Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Endless Legend - Wrap-up

Over the past four days, I wound up playing Endless Legend for another 27 hours. I won a couple of times on "normal" difficulty and lost a couple of times on "normal" difficulty. Even now, I am in the middle of a game on the "endless" speed, where I'm just 30 turns away from winning a wonder victory. Yet, I think the time has come for me to walk away.

I'll admit, I enjoyed gaming outside of my recent regimen. It was nice to be able to just play and not worry about time benchmarks or coming up with interesting commentary (not that that's ever bothered me in the past). It reminded me of how I used to game. Wild and free and also somehow super-repetitive. Likely as not, had I bought this game a year ago, I'd have played it for a hundred hours at least.

But as much as I enjoyed my freedom, I couldn't help but feel like something was missing. Though it sometimes feels onerous, like an inhuman obsession driving me forward with the spiked whip of guilt, maintaining this blog has given me a sense of purpose and structure. And while I doubt it will become a valuable cultural artifact that future scholars will use to try and construct a coherent picture of our society post world war three, I can still hold out a certain hope that the main reason for that is because peace and goodwill will win out, and thus there will never be a need.

Anyway, back to Endless Legend. The more I played it, the more I came to appreciate that it was really a very unique and clever 4-X game. The way unit upgrades worked ensured a wider diversity of play-styles by making peace-monger empires militarily viable (while still ensuring that military specialists had the advantage). The season mechanic, though annoying, is actually a pretty innovative way of addressing the late-game doldrums that often afflicts 4-X games. As time progressed, winters would become longer and more severe, requiring you to use your advanced technology just to stay ahead of the curve, and thus mitigating the runaway singularity effect of advanced empires.

I'm not sure how much I cared for it, exactly, because I live for that moment in 4-X games where you transition from the early game of getting kicked around by the AI to the late game where all of your investments start to bear fruit and suddenly you're wielding godlike power, but I imagine for more serious strategy aficionados it can pose an interesting challenge.

I also wound up playing all of the factions, and while none of the others were as "out there" as the Broken Lords or the Cultists, they all had unique mechanical hooks that forced me to engage with the system in different ways, so it was pretty fun to change things up.

Overall, I'd call this game a success, and one of my wiser purchases. I took a risk and was rewarded with an experience that will stick with me for some time to come. I suppose that's why I own so many video games. I never really expected to enjoy them all, but the hope of finding a gem drove me to try out as many potentials as possible. The fact that I collected new games faster than I could evaluate them points to a flaw in this line of thinking.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Endless Legend - 20/20 hours

That's another one in the bag. I've avenged myself on easy mode (in as much as it's possible to wreak vengeance on a collection of data and code), and learned a thing or two about how this game operates. I played the Broken Lords, who are a kind of magical robot that runs off of "dust" (Endless Legend's equivalent of currency, which apparently has some kind of mystical power).

It was a real nail-biter. Once again, the AI was out-pacing me in score (it was the same faction, too, which makes me believe that the scoring system favors aggressive expansionists), and I was only able to squeak out an economic victory in the last ten turns before the time limit. I was held back by a lack of critical resources that would have let me build certain powerful late-game economic buildings.

That said, it probably wasn't as close as it felt. Basically, my income was growing at a geometric rate, so not only was I getting more money, but the increase of money per turn was also getting larger. I played the game for 140 turns, and I'd estimate that I got about two-thirds of the dust necessary for the economic victory in the last twenty.

As much as I enjoyed winning (despite only being "easy" difficulty, it still felt like an accomplishment), the most enjoyable thing about this most recent game is the fact that the Broken Lords felt completely unlike the factions I'd already played. Obviously, it's the same game, so there are some fundamental similarities, but not having to worry about food while simultaneously being so reliant on dust completely upended my usual strategy (towards the end, I was just buying everything in sight, rather than waiting for it to get produced the normal way).

It's a rare trick for a 4-X to have that kind of diversity, and makes me excited to try out some of the other factions. It's at times like this that I regret my quixotic crusade to play my entire library. I'm going to have to move on from this game far sooner than I'd like.

But not necessarily today. I think I'm going to fool around with this game for a couple of days, explore the other factions, maybe try and get a wonder victory. I'll be back on January 1st with an end of year wrap-up and a special surprise sub-project.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Endless Legend - 16/20 hours

I lost my most recent game, on "easy" difficulty. It was 100% my fault. I dropped the ball. I was playing as the Cultist faction, who can only build one city, but have, in exchange, the ability to convert minor factions to their religion and thereby gain resources and (a whole shit-ton of) extra soldiers, and I was having such a grand time wandering around the map spreading my holy creed that I let a rival conquer almost all the major AI factions.

I figured, they are no military threat to me, so why should I worry - and then I got to 25 turns before the game's limit, and discovered I was 600 points behind in score. Oops. I immediately went on the offensive, and managed to close the gap to about 200 points, but it was too little, too late. The time limit came, and I lost.

In retrospect, I played that game wrong from the very beginning. I should have used my free units to terrorize the AI and raze their cities while the factions were still weak. Ultimately, my aim should have been for an elimination victory. Yet my gentle and retiring nature got the better of me. Given the opportunity, I prefer to build in peace, and only go to war when provoked. Which is generally a stupid way to play. It is almost always best to go to war as early as possible (provided you can win, which on easy difficulty is not much of a caveat), because winning a war gives you more territory and resources and knocks out a potential rival, which makes everything in the game easier. The sooner you do it, the more of an advantage you have.

In fact, the advantages of an early war are so great, that it's almost never a good idea to play passively. Even if you're going after a peaceful victory, the extra resources and breathing room that comes from knocking out your closest neighbor or two more than outweighs the build time lost (plus the military build-up helps dissuade any aggressive AIs from picking on you).

I know all this from long experience with the genre. Pacifists are hard mode. Yet it's a trap I always fall into. Strange as it seems, I can't help but think of the AIs as fellow players, and it is just monumentally rude to attack other people and steal their stuff. The fact that the AIs are literally unfeeling automatons does not mitigate this nearly as much as you might think.

This tendency towards useless empathy has caused me more than my share of heartache. In Civilization 4, I would accomplish great cultural deeds as Gandhi, only to be ransacked by whatever random thug happened to spawn near me. And then I would pull my hair out and rant and swear, because once more, violence and greed overcame high-minded constructiveness. Granted, it was always my fault for projecting my ideology onto the game, but then again, perhaps the necessity of violence is the game trying to project its ideology onto me.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Endless Legend - 12/20 hours

Man, I am just blazing through this thing. Last night was another example of me getting so sucked into a game that the world narrowed around me and everything outside the tunnel of my attention blurred into irrelevance. I kind of like it when that happens, but it can be disorienting to glance at a clock and suddenly realize that two hours have mysteriously vanished.

I won my first game last night. It was a technological victory, and thus I got a chance to see most of the tech tree, buildings, and units, and my initial impression is favorable. There is something satisfying about spreading out your cities to occupy most of their region, and there is a delicate trade-off between researching certain powerful buildings and having the resources necessary to build them. The domestic game in Endless Legend is potentially pretty interesting (I can't be entirely sure, because I played the game on "newbie" difficulty).

I am not entirely sold on the combat system, though I like it in theory. The problem I have with it is that the UI is not very informative. Getting into a fight sucks you into this turn-based tactical combat mini-game, which is cool (I loved the combat in Fallen Enchantress, for example), but I can't figure out how to direct my units or make use of their special abilities, so I just wound up automating it. It worked out, because I was so far ahead technologically that my units were unassailable, but it's going to be real trouble when I play on a higher difficulty.

And Endless Legend definitely feels like the sort of game that's responsible for the fact that I have dozens of unplayed games in my Steam library. If I were still playing games haphazardly, I would probably try out all of the factions (like Endless Space, the different civilization types have abilities which can alter the playing experience dramatically - for example, there's a golem race that doesn't use food at all, but requires massive amounts of currency to heal and upgrade), and go after the different victory conditions (I'm unsure of what exactly victory entails, obviously there's technological, and domination, and I'm certain that there's a diplomatic victory, but the game doesn't really go out of its way to teach you how to win).

What would inevitably wind up happening is that I'd spend a hundred hours exploring the nuances of the game, probably by playing it both at work and at home, thereby allowing every one of my other interests to whither on the vine while I worked out my obsession, and by the time I got back to what I was doing before, the long period of neglect would have caused me to lose interest, and thus I would abandon it for something new.

This time, I will resist the urge. I will play this game for twenty hours, and then put it on the back burner, to potentially come back only after I've finished my entire library. I'm choosing to view this as a species of growth (although true growth would involve me getting my magpie sensibility under control, so I could play the games I like as much as I want and not face these kinds of dilemmas.)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Endless Legend - 7/20 hours

I should have written a post right after I finished the tutorial, but it only took me an hour to get through, so I thought it was premature. I decided that I was just going to dabble a little bit in order to get a smidge more material for my blog.

Six hours later, I emerge, blinking, into the light. I'm a third of the way done with the game, and I haven't even won a victory yet. It is, of course, the curse of the genre. So at least Endless Legend doesn't disappoint in that regard.

