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“Manhandling Metro 2033” or “Creepy Cavern Crawling Children”

March 24, 2010 4 comments

I started playing Metro 2033 last night. From the little I had read about the game, I could glean the following:

  1. It is a very strict linear experience. Some labeled this as a negative thing, and I am not sure why. The Max Payne series was a straight line with nay a single opportunity to veer from the beaten path, and still managed to deliver incredible atmosphere and story. More recently, even groundbreaking and blockbuster titles like Modern Warfare 2 featured a story campaign that bee-lined from beginning to end, no side missions, just powerful storytelling.
  2. It is highly atmospheric and entire sections/areas have been constructed just to create a better sense of the world.
  3. It is a mediocre shooter.
  4. It is based on a Russian novel.
  5. The world is post-apocalyptic with the remnants of humanity residing in underground subway stations, passing the days till the surface becomes remotely habitable again. You could say it’s a Fallout ripoff, but the damn book came first, so suck it Vault-dwellers!

All of the above is more or less accurate.

Like a Bull to a Matador

The game is painfully linear, to the point that if you are traveling with companions and they start marching off to the next checkpoint, they will not stop to check on you if you decide to sprout adventurous wings and go about exploring the area for scarce ammo and other supplies. In fact, the AI-controlled teammates will cross a digital threshold that triggers 6 mutants to be unleashed in the area, and will calmly keep on marching ahead, oblivious to your frantic cries of help as you hobble about trying to ward off and shoot the creatures with starter weapons that can only be compared to glorified slingshots. In a way, this reinforces the concept that you need to stick with your team if you don’t want to end up in the mutants’ crock pot that night, but it does break realism in that the AI will very strictly follow pre-determined paths and objectives of the woefully linear mission.

There is some room for exploration. Deviating from the path, while mostly hazardous and, for the lack of a better term, lonely, does net considerable advantages in the form of much needed and increasingly scarce gas mask filters, ammo and even upgraded guns. My favorite gun so far is a revolver, modified with a rifle barrel extension for increased accuracy and a silencer to pick off targets without attracting unwanted attention.

A Rich Back Story

To say that the game is atmospheric would be sort of like saying Avatar was quite under-hyped. There are little snippets of information strewn about in the form of pre-nuclear-winter memorabilia, random conversations from individuals in the populated stations (I use ‘populated’ loosely, ‘crammed’ would be a more apt depiction), and vestiges of lost civilization the NPCs cling on to for dear life. People are jam-packed like sardines in these nuclear shelters, claiming improvised shacks, even cupboards and benches in old, unused subway cars as their new home. The show, as they say, must go on. There are entire sections of the game world that offer no plot advancement, trade or combat; they have been created just to portray the harsh underground existence of these doomed denizens. It is blatantly obvious to anyone who spends more than a few minutes just exploring a locale to realize this was a labor of love for the developers, and they have poured their collective creativity and meticulous attention to detail and subtext into virtually every nook and cranny in the game. Sheer brilliance. 11/10 for atmosphere.

So-So Pew Pew

It is not a mediocre shooter, it’s actually below average. Gun don’t pack the satisfying punch that brings with it an unsaid level of comfort. The recoil is too mathematical and under-compensated. In the time it takes to reload, I could probably read the book the game is based on. The enemy AI seems cunning on the surface, ducking out from behind cover, darting between different areas to keep you on your toes, but if you sit back and observe, you realize they are darting about primarily for the sake of darting about.

No one is flanking you, they seem to be determined, programmed one might say, to move about haphazardly, to create a false sense that you are up against an enemy that is responding to your attack logically. All said and done, if you are looking for a great shooter, you will find the makings of one here, but it falls quite short of the precedent set by MW2 and ME2.

Did It Just Get Cold In Here, Or Is It Just Me?

Some may claim the game is not creepy, just radiating an ambiance of dread, uncertainty and a few unintentional cheap scares. I wouldn’t disagree entirely, however, there were some moments that jolted me. One of these moments came quite early on. A party of four, myself included, were pushing a hand cart down a subway tunnel with the intention of reaching the next station.

As the cart rounded a corner, I saw the shadow of a little kid, 4, maybe 5 years old, donning a military helmet walking down the track directly ahead of us. I though to myself, this is a throughway, there are bound to be traders or migrating families moving about within the metro system. Except I could see no one else with the child. And then I realized I couldn’t see the child either. It was just a shadow, a silhouette that eerily marched down the tracks, got larger as the light from our cart approached it, and then simply disintegrated into nothingness as we moved past it. Color me creeped out!

Conclusion

All in all I am thoroughly enjoying the experience. It has its drawbacks, but the void Mass Effect 2 has left is at least partially filled with the atmospheric work of genius that is Metro 2033.

Categories: Metro 2033, Opinion, Review

“Eli Roth Would be Proud” or “Dismembershiposity”

March 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Through the Book of the Face, comes this new contest by Visceral Games regarding their upcoming sequel to Dead Space.

The contest is simple: you need to design a dismemberment in Dead Space 2. The contest is open to anyone, regardless of background, though if you are a serial killer, you probably have a better chance at this sort of thing.

The entry can be submitted as a video of Isaac Clarke dismembering a slasher, lurker or reaper, a drawing, a verbal explanation, or pretty much anything you can come up with. The winning entry will be voted on by the community, and will be animated for the game, along with the likeness for the contest winner.

The contest will go till midnight, March 26, 2010. Additional details an be found here .

Looking for inspiration? Check out Hostel and Hostel 2. If you’re criminally insane. Or severely disturbed. Or you’re Eli Roth.

Categories: Contest, Opinion

“Six Days of Controversy” or “Intolerable Hypocricy”

March 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Two days ago an anonymous source claimed that Six Days in Fallujah was finished and vowed to get it published.

That’s the news. Now let’s analyze it.

Six Days in Fallujah Controversy

Six Days in Fallujah epitomizes hypocritical doubles standards applied to video games. Developed by Atomic Games, Six Days is described as a survival horror game. It focuses on the second battle of Fallujah during Operation Iraqi Freedom, covering the lives of a squad of U.S. Marines for, brace yourself for this may be shocking, six days.

Halfway through development, with Konami on board as a publisher, the game was engulfed in a blinding haze of controversy regarding its content and appropriateness. Concerns were raised about the focus on real world issues that were a little too recent.

Why is SDiF Different From Any Other Shooter?

The game was developed by Atomic Games upon the request of a battalion of marines that returned from Fallujah. The game features authentically constructed locations, situations and battles, complete with the real life names and likenesses of the marines. Atomic Games conducted over 70 interviews with marines, other military officials, war historians, Iraqi civilians and even some insurgents to create one of the most historically and psychologically accurate military shooters ever built.

In addition, the game was labeled as ‘survival horror’, but not in the same vein as traditional survival horror games, such as Dead Space, Silent Hill or Resident Evil. The horror in Six Days in Fallujah comes from the incessant barrage of unpredictable life and death situations. The psychological traumas of war, while often portrayed in movies and and regularly permeating our media and collective conscious, is still something we can’t quite wrap our head around because most of us have never been in the same situation. But I am digressing now.

All said, the game must have captured some of the visceral tension and the unforgiving nature of the field of battle, because in April of last year, Konami dropped the title. Atomic Games was then thought to be near bankruptcy, with reports of mass lay-offs, and a skeleton crew managing the title. Two days ago, however, an anonymous source, my bet would be Peter Tamte, claimed that the title was finished and vowed to get it published.

Why the Double Standard?

That pisses me off. Konami dropped the title because it was mired in controversy and chose to tackle subject matter because it was ‘too soon’?

The World Trade Center towers fell on September 11, 2001. In April 2006, Paul Greengrass released United 93, less than five years after the plane’s fatal final flight. Similarly in August 2006, again less than five years after the incident, Oliver Stone released World Trade Center. Operation Phantom Fury (which the game is based on) was conducted in November 2004. It is March 2010, over six years later. But this is waaaaaaay too soon.

Give me a break!

Why is it that for some strange reason, video games always bear the brunt of the  punishment for engaging controversial content, whereas film and television simply hide behind a thin veil of ‘artistic expression’ and ‘portraying reality’. Do the words ‘video game’ really have such a negative connotation that no subject matter ever covered can be taken seriously, and if it is, it is only under the pretense of ‘inciting violence in youth’.

Video games have all the capability and ability to not only capture the essence and realism of a situation, they can also convey the intensity, emotional trauma and psychological complexity of real life, a facet that the film and television medium has dominated for so long. Stating or believing otherwise is just stubborn hypocrisy, for the same standards don’t seem to apply.

Oh and just for the record, in case you think I am an Atomic Games fanboy, I think Six Days of Fallujah will be a mediocre game at best. But I will defend to the death Atomic Games‘ right to publish it.

“Two Crysis 2 Screensh-” or “-ooooh Pretty!”

March 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Two new screenshots for Crysis 2 have emerged. In an unprecedented turn of events, the screenshots look breathtaking. The resulting shockwaves from this unexpected turn of events sent Oceanic flight 815 tumbling onto the island.

Crysis was a sight to behold. Lush tropical forests, destructible environments, vehicular action, and an innovative power management system for your nanosuit. There are several moments that stood out for me, like the massive tank battle in the fields as you made your way to the crumbling mountain, watching in awe as massive chunks tumbled off from its lofty peaks to reveal the majestic ship it concealed underneath. Or the graveyard battle against the Korean Nanosuits. Or the zero-G firefights.

However, at the end of the day, what really turned me off about Crysis was the excessive reliance on eye-candy, and the underwhelming focus on narrative as well as the incessantly repetitive nature of missions. I distinctly remember, going from one mission to the next, you would first spend a few seconds admiring the beauty of the world that surrounds you. And then, using a combination of your suit’s powers and the expansive arsenal at your disposal, you would make life hell for all living creatures within a mile’s radius.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Ad nauseum.

Crysis 2 looks stunning, even in these screenshots that don’t necessarily depict gameplay elements. However, even now, I am filled with a sense of dread about the reursive nature of the missions, and if New York will simply transform into one initially awe-inspiring, but ultimately disappointing and banal urban vista to the next. Let’s hope not!

Categories: Opinion

“Build me up, Buttercup Baby” or “Only to Let me Down!”

March 5, 2010 2 comments

IGN recently posted an interview with Ragnar Tornquist, Game Director and Executive Producer for Funcom’s upcoming MMO, The Secret World. To say that details about TSW are kept strictly under wraps would be sort of like saying World of Warcraft has seen some mediocre success. Having followed the game closely for well over two years, it seems every time Tornquist comes out with a new interview, he pre-meditatively shares only the most microscopic smidgen of information just to keep the hype going. It is either an ingenious marketing strategy, or just a sadist’s self-gratification agenda.

