Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Loki: Heroes of Mythology

Genre: RPG, Action (Isometric, Real time, 'click fest'/Diablo Clone)
Developer: Cyanide Studios
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Released: 2007

Zolgar paid: $14.99 (for a 3 pack that included Loki)
Beaten: Not yet.
Zolgar's rating: 7/10
Replayability: Decent to High

I am always on the hunt for new Action RPG/Diablo Clones, looking for my latest fix. Diablo defined the genre, and Diablo II raised the bar, making Diablo II the mark which we compare all others to. Loki measures up semi-favorably. In some ways it greatly surpasses Diablo II, in others it falls short.

Loki offers us 4 character classes, each one with 3 skill trees to work up. The classes are traditional Action RPG fare: a big burly fighter, a dex-driven ranged or melee fighter, a classic spellcaster, and a summoner. I'll cover the characters in more detail later but, in the modern scheme of things 4 classes is a little weak. (Diablo II had 5, 7 with the expansion, Sacred had 6, 8 with the expansion, Sacred 2 had 6.)

Otherwise as far as mechanics go, it's fairly standard fare. Run around, click to attack, right click to cast a spell, hit a number key to change spells, etc. the same controls as any other Action RPG, making it very easy for a new player to drop right in to. Well, after they customize their potion hot keys.

Loki offers us a very basic story, in fact if you change a few key words it's Diablo II's story. Set as been resurrected and is on a path to take over the world! So you must follow him through a jungle, a desert wasteland, a frozen tundra, temperate planes, and even outside of time itself! One thing that is nice for both replayability, and continuity however is that in Loki each class starts in a different area, making the chronology of the story different depending on what class you play.

As I write the rest of this I will try to assume that you've never played Diablo II.

Basic gameplay:
There are 5 areas, each containing a base city and multiple zones filled with monsters. You use the city to shop, offer sacrifices to your god (I'll explain later), and receive/turn in quests. Once you have a quest you venture in to the wild to kill everything that stands in your way (and of course, take it's stuff) until you reach the quest objective, then you go back to town.

When it comes time to return to town, you activate your Teleportation Stone, which gives you a list of zones you can transport to instantly. Unfortunately, there's no portal directly back to right where you left from, but instead only the start of the zone.

The plot line is, as I expressed above, very simple. Much like (most of) the rest of the genre, the plot exists simply to keep you killing and moving from one place to another. The real motivation in a game like this is to kill awesome baddies, get awesome loot and become more powerful. Once you've beaten the game, you can turn around and start it again on a harder setting with tougher foes and better loot. Once you beat that, you can do it again!

Critters scale in level as you go, so always be a 'proper challenge' for you. That said though, the game is pretty hard for a game of it's style. In most games of this style, at first most foes are 1, maybe 2 shots to take down for the lowest damaging classes and the only way you will die is if you're stupid. Loki? Not so, all but highest damaging characters are going to have at least 3 hits for most foes, and your foes? They hit hard, have special abilities and, come in swarms. The start of the game feels more like the endgame of most other games in this genre.

As you fight, you will notice a 'rage' bar creeping up, once this is full you get 'Revitalized' (a short lived state of extremely fast regeneration). Even with this though you're probably going to die a lot, depending on your character and build choice. Death is only a minor inconvenience in Loki though. When (and not if) you die, you simply respawn at the start of the zone you are in, all the foes you killed stay dead. In so far as I have seen, there's no real penalty for dying, unless you count the 2 minutes to run back to what killed you.

One very nice feature of Loki, is when you reload your game it gives you the choice between 'continue' and 'restart'. If you continue, the world is exactly how you left it when you last played. If you choose to restart your character and quest progress remain the same, but the world respawns. So if you're big on following the plot, continue! If you just want the most XP and phat lewt, restart!

A major complaint I have with it, however, is it doesn't have a 'shared stash', or anything that allows for easily transferring items from one character to another. When almost all of the gear in the game is class specific, this kinda sucks.

Loki also is currently the only game I have found to date that made me wonder how the heck to sell items. Once you figure it out, it's actually a very nice system though. Your inventory is divided in to 4 sections: Weapons, Armor, Objects and Kiosk. If you don't understand the first three.. I can't help you, sorry. Kiosk though, nothing automatically goes in there. Instead, when you right-click an item from one of the other 3 sections, it's sent to the kiosk. When you visit a vendor, you go to Sell, and then the Kiosk tab, and there's a 'sell all' button.

Basic inventory management while you're hunting makes selling a snap.

