Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Now Playing: Sonic Racing Transformed

I’ve never been heavily into racing games, but I’ve enjoyed several immensely down the years. There was the original Sega Rally, Metropolis Street Racer and F-Zero GX to name a few. But kart racers? I’ve played a few iterations of Mario Kart and fairly enjoyed them, but they never quite hooked me.

So I wasn’t quite sure about SART. I’d not played the first game and in fact, I hadn’t really touched any sort of racer for a few years. But when I saw it on sale at half price I thought I’d give it a shot, and I was surprised to discover what is certainly one of the most enjoyable, if not high quality titles I’ve yet played this year.

So this is a kart racer based around Sonic and other classic SEGA franchises. In fact, the entire game is practically a gushing love letter to those franchises new, old, popular and less known. Given that it was SEGA consoles keeping me occupied when I was younger, I guess this aspect of the game was always going to appeal to me regardless of the quality of the racing itself.

Tracks are based around classic SEGA games and levels, with the fantastic soundtrack being a remix of classic SEGA tracks. The courses are packed full of wonderful nods and details to the games upon which they are based. Sonic, Afterburner, Panzer Dragoon, Jet Set Radio & Burning Rangers (!) are a few of the settings on offer.

The graphics are bright, crisp and vibrant, and aside from a rare frame rate stutter on a couple of tracks when things get hectic, everything runs practically flawlessly. SART is a fantastic looking game.

In terms of gameplay, everything is pretty much spot on. The handling of the karts is responsive and solid. The courses are well designed. And above all, the game has an excellent learning curve that moves the player from Rank C races to Rank A, before unlocking the challenging S class difficulty. The racing itself is entertaining and addictive and weapons are well implemented and fairly balanced - none of them are too powerful to completely knock a character out of a race or to gain a significant advantage.

The game has several different single player modes in addition to a multiplayer option (which I’ve not tried yet). These include the expected single races and time trials, as well as a Grand Prix event. In addition to that, there is a World Tour mode featuring races, boost and drift challenges, battle races, versus races, mirror track races and even ‘boss’ fights. Through this mode you can earn stars to unlock new courses, characters and mods for karts. Characters can earn XP which also unlocks more mods. On top of that, you have unlockable stickers to customise your ‘license’ - not really important, but a nice little touch.

Overall, Sonic Racing Transformed is an absolute joy to play. Even if you’re not a big fan of SEGA franchises, the quality and challenging nature of the gameplay on offer more than makes up it. And if you are a fan, then you’ll probably fall in love with this game quite easily. The content is rich and varied. The game is sharp and colourful. The sound is excellent. The controls are smooth and responsive, and it features a challenging learning curve that will test the player. The only things I’d really want to improve upon is more tracks and characters based on more classic franchises (Virtual-On, Virtua Cop, Streets of Rage etc)

SART excels at everything it sets out to achieve. Highly recommended.


Sunday, 21 July 2013

Work in Progress: Zero Sample

So I'm pretty happy with ZS: Subject 42, and ZS: Fragments now. Aside from a final, minor edit, both novellas are ready for release. Their covers are now also done thanks to my fantastic cover designer and you can see the finished images here -

Although I really liked the black and white covers I previewed earlier, I find these final designs more striking with the little dash of colour to really catch the eye. I could release them now if I wanted to, but I'm still thinking about releasing the third ZS novella at the same time. That's something I'm still working on. I have the first chapter drafted out and I've planned the rest. I don't have a title yet though.

As I've said before, each novella is self-contained with its own story and central character. You can read them in any order, but by reading all of them, you gain a larger understanding of the world the stories take place in. And depending on what order you read them in, you may discover what happened to a character before, or after, the events of one story to the next.

In addition to this Zero Sample project, I've also been working on a re-release of The Great Journey and High Strangeness. Nothing major - just a few formatting edits which you probably wouldn't notice anyway if you've already read it. I've also added a contents page to The Great Journey.

