have a reasonable buffer for mods, saves, screenshots, etc. (Fallout 3 was one of the casualties of this disk cleanup.) Of course, these games wouldn't be so huge if it weren't mandatory for all games to include fully voiced dialogue, which I don't care about. And don't get me wrong, the voice acting in this game is well-done, it's just that I prefer to read the lines rather than wait for someone to speak them. The main character doesn't speak aloud; why is it necessary to make everyone else? It reminds me of the 90s, when so many studios had been making 2D animated movies, and then all shut down because Pixar was kicking their arses at the box office, and they thought "I guess people only want 3D movies now!" (It couldn't have been the fact that Pixar was making good stories instead of a bunch of insipid Broadway musicals, of course.) But I digress.

The gameplay

This is the first time I've ever played a party-based tactical strategy RPG game. But I've played turn-based strategy games as well as WoW, and I watched a couple of gameplay videos for Dragon Age, where people explained what they were doing and why, so I knew what to expect -- enough so that I could see what someone was doing wrong in one of those gameplay videos: The player didn't equip his party (made his mother fight bare-handed the entire time), didn't focus fire on one enemy at a time, and didn't prioritise the enemies (allowed archers to keep shooting his party until he finished with the enemy's heavily-armoured mêlée fighters) -- all things I learned from fighting as a team in dungeons in WoW. The player also did not use any of Dragon Age's specific features, allowing you to take control of any of your party members at any time, pause the combat to consider your tactics or to give specific commands to the party to execute while you take control of another, or to get weaker party members out of the way to bandage themselves or use a health potion, etc.

So, armed with that knowledge, I loaded up the character I had pre-created with the downloadable character creator, and began the game from the specific human female mage origin story (hence the "origins" in "Dragon Age: Origins").

I played on "normal" mode, which was said on the forums to be equal to the console version's "hard" mode. But until I get into some world combat, I don't think I can really judge the combat, as it was probably intentionally easier during the origin story, which functions as a tutorial of sorts. But a tutorial with great plot and characters! More on that later.

The combat was just as I saw it in the videos, so the learning curve was minimal. Judging from mine and from the human noble gameplay video I saw, It's probably the same basic progression in all other origin stories -- you begin with some simple combat with no companions, then you pick up your first companion a bit later, and then later in the story you get to play with two companions, all with different abilities and specialties, and then it bridges you into the main campaign.

The lore

The game is full of world-building lore. I picked up more written material than I've had time to peruse so far, and talking to everyone gives you a lot of background information. I'll go over a bit of the general lore here in regard to mages, inside a spoiler block, and also in a separate spoiler block in the next section I'll discuss some interesting aspects of the story.

Spoiler: Click to display/hide

This spoiler involves background story information learned during the human mage tutorial section.

The story

While I don't know exactly how many ways there are to complete the origin story, I came across many places where it seemed like things could have gone very differently if I'd made a different choice. Indeed, I went back and replayed part of it to test this, and found entire areas that I hadn't found before, and as a result I ended up with a different set of friends and enemies. Who knows whether this will come back to haunt me later in the game?

I'll talk briefly about a particular instance from right at the beginning of the game, just during the initiation ceremony (The Harrowing). I'll stop before I get to any plot twists, but I'll put this inside a spoiler block anyway.

Spoiler: Click to display/hide

This spoiler involves background story information learned during the human mage tutorial section

Later choices would seem to have more long-term consequences, not to mention the ability to select party members with various specialties and customise their tactics (and skills?).

I didn't really hear much hype about the choices and consequences in Dragon Age, but they definitely beat the rather superficial (and highly hyped) moral choices in Bioshock. And it beats the rather obvious karma system from Fallout 3, which depicted me first as an angel, and eventually as Jesus just for playing the game as I normally would. My understanding of the system here in Dragon Age is that your choices affect other characters opinions of you, and since they all have different values and preferences, a single action on your part can have very different (or subtle) effects on each character that is involved.

