Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - 2/20 hours

I haven't even really played the game yet. I've just spent the last two hours dicking around with alternate start mods, and looking at Skyrim Redone's altered racial traits.

I may be in trouble here.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

The next chapter in the highly anticipated Elder Scrolls saga arrives from the makers of the 2006 and 2008 Games of the Year, Bethesda Game Studios. Skyrim reimagines and revolutionizes the open-world fantasy epic, bringing to life a complete virtual world open for you to explore any way you choose. 

Play any type of character you can imagine, and do whatever you want; the legendary freedom of choice, storytelling, and adventure of The Elder Scrolls is realized like never before. 

Skyrim’s new game engine brings to life a complete virtual world with rolling clouds, rugged mountains, bustling cities, lush fields, and ancient dungeons. 

Choose from hundreds of weapons, spells, and abilities. The new character system allows you to play any way you want and define yourself through your actions. 

Battle ancient dragons like you’ve never seen. As Dragonborn, learn their secrets and harness their power for yourself.

Previous Play Time

8 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

 Skyrim is one of my favorite console games, and I'd heard nothing but good things about the PC version. In particular, people seemed to sing the praises of its mods. However, for a long time I dithered about getting it, because I didn't feel like buying the game, and its DLC, a second time. Then, one day, I saw The Elder Scrolls Anthology for 30% off, and it was a no-brainer.

Prior Experience  

I played the hell out of Skyrim on the xbox (though, strangely enough, not as much as I played Oblivion, probably because I owned a lot more video games when Skyrim came out), but I haven't really done much with the PC version. I experimented with a few mods, and started playing it as part of this thread, but during that thread, I got frustrated by Skyrim Redone's unforgiving difficulty curve, so I took a break, and then during the break, I got distracted by another project, and I haven't touched it since.


I don't know if I have an expectation as much as a goal - I want to finish that previous, abandoned thread, (my plan is to use that for the recap, and then post miscellaneous thoughts to the blog), and in the process of doing so, I want to explore as much of the game as possible. That means that, barring any unexpected wave of ennui on my part, I want to go a lot past 20 hours with this one. I think I'll be able to do it this time, because I learned a thing or two from Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul - namely that I should not struggle against the slower pace of the modded game, and learn to accept that I can't just go wherever my fancy takes me. (That is the main advantage of level-scaling, as much of a pain in the butt that it can be - wherever you go, you have something to do).

Hopefully, this new, enlightened attitude of mine is more than superficial, because I'll be using the same mods as last time:

Skyrim Redone
Basic Needs
When Vampires Attack

plus a couple of new ones

Run For Your Life
Dragon Combat Overhaul
Deadly Dragons
Spend Dragon Souls on Perks

also, I have not yet decided whether I want to start with a new character or not, but if I do, I have the option of using

Skyrim Unbound

I expect this to be an intense experience, but I'm hoping it will be a rewarding one.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - 20/20 hours

Before I say anything else, let me get this out of the way - what the hell is up with putting worthless replicas of high-end equipment in a display case with a very hard lock? Really, Oblivion, if you don't want me to have that stuff, just don't give me that stuff. If you think it's unbalanced, you could easily have put something less game-breaking inside that case. But getting my hopes up with a glimpse of awesome treasure, making me overcome a significant challenge, and then snatching it away like that? Total dick move.

Which is my roundabout way of saying that I really enjoyed the more stringent advancement requirements of the modified Thieves' Guild, but I wish I had a more diverse selection of stuff to steal. It's a little embarrassing to be the legendary thief responsible for Cyrodiil's unprecedented rash of flatware robberies.

The slower pace of the game also means that I have very little to show for my time playing. After 16 hours with this character, I have reached level 6 (and even that is misleading, because 3 of those levels I gained by casting the "Light" spell 250 times in a row, in the hopes that by grinding my Illusion skill enough to be able to cast "Chameleon", I would actually be able to practice my thievery in places that were not already abandoned). I was also, at the last minute, able to enter the Arcane University. It's a little annoying that it took so long to reach the meat of the Mage Guild storyline, but to be fair, the recommendation quest chain is also a bit of a slog in the base game.

I kind of regret parting ways with Oblivion so soon. It's probably the most divisive of the Elder Scrolls games, and one that many believe has not aged too well, but I enjoy it. I like how colorful and bright it is. The wilderness is beautifully lush, and the architecture of the various towns is, while more familiar than the fantastic cityscapes of Morrowind, nonetheless wonderfully designed and all-around attractive. My only real complaint (aside from the obvious one about level-scaling) is that the game is kind of stingy with mp, which makes higher-level wizards tough to play. And once I got into it, I really enjoyed the mods, though the basic needs mod was marred a little by the fact that food and alchemical ingredients are not distinguished by the base system, so scrolling through the menu for something to eat was kind of a pain.

Yet, I have to move on, because even after 20 hours, I have barely scratched the surface of the game. I haven't touched the main quest, I'm still only an apprentice wizard, and even the Thieves' Guild quests are only half done. And there are still at least 3 more major side-quest chains (Fighters' Guild, Dark Brotherhood, and Arena), two whole DLC expansions, and an uncounted number of minor side-quests. It's all a bit intimidating, but it wouldn't ordinarily dissuade me. It's just that, were I to do all that, I would then have to jump into a substantially similar, yet (in my opinion) superior game, and do it all again, and since I don't feel like I have a whole lot of unfinished business with Oblivion, I'd prefer to just jump right into Skyrim.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Silly Mod Outfits - Oblivion Edition

While exploring Midas' shop, I found these easily-stealable outfits in an upstairs chest:

An angel

Some kind of dragon

A leaf bikini (dryad?)

And whatever this thing is

 The wings are animated, making these characters very active and dynamic, but I wonder about potential glitches and graphical hang-ups, so I don't think I'll be using them. Nonetheless, I admire the ambition, and am kind of in awe at the creativity and effort that modders put into the game.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - 12/20 hours

Wow, time sure flies. I barely noticed the last four hours pass, so enthralled was I by the world of Cyrodil.

So, what was I doing that was so diverting? Walking, mostly. I also finished three quests, and raised to level 2. If that seems like a slow pace, well, I can't disagree, but I think it's intentional. I'm pretty sure Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul does more than just make the game more difficult, I think it also puts the breaks on a lot of your normal Oblivion activities.

For example, in the normal game, in order to advance in the Thieves' Guild, you have to do a certain amount of "independent thievery." You can't get the first quest until you fence 50 gp worth of stuff and you can't get the second until you sell 100 gp of stolen goods. In the modded game, those values are increased to 100 and 500 gp, respectively.

It's a subtle change, one I would not have noticed if I hadn't been looking for it, but it alters the character of the challenge considerably. I have not yet noticed any differences in the Mage Guild quests, but that may be because, with the initial fast-travel points disabled, this already onerous quest line (you have to do a favor for the Guild in each of Cyrodil's major cities) didn't need additional padding.

In other mod news, I also unlocked the first of my Midas spells. To do so, I had to track down five bottles of Skooma, buy a gold nugget from Midas, and put them all into some kind of magical doohickey. That created an edible ingredient that taught me a spell (Midas' Greater Magic Missile) when I ate it.

The spell was kind of neat - a hefty destruction attack with a unique animation - but that's not why I chose it. Each of the spells in the mod has its own formula (requiring various gems, alchemical ingredients, and sigil stones, as well as the occasional odd ingredient like calipers), and the Magic Missile series was the easiest to get.

As an idea for an alternate magic system, it's kind of neat. You travel the land, unlocking occult secrets by gathering rare materials to fuel your magic, which rewards exploration and is nicely mysterious besides. However, from a utility standpoint, it has to compete with the standard magic system, and even though the Midas spells are pretty powerful, that power doesn't mean much when you can just buy or create a less powerful spell. I'd highly recommend it for when you feel like making Oblivion a lifestyle, but for a casual game, you'd probably stop playing before you even scratched the surface of the mod.

