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Bethesda Softworks are today taking beta sign-ups for their upcoming MMO, The Elder Scrolls Online. Those interested in participating must perform a dark and ancient blood pact, binding their soul to the corrupted realm of Oblivion... no, wait, you have to register at ElderScrollsOnline.com. That's much simpler.
No time frame has been given for the beta period, but successful applicants will be informed of the test schedule at a later date. In the meantime, Bethesda have unleashed an action-packed cinematic trailer, showing off the game's three factions. And some werewolves.
That's some mighty impressive CGI, but I can't imagine you'll be assaulting a castle like that in the game. To see what ESO actually looks like, take a look at this video. Or, for a rundown of the story behind the game's three factions, check out this development diary from Bethesda's Head Mage/Lead Loremaster. Want more? By Talos, you're insatiable. Luckily, you can read Tom's impressions here.
Do you have to look like a wizard to become a lead loremaster, or do you gradually transform into one once you've accepted the position? I'd ask Elder Scrolls Online lead loremaster and wizard, Lawrence Schick, but he's too busy discussing the delicate socio-political situation in Tamriel. There's a power vacuum in Cyrodiil and challengers to the throne are popping up in every other town. Sit back, take a sip of mead and hear a grand story of kings, necromancers and armoured lizards courtesy of the latest Elder Scrolls Online developer diary.
That was a lot of concept art, wasn't it? Here's what the game will actually look like:
Jan 17, 2013
This is the diary of me attempting to play Skyrim using only Illusion magic: I'm not allowed any weapons, armour, or magical items, and I can't attack anyone directly. The first entry is here, or you can see all entries to date here.
My attempts to play Skyrim using only Illusion magic have driven me to intentionally contract vampirism, for the sweet illusion powers it will provide. The disease takes three days to take hold, and I've spent them messing with the Stormcloak rebels for the Imperial Legion. My mission is to deliver some forged orders to a Stormcloak commander in Dawnstar, and on my first morning in town, it happens.
"Your blood boils as your vampiric powers awaken." The screen burns red, then my vision clears. I look around. No-one is staring at me. I switch to third person view to examine my face: it's grim, steely, shadowed, haunted - so no change that I can see. I also don't have the invisibility spell I was hoping for - I guess that, and the face stuff, come later.
After looking left and right suspiciously, I find the Stormcloak commander and give him the fake orders. He's fine with just taking his orders from whoever runs up to him and gives him some, which is a policy we share.
Back at camp, the plot is starting to take shape. The orders we intercepted revealed the Stormcloaks need reinforcements at fort Dunstad. We changed those orders to say they didn't. So now, we're going to attack Fort Dunstad, and retake the Pale. Again, The Pale seems to be some kind of place with some kind of importance. I am ready to die for it.
It's going to be a huge battle, the decisive one for this whole chunk of Skyrim. So I want to up my game a little. In practical terms, this means lying down on a bedroll and going to sleep for 57 hours - two days to allow my vampiric powers to grow, and 9 more hours to skip to early evening, so that it'll be night by the time we attack.
I awake with a whole host of new powers - no invisibility yet, but one big improvement for a pure Illusionist: a universal 25% boost to the power of all Illusions. I set off.
The men are gathering outside the fort as I arrive. It's dark, a furious blizzard makes visibility even worse, and the fort is surrounded by spiked barricades. We charge.
Rather than just buffing our own troops with Courage, I decide to take a more aggressive role for this final conflict. I use Fear. Anyone I hit with it runs from the battle, but unlike Calm, it doesn't stop our own troops from hacking them to pieces. I neutralise three archers with it before I have to wait for my magicka to recharge, and I bide the time by chasing my last victim, magicky hands waving.
"I yield!" he yells, sprinting away from me in search of some cover. I keep chasing, despite having no way of harming him. Look at my sparkly hands, soldier! Fear them!
"Victory is yours!" He cowers in a corner, hands over his head, terrified of the unarmed elf woman in a dress.
Meanwhile, the troops have smashed down several of the barricades and are flooding hte fort, clashing with the Stormcloaks in the courtyard and on the battlements. Belrand storms through them, stopping to dispatch enemies with devastating sweeps of his jagged axe. His ghost wolf is out and equally savage - I see him kill an archer and a berserker.
I get back to my Fearsome work, sending the enemy troops packing just long enough for ours to kill them in small, manageable batches. It takes a long time, and I burn through all of my health potions to survive the hail of enemy arrows, but at last the fort is ours.
It seems wise to heal up before the journey back, and with no health potions, that means sleeping.
Three days as a vampire.
When I wake up, everything's normal for about a second - just long enough for me to read that "As a fully developed vampire, you are hated and feared." Then the entire Imperial Legion turns on me. Ah. This is going to be a problem.
Belrand, to his enormous credit, is still on my side. He summons his wolf, draws his axe, and ploughs into the entire imperial legion.
I run - I still have no health potions, and this is an even higher tonnage of incoming arrows than last night. I zig-zag through the fort to dodge more arrows, and come against against two squads of my former brothers in arms. I hit each one with a ball of Frenzy, and the enormous splash radius catches every one of them with an urge to kill each other. I keep running. I want to help Belrand, but the fight is just too hectic right now. I hop onto a Legion horse and gallop away under a rain of fire.
