Sunday, 30 September 2012

Mildly Distracted by Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2 Logo

So, after much humming and hawing I've finally capitulated and picked up a copy of Guild Wars 2 (insofar as a digitally distributed game can be picked up at least).  I make a rule when there's a possibility of something that I may want to buy: Wait a couple of weeks, and if I still want it, then go get it.  Usually I forget about the thing after a couple of days, and I realize it was going to be more or less an impulse buy.  With that, I waited over a month before pulling the trigger with this game, and so far I'm glad to finally be playing it.

Getting down to the business of making a character to play as, I rolled a mesmer, then realized I didn't like him by the time he was level two.  With that I moseyed on down to the character select screen, and tried again.  This time opting for a ranger, who also is a Norn (a big viking-like human), and who happens to like her alcohol (seriously, that's an option when creating a Norn).  She even has a faithful bear companion that helps her in combat.  I named him Mister Barnaby.  A better name for a bear will never exist.

Female norn ranger
Female Norn ranger.  They're good with both ranged
and melee weapons
Setting out into the world, I find out that there's a big hunt about to start, which involved punching a giant worm in the head until it's dead.  So, we do that, there's much celebrating, and it's off to the actual game world for some wandering around, fighting monsters, helping folk, farming stuff, and maybe some arts and crafts for color.

It was while bonking random baddies over the head that I started to notice that this game is a little different. There's still the array of abilities with cooldowns on them, but there are some nice tweaks like being able to dodge and counterattack, as well as swapping between two sets of weapons.  Snazzy.  Then I noticed that I even have entirely different weapons for when fighting underwater to which I thought, "Whuuuuu~?"  followed by, "Hurray!" while proceeding to shoot at any water-dwelling denizen unfortunate enough to come into range of my harpoon gun.

A short time later, while perusing my map I noticed all of these darkened icons, and felt compelled to light them up because what icon in its right mind doesn't like being lit up?  A sad, lonely one.  So with that, I went on my way around the map helping NPCs with their problems, discovering places that apparently should be interesting to me, checking out vistas (which are kinda neat because it takes some platforming to get to these places), discovering teleportation doohickies, and doing skill point challenges (complete a challenge, get a skill point that can be used to unlock fancy new abilities).  By the end of all this, I'd lit up all of the icons in my area, and the game was all, "Thanks man!  Here's a thing!" and I was all, "Sweet!"  When I clicked on the little treasure chest to see what glorious Thing the game felt appropriate to bestow upon me, I was greeted with an item that would increase the experience my character earns by 50% for an hour.  Not bad, but I'll save that until level 70 or so when that should come in a lot more handy.

Norn on a hunt
Some Norn off to smash and / or
shoot stuff
While running around the map, my trusty ranger had managed to collect a small fortune in random junk, and my bags were beginning to look pretty darn cluttered, so I got to clicking on important looking menu icons in hopes of finding a way to remedy this.  Before long I found something that would allow me to send all of the crafting materials to my bank with the click of a button.  No running to the bank to deposit it, the stuff just magically flows through the ether until it arrives in the bank.  Mind.  Blown.  Even more amazing is that the bank has a specific area to dump crafting materials, and it appears to be bottomless.  Bottomless!

Thoroughly taken aback by this, I decided maybe I'd start fiddling around with the crafting because I'd heard on good authority that there was copious amounts of experience points to be earned from that activity (and there is!).  So what to choose.  Leather working seemed a no brainer for a ranger so she can have the finest in leathery fashion while fighting the forces of evil.  The other was cooking because I want to make cakes.

While fiddling around making stuff, my mind was blown once more because I discovered that I can just shove all my crafting goodies in the bank and leave them there.  When doing crafting at a station, the items are automatically pulled from the bank for making stuff.  This is just fantastic for reducing clutter.

A map from Guild Wars 2
Each area has a ton of places to visit.  Visit them all, get a prize.

After safely stowing away a hardy collection of hamburgers and boot soles (shut up, I'm still a lowbie at this crafting stuff!), it was back to questing, now in a nice, snow-swept mountain range.  There were more lonesome icons everywhere that I did my best to show a little love.  Wholesome love.  Not the naughty kind.    This was all mixed in with some story-related quests because apparently my character is special, and has to go on fancy missions chalk full of conversations in completely different screens (that's when you know you're special).  And that's how things have progressed to this point, showering tiny icons with affection, while doing fancy, important looking quests.  A bit of a tossed salad, and about the only salad my ranger is going to be having for the next while since she doesn't know how to make one yet (she can make salad dressing, though!).