My main impression of the game, the sensation that sticks with me most after this "limited" exposure is that it is very busy visually. There's lots of terrain types, each with a minute variation on the resources it produces, and when you have the tile yields up, the screen just looks incredibly cluttered. Also, the build times and the research times do not quite synch up, so a lot of the time I do not have anything to build in my cities. And while that is not a complaint, per se, it does grate a bit against my usual play style.

Yet Endless Legend does some interesting things with the 4-X genre. The world map is carved up into regions, each of which can support one city. Cities can expand their borders, theoretically up to the edges of their region, by building special tile improvements, giving you control over the shape of the land you work, and adding a satisfying wrinkle to the logistics of your empire. There's a quest system that is perhaps the most well-integrated of any I've seen in a 4-X game - you can get quests from minor factions and goodie huts which will reward you with resources, special items, technology, or diplomatic benefits.

Basically, there are a lot of good ideas in this game, enough so that I don't worry too much about the long-ish wait between turns (this is probably due to my aging computer anyways) or the sometimes opaque mechanics (I didn't realize there was a population prerequisite to build the borough improvement that expands your borders). Yet it hasn't quite come together for me. It still feels like I'm engaging with parts of the game, but have not quite got a grip on the whole.

But then again, what do you expect. I've only been playing it for seven hours.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Endless Legend - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Create your own Legend
Another sunrise, another day of toil. Food must be grown, industries built, science and magic advanced, and wealth collected. Urgency drives these simple efforts, however, for your planet holds a history of unexplained apocalypse, and the winter you just survived was the worst on record. A fact that has also been true for the previous five.

As you discover the lost secrets of your world and the mysteries of the legends and ruins that exist as much in reality as in rumor, you will come to see that you are not alone. Other peoples also struggle to survive, to grow, and perhaps even to conquer.

You have a city, a loyal populace, and a few troops; your power and magic should be sufficient to keep them alive. But beyond that, nothing is certain… Where will you go, what will you find, and how will you react? Will your trail be one of roses, or of blood?

Previous Play Time

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

My reasons for buying this game are almost completely ludicrous. I just got finished with a bunch of steam-based Christmas shopping, and in the course of buying all these games, I got enough trading cards to bring myself just one short of earning a badge. So, I bought a game specifically to get the cards to craft the badge. Obviously, just buying the card directly would have been cheaper, but spending money on a virtual trading card is weird.

The reason this does not qualify as completely ludicrous is because I didn't buy it purely out of whimsy. I'd had my eye on this game for awhile. When I heard that the makers of Endless Space were doing a fantasy 4-X game, I immediately put it on my wish list, in hopes of picking it up some time after I was done with this blog.

Apparently, I decided I was just going to throw that plan to the wind for the sake of some forgettable virtual doodad. I may have a slight shopping addiction.

Expectations and Prior Experience

This is pretty easy. I've not yet encountered a 4-X game I didn't like. A previous game from this company was so good I played it for a hundred hours. Basically, all they have to do is not screw up. I am their fan to lose.

Perhaps that's not the most useful mindset to take into a game. It might well blind me to its flaws, and cause my posts to be insufficiently critical. Like, maybe somebody is reading my blog in order to see if they should buy Endless Legend and my reflexive enthusiasm will lead them to make a bad purchase. I can't say the prospect doesn't give me some small anxiety, but the way I figure it, if I overestimate how fun a game is, then that can only be because I'm actually having fun, and that would be a needlessly perverse thing to complain about.

Demigod - 20/20 hours

I was wrong about the Demon Assassin. I played him a second time and got my highest kill count to date - 28. I think it definitely suffered from being the first one I tried as a total novice.

I wish I could say the same for the Torch Bearer. I've noticed in a big brawl, with another character to absorb enemy attacks, his abilities to slow down and weaken enemies can be very dangerous, but he simply does not do enough damage nor have a strong enough defense to be viable 1v1.

To round out my time, I decided to play a single-player tournament. It was pretty fun, but it frustrated me to learn that Demigod supports multiple victory conditions. Variety is nice to have, but there was no hint, when I was playing skirmish mode, that it was possible to change the map goal. That sort of lack of documentation is a real pain. I wished from the very beginning that there was a tutorial mode, and this surprise merely cemented that sentiment.

Looking back at my twenty hours, I don't think I've ever experienced such a dramatic turn around in my appreciation of a game. I started out lukewarm towards Demigod, due to my dislike of RTS games, but as I played it more, I came to get a feel for the tactics and an interest in exploring the character builds.

I feel comfortable leaving it behind, however. It's a small game with not a lot to do. I've seen all the maps, played all the characters, and beat all the victory conditions. I never unlocked nightmare mode, but got good enough at easier difficulties that is seemed reasonable to try. I expect that in multiplayer, against other humans, there is no upper limit to the necessary skill level. But multiplayer for this game is dead, and I've learned my lesson from Blade Symphony about trying to climb the ladder of mastery.

I read an article about Demigod that said it came out around the same time as League of Legends, and at the time, there was some dispute about which was the better game. Yet one took off to be huge and the other faded into obscurity. It's funny how things work out. I haven't played League enough to understand the nuance of why one succeeded and one failed, but I suspect it was random chance. While both were vulnerable and small, one of the games got a critical mass of players, and became self-sustaining, thereby getting new characters, balance updates, and improvements to matchmaking and communication, whereas the other withered away, to become nothing more than a curiosity, an artifact in the history of a popular genre.

I don't know enough about the genre to appreciate the lesson, but it was fun enough that I'm not averse to learning more.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Demigod - 15/20 hours

I've now played all five of the generals, and I must say, I seriously underestimated how they'd do against the Unclean Beast. I figured that, because they were specialists in healing and buffing allied demigods, they would be vulnerable to direct attack by assassins. It turns out that the minions you summon do more than enough damage to make up for your inferior offensive powers. I found the trickiest part of a general was keeping track of which of your minions was alive and which ones needed to be re-summoned.

Although, I have to acknowledge what a close call I had with failure here. I did not realize, until I played a game with my friend Daniel, that the shops sold items other than consumable potions. That realization came roughly 11 hours after I'd started playing the game. I don't think it had too much of an influence on my success, because the only thing I wound up buying with the generals were the summoning idols - ie something the game is balanced around them having. Nonetheless, I should probably go back and see if some basic equipment might make the more fragile characters a bit more survivable.

Oak was probably the most interesting general to play. He was a melee combatant who didn't get any special troops aside from the summoning idols. What he had to do was place a flag on the map and resurrect fallen units as spirits. The spirits appeared to be pretty ineffectual in battle, but they could boost his attack power. As a result, I found Oak's effectiveness to fluctuate wildly as I played him. I imagine a more attentive and experienced player could get a lot out of this character.

Oculus was the character who game me the most decisive victory. I suspect it was because the Unclean Beast was ill-suited to deal with his ranged attack. Aside from getting around the map while reclining in a magically floating throne (which is pretty badass, granted), he struck me as a pretty forgettable character. He had the ability to restore mana to other demigods, which is almost certainly an ability that could wreak havoc in co-op play.

Sedna gave me a fast victory, but a low score. Because she had incredible healing abilities, she hardly ever died, but she didn't do enough damage to take down the Unclean Beast, so it would retreat from battle and lick its wounds before coming back for more. Her main advantage, strategically, is that she needed very little support. I could stay out in the field for a long time without having to go back to base for items (though, in a way, this was something of a disadvantage as well, because I could definitely improved my performance with some extra items). Overall, a good character, but I found her special minions, the yetis, to be too fragile. I was constantly having to re-summon them.

The Queen of Thorns was an excellent character, with a good offense and great defense. Her special minions, the shamblers, have a ranged attack, which gives them a great deal of survivability. Plus, unlike Sedna's yetis, they were mana-cheap enough that replacing them was not a big deal. My biggest problem with this character is that she's a nearly naked woman. I'm no prude, but I appreciate games I can show my wife without dying of shame.

Finally, Lord Erebus. He was some kind of vampire. He had life-draining powers that I never really used, concentrated as I was on a minion-centric build. I was fairly underwhelmed by his Night Walkers. They didn't really become a threat until I nearly maxed out the tree. However, they rose automatically from the ranks of my fallen enemies without me having to spend mana to summon them or place a resurrection flag, like Oak, so they were eminently expendable. I got a lot of mileage out of using them as a human shield, or to block the Unclean Beast's escape. And while he may not have been the greatest leader among the general, he did have the advantage of being the strongest combatant (maybe Oak was better, but he didn't have the ability to turn into a mist and escape, so, against the AI, Lord Erebus is more useful), so I was able to get quite a few kills with him.

Winning with the generals took me an average of about a half-hour, and I can't say for sure whether it's because they're stronger characters, or if perhaps I'm simply getting better at beating the map. So, I might have to go back and try the Undead Assassin and the Torch Bearer again, and see if perhaps I misjudged their abilities. It's looking like just figuring out the mechanics of the game is going to take the majority of my 20 hours.

I did get an opportunity to play a few "real" games of online multiplayer. It was pretty fun, though the game's chat function is virtually useless for coordinating strategy. Having eight characters on the map at once was exactly as chaotic as I thought it would be. I also have the feeling that the AI is not nearly sophisticated enough to cope with two human players. We beat it quite handily, despite the fact that I am almost totally a newb (seriously, I didn't even know you could buy equipment from the shop until we'd almost finished our first match).

