Archive for August, 2011

To get off my soapbox about Steam and back onto something a bit more constructive, “Deus Ex: Human Revolution” is out and it’s a winner.

My rig: AMD quad-core 3.4GHz (per core) CPU, 6GB dual channel DDR3 RAM, dual GeForce 9800GTs (275.33 driver package), ASUS mobo with n750 chipset, standard integrated sound. This is the hardware bed for 32-bit Vista, which means I’ve only got 4GB of RAM to work with (the dual channel was on sale and 6GB was cheaper than the same stuff in a 4GB pack).

  • Graphics: there is nothing ground-breaking here, but it’s a unified presentation where all of the pieces mesh together very well in support of the overall story and vision – excellently done
  • Gameplay: very good; some logical/moral issues regarding the choices available to you at times (as in “none”), but you are mostly free to play within your character vision
  • Sound: very good; voice-acting is a bit off and stiff at times, but the musical soundtrack rocks, even through my decidedly low-end sound card
  • Story: very good; this is definitely a Deus Ex game
  • Replayability: very good (keep in mind that this is a prequel, so endings must come out a certain way so as to not violate the canon of the original)
  • Overall: 9 out of 10

It has been about 11 years since Deus Ex was released. Almost every “Top 25/50/100 Games” list for PC that I’ve read/seen has included it. By today’s standards its graphics are dated with really low poly counts, but they were more than decent for the time. What set it apart, I think, from the rest of the pack was an outstanding story with multiple ways to complete it.

The game world wasn’t completely open-ended, but it was close enough that you couldn’t call it a corridor-shooter and, although the story was linear, the developers provided multiple ways to approach and solve almost every situation you encountered. If you were a run-and-gun player, you could do that. If you were a ghost’s shadow stealth player, you could do that, too. Or you could mix and match. Or you could cheat your way through if you were so inclined (and see the not-so-subtle “Cheats Enabled” logo on every saved game). The game relied on a combination of cybernetic augmentations and skills to get you through, so you had to pick and choose very carefully.

Its sequel (“Deus Ex: Invisible War”) was less than fondly received by the fan-base upon its release in 2005. I’m being tactful about that because on many forums, one of the quickest ways to start a flame war is to say that you liked “Invisible War.” Leaving that aside, Invisible War tried to keep the things that made DX great, but the developers didn’t pull it off as well. The setting didn’t feel as open as DX’s. The story was more obviously linear and much more “out there” in a sci-fi sense. There were still multiple endings, but they were mostly unsatisfying endings. And, to add insult to injury (so to speak), the developers opted for an interface and gameplay that felt more like a console (the less said about the PS2 port of DX, the better – it really sucked).

So with great fan anticipation, “Deus Ex: Human Revolution” was announced in 2007 and released this past Tuesday. The major theme in fan discussions had been whether it would be more like the original or more like the sequel. I’m happy to be able to report that this is much more like the original.

The overriding story question revolves around the development of cybernetic augmentations to enhance human abilities. The answer to that question from a story standpoint is that this must be allowed to happen so that the original Deus Ex can happen (Human Revolution is a prequel, after all). I think the deeper question, and the one which each player must work out for themselves, is whether these augmentations will create a world in which there are two species of humans, normal and augmented, and whether one is or should be superior to the other in political, social and economic terms.

Like both of the other games, you will play a predetermined character, Adam Jensen. Jensen is a former member of Detroit’s SWAT team. He left the force after an incident resulting in the death of a 15-year-old and is now the chief of security for Sarif Industries, a leader in the development of the augmentations so central to the story. Jensen begins the game with normal human abilities. After an attack on a Sarif research facility leaves him maimed and crippled, he is involuntarily augmented at the order of his boss, David Sarif. Surprisingly, you do not have the ability to be anything other than a white male with a set appearance. The other two DX games gave you a little flexibility in this area (IW even let you play as a female character), but HR does not. This is, in part, why Gameplay receives only a "Very Good” mark. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in my mind it violates the concept of player choice. It probably costs an arm-and-a-leg (which Sarif kindly replaced for you) to do the main character dialogs multiple times with different voice actors, so it’s understandable, but still…

DXHR went back to the original’s inventory and hotkey system where you have a set amount of inventory space and can carry whatever you’d like as long as it fits within that space.  Some items stack quite nicely, while other items (like grenades) don’t. This moves your choice of what to carry and what to leave behind a bit higher on the priority list, so don’t walk into this thinking you can just pick up any loot.  You must decide what’s going to be useful and what isn’t. It’s more realistic, but can be a huge frustration at times.

