Friday, 18 May 2012

Obligatory Diablo III nonsense

I wasn't going to get Diablo III anyway, but if I was, Blizzard would have lost a sale.

Courtesy of Penny Arcade, I was under the impression, initially, that the program was already sitting on people's computers awaiting activation on release day. To be honest, I was shocked that companies still do that, despite the huge fan outcry that's occurred whenever it's been tried. I mean, it's understandable why a development company might do things that way; it's more understandable why the fans would be pissed off about it, and the customer is always right, even if said customer is a loud, obnoxious jerk who smells slightly of boiled cabbage and turpentine.

Evis T informs me that actually, it's the rendering engine and such that people have on their PCs, and the content is streamed from Blizzard's servers during play.


I live in a neighbourhood with a poor net connection. Evis T lives in a residential complex abutting his workplace, with a poor net connection. Our pals Arron and Andy seem to just have flat out bad net no matter what they do. Playing online games can already be a chore for us, as people drop out randomly or freeze up with lag. Now we can't even play single-player games without worrying about that? Or that things might go tits-up Blizzard-side? Amazing. And this is supposed to be an anti-piracy measure... seriously? If anything this sort of draconian countermeasure, a cure worse than the disease if you will, would make me turn to piracy.

I haven't looked, but I would put money on cracked copes of Diablo III being pretty easily available already.

I don't care about Diablo III - the original Diablo underwhelmed me enough that I never bothered with Diablo II, and to be honest, I'm just not a fan of Blizzard's games in general. But Blizzard are a 'big deal' company, with the power to set precedent for other companies. If BioShock Infinite, or Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition, or my beloved Carmageddon: Reincarnation were to use the same system, I would not be impressed. There's already been some backlash against Stainless in some fan quarters for the fact that Carmageddon: Reincarnation will likely require Steam upon its initial release, even though Steam is pretty unobtrusive if you want it to be, and you can play Steam games offline.

Although it might not be how I'd do things, I can - if pressed - reason in favour of Steam-only gaming (especially as Stainless have said that, pending the success of that release, they'd love to be able to port the game to other platforms). Similarly, I'm sure somebody out there can reason in favour of Blizzard's Diablo III model. I'd love to see it justified. But most of my pro-Steam arguments boil down to the fact that all the potentially annoying things about Steam don't get in the way of letting you play your game. Even games which really, really want you to be online, like The Sims 3, still grudgingly allow you to play offline. Blizzard's latest trick, however, effectively restricts access to something people have already paid for a licence to use.

I'm waiting for the day when a company uses the same system as Diablo III, then five months in announces that the game will no longer be playable without a DLC pack. Although maybe that would be a good thing, ultimately, if the resulting backlash would kill off the idea once and for all.

The face of gaming is changing. More and more gamers are putting their money where their mouth is, or more accurately, not putting their money down for practices they dislike. The fan reception to the endings of Fallout 3, and more recently Mass Effect 3, prompted the developers to rectify things in an expansion pack and patch respectively. GFWL is apparently losing steam quicker than a sumo wrestler in a long-distance limbo race. And so a business model which restricts access to single-player, ostensibly 'offline' content is surely doomed to fail.

At least I hope so.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Tekkit City Chronicles, Vol. 3: A very strange reaction

Since last time, a significant part of our Tekkit city project has been spent in different maps from our home, playing around in creative mode with the various doodads and geegaws the mod pack adds, both to get an understanding of how they all work and so Hugh could teach the rest of us how things link up.


One of the most useful things added is the quarry: a machine which squares off a patch of land (within the orange frame you can see above) and then digs down until it hits bedrock or lava, stripping out everything within that area. Everything from stone and sand to diamond and uranium gets sucked up a pipe and deposited in a connected chest. Quarries are expensive to build and they need a lot of power, but they're reusable and a very good way of getting a lot of resources, very quickly. Plus they're largely fire-and-forget, meaning that you can mine and build at the same time, which is handy when you're still aroundabout 3,950 houses short of your target of 4,000 houses.

Another bonus is that the quarry reveals cave networks and ore seams along the walls of the dug area, giving some focus to future caving expeditions. The above screenshot is a rarity, actually - a quarry which didn't turn up a cave network. Normally it gets riddled with them.

As you can imagine, you don't want to fall down there.

A quirk of quarries, which might be good or bad depending on your perspective, is that it doesn't stop when the hole gets flooded. We've idly theorised that if it floods and then digs into lava, it would make a simple source of obsidian, but we've yet to see that happen. Water in Minecraft, you see, doesn't flow like real water. If you have two water sources flowing into the same space, it creates another new water source in that space. You can remove that water source... and the two flowing sources will create a new water source there again. Repeat as needed. This is a pretty common exploit, known to the Minecraft community as 'infinite water.'  If that water flows into a lava lake, then bam - obsidian, and the quarry ought to suck that obsidian right up.