I'm finding myself enjoying Demigod more as I go on. Real time strategy isn't my usual genre, but this is casual enough that I'm not stressing too much.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Demigod - 10/20 hours

I've now played all five assassin characters one-on-one versus the Unclean Beast, and I have to say, that Unclean Beast is pretty strong. I don't know if it's one of the strongest demigods, or whether I just didn't have that much practice against it, but it ripped through my first two characters. And when I played as Unclean Beast myself, it still managed to fight me to a standstill. On the other hand, my last two games, I beat it handily, so maybe it was just an issue of me getting better as time went on.

It's hard to say. I won the game all five times, because the easy-level AI does not appear to understand how to actually win the game. It goes after fortifications only intermittently, and doesn't seem to know that focus-fire is really important for taking them down, especially when the enemy (i.e. me) buys the auto-repairing upgrade. Yet some wins were undeniably more elegant than others.

Regulus was the most decisive. I wound up with double-digit kills without suffering even a single death. I suspect this is because the AI can't cope with kiting tactics. What I'd do is get the Unclean Beast's attention, then run back to my fortifications, and snipe at it from relative safety. A human would not have fallen for that more than once or twice. Still, the ranged attack is incredibly powerful and versatile. Not only did it work wonders on the Beast, it allowed me to take down enemy fortifications in nearly absolute safety.

The next best was Rook. I only suffered a couple of deaths, but, in turn, got hardly any kills. Mostly, this is because Rook has a high enough defense to survive healing itself, but is not fast enough to pursue a fleeing enemy. Thus, the Unclean Beast was able to repeatedly retreat back to its base and lick its wounds (and unlike the AI, I am not foolish enough to try and follow it). Rook may well have been the best at actually winning the game, though. While not as overwhelmingly dominant as Regulus, it did have the advantage of not having to run halfway across the map every time it encountered the enemy. Plus, it has a special anti-fortification skill that makes advancing through the enemy defenses virtually trivial.

Unclean Beast vs Unclean Beast was an interesting fight. Obviously, the characters were evenly matched, but I was able to leverage my ability to think strategically into a small, but significant xp advantage. Eventually I got enough of a lead in levels that I was able to break through the AI's defenses.

The last two characters lost to Unclean Beast so many times, the AI was able to dramatically out-level me. I won the matches by playing conservatively, refusing to engage the beast and concentrating all my powers on attacking fortifications. The thing that both the Demon Assassin and the Torch Bearer have in common is that they are very offense-oriented characters. They have powerful attacks, but crumple under direct attack. I may have been able to get more out of them with a different build (in particular, I failed to use any of the Demon Assassin's active powers), but I've got a feeling that they're optimized for a different tactical role than assassin vs assassin combat.

On the forum, Assclown told me that playing 1v1 would not give me an accurate perception of the game, and I think they were right. Clearly there are group synergies that make some characters better in teams than they are alone. I wouldn't be surprised, for instance, if an Unclean Beast and a Demon Assassin were better than two Unclean Beasts. And I'm almost positive, even without playing them, that none of the generals are a match for the Unclean Beast by themselves.

However, I am somewhat stubborn. I've started something with this little 1v1 experiment, and I intend to finish it, regardless of how transparently ridiculous a project it might be (hey, why does that sentiment sound familiar?)

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Demigod - 6/20 hours

For the past few hours, I have been trying to be as systematic as possible while I work my way through all ten of Demigod's characters. Although, not that I have five of them under my belt, I realize that I've been doing it wrong. I've been playing the same map, at the same difficulty, with one demigod on each side, but I've been letting my opponent get chosen randomly. So, it's entirely possible (and, indeed, likely) that characters I thought difficult to play may have just had the bad luck to be matched up against stronger foes.

I think I'm going to have to start over again, so I can approach this more scientifically. A baseline is necessary because the characters are fairly diverse. Regulus is a fallen angel whose crossbow allows him to do damage to enemy fortifications and demigods without fear of reprisal. Rook is some kind of weird humanoid animated castle, who is slow and vulnerable to concentrated attack, but who deals massive damage. The Demon Assassin and Unclean Beast, I did not get much of a read on, probably because they were the first two characters I played. They both seemed straightforward melee types to me, though. And Oak, the character I most recently played, was a general-type character - he could reanimate the spirits of the dead, and then use his abilities to make them stronger in combat - but I didn't get much use out of him, because I didn't really understand that the "general" and "assassin" categories of demigods had a meaningful gameplay distinction (I thought they indicated the faction to which the demigod belonged).

The characters are also distinguished by their respective backstories, but I don't even want to begin to touch the game's lore. There's not much of it, but what I've seen has been more or less incomprehensible. I'm not at all sure that there is a consistent story underneath all this. Basically, each demigod has a unique origin, and they are all fighting each other for the favor of the gods. The demigod who triumphs over the others will be promoted to a full deity. However, trying to infer from the character descriptions the shape of a larger fantasy world is all but impossible (or maybe I just don't want to put in the effort).

The actual gameplay itself is nothing to write a blog post about. I described it in the previous post, and in the three hours since, nothing has really emerged to add nuance to that original description. The distinction between assassin demigods (who do best by engaging the enemy directly) and general demigods (who can summon minions and improve your regular troops) is the biggest twist. Also, buying items from shops has proven to be very important. But really, it's the same thing over and over again. Level up your demigod so that you can break through the enemy's fortifications while dealing with the enemy demigod. Get to the enemy citadel. Destroy it. Nothing I ever do or learn about the game will ever break that pattern.

I don't mind, but I do worry that I'll run out of things to say.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Demigod - 2/20 hours

I'm still finding my feet with this game. My initial plan was to give each of the Demigods a test drive, see which one I liked best and then maybe try to take that one through a single-player tournament. However, that plan was thwarted by the game's basic structure. It is impossible to get a feel for any particular character after just a few minutes. Instead, you have to play with them long enough to level up and unlock their various abilities. Luckily that doesn't take too long, maybe an hour at most, but with ten different demigods, that does mean that my schedule for the next few hours is sewn up pretty tight.

The gameplay itself is kind of weird. It's like an RTS, but your base is pre-built and you only directly control one unit - your demigod. Your ordinary units automatically spawn and rush the enemy. The demigod is very powerful individually, but must contend with enemy demigods. Your goal is to destroy the central building of your enemy's base while defending your own. You do this by leveling up your demigod and using it as the sharp edge of an offensive.

I've played a game very much like this before, called League of Legends, and I'm given to understand that this type of game is actually a very popular genre. My career in the League was short-lived, though. However anxious I may get at letting my team down in online PvE co-op, those fears are multiplied significantly when I think I may be the weak link on a competitive team.

So, in a sense, Demigod may allow me to experience a MOBA without all the competitive stress. I can just take on the AI and explore the genre at my own pace.

I'd have still liked a story mode, though.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Demigod - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

The all father has vanished, creating an opening in the pantheon. To fill the void, Demigods from across from the mortal world must wage war against one another in a bid to ascend to true godhood.

Set in a magical world where gods walk among mortals, Demigod blends action, strategy and role-playing elements into a thrilling new experience. Select the Demigod that will lead your minions into battle and unleash the dogs of war against your rivals. Your Demigod will do whatever it takes in order to ascend to true godhood.

Once in the Arena, each Demigod will be joined by support troops that fight to the death as you struggle to seize key control points and slowly turn the tide of war in your favor. And your Demigod will level up during the course of each battle, becoming even more powerful as you unlock new abilities and powers. It's a brutal conflict of Demigod versus Demigod, where the very ground beneath their feet will tremble and quake.

Demigod is a real-time, tactical strategy game that includes extensive role-playing elements. Choose from several Demigods, each poised for battle with their own unique capabilities and awe-inspiring powers. Vanquish other would-be gods as you gain levels, increase in power, unlock the power of mystic artifacts and slowly battle your way closer to joining the Pantheon.

Previous Play Time

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

 This game looks like an RTS, which gives me pause. On the other hand, the demigod mechanic looks pretty intriguing. I love to feel powerful in a game.

My biggest worry is that this looks like another game without a story mode. All of the games I've played for the last couple of months have either been open-ended or had such vague and rambling stories that they might as well have been open-ended. I kind of miss having that structure to help me divide up my time into neat little packets.

Nonetheless, I'm optimistic. If the different demigods have unique powers and noticeably different playstyles, then exploring the differences between them should be interesting enough to kill quite a lot of time. I only hope, if that is the case, that the learning curve is not too steep.

Also, how weird is it that such a recent game is called "Demigod?"  I'd have thought that such a basic name would have been claimed long ago.

Warframe - 20/20 hours

I feel a bit ashamed, because my main thought during the last four hours of Warframe was, "gosh, I wish I were playing Mass Effect." Which isn't really fair to Warframe. Aside from them both being sci-fi 3rd person shooters, the two games are nothing alike. They're not really trying to do the same things. So any comparison between the two would be pretty pointless.

This may be a case of me devaluing Warframe, just because it's free. You know, the video game equivalent of the placebo effect. But I don't think that's what's happening here. After all, Mass Effect has been bought and paid for for so long, it is, by this point, effectively free.

