Jul 27, 2007

Re: video gaming / blogging summer break

That's it. I'm off to Milos for ten or so days, which means I'll be miles away from anything and everything even slightly reminiscent of video games, the Internet or -and that's the nastiest bit- urban planning. You, dearest readers, friends and fellow bloggers, try to enjoy yourselves, spam the place, check Retro Treasures or Gaming on the Go, frolic, mail me dirty thoughts and generally have fun.

And if you absolutely need something to pass your online time, well, the links on this very blog's sidebar are all hand-picked and frankly brilliant, whereas there's also the following list of recent Gnome's Lair articles/posts you might have missed:

Jul 26, 2007

Zelda Twilight Princess Wii Models Ripped

Where would we be without tradition, huh? Well, definitely not a roof singing about it, but probably also in a parallax universe where Gnome's Lair had presented you with this very post a couple of months ago. Anyway, I digress. All I ever wanted to say is it's been quite a long time since the lovely 3D models of The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess for the Wii have been ripped for our highly questionable 3D modelling/toying-around pleasure. Find out more right here.

Related @ Gnome's Lair: Thrii Wii game reviews, On Wii specs, A ton of commercial games gone freeware

Sam & Max Season Two (2)

In a shocking move, that successfully shocked my unshockably shock-resistant brain (or lack thereof), beloved Telltale Games announced there actually will be a second Sam & Max episodic adventure gaming season. What's more, and this should come as a properly shocking shock, Sam & Max Season Two will be with us this very Fall. Presumably better, bigger, badder and definitely less of a GameTap exclusive too, as the episodes will be available from Telltale's site just one day after their exclusive launch on GameTap.

Keep checking the Telltale blog for more info, read the press release and fall in love with the first S&M Season 2 pic ever released. It's probably not a screenshot mind you, but it's definitely the inside of Stinky's diner.

Related @ Gnome's Lair: The Indy Adventure Gaming Guide, Vinyl Data, Resonance Dev Diary #2, Ron Gilbert & Penny Arcade

Jul 25, 2007

Go on, name that casual video game of yours!

You've worked your arse off for 25 whole hours, managed to come up with an ingenious and subtly innovative clone of Bedazzled, ripped a few public domain tunes (or graphics) and are about to conquer the world 20$ a piece, but can't find a proper name for your mega-hit casual game? Well, fret no more dear shovelware developer, for both this and this place will help you come up with a properly pretentious name for your casual masterpiece. You'll be rich in no time!

Warning: The first link will probably even provide you with an idea for a game (in case you opt to walk the wild none-Bedazzled road), thus further minimizing designing time and development costs. You might not have to work at all. Tsk.

Related @ Gnome's Lair: The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Discussing video game reviews, Fahrenheit postmortem

Jul 24, 2007

Saboteur 95: The 8-bit Retro Remake

Saboteur was really big during the 8-bit gaming era, and, at least to my mind, it reached almost mythical proportions. It was, you see, a game I first played only a few years ago, but one I kept reading about for over a decade. Surprisingly, it now seems as if the Greek gaming press was -for once- right. Saboteur, still a great game and a very balanced platform, adventure, beat-'em-up hybrid that can be as addictive as any contemporary time-sink, must have been quite a shock of grandeur for ZX Spectrum gamers.

To experience said shock (play an original version of the game, that is) you could grab a free copy from the brilliant World of Spectrum mega-site, but, should you be one of them delicate souls that can't stand true retro colour-clash graphics, you could do worse than download the brilliant freeware Saboteur 95 retro remake.

Saboteur 95 is fully Windows compatible, sports shiny 16-bit 320x200 graphics, 400 rooms, secret areas and a lovely 2D variety of enemies. Oh, and there are CD-covers, patches, maps and a variety of ..uh.. stuff available for it too.

Related @ Gnome's Lair: Atari Jaguar emulation, Retro Gaming with a Vectrex, Alter Ego feature & interview

Jul 23, 2007

The Player / not your average video gaming mag

Not convinced by the beauty of it yet? But, it's so refreshing, it is. I even had to dedicate 3 hours to listen to Sandinista! again, just to come to grips with its ..uhh.. refreshingness. And it (the magazine, not the record) had tons of naughty bits too. Like the Grim Fandango ones. Or the Sam and Max ones.
Obviously freeware and shockingly in PDF, but I'm afraid, you'll have to download The Player NOW!