With the recent unveiling of the website for the town of Kingsmouth, Maine, a fictional location based on sleepy sea-side New England towns, it seems the Funcom team has finally started to unravel the mystery surrounding the title, and what it has to offer. However, even in this interview, despite tackling a large number of questions, Tornquist refused to share any significant information. For instance, I learned from the interview that:

  • dark freaking days are coming, like really dark yo!
  • you get to fight against the forces of evil, and you are the chosen one (in addition to about a million other people)
  • the game will feel familiar to an veteran MMO player, and look better than Age of Conan did
  • most locations are real-world based, but not accurate renderings of any specific city or landscape
  • the zombies will ‘not be your average shambling variety’, and enemies may ‘attack you, ignore you or run away’, and every monster revealed so far is tied to the New England location
  • the list of features, soon to be unveiled, will excite an already rabid fan following
  • there will be a ton of loot

Aaaarrrggghhh! Come on Tornquist, give us something real, something tangible! I am already hooked, just reel me in man!

Don’t get me wrong, there were some morsels of useful information, but a lot of has was regurgitated from earlier sneak peeks, such as the three factions, and the level-less skill-based system, or that the combat will be fast-paced and action oriented. In short, we still don’t know much about The Secret World than what we already did. I would like to see some real answers to some of the most pressing questions.

For instance:

  1. The leveling system is skill-based. Will the skills train in real-time, like in EVE Online? Or can you invest the in-game currency to improve and expand your skill-set? How will you ensure each player has equal and fair access to the skill system? Is there a cap on the number of skills a player can acquire, or, as is the case in EVE Online, are skills directly proportionate to the amount of time you invest into the account (not necessarily the game)?
  2. For all its flaws and drawbacks, Champions Online has some fairly explosive combat that is thoroughly enjoyable. What makes the combat system in TRW special or stand out from the crowd? Just as an example, Star Wars: The Old Republic recently introduced a cover system in the MMO, which is an innovative and novel feature for MMO combat mechanics. Watchoo got Tornquist?
  3. How about sharing some details regarding immersion and logical consistency? Most MMOs use a ‘popping out of thin air’ re-spawn system. Oddly enough, a non-MMO, Borderlands, provided a solution, that while not perfect, was adequately rational for it to maintain a sense of immersion. If you killed a beast, its kin emerged from a nearby cave that was inaccessible to the player, not materialize, as if by magic, from the air around you. Will TSW attempt to change or challenge any of these norms, and bring about a better, more holistic sense of immersion?

In a way Tornquist has already answered the third questions, especially regarding re-spawns:

“MMORPGs are certainly difficult beasts in that sense. The player can never be The One, capable of defeating – permanently – the enemy and saving the world from darkness. That would be quite silly and very unfair to everyone else. Besides, when does that really happen? Heroics come from being part of something bigger, not a lone wolf. That’s why we’ve made that a central part of our story and theme; to be one of many heroes, a soldier in an army of light fighting the forces of darkness. And we do make an effort to explain why your actions may not change the world completely. When we launch the game, players are there to put a stop to evil spreading, and make sure the outside world doesn’t find out what’s going on – protect the ancient secrets, uphold the conspiracies and prevent widespread panic. After launch, however, we do intend to introduce change to the world, to make players feel as though the war progresses and grows, that the players actually impact what happens.

“As for an enemy like Jack O’Lantern – it would be quite disappointing if only one party of players would be able to bring him down – so of course, like any good villain, he pops up again. But we explain it and make it part of our own mythology. As most people know, it’s really hard to kill off a good villain. I mean, have you ever watched Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street? Those dudes keep coming back!”

– Ragnar Tornquist, Game Director and Executive Producer, The Secret World, IGN interview

*sigh*

This gives me an idea for a weekly (perhaps fortnightly) column discussing all the things that break the sense of immersion in contemporary MMOs, and how crafty, risk-taking developers may bypass and even improve upon these stagnant, stale formulas.

In the meantime, enjoy some excellt concept art from The Secret World in the preceeding post!

Categories: Opinion, The Secret World

“Well That Took Long” or “Alganot”

March 4, 2010 2 comments

Starting Monday, effective immediately, Quest Online has decided to shift from a subscription-based to a free-to-play model.

For me, the most interesting statement is the following:

“There is a difference between Free to Play (F2P) and Subscription Free (SF). F2P gives the client away so there is zero barrier of entry. This creates a game world where anyone can just come in and do their thing. The drawback is the lack of controlling troublemakers and defining the general social maturity of a game.

We decided to keep the purchase price to prevent Alganon from being saturated by gamers who have no investment in the game they are playing. Even though we are subscription free most gamers prefer to play with others who are committed to the game to some degree.”
– Alganon Team, Press Release

The reasoning has some rationale, but it’s still a little flimsy. A mere three months after launch, Alganon decides to switch to an F2P model. Perhaps the decision is more closely tied with the inability to retain a loyal customer base. You know, due to the fact that the playerbase may finally be in tune with the fact that this is, after all, a watered down, rehashed version of another MMO, the name of which I quite forget now. But that is mere conjecture.

This does spark a few interesting questions. Is this truly the future of MMO gaming? Is the MMO player-base turning increasingly casual? In a hyper-competitive market is the ever-expanding choice of multi-genre titles more of a curse, than it is a golden opportunity to tap into an existing market.

But then I think of the hype around titles like Star Wars: The Old Republic and wonder if the fault lies with the developers who to try to adhere strictly to tried and tested formulas instead of focusing on innovation, novelty and inventiveness. The fact of the matter is that contemporary MMOs suffer from a the rigors and pressures of surviving a market dominated by a few select titles that all follow the same base formula. Deviation from this formula not only implies challenging the norms that the playerbase is most used to, it also makes for a poor business decision, especially if the sustainability of the title is responsible for a series of continued paychecks.

Which brings us to paradoxical impasse. Should developers try and focus their energies on the pre-established conventions and try to milk the existing market through content and gameplay elements that feel ‘natural’ to a rapidly maturing MMO audience; or should they focus on challenging these conventions and take risks to ensure they stand out from the crowd and build a upon their edge through innovation.

If you play Alganon, and you throughly enjoy the experience, all the more power to you. But it does beg the question, does blatantly ripping off an ultra-successful franchise an advisable option, or one that will eventually lead to poor retention and only short-term gains?

Categories: Alganon, Opinion

“Kung Fu is Sexy” or “Sideboob Kick”

March 2, 2010 5 comments

We lambasted Evony for it’s shameless use of bountiful cleavage nestled firmly between the bodacious bosoms of a blonde goddess. (That last part is questionable at best). I thought we had seen the worst, and then came this.

"Mr. Miyagi whacks off!"

Can someone please explain to me what does Kung Fu have to do with the image above? Egregiously inappropriate!

P.S. And yes, I am back. 🙂

Categories: Opinion

“The Needs of the Many” or “Lore: Delayed”

December 3, 2009 2 comments

The more I find out about Star Trek Online, the more I am excited. I have been critical of the game’s set-in-stone and seemingly rushed deadline, and especially critical of the developer, Cryptic Studios. But I have been a fan of the IP for as long as I can remember, and maybe my subconscious mind is perpetuating the notion that this may, in fact, be a good thing.

I have been closely monitoring the flood of information and media collateral coming out of the Cryptic camp, but one piece of news struck me as very odd. Via Massively, it turns out that there will be a novel tie-in to the MMO’s launch. Penned by Star Trek veteran author Michael A. Martin, the book will be called “Star Trek Online: The Needs of the Many”. The novel will be available March 30, 2010, nearly two months after the February 2, 2010 MMO release date.

Don’t watch the clip below if you haven’t seen Wrath of Khan (shame on you!). But if you don’t care about spoilers, go on ahead.

I am excited about the book just because of the title alone. But it begs a few questions:

  • Why release it nearly two months after the launch of the MMO? Surely you want to set up the events that lead to the game prior to the game launch?
  • The above is void if there is no correlation between the two, and if there isn’t, why have the tie-in the first place?
  • If there is a tie-in, will the two month delay in the book’s release, juxtaposed against the events in the game, make the book pointless? In short, it seems almost as if the apparently rushed deadline might screw up the prospects for the tie-in novel.
  • Nimoy’s Spock made a return in Star Trek 11, despite the time line shifts and the rewriting of the universe’s history. I wonder if he continues to play a crucial role in the book and /or the game. I mean that is one of the most memorable (albeit socialist) quotes from the Vulcan!

I suppose time will tell. I will keep my fingers crossed. I mean, after all, William Shattner is not authoring the books… *shudder*…

Categories: Opinion, Star Trek Online

“Rotten on the Inside” or “Real Life Parallels”

November 25, 2009 2 comments

Full disclosure: I have not played Aion extensively. My interaction with the game has been limited to about 10 hours worth of gameplay on a friend’s account. Despite over-exposure to the MMO, I don’t much disagree with the opinions of my peers in the blogosphere.

Aion launched two months ago. Since then, despite enjoying a fairly successful commercial launch in a hyper-competitive market, against the caped heavy-hitter by Cryptic and the indie-developed Fallen Earth, I don’t hear good things about Aion. Jayedub, always the diplomat, said earlier this month: “To summarize, I thought that Aion is not a bad game, in fact it’s pretty solid; but not being able to experience the PvPvE till level 25 and the grinding gameplay was too much for me.” Pitrelli also got tired of it earlier in the month. I could link about 15 other blogs, but what boils down to is that Aion, gorgeous as it may be, is a perpetual grind-fest. It is not innovative, it’s design is more banausic than inspired, and arguing that “it gets fun around level 25” is the equivalent of saying “you have to eat 25 piles of dung before you get the cake.” I’d rather just not have the cake.

Ready for an awkward transition? Here we go.

I work in media. We have an anchor who looks like the girl next door, the sultry seductress, and the good girl, all rolled into one. But that is an on-screen persona, enhanced substantially by the application of copious amounts of make-up. I have seen what she really looks like when she rolls into work, and it makes her stalkers (two of which she has taken out restraining orders against) all the more laughable.

My point? Aion is similar to this anchor. On the surface, it looks like your dream MMO: visually stunning, graphically superior, alive with the ebb and flow of a dynamic world teeming with life and energy. But when you play it for an extended period of time, beneath a glossy, shiny exterior lurks an ugly beast, hell-bent on devouring your time and your coin, in exchange for prosaic content, bromidic gameplay and an incapacious, linear world.

Yesterday I stumbled across this new trailer for Aion. I can’t help but wonder if  fresh coat of make-up is being applied to perpetuate the facade. The trailer touts the graphical revamp, and quite frankly it looks phenomenal. But great looks does not a good game make.

