Best CRPG of the Year

So RPS announced their favorite RPG of the year and to little surprise it was Dragon Age Inquisition.  Now I have only played a little of Inquisition but by all accounts this takes the action combat of Dragon Age 2 and mashes it together with Skyrim like “open world” or maybe even more appropriately an Ubisoft icon hunt.  It may do this well, but I can’t really see this being great and certainly not the best RPG in a year packed with them.

That said, I did find most of the RPGs I played this year mildly disappointing.  Wasteland 2 had lots of tedious combat, no polish and boring characters.  Divinity Original Sin had great combat at the beginning, but you saw all of its tricks early on and it became very easy after that.  The rest of the story and characters and role playing were pretty banal.  Some have praised the Banner Saga, but it’s mostly a tactical combat game with really mundane abilities.  It wants to be chess and in doing so sapped all the fun out of the genre.  Legend of Grimrock 2 kept the ridiculous real time combat while having much weaker puzzles than the first and being far too long for its own good.

Ok so I sound really grumpy.  The biggest surprise for me and my pick for CRPG of the year goes to Shadowrun Dragonfall. The writing here is top notch, best I have seen since the demise of Black Isle.  They off a central character fairly early just like in the base game, but here it is much better done; you care and it motivates the rest of the game.  The storyline is interesting and while Shadowrun may seem like a ridiculous setting, dragons and elves in a cyberpunk setting sounds like something a 12 year old envisions, this makes it far more unique and engaging than the staid archetypical fantasy and sci-fi settings of Bioware’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect.

What really elevates it is that they manage to get most of the boring details right.  Skills actually impact your gameplay in meaningful ways.  How you infiltrate buildings, for instance, depends highly on your personal abilities.  Are you a decker?  Then you hack in.  Or maybe you share some kind of social affinity that you can fall back on to persuade an NPC.  This kind of character build->gameplay interaction is essentially a lost art that I was hoping would make a comeback with all the RPGs this year.  However, Wasteland 2 failed to get this right despite its myraid skills, Bioware doesn’t even have skills any more and Original Sin is almost entirely combat.

Speaking of combat, this is another area where Dragonfall outdoes its peers.  The tactical combat here isn’t exceptional, but it’s competent and entertaining.  The addition of magic and special abilities puts it ahead of the stand and shoot mechanics of Wasteland 2.  It manages to slightly evolve and stay somewhat balanced far better than Original Sin and well, Dragon Age Inquisition is basically gussied up MMORPG combat and so automatically loses.  My only complaint would be the decking/hacking combat where you are in the Matrix equivalent.  This is dull stuff, but their new Kickstarter talks about completely revamping it so they seem to be aware of the problem.

My last criteria is inventory management.  I don’t know what happened, but I feel like we have gone backward in this field and a lot of it seems to be tied to fussy and boring crafting.  Warlords of Draenor is cluttering my bags with crafting items from my garrison.  Inquisition has a terrible console-style UI, crafting reagents and a bit of a Diablo-like loot system going on that makes it extremely irritating to keep your inventory clean and yet it only has like 4 equipment slots!  Wasteland 2 had so many things to pick up and yet weight allowances were relatively low that you spent far too much time inventory juggling.  Finally Original Sin was undone by skill books and consumables and a metric ton of crafting items that were probably never useful but the hoarder in me kept around.  The sorting options at the time I played were abysmal.  Sometime I lost quest items in the morass that was my inventory.

Shadowrun Returns instead basically lets you outfit before a mission with a simple but functional UI.  You don’t have that many slots and most things are obvious sequential upgrades, but that is usually always the case in other games, they just obfuscate it more.  Do I wish equipment were more varied?  Yes.  But I will take this system over fiddling with my inventory for hours every single time.  I will say that I wish cybernetic enhancements were a better and more interesting option.  They kind of pale in comparison to magic which they directly compete with and so I rarely use them.

So that is my overview of the year’s RPGs.  Most of them are undone by details, lessons learned long ago that everyone seems to have forgotten.  Shadowrun Returns is the lone exception and at least to me seems to be the underdog with all the hype around Wasteland 2 and Original Sin.  I hear the director’s cut of Dragonfall is even better and I am really looking forward to their new Kickstarter.  This seems like a team that is going to keep getting better with experience.


World of Warcraft: A Retrospective

With a new expansion pack to World of Warcraft nigh, I thought it interesting to write down my thoughts about the game as it has evolved over the last decade.