Movement controls

The controls seemed rather awkward at first, since the mouse didn't control "mouse look" as I usually expect it to, and the keys are different for movement from other games I've played, until I discovered by accident that the mouse can control camera look by holding the right mouse button while doing it, and holding both buttons makes you run, just like in WoW. So movement controls are actually very simple and easy to use with the mouse alone. You're limited on how much you can zoom in on your character, though, so my screenshots don't have the kind of framing I'd usually like, but maybe there are some keys I haven't found yet, or some kind of command.

The graphics

From what I'd been reading on the forums, I was expecting much worse. The graphics are mostly very good, though there are admittedly some low-resolution textures on some items, mostly notable when a dialogue scene has a character standing right in front of one, and you can see the huge jagged pixels on it. But these seem to be few, and should be an easy fix for a mod.

That's all the first impressions for now. Now to resume playing!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Dragon Age: Origins -- who offered the better deal?

Today, I preordered Dragon Age: Origins, on the last day preorders were available, to take advantage of the preorder bonuses.

Before I get into the details of which options were available to me, and why I chose the one I did, let me first state that I was pleased to see the announcement that Dragon Age: Origins does not include the vile, accursed SecuROM DRM which has been the deciding factor in which games not to purchase in the past. Their decision to use a simple CD check played no small part in my decision to buy this game. In my experience, DRM schemes such as encrypted content, SecuROM, and older methods, do absolutely nothing to hinder hackers, who provide cracked versions of the software, most commonly on the very same day the software is released, despite the best efforts of the publishers to prevent it. These publishers spend who knows how much money in research and development or licensing fees for these DRM methods, the cost of which is inevitably passed on to the legitimate, paying consumers, and which provide frustration and grief only to these selfsame legitimate, paying customers when they mistakenly prevent them from playing. Pirates, meanwhile, enjoy the software stripped of all its nannying.

As was posted in the aforementioned link:

We’re happy to announce that the boxed/retail PC version of Dragon Age: Origins will use only a basic disk check and it will not require online authentication. In other words, the retail PC version of the game won’t require you to go online to authenticate the game for offline play. We have chosen not to use SecuROM in any version of Dragon Age that is distributed by EA or BioWare.

It was a fine day when iTunes removed the DRM from their catalogue, and it seems that it is also a fine day now that EA has elected not to use SecuROM in its newer games.

Digital Download, or Retail Box?

Now, this copy protection may not have even been an issue had I chosen to buy the game via Steam or Direct2Drive. I've purchased from Steam before, for Half-Life 2, and it caused no problems when playing mods made for HL2. My understanding from the TES Nexus forum about Direct2Drive, however, is that the D2D version of Oblivion (and perhaps Morrowind as well) does not work with some (or all?) mods, so I didn't even consider it as an option, even though I don't know for sure if mods also wouldn't work for the D2D version of DA:O.

Oftentimes, I buy retail box versions of games for the sake of having a physical souvenir, preferably with some nice box/disc art and a printed manual. But there is also the advantage of being able to find the games years later, in the dusty, hazy future, and reinstall them to enjoy anew, perhaps with the aid of an older OS emulator, long after the demise of Steam. Unlikely to happen? In the fullness of time? From dust it came, after all, only 6 years ago. To dust shall it not one day return? But the discs will outlast any change in management, scaling back of services, corporate mergers, or bankruptcies. A lifetime guarantee is only a promise during the lifetime of the company, not the customer. But I digress. And how!

Mod-friendliness

So, the first criterion was that the version I purchased must be amenable to mods. The preview videos make much of Dragon Age's moddability via its included toolset, saying it includes content and resources that aren't even in the game, and citing its power, flexibility, ease of use, and ability to do "anything", including making your own in-game cinematics. Even if the game itself sucks, mods will make this game worth owning.

Price

At any rate, Steam and retail box both seem fine for mods, so the next criterion is price. I found the retail box available for preorder for slightly less than Steam's price. This much I don't understand. Isn't the cost of distribution for Steam lower than that of manufacturing and shipping physical copies? If so, why aren't they passing the savings on to the consumer? Steam loses this point. This is why I still buy more music on physical CDs than buying individual mp3s on iTunes. An entire CD is usually cheaper than 2 or 3 iTunes tracks.