As I'm sure you can glean from this, I kind of like Guild Wars 2.  Granted it's only been a few days, and I'm barely over level 20, but good times have been had.  Whether I'll still feel this way about the game in a month from now is anybody's guess.  We'll see.  For now I'll just continue to enjoy the game.  Anyway, that's all for now.  Stay tuned until next time, where I talk about the joys of de-leveling in a good way.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Baldur's Gate Adventures Continue...Hunting Bandits for Fun and Profit

Fighting a ghoul
Smacking around a ghoul
along the coast
My party of adventures have sorted out what the problem was at the Nashkel Mines, and why all of the iron coming out of it was of such a poor quality. Turns out that there was evil afoot. Who knew! Anyway, with the completion of that jolly jaunt it's off to Chapter Three, and it looks like my new enemy is a bunch of bandits that have been causing all sorts of problems. The good news is that one of the local commanders of the Flaming Fist is offering 50 gold per bandit scalp that I bring to her, so it's off to kill bandits indiscriminately, and make off with their hairy bounty. It's all in the name of good, though, so it's okay. =)

These scalps have already proven surprisingly profitable. My party brought back enough to make a fast 1000 gold with minimal effort, and put the proceeds toward a nice, shiny Large Shield +1 for my main character. At least I'm assuming it's shiny, though it looks like there's some wood in there, so maybe not so much. With that, I reckon it's in my group's best interests to keep hunting those baddies down, and start raking in the moolah. With a little hard work we'll make out like bandits selling those scalps. (Ho! Ho!)

At the Beregost inn
The Flaming Fist is paying top dollar for bandit

It can get a bit boring hunting down bandits all day, though, so to change things up a bit I've gone wandering around the wilderness just to see what there is to see, and what sort of trouble my party can get itself into. A lot of it has been just walking around thinking, "So man trees!" but there have also been some really fun encounters.

First there were the spiders. Glothrim and the gang (my character's name is Glothrim, by the way :p) were wandering along and would occasionally get attacked by very big spiders, which they were able to handle just fine (and get a nice amount of XP off of), with the occasional ettercap tossed in for variety. After cutting a path through the forest we encountered our first pack of tough enemies: a sword spider, a phase spider, and a wraith spider. I wasn't expecting them, so wound up getting attacked by all three at once. Being the heroic type, I sent my melees in to fight them, discovered the area is trapped, got everyone webbed, and wound up with even more very big spiders bearing down on my party. Yeah.

Black Talon Elite like using fancy arrows
Black Talon Elite don't drop scalps
but they do carry high-end
arrows that you can loot
Thankfully I remember the most important tip one can have going into an Infinity Engine game: SAVE OFTEN! The caps aren't meant to be obnoxious. It's just that important. So, with death moments away as my party was overrun by big, bad creepy crawlies, I paused, and loaded a quick save from a few minutes earlier. With that I carefully (soooo carefully) made my way to that area once more, this time making sure to only pull one of those spiders at a time. Even then, they weren't easy to take down. The sword spider hits like a truck. A truck made of swords.  The wraith spider wasn't much better. Then there was the phase spider who was mostly just annoying. My group managed to kill them all, and I think Khalid even gained a level during the fights. So, yay!

After recovering, we headed toward the center of the map because I had a feeling there may be a structure there. The whole reason I took my party to this zone was because on the world map it looked like there was a quaint little cabin in the area, so I thought it would be nice if we popped our heads in and got to know the neighbors. Turns out it wasn't a cabin, and the people there weren't very nice. It was actually some old ruins being investigated by Red Wizards of Thay.

Fighting a wraith spider
Wraith spiders give some decent experience for defeating them,
but make sure to isolate these monsters

I haven't read any of the Forgotten Realms books since high school, so I wasn't quite certain, but had a sneaking suspicion that these wizards may not be on the up and up. When we got too close their leader noticed, introduced himself briefly, and then informed us we had to die because we'd seen too much. He was surprisingly cordial about the whole thing. Now, I'm not a fan of wizards in this game because they can hit damn hard, and they always seem to like fearing a bunch of my guys, sending them running around like chickens with their heads cut off, making them pretty much useless for a while. So, having to fight a bunch of wizards at once wasn't the most titillating proposition. Sadly, it was unavoidable.