Vanilla – In retrospect, this was godawful.  So many useless classes and specs, horrible itemization, terrible tuning of all dungeons and most raids.  There was no catch up mechanism for raiding so progression guilds were still doing Molten Core in Nax.  In terms of mechanics, contemporary boss and dungeon design is light years ahead.  Finally, while at the time leveling was a revelation compared to the likes of Everquest and such, with hindsight it was complete trash.  It took forever and the questing thinned out as you approached 60 such that I ended up grinding.  I still have fond memories of the original Stranglethorn Vale on a PvP server.  It was dense with quests and people and gankers and it was pretty glorious at the time.

The Burning Crusade – BC is not that much different than Vanilla except with a team that was much more familiar with their game.  All the new zones were of higher quality and great aesthetics (except Hellfire Peninsula) and the questing experience was much more coherent and complete.  Still, the class balance was atrocious for the entire expansion.  This was the era where you brought a moonkin solely for their raid buff and a shadow priest to buff your warlocks.

If you were a hardcore raider this was probably an amazing expansion.  The raid content came out in a deluge and was supposedly very good, with the possible exception of Mount Hyjal.  For us mere mortals, there was again no catch up mechanism so we all slummed it in Karazhan and Zul’ Aman for an entire expansion pack.  This is ameliorated somewhat by the fact that Karazhan was pretty freaking amazing.  In terms of 5 man content, Blizzard nailed the aesthetics but I found most mechanically uninteresting.  However, the real problem was the tuning.  They were really hard for absolutely terrible rewards.  It made no sense that Karazhan was easier than most of the 5 man heroics.

The Wrath of the Lich King – What we have here is a profound shift in the philosophy of raiding.  Blizzard realized that making raid content that 5% of the population, at most, would ever see was dumb and might cost subscribers in the future.  Thus we got a retuned Naxx, which may be the easiest raid instance ever put into the game.  Naxx is a great raid, but because it was so easy it made the long duration until Ulduar was released nearly unbearable.  I had alts with nigh best in slot gear by the time Ulduar came out.

The wait was worth it.  Ulduar is the BEST raid yet released for the game.  Everything about it is awesome: the theme, the boss fights, the achievements.  It also introduced hard modes, a first attempt to allow raids to be tuned easier while still providing a challenge to the hardcore raiders.  While future hard modes were flip a switch and the boss has more HP and damage, Ulduar hard modes usually had some kind of ingenious method to unlock them and significantly changed the fight.  The pinnacle of the instance and the hard mode concept is hard mode Mimiron.  Anyone that did this fight as progression will tell you that despite kicking your ass over and over again, it was insanely fun.

Unfortunately, after this was a stopgap raid called Trial of the Crusader.  This was a letdown after Ulduar.  Now there was just a toggle switch for hard modes and it all took place in a very bland arena.  The fights themselves were solid, but I know most people disagree with me.  However, much like Naxx it lasted far too long for its own good, especially because at the time you were probably running it on the same character up to four time a week (10, 25 and heroic mode of each).  This was ripe for burnout.

Icecrown Citadel, the culmination of the battle against the Lich King, eventually arrived and it was pretty awesome.  Not as good as Ulduar, but at least top 5 in the game.  Hard modes usually threw in one more mechanic and nearly every fight had a few interesting mechanics to them.  There were a few missteps, Sindragosa was absolutely awful and Dreamwalker a bit too gimmicky.  I also like the Lich King fight in theory, but in reality it had too many phases and was too long, much like many end raid bosses.  I don’t like having to do the boring first phase over and over again so I can learn the next phase that is 8 minutes into the fight.  ICC normal was actually tuned fairly easy encouraging a lot of pick-up groups and this was the first instance to receive a numbers nerf that grew over time.

Apart from raiding, the new leveling zones were Blizzard reaching the end of the line in terms of the old-fashioned questing structure.  The next two expansion packs showed no improvement and maybe a little degradation.  Another big change was the introduction of catch up mechanisms for raiding.  Almost every tier, except Ulduar, brought easy methods to gear up to levels appropriate for the new raid.  Finally, the end of the expansion brought about the Dungeon Finder tool that automatically put a group together for you.  This has profound implications for how all future content had to be designed and was the precursor to Looking For Raid.  It proved so popular that basically every MMO since has included the feature.

To summarize, this was a huge step in the game and in MMO design.  Now you could skip raids and still get into raiding later.  More difficulty modes meant that there was an appropriate challenge no matter your skill level and for the first time a good portion of the player base was raiding.  Finally, we see that for the first time the game is putting together groups for players rather than putting the burden on the players to form up.

