A Valley Without Wind Review

As someone who cut his gaming teeth on 2D platformers like Manic Miner and Adventure Island in the 1980s, I was looking forward to losing myself in A Valley Without Wind. On paper, at least, there’s a lot to love here. Nostalgia-laden platformer mechanics rub shoulders with “procedurally generated worlds” in Arcen Games’ new creation, and a dizzying array of craftable spells trade nervous glances with playable characters that permanently die. It’s a fantastic concept that screams of the flashes of indie genius we’ve come to enjoy in recent years, but in execution it plays like a rough draft that’s unable to wiggle out from under the weight of its own ambition.

There’s not much of a story in A Valley Without Wind aside from a block of text that boasts a variation of the usual post-apocalyptic babble, partly because each game begins with a randomly generated world in the spirit of Minecraft and Terraria. That might be nice for players wishing to experience new and unfamiliar landscapes with each playthrough, but it also means that the almost nonexistent narrative limits itself to vague references to evil overlords out of necessity. As a “glyphbearer,” it’s your job to scrounge around the shattered husk of the world for resources and the occasional survivor to build up settlements, and once you’ve finally done all that and beaten the bad guy, you do it all again on another continent. Let’s admit it: when the world around you is called “Environ,” story’s probably not going to be a major selling point.

Instead, much of the game’s charm rests on its retro visuals and audio. A Valley Without Wind looks so “Metroidvania” that you could probably swap the randomly generated avatars you choose from after each death with Simon Belmont’s original model and no one would be the wiser, and most levels feature music that sounds like it came from discarded drafts for the score to Mega Man 2. In fact, the eclectic art style comes off as an homage to those golden years of platforming, with building entrances that perform like those in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link to blocky interiors that look like they were borrowed from the castle levels in Super Mario Bros.

At times, though, it’s frankly jarring. Part of Valley’s block of story states that a cataclysm shuffled eras of time so they exist at once in the same world, but when you jump from futuristic villages with decent textures into simplistic dungeons that look like they were transposed from 1985’s Gauntlet, you could be forgiven for thinking they meant eras of video game history as well. At the very least, it makes for ugly settings; at the worst, some of the enemies almost disappear into the shoddier backgrounds.

That might have been a problem if so many of these baddies didn’t look the same. There are plenty of bats and the occasional rhino lurking about Environ, but most of the time you’ll be fighting goons like slender robots or floating blobs of liquid. I’m not saying floating spheres can’t be scary (cue: “That’s no moon!”), but when one hovers toward you with a name like “Oldsto the Warlock,” it’s worth wondering if some dude with a skull-capped staff and a demon sidekick wouldn’t have done a better job. They’re not even all that challenging once you learn a few tricks. Since one of your key abilities lets you place wooden platforms anywhere at will, you can just make one above you and fire down on the robots below. As for blobs like Oldsto? Just keep moving, avoid their ranged spells, and blast them with ranged skills of your own while you bounce around.

The good news is that you have plenty of things to blast them with. One of the big selling points of Valley is that it allows for a ridiculous number of spells. You can throw rocks if that’s your thing, or you can fling fireballs and shoot lightning bolts. That’s exciting in theory, but in practice you’ll likely only use about three good ones most of the time and switch out when you find enemies with immunities to certain spells. At times, enemies that weren’t immune before become immune for the rest of the game. Kill enough bats, for example, and all future bats become flame-immune “fire bats,” which means that calling down a meteor shower on them has all the effect of using a feather to stop a freight train. If you find that you don’t have the spell you need, you’re expected to retreat and explore levels for rare materials that can be used to make new spells.

That exploration lies at the heart of A Valley Without Wind, and it’s where you’ll find the most fun–that is, if mining nodes for hours on end without much knowledge of where the right ones are sounds exciting. Unfortunately, these subterranean expeditions also showcase the shortcomings of marrying platformer gameplay with randomly generated levels. Platformers work best when there’s a grand design behind them, and Valley’s rambling open spaces and hodgepodge of caverns never reach the glory of carefully planned stages in games like Outland or Super Meat Boy. The very continents are random, and they unfurl on blocky maps with the titular windstorms deciding where you can travel.