Denak, leader of a troupe of red wizards
Denak is a bit of a jerk
What transpired next wasn't pretty, and I'm not sure that fancy pulls will win the day here. These guys have the usual array of spells that I've come to expect from magic users in Faerun: mirror images, magic missles, and horror (*sigh*), but they also seem to have additional frightening magical kaboomy stuff at their disposal. With that it wasn't long before my party was wiped out, and I was sifting through save files deciding which one to load. I opted to go do something else for a bit after that little episode.

So, now my party is along the coast, smacking ogres. I haven't had to be too terribly careful with my pulls here, but it's also important not to be careless. At any rate, it's not a bad place to farm up experience, and hopefully level everyone up a few times. Minsc is getting close, and I really want Dynaheir hitting level four as well. She starting to be kinda useful with her magic now.

It's also starting to feel like it may be time to resume the hunt for bandit scalps, and maybe even finishing off this chapter, so I may just get down to that soon. Anywho, I'm off to continue my adventures. Maybe I'll even go and punch a wizard in the face to help me feel better about myself, but not a Red Wizard of Thay, though. They're mean. Until next time! =D

The Red Wizards of Thay can be a challenge
Don't mess with the Red Wizards of Thay

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Go For the Eyes, Boo!

Out in the wilderness fighting a dread wolf
There are no lack of things to fight in Faerun
With all of the recent talk about eternal projects, and doctors deciding that they don't want to make videogames anymore, I decided to blow the dust off of my old Infinity Engine games, and take them for a spin.  Well, two of them anyway: Icewind Dale and Baldur's Gate.  After a bit of back and forth, the decision was made that the latter of the two would be the one I'd stick with.  They're both great games, but Icewind Dale was a bit more combat heavy than I was looking for.  I wanted more conversations and exploration, and Baldur's Gate rounds out the experience a lot more between all of these gameplay elements.  And before I go on, I know a lot of people like the sequel better and will be all, "Just skip the first and go straight to the second.  It's sooooo much better!"  Well, quiet, you!  I like the first one, and plan to play it through to the end...or until my nostalgia itch is scratched, and I get distracted by something else.  Whichever comes first!

What replaying the game has reminded me more than anything else is just how much RPGs have changed in the last 10-15 years.  The games have gotten a lot easier, and the pace has been cranked up considerably.  Just with the game on the default difficulty I often have to work quite hard to win.  It may just be a small group of baddies, but if I go haphazardly running in swords swinging, my party will take a huge amount of damage, and people will die.  Well, maybe not so much when fighting kobolds or xvarts.  They're just a nuisance.  Against some ogres or hobgoblins or the like, especially when they may out level your party a bit, beware.  Tactics, and smart use of spells becomes the order of the day.  Have badly injured characters fall back to be healed, buff where you can, be prepared with the right spells, and most importantly don't be afraid to run away.

The game map
The more one explores the larger the world seems

It's really not like RPGs today where players are charging headlong into danger, cutting down everything in their path, and feeling like a badass after, with maybe the occasional boss fight that is sorta kinda tough.  In Baldur's Gate it really feels like the world is a dangerous place.  There are no lack of baddies out there that are ready, willing, and able to smash your party to pieces (especially when they're turned to stone).  It takes a lot more thought and skill to wade through this game than a lot of modern RPGs where it feels like players are being presented with 10-20 hours worth of monsters to smash in the face before hitting the ending credits.  It's actually really satisfying to be pushed this hard.

Then there's the whole pacing thing, as games of this period flowed a lot slower.  You could go for a nice stroll through town and have chats with countless NPCs while soaking in the local ambience. Even venturing into the wilderness, a fortress, caves, or whatever was a slower, more methodical experience.  Leveling is also a big thing in the game (as is getting new, more powerful weapons).  It's a few hours in before party members even begin to reach level two.  Heck, I'm still waiting for Dynaheir to hit level two on my current play through.  My point, though, is that leveling up means something in this game.  It's a very much needed boost to characters' stats and abilities, not just a steadily growing number that is so easy to take for granted in other games.  That level up could make all the difference between getting wiped out, or just barely making it past that one pack of monsters.

