Friday, October 24, 2008

What I've Been Playing: Far Cry 2, BG&E, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

A week ago I had 4 games on my wish list: Far Cry 2, Mirrors Edge, Left 4 Dead, and StarCraft 2. No one has any idea when StarCraft2 is going to be released, but the other three games are all coming out weeks apart from each other. I can't recall a time when 3 games I've been committed to buying for being so creative, well produced, and all-out awesome have all come out within a matter of weeks. There's one less game on my wish list because I'm now a happy owner of one of them, and the holiday season for gaming is looking bright.

Far Cry 2
I'm so happy I got this game. After my not so pleasant experience with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (read below) I was really hoping for another open world first person shooter. I usually wait until after the game is released before I buy it, but I've read good previews about Far Cry 2, and I wanted to save $5, so I went ahead and preordered it on Steam. I'm glad I did because the game rocks.

Visually the game is superb. The art direction goes for realism, so I can't say anything on artistic creativity, but they did it right (even has reflected light) and it runs faster than Crysis. It also has some really fun brush fire simulation that becomes an awesome and extremely entertaining battle strategy once you have the flame thrower. Just make sure you're not downwind when you start one. Even without the flame thrower fires can still be started by Molotov cocktails, exploding gas tanks, and the backblast from rocket launchers which I found out the hard way. Seriously, the fire simulation adds a whole lot to the game both tactically and viscerally.

They went through a lot of trouble to make the game immersive. The interface is minimal, healing is visualized by injecting yourself or pulling shrapnel out of your limbs, old weapons can jam which can happen at some hilariously bad times, and all the while you are fighting malaria, so occasionally the screen will go all sick-looking until you take your medicine. The music is well produced with acoustic instruments and African beats. The voice acting is also good. The accents can be thick so I feel like I should depend on the subtitles, but you can turn them off if you want.

The game world is huge, and they seem to want you to remember that because you have to do a lot of traveling. Sometimes a mission will be all the way across the map, and it can take you 10-15 minutes to get there with a vehicle. There are buses that will "teleport" you closer to your destination, but with most missions it doesn't help a whole lot. At least in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. the quests are closer together, but in Far Cry 2 they can be anywhere, usually far away, and when traveling to your destination you will encounter several guard posts and maybe a random encounter or two, so that will slow you down. However, you can find hidden breifcases which contain diamonds and clear out safe houses so you can use them as save game points along the way so it's not all wasted time, but it does pad the game somewhat. It's a good thing that the game is as immersive as it is and that the combat is fun, because otherwise the travel would bug me. However, to my pleasant surprise after completing Act 1 there's appears to be a new area/county for each act, so you don't spend the whole game backtracking over the same locations. The game took me 37 hours to beat.

You pick up and purchase new weapons as the game progresses. At first the weapons are pretty basic, but you can then get things such as mortars, sniper rifles, stealth gear, flamethrowers, and other specialty weapons. You can only carry 3 weapons, one from each class, at a time in addition to your machete, so your choice in weapons completely changes how you play the game, which is how variation in combat is addressed.

The game also comes with a really simple and easy to understand editor for making multiplayer maps. So there's hours of fun ready to happen there.

Recommendation: Buy it. The game is huge, immersive, and fun. The story is pretty intriguing, ending is okay, wanted something more climatic considering how long the game was, but the ride was awesome.

Beyond Good and Evil
Beyond Good and Evil for $10 on Steam? Why not. It's one of those critically acclaimed games that didn't do well commercial for whatever reason (advertising most likely), and I hate it when games suffer such a fate. Because I feel the way I do about video games, I can't live with myself until I play it in it's entirety, which didn't take long (12 hours).

It's an old game so the graphics technology isn't impressive by today's standards, but the art direction and execution is. Great use of color, great character design, and I'm really impressed with how they handled vertex lighting in the environments. The music is also really good too. The game plays pretty well as far as performers go. The melee combat is nothing special but at least it's easy, and there's not a whole lot of combat to do. In the later stages it's mostly sneaking. The animation is good which is especially important when the game is in third person. The story is good but it had a couple of, "What? That made no sense," plot moments, but it wasn't bad enough to be a deal breaker.

If I could say anything bad about it, it might be that it's a adventure/platformer game that doesn't break a whole lot of new ground as far as gameplay, but it was solid nonetheless. The art direction, story, and use of a strong female protagonist is what set this game apart. It's worth getting just on those merits.