No, I think Warframe made me realize that the real cost of my video games is not measured in dollars and cents, but in opportunity costs. What am I giving up in order to play this game? And at some point in the past (and it must have been fairly recently, because I don't remember feeling this way even two or three years ago), the confining factor on whether a game is worth buying changed from "do I have the money for this" to "do I have the time for this?"

Warframe is an enjoyable game. Its fast-paced action and deep economy and character customization are more than one could reasonably expect from a free game. In terms of "fun per dollar" it is off the charts. But it's not Civilization V or Skyrim or even Mass Effect. So, oddly enough, this free game is far too expensive.

Still, it's a remarkable time that we live in, that things like Warframe can exist. I wonder if the realities of digital distribution are responsible. The deep discounts given by Steam's various sales make it possible to get totally life-absorbing games for what amounts to a trivial expense. And that, in turn means that no serious gamer is ever without a video game, nor even without a novel video game. Thus, when introducing a new game to the market, the alternative to your product is not nothing (as might have been the case in the not-too-distant past), and it's not even the other video games on the market. Your competition is, in fact, every video game ever made, including all the absolute classics. And the price point of that competition could be anything, and was probably a single digit figure, amortized over the course of months or years to be practically nothing at all.

Seen in the light of these market conditions, free-to-play seems less like a strangely generous way for people to pay for games voluntarily, and more like the inevitable end point of the market's logic. Of course as long as supply goes up geometrically faster than demand (because every new game that comes out is also going to be reasonable competition for future games), then the price of games is going to drop, even down to nothing.

Yet that doesn't explain how games like Warframe are able to stay in business. It may cost nothing to play, but it clearly did not cost nothing to make. A great deal of care and effort went into creating the levels and designing the weapons and making the different warframes visually distinct. Not to mention the continual maintenance of balance patches and bug-fixes. How can the game make money that way?

The impression I get is that for many people Warframe is less of a game and more of a lifestyle. That they buy platinum to get customization options or to speed up the production of new items not so much for the value of the things in themselves, but to gain distinction in the community. It's an irrational impulse, but one I understand. I myself am guilty of buying games on day one, specifically so that I can talk about them on the internet. To be one of the first to play a game is a kind of social capital that has a certain value. Rare warframes and paint colors are much the same.

I think that's why I never really got into Warframe. I never really connected with the community. It's my fault, really. I always feel uncomfortable starting conversations, especially when I don't know what I'm talking about. More fundamentally, I think that I'm not a very good fit. Every community has its own energy and expectations, its own in-jokes and rhythms to its conversation. That, as much as anything, can define a game. Blade Symphony was hyper-competitive, yet honorable. Dungeons and Dragons Online seemed to be fractured and insular. And the people of Warframe had a kind of ostentatious swagger that had a definite appeal, but which I could not at all pull off.

What I need to do is find an online community that is staid and polite, and comfortable with exchanging pleasantries only once every week or so.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Warframe - 16/20 hours

I'm making a kind of progress. When I log in tonight, I should have my first constructed weapon - a cronus blade. It's an exciting moment, but my feelings are mixed. The cronus has better base statistics than my starting weapon, but my current sword is level 15, and the cronus will be level one. That means I won't be able to use any of my mods until I take it on a few missions and level it up. I will have to accept a short-term disadvantage in order to gain a long-term advantage.

It's not that big a deal, because I won't have to grind it too far, because all my melee mods are pretty low level, so while I'm trying to upgrade my sword, I'll also be farming for raw materials to upgrade my mods, and for new mods to fill out the slots in my high-level weapons and warframe. And the foreseeable future, for as long as I care to play Warframe is grinding upon grinding, because even if I fill out my current equipment, I will inevitably find rare items that themselves need to be leveled up, and my increased potency will grant me access to new areas with even better equipment . . .

I saw a player who had spent 1200+ hours on this game. That's more time than I've spent on this entire blog. I can't imagine committing to one game for so long.

Though after playing Warframe for sixteen hours, I can see how it's possible.

Warframe - 10/20 hours

I like co-op games in principle. One hand helping another. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The many can accomplish what the one can't do alone. And so on.

However, sometimes I feel like I may be more of a liability than an asset. I worry that I may be taking more than my share of the loot and the other players' attention, and not giving enough back to justify my presence.

If I'm being perfectly honest with myself, this is kind of a narcissistic fear. I've played games with newbies in the past, and I found shepherding people through the early game, sharing my knowledge, and exercising general altruism to be a rewarding experience. So, either I'm a uniquely generous soul (hint: I'm not) or I'm worrying too much about it.

I still wish I could bring more to the table, though. I'm embarrassingly inept at this game. I accidentally scrapped a valuable piece of equipment, and that has reduced my already low survivability to virtually nothing. I can grind for another one, but it'll be a long, slow climb.

It's something I've noticed about Warframe - it does a variety of things to throttle your progress. You only get four revives per day. If you fail a mission, you don't get to keep your pick-ups. Crafting takes an arbitrarily long time.

I understand why they do it. I can even support it. The game is more than fun enough that treading water is no great hardship. However, at times like these, it can be pretty annoying.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Warframe - 5/20 hours

Today, on the blog, I'm going to present a feature known as "John tries to figure out the plot of Warframe despite not reading any of the supplementary material and only barely paying attention to the cutscenes." This I do for posterity, so that many years from now, when there is no longer any clear distinction between your favorite MMO, your job, and your national citizenship, future anthropologists will be able to answer the question, "what was it like to play a primitive MMO with a shockingly disrespectful degree of casualness?"

As far as I can tell, the game is set in the very distant future, when, thanks to genetic engineering, humanity has branched off into a wide variety of sub-species. Sometime prior to the start of the game, there was a war between two or more of these subs-species (or perhaps between factions that used genetically modified people as weapons). The player character is a Tenno, which is a variety of genetically engineered super soldier used by the losing side of this war.

The war was, in fact, lost so badly that the Tenno were mothballed, put away in cryogenic storage and then subsequently forgotten about. Sometime later, another genetically modified group, the Grineer, was facing some kind of crisis, that led to a major decline in their population. Based on certain things that were said to me by Vor, I think it was a disease, but it could be that they are losing a different war. Anyway, the Grineer society was getting desperate, so they started reviving Tenno, in the hopes of reversing their situation (although, it's possible that some third party was reviving the Tenno to fight the Grineer, and it was just Vor, acting alone, who decided to try and hijack them to solve whatever it is that's plaguing his people).

Whatever it is, the majority of Tenno wind up not under the Grineer's control, instead gathering together to form a new faction in this future world, basically fighting to preserve something (I'm not at all sure what) in the face of the Grinner's aggression and the covetousness of the Corpus, a third faction which appears to be made up of high-tech scavengers.

While I'm sure that I'm pretty far off, video game lore is not all that important. A bigger problem is that I'm not really sure how to judge my power level vis a vis the various available missions. If it says that the enemies range from level 3-6, does that mean that I should play it with a level 6 warframe and weapon? Or is there some other measure of power that I'm not aware of? Doing the first set of story missions was fairly straightforward, but when I started the second quest, I blew through my reloads in about ten minutes.

I think learning to optimize my equipment is going to take a good, long while. From what I can tell, things don't really start going until you've got a full set of level 30 gear, and even then, your starting stuff isn't nearly as good as some of the craftable items (which themselves must be leveled up). When I visited a hub area, every player I saw had 300 hours or more invested in the game. It may be that my planned 20 hours are hardly anything at all.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Warframe - 2/20 hours

Just going by first impressions, it's pretty amazing that this game is free. It plays like a fairly solid action game, and there looks to be a fairly deep equipment and crafting system that will potentially allow for a breathtaking degree of character customization.

Of course, it could all be smoke and shadow. I have literally not yet progressed far enough in the game to engage with the crafting system. It could be that the various mods and materials are rare enough, and the crafting times long enough, that engaging with the system will be a painful slog. It's too soon to tell.

Nonetheless, from what I've seen so far, Warframe looks like a game I would be willing to pay money for. So, why don't I? After all, the whole point of free-to-play is that it allows people to decide how much a game is worth and spend accordingly.

It may sound weird, but it feels to me like if I spend money on a game, then I'm in some way committed to it. I've never been entirely comfortable with the idea of games as ephemera. Chalk it up to my age, but I grew up thinking of games as things that you owned. So, the idea of sending something out over the internet and not getting anything tangible in return feels weird to me.

Is this hypocrisy coming from someone whose Steam library currently numbers more than a hundred titles? Is that not the hallmark of a person who has at least some comfort with an information economy? Perhaps, but I have a confession. Each and every game that I personally paid money for is currently installed on my hard drive, as are a significant percentage of the games people gifted me (Ride to Hell - is currently occupying digital oblivion, for obvious reasons). I just can't come to terms with the idea that the games can somehow belong to me, yet have no physical substantiation.

It's an irrational viewpoint. I've rented games before. And I'm planning on playing this for at least 18 more hours, so dropping five bucks to make those hours more enjoyable is no different in practice. It would make me a good internet citizen, to help support financially something that gives so many people enjoyment.

Yet I can't shake the feeling that it would be throwing money in the garbage. A single new warframe costs around 300 platinum, which is something like 15 bucks. How could I ever get rid of something that cost me so much?