Resting up at an inn
Hurray for the relative safety of
an inn!
Grumpy old guy talk aside, it's been fun poking my head back into Faerun.  There are so many likable characters here like Minsc, Khalid and Jaheira.  I usually stick to them Imoen, and Dynaheir when I play the first game, at least when I try and be a good guy (kinda tempted to do an evil player too).  The visuals are still a pleasure as well.  I'm sure some don't like the simplistic look of it, but I love the forests in the game.  The trees look so good to me.

But, yeah, just had to type out some thoughts on the state of RPGs then and now, and how much this game has reminded me just how the genre has changed over the last decade or so.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Reflecting on Bioware

The classic company logo
Just the other day, Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka, founders of Bioware, announced that they were leaving the company.  This took a lot of people by surprise, and also helped to crank up the negative feelings that a lot gamers have toward EA, as well as the direction that Bioware has been going in recent years.  It's certainly the end of an era, but it got me thinking about what the company has meant to me over the years.

Like a lot of people, the game that got me interested in Bioware was Baldur's Gate.  It was my reintroduction to PC RPGs after a very lengthy hiatus, and I really loved that game.  It had the most tactically oriented combat that I'd ever experienced in a role-playing game up to that point, there were really interesting characters that would join you on your adventure (the world met Minsc for the first time!), and the game took place in the Forgotten Realms which was one of my favorite fantasy worlds growing up.  So yeah, Baldur's Gate was all kinds of awesome for me when it came out.

After playing the game, I made a point of keeping an eye out for whatever other games may come down the line from Bioware.  I grabbed Tales of the Sword Coast when it came out, I leaped at Baldur's Gate II and its expansion, and I even played MDK2 when it came out (yes, Bioware even made the occasional game with no RPG elements in it).  This process continued right up to the first Knights of the Old Republic, devouring whatever the company had to offer.

Fighting some monsters
The Baldur's Gate series is one of my absolute favorite RPGs
It was only during this current console generation that my interest in what Bioware was putting out started to subside.  Mass Effect never really caught my eye.  I'm always up for a sci-fi RPG, and frankly there just aren't enough of them out there for my taste, but this game just wasn't something I felt compelled to run out and play from day one.  I eventually got it for $5 at a Steam sale, and played several hours of it, but to this day I can't stay interested in it enough to want to complete it.  A big part of this is that the game crashed on me once and I lost a ton of progress after which I just couldn't be bothered to play the game anymore.  In general, though, I just don't feel all that drawn to the Mass Effect series.  There isn't anything inherently wrong with the games, I'm just not interested in them.

I've even been slow to grab the Dragon Age games.  I actually like them quite a bit in no small part because the games' combat is much more similar to that of the old Infinity Engine games.  It's a lot more tactical.  Heck, I even enjoyed Dragon Age II, and I know a lot of people can't stand that game. I thought it was a fun ride, even if players had to spend a ton of time in one town.

Shooting some stuff
Mass Effect is the first Bioware game that I couldn't get excitied about.
Will I ever like the series?  Who knows!
Nonetheless, I've not been waiting with bated breath for Bioware games in recent years, and I'm not entirely sure why that is.  Have I changed?  Has Bioware?  The answer to both those questions is, "Of course!"  I'm sure that for me it's just part of getting older.  I know full well that a game is still going to be available for sale six months down the line, so why rush to get it.  It's better to wait and get the thing at a discount.  Even if the game is being heavily hyped I don't find myself hopping on board with the same zeal that I once had.  I'm also sure that EA has had an impact on Bioware since gobbling the company up five years ago.  It would certainly explain the heavy shift to console development (though, admittedly, a lot of studios that were once PC-only went multi platform in a big way this generation).  It would also explain why a lot of Bioware's most recent efforts have felt a lot more homogenized, and like they were designed with a focus group in mind.

Lightening blast
Dragon Age was a bit of a
return to Bioware's roots
The Bioware of today is a very different entity than it was five year ago.  Their games have become a lot glossier, but the meat on their bones doesn't feel as satisfying. A lot of games feel dumbed down, and Michael Bay-a-ma-fied, trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Dragon Age was a bit of a last hurray to the games that Bioware built itself up on, but even that doesn't compare to the Baldur's Gate series.

