PC Gamer
PC Gamer routinely features Developer Diaries: tales of what goes on behind-the-scenes in the development studios making your favorite games. In this entry, City of Heroes' World Designer Cord “Think Tank” Carney talks about their design goals of the Drowning in Blood trial, and how they tried to balance story and combat inside. Let us know what you’d like to see developers discuss in future diaries in the comments.

One of the new trials being introduced in the Issue 22:Death Incarnate update for City of Heroes is a new level 15-30 trial called Drowning in Blood. Taking place in Bloody Bay, a small island town torn apart by decades of warfare, this trial is designed to be fun, quick content for players level 15 and above. In addition to more tangible rewards, players who finish the trial also get some answers to questions recently risen in the ongoing game lore, such as hints at what "The Coming Storm," a major catastrophe that has been predicted to come, will be.

Drowning in Blood prominently features the Shivans, a faction that CoH will be familiar with, who are remnants of meteorites that crashed to Earth over twenty years ago. Players first encountered these extraterrestrial menaces when City of Villains launched in 2005. When we launched City of Heroes Freedom, we introduced a second faction of the Shivans, who have a different visual appearance. These new Shivan have fallen under sway of Battalion, a mysterious intergalactic threat seemingly intent on conquering Earth. Drowning in Blood tells the story of these two distinct factions of Shivans and defines their roles in The Coming Storm.

For those familiar with our first introductory trial, Death From Below, the format of Drowning in Blood will be comfortably similar. Death From Below helped shape of the Freedom experience for many new and returning players, and has definitely influenced our design for Drowning in Blood. Players can use the Team Up Teleporter to group up and enter the trial automatically. Once inside, we want the experience to be fast-paced and forgiving as you're threaded through the old landscape of Bloody Bay, fighting Shivans, deranged Freakshow, and the mystical Circle of Thorns. We felt that Death From Below was an overwhelming success in that it engaged players as soon as they got into the game and allowed them to experience the group dynamics that make City of Heroes so enjoyable. We built Drowning in Blood to be the next step in that experience.

Although Drowning in Blood takes place in Bloody Bay, a PvP zone, it's neither a co-op nor a PvP experience. Heroes and Villains each have their own, separate versions of the Trial, each with their own unique characters and story interactions. Players will be greeted by either Arachnos or Longbow and can choose how they wish to proceed in taking back the island. They'll be given opportunities to genuinely help the people who still call Bloody Bay home, or betray those who trust you. Although many of the objectives are the same between the two versions, the tone is very different, and the characters you meet and how you can interact with them is distinct. We hope to see players want to experience both versions of the event.

Story-wise, we definitely have a lot to tell about The Coming Storm in the game overall and we couldn’t pass up this opportunity to further the storyline. At the same time, we felt it was important that the players enjoy a fast-paced combat experience, and we didn't want story to interrupt the action. Throughout the event, players will encounter a variety of characters, each with unique perspectives on events and interesting information concerning the Shivans. Players are encouraged, but not required, to take the time to stop and chat so that they get the full scope of the story. For the speedsters, most of the characters will show up again at the very end of the trial to give you another opportunity to hear their stories.

And now to the rewards: players who successfully complete Drowning in Blood will be rewarded with a variety of useful buffs to damage, health, accuracy or defense. These buffs will stick with you until level 30, making you more powerful as you level. We hope you enjoy Drowning in Blood. It's a continuance of the stories and experiences that we kicked off with Freedom and the destruction of Galaxy City, and it foreshadows much of what is to come in future issues.

To learn more about Drowning in Blood and the rest Issue 22: Death Incarnate, you can visit City of Heroes' Facebook page or the official website.
Feb 28, 2012
PC Gamer
X-Plane review thumb
The eight DVDs’ worth of scenery files have been installed, the joystick has been configured, and the cat has been fed. The moment has come.

Excitedly, I type the name of my local aerodrome into X-Plane 10’s search box and press ‘GO TO THIS AIRPORT’. A minute or two passes, then one of the dullest splash screens I’ve ever seen dissolves to reveal...


