Archive for May, 2011

"Hello. I'm William Shatner. I wrote TekWar. Among other things."

The Shatner Paradox

By 1989, William Shatner had conquered the world of film and television. He had shown off his skills as a master thespian as Captain Kirk in Star Trek, had starred in the genre-changing police drama T.J. Hooker, had made a film in the constructed language Esperanto, and had directed Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. He had also released his legendary music album, The Transformed Man. So what was next for this legendary man of the world? Why, conquering the world of literature, of course. And the start of that distinguished career in letters would be TekWar.

Now, this is exactly the kind of reality-warping that comes from Shatner – no matter how awful it is, it loops around to become completely awesome.

Now, TekWar isn’t a terrible novel (or series of novels, as it were). Sure, it’s derivative, a bit cheesy, and was dated even when it published, but it’s definitely a fast-moving, entertaining novel. It’s never going to join the ranks of Neuromancer or Foundation as essential science fiction, but I like it for what it is: cheesy, zero-pretension entertainment. Hollywood in 300 pages.

The plot of TekWar concerns ex-cop Jake Cardigan, in cryo-prison for allegedly dealing the technological “drug” (although really more of a virtual reality brainjack) called Tek. He is unfrozen four years into his fifteen year sentence under mysterious circumstances (how freezing someone is better than actually having someone serve their time is pretty questionable) and is quickly recruited by a private investigation firm to search out a scientist and his (surprise) attractive daughter who have disappeared south of the border.

The novel became a bestseller. Then a series of novels. Then a TV movie. Then a TV series. So what would be next in Shatner’s campaign of complete global saturation? To make a PC game, of course.

The game’s story is, I guess, a takeoff of the novel, although you’re an unnamed hitman who’s hired to gun down Tek dealers (or something). I would question its fidelity to its literary source but… do you really care? I know what you people really want. Here’s 8-bit Shatner holding a spatula.

The TekWar game was, as many cash-in games in 1995 were, a pseudo-3D first person shooter. Now, in spite of being an overall average example of a typical mid-’90s FPS, it does have a few features of note. First off, it’s the first game released using Ken Silverman’s Build Engine, perhaps best known for being the architecture on which Duke Nukem 3D, Redneck Rampage, and Blood were built. While Duke Nukem 3D was in development at the time, TekWar beat it to market. In addition, the game contains civilians. Who can be shot.

"You all saw it! He came at me with a knife!"

As with many other games of the time, it also included full motion video. Of William Shatner talking to you.  I guess this was supposed to be a mission briefing of some kind, but it was really just Shatner being Shatner, and you navigated the rest of the level as you would any other shooter. So in most respects, it’s a middle of the road shooter with a Cyberpunk-lite theme. And much like the book it’s based on, it’s reasonably entertaining but not interesting enough to join the standouts of its genre or to be considered an overlooked classic. It’s just a fluff game, the kind of thing you’d pick up off the $5 rack between ‘real’ games.

The Ferrari Testarossa, now in Cube form! Or rectangular prism, I guess.

It’s not a bad game, but there are plenty of much better ones out there. As for the novel? Well, it’s not a bad way to kill a few hours.

I’m definitely in a Dungeons & Dragons mood this week. Sue me, I love this stuff!

In the late 1980s, TSR had struck gold with its Forgotten Realms campaign setting for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Between game supplements, novels (in particular the Icewind Dale trilogy by R.A. Salvatore), and SSI’s new Gold Box games, never before had a roleplaying game company given a setting such wide exposure. They would attempt this approach for several other settings, finding small success with the horror-themed Ravenloft setting and larger success with the DragonLance series, which was perhaps more popular as a book than as a campaign.

Azure Bonds was published in 1988, the product of a collaboration between TSR designer Jeff Grubb (who later created the Spelljammer campaign setting) and his wife Kate Novak. The storyline concerns a young woman named Alias who wakes up, completely out of it with a magic blue tattoo on her arm. She finds that it is impossible to remove, and its curse controls her actions.

