Posts Tagged ‘gaming’

Divinity II: Dragon Knight Saga – Review

Jan 30th, 2011


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.

The E3 News You Haven’t Heard

Jun 1st, 2009

As the gaming media turns all eyes towards L.A. for E3 2009, many blogs and news sites go into overdrive. While I’m not at E3 myself, and have absolutely no way of finding out information that isn’t already published elsewhere, I thought I’d still do my best to produce stories that I can guarantee you haven’t heard elsewhere!

Sinclair to Return to the Market

In a surprise announcement, Sinclair Research, manufactures of a number of classic 1980’s personal computers including the ZX81 and the ZX Spectrum, revealed that they were to return to the home computing market.
Founder of the company, Sir Clive Sinclair, revealed that the company had decided that the current market provided an excellent opportunity for the company to introduce its new product. “In the 1980s, Sinclair revolutionised the home computing market, and provided access to affordable computing technology to thousands of homes. It was Sinclair which sat at the centre of the early British computer games development scene, and gave birth to many of today’s prominent developers. In 2009, Sinclair hopes to release a new system, and encourage many of these leading developers to return home.”
Sinclair seemed initially coy when asked about system specifications, but began to reveal more information when he caught representatives from Sony and Microsoft sniggering at the back. “Obviously times have changed significantly since Sinclair last released a system, and the company has not stood still. The new system, the Sinclair ZX Millennium, will have a top of the range eight,” he paused, “Megahertz processor, and a whopping 512Kb RAM, that’s half a megabyte!” Sinclair looked unimpressed with the lack-lustre response from the crowd, and sighed before continuing, “These improvements have allowed us to take full advantage in improvements in display screen technology, delivering a full 576i resolution in a stunning 32 colours, all via your SCART lead for the crispest image reproduction. With the ZX Millennium your games will look just like cartoons, and thanks to the efforts of our engineers, we have been able to completely eliminate the problem of attribute clash.” Sinclair beamed, and looked around the audience for a reaction, clearly expecting this to be a bombshell, “That means that Dizzy can stand in front of a bush, and still look white,” he clarified, before collapsing forlornly after he was met with cold silence.
Karen Farley, of Modern Videogamer (US) asked whether the ZX Millennium would still rely on the cassette tapes used with previous systems. “Of course not,” responded Sinclair, “Our engineers initially toyed with the possibility of distributing games on compact disc, as the ability to skip tracks would allow a user to easily choose which game or piece of software to load, the media also had an improved shelf life when compared to cassette tapes. However we realised that this would show no appreciable improvement in loading times, as games would still be delivered as audio streams. Instead we decided to make the microdrive standard for the ZX Millenium.”
The ZX Millenium will be available from November 2009, priced at £175.

FIFA 1660

EA Sports today announced the release of FIFA 1660. Talking about the game, and EA spokesman said, “Electronic Arts have been developing soccer video-games since 1993, and rapidly made itself one of the foremost names in the genre. Since the release of FIFA International Soccer in 1993, EA Sports have released over fifteen titles on twenty-six different systems. This doesn’t include countless spin-offs and other variations. During this time, EA Sports has constantly tried to innovate and move the game forward, keeping up with the fast-paced game of football itself. Each year we have strived not only to introduce great new features, but also to ensure that the game reflects of the latest changes to teams, players and league tables. However, this led us to consider, what if we looked back.
In FIFA 1660 we take soccer back to its roots. Set before the rules of football were fully finalised, FIFA 1660 sees you enjoying the earlier, less codified game. With no referee or linesmen, players find themselves less restricted by the rules, and thus the new reaction-touch fight system allows for punches and kicks to be thrown at nearby players. The same system is also used to fend off those attempting to enforce the law, and disrupt the game.
Authentic historical research has attempted to ensure that the game-play accurately reflects the game as it was played at that time, and historical records have been used to provide names for the player database. Thus, when you play, you can be sure that your team are made up of genuine 17th Century players!”
FIFA 1660 will be released in Spring 2010 on Xbox 360, PS3, Wii and PC.

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.

Save, Load, Return, Quit (Fiction)

Apr 16th, 2009

A story

Save, Load, Return, Quit

Damn it! It was the fourth time he had done that test and yet his mark was lower than ever before, not to mention he somehow managed to alienate half his friends while waiting for the result. That was the biggest annoyance, the waiting. It took him ten attempts to pass his driving test, but at least he didn’t have to wait a week between each go. Now though he had to suffer through the same miserable week of crap weather and no prospects. He needed a break.

