Sunday, November 22, 2009

Alright, fine, I hate you Michael. :)

So, if you've read through the comments of my last post, you might see where this is going - I was proven wrong, hmph. Not in the point that NWN2's expansions have a great soundtrack, no, but on my comment that there's no point in using custom music. So thanks to mister Sinclair, I just increased the amount of stuff you players will have to download. If you have any complaints about the file size, blame him (given that I get the autodownloader to work with music, never tried that).
Anyway, I have to wholeheartedly agree that this is some nice music that will add a lot to the atmosphere of.. well, some areas I haven't made yet, but they'll come. :)
Here's the youtube thing from the comments again:

Oh, and for your info, should you ever consider using these files for your mod: There's some typos in the 2das (or files, whatever you prefer) that prevent 2 or 3 of the tracks from playing. The mines and the dungeons are affected, just add the plural s to the bmu's file names and they'll work.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A sidenote on music

File under ramblings...
A few things tonight triggered this post -

  • I was just adding sounds to my areas and was thinking about whether or not using background music.
  • I was sitting around in Dammendrech and thinking about the lack of music.
  • I logged into Khalidine to look at the systems (and if there was something to rip off) and heard the custom music.

Now, point 3 is the one I'm starting my rant with - well, there's apparently a lot, or maybe not a lot but some custom music at the vault. Nothing new, that existed back in NWN1 times too, but I never cared about it. Now, when I logged into Khalidine today I was reminded why I don't care. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to sound negative, but for me personally, it's very weird and almost drops me out of any immersion when I hear 3rd party music, especially in NWN2.
Why especially NWN2? Well, tastes might differ, but personally I think NWN2 has an awesome original score. Especially the two expansions. No, stop... the two expansions have an awesome score and the original campaign just one I'd remember, but not listen to much.

When I first played NWN2's original campaign there was certainly the main theme and some music like the village music that was memorable, it's a score you associate immediately with the game. That's fine, job well done. Not worth an Oscar, but the title theme is certainly original.
Now, when I first installed and played MotB I must say it was quite a different experience - I stopped playing and just stood still to listen. Especially when I entered the village of Mulsantir, I thought to myself "hell, what did they do here, that's really special!"
I think it's the fact that Alexander Brandon, the man hired for doing the MotB score, broke with a lot of the usual conventions. He didn't just stick with the usual epic orchestral score, he added a lot of sometimes a little strange folklorisic elements, swimming noticably against the current and making the whole soundtrack stand out in the masses. Frankly, I don't know why this fact hasn't been praised more on the forums and elsewhere - MotB had one of the most original scores I've ever heard in a game.
And praised be Obsidian, they hired the same man for SoZ and you can hear it. I never finished the game, but I have the score on my iPod. Hey, I never listened to game music outside a game before! I don't even have any movie soundracks, besides Neil Young's Dead Man or such.. but I truly enjoy going through my NWN2 playlist to find new music for my areas. None of the other recent games I played had such an effect for me. Dragon Age could have been even more epic if they hired that guy, but they did not, so it's just average epic. The Witcher's music was certainly okay, but nothing you'd remember for a lifetime either. But Alexander Brandon should make movie scores, really. He wouldn't have a problem coming up with a truly unique score for Peter Jackson's next fantasy movie at all, actually I could imagine The Hobbit with some of the SoZ/MotB tunes. :D

So, my conclusions...
Custom music for Middleforest - no way. I love the music that comes with NWN2 more than anything else I heard on the vault or elsewhere. And yes, I will add background music, it gives each area a very special feel to it, improving the immersion for me. Don't like it? Well, disable background music or turn down the volume, hehe.
For you "NWN1 forever" people, here's some examples from Youtube to illustrate what I'm talking about.

NWN2's original title score (not A. Brandon), unique theme but nothing more

NWN2 - MotB (Mulsantir theme)

NWN2 - SoZ (Plains theme)

P.S: It certainly helped me to have the music available in iTunes to decide on themes for areas (and tracks I like so much that I probably never use them because I save them for "some special area" ;) ). In case you didn't know, all the tracks are stored in C:\Program Files\Atari\Neverwinter Nights 2\Music (or Music X2), you can copy them and just change the .bmu extension into .mp3. Tedious work that's easier to do with some batch programm... I can only name one for Mac, but I'm sure there's something for Windows too.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The areas I'm working on now

Some work in progress screens for you. The first area is a loooong road over a huuuuge bridge and it's the outskirts of Rungholt. I'm still a little unsure about it, it looks better in game than on the screens at least. Hmm.
The second area is one I just started yesterday, I simply wanted to have a forest. Now, forests in NWN2 are not that easy actually, you have to spam trees like mad to make it at least a little immersive. NWN1 was easier with the forest tileset, and much less ressource hungry. Still, I'm not completely disappointed - just don't look too close at the textures and grass, I was getting impatient and sloppy... need to fix that.

