Movies, music, games, books, television, and more.

My opinions, jaded completely by my feelings, experiences, beliefs, and how I'm feeling at the time.

*SPOILERS* I will usually include a section at the end that may contain spoilers. If you don't want to know, don't read that part.

My opinion is not yours, nor should yours be mine. If you want to know for yourself, do for yourself. If you disagree, that's fine - you can make one of these for yourself for free.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Over Encumbered : Worlds of Oppurtunity

                During last year’s primary gaming season, I had the opportunity to play almost every triple-A title that has launched; the few I hadn’t played were comprised of Christmas presents (AC: Revelations), games I have no interest in (CoD: MW3), and games on consoles I don’t own (LoZ: Skyward Sword). It’s definitely been an interesting and exciting year, but what I want to focus on for now is a very unusual trend in my purchasing: open-ended action / adventure RPGs with a fantasy slant.
Without boring you with the details, this genre and I have a long and failure-ridden history: Oblivion, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, Dragon Age, Demon’s Souls, anything Diablo, several Final Fantasies, and every Zelda game ever. I’ve even tried to get into tabletop gaming (again unsuccessfully) through D&D, Magic, BattleTech, and WarHammer 40K.

                The only notable exception is Torchlight, which I grabbed during a Steam holiday sale a few years back, and then proceeded to pour around sixty hours into. When I try to pinpoint what made it different, the biggest factor is probably that Torchlight is really quite linear, maybe even more so than the Diablo titles it draws so heavily from. Each level of the dungeon only has one true entrance and exit with a few interconnected paths between, and most of the “side” quests involve killing high-level enemies or tracking down doo-dads that are only a room or two off the main path. Another factor is the exceptionally high rate at which Torchlight provides you with new gear and skills, meaning there’s a constant possibility for big new weapon combos or ability unlocks. Finally, possibly by virtue of those other factors, Torchlight isn’t exactly a grueling experience. I can think of only a handful of times that I ever got dropped, and even then it was largely due to poor health / mana management. To be honest, I mostly consider this game to be the exception that proves the rule: I don’t get into big fantasy RPGs.

                Yet in late September, I found myself inexorably drawn to Dark Souls, the spiritual successor to one of the most brutal games I had ever attempted (Demon’s Souls), and a scion of all things that I usually avoid in my games. I made sure to pre-order so I could get the collector’s edition, and on the Friday after its launch I found myself holding said edition and a hardbound strategy guide. The next week was wrought with some of the highest highs and lowest lows I’ve ever had while holding a controller. The most critical moment came when I got too cocky and a dragon taught me the folly of my ways, rendering several hours of play inert. In a fit of frustration, I dramatically killed power to my console… right as the game was autosaving. The result was a corrupted file that rendered all of my 8 hours of play inert; 8 hours that had felt like twenty, as every step in Dark Souls where you don’t get murdered is an achievement.

                So in a sea of other game releases, I faced the choice between tossing in something new and undoubtedly less frustrating, or spending eight valuable free hours reliving a well-crafted trip to Hell. At the time of this writing, I have put about 30 hours into Dark Souls. In that time, I’ve only beaten… three bosses? That’s out of almost two dozen. I have, in almost all respects, barely scratched the surface of the game. But I did scratch it, and genuinely enjoyed doing so; versus its predecessor, which took two hours of my life and spat them out, never to be seen again. I don’t begrudge the money I spent on Dark Souls, and part of me still insists that I’ll beat it someday. Of course, in the area I’m currently exploring, the very ground is poison, and all the enemies are poisonous, and it would take me at least an hour to fight back to where I can buy anti-poison items. So, yeah, take the fact that I’m even considering going back as a testament to the game’s draw.

