Category Archives: Games

The Game and Play of Chess

By Chess Titans.
 
I could’ve thrown rocks at this program the other day. It kept opening with 1. b3, which is the opening to the rarely used Nimzovitch-Larsen[1], but in reply to my 1. …e5 (not that I knew this was the usual response), it’d play 2. d4. It seemed that no matter what I played, it would then opt for 3. dxe5; or if I’d done the deed, the white queen would come flying out for the sake of a single pawn. I was not best pleased with this inane sort of game play.
 
I had Chess Titans (white) play against Shredder online (black) with the latter set to Hard difficulty.[2] Shredder more or less had CT under the lash at exactly the halfway mark and won the match on the 22nd move. The mid game was quite entertaining as you’ll see if you play through the moves below.
1. d4 d5
2. c4 e6
3. Nf3 c6
4. e3 Nd7
5. b3 Ngf6
6. Bd3 g5
7. Nxg5 dxc4
8. Bxc4 Qa5+
9. Qd2 Bb4
10. Nc3 Bxc3
11. Qxc3 Qxc3+
12. Ke2 Qxa1
13. f3 Rg8
14. Nh3 Qxa2+
15. Bd2 Rxg2+
16. Nf2 Rxf2+
17. Kxf2 Qxd2+
18. Be2 Nd5
19. e4 Nf4
20. d5 Nd3+
21. Kf1 Qe1+
22. Kg2 Nf4+
0-1
ct003 I managed my own triumph against Chess Titans later on, but didn’t record the moves. The penultimate position was this, followed by Rh8+ 0-1. I ended up attacking down the h-file, although it took some manoeuvring to get CT to do what I wanted, which was to get the white queen off the back rank so that I could capture the pawn on h4. I ignored the offer of an exchange of queens, which is a typical CT gambit. Probably the most advantageous move I made in the final stages of the game was g6, which allowed the black queen onto the h-file.
 
Anyway, I’m pleased to have outwitted this dreadful program.
 
Notes
1. I did a little post-match research because I wondered whether anyone had ever played b3 as their opening move. In truth, CT doesn’t appear to be playing the Nimzovitch-Larsen opening because it rapidly goes off piste. It also seems to like trying a Queen’s Gambit opening (in spirit if not reality), which is what it did against Shredder (and Shredder declined).
2. I think I mentioned the outcome of the first two matches. CT won against Shredder set to Easy, and Shredder reached an impasse on Medium, which didn’t surprise me because almost any move would’ve been a disaster of one sort or another.
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Move the queen!

Move the bloody queen!
 
Looking for a new diversion recently, I found myself looking at one I’ve largely neglected, namely Chess Titans, which comes with my particular version of Vista. I don’t play chess much. Seldom ever, in fact, but I’ve been getting a little bored and needed something different to do. Chess software always makes me feel anxious because if it can defeat Garry Kasparov, then it won’t even notice as it annihilates me.
 
But that was before Chess Titans.
 
I admit that I’ve only been playing against it at lower levels of difficulty, but to my surprise, I’ve been able to defeat it playing either white or black. I quickly came to realise that this program is thick, although whether it gets any better at higher levels of difficulty, I’ve yet to determine. Occasionally it does do something a bit cunning, but it’s also apt to do something stupid as well.
 
The program doesn’t appear to have any book openings as far as I can tell. You never know how it might open if you play as white so that 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 might be followed by 2. …Nc6 or something entirely different.
 
I thought I’d see how it responded to a Fool’s Mate, viz.
  1. g4 e5
  2. f3 Qh4+
    0-1
Chess Titans duly responded with 1. …e5 and I played 2. f3. What did it do? 2. …Nc6. Huh?! I kept playing, leaving the king exposed and vulnerable to being trapped. CT moved the black queen to h3. Qh1 would’ve been the winning move, but nothing happened. Eventually, it was a knight which checked the king, but even when I continued playing a stupid game, CT drove the white king to the centre of the board before achieving checkmate.
 