There’s a constant tease in play here since you can access the lair of a continent’s evil overlord at any time, only to find that advancement is impossible because you don’t have the proper abilities. The same holds true for most of the regular levels as well. Indeed, much of what counts as progression in Valley consists of coming back to areas you’ve already visited with new spells and seeing if you’re ready for them, which you may not even know until you reach a crushing difficulty spike midway through a level.

You’ll usually die in these cases, and the game’s multiple achievements for getting yourself killed prove that this is exactly what’s supposed to happen. That sounds ominous, but it’s not all that bad aside from running the risk of battling the angry ghosts of the fellows you let die, which adds a extra touch of difficulty to the scenario that killed you in the first place. Your new character has all the same spells as the last one did (but not the upgrades); you’ll just have a different name and different stats. More than a mere inconvenience, the design discourages you from the trial-and-error suicide runs in other platformers and forces you to look elsewhere for advancement, as in simple quests or missions against mini bosses that grant civilization points so you can nab better spells and tackle harder areas with greater ease.

The whole process gets rather tedious when you’re alone, but the online multiplayer mode livens things up a bit. Here you can chat and tackle obstacles with other players (with the caveat that enemies scale according to how many players are around), although you might have a problem finding them since the infinitesimal level map used for quick travel merely gives a general idea of their location. When you finally find them, however, it plays sort of like a primitive MMORPG, right down to concerns of “ninja looting” since drops always go to the first person that picked them up. IGN Ratings for A Valley Without Wind (PC)Presentation
Menus are somewhat intuitive, but navigating the mini map for quick travel is a chore.Graphics
Mismatched textures and art styles create a general feeling of inconsistency.Sound
The stylized 8-bit score has an allure of its own, even though it gets a bit repetitive.Gameplay
The robust spell system has potential, but the random level generation grows boring.Lasting Appeal

A Valley Without Wind Review


Black Ops II Zombies Teased

The official Call of Duty Twitter feed has revealed the first image teasing the return of zombies in Call of Duty: Black Ops II. The picture shows a woman resting a shotgun over her shoulder, holding a skull out in front of her, accompanied by the tagline, “Zombies are coming… Where’s your shotgun?”

Developer Treyarch first introduced Nazi Zombies – a survival horde mode – in Call of Duty: World at War, before making it bigger and better in the first Black Ops. While no specifics have been revealed about the zombie mode in Black Ops 2, Mark Lamia, Studio Head at Treyarch, said “If you like zombies you’re going to be really happy with what we’re doing with Black ops II. It’s our biggest, most ambitious zombies ever”.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II was officially unveiled earlier this week and promises to reinvigorate the series with a futuristic setting and strong narrative. Read IGN’s in-depth preview and make sure you know everything about Call of Duty: Black Ops II by checking out its Wiki page.

Black Ops II Zombies Teased

Building The Elder Scrolls Online

The Elder Scrolls Online PC Release Date: TBA 2013 More Info Exclusively on: PC
Genre: Persistent Online RPG
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: ZeniMax Online Studios

The reaction to the first screenshot of ZeniMax Online Studios’ upcoming The Elder Scrolls Online was not overwhelmingly positive for a few reasons. Its art style doesn’t scream Elder Scrolls, really, and series fans have a lot of expectations about exploration, combat and story for an online version of a beloved role-playing franchise that’s been defiantly single-player since its inception.

Is it possible to retain many of The Elder Scrolls’ strengths in an online environment? That was the topic brought up by Game Informer in an interview with Paul Sage, creative director at ZeniMax Online Studios.

“We have to make our own game,” said Sage. “We want to make a good game first. Not a good MMO, not a good Elder Scrolls game, we want to make a good game first, a great experience for the player.”

From Daedric princes to providing plenty of reasons to explore to including raids and end game player versus player combat, Sage and ZeniMax Online are trying to strike a tricky balance between Elder Scrolls touchstones and traditional MMO mechanics.

When it comes to modding, hugely popular with Skyrim, Sage said, “Right now we don’t have a large modding plan. We do have plans for things like our UI, allowing the community to look at the UI and say ‘Ok, what changes would I make?’ There are definite ways the community is going to be able to change their game experience, but you have to be really careful with this because you can’t allow players to change other players’ game experiences or they get a little upset with you.