Once I'm out of range, I veer round and skirt the fort. The sounds of shouts and butchery are still coming from inside, but I don't see anyone on the battlements now, so I cautiously canter back in. Belrand's doubled over on his knees in the center of the courtyard, two Legion soldiers bearing down on him. I fling a Rally spell at him, summoning him back to his feet in a ball of green light, and making him stronger and tougher.
Belrand cuts down two more troops, then jumps into the air and brings his axe down crushingly hard on the last of them. The body flops awkwardly on the snowy stone, Belrand holsters his weapon and looks up at me with a wordless look of, "Well, I guess this is what I do now."
We're in trouble. I mean, aside from the 18 murders and 1 horse theft we just committed. I knew my vampirism would be 'controversial', but I hadn't quite accounted for the fact that my own employers would attack me on sight, forever.
Normally, vampires pass as humans by drinking blood - it lessens their power, but returns their appearence to normal. But they don't sell that stuff in bottles, you have to drink it from a sleeping victim's neck. Whichever way you slice it, puncturing someone's jugular with your teeth and drinking their blood definitely counts as an attack. I can't do it. There's a cure for vampirism, but it involves soul-trapping, which again is against my rules.
The war for the Pale is won - or maybe a draw, now that we've wiped out the Legion forces too - but I can't complete the quest until I talk to General Tullius. And even if I could get past all of Solitude's guards and the entire Legion garrison at their headquarters in Castle Dour, Tullius himself would sooner kill me than talk to me.
I can't end this without closure. I need that check in my journal, the acknowledgement of my superiors, and to genuinely complete the mission I was given as a soldier of the Imperial Legion. So I keep thinking, and I think I have a plan. It's a plan of which the following clichés are true:
It's a long shot.
It's so crazy it might just work.
And it's something I have to do alone.
I've asked a lot of Belrand, and he's done it all unquestioningly - all the way up to slaughtering a whole Imperial army to defend me from persecution as a vampire. But I won't ask him to attack his home, Solitude. Not because he wouldn't, but because he probably would.
I could just tell him to 'Wait here', but I decide to be honest. I'm not coming back from this.
"It's time for us to part ways."
"OK, if you think that's best. If you ever need me again, you know where to find me."
I do. He sounds sad.
I hop back onto the black Legion horse I stole earlier and ride on into the night.
I ride north, to the coast, and come at the city from across the mouth of the Carth river. There's a heavy fog on the water, and it's still dark - perfect for my approach. I slip off the stolen horse and let him stroll back to Fort Dunstad, while I swim quietly across the water towards the Solitude docks.
There are two guards patrolling the jetties, so I cast Muffle: it creates a blue mist around my feet that conceals my footsteps, so I can sneak as close as I like to the guards without them hearing me and turning around. That makes it easy to slip by one on the pier, and another on the winding path up to the city gates.
At the top, though, something incredibly awkward happens. Day breaks. The sun isn't strong enough to burn my skin, but vampires can't regenerate magicka when it's light, and I've cast Muffle again before I realise this. I'm low, and the sneaking only gets harder from here.
While I'm figuring out what I can and can't afford to cast, I spy the horse and cart guy up ahead - and he spies me. I'm rumbled. He jumps off his cart, the guards come running from all directions, and I bolt out of cover.
City guards are dramatically more powerful than Legion soldiers, and I know from hard experience that their arrows can kill me in a single hit if I'm not at full health. And I'm not. That's a problem, because as well as all the ones chasing me, there are two stationed at the gate itself. Gee, if only I was a monstrous vampire who could turn invisible at will.
Shadow's Embrace, the power I became a vampire for, makes me completely invisible and gives me night vision. It lasts for three minutes, but I'll have to reveal myself to open the city gates - you can't 'use' things or cast spells while invisible.
My pursuers still have a rough idea of where I probably am, but no further arrows come near me, and the guards at the gate have no clue I'm even there. I'm in.
Talking to Tullius
Now, it gets harder. The streets of Solitude are crawling with guards, and it's a long route through an open street to get to Castle Dour. I decide to break it up by stopping off at the pub for a drink.
The Winking Skeever is where I found Belrand, and it's restocked with health potions since I last ransacked it for health potions. I run in and steal all the health potions. The entire city guard follow me in, of course, but I barge past them on my way back out before they can really react. Before I go, though, I want to Frenzy them all - start a bar fight that'll keep them all busy in here while I run to Castle Dour. The only problem is, I don't have enough magicka.
I'm about to abandon the idea, then I remember something - I'm ready to level up. All I have to do is pick a stat to improve, and my health and magicka are fully restored. Level 11! Let's Frenzy!
I escape the bar room bloodbath I've just created and burst back out into the streets. I run zig-zag to stymie the annoyingly accurate guards still on the streets, and jump a wall to get up the ramp to the castle.
The last obstacle before Castle Dour are the two Imperial Guards at its door. Running straight at them, I can't dodge both their arrows. I can't Calm them both, because that'd leave me completely out of magicka, and I'll need some once I get inside. Instead I calm the furthest guard, then run straight at the nearest one. Before he can fire, I'm in close combat range, so he puts away his bow and draws his sword. Before he can attack, I'm inside.
Tullius is directly in front of me, surrounded by soldiers. I run at him. He draws his sword. And for my next trick, I spend my last chunk of mana to hit him with my last ever Calm spell, and immediately strike up conversation.
Reporting for duty, sir!
As his men sink their blades into me from all directions, Tullius commends me on my work, and lectures me on the strategic importance of The Pale to the Empire's war effort. The notification pops up: Quest completed.
