Thursday, February 29, 2024

Other Games Are Available

Not that I'm much of a one for making plans but any vague idea I might have had for keeping to some kind of gaming or blogging schedule this year have been wrecked by the arrival of two survival games, one of which I was eagerly anticipating, the other which I'd barely heard of before it appeared. 

Palworld, now claiming twenty-five million players worldwide, claimed more than forty hours of my time over four weeks, making it a very worthwhile purchase, but still left plenty of time for doing other things. Nightingale, with thirty-three hours played-time in just over a week, hasn't been so accomodating. It's left little time for any other games, including Palworld, which I haven't touched since last Tuesday.

Rather than muse yet again on just why Nightingale should be so compulsive, I thought I'd make a short list of the games I had been thinking of playing and writing about, in the hope that naming them in public might somehow nudge me into playing one or two. It's a long shot but it might be worth a try.

Allods Online

I'll begin with the one (And only.) game I have actually logged into since I downloaded Nightingale. And what a weird choice it is, too. Why would I want to go back to this all but forgotten artifact of the WoW Clone era? The game that promised so much and then broke Keen's heart? (Remember him? What's he up to now, I wonder?)

It all started with something I read a few weeks back. Syp wrote a very brief piece for MassivelyOP, answering the question absolutely no-one was asking: "Whatever happened to Allods Online?" In the third and final paragraph he mentioned how a recent patch had "added the Gibberlings’ homeland of Isa". That caught my attention.

The Gibberlings are one of MMOdom's more unusual playable races. They're sharp-toothed, woodlandish animals, which is nothing unusual for the genre, but they come in packs of three, which certainly is. In the game, you run across single NPC gibberlings occasionally but the PC character is an eternal tryptych; three siblings who do everything together, always.

It's very strange and hard to forget once you've played one. Mrs Bhagpuss, who only ever played Allods Online during the beta, well over a decade ago, still mentions the Gibberlings quite often. I've played the game several times since then, in a few of its many iterations; on US and EU accounts, through MY.Games and GPotato, on PC and on tablet, where it was one of the few full MMORPGs than ran flawlessly for me.

I started out playing a Gibberling character but later I played an Orc and one of the catlike race, the Priden. That last was a mistake. The cats have their own starting island and although I tried to level up far enough to get my invite to the mainland I never quite managed it. 

It pretty much put a stop to my interest in the game. Although the storyline was interesting and the quest dialog well-written and fun to read, the mechanics were even more pedestrian than the rest of the game I'd seen - and Allods is not a particularly thrilling title when it comes to moment-to-moment gameplay at the best of times.

That, though, was my only real complaint. In almost every other respect, AO seems to me to be something of an undiscovered - or at least wilfully ignored - gem. I would love to get further and see more than I have so far. Ironically, the furthest I ever got was in beta, when Mrs Bhagpuss and I played together and got as far as the first of the non-consensual PvP zones, which came in somewhere around Level 30, if I remember right.

I would very much like to see the ancestral homeland of the Gibberlings, long thought lost but recently re-discovered. When I played one (Er... three...) they started off in the Bavarianesque starting area where one of the human races begin. Well, after the dramatic in media res beginning on an exploding space rock, followed by an enforced hiatus on an abandoned Allod, that is. 

Impressed I can remember all that? Well, don't be. I did it all again about an hour ago. It all started after I finished playing Nightingale (Three hours, right after breakfast. What the hell is wrong with me?), when I was thinking about what I could blog about, other than survival games. 

As I mentioned a while ago, I've gotten into the habit of bookmarking things I've seen or read that might make blog posts. I had a flip through those this morning and noticed there were several MMORPGs I'd been thinking, for various reasons, of trying - or trying again. Almost without thinking about it, I googled "Allods Online", just to see who was publishing it now and what I'd have to do to start playing and to my great surprise I found it's available on Steam, where it has a surprising and well-deserved Mostly Positive review rating.

It's entirely possible I haven't played Allods since I started using Steam. It's also entirely possible I've played it on Steam already. I have a terrible memory. Luckily, I also have a blog...

There are eighteen posts here with the Allods Online tag. The first goes all the way back to October 2011, almost the beginning of the blog, when I'd just re-installed the game. My most recent was only a couple of years ago in November 2021, when I was complaining about that damn Priden starting zone and swearing I'd get free of it. I never did.  

In both those posts I said many of the things I've said in this one, which I'm betting won't matter because no-one is going to remember any of it. I can at least confirm that the information about the game being available through Steam is new (Well, new to me...) Back then I was playing on MY.Games own platform.

And I probably still am, behind the curtain. I installed the game via Steam this morning but when you hit Play it takes you to an external launcher. The important part though is having the first button on Steam. I'm increasingly coming to see why people like that. It's just so convenient. No wonder all the publishers want to be represented there.

I wasn't planning on playing Allods today, just setting it up so I could play some other time, but I had to test the login ptocess to make sure it worked and then wouldn't you know I ended up doing the basic Tutorial and some starter quests. When I logged out I was Level 5.

As I said in that post a couple of years back "Allods is fun. Always was. I might keep playing." I probably will - sporadically - but if history is any guide I won't get any further than I ever have. My Priden is still on that damn island and lord only knows where the Orc is now. 

To my considerable surprise and delight, though, the quest relating to the Gibberling homeland that was added in a patch last July begins in a low-level zone and has no level restrictions. I was sure it would be some endgame content I'd never see. 

Surely, between marathon Nightingale sessions, I can at least make it far enough in Allods this time to get the quest, even if I never finish it! Place your bets now.

And speaking of Nightingale, I'm afraid the temptation is too strong. All those other games I was going to talk about, the ones I'd like to be playing and posting about if I wasn't in the grips of this unealthy obsession? They're going to have to wait some more even for a mention. 

Also, it gives me something else to post about another time. Never waste valuable resources. That's all that survival game training paying off, right there!

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

First Catch Your Hare...