There is hope however, and some information gleaned from the trailer (and Korean translations) is quite promising:

  • Graphics: DX10 support; dynamic weather effects; glossier world
  • New Areas: Underwater zones; other new zones; new cities; new dungeons
  • Questing: New quests; questing revamp
  • Playing Characters: New skills for existing classes; new classes
  • Player housing: High degree of customization for interiors and exteriors of player housing
  • Mounts: Tameable mounts; mounts for two riders; mounted combat
  • Combat: Revamped to be more action-oriented; Scorpion-esque ‘GET OVER HERE!’ whip; crossbows

The word ‘new’ seems to be premeditatively married to the list above. However, it seems like more of the same. If you notice, none of the elements in the list above address the issues of monotony, the mindless grinds or the lack of innovation. At least not directly. A combat system with the added aureate effects is pointless, if I have to repeat the process for literally every quest and objective. Customizable housing, tameable mounts, new weapons and improved graphics are all great things, but they add to the periphery of the game, while the core remains effectively untouched. And if the core is still rotten, a shiny exterior simply does not cut it.

My time these days is completely occupied with a wide variety of MMO, RPG, and non-RPG pursuits. Even if the news about Aion was ground-breaking, I don’t know if I would have time to invest in it. But for those that play it, I hope similar dialogue in the MMO community necessitates that the developers pay some sobered attention to the suffering aspects of the game, and stop whitewashing over the glaring imperfections in the game with improved pizzaz and shiny fluff.

Categories: Aion, Monotony, Opinion

The Borderlands Chronicles, Part III: “Vending Machine Tycoons” or “Give ’em Hell Bloodwing!”

November 20, 2009 4 comments

Note: This is an ongoing series depicting the path of Bronte, a Hunter in the dark and cell-shaded world of Borderlands. It will attempt to paint a picture of what the game is like as well as provide commentary of some of the most spectacular moments from the game. Narrative is in black. Bugs and design flaws are in red. Memorable or ‘whoa!’ moments, and positive points are in blue. Enjoy!

Links:

Sid Meier’s Vending Machine Tycoon

I am in the Arid Hills. It doesn’t look much different from the previous areas, just looks like more of the same: drab, dry, dead. But there is a certain comfort in familiarity, so I trudge on, boomstick in hand, looking for pieces of some legendary sniper rifle and a mine gate key.

There are vending machines to my left where I can get rid of any unwanted items in my impossibly large backpack. I don’t understand how Dr. Zed and Marcus can be such successful vending machine entrepreneurs on Pandora. They seem to have vending machines in literally every corner of this world. How do they get them there? Who keeps them maintained? Don’t they get attacked when they come to restock, pluck out sold items and collect cash? And how is it that no one ever breaks into these machines?

Skag Scars

A skag roars in the distance. Sounds big. I go through a drain pipe to the first cross-section. There are several caves about 50 paces ahead of me, and quite a few of the skags are already on patrol. They are all either my level or a level above. But unlike my first few encounters with the bastards, I am much better prepared this time around. My sniper rifle does a whopping 145 damage per shot, and Bloodwing is maxed out to do the most damage per flight.

I spot an Alpha Skag in the group. They are well-armored, and take the most amount of shots to kill. Using a sniper is out of the question if it starts charging. But I have my trusty sub-machine gun with me, and despite a sheer lack of skill with the weapon, I know it can dispatch foes if they get up close and personal. Aim and accuracy matter little if most of your vision is filled with a skag’s teeth. But patience is a virtue, and instead of firing at the first skag I can track through my scope, I wait patiently, and inch forward one tiny step at a time. In time the Alpha spots me. He roars, opening its mouth in all directions, letting out a terrifying howl. I smile. Big mistake.

A single shot down its pie-hole dispatches my first foe without much trouble. I hear multiple howls, without wasting a second, I turn around and sprint to the drainage pipe I just came from.

Choke point.

I dispatch them one at a time. Single-shot precision kills. At least two of them go down mid-air, as they leap at me, mouth wide open, in an attempt to bite off a piece. I laugh as one skag literally explodes into chunks of smoldering flesh. “What”,  I say, “you didn’t like that?” And I start laughing. It’s a triumphant moment. I feel superior to the creatures that died by my hands in every conceivable way. But this is just the beginning, and I had the advantage of the choke point. That is more of an exception than the rule. This world isn’t all that forgiving.

More skags at the next ridge. Not too much trouble. The previous area had several barrels that I lure them to. The blue ones explode with a large amount of electrical damage, green ones are corrosive, whereas red ones simply explode. Quite handy.

My momentary high is short-lived as I spot a poor soul impaled on a large pike. Subtle.

Separation Anxiety

There is a bandit camp around the ridge. Two of them patrol a sniper’s nest up top. A quick succession of head shots alleviates that problem. But the camp is another story. In the blink of an eye, my shield is gone, as well as half my health bar. I missed the grenades that had been lobbed at me by the one of the raiders because my field of vision was severely limited through the scope of my sniper. Cursing under my breath I fire back at the rifleman. He has already taken cover, and with all the bullets slamming into me, I cannot seem to get off a clean shot. A midget shot gunner, however, is not so lucky.

Bloodwing stirs, and I set him lose. “Give ’em hell, Bloodwing!” I yell. I tuck in to the right, out of the line of fire, my health nearly depleted. Bloodwing circles overhead once, then twice, and then continues the pattern. I am confused. Why isn’t he attacking? It isn’t clear to me then, but it appears Bloodwing is afraid of being too far apart from me, which limits him to a certain range. I am mildly irritated. Gonna have to train that damn bird better. He finally makes one last sweep overhead, and returns to me.

Keeping the rock outcropping between me and the barrage of endless bullets, I inch closer to my enemies, and then let Bloodwing loose a second time. This time he beelines to the crouching raider behind the barricade, ripping the poor bastard to shreds. Since I have focused on making Bloodwing a true agent of death, not only does he solve my problem with the raider, upon returning to me, he also restores a big portion of my health.

Revitalized, I switch to the SMG and come out of hiding guns blazing, lobbing two grenades at the remaining foes. It does not take too long, and within minutes they lie at my feet, fresh bullet-holes gaping like the unending depths of a dark, dreary abyss.

I hear something shriek overhead. Rokks. These guys have very little health, but in large groups they can swarm you, and rip your insides out in seconds. There is trouble ahead. I can feel it in the air. I better be careful.

Hugging Chemical Barrels is a Bad Idea

After clearing out another small camp, and inching close to the edges to keep my distance from the rokks overhead, I spot another sniper perch in the distance. I crouch, debating if I should send in my personal agent of death on wings, or dispatch him with a single bullet? Bloodwing would not be able to get him at that range. He has already established that any considerable length of distance between us causes him severe separation anxiety. And that is when I notice the corrosive acid barrel next to the lookout. A single shot explodes the barrel, showering him in acid. I watch his surprised expression through the scope, as the acid eats away at his body, literally devouring him whole. Good riddance.

The Fourth Piece of the Puzzle

My map tells me the four pieces of the legendary sniper rifle are in the next camp. I start shooting. Psychotic midgets, shotgunners, badass bruisers, they all succumb to the overwhelming firepower I pack, backed by the ferocious talons of my trusty companion. It’s a little odd they some of them come out of hiding only after the very last combatant on the field has been eliminated. I have a feeling if they all came at once, I would be swarmed, overwhelmed and killed. This all seems a little too… easy.

The sniper rifle has four parts I need to secure. I have found only three so far. I make several circuits of the camp, and my map indicator offers little help. I am a little frustrated, three other three pieces were essentially just lying about, why isn’t this one? It is then that I notice that only one of the buildings in the camp has an upward pointing arrow. And if that is not enough of a hint, there are three storage cabinets on the roof of the structure as added incentive. I jump above, and grab the last piece. But what truly annoys me is that this last piece was a good distance away from where my map marker suggested.

Sledge is a Cocky Bastard!

My map tells me the mine key is in Sledge’s Safehouse, which seems to be just up the hill from my present location. I take out my sniper rifle to scope out the area. The criminal hideout sits atop a small hill about 100 paces ahead of me. So ballsy are the inhabitants, that they have made no attempts to hide the entrance. In fact, upon closer inspection, the entry point prominently displays the words: “Sledge’s Safehouse.”

Cocky bastards! (See what I did there?)

Bloodwing stirs restlessly. He can sense the blood of the upcoming battle. I pet his head. I check my weapons, making one last round of the camp to pick up any additional ammunition. Satisfied that all my ordinance is in order, I start my short trek to the safe house.

Time to hunt!

Links:

“Subscription Blues” or “$15 Holes in my Pocket”

November 17, 2009 4 comments

I am going through subscription blues. I am currently paying for four subscriptions: World of Warcraft, Champions Online, and EvE Online x 2. However, with the recent release of Borderlands, Torchlight, Dragon Age Origins, Modern Warfare, and now Left 4 Dead 2 and Assassin’s Creed II, I haven’t had much time to log in and play my favorite MMOs.

In fact, it struck me yesterday that I haven’t logged into any of these MMO’s in well over two weeks. This inevitably led to a curious feeling of guilt. I make good money, but it is honest money. It is almost as if I am spending a good $65 or so a month to keep a subscription going even when I am not really playing the game all that often.

It is an interesting conundrum. I convince myself that I can log in if sufficiently bored, while simultaneously aware of the fact that those accounts sit rotting, burning $15 holes in my pockets, and, at least for now, I can’t be bothered.

You ever get to that stage? Halfway between guilty and uncaring? Never really comfortable with spending seemingly unnecessary money, but too apathetic to do anything about it. See I could log in tonight, just for the sake of logging in. But that would be wrong. I want to log in and play when I really want to, not because I am allowing my subscription money to twist my own arm.

Categories: Opinion

“Darth Kirk” or “Jean-Luc Kenobi”

November 11, 2009 4 comments

Over the course of last week, plenty of news came out of the BioWare and Cryptic camps regarding their upcoming space-age MMOs.

Going Online Where No Star Trek MMO Has Gone Before

Star Trek Online will be released on February 2, 2009. This is very disturbing for me. Please understand that when I say I am a Star Trek fan, I don’t mean I liked John Cho reprise the role of Sulu as a Katana-wielding martial artist. I mean I own every episode of every series (except the animated one), and I have read all Star Trek books, including all volumes of TOS and yes, the narcissistic verbal diarrhea from William Shattner masquerading as works of literature.

I have been fairly blunt in my criticism of Champions Online in the last month or so. The game grew on me post-launch in unexpected ways. But the sheer lack of polish, compounded by the plethora of bugs / design flaws have taken their toll. I last logged in on Halloween, made this post about the sorry state of affairs in the game, and I haven’t gone back since. Of course it doesn’t help that I have WoW’s upcoming patch, EvE’s every changing world of political and regional conflict, Dragon Age’s anti-heroes and Borderlands’ cell-shaded, head-splattering goodness to keep me from it.