Like “Invisible War”, the skills system of the original has been scrapped in favor of doing everything through your augmentations. There are about 65 augmentations available for you to use. You install or upgrade your augmentations through Praxis kits/points. Each augmentation costs either 1 or 2 Praxis points. There will be 2 Praxis kits available for purchase through LIMB clinics in each of the five city hubs, 6 or 7 that you can pick up as loot or receive as a quest reward and the remainder are earned through XPs (1 Praxis per 5000 XPs). Depending upon your playing style and approach, you may or may not be able to install and fully upgrade all of the augmentations you want. For example, you will not be able to hack Level 5 computers until you have expended the Praxis points to be able to hack Level 2, 3, and 4 computers first (Level 1 hacking is part of your basic kit). Consequently, you’ll want to maximize your XP gains whenever possible, so always look for solutions that do not involve a frontal assault.

As a gameplay tip, keep in mind that picking up a weapon that you already have in your inventory will scrap the weapon and add a few rounds of ammo. A Combat Rifle, for example, can be sold in a city hub for a nice chunk of credits. You’ll need to decide whether the immediate gain of a few rounds of ammo is worth the 630 credits you could get for the weapon if you were to wait until you’ve finished the mission to carry it to the dealer. Be sure to stash your regular weapons first and gather loot AFTER you have completely cleared an area. It might take several trips, but it will maximize your credit gains.

As a second gameplay tip, DXHR rewards stealth more than it rewards frontal assaults. In some cases this can be double or triple the XPs. Consequently, you should take the time to scout out the area as much as possible to find those hidden routes (like ventilation shafts hiding behind boxes and movable crates), use non-lethal means whenever possible and always avoid detection. There is even an achievement for completing the game without killing anyone other than bosses.

Which leads me to the second (and biggest) gameplay problem: the bosses. Even if you find yourself agreeing with their goals and positions, you MUST kill these folks. To my way of thinking, if the developers are going to present you with a morally ambiguous situation and allow you to choose your position, then they need to allow you the freedom to support whichever side you wish. I will grant that this makes the story progression much more complicated and would probably exponentially increase the amount of code needed to make it work, but it strikes me as wrong to say “choose your outcome, except here, here and here where we will choose for you”. I suspect that most players will not have a problem with this approach, but it does kind of grate on me. But it’s my review, so I get to say what I like and don’t like and you can take it for what it’s worth.

New to the series is an active cover system, allowing you to scrunch up against walls, boxes, crates and other objects in order to remain unseen and/or protected. You must actively use cover, as opposed to games like “Mass Effect” which kind of put you into cover even when you don’t want to be. Hopping from cover to cover or navigating around it is very simple and straightforward. It works very well. Keep in mind that the game also include destructible environment, so you probably don’t want to be hiding behind cardboard boxes while the bad guys are trying to pump you full of lead. It makes stealth and combat much more interesting and I’m fairly sure you’ll enjoy it.

In summary, Deus Ex is pretty much back with a vengeance. Graphically and story-wise the world works as a unified whole and will suck you in with true Deus Ex style. NPC interactions are believable and well done, keeping in mind that the voice acting can be a bit off in places. The soundtrack is outstandingly well-done, even through my cheap-ass speakers. Player controls are fairly uncomplicated and the inventory system should please even the most die-hard DX fam. The new cover system works very well, making this much more of a stealth and strategy game than the first two. If you’re one of those “gotta get every achievement” folks, you’ll need to play through at least twice, but this is a game you’ll want to come back to a few times just to see how you might have done something differently. I do not have a console version, but am given to understand that there is a 20-save limit. This is not the case with the PC version, so save take advantage of the capability.

Final assessment: Get it; you’ll like it.

Taking a total of about 10 days, the Steam support people finally got around to sending me an answer to my question about needing to restore my games. Unfortunately, their answer did not address the question that I asked. And, to be honest, I just got tired of waiting on them and started downloading the games again. Well, between bouts of playing “Deus Ex Human Revolution”, anyway. By this point in time, I still have two regular games left to go, plus a couple of multi-player add-ons for “Crysis” that I don’t have much intention of playing, anyway, so the practical effect of their delay was about nil.

For those interested in dealing with Steam installations, here’s the process I have been following:

  1. download and install the game in Steam
  2. Defragment and Optimize the installation (I use a freeware utility called “Ultra Defrag”)
  3. copy the game’s folder over to my backup drive (I had copied steam.exe and the \steamapps folder over after doing the first game)
  4. (play some Deus Ex)
  5. start the next game downloading when I go to bed and repeat 1-4 the next day

Steam’s method of moving its stuff to a different location is to copy steam.exe and the \steamapps folder to the new location. The first time you run Steam from the new location, it will download the remainder of Steam, any game updates it thinks it needs and all future games will go into the \steamapps folder. There’s a step-by-step guide at the Steam support site, but that’s the gist of it.

