Friday, November 21, 2008

A Kingdom for Keflings

I used to play a lot of Warlords Battlecry on the PC years ago. I would spend a great deal of time building my cities and armies, often taking hours to complete levels that could conceivably be done in 15 minutes if I would stop building and start fighting. I did at one point play Warcraft III, and I was rather amazed at how it could do so well. The characters were about ten times the size, but they were almost cartoon-like compared to Warlords Battlecry, and the number of unit types and playable sides were pathetic in comparison. I was completely unimpressed, and when I later learned that they were going to create an entire world based on this game, I was dumbfounded. "Who would actually spend time here?" I wondered, bemused. "There's no way something like this will sell."

Yeah. Anyway….

I think the best way to describe A Kingdom for Keflings is, it is very much like Warcraft III (not World of…), but without the "War". You are, pretty much as the title implies, building a kingdom for a race of people called "keflings". You direct the keflings to go and get resources (lumber from trees, rock from quarries, etc.) and bring them back to the workshops. Once these workshops have enough resources stored, you can have them build building parts. Put certain building parts together on the ground in a certain configuration, and you'll have a new building. Of course, to know what parts build what buildings, you have blueprints; and to make things easier, when you have a blueprint selected, the ground will be highlighted where parts need to be placed to complete the selected building.

Instead of a "big metal hand in the sky" for directing the keflings and arranging building parts, though, you play as a giant, someone about four or five times the size of a kefling who walks among them. You can select from one of a few predefined giants, or you can play as your Xii. Ooh, exuberance. It's nice to be able to bring in your predefined avatar; probably even more interesting to play co-op with a friend's personalized Xii as well, but I haven't tried that yet. Probably an irritation about being a giant instead of a disembodied hand is that you are subject to the terrain, in that you can't move through buildings or trees — however, I have yet to be completely prevented from going anywhere, so it's more conjecture than anything. The huge advantage is, you can get involved in the game. If, for instance, you're waiting for more rocks before you can build the final piece to your building, instead of waiting for your keflings to mine it, you can go and mine it yourself (and, being a giant, more quickly and efficiently, too).

Occasionally, the mayor will get your attention and give you quests. So far, these have been really trivial tasks — build so many buildings, stock so many of such-and-such resource in the workshop. The rewards are little things, like love from the keflings ("love" is an item that is used to "activate" a house, bringing more keflings into your kingdom) or items that let you, as the giant, do bigger and better things (move faster, lift more resources at a time, etc.).

Constructing buildings unlocks blueprints for more buildings in a sort of "tech tree". For instance, building the stone cutter's shack, which lets you turn lumps of rock resource into a cut stone resource, unlocks blueprints for buildings whose parts are made of things including cut stone. It's kept fairly simple; in general, if you look at your list of blueprints and keep building the buildings at the bottom of the "tree", you can be pretty sure that it'll unlock the next building, and you'll have what you need to build it (or at least start collecting the resources for it).

It's a very casual game. There are no time limits, no enemies to attack or be attacked by, not even a natural disaster or disease to worry about. All you do is build, build, build. The game does a good job of hand-holding for the first few minutes and gradually letting go. The only real frustration I have is trying to remember, when I'm in the workshop, how many of each part I've already built and how many remain for the building I'm working on (as all parts in the current blueprint are highlighted, it's not a question of which, just how many). And when that's the only frustration (make a mistake and over-build, and you simply have to punch the part until it breaks down, then take the resources back to the workshop and try again), I think it can be said that this is a fairly low-stress game.

All in all, I think it's a pretty good casual game, and being the first Arcade game developed with Xii support (but not the only to support them; when the NXE launched, Uno and a few other games were immediately updated so you could play with Xiis in place of gamerpics), it makes a good entry for their "new and casual" theme Microsoft seems to be targeting with this whole New Xbox Experience.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Experiencing a new Xbox

I got the opportunity to upgrade to the "New Xbox Experience" a few days early. I haven't been entirely certain about this new dashboard, but I figured if I wasn't going to have a choice, I'd rather get in on it sooner than later. At the very least, maybe I could avoid the mass clogging of teh intartubez when everyone else tries to download it at once on the official release day.