I quit out of the conversation, amazed to find I'm still alive, and push past the troops to a door to the castle battlements. I have no magicka, almost no health, and I'm stabbed and cut several more times even as I open it.
It's sunny out. My vampiric night vision makes the light dazzlingly white, and at the same time, my skin burns in the sun. The combined effects are so bright that, for a second, I don't realise I'm dead. When colour floods back into the world, I see my limp body slide down the castle door.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, you've been a wonderful audience!
Being Dragonborn hath its privileges. For one, you have tons of time for heroic gazes across Skyrim's arboreal vistas, a Nordic breeze whipping your victory braids while a Hans Zimmer track (optionally) plays in the background. Skyrim's stock textures, however, tend to get smudgy at extreme ranges, and that just won't do for a warrior destined to save everyone and everything. The HD Enhanced Terrain Mod, then, returns the ruggedness to far-off ground with high-resolution grass effects.
Modder Hritik Vaishnav updated ground textures with a 2048x2048 canvas of grass-like foliage noise, a definite upgrade from Skyrim's dive in terrain quality at distance. He offers two versions for download: a high-detail, high-noise variation and a slightly less-detailed alternative that ties more seamlessly into existing textures.
The simplicity of the mod and the ease of its installation makes it a worthy addition to your collection. Looking for more? Check out a bunch of other mods we've found.
Jan 10, 2013
Contrary to popular belief, the anticipated Oculus Rift virtual reality headset doesn't run on pixie dust and elf tears. Like all hardware, it needs software drivers. And while its 20-year-old creator, Palmer Luckey, focuses on manufacturing more developer kits to meet the exceedingly high demand, enthusiastic 3D fans are already planning homebrewed custom drivers. One such project is CyberReality's Vireio Perception which extends Rift 3D support to first-person greats such as Portal 2, Skyrim, Mirror's Edge, and Left 4 Dead.
As CyberReality describes it, Vireio (or Virtual Reality Input Output, but we like how the shorthand name sounds like an enemy boss) can "pre-warp the image to match the Oculus Rift optics, handle custom aspect-ratios (needed for the Rift's strange 8:10 screen), and utilize full 3D head-tracking." As we describe it: Whoa.
The drivers work with nine games so far: Left 4 Dead, Half-Life 2, Portal 2, Skyrim, Mirror's Edge, AaAaAA!!!, Unreal Tournament 3, Dear Esther, and DiRT 2. CyberReality plans to add additional games in the future after spending more time with the kit. If all goes well, the possibilities are enormous: Think of revisiting classics such as Thief or Deus Ex with full head-tracking vision. Oh, yes, this is exciting.
Journeying through Skyrim is an experience molded by a self-driven narrative. We fashion our individual ideal characters to tell a personal story. But what if the NPCs had similarly detailed aspirations and personalities, and weren't just psychic town guards taunting us over sweet rolls? Kris Takahashi's Interesting NPCs mod (via Kotaku) is one of the best answers out there, populating the Nord homeland with over 100 new NPCs with nearly 20,000 words of recorded dialogue and even songs from volunteer community members.
"Each character is integrated into the world with a backstory and an extensive dialogue tree to explore," Takahashi writes on his blog. Many of these characters are fully voiced by a talented team of over 40 voice actors. The dialogue choices allow you to role-play, providing humor and depth to each conversation. You can be a jerk or a jester, a white knight or an assassin, as the most important character is you."
The mod also supplies 14 new NPC-related quests, and Takahashi plans to expand follower conversations and comments for "every quest and location in the game, including bonus conversations during or after major questlines." He calls them "super followers" because "they fly and wear capes." That's a fair reflection of the mod's writing quality, which respects Skyrim's culture and customs while staying lighthearted whenever possible—such as the grin-inducing awkwardness of complimenting a vain female Draugr.
The trailer above samples a number of dialogue interactions from various characters. Interesting NPCs is still in beta, but you can try it yourself by downloading it here.
Dec 22, 2012
You needn’t see out the last few days of 2012 wallowing in a figgy pudding-induced sugar-crash: perk yourself up with this collection of the great features we’ve put up on the site this year. We’ve got informative how-to guides, insightful retrospectives, polemics, play-throughs, ‘making of’ stories and much more. Bookmark it now while you're still compos mentis and you’re sure to find something in here to jolt you back to life or, at the very least, help to annul the post-Crimbo indigestion.
PCG UK’s handsome and hirsute editor Graham Smith teaches you how to pull out equally handsome (but not especially hirsute) renders from Minecraft, while marvelling at the astonishing feats of architecture to be found on the PCG UK server.
10 best Portal 2 co-op maps
Phil Savage grabs a buddy and puts the community’s best Portal 2 maps to the test, or possibly vice versa. Convection funnels, laser death and no small amount of inter-player bickering ensues.
Skyrim: Week of Madness
The name does not lie: Rich Cobbett’s Skyrim diary, in which he installs 100 randomly selected mods is an experiment in genuine derangement. Not entirely safe for work, unless your workplace encourages inarticulately rendered BDSM.
Making of Minecraft
I wrote this! And I got in trouble for quoting Notch’s swearwords. Sorry, everyone who bought the magazine for their kids. Still, once you get past the F-word opener, it settles into a heartwarming tale of indie devs done good, a triumph born from equal parts serendipity and smarts.
Old friends: an ode to Defense of the Ancients
Cara Ellison recalls the original DotA. “Some people think that gaming is a solitary hobby. But for me, DotA was a way to connect with my real life friends through an experience that didn’t include a darkened room serving overpriced alcohol we couldn’t afford.”