In a twist that no game would ever dare use (and certainly not Final Fantasy VII or Deus Ex) and is not at all a reference to the “Deckard is a replicant” theory in Blade Runner, it turns out that Alias is a magically created and controlled construct with artificial memories. She gains the ability to make decisions for herself. All is well in the Realms.

One of the interesting things about Azure Bonds is that it’s the first D&D novel to be adapted into game form (because we don’t count Heroes of the Lance for the NES. It just doesn’t exist. ). Strategic Simulations, Inc (SSI) had released the hit Pool of Radiance the previous year, the first in their legendary series of Gold Box games, which took the D&D rules and adapted them for play on the computers of the time. Pool of Radiance had been a popular and critical success, so SSI followed it up with a game based on Azure Bonds.

The Gold Box games allowed you to play D&D without your pesky friends!

Curse of the Azure Bonds found the player characters waking up in the town of Tilverton, relieved of any weapons and armor they might have remaining from Pool of Radiance and with those less-than-charming blue tatoos on their arms. The party naturally want to be rid of the tats, and so set off finding a way to do just that. And thankfully, no, the entire party you imported over from Pool of Radiance is NOT composed of magical replicants.

Oh, crap.

The game plays very much like its predecessor, improving on it in places – most notably expanding the character classes to add Paladin and Ranger classes, as well as adding a sort of “fast travel” option to move to nearby locations on the world map (taking place mostly in the Dalelands). At the end of the game, HEY! It’s Tyranthraxus, that oh-so-lovable evil entity that took over a Bronze Dragon’s body in Pool of Radiance, back, hanging out in Myth Drannor while possessing a Storm Giant! That’s cool and all but…it’s kind of a step down from a dragon, don’t you think?

Dragons are just more majestic. I mean look at all that majesty.

I honestly don’t remember Curse of the Azure Bonds as well as Pool of Radiance (I’m pretty sure I bought Interplay’s complete collection some time in the late 90s), hence my reason for referring back to it so much. But the Gold Box games were all fantastic RPGs. I’d recommend any of them. Not that they’re exactly easy to come by these days, although they’re not exactly rare either (after all, they’ve seen numerous rereleases). Perhaps we’ll see them again soon on GoG.com? We can only hope.

And hey, even after you’ve put Tyranthraxus down for a second time, there’s always more adventure for your clumsy yet erstwhile party in…

With the Forgotten Realms setting being one of the most popular in both tabletop and video games over the years, I thought I would share my years of experience in the Realms with interested readers. I imagine a lot of you have probably never played a D&D game or read a novel set in the Realms, so I thought I’d put together a cheat sheet for any players who don’t know the setting (or any old hands who just want to brush up). Keep in mind that I won’t go too into depth, and this is pretty basic stuff.

My central goal here is to give players new to the setting a way to hit the ground running so they’re not too lost if they hear a place or person mentioned.

Places of Interest:

The Continent of Faerûn-

Icewind Dale – Located in the far north of the continent in the Spine of the World mountains, Icewind Dale is home to frozen tundra as well as the association of settlements known as Ten Towns. While each town is independent, they form a loose alliance centered in Bryn Shander, which is a trading hub for the region. Many of the other villages’ predominant industry is fishing for the knucklehead trout (renowned for its ivory-like bones), and each lake has fierce competition over the best spots – competition which sometimes turns violent.

The Northern Sword Coast and Icewind Dale

The Sword Coast – The western coast of Faerûn is home to numerous settlements: Waterdeep, the City of Splendors; the great library fortress of Candlekeep; and the city-state Baldur’s Gate. On the northern reach of the Sword Coast is Neverwinter, regarded as the most civilized place on the continent (although you wouldn’t know it for the number of adventures that seem to start there).

South of there, south of Beregost and Nashkel, is the nation of Amn. While much smaller in actual land area than its northern neighbors, Amn controls many trade routes to foreign nations, and as a result is tremendously wealthy.

