Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Guild Wars 2: The Zelda Principle

The Zelda Principle in action

We've all done it in Zelda titles.  Don't even try tolay innocent, because you know exactly what I'm talking about.  While Link wanders though town twirling around and going "yah!", he accidentally kills a chicken.  The ex-chicken sqwaks, feathers fly, and it's pretty freakin hilarious.  It's so hilarious in fact, that you have Link do it again. And again. And again. And again. If he kills enough of the feathered fowl, their egg-laying brethren decide that enough is enough. Link must die, and it is them who shall seek revenge. This is what I personally call the Zelda Principle

It's not just chickens that have targets painted on their backs though.  Rabbits also fall victim.  In Skyrim, the player stats even keep count of how many fluffy bunnies you have slaughtered.  In Guild Wars 2, you sometimes earn daily achievements for their demise. Killing rabbits with ice in GW2 also has highly amusing results. The cold damage causes them to freeze solid before they topple over like fallen statues.  It's as if the developers encourage this kind of senseless violence!  Listen carefully and you can hear their maniacal laughter echoing throughout the world.

The problem with slaughtering adorable wildlife though is that they seek revenge, and these critters never do things half way.  Like in Zelda, the animal players should be most wary of is the chicken.  In inXile's Bard's Tale, a large, angry mama bird will attack the the PC if he slaughters too many of her children. She has an insane amount of health for the level, and will kill the Bard dead if the player isn't careful. Being the sharp-witted RPG parody that A Bard's Tale is, this game's inclusion of the Zelda Principle speaks volumes regarding the prevalence of player perpetuated poultry massacre. 

Needless to say, if you ever boot up Guild Wars 2 and find yourself in the company of Angry Chickens, please tell them that Callaidbhroin and Lizard Breath wish them well.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Guild Wars 2: Taking the Leap

callaid-bhròin means "funeral wail" or "elegy"

The world has ended methinks, because the impossible has happened.  I've started playing an MMO.  For years I've sworn that this day would never occur.  I swore off all MMOs, and I've been very good at abiding by my self-imposed ban.  That said, for years I've also toyed with the thought of playing Guild Wars. (Can one silently "rebel" against The Man, when The Man is also yourself?) Guild Wars/ Guild Wars 2 particularly caught my interest because of its approach.  It offers a "solution" for the major issues tend to make MMOs so distasteful to many single player only gamers.
Problem 1: Monthly subscription fees.
Solution 1: They don't have them. 
Problem 2: Other gamers constantly encroach upon your gaming space.  This messes with the experience and ruins suspension of disbelief and/or immersion.
Solution 2: Guild Wars 2 promotes the fact that one can successfully traverse the world in single player without untoward interference from others.  Interaction with others is for the most part voluntary. 
Problem 3: Gamers can spend months and years paying for a subscription based model, only to have the title turn Free to Play (and generally Pay to Win).
Solution 3: There doesn't appear to be any real danger of the Guild Wars series turning F2P since there are no subscription fees to begin with.  You buy the game/expansions and you are done. While there is a system in place where items can be purchased with IRL money (the Gem Store), participation doesn't appear to be necessary for one to fully enjoy the experience.  (That could be different in PvP). This seemingly prevents it from joining the P2W camp.

In the past, I have come this close to purchasing Guild Wars (and subsequently Guild Wars 2). Having been single player for so long though, taking that final step and actually committing to a MMO was a pretty scary concept.  I'm not going to lie. Until I created my first GW2 character and actually started playing, there was a significant amount of anxiety present.  Having shared game worlds with only NPCs, entering a realm where other sentient beings roamed (who can talk to you!) was a weird prospect. After all, I knew that I had developed idiosyncrasies over the years and that I wasn't always the most deft person around ... but did everyone else have to know too?  I'd get laughed right out of Tyria.

Last weekend, a friend unexpectedly gifted me Guild Wars 2.  With a copy in my possession, I had no other choice but to jump in both feet first.  Provided my dinosaur of a computer actually ran it (which it does!) there were really  no excuses left. The end result?  So far .... it's been a pretty darn good ride.

Stay tuned for adventures to come. You can also follow my experience on twitter @photoleia

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Surprise Tea Deliveries

No one expects surprise packages from Design a Tea, especially not me. The company is being extremely tight lipped about who sent this package along, and the only clue I have from Brian Pfeiffer is: 
"Been sworn to secrecy - sorry! Maybe if you ask for the culprit to show their face via a blog or two ... that's all you're getting from me!"
So here you go. I'm posting a "thank you" everywhere I can in hopes that whoever sent this my way knows that I'm thankful for the gift. What a delightfully delicious way to end the week. Cheers!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Reexamining DA2: Mark of the Assassin

"I suppose nothing ever goes as we plan, does it"
(Pretty much the story of this chick's life.)

So I just finished playing the Mark of the Assassin DLC and was very pleasantly surprised. The dialogue was witty, the conversations weren't awkward (much), there was actual playier choice involved, and what was said in dialogue actually kinda mattered.  Like the core game, MotA made a few shoutouts/references to Dragon Age: Origins, but unlike some (not all!) of the ones in DA2 they didn't feel forced. Sometimes the reference, as seen with Bann Teagan's cameo, didn't even mention the previous game. Those were perhaps my favorite since they knew players would make the connection all on thier own. There were also a number of major fights that actually involved some level of strategy to win.  The final fight was a challenge, but it wasn't an unfair one.  A lot of fighting was involved with this DLC, but I never felt like the devs were throwing enemies in there just for the heck of it.  In fact, for the most part, there were not a lot of spawning enemies.  If I saw fifteen bad guys, then I was fighting fifteen bad guys.  I cannot express how much I hate the spawning enemies in Dragon Age 2.  I really, really hate it.  When you have wave after wave of enemies coming after you, sometimes with the "big" character (chief, commander, etc) not showing up until the second or third wave, the amount of strategy the player can actually employ is limited.  When, however, you know that all the baddies onscreen are all you are going to see, then the player can actually plan out which moves they will make.  Who will they take out first? Who will the PC focus on?  Which group of characters will best utilize each companion's skill set? I really miss that part of Dragon Age: Origins.  In DA:O, the only spawning of bad guys you saw happened during major boss fights.  At that point, waves of them were scripted to appear in between boss attacks. That kind of "spawning" is pretty much par for the course, and once a wave happened, that was all you had until after the Boss attacked again.  