The indies guide to game-making
Tom Francis hunts down the world’s premier indie devs, unfurls his needle-thin proboscis, plunges it into their brains and slurps out every last drop of advice from them. Then he squirts it all back out here. Drink deep, budding indies, for the advice is good!
Hearthfire: the beginner’s guide to homesteading and mass murder
All Chris Livingstone wanted was a home to call his own. Things don’t go to plan. “The air fills with the screams of the dying and the streets run crimson with the blood of the dead.” Oops!
12 year war: rise of wargaming
World of Tanks is now one of the biggest games on the planet, and its curators at Wargaming.net are, shall we say, rather comfortable. How did they find themselves with such phenomenal wealth? Tom Senior finds out.
It would be unfair to pick just one of Rich Cobbett’s terrific retrospectives (which we run every Saturday dontchaknow), so here’s his top three picks for this year: Hard Time, Les Miserables and Shadow President.
Flash of greatness
Rich McCormick stares enviously at the bright lights of the pro-gaming scene, and charts the ascendancy of Lee Young Ho, known to the Star Craft scene as Flash. Wipe your chin, McCormick!
Chris Livingston has retired from videogame heroism. Instead, every Sunday, he embarks on a career of more modest proportions: driving buses, cutting wood and occasionally igniting entire airports in a deadly maelstrom of flame.
Day z photo diary
Evan Lahti charts an epic journey through Chernarus in this excellent two-parter: “He was a survivor with one life to live. His backpack: filled with beans. His world: filled with zombies. These are his tales, and the tales of his inconsistently-brave friends. And the tales of the woman played by a man who loved him.” Part two is here.
The best Skyrim mods
Whether you’re looking for new looks, new loot, homesteads or fulsome quests, Tom Hatfield’s compilation of the finest mods should see you good.
The Elder Strolls
Chris Livingston once again proves that the most valiant path is often the most humble: “My name is Nordrick. I’m not a hero, I’m an NPC, and I’m here not to play Skyrim, but to live in it.”
Inside the final hours of Star Wars: Galaxies
When Star Wars: Galaxies shut down its servers, it was as if millions of headline writers trotted out the same Obi Wan quote and were suddenly silenced. Our very own Imperial agent Chris Thursten was there to watch the mighty MMO’s light wink out.
An Illusionist in Skyrim
Tom Francis is a coward. Not in real life, of course, where he is bold and manly and frequently wrestles giant salamanders with his bare hands. But when he wants to get away from it all, he settles into Skyrim: “This is the diary of me attempting to play Skyrim using only Illusion magic: I’m not allowed any weapons, armour, or magical items, and I can’t attack anyone directly.”
The E3 2012 press conference PC gamers deserve
Graham Smith imagines an alternative E3 - the one we deserve. “The first parties were more concerned with propping up their platforms with lifestyle buzzwords than making great games. Even the big publishers, EA and Ubisoft, seemed lost in the tall grass, offering almost nothing other than the expected sequels. I can’t help but think we could do it better.”
Dec 21, 2012
Running a website called Dead End Thrills (about pictures of grafix), I spend a lot of time playing with visual mods. When PCG asked me to list my favourites from 2012, I agreed thinking I could do it in the style of the prize round from Bullseye. "You'll be up all night 'cause it don't look like shite." "Act well-heeled with this depth-of-field." But that wouldn't work overseas, they said, and stopped being funny after two examples.
Here's a straightforward top ten, then, in no particular order.
Battlefield 3 screenshot by Jim Snook (jim2point0)
No sooner had Nvidia's Timothy Lottes introduced FXAA (a 'fast approximate' antialiasing solution effective, unusually, upon deferred rendering and shader aliasing) than 'some dude' (their username - bet it's a lady) weaponised it into a DLL injector for most DirectX games. Copy it into the same folder as the game's binary and it hooks the calls to DirectX, softening the edges most AA methods can't reach.
Then things got interesting. Tonemapping, digital vibrance, luma sharpening and other neat effects got thrown into the mix, giving us the power to customise the look of most modern games. It's also one of the most reliable, no-nonsense screen capture tools: just hit your assigned hotkey and a lossless image plops into the game's folder.
Christian Jensen's SweetFX is the next evolution. Using SMAA for antialiasing, its features include S-Curve contrast adjustment and a filmic Cineon DPX treatment. Popular presets for these injectors include the Mass Effect 3 'Illumination' mod and James Snook's work with Borderlands 2 and Dishonored. When it comes to cheap, powerful tweaks to colour, image quality and luminosity, PC gamers have never had it so good.
Smarteck's Mass Effect 3 textures
Back in February, the official Mass Effect Twitter account confirmed that “when the full game releases, hi-res textures will be built into the game!” And so we learned that when BioWare uses an exclamation mark, it's because it can't quite believe what it's saying - because it isn't true. Altogether now: 'Crikey, these textures are taking a while to update. Oh, they have updated and the costumes still look like Ceefax.'
Some months later Smarteck, a member of BioWare's long-suffering community forum, has led an effort to retexture not just Mass Effect 3 but all of its DLC as well. Inspired by the sterling efforts of 'Jean-Luc' with his ME2 textures, he's made the game's costumes and environments palatable, if not strictly 'hi-res'. Some detail texturing here and artistic licence there can't always cover the initial upscaling that's gone on.
