Friday, August 24, 2012

Torchlight (PC)

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun, polished loot-fest with a free editor and mod tools
Cons: A little repetitive, lacking end-game itemization, no multiplayer of any kind

With the release of Torchlight II imminent I figured it was a good a time as any to get out my review of the original Torchlight. I've been playing Torchlight off and on since the day it was released, and while it's a terrific game the lack of any type of multiplayer support kills it a bit for me; it's just one of those games that feels like it needs it. Well, they remedied that problem with Torchlight II which will come with drop-in/drop-out multiplayer support over the LAN and internet both. Epic win.
Torchlight was developed by Runic Games, which is a small team of people with some pretty noteworthy games under their belts such as Diablo, Fate and Mythos. I love the fact that they're a pretty small company, as you can actually talk to many of them on the forums at their website. They're usually good about keeping users informed about how things are going, and you never see this type of interaction with large companies.
As for the game, Torchlight is a single-player ARPG (action role-playing game). It was released through Steam and a couple of other digital distributors, as well as in a retail boxed version released by Encore a few months later. At the time of this writing you can pick it up for $14.99 on Steam, which is pretty good and well worth it. Right now however, you can download Torchlight free through Steam if you pre-order a copy of Torchlight II. I imagine this will end when Torchlight II is released, but you never know.
So there's this special ore known as "Ember" that has the power to enchant or corrupt. The mining town of Torchlight is at the top of the Ember mine, and adventurers go down in search of its power. When you arrive in Torchlight, you are recruited by a mage named Syl to go down in search of her master -- an alchemist named Alric -- whom you discover has been corrupted by the mysterious Ember and is now evil. That's really all there is to the story and the game; you just steadily travel further down killing everything in your way and collecting loot.
The main problem I have is the fact that everything is underground. Sure there's some variety here; you'll get mine tile sets for a few levels, islands in the dark floating around connected by wooden bridges, ancient ruins, castles in the lava... but it's all underground. The only open world area is the town, which is rather small and you are unable to leave it except into the mine. The world is like a giant vertical mineshaft connected by glowing portals you travel between to go up or down. Some of the levels may sprawl pretty far horizontally, but when you reach the end you're still going nowhere but down further.
Also, each level is randomly generated to an extent. Each different tile set has a number of "chunks" of the map, and these are randomly assembled to form the level. This is nice because it will be different the next time you play through, but the tile set will still be the same so it's not quite as impressive as it could have been. Still, I really like it and it does help. You may get some slightly different enemies, different items, treasure and secret rooms as well. Every few levels there is a "waypoint" portal that allows you to travel to any other waypoints you have activated, and this is certainly helpful to get back to town at least.
There are three different character classes you can play with; the Destroyer, the Vanquisher and the Alchemist. The Destroyer can only be a male character and acts as the melee/tank class of the game, getting up in the enemy's face and destroying him. The Vanquisher can only be a female character and is the archer type of class, mostly using different guns and bows to attack the enemy from a distance. The alchemist is a male character who relies on staves, wands and magic spells to get through the game. These are just the main roles for each class; you can play differently, like using a melee Alchemist or a magic using Vanquisher if that's what you want.
Any of the characters can equip just about anything since items require stat points and levels to use. However, pumping a pile of magic points into your Destroyer to equip a wand isn't going to be all that effective most of the time because his skills revolve around melee damage. The freedom to do this can make for some interesting character builds though, and they're occasionally fun to experiment with. Character stats consist of strength, dexterity, magic and defense. In addition, you have poison, fire, electrical and ice resistances which can be of immense help later in the game.
There are other stats that you can't directly view, which is another small negative. Things like 2% magic find, 15 knockback or 10% pet and minion speed you can only figure out by adding up how much is on each piece of equipment. The character screen could have used a little more fleshing out and polish to make all of these stats and bonuses easily visible.