Bonus content

Both delivery methods I evaluated offered some standard bonuses in common, as well as bonuses not offered by the other side. Common to both were The Memory Band (a ring which adds 1% to Experience Points and one skill point), Blood Dragon Armor (unspecified high protection in combat, and will also be usable in Mass Effect 2), and The Stone Prisoner (an addon which adds a golem companion to the game, with a new quest, new areas including a village, items, etc.)

Exclusive to Steam was The Wicked Oath (a ring which adds +10% to critical strike damage, improves armor penetration by 2, and adds +1 to combat stamina regeneration).

Exclusive to the boxed version was a discount on a future video game purchase, and The Lion's Paw boots (which add to armor, dodge, and evading missiles stats). I had thought that the boxed version also included a cloth map, but this was apparently only in the Collector's Edition.

Verdict

My selection was the boxed version. The only thing offered by Steam was an in-game item that should be easily recreatable with the toolset anyway (if I so desire), the box version is cheaper, and I get my souvenir. If I were more in a hurry to get the game, I might have been more tempted by Steam, but as Neuroticfish once said, "ich habe keine Eile."

Now, as for the first thing I would like to see in a mod? Fix Morrigan.

Concept art:

In-game version:

Not the same thing.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Dark Mod

As a fan of the Thief series, I had been looking forward to the release of The Dark Mod since they announced it five years ago (is that all?), back when they estimated it would only take 1 or 2 years to release, tops. This is a Thief-inspired total conversion using the Doom 3 engine, conceived back when that engine was state of the art. Well, time to break out the champagne, because it's finally been released!

"We could keep working for years adding more features and better assets," they said in their news, which would have continued pushing the release date forward ad infinitum, probably saying "just one more year" each time like they did at least twice before. "...But we believe the community would be happier if we released a fun but unpolished product this year, rather than wait another two years or more for everything to be perfect." I say if they'd taken any longer, the engine would start showing its age, or have trouble running on modern computers.

But as I said, I am a Thief fan, and they have made a fine accomplishment. I'm happy that it's released. My handshake may be barbed with criticism, but it's still a hearty handshake.

See here for a high-def gameplay video of the game in action. Seeing this made me lose a little of the bitterness from the years of waiting. Watch only the first minute or so if you want to avoid spoilers.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Free Realms

People often apologise for playing other games when they've been covering a particular game for a while, but I enjoy several other games that I play alternately along with Morrowind. However, I know for a fact that I'd better finish up Whispered Echoes before I get Diablo 3 or Dragon Age: Origins, or it'll likely never get done. (On that note, though, apparently I've been designing a Minoan megaron without even realising it. One of the boss chambers for Whispered Echoes takes place in a room that looks a lot like this kind of structure.)

Lately I've been taking a break from my usual games, and have been spending time in the bright, colourful, cartoony, fantasy/modern world of Free Realms. After WoW, I basically decided MMOs weren't good for me, as they tended to occupy all of my free time, but part of the reason for that was the fact that you get charged the same amount no matter how much you play, so a sense of getting the most for my money was behind some of my excessive playing time.

Free Realms doesn't have that problem for two reasons. Firstly, because it's free to play, and secondly because it's designed for short play times. No time sinks like WoW has, like slow running speeds, long flights, etc. So I don't have that irrational feeling that I need to maximise my playing time.

In Free Realms you can teleport anywhere instantly, without even having to have been there before. Also, since all combat is instanced, you don't have to deal with unwanted fights with world mobs when you're just trying to do some crafting or get somewhere. The mobs are there, but you choose whether to fight them or not.

The characters are very well-animated. Bethesda, take note. This is what character animation in a game should be like. People keep having to make animation replacers for games like Morrowind, Oblivion, and Fallout 3, so that should tell you something. Hire some decent animators, and make the characters as expressive and well-animated as the characters in Free Realms. Most of these screenshots are to show the appearance of the characters and the locations.

Crafting

I consider the crafting in Free Realms to be superior to the crafting in WoW in terms of the act of crafting itself. In WoW, you just pick the item to craft from a list, and see a progress bar, and it's done. In Free Realms, you actually get minigames in which you actively craft the item. Cooking takes you to a game that reminds me of Cooking Mama, where you pour broth, chop vegetables, pound and slice meat, stir a pot, and flip food in a pan before it burns. For smelting ore from mining, you crush the ore into little bits, stoke the fire with a bellows, and pour the molten metal into molds, being careful not to spill. As a postal carrier, you run around delivering mail by throwing letters into mailboxes, and throwing down doggy treats to ward off the dogs that knock you down. Each of these crafts also has a counterpart gathering minigame where you obtain the crafting materials, which are all variations on Bejeweled, such as the mining, mail sorting, and vegetable harvesting. I like Bejeweled.