The four familiar words swam in his mind’s eye as the world remained frozen around him, that last ever present option both seductive and terrifying in its promises. Attempt number two wasn’t so bad; he had failed, but he did make the reserve list, and things were going remarkably well with Sarah. He couldn’t bring himself to accept it though, he needed a job, and in the current climate that could take a while, even for someone with his skills. Besides, he could always come back, now he just needed to be as far away as possible. He reached far back, not even looking at the dates as they flashed past.

February 12th 1990, Little Wadeway

He turned inside out as the world past through him and then righted itself; a pause; then noise. The excited babble and shouts of children crashed over him as he was pushed and jostled by their movements as he found himself in a much smaller body than he had been occupying moments earlier. He was stood in the playground of Little Wadeway C. of E. Primary School and a glance downwards revealed that he was dressed in a bright red wax raincoat and a scruffy pair of Velcro trainers. How far back had he gone?

Continue reading the story

On art and games [Part 3]

Feb 22nd, 2009

With the third part of this series we move away from the more chronological approach, to considering styles, techniques and more overarching concepts.

Games on Tour

While computer and video games have a huge, global market, it is not a homogeneous one. Regions differ in terms of platform popularity and genre preference, as well as far more abstract concepts regarding perception, and the way games are played. The popularity of competitive gaming in South Korea for example is a familiar example, with the proportion of those playing on-line games being over three times that of Europe1 . However these regional differences don’t only influence game popularity and availability, but also in some games game content.

The need to localize games to different markets should be obvious. Language barriers are the most apparent consideration, as games require translation of text in the interface, instructions and within the game environment itself, such as signs. As voiced dialogue becomes more common, this can add the burden of employing regional voice actors, a costly endeavour. There also considerations of differences in standards, such as PAL and NTSC, as well as possible regional legal implications. Given all this, it is understandable that many localisations will also consider issues cultural issues, both with regard to marketing, and general comprehensibility.

One of the most influential effects of regionalised graphics is the consideration of local rules regarding censorship in rating. Some countries have particularly harsh restrictions on game content, with Germany being an oft quoted example, and one which has been previously discussed on this blog. Such rules will often result in the censorship of violence, replacing people with zombies or robots, and turning blood green. In the case of Team Fortress 2, the German edition replaces the gibs (body parts left behinds after a kill) with balloons and other party paraphernalia, a feature included in other versions in the form of ‘party mode.’ In Germany, computer and video games are classed as toys, and are thus forbidden from representing Nazi imagery, such as Swastikas. This has resulted in the modification of a large number of games, thanks to the frequency with which Nazis have been used to present an unambiguously evil, and yet real-world, enemy. In some games, such as the recent Lego Indiana Jones the need for regional differences have been avoided by removing the Nazi references from all versions of the game.

While violence bothers the Germans, sex causes trouble in the US. Unlike violence however, sex is still rare in mainstream titles, and is usually confined to low cut tops and ‘jiggle physics’2. However, Polish developer CD Projekt RED‘s game, The Witcher, featured a number of possible sex scenes, after which the player was ‘rewarded’ with cards showing scantily clad portraits of the women in question.3 However, in US edition, these cards were censored to be more ‘modest.’ Unlike changes in Germany, this change was not a legal requirement, but was likely an attempt to avoid gaining an adults-only (AO) rating, which would drastically restrict the commercial availability of the game.
As well as considerations of censorship and ratings, games also undergo changes due to marketing and other considerations. In many cases these are merely reflected in external factors, such as packaging design, which may reflect regional sensibilities. In other cases though, changes are more fundamental.

The game Megadrive Ristar, by Sonic Team, had several distinct changes between the Western and Japaneese releases. I’ll now discuss some of these changes, as well as identifying some of the other techniques used within the game.


Fig1a. Western (Top), Japanese (Bottom)

If you compare the western and Japanese screen-shots (Figure 1) you will notice a number of subtle differences. For example, compare the eyes of Ristar, the main yellow star like character. In the western screen-shot, Ristar’s expression looks more aggressive than the Japanese equivalent; the western version of the game uses sprites previously reserved for boss battles. A side a effect of this change is a reduction in the number of idle animations in the western versions, and a loss of some of the graphical subtlety. Similarly, a comparison of the flying bird-like enemy also shows that the western version uses more aggressive sprites. This difference is due to the greater marketability of cuteness in the Japanese markets, compared to the appeal of violence in western markets.


