Thursday, 25 October 2012

Work in Progress: WFTD

I had planned to have a second draft of WFTD completed by the end of October. That’s not going to happen, but I’m not too far off the mark. The short break I took from the work helped. When writing a first draft, I can sit for hours, hammering away at the keyboard for days on end. I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly healthy way to do it, as you emerge weeks later into the light, a withered, pale husk of a person. But a withered pale husk with a shiny new book!

But I can’t handle new drafts or revisions in the same way, I just burn out too quickly. I find it important to set restrictions on what work to do each day. So today for example, I plan to work on five chapters, and five chapters only. There’s always a temptation, if I finish earlier than I expected, to press on and keep going, to do five more. But it’s important to stop, take a break, or just, if I do want to keep writing, work on something completely different. Because I know if I do press on, I won’t be able to approach those next five chapters with the same level of quality or enthusiasm that I did the first. My attention will begin to fade, I might start to rush things, and I just won’t be happy with the end product.

You know, I’d love to be able to finish a draft, and then immediately wipe my memory of it once it’s done, so I can look at the work totally objectively. That would help a lot. But that would also make me forget all the fun I had writing it, which…wait, fun? What the hell am I saying, writing is a bloody nightmare!

I’ve now written over fifty posts on this blog. I never expected to do more than a couple before forgetting all about it, so I guess that’s something.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Now Playing: Dishonored

Dishonored is an excellent first person stealth/combat game. Set in a city in the midst of an industrial revolution, you assume the role of the bodyguard to the Empress. Framed for her murder, you escape captivity and set about restoring the rightful heir to the throne.

The setting is a wonderful mix of steam-punk science and forbidden magic colliding in a world rocked by a terrible plague. It’s a fascinating world, with a lot of history and subtle depth. The story itself is fairly straightforward and predictable, but it is engaging enough to compel you to play through to witness its outcome.

Its cast of characters (with good VA) are all varied, interesting people, but like the setting, the characterisation is incredibly subtle. This is because the player has the freedom to immerse themselves in this world as much or as little as they choose.

Talking to characters, playing audio logs, using the Heart tool and reading the numerous books scattered throughout provides more details and insight into the story and its characters, and also into the world, its history and culture. Its graphical style is reminiscent of Bioshock, which may not be to everyone’s tastes, but I found it quite fitting (although that shouldn’t excuse some rather shoddy textures in places) I also get quite a Half-Life 2 vibe – a city falling into ruin ruled by an oppressive regime. And a plucky resistance movement relying entirely on the actions of a mute weirdo.

Dishonored is split into eight levels, with a small hub section between most. It’s a game with two primary mechanics – combat and stealth. You can play to one extreme or the other (and doing so affects the ending cinematic and a few subtle changes to the game world during levels), or with a mixture of both.

Although you are an assassin, it is possible to complete the game without killing or alerting anyone to your presence. Or you can plough through as a murderous brute. Either way is extremely satisfying (although not particularly challenging – but I’ll get to that in a moment) thanks to the varied range of tools, weapons and supernatural abilities at your disposal, many of which can be used in conjunction in various ways.

The player is given a remarkable degree of freedom in how they choose to approach each mission. Will they use non-lethal stealth? Lethal stealth? Brute force? Or a mixture of all three? There are multiple routes to each primary target and solutions as to how you can choose to deal with them. There are also a number of optional side missions and plenty of collectibles, some for fun, others for upgrades. Dishonored's biggest flaw lies in its difficulty.

I’ve always thought of challenge as an integral component of this medium. I think it’s important a game, no matter what it is, presents some level of challenge to the player. Balancing a range of difficulties to cater to various skill levels can be tricky, I understand that. But challenge is important. It serves as an incentive to keep the player hooked, to improve, to win. Victory feels rather hollow if it isn’t earned.

