The Juggernaut Returns – Neverwinter Nights Enhanced Edition

Posted by on Nov 21, 2017 in Featured, Neverwinter Nights

I happened across the above Tweet RT’d by the official D&D account, and I stopped breathing. Literally, and I mean that.

While Baldur’s Gate inarguably resurrected the CRPG genre after it had been laid low by the surge of FPS, it wasn’t until Neverwinter Nights that computer RPGs reached their pinnacle. Sure, The Witcher series looks great, and Dragon Age gives you in-depth stories, but NWN had the one thing that has never been replicated in all of CRPGdom: The Aurora Toolset. Yes, it deserves capitalization. No, I am not kidding.

NWN was a great game, and a worthy successor to BG and Icewind Dale, but it was the tools that helped make the leap from a good game to a great game. Authors had access to all of the materials that made up the base game and eventually the expansions. Developers could create mods for the toolset. And while the tools were never designed to create a persistent, online, multi-server game world, people found ways to do that. And at the heart of the tools was the scripting system which allowed users to create entirely new mechanics with relative ease. Many games have tried to approach the altar of the Aurora Toolset, but none have been found worthy, not Sword Coast Legends, not Divinity Original Sin 2, nobody.

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Gushing praise aside, I have to credit NWN for helping me practice my programming skills early in my life. My fondest memory was of creating a “forensics kit” that allowed module developers to have players utilize skills to spot or reveal clues, to collect samples, and to perform investigations on materials that could provide information. Obviously, this fits into a module that I had been working on myself, but it was a damned fine system that worked really well. Sadly, I never got around to completing my module, and the code…well, it’s been lost to history.

Beamdog is one of those steady yet below-the-radar houses. I never remember they exist except when they breach the surface with these kinds of announcements. They brought back Baldur’s GateIcewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment enhanced editions. They’ve even released an expansion for BG decades after the game was in vogue. The EEs tend to result in games that are better suited for today’s resolutions, and while the graphics are also enhanced as a result, we’re not talking Frostbite Engine-level visuals here: it’s the “enhanced” edition, not the “remastered” edition, so don’t expect the “mitten hands” of the characters to suddenly morph into fully articulated digits. Still, I suspect we will be enjoying some level of improved graphics.

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There’s going to be an official announcement on Beamdog’s Twitch channel this afternoon at 12 PDT (3PM EDT for me, and on-demand after the fact no doubt) during which we can hope to see the visuals of the EE, and get word on whether or not the Aurora Toolset will be included. Considering the tools were used to actually create the campaign of Neverwinter Nights, I can’t imagine that they’d be absent; in fact, in looking at the Twitter responses to the original Tweet, I’d expect nothing short of a riot if the tools weren’t included in this.

I am extremely eccstatic.

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And Lo! The Heavens Opened (And Made Me Nauseous)

Posted by on Nov 16, 2017 in Virtual Reality

And Lo! The Heavens Opened (And Made Me Nauseous)

Yesterday was a Big Day for the Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) crowd, as Microsoft opened up the gates to the beta of their SteamVR Bridge. Now, I’m not well versed in this corner of the technological world, although I’m getting there, so I believe that Microsoft being Microsoft, they’re not just adopting someone else’s work. Rather, their “mixed reality” initiative is driving them down an alternative — but parallel — road to the SDKs used by the Vive and Oculus. In an ideal world, all WMR HMDs would simply work with SteamVR right out of the box. That is not the case, and rather than Valve assuming the burden of updating their core SDK to include WMR support, Microsoft is creating something that users will need to download and install in order to translate the inner workings of the WMR devices to something SteamVR can recognize. Or so I believe.

