The Game Jar Files: Weekend Entertainment: Guild Wars – Ghosts of Ascalon

Originally published on The Game Jar.com – 27/04/13

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With Guild Wars 2 set some 250 years after the first game, there’s obviously a fairly large gap in the lore to fill. Once upon a time, that gap would have been filled by in-game means; finding readable books or speaking to non-player characters for example, but over the last few years, developers have found another way to expand their worlds. The Ghosts of Ascalon is the first of three books aimed at fleshing out the world of Tyria, but is it worth your time? I dived in to find out.

On the face of it, diving into a book that’s set in-between two lore-heavy games could be a fairly daunting thing to do, but thankfully, the two authors appear to be aware of that fact. The book details the pertinent bits of Tyrian history and the Charr/Human conflict, but doesn’t weigh you down with anything more. As the story goes, King Adlebern, who we last saw in the first Guild Wars game, is faced with losing Ascalon City to the Charr once and for all. Finding death before defeat preferable, the king unleashes the Foefire with his magical sword, Magdaer, killing everyone in the process. Ascalon City became a home to the undead, and for hundreds of years vengeful ghosts have roamed its battlements, forever trapped in the past, and still believing that Charr invaders remain at their walls. Dougal Keane is the only person alive known to have ventured in to the city, and lived to tell the tale, and now some needs him to go there again. Needless to say, he needs some convincing.

And so the Ghosts of Ascalon tells the story of Dougal Keane and his fellow adventurers, all of them on a quest to bring peace to the Charr and Humans by recovering a sacred artefact from Ascalon City. Somewhat predictably, our hero collects his companions from every one of the main Tyrian races; Human, Charr, Sylvari and Asura. The Human and Charr characters take centre stage in the story, and as a result, they’re better realised than the others. The story is fairly straightforward, the heroes gather together, journey to their destination, and overcome various trials along the way. The action is well written, perhaps a little unimaginative, but interesting enough to keep me turning the pages. Where the book excels though, is the portrayal of Ascalon itself. The book really brings to life a land divided by conflict, and heavy with the scars of war.

Another enjoyable aspect of the book is the tie-in to in-game locations. You can visit Divintys Reach and Ebonhawke. You can cross the Dragonbrand and stand on the viewing  hill. You can even find some of the characters in-game, and talk to them about their adventures. It’s these kind of connections between game and book that sells these novels, and the Ghosts of Ascalon has plenty to go around. My favourite aspect of the book though, is the fantastic job it does of conveying the deep underlying enmity between the Charr and the Humans. If your familiar with the events of the first Guild Wars, you’ll know  that by the time of the book, the war between these two races stretches back hundreds of years. In the future, when we reach Guild wars 2, there’s an uneasy peace between the two, and the book does a great job of bringing to life the difficulties of bringing two mortal enemies together.

The book isn’t perfect though. The biggest issue I have with the book is the portrayal of the Norn characters. Here, they’re almost reduced to the role of unthinking barbarians, completely out of step with the characters found in the actual game. Yes, the Norn are similar to the archetypal image of Vikings, hard-drinking and hard fighting, but they also have their sophistication. Anyone who’s spent any in-game time with the Norn might find the two Norn characters within the book unrecognisable. Also, with the book being published before the game was released  there are some things that don’t quite match the in-game reality. The Asura gates for instance, are described as being a different colour to that in the game. I know that’s being ultra picky, but this book is aimed at fans intimately familiar with the game world the book is set in, and we’re notoriously picky people.

Overall though, the book is an enjoyable read that provides some useful back story to anyone who plays the game. As with a lot of these game-based books, I think the Ghosts of Ascalon is unlikely to convince non-Guild Wars 2 players to try the game, but perhaps that’s not the aim. So long as the reader isn’t expecting a modern classic, they’ll find the book is good, knock about fun. Guild Wars fans, on the other hand, will love it.

Summary: Not an epic piece of fantasy literature, but fans of the game will enjoy it. Recommended for and Guild Wars player wanting to delve deeper into the game’s lore.

Good points: Visits many in-game locations, fills in some of the gap between Guild Wars and Guild wars 2, gives a great sense of the uneasy peace between two of the game’s main races.

Bad points: Not a classic piece of fantasy literature, the Norn characters seem at odds with those found in the game.

Why a seven? It’s a great read for Guild Wars fans, but for anyone else? I’m not so sure. There’s plenty of more sophisticated fantasy books out there, and by comparison, Ghosts of Ascalon feels a little simplistic.