Related @ Gnome's Lair: Let's Play Archive, Fallout 2: Bondage, the Neuromancer graphic novel

Jul 22, 2007

Half Life 2 Total Conversion mods

Apparently Half Life 2 is still considered the Best PC FPS ever, even though you've probably played it to death, mastered its many intricacies and failed to be impressed by its banal storyline. Anyway, thing is you still love the shiny little bugger and you'll never stop giving its freeware mods a serious try. Here are a couple lovely total conversion ones...

Dragonball Source, a 200MB mod you can download here, is a well crafted multiplayer mod with RPG elements that will mostly cater to the anime needs of the Dragonball crowds. Nice graphics, a selection between 1st or 3rd person gameplay, cartoony graphics and an excellent King of the Hill version are enough reasons to give it a try.

Paleolithic Revolution (also) focuses on the multiplayer side of gaming, but instead of the far too mainstream anime look goes for the ..uh.. paleolithic one. The mod pits Cro-Magnon versus Neanderthal for the control of some lovely caves, where, interestingly, players can modify the map environment by moving and stacking rocks. For example, a big pile of rocks can be used as a crushing weapon, as shelter or even to build defensive walls. Visit the official site or just download Paleolithic Revolution here.

Related @ Gnome's Lair: GoldenEye Source, Fawlty Towers CS, more Half Life 2 mods, Duke Nukem 3D high-res

Jul 19, 2007

Show the C64 & CPC some retro gaming video love

Time for the good old fashioned blogging video dump, complete with the audio-visual fragrance of nostalgia. Saves me time and provides you, oh most old-fashioned of readers, with a chance to non-interactively enjoy 100 Commodore 64 games (by laffer35) and 10 impressive Amstrad CPC ones (by ukmarkh). All you have to do is think hard enough and the videos above will play. Failing that click on those lovely little play buttons.

Related @ Gnome's Lair: Team 17: the free Amiga games, the Vectrex, Peter Favaro interview, the best Online Emulators

Jul 17, 2007

A Guide to the world of the Indy Adventure Game

It must have been back in the day when Terry Pratchett's Discworld II was released that I first noticed PC Zone proclaiming the adventure gaming genre dead and most probably buried too, even though quite a few classics like Gabriel Knight III or Sanitarium would still follow. Yet, it was indeed more than obvious that the glory days of Monkey Island, Space Quest and Day of the Tentacle were definitely coming to their end. Games went mainstream, quality dropped, the thinking gamer became a ridiculously small minority, good taste went tits up and magazines kept telling everyone just how very dead adventures were.

Heck, even now, after the obviously lucrative niche market The Adventure Company has carved itself, a variety of quirky Nintendo DS adventures and the amazing success of Sam and Max Series 1, nobody is convinced that adventures are truly back and people are still talking about redefining the genre, dropping costs, appealing to the mainstream, going 3D, whatever. What they are very obviously forgetting is that game crafting isn't a power bestowed solely to big studios by the gods of gaming. It's an art and craft everyone can have a try at, by either producing a freeware game or going for the more life-sustaining indy commercial development model. This exactly is the case with independent and/or freeware adventure games, a creative scene that's been thriving for over a decade and going from strength to strength.

An Independent Adventure Game, you see, is a game created outside the stuffy world of uneducated managers who think they actually know what people like and believe there's no value besides the exchange one. Indy Adventure Games, just like any medieval artisan's product, only have to be true to the creator's vision. They can be wildly innovative, copyright infringing, in full pixelated 2D, remakes of classic games, political, silly, absolutely shite, pop, over 500MB, excellent, boring, free or very cheap; anything at all. And, unlike commercial games, especially the ridiculously expensive ones which we've been living with for quite some time, they just can't be proclaimed dead. As long as people -ordinary people- care for them, they'll be around.

To play an Independent Adventure Game...

