Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Divinity II: Dragon Knight Saga – Review

Jan 30th, 2011

Note

This review was originally written for the forums of Rock, paper, Shotgun, it has been modified here to make it more suitable for a blog entry. Unfortunately, as it was somewhat spontaneous, and was written after I had finished, and uninstalled the game, I unfortunately don’t have any screenshots to illustrate the review. The review is for the PC version of the game.

I picked up Divinity II: Dragon Knight Saga with some slight trepidation; while I had been first attracted to the game prior to its initial release in the form of Divinity II: Ego Draconis, poor reviews for the first release dissuaded me from taking the plunge. With the release of the expansion pack, Flames of Vengeance, Larian Studios remastered the first game, incorporating an improved graphics engine and a number of other improvements. The Dragon Knight Saga release includes this remastered version of the first game, and the Flames of Vengeance expansion, which extends and concludes the story. With reports that these improvements had addressed some of the main issues that had marred the original release, I picked up Dragon Knight Saga in the Steam sale, and was pleasantly surprised. In many ways it is a B-list game, lacking spit and polish of your AAA games, while at the same time avoiding the true levels of innovation which would help it truly step above the competition. However, if your looking for an enjoyable RPG romp, with a few neat ideas, then it manages to deliver solidly.

The most obvious of these neat ideas is the central conceit, the ability to turn into a dragon, something which ensured that the game jumped on to my radar. However, while the idea isn’t exactly squandered, it certainly isn’t used to its full potential, barely making an appearance until halfway through the game, and remaining almost entirely unused in the “Flames of Vengence” expansion. For the most part, dragon sections feel like a separate mini-game, albeit one which is remarkably useful for making a rapid escape from danger. They are competent enough, but for the most part lack the depth and variety of the human portions of the game. Instead, the draconic nature of the main character plays a far more interesting role in the development of the plot, although again, this scenario is not explored to its full potential. In practice, neither of these decisions should be seen as a major failing on the part of the game; instead the reflect on clear design decision, in terms of gameplay and exposition respectively. However, if your primary reasons for looking at the game were to take part in epic in air combat, or to experience a detailed consideration of the nature of the self and the nature of humanity (or draconity) then you’d best look elsewhere.

While the central conceit may fail to deliver anything more than a distraction, the rest of the game provides more than enough satisfaction. The mind-reading skill provides a neat mechanic, providing a few rewards or alternative quest solutions along the way. In many ways it acts in a similar manner to speech checks in other RPGs, but the experience cost for mind reading means that its use becomes considered, rather than the ‘speech check option’ magic button seen in games like Mass Effect.

The game is classless, allowing you to easily develop your character as you wish. I was easily able to create a battle mage, giving myself a nice selection of DPS spells, summons, healing and crowd control, while still ensuring I was durable in melee combat and could deal out considerable damage with my dual wield weapons. The ability to upgrade skills ensures that spells do not become underpowered as the game progresses, and it is easy to respec your skill tree later should you have a change of heart.

Other nice mechanics are the weapon and armour enchantment, which can make significant differences to the performance of your kit. However, one criticism is that the weapon damaged modifications are ridiculously overpowered at the higher levels, making them no-brainer choices when compared to the other possibilities. The problem is further compounded for dual wield characters, as damage modifiers on your main hand, also effect your off hand, and vice versa. By the end of the game I was dealing more damage due to my enchantments than due to the base damage of the weapons themselves.

Necromancy provides a ‘creature,’ which acts as a summon for all character builds. The choice of different limb sets allows the creature to be customised to perform different roles, loosely falling into mage, ranger and tank. While in the early game your creature can be a valuable ally, by the end game a maxed out creature will be only a minor distraction for your enemies. It would have been nice to see a bit more tactical depth introduced at this point, allowing the player to issue basic commands to the creature, although it is possible that the developers wished to avoid the feeling that you need to micromanage your summons.

While combat provides enough depth to allow the player to customise their approach, and to ensure they aren’t reduced to continually spamming the same skill, it is slightly lacking in variety. While enemies show slight differences in damage sensitivities, it isn’t sufficient to discourage a one size fits all approach, especially in the later stages. Additionally, power games are likely to find themselves becoming overpowered towards the end of the expansion, although I can be partly blamed here as I entirely forgot I could turn up the difficulty.

The game isn’t going to win any awards for writing, and the plot, while entertaining, is lacking in depth, or any striking originality. However, it is entirely serviceable, and has enough twists and variations to prevent it from becoming overly predictable. ‘Dark’ fantasy this is not, and the game never takes itself too seriously; it is perfectly willing to mock itself when it needs to, voice acting is often served with a large side order of ham, and most conversations have a few witty retorts.