Rungholt outskirts - lots of farms and grass

A little closer to the bridge

A lake near the forest

I'm hopelessly romantic, I know....

Deeper in the forest

Oh look, an old mine!

The forest road - no other way south, hope there's no bandits in the bushes...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dragon Age - Some impressions

No, Dragon Age wasn't the reason why I've been silent for so long. And it's also not that I haven't done anything in the meantime - I just didn't think anything of what I've done was worth writing about. Some new areas are done, but frankly, screenshots of interiors are never satisfying to me, and the few exteriors I made are not screenshot-ready yet.
Anyway, this is about Dragon Age, the game I just ran a tour de force through. Typical for Bioware, it doesn't let you go, and now I'm feeling sick and tired and tempted to make another character and start over again. Yes, it's that good.
However, there's one point, and that's the hope for Dragon Age being a NWN replacement for us builders someday. I guess many remember the disappointment about the decission to make it only a singleplayer game a while ago, especially after many of us became frustrated about the NWN2 toolset. However, after playing it for a while now I must say it's maybe for the best, at least for now, because I noticed a lot of things in the game that were quite disappointing from a builder's point of view. There's for one the general artwork. If you aim for realism, I think DA is not for you, because the artwork is even more comicbook-style than NWN2. That does not include the characters, armors and weapons of course, which show a wonderful amount of detail. The placeables and area design though can't live up to that standard, some appear very outdated, some are just, to speak bluntly, crap. Bioware also did a very bad job with the textures at many points, as you can see in some of the screenshots I attached. As a builder, I wouldn't want to use any of this, Dragon Age would need a big overhaul like some of those Oblivion mods, or a Witcher enhanced version (although the Witcher already had extraordinary area design right from the beginning). To make things even worse, Bioware level designers didn't even make the best out of the limited ressources they had - the area design is sometimes just sloppy and rushed with no attention to detail at all.
All this doesn't hurt the campaign much, because you're so soaked into the storyline, but if you take a short break and just look around with builder's eyes for a few minutes, you might be as disappointed as I was. But that's Bioware, they've never been the best in the art department, however they are wonderful storytellers, a fact that saved a lot of their games in the past. It's just a little sad when you read the reviews and all of them mention these sloppy mistakes that could have easily been avoided. Just fixing up a few textures could've earned them a, say, 93% score instead of 91%. Sad.
I must add though that the general atmosphere of the game still works fine for me, if I forget about the details. The lighting is often wonderful, some textures still work great to give places a certain feel to them, and with a little more attention to detail, I think one can make a great mod here. It just won't be the style I aim for in Middleforest, it'd have to be more fantasy.

There's also the toolset I just opened for the first time this week to look around a little, then ignored again because I just had to continue playing. On first sight it's rather intimidating. Funny, that was my first impression on NWN2's toolset too, I thought I'd never learn it nor even understand it's basics. Now after opening Dragon Age's toolset, I have the same feeling again and NWN2's toolset feels like the easy to use one to me. Well, I guess it's too much to ask for a simple toolset like NWN1's again, but the professionalism of DA's was a little more than I expected. The first thought was again: This needs wizards... a lot of wizards.

I have to mention another thing that drags me down, and that's the characters. Why, you ask? Well, because I'd never be able to bring this kind of depth into a multiplayer moddule, not even a singleplayer module. Characters are what make this game again extraordinary, and Bioware even did a much better job here than in Mass Effect. Mass Effect still was too close to the stereotypes, and all the characters were somehow foreseeable and easy to understand. Even though they were great in how they came to life, their background and story was clichée. In Dragon Age though, the characters are rich in every aspect, and I was surprised of how much I cared for some of my companions. More than in every other game so far, at least.

