Posted in Music

The video game music deal of the year?

mystThis just might be.  Special thanks to Tesh for pointing me toward the Retro Game Music Bundle.  For as low as $10, you can pick up 21 (they just added three more today) complete video game soundtracks.  Some are smaller indie productions, but there’s some good stuff here too: Myst, Duke Nukem 3D, NimbleQuest, and Double Dragon Neon.  I’ve only listened through Myst and DDN, but right there is worth the cost of entry.  There’s got to be at least $10 worth of good music in all of this, so I feel happy passing the link on to you.

There’s also the option to get five soundtracks for a buck, which isn’t half-bad either.

Posted in Nostalgia Lane

Planescape Torment: Ragpicker’s Square

massacre(This is a continuing series detailing my playthrough of Planescape Torment.  You can check out the whole run on the Nostalgia Lane page.)

Time isn’t usually kind to video games, even ones you used to hold up as classics.  We don’t realize how much we get used to new systems, new features, and slicker technology until we jump back in time five, ten, or even twenty years to play old favorites.  Planescape Torment has a few crow’s feet around its eyes, that’s for sure.  The combat is pretty dull (I usually just trigger the attacks and watch static dagger swiping until I win while occasionally healing) and the model graphics are too small to get a good feel for the characters.

Yet what does hold up admirably well is its sense of world and quality of writing.  The writing, both in the descriptions and dialogue, fills the graphics gap, offering up terrific mental images of the people you meet.  What is even more captivating is the world itself.  I always loved Planescape because it’s so anti-typical fantasy to its very core, yet it’s still fantasy.  Everything about this bizarre world has internal logic that holds up, but you can’t depend on familiar tropes to navigate it.  You have to learn about the lay of the land and its people, figure out the slang, and piece together who you are and how you belong here.  This works in parallel between you and your character, so if you’re feeling a little off-kilter about the weirdness that surrounds you, it’s OK because so does your amnesiac immortal nameless one.

Plus Sigil just has so many concepts that engross me.  Two of them came up in today’s play session: portals and the ugly economy of Sigil.  Yup, I’ve finally arrived at Ragpicker’s Square, the supposed home of my main quest target Pharod.  Who is this guy?  Is he a friend or foe?  And does he have my journal?  I want answers, darn it!

Over the course of the past few play sessions, it’s become clear from talking with NPCs that Pharod — a “collector” who rounds up corpses to sell to the Dustmen — has come upon a seemingly unlimited supply of dead bodies and is making a fortune off of them.  About three characters have tasked me with figuring out the secret behind this, so I’ve added it to the list.  Between harlots, thugs, thieves and corpse sellers, there aren’t many people making an honest living around this place.

I stumble into an empty house in Ragpicker’s Square and find myself trapped in a one-room abode.  What’s happened is that I’ve accidentally gone through one of the thousands of portals that make up Sigil, and I lack the key (whatever it may be) to open it back up.  A jerk shows up to shake me down for a return trip, but I slaughter his face and loot his body for it instead.  Man, I have really abandoned the whole pacifistic route thing.

Another potential portal presents an obstacle to getting to Pharod, as a rubbish-filled doorway blocks my access to the underground warren where he lives.  A little detective work finds out that the key for this portal is… junk.  Actual junk.  The stuff I’ve been finding everywhere and discarding because it’s worthless.  So I grab some more and pop through the portal, making my way into the warren for the first time.

Hellooo!  Anyone home?

Posted in Lord of the Rings Online, Podcast

Battle Bards Episode 4: Lord of the Rings Online with Chance Thomas

bardssquaresmallThis week on Battle Bards, Composer Chance Thomas joins the bards to talk about the stories behind Lord of the Rings Online’s score.  It’s a strange chance to offer our own reviews and then have the composer review our reviews on the spot — but we loved it.  It’s equal parts education, entertainment, and Elves on this preciousss episode!