Cataclysm – The beginning of this expansion showcased a reactionary Blizzard that was not confident in the direction they had taken the game in the previous expansion pack.  Much like the more vocal minority of the game, Blizzard seemed to feel that they had casualized the game too much.  This resulted in much harder 5 man content and maybe the hardest tier of raiding in the game.

I thoroughly enjoyed the 5 man dungeons of Cata, my main complaint was the length of some and of course a lot of really bad players.  In terms of design, they were mostly fantastic.  These were boss fights that might have been in a raid instance of a previous expansion.  The problem here was that LFD, shorthand for Dungeon Finder, was still relatively new and was mostly used to run the trivialized heroics of WotLK.  People weren’t prepared to get thrown together with 5 random people and do fights that were actually difficult.  Furthermore, early Cataclysm was hell on healers.  Blizzard had nerfed them hard after dissatisfaction with the spammy healing of WotLK.  I like healing in WotLK and the irony was that it didn’t take much gear before healers in Cataclysm were back to spamming.  Warlords of Draenor sees Blizzard once again trying to cut back on healing spam, only time will tell if they succeeded.

The other evidence of this shift was found in the raiding content.  Tier 11 was insanely hard.  Normal difficulty was on par with heroic mode in ICC, particularly in 10 man difficulty.  Part of this was Blizzard not knowing how to tune 10 mans, but mostly it was indicative of their harsh raiding philosophy.  On top of that, the fights had a plethora of mechanics.  I really liked most of the fights, but it’s true that some had TOO many abilities and the overuse of interrupts was quite apparent.  If they had just made normal less punishing I think I would remember it more fondly.

I quit before Firelands, but revisiting it later, I found it unexciting and Dragon Soul is the perhaps the worst raid yet conceived.  Furthermore, the quantity of raiding content was minuscule in comparison to every other expansion.  The retuned ZA and ZG were fine, but the three 5-mans that came with Dragon Soul were awful and horribly easy.  It was clear that Blizzard was backpedaling furiously from their decision to make game content harder.

I can’t forget to mention the introduction of LFR with Dragon Soul.  I think this is a solid feature despite the scorn heaped upon it.  However, it is true that it influences encounter design all the way up to heroic difficulty and that can’t really be called a good thing.

The revision of the main game world was great, it was looking really dated after WotLK showed us what was possible.  I liked Uldum (I am a sucker for Egyptian themes) and Deepholme and Vashjir, the underwater zone, was great exactly once.

Mists of Pandaria – I really enjoyed the aesthetics of this expansion, however leveling was horrendous.  It was slower than Cataclysm and I can’t say I enjoyed any of the new zones.  The new 5 mans were trivial on release.  Even the relatively easy WotLK 5 mans didn’t become easy until after a few raid tiers of gear.  Since I enjoy that part of the game a lot, it was really unfortunate.

Blizzard didn’t design any further 5 mans either, instead opting to focus on scenarios.  Scenarios only have three people and no reliance on a tank or healer.  This sounded great to me in principle.  Now you have to win by doing enough dps and not standing in stuff. Unfortunately, Blizzard put absolutely no effort into any of them as far as I can tell.  They were boring and faceroll for the most part.  Blizzard also counts them a failure as they are scaling them back in Warlords of Draenor to a storytelling device.  Of course the problem is their design ability not the concept, but Blizzard would never admit that.

This was probably the expansion pack I did the least raiding in, skipping the entirety of Throne of Thunder.  However, my impressions were that all three tiers were good and there were a lot of bosses.  This wasn’t Cataclysm with its tiers of seven or eight bosses.  I do think Throne of Thunder is highly overrated and nowhere near the next Ulduar as Blizzard and some fans have claimed.  Siege of Orgrimmar, on the other hand, gets a bad reputation because it lasted 14 months.  Blizzard once again dropped the ball on the time between the last raid tier and the expansion pack, as they do every time.  Otherwise it’s actually pretty good.

The big feature introduced at the end of the expansion pack was flex raiding.  This was a new raid difficulty even easier than normal that scaled its difficulty to the number of players.  What we have here is Blizzard backing away from LFR and LFD style design and encouraging players to form their own groups.  I am a fan of the PuGs that formed in Wrath for ICC and Naxx because of their relatively easy difficulty and I much prefer them to the LFR paradigm where everything is braindead easy so anyone can complete it.  I am glad that it is continuing forth into the next expansion pack and expanding to normal raids too.


That leaves my final ranking of the expansions

1. WotLK
2. MoP
3. Cataclysm
4. BC
5. Vanilla

Cataclysm had the potential to be great, but a lackluster finish and a harsh beginning really hurt it.  Anyone that looks fondly on BC or Vanilla has some really pink shades on.