Recommendation: Great game, awesome art, awesome music, good story, plays like a platformer, has some wonderful story/action moments, and worth the $10. I recommend buying it so you can play through it once just so you can join the cool intellectual gamer crowd.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
This game has been recommended a lot of people and it was only $20 on Steam, so I gave it a whirl.

It's rather complex as far as first person shooters go. There's a lot of dialog, quests, inventory management, encumbrance (meaning that if you carry too much you'll slow down), hunger, bleeding, radiation poisoning, stamina, and other mechanics that give you a sense of urgency and realism. Adding that and the open world nature of the game with dangerous people and mutant wildlife really makes you feel vulnerable in a dangerous world, which emotionally pays off when you arrive at towns to turn in quests where things are relatively safe.

The big problem with S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which was a deal breaker for me, is that the game is buggy. Very buggy. So buggy in fact that even after applying all of the recommended fixes which included editing my Windows registry, I couldn't even play more than a few hours because I got so frustrated with the crashing that it would eventually crash every single time I entered the underground zone. I was going to wait for S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky to see if they fixed that, but reviews said that it was still buggy. To be fair it's very likely that it's my system configuration (even though it's all top-brand parts), and most people after applying the fixes had no problems. It appears that I'm a very small percentage of unlucky ones.

So thank goodness for Far Cry 2 for my open world fix because S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was a breath of fresh air and complexity that I've been wanting from a game for a while. I was about to ask for a refund, but to be honest I don't mind because I vote with my money and I want people to make more games like it. So they can keep my $20.

Recommendation: Wonderfully bleak atmosphere, worth it if it won't crash your computer and you'll have to read up on some fixes that may work, and there's a prequel available, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky. I can't whole heartedly recommend the game because of the bugs, but I give it points for doing something different, and it's another one of those intellectual gamer crowd favorites.

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And just to let you know, I updated the previous article on TrackMania and Painkiller with recommendations. I did in fact purchase TrackMania and I feel a little bit gypped, so read the end of the TrackMania section for my thoughts on that.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Color Wheel Swatches (For Photoshop and Other Programs)

NOTE TO CS5 USERS: I've gotten reports that in CS5 (and maybe CS4 but I haven't heard anything yet) that the minimum width of the Swatches panel in the default workspace is 17 instead of 16. The Swatches panel must be 16 swatches wide, otherwise the circular swatch pattern becomes slanted.

The culprit is the Layers panel which can't be as small as the Swatches panel, so if the Swatches panel and the Layers panel are put on the same column the Swatches panel will be wider to fit. The fix is to undock the swatches panel, at which point you can dock other panels below it that aren't wide.

Edit: I've created a new swatch set with shades instead of tints.

In the past I've used the VisiBone2 swatches in Photoshop, and I've been meaning to make an improved set of swatches for some time now, one that's organized like an actual color wheel. So I did. Here it is.

The special thing about this swatch layout is that the color wheel is actually accurate! It's not the VisiBone-style color wheel that uses red, green, and blue as the primary colors, where cyan is the complement of red. This uses the primary colors of pigments: red, yellow and blue, and displays it in full RGB gamut. It also takes into account that monitor green is not the same as reality green, and monitor blue is not the same as reality blue. So you can effectively use this as an accurate color wheel, making it great for working out color studies.

In the palette I've also included 3 value scales: simple grayscale, warm to cool, and cool to warm, which I use for my under paintings.

In the bottom right corner there's a small palette of colors that's already harmonized and CMYK safe for multipurpose use. I use that palette for line drawings, sketches, notes, and incidentally the Structure of Man Primer.

There's also a CMYK version of the color wheel (updated from the old one) if you plan on doing stuff for print. The ACO and ASE files are actual CMYK palettes, whereas the other ones are just CMYK safe RGB color palettes. So if you use that palette of colors you can be confident that the image you used them on will print predictable without having to work in CMYK mode because RGB mode performs better in Photoshop.

You can download the RGB and CMYK palettes here in multiple formats:

ACO Files (Adobe Photoshop Swatches)
RGB Color Wheel: ACO
CMYK Color Wheel: ACO

ASE Files (Adobe Swatch Exchange)
RGB Color Wheel: ASE
CMYK Color Wheel: ASE

ACT Files
RGB Color Wheel: ACT
CMYK Safe RGB Color Wheel: ACT

PAL Files (Jasc Swatches)
RGB Color Wheel: PAL
CMYK Safe RGB Color Wheel: PAL

TXT Files (Corel Painter Swatches)
RGB Color Wheel: TXT
CMYK Safe RGB Color Wheel: TXT