And we also now know that you can probably resolve the problem yourself and be back to playing your games in the time it takes Steam to respond (if you can call it that) to a support question.

Don’t get me wrong on this. I’m all for developers making sure that people pay for their games. I also haven’t had any major issues with Steam aside from this one incident and a question about their download speeds. They never answered my last question on the speed issue, but by the time I got around to asking it, I had pretty much figured out the answer and was just looking for confirmation of my conclusion. All things considered, I’m not THAT bent out of shape with Steam. When their client works (and it does work), it works well. But when they leave you hanging, they really leave you hanging.

Just as a quick update, I am now into the fifth day waiting for Steam to respond with anything other than an automated email to my question about dealing with missing executables. Not even so much as a “nope, you’ll need to re-download those puppies”. When I said they were slow, I wasn’t kidding.

For the record, their automated response was: “Thank you for submitting your question to our staff. We will respond to your question by email.”

Still in the process of re-downloading my Steam games. Steam does have a backup functionality and will allow you to save your game files elsewhere, so once everything is back in place, I will give that a try.

My other digital distributions are a bit more problematic. Since Vista will not backup executables, but will backup .zips, I’m thinking that a prudent course would be to just take all of those games and copy them off onto a backup drive (executable setup package or not) in their own little folder rather than leave them to the tender mercies of Vista.

To hell with additions. After all of this, I’m about ready to board up the door of the doghouse and maybe stick a few prox mines under it.

Just to add fuel to the Steam fire, I’ve begun downloading the games that I was not able to recover from my so-called “backup” (it’s going to take quite a while before Microsoft is out of the doghouse from that one, if ever). There must be something wrong with either Steam’s client or its servers and I’m not sure which. I managed to pull all eight gigs of my Direct2Drive games, using their Download Manager, over the course of about five or six hours from Direct2Drive. I started downloading “Fallout: New Vegas” from Steam before I left the house this morning and it’s still going about five hours later.

I bought the retail game, which came on one DVD. The last time I checked, regular DVDs hold about 4.7 GB of data. Tossing in the latest patch and the three released DLCs, I’ll be generous and call it about 8GB of data. The Steam client is showing my download speed as about 290KBps, which is about the same speed that I was showing on D2D’s client. One would think that comparable amounts of data being transferred at comparable speeds would equal a comparable download time. Not so. About five hours into the download, I’m still less than 40% done on Steam, while D2D’s downloads were either close to or completely finished in the same amount of time.

I can only reach two conclusions on this. First, someone is lying about their download speed. Either D2D is radically understating theirs (possible, but not likely since I use DSL, which has an upper limit) or Steam is radically overstating theirs. The second possibility is that Steam’s package size is about double the retail package size. In other words, the DVD’s installer package is less than half the size of the digital distribution installer package. This is probable as D2D is showing the basic FONV download as 6.8GB, so Steam’s would need to be at least that size, plus the patch and DLCs.

It is, of course, possible that both are true (lying about speed and a REALLY big package), in which case Steam is about to join Microsoft and I’ll need to build an addition to my doghouse.

Thanks to Microsoft Vista’s inane backup routine, the answer to the Steam question (and about a half-dozen other games from Direct2Drive) is going to be that I have to download them again. Vista’s backup does not backup executables (anything ending in .exe). That, unfortunately, includes most installer packages.

At a rough tally, from Direct2Drive, about 8 Gigs of download:

  • Civilization IV (and all of its expansions)
  • Hitman 2 – Silent Assassin
  • Deus Ex
  • Singles 2
  • Call of Duty
  • TES IV – Knights of the Nine

I’d Include “Fallout 3” except that I bought the GOTY retail version that has all of the DLCs with it. The only downside is that I’ll have to use the CD to play. The rest of my games from D2D came as .zips that Vista DID backup.

From Steam, about 150 GB by space requirements (Steam doesn’t tell package sizes until you are ready to download it), so perhaps half of that?:

  • Assassin’s Creed
  • Assassin’s Creed II – not looking forward to this – I’ve got about 150 hours invested in it thus far and hadn’t finished yet – fingers crossed on intact saves
  • Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood – same thing; about 120 hours invested and hadn’t finished yet – saved games better be intact
  • Crysis
  • Crysis Warhead
  • Crysis Wars
  • Dead Space
  • Deus Ex Human Revolution (preordered; due Tuesday, but maybe available as early as Monday night, but this is not one that got lost in the backup)
  • F.E.A.R. (I have the original retail, so could maybe skip this)
  • F.E.A.R.: Extraction Point
  • F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate
  • F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin
  • F.E.A.R. 3
  • Fallout: New Vegas – over 550 hours in it, but new DLC due in a few weeks, so I’d be starting over, anyway
  • Mass Effect – completed twice; hopeful on intact final saves since they can be imported into ME2
  • Mass Effect 2 – completed two or three times from the ME1 imports; same import capability into ME3, but it’s not due until March, so no rush
  • Neverwinter Nights 2 with both expansions
  • Civilization V
  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

This does not include some software that’s totally gone (like my Nero 9 suite) or utilities that I’ll get as I need them. It also does not include the scads of standard retail games on CD/DVD. After considering the hours of download time involved, perhaps I’d best stick with the games stuff that I’m actually using right now and deal with the others as time permits. Nothing like sleep/work time to let stuff download. And to prevent future problems of this nature, I’m going shopping for a decent backup utility. Suggestions are welcome.

I suffered a fatal hard drive failure last Friday and have been busily working at restoring my system. As aggravating as it is, drive failures do happen from time to time. They seem to happen with alarming frequency to me, but that might simply be due to the number of systems that I regularly use. When I build a new system, I tend to cannibalize from the previous one unless it’s something that is going to markedly affect system performance. Thus I tend to replace motherboard, processor, RAM and graphic cards every couple of years or less. But hard drives, optical drives and the like tend to get recycled unless the new motherboard just won’t support them. For example, I have a 3.5” floppy drive mounted in my system, even though it isn’t connected to anything since the motherboard doesn’t support that kind of connector. But since I threw away out the part of the case that covers that space, it seemed better to plug the hole with something rather than mess with the airflow inside the case. The next time that I get around to replacing the case, the floppy drive will get trashed, too.

At any rate, having been seriously hozed by a drive failure a few years back, I have been borderline fanatic about making backups. Consequently, when the drive went out on Friday, I figured it would be a fairly simple matter to restore Windows and my other applications from their installation media, restore my data files from the latest backup and, at worst, I might lose a few emails, saved games and a handful of documents. I have cataloged my gripes and frustrations about the Windows restoration elsewhere, but I’m left with a seriously unanswered question when it comes to restoring my games from Steam.

I’ve been a fairly big fan of digitally distributed games for several years. I am still irked over being unable to complete Battlespire because the CD got damaged (to be fair, I’ve also been too lazy to replace it, so it’s mostly my fault), so games whose installation files get stored online and can be redownloaded when needed seem to be the way to go. I’d have to go do a physical count of how many I purchased from Direct2Drive, but it’s probably close to a dozen or so. And then I discovered Steam.

There are a lot of people out there who do not like Steam. I’m not going to tell them that they are wrong to dislike it. It’s really a matter of taste, needs and personal preferences. If you like it, use it; if you don’t, don’t. I have my suspicions that those who gripe the loudest have ulterior motives for their complaining, as do those who cheer the loudest and I’m not going to step into the middle of that argument. What I will do is point out a concern/frustration that you might want to factor into your calculations when deciding whether to use it or not.

As part of my backup fanaticism , I immediately made a backup copy of the installation files from everything that I purchased from Direct2Drive (and a couple of others), so restoring those games will not be a problem. Unless, of course, the backup files are corrupted. I still need to test that, but I think I’m OK and I can always download again if they aren’t.

My Steam games are a big question mark. Even though I have a complete backup of my Steam directory, I don’t think I can simply restore that directory and pick up where I left off (minus a few game saves between the time of the last backup and the drive failure). I am still waiting for a response from the Steam technical people on whether I have the installation files somewhere in that directory or will need to download the games again. I am not enthused about having to download them again since most of them took well in excess of 8 hours to download and I have 20 games in my Steam library. The last time I checked, that’s more than 160 hours or about one full week to download.

As I mentioned earlier, I am still waiting on a response from the Steam support people on that question and that’s the point to keep in mind when deciding on whether to use Steam or not: these folks are sloooooow about responding to support questions. Sometimes you’re just flat-out stuck with Steam (“Fallout: New Vegas”, for example – you can buy retail, but once installed, it goes through Steam), but think long and hard on your needs when deciding whether to go with traditional optical media or a digital distribution when purchasing games. They both have their strong and weak points, but you want to make sure that the weak points don’t significantly interfere with your gaming.

Call me a stick in the mud, but I’m always amused by the ideas that some of the fans come up with for stuff they’d like to see added to a forthcoming game. To be fair, most of the ideas seem to involve immersion issues and aren’t too far out there, although they’d probably be a beast to code and implement in a balanced way. But some of the other ideas are so way out there that I often wonder if the poster lives in the same universe as the rest of us.

The writers at IGN took this idea and ran with it in a series of fictional email exchanges between the Skyrim graphic designers and … well, you’ll get the idea. Read and enjoy.