Here’s my second attempt to get CT to take the bait. It did, but it took seven moves to get there.
  1. g4 e5
  2. f3 Be7
  3. Nc3 Nc6
  4. b3 a6
  5. Nd5 Bd6
  6. c4 g6
  7. Bb2 Qh4+
    0-1
Nor does Chess Titans appear to do any better at level 10. It’s response to 1. g4 was, after a lot of thinking, d5; 2. f3 e5; 3. b3 Qh4+ 0-1. I’m wondering what would’ve happened if my fourth move had been the same as the game above. I decided to avoid threatening the pawns in the centre, hence 3. b3.
 
Chess Titans is, by the looks of it, better as a chess teaching program of a sort. You can freely undo moves to see what happens if you take a different course of action.
 
I also found a program called Penguin which allows players to analyse games by going back and forward through moves and trying alternatives to see what might’ve happened. All the moves and their variations are recorded, and the list and the boards can be saved. The program doesn’t play against you since you’re doing the analysis. Useful, although it also revealed that a game I played against CT last night could’ve been finished ten moves sooner. Doh! Perhaps I really am more stupid than CT.

Neverwinter Nights 2

Sword of destiny.

When you were a child, someone decided to leave a shard of a broken magical sword in you, which didn’t kill you or even inconvenience you in the slightest. Until now. Your village of West Harbour comes under attack from Grey Dwarves, githyanki and their allies. That sends you to Neverwinter where you find a job with the local police routing out corruption in the force before making sure that some local orcs get their names on the endangered species list.

In Chapter 2, you’re accused of committing a massacre (no, not of the orcs) in the village of Ember. Don’t worry, they make you a squire and you get off on a legal technicality after you fight a duel against Black Garius’ chief minder. You even get knighted and a castle, which might sound nice until you find out that the previous occupant, Black Garius, wasn’t too keen on maintenance, leaving you saddled with a massive mortgage and recruitment problems.

In Chapter 3, when you’re not crippled by debt repayments, you’re a diplomat forging alliances and a sword, which happens to be the one weapon that can vanquish the King of Shadows. (Handy, eh?) And then it’s off to war. You start as the Captain of the regular infantry before joining the SAS to whack Black Garius (who must be a Diarrhoea Demon – he keeps coming back) and the King of Shadows. Unfortunately, the ceiling caves in and kills everyone – probably. The place must’ve had the same builders as the keep.

Unlike NWN, you actually get to run a party of PCs, although I still have a preference for the way things were organised in BG 2. The game seems to be trying to preserve some vague semblance of the grid-and-miniatures version of D&D as it inexorably shifts towards becoming a full-blown third- or first-person RPG like Morrowind or Oblivion. Although the final version of the game is less buggy than it was on release, there still seem to be a few hiccups such as occasions when PCs would become all shy, hang around doors, and refuse to come when called. They also seemed to display the usual sort of behaviour, either running off the leash or doing nothing. My character was quite good at doing nothing even although you’d think that the main character would move on to the next monster within a reasonable distance.

Game play was the usual sort of thing – pausing, trying to organise the troops and attacking. It seemed to generally ensure that no matter what choices you made, you kept going in the right direction, although there were times when a little more guidance was necessary. Some of the battles seemed to suffer from Custom Level Syndrome™ which states

If the number of monsters in an area is n and their Challenge Rating is m, then n and m must be greater than or equal to a number that can only be described as unreasonable.

In the battle against Black Garius, who’s merely a level 14 wizard (by this stage of the game, the party is about level 19 or 20), a balor (CR 20) appears along with a whole bunch of monsters. Out of curiosity, I checked the DMG to see what sort of odds the PCs might face. The answer was five or six CR 14 monsters or one CR 20 monster. Even with the larger party in the final two battles and a wand of resurrection, the Encounter Level is ridiculously high.

Unlike the traditional form of D&D, the game runs too quickly to take any reasonable action. Start quaffing healing potions and you’ll probably be cut down. Go to heal some other character, and someone’s going to die because you can’t be in eight places at once.

On the other hand, while the action in the game can be overly rapid (even if the entire battle sequence drags on), the cut scenes can be tediously long at times.

Anyway, my next stop is the original version of the game which I started a couple of years ago, but failed to complete partly because my old laptop was persistently overheating even in the depths of winter and partly because I was getting bored with the game. My main motivation this time is to find out what life is like beyond level 20 in the expansion packs.