The Fall of Blizzard

I am referring to the video game entertainment company Blizzard.  I was weaned on Starcraft and Diablo 1 and 2.  So it is sad to me that despite cresting in their popularity, Blizzard is at an all time low in the quality of its games.

In my mind it started with Warcraft 3.  This was going to be an ambitious RPG (roleplaying game) with RTS (realtime strategy) elements.  Instead it turned into the same RTS game we have seen over and over again with the addition of a boring early game where you kill neutral monsters with your hero.  It also involved way too much micro for a real time game in my opinion.  Instead of being bold, it felt like the many RPG/RTS hybrids coming out around that time.  Finally, it spawned Defense of the Ancients which went on to fuel an entire genre of bland copies, including its own sequel which did nothing but recreate the original in a prettier engine.  I cannot forgive it for creating the insidious MOBA (empty acronym) genre.

World of Warcraft was actually pretty good.  It really polished off a lot of the rough edges of the MMORPG genre and opened it up to a lot of people.  While a lot of people argue about bad decisions by Blizzard regarding the game, you can’t argue that they have pioneered innovation in the genre.  Mostly that is because everyone else is copying it.  But accessible raiding, multiple difficulties, cross-server everything and automatic group assembly are now prerequisites of the genre first attempted by Blizzard.

Then we come to Starcraft 2.  What a failure in my eyes.  This is a near exact copy of the original.  The problem is that the RTS genre had moved on in the decade since the first game.  Gathering resources and constructing bases was completely outmoded and despite being relatively unpopular, the Myth franchise of games had won the battle over the future of RTS.  Games like World in Conflict had ditched all the boring clutter and said let them do battle.  The only redeeming feature here was the single player campaign was actually really well down.  Let’s not forget the awful decision to split it into three parts and the typical Blizzard prolonged delay between each part.

Last up is Diablo 3.  I played a ridiculous amount of Diablo 2 and it’s really the only action RPG that had any longevity for me.  So when Diablo 3 came out I was really excited.  Now there is a lot to like in Diablo 3.  The combat is the most invigorating in the genre and I like the attempt at removing all the extraneous character customization.  Your choices actually matter, though I think their ability balance was really bad for a long time.  Now they are balancing it via elemental affinities which is double-sided.  The problem is that like every recent Blizzard game, it is built on gambling system that is far too lean.  They literally make no money off of people yet the entire system seems built to keep people playing infinitely.  I have already written about this voluminously in another post, but it boils down to just being too random to have fun.

What is the future for Blizzard.  It seems to be derpy free to play games.  This is a huge company with a money printing machine called World of Warcraft and yet the only known games on the horizon are Hearthstone, a Magic the Gathering rip off, and Heroes of the Storm, a MOBA.  Both are run by small teams and enter genres already crowded while essentially offering not much new.  HotS at least might scrub away the “features” I hate about MOBAs, but I doubt the genre will ever appeal to me.

On the World of Wacraft front, they still can’t get expansions out fast enough.  Instead the final raid tier always goes on for way too long and they suffer with a massive subscriber hit that only partially comes back when the expansion hits.  Each expansion seems leaner on dungeon/raid content too.  Strangely, the game has run a very small staff for a game of its size and only recently sought to expand it.  It seems interesting to me that you pour resources into a “dying” game, but maybe it makes sense if they had always underinvested in WoW.

It just baffles me that Blizzard, a company that has a reputation giving them access to the best talent and the resources to back it up, is doing absolutely nothing.  Instead they are riding the F2P bandwagon with some trite, unimaginative concepts.  With Titan cancelled they have nothing else but the third part of Starcraft 2.  Where did all the money go?



Gamergate, Why Is This Still a Thing?

I saw the episode of Colbert Report where Colbert interviews Anita Sarkeesian and I was just shaking my head that this is still garnering media attention.  While I do not condone any of the death threats or harassment doled out by a small minority of people posting under the #Gamergate, I do think the media’s portrayal of the entire sequence of events is ludicrous and exaggerated.

The first thing that immediately annoys me is how easily a few disturbed individuals who happen to play games have somehow tarnished the good name of gamers everywhere.  You see this kind of stuff with Muslims all being portrayed as violent extremists when the vast majority are peaceful and law-abiding.  Usually the liberal parts of the media take pains to make this distinction, but those outraged by #Gamergate are mostly liberal feminists who seem very eager to engage in the same kind of broad demonization they argue against in other contexts.  There are even calls for gamers and gaming companies to harshly decry the insensitive comments of #Gamergate, just like every Muslim needs to make it absolutely clear that they do not condone terrorism every time a terrorist act occurs.  How about we just assume that most people believe in treating others with respect rather than asking them to verbally affirm it, as if that really does anything.