On the balance, I feel like the mods are creating a fuller and richer world, one which is meant to be chewed and digested at a more leisurely pace, and generally, I approve, but it's kind of an inconvenient time for me to discover this aspect of the game. I wouldn't necessarily put too much stock in my deadline, but I'm playing Skyrim after this, so I am planning on stopping at 20 hours, and as a result, the mods won't really have time to breathe.

It's a bit of a shame, but hey, I modded Skyrim too.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - 8/20 hours

There's a trick, I think, to getting the most out of a hardcore simulation game. I think you have to lose yourself in your character, to stop thinking of things like eating food or finding water or pitching and breaking camp as game mechanics and to start thinking of them as the rhythms of everyday life. If you can't make this mental shift, you run the risk of finding the game tedious and frustrating.

I think I'm finally getting to that state of mind with Oblivion, but it took me awhile, probably because I'm not completely sold on Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul. On the one hand, it does what it promised - it changes the game into something requiring greater caution and planning, where you can't just strut into a random dungeon, but rather have to approach it with respect - as if it were some dangerous treasure-filled, monster-guarded cavern.

On the other hand, it's four hours in, and I'm still only level 1 (however, I am certain that the leveling system is working, because unlike the save file I had to abandon, the level-up progress bar is showing movement). Maybe I'm just being needlessly perverse, but while I'm all for realism, I also like to see progress. Gaining levels is my favorite part of any rpg, so it always bugs me when a game is stingy with them.

Part of the issue I'm having is the way that the modified game encourages you to avoid confrontation and danger, and thus the activities that would get you the experience necessary to level. (Put it this way, at one point, I was killed by an imp. which is a genuinely new experience for me).

It makes me think about level-scaling in general. It seems like a knife-edge to walk. Oblivion's default level-scaling is rightly criticized for the way it can punish a player for leveling up. Yet a fixed, non-scaling world, like Oscuro's has its own share of problems. An open-world rpg is inherently non-linear. There's no guarantee that any given location will be visited by a character of the appropriate level, so large swaths of the game may be too easy or (as has been my experience thus far) too difficult. It's a non-trivial challenge, so I won't say anything negative about either approach, except this - I really don't enjoy the "zero" portion of a "zero-to-hero" story, and I hope things change soon. (Yet, even so, I would take the steeper difficulty curve of Oscuro's Oblivion over the whiff-a-thon that is Morrowind's early game. I may be dying constantly, but at least I'm dying while getting in a few hits of my own).

The compromise I've come up with is to avoid danger, but attempt to level-up by doing various non-combat missions, such as the thieves guild quest-line. It's working out fairly well, so far, but I'm afraid the far-flung nature of the quests may pose something of a problem. It is a peculiarity of my own personal preferences, but unlike other "hardcore" aficionados, I have no issue with fast-travel in the Elder Scrolls games. Yet, it seems like every other mod does something to undermine it. My map marker mod suggests putting a limit on the maximum distance of fast travel (which I agreed to on the assumption that the limit was more generous than it actually was) and Oscuro's removes the starting fast-travel option from the various cities of Cyrodil. So, at least for now, I have to hoof it from the Imperial City to Bruma (where the first-rank guild fence is located).

That's not such a big deal for the first trip, but since I anticipate traveling back and forth quite a bit, it looks like I will have to fiddle with my mod settings some more. I'll confess, I kind of dread doing this. I think my mods might already have introduced some new bugs to the game - when joining the thieves' guild, Methendhel simply would not show up on time for the quest to begin, and I wound up having to use the console to spawn her. Running them with non-default settings may just add too much chaos to the system (on the other hand, it is also entirely possible that the thieves' guild thing was just a regular bug and had nothing to do with my mods, because this is the Elder Scrolls series after all).

My tentative verdict for modded Oblivion thus far - aggravating, but probably worth the effort.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - 4/20 hours

I messed up my mod load order and couldn't gain levels. The save file is irretrievably screwed. I have to start over. DIY might not be my strong suit.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - 2/20 hours

Oblivion is my most-played Elder Scrolls game, and it is familiar to me on a bone-deep level, so to play it modded is to invite a persistent distraction. Is this different? Am I just remembering it wrong? What, exactly, is different?

So far, not much. The basic needs mod adds a new wrinkle to travel, and inventory and time management, but I've not yet decided whether it will be interesting or annoying. Not enough time has passed for me to even notice the effects of the realistic leveling mod.

The alternate start meets with my approval, though. Getting off a ship in the port town of Anvil may lack the punch of the whole "escape from prison while learning of an apocalyptic prophecy from Emperor Patrick Stewart," but that is as much an advantage as a disadvantage. Oblivion's main plot has a sense of urgency that makes the main draw of the game - dicking around pursuing a hundred and one side quests - feel positively irresponsible. But with the alternate start, you have a dream that something important may be found in the Imperial City's sewers - and dreams can always be ignored.

As far as the other, more serious mods are concerned - I think I installed them wrong. Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul is supposed to make things more difficult, but the side-quests I've pursued have so far seemed suspiciously level-scaled. Similarly, the MIDAS spell pack is supposed to add new spells, but I haven't actually encountered any (despite playing a spellcaster and joining the mage's guild).

I'll try and reinstall and see if I can clear this up.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion® Game of the Year Edition presents one of the best RPGs of all time like never before. Step inside the most richly detailed and vibrant game-world ever created. With a powerful combination of freeform gameplay and unprecedented graphics, you can unravel the main quest at your own pace or explore the vast world and find your own challenges. 
Also included in the Game of the Year edition are Knights of the Nine and the Shivering Isles expansion, adding new and unique quests and content to the already massive world of Oblivion. See why critics called Oblivion the Best Game of 2006. 

Previous Play Time

34 Hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I got this game as part of the Elder Scrolls Anthology. It was an incidental acquisition, but not one I regret. Even though I have not played it (on PC) as much as Morrowind, it is still one of my favorites. 

Prior Experience

I've played the hell out of the console version, getting every achievement but one (including the ones for the DLC), so I've pretty much seen and done everything this game has to offer. It also featured prominently on my Elder Scrolls Anthology thread.


I've played pretty much all of this game before, so I'm not expecting anything "new." And I know that it's only a matter of time before the leveling system screws me over. So, I've decided I'm going to download and install some mods to shake up the experience. I'll then try and do the mage, thief, and dark brotherhood quests, because I skipped those last time I played. I really enjoy vanilla Oblivion, though, so my main hope is that the modified game will seem fresh without destroying what I love about it.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - 20/20 hours

My last three hours with Morrowind more or less exemplified the game. In that time, I completed zero quests. Yet the process of accomplishing nothing has never been so engrossing.

So what was I doing, if not helping the various guilds of Vvardenfell complete minor tasks for unspecified rewards? Perhaps this picture will help clear things up:

I wound up circumnavigating the entire island. First, I went north, to retrieve that shield I missed (and it was a doozy - better defense than the Daedric at lower weight and enchanted to cast heal at 50-100 points), then I went south-east, to the Zainab camp, to deliver some flin for the fighter's guild, then I went south, to the Erabenimsun camp, to rescue a prisoner for the legion, then I went west, to Ebonheart, to sell my spare equipment, and finally, from Ebonheart, I went to Hla Oad, to rescue a different person for another legion commander.

I now have to go to three separate inland cities to turn in the quests and collect my rewards. I'll be able to shave off some time with fast-travel, but this game is not set up to make it easy to dash through the various quests.

I know some people regard that as a strength, but personally, I prefer to have the option to skip unnecessary walking. And don't get me started about Morrowind's inconsistent use of map markers and journal alerts. There have been times when I've completed a quest and not realized it, because the game gives you no indication when you succeed. Yes, it can be very immersive, but I actually prefer to have a "gamier" interface that I can consult when necessary and ignore when I feel like it.

