Monday, 27 September 2010

Where Has He Gone Again?

Yeah, so after the amazing success of my (shamelessly linked to everywhere) Amnesia review, I went suddenly silent. With no explanation. Again. Sorry about that.

This is/was not, however, another case of me abandoning Keys Akimbo, merely that I didn't have internet access for a while as I've returned to university and it took a while to get my internet sorted at my new place.

Rest assured there will be more Projects posts and more reviews very shortly. Like, tonight. I don't know what it will be, but there will be something! *Dramatic fist shake*

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Review: Amnesia - The Dark Descent

No no no no no, stay away, don't look! Light, light, I need light, where's the light? No, darkness! Hide! Oh god he's going to see me nooooooo... oh, thank god he's gone. Now, what's in this room?" *Sound of door creaking slowly open* Oh... oh god, no. *Sound of vomit splattering over stone*

So that's Amnesia: The Dark Descent in a nut shell. Frictional Games, whose previous game Penumbra you might have heard of, have released their new game and it is the most terrifying pants-wettingly Lovecraftian bit of weird horror in memory.

Amnesia is the story of Daniel, a young archaeologist and general scholar in the 1830s. He finds himself wandering a cold, semi-ruined castle in the middle of a dark Prussian forest with no memory of how or why he got there. He soon discovers a letter from himself, telling him to seek out a man called Alexander and kill him, and there begins the game. Not to give anything away, but this is probably one of less than a handful of occasions when the protagonist's memory loss actually makes sense in the story and its core themes, rather than being a weak crutch for an uninspired writer.

The backstory, or rather the story which is told largely after the fact, is conveyed through narrated diary pages and notes which Daniel finds scattered throughout the castle and audio memories which appear periodically. These function very much like the audio tapes and ghosts in the System/Bio Shock games and can be sought out or ignored as desired. But if you are the kind of player to ignore such items, this game is not really for you anyway. The letters and memories are uniformly well written but I have to take issue with the casting of Daniel's voice. For someone who you hear so much throughout the game, the voice seems overwrought like a radio melodrama. It doesn't totally spoil the experience but I did find it a niggling distraction.

In parrallel with such story-telling techniques, each loading screen has an (almost) unique paragraph of narrative which usually mirrors or echoes something in the succeeding level, telling something of the history of Daniel and his travels. It is the best use of loading screens in games, I am sure.

What did rather spoil the experience was a conversation in which Daniel remained silent but the other character appeared to respond to things he said. I am sure this was a decision by the developers to not impinge on the player's opinions - the Daniel after the start of the game being considered different to the Daniel of before - but given that we had heard his voice and clear opinions so often before it seemed peculiar to then treat him as a silent protagonist.

While the story is an integral part of the game, most players will have been drawn to Amnesia by the promise of thrills and terror and it delivers. Frictional Games clearly recognise the importance of pacing and allowing the player's imagination to do half the work. The game experience alternates between abject terror and relatively calmer exploration, though never allowing you to feel completely safe. Dark forces, both physical and supernatural are out to get you and will never let you rest for long. Worse still, Daniel is often his own worst enemy. A crippling fear of the dark and of things that will wreak terrible acts upon his flesh threaten to leave him a gibbering wreck. Keeping an oil lamp fuelled and wall-torches or standing candles with keep him in the light and maintain his sanity, but allow the things to see him. Even looking at them will swiftly drain his sanity and when that happens things really get weird.

Amnesia isn't just hiding and reading letters, of course. Frictional have perfected the physics and world-control systems they introduced back in the 2006 Penumbra tech demo. Doors, crates, levers and faucets are all controlled by an intuitive mouse-driven interface. Hover the cursor over the item in question, hold down the left mouse button and swing the mouse in the direction you want to push or pull it. Even in the midst of fleeing in terror as fast as your legs will carry you it is easy and responsive. More of this in games, please! These controls are used in a wide variety of original puzzles from the small - fitting on a table - to the epic, filling entire levels. Even better, several complex puzzles have multiple solutions which is just great and supports the sensation of being in a real place and not just a game level. Many puzzle-points revolve around bringing item X to place Y, which can be tedious, but they are logical and well mixed with other gameplay experiences.

Side note: what the hell kind of architect builds a water pipe directly in the path of an emergency ladder, or what kind of engineer puts an emergency ladder's path through a pre-existing water pipe? Fair puzzle, irrational placement.

Speaking of architecture, the level design is beautiful. I have never seen such attractive sewers and I think a match for Thief 3's Shalebridge Cradle has finally been found. Every level is dripping with atmosphere, not to mention rain water through the gaps in the ceiling. I would liked to have seen BioShock-like water effects on the screen when you walk through a sheet of rain but that that would mean quite a bit more work I am sure. The effects of light and darkness, ambient sounds, some of the best Foley (hand-crafted sound effects) I've heard in a game and music that plugs directly into the brain's fear centre all combine with the visual design to instil a sense of place and dread.

Amnesia ships with inbuilt Developer Commentary, like that found in the Half-Life 2 episodes and Chronicles of Riddick. This I love and, along with special content unlocked by finding all alternative endings, give fantastic insight into the development process. The commentary pieces were recorded by each of the team members separately using their home computers so the audio quality varies but they are remarkably frank and, often, quite funny in a way Valve's commentaries are never permitted to be.

Okay, so it all sounds too good to be true but Amnesia does have its failings (or at least disappointments). It has a nasty habit of forcing the player's attention by dragging the camera angle around to what it deems important. The best games of today tease the player's attention and trust them to see for themselves. A couple of key occasions do require such blunt measures but often it simply wasn't necessary and felt an intrusion to player agency. I am sure they were introduced following play testing but a more subtle solution could have been found.