Seen in the (above-)above screenshot is an engine cooling system using this trick. A pump sucks out the new water source every time it's created, which is piped to the engine to cool it. Since the pumping cycle and water source creation both repeat without human intervention, you can set that up and then basically forget about it, which means it's a very useful way of regulating low-maintenance, high-power machinery like quarries.


This is our vertical rail lift, inspired by the fastest elevator rivalries and ably tested in this picture by a sheep. Hugh reasoned that with Tekkit, this would likely be the simplest way of building a fast vertical transport system. Plus it would let us use railways, which we have a soft spot for even though they're not actually that useful; anything you can do with rails can be done quicker and easier using something else, such as teleport pipes (which I'll cover in the next update). The only thing rails do best is fast transport of people, and our city just isn't that big yet. Although I am looking forward to building train yards and subway stations, when the time comes!


We also had the bright idea of making... a rollercoaster! Okay, that's probably been done a lot already, but I can't be bothered looking it up on YouTube. We just decided to give it a try and see what happened. It happened pretty good, despite a couple of minor engineering headaches. So, yeah, we're probably going to add a funfair to the city at some point.


Although you can have diagonal rails (as per base Minecraft) and vertical rails (added in Railcraft), you can't have upside-down rails. So no loop-de-loop for us, sadly. This is as close as we could get. This thing still went hellaciously fast though, and managed to throw riders off even without launch rails until we toned it down a bit.

The sheep seemed to enjoy it, and gave no indication of wanting to get off.

We were playing around with reactors, too, fuelled by the cooling system described previously in this post. We ended up with something both stable and powerful, so it was an obvious decision to decommission our existing reactor in the city map, as pictured above.

Decommissioning, in this case, meant going in and ripping out the cores and then smashing up the shielding with pickaxes. I choose to believe that's how it works in real life, too. Somebody is just about visible inside the reactor there, either removing a core or scooping up water.

The overseer's hut, and the status display. Green light means the reactor is running safely. Red light means there's a problem. Inside the hut was a safety override shutdown type lever. All of this is now much, much more complicated in our new reactor.

 There's Hugh in the process of building the new one - or at least installing the water pumping systems. Adrian, meanwhile, was constructing the shell of the building. I supplied the water (not by weeing in the pool, I hasten to add) and then very helpfully flew around taking pictures instead of working. Just like a real job!


More work on the reactor. Since I took this, it's been finished; I'll have a pic in the next update. Using the infinite water cooling trick this reactor is much more powerful, enough to keep four batteries charged at once, while running safely enough not to need any shielding.

See? Realism! And we haven't even added the second reactor in the other pool yet.

By the way, the building housing this monstrosity backs onto the warehouse and the hydroponic gardens, and is just round the corner from the water supply. Let's pray nothing goes wrong.

Here's an overhead view of our central industrial complex. The tall building on the left with the bronze cog design on the wall is the warehouse, which currently houses all of our resources with another two and a half storeys still unoccupied. We're currently adding an auto-sorter, and Hugh's talking about installing a computer network which monitors inventory levels.

Behind and to the left of the warehouse is the water processing plant, as seen in the first Tekkit City Chronicle, back when it was going to be our power station. What actually became the power station, where the decommissioning took place, is just visible as a thin sliver of roof beyond the warehouse. The big building on the right with the smokestacks is the current power station. The wooden deck at the south, meanwhile, leads to a hillside warren of buildings - basically a kasbah, minus the walls.

In the foreground you can see out newest toy, the Bessemer converter (the big orange thing). Ores go in, and metal ingots come out. There's a macerator in there which increases the amount of metal we get per load of ore. As a bonus, the same machine can also be used to turn cobblestone into sand (via the macerator) and thence into glass (in the furnace).

Here's a view looking up at the workings. It's not very clear, but it's enough to see that there's a lot going on in there. A real-world Bessemer converter doesn't work like that at all - in reality, and in very simplistic terms, it's basically a giant bucket which mixes pig iron with air to oxidise away the impurities. Hugh just had the idea that it would be a cool-looking thing to house our smelting works in, and he was right. We have cosmetic lava in the top, to make it look like molten iron, although as a bonus it does keep mobs from spawning up there.

Ours doesn't tip over to pour out the molten iron. Given that it backs onto our warehouse, that's probably for the best.

Other things we've discovered, not shown: you can't nuke the Ender Dragon, but you can nuke away his entire dimension. And launching minecarts full of TNT at a mountainside isn't a terribly effective way to mine, but it's definitely a lot of fun.

