Mess about with the workings of an RPG!

Back in 2008 Microsoft released a the code for a small Japanese-style RPG to help folks get started with coding their own indie games. If you have a little experience with coding/compiling and want to mess about with it, here’s how to get hold of the latest version and poke about with it yourself.

Download and install Visual C# 2010 Express

Microsoft released a free (as in beer), trimmed-down version of Visual Studio specifically for coding C# .NET programs and apps. If you already have Visual Studio 2010, then skip this step.

You also have the option of downloading the whole suite of ‘Express’ packages, including Visual Basic and the Web Developer package.

Download and install Microsoft XNA 4.0

Microsoft built the XNA code library specifically for coding games on Windows and the XBox. It contains routines for 3D graphics, sound, handling game saves, sprites and so forth.

Once run, you can use the XNA 4.0 code libraries in Visual C# 2010 Express, and you will also be able to make use of game templates and compilation options that will enable you to export your code to an XBox 360.

Download the Role-Playing-Game Starter Kit

The starter kit comes in the form of a project that can be opened in Visual C# 2010 Express. All you have to do is download it and unpack the files to the correct place.

  1. Go to http://create.msdn.com/en-US/education/catalog/sample/roleplaying_game
  2. Download the file ‘RolePlayingGame_4_0_Win_Xbox.zip
  3. Unpack the zip file and copy the folder into your visual studio2010projects folder. You should be able to find this in your ‘My Documents’ folder. If not, just extract them to somewhere sensible where you will be able to find them later

Get started!

Everything should be in place now for you to get nosing around the code, debug it, and generally hack it about to your heart’s content

  • Start Visual C# 2010 Express
  • Go to File -> Open project
  • Navigate to where you unpacked the RPG Starter Kit
  • Open ‘RoleplayingGameWindows.sln
  • Visual C# will load in the files
  • Click the green ‘debug‘ arrow at the top to compile and run the game

All being well, the game should start. Hit ‘Escape’ to get back to Visual C# 2010 Express.

This is as far as I’ve got with it so far, and I’ll be spending some time inspecting the code and classes used. I’m particularly interested in the methods used for rendering the environment, and also handling character interaction. I suspect though that my first job will involve rebinding the keyboard controls…

I make no secret of the fact that I like a lot of what Microsoft has done in the past, but occasionally they drive me nuts. I like the .NET framework, I like the free stuff, I like Windows 7, I like the old MS Flight Simulator and their keyboards and mouses seem to work well enough.

Whereas I fully support any iniative to get young people coding their own games, I do sometimes wonder if C# is really the right place to start, and whether or not kids would be better off with something similar but based around, say, Python. Maybe I just hark after the old days, where one would switch on an 8-bit machine like a BBC Micro or a Spectrum, and immediately have access to the BASIC programming language. I believe something like that would do wonders for computing literacy

Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Belated Review

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the latest, long awaited installment in the Deus Ex series of games. Set in 2027, this futuristic techno-thriller  takes place in a time of social upheaval and technological breakthroughs that will allow individuals to enhance their bodies and minds, for a price. Corporations are vying for rights and control over these new ‘transhumanist’ technologies, and are willing to go to extreme lengths to protect their interests.
It’s been out since the end of August, and I didn’t get round to buying/playing it ’til the end of November, hence the late review. Sorry.
Adam Jensen, pondering the ethical and sociological ramifications of human augmentation within a free-market economic system yesterday.
You play the role of Adam Jensen, a gravelly voiced, ex-SWAT security consultant working for a biotechnology firm in Detroit. Jensen works for Sarif Industries, a sort of Apple of the biotech world who have brought cybernetic limbs, eyes and body parts to the masses. They develop and sell prosthetic enhancements for the human body known as ‘augmentations’, which improve a person’s physical attributes via implants and replacement limbs.  Jensen reports directly to the CEO of Sarif Industries: the gruff, plain talking billionaire David Sarif.  
Terrorists attack Sarif Industries’ Detroit laboratory at the beginning of the game, and Jensen is mortally wounded by Jaron Nameir (one of the game’s chief antagonists) and left for dead. Jensen eventually regains consciousness to find that Sarif has arranged for his body to be rebuilt with military-grade augmentations. It’s here that the character development starts: how you/Jensen respond to this revelation is left to you to decide through interactions and conversations with other characters as the game begins and Jensen is charged by his boss to unravel the origin of the attack. 
This is where the game hands things over to you. As Jensen your first mission for Sarif is to secure the Sarif Manufacturing Plant where Purity First terrorists have taken Sarif employees hostage. On the way you get to have a chat with your boss and discuss tactics: will you be happy to minimise casualties by using non-lethal methods, or are you prepared to shoot the bad guys? Do you prefer to get up close or fight from a distance? 
Your brief one-to-one with Sarif will determine your initial, and rather stingy, weapon inventory. Throughout the game you will find a diverse array of arms both lethal and non-lethal, such as crossbows, shotguns, sniper rifles, stun guns, knockout gas grenades, revolvers and pistols. You will also be able to upgrade your weapons and equipment as the game moves on. 
You can also upgrade yourself in a similar way as in most role-playing games. When Jensen was rescued and rebuilt by Sarif he was fitted with a number of augmentation options which can be activated as you go. Clearly there was some kind of management oversight, because the wealthy Sarif only gives you enough cash for initialising one of your augs at the beginning of the game. You’re pretty much on your own when it comes to procurement.
The game’s augmentation system means that  for each objective completed in the game, one receives a certain number of ‘experience points’ (XP). When you have gathered enough XP, you will receive a ‘Praxis Point’ which you can use to unlock a certain character ability. There is a wide variety of abilities that you can spend these Praxis Points on, from stronger bulletproof armour, reduction in gun recoil, silent walking, invisibility for brief periods and ability to hack increasingly complex security systems. The number of Praxis Points avaiilable in each game is limited, so you have to choose your augmentations carefully.  How do you want to play the game: shoot everyone in sight and turn yourself into a human tank, or stealthily infiltrate enemy bases without them noticing you? 
As in the earlier Deus Ex games you can choose to use stealth rather than combat to complete most game objectives. To do this one keeps out of sight of enemies and cameras, and creeps through an area hiding behind boxes and crawling through ventilation ducts whilst enemy agents pace up and down their patrol routes. Bump into something or make too much noise though, and a nearby guard will mutter something and wander round to investigate, and if you get spotted by a guard or a security camera the alarm goes off and all hell will break loose. 
If you prefer, you can of course arm yourself to the teeth and shoot anything that moves.
It’s important to remember that ethical choices form a major part of this game. It’s not all guns and violence: one can use non-lethal solutions to achieve objectives. You get more XP for completing objectives without killing anyone (even heavily armed enemies), however guards can awaken fallen comrades from their slumber (and then run off to raise the alarm) so it pays to be a bit sneaky if you choose the pacifist path. 
There are subtleties in the gameplay above and beyond this too. I started out using a combination of stealth and non-lethal options for achieving the game objectives. However after being shot at, chased, hunted, bitched about and generally persecuted by the Belltower private security firm I decided I hated them with a rare loathing and so to hell with my scruples: from that point on they deserved everything they got.  
Unfortunately, up until that point I’d been spending my Praxis Points on stealth and hacking enhancements, and so I was armed only with a small, underpowered pistol and rather unprepared for the desired full-on military assault on their headquarters. So, in a fit of inspiration I set about hacking their computers and turning their automated security systems against them.  I found that there was a certain satisfaction in hacking their machine-gun turrets, dropping them into a room full of Belltower agents and the sprinting into the nearest air vent to watch the resulting mayhem from a safe vantage point. 
This ability to use lateral thinking to solve problems is what sets the Deus Ex franchise apart from most other games, and Eidos Montreal have been careful to ensure that many different options will remain open to players regardless of the choices  made earlier on in the game.  There are, however, some caveats.
Some gamers on forums expressed concern about the switches to a third-person perspective (outside the body) for takedowns and stealth. Whilst using stealth, you are not obliged to use the third person view in any way whatsoever. You can happily ignore the third person option, and go through the entire game without ever using it. With takedowns you have no option, the camera zooms out and you’re treated to an impressive view of Jensen attacking an assailant. Likewise when climbing a ladder the view switches to third person.
Third-person stealth. Optional.
 As a committed third-person-view-hater, I have to admit that these occasional trips out of the body didn’t bother me in the slightest. This surprised me a lot, but I actually found the takedown third-person views gave me a little chance to sit back for a second and think about what was going on. I do believe that EM should have left them as optional though, but then I believe in check-boxes and customisability. I’m Old Skool like that.