There are seven billion people on the planet, which means that in every particular demographic there are likely a few crazy people.  With the internet, these people can now freely amplify the deranged voices in their head.  You should ignore these people, not use them to draw generalizations about the population of which they may belong based off sharing a hobby.

But what about the death threats and harassment, how can you ignore that?  Unfortunately, in the modern age, I suspect most public figures are harassed and get death threats.  Life goes on because they are not dissimilar to those times you get really frustrated and claim “you are gonna kill Bob” because he let your favorite plant wither while you were gone.  If you took them all seriously then anyone of any notoriety should lock themselves in a panic room ASAP.  Like with all of life, we have to depend somewhat on the basic decency of the rest of humanity.  The problem is that as the population grows you get more yahoos even if the percentage of the population that are psychopaths stays constant.

The irony of the harassment and death threats, including the threat of a school shooting if Sarkeesian gave her speech, is that they are mostly their to garner attention for their utterer and the media has given them what they want.  On the deeper bowels of the internet we call such people drawing attention to themselves “trolls.”  You do not feed the trolls.  By which we mean, just ignore them and they will eventually give up and go away.  I know, this isn’t foolproof, maybe some of these threats are real, but you really can’t let the terrorists win by completely altering your life.  Sarkeesian backed down this time.  What about the next time she tries to speak?  A death threat worked last time, why not try it again?  I don’t have an easy answer for Sarkeesian, but you can see why we don’t negotiate with terrorists.

As for the actual discussion about the portrayal of women in games, it seems unfairly targeted at video games.  Every other media type is just as bad but since they are more established they seem to get more of a pass.  Where are all the good female stars of TV shows for instance?  Olivia Pope you say?  You mean the woman who is easily wooed by the sleeziest, most incompetent President imaginable?  I hear Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being touted as a strong female character.  Apparently being deranged and unstable and getting a boob job to impress a guy is “strong.”  It really sounds to me like nobody knows what they want when it comes to female characters, though I would just settle for more of them in starring roles.

Also some of the examples used by Sarkeesian and others are a bit dubious.  On the Colbert Report they used a scene from Dragon Age Origins where a villain was telling his troops to commit mass rape in a village.  Of course this is a game that takes place in a gritty medieval setting, a time period not known for its egalitarian treatment of women and where raping and pillaging were a common event.  Why are there no complaints about A Game of Thrones where similar things happen?  Oh right, because it’s a mainstream TV show now.  Even games in modern times would in fact be betraying verisimilitude if the ignored the myriad inequalities of men and women in the world today.  Maybe this is a worthwhile sacrifice, but seemingly calling for every game to treat women on the same footing as men comprises a seriously curtailing of creative freedom.

Also, lets be honest, the portrayal of men is equally objectifying.  Comics, movies, video games, anime and fantasy fiction are full of steroid-injecting tough guys with growls instead of voices.  It’s not dudes reading all the romance fantasy with covers emblazoned with hunky shirtless men.  There is just as much beefcake as there is cheesecake.  The “problem,” as much is there is one, is that video games are fantasy empowerment for their players and their players are still mostly male.  Men want to be play powerful, sexy men and interact with and dominate sexy women and I am sure women have similar fantasies.  Video games are a symptom, not a cause.  It’s like blaming manufacturers for putting sugar into everything, but they only do so because that is what people want.  Changing people’s view of the other sex is going to do a lot more to correct this than anything else.  Though good luck trying to change their fantasies from being about power and sex.

Finally, a comment about the suffix “gate” being attached to everything.  Watergate was a seminal moment in the politics of the USA as it involved an unparalleled breach of the trust we give to our government officials and the President.  It was also the name of the hotel where said event occurred.  Now, for reasons unknown we have taken the “gate” part of that name and appended it to every minor scandal.  It degrades the original scandal and shows a frightening lack of imagination by our news media and intellectual figures while also making no sense.

Wasteland 2 Review

Oh my.  How did they mess up a turn-based, post-apocalyptic RPG so badly?  The framework of a decent game is here, but at every step Inxile has made extremely poor decisions.  I don’t know how most of the mechanics in the game made it live considering the extremely long and public beta testing.  Unfortunately, this was also not a result of them spending resources on story, interactions, graphics or the user interface.  Pretty much everything here is a bit shoddy and I am extremely worried about Pillars of Eternity now.

