Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Dark Mod, a game for Thief fans

I've been a fan of the Thief series from the beginning, and at last I get to play and review a total conversion that fully brings back the best elements of the earlier games, while improving some of the poorer elements. It's hard to recall exactly when I first heard of this total conversion, but the earliest posts on their current forums date back to mid-2004. I remember it was shortly after the release of Thief 3: Deadly Shadows, which did not come with a level editor or construction set. At the time, there was a months-long campaign to get one released, since Thief 1 and 2 had enjoyed a long life of fan-made missions (Thief 2 missions continue to be made to this day). An editor eventually was released, thanks to the unpaid work of several of the developers, but time has shown it to be unpopular with modders, as there are only 27 fan missions released for Thief 3, according to, while the missions for Thief 2 are far too many for me to count manually.

At any rate, to continue this little historical background as I remember it, a group of modders decided to build a mod that captured more of the spirit of the two earlier games than Thief 3 did, using the most moddable and cutting-edge engine at the time which was capable of the real-time shadows necessary for a stealthy game like Thief. That engine was the id Tech 4 engine. I was not happy that I'd have to buy a copy of Doom 3 in order to play the mod, since I had no interest in playing Doom 3, but I was pretty sure that the prices would drop after the "one year" they initially said the mod would be complete. Five years later, under the looming possibility of Thief 4 coming out before their mod had time to catch on, they finally publicly released The Dark Mod 1.0 last November, and although id Tech 4 is no longer the cutting-edge engine it was back in 2004, mod-makers are free to use higher quality models and larger textures with all the bells and whistles to keep it looking great.

I say mod-makers, because The Dark Mod, as of yet, is only a platform and toolset with which other fans can make missions. The only mission that comes with The Dark Mod is a training mission, which provides instruction and practise opportunities to get used to all aspects of the gameplay, and it does this very well. At the time of this writing there are already 17 missions released for it, some of which are continuing, interrelated missions with continuity. At this rate, I wouldn't be surprised to see this year's crop of Dark Mod missions exceeding all of the Thief 3 missions that have been made since 2005!

I've played 4 of the available missions so far, and I've found almost all of them to be thoroughly satisfying. I'll review individual ones in later postings. But first, a little about Thief for those who don't know, and how TDM (The Dark Mod) intentionally differs from it.

For a general overview, I recommend reading the Thief series page on Wikipedia, or perhaps the one on TV Tropes, though that one's full of spoilers. In short, it's a game set in a different world than ours -- a pseudo-Middle Ages which is just developing its own sort of steampunk Industrial Revolution, aided by various kinds of magic. A powerful order of knights templar called the Order of the Hammer (Hammerites for short) rules much of the sprawling urban city (called "The City"), inflicting its own extremely harsh punishments on anyone it deems a heretic or who breaks its various religious commandments. Nevertheless, their religion characterises their god as a master builder, who wants them to develop technology and construction projects. Followers of the older, wilder nature gods show another side of the populace of this world.

In this, you play the role of Garrett, a cynical deadpan snarker who was trained in the ways of near-invisibility and stealth by a secret society of "Keepers" who manipulate society behind the scenes to keep things in a stable balance, probably to prevent societal collapse and a return to barbarism. At some point, he tires of their manipulations, and strikes out on his own as a master thief.

And this is what you do in the game. Break into mansions, castles, prisons, warehouses, churches, museums, etc., and steal all the valuables you can, preferably without ever being seen by the guards or civilians. Although there are different ways to play this game, I prefer the "ghosting" method, where your goal is to never let them know you were ever there, except that all their stuff is missing. When necessary, I'll resort to the blackjack to knock out a few particularly vigilant people, and I may break some traps or security systems, as well as kill some giant spiders or zombies, but I never end a mission with human blood on my hands. I'm a thief, not a murderer. I don't even carry the sword that comes as part of the standard equipment, if I have the choice to drop it.

Infiltration, climbing a rope to an open second-story window, rooftop running, hiding in the shadows, picking pockets, and lifting valuables from under people's noses is what this game is all about. Along the way, you can read notes and journals for clues on where to find particular artifacts, or to learn of mysteries or puzzles to solve within each mission. Although each of the games in the series also included a "save the world" plot near the end, most of the missions revolved around you simply being a thief, doing thiefy things, and those are the best ones.

The Dark Mod provides all of these things in spades. The main difference is that for legal reasons, it takes place in a similar, but different world setting, with an unnamed thief. The team has a wiki where the details of their original city, factions, and storylines are kept, and are presumably still developing, although the team has said that nothing is stopping individual modders from taking it in whatever direction they prefer. Ultimately, the differences don't matter. It's the spirit of the thing that I love, and this is the best thing I've played since the original Thief games.