The rest of the game is resolutely first-person, so aside from ladders, takedowns and cutscenes you’ll be peering out at the world through Jensen’s shades. So: Third-person views no problem, that just left something I was not expecting at all.
The biggest issue I had with the game were the end of level ‘boss battles’ . For a game that promises to give the player so much choice in approach to baldly slap you round the face and say ‘right! You’re playing a straight shooter now, like it or lump it’ is a bit unfair, to put it mildly.
The boss battles present a painful collection of difficulty spikes that will force many players to drastically change their play style without any warning. You cannot sneak, use stealth, hack or snipe your way through a boss fight, so if you’ve been spending your Praxis Points on stealth augmentations and only have a stun-gun in your inventory, you will suffer. You either have to get the big guns out or dig yourself in for a lengthy session consisting of dying and reloading the game.  Mercifully the level designers must have realised this and accordingly ensured that heavier weapons are available nearby, however trying to find them and fit them into your inventory when being fired at by a giant cyborg with a heavy machine gun is very, very difficult indeed. 
It was later revealed to the gaming press that the boss battles  were coded by a third-party developer and not by Eidos Montreal, and it shows. It’s a bit like listening to a Coldplay album and discovering that tracks 3, 6 and 9 are actually written and performed by Megadeth, but somehow contain important references to the other tracks. And the CD forces you to listen to them.
Sadly the game doesn’t let you skip them, and important plot points and elements of narrative are delivered  during these scenes, but in a small concession to those who prefer to use non-lethal solutions to objectives, killing a boss won’t cause you to lose your ‘no kills’ achievement on Steam.
I found myself really getting involved with Jensen’s character and genuinely roleplaying through the game as an angry everyman struggling to maintain the moral high ground after nearly having had his life, woman and humanity taken from him by powerful external forces. I  gained a great deal of satisfaction out of doing so. Having committed myself to solving problems in the game with no fatalities I was disappointed to have my hand forced to ‘kill’ in the first boss battle, although it’s a tribute to the way the game is directed that the game encourages this level of identification with the protagonist’s plight.
The ending was a little… odd. Without giving too much away, it felt as if the four different endings one could choose, all of which would change the world in different ways, could be chosen on a completely arbitrary basis regardless of the way I had played the game or the choices I had made throughout. The actual endings themselves would be subtly different depending on how you had played (my ‘kill-everything’ playthrough ending  was a bit different to that of my ‘sneak’ playthorugh), but the ending had the effect of saying to the player ‘OK, you’ve played through the game as Adam Jensen, now having done so what do you believe in?’
This disconnect had a slightly disorientating effect ofr breaking the fourth wall, a little like watching a stage production of Hamlet only to have Fortinbras arrive in the final act, approach the audience and pass round a survey on attitudes towards mental illness and suicide. Not bad as such, just a bit strange and mildly jarring in an ‘Oh…Ok…’ sort of way.
The setting is compelling with great attention paid to mis-en-scene. You can’t move pot plants around, but you’ll find posters, emails, eBooks and notes lying about that provide nuggets of back story for different characters, and the game certainly rewards wandering off the more obvious paths and generally exploring. The bathroom mirror in Jensen’s flat is smashed,  shards of glass lie amongst the pill bottles. By his table you can find C17th navigational instruments and instructions on building a water clock. There were also some faintly amusing touches, such as the poster adverts for Final Fantasy XXVII dotted about the place.
It’s possible to find important information by eavesdropping on different characters too, and paying careful attention to the conversations you have with other characters is vital. The conversations you have may, if carefully handled, enable you to gain access to different areas, avoid conflict with others (and their henchmen) or persuade others to assist in some way.
The voice acting is excellent. Jensen is voiced by Elias Toufaxis, a US actor who has appeared in such shows as Supernatural, Smallville and Blade: The Series, who delivers the lines with an understated gravitas that carefully avoids slipping into caricature.
The music is dark-ambient electronica in style. Carefully restrained and very subtle in composition it remains memorable and distinctive without ever being overbearing or distracting.
Not a screenshot.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution uses a very consistent and well-defined visual language in portraying its world. Suffused in a golden glow, Renaissance themes abound in the game: from the Rembrandt painting that adorns the walls of a number of key characters (one of my very favourite paintings: ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolas Tulp’) to the Baroque stylings of the character costumes and the ubiquitous Damask-and-Chandelier combinations found in many locations (remember Habitat on the UK high street? I do…). This is more than just stylistic fluff: the message is that just as in the Renaissance humanity is on the threshold of a huge leap forward in its development with this new augmentation technology.
At the same time the game also reflects many aspects of the zeitgeist. There is civil disorder and unrest directed against the purveyors of the new technology, questions raised as to the ethics of allowing the marketing of augmentations that can give huge benefits to the few that can afford them, anger at the growing disparity between the rapidly-accelerating gap between the haves and have-nots, and issues such as the suppression of dissent and control of the media are also touched upon. I half expected to find an Occupy camp in Detroit and guys in ‘V’ masks outside the LIMB augmentation clinics. It certainly felt uncomfortably close to home in places.
Conclusion
Possibly one of the best games of the last couple of years, mildly let down by a couple of dubious design decisions. Don’t let that put you off though, it’s an inspired and exciting reboot of the Deus Ex series, one of the gaming classics of the last decade. It’s stylish, intelligent and utterly awesome to play.
I found myself playing and enjoying this far more than Skyrim, or any other game I’ve played recently for that matter. Screw the boss-fights, this is my Game of the Year 2011, but I’m going to dock some points for leaving them in there anyway. Don’t do that again, EM, and certainly don’t do that with Thi4f…
8/10