Quest design is pleasantly varied, and often enough allows for a couple of different solutions; although in many cases the repercussions of these decisions are decidedly limited. A few quests even involve jumping puzzles, unusual for an RPG; for the most part the third person perspective, and decent platform placement, ensures that these are pleasant change of pace, rather than a source of hair pulling frustration. Especially nice are the unmarked quests, such as small puzzles in dungeons that may lead to a chest of loot. These latter puzzles couple well with the games rewarding of exploration. With the tutorial out the way, it is theoretically possible to run through the world that will host most of the original campaign. In practice you’ll soon be killed by enemies outside your level; the game features no level scaling, and until the expansion pack, pretty much no respawning.

One of the nicest features of the game is the great art design, and there are some fantastic areas and enemies. While it would have been nice had the designers gone completely overboard with some of these designs, there are still obvious efforts to ensure that some of the more cookie cutter sections, such as the flying fortresses, are still given their own flavour.

I realise that this review might sound a bit 70%, however the game holds together remarkably well; it is better than this. It is, for the large part enjoyably competent, but with a few touches of something much better. Like a cheap summer blockbuster, that somehow manages to get all the elements in the right place, and shines through because the people who made it were genuinely enjoying what they were doing. Divinity II knows that it is not AAA material, and it gloriously recognises this fact and revels in it. It reminds me of games from the 90s, before they were ‘serious business,’ and never worries about being a bit silly if that means things will be more fun. Finally, although you shouldn’t buy it solely because of this fact, you can play a bloody dragon.

In the UK, Divinity II: Dragon Knight Saga is currently available on PC by digital distrubution only.

Blog Redesign Launched

May 8th, 2010

I’ve gone ahead and pushed out the blog redesign. I expect there will be a few teething issues, especially with elements which it wasn’t easy to test in either the mock-ups, or using WordPress’ preview function. It is just these kind of situations when running a local server would be useful.

I also intend to try and improve some of the shortcomings of the theme over the next few weeks, and add a few functions. For example, as it stands the site looks somewhat less exciting in Internet Explorer than in most other browsers. I haven’t even dared test it in IE6 yet, partly because I don’t even have access to a copy. With WordPress 3.0 launching soon I imagine I will also try and adapt the theme to take advantage of any improvements made.

Google Wave

Oct 1st, 2009

I first saw the Google Wave videos a few months ago, shortly after Google first announced the product.

It looked quite exciting, although admittedly it wasn’t something I was entirely sure exactly how I’d end up using. The simple benefit of a communication system which fused E-mail and chat was obvious, especially when it was also media rich, something that is becoming increasingly important in modern communication. However, at the same time I realised that Google were providing a toolset, which would quickly offer up novel uses, discovered by those who used it. Just as my twitter account has morphed over time, and is now used for far more than just simple “I am eating a sandwich” tweets, so I could picture Google Wave expanding rapidly beyond some of the uses concieved of at its exception.

Of course, the only real way to find all these uses is by using the thing, but at the moment Wave is still in its closed stages. Google have started giving out invites, although I imagine my somewhat late discovery of the application form, not to mention my admittedly limited skills in web development, have lead me to being somewhat low down on their list. Fortunately however, I managed to get hold of an “invite nomination” from Andrew Badera, whose blog I happened to stumble across by accident. Andrew was very kind to drop one my way, especially as I admitted to not being a regular on his blog, so I thought it only fair that I drop him a link in return.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress of the invite nomination, and should I get some invites of my own, I’ll make them available here, and via my twitter feed.

Update: I recieved my invite this morning. Unfortunately I don’t have anyone to talk to. If you have a Google Wave account, then feel free to wave at me.

Derren Brown may not have predicted the lottery, but I predicted his bullshit

Sep 11th, 2009

Oh dear.

It was obvious from the start that Derren Brown wouldn’t predict the lottery, and the failure to reveal the balls before the draw just made the whole situation blindingly obvious. As soon as he did that, the whole situation boiled down to little more than a glorified card trick.

Now, I’ll be first to admit I don’t know how he did it. That’s not any indication that the trick was difficult, but rather the fact it was so sodding easy. While Paul Daniels claims that he knew 99 ways of achieving it was probably a slight exaggeration,  several possible solutions occurred to me both during and following the show. Personally I favour the ‘split screen’ argument, having used a similar technique myself I know how trivially easy such things are. (Even if I was thwarted by an ill-placed mirror)

The split screen idea is also supported by movements seen within the balls as the results are read out, although a similar effect could also have been seen with other suggestions, such as those of a mechanical ball printer. Other possibilities include an augmented reality approach, digitally projecting the numbers onto the balls, although if such an effect had been achieved, it was remarkably effective.

