Thursday, April 28, 2011

Soundtrack - The Study Environment

The past couple of days I've been keeping music playing constantly.  Remember how everyone was talking about the Mozart Effect 10-15 years ago?  I don't know how much of that was real and how much of that was hype.   In fact, I don't even know if there was validity to the idea that listening to Mozart temporarily increased your memory retention skills.  I do know, however, that listening to music of any kind makes it easier for me to concentrate.  Normally I'd have something like Epica, Kamelot, Sonata Arctica, Therion or Nightwish playing.  I discovered that they were the perfect study music a few years ago, back when I spent my life buried in the photography darkroom developing for 8 or so hours at a time.  The last major paper I wrote was actually pulled together to tune of Therion's Live Gothic concert on DVD.   (Look it up.) It repeatedly blared through my computer's speakers for days on end and my neighbor's probably hated me for it by the time 5 am rolled around every night. The usuals haven't been cutting it this week though, so I decided to break out my collection of video game soundtracks.  Since these albums were designed to merge seamlessly with gameplay they have ended up being the perfect solution for background music.  They both help me focus and remain relatively unobtrusive.  Below are the main themes from the albums which have gotten the most play as of late.  I highly recommend each and every one of these.  Can you guess who my favorite videogame composers are?

Don't worry guys, I haven't forgotten about Mass Effect and there will be a ME1 post on Sunday night.  Have a great rest of your week.






Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Let's Watch - Zero Punctuation

Because I just finished a major project (after 9 uninterrupted hours of mind-numbing loose end tying), have a presentation to prepare for Thursday and roughly forty pages to write + finish researching by Monday, I'm going to let fatigue get the best of me tonight.  I had been working on an original blurb for this week's Tuesday/Wednesday post, but instead I have decided to share a video series which has been keeping me both entertained and sane the past week or so.  Since all of the Zero Punctuation videos are roughly five minutes each I can afford to watch one, have a laugh, and then get back to work without losing too much time.

From Their Website - Zero Punctuation is The Escapist's groundbreaking video review series starring Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw. Every Wednesday Zero Punctuation picks apart the games so you don't have to. Called "hilariously cutting ... first legitimate breakout hit from the gaming community in recent memory" by Boing Boing, see why gamers love it and developers fear it.

Some Thoughts Of My Own -  Witty, antagonistic and insightful, Zero Punctuation has been running for a few years now on the Escapist's website.  While I do not always agree with  Yahtzee's opinions, his reviews are so amusing that I can't hold it against him.  Outside of worshiping a few games like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Psychonauts, Silent Hill 2, and Portal (a devotion not blinded by their flaws); he routinely calls out new releases for lazy story lines and poor game mechanics.  He rarely has anything fantastic to say about Western RPGs, but certainly has much more respect for them then he does JRPGs.  His dislike for the Wii is amusing, and he endears himself to me with a overwhelming dislike for multi player campaigns.  Overall I wouldn't exactly use him to help me find games to buy, I'd end up with empty game shelves, but one can't deny that he makes a number of very keen observations each week.  If you can overlook his off-color language and not-so-family friendly analogies, then you will find Zero Punctuation to be quite a gem.  Below are some of the videos that I have found myself going back to watch time and time again.  At this moment the one for Two Worlds II  is quite possible my favorite.

Past Videos of Amusement -

Assassin's Creed 

Assassin's Creed 2

Fallout: NewVegas

Two Worlds II

Dragon Age: Origins

Fable: The Lost Chapters

Fable 2

Fable 3

Alpha Protocol

Images: SplitReason & The Escapist

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Joyeuses Pâques

Happy Easter everyone.

ME1 - Introducing Meriel Shepard

I'm extremely excited that Mass Effect is just around the corner.  Please read on to see an introduction to Shepard's personality and character makeup.  Following this introduction you will find my guidelines for Mass Effect's gameplay.


Name - Meriel Shepard
Origin - Earthborn
Reputation - Ruthless
Class - Vanguard

About Her Name - Normally when naming characters I try to find a moniker that vaguely connects to an aspect of their history or personality.  This time around, Shepard's first name "Meriel" does none of those things.  A version of the first name Murial, her name roughly means "sea nymph" or "shining sea" depending on where you look.  I didn't find that out until after I named her though.  Meriel just seemed right, so that is what made it into the game.

About Vanguard Class - From the Mass Effect Wiki:
Vanguards are feared for their high-risk high-reward combat style, closing quickly on enemies and destroying them at close range with weapons and biotic abilities. They are outfitted with L5n implants, enabling them to perform a biotic charge that strikes the opponent with incredible force while bringing the Vanguard in close for close-range combat.


The term biotics refers to the ability for some lifeforms to create mass effect fields via Element Zero within their body tissues. [...] The various realizations range from the ability to knock adversaries over or lift them helplessly into the air, create barriers impervious to enemy fire, or even unleash small gravitational vortices that draw in enemies and environmental debris.
Considering information in the next two sections, the Vanguard classification seemed like a natural choice for Meriel. With a combination of normal combat and what equates to jedi powers, this classifications seems like it would appeal greatly to someone who is not afraid to wander off the beaten trail and ultimately relies on no one but themselves in tight situations.