Here's an odd fact about Nightingale. The sun rises in the south and sets in the north. Or it does in my Abeyance Forest Realm, anyway. In my Antiquarian Forest Realm, however, the sun rises in the north and sets in the south.

Does it mean anything? Is it telling me something about the Realms and the Byways that I ought to know? Or is the direction the sun travels merely a pseudo-random artifact of procedural generation?

I have no idea but it's the sort of thing that makes the game feel more mysterious and otherworldly, a sensation that has a lot to do with why I can't seem to stop playing it right now. It really is an explorer's dream. From the reviews, it seems most everyone agrees about that.

Not everyone is in such accord about the rest of the gameplay, though. Always assuming we can agree on what the gameplay even is.

It's clearly a survival game now but I keep hearing that the endgame, if and when Inflexion finish it, is going to make Nightingale feel more like a Lobby MMO along the lines of the original Guild Wars, complete with a central, multiplayer hub where you can find other players, form parties and take on dungeons and raids. 

How that is going to fit in with the sudden pivot to add an offline solo mode the devs apparently never intended to offer at all, I cannot begin to imagine. It sounds almost as though they'll have to make and maintain two separate games, if players who choose to go for the offline solo version aren't going to be locked out of endgame content altogether. 

Or I guess the game could just stop at a certain point for offliners, unless they flip a switch to go online and join everyone else. That'd be popular, I'm sure!

It's easy to see why they're changing their plans, though. Nightingale currently has a Mixed rating on Steam, in large part because a lot of people don't like having to be online all the time, particularly when the servers aren't handling the load particularly well. That last is being addressed quickly. New servers for South America came online just today. Spreading the load ought to help.

I was taken a little aback by the virulence of the objections to an internet element for the game. Apparently the always-online requirement came as quite the surprise to some, which is hard to credit in 2024. Since I deliberately avoided reading much about the game before it went into Early Access, I can't say whether that's down to poor messaging by the developers or wishful thinking by some of their customers. A bit of both, probably.

Browsing the reviews, another common complaint, even from some of the people giving the game a thumbs up, is that the crafting system is wildly over-complicated. That was going to be the basis of the post I was going to write but to go into all of the implications properly would take me all afternoon and for once I'm very clear that I'd rather play a game than pontificate about it. 

I know! Undermines the entire ethos of the blog, doesn't it?

This, then, is the shorthand version of that post, believe it or not. The gist of my argument is that you really can't please all of the people all of the time but if you want to stay in business you'd better at least try to please most of them most of the time. And good luck with that!

The kind of crafting Nightingale has now clearly falls somewhat short of that goal. As a fun way of spending a gaming session its appeal is, how shall I put this... niche.

 One reviewer offers an excellent summation of the problem:

" craft a thing so you can use that thing to craft another thing, which is needed to make a different thing, then that different thing makes another 'nother thing, and then the 'nother 'nother thing is used finally as a reagent for what you actually wanted to craft in the first place. And that thing you actually want to craft needs about 4 different items that all have the same issue."

It reminds me of the original crafting system with which EverQuest II launched, twenty years ago. That one lasted less than a year before it was completely revamped. Most people loathed it, although there's still a rump of disgruntled veterans who occasionally lobby (Always unsuccessfully, thank God.) for its return, especially on the retro servers.

There is one absolutely enormous difference between the two and it's a difference that makes all the difference. In original EQII, no single crafting class (With the exception of Provisioner, but let me not derail my own post with that little sidebar.) could make all the necessary sub-components to be self-sufficient at their chosen craft. 

Everyone relied on at least one other class, often several. You either had to play multiple alts and level  different tradeskills or you had to buy or bargain for your sub-combines from other players. Guilds set up virtual crafting sweatshops, while individuals horse-traded among themselves. It was hell.

Some people, naturally, loved it. Or claimed to. Most really did not. SOE saw sense after a few months, which still felt like far too long, changing it so you could, by and large, craft all you needed for a tradeskill with the character who was supposed to be the expert at it. 

Over the years, many more iterations came to crafting, all of them moving the dial further towards either ease of use or entertainment or even both at once. The subset of crafters who seem to value verisimilitude over everything else kvetched about it but commercially the direction of travel seemed both wise and inevitable. 

In the two decades since then, just about every game has chosen to let players move smoothly through the crafting process without making too much of a fuss about the fine details. It's not uncommon to separate refining from manufacturing, so you have to smelt ore to get metal or tan hide to get leather but once you have the basic materials it's straight to the finished item. 

I'm in two minds about the whole thing, which rather surprises me. So long as I don't have to negotiate with another human being for sub-combines, I find I quite enjoy them. It's strangely satisfying to have to make straps and twine to bind tools together instead of just choosing a recipe, clicking Combine and having game physics hand-wave away all the awkward in-between stages. 

Then again, it's only fun for a while. Like many things, getting all the right pieces together is fascinating the first time you do it, less so the second time and a pain in the neck forever after. If I was a game designer, I'd use the same mechanic for learning recipes that many games use for opening fast travel routes: first time through, you have to do every step yourself but after that the game does it all for you.

Even as I say that, though, I'm aware of the potential loss of something ineffable but invaluable. Call it immersion or authenticity or granularity; whatever you call it, we all recognize it when we feel it and at the moment I'm feeling it in Nightingale. Every brick removed risks bringing the whole thing crashing down. 

One of the frequent complaints in the negative reviews is that all this busy-work gets in the way of playing the real game. I wondered, even the first time I saw someone make that assertion, just what they imagined the real game might be. If there's much more to progression a survival game than making better stuff  so you can go to tougher places and kill tougher things to get stuff to make better stuff to go to tougher places...

Sometimes you don't want to pull on a thread lest the whole tapestry unravel. 

With that caveat, I'm pretty sure we're going to see many quality-of-life improvements to crafting as Early Access proceeds. There's one on the way already.

"Additionally, we have some much-requested quality-of-life improvements in development, the most notable of which include craft from storage and queued crafting."

OK, that's two. With many more to follow, I'm sure.

