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Demo Week!

Being a low level bureaucrat with student loans to repay, I have a limited budget to spend on recreation, including games. As I'd sunk my entire first quarter game budget into pre-orders, my desire for something new was tempered by the fact that I couldn't afford anything. Fortunately, in late February, the demos for the March releases come out, and I've taken a look at three of them. To me demos are vital in helping to decide if I want to spend my limited supply of cash on a game which is still borderline. In the past, this role was filled by piracy, but I gave that up years and years ago (Now that the statute of limitations is up, I can admit to it). Today, in order to see if a game is any good, I generally try its demo first. The lack of a demo is an immediate strike against any game on the market.

Dungeons

One of several titles pouring into the market late first quarter of this year is "Dungeons" where you take the opposite role to the traditional dungeon delving adventurer. The concept was interesting, but as I was soon to discover, their execution was flawed. The first problem was the limited ability to actually control or command anything living within your domain. They just sort of flocked around their spawn points and ignored you. Also, your worker units were equally difficult to corral and control. You could set tasks, but you couldn't reassign orkers or prioritize. You also couldn't prevent them from performing tasks you didn't want done, such as refilling poorly positioned treasure chests. Since every entrance that was opened spawned adventurers every thirty seconds, this left me little time to actually do anything unless I was willing to let them wander off with all of my cash (something that the game chastizes you for doing). Moreover, while you level up, the game doesn't pause while you're reading up on what your options actually do, meaning you either grab abilities at random, or suffer the hardships of the nigh constant assault your dungeon is under.

From an advertising standpoint, the demo failed in that it made me decide not to buy the game. There were too many elements which told me that I would hate the finished product. So from my perspective, the demo did its job by alerting me to the failings of the product being hocked.

Shogun: Total War 2

I own much of the Total War series, which I buy mainly for the Grand Campaign (Sole Objective: Conquer the world). I did not buy their previous installment, Napolean: Total War, because it didn't sound like it would be worth my investment. Shogun 2 is a remake of their first game, Shogun: Total War (Objective: Conquer Japan). The dramatic improvements in the underlying engine over the years are immediately noticable, but that is to be expected. I only played the tutorial, because that was the only part of the demo related to the Grand Campaign (which is all I buy the Total War series for), but it did show off a number of the game's relevent features.

First thing I noted was that the graphics for the campaign map are gorgeously rendered, exceeding the mediocre quality from Empire: Total War (the last installment I owned) without lagging my computer (something Empire occassionally did). The fog of war has been changed visually. Areas which have been explored but cannot be seen have the generic darkness over them, while areas which have not yet been explored have the appearance of a hand drawn map of Japan. While rather stylized, it works in context. After all, the archipelago had been united before, and officially still was (the Emperor having no power for the next few hundred years before the Meiji restoration). Units on the campaign map who have run out of movement now sit down, making it easy to see which stacks have not yet gone. One of my issues in earlier installments was my tendency to forget about units and not make full use of my available resources. After all, when there are five or six stacks all moving towards a flashpoint, one or two might be overlooked on any given turn.

The battle map interface will be pretty familiar to anyone who's played a Total War game before, and the rock/paper/sissors of spear/missile/cavalry units from pre-gunpowder installments has returned, with a handful of exotics thrown in for color. In previous Total War games, I rarely noticed the ammunition limit for missile units, and often bombarded targets into submission when I felt unable to break them with infantry. Here, it seems as if every archer marches to battle with a nigh empty quiver. I'm not convinced that the archer units got off twenty shots before running dry. If you're lucky, the map will have an archery dojo you can take over and use to replenish their supplies. Key buildings are something new in this installment. Some have special abilities, others are just parts of fortifications you can capture to help in your overall conquest.