Backlash against the company has been building for a while.  There was that whole debacle regarding the ending of Mass Effect 3, a lot of people really disliked Dragon Age II, and it's safe to say that Star Wars: The Old Republic was a colossal failure. So, one has to wonder if these things played a part in Bioware's founders deciding to leave. Then again maybe they really are tired of making games, and want to walk away from it all. Whatever the case, they were the last line of defense between Bioware and EA.  With them gone, I suspect Electronic Arts will have even more direct control of the company. Sadly, when this has happened in the past it has led to the demise of countless once great studios like Bullfrog, Westwood, and Maxis. It wouldn't come as a surprise if Bioware found itself as the latest addition to this heap of carcasses sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

FTL is Really Fun!

FTL title screen

So, I've been playing a bunch of Faster Than Light since it came out, and boy is this game fun. If you're unfamiliar with it, FTL is pretty much a roguelike in space where you command a ship trying to stay ahead of rebel forces as it races back to its headquarters with vital information for the federation (not that federation, just the one they're using for this game). However, instead of piloting the ship yourself and blasting away at enemies all pew pew pew, you actually tell your crew what to do. Get someone piloting the ship, have another person man the weapons, and another taking care of the engine room (you can also put someone on shields, make boarding parties, etc), then fly from one star system to the next, sometimes helping people in distress, and other times engaging in battle (or both!). It plays a lot more like a sim combined with a strategy game, and it has been eating up inordinate amounts of my time.

FTL ship selectionIt's definitely a game much more suited to those who like micromanagement. You can tell your crew what systems to focus on, who should repair what when something gets damaged, pick people for a boarding party (assuming you have a teleporter on your ship), decide what systems to focus attacks on in battle, and how to upgrade your own ship.  There are just so many options.

Up to this point, I only have the initial ship players get in the game, the Kestrel, and I just unlocked the Engi ship the other night.  I like the Kestrel a bit more even though its the starter ship, as a lot of its key systems are more centrally located (shields, internal scanners, doors, weapons, and med bay), so if something gets damaged and needs repairs it's a lot easier to get someone there to fix it and return them to their post after. The only systems that are a bit out of the way are life support and the engine room, but it's still a more preferable setup than the Engi ship, in my opinion, as that vessel is more ring-shaped and takes a bit more travel time to get to certain systems. Also, I'm a bit more partial to the weapon systems on the Kestrel (missiles and a laser).

Battle screenSystems can be upgraded if you have enough money, and it's up to the player how they want to approach this.  One can go for high defense and start pumping cash into things like shields and engines, or be very offense oriented and crank up their weapons systems.  There's also a bunch of sub-systems like internal sensors, doors, autopilot, and such that can be improved.  Whatever the case, just be sure to improve your reactor too so that you have enough power to use these fancy new upgrades.

I've actually grown partial to upgrading my doors as it can be incredibly useful when my ship gets boarded during a battle.  I'll open my airlock, and all of the doors leading to where the enemy is on the ship, and the oxygen will get sucked into space.  With blast doors it takes longer for invaders to break through them and get into the next room, exposing them to oxygen deprived areas for longer. Once they realize what's going on, they'll scramble to a safe zone in search of air only to be greeted by my crew and their trusting blasters when they arrive.  Good times.

Star system mapThe ship battles are quite a lot of fun, and they happen often.  It feels a lot like Star Trek in some ways as I remember Captain Picard always telling Worf what to target on an enemy ship when the Enterprise got into a fight.  It was usually, "Target their weapons" or "Target their engines" or whatever.  The same sort of thing happens here with the player deciding what systems to prioritize in a battle.  I tend to go after the shields first, and then work on their weapons systems.  It keeps them defenseless, and allows you to really do a number on a ship.