I feel a little embarrassed to confess this, but Morrowind is not among my favorite games. Yes, it's an undisputed classic and deservedly so, but so much of my time playing the game is spent fighting against its various systems. It's almost impossible to resist the temptation to break the game with exploits, because if you don't, playing it can feel like a contest of wills. Even with it's ass-backwards level-scaling, I prefer Oblivion, because at least it's easier to actually play.

That said, I have now spent around 80 hours with the game, and, because I'll never have a better opportunity to explore Solstheim, I'll probably spend at least another 5-10, and on the whole, it has not felt like wasted time. The world of Vvardenfell is so rich and exotic, that it is a pleasure to explore, even if a more-than-trivial percentage of that exploration involves getting stuck behind mountains and wandering around helplessly following bad directions.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - 17/20 hours

In the last four hours, I've basically accomplished two things. One, I made it to the rank of House Cousin in house Redoran, which is a little odd. I guess I'm adopted now.

If so, that makes a bit of sense, seeing as how I achieved this rank by defending Aythn Serethi from assassins, freeing his son from captivity, and then exonerating said son of the murder of his friend. I'm counting that as one task, though, because the game gives you those quests one after another, and does not require you to traipse all over the map to complete them, so it actually feels like a unified story, with a beginning, middle, and end. It was, all-in-all, pretty satisfying, and subtly ties in to the main quest in a way that fleshes out the world, without making it all about you (the younger Serethi was mind-controlled by a cursed ash statue given to him by a member of Dagoth Ur's cult, for reasons that as yet elude me). I wish more of the side-quests were like this.

Speaking of which, the fucking Fighters' Guild. They're the reason I've accomplished so little. Last time I played, I spent much of my time venturing to Vas, to slay a Necromancer on behalf of Percius Mercius in Ald-ruhn. Vas is near the northern-most tip of the map, on an island off the coast of Vvardenfell. Even if I weren't avoiding fast travel, it would still be a significant trek, because there is no boat or silt-strider or teleport service anywhere near there. But I went, because seeing more of the island is kind of the point of this exercise.

And then I trekked back to Ald-ruhn, to turn in the mission, because there was really no other way to proceed. So, what is my next mission for the Fighters' Guild?

To collect a bounty on a murderer who is hiding out in Sargon. Where is Sargon, you might ask.

On an island, to the south of Vas, off the north coast of Vvardenfell. Almost 90% of the way back in the exact direction I had just come from. And that is not exaggeration, either. On my trip to Vas, I made a habit of poking my head into various caves along the route. One of them was Sargon.

I did not, however, clear it out, because the enemies were pretty difficult. If I had but known, I might have toughed it out, and hopefully saved myself a trip, but knowing this game, that probably wouldn't have helped. I wound up having to reload my game at least a dozen times over the course of the cave, though in the end, it was worth it, because the bounty I was hunting had a sweet-ass Ebony Cuirass. As a heavy armor specialist, that single acquisition boosted my power significantly.

And it gets better, on my way back, I decided to tackle a couple of other caves that I fled from on my initial trip, and one of them Ibar-dad, contained an incredible variety of loot, including a Daedric shield, axe, staff, and katana. That is end-game equipment, and incredibly valuable to boot. Unfortunately, it is also heavy as hell, so I wound up having to make my way to Mournhold (the only place you can get a reasonable price for that stuff), looking like this:

Not a dignified way to travel, but mostly worth it, because the Daedric katana beats anything I have by a significant margin. There were only two problems. The first is that my long-blade skill is only 40, which means for the time being, I am back to whiffing at least half the time (and so, even with my badass katana, I've got a lower dps in the short-term).

The second, I only discovered while writing this post - the cave of Ibar-dad also contains what may be the most powerful shield in the game, but I completely overlooked it. Since I cleared out the monsters, it should be a simple matter to retrieve the damned thing, but that means trudging back to the north coast a third time.

I'm going to do it, though. The lure of treasure is too strong to resist.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - 13/20 hours

Morrowind's storytelling is a bit hard to pin down. The main quest is fairly straightforward - you perform a series of tasks that progressively reveal the mystery surrounding the Nerevarine prophecy and set the stage of your conflict with Dagoth Ur. The faction side-quests are a bit different. They don't, at least in the initial stages, seem to have a "point."

I think it may be because the factions have multiple quest-givers, and thus the order in which you might complete the quests can be semi-random. At Fort Darius near Gnisis, I can rescue my comrade by slaying the Telvanni mage Baladas, and uncover a conspiracy by the cult of Talos to assassinate the emperor, but the game can't assume I've done so, when the legion officer in Balmora asks me to retrieve some scrap metal, or the one in Ald-ruhn asks me to find a smuggled Dwemer artifact.

In a way, it's disappointing, because I'm not getting much sense that I'm advancing the Legion's goals, or taking sides in the Legion's internal political struggles. It really just feels like I'm doing odd jobs for various Legion commanders.

It's not that bad, though, because at least the missions themselves are pretty fun. With only a couple of minor exceptions, most of the Legion missions have been of the "go to place and kick ass" variety (even the scrap metal collecting mission sent me to a dungeon - specifically some Dwemer ruins that prove important to the main quest - I actually found the Dwemer puzzle box while poking around, but the game did not let me pick it up - it was a major bummer).

It's a nice contrast to the Redoran quests, which have mostly been delivery or escort missions. Currently, house Redoran wants me to recover a stolen helmet - without "murdering" the thief. That means I can taunt him into attacking me, and then kill him, or at least I could, if my speechcraft wasn't useless.

Sigh. Sometimes, this game. . . I've been spending all my money on Speechcraft lessons from Caius Cosades (the annoying shirtless Blades guy, whose quest dialogue I've been assiduously not triggering), and I've bought more than 30 points in the skill.(confession time - I said at the beginning that I would play through this time without exploits, and I feel like I've technically kept my word, but I have manipulated the leveling system a bit by waiting until I've gotten a level-up, traveling to Balmora without resting, training 10 points in Speechraft, and then sleeping in Caius' bed to trigger the level-gain, so as to maximize the Personality Stat boost.)

However, these 30 extra points seem to have done jack all to my social standing. I've noticed some difference. When I had to bribe Hainab Lasami to return Hentus Yansurnummu's pants, I was able to do so in increments of 10gp, instead of 100 gp, a benefit that probably saved me around 150 gp. On the other hand, I've been taunting the hell out of that guy who stole the Redoran helmet, and he has so far ignored me completely. I wonder what the reasoning was behind making low-level skills so incredibly useless.

On the other hand, my Spear rank is up to 60 now, and I'm finally starting to feel like I can survive a bit of exploration. I recently poked my head into Sishi (I don't know if it was a mine or underground bandit hideout, or what), and was able to clear it out and free the slaves without breaking a sweat. I've also been able to survive indefinitely off the beaten path, though maybe it was just RNG shenanigans, but it felt like I was being swarmed with monsters once I left the roads (especially cliff racers, argh! - like many Morrowind players, I've found them annoying, but I never realized how much aggravation I was sparing myself with my mile-long jumps).

I am, however, starting to wonder about the viabilty of a no-magic playthrough. After fighting through certain caves, I've had to quit and reload a previous save, not because I died, but because, despite "winning" and killing all the monsters, I was only able to defeat them while suffering multiple strength-damaging attacks. And attribute damage in this game is impractical to heal at the best of times (try surviving long enough to get back to a temple with damaged agility or willpower). Under a worst-case scenario, where you have to deal with damaged strength and virtually irreplaceable heavy armor, the challenge is nigh impossible (and not in a fun way). A quick and cheap set of restoration spells is really the way to go.

If it sounds like I'm complaining, well, damned right I am. Sometimes playing this game is like sticking your hand into a box of rusty tacks. And yet, I put up with it, because no series of games is better at drawing you into an imaginary world, and Morrowind in particular is filled with fantastic sights:

That is what passes for public transportation on Vvardenfell. Creepy giant bugs that you mount by ascending weird, alien architecture. And in the shadow of the Red Mountain (when it is not spewing ash everywhere and limiting your visibility to a couple of feet), there are stranger sights still.