My goal was to get all this stuff out by the end of July, but that might be pushing it a little. It really depends how quickly this last novella comes together. I guess it's time to knuckle down and get on with it.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Now Playing: Dungeon Siege 2

After growing rather tired of the original Dungeon Siege towards its end, I was hesitant to immediately leap into its sequel. Would it just be more of the same? Would it also grow repetitive and tedious? Thankfully, that wasn’t the case at all. In fact, Dungeon Siege 2 is a marked improvement over its predecessor in just about every area.

But to start, let’s get a few things out of the way first that I believe the original did better: 1) Music. Dungeon Siege had a great soundtrack, and whilst DS2s is still pretty good, it doesn’t quite match up to the original. 2) I missed the party formation and tactics options, and I don’t feel DS2 requires as much strategic approach to certain combat situations as in DS1. 3) Not being able to save where I choose. The game kicks you back to the nearest town when you start playing again. Not a major issue with the teleporters in place though.

My biggest issue with DS1 really was the issue of padding, of artificially dragging out the experience. There are a few areas in DS2 that feel similarly tedious to slog through (especially the final level), but on the whole, it’s no longer a problem, which is all the more impressive given that DS2 is larger and longer than the original.

This time around you play as a mercenary in service to a bad guy named Valdis. You know he’s bad because he wears all black armour and carries a massive sword. Shockingly, working for him isn’t the best idea ever and you soon find yourself locked in a cage and held by the resistance forces opposing him. Thus begins your journey across the land to reassemble an ancient artefact and defeat Valdis. Once again, the gameplay basically boils down to: click everything until its dead.

The UI is new, and a little ugly, but you soon get used to it. Classes are once again based around ranged, melee and magic (combat & nature), but there is more scope to specialise thanks to class specific skill trees, as well as different weapon types such as duel wield for melee classes. As you level up you can spend points in the skill tree to improve abilities or even unlock new super special attacks. As a result, combat is more ‘hands-on’ than in the original as you time and target special abilities, and there’s more room to tailor your characters to a certain style.

There’s a good variety of locations to fight through, which all feel much more tightly and purposefully designed than in DS1. They never drag on for too long, and you’ll find plenty of rewarding side areas to explore. The quest system has been totally overhauled, with 3 main acts of primary quests, as well as dozens of secondary ones. These involve a little backtracking here and there, but with the new teleportation system, you’ll never be too far from where you need to go.

The game journal has been improved with a ton of lore and information updated as you explore. And unlike DS1, the main quest actually keeps you invested in the experience and your progression. This is aided by an expanded level of decent voice acting for NPCs throughout the world, as well as your own companions.

Companions in DS2 actually feel more like people than just collections of stats to add to your team. Some of them have their own unique quests to be completed. They also chip in at certain situations with their own views on things. It gives them a little personality which the original was sorely lacking. Pack mules return to carry your stuff, but there are now several new pet types too, all of which will level with you by ‘feeding’ them gear.

Enemy variety is decent again as you progress. The environments are nice and detailed, certainly a lot better than a lot of the flat, empty levels of the original. The world feels more alive and real. There are a few CG cut-scenes here and there to advance the story. There’s also more feedback to the player during combat and a vastly improved local and world map system.

Overall, DS2 is a much more polished and refined title than its predecessor. It’s packed with not only more content, but higher quality content. It addresses and fixes the major failings of the original with only a few missteps of its own. Graphically, it still holds up well today. It’s certainly easier than the original, but DS1 was more frustrating than truly challenging. It’s an improvement in just about every area. Recommended.


Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Zero Sample Covers (WIP)

Here's the current covers for my two upcoming novellas. They still need a few tweaks, but they're already looking great. My thanks to my cover designer -

I'm still working on the (possible) third novella. I'm not sure if I'll release it at the same time as these two, but we'll see how it goes.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Now Playing: 400 Days (DLC)

400 Days is a new DLC episode for The Walking Dead. It’s intended to bridge the gap between Season 1 and the upcoming season 2. At 3.99, you get about 50-60 minutes of ‘gameplay’, and I use that term rather cautiously. It connects very, very loosely to events in the ‘core’ game, although how much impact choices you make in 400 days will have in Season 2 remains to be seen.

