Thursday, January 31, 2008

Nancy Drew, Curse Of Blackmoor Manor

Originally posted at GameBoomers:

What is it?
This is another instalment in the well-known Nancy Drew series. In fact, this is number eleven. Think about that for a moment. Eleven games based on a dramatic character. That's not IV, that's not IX, that's XI. That's even more than the Final Fantasy series. I think that counts as a successful series. Okay, so we're in multiple, multiple sequels territory here, and if the developer and publisher haven't completely nailed this one, there is something seriously wrong with the world... or at least their QA procedures.
The Nancy Drew games are marketed with a particular market segment in mind; the 10+ female gamer. So, as I am lucky enough to know one such young lady quite well, I thought I'd bring her along and let you hear from her too. She's known as Purple Bear (her choice!), she's my 10-year-old daughter, and I'll be dropping her comments in from time to time.

Where does it come from?
The character of Nancy Drew was originated by Edward Stratemeyer, alongside the Hardy Boys and many others. Since then, she has solved around 350 mysteries, written by many different authors. A number of the stories have been made into a long running TV series. Then in 1997, Her Interactive decided to specialise in adventure games aimed at the female pre-teen and teen market, and chose Nancy Drew to lead their campaign.
Seven years, and eleven games later, they're still going strong. However, this is the first one to involve international travel; it is set in England - more on this later.

Is there a plot?
This is a detective mystery; what kind of detective mystery would it be if it didn't have a plot?
Nancy has been invited to England to visit with Linda, daughter of her neighbour, Mrs. Petrov. Linda has recently married an English diplomat, Hugh Penvellyn, gaining a stepdaughter in the process. But Linda is no longer seeing visitors, and has taken to hiding behind a curtain in her bedroom. Now this would not be much of a mystery if it weren't for the location. Linda now lives in Blackmoor Manor on the misty moors of Essex, in a 14th century manor house. There are rumours of family treasure, and of course, there's the Beast that haunts the moors to add a little spice to the mix.
Purple Bear would like to add, "The story fits together well. Some bits were surprising, but nothing was really scary. I did feel concerned about what was happening to the characters. I think LouLou is my favourite character, because I like the way she talks and acts. Finishing the dragon puzzle made me feel good."
Being British, I can see there are some nasty holes in this plot. For one thing, Essex does not have moors. Fens (wet-lands), yes; moors, no. Therefore, the house should be Blackfen Manor. Worse, Penvellyn is not an Essex name - especially not one that would have survived from the 14th century. This story belongs in Devon or Cornwall - on Exmoor or Dartmoor! Where they have moors, dark manors, rumours of beasts, and ancient families with names like Penvellyn! Perhaps somebody at Her Interactive thinks that Exmoor is in Essex?
Having said all that, inaccuracies aside, I agree with Purple Bear - the story does fit together nicely, and drives the game throughout.

How do you play?
In common with the other two Nancy Drew games I have seen -- "Message in a Haunted Mansion" and "The Final Scene" -- Curse of Blackmoor Manor is a first person, point-n-click adventure game. The user interface is clean and clear. The older games have a slightly more cluttered main game screen, so this is an improvement. The menus are structured the same as the earlier games -- with the usual buttons you'd expect to see on any game. However, a notable feature of the Nancy Drew games is the 'Second Chance' button. Essentially, just before critical moments in the game (moments when you can die, or the game ends prematurely), there is an auto-save which means you can immediately return to the point before the mistaken decision.
Purple Bear says, "I like playing in the first person; it feels better to be in control. It was easy to use things in the game, and it was quite good that the tool bar covers the talking. The main part of the screen is much bigger than in Nancy Drew, The Final Scene."
Game play is all about talking to the people in the house and on the telephone, collecting clues from written and pictorial materials, and solving puzzles. The game contains a nice selection of puzzle types, but there is a sliding tiles puzzle, a maze, and a couple of timed sequences. There are two levels of difficulty to the game; 'Junior Detective' and 'Senior Detective'. Junior Detective gives more help and hints, and is more generous with the timed features. Since Purple Bear and I are both new to Nancy Drew games, we started with Junior Detective, but on replay, I'd certainly go for Senior.