PC Gamers Bill of Rights

You have the right to install games which won’t be decently playable for another year or so.
 
El Reg is reporting a publicity stunt statement of genuine concern with a Bill of Rights for PC Gamers devised by Stardock and Gas Powered Games. (Can’t say I know either off the top of my head.)
  1. Gamers shall have the right to return games that don’t work with their computers for a full refund.
    That seems fair enough in the West, although trying to prove it could be difficult if more proof than someone’s word is required. In China, the policy is "if you opened it, you bought it". Here you might have the right of exchange at most.
  2. Gamers shall have the right to demand that games be released in a finished state.
    This particular right and the next one have stirred up discussion in the comments section of the article. Perhaps this condition is meant to mean that any bugs the game has are non-fatal on contemporary machines.
  3. Gamers shall have the right to expect meaningful updates after a game’s release.
    I’m not really sure what a meaningful update is. I assume the statement means patches that aren’t just bug fixes.
  4. Gamers shall have the right to demand that download managers and updaters not force themselves to run or be forced to load in order to play a game.
    Fair enough, I think. I assume that this is aimed at Steam, which is the reason why I’ll never play Half-Life 2.
  5. Gamers shall have the right to expect that the minimum requirements for a game will mean that the game will adequately play on that computer.
    Another fair comment. id software and Crytek seem to be market leaders in games which are barely playable on release even with the settings as low as possible. I assume this is because the company wants other developers to use their shiny new game engine and not one which is considered to be technologically obsolete on release. Just look at ROTT vs. Ultimate Doom. The former was probably the better game, but used yesterday’s tech. But it seems a little demanding to expect that everyone can replace or upgrade their PCs to play the latest games, or has the money to buy Alienware machines. Some gamers have the wherewithal for such indulgences, but probably far more don’t.
  6. Gamers shall have the right to expect that games won’t install hidden drivers or other potentially harmful software without their express consent.
    I vaguely recall some problem with anti-piracy software last year or the year before which violated this tenet. While I don’t disagree with this statement, I don’t know what is meant by a "hidden driver".
  7. Gamers shall have the right to re-download the latest versions of the games they own at any time.
    That’s kind of what patches are all about. But if you buy a new PC, then like Adobe Acrobat, you should be able to uninstall a game from one to reinstall on the other.
  8. Gamers shall have the right to not be treated as potential criminals by developers or publishers.
    Although there’s always someone who wants to spoil it for the rest.
  9. Gamers shall have the right to demand that a single-player game not force them to be connected to the Internet every time they wish to play.
    Yup. The reason why I’m not playing more Gears of War is this idiot approach. I don’t think you have to be connected to play the game, but I have a funny feeling you can’t save it without being online.
  10. Gamers shall have the right that games which are installed to the hard drive shall not require a CD/DVD to remain in the drive to play.
    I don’t see the problem myself, although I can imagine problems because of lost/MIA/damaged discs.
I might also add comments about developers not thinking "So America; thus the rest of the world" and (as an echo of No. 5) "But it runs perfectly well on our machines at work". Oh, and one more: "Bump mapping should only look shiny with metal textures."

Pyramid of the Magician

Now with bot support.

I’ll let the page on sock’s website do most of the talking, but a couple of years ago he released a map called Pyramid of the Magician. I’m sure it’d be acknowledged as the best-looking terrain map ever created for Q3. The original version lacked bot support for fairly obvious reasons, but recently, one of the more eccentric members of Q3W outlined a means which sock was able to use to create an .aas file for the map.

It’s a great map for the visuals alone, but I regretted that there was no way of playing it against bots.

Now, if only there was some effective means of keeping my laptop cool…

[30.08.14. Updated the link to sock’s website.]

Take your mitre off, bishop

Your head’s getting overheated.

Fury at gun game set in cathedral. (Helen Carter has followed up the story in Virtual desecration.)