Lifting the camera high above the high wing of a handsome US Army Stinson L-5, I see hills draped with field textures stretching to a distant horizon. What I don’t see is a single 3D tree or building. I check the scenery settings. As I thought: ‘airport detail’ is notched at ‘totally insane’, ‘number of objects’ at ‘tons’. In vanilla FSX this bucolic Hampshire strip looked like it was situated in a wooded corner of Tuscany. X-Plane makes it look like it’s in the middle of a deserted Hebridean isle. I think I prefer the Tuscany version.

Then again, in FSX I don’t remember the hill fort on the southern edge of the airfield looking quite so hilly, or the downland ridge to the east looking nearly so pronounced. Perhaps those hours of scenery installation were worth it after all. Let’s see what the land looks like from the air.

As the Stinson bumps along the undulating turf and hauls itself into a breezy summer sky, I spot something I’ve never seen in any iteration of Flight Simulator – the little B-road that runs along the northern perimeter of the field. I begin to follow the tarmac squiggle. An hour later I land back where I started with a quite different opinion of the sim’s scenic strength.

While Laminar Research’s new autogen scenery system leaves large tracts of the globe balder than a baboon’s bum, makes central London look like suburban Los Angeles, and occasionally puts bridges and electricity pylons where bridges and electricity pylons have no business to be, its utilisation of detailed highway data and fine elevation mesh means low-level ‘VFR’ navigation is actually a far more practical prospect than it is in an unaugmented install of FSX. You won’t see your house in X-Plane 10 – you might not even see your village or suburb – but there’s a very good chance you will see your road, avenue, close, or lane.

That Austin Meyer and chums haven’t found the time to add hangars and towers to every tin-pot airfield isn’t a great surprise. What is a little disappointing is that the sim’s representation of major airports and capitals is still far below the FSX benchmark. Weary passengers stepping out of their Jumbos at JFK, Heathrow, or Charles de Gaulle will find tracts of bare concrete where terminals should be. I know I can pop along to x-plane.org and download decent user-made solutions, but the new autogen code really should have been savvy enough to slap down some generic structures as a stopgap.

Oh well, at least the invisible control towers have invisible air traffic controllers inside them at long last. After the scenery and graphics progress, this edition’s most substantive improvements are its AI traffic and interactive ATC. In the past, X-Planing offline was a dashed lonely business. The closest you came to interaction was accidentally mincing a migrating goose with your prop or turbofan. In X-Plane 10 you can wave at passing planes (though there are never more than a handful of these aloft at any one time) and exchange pleasantries with several different types of tin pusher.

I say ‘exchange pleasantries’... The text-based ATC menu only lets you file IFR flight-plans and request clearances. It’s a more realistic treatment than Microsoft’s (you must manually tune radios at each stage of a journey which means consulting maps and fiddling with small dials). It’s also a little less reliable. Controllers will occasionally lapse into sulky silences or infuriating repetition. At times you’ll be told to taxi in circles or trundle through waiting aircraft.

Considering Laminar don’t have an impatient publisher breathing down their neck, the number of gremlins in this release is startling. Every day in addition to those ATC meltdowns, I’ve endured three or four crashes. CTD causes range from bad saves and corrupt plane files, to systems failures (X-Plane features wonderfully sophisticated aircraft malfunction modelling. Almost every element of a plane is vulnerable to random failures). In normal circumstances, I’d be dismayed. Knowing the way that Austin and his crew work, I’m merely disappointed.

Buying an edition of X-Plane isn’t like buying the latest iteration of Microsoft Flight Simulator. You’re effectively purchasing the sim plus the next few years’ worth of updates and improvements. By the time version 11 flops onto the runway, many of the issues highlighted in this review will have vanished like windcombed vapour trails.

The question is: will you have vanished too? Does X-Plane 10 have enough going for it to warrant a few months of stiff-upper-lip stoicism? If you’re a Microsoft Flight Sim user still bitter about FSX’s feeble framerates, I reckon the answer is a clear ‘aye’. Though the swiftness that characterised the indie pretender in its early days has been sacrificed on the altar of autogen and fancy rendering, it still outperforms its plodding peer in most circumstances. How much of this edge is down to cannier coding, and how much is down to emptier vistas, it’s hard to say.