I'm happy. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to play the game the way it is now but also happy that it's going to become less fiddly and fussy, with luck just as I begin to lose patience with all that fiddle-faddling nonsense. Sometimes you can have cake and eat cake.

Even if you do have to mill your own flour and fire your own plates first.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Nightingale's Sweet Song

You know all those explanatory posts and videos people like to do? The ones that come under the catch-all title "Why I Play..."? This is the opposite of one of those.

When it comes to video games, I'm not much interested in Achievements but I do find the ones Steam hands out quite useful for bench-marking my progress against everyone else. This morning I completed an instance called Astrolabe Site of Power to obtain my Astrolabe card, for which I received the fifth of Nightingale's fifteen possible Achievements.

The Astrolabe is part of what is either the main quest-line or the extended tutorial. It's hard to tell them apart since the former seems to shift imperceptibly into the latter at an unspecified point. Puck is still popping up to offer instruction, advice and criticism but then I suspect he'll be with us indefinitely. He clearly has some agenda of his own he's not yet ready to reveal.

Although Nightingale is ostensibly a sandbox, it employs a number of mechanisms familiar from more directive genres, not least gatekeeping by gear score. The Realms are riven with opportunities that require no particular marker of ability to attempt - towers, ruins, caves, ziggurats and mysterious structures of all kinds - but the entrances to storyline instances are closed off by crackling force-fields that don't let anyone pass until the necessary requirements are met.

Excuse me? Are you my dietician now?

The same checks, unsurprisingly, apply to resource nodes, all of which come with a gear score below which your tools simply bounce off. I don't know how far the numbers in Nightingale go up but given that I've seen nodes that require a score well in excess of two hundred, it seems safe to assume that the GS30 needed to enter the Astrolabe indicates its positioning at a fairly early stage in the storyline.

You might think, then, that quite a lot of players would have breezed past it long ago. I certainly would have thought so but it seems I'd have been overestimating the interest, enthusiasm or willingness to follow instructions of the great majority of my fellow Realm travelers. As of time or writing, the Astrolabe has been completed by fewer than fifteen per cent of players.

The next instance in line, the Provisioner Site of Power, asks for a Gear Score of 40. I already have that. Exactly that, in fact. It would also seem to be quite closer to the start of the game but fewer than ten per cent of players have claimed the Achievement for that one.

It's impossible to be sure whether what seems like a very steep tail-off in engagement with the main storyline equates to a similar withdrawal from the game as a whole or whether it just indicates a disinclination to follow signposts. Nightingale is a survival sandbox, after all. Maybe most players prefer to do their own thing and set their own goals. 

It would be easier to assess the probabilities if I knew just how much of the tech tree was gated by the storyline. As yet, I'm unsure. You can buy a lot of recipes from vendors and for currencies that are easy-to-very-easy to acquire. Basic essence dust can be salvaged from literally anything so all you need to do is chop down a few trees. Tier 1 essences, as Tobold explains, are easily farmed from Fae Towers and other sites of interest in Antiquarian Realms.

Without doing any deliberate farming at all, I've already obtained enough of both to buy every recipe I've seen on sale and to upgrade all of my main gear slots. Given the relatively challenging nature of my adventures in the Astrolabe, which included one death for me and several for my companion and which only ended in success when I found a nice, safe spot from which to snipe the boss without him being able to do anything about it, I'll be doing what I can to raise my Gear Score a bit more before taking on the Provisioner.

Hang on Dora, I'll come revive you after I've cheesed him from up here.

Again, though, I'm unsure just how much upgrading I'll be able to do. I suspect that although everything within my current upgrade tier - Uncommon - is open to me without further recourse to the storyline, whatever comes after may not become available until a set point in the narrative. I suppose I could go look it up, but where's the fun in that?

The whole thing is made much more complicated by the layered nature of Nightingale's power structure. It reminds me very much  of Valheim in the way you can stack multiple food and potion buffs not only to raise various resistances but also to increase you health pool and give yourself all kinds of advantages. 

In this respect, compared to Valheim, Nightingale seems at least an order of magnitude more complex. As in Valheim, you can change your own stats through what you eat, drink and wear and according to what buffs you can acquire but you can also change the environment around you according to what cards you choose to play. It's as though Inflexion took the console commands that allowed you to change Valheim (Or Palworld.) as a player and put them inside the game so you could change them as a character instead.

It's a subtle difference, since the outcome is much the same, but it makes for a more immersive experience, at least if you're the kind of player who sees their character as more than just an extension of themselves. It puts the mechanics at a remove from external reality, binding them into the lore and the environment, and by doing so attempts to uphold the fiction that Nightingale is something more than a game. 

Those are mining nodes sticking out of that thing.

It would be tempting to claim that's a contributory factor to why I'm finding it more compelling than Palworld but the facts don't really bear out that interpretation. I made a couple of console changes to Palworld and they added to my immersion there rather than detracted from it. It didn't matter that it was a metafictional rather than a fictional act.

I suspect I'm finding Nightingale a good deal more immersive mostly because there's a lot more to see and do than there is in Palworld, which already feels a little thin by comparison, even though I've really only seen a couple of Nightingale's Realms - Abeyance and Antiquarian - and just one biome - Forest. I did get a brief exposure to two other biomes, Swamp and Desert - in the early tutorial but I couldn't pretend I explored them to any significant extent.

How many more Realms or biomes there might be I couldn't say. Again, I could look it up but I'm not going to. Not yet, anyway. I don't feel the need to do any research of that kind because it's clear to me I still have a great deal to discover about the Realms and biomes I already know or know of. The maps feel huge and they're partially procedurally generated so there are an infinite number of variations on the finite themes. 

It's taken me nearly real-life day's play to get this far and I haven't even done half of the stuff marked on the maps in the two Realms I've opened, which is nothing like everything there is to do there. I can't see how it can take less than several more real-time days to exhaust the possibilities already in front of me. Even with the number of hours I'm putting in right now, that would take a month or more and that's just two maps out of as many as I care to create.