As such, what dropped yesterday isn’t 100% ready for prime time as no one can account for all of the VR offerings that need to be tested with the bridge in just a single day. In most cases, whenever the handheld controller is shown as part of the software, it’s invariably a Vive handheld controller that is shown. One of the issues this causes is that the buttons differ from the Vive to the WMR controller. SteamVR’s “menu” button is a click of the thumb-stick for the Vive and Oculus, while the WMR has a dedicated menu button that would be a more logical analogue. Naturally, we wouldn’t expect Valve to update SteamVR to handle these differences when offering the tutorial, and in the end, it’s a minor inconvenience to be accepted in exchange for access to the larger Steam library.

My first stop in testing out the bridge was, quite frankly, to get it working. Rumor had it that the SteamVR tutorial should start when I fire up the bridge alongside SteamVR, but I didn’t get that to happen until I brute forced it later on. So I went for the gusto and jumped back into the cockpit of my ASP Explorer for some quality Elite Dangerous VR time.

When starting SteamVR, you’re presented with a grid plane beneath you, and a grid dome above you. It’s non-descript, and I believe that there’s some way to layer on some visuals but I couldn’t get that to work. Elite fired up but was off-center from the physical orientation I needed in order to use my HOTAS. Facing is a problem with VR, I’ve noticed, and unlike the PSVR, there’s no obvious one-button-push method to recenter any view to your physical orientation. Time was short, so I ran with it since it wasn’t that off-center.

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Sorry, not my screenshot. And not in VR.

It sounds like a broken record, but there is no way to describe the sensation of your brain being tricked into believing that your physical self is sitting in a cockpit of a spaceship. I left the hangar on the lift and was granted a panoramic view of the surface of the planet at which I’d last docked. But taking off was the butter on the bread. Not only was there full head tracking that allowed me to look around the cockpit and through all of the windows (in the ASPEx, there’s a lot of windows) but aligning with the gravity exit vector was slightly vertigo-inducing. I managed to make it to the nearest orbital station, and I was in awe at the relative size of the structure as I landed my ship on the designated pad. This really was the Holy Grail for space simulation junkies, without a doubt.

I tried Steam’s “Cliff House” edition which doesn’t seem to offer much. I could choose the furnishings from a menu and could jump around using teleport, but that was mostly about it. The odd thing is that because the SteamVR support for WMR’s is a bit of a hack, I had to load Cliff House for the WMR, then could enter SteamVR apps including the Steam House. A house within a house, in other words.

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Next up: Subnautica, a beautiful game that I was terrified to try. I am a certified SCUBA diver, so being underwater doesn’t faze me much, but any diver is lying if he or she tells you that they have never experienced a moment of terror as they stare off into the murky haze of the ocean and envisions something horrific emerging. For some reason, this was my entire Subnautica experience, mainly because I’d encountered such creatures in previous play-throughs. It’s one thing to be startled by an aggressive creature the size of a school bus when you’re looking at it in 2D but in 3D? I dog-paddled around outside the sub for a bit and then decided that I needed to go make dinner. Quickly.

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Guess who’s coming to dinner?

Later, I tried Everspace because it’s something I own and has VR support. Everspace is a kind of rogue-like mixed with a bit of FTL and is presented as a space dogfighting sim. Basically, if you want a game that’ll both blow you away in VR and make you vomit, this fits the bill. The good news is that because the headset allows for head-tracking within the game it’s a lot easier to keep the guns on your targets as they whiz past. The bad news is that rapid movements such as those required by dogfighting with six degrees of freedom is going to seriously make you want to puke. I played through the first map but then had to stop because my head hurt and I was feeling dizzy.

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Of course, after staring at deep space for the duration, taking the headset off was kind of a shock, as the lights were on in the basement. This made me question the suitability of VR for some games. While Elite Dangerous and Everspace are examples of games that will really bowl you over in VR, neither one is really suited for healthy long-term immersion, I think. Being in an enclosed space (the HMD’s facemask) with little to look at but the darkness of space, is like staring at a phone or tablet in a dark room for long periods of times — something experts say you should not do. I also want to blame the positioning of the HMD on my head, because due to the design of this particular device, the weight is resting on my forehead…which happened to be one of the locations that hurt, but which also happens to be the point right above my eyes where eyestrain tends to settle and cause issues.