The Moonshae Isles – Off the Sword Coast is a groups of islands with Oman’s Isle at their center; however, the capital of the Moonshae Isles is Caer Callidyr on the northwest isle of Alaron. The Moonshaes are predominately home to humans and elves and tend to enjoy a more peaceful reputation than many parts of the Realms.

The Moonsea – A region of harsh weather centered around the eponymous inland sea, the Moonsea is home to several points of interest. On the north side of the sea, this includes Zhentil Keep, the stronghold of the Zhentarim, as well as the city of Phlan. Phlan has a colorful history stretching back over a thousand years; this includes a point where Old Phlan was destroyed to the point that it was walled off. Beneath the ruins of Old Phlan, a party of adventurers stopped the entity Tyranthraxus from drawing power from its fabled pool of radiance. On the south shore of the Moonsea is the city-state of Hillsfar, which is a hub for trade as well as a considerable political power in the region.

The Dalelands – The eleven dales are each independent, ranging from the peaceful Deepingdale to the military dictatorship of Archendale. This is the location of Elminster’s home of Shadowdale. To the Northeast of the Dalelands are the ruined city of Myth Drannor, whose magical properties and buried wealth have attracted intrepid adventurers for years upon years.

The Dalelands

The Underdark – A dark and immense network of caves spanning the world. Expeditions to the Underdark are incredibly dangerous and adequate preparations must be made. The Underdark is populated by such vile creatures as mind flayers, beholders, and perhaps most notably the Drow. While they have many settlements in the Underdark, perhaps the most famous of them is Menzoberranzan. Menzoberranzan is a center of worship for the Drow’s Spider-Goddess Lolth, as well as the birthplace of one of the few non-Chaotic Evil drow, Drizzt Do’urden (see below).

People of Interest

Elminster

Elminster Aumar – The archetypal wizard, Elminster, or “El” to his friends, is one of the most important movers and shakers in the Realms. He has been at the center of countless adventures and crises across the world and beyond. Although one of the most legendary mages in the land, he is perhaps just as well known as a raconteur, loving to relate stories of his adventures. He is also a notable force of good, allied with the Harpers and willing to guide adventurers, as he did with Gorion’s ward during the Bhaalspawn Crisis.

Drizzt Do’Urden – One of the most familiar faces in the Realms, Drizzt is a drow, a people largely known as sadistic, Chaotic Evil underdwelling elves that are all too willing to provide living sacrifices to Lolth. Drizzt grew disgusted with these conditions and began living on the surface, making friends with a band of adventurers in Icewind Dale, among them the dwarf Bruenor Battlehammer and his adopted human daughter Catti-Brie, the halfling councilman Regis “Rumblebelly”, and the barbarian Wulfgar.

Drizzt

He is known for his paired-scimitar fighting style as well as his countless imitators. In spite of his tendency to inspire copycats, there is only one Drizzt Do’Urden, and he does not take kindly to imitators.

The Harpers – An organization devoted to promotion of good, and its members span the full spectrum of good alignments, neutral, lawful, and chaotic. While their primary focus involves fighting evil in all its forms, they also work to preserve art, music, and history, as well as maintaining balance between nature and civilization (the prime focus of the organization’s many druids). They are numerous in the Sword Coast area, as well as the Dalelands. Jaheira and Khalid, two companions of Gorion’s Ward during the Bhaalspawn crisis, were members of the Harpers.

The Zhentarim – A well-known and highly successful mercenary company in Faerûn, they can be found operating across the lands, usually taking the most profitable jobs they can manage. As their prime concern is money and they are more than willing to take morally questionable contracts, they are at odds with the Harpers, and the two organizations consider the other to be enemies.

Imperial Majesty

THQ has revealed the art for Relic’s new foray into third-person action set in the grim darkness of the future. The cover features the game’s hero, Ultramarine Captain Titus, leaping into melee combat with a gaggle of Orks. Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine‘s release is set for the month of August.

UPDATE: The game’s release has been pushed back to September.

Witcher 2 Review

Out of the East

The Witcher came out of nowhere a few years ago (well, out of Poland, actually) to become something of a cult classic among PC RPG fans. Fast forward to 2011 and its sequel has finally appeared, with a brand new engine and continuing storyline from the original.