But even on its hardest setting, I found doing a non-lethal/no alert run relatively easy, simply due to the fact that the player character is simply too powerful. Abilities such as Dark Vision totally breaks any tension from a stealth run. Blink, although smoothly integrated into the environment, really needed to be more restricted in its use, at least on higher difficulties. Possession seems balanced about right in terms of cost and duration, however. Slow time is undoubtedly fun, but makes combat runs way too easy, as you can calmly dispatch multiple attackers at your leisure.

I appreciate the variety of abilities available and having the freedom to use/combine them how I see fit, but it does seem like they needed to be toned down, or more restrictive in their use. Sadly, the only real challenge in Dishonored will come from player set restrictions.

Overall though, I’d still highly recommend Dishonored. It may not be groundbreaking, but it’s an excellent game with plenty of replay value and is certainly going to be in the running for a few Game of the Year awards.


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Between Planets

Progress on WFTD has stalled slightly. I’m currently working on part five and I’ve already made some extensive revisions to this section, but I’m still not convinced I’ve got it right. I know I can always push on and return to these scenes later – they won’t affect how things play out during the Exciting Conclusion – but I feel like I need to get them right before I can continue on. What I really need is Thinking Time.

So I figured I’d take a short break, step back and work on something new for a bit. If I ever feel a little creatively stumped, then looking at another project is always a good way to snap myself out of the funk. And I certainly don’t have a shortage of other projects to work on.

I’ve also been keeping myself busy with the recently released Dishonored, as well as continuing my ongoing Skyrim game. Dishonored, although not groundbreaking, is still very impressive, but I’ll talk more about that soon.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Now Playing: Rise of the Samurai (DLC)

Rise of the Samurai is a DLC mini-expansion to the excellent Shogun 2. The core Total War game play mechanics remain the same – turn based map strategy combined with real time tactical battles. Compared to Shogun 2 and its other, larger expansion - Fall of the Samurai - ROTS feels rather basic and doesn’t really add anything new to the formula.

It’s still pretty good though. I probably prefer the campaign side of ROTS to the battles, which get a tad repetitive due to the limited unit roster. I tend to only play the ‘key’ battles and let auto-resolve take care of the rest. Like Shogun 2, ROTS features a Realm Divide mechanic. I don’t hate the concept of the Real Divide, it certainly makes end-game more interesting than the slow steam-roll of the previous TW titles, but I don’t think it was particularly well implemented.

Although I can only play on medium settings because my PC would melt during the larger engagements, the game still looks really good, and it continues the trend of the excellent ‘art driven’ approach of Shogun 2, something I hope the developers continue with in Rome 2.

I’ve been a fan of the Total War series since the original Shogun, and I thought it was great that they essentially remade the title for the tenth anniversary of the series. It’s a series that I think has consistently improved, expanded, refined and gained more depth with each successive title. There have been bumps in the road (Empire on launch) but overall, I’ve been pleased with how the series has evolved.

I’m really looking forward to Rome 2 next year, although I think I’ll be needing a new PC for that. In the meantime though, I’ve got to finish this ROTS campaign, and I’ve still not started a proper FOTS game either, so there’s plenty to keep me busy.


Monday, 8 October 2012

WFTD: Structure

Work continues on the second draft of WFTD. One of the major things I’ve been looking at is the physical structure of the story and how it is presented to the reader. I originally structured WFTD into three parts, but that has now expanded to six. The question is: does it need to be divided into ‘parts’ at all? Well…yes and no.

You see, I’ll often break down a story into more manageable ‘chunks’ when I’m working on a draft in order to better plan my work schedule. Each part is saved into a separate file which I can then focus on independently. I prefer working like this rather than from a single, massive document. But WFTD wasn’t just split into parts because of my process, but because I saw the story as having three very distinct thematic acts. But some of the changes I’ve made - in particular to the chapter structure in the first part – means that’s not quite the case any more. The chapters are fairly short, especially compared to my last novel. I just hit chapter thirty seven and I’m barely into the third act. So I see the new split of six parts as the ‘real’ chapters of the story, simply broken down into many smaller pieces.