For PC pilots searching for sim steeds that look and handle exactly like their real-world equivalents, the decision is more difficult. X-Plane uses ‘blade element’ theory to determine its flight models. Put crudely, the way an aircraft behaves is determined by the shape of its 3D model and the output of its engine, rather than a table of scrupulously researched data. While this unusual approach together with the sim’s bundled aeroplane editor (not for the faint of heart) is a boon for aspiring aircraft designers, its benefits to the realism-hungry simmer are questionable. Because CPUs still struggle to model the air flows swirling round fuselages and aerofoils, and modellers don’t always replicate every dimple and protuberance on those fuselages and aerofoils, X-Plane’s Cessna 172 and Beechcraft Baron don’t necessarily fly more plausibly than FSX’s Cessna 172 and Beechcraft Baron.

As in Microsoft Aces’ swansong, many of your finest flying experiences are likely to come via payware and freeware add-ons. Though the large default hangar houses some very fine machines (the new Jumbo and Stinson are especially lovely) a lot of its exotic inmates are inherited from older versions, and have, frankly, seen better days. Strong candidates for the cutter’s torch include virtual cockpit-less old-timers like the Sea Harrier and 777.

Other groups that may not cleave to X-Plane include sim novices and those who like their aviation structured and spiced with adventure. There are no formal tutorials in X-Plane and the closest thing to scenarios are ‘situations’. With a couple of clicks you can set up a carrier or oil rig approach, fight a forest fire, or attempt mid-air refuelling. Once you’ve tired of these sideshows, the assumption is that you’ll spend most of your time making your own fun by gallivanting around the globe on self-generated sorties.

It’s a reasonable assumption. With an entire Earth to roam – an Earth enveloped by Laminar’s impressively fluid/fearsome weather fronts – and an Aladdin’s aerodrome of usermade content waiting to be downloaded, X-Plane 10 is more of a hobby than a game.

Is it better sim than FSX? Possibly not, but choosing between these two winged wonders is becoming increasingly tricky.
PC Gamer
Do you live in rural Britain and can't get a decent internet connection over ADSL? Satellite provider Tooway is offering to hook up 20 broadband 'not spots' with access to its 10Mbps service, completely free of charge for a year.

Competition entries must be submitted by a local council, but the equipment can be installed in any way the application sees fit. So if you've got a convincing case as to why your home, street, community centre or library should get a dish, you'll need to convince your democratically elected representatives of your argument first.

It's been a while since I looked at satellite broadband (unless you count a trip to Zambia last year), but on paper Tooway's service looks impressive. They're using the new KA-SAT satellite from Eutelsat which launched last year, and is enabling two way access at impressive headline speeds. The basic residential package will deliver up to 10Mbps download and a very healthy 4Mbps upstream. The latter figure is better than most Virgin fibre bundles, which are capped at 5Mbps for its fastest servcie.

The important thing is that KA-SAT is a lot cheaper than older satellite services. Tooway is available for less than £25 a month, although that is with a fairly tight 8GB cap, and the cheapest set-up charge I could find comes to £200 including purchase of the equipment.

I can't comment on the quality of service, which depends on line of site to the satellite and can be affected by extreme weather. Tooway says it's good for VoIP, video and IPTV, but not for twitch gaming. There's an inherent latency of around 250 milliseconds for data to go 36,000km into space and back, which works out to about 600-650 milliseconds once you've factored in communication with the base station at the other end and getting back onto the Earthbound network ring. Tooway tries to mitigate with a browser proxy and other acceleration tech, but I doubt even WoW would be playable with the extra lag.

If you're struggling to download games, patches and access the wealth of wonder that is PCGamer.com, however, it's an option worth investigating. Especially if you can get it for free.
PC Gamer

Here's 20 minutes of whacking we've taken straight from the latest build of the Diablo 3 beta. See a barbarian carve a path through the opening dungeons, picking up oodles of gold and powerful weaponry as she goes. Blizzard have been talking a lot about changes they're making to the classic formula, but it's still Diablo alright, albeit bigger and considerably prettier. It looks a lot better in motion than screenshots tend to suggest, and monsters have a satisfying tendency to fly absolutely miles when you thwack them. The fights aren't especially tough at the very start, which is why they tend to fall over at the slightest touch. Still, it provides a lengthy insight into how Diablo 3 is shaping up. It's due out spring this year.
PC Gamer

After initially reading this as "Otterland" I was always going to be slightly disappointed when this trailer on Evil Avatar turned out not to show a gritty RPG about a band of armoured otters. In fact, it's another bemusing, violently colourful video for the upcoming MMO based on Tad William's Otherland novels.