I suppose we could start at the beginning, or the first thing that you have to do when you boot up the NXE and sign in, and that is create an Avatar. Are they just copying the Wii's Miis? The resemblance is undeniable (which is why I've dubbed this Xbox verson of the Mii a "Xii"). You are creating a cartoon-like humanoid with an oversized head that represents "you" (or whatever image you wish to project as a gamer). They are much more refined-looking than the Playmobil-like eggheads, though. I did get a chance to create Miis when I visited my mother, and this time around, I felt more like I was creating an actual character and less like I was creating a plastic toy. The customization options are at once more and less flexible than the Miis. You do have a range of face parts to pick from, however you can not fine tune their rotation, position, or dimensions as you can on the Wii. However, you also get to pick clothes for your Xii, something that on a Mii is limited to just shirt color.

I was originally ambivalent about the Xii. my avatar I was amused with Miis, but I didn't really become too attached to them. They were fun to create, but they were just toys. And yet, after booting up the new dashboard for the first time and spending 20 minutes or so creating this little "mini-me", creating a little person to go with the identity behind the gamercard that defines "CyberKnight", I was rather surprised with how attached I was to the little guy. So much so, in fact, that I was disappointed to find out how little he means to the New Xbox Experience.

You see, he only appears in one place: "My Xbox". And he's only there to present your motto when you go past your stats panel. That's it. If you elect to take a picture of him to use as your gamerpic, then that static image of him will appear in various places, too; but the full, animated character, for all his hype and all the rants and raves about him, just doesn't take that big a role.

Now, this is just the beginning. Actually, it's less than that; this is before the beginning. When the NXE officially launches, there are supposed to be four Xbox Live Arcade games that will be retrofit to support Xiis, plus the new retail Scene It? Box Office Smash and arcade Kingdom for Keflings games will support them. But, I'm not sure I want to have to boot up a game of Uno or buy a specific game to spend time with my Xii. And I'm not so sure I want games to start defaulting to using Xiis as character models. They'd be out of place on the stage in Rock Band, I think. They definitely wouldn't be appropriate in Call of Duty, and I'm reasonably sure we don't want to start putting Xiis in COG battle gear to fight locusts in Gears of War. I think a little more proliferation around the dashboard is in order. I'm not saying he has to keep popping up like Clippy ("It looks like you're trying to browse the Marketplace. Can I help?"), but having him show up somewhere besides just the one place would be nice, especially since I spent so much time putting him together.

Avatar created, you now go to the dashboard. It is, of course, very different. I'm sure you've seen pictures, so I won't bother describing it in detail. One thing I did notice when the new system was first demonstrated back at E3 was that not everything was on the screen at once. For example, in the old dashboard, you could see all five blades. You knew Marketplace was to the far left, Xbox Live was next, Games was to its right, Media was beside that, and System was at the far right. However, looking at the main level menu, you can't see everything. You only see four or five entries. And they expanded it, so there are more entries. When you're on an entry, how do you know which way to go to get to the one you want? Without just "knowing" that the My Xbox channel is at the bottom of the menu, you could potentially be scrolling up and down, not knowing if you were getting closer or further from it. (I've seen the extremely non-computer-literate try to navigate a menu when they have no point of reference. They will go back and forth like a ship lost at sea, rather than taking the more logical approach of going all the way one direction, and only when all options are exhausted trying the other way.) It appears they mitigated that a bit by making the menu loop, so you could keep going in one direction and eventually circle through everything, but it's still a little disorienting when you don't have a good point of reference.

The panels within a channel are just as bad. In the demo, the presenter went to the My Xbox channel four or five times, and I never saw his gamercard. I was starting to wonder where it went… until he happened to move left. When you scroll to the right (as apparently he had done off-camera once), items disappear off the left, and there's no indication that something is out there. This was mitigated a bit, too, before I got my hands on it, because whenever you enter a channel, you always are placed at the leftmost panel.