There are also quests related to these professions, which is nice, though not enough to raise you to max level. You just need to practise your craft, between quests, which is all you do in WoW.

The interface could stand some improvements, though. In cooking, I couldn't find any list of what recipes I currently know, in my character profile or inventory. The only place I've found such a list is when I'm at a cooking table and it lets me choose which recipe I want to make. This is also the only place I can find to tell me which ingredients I need for a recipe, some of which are only buyable from vendors. This means unnecessary running back and forth between cooking table and vendors if I forget an ingredient or forget to buy enough of something. I shouldn't need to take notes outside of the game or look up the recipes on a wiki for something like that.

As there's no auction house in this game, it seems the crafting is more of an expense than profitable, as the foods sell to vendors for less than the cost of the ingredients that are necessary to buy. Something for personal use if you like the buffs or other effects, I think. There is a place on the official forum for players to hawk their wares to buy and sell in game, but I haven't checked to see if anyone's selling this stuff. Seems unlikely, since anyone can pick up these professions for themselves.

Fishing

At the time of this writing, fishing is not yet one of the available activities, but I've heard it's coming soon. I've also noticed a lot of conspicuous fishing equipment places around lakes (poles on docks, bobbers in the water), and numerous NPCs talking about fishing in Seaside. One girl says "I want to go fishing!" even though she hates fish and doesn't want to eat them. Elsewhere, a pixie girl laments her poor skills. "Know why I'm a sad fisherman? Because I can't catch any fish!" and ponders about what she might be doing wrong. Elsewhere, a couple of trolls (?) argue about fishing.

I hear it'll have another fun minigame like the other professions, so it's not just casting the line, waiting, and clicking on the bobber.

Chat

Here's the only major problem with Free Realms, in my opinion: The chat filter. It censors a ridiculous array of words that people use in everyday conversation, which are not in any way swearing. I couldn't refer to an in-game item (a can of silly string) because it censors the word "string". Other words I've seen it censor have included "another", and "people". I cannot fathom any possible reason for that.

It also censors normal English words that may also be used to refer to something else, and also inexcusably censors a series of characters in its filter even if they are in two separate words. For instance, I cannot type "I want to join the guild", because it comes out as "I want to ######he guild." Why? It censored "join t" in "join the" because it resembles "joint" (a word which, needless to say, has many perfectly innocent and legitimate uses). You can't even type the names of some quests or locations in the world because it censors parts of them. The censorship is so draconian I'm actually surprised when I can type a complete sentence that doesn't fall prey to the chat filter.

Sony, do you realise what the effect of this is? It makes it look like people are cursing all the time!! When confronted with censored words, people tend to mentally fill them in with whatever curse words seem to fit. Is that the effect you want to bring across? This is beyond ridiculous.

No, I take that back. There's something more ridiculous. They censor all numbers. Not just numerals like 1, 2, 3, etc., but also if the numbers are spelled out. Up to a billion, at least. You can't tell people what level you are. You can't tell people how much you're selling something for. You can't tell people how many you want for a group. You can't say what level an instance is. They even censored the Spanish and French words for numbers because people were using them in a desperate attempt to communicate through this severely crippled system.

I can hear you saying "Yes, some of this is excessive, but they need to censor it for the kiddies." Well, you see, they actually have separate settings for kids. These are the adult accounts. Kids' accounts can't access the chat at all. They cannot type, and they cannot even read what other people type. The only form of communication available to them is to select canned sentences from a list. And they can only read responses from people who also select sentences from this list. So I cannot see any good reason for censoring the chat to the extent they do, when it's not even visible to the kids' accounts anyway.