Maybe by the time I have GS230 I'll also have a way to get up there.

Good, new games often give an impression of unlimited potential but it's rarely sustained. I'm not claiming I'm going to be spending the next month or two playing Nightingale for several hours a day, every day. Then again, that is what happened with Valheim, where Steam tells me I've spent a somewhat unnerving 384 hours so far. 

What I will say is that although I've played and enjoyed a slew of new games in the last year and found much to write about all of them - Noah's Heart, Dawnlands, Once Human, Tarisland, Palworld... - I can't remember thinking about them anything like as much when I wasn't playing them as I have been about Nightingale. The last game that applied to probably was Valheim.

I suspect it might have something to do with the need for forward planning. That does always get me thinking outside of the sessions themselves and Nightingale is one of those games where just running about aimlessly doesn't always get you as far as you'd like, although it's certainly fun to do anyway.

Despite what I said earlier, I'm not convinced it's about content either. I suspect much of that may become repetitive after a while once the assets that get re-shuffled every time you make a new Realm become familiar. 

It's certainly not about polish. Nightingale is neither as polished or finished as the other games on that list, not even the ones that are still in beta or Early Access. In fact, Nightingale is buggier than any game I've played in a while.

Dora, cloned by a bug.

I don't think it's about affection for my character, either. I like her well enough but that utterly expressionless face does make it hard to bond with her. 

(On that topic, I would like to revise my comments on the lack of idling animations very slightly. Flora does sway very slightly from side to side when at rest. That's it, though. And since we're on the subject of personalization, I also found out today there are emotes in the game. Like everything else, you have to find them for yourself. If you hit "Z" yet another radial menu pops up, this one with a number of emotes from the obvious (Wave, Salute.) to the outre (Relevé, Pirouette.). No Sit, though.)

It might be the deep crafting system with its many, many possibilities for making slightly different variations of every item. I'm sure that's going to appeal to a lot of folks. It sort of appeals to me - in theory - but I know myself well enough to understand I'll never make full use of it, just dabble around the margins, as and when I happen by sheer chance to acquire a full set of mats to make something strange or unusual.

What is it, then, that seems to have pushed me further into the game than 85% of the other people playing it, even if we are only less than a week in and there's ample time for everyone to catch up and pass me as I inevitably run out of enthusiasm next week or next month? Could it the story, perhaps? 

I have a feeling I'm going to be needing a lot of these.

Nah, I don't think so. It's nice that there is one and the narrative conceit of trying to find a way back to Nightingale (Yes, it's a place. Did we not cover that?) does offer both a reason to push forward and a framework for doing so. It's hardly a page-turner, though. There's no sense of needing to Find Out What Happens Next in capital letters. It's more of a general signpost on which way to go than an engine driving me relentlessy onward.

I don't have an answer to all these rhetorical questions, by the way, just in case anyone was waiting for one. This post is me, musing out loud, hoping something will come to me. It hasn't, not yet.

If I really take a step back and think about it, I'm not even sure Nightingale is resonating more strongly with me than most of the games in that list above. The posts I wrote about them, especially in the first week or two, probably sound just as enthusiastic. Maybe I just get over-excited when I have new stuff to see and do and write about. 

Even if that's true, I don't think I played more than twenty hours of any of those games in the first five days. Nightingale definitely has something they didn't. 

If I find out what it is, I'll be sure to let everyone know. Until then, I'll just keep playing in the hope it might eventually come to me.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

If You Can't Play It, Write About It

I have about half an hour before dinner. I could either play Nightingale or put the quickest of quick posts together. I logged out last night outside a "dungeon" that did not go well on first attempt. I'm not going to try and run that in thirty minutes but I do have plenty of screenshots so...

I've been playing Nightingale a lot. Steam tells me I've racked up just over twenty hours in five days and I was at work for two of those. I think this is probably the most hours I've played any game, per day, since Valheim

It's not exactly the game I was expecting, either. I went out of my way to avoid finding out very much about Nightingale before Early Access, so that's hardly surprising. I think I was imagining something along the lines of an open-world, 3D Fallen London

It's not much like that at all.

For one thing, Nightingale is much more of a puzzle game than I was anticipating. There are puzzles everywhere, although they're hardly intellectually taxing. What's more, some of them are jumping puzzles. I very much was not expecting those.

There are difficulty settings but they mostly affect combat, as far as I know. Those are good for getting through tough "dungeons"but I'm not sure they can help much with the non-combat challenges, although the Minor Arcana certainly can. We'll get to how that works later, I expect. When I actually understand it.

Fortunately, if you can't jump, you can climb. Or build. Stairs, ramps, scaffolding, bridges.... It's a weird game that gives you jumping puzzles and then lets you avoid having to do any jumping. 

But then, Nightingale is turning out to be quite a weird game. In so many ways.

For example, I certainly didn't anticipate spending half my time gliding through the air, hanging onto an umbrella like a steampunk Mary Poppins. It's hella fun even if it is nearly impossible to steer. 

Gliding chews through stamina at a terrifying rate but there are ways to change that. Quite a lot of ways. There seem to be quite a lot of ways to affect everything. I didn't expect that, either. It's like modding the game in real-time, from within.

Overall, Nightingale seems to be much more of a "game" than I imagined, even though it absolutely is a survival sandbox as well. At least at the stage I'm at, it has a narrative strucrture and a linear plotline as well as all the usual survival mechanics. It's almost like playing two genres at once.

An anecdote: the screenshot above was taken following what may have been my most Valheimesque moment since I last played Valheim. I was edging along the coast when night fell. I couldn't go right because I'd drown in the sea. I couldn't left because I didn't have the stamina to climb the cliffs. I couldn't just wait it out because I was in danger of becoming exhausted from lack of sleep and I was getting too tired to fight off the maurading Bound and spiders that kept coming at me out of the darkness.

In the end I had to build myself a hut and put down a bedroll so I could get through until daylight. Then I found the cave where the spiders were coming from and discovered a portal to another Realm entirely. That never happened in Valheim.