(Those things float around all over the place. I've never quite figured out what they are, or how they fit into the ecology and economy of Vvardenfell. I've also always wondered if there is some great reward or treasure for killing them, but they are difficult to target, let alone bring down)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - 8/20 hours

Morrowind is simultaneously a very large game and a very small game. On the one hand, it puts you into a large and detailed world, populated by hundreds of named NPCs, each with their own job and home. On the other hand, most of these locations and characters exist purely as a backdrop, able to provide the occasional rumor or hint, but not particularly interesting in themselves. Only a select few are able to give you things to do, and even then, it's usually only if you can find right conversation topic or set of circumstances to trigger their quest dialogue. It has a way of making the world seem curiously under-populated.

Which is my round-about way of saying that I spent most of the last 4 hours walking around. That's not a complaint, mind you. The Elder Scrolls series has a way of making random wandering into a compelling experience. I have, however, come to dread my time in the towns. So many people, and I can never be sure who, if anyone, is important to the story (my abysmal speechcraft rating of 5 does not help at all - practically everyone I meet dislikes me, and because failed skill checks do not get you xp, there's no realistic way to grind it).

I don't have that problem in the wilderness. Out there, if I meet someone, I know for a fact that they have a sidequest for me. These sidequests aren't necessarily interesting - an argonian asked me to deliver some shirts to a tailor. Some of them are even downright aggravating - escorting anyone, for example, even when they are amusing characters like Viatrix Petilia, who was ludicrously sarcastic towards someone who was doing her a favor, or Din, the redguard who thought I was a fish.

Sometimes you get a gem, though. I enjoyed rescuing Madura Seran, the kidnapped pilgrim, though I suspect my strategy of "just kill everyone in the hostile camp because your speechcraft is too low to trigger any actual quest dialogue" was probably sub-optimal. (Update - out of curiosity, I checked the wiki about this quest, and it turns out that it is not a random sidequest, but actually something assigned by the Legion, and by doing it out of order, I may have bugged the Legion quest chain, which, if true, is super-annoying, because it took me forever to walk to Gnisis overland).

Because I usually avoid traveling over-land (preferring to rely instead on public transportation, Mages' Guild teleporters, and magical items enchanted with high-level jump spells), I've never met any of these side characters - with one exception.

In my previous playthrough of the game, I encountered a noblewoman by the name of Maurrie Aurmine, who was robbed of her jewels, but fell in love with the bandit. You can get them together by playing messenger, and Maurrie will offer to introduce you to one of her far-flung friends. The strange thing is that, when I played it last time, she introduced me to a different friend, Barnard Erelie. This time, she told me to seek out Emusett Bracques, in a totally different town (Tel Aruhn, which I accidentally mixed up with Ald-ruhn, causing me to search futilely for some time before giving up and checking the wiki). According to the wiki, this is because I was playing a female character last time, and a male character this time, but I honestly can't understand the significance of this change.

Most of the time I did not spend doing fetch-quests and slow-as-molasses escort mission, I spent on exploring random caves and getting myself killed (I learned, in the Hleran Ancestral Tomb that I can handle fighting vampires so long as they don't try and drink my blood). I was, however, able to do some more sequence-breaking by slaying the hunger demon in the Serano Ancestral Tomb and taking the Serano Ebony Helmet, an obvious quest item (both for its unique name, and for the fact that it does not have a face hole, making it more of a "bowl" than a "helmet.")

I did, however, accomplish a few significant quest goals. I collected the debt money from the bartender in Suran (who was the proprietor of "The House of Earthly Delights," the world's most erotic poorly-animated, semi-clothed strip club). Of course, she wouldn't actually talk to me about her debt, and for some reason, I had no option to actually act like hired muscle and demand it, so I wound up having to bribe her into paying. It cost me 200 septims, the exact amount she owed. Luckily, when I turned it in to the guild master, I was able to keep half of it.

I think I may hate the fighter's guild. At least the next mission actually called upon my skills as a fighter - I had to track down an orc with a bounty on her head! Turns out she was staying in Balmora, easy-peasy. There was only one slight hiccup. Whenever I asked an NPC for information, they called me lazy, and insisted I look for myself. Basically, Ragnar the Nord is just the world's punching bag it seems.

I also joined House Redoran, another first for me (Telvanni for life!). They gave me an assignment to exterminate some mudcrabs that were bothering a farm - accompanied, of course, by an incredibly useless set of directions, even by the standards of this game (and that's saying something). I haven't turned the mission in yet, because I mistakenly thought that Gnisis, the town where you can join the Imperial Legion, was nearby, and thought it would be best to make a side-trip before heading back.

That walk took me hours (quite possibly literally, I got lost at least twice), but in the end it was worth it. When I saved and quit, I had just received my legion armor from General Darius. My military career had begun!

(provided it hasn't been cut short by a game-breaking bug, that is)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - 4/20 hours

Ragnar the Nord may well be the world's worst guardian of justice. Commissioned by the Balmora Fighters' Guild to take care of a rat infestation, he grabbed his iron spear, strode into the bizarrely pillow-filled house of his client, and promptly died while flailing away uselessly because the designers of Morrowind made the strange and frustrating choice to have a starting character's abilities fail 75% of the time.

That made doing the Fighters' Guild missions a farcical exercise. I was able to finish a few, thanks to a combination of stubbornness and spending every single gold I earned on training, but there's no pretending it was not, at times, ridiculous.

The apex of this problem came when I tried to retrieve a code book from a thief named Sottilde. She would not give it to me, obviously, but she also wouldn't fight me. When I tried attacking her, the entire thieves' guild ganged up on me and I died. I then decided to be tricky and taunt her into attacking me . . . but my abysmal speechcraft skill made that futile. I eventually wound up spending 200 septims in bribes in order to complete the mission . . . and earn a 50 septim reward.

Total bullshit. I thought it was the Fighters' guild, and not the Pretty-talkers' guild. Whatever.

My next foray into vigilantism was no more successful. Following the rumors about the death of Rale Hlaalo, I discover that his maid, Uryne Nirith, may know something, but his manor is locked, and my security skill isn't even close to good enough.

So, I decided to get the hell out of town, and perhaps hit up Larrius Varro in a nearby fort, to aid him in his quest to rid the land of corruption, but he wouldn't give me the time of day. Nor would anyone in the fort let me join the Imperial Legion, telling me that I had to go to a different, vaguely-located fort, because just giving me a quest would make this too much like a game.

Anyway, the trip wasn't a total bust, because a random guard game me a piece of advice that seems obvious in retrospect, but had never really occurred to me - when playing a light-blade specialist, it is more weight efficient to carry extra weapons and swap out when they break than it is to lug around a bunch of repair hammers. I'm playing a spear specialist now, but that's definitely on my list of things to remember for next time.

In between failing to find new quests and barely succeeding at Fighters' Guild assignments, I wander the countryside a bit. It's my resolution for this game to use fast travel as little as possible, in order to get a good ground-level experience of Vvardenfell. And it's a resolution that serves me well, because on my way to Caldera, I encounter an NPC I've never seen before.

Hlormar Wine-sot is a near-naked nord standing beside the road. He tells me that he was traveling with a witch who robbed him of his ancestral axe, and also all his clothes. We track her down and she tells a different story - she drugged him and took his stuff to teach him a lesson about getting "too friendly." She offers to give his stuff back in 3 days, at the Caldera Mages' Guild, but Hlormar won't hear it, and I have to choose sides. Ultimately, I choose Nord solidarity, and Hlormar rewards me with some training before we go our separate ways.