But I digress. Cryptic pushed out Champions Online on a strict deadline. Frankly that is commendable, considering the industry is notorious for development, publishing and release date delays. But there is a fine line between sticking to the deadline, and compromising content and design elements to satisfy the production timeline. In their bid to enter the fray during an economic downturn, Cryptic ended up relinquishing quality over release date rigidity. Blood Moon, the highly anticipated mini-event, aside from the incredibly fun PvP elements, was an unpolished, grind-infested and ill-designed abomination that may have turned away more players than it attracted.

It simply may be because the economy is in such a terrible condition, the only way for these studios is to push content out quickly and make the quick bucks to keep afloat. And I can certainly sympathize. Most recently Mythic fired 80 employees, which allegedly makes up 40% of the workforce directly responsible for 90% of the content. Meanwhile, Electronic Arts cut 1,500 jobs. What that says for the state of the gaming industry and the MMO arena in particular remains to be seen. But the need to rush content is no excuse for some of the sloppy and downright careless work we have seen so far. In retrospect, it is sad how these little elements, which individually would have had negligible impact, now stand between me and another $15 for Cryptic, to play an otherwise exciting and adrenaline-pumping title.

So when I hear that merely four months after the release of Champions Online, the studio has a set-in-stone deadline for Star Trek Online, my heart sinks. The true tragedy of the matter is that my loyalty to the IP will likely force me to pick it up and play it, that maybe I will find a diamond in the rough. The initial impressions have been quite positive, so I remain hopeful. And hope (no, not love), is what makes the world go around.

Perpetual Entertainment, the studio that had been working on Star Trek Online for four years, shut down in 2008. On January 15, 2008, production was moved to Cryptic. Star Trek Online was officially announced on July 28, 2008. Last week, the release date was set as February 2, 2010.Technically, at release time, the game would have been almost six years in development. Cryptic is responsible for two of those years. So for all the criticism Cryptic has faced recently, maybe Star Trek Online will become the genre-bending space MMO that I have craved since the days of Earth and Beyond.

Pros and Cons:

  • (+) It’s Star Trek, and you get to be the captain of a ship
  • (+) 6-year long development title; Cryptic has spent over two years working on the game
  • (+) Cryptic already has an MMO launch under their belt
  • (+) You get to fight on ground in away teams and in space in tactical ship battles
  • (+) The game promises to build a lot of nostalgic lore moments from the series into the world
  • (-) Cryptic‘s track record for quality control and polished content isn’t exactly noteworthy
  • (-) Content past release has been sloppy, repetitive and uninspiring
  • (-) Like Champions Online, many features that sound exciting “might” be part of the game, like a Galactic, dynamic economy

Star Wars: Ye Old Republic

BioWare, normally, rests at the other end of the spectrum for me. I am, in many ways, their unpaid mascot. The news coming out of this camp has been quite heartening. Bear in mind that although I own every Star Wars movie, and have read quite a few of the tightly structured novels set in the universe, I am not as big a fan of the series as I am of Star Trek. So it goes a long way to show the studio’s credibility if I am still looking forward to the MMO.

For anyone who has played more than a few hours of Dragon Age: Origins on a high-end PC knows the game looks breathtaking. The first major skirmish between the King’s army and the Darkspawn horde gave me goosebumps in a warm, cozy, well-lit, room. Suffice it to say that BioWare is very well ahead of the curve when it comes to graphics and technology.

Yet, last week, they invested in a new occlusion culling technology from Umbra. In layman’s terms, the technology keeps track of what a player is actively looking at, and reduces the graphical intensity and polygon count of the unseen parts of the environment. This reduces the strain on the processor, freeing it up for more complexity and graphical richness in the immediately visible area.

Second, a new novel was announced that details the story behind the MMO. The release date is July 27, 2010, a full eight and a half months away. It would be natural to assume the MMO would be released after this date, ergo, the MMO is at least nine months away

Third, There will be no initial testing for the mac. This is great news. I hate macs. Justin Long can get bent.

Finally the Imperial Agent class was revealed by BioWare. I believe only two classes remain unknown at this stage.

If Dragon Age: Origins or Mass Effect were to serve as examples, we know that this is only the beginning of a torrential downpour that will form a flood of marketing collateral, eager to devour all in its path. We are barely seeing a trickle right now. You have been forewarned.

Pros and Cons:

  • (+) It’s Star Wars
  • (+) It’s BioWare
  • (+) Stellar storytelling; 12 full-time writers, some of whom have been writing for the project for well over 2 years
  • (+) Compelling morality dynamics in that Jedis aren’t necessarily righteous and pure, and Sith aren’t exactly evil or corrupt
  • (+) Its a fresh foray into an old IP. There is no reference to the movies, the game is set millenniums prior to the events in the Lucas films.
  • (-) Its a fresh foray into an old IP. There is no reference to the movies, the game is set millenniums prior to the events in the Lucas films. (See what I did there?)
  • (-) It’s over-hyped. Granted BioWare always lives up to the hype, but this is a colossal IP, and brings with it quite a rabid fan base. Any faceplants may be back-breakers.

Ominous Statement

Time will tell… only time. And Metacritic.

Origins One :: “Dwarf Noble” or “Sins of Our Fathers”

November 10, 2009 5 comments

This is an ongoing, six-part series, detailing the origins story experiences from within the game. Spoilers are in white text, so you will have to highlight to read it. This is to ensure I don’t ruin the experience for anyone else. Observations, both good and bad, also interweave through the narrative. Enjoy!

Getting it Out of the Way

You can’t jump in the game. As an habitual jumper, I find myself unexpectedly pausing the game, constantly. That is very annoying. Moving on.

Not Your Average Stereotype

Despite my earlier hesitation to start as a dwarf, my first character turned out to be as stereotypical a dwarf as it could get. Meet Bronte, warrior, noble, Aeducan, and second son of the King. What I really enjoyed about this storyline was that the stout race was not pigeonholed into the ale-drinking, beard-obsessed, womanizing, gruff, comedic role the fantasy genre is all too fond of. The dwarfs in Dragon Age: Origins break all norms perpetuated by the medium. The dwarf society is mired in a complex political system, living in a city that is but a shadow of the empire’s former glory, entrenched in greed, lust, and a biased and decadent caste system that favors the nobles and sidelines the wretched.

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Eye-Candy Galore

The very first thing I noticed was the graphics. Earlier in the night, I had seen a friend play the Xbox version of the game on a 50-inch plasma. And despite the HD clarity, I had been somewhat dismayed and underwhelmed by the graphics. Suffice it to say my expectations were not particularly high when I finally managed to load the game on my (monster) PC. I was pleasantly surprised. The world looks intricately detailed, beautifully lit, and much sharper than its console counterpart. The lighting is moody, the environments meticulously crafted and alive with a brisk and diverse population.

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Tim Curry is Awesome

The second thing that I noticed was the voice-acting. It is rich, it is fulfilling, and it conveys the emotions and dispositions of the characters. BioWare has taken special care to ensure their characters all feel distinct and real, complete with their own backgrounds, stories and motives. At last count the game had one hundred and forty-four people behind the voice-acting. During the cut scenes and conversations, things in the background blur to an appropriate degree, drawing your eye to the action in the foreground. In addition, life went on. This is to say that unlike the paused game conversation trees in Fallout 3, the world keeps moving in the backdrop.

A Matter of Loyalty

My companion was another dwarf named Gorim who was bound to me in service. A capable warrior, his father had served my character’s father and he was unquestioningly loyal. Guiding my path through the Origins story, he offered helpful advice, backgrounds and interesting tidbits of information. What I loved about this character was how well his dialogue and voice-acting was connected to his sense of duty and servitude.

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He suggested but never imposed. He criticized but never in a condescending manner. He supported my decisions and never went against my will.

What the Faint?

An NPC trader fainted when I approached him. When you interacted with him again, it simply said the character was unconscious, but the character stood, like any other NPC, on his own two feet behind his trade stand.

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BioWare puts in a lot of polish in the game, so this was especially disappointing to come across.

Betrayal I: A Moral Dilemma

BioWare had previously suggested that betrayal will be a big part of the game. Despite this warning, given my good-hearted nature (my ex-fiance would strongly disagree), I decided to go with the noble choice, the righteous path, and never veer toward a cunning, impetuous or morally dubious choice. I imagined that by choosing the positive dialogue options, the world would open up to me better, giving me peaceful passage through simplicity and compassionate action.

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I could not have been more wrong.

Less than an hour into the origins story I found out that my older brother was plotting to assassinate me. I was given a choice here. Should I kill him now, when he is most vulnerable? Should I kill him later? Should I wait and see what move he makes? Or should I simply my younger brother for insinuating such serious allegations against our older brother?

It sounds simple on paper, but it had a powerful impact. I had to sit back, and stare at the screen in amazement. BioWare is notorious for giving you tough choices that subtly tickle the buried psyche of our subconscious minds. But even then this choice made me physically stop and think what I would do in a situation like that. This experience shaped my opinion of the game and my subsequent actions to a great deal, and despite a twist that early, I am now aware that I had barely scratched the surface. I ended up deciding to wait and see. In retrospect, I wished I had the bastard killed. But then again, that would have solved only part of the problem.

Arterial Sprays

Visceral is a word that gets thrown around a lot to define action in contemporary video games. And although it aptly describes the on-screen carnage in Dragon Age: Origins, let’s steer clear of the norm shall we? Combat in the game is a blood-spattering, vicious, and satisfyingly jarring experience. The play and pause gameplay adds a new dimension to the action.  You can pause the game to watch that solider fall backward with the force of a shield bash, his face contorted with surprise and pain, or watch a sword in mid-arc, having just beheaded a foe in a finishing move, or an arrow in mid-flight, zipping to its target, all frozen in time for you to observe and screenshot if you so desire.

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In a sentence, combat is brutal, dynamic and very, very (ridiculously) bloody.

Betrayal II: The Ties That Bind

Remember when I wrote about the complexity and moral dilemma associated with my choice earlier, and how I initially decided to venture down the path of nobility and righteousness? This event changed it all, and I realized that the unforgiving world of Dragon Age: Origins necessitates an uncompromising, at times selfish, and downright ruthless approach.

Earlier in the origins story, I had to battle some of the greatest combatants the dwarf empire had to offer. After the final match, I had the prize helm sent to my last foe as a token of appreciation for his ferocity in battle. This character later joined my party as we hunted in the Deep Roads. After the inevitable confrontation with my older brother and his co-conspirators, an event that resulted in his death, this warrior betrayed me. He flat-out lied to the assembly elder and to my father the king. Adding to the sense of betrayal was my younger brother, who had plotted all along to turn us against each other, in a bid to ensure he would be the sole candidate for the throne after our father passed away.