Your character can equip a helmet, shoulders, armor, boots, gloves, belt, two rings, an amulet and a weapon (or two, or a weapon shield). There are tons of different pieces of equipment in the game, and that's where half of the fun comes in since this is a loot-whoring ARPG. Items come in different qualities, with different stats, sockets to place gems in to make them even stronger, etc. There are enchantment shrines in the dungeons to make them stronger (with a small but increasing percent chance to erase all of their stats!), and even an enchanter in town who will enchant your items for a fee (with double the percentage to erase stats as the shrines).
There's an item combiner in town too, with secret recipes to combine some items into other items. He can also combine gems, of which there are a lot. Say you have a few "cracked cold-ember" gems which give 3 ice damage if you put them in a weapon socket. Well, you can give two of them to the transmuter and get a "dull cold-ember" gem with 6 ice damage. This rather ends up leading to a hoarding of gems and a character with empty gem sockets though, because you don't want to use up the gems in hopes that you can get perfect gems. Since there are like 10 tiers of gems, this takes a long time to accomplish... and even when you get one, then you don't want to waste it on a sub-par piece of equipment!
There are NPCS (non-playable characters controlled by the computer) in town who will destroy a piece of equipment and give you the gems out of it. There's also a guy who will destroy the gem and leave you the piece of equipment, but often even if your character has found better equipment you will want to save the old piece for a future character by putting it in your shared stash chest.
The world itself is three-dimensional with a fixed camera. You can zoom the camera in and out with the mouse wheel, but you can't rotate it. You move by clicking on the ground, which took some getting used to because I typically prefer a WASD movement option when I play this type of game. The left mouse button attacks and the right mouse button executes a skill that you can assign to the key. You can also assign an alternate skill, so that when you hit the tab button it switches between them. The number buttons 1 through 0 act as hot keys that you can assign to other skills, potions, spells, etc.
Most of the other buttons are pretty standard as well. C to bring up your character pane, I for inventory, P for your pet, S for skills, etc. Pets are pretty nice in Torchlight, as they follow you around and can attack enemies. They also have their own inventory which you can fill up with goodies, and you can even click a button to send them back to town to automatically sell their inventory and bring you back the money. Pets can equip two rings and an amulet, as well as any two spells that you pick up along the way. This makes them pretty versatile and really helpful additions to your part since you're otherwise playing by yourself.
The game also has a little mini-game of sorts where you can fish at designated fishing holes. You catch various fish and then feed them to your pet to transform him temporarily (or permanently with the most rare fish) into another creature. This also fills up your pet's life and mana at the same time, so it's especially wonderful for boss fights to have different fish on hand to make your pet more useful. Otherwise, when your pet gets low health he runs around randomly away from the enemies and does nothing until he gets some health back. You can also fish up other items such as gems and boots, but they're much less common.
Matt Uelmen, who composed the music for Diablo, also composed original music for Torchlight and the results were spectacular. Sound effects are also good, with some pretty nice grunts and explosions. Different class skills are mostly varied as well, though there are a lot of passive skills that increase damage, armor, crit, etc. that are shared between classes.
You can't complete a review of Torchlight without mentioning TorchED and the modding capabilities. You see, the game is designed to be completely modable by players and there are a number of decent ones created. New maps, new enemies, new items, new skills, new character classes, you name it. Most of them were created using TorchED, the free mod tool that Runic released for creating game mods. It's mostly point and click and pretty easy to use. Some things like items are super easy while adding things like new classes is a lot more involved, but there's so much that's possible.
Torchlight has really low system requirements, including Windows XP or later, an 800MHz processor, 512MB of RAM, 400MB of hard drive space, and a DirectX-compatible 3D graphics card with at least 64MB of memory. There's even a checkbox to enable Netbook mode in the options, so even though this is a fun game that has decent looking graphics it will still run on some pretty low end hardware.