The other quirk is that you need ancient memory patcher Texmod to actually inject the stuff into the game. It adds something in the region of ten minutes to the initial load time and can cause issues of varying severity if you try and inject too much. All of that said, it has the not-insignificant effect of making the game compatible with your eyes.
Durante's 'DSFix' for Dark Souls
Screenshot by Midhras
I'm going to paraphrase a bit here. From Software: "We can't do it." NeoGAF poster Durante: "I bet I can do it in half an hour." 23 minutes later: "Look at that! Sometimes I surprise even myself." An awkward silence now follows into eternity, save for all the whooping and cheering of users who'd just about written off the PC port of the magnificent Dark Souls.
Unlocking the game's internal frame buffer with his 'DSFix', Durante revealed assets that were clearly fit for more than pitiful sub-720p rendering. Then, among other things, he added ambient occlusion, uncapped the framerate and improved the game's texture filtering. And there was much rejoicing - and nagging for further features.
It's hard to recall a PC version that's been rescued from the brink of utter rejection quite like Dark Souls, and certainly not rescued by players themselves. The wrong lighting model going into Resident Evil 4, the performance tailspin of DX11 Arkham City: such things are usually patched with some urgency by the developers. Souls fans had barely lit the torches, much less found the pitchforks and a way to still type, by the time the game was fixed.
ENB Series for Skyrim and Fallout 3
Outspoken graphics programmer Boris Vorontsov might just be one of the most important people in PC gaming right now. No joke. His ENB wrappers and injectors have brought to many games the kind of generational leap in quality people expect from modern graphics cards, but seldom receive beyond those tech demos where fairies in Nvidia-branded loincloths ride turtles into battle with Decopunk death balloons. Those exist, right?
But where do you begin? Vorontsov has banned the hosting of his core dlls anywhere but on his own website; then you have the community-made presets. That's where effects like indirect lighting, subsurface scattering and complex ambient occlusion are wrangled into something complementing (or wildly departing, depending upon taste) the game's original look.
The last year has seen several masters of this bizarre artform emerge. In one niche you've got Midhras and his deep and luscious 'Midhrastic' presets for Skyrim and Fallout 3. In another, Trillville (aka Anthemios) and his muted but cinematic 'TV ENB', again for both games. And there's the fantastical (but surprisingly GPU-light) Seasons Of Skyrim by Bronze316. There's loads, basically, so get looking.
Sikkmod/Wulfen's Textures for Doom 3
Additional screens: 1, 2 and 3.
Not strictly from this year but here by virtue of significant recent updates. If Rage left you questioning the genius/foresight/influence/marbles of one John Carmack, let the properly modded Doom 3 splash all over your grumpy face like a hyper-demonic poo pump (or whatever those things are).
To put it really crudely, user Sikkpin brings the effects while Wulfen (and to a lesser extent another modder called Monoxead) brings the textures. There's a lot more to it, though. Sikkmod adds a beautifully implemented list of options to the game's menu, letting you toggle but also heavily customise things like ambient occlusion, colour grading, bloom and HDR. The icing on the cake, though, is the experimental parallax occlusion mapping (POM).
Given supporting ultra-quality textures like Wulfen's, POM adds a relatively primitive relief effect to the game's grungy surfaces. It's also an effect, though, that makes you want to reach out and touch all the stuff you really don't want to have on your fingers. The caveat - and it's a big one - is that it's far more demanding and less reliable than tessellation in a DX11 game. When the effect breaks, it breaks bad. Still worth it? Absolutely.
REX: Real Environment Xtreme
Alternative screens: 1 and 2
Of course you're aware that the flight sim community takes things rather seriously. Where modding is concerned, they build planes like they're actually building planes. The manual for one of these suckers is bigger than the manual for my car; in fact, the 2005 Honda Jazz feels less realistic all round. Meanwhile, when these modders are building the weather, they do it better than God. His clouds have been rubbish for years.
You'll get the lot if you invest the considerable time and money required by Flight Simulator X and its biggest mod, Real Environment Xtreme. The latest version is called REX Essential and is soon to be improved by REX Essential Overdrive. Assuming your mind can handle something so essentially overriding, what that gives you is almost 10gb of clouds, runways, dawns, dusks, reefs, waves... an awful lot of photorealistic stuff.
The way the mod works is to build a weather profile for the particular flight you add to your planner. It takes a while to import the necessary textures and runs a background app to keep track of them, but it's well worth the rigmarole. Add it to things like TileProxy and a high-fidelity terrain mesh and you have a game that makes Microsoft Flight look like... well, Microsoft Flight.
Screenshot from Morrowind Overhaul site.
The heart says Skywind but the head says Morrowind Overhaul, the one you can actually play. The magpie in me likes Skywind’s shiny stuff, but the historian bristles at the idea of just transplanting Morrowind into the framework and tech of a really quite different game. Not that it stopped the Dragonborn DLC, but that's not quite the same thing.
The screenshots of Skywind are marvellous, of course, in that specific way that most ENB-assisted shots are. Beautiful art and beautiful technology on occasionally decent terms. Can the authors pull it off without inflicting a violent mood swing on the game? We're a long way from finding out: they just made the difficult decision to take several steps back in order to bypass some serious obstacles, and now there's just a skeletal worldspace to explore.
Morrowind Overhaul has had a lot longer to gather its greatest hits collection of mods for the original game. Crucially, it suffers none of the legal issues surrounding asset-porting that affect Skywind and its Oblivion-based predecessor, Morroblivion, so isn't such a kludge of community-only content. And hey, even if you don't like it, the divine beauty of its installer will still come to you in dreams.
