Games

Racing along in Dirt 4 and Dirt Rally

While they share a common name and perhaps even a common code base, Dirt 4 and Dirt Rally are indeed quite different in their play style, graphics and implementation. As such, it’s not quite fair to pit the two against each other as so many people do.

Dirt Rally is focused on the precision and unforgiving nature of rally racing. Career mode starts with lower end, two-wheel drive cars and progresses to the more powerful four-wheel models. But, through it all, the goal is to drive as fast and precise as possible, as every second counts, resets are limited and costly, and misjudging a corner will lead to more damage and repair time than your team can afford.

Dirt 4 takes many of the previous Rally traits, but blends them with the arcade feel of Dirt 2 and Dirt 3. The tracks are still technical, the cars are still fast, the misjudged corner can still lead to disaster, but Dirt 4 doesn’t have the same punishing, and admittedly, the same lonely feel as Rally.

Like previous editions, Dirt 4 has head to head competition in Landrush, and offers more vehicle types such as the trucks and buggies seen in Dirt 2. It also offers a “gamer” mode, geared toward those who want an arcade experience versus a simulator feel.

I have both games and enjoy them for different reason. Despite the reviews, they both  have pleasing graphics. Rally is far more technical and will test your nerve, daring you to go faster, but handing out stiff consequences for cutting it too fine.

Dirt 4 is has a wider variety of tracks, vehicles and courses. While still challenging, it feels like you can recover from an early mistake. Yet it still offers the challenge of how much time can you spend repairing the car and still be competitive. And like Rally, you can’t keep clicking Reset until you get the perfect run.

During the Steam sale, the bundle price of both games was less than cost of each individually. I picked up Rally in the previous sale and grabbed Dirt 4 in the latest one. After playing each for several hours, both had me in the grip of white knuckle driving.

Dirt 4 should be compared to Dirt 2 and 3, and by that mark has many advances. I still enjoy Dirt 2, except for the Gymkhana events, which I can do without. Dirt 4 has plenty of challenges, a nice selection of vehicles, and even when mistakes are made, I feel I’m still in contention, if not for the stage, but for the overall standings.

However, with the sales going on, I wholeheartedly feel racers should get both. They are a challenge in different ways. They have their own play styles and satisfy for different reasons.

Both games are excellent, and continue building on a fine franchise. Dirt Rally is a slight departure, but offers plenty of thrills and a more simulator styled experience. Dirt 4 offers a wider variety of racing, and gives an edge of the seat racing experience. Rally will keep you on the edge of your seat as well, but time is the ultimate enemy.

Dirt 4 eschews the glamour of the X-Games style racing of it’s predecessors, but still have the same showy feel. Dirt Rally throws it away all together and your only gauge for how well you’re doing is the tone of your co-drivers voice.

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The dirty and beautiful SpinTires: Mudrunner

It’s no secret that the original SpinTires is a strangely wonderful game with an equally strange relationship between developer and publisher. At one point, SpinTire disappeared from Steam only to return hours later amidst accusations of sabotaged code. The thrill of outrageous 5mph white knuckle driving was marred by a completely uncertain future and lengthy gaps of silence.

Adding to the frustration, the game always seemed unfinished, perpetually living as a technical demo, sporting odd bugs, a quirky interface and almost a complete lack of objectives to play.

The tables may be turning as SpinTires: Mudrunner comes to Steam, still helmed by the original developer, but published by Focus Home Interactive without ant oversight by Oovee, or at least we hope so.

In essence SpinTires is back with the same gloriously large and ridiculously powerful Soviet era trucks, the same sparse and eerie rain soaked landscapes and the same impossibly brutal terrain, narrow roads and debilitating mud.

I’ve already taken advantage of the 50% off discount for previous SpinTires owners and the trucks are just as well detailed as they ever were, with articulated suspension, winch points, and top heavy loads of wood just waiting to topple over at the most inopportune time.

While it looks and feels a lot like the original, it actually feels complete this time. There is a tutorial to get acquainted with the basics. There are challenges to get the ball rolling and mud flying. And there are new maps full of log toting goodness. There is also multiplayer, which is basic, but will hopefully improve. And it works more fully with a controller.

The Steam Workshop is also included, so if things work out well, there should be a slew of trucks to play around with. I also have the feeling that although Mudrunner might be the spinoff, it’s most likely the one that continued to be developed while the original SpinTires has probably reached it’s end of life.

So, if you’re looking to drive oversized trucks, throw some mud and balance an obscenely overloaded logging on the side of a cliff, Mudrunner is the game you need to get.

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Ember – Some final thoughts

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I have now completed Ember and figured I would share a few thoughts about the experience.

To put it simply, Ember is a tremendous amount of fun and is probably the best game I’ve played this year. I found it to have a deep and interesting story that unfolds not just through the events of the game, but through the dozens of books you find along the way. Plus there is a lot to learn through side conversations and tavern interactions. The more citizens you speak with and the more books you stop to read, the more you learn about Domus, the events that brought about the Lightbringer and the tension between different races. And even if the books don’t give enlightenment about the lore of the world, such as the famed tome, The Domus Pub Crawl, they are still amusing and add to the fabric of the game.

Additionally, Ember has great momentum, always moving you forward to the next quest. I never felt at a loss for something to do and there was no need to aimlessly grind. Instead, I was always involved in a quest both from the main story line or one of the several dozen side quests. These ranged from simple delivery runs, to locating lost artifacts, to returning wayward children and husbands, to negotiating trade routes. And even the side quests have side quests, so there is no cause to be idle.

Some have said the combat is simplistic, but I believe they are missing the point. If you recall the original Ultima series, which is an inspiration for Ember, you had 3 stats – Str, Dex, Int, and did damage based on your weapon stats and absorbed damage based on armor stats. While a shift from complex skills trees like we see in SotA, it holds true to the system used in Ultima, A Bard’s Tale, Wizardry and others. Even with that, each character has 3 special abilities they can employ based on weapon and armor combinations. And if the items skills aren’t to your liking, you can socket runes to make a more deadly combination.

Ember is also a lovely game to look at. I thought the game graphics and sound were very nicely done. I especially liked the rain and thunder as I walked through the cemetery and the sound of muffled voices calling for help as I crept through the catacombs. At other times, the birds sang as the forest turned to autumn. And the world felt pretty large to me with multiple locations to visit, plenty of houses to just wander into while the citizens were sitting down to dinner or sleeping. Like all good towns, there was a tavern to visit to pick up gossip, chat with the ladies and come close to getting into a brawl.

I’ve spent 40 hours exploring and being entertained by this world of Domus and I’m taken enough with the experience to start over, play a different style of character and choose an alternate path when presented with a decision. I know for certain this will change the outcome of several situations.

As a game that pays homage to classics like Ultima and The Bard’s Tale, Ember is work of art. As a game that offers 40 hours of entertainment for a mere $10, you are missing out if you don’t take advantage of the opportunity. Although the story is different, in many ways, Ember is a spiritual successor to Ultima. It looks and feels like Ultima 7/8 and with an interesting story and the wry humor that made the Ultimas such enduring games. But Ember stands as a solid adventure game and I truly hope this is the first title in a long running series.

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Ember – An RPG that pays tribute to games like Ultima and Diablo

They say time is relative to the developer. And it was about a year ago when I first read news of new RPG being created that would be heavily influence by Ultima and Diablo. Oddly, it was intended to be a mobile game and available at the end of 2015.

Well, that kinda, sorta, never really happened. Instead, the game was built for the desktop and it now available on Steam. However, it does an impressive job of keeping a price of a mobile game and is $9.99. And this is not some Flash based game, this rascal is a hefty 4GB download.

I hadn’t been tracking the release, so it coming to Steam was a complete surprise. Nevertheless, I immediately bought a copy. And after playing for a few hours, it’s an impressive game that does play like an Ultima from the days of old.

In typical style, I looted crypts and rifled through the pockets on my slain enemies. I amassed a hefty stock of junk weapons and sold them off to the first merchant I came across. With my new coins I bought plenty of rations to use in healing and bought cloth armor to replace my rags.

And in the same familiar sense, the goal is to gain XP and use those points to level up Strength, Dexterity, Intellect and Vitality. Those skill points are then use for the warrior with blades, the archer with ranged weapons, or the mage with wands. I chose blades and worked my way out of the first area called the Barrows and up to the main world. From there I gathered multiple quests, found all sorts of new weapons and explored several of the areas.

For anyone who played the older Ultimas, you will be familiar with the idea of getting out bedroll to camp and restore your strength and vitality. You will so be familiar with the simple combat mechanics. There is ridiculously complicated skill tree or the idea of min/max skills. You apply points to the stat that benefits you the most, Strength for melee, then go find or buy the most badass weapon you can. There are weapons "of Tormet", "of Smiting", "of Quake", "of the Bull", that give different special bonuses, combat moves or healing.

There is also some crafting such as cooking meat, fish and chicken to sustain you on the long journey. These have to be cooked over a campfire before they can be consumed, so have to think ahead just a bit.

There are the usual encounters with bears, wolves and stags so you can gather hides and make clothes, or sell them for money.

Like the old Ultima series, you will have companions to help you out. You start off with one, but as you progress, others will join in the quest.

