Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Mount & Blade - 6/20 hours

So I've been cheating for the past four hours, and I have to say . . . cheating is awesome. Probably not generally, but in this case it's been a great way to blow off some steam. I can actually survive battles from time to time!

No, that's not fair. I survived quite a few battles as a starting character . . . only to lose my progress every 20 minutes or so when my luck eventually ran out. Having a cheat-enabled character with maximum stats allowed me to survive every battle. It might be a little boring going from victory to victory, but it's nice to know that it's possible to get to a point where your equipment, skills, and allies are sufficient to keep you alive.

I could easily just faff around with this character for another 14 hours and be done with it, but that's not really what I want from the game. What I want is a narrative. I want to be a hero who rises from nothing to unite a kingdom. I want a merchant who crosses the land in search of profit and power. I want a noble lady who shuns court for the life of an adventurer.

That's the real compelling thing about Mount & Blade. It promises these things. It simulates a virtual world and then makes you a tiny character inside it. And while a lot of games do that, very few others have such a telescoping scale. Your avatar, the thing you control, is always just an individual. Everything you can control is on a personal scale. Yet string together enough of these personal-scale interactions and you can have a profound effect on the political map.

It all starts with you physically going from village, recruiting soldiers a handful at a time. Then you train these soldiers by directly sparring with them, usually 4 v 1. Each sword-stroke and parry flows from your mouse-and-keyboard controls into a numerical sum on their character sheets. Then you have to physically track down the notable personages of the realm and ask them what needs to be done. And then, to do it, you lead your troops from the front, hacking and slashing your way to victory (or in my case, more likely, defeat).

It's great because that grounds-eye view is generally how people perceive life itself. Individuals can have outsized effects on the world around them, but they never escape the view from behind their own eyes. Power is exercised through cliques. You talk to your friends, or friends of friends, or professionals who will be your friend for a price. And those friends have friends who they'll talk to on your behalf. Any organization that ever accomplished anything was a network of relationships, and even the great leaders of history had to navigate these networks.

And it this feeling of empowerment within a limited perspective that I love most about Mount & Blade. Provided, of course, I can get past the part where I'm constantly being captured and to the part where I'm actually empowered.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Mount & Blade - 2/20 hours

Oy, this game. I've played for 2 hours and I've been defeated six or seven times. I think the problem is that it throws you right into the deep end. You've got to recruit an army from the local villages, but doing so costs money and if you don't establish a revenue stream, you're pretty much locked out of the game. It's frustrating.

But the really frustrating thing is that I've been cheating. Not a lot, but enough that I might expect to actually succeed more than fail (basically just a console command that resets my character to full health, maybe two or three times a battle). Shows what I know.

I feel like I'm missing out on a learning curve. That if I only knew the right places to go and the right missions to pursue, I might be able to try my hand at easy tasks before being saddled with difficult ones. I would really like to get good at the game, command an unstoppable legion of troops, and conquer Calradia, not out of any particular martial ambition, but just to get revenge on the game for putting me through these humiliating first few hours.

What I'm probably going to do next is just cheat outrageously. Use the character editor to max out my character's skills and proficiencies and see how a living god navigates the world of Calradia. If that proves to be a bust, then I don't know. I guess I'll just whine about it some more.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Mount & Blade - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 Calradia is a land at war, offering great riches and even greater dangers to adventurers and mercenaries that flock to shed their blood on its soil. With courage and a strong sword, an unknown stranger can make a name as a warrior.

Free-form sand-box gameplay. You are free to go anywhere in a world with more than a hundred unique locations including villages, castles and towns.

Groundbreaking horseback combat.

Highly advanced and intuitive sword-fighting systems.

Fight on horseback and foot using a vast variety of medieval weapons, each with unique characteristics.

You can be anything from a lonesome adventurer to a commander of armies or an owner of villages, castles or towns.

Sophisticated AI will challenge you in combat and in your strategic plans.
Freedom to interact with hundreds of characters.

Previous Playtime

77 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I got this as part of a bundle with all the other Mount & Blade games. Back then, I was still naive to the opportunity costs that came with PC games, and thus I thought "well, I could get one game for five dollars, or three for only three dollars more - I'd be a fool to pass up the bundle." It wasn't until later that I learned that Mount & Blade: Warband was the only one I really needed. Oops.

Expectations and Prior Experience

Well, I played the tutorial and messed around with character creation, but in the middle of all that I learned that its semi-sequel was strictly superior in ever regard, so I dropped it pretty fast. I enjoyed Mount & Blade: Warband, though it often frustrated me, and I've now got the sort of anxiety that usually accompanies playing a more primitive version of a game I've enjoyed. Will this entry in the series be like the later one, but with fewer quality of life improvements? Will I miss certain features of the later game, or will it be more complicated, and with a steeper learning curve? Will it be less forgiving or more exploitable?

I imagine that my trip through this medieval fantasy world is going to be just as bumbling and incompetent the second time round, regardless of how Mount & Blade stacks up to Mount & Blade: Warband. I'm just going to have to learn to be okay with that.

Saints Row IV - Wrap-up

Well, that was goofy as all get-out. I mean, I knew it was going to be, going in, because I've played these DLCs before, but I'd forgotten some of the details.

"Enter the Dominatrix" goes completely off the rails at the end, with the sudden appearance of the Raptor people and some kind of interplanetary celebration where Cyrano, the king of the Raptors, awards the Saints some astonishing honors and favors and . . . No, you know what, I agree with the DLC's commentary. It was too out there, even for the Saints Row series.

Speaking of which, the running commentary from the various Saints was the best part of "Enter the Dominatrix." The DLC's central conceit was that it was not only unused content from before SR4 became its own game (the whole "aliens invade and put the Saints in a virtual reality Steelport" thing was originally supposed to be a SR3 DLC), but that the characters were aware that it was unused content, and so they took the player through it, documentary style, pointing out plot points relevant to their characters and the inconsistencies that led to it being cancelled. And of course, poor Donny, who managed to survive both SR1 and SR2 was crestfallen that his big promotion to lead character wound up on the cutting room floor.

The meta-level self-awareness was fun, but the actual DLC was mostly pretty dire. Fighting a dominatrix AI just wound up feeling . . . icky (though the return of Zimos' pony cart, this time in a race narrated by the Genki-bowl guys, was a blast).

By contrast, "How the Saints Saved Christmas" was positively wholesome. The Boss learns to be less of a grinch (and maybe even learns exactly what a "grinch" is) and a future cyborg Shaundi comes back to the present to stop Santa from going insane inside Zinyak's VR prison and subsequently becoming the evil Warlord, Claws. For me, the whole "evil Santa" shtick wore out its welcome around the second time Futurama did it, but this DLC manages to save the concept by undercutting it with some genuine sweetness. The montage at the end of the Saints doing all sorts of Christmasy activities in virtual Steelport was ridiculously adorable and a perfect way to end my time with the game (though the closing stinger, with a nude, gel-covered Santa looking around, disoriented, post-rescue actually got me laughing out loud).