The general point being however that there are a number of ways the trick could have been achieved, not even taking into consideration sleight of hand, which admittedly would have been difficult if we are to assume that the camera feed was genuine. No prediction, or fixing, was required.

Now originally I dismissed simple camera trickery, it seemed too much of a cheat, and seemed unlikely to take up a whole hour show. Then again, I couldn’t see how any plausible explanation could take a few minutes; therefore Brown was going to bullshit us. The trick and misdirection would continue into the explanation, as Derren led us on a merry goose chase. Unfortunately it appears that I only bothered to tweet this at the beginning of today’s show, which is still a darnsight better than Brown’s after the fact ‘prediction.’

It was obvious from the start that Derren was aiming to misdirect, firstly by implying that there was any psychology involved, and then by progressively misleading bouts of mathematics.  While I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that the lottery is truly random (such as some quantum events appear to be) any biases are going to be so minor, and external factors far more significant that any attempt at prediction will be impossible. To imply that crowd-sourcing would be ow any use in determining a random set of numbers is entirely misleading.

Which brings us from the impossible, to the improbable. The fixing. I don’t know if Derren hoped to convince his sceptic audience with this spiel, but we are fed a series of unlikely events which would be both illegal and unethical. While people indeed commit illegal and unethical deeds, they rarely do so publicly on national television.  Furthermore, to suspect that Camelot’s security is lack enough that a breach made in August could subvert a draw made in September is laughable.  Furthermore, there are 14 sets of balls, so I find it hard to imagine that this was the first time one of the alleged six was used since the claimed breach. Not to mention, I’m far from convinced that a 20g difference would be sufficient to entirely bias the draw.

While I’ve happily excluded the impossible maths explanation, leaving the improbable fix explanation, I’m sadly still left with a considerable set of downright more probable explanations. Had Derren’s numbers been revealed before the draw, then things would be different, and I’d probably be checking into exactly how long the broadcast delay is from lottery HQ. However just because Derren has given an answer, doesn’t mean I’m going to believe it.

Unfortunately Brown’s attempts at an explanation did little to endear me to him during the show, despite the fact I’m usually a fan. The fact he was spouting nonsense was obvious, which made me hope more and more for a strong pay-off. Derren Brown likes to market himself as a sceptic, and thus I hoped he’d build up to a clear crescendo, which illustrated his audience had been duped.  Parallels between the earlier practice ‘draws’ and the final draw (mainly that the result was revealed after the draw) made me hope that these factors would tie themselves into the great reveal, that we’d get a clear mention of why two camera-men were present when only one was necessary. Instead though we got yet another, albeit a marginally more plausible, shaggy dog story. Not only do I feel that Derren Brown did not reveal his trick, but he ultimately failed to demonstrate anything in the hour long show. Only in his last words, “I’ll tell them it was just a trick” did he bother to give any nod to the truth, a matter which probably passed by anyone who wasn’t already sceptical.

Ultimately I was disappointed with not only the trick itself, but with the explanation, which demonstrated little more than Derren’s ability to string people along.

Charlie Brooker to do Gameswipe?

May 6th, 2009

Its looking likely! Earlier today, newspaper columnist, television presenter and all-round misanthropist Charlie Brooker gave hints that we mad soon be seeing a series of ‘Gameswipe.’ In a tweet on his @charltonbrooker Twitter account, Brooker asked for the following:

Worst videogame bosses ever? Email yr suggestions to gameswipe at zeppotron dot com. Make what you will of that email address.
10 minutes ago from TweetDeck

Brooker is no stranger to games journalism, as his career began back on the pages of PC Zone. He has also regularly mentioned various computer and video games in his column in the Guardian. The E-mail address also appears to be associated with Zeppotron, the production company behind both Newswipe and Screenwipe.
Brooker’s recent satirical and biting look at news coverage in the form of Newswipe was absolutely fantastic, both hugely entertaining, and damning in its criticism, proving to be one of the only television programs for which I will bother setting an alarm.
Exactly how the *wipe format will be adapted to gaming is unclear, as both Newswipe and Screenwipe focused heavily on the past week or so in television/news, an approach which is unlikely be be so suitable for the slightly slower moving world of gaming. Thus its possible that we shall be looking at a one off special episode, or a short series taking a more general look at gaming; certainly the E-mail request somewhat suggests the latter.

Edit: Wow! I should post breaking news more often, this post is only twenty minutes old, and its already brought in a load of visitors.