There are a few other things I tried. I downloaded The Lab, which is Valve’s VR demo space, but I couldn’t get it working well with my control scheme. I managed to find a way — through the layers of Steam menus — to recenter the HMD’s view to my seated orientation (at least I think so). I spent a lot of time poking through settings, but several of them did nothing. I don’t know if that’s a case of the WMR Bridge not implementing that level of integration yet, or if I was just expecting one thing while getting none of it. There are a few other lower-tier experiences I want to try, like social spaces such as Sansar and AltspaceVR, or the recently released Rec Room. I hope those will be easier on the eyes, and less sickening in the process.

At this point, though, I am thinking that I’ll need to stagger my HMD use. I think that if such intense staring that games require is enhanced when using an HMD, then eyestrain is going to be a huge issue. I could play Elite for several hours with the monitor but was only able to kick around for about 30 minutes with the headset. I doubt I’ll even give Everspace another go since the issues after that were far more pronounced. I’d like to get some less-intense games in the mix though, just so I can have a wider swath of experiences to benchmark by.

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Next Next Gen VR

Posted by on Nov 14, 2017 in Hardware, Virtual Reality

A tale of two cities…if by “cities” we mean “VR experiences”.

On one shore, we have the high-end solutions like the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift, and Microsoft’s third-party HMDs. These devices are the forerunners of the 21st century VR push, with high-resolution displays requiring beefy PCs to run. While users can enjoy six degrees of freedom (6DoF), it comes at the price of being tethered to a desktop or high-end laptop.

On the other shore, the lower-end solutions like Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR. These offerings require that you have a compatible smartphone that you insert into a face-mounted frame. Most of the input for these devices is handled by a small remote control, although you can find bargain-bin headsets on Amazon that will hold your phone and offer a mediocre but passable VR experience.

While the tech sites have been focusing mostly on the higher-end devices and the promises they’ve been making for the future of VR, it’s the lower end solutions that have had the most wiggle room. Enter the HTC Vive Focus, and the Oculus Go.

These two devices are either the natural evolution of smartphone-based VR or a head-smackingly obvious answer to what seemed to be a hack: instead of relying on a headset that works with the phone you have, why not just build the processing into the headset itself? Not only does this give you the same (or, ideally, better) experience that you get with the phone VR, it’s 100% portable and smaller than their higher-powered cousins. While the HTC Vive Focus is going to be launching first in China in order to serve the exploding Chinese VR market, the Oculus Go is set to launch elsewhere sometime in 2018 for around $199.

I’ve tried phone-based VR, and it worked well, although I only had a cheap headset with no Bluetooth support. The biggest issue with these phone-holder headsets is that unless the set is designed specifically for the model of phone you have, you’re going to be fitting a square peg in an octagonal hole; yes, it will probably fit, but you won’t get the best experience possible. Another issue was device heat. Pushing pixels required for VR on a smartphone is no simple task, and doing so makes the phone incredibly hot. And although phone VR can offer some engaging experiences, I say that only because I expect that it can, not that I actually experienced anything mind-blowing. There were only so many roller-coaster simulators I could stand. But this is the same issue the higher-end VR headsets have: feeling-out content as devs come to grips with the limits of the tech, and what consumers are willing and able to consume.

I like this step, though. $199 is, as stated, almost an “impulse buy”. According to the articles linked above, John Carmack believes that the phone-based VR will continue to dominate this level mainly because everyone already has a smartphone, and that means docking headsets can be offered for so much cheaper. My Google Pixel has Daydream pre-installed, although I don’t have a headset that can take advantage of it. As the tech improves (as is always the caveat), then the experience can improve, and so while we will certainly continue to improve on the high-end devices, it may be these lower-end, self-contained headsets that make VR palatable for the masses in the end.

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