Tuesday, November 21, 2017

More Mass Effect: Andromeda

I'm starting to worry about this game. At around 30 hours in, I finally got to the big reveal about who the Kett are and what they've been doing, and it was pretty satisfying. A good combination of horrifying and comprehensible, using a weird sci-fi technology and with some intriguing philosophical implications. And because of that, I estimate that the chances of this game ending on anything but a cliffhanger to be approximately 2%.

Call it cynicism, if you will, but the timing of the revelation was suggestive. There are six planets to explore in this game, and I'd just finished the third. So at almost exactly halfway through the game there's this dramatic reveal that completely changes the context of what you're doing while simultaneously raising the stakes. It was both welcome and proper, but . . . The story mission for the next planet revolves around finding a transponder that will allow you to track down the leader of the Kett.

In other words, they burned about 1/6th of the game's content on what is essentially a delaying tactic. Over the course of this mission, I've learned absolutely nothing new about the Kett or their sinister mission. After 30 hours, the villain finally gets a name and a face, and now the game is spinning its wheels before letting me confront him.

Let's just say, I recognize a pattern here. I'm going to fight through all these arbitrary obstacles and achieve some major victory that allows the Andromeda Initiative to get a foothold in the Helius cluster . . .  only to learn that the real threat has yet to make itself known. And don't get me wrong. It worked great in the original Mass Effect. That whole sequence starting in Virmire and going up to the end of the game was amazing. You get the coldly creepy introduction to the Reapers and then some political intrigue back at the Citadel only to follow up with learning the truth about the Protheans and appreciating the story's true epochal scope, and you end with a tense final mission set against the backdrop of a spectacular space battle with hard moral choices, and memorable visuals and music. Sure, it all added up to a huge sequel hook, but I loved it.

Which brings us back to Mass Effect: Andromeda. I can see the same pattern emerging. I'm certain that the last 20% of the game will up the intensity dramatically, and I would ordinarily be totally on board with that, except that I'm playing this game eight months after it was released, and so I already know that a sequel is unlikely. It's an entirely different thing to experience a thrilling cliffhanger when you know that the resolution is never going to come.

I guess I'll just have to try and enjoy it while I can. And who knows, maybe my worry here is unfounded. Maybe Mass Effect: Andromeda will have a perfectly satisfying story in its own right and the only thing I'll be left hungry for, come the end, is more time in the Mass Effect universe. That would be nice.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Interlude - Mass Effect: Andromeda

I have a confession to make. . . I have a secret life. In addition to my 200-odd Steam games, I also have an Origin account. It only has ten games in its library, and of those, I got six for free. And of the four games I paid for, three of those are different versions of The Sims.  But nonetheless, I've been holding out on you.

I'm telling you this because the other day, I was at the store and I saw a copy of Mass Effect: Andromeda for PC on sale for half its usual price, and that's why I haven't made another Majesty 2 post. Over the last 3 days, I've managed to play this one game for 24 hours.

There's this thing that they started doing in Mass Effect 2 where one of the class abilities was the "biotic charge." You target an enemy and fly through the air, slamming you into them at high speed, doing massive damage and putting you in ideal position to shoot them at point-blank range (or, you know, be instantly slaughtered by the enemy's friends, but nothing ventured . . .) It's just about the funnest thing in the whole world and it's only gotten more enjoyable in each Mass Effect game since it was introduced.

That's the primary reason I've played the game so much. I just love flying recklessly around these gorgeously realized alien worlds, tearing into robots and monsters and the like. Combined with plenty of the typical open-world rigamarole to give me reasons to go from place to place, and it is perfectly calibrated to keep me on the hook.

So I like the game quite a bit, but it is a contentious entry to the series and I can see why. Andromeda is simply not as compelling a setting as the Milky Way (fake Andromeda - if aliens are reading this 2 million+ years from now, I'm sure the real Andromeda is great). The original Mass Effect trilogy had a ton of work put into the background lore and it showed. Just about every one of its sci-fi creations was compelling in its own right, and taken all together, they created a world that was both diverse and engaging.

