Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Torchlight 2 Preview

This is turning out to be a good year for fans of clicky, killy, looty, dungeon crawling games.  Diablo III was released a few weeks ago (to equal parts acclaim and gnashing of teeth), Path of Exile is coming along nicely, and Runic Games are releasing the follow up to their surprise 2009 hit Torchlight “this summer.”  Recently Runic invited people to take part in a beta testing weekend and we jumped at the chance to get our hands on the game and put it through its paces.

In action RPGs like this the player explores a series of randomly generated dungeons (or outdoor areas), battling monsters and collecting loot.  There is usually a story about some great evil or other but the important bits are fighting, levelling up and collecting the lovely, shiny valuables that litter the ground.  Action plays out in real time and the player is controlled with a click of the mouse to make them move or attack enemies and hotkeys to select which skills to use, potions to drink etc.  The plentiful treasure is mostly randomly generated and weapons and armour can be common, magical, rare or unique - with each category denoted by a different colour.

Loot, glorious loot

The temptation here is to compare Torchlight II to Diablo III - not only because they are being released so close together but also because the Runic team includes people who worked on the first two Diablo games.  However, I don’t really want to do that as I think that this game deserves to be treated on its own merits and, probably more pertinently, I wouldn’t be able to anyway as my experience of Diablo only extends as far as the recent beta.  All I will say is that it will be possible to play Torchlight II in single player mode without any internet connection, you can choose different difficulty settings from the start, there will be no real money auction house, it will cost £15 / $20 to buy and I had no problems logging in at any point in the whole process.  

The boys are back in town

So, that said, what’s Torchlight II actually like?  Well, it takes everything from the first Torchlight game and does what a sequel should do.  It makes it bigger and better.  To start with there are now more, completely different, classes.  Players can take their pick from Embermage, Outlander, Engineer or Berserker – all with differing skills and options.  I didn’t have time to complete the beta with all four classes but I did with the Engineer, and the class can take a number of different paths, from tank to summoner to melee specialist.  By the end of my playthrough I had a small robot army following me about, with a healing bot, a gunbot and some extremely useful suicidal spider mines which threw themselves at any visible enemy before exploding.  Great stuff.

Ah, look at his little face!

And, of course, you have a man’s (or woman’s) best friend - your pet.  You can choose your companion from lots of different animal types, ranging from a mundane cat or dog to a quite odd velociraptor / cassowary mix, called a chakawary; and with panthers, wolves, hawks and ferrets also available there really is a pet to suit everybody.  You will soon come to rely completely on them.  They are good in a scrap - often better than your main character and you can give them special pet equipment to protect them and enhance their abilities even further.  They can cast spells for you (there is no finer sight in the world than a dog summoning some zombies to lend a decaying hand) or carry all your excess goodies and take them back to town to sell them - which enables you to stay out in the field for longer.  You can even give them a shopping list of items to buy in town.  Run out of identify scrolls or healing potions?  Tell Fido to stop off at the shop and get you some!  “What’s that Lassie?  They’re stuck down a mine and they need four... no, five healing potions?” “Woof!”

Ah yes, my favourite holiday destination

Players are also no longer confined to Torchlight itself.  The action is much more expansive and takes place over a much wider area - including (gasp) the outdoors.  This makes a nice change from the original game’s often quite claustrophobic tunnels and gives a much greater sense of exploring and travelling to specific destinations, rather than just getting to the next set of stairs going down. The beta offered a number of different, and quite distinct, areas to explore, from steppes to mountain passes, and the full game will offer many more.  Some of the areas are really quite large and contain a number of sub-quests and side missions which you can complete before getting on with your main task.  They can also include some special randomised locations, such as abandoned altars, which provide rewards when conquered.

Multiplayer has also been added, and this is the mode that was being tested during the beta weekend.  It works in pretty standard fashion, with players able to join games that others have set up or set up their own.  You can protect them with passwords and set it so that only your friends can join, or you can join in with a bunch of strangers and run around killing things together.  Loot is discrete, in that each player will receive their own stash, and enemy difficulty scales according to how many players are in the area.  This all ran very smoothly during the test, with little lag or other problems.  As other games have shown, this may change when the game is actually released - but so far, so good.

Great.  Spiders.

Ultimately what Torchlight II does is boil gaming down to its essence.  It provides you with an endless, relentless stream of enemies to kill and rewards to gather – all just by clicking the mouse.  There is something almost primeval about it, it appeals to that bit of the brain we share with lizards.  Every few seconds you progress in some way - whether it’s a new weapon, another level or just some gold, and everything increases exponentially the further you get.  Your damage goes up, your level goes up, you get more powerful, the monsters get harder, the weapons get better and it keeps going up and up and up in an unending addictive spiral of death, destruction and cute (but vicious) animals.  The great achievement here is that, despite it being simple, Runic manage to make this so much fun that you forget what it is you’re actually doing and instead become focused on getting to the next skill, the next level or the next weapon.  Torchlight II is a blast to play.  Runic have another hit on their hands.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Xenonauts - Kickstarter

We recently said that you should keep a beady little eye on X-Com re-make Xenonauts.  Well, we have some good news for you - it’s now on Kickstarter  and there’s a demo.