Other Notable Features
Neither Purple Bear nor I had to make much use of the Second Chance button. In fact, I deliberately tried a few things just to see if I'd need the Second Chance as a result. There are some nice "game over" moments to see if you do, and of course, they don't affect your overall progress.
Purple Bear points out that, "LouLou [the hint system] is a good source of information if you use her right. The main characters were easier to get information from than LouLou, but less fun. But sometimes LouLou could be annoying, like my little sister."
I must comment on two particularly annoying features. Firstly, the cursor; although it is clearly drawn, and indicates what actions are available (moving, magnifying, acting, doing nothing, and speaking), the active spot of the cursor is somewhere in the centre of the image, rather than at the top left point, where most arrow-like cursors are active! I found this particularly annoying in Nancy's phone / web-browser device.
The second annoying feature was the accents of the characters. Several of the British accents are weak, and the American origin of the actors comes through to spoil the experience from time to time. Once again, Nancy is played by Lani Minella, and several of the other actors have played roles in previous Nancy Drew games, but there is little evidence of British acting talent being used to voice British characters. Jonah von Spreecken's "Cockney" accent brought tears to my eyes. Let's put it this way; Dick van Dyke did a better Cockney accent in Mary Poppins!
Puzzle and game clues and hints come from all sources in the house; people, pictures, objects, books, maps, diagrams and Nancy's mobile phone / web browser. Of particular note is LouLou, the parrot. At turns annoying, as only a parrot can be, and endearingly amusing, LouLou adds significantly to the humour and fun in the game.

Are there any other novelties?
Not really. I've never played a game with such a strong notion of the passage of time before, but this appears to be the norm for Nancy Drew games, so it's hardly novel.

As a complete experience, I enjoyed playing this game, even though it is aimed at a completely different market segment from where I would normally be found. The puzzles were not in the least bit trivial, despite playing at 'Junior' level. There were no graphical glitches or game play bugs, but there were some crashes-to-desktop. I am certainly not ruling out playing other Nancy Drew games - older or newer.

  • 2 timed puzzles, 1 maze, 1 sliding tiles game, and 1 sound-matching puzzle
  • 35 save game slots
  • Annoying mis-positioned mouse hotspot
  • Plot hole the size of Essex
  • Some really rather poor English accents
  • A few crashes-to-desktop.
  • Variety of puzzles
  • Good story and entertaining characters
  • Nice environment, and graphics, though the people are somewhat cartoony
  • Some replayability due to the different difficulty levels and complex dialog trees
  • Atmospheric music and well placed and helpful sound effects.

I'll give the final word to Purple Bear: "I think the game is aimed at the right age group. It's not too easy and it's not too hard. But I needed a little bit of help with some of the puzzles. I look forward to playing more Nancy Drew, in fact I'd like some more for my birthday or Christmas."

Grade: B

What do you need to play it?
Minimum Requirements
  • Windows 98/Me/2000/XP
  • 400 MHz or greater Pentium II or equivalent class CPU
  • 64 MB of RAM
  • 300 MB or more hard drive space
  • 16MB DirectX compatible video card
  • 16 bit DirectX compatible sound card
  • 12X CD-ROM drive

(We used Win XP, AMD XP 2000, 512 MB RAM, and an ATI Radeon 9000 Pro 128 AGP)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Product Recall

I've never been affected by one of these before, but there you go.

Netgear (a credible manufacturer of network hardware) have a bit of a problem with a relatively new device: the XE103 HomePlug network adaptor. It appears that someone forgot to do proper testing of the device in a 220/240V environment (i.e. all European and most African and Asian countries). The circuit that allows the device to run at 240V overheats and fails, in my case within 48 hours of installation. The resulting little brick is a sorry sight with no blinken-lighten or activity of any sort. But my XE104 4-port switch is unaffected (thankfully!).

But, for that first 48 hours, I was really happy with my ethernet-over-powerline network. It allowed me to remove 5 long cables (including two strung through the stair-well between two floors of the house!) and put the wireless hub / broadband modem / ethernet router in the centre of the house (it's a very neat Netgear DG834G 54Mbps Wireless ADSL Modem Firewall Router with 4-port 10/100 switch that has given me very, very good service for more than two years solid). Best of all, the powerline kit really is plug-and-play... no setup at all, unless you want to change the network password.

So, anyway, the courier will come and collect my XE103, and return it to Netgear's UK representative, at which point, an XEPS103 will be sent out. This is a more bulky device with a power supply for a compatible Netgear router builtin... which, on extra thinking, will be rather handy given how I've relocated the router next to a single socket, so that should work out okay afterall! In the meantime, my poor desktop PC is routing through a laptop sharing it's wireless connection via it's ethernet port, as re-connecting all the cabling I disassembled on Friday would just be so disheartening!