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I was surprised, appalled, irritated and angry all at the same time. It sounds like a complex amalgamation of emotions, but play through the origins story, and you will feel a sense of helplessness coupled with unbridled rage at how you had been played all along. Even in this situation, the game surprised me further, when my companion Gorim, despite overwhelming (and false) evidence against me, choose to stand his ground and support me, uncaring of whatever consequences. So naturally, I was disappointed when Bronte got jailed, and was separated from Gorim, till some later, unknown point in the game. He visited me in confinement, saying he will always stand by my side, asking me to seek him out, as he too had been exiled to the surface. The sense of loss and despair, strangely enough, was quite palpable for me.

End of The (Deep) Road

I was cast out, exiled from the underground kingdom, sent into the Deep Roads to fight the darkspawn in battle till I perished. My only hope of salvation to find the Grey Warden Duncan and his companions deep inside the tunnels.

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Overall, I was enthralled by the incredible complexity, depth and multi-faceted nature of the story. If this is just the beginning of what some claim to be an 80+ hour epic journey, I am hooked. I can’t wait to see what other origins stories have to offer.

“Novelty vs. Nostalgia ” or “Innovation vs. Stagnation”

November 6, 2009 1 comment

Micheal Denny heads Sony’s Worldwide Studios Europe (yes, a Worldwide studio for Europe). Speaking at Develop Liverpool yesterday, he says new intellectual properties (IPs) are necessary for the gaming business to thrive and to counter stagnation. He talked about a ot of other things as well, and you can read the full article here. But we will work with just the statement above.

Novelty

It sounds like a fairly generic, obvious statement. Novelty and innovation go hand-in-hand with memorable experiences and awe-inspiring moments that challenge the very norms that define us as gamers.

But the truth of the matter goes deeper than that.

assassinscreed

There are several new IPs in the last few years that have redefined genres, challenged existing modus operandi, and experimented with pre-existing formulas that both surprised and entertained. Mirror’s Edge and Assassin’s Creed are two examples that capitalized on the parkour phenomenon and introduced it, albiet with varying degrees of success, into the gaming arena. Assassin’s Creed’s repetitiveness aside, no other game allowed you to race parkour-style across rooftops, weaving, dodging, jumping, climbing through densely populated cityscapes with the same satisfying fluidity.

l4dnotongue

Another example is Left 4 Dead. It capitalized on America’s necrotic (necro-erotic?) fascination with the undead, and elevated it to breathtaking heights. (Literally. Remember ‘No Mercy’?) At the most basic level, you find weapons, you shoot things, you heal, you get from point A to point B. But the whole experience was moulded in a way that fed our most primal instincts when faced with near-impossible odds, and structured to reward teamwork rather than the ever-present lone-wolf gameplay. In short, it was the first memorable and lasting IP to explore the zombie genre, and it did so with elegance and style.

borderlandsroids

Then there are games which mix and match pre-defined and functionally distinct elements of the the gaming macrocosm, and produce something that is simultaneously fresh, yet oddly familiar. Borderlands, a first person role playing shooter game, is a great such example. Although I have some reservations with the game, it has challenged industry norms and brought to life interesting, deviating ways of combining age-old gameplay elements to create a fresh, unique experience.

daochoppa

Innovation even applies to taking the same old concept and applying a fresh twist to it, be it story, gameplay, control or any other aspect that defines the game for what it is. Dragon Age: Origins released three days ago in the U.S. It unlocks for me today (about bloody time). Although I have not played the game yet myself (not that it stops me from shamelessly singing praises about the it), I rest assured because industry veterans, reviewers, bloggers and players are awash with praise. Although BioWare is weaving a tale that the fantasy RPG genre is over-saturated with, Dragon Age: Origins’ “story is rich and engaging, the characters are memorable, and the journey is one that pulls you in, captivates you and compels you to move forward toward the conclusion.” In other words, despite utilizing a familiar setting, the game is designed to surprise fanss of the genre and throw elements into the mix that are both unexpected and against the grain.

braidawkward

Then there are games that innovate and surprise you in ways you never thought possible. Because prior to these games, the genre to which they belong simply didn’t exist. I am talking about Braid. There were moments where I just stopped, and stared at the screen in awe at how much love and energy and effort they had put into something so elementary and simple. A straight-forward platformer was transformed into a cerebral masterpiece that enthralled, amazed, and made you stop dead in your tracks.

loveandlies

And for any fan of Valve, the cake always was, and always will be, a lie. Can you think of any other game that made you fall in love with an inanimate cube?

There are countless other examples, but the bottom line is that innovation is what drives the industry forward, gives us novel, unexpected, at times mind-bending IPs to play, and justifies Micheal Denny’s statement. Mr. Denny may be striving for the Captain Obvious title, but he certainly drives the point home. However, that is only part of the story.

Nostalgia

On the contrary, nostalgia plays a big factor in attracting an already dedicated fan base to a new iteration of an old IP. Warcraft, Command and Conquer, Metal Gear Solid, Diablo, Splinter Cell, Max Payne, Grand Theft Auto, Halo (and many, many more) are all examples of great games that relied on nostalgia and the success of the inaugural titles to attract additional revenue.

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Click to enlarge. Courtesy of Bad Pie Bakery.

World of Warcraft is a global phenomenon. With the entire population of Earth, Vulcan, Tattoine and Caprica (that hurt your head?) acquired as the player base of the ever-popular MMO, Blizzard has created a behemoth that is practically impossible to dethrone. ‘The next WoW’ has been applied to countless MMOs released since, and none have achieved the success (at least in numbers and subscriptions) that WoW enjoys to this very day. I can’t help but wonder if the game would have been this successful if prior Warcraft titles had not existed. Would it be laughed upon? Would it be degraded as a shameless clone (I am looking at you Alganon!)? Would it never take off the ground? Or would everything remain the same? Regardless of the level of success WoW would enjoy in this alternate reality, my patented sixth sense tells me it would be nowhere near the level of success WoW is today, had it not been for the millions of avid followers of the IP.

mwsoapshower

The Call of Duty series is an interesting case study because it applies to both the novelty and the nostalgia sides of the argument. On the one hand, the series has capitalized on a massive base of rabid followers ever since the first Call of Duty hit the market. On the other hand, the series was redefined with Modern Warfare, a title that needs little introduction and speaks volumes about the level of innovation and effort that went into redefining this classic series on a whole new level.

maxpayneyears

The third rendition Max Payne, for the lack of a better word, looks weird. Max is fat, balding, in South America, and a mercenary for hire. It is almost as if someone designed a new game, and someone else stamped it with the Max Payne IP and course-corrected everything accordingly. But as a fan of the original Max Payne and it’s fantastic sequel, I know for a fact I will buy and play this game. I will not care what the reviews say, or what the screenshots look like, or how far removed Max will be from the familiar New-York-world-weary-cop setting. I will play this game with all the enthusiasm and wonder that I played the first two games with. I will remain loyal to this IP regardless of the vicissitudes of passing years or changing studios.

torlightsabers

But the nostalgia factor isn’t limited to rehashing old game IPs in a new light. It also applies to leveraging a tried and true formula, rather than an IP. Consider Knights of the Old Republic. The game took the RPG formula BioWare has essentially and effectively perfected, and combined it with the nostalgic fan base of the Star Wars universe. Yes it was a pre-existing IP, but one that was not leveraged in the RPG gaming industry as such. The result was a product that won grand slam titles, scored high in every category, provided a fresh setting and gameplay, and secured its place as a classic for some time to come.

The most recent of these examples is Torchlight. The graphics looks cartoonish and severely dated. There are only three classes. And it ends too quickly. But it is an incredible experience, offers smooth gameplay and feeds on the far-reaching and widespread Diablo nostalgia that the gaming media has made no effort to hide.

Conclusion

One step forward, two steps back. Two steps forward, one step back.

What started as a ‘Thought of the Day’ post has turned into a 1,500 word piece juxtaposing novelty against nostalgia in contemporary gaming. In the end, I suppose I agree with Mr. Denny, but only in that his statement paints just part of the picture. Nostalgic experiences and revisited IPs are just as important to the genre as novelty and innovation. And in select cases, they can work hand-in-hand to create an unforgettable masterpiece.

Do you guys agree? Which side of the fence are you on? Can you think of some other examples that apply to the two dismetric opposites above?

“Massively Multiplayer Online City Builder” or “Roads Are Srsbusiness!”

November 3, 2009 Leave a comment

I have always been a fan of the Sim City franchise, but couldn’t fathom the genre dabbling into the MMO market. The two just seem… at odds. So I was glad when I read Jim Rossignol review of the game over at Eurogamer, and realized that the game is not worth the investment. At least not yet.

Here is an excerpt:

“I’ve enjoyed myself here, but Cities XL does not live up to its ambitions. The solo city-builder is a well-paced project for those who like to plot boulevards, but the appeal of the larger game remains unresolved. This is one game we’ll be returning to in due course where – all being well – a re-review should cast things in a slightly different light.”

Jim gives it a disappointing 6/10.

You can read the full review of Cities XL here.

Categories: Cities XL, Opinion, Review

The Borderlands Chronicles, Part II: “9+3=12” or “Why Don’t They Call Him 3-Balls?”

November 2, 2009 7 comments

Note: This is an ongoing series depicting the path of Bronte, a Hunter in the dark and cell-shaded world of Borderlands. It will attempt to paint a picture of what the game is like as well as provide commentary of some of the most spectacular moments from the game. Narrative is in black. Bugs and design flaws are in red. Memorable or ‘whoa!’ moments, and positive points are in blue. Enjoy!

Links:

Skag Gully

This place is trouble. Partly because the inhabitants include demonic dog-like creatures known as ‘Badass Skags‘, and partly because my opposition now seems to be around my level or a level above. I have a better sniper rifle now, but it’s not a massive improvement over the last one I’d held. I also have a new sidearm, it does more damage and reloads faster, but it fires a little slower than the last one.

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I have collected over 40 guns in the first two hours of gameplay. That is impressive considering most shoot ’em ups offer you around a meager 20 weapons by the end of the game. Contrary to my initial fear that so many weapons will become difficult to manage, the process is addictive and fun. Although my Hunter specializes in Snipers and Repeaters, I am also carrying a ‘Terrible Shotgun’ for when the blasted skags get up close and personal. Which they do. All the time. The problem is that I can cycle through only 2 of 4 unlockable weapons slots. So I constantly have to manually switch between the shotgun and the sniper.

Borderlands, in many ways, is unforgiving. Enemies come at you in packs. They are relentless and determined. Almost every fight with creatures your level or above is a challenge. That sounds frustrating, but it actually turns out to be an exhilarating experience. I am walking into fights confident that I can do a good job, but never certain that I will come out on top.