For the time being though, the indy adventure game is far from a dying species. One could even speak of an apex, if it weren't for the ever increasing volume, variety and quality of productions. There are happily dozens of extremely talented developers and groups that keep churning out game after lovely game. To find out about -and of course play- said games, well, you're spoiled for choice. For starters, this very blog will keep on covering those that catch my eye, Tim's brilliant Independent Gaming will let you know about 99% of the newest releases, the Adventure Gamers Underground section, the AGS games pages, Adventure Developers, Erin's blog and the the Adventuress will go on discovering and reviewing them, and then there are the developers' websites like those of xii games, Herculean Effort, Wadjet Eye and Radical Poesis to search and savor.

<Intermission: In the unlikely case you've never played an adventure game and are thinking of having a try now that you 've just discovered the world of freeware, please, do not expect frantic action. Expect interesting stories, mainly 2D graphics, lots of puzzles, inventory manipulation and lots and lots of pointing and clicking at things. The mouse and a capacity for lateral thinking are your friends./>

Now, to get you started and playing the latest and probably the best, I can't help but suggest having a look at the linking epic that is my AGS Awards Winners 2006 post and the TOP 20 indy Adventures of 2006 as selected by Independent Gaming. Then, there's this short 'n' random selection of games, merely for illustration purposes:

What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed
Could you ever imagine EA coming up with a title like that? Or with a game simultaneously featuring two distinct stories? How about a hard brain twister? The most innovative adventure game of the past decade then? Of course not, and that's the beauty of it. Download Linus here.

Space Quest 0: Replicated
Not a huge admirer of fan creations based on existing games, but this one is a glowing exception. SQ 0 is an excellent, original and funny little game, complete with 16-colour EGA graphics and old-fashioned parser interface, in which -you know- you type stuff. Could have easily been a proper part of the SQ saga methinks. Download it here.

Now, for some adult-oriented entertainment. Missing is a gritty and beautifully illustrated adventure utilizing a simple ICOM-like point-and-click interface, that puts the players in the (probably) authoritarian shoes of a cop searching for his vanished wife and kid. Download it here.

Soviet Unterzoegersdorf
Quasi-political satire with photorealistic graphics and absurdist humor, this one features a socialist cop in an almost socialist fictional state surrounded by Fortress Europe. Also looks quite a bit like Gabriel Knight II. Download it here.

Nearly Departed
A game by John Green, a Disney illustrator, no less. Fantastic graphics, impressive cartoon quality animation, simple interface and a still unfinished but very playable and highly enjoyable adventure. Besides, it's the story of a reluctant zombie. Download it here.

Crafting, it's so easy.

Well, provided you can come up with some decent graphics, game design, animation and music, it is. Programming could come in handy too, but as creating your very own engine can be both difficult and time consuming, there are many -mostly freeware- tools/engines that only require a minimum of effort and programming skill. The list that follows will hopefully help you. As for Interactive Fiction (text-adventures) it will be covered some other time. For now have a look at this interesting i-f writing bit.

AGS, the hallowed Adventure Games Studio, is by far the most popular scripting and adventure game creation environment to date. Pretty easy to use, freeware, geared towards classic 2D point-and-click retro adventures and backed up by a huge vibrant community, it's probably where you should begin. Have a look.

LASSIE Adventure Studio, another free game creator, provides with the tools to create adventures in the classic Lucasarts style in Macromedia, Flash and Shockwave. Why not visit the LASSIE official site then?

The Wintermute Engine is slightly less easy to use a development environment, but with obvious 3D capabilities, impressive built-in graphical effects and high-tech tendencies. Quite the beast, really. Download it here.

Finally, and in a very blog-post ending way, you can also give the pretty excellent SLUDGE and Adventure Maker (also does PSP software, mind you!) tools a go. They are definitely worth your time. And mine.

Related @ Gnome's Lair: Resonance Dev Diarys, Fedora Spades, Blackwell Legacy demo, xii games interview

Jul 16, 2007

Chronicles from the Warzone issue 1 (PDF)

Back in 1996 when the Warzone sci-fi (with a healthy splash of fantasy) miniatures wargame was released, even Warhammer 40,000 was but a youngling. Yet, the later got featured heavily in the already established -since 1977- White Dwarf magazine. Not so, with Warzone and that's what led now defunct Target Games to release its very own miniatures mag: Chronicles from the Warzone.

