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?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Kidnapped. Imprisoned. Tortured. The wizard Irenicus holds you captive in his stronghold, attempting to strip you of the powers that are your birthright. 

Can you resist the evil within you, forge a legend of heroic proportions, and ultimately destroy the dark essence that haunts your dreams? Or will you embrace your monstrous nature, carve a swath of destruction across the realms, and ascend to godhood as the new Lord of Murder? 

Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition brings this critically acclaimed role-playing experience to back to life.

Previous Play Time

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

As I said in my opening post for Baldur's Gate I'd often heard the name in association with the all-time great rpgs. That was my primary motive for buying the first one. It was only later that I heard  the recommendation that people skip the first one and move directly to the second. Needless to say, this dismayed me greatly, but it wasn't until the most recent sale that it got enough of a discount for me to take the plunge. It was probably inevitable that I'd get it, though. It's practically a compulsion. If things come in sets, I'm not entirely comfortable until I have the whole set. It's not an irresistible impulse or anything, but it definitely influenced my purchase.

Expectations and Prior Experience

When I played Baldur's Gate, I felt like it was a deeply flawed game with enormous potential. Thus, I am really excited about playing Baldur's Gate II. I expect it to be better balanced, have more (and more meaningful) choices, and for the plot to actually be comprehensible before the last hour and a half of the game.

On the other hand, it's still based off AD&D second edition, so far all the inevitable extra polish that comes with a sequel, it's entirely possible that I may find myself stymied by frustration. I have a strong hope that I'll get to the end of this one, and am optimistic about my chances, but I'm not 100% certain that I'll be able to make it.

So, I think I'll make a wager with myself. If I can get to the end of Baldur's Gate II's main story, I will reward myself by playing Planescape: Torment next (it's not on my Steam list, but I'll blog about as if it were). If I can't, I'll punish myself by going directly to Dungeons and Dragons Online (which I quit shortly after character creation - I've since heard this was a wise decision).

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition - 31 hours

I almost made it. According to the walkthrough, I got up to the second to the last battle. In theory, it should only take a few minutes to finish, but so many of my party members died that continuing on was impossible. I suspect I'm underleveled, but making my way back to a suitable grinding area would take so long that I've decided it'll be a better use of my time to move on to Baldur's Gate: II.

It turns out that the Iron Throne was at a the center of a conspiracy to use doppelgangers to in infiltrate the upper ranks of Baludr's Gate's high society. I tracked down the leadership, beat on them a bit, and was eventually framed for the murder of some high-ranking Iron Throne operatives that I would have killed anyway (they were doppelgangers). Once I got out of prison, I made another raid on the Iron Throne's tower and learned that their leader, Sarevok, was running the organization into the ground in his effort to become Grand Duke of Baldur's Gate and inflame the passions of anti-amnian factions to start a war and use the spiritual power of the slain to ascend to godhood. (Called it!)

As it happens, both Sarevok and Aryfa are children of Baal, the god of murder. We have a touching family reunion in the Duke's palace, just as Sarevok is being crowned. We have documents that prove he was behind a bunch of political assassination, and that leads to a brawl. But Sarevok escaped at the last minute, and led me on a merry chase through a maze under the thieves guild.

It was at the end of the maze that I ran into some remnant Iron Throne bounty hunters who wanted to kill both Sarevok and my party for their crimes against the organization. They successfully do so at least a half dozen times, and because I didn't get enough sleep for the past a couple of days, and I'm kind of grumpy, I chose this time to quit. I just know that I would completely fail to beat the final boss.

Overall, this game feels like a prototype. It has a lot of promise, but too many points of sloppy execution and missed potential. I've got my fingers crossed that Baldur's Gate II will deliver on that promise.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition - 26 hours

It's 26 hours in, and I am finally at the titular Baldur's Gate. Honestly, the thought of exploring a new city exhausts me. Talking with npcs is so time consuming, and probably my third least favorite part of the game (behind the ultra-deadly low levels and the slow rate of xp advancement). It's not a genre thing, though. I loved exploring the worlds of Mass Effect or Fallout. I'm simply not very interested in what's going on.

It's hard to say exactly where to lay the blame. Full disclosure: I came into Baldur's Gate with an existing prejudice against the Forgotten Realms universe. Ever since my purchase of the 3rd edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, I've found this universe to be breathtakingly dull. Even so, it was only a minor dislike, so I'm not sure that can be the cause of my disinterest.