About Pre-service History - Mass Effect describes the "Earthborn" history like this:
As an Earthborn, you had a rough childhood in the slums of Earth, and have a gritty edge to your personality.  You enlisted at the age of eighteen, in order to avoid falling into the trap of gang culture and poverty.
Coming straight off the heels of Perra, who also was from the slums, it would be easy to say that you see a trend in my character creation.  That isn't really true though since I saw this as the better of three choices.  "Spacer" was a past where both of Shepard's parent had been in the military.  She would have grown up on ships and in stations, moving locations every couple of years, and then followed in her parent's footsteps at the age of eighteen.  The other option "Colonist" was a history where  Shepard would have been born in a small border colony that was attacked by slavers when she was sixteen.  The slavers slaughtered her family and friends, and she was saved by an Alliance patrol.  A couple of years later she enlisted.

As a Earthborn we know that it was Shepard's choice to join the military.  She did it because she saw it as a way out of the slums.  Unlike the other two scenarios. she did not join the military through a sense of obligation or a feeling of indebtedness.  No parents (and their friends) were encouraging her to follow in their footsteps, and she did not owe her life to the Alliance.  Going into this game I know nothing about the Alliance, the Citadel, or anything else culturally.  I just feel that someone with Meriel's history would have a better chance of looking at the world objectively.  She initially joined out of necessity, and that (from what I gather) was a while ago.  Any loyalty (or lack of loyalty) she currently feels for the Citadel or the Alliance had to have been earned.  Being Earthborn also makes it easier for her to justify being loyal to her crew but not to the government, should that end up being the case.  With any of the other backgrounds she would have to worry about disappointing her family (be they dead or alive), or feeling like she had betrayed the people who saved her life.

About Psychological Profiles -  I have given Meriel the profile of "Ruthless."  Mass Effect describes it in this way.
Throughout your military career, you have held fast to one basic rule: get the job done.  You've been called cold, calculating, and brutal.  Your reputation for ruthless efficiency makes your fellows wary of you.  But when failure is not an option, the military always goes to you first.
The other two options were "Sole Survivor" and "War Hero". The Sole Survivor had been part of a mission once that went horribly, horribly wrong. Everyone they worked with died as they (and you) found themselves trapped in an extreme survival situation. The game says that "You had to overcome physical torments and psychological stresses that would have broken most people ... now you alone are left to tell the tale." The War Hero, on the other hand, had found themselves, early in their military career, extremely outnumbered by a military force. This character risked their own life to save fellow soldiers, and the enemy was defeated despite great odds. The War Hero's bravery has earned her medals of honor and recognition from the Alliance fleet. I chose not to go with these two "psychological profiles" for a couple of reasons. The first I will get to in a second, but the second lies in the fact that one paints Shepard as a "I can do anything" character with a traumatic back story I can't even begin to get my head around. How on Earth do you role-play someone who has been through a situation like that that you can't even hope to relate to? It almost sets the character up for perfection, which does not give a lot of leway.  The other, War Hero, seemed a little too goody-two shoes.  Selecting that background would make it too easy to project myself onto Meriel's character.

The other reason I chose "Ruthless" is this. On the surface it is so easy to read the description as "bad" or "evil". I, however, see this as the psychological profile of someone who understands the fact that you have to follow your gut. You can't save everyone and sometimes doing what is "right" means doing what society deems as "wrong". This doesn't mean that Shepard is a cold-hearted, callous bastard. This doesn't mean that Shepard doesn't have feelings. This doesn't mean that Shepard can't have affection for, or loyalty to, people she works with. Most importantly, it certainly doesn't mean that Shepard doesn't have a moral compass. What it does mean is that Shepard has learned to evaluate situations, knows that sacrifices sometimes have to be made, and isn't above bending or ignoring the rules if it gets the job done. Growing up in the slums taught her that in the end you can only rely on yourself. You can't let other people sweet talk you into doing something you have a bad feeling about, and you have to assume that promises are just words unless there is something to back them up. She rarely takes anything at face value, is not afraid to challenge decisions, and doesn't hesitate to ask questions if something doesn't seem right. Some people may read this as "cold, calculating, and brutal", but Meriel sees it as doing her job and living to see another day.

Complete Personal History - The Mass Effect Wiki lists Meriel's complete predetermined history as follows:
You were born on Earth, but you never knew your parents. A child of the streets, you learned to live by your wits and guts, surviving in the hidden underbelly of the megatropolises of humanity's home world.

Eager to find a better life, you joined the Alliance military when you came of age. You were assigned to the campaign to rid the Skyllian Verge of batarian slavers and other criminal elements. The final battle came when Alliance forces laid siege to Torfan, a slaver base built miles below the surface of a desolate moon. The superiority of the human fleet was wasted in the assault on the underground bunker, but you led a corps of elite ground troops into the heart of the enemy base.

Nearly three-quarters of your own squad perished in the vicious close-quarters fighting, a cost you were willing to pay to make sure not a single slaver made it out of Torfan alive.

About Appearance - I've tried to tailor Shepard's appearance in order to show that Meriel knows her own power.  Not only that, but she also sees her appearance as just another weapon in her arsenal.  This is a skill that I imagine she would have learned while living on the streets.

For practicality sake she wears her hair in a maintenance-free style.  Buns and updos can get in the way of her helmet or produce headaches.  Both are nuisances which could distract her in the field.  (Nothing is worse then a bun-induced headache.)  At the same time, her hairstyle is of a less severe, more feminine nature which may cause some people to underestimate her.