For later review

The missions I've played so far are:

These links lead to the mission downloads for each one. Looks like I've played more than I thought I did. I'm in danger of running out of them pretty soon.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Torchlight: additional observations

The story in Torchlight

The story in Torchlight is pretty bare-bones -- this is not a game you play for the story -- but it goes like this: There are 3 continuing quest lines attached to the main dungeon. One is the main quest, which has you chasing a mage named Alric deeper and deeper into its depths, revealing the remains of older and older civilisations as you go. The other two are a "find this item" questline, and a "kill this mob" questline, which you'll basically accomplish as you continue along the main quest, so there's no reason not to pick these up.

There's one quest unconnected to the main dungeon, and that's given by an NPC who has a magic wand that can open portals to other dungeons to which no tunnels lead. I generally go through a few levels of the main dungeon, and then alternate to this other set of dungeons. One of the other NPCs (the wizard-looking one) also gives map scrolls as a reward, which open portals to separate, standalone dungeons. You can also buy such scrolls from the vendors, but I believe I read that these reward scrolls lead to specific, specially-designed dungeons.

Suddenly rising difficulty

Around level 24 or 25, a few levels into the lava prisons, I started dying a lot. Attacks by many mobs started killing me faster than I could hit the hotkey to quaff a health potion. (I'm playing at "hard" difficulty, because I had read that "normal" was too easy, and I'm generally glad I made this choice.) And it didn't help that as an alchemist with many summoned minions (permanent golem and nether imps, with temporary skeleton archers, flaming sword, and zombies, in addition to my non-summoned dog), I was having trouble telling friend from foe in the crowd. At least your AOE attacks can't hurt your allies.

For the first few deaths (which kept occurring within seconds of the Alric's second boss fight, every time I arrived at his room) I took the option of paying a monetary penalty for the convenience of resurrecting in the current level of the dungeon, instead of paying nothing to resurrect back in town, but as this happened numerous times, it became too much of a drain on my gold. It wasn't even the boss that was killing me, but all the trash mobs ganging up on me.

Exploring town services for a while

My rapidly diminishing gold, and my increasing frustration, prompted me to leave the main dungeon alone for a little while, and go buy some maps to teleport me to a random lower-level dungeon so I could level up a little more and acquire some defensive spells and talents. While I was at it, I decided to gamble on the enchanter's services to upgrade my gear. Enchanting is a great opportunity to upgrade gear, as you can enchant a piece of gear many times, unlike other games which only allow a single enchantment on an item. The downsides are the high cost of an enchantment, and a small risk of losing all enchantments, which increases as you apply more and more enchantments to it. There are also special enchantment fountains to be found in the dungeons which allow you to get one free enchantment, though with the same risks as above. Enchantments are random, and can apply stat bonuses, increased weapon damage, faster recovery of health or mana, and even extra sockets for stat gems! There is a very wide range of effects that enchantment offers, and even though I did end up ruining a few good pieces of gear this way, I generally consider it worth the risk. I've read that it used to be much cheaper and less risky to enchant items before the current patch, but I think it's at a fair level now, to keep things challenging.

Another service I explored at this time was the transmutation NPC, which I had neglected before. This NPC allows you to convert any two gems of the same sort into a higher-quality version of the same gem, with higher stats that you can apply to a socketed piece of gear. You can also transmute three health or mana potions into 1 higher-level health or mana potion, a service I use a lot now. But the service that I started using the most was to transmute any four pieces of unneeded gear from one of my loot runs into a gem. This way, I was able to obtain enough gems to transmute into much higher level gems to maximise my stat bonuses. However, gems don't stack in the storage chest, and since there are several different grades for each type of gem, my storage chest is almost completely dominated by gems.

Returning to the fight with a nuclear bomb

In addition to the gear upgrades, after I had gained a couple of levels, I obtained some spells/talents that helped me enormously. First I invested a point into the "ember shield" talent in the Battle tree. This just absorbs some damage and prevents knockback, and it's not very strong (only absorbs 230 points at rank 1), and occupies one of the precious few slots in the quick bar, so I'm not sure it was very useful in the long run.

The second, more useful talent was the "beam golem" from the Lore tree. This gave me a second permanent summoned minion to join the other golem, except this one shoots lasers too. Having more minions to distract attackers away from me is good enough reason to use this, but he actually does a lot of damage as well.