And woe to you if you are a kid and want to communicate. Others have commented on how pathetically short their list of canned sentences is, and how it's missing the most useful sentences for gameplay, such as "I want to trade for [item]", or "Please join me for [instance]", or, perhaps the most egregious omission: "I'm using canned chat and can't read anyone's typed responses." There's no special indication that someone's using canned chat (unless you just recognise the phrasing of the sentences), so other players are likely to type answers to them, but those answers cannot be read.

Overall impression

For anyone who wants a fun, casual game, one which you can play for long or short periods, with all sorts of different game types, Free Realms is great. There are so many completely different styles of game included in it, all in the same cartoon fantasy world, something to suit almost any mood. Standard quests, postal delivery, combat (imaginative, well-designed instances such as you might see in WoW), exploration, kart racing, cooking, foot races against time, collections, and even a collectable card game system that I haven't even touched yet. Also the mini-games such as the Bejeweled style games, and the several different varieties of "tower defense" games, and classics such as checkers and chess. There are several more types of games for paying members, such as soccer/football, but I'm not a paying member.

The chat issue is a relatively minor annoyance in the face of all the good things about this game. I recommend it for anyone except hardcore raider style of players.

Some more screenshots

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Haunted Tavern of the West Gash

Last night I was looking for possible particle effect resources for my ghosts, and I came across a couple of interesting-sounding quest/dungeon mods. One of these was The Haunted Tavern of the West Gash. I installed it, together with the optional ESP that adds an NPC to give you directions toward the titular tavern. About 2 hours later, I had completed a very satisfying storyline. I consider this to be a model to aspire toward. 2 or 3 hours of content to explore, and a storyline that unfolds as you continue through it, along with several well-developed characters.

For the same atmospheric lighting reasons I mentioned in my post about my upcoming mod, I decided to avoid the use of Night Eye and instead brought several torches, candlesticks, and lanterns with me. I placed the candlesticks and lanterns around the rooms as I came to them, allowing me to see well, but retain the creepy atmosphere.

Also, since I was using a powerful character, I chose the optional "hard version" ESP, and also decided to fight using a tertiary skill. I'm a mage with also high skill in short blade (for daggers), but I went with archery for this one. My archery skill is only 23, though I have a spell to boost it up to 50. This was a good choice, as I found that arrows were plentiful in this mod, and using arrows made the fights more challenging.

The levels were well laid out, with most areas having a little bit of the story to tell. And I really liked how the "treasure room" was set up in terms of how it was used as a reward.

I'm not going to spoil this mod. If you like the sort of thing I described above, and fighting undead, then go play it! You can uninstall it afterward with no harm done, and probably keep the loot as well, though I simply made a special save for this mod and then deleted it when I was done.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Whispered Echoes 2

Yesterday I added code to the mod for a little optional collection mini-quest in the ruin. I don't want to give it all away here, but the essence is that you will find items here and there which are worthless unless you do something to them. The code works nicely, and you can inspect these items by attempting to equip them, which pops up a descriptive message box. Now I just need to search through all the dwemer resources and try to find an appropiate mesh for the machine you'll be using. I can probably cobble something together from what's available, but what I need is a machine with a basin of liquid in it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Whispered Echoes

An ambitious Dwemer mod by Tchos

I think I've made enough progress by now that I can safely make an announcement of this work in progress.

We all know that the Dwemer race "disappeared" at the Battle of Red Mountain, and if they had not, then no doubt someone would have discovered the tragedy that befell a forgotten Dwemer city under Solstheim some time beforehand. What happened there, that killed an entire city of dwarves well before the rest of their race had vanished? There may be clues in the echoes of the ones who died there, whose traumatic memories permeate the very architecture, occasionally intruding into the perceptions of the living.

Now, with the blurb out of the way, here is my design philosophy for my "dungeon". I expect that someone who takes the trouble to download a user-made dungeon mod has probably become bored of the vanilla dungeons. Such a person is probably not a new player, and has probably been playing for a while, long enough to have a decent level, and little need for über loot. So what would one explore a new dungeon for at that point? I would think for the spectacle, and/or for the challenge.

So, I'm designing my Dwemer ruin to look interesting, and to have interesting things to do and find, with occasional scripted boss fights, and clues to find that give hints as to what happened in this place. I'm keeping corridors short and sweet, only enough to get you from one content area to another. There will be some occasional special loot to earn, but the primary design consideration to this mod is mood and aesthetics.