Building The Elder Scrolls Online

MacGuffin’s Curse Review

It all starts off with a museum heist gone wrong, a cursed medallion, and one man’s effort to feed and clothe his destitute family. While that sounds like the setup for some desperate Leonardo di Caprio crime drama, it’s actually the backdrop for MacGuffin’s Curse, a thoroughly upbeat, and sometimes silly puzzle game. While it shares some elements with the graphic adventure genre, including conversation trees, a cohesive storyline, and recurring characters, at its heart MacGuffin’s Curse is a fairly straightforward, room-by-room puzzler.

“Straightforward” shouldn’t be confused with “simple,” though. MacGuffin’s Curse begins with a pretty easy level of difficulty, but gets increasingly dastardly pretty quickly. Essentially, you’re presented with a single room at a time, and usually have to unlock a door so you can progress (a la Portal). Sceneries change from museums to junkyards to everything in between, but the basic challenge will remain the same. MacGuffin’s Curse relies on the titular “curse” for most of its puzzles: early in the game the main character will put on an amulet that allows him to shapeshift into a huge werewolf when standing in specific, “moonlight” squares. Not much of a curse when you can do it essentially at will, but the upshot is that as a human you have dexterous fingers to work control panels and such, and can fit through narrow gaps. As a werewolf, you’re strong enough to push heavy objects, and scary enough to intimidate guards, opening up new pathways.

You’ll need to shapeshift your way through a variety of puzzles, making sure that you don’t get caught up by trapping yourself somewhere as a human when you’ll need werewolf strength to get out, or vice versa (you can always restart a room with the click of a button). As you progress MacGuffin’s Curse cleverly and rationally builds challenges based on what you’ve already learned to overcome. You’ll encounter steel boxes, for example, that even the werewolf isn’t strong enough to pull, and can only be pushed; or moats of water that the wolf form can’t traverse, but the human form can easily swim through. As the types of puzzle elements increase, the complexity of each puzzle room does, too. By the end of the game, you’ll be facing some real head scratchers, although you can call a mysterious detective pal for hints (or even skip rooms entirely if you’re really stuck).

The truth is, though, you don’t need hints if you’re willing to put in some trial-and-error time. While the puzzles in MacGuffin’s Curse can be extremely clever and intricate, the single-room nature of most of them means that you’re pretty much assured of figuring them out eventually if you try enough stuff. There’s only so many buttons to push and batteries to drag into sockets, after all. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, brute force has its uses, but it does take away some of the sense of challenge and it gives the gameplay a grinding feel after a while, without enough reward at the end.

Although speaking of rewards, MacGuffin’s Curse does offer you plenty of bells and whistles around the puzzles themselves, including an extensive mini-game in which you’ll search for hidden treasures in puzzle rooms. These treasures can then be used to purchase amenities for your poor-as-dirt family – there’s nothing quite like seeing your little red-headed daughter’s eyes light up when you’re finally able to afford a ratty kitchen table for her to eat on. You’ll also get plenty of interesting third-parties (sometimes helpful, sometimes not) to interact with, and an occasional funny one-liners (plenty of groaners, too) really flesh these interactions out. These “extras” placed around the main puzzle element do wonders to keep you emotionally invested in what’s going on, and help elevate MacGuffin’s Curse above a basic point-and-click experience. One thing you don’t get much of is music, though. MacGuffin’s Curse’s soundtrack is understated to say the least, so make sure to dust off your CD collection if you want some auditory diversion. IGN Ratings for MacGuffin’s Curse (PC)Presentation
MacGuffin’s Curse does a good job of building a story and setting around its otherwise conventional puzzle elements.Graphics
Graphically this isn’t one to write home about. It’s strictly 2D, and the art, especially the sparse animation, is far from museum quality.Sound
There’s not much music here, but the sound effects aren’t terrible, and they logically cue you as to what effect you’ve just had on the puzzle screen you’re on.Gameplay
Some very cleverly laid out puzzles in here, although the game tends to use a couple of core mechanics as a crutch.Lasting Appeal
This is a game best played in short bursts, and there’s a lot of it.