Lets start with the character creation since that is the first thing most people will see.  There are attributes like Awareness and Speed and skills like Kiss Ass, Energy Weapons and Mechanical Repair.  The former have almost no effect on the latter despite common sense suggesting it should.  The lone exception is that Charisma works with the Leadership skill.  In fact there are 7 attributes but the only thing of import that they affect is the number of Action Points and your Combat Initiative which determines how often you get a turn.  That is seven attributes to determine two statistics, which means that most of them are far too similar.  The two attributes that don’t affect these stats, Luck and Charisma, are essentially dump stats unless you really want enough Charisma for all the possible NPCs to join you.  Seeing as they are all dull as bricks, I don’t see the point.  It might have been better to go with a pure skill system if this is the best they could do with attributes.

The skill system has the major flaw that there are just too damn many of them.  For instance, there are three speech skills: Hard Ass, Kiss Ass and Smart Ass.  Furthermore each is used like once or twice to any effect during the course of the entire game.  Why is there Alarm Disabling, Mechanical Repair, Toaster Repair, Computer Science, Lockpicking and Safecracking?  This should be at most three skills.  Why are First Aid and Surgery different skills?  Why does every weapon type need its own weapon skill?  Is using a blunt weapon that different from an edged one or just using your fists?  What do we gain from this fine granularity of weapon skills?

The worst part is that the skills vary hugely in their importance in the game.  Mechanical Repair and Disable Alarm can safely be skipped.  The speech skills are pretty useless too.  Among the weapons, edged weapons are the best melee until the end of the game when blunt takes over, but both pale in comparison to brawling endgame.  Still, melee is weak in general.  The Pistol skill is worthless, submachine guns are OK at the beginning and fall behind quickly.  Heavy weapons are useless because the game thinks that guns jam every 10th bullet and the ammo for energy weapons is way too heavy.  The real problem is that assault rifles are by far the best weapon for the entirety of the game.  Their range is comparable to a sniper rifle, but they can burst giving them the highest damage potential.  Sniper rifles take a ton of AP to fire while doing considerably less damage than a bursting assault rifle.  It may have been balanced if ammo were at all a problem, but the stuff is effectively infinite.

In order to make these skills useful the wasteland is littered with trapped and locked chests and safes.  Nevermind asking why you would place explosives on a chest you were trying to protect or why all of these things are just lying around when resources are so scarce.  Know that you will be spending far too much time disarming traps and unlocking stuff.  Then you will constantly be juggling items to stay under your weight limit.  On top of taking a needlessly long five seconds to use one skill, even at max skill you will still have a chance to fail.  In fact you will have a chance to critically fail and be unable to try unlocking the chest again.  So the game is built for save scumming for no good reason.  The worst part is that for the most part these things contain pittances like a few rounds of ammo, no matter how difficult it was to break in.  This entire setup caused huge pacing issues for me and endless frustration at loading screens and I cannot fathom why they chose this skill system and the multiplicity of locks and traps they put into the game.

This analysis of stats leads to the atrocious combat.  Most of the time your group will be all balled up at the beginning of combat since it is rarely worth the considerable amount of effort to split them up before engaging.  Wasting AP moving is usually a bad idea unless cover is very close.  Thus by the end of the game you are mostly standing still picking off enemies from afar as they run closer to you.  XCOM this is not.  There are no special abilities and the tactical movement is essentially nonexistent.  The ambush system in the game is awful.  They will often all trigger at once or just fail to trigger for reasons unknown.  I should point out I was only playing on Ranger difficulty, which is right below the absolute hardest difficulty, but above the recommended setting.

What about the plot and roleplaying you ask?  Here is a summary of most of the game.  Go place radio transmitters around Arizona.  Now go place radio transmitters in California.  Gather cat litter and zeolite to pass our contrived attempt to gate content with radiation.  Learn about tired scheme for AI to take over world just like Fallout Tactics or Wasteland 1 or any other myriad sources.  Game over.  The overarching plot is really unmotivating and bland.

The individual areas are a little better, but most can be boiled down to there are two equally bad choices and you are forced to make one.  This is fine a few times, but literally every major decision in the game is like this.  You need to balance this with at least a few opportunities to bring good into the world, to actually fulfill the role of a Ranger bringing law and order to the people.  Instead these “dilemmas” often leave one feeling powerless and impotent.  If no matter what you do everyone is screwed why even make a choice?  Why continue playing?