Also new in this installment was the ability to level up your agents and generals. While previously, agents and generals could gain attributes, these were more or less random, and you had no control over when they gained or lost them. Now, these units gain experience and when they level up, you get to distribute their newly acquired skill points however you wish. In the demo I had a Ninja who had racked up quite the body count before he was caught trying to sabotage a boat works. Alas, he had been more useful than my generals. They cleaned up the interface greatly, and simplified it, all the while restoring many of the options that had slowly vanished from the series. The family tree is back, along with the ability to appoint an heir (though I don't know if it still has the annoying "auto appoint" upon succession built in). This seems like a minor element, but in Empire, I felt so disconnected from the government I was supposed to be playing as, that they were irrelevent to the game.

I don't know if I'm going to shell out $60 for the game though. Doesn't seem worth that price tag. Maybe $30.

Dragon Age II

I wrote an ungodly long ramble about Dragon Age, and ended up owning all of the DLC. Knowing full well my tendency to buy BioWare RPGs (though I have no intention of falling into the MMO trap again), I pre-ordered Dragon Age II back at the start of the year. The demo came out around the same time as the Shogun 2 demo, so I decided to see what I'd spent so much money on already was going to look like. Visually, it was gorgeous. Fast, fluid animations and crisp, clear visuals told me my faith was not entirely unwarrented. I'd never seen something so well rendered ingame outside of a Final Fantasy title, only these characters are dressed in outfits a sane person might actually wear. It reduced the number of repeat animation loops, though my character did do something resembling a cartwheel loop while attacking and chasing someone just at the edge of their reach - resulting in the same diagonal flourish being repeated until their target finally stopped moving. This is not to say the program was without bugs. I did get stuck on a pillar until I manually redirected my character to walk around it.

To simplify the demo, certain features were disabled - your inventory for one. I did a doubletake at that one, but your potions ended up automatically being added to the quickbar, grouped together as 'quick heal' and 'quick stamina/mana' on the far right where I'd habitually put the potions in Dragon Age I anyway. The lack of access to the inventory didn't impair those elements covered in the demo by much. Also disabled was the visual customization of your character. This reduces the number of resources you have to download, but it seems a bit ironic after the first game's demo being nothing but the character creator. The dialog system comes right out of Mass Effect 2, with general categories of responses instead of the exact lines of dialogue, so that the voice actor can read several different yet equally long scripts without the lower half of the screen vanishing in text. This worked well in Mass Effect 2, and seems to work here as well.

Another paralle to Mass Effect 2 is in the choice of scenarios for the demo. Like ME2, they picked the tutorial and a combat heavy section further on into the game. The framing story used in the demo might actually be the one used in the game, time will tell. The game itself exists as a story told by a dwarf being interrogated by a Chantry 'Seeker' (inquisitor). This allows the initial combat tutorial to give you access to abilities you don't get at first level, as he is telling the "legendary" version of events. In contrast, when I got to the 'actual' version, I had less than half of the same abilities, and faced a much toughter battle against the same set of enemies.

I hinted at it earlier. The process of sequelization caused a redesign of much of the content, including several characters who appeared in the original Isabella has a darker skin tone now, looking more mediterranian than she had, and is dressed almost like the stereotypical gypsy. The oncoming wave of darkspawn in the combat tutorial don't look a thing like their original version namesake, and I initially mistook them for ghoulified mercenaries. They are also a lot smaller than their original game counterparts, except the ogre, which might be bigger. I remember Hurlocks towering over the PCs, now they're shorter, and hunched over. Also, they're more slender and gracile than their hulking counterparts in the first game. Conversely, the 'grunt' variation got a boost, going from the one hit kill peon grade to being an elite grade. My guess is playtesters complained that the name didn't fit the role. The most dramatic change was in Flemith's appearance. This incarnation (still voiced by Kate Mulgrew) went from being a decrepit old hag in the swamp to looking like something torn from a Final Fantasy game. With prominent 'hair horns' and a much tigher, form hugging outfit, I initial had no idea who this character was until after the first few lines of dialogue. The new design, while distinctive, looks like crap. Did they have no better concept art on their desks at the time? Or did they accidentally hire someone from Square-Enix to design her?

As I said, I pre-ordered the game already, so there was no 'am I going to buy this' determination. I own it regardless of quality. I just hope it doesn't turn out like New Vegas (a waste of my money).

-- Rober McCarroll