In the end, as much as I complain about Morrowind (and believe me, you have not heard the end of my complaints), and as much as it frustrates me (more even than Ride to Hell, if you can believe that), I can't stay mad at it. It's just so big and alive and filled with these charming little stories and vistas and other things to discover, so that even after a hundred hours, I can still find things I've never seen before.

Another example - the town of Suran. I've never been there before. The Fighters' Guild gave me an assignment to collect some debt money in Suran, but I had no idea where it was. Luckily, a random NPC mentioned that it was connected to the silt-strider network. It was a bit frustrating to be forced to rely on fast-travel, considering my commitment to walk more, but I think, in this case, it was worth it. I arrived in Suran around sunset, and the silt-strider platform overlooked the town, allowing me to see the whole thing - a charming little village, nestled in the hills beside a lake - and it was quite spectacular.

For all its faults, no other games deliver that kind of experience quite like the Elder Scrolls series.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - 2/20 hours

Playing this game feels good, like slipping into a comfortable pair of old shoes. While Morrowind is not my most frequently played Elder Scrolls game, it was my first, and I know every moment of its opening sequence by heart.

I can already tell that it's going to be tough blogging about this game. Recapping is easy enough, this series is eventful enough that I could write thousands of words just describing what was going on, but I feel like, if I did, I would just be going over ground I've covered before.

Maybe I'm worrying too much. This game is huge, and last time I recapped it, I didn't explore the Fighter's Guild, or the Imperial Legions, or two of the three Great Houses, or Solsteim, or vampires, or . . . I could go on, but anyone familiar with the game knows it's a long list.

Still, I feel like I could use an ace in the hole. To that end, I will play this game with a self-imposed challenge, to ensure that I will be forced to take a different path - my character will not use magic, alchemy or enchanting. I will, however use potions and magic items I find as loot or buy from vendors, because the game would be unplayable otherwise, but I will not even step foot down the road that leads to breaking the game.

For role-playing reasons, I chose to play a Nord Warrior (though I just know that the Warrior class will wind up screwing me in the long run). I also chose the Steed as my sign, which is less than optimal, but something I had to do, because your base movement speed in this game is far too slow.

In the spirit of exploring parts of the game I have not yet experienced, Ragnar the Nord has already, in the first two hours, done a few things I've never done before. For one, I investigated the disappearance of Processus Vitellius, but that didn't go anywhere because I chose not divulge the 200 septims I found on his body, and the customs official seemed satisfied with my report.

I also chose, for the first time, to clear out the cave of Addmasartus. The main reason I've always avoided it is because a starting character flails around helplessly with weapons, rendering the fighting farcical. I had to retreat and sleep in the customs office (because there is no inn in the starting city), because I gave Fargoth his healing ring back.

There were compensations, though. I found some skooma and moon sugar, which I can't sell until Balmora, but have an amazing cost-to-weight ratio. I also, for some reason, found some armor for my right arm, but not my left. It's a little silly, but I think it looks kind of cool.

After that I did another thing I never did before - I actually walked from Seyda Neen to Balmora. It's kind of fun, seeing the countryside from ground level and exploring the various nooks and crannies, and random caves - even though half of them killed me.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

he Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind® Game of the Year Edition includes Morrowind plus all of the content from the Bloodmoon and Tribunal expansions. The original Mod Construction Set is not included in this package. 
An epic, open-ended single-player RPG, Morrowind allows you to create and play any kind of character imaginable. You can choose to follow the main storyline and find the source of the evil blight that plagues the land, or set off on your own to explore strange locations and develop your character based on their actions throughout the game. Featuring stunning 3D graphics, open-ended gameplay, and an incredible level of detail and interactivity, Morrowind offers a gameplay experience like no other. 

In Tribunal, you journey to the capital city of Morrowind, called Mournhold, to meet the other two god-kings of Morrowind, Almalexia and Sotha Sil. Your journey will lead you to the Clockwork City of Sotha Sil and massive, epic-sized dungeons, where strange and deadly creatures await you, including goblins, lich lords, and the mysterious Fabricants. 

Bloodmoon takes you to the frozen Island of Solstheim where you'll experience snow, blizzards, and new creatures, including frost trolls, ice minions, and wolves... just to name a few. You'll have a choice of stories to follow and have the opportunity to defend the colony, take control over how the colony is built up, and eliminate the werewolves. Or, you can decide to join the werewolves and become one of them, opening up a whole new style of gameplay. 

Previous Play Time

57 hours.

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I actually bought the Elder Scrolls Anthology off of Amazon, and I didn't realize it unlocked a Steam version. I bought the set because I wanted to play modded Skyrim on the PC, and the Anthology was only a couple bucks more than the Skyrim Legendary edition.

Prior Experience

I have played this game for a ridiculously long time on the original X-box, and I also wrote a long series of forum posts documenting my first experience playing it on the PC. I have still never played it "honestly." Every single time I've gotten into this game, I have failed to resist the temptation to exploit the game's systems for ultimate power.


I know exactly what playing this game is going to be like - an often frustrating, but peerlessly immersive role-playing experience that will draw me into an alternate world that I may never want to leave. I've done this at least a half-dozen times before. I am going to try something a bit different, though. This time, I will forswear magic, enchanting, and alchemy. I will play this game the "right" way. And I'll use a spear. Because the later Elder Scrolls games don't have them, and I might as well do it while I have the chance.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Ride to Hell: Redemption - 20/20 hours

In the end, I got to 86% completion. I was almost tempted to go the whole way. If I'd gotten to 90%, I may have. That, I think, would have been too tantalizingly close for me to pass up, even in a game of this caliber. I have something of a fraught relationship with video-game doodad-hunting. Part of me hates it, because it is obviously a massive waste of time, but another, stronger part of me can't resist. What I usually wind up doing is deliberately ignoring that part of the game . . . unless there exists some way of making the process systematic, such as an in-game collectible finder or hint system, or a well-written guide.

Speaking of which, someone actually made a collectibles guide for this game. It truly is an astonishing age we live in. I'm not sure anything on the internet will surprise me any more.

You can find three types of collectibles. Paint cans let you paint your bike various different colors, which doesn't seem like much of a reward to me because the default colors are more than adequate, but I suppose that's actually a point in the game's favor (seriously, fuck you Fable 3 and your putting black dye into a DLC - IT'S THE MOST BASIC COLOR OF FASHION!)

Then there are two decks of collectible playing cards. Blue cards have pictures of the game's various levels, characters, and weapons - you know, pretty boilerplate video game optional swag. Red cards, however, featured pictures of what I can only assume are the creators of the game.

And that made me kind of sad. I know you can't tell much from a picture, but they looked like a pretty nice bunch of people, and something about the way many of them attempted ineffectually to adopt a badass-biker pose made them seem like a very relatable group of nerds. And that threw me into one of my pensive spirals.

What was it like to work on this game? There must have been passion there, and love. It must have seemed like an amazing thing, the opportunity to bring to life the romance and the danger of a storied criminal sub-culture. How cool it must have been, to sit down in front of a computer and render a kick-ass skull motorcycle, or paint the stark and rugged beauty of the game's southwest backdrops.

So, when did it go wrong? When did the dream of Ride to Hell begin to wither and fade? I worry that it might not have been until the reviews, that the team sent something to market that they were proud of, and it was only in the light of its harsh critical reception that they woke up and realized what they really made. I know that experience - pouring your heart and soul into a work of art, only to find that it holds no value for other people, because, at the end of the day, it simply isn't very good.

But then I think of this image:

And there's no way someone works on that (from what I understand about computer animation, that sequence must have taken hours, or even days to complete) and doesn't realize they are making schlock. I just don't understand this game at all. How did it get made? How did the makers' professional pride not rebel against what they were being asked to do?

The only thing I can think of is that there was no one person with a unifying vision of the game. That each group of people worked on their own tasks, and were either underfunded or rushed for time, and assumed that their mistakes, shortcuts, and placeholders would be cleaned up in a future version that never came.