As a rule my female characters do not wear make up.  It's not that I'm against make up or anything since I happen to be quite fond of dark purple  and red lipsticks myself.  It's just I figure that if someone is fighting in a war, the last thing they will do on the eve of battle is say, "Hold on guys, I have to fix my face.  I'll be back with you in about fifteen minutes."  No, the odds are she would be donning her armor, grabbing her weapons, and readying for a fight.  From a "realism" perspective, one should also consider that any lipstick able to withstand the kind of wear cRPGs demand would have to be some seriously industrial strength stuff.  Meriel is my "makeup exception" so to speak.  I mentioned earlier that she sees her appearance as a weapon, like a gun, that can be used to her advantage.  Wearing red lipstick demonstrates a certain care for her appearance that a nude lip would not.  Red is a more severe color then pink or brown, but it also has a classic appeal to it that makes her appear professional instead of girly or frivolous.  In human circles a red lip is also considered attractive.  This fact may work in her favor should Meriel end up in a situation where she needs to talk her way out of a tight spot.  As for the "realism" factor?  I figure that if a society can have brain implants that give you Jedi-like powers, then its scientists can most certainly invent the lipstain to end all lipstains.

Because of a scar slicing diagonally across her face, the result of close-quarter combat, she had tailored her eyebrows for visual impact.  They are thin enough that her scar transversing the left (her right) eyebrow is relatively unobtrusive.  At the same time, however, the eyebrows are thick enough that Meriel's scar is still visible.  It is a subtle reminder that she has fought a number of very difficult battles and survived every one.  Don't push her if you don't want her to push back.  Meriel's not antagonistic,  but she wants to let people know that she is serious about her job and isn't afraid to "go there" should the situation warrant it.  She is a calculating character, but that does not necessarily mean that she must look unapproachable.

About Morality - Unlike Dragon Age: Origins which flirted with grey morality, Mass Effect relies on a more traditional binary model.  There are, of course, decisions you can make which are morally neutral, but discussions and decisions often result in a moral shift towards "Paragon" (read: white) or "Renegade" (read: black).  From the get-go, Meriel is at a disadvantage.  By checking out the Mass Effect Wiki after my character creation was complete, I discovered that classifying oneself as "Ruthless" adds bonus Renegade points to a character's profile.  Likewise, "Earthborn characters gain a large bonus in Renegade points received, allowing them to max out their Renegade bar faster."  The game appears to believe that classifying oneself as one or both of these categories means that one's Shepard is greater inclined towards "evil" acts. As explained in an above section, however, I do not see it that way.  As a result I am revising what the Mass Effect  morality system means. Instead of being a gauge of how "good" or "evil" Meriel is, it will be a gauge of how "good" or "evil" the world perceives her to be.  I have already established that Shepard operates within her own definition of morality, so there is no reason that actions classified as  Paragon or Renegade should affect the decisions she makes.  Instead she will make the decision which she perceives to be correct or most advantageous at that given time.  I'm not sure how I'll explain away facial scarring that, I believe, is supposed to appear if a character descends too far into the Renegade side of things in ME2.  Should that become an issue I'll take it as it comes.  Maybe we will just consider it general "battle scarring" and be done with it.

Edited to add - It has come to my attention since writing this (thank you friends who have already played the game and love dropping hints) that some achievements may be difficult to ... well ... achieve if you are not all Paragon or all Renegade.  Be this true or not, it is not a concern for me.  If my goal in playing Mass Effect was to get certain items or achieve certain things then this would be an issue.  Since my goal is to roleplay, however, then the game will just go as it goes.  I am not entering in with any preconceived notions about what "side" Meriel will take.  It is likely she may end up being completely one or the other, but it is also just as likely that she will walk a middle line or only slightly favor one type of action over another.  Everything I have written about her character still holds.

About Blogging - As far as blogging about Mass Effect goes, I am allowing the process to change as circumstances dictate since, unlike with DA:O, I have never actually played the game before.  I'm going to try and keep a lot of things similar to the DA:O blogs, but I beg you to bear with me as I figure out what works for this particular title.  Expect Mass Effect entries to be slow for the next few weeks as 40-60 pages of my semester end research comes due.   Non-RP posts, however will keep their usual blogging schedule and Mass Effect entries should increase once those papers are no longer hanging over my head.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Let's Talk About - The Witcher: Enhanced Edition, Director's Cut has announced that it will be selling it's 2007 title The Witcher for $9.99 before The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings' release in May.  If you buy the game between May 10 and May 14, it will be only $4.99.  The game's listing (available for purchase May 10) is here.  They are selling the Enhanced Edition/Director's Cut so this is the new & improved re-release of the game from 2008.  One particular NSFW image on their site shows that this is also the uncensored version which was released in Europe.  If you want the censored version, it can generally be found for roughly $20.00 at any American online store.

The Official Game Description - Your name is Geralt of Rivia and you are a witcher, that means you kill monsters for a living. You were given a special training to be the best at what you do and your body has been enhanced with potent elixirs to help you do it.

Suffering from amnesia you remember nothing of your past. Kaer Morhen, the last remaining keep of the witchers, was attacked by a mysterious organization, just as you were starting to lick your wounds there. The battle is won but the secret recipe for the mutagen, a substance required to create more of your kind, has been stolen. The surviving witchers set out to find and reclaim it and punish everyone involved. Memory loss or not, you are one of them.