The panels have the same problem of not showing everything, though. Because the panels are so large, only three or four appear on the screen at a time. My Xbox has seven entries (that I can think of off the top of my head). For a new user, if you told them to find the System settings, this could be very difficult. Why? First, they'd have to go to My Xbox. Then, they'd have to scroll all the way to the right to get to the System panel. It doesn't sound hard, but consider that you can't see the System panel when you get to My Xbox. How would a new user know that it's there? They may end up going through each channel and having to scroll all the way to the right (and back, for fear of missing something) until they find the panel they want. Compare this to finding something on the old Blades, like, say, network settings: you see all five blades, and figure "System" is probably the best candidate. (Or maybe you don't make that assumption, and you have to page through each blade.) Once you get to the purple System blade, you can see right there, on the list of menu items, the "Network Settings" entry.

In many ways, it reminds me a lot of my first experiences with Vista. It's a lot of flash and a lot of show, but trying to dig in and find something is very difficult until you finally "just know" where it is. Except that Vista has a search function to help you find things.

Speaking of finding things, let's move on to the Marketplace channels. Instead of viewing text lists of titles, you now see cover art or movie posters. Graphically, this is much more interesting, however it does present an interesting problem. See, covers are not uniform. They are drawn in a variety of styles, with varying artwork or pictures. The titles, too, are in different places, styles, fonts, and sizes. If you don't recognize a movie or game by its cover, it can sometimes be a challenge to find the title, especially on a picture of the cover on the screen. Selecting a panel does often show a one-line text description below, but it is in a small, white font against a pale background, which is not easy to read on my 34" 1080i screen.

Also, browsing through game videos isn't terribly efficient. Go to the game video section, and you may see a few panels, all showing the same game's cover art. Without paging through each one in turn to read the pop-up text, you can't tell which Call of Duty video you're looking at.

There is a new Friends channel, which is where you can see your friends' Xiis (the only place, as far as I can tell). It's very graphic, showing each friend standing beside some structure, shack, or pile of stuff (which, as far as I can tell, is pretty meaningless, except it's based on the dashboard theme you've selected) and a picture of the game they're playing. Presumably, if your friends are in a party, you'll see them grouped together — I haven't seen that as of yet. Unfortunately, it's not terribly useful. You can only see the friend's name when you select them. (Parties, if the preview videos I've seen are still accurate, are worse, as the names are displayed one at a time for a couple seconds each, meaning you can't tell who's in a party with a glance.) And you can only see three or four friends at a time. It's all pretty much eye candy.

Fortunately, the old friends list still exists. The Guide button has been completely revamped to bring up what approximates the old Blades interface. The initial screen in the Guide is more compact, with fewer features presented at once, but it now has blades of its own to the right and left to view more functions. For all my complaints about the dashboard being hard to navigate and see things, the Guide is very familiar and much easier and more streamlined. I'm still getting used to the layout, as not everything is where I expect it to be, but it's a lot easier to flip the blades back and forth to find things. It is also very responsive, displaying and reacting to button presses much faster than the old blades ever did.

About my only real complaint so far with the Guide is that it is in the center of the screen, and when it appears it fades the background process (dashboard or game) very dark, making it very hard to see what's going on back there. This makes it very difficult if you're comparing information from the Guide to the game (like, say, comparing your friends list to your current Halo 3 party to see who's missing), or if you're waiting on something in the game and need to be able to see the game to know when it's time to close the Guide and get back to it.

Well, that, and I'm not too crazy about the color scheme, but that's purely aesthetic.