Fight for Your Second Wind

Then again, Borderlands is very forgiving in some other regards. The constant stream of unrelenting enemies finally takes its toll. I collapse. Instead of having to reload at a prior point, the game maintains the level of immersion and introduces me to the death mini-game.

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I am on my knees. A skag is tearing out chunks of flesh from my chest. The screen is getting darker. The world is fading out. This is the end. Or is it? I realize that I can still fire my weapon from this warped perspective. So I aim, and I fire. I unload two entire clips from my pistol, my screen is all but black, and I can barely see. Literally the very last bullet in the magazine kills the skag. It falls dead at my feet.

My vision kicks back in with a jarring suddenness. My shield is gone, my health is barely a sliver of the full amount. But I am alive and on my feet. And that counts for something. Killing my foe has given me second wind. So I patch myself up using healing packs I purchased earlier, and I push on.

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Objects and creatures drop ammo and money. The game smartly gives you the loot that you need the most. If you are low on sniper ammunition, it will drop with more frequency. If your health is low, your next kill will drop a small medi-vial. It is a smart system, and it works wonders. You never run out of ammo, but given the sheer volume of enemies thrown at you, you are almost never at full capacity. It’s a healthy balance.

Nine-toes

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See the guy in the screen shot to the right? I hate that guy. I have fought through an insane amount of skags, psychotic midgets, and armed goons to get to this guy. He is located in a subterrenean room accessible by a small elevator. He has a good weapon, better aim, and comes equipped with a fairly powerful shield.

(Spoilers ahead. Highlight text to make it visible.)

And then there are the pet skags. I don’t remember both their names, but one was called Pinky. They are either heavily armored or have an unrealistic amount of hit points because my bullets don’t seem to make any dents. They come charging out of the alcoves of Nine-Toes’ room and corner me in the little space at the entrance to the room. I try running around, but I am stuck, and the two bastards are tearing me from limb to limb.

I am barely halfway through the health bar of the first dog, I haven’t shot Nine-Toes once , and Pinky is kicking my ass from the side. The sheer volume of damage takes its toll, and I go down like a sack of potatoes. I shoot at the first skag almost blindly, no longer aiming carefully, just spraying and praying. It takes a while, and my vision turns almost completely black when I get my second wind.

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But that glory lasts only a few seconds. I still don’t have a shield and my health is practically non-existent. I go down a second time mere moments later, and no amount of random bullet sprays can save my life. There is a flash of light, I seem to be tumbling through a void of neon-lit tubes, and I materialize again at Skag Gully’s entry point cloning station.

Damn it!

Aside from a trek back to the fight, death seems to be almost inconsequential in Borderlands. If you go down, you can get second wind by killing anything nearby. If you die, you respawn with all your items, no durability loss, no experience loss and fully recharged to go at it again. Ammunition and health vending machines are also placed conveniently nearby for you to restock as needed. This trivializes the death system, and provides a stark, diametric opposite to an otherwise harsh and unforgiving world. On the other hand it helps with immersion and ensures that you never, ever have to reload.

No-Toes

I go back to the bastard’s hideout. Instead of taking the little elevator down, I perch myself atop the thing and take aim. Pinky is in my line of sight. She looks at me, her mandible(s) separate in three directions, exposing the soft fleshy interior. Animal instinct kicks in, and without giving it a moment’s thought, I fire a shot down her throat. She goes down in a single hit. I shake my head at my own stupidity. They are armored, but their face obviously isn’t. And it doesn’t help me that I figured this out after dispatching the two enemies to which this knowledge applies.

Nine-Toes himself puts up a decent fight, but in the end he is no match for my long-range-sniping and cover-taking abilities. The last shot takes his head off, and pixelated, cell-shaded blood sprays all over the floor. I triumphantly walk around the room, looting the various objects. I am disappointed by the mediocre and unimpressive ordinance his weapons cache has to offer.

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At least I survived my first boss encounter! Or did I?

Links:

“Sensible Spawns” or “WoW vs. Borderlands”

October 30, 2009 5 comments

Most modern MMOs like to define themselves as virtual worlds. What this implies is that even if the player logged off, the world would continue to exist regardless. Bears would roam the forests, wolves would chase down and kill rabbits, Frenzyheart would fight on against the Oracles, the Purple Gang would patrol the West Side Heights, and so on and so forth. This creates a sense of immersion, a sense of belonging in a living, breathing world teeming with its own life.

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The immersion factor is however shattered when you kill a boar, and another one pops up. It does not dig out of the surrounding mud, or come out of a farm enclosure of some kind. It simply… materializes out of thin air.  In no other genre of gaming, be it FPS, RTS or even RPG, do your enemies pop out of thin air and re-populate the area minutes after you cleared the menace. The person who gave you the task of clearing out said enemies is still in the same peril, asking adventurer after adventurer to fix the situation for him.

Syncaine made a great post about how to address this issue from quite a few different viewpoints.

My post is more about the way in which these enemies (re)spawn. It’s a pity to see Borderlands, which is not an MMO, come up with a viable and intelligent solution to the persistent respawn problem, without succumbing to the same old lazy formula. I recently started “The Borderlands Chronicles”, a series of posts that recounts my adventures as Bronte the Hunter in Borderlands, providing narrative, critique and commendations along the way. You can find Part I here.

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The skags spawn out of that cave on the right, NOT thin air.

The later section of this inaugural post covers my fight with some skags, the game’s version of demonic dog-like starter creatures. They too respawn over time. The difference is that they charge out of small caves built into the game world. You cannot enter these caves yourself, they are a little too small. But the overall effect undeniably feeds immersion.

You spot a skag, you snipe it from 50 feet out. Immediately two more skags come snarling, charging out of the adjacent caves. And even if you kill every skag in the area, the respawn process will involve more skags eventually walking out of the caves, instead of magically appearing out of thin air.

The system makes sense. It is intuitive, it allows for the beasts to be persistent in the world without breaking the tenous thread it has with the implied realism. Why can’t we have that in WoW? Or Champions Online? Or for that matter, any other MMO that uses the same respawn system?

The Borderlands Chronicles, Part I: “Zed’s Red Baby!” or “Skag Skirmish”

October 29, 2009 6 comments

Note: This is an ongoing series depicting the path of Bronte, a Hunter in the dark and cell-shaded world of Borderlands. It will attempt to paint a picture of what the game is like as well as provide commentary of some of the most spectacular moments from the game. Narrative is in black. Bugs and design flaws are in red. Memorable or ‘whoa!’ moments, and positive points are in blue. Enjoy!

Link:

Bearings

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I am outside the town of Fyrestone, accompanied by a chirpy, nerdy, attention-hungry robot, Claptrap. He is voiced to perfection as a cowardly creature who tries to act all professional and official, but can’t help being himself. Claptrap has just handed me a device that apparently plugs into my brain. The device shows me my health bar, experience bar, ammo counter and a compass. Over the course of the game, additional modules will come onlile such as the objectives tracker and the skills interface. I look around at the world I just got thrust into. I scroll through my two starter weapons: a rusty but powerful looking sniper rifle, and an odd-looking handgun.

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What can only be defined as the town’s main gate stands a few feet to the right, a vicious sun beats down on me, towering rock formations, sluggish windmills and structures  together with sheets of metal litter the landscape as far as the eye can see. Yet, somehow, everything seems cramped. The overall feeling is undeniable: this ain’t home, this is a bad place.

Here goes nothing.

Fyrestone Fyrefight

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Fyrestone is a shithole. Before we even enter the main gate, it has already come under attack by raiders. They jump into the town through a rock outcropping directly over my head in glorified dune buggies, and take off into the heart of the town. The robot finally manages to open the gate, and a mere four minutes into the game, and I am neck-deep in my first firefight.

Given that this is just the tutorial part of the game, I am willing to overlook the seemingly inept AI. They charge at me, guns blazing. When shot, they recoil realistically and shake their head trying to recover. But then they keep coming at full speed anyway. The sniper rifle kicks in my hands and fires with a satisfying boom. The second raider gets a well placed shot in his masked head, and I watch it explode in all its cell-shaded glory through the my rifle’s scope.

The town is dead. Or empty. Or both. I don’t come across a single soul as I make my way through the settlement. Doors are shut. Shutters are down. There isn’t any indication as to what happened to the inhabitants or where they went. Raiders attack me in groups of two or three. I settle into a comfortable pattern of taking out most of them from a distance with the sniper, and tearing hot lead into them with the quick-firing pistol up close.

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Scattered along the way is plenty of ammo and money stashed in conveniently placed boxes, safes, piles of junk, the bodies of my slain foes, and even a few toilets. I come across my first weapons crate. Inside is a ton of pistol ammo, and two brand new pistols. They offer differing recoil rates, damage, firing speeds and other modifications. The cool thing is that if you hover over a weapon, there is a hud element that pops up, comparing it against your equipped gun. Any stat improvements get an upward pointing green arrow, any loss in stats is denoted by a downward pointing red arrow. The only problem is that it is not intuitive. If you have the sniper equipped and you are looking at a pistol, it will compare the pistol’s stats against that of the sniper, and not against the pistol in your other equipped slot. So make sure you take out the weapon you want to compare against the new armament.

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One of these new pistols has a scope, allowing me to rapidly snipe my targets from a distance. They take less damage per shot, but the firing rate more than makes up for the loss of damage. The pistol handles well in my hands, each cracking shot reverbrating through the surrounding rock formations. Complete by accident, I shoot at a red barrel next to the last bandit, and he disintegrates in the resulting explosion.

Kill Ten Rats

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I meet Doctor Zed. He is an strange fellow, operating on a dead body, and claims that despite his medical practice, he does not hold a professional degree. The very first mission he gives me holds true to teaching RPG basics. I am asked to kill a few skags, vile looking malevolent dogs that attack anything on sight. I head out from Fyrestone in search of their hideout, only to find it just across the road.

The fight, although quick, is intense. I snipe the first skag from a distance, it buckles, making me think I nailed it in one shot. But then it shakes its head and starts charging. I take aim again and hit it square in the head. It goes down with a pitiful yelp. I hear more snarls, I whip my rifle around towards the series of small caves where I spotted the first skag. As my visions pans left to right, I spot one… no two… no wait, three skags charging at breakneck speed. I panic for the briefest moment. Then I aim and fire.

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The shot connects perfectly with the second skag’s head. It takes me a second to find the third skag through my zoomed perspective. I finally find it, it is merely 15 meters away. FPS shooter instincts kick in, and I pull the trigger without thinking. The first shot misses. 10 meters. I spot the fourth skag several meters behind the third one, running straight at me. I frantically click the left mouse button, willing the gun to shoot. The reload time, an otherwise negligible 2.6 seconds, lasts an eternity. The skag is just 5 meters away. Then the unexpected happens.