I know I've been hating an awful lot on Dragon Age 2 even though I said that i was going to give it a fair go.  I'm still trying  to give it a fair play, but it's so hard when things like spawning enemies annoy me to no end. Mark of the Assassin is proof that the DA2 devs could have done so much better.  In MotA there were new environments and interesting things to see.  There were only one or two non-doors, but that is no more than you would expect in any other game.  The doors weren't blocked to make a reused map "new", they were blocked b/c they were just dummy doors.  Nothing to see there.  Combat was interesting, and I actually enjoyed it rather than dreaded it. The story was perhaps a bit contrived, but not enough to warrant censure, and certainly no  more than the genre normally allows.  The main puzzle made you think, but was not impossible.  I normally could do with out them, but this were a nice change of pace. I will mention that there is a very poorly done stealth sequence in-game, but players have an option to forego stealth in lieu of all out bloodshed.  I did give the stealth portion an honest to God effort, but it was more headache than it was worth.

Perhaps the best thing though, is that the companions finally ceased all their moaning and groaning. With a rescue-from-prison sequence, we also witnessed a brief return of the companion buddy comedy from DA:O's Fort Drakon. (In fact, come to think of it, about 50% of this DLC reminded me of the Fort Drakon story arc). Fenris stopped whining about mages and how hard life is.  Anders almost stopped moaning about the Chantry and the Templars. Gloriously, the one time he did make a snide comment, Tallis called him out on it. Even better, however, was the fact that Anders and Fenris actually sorta kinda got along!  There was one moment where Anders actually deferred to Fenris for an answer about [some plot centric thing], and disregarded Tallis (even though she knew more about it) because he didn't trust her. 

I also really liked the way this DLC used the Varric storytelling ploy to bookend its narrative.  Despite the fact that he is the one telling DA2's tale, the game very rarely reminds us of this fact.  In fact, it reminds us of it so little that the first time I played DA2 I was a little shocked to see Varric pop up in between game chapters. I do have to hand it to the devs thought.  When Dragon Age 2 does acknowledge Varric's storytelling role, they do so to great effect.  

So all in all, I really liked Mark of the Assassin.  I won't say it's the best thing I've ever played, but it is a far cry better than anything else I've seen in Dragon Age 2 so far. Despite my general hate for DLC, this one was actually well worth the money I paid. MotA shows that the DA2 team was capable of so much more than what they presented in the core title.  I just wish they'd taken advantage of that fact before hand, and not waited until a  DLC release to show their hand.

Find some Mark of the Assassin comment-as-I-go tweets after the jump.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Celebrating World Goth Day 2013

Happy World Goth Day folks!  Pop over to WorldGothDay.com to find out which stores are offering holiday discounts and to see if there is a WGD event happening near you.

World Goth Day is also receiving some more mainstream media acknowledgement in 2013!  My favorite of the day is from TIME.  This feature highlights some seriously beautiful photographs - contemporary and historical.  One of my major passions is black and white film photography.  Black + white film and wet plate photography have such an amazing visual essence that simply cannot be duplicated. This Lightbox feature bears testament to that. 
CNN.com's blog GeekOut also has a pretty nice piece about the day.  It briefly highlights more serious issues the subculture faces.  In doing it so, it mentions the senseless death of Sophie Lancaster ('07) along with some more recent attacks.  In all of the cases mentions, the victims became targets for abuse because of their appearance and thier participation in the subculture.  It is nice to see a major media outlet, even if it in a blog piece, use this day to bring attention to these issues.
While you are at it, I would highly recommend taking take a moment from your day to visit the Sophie Lancaster Foundation website.  Find out more about their mission, see what they are doing, and find out how you can get involved.

From their website:

A note from Sophie's mum, Sylvia
Since Sophie's death on August 24th 2007, following the horrific attack on her and her partner Rob in Stubbeylee Park, Bacup, Lancashire, we had lots of kind offers of support and donations. Sophie and Rob dressed in their unique way, expressing their individuality as creative artistic people.
After consulting family and friends, we felt that a charity should be set up in Sophie's name. The charity, known as The Sophie Lancaster Foundation, will focus on creating respect for and understanding of subcultures in our communities.
It will also work in conjunction with politicians and police forces to ensure individuals who are part of subcultures are protected by the law.
Enjoy the website. And please get in touch with us if you have any messages, feedback or questions.
More than anything though, remember to celebrate! Go out. Have fun. Get your goth on. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Reexamining DA2: The Cardboard Chantry, Pt.2

"So, a drunk says the grand cleric funded a rogue templar. And here we are."

Today's post largely centers around Bioware's portrayal of party members' relationship with the Chantry.   It also comes with a major asterix attached.  For the sake of discussion, I will argue that most of my impressions are true ~98ish% of the time.  There is always an odd event or character comment that breaks the mold, but these instances are not the norm.  Out of necessity, today's post concerns a Sabastien-less DA2, and I am aware that I'm only touching the surface here.  Opinions have been very streamlined for brevity's sake. Please note that this is one of those subjects I think about a great deal while in game, but I've never actually tried to vocalize it before.  Hopefully you can at least get the gist of where thoughts were going.

Characters' Relationship with the Chantry:

Excluding Sebastian, who I will discuss next week, recruitable NPCs in DA2 have a very one dimensional relationship with the Chantry ... if they have an opinion on the matter at all.  This is particularly striking since the mere concept of organized religion is divisive at best, and it can easily leave people with very firmly set positive or negative views.  Even those who choose to not even think about religious institutions at all seem to have some kind of opinion.   This is especially true when priests and corrupt politics mix, something that is not an unusual occurrence in Kirkwall.  Because of this, it seems exceedingly unusual that among the six base recruitable NPCs, (Sebastien is acquired via DLC and I have not experienced Mark of the Assassin's Tallis yet) that every one of them would be antagonistic, atheistic  or simply ambivalent when it comes to Fereldan's only officially recognized religion.  Even Hawke, the PC, doesn't have a great deal to say on the matter.  In fact, the only NPCs that really have any opinion whatsoever are the human mages in your party - Bethany and Anders.