My favorite feature, though, is being able to install games to the hard drive. I tested this with two games so far: Fable II and Chromehounds. Other sites have already compared loading times for many games, including Fable II, and have documented the decrease. It's often just a few seconds off of a half-minute of time, not much to write about. It is quieter and supposedly decreases wear on the DVD drive, which are bonuses. However, what isn't mentioned as much is the "short loads" — the DVD accesses that occur while the game is playing. You can hear it in things like Fable II when you enter a new area. After the "long load", you are in the new town, and you can start walking almost immediately. However, some things will not have loaded yet. Sometimes people will be invisible until their character models are loaded, or the glowing trail hasn't been drawn yet as it's pulling more information from the DVD (you can hear quite a lot of access of the drive during this time). Quite often, this DVD access will cause a drop in frame rate. Also, when you hit the start button to bring up the menu, the DVD drive spins for a moment, resulting in a slight pause before the menu appears. With the game loaded to the hard drive, the majority of these delays are just gone; and when there is a lot of loading, the frame rate drop isn't there. Chromehounds benefited greatly as well, as not only were long loads noticeably reduced, but short loads (which were often depicted in the game with a spinning "Loading" icon) were almost too short to be seen. I suppose for this, I can be more thankful for the "opportunity" I had to upgrade to an Elite earlier this year.

Like it or not, the New Xbox Experience is coming. I'm not entirely sure I like the new dashboard. They seem to have sacrificed function for style, and I'm not sure that's not going to end up being simply confusing in the end once they get past the "wow, neat" factor and actually try to use the thing. The new Guide, though, is quite useful, and installing things to the hard drive (if you have the space) is a huge bonus.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Fable II

Ok, time for my review of my time in Albion.

Fable II is a pretty casual RPG. The story picks up many years after Fable I. In many ways, it feels like the same old Albion, but after the passage of time, it's definitely bigger.

Because of the sheer size of Albion, it can be a little daunting to figure out where things are. Fortunately, the game tends to lead you along to where you need to go next. When you set a quest destination, a golden trail appears that leads you along the path towards that destination. It's very similar to the footprint trail and the Marauder's Map used in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix game that made it very easy to find your way around what would've otherwise been a castle-sized maze. It's a convenience that lends it to more casual play. Additionally, you can "warp" to any destination you've already been, which makes it a lot less frustrating going back and forth between places that are geographically distant. If you find it too easy, though, you can always turn the trail off; however, the inaccessibility of the in-game map (which is only available via the pause menu and does not offer much in the way of markers or a zoom function) makes attempting to use it almost futile; so it's really a question of use the glowing trail, or nothing.

Combat is very simple to master. You have one melee weapon and one ranged weapon, and one button uses each. There is also one button for casting magic. This is probably the most complicated to set up, and even then it's not too difficult. You have five levels of spell, and what level you cast depends on how long you hold your spell button (a meter shows you what level you're about to cast). The spell that gets cast at each level is something you have to define, based on how many spells you've "purchased" with your experience points. But setting that up is very easy to do (and very easy to change with a really simple menu option). Once you have that set up to your liking, combat becomes fairly routine, as you'll have X, Y, and B for melee, shoot, and cast; all you have to do is decide what you want to do when, and press the button at will.

Clothing is pretty incidental to the game. While it does give you boosts in attractiveness or alignment, which can help you in interacting with NPCs, there is no "armor" component to them. You could effectively fight all your battles in your underwear with no penalty compared to fighting fully dressed. On the one hand, it does take away from the "RPG-ness", in that there's less you can do to build your character to prepare him for battle. However, on the plus side, it does give you the freedom to dress your character and make him look however you want, without having to sacrifice personal style for gameplay function. (Another choice for "casual play".)

Making money is pretty easy. Assuming you didn't abuse the glitch in the Pub Games and transfer in a million gold pieces (which, despite warnings to the contrary, did not result in any negative consequences to your character in Fable II), all you have to do is buy properties (houses, shops, food stalls). Money is automatically collected and deposited into your account in 5-minute increments. As an additional bonus, the game remembers when you played last, and the next time you start the game, it gives you all the money you would've earned if you had the game running in the meantime. (Some have found ways to abuse this by setting their system clock well into the future before starting the game.)