Anyway, despite having just spent nearly 75 hours with the Saints, I'm almost tempted to fire up my old Xbox and play Gat out of Hell, just to round out the experience. However, I'm not going to, because I've come to realize that purchasing these games for the PC was a mistake. I got them because I somehow thought that having a portable version of Saints Row on my laptop would be a welcome convenience, but in practice, I wound up playing most of those 75 hours on my couch, with an Xbox One wireless controller and my laptop hooked to the TV with an HDMI cable.

Don't get me wrong, it was fun, and playing these games really helped me unwind, but if I'm just going to recapitulate the console experience, why did I even bother to get the games for PC?

I can only hope that in the future, I'll think these things out more carefully.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Saints Row IV - 26 hours

Saints Row IV ends with a dance party. It's a lazy and cliche way to wrap things up, but it's kind of delightful. Seeing the characters express themselves through dance, from Matt Miller's dorky clutz routine, to Kinzie's inexplicably over the top stripper routine, to Johnny Gat's wounded machismo when he fails to do anything even resembling a dance, it emphasizes the main strength of the game's story - we get one last chance to spend time with these characters before the series is rebooted or abandoned.

And Saints Row IV really does feel like an "end of an era" game. A lot of your old foes make a return to fight alongside the Saints, and it's almost like a last, nostalgic tour of the rogue's gallery. Shaundi's character arc gets a satisfying conclusion as she comes to terms with her survivor's guilt and makes peace with her hedonistic younger self.  And the game's whole "hold nothing back" approach to relentless absurdism suggests that no provision is being made for the setting's longevity. In the end, Zinyak is dead, the Earth is destroyed, and the Saints are in control of an interstellar empire. There is almost nowhere left to go after this (though I for one would have loved it if Gat Out of Hell had been a full-fledged afterlife-themed SR5, and not just a collection of minigames bundled into a standalone expansion).

As far as endings go, it's pretty satisfying. The progression of the Saints Row series is one of the most remarkable in gaming and it's amazing to see its transformation from game to game. The Saints' rise from outcast street-gang to galactic saviors is as ridiculous as it is implausible, but if you stick with it, you get a thrilling sense of limitless escalation. The audacity is breathtaking, and it makes you feel audacious for playing it.

I guess you could say I enjoy the series quite a bit.

Fortunately, this is not yet the end for me. I've got two big DLC packs left to play - "Enter the Dominatrix" and "How the Saints Save Christmas." I'll probably blow through them tonight and be ready to move on to another game tomorrow, though I have a feeling it will not be without a certain amount of sorrow.

Saints Row IV - 20/20 hours

Okay, so the title is not technically accurate. I'm actually up to 24 hours. I meant to stop at 20, but I just got so caught up in doing diversions and side activities that I lost track of time. Running around the virtual city, sprinting up the sides of buildings and gliding across rivers, is just too much fun. As is using the wide variety of silly alien weapons and ridiculously strong super powers. I love to stomp my foot and send out a gravity wave that suspends enemies in mid-air, rendering them helpless targets for my disintegration ray.

My one complaint about the game is that I don't like that it takes place in a simulated reality. It makes all the alien technology seem unreal in the context of the setting. Yet I'm fairly sure it's not meant to be. Zinyak had telekinesis in the real world, so why couldn't the Boss?

That's a nitpick, though. I'm pretty sure that the "aliens stick the Boss in a virtual world" thing is just a money-saving measure. It allows them to reuse most of the Steelport map and most of the vehicles and random npcs from SR3. Which, okay, is kind of cheap, but I'm willing to overlook it because it's likely that without these cost-cutting measures, there wouldn't even be a Saints Row IV.

And that would be a shame, because it is a wonderful virtual playground full of interesting stuff to do, so much so that I've played it for 24 hours and have barely touched the main story. All I've really done is rescue my various Saints and then completed their loyalty missions. These are uniformly pretty great. Each one is a mini-narrative that explores some aspect of the character and is usually based on some central comic conceit. For example, you rescue Johnny Gat by going into an old-school side-scrolling beat-em-up. You earn Matt Miller's loyalty by playing out his NyteBlayde fanfiction, etc.

These episodic missions contribute to the game's overall "hang-out" vibe. You spend a lot of time getting to know your homies and very little on the details of Zinyak's plans or the culture of the Zin. It makes for a less than compelling science-fiction story, but a pretty fun and breezy sci-fi-themed comedy.

I'm pretty sure I'm close to the end, though. It's hard to say, because it's been years since I last played the game, but I think that the recruitment and loyalty missions are the bulk of the game, and the actual main plot is very short. I could be wrong, but I don't expect to take more than 2 or 3 hours getting through the rest of them, and then I'll have to think about whether I want to do the DLC missions (spoiler alert: I do).

Monday, January 23, 2017

Saints Row IV: 9/20 hours

Oops. I played a lot longer than I intended to, but it's all right, because I didn't do much to advance the plot. A lot of the nine hours was spent gliding around virtual Steelport, collecting the blue floating orbs that enhance my superpowers. Another big chunk was spent going from store to store, hacking into them for bonus money.

That said, the little bit of plot I did play was consistently funny and entertaining (though the joke about electing a short-tempered narcissist with connections to organized crime to the presidency is more bittersweet than I would have predicted in 2013) and it's great to see the old Saints Row crew in a new context. Saints Row IV is inexplicably a sci-fi super-hero game, but it doesn't matter, because at this point I could watch this group of characters in just about any genre (maybe Saints Row 5 could be a western; I think Pierce could rock the cowboy look).

From a purely technical point of view, the story of Saints Row IV is a mess. A once-notorious street gang is now an anti-terrorist special forces group? Whatever. The leader of the group grabs onto a nuclear missile mid-launch and deactivates it before it can detonate? Whatever, that Aerosmith song is a sly reference to 90s nostalgia. The leader not only survives a fall from the edge of space, but parlays their popularity to become President of the United States? Whatever. Then there's an alien invasion and the Saints have to escape their individual cyberspace prisons to lead the resistance against the pretentious, Shakespeare-quoting, Jane-Austen-reading head of the alien empire? WHATEVER!

But the best part of the story is that its only frustrating in summary. In practice, it's great. It shouldn't work, but it does. And I think the reason it works is that it is above-all a video game story, and while none of what I've written contradicts the widespread prejudice that video game stories are trash, I would point to Saints Row IV as an example of trash masterfully executed.

See, the problem with a lot of serious, story-driven games is that between the story segments, the actual gameplay is an absurd power fantasy. One moment, you're contemplating the nature of mortality and man's relationship to violence, and the next you're gunning down, like 50 guys wearing black body-armor and wielding military-grade weapons. Saints Row IV, by contrast, just takes that power fantasy and leans into it. This is something that the Saints Row series as a whole has been doing since SR2, but SR4 really drives it home.