Dark dungeons are counterproductive to aesthetics. When I can't see anything, I'm not having fun. The game gives us things like torches, lanterns, and light spells and night eye spells. Torches and lanterns have weight, and most of them burn out, so I rarely use them. The light spell is graphically glitchy and ugly, making distinct squares of the rooms suddenly light up and go dimmer, as well as the creatures and NPCs, even with quadratic lighting. So I often resort to the night eye spell, which allows me to see, but has the side effect of removing all shadows and special lighting from the game, making everything bland and ugly. Where's the aesthetic in that?

So, my ruin has special attention to the lighting. There should be no place where you're left stumbling in the dark fumbling for your torch. This is not to say all areas will be brightly lit, but there will always be lights to show the way from one interesting place to another, and there should be nothing interesting or important hidden in a dark corner. This dwemer fortress is where people once lived and worked. People can't work in the sort of poor lighting conditions that I see in most dwarven ruins! So, there will be good lighting, albeit slightly dimmed from being in continuous operation for so long.

Youtube video showing my tileset, the making of which inspired me to go ahead and make a full mod.

I've also made my attempt at expanding the spectral dwarves. Not all dwarves should have been identical spellcasters, and there should be representation of the female dwarves. As we see in Tribunal, dwemer guards wore dwarven armour, contradicting the book Ruins of Kemel-Ze, wherein an archaeologist asserts with confidence that it was simply a case of non-dwarves adapting their robot parts for use as armour. So, faced with this contradiction of seeing plain evidence of the dwemer actually having worn pieces of this armour in Tribunal, combined with the unreliable source of an archaeologist whose claim may well have been mistaken, I thus include dwemer ghosts wearing armour, both male and female.

I'm incorporating numerous modders' resources in this mod, many of which I've altered for better looks or better compression, to keep the file sizes reasonable, and in some cases I've been making my own new items, textures, and meshes.

All dwemer in this mod are ghosts, or memories. No additions of living dwemer. I'm showing a couple of screenshots here of what they look like without the ghost effect, with a dwarven spectre nearby for comparison. Since the dwemer were elves like any other elves, my female dwemer doesn't look different than other elves, but I've chosen hair styles that look Greco-Roman, which is the closest I've found to the Akkadian/Sumerian/Minoan that they should have. Consider the robes as placeholders until I find some more regional-looking clothing I can use. Something Middle Eastern, Greco-Roman, or Egyptian would probably work.

If you see anything you like in the screenshots to follow, please be patient, and all will be released when the mod is finished, except for the level designs themselves. All modders' resources are being well-documented for the readme as well.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Dwemer modding

Well, I've taken my first baby step into modding for Morrowind. Julian K. Spire requested a tile set for his next Greater Dwemer Ruins project, and it's something I'd been wanting to try for a while anyway -- a corridor with metal meshwork on the walls and ceiling (and also a regular grate on the floor). I'm not sure this is quite what he was looking for, but this goes along with my desire to see more evidence of the steampunk marriage of Victorian elegance with industrial revolution brasswork, which we see more of in Oblivion than in Morrowind. So, I created a metal grating that has a little more elegance than simply criss-crossing lines as in a chain-link fence.

This is just a single piece as yet, to see if this will work for his purposes. It is only single-sided, so it only works when viewed from inside the corridor. I've assembled them into a lighted test corridor for the sake of illustration. Following are my screenshots of it:

Thursday, July 30, 2009

End of Tribunal, Mournhold Expanded

Well, it turns out I couldn't stay away from Mournhold, because I wanted to try out Mournhold Expanded, a very large multi-mod, similar to Balmora Expansion in that it adds new shops, items, and locations, but it seems to add a lot more of these things than Balmora Expansion does. It does not extensively modify the existing Mournhold as BE does to Balmora, but contains its additions in several new cells accessed through doors added to the main Temple area.