Here we go again. Churches have been a stock part of computer games since whenever. I’m not sure how many are based on actual buildings, but I know I’ve used ideas from cathedrals in maps I’ve made for Q3. And of course, there’s qkennyq’s well-known Chartres Cathedral map. But the crack-brained cleric needs to consider his arguments more carefully if he’s going to say

“For a global manufacturer to recreate one of our great cathedrals with photo-realistic quality and then encourage people to have gun battles in the building is beyond belief and highly irresponsible.”

Encourage? It’s a computer game. So does this mean that Doom II, Quake I – IV, Half-Life, Doom III etc., which are all set in imaginary worlds, are all encouraging me to do the same in imaginary worlds? What about all those RPGs in which characters are constantly plundering churches inhabited by demons? What does that encourage? I can’t recall the church ever claiming that it was a.) encouraging occupation of church property by demons and b.) it was encouraging grave robbing.

The vicar should shut his hole because he’s just going to encourage people to buy the game. If I didn’t think consoles were the shallow end of the pond, I’d go out and buy the game right now. Let them ban the game in Manchester, but no one else (i.e., level-headed people) is bothered.

I don’t know quite where Sony stand legally; whether they’re required to obtain permission first, or whether the cathedral is a public space and fair game. And I have to wonder why they chose Manchester Cathedral, which isn’t exactly one of Britain’s great cathedrals. I doubt whether the internal architecture is that noteworthy.

The story even made it onto ESWN (No. 40).

Civilization IV

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but if you give me an afternoon…

First, there was Civilization, an addictive DOS game with clunky graphics. Then there was Civilization II, the very first game on CD-ROM that I ever bought. I still think of that as the classic version of the game, which I’d still be playing today if it ran under WinXP. Civilization III seemed to be a wrong turn in the franchise. Perhaps I was bored with the franchise, or perhaps the changes weren’t to my taste. And now we have Civilization IV.

As you’d expect, the game play is pretty much the usual – build cities; till the fields; expand, and be annoyed by the AI teams.

There are some new features such as Civics, Religions, and Great People. Civics have come from Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (SMAC). Instead of the old system of Despotism, Monarchy, Republic, Communism, and Democracy as available government types, each aspect of government has different options allowing the player to mix and match systems. Of course, this leads to anomalies such as Universal Suffrage, Slavery, and Theocracy. Like SMAC, there are clearly optimal choices which will be most beneficial to your society.

As the manual admits, Religion stirs up strong opinions; explains that seven religions were found to be the best number for the game; and the seven that were chosen were no reflection on the value of any other religions. Of course, Confucianism is not a religion. Among other things, Confucius was big on The Way (i.e., Daoism/Taoism) which is in the game. It would’ve been nice to see Humanism in the mix, but that’s kind of hidden in the Free Religion Civic. At this stage, Religion in the game is an interesting addition, but seems mainly aimed at keeping your querulous cits happy.

Great People are various major figures from history and fall into the categories of scientists, artists, merchants etc. When they’re spawned in a city, they can join it; contribute to research; trigger golden ages; found academies; and so on. They’re kind of like mini-wonders and are a nice little boost when they appear.

Two other changes are the removal of city riots and pollution. The former were a particular nuisance in Civ III because you’d have to monitor your cities almost every round to make sure that everyone was happy. The latter was a pain to deal with because workers took too much time dealing with pollution appearing on the same tiles again and again and again.

Workers now have a much wider range of actions to perform beyond building roads, mines, and irrigation. The Work Boat has the same function at sea, although it’s actions are more limited.

The AI teams seem about as dim as ever, unfortunately. I prefer to play the game as a world-builder, hence I don’t tend to waste much time on military units. Unfortunately, in the first game I played, the Aztecs got shirty, declared war, and conquered a couple of cities. That was dumb because I was technologically advanced enough and wealthy enough to have my remaining cities churn out Modern Armour. The Aztecs were only saved from a well-deserved drubbing because I won a space race victory. But it’s something that ought to have been addressed by now. If your opponent is technologically more advanced than you, and has stacks of cash, you shouldn’t be going to war against them.