I've said some unkind things about this game, and I don't regret any of them, nor do I think they were unjust. Nevertheless, I cannot look into the faces on those playing cards and wish them ill. Here's hoping that Ride to Hell: Retribution did not ruin any careers, and that the people involved get another chance to make something they can be proud of.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Ride to Hell: Retribution - 13/20 hours

So, I've finished the campaign, and . . . it's really not worth recapping. The parts of the story that are not incomprehensible are largely pretty dull. The quick and dirty - you work your way up the ladder of the Devil's Hand, killing Triple Six and King Dick to get to Pretty Boy, to learn two shocking facts - 1)Pretty Boy isn't really pretty, he's actually horribly scarred and got the nickname ironically, and 2)Pretty Boy is not, in fact, the leader of the Devil's Hand. He really works for Caesar, who wants your whole family dead.

Caesar is kind of a non-entity. He rants at you, but not in a very interesting way. His big secret is that he's Ellie's (Mikey's non-entity pseudo-girlfriend) father, and that he used to be in Retribution until one day, Jake's father made a bet with him to clear his debts, wagering Jake's mother as the stakes. When Toledo lost, he reneged on the deal, and Caesar has been hunting the family ever since (except for all those years he took off to run the Devil's Hand).

In the end, you kill him and ride off into the sunset with Ellie. The only really laughable incomprehensible thing that happens is during Pretty Boy's level, when you have to go to a mine to acquire  a bike from a miner, and all these random blue collar guys are heavily armed and have an irrational hatred of bikers (also, the one that speaks to you has a southern accent, throwing this game's geography into complete confusion - I was certain, once I saw the redwood forest level that Dead End was in southern California, between Las Vegas and Barstow, and the game was sending you around the state without telling you - but then again, that may well be the case, and you just happen to run into a transplant from the south. It would not be unprecedented - you run into a Russian German lumberjack in the redwood forest).

The only other real surprise is that there are no more awkward sex-scenes (although, according to the quest menu, I missed "rescuing" a woman in the graveyard level - classy). Like much else about this game, I'm not sure I understand the reasoning. Maybe they thought they needed the "sex" to draw people in, but by the time the endgame came around, people would be hooked on their gripping tale of betrayal and revenge.

A part of me pities this game. Long stretches of it don't make any sense, but I think what they were trying to do was make Jake into a hillbilly James Bond. There are flashes of this - at one point, when you are running from the police for some reason I can neither remember nor bring myself to care about, you jump over a helicopter with your motorcycle. It's a completely over-the-top, but unironically cool action-movie moment. Unfortunately, it was performed by Jake, and Jake is kind of a tool.

Jake tortures prisoners, kills both cops and civilians (though, I guess, those miners and power plant workers were heavily armed), casually violates his word, and just generally appears to have no personality, moral code, or interests. The only even moderately distinctive thing about him is his relationship with women, and the women in this game are . . . not good.

The random "rescue girls" fights . . . are best not thought about, in that they manage to both be horribly offensive, and also highly weird. If I bend my brain the right way, I can just about grasp their twisted misogynist logic - they serve to build Jake up as a paragon of masculinity. Jake is chivalrous towards the ladies, defending them from the uncouth and violent advances of unworthy slobs (always through violence, of course), but he is not a neutered "white knight" or "nice guy." The chicks totally want to bang him afterwards, because he's a super-sexy biker man.

The fact that this utterly dehumanizes and objectifies the female characters, making them look like they were written by aliens whose only knowledge of earth women derives from the comments section of a pornographic video (but not the video itself, because, seriously the sex is ridiculous), is incidental. After finishing the game, I don't think the script is malicious towards women, but I also don't think it could be clearer that it only cares about men. The sex is there to make Jake cool - a wish-fulfillment audience surrogate.

And it fails, hard. Instead of making Jake look sexy, it makes him look like the sort of person who will take time out of his all-consuming revenge quest to have sex in grimy back alleys or graveyards or mansions-turned-charnel-houses with women he's only barely met and whose names he doesn't know. Maybe that gets a "so what" or "sounds like a typical dude," but the mechanics and writing ensure that this usually goes down in the middle of a fire-fight, when lives are at stake, and insofar as Jake has a personality at all, his love-life makes him look like a scatter-brained dork whose common sense, code of honor, and basic survival instinct can all be overridden by his testes.

I find that kind of tragic, you know? It's like, tearing down women to build up a man, that's sexist and horrible, but at least it makes sense as a goal. It's something a terrible person might actually want to do. Tearing down women to make your main character into an incoherent buffoon? That betrays a lack of self-awareness that borders on the pathetic.

So, what about the women Jake does not sleep with? Honestly, I'm surprised there are any. The first half of the game set up my expectations in such a way that I thought for sure that the writer was constitutionally incapable of introducing a woman in a context other than sex. I can't say, I'm pleasantly surprised, though, because I think I'd have found the surreal nature of that alternate universe so ludicrous that its sexism would have become a curiosity to gawk at.

The first of these lucky ladies is Suzi, a stripper. She has information about King Dick, but she is not at the strip club where she works (ironically, making it the one non-combat area of the game that does not have half-naked women just wandering around). You first meet her at her house, where her obnoxious ex-boyfriend is pounding on her door and threatening violence. So, you beat the crap out of him and his friends, he flees, and . . .

She does not have sex with you. Instead, she grabs her shotgun, hops on the back of Jake's bike, and tells you to follow him. You steer the bike through a chase-mission, and she wields the gun, culminating in her shooting her ex. Which, you know, is not great when it comes to female representation, but is at least something. At last, here is a female character with an agenda outside her pants, someone who acts like she lives in a crime-genre video game and is willing to mix it up with the boys. Yes, she is introduced as a damsel in distress, but she eventually takes matters into her own hands, and in the end, Jake has a supporting role in her plan.

So, what happens next? If you guessed, "she gives him the information while the two stand over the body of her asshole-ex in true crime-drama fashion," . . . ha, ha, ha, very funny. The correct answer is that she gives him the information back at the strip club, while wearing pasties and a thong and giving Jake a lap dance "on the house," because, of course, why not? (The only worthwhile aspect of this scene is that it finally puts a nail in the coffin of the "are the fully-clothed sex scenes a result of prudery or cheapness" question).

The next non-sexed female character is Brandy, who has some sort of vague, but important job as Pretty Boy's lieutenant/appointments secretary. She seems competent, has a British  accent, and sends Jake on the ill-fated mine side quest (and I know it's massively inappropriate for me to comment on the details of a woman's appearance, but it bears saying - she is notably, um . . . top-heavy. Even by the standards of this game. I don't know if it's a special model, or if it just looks that way due to the outfit she wears, but it definitely looks like she could be tipped over by a stiff breeze).

So what's offensive about her? Nothing specific. All she really does is have big boobs, condescend to Jake a little (because she's British, see), cheat him out of 250$ and then disappear once Pretty Boy shows up. She obviously must be a pretty important member of the Devil's Hand if she's entrusted with giving out missions and being the guardian of Pretty Boy's location, but she is for some reason exempted from Jake's rampage of revenge. Granted, it would have been pretty damned sickening for Jake to enact violence on the only woman thus far who has not been all over his schlong, but, I dunno, maybe he could have spared her life because his code does not let him harm a woman. It still would've been sexist, and I almost certainly would have complained about it, but at least it would have been resolution. As it stands, Brandy is merely an obstacle, a prop in a conflict between two men - you know, the people who really matter.

I like to think that Brandy rode off when she saw which way the wind was blowing, becoming an unlikely and divisive feminist icon when she started her own biker gang and began a reign of terror across the American Southwest until, one day, her empire came to a tragic and bloody end after a botched attempt to storm into a NASA research lab and hold the scientists there at gunpoint until they developed a carbon-fiber bra.