Some Thoughts Of My Own -  It has been a little over a year since I finished The Witcher, which is CD Projekt RED's videogame based on a universe created by Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski.  While the game could be frustrating at times (I'm looking at you Kikimore Queen ... how I hate your guts), it is quite possibly one of the best cRPGs I have played in a long while.  Played from the viewpoint of a rather jaded, hardened, anti-hero of sorts, this game thrives on its use of grey morality.  With this morality system, there are a number of decisions the game presents which are truly a case of "pick your own poison."  There are very few completely good individuals and just as few completely evil characters in game.  Many of the decisions you make seem deceptively simple, yet hours down the road (long after you can load a past save) the decisions can come back to haunt you or help you as the case may be.  The Witcher's art design is phenomenal in a dark and gritty kind of way, and its soundtrack is out of this world.  It isn't bombastic in the manner of Bioware scores, even though I really love Bioware music, but it is instead subtle and a real joy to listen to.  I spent about 90 hours playing the game, but it's not possible to count the number of hours I have spent listening to the soundtrack by itself.

The Witcher's combat system (while initially frustrating) is actually quite intuitive and challenging with different fighting styles (strong, fast, and group) and two different types of swords (one for men and one for beasts.)  Situations often call for switches in both fighting styles and swords mid-combat.  When combined with various magical signs, powerful bombs, and a series of potions, combat requires a great deal of strategy and can be very rewarding when things go right.  Perhaps the most impressive portion of the game's mechanics is that of potion consumption.  There are no "instant heal" potions, and the rate with which consumption can take place is very limited.  Each potion has a certain toxicity (low to high) and the amount of toxicity affects the number of potions which can be consumed at once.  Generally I found that Geralt was limited to two or three at most, so you really have to decide which ones are most important to you.  This can be difficult when you feel as if Geralt needs four or five to give him the edge over his competition.  Five potions, however, will most certainly max out his toxicity meter, and four will likely strain his heart so much that his vision will become severely impaired.  Pick your poisons wisely.

If you have not guessed it, The Witcher is rated M for Mature and it certainly does everything it can to live up to this rating.  The storytelling is deep and completely worthwhile, but it does not skimp on the aspects which accompany all mature games.  One of the most common criticisms of the game is that of "sexism" and "objectification."  It is true that Geralt is an unabashed ladies man; but what critics don't tell you is that the extent to which he, uh, indulges his impulses is completely up to the player.  If you are understandably offended by very scantily clad women, foul language, and bloody violence then this is not the game for you.  If one can look past all that, however, they will be rewarded with a rich story which asks gamers to contemplate the human (elven/dwarven) condition.  The story also makes one consider what they, and in-game individuals, are truly willing to sacrifice in the name of (their definition of) love, freedom, and justice.

Image: Gamingbolt

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Search for Fuel 5

My hunt for the perfect gaming tea continues. Three weeks ago I reordered a package of Cranberry/Chocolate Tea, along with a number of other flavors, and have been enjoying them tremendously. This time around I decided to temporarily end my love affair with Rooibos tea and ordered three more, rather different flavors. Below is my assessment.

Honey/Ginger/Echinacea with Green Tea Base - This is some good stuff in the sense that it both smells delicious and tastes delicious.  Very light in nature, as I personally feel a proper green tea should be, the honey and ginger mix nicely without one overpowering the other.  I can be picky about which green teas I drink because, to be honest, I generally can't stand green tea.  There are exceptions, however, which namely involve jasmine or peppermint.  When I order this again I would probably ask them to emphasize the ginger a little bit more, but overall I cannot find fault with this mixture.
          Current Verdict - Very Good. Definitely Reorder.

Cider/Apple with Black Tea Base - I'm not entirely certain what I expected from this tea since it clearly would not end up tasting like actual apple cider.  I really don't have a great deal to say about it.  The apple flavor is not necessarily apple-y tasting, but it is not bad either.  The apple + cider combination is a very good one and fits nicely with its black tea base.  Overall I give this combination a thumbs up.
          Current Verdict -   Pretty Good. Reorder occasionally.

Pomegranate/Vanilla with Oolong Tea Base -   The amount of knowledge I have about oolong tea could be stored on the end of my pinky finger.  I didn't grow up drinking it, I don't really know anyone else who drinks it, and as a result anything i know about it comes from my very recent experience with it.  Last time I ordered a hazelnut/chocolate tea + oolong base and was not initially blown away.  Since then I have drunk a few more cups of the tea and found that I actually quite like it.  The base seems to lend itself to darker flavors and hazelnut/chocolate is certainly that.  When ordering this time around I set about trying to think what else might be paired with oolong and concluded that there exist few common fruits that taste darker then pomegranate.  Vanilla seemed a different, but not too crazy companion flavor so there you go.  First of all let me say that this combination smells really, really good in the bag.  Taste wise though, I think I still need to get used to the oolong flavor.  I don't dislike this tea, but I'm not entirely certain that I like it yet.  The pomegranate and vanilla go well together, it's just the base I'm not too certain about.  There are too many times lately that I have said I didn't like something, however, only to turn around a month later and say I really like it.  As a result, we're holding off on a verdict for now.
          Current Verdict
- Reevaluate after it has a chance to grow on me.

