Monday, 28 May 2012

First Impressions: Dragon's Dogma

I've played this game for only a short time, so this isn't a comprehensive review but my thoughts on a few days' worth of play. I'll put up a full review at a later date.

Dragon's Dogma (DD) is a free-roaming single player RPG available for the PS3 and Xbox 360 (I've got the PS3 version).

Character Creator

Unlike most games, DD has a creator that allows not only for a customised face but for the entire body to be changed. This will have an impact upon gameplay. Bigger characters have long reach and can carry more, but also get tired more quickly.

Facially, it's pretty good, although it can take a little time to make an attractive character (and be sure to check the Details which allow you to give characters different coloured eyes and other small but cool things like that). There aren't any set race options, but you can roleplay as an elf by giving your character pointy ears, or as a dwarf/giant by fiddling with the height.

Overall, this is very good, which is nice because after making your character you then design your non-playable permanent sidekick (the main pawn).


This is the beating heart of the game, and it's very good indeed. I played as a mage, with my main pawn (see below) a fighter. The game follows a party structure, with the player and main pawn joined temporarily by two other pawns who do not level up. These can be computer-generated or the creations of other players, hired by using Riftstones. Likewise, your own pawn can be hired and, if it is, other players will rate them, perhaps send them back with a gift and you'll earn Rift Crystals, a second currency used mainly for hiring higher level pawns. In addition, your pawn may well learn more of enemies, areas and quests whilst adventuring with another and thus come back with helpful information.

Combat is the game's single best feature. Each class has genuine advantages. Magic takes a little while to cast, but when it does the damage inflicted is significant. Sword and shield types can protect mages by distracting the enemy, and archers can double up with ranged combat and a pair of daggers for closer quarters combat. The enemies are reasonably varied and the larger monsters are tremendous fun to fight. My favourite battle so far was with an armoured cyclops armed with a massive cudgel. My party shouted out advice to target certain parts, and we smashed his helmet and wounded his arm so that he dropped his weapon. When it seized my archer I blasted its arm with fire and it was forced to drop her, and there was much rejoicing.

The game's difficulty is higher than average without being over the top, and if it seems a bit too hard players can always use Rift Crystals to buy stronger pawns. Hand-holding is not something the game does. It's entirely possible to run into an area too strong for you and get your arse kicked in short order. The roads are safer then taking shortcuts through forests and the countryside, but safe is a relative term and doesn't preclude the appearance of tough bandits and even the odd griffin or cyclops. There's also very limited fast travel, so you have to wander all the way back to an inn after trekking away to do a quest. Night time is not just a bit darker, it's pitch black except for the meagre light offered by your lantern, and nasty things come out to play in the darkness. This, and the general difficulty, makes it feel like a real achievement when you make it back home successfully.

There's a surprisingly large range of armour/clothing options, which might sound a bit superficial but actually it's brilliant. This allows for a far greater degree of customisation than just a few pieces of armour, and the design is generally good. You can also enhance weapons/armour using cash and certain rarer items.

The saving system is poor. There's a single regular slot, with a secondary one for checkpoint saves (made when resting at an inn), so you can't have multiple characters. I think you can copy your save file to a flashdrive to keep your character and make a new one but that's a bit of a faff. It's a bit frustrating, to be honest, and is probably my least favourite aspect of the game.


This is pretty hard to assess only a short way into it. The story is not that tightly bound to the character, and most of the quests you do are nothing to do with being the Arisen (your player's title). There's nothing wrong with the plot, it just seems to play rather less of a role than it might do, but this might change further in.

The world has little sense of identity. It's pretty generic, and that's a bit of a shame. Non-quest NPCs almost never have anything interesting to say and conversations are very basic.


The graphics generally are pretty good. Spells in particular look quite impressive. However, there are issues with pop-in (the draw distance isn't too long) that affect both safe areas and the great outdoors, although I think dungeons are not affected.

Some animations look a bit clunky and in the dark shadows trail behind the character (so if you turn around your shadow turns with you, like the train of a dress).


The sound effects are good, and the in-game music is pretty good as well (the title music sounds alright initially but then turns into a rather unimpressive pop-rock piece).

