Thursday, July 28, 2005

What About Rome?

At first I told myself that I'd just wait until the Linux version came out, since the words "coming soon" give you a certain expectation of how soon something may be coming. Well, it has been far too long for my tastes, so this week I downloaded the Windows version of NERO and gave it a try.

It's beyond the scope of this post to try to fully explain what NERO is and what it does. For details, look no further than the above link. For a very brief (and mostly fictional) description, read on. The product of a scrappy rag tag team of computer scientists, all-around general brainiacs (to use the proper term), and a few artists - NERO is the answer to the eternal question: What happens when you take the results of artificial intelligence research, add some figurative dressing in the form of the Torque Engine, and see what type of game comes out of it. It turns out that the answer is "Quite an interesting one".

Gameplay wise, NERO is of the oft overlooked school of "set it up and let it whirl" of games. The first phase is the training mode, in which you're tasked with teaching a group of bots basic tasks - such as navigating around obstacles on the way to the enemy, how much to avoid too much enemy fire, and other basic necessities of a fighting robot's very short life. You don't have direct control, so you can only set which behaviors are rewarded and which are discouraged via the "Smite!" command. Besides placing obstacles to create ever-expanding mazes the only other commands you have available are "Converge", which makes the other bots act more like the selected unit and "Milestone", a command that I'll admit I don't understand yet. It can take quite a while to get your NERO (short for Neuro Evolving Robotic Operatives) performing how you'd like them to but this phase of the game takes an almost god-game approach to the process, making a nice relaxing counterpoint to the next phase.

The battle phase is much more simple compared to the above. You take your hard trained team and throw them into battle, either against another team you (or somebody online - Network play is possible) created, or one of the other pre-trained teams included with the game. From there, interaction is limited to moving the camera around, watching the fight, and moving your team's flag around (it isn't what you think, it's just a way to get slightly better control over your troops, assuming they're trained to follow the flag). This phase is surprisingly intense, especially with a time limit. The intensity wears off after a few rounds against the same team, but the attachment you have to your boys (or your girls, call the robots whatever you want) keeps it interesting.

It goes for all games, but with NERO especially - it's certainly not for everyone. It's a game that requires quite a lot of patience as well as the will to start team after team, creating for each different methods of training. There's even some patience involved in the battle mode, as matches without time limits can often take quite a while. The payoff - watching your well trained team kick some ass - is entirely worth it.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Cue Freaky Zither Music

CodeRED: Alien Arena popped up on The Linux Game Tome this week I didn't really give it a second thought at first. With Thursday looming and nothing more entertaining to write about, I figured I'd give it a go. The idea was sent back to the factory due to a recall when I realized that this game was being brought to us by the fine folks behind Alteria. Yes, that Alteria.

Then again, I figured, there were no other options. On with the show. The download is around 130 megs or so which, while not the most pleasant way to spend an afternoon, is still within the realm of possibility for dialup users. As I prepared to launch the game, the terrors of Alteria were still undulating inside my mind. Lovecraftian visions of bad gameplay and worse voice acting - causing nightmare and reality to exist, to me, as one nauseating... OK, I think you get it.

At least I can say CodeRED: Alien Arena is much better than Alteria. Its sense of style is probably the strongest thing Alien Arena has going for it. There's a sort of colorful cartoony sci-fi look permeating the maps, and the characters follow suit. The sounds follow the same theme, but they're sort of a weak point when it comes to weapons. Some weapon sounds fit well, but the vast majority just don't carry the power or impact you're looking for.

Even though it's main focus is net play, there is a single player mode of sorts where you square off against bots. To Alien Arena's credit, the bots aren't too bad. It's a good thing they're included too, since I had no luck finding a server with more than 2 other players. One issue I have with the single player portion, though, is that you can't pick and choose which maps you want to play, but instead have to complete them in order. It gives more of a campaign feel, but I'd prefer to try out maps whenever I wanted.

You may notice that under the Linux Game Tome entry, there are quite a few people being fairly loud about the fact that the only GPL'd part of Alien Arena is the engine, ie. all the art and maps are not. I felt I'd warn you, in case you're the type of person that takes these issues very seriously. All in all - CodeRED: Alien Arena is no Alteria, but it just didn't really appeal to me. I like it a whole lot more than Nexuiz, but I can say with quite a bit of certainty that I probably won't be playing it much, if at all. Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

This Should Be A Title, But Isn't...

Sometimes, for reasons entirely unbeknownst to me, I'll go months on end without actually checking out games that I really meant to give a try. Such is the case with Glest, an open source (GPL) 3D real-time strategy game and relative newcomer to the scene. It's been out for a few months now, so I really have no excuse for taking so long to give it a look but, since it had an update this week I realized it's time had come at last.