Episode 4 show notes

Check out Chance Thomas online!

Contact the Bards:

Special thanks to Tesh for the logo!

Posted in General

Scrap the Titan, Blizzard!

260px-Titan2005The big news of the day (or yesterday) is that Blizzard has apparently decided that its quite-secretive Titan project needed to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch.  Or something.  Since the studio is barely saying anything about this project, we’re left with a lot of rumors and dubious reports to give us a sketchy idea of this black bag MMO.  The only thing that Blizzard said is that it needed to overhaul the technology or adapt like the Borg or… something.  I kind of get a Duke Nukem Forever vibe here — how many times did that team restart the game from scratch due to a new engine?

Anyway, here’s my completely unwanted and unheard advice to Blizzard: You should completely scrap Titan.  Like, burn that puppy to the ground, move on, and don’t look back.  It will not end well for you if you proceed.

Wow, that does not  sound like the game-happy, usually positive Syp, now does it?  No it does not.  But the more I think about it, the more I see so many ways this could go wrong and only a couple where it could go right.  TLDR: It’s a massive risk for the studio and players will be expecting the devs to strike lightning twice.

If anyone could do that, it would be Blizzard, right?  The studio is well-known for several attributes: It develops at a glacial pace, it puts a huge emphasis on polish and iteration, it has no compunctions against pulling the plug on products that it sees as sub-standard (Starcraft Ghost and Warcraft Adventures), and it does not like to take risks at all.

But that’s what Titan is: It’s a huge risk, especially if the studio is creating a new IP for it (I’ve heard conflicting reports on whether it is or not).  It doesn’t just carry the standard risk that all MMOs have, even from established and experienced game studios, but it has additional risk due to the overwhelming expectations that Blizzard’s legions of fans will have for it.

In a way, I have sympathy for Blizzard because World of Warcraft’s monumental success also became the studio’s biggest obstacle to developing a new MMO.  Everyone will be comparing the two, even if they are light years apart in similarity, and everyone will be expecting a monster, 10+ million player hit on day one.  What we tend to forget is that WoW launched at this golden sweet spot for  a potential hit of an MMO, not to mention the fact that it took some time to swell up in subscriber size (in other words, it wasn’t at 10 million subscribers at the end of the first month).

Blizzard cares deeply about its reputation and position as an industry leader.  That’s another obstacle, because any stumble, no matter how small, will be taken and used as a weapon against it by capricious gamers.  For example, while Diablo III has sold quite well and boasts a healthy population of players, the error 37 and auction house debacles have damaged the game’s reputation while slapping some egg on the face of the studio.  Blizzard has had to learn humility over the past couple of years, and it is odd and unnerving to see this formerly arrogant company stuttering out apologies.

This brings me back to Titan.  Maybe it will be a wonderfully polished product that will gain a huge day one advantage due to Blizzard’s built-in fanbase.  But it will also be compared mercilessly to World of Warcraft by fans who will want it to be a successor and provide that new-car feeling all over again, it will be mercilessly examined for weaknesses, and it will find that it’s dwelling with the rest of MMOs instead of  automatically being at the top of the pack.

I don’t know if Blizzard can handle that.  I totally would not blame the studio for feeling like it was a deer stuck in headlights, doubting and rethinking its every move.  Maybe this delay is just to buy the company some time to see how the competition launches and figure out if their product can top what’s coming from Bethesda, Carbine, and the rest.  But if I was in charge, I’d say scrap the project and focus elsewhere.  Making a full-fledged MMO right now is painting a huge target on their forehead and sets the studio up for a showdown that will only have one of two outcomes: Either it will miraculously be a huge, polished success, or it will be devoured by the wrath of gamers who have been waiting to pounce on the big dog for some time now.

Posted in Nostalgia Lane

Planescape Torment: I’m in the money!

eye(This is a continuing series detailing my playthrough of Planescape Torment.  You can check out the whole run on the Nostalgia Lane page.)

