Ben Murden

Games

My Time With Act 1 of Broken Age

by on Apr.15, 2014, under Games

I finally had a chance to crack into Broken Age and sample its particular flavor of adventure-game-goodness, and have had some distance on that experience that I felt like writing a little something about it. I think the last point-and-click adventure game I played was probably Telltale’s Back to the Future, unless you count The Walking Dead, which I feel like was an altogether different kind of experience. There have certainly been a great deal of indie point-and-click offerings lately, but they haven’t drawn me in like the days of Full Throttle or Grim Fandango, and even the games I mentioned playing recently didn’t leave a huge impression on me. There’s a unique whimsy that exudes from Tim Schafer’s games, and it’s his ability to craft a believable, yet bonkers world that feels grounded in its own rules, that keeps me coming back.

Broken Age is a story about childhood defiance, and the themes of child-parent relationships feel as though they come from a place of experience. Parents want to keep their kids safe, but also want them to flourish in a world that is unsafe. Without talking too specifically about the story, Broken Age does a decent job of exploring both sides of this relationship to its extreme conclusion. The game is full of interesting characters that are well voice acted, and for the most part serve as conduits for some thoughtfully comedic writing. Only a couple of characters spring to mind that fell flat – one of which seemed to serve as more of an outlet for Bay Area stereotypes – but that’s a good ratio when the game has such a broad cast, even in just this first act.

The story is brought to life through a beautiful hand-drawn art style that looks straight out of a modern children’s story book. However, the writing has that Pixar quality of reserving a wink and a nudge for adults, while remaining still something that could be enjoyed by a younger audience. Indeed, the art style is so strong here, that I wonder where else games could have gone if they continued down the 2D path instead of moving to 3D in the 90s. With the funding and budget for this game being so public, it seems like it was absolutely the right move to make this game in a 2D engine; I’m not sure this level of visual fidelity could have been achieved otherwise.

As a person who played many point-and-click adventure games in the 90s, my view on the puzzle difficulty is probably skewed, but I didn’t find the game to be all that difficult. Any time I didn’t immediately know the solution to a puzzle, I simply needed to go through all the dialogue options with another character, and the solution would reveal itself. The gameplay consists of what you’d expect from the genre, the loop of talk to characters, find items, use items to solve puzzles, is all present and accounted for here. There are some interface nuances that feel like they were designed for touch devices. By default, items are used by dragging them, and there is an ever present inventory pop up in the lower left of the screen which occasionally interfered with navigation, but much of this behavior can be changed in the options. It’s an adventure game through and through, so all backers can rest easy that Double Fine delivered on that front.

The first act of Broken Age felt complete, with its own fascinating arc, but ends with an unexpected twist that left more questions than answers. Throughout the game there’s a sense that something is amiss, and the way this act wraps-up plays on that feeling masterfully. It probably goes without saying that I am highly anticipating the next installment, and if Double Fine can keep up the quality, there’s a good chance this will be one of my all-time favorite adventure games.

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Diablo III After the Auction House

by on Mar.26, 2014, under Games

It’s a real sign of the times that a large company like Blizzard can react to feedback on the controversial Auction House feature in Diablo III, and ostensibly compromise the original vision of the game and its business model going forward. It certainly seemed like the kind of thing that was here to stay, given that it resolved the grey-market sale of in-game goods, and gave Blizzard a cut as well, so it’s worth applauding the wardens of the series for pushing to simply make the actual playing of the game that much better.

I should mention that I didn’t play the original Diablo, or Diablo II, but I have played other similar games, such as Torchlight, enough that I feel like I know something about the legacy of those games. I played Diablo III around launch and had a pretty good time with it, starting the game with several of the available classes before settling on the Wizard and playing through the content about 1 and a half times. I can’t say I felt too much like the loot in Diablo III wasn’t good enough often enough, or that the scaling of loot felt unbalanced – I was keeping up with the difficulty of the content, and that’s what mattered. However, I would say that the very existence of the Auction House changed my thinking about loot I wasn’t going to use for myself. This meant knowing what was important to all classes – what stats to look out for on item drops – and holding onto those items; after all, I wouldn’t be taking advantage of a major feature of the game if I didn’t. As you might expect, this made the process of loot sorting that much more tedious, because none of the comparison features in place were there to help you decide what’s good for other classes. The fun was sapped out of the game, and it became more and more about the money. I’m sure that aspect was fun for some, but it fundamentally changed how I played the game in a way that would eventually lead to something resembling workflow optimization. Gross.