Fig 2. Western (Left) Japanese (Right)

Similar modifications have been made to other enemies (Figure 2), such although the changes are not universal and the majority of enemies have a consistent design between the two versions. Conversely however, some enemies have undergone more major changes.

Fig 3. Western (Top), Japanese (Bottom)

The enemy in figure 3 has undergone a distinctive redesign between the two versions. The original flying squirrel design having been replaced by a bat. Bats have less association with ‘cuteness’4 and are more strongly associated with horror. In other cases (Figure 4) the redesign is motivated by other reasons.
Fig 4. Japanese (left), Western (right)

Fig 4. Japanese (left), Western (right)

In this case the Japanese and western boss both function with the same mechanics, but have a distinct appearance. The Japanese boss is in the form of a cat, named Itamor, and acts as a visual pun based on the Japanese term for someone adverse to hot food, nekojita, or cat-tounge. As this visual pun will not work in other languages, in other versions the boss was changed to be an ice monster instead.

The Rest of Ristar

Fig 5. Example Enemy

Fig 5. Example Enemy

It is worth considering the rest of the graphical design in Ristar, a game which had enormous attention to detail. Backgrounds had several levels of parallax scrolling, and environments were richly animated. The game also paid close attention to developing a consistent graphical style. As seen in figure 5, as well as earlier figures, enemies had a simple, rounded style. Furthermore, each enemy was usually restricted to one or two tones, with each colour occupying a large region. With bosses (Figure 6), these colours were used to define progress, as they changes as the enemy was progressively hit. Through this the game achieves a cohesive feeling, and uses graphical feedback to inform the player of their progress. In other games, similar graphical feedback is provided in boss battles, such as through progressively applying damage to the boss sprite or model.

Snake-No hitsSnake - One HitFigure 6. The Boss changes colour as it is hit

Figure 6. The Boss changes colour as it is hit

The backgrounds of Ristar were not solely background illustration. In some parts of the game they provided points of interaction, allowing the player to tear back areas of background to reveal items or enemies. In other sections the player could actually pass into regions of the level which previously appeared to be part of the background.
Fig 7.

Fig 7.

In the screen-shot above (figure 7) you can see a character in the background, just to the right of Ristar. This enemy would regularly throw pieces of fruit into the foreground, which would injure Ristar if they struck him. enemies in the background are inaccessible, and will dominate over a large section of the level, giving a sense of foreboding, over the remainder of the level. This was further exaggerated by dropping the light levels, and forcing the player to hit lamps to increase the available light (Figure 8).
Figure 8

Figure 8

In later sections the background is also used to foreshadow coming enemies, be it on a television monitor, or as a distant overbearing threat.

The control of the background is a popular technique in many games, and has even made the shift into the three dimensional era. In Half-Life 2 and its episodes, Valve used the tall structure of the citadel to provide a point visible over large portions of the game. In the first game this provided an eventual target, and source of oppression, whereas in episode one, the citadel provided a constant reminder of the threat which the player needed to escape from. The background video-screens also performed a similar role, presenting Breen as an overarching figure of oppression, one which exists from the very opening moments of the game. This imagery borrows heavily from Orwell’s 1984, and thus is able to communicate a huge amount of information to any player familiar with the book.

And so…

Part 3 was largely concerned with looking at some of the ways in which game graphics and illustrations vary regionally. In particular, it focused on some of the changes made to the Megadrive Game Ristar. I then used Ristar as a jumping point to consider some of the techniques it employed to create consistency, broadcast information and create atmosphere. It is likely that many of these techniques will be revisited in later entries.

  1. This Gaming Life, Jim Rossingol, 2008, University of Michigan Press, ISBN-10: 0-472-11635-5 []
  2. Jiggle physics is a term used to describe the way in which breasts are made to ‘bounce’ in response to movement. While it could be used to increase realism, it is more commonly exploited for gratification of the straight male (or gay female) gamer. []
  3. Many kilobytes have been spent elsewhere discussing whether these cards are sexist and objectify women, and how this fits in with the larger scope of the game. I shall not be covering this discussion here as I have not yet finished the game itself, and the topic is somewhat irrelevant to this entry. []
  4. Although personally I think they are cute []