The Game Jar Files: Gaming on the Kindle Fire HD

Originally published on The Game Jar.com – 10/01/2013

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When it comes to buying new gadgets, I’ve always stuck to the principle that you get what you pay for.   But is that right? Having just bought myself a Kindle Fire HD, I was curious; it’s roughly half the cost of an iPad, so would it only be half as capable? I downloaded three different games to see if I could find out.

Keen to try out something familiar for comparison purposes, I chose Plants versus Zombies (Kindle Tablet Edition) as my first game. With just Adventure mode and quick play to choose from, this is PvZ as it used to be. There’s no Zen Garden, no mini-games, and no micro transactions. Even though I like some of the additional modes added to the other versions, there is something quite refreshing about going back to a purer form of the game, one that isn’t crammed full of signs encouraging you to spend extra money. Graphically its as good as it’s siblings on other devices, the title screen and main menu look like they’ve been squashed in a little to fit the screen size, but the game itself looks lush. Good touch controls are a vital part of the PvZ experience in my opinion (it’s why I don’t like the Xbox 360 version), and on the Kindle they’re very good. Plants go where you want them too, and quick selection changes under pressure are precise. In fact, the whole game runs as smoothly as it does on iOS devices. It’s not a game that requires big processing power I know, but it’s still pleasing to know that the Kindle version is just as good as any of the others.

My next choice was Pac-Man HD (Kindle tablet edition) OK, so it’s Pac-Man. How they’ve got the cheek to call it HD, I don’t know, it’s still Pac-Man as you know it, there’s a maze with dots in, ghosts chase you. How high def can you make a little yellow disc anyway? Controls are pretty simple, you can choose between flick controls, or the pac pad, which is a virtual joystick kind of thing. Both the options feel sluggish to me, maybe that’s because I’m old enough to have played the original coin-op with a proper joystick, I don’t know, but the menus aren’t that snappy either. The whole thing feels slightly unresponsive, and given my experience with the other two games here, I can’t help conclude that it’s down to the game and not the device. Pac-Man HD was never going to tax the Kindle graphically, but it did raise one interesting question: How much time and resource are developers willing to commit to games on the Kindle? Pac-Man HD feels like a game that could have been better optimized for the device it was on, and would have been if the market was larger. Will developers ever develop games specifically for the Kindle, or will it have to make do with hand-me-downs?

If there’s one game that’s going to test the Kindle’s graphical power, it’s FireMonkeys conversion of Criterion’s latest point-to-point racer, Need for Speed: Most Wanted. On the whole, it passes with flying colours. The game licks along at a decent pace, fast enough that you don’t notice the two-dimensional scenery going past, and the frame rate is rock solid. The controls are pretty simple, braking is controlled by touching the left side of the screen, boost is activated by swiping up, drifting is controlled by touching the right. There’s no accelerator controls at all, and steering is taken care of by either turning the device left and right, or by moving your thumb after switching to the touch and drag option. On the default sensitivity, the accelerometer controls seem to be a little “all or nothing”, whether that’s my fault, the Kindle’s fault, or the games fault is impossible for me to judge right now, a broader range of games using the tilt controls will reveal all. Overall, NFS:MW impressed me though, some of the graphical sparkle may be down smoke and mirrors, but it still looks pretty enough to wow me every time I play it. If I were trying to impress my friends with the Kindle’s gaming abilities, this is the game I would show them.

Having spent some time with it now, I can conclude that the Kindle Fire HD has impressed me with its gaming prowess, but not enough for it to become my mobile gaming device of choice. Partly, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of using up the battery life of my shiny new e-reader playing games, but mainly it’s issues with the devices operating system that hold it back. The Kindle Fire HD uses a modified version of Android, and as a result the device is tied to the Amazon App store, and not the Google Play one. Using the games I’ve tried here as an example, Plants versus Zombies has none of the later content updates, and while Nexus 7 users can play the excellent Pac-Man: CE, we get plain old regular Pac-Man. Being tied to Amazon’s ecosystem hurts the Kindle’s gaming credentials, and it’s such a shame too, because in all other technical respects, the Kindle really does compare well to its rivals. Having bought one personally, I don’t think I’d recommend the Fire HD to people looking for a tablet to play games on, but if you’re looking for an e-reader that can also play games? I think the Kindle is worth a look.

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