I’m happy to say that with the advent of Blizzard’s “Loot 2.0,” the game has returned to feeling like a game. The first few hours of time with this update were filled with finding loot that was so much better than what I had, it felt like some big apology, and now that the Auction House is removed, if I find anything that’s not better, it gets immediately trashed. It is as though I am the center of my Diablo experience again, never sparing a thought for the real-world ramifications of that axe I found, or this Crossbow of the Bear’s Lamenting Tide – it’s all about what I need so I can get to slaying more demons, and in the end, isn’t that all any of us wants?

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First Person Camera Lens

by on Apr.27, 2013, under Games

I was recently having a discussion with a friend who found the visual effects applied to the camera in many games to be incongruous with his idea of seeing through one’s eyes, especially in first person games. The idea of treating the view into the game world as a camera seems logical enough, and lens effects had humble beginnings, like the lens flair that featured prominently in games from the late 90s. However, developers have been pushing these effects to even greater extremes lately, with High Dynamic Range (HDR) lighting simulating more how a camera would react to differences in light than the human eye, and heavy lens dust effects in Battlefield 3 and ZombiU. Such effects reduce the visual fidelity of the information available to players, yes, but provide a more cinematic visual experience. This is the argument you would probably hear in favor of lavishing more image-reducing effects onto the screen. However, it still doesn’t address the issue of dissonance when this is supposed to be a person’s eyes.

It occurred to me, while discussing how this all came to be, there are probably a couple of subtle factors at play here: Making games look good is a marketing tool, and the closest mediums that most people would understand are film and photo. Take your screenshots and trailers, make them look as close to professional photos and cinema as possible, and most people will think that game looks impressive and worth investigating further. I believe this type of thinking overtook the idea of representing the world cleanly in first-person, but was also influenced by the fact that first-person games were not as common when camera lens effects were really becoming a thing. It felt relatively natural, when the most popular genre was racing games, that the camera should act like a camera (save for the odd first-person camera, which wasn’t really the focus on consoles). I believe that thinking just eventually became pervasive, since it’s so easy to always think of the view into the world as a camera.

It seems then that these camera lens effects simply had to be applied to every type of game that purported to be even remotely realistic – a real irony when reality, as seen through the eyes, features none of these things.

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Bioshock Infinite Themes and Social Reflection

by on Apr.13, 2013, under Games

I’m going to write pretty explicitly about some things in Bioshock Infinite for a moment, so consider yourself spoiler warned!

Much discussion has been made of the story in Bioshock Infinite, and it’s certainly a big part of why I love the game, but it’s the themes around the world of Columbia that caused me to think most on the experience after finishing the game. To be clear, I’m aware the game isn’t really about Columbia, but I still think it’s an interesting topic of discussion.

The society of Columbia draws many parallels with Rapture from the first Bioshock, but of course, it is clearly not an objectivist society. For one thing, it is mentioned that the people of Columbia pay huge tithes to the Prophet, and there appears to be a public service in place. However, while Columbia’s citizens didn’t fall into a spiral of abusing vigors, they did find themselves facing the same issues regarding the workforce. After all, nobody wants to do the dirty work, and if they do, they expect to be highly compensated for it. The solution in Columbia was to introduce an already downtrodden underclass, and keep them feeling helpless, but with enough of a promise of a better life that they’d want to come in the first place. It’s easy to look at all of this and say “yes, I know, racism is bad; sweatshop labor is bad,” but we can only say that with the perspective that being in another time grants us. At one time those things were considered the norm–that’s just how things were. How much, then, do we accept as the norm, now, that will be considered barbaric in 50 years time? How about 100 years time?

