Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Dark Mod

As a fan of the Thief series, I had been looking forward to the release of The Dark Mod since they announced it five years ago (is that all?), back when they estimated it would only take 1 or 2 years to release, tops. This is a Thief-inspired total conversion using the Doom 3 engine, conceived back when that engine was state of the art. Well, time to break out the champagne, because it's finally been released!

"We could keep working for years adding more features and better assets," they said in their news, which would have continued pushing the release date forward ad infinitum, probably saying "just one more year" each time like they did at least twice before. "...But we believe the community would be happier if we released a fun but unpolished product this year, rather than wait another two years or more for everything to be perfect." I say if they'd taken any longer, the engine would start showing its age, or have trouble running on modern computers.

But as I said, I am a Thief fan, and they have made a fine accomplishment. I'm happy that it's released. My handshake may be barbed with criticism, but it's still a hearty handshake.

See here for a high-def gameplay video of the game in action. Seeing this made me lose a little of the bitterness from the years of waiting. Watch only the first minute or so if you want to avoid spoilers.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Free Realms

People often apologise for playing other games when they've been covering a particular game for a while, but I enjoy several other games that I play alternately along with Morrowind. However, I know for a fact that I'd better finish up Whispered Echoes before I get Diablo 3 or Dragon Age: Origins, or it'll likely never get done. (On that note, though, apparently I've been designing a Minoan megaron without even realising it. One of the boss chambers for Whispered Echoes takes place in a room that looks a lot like this kind of structure.)

Lately I've been taking a break from my usual games, and have been spending time in the bright, colourful, cartoony, fantasy/modern world of Free Realms. After WoW, I basically decided MMOs weren't good for me, as they tended to occupy all of my free time, but part of the reason for that was the fact that you get charged the same amount no matter how much you play, so a sense of getting the most for my money was behind some of my excessive playing time.

Free Realms doesn't have that problem for two reasons. Firstly, because it's free to play, and secondly because it's designed for short play times. No time sinks like WoW has, like slow running speeds, long flights, etc. So I don't have that irrational feeling that I need to maximise my playing time.

In Free Realms you can teleport anywhere instantly, without even having to have been there before. Also, since all combat is instanced, you don't have to deal with unwanted fights with world mobs when you're just trying to do some crafting or get somewhere. The mobs are there, but you choose whether to fight them or not.

The characters are very well-animated. Bethesda, take note. This is what character animation in a game should be like. People keep having to make animation replacers for games like Morrowind, Oblivion, and Fallout 3, so that should tell you something. Hire some decent animators, and make the characters as expressive and well-animated as the characters in Free Realms. Most of these screenshots are to show the appearance of the characters and the locations.


I consider the crafting in Free Realms to be superior to the crafting in WoW in terms of the act of crafting itself. In WoW, you just pick the item to craft from a list, and see a progress bar, and it's done. In Free Realms, you actually get minigames in which you actively craft the item. Cooking takes you to a game that reminds me of Cooking Mama, where you pour broth, chop vegetables, pound and slice meat, stir a pot, and flip food in a pan before it burns. For smelting ore from mining, you crush the ore into little bits, stoke the fire with a bellows, and pour the molten metal into molds, being careful not to spill. As a postal carrier, you run around delivering mail by throwing letters into mailboxes, and throwing down doggy treats to ward off the dogs that knock you down. Each of these crafts also has a counterpart gathering minigame where you obtain the crafting materials, which are all variations on Bejeweled, such as the mining, mail sorting, and vegetable harvesting. I like Bejeweled.

There are also quests related to these professions, which is nice, though not enough to raise you to max level. You just need to practise your craft, between quests, which is all you do in WoW.

The interface could stand some improvements, though. In cooking, I couldn't find any list of what recipes I currently know, in my character profile or inventory. The only place I've found such a list is when I'm at a cooking table and it lets me choose which recipe I want to make. This is also the only place I can find to tell me which ingredients I need for a recipe, some of which are only buyable from vendors. This means unnecessary running back and forth between cooking table and vendors if I forget an ingredient or forget to buy enough of something. I shouldn't need to take notes outside of the game or look up the recipes on a wiki for something like that.