Just as I fire off the next shot, the beast leaps in the air, coming straight for my face, flying through 5 meters of empty air in a split second. Painful red marks fill the screen and my vision teeters. I get out of zoom mode and fire a shot at my feet, but the skag is already running away. Running away? That’s odd. Maybe it is a glitch or a bug. I’ll worry about that one later, there is a fourth one dangerously close. I zoom again, aim at the fourth one as the third one runs away, and fire.

*click*

The chamber is empty. How the hell did I use up all six bullets already. The first two shots killed the first skag. The third shot killed the second skag. The fourth shot missed. The fifth shot missed when the third skag lept. The last shot was wasted on the ground trying to kill the third skag up close.

Damn it!

No time to reload. I switch to my handgun. And that is when I see the third skag wasn’t actually running away. The third skag was trying to gain some distance on me so it could leap attack again. I see it turning around, realizing that both skags are more or less the same distance from me, closing in from two different directions.

The next few seconds are filled with panicked gunshots. The two skags go down, making teeth indentations somewhere on my thighs. My handgun has three bullets left. My rifle is empty.

I hear another skag snarl in the distance.

Time to reload!

Links:

“Prison Break: MMO Edition” or “Michael Scoffield is a douchebag”

October 27, 2009 1 comment

Why is it that no prison in MMOs can successfully keep its prisoners under lock and key? Regardless of the type of prison or the safeguards put in place to ensure no untoward incident takes place, there is always a riot or an escape or a combination of the two. Do they always hire NPC guards that are complete imbeciles? Or are the walls made of cheap pixels? Perhaps the head jailor is a sado-masochist who gets off on getting beaten to a pulp by escaping prisoners every reset?

To illustrate the spread of this plot device, let’s observe some examples from a few popular MMOs.

World of Warcraft

Prisons breaks are to WoW as George W. Bush is to retarded. It just seems to come naturally.

First up we have The Stockades. This is a high-security prison complex beneath the canals of Stormwind City. The instance is home to henchmen, masterminds and diabolical villains alike. More recently, there has been a riot, and the place is under complete control of the criminals. The only problem is that they stay inside the walls of The Stockades and refuse to leave. It would be the Prison Break equivalent of Micheal Scoffield killing every guard and administrator inside Fox River so no one can stop his escape. And then choosing a new cell as his new home.

Wrath of the Lich King introduced the Violet Hold, a magical prison in the southern district of the floating city of Dalaran. It is now being attacked by the blue dragonflight under Malygos‘ orders. The prison guards, being the perpetually inept, blithering idiots that they are, need the players’ help to fend off the blue dragonflight and to keep the prisoners in check.

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The biggest examples of ‘prison’ encounters would have to be C’Thun and Yogg-Saron. Both were Old Gods cast into earthly prisons by the Titans and now corrupt the thoughts of any foolish enough to get close to their prison. Why? Because the guys that designed the prisons were criminally retarded and made the prison out of marshmellows. The solution? Go into the prison and kill the pesky bastards.

Champions Online

In Millennium City, one of the first public missions you will participate in involves preventing some of the most dangerous criminals from escaping during a prison riot. Cryptic‘s Producer of Naming Originality was on vacation the week they named the event, for the event is called “Jail Break”.

Next up is Stronghold, the Desert Zone prison. Unlike Millennium City’s rehabilitation center, this facility is designed to contain and keep watch over the most nefarious and powerful supervillains. A storm knocked out the power in the ’80s, disrupting the power inhibiting fields and allowing nearly 40 supervillains to escape and wreak havoc. In the early 21st century, Grond escaped with the help of a disgruntled guard, killing several guards in the process. And rest assured, the troubles of the facility are far from over.

The Nemesis system is one of the most unique features of Champions Online. But in the interest of this article, it is worth nothing that even your Nemesis can escape from prison, forcing you to hunt the guy down yet again.

Age of Conan

prisonbreak1Conan himself founded the upcoming Iron Tower, a towering structure of heavy stone and black iron. Intended for civil confinement of the most vile of Aquilonia’s criminals, the Iron Tower continues the Tarantia Common District story arc. And yes, you get to go in, and bring the swift and unforgiving hand of justice with great force down upon the insidious prisoners and their minions.

Prison Break: The Convenient Plot Device

Prison breaks are one of the most over-used plot devices. What morally upright (experience-points-starved) MMO player would miss out on a chance to rid the world of a villainous menace of diabolical proportions? (Side note: what exactly is a diabolical proportion BTW?) What heroic (loot-hungry) adventurer would give up on a chance to bring an uncompromising and swift end to the dubious and undoubtedly evil pursuits of the scum of the earth?

I understand the twitch reaction that causes developers to build the inevitable prison break story into the macrocosm of the world. It is a classic, convenient setup that requires minimal explanation. It doesn’t take much for the MMO player to go in charging after those foolish enough to challenge the (questionable) might of the MMO’s law enforcement agencies.

What if we thought of prisons in MMOs in a new light? What instead of keeping prisoners in, there were quests that involved breaking people out? What if a prison instance was designed to facilitate the advancement of lore without being lured into the seemingly inevitable prison break quagmire? What if designers gave us choices requiring us to question our own sense of morality and justice, instead of forcing us to choose the obvious, morally upright choice regarding prison escapes?

For all its flaws, one of the greatest missions in Champions Online involved getting defeated by VIPER forces on purpose. You wake up in a lab, and escape your captors, making your way to the inner depths of the instance searching for an evil genius who was otherwise inaccessible. It was a brilliant concept, well-implemented and flawlessly executed.

Can you think of ways this device can be improved or altered that challenges the norm and expands on the classic paradigm?

Champions Online –

Dragon Age Origins: “Se7en Reasons to get Excited” or “You’d be an Idiot not to”

October 24, 2009 10 comments

Disclaimer: Apologies for the insane length of this piece. I didn’t think it would turn out to be well over 3,000 words.

Eleven days left before DA:O comes out. Eleven. Long. Days.

BREAKING: Dragon Age: Origins has gone gold.

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I am all a-titter (or should I say a-twitt – wait, that joke has been done to death) with the upcoming release of Dragon Age: Origins. BioWare has put together a behemoth of unparalleled proportions, and my patented spidey sense tells me the blogger and gamer community is practically convulsing waiting for the wait (that hurt your head?) to be over.

In the meantime however, I decided to put together this list of reasons you should look forward to Dragon Age: Origins. You know, just to shove you over the edge.

One: Developed by BioWare

If that sub-title doesn’t immediately give you a warm, fuzzy feeling and simultaneously increase your expectations for the game ten-fold, then you need to crawl back underneath that rock you have been living under. Aside from the fact that BioWare won the Game Developer of the Year award from GamePro in 2008, they have several intellectual properties that have done exceptionally well, both commercially and critically.

Here is a short list of titles from BioWare and their associated aggregate ratings from MetaCritic:

A few things should be apparent here.

First, BioWare has been busy bringing out award-wining, critically acclaimed titles every year for well over a decade now.

dragon-age-origins-se7en-reasons-to-get-excited-or-youd-be-an-idiot-not-to4Second, BioWare is exceptionally good at introducing new intellectual properties, always a risky move, with startling consistency. By contrast, Blizzard Entertainment last introduced a new IP about a decade ago, and has been shipping out (glorious) iterations of the same three IPs: Diablo, Starcraft and Warcraft. Like BioWare, they make brilliant games, no doubt. The difference is that BioWare keeps refreshing the formula with unerring consistency.

Two: Storyline and Lore

The folks over at BioWare are master story tellers. These days I am going through my first playthrough of Mass Effect. My character now has access to the first tier of spectre weapons. This has essentially made firefights a joke. Where I would have to try a few reloads and approach the battlefield with revised strategy, I now walk blindly into every combat situation knowing I will decimate and humiliate anything that comes in my path. That being said, the storyline in the game is so exquisitely constructed and so well executed that I can’t help but push forward, waiting for the next bit of lore and plot twist.

Instead of cookie-cutter stories that have shallow two-dimensional characters and plot devices, every game I have played from BioWare offers an unprecedented level of depth, structure and non-linearity in the story. The world feels alive, rich with a complex back story and dynamic, conflicted, flawed characters, each with their own agendas.

Background Elements: The Land

Dragon Age: Origins is no different. The kingdom of Ferelden is a complicated macrocosm brought to life by a well-knit fabric of intertwining lore. And although the game takes place mostly in this kingdom, it is a relatively small part of the larger continent of Thedas. Thedas, in turn, is likely one of many continents in the Dragon Age universe.

Background Elements: The Age

dragon-age-origins-se7en-reasons-to-get-excited-or-youd-be-an-idiot-not-to2The current period of conflict in the game is known as the Dragon Age in the Chantry calendar, due to the recent resurgence of the presumed-extinct dragons. There have been eight ages prior (Divine, Glory, Towers, Black, Exalted, Steel, Storm, Blessed) and each has its own distinct story.

Background Elements: The Fade

The Fade is a metaphysical realm created by the Maker prior to creating the world of Thedas. Spirits roam this land, and every race in Thedas mentally enters this realm while dreaming. The mages are the only entities mentally aware of their presence in the Fade as they tap into the Fade’s energies when casting spells. The Fade has one physical presence in the world called the Black City, an unreachable location observed in the skies, infinitely in the distance. The mages also have a right of passage where their mind consciously enters the Fade and they fight demons to prove their mettle.

Background Elements: Lyrium

dragon-age-origins-se7en-reasons-to-get-excited-or-youd-be-an-idiot-not-to5Mages use a rare mineral called lyrium to facilitate the the transfer of their conscious minds to the Fade. This mineral causes serious injury or insanity to anyone who comes in contact. The only race that is resistant to lyrium is dwarfs because of their extended exposure to the material in the deep places beneath the earth.

Background Elements: Ferelden Titles

  • Freeholder: Land-owner
  • Ser: Knight of the realm (male or female)
  • Teyrns/Teyrna: War leaders, responsible for defending those sworn to them
  • Arls/Arlessa: Commanders of strategic fortresses the Teyrns can’t oversee directly
  • Banns: Freeholds choose Banns or Arls to pay allegience; Teyrns come from Banns
  • King/Queen: The most powerful Teyrn. But even the King needs Banns to execute his will over the lands

Background Elements: The Blight

dragon-age-origins-se7en-reasons-to-get-excited-or-youd-be-an-idiot-not-to3The Blight (with a capital B) is the event where the Darkspawn beneath the earth come across a slumbering Old God (a dragon), and awaken an Archdemon in the process. Unified by the will of this terrifying creature, they storm the surface with a vengeance. The blight (small b) is a disease spread by the Darkspawn that corrupts all living organisms. Crops die. Water sours. Black clouds cover the sky. Anyone who survives the blight infection transforms into the Darkspawn, thus multiplying their numbers.