Damn Good Fabric

To start, the engine looks beautiful. The environments, the hideous men, the almost uniformly attractive women, the water, and the fabric – my god, the fabric textures! – are lovely. I don’t think I’ve yet seen a game with better looking fabric. You may not think that’s a big deal, but my jaw dropped at the detail in King Foltest’s tabard. Skin looks realistic, in places cracked, wrinkled, pitted, freckled. And you will be seeing quite a bit of skin, as the Witcher 2shows plenty of it. And it’s very well rendered. And I’ll leave it at that. Beyond this, there are lovely fire effects, rippling banners, and lighting that ranges from subtle to blinding. Heck, even the urine-soaked streets of Flotsam are beautifully rendered. There are a few seams in the engine which particularly observant players might notice, but I’m confident these will get patched. CD Projekt seems to be proud of their new in-house engine and rightfully so.

Time Warp

Witcher 2 Assassins of Kings ReviewThe storyline is pretty good, although nothing too original. If you’ve read any fantasy literature published since the mid-1990s, there’s not really anything surprising in the story. You are once again put in the shoes of Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher, an itinerant monster hunter; however monster hunting has noticeably taken a back seat to political strife in this episode. The game begins with you being thrown in jail after allegedly assassinating King Foltest of Temeria. The writing ranges from very good to weak, with major characters like Geralt and Iorveth getting the best lines, and secondary characters tending to suffer. There’s one scene in particular where a sorceress brings up cells and genetics, which feels completely out-of-place and really took me out of the game. This is a medieval fantasy, not an issue of X-Men. Does that really belong here? Where the game really triumphs in this department, though, is its atmosphere and setting. Like its predecessor, it feels more truly medieval than your typical fantasy realm (although it tends to go with the typical fantasy portrayal of elves as elitists and dwarves as crude, even if both are now second-class citizens). It’s a morally ambiguous world of hypocrites, schemers, and everyone in between. Geralt happens to be one of the in-betweens.

Swords and Sorcery

In addition to a new engine, there’s a new combat system as well. The overall reception, as I’ve seen on various forums, is mixed, to say the least. Some people love it, some hate it, and others, like myself, have come to terms with it. It completely eschews the multiple sword styles of the original in favor of a more action-RPG approach, not unlike that of Demons’ Souls. You have a quick swing, a heavy swing, a cast spell button, a block (which I never managed to successfully pull off), and a secondary item slot which can hold throwing knives, traps, or bombs. In addition, you can perform rolls in any direction. The chief thing to note is that combat is initially very difficult, even on the lower difficulty, and I found it quite frustrating that I was unable to engage groups without getting my head handed to me. I eventually found a way to mediate this, but be warned: if you’re not prepared, you’re going to see that reload screen a lot.

Witcher 2 for PCBasically, make the system work for you.

Note: The 1.2 patch tweaks the balance early on, making the game a less harrowing experience in the early phases. The 2.0 patch improves the tutorial aspects even further.

The alchemy and crafting systems have been overhauled, and definitely for the better. The menu system is much easier to follow, as it lists your ingredients and what you have available to you. You must still meditate to perform alchemy, however you don’t have to pass time with it. In fact, leveling up, alchemy, and potion consumption are all done from the meditation screen. The potion drinking from meditation is a good idea in theory, however it leads to several moments where you can be caught unprepared, and at least one occasion where it’s flat out impossible to drink a potion and prepare because there are several cutscenes between your last possible meditation and the battle.

Fighter’s Block

Leveling is less complex than in the previous game, with only four skill trees and one kind of talent to distribute. Before you can move onto the sword, alchemy, and magic trees you have to fill out the Witcher training tree.

This is one of the little things that bothered me. Wasn’t Geralt a fully powered Witcher after the first game? Sure you have to mediate and depower him at the start of the second game, but he’s nerfed to the point where it’s quite jarring. I mean he could march through a horde of knights cutting a bloody swath by the end of the first game, yet here he has to pull one guy away from his buddies to hack him to death.