You interact with plenty of people and decide how you want to handle those encounters. You can take the combative approach or the compassion approach.

Ember is a single player adventure game that I’m quite taken with so far. The mechanics are simple and understandable. The main focus of the game is exploration and interaction. The combat is click to attack, but mixes in special abilities you activate to keep things interesting. You activate them for the other party members as well.

I’m amused by the crafting and the ability to craft your own items. You get basic cooking, but there are recipes for making healing and energy potions. You can also make weapons and other items. As you move around the map you will see harvestable items like Sage and Copper Ore. And in dungeons you will find different reagents.

I’m also thrilled that a game of this scope and quality is a mere $10. In this age where games hit the store with a price tag of $60, whether it deserves it or not, it’s nice to see a game that you can take a chance on without emptying your pockets and becoming a pauper.

Finally, Ember is a game you can play for a few minutes or few hours. For those that remember, Ember uses save files, so it’s always best to save the game often, especially before a big encounter so you can go back and do it again if things go sideways. You only get three slots, but I save like a fiend every time I come through a scrape or find something good.

For those that liked game like Ultima 4-7, the original Diablo, and other more casual RPGs, Ember is an impressive game with lots of fun. It has a nice momentum to it, without having to grind relentlessly to build your skills. And there are plenty of quests out there to keep you busy.

It’s a highly recommended title and for $10, you absolutely can’t go wrong with it.

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A copper vein out in the world. Copper can be used for weapons.

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A fishing resource. Good thing I found a fishing pole while rifling through the pockets of my fallen enemies

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A bandit road with some slain bodies. Those were like that when I got here.

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Hmm, dirty rotten bandits trying to block my path

Ember on Steam

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Time for Steam to clean up Early Access

Since there are so many titles up for sale during the Steam Summer Sale, it’s hard not to be exposed to a slew of new titles. However, it also exposes some serious flaws with Early Access. There are a lot of titles still in Early Access that haven’t been updated in a couple of years with hundreds (or more) negative reviews saying the game has been abandoned and not to waste your money. And it’s not just one or two titles, I’ve seen dozens.

I think Kickstarter and Steam Early Access are a fantastic platform to let Indie developers get their games into player hands without having to go through the corporate BS that kills off so many titles. Think of how many studios Microsoft and Electronic Arts have scuttled and you’ll get my point.

However, it’s becoming clear that Early Access is a dumping ground for get rich quick schemes and half-baked games where developers are hoping they’ll get enough money to finish their game. That’s not what Early Access is for.

Early Access should be for people to see a game in it’s early stages of development so they can offer input into the balancing of the game; things such as how hard a racing game should be, combat mechanics and AI difficulty. You can see this in games like Dirt Rally, Hand of Fate and Shroud of the Avatar.

But that’s not how it’s working out in a lot of cases. There are way too many developers showing off a prototype of their game and asking for money to actually make it happen. The line between Kickstarter and Early Access is blurring to an alarming extent. We shouldn’t be putting up with that. Steam needs to scrape these games off and start auditing Early Access. For example, if you don’t provide a significant code update every 3 months, you’re done in Early Access and your game is yanked from the store. Additionally, money should be held in escrow and paid out every 3 months once you provide a code update. That way everyone can easily get a refund if need be. It should also be that once you get a significant number of negative reviews, there is an audit to justify whether you continue in Early Access. You shouldn’t be allowed to continue racking up the hate without consequence.

To be blunt, look at games like Towns, Delver, Next Car Game, Victory Age of Racing, Timber and Stone, Fortune’s Tavern and Blockscape just to name a few. Right now, you can go on Steam and buy a copy. Some have been outright abandoned, like Towns, while others have been in Early Access for 2 years. This kind of crap needs to stop. This is a ripoff for players and a disservice to other Indie developers.

To be even more blunt, Victory Age of Racing was abandoned and the company behind it was able to start another Early Access game, RaceCraft, which has been under development for about a year. You have a track record of 100% failure, but you’re back on Early Access? No good. At the very least, since there is a way to Green Light games on Steam, there should be a way to Black Flag them. Give us the option to request a game be reviewed for it’s standards so we aren’t left with all this crap lingering in the store.

To be honest, I’ve had enough of Early Access and apart from Shroud of the Avatar and Besiege, I no longer support Early Access games. I encourage Steam to start auditing Early Access and cut off these leeches. I also encourage people to be very careful when buying an Early Access game. Make sure to read the reviews and check how often the updates are coming. Sure, there’s a refund policy these days, but that’s no excuse for due diligence.

Early Access is not a fundraising campaign. Go to Kickstarter for that.

By the way, if you take money for a product, yet never deliver it, and don’t give the money back, some might be harsh and call that stealing.

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