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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Audiosurf

If you are primarily a PC gamer, like myself, then you've mournfully watched the releases of Guitar Hero and Rock Band float past (I am going to ignore the PC port for GH3, since it does not bear any recognition). We've always know that the PC is, in some ways, the ideal platform for such games, owing to the long history of user created content. The PC certainly lacks the social aspect that is one of the primary draws of the game, but that is changing as consoles become more like PCs and PCs adopt some of the ease of use that draws us to consoles.

Audiosurf is, in many ways, exactly the reason that the PC could be the best platform for rhythm based music games. You can play the game to any song in your library (barring songs with drm, but that's hardly the game's fault, yeah I'm looking at you ITunes, and don't think you're off the hook Napster et al.). Audiosurf takes any music file you enter into it and procedurally generates a course that you can traverse in a hovercar, dodging or picking up different colored blocks to score points by matching blocks of the same color together. The gameplay can be as relaxing or as intense as your mood dictates, depending on the tempo of the song you choose. I get an entirely different experience from Moonlight Sonata then I do from Mars Volta's Inertiatic E.S.P.

The nearly endless replayability, as deep as your playlist and as wide as the many different modes of play that the game offers is driven further by the global scorekeeping for each song (though it relies on proper naming of the song). Not all songs translate well into the medium, as many are too slow and some are too irregular, or too complicated (many classical songs seem to have too many layers for the system to pick out specific instruments to map). The result is that listening to your music elsewhere, in the car or on the bus, you pay attention to the tempo of songs, and mentally flag ones that would work well in the system.

The graphics of the game are abstract and exciting, colorful and random, with smoothly curving translucent tracks and beautifully simple cars. There is enough in the background to keep it from simply being empty space, but not enough to distract the eye. Everything, from the track to the background to the movements of the car, is synced up with the song. It's a playable visualization.

The simplicity of the game means that anyone that has music and can move a mouse can pick up the game and try it. Any computer could run it, and even on low settings it looks beautiful. The low barrier of entry puts this on the forefront of my personal movement to widen the understanding of gaming in the public perception, alongside Peggle. Tell your ma, tell your pa, have your non gamer friends over and tell them to bring their music. This is why we game.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Neverwinter Nights 2

Yesterday being my day off, I took the opportunity to finish Atari's Neverwinter Nights 2, to mixed reviews. The first NWN caught my fancy early on and held it for a long period of time, driving me to play through the campaign and each of the expansions as different characters, as well as numberless modules, some good, some atrocious. And so, despite mediocre reviews, I jumped into NWN 2 with little reserve.

It seems as if something was lost from the formula when Bioware handed the IP over to Obsidian. The dialog remains the same, split into the three responses for lawful/neutral/chaotic or good/neutral/evil, and the general scope of the plot is strikingly similar, starting at an isolated crisis and drawing all of Neverwinter into war against a vast evil(by way of near war with Luskan). The implementation of the Influence system of party dynamics is well thought out, and puts an interesting turn on the old rpg problem of npcs with a different alignment than the pc. Its importance at some key segments of the game, and especially in run up to the final battle, is a clever use for the system.

The plot of the game is cliche, but compelling enough to draw the action forward, and there are someinteresting side stories. An uninspired game story is hardly an oddity, but in this particular instance, the rough voice acting and the atrocious painted still 'cutscenes' seem to draw a big red circle around the plot's deficiencies. Even a single good voice actor is enough to make a story, as is the case with GlaDos or with Glarthir in Oblivion (two of my favorite npcs of all time). In NWN 2 however, the delivery of the story-driving characters is either lifeless or overzealous. Most of the secondary characters are passably voiced, and over time you develop an affection for the particular flavor of poor acting that each of the members of your party espouses. Even when he's not casting the spells you ask him to cast, Sand's sarcastic quip about 'host tower thralls' is particularly humorous.

The controls were in fact my main issue with the game, which, between the sub-adequate pathfinding and the cumbersome action queue, made many of the fights significantly more difficult than they should have been. Often I would tell one of my characters to cast a spell and then would move to direct another character, only to come back to the first to find that they had decided not to cast the spell in favor of standing in place.

When the spells did go off, however, it was well worth the trouble, because the magic effects in the game are excellently rendered, and backed by satisfyingly vigorous sound effects. The smash and crackle of the Ice Storm spell, the sizzle of Chain Lightning, there was nothing as satisfying as a party full of casters opening up on an unsuspecting group of enemies. The graphics overall were quite well done (and hopefully so, considering the system drain on a contemporary pc), although some of the armor designs and locations did not particularly stand out. The characters were, for the most part, well animated, though the art direction seemed to rely too much on the d&d 3rd edition concepts for the other races, making for ugly elves and goofy half-orcs.

All in all, despite its shortcomings, I enjoyed my playthrough of the game. The npcs, I feel, played a large part in this, and by the end of the game I had developed a particular fondness for some of the characters, even though Zhjaeve's "Know this..." manner of speech was starting to grate on me. I quit out of the game a number of times in frustration at the controls or at the bugs, but when I stuck with it it was generally a hair on the positive side.