Tuesday, November 21, 2017

More Mass Effect: Andromeda

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Interlude - Mass Effect: Andromeda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Majesty 2 Collection - 6/20 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Majesty 2 Collection - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

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

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

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

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

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

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

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

Expectations and Prior Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video games, am I right?

Friday, November 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

Divinity II: Developer's Cut - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Dragons: they have been hunted, they have been slain, but now the hour to strike back has come. Break free from the confines of the human body and take to the skies in this epic RPG adventure that challenges your wits and pits you against a thousand foes. Spread your wings, burn your enemies: become the dragon!

This Developer's Cut includes the ultimate edition of Divinity II, good for 100+ hours of highly acclaimed RPG gameplay, as well as the brand new Developer Mode and many more amazing extras!

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Bundle. Cheap. "What's the harm?"

Expectations and Prior Experience

With two previous Divinity games under my belt, I feel pretty confident in saying that I expect the game to be mostly fine, but I worry about the plot being unnecessarily drawn out. Or, more accurately, I worry about the "100 hours of gameplay" breaking down into "35 hours of story and 65 hours of wandering around lost and/or underleveled."

Yet I think it says something that I have just come off of 40 hours of Divinity games and am willing to dive back in for another 20. I guess I have hope that this game, having a release date 8 years after the others, and, judging from the screenshots, being made in 3D, will be a little bit more user friendly. There's no real reason to think that, of course, but that's the attitude I'm choosing to have.

I figure the worst case scenario is that I'm stuck running in circles again. That would be pretty annoying, but I'm running out of games (huzzah!), so if not now, when?

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Beyond Divinity - 20/20 hours


It is definitely clear at this point that I underestimated the amount of afterlife in this game. I defeated the boss, cured the Imp plague, and then suddenly got magically whisked away to do chores for a necromancer. When my summoning ended, I came back to find the Imp village slaughtered in its entirety. It was an event that managed to hit a trifecta of horribleness - being a disgusting atrocity, unmaking the work I'd just spent hours to achieve, and then depriving me of the reward I'd been expecting.

It was pretty neat to be on the receiving end of a magical summons for a change. It really makes you appreciate how killing your summoner and breaking free to run amok in the mortal world is, in fact, a sensible and appealing thing to try and do. Sadly, I never got the chance. I guess the necromancer was too good at his job.

In the end, the "all the imps die before they can tell you how to get home" plot twist mostly served to diminish my interest in the rest of the game. It felt like the rug was pulled out from under me, and I kind of resent having to track down and befriend this new group of people before I can move on.

I don't think I will be sticking with this game past 20 hours. I do have a strong desire to escape fantasy-knockoff hell, but I'm afraid of being jerked around again, and of course, being at a the beginning of a new area means my guide is frustratingly vague. The emotional payoff just doesn't seem worth it. Also, the skill system in this game is a step back from the original, and so if I were going to play an old-school rpg from the Divinity series for another 40+ hours, I think I would stick with the first game.

That being said, I was mostly all right with Beyond Divinity. It only really had two real flaws, from where I'm concerned - the first being that the weapon skills are too specific, thus punishing you for failing to specialize early and then stick with your choice for the whole of the game. The second flaw is one endemic to the isometric rpg genre - navigation, particularly to new quest objectives, is more or less left up to chance. No one ever tells you where to go. It's not even like Morrowind, where the NPCs give you directions that are accurate, but too vague when you take player subjectivity into account (i.e. "it's a little ways past the big rock"). Systematically searching ever area and talking to every NPC is pretty much the only way to ever get things done. It's exhausting.

But you know what, it's a more interesting setting than Divine Divinity, and while the "escape from hell" plot was way too stretched out, it did immediately grab my interest, and could well have supported a whole game, were the fantasy-knockoff hell filled with a variety of distinct and memorable characters and imaginative afterlife-inspired vistas.

Overall, I'd gauge my feelings about Beyond Divinity as "vaguely fond, but also slightly disappointed." There was a lot of potential here that went untapped, and a lot of unnecessary padding, but the basic idea was sound, and I always at least slightly enjoy ARPG gameplay. If I play again, though, it will be to salvage my wounded pride. I really wanted to get out of hell.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Beyond Divinity - 15/20 hours

I am still in hell. Maybe this game takes place almost entirely in the afterlife? That's not a possibility I considered. The structure of the plot thus far led me to make certain assumptions that may not have been justified. It's just that the Death Knight told me we had to escape Samuel and then find his former mistress Isolde, and so I jumped to the conclusion that these would be separate and independent phases of the game.

It's still possible, I suppose. I have finally found the source of the Imp plague, and as soon as I grind enough levels to beat this improbably difficult boss, I may well have accomplished everything I need to do in hell. And, of course, if it really is a 60-hour game as advertised, then it could easily break down to 20 hours of escaping hell, 20 hours of searching for Isolde, and 20 hours of doing whatever Isolde wants you to do to earn her help.

Using a guide did help me out a bit. Although now that I'm writing out my thoughts about the game, it does strike me as strange that I didn't simply skip ahead to see when I would finally be back in the mortal world . . .

. . . And it's actually pretty unclear. The guide I'm using doesn't go a lot into the lore. It seems like I will be teleported away after a few more post-boss chores, but it doesn't say to where. Another district of hell, perhaps?

I've picked up a second wind, though. now that I'm making some kind of forward progress. I have a short-term goal that I'm invested in (getting powerful enough to take on the boss) and I'm reasonably certain I can complete it in the time allotted to me.  Once I get that done, I'll have to come up with some new thing to care about, but hopefully I'll be almost out of time by then.

This game has been a rollercoaster of emotions for me, but I'm in the final stretch. If I can stay focused and finish it in the next couple of days, I'll probably be all right.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Beyond Divinity - 10/20 hours

I'm in hell. Both literally in fantasy knock-off hell, and figuratively in the sense that I'm miserable. I can't find the thing that lets me get on with the story. The leader of the imp village knows how to return me to the mortal world, but in return I have to find a cure for a mysterious illness afflicting the imps.

Fair enough. Except all I know is that I'm looking for an alchemist imp who is in a cave somewhere, and now I have to systematically search the whole map because I don't even know which direction to go. The thought that haunts me is that someone already told me where to go, but I forgot. Alternately, there is some minor character that I have yet to talk to.

Or maybe the game itself just doesn't want me to know.

I suppose it shouldn't matter that I'm lost. After all, what I'm really doing is just wandering from place to place killing monsters, and I don't need directions for that. Wherever I happen to be at the moment is where the gameplay is happening. Yet once more I've succumbed to the trap of meaning. I want to cure those imps of their sickness. I want to escape hell. Even though I would simply be presented with another mission to finish. Even though I would simply be trapped in another map. It would feel like accomplishment.

The key, I think, is to engage the game on a smaller scale. To start caring about individual locations and npcs, so that my wandering between them becomes a meaningful activity in its own right. That way I can systematically search and still get the feeling that I'm making something happen.

I don't know, though. Ultimately the characters aren't all that interesting. The places aren't all that interesting. The story was moderately interesting, but not so much so that it feels worth it spread out over 10 hours. I want something to happen.

What I'm going to do is try my best to exploit online guides. I figure there has to be some way to go directly to what I'm supposed to be doing without running in circles for hours at a time. Yes, it's not really taking the game at face value and sidestepping most of its actual mechanics to play an instruction-following game instead, but it's so much easier.