Bethany is very fearful of the the Chantry as an institution, but seems to have little opinion on its attached belief system. This is of course thanks to the Templars. The Templars are the arm of the Chantry which polices the Circle and hunts down apostates.  Having been an apostate all her life, Bethany's fear is well founded. It is disappointing though that Bethany did not take a moment to consider the Chantry as individuals vs. the Templars/Chantry as a collective.  As a former resident of Lothering, both Bethany and her family would have observed and received Chantry relief as the Blight approached and refugees poured into the town.  We know from DA:O that Lothering's Chantry had a considerable presence throughout the town, but the Reverend Mother was not an unreasonable woman.  The sisters seemed to care about the town's physical (not just spiritual) welfare, and acted accordingly.  The prominent Templar presence would have certainly placed all of Hawke's family on pins and needles, but they would have had to be blind to not see the good that the individual priests were doing. I'm not saying that those efforts would have changed her views, but  acknowledgement that the Chantry as a whole did not necessarily 100% = the Templars would have been nice.  Party banter between Aveline and Bethany does intricate that she is curious about mages in the Circle, but one still gets the impression that she is inquiring more out of fear, as opposed to genuine curiosity about how a healthy/ideal Templar/Circle relationship functions.

Anders, much like Bethany, equates the Chantry with the Templars.  While hers is a relationship of fear though, his quite obviously is one of relentless antagonism.  Part of me wants to give Anders a pass here for his all-or-nothing approach to the subject.  After all, he does explain that his hate of the Templars has warped Justice's sense of ... well ... justice.  Hawke sees Anders and Justice feed off of each other's strong emotions regarding injustice a number of times, and both times the situation gets pretty out of hand.  This is where my "impressions" come in though.  No matter how many times I've played this game I still can't shake the feeling that Anders' all out antagonism towards the Chantry was the easy way out.  Not only does he assume that Chantry = Templars (I'll get to that in a second), but this single minded obsession is a mentality Bioware echoed in other companions throughout the game. For example, Fenris so completely hates Denarius (and through him, Teventir) that there is no room in his mind for the concept of a "good" mage. Isabela is so focused on her sexual escapades that literally every companion banter conversation somehow centers around it.  She is either regaling the others with her adventures, using her prowess in an attempt to impress others, or using her experience to shame/embarrass others (most specifically Sebastian who is celibate).  Fenris and Isabela concentrate on issues other than death-to-all-Templars, but the concept is the same. Bioware's modus operandi in DA2 was to take one particular characteristic and make that single thing encompass the entirety of a NPCs personality.  On one hand, this makes perfect sense for the Anders + Justice relationship.  It transforms their combined emotions into all out antagonism towards the Templars and anyone related to them.  This means that Anders is taking a clearly defined, unquestioned role in the Main Quest storyline. On the other hand, doing this is a major cop-out, and an excuse to not examine the apostate/Templar/Chantry relationship on a deeper level.  DA2's writers made Anders representative of all disenfranchised apostates. He is essentially spokesperson for one side of the story's central conflict, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Bioware, however, really does the game an injustice by not using Anders' place in the mage/Templar conflict to give DA2's story more emotional and intellectual depth.

As for the other recruitable NPCs, few of them seem to even think about the Chantry at all.  I have a couple feelings about this. First of all, as mentioned a few paragraphs ago, I find this really odd.  The Chantry is Fereldan's primary religious entity and so everyone,  be they religious or not, is bound to have some kind of opinion on the matter.  Secondly, it is one thing to be unopinionated due to purposeful ambivalence.  This at least is "human".  It's another, however, for a character to be unopinionated because they were written to simply not care.  Does that make sense? The latter is nothing other than flawed character writing. Isabela is too sex obsessed to have an opinion about the Chantry (except when mocking clerical abstinence of course). Fenris is too eaten up over his past slave-hood to think about anything unrelated, and Merrill is too busy being (adorably?) obtuse to have much room on her character sheet for anything else.  Admittedly, Merrill does give a small glimpse into the Dalish spiritual construct during her companion quest.  She advises the spirit of a dead hunter to be careful of the Trickster.  She also blesses another hunter's soul, and wishes it well in its journey.  That is pretty much about it though, and no larger context for her actions is provided afterwards

"I'm pretty sure that any decent priest who prays for Bartrand would burst into flames."
The only two base characters that are believably ambivalent to the Chantry, are Aveline and Varric.  Yet, this appears to be more due to the fact that they are actually well rounded characters, and less due to any kind of intentionality on Bioware's part.  I, as the player, assume Aveline has vaguely pro-Chantry views since she was once married to a Templar.  By extension one can believe her to retains mostly positive views of the Circle, but it really isn't an issue that comes up much.  Occasional companion banter gives a glimpse into her thoughts on the issue.  I'm generally left with the impression, however, that while Aveline respects the Chantry as an institution, she has few significant religious ties holding her to it.

As for Varric, well, he has a couple of things in his court on this.  One, despite his status as a Surfacer, he is still a dwarf.  One can forgive a dwarf for not really caring about human religious constructs.  When combined with his seemingly cavalier nature, Varric's ambivalence is pretty believable.  If the Chantry does not bother him, then why should he bother doing anything with it?  Secondly, Varric is just so good at being concerned about ... himself (plus close friends, family). It would be odd to see him spouting religious rhetoric about the Maker and Andraste, with no way to fit his "strong and handsome and so very smart" self into the story. To be honest, I get the impression that, if following dwarvern tradition, he were to worship the ancestors ... then he would only consider doing so because ancestors = family.  Religion is not all that important to him, but familial ties are something on which his character places a great deal of value.  Since ancestors are part of one's family, Varric probably would be able to rationalize ancestor worship.
In the next week or two be looking for part three.  At that time I'll give my impressions of Sebastian.  Some companions suddenly start having thoughts about the Maker/Andraste/The Chantry once Sebastian is introduced into the active party. I hope to touch on that. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

cRPG World Observation No. 2

You are unknown to me or anyone I know, and are therefore a stranger.  This means that you are the perfect candidate for representing my private interests in a mission that will take you halfway across the world, and will likely involve exchanges of a very sensitive nature. If you look at me just the right way before you depart for said mission, I may even bare my soul to you and impart my deepest darkest secrets that you will in no way be tempted to use against me. I, after all, trust you completely. 