I rather enjoyed TWD, but it’s not a particularly good ‘game’ as such. As I said in my review, the gameplay is incredibly basic. However, despite this, the core game benefited from an engaging, unfolding narrative and characters we grew to care about. This is something 400 days, due to the way it is presented, lacks. Because there is no ‘story’ as such. What you get is essentially five loosely connected stories. Although ‘stories’ is probably the wrong word. They’re more like snapshots of a specific situation in a character’s life.

They take around 10-15 minutes each to complete and all of them are decent enough to a degree. But due to their short nature, we never really get to know or care about the people involved. Some of the characters do seem pretty interesting, and it’s a credit to the writers that they were able to cram as much characterisation as they did into such a short frame of time, not just for the playable characters, but some of the side characters too.

But will these characters return in Season 2? I hope at least some of them do, hopefully more than just a cameo, or I’d wonder what the point of this episode was exactly. I guess you could just view it as a small (and fairly cheap) bonus to whet our appetites for the next season, but on that front, it actually leaves me a little concerned.

One of the things I wanted to see in Season 2 was an expansion of the gameplay mechanics of 1. More variety. More player interaction. A more branching narrative, featuring choices with real impact. But 400 days doesn’t really have any of that. In fact, it’s even worse than the core game in terms of player interaction. A lot of the five segments play out as little more than extended cut-scenes, requiring the player to push a button occasionally to trigger the next cinematic. There are a few small moments of exploration/investigation, but they are largely pointless. I get that this is only intended to be a small ‘bonus’ episode as such, but still, I sincerely hope this isn’t a sign of how Season 2 is shaping up.

As I said, how 400 days will tie into the second season remains to be seen, but if you’re a fan of the original, I’d say it’s worth ‘playing’, if just for the chance to carry over more personalised choices. But that’s about it really. The writing is good, and it was good to see such a varied cast packed into such little content. There’s some funny stuff too, some (potentially) interesting choices, and overall it’s enjoyable enough. But it really all depends on how it’s followed up on. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Work in Progress: Zero Sample

Okay, so I guess it's time to reveal the title of the series of novellas I've been working on. They will be called Zero Sample. They're primarily aimed at the older YA market, but I'm sure anyone older will still get a real kick out of them. I have drafts of two completed now. Zero Sample: Subject 42, and Zero Sample: Fragments. I'm debating whether to release a third as part of this first 'season' at the same time, perhaps with all three collected into a 'complete' edition. I'm going to draft out some ideas for that now, but I won't push back the release of the other two for it.

Each novella stands alone, telling its own story, with its own central character, though they do all interconnect. You can read them in any order, but by reading all of them, you get a more complete picture.

I'm always looking to try new things with my writing. Different genres, different types of characters and situations, different styles and structures -  and I'm pretty happy with how this project is coming togther.

Covers for the two novellas are pretty much done, and I'll preview them here soon, but if you want a sneak peek, head on over to  -

Having those covers in advance was certainly good motivation to finish writing the bloody things. If all goes well, expect to see them released by the end of this month at the latest.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Now Playing: Dungeon Siege

I recently picked up the Dungeon Siege bundle in a sale on Steam. The only game I’d played in the series was the original, back on release in 2002, so it seemed like a good place to start. Dungeon Siege is essentially a fantasy action-RPG. You assume the role of a male or female ‘farmer’ who embarks on a quest from his or her humble beginnings to save the Kingdom of Ehb and become a great hero. You do this by clicking on things repeatedly until they fall over.

You can pause the action and issue specific orders. This is one area of the game I really liked - setting party formations and specific character responses (defend, move freely, target closest etc) which becomes all the more important on higher difficulties and introduces a welcome tactical element to battles.

You can play solo, if you want, although I don’t think I hate myself enough to try it. You can recruit up to seven companions on your quest, and classes are comprised of the typical melee, ranged or magic users. You can also add a pack mule to your team to carry all the crap you pick up, which is still a nice little touch and rather irritating when the bloody animal gets killed and drops everything. If you’re anything like me, a big part of games like these is fiddling with the inventories until everything fits. I leave no loot behind.

