Miss Ultima RPG Gameplay? Storm Avadon: The Black Fortress

Avadon: The Black Fortress ($20, free demo) from Spiderweb Games continues that company's tradition of large-scale, top-down (Ultima-style), story-rich CRPGs. In Avadon: The Black Fortress, you play a newly chosen "Hand" of Avadon, a kingdom which has united (or perhaps, oppressed) neighboring nations in a treaty known as the Pact. As you play, you learn more about the world and its history, and slowly uncover a web of mysteries. Oh, and you kill monsters. Lots of monsters. And rummage through every trash heap, desk, and chest you can find in a mad pursuit of any loot you can use or sell.

Old school gamers know that in games like Avadon, you pick up every single thing.
While Avadon uses the interface style of many older games, it has kept up with the times, using high-resolution icons instead of retro, blocky, ones, and it has a clean and responsive interface. Animation is still minimalist, and no matter what you're wearing, the only visual change to your character is the weapon equipped. You name your starting character and pick their class (which gives you a fixed portrait and a gender), and then you begin your quest. In short order, you'll have a chance to select companions, each of whom has their own personality and story. Although I enjoy truly older-style games that let you create an entire party from scratch, Avadon's use of pre-generated characters is equally satisfying. The cast of characters you're given makes it possible to tell a story…not only are your companions useful in combat, they will drop major plot points at various places and even interact with each other, which means, if you pick different sets of companions, you'll see different results at certain points in the game.

Avadon is turn-based. When not in combat, you simply click to move, and your party follows you. Once combat begins, each character moves or acts individually, and tactics start to matter. Enemies often swarm at you from many directions, and you cannot casually run by or away from enemies. You have a range of special attacks and powers, increasing as you go up in level (much like the talent trees in Diablo II and many MMORPGs, such as World of Warcraft), but these consume resources that regenerate slowly. Further, they can be used only infrequently--it may take 10 turns for a power to recharge--so there's a real resource management factor to fights. Knowing when to use your powers for maximum effect is critical; you cannot simply spam your best attack over and over.

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Hungry? Fire up BigOven Software

The Internet is a great place to find recipes. Start with a search engine, and a few clicks later, you can find almost any recipe using any ingredient possible. But if you cook a lot and have built up a store of recipes, a strong, flexible database program can be very useful for finding and accessing favorite recipes quickly and easily. BigOven ($16/year, limited demo) is an easy-to-use and powerful database that lets you organize recipes and find them in a flash.

Photos and community ratings add color and context to recipes in BigOven.
BigOven's word-processing-style interface has multiple panes so that you can click on a recipe and bring it up on the same page. It offers many different ways to browse for a recipe, including by cuisine, main ingredient, course, and keyword. Once you’ve found a recipe, you can easily edit it, add notes and tags to it, convert from Imperial to metric system, rate it, and add it to your favorites.

You access all of these functions via buttons on the main page of BigOven, which makes the interface seem crowded at first. But once you’ve sifted through the many functions to find the ones you want to use and the ones you don’t, this design makes navigating, choosing and printing recipes as quick as it can be. Everything has been pared down to fewest clicks possible. The quickness and ease is what makes BigOven so powerful.

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DisplayFusion Pro Makes Two Monitors Seem Like More

Working with multiple monitors can really boost productivity, but it also presents a number of unique challenges. For example, not everyone likes to have the same wallpaper on all monitors, or even the same screensaver. Some people also use different wallpapers or themes to color-code their desktops. DisplayFusion Pro ($25, 30-day free trial) lets you assign per-monitor wallpapers and screensavers, but that’s just the beginning.

DisplayFusion Pro screenshot
DisplayFusion Pro even lets you change the background of the Windows Logon screen.
DisplayFusion’s rich configuration interface can be used to assign hotkeys to numerous window management operations, such as moving windows around, spanning a window across all monitors, and even locking the mouse cursor to the current monitor or window. You can also assign any of these actions to a “TitleBar Button”--a small button that DisplayFusion overlays on the active window, next to the Minimize, Maximize, and Close buttons Windows provides.

When my girlfriend started using multiple monitors last month, she was surprised to discover that the Windows taskbar doesn’t span monitors, but it shows only on the primary monitor. DisplayFusion Pro can correct this by adding a taskbar to each “extra” monitor. The extra taskbar looks just like the native Windows one, but has a different context menu. You can have it show icons only for windows on that monitor, or for all currently running applications. If you move your “real” taskbar to a different edge of the screen, DisplayFusion automatically moves the extra taskbar to the corresponding edge on its own monitor, so all screens always look alike.

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AquaSnap Lets You Snap Windows Around--Even on XP and Vista

If you’re still using Windows XP or Windows Vista, you may have seen friends or coworkers snapping windows around with Windows 7’s newfangled hotkeys, and longed for the same functionality for your aging system. AquaSnap (free) delivers this, and more.

