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

Skyrim

Skyrim, the latest role-playing adventure game from Bethesda, just arrived on my doorstep today. For those who neither know nor care about computer games, this is an event sort of on a par with the release of a new Star Wars movie, and has been greeted by the gaming community in a similarly mixed way.

Most folks are unanimous in praising the game itself, it's depth, graphics and sheer size. However one thing's been bugging a hell of a lot of PC gamers: the interface.

This is the thing that allows you to sort through your loot, fiddle around with your character, buy and sell items from other characters and so on, and it seems it's been ported straight across from the console version to the PC.

Bethesda appear to have forgotten that PC games are played with a mouse and a keyboard, rather than a little controller thing.

I'm not letting this put me off, it's currently installing on my ancient PC, and so I'm going to have some dinner and read the (rather thin) manual whilst waiting.

A cat, yesterday.

Oblivion

There’s a game coming out on 11/11/11 called Skyrim. It’s the fifth game in a series of role-playing games (RPGs) called the Elder Scrolls series.

I always used to hate role playing games with an unsually passionate loathing, until Ms [info]rhapsody9 showed me how they worked. It was at that point I started to enjoy the sheer richness of the content of games like Morrowind and the general feeling of immersion in a world where one can read notebooks and scrolls, create spells, craft weapons, generally do your own thing and wander where you will.

As an exercise I installed the last Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion. Sadly the programmers, Bethesda, who are a brilliant development group, rather buggered the fourth Elder Scrolls game by making it far, far too easy.

What happens in these and other RPGs is that typically your character starts off a bit wussy, and gets stronger and more powerful as the game goes on. Unfortunately a well-intentioned miscalculation by Bethesda meant that all the other characters in Oblivion did exactly the same thing, so there was never any sense of challenge. Worse, the loot you could nick and the rewards for quests would also scale regardless of where you were in the game to fit around your character.

This sucked the life out of the game, and after messing about with it for a bit I just gave up on it.

Anyway, a little while later I discovered something called ‘Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul‘. This is a modification (mod) that one can apply to the game to fix it. This has made a huge difference, and gives the game a much-needed edge.

As such, I’m now replaying Oblivion and thoroughly enjoying it (though it’s still nowhere near as good as Morrowind!), and am now hugely looking forward to Skyrim…

Creating .pgn files with Fritz 12

Whenever I study anything, be it a programming language, a chess thingy or whatever, I like to keep my own notes.

Usually I use OneNote for stuff like notes on programming languages and recipes and things, however recently I tried to study chess openings in the hope that it would assist me in beating Fritz and generally becoming a better player.

Chess is a bit weird because I really need planty of diagrams to help me grasp something, and if it moves so much the better. Reading a book only gets me so far. What I needed was a way of playing through a game, opening or endgame, and keeping notes as I went.

Fortunately, chess has a standardised text file format, .pgn, or ‘Portable Game Notation’ which allows you to transfer moves and comments between different software platforms. Thus, if you can find a way of making a .pgn file containing moves, games and commentary you can share it between chess programs on different devices (e.g. Chessmaster/Fritz/Arena on the PC, ScidOnTheGo on your Android Tablet etc.)

Creating a Huge Great Annotated .pgn File Using Fritz 12

  1. Green Button -> Create a new database
  2. Navigate to a suitable folder on your hard drive to put it in
  3. Important:Select .PGN in file-type drop down. If you don’t, you’ll create Chessbase database, which is useful, but not quite as portable
  4. Name it
  5. Click ‘Create New’
  6. This creates a new .PGN file at your chosen location on your hard drive
  7. Important: do ensure that the file type is set to PGN! It defaults to Chessbase database format, and if you’re not careful it will generate a Chessbase Database with its myriad little attendant files instead. It’s dreadfully untidy.
  8. Go back to the Fritz Board, and start creating/annotating games:
    1. Start a new game (Home -> New Game)
    2. Turn the engine off (Engine -> ‘Switch Engine Off’ box; you have to do this every time you start to create a new game. If you don’t, Fritz will jump in and start moving pieces about)
    3. Move the pieces around
    4. To annotate, right click a move in the Notation Window and select ‘Text before/after move’. Enter Text into pop-up window
    5. To add a variation, rewind and enter new move on the board. A popup will ask what you’re up to, choose ‘Add New Variation’
    6. Repeat until you’re done with the game/study you’re creating
  9. Click Green Button->Save->Save
  10. Enter details of game in the window that pops up (player names, game result, date, tournament etc.)
  11. Click ‘Save’ and the game will be appended to the .pgn file
  12. Repeat from step #8 until you have a whacking great .pgn file with loads and loads of games/studies/notes on it

Fritz’s interface can be a trifle opaque at times, but it’s a very powerful and useful GUI once you can find your way around it!

You can add the ‘New Database’ and ‘Save’ options to the quick toolbar as well, which is very handy if you use them frequently.

The Witcher: $4.99!!!

Blimey, you must get this if you have even a vague interest in RPGs…

http://www.gog.com/en/gamecard/the_witcher/

It only needs a reasonable PC to run (anything bought in the last couple of years should do), 8GB download, no DRM… Possibly GOG’s best deal ever!

Seriously, I love this game: the stories, the characters, the bawdiness, the graphics… A real classic. And I still haven’t reviewed it.