The way in which we work, or are expected to work, might be drawn into focus in the coming years. Workers might not be treated as badly now as they were at the turn of the century, we might disallow child labor, but I think there are much subtler issues still lining the way we treat work, and its relationship to our lives. Take, for example, the general trend of declining birth rate in economies that become better educated and are more innovation and intellectual property producing. Whether this is to be taken as negative is another matter–I’m interested in why this might be. It seems plausible that a better educated populace better knows the implications and responsibilities, both financially and otherwise, of having children, but also that career competition kills the desire to have children; if one is to remain competitive, flexible, and appear enthusiastic in the workplace, then there is little else one can do but to have few, if any ties to one’s personal and family life. Occasionally with age and experience, professional stock increases to a point where workplace flexibility may be demanded, but it’s not always the case. Indeed, the ruse of workplace flexibility might be easily shattered with the sentiment that if someone else is willing to work longer, for less pay, and do roughly an equivalent job, then why wouldn’t they be chosen? Something always suffers, a sacrifice is always made, between work, family, and life–something we’ve come to call work-life balance.

There are those who genuinely have a choice. At one time called aristocracy, at another called the 1%, but the constant is that it remains a small slice of society for whom survival plays no part in their decisions over work-life balance. It is through this that it becomes apparent survival is key to understanding the relationship to work for the majority of the populace, it is the means of continuing to live at one’s current living level. However, because of the emphasis on balancing a life toward work, we may well be sacrificing so much else of ourselves in the process. The subtle forces at work that make this the status-quo mean that it becomes perfectly acceptable for a parent to boast that they spend a “solid hour” with their child in the evening, while another demonstrates how dedicated they are by lamenting that they hardly even know their children. Furthermore, not every pursuit is productive in a way that is demanded by the market, but is no less good for the mind and body, or the collective culture; in many cases they are better. Would it be so bad for a parent to just be a parent? What a bout a 4 hour work day? Parkinson’s law might suggest that if we were only given 4 hours a day to get everything done, we’d probably still manage it. For now, though, presence remains the the most valuable aspect of an employee, and this will probably remain without increased social awareness.

I like to think we will see some improvement in these areas, and there has certainly been a sense of ground-swell, but for now I can only look forward to new thinking and hope it encourages others to consider another possibility, too.

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Portal 2 Blobulator Fix

by on May.05, 2011, under Games

It’s been in trailers, so it’s no spoiler to say that Portal 2 has some pretty cool new mechanics; a lot of them are related to various gels that can be spread across surfaces in order to convey a number of interesting properties.

While I thought all the gel effects looked great, I had a weird hitching performance issue whenever there was a lot of the stuff flying around. To be clear, the rest of the game was running smooth as butter, the hitching only occurred when the gel presence was thick.

Cores

I heard a developer commentary on the gels and the challenges faced when trying to optimize the code to work on the Xbox 360, and how it was easier on the PS3, because the blobulator threads could be passed off onto the SPU. This had me thinking that maybe my ageing Core 2 duo just didn’t have the cores required to process the calculations effectively. I also read from others experiencing this issue that dropping effects to medium fixed the hitching, and while this was true for me, that also reduces other areas of detail I was having no trouble with. I needed to just optimize the Blobulator, so off to the developer console I went.

The two most important commands I discovered were

“r_paintblob_max_number_of_threads” = “4” ( def. “4” ) client                    – Indicates the maximum number of threads that will be spawn [sic] for the blob.

“r_paintblob_highres_cube” = “0.800000” ( def. “0.8” ) client                    – Set cubewidth (coarseness of the mesh)

It’s worth noting that there were a ton of Blobulator related errors filling up the console as I stood in front of a glorious gel stream.