Blackberry/Maple/Jasmine with Black Tea Base - This flavor (shown above in a clear bag) was a surprise gift from Design a Tea.  I'm fairly certain that I would not have ordered this on my own since I've had a number of dodgy experiences with "maple" things in the past.  I must say, however, that the overall flavor is quite good.  The maple is more of a suggestion then anything and really helps round out the tea's flavor.  It's not a dark tea by any stretch of the imagination (the jasmine helps ensure that) but it is not exactly light in nature either.  In the end I'm not quite sure how to describe it, but I know that I shall enjoy drinking it while working on final papers.  Thanks Brian :)
          Current Verdict - Good. Reorder.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Coming Soon - Mass Effect

As this is being written, I am roughly five hours into Mass Effect and enjoying it tremendously.  While five hours is enough time to get comfortable with the game, it is not quite long enough to acquire a feel for the story's flow.  A few more hours of play should fix that, however, and from there it will be possible to start discussing what has happened thus far from Meriel's perspective.  I have to hand it to Mass Effect for just dropping gamers into the middle of its story with little preliminary explanation.  You can find out some things from talking with NPCs and asking the right questions, but overall it expects you to simply go with the flow and pick things up as it goes along. 

It took me three tries, but have I finally created a character, background, and approach that feels right for ME1's environment.  The game's combat style is also beginning to work its way out.  Coming directly off a 2H ax wielding character, I've had an interesting time weening myself from melee and adjusting to ranged.  Let's just say that *ahem* "Meriel" has made some stupid decisions in combat which have resulted in quite a few brushes with death.  Apparently charging directly toward one's target with guns a blazing is not an awesome idea.  It was all Meriel's idea I tell you.  I had nothing to do with it ... nothing.  The other thing that has taken some getting used to is ME1's love for timed events.  I'm only five hours in and I've already run across two of these.  To the game's credit, it doesn't have unrealistic expectations and actually gives you enough time to accomplish your goals.  All the same, let's hope (in vain?) that these events are few and far between as the game progresses.  There are few things I hate more then time limits since I don't game well under pressure.  Now if ME1 gets the idea that quick time events are a good idea ... well we'll have to sit down and have a very serious talk.

Next week I shall introduce Meriel Shepard and ME1 gameplay guidelines in a rather detailed post.  Playthrough diaries will resume very soon there after.  In the meantime, Mass Effect's score will remain on heavy rotation during non-game time.  If you haven't heard it before, I suggest popping over to youtube for a listen or picking it up from an online vendor.  As one would expect a great deal of the soundtrack is atmospheric in nature, but there are a number of standout songs.  My favorite is by far "Spectre Induction".  Find it posted below for your listening pleasure.

Edited to Add - Meriel's Story is now in progress!  You can find these entries by clicking on the "Meriel's Story" link at the top of the page.  All the relevant blog posts are listed there in chronological order for your convenience.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

DA:O - Perra's Epilogue and Final Thoughts

I can't believe that the game is finally over.  On one hand, largely due to my schedule, it feels as if Dragon Age: Origins lasted forever.  On the other hand, it seems as if the game was no where near long enough.  I did not time the playthrough and therefore cannot tell you the number of hours it took.  One can, however, easily estimate roughly 60 to 70 gameplay hours when some of the DLC and various side quests are taken into consideration.  While it is sad to part with Perra and her companions, I'm very excited to finally begin Mass Effect and immerse myself in a whole new, completely different world of aliens and spaceships.

Continue onward to see my final thoughts about this DA:O playthrough and find out what was in Perra's epilogue.

There are endgame spoilers after the break.  

Monday, April 11, 2011

DA:O - And In The End ...

"In Darkness eternal they searched ...Until at last they found their prize, 
Their god, their betrayer: The sleeping dragon Dumat. 
Their taint twisted even the false-god, and the whisperer 
Awoke at last ... and led them to wreak havoc upon all
the nations of the world: The first Blight."
- Canticle of Threnodies 8:7, The Chant of Light

Spoilers exist after the break. Continue reading at your own risk.  

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Let's Watch - GOG's Witcher 2 Q&A

If you, like me, are eagerly anticipating the release of CD Projekt RED's game The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, then you really need to watch this video.  If you have already pre-ordered the game or don't plan on pre-ordering the game then you can skip the first four minutes which is all about's DRM-free pre-order offer.  Everything else is about the game itself and proves very informative.  It discusses changes in Geralt's appearance (something that was changed in response to fan complaints), shows video of in-game play, and answers questions from fans.  The whole video is roughly an hour long.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Important News - Voting for Smithsonian Exhibition Open Until April 17

Have you voted on games for The Art of Video Games exhibition that will take place at the Smithsonian Museum year?  No?  Why not?  Voting has been extended to April 17th due to high demand.  Drop everything you are doing and go vote right now.  I mean it.

For someone like the Smithsonian to host an exhibition on video game art through the ages is an incredibly massive deal.  As gamers we are always claiming that games are art, but the popular mind tends to think otherwise.  Consider this exhibition to be validation of a sort.  It is also a chance to have your favorite games featured as a way of saying "thank you" to all the wonderful artists that have helped entertain us through the years.

