Sunday, August 22, 2010

10 Tries to get past Samantha Swift and the Fountains of Fate

If you're a fan of hidden object games from Big Fish Games Homepage, you may have noticed that some of their third-party partnership games have been buggy. I have just done the match-2 crate puzzle in Samantha Swift and the Fountains of Fate about ten times. Each time, I encountered a "negative time delta" error message and crash to desktop. Finally, it seemed that switching to full screen fixed it.

Apprently the previous games were similarly buggy, although I did not experience it as severely as others have (possibly playing in full screen does help in general).

If you're not keen on struggling through intermittent crashes, you may want to hold off buying a game and instead keep an eye on the Big Fish Games forums. Here's the technical issues forum for Samantha Swift and the Fountains of Fate.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Oblivion Mod Review - The Halls of Fortitude

Mod Review - The Halls of Fortitude
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Overall:Interesting sights to see. Layout designed to waste your time. Use a teleport-spell mod like SN Mark Recall.

Why You Would Download This: Curious sights here and there give interestingness to an otherwise tedious dungeon. Adventure design elements can be interesting if you are in the mood for the challenges that it provides, otherwise just tedious and you are best to skip it.

The mod starts in the classic way some adventures do in order to provide a challenge for high-level adventurers -- You take away their gear. In a game like Oblivion, you really need to be in the mood for it (or happen to be the right build for it) for this to work. For example, if you are a proficient mage, you can possibly breeze through it because your resources are innate rather than inventory-based.
If you can get past this stage -- That is, you are in the mood for this sort of stunt -- You will find a dungeon that actually has a wealth of resources once you get past the first few monsters.

Depending on the mods you use, the Halls of Fortitude may actually present little or no challenge. You can also stealth it if you can sustain enough invisibility magic to get you through hotspots and the sheer amount of running around this mod will require. This is quite rare as mods go, as typically bosses will hold the necessary keys, making combat inevitable.

There are many good points in this mod. First, there are curious things to see to keep your experience fresh (at least on your first time through each location). The overall structure is, if think about it, pretty boring: Monsters amid Ayleid style architecture and you go around killing things. What lends the locations "interestingness" is the assorted random things you will see, such as giant carrots or a sudden fungus garden.

Another good point is that the resources are varied (for a change, a modder has put in repair hammers and soul gems aplenty, plus Welkynds to support Atronachs) so it's viable for the extended expedition it's supposed to be. At the same time, it doesn't necessarily change the innate challenge in this mod, which is that you start with basic resources, and the core enemies have outright immunities to certain types of attack.

(TIP: Although the mod suggests there are four main types of attack -- weapon, fire, frost, shock -- There are more. You can get around having to think by using mind-affecting spells from Illusion, poison, and "pure magic" spells like Drain Health or Damage Health.)

In fact, you will more than likely come out of this mod with a haul of magic staves, Welkynd Stones, and Varla Stones. If you're not paying attention (or if you already amassed a lot of resources) you may think the whole dungeon crawl to be a thankless one.

As dungeon crawl, Halls of Fortitude does very nicely except for its layout.
Before I get into this, I should explain my point of view on these things. If you don't agree with my direction of thought at this point, you may not necessarily agree with my assessment of the mod's dungeon layout.

A lot of people don't like the concept of Fast Travel because it lets you skip all travelling in between. I feel this is very flawed thinking. While I rarely use it because I do want to do some harvesting for alchemical ingredients and exploration to find locations, the concept of Fast Travel is really to get you to the action and skip the boring bits.
If you look at the history of entertainment, the best of them don't waste your time. If they show you anything, it is because there is a reason for it, usually a plot-related or character-development reason. If there is neither, you won't see it.

In keeping with this paradigm, you will notice that most of the vanilla dungeons in Oblivion have a handy short-cut to the exit (prominent examples being Vilverin and Fort Blueblood) once you have gone the length of the dungeon.

With Halls of Fortitude, none of the doors are marked except to say you are entering the Halls of Fortitude. You'll need to take notes about which one you've gone through. After that, you will probably notice that there are a lot of dead ends. Some of them have a useful resource like a mortar and pestle. Others seem completely useless except for you to haul in more Welkynds.
The problem isn't that you don't do anything except collect loot. The problem is that there is a tedious amount of backtracking to try another exit, sometimes through multiple areas. Assuming you've completely cleared the path and no new enemies spawn, you could still be wasting several minutes going back and forth until you find an area you haven't gone through. It's even worse if you didn't kill everything and are choosing to stealth it -- So much so that killing your way through will probably save you time in the long run.

My problem with this is that it wastes time. Real-life time. Instead of time spent actually progressing through Oblivion doing interesting or exciting things, this mod took much longer than it really should have, much of it filled with a lot of nothing.

You might argue that the mod thrusts you into a nightmarish place constructed by Vaermina and the aimless running around is part of it.
But that is very risky mod design. Would you go to a movie where they spend a third of it rewinding the film and showing it to you again and again? Oblivion is a GAME. It is meant to be entertainment. Wasting my time isn't entertainment.

One quick fix might be to have a door at the end of various routes leading back to your gravestone, and making that location a hub from which to explore outward until you find the exit.