The next update will contain more sensible stuff. Also, a giant sky penis. Until then, take care, and don't build unshielded reactors next to your farm. We're allowed to because we're trained professionals.

Monday, 7 May 2012

You said no strings could secure you, at the space station [Review: the white chamber]

Studio Trophis' the white chamber was released in 2005, around the time the point-n-click adventure was becoming the genre du jour of the indie scene. Critical reception was positive, but more high profile titles like Yahtzee's Chzo Mythos series and an adaptation of the Bone comic books by new company Telltale Games overshadowed it. I played the white chamber way back when and earlier this year, during my internetless period, I fired it up again. How has it fared in the years since?

A more classic videogame opening there isn't: the protagonist wakes up in a coffin in a sealed room, with no memories - not even of her own name. One simple introductory puzzle and a creepy conversation with a computer panel later, you find yourself alone aboard an abandoned space station. It's dark, it's rusty, and there's a distressing amount of blood encrusted everywhere. It's a claustrophic opening, and it only gets worse as you get the power back on and open up the rest of the complex. Surreal elements, most of them steeped in hellish imagery or twisted body horror, pile up fast. A humanoid knot of pulsating flesh, growing out of the navigation computer, attacks the heroine. A giant eyeball nailed to the wall spins frantically under the glare of a red traffic light seeping congealed gore. Chasms open in the floor, smeared trails of blood appear from nowhere, and dead bodies - or bits of bodies - start showing up at an alarming rate.

The main character finds her mind slipping through this nightmare - although to what extent is debatable. By the midpoint of the game, it's impossible to tell how much of the horror is real and how much is not. For a while, the only answers come from datadisks left behind by a crew member. Eventually, our hero finds her way down into the titular white chamber, and the truth is revealed. The first time I played through this game, a suspicion of the truth behind the nightmare slowly built up in my mind so that I realised it right before the game revealed all, which is the presumable intent; second time around, it all seems pretty obvious from much earlier on, but maybe that's just the benefit of foreknowledge talking.

Either way, the denouement is satisfying, if depressing. That which has gone before is filtered through a new lens - a lens of greed, rage, obsession, betrayal and regret. The previously visceral horror takes on a darker aspect and incidental actions gain sinister alternate significance. For all the dead bodies and loneliness, the white chamber is a game about being alive and being with other people - and the painful ways it can go wrong.

All of the death and decay is presented upfront with few punches pulled. Writhing cadavers, severed limbs, gallons and gallons of blood - it's all there in a grimy, hyperdetailed, hand-drawn art style which heightens the atmosphere using awkward perspectives and off-angle textures. It might seem like it's just badly drawn at first, but as the surreal nature of the game plays out, the bizarre artwork clicks into place, and it works. Lighting takes the form of glowing coloured blocks, adding at once both a classic sci-fi trope and another surreal aspect to the station's twisted design.

The characters are drawn in an 80s-ish manga style, which feels a little out of place - but not mood-shatteringly so, and to be fair, anime is relatively easy to draw and animate for a small, amateur team. The lead character is expressive, and while her voice acting never really evokes the true depths of revulsion and fear she professes to feel, it's good enough not to detract.

What of the game itself? It's short, so within a single day it's easy to attain every possible ending - including the various gruesome deaths awaiting the protagonist. Some actions which seem pointless affect which ending you receive, although the main thrust of the game is not multi-path. Puzzles often follow the same dreamscape logic as the rest of the game; if you struggle with adventure game thinking then the white chamber is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, there seems nothing unusual to you about reassembling a hacked up corpse in the body-shaped grooves on a bed, then you'll do fine.

The puzzling side of the white chamber is pretty unremarkable, in all honesty, neither good nor bad. The way the puzzles tie into the narrative isn't always as tight as it might be, but it's got an interesting take on the old idea of items suddenly becoming interactive when they weren't before. And as I noted in an earlier post, it nails a great balance of usable items being clear without being blatantly obvious.

But the adventuring isn't, in itself, the main reason I would recommend this game. The narrative and twisted imagery, and the atmosphere created, wouldn't work as well in another medium. As with many of my favourites, making the lead's choices induces empathy and that makes the emotional impact all the greater when it comes. Like Assassin's Creed, Braid and Planescape: Torment, and the excellent The Company Of Myself, the white chamber plays with the standard storytelling devices we know and accept in a videogame. It's done more subtly than any of the previously mentioned titles, but it's all the more viscerally affecting for it. To anyone with an interest in games as narrative, and who likes (or can tolerate) adventure games, the white chamber is a fascinating experience.