The books explore a future in which virtual reality is part of everyday life. Citizens spend much of their time as avatars, building their own virtual spaces and exploring the creations of others. These can take the form of be gleaming futuristic cityscapes, medieval castle grounds and sweeping green landscapes full of floating chess pieces, for some reason.

The trailer even mentions that we'll be able to create our own virtual spaces in Otherland. This will be done using eDNA, which can be collected from monsters and objects in each VR environment. We have no idea exactly how any of this will actually work. There are scant details on the Otherland site, but there are a few nice images showing off the different virtual environments we'll get to explore and, hopefully, create.
PC Gamer
IGF 2012
You can play free trials of 16 IGF-nominated games right now using cloud-streaming service, OnLive. For the next two weeks you can log in and play 30 minute demos of games like Dear Esther, Dustforce, Frozen Synapse, Space Chem and, as Tom mentioned earlier, the excellent FTL. When GDC kicks off next week all OnLive games formerly nominated for IGF awards will be discounted by 75%

There's a list of links to the OnLive demo page for each IGF nominee below. You'll need to sign up for a free OnLive account first to get access.

Atom Zombie Smasher (Blendo Games)
Be Good (DigiPen Institute of Technology)
Botanicula (Amanita Design)
Dear Esther (The Chinese Room)
Dustforce (Hitbox Team)
English Country Tune (Stephen Lavelle)
Frozen Synapse (Mode 7 Games)
FTL (Justin Ma and Matthew Davis)
Lume (State of Play Games)
Nitronic Rush (DigiPen Institute of Technology)
Once Upon a Spacetime (RMIT)
POP (Rob Lach)
SpaceChem (Zachtronics Industries)
To the Moon (Freebird Games)
Toren (Swordtales)
WAY (CoCo & Co.)

A pretty darn exciting list. If you were an IGF judge, which ones would you vote for?
PC Gamer

Graham and I have been harping on about FTL every chance we get, and it's been irritating you all a great deal because it's not out. It's still not out, but last night they started a Kickstarter project and launched a free demo via OnLive. The demo is really just the whole game in its current state, but time-limited to 30 minute sessions.

Kickstarter lets you pledge an amount of money that you'll only pay if the project reaches its funding goal. FTL's goal is $10,000, and they just passed it as I wrote that intro - 10 hours into their 32 day campaign. Backing them for $10 or more gets you the game when it comes out, but $25 or more will get you in on the closed beta, starting in a few months time. The game itself is due out later this year, probably.

If you want to play the demo, and you should, here's what you need to know.

You'll need to download OnLive and create a free account if you don't have one, and you play it through their app. Fire it up, log in and go to Showcase. Select the indie show case (the first one, right now) and scroll down to FTL.

OnLive has a little mouse lag, in my experience, but luckily FTL is not a twitch game. You manage the crew and internal workings of a spaceship, sending people between its rooms to repair systems as they're damaged, and deciding where to target each of your weapons in a fight. A few quick tips:

Spacebar pauses at any time. Press it at the start of a fight to plan your first shots right away, and press it again after you fire, to plan what to shoot next.

At the start of a fight, you have to click each of your weapons to power them up, then click them again to choose what to shoot with them. You target each weapon individually. They'll stay powered up for the rest of the fight.

Shields regenerate very quickly, and your weapons charge at different rates - lasers usually faster than missiles.

Against a ship with one shield pip, targeting their weapons systems is often a good idea, since even your laser will punch through their shields and do some damage.

A ship with two shield pips, early on, is tough. Target their shield system with a missile (they go through shields), and wait for it to hit before firing your lasers - also at their shield system. That ought to do it.