The story doesn't make a damned bit of sense except when viewed through this lens. The connection between events is nothing so prosaic as cause and effect, but rather a shared theme - "there is no obstacle you can't eventually brawl and brazen your way through." It establishes that being a badass, by the game's narrow definition of the term, is a gateway to success, in the logic of the game's universe. By being good at the shooting, running, and general-mayhem-causing of the game's central activities, you can even become President. Which is great, when all you're going to be doing in the next 20 hours is shooting, running, and general-mayhem-causing. It would be a real bummer of a game if you were established as an unstoppable warrior, capable of winning any battle you participate in, only to find out you couldn't defeat the aliens because your policy for issuing bonds isn't good enough to secure you a sufficient amount of food and ammunition. Very few action games recognize the value of accounting, diplomacy, and policy compromise in running a successful insurgency, but Saints Row IV very aggressively refuses to acknowledge that sort of thing, and instead presents the kind of reality where they don't matter (ie a bizarre and often logically-inconsistent one).

Another way that Saints Row IV establishes power fantasy as the connective tissue of the plot is that it never even pretends that the Saints are in any danger of losing. Zinyak's defeat is inevitable. The game opens with the Boss sitting on an alien throne, and the narration talks about how the Saints transformed into heroes. Later, the narrator returns to emphasize that a critical event will later be remembered as the thing that triggered the fall of the Zin empire. This also serves a comedic effect. When Zinyak dismisses the Boss's threats, it is dramatic irony. The audience is privy to information that Zinyak cannot take into account, namely that the Boss is an unstoppable badass who will inevitably overcome all opposition.

And if this were a serious science fiction story, that sort of presentation would be a fatal flaw. It would drain all the tension from the central conflict. Granted, most people have seen enough stories to know that the hero is unlikely to lose at the end, but there is a social contract involved. Good stories pretend that their heroes are in genuine peril, and the audience pretends that they don't know the protagonists' victory is a foregone conclusion. What makes Saints Row IV such a brilliant piece of video game writing is that it recognizes that video games can have a different social contract. It indirectly addresses the player and says "punching aliens and blowing shit up will always be a good use of your time."

Since punching aliens and blowing shit up is exactly what I want to do, I'm more than happy to let SR4's story do whatever the hell it wants.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Saints Row: The Third - Wrap-up

The DLC for Saints Row: The Third is pretty goofy. A nerd uses cloning technology to create a massive, monstrous replica of Johnny Gat. An asshole director hires you to make "Gangstas In Space," using unwitting extras to try and kill you for real "because it's cheaper." And the Genki Bowl gives you a few extra minigames to play as part of Steelport's inexplicably popular homicide-based reality game show.

The best part of the DLC was probably Sad Panda's Skyblazing. In it, you jumped out of a helicopter and had to fly through rings and intermittently land on rooftops to slaughter mascots with a chainsaw. It was completely different than anything else you'd previously had to do, but its combination of over-the-top violence and casual disregard for the physical laws of the universe let it fit right in.

The other notable thing about the DLC is that one of the "Trouble With Clones" missions gives you superpowers. I'm pretty sure that at the time it felt like a nice change of pace, but in retrospect, I couldn't think of it as anything but a preview for Saints Row IV.  Which is good, because it whet my appetite for my next game, but also bad, because I can no longer appreciate it on its own merits. I guess that's just one of the consequence of getting older, though.

To sum up - Saints Row: The Third is the entry of the series I regard as the most essential. I don't want to call it my favorite, because the games each have such a unique feel to them that it's difficult to judge them against each other. However, it does serve as a bridge between SR2's "serious crime drama set in a ridiculous world" and SR4's "throw everything in the pot and hope for the best" approach.

I think, at this point, I have played Saints Row: The Third so many times that I'll never have to again, but it's such a fun and easy experience, that I'm sure I will anyway.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Saints Row: The Third - 20/20 hours

Astonishingly, I wound up finishing the last Saints Row: The Third story mission right at 20 hours. That was pretty convenient.

The back half of the story was as great as I remembered. It has you taking out the last two of the three gangs that comprise The Syndicate (you get the first one out of the way early on, but the details are pretty grim - the chase sequence on "pony carts" is funny, and if you don't think too much about it, the Boss getting sold as a sex slave to infiltrate the Morningstar gang's human trafficking auction is amusing) and each one is better than the last. You defeat the cyberpunk-themed deckers by skydiving into the cooling tower of a nuclear plant, stealing some outlaw Soviet technology, and then confronting their leader in a virtual world. And you take down Killbane, the leader of the Luchadors, by assassinating your way up the Murderbrawl XXXI championship ladder and then facing off in a ridiculous homage to pro-wrestling (by way of Steelport's psychopathic disregard for human life).

While all this is going on, you're also fighting STAG, and you get to kidnap Nyteblade, get plastic surgery to look like STAG's leader, and sink an aircraft carrier. It's pretty sweet.

However, it's not really the plot that makes SR3 a great game. Rather, it's something I only just noticed the other day. There are a lot fewer enemies in SR3 than SR2. In Saints Row 2, there were 12 named enemy characters (each of the three gangs had a power trio, the Brotherhood had Donny, and then you had Dane Vogel and Troy). In Saints Row: The Third, there are seven, but two are twins and one of the twins actually joins your side halfway through the game.  By contrast, there are four named Saints in SR2 (plus Aisha) and 6-8 in SR3 (depending oh how you count Viola Dewinter and Josh Birk). This trend gets even more pronounced in SR4 (where most of your old enemies show up for a single mission, but then subsequently join the Saints and only Zinyak is really a persistent antagonist).

And it occurs to me that, as time goes on, the Saints Row series became more of a "hang-out" gang. We're increasingly shown more of the Saints and their internal relationships and less of the behind-the-scenes machinations of their enemies. That this tracks with the softening of the Saints from ruthless gangsters to more or less heroic figures is probably not a coincidence. It's like the genre of the game is shifting from crime drama to sci-fi action. And in the action genre, almost everything is seen from the eyes of the protagonists.

This teamwork and camaraderie is probably the Saints Row series defining characteristic, even more so than its off-the-wall zaniness. By the time Saints Row IV comes around, it really feels as if you're joining an evolving, but long-established group of friends.

But I don't want to get ahead of myself here. Saints Row: The Third is still strongly plot-driven, if less so than Saints Row 2, it just spares a few more moments of the gang hanging out and being friends (though nothing quite so inspired as the Boss and Shaundi playing skiball in SR2). Oleg and Pierce's thwarted chess games, talking to Kinzie under the table at Smiling Jack's, looking at Zimos' painting, these are good friendship moments that make the gang look like they really enjoy spending time together. The only really sour note in the game is Shaundi, who spends so much time being angry about Gat's death that we never really get to see the loveable stoner with a million ex-boyfriends that lies underneath. Luckily she makes a return in SR4, but then, there I go talking about the next game before I've actually started playing it . . .