Worst. Scam. Email. Ever.

This one actually made me laugh. Here it is, complete with typos and batshit capitalisation:

ANTI-TERRORIST AND MONETORY CRIMES DIVISION
FBI HEADQUARTERS WASHINGTON, D.C.
FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION
J. EDGAR HOOVER BUILDING
935 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE,
NW WASHINGTON, D.C. 20535-0001
Fax 0872 111 5935

Bank of Nigeria transferred 10,500,000.00 us dollars to bank of America in your favor as the beneficiary; bank of Nigeria used (secret diplomatic transit payment to wire this money. Secret diplomatic payments are only made if its Terrorist related. why must your payment be made by a secret transfer, if you are not a terrorist, then why did you not 
Receive the money? Why did you instruct them to use a coded means to transfer your money? We have intercepted the transfer of  $10,500,000.00 usd to you .we advise you to contact us immediately for directives on what next to do, as your money is In a suspense account in the bank of America, present to us your diplomatic immunity seal of transfer (dist) document 

To prove this money is not terrorist related.

Failure to produce the dist document, we shall impound your money and prosecute you for criminal offense, but on the  Contrary the money will be released immediately we receive the dist document. The dist document guarantees the following

60t your transferred money is genuine
61h you are empowered to receive the money without further scrutiny
62j your receiving bank account can either be in usa/uk/outside or anywhere you wish

Reply immediately with this dist document if you want to receive your transferred moneys we intercepted Respond within 24 hrs upon receipt of this mail

Assistant director in charge
James w. Mcjunkin
For
Robert s. Mueller, iii
Federal bureau of investigation
United states department of justice
Washington, d.c. 20535

Using an electric guitar with Orion Virtual Studio

I’ve been using Synapse’s wonderful Orion for a few years now, and it’s my main staple for my secondary hobby of making electronic music. Simply put, it’s the most easy to use and versatile thing out there. Recently (Christmas day, actually) I found out how to connect my old Yamaha RGX110 guitar to my PC, and record it in Orion complete with effects.

  1. Plug your guitar into one of the first two inputs on your breakout box. No pre-amp should be required.
  2. Open Orion
  3. Go to Options -> Audio Input Settings…
  4. Set Audio Input settings to be the Same As Output Device
  5. Tick the following boxes:
    • ‘enable audio input’
    • ‘monitor input’
    • ‘mono’ (because the guitar produces a mono signal)

    This will allow you to hear what’s going on!

  6. Click OK
  7. Go to Insert -> Audio Track -> Stereo Input 1/2 to add an audio track using inputs 1/2. You can rename the resulting ‘Audio Track #1’ track to something more sensible like ‘Guitar’ by right-clicking on the label in the Playlist window.

Orion is now ready to accept your input. What I’ve got into the habit of doing at this point is adding a simple drum line to play over. You may already have a load of synths, drums and samples already.

  1. In the playlist, you’ll notice that the track has MSR buttons. Hit the ‘R’ button to queue it up for recording. The Record button light, up at the top of the screen, will light up red
  2. When you’re ready to record your section, hit the Play button. Orion will count you in
  3. When you’re done, hit the Stop button

It’s worth noting the following:

  • You can rename each section, or ‘chunk’, that you record
  • If you record over a section, the original is still there and intact, you just have to slide it about a bit
  • Don’t leave two audio tracks with the same audio input, or they’ll double up and make a terrible din!
  • You can chop bits up and clone them using the song editing tools
  • Right click a section to edit it in your chosen sample editing software
  • You may well need to experiment with a compressor/limiter a bit to get the signal at a reasonable level.

Orion 8 has three insert effects, four sends and if that’s not enough you can use a MultiFX plugin which can hold four effects. This means you can experiment around with various arrangements of compressors, flangers, echoes, distortion units, EQs to your heart’s content… The only limit appears to be the spec of the PC.

[Fetches pipe and slippers] Hehe, kids these days have it easy. Back in my day I had one flanger and couldn’t afford a delay pedal or a four-track recorder. Nowadays all you need as £500 worth of PC plus £160-odd for Orion (which is less than an analogue Fostex cassette-tape-based four-track recorder cost back then) and you have as many blimmin’ digital effects as you like, plus multi-track recording, drum machine, some awesome synths (Toxic III, Wasp, Screamer, WaveFusion etc.) and the ability to upload your stuff to MySpace. Damn I wish I had had this stuff back in 1995…