I think the real problem is that I've only the foggiest idea about what's actually going on. It seems like there is some evil faction, possibly called the Iron Throne, that is distributing a magical, iron-weakening potion to various bandits, mercenaries, and demihumans, who use it to contaminate various iron reserves and reduce the iron supply. Meanwhile, this group is also using its political connections to exacerbate border tensions between the city-state of Baldur's Gate and the nation of Amn, ostensibly to drive up the price of their own, uncorrupted iron, and thus make a shit-ton of money from selling weapons.

However, I suspect that their apparent motive is not their real one, and that the Iron Throne are in fact servants of a darker power who has some nefarious mystical goal that will threaten more than just the Baldur's Gate region. I also suspect that the main character is somehow pivotal to this scheme, and that the weird dreams with the impenetrable symbolism that she has after basically every chapter break are somehow indicative of a potent supernatural ancestry or legendary destiny that she has yet to discover.

That last speculation is really just based on general genre-savviness, though. There's something about the way Baldur's Gate presents its story that says to me "the main character is a secret Chosen One out to stop a Hidden Evil." But obvious hints aside (such as the mysterious clerical powers I get after my symbolic dreams, or the way Gorion and all of his friends seem to think I'm something special), the game doesn't really explore this much, and does virtually nothing to make the potential resolution of this mystery seem interesting.

So, I'm not sure I really care all that much about finishing the game. I've been cut loose in this big city with no real clue as to where to go next (the captain of the guard wants me to undertake a stealth mission - yeah right), and I'm absolutely positive that it will be another few hours before I raise in level. However, I also feel like I must be pretty close to the end, and it would be a shame to quit now.

The deciding factor will probably wind up being the difficulty of future fights. To get to Baldur's Gate, I had to kill Daveaorn, a powerful mage who repeatedly embarrassed my entire party. I got through it eventually (the solution involved kiting his assistant monsters, not engaging him until they were killed, and then sending in a hasted, berserking Arjyfa to take him out solo), but it was kind of an overwhelming fight. Future ones, in theory, should be even worse. If the difficulty curve keeps rising, I'm not at all confident in my party's ability to keep up (minus a bunch of tedious grinding that I'm not prepared to do).

The plan, then, is to keep going until I face my first serious obstacle and then give up if it takes more than, say, a half hour to overcome. It's a quitter's way, to be sure, but I've still got to play the sequel, and it would be a shame to become disgusted with the series before that can happen.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

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

Aryfa, the half-orc berserker has finally caught up with Trent the illusionist. She cleared out the Nashkel mines and defeated Tranzig. In the process, she soloed up to level 5, and recruited a party of level 6 companions. The weird thing is that the two save files took around the same time to play. This game is . . . not very well balanced.

I think Baldur's Gate represents both the best and the worst of old-school gaming. It very accurately models the AD&D ruleset, including a wide variety of spells, classes, monsters, and magic items. It's an ambitious design that creates an enormous potential for deep strategy and boundless replayability. Yet the flip side of this is that the video game elements of Baldur's Gate are unsophisticated and haphazardly implemented. In emulating a pen-and-paper ruleset, they incorporated a lot of legacy mechanics that simply do not work without a DM to vitiate their failure modes.

The aforementioned pacing issues are a prime example. It is positively perverse that you can recruit a six person party, play for 10 hours, and still be at level one, and also play a one person party for six hours, get to level five, and then recruit five level six party members. And it's doubly frustrating when it turns out that the solo character has fewer deaths and more combat power than an entire low level party, even at level one (this is due to a quirk of how AD&D's rules work - high physical stats can get you 2-3 levels worth of combat benefits).

Similarly, combat is, 90% of the time, a total whiff-fest. The random die rolls that power the system have a small chance to "hit" a competently built character. However, spells and other magical effects are difficult to resist, so you'd have things like a single ghoul (a low level monster) wiping out an entire party because it also has paralyzing claws, and once the front-line fighters are out of the picture, the various mages and rogues have no chance of connecting with attacks.

