Category Archives: Game reviews

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.

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.]