Shields are a good thing to upgrade first - save up enough scrap to upgrade them twice, and buy two more power bars for your ship. That's what you need for one more layer of shields.

Let us know what you think in the comments. I think it's one of the most exciting games in development right now.
PC Gamer
Dear Esther
When Dear Esther turned a profit in six hours it was already obvious that it would exceed expectations. Dear Esther's Indie Fund backers were originally unsure about funding Dear Esther, but it looks like their faith has been well placed. It sold 16,000 copies on Steam on day one. A week on, it's sold more than 50,000.

Developers, Thechineseroom made their sales public over on the Dear Esther blog, saying that the 50,000 figure is "an extraordinary amount for an indie release."

"It shows that there’s a real audience for this type of work, and responses have been amazing. Not only have we received amazingly positive reviews, but the response from fans has been outstanding," they add. You can read our thoughts in the PC Gamer Dear Esther review.

Dear Esther's success is bound to inspire others interested in crafting contemplative, narrative games, but also proves that this sort of work can draw a profit. It helps that the chineseroom have pushed the Source engine far enough to create the extraordinary screenshots and evocative trailers that piqued player interest ahead of release. Dear Esther has elegantly paired artistic intent with strong technical ability to create a package polished enough to justify that price tag. Hopefully other indie developers looking to replicate Dear Esther's success can pull off the same trick. PC gaming will be the richer for it.
PC Gamer

Epic will be showing off Unreal Engine 4 behind closed doors at GDC next week. This time last year Epic showed off the impressive Unreal Engine Samaritan demo above. That demo was running on a souped up super-PC running several GTX580s in parallel, so we're unlikely to see that sort of carefully choreographed loveliness running in the next engine. Still, given how much has been gradually added to Unreal 3 over the years, the new build must be making quite a leap to justify sticking a 4 on the end.

A new Unreal Engine is big news for major developers and indies alike. The Unreal Development Kit has been free for years, and early last year Epic dramatically increased the royalty threshold tenfold, allowing new developers to make more money from UDK designed games before having to pay a cut to Epic. Hopefully we'll see similar schemes and a free UDK appearing for Unreal Engine 4 in the long run. For now, it'd be nice to see exactly how much better it looks than its predecessor.
PC Gamer

As I mentioned in Friday's post about playing through Egypt in The Secret World, my character started off with a pretty standard build. Hammer and sickle in hand, I could smash a single target pretty quickly and had a few AoE tools for when the enemies came in 6-packs.

But I quickly grew bored with it—it was a fine build, but a little simple for my tastes, so I decided to create my own build from scratch. And then the heavens split open and my mind was exposed to the nigh-unlimited options and combinations that Secret World’s incredible do-it-yourself skill system allows.

Just to be clear up front: I am a theorycrafter--one of those nerdy people that congregate in communities like Elitist Jerks and tinker with talent specs and spell rotations for hours to find a 1% increase in efficiency. Personally, I think I inherited the love of number-crunching from my father, who’s an accountant. But whatever the reason, I love to toy around with new builds in MMOs—and rarely stick with a single class or spec because of it.

So you can imagine my initial excitement when, years ago, Funcom initially announced The Secret World’s ambitious goal to not have set classes in the game. Instead, they planned to give everyone access to every ability in the game, and let them mix and match to their heart’s content.

In line with the latest trend, The Secret World gives you access to only a small number of abilities active at any time, but lets you pick from a deep arsenal of varied abilities to create your active set. Of course in games like DCUO and Guild Wars, you’re not quite picking from 588 abilities, like you do in Secret World. Those abilities are tucked away into different cells of a giant ability sphere, which breaks abilities down into three different groups: Magic, Ranged, Melee. Those three are each broken into nine subgroups: Elementalism, Chaos, Blood Magic, Shotguns, Pistols, Assault Rifles, Blades, Hammers, and Fists. Then each of those is broken down into seven more skill trees each.

About half of the abilities are standard activate-to-use abilities, and the other half are passive, which modify active abilities or provide straight bonuses. You choose seven active and seven passive to equip at any time. The main restriction on your combinations of abilities is that you can only wield two weapons at a time (which correspond to the nine main subgroups).