Despite your own penchant to roam the Earth, and the startling number of inns available for one to stay at, no one travels in medieval not-Europe.  Because of this, strangers are a novelty.  Your presence being a novelty, the common Joe looks upon you with wonder instead of fear or skepticism.  No one ever told them that strangers are unpredictable or untrustworthy.  The idea that you are just as likely to rob them blind or slaughter the whole town, as you are to trot across the globe on their behalf in exchange for a pittance, is completely incomprehensible.  (Let's face it though, you'll still inevitably rob them blind. It's a law or something.)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Reexamining DA2: Varric's Friendly Concern

"Listen, as your friend, I feel like I'd be doing you a disservice
if I didn't say something."

Yesterday evening, Cerian went to visit Varric at the Hanged Man as part of the companion quest "Friendly Concern". During their meeting, Varric expressed his reservations concerning Cerian and Anders' new relationship.  This moment produced what is quite possibly the best line to date.  (Please Varric, don't hold back.  Tell us how you really feel!)
"Maybe, just maybe, getting involved with the possessed mage might be dangerous.  There: I've said my piece."  
According to the Dragon Age Wiki, the Varric will say the following if the PC is in a relationship with Fenris.
"You do know the elf is covered in in spikes, like an angsty porcupine? He might have some ... issues."
I also know from past playthroughs that if the player is in a relationship with Merrill, he will say:
"Merrill is a sweet girl , but there's a whole lot of crazy in that little package."
These character judgements are all hilarious, because they are all completely true.  Seriously Bioware, why can't the PC romance Varric?  He's amazing.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Reexamining DA2: The Cardboard Chantry, Pt.1

At this point in writing I can probably declare myself to be over halfway through Dragon Age 2 [I took a number of weeks off due to other obligations].  Having collected all possible permanent companions, including Sebastian from The Exiled Prince DLC, and completed a couple of their personal quests, that seems to be a pretty accurate estimation.  I know I promised not to constantly complain about the game, after all this playthrough is all about giving it a fair chance. I also know that the subject at hand would probably be best discussed further on in the game as the main plot line comes to a head.  The problem is though, I'm getting to a point where not saying anything is becoming difficult.  There are a number of things that bother me in DA2 - spawning enemies, faux doors, dialogue wheels, the lack of an isometric camera.  While some of these drive me positively batty, they are not necessarily deal breakers.  The topic I currently wish to address then is not a deal breaker either, but is does fill me with significant disappointment and is quite possibly what I dislike most about DA2.  The manner in which Bioware handled DA2's Chantry is, from a personal perspective, significantly lower in quality than we saw with the game's predecessor. This may sounds like an odd complaint, but bear with me for a moment.

During my Dragon Age: Origins post Here Be Dragons and a Dwarf Reborn, I stated the following:
You know one thing I really appreciate about the depiction of religion in DA:O is its multi-dimensional nature. The story does not call the Chantry evil nor does it elevate it to a saintly status. Both good and bad priests exist, but the genuinely righteous priests out number those that are corrupted (Kolgim falls in with the latter). Throughout her journey in Fereldan, Perra [the PC - a dwarf commoner] meets individuals who are all in completely different places of their personal spiritual journey. Some like Alistair have a bone to pick with the Chantry. His issues, however, don't mean that he has denounced his faith. Some like Leliana have come to the Chantry late in life and found it to be a place of solace and refuge. Others, like Morrigan, will have nothing to do with it at all - ever. Even the player has an option of being completely devout, on the fence, completely against it, or anywhere else in between. As someone for whom religion plays a very important role in everyday life, I appreciate the manner in which Bioware wrote this aspect of the narrative.

In Dragon Age: Origins, Bioware did something that one doesn't see in fantasy worlds very often, be they video games or novels. The Chantry in DA:O was "human", for lack of a better term. The Maker's followers and their leaders were not not saint-ified, nor were they demonized.  While most Revered Mothers genuinely worked for only the best for their flock and the surrounding communities, others (like the Revered Father Kolgrim) did not. The Revered Mothers sought alms, harbored the poor, blessed soldiers, prayed for those affected by the Blight, and even blessed the PC if specifically asked. The last was always an option no matter what race, gender, or class the PC was.  While all Mothers were affected by the Blight and were clearly run down by the increased demands oon thier time and resources, none of them were cookie cutter NPCs.  The Reverend Mother at Lothering would bless "treasonous" Grey Wardens and even honor the Right of Conscription, but she would not openly aid the Wardens since doing so might endanger her flock.  Mother Hannah of Redcliffe, would likewise bless the Wardens but (unless skillfully persuaded) would not provide holy symbols to Redcliffe knights because it sharply conflicted with her personal view of the Maker. (Granter her view of the Maker was also the Chantry sanctioned one, but we see evidence throughout the game that "Chantry sanctioned" does not always equal "what everyone believes".) Mother Mallol of Castle Cousland similarly would lead the PC in prayer and bless the castle's soldiers, but unlike other sisters she seems to foster a more personal, less distant, relationship with parishioners.  This is seen when she encourages the PC to use her given name and drop the formal title of Mother.  Orzammar's Brother Burkel is extremely personable and seems more concerned about individuals than he does pageantry.  In stark contrast to them all, Father Kolgrim of Haven has become the leader of a cult.  He encourages his followers to kill outsiders and worship the dragon "Andraste" instead of focusing on the Maker (much to the Guardian's dismay). 