Only twice (if we are being generous) does Daniel venture outside the castle. While yes this leads to a sense of claustrophobia it would be preferable to get a breath of fresh air more often. Then the castle would feel more like a place in the world and even less like a limited set.

Some may consider Amnesia a short game (my first play through took a little under six hours) but for around £10-£12 it is an excellent and highly concentrated experience. It is, as the saying goes, all killer; no filler. If you are willing to suspend your disbelief and allow yourself to be scared witless, I can fully recommend grabbing a copy of Amnesia, turning off the lights and setting yourself down to a night that will give you nightmares to rival anything the works of Lovecraft or Poe set down in ink. Just don't send me the bill for your therapy afterwards.

Amnesia is available from Frictional Games store and all major digital download services and is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Full list.

This game was played twice over a total of 11 hours. It was played on PC from a Steam download, originally pre-purchased from the developer's website. There is no multiplayer. The author is not affiliated with Frictional Games in any way - though he would not turn down a job at some point in the future. ;)

Monday, 6 September 2010

One to Watch: The Witness

The pleasure of having a memory as full of holes as mine is you get to discover things over and over and over again. I rediscover things all the time: old songs, old movies, my sense of wonder at the world. Then I lose them again. But one thing I hope not to lose this time is the fact that Jonathan Blow, indie games darling and creator of Braid, is heading up a team working on a game called The Witness.

I should point out that there's no indication The Witness will come to the PC. It has been seen working on the Xbox 360 but it has been said that it will be released on multiple platforms.

So what is it? As far as has been seen, the player wanders an island from a first-person perspective. The island is littered with points of interest - a bungalow, a lighthouse, a gazebo, a raised platform etc - with puzzles scattered around. The puzzles seen so far as kind of connect-the-dots logic puzzles but I think we can expect more than that. A lot of time and effort has been poured into the graphics engine, making the world beautiful and shadows pass realistically across the ground and walls as the sun crosses the sky. The graphics themselves are apparently, as of late August, placeholder but they give a good sense of the atmosphere the team are working towards.

The immediate point of reference is Myst, or more recently Dear Esther which of course lacked the puzzles and added the voice-over narrative. If anything it looks like a room-escape puzzle that forgot to be bound to a single room.

The Witness was showing at PAX this weekend, alongside my favourite in-development indie game SpyParty and Monaco. According to the games' development blog, the idea was to keep it pleasantly low key and actually reduce the attention it got so players could take as long as the required and/or desired. I wonder if they also didn't want to include anything that could influence the players and spoil any feedback they might get.

All that was known of The Witness last time it passed through my awareness was the at the top of this post. A door with a blue square on it at the end of a dark corridor is very little to go on but already excitement was growing. Until the game is released sometime late in 2011, I predict that excitement is going to blossom and boom to ridiculous (though not necessarily undeserved) levels. This is definitely one to watch!

From Kotaku via The Witness official twitter. Yeah, you read that the right way around.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Company Of Heroes On The Line Online

Which is my weird and obtuse way of saying that Relic Entertainment's new re-imagining of classic RTS Company of Heroes has entered open beta. Which as far as free-to-play micropayment-maintained projects means it has just been released.

Company of Heroes Online, as it has so originally been titled, is essentially the hit 2006 World War 2 strategy game sans the pile of expansion packs it has enjoyed over the intervening years with extra tasty MMO features like earnable unit upgrades, hero units and ongoing experience levels. For those of us who fear the roulette of multiplayer matchmaking services, it even involves the entire singleplayer campaign from that original game. For free! Which is nice.

To get to the meat of the game, you first create your commander's allegiance - Allies and Axis, naturally - and appearance in a character designer which comprises of three skin tones (I was disappointed not to be able to create a black Nazi commander but what are the chances), ten variations on strong-jawed poster-boy and an equal number of clean-cut hairstyles. Except for one. Curiously there is the option of giving your character some manner of short mohawk which I just could not turn down.

More importantly, here you are given the option of three doctrines (a different set for each faction) which are superficially the same as those in the original game. Now, instead of the two branches of super-powerful abilities, you work your way up a Diablo- or WoW-esque net powers. And then there's a whole other layer where you earn Supply - ingame currency - and use that to purchase hero units and unit upgrades.

Look, in short it's a free-to-play RTS with persistent stats and a deep level of customisation. Just go DOWNLOAD the bloody thing already. Big orange button on the top-right, 9GB and you will of course require an account.

Try a Little Bit of Amnesia - Demo

Frictional Games have released a demo for their soon-to-be-scarring-us-witless Amnesia. In keeping with their ongoing development blog-thoughts, they have also blogged about the demo's design and theory.

The demo consists of two levels from different points in the game. The first is the opening level and starts in medias res, which is all kind of the point - of course somehow you got to where you are, but you don't remember how. Nice little trick to make the player as clueless as their character and so make them one in the same. This level is all about defining the setting and building atmosphere, while teaching the importance of light and sanity. I finished this level a gibbering wreck (and in the game!)

The demo then jumps forwards a couple of hours to show off its puzzle and oh-god-please-don't-kill-me mechanics. I think it manages to strike a balance of being just lethal enough to invoke fear but not so lethal as to be punishing and repetitive. I died three times just trying to cross three-or-so rooms and each time learned a new important fact about how to deal with/avoid the dangers. This is pretty abrupt but the learning curve should be much smoother in the full game.

Keep an eye out for a review of Amnesia in the coming weeks. Download the demo now (torrent available).