Read the Smithsonian's press release here

Submit your votes here before April 17, 2011.

DA:O - Denerim in Ruins, Part 2

Please look with pity on the souls of our dear ones ...

I had planned on posting this last night, but a massive storm swept through town (I'm glad I still have a roof!) just as I began to game.  Needless to say not a whole lot happened with my computer turned off.  Tonight, however, we conclude the fight for Denerim and Sunday we finish the game. Please bear in mind that as with Part 1, this post is very image heavy.

I've enjoyed this playthrough more then any of the previous ones.  I don't know if it's because I've been writing out the story as it goes along, or if it's because I am playing a dwarf for the first time ... ever.  Whatever the reason, I've really enjoyed playing Perra and will be a little sad to see her go.  Depending on how the final boss fight ends, we may or may not revisit her again in DA:O - Awakening.

As a side note, you have no doubt noticed that the link bar up top has changed yet again.  I have already created a new character for Mass Effect, Meriel Shepard, and hope to begin journaling her story in a few weeks.  Stay tuned for more details.

Mild spoilers exist after the break.  Continue onward at your own risk. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

DA:O - Denerim in Ruins, Part 1

That will teach you to invade the capital city.
Well folks, it's almost here.  Tonight Perra & Friends defend Denerim from its darkspawn invasion, and next time they'll take on the Arch Demon itself.  For the most part, tonight's part of the story is almost all combat with a little bit of story.  In an effort to convey the story, this entry will be very image heavy.  I had intended to cover all of the general fighting in Denerim tonight, but this weekend has been exhausting and I simply can't get to it all.  I will post the remaining Battle for Denerim tomorrow night and then the final, final battle will be posted next week.

One thing to keep in mind is that as our heroes defend Denerim, six of the core cast aren't even from Ferelden.  Perra, Shale, and Ogren are 2 dwarves and a golem from Orzammar,  Leliana is a human most recently from Orlais, Zevran is an elf from Antiva, and Sten is a qunari from Seheron.  Only two of the party, Alistair and Perra's war hound Caillou, consider Ferelden to be home.  In other words, almost everyone of our heroes fighting back the Blight have no national or racial allegiance to the country they are immediately defending.  Combined with support from the Dalish, the Legion of the Dead, the Dwarven army, the Human armies, and the Templars; it is rather amazing how the Blight has brought together so many very different peoples as they fight to defeat this plague of darkness.

After the break there are mild spoilers.  Continue reading at your own risk.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Evil Genius - The Other Side Has Feelings Too

I've been eying this game for a long time so when it went on sale this weekend I had to snap it up.  Developed by the now defunct Elixir Studios, I honestly don't remember hearing anything about Evil Genius when it first came out in 2004.  Come to think about it, I don't remember hearing much about it since 2004 either.  Maybe I've been living under a rock?  That is a distinct possibility.

Classified by GOG as a RTS meets managerial gameplay, Evil Genius appears to center around building a mountain side lair, overtaking the world, foiling the plans of silly do-gooders, and constructing the ultimate doomsday device.  You know, all the stuff that any decent malevolent mastermind should be able to do in their sleep.  I haven't played it yet, but I'll probably blog about it when I do.  This summer is already looking pretty packed with RL and Mass Effect 1+2, so I'm putting this game on the "to-do if I miraculously find time" list.

Even though I have yet to play the game, I found a customer review by GOG user DMorrone to be quite intriguing.  Entitled Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to ruin their mission - if they accepted it - of course, his review reads thusly:

Good Day Mastermind,
Congratulations on your recent promotion and the newly gained ability to be able to build that secret mountainside lair that all of us in the upper echelons of crime own.
Just a few items to note - please be sure to examine the whole range of rooms available to you and your minions. Remember - you cannot control you personnel directly - but you can influence what they do out of subtle reminders and pure stark terror. You have an assortment of ways to improve them - whether it's in the training room, the archive library or by simple experience within the base itself. Be sure to wander about often, glaring and pointing indiscriminately.
You will also have the ability to work your crime finesse on the big board of the world - and although you don't get the finer details that you do as you oversee your base, there is a certain sense of accomplishment in raiding the world's coffers bare to pad your own.
Do be careful - the do-gooders of the world will eventually put the pieces together and find your lair. Fortunately, we've worked hand in hand with WayAm Enterprises to provide an assortment of traps and weaponry that you configure as you see fit to defend your base.
Oh, and always make sure you have enough freezer space for your vanquished foes.
Good luck, enjoy the intricacies of managing your base and don't forget to come up with at least three synergistic action items for EvilCon in August. We're going to be holding it on Dr. Amalgamation's submarine in the Artic Circle - so dress appropriately.
Overlord Quantum

Now how could I say "no" to a game with marketing like that?

Image: one of the wallpapers available, with purchase, from GOG

Let's Talk About - Playing in the Sandbox

I've been thinking a lot lately about the artificial restrictions we place upon ourselves when playing sandbox games.  Some people heavily employ mods while others insist on vanilla.  Yet others use whatever the game offers while some insist on "realism".  Some people are stuck in their ways no matter what the situation, while other gamers change their personal rules over time or change from game to game. Below is a introduction of sorts to the origins of this post, and then at the bottom I have my own personal rules listed. 