The magazine eventually evolved and significantly grew to cover fantasy wargame Chronopia and a variety of other Target Games products, but its premier issue remains as important as any first issue could ever hope for. Grab it here for free in all its PDF 16-pages glory, gawk at the lovely pictures and get a taste of this lovely OOP game.

May the Cardinal of Luna protect you!

Related @ Gnome's Lair: White Dwarf issue 1, The Dragon issue 1, Warzone: an update, free PDF & e-books archive

Jul 14, 2007

Lovely Atari Jaguar Emulation

The Atari Jaguar, Atari's final, slightly buggy and very 64-bit console, has always been an obsession of mine, even though I never owned one. Still, I managed to be a console-less Atari fanboy and still proudly am. Sad, I know. Just like the Jaguar, really, which despite some excellent games like Aliens vs. Predator, Jeff Minter's Tempest 2000, Battlemorph and the original Rayman flopped impressively enough to seal Atari's coffin.

Yet, all is not lost. Rivendell (what?) still stands and the emulation scene has managed to decently emulate this most complicated of machines. All you have to do is follow this very link and download the freeware Virtual Jaguar, the best Jaguar emulator yet released. It can run most major games, many homebrew demos/games and even some of those rare Jaguar CD games. To grab a physical console you could do worse than hang around the Retro Treasures blog...

Related @ Gnome's Lair: Team 17's free Amiga games, Colecovision emulation & games, The Legend of Zelda retrospective DVD

Jul 13, 2007

Let's Play Walkthrough Archive

Keeping with the link stashing and late news reporting that is the pride and joy of this very blog, here's a little something I discovered via Game Set Watch: the hallowed Let's Play Archive. A place run by the notorious Something Awful goons and mostly offering video game play-throughs and walkthroughs. Of sorts. Or, to be slightly more precise, of the demented, hilarious yet sometimes astonishingly helpful and/or interesting sort.

To get an idea, start by reading the Mixed Up Mother Goose (a kids game by Sierra's Roberta Williams no less) entry, for she was really mixed up. Mixed up in something she couldn't handle. Something serious and there was only one person who could help her. No, it wasn't Link. Nor the Silent Hill chaps. It was a bloody Paladin! Go figure...

Related @ Gnome's Lair: The Wind That Shakes The Barley, a LotRO review, Fallout 2 bondage, 300: Sparta is YOU!

Jul 12, 2007

Vinyl Data: text-adventures & ZX Spectrum Games

I've always preferred LPs over CDs, you know, and that was ages before reading the Vinyl Data article by Kempa.com and finally finding out quite a few of them records came with some lovely hidden ZX Spectrum software on their tracks. Now, I'm beyond love. It's lust and I just have to search for the fabled contraption that will allow me to connect my turntable to the PC. Ahh, yes, lovely 8-bit programs encoded on vinyl and satanic Stranglers tapes, here I come... As for you dear readers, well, why not find out more?

Related @ Gnome's Lair: Resonance news, Sierra's Mystery House taken over, The ZX Spectrum documentary

Jul 11, 2007

World of Warcraft Gnomes horribly hurt...

A somewhat shadowy Gnome's Lair lurker and dear friend has pointed me towards this most shocking and vile bit of World of Warcraft news. Yes, friends and readers. It's true. Them appalling gold farmers have gone all appalling again and used dead (possibly brutalized; certain sources speak of sodomy too) gnome bodies to advertise their unwholesome gold selling URLs. Yes, despite Blizzard's new anti-spam technology. Here's the shocking video to shock you even more.