So, I don't know, unless I find something really compelling for less than 75 platinum (the amount you get for 5$), I'm afraid I'm going to have to be a free rider. It was easier in Dungeons and Dragons Online, when I didn't really care for the core gameplay. So, in a weird way, I'm almost rooting for Warframe to turn dull and/or frustrating. If I continue to have a good time, I'm going to feel like a real ass come hour 20.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Warframe - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

They were called Tenno. Warriors of blade and gun: masters of the Warframe armor. Those that survived the old war were left drifting among the ruins. Now they are needed once more.

The Grineer, with their vast armies, are spreading throughout the solar system. A call echoes across the stars summoning the Tenno to an ancient place. They summon you.

Allow the Lotus to guide you. She has rescued you from your cryostasis chamber and given you a chance to survive. The Grineer will find you; you must be prepared. The Lotus will teach you the ways of the Warframes and the secrets to unlocking their powers.

Come Tenno, you must join the war.

Previous Play Time

2 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I remember the night when I got this moderately well. My friends had all been playing Warframe for awhile, and for some reason, instead of our usual activities, we all decided we were going to play a game together. Since this one was free, it was pretty much the only one we were all guaranteed to have access to, so I downloaded it.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I remember this game as being fairly fun, which I think somewhat surprised me. At the time, I was under the impression that if a game was free, it had to be too dismal for people to want to pay for. Since I only played the opening couple of missions with my good friends, I can't say for sure how the later levels and overall economy will work out. There's a part of me that dreads the thought that I will be punished for trying to play the game for free, but I'm willing to chalk this up to a generalized F2P ignorance, and am prepared to be pleasantly surprised (I've heard nothing but good things about this game).

My biggest worry is that my work internet connection is not fast enough. I've noticed I get through games a lot slower when I'm forced to play at home, and I was kind of hoping to make some progress on the list before the winter sale comes and forces (yes, forces) me to buy a whole bunch of new games. Still, that's a meta-concern. I expect that there will be plenty of advantages to playing at home, should it come to that.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Blade Symphony - 20/20 hours

I spend some time tonight spectating matches between master level players. I wanted to try and see if I could spot the difference between a master player and a novice. So, I watched around a dozen matches between people who were both really good. They were each top-300 players, and separated only by about 40-50 ranks (the difference fluctuated as they won and lost matches).

Yet as much as I watched, I couldn't identify any particular distinction in their playing styles. As far as I could tell, the way they played was no different than the way I played. That's not really surprising, of course. Seeing the nuance in a skilled performance is an ability that itself takes a great deal of skill, and the fact that we are all using the exact same characters, with the exact same moves, doesn't help at all.

The difference didn't really become clear until one of my fellow oak-leaguers joined in the fray, and I could see the skill levels side-by-side. The oak player looked like they were in slow motion. The master player took them apart, and all I could do was sit back and shout, "HEY! Why aren't you swinging YOUR DAMNED SWORD?!" It was over very quickly, but, after seeing it, I thought I had this whole skill-level thing figured out. . .

When you're good at the game, you're able to do the moves at super-speed. While I may have thought that I was going fast, that perception was a memory of being in the thick of things, where of course it seemed fast to me, because I was reacting as quickly as I possibly could. Any spectator would have seen that I was, like the sacrificial oak-leaguer before me, moving like molasses.

It was a reasonable-sounding theory, but then a new player entered the arena, and this player was really good, ranked 25. Seeing them play was a real education, because they chose the slowest of the character classes, and somehow made it work. It was uncanny to watch. There were times when this player swung their blade, and I thought "there's no way that's going to hit," and yet, sure enough, by the time the attack animation completed, their enemy was in exactly the right position. Even weirder was the behavior of the undeniably excellent, rank 200-ish people they were playing against - suddenly, they moved like they were oak-leaguers. A combo would start and then BAM, it would be interrupted by a sword stroke. Somehow, this high ranking master was forcing their opponents to play at their pace.

It was so odd, that I myself had to jump in. I only played two matches, but they went down exactly like the ones I spectated. I'd think I was safely out of range, and then get tagged with the very tip of an attack, or I'd think I had an opening, and get hit before I could exploit it. It was like fighting a ghost. When I pointed that out, they very generously attributed it to lag (and it is true that my connection was terrible), but I knew the truth - there was simply a vast gulf of knowledge between us. If my ping had been lower, I'd have likely been baffled at a slightly higher speed.

I suppose, in order to be the best, you have to know the game to an astonishing degree - things like weapon ranges and attack animations not just for your character, but for any of your opponents, and you have to know them so well that they come to hand instantly, without having to pass through your conscious mind, so when you play a fast character, it will seem like blinding speed, and when you play a slow character, it will seem like precognition.

The path to gaining that knowledge seems long and difficult. First you've got to stop button mashing and learn to play mindfully, despite the fact that that will hurt your short-term performance. Then you've got pay attention to the visual cues of both your and your opponent's characters, despite being under attack. And finally, you've got to all of this for a long enough time that it becomes instinct, somehow resisting the urge to despair and give up during the long night when better players and passionate button mashers will easily take you apart.

I suspect that fighting games are not my genre. Blade Symphony was an interesting experience, and it was definitely good to get out of my comfort zone, but Rocky Balboa or Daniel Larusso I am not. I do not have the "eye of the tiger," nor am I "the best around." While I do have a certain degree of stubborn determination, it's more of the "able to endure hardship until things magically turn around" variety.

So, I think I'll have to end my fighting career at the bottom. Here's to the oak league, we may be the worst, but we wear it well!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Blade Symphony - 16/20 hours

It's hard to judge progress in a game like this. There aren't any levels or achievements. There are unlockable swords and outfits, but the costs relative to the rewards you get are so large that pursuing them systematically is kind of a waste of time. The only real metric is your multiplayer rank.

However, the problem with this is that, by that standard, I moving backwards. My rank is roughly 69,000th. It's possible that I'm getting worse as time goes on, or that everyone else who plays the game simultaneously got much better, but when I played against Faolind last night (by the way, I want to express my thanks for keeping me company in the middle of the night), I was able to win more than I lost, so I feel like I must be improving, not just absolutely, but relatively.

I suspect the issue is that I don't have generalized fighting-game skills. I don't know how to read an opponent or cancel moves or exploit invincibility frames. I'm able to beat the computer almost 100 percent of the time, but Faolind was the only opponent I've played long enough to take advantage of my usual video-game strategy - brute force repetition, whereby I throw myself up against a problem until I stumble upon the correct solution.

That probably does mean that I am uniquely ill-suited to climbing the ranking ladder. If I can only win against an oak-league player after a half-dozen attempts, I don't deserve to be in the iron-league.

It just really wounds my pride to admit that.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Blade Symphony - 12/20 hours

Whence comes the warrior spirit? The will and the focus to overcome another human being, to best them in the arena of honorable combat? The urge not just for excellence, but triumph?

Because wherever it comes from, I don't have it. I like to win. I'd even say that I hate to lose, but these feelings don't drive me to greater and greater heights of mastery, so much as they make me cranky and irritable. The games I like are co-op games, especially the ones where you build or trade to make something bigger than anyone can accomplish alone.

I don't hate Blade Symphony, though. I just feel like when I'm fighting these diamond- and master-ranked fighters, that I'm wasting their time by losing over and over again. I wish they could at least get points by defeating me. Then I could contribute something to the experience. As it is, I'm soliciting charity. "Please teach me, oh great masters. I have nothing to offer and will present no challenge, but I'm eager to learn."

As much as I'm willing to be bull-headed and try and overcome a challenge, the thought that there are people on the other side of the computer screen changes my calculations. The thing that really troubles me, though, is that I can't say for sure whether my worry is based on insecurity or empathy. I think that it must not be very fun to play against me, but I am well aware that I loom larger in my own story than I do in some random stranger's. Perhaps it is arrogance to imagine that my fights are even significant enough to cause others discomfort.

I've still got eight hours to go. Ever since I fell back to Oak league, my rank hasn't budged. I'm losing 9 games out of 10. I realize now that getting up to rank 20,000 was a fluke. The question is, what is the best use of my remaining time? Do I stick with competitive play, and hope to learn something, or do I just knock around in training mode, slapping some bots around?

What would an honorable warrior do?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Blade Symphony - 8/20 hours

My quest to be moderately good at this game is not going well. I am currently down to roughly 50,000th best, and I think I'll be stuck there for a long, long time. Finding matches against people in the lowest leagues is really difficult, and when I actually managed to fight an iron league opponent, I got my ass handed to me so quickly it knocked me down to the bottom of oak. I've been practicing, though. I've played a few matches against masters. I'm not sure how much I'm learning from losing so quickly to people who are in a whole other world of skill, but at least I'm getting the time in.

The difficulty of finding a good match and the relative emptiness of the official servers made me think that perhaps I'd missed this game's golden age - the period when it had an active community that could support and fill all these dozens of servers from all over the world, and in which there was a diverse range of player skill levels, and thus rising and dropping in rank was relatively easy (you can only change rank when you fight an opponent in your same league - oak, iron, steel, diamond, and master).