I may not be as cut out for old-school rpgs as I'd previously thought.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Beyond Divinity - 5/20 hours

Well, it's hour five and I'm still in hell. By which I mean fantasy knockoff Hell. I'm not sure if it's actually an afterlife-type situation, but I'm also not sure it matters. After I escaped from the demon, Samuel, he ordered his troops to kill me and then bring me back for torture . . . in that order. So the boundary between life and death is still a bit ambiguous. I may technically still be alive, but I'm soul-bonded to something called a "Death Knight," so if I discovered I'd been dead this whole time, I would not be surprised.

But speaking of the Death Knight, this partnership is not working out. He's moderately helpful in combat, but once you account for the tweaked encounter balance (which is generally much better than the original, admittedly) he's more of a liability than an asset. The way the soul-bond works is that if one member of the pair dies, they both die. And since your enemies tend to focus fire, it's less like you have the combined power of two characters and more like you're limited by the health of the weaker character. Keeping both your guys topped up on health is really hard on healing potions. One time, I ran out, and I had to leave my Death Knight behind while my main character fought the enemies solo. They only joined back up once I got the free health recharge from leveling up.

It wouldn't be so bad, if the Death Knight were a better character, but really he's like the token evil party member, except you have to drag him everywhere as part of an escort mission. It's still too early for me to have any serious grudges, but I expect I will grow to hate him.

That being said, I'm still pretty invested in the game. I'm interested in escaping the afterlife, and I want to learn more about this setting's metaphysics. I've got a suspicion that I'll be emerging into a standard Northern-European-esque fantasy world, but I would be delighted if the game was stranger than all that.

I guess the only way to be sure is to keep playing. Hopefully it will be at most another couple of hours before I find out.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Beyond Divinity - 2/20 hours

The thing about the first 2 hours of this game that is going to stick with me the longest is the Death Knight's voice. I'm a little guilty, because it feels like singling out a single performer's work for ridicule, but I can't just let it pass. There were some seriously questionable artistic choices that went into creating this character. I'm not sure I can adequately describe it. It's equally goofy and gruff, like the villain on a children's cartoon show, but it's also kind of bad. But that description doesn't really do it justice. I'll just let the video speak for itself:

Needless to say, I turned off the sound as soon as possible.

Other than that, I'd say that Beyond Divinity has gotten off to a stronger start than its predecessor. You wake up in hell (or, more precisely a prison dimension operated by a demon) and you and your Death Knight companion have to work together to escape. It's a nifty premise that hooked me right away. It's possible that it might overstay its welcome - two hours is already a long time to spend in an introductory dungeon - but for now, I'm fine with it.

Sadly, I am already predicting that I will end this game as prematurely as I did the original. If the first dungeon is anything to go by, Beyond Divinity is going to continue the series' pattern of taking its time to roll out the central plot. It's really all down to a race right now. Will the story or gameplay get me invested enough before the deadline that my desire to continue outweighs to move on?

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Beyond Divinity - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Beyond Divinity is the follow-up to the award-winning Divine Divinity. Soul-forged with a Death Knight, your fate is to spend the rest of eternity bonded to this creature of evil, unless you can undo his curse...prepare for your greatest adventure!

This new re-mastered version offers support for Windows 7 and higher resolutions.

Key Features:
An RPG of Epic Proportions: Experience an adventure that will last you over 60 hours, filled with tons of non-linear quests and offering an enormous world to explore, spread over 4 story acts. And if that’s not enough for you, you can always enter the Battlefields - a randomly generated universe filled with loot, enemies and new quests.

Classless Character Development: You decide what kind of character you want to be! An open, class-free character development system with over 30 character traits and 290 skills to learn, including advanced alchemy, craftsmanship, trap creation and many others.

Work together to emerge victorious: You can seamlessly switch control between your avatar and the Death Knight. In combat, you can pause the game at will and take your time to issue commands to each party member. Summoning dolls allows you to increase your party size even further.

Interaction Galore: Discover the enormous amount of objects that can be investigated, traded, used and combined. Found some empty flasks and picked up some colourful mushrooms? Create potions! Obtained some vile-smelling poison? Daub it on your blade or arrow tips: your foes won't know what hit 'em!

Award-winning Soundtrack Enjoy the dulcet melodies composed by Kirill Pokrovsky, the two-time winner of IGN’s "Outstanding Achievement in Music" award.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Same story as before - it was part of an impulsive and ill-considered bundle purchase.

Expectations and Prior Experience

Having played the previous game, I've got a pretty good idea about how this is going to go (unless it does a complete swerve and shocks me). The interaction and class development are oversold, but it's still nonetheless a solid action-rpg. Having a Death Knight to help me out should change the feel of the game somewhat, but it could potentially be just another thing to micromanage.

My main hope here is that the sequel is more self-assured than the original. That it will present its strongest ideas earlier and that it will polish of the rough edges of the UI. There was potential in the original that was not quite fulfilled, so they don't have to reinvent the whole game. I just want to spend more time playing the actual game and less time wandering aimlessly looking for the fun parts.

Worst case scenario, it's just another forgettable ARPG. I can live with that.

Divine Divinity - 20/20 hours

As much as I determined to avoid the plot and just mess around, I wound up stumbling ass-backwards into the main story anyway. I wandered into a castle and got tormented by an annoying prince. Then, as I sought revenge for him humiliating me (and being an evil little shit who tortured prisoners), I somehow wound up the only surviving Marked One, with a mission to unite the various fantasy races against a resurrected god of chaos. You know, as often happens in these situations.

It's a decent enough way to end the first act of the game. Giving me seven broad quests allows me a certain amount of freedom to explore at my own pace. It's a trick that has been used very effectively in rpgs for a long time now. So I'm going to go ahead and give the plot a tentative thumbs up. Prince Janus was a fun villain, and while I found Zandalor's shtick a bit tiring, I could appreciate what they were trying to do, and there was a point where I was given vital information by a talking cat. I will admit to being jaded enough that a by-the-numbers fantasy plot, competently executed, is not enough to thrill me any more, but I'm not quite so jaded that I'm going to jump on it as a major flaw.

My main disappointment with this game is that I did not get far enough in the plot to really consider the theological ramifications of the "Marked One" situation, or the political nuances of attempting to fight chaos through assembling a multinational coalition (and the way those nuances would have inevitably been undercut by the action-oriented quests necessary to advance the plot). Divine Divinity is a more thoughtful game than I gave it credit for, but I suspect the store page boast about "an adventure that will last you 100 hours" is accurate, and as pleasant a time as I've had, I'm not really ready for that sort of commitment right now.

So here is where I'm going to call it quits. I've got 8 weeks to play 6 games (assuming I don't break down and buy any in the winter sale), and while I would say, on balance, that I enjoyed this game (level-agnostic orc ambushes or dungeon bosses notwithstanding), it didn't spark an obsession. I do, however, have an unusually powerful sense of unfinished business here. This isn't like The Last Remnant, where I reached the deadline amidst a major gameplay roadblock. I could continue from here, quite easily. I perhaps even should continue, considering I still have two sequels to play, and I might get hopelessly confused about the story as time goes on. Yet I won't, because I am a rootless wanderer among games, my quest to experience each one tantamount to an embrace of dilettantism.

Will I ever come back to Divine Divinity and finish what I started? I wish I could say yes, because I kind of feel like I owe it to the game to see where it's story goes. Yet, I have so many other games I'd rather play that it seems like a real long-shot. I think its best chance is if I play the later games in the Divinity series and come to love them so much that I come back to this one as a sort of prologue.

It's not likely, but it could happen.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Divine Divinity - 10/20 hours

My main complaint with Divine Divinity is that saving or loading a game takes a surprisingly long amount of time. I'd have thought that a fifteen year old game like this would have been lightning-quick about it. It makes me wonder what it was like to play the game back when it was new. If it takes 25 seconds to load a game on a 2015 computer, did it take several minutes to load on a 2002 computer? And did you have to go through that every time you died?

Because 25 seconds isn't that bad in isolation, but when you have to do it three times in ten minutes, it starts to add up. Which is to say that, even on easy mode, this game is kind of tough.

I think it comes as a consequence of two different factors - the first is that there does not appear to be significant level-gating. Once I left the safety of the starting town, it became all too easy to wander into an area where the enemies were too powerful for me. The first warning about such areas tends to be me dying and having to reload. The second issue is that your fights do not seem to be designed encounters.

In other words, sometimes you'll be wandering through orc country and you'll come across an orc. As a single foe, they're barely worth worrying about. But in maybe one out of every three encounters or so, it won't just be that single orc. As you're fighting the first one, a bunch of additional ones keep wandering out of the fog of war. Before you know it, you're fighting a half-dozen or more, complete with elites, archers, and the occasional spellcaster. It's rare that such a nasty surprise has failed to kill me.

My guess is that it's reflective of a particular design philosophy, one where the world is not necessarily designed with the player in mind. So the orcs ae wherever the orcs are, and you can either fight them or learn to accept it. Issues like line-of-sight and attracting aggro aren't even considerations, because you're not really having an encounter, you're making a discovery.

There are advantages to doing things this way. The world itself feels a tinier bit more real. The enemies aren't merely a challenge to be overcome, but participants in the world, with their own needs and agendas. You can't assume that just because something exists, the hero is going to find it, loot it, or make it their own.

The downside is that the player doesn't get to see it if they're dead, and if the player never sees it, then including it is kind of a waste of time. I guess the hope is that the player manages to successfully navigate the level curve with no help, and then admires your craftsmanship at the appropriate time.

I'm not quite there yet. The game is fun enough that I might stick around long enough to get there, but in the meantime, I once accidentally walked into a cave with a hostile Troll King I could barely hit, and repeatedly found myself near an orc encampments that ate me alive. So far, in all but one occasion, I've managed to survive, but always at a terrible cost in potions.

I wish there were a better story to keep me going. So far, I've learned that I'm something called a "marked one," and that there are forces at work that want to either kill me (as represented by John the Dragon Rider) or protect me (Zandalor the wizard, though I could not tell you a second thing about him). And I know that I am usually pretty useless in following these kind of stories, but in this case, there's nothing to worry about because this is literally all I know. In order to unlock more of the plot, I have to help the military defeat a bunch of orcs, even though, as I already said, they manage to eat me alive nearly every single time.

I think I'm going to make a conscious decision not to pursue Divine Divinity's plot any farther than I have to. At the rate things are going, it would take me forever to get to the end, and I'd rather just use my remaining ten hours to hang out and bop level-appropriate monsters on the head.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Divine Divinity - 5/20 hours

I did the thing where I play an rpg for two hours and then start over from scratch to test out a new character build. So I am only a little bit past where I was before. Down at the bottom of a dungeon, facing the undead hordes of a repentant necoromancer.

I'll admit, I was taken by surprise when the death-obsessed mage who engineered his own resurrection told me that he regretted his decisions and wanted to die. That, at least, was a novel twist on what had hitherto been a by-the-numbers fantasy plot.

The biggest change in my second go-round, though, is that I'm now playing on Easy difficulty. It's not that different, though I do notice that my healing potions tend to go a longer way, and that, in turn, lets me spend more time down in the dungeon. That's something that eases the stress involved in directionless exploration.

So far I'm having a good time. I wish there were more of a "hook," like Fallout's irradiated wasteland or Planescape: Torment's fantastic city at the center of the multiverse, but I can work with what I've got. I'm not sure I'll ever make a genuine connection with the world or its characters, but I can at least enjoy the mechanics of the game, hacking and slashing my way through dungeons and slowly developing my character into the ultimate killing machine.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Divine Divinity - 2/20 hours

Sometimes, when I'm playing a new game, I'm tempted to wonder if the tutorial level is really worth all the trouble. They tend to be uninteresting and overly simple. And then I play a game that doesn't have one, and I remember - not having one really sucks.

I think I've figured out the basics of Divine Divinity, but I also have the feeling that there's a lot I'm missing out on. I had to look up online how to harvest the various herbs you find around the map. I also had a tough (or at least tougher than it ought to be) time figuring out how to use items and fight in combat.

To top it off, this is one of those old style games that seems to think that not telling me where to go somehow builds character. Call me a wimp if you must, but I love quest markers. I can see how some might think they might diminish the thrill of unguided exploration, but I hate knowing there's somewhere I'm supposed to be and being unable to find it.

But that's just a risk I have to take with older games. If the game itself proves to be fun, it's something that can be overlooked. However, it is still too early for me to make that call. I'm still in the first village and so it's still ambiguous whether any frustration I might have comes from the game itself or the fact that I'm low level and unknowledgeable.

The story itself is nothing special. I woke up with amnesia in a mysterious village of healers, and it's likely that their leader has been driven mad by demonic possession. It's a good setup for a game, but I'm not anticipating any special payoff here. I will heal the leader and then move on and probably never think of this place again.

Divine Divinity - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 Listed among the "Top 100 PC Games Of All Time" by PC GAMER (2012), Divine Divinity is an epic role-playing game with hack-and-slash action, offering a huge world to explore and thousands of items to investigate, trade and use.

The game chronicles the never-ending battle between valiant heroes and the destructive powers of Chaos harnessed by the Black Ring, a cult of enduring evil. You play the role of the prophesised Chosen One who under the guidance of the wizard Zandalor must unite the seven races of Rivellon so that you may become the Divine One and stop the birth of the Lord of Chaos.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Well, I had heard good things about Divinity: Original Sin, but it was both the fourth game in a series and a little bit more expensive than I was willing to pay for, so I bought the first three games as part of a heavily discounted bundle.

Expectations and Prior Experience

First, I have get something off my chest: "Divine Divinity" is a terrible title. I mean, as opposed to what, non-divine divinity? It's been bugging me for years and may well be a contributing factor to why I waited so long to play it.

I'll probably like the game, though. It's an isomorphic action-rpg, and apparently one of the top 100 games of all time, at that. So unless it has some hidden offensiveness or unnecessary difficulty, it should be fine.

Other than the basic genre staples, I don't really know what to expect. A lot of items, apparently. Which can be good. I like futzing with items. But will it be enough? That plot looks as generic as generic can be. The worst case scenario is that it will be merely bland, but it's possible that it might hook me nonetheless.

Overall, I'm pretty optimistic.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Offworld Trading Company - 20/20 hours

I'm in a difficult position in regards Offworld Trading Company. My only complaint about it is that I wish it was an entirely different game. By that I mean that I enjoyed playing it, and I found the mechanics to be both interesting and apt for what the game was trying to accomplish, but at its root, it is something I am not particularly interested in - a quick and simple multiplayer game of cutthroat economics.

Or, to be more precise, this is the sort of game that's fun to play with friends, because it's competitive without being violent and it's tactically complex enough that no two matches are going to be exactly the same. But as a solitary activity . . . I have other things I'd rather do.

So that leaves me trying to put a vague and nameless feeling into words. I guess my experience with this game was one of "practice." I had to play it deliberately, and with my mind not on the present, but on the future. I was playing the game not for itself, but for what I might learn from it. Which, you know, is fine, but it had the unfortunate side effect of making it feel more like work than play.

This is definitely a game that I would play again, if I ever need a low time-commitment multiplayer game. I like that it is mostly pacifist (although the Black Market was kind of bullshit) and that you win by building yourself up rather than tearing your opponents down.

That said, I'm not sure when that situation will come up, so it is likely that it will take me years of owning this game before I get to my second twenty hours. I guess that's fine, though. Not every game has to become an obsession. If they did, how would it be possible to own two hundred of them . . .

(Oh, wow, I think I just had an epiphany that would have saved me a lot of trouble if I'd had it 4 years ago.)

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Offworld Trading Company - 14/20 hours

My main takeaway, after 14 hours of playing this game, is that the people of future Mars are idiots. As near as I can tell, the various offworld trading companies are about as well-regulated as 19th century corporations. The way you win the game is by purchasing stock in all your rivals until you get a complete monopoly. And during all this, the space-SEC is nowhere to be found.

Maybe it's just a frontier mentality. There's something about having wide-open spaces, not yet developed by industry, that triggers a flaw in the human brain - "we don't have to worry about responsible stewardship of the land, there's plenty more where that came from." You'd think that after the Earth was ruined by reckless capitalism, people would be more diffident about exporting that system into space, but Offworld Trading Company doesn't seem to even acknowledge the irony (though, to be fair, it doesn't have much of a story, generally).

It's probably just a gameplay thing. You've got these businesses and you want one to be a winner and the others to be the losers. How do you bring it about? Just eliminate any player who spends too long in the red? That would probably not be tenable, given the particulars of the game's economy. There's a lot of time, especially at the beginning, where you have to borrow money to keep your business growing, and with the market as volatile as it is, this could lead to you being eliminated by accident. Having the elimination mechanic be a stock buyout puts your fate entirely in the hands of your opponents.

You just have to gloss over the worldbuilding implications, though. Like, the whole game revolves around colonies granting you land claims, but they don't seem to worry about the dangers of consolidation, of one corporation gaining overwhelming control over a significant portion of their economy, including their food, water, and air. When you add in the "black market" mechanic, where you can hire mercenaries to sabotage your rivals, it suggests a weak and feckless government that is incapable of enforcing the law.

I mean, it's not a pleasant thought, the idea that for all your infrastructure building, Mars will develop itself into the same sort of ecological dead-end that Earth has become, or that the future of the colonists will be one of exploitation at the hands of an unquestionable corporate monopoly. How does one even shop around for air, anyway?

I don't think Offworld Trading Company is meant to be an incisive critique of capitalism. Yet there are times it feels that way, when I ask myself "why am I doing this" and the only answer I can come up with is "I must acquire and consume and have more than all my rivals. I must be the only business left standing. Nothing must stand in the way of my wealth." And it is easy to get lost in this rapacity and jealousy, to forget the purpose of your building and development - to create a new life for the human race on Mars. It raises the uncomfortable question - would you hinder the enterprise, if there were greater profit in it for you?

It's likely not intentional ideology, though. It comes from being a multiplayer game at heart. Some games are cooperative, but very rarely so in the strategy genre. So if multiple people are going to play the same game, there have to be winners and losers. And if there are losers in a game primarily about economics, than there has to be (at least implied) misery on the story-layer. It is possible to imagine a world of universally improving material conditions, but if you have wealth as a win-state, than the lose-state almost has to be poverty. The grim implied story of the game comes from a combination of losing-as-poverty and the winner-take-all nature of multiplayer competition.

There's not really anything you can do but take the game at face value, though. If you want to make inferences about the broader world of Offworld Trading Company, you have to extrapolate from the game mechanics. Unfortunately, it looks like humanity took its greed and its short-sightedness with it into the stars. And I guess there's no remembering the mistakes of the past when it's much more profitable to forget.

Bleak. . .

At least I'll have my money to distract me.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Offworld Trading Company - 8/20 hours

I thought for sure that I would breeze through this one. It has everything I like - infrastructure, build orders, pacifism, space ships, the whole deal. And while much of my delay has been about unrelated life stuff, I have to admit that part of it is, indeed due to the game itself.

It's just too fast-paced. You have to make a lot of decisions very quickly, and by the time you see the consequences of those decisions, the match is very nearly over. I never really get to the point where I start to feel an attachment to my business empire. So there's this moment, after the end of each match, where I have to decide whether I feel like starting everything from scratch. And more often than not, I don't.

Which isn't to say that I dislike this game. In fact, the opposite is true. I think it would be easier for me to play it if I liked it less. As paradoxical as that sounds, it comes down to the constantly resetting nature of long-term gameplay. If I'm enjoying myself at minute 30, I'd rather move on to minute 31, rather than go back to minute 0. If I disliked the game, it would all be the same.

I think this is another case where it all boils down to mastering my emotions. I have no terrible pressing need to keep playing this game, but I also don't have any particular aversion to doing so. I could probably do a half hour a day more or less indefinitely. The main problem is my self-imposed schedule. I'm not letting my actions be guided by my natural and spontaneous desires, and so even something I enjoy can seem like a chore.

You'd think that, having done this for three years now, I'd have a cure for that malaise, but the truth is, I feel like it's been getting worse. My life has been very unsettled recently, and I've been more vulnerable to the temptation to turn off my brain and consume more passive entertainment. Binge-watching Archer is not as satisfying as finishing a new game and writing a blog post about it, but it does take less of my mental energy.

Which isn't the fault of the game, I suppose. But its structure definitely doesn't help. It's too easy to wrongly feel like I've accomplished something significant. Winning a match is just a drop in the bucket, in terms of my blog project. It's repeating the process another 39 times that will get me across the finish line.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Offworld Trading Company - 2/20 hours

So far, I've played the tutorial, a skirmish, and a couple of campaign missions. It's all been on the easiest difficulty, so there hasn't been any great stress or trouble. It's mostly just been a relaxing exercise in build order optimization, of the sort that I tend to really enjoy.

But I also get the feeling that this is the sort of game that is difficult to comment on at 2 hours. Eithr I've already seen most of what Offworld Trading Company has to offer, or there is a profound level of depth that will take me hours to appreciate. Possibly both. It certainly doesn't hide mechanics from you. There is a fairly shallow chain of infrastructure and most of the challenge in any individual mission appears to be adapting to the map. I'm sure that there are nuances to using the more advanced buildings, but individual matches tend to be over before that's necessary.

My guess is that this game is optimized for short multiplayer matches, and the intent is that you experience the whole of your company's arc - founding to expansion followed by either bankruptcy or monopoly - in about 30-60 minutes. It's something that doesn't take a lot of commitment, and which you're supposed to find interesting enough that you don't mind repeating it over and over again.

I think I'll have to take a "wait and see" approach here. I like manipulating the economy and seeing my company grow, but I dislike the way the game forces an eliminationist conflict so quickly. I think the main takeaway here is . . . that I like grinding?

That seems plausible. Which means that the main theme I'm going to be thinking of, going forward, is the difference between drawing out a process in order to pad the game's running time versus allowing for an ever-expanding player ambition by including open-ended high-tier content. It will probably take me a few hours to get a handle on it, though.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Offworld Trading Company - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)
Mars has been colonized. Now, Earth's greatest corporate titans have been invited to build companies to support it. The competition to dominate the market is fierce in this fast-paced economic RTS from Civilization IV lead Designer, Soren Johnson.

Venture to Mars to Earn Your Fortune
With space travel becoming a reality and the easy-to-reach resources on Earth dwindling, hopeful people seeking their fortune are rushing to the next great frontier: Mars. Rekindle humanity’s adventurous spirit by leaving Earth behind and make a new name for yourself as a titan of industry on the red planet.

Discover the Origin of the Major Martian Businesses
Determine the fate of the Martian colonization effort in the dynamic single-player campaign mode. Multiple types of CEOs, each with unique traits and abilities, deliver many hours of discovery into their motivations and how they intend to dominate the future of Mars.

Experience New Adventure in Multiplayer
Turn your friends into frenemies! With a robust and exciting multiplayer mode that can support up to eight players, no two games of Offworld Trading Company are the same! The market fluctuates depending on which of the four starting corporations you and your opponents choose and what resources you accumulate. Strategy is key, and tenuous alliances between rivals are easily broken when the opportunity arises.

Control the Market before your Competition Controls You
In Offworld Trading Company, market forces are your weapons, not guns or bombs. The real-time player driven market is your sword and your shield here. In order to win, you will need to make tough choices on what resources to acquire, what goods to build and sell, how to interact with the planet's thriving underworld, and what stocks to acquire and when. With over a dozen different resources available and a constantly changing market economy, no two paths of victory are alike -- each game holds a different “key” to dominating your competition.

Previous Playtime

6 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

My friend Daniel bought this for me as a gift awhile back, and we've played multiplayer maybe a dozen times since then. Aside from the tutorial, this will be my first time going solo and I basically have only one agenda - learn enough about the game to beat the AI. Most of the time, when we play, it was on a team against the computer, and every time we get spanked. One of these days, I'd really like to avenge myself and my friend.

That is also, ironically, my main worry about the game. It is intensely competitive, almost off-puttingly so. I like that it is a (mostly) pacifist game, but am somewhat discombobulated by the idea that the goal is to non-violently destroy your rivals. It will be interesting to see which of my tendencies wins out - my love for peacefully building things or my dislike of absolutist victory conditions.

I think the outlook is favorable, though, especially if there is an option to disable the black market. This is an RTS that focuses on base building and economy and dispenses with all that tedious military conflict and associated battlefield tactics. The worst case scenario is that I turn out to be so bad at it that my matches don't last long enough for me to enjoy the game's central premise. But that's what easy mode is for.

Monaco - 20/20 hours

I'm finally done with Monaco. I think the main thing holding me back from finishing this game was the fact that I didn't want to. For most of the last week, I've been playing Starbound instead.  It was primarily embarrassment at the thought of taking more than two weeks to finish a game that got me through it. Last night, I just sat down and did a seven hour marathon session.

Sort of. I actually just set the game on God Mode and ground for achievements. I feel a little bad about that, because I didn't actually earn things like the "Unscathed" achievement for finishing every mission without dying, and thus my Steam profile will seem deceptive to anyone who might take a look at it, but it gave me a goal and a direction. Without that, I'd have had to spend all that time sneaking around, and that's basically a non-starter.

I did play a couple of honest co-op games, and those were interesting. I could see how this game could be a lot of fun with four players, communicating over voice chat, and using their individual characters' unique abilities to execute a complex plan. However, that's not really the experience you get with random matches. All the times I tried it, I had only one teammate and we each did our separate thing in absolute silence. I'd rank that as slightly better than single-player stealth, but not by so much that I was willing to give up invisibility.

In the end, Monaco is another one of those games I respect rather than enjoy. It has a very simple presentation, but the intricate levels allowed for multiple approaches that could take advantage of a wide variety of character abilities, constrained be a tense fog-of-war mechanic that rewards observation, memory, and careful planning. It's impressive that so much of the game's complexity lies in the meta-game, and I think if I were an obsessive stealth game fan I would be able to get a lot of mileage out of it.

But I'm not, so I won't. Before cheating my way through and making it a sub-par shooter, I was mostly frustrated by its difficulty. And it wasn't the sort of uplifting frustration that made me want to excel. It was the sort dull frustration that edges me towards despair. I didn't care enough about the game's core challenge to want to develop the game's core skills. I'm fully willing to admit that it's a personal failing, and not something that's wrong with the game itself. But there you have it. Another game that wound up as an endurance test.

Although, I suppose the god thing about being so far down my list is that I surely have only a couple of those left . . .

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Monaco - 10/20 hours

I was all set to write a post about the romance of thievery, about the way that it gets depicted in video games and popular fiction as a kind of daring alternative to making an honest living, and about the way that many fictional thieves are also portrayed as heroes, with their tendency to steal being a kind of charming character quirk.

But then, last night at the hotel, one of the guests had their bike stolen from the parking lot. It was not fun to be the one who had to tell them. When you see theft from that perspective, it's apparent that it's not a romantic adventure. It's cruel.

I also have more sympathy for the guards, now. It's not really my job to protect people's possessions in the parking lot, but I do walk through it a couple of times a night just to keep an eye on things, and if I had interrupted the thief, maybe they would have just run away, or maybe they would have assaulted me. Certainly, if this were a scenario in Monaco, and I were controlling the thief, that's what I would have done. How many of those poor, pixelated security guards were just ordinary working stiffs, trying to scrape together enough pay to keep their tiny simulated lives going?

I guess the romance of theft comes from the fact that, in fiction, the victims are almost always the wealthy. Then it's not so much about taking away the prized possession of a regular person and causing them to miss the big bike race that they took a vacation to participate in, but rather about setting yourself against a larger societal power structure. The things you take, the art, the jewels, the cash, and whatnot, are not important in themselves. They don't have stories attached to them, nor are they central to the victim's hopes for the future. Rather, by their very abundance, they are commodified - entries on a balance sheet, distinguished only by a price tag.

The implication is that property itself is the crime, that what is true of art is true of people - to the very rich they are merely a tool to be manipulated, valued only to the degree that they impact a balance sheet. By leveraging their wealth into a form of social power, the rich make themselves legitimate targets for theft.

That's pretty ideological. On the other hand, the opposite - genre fiction that portrayed the rich as mere hapless victims who were terrorized by heartless criminal scum - would also be signalling a strong, counterfactual ideology. I think, then, that the fantasy of theft boils down to two things - elaborate plans are pretty cool, especially when they cleverly circumvent reasonable and intelligent security features; and the expression of a poorly articulated emotional truth - in our society, wealth is intimately tied up with coercion.

The "steal from the rich" fantasy is essentially the same as the "quit your job and live in harmony with nature" fantasy. In both cases, money acts as the connective tissue in a rigid hierarchical structure that seeks to place every individual into a position of optimal utility, regardless of their personal potential or basic desires. The main difference between the fantasies is their vision of what escaping the system means. Theft is much more materialistic than a spiritual awakening. It posits that while you may not be able to invert the hierarchy, you can sidestep it and live like the rich without playing by their rigged set of rules (designed as they are to keep themselves at the top and you at the bottom).

That's why a thief doesn't necessarily have to be altruistic to be considered heroic. They are resisting a force that we've all felt to one degree or another - brutal economic necessity shaping our lives into something we never asked for, something that our younger selves would despise and our older selves will regret. And sometimes it is impossible to imagine being authentically free without also being free of the illusion of property.

The problem is that there is no such thing as an abstract crime. The poor are a lot easier to steal from than the rich, and truthfully, even the absurdly wealthy probably do have an intense emotional connection to the rare Monet they absolutely have no right to own and which would better serve the world hanging in a museum. And while one could make persuasive arguments that the distribution of wealth in our society is unjust and that we should take corrective measures, a single person cannot take it upon themselves to make that decision. You can't hurt people and have the moral high ground . . .

Except in video games (don't worry, I didn't forget what sort of blog this is). In a game, justice tends to be more elemental. There's always someone more corrupt, and vigilantism really can clean up the streets. I never got the impression that the characters in Monoco were noble, or that any of them were doing this for any reason other than their own personal gratification, but they are masters of their own destiny (when they aren't backstabbing each other - which may or may not be canonical), and that's what the fantasy of theft is all about.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Monaco - 5/20 hours

I am a weak person. I ran into a level that was repeatedly killing me and I was starting to feel incredibly frustrated, so I went online and found an invincibility cheat. It's the same damned thing I did with Velvet Assassin, so I guess you could call it a pattern - I would rather play a game with literally no challenge whatsoever than attempt difficult stealth missions.

It's possible that, through persistence, I'd be able to get through every level in the game without cheating. It's happened before. In Velvet Assassin, actually. But I'm not sure I even want to. Something about the game's frenetic activity when you fall out of stealth really gets under my skin. I guess it's a feeling of utter helplessness. You can run away, but as often as not you're just running into a worse situation, and there is always a delay when passing through doors, going up stairs, donning a disguise, or hiding in air vents or bushes - a delay that, in the harder levels, will usually get you killed.

I understand why the game is the way it is. It's about strategy and care and making and following a plan. I'm supposed to learn from my mistakes and use my knowledge of the environment to perfect my timing, slipping through the levels like a ghost. In order to win, I must develop the skills of a criminal mastermind.

But I don't want to. It's hard.

I should get over myself. It's not as if there's some compelling plot that I must advance to discover. The story of a high-class crime spree, told from multiple angles, with increasingly unlikely revelations, is interesting, but not so interesting that I need to break the game to see what happens next. But activating God Mode was so satisfying, I don't think I'll be able to stop.

I guess it's mostly revenge. The game makes me feel so small and afraid when I slip up and those guys with machine guns start chasing me. Even when I'm armed, getting ammo is kind of risky. Usually, I have, at most, two or three shots before I'm back at square one. So being able to stride through the level, impervious to harm is intoxicating. How do you like me now, assholes? I will steal all your coins right in front of you and there's nothing you can do about it!

It's immature, I  know, and with fifteen hours left to go, I will probably get over it sooner or later, but for right now, I need this. I refuse to play your game, Monaco. . . well, okay, not literally, but, you know, in spirit.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Monaco - 2/20 hours

I've said before that I don't like stealth, and so far in this blog, it's always been in the nature of a curmudgeonly skepticism - I'd see that a game had it as a feature and I'd fret and I'd worry, but ultimately it has always been something I could cope with. That's mostly down to selection pressure. I've tried to avoid games with excessive stealth, and with the exception of Velvet Assassin, I've succeeded. Until now.

Playing Monaco . . . it's like someone distilled my nightmares and then made them into a game. That's barely a hyperbole. I've had that nightmare, where I am alone and being stalked by enemies, and one wrong move means they'll spot me and I then have to run away, using every trick at my disposal, but it isn't enough.

Monaco has captured that feeling very well. Each level is like my own personal ten-minute Tartarus. Getting to know the individual character quirks of your team and then watching them get slaughtered one by one by security because I went around a corner at the wrong time? Wow, it just hits every one of my buttons. I can play it for about 20 minutes at a stretch. Much longer than that and I start to get overwhelmed with resentment. Which wouldn't be too much of a problem, except that when I'm away from the game and think about playing it, I feel incredibly stressed out. I don't want to send my cute little pixel robbers to their deaths in a terrifying death-maze. I want them to live and collect coins and banter nonsensically in cutscenes. I mean, those little skeletons they leave behind when they die . . .  horrifying.

I guess I should say, begrudgingly, that Monaco is kind of a great game. It is often visually striking, and there is a lot of complex strategy in navigating around the levels' obstacles using the wide variety of character abilities. I can definitely see how it would shine as a co-op game. And I imagine that, even for me, there's a level of skill where you can go through the levels intentionally, solving them like puzzles, and exploring the lavish world of high-class burglary.

But man, do I dread doing what I have to do to get to that point. Oh well, the only way out is forward, and if I have to relive this sensation of harried helplessness and ever-tightening confinement a hundred times before I'm done, well I guess that's just what I'll have to do.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Monaco - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine is a single player or co-op heist game. Assemble a crack team of thieves, case the joint, and pull off the perfect heist.

The Locksmith: Blue-collar infiltration expert
The Lookout: She can see and hear everything... a natural leader
The Pickpocket: A hobo with a monkey and a penchant for crime
The Cleaner: A silent psychopath... Jack The Ripper in pink
The Mole: Big and dumb... likes to tunnel
The Gentleman: He doesn't always wear a disguise, but when he does, he looks fantastic
The Hacker: Armies of viruses shut down security... a modern day warlock
The Redhead: Manipulative and murderous... a lady always gets what she wants

Play with up to four people online or on the same screen. Compete with others via daily leaderboards. Find out why it won the 2010 IGF and has been described by PCGamer as "one of the best co-op games of all time."

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I bought this during the 2014 Steam Winter sale, and as I recall, it was a time in my life when I felt invincible, and was just buying video games speculatively, because of course I was going to play them, I have a blog now. Monaco wasn't something I was specifically interested in, but I'd heard of it, and a lot of my friends already owned it, so I figured it was worth a shot.

Expectations and Prior Experience

This is another game I'm going into blind. From the screenshots it looks like a cute top-down adventure game, but also there's stealth? Once again, I'm put in the position where I'll probably like it if it's easy and not like it if it's hard.

Also, I'm not sure how well a co-op game like this is going to play as a single-player experience. I like the description of all the different classes in the store page write-up, but how many of them will I get to control?

I can foresee the potential for a very bad time, if it turns out I have to split my focus in several directions at once while carefully navigating a maze and avoiding enemies that can instantly ruin my day. But that's a worst-case scenario. It will probably be fine.

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - 20/20 hours

If Shadow of Mordor were a generic fantasy game, its plot would be perfectly serviceable. However, it's so at odds, thematically, with The Lord of the Rings that it feels like it's set in a different universe.

The backstory to the game is a little complicated (there's this ranger guy who, due to unfortunate legal circumstances, had to take his family to the border of Mordor, where they were killed as part of a blood sacrifice, and as he lay dying of his own sacrifice wound, he met up with the wraith of an ancient elf who somehow spiritually bonded with him and keeps bringing him back from the dead), but the plot is pretty simple - get revenge on the high-ranking officers in Sauron's army for all the bad shit they did, both to the ranger Talion, and in the past, generally.

However, the way they go about this is through a campaign of terror that leads to them wielding the weapons of the enemy in an effort to bring him down, which is kind of the opposite of what The Lord of the Rings said they should do. I suppose it's possible that this will all go horribly sideways in the last two story missions and we'll learn that the plan was flawed from the start, but the game is going to get a sequel soon, and so . . .

Although, I actually think the most fundamental flaw in the game's plot is that it's a revenge story. Talion's wife and son were killed, as were the wraith's, all those thousands of years ago. And while that kind of loss is understandably very motivating, it kind of stifles any sort of robust characterization. The pain of losing a loved one is something everyone can relate too, so having it as the driving force behind your main character says basically nothing about them. At the very least, it would be nice if the grizzled male main character lost a friend, or a father, or a cheerful next-door neighbor as the inciting incident for their vigilantism. Those sorts of relationships are uncommon enough in revenge fiction that they'd almost have to be rooted in specificity by default.