Related @ Gnome's Lair: Lord of the Rings Online review, MMO Gnome: WoW, How to run Warcraft III in widescreen

Jul 9, 2007

Duke Nukem 3D in true 3D & with high-res babes

We might never live to see the likes of Duke Nukem Forever, but by George we will have our ageing Duke Nukem 3D in glorious full 3D and in the high-resolutions its strippers were always meant to be enjoyed in! We will keep on mindlessly shooting stuff and playing one of the silliest -almost offensive- FPSs ever made, but this time around with the help of the latest free version of the Duke Nukem High-resolution pack. Download it here. Then keep waiting.

Related @ Gnome's Lair: Wolfenstein 3D lives, System Shock 2K7, Baldur's Gate in high-res

Jul 8, 2007

The Wind That Shakes The Barley

It's not often I mention movies in this blog, but, The Wind That Shakes The Barley by Ken Loach, a film I watched a mere few hours ago, was such a storytelling & visual masterpiece I just couldn't ignore it. So, please, bare with me as I incoherently rant, even though -hoping to keep you interested- not on the film's theme, neither on the struggle of the Irish people, nor on just how rare such great films have become. No, this a pure video games related rant.

You see, dear readers, The Wind That Shakes The Barley is a very strong and brutal film that poses -and only partly tries to answer- serious questions regarding politics, human weakness, morality, love, history, socialism, independence and war, but doesn't resort to a Hollywood-esque black or white point of view. It's instead a dialectical movie and watching it definitely can't be described as fun. Or entertainment. It's thought provoking, enraging, and one of those films that urge you on the streets to rectify society's evils, but definitely not fun in the mindless 300 way. Oh, and it got me thinking silly stuff, like when was the last time we saw a video game like this? Frankly? Never.

Video games are still far too un-evolved as a medium to tackle such issues or even attempt to enrage us, and as long as they remain in their sanitized mainstream environment, where corporate ideology reins with an iron fist, they'll always be all about shiny graphics, smart mechanics and cute plumbers jumping around surreal worlds. Their stories, even the rare good ones, will never dare challenge anything of any importance and most probably -as worldwide democracy seems to be suffering- turn into mere pathetic tools of an anti-Arab, anti-Left, gung-ho, sexist propaganda, or -at best- vaguely support such easy to manipulate ideals as the abstract and very obviously good freedom Jade is fighting for in Beyond Good and Evil. What's more, and with the notable exception of Deus Ex, games have yet to provide any real sense of involvement in any of their stories, let alone a sense of truly and meaningfully interacting with their plot; yet this has been technically feasible since the early 80s.

Now, try to imagine a video game version of The Wind That Shakes The Barley, that would attempt to truly immerse the player in its world. Imagine putting the player in a position to choose between compromising under the threat of annihilation and heroically but possibly without hope continuing his/her struggle in a world where no superhuman one-man-army heroes exist. Imagine having the player not only shoot enemies, but being forced to shoot a 16 year old traitor and childhood friend. Imagine willingly letting oneself be led to execution. In a game. Interesting, innit? And the possibilities would frankly be endless, what with the empathy the interactivity of the medium so readily provides...

Anyway, rant off. More elaborate thoughts might someday follow. Opinions?

Related @ Gnome's Lair: Discussing video game reviews, the Needle & Thread interface, Game Design Wikiversity

Jul 7, 2007

Max Payne 2 turns into a Street Fighter

Quite obvious what this is all about, innit? No? Oh! Well, it's all about a huge freeware mod that'll turn your stylish Max Payne 2 shooter into a very 3D version of the classic Street Fighter beat-'em-up. The mod features proper 1-on-1 fighting, 16 fully destructible fighting arenas, many moves, a plot (!) and some interesting unlockable extras. To download all 660Mb of it visit modDB.

For a lovely YouTube trailer do visit YouTube (astonishingly) and to remember just how brilliant Max Payne 2 was take a stroll around its official website. There's bound to be a demo lying around somewhere.

Related @ Gnome's Lair: UT2004 Hollow Moon, Unreal Tournament mods, The Kipper and the Corpse

Jul 6, 2007

Re: Call of Cthulhu Open RPG session

As quite a few brave scholars of the occult have already gathered (I'm looking at you Guttertalk, Elderly, Ithmeer and Father Krishna) and Open RPG remains as freeware as it used to, it's about time we get organized. You know, to have our first online RPG session, that is.