Unfortunately, Mass Effect: Andromeda doesn't seem to do the same amount of work. So far, there are only two new intelligent species compared to the dozen or so from the original trilogy. And unless there's some great lore revelation coming up, they are simply not as interesting as the Milky Way species (again, fictionally). When you compare the Angarans to the Turians or the Quarians, or the Krogans, it's not even a contest - I can't even describe to you why I find them bland, because they have no characteristics that are distinct enough to comment upon. I suppose it's a victory for sidestepping the "planet of hats" cliche by making the aliens be as varied as the humans. But if you can't reduce aliens to a stereotype, then what is space opera for?

And the Kett, as villains, forget about it. They're like the Collectors but less creepy and menacing.

The worst part, though, is that it doesn't have to be this way. They could build upon the groundwork laid by the first three games and just make the setting more diverse, but that would kind of involve not transporting the story two and a half million light years away, where none of the stuff you've established before could possibly have any effect on what's going on.

I understand why they did it. They wanted a free hand in writing a new sci-fi story without having to worry about the baggage and expectations from the original trilogy. Ultimately, though, they set themselves up to fail. In order for Andromeda to work as a game, they had to sell Andromeda as a setting, and that means creating something so utterly new that if feels exotic, spectacular, and dangerous even in the context of an established sci-fi setting. The Helius cluster had to feel like it was worth the 600-year cryosleep. The people in the arks left behind a world of bug monsters and blue psychic space babes and evangelical jellyfish and killer robots from before the dawn of history. So whatever they found needed to be even more exciting than that. And it just wasn't.

I'm still going to play the game to the end, though. What can I say. I love exploration and I love charging into gun fights like a colossal idiot.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Majesty 2 Collection - 6/20 hours

The thing about this game is that it's an RTS where you can't directly control your units. In other words, it's kind of a crummy RTS.

I mean, it's kind of fun to try and bribe your collection of heroes to go and kill specific monsters. But sometimes you've got a whole lot of heroes and no money and it's pretty much up to chance whether or not they'll rescue your village.

It's a slapdash way to approach military strategy, and honestly, I don't really mind it that much. If the alternative is me paying serious attention to the dispensation of my troops and their battlefield positioning . . .

Although I wish that there was more to do besides trying to influence adventurers. Your village doesn't really have a civic life or complex economy. Your shops just contain items for adventurers. Everything you build revolves around them in some way. At best you can try and maximize gold return or research tactical spells. It doesn't really even matter where you place your buildings.  The trick lies mainly in picking the right build order.

So I guess I'm in this position where I just have to go along with it. I mean, there's not really anything particularly bad that's going to happen and probably nothing especially good that's going to happen either. If I half-ass the game for the next 14 hours, I doubt I'll miss out on anything important.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there's a lot of skill involved here and I'm still too much of a novice to see it. Only time will tell.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Majesty 2 Collection - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

In the world of Majesty, you are the ruler of the Kingdom. Your rule is not absolute, however, as you face subjects that are independent and stubborn. They will need a great deal of persuasion before they carry out your wishes...

Includes all Majesty 2 content:
Majesty 2
Kingmaker expansion
Battles of Ardania expansion
Monster Kingdom expansion

The Kingmaker game editor enables players to create their own missions. Also included is every item, quest, unit and building previously only available for purchase using the in-game store. This additional content includes new spells, weapons, units, heroes, buildings, quests and more.

Main Features:
Real-time strategy with indirect control – your heroes have a will of their own
Build the ultimate fantasy kingdom and experience an engaging world, but beware: monsters are waiting to lay siege to your domain
Defend your realm with noble warriors, spell-wielding wizards, or wild barbarians
Multiplayer for up to 4 players over LAN

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

This game is a funny one. I can remember exactly why I bought it - my friend Jon described the game to me and I thought it sounded intriguing - but I can't remember exactly what he said to me that I once found so persuasive. I actually bought Majesty 2 years after our original conversation, and only because I recognized the title.