My money crisis in Planescape Torment is over.  One screen to the left has a marketplace where various vendors were more than happy to offload the crap I’ve been hauling in my quite limited inventory.  My gold reservoir went from 250 to 1600 in one fell swoop.  I’m rich, rich I tells ya!

What to do with my newfound wealth?  Go back and buy my eye, of course!  I jaunt back to the Smouldering Corpse and purchase my 15-year-old plucked eye for 500 gold.  There’s a sentence I haven’t written in my life so far.  I guess my character has a high pain threshold, for he pulled out the newer eye, put in the older one, and it took without a single session of Lasik.  As my reward, I got a few fragmented flashbacks and some permanent ability score increases.  Nice!

Now on to some questing!  I met a guy whose whole purpose in life is to continually mourn the passing of a long-lost city, but he’s despairing the fact that he and his fellow criers will eventually die and the memory of the city will die with them.  So I say something like, “Dude, haven’t you heard of gravestones?” and go pay to get one carved for the city.  Well, the guy in charge of doing it says hes “burying a name” and it apparently makes my character feel uncomfortable, but what doesn’t in this town?  That’s enough to satisfy the crier, and I get 1000 XP out of the deal.

A Tiefling named Annah points me toward the Alley of Dangerous angles to find Pharod, although I know a couple things.  I think Annah might be a future party member, although her dialogue options don’t give me any way of inviting her, and I know that she’s trying to lead me to my doom here.  But no matter, back to the alley I go!

This is a small map that’s dominated by two rival gangs.  Yup, it’s the hoary old RPG trope of two warring gangs that you must choose between, although there’s a slight twist.  While each gang will ask you to assassinate the other’s leader, there’s a weird guy named Blackrose who wants you to kill both for “balance.”  What I did, however, was to kill off one gang, then take a contract against Blackrose instead.  I got a mess of gold out of it all, so I feel good about how things turned out.  Plus, Dak’kan is a fighting powerhouse, so encounters have gotten easier.

Flush with even more cash, I return to Fell, the tattoo dealer, and check out his stock.  It’s here that I buy the first “gear” I’ve gotten in the game (apart from my eye): three tattoos, boosting my hit points, armor class, and strength.  I notice that some of the tattoos are new and related to quests I just finished — that’s kind of cool.  I guess more unlock over the course of the game.

If it seems that I’m being pokey in seeking Pharod out, I am.  This is the period of the early game where you’re expected to get your city legs, stock up on goods, do a few quests and gain a few levels, and generally toughen up.  The way the maps are laid out enforce this, since you have to pass through a couple anyway to get to Pharod and there’s a lot to see and do on the way.

Posted in The Secret World

The Secret World: When rocks cry out

shrineI splurged on gaming time with The Secret World last night in order to make some decent progress through the Shadowy Forest.  It was a good, satisfying session, the type of which you walk away and feel as though you really accomplished something.  I not only knocked out the final four quests I had for the region, but I reworked my build to greater effect.  Now I’ve got this nice penetration cause-and-effect going on, not to mention finally affording the Forged in Fire passive elite skill (this one is terrific: when you hit 50% health, it heals you up 40% automatically, once every 75 seconds).  I’m also shifting my gear back to +attack, although I’m leaving two really nice pieces of +health gear on that give me a good hit point buffer.

One of these final quests was the Singing Stones, an investigation quest that’s about music memory.  Unlike some investigation quests, it wasn’t too difficult to figure out, but there are four “Simon Says” segments that require either a steel-trap mind or some hurredly scribbled notes.  I do not have a steel-trap mind; mine is made more of gouda.

I liked this quest not for the mechanics or backstory (as the quest giver is mute, I have no idea why I was doing all of this), but because it illustrated that even among the ugliness that is this virtual world, there can be lovely moments of wonder.  Also, glitches.  Apparently the final tier of this quest can glitch hard for some folks, and I was one of those lucky winners.  The terrain and mobs kept flickering on and off, leaving me to navigate by map and hope.  I was able to finish it, but it’s a particularly glaring bug that really should be fixed.

