The Stanley Parable

Yay for experimental first person narrative! Download is here – you don’t need HL2 to play. If you don’t have 300 free megs or the time, here’s some gameplay… pretty interesting!

A Mile Underground and a Boat Ride from Hell – Welcome to the Echo Bazaar

The year is 1889. Three decades ago, London was stolen. The Who, Why and How of it are mysteries – and these days only revolutionaries and anarchists say ‘stolen’ any more. The sun is gone and the city is lit only by glowing fungus, bioluminescent insects and by the gas-light of Mr. Fires.

 But Londoners can get used to anything. It’s quiet down here with the devils and the darkness and the mushroom wine. And a fantastic Bazaar has sprung up in the middle of Fallen London where anything can be bought or sold if you know what to ask for. Hell has established an embassy. Death isn’t so bad after all.

 The Bazaar is located at the heart of Fallen London, in the Neath, a cavern of impossible size, by the Unterzee, a tremendous saltwater lake. They say it’s the skull of some defunct pagan god. That doesn’t sound very likely. Although it would explain the dreams.

 Echo Bazaar is a browser-based text adventure game by Failbetter Games You have a limited set of actions you can take right now (10), and a limited amount of total actions per day (70). Once you use an action, you’ll get another in 7 minutes, and another 7 minutes after that, until you’re back to ten, or you use all your actions for the day. Like many such games, you use your actions to undertake challenges and grind your statistics. With each challenge, you learn more about the world of Echo Bazaar.

You start out as a Mysterious Stranger being held in New Newgate Prison. Right from the get-go Echo Bazaar allows you to determine how you escape and as the game progresses you’ll have the opportunity to decide who you were before your capture.

The game is loaded with ‘storylets‘, short narratives that drip-feed you a little more of the Neath with each click. Storylets generally involve one or more steps, each of which usually offers at least two ways of doing things and allows you to tailor your experience to play to your stronger Qualities (which determine how Dangerous, Watchful, Persuasive and Shadowy you are). There’s no combat in the traditional sense – you will be told how difficult the challenge is relative to your Quality level, and if you decide to give it a whirl, the game makes some behind-the-scenes calculations and tells you the result.

Choose - but choose wisely.

For example, you decide to explore a storylet in which local police want you to learn more about the activities of a Person of Interest. You have two choices: you can follow them around and observe their activities (a Watchful-based challenge), or you can try breaking into their apartment (a Shadowy challenge). Attempting a challenge always increases the associated skill, even if you fail. In many cases, you can re-try the challenge (at the cost of an action).

On top of that, there’s also a deck of Opportunity Cards, which provide diversions, developments and plot twists to improve your Qualities or expand your story.

So what’s the point? Well, there’s no single over-arching storyline that everyone has to work through. But there are several longer plot lines that you can work through. Maybe you’ll try to track down the people who killed your lover. Maybe you’ll gamble your soul against the Devil. Or maybe you’ll just spend some time exploring Fallen London and experiencing the cool lore. It doesn’t really feel like a game that’s about winning or losing – consider this blurb regarding death:

Death in the Fifth City isn’t necessarily the end. If you’re stabbed or shot, someone may come along and sew you back together soon enough. If you’re drowned, you’ll wake with a hangover. If you die of old age or disease, or if you’re hacked to pieces, it’s a more serious matter. But in any case, once you die and return to life down here, you’ll never be permitted to return to the surface…unless you’re one of the few who find a way to immortality.

Consider my current game: I play the part of Mr. Ricochet, a Watchful and Persuasive gentleman who left a string of broken hearts on the surface when he came to the Neath. He is recently escaped from New Newgate Prison and his ambition is to win the infamous card game known as Heart’s Desire – but first he has to find somewhere to play it. In spite of himself, he is falling for a young model and is trying to determine the best way to make his feelings known. He lives in the guest-room of a modest dwelling belonging to a kind-hearted widow in Ladybones Road, and is currently investigating the suspicious activities of a struggling poet. He is also nursing a couple of nasty injuries suffered during his participation in last week’s mushroom forest race. Oh, and the nightmares are starting to get pretty bad.

Sign up requires a Twitter or Facebook account (and you can link them if you have both). While that might get some people’s hackles up, it’s worth noting that you don’t actually have to use your social media in the game. If you wish, you can tweet or post some trivia from the game once per day to replenish your actions, but it’s not mandatory. On the other hand, you can invite people from your Friends Lists to join you for social activities that can help ease your character’s troubled mind or give them a hand with challenges.

Fallen London

Echo Bazaar offers strong and clever story-telling in a unique setting thick with flavour and atmosphere. The desire to know what happens next – and the feeling that you are in control – makes for a delightfully addictive experience. Check it out.

Back in the Saddle

Has it really been two months since our last update? For shame! We’ll have to get back into the swing of things and correct that. Expect a Late to the Party review of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood soon (TM), as well as the eventual return of Week in Miscellanea and the other stuff you love.

In the meantime, here’s some interesting Halo: Reach news. As we discussed a while back, Bungie won’t be making any more Halo games for the foreseeable future, moving on as they are to a new IP with their new publishing pal, Activision. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t planning to support their swan-song to the Halo series, however – and they’re turning to the community to help them.

First up, the recently-concluded Forgetacular contest, in which players were invited to create maps and submit them for inclusion in Reach‘s official playlists: 3,000 entries later, the winners have been announced and they (along with the top-tier runners-up) will soon be available in matchmaking. A couple of the top entries are below, and you can see all the winners here.

Atonement (CTF)

Abridged (BTB)

On top of that, several of the more involved and active community members have been empowered to seek out new maps and bring them to the attention of Bungie for possible inclusion in future playlist updates. Personally, I think it’s enormously clever of Bungie to leverage the the player base in this way. Forge is a very powerful tool and giving people this kind of incentive is sure to generate all sorts of exciting results.

In related news, the Bungie.net player viewer has finally updated. No longer is your in-game persona represented by a default Noble Six – your individual style is now reflected for all to see. Check out the in-game avatars of some of our O514 regulars:

Tanith 6227

 

Moxidas

  

Dakalos

Molotov 00

 

Aww yeah – we make this look good.

(If you haven’t logged in for a while, do so to update your Bungie.net profile.)

New Map for Halo Reach: Sky Temple

Tanith’s inspirational Promontory got me thinking about building my own map for Halo: Reach. After a couple of weeks of evenings-and-weekends work, I present my first ever attempt at level design: Sky Temple.

It’s built high on the wall in the Lagoon area of Forge World, right between the two waterfalls. Here’s the layout:

The idea is that it’s a Sangheili temple, built out of the rock face. Two landing platforms accommodate the worshippers, who then make their way along the open plaza, past a pulpit, and through the forest of pillars to the inner sanctum and the altar. That’s where the sacrifices take place.

We played one round of playtesting today with the BBC team. We were 13 players – too many, as I’d designed the map for 4-on-4. I’d like to try it again with fewer people, so we can appreciate how it really works. My next map will have to accommodate more players. Watch your step, too – there are a LOT of places you can fall through. Our one playthrough had 30 deaths by falling. I have to admit, that *was* kind of the idea with this map – be careful or you’ll fall to your death. But that’s possibly too high to be amusing. If it’s annoying I’ll have to do something about that.

The weapons placement is obviously beta – everything needs adjusting.

Other points:
1 – Blue team spawns near a tower with the plasma launcher, Red team spawns near a tower with the focus rifle. All other weapons are placed symmetrically.

2 – The grav hammers are on platforms under the main level, where their names are written.  The platforms are just close enough together that an elite can jump across, if he crouch-jumps and the timing is perfect. Spartans fall to their death.

3 – The sniper rifle spawns ON TOP of the pillar marked on the map. You need to fly there with a jetpack, or use the grav lift on Blue side. It involves some jumping.

4 – The Banshees are crippled on this map by the fact that the sky is finite. I didn’t know this when I started, but players are actually physically restrained from flying much higher than the altitude the banshees spawn at. The map is too high up the cliff, and Banshees can’t actually gain any altitude. It’s a shame, but I might have to remove them.

5 – There are actually THREE grav hammers on this map. One of them is in a secret location that only a person with a jetpack can get out of.

All of your thoughts and comments are most welcome. If everyone could tell me one thing they like and one thing they don’t like, that would be super super useful!

Post-Match Report: 514 vs. BBC Halo

Just the facts, people, just the facts. I’m torn, you see.  I play Halo with some great people on the BBC Halo team in London and Manchester. But I learned to play the game with my boys from Montreal, way back when it was Halo: Combat Evolved on the original Xbox.

Naturally I jumped at the chance to play my new clan against my old clanmates from Montreal. My allegiances were sorely tested. Here’s how the matches went:

We started with a game of Free-for-all Slayer on Countdown, just to warm up. Handily won by L0VELE55.

The actual match:

  1. Team Slayer on Powerhouse : BBC wins 100-63, with R0nstar007 on Blue team for MTL.
  2. One-flag CTF on Haemorrhage : A 0-0 draw, as neither team can get it together to make a coordinated attack.
  3. Team Slayer on Boardwalk : This time it’s 92-61 BBC. Moxie goes blue for MTL, and gets royally pwned.
  4. Episode 666 on The Cage : This was a free-for-all of the most manic gametype out there: all rocket launchers, no shields. 14 people on The Cage with settings like this means an average life expectancy of about 6 seconds. Stuka1941 wins it with a +8 K/D spread.
  5. Infection on Sword Base : Another interlude, which allowed R0nstar007 to show his mettle with a sick K/D spread.
  6. Team Slayer on Sword Base : It’s back to the team games with a 94-67 win for the BBC.
  7. King of the Hill on Reflection : This game was VERY close and VERY frantic. Mere seconds apart for the BBC win (helped rather cheekily by the fact that 2 extra BBC players showed up midway through.)
  8. Elite Slayer on Pinnacle : fun with needlers.
  9. Highlander on Zealot : All swords, all the time. Free-for-all sees L0VELE55 takes to the new game with a +14 K/D
  10. SWAT on Paradiso : L0VELE55 still on a roll with a +16, but a very close game.
  11. Invasion on Spire : Finally a MTL victory! A great power core grab by Punkstrife. BBC Hadn’t played this gametype before, and it cost them.
  12. Invasion on Boneyard : The final game of the match, though the teams were getting pretty mixed by this point.

Overall it was a pretty solid BBC win, but there was plenty of switching about anyhow. Personally I really enjoy the playing together part rather than the playing against each other part. Once the match was over, we also had a lot of fun testing Tanith6627’s new map, Promontory. It’s a tight little setup in the Quarry, with plenty of high-low action and good focus. Really strong reviews from this bunch of playtesters, that’s for sure.

So here’s hoping there’ll be a next time . . .

Review – Halo: Reach

The beginning is the end.

After spending more than ten years making Halo games, Bungie has released their final game in the series. Having signed a long-term publishing and distribution agreement with Activision back in April, Bungie will be moving on to new multi-platform projects. Although 343 Studios is expected to carry the Halo franchise forward, Halo: Reach is Bungie’s swan song to the series.

Gameplay:

Halo: Reach is clearly influenced most heavily by the original Halo: Combat Evolved. Dual-wielding of weapons is out, heralding a return to the “Holy Trinity” that defined the first game: Grenades, Gunfire and Melee Attacks. The so-called “30 seconds of fun” that was so addictive in Halo: CE is back in fine form, with the tightest controls and most interesting selection of weapons yet. Old favourites like the scoped pistol, assault rifle and needler are back alongside new armaments such as the Grenade Launcher, Dedicated Marksman Rifle, Plasma Repeater and Needle Rifle. This list is hardly exhaustive, yet despite the wide variety of weapons, everything feels more or less balanced. Reach also introduces animated assassinations, which provide a visceral payoff when you manage to sneak up behind someone. They do leave you vulnerable, however, so you also have the option to simply bop your victim in the head and move on.

Halo 3‘s equipment system has been done away with, replaced with new Armour Abilities. Where equipment offered single-use tools that had to be scrounged from the battlefield, Armour Abilities provide a single benefit that runs on a recharging energy source. Thus, your chosen Armour Ability will remain available to you until you swap it out for a new one (in multiplayer, you usually have the option of changing your armour ability every time you die). Abilities range from the useful but subdued Sprint to gravity-defying Jet Packs to the spectacular but situational Armour Lock – and that’s not even half the list. All are useful in their own way, and the campaign provides opportunities to switch up as you go along.

Armour Lock can save your life in a pinch.

Get the drop with a jet pack. Pull!

Enemy AI has been substantially improved, most especially in the case of the Covenant Elites, who have never been more challenging. Not only are they incredibly tough, but they are also crack shots who remain constantly on the move, ducking, weaving, rolling and strafing, making it very hard to get a solid bead. The gigantic, tank-like Hunters have been fitted with additional armour covering their most vulnerable sections, and even the lowly Grunts have to be dealt with swiftly lest they overwhelm with sheer numbers. You’ll often find yourself facing large numbers of mixed enemies: it’s not unusual for a dropship to deposit eight to ten Grunts, a trio of Jackals and an Elite or two in your path.

While you’ll often have to deal with these situations yourself, you will spend a fair amount of time in the company of AI teammates. Some are the UNSC marines we’ve come to know and love over the last decade, but you’ll frequently be backed up by the SPARTANs of Noble Team. These guys are useful not only for the firepower that they contribute, but also for the fact that they are totally invincible – a useful advantage when things get hairy and you need a breather.

Noble Team (L-R): Jorge, Carter, Emile (bg), Kat, Jun

The friendly AI can be problematic, however. They get stuck on level geometry, won’t fire at enemies who are not within a certain range (usually DANGER CLOSE) and are absolutely dreadful drivers. They are also obnoxiously slow to get into vehicles driven by the player, grinding against the sideboards for a couple of seconds before finally hopping in – a delay that can be costly in the heat of combat. Trading weapons with them is also annoying, as they insist on stopping and slowly turning to face you before making the swap. Again, when you’re looking for a rocket launcher to deal with the advancing alien hordes, a few lost seconds can make all the difference. The game also makes the mistake of taking its audience for granted and assuming that you are familiar with the setting, weapons and vehicles. For example, although Reach‘s campaign features six or seven Armour Abilities, only two have their functions explained in-game. Vehicle controls are likewise neglected.

These problems aside, Halo: Reach is an enjoyable and compelling shooter that ranges across a variety of environments (including a short foray into space for some Ace Combat-style dogfighting). There is only a very small amount of the backtracking through earlier levels that has marked previous games in the series and the time you spend in urban environments versus open spaces is about equal. As you struggle against the unstoppable Covenant armies, you’ll be dropped into some outstanding set-piece battles, and these are where Reach really shines.

Story:

The Halo series is odd in that the story told behind the scenes is much more interesting than the one presented in the games. Little touches like Halo 3’s Terminals hint at the much deeper story behind the gunfire and explosions, but it’s a tale that is not explored very deeply in-game. This is probably a function of the FPS genre, but it’s still a shame. Reach does little to change this, though for once the plot of the game is not a confounding muddle; for the most part, things are as straightforward as they seem. A valiant effort is made to breathe life into the other members of Noble Team, but frankly there are too many of them to really get attached to in the time we’re given. We do get at least one mission with each of our fellow SPARTANs, but we get little insight into who they are beyond Merciless Killing Machines.

Graphics:

Halo: Reach is lovely. If you can drag your eyes away from your scope and take the time to look around, you’ll be treated to some gorgeous and expansive vistas. Character, vehicle and weapon models are highly detailed, and lighting effects are top-notch.

Noble Team on the move.

There is a cost for all this, however. Bungie seems to have pushed the Xbox 360 to its limits, and it shows in cutscenes: character models blur along their edges, a distracting visual effect that detracts from the cinematics. This is apparently a deliberate attempt to hide ‘jaggies’ and cover up a substantial framerate loss during these processor-intense sequences, but the end result doesn’t feel much better. It’s hard to get into a scene when the characters seem to be ghosting around, leaving blurred after-images of themselves in their wake.

Sound:

Sound design is impeccable, as we’ve come to expect from Bungie. Sound effects are visceral and voice acting is convincing. The music is excellent, though I have not yet noticed a marquee piece like Halo: CE‘s Rock Anthem for Saving the World. The Covenant also no longer speak English, and instead jabber at one another in their own languages – a nice touch that makes the enemy even more alien and threatening.

Multiplayer:

You want it, you probably got it: Reach supports 2-4 player co-operative campaign play on a split-screen, over a LAN and through Xbox Live. Firefight, the “Horde Mode” introduced in Halo: ODST is also back, and has the same multiplayer options. And of course, if you prefer to shoot your friends, you can get up to 15 of them together (max 4 people per Xbox) and go to town.

To that end, Reach ships with a number of multiplayer maps, most based on locations that you visit in the campaign. On top of that are the Forge World maps, including a few remakes of classic Halo multiplayer maps like Blood Gulch, Sanctuary and Ascension.

Finally, if none of those appeal to you, there’s Forge World itself. As I suggested a couple of weeks ago, there’s basically no limit to what can be created in Forge World. Need proof? Check out this player-created map:

Yes, that is the inside of a colossal Cube constructed entirely from Forge pieces.

Customization:

Halo: Reach picks up where Halo 3 left off by providing access to a number of armour permutations to allow players to individualize their appearance. Even cooler, your choices affect your appearance in all game modes: campaign, firefight and multiplayer. And while Halo 3 only allowed you to alter your helmet, shoulderpads and chest, Reach has thrown helmet accessories, knee guards, wrist-mounted PDAs, visor colours and more into the mix. Items are purchased using “Credits” which are awarded for playing any game mode (even Forge). Earning Credits also advances your rank, which is a prerequisite for many armour pieces.

Lookin' good.

Reach also tracks all manner of in-game accomplishments, and awards ‘Commendations’ for reaching certain milestones – scoring a certain number of headshots in campaign, for example. Earning Commendations (or just working towards them) is also worth extra Credits. On top of all that, the game also offers daily and weekly Challenges that are worth additional bonus Credits. Examples:

  • Finish every level of the campaign on X difficulty
  • Kill X Grunts today in campaign on Normal or higher
  • Complete X online matches
  • Kill X enemies in online matches
  • Get X Assists in online matches

This is all very cool, but there is one small issue: it seems that if you are not connected to Xbox Live (a free Silver account will do), the game will not track your accomplishments, award credits or advance your rank. I base this assessment on my own misfortune: after spending hours powering through several levels on Heroic, I discovered to my dismay that none of my Challenge progress had been tracked and that I had earned no Credits for my efforts. The next day, after connecting to Xbox Live and playing through those levels again, my progress was duly noted and credits were awarded. While I understand the desire to promote the online features of the game, and while I appreciate efforts to combat cheating, it does kind of suck for those who aren’t interested in Xbox Live.

Also irritating is the fact that your Commendations aren’t listed anywhere in game – you have to sign up on Bungie’s website and link your Gamertag in order to view that information. But while potentially inconvenient, these issues aren’t game-breakers.

Ultimately, Reach is a finely polished shooter that offers a challenging and enjoyable campaign and nigh-infinite replay value through Firefight, Custom Games and online Matchmaking. With clever enemies to fight, beautiful locations to explore, fun guns to shoot, nifty vehicles to drive, and awesome new maps to build and explore, there’s a lot to like. If you’re a fan of the Halo games, Reach is a must-have.

Pros:

  • Tight controls
  • Sweet weapons
  • Slick graphics
  • Cool locations
  • Awesome battles
  • Strong enemy AI
  • Robust online component
  • Considerable customization
  • Forge World

Cons:

  • A few “Bullshit!” moments on higher difficulties
  • Friendly AI is dumb
  • Inadequate tutorials
  • Connectivity to Live is required to enjoy all features
  • Though vastly improved, Forge World is still complex and intimidating

Bottom Line: A great shooter and a worthy addition to the Halo franchise. Check it out.

8.5/10

This Week In Miscellanea: “Going Cyanobacterial”

1. How long has it been since the last “Miscellanea” post? Ages, but like a long dormant virus, Miscellanea keeps coming back. Want to know how? Play Phage Wars 2. Imagine you’re a biochemist, recently hired by the Betz Biosystems metanational. Your objective? The creation of the most lethal virus imaginable. While soothing and vaguely eerie background music plays, test your virus against those created by the geniuses who came before you. Discover new proteins by analyzing your creation’s performance, and carefully re-sequence those genes into your virus to meet the threats presented by advanced testing environments. Can you make a virus strong enough to thrive in a living system?

2. William Gibson, one of my absolutely favorite writers, has concluded the Bigend Trilogy with the recently released Zero History. Check out Gibson’s site for review blurbs, a synopsis, and a quick video that includes the author reading from his work. Now you all know what to buy Rusty for his birthday.

3. Soundgarden are getting back together. I’m not sure how much I care, but having a new video directed by Brendon Small doesn’t hurt.

4. updated: this animated movie is really awesome.