The extensive lore and mythology Bioware crafted for the Chantry was just as easily used for good as it was for evil, and DA:O was all the better for it.  It was clear, as seen with the Circle vs. Apostate issue, that some seemingly well intentioned laws had long since outlived their usefulness or had become twisted to benefit those in power. Even so, goodwill and honest men still resided amidst those corrupted by power.  Some followed the Maker blindly while others just gave him lip service, but  a third group truly thought about the teachings of Andraste before deciding where their spiritual loyalty lay. Even amongst the PC's companions, religion and spirituality became a "grey" entity. What I found fascinating though, is that even-though the companions had set opinions of the Chantry, the Maker, and Andraste; there was a general feeling that those beliefs were organic and potentially open for change.  This is not based on something anyone actually says or demonstrates in-game, but the sense was there all the same.
In contrast, the Chantry's depiction, and the relationship of characters with it, in Dragon Age 2 is no where near as personal as it was Dragon Age: Origins.  Overall it generally leaves one feeling ... well ... kind of flat.  I had originally wanted to put this all one post, but it turns out that there was more to say on the matter than anticipated.  (Either that or I'm simply long winded.) Part 2, which will be up later this week, will do its best to explain my overall feeling regarding this issue.  Out of necessity it will also dip its toe into the subject of character writing and possibly a couple other related subjects.  I hope to see you then.

Friday, May 3, 2013

cRPG World Observation No. 1

99.9% of the time, regardless the game developer's country of origin, you can tell which OST tracks are tavern music without even looking at the song title.

Just as Castlevania games all begin with the word Dracula, tavern songs begin with a lute player and the smell of ale drenched floor boards.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Reexamining DA2: Of Tweeted Thoughts, Part 1

"This will be a disaster. But I can't live without it."
After almost a month away, I picked up Dragon Age 2 again last weekend and played a few more hours of the game.  Afterwards, I went to twitter with my thoughts and ended up in rather extended conversation with my friend (and Let's Player) Joseph. The more pertinent comments we exchanged are here enclosed. Despite appearances, this is not an exercise in laziness.  At the beginning of this series I expressed the desire to discuss my thoughts on DA2 in real time.  You can't get much more "real time" than this, without  LPing that is.

I have a more normal DA2 entry in the works.  Be looking for it Monday of next week.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Two Worlds II: Epic Edition OST

In news completely not related to Dragon Age 2 , those who follow me on twitter are by now well aware of the fact that GOG started selling Two Worlds 2: Epic Edition and that the OST is exceptionally beautiful.  I have, no joke, been listening to the Two Worlds II and Two Worlds II: Pirates of the Flying Fortress OSTs almost constantly since GOG dropped the game last Thursday.  The game is being sold for 50% off through this Thursday and it seriously wants to be on your GOG game shelf.  Even if you don't care about the game itself, its OSTs are well worth the price of admission.

As for the game itself - well it's been added to my ever growing list of "to play titles." I've been anxiously waiting, ever since its release, for GOG to get the title so that I could finally play it.  Unfortunately, it looks like it'll have to wait a wee bit longer.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Reexamining DA2: Of Doors That Are Not

If I had a bone to pick with Dragon Age 2 (and I certainly have a few of those) then the doors-that-are-not-doors" would be a major issue for me.  This playthrough I told myself that I would place my pet peeves on the back burner and just experience the game for what it is. The faux doors would not annoy me this time.  That conviction only lasted until the end of Act 1 when I chose to complete the Secondary Quest Magestrate's Orders.  

Magestrate's Orders requires Hawke to enter an abandoned ruin (which suspiciously resemble the Deep Roads) in order to retrieve an "escaped criminal".  These ruins largely consist of one primary pathway orbiting a circular chamber with a number of side corridors and chambers. At first glance the ruin's floor plan seems to give players a choice.  You can choose to explore every nook and cranny before heading towards the quest maker, or you can simply focus on the quest and disregard any kind of exploration.  I, being rather anxious to complete this side quest and close out Act 1, was opting for the later. Plus, it was getting late and I was very tired. A quick in-and-out seemed the way to go.  Dragon Age 2, however, disagreed.  

In short, the ruin's map lies.  Despite the central chamber having four entry points, only one of those "entrances" actually functioned.  The others still had doors, but the doors did not work.(see above) They were just for appearances.  Instead of letting players decide which route they wished to take to the quest point, the game arbitrarily forced its own path (and thus forced exploration) instead.  It seemingly offered the promise of choice, but in reality it forced linearity.

This map illustrates the path that Cerian took in her continued efforts to simply get in the ruin, collect the criminal, and get out.  At the start she could either head north into a chamber which was bound to have an encounter (see first image) or she could head east down a corridor which may contain less conflict.  That pass also promised a short cut to the quest point. Opting for the eastern route she promptly ran into non-door #1 and was forced to take the northern route anyways.  Upon entering the chamber, there was a northern door which allowed her to continue on that same pathway, and an eastern door which led straight to the ruin's central chamber. (see first image) The latter was more expedient, but it too was also a sham.  Non-door #2 forced Cerian's crew to continue northward instead, along the outer passage. It wasn't until Hawke reached the top of the ruin, fought through numerous enemies, and triggered an important cut scene, that DA2 presented her with its only entrance to the central chamber (door #3).

Upon entering the circular chamber (one encounter + numerous spawning enemies later) Hawke was presented with two options.  She could proceed immediately through the chamber's eastern door and find the criminal; or she could exit through the southern door, pass through an unnecessary hallway, and then face the alleged convict.  The eastern door (#4) was an obvious choice, but it maddeningly enough was also a false door. That meant that Cerian, once again, was forced to take the most circuitous route to her destination.  Interestingly enough, door #4 led to the path Cerian initially wanted to take upon entering the ruin. Door #1 was sealed though, and and she was left unable to proceed directly to the criminal's location.  She has to explore the entire ruin first.

That was not the end of Hawke's frustration.  After her first meeting with the convict, he ran to the circular chamber Hawke had just left.  One encounter and numerous spawned enemies later, Cerian was yet again left with two options.  She could take the western door which led directly to the circular chamber, or she could take the southern door and backtrack the hallway her crew had just used.  The westward door (#6) was the most direct route, but it (like before) was not an option. Not only did that mean that the only way back to the circular chamber was by needlessly backtracking through a long hallway; but it also meant that this location featured a corridor between two chambers that was utterly useless.  At no time during this side quest was Hawke ever able to utilize the hallway between doors #4 and #6.