Not bad... a company releases a faulty device, recalls it properly, and still comes out smelling if not of roses, at least not of dung. (Though I reserve final judgement pending the actions of the courier and Netgear's UK rep A-Novo)

Links: the press release, the registration website, and the details of the replacement device on offer.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Friday, January 11, 2008

Sir Edmund Hilary RIP

I heard the news of the passing of Sir Edmund Hilary today. This guy was the first person of European descent to stand on the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on the surface of the Earth. At the time it was quoted as 29,002 feet - a number I will never forget, though now the numbers are 8,848 meters, or 29,029 feet.

As a young lad, in the late 1970s, I read the Ascent of Everest by John Hunt. It's not a big book - it's only a few hundred pages, in a roughly A5 format, but it is a description of the 1953 expedition to Mount Everest that he led, and that enabled Sir Edmund to reach not just the roof of the world, but the very pinnacle. I found it absolutely fascinating. It was not because of any deeply moving purple prose about the achievements of the expedition, but the simple presentation of the facts of the work, and the technologies they used to achieve the summit - the ladders, clothes, and open system & closed system breathing apparatus.

Remember that this was in the period before GPS, satellite phones (in fact Sputnik didn't even fly until 4 years later!), carbon-fiber framed geodesic dome tents, high performance fabrics & climbing boots or rescue helicopters. These guys did it with cotton, wool, leather, WW II radios, aluminium, wood, steel, ridge tents, and kapok. I don't think they even had nylon ropes!

So, serious kudos to the John Hunt expedition, and all those who made it possible.

In the long run, however, I think that Hilary's contributions to the Nepalese people through the Himalayan Trust will be of greater real significance than his climbing. The Trust has helped to establish clinics, hospitals and nearly 30 schools in Nepal, to the lasting benefit of many. For this, Hilary deserves great credit in inspiring people to go beyond simple personal glorification and climbing achievement, and to really put something back into a relatively deprived society that has long supported the ambitions of foreigners to climb in the peaks of the Himalayas.

Sir Edmund Hilary, RIP, but may the Himalayan Trust continue long in your memory.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Here, here!

Oh, boy, it's not often I read a piece in the Times and agree with virtually all of it, but in this case, my own experience of the British rail network over the last 20 years of regular, cross-country and metropolitan travel is completely born out.

The British government needs, as a matter of urgency, to re-nationalize the railways, in order to drop prices by 10%, and plough all the profits, currently passed to the share holders, into the infrastructure. The rolling stock is generally okay, but the track, stations and signaling hardware is in dire need of a major re-fit. The staff needs increasing to levels where you can find people who actually work on the station on the station, and not staffing (through some contracting-out) the appalling platform 'cafe'.

Finally, scrap all these stupid fare structures ... getting from A to B should have two prices (standard and first class), regardless of when you travel, how much notice you have of when you'll need to travel(*), what route you choose to take(**), whether you make stop-offs along the way, or what colour the fabric of the seats in the carriages.

(*) "what do you mean, my mother is critically ill in hospital, I urgently need to get to Oxford NOW, but I have to pay £250 because the only train available is a commuter route and I didn't give you six weeks notice of my intention to travel!"

(**) common sense (that so-rare of commodities amongst public servants!) to be applied so that people don't get a ticket from Didcot to Bracknell, and then go via Inverness!

Remote Sensing Archaeology

I've long thought that geophysics and related sciences have more to offer archaeologists than the occasional magnetic survey or resistivity map. How satellite photography and other remote sensing technologies are being used to find significant archaeological sites worthy of further investigation. So much so, in fact, that some archaeologists are using Google Earth to search for sites. By the way, if you've never played with Google Earth you really should!

Cosmos Magazine has this article on the subject of satellite imagery and GE archaeology.

How long before someone uses high resolution imagery of territories that were covered by rising sea levels after the last Ice Age to find a significant city-level settlement?

I suggest looking around the coasts of the Mediterranean, and Northern Indian ocean! I'd put money on a site around the scale Çatalhöyük (in Anatolia, Turkey, and at wikipedia) - a 'city' thought to have had around 10,000 inhabitants up to 7,500 years ago. Since the last Ice Age was at it's maximum around 20,000 years ago, and ended roughly 12,000 years ago, and Homo Sapiens has lived on the planet for some 150,000 - 200,000 years, I think there are bound to be flooded settlements in shallow marine contexts. It's just a matter of finding the right form of satellite image.