In Loki, each of the four characters comes from a certain mythology and each of their three skill trees is represented by a deity they worship.

One strange mechanic is that your skills are independent of your level. In each town there is an altar which allows you to choose which deity you are worshiping at the moment. If you have a deity selected, 25% of your XP goes instead to your 'Faith'. Faith is basically a second XP pool for your skills, and when that fills up, you get a skill point for the deity you are currently worshiping. While this mechanic makes it more challenging to play a character with multiple skill-trees, there's another mechanic which helps.

At the above mentioned altar, there's also the option to sacrifice unwanted magic items to your god. Each magic item is worth 5% of it's sale value in Faith, so if an item would sell to the vendor for 1000 gold, you will get 50 Faith for it. This does lead to you being able to indirectly buy skill points, with very weak returns though. The resale price of an item is 15% of what you paid for it and you get 5% of that. So for 10,000 gold, you get 75 Faith points. As a reference, to go from Faith level 13 to 14 you need about 3300 Faith.

While you can reset your skill choices any time you feel like it (for a sum of gold based off of your Faith level), you can only reset as far as your skill tree. Skill points earned in one tree are forever in that tree.

OK, so before I got slightly distracted by that little rabbit trail of a weird mechanic, I was going to give you a rundown of the classes.

Norse Hero:
The Norse hero is the classic barbarian. Tough as nails, strong (and dumb) as an ox, purely focused on melee fighting.
His skill-trees are:
Thor: Two-handed weapons, lightning damage and a lot status affects.
Tyr: One-handed weapons (with dual-wielding later on), speed focus, and a lot of self buffs.
Odin: Spear focus, ice damage, and some traditional spell casting, including summons.

While the Norse hero has a lot of hit points, he has to choose between hitting hard and slow, or light and fast. This tends to lead to hitting healing potions as fast as they're available. Although due to his high HP, he does tend to be able to hold out for his Revitalized state better than most.

Greek Hero:
The Greek hero is the 'dexer', choosing between ranged combat or high speed melee combat and focusing on being harder to hit.
Her skill-trees are:
Ares: Fire, poison and status traps.
Artemis: Archery, with regular, poison and ice arrows.
Athena: I like to call Athena the 'Xena' tree. 1 handed sword or chakram and shield.

The Greek hero has two distinct options for play style. Melee, relying on a high parry and good defense to avoid dying. Or kiting everything and shooting it with a bow. Both options are viable, and an assortment of traps can make both options even more viable. If you choose melee, be prepared to die a fair bit early on, and spend a lot of money on health potions.

Egyptian Hero:
The Egyptian hero is the spell caster, choosing between raw damage, damage with a summon, or damage and debuffs.
His skill trees are:
Ra: Fire, fire and more fire. Mmm fire.
Horus: Lightning damage, and a Mummy pet that deals poison damage.
Set: Dark damage and debuffs.

The Egyptian hero plays like a spellcaster should, blast and run. However, he seems to be the most powerful class at early levels, a basic fire blast 1-shots most things, and the game seems to pretty much be built for kiting things that aren't dropped in 1 shot.

Aztec Hero:
The Aztec hero is the hardest to classify as a classic archetype. Druid is probably the best fit for her, choosing between summons, shapeshifting and Spirit magic.
Her skill trees are:
Quetzalcoatl: Summoning, able to summon a mage, giant praying mantis and giant spider.
Tezcatlipoca: Shape Shifting, Jaguar and Spirit forms.
Miclantecuhtli: Spirit magic, a strange buff/debuff/damage set.

I will confess to not having played the Aztec hero much.. honestly, the only set that really appeals much to me is Teza... the shape shifting set, and at low levels.. that set sucks. The Aztec hero decidedly lacks the durability to be in melee, which both her alternate forms are built for. It seems however, if you can put up with the repeated deaths of early levels, by the 20s a Shape Shifting Aztec hero will be a powerhouse.
In regards to her other two sets, the summon set has an interesting trait, requiring you to take skills for your pets to have, and essentially choose which skill they will have when. The Spirit set looks like it has a lot of potential, but also has a pretty sizable weakness as well, almost all of it's abilities require being within a certain range of a totem.

Over all, I find the balance of the character classes far more skewed than is normal for an action RPG, and even with the minimal penalty for death, the amount you die on some builds, even early on, is extremely frustrating.