It would be easy for me to try an explain these sealed "doors" away.  One could say that Bioware was trying to encourage exploration, but I've never felt that exploration should be forced upon the player.  Once it is made obligatory you can't really call it exploration anymore.  It is simply standard gameplay.  One could also say that the blocked doors prevented gamers from missing the cut scene which gave insight about the criminal's character. Yet, that point is easily countered. A simply adjustment like placing the cut scene in a common location (perhaps just inside the entrance?) would have made it possible for all gamers to trigger it no matter which path they took.  

No, I honestly only see two reasons for the doors to be like this.  One, it artificially extends gameplay. Block doors in enough locations, force gamers down enough circuitous routes, and the extra time really adds up. Two, the sealed entrances are a by product of the location map copy pasta action the DA2 designers were so fond of. Closing off some entrances on this map, and making them available on others theoretically presents gamers with new areas (and by extension new experiences) when they are forced to play this exact map again hours later.  

No matter how you cut it though, this kind of design is absolutely inexcusable.  Doors should never be used for mere aesthetic purposes.  If it can't be used, replace it with a wall.  Likewise, maps and mini maps are an important part of gameplay, especially for those of us who are seriously directionally challenged.  Repeatedly depicting rooms and corridors on a map, which are 100% inaccessible, causes people like me to become turned around, confused, and altogether frustrated. Getting lost in an open world game like Morrowind is one thing.  That is an expected part of gameplay which, in my opinion, serves to enrich the overall experience.  Getting turned around in locations like this, however, is complete nonsense. Do not provide a location map if it cannot be trusted.  That is bad form. Don't do it.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Reexamining DA2: Them Be Fightin' Skills

Up close and personal with a blood mage.  Not the smartest idea ever.
Strategy, particularly battle strategy, has never exactly been a strong suit of mine. Every Civilization game I've ever played, where the space race was not a primary objective, has born testament to that.  Come to think of it, even those with the space race probably stand proof as well.  Games like Civilization, Caesar, and Age of Empires are still playable though because war is not their only focus.  The same is true for cRPGs  All of this, I suppose, is a very long-winded way of saying "I'm bad at fighting."  I'll admit it!  I'll even admit to sometimes playing games on "easy" or "casual" just so all that battle-fighting, hair-rending madness can be sped through on  the way to the "story parts". Did you ever read William Goldman's Princess Bride where he talked about his book being the "good parts version"?  "Easy" is like a cRPG's "good parts" mode. In some titles repeated deaths and difficult combat are an integral part of the full gaming experience.   that is not always the case though, and I refuse to apologize for taking advantage of lower difficulties every once in a while.

One game I can promise you I am not taking advantage of "casual" mode, however, is Dragon Age 2.  Except for a couple of locations with ridiculous difficulty spikes, "normal" is almost a walk in the park.  While the game would clearly be [easily] playable on levels above normal, I honestly do not see a reason to increase the difficulty if what I'm really after is the story.  After all, it would likely only result in more tedious waves of enemies ("You thought you had finished the encounter?  Not bloody likely. Ha ha! Take this!" - DA2) and more ineffectual weapons.  On the other hand, I have every reason to not play "casual" with its utter lack of challenge and tissue paper enemies.  Just for grins, at a very early level, I switched to the lowest difficulty setting.  After triggering combat I left the computer to make a cup of tea.  With the tea left steeping, I returned a few minutes later to find that (without any intervention of my own) the swarm of enemies had been defeated and neither Hawke nor her companions had received injuries in the process.  I'm sure the mode is perfect for someone, and I can see how it would be particularly useful if one was trying to zoom through all of the combat. I can easily sympathize with that since encounters with similar enemy groups do get tedious after a while. It stands to reason though that constant non-challenge would eventually become just as tedious.

Even during fights when minimal strategy is needed, it can be unwise to simply barge in with sword swinging (or in Cerian's case, daggers ... er ... dagging*).  I usually spend the first few hours of any game playing around with different approaches to battle and (when available) different configurations to tactics screens.  The PC also ends up consuming their weight in health potions throughout the process.  Since I have spent a lot of time with Dragon Age: Origins, a number of DA2's skills are quite familiar.  Some of them function slightly different, like Cone of Cold, but for the most part previous knowledge minimizes the learning curve here.  The introduction of spawning enemies (don't worry, we'll talk about that another day), the removal of a proper top-down camera, and the introduction of new abilities though, are enough to shake up old Dragon Age habits.  Surprisingly, coming into this DA2 playthrough with an open mind has been extremely beneficial combat wise.  The conscious suppression of preconceived notions and past experiences has unexpectedly given birth to a desire for new experiences and the rejection of pre-learned methodologies.  This means that I am now using parts of the skill tree that I never touched before.  Two of the most notable additions to my combat repertoire are the very basic miasmic flask and walking bomb.

The one thing I loved most about combat in Dragon Age: Origins was the use of flasks, especially acid flasks for some reason.  In Dragon Age 2, Cerian only has the formula for tar bombs at the moment and I haven't exactly figured out how effective those are yet in regards to crowd control.  Something that is useful, however, is the Rouge's "sabotage" skill miasmic flask.  Part of the skill tree, instead of an item you must pay for, the miasmic flask's stunning capabilities have proven quite useful in a few circumstances.

1) When, like in the picture above, a group of enemies suddenly spawns (in this case behind you).  The flask makes it easy to temporarily disable one group so that you  can turn your attention to the others.  Companion AI seems to have an issue locking onto targets (and staying  locked onto targets) when surrounded by large numbers of active enemies.  I don't know how many times I have placed someone on a Commander, only to go back a second later and find them fighting a minion while the Commander tried to kill them from behind.  Liberal application of the miasmic flask seems to minimize these occurrences.

2) When I'm dealing with a group of archers on one side and am overwhelmed by a higher level character or swarm of enemies on the other side.  Again, in a way, it helps compensate for companion AI that doesn't do what I tell it to.  I'm all for crown control that helps me keep companions from unwittingly killing themselves.