The clichées bring me to another topic, and that's Dragon Age's classes and races. There's one huge problem I have to mention right at the beginning: The City Elves. I sort of saw this coming, started with the City Elf Origin and found my fears to be proven: Bioware did exactly what I imagined the elves in Middleforest to be. Why's that bad? Well, because of course everyone will just think I copied from Dragon Age now. Meh.
Besides that, Dragon Age did a lot of things exactly how I wished them to be in D&D. It was so refreshing to find what you could call an overhaul of the D&D system that gets rid of all the rubbish and makes things easier and better where it can. Many things are very familiar to those used to D&D and games like NWN, but you can expect some surprising changes as well. I had great fun with the overhaul of the rogue class, just to name one. New feats like the "Below the belt" one are extremely fun to have, even if they might not be very powerful. But the animation that goes with it alone is fun enough. Oh, animations... do I have to mention how wonderful animations are? This is clearly the department where Bioware can show Obsidian their middle finger with a huge grin, and proves how much attention they can pay to details if they just want to. My conclusion is, in the level design department they just don't want to.

Let's not forget some aspects of the game that were talked a lot about, like the maturity of the game. There's two aspects of maturity in the game, one is the actual storyline, the other is content. As for the storyline, yes, it's a mature storyline that should appeal to adults a lot more than Mass Effect. The characters in the game are not as naive and simple anymore as they once were, and there's a lot of grey now where once was black and white only. Bioware got finally rid of the simple good/evil axis and decissions in this game are very tough... some had me stare at the screen for minutes or a half hour, some touched me deeply. Job very well done.
But most people probably think of blood and sex when the topic is adult content, so let's talk about that. The violence level in Dragon Age might be 18+, but it's not mature - it's silly. Some might be realistic, I'll take the Witcher for comparison again. I'm sure Bioware looked very closely at The Witcher and adopted a lot of ideas from that game. Finishing moves, severed heads, that was just too familiar. But Bioware has overdone it, and that's where it's not mature anymore. In some scenes the fountains of blood and gore are so silly I fell back into my chair and slapped my forehead, it was not the Witcher but much more the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
This game certainly needs blood and violence, but they've not done it right.
As for the sex, this is again somewhere in between, and again we have to differentiate between storyline and graphics. As for the graphical sex, i.e. nudity, I have no clue where "partial nudity" is shown. In the hottest scenes you see characters in underwear, hardly nude (although parts of that underwear are quite detailed). There are some creatures that show a little more than underwear, but still no partial nudity. A demon and a spirit come to mind, both seem again a little familar (uh... Driad and Bruxxa in The Witcher), but both show as much as the Witcher's censored North American version, with the most delicate parts hidden. So as for graphical nudity, there's not much mature content.
As for the storyline, there are scenes comparable to the one in Mass Effect (Mass Effect's was done better in my opinion) and some "in between quickies". Bioware made sure absolutely every taste is catered to, there are hetero, gay, even options for a mix of all. None of them are very detailed, the main romance plotlines are very well done though, and very tasteful, mature in a positive way. And from my experience, it's not just a "discover everything in the game" thing, your companions can grow so much on you that you really want to get everything out of them. Again, well done, doesn't deserve a "filthy" stamp. Actualy, and you may think whatever you like about that, I'd rather have had partial nudity in the main romance scene, maybe hidden by the camera angles of the cutscene. The silly undies appeared too much like a self-censorship and actually deserve a negative point in maturity. I guess they wanted to avoid the stupid remarks about the Witcher, in which you see a little more and which earned the game an unjustified "sexist" stamp.

Now a last word on the ingame systems. I must say besides the "D&D overhaul" there wasn't much that impressed me. The influence on other characters is the same as in all Bioware games, hardly surprising anymore. Theres no "living, breathing" world around you like in The Witcher, no NPC jobs, no day/night cycles, no weather system, nothing at all. If there are any nifty ideas in Dragon Age, it's in the lore, the story, the characters and setting, but certainly not in any ingame systems. Well, of course there are nifty ideas in the class progressions, feats and spells, but that won't be easy to copy in NWN. But for a living, breathing world The Witcher is still the prime example in my opinion.
You know what my last impression is though, especially with the sometimes very archaic area design? Multiplayer... MMO. This game is made to run on as many systems as possible, on my now 3 year old computer it runs on he highest of highest settings, smooth as silk. There are many aspects ingame and outside that could lead to a multiplayer game, add to that some comments on the DA boards like "we wanted to focus on singleplayer for now" and and and.. it's just a feeling deep in my stomach, but it's not a positive next-NWN feeling, it's more a negative MMO feeling... And yeah, just a feeling, probably best to ignore it.

One "meh" for the textures

Another huge "Meh" for the textures... shame on you Bioware...

Realistic placeables? What for, in a fantasy game... meh.

Sloppy area design, part one... if you just use 10 spots of grass in the whole area (meh), you could at least place those ten spots correctly. Meh.