The freedom to resolve situations is nowhere near as broad as in Fallout 1 and 2, but it is better than most recent RPGs.  What holds it back are some excessively narrow or even buggy triggers that often force you down paths you were just exploring or suddenly making everyone aware of your intentions.  When I find out the nuke is actually a dud, this information should not be broadcast to everyone in town.  But it is and an opposing faction decides to makes its move and my choice of who controls the town is made for me.  Stuff like this happens all the time and it makes my narrative power feel janky and buggy.  Unfortunately, dialogue is badly written and mostly consists of pressing all the dialogue options.  This is one area where Bioware has actually made some progress recently, though I dislike how they have shortened your options to emoticons in recent games.  Bioware games have natural dialogues rather than lists to exhaust.  Speech skills in Wasteland 2 add very little in the way of options and most things are solved with guns.  The NPCs are poorly optimized and have no personality.  You get some emotes and a quick ending screen for your party members and that is about.  None of them really even have a quest to flesh them out.

On the technical front, this game is ugly.

I think what really kills it for me is how terrible and frequent the combat is and the aforementioned trap/unlocking system that really slowed the game down.  You can’t avoid it because you never know where an important item may be.  So huge swathes of the game are joyless to get to the merely adequate roleplaying parts.   There are so many blatantly bad ideas it strangles all the good parts.  Inxile does not seem capable of even rudimentary analysis of their game systems and it makes me very wary of their future projects.  I cannot in good conscience recommend this game to anyone.

Review: Shadow of Mordor

What a pleasant surprise!  The best Assassin’s Creed game is not an AC game!  Though considering the recalcitrance of Ubisoft to make ANY changes to the AC formula and in fact importing it into other games (see Farcry), it was really only a matter of time.  However, Shadow of Mordor still left in a lot of weaknesses from recent open world games, while showing some progress in making them feel a little more alive.

The best way to describe Shadow of Mordor is AC with the combat system taken from the recent Batman Arkham games set in a universe with Lord of the Rings trappings.  I say trappings because the storyline is pretty much an incoherent mess and the only other NPCs you encounter are orcs, I mean Uruks.  You should really think of it as an orc-killing simulator if you want to get any enjoyment out of the game.  Do not play this game expecting sweeping fantasy epics or you will be disappointed.

In fact the sequence of main missions would be a major fault in the game.  It’s essentially a very long sequence of tutorials that locks a lot of the more interesting abilities until really late in the game.  For instance you wont get the ability to brand orcs and thus make them part of your army until the second map, over halfway through the game.  This tutorial aspect makes many of them feel a bit redundant or irrelevant; why am I hunting beasts with a dwarf as a main mission?  Oh right, so they can unlock beast taming abilities.  Said dwarf then disappears, seemingly having no other purpose except to unlock your skills.  He doesn’t even show up in the end sequence.

There are of course the other mainstays of this genre: collectibles and minor quests strewn around the map for you to collect.  However, they are clearly marked and there aren’t an enormous number of them.  I actually did them all, which I never do in these games, hoping they might provide some kind of gameplay perk, but alas it was just for experience points.  I guess there were a sequence of side missions where you free slaves (24 times, it got a bit repetitive) and in doing so the final mission kind of starts a rebellion and human slaves are a bit more aggressive towards their captors.  The rebellion should have been handled much better with more consequences and more variation than just “free the slave” missions over and over again.

What has people raving about this game then?  That would be the Nemesis system.  There are two maps in the game each with an orc leadership hierarchy of captains and the warchiefs above them.  Captains have a wide array of abilities and you can gather intel on them to find out their weaknesses and strengths.  They can rise up the ranks based on your actions or you can remove them from the hierarchy.  Occasionally they survive their murder and try to get revenge, though this is rare except for the one orc captain the game chooses as your arch-nemesis to haunt you throughout the game and returns in the final missions.  They will even comment on how you killed them or they killed you.

It becomes a bit more interesting once you can turn orcs to your side.  Now you can try to set up ambushes by turning regular orcs to your side and unleashing them.  Or you can turn captains and protect them so they go up the hierarchy and become stronger.  Now have them backstab warchiefs after ingratiating themselves and then said captains become warchiefs themselves.  It all sounds very cool.

And it is.  Except most of the stuff exists for no real purpose.  The first problem is that branding has no limits and as such is always preferably to killing orcs once you get the ability.  Second, what is the point of all these machinations when you can just go to the top of the hierarchy directly and brand the warchiefs?  Part of the problem is that the game is too easy later on and as such warchiefs don’t need to be softened up for you to plow through them.  If they were real terrors where you wanted a few captains on your side to even the odds it would work much better.  Finally, the only reason to dominate the warchiefs is to unlock the final missions which are appallingly bad with one of the worst boss battles in recent memory and a non-conclusion to setup a sequel.