But that's just how things are right now. Adventure, mystery, discovery and wonder at every turn. After a while all of it will start to feel codified and familiar but for the moment it still seems other-worldly and magical.

I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts!

Friday, February 23, 2024

Temptation All Around

It's Friday! How about a few notes and queries? Okay, then. Here we go...

Gonna Make You An Offer...

Steam has a sale on. Steam always has a sale on, but this one is more interesting than most. It's a 2K Pubisher Sale and although I didn't immediately recognize the name, I certainly recognized the games: Civilization, Borderlands, Bio-Shock, X-Com...

So far, so impressive, but wait! Check out the discounts: 90%! 91%!! 93%!!! Apart from a couple of measly half-price offers on games that cost less than $5 full price, everything is two-thirds off or better. 

Cuts this big raise a couple of awkward questions:  

  1. Just how big does a bargain  have to be before you feel you have to take it, even though you don't really want it?
  2. If you call yourself a gamer but you've never played these classics, at these prices is there any excuse not to try them now?

I can answer the second quite easily. I don't call myself a gamer. I grudgingly accept "Gamer" as a useful if misleading shorthand term but I wouldn't self-identify as one. I certainly don't feel the need to have personally played every classic game, although I do believe I ought to recognize the names and know a little a bit about most of them. 

The first is a bit harder. I do like a bargain and these are some really good deals. A few of the games I can eliminate quite easily on the grounds of genre or subject. I'm never going to start playing 4X games or at least I can't see it happening. Others, though, are harder to turn down. Bio-Shock is right in my area of interest and I'm increasingly beginning to realise how much I like the tactical, turn-based gameplay that's often descibed as "X-Com style". It does seem strange to enjoy the copies but ignore the originals.

In the end, though, is a bargain really a bargain if, after you buy it, it just sits there, unused? These are all games I've thought about playing before and decided against. If they were sitting in my Steam library, would I be any more likely to play them? The scores of DVDs in this house, still with the shrink-wraps unbroken, suggest otherwise.

And then there's the sheer scale of the offers. The two X-Com Collections comprise 26 games! Who has time for that? Even the Bio-Shock Collection, with just three full games and some DLC, would probably take weeks to play through. 

The games are mosly available in the sale individually, some of them for absolute peanuts. I am very tempted to drop a few pounds just to have a few in my collection. But in the end, truism though it may be, money is money. A tenner for half a dozen games that could give me entertainment for months is an objective bargain but I already have a ton of games I haven't played that I got for nothing, which has to the best bargain of all. And am I playing those?

I'm still dithering. I might crack and buy a couple of titles. The sale is on for a couple of days. I'm working all weekend, luckily, which should give me something of a sanity buffer until the temptation disappears. 

Weirdly, the game in the sale that started me thinking about all this wasn't any of the big names I've mentioned. It's right down at the bottom of the list, among the flurry of after-thoughts and also-rans: Freedom Force, the first super-hero game I ever played. 

Freedom Force came out more than two decades ago, in 2002. It had a lengthy demo, which was included on a disc on the cover of some magazine I bought back then. I remember playing that demo and not thinking it was all that great. And yet I can still remember it with startling clarity.

I certainly didn't buy the full game when it was released although I have a vague idea I might have picked it up free from some service or offer at some point. It's entirely possible I already own it, somehow. And yet I can't quite shift the feeling it would be nice to have it on Steam, where I could not play it so much more easily than I'm not playing it wherever else I have it.

It's 75% off. They're asking £1.07 for it. It would be rude not to take them up on an offer like that. Wouldn't it? 

Always On The Internet (Slight Reprise)

And now a couple of updates on Nightingale. Just be thankful you're not getting a full post.

There were two announcements from Inflexion Games waiting when I logged into Steam this morning. One confirmed the arrival of Nightingale on GeForce Now. The other apologised for the game being always online and promised an offline version "as soon as feasible".

It made me think. I've been playing my games through an internet connection for so long now I'd all but forgotten it was even possible to play video games without one. When I log in to Prime Gaming or Steam and launch a game, I literally never even think about whether I'm playing on or offline. 

I haven't had any of the reported connectivity issues with Nightingale that others have. Well, that's not strictly true. I've had two disconnections, both of which were immediately resolvable by logging back in. That's so insignificant I wouldn't even class it as an inconvenience, let alone a problem.

It is true, however, that I'm playing entirely solo and that I have no plans to play Nightingale in multiplayer or co-op in the future.  I guess I don't need to be online for that, although I had been assuming the servers were doing some of the heavy lifting, not my PC. My question is, if a game like this moves offline, isn't the client PC on which it runs going to need to be more powerful? Or is that not how these things work?

Of course, if my PC wasn't up to running Nightingale, I could still play anyway, using GeForce Now. I was all over that for a while with New World, before I upgraded my RAM and video card last year. My then-set-up was able to run New World but after an hour or so it would grind to a halt and have to be re-booted. It also made some worrying noises and kept the room warm without my needing to use the wall heater.

That was why, as soon as I had the components installed, the first game I fired up to test them with was New World. It ran smoothly, didn't bog down, and my PC purred along, quiet and cool as you like. The ironic thing was that once I could play New World locally, I didn't much want to. 

Playing on GeForce Now was efficient and effective but it was also just annoying enough to make me not want to bother after a while. There were a few extra steps every time you wanted to log in and because I was too mean to pay the subscription I was stuck with the free service, which made me queue for a server in the evenings and booted me out once an hour.

I could re-queue and start again an unlimited number of times but it just made me less interested in playing, overall. I would absolutely use the service to play a game I wanted to play that wouldn't run at all on my machine but in the case of Nightingale, I can't see the point.

...That You Can't Refuse

On the topic of how much of a bargain does something have to be before you buy, how much of a bribe does it take to get you to come back? 

We're all used to MMORPGs running campaigns to get people to log in again to games they used to play. I used to jump on those. Now I mostly ignore them.