Threads and Meshes

I thought dropping the threads to 2 would be sensible, given that’s the number of cores I have, but no dice. The way threads are handled must be more complex than that, or it simply expects to be able to use 4 threads if it’s going to do any threading. Anyway, dropping the max number of threads to 1 totally worked! Yay! No more hitching! Except now the framerate was bad when looking at gel. Boo!

Because I had taken out threading, the calculations were simply too much for the CPU to bare, so by increasing the highres_cube value, I was able to achieve 60FPS no matter what. In fact, I only had to increase this value to 0.9 in order to get a stable framerate at all times, and the impact on blob quality was negligible (as a side note, the medium effects setting increases this value to 1.4, which is much more noticeable).

Conclusion

So there you have it. I’ll list my PC spec and the commands used here for reference.

  • E6750 Core2 Duo 2.66GHz
  • 8GB 1066MHz OCZ RAM
  • Radeon HD5870 1GB
  • Seagate 7200.12 1TB HDD

That’s all the important stuff, right? Now the commands.

r_paintblob_max_number_of_threads 1

r_paintblob_highres_cube 0.9

It seems as though the config file used is packaged into the Portal 2 executable, and I haven’t seen a way to get the game to boot with an alternate configuration, so it looks as though you would have to enter these commands every time you start the game. I find it’s a pretty good tradeoff for the ultra smooth and optimized experience. Also, just have a play with the commands in the console while you’re there and experiment with the other crazy hidden-away features.

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Not a Review: God of War III

by on Feb.03, 2011, under Games

On the back of hearing that God of War III is one of the best PS3 games of 2010, plus having played the previous two games, I felt I should finally give this game a go.

First of all, God of War III is clearly a game about spectacle. The sense of scale imposed in so many of the game’s scenes is really something to behold. It feels pretty satisfying to see Kratos climbing over giant Titans, literally messing them up inside and out, but this kind of thing brings its greatest strengths and weaknesses into stark relief. It’s kind of the same with every God of War game; the best things it has to show you require very little interaction from the player, and any player interaction feels pretty disconnected from what’s happening on screen.

I think enough has been said about the exceptional polish on God  of War III, so I’ll just jump into some of the glaring oversights I noticed during my time with the game.

UI

You know how it is. When you’re sitting down to continue your game, you just want to boot right up and get in there as fast as possible. I’m a busy guy, OK? Sure I hammer on the go button during those logo builds, because I just want to get into the game. How annoying is it, then, when the game disregards any saves you may have on your console and always makes “New Game” the default option? It’s especially bad when that launches you into an unstoppable, unescapable opening cutscene, which was pretty cool first time around, but now only makes more apparent the need for better UI design on the front end.

Always check if the player has saves, and make Resume or Load the default menu option. If you can’t check for saves, make it the default option anyway; the only people you’re going to piss off otherwise are those wanting to quickly jump in and continue a game, which will happen more often than the guy jumping in for the first time and accidentally hitting Load.

I admit it’s a weird thing to notice, but it became a problem enough for it to really stick out. Just bad UI.

Combat and Control

It’s hard not to let my experiences with other character action games like Bayonetta inform some opinions about the combat in God of War III. So rather than fight it, I’ll just run with it.

I feel like the combat in God of War III is starting to show its age. Maybe I was never that into it in the first place, but when compared to Bayonetta, I just don’t feel like I have as much control in God of War. Having spent a crazy amount of time thinking about it, I believe a lot of it comes down to evasive maneuvers and blocking. Too many times in God of War did I feel like I got hit because I couldn’t break the animation of some protracted attack, while I don’t remember having that problem at all in Bayonetta. Sure Bayonetta’s evasive flip is a little fudged in the way it can be used to avoid damage from any earth-shattering attack, but at least I felt in control. When I hit that evade button, I got the expected result and it felt super satisfying; sadly the same can’t be said for blocking in God of War. There I just felt like some of the attacks would take longer to complete than some enemy’s attack animations, meaning I had no way of hitting block in time. Am I supposed to avoid using half the repertoire of attacks because they’re too slow? I think it’s better to give the player a greater sense of control and balance around that, rather than punish the player for using anything but quick light attacks.