These are all things that, were I DM'ing Baldur's Gate as a D&D game, I would be able to work around, but the computer just throws them at me, and trusts that I'll be able to figure it out. And I have very mixed feelings about that. It's kind of exhilarating, having that kind of freedom to explore, to make my own destiny, and to potentially break the game by discovering broken combos. Yet it is also exhausting, having to constantly be working the angles, always on the lookout for the myriad ways in which the system can plain screw you over.

Honestly, what I really want to do is play Baldur's Gate II. My hope is that the makers learned a lesson from both the strengths and the weakness of the first game and delivered a more tightly tuned experience that could somehow offer the freedom of an open-ended AD&D-based rpg, while also somehow ditching (or at least minimizing) the awful arbitrariness of the pure rules-as-written.

It's something to look forward to, at least. For now, I'm going to try and finish Baldur's Gate. I'm no farther in the plot than I was at hour 10, but I am level 5, and optimistic about my chances going forward. I think I've passed the worst of AD&D's meat-grinder levels, and am now sturdy enough to start raking in some serious xp. Hopefully, that will give me enough momentum to get to the end of the main story.

Wish me luck!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition - 15/20 hours

This game has defeated me.  Oh, I'll still play to at least 20 hours (if Bad Rats couldn't stop me, I imagine nothing will), but my dream of becoming the greatest mage in the realms is dead. I managed to beat Mulahey, thanks to Imoen's wand of magic missiles, but that still wasn't enough to bump me up to level 2, and after that, it was more or less one humiliation after another. The straw that broke the camel's back was Zal, "the fastest dart thrower in the west." I took out his partner, Vax, easily enough, and then he proceeded to wipe out my entire party.

With darts.

To be fair, thanks to a quirk in the rules of AD&D 2nd edition, a high strength fighter specialized in darts is actually one of the strongest low level builds, and it's more than a little funny that the makers of Baldur's Gate referenced this absurdity in the game, but nevertheless, it is not at all fun to be on the receiving end of such cheese.

So, I started over, and built for survivability. I'm playing a half-orc fighter with max physical stats. Thanks to weapon specialization and armor, I'm now soloing encounters that used to wipe my entire party, and because I haven't recruited any npcs (and dismissed mandatory party member Imoen - I hope like hell that doesn't come back to bite me in the ass), I'm now level 3. My plan is to continue fighting random monsters by myself until I reach level 5 and then recruit a party. Hopefully, I'll be able to then snag a spellcaster with level 3 spells and enough hit points to not instantly die, and the fighter types will be accurate enough to actually hit the enemy more often than not.

I think this will work, and that I'll actually be able to get to the end of the game this way. I just wish I could have done it as a badass arch-mage (speaking of which, I noticed a bug - when you play a specialist mage, you can memorize any spell in your extra slot, by the rules you should only be able to put your specialist school spells in that slot - I wonder what other ways my knowledge of AD&D's rules might be screwing me over).

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition - 10/20 hours

I've played this game for ten hours. Out of those ten hours, seven have been spent with Trent, the illusionist. He, and all but one of his party members, are still level 1. I don't think I've ever played a level-based game with such glacial pacing. I must be doing something wrong.

I can't imagine what that might be, though. I've been more or less following exactly where my journal has told me to go - to the mines of Nishakel, to investigate the iron shortage. And once in the mines, I didn't feel particularly underleveled. It's filled almost exclusively with kobolds, the weakest enemies in the monster manual (they are 1/2 hit die creatures), so if I were higher level, it would be gratuitous overkill.

Yet seven freaking hours at level one. It's starting to wear on me. I chose to play a magic user because I wanted to have fun with higher level spells. Even if I don't technically need them yet, it's still getting a little dull not having any new geegaws to play with. Though, actually, now that I think about, these kobolds have still managed to kill me often enough that maybe I do need more power (or at least more than 4 hp). I'd go somewhere else to grind, but there's no way I'm finding anything more survivable than kobolds.

Maybe I should have pursued more sidequests. They're a bit harder to find than in other rpgs, because most of the npcs look a lot alike, and many are generic "commoners," "guards," or "nobles."There is no easy way to tell at a glance who is an important, named character (also, for some reason Baldur's Gate does not especially honor the standard rpg conventions - at least half the people I meet will complain about me barging into their houses uninvited - it's silly, but their opprobrium had made me reluctant to do too much exploring).