In the end though, it just feels good to use this skill.  It's like Cerian is looking at a group of enemies and saying "Dude, chill out.  I'll be over there to kill you in a sec. Wait your turn."  I like that feeling.

The one skill I am unexpectedly getting a lot of mileage out of so far though, is the Walking Bomb. A carry over from DA:O, this is a spell that I have honestly never really used until now.  It seems to be best utilized with a mage (usually Anders) selects the "I'm going to die any second now" enemy out of a group, and casts it on them just before the foe is cut down.  All surrounding enemies receive spirit damage upon its death (something I'm suddenly quite fond of), and I call it a day. The usefulness of Bomb at higher levels is yet to be determined, but for the moment it is super effective.  If nothing else, it allows Anders to help with crowd control, before he goes into healer mode with Panacea.

Learning how to fight with Anders is interesting when it comes to balancing healing with his other powers.  In the past, despite his unique character abilities, Anders generally got left at home in favor of Merrill.  Since Cerian is "romancing" Anders this game (a first for me, despite the fact that I actually liked him in DA:O - Awakening) it seemed fitting to replace Merrill with him.  Sure they are both mage, but in my mind they are have very different styles.

tl;dr - I'm not good with strategy.  Story is better than combat.  Boo on spawning enemies. Crowd control woooo!

*Merriam-Webster has informed me that dagging is actually a real word which apparently means "the act of removing dags."  Dag comes from the Middle English dagge, and was first used in the 14th century.  It is an unusual noun which refers to "a hanging end, shred" or "matted or manure-coated wool."  The more you know.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Reexamining DA2: FedEx-ing Dead Bodies

Dragon Age 2 has an interesting way of dealing with FedEx quests, and that is not really a bad thing.  These quests, after all,  are the bane of a cRPGer's existence.  Random NPC says "go deliver this", PC delivers item, PC returns to random NPC, and random NPC pays PC money.  What Bioware basically did in Dragon Age 2, was shorten this process by cutting out the first half of the quest line (namely the initial receiving and departing bits).  Doing this eliminated a great deal of unnecessary player backtracking.  In lieu of receiving a "deliver this" conversation from a random NPC, the PC merely finds something during their normal activities, and then delivers that item to its NPC owner in exchange for money. 

This way of dealing with side quests has a lot going for it.  First of all, it allows the game to still include all of those mini transactions that gamers are used to having. You know, the ones that help the PC turn a small profit outside of the main quest and massive, multi-part side quests. Secondly, as I mentioned before, it eliminates a great deal of unnecessary backtracking. Traditionally, FedEx quests send you halfway across the game map twice - once to retrieve/deliver an item and then once to receive payment.  In Dragon Age 2, you only have to march across the map once to receive payment for the item since it is found during your regular travels.

DA2's system isn't perfect though. Initial quest giver are non-existent, so the game requires players to open their Journal if they want to know what it is they have collected and how it is tied to the world around it.  This means that any obvious connection between these quests is from the game itself is buried. With little incentive to read the entries for these deliveries, opening the Journal for a sentence of text was just an extra step that most players likely avoid.  In fact, in previous DA2 playthrough attempts, that was exactly what I did. To be fair, FedEx quests, no matter what game they are in, generally have a throwaway air about them anyways.  Here that "air" is multiplied though, thanks to quest marked NPCs.  It is extremely easy to see a marked item, pick it up, and then stumble through the game until you see the NPC it belongs to (also with a marker above their heads).  The transaction completed, money is exchanged, and the PC washes their hands of the entire quest.  In the end, their actions are completely divorced from any significance the side quest may have had to the item's recipient or even Kirkwall as a whole.

With my determination to give DA2 a fair look still going strong, I decided a while back that actually reading side quest journal entries was an integral part of the experience.  For the most part I've found that quest goals are about as generic as one would expect. Amongst all the family items and lost possessions though there have been  at least two instances so far where Cerian has needed to give someone bodily remains.  Once it was the bones of a Chantry missionary and the other time it was the corpse of a Dalish highwayman (pictured at top).  The concept of giving bodily remains to someone makes enough sense to me for it to fly.  The missionary's bone were venerable relics the Chantry desired, and the corpse was being returned to its people (supposedly for burial). While the nature of these quests was rather solemn though, Hawke's stock dialogue rendered their delivery unintentionally hilarious.  As with every other quest (like lost family items), Hawke hands the bodies to their recipients and says some variation of of the phrase "I believe you lost this somewhere?"  I, as the player, can't help but laugh and reply, "No ... no I really didn't."  The absurdity of this whole situation is simply fantastic. Think about it. Hawke has been traveling from here to kingdom come, engaging in street battles, and romantically flirting ... with a rotting corpse thrown over her shoulder or hanging out of her pack.  Then, after locating the people who will value the remains, Cerian feels the best way to broach the subject of the corpse in her possession is with a, "dude, I think you lost this."

I kind of love it.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Reexamining Dragon Age 2: Introduction

Cerian Hawke, rogue extraordinaire
I have a confession to make. I actually purchased Dragon Age 2. (It was on sale for roughly $4.00 over at GameFly a few months back.)  and then, in another fit of madness, I actually purchased both The Exiled Prince and Mark of the Assassin DLC. Exiled Prince was Day One DLC which introduced Sebastian Vale, a new recruitable companion.  Sebastian is so well integrated into gameplay, dialogue, and party banter that I think those calling TEP "cut content" certainly have more than a leg to stand on.  Mark of the Assassin is not integrated into the existing game, but instead acts as an additional chapter to the story.  Tallis, this DLC's recruitable, is restricted only to MotA gameplay.