At the very end, you get all your gear back plus some loot, if all the Welkynds and Varla Stones and Soul Gems you're hauling around isn't enough reward already. You also get a somewhat disappointing glowing green orb as a trophy.

I personally thought a small 0-weight Vaermina statue (e.g., from the Black Cat collection) discretely tucked in among the rest of the adventurer's gear, might have been a better choice. That way, they'll probably pick it up without even knowing it (with the "Take All" button) and find this "pleasant surprise" later. It could be scripted so that Vaermina spanks the player if they drop it, or gives a brief blessing if they pray to it (activate it).

Oblivion Mod Review - Frostcrag Reborn

Mod Review - Frostcrag Reborn
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Overall: Nicely fleshes out FrostCrag Spire. Disappointing quests and tedious dungeons.

Why You Would Download This: To flesh out Frostcrag Spire if you are committed to using it as your base.

Hundreds of high-quality screenshots of Frostcrag Reborn here.

Frostcrag Reborn has two parts to it: Expanding on the official add-on Frostcrag Spire, a short quest to unlock some areas, and a longer dungeon crawl into "Avalon".

As a Frostcrag Spire expansion, this mod does very nicely with some eye candy and interesting additions, such as boosts to your Alchemy and Armorer skills at the appropriate stations (which may or may not work depending on what skill levelling mods you have). I feel it still needs polish and updating, however. For example, the housekeeper could have been given dialogue to acknowledge you, give you directions, or just talk about the Spire.
Also, the Female Students area could have been cleaned up after that particular quest (one wonders why the area hadn't been cleaned up before, and why the dead bodies there weren't rotting corpses yet).

The first quest to unlock some of the areas in Frostcrag Spire is extremely boring. There is some cosmetic backstory that doesn't all add up and mixes in with a story of ambition and betrayal. It would have been better if the author chose just one of the two instead of trying to weave in both, which come out quite separate and somewhere along the way, the first story about storing items in the realm of the dead simply gets lost.

There are also tons of quite powerful items to simply pick up here and there in Frostcrag, all with no risk. Then you go into a long linear dungeon and fight basically the same enemies over and over. This is a theme of Frostcrag Reborn: Repetition. We'll touch on it again later in Avalon.
(Note that you can actually enter that area without going through FrostCrag Spire at all, if you can find the mountainside entrance).

The implausibility of Frostcrag Spire just happening to sit on an obscure series of tunnels and a very long spiralling staircase with a side door to a magical realm called Avalong is just too much. But if Jauffre can buy your story about the Emperor handing over the Amulet of Kings to a no-name prisoner, I guess we can handle this too.

The Avalon quest starts after you get past the liches and unlock the rest of Frostcrag. The initial areas look very promising as an epic landscape laid out in interesting ways. Subsequent areas have a "Star Wars" feel to it and worth a look (extensive screenshots here).
However, it all becomes extremely boring extremely fast. Here's why:

1. There are lot of medium-large dungeons in which you need to enter and get keys from bosses. The enemies are the same. They are ALL THE SAME. From start to finish (except at the very, very, end), you fight the same mix of enemies, wearing the same thing, over and over again. I tried it with a character at level 10 and a character at level 50. And it was the same monsters with the same gear.

2. In the second half, there is a lot of running around and not a lot of direction. There are places to go, but you might end up spending hours running everywhere because you have no idea where to go or what to do -- if you are even supposed to do anything in particular other than just walk around.
The places are epic, but without a sense of direction or purpose, you're really just looking for the exit.

3. Finally, you meet the uber boss. You're supposed to have a special ring or as soon as he takes damage, you are scripted to die. Once he's dead, you get a suit of heavy armor. Great. Did I mention I got Frostcrag Spire, a.k.a. The Wizard's Tower Official Plug-in because, uh, I'm a wizard?

My recommendation is to activate FrostCrag Spire and just use it as your base. Unless you're extremely bored and have time to waste, don't bother with Avalon. For the liches, just use the console to blast by them so you can access the rest of FrostCrag Spire.

Oblivion Mod Review - Wells of Cyrodiil

Mod Review - Wells of Cyrodiil - Cities
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Overall: Interesting idea for an otherwise overlooked aspect of the game. Horrible execution.

Why You Would Download This: Uber items for comparatively negligible risk.

If this mod were done better, it would have made an excellent addition to Oblivion, on par with Let The People Drink, which truly adds something to the atmosphere of the game. Instead, the guts of this mod are really badly thought out. For example, you have highly implausible "wells", like the one in Leyawiin, which was, literally, someone's basement. And the one in the Imperial City Bastion/Prison, which look like a partially flooded cell block that has actively used living space (furniture, tables with food, etcetera).

Also, for very little risk (except for a tricky encounter in the first mission in Anvil), you start getting some really uber items. Some missions are no more than no-risk "Fedex" quests where you go to the well and pick up something. An example of an item you can get in the later missions:

Shield of Wells (heavy armor) - Armor Rating 20, Armor Health 2000, Weight 5, Reflect Spell 20%, Reflect Damage 20%, Resist Normal Damage 20%, Feather 100, Shield 20%.

You might possibly play through this mod for the novelty of short episodes of underwater adventuring, but otherwise, it's a badly thought out series of Fedex quests with uber rewards. If you want the godly magic items, using ToggleGodMode is easier.