It also doesn't help that the biggest, most obvious sidequests seem to come with the baggage of extra party members - finding Dynaheir attracts Minsc and his miniature giant space hamster, tracking down certain bandits involves getting entangled with Dorn, the blackguard. And while I don't really object to these guys, the maximum party size is 6, and thus getting anyone new would involve losing someone who's already earned half a level's worth of xp.

So, while I'm sure I've passed up a few easy xp gets, I'm also sure that there's not really a better place for me to be than the mines. There, at least, I know I can beat the majority of the enemies (though I don't know why I bother, the kobolds give me something like 2 xp apiece). I once decided to explore off the beaten path a little, in an area called High Hedge. I was able to beat the small band of gnolls I encountered, but then, without warning, I ran into a flesh golem! Why put such a high level creature so close to the beginning of the game? It's just a tpk time-bomb resting in area adjacent to the game's first town.

It's probably an old-school, hardcore thing I don't understand. Like seeding the various inns with assassins who can potentially wipe a whole level one party (my fight with Neira, the level 4 warrior, was a complete farce). Or giving the boss of the first dungeon a paralysis spell that can take out all of my front-line fighters, rendering my mages (who, if you recall, only have four fucking hit points), vulnerable to being ripped apart by skeletons (the disadvantage of being an illusionist crops up here).

That being said, I'm not ready to give up quite yet. I'm hoping that I'm just in the middle of a particularly weak portion of the game, and if I can make it out of this slump, I'll find an area with slightly tougher monsters who will raise my rate of xp gain to something acceptable, and that the hit points from new levels will make the game less luck-driven, and that a wider selection of spells will give me more options to deal with the occasional difficult encounter.

It's not a perfect plan, but it's the best I have for now. If things don't get better soon, I may have to start a new character and follow some advice I read on the forums - avoid recruiting a party until after I complete a bunch of easy fetch-quests, then, when others join my party, they'll automatically scale to my higher level (I can't do this now because quest xp splits evenly amongst your party).

Low level AD&D is definitely an acquired taste, which kind of makes me curious why the makers of Baldur's Gate decided to drag it out for so long.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition - 5/20 hours

It's an odd thing, starting a new rpg. They always present you with a variety of choices for your character, some of which can have a dramatic effect on how you experience the game. This leads, inevitably, to a certain amount of choice paralysis. What's the best way to play? Will choosing a particular class close off a significant portion of the game's content? What will I most enjoy?

So, it's practically a law of nature that I will play the opening hours of any rpg at least twice, and potentially as many as a dozen times. And that's more or less what I've been doing for the past three hours. I started a new character, Margaritte the Kensai, and went through the opening of the game a second time.

Margaritte is a much stronger character than Trent, primarily because fighters are better at low level than mages and also because I spent an hour or so rerolling her stats so as to get an optimum character (this is not quite as ridiculous as it sounds, because I was watching tv at the time). Though the difference in strength was noticeable, it hasn't made a huge difference yet. Trent stayed at the back of the group, and thus in both cases, it's been my NPC companions who have been getting repeatedly killed.

Keeping everyone alive is mostly a matter of luck and reloading whenever my luck fails. The really deadly fights didn't start until the town of Beregost, which had at least two major brawls. A young woman named Neera was being attacked by "magic bandits" who turned out to be the notorious red wizards of Thay. They wanted to study her anomalous and reckless magic powers (i.e. wild magic, the specialty I toyed with before choosing to be an illusionist).

In the fray, Xzar got killed, leaving me the choice of reloading and trying again or simply accepting the loss and recruiting Neera in his place. It's tricky, because I don't like losing a character, but I wouldn't have been able to keep both, due to the party cap, and the trade was a mage for a mage. And seeing as how Xzar was evil and Neera was neutral, it was really a better fit anyway.

The other big brawl was with Silke, actress extraordinaire. She wanted some bodyguards because she was being threatened, but the it turns out she was lying in order to assassinate her business partners. Being "good," I wanted no part of this, so I took her out. This took me about a half dozen reloads to beat, and when I got through it, I got the opportunity to recruit a new character - Garrik, the bard. I decided that he would be a good replacement for Montaron. It kind of bugs me that I won't be able to finish Montaron's quest, but he was evil, so I'm fairly sure it wasn't something I'd have wanted to do anyway.