The third woman is Gemma. At first, her story has the familiar markers. She has the same model as one of the orgy "pros," her husband has something Jake needs to complete a quest, and he treats her like shit. That's this game's formula for sex. The only difference - when you meet her, Gemma is falling-down drunk. I'll admit, I was actually pretty worried. I hoped the game wouldn't go there, but I couldn't be sure (a tip for any aspiring writers out there - that's how you can tell your story may need to brush up on its feminist credentials). Luckily it didn't. For all his other bad qualities, Jake isn't a rapist (feel free to use that as a box quote, makers of Ride to Hell). If he'd done it, I'm not sure how I'd have reacted, but "ballistic" would probably be a good start (in fact, I'm just going to go ahead and amend the challenge rules - if the main character is a rapist, that's an instant disqualification).

Jake, does, however, raise the bottom of her bottle while she's drinking. As a result, she quickly passes out from drunkenness, and Jake can steal her husband's motorcycle in peace. So, you know, he's an asshole.

Finally, there's Ellie. Sigh.

She's useless. She gets kidnapped. She puts everyone in terrible danger by not revealing her relationship to Caesar, because hanging out with Mack and Mickey "felt like having a real family" (although I seem to recall that from Mack's perspective, the feeling is not mutual, so that's kind of sad). I wrongly predicted that Jake would sleep with her, but it turns out that she is presented as borderline-infantile, because in this game, if a woman is not a total sex-pot (but don't get the wrong idea about Ellie, she's still "hot") that must mean she is a perfect virginal princess . . .

And you know what? Fuck it. This game is sexist as hell. Avoid if possible.

What?! Seven hours to go?


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Ride to Hell: Retribution - 6/20 hours

I probably shouldn't admit this, but I am kind of getting into this game. I mean, it's tedious and offensive, and I'd rather be playing just about anything else, but I have a high tolerance for tedium,  its ineptness blunts its neolithic political attitudes, and I really can't play anything else right now. I think it's because the game gives me a goal, and is easy enough that I'm making steady progress towards that goal - it's enough to get me into that weird "I can defeat this" trance that, in a better-made game might kindle an obsession.

It makes me think - what is the measure of a bad game? People call Ride to Hell: Retribution the worst game of all time, but what does that mean? I've played games that just simply didn't work. You'd start the game and be flying a spaceship or something, and then you'd almost immediately die, and nothing in the game would explain what you were doing wrong or how you could prevent it. Then there's games with no detectable connection between effort and reward, where things seem more or less random. And, of course, there are games with no plot or story at all, just a not-especially compelling activity, presented without context. Is Ride to Hell really worse than a sloppily programmed shovelware game?

I don't want to give the impression that I'm defending it, mind you. It's just, it reminds me a little of Battlefield Earth. It's a terrible movie, one many would call the worst of all time, but if we're being brutally honest, it's not even close. It's unmistakably bad, but the only reason it can be so memorably awful is because it possesses a basic core of technical competence. Take the acting, for instance. Every bad movie is accused of having bad acting, but the main leads of Battlefield Earth are among the best at their craft and it shows. After all, what are John Travolta, Forest Whittaker, and Barry Pepper able to do that I cannot that ensures they are cast in Hollywood movies and I write a gaming blog while working the night shift at a hotel?

For one, they can say their lines with conviction, and without stumbling or stuttering. For another, they know how to move in a natural-seeming way while facing the camera and staying in frame. Those are the very basics of film acting, and while neither myself nor Mr Travolta can say the phrase "man-animal" without sounding like a huge dork, at least he can make it sound more or less like human speech. Similarly, say what you will about the directing, but at least the camera was pointed at things the audience might actually want to see (compare - Manos: Hands of Fate). And the script is, of course, justifiably notorious, but you could never have had the experience of shouting, "what the hell are you doing, plugging your enemy into a high-tech learning machine, you are so stupid!" or "how the hell are those cave-men flying those planes" if it hadn't been able to convey that that was what was going on (compare - the script of Ride to Hell: Retribution).

Which is really just my long-winded way of saying that there is a certain set of skills which separate a professional from an amateur, and, if you're trying to find the worst example of any sort of art (be it movies, books, or video games), no professional product is going to make the bottom of the list, so long as amateurs are in contention.

That's why I think Ride to Hell draws so much heat - it is clearly the product of professionals, and as such, screws up in ways that amateurs could only dream. Take the driving physics. One thing I learned from the Portal commentaries is that programming a working physics model is really hard, so the fact that you can ride the bike and not pass through other vehicles or terrain (or, for that matter, bounce off them and get launched hundreds of feet in the air) means that someone, somewhere had an impressive set of programming skills. And it is only because they were capable of making a physics engine that doesn't implode in the first five seconds that we are able to experience a motorcycle that drifts like a shallow-drafted boat (and the mission where you steal a gas tanker is like piloting a gondola over slippery ice).

Or the shooting. The bizarre and sometimes frustrating contrast between virtually ineffectual body shots and instantly deadly headshots would not be quite so noticeable if your gun did not typically shoot where you were aiming it.

Or the level design. I have to wonder if the levels would seem quite so repetitive and overly long if the designers had not been able to make backgrounds and set dressing that actually looks like what it's meant to be.

Or the sexism. Honestly, if it weren't for the relatively realistic and detailed animations, there would be no way to even tell that Jake was the sole male participant in a gratuitous mostly-lesbian orgy.

I was going to do a full recap, but it would take too long and would not be very interesting. So, I'll just hit the "highlights"

Dr Blotter is a terrible hippy stereotype. You torture him with the exhaust from your bike.

Naomi is Colt's girlfriend, and as far as I can tell, the only named black character. Naturally, you "pump her for information." The mission is called (and I'm not making this up) "Damsel in Undress."

While storming a drug farm (and later, while fighting through a grimy back alley), Jake finds the time for random and inexplicable sex scenes.

Near the end of the drug farm, you find a film projector that projects, onto a nearby wall, a still photo of a naked female ass. My theory that they were simply too cheap to do nudity in the sex scenes is looking good.

"I'm here to wipe my ass with the Devil's Hand." I may not have mentioned it, but the Devil's Hand is the name of the rival gang, and that was a real line of dialogue.

At the beginning of the Meathook missions, you rescue a guy named Farley from getting beat up by a gang of thugs. He immediately challenges you to a race for reasons that are never explained.

After the race, Farley and Jake are chased by the Devil's Hand for no apparent reason (that's a bit of a running theme in the game), and Farley rides on the back of Jake's bike. And, maybe it's due to the way the game has primed me to expect a sex scene whenever you rescue someone, but I feel like Farley x Jake is the best romance in the game.

In the series of arena fights leading up to Meathook, you fight a guy named "Mother Trucker," who is described as "liking to pound flesh" and who's "packing a load" for Jake. I'm sure the innuendo was intentional, but I can't quite figure out what it was trying to accomplish. The fact that MT calls Jake "pretty boy," only serves to confuse matters.

The rank 2 illegal boxing champion is "Selvan the Destroyer." Make of that what you will.

Meathook talks in a very muddled way about honor. I think he tries to taunt Jake about the fact that when he and his gang killed Mikey and left Jake for dead, Jake . . . didn't die? (honestly, I have no idea what point he was trying to make).

After the fight, Meathook is assassinated by Greasy Steve before he can say anything - leading to a cutscene between Steve and a hitherto unseen higher up that is inexplicably filtered through the soft-focus of a cheesy boudoir photo. Also, we learn that the big boss is "Pretty Boy."

So, over the course of this project, I've discovered a new pet peeve - cut scenes that follow a successful mission by telling you that you failed in the mission's apparent objective. So it was, that after catching up to Greasy Steve, I found that he got away, and that I would have to get further information from his girlfriend, "Blonde Girl" (that's actually what she's called for at least the next ten minutes).