Metal Gear Geralt

Healing potion in Witcher 2Also, there are a few sections where you are supposed to sneak around. In one case you’re allowed to smack enemies in the back of the brain to subdue them. However, the cursor is so inaccurate that you’re likely to raise the alarm and end up punching them to death (if you manage to encounter just one) or more likely, suffer an untimely death by bludgeoning. At another point, you’re given two choices of how to enter an enemy camp, one of which involves sneaking into an enemy base Solid Snake-style, only without the benefits of a real stealth system. Since there are no real stats for your sneakiness, you’re stuck with “if head faces your direction = true then INSTANT DEATH”. In addition to this fun, once I did manage to get to the place I was supposed to go, the door I was supposed to enter through (and I checked the included game guide) was locked, certainly a bug of some kind. I don’t understand the need for developers to shoehorn in stealth segments in games with no stealth mechanics, but it was bad enough that I reloaded an earlier save and took the other option. Oh well, it’s not like CD Projekt is the only developer to ever do that.

Medieval Miscellany

The music and sound are good; although I didn’t find the music to be particularly memorable, it always fit the scene well. Sound is what you would expect – swords have audible sharpness, dragons roar, and the Aard sign makes a satisfying whoosh when you cast it. The voices are overall quite good, although as far as I know only Geralt’s voice actor returns from the original game (considering the overall quality of its dub, probably a good thing). As I said before, the writing/ translation is of uneven quality, but the actors tend to do their best with what they’re given.

Witcher 2 One issue I noticed is that on the rare occasion you’re paired with someone, the AI isn’t great. They tend to get in your way and just stand there. So when in doubt, don’t get cornered with a bunch of dwarves following you. They will stubbornly refuse to move.

Finally, I must say that the game is disappointingly short. While I didn’t do every sidequest, the main quest along with some various other errands came in at around 20 hours, and the story feels unfinished, like it either ended abruptly or is banking on a sequel/expansion pack releasing soon. However, CD Projekt will be distributing some free DLC which may help to alleviate the game’s short length.

The Final Verdict

Overall, the Witcher 2 is a pretty solid game with some nagging flaws. It’s enjoyable once you get the combat down, and the main story is entertaining if nothing particularly original. It is short, but I still found it to be a better experience than Dragon Age II, and it is $10 cheaper. It’s not a bad experience to tide you over until Skyrim arrives.

Update: As of the latest patch, I’ve noticed the game’s biggest gameplay flaw has been addressed, and that’s its overly difficult early phases. I re-played through the prologue on Medium difficulty, and, while you still need to stay on your toes, the game is noticeably more forgiving than it was before. The stealth-heavy jailbreak in particular has improved.  It is on this note that I move my ruling from “solid” to “recommended”. Kudos to you, CD Projekt. It’s rare for a company to pay such close attention to their fans as well as addressing their concerns quickly. Much respect.

BNBGAMING Recommended Award

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Last week, I covered a great game based on the work of an author I’m not a huge fan of. This week, the tables turn.

The Martian Chronicles is essentially a re-edited collection of early Ray Bradbury stories concerning the colonization of the red planet, arranged into a solid continuity. The book begins with “Rocket Summer”, the Earth’s atmosphere creating a false season as numerous chemical rockets leave the planet for Mars. The book continues into a series of expeditions from several perspectives, including a few from the soon-to-be-extinct Martians. The book covers the conquest and colonization of Mars in addition to the gradual emptying of Earth, predominately due to protracted nuclear war. Considering its publication date of 1950, it was ahead of both the sci fi and nuclear paranoia curves.

I first read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles in the 3rd grade. I thought it was pretty interesting, portraying humans as alien invaders who had destroyed their own homeworld with atomic weapons. Up until this point, I had always seen science fiction with largely human heroes. Star Wars, Star Trek, and at worst the then-recent Independence Day. There are good people, there are bad people, but all are protagonists. The fact that it was essentially a collection of short stories made it easy to digest, and set me on a journey of discovering tons of other science fiction.