I did acquire most of my ingrained gaming habits back in the days of EverQuest and its imitators, though. I do have certain triggers and one of them is xp. If I hear a game's giving big, bonus xp - double or treble, say - it does often  make me feel like taking them up on the offer. Even if its a game I haven't thought about playing in years. 

Enter Black Desert with its 800% XP Bonus. Eight. Hundred. Per Cent. I mean I can't even. 

There are some strings. It's a community event. The titular 800% is predicated on players working to gether to gather a total of 30,000,000 Seals of Sincerity. That sounds like a lot but who knows? 

The whole thing is Ostensibly on behalf of the game's eight anniversary although it t may also have something to do with Pearl Abyss's finances, which as Nosy Gamer reported, don't look that bright right now. I'm sure they'd love for a bunch of lapsed BD players to come back to the fold.

There are some titles and other goodies you can claim, too. I do like a title...

I definitely didn't have "Play Black Desert" on my spring schedule but damn! 800%! I wonder if I still have the game installed?

And finally.

Always End With A Song

Mrs Bhagpuss tipped me to this one. "She's got a candy-floss voice and it's about losing love or something. You'd like it". And she was right. She knows me so well...

Also, it has 50m views on YouTube and it was #1 in the UK last year so why the heck I needed Mrs Bhagpuss to tell me about it beats me. What do I have these damn music feeds for?

Strangers - Kenya Grace

I just love the way she stretches the vowels. And the skittering drum & bass production. And the shimmering whispers. It's weird how everything that used to be avant garde ends up going mainstream.

Weird and very wonderful.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Feeling Twitchy

This is somewhat of a makeshift post. I spent two hours composing a much longer, more detailed one, then I managed to delete it by accident. Unrecoverably. Not for the first time, either, and I don't suppose it will be the last. It's amazing how you can just brush two or three keys at once as you reach across the keyboard and something like that happens. 

The post you're not reading right now was about graphical fidelity and appearance gear in Nightingale. Don't get excited. There is no appearance gear in Nightingale. That was one of the points I was making.

Since I'm stuffed if I'm going to re-write the whole thing and since I'm even less inclined to spend another two hours writing another one, we're just going to have to make do with some pictures of the Twitch Drops I got myself by having Gladd's channel tabbed out and muted for six hours today. There's a promotion on.

Acquiring Twitch Drops was a new experience for me but I imagine I'll be doing it again, now I know how easy it is. The hardest part was finding a channel that didn't keep dropping out all the time. I tried three yesterday and they all did it, repeatedly, so it was good to find one today that didn't.

Other than that, it seems like something for nothing. The promotion goes on until the 27th but it only takes eight hours of "viewing" to get everything. You can easily do it in a day.

Here's what's on offer. The outfit splits into five pieces - gloves, shoes, pants, shirt and hat. The dress swaps in for the shirt. Altogether there's something for every clothing slot. You also get the recipes to make them all - so you can replace them if they wear out, I guess.

As well as the clothes, there's an umbrella. Umbrellas are kind of a big deal in Nightingale. Did you know they double as parachutes? Well, they do

You could even use one as a makeshift glider at a push, although they use stamina to float so you wouldn't be gliding far.

The final reward, the one that takes the full eight hours to get, is a dog. A Distinguished Puppy. It's a dachshund wearing a top hat.

I'm not sure how he'll work with Dora, my trusty help-meet. Are there cosmetic pets in the game? Maybe you can have more than one companion out at a time.

I think he's about ready. Hold on... let me just log in and claim him. I'll find out how he works and take a screenshot... 

Ah! I didn't think of that. The Distinguished Puppy is a house item. It took me a while to work it out. Unlike the other rewards, he doesn't just pop up in your pack. You have to craft him from the Building menu. 

More specifically, you craft his bed. It's under the "Rest" sub-category and it's an actual, tiny bed. You can sleep in it yourself if you want, although I can't imagine how that works. 

As soon as you place it, the dog appears nearby. He roams around a little, lies down, sits up... generally acts like a dog.

About the one thing he doesn't do as far as I can see is use his bed. I was expecting him to lie down in it but I don't think he does. 

He's also quite disturbingly realistic. He looks like an actual motion-capture of a genuine dachshund. He's creepy, frankly, especially with that hat.

At least he's purely decorative. The problem I have with the outfit and the umbrella is that it's all proper stat gear and much better than what Flora had. If you can get major upgrades just by not watching someone else live-stream the game, it does kind of blow a hole in the progression mechanics. And since gear upgrades are a huge part of the motivation in this genre, that can't be good.

Then again, it is very early days. Just because the "Simple" clothes Flora's wearing don't match up to these freebies, either visually or statistically, doesn't mean the next crafted set won't make the free stuff  obsolete. Just so long as the developers don't make a habit of giving away the farm, I think we'll be okay.

As for me, it's not the first time I fat-fingered an entire post into oblivion and I don't imagine it'll be the last. I might re-do the post I lost tomorrow or I might just take the hint and move on. It had a few good lines but I don't think we'll be missing all that much.

The main point I was making was that all new games ought to come with two things as standard: a way to take screenshots without the UI and an appearance system for clothing. If the endgame is Fashion Wars or Playing Barbies, which let's be honest, it always is, and if developers want their game to look great in every screenshot, which of course they do, why wait?

I mean, you don't want people to know they're really going to be running around looking like this, do you?

I rest my case.

Well, that turned out to be a better post than the one I lost, I think. Shame to lose that line about the cruel younger son who dresses the housemaid up as a lady for a joke. I was pleased with that one but I'm sure I'll find another chance to shoehorn it in, somewhere.

Oh, I just did, didn't I? Well, there we go!

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Nightingale: First Impressions

I began writing this post only because Nightingale was offline this morning for the inevitable emergency update following yesterday's seemingly successful launch. I say "seemingly" because it certainly seemed successful to me; from what I've read, though, not everyone enjoyed such a happy introduction to the game.

