Saturday, April 29, 2017

Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword - 10/20 hours

I've been pretty successful as a merchant. I just bought a new set of fancy armor, costing more than 15,000 thaler. I have an entourage of almost 60 cavalry. And I still have more than 20,000 thaler in capital. Life is good.

Yet I feel a yearning for something money cannot buy. I'm not sure what it is, exactly, I guess something like "adventure" or "prestige," but somehow without all the inevitable bloodshed that comes with it. Since I know that's not forthcoming, I'm in a bit of a pickle.

Ultimately, the big problem is that I don't want anyone to hate me. I've traveled from one end of fictionalized eastern Europe to another, trading in every major city along the way. I'm used to a certain freedom of movement and I don't want to give that up.

It would help if there were any noticeable difference between the factions. If one of the various states started raiding my caravans, that would be a strong incentive to side against them. Or if one of the rulers seemed especially virtuous and honorable, perhaps I'd want to offer him my service. As it is, the story of the setting is constrained by randomness.

Or, at least, that's how it seems. The one time I approached a noble with an offer to help his realm, he wanted me to sack a rebellious village without flying his kingdom's flag, the better to terrify the populace. I found that pretty gross and walked away, but I can't help but wonder if it would have opened more story missions if I'd gone through with it.

Reading the achievement list, I know that there are main storyline quests associated with the different factions, but ten hours in and apparently none of them activate for the wandering-trader type. If I want to get involved, I'm going to have to start acting like an amoral mercenary.

Which, honestly, is my biggest problem with this series. I always start out wanting to play a chivalric romance (or dull medieval commerce simulator) and wind up getting involved in some morally grimy, but otherwise inconsequential shenanigans on the outer circle of the game's political cliques. Even if I started working for a faction at this very minute, it would undoubtedly lead to hours of me following around a general and/or attempting to train a handful of specific troops before I was ever entrusted with any degree of genuine power.

I'd just as soon keep wandering the countryside trading valuables all over the map, except there's not enough left to buy. I really thought I'd move up an economic tier once I got enough money to consistently fill my inventory with trade goods, but now my profits are limited by the fact that each city only has a limited amount of stuff available to trade. I can afford to haul 20 units of even the most expensive stuff, but it's rare to see a commodity with more than 5 or six units available. So my growth in wealth is strictly linear, with each new haul contributing a diminishing percentage value to my already-superfluous horde.

It's got to be war, then. I just find myself wishing I'd optimized myself for that from the beginning.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword - 5/20 hours

I've been wandering around, doing the merchant thing, and it's been going well so far. I have more than 15 thousand thaler, which seems like a lot, but isn't quite enough for the best equipment. However, that's not really a problem because I've reached a point of power where it's unlikely that my wealth will go down over time.

It turned out not to be too difficult. All it really took was me gathering 15 mercenary troops and then not chasing the various bandits, looters, and deserters when they ran away from me. I'd almost consider it a flaw in the game, but I'm not sure that being a pure merchant is actually an intended mode of play. You don't get experience points from trading goods, for example. And there doesn't appear to be any way to parlay a trading career into favor with nobles or landed property. Also, the AI doesn't seem to know what to do with merchant characters. At one point, I wandered up to a castle under siege and the besiegers just let me through and then the castle garrison opened the gates for me. Obviously, at least one of the three of us doesn't understand how sieges are supposed to work.

It' clear at some point I'm going to have to engage with the game on its own terms - pick a faction to associate with, gather up a mercenary army, and attempt to win renown on the field of battle. However, before that happens, I hope to be ridiculously rich. I'm worried that trade income won't scale up as I grow in wealth, but if it does, I'll probably be doing that for quite some time.

A more realistic prediction is that I will somehow burn out and wind up just doing whatever easy thing is closest to my current location, going from one time-wasting bit of nonsense to another.

Only time will tell.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword - 2/20 hours

I'd forgotten how dismal the beginning of Mount & Blade games can be. There's a lot of getting captured and having your stuff stolen before you finally get strong enough to defend yourself. But then, once you have a decent force under your command, you have to be on a constant lookout for new sources of income, because good soldiers don't come cheap. And that can be tricky when you're just starting out because if your band is large enough to safely get into battles, it is also probably large enough to scare away the enemy before the battle even begins.

The main thing I've noticed about this game, specifically, is how it is very much like the other games in the series. I guess that's just Mount & Blade's thing, expansion packs that make subtle, incremental changes to the game.

I'm not thrilled that "With Fire & Sword" took out the background questionnaire at the beginning of the game, but character advancement works exactly the same. The loss of the training yards is a mixed bag. On the one hand, they were a convenient way to turn your raw recruits into useful soldiers, but on the hand, now at least I don't feel obligated to do so. Less grinding is probably good, though I didn't mind it all that much.

The biggest single change, however, is the addition of guns. They are impressively powerful, but I feel like a jackass sitting through that excruciatingly long reload animation every time I miss a shot (it's also awkward after I hit, but in those cases I usually have a recent kill to console me). They've certainly changed the way I fight, though. Instead of charging around the battlefield like an idiot, swinging my sword at whatever happens to get in my way, I'm now sitting stock still like an idiot, more likely than not reloading my musket.

I have no definite plan for the future of my character. I'm finding that with each Mount & Blade game I play, my ambition cools just a little. I think, instead of uniting the kingdoms under my rule, all I really want to do is gain more personal experience and thus survive better in random combats. It's a modest goal, but I'm sure