Next, I obtained the "ember sentry" talent from the Battle tree. This is another temporary summon, but 6 minutes is quite long enough for my purposes, and I can immediately cast it again whenever it goes away. This is a crystal that floats around you, automatically shooting laser beams at any nearby enemy. This is especially useful in overcoming my earlier problem of getting confused about friend and foe in battles involving large numbers of mobs, which has been happening more and more often. Now I can just see where the laser is shooting, and cast my spells in that direction.

Finally, the giant bomb. At the bottom of the Arcane tree is the "ember strike", which is a spammable AOE attack that shoots a rather wide beam of energy from the sky at any location on the screen where you put your mouse cursor. Aim this at any grouping of normal mobs, and you can take them all out in 3 or 4 hits. Although it might seem like a cheap sort of weapon to use, it's pretty necessary to use this kind of AOE when you're facing against an army of enemies.

At any rate, when I finally returned to the fight that had been giving me trouble, it had fully respawned, but I had no trouble hacking my way through it, and the final boss battle went smoothly. I expect as the enemies get stronger, these weapons will not be quite as overpowered.

Coming up next

By now, I'm at level 31, and I continue to enjoy the game. However, I've become distracted by yet another game, and it definitely needs to be discussed. The Dark Mod, a Thief-like total conversion, which I had been anticipating since its announcement about 6 years ago. Expect a general overview and some reviews of individual missions for it coming up.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Torchlight first impressions

Back in November, Carolina told me about Runic Games' dungeon-crawling hack & slash game Torchlight. I looked around, and found some screenshots and some info, and it looked pretty good, though the screenshots weren't large enough for me to see how cartoony the graphical style is. From what I could tell, it looked like a nicely-made game that resembled the Diablo 3 demo footage I'd been watching around that time. But, I was deeply immersed in Dragon Age, and so I didn't try the demo or investigate it any further. Now that I have some more free time, and she reminded me of it again, I took another look. This time I looked at some gameplay videos, and the appealing graphical style became much clearer to me. Reviews were generally positive. Yahtzee hated it, but Yahtzee hates everything. ;) To me, someone who was looking forward to Diablo 3, it looked great, so I downloaded the demo and tried it out.

The demo was surprisingly lightweight for a modern game, where anything under 1GB feels small. Of the three character choices, I was torn between the only female (the Vanquisher, a kind of rogue), or the only magic-user (the Alchemist). I ended up picking the Alchemist.

Since the demo was time-limited to 2 hours, I felt a little rushed and didn't explore the areas as carefully as I usually would, or investigate what all the merchants and town service providers did. Consequently, I made a few mistakes that caused me to accidentally destroy some useful items.

In the 2 hours I played, the procedurally-generated dungeons did not feel dull as I was expecting, and things felt cohesive and logical, for a mine. And of course, since the game comes with modding tools, if I get tired of random dungeons, the modding community can provide some planned-out dungeons and locations. I've found there are indeed some available currently, as well as some additional playable characters and classes.

Speaking of Diablo 3 demo videos as I was above, I found this amusing fan-made video, where someone made a mod for Torchlight that resembles the beginning of the Diablo 3 demo.

Purchasing experience

I bought Torchlight off Direct2Drive because it was the cheapest option available, and I'm sort of sorry I did. If I'd known what a hassle it would be to buy off of D2D, I probably would have paid a little extra for a hassle-free and less invasive buying experience. It's hard to see myself buying anything from D2D again. I should have bought it on Steam -- not just for the ease of buying, but the activation would have been more convenient as well, I suspect. My copy has an annoying DRM with a limited number of activations before it'll stop working.

I wish GoG carried games as current as this, and not just "old games", because GoG's purchasing experience is smooth sailing all the way, like Amazon.

Talent Trees

Actually more like talent bushes, since you aren't required to pick up a talent you don't want just to obtain a talent in front of it that you do want. The only limiting factor for taking a talent deeper in the tree is that there are some level requirements.

There are three talent trees for your character, called Arcane, Lore, and Battle, each with its own kind of specialisation. Since I've only played the Alchemist so far, that's what I'll talk about.

So far, I've invested the most points into the Lore tree, because that's the one that focuses on summoned minions. All character types get a dog or cat, of course, but a weak magic user needs help to distract the huge waves of mobs that come to attack! You can pick up spell scrolls throughout the game which let you summon temporary additional minions, but the ones you learn from the talent tree stay with you until they die (at which point you can summon new ones).

I have a fair number of points invested in the Arcane tree as well, which provides you with magical attacks and skill buffs as any magic user should have. The Battle tree, however, has talents in it that seem to aim to turn the alchemist into more of a warrior, with physical damage buffs, shielding, and expertise added into non-mage weapons like clubs, axes, etc. I haven't invested any points into the Battle tree.