.MacGuffin’s Curse Review

MechWarrior Online: A Thinking Person’s Shooter

MechWarrior Online: A Thinking Person’s Shooter – PC Preview

MechWarrior franchise with the CryEngine 3 driven, free-to-play MechWarrior Online. The first officially licensed MechWarrior game since MechWarrior 4, Online brings back the slower, more methodical combat fans of the previous MechWarrior titles came to love — and have sorely missed.

Watch a MechWarrior Online Video Preview
MechWarrior Online places two teams of up to 12 players in large outdoor arena environments, tasking them with taking each other out or capturing the enemy base. True to the Battletech universe, fan-favorite machines like the Atlas, Hunchback and more return (albeit with some artistic license to make them feel modernized), and gameplay still revolves around a mix of light simulation and arcade shooting action..

While MechWarrior is first person (intentionally, because they don’t want you to sneak views around rocks and barriers by rotating a third-person camera), the combat is vastly different from any other shooter out right now. MechWarrior combat is slower than most shooters, emphasizing skilled maneuvering and an intense knowledge of your machine’s capabilities over twitch shooting and whip-crack reaction times.

Mechs are gigantic machines, and MechWarrior Online’s pacing reflects their immensity. Some mechs move fast, but every step they take still feels meaty, immersing you in the idea that you’re piloting a gargantuan vehicle. Torsos also rotate independently of legs, lending mechs a very tank-like feel that makes the decision to move a much bigger commitment. For instance you might decide to take your big, bulky mech into a tight ravine, but if you get attacked from behind you’ll need to decide if you’re going to arduously turn around or just run forward while rotating your torso to the side to avoid rear armor damage. Battles aren’t about who can quickly run in and out of cover, or pop up for a perfectly timed headshot, but instead involve intense back-and-forths where mechs lumber out from behind cover, try and outflank one another and use jump jets to get to higher ground. Even the lightest mech has armor plating, so battles are never a matter of seconds, but rather multi-minute skirmishes where you have to constantly adapt your strategy based on a variety of factors.

For instance you have to consider what sort of mechs you’re facing, as well as what your own team’s composition is. While they obviously become bigger and heavier as you move from light to assault, this doesn’t always equate to better. Bigger, more heavily armored mechs are laborious to move compared to scouts, and as such scouts can actually wreak havoc on “stronger” foes. Scouts may not kill heavy mechs, but they can soften up specific points, and also spot them before using jump jets and flying up over a hill.

Cycle weapons or you’ll overheat.
The usefulness scouts play in spotting showcases role warfare, a feature Piranha considers a “pillar” of MechWarrior Online’s gameplay. The goal in MechWarrior Online isn’t to just ramp up to the biggest mech you can find, but to feel useful in the role you like to play. For instance scouts gain points and experience for any damage they deal as well as the enemies they reveal. Revealing enemies allows long range attacks from lightly armored, artillery-like mechs. The bulk of the battlefield will likely be made up of medium mechs, though, slower bruisers that can take and dish out a decent amount of damage. These forces will do the pushes, working in conjunction with support classes and relying on ultra-heavy assault mechs to break through enemy lines. Heavy mechs might get more kills, but their slow pace won’t help them if they need to get back to base and save it from being captured by a clever scout.

Perfecting your mech’s loadout and developing a keen eye for what others have makes up another huge component of a savvy pilot. Between battles you can return to the MechLab, where you can buy new mechs and customize the ones you own. At some point you’ll also be able to tailor your pilot’s abilities, becoming a master of a specific type of mech, or putting points into abilities that make you even better at the type of role you typically play in the battlefield. When it comes to customizing your mech, the biggest thing you have to consider is the maximum tonnage of your chassis, since everything you add to it puts on additional weight. Additional consideration also goes into what hard points the mech has, since you can’t equip a projectile weapon on an energy weapon slot, or vice-a-versa.

Working within these limits, it’s up to you to craft a mech that suits your playstyle and that makes efficient use of heat. You can equip a mech with a host of weapons, but if you aren’t efficient at managing heat you’ll be forced to shut down. To combat this you have to assign your weapons into groups, alternating between them to keep weapons ready while others are on cooldown. Even if you switch regularly between weapons, you still have to carefully manage heat or else face a forced shutdown right in the middle of a fight (which can change the entire course of a fight). You can add heatsinks to your mech to combat heat, as well as look for a pool of water to run in and cool off.

Once you have a good balance of heat-management, equipment and are within tonnage limits, you have to also consider where weapons are placed. A mech with arms can aim them independently of where their body is facing, but limbs can also be shot off and often take a lot of fire. Guns that utilize projectiles also need to have ammo slotted in, and if that portion of the mech is damaged the ammo can explode. It’s a lot to take in when determining how to create your own mech, but being able to identify weapons and their location is important when determining where to shoot an enemy.

Put bullets in a leg or chest plate; customize armor placement.
MechWarrior Online makes every action you take feel more important than other shooters, and no one should confuse the experience it offers with other first-person games. You’re controlling a massive, multi-ton vehicle engineered to take a beating and keep on standing, and maneuvering it and using it effectively requires a different skill set than what you’re likely used to. If the role warfare stuff continues to come together well (none of the experience progression and unique pilot abilities are implemented yet), this could be the triumphant return for one of the most beloved PC franchises.

MechWarrior Online: A Thinking Person’s Shooter

The Old Republic: New Playable Races We Want

The Star Wars universe is massive. Aside from the six films, there are umpteen books, games and comics that are officially part of the canon. The sheer scope of the mythology makes it rather hard to accurately prophecy what might be coming for Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWtOR) in future updates but it does give us more than ample scope for some wild speculation and wishful thinking.

SWtOR runs with a hybrid approach to races – rather than simply taking an “equal and opposite” approach like World of Warcraft or a straight universal approach in which any faction can employ any playable race, it instead merges the two approaches, with races that cross the faction divide as well as species that are unique (outside of Legacy rewards) to the faction. We’ve taken a similar approach to come up with these suggestions for races we’d love to see incorporated into the game.

With the possible exception of the Sith Pureblood (though all those face spikes could be a turn on for some people), all of the current races available to play in Star Wars: The Old Republic are kind of pretty. They’re near human enough to be all but identical aside from a few facial protrusions, tattoos or lekku. It’s time for a change.

Imperial: Noghri

All of the Imperial races in SWtOR are humanoid or near human for one simple reason – the Galactic Empire is resolutely humanocentric, but that doesn’t stop them from interacting with or employing non-human allies. Through the movies and the extended universe of the books, games and comics, the Empire is shown time and time again employing alien bounty hunters, assassins, bodyguards and specialists.

The Noghri are a short, grey skinned reptilian race renowned for their sense of honour, olfactory ability and physical prowess – think of them like small scaly Wookies and you’re on the right track. The species was first introduced in The Thrawn Trilogy extended universe novels by Timothy Zahn, a series that also introduced the Chiss, one of the playable Imperial races, lending a little extra weight to the prediction. The Noghri home planet of Honoghr could also potentially serve as an interesting new world to explore. A single super-continent dominates the planet and, more importantly, the planet was once in the thrall of the Infinite Empire, a galaxy spanning dictatorship lorded over by the Rakata, a supposedly extinct race introduced as a potential ongoing problem through a quest line on Tatooine.

Republic: Barabel

Though slightly larger than the Noghri, the Barabel race features a similar reptilian morphology and penchant for strong codes of honour. Barabel revere and all but worship Jedi thanks to a legend that tells of an Ithorian Jedi who helped end a millennium spanning civil war. Barabel are ideally suited to any physical pursuit, making them perfect for Troopers, Jedi Sentinels or even Smuggler Scoundrels. Around the time that SWtOR is set, both the Republic and Imperium have a presence on Barab 1, the former with Jedi diplomats and negotiators, the latter with planet-wide safaris in which the Barabel people are hunted for sport.

Imperial: Gand

Although the Geonosians played a large role in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and have appeared in a number of games, including The Old Republic, they were far from the first insectoid race to appear in the Star Wars Canon. That honour went to the Gand, a race introduced by little more than a few seconds of footage showing a fly-headed alien in robes standing next to a robot in The Empire Strikes Back.