As a final thing to mention, the multiplayer:
I didn't give the multiplayer a try, however Loki's multiplayer uses your Single Player characters. This means it accesses characters stored on your hard drive, which means that, like oldschool Diablo, multiplayer will be full of cheats and hacks.

While most of the cheats I found didn't work too well, I didn't look a lot. The infinite gold bug worked well though. (I don't normally cheat in these games, but I was hoping to give a better idea of the different skill-trees without playing 12 characters in total.)

“For a blatant Diablo II rip off, it's not that bad.”

Availability and price:
Impulse: $9.99 (Or $29.99 with a 3-pack)
Steam: $9.99
Ebay: $2+

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Special update: Dirt-cheap Indie bundles.

Salutations my loyal readers.. all.. 2 of you.

I come to you this fine day with a special notice, you can get 11 indie-developed games for the low-low price of $10! How awesome is that. Not only do you get games for less than a buck a piece, but you can also support indie developers.

I haven't played any of these yet, I'll admit.. so they might all be dogs, it's a risk I'm willing to take for SCIENCE! though. If nothing else, both of you will be able to enjoy me ranting about how terrible the games are in a few weeks. I'm still supporting indie developers, too. I support indie developers, even if their games suck, just like I do with musicians.

So, I bring you:
$5 for 5 games
-Delve Deeper
-Spring Harmony
-Steel Storm: Burning Retribution
It asks for personal info, all you have to give it legitly is an email. You'll probably get spam for it, but that's what an email devoted to spam and advertisements is for!
*Download links may not last forever.

$10 for 6 games, save 50% if you share it on failbook.
-City Rain
-Bob came in pieces
-Lylian Paranoid Friendship 
If you don't have a failbook, or don't want to share the link with your friends, you can pay the $10, still not a bad deal.
*Download link will work 9 times.

All games are DRM free, so if you're concerned you can always burn them to a backup disk as soon as you download the installers.

Act now though, these deals will expire in a week!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition

Genre: FPS
Developers: 3D Realms
Publishers: Apogee
Released: 1996

Zolgar paid: $5.99
Beaten: Not in a long time.
Zolgar's rating: I cannot give this game a simple numeric rating, there's too many factors involved.
Replayability: Low to Moderate

How does one review a game like Duke Nukem 3D?

By modern shooter standards, if you pick up and play DN3D today, it sucks. It has terrible graphics that have not aged well, the good old fashioned “pixel hunt” for secret doors, and controls that a modern gamer will find impossible to use.

Yet if we travel back to the year 1996, we had a lot of shooters to choose from. The 'old faithful' Doom (and the rest of it's series), Heretic, HeXen, Wolfenstein 3D, as well as a few most have never heard of. Quake would be released soon, and Team Fortress would come near the end of the year... but right at the beginning, we got.. the Duke.

Duke Nukem implemented a lot of new things, and was a major contributor to the modern FPS. It gave us flight, it gave us buffs and items that could be stored in our inventory until we needed them. It gave us a full 3D experience, looking around, aiming at foes flying above us.

DN3D also influenced the gaming industry in another way. It proved that the gaming industry had balls, and introduced adult themes in to more mass-market games. Hell, the first two levels take place in an adult theater, adult bookstore and strip joint.

Lastly there's the humor. The game is full of sight gags, finding such iconic characters as Luke Skywalker, Snake Plisken and, Indiana Jones laying dead. A Duff Beer blimp, Duke Nukem arcade machine, Balls of Steel pinball table, and the list goes on. Add to that the things Duke says... my favorite is still when you 'use' the Duke Nukem arcade machine “Hmm, don't have time to play with myself.”

Those factors combined, 3D Realms created a game that, to this day, still has a cult following.

Duke Nukem 3D picks up where Duke Nukem 2 left off. Yep, it's the 3rd in the series! Duke Nukem and Duke Nukem 2 were actually side scrolling platformers. Duke is returning from Earth after saving the world from an alien menace, and looking for a little uhm.. R&R, when his ship gets shot down over LA “Damn, those alien bastards are gonna pay for busting up my ride.” and so, he sets off on kicking ass and chewing gum (and he's all outa gum), uncovering an alien plot to use human women to breed a queen.

By modern standards, it has little to no story, but back then, the little end of episode cut scenes were quite a bit of story.

Mechanically, DN3D plays like an oldschool FPS. Mouse to move and shoot, awkward keyboard options. Run around the levels and shoot everything that moves, get better guns to shoot tougher foes. Solve basic puzzles. Bosses are fought in the classic style of keep shooting them and avoiding being shot by them, none of that newfangled 'knock the boss in to a propeller' or 'electrocute the tentacle monster' bullcrap.