Even with the bland protagonist, I'm tempted to keep playing Shadow of Mordor, just to see how it ends, but I think I'll have to pass for now. The mission I'm currently on involves brainwashing the five orc warchiefs in order to raise an army to attack Sauron's loyalists. And it's nice that it is presented as a freeform exercise in tinkering with the Nemesis system, but the flipside of that is that it requires a lot of effort to plan and execute the dozen or so assassinations/stronghold invasions (when I'm in control, there's not much of a difference) that are required to climb the ranks. It could easily be another 5-10 hours before I even touch another main story mission.

I'm definitely coming back, though. I enjoyed how dynamic the open world felt, and while I could do without the stealth, having it as an option did make me feel like I was making a significant choice in how to approach the game. And it may not have been the Tolkien nerdfest I was hoping for, it was clearly made with a love for, if not especially great understanding of, the source material.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - 10/20 hours

I had a pretty amazing moment while playing this game. I was fighting a large gang of orcs when suddenly control cut away and there was a brief cutscene introducing an orc captain, and my first thought upon seeing this was, "oh great, not you again." It was an orc who had previously killed me, got promoted to captain, killed me again when I tried to get revenge, and got a power boost, and who I eventually tracked down and assassinated - only he survived the attempt, got a metal plate in his head, and then showed up randomly at an otherwise unremarkable brawl. And I recognized him by his name and appearance.

In that instant, I had a genuine emotional reaction to the game. Not like with Star Wars Starfighter, where I was frustrated with the game itself, and not like in any number of other games, where the prearranged story layer does all of the emotional heavy lifting, but rather I was engaging with an actual game mechanic. The system for generating recurring adversaries caused me to have an authentic and spontaneous feeling that mirrored what my game character was currently going through. The nemesis system is, like, 75% of the reason I bought the game, and I still wasn't expecting it to hit me like that. That single moment was probably worth the four dollars all by itself.

The only thing that is even remotely comparable is the last scene in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, but I almost think that shouldn't count, because the whole game as clearly building up to that moment. This was incidental and part of the general fabric of the game. It didn't pack quite the emotional punch, but it does make the game world seem that much more alive.

Unfortunately, I've gotten a lot more efficient at killing orcs in the last 8 hours, so there's only been a couple of times where I've had that same sense of recognition, but it's been great every time.

I've only advanced something like two missions into the story, having gotten distracted by collectibles, side missions, and all that other open-world rigamarole, so I'm not ready to talk about it just yet. A couple of observations, though - Gollum is here, which fits the timeline (I think), but kind of makes the story feel a little fan-fictiony, and both of the story missions I've played so far have been semi-tutorials, which have explained and unlocked new mechanics, so maybe I shouldn't have waited so long to play them. Oops.

But I am officially out of side-quests for now. I'm pretty sure there's a second area that contains precisely as many as I've played so far (because in my progress screen, all the different collectible types and major side missions are sitting at 50%), but I won't know for sure until I complete more main missions. I'm also looking forward to unlocking the rest of the mechanics. I've gathered that it will be possible, later, to mind control some of the orcs and pit them against each other for some ill-defined profit. That ought to be fun.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - 2/20 hours

I think I started worrying prematurely. In Shadow of Mordor, you can run while in stealth, and you can sneak attack orcs in the face. Never mind how that's supposed to work, I can deal with it.

So far, the worst consequence of failing at stealth has been getting forced into a battle against unfavorable odds, leading, eventually, to my death. Which I'm okay with for two reasons - first, death in this game is pretty cheap. You respawn at the nearest tower and can go again right away. And second, the fight, despite the odds, was winnable. What it boils down to is that I can use stealth opportunistically and sporadically, and even then like a reckless idiot, so I'm fine.

Although, I haven't actually played any of the story missions yet. It's possible there's at least one where you have to crawl through at a snail's pace, worrying about lines of sight and the noise of your footsteps, where one wrong move will force you to start over (and, indeed, in the rpg.net forum thread, someone confirmed that there is), but since there are a lot of open world activities to get distracted by, I should have plenty to do, even if I hit a roadblock.

Overall, my first impressions are favorable. I like fighting orcs, leveling up my weapons, and finding collectibles, and while I've had only brief contact with the Nemesis system, hunting down the orc that killed me was pretty fun. I can definitely see how it could become an enjoyable mini-game on its own, provided it gets a little more complexity down the line.

The only real flaw that I've noticed so far is that it doesn't really feel like a Tolkien story. I won't go into more detail just yet, because I'll probably want to write a whole post about the plot later on, but there have been moments where I'd look at the screen and say, "wait, am I a wraith?"

I don't think continuing this game is going to be a problem for me. So long as there isn't a sudden difficulty spike down the line, I can continue with the way things have been going indefinitely.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Fight through Mordor and uncover the truth of the spirit that compels you, discover the origins of the Rings of Power, build your legend and ultimately confront the evil of Sauron in this new chronicle of Middle-earth.

Previous Playtime

18 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This 

Well, it was on sale for silly cheap, like four dollars for the game plus all the DLC. Now, that alone is enough to get me to buy a game (hell, I'll buy just about anything for 80 percent off), but by that time in my life, I'd been through enough Steam sales to know that the same four dollars could have bought me any number of excellent games. So why Shadow of Mordor, specifically?

It really came down to a combination of things. I heard that it had a really neat system where it procedurally generates recurring enemies that you will grow to know by name. Also, I've long been both intrigued and intimidated by Tolkein's expanded universe, and while I have no idea if this game is based off stuff like The Silmarillion, the idea of a professionally crafted story set in Middle Earth was pretty appealing.

Expectations and Prior Experience

First things first - this is a stealth game, at least in part, and that worries me. I don't care for stealth in video games, and every time I've tried it, I've always been like, "ach, why can't I just kill these guys and sneak past their corpses?" On the bright side, I've been assured that the stealth in this game is fairly optional, and I'll usually be able to brawl with orcs as a fall-back position.

Basically, my line is Assassin's Creed 2. If this game has less stealth than that, I'll be fine. If it has more, I may have a problem.

I'm optimistic, though. When I first got the game, I fired it up to see if it would even run on my computer, and I have to say, nothing in the first 18 minutes made me think I was in any danger of having to creep around like a jackass rather than fight. That may change as enemies get tougher, but at least I know this an action/stealth game, and thus I can hold out hope that there will be a lot more action than stealth.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Galactic Civilizations III - 20/20 hours

In the course of finishing Galactic Civilizations III, I was forced to do something I didn't want to do - I won the game.

Oh, I didn't object to it in principle, it just snuck up on me, though. I was tottering along, micromanaging my planets when all of a sudden - defeat! It took me awhile to figure out what happened. I'd been exploring the galaxy, looking through the mostly-empty map to find the NPC empires, for trading purposes mostly. I'd long since had contact with the Altarians, and we'd been allies for about 100 turns, but the Iconians were tucked away in a distant cluster with a lot of dark space between them and me. My persistence paid off, though. After settling a forward base to extend the range of my ships, I was finally able to get a purpose-built exploratory vessel through.

And then ten turns later, I lost. It turns out that the disadvantage to stacking your AI opponents with all the benevolent factions is that they can go from strangers to allies in less than a year. The Altarians wound up winning a diplomatic victory. Which wouldn't bug me so much, except that you can't keep playing afterwards, and I was having too much fun upgrading my planets. So I loaded an old autosave, bribed the Altarians into hitting the Iconians with a Trade Embargo, then went and allied with the Iconians myself, a couple of turns later. Because you can keep playing after you win the game.