However, looking at the store page, it appears Blade Symphony came out in May, 2014. So, I have to wonder, was the game not that popular, did it flare up and burn out quickly, or is this simply a problem with my perception of time? Seven months is an eyeblink. I've been doing this blog for almost that long, and it feel like I just started. And yet, I may well be witnessing the winter of Blade Symphony's existence. Sure, the game is super-short, and doesn't have much to offer anyone who is not interested in hard-core competitive play, but it's still so very young. It feels much to soon for it to be on the decline.

Or maybe I'm just bitter about my complete failure to get much traction on the competitive circuit, and the multiplayer is more than active enough for people who are serious about being part of the community.

That's just a little bit more likely.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Blade Symphony - 5/20 hours

The road to mastery is a rocky one, full of pitfalls for the unwary. So far, in my quest to become "good enough" at Blade Symphony, I'm finding my biggest obstacles to be technical. Setting up a private game between me and Faolind proved to be an exercise in futility. I've since learned that I'm missing a piece of software, but none of the in-game documentation even hinted at that necessity (the fact that I am a total ingenue when it comes to online gaming probably doesn't help).

Random matches have also been something of an uphill struggle. Most of the people I've fought have been way, way out of my league. I am currently ranked ~20,000, thanks to my wins against Faolind, but of the six or so people I've fought, four have been ranked at 2000 or less. That somewhat limits my learning opportunities.

Not to say that people have been unhelpful. Pretty much everyone has been polite and supportive. Even the guy who kept calling me "bitch" seemed to be doing so in a friendly-ish way.

My biggest obstacle, I think, is temporal. I've been finding it relatively difficult to find active servers with a reasonably low ping. It was only when I was composing this post that I realized why - I can't really play online games at work (the connection at the hotel is far too slow), so I've been waiting until after I get home and eat dinner to start Blade Symphony. This puts my optimal playing time at roughly 9am to noon, US Mountain time. Since ping is related to the physical distance between me and the server, the reason all the active servers seemed to be so slow was due to the fact that they are playing in a time zone where it is more reasonable to be sitting around playing games - ie, very far away.

I'm certain that if I played in the evenings instead of the mornings, I'd find a greater diversity of players and more opportunities for matches at a reasonable connection rate. It would, however, mean upending my schedule and waking up at least an hour earlier.

Is it worth it, merely to be the (optimistically 10,000th) best?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Blade Symphony - 2/20 hours

There are two things I know about this game so far - firstly, the AI bots are not going to be sufficient to keep me challenged for 20 hours, and secondly, online multiplayer is going to eat me alive.

Blade Symphony is a sword-fighting game where you have a variety of swords, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, wielded by one of four characters, who each have their own moveset that depends on one of three stances. I'm not super familiar with the genre, but it feels pretty deep to me.

And therein lies the rub. I'm easily able to overcome the AI, because it is incapable of recognizing patterns, and thus I'm able to spam the same move over and over again. That's not going to work on a human. Learning the nuances of the characters, the weapons, and the moves will be essential. I must learn to play the game mindfully, and not simply mash buttons and hope for victory.

It's going to be a long, painful road, made all the worse by the fact that I never really learned to lose gracefully. I mean, I don't think I'm a jerk about it or anything, but I always feel a little sad after a defeat, and I've been known to let that sadness build up inside me, poisoning my mood and shaking my confidence.

This is an undeniable character flaw. It would be absurd for me to be notably good at a competitive game after playing what amounts to a tutorial (seriously, single player mode is basically non-existent), and thus, there is no stigma or shame attached to me losing even quite a lot of matches. Yet knowing that will probably not help me. Takedown: Red Sabre managed to get under my skin, and I had absolutely nothing invested in it.

Maybe it'll be good for me. I know, on an intellectual level, that losing is both inevitable and healthy. Perhaps if I get some practice in, I'll even be able to do it cheerfully, and with gratitude for the opportunity to learn from my mistakes.

(I probably should have waited a month to play this game, so I could fail to achieve a New Year's resolution).

Blade Symphony - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Prove you are the world's greatest swordsman in Blade Symphony: a slash-em-up featuring a highly detailed and in-depth sword fighting system. Face down other players in tactical swordplay, 2 versus 2 team duels, sandbox FFA, or the Control Points game mode!

Previous Play Time

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

I have to thank Faolind for this one. I understand this game was not given with the express purpose of torturing me, for which I'm extremely grateful.

I don't really know what to expect from the game itself. It's got a cool title. It's obviously an action game (which is a nice change of pace, after all those rpgs). I like blades. I like symphonies. So I've got every reason to be optimistic.

The tricky thing about action games, particularly fighters, is that they tend to have a bit of a learning curve. My biggest worry, going in, is that Blade Symphony is going to be one of those games that is really rewarding for experts and absolutely punishing for newbs. That could make the opening hours feel particularly frustrating.

On the other hand, thanks to the blog, I have an in-built excuse for bull-headed persistence, so even if it is super hardcore, I should be able to push past that and get to the real meat of the game. I'm sure, by the 20 hour mark, any initial awkwardness will be long forgotten.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons Online - 20/20 hours

It's kind of amazing that this game is free. There was obviously quite a lot of work put into it. It has large, complex environments, a diverse range of monsters, hundreds of NPCs, each with at least one line of unique dialogue, and a wide variety of character options, covering much of the D&D canon.

The fact that the free stuff is part of a calculated business plan, designed to lure me in with a generous cornucopia of free content in order to upsell me on the game's paid content, does not at all detract from the impressiveness of Dungeons and Dragons Online's free version. Truly, we live in an age of wonders. If free DDO sometimes falls short, what were your options for free games in 1995? Jack and shit. Against that standard, this game goes so far above and beyond that it's actually quite dizzying to think about.

That said, for me at least, the Dungeons and Dragons Online formula doesn't really work. Wandering around the town, accepting quests, only to find myself shut out because the particular quest was premium only felt more frustrating than intriguing. And while I contemplated dropping a couple of bucks on unlocking a new class, the prices were so out of line with my expectations that they wound up ticking me off (I found the game experience with the different classes so uneven that there was no way I was going to spend 13$ to unlock a new one that I had no guarantee of even enjoying - I could easily buy a full game at that price).

It's funny, because I feel like I should enjoy free to play games. They open up gaming opportunities for people who don't have a lot of money. As someone who was formerly quite broke, I should appreciate what this means for the economically disadvantaged gamers of today. They allow people to pay what they feel the game is worth. An eminently fair and sensible arrangement. There is little upfront risk. I know all to well how much it sucks to spend money on a game only to discover, too late, that it sucks.

I can appreciate all of that, and on an ideological level, I approve of the existence of Dungeons and Dragons Online. Yet, there is some grumpy, perverse part of me that prefers to just spend 60$ on a game upfront and getting the whole experience, even if that means paying for a huge amount of content I'll never see (hello, Skyrim). The whole time I was playing DDO, I couldn't help thinking of Kingdoms of Amalur.

The two games are not very much alike on a fundamental level, but they share some structural similarities, being quest and loot driven fantasy games with an incomprehensible story, colorful aesthetic and open, yet linear maps (also, Kingdoms of Amalur is very clearly "inspired" by Dungeons and Dragons). And it seems strange to me that the game you have to pay for is the one that wastes no time hooking on its core gameplay, makes sure you always have something interesting to do, and communicates clearly that high-level gear is something worth coveting.

And maybe my confusion might seem obtuse, because of course the game that you pay for is going to give you more stuff than the game that you get for free, except that Kingdoms of Amalur is currently selling for 20$ on Steam and frequently goes on sale at deep discounts, meaning that with a little patience, you could get a whole world's worth of addictive MMO-ish adventure for the price of one optional class in a "free" game. From a consumer standpoint, the relative value of these things is so out of whack that I find myself not really understanding DDO's business model.

It just seems to me that if you're going to make money by selling optional classes and bonus levels, it would be better if the core game was more exciting. After all, a fast paced game isn't any more difficult to program than a slow-paced one, and if the free players are having a ton of fun, they should be more likely to drop cash in order to experience more novel and refined ways of keeping that fun going. The free game is, in effect, a demo for the part you pay for.

On the other hand, Dungeons and Dragons Online appears to be going strong (though nothing I saw in my 20 hours looked like it could justify buying the 200$ bundle of in-game currency) and Kingdoms of Amalur was, apparently, a financial failure, so it just goes to show what I know about the video game business.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons Online - 12/20 hours

I find myself waiting for this game to crystallize, to experience a sudden "aha" moment, whereupon all the ridiculous things it asks me to do will suddenly become meaningful and significant. I think the problem may be that the physical layout of the quest givers. You can tell where they are by yellow chalice icons on the minimap, but until you talk to them, you don't know whether they are important story quests, what level they are, or where you might need to go to finish them. You also don't know what sort of reward the quest gives until after you beat it. All in all, it's a pretty pointless system that results in me spending a significant portion of my time wandering around randomly.

I suspect that another major issue I'm having is that I'm just not playing the game "correctly." I should probably be pounding the virtual pavement, grouping up with other players, talking over voice-chat to coordinate strategy, and just generally treating this as a social experience and a chance to make new friends. It seems obvious that a good social experience can elevate even a mediocre game/

So, why don't I do that? I feel like that question treads on some sticky emotional territory. I'm going to say that it's due to a combination of my awkward schedule and natural comfort with solitude, and not any kind of crippling social anxiety.