Graphically. Come on, it's from 1996! The entire game file is a whopping 27mb (by way of comparison, my DarkSpore folder is a little over 4gb), the graphics were decent at the time.

All hope is not lost though. As I mentioned earlier, DN3D still has a cult following. There's two little things you can get:
Eduke32 and the High Res Pack (HRP)

Eduke32 provides a lot of engine upgrades for DN3D, allowing you to have a fully customized control scheme, and defaulting the control scheme to that of a modern FPS.

Meanwhile the HRP updates the graphics of DN3D to put them on par with a FPS from just a few years ago. If you really want to, this also supports the graphics pack that makes the women of the game a little less.. family friendly. (No sorry, I won't link you to that.)

These two things combined make DN3D able to be put up next to a modern shooter, and while it's age will show, it can still compete. It also reminded me of why it was that many hours of my teenage years were wasted on DN3D.

As if that weren't enough, however.. you can also still manage to track down the 3 semi-official expansions: Nuclear Winter, Life's a Beach and, Duke it Out in D.C. Giving you 3 more episodes and 3 new stories to play.

But honestly, even that's not enough.. and besides, those expansions kinda suck. One you're saving Santa Clause, and one you're saving BILL CLINTON! There's also countless user created mods out there, which do everything from add a few levels to make an entirely new game. (I'm sure you're capable of finding those on your own.)

Hail to the king, baby.”

Availability and price:
GOG: $5.99
Impulse: $5.99
Amazon: Not very budget friendly.
Ebay: $5+

Monday, June 13, 2011

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura

Genre: RPG, Action/Tactical (Isometric, Real time and/or Turn Base)
Developer: Troika
Publisher: Sierra/Activision
Released: 2001

Zolgar paid: $5.99
Beaten: Multiple times.
Zolgar's rating: Vanilla 7/10, Mod/bugfix'd 9/10
Replayability: High

Arcanum, like the other two Troika titles, is a flawed masterpiece. The detail work they put in to the world and story is, as always, top notch. However, as always, their quality control was slightly lacking, leading to a very buggy release. Developers and fans, however, have continued to support it long after Sierra tossed it aside as rubbish, and there are a great number of bug-fixes and quality of life mods. Meaning that while the game is worth dealing with the bugs, you don't have to.

I was exposed to Arcanum early in my RPG days, and before I even knew what Steampunk was. I have to say, it really fueled my love of both. To date, it is the closest I have found to what Fallout 3 should have been, probably because it was made by the guys from Black Isle, creators of Fallout 1 and 2 (as well as many other great titles).

Arcanum is one of the few RPGs I've found to have an almost completely nonlinear story, that lets you decide if you want to be the hero, be a villain, or just get rich and say screw the story; yet at the same time, it makes it very easy to pick the story back up, no matter how distracted you've been with side quests or just trying to make enough money to get loaded up on bullets.

The story opens up with a CGI cinematic (that for it's time was very well done) of orcs attacking a Zeppelin from weaponized flying machines, followed by you finding a dying gnome who gives you a ring and tells you to “Find the boy”. What does this ring mean, who was this Gnome, who is the boy and why is he important? The game starts off leaving you to wonder that, but doesn't give you much time to ponder, as you're immediately greeted by a slightly under-educated religious fanatic who swears you are 'the one'.. and then meet an assassin bent on killing you.

Are you 'the one'? Why does everyone want to kill you? What was up with that gnome? I could tell you, but I'd spoil the plot. Instead I'll drift in to the mechanical side of things.

Character creation:
Much akin to Fallout, Arcanum lets you choose between one of several pre-made characters (those of whom are not played are found dead in the wreckage of the Zeppelin, for a nice touch of continuity), or making your own.

If you choose to make your own, you are treated to a selection of 8 races (Elf, Gnome, Dwarf, Halfling, Half-Orc, Half-Ogre, Half-Elf.. oh and Human), and of course a gender selection (which does have a mechanical effect). And as an added bonus they can choose a 'background' which gives some minor mechanics bonus and penalty.

Then it's on to choosing your focus. Are you tech or magic oriented? Do you prefer melee or ranged combat? Or how about talking your way out of fights? Do you buy things, or craft them out of scrap and refuse you find laying around? You will want to do it all, unfortunately, you can't.

When you you think you're finished, you're given a vendor screen, which you can choose what you want to start with, very convenient!