I think I will stick with Trent. I rolled his stats honestly, and I really like magic. However, I will keep Margaritte as a backup character, just in case I get too frustrated to continue.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

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

So far, this has not been as bad as I'd feared. Following some advice I got on the forums, I've been taking it slow and using ranged weapons, so I haven't died yet, but I still don't feel like I'm out of the woods yet. I'm still level 1, and thus incredibly vulnerable.

I started off playing the tutorial, which was somewhat helpful, but I couldn't finish it because it glitched out while teaching me to pick locks. This does not fill me with a great deal of confidence, but of course, crpgs are notorious for being bug-ridden, so I'm not too worried yet.

The game itself opens with a Nietzsche quote, which, I don't know, maybe it wasn't a cliche back then. I'm not sure it really adds anything or is particularly genre appropriate, but it's not that big a deal. After that, a big armored dude with glowy eyes shows up, murders some other dude, and the game, proper, begins.

Because I love magic users, and am also a masochist, I make my character a human Illusionist, named Trent. The interesting thing about the character creation in this game is that it digs deep into D&D 2e's system, allowing you to customize your class with kits (kits are a thing from D&D 2e - they usually give you a bonus to some subset of a class's abilities and a penalty to some other subset, so that you can, say, take a thief and turn it into an assassin). I also think they may have splashed a little 3e into the Enhanced Edition, because sorcerer and monk are also options. They looked kind of tempting, but a specialist wizard's extra spell per day was simply too good to pass up.

The story of the game, thus far, is that Trent was a mysterious orphan who was raised in the citadel of Candlekeep (which is something of a monastic library) by a wizard named Gorion. Lately, Gorion has been growing distant, and the night before the game begins, he came to Trent in an agitated state, shoved some gold into his hands, and told him to pack his bags.

So, of course, I use that as an excuse to wander around Candlekeep, doing sidequests, and getting in some shopping. None of the sidequests are particularly interesting, though I do deliver an identify scroll to a guy named Firebead Elvenhair, so, you know, that was weird.

While I'm searching the town, I'm ambushed by a guy named Cabros. Even though he says I have a pretty face, he nonetheless decides that I'd be better off dead. He seems to know me, somehow, but the reason for his enmity is not yet clear.

Still, it's enough of a wake up call to get me to meet up with Gorion, who insists we immediately flee Candlekeep. He won't explain why we're going, or even where, and I never get a chance to find out, because we're almost instantly ambushed by the asshole from the opening movie, who survives a barrage of Gorion's magic and then murders the hell out of him.

After that, my "childhood friend" Imoen shows up out of nowhere. Candlekeep won't let us back in (the jerks), so our only lead is the Friendly Arm Inn, where a couple of Gorion's cronies are waiting for us. Along the way, we meet up with Montaron and Xzar, a couple of totally not evil travelers who, apparently, have no problem recruiting random strangers into their mercenary schemes. They need help shaking down the Nashkel iron mines. I tell them I've got people to meet. They decide that this delay is not a problem and promptly join my party. So I guess they're the helpful and reasonable sort of evil mercenaries.

The Friendly Arm Inn itself is actually more of a fortress than an inn. According to local gossip, it used to belong to an undead priest of the god of murder, but after some adventurers cleared it out, they thought, "you know, this cursed temple devoted to dark and bloody powers would make an absolutely charming hotel."

On my way into the inn, I'm attacked by another assassin. This is as far as I got last time I played, because my entire party was already dead and this guy cut through me like I was nothing. This time, thanks to saving every five minutes and then camping for days whenever anyone in my party so much as stubbed their toe, I arrived with a full complement, and my meatshields were able to make short work of him. The annoying thing was that he was able to get off some kind of confusion spell just before he died, and so even though there was no enemy to take advantage of it, 3/4 of my party spent the better part of two minutes just wandering around randomly, not responding my commands, because annoying mechanics like that are just how AD&D 2e says "hello."

The assassin had a letter addressed to "all those of evil intent" (another huge  D&Dism - not only to people willingly self-identify as "evil," they have a freaking mailing list). Apparently, the big bad is gunning for Trent hard, and is willing to pay a bounty to whoever can bring in his head. Exciting.