From what I’ve seen so far, it’d seem that the AI teams no longer found cities in unviable geographical locations on the margins of your territory, which was one of the annoying habits they had in Civ II and Civ III. [10.09.08. Not exactly correct as I discovered in a recent game.] But in the game, you’ll occasionally get a visit from one of them recommending that you switch to the same Civic as them. My refusal to do so hasn’t resulted in a declaration of war, but I’m waiting for it to happen. The other irksome AI habit is their demand that you cease contact with some other civilisation. I think I rejected the Aztecs’ demands one time too many, and that’s why they went to war.

On this point, it’d be nice to be able to tell the AI not to ask some question ever again, and have the request respected.

The game defaults to seven civilisations, but I feel that for the standard map, this is too many. On the other hand, measures have been taken to prevent players from building as many cities as possible. You do, however, get to a stage where the game recommends that you should produce more settlers, even although there’s really nowhere for them to go.

I’d still like to see the option of each city being able to produce several improvements simultaneously. It seems odd that a city of over a million people is limited to making something faster rather than several things at once with only a minimal penalty on the speed of production.

At this stage, I generally like what I see in Civ IV. It seems to be a little more like Civ II and the changes make for an interesting new version in the series.

Quake IV

First, catch your Makron.

The Story

You are Matthew Kane a member of Rhino Squad and part of the army engaged in the assault on Stroggos. During the landing, your troop transport is shot down and you have to rejoin your squad. After taking out the air defence cannon, you board the Hannibal (the landing of which gets marks for stunning) to be briefed about a mission to destroy the Nexus, the Strogg communications network. It doesn’t quite go according to plan. In the interim, the Makron, who seems not to understand the phrase “Die, you bastard!”, captures you and attempts to turn you into one of his minions. You’re rescued and have the job of taking out the Nexus itself; killing the Makron a second time; and frying the Masterbrain. You get back to the briefing room only to hear that there’s another mission for you.

Game play

It’s pretty much what you’d expect. Unlike Doom 3, you’re often working with NPCs to complete the various assignments you get. It’s the usual sort of thing. Meet people; protect them; restore power; repair things etc. It’s kind of the stuff that you did in Half-Life and Half-Life: Opposing Force all those years ago. It’s not a lot different from some of the missions in Quake II, although you have to deactivate forcefields rather than find the red or blue or yellow key.

There’s still a certain amount of find-an-alternative-route play, but almost no crawling through ducts or confined spaces anywhere apart from a couple of instances.

The game play is also reasonably fast, and compares favourably with Doom 3. But there’s also a certain amount of predictability because you know when you walk into an area, monsters are going to be spawning somewhere. I still have a preference for monsters being present from the off rather than spawned in places where they weren’t a moment before.

Level design

As I’d expect from Raven, the level design is top quality, although I did notice a few flaws in passing, such as minor matters of texture alignment; sparklies; z-fighting between light and shadow, especially on brush faces in areas where the lights flicker; misoriented shaders (chain going around a rotating cog in two different directions; axle rotating in opposite direction to cog). But the flaws are fairly minor and mostly non-obvious. At least some might be the fault of my system rather than the game itself.

There’s also a spelling mistake. It’s Putrefaction.

Performance

The performance of most of the levels is well within acceptable parameters. There are one or two occasions, usually when there are a lot of monsters about, that the framerate takes a serious tumble.

Monsters

As far as I recall, most of the monsters from Quake II make a reappearance in Quake IV, albeit in the latest fashions hot off the Makron’s drawing board. The AI is all right, but they still have a tendency to behave a little dimly. There were occasions when I’d stumble across low-level monsters who barely reacted to my presence, but didn’t seem to be reloading their weapons, either. I noted at least one instance of a monster running into a brush instead of around a corner to get me.

Overall

Overall, Quake IV makes up for the somewhat disappointing Doom III, but I feel that the whole Doom/Quake franchise has had its day. The games are getting to be like books of the same genre. Once you’ve read one, you’ve kind of read the lot. After Half-Life, which actually had a strong storyline, the FPS was finished. All that they can do now is change the setting (e.g. American McGee’s Alice; Max Payne 2) and update the graphics. The former gives the games some life; the latter is just gloss.

Quake IV is well done, but I don’t feel it’s a classic partly because those days are over and partly because it’s not really offering anything new. Basically, it’s solid and reliable, but perhaps it’s time to move on.

[04.07.13. Edited formatting and added tags.]