I felt like Bayonetta was weighted more toward rewarding the player, with an evasive move that avoids damage by itself, but also grants additional bonuses if timed well.

Gorgons

An enemy that can perform an attack that, if it hits under certain frequently occurring conditions, will kill you instantly. Yeah, that’s pretty messed up. The game has a lot of places in which you can instantly die (and I’ll talk about that later), but none are more infuriating than this, because this one always means having to start an entire encounter again. I hated them in the last games, and was sure that Sony’s Santa Monica Studio would balance them appropriately in this game, maybe making you take a few hits before crumbling to pieces (you know, like the other guys when they’re turned to stone), but sadly no. Fortunately there is not a litany of them in this game, but I wouldn’t have been sad to see them gone completely.

Puzzling Traversal

The single greatest cause of death among Gods, it would seem, is stepping off the edge of a cliff. There’s a terrible inconsistency with invisible walls that prevent you falling to your death in God of War III. Sometimes you’ll be trying to jump down off a platform, only to be foiled by the God stopping power of an invisible barrier, then you’ll be sauntering off the edge of a cliff because the same courtesy was not afforded at this particular spot. It’s an inconsistency that really stood out.

The second greatest cause of death is probably the Icarus wings choosing to take a day off at the most inconvenient of times. I could seriously be holding that jump button for dear life and have absolutely nothing happen. I tested the button for responsiveness and even used a different pad – same problem, sometimes they just wouldn’t go.

The most hilarious thing about all these traversal related deaths is the message asking if you’d like to switch to easy, adding that this only affects combat. Thanks, game, but I just want jumping to work, cool?

You Should Still Check it Out

Despite my grievances on the oversights, I still think God of War III is at least a 3 star game and worth checking out. I’ve probably been too affected by Bayonetta at this point when it comes to the combat, but nothing quite compares to the sheer epic scale on offer here.

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Starcraft II Region Locks

by on Aug.21, 2010, under Games

Let me start by saying I’ve been really enjoying the single player campaign in Starcraft II. It’s deeper, more varied, and better thought out than that of any other RTS I can think of. The character interactions in between missions give a lot more life to the story than you would normally expect from a genre in which the most personality you usually encounter is the voice that comes out of a unit when you click on it. Blizzard did a great job on the campaign, but the entire package costs as much as a console game. The only reason I can think of for this is Battle.net, and this is where my complaints lie.

Region restrictions, especially the way Blizzard has implemented them, are extremely arbitrary. The only argument being given for using a region lock has been that “we cannot guarantee a positive gaming experience for users connecting to servers outside the supported region,” but lets investigate what a positive experience really means.

The first thought most will have is that of latency, but consider the region of space the North American version covers. From Anchorage to Miami, it’s about 4000 miles, while from New York to London, there’s about 3400 miles. Even within the contiguous states, New York to San Francisco is about 2600 miles. Keep in mind that between the UK and the US, there are transatlantic pipes of incredible bandwidth, meaning that there is but a single hop between the two. Between New York and San Francisco there are likely to be several hops, each one adding a little more  chance for packet collisions, drops, and latency. Couple this with the generally poor performance of home broadband in North America, and it’s hard to see why Blizzard would not at least let the rest of the English speaking world play together.

That brings me conveniently to my next point. What is meant by “a positive gaming experience?” Much has been made of the importance of community on the Blizzard side, but communities are built on communication, and the UK is region locked with other countries that do not speak English as a first language. This is not to say that players from those other countries never speak English, but language is an important factor in community building. Indeed, if you observe gaming communities online, they are universally split by language more than region. It is therefore not out of the realms of possibility to consider that European and NA gamers have always played together, and by separating them, Blizzard actually discourages worldwide communities, rather than allowing them to flourish. The answer here from Blizzard has been that players should buy multiple versions of the game, thereby creating financial barriers to “positive gaming experience.” Though that’s really not the message we should be sending: that it’s OK to regionally lock out the Internet – the first universally accessible means of worldwide communication and interaction.