Xenonauts is a re-make of the 1993 classic X-Com: UFO Defense (known here as UFO: Enemy Unknown), in which players take charge of an elite anti-alien force and defend the world from invasion.  Despite being almost 20 years old X-Com is regularly voted as one of the greatest games ever made and it has spawned a number of imitators - none of which have managed to capture that certain something which made the original so brilliant.  

Xenonauts is the latest game to attempt to do this and it has been in production for a couple of years. The developers, Goldhawk Interactive, have decided to use fashionable funding source Kickstarter to get the money necessary to finish the game properly.  They have already raised $75,000 and have released a demo to help convince people to support them.

Kickstarter is becoming an increasingly crowded marketplace, with lots of projects all vying for your attention, so what’s the game actually like?  Well... I have played it and my considered opinion is as follows.

Firstly, let me say that I don’t love Xenonauts.  I am IN LOVE with Xenonauts.  I want to take it home and do unspeakable things to it.  I want to hold it and tell it that everything will be OK.  I want it to have my children.  I want to cherish it and keep it safe for all time.  Am I making myself quite clear?  Ever since UFO: Enemy Unknown was first released I have yearned for and dreamed of a proper re-make.  Something that does full justice to the brilliance of the original.  I am pleased to tell you that this is it.  Finally.  All those years of heartache, all those pretenders to the throne, all those false dawns - they’re over.  That longed for day has finally arrived.

Because Xenonauts doesn’t just slavishly copy what has gone before - it takes it, gives it a slap around the chops and drags it kicking and screaming into the 21st century.  Not only have the graphics had a complete rework (and the hand drawn interface screens in particular look lovely), but everything has been re-designed and streamlined.  A lot of the micro-management has been removed.  There’s no more ordering missiles or running out of rifle ammo - you have an infinite supply, which arrives automatically.  You can rename your troops and view them in order of strength, accuracy or any statistic you like.  You give them their guns in base, with their attributes clearly visible on the same screen.  When you move your troops in battle it tells you how many action points will be left.  Your landing craft even have more than one door!  Goldhawk have obviously gone through X-Com and fixed every single minor irritation that it contained - and that bodes very well for the finished game.

And, as well as the small things, a number of more crucial aspects have also been changed.  For example, the interception process has been completely revamped.  You now control individual fighters, with different characteristics and weaponry - and you can even combine them into a squadron to take down the more difficult enemies.  You direct these fighters on a two-dimensional screen to outflank their targets, and gain missile lock whilst avoiding return fire.  Even within the confines of the demo it is clear that different UFOs will pose different levels of challenge - with fighters proving more difficult to destroy than scouts and the whole experience is much more interactive than in the original game.

So Xenonauts has kept what is great, tweaked what is out of date and completely changed what it thinks needs to be changed.  And the important thing is that all of these choices and decisions have, so far, been spot on.  It really is looking like this is finally the game that we’ve all been waiting for.

But don’t take my word for it.  Please don’t.  Go and play the demo.  It’s a bit buggy, yes, it is an alpha after all - but if you liked X-Com or if you have any kind of beautiful soul burning bright within you then play this game.  It is quite simply wonderful and I can’t wait for it to be finished.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Warlock: Master of the Arcane

Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a new grand strategy game from those lovely people at Paradox Interactive.  And, as you can see from the screenshots, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Civilization V - is it just the same game with a different skin?  Or is there more to it than that?

Well, without spoiling the rest of the review, Warlock does share many, many characteristics with Civilization V (and most other 4X games.)  You control cities and armies, spending turns building up your empire and trying to defeat your opponents or working towards one of the victory conditions.  Warlock’s combat is also very similar to Civilization’s - with the controversial “one unit per tile” rule firmly in place and archers able to fire for about 5 miles without handicap.  In fact, as time and space are essentially finite, it’s probably better for me to tell you which bits of Warlock differ from the norm - so that you can decide whether you want to buy it.

Ratmen.  More games need ratmen.

To start with, and pretty obviously with a name like Warlock: Master of the Arcane, this is a game with a fantasy setting.  You can play as one of three different races (humans, monsters or undead) - each with different buildings and different units.  One of the best bits about Warlock is the sheer number of potential troop types available to you.  From goblin archers to rogues, imps, ghost wolves, zombies, earth elementals, rats, strong rats and ratmen - the roster reads like a who’s who of every fantasy game of the past thirty years.  What’s more, as your minions fight they gain experience and you can pick perks to enhance their lethality (lethalness?).  There is something very exciting about creating and commanding your own fantasy army and letting it loose to lay waste to the surrounding countryside - and this provides one of the main reasons to play Warlock.  