DRM meets stupid

If ever there was an illustration as to the ultimate stupidity of DRM, this article at Techdirt comes close to perfect. The guy legally buys movies from one source, with DRM, then buys a new monitor that supports HDMI and it's associated DRM restrictions, and all of a sudden his legally purchased movies don't work any more.

The response of the companies concerned...? Downgrade to a lower-spec monitor. Duh!

Friday, January 04, 2008

Motley Fool trashes music industry

Just when you thought the RIAA was gaining traction in it's desire to get us to pay through the nose for every single format of music we use (i.e. they want to stop even ripping legit. CDs for personal use), the Motley Fool investors' advice site weighs in on the side of common sense and fair use.

From the last paragraph of their article:
As I've said before, a good sign of a dying industry that investors might want to avoid is when it would rather litigate than innovate, signaling a potential destroyer of value. If it starts to pursue paying customers -- which doesn't seem that outlandish at this point -- then I guess we'll all know the extent of the desperation. Investor, beware.
Once the investor community starts being wary of financing the likes of 'Sony, BMG, Warner Music Group, Vivendi Universal, and EMI', it's clear that the writing is on both sides of the wall! No doubt the RIAA will just take this as a sign they're having an effect (along the lines of 'no publicity is bad publicity'), but when the real money begins to talk there have to be some more crinkled foreheads in the boardrooms of A-media-rica.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Gooka, Mystery of Janatris

Originally posted at GameBoomers:

Where does it come from?

Hmmm, a game from the Czech Republic? Sounds interesting! I've enjoyed games from unusual European countries before; The Longest Journey, Faust (Seven Games of the Soul), and Rally Trophy (okay, that's about classic rally driving, but still a game) spring particularly to my mind.

So, I've done a little research. Not enough to spoil the game, but something to be going on with before I get my sticky little hands on the disk... now hang on, is this based on a story, called "Gooka and Yorimar," by Richard D. Evans, or by Vlado Risa? Confusion reigns.

Okay, lets get this straight. It's "Gooka: The Mystery of Janatris", but that makes it Gooka 2; there was a Gooka game published in 1997 too. It's based on a novel by Vlado Risa, or his Western European pseudonym, Richard D. Evans. Aha! Now I've got it!

Next problem, is this a point-n-click adventure game (as indicated on the back of the box), or an adventure/RPG hybrid, as I've discovered having completed it.

Confused? Yes, I was. Thankfully, once I started playing the game, things got better.

What is it?

As I've already said, the back of the box gave me the impression that this is a point-n-click adventure. However, once you get into the manual, it becomes clear that there's a degree of character stats development, and combat. Now, we're not talking about a reactions-based, laser-blasting, gore-fest, but combat it is. I'll come back to this later.

So, after my moment of confusion, I set off for my adventure in the land of Janatris.
This game actually is, for the most part, a point-n-click adventure, but from the third person perspective. Just like Grim Fandango, The Longest Journey, Syberia, and many more excellent games, we watch our hero, Gooka, progress through an environment that could have come straight out of Medieval Europe. Except... there are bits of future tech dropped in seemingly at random!

The graphical content, both environment and characters, is nicely modelled, and well rendered (on my 2-year-old graphics card), but the character animation is a bit sluggish, and Gooka is not good at opening doors - he reaches out to them, but they then open without his holding the handle - and in many cases, without his hand being even close to the door.

For the most part, the world is quite natural in appearance, the buildings medieval, and the creatures quite believable. All the creatures, except the rats and the humans, are fictional. The special effects, particularly as used in the combat sequences, are really rather nicely done, with subtle volumetric effects and swirling colours, even on my old graphics card. The overall look of the graphics approaches that of Schizm II, or Broken Sword 3 - quite coherent environments with attention to detail and vegetation that works close up.

Is there a plot?

You want plot in an adventure game? Well, you got one here; fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles... well, almost all of that. And I'll leave it to the reader to discern which one isn't in the game. ;-)

The story works something like this: in Gooka's absence, someone has attacked and burned down his house, injured his wife and kidnapped his son (Yorimar, of the original book's title). Upon Gooka's return home, he has to fix everything. Just as you'd expect from an upstanding citizen, really.