I couldn't even tell you what happens next. You have to fight your way through a mansion (where they've been hiding a mansion in this shit-hole town is not explained) and, Claudine (Blonde Girl) is there because of a concert or something. And after the fight, you meet up with Claudine, and 3 women, "Pro 1," "Pro 2" (who actually looks exactly like Naomi) and some unnamed 3rd character (although, whatever she's called, it couldn't possibly be any more degrading than "Pro#"), and have a big-ol' plot-irrelevant, fully clothed orgy. And, because this game can never be non-exploitative, it makes sure to tell you that Claudine and the others continue the orgy after you've gone (if I were being flippant, I'd say this means Ride to Hell passes the Bedchel test, but I feel guilty even for thinking it).

I'll wrap this post up by saying something positive - some of the art direction in this game is genuinely pretty good. The town of Dead End looks a lot like one of those shitty half-abandoned desert towns you can often see driving through the southwest. Greasy Steve's motorcycle is customized to look like a WWII fighter plane, and it actually looks pretty cool. The shop menus look like those fly-by-night mail-order advertisements you sometimes see in old magazines. With the exception of duplicate Naomi, all the named characters are visually distinct (although, I may be wrong about some of the other female characters too - Naomi just stands out because she's the only black character I've seen).

It's not enough to salvage the game, or even elevate it to "notionally playable," but it is something.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Ride to Hell: Retribution - 1.5/20 hours

I'm a bit disappointed by this game. I came into it with a certain amount of build-up. This was a 16 metascore game. A game that some have called the worst of all time. A game my friends maniacally laughed at the prospect of me playing. So, I was expecting a catastrophe. I was expecting the cardinal sins of gaming - unskippable cutscenes, escort missions, unforgiving difficulty combined with a stingy autosave. I was expecting a game that would punish me for daring to play it.

Instead, Ride to Hell: Retribution is merely kind of crummy. Granted, it boasts an impressive brand of crumminess. One might even say that it has mastered the art of crumminess. There is no aspect of the game that is untouched by failure, and in the hour and a half that I've played it, I've seen nothing whatsoever to recommend the game, but the controls work. The autosave works. And I have not yet encountered anything that makes me want to throw away my controller with frustration.

I think the best way to describe this game is "sub-par." Imagine, if you will, that there is an objective minimum standard for video game quality. A line, above which, you can say (for example) "the voice acting isn't great, but it's good enough." The remarkable thing about Ride to Hell: Retribution is that every single aspect of the, game, when taken out of context and considered on its own, is one or two steps below that line.

The voice acting is bad, but in a game with exciting action, it would be forgivable. The melee combat is dull, but you'd overlook it in a game with an interesting story. The music is annoying, but you'd just turn it down if there was literally any reason whatsoever to play this game.

Even the game's sexism is second-rate. Ride to Hell: Retribution is completely sexist. If I were to give it a grade for its representation of female characters and awareness of gender issues, I would give it an F. Yet, in the first hour and a half, at least, I haven't seen anything particularly hateful. The game treats women in an incredibly shoddy manner, but it doesn't seem like a diatribe against women (unlike, say, certain parts of Grand Theft Auto V), nor does it make fun of its female characters - it "merely" objectifies them to a ludicrous degree.

So, I can't even really muster up any significant outrage about this game. The game literally treats women as collectible power-ups (and I do mean literally - there is a line in your overall progress bar that tracks whether on not you've slept with all the available women during a particular mission), yet the game itself is so damned crummy that a serious reaction to this feels disproportionate, like resenting a cloud. The best way to describe it is thus - what if every part of the script that featured a female character was accidentally replaced by some poorly written erotic Ride to Hell fanfiction? How would you even notice? (Answer - the women would actually take off their clothes).

 The game starts with a confusing montage. I think the point is to show off different aspects of the gameplay and perhaps foreshadow aspects of the story. You shoot some bikers with a turret, threaten a guy with a gun, get in a fist fight, and I think it ends with the main character, Jake Conway, being discharged from the army.

It all happens so fast that I couldn't really say. Before you know it, you're in a town, and you meet Mack, who is some kind of Santa-looking biker mentor, and Mikey, Jake's brother. They have a brief and pointless conversation while watching TV, where Mack hints at (but for some reason, does not directly explain) some kind of trouble between the biker gangs, but this is so vague that Mikey doesn't believe him.

Mikey runs out and Jake follows him, whereupon, after a brief chase scene, the two have an improbable heart-to-heart while riding down the street on separate motorcycles. This mainly concerns Mikey's relationship angst with a college student named Ellie (I'm calling it now - Jake will sleep with her), and it's very strange because Mikey is written as if he's a twelve year old. I don't remember the specifics of his problems, except that he is insecure about some really basic social interaction.

While chatting, Mikey and Jake are accosted by some thugs, lead by Anvil, a big, muscular jerk with a penchant for unsettling animal cruelty (or at least, talking about it). The two characters get on their bikes and flee.

The bike driving is not very good. It could be worse - your bike mostly goes where it's pointed, but there is no sense of mass or momentum. If you run into something, you mostly just glance off and slow down. You can also fight with enemies while on the motorcycle. You do this by getting close to an enemy, doing a quick QTE, and then watching an endlessly recycled animation (this varies based on your equipped melee weapon, but the default unarmed animation kind of looks like a slap fight).

Then the game does something that kind of bugs me. You "win" the mission, and escape from your pursuers, only to jump to a cut scene where Jake and Mikey are prisoners to a rival biker gang. Their leader is "Meathook," who has an unidentifiable accent. In this scene, we learn that "Retribution" is the name of Jake's biker gang, in addition to the name of the game. And the reason this whole thing is happening is because Mikey is wearing his dad's old biker jacket.

The point of this scene is to set up the motivation that will drive the plot by killing Mikey and leaving Jake for dead. It is pretty ineptly done, and there is no real tension or pathos. It ends with a black and white, slow-motion replay of the murder and subsequent beating, that I think is supposed to be affecting, but winds up looking kind of silly.

You then jump forward an indefinite amount of time, and Jake resolves to get revenge. He starts by tracking down Anvil to a seedy motel. Because there is no minimap and the quest markers are easily missed, I wound up wandering into a parking lot where I see a man harassing a woman. I intervene by beating the crap out of the guy and then it instantly jumped to a sex scene. It was actually quite jarring.

The sex scenes are non-optional (although, I learned, in retrospect, that I could have avoided it by not rescuing the woman), but they bear only the most tangential and distant relationship to erotica. If you've ever played Dragon Age, you're probably familiar with that game's ridiculous sex scenes, where the characters tumble around in bed while wearing generic rpg underwear. Ride to Hell takes this one step further, and leaves the characters fully clothed. As in, they didn't change their outfits at all, while pantomiming various sex moves.

It's kind of surreal (especially the next sex scene, about 15 minutes later, with Sarah, who was wearing a mechanic's jump suit). My theory is that each character in the game only has a single model, and that the scenes aren't modest so much as they are cheap. They are also set to porn music. I could be more specific, but there's no point. Imagine what porn music typically sounds like - whatever you're picturing is probably not far off.

It was kind of shocking when this scene ended and it became apparent that it had no plot relevance (because I didn't realize at the time that I had just found a collectible power up).

To wrap this up, Anvil runs away from the motel, taking shelter in a brewery. I can't get in until I meet Sarah, a mechanic who talks like a 20s gangster, whose husband is a drunk who has the brewery keys and also stole her wedding ring. I beat the guy up and recover both, and she rewards me with sex (I mean, why not, revenge against a criminal gang is important, but what is Jake supposed to do, put his whole life on hold?) Then I take a short detour to meet Tyrell Jones, a rogue military officer who makes me beat up his men before he'll sell me weapons.

Then I go back, chase Anvil through the brewery and down the road on a motorcycle, until I shoot him off his motorcycle. He tells me the next story goal (chasing down Meathook's illegal boxing ring), and I am let loose in the town of Dead End, and that's where I stopped.

My verdict - tedious, but it has not yet made me want to gouge out my eyes.