Another imminent sign of my altered opinion on RPGs came a few weeks later, when I suddenly found myself holding a copy of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (that’s sky-rim, though I prefer skyr-im) and another, even larger hardback guide. Again, this was a game whose predecessor (Oblivion) had managed to hold my attention for about three hours, at which point I accepted a quest that was way above my level and a demon set me on fire and ate me. At least, that’s how I remember it. I also remember walking into town to look around and walking out with a dozen new side-quests lined up. Then I found another town, and another, etc. When you’re obsessive-compulsive, that kind of thing can lead to anxiety, and I have enough of that in real life. So I picked the first quest on the list, and one demon-barbecue later, Oblivion left my disc tray for good. I’ve never even harbored a vague thought of completing it.

So I was surprised as anybody to find myself five hours into Skyrim, and largely enjoying it. I was managing to overcome my desire to talk to every living being in the universe, and so had a manageable quest list: Go here, kill some bandits, and find a sword; Go there, kill some undead, and learn a spell; Fight a dragon (!); Go here, fight some undead bandits… wait a damn minute. At a little over ten hours in, Skyrim had lost me, but not for the same reasons as before; it lost me because, in spite of its “limitless, open-world possibilities,” I realized that the endgame would likely be indistinguishable from that first half-day of play, with 40+ hours of sameness in the middle. The problem wasn’t alleviated by all the extraneous skill-building, at least not for me; if anything, it exacerbated the underlying problems. I didn’t see the point in becoming an expert enchanter or blacksmith if the all-powerful weapons I forged were going to be swung in the same way and at the same basic things as my starting equipment.

                And so, my dragon-born passed into relative anonymity before ever hitting level 20, and the realm of Skyrim was presumably plunged into civil war and chaos, soon to be overrun by the dragons. Meanwhile, I picked up some titles I had missed and played them just as I felt like it; things like Shadows of the Damned, Deus Ex: HR, Dawn of War II, LotR: War in the North, AC: Rev, a few downloadable titles, etc. About the only genuine fantasy RPG exposure I had was another brief stint with Dragon Age II, which I still greatly enjoy, and might actually beat sometime in the next six months. But for the most part, there was nothing that I was pouring dozens of hours into, for stretches at time, at the expense of all other games. The only other exception was a when I picked The Witcher on direct download and played the very early parts of the game. Some slight performance issues with my PC kept me from diving in headlong, but I liked the game enough to look up the console release of the sequel (hint: foreshadowing!).

                But while I was diving into a smorgasbord of media, the powers that be were conspiring to once again drag me into a world full of stats and skill trees. Our own JS Wolfwood has in recent years become a fan of RA Salvatore, with a bit of nudging from yours truly. And so it was that he had been keeping a watchful eye on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, a collaborative effort with Salvatore as lead writer and Spawn creator Todd McFarlane in charge of art design. The early trailers and previews highlighted combat that actually allowed for brawler-style combos and brutal finishing moves with multiple weapon types. As we neared the February launch date, JS tried to entice me with all manner of trailers, features, and dev dairies, but to no avail… until the demo came out and actually delivered a fantastic experience. Seriously, even if you’re as un-RPG inclined as I used to be, the demo for KoA is worth playing; it offers the chance to do the initial training quest, or just skip right to 45 minutes worth of exploring the world.

                Jump forward to early February, and there I am again. Fantasy RPG? Check. Hardbound guide that could kill someone? Check… when it came out like two weeks later. What followed was a genuinely engaging experience, probably my best with the genre to date. I would play for hours at a time, sometimes questing, sometimes just roaming, sometimes working toward particular skill unlocks or completing equipment sets. I very quickly found a play style I enjoyed by mixing the finesse and sorcery skill trees, allowing for magic-fueled stealth kills and the like. The quests – divided into story, faction, and side – covered a wide enough range to keep things fresh and take me to new areas, while the enemy types were appropriately varied that the pace of combat didn’t drag. Each session would go on longer than intended, as I found myself deep in the “just one more…” mentality, which continued for several weeks. The last time I played, a quest took me outside of what I would call the starting realm, and it dawned on me just how massive the game world is, and just how much remained to be seen and done.