By Way of Introduction  - While conversing with a friend's husband (we'll call him Steven) not too long ago, the subject of TES IV: Oblivion came up.  Most people are well aware of how frustrating I found Oblivion to be.  I don't exactly make a secret of it.  It goes too far to say that the game was “bad”, but it certainly wasn't the sequel I had been hoping for.  For every positive improvement the game had made upon Morrowind, namely the inclusion of horses and a vastly superior combat system, there were another five or six things about it that I couldn't stand.  Of all the flaws Oblivion had though, its auto-level feature was quite possibly the worst.  I had no problems in the normal world, but the moment I set foot inside the Oblivion Gates it seemed like the difficulty had been ramped up a good four or five times what it normally was.  My character was outclassed and unprepared.  Common sense tells you to reload and level-up before trying again, but because of the leveling feature the daedra gained levels with my character so no matter what I did, I felt out classed.  A lot of my problems were the result of what I felt to be unbalanced game mechanics, but admittedly a great deal of my issues probably resulted from the restrictions I place upon myself in the Elder Scrolls world.  Either way, my frustration eventually got the best of me.  I gave up the main quest, got bored with the normal world, and then permanently uninstalled it from my computer.  It was promptly replaced by its predecessor, and has since (except for about 15 hours around Christmas) remained in its uninstalled state.  
I didn't think a whole lot more about my Oblivion experience until Steven and I began to talk.  If I recall correctly, Steven had built his Oblivion character with power gaming in mind.  He completely outfitted his avatar in heavy armor while still at a very low level, used potions to augment other skills, and then plowed his way through the Oblivion Gates.  While in Oblivion he drank a potion to decrease the weight of his pack, and then hauled as much high level loot as possible out though the Gate before it closed so that he could sell it later for profit.  At the time I jokingly accused him of cheating.  That wasn't how he was supposed to play the game!  Sure he beat the main quest when I did not, but according to my own personal rules I felt that he had cheated.  He should have designed a more balanced character and then only hauled as much loot as he could physically carry without artificial aids.  Steven argued that he did nothing the game didn't allow him to do and I jokingly told him that just because the game allows you to do it doesn't mean you should do it.  Steven reminded me that I am a kleptomaniac in Morrowind.  He wondered how that made me honest while what he did was "cheating".  I responded that being a klepto was acceptable because I only took as much as I could carry without extra help and only used skills that I had acquired though normal leveling up.  As a result I came by my stolen goods honestly.  Yes I am well aware that my argument was both petty and paper thin.  Don't worry, Steven and his wife (well call her Karen) didn't hesitate to point that fact out. 
A few weeks later, this conversation still has me thinking.  The inherently wonderful thing about sandbox games is the freedom they offer.  If you can dream it, then you can do it … with some limitations of course.  Unlike games that spell everything out for you, true sandbox games grant the player much greater freedom in establishing their character's values, morality, motivations, and methodology.  Despite my amusingly petty "argument" with Steven, I honestly believe that there is no real “wrong” way to play sandbox games.  As long as the game grants your character the latitude to do it, it can be done.  With this in mind I have chosen to lay out the rules and guidelines which determine how I play.  First, however, I should probably clarify my definition of “sandbox.”
By Way of Definition – True sandbox games, as Zero Punctuation’s Yahtzee often mentions, are hard to find.  Marketing oneself as a “sandbox” game looks good on paper, but few products genuinely provide the freedom they promise their consumers.  Instead what developers should be marketing themselves as is “non-linear.”  I am well aware that in the grand scheme of things sandbox = open world = non-linear.  I however do not necessarily see them as being equal.  Among those who choose to differentiate between "sandbox" and "non-linear", I'm certain that the definition changes from person to person as to what they mean.  For me the difference between them is this:

Sandbox Games - These genuinely offer the good old TES model of go anywhere and do anything.  These games don't constrict your movements to a particular location on the map unless it has a very good reason.  They opt for and actual "great wide somewhere" instead of the appearance of said "somewhere" that you can't actually reach due to numerous invisible walls. Even more importantly you as the player choose where you will go, when you will go there, and what you will do when you arrive.  Restrictions of course apply, but that is the general gist.

Non-linear Games - These on the other hand often restrict you to a particular location until a specific level is passed, but within that area though you can still choose the order in which you do things.  The end result is that you are often given the appearance of freedom, but this "freedom" is tempered by story restrictions and game mechanics.

Examples - Off the top of my head I would classify TES series and the Fallout series as true sandbox games.  Given your ability to move in and out of situations and locations at will, I would also consider DA:O to be a sandbox game as well.  With some reservations I also throw Fable: The Lost Chapters into this category.  Fable has a number of restrictions, but you still have free movement throughout the world, options to purchase property, the possibility of (a meaningless) marriage, etc.  I hesitate to throw Fable into the sandbox category because the game is great at giving the appearance of freedom while simultaneously restricting what you can do.  That said, the first game at least probably still belongs here.  

A perfect example of non-linear play is CDProjeckt RED’s The Witcher.  The Witcher restricts Geralt’s movements to particular locations.  You cannot backtrack once the story progresses, but Geralt can go most anywhere within the area you are playing .  Within each area Geralt has a main quest and a number of side quests to complete.  He gets to choose which side quests (if any) he accepts, which order these side quests are finished in, and the time in which he completes the main story line.  He isn't afforded total freedom like characters in TES are given, but Geralt certainly has much more freedom then characters from traditional point-n-click adventure games possess. 