These talents have multiple ranks, like other games I've played, but these go up to rank 10, which is much higher than I've experienced before.

Look and feel

The levels feel really huge, with high ceilings and sublevels that you can see below the floors you're standing on. Improbably huge, really, making me wonder who could have carved out such large spaces underground and filled them with such nicely carved stone buildings and decorations. But overall, it appeals to my sense of wonder and exploration, seeing these awe-inspiring ruins that go on forever.


As polished as it is, there are some things that I think could stand improving. Primarily the number of quick slots. Since this is a realtime game, quick slots are at a premium, and I only have numbers 0-9 to assign to spells and abilities.

The isometric-only view I can handle, since I've had to get used to it in games like Baldur's Gate, though in a 3D game like this I always feel like I should be able to rotate the view around to see where I'm running, if I happen to be heading toward the lower side of the screen. Camera controls are limited to zooming in and out, though if you hit Enter to pause the game, it rotates the camera slowly around your character. So rotation is possible in the game, but they present it in an isometric format anyway.

The click-to-move control scheme was irritating to me for the first few hours of play, but I finally noticed that you don't actually have to click over and over. You can click once, and hold the mouse button down, and the character will follow the cursor wherever you move it, without stopping. By keeping the cursor near the character (very close) and just moving it around when I want him to change direction, I have good control over when he stops moving, because I can just release the mouse button and he'll stop. No more accidentally running into a crowd of enemies because I clicked too far into the distance!

Holding down the button also works for attacks. If you're hitting something over and over with the same attack, all you have to do is click and hold, and your character will even turn around to face the enemy you're attacking, if it moves behind you.

The pet

This is the most useful pet I've ever seen. I've played warlocks and hunters with pets that fight with/for you before, but this pet has several additional abilities that make it an extra-useful part of the game.

Most people already know that the pet acts as a pack animal, holding extra items for you, and running back to town to sell them off if you want it to, while you're deep in a dungeon. That alone is a fantastic feature, really encouraging the kind of treasure-amassing tomb-raiding that other games seek to limit with small inventory space or weight limits.

More amazingly, this pet can wear up to 3 magic trinkets (2 rings and 1 necklace), and learn up to 2 spells, which it will cast periodically at all times! When I found a "heal all" spell scroll, I promptly gave it to my dog, turning him into an even more valuable support character. Extremely useful!

I'll have more to say about this game as I level up and try out new abilities.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Freespace 2, other games

I've bought a couple of games from Good Old Games fairly recently, the latest of which was due to one of their sales. As a member of the site, I don't mind getting notices of their promotions, since they're often pretty good deals. This time they had space sim "all-stars" for 30% off. I looked through the screenshots and videos where available, and found the graphics a bit too primitive for my tastes as far as action space combat goes, but a little searching revealed that Freespace 2 has had quite a lot of fan modding development over the years, especially since the source code was officially released, and with the graphical improvement mods it now looks and plays like a modern game.

There are also additional campaign/mission mods, and several total conversions that turn it into a Battlestar Galactica, Wing Commander, or Babylon 5 space combat game.

I have a nice Logitech dual-action analog game controller, which I use whenever I play Trackmania (the steering really needs analog control), and I've been experimenting with which setup is better for Freespace 2. For instance, the mouse sensitivity settings don't seem to help make the view change faster. In cases where an enemy ship is on my tail, and I try to rotate my ship around to face it, I can't rotate the ship fast enough with the mouse. The keyboard control and the analog stick on the gamepad both work fine for this task. However, the mouse is superior for fine aiming control, keeping the enemy ships in my sights, which is very important in a game like this, where you're trying to hit a small fighter far off in the distance (assuming you don't want to rely on the aspect-seeking missiles). I'm trying different sensitivity settings for the gamepad's stick. I think the mouse will always be superior in that regard, but the different settings seem to be improving it to the point where I can aim well enough with the pad, and still rotate at top speed.

The only other thing I had to do was invert the y-axis, because by default, this game rotates the ship downwards when I push upwards, which I understand is common in flight sims. Perhaps if I were used to a flight sim joystick I'd want it the other way, but I prefer up to be up, not down.

Other games coming up

Other games I've bought this year which I plan to review eventually are Baldur's Gate 1 and 2 (with TuTu), Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, The Witcher, and various mods for Freespace 2. But my most recent game purchase is Torchlight, thanks to Carolina's recommendation, so I'll probably be talking about that first.