Voice-acting is a bit ropey at times. They've gone for an old English approach, which is fine, except that the execution is lacking. The word 'aught' is far too common and seems to be used to mean almost anything. It's a shame, but they should've gotten the chap who did the excellent Vagrant Story translation to do the same for this.

The pawns all have verbal diarrhoea. It's useful, sometimes, in fight, but they just never shut the hell up. My favourite example of this is a pawn remarking "A tent" when I walked past one. Yes, I know it's a tent.  Please stop commenting on everything in the world.

Reasons to Buy or Avoid

This isn't a comprehensive pros/cons list, just a few stand-out points that might sway people one way or the other.

Avoid: on-disc DLC is the work of Satan and is present here.

Buy: the combat is challenging and exciting.

Buy: the pawn system is an interesting and innovative use of online technology. [I know some bemoan the lack of multiplayer, but as I dislike multiplayer I'm not one of them].

A Weird Connectivity Thing

I don't have my PS3 hooked up to the internet most of the time, but did so to see how the pawn system worked, and to let my fellow gamers benefit from my splendid lady pawn. Weirdly, when playing without the connection, I found my pawn still returning from adventuring with others, complete with nice little gifts. Er…?

I've since found that if you're unconnected the game takes pity on you and the CPU pretends to hire your pawn, giving you a small number of rift crystals and little gifts.

Why I bought it early

There are a few reasons. I was intrigued by the reports of its higher difficulty (this is true but has been exaggerated by limp-wristed bed-wetting reviewers) and the prospect of a new free-roaming RPG. The game has lots of good ideas, but here and there execution is lacking. The combat remains its biggest plus point.

A big double reason was the previews and other videos from two Youtube accounts I found, linked to below:

I'll do a full review later on. After beating the game you get a New Game Plus so I'm not sure if I'll do a review after finishing the game or play a bit more after that. At this stage I'd probably give it about 8.5/10.


Monday, 21 May 2012

Review: The Crisis of Rome: The Jugurthine and Northern Wars and the Rise of Marius, by Gareth Sampson

The title's a bit of a mouthful, but happily the book itself is a tasty treat. It covers the period (roughly) from 150BC to 100BC, focusing primarily on a number of wars Rome had at this time and the subsequent rise to prominence and glory of Caius Marius.

This is a period I'm very unfamiliar with, and it was an enlightening and enjoyable read. The author did a very good job of informing the reader where sources were sparse (which, sadly, is quite often) and when they were thought unreliable or to differ with one another. Despite this fuzziness in certain areas the general shape of the conflicts and, to a lesser extent, the political shenanigans in Rome are apparent and interesting.

This later Republican period was one of expansion for Rome, but it was also a difficult time. They did get entangled in difficult wars and suffered quite a number of reverses. However, not unlike in the Second Punic War, the fundamental strength of the Roman political and military machine enabled it to shrug off as flesh wounds injuries that other nation's would have considered deathblows.

The book chronicles the various wars that Rome got involved in around this period, which coincided with the rise from relative obscurity of Caius Marius.

It also relates the dominance that the Metelli family (of whom I'd never heard) during this period, with whom Marius was sometimes friendly and sometimes not.

The battles are described in as much detail as possible but due to the lack of sources this is often conjecture or requires certain gaps to be filled with speculation. Whilst unfortunate, the general picture can still be made out.

There are also a number of appendices which cover related matters of interest which are fairly brief but don't fit naturally into the main body of the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Crisis of Rome, which also has a nice bibliography for those interested in the period covered and wanting further reading. The sparseness of sources can sometimes be frustrating, but (unlike one review I read) it's entirely unfair to blame the author or criticise the work because Livy's books haven't survived two millennia entirely intact. It's a good work that weaves together the domestic political situation with the overseas military adventures of Rome and provides an easy-to-read and enjoyable overview of a relatively unknown period.


Thursday, 17 May 2012

Dragon's Dogma Preview

Somehow I missed this from my recent gaming post, so here's a preview of the RPG, which comes out on 25 May for the PS3 and Xbox 360.