GLSL shaders for Minecraft
When no one can even agree on Notch's motives for the game's look - I want to call it 'Voxel Art' but its polygons won't let me - you can imagine the confusion over how Minecraft should be modded. Maybe that's the beauty of it. At the very least you get the comedy of people striving to make it 'photorealistic', as if waiting for the mod that shrinks each block to 1 cubic pixel so they can make a perfect replica of Crysis.
Better, I think, to flatter the blocks without pretending they're something they're not. I'd love to see realtime radiosity in Minecraft but suspect my computer wouldn't. (You should have heard the noise while rendering these 4K screenshots.) What we do have, though, is the ongoing work on daxnitro's abandoned GLSL Shader mod. Some of it's awful, like the lens flare and depth of field effects, but you can turn those off in the shader files and still enjoy sumptuous light and shadowing.
What I was looking for was a realtime version of the renders described here. It warms me to know I'm still looking at a game. I have to warn you, though, that finding the right shaders for the right version of the mod, for the right version of Minecraft, was an utter chore. Each small update of Minecraft requires a new version of the mod, and each new version of the mod tends to break something, whether it's the lovely new water shader or Nvidia compatibility. It might not even work at all.
You need to learn this stuff for yourself, really, as there's a lot of trial and error. Start by reading the thread for Sonic Ether’s Unbelievable Shaders (SEUS). Then look at Sonic Ether’s updates page on Facebook and figure out why he chose such an abhorrent solution as Facebook for an updates page (hint: you can’t). If, like me at 2AM, you’ve followed all of these instructions and have more questions than answers, you could always try chocapic13’s preset here which I turned to in desperation, and which actually worked.
Crysis 2 MaLDoHD Mod
Screenshot from MaLDoHD site
Real soldiers don't look at the enemy, they look at the floor. They stand by their fallen comrades, lower their guns and think, "That is a dirty puddle, all right, but is it a wow puddle?" Then they get shot. Bleeding out, they look up at the sky and think, "No, those clouds aren't doing it for me at all. This is simply unacceptable."
Thanks to the jargon-tastic MaLDoHD mod, the shoegazing soldier doesn't have to die disillusioned any more. Fears that Crysis 2 would become any less MAXIMUM with age can be safely laid to rest.
He's suffered for his mod, this Maldo. His computer "burst" in October, reveals his blog, and some believed he was dead. So you'll just have to settle for the "1894 textures and 1297 materials" in the existing beta version of MaLDoHD; those, and all the effects such as SSDO, object tessellation and penumbra shadowing. Sucks, huh.
The RAR file is 1.5gb and expands to over 2gb. The configuration process remains, as even MAXIMUM GAMER Craig Pearson had to admit, "a bit of a faff". His install guide still applies, though, so check it out.
Deus Ex New Vision
Screenshot from Deus Ex New Vision ModDB page.
Any visual mod for Deus Ex has its work cut out. My lasting memory of the original graphics is how freshly waxed the floors looked, not how the characters resembled ice sculptures on a balmy day. Accept the rather mathematical art as a style choice, though, or a trade-off for the game’s complexities, and you’ve ticked the first box for installing New Vision.
As well as enabling DX10, New Vision gives most of the game’s textures a fourfold increase in size and quality, bringing them into line with a modern game. It does it by exploiting the seldom-used S3TC standard of the original Unreal Engine.
Installing it is simple, especially if you have the Steam version which includes the required patches. The single installer asks if you want to install a modified launcher (you do if you want FOV options and enhanced resolution options) on top of the new textures, then you just run the game as usual.
Sucked helplessly into Ion Storm's universe for what’s probably the tenth time, you might just realise that old geometry and HD textures aren’t always a bad combination. New Vision is the work of top-tier artists with an obvious respect for the source material, and these are genuine 1024x1024 textures rather than horrid upsamples. Rather than drag the game kicking and screaming into 2012, though, they invite you back to 2000 with augmented eyes.
This is the diary of me attempting to play Skyrim using only Illusion magic: I'm not allowed any weapons, armour, or magical items, and I can't attack anyone directly. The first entry is here, or you can see all entries to date here.
The whole concept for my character is that I never directly attack any living thing, so it's rather awkward that I now find myself getting all the credit for slaying a dragon. I didn't. I didn't even help. I was going to lead some angry giants over to beat it up for me, but the guards killed the dragon before I got there, so I just ended up setting some angry giants on the real heroes and then stealing all the glory.
So as the Jarl of Whiterun is singing my praises, naming me his Thane, giving me a personal servant, and entrusting me with his own battleaxe, I'm wishing he'd shut up. I need him to read the letter my general ordered me to deliver.
At last, he does. "Take my axe to Ulfric Stormcloak in Windhelm," he replies. "He'll know my meaning."
Jarl, I think I speak for my superiors in the Imperial Legion when I suggest you start researching communication. Posting someone an axe is a really inefficient way to talk.
I mutter most of the long, uneventful ride to Windhelm, halfway across Skyrim. When I arrive, I slip off Sarah the Implausible Horse and barge into Ulfric's great hall, expressing my feelings about their culture by trampling all over the banquet table on my way to his throne.
"You are quite brave to carry such a message," Ulfric says. Do you mean bored? I'm quite bored to carry such a message. Tired, maybe? It's pretty heavy. Capacious? It's not really clear where I was stowing it.