Looking at the store description, I think it was the part where you control a king, but you have to direct self-willed heroes. That sounds like a pretty novel sort of game mechanic.

Expectations and Prior Experience

The thing is, this is a kingdom-building RTS. So I will definitely like the kingdom-building parts, but the RTS parts may cause me trouble. Especially if the enemy comes in and wrecks my kingdom. The indirect control mechanic gives me cause for hope, though. If I can't directly control my troops, then it seems likely that the combat portion of the game will be pretty forgiving. It would be downright perverse if the game punished me for something that was literally out of my control.

Divinity II: Developer's Cut - 20/20 hours

I never got to be a dragon. It's my own fault, really. If I hadn't started a new save file, I would surely have made it. Even as it stands, I'm pretty close to reaching the boss I need to kill to get the power. Just one more dungeon to go. But I think switching to a warrior build was probably the right move, nonetheless. Towards the end of my time with the mage build, I was having to reload 1-2 times per battle. So, who knows. Maybe it would have taken me an extra 7 hours to get to this same place. Probably not, but it's impossible to say for sure.

Divinity II is the first game in the series I've seriously contemplated playing past my deadline. I find myself enjoying its action-rpg gameplay and excellent voice acting. Ultimately, the reason I'm not is because of a thematic choice that would be annoyingly cynical if I thought it was at all deliberate - the game keeps putting me in a position where I have to kill basically innocent people.

Like, there's this one side-quest where a knight asks you to help him get food for the village he protects, only, when you get to where the food is, the regular military is there and they say they need the food for some other group of people. Whichever side you don't pick, you have to fight the other. And okay, the knight is a bit of a jerk, but not so much that he deserves to die (especially not while on a mission of mercy), and the soldiers may serve an authoritarian organization, but this is ye olde medieval times and they're actually fairly decent guys. So why, exactly, are we coming to blows here?

And that wouldn't be so bad in isolation, but stuff like that keeps happening. When you go to the temple that gives you the thing you need to unlock the island with the dungeon where you get your dragon powers, you find that all your old dragon-slayer comrades are still there. Only now they hate you because you've been corrupted by dragon power, and so rather than talking things out and demonstrating that maybe dragons aren't so bad after all, they attack you and you're forced to defend yourself, killing several named characters, including a couple that you were on pretty friendly terms with at the beginning of the game.

But even that, as frustrating as it was, is not so bad as what you have to do on Sentinel Island. When you first step out of the teleporter room you are greeted by this strange elemental creature who tells you that you must recruit some staff for your future citadel, and that there are already two candidates for each available position . . . and the ones you don't choose will be killed. That pissed me off. So much so that I searched for a guide because surely no game would be that sadistic. There had to be a heroic "third option."

Nope. If you don't make the choice yourself, the elemental decides for you, killing half the guys at random. Seriously, what the fuck Divinity II? I'm trying to be a hero here and you're just, like, "nah, somebody's gotta die."

Like I said, this would be inexcusably cynical if I thought they were doing it on purpose, to make some kind of point. However, I think these sorts of quests are just coincidentally awful. This is an action game. The only thing your character really knows how to do is fight. Thus any sort of drama or conflict, it must revolve around a battle somehow. Combined with a desire to not have any serious branching options, and you get a story where sometimes you just straight up murder people because it's easier than talking to them.

Video games, am I right?

Friday, November 10, 2017

Divinity II: Developer's Cut - 9/20 hours

There's a thing video games will do where you level up and you get new stat points to improve some aspect of your character, and it's all very exciting until you actually assign the points and discover that it only improves your abilities by 1-2%. When that happens, I start to wonder why I even bother. I am not perceptive enough to notice the difference in my performance. Fewer, larger improvements would be so much better.

But that's not a complaint specific to Divinity II. Sure, leveling up can be kind of underwhelming, but it happens often enough that it's reasonably motivating. It can get a little frustrating when the monsters seem to scale faster than your power level, but hey, I don't have to do this forever.