Which I will do after I get a bit more of SR3 under my belt. I still have all the DLC to do and if I recall, it was mostly pretty fun. I definitely want to be the world champion of the Genki arena, plus I want a chance to use all the overpowered shit I just spent the last 20 hours unlocking.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Saints Row: The Third - 14/20 hours

The great thing about Saints Row: The Third's plot is the way it escalates. It starts off as another revenge story between a couple of over-the-top street gangs and then halfway through, the violence gets so bad that the authorities call in the military, but because the Saints are already established as these unstoppable badasses, it's not just the ordinary military, it's a special unit that wields all sorts of science-fiction weaponry. Once they're introduced, STAG becomes the game's main antagonist, and the story shifts to how the Saints manage to successfully fight the sci-fi military. At that point, they've crossed the line between ordinary villainy and cartoonish supervillainy.

Which is something I didn't even know I wanted until I got it. A lot of games let you play Batman, but generally even crime games stop short of letting you play The Joker.

Although, it's debatable how Joker-esque the Boss is meant to be. If we go by the SR3 characterization, they're both trickster figures with a lethal sense of humor, but the Boss doesn't really indulge in sadism or malice (forgive me if I'm being too hard on the Joker, I only know him from the movies). Rather, the Boss's main sin (aside from some dubious stuff with the sex-trade missions, which, since the implications are glossed over and the Saints are presented as "rescuing" the prostitutes, I'm going to choose to believe is not as gross as it could be) is a careless indifference to human life. The Boss doesn't care about collateral damage or the consequences of their actions. If something looks fun, they do it.

Which would be a pretty chilling characterization in a drama, but in the world of Saints Row . . . The Saints are worshiped, despite their many horrific crimes. "Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax" is a gameshow where you run around shooting people in mascot costumes for cash and is apparently canonical. Josh Birk is an A-list celebrity that shows no legal or moral trepidation at robbing a bank with the Saints. Even the anti-gang authorities are overzealous fascists who are willing to target civilian populations in the pursuit of victory.

So, I don't know. I sometimes feel conflicted about driving up on the sidewalk and plowing through a bunch of people, but then my character's popularity doesn't suffer from it. I think we're suppose to realize that the worldbuilding is completely bonkers and that it's folly to attach serious moral weight to anything the Saints do (their world doesn't judge them, so why should we?). This is an issue that will come to the fore in Saints Row IV, wherein the Boss completes their transformation to full-on "puckish rogue," but I think they really hit the character's sweet spot in SR3 - they're a menace to society, but society's cool with it.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Saints Row: The Third - 2/20 hours

Saints Row: The Third has one of my all-time favorite opening sequences, which is good, because it looks like I'm going to have to play through it three times. It's my fault really. I didn't realize that part of the DLC would automatically unlock stuff for me. Honestly, I never even imagined that it would, because why would I pay money to have less of the game to play? I guess I must have had these DLCs for the console version as well, seeing as how I bought the "Complete Package" version, but if so, I had the sense not to install them all those years ago.

Nevertheless, it's not worth dwelling on. Saints Row: The Third starts off strong, dumping you into not one, but two elaborate action setpieces. First, you rob a bank in a Johnny Gat mascot costume, eventually winding up on top of a bank vault as it is ripped from the building by a helicopter, whereon you have to fight off the police as the vault swings wildly through the air. Then, you have to escape a plane mid-flight, getting into a gun battle as you hurtle towards the earth and having to rescue Shaundi, who does not have a parachute. Though the effect has been blunted with repetition, when I first experienced it, my jaw was on the floor.

Really, the rest of the game can't quite compare. It's not a huge deal, because the opening sets such a high standard that even falling short leaves a lot of room for excellence, but it is a little disheartening to know that the high point of the game comes in the first few minutes. I suppose that's where you'd want it, though. If a game had an awesome climax hidden behind a hundred hours of gameplay, only a small fraction of the players would ever see it, whereas if it's front-loaded, you can use it to draw people in the game.

It's a strategy that worked on me. Now all I have to do is go through it one more time so I can start without any unnecessary advantages (seriously, this game is already super easy, no need to make it easier).

Saints Row 2 - Wrap-Up

Saints Row 2 is the biggest game in the series. It has more activities, more characters and more missions. Its open world is larger and more complicated. There are more character-creation and clothing options. There are more vehicles. It's just all-around more.

However, just because it's the biggest doesn't mean it's the best. Don't get me wrong, I wish Saints Row: The Third had as much to do as Saints Row 2. I think it would have been an unbelievably stellar game if it had expanded and refined the series open world playground. To have SR2's variety with SR3's narrative confidence would have been near-perfect, but if I have to choose between the two, I'm going to go with narrative confidence.

Maybe that's backwards. Maybe I should be judging the games purely by gameplay (though SR3 is no slouch in that department), but the best part of any Saints Row game is the writing. The characters and the setting bring a sense of fun that is often missing in other open-world games (which is why I'm not presently writing to you about Grand Theft Auto V, which is technically superior in every way and an amazing achievement in world-building, but so mean-spirited and up its own ass that I'd sooner play the original Saints Row, and that game barely worked).

This holds true for Saints Row 2. I've criticized the writing for being uneven, but that unevenness is really just a matter of tone. A lot of my favorite moments in the game were in cutscenes. I loved seeing Pierce get the short end of the stick time and again. I loved Shaundi's seemingly-endless supply of ex-boyfriends (seriously, where does this chick get the time to be a drug dealer). I loved Gat's cheerful psychopathy. Dane Vogel trying to fast-talk his way out of an unrighteous beat-down. Maero and the Boss being basically the same person. The endless, absurd corruption from just about everyone who gave you a side-mission. These are all great. It's just unfortunate that they are tied in with a couple of main stories that were too serious to fit in (though they would have been fine on their own right).

In the end, I tend to regard Saints Row 2 as a prologue to Saints Row: The Third. Not to downplay it or anything. It is a necessary prologue. I just like being able to see the origin stories of Pierce and Shaundi, the start of Gat's obsession, and how the Saints rose to power before becoming world-famous superstars.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Saints Row 2 - 20/20 hours

Much as I expected, I didn't manage to finish Saints Row 2 in less than 20 hours, but I am pretty close. I just finished off the third of the main gangs, the Sons of Samedi. This series of missions isn't quite as compelling as the other two, as their leader, the General, isn't quite as well-drawn a character as Maero or Jyunichi. There's a few good moments with him and Triple Platinum DJ Veteran Child, where the General is far too intense for his gang's hippy facade, but a lot of opportunity was squandered on a sagging kidnapping plot that weakens Shaundi's character unnecessarily.

The Sons of Samedi do have the advantage of being the silliest of the SR2 gangs, but they're a little to self-serious to really pop as comedic characters. They're sort of in this weird limbo where they don't quite fit in with Saints Row: The Third's wacky rogues gallery, but they also don't have enough dramatic meat to fit in with the other SR2 gangs. That being said, Saints Row 2 is a game that doesn't quite fit in with itself, so I have no real problem with them. If anything, I would have liked to see more of them. Oh well.

I'm at 20 hours, but I'm going to finish out the game. I only have a few Ultor missions left to complete and I might as well see the whole story before starting Saints Row: The Third.