Ray Bradbury, by the way, is one of the most celebrated speculative fiction writers of the 20th century. Although perhaps most at home in the short story, he has also put out several novels over the years, from the dystopian Fahrenheit 451 to the nostalgic look back at his childhood, Dandelion Wine, to his dark fantasy magnum opus, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is one of my personal favorite novels of all time. He’s written the full spectrum from horror to space opera to pulp detective stories, and has earned a major place in the public literary consciousness.

So cue my birthday one year. While my parents had the good sense to buy me a Sierra game (Lords of the Realm 2), one of my alleged friends decided to give me a copy of The Martian Chronicles, developed by Byron Preiss Multimedia. Never heard of them? There’s a good reason you’ve never heard of them. While you might say, “Gee, Chad, you could be a little nicer – after all, he did have the presence of mind to give you a game based on one of your favorite novels, and it’s the thought that counts,” that argument doesn’t hold much water because he left the price tag on. The Electronics Botique clearance sticker was still on the box. Let that marked-down-to-$2.50 sticker set the tone for the rest of the article.

Argh…Where do I begin?

This is about as pretty as the game gets.

The game is essentially a first-person point and click adventure game, not unlike Myst or 7th Guest. However, both of those games were released in 1993, while the Martian Chronicles was released in 1995 and, true to Byron Preiss Multimedia’s other titles (such as Westworld 2000), the game’s graphics don’t hold a candle to games released years previous. Now, I’m the first to admit in most cases that graphics don’t make a game. In most cases. But with the pretty-picture-point-and-clicks, they are a very important aspect of the game. Let’s face it, if Myst and 7th Guest weren’t beautiful and atmospheric, would they have made the impact that they had?

They must have done their store titles in MS Works. Not Word. Works.

Let’s face it, Martian Chronicles could have quietly passed as mediocre if it was just a Myst clone with poor graphics. Unfortunately, the game has to go beyond that with annoying play mechanics. For one, your mission to the red planet is timed, which on its own might not be bad. Then you add in tools. Which have a certain battery life. If you run out of batteries, you have to slog it back to your ship to recharge. This takes up one of your precious twelve hours, and, being a kid at the time, I ended up never getting very far as my tools never made it very far. Would a portable proton pack be too much to ask?

As for the puzzle design itself: imagine a designer that’s as sadistic as Roberta Williams, as incoherent as Hideo Kojima, and lacking the talent of either of them. That guy designed the puzzles in the Martian Chronicles. The Martians are mentioned to be a highly advanced race; I suppose with high tech comes great insanity. The solve-the-soup-cans puzzles in this game make Resident Evil’s crests look like good ideas by comparison.

So I guess they’ve got Triforces in stock again.

As far as storyline goes…don’t expect much. The game’s story concerns an expedition not mentioned in the book, where you’re searching Martian ruins for clues about their civilizations. But didn’t humans wipe out all the Martians? There are several just wandering around, running shops. Complete global saturation by humans, what’s that? The game lacks any of the ingenuity or cleverness of Ray Bradbury’s writing.

Also, I don’t think there was a quicksave function. That adds to the frustration.

The only redeeming feature the game really has is a few interviews and readings with Ray Bradbury in gloriously grainy QuickTime windows. When the highlight of a game is a non-interactive sequence that has nothing to do with the gameplay, you know something is seriously wrong.

So what’s my final verdict here? By all means, read the book if you haven’t. There’s never a bad reason to pick up a Bradbury book. The game on the other hand…leave it in the red dust of obscurity where it belongs. If you want a good adventure game set on Mars, give Cydonia: The First Manned Mission a shot. It’s a lot better than anything Byron Preiss Multimedia ever put out.

“You, persistent guy.”

Prepare yourself.

This morning I present to you the villain Gal Agiese of SNK’s original NEO-GEO game, Magician Lord. Marvel at the production values, as both superb writing and voice acting are brought together in a symphony of greatness which begs to be enjoyed without irony.