If there’s a significant number of players out there that really care about their ladders, rankings and latency so much that they’re willing to forego worldwide liberties for the experience, then I think at the very least there should be the ability to create worldwide player matches. Then they would at least be separate from the ranked matches, but that still doesn’t really help worldwide friends who want to see how well they can compete in 2v2 or 3v3 matches. Ideally, there should always be an option: “Match with players in my region.” Done. It is technically possible, there’s precedent for it – Microsoft have done it with Live – and it solves all these problems.

It’ll be interesting to see what Blizzard decide to do as a result of community feedback on this issue.

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Dialogue Audio Cut Off Issue

by on Aug.16, 2010, under Games

After a few months of having a weird issue with dialogue audio in Mass Effect 2 on the PC, I may have finally found the solution.

The problem reared its head when I switched to Windows 7. While this switch allowed me to finally use digital 5.1 through the on board audio device again – after it had been taken out of Windows XP – it introduced another problem which was particularly noticeable in games with dialogue audio. The issue caused all single audio samples to be cut short by a certain percentage. What this equates to is that when characters had a long line of dialogue, the last few words would often be missing, and the game would go straight to the next line. This wasn’t so noticeable with very short lines, leading me to believe it was some kind of timing issue, like maybe the sound was going marginally too slow. Needless to say, this is kind of annoying in a game with so much d…

I noticed this problem again in Starcraft II, so I had to get to the bottom of it. Fortunately, the latest few responses on the Mass Effect 2 technical support forum – which had not been present when I had this issue before – gave me a clue as to how I could fix my specific issue. My motherboard is an Asus P5K, featuring a bevy of overclocking features, one of which is the N. O. S. setting apparently geared to automatically overclock components according to load. This has a separate PCI setting, which I thought might solve the problem if I scaled it back to default, but no dice there. The solution came when changing the overclock type from N. O. S. to auto. At last! The audio no longer cuts short!

You lose some control over the overclocking this way, but I had only set the N. O. S. to 3% overclock anyway. Perhaps a BIOS update could fix this in the future.

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Demo Transition

by on Mar.30, 2010, under Games

At what point do you think you’ve played a demo of a game enough times that you should just transition to buying the full product?

I’ve played the demo of Just Cause 2 at least 3 times now, which is really saying a lot for the quality of this slice of open-world pie that’s on offer here. The fact that the same area of the world keeps me coming back for more speaks to just how much fun it is to simply mess around and answer questions like “what would happen if I attach this thing to that thing and then shoot?” While many of these questions end in me laughing out loud to myself, I can’t help wondering whether this kind of open-world physics-based fun will endure the length of the game. Of course, I hope it does, and some reviewers seem to have had a lot of fun with it.

I appreciate the freedom given to make a mockery of physics, and tethering stuff to other stuff in varying situations never ceases to amuse. It’s a physics playground even more so than most other similar open-world games, though more grounded than something like Gary’s Mod; you can’t make a gun that shoots bikes, after all.

I haven’t heard of any good rental systems here, otherwise I’d likely do that. I should probably start researching the ones that are available, but I might just end up buying the game instead.

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Punkbuster: Still a Thing

by on Mar.13, 2010, under Games

So yeah, Punkbuster is still a thing. I had this weird issue while playing Battlefield: Bad Company 2 where suddenly every server would instantly reject connection with the message “you need to have punkbuster installed and running…”

Fortunately, an observant user by the name of NeOn over at the Steam forums noticed the fix

This fix is for those who have tried everything, updating PB manually, starting service etc, but still ending up with the message: “You need to have Punkbuster installed and running”.

The fix:
– Start BF BC2, go to Options>Settings and under “Gameplay”, tick the “ALLOW PUNKBUSTER”.
– Join a server and play!

What’s odd, is that I’ve never unticked that option after installing BC2, still it was unticked.

Neither had I! Glad someone is keeping their eyes open.

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