So, I suggest you all download the free Quick Start Cthulhu PDF booklet, have a quick read and if possible create a character, get yourselves a copy of Open RPG, try to get used to its interface and suggest a day and time (preferably next week) for our gaming session. Oh, and if anyone else would care to join, then -by all means- do let me know. Think we could accommodate one more gamer...

Related @ Gnome's Lair: An introduction to pen&paper RPGs, free RPG character sheets, Draconic for Dummies

Team 17 and a (virtual) load of free Amiga games

When I posted about those lovely commercial games gone freeware, I admittedly only focused on the PC gaming scene. Obviously, that was quite the wrong choice, for I absolutely missed all those classic and -dare I say- unsurpassed 16-bit Commodore Amiga games released by Team 17 during the 90s. Games like Alien Breed, Overdrive, Body Blows, Project X, Superfrog and of course Worms, that have now happily gone all freeware (in a very legal way, mind you) and are available for download over at the excellent Dream17 website.

All you have to do to is download the disk images of your choice, load em up using an Amiga emulator and either remember the brilliant 16-bit days or find out a bit about video gaming history. For an excellent, even though commercial emulator, I can't help but suggest Amiga Forever. UAE, an open-source free alternative available here, is also a more than decent option, provided you have access to the original Kickstart ROM.

Related @ Gnome's Lair: The World of Padman, Colecovision emu & games, Vectrex retro gaming

Jul 5, 2007

Resonance Dev Diary #2: xii games shows more

When this very blog, this humblest of Lairs, this tiniest of (little) web-worms and of course I, your very naked host, first reported that Vince Twelve of xii games had assembled a talented team and announced the development of the Resonance adventure game, I was sure it was going to be another highly innovative piece of interactive entertainment. The man after all more than knows what he's doing and is not afraid to experiment with new ideas. Also, he was kind enough to actually post his second Developer's Diary, where the innovative nature of the project was finally revealed.

Resonance, you see, besides featuring some (allegedly) ueber-sexy 2D graphics and hopefully (allegedly too) plot-integrated puzzles with multiple solutions, will have three inventories. Yes, three! One is your standard, tried-and-true, bottomless inventory as SCUMM first taught mankind, the second inventory is your short-term memory and the third one your long-term memory. Interesting, innit?

To find out how said inventories interact, along with a few things about the way dialogue will be handled in Resonance and quite frankly everything else the developer has to say, well, you know where to click, don't you? It's quite a read, really.

Related @ Gnome's Lair: Mystery House Taken Over, Vince xii interview, Ron Gilbert & Penny Arcade: the video game

Jul 4, 2007

At last! Gnomes get their free gaming files stash.

Hosting files can be quite a fuss, so, I ...uhh... went on and created Gnome's Lair: The Files a cozy little site that will be (actually already is) the home of every PDF, mp3, game or other freebie I will have to upload for your gaming pleasure and can't be directly linked to from this very blog. Have a look and expect some new freeware gaming content soon.

Related @ Gnome's Lair: @roguelike: the magazine, Neil Gaiman's I Cthulhu, Discovering Retro Treasures

It's no CCG, it's Castle Wars and it's free

Caste Wars is a freeware online game squarely aimed at the CCG (that's Collectible Card Games) crowd, but also a deceptively easy way for beginners to start mastering the intricacies and logic behind Magic the Gathering or any other game of this ilk they might be interested in. Then again, Castle Wars could also be described as a perfectly simple, yet quite deep and addictive, online turn-based strategy game, that sports some decent AI and a lively community to play against.

The purpose of the game is to either be the first to be build a 100 storey castle or be the first to level your opponent's. All you have to do is wisely choose which card to play or discard per round. Sounds easy? Do try Castle Wars then and see just how good you are at managing sorcerers, builders and knights while attacking with crystal-fed dragons.

Related @ Gnome's Lair: The World of Padman FPS, Commercial games gone freeware, Reunion, free RPGs

Jul 3, 2007

The Sierra Mystery House Occupation

It was only a few days ago when Greece's democratic tradition finally went on and shot itself in the foot for the last time before shamefully (limping too, obviously) departing for the land of the faeries. You see, occupying any public building is now considered an act of terror, whereas this is definitely not. Anyway, this ain't a political blog, let's lighten it up. The summer is definitely here after all and there are thousands of acres of burning forest to show for it and rejoice.