Let's start at the beginning here. I was in no way prepared for the level of polish I was presented with upon running Glest for the first time. Its menu screens are beautiful, with the camera gracefully navigating fully 3D backgrounds as you make your way through the initial options. In most of the open source games I've seen (a few, like Planeshift, are excused from this discussion) menus are, quite rightfully, more of an afterthought than anything else. After all, what is the point of lovely menu screens when the actual game suffers as a result?

Beyond the main menu, Glest continues to sparkle. Although I haven't yet had a chance to play through them all, the maps I've seen appear to be well crafted, both from the gameplay and aesthetic sides of the fence, although with current lack of multiplayer, I could see certain balance issues popping up in the future. The background music, oft lacking in many open source offerings (for obvious reasons, we're not all composers), fits nicely with the epic nature of a game like this. For the more graphically-oriented among you, there are also some really nice particle effects at work, especially for burning structures, which look awesome.

Gameplay is more or less your standard RTS fare, but I doubt that most people looking to play an RTS will mind this. One area where Glest stumbles is an apparent pothole that most of its open source peers have hit as well: its lack of an in-game tutorial. Granted these aren't the easiest things in the world to build, and I give all due slack in this case, but this is something that could end up driving many a new player away. Any RTS veteran will know from previous experience to start harvesting, building, and cranking out as many units as possible, but this knowledge shouldn't be expected as a prerequisite.

Right now, it's Linux and Windows only, but at one time Glest was a Windows-only project which was quickly ported, so it's fairly safe to say that ports to other platforms aren't out of the question. Give it a try, I'd say it currently outclasses most of it's competition. I know I liked it a lot more than I was fully prepared to.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

I've Had It

That's it. From here on out, the only commercial games I'm buying are wacky Japanese RPGs. It's been looming on the horizon for a while, and now it's finally come - games are just getting too "cool" for me.

Take a look at any game related website or magazine, and I'm sure you'll find the words "gritty", "urban", or "starring" in there at least once. As much as the series' merits are touted, the game to blame for the current situation is clearly Grand Theft Auto 3. Its improvements on the previous games in the series can't be denied, but as soon as it was realized to be the cash cow it is now, other companies couldn't help but throw their hats into the proverbial ring.

"Gritty" and "urban" don't really need much elaboration - it seems all gamers want to do these days is commit crime in large cities - be it through street-racing, underground boxing, or all out shooting sprees. "Starring", though, may come off as a little confusing at first - and it works from different angles. The first permutation would be the most direct - people starring in a game like someone would a movie, ala 50 Cent: Bulletproof or Shaq-Fu (if I was drinking milk right now it would have squirted out my nose from typing that). The second is directly related to the Screen Actors Guild demanding that they get a larger cut of the profits from the games they "star" in.

I don't give one crap whether or not the main character in the game I'm playing is voiced by Gary Busey, nor do I want every single game I play to be set in a sprawling city. I don't care about tricking out my "ride", I don't care about hot polygonal girls shaking it for no reason, I don't care about what music is licensed from who, and I really don't give one fuck about actors/athletes/musicians who think that their very presence in a game is enough to drain the masses of all their worldly belongings. I've had enough.

From now on it's quirky music, characters with dangerously large heads and even more dangerously large swords, and unknown voice actors (if there is voice acting at all) who were probably dubbing hentai before they were hired for the game. Be warned, the next time you see me, I may or may not be wearing large purple bunny-ears.

Friday, July 01, 2005

A Rich Tradition

There have been a few notable releases this week, which I'll try to touch on next week. I'll be honest, it's not this week because in the limited amount of game time I've had, it's been spent playing Anarchy Online.

I was pretty busy with a number of other things this week, so my Trader has only leveled up to 21 or 22 (I can't remember) in the two nights I was actually able to play. I've actually been finding good teams this time around, which helps things go quite a bit more quickly leveling-wise. One thing I did not expect was to actually make some in-game friends. The buddy list of my level 65 Adventurer is so empty it's begun to collect cobwebs, but so far I've actually got quite a few on my Trader's list.

You may remember this old post, in which I mention a kind soul who gave my lowly Adventurer a lovely bag of pistols and some (ok, quite a bit more than some) credits, on the condition that I pass them on when I outgrew them. I'd actually outgrown them quite a while ago, but hadn't found the right person to pass them on to.

The other night, I was teaming with some people and everyone save myself and another player logged off. We were in the process of selling our "Ph4t l00t" when he mentioned that his pistols sucked. Having teamed with him, it seemed he was worthy of such a mighty bounty so, a few minutes later, he had a fresh new bag of pistols. Once again, the condition was that he pass them on when they were outgrown.

Hopefully, those pistols will enjoy a long lifetime of being passed from Adventurer to Adventurer, seeing much more of Rubi-Ka than any other weapon could dream. If they end up in the hands of someone who doesn't deserve them, I suspect they will "malfunction", resulting in the wielder wondering where all this blood is coming from, and why he feels so lightheaded.