Saints Row 2 - 15/20 hours

The Ronin storyline exemplifies, for me, the central flaw in Saints Row 2's storytelling. It has a lot of promise and the voice acting and presentation are impeccable, but it is so thoroughly steeped in the game's contradictions that it winds up falling flat.

Let me start with the good. The Ronin storyline has my favorite moment in the series (and possibly in all of gaming). Your lieutenant, Pierce, is explaining his elaborate, Ocean's Eleven-style plan to rob a casino, complete with a scale-model and split-second timing, and then Johnny Gat saunters over and proposes an alternate plan - rolling up to the front door and killing everyone between the Saints and the money. At that point, I wanted to high-five the television. It just perfectly encapsulated my feelings. Your characters are impossibly bullet-resistant and immune to legal consequences, so why shouldn't they act like it? It really was magical.

I also really liked the complex three-way relationship between the Ronin's leaders. You have Kazuo Akuji as a stern, unpleasable father and his son, Shogo, is this gross, irresponsible playboy (but when you see the two together, you can definitely see how he got that way) and then added to the mix is Jyunichi, who is stoically loyal, even to the unworthy Shogo and who Kazuo treats like a second son. I would definitely play a whole game centered around these characters. The scene where Kazuo is mourning Jyuinichi's death and spurning Shogo's attempts to emotionally connect with him is just great. The script, the animation, and the voice acting do a great job of conveying, in just a few minutes, who these people are and what they mean to one another.

However, this touches on the main problem. As good a story as it is, it doesn't really belong in the Saints Row universe. And to see why that is, we have to look at the central event that drives so much of the Ronin's story - the death of Aisha, Johnny Gat's girlfriend.

It's a moment the series tries to wring a lot of pathos out of, not just in this game, but in both of the sequels and the standalone expansion to SR4. And it's not difficult to understand why. The Saints Row series is nominally a crime drama and "male protagonist is motivated by the tragic death of a disposable female character" is hard-coded into the genre's DNA. However, I feel like Saints Row never really earns that pathos.

When we first see Johnny Gat in SR2, he is being sentenced to death for 300 counts of first-degree murder. Now, sure, a lot of those were gangsters, but a significant number were police officers (and that total was immediately increased in the course of escaping the courthouse), and considering the way the Saints fight, there were probably also a few bystanders as well (we might also count pedestrians among the total, but I'm not sure whether the Boss's driving is established as canonical before SR4, and it may be that only they are so bad at it that the Hague had to set up a traffic enforcement division). Many of the people Johnny killed were someone else's Aisha.

And while you could definitely make a compelling human drama out of the sort of hypocritical blindness that sees strangers as totally expendable, but the loss of a friend as an unforgivable tragedy, I don't think Saints Row 2 is up to the task (and, indeed, is at its best when it manifestly isn't).

Take the character of Aisha. If you read her in a straightforward, literal way, she is a monster. She loves Johnny Gat, and is under no illusions about who he is or what he does. He kills a captured Ronin in cold blood, right in front of her and she hands him a mop. She isn't even nonplussed. The only thing that alarms her is the fate of her floors. And when you consider that she allows the Saints to (admittedly temporarily) use her house as a waypoint to launder money stolen from the Ronin, she looks less like an innocent victim, tragically caught in the crossfire and more like a legitimate target who just so happens to be important to the Saints' second-in-command.

What we have here is a situation where it's reasonable and logical for Johnny Gat to react to her death with anger, but absurd for the viewer to take the protagonist lens at face value. Saints Row 2 isn't deft enough to pull off that sort of nuance, though, and I'm pretty sure it's not actually trying to. Everything about how the events are framed establish this as a run-of-the-mill "badass's girlfriend gets fridged" moment.

By the same token, evidence suggests that Aisha's inhuman callousness isn't really meant to be taken seriously. Before her death, Aisha is aggressively normal. Everything about her, from her conservative style to her posture to her house in the suburbs, projects an image of middle-class stability. Taken in the light of her backstory as a successful pop singer who faked her death to get out of a contract with a corrupt record company, and it's clear that she really is meant to be a "regular" person and it's just the Saints Row universe that is morally absurd. Aisha can be an innocent victim because she lives in a world where costume shops advertise on the radio by bragging about how useful their masks are for robbing banks. Indeed, it's revealed in Gat Out of Hell that she makes it into heaven. Let that sink in. The God of the Saints Row universe is totally gangster.

Which is, you know, funny. Aisha is a funny character. Just like the fictional show "Fuzz" is funny. Or the way that the cops want the Boss to autograph their gun before surrendering is funny. Yet her death is not funny. And it's never treated as funny, even as the sequels become much sillier and morally nihilist. This event is like a scar running through the series, part of the growing pains as Saints Row transformed itself from "slightly goofy GTA clone" to "all out bonkers genre pastiche."

The internal tension of that identity crisis is what defines Saints Row 2 for me. It's a fascinating game, but it never quite finds itself. That's why I think it needs Saints Row: the Third as a companion piece. Otherwise it's a setup without a punchline.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Saints Row 2 - 10/20 hours

The story of Saints Row 2 is divided into three mini-stories which mostly don't have anything to do with each other. Each of the stories centers around the Saints' conflict with one of Stillwater's three upstart gangs. I've just finished defeating The Brotherhood, a gang of intense, tattooed muscle guys who drive around in big trucks that blast heavy metal. And their leader is Michael Dorn! Or, more accurately, a character voiced by Michael Dorn. It's still pretty cool, though.

The Brotherhood story is one of pride and revenge. Maero offers the Saints a lopsided deal for control of the city - 80/20, favoring the Brotherhood. The Boss takes this as a deadly insult and kills some of Maero's men in retaliation. Things just keep getting worse from there. The Saints adulterate Maero's tattoo ink with radioactive waste. The guy who helped you escape from prison dies from getting dragged behind a truck. A woman is locked inside a car trunk and crushed underneath a monster truck. It's pretty gross.

I guess I don't have what it takes to be a criminal, though, because the initial 20% offer actually sounded pretty good to me, considering that the Saints were basically just five guys with no control over anything. I suppose it's a matter of chance, though. If I'd played the Brotherhood missions third instead of first, I'd have been in a position of overwhelming strength and the 20% offer would have required me to give up two-thirds of my power. Sure, that would be an insult, but starting a war over a single insulting business offer just strikes me as impulsive and irresponsible. Which is probably why I'm a mild-mannered hotel night clerk and not the boss of a sprawling underworld empire.

The thing I liked most about the Brotherhood story is that Maero was a complicated character. It would be easy to write the big, scary-looking guy as a witless thug, but he's very believable as the leader of a powerful gang (except for the scene where he bursts into Ultor HQ and manhandles the CEO . . . why would anyone think that was going to work). Sure, he often flies into terrifying rages, but he's also frequently the voice of reason and restraint, and though his violence is brutely physical, it is usually deployed with cunning. I think, of the three gang leaders, he is the one with most in common with the Boss. So perhaps it was inevitable that the two would come into conflict.