The story is pretty typical. You start as an orphan on the streets with your big sister. You see her killed, and an old blind woman ends up guiding you to become the next hero, destined to stop your sister's murderer from his grander scheme, which is to bring all of Albion under his rule. Along the way, you need to recruit three others who are also of the ancient line of Heroes and bring them together. You have your typical quests, which you can choose for good or for evil, which affects how people react to you and your general appearance. (It does not appear to have a direct impact on the game's storyline, as far as I can tell.) If you just stick to the main quests, you can probably finish the game in a weekend, much like Fable I. However, there is a number of side quests that come up that can substantially lengthen the game.

The multiplayer element leaves a lot to be desired. The way they chose to implement it, a second player can join in at any time. However, that second person joins in as one of a small set of pre-defined henchman, rather than bringing in their full hero. The hosting player chooses how the earned experience and gold is divided between players. Although the henchman doesn't bring much with him, the gold and EXP he earns can go back with him to his hero, so there is something to be gained.

While that is disappointing to those who want to compare heroes and have them fight side-by-side, I can understand it. It solves the problem of having a high-level hero and a low-level hero trying to play together, where one hero is essentially dragging the other.

The biggest disappointment to multiplayer, I found, is the lack of camera control. I guess the idea was to synchronize the experience on both consoles and to encourage (or force) teamwork, or to keep it from being too easy to get separated and lost, by making the camera fixed to both players; however, the henchman already has a quick option to return to the hero's side at the touch of a button. Not like it is really needed, since with the fixed camera, you can only separate by about 20 feet at most. The camera, therefore, only serves to limit your experience to a small window, one that often is pointing the wrong way to show you the direction you want to go (or the direction from which enemies are attacking).

One advantage to multiplayer is the achievements. Any achievement a hero earns in multiplayer is credited to both the hero and his henchman. Unfortunately, it really seems to be the only advantage to multiplayer; at least the only time I've played multiplayer is to earn or give achievements with someone else.

But it has brought out the Santa Claus in me; one of the more difficult achievements is the "Dollcatcher" achievement, as it requires collecting one of each of the five named "hero dolls" in the game. The trick is, the game will only give you one type of them. You may get more than one doll, but it will always be the same name. The only way to collect all five names is to get other people from Xbox Live to give them to you (as long as the game has chosen to give them a doll of a different name). Now, once you have all five dolls, the achievement will pop for you, but you can bring in a henchman and make a quick purchase at a gift shop in the game (which triggers a re-scan of your inventory, identifying that yes, you have all five hero dolls) and pops the achievement for your henchman.

After making some trades with some people in both Geezer Gamers and Achieve 360 Points forums (mostly in trade for the "Completionist" achievement — one that is possible to get on your own, but takes some extra effort, which I managed to do), I managed to get all five hero dolls. So now, I posted an offer in both forums. For nothing more than a message asking for help, I'll bring anyone in to give them the achievement. And since I already had the difficult achievements (I only had one left, which I've since earned on my own), I don't need anything in return. So I get to give away an achievement to a couple communities.

Yes, if you need the achievement, I can hook you up. Just send a message to me over Xbox Live. My gamertag is, well, pretty obvious if you're reading this blog.

All in all, I have really enjoyed this game. Could it be better? Absolutely. There could've been more consequences for your actions. (Good and evil does change how people react to you and your appearance, but it doesn't seem to really change the story.) There could've been more standard RPG elements (like armor, or more weapon choices, perhaps shields, or a requirement to choose between ranged and melee fighting styles with more than just a button press). Co-op could've been much better (a controlled camera, or independent views; ability to bring in your own hero, maybe with bonuses/handicaps to balance with the "host" so one player isn't doing all the work). The ending could've been much more climactic (without spoiling too much, it does end with not a lot of fanfare; although, to be honest, I don't necessarily mind that a game doesn't decide you have to endure a 20-minute boss-fight endgame *cough Halo 2 cough*). It could've been longer, with more main storyline quests (and more side quests even; they did start to get repetitious). But when it came to the end, I felt fairly satisfied. A good story was told, and I was a part of it.