The game, as mentioned, is an RPG, and a free-roaming one at that. The player is the Arisen, who has a destiny entangled with a rather horrid dragon. In addition, the player has a trio of minions called Pawns who help him or her out in battle. I can only assume that the Japanese word for the lowest piece in chess is not a homophone for the Japanese word for gentlemen's special interest literature.

Anyway, you have one main Pawn (which you create) who is always present at your side and levels with you, and two standardised Pawns that you can recruit or let go. So, at creation you'll make your character and then make your own main Pawn. The Pawns are not directly controlled but basic commands can be issued.

As well as finding Pawns throughout the world you can find them through Rift stones (a cross between the jobs section in a newspaper and the palantir of Lord of the Rings). Intriguingly, as well as using the preset ones you can enjoy the Pawns of other players, assuming you and they have an internet connection. You can lend your own main Pawn out this way and it'll accrue knowledge about the world (locations of dungeons, enemy weaknesses etc) and may even be given a little present by another player who appreciated your effort in creating the Pawn.

It's probably the most innovative and interesting approach to online technology (of which I'm not generally a fan when it comes to games) since Demon's Souls.

I downloaded the demo (a first for me), which is disappointingly brief. However, it does give a basic feel for combat and shows off the character creator. Unlike Skyrim or Dragon Age there are few sliders, but there are stacks of presets. As well as the ones you'd expect (hairstyles) there are the nice-to-haves of scars and makeup as well as the delightful and unexpected, including arms, legs, torso, muscularity and height.

Combat-wise, I'm unsure. There's no magic in either demo mission, but you do play as a warrior archetype and then a rogue archetype (sword and shield followed by daggers and bow). The Pawns are shown to be pretty competent (maybe even a little too much so, but then the first missions aren't going to be rock hard). Graphics are decent enough, although the limited playtime and the fact that the first mission is in a very dark place makes it hard to assess properly.

In the game proper characters will be able to pursue the typical main classes of warrior, rogue and mage, but will also be able to forge hybrid classes. It sounds a bit reminiscent of FFV's excellent job system whereby if you level enough as, say, a mage you'll get a perk you can carry over if you decide you want to try your hand at being a rogue. I think that the main Pawn's job cannot be changed (not sure though), so balance would have to be maintained by fiddling with your lesser Pawns.

The previews I've read elsewhere suggest that, broadly speaking, the game's combat has been well-received. There is, however, some suggestion that the world's a bit too generic and ye olde England.

In addition (and whilst I consider this a slight minus some may rather like it) the comedy female (and male, I think) fantasy armour makes an appearance. Not seen an actual chainmail bikini (do they wear aketon bikinis underneath?) but there's rather a lot of that sort of thing.

The demo, unfortunately, didn't feature any shopping or other interactions with NPCs so I'm not quite sure how that will go. My exhaustive research (watching Youtube videos, if I'm honest) revealed that there are over 400 voiced NPCs with 200 voice actors. Blimey. Plus, the NPCs will have regional accents, which is a nice touch (like the Celtic elves in Dragon Age 2).

I like free-roaming RPGs, and a generic backdrop wouldn't really put me off. I'm not sure I'll buy it straight off, though (particularly as I don't need another distraction from formatting Bane of Souls*).


*For those wondering, I'm making a little bit of progress each day. Not quite as fast as I'd like, but much better than hoping for a 3 hour window of peace and quiet to do it all at once.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Irritating Delay

I’d planned to try and get all of Bane of Souls formatted and ready for Smashwords in one go, reckoning it’d take 2-3 hours.

Unfortunately, I must’ve angered the gods somehow because I’ve had a single window of time through which to try this in the last week, and was unable to take advantage of it due to a (non-serious) medical problem.

Anyway, I’m going to try and do it piecemeal. At the start of June I should have some peace and quiet, so if it’s not finished by then (and I certainly hope it will be) that should be a perfect time to get it done.

In the meantime, The Crisis of Rome: The Jugurthine and Northern Wars and the Rise of Marius by Gareth Sampson has arrived. It covers a period (roughly 150-100BC) I’m unfamiliar with, and should be interesting reading.


Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Dishonored, Game of Thrones and Dragon Age 3

There’s no one game in the near future that’s a dead cert for me to buy, but the three in the title are definitely interesting enough to consider.

Dishonored (sadly missing a U due to pesky colonial misspelling) is made by Bethesda, which is a good start, and is to be released at some point this year for the PS3, Xbox360 and PC. It’s being compared to BioShock and Deus Ex: Human Revolution and although I own neither of those titles I have heard good things about them.

The game takes place in Dunwall: a city which sounds like a mixture of Victorian-era London and steampunk. The playable character is named Corvo, and has a wide range of abilities (including some pretty cool-sounding magic moves) for killing people. Corvo was imprisoned (falsely) for killing the Empress, whom he was sworn to protect. Whilst in his cell a mysterious stranger gave him magical powers.

The game isn’t open world, but there is scope for exploring it during the assassination missions. Corvo’s a flexible, versatile fellow who can be all stealthy and subtle or just a hard as nails warrior.

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, but I’m liking the sound of the little touches that are being developed (things like sound travelling differently through doors that are locked and the ability to teleport over short distances). 

Game of Thrones is a bestselling book, a bloody good TV series and will soon be a videogame too. It comes out on 1 June, also for the three main platforms, and has a lot to live up to. The story (which has been officially made part of the canon by George RR Martin) follows two chaps, Mors and Alester, each of whom takes the starring role in alternating chapters.

It’ll feature some of the vocal talents from the TV series, which should be good. The game’s reckoned to last 30 hours or more, and as characters gain new abilities the perks are counter-balanced by weaknesses. There’s to be plenty of combat but also quite a lot of social interaction. I’ll be paying attention to the first reviews of the game to see how well it’s received.

Last but hopefully not least, the rather more distant prospect of Dragon Age 3. Origins was very well-received, and I loved it, but DA2, whilst having some good aspects (notably the Qunari) did suffer from being blatantly rushed.

The game may well be set in Orlais, which is the approximately French counterpart of the more-or-less English country of Ferelden (where Origins occurred). The party members will have generally pre-determined appearances but a lot more scope for customised bits and pieces (so they’re instantly recognisable but aren’t lumbered with one or maybe two outfits, as happened in DA2).

The general direction of the story hasn’t been explicitly described but it’d likely follow on directly from the DA2 ending. Unfortunately the important question of whether or not we get a lady Qunari also hasn’t been addressed, nor has the matter of whether we’ll get a racial choice at creation. It’ll also be interesting to see whether they opt for the nice but unoriginal elven faces of Origins or the innovative and generally ugly faces of DA2.


Thursday, 3 May 2012

Pricing an e-book

Not quite at publishing stage yet, but not far off, and my mind’s turned to something I’ve neglected but which is rather important: price.

There’s still some stigma attached to self-published writers in a way there isn’t to self-employed carpenters. However, the self-published can increase the attractiveness of their uncertain offerings by cunningly offering low prices.

I’m a bit ambivalent about whether a higher ‘low’ price (£2-3) is better than a cheap and cheerful 99p. People do download lots of e-books, and my concern is that a 99p price might suggest the author himself doesn’t value it too highly. On the other hand, if an established author has a £3 book out and there’s a similarly priced book by an unknown self-published fellow then the former is far likelier to be bought.

When buying books myself the price does make a difference. Sometimes it’s a tie-breaker between otherwise equally intriguing books, and sometimes it puts me right off.

I’ve decided to go for a 97p price tag. The reasoning behind the price is that it’s low enough to easily emotionally blackmail almost everyone I know into buying it be bought by people wavering over whether or not to buy Bane of Souls based on the description/cover/reviews. The 7 at the end rather than the typical 9 is because I recall a llama who told me that, apparently, things are more likely to be bought if they’re 97p rather than 99p. That sounds bonkers, but it does tally with another inexplicable psychological trait I know (namely that if you send off loads of envelopes hoping for responses then putting the stamp on at a slight angle increases the respondent rate).

Another advantage of an initial low price is that it should increase sales and help gather a wider readership than would be the case if I charged £17.50, and given this is step one in the thousand mile journey to being able to afford a 110 foot tall bronze statue of myself I think that’s a good benefit.