Since my first play through was both incomplete, and on a PS3, my purchase of DA2 seemed like the perfect opportunity to give this game a second chance.  After a few hours in game, my opinions are mixed. Right after purchasing DA2, I sunk a good 20-30 hours into it as a warrior.  Frustration finally got the best of me, and Hawke barely made it to the second chapter boss.  Last weekend, on a whim, I started all over.  Playing this time as a rogue, the experience has still been frustrating at times, but after 15 hours I am still not losing my hair like last time.  In the following weeks (while I continue putting off discussing Jade Empire until I have a better feel for its world) I will be readdressing both the good and bad of Dragon Age 2 in real time

Why I'm doing this:
First of all, I have yet to actually finish the game.  The first time I played I got stuck at the second chapter boss.  The second time I gave up after frustration with mechanics overwhelmed my desire to complete the title.  This time I would like to actually beat the game.  Having experienced the title as both a mage and warrior, playing as a rogue gives me a chance to re-experience the game through new eyes. 

Second of all, time doesn't heal all wounds but it can certainly help mend them.  The first time I played DA2, it was out of morbid curiosity.  Passionately in love with Dragon Age: Origins, I had read the overwhelming negative fan reactions to DA2 and thus expected little from the title.  Even with low expectations I found the game terribly underwhelming and was rather shocked by a number of the design decisions.  It all pretty much ended in resentment.  The second time I played, it was with a host of balancing mods and that too ended in resentment.  More than anything I was disappointed in the fact that even mods could not fix what I perceived to be broken beyond repair.  This time however, I have entered into the title knowing what I face. Instead of trying to mod the game's "brokenness" away, I am being open minded about the experience.  I accept the fact that Dragon Age 2 is not what we all hoped it would all be pre-release, and I am making a genuine effort to experience it for what it is, instead of insisting it be something it isn't. I can't promise my thoughts will be terribly Earth shattering, but putting them here is a conscious effort to reinforce the non-gut-reaction approach to this playthrough.

What this series will be:
The goal of this blog series is to record my current impressions of the game in real time. The last time I took a look at Dragon Age 2 it was well after the fact, and the formatting (condensing my whole experience into a couple posts) was not conducive to really addressing the way I felt about the game. This time the posts will address oddities, the good, and the bad as I encounter them.  There is no predetermined number of posts, nor is there a predetermined text limit. 

How I am playing:
I will not be roleplaying here, but I will be roleplaying in game.  While some meta gaming is necessary to overcome game mechanics I am already aware of, I am making a conscious choice to eliminate meta gaming in the story.  I have caught myself about to make some meta plot decisions, but caught them before they actually happened. Hawke replies in conversations as she, the character, would reply. as such, she is a mix between peace keeping, kind, sarcastic, and hard nosed   She does not knowingly curry friendship or rivalry with anyone. through dialogue since that would require me, as the player, to know when and where companions will give a plus or minus to disposition. While a few mods are installed, mainly one that re-skinned Merrill's robe and changed Aveline's appearance, they are pretty much aesthetically based.  I have resisted the temptation to utilize balancing or lock bash mods.

Who Hawke is:
Cerian Hawke is a rogue who feels a little detached emotionally from her family members.  Always at odds to her brother, she felt Carter's loss when they were fleeing Lothering, but has since mourned and moved on.  While she understands her mother's and sister's grief, she secretly wishes they would move on as well.

Cerian feels affection for her sister, but resents the fact that she has spent her whole life covering for Bethany.  It's not that  Hawke has any love for the Templars, and she can certainly understand why her family fears the Circle, but Cerian feel like her own potential has been stiffed in the process of keeping her sister safe.  After all, should she demonstrate her true potential as a soldier, Hawke might draw undesired attention to her family ... and thus may potentially expose Bethany as an apostate.  With the move to Kirkwall, Hawke's mother has withdrawn into herself.  Learning about her lost inheritance and losing Carter was just too much to deal with.  This has left Cerian to take up the reigns as family matriarch, and she is relishing in the roll.  With everyone in the family looking to her for safety and financial security, Hawke finally has a chance to use martial skills, which she developed while in the service of King Cailin, to their full extent in defense of her family and her new home. This renders the burden of her sister's safety less stifling. It should be noted that after resenting Bethany's apostate status all her life, Hawke has rather ironically begun to fall romantically in love with an apostate.  Cerian finds this trick of fate to be rather (darkly) humorous.

Friday, January 11, 2013

New Year and New Gaming Resolutions!

image credit: daykarobinsondesignsblog.com

Well folks, with January already half over (!!) 2013 is well on its way.  The past couple of weeks I have thought back over my gaming habits from the past year and ended up coming to a few conclusions about where I would like to see myself and L'Épée Magique this year.  They are as follows:

I will place ME2 and Meriel's Story on hold.
I have enjoyed Meriel, but at the moment she has gone on too long. I enjoyed Mass Effect tremendously, and I even enjoy Mass Effect 2 when I can convince myself to play it.  The operative key words here though are "convince myself to play it".  For me, gaming is meant to be an enjoyable adventure of both the mind and imagination.  Why then, should I have to feel like it is work just to place the CD in the drive and launch a title?  I'm not sure where along the line playing ME2 began to feel like drudgery, but it's likely tied to the obligatory install of Origin alongside ME3 that will prevent me from ever completing the series and experiencing the final chapter of this trilogy first hand.  That alone is enough to dispirit anyone.  I'm not done with the title, and I would really like to see Meriel finish her current mission, but I think we both need space before that can happen.  It's okay. The galaxy will wait.

I will make a dent in my GOG shelf.
I have a weakness for 90s/early '00 style adventure games, and GOG is more than willing to feed this fascination of mine.  As the result of weekend and holiday sales across the past couple of years, shelf upon shelf of these titles now fill my GOG gamecase (as opposed to bookcase).  I really want to sit down and spend some quality time with Gabriel Knight, Sanitarium, or my beloved Microïd titles.  I have, after all, recently acquired the rest of the Still Life trilogy.  It's been hard the past year or so to play this kind of game without feeling guilty about Meriel.  With her on hold, I finally have a chance to both play and blog musings about these titles.

I will start another lengthy title.
I have so many epic length cRPGs on my shelf  of both the virtual and physical varieties.  It is time to make a series dent in that list.  While I have not decided which of these titles I will plug in next, a decision will be made within the next week. I still want to story-tell whichever title I choose, but am not sure how exactly it will be approached. Look for posts regarding all of this around the beginning of  February.