This is certainly helped by the fact that the world that you live in (and lay waste to) is full to the brim with monsters.  You can’t move three hexes without bumping into the mangy little beggars.  This makes your surroundings much more of a living, breathing environment than would otherwise be the case.  The monsters are a source of experience for your troops, and their lairs provide loot for your budding kingdom - but they also make you feel like you are exploring, rather than just trying to work towards your victory goal. There is a real sense with this game that there are secrets and wonders hidden away behind the fog of war that surrounds you.  A good example of this are the sea monsters.  A Leviathan, or a sea serpent, will quickly kill your caravel or equivalent in a way that is reminiscent of old maps with “here be dragons” fearfully scrawled across them.  The world is full of dangers for your troops,especially at the beginning of the game, and this can lend some genuine tension to moving units before you have gained access to the more powerful armies.

Welcome to the new world, same as the old world

This sense of exploration is enhanced by another addition to Warlock - alternate planes.  There are portals on the world map which lead to locations in dimensions other than your own.  Your troops can go through these and explore these worlds, which often contain great perils and great rewards.  It’s a good idea, but unfortunately the execution leaves a lot to be desired.  The new dimensions don’t actually appear to be too different to your own.  They use the same tileset and the rewards are the standard gold or mana - there are just a lot of powerful monsters living there.  It would have been great if these worlds were truly different and your troops were transported to a hell, or a heaven - or something truly remarkable.  As it is, they provide a nice distraction and a challenge but it could have been so much more.

Another difference between Warlock and other strategy games is that, well, you are a warlock.  This may sound obvious but, as an archmage, you are able to research spells.  This takes the place of the more normal technology research that appears in (cough) other games and provides another strategic dimension to the goings on.  Spells can have many and varied effects - teleportation, summoning, buffs for your troops or the more direct fireball and its ilk which deal damage straight to your enemies.  These can often turn the tide of a battle, but beware because your enemies also possess them and will use them often and to great effect.

So this all sounds great - it’s a grand strategy game with a fantasy setting, alternate dimensions, loads of cool troops to command and some decent spells with which to destroy large portions of the countryside.  What’s not to love?  Well, unfortunately it’s not all rosy and  there are some problems that we probably need to talk about.

It might look like butter wouldn’t melt but she’s evil, EVIL I TELL YOU!

Let’s start with diplomacy.  It is present but it is very limited.  You can ally or trade with other mages, you can declare war or you can demand tribute and that’s about it.  If another mage contacts you to ask for gold or mana then the only options available are  “yes, take all my stuff” or “no, have at you sir, this is war”.  There are no subtleties, no negotiations, nothing except “yes” or “no”.  It’s all very basic, and this is a shame because it turns the other leaders, who actually look quite interesting and varied, into mere pictures because they all act the same.  For example, in a recent game I bumped into “Anna the Benign”.  I reasoned that she’d probably be a pacifist, especially as my leader was also a human good type.  Before long, however, she was gleefully breaking stereotypes, demanding gold and threatening war.  The leaders don’t seem to have any personalities of their own, they all give the same responses to the same situations as their peers.

Another probem area is religion.  This is present in Warlock but it is, again, undefined and very basic.  There are eight gods in Ardania and your relationship with them varies according to whether you complete their quests or not.  If you annoy a god sufficiently he will send an avatar to smite you, and defeating this is one of the ways to win the game.  On the other hand, cultivate a decent working relationship with a god and you can access extra units and different spells.  This all sounds good, but there are no backgrounds to any of them.  They’re just names.  You can work out a bit about them from the spells they control but it would have been so much better to know who it is exactly that you’re worshipping.  If you’re playing the Lich King you don’t want to be following some namby pamby nature god, do you?

Hang on... you’re an ELF?!?

And both of these issues reflect a more general problem with Warlock.  It lacks polish.  For example when you have finished giving orders to a unit you have to press the “Assign Orders” button to move on to the next, the game doesn’t do that automatically.  You can feel sometimes that you are fighting the interface and it makes moving a large number of troops a real chore.  Similarly the spell research screen doesn’t seem to follow any system.  You would expect that all fire spells, or all healing spells, or all summon spells or however you want to classify them would follow on from each other but they don’t.  The selection appears to be completely random.  It means that you can’t follow a particular path for your mage, because you don’t know which path to follow or even if there is a path at all.

So where does this leave us?  It would be easy to dismiss Warlock as just a Civ V mod.  It isn’t, and I think that this is lazy and unfair.  It’s true that it does share a lot of similarities with its “inspiration” but it also introduces and uses a number of other really interesting ideas.  However, the main problem is that a lot of these ideas aren’t implemented fully, or with enough polish.  As it stands the game should be commended for creating a very good strategy / exploration mix, and allowing the player to assemble a motley fantasy army with which to wreak havoc - but it could have been so much more. It falls just short of greatness, and that is a real shame.