With eight hours left to go, I think it would be easiest to just tough it out. I have a feeling that the "main story" was not meant to be particularly compelling in and of itself, and that the sidequests are mostly just an excuse to wander around and bash monsters. That's something I'm comfortable with, if not exactly thrilled by (astonishingly, Dungeons and Dragons Online is a game that makes me nostalgic for Kingdoms of Amular).

It may not be the best way to experience the game, but at least I won't embarrass myself by being a liability to a group.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons Online - 8/20 hours

Let me start off with a funny (and somewhat shameful) confession - I was a little afraid of this game, starting out. I'd heard that MMOs are notoriously addictive, designed with cunning application of modern psychological theory to trap players in a compulsive cycle of chasing rewards that are just good enough to encourage further playing, but never good enough to be satisfying. I was worried that I'd be ensnared in this trap, and Dungeons and Dragons Online would become an unshakeable obsession.

However, if I'm being honest, I was also kind of hoping that would happen. You may (and probably should) view this as a species of misguided romanticism, but there is something about it that strikes me as connecting to the deep root of the human condition - to become addicted to an MMO is to fall into a carefully calculated section of the bell curve. It is common, and therefore, perversely, noble. And whatever negative impact it may or may not have had on my personal life, at least it would have been something primal and real, a reprieve from the bloodless detachment that is my more regular habit.

Of course, now that I see that written out, it is obviously ridiculous. I could easily fire up Recettear if I really wanted to react emotionally to a game or Civilization 5 if I wanted to get lost in one. And the temptation of having a sexy addiction spice up my autobiography (it should surprise no one that I missed out on sex, drugs, and rock and roll) is so transparently juvenile a fantasy as to be instantly dismissed.

It helps that Dungeons and Dragons Online is not an especially good game. I'm playing a Paladin, because it was the class marked as most viable solo, and the occasional smite notwithstanding, it mostly consists of walking up to enemies, holding down the mouse button, and then waiting for them to die. I expect that I could improve my performance slightly by using my various stances and feats, but I'm not sure that the actual experience of doing so would be any more engaging.

Still, it's not terrible, either. I'm not miserable, or even especially bored, while playing. It's more like I'm playing on a kind of mental autopilot. There are buttons I have to press, and decisions I have to make, but so far none of the button presses have tested my reflexes and none of the decisions have been particularly difficult. It's pleasant. I doubt very much that any individual moment of the game will stick with me in years to come, and I don't even want to begin exploring the minutiae of the crafting system, but those aren't great faults.

At least when it comes to soloing a Paladin up to level 3, Dungeons and Dragons Online is like the saltine crackers of video games - virtually flavorless, but so inoffensive in its blandness that it easy to forget exactly how much you've consumed.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons Online - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Enter a world of danger and adventure with Dungeons & Dragons Online®, the free, award-winning, massively-multiplayer online game based on the beloved RPG that started it all.

Key Features:

     Experience the Best Action Combat of Any Free MMORPG: Take control in combat and make every move count. Leap past deadly blade traps or dodge poison arrows. Whether fighter, sorcerer, or rogue, every move is your move as you block, tumble, cleave, and more on your way to glory and power.

    Play for Free: Experience the action, danger, and intrigue of Dungeons & Dragons Online for free! Play as much as you want all the way to level 20.

    Exciting Adventures with Iconic D&D Monsters: Come face-to-face with a dragon, defend your sanity from a Mindflayer, or get roasted by a Beholder as you delve into the deepest and most treacherous dungeons ever imagined. Test your skill against a monstrous number of iconic Dungeons & Dragons foes in your pursuit of power and glory.

    Adventure alone or with friends from all over the world: Set out on an adventure of your own, create a group with friends or join a guild to meet new people.

    Create a Unique Hero: Craft the characters you’ve always wanted to play with deep character advancement that offers nearly infinite possibilities. With 8 races, 13 classes and nearly limitless traits and character abilities, it’s possible that no two characters may ever be the same!

    A Rich & Beautiful World: Explore the sun-drenched, magic-powered city of Stormreach, the gathering place for countless DDO players from around the world any time of day or night. See the iconic locations of Dungeons & Dragons brought to life like never before! The world of DDO is yours for the taking.

    Enhance Your Experience: Shop in the in-game store for extra quests, powerful gear, experience boosts, buffs, and more. You choose how little or how much you spend.

Previous Play Time

24 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Obviously, as a free game, there was no real risk for me, but that wasn't the only reason I downloaded it. Most of my friends play this game and I thought maybe I should occasionally poke my head out of my hole and engage with other people socially instead of hiding away all the time. As you can see, that resolution lasted less than a half hour.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I dabbled with the character creator a little bit, but didn't actually finish. I'm not really sure why I quit, exactly, but I do have some diffidence towards the genre. I've heard that MMOs can be repetitive and slow-paced, and that free-to-play games, specifically, are mechanically optimized to "encourage" people to pay money. On the other hand, a large, persistent world is fairly intriguing, and, of course, I love fantasy roleplaying games, so I feel like I could potentially enjoy it quite a bit. Worst case scenario, it's mildly boring, and that doesn't worry me at all.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition - 20/20 hours

Mood is a funny thing. Earlier today, I was in a bad mood because I'd accidentally deleted my 14 hour post. So the tenor of this post was originally set around my disappointment at its loss, and my exaggerated (but not insincere) grief at the thought of the world living without my half-assed predictions about the appearance of thought eaters, crabmen, and wolfweres (though amazingly, this last one proved to be true! wtf Baldur's Gate II?). However, in the process of searching to see if, in fact, crabmen did make an appearance (they don't, demonstrating that there is at least some sanity in the world), I found a cached copy of my lost post, and thus was able to restore it. Instead of being super bummed out, I was now perky and optimistic.

This change of mood revealed something to me. Or more accurately, rewriting this 20 hour post to account for my changed mood revealed something to me. And that is that my perception of the game is strongly influenced by my mood. I was all set to write a gloomy post about how much I hate level draining (seriously, the worst mechanic ever) and the fact that these damned shadow thieves keep giving me busy work, despite the fact that I paid them 15k to help get Imoen out of prison (and not, as they seem to think, to become their best buddy).

Now, however, that seems kind of petty. In fact, I'd say that over the course of my last few posts, I have probably been unnecessarily harsh on Baldur's Gate II. Because I'm in a good mood, I'm more inclined to see the upsides of the game than the downsides. It really is an incredible implementation of the AD&D ruleset. It gives you a near-limitless scope for perfectionist tinkering. The strategy behind choosing and casting your spells, finding the perfect party composition, setting your marching order, and optimizing your equipment has a phenomenal depth to it, and those moments when you have perfect execution are incredibly satisfying. Plus, there is so much of this world to explore, with plenty of NPCs to meet, party conversations that are at turns amusing and effecting, and a diverse menagerie of monsters to beat the shit out of. There is literally nothing I could reasonably want out of a D&D video game that has been left out (except, of course, crabmen).

Yet, if I'm being perfectly honest, I haven't been greatly enjoying myself over the past ten days. I think it comes down to mood. I've been pretty worried and stressed out about non-game related stuff, and that has leaked into my gaming life. Playing Baldur's Gate II has felt more like a chore than a joy (which is why it has taken me 10 days to play 20 hours - significantly longer than it took me to finish the much inferior Bad Rats), but despite having some aspects that could fairly be described as "chore-like," I don't actually think it's the game's fault. I'd often thought of gaming as a way to temporarily escape life's troubles, but it turns out you can never really escape from yourself.

I'm not sure what I want to do now. There is so much of Baldur's Gate II left to explore, and I know in my heart that if I could just capture the proper sense of dedicated immersion, I would want to burrow my way into the game and never leave, but when I actually think about the physical act of playing it, I start to feel anxious and overwhelmed. I think I've subconsciously formed a mental link between this game and the avalanche of bills that all came due since my last paycheck. So the frustration I feel towards Aran Linvail for taking my damned money and not giving me what he promised may be mostly a reaction to obnoxious rpg plot-padding, but is also probably more than a little mixed up with how I'm feeling towards the student loan people right now.

As a result, I think I'm going to have to say goodbye to Baldur's Gate II, at least for a little while. It is undeniably a classic, and I'm definitely going to want to explore it thoroughly, but now is not a good time for me. I guess that means I've lost the bet I made with myself, and will thus play Dungeons and Dragons Online instead of Planescape: Torment, but you know what, I'm cool with that. I'm pretty sure that as an MMO, Dungeons and Dragons Online has plenty of content to cater to clueless newbies, and a game that I'm not immensely invested in "solving" or "experiencing to the fullest" (because, unlike other games on my list, I downloaded this one for free) may be just the palate cleanser I need to get back into the groove of things.

Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition - 14/20 hours

I have to hand it to Baldur's Gate II - they are not fucking around when it comes to AD&D lore. At one point, while I was crawling around in the sewers underneath the city slums, I popped up an unmarked staircase and faced a group of myconids. Yes, myconids. It's at this point that I wish there were some kind of dry and understated sarcasm font so I could get across exactly how nonplussed I was when I stumbled across this encounter.

Myconids are also known as "fungus men." They are humanoid mushrooms who live in a hierarchical, caste based society ruled by myconid kings, who are larger, blue in color, and can incapacitate enemies with psychoactive spores.