"Return his axe, and tell him to expect visitors. There will be a great deal of excitement in Whiterun soon."
Oh you are kidding me. This whole conversation is not only going to consist entirely of me taking axes back and forth, it's going to be the same axe? Your conversation is literally just:
Didn't you kill a guy with a shout once? Talk with shouts! Kill with axes! You people need to take a long hard look at either your traditions or your dictionary.
No, it's fine, I'm going.
A predictable response
Another long trek. Another ride to the city gates. Another walk to another throne room. Another rebellious stomp across another dining table, goblets and grilled salmon flying everywhere.
The Jarl: "I knew this would be his response." Oh, cool. Kind of a massive stupid insane waste of my goddamn time then, wasn't it?
A messenger runs in to inform us that the Stormcloaks are at the gate. Huh. Must have somehow missed their whole army being right behind me all the way from Windhelm.
"This is it," shouts the Jarl, "to the battlements!"
We all rush out, but a guard stops me.
"Wait, I know you!" Oh god, not this again. "You're a wanted woman!"
My bounty is 2 gold - I still don't know what for, but I don't have time to go to be arrested right now. I explain to him that the Jarl has just made me Thane, and ask if whatever those two words mean translates to me being somehow above the law?
It does! Excellent.
As we head on, another guard chimes in: "Looking to do some hunting? Avoid Brittleshin Pass." OK. We're... we're off to the war now.
The battle for Whiterun
It's early evening, and smoke - possibly fog of war - is thick in the streets. Fiery projectiles come raining in over the battlements and slam into the ground. And, as with every other time I leave Whiterun, I take the wrong route to the gate and end up in a cow pen.
When we finally get out of the front gates, I hop on Sarah the Implausible Horse and gallop out towards the oncoming troops. Arrows whiz by, Imperials and Whiterun guards charge out behind us, and for a moment it looks like I know what the hell I'm doing.
When I actually reach the enemy, of course, I can't really do anything, so I bank round and canter back behind the guys who are going to actually fight.
I park Sarah somewhere safe-ish and dismount to start flinging spells. At first I try to Fury the enemies, to make them attack each other. I encounter a few problems with this, not least of which is that Fury doesn't really do that. Furied enemies just attack the nearest thing, which is typically me by the time I hit them with it.
The other problem is that Whiterun guards look similar to the enemy Stormcloaks in the evening gloom, so often the person I've just tricked into attacking me is one of our own troops. I'm used to not being the most useful person in a given fight, but this is about as actively unhelpful as I've been since the incident with the giants.
All around me, everyone's doing their job: Legate Rikke is shouting at the troops, the troops are twirling and impaling enemies in gruesome kill moves, and the enemies are dying excellently. I, on the other hand, am nearly dead and low on health potions, so I decide to stick to Couraging our troops. At least if I hit the wrong people with that spell, it's basically useless anyway.
The tide starts to turn against us: an objective popup informs me we've lost the drawbridge and should protect the battlements, then immediately adds that we've also lost the battlements. And oddly, my companion Belrand is nowhere to be seen. He must have lagged behind on our way out of the city, and now the gates are locked until the attack is over.
I'm beating a strategic retreat when I bump into a half-naked woman wearing most of a bear. I instinctively cast Calm on her, then realise she's the Stormcloak commander. Deeply chillaxed, she puts her bow away and wanders through the carnage. Two Imperial Legion soldiers run up to her and slaughter her in cold blood. Hurray, I helped!
I start Calming more of the enemies - I've had enough Illusion practise now that the mana cost is trivial, and at this stage in the battle I'm able to pacify almost the entire Stormcloak force before I run dry. It's a bizarre scene, an invasion force suddenly ambling around the battlefield, acting like they never wanted our stupid city anyway.
Our last few soldiers are less relaxed. They keep hacking at the idle Stormcloaks, and killing all but three by the time the spells wear off. I check my inventory to drink another health potion, and when I flick back to the game, a massive skeletal monster plunges down out of the sky in front of me.
Close to the bone
After a moment of total bafflement, I realise it's a dragon. The reason I didn't recognise it is that it's crashed skull-first into the ground, its massive pelvic bone wiggling weirdly in the air. It's not a skeletal dragon, it's a dragon skeleton. In fact, it's almost certainly the skeleton of the dragon the guards killed for me out at the guard tower. What the hell it's doing here, and why it plummeted out of the sky, I will never know.
Backing slowly away, I see there are only two Stormcloaks left now, so I Fury one of them into killing the other. When the spell wears off, he looks round at me, the Imperial soldiers behind me, and the massive dragon skeleton on the ground between us, and he runs off into the night. Whiterun is ours.
I head back to the city gates, stopping briefly to check my journal and make sure that's where I'm meant to be going. When I put it away, a titanic mess of bone crashes down on my head. Jesus goddamn Christ! Get it off me!
The gibbering dragon skeleton wobbles awkwardly between me and the city gate, then slumps down to the ground. It's the same one, it just jumps on top of me every time I bring up my inventory. Is this glitch meant to remind me how bad I should feel for setting angry giants on the guards who killed this dragon for me? The symbolism is a bit heavy handed, even for a videogame. I feel bad! You don't need to literally hit me over the head with it!