FTL hasn't even been out a week yet, and I already love it to pieces.  It's fun to fly out into the cosmos and get into some fight, soup up my ship and fight some more, then die spectacularly when I bite off more than I can chew...only to start the whole process over again.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

It Certainly Didn't Take an Eternity to Fund this Project

Through much of last week, Obsidian was teasing gamers that they had a new game that they were going to announce, and when the veil was finally lifted they took a lot of people by surprise; in a good way.  It turns out that they want to return to their roots and make an isometric tactical RPG for the PC, and they plan to forego traditional publishing routes to make it happen, instead opting to get the cash they need for development via Kickstarter.  Really, they haven't much choice in that regard because big publishers would never greenlight a project like that.  Anyway, it looks like there's a lot of people out there that would really like to get their hands on such a game, as the company got the $1.1 million that they were asking for in just over a day.

This is pretty darn mind blowing because, to the best of my recollection, no other project has got this much money this fast.  When Double Fine said they were going to make a fan-funded adventure game, they pulled in money at a decent clip, but certainly not at this pace.  I'm not even sure that the Ouya had this much support out of the gates.  So, it's certainly fair to say that there has been a lot of pent up demand for this kind of game for quite some time judging by the overwhelming support that it has received so far.

I'm definitely jazzed about the project, as games like Fallout, Planescape: Torment, and Icewind Dale are some of my favorite RPGs.  The combat is pretty great, and it's been years since we've seen it done this well.  The Dragon Age games sort of did it, but I still find the old Infinity Engine games a lot better for it, not to mention that they usually had a lot better storytelling, and a more interesting world to explore.

Planescape: Torment
There isn't a whole lot to go on yet as to what we can expect from the game.  We do know it'll be in a fantasy world with plenty of magic, and the big thing is the emphasis on this whole old school RPG experience.  It also sounds like Obsidian wants to explore far more mature themes than they'd otherwise be able to if they'd gone with a traditional publisher.  Often times when I hear developers say they want to do something like this I'm extremely skeptical because they talk big about this before the game comes out, and it turns out that the game's story isn't very mature at all outside of a liberal smattering of gory deaths and boobies.  However, given the people involved with this project (Chris Avellone, Tim Cain, and Josh Sawyer), and their RPG track record, this is one of the few games out there where I'm willing to believe that they will do good job of exploring mature themes in a game.  (The other company I trust for this sort of thing is CD Projekt)

Obsidian has already announced some of their stretch bonuses for the game now that they've hit their funding goal.  Some of the goodies that they plan to add, depending on how much money they can bring in, includes new playable races, classes, and companions, housing for your characters, as well as a Mac and Linux version of the game.  After that, who knows?  It would be cool to see a toolkit added for mods, though. =)

Icewind Dale
About the only concern I have for the game is that Obsidian has a bit of a reputation for putting out buggy products that need to get patched up after release.  Hopefully with this game they'll take their time, and make sure to avoid such problems.  I'd very much like to see the game succeed spectacularly because, bugs not withstanding, Obsidian, and before that Black Isle, have made some of my favorite RPGs ever.  They've also been screwed over pretty hard by big publishers in recent years, being forced to lay off staff because they didn't hit absurd Metacritc aggregate critic scores, so it would be great to see the company find a way to permanently remove their heads from the yoke of traditional game publishing. =)

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Getting Online With Some Artsy Swords

Kirito and Asuna together
(I'm going to assume people reading this are familiar with the series.  If not, head to the Wiki page and bring yourself up to speed on it ^_^ )

Over the last couple of days I've been checking out some of Sword Art Online, the newest anime to tackle the world of online gaming (yeah, I know there's a manga, but I don't like reading manga).  I'm five episodes into the series thus far, and it's been an entertaining romp.  It's approach to MMOs, and understanding thereof are a bit on the simplistic side, but I find myself liking the characters quite a lot, and am taken aback by how dark the show can get sometimes.

Probably the other super popular anime to center on MMORPGs was .Hack, but I didn't really pay close attention to the series when it was all the rage.  I'd poke my head in for a random episode when I remembered it was on, was reasonably entertained, and went merrily on my way, but I didn't go out of my way to follow it.  With that, I can't make any comparisons between the two series, as tempting as it would be if I were more familiar with .Hack.