The game doesn't explain this. The myconids are just there. There's no attempt to integrate them into the larger story or explore the world-building implications of their existence. They're just weird creatures that you have to fight.

That's not a complaint, by the way. It's entirely true to the spirit of old-school D&D, and it makes curious, if not eager, to find out exactly how far out there the game will get - Owlbears, wolfweres, crabmen, winged snakes? I'm kind of hoping I get to see a Thought Eater (which sounds like a super serious and horrifying monster, but looks like this:

Yes, that's a platypus skeleton, and yes, it's a real monster)

But Baldur's Gate II's commitment to being true to AD&D has a downside as well. I was clearing out a a sinister slaver compound and found to my dismay that the slavers had some trolls (because when you are in the business of buying and selling human beings of course you want to keep flesh eating monsters in the same building as your primary product and their primary food source - there's nothing at all that can go wrong with that scenario) and I discovered that I could not kill them. The reason for this is that the Baldur's Gate trolls play by the same rules as trolls in the roleplaying game - they quickly  regenerate any damage not caused by fire or acid, and the only way to kill them is to reduce them to 0 hit points and then hit them with an attack of the appropriate type. 

Unfortunately, when I encountered these trolls, I had no fire or acid spells memorized (going into the intricacies of AD&D's bizarre magic system could be a whole series of long posts in and of itself), and, unlike the tabletop game, I couldn't just handwave it away by claiming I used my flint and tinder to light a torch. I had to go away, sleep to rememorize my spells, and then come back and fight the trolls again. And what if I hadn't known their weakness? It's not as if the game took pains to spell it out (although, to be fair to Baldur's Gate, I am extraordinarily sloppy when it comes to keeping up with in-game lore, so I may have just missed it).

All-in-all, I'm enjoying this more than the original Baldur's Gate, because the higher level gameplay is a bit more forgiving (I have a cleric who can cast Raise Dead, which gives my party a ton more stamina), but those little D&D-isms still kind of bug me. There's a reason I stopped playing AD&D second edition and moved onto other roleplaying games.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition - 9/20 hours

In the course of writing this blog, I've noticed something about myself - I like Big Games. It's a preference that transcends genres. If I'm playing an rpg, it had better have multiple character builds, dialogue trees, and an open-ended story. If it's a strategy game, it should be be a massive time sink, with plenty of fiddly bits for me to tweak. If it's an action game, unlockable powers, hidden (but not too hidden) stages, and an epic storyline are a must.

Yet, if I'm being honest, I can't help but feel a certain ambivalence about these games. It's like their bigness is a prerequisite to catching my attention, but once I start actually playing them, I begin to feel a bit overwhelmed. This isn't an absolute thing - I have over 300 hours in Civilization 5, and I've more or less systematically completed both Oblivion and Fallout: New Vegas - but it's nonetheless part of my awareness. I start to worry. "Am I playing this thing right?" "Did I miss something important?" "Maybe it would be easier/more interesting/more fun if I started over and made different choices."

Maybe it's because I'm aware of the commitment I'm making in starting a Big Game. I know I'm going to be with it for awhile, and I fear that if I do things wrong, I'll be stuck doing something I don't enjoy (or, at least, could potentially be enjoying more). Or maybe it's a kind of misguided guilt, like if I don't take the right path, I won't be experiencing the game "as intended" and wind up coming away with an unfair judgement of the game (with a simple I game, I don't have that fear, possibly because I'm overconfident about my ability to understand such games in their entirety). More likely, it's simply a case of choice paralysis - I get myself so worked up with hypotheticals that I lose sight of the now.

Which is to say, I haven't accomplished much in the past four hours. I beat the Shade Lord, solved the small town's whole "mysterious death" problem, and recruited a couple of new party members - Valygar, the ranger (the Cowled wizards wanted me to kill him, but fuck those guys, they didn't even give Imoen a hearing), and Mazzy, the halfling fighter (a clear example of the game creator's just outright fucking with fans of the pen and paper game, seriously a halfing fighter). That sidequest only took me up to 10,000 gp, so now I'm wandering around looking for work, and my big worry is that there are just so many random npcs that I might get tired of searching the maps right before I stumble onto someone with some real money.

Baldur's Gate II is definitely a Big Game. Even if I get to the main story, I won't see the whole thing. The question before me now is, what's the best path, going forward? Fighting the Shade Lord and his instant death attacks was a pain in the ass. Going into Valygar's planar sphere and finding a clay golem (immune to most spells and edged weapons, because AD&D2 was not at all shy about saying "nope, we're shutting you down") was even worse. And thus I can't help entertaining speculation that if I'd played things just a bit differently, maybe I'd be having an easier time.

But that, I suspect, is a fool's game. What I should be doing is accepting that while the game might be big, I am, in fact, just one person - a mind tethered to a particular place and time - and that I should not attempt to play the whole game at once. I should focus on what's in front of me, and take joy in exploring. I don't have to find an "optimal path," because really, as long as I'm still playing, the game is doing its job.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition - 4/20 hours

On my way out of the first dungeon, I encountered a clone laboratory. The main villain, Irenicus, was attempting to bring a particular woman back to life. It was a sequence that highlighted the main weakness of crpgs. If I were playing this scenario in a tabletop game, I would have tried to ally with her. She had as much reason as I did to hate Irenicus, and she seemed to have an adventurer's skill set. If, as in the game, the clone was unable to listen to reason, I'd have used hold person or something to incapacitate her until I could bring her to a cleric for healing. In any event, the last thing I would have done is what the game forced me to do - kill her. It's always frustrating to brush up against a game's illusion of freedom, especially when it otherwise presents you with a great many choices.

Sadly, it was an unavoidable tragedy. Just like when we emerged from the dungeon and got into the middle of a magical battle. Irenicus was slaughtering some town guards for some unfathomable reason (I suspect he was trying to recapture us and the guards interfered, but then, why did he build his base under the town?) Imoen cast a spell to defend herself, and then the magic police showed up and arrested them both. Or, at least, they tried to arrest them, Irenicus killed a few of them, and more showed up. He finally submitted to capture on the condition that Imoen be taken as well.

Which, you know, is total bullshit. Given the circumstances of our encounter, it should be obvious that Irenicus is a ruthless murderer and general threat to the city, so why the hell would the magic police accommodate him like that? And what the hell do they have against Imoen? And why is there no way that we can get her released or at least tried in a court? Who are these assholes? Fantasy justice systems are always the worst.

On my way to the government building, I met Gaelyn Bayle, a highly suspicious character who claims to represent some sort of vague and mysterious organization. He told me his group would help me spring Imoen for twenty thousand gold.

My next move from here is to track down various odd jobs to earn the money to get Imoen out of jail. Currently, I am going after some kind of evil warlock or spirit called "the Shade Lord" in order to stop some killings in a random Podunk town. This involves winding my way through some very dim maps, and making a probably ill-advised alliance with a werewolf (as a D&D player, I should know that werewolves are always evil, but I've gotten used to thinking of them as the wild, yet noble creatures of more modern fiction).

My biggest worry at this point is that this is a much longer sidequest than I originally signed on for, and I'm not at all sure I'm tough enough to finish it (the enemies I'm fighting are immune to nonmagical weapons). I wish there was some way I could know what the intended level of the quest.  I guess that is just part of playing an old-school rpg. Perhaps freedom necessarily includes the freedom to not know what the hell you're doing.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition - 2/20 hours

I kind of hate the opening to this game. Don't get me wrong, it does a lot of things right, but I'm having a bit of a hard time enjoying the pretty new level design or the robust, mid-level starting characters, because everything I've seen so far has been so fucking grim.

Okay, so maybe the cast of Baldur's Gate didn't leave a huge impression on me. There wasn't a whole lot of intra-party chatter, and I never learned about their backstories or personal interests. Nevertheless, I was generally well disposed towards them. We went through some hard times together, fought monsters, looted treasure, the whole rpg deal. They were my crew.

And in the first two hours of Baldur's Gate II, I find that half of them died, and the other half faced a fate worse than death. It doesn't help that my final party in the first game was Dynaheir, Minsc, Khalid, Jaheira, and Rasaad, so the starting party in BG2 is almost exactly the same, except Minsc and Jaheira have been tortured and had their lovers murdered.

And I don't even want to talk about what happened to Imoen. The game is being really vague about her experiences, and I can't help but think that's meant to imply she was raped by the villain. Then again, she also talks about being "cut," so perhaps she was "merely" tortured.

Blech, it's such an ugly way to begin a sequel. What were they thinking? "Hey, the fans of the first game are eager to catch up with the colorful cast of heroes, so we have to come up with something interesting to do in the time between the games . . . I know, how about we ruthlessly brutalize them, so that they have a real motive to fight this evil guy. Yes, it's perfect!"

I'm still in the process of escaping from the opening dungeon. When I last quit, Jaheira had just discovered Khalid's body, and I got the joy of consoling her in her grief, and hearing Imoen reassure her that he was mutilated after he was killed, because she was present when it happened and forced to watch when the villain kept her eyes open with probes.

I mean, I get Baldur's Gate II, you're edgy. Now will you back the fuck off a little so I can actually enjoy a damned fantasy rpg without wanting to bury my head in a pillow and cry myself to sleep?