                And then, just as suddenly, I stopped. There was no in-game setback or obstacle like in Dark Souls, nor a sudden realization of unrewarding repetition like with Skyrim. I just stopped putting the game in my system. I think about it fondly every now and then, but never enough to actually get back into it. My best analysis as to why might come as a surprise, because I really think the massive, open-ended nature of the quests that I enjoyed so much actually became the game’s downfall. Essentially, this game was everything I loved about Torchlight, plus combat that extended beyond just point-and-click, but without the streamlined nature of travel to reduce drag, it didn’t quite keep that same pace in regards to rewards-per-hour. This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered that time-management issue, and it extends beyond just gaming. For instance, when watching through seasons of television, I often opt to watch half-hour programming over hour-longs; as I get older and long stretches of free time become less frequent, I can only assume this trend will continue.

                This trend is unfortunately in direct opposition to my newfound-fondness for at least trying out games from this genre. Earlier in the post I mentioned taking an interest in the console port of Witcher II, an interest which grew to the point where the only reason I didn’t have the $100 collector’s edition reserved is because GameStop no longer had it available. I even got a guide, though there wasn’t a hardback edition. To this point, I’ve only played the introductory training and prologue sequences, but I can say without a doubt that the story being told will be the driving force behind my interest in this game. That’s not to say that the combat, exploration, and atmosphere aren’t top-notch; they just won’t drive me back to the game the way those respective elements would for Amalur, Skyrim, or Dark Souls.

I’ve heard that the game has hub-style play starting in the first town, where side-quests don’t take you too far outside the immediate area, and you can’t progress too far without finishing the main quest up to a point. If true, I might actually benefit from this more structured approach, rather than the wide-open nature of the previous titles. The leveling system is also more regulated. This isn’t a class-based RPG, as the title actually makes fairly clear; at the beginning of the game, you can only assign points to the “training” skill path. At level 8, the other three open up, but each one is still just a step in refining Geralt’s core skills as a Witcher. And if anyone reads these past few points as the game being “restrictive” or “linear” I’d caution against that. The side quests are set up this way because they have a direct influence on all other aspects of the game. Not only can certain abilities and stat bonuses can only be gained from specific quests, but your decision to pursue or ignore these quests can massively impact each subsequent section of the game.

Of course, I haven’t had a chance to experience any of this personally, as the aforementioned constraints on my free time haven’t gone anywhere, and will probably only increase as I each day drags me further into “adulthood.”  It would also probably help if I stopped buying new games, especially in this genre, but the upcoming Dragon’s Dogma already has its numerous teeth in me. The demo is very combat-heavy, focusing on your class-based abilities, interaction with your AI companions, and group tactics for wearing down big enemies. Your group is made up of “pawns” – warriors sworn to fight with you – of whom at least one is customizable and stays with you the entire game. It’s an interesting dynamic, since most of the other games on this list are decidedly lonely experiences. I guess that’s why MMOs are so popular; they offer people the chance to explore these massive fantasy realms alongside friends and family. I know I would certainly have stuck with some of these games longer if they had even basic co-op.

Such a feature would arguably change the nature of these games in drastic ways, however, and so I understand why developers chose not to include it. So I’m left to my own devices for a way to make these games a social experience, and I think I’ve found an agreeable solution. Writing this brief has been immensely enjoyable, as I have found myself thinking not just about the games themselves, but the “how” and “why” of playing them. This, in turn, has rekindled my desire to keep playing so that I can delve deeper. The result is my own personal “quest” for the summer, a challenge which will both test and hopefully reward me, and allow me to flex my analytical and journalistic skills. Between now and September 18 – the day Borderlands 2 comes out and brings an open world loot-based RPG that conveniently does have full co-op play – I will attempt to adventure my way through not just five, but EIGHT free-roam / open-ended fantasy RPGs:

·         Dark Souls

·         Dragon Age Origins

·         DA O: Awakening

·         Dragon Age 2

·         Dragon’s Dogma

·         KoA: Reckoning

·         Skyrim

·         The Witcher 2

                I know that this is one hell of a task, and that I might end up just another skeleton for the "chosen one" to loot in passing, but I think it'll be worth it. I plan to write one more piece to do a quick run-down of each game and my current impression of it leading into June, so be on the lookout for that.

No comments: