Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Last Remnant - 15/20 hours

I inadvertently accomplished nothing over the past five hours. I was worried about my party being underequipped, so I resolved to correct the issue. However, you can't just buy weapons for your characters. Instead, they will upgrade their own weapons by taking a cut of your after-battle spoils. In order to make them more powerful, you have to track down the materials they need, and farm monsters until the necessary items drop. With the help of the wiki, that's exactly what I've been doing.

The last five hours have been - go to a place, fight monsters, cross fingers, get disappointed, try again. I did get to use David's Remnant for the first time, which was cool. But I died, which wasn't. Even more uncool is the fact that I have no control whatsoever on when the Remnant shows up in my command list. From the research I've done online, it appears that the commands available to you in any given round are chosen randomly from a list of dozens of possible commands, and while it is subject to influence by the circumstances of the battle, there are no guarantees. Which means that I can basically never use my super attacks, and on more than one occasion, I've needed to heal my characters, but the option was not there.

It's funny. I'm not especially unhappy playing this game, but all I have to say about it are complaints. I'm not sure how I feel about it. I think the issue is that the good aspects of this game are purely generic. Having a party and fighting a variety of exotic monsters with menu commands while exploring a map and gathering equipment in an ever-escalating reward cycle is a solid formula for a game. Some of my all-time favorite games followed that formula. I suppose the worst thing I can say about The Last Remnant is that it completely fails to improve on the jrpg fundamentals.

If I wanted to say something nice about the game, I'd say that I admire its willingness to take risks and try new ideas. The fact that you can control literally dozens of unique characters is pretty neat. And I suppose, in theory, not having control over your party's inventory is really just the flip side of not having to micromanage your party's inventory. The Remnants themselves are visually arresting, though I feel like I've been waiting too long to see them in action.

I still have five hours to go, and it is my hope that the incidental grinding I've done thus far has not ruined the future level-scaling.  The main reason I worried so much about upgrading my people's weapons is that I'm afraid of getting so far ahead in the story that the proper upgrade materials will stop dropping, and thus my equipment will get stuck at a low level, yet I wound up gaining something like eight or nine battle rank in the process of loot-farming. I can't help feeling like my current course is headed for disaster.

If I'm lucky, I'll run out the clock before that happens.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Last Remnant - 10/20 hours

The tricky thing about computer rpgs is that you never know when you're going to stumble ass-backwards into a cutscene filibuster. I'll admit, cutscenes are probably the most straightforward way to tell a video game story - you simply animate a movie and then show it to the audience one scene at a time in between gameplay segments. However, I'm finding that this structure makes the game's pacing really clunky.

I can't help wondering if this is a problem unique to The Last Remnant, or whether it is something endemic to video games as a whole, and I'm just now noticing. I'm dredging my memory for cutscene-heavy games I've previously enjoyed to see if I can discern whether I love those games because of their cutscenes or despite them.

-- snip several minutes of me navel-gazing--

The conclusion I'm coming up with is that it's too broad a question to have a simple answer. I can recall several cutscenes that are among my favorite moments in all of gaming - the Reaper Sovereign attacking the Citadel in Mass Effect or the way Queen Brahne used the Atmos Eidolon to savage Lindblum in Final Fantasy IX. On the other hand, the number of times a cutscene has frustrated, annoyed, or bored me is literally too high to count. I guess I could give a wishy-washy answer about how they must therefore be like any other form of art, and have good and bad examples, but I won't because I have a theory.

The thing about video games that makes them different from just about every other form of storytelling media is that they give you the sensation of being in control of the story. Even when the game itself is just a straight line through successive levels, it's still the case that the story does not advance unless you have the skill to survive. Cutscenes, then, work best when they disguise or downplay your lack of narrative control. And there are several ways you can do this. You could make your cutscenes really short. If you're using a level structure, then interstitial cutscenes work fairly well because they come at exactly the time the player is expecting to lose control. Alternately, you could take the sort of information that would normally go into a cutscene and put it into the world, like with Bioshock's collectible audio files or Velvet Assassin's overheard Nazi conversations. It's still spoon-feeding the player story, but they get to decide if they want to access it. Or you could make the cutscenes dynamic, allowing the player to influence them by presenting choices mid-scene. Bioware and Bethesda both do this a lot with their dialogue trees. Finally, you could present the story without actually interrupting play, like with Bastion's dynamic narration or Borderlands 2's ECHO communications.

The Last Remnant doesn't do any of those things. It's not always clear what will start up a cutscene. Encountering and defeating a boss will usually do it, but I've triggered some by talking to certain characters, entering new areas, and once by reentering a previously visited area. And they are usually fairly long. Five minutes seems to be about the average, though I'm certain that I got at least one ten-minute cutscene. This strikes me as fundamentally bad structure, but it could in fact be redeemed if these mini-movies were especially interesting or entertaining.

Unfortunately, they're not. Don't get me wrong, I find myself moderately intrigued by the world and the backstory of The Last Remnant, but when the game bothers to advance its narration, it usually does so in the form of blandly attractive characters discussing their relationships. It's like A Game of Thrones but without all the sex and violence. Occasionally, you will get a bit of pyrotechnics when one of the characters uses magic, but that is usually preceded then followed by a whole bunch of talking. For example, there's this character called The Conqueror who boldly marched into the capitol of the federation of Remnant-wielders and bound a Remnant called the Ark, which is apparently a huge deal because it can allow the living to visit the land of the dead. So naturally, this is the sort of gesture that would cause various world leaders to freak out - which they do by sending the chairman of their council to speak to the Conqueror and promise him a Remnant of his very own (and in this world, if you can bind a major remnant, that also carries with it political authority over the territory surrounding the Remnant) if he will unbind the Ark. He agrees, and that's pretty much it. In a later cutscene, we learn that the council has been subsequently divided over whether they support inducting this newcomer or whether they prefer the status quo - from a speech David makes to Rush about why his city-state can not move openly to help him.

There is plenty of intrigue and potential action in the game. Rush's parents are working on some kind of super meta-magic that can shut down the Remnants. David implied that if the major Remnants were ever used in a war, it would be like a clash of WMDs. There's this character called the God-Emperor that everyone is afraid of/respects who has not yet been seen onscreen, but who apparently employs women in bikinis and their giant minotaur bodyguards to go from place to place heralding the apocalypse. These are potentially interesting events, so why do I always have to learn about them through speeches?

I am, of course, the last person in the world to fault another for being overly prolix, but I am holding out hope that they are merely laying the groundwork for a more epic final act. I think I would be more tolerant of the talking if I were enjoying the actual game more.

The problem I have with it is that the mechanics are extremely opaque. You've got this thing called a Battle Rank, but I'm not sure what it does. According to the research I've done online, this isn't actually a measure of my party's power, but affects the level scaling of enemies. So I'm not sure whether I'm actually powerful enough to get through my current missions. I had some real trouble getting through the catacombs, with my troops' morale starting with a huge deficit for reasons I could not comprehend.

What I would ordinarily do in this situation is grind up my stats, but I don't really know how. Add on top of that the system for upgrading your party's equipment is incredibly complex, involving the hunting down of a huge number of resources (with no indication of where you need to go to search for them) and distributing them indirectly, with no particular system of controlling who gets what.

With all that said, I think this post might have come across as overly harsh. The Last Remnant is an aggressively average game. I may not know what I'm doing, but moving through the maps and taking on random enemies is moderately absorbing. I'm not sure whether I will go past 20 hours (not unless the plot starts to heat up - I really I want to see those huge Remnants in action), but I don't think the last ten will be too terribly onerous.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Last Remnant - 5/20 hours

I'm starting to have reservations about this game. It's nothing fatal to my enjoyment of the game, but it is a minor concern that has the potential to grow into a major complaint. It all started around hour four, when I faced off against a major boss. It had an extremely dangerous attack, called Inferno Insignia that could almost completely defeat me in a single hit. I had to fight it about five times, and I got the feeling that my final victory was mostly due to a favorable turn of the random number generator.

The problem I foresee is that I don't really understand the game's advancement. Did I whiff against that boss because I was underleveled, or is it just that the game is kind of tough? It's hard to say, because sometimes one of my characters will gain more hit points or intelligence, and that makes sense, but is it enough? Other times I'll gain a stat like "bravery" or "love," and I can't help wondering what these will do for me. And then "gluttony" levels up, and I'm sure the game is fucking with me.

This is compounded by the fact that the equipment system is incredibly baroque. Each of the game's weapons has its own upgrade chain, which requires a number of different resources of one of dozens of different types. How fast am I supposed to gather these resources? Plus, my biggest source of gold is captured monsters, but ripping apart captured monsters (and this is a choice that makes me uncomfortable, because it sounds kind of cruel) gets you extra resources, so what is the proper balance between collection and butchery? Making sure I advance at the correct rate could prove to me a major chore.

As far as the plot goes, I don't know, stuff is happening. Rush found his sister being held by a guy named Wagrum, who is some kind of super-powerful mage that can summon black holes capable of incapacitating my entire party, and is responsible for activating the aforementioned boss. Then suddenly a bunch of complicated political stuff starts happening. Wagrum claims to work for the same Academy as Rush's parents, which is apparently some sort of powerful extra-national organization that doesn't answer to any government and occasionally does some unethical experiments with Remnants.

So Althum, the city-state that has so far befriended Rush, is made very nervous by this situation, and they have to tread carefully around the larger city state, Celapaleis, to which they swear fealty (but have an antagonistic relationship). And Wagrum serves some other, as yet unnamed, master, who may or may not be part of the Academy.

Honestly, it's kind of a drag. Rush is a little more tolerable, but every time he calls David "Dave" it makes me want to slap him. He got a new outfit, which is hopefully a metaphor for his character growth, and maybe in time he'll be less annoying. Assuming I survive that long.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Last Remnant - 2/20 hours

I am going to try and avoid doing a detailed recap of this game. After the first half hour, I had three pages of notes filled with the various proper names, relationships, and plot implications. That's pretty par for the course for these sorts of games. Though The Last Remnant got pretty involved, pretty fast, I've actually seen worse in this regard. It was only about 15 minutes or so before I got control of my character.

The Last Remnant is hilariously Japanese. The main character is named "Rush Sykes" and no one at all seems aware of the oddness of the name. There's another character who looks to be about thirty-five and is written as if she were eighty years old. Her name is Emma Honeywell. The authority figure who helps you out, the Marquis of Athlum, David Nassau, is an astonishingly pretty man (and the over-accentuated way they pronounce it Dah-veed as if it were an exotic name).

The general plot of the game is that there are these ancient magical relics called Remnants which range from minor doodads like self-opening treasure chests to landscape-dominating features like the giant sword in Athlum. Rush's parents are researchers who study the Remnants, and one day his sister was kidnapped by monsters. Rush would have died, but he was saved by a mysterious power. Now these Althum people are helping him, presumably out of the goodness of their hearts (though I have a suspicion that they're doing it to get to Rush's parents).

I'm not far enough into the game to have a strong opinion about it. Rush is a huge dork. I think his impulsiveness and lack of tact are supposed to represent a charming openness and innocence, but when he called David "Dave" I was like "who the hell is this dork?" I really wish the main character had more maturity and, um, badassness. On the other hand, the outfits are halfway decent. They're not especially great, but they do look like something humans would actually wear (do you hear me Vaan and Fran).

I've already got a couple of pointless missions under my belt, and I'm moderately optimistic about the battle system. You control a large-ish group of characters in a kind of ersatz mass combat. You've got different postures you can order your people to take, and they get bonuses or penalties based on the relative positions of the various units. It's all a little overwhelming, and I'm positive that I don't have it all figured out just yet. I haven't even touched the advancement system yet. I keep getting stat increases and I'm not sure why, and I keep collecting random junk that I know will be used for crafting later, but I don't have a clear picture of how it will all fit together.

Overall, I'd say The Last Remnant is a fun game, but I doubt I'll ever take it very seriously. I'm interested in the origin and secret of the titular Remnants, but Rush's dilemma with his sister is kind of ridiculous (his tone is all over the place, and he's just so generally boyish that I don't have a lot of respect for him). However I am perfectly comfortable with a ridiculous plot - it's a nice change of pace from the perfectly non-ridiculous plot I just got finished playing.

The Last Remnant - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Mitra, yama, qsiti, sovani... 
These four races exist in one world. 
A world filled with Remnants — mysterious artifacts from an ancient era. 
Who created the Remnant? How long ago? And for what purpose? 
With these questions left unanswered, the Remnants became beneficial tools used for the good of civilization. 
The world was at peace...or so it seemed. Who was to know such darkness lay in wait? 
The powers of the Remnants slowly began to change the world's balance. 
A rift slowly formed between those who ruled and those who obeyed. 
This was the dawning of a new era — an era of countless frays that would be brought upon the world by those enslaved by their own lust for power. 
A thousand years later, the journey of one young man begins. 
Featuring an enthralling story, countless characters and an intricate battle system, Square Enix brings the RPG experience known as The Last Remnant to the PC. 
Discover new strategies in the improved battle system. 

Previous Play Time

0 hours 

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Many years ago (I think it was 2010), I saw a memorable commercial on late-night television. It was for a fantasy rpg, but it used Jefferson Airplanes's "White Rabbit" for its soundtrack. I remember thinking it was pretty cool, but not being in the market for a new game at the time. Fast forward to the summer sale of 2014, when I'm in the middle of an irresponsible shopping binge, and what should I see . . . but a completely different game of the same genre with a somewhat (but not really) similar sounding name. I buy it, and then try and look up the commercial that stuck with me for all these years, only to find, about three or four days after I made my purchase, that the game I was thinking of was Lost Odyssey and not The Last Remnant

This may well be the nadir of my shopping addiction. At least, I can hope so.

Expectations and Prior Experience

When I was a teenager, Square rpgs were the thing. I played the hell out of the SNES Final Fantasies and Secret of Mana, and, to a lesser extent, various PS1-era games like FFIX and Chrono Cross. However, it's been a long time since I've played this kind of game. The last one I finished was Final Fantasy XII on the PS2, and while I enjoyed myself, I was somewhat alienated by the strange character designs and incomprehensible plot.

My big worry, going into this, is that I won't be able to understand what the hell is going on. It'd be really embarrassing trying to write about one of these new-school Square plots and getting a bunch of details wrong. On the other hand, this genre is very familiar to me, and so long as the mechanics are relatively engaging (grind enemies, numbers go up is all I really expect from a jrpg, but if it lets me choose which numbers go up, I'll probably like it quite a bit), I don't really see how it can go wrong.

What I'm expecting most is that this game is going to take a really long time to finish. RPGs are not, traditionally speaking, a short genre, and unlike, say, the Bethesda titles, Square's RPGs have always focused on telling a single particular story where stuff going on to the side is typically short and inessential, so there's likely to be no chance of rushing the main quest to get the game technically "done." It's the end or bust for me (though that doesn't preclude me simply giving up 20 hours in, but I'd prefer to avoid that if possible).

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Velvet Assassin - 20/20 hours

No real new experiences in the last four hours. I made the sneaking easier, which aided in navigating the levels, but even with the aid of a guide, finding the various collectibles was not trivial. They're so small and often tucked away in isolated corners.

I'm not sure how I feel about playing the game in this detail-focused way. There's something distasteful about doing a scavenger hunt trough a ghetto. I suppose it's a disconnect between medium and the message. They're trying to tell a serious story, but because it's a video game, you still have to do all these silly little errands in order to make it sufficiently "video gamey." From that perspective, it is perhaps overly perverse of me to fault it for that. On the other hand, it's the Holocaust.

I don't really care for the seriousness of the game's subject matter. Call me shallow if you will, but I like frivolity in my games. Obviously, serious games should exist. I can't even fault an artist adding excessive darkness to a work. Whenever I try and do anything artistic, I start out with the intention of doing something fun and funny and it always somehow morphs into something introspective and cynical. Yet because of this tendency, I admire the ability to create something breezy and cheerful.

Velvet Assassin is, of course, the opposite of that. I can recognize its value as a unique perspective on the story of the second world war, and as a meditation on the nature of evil. Nonetheless, I am glad to be moving on to something a little less bleak (I'm not even sure what I'll be playing next, but I can say with absolute certainty that it will be less bleak).

Velvet Assassin - 16/20 hours

I edited the game's difficulty configuration file to make me invincible for my second playthrough. It was interesting to see how short the game was when you don't have to worry about getting shot. Turns out, for every minute I spent actually doing stuff, I was spending another two just waiting around. I guess that's a hallmark of the stealth genre - it trains you to be patient, to wait for just the right moment before taking action.

It's obvious, even to me, that the invincible avenging angel who goes around stabbing Nazis in the face while they helplessly empty their weapons into her bulletproof body is a much worse game than what Velvet Assassin actually turned out to be, but I kind of enjoyed it. It felt liberating to take the enemies I had spent so much of the last twelve hours fearing and render them trivial.

Unfortunately, I wound up getting through the game far too quickly. I think, for my third playthrough, I'm going to make the game even easier by cranking down the stealth difficulty. I will use that, in combination with an online guide, to find all the collectibles and secret objectives. If that winds up taking me less than four hours, I'll tweak the settings some more to try and change the game into a shooter (I'm thinking it could be done by setting the damage to 25-50% and then doubling or tripling the amount of ammo you get).

Maybe this counts as vandalism of someone else's work, but I feel like I've already pushed myself to beat the game honestly, and therefor I've earned it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Velvet Assassin - 12.5/20 hours

I don't like to do posts at fractional hours, but I just finished Velvet Assassin and I figured I might as well talk about it. The ending was bleak. An elite German strike force called the Dirlewanger Brigade attacked the village around the hospital and Violette had to try and save the villagers.

She failed. Despite killing dozens of Nazis with a machine gun and repelling the attack, she was too late. The church where the villagers took shelter was already on fire. Then there was a second Nazi wave, Kamm survived with burns on his face, and Violette's last words were "I fall into nothing." Over the end credits, Violette frolics through an autumn field that is surely symbolic of something (the afterlife, maybe, or perhaps Violette's disconnect from reality when she can't cope with the fact that she failed to stop the Nazis).

I'm going to go out on I limb and take a political stance here, but I really don't like the Nazis. They make me angry. I hate the way they take liberties with other people's bodies for the sake of ideology. I don't understand how it's even possible to come to the conclusion that you can roll tanks into another country and take their land and kill their people. It's not behavior that matches any sort of civilized standard of conduct. Any sort of justification you could come up with for that would have to be so transparently vacuous and self-serving that it is shocking that it could ever stand up to scrutiny.

Yet the thing that annoys me most about the Nazis is the way that people never seem to learn the right lesson from their atrocities. It's always our enemy that is as vile as a Nazi. Their violence is always unjustifiable cruelty, whereas our violence is a regrettable necessity in pursuit of the valiant defense of our ideals. And it never occurs to us that we are engaging in the exact same systematic dehumanization as the Nazis engaged in as a precondition to their conquests. Sure, the scales are different, but so are our needs, and so much greater is the danger of being a rogue nation today. The weak can't petition the strong, nor defeat them in a peaceful forum through the force of superior merit. And as much as we say we have higher standards today, the powerful rarely (if ever) prosecute themselves when those standards are violated.

The Nazis' great crime was that they constructed the world as a simplistic romantic ideal and then cast real people as the villains. And yet even today, even after all that we've seen, we take the justifiable use of force for the preservation of human life and we somehow transform that into violence against populations. Because evil must be defeated and bystanders don't matter, accidents don't matter, pain doesn't matter. You can avoid these things. You may even prefer to avoid these things, but only if it's easy. And it's never easy enough. The innocent always bleed. And that's never too great a price to pay to fight the villains we've created in our imaginations.

The interesting thing about Velvet Assassin is that the Nazis aren't these paper villains. They are perhaps crueler than any other video game faction - an over-the-top group like Caesar's Legion is arguably worse, but there's a certain abstraction to their villainy that doesn't quite compare - but despite that cruelty, they are also recognizably human. When they speak of hunting down Jews or burning bodies, these are not cackling villain monologues, but workplace conversations. There are cracks in the facade - some of the Nazis feel regret, and others are afraid of their own hierarchy, which makes the pride some express in their work all the creepier and more relatable.

This focus on the humanity of the Nazis makes Violette practically unique among video game protagonists. She kills Nazis, but is not unreservedly a hero. She always has the right goals, but she is nonetheless a terrible figure, a remorseless killer who takes pleasure in her violence and pride in the terror she sews amongst her enemies. The game portrays her, for all intents and purposes, as a murderer (this is shown especially in some of her more extreme kill animations - they sometimes stray right into horror movie slasher territory). Yet, like the Nazis, she is not inhuman. War has made her cruel, but it's never implied that her cruelty has made her an unintelligible monster (or, if it has, it was due entirely to her situation, and not something innate and defective inside her).

I think this is what comes from developing a WW2 game in Germany. All too often in video games, Nazis are treated as basically orcs. They are generic bad guys you can kill with a clear conscience, because they are not like us. But how could a German think that? The Nazis are their no-too-distant ancestors, so the terrifying truth of their humanity can not be denied, yet neither can the horror of their deeds. Velvet Assassin is an admirable effort to reconcile those truths (even if, at times, the writing ventured into the overwrought). Its Nazis are some of the nastiest I've seen in any media, not despite their humanity, but because of it.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Velvet Assassin - 11/20 hours

Progress in a stealth game is a case of two steps forward, one step back. I'm so close to the end I can taste it, but it has not been a straight path. Making my way through the levels has involved a lot of trial and error. I'd venture into a new area, look around a bit, and get slapped down. Then, using the knowledge I'd gained, I'd survive that first trap and then stumble into the next. I'm not sure that I was killed by every, single enemy, but I surely came close.

It's more than a little frustrating. Success can feel rewarding, giving you a sense of power and knowledge and control over your environment. However, that is inevitably followed up with a new challenge that sets you back to square one. It can make the game very stressful.

Velvet Assassin is especially bad about this because in addition to the moment-by-moment challenge of sneaking past the guards, you also have a very limited stock of ammunition, health, and heroin. This gives the game a level-by-level rhythm that makes sense from a game design perspective, but sometimes sacrifices verisimilitude. For example, why can't you take the weapons off a slain Nazi? Their guns certainly work well enough against you, and the heavier weapons you find are virtually identical, yet apparently you can only wield a weapon you find in a cupboard.

It was especially frustrating in the most recent level, where you wake up from your coma and find yourself in the hospital as it's being attacked by Nazis and a major mission objective is to acquire a weapon. Around the fifth or sixth time you manage to shiv someone who has previously shot you, and then you get a quest prompt saying you need a weapon, it starts to get farcical.

Not that getting a weapon makes things much easier. You don't have a lot of endurance, there isn't a good cover system, and the enemies are a lot more accurate than you. I had to reload a dozen times or more, taking cover in a shed and waiting for them to file in one by one (the big problem there was enemies spawning in a wide-open field after I emerged from hiding and taking me out in just a couple of shots).

The story in the back half of the game has gotten very dark. My first mission had me "rescuing" a bunch of allied spies, only to find most of them dead and the last one being held in a Gestapo prison, the only help I could give him was a cyanide capsule. In the course of getting to the prison, I had to make my way through a ghetto that was in the midst of being purged.

Later, I was tasked with assassinating a German counterintelligence agent called Kamm who Violette tried to build up as kind of a dark mirror of herself, but who did not actually get enough on-screen characterization for that theory to stick. While sneaking around the inn where he was staying, I wound up seeing the innkeeper and his family hanging from a tree in the courtyard while nearby Nazis talked about rounding up the resistance.

It's funny. I can tolerate a lot of violence in my video games. Hell, I'll often insist on it. But there's this tenuous emotional line whose edges I can't quite define. I don't like to see suffering. I enjoy playing martial artists and space marines and gunzerkers and commanding armies, but that is all cartoonish in character. I don't like it when video game characters are helpless before violence. It seriously bums me out.

Maybe that makes me a bad critic, unable to appreciate a sophisticated story told in a visual medium (my taste in games maps pretty closely to my taste in movies). Velvet Assassin is certainly trying to tell a complex, mature story. Details like Violette giving cyanide to captured spies. the offhand mention of the fact that allied bombing killed thirty thousand after she helped guide the planes, the way the mysterious strangers in Violette's hospital room turn out to be Resistance agents debating on whether to give her to the Nazis to save themselves, or the casual conversations you overhear from the Nazis (which can range from Pulp Fiction-esque discussions of cultural minutiae to painful soul searching to disgustingly matter-of-fact speculation on the best way to burn bodies in a mass grave) all speak to a central theme - the way living a life of violence makes you a compromised person. Even the heroin mechanic plays into it, blurring as it does the boundaries of the self, and the lines between memory and fantasy. Violette says as much herself in the game's first cinematic - she feels more kinship with the people she fights than she does with the civilian world and she does what she does as much because she's good at is as she does for the benefit of any high ideals or loyalty to the Allied cause.

I can't say whether I find this story affecting or not, primarily because the gory details make me cringe. I don't want to praise it too greatly, because I still find Violette to be kind of a flat character who exists mainly to be coldly professional and generically unflappable. However, the game has definite ambition, so that's worth something.

It's just that it's already a stealth game, so it has its work cut out for it grabbing my attention, but add on top of it that "tiptoeing around the bodies of Holocaust victims in order to make my way through a deserted ghetto in order to make a point about the general griminess of 'heroes'" and you get a recipe for distilled anti-fun.

And while there are some who'd say that the focus on "fun" above all other concerns contributes greatly to the stultification of video games as an art form, I would say that I tend to appreciate games as more of a "craft" than an "art" (though the best games contain aspects of both) and thus prefer it when form follows function. If that makes me a philistine, so be it. I like to play with toys. And "moral fable set against the backdrop of humanity's darkest hour" is no toying matter.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Velvet Assassin - 5/20 hours

For reasons I intend not to belabor, I'm not really qualified to say whether Velvet Assassin is a good game or not. However, I'm beginning to suspect that it is not a very good game. The story is unconventional, and it can be, at times, visually striking, but the writing is inconsistent and there are bugs everywhere.

Mostly, it's just minor graphical issues. If I get too close to a moveable box or certain map edges, the camera will start to shake and bounce, as if it can't quite turn enough. Once, I got sucked into a box I was meant to climb and had to reload a previous save. Another time, I failed to sneak past some guards, but when the game reloaded the checkpoint, the guards were gone  - they just completely failed to load up.

Honestly, though, that sort of thing doesn't really bother me. None of the bugs I've encountered have been even half as annoying as the save file corruption I experienced in Fallout: New Vegas. The thing that annoys me most about this game is the shotgun. Sometimes, when you're near the end of a level and you have to fight a boss or make a quick escape, the game gives you a shotgun and expects you to just blast your way through the level . . . and it's freaking awesome.

Why can't I have the shotgun all the time? It's so much more effective than sneaking around and stabbing people in the back, as evinced by the fact that when I have it, it is almost never preferable to use stealth. Now, you'd think this might be a case of selection bias - of course the shotgun is more useful whenever you get it, because they only give it to you when you need to use it, but actually, I think that if you're only taking on one or two enemies at a time, it's even more useful.

But you know what, that's just me disagreeing with the fundamental premise of the game, so I'm going to shut up about it.

Instead, I'll talk about the writing. I said it was inconsistent before. The best part is probably the conversations you overhear between the Nazis who are unaware of your presence. These are never very deep, but they do imbue the random enemies with a certain degree of humanity and flesh out the world, so they're always welcome. On the other hand, Violette Summers is still a dull, generic character. I suppose it's a blow for gender equality, to have a female character who's as grizzled, aggressive, and affectless as any space marine.

I think it's a theme of the game - that the brutality of war makes me people brutal. The way that future-Violetta's hallucinations contrast with the action, showing her vulnerable and under threat by some sinister mystery men and juxtaposing that with gameplay where she is a virtual murder-machine creates a picture of a cycle of violence. Violetta's chickens are coming home to roost.

Of course, it kind of seems like the mystery men who are threatening future-Violetta might be Nazis, which means that if the game is playing out the way I think it is, it's casting Nazis in the role of arbiters of vengeance against a tainted hero, so it's more likely that these hallucinations are not making a greater thematic point, and only serve to stir up some classic spy-movie suspense. I'll have to wait and see which theory proves to be correct (assuming, that is, I don't flame out under the increasingly difficult stealth missions).

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Velvet Assassin - 2/20 hours

Let me get this out of the way first - I hate stealth games. I probably undersold that fact in the initial thoughts post because I was like, "oh, it's not fair to judge a game so preemptively, so I should at least give it a shot before dismissing it due to its genre." But I think my two hours with Velvet Assassin have cinched it. Stealth is just a no go for me.

I mean, I'll play a game with stealth elements, like Beyond Good and Evil or Alpha Protocol, but honestly I tried to get through those with as little sneaking as possible. And I couldn't bring myself to enjoy Dishonored, despite it having a really cool setting and story and giving me awesome magic powers. So I doubt very much that there is a stealth game on earth that can change my mind.

I say this because I don't want to be too harsh on Velvet Assassin. The things I don't like about the game are fundamental to its makeup. It turns out that if I'm going to be an assassin, I'm going to be one like Travis Touchdown. The fact that Violette Summers is much better at her job (despite being a morphine addict, apparently), is probably mostly indicative of the fact that I am not well-suited to the field.

Velvet Assassin does some genuinely interesting things. You can peek through keyholes to scope out rooms before you enter. You can dress in a stolen uniform to try and blend in with the Nazis. Walking over leaves or rubble makes you easier to detect. Unfortunately, none of these things really appeal to me, because the whole time I'm thinking "ugh, why can't I just rush in there and shoot these guys with a gun."

I'm not quite sure why the stealth genre gets under my skin as much as it does. It's especially strange because, if I'd never played this kind of game before, it would sound like something that would really interest me. Instead of just brutishly plugging away with bullets, you have to be cautious, assess the environment, and take calculated risks to solve the levels of the game as if they were puzzles An intriguing twist on the typical action formula.

It's a mystery. My current theory is based on the fact that there's another genre that provokes similar feelings for me - real time strategy games. Both genres are things I should, on paper, like, but wind up stressing me out terribly in practice. I think the common factor is that both genres require me to divide my attention. If I'm going to make a move on a guard, I have to remain aware of the position, movement, and line of sight of the other guards, and my own position and posture, so as to not alert the guard I'm stalking while also remaining hidden from any other potential witnesses. It quickly overwhelms me, and as a sort of rebellion, I get impulsive and reckless, like, maybe if I can do the mission fast enough, I won't have time to get caught (I never said my reasoning was especially solid). And since, in order to enforce the central conceit of the genre, being caught is almost always a quick death, I have plenty of time to stew in my own repeated failure.

For obvious reasons, this means I can't say one way or the other whether Velvet Assassin is a good stealth game or a bad one. My impression thus far is that Violette Summers is kind of a dork, who spews grim monologues with the familiar rhythms of just about every action anti-hero ever. Also, while I enjoy the morphine mechanic on a gameplay level, from a story perspective, it's questionable - you shoot up some morphine and get transported into this pink cloud where you wear a nightie and can move in bullet time. I think this is supposed to be related to the game's framing device - the missions you do are actually Violette's memories as she lies wounded in a hospital bed (apparently wearing a nightie instead of a hospital gown, because video games). However I'm confused about what's actually going on. When you use morphine as a power-up, is that future Violette using morphine and getting her memories all tangled up, or is it past Violette using morphine and thus the memories were never recorded right in the first place. The first scenario makes more sense, but the morphine you use is found in the levels itself, the same way you might pick up a gun or a medkit, so the causality here is hard to pin down.

Luckily, I have not yet encountered any of the real nasty stuff that happened in WW2, but I have overheard some Nazis talking about it (eavesdropping on conversations is my favorite part of the game), so I still have my fingers crossed that this will be a white-washed affair.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Velvet Assassin - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Inspired by the fascinating story and unbreakable spirit of British secret agent Violette Szabo, players take control of Violette Summer, a beautiful World War II spy deep behind enemy lines with no support or official backing from the British Government. Intense stealth action game play with a startling real-time lighting system and surreal visuals combine to produce an incredible gaming experience. Through third person game play, sneak up on enemies and pull the pins from their belted grenades. Infiltrate a Gestapo prison and slip cyanide to your own men before the Germans make them talk. And slink through the shadows to finish off your unsuspecting enemies with a single, silent move. Through Violette's fever dreams, experience what she experienced. Walk where she walked. And kill those she killed. 
  • Stealth assasinations – Execute over 50 different brutal maneuvers to deliver a quick and silent death to enemy soldiers or use the environment itself to take down Violette's foes. 
  • Dynamic lighting and shadows – Slip into the darkness of Nazi-controlled Europe and avoid the relentless searchlights of German guards that cut through your shadowy cover. 
  • Stylized environments - Explore surreal, dreamlike settings that are modeled after actual World War II locations. 
  • Unique perspective - Experience the unimaginable horrors of war through Violette’s fever dreams. Shift into Morphine Mode when Violette’s memories betray her to reposition and gain an advantage against opposing forces.

Previous Play Time

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

Credit goes out to Faolind for this one. Thank you in advance.

I am coming into this game completely unspoiled. I may have heard of it before, but it's hard to say. The title, Velvet Assassin sounds familiar, but that may just be because it also sounds generic. It's got an obvious pairing between a hard, dangerous sounding word like "assassin" and a soft, harmless word like "velvet."  It's sort of like the title "Silk Enforcer" or "Marshmallow Conquistador." (Though, maybe, that last one is not so generic after all). 

Reading the description makes me a little wary. I've never been especially proficient at stealth games (I tend to want to kick down the door and just lay waste to everything I see). What's more, this particular story looks like it's going to be really dark. I don't like to see people (even simulated virtual people) suffer, and if I have to go into a concentration camp, I swear, I will lose my shit. On the other hand, it is apparently based on the life of a real person, so that kind of makes it educational (although, I'm sure they've taken liberties with the real story - I'm holding off on reading the wikipedia article so as to avoid spoilers).

I expect that my enjoyment of this game will depend greatly upon the difficulty. If it's a punishingly hard game, aimed at stealth experts, it will probably quickly reduce me to tears. If it's a more story-driven game with forgiving stealth mechanics, I'll likely be fine.

It's also possible that there's going to be an emotional sucker-punch or two that will hit me pretty hard. I mean, I try to be a pretty cosmopolitan guy, but I do tend to cultivate an ignorance about humanity's worst atrocities, and WWII was full of them. The prospect of encountering one in the sort of gory, immediate detail made possible by a modern video game does fill me with a certain amount of dread.

However, as I often do in these challenge cases, I'm going to choose to be optimistic here. It's possible this is an unconventional action game that will teach me about a little-known part of modern history. I guess I'll just have to play it and see.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Fallout Series Retrospective

Ten weeks playing nothing but Fallout. And I could have easily spent 10 more. I love these games, but I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm glad I finished them. I've been aching to get my hands on a more casual game for over a month, not because of any particular dissatisfaction with what I was doing, but merely as a change of pace. The absolute best part of this whole blog project is that I have the perfect excuse to indulge my taste for diversity, so playing a long series back-to-back like this has been kind of a bummer.

But only kind of, because with the exception of Fallout Tactics (which I'm prepared to admit is better than my first impression would indicate), I thoroughly enjoyed all of the Fallout games. Played together like this, it's easy to see that the series has actually maintained quite a consistent tone throughout its various incarnations. The timeline in the Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3 was a little weird, but it all nonetheless felt like a single world.

I started playing this series with the thought that I would break from my usual format and do something different. I was initially very excited about this plan, because I thought it would be a HUGE EVENT (or at least, as huge an event as could be expected for a blog that has, at most, two dozen readers), but I gave it up because it turned out to be a lot of work for little payoff. In retrospect, I'm a little embarrassed that I even tried.

Still, if you never try anything new, you never learn.

Now that it's all over, I'm feeling relieved. I decided, when starting this blog, that I would play series' together, in order to get a direct sense of the scope and evolution of the series as a whole. I think that was probably the right decision, but I have to admit, the Fallout series, with its five games, was one that filled me with mixed emotions. On the one hand, awesome, it's Fallout. On the other, I was committing myself to a long project-within-a-project, and there was no telling what that would do to my attention span.

It turns out both feelings were justified. I had a lot of fun with these games. There were also times when I felt my patience getting strained. On the balance, I'd say the good outweighed the bad, though. Playing the games like this made them into a sweeping, multi-generational epic that connected me to the story and the world in a way that I've never experienced playing them one at a time.

That said, I'm not eager to do it again any time soon. The Stronghold series, in particular, is making me very nervous. That's six games, and I've never played any of them, so I have no idea if this particular impulse purchase was an inspired choice or a lurking pit of despair. . .

But you know what, having a huge new block of red on my completed games list feels pretty damned good.

Fallout: New Vegas - Wrap Up

It turns out I was right. It only took me about a half-hour to defeat Dr Mobius' giant robot scorpion. After that, it was almost solid dialogue straight to the end of the DLC. It was all pretty solid. Dr Mobius created his whole persona in order to distract the other robots so they would not spread their mad science across the world, but wound up getting lost in his own deception due to his own aged befuddledness and massive drug addiction. Your brain has little interest in reuniting with your filthy, filthy body, and you have to sweet talk it into coming back. In the end, Dr Klein wanted to use my brain to escape the Big MT, but I was able to fool him with scientific gibberish.

And that was it. The closing slideshow started up, and I learned the fate of all the different characters I met during my sojourn to Big MT. The thing that surprised me the most was that all the individual appliances in my quarters got their own little send-off. I can't believe I forgot about that. It makes me really happy to see that all of my new friends wound up happy and successful (except the toaster - he got what was coming to him). The only part that bugged me was the fate of the sexy light switches (yes, seriously). There are only four female voices in the DLC, and it distresses me to learn that three of them are defined almost entirely by their sexuality. That the thought of a light switch trying to have sex cracks me up is completely orthogonal to this issue.

So, now that I'm moving on, how would I characterize my experience of Fallout: New Vegas as a whole? I guess I'd say it's the right game at the wrong time. I deeply, deeply love Fallout: New Vegas, but coming as it did at the end of two months of me playing Fallout games exclusively, I had less patience for it than I normally do. I rushed through things that should have been savored, and failed to explore areas that are incredibly rewarding.

I'm not too broken up about it, though. Playing it on the console, I did wind up exploring almost the entirety of the game (I still need a couple of the DLC achievements, but I managed to visit every marked location on all of the maps). Maybe that made me feel like I could safely neglect it this time, but if so, I never consciously thought that. My biggest concern was actually just collecting enough material to justify a blog post without doing so much that I'd wind up writing too much (how well I did with that goal, I will leave as an exercise for the reader). I found, more than any of the other Fallout games, that I cared about New Vegas' world enough to have strong opinions on the relative merits of the various factions.

It's a strange phenomena, when you think about it. For me, at least, it's only the really good games that get their hooks in me enough to make me mad. The only thing I remember from Ride to Hell is that ridiculous sex scene with the fully clothed auto mechanic. When it comes to the actual antagonists, all I can really muster is a "meh, whatever, they sucked." Nothing at all like the hatred I have for characters like Vulpes Inculta or Lee Oliver.

I guess that's what you want from a villain, but it still strikes me as odd that, in a game I like, I would spend a longer time being angry than in a game I disliked. Do I enjoy being angry? Or does the anger come specifically because these unlikable characters are such a stark contrast when placed next to things I enjoy? I'd be lying if I said the satisfaction of delivering righteous fury wasn't an element, but on the other hand, I had no particular animus towards the things I killed in Old World Blues, and that's the most fun I had in the entire series.

So I'm going to cop out and say "it's complicated." You can't really take elements of the work as a whole and try and isolate your reaction to them. Those reactions will always be informed by the context in which they occurred, and thus my urge to immediately kill Vulpes Inculta cannot reasonably be separated from the fact that it is difficult to do so, or that I later got a chance to go all Friday the 13th up on his boss and friends.

My biggest regret in playing Fallout: New Vegas is that I didn't think to install any mods. This game was the first of the Fallout series I bought for PC and I specifically did it because I played it so extensively on the console and wanted a new experience. Yet I didn't do it this time, because I'd already played all the other Fallouts "pure" and I didn't want to ruin my streak. Was it the right call? Only if, after I finish the other 80 or so games in my library, I remember to come back to this one and replay it (given the fact that I haven't touched my Super Nintendo in five years, despite owning some all-time classics that have yet to be surpassed even to this day, my hopes are not high).

When all is said and done, Fallout: New Vegas holds a special place in my personal Fallout canon. The two major pillars are Fallout 2 and Fallout 3, because they both taught me, at very different points in my life, to expand my assumptions about what video games could do. New Vegas is not nearly so influential, but in much the same way that you never forget your first love, but marry the person you're actually compatible with, this is the game that's closest to my heart. Fallout: New Vegas is Fallout to me. It's everything I want from the series, gathered into one unforgettable package. I love it so much that it's not until the end of my blogging about it that I bother to mention the numerous aggravating bugs that wound up repeatedly crashing me to desktop or corrupting my save files. This game may not be perfect, but it's mine.

At least until Fallout 4 comes out . . .

Fallout: New Vegas - 28 hours

For the first time while blogging this series, I feel like I've been playing Fallout the "true way." Which is to say I did precisely nothing of note for the past few hours. I just went from location to location, searching for personality discs for my various furniture friends. This involved poking my nose into ruins and fighting monsters and picking up more useless junk than I could reasonably carry.

The AI appliances in your home base are kind of evil that way. They seem designed explicitly so you'll be able to get some use out of the random cruft that litters the map. For twenty five hours of the game, I passed by coffee cups, secure in the knowledge that they were just dead weight to a hardened wasteland traveler . . . and then I met Muggy.

I would absolutely own Muggy in real life. I'm not sure what use I'd be able to get out of a robot that took coffee mugs and dishes and rendered them down to glue and empty syringes, but Dr O thought it would be hilarious to build a tiny, neurotic securitron, and he was right. It's just so adorable the way he obsesses over these incredibly minor items. I find myself collecting coffee mugs purely for the gratification that comes from hearing his thanks.

I'll grant, it's possible (and, indeed, likely) that I'm getting too emotionally invested in these appliances, but having these things around has really exacerbated the virtual hoarding problem this game usually inspires (I must have at least a hundred guns stashed away, despite the fact that I'm a melee character, and that doesn't even touch upon all the chainsaws and blades I never get a chance to use). I know, logically speaking, that I shouldn't worry about it. My plan is to move on to another game after I finish the main plot of Old World Blues, and thus I'm not even going to have a chance to need all that stuff, but, you know what if I need it?

Maybe, one of these days, I'll just break down and play a full-on hoarder/crafter character who collects all the junk and actually builds the funky weapons and cooks the weird-sounding recipes (the first thing I cooked in this game - the Bloatfly Slider - has got to be the most disgusting-sounding food I've ever encountered). It's an approach that would well-suit my sense of order (finally, all that clutter can be cleaned up and put in cabinets where it belongs), but I'm kind of worried what that would do to the size of my save file. Also, if I'm really going to focus on gathering and crafting, would it not be better to just play a crafting game? I've got a couple on my list already.

Obviously, practically speaking, I should not become a virtual Mojave hoarder. I should learn to actually use my collected items (I have so many steaks, it's not even funny), because finishing the game with 50 unused stimpacks just means you wasted 50 stimpacks (that being said, the stealth suit's automatic stimpack usage is not the solution - automatically popping one at a certain hp threshold, regardless of tactical considerations, is not an efficient use of resources).

And if I remember correctly, I'm pretty close to finishing. The actual plot of Old World Blues is pretty short. It's the distraction of exploring this bizarre new world that really eats up the time.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Fallout: New Vegas - 25 hours

I'm not sure how I should go about summarizing Old World Blues. It's kooky. Most of the last two hours, I spent just listening to the various characters, enjoying their odd vocal performances and bizarre, overblown dialogue. Yet, simply quoting the game (and there are a lot of fun, quotable lines) would get pretty dull, pretty fast.

So, let me try and summarize the plot thus far. There's this pre-war scientific facility called Big Mountain that did important clandestine weapons research. Somehow, it survived the war more or less intact. In the subsequent centuries, it's become mad scientist central. The remaining researchers have transplanted their brains into robot bodies and completely lost touch with their humanity (this leads to some of the best jokes - like the head robot mistaking your character's toes for penises, and then repeatedly getting sidetracked by the bizarre implications of such a theory).

Your character gets tangled up in all this by stumbling upon a crashed satellite that is somehow connected to Big Mountain and knocks them out and/or teleports them to a medical facility, where the robots remove your brain and install some kind of high-tech relay in its place. Due to the area's generalized defenses against robots and cyborgs, you're stuck there indefinitely. The only way out is to perform fetch quests for the robot mad scientists until you can recover your brain and get it put back in.

Ordinarily this is the sort of plot that bugs the hell out of me, but the scientist robots are all so entertainingly out of touch that I can't hold much of a grudge. I'm too interested in what they'll say or do next. Plus, it's not like they're holding my brain hostage. Somehow it fell into the possession of an antagonistic mad scientist called Dr Mobius who doesn't really seem more mad than my "allies" per se, but is threatening Big Mountain with his ARMY OF ROBOT SCORPIONS.

In other words, it gets pretty over the top. But it is also astonishingly grim. As you learn about the background of Big Mountain, you uncover all manner of atrocities committed in the the name of science (such as using prisoners of war as human test subjects). It is this juxtaposition of the silly with the bleak that categorizes the Fallout series at its best.

So far, I've only finished one mission - retrieving the data for an alternate module on my sonic emitter. It rests inside a laboratory that was dedicated to the creation of animal-robot hybrids. In order to retrieve it, you have to go through a mock high school where unwitting test subjects thought they were supposed to learn about communist infiltration, but actually were meant as target practice for the cyberdog prototypes. The deception is suitably awful, but the mission itself is kind of fun because one of the robots, Dr Borous, used to run the facility, and the whole "training scenario" revolves around his obsessive lingering resentments about his unhappy high school experience (I confess - I laughed at "Richie Marcus likes balls" - because I am a child).

Aside from the talking and the brief fetching, the only other thing I've done is retrieve personality modules for the various appliances around my base. It may not have been the most sensible design decision to make a germaphobic sink or a sleazy seed-dryer that can't stop coming on to you, but it gives the place such a delightfully twisted "Beauty and the Beast" vibe that it's worth the detour.

It's a shame that I saved this DLC for last. It has so many fun little creations that I'm probably going to want to play with them for a long time to come.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Fallout: New Vegas - 23 hours

I'm just going to do a quick post to wrap things up. Finishing the last two missions of the game took me about an hour. I sort of sleep-walked my way through the assassination plot, because I've tried and failed that mission so much that it turns out I could, purely by memory, skip the investigation and go straight to the solution. Which is a shame because it's kind of a tense political thriller where everyone could be a suspect, and you have to discern between friend and foe. But it turns out I didn't really have the patience to look for clues when I already knew the answer.

Anyway, the president was saved and the battle begun. Given my power armor, super sledge, and ample supply of drugs, it was mostly pretty easy. The lead Legion guy, Legate Lannius, gave me a brief amount of trouble, due to the fact that, mid-fight, something like a dozen legion soldiers showed up and were able to tag me with ranged attacks (also, apparently stimpack sickness is a thing). He had some cool weapons and armor that I was glad to loot, but couldn't actually keep (you have to reload a pre-battle save after you win, so I actually lost out on a lot of valuable items).

Finally, on my way out, general Lee Oliver of the NCR confronts me. At first he's congratulatory, due to my obvious prowess on the field of battle, but when he sees that I have an army of securitrons, he suddenly gets really aggressive. It's only possible to talk him down with a maxed-out speech ability, which is kind of a huge bummer. On the other hand, what sort of jackass threatens an allied head of state on the eve of their mutual victory? What did he think was going to happen when he failed to kill me? Was he just going to unilaterally embroil the NCR in a war with an emerging power, simply out of some kind of misguided nationalistic pride? I was nothing but polite and conciliatory, and far from "pissing on the Bear" I was merely asserting the right of the Mojave to self-determination and independence.

Seriously, fuck that guy. I guess he was banking on the fact that I was weakened after fighting off half the damned Legion, and just generally being a big ass hero for the forces of peace and freedom (and to be fair, the first couple of times, I couldn't quite get the drugs into my body fast enough to win the fight - I chalk my lack of preparedness up to the fact that previously, I've always had speech 100 by the time I got to this point). Just goes to show what I've always suspected about the NCR - they're a rapacious imperial power whose facade of civilization will be immediately discarded the instant that doing the right thing hits them in the pocketbook.

Maybe General Oliver thought we were going to war over the dam? I'll admit, the lack of nuance in the dialogue options is a problem here. Like, what are Independent New Vegas' obligations in regards to a treating signed under duress by a deposed monarch? Surely, the NCR's prior defense of the dam does lend some legitimacy to its claims upon it, but on the other hand, the only reason they were in a position to defend it in the first place was due to aggressive expansionism that trampled over the Mojave natives' right to develop their own natural resources (and I know the dam isn't technically a natural resource, but in the context of a post-apocalyptic society, it might as well be). Obviously, it's a complicated issue whose details need to be laboriously hashed out over the negotiating table . . .

. . .and not settled by threatening the life of the fucking hero of Hoover Dam, seriously Oliver, what the hell is wrong with you? You're not half the man that General Hanlon was, and I hate you for it!

Anyway, long story short, the Mojave becomes an independent power, and most of the places I visited were relatively prosperous. There was still some trouble due to sidequests I skipped. The Followers of the Apocalypse, in particular are screwed (which is something of a humorous bookend, considering how I failed to save them in the original Fallout). I have no idea how the independent Mojave will be governed, but I like to think it will be a constitutional republic, with me serving as a kind of George Washington figure.

 It's possible. The ending narration left it ambiguous.

Though it's not really the ending, because of the save-game timewarp (thank goodness I held onto a pre-battle save). From here, there's still a shit ton left to do, but I'm actually going to try and keep this brief. All I want to do is the Old World Blues DLC (though it is perhaps misleading to use the word "all" because it's actually something of a mini-campaign), because I think it would be a fun and goofy coda to my time with the series.

Fallout: New Vegas - 22/20 hours

How can I accurately capture the sensation of doing a tedious fetch-quest. You know how, over the course of living for many years on this earth and having a variety of experiences, you begin to develop an intuitive understanding of the connections between cause and effect? Now imagine that intuitive faculty manifested as a physical organ, perhaps a sensitive fleshy ridge on your forehead, between your eyes. Now, imagine that someone repeated flicked it with their finger, but if you could endure it some indeterminate number of times (they refuse to tell you how many in advance), they'll reward you with a piece of chocolate (or whatever it is that people who aren't shameless hedonists with an untamable sweet tooth use to motivate themselves).

In other words, it's annoying.

Last time I left off, I'd played the game for 16 hours, and had only one remaining faction to befriend. Now, six hours later, I've done it. The Brotherhood of Steel is my ally, and I'm ready to rescue president Kimball from an assassination attempt and defeat the Legion at Hoover Dam.

So, what epic deeds did I commit to gain the trust of this notoriously reclusive and paranoid group of survivalists and technological preservationists? Well, first I went to three different map locations to retrieve holodiscs from the corpses of Brotherhood patrols. Then I went to three different map locations to speak to Brotherhood scouts. Finally, I went to three different vaults, to find various spare parts in isolated lockers.

It's pure padding. Many of these locations were associated with sidequests, so if you'd been delaying your visit to the Brotherhood, you'd be forced to backtrack extensively. If you're like me, and have been focusing pretty hard on the main quest, you'll inevitably get sucked into a lot of time-consuming rigmarole (even though the quest triggers are usually elsewhere, you still have to deal with the enemies and obstacles).

Yet I can't be too upset, because one of these psuedo-sidequests was one of the best to appear in any Fallout game (and, in fact, is so compelling that it could stand on its own as a separate game) - the exploration of Vault 11.

At the entrance of the vault, you find some skeletons and a holotape. Something happened here that was so terrible the only survivors were driven to suicide. And it is with that in mind that you enter the Vault itself, and see on the walls a collection of cheery and colorful campaign posters. The Vault was having an election. Yet these posters are astonishingly negative. It's like the candidates don't want to be elected. As you search through the Vault, you learn more and more from the computers, and find that Vault 11 had a strange tradition. At the end of each year, the Overseer was sacrificed, under the threat that if the vault dwellers did not pick a sacrifice, the vault's computers would kill them all. Since the first Overseer was so despised for keeping this condition a secret, it became traditional to link the offices.

And the more you learn about what went on, the more horrible it becomes - political factions arise to manipulate the elections, using them as a source of terror and extortion. Eventually, the strongest faction pushes too far, blackmailing a woman for sexual favors in exchange for not nominating her husband and then backing out of the deal, so she goes on a killing spree, and is made Overseer as punishment. She changes the rules so the Overseer is chosen by random chance, and Vault 11's society falls apart. A civil war kills most of the inhabitants.

Except the final five. Who refuse to cooperate with the computer any longer. And then learn that it was all for nothing. The sacrifice was meant to test their morality, to see if they would go along with it. All Vault 11 had to do was say "no" and they would have been set free, with no consequences whatsoever. But they failed.

It's a bleak story, but the presentation saves it. The rusting atmosphere of the vault, the desperate, yet oddly generic tone of the campaign posters, the voice of the various messages you find, and, of course Fallout's trademark aesthetic of ironic 1950s optimism combine to make this perfect little horror story that really lands the emotional gut punch.

Everything after that is a bit of a let down, though to be fair, it would be even if it weren't a tedious fetch quest. Vault 11 is just that good.

After a couple more hours of running around (in a vault with mutated carnivorous plants and another vault filled with drug-crazed raiders), I was able to secure my alliance and move on to the true endgame. Yes Man has informed me of an assassination plot against the NCR president (although, for reasons I can't quite comprehend, wearing Brotherhood of Steel faction armor when he tells you causes this quest to automatically fail) that threatens to undermine the stability and prosperity of New Vegas. Obviously, as a hero (albeit one who splatters his numerous enemies with a giant hammer at the slightest provocation), it is my duty to stop this.

Unfortunately, if I remember correctly, this mission is entirely antithetical to my particular skillset, so it will probably be a huge pain in the ass that I'll need to repeatedly replay before I get it right. Then again, whoever said being a hero was easy?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Fallout: New Vegas - 16/20 hours

After killing Benny, I rummaged through his suite on the thirteenth floor and found something remarkable - a securitron with a huge smiling face. He was called Yes Man, and he is the most dangerously designed robot I've ever seen. He cheerfully complies with every command anyone ever gives him. Benny used him to infiltrate Mr House's network and find the platinum chip (including setting up the ambush against me). Then I killed Benny, and now Yes Man works for me.

This is exactly as unsettling as you might think. Yes Man is so completely guileless and accommodating, and even when you're talking about terrible atrocities and betrayals, he is chipper and positive. I can understand why you would want your AI servant to be helpful, but wouldn't you at least put a password on that thing.

It's aggravating because it's such an obvious security oversight, and there's no way in the game to fix it. What's to stop some guy from capping me and taking over Yes Man? Or just strolling in and sabotaging my plans by accident? Basically, I have to rely on the plot to keep me safe.

Even with this glaring strategic error, he's still pretty entertaining in a creepy sort of way.  Of all the paths through the end game, he's probably my favorite. Mister House is condescending and demanding, the NCR is bland and far-flung, and the Legion is awful.  The second half of the game is you running around do various errands and sidequests, with a representative of one of the factions acting as your handler. I'm curious as to the origin of this structure. Did they come up with the sidequests first and then use the main quest as an excuse to send you out to them, or was the main quest always intended to send you on a circuit of the various faction, and so they came up with sidequests for you when you got there?

I guess what I'm saying is that the plot makes sense, but it has a kind of stitched-together quality. Your goal is to run around to the different factions of the Mojave wasteland and get their support for a future battle at Hoover Dam. This can involve aiding a power-play by a junior member of the Omertas, in order to stop his superiors from attacking the Strip or exposing a cannibal cult in the White Glove society. Most of the missions require some sort of tact or diplomacy to get the optimal results.