The game's story, so far, has been serviceable. You're a dragon-slayer, but there's only one dragon left in the world, and so you have to sit out the mission to take it down, because you're still untrained. Except something goes wrong, and you arrive at the scene of the battle to find only one survivor - a dying dragon knight who gives you the power to become a dragon yourself. And that's sure to have some fallout eventually, but in the meantime I'm running around doing insignificant chores for people, because it wouldn't be an open-world rpg if NPCs could deliver their own letters or rescue their own pigs.

I wouldn't have it any other way, though. For the longest time, I harbored the idea that all I cared about in these sorts of games is going to new places, fighting enemies, and collecting loot. But the extensive padding in the first two Divinity games disabused me of that notion. What I really like is going to new places, fighting enemies, and collecting loot with a fig-leaf of an excuse to do so.

Which is good, because I did a foolish thing and started a new character after seven hours with my first one. You see, I'd discovered a "skill book," an item that gave me a new skill point without having to gain a level, and I was so thrilled by this discovery (despite the somewhat underwhelming nature of skills in this game) that I immediately fired up a guide to see if there were any others around. It turns out there were plenty, but I'd already missed my sole opportunity to find three of them.

I mean, it's foolish to put so much stock in completionism for a game I'm just going to quit after 20 hours, but it nonetheless bugged me. So much so that I started over from scratch. However, I know a lot more this second time around than I did the first, so I'm not anticipating that it will take me quite so long to get to where I was before.

I suppose you could consider it a compliment to the game, though. Would I really be so sanguine about backtracking in a game I didn't enjoy?

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Divinity II: Developer's Cut - 3/20 hours

It's easy, sometimes, to be dismissive about the role of presentation in making a good video game. "Graphics are superficial" and "the only thing that matters is gameplay," and all that. But playing Divinity II so soon after the other Divinity games really puts those arguments into perspective. Seeing a 3-D animation of an airship floating into a dock did more to connect me to the setting and characters than any amount of text boxes. Being able to see the buildings from ground level and distinguish their unique architectural details at a glance has made navigating immensely easier. Hell, the relatively good voice acting of the NPCs has actually made me care about what they say.

Which isn't to say that Divinity II is necessarily great at presentation. It's still too early for me to say, given that I'm still in the starting town and have not seen anything but the typical faux-western-European fantasy pastiche that usually dominates rpg settings. I mean, Two Worlds did the same basic setting and looked almost as good (with the caveat that its voice acting and character design were much worse). I'd say that it looks about as good as an early Xbox 360 game. It's a little better than Oblivion, but not quite as good as Skyrim. It likely comes down to a budget thing. All of the graphics are crisp and clear, and it does some interesting things with trees and terrain, but you don't get that sense of obsessive attention to detail.

Divinity II isn't really all that much like its predecessors. The over-the-shoulder perspective is more personal than the god's eye view of the 2D games. Distant areas are obscured by terrain and obstacles, rather than fog-of-war, making it feel more open and expansive. And combat feels more like action and less like a series of abstracted dice rolls. And it's not like the Fallout series, which had a distinctive post-apocalyptic by way of the perpetual '50s aesthetic to give it identity. I actually don't have much handle at all on what makes these games part of the same series. There are a couple of familiar place names from the first game, but in the second, I never even interacted with the real world at all. Perhaps that's why this is game is the numbered sequel, despite Beyond Divinity being the second game in the series.

Nonetheless, I'm enjoying Divinity II quite a bit. The pacing of quests is much better (in that I'm only three hours in and I've already completed some!), the NPCs are more distinct and memorable, and your character's "gimmick" (being an elite mystical dragon-slayer) gives them neat abilities like being able to see ghosts and read minds. My only real complaint is that the mind-reading costs experience points to use. Every time I've read an NPCs mind, it's been fun and flavorful, but expending a permanent resource for a temporary benefit (let alone otherwise irrelevant setting color) just doesn't sit well with me. My hope is that the xp I earn from monsters will start to scale so high that the xp I lose from mind-reading will be trivial by comparison.

I guess what I'll do is keep plugging away. As long as the quests and the rewards keep coming at a satisfying pace, it doesn't really matter if I do things optimally or not.