I published yesterday's post just before seven in the evening. To my considerable surprise, ten minutes later I was playing the game. I was able to make a character, log in and complete the lengthy tutorial with no bugs, glitches, lag spikes  or interruptions of any kind. It played for almost exactly two hours and thoroughly enjoyed every minute.

This morning, once I'd gotten a few practical concerns out of the way, I logged in again and played for half an hour or so until the server came down for an emergency patch. It took about an hour, as promised, then I was back to play some more.

All of which does suggest I've been having a pretty good time. I have, but let's not run away with the idea the game is perfect, not even in these very early stages, when all new games tend to show themselves at their best. I've had to revise several parts of this post, some more than once, not only because of the inevitable learning curve, which means I'm discovering new things all the time, but because I'm beginning to realize Nightingale is a quite a bit buggier than I originally thought. 

Things keep changing and I'm not at all sure they're always supposed to. But more of that later.

First, as always, comes Character Creation. Well, always except on those ill-judged occasions when some jaded developer decides it would be clever to start off in media res, setting players up as fully-geared, powered-up, endgame characters before pulling the rug and stripping them of all their possessions and abilities an hour or two into the game. Then it's to back where they should have started in the first place, sans gear, sans skills, sans everything. I hate that trope.

Luckily nothing of the kind happens in Nightingale. Character creation veers sharply towards the other extreme, almost a game in itself. Making a character involves a great deal of reading and a lot of fiddling with sliders. 

I didn't time it but I think it took me at least half an hour to make my character who, inevitably, ended up looking pretty much like all my other characters. I made the mistake in Palworld of deliberately going for something different and I've been regretting it ever since.

There are a few parameters you can set that directly affect gameplay. You can choose your difficulty levels and how ready for adventure your character is going to be. You can also change these on the fly in the game itself though so, counter-intuitively, those important, gameplay-affecting decisions feel less crucial than what your character looks like, something that currently can't be changed later. 

There are also some annoyingly abstruse choices to contend with, like having to pick your parents, grand-parents and great-grandparents as well as your age and exact date of birth. You're offered no explanation of why or whether any of that might be relevant to gameplay and there's no gloss to explain what the very specific options you're offered might mean.

Even though I had no idea why I was doing it, I tried to make those choices as mindfully as I could. Whether any of them will ever matter - or be referred to ever again - I guess we can only wait to see.

More meaningfully, there are some well-documented and properly explained difficulty choices. I opted for what appears to be the standard difficulty and preparedness (Medium) so as to play the game as close as possible to the nominal default setting, something I always like to do, at least until circumstances dictate otherwise.

There were so many possibilities that even thirty minutes spent fiddling with sliders felt like not nearly long enough. Trying out the full range of colors in the make-up settings alone could fill a full session. As has been observed before, though, no matter how much time and effort you're prepared to invest, characters in Nightingale do look a bit... odd.

There's a florid, Victorian aspect to the whole thing, hinting at too many hours spent in over-heated rooms while wearing too many layers of uncomfortable clothing. If I had to use a single word to describe the overall feel of Nightingale's Character Creation process, that word would be "florid". I suspect it might be something of a Marmite situation for some but I've decided I like it. 

What I don't like so much is the absence of idle animations and facial expressions. I noticed something felt off even in the Stress Test. This time, I took a moment to watch my character just stand there, doing nothing, staring fixedly ahead. I wanted to see if there was a cycle of idle animations, like there has been in just about every similar game I've ever played. 

As far as I can tell, there is none. When I'm not pulling her strings, my character remains rooted in place, immobile and expressionless. It's disconcerting, not to say disturbing.

Since I seem to have moved rather too quickly on to the subject of things I'm not all that happy with, let's get the big one out of the way. The controls and the UI are clunky as hell. The UI looks nice enough, although that Victorian letterpress look isn't a particular favorite of mine - and if it was I'd be quite annoyed it's only used for some things, while everything else uses a much more futuristic font. The clash is quite jarring. 

It all works perfectly well. There's nothing actually wrong with it... it just feels awkward.

Swapping weapons and tools is finicky at best and occasionally buggy. In most modern games I'm used either to the game itself selecting the correct item contextually, on use, or at worst with a roll of the mouse-wheel. Last night I had to press a number key to get my character to wield the item I wanted. I could see the individual icons on the hotbar, so it was at least straightforward to pick the right one and press the right key but it felt very old-fashioned.

This morning, however, all that had changed. I was now able to change tools by rolling the mouse-wheel, which was great, but all the icons on the hot bar had turned into shovels so I couldn't tell which was which until I selected it and saw on screen what my character was holding.

As of this afternoon, post-patch although that may be coincidental, the mouse-wheel selection is working and the correct icons are back. Fingers crossed it stays that way.

Then there are the menus. Boy, there are a lot of menus.

Some of them are radial. I'm not a huge fan. I can tolerate radials for less-used functions but I don't like them for anything I have to do very often. Nightingale seems to love its radials, especially for crafting. It's a survival game so I'm going to be doing a lot of crafting and seeing a lot of radial menus. Can't say I'm delighted about that. The radials, not the crafting. I'm fine with the crafting.

Fortunately the developers haven't decided to use radial menus for everything. It just feels like it, sometimes. The other mechanic the developers love is a drag-and-drop card system; it's very pretty but also quite clunky to use. 

The cards are kind of a signature note for the game so, fortunately, the interfaces for them do look a lot more polished than the radials, which is just as well. Honestly, some of those radial menu look like they're still using place-holder graphics.

Still, that's what Early Access is for, right? It's just a fancy name for "Beta You Pay For". Everything's temporary. I'm sure all the systems and mechanics will get plenty of tweaks in the year or two Nightingale spends in EA before it officially launches, most likely to complete indifference from all sides, if the fortunes of almost every other EA game to date are any kind of guide.

So far, though, those are about all the complaints I have. It's not much: some clunky mechanics that will almost certainly get a polish later and a few dubious design choices that don't happen to match my preferences.