Which is why taking the platinum chip to the secret bunker underneath the  Legion base was such a refreshing change of pace. In theory, I could have approached them under a banner of peace, because Caesar sent one of his spies into the Strip to give me a pardon, but then that would require playing nice with the Legion, and I'd much rather just let my super sledge do the talking.

It was kind of a rough battle. Caesar's Praetorian Guard chewed me up a few times with their ballistic fists (a weapon who's utility I'm not sure I understand - granted, they were effective against the guy with the hydraulic sledgehammer, but centering an explosion around a punch just seems like it's putting your people unnecessarily in the line of fire - surely a plasma rifle would be much safer to wield). However, I countered by doing a shit-ton of drugs, and thus was able to muddle through in a pharmaceutically-enhanced rage.

Once I slaughtered my way through the entire Legion garrison (and how much of a bummer is it that you can't release the slaves or find some way to deprogram the child soldiers), I made my way down into the bunker, and reactivated a giant army of securitrons, who, with the updated software drivers from the platinum chip (and maybe this is just my ignorance of computers showing, but why would you build robots with grenade launchers and on-board self-healing protocols, and not install the software right at the factory, it's not as if the upgraded weapons are an after-market modification), will become an army potent enough to give its commander uncontested control of the Mojave region.

And for that, Mr House had to die. It's absolutely my least favorite part of the game. His plan can't be allowed to succeed. He's a ruthless autocrat, who, if given control of the Mojave would turn it into his own private kingdom, ruling from his cryogenic stasis pod as a nigh-immortal god-king, and while the region may prosper under his rule, it would be at the cost of an untold amount of oppression and bloodshed.

On the other hand, he's helpless old man, and killing his is cold-blooded murder. It's possible to spare him, by leaving his life-support on but disconnecting him from the rest of his network, thus leaving him entombed in a coffin-sized chamber, utterly unable to interact with the world in any way, but he regards this (with no small reason) as a fate worse than death. It's really a no win scenario.

Which I suppose is this game in a nutshell. Like my mission to the Boomers, who are fairly decent, ordinary people on a personal level, and thus it would be cruel to wipe them out. Yet they are also xenophobic and trigger happy, and thus I feel less than comfortable about helping them get a bomber plane in order to secure their alliance. Or the Great Khans, who have been kicked around by the NCR for the last generation or two, and thus don't deserve to be taken advantage of by the Legion, but who nonetheless have been seriously dangerous raiders in the past, and wind up taking future inspiration from the fucking Mongols. Was helping them a humanitarian kindness or dangerously irresponsible?

I suppose I should admire the game's moral complexity. In real life, one tries to do the right thing, but it's not always easy to know what that is. Fallout: New Vegas is good at making its choices similarly murky, which is part of the reason I enjoy it so much. I'll just have to set aside some time to play a game where I can be unambiguously righteous in order to cleanse my palate. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Fallout: New Vegas - 10/20 hours

The first part of Fallout: New Vegas' plot is astonishingly simple. You're tracking down the guy who shot you and left you for dead. You do this by going to a place and doing a random favor for the locals and then getting directions to the next place. Technically, you only do this three times, but at least one of the favors is a major sidequest and, of course, there are plenty of distractions (raider attacks, Legion assassin squads, "Lonesome Drifters" who have no apparent purpose but to spout backstory at you, etc), and these things make the journey seem much longer and more involved.

The sidequest was kind of goofy and kind of sad. The town of Novac, with its delightfully memorable t-rex shaped gift shop, has long relied on scavenged technology from the nearby Repconn launch facility, but recently the place has been occupied by ghouls. So it fell to me to go in and "clear the place out." Mostly, this involved me using a meat cleaver on basically everything I saw (I'd graduated from the shovel at this point), but there were some non-hostile ghouls who wanted my help clearing out the basement from another intrusive group - the nightkin (previously seen in the original Fallout, but I didn't actually fight any).

It is possible to approach this new group of creatures with diplomacy as well, but it requires stealthing your way to their leader, making a deal to find some technology, and then entering a chamber with a cornered ghoul (giving this quest three layers of "we want to go to a particular place, but there's a hostile occupier there"), negotiating with him, and then working your way back up the chain. Because I wasn't specced for either stealth or negotiation, I let my blade do the talking.

Which is a kind of visceral brutality that offends me on a personal level, but has the advantage of being faster. Reporting back to the upstairs ghouls, I learn that they want to use the Repconn facility to go on a pilgrimage to space. That the two-hundred year old rockets are likely to be hugely unreliable, or that this means abandoning their loyal technician, Chris Haversham (who is a human who thinks he's a ghoul, and thus cannot withstand the radiation) does not seem to matter all that much. So a couple of quick fetch-quests later (including an uncompensated 500 cap purchase at the junkyard), and they're on their way. I return to Novac, and get the information I need, and then I'm on my way.

Perhaps seeking redemption for my needless violence at the Repconn facility, when the NCR commander at Boulder City asks me to take care of some Great Khans who have holed up in a building with hostages, I decide to take the high road and talk them down. I do this primarily with the aid of drugs. My Party Time Mentats are able to give me just enough Charisma to defuse the situation (the primary lesson I take away from the Fallout series - drugs are awesome).

From there it's a straight shot to the Strip. Theoretically, there's a sidequest in the ruins surround the Strip, where you deal with a local gang of Elvis impersonators in order to get a passport into the city, but you can bypass that with a credit check at the gate (they don't even charge you anything, just check to see if you have more than 2000 caps, and even then only the first time you arrive). The wasteland's barter economy is such that I have literally never had insufficient caps after taking the default route (it is possible to take a different route to the strip and get here with much less stuff, but it's far more dangerous).

Inside the strip itself, I'm immediately accosted by an old friend, Victor, the cheerful cowboy securitron who rescued me from the grave back in Goodsprings. Victor is perhaps the most mysterious character in Fallout: New Vegas. He obviously works for Mister House, and has been keeping tabs on me in order to guide me to the Lucky 38 casino, but he was in Goodsprings for at least five years before I ever showed up. He's also one of only three named securitrons (the other two being Jane, who appears to be Mr. House's girlfriend . . . somehow, and Yes Man, who we'll get to in a future update). Is he a slave to Mr House? An independent agent? What is his true role? Spy? Representative? Enforcer? I don't think you actually get that much backstory on the guy, so I guess we'll never known.

Mister House is an eccentric recluse who only appears to you in the form of an image on a computer monitor. He's got that classic mid-20th-century businessman look about him, but that is almost certainly a carefully cultivated persona. He is imperious and demanding and frankly, kind of a drag to work for, but he tells me that my assailant, Benny, is his former protege, and can be found at a nearby casino, so revenge, and the recovery of my original delivery, are right at my fingertips.

But first, blackjack.

I always have a Luck score of at least 6 coming out of character creation so that when I boost it with the cybernetics at the New Vegas medical clinic, I can basically make the casinos of the Strip into my personal piggy bank. Online guides say that you should have a Luck of at least 8 to try it, but I've found that with a Luck of 7 and anything remotely resembling reasonable play (though super high luck blackjack is fun because you can, in fact, be dangerously cavalier and still expect to win), breaking the bank is only a matter of time.

It kind of breaks immersion for my character to do this, when he is so close to getting revenge, but I'm not really in the mood for subtlety this playthrough, and when I confront Benny, all hell is going to break loose in the Tops casino, so I figured I should grab the money first, because I'm not sure they'll welcome me back in afterwards.

Confronting Benny is moderately satisfying. He tries to weasel his way out of it, but I'm not buying what I'm selling, and while ordinarily, the fact that my weapons were confiscated at the front door is enough to put a damper on my aggression, this time I'm playing a melee character, so having only a straight razor is not that big of a problem for me. What's more, thanks in large part to the money I won from that very casino, I am now a cyborg, more machine than man, so I'm largely bulletproof. I cut a huge swath through the Chairmen, kill Benny, and recover the platinum chip.

Now, all I have to do is explore Benny's apartment, to see if there's anything valuable up there . . .