But first, a bit about the Tribunal main quest

Unfortunately, any time I talked with the NPCs (there are hundreds of new NPCs added), they always wanted to complain about the horrible ash storms plaguing the city, which interfered with any special greetings they were supposed to have, which would have given me new mod-related topics to discuss with them. So, I figured I'd better follow through with the rest of the main quest just so I could get things back to normal, a necessity about which I complained in a previous post. My advice is, if you don't want to be more or less forced to finish things off in a hurry, don't turn on the weather control machine. After you do, there's not much you can do except plow through to the end.

That said, I have some nice things to say about the main quest, which I'll hide in a spoiler block. This is mostly about some unique and interesting architecture, but there are some spoilers in the form of information Almalexia gives you as you set off for the last quest. I'm not going to get into what you find at the end of this quest, or what happens:

Spoiler: Click to display/hide

Spoiler contains briefing info about final quest in Tribunal, and descriptions of architecture.

As good-looking as the corridors are, they're completely devoid of furniture (aside from the built-in benches), as well as containers. It's kind of a shame this nice architecture isn't utilised to its full potential, and is used only in one quest, much like the Imperial Library in Oblivion -- beautiful, but only visitable once, and only for a faction quest. I'll have to search and see if there are mods made using this Clockwork City tileset.

Back to Mournhold Expanded

So, with all obstructions out of the way, I went to go explore Mournhold Expanded. I spent several hours looking around the places, doing a couple of simple quests, buying some unique items and clothes, and picking up a new companion or two. The mod adds a water resort, a theme park with rides, fireworks, and entertainment, a horseback riding area, a shopping mall with restaurant, a huge waterfront area that I've barely begun to explore, and plenty of other stuff listed in the readme that I haven't had time to explore yet. One of the stores is a furniture store with custom furniture and decorations that you can buy and install in your own home(s). Several others contain collections of clothing from various artists, including Korana's Silk Wraps mod, which seems to be difficult to obtain on its own lately.

The NPCs are mostly good looking, but there's a strange mix of Better Bodies NPCs and the original vanilla models for some NPCs. This was apparently a necessity in order to include some of the new custom animation and poses, such as sitting and drinking, or playing in a band. It's just very strange to see these low-rez, blocky, mannequin-looking figures amongst the ones I've been used to. (Note image with dancers in foreground and musicians in background.)

Spooky Halloween-style ride at Almalexia Gardens

There's a lot to see here, and I'm just going to talk about one of the first places I saw and enjoyed. The amusement park is called Almalexia Gardens, and it includes many ride attractions in the same vein as the Pirates of the Carribbean ride. I believe the name was inspired by Busch Gardens theme park, since that park also has themed areas that recreate different countries, and that's what Almalexia Gardens does as well. There are different sections to correspond with the different provinces of Tamriel, such as Hammerfell, High Rock, Summurset Isle, etc. I haven't yet explored them all in detail, but they seem to have small regions meant to represent the climate and landscape of each area, with representative NPCs of those regions, exhibiting some of their culture, and something interesting and unique in each one. In the middle of the park is "A Year In Tamriel", which has a different attraction for various holidays of the year.

The first one I visited was the Halloween-style holiday, called "Tales and Tallows", which was full of carved Jack-o-lanterns, a mummy, spiderwebs, and other Halloweeny stuff, and (my favourite) a haunted mine cart ride. It has the theme park ride entrance look, with railings and gates made of dwemer architecture, and a queue of other people waiting to go on the ride, all of whom are more than happy to allow you to go on ahead before them. To the sides of the ride are a replica graveyard complete with ghosts, and a track with some other people in mine carts. Strong green lights predominate here, underscoring the fun-scary theme park atmosphere.

Pulling the level puts you immediately on the mine cart and rolling slowly along the track. I recommend being in 1st person view for this ride, not 3rd person, because if you're in 3rd person you can see yourself standing over the cart as it rolls along, ruining the illusion that you're sitting in it. Once the ride begins, you can't move, use magic, or change between 1st and 3rd person, until you reach the end and are released from the ride.

The mine cart takes you past about a dozen spooky set pieces, including pirate ships with skeleton crews, a haunted house with ghosts floating around, and others along the same theme, all bathed in green light. At the end of it, you can either go on it again in reverse, or go through the door at the end, which will transport you directly back to the Year In Tamriel lobby.

I'll be trying the other ones later.

More screenshots: