Monday, May 25, 2009

For the fans of Roman history out there...

...thought I'd share some snaps I took on my holiday in Tunisia last week. Having studied Latin, I've always had an interest, and theres a lot of remnants of Roman influence in the region that are amazingly well preserved.

Entering the Coliseum at El Jem - the most intact structure of its kind left in thwe world, and used as a basis for the CGI in Gladiator. Amazingly intact, and quite awe-inspiring when entering the area. The 38 degree heat made you feel for those who fought in it even more. You can still head underneath the area to where the animals and gladiators would have lived and awaited ther next fight.

You can still climb up to to the top stands of the Colisuem and take in the view...

... and gaze down at the rows of seats that the crowds would have populated. Strane just how similar it is to modern sports stadia.

Tunisia has a large amount of well preserved mosaics dating back from the first few centuries AD - largely in part due to the different stone theyused in their constructions. There are museums teeming withthese mosaics, and the scale of some is incredible. This shot depicts Neptune and his horses, flanked by a triton and nereid

Finally, a couple of shots from the ruins of Carthage, one time rival to Rome, and has suffered much since its fall. Many of the columns found in other structurs all over Tunisia have been ransacked from the ruins of Carthage. The top shot is me standing above the calidarium in the baths.

Friday, May 08, 2009

MoW review

Spoilers ahoy!

Having finished the main plot with my good character (Playing as 'Wyrin' himself - Swashbuckler3/Bard5 finishing SB3/Bard7/DivineChampion5 - Rapier and short sword, maxed bluff, tumble, UMD), I thought i'd share my thoughts.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the campaign. It did remind me of the city quests in BG, and the style of quests from the BG series. The companions were well rounded and well-realised and fun to travel with - Mantides being a standout for me and the type of character I enjoy. Their personal quests were very good as well. I'm glad the bulk of their interaction came through interjections rather than having to trawl through their main dialogue for each new snippet. Some of the interjections were just banter back and forth between them, and a little more interjection from the PC would have been nice. Similarly, when it came to dialogue choices with NPCs that had an effect on influence, I felt a few more of these, and a few more conflicting choices where you favoured one companion over another, would have been nice. But hey, you always want more of a good thing, and what there was, was very well done. Writing on the whole was good, although I did feel some of it felt a little too modern (can something be anachronistic in a fantasy setting?) and jarred a little bit - 'D-man' just didn't sit right with me for some reason. But the NPC dialogue had a good tone, and there was a nice balance between cutscenes and NWN1 dialogue. Little touches like the protester really added character to the city and a nice touch of humour (without going OTT). Options for skill use were fairly plentiful, and the implementation of the 'Shady Huckster' as an outlet for the Appraise skill was excellent - clever idea. Voice acting was surprisingly good.

Area design was top notch - particularly the exteriors which were amongst the best cityscapes I'd seen and the Arena area perhaps the most varied and well done area I'd seen. Interior areas were good on the whole but not quite up to the same standard; in particular, more atmospheric lighting (rather than default) in some interior areas would have helped the mood. Good to see that everything I found that could be clicked on had suitable descriptive text too. It did show in some ways that it had been built before the expansions were available, e.g. some placed effects missing that became available later.

Custom content was good and not too glaringly different from the official models. Your nemesis Orbakh was nicely detailed and animated, little touches like the telescope suitably arcane. The behind-the-scenes devil was in fact based on one of my favorite D&D artists work, Wayne Reynolds, who has done some superb art for D&D. The sewer tileset added a much needed change of scene, although I did feel that something more could have been made from it in the area design to make it feel like the party were travelling in dark dank sewers, and it lacked some of the punch of other custom tilesets. But perhaps the least mentioned CC was the best touch to me - the pub and shop signs. Special kudos has to go to Ossian for making their models available so quickly after release to the community.

Gameplay - An 'intelligent' item which risks the user become evil, eh? ;) The mask and 'curse-that-isn't' (i.e. has no real effect) central to the plot was not as intrusive as I had feared, although some means of recovering an alignment shifts due to its use would have been good (I only recall one or two actual alignment changes). I was surprised how easy I found the combats - my builds don't usually have that easy a time - but there was only one reload on combat (spider lair tackled too early on and without all the companions!), and none on any 'climactic' battles, which was a little disappointing. That said, the flow of the battles was good, and I hate being bogged down in reloads just to get past one particularly tough fight, so I'm not really complaining here. I was glad to be playing an arcane caster, and perhaps it was this that tipped the battles in my favour so much. As some others have mentioned, several battles happened as soon as you entered a room often in cramped conditions, and I'm not so much a fan of this, as weaker party members are left exposed. Some consideration of this in the area design would have made the start of some fights less of a desperate dash for the pause key. There was a nice mix of puzzles and skill use thrown in there too, adding a bit of variety. A city adventure by it's nature will involve the standard progress quest - run to transition - load area - progress quest - retrace/rinse/repeat, but this only grated a little and by planning you could group quests by area involved to make more manageable. One aspect of the gameplay that I was a little disappointed by was the lack of open die rolling on skill checks. I like to see which skills are used and what I'm aiming for, particularly for skills that I might only be dabbling in rather than maximising. There were a few times it was clear that the skill descriptor was masking the fact that the outcome couldn't be changed. I'd prefer there to be no implication of a skill check if there isn't one. Skill checks are something to be balanced just like combat. I can understand the decision to hide them, but it's not something I like. Another small thing that struck was around the Knot quest and approaching the deurgar - i happened to guess the bluff that was played before it was revealed, and some means of spotting or sensing that would have been nice (might have missed it?).

Plot - there were many sidequests, each dropped in to the game in different ways and I never felt the 'Oh no suppose I should do this, just to get the xp, let's skim through the are loading screens then..' attitude some mundane sidequests can bring. The miniature giant space hamster homage was fun, although in a way I was glad it was brief before the tone of it detracted from the overarching plot. The dog racing was very nicely crafted set piece for a side quest, and enjoyed that. I felt the main plot lost something almost because of the lack of urgency to deal with the curse-that-isn't. I can understand the reasons not to make the curse intrusive and agree with them, but if the mask stayed in your pocket, there was little reason not to sit in the inn drinking. Perhaps some more nightmares on resting would have helped drive this. Minor niggle aside, the story was well done to showcase all sides of Westgate, the raising money section a nice nod to BG2 - as was the rival factions: I enjoyed the Ebon Claws/Night Masks plot, but did feel it could have been left at that 2-party rivalry without other twists that came at the end with less foreshadowing (admittedly played only the good path). The ending itself did feel a little rushed, with no character export, no resolution with companions.... But it's a testament to the story and how I was drawn along by it that the ending left me feeling a little empty, but wanting resolution. I did think the proper use of vampires becoming gaseous and regenerating was well done - although the number of times somebody dropped some clue as they were fleeing did feel a little hackneyed by the end (especially when the ability to turn gaseous effects all their gear, and I did wonder why an immortal archmage would not factor the time of day into his plans at the end, but for drama and cinematics, I can be less of a pedant ;) )

Glitches - sadly, I did have some problems with respawning dwarven rogues, and two manatides hanging out in the inn. The Okuzu exotic merchant quest semeed particularly buggy to me, with conversations not always recognising quest states, and some set pieces in the shop not firing (webs but no spiders). Might have just been me/my machine - nothing however was game breaking, and given the amount of scriping machinations going on behind the scenes, this was surprisingly stable. Kudos goes to the scripters for some tight work too.

So, in summary a great game in the style of the campaigns most of the community have grown to love since the BG series, with a strong plot that plays well on FR lore. Come for the scenery, stay for the companions, have to flee from Westgate when the plot comes to it's conclusion, but lick your wounds in anticipation of a rematch. £10 well spent. I haven't touched on the issues surrounding MoW's release, and I won't, suffice to say it's a real shame for me as a player and for the community that this fun Adventure Pack, and potentially others, weren't released sooner.