AquaSnap essentially lets you snap windows into place either by dragging them around, or by using predefined hotkeys. When you use it with the mouse, you need only drag a window to one of the screen edges or corners. A large icon then appears, showing what would happen to the window once you let go of the mouse. Much like Aero Snap, touching the window against the screens left or right edges would make the window resize to occupy that half of the screen. But if you touch one of the corners, AquaSnap will resize the window to occupy that quarter of the screen--something Aero Snap doesn’t do.

If accurate window snapping is all you need, you may want to try out another free utility called WinSplit Revolution. WSR supports fine-grained control over the position and size of each of your windows, as well as the hotkeys used to place them.

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SRS Audio Essentials Enhances Sound to Awesome (but Addictive) Standards

If you've never heard SRS's sound enhancements, you're missing out. They add bass, depth, spaciousness, and clarity to just about any piece of music or video. Bass-enriching TruBass and space-enhancing Focus and Definition (as WOW)are actually included with Windows Media Player, but if you use another player, you need SRS Audio Essentials, a free version of which is available that adds WOW and TruBass to any player and works with virtually any audio or video player. I use it with VLC, which I favor for its comprehensive format support.

There doesn't seem to be a lot new in SRS Audio Essentials other than the name, a new look, and a new feature called TrueVolume. To all appearances, SRS AE is an updated version of the company's HD Audio Lab (though SRS Labs was quick to call it a new product when I asked about it). Whatever it is, it's better than HD Lab, whose interface was, to be polite, less than stellar. Audio Essentials' interface mimics the look of a stereo receiver and is far more logical and intuitive. I have only one complaint--the icons and text are too small for old fogies like myself. Kids will have no problems.

SRS Audio Essentials screenshot
The SRS Audio Essentials interface is friendly, and pretty, but also a bit small.
The free version of SRS Audio Essentials handles two-speaker setups, provides the equivalent of WOW and TruBass and should be enough for just about anyone's needs. There are presets for music, gaming, and movies as well as desktop and laptop speakers which should also be fine for the average user. I did notice the occasional crackling on output, but this turned out to be having inadvertently selected 5.1 speaker output when I only have a 2 speaker system.

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Tactical Game Battle for Wesnoth Wins Accolades, Doesn't Loot Your Wallet

Battle for Wesnoth is a free, tactical, turn-based game in which you command fantasy armies in a variety of scenarios. The game follows a relatively familiar pattern: Beginning with a few units, you must acquire resources, summon troops, and accomplish some pre-determined goal, such as "Kill the orc chieftain" or "Escort the caravan across the map."

Battle for Wesnoth is known for its well-designed tactical gameplay... not its scintillating dialogue.
Each unit in Battle for Wesnoth represents an individual, not an army, distinguishing it from similar games, such as most iterations of Heroes of Might and Magic. This distinction matters, because units can gain experience and advance, becoming more powerful and unlocking new abilities. In many other games, this is something only 'leader' or 'hero' units can do. This, in turn, adds an interesting twist to tactics: Whoever gets the killing blow on an enemy unit gets the bulk of the experience points. If you let just anyone strike without paying attention to their current XP, it will be harder to get a unit to level up...but trying to manipulate things to make sure the level-up-likely unit gets to attack can lead to serious blunders. You can "recall" experienced units from prior scenarios in a campaign, so experience accumulated in one scenario is not lost, and scenarios in long campaigns are balanced on the assumption you will be bringing advanced units with you.

Typically, a Battle for Wesnoth campaign begins with one or more leaders (the only characters who can recruit new troops), a small amount of gold, and a straightforward goal explained via a sequence of dialog boxes featuring NPC conversation... sort of a storyboarded cut scene. You recruit troops in a fortress, then start exploring the map. Moving a unit into a village will flag the village and cause it to start producing gold, which you will need to recruit more units. You will find roads, forests, mountains, and, eventually, the enemy. Then the fun begins.

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John's Background Switcher Keeps Your Desktop Wallpaper Fresh

Wallpaper switchers are not a new invention. If you’ve ever found yourself bored with a background image that once seemed beautiful and dramatic, you may have felt the need for such a tool. However, few applications (and even fewer free applications) mature over time to become as capable and impressive as John’s Background Switcher.

John's Background Switcher screenshot
John’s Background Switcher can pull wallpaper images from a range of online sources, as well as from your own computer.
John’s Background Switcher (or JBS) can pull in images from a wide array of online sources, such as Flickr, Facebook, and SmugMug. It also works with VladStudio, a website that specializes in wallpapers. If the images you’re looking for aren’t located in any particular website, JBS can even use Google, Bing or Yahoo! image search with any query you provide, to pull in images from across the entire Web.

You don’t have to commit to just one wallpaper source: JBS lets you mix and match multiple sources, each with its own source-specific options. For example, when you poll Flickr for images, you can specify a search string (a generic option), but you can also narrow your search down to a specific Flickr group and select whether to sort images by “interestingness” (a Flickr metric) or newness. You can also poll the same source for images in multiple categories--I have seven different Flickr profiles set up.

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