There’s a fair variety of locations and environments in the game, which still look decent enough today, although the character models are rather dated. There are some cool magic effects and animations here and there, but overall, combat is all a little basic and largely just revolves around guzzling potions and hitting stuff until it dies.

Which wouldn’t be so terrible if I had a reason to care, but unfortunately, Dungeons Siege’s story is rather dull and not very engaging. There’s no real quests in the game as such, mostly it’s just a case of travelling from point A to point B and killing everything in between. Occasionally you get a side quest to deviate off the main path and kill something else. But there’s not really a lot else going on from a story or character perspective.

Traversing the world is a bit of a pain. I really don’t know how anyone gets about in the world of Dungeon Siege given that bad things want to kill you pretty much every couple of feet. This isn’t such an issue early on in the game, but it becomes increasingly tedious as the game progresses. Many areas just boil down to long, winding paths which are required to reach the next ‘quest’ point and just feel like filler sections to pad out the game and slow the player’s progress. Occasionally you may find the odd secret lair or mini-boss if you explore the area, but the rewards aren’t often worth the time or trouble it takes to backtrack.

There are also some sections which just feel rather pointless because they play no role in the progression of the story, or they’re just designed in a way to slow the player as much as possible. In particular, I really hated the swamp level, which felt like a ridiculously long trek just to reach the next destination. And following that – the goblin lair. Whoever designed this level is a cruel, cruel individual, as it frequently throws lots of heavy ranged damage types at you, often bunched together in small environments with little room to manoeuvre.

I don’t mind a challenge, but there comes a point when it just starts getting rather frustrating. I eventually bulldozed my way through it, but it’s an annoying trick the game plays again towards the very end, as it forces you through an incredibly long and tedious grind of enemies which almost seems endless. Honestly, approaching twenty hours into Dungeon Siege this time around, I was getting rather sick of it. There was little to encourage me to continue forward from the story side of things, and although the gameplay was okay, it grew so repetitive and tiresome as the game wore on that I pretty much lost all interest.

Fortunately, not all of the levels feel like filler and some are very well designed. There’s a nice sense of progression as you level up, plus the expected gear upgrades. There’s little in the way of player feedback in terms of damage dealt or received which is something I missed from playing more recent, similar games such as Torchlight. The map system is crap, it has to be said, but the game does have a great soundtrack. Enemy variety is okay, although as I said, it throws them at you so much they too, get repetitive. And sadly, the ending is rather lame and anticlimactic.

Overall, Dungeon Siege wasn’t quite as enjoyable as I remembered. It’s still a solid enough action-RPG, and for those of you who appreciate a challenge, that’s something Dungeon Siege can certainly offer. But it’s a game with a lot of padding and a lot of repetition. You need patience to see yourself through it, and if you don’t like the sound of spending 3-4 hours slowly grinding your way through the same seven enemy types in the same dungeon, then this probably isn’t the game for you.


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

By His Bootstraps

So it’s July. Work on ZS is still progressing. I’ve been a bit busy with a few other things recently and that’s slowed me down, but I’m still aiming for an end of the month release. The cover art is pretty much done. Book 1 is done and just needs some edits. Book 2 is just over half done. My writing time has been a little limited of late, but I hope to find more free time over the next couple of weeks to finish things.

I’ve also been doing something of a spring clean/tidy to clear out some old junk and make room for my new PC. I’ve picked out all the parts I want now, and I’ll probably look to order soon. Before the end of July, I think. I’m still waiting on a few other bits and pieces to be delivered, but once those are in place, everything will be set.

I haven’t had much time lately for games either, but I’ve got a couple of reviews written out and ready to go, one is actually a month or so old, I just haven’t gotten around to publishing it yet. It looks like July is going to be another busy month. Hopefully by the time August rolls in I’ll have pretty much everything done and I’ll be able to sit back and relax for a bit. I just got things set up so I can play some of my old GameCube games again. They should keep me occupied until Rome 2 arrives.