Adding to the post-solstice festivities and overall happiness, the obviously terrorist organization known only as the MHTO Occupation Force, has gone and acted all subversive by reverse-engineering Mystery House, ruthlessly occupying it and providing the unruly masses with a way to tamper, upgrade, parody, enhance, change, edit and freely distribute modded versions of this very classic game. Bah! Bloody communists. See their disgrace over at their ungodly lair.

Now, in case you, yes you terrorist scum, have no idea what Mystery House is all about, then you'd better know it was the first ever text-adventure (interactive fiction) to feature graphics. And it was released by Sierra back in 1980 when the company's name was Sierra On-Line. Oh, and it was developed by Roberta Williams herself in all its haunted house black and white glory. Enjoy.

Related @ Gnome's Lair: Fedora Spades, Indy adventures for the masses, Text is King, 2006 AGS Awards

Jul 1, 2007

MMO Gnome. Intermission. The Lord of the Rings Online Shadows of Angmar Review.

The Lord of the Rings spawned everything from RPGs, to Orcs, Hobbits, Ents, enchanted rings, magical swords, names like Narsil, Iluvatar or Nalroth, Elven and Dwarven stereotypes -you name it- thus effectively shaping the whole fantasy genre us gamers, film-goers and readers have come to love and cherish (in a very cuddly, very manly way). The Lord of the Rings, you see, is the original, the archetype, the book that bloody sold more than 100.000.000 copies, and now, after an even broader popularization through Peter Jackson's okayish movies, it's gone all MMO, or to be more specific all MMORPG.

The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar (hence LotRO), for obviously this is said MMORPG's full title, is the first fantasy game of its kind that just cannot be characterized as generic. Why? Carefully reread the paragraph above and you'll see why. Also, it's quite simply the best online RPG I've ever played and the first one I truly enjoyed for more than a week, let alone the first game I feel like paying a monthly fee for. Oh, and so you know, even though I'm not one of those lost fanatics speaking Quenya and dressing up in fancy elven suits, I'm quite enamored with the Professor's works. To be honest, and to make a another pretty obvious point, I'll let you in on a sad little secret. This game made me start reading the original trilogy all over again. Yes, for the fourth time wasting time in my life, but thankfully in a brilliant edition I had the foresight of buying myself quite a few years ago.

Hobbits love the countryside, apparently.

Anyway, I digress. The truly important thing in LotRO and its major triumph is that it could have gone so terribly wrong in so many ways and it just didn't. It's extremely faithful to the original work, uninfluenced by the sacrilegious film-plot, filled with details that will delight every aspiring Arda lore master, avoids most well-documented MMO pitfalls known to man, features an almost intuitive interface -say- a WoW player will immediately understand, has no bugs or lag to speak of, great music and some absolutely brilliant graphics. Let me say that again: absolutely brilliant graphics. Totally above anything seen in any MMORPG, filled with beautiful day-night transitions, excellent fantasy architecture, high-res textures and little touches like falling leaves or random flocks of flying birds. What's more, a mid-range PC with a half-decent graphics card and 1 Giga of memory should be more than enough.

Consequently, exploring the vast richness of Middle Earth (the parts currently available, at least), which, let's face it, remains light years ahead of any generic fantasy setting the competition has to offer, both in terms of depth and literary quality, is first of all a visual joy. Over a hundred screenshots taken by me while gaming with my main characters (a 15th level hobbit guardian and a 13th level Elf lore-master) are a testament to LotRO's beauty. The damned thing made me feel like a tourist. Probably would make for a great Middle Earth geography learning tool too, even though the world isn't 100% accurate, as it's been obviously and frankly wisely altered for gameplay needs. A 20 day walk from Hobbiton to Bree would have been admittedly boring. Then again, actually visiting Bree and having a beer in the Prancing Pony is quite a Tolkien fanatic's wet-dream come true.