Gand are divided into two main subspecies: those with lungs suited to the ammonia-rich atmosphere of Gand (the planet and race share a name) and those without any lungs at all. Gand without lungs are capable of functioning in any environment, making them perfect for player characters. Although travelling Gand are usually Findsmen (a kind of spiritualist bounty hunter that track prey by analysing the curls of ammonia vapour in the Gand atmosphere) they have the potential to fill most roles in the Imperium.

Republic: Verpine

Tall hermaphroditic bipedal insects with an aptitude for technology and a yen for pacifism, the Verpine have played a large role in Galactic society from the very early days, creating starships for both the Empire and the Republic. Though generally pacifist in nature and not formally aligned with either faction, the Verpine show a sympathy towards the Republic (and later the Rebel Alliance) throughout canon. Although their slight build doesn’t exactly make them ideal Troopers, Verpine would be perfectly suited to any other role in the Republic forces. Any player that might get a little weirded out by playing a hermaphrodite needn’t worry too much – although they carry the reproductive traits of both genders, each individual Verpine chooses to identify as either male or female.
While most races are immediately identifiable, the natural appearance of some is shrouded in mystery thanks to the encounter suits they constantly wear to protect them from toxic atmospheres, unfamiliar gravities or the prying eyes of others.

Imperial: Ubese

Boushh, a bounty hunter, is probably the most famous Ubese in the galaxy, but unfortunately he’s not famous because of his own actions but rather those of Princess Leia, who disguised herself as Boushh to infiltrate Jabba’s Palace and rescue Han Solo. Graceful near humans with large eyes and underdeveloped vocal chords, the Ubese are known mostly for their breathing masks, battle armours and a seething hatred for most other life forms. This disdain for life makes them perfect bounty hunters and assassins, as well as potential Sith – their hatred for most everything is strong enough that it would definitely cause the Emperor to crack a smile.

Republic: Skakoan

Alfonso Dominico Jones the Skakoan.The Skakoan are a near human species from the planet Skako. Due to the extremely high gravity of Skako, Skakoans are unable to travel to other systems without the aid of ornate pressure suits. Although never officially aligned with the Republic, the Skakoans have a history of being persecuted by the humanocentric Empire, making them potential allies at best, uneasy bedfellows at worst. Although the armoured suits of the Skakoan are intimidating, they are more akin to space suits than actual armour, essentially putting the race on the same level playing field as the others. As near humans, Skakoan have the potential to fill any role in the game.
The Star Wars franchise has never been particularly sure about the status of Droids (short for androids) but all signs seem to point to them being sentient beings, as there is both a tradition of independent Droids, such as the Imperial assassin Droid cum robot supremacist, IG-88 and the protocol Droid turned bounty hunter, 4-LOM, as well as numerous references to restraining bolts, devices that limit a Droid’s self motivation, forcing them to perform the tasks they are designated by their owner. The Old Republic also has ample examples of Droids free of restraining bolts following their own desires, with the companion characters M1-4X, T7-01 and Scorpio. Without the limitations of a restraining bolt, the potential of a Droid character is the same as any other sentient species, enabling them to function in either faction and as any class in the game – and that includes the force sensitive Jedi and Sith classes. How? Well, there are two potential ways to feature force sensitive Droids in the Star Wars universe. 4-LOM, IG-88 and an Iron Knight. A space boy band just waiting to happen.
The first, and most unlikely way to introduce Jedi robots stems from an eight page, non-canonical story featured in the first issue of the Star Wars Tales comic. Written by Peter David, Skippy the Jedi Droid tells the story of a force wielding astromech Droid who convinces Uncle Owen to buy him, but after having a vision of the future uses his force powers to cause his motivator to blow so Owen and Luke would be forced to buy R2-D2 and C-3PO instead.

The second, and far more likely way to integrate force sensitive Droids into SWtOR is a bit of a cheat. There exists in the Star Wars extended universe a species of sentient crystals known as the Shard. In their natural state, the Shard are immobile, but after making contact with human explorers some Shard volunteered to be separated from their colonies and placed in droid bodies, enabling them to explore the galaxy. The Iron Knights, a group of Shard Jedi that first appeared in Star Wars Missions #14 (the Missions books were Star Wars themed Choose Your Own Adventure-style series), so it’s not too much of a stretch to extrapolate Sith counterparts.

The Old Republic: New Playable Races We Want