As there's no auction house in this game, it seems the crafting is more of an expense than profitable, as the foods sell to vendors for less than the cost of the ingredients that are necessary to buy. Something for personal use if you like the buffs or other effects, I think. There is a place on the official forum for players to hawk their wares to buy and sell in game, but I haven't checked to see if anyone's selling this stuff. Seems unlikely, since anyone can pick up these professions for themselves.


At the time of this writing, fishing is not yet one of the available activities, but I've heard it's coming soon. I've also noticed a lot of conspicuous fishing equipment places around lakes (poles on docks, bobbers in the water), and numerous NPCs talking about fishing in Seaside. One girl says "I want to go fishing!" even though she hates fish and doesn't want to eat them. Elsewhere, a pixie girl laments her poor skills. "Know why I'm a sad fisherman? Because I can't catch any fish!" and ponders about what she might be doing wrong. Elsewhere, a couple of trolls (?) argue about fishing.

I hear it'll have another fun minigame like the other professions, so it's not just casting the line, waiting, and clicking on the bobber.


Here's the only major problem with Free Realms, in my opinion: The chat filter. It censors a ridiculous array of words that people use in everyday conversation, which are not in any way swearing. I couldn't refer to an in-game item (a can of silly string) because it censors the word "string". Other words I've seen it censor have included "another", and "people". I cannot fathom any possible reason for that.

It also censors normal English words that may also be used to refer to something else, and also inexcusably censors a series of characters in its filter even if they are in two separate words. For instance, I cannot type "I want to join the guild", because it comes out as "I want to ######he guild." Why? It censored "join t" in "join the" because it resembles "joint" (a word which, needless to say, has many perfectly innocent and legitimate uses). You can't even type the names of some quests or locations in the world because it censors parts of them. The censorship is so draconian I'm actually surprised when I can type a complete sentence that doesn't fall prey to the chat filter.

Sony, do you realise what the effect of this is? It makes it look like people are cursing all the time!! When confronted with censored words, people tend to mentally fill them in with whatever curse words seem to fit. Is that the effect you want to bring across? This is beyond ridiculous.

No, I take that back. There's something more ridiculous. They censor all numbers. Not just numerals like 1, 2, 3, etc., but also if the numbers are spelled out. Up to a billion, at least. You can't tell people what level you are. You can't tell people how much you're selling something for. You can't tell people how many you want for a group. You can't say what level an instance is. They even censored the Spanish and French words for numbers because people were using them in a desperate attempt to communicate through this severely crippled system.

I can hear you saying "Yes, some of this is excessive, but they need to censor it for the kiddies." Well, you see, they actually have separate settings for kids. These are the adult accounts. Kids' accounts can't access the chat at all. They cannot type, and they cannot even read what other people type. The only form of communication available to them is to select canned sentences from a list. And they can only read responses from people who also select sentences from this list. So I cannot see any good reason for censoring the chat to the extent they do, when it's not even visible to the kids' accounts anyway.

And woe to you if you are a kid and want to communicate. Others have commented on how pathetically short their list of canned sentences is, and how it's missing the most useful sentences for gameplay, such as "I want to trade for [item]", or "Please join me for [instance]", or, perhaps the most egregious omission: "I'm using canned chat and can't read anyone's typed responses." There's no special indication that someone's using canned chat (unless you just recognise the phrasing of the sentences), so other players are likely to type answers to them, but those answers cannot be read.

Overall impression

For anyone who wants a fun, casual game, one which you can play for long or short periods, with all sorts of different game types, Free Realms is great. There are so many completely different styles of game included in it, all in the same cartoon fantasy world, something to suit almost any mood. Standard quests, postal delivery, combat (imaginative, well-designed instances such as you might see in WoW), exploration, kart racing, cooking, foot races against time, collections, and even a collectable card game system that I haven't even touched yet. Also the mini-games such as the Bejeweled style games, and the several different varieties of "tower defense" games, and classics such as checkers and chess. There are several more types of games for paying members, such as soccer/football, but I'm not a paying member.

The chat issue is a relatively minor annoyance in the face of all the good things about this game. I recommend it for anyone except hardcore raider style of players.

Some more screenshots