A cute elf. Next to the sea, no less.

Bree at night. Obvious, ain't it?

Besides exploring and being all LotR happy, of course, there's the game itself to have fun with, which -while definitely not perfect- comes quite close to being the pinnacle of contemporary MMOs. Players get to choose between the four good races (Humans, Hobbits, Elfs, Dwarfs), a variety of classes from burglars, guardians (tanks), hunters and minstrels to champions and lore-masters, even though thankfully no wizard class has been made available -Gandalf was quite a rarity you see, a roleplaying or normal server and set off for virtual glory in typical MMORPG fashion. Everything you'd expect is there: quests, raids, crafting possibilities, huge vistas filled with critters for the grinders, levels to be reached and gold to be treasured or even sold for real money.

Three dungeon-running hobbits. Deadly.

The meat of the game are the quests, be they epic -thus advancing the main storyline, instanced, local, crafting or plain silly, like running drunk around the taverns of western Middle Earth. Despite quite a few quirkier -timed, even- quests such as running a postman's errands or avoiding certain characters have been included, it's the quality of the standard fetch and kill quests that manage to raise the level of the playing experience. Every one of them, and there are hundreds, is brilliantly written and quite verbose convincingly conveying the world's history and offering glimpses at the actual Lord of the Rings events. LotRO feels like playing through an unfolding story. You'll get to unearth seemingly unimportant conspiracies in the Shire, visit farmer Maggot, uncover a fake Black Rider, barely avoid a proper one, help two Elven brothers see each others point, raid a spider infested mine, try to bring peace between dwarfs and elves, hear a rumour or two about Sharkey and team up with the Rangers of the North to defeat them pesky goblins. All, in glorious prose and in full accordance with the overall works of Tolkien.

Yet, the game still remains a pretty standard MMO in the World of Warcraft gameplay mould. The major, definitely not groundbreaking, innovations LotRO introduces are the Deeds-Titles system, the Fellowship mechanic, a unique way to PvP and the ability each player has been granted to play some proper music in-game and smoke pipeweed. Now, to elaborate a bit:

  • Deeds and their accompanying titles (mind you, not all titles are deeds related; some can also be proof of heritage like Nalroth of Rivendell or Adelecar of the Fallohides) such as Wolf-tamer, Webslasher or Protector of the Shire are gained by killing loads of some particular beastie, fully exploring certain areas of the game world (e.g. discovering every titular farm of the Shire) or overusing an ability, and provide a variety of bonuses and interesting character customization options that have nothing to do with your level or class.

  • Fellowships, on the other hand, are something more anti-social gamers won't be particularly interested in. They are the groups characters organize in, in order to pull through a more difficult quest, and do grant quite a few bonuses like the pretty excellent Fellowship maneuvers; special attacks only available to groups.

  • Instead of proper PvP, a decision Tolkien surely wouldn't have been overjoyed with, you get the nice option of Monster Play in the rather barren Ettenmoors. Reach level ten, find a fell scrying pool (personally used a lovely one over at Thorin's Gate) and you'll get the chance to play as a level 50 orc/warg/spider (more baddies to be added soon) against high level players in a dynamic PvP campaign. It's the freeps versus the creeps.

Orcs doing what they do best: attacking stuff

Truth is, I could go on and ramble about a thousand other little things, you know, if only to come up with the mother of all blog-based reviews, and I wouldn't have even managed to scratch the surface of what a magnificent beast LotRO is. Things like the recent Solstice Festival, the raising difficulty of quest as one progresses eastward, destiny points, the amazingly detailed beginner's quests (instanced) & areas, the sheer number of available emotes, the immensely helpful community are all there for you to discover, but -as expected- not all is perfect. LotRO is still very young by MMORPG terms. Monsters have serious clipping issues, the combat is not very tactical and, despite a huge gaming world, not all of Middle Earth is yet available. Oh, and it's as expensive as WoW; definitely much better though. Still, an absolute must-try.

That's a (nine) out of (ten).

Related @ Gnome's Lair: MMO Gnome: World of Warcraft, Urban Legend review, from CRPG to RPG, reviews archive