I'd go into more detail about why these machinations were worth it to me, but I'm sure they would be impossibly tedious. I like clicking buttons and seeing numbers go up.

Overall, I would not say that Galactic Civilizations III won me over to the series. It's a fine game, but it didn't actually solve any of the problems I had with its predecessor. Still too much warfare and expansion, and it still isn't as slick as its contemporary competition. That said, I had fun for almost the entire time I was playing it, and were something to happen to make me unable to play the rest of my 4X games, I would find this one to be a worthy consolation prize.

I know that sounds kind of back-handed, and I don't really mean it like that. It's just that the problem I have with the Galactic Civilizations series, and it's not really a problem, per se, more like an "issue," is that it's a game that confuses "size" with "scope." Progress is usually in the form of bigger numbers - more planets, longer ship ranges, higher credit and research totals. There's nothing that really comes along and changes the way you approach the game. It's not like the Space Empires games, where the end of the tech tree brings you radical new powers. What you're doing at the end of the game is a lot like what you're doing at the beginning.

Which is fine. I like most of the stuff you have to do. And except for contesting territory, I like it more the more of it you have to do. It's just that as your empire expands, it feels less like you are growing in power and more like you are growing in the number of repetitive chores you have to do.

I'm actually pretty sure that's the case for all 4Xs, though. It's just GalCiv doesn't even pretend to balance small empires against big ones. So for a guy like me who always plays "tall," even when I'm forced to go "wide," it just seems like work shoveled upon work. Not something I object to in principle, but just enough to put this game at the middle of my list, rather than the top.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Galactic Civilizations III - 11/20 hours

I finally found the correct map settings to get the AI to leave me alone. It doesn't feel entirely fair, because they really can't seem to deal with the isolated star clusters, but that's what they get for crossing me on a more economically balanced map.

If I'm being completely honest, this is not a new "strategy" from me. I first started doing it back in my Alpha Centauri days when I realized that the AI was completely unequipped for "Arid and Rocky" map settings. It was a handicap applied to all the factions equally, but only I, the human player, had the mental flexibility to adjust my strategy accordingly. I eventually grew out of needing that boost, but a large part of the reason I was able to outgrow it is because I was able to use the peace it bought me to learn the game's tech tree inside and out.

I feel that starting to happen with Galactic Civilizations III, though the process now, like then, is slow. I'm pretty sure I won't even finish my current game by the end of the 20 hours, and it will probably take me a dozen at least to get an effective early game worked out. It's exactly the sort of challenge that I used to love back when I was playing games like a normal human being.

My plan for the short-term is to stay the course. I love playing the degenerate version of the game as a type of tile-filling solitaire, and I could probably do that indefinitely. Nine more hours will be nothing.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Galactic Civilizations III - 5/20 hours


Whew, I had to get that off my chest. I really do like Galactic Civilizations III. It's a lot like Galactic Civilizations II, but it's got a few new interesting features, like improvement adjacency bonuses, strategic resources, and research specializations, that, while they don't dramatically change the feel of the game. do at least add some more engaging choices around the edges.

However, the initial colony rush and the AI's tendency to treat your borders as suggestions are still around, and they are just as exhausting as they were before. I know this is a weakness on my part, but I don't actually care all that much for the expansion part of the 4X genre (or, for that matter, the exterminate part. But I really like the explore and exploit parts . . . maybe I've been looking for a 2X game this whole time).

I don't know what it is, but I like to scope out the geography of my territory and find its natural limits - the whole of an island, the quarter of a continent that lies behind a bottleneck, the cluster of stars surrounding my homeworld. Then, I'll rush to the edges of that limit and try to back-fill the interior. But that strategy won't work here (and, to be fair, it barely works in other games), because the AI sees an uncolonized planet and thinks "hey, I could put a colony there right now and there's no downside." And the pathetic thing is, aside from annoying me, it's right.

Which, I don't know where I'm going with this. The GalCiv series has a very particular early game. You've got to balance early construction with rapid expansion with steady population growth and it's not so much a strategy as it is a formula. You're racing in the early game to build the foundation for a mid-game empire, and if you screw up, your opponents will walk all over you.

There was a time when I knew how to handle this. I played so many games of Galactic Civilizations II in a row that the thing where you've got to throttle your early tax income to afford explosive population growth that you channeled into a massive number of colony ships came as second nature to me, but I keep forgetting. I'd rather play around with micromanaging my planets' production queues than actually play the real game in front of me.

I don't think I'll ever change. I'm going to try here, at least a little, because there's a lot about Galactic Civilizations III that I enjoy and if I can be just enough of a non-pushover to be able to focus on it as much as possible, than I'll be pretty happy.

Galactic Civilizations III - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

The human race has finally mastered faster-than-light travel opening up the stars for exploration and colonization. As the leader of the newly formed Terran Alliance, you will guide humanity's expansion into becoming a space-based civilization. Soon, you will discover that we are not alone. Alien civilizations with their own histories and motivations are expanding as well. Research new technology, design starships, negotiate trade and treaties, wage wars, colonize new worlds, construct starbases in the largest 4X strategy game ever made. And when you've finished that, play again as one of the many included alien civilizations each with its own history, technology tree, ship components and more.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

I first want to say a word of thanks to reader PAS for sending me this game. I've been looking forward to playing it for quite awhile.

I've played the previous game in the series quite a bit, and while in my latest go-round, I found the relentless need for expansion to be a bit of an annoyance, it was still a planet-settling, tech-researching, ship-customizing, menu-browsing sort of game, and thus one I could easily and happily play for hours at a stretch.

My big hope for Galactic Civilizations III is that it brings a bit of modern polish to the GalCivII formula. If the menus are slightly easier to navigate, the opposition a bit more respectful of my borders, and the ships a bit more balanced against each other, I expect I will be perfectly happy.

Star Wars Starfighter - 20/20 hours

I tried to beat the canyon level a few more times, but I couldn't do it. I got almost to the end a couple of times, but the ship I was escorting would fly into that last open area and get blown up. I'm sure it's possible, but I don't have the reflexes for it.

So I went with my backup plan. I enabled invincibility and got gold medals on all the levels . . . in easy mode. Since many of the medals required strict time limits, this wasn't exactly a gimme, but it was pretty easy. Even the canyon level wasn't too bad, given all the practice I had on medium mode. This killed a couple of hours. Then I was left with all the ships and bonus levels unlocked, so I went to get gold on all but one of the bonus levels, using the cool "Sith Infiltrator" bonus ship. That was fine, but I still had about an hour left to go. So I decided to try the canyon level on medium difficulty, while invincible.

I couldn't get through it. Whenever I flew more aggressively, the screen-shake from taking fire made me completely ineffectual. And the Sith Infiltrator's extremely powerful gun was useless if I couldn't aim. Even cheating, that level still managed to beat me. I don't know if that makes me feel better or worse, but I do know that I removed this game from my hard drive with a great deal of satisfaction.

It mostly wasn't that bad. I may be getting a little old to keep up with it, physically, but I still understand the appeal of whizzing around in a spaceship, blasting stuff with lasers. It's light and sound and spectacle and split-second decisions, and it's been a long time since I played a game that was so adept at coaxing out both the good and the bad type of adrenaline. But it's not my thing. Not any more.

Still, I managed to finally complete the last game in my Star Wars bundle. I really feel like the end of the blog is something that's actually going to happen. Once I get Age of Wonders III, the Stronghold games, and the Divinity series out of the way, that will be the last of my big bundles. It's only a matter of time now!