Mercifully, the dragon corpse symbolism attacks stop once I get back into Whiterun. Belrand's there waiting for me, being the useless one for once, and so is the Jarl. He prattles on again about how amazing I am, gives me yet another axe, and says as a sign of his appreciation, I'd be welcome to buy a house in Whiterun. Er, buy a house? My reward for saving the city is the ability to acquire a house in exchange for the cost of a house? I didn't realise I was ever actually banned from engaging in basic commerce.
Slightly offended, I find Sarah the Implausible Horse and ride on through the night, Belrand jogging behind. We should reach Solitude by dawn.
We reach Labyrinthine by dawn. Labyrinthine is a snow-covered ruin I usually try to avoid on my way to Solitude because of all th- oh God Frost Trolls! I steer Sarah the Implausible Horse around one and onto a bridge, which immediately turns out to be a precipice.
I look down. It's quite far. I look back. The troll's quite close. There's no way around him, and there isn't room for me to get off to cast Illusion spells. Belrand is nowhere to be seen. We ride off the edge.
Sarah the Implausible Horse and I both collapse when we hit the ground. I get back up. I stand there for a while, looking at my limp horse, hoping she'll move. She doesn't.
Belrand finally catches up, runs over to the body, stops, and looks up at me wordlessly.
Eventually the Frost Troll scampers down some stone steps towards us, and bizarrely, he stops too. The Troll looks at Belrand. Belrand looks at me. I look at Sarah. It feels weirdly like a moment of silence for this stupid, senseless loss.
Once I feel we've paid our respects, I walk off. Belrand follows. The Troll follows. Suddenly, they seem to remember they're enemies, and start to fight. I Calm the Troll and carry sadly on to Solitude by foot.
Back in town, I stop by the local trader to sell some dragon bones, which are probably not haunted or anything, and spend the money on new spells: Fear, Rally, and Frenzy (see For my next tricks).I'll be honest: that's about your lot for Illusion, until you get Invisibility at level 75. I've levelled up a lot in my travels, but I'm still a long way off that. I'm not even sure I'd have enough mana to cast it, since I'm not allowed to wear enchanted gear.
At HQ, General Tullius announces that I'd be "wasted as a regular soldier." If you mean useless, I agree! He sends me out to help Legate Rikke in the Pale, which I deduce is some kind of region.
Before I leave Solitude, I wonder if I should buy a new horse. No, it's too soon. For me to afford it.
I find Rikke up in the mountains, at a remote Imperial camp in the middle of a blizzard. Soldiers huddle around a campfire, and the wounded groan in the medical tent. Also in the medical tent, oddly, is a table with two strong health potions on it. Are we just leaving these guys to die three feet from some health potions? Are they aware that health potions magically fix everything?
Oh well. I'll take them if you're not using them. And this money I found in the drawer. The 'pick up' icon wasn't red, so morally it's fine.
The way we're going to take The Pale, Legate Rikke informs me, is by creating fake orders to trick the enemy into doing what we want. My orders are to steal some orders so we can fake some orders. Honestly, I could save them the trouble: these people seem to communicate entirely in axes. Let's just take them an axe and say it's from Ulfric Stormcloak, they'll all kill each other.
I am instructed to leave this freezing, windswept camp and go directly to a pub, where I should hang out until a Stormcloak messenger comes by. Yessir.
I'm trudging through the mountain blizzard, still sadly horseless, when I see people fighting up ahead. I run over to see whether some or all of them need to be Calmed down. It turns out to be Imperial Legion soldiers fighting a group of dark elves in dark clothes, and the dark elves win before I can intervene. They turn to me. I hit them with Frenzy, but nothing happens. A note at the top of the screen explains that "Vampire resisted Frenzy".
Vampires! My Illusions won't work on them because they're undead, and they can even do the one Illusion I can't: invisibility. Right now, though, they're giving me a thorough demonstration of their Lightning and Life Drain spells, and I have to drink my entire stock of health potions to stay alive. The two I stole from the dying soldiers actually save my life.
Finally I manage to scramble up onto an icy ridge the vampires can't climb, and I'm safe. Then something occurs to me. I edge back down towards them, and let the nearest one stab and Drain me as much as I can risk, until the message pops up:
You have contracted Sanguinare Vampiris.
The next entry is in the current issue of PC Gamer in the UK (which you can buy online here) and will go online on January the 17th.
We used to put the diary online in shorter, weekly posts, but a lot of readers felt they were too short. Which is the best complaint, but in some cases I agreed. They were written as 2,000 word entries for the magazine and then split afterwards, so not every 500 word chunk had the right structure to work in isolation. We've switched to putting the full magazine version up all at once, which means changing to a monthly schedule to stay in sync. Let us know in the comments whether you prefer it this way - we plan to do more diaries after this one finishes.
Dec 17, 2012
Lambent Stew's free, web-based Steam Time Analysis tool laid bare my backlog of shame by breaking down time spent (or not spent) on each of my library's games like some sort of cold, ruthless PowerPoint presentation. The breadth of information provided is quite impressive. Over email, Stew told us the new build includes a few new features that further visualize users' habits.
You're now be able to compare your profile with those on your friends list for games owned, how many were played, and total hours played. (Our own Executive Editor Evan Lahti only played around 16 percent of his over 1300-game stable, the lazy bum.)
Similar to another homebrewed utility, a new worth calculator also provides combined figures for minimum, maximum, and current game prices in your library. Locating your own profile should be easier with improved search: just type in your Steam profile ID, and the tool should easily zero in on your data.
Check out the tool for yourself on Lambent Stew's website. How do you rank against your friends? What's your most-played game?