With just one more zone to go and the rest of my main storyline, I’m trying to pace myself so that I’ll run out right when the new content rolls in.  We were wondering in guild chat last night when Funcom’s going to release issue #7.  Considering they announced it a month ago, one would hope that it’s not too far out.  But this is the gutted, stripped-down Funcom, so who knows.  What will be nice is that the issue #7 content is located in this last zone, so no backtracking for me.

One thing I read last night (I forget where) is that granted that Funcom keeps this game alive and that income keeps rolling in, there’s a lot of ground left to cover.  We haven’t even reached the end of the first act of the game — I guess the upcoming Tokyo zone will be that.  I would dearly love to be returning to TSW again and again over the next decade to see how all of this unfolds.

Posted in Star Trek Online

Star Trek Online: Legacy of Shoulderpads

Fear our shoulder pads!

Despite my best efforts to keeping my MMO gaming roster small, it’s swelled from four to five titles this past week as Star Trek Online’s first expansion rolled out.  I’ve long since parked my Federation character in storage, pending any new featured episode series, and thus had no reason to play the game until now.

With Legacy of Romulus, Cryptic hasn’t just added onto the core game, but completed the game in a way that it’s needed ever since launch.  There are three major additions: A full Klingon PvE experience, the addition of the Romulan race and ships, and a UI overhaul.  All three contribute to a finished product and make STO feel “whole.”  I know a lot of folks are sore that Romulans aren’t a full-fledged faction (instead of being a third faction, they’re a neutral one that can eventually join Klingons or Federation), but I’m okay with it.  I think Cryptic is working within its time budget here, and finishing the Klingon content was far more important.  I can only imagine the outcry if Romulans had a full PvE leveling experience and Klingons were still left broken.

So I rolled up a new Romulan and took the maiden voyage of the Manatee.  Romulans — AKA “dark space elves” — have never really fascinated me in Trek.  It’s not just my hatred of elves, but the fact that their culture felt dull and their shoulderpads were far too paddy.  Plus, they were pretty dull in Nemesis and the 2009 Star Trek.

I can’t believe that rolling a Reman — AKA “super-ugly dark space elves” — is considered a premium slice of content.  You either have to grind faction or pay for a special pack, and I just do not see the draw.  It’s like going to Pizza Hut and having them charge you a lot extra for a personal pan pizza with alfalfa sprouts and anchovies.  Maybe you’d order it just to feel different and superior, but the rest of us are going to be eating tasty stuff.

What do I think of the expansion thus far?  I’m inclined to be quite favorable toward it, actually.  STO has always been a guilty pleasure of an MMO for me.  I know it’s not as full-featured or as Trekky as some would like, but the core gameplay has always kept me entertained.  More of it was welcome, indeed.  I like little touches, such as the new Romulan theme, the way the character select screen now shows your ship and crew, and how the UI has been cleaned up significantly.

Rolling a Romulan is basically starting over, so I’m back with a basic bridge crew that everyone else has, a tier 1 warbird that everyone else has (and looks like what you’d see in the Captain Kirk era), and only a small handful of skills.  Still, I look forward to logging in and going down this path again.  I never liked the goody-goody Federation attitude, so a change of pace is welcome.  The story puts you in the shoes of a colonist who flees his/her world when it comes under attack by a sinister Romulan faction.  Over the course of a few missions, you’re tasked with scouting for a new Romulan homeworld while building up your crew.

I chose a Tactical officer this time around, and I’m more than eager to ditch the basic warbird for something better.  I guess the big draw for Romulan/Klingon ships is the ability to cloak, although it doesn’t seem that thrilling to me — you have to stop firing just to reposition and get a brief buff to weapons when you de-cloak.  No thanks, I’d rather keep firing if it’s all the same.