Overall Torchlight is a terrific game, though itemization does taper off at the end and it is a bit repetitive. The lack of multiplayer is probably the biggest down side, as it's a huge boon to this type of game. Still, certainly an above-average game and it's pretty cheap to pick up as well. If you catch it in time, go ahead and pre-order Torchlight II on Steam for $20 and get the free Torchlight download instead of purchasing it separately. If you miss the deal though, it's still worth buying on its own.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Tecmo Bowl (NES)

Rating: 2 out of 5
Pros: Actual player names and a fun two-player mode
Cons: No real gameplay balance. No injuries, penalties, fumbles or team names

Tecmo Bowl is an arcade game developed by Tecmo and ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1989. It was one of the first games to feature real names of NFL players, although it didn't use actual team names (teams were labeled by city, omitting the actual name). It's a game I remember fondly, staying at a friend's house and camping out in a pop-up camper while staying up all night playing Tecmo Bowl for hours on end.
Being an early NES-era game, Tecmo Bowl was nothing special to look at. It used a flat 2D plane with the computer on the right and the player on the left regardless of whether you were on offense or defense. Players were tiny little blobs of stick men, and were just barely detailed enough to tell that they were people -- but that was about all you could expect from the NES at that point, and they were plenty sufficient to play the game with. Sound effects were sparse and average, but the background music was annoying and repetitive. Mute for the win.
Tecmo Bowl featured only 12 teams: Indianapolis, Miami, Cleveland, Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco, Dallas, New York, Chicago and Minnesota. Some teams like Indianapolis or Dallas are poor to average, while Chicago or San Francisco make the game a breeze due to having some ridiculously players. Los Angeles had Bo Jackson as running back, and he could (quite literally) run circles around almost anyone. While this made for some hilarious plays like running from one end zone to the other and back again before scoring, it kind of cheapened the gameplay and made it nearly impossible to lose against the computer if you used Los Angeles. Similar situation with Lawrence Taylor in New York, who can block every single field goal and extra point attempt making an otherwise even game always come out in your favor.
Each team does have unique plays available to them, but the playbook only consists of 4 plays. Most teams have 2 running plays and 2 passing plays, and if the defence chooses the same play as the offense then it pretty much collapses the line and results in a loss of yards. That's a 25% chance of a loss of yards for the most part, though occasionally some of the better players can still scrape by. Bo Jackson for example can just start running backwards every single play, and when the defense collapses upon him just have him run a circle around them back the other direction and zigzag your way to the end zone for a touchdown.
It's a pretty cheesy game single player; it's usually either frustratingly difficult or frustratingly easy depending on which teams you're using. Playing 2 player mode with a friend is much better, but you have to make sure to either both pick good teams or both pick bad teams to avoid blowouts. That, or play the game so much you know the ins and outs of each team so you can figure out how to stop them. Like a game bug that leaves a linebacker unblocked on Bo Jackson's running play, which makes it easy mode for a human player to block Bo Jackson where the computer couldn't touch him for anything.
In single player mode you pick a team and the computer picks one, and if you win the computer picks another until you've beaten all the teams. You're given a short password to enter after each win so you can continue where you left off, but this is as close as the game comes to a season or franchise mode. There is a coach mode, but that just has you picking plays but not executing them. Not very fun, but it's there.
You can't get injured in this game, there are no penalties, you can't fumble the ball, you can't lateral; you can't even drop a pass (though you do get intercepted quite often if there is a defender anywhere close to your receiver). Occasionally you can break free of a tackle by mashing buttons, but that's about the extent of it. The gameplay left much to be desired and was rather disappointing, but it was the best there was on the NES at the time.
Since Tecmo Super Bowl came out though, there's no reason to play this instead any more. It's great for nostalgic value, but as a game Tecmo Super Bowl wipes the floor with Tecmo Bowl. It has actual team names, better gameplay, more plays, better graphics, a real season mode and stat tracking. It's the same game that we all loved and played to death, but improved upon in every noticeable way. I would have only recommended Tecmo Bowl back then for lack of anything better, but I can't really recommend it over Tecmo Super Bowl. Pass on this one and pick up the sequel.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Legend of Zelda (NES)

Rating: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fun, battery saves, good music, second playthrough when you finish it
Cons: Simple graphics, occasional lack of direction