When you enter the game proper, there's something that you will notice right off the bat. This is 'old school' compared to a lot of modern games. There's no respawn (save and save often!), it's rather unforgiving if you're less combat oriented (not like say.. Baldur's Gate, but still pretty bad), and it's the type of game where you explore everything, and take anything that isn't watched by guards.

When it comes to combat, you have 2 options. Real time or turn based. When in turn Based mode, the game uses an Action Point system. Any action you take requires X points, run out of points and your turn is over. In real time mode, your Action Points reflect how fast you can do things. This can make the game slightly broken late game with a speed build, while early in the game real-time moves too fast and is suicidal.

Then there's the non-combat side of things: the many skills you have at your disposal!
This game is built for skill monkeys, almost everything can be bought or stolen if your skill is good enough. With a good stealth and lockpicking, you can slink in to a vendors shop and steal -everything- they have.. Or you can pick their pocket and steal the key to their shop.

Most of the plot-centric fights can be avoided with words, if your skill is good enough, as well people skills will get you better quests, discounts on wares, and maybe even a good time. Think I'm kidding? An attractive female can get work as a hooker. You can also get followers to fall for you, which can make for fun issues when more than one follower starts to fall for you and they get jealous of eachother.

Can't forget about followers. Throughout your adventure, you will meet a lot of crazy people. Some want to help you, some have to help you, some you can pay to help you. Depending on your charisma, your alignment and your tech/magick lean, you can get different followers, and more followers based on your charisma.

Followers are useful, depending on your build. Virgil, the prior mentioned religious nutter, is your first follower, and you can manipulate what he does a little. Most others have a certain focus, so clearly, if you're a tech oriented gunslinger, you'll do best with a nice sturdy meat shield to protect you, and maybe a rogue-type to handle locks.

In the vanilla game, your followers have kinda crappy skill distribution, however, you can get mods that change that, or there's a character editor you can download, that also edits your followers.

And finally we come to my personal favorite mechanic: Magick vs. Tech.
In Arcanum you choose whether to be a mage, or a technologist (or neither). Mages find that machines fail around them, but conversely their spells fail to affect those focused on tech. This means that while a mage may be safer from a gunslinger, he has a harder time hurting them, and also doesn't do well receiving aid from technological means. Mechanically this leads to a 'magic resist' and 'tech resist' stat, as well as critical failure chances for magic or tech gear.

If you choose magic, you spend skill points in 'schools', and with each level in said school, you gain new spells. The spell assortment is the normal range of magic spells available in any generic fantasy setting, all done quite well, and when used right they will win the game for you.

If you choose tech, you spend skill points in crafts, with each rank you learn a new schematic, and you can also find schematics all throughout the world. Schematics let you make everything from moltov cocktails, to healing salves, to fully automatic shotguns, to robots that aid you in fights. When used right, they will win the game for you.

If you go the neutral rout, you have the advantage of being able to use any gear you want (though watch out if you have too much magic or tech gear on you, as it will cause the others to malfunction!) and though you may not cast spells or build explosives, your selection of skills will be quite impressive, making you a force to be reckoned with in combat. In this case, it's your own personal skill that will win the game for you.

Then there's the weak points of Arcanum:
The graphics have honestly not aged as well as other games of it's era. They weren't precisely top notch at the time, and that was 10 years ago. For it's day I would have given it a 7 of 10 for graphics, a 5 of 10 today, for how they've aged.

The level cap is too low, and it's easy to level up far too fast. One of their weird quirks is that you gain XP per-hit, instead of just per kill. When I made a low-int half-ogre melee fighter, I hit the level cap less than half way in to the game, and my gunslinger was also to the cap well before beating the game. I don't think though that my high-charisma mage ever pinged the cap.

While the plot has a lot of twists you don't quite expect, every now and then it feels like they decided to just throw some weird needless twist in to the mix to increase the length of the game. First time through that's not really too bad. Fourth time through you're like “What purpose does this serve again?”

And if you play it Vanilla, there are just a lot of bugs to be had, and places where there's remnants of things that didn't quite make it in to the game.

Fear not! Salvation is at hand from Terra Arcanum, a site devoted to all Troika games that has a section of mods and patches for Arcanum, including a level cap remover.

For the “TL:DR” version of this review, I will borrow a quote from my friend:
“Arcanum: The greatest game made...ever. So great, you don't even care about the frelling bugs!”

Availability and price:
GOG: $5.99
Amazon: $10-20
Ebay: $5+