Here is where I start to get myself in trouble because there are a number of games I do not know how to classify.  For example, KOTOR I&II are more non-linear in my eyes but have sandbox elements.  The KOTOR series grants you freedom of movement, and you can travel in between worlds as you see fit.  This hints at "sandbox."  Once on those worlds, however, there is really only one main story with a few paltry side quests.  Almost all your actions are tied to a very specific central tale and some worlds trap you (unable to leave until that leg of the story is complete) once you land.  This screams "non-linear" to me.  I'm inclined to classify it as a non-linear game, but you make the call on that. 
By Means of ExplanationRules within a sandbox world, as in RL, are important to have.  the presence of rules does two things for.  Firstly, they provide a sense of familiarity to any game I play.  The setting and characters may be different, but similar guidelines across game titles makes it easier to immerse myself and connect with a new character.  Secondly, it is easy to get lost in all the possibilities that sandbox worlds offer.  This is even more true if the game developers released a tool set and encourage an active modding community.  A set of personal guidelines keeps me from trying to do too much.  Attempting to do too much can make it very easy to lose focus.  Since much of the storytelling in some of these games is up to the player, losing focus can very quickly equal loss of interest.  The rules I personally abide by fall into the three categories below.

Mod Usage – Some people insist that vanilla game play is the only way to go.  I do not fall into this category, but I don't necessarily agree with modding a game beyond recognition either.  Therefore mods installed must fit one of three questions.

1) Does this mod fix a problem in the vanilla game? In Dragon Age: Origins it really bugged me that characters unable to pick a lock simply gave up.  They could be outfitted with the heaviest 2H Axe in the land, yet if they ran across a lock they couldn't pick (and thus a chest they couldn't loot) they simply threw up their hands and moved on.  This is counter intuitive to me.  If I were carrying a 2H Axe, I'd break the lock open.  Thankfully xatmos from Dragon Age Nexus also found this to be a problem and created the mod "Lock Bash" to fix it.  With that problem solved I could continue on with my game.  Another example of this is the famous Morrowind Comes Alive mod which adds much needed ambiance to Vvardenfell.  With 1000+ new NPCs, random encounters, new faces, etc this mod is pretty much essential.  Half the time I expect that Bethesda made their Vvardenfell towns so sparse because they expected someone to come along and make a mod like MCA.

2) Is this mod a home/residence ?  I like to have a home base with all of my characters that they can come back to and call their own amidst all the wandering the do.  The kind of home installed depends on the character's back story, but this is almost always one of the first things I install when available.

3) Is this mod a texture pack/hair pack? I rarely like the default faces, colors, or hair styles that games come with.  If the house mod is the first thing I do, then installing hair and face packs are the next thing I do.

4) Does this mod enhance the RP experience? I am speaking particularly of crafting, cooking, and hunger mods, but anything else that makes the experience more life like goes here.  If it facilitates my ability to enter the avatar's head space then it is generally acceptable.
Character Actions - All characters are created to fit their personalities and back story.  This can result in both balanced or unbalanced characters, but no matter what they are not designed to power game.  Unless it is necessary for the role-play experience I do not use unnecessary potions.  (Health and mana potions are practically de rigueur by this point and do not count.)  If something is too heavy to carry then my character does not carry it. They do not drink a potion or cast a spell to make their pack lighter or artificially make a task easier.  The openly real exception is if I'm playing a mystical character or an alchemist.  It would be silly to not let an alchemist use the potions he created or let a mystic cast spells he earns his living off of.  In addition, if my character needs a skill then he/she will level-up naturally and not pay instructors for the skill.  My characters will live in a house suitable to their social level and not simply stay somewhere huge because it's nifty.  If they are very rich or are a high ranking official then they can own a larger house.  Otherwise, they have a home suitable to their status.  Given their traveling ways it is acceptable for them to own a couple of smaller cottages in various parts of the world for them to stay at.  The only real exception to this rule is the Morrowind mod for the ginormous home Ravenloft.  My last character justified living there since she was a mage and the home existed in an alternate dimension ... accessible only via a teleportation ring.  Also, she *found* the ring laying about so technically she came by it honestly.
Short Cuts - Teleportation.  *sigh* This is a tricky one.  I try to use conventional transportation means (i.e. Oblivion = horse [stolen, borrowed, or purchased] and Morrowind = running ... very, very slow running).  I do not use the built in teleportation system in games (i.e. Oblivion) unless there is a need for great haste or the character is a mage/magical being.  In Morrowind I will also only download a teleportation crystal mod for mage characters and other magical beings.  Everyone else uses public transport or foot travel.  The only exception here is swimming.  I loathe swimming in TES games and will allow teleportation to islands that cannot be accessed via boats.  Levitation potions are also an option here.  Teleportation from custom homes is condoned since it is a feature of the house that my character (hypothetically) bought.  This is not usually a major issue since homes with teleportation chanbers generally only connect to the major cities.  The only home I've ever had with a truly detailed transport map was Ravenloft, and since it exists on an alternate plane a detailed transport map is to be expected.
Well, I think that pretty much wraps things up for tonight.  This ended up far longer then I had expected, but it was interesting to put down.  I'll see you all late Sunday night/early Monday morning with the next to last entry of Perra's story.