If I had a hammer…
The build that my character came pre-loaded with took from the Hammers and Swords trees and had passives that boosted my damage and defenses in pretty simple ways (”Your hammer attacks do 10% more damage”). In combat, the hammer attacks felt great. The sense of power from smashing a sledgehammer down and seeing everything fly back is addictive. The animations make you believe that hammer is heavy and packs a punch.

There’s no auto-attack for melee characters in the game, which is a growing trend that I’m personally not a fan of, but I know many people prefer their combat that way. My pre-made build was meant to be pretty dummy-proof, but spamming the sword basic attack to build up combo points to unleash a finishing move got old really fast when I only had one ability to build Sword points and one to release them. AoE fights were a little more interesting, but it was still basic stuff. I craved more.

My goal in creating a new build from scratch was to make an awesome magic-user focused on critical hits. I did a quick look-up in the convenient search bar for “crit,” which filtered the entire 588 ability list to show me every Magic ability related to critical hits. I wrote down the names of a couple trees that seemed to focus on it and made note of a few outliers tucked away in other trees that might help.

I hastily threw together my set and took it out for testing on some scorpions. I grabbed a passive that made every seventh attack of mine automatically crit, and my basic lightning attack (free to cast and generates combo points) could be spammed insanely quickly to get to that 7th crit as often as possible. In combat, I built up points and then dumped them with an AoE lightning storm guaranteed to crit on everyone around me. It was beautiful. If I got in a pinch, I could always active another ability I grabbed that made my next ability free to cast (and guaranteed to crit, thanks to a passive I picked) and follow it up with massive hammer summoned from the heavens to reduce my enemy to pasty goo.

My damage output was incredible, and I had a lot more variables running for my mind to keep track of and balance for maximum effectiveness. I felt even better about it because I'd dreamed it up and built it myself. Plus, I'd only scratched the surface of this type of build. The potential of looking at 400+ other abilities to try and see if I could squeeze 5% more effectiveness out of this build makes me woozy with happiness.

It's never enough
My first shift was tossing a few ability points (earned once every time the xp bar fills up) into Blood Magic to get myself a single healing ability. It made me sturdier, but where’s the fun in sturdiness? I ditched the Blood Magic and grabbed some Elementalism abilities to get that sweet mystical Hammer-of-heaven spell in my hands again. Once again, the ability wheel's search box showed me just what I wanted, including an AoE cone attack guaranteed to crit after killing something.

The animation and spell effect on it is just so cool, too. My character steadies his feet and slams the Hammer forward hitting everything in front of him and sending a ripple of dust and debris scattering from the force. So my character was now half Zeus, half Hephaesteus, hurling lightning bolts and smashing everyone with hammers. You can run while casting a spell in The Secret World, which led to a lot of dancing around during combat—just what a spam-happy player like me likes.

Even better, I realized at this point that the two weapons maintain different combo point systems, and that the Hammer one starts fights at full (5/5) and lightning starts empty (0/5). Even more (ready yourself for a corporate-shill buzzword) synergy! I could rush in, slam my heaviest hitting Hammer attack, then build up combo points on both simultaneously and dump both of them, one right after the other for 2 massive, guaranteed crit attacks.

The best part about the system is that it makes you feel smart. It reminded me of how I felt playing Portal: the developers set me in front of tools, but it was up to me to figure out how to make them work for success. That first moment when you dream up an idea for a build—“I wonder if I could use DoTs to boost my crit attack and then have my crits put on more DoTs”—and then find out that you can actually make it work with careful selection and testing, you feel like a god. (By the way, I actually did that DoT/crit build—it fed itself amazingly.)

Thankfully, Funcom confirmed that players will be able to save full builds (skills, abilities, gear, etc.) and swap between them at any time, and even share them with friends. For lesser tweaking, you can also swap out skills and abilities individually any time you aren’t in combat. It's incredibly conducive to brainstorming and testing things out on the fly.

After having my fun as a DPS machine, I was coaxed into adopting a full Hammer tanking build to run dungeons with the developers and other press at the event. My thoughts on those runs will be on the site tomorrow.