Archive for July, 2004

MIT: Money can buy happiness

Tuesday, July 27th, 2004

MIT’s Daedalus has an insightful article, “How Not to Buy Happiness,” that addresses the question of why societies whose prosperity levels grow don’t see corresponding increases in happiness. It boils down to keeping up with the Joneses: people tend to overallocate their newfound resources on conspicuous items that everyone else is buying, but that don’t cause permanent changes in happiness. But the good news is that it is possible to change the situation.

Game review: “The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay”

Wednesday, July 14th, 2004

Guess I’m on a “Riddick” kick, but so far it’s a pretty pleasurable one. The latest is this Xbox game, which takes place before “Pitch Black” and fills in a few of the blanks about Riddick’s past. (more…)

RPG review: Beyond Divinity

Tuesday, July 6th, 2004

I quite liked the original “Divine Divinity,” even if it had one of the kookiest names ever for a video game. There was no single thing about it that was particularly innovative, but the whole thing felt polished, clearly the work of people who’d played lots of RPGs and were determined to avoid the little annoyances that make a lot of games less fun than they ought to be. So it pains me to have to give a lukewarm review to the sequel, “Beyond Divinity.”

The biggest problem is the user interface, which is too similar to the nice streamlined UI of the first game. That UI was great for the single character you controlled in the first game, but in the sequel, you get to control a small party of characters. Unfortunately, the developers seem to have wanted to keep the one-character-centric approach in the UI even when it gets in the way. For example, it took me a good twenty minutes to figure out that the reason I couldn’t create a potion, even though I was carrying the necessary components and one of my characters had the potion-creation skill, was that the character with the skill wasn’t selected as the party leader. Trading is similarly clunky: the trading UI shows all the loose items the party is carrying, and all the equipped items the party leader is wearing. But if you realize you want to sell a piece of equipment another one of your characters is wearing, you have to exit the trading screen, say goodbye to the merchant, select the other character, talk to the merchant, and get back into the trading screen. What a pain!

The story concept is unusual; rather than the typical save-the-world-from-ancient-evil schtick, you find your virtuous paladin character forcibly soul-bonded with a “Death Knight,” a sadistic demon type, and the goal is to figure out a way to undo the bond so the two of you aren’t stuck with each other forever. Nice to see a fresh idea, but unfortunately most of the actual story is pretty repetitive and tedious, lots of “you must complete these three item-fetching quests to get to the next cut scene” gameplay. Where the first game had a world you could walk around as you saw fit, and a few quests you might encounter early on but not be able to complete until much later, the second game has a series of smaller environments that you can’t revisit once you’re finished with them.

The gameplay isn’t helped by one of the innovations: the “battlefields,” a separate randomly-generated alternate universe you can pop into at will once you find a particular magic item. In theory, the battlefields are supposed to give you a change of pace if you’re stuck on a puzzle or sick of a particular area. But in practice, they give you instant access to merchants to sell your treasure (no more need to think about which of two bulky items you want to carry; just pop to the battlefields and sell them both) and a slightly different-looking setting for the same kinds of item-fetching quests you probably wanted a break from in the first place. Worse, if you regularly complete the battlefield dungeons as they open up, you become so powerful that the combat in the main game is no challenge at all. By the final few sequences in the main game, I was sending the Death Knight into a room to act as a nearly-invulnerable magnet for the monsters while the main character stood back and blasted them to smithereens from a distance.

The AI is pretty idiotic. You can set your non-party-leader characters to “normal” or “aggressive” mode, which, in English, mean “stand around and do nothing while you’re being hammered by a gang of monsters” and “bolt away from the party suddenly and run out of sight off the edge of the screen to attack some monster that just poked its head around the corner.” Monster tactics seem to come in three flavors, for the most part: most of them will rush at whichever character is closest, then stick to that character like glue, while the ones that can cast spells will cast a spell then run away, cast, run, cast, run, ad nauseum, and the ones with bows will stay rooted to one spot and keep shooting even as you rush at them. (There are a few exceptions, e.g. an evil cleric that casts a paralyze spell before rushing in to attack, but those exceptions are pretty rare.) None of the monsters ever act in concert with one another.

Conversations don’t offer you too much choice; you have no opportunity a la Planescape: Torment or Knights of the Old Republic to influence the NPCs’ opinions of you. Mostly the conversation choices just amount to choosing the order you want to hear the canned responses. Likewise, none of the quests appeared to have multiple solutions, aside from the occasional option to kill someone rather than talk them out of the item you need (and even that option isn’t there most of the time.) You’ll either kill monster X or fetch item Y exactly as requested, or you won’t get the quest experience.

The game’s biggest bright spot is its somewhat macabre sense of humor, usually expressed by the Death Knight. But it’s not played up enough that I’d call the game funny, and the Knight’s darkly humorous quips are too few and far between.

Graphics are adequate, occasionally pretty, but nothing too special. “Adequate” describes the voice acting too. Occasionally, for some reason, one or two lines of a particular character will be voiced by a different actor than the one who’d just been speaking moments before, which is a little jarring.

The music was one of the first game’s strong points — I went so far as to extract its music files and load them into my music player — but only a couple of snippets of the music in the second game really grabbed my attention. Too bad; I was assuming I’d at least get a good soundtrack out of my purchase, if nothing else.

In summary, if you haven’t played the first game, do it; that’s a fun experience. Then play it again rather than bothering with this followup.

FOUND Magazine

Friday, July 2nd, 2004

FOUND Magazine is a chronicle of miscellaneous objects, things people have found that give glimpses into others’ lives.