So, it's off to the monastery to find out what's required to save Lidra, and what's happened to Yorimar. Suffice it to say that both these tasks require Gooka to travel to various parts of Janatris (the planet) and cooperate with and fight against a variety of people and creatures to reach his goals.

How do you play?

The game play here is generally quite linear, with periods of wandering, trying to achieve larger plot milestones. However, the milestones occur in a particular order, and you can't go backwards through the story, nor skip milestones.

The environments encompass a variety of settings: buildings, towns, beech, dockside, countryside, jungle, caves, a ship, and low- and high-tech castles.

You can use your mouse to achieve everything in the game, so perhaps this is the reason for the 'point-n-click adventure' description. There are keyboard alternatives to most actions, so you can mix and match mouse and keys to suit. Also, the Escape key is used to skip dialogue lines, which is handy as much of the dialogue is laboriously voice acted. The subtitles option is rather handy to get the story without waiting an eternity for the dialogue to finish. The Escape key also enables you to skip some animations (like rolling dice, or opening doors), but beware! therein lies a game crashing bug. This is rather more serious, as the use of the 'Escape' key is particularly useful to skip slow animations, but if you use if at particular animation transitions (I had trouble pinning down exactly which ones), the game will crash.

The combat sequences in the game are turn-based; you, your allies, and your opponents each get to take turns choosing an action to perform. The order of action is determined by the relative speeds of the people concerned. The fastest go first, the slowest last. I found that it was reasonably easy to learn how to do combat like this, but even the earliest fights are quite hard. Thank goodness for the AutoSave that happens before every fight. Although the game manual does describe the combat, it is lacking in the screen shots that would clarify that description.

Many RPGs involve the use of magical powers as well as swords and so on. In Gooka, we have the unusual feature of telepathic powers. However, when it boils down to it, they're basically magic spells by another name. Most of the time, Gooka's telepathic powers are used to boost his performance in combat - some powers are attacks, some are defences, some are temporary 'power-ups'. Many of Gooka's opponents and allies (whose actions during combat are also controlled by you, the player) have Mind skills, which the opponent character AI makes use of quite effectively.

The most unusual aspect of Gooka's combat skills, was the ability to shift power from his physical (Body) to mental (Mind) score, or vice versa. But the downside for me was that it seemed that the only way to win the majority of combats was to use a particular strategy which emphasized just one of those way beyond the other.

The puzzles do have a nice variety: some involve inventory items, one is a series of three timed sequences, one is audio, one is a small maze, some are pattern based and some numeric. For me, it was the dice game (no-one tells you the rules and I've never played that game before!) and the combat-based puzzles - especially the unavoidable milestone combats - that caused me the most difficulty. Until, that is, I discovered the combat strategy that worked, almost without fail, for the remainder of the game.


After playing this game for a few days, I began to get to like it, in a general sense.

The weaknesses are the frustrating combat issues and the dice game, the voice acting (dull & lifeless), and the lack of dramatic sound effects - a shipwreck should cause some distress in the characters involved, and make some noise to say the least! Furthermore, there were a number of times when the game would hang with a confirmation dialogue box back on the desktop, complaining of 'vertex errors'. The game didn't crash with these bugs, and clicking "OK" brought the game back. The 'Escape' key bug I mention during the dice game is rather more serious, and would be a serious candidate for patching.

However, I would say the real strengths of this game are the plot and variety of puzzles and environments. After two weeks playing, I can say that, because of these elements, I would go back and play Gooka again, which is more than I can say for many pure adventure games.

Overall grade: B.

What do you need to play it?

Minimum Requirements
  • Pentium® III 733 MHz or Athlon™ 733 MHz
  • 32MB nVidia GeForce2 / ATI Radeon video card
  • 256 MB RAM
  • 400 MB Hard Drive
  • CD-ROM or CD/DVD-ROM drive 8x
  • Mouse
  • DirectX certified sound card
  • Windows 98/2000/XP with DirectX 8.1

Recommended Requirements
  • Pentium® IV 1.5 GHz or Athlon™ 1.5 GHz
  • 64 MB nVidia GeForce 4 / ATI Radeon 9600 PRO video card
  • 512 MB RAM
  • Sound card with 3D sound support
  • Windows XP
(I used a homebuilt PC running Windows XP, on an AMD Athlon XP 2400+, with 512 MB RAM, and ATI Radeon 9000 Pro 128 AGP graphics card)