We’ll see how it goes.  I’ll be joining the KDF side when I get the choice, mostly because I don’t want to do the same Federation missions all over again.  Also, forget those guys.  Their shoulder pads are puny and limp, while ours are large enough to launch small aircraft from.


Posted in Nostalgia Lane

Planescape Torment: The nature of a man

natureA pressing matter is growing on me: My bags are stuffed full of loot, but I haven’t been able to find anywhere to sell my junk for jink (“jink” is one of the Planescapeisms for money).  With the first area of the Hive explored, I ventured into the Alley of Dangerous Angles to see what was there.

Thugs, mostly.  I was promptly ambushed by a bunch of jerks trying to shake me down, and after I wiped the road with their corpses, I decided that perhaps this wouldn’t be the best place to explore right now.  Instead, I took a southward turn that the game was sending me in anyway, and started to make my way to the Smouldering Corpse bar.

I guess this is as good a time as any to talk about the game’s classes.  PT is a little odd in the D&D Infinity Engine library in that it’s not quite as concerned about classes and combat.  I mean, they’re there, but they take a backseat to the adventure game aspect of it all.  Because of that, there are three loose classes — Fighter, Mage, Rogue — that you can assume based on your skills and attributes, but it’s also possible to switch between them.  I think you need to find a character to train you, too.  For the purpose of simplicity, I remain a Fighter, although I really wish I could be getting through more of these areas without having to duke it out.  With only 31 hit points and a 1-6 club in hand, I’m not exactly a powerhouse.

In every new area, I’m on the lookout for one key thing: named NPCs.  Each one usually has a pretty interesting backstory that plays out via dialogue choices, and several contain quests or XP boosts.  Plus, these strangers are excellent ways to get acquainted with the bizarre world of Sigil.

I meet a man who is mourning for the trees, and in retrospect, there is basically nothing green that’s growing anywhere around here.  It’s a run-down, almost hellish town, and I sympathize for him in exchange for 500 XP.  I also get accosted by a “damsel in distress” who I deduce is trying to lure me into a mugging.  I’m too smart for that, sister!

I then meet a Dabus (they’re like caretakers of the city) named Fell in a tattoo parlor.  In our weird conversation — he communicates with symbols — he tells me that “I cannot change the nature of a man.”  This right here is the central theme to the game, although it’s not going to be explained for a while.  In his back room are canvases of human skin with tattoos on them, which is par for the course when it comes to this city’s dark weirdness.

Speaking of weirdness, I finally make it to the Smouldering Bar.  It gets its name from Ignus, a wizard who’s constantly on fire and is just… floating there like the Human Torch.  His lover is hanging out nearby, but she’s long since resigned herself that he’s never going to be doused.  The game informs me that this guy is very dangerous to me, but I can’t remember why.

The tavern has several interesting NPCs to chat with, including a pair of fiends that Morte warns me about, although the most interesting of all is a strange warrior-mage dude named Dak’kon.  The writing in Planescape Torment is almost uniformly excellent, and I keep wanting to quote various bits of description and dialogue.  It’s like playing through a good book, digging for story and being rewarded with word paintings.  Dak’kon discusses the nature of Sigil, how the entire city is made up of locked doors, most of which can’t be seen or recognized as such, and only a few of which have keys that are known.  After philosophizing for a bit, Dak’kon is impressed enough with me that he wants to join my party.  Hey, the more the merrier!

An old guy named Ebb proves to be a good guide to the city itself, including its general layout, day/night schedule, and information on the Lady of Pain.  Turns out she likes to chuck people into mazes when they displease her, and I have a hunch that that might happen to me at some point.  I also find out that the barkeeper has my other eye, but he won’t give it back until I have 500 gold.  I only have half of that, so I’ll have to retrieve it later.

Read the whole Planescape Torment playthrough on the Nostalgia Lane page!