On a much more positive note, for the five and a half hours I've played, I've found the gameplay compelling, the writing more than competent, the lore and the world-building intriguing and the voice acting and graphics both excellent.

The graphics you can judge for yourselves from the screenshots, which for once look exactly like what you'll see in game. The lighting effects are spectacular, the level of textural detail is impressive but it's the colors that really make the game pop.

I quite often juice those up a bit for the blog. In too many games, screenshots come out looking a little muted compared to the in-game visuals. I didn't need to do any juicing for these. Nightingale is as rich in color in capture as it is in play.

Praising the voice acting is really praising a single person. The only speaking role I've encountered so far is Puck, played with a whole fruitcake in his mouth by Marc Warren. By that I don't mean he mumbles like Marlon Brando. I mean he's plummy as hell. And it works. It sounds like a Shakespearean actor slumming, which I imagine was the note the director gave him.

The best I can say, to show how much I liked Warren's delivery, is that I let him get to the end of every single sentence just so I could listen to him roll the words around his mouth like a rich oloroso. Normally I read the text so much faster than the actor delivers it, I can't bear to wait for them to catch up. I flip ahead and cut them off mid-sentence. Not here. Listening to Marc orate is like listening to a good radio play.

There are obviously similarities between Nightingale and The Secret World but none more so than this. The last game I can remember playing, where I chose to sit and listen to every spoken word, purely for the pleasure of hearing the delivery, was TSW. That was also quite possibly the last game I played where I didn't quibble with the line readings. This, at least on my brief exposure so far, is going to be the next.

So far, it's been just one actor, though. Let's not be counting those chickens or they might come home to roost. I'll reserve judgment until I hear someone other than Marc deliver a few lines.

So, the game looks and sounds good. Great. But how does it play?

Judging by the time I've racked up so far, very well. The survival gameplay loop works its usual magic. There's little in gaming as addictive as working your way up from nothing to become landed gentry and I was building my first shack before the game even told me I should. Building seems very good but I'll save a post on that for when I've had a lot more experience with it.

The first two hours were taken up with a basic tutorial, stage-managed by Puck with a trickster's sleight of hand. There are three zones, or Byways of the Realms as the lore has it, each giving you a brief introduction to what's in store later. After you make it through all three, Puck asks you to pick one and that's where you begin the game proper. There's a title card and everything!

The three biomes are Forest, Desert and Swamp. Obviously I picked Forest but the others both had their attractions and I'm sure they'll be coming around again later. If you stick to the instructions Puck gives you, you'll zip through all three in no time. Well, in two hours, but that would be a mistake.

I regret not throwing off Puck's harness sooner. It was only in the third Byway, the swamp, that I chose to ignore his endless series of instructions and go exploring. There were a couple of wooden towers with hot air balloons tethered to the top and I couldn't resist going to see what they were for. 

Loot is the answer. Each of the towers had several chests, filled with all kinds of goodies, as well as a bunch of crafting materials, just lying around, waiting to be taken. I ended up with so much in my bags I could barely move. I had to deconstruct some of the mats for essences, used as a currency across the Realms, just so I could walk to the portal. 

Of the items I took, several have already come in useful, especially the umbrella. Getting wet is a thing that happens in Nightingale but not if you have an umbrella.

After the strict tutorial finishes, you find yourself in the place where the Stress test began, something that either gives a lie to the assertion that the test began at the point where a regular player would have been playing for ten hours or suggests there have been some major changes since then. Or that the devs expect people to explore each of the three maps a lot more fully than I did...

Thankfully, one thing that has changed are all those boars. I was able to get myself sorted out and set up without having constantly to defend myself from predatory porkers. It wasn't all tr-la-la in fairyland, though. I built my base so close to an ancient artifact I got attacked by zombies in my own front yard. I also had to deal with a few wolves down on the beach, which is apparently where they like to hang out in the fae lands.

Fighting them off was easy enough although I did die once, due to weight of numbers more than anything. Combat in Nightingale, at least at these low levels, is fast, frenetic and fun. At the default difficulty, winning is easy enough, while losing doesn't come with any too onerous penalties. 

The combat animations, like all the animations really, when there even are any, aren't much to look at. Fighting style is similar to New World or any number of similar games but a lot less slick. Really, everything about Nightingale feels a lot less slick than most of its competitors, although that's not necessarily a negative. I quite like a few rough edges, particularly at this stage. Better than knowing everything's been worked over so rigorously it's never going to change.

Towards the end of my third session, during which I spent altogether too much time building a house, I picked up a follower. Her name is Dora. My character's name is Flora. I didn't plan it that way but I wish I had. Probably just as well I'm playing on my own.

Dora is very useful. She doesn't say much, or indeed anything, but she helps with the mining and the fighting and most importantly she rezzes me when I die. 

Together we took on the first "dungeon" in the storyline and beat it. It was a close call. Dora must have picked me up off the floor at least half a dozen times. I picked her up once. It was chaotic but it was good fun, especially when I figured out that if the boss was made of metal he'd be the perfect target for a mining pick.

If the fights stay like that I'll be happy but if they get harder it's good to know you can tune the difficulty on the fly. That battle opened the way to the next Byway, or at least it will when I've crafted the card for it, but I've only seen about five percent of the map I'm on, so I don't think I'll be leaving this one just yet. I think I might just have a bit of a wander around. See what I can find. 

It's nice to be playing a game with a bit more structure than Palworld and yet not too much more. A sandbox with a few signposts here and there. Given the chance, I'd rather be playing Once Human, which seems to me to be the best of these kind of games I've tried so far, but until it comes back, Nightingale will do very nicely

I'm going to leave it at that for now, mostly because I'm itching to get back in and play. I realize that's a stronger recommendation than anything else I've said here. 

As I mentioned in a post  the other day, I've played a lot of Survival and/or crafting games in recent times. I was wondering whether Nightingale would suffer as a result. It hasn't. If anything, I feel refreshed and revitalized by my first few hours in the game, ready to give the genre another few dozen hours of my life. 

Let's see if I still feel that way after a few more sessions.

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