Inside the inn, I learn a bit of history, catch up with the local gossip (the big news is that the local mine is producing really shitty iron), and learn another ridiculous name. One of the patrons complains about their short-tempered guardian, called (seriously) Ragefast.

After talking to about a dozen random people, I finally stumble blindly into my contacts Khalid and Jaheira. As luck would have it, they too want to check out the situation in Nashkel (which, at least, delays the inevitable awkward conversation with half my party). They are mostly unremarkable thus far. Khalid has a stutter, and Jaheira is a multiclass Druid/Fighter (as I recall, this is not a legal combination in AD&D 2e, so hopefully that means she is hugely overpowered).

So far, I've got good reason to feel optimistic. All of my fights have been fairly easy, and I have a large and (potentially) powerful party. However, low-level AD&D is so governed by luck that it would be a mistake to settle into a false sense of security. The RNG has been in my favor, granting me a couple of clean wins, but a good series of rolls is no more likely than a bad one, and it's probably only a matter of time before I face a total party wipe. I'll just have to remember to save often, rest compulsively, and be comfortable with the inevitable reloads.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (from the Steam Store Page)

Since its initial release in 1998, Baldur's Gate has entertained millions of fans around the globe and has received countless awards. This classic saga of mystery, intrigue, and adventure has set the standard for Dungeons & Dragons™ computer roleplaying games ever since. 

Running on an upgraded and improved version of the Infinity Engine, Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition™ includes the entire Baldur's Gate adventure, the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion pack, and never-before-seen content including a new adventure and three new party members: the Calishite monk Rasaad yn Bashir, Neera the wild mage, and Dorn Il-Khan, the evil blackguard.

Previous Play Time

2 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I'd often heard Baldur's Gate mentioned whenever people talked about the pantheon of classic crpg's, and it was on sale for five bucks, so I decided to give it a shot.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've actually had this game for quite awhile. I started a character, played for a couple of hours, and got so frustrated with constantly dying all the time that I gave up. This should have come as no surprise to me, because I played AD&D for years, and low-level AD&D is like a living nightmare. I've since come to suspect that Baldur's Gate 2 is the classic and Baldur's Gate is more like a tech demo.

I'll admit, I'm kind of dreading playing this game. I love rpgs, and I know that if I can survive the first few levels, it should get a lot more playable, but that's the trick, isn't it? Still, it comes very highly recommended, so I can only assume that it has a lot to offer those who stick it out. I'm sure that, by the end, I'll be a believer. Luckily, I have my self-imposed deadline to keep me on task.

Wish me luck.

FEZ - 20/20 hours

I think I owe FEZ an apology. I thought it hid vital gamelplay information behind a cipher and punished me for playing casually. However, after translating a significant amount of the in-game text, I'm pretty sure that whatever hints are out there, they are few and unessential.

Which, I guess, means that a significant minority of the game's puzzles are actually nonsensical and arbitrary, which kind of bums me out. Yet, those puzzles aren't really necessary to complete the game, so I really have no reason to get upset.

Logically, I understand this:

Something I like + nothing = something I like
optional thing I don't like = functionally nothing
 Something I like + optional thing I don't like = something I like.

And I did really enjoy FEZ's platforming, so what I should take away from this experience is that FEZ is an enjoyable game and a pleasant way to kill five or six hours. I wouldn't turn my nose up at a nice, juicy steak just because it was served with a side of peas (I hate peas), so why should I begrudge those five hours of 2-D/3-D fun just because I could potentially spend another five tediously searching for coded messages?

Yet I feel like it's the codes that are going to stick with me. The biggest part of this is probably because I did them last, but I can't deny the irritation I felt when I saw the map tell me that certain levels were incomplete, nor the false hope that by pressing on and exploring farther into the game, I would encounter some new mechanic that made those hidden secrets a bit more transparent (the room where you have the best chance to learn the directional code is completely missable). And those were not feelings I enjoyed.

I really hate to be a contrarian about this, I hear this is a very popular game, and it is easy to see why, but I only enjoyed myself about 75% of the time I played it, and thus I don't think I'll be returning to it any time soon. I figure it's probably a personal failing, though. As much as I like to think of myself as the sort of person who is good at solving puzzles (read: "smart"), I don't seem to enjoy them very much. I'm going to try and remain optimistic, however - this doesn't necessarily mean that I'm not smart.