It's Moe Time with Kirito and Silica
Kirito helping Silica revive her baby dragon
So with that, I'm left to look at Sword Art Online on its own, and see how it goes about approaching the world of MMORPGs, and I do find it fairly simplistic from what I've seen of the series up to this point.  There seems to be a big emphasis on grinding out levels for everyone to get stronger, so we see a lot of people going out to fight monsters in order to level up and get stronger, or get money to buy better gear.  I guess I find it interesting how the show goes about looking at MMOs because the genre has been in such a state of flux over the last five years or so with some games focusing more on endgame content rather than the leveling process, or it being more about a narrative journey to max level, as opposed to a numbers game, beating up hordes of monsters in search of more and more experience points to get to higher and higher levels.  Granted the whole grind is much more of a regional thing with games coming out of Korea and Japan focusing far more on this, which I suspect is why we see such an emphasis on leveling up in the show.  It's a central part of many MMORPGs originating from Asia, as opposed to games like World of Warcraft, Eve Online, Lord of the Rings Online, and so on, which all have fairly different goals in comparison.

In the story arch that has just begun at the point I'm at now in the series, it looks like the show is touching upon how players try to exploit game mechanics to do stuff that the developers never intended.  At least that's the impression I'm getting.  It's basically a murder mystery as someone in the game world has found a way to PK (player kill) people in safe zones when they shouldn't be able to.  I have a hunch of what may be going on, as I suspect the murderer is inflicting the initial damage on his or her targets, and then letting environmental damage finish the person off.  Who knows if I'm right or wrong (well, I guess those of you who have seen more of the series know whether or not I'm correct, but don't spoil it for me!), but I am curious how this arch will end, not just in terms of solving who the murderer is but also how the person is killing the other players.

Klein defends Kirito so he can save his friend
Kirito may try and go it alone a lot, but he still has friends like Klein that
have his back
What has really grabbed me about Sword Art Online is the characters, as they're quite likable.  The main character, Kirito, is being presented as a self-imposed loner with the weight of a virtual world on his shoulders.  There's a certain loneliness to him because one can see he'd rather make his way through this world with others, but when he's done this players have either been jealous that he knows so much about the game seeing as he was in the beta, or people around him have died, so he's forced himself to solo everything.  He's had a few friends invite him to join their group, but to this point he's declined their offers.  I do hope that he eventually teams up with other people more, and it doesn't end in sorrow for a change.  About the only person he seems reasonably close with is Asuna, but that's more because he seems to like her, and she's obviously being groomed as Kirito's love interest in the show.

They do make a good pair, though, not simply because of the romantic undertones, but because they fight well together, and as they work to solve the murder mystery they seem to have good chemistry when trying to accomplish a task.  With that, I'm hoping things work out between them.  It would also be nice to see a bit more of Klein, as he's a nice guy, and he and Kirito get along well.  The male bonding may even do Kirito some good.

Asuna invites Kirito to dinner after a nap
Asuna and Kirito make both a nice couple,
and a nice team
The quality of the animation visuals is actually quite good.  Environments have quite a bit of detail, and the show seems to be trying hard to present the world of Sword Art Online as having many different sorts of levels that the players must venture through.  About the only thing I don't like about it is that the show can sometimes overly sexualize some of the female characters.  The first instance of this to stand out for me was with Silica when Kirito helped her revive her pet.  There was just way too many forced moments of moe-isms that grated on me.  I've also noticed a few poses and camera angles with Asuna in them that made me think, "Is that really necessary?"  Other than that, though, the visual presentation of the show has been great!

After five episodes, I'm quite enjoying this show.  It's not taking any immensely novel approaches in how it portrays an MMORPG up to this point, but I'm fine with that because I'm really liking the characters.  The series actually goes on into a number of other online games in the manga, and I find myself becoming more and more curious about these places. With that, Sword Art Online may be a series where I actually want to go ahead and read the manga just so I can see what happens next after the anime inevitably ends.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

On Domains of a Binary Nature

This here is the title logo
So, I finally got around to finishing Binary Domain the other day.  It was the daily deal on Steam a while back, and I was able to pick it up for a tenner and decided to take the plunge. The game usually goes for around $40, but given that there are so many mixed opinions of it floating around there was no way that I wanted to pay full price for it (and it's not like I pay full MSRP on a game often anyway...), and I'm glad I got the game on the cheap.  Binary Domain has a lot of potential but it's story fell off the rails for me about half way through when it tried to cram a love story down my throat.  Also, some of the game mechanics, while clever in how they were trying to bring an extra bit of realism to the fore, ultimately just made everything feel a little tedious.