You see there is actually a paucity of content if you don’t like just killing orcs and playing with captains.  Two maps that are devoid of interesting environments, a terrible set of tutorial missions and a bunch of collectibles is not much to sink your teeth into.  Playing with the orc leadership is essentially the entire game and while it is reasonably fun I want a bit more impetus to actually engage the system.

If I were designing this game I would put limits on the number of branded captains you can have rather than being able to mind control ALL of them.  Also no direct branding of warchiefs, Sauron has too much influence over them or some other mumbo jumbo.  Now you actually have to protect and shepherd your small number of captains into a warchief role rather than just going for the head.  Then I would let you do more interesting things with the warchiefs.  First every warchief gets a stronghold on the map and you can use your warchiefs to invade other warchiefs’ strongholds.  Occasionally have them invade your strongholds.  Finally, make sure the main storyline has appropriate perks and consequences for your ability to manipulate the orc hierarchy.  This would add a lot of motivation to actually play with the Nemesis system.

The other thing I would change is “missions” in general.  These open world games like to make you go to a mission start area and then limit you to a small mission area or you fail.  This is completely antithetical to “open world” and for most of the missions in Shadow of Mordor, it is completely unnecessary since the missions could just take place without any special setup.  Rather than a free the slave mission, just put some damn slaves down and let me do my thing.  Or rather than a beast hunt captain “mission” let me stumble onto the captain hunting a beast and do him in.  This would give me more freedom and if I have a captain or other orcs on my side nearby I can actually use them.  It’s a small change with an enormous shift in how “open” the world is perceived.

I guess what I am saying is that I hope the next game really builds off this because this felt more like a long tech demo for the Nemesis system.  Now that everything is in place a sequel that really stretches it could be amazing.  As it is, I 100% the game in about 25 hours and I enjoyed it, but a lot of that was built on false hopes that something more interesting would happen near the endgame.


Blackguards Review

Blackguards has two things going for it: Turn-based RPG combat and hexes.  Even with computers to do all the dirty work of freeform movement, I still hold a dear place in my heart for hexes.  Unfortunately, while these two features can mask a lot of sins, Blackguards still manages to underwhelm.

Lets start with the story.  Your entire party is predetermined so you better like your compatriots.  Sadly, they are mostly a bore with a stereotypical grumpy dwarf and Takate kind of plays on the noble savage thing.  It’s also a bit of a misnomer to call this an RPG because other than a few sidequests you don’t actually make any significant choices.  Blackguards is much more in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics, a series of tactical battles with a story linking them together rather than a traditional RPG with turn-based combat.  However, the story is ponderously slow for most of the game before resolving far too fast near the end.  I expected more from a company that makes adventure games, a genre usually propped up by good storytelling.

Therefore it is best to come to Blackguards expecting nothing but interesting turn based tactical battles.  Much to its detriment, Blackguards utilizes some obscure German roleplaying system.  I have no idea how faithful it is to the original rules, but it appears to have a lot of traps in terms of character design.  Like it is much better to improve weapon skills first over character stats or that certain weapons like hammers have much better skills attached.  You should definitely build your mages as bow users too and that includes your main character.  A third melee character would be very awkward on Blackguards’ battlefields.  The problem is that the game can be notoriously difficult and thus require some fairly good character optimization.

It can be difficult, but it can also be ridiculously easy.  One of the flaws here is an inconsistent level of difficulty.  I managed to beat almost every battle on hard, but there are some which were just too annoying to bother with.  For instance one involves alligators that eat from a trap trigger and if they finish it kills a captive and you fail.  Success mostly depends on whether the reptiles attack you or the traps and after a few tries I gave in.

These objective based maps are a good idea over the typical kill everything style, but a lot of them were just ill thought out.  In particular a string of battles in a coliseum were particularly onerous.  One of them was a maze mostly one character wide where you had to wade through respawning roaches to get to the end.  Unfortunately, the narrow clearances meant you could not clear the roaches much faster than they respawned which turned the map into a tedious slog.  They also got a bit overly zealous with traps.

Finally, this RPG system has terrible magical loot in that it is nearly non-existent.  You use the same equipment for most of the game.  Some people talk about the Christmas Tree effect in D&D where characters are decorated with hordes of loot, but I find that far preferable to a game with essentially no equipment customization.

In the end I couldn’t finish the game.  You start off not being able to hit anything, but by the mid game it gets fairly interesting and then you have most of your tools and the game gets very repetitive very quickly.  Every fight started with the same buffs and debuffs, etc.  With no story to keep me motivated I had no desire to slog on until the end.  Blackguards 2 promises a more open-ended campaign and some improvements to the combat system.  I hope they pull it off because I really see potential here.