The Legend of Zelda was developed and published by Nintendo for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The first time I ever saw the shining golden cartridge I knew I was in for a good time, and I was not disappointed. It was one of the earliest games we got for the Nintendo, and one I played a lot growing up. An action/adventure game at heart, it's often considered to be a precursor to the action RPG genre. The Legend of Zelda turned out to be a huge cash cow for Nintendo, spawning many sequels and selling millions of copies around the globe.
The land of Hyrule is invaded by an evil army, lead by Gannon, the prince of darkness. In the process he steals the Triforce of Power, one of three powerful triangle artifacts that contain mystical powers. Fearing that he would steal the Triforce of Wisdom as well, Princess Zelda split it into 8 fragments and hid them throughout the land. She then sent her trusted nursemaid Impa in search of a hero to challenge Gannon and retrieve the Triforce of Power. In The Legend of Zelda you play as Link, the young lad found by Impa and the protagonist of the game.
The Legend of Zelda is a simple game at heart. The map is made up of "rooms" that fill up one screen of the game. That's probably not the most accurate term to describe them since many of them are outside in the world, but it's the best I could come up with. Rooms may have openings leading up, down, left and/or right that will take you into the next room. Once you kill all of the enemies in a room they stay gone until you've moved a certain number of rooms away, in which case they respawn. You don't level up or anything, so the only benefit to killing enemies (aside from getting them out of your way so that they don't damage you) is to collect rupies (the game's currency) or bombs.
There are a few items you can spend rupies on such as an improved shield, a candle or some healing water, but mostly they're worthless. You can only accumulate up to 255 of them at a time, and any additional rupies you collect will disappear. The other major items to collect are heart containers. Since you start the game with only 3 hearts, it's really beneficial to collect more. You'll get one from each dungeon boss to increase the damage you can take, but there are also 5 heart containers hidden around the map in various places. Finding them may be tricky if you're not cheesing it up with an online walkthrough, but half the fun is in the search and you're bound to find some other secrets along the way.

The game is rather open and non-linear, to the point that sometimes you'll be wondering where to go next. There's no harm in exploring (in fact that's half the fun), but some type of indication as to where the next dungeon is located would be nice. Not that you have to do them in order for the most part (obviously a dungeon that requires a raft to get to would require obtaining the raft from a previous dungeon first), but it's a little easier to do so.
The whole game takes place in a 2D overhead view where you can only walk in the four cardinal directions (no diagonal movement). You stab your sword one square in front of you to destroy various enemies, or if you have full health you can shoot a projectile from your sword across the screen to make things easier. It's a pretty simple concept, but it's made more interesting by secret areas (by blowing up walls or burning bushes), small puzzles and a large world map to explore.
The graphics are extremely simple but effective, and you have to keep in mind that The Legend of Zelda was made in 1986. The landscape is varied; spattered with deserts, forests, mountains and waterfalls. There are a number of different enemies as well, and each behaves differently so that you actually feel like you're not fighting the same guy over and over but with a different graphic. One may shoot projectiles at you, another will dig underground and pop back up closer to you, one might split into two smaller enemies when defeated and yet another will grab you and drag you through the wall back to the beginning room of a dungeon.
Speaking of dungeons, there are nine in total. The first eight have pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom at the end of them, while the ninth houses the evil Gannon and the Triforce of Power. Each dungeon has a boss at the end guarding the Triforce fragment, and each of the bosses is totally different from one another. None of them are exceptionally hard, and are pretty easy in fact once you figure out the pattern that it uses. Nearly every dungeon also contains an item in it somewhere; such as a bow, boomerang, ladder, etc. There are about a dozen in total and they will help you kill enemies or travel around the world map easier, and most are outright required at one point or another to progress.
Sound effects like the flick, flick of your sword swinging or the poof sound from a bomb exploding are plain but adequate. The music, however, is wonderful! From the adventurous tunes on the world map to the ominous music when entering a dungeon, the music is a huge boon to the game and really helps set the pace. The opening title song in particular is so memorable that it pops into my head any time I think of any Zelda game.
The user interface is simple and easy to use. Your items are on their own screen which comes down from the top of the screen to replace the game window when you hit the start button. From there you can select any single item you want to assign to the B button, while the A button is always used for your sword. Press start again to get back to the game screen and continue playing. Also noteworthy is the fact that The Legend of Zelda was one of the earliest games I can remember to use a battery save feature, so you can create up to 3 separate games and save them to restart later. This is immensely better than entering in some long annoying series of letters and numbers for level selection like most of the early NES games, and multiple people can still play the game and have their progress saved.
The Legend of Zelda is a game iconic to the NES, and a game that was so good that it seemed ahead of it's time. Despite it's simplistic nature it has held up fairly well and still offers a fun experience today; this is one game that should be in every NES collection and I recommend you pick it up. As far as replay value, there are a number of secrets to discover during the game, but even after you beat it there is a second playthrough with harder enemies and relocated dungeons and items. This effectively doubles the length of the game and gives you a reason to keep playing after you finish it.