It would probably be a good idea to give you all a brief summary of what the game is all about before proceeding,'s a good 50+ years into the future, a natural disaster has caused global sea levels to rise significantly, and devastate the world.  To help with the rebuilding process robots have become essential to civilization, as the manpower doesn't otherwise exist.  However, one company has been secretly making robots that can pass themselves as humans.  That's a big no-no, so an international paramilitary force has been sent to Japan to investigate.  That's where the player comes in, as you take control of one of its members, Dan Marshall, and set forth to fight countless waves of enemy robots in search of answers, justice, et cetera.

Another huge enemy
While the game was in development I was a little curious how it would turn out, as the game was being handled by the same team that brought us the Yakuza series.  Those are some pretty darn fantastic games, so I kind of wanted to see how they would tackle a third person shooter.  The ideas that they brought to the table are novel.  First and foremost is that seeing as you'll be spending much of your time fighting robots it's actually possible to wear these mechanized soldiers down with your gunfire.  What this means is that blasting away at robots will cause some of their armor to fall away, exposing vital areas.  Also, this results in the robots having particularly vulnerable areas, most notably their heads and legs.  So, you can shoot out their legs, and they'll fall to the ground, but they won't give up.  Instead they'll use their arms to try and crawl to your team and attack up close and personal, so make sure to finish them off.  The other area to go for is the robots' heads.  If you can shoot their heads off, they will start to attack other enemy robots.

This may sound like a rather realistic way to go about fighting robots, and I suppose it is, but it also makes it take a lot longer to kill enemies as a result, and ultimately adds a layer of tedium to the game.  I'm usually Captain Headshot when I play these sort of games, so I prefer to have my enemies drop like flies from singular, well-placed shots.  With that, having to slowly whittle down these robots doesn't exactly jive with my play style.  Worse, the whole thing is slowed down even further because Dan can get flung around pretty hard as he takes shots from the enemies.  Again, it's a realistic feature to have because people don't exactly stand still when they take a bullet, but it slows down the pace of the fight once more because you'll lose your shot, and have to take aim again.  I'd just rather have a much faster, more fluid approach to battle.

Dan and company get ready to fight a giant spiderbot

It's also possible to issue orders to Dan's squad mates either by actual voice command, or through a selection of canned orders / responses that can be chosen by hitting specific buttons.  These are largely there to try and get the NPCs tagging along with you to help with specific tasks while fighting, or to improve Dan's relationship with then through idle chit chat.  I'm not one for talking while playing a game, so instead opted for the canned responses.  They didn't seem terribly useful a lot of the time because the NPCs would start complaining they couldn't do whatever it was I was asking of them at that time, or would fail miserably in the attempt, so I mostly used them as first aid kit carriers that could heal Dan when I was in a pickle.  Building relationships with the characters is actually more useful, and you'll need to make use of it to get the best endings in the game (Hint: Use Cain as soon as he joins the group, and use the augment that boosts how much Dan can improve relationships with squad mates in order to get the best ending).

So yeah, the gameplay didn't exactly sit well with me, but neither did the story, and I'm actually really disappointed by that because there is a lot to like about it.  Much of it plays out like a fun science fiction / action movie.  The characters have good chemistry together, there's some neat tech, and a nice take on a dystopian future, but all of a sudden the game tries to force a romance between Dan and one of his squad mates, Faye, and it just feels so contrived.  This is largely done to bring a lot more weight to certain events that happen later in the game, but surely there could have been a better way of going about it because it really takes away from an otherwise quite entertaining experience.

Facing off against another wave of robots
Bitching aside, though, the game does look pretty good. There's nice detail to the levels and characters, and the robot designs are pretty darn cool, especially the bosses.  About the only drawback is that the PC version (what I played the game on) suffers from screen tearing.  I can't really comment on frame rates because I'm the sort that, as long as things move a long at 30 FPS, I don't much care about it.

Ultimately, Binary Domain is just too slow paced of a shooter for my taste.  The first few times I blew out a robots legs, or shot off its head were kind of neat, but after several hours of this, and fighting needlessly long, drawn out battles, it just ruined the pace of the game for me.  Add on a story that start out well, then just fell apart, and boy am I glad that I only spent $10 on it.