Honestly, though, I'm a bit ambivalent about Saints Row 2's main story. I'll get into it more when I've finished the Ronin mission, but while it is well-constructed, its tone is too gritty and serious for the bonkers world of Stillwater. Like, there's this reality show, Fuzz, where the cops they were going to follow around didn't show up and so they hired a gangster to pose as a cop and drive around town "apprehending" criminals with the help of chainsaws and flamethrowers, and when you encounter the real Stillwater PD, they just sort of go along with it, even going so far as to jump in your cruiser and help you out. It's funny, and I love it (especially the parts where you have to stop NPCs from doing the same ridiculous criminal activities that the Boss gets up to in the other side-missions), but it's not the sort of backdrop that works well as a setting for a serious drama about the folly of revenge.

It's probably an artifact of starting the series with Saints Row: The Third, though. Maybe if I'd played this game first, I'd think that the later entries were too silly for their own good.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Saints Row 2 - 2/20 hours

It's easy to get distracted in Saints Row 2. The main story is actually pretty interesting. The notorious Boss of the Third Street Saints was nearly assassinated in a boat explosion and has been languishing, comatose, in a prison hospital for years, but they unexpectedly recover and make a daring escape, only to find that their once fearsome gang has completely fallen into ruin and their nigh-unstoppable lieutenant, Johnny Gat, is about to be sentenced to death for committing over three-hundred first degree murders (and one case of attempted murder). The job, then, is to rebuild from the ground up, taking out three whimsically-themed gangs alongside a colorful crew of low-lifes and thugs. It's over-the-top and implausible, but there are a lot of gun-fights and car chases and funny, morally bankrupt conversations along the way.

However, to advance the story, you have to earn "respect" and the only way to do that is by completing side-missions. These side-missions are usually introduced by amusing cutscenes that flesh out the gloriously amoral world of Stillwater (for example, the doctor who wants to prove women are just as good at medicine as men by setting a new record for most surgeries performed, but doesn't actually want to do the work and so hires you to commit massive amounts of insurance fraud). And, often as not, the activities are just as compelling as those of the main story (the insurance fraud, in particular, is a hoot because you have to throw yourself in front of cars and try and ragdoll as long as possible, which, you know, is absolutely nuts). So it happens that with more than two hours in the game, I've probably only played about a half hour of the main story.

Overall, from a perspective of evaluating Saints Row 2 as a game, this is a virtue. Stillwater is a huge open world with a lot to do. And compared to something like Skyrim, these side activities are more diverse and engaging (as great as Skyrim is at a game, virtually all of its sidequests were of the "go to place, kill monsters, grab macguffin" variety). Yet I have a deadline here. Three games to get through, twenty hours each. If I'm being reasonable, I should probably just do the bare minimum of side activities so I can unlock all the story missions and only if there is time left over at the end, should I try and finish all six levels of every diversion.

I probably won't do it that way, though. The diversions are the best part of the game, and if I wind up going past 20 hour so be it (also, I hate leaving a diversion with something like 4 out of 6 levels complete - it just bugs me).

Saints Row Series - Initial Thoughts

Me and the Saints Row series have kind of a convoluted history. I'd long dismissed it as a GTA knock-off, but was surprised at how much hype I was hearing for Saints Row: The Third. Since I am very susceptible to persuasion where video games are concerned, I went out and rented it.

I immediately fell in love with the world and the characters, and loved tearing around Steelport like a sociopathic trickster god. When the time came to return SR3 to the video store, I was sad to see it go.

Which is why I was pleased when I found the first two Saints Row games bundled together in a special edition for only 20 bucks. I thought this was an incredible deal and I was eager to learn more about the backstory of the 3rd Street Saints. So I started playing the original Saints Row . . .

And that was a mistake. The first game had some of the charm of the later entries of the series, introducing me to the wild and chaotically amoral world of Stillwater, but in terms of gameplay, it was awful. The cars didn't control very well and the on-foot fighting was worse. Checkpoints were all over the place and restarting failed missions often felt like a punishment. It was enough to turn me off the series for several months. And yet I couldn't just start with the superior Saints Row 2, because it starts in media res and an incomplete story greatly annoys me. It took me awhile, but eventually I powered my way through the first game, went on to the second, and realized that I should never have bothered to do it that way because holy hell, is SR1 the outlier in the series.

Since then, I've played the last three games multiple times each, and each one brings something different to the table. Saints Row 2 is the semi-respectable older brother of the bunch. It has a lot more open-world content and a more detailed and vital city. Saints Row: the Third probably has the best story of the bunch, being the entry where the Saints finally become true cartoon gangsters. And Saints Row IV just goes completely off the rails, in ways that are both wonderful and frustrating. Honestly, I could not pick a favorite one. I prefer to think of them as a single trilogy and play all three games back-to-back.

Which is what I'm going to do. I bought all three of them at the same time as part of one of those ridiculous Steam Sale bundles because I thought having all three games, plus all of the DLC for SR3 and SR4 would somehow make my life more convenient (despite the fact that I already had all that stuff thanks to buying the Game of the Year editions of the console versions). It was a foolish, impulsive action, but now I'm reaping the benefits because I get to play three really fun games in a row!

Because I'm really in the mood to blow shit up right now, I'm going to choose to call this a win.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes - 20/20 hours

It's funny, but I didn't really start to get into this game until I found a busted combo. It wasn't my first time exploiting it, but you need the right combination of map conditions to make it work, so it wasn't the sort of thing you can do every time.

Here's how it works - there's this spell, called Paragon, that you can use to automatically boost one of your heroes up a level. Very powerful, but it has a downside. Every time you cast it, your leader permanently loses 5 hp. However, there's another spell, not part of your standard arsenal, called Blood Curse, and what it does is cut one of your cities' population in half and then add that amount to your sovereign's hit point total (while making them forever after immune to healing magic). But the only place to find Blood Curse is in a certain wildland, which is not guaranteed to spawn on any particular map.

The combination of the two should be obvious. Within just a few turns I had a whole party of high level heroes and a leader who, if she wasn't quite as high-level as the rest, did at least have more than 200 hit points and some powerful equipment. From that point on, it's basically just a rampage through a randomly generated fantasy world, slaughtering everything I see. Good times.

I think the most surprising thing I've learned over the course of playing this game is that I'm probably done with Fallen Enchantress forever. I still like the game well enough, but, you know, Endless Legend exists. And while Fallen Enchantress has its charms (in particular, the wildlands are just great, better than anything comparable in the genre), it falls down in one fundamental, but unforgivable way - the building and tech trees are completely bland. You more or less want to build every building in every city and your scientific progress is bottlenecked behind one of the three tech trees so alternate strategies aren't particularly viable. I like that there are repeatable technologies at the end of the tree (mainly because I love using stacking bonuses to get incredibly overpowered), but otherwise, it's not balanced very well.

Although, I probably shouldn't lay that entirely at the feet of Fallen Enchantress. The technology race is probably the most problematic part of the 4X genre. I've yet to see a game where bigger civilizations do not get significant advantages to technological growth. This is not only dubious as a gameplay mechanic, leading to runaway snowballing and the game being defacto finished long before the official end date, but it also doesn't reflect reality very well. If it did, China would be a sci-fi wonderland and Luxembourg would be a stone-age backwater.

I think the problem is that in 4X games, information has too much respect for borders. You've got situations where a global superpower is launching spy satellites and exploring the possibility of fusion power and then an otherwise non-hostile, but significantly smaller neighbor has to infiltrate their society with spies just to get ahold of the internal combustion engine. (Not so much a problem with Fallen Enchantress, thanks to the lack of an espionage system, but I'm working towards something here).

What I think is missing is that in the real world, it's not all top-down from some disembodied, immortal authority in the sky. Real civilizations are filled with private citizens that will have their own reasons for taking technologies to new places - maybe they can make money selling high-tech goods, maybe you'd want to offshore educated work to a less developed country's small, but sufficient elite class in order to save on wages, maybe a key discovery is made by someone who learned their field on a student visa and then returned home after graduation. The point is, when people move, they take their ideas with them, but in 4X games, people rarely move.

Maybe it would be unsatisfying if the system were too generous. It might feel like the AI was rubberbanding in order to keep a player from winning too handily. Or maybe it would feel like technology was too much out of the players' control, and thus a key strategic element is left to random chance.

I think, if I were designing a game, I'd probably try and tackle this problem by giving technology a maintenance cost, to represent the societal and infrastructure investments necessary to actually use the technology in a life-changing way (there's an old game Emperor of the Fading Suns that used a similar concept - if you couldn't pay to maintain your labs, you'd lose access to the technology those labs researched). These maintenance costs would be highest for "classified" technologies, ones that gave you enough of a strategic advantage that exclusivity is worth the price. Then, as the cutting edge advance, you could "declassify" your old techs, in which case the maintenance cost would go way down and they would quickly propagate along your established trade routes (possibly even to an enemy, if the two of you share a mutual friend). You might even get an economic bonus if you declassify a powerful technology while it is still new. In this way, trade networks would become the standard technological units and a tiny, well-connected nation might exceed a large, isolated one in technological achievement, because they're reaping a portion of the benefit of their friends' 100 different labs, whereas the empire has to make do with the full output of 50 of their own.

Just a thought. Fallen Enchantress isn't really the sort of game where you'd implement this kind of system anyway. Its fantasy milieu means that your "scientists" are more likely to be eccentric sorcerers, researching dusty old tomes in their lofty towers. Not a great deal of progressive, "information wants to be free," sharing economy ideology to be had there (though that gives me an idea for a fun fictional setting - something like an inverse Shadowrun, where you take a base fantasy setting, but then insert cyberpunk elements and the characters could be down-on-their-luck anarchists who hope to one day get a big score by surreptitiously copying a wizard's spellbook).

Anyway, the point being, before I got distracted, is that the technological race is a key part of any 4X experience, and one that is difficult to implement in a fair and satisfying way, and for as much as I enjoy tromping around in Fallen Enchantress' wilderness, it doesn't really do the essential 4X stuff especially well. So I think 172 hours is going to be my ultimate limit. Farewell, Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes, I was obsessed with you four years ago, but probably never will be again.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes - 15/20 hours

Playing on Insane mode was a mistake. The first time I tried it, I died on turn two. The second time, I fell so far behind I was basically defeated in the first couple dozen turns, even if I was never technically eliminated. Humiliated, I retreated back to normal mode with my tail between my legs.

It was fine. I won the game easily, but strangely, it wasn't as satisfying as winning on beginner mode. I think it's because of the level scaling on the environment. On normal environmental difficulty, monsters have no level adjustment, making low-level monsters less common. This results in more early deaths, fewer experience points, and less treasure. It's not insurmountable, but it means my adventuring party has to stay closer to home and takes more casualties along the way. Since your characters suffer a major injury every time they fall in combat, it becomes tricky to avoid falling into a death spiral.

Also, the injury system can be kind of absurd if you let it go on too long. You can have a single hero with a cracked skull, pneumonia, gangrene, and a broken leg, who's blind in one eye, missing an ear, and suffering from hallucinations. And while it's unlikely to stack quite so many injuries, it is difficult and expensive to heal even a single wound, and thus you almost inevitably have to worry about at least one of your guys becoming almost comically mutilated. It really undercuts the game's whole heroic feel.

Which is why I tend to prefer the easier difficulties. High-level monsters are still nontrivial, even with the three level penalty, but the extra experience points from the weakened chump monsters makes the fights feel more fair (in other words, more likely for me to win).

I think my plan will be to set the environmental difficulty low and the game difficulty high, so that my AI opponents are challenging enough to make me think, but the environment is forgiving enough that I can actually move around in it. Or maybe I'll just dick around, considering there's not enough time for a full game. As long as I get to kill monsters and win treasure, I should be fine.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes - 8/20 hours

I should probably try to stretch myself a little with this game. I've been doing the thing I usually do when I start a new 4X, where I play on the easiest difficulty so that I can get used to the tech tree and build orders, but I'm coming to realize that I already knew them by heart. It is entirely reasonable that I should be going after a high difficulty victory (I don't even remember what level I got to back when I was playing all the time because there are no achievements for beating the game on hard mode).

However, the problem is that hard mode scares me. Moreso than other 4X games, Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes is combat-driven. It's not so much that you have to conquer the world to win (building the Tower of Mastery is far and away the fastest way to victory), but that you're constantly recruiting these legendary heroes and fighting is what they do. At the very least, you need them to clear out the monsters that occasionally wander into your territory, but honestly, if you're not doing thorough exploration in order to find exotic quests and fabulous treasure in the wildlands, then you're really missing out on half of the game (and the better half, at that).

Which shouldn't really stress me out as much as it does. I enjoy this game. It's got that soothing 4X rhythm that lets me slip into it easily and for hours at a time. The trick is finding a balance that keeps me engaged and challenged while still allowing me to do all those building-type things that I most enjoy.

I think what I'll do is crank the difficulty up to maximum just to test my limits. I may wind up surprising myself, like I did with Alpha Centauri (I played that game a lot back near the turn of the century, but always two or three steps down from maximum difficulty. When I went back to it four years ago, I was gratified to learn that my skills had increased, despite my hiatus). Then again, I may find that I'm a lot worse than I always thought and that I spent 150 hours adapting myself to easy mode.

It's the risk that makes a gamble exciting.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes - 4 hours

I think there may have been a balance patch since the last time I played this game. There's a whole new "stamina" mechanic and I'm not sure I care for it. Your major non-magical abilities have a stamina cost and stamina builds up over time.

I get what they're aiming for. The new system prevents you from frontloading your most powerful attacks and forces you to plan your tactics over the course of several turns. The problem is that I actually liked unleashing all my best abilities on the first turn, and so far my battles have not lasted long enough for extended planning to come into play. I'll have to wait and see what high-end combat looks like before I make a final determination, though. My favorite part of the game is when my heroes are hugely overpowered and can take on giants and dragons and demons from before time and whatnot. If I can still get ludicrous power interactions and over-the-top character stats, I'll be happy. If I find myself bogged down by excessively punitive "game balance," I will be unhappy.

Other than that change, Legendary Heroes is still the same game I remember. It's more similar to the original Fallen Enchantress than I remember, but it has a ton of little improvements that are not huge game-changers individually, but which make the whole experience more enjoyable. For example, you gain new heroes by reaching certain thresholds in your "fame" resource, ensuring a steady stream of new characters to play with (whereas in the base game, your acquisition of new heroes was mostly up to chance). Similarly, the leveling up system is just outright better, as it allows you to visualize and plan your characters' advancement through one of four different hero classes.  And there are new spells and quests and treasures and monsters that are nothing on their own, but combine to give the world a lot more life (when, in fact, the exploration and setting was already the strongest part of the original).

I'm looking forward to the rest of my time with this game, though. For all that it is not a revolutionary overhaul of the original Fallen Enchantress, it is still the definitive version of the game. I just can't wait to get another dragon.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

The Fallen Enchantress seeks to destroy the civilizations that have risen from the ashes of the Cataclysm. Fortunately, your fame has spread and great heroes have been drawn to your banner. With your new champions, you will confront new horrors like liches, brood hunters, banshees, and the dreaded hergon.

Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes is the new standalone expansion to Stardock’s turn-based, fantasy strategy game. Players will forge a new empire in a world sundered by powerful magic, fight against terrible creatures, complete quests and rediscover lost secrets in their bid to rule the world of Elemental.
Previous Playtime

150 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

It was probably something along the lines of "oh, god, I just bought Fallen Enchantress two weeks ago, my timing could not have been worse, at least they're giving me a discount." Honestly, I should have waited to buy it, but this was back in 2013 and I was still naive to the ways of Steam. Since my resentment didn't outweigh my curiosity and I was willing to part the twenty bucks, I just went with it.

Expectations and Prior Experience

This is one of the few games for which I have every single Achievement. There was a period of a couple of months where I played it religiously. I don't think I ever tried the highest difficulties, but I did manage to slay all the worst monsters and recruit all the rarest heroes.

As a consequence, I expect few surprises, though since it's been such a long time since I last played it, there may be one or two things I've forgotten. In all likelihood, this will go as quickly as the original Fallen Enchantress, but without the constant reminders of things that have been improved in the expansion.

I probably should have played the two games closer to one another. I'm certain it will be a chore trying to remember which features I need to point out by way of contrast.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Kerbal Space Program - 20/20 hours

I think Kerbal Space Program might be educational. It felt educational. Obviously, it was not perfectly so. I'm almost positive that, in real life, if your booster rocket fails to clear your flight-path at 14 thousand meters and winds up running into your liquid-fuel rocket, sending your spacecraft into an out-of-control spin, that's basically certain death, and not something you can overcome by cutting your engines and making adjustments with your maneuvering thrusters until you regain control. But aside from the concessions made to the fact that, in unskilled hands, ninety-nine out of a hundred rocket scenarios end in fiery death and thus would be unsatisfying to play as a simulation, I think I was getting some pretty good information about the effects of retrograde acceleration, conservation of angular momentum, the nature of gravity, etc.

I don't want to overstate it, of course, but the the feeling of having learned something is a good feeling. I'm trying to think of other games that have been similarly enriching, and I'm coming up short. Maybe the Civilization series, if I ever bothered to read the civopedia entries (although at that point, why am I not just reading a book?) Possibly Ship Simulator Extremes or Never Alone, although in both those cases, the educational elements mostly came from unlockable video extras.

Kerbal Space Program is notable because its educational properties come about in the gameplay itself. It would have been better if I'd read a science book beside it, so that I could have some hard numbers to go along with the visualizations (or, more accurately, when I studied this stuff in college, it would have been useful to have some visualizations to go along with the numbers), but even so, on its own, it was neat to see the relationship between acceleration, inertia, and gravity.

It also helps that Kerbal Space Program is a fun game on its own. Building up a new model of spaceship was super-easy, in a purely practical sense, so there was very little delay between my most recent horrifying disaster and a new, slightly-modified prototype that would theoretically prevent it (but often didn't). Similarly, flying your ship with its realistic physics and overly-sensitive controls was often satisfying on its own.

I ended my game on a pretty high note. I'd finally got to Mun and back, and then all my science experiments burned up on re-entry, so I redesigned my ship and did it again after only two or three failed attempts. Then I had about a half-hour left, so I messed around trying to complete contract assignments in the hopes of squeezing out some better automation technology. It was immensely satisfying to overcome what seemed to be an impossible technical challenge. I never actually landed on Mun, or got any probes outside my home planet's orbit, but I figure it's only a matter of time.

I'm definitely going to play Kerbal Space Program again. There's still so much of the Kerbol system to explore, and from what I understand, there are mods that make the experience even more hard-core educational. I look forward to an endless series of ill-thought-out, improvised rockets exploding in ever more convoluted ways.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

End of Year Retrospective - 2016

For all that 2016 was a tough year for politics, entertainment, and my personal financial situation,  it was a good year for the blog (so that makes it all right . . .) I reached three significant milestones - My hundredth game, getting to the bottom of my challenge list, and having only sixty unplayed games remaining.

All told, I averaged a game a week for the entire year - fifty-two and a half games in all. If I keep this pace up, I could be done as soon as February 2018 (or three months later if I also acquire new games at the same pace and get 11 over the course of the next year). It may be a distant glimmer, but it feels like I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Which is good, because I've started to feel ambivalent about this project. I really enjoy playing the games and writing about them, but all of my other hobbies have fallen by the wayside. I've had some interesting fiction ideas I want to develop, and Exalted 3rd edition has a lot of room for homebrew patches, and I kind of want to make a dozen different Magic: the Gathering decks. Focusing so exclusively on video games has narrowed my horizons.

I  comfort myself with the idea that it's only temporary, but it's the sort of temporary that's been going on for at least a year by now. I think I've got two options. Either I can chill out and slow my pace. If I played a game every two weeks, I'd have a lot more time for reading and writing and card-sorting. Alternately, I could try and power through, picking up the pace and getting through my list as a fast as possible. I'll probably settle for an ineffectual compromise between the two.

My immediate goal for 2017 is to finish all the games from my initial list. I've got fifteen left, which should take 4-5 months, and then, at least, I'll be able to say I technically accomplished what I set out to do. After that, maybe I'll tackle the remains of that Star Wars bundle. Ideally, I'd be in a position to finish the blog by June 21, 2018, its four year anniversary.  By that time this year, I'd gotten through 25 games, which means I need to play at least 32 games in 2017. That should allow me to pursue a fairly relaxed pace and maybe get some other shit done this year.

Or maybe I'll just play a ton of games and get a strong start on 2018. That would be a pleasant surprise.