The only known way of stopping a blight is by defeating the Archdemon leading it. Only Grey Wardens have been able to accomplish this feat over the Ages.

Background Elements: The Grey Wardens

The Grey Wardens are the elitest, bravest and most fearsome of warriors in the world of Thedas. They make the ultimate sacrifice in their pursuit to bring peace to the land and to defeat the Darkspawn. In order to become a Grey Warden, one must undergo the Joining. This involves, in essence, consuming a Darkspawn’s blood, and surviving the resulting infection and transformation. If the recruit comes out of the ritual alive, they are bound to the order of the Grey Wardens, sworn to fight the Darkspawn to the last breath. The ritual awards them the taint, an ability allowing them to be constantly aware of the Darkspawn’s presence, and vice versa. This unique ability was the turning tide that allowed the Grey Wardens to vanquish the first and subsequent Blights.

“Men and women from every race, warriors and mages, barbarians and kings… the Grey Wardens sacrificed everything to stem the tide of darkness… and prevailed.”

– Duncan, head of the Grey Wardens in Ferelden

dragon-age-origins-se7en-reasons-to-get-excited-or-youd-be-an-idiot-not-to6The taint has unfortunate side effects. It cuts a Grey Warden’s life quite short. Instead of withering away because of  the ever-present disease in their blood, Grey Wardens instead experience the Calling, where they descend into the earth, beyond the gates of Deep Roads, alone, armed with the armor on their backs, the sword in their hilt and their command of magic . They take the fight to the Darkspawn deep within the bowels of the earth, ending their lives with purpose.

The last Blight was over 400 years ago. The Grey Wardens have since faded into legend. Currently, Duncan leads this fearsome group, and there are only two dozen Grey Wardens left in the world.

Background Elements: The History

Here is a short history of the world, put together with the help of the Dragon Age Wikia:

  • Elvhenan, the kingdom of the elves, covers most of Thedas.
  • The elves come into contact with the mages of the Tevinter Imperium. Due to unknown reasons, they started losing their immortality and begin isolating themselves from the human race. The mages wage war against the elves, enslaving most of the race and extending their control over most of Thedas.
  • A group of Magisters (ruling mages) manage to enter the Fade in their physical form. This violation of the metaphysical realm has dire consequences. They are transformed into the first of the Darkspawn, awaken the first Archdemon, Dumat, leader of the Old Gods, and lay waste to the lands. This is the First Blight.
  • The Deep Roads, a series of tunnels and passages beneath the earth, home of the Dwarves, is overrun.
  • The first Joining of the Grey Wardens takes place. The Blight is defeated by the Grey Wardens.
  • The Imperium is beset by two simultaneous conflicts. A tribal horde, led by Andraste, blaming them for the Blight, wages war. At the same time, the enslaved elves of the Imperium rebel. The Imperium loses its might and several large portions of the kingdom. It never again fully recovers.
  • The elves are given Dales as a new homeland.
  • The Second Blight occurs. Hafter unites the Alamarri tribes and becomes the first teyrn.
  • Calenhad unites the Clayne tribes into a single nation, becoming the first King of Ferelden.
  • The time of the Third Blight is currently unknown.
  • 400 years prior to the events of Dragon Age: Origins, the Fourth Blight occurs.
  • The Blessed Age begins.
  • The Orlesian Empire conquers Ferelden and rules it for almost a century. It is the most powerful nation in Thedas
  • In the 97th year of the Blessed Age, the events of the preceding novel, Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne, begin.
  • A year before the Dragon Age begins, the Battle of River Dane takes place.
  • At some point in the Blessed Age, a dragon awakens and goes on a rampage, causing the following age to be named the Dragon Age.
  • The Dragon Age begins.
  • In the second year of the Dragon Age, 28 years prior to the events of  Dragon Age: Origins, King Maric Theirin successfully rebels against Orlais and re-establishes Ferelden as an independent kingdom.
  • In the tenth year of the Dragon Age, King Maric readmits the Grey Wardens in Ferelden. They had been banished two hundred years prior.
  • Thirty years into the Dragon Age, when the story in the game unfolds, the Fifth Blight begins.

Sold yet? Realize that I have only gone through a very condensed version of the lore, and I am only on reason number two of seven.

Three: Voice Acting

dragon-age-origins-se7en-reasons-to-get-excited-or-youd-be-an-idiot-not-to7There are hours upon hours upon hours of recorded voice-acting in the game. BioWare has effectively ensured that no two characters will have the same voice. So is it the same set of 20 guys doing a bunch of different voices for the whole game? Turns out the cast for Dragon Age: Origins is a ridiculous 144 different individuals. The most notable of these are Tim Curry and Kate Mulgrew.

Compare that to, say World of Warcraft. How many Goblins have you clicked on that say “Time is money friend!” or Gnomes that say: “My, you’re a tall one!” in the exact same voice?

Four: DLC’s at Launch

Dragon Age: Origins will ship on November 3, 2009. Most developers provide additional downloadable content several months into the release to give the player additional areas in the existing world to explore.

BioWare, trend-setter extraordinaire, will have two DLCs available on the day of the release.

The Stone Prisoner

dragon-age-origins-se7en-reasons-to-get-excited-or-youd-be-an-idiot-not-to8The village of Honnleath is overrun by the Darkspawn. A lone stone figure stands at guard the town’s heart. This once powerful golem can be unfrozen from his perpetual prison and become part of the player’s party of adventurers. The golem comes with a rich backstory (that is shocking, really), extensive voice-acting a unique follower quest. You can also tend to the mysteries of the village and bear witness to additional unfolding events that delve deeper into Dragon Age: Origins lore.

Warden’s Keep

Soldier’s Peak is haunted by the undead, some say the ghosts of betrayed Grey Wardens. Other claim demons have overrun the land and decimated the grounds. Whatever the case may be, this DLC continues advancing the lore, uncovering a terrifying secret buried for generations. Players can also unlock new abilities and powerful items.

Five: Content in Advance

To say that the game media has been saturated by an endless stream of teaser content from BioWare is sort of like saying the U.S. economy has hit a little bump. We have seen a never ending barrage of screenshots, wallpapers, videos and a kickass cinematic, leaving us drooling for more.

Character Creator

But BioWare is not yet done. Last week, they released the Dragon Age: Origins character creator. Released as a separate download a full two weeks before the game launched, the character creator allows you to play around with the most elementary step in RPGs: designing your alter-ego. It’s a fairly robust system, with a lot of customization options. For instance, there are up to nine sliders for just the nose of your character. The ESRB rating for the character creator is also misleading, but that’s neither here nor there. In addition, you can save your characters and export them to the game when it comes out. Using this feature will also give you a unique item in game, The Lucky Stone.

Dragon Age Journeys

Yesterday, EA also released a flash game, Dragon Age Journeys, that allows you to play some of the events leading up to the Dragon Age: Origins release. What’s truly amazing is that completing certain tasks in the flash game unlocks up to three items in the actual game itself. You need to be signed into your EA account while playing, and said items will be automatically added to your character’s inventory.

Six: Reviews

I have seen two full-fledged reviews of the game so far.

PC Gamer

PC Gamer gives it a whopping 94%, one of their highest ever. Their final verdict: “A truly astonishing game. Vast, vivid and microscopically detailed. Dragon Age is the RPG of the decade.”

That’s some lofty praise. The following are some additional tidbits from said review, shamelessly copy-pasted from HotCoffeeBurns’ post here. No point in re-inventing the wheel.

  • “Thus begins Dragon age, one of the most enormous and astonishing of games. It’s an unashamed high-fantasy RPG, rooted in the most traditional soil, yet set in a highly original world.”
  • “This is not a game that can be simply explained. How does it begin? It begins in six completely different ways, and each of these can be met with a wildly different approach.”
  • “Whether you play as a human, elf or dwarf, a rogue, warrior or mage, a noble or a commoner, Dragon Age requires a smart use of your wits and weapons.”
  • “You can approach combat in a couple of ways, depending upon your personal preferences and the difficulty to which you’ve set the game. In theory, setting it to easy should let you fight in real-time, where you select opponents and issue instructions from a row of tiled attacks, spells and special items familiar to any MMO player, as the fight happens.”
  • “As you and your party level up, at levels 7 and 14 you get a point to spend on a sub-specialism that opens up new talent trees. A warrior, for instance, can choose to be a berserker or champion, among others. A mage might opt for shapeshifting, allowing her to morph into an animal during battle. A superbly useful talent for a rogue is ranger, which allows you to call an animal to join your party.”
  • “Humans are the dominant race in Ferelden. Dominant in some extremely unpleasant ways. Until a few hundred years ago elves were the slaves of humans. In theory they have been freed, but those who live in cities remain second-class citizens, forced to live in slums, either begging or finding menial work in human houses. A small number of elves broke away to live in the Dales, these “dalish” elves are attempting to recover their lost culture. Bitter and vengeful, they kill all humans who wander into their territory. The dwarves live in the Frostback Mountains. Mages are feared and loathed by all. Your first two hours playing as a human noble will have almost nothing in common with those of a dwarf commoner or Dalish elf. While you’re taught the basics of combat, and introduced to party mechanics, the rest is unique.”
  • “Whether you play as a male or female, there are various characters with whom you can fall in love. However this isn’t a genderless universe, and a gay relationship will be recognized as such.”
  • “The ending, which is different depending upon how you’ve played, manages to deliver on the anticipation built up, surprising you with new twists, and creating an appropriate sense of scale.”
  • After 80 hours of gameplay over 2 months: “This is the most enormously detailed game world I’ve experienced, its history stretching back thousands of years, its cultures vivid, beautiful and flawed, the battles enormous, the humour superb. Roleplaying games now have a great deal to live up to.”

GameInformer

GameInformer gives the game 90/100. This review is also full of praise, but in the interest of some variation, here is an interesting excerpt:

dragon-age-origins-se7en-reasons-to-get-excited-or-youd-be-an-idiot-not-to9“In the middle of reviewing Dragon Age, I had a couple vacation days scheduled. During my long out-of-state weekend, the game was constantly popping into my mind – how I could have won a fight differently, or how I might spend my next few talent points. As soon as my flight landed back in Minneapolis, I didn’t even fight the urge; I drove straight into the office and spent an entire Sunday night in front of the computer fighting darkspawn and saving Ferelden. The number of titles that can foster this level of dedication and obsession are few, and Dragon Age: Origins is among the best of them.”

Seven: MMO Follow-up

Not confirmed. But I bet my bottom dollar they will make one. It is just too damn good to pass up.