How and when to begin a chapter, or more importantly end a chapter, is one of the key things to get people to keep turning those pages. I don’t think pace is simply determined by the writing, but also by how the chapters are physically structured and presented. It obviously varies depending on the story and style but - too much, too fast and you can exhaust the reader. Breaking things down appropriately into bite size chunks can help keep the reader hooked, their attention never fading because every chapter is short and snappy.

As I said, this doesn’t work for every story. My last novel wasn’t broken into parts and the chapters were two or three times as long as those in WFTD. For now, I’ll stick with the six part structure until I complete this new draft. But once each piece is reintegrated into the whole, I’ll get a better idea of how the overall structure should work.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Now Playing: Jet Set Radio HD

Jet Set Radio HD is a wonderful update of one of my favourite games. Aside from some minor flaws and a few design decisions that may irritate the newcomer, JSR is damn near perfect. It’s not, I concede, as good a game as its sequel, Jet Set Radio Future, but even today, JSR has a freshness and a coolness about it that’s never really been matched.

It was the first game to really use cel-shaded graphics, a style that perfectly suited its wacky hyper-comic world and characters. It also has a fantastic, varied soundtrack, that not only complements its gameplay, but is seamlessly woven into it.

If you’ve never played JSR before, you may find the controls fiddly, the time limits irritating and the spray mechanics annoying. JSRF pretty much removed these issues altogether, but personally, having played the original on release, I don’t really mind them.

The game has a certain ‘score attack’ vibe to it, as you endlessly replay levels to attain the highest ratings and unlock an extensive collection of extra characters. This new HD version of JSR looks great and includes some nice little bonus features – some music tracks from JSRF (hopefully an indication a HD remake is in the works) and a short, but good documentary about the making of the game.

Jet Set Radio is a fantastic, funky blend of varied gameplay, music, style and art. It’s just pure video game joy.


Monday, 1 October 2012

Eurogamer Expo 2012

So I’m back from London and the Eurogamer Expo. I arrived on the opening Thursday at around noon, and there was still a queue to get inside even then. That didn’t take too long, thankfully. I went with a friend, and after getting through the doors, we took some time to look around, get our bearings and decide where to start. Although it was very busy, there was enough space to move and stand and check out the games being played, which was nice. But actually playing the games involved queuing up, sometimes for upwards of two hours. That wasn’t so fun.

Our first stop was at the Aliens: Colonial Marines booth. The queue wasn’t too bad, but it still required a forty minute wait to have a go at a five minute multiplayer demo. I came away quite positive from that. The videos I’d seen of Colonial Marines had all looked a little meh, but hands on, it played a lot better than it looked.

Having actually managed to get on a game, we were both ready for more, so we immediately headed over to the Nintendo booth to give ZombieU a try. Well, that was the plan. We queued for about an hour, which wasn’t too bad - we got to try out a tech demo with the WiiU controller while we waited and I was surprised at how light and comfortable it felt. But then we realised that the start of our queue was just the end of another queue, and we’d have another hour or so to wait before hitting the demo pods. We gave up, ducked out and headed back into the show.
We decided to go check out Dishonored (long, long queue) AC3 (long, long queue) and…yeah, they really should have sold official ‘I queued at Eurogamer’ merchandise. If I go again in the future, I’d definitely go better prepared. We tried to stop for some lunch, but the queues at the food places were as bad as the games. We ended up heading out and getting something outside.

My advice: arrive early, head straight for the most popular games first, and take food and drink with you. Even then, be ready to spend most of the day standing in line if you want to play stuff. I don’t mind waiting that much, I think I’m pretty patient, but some of the queues barely moved and the organisation wasn’t great from what I saw, particularly at the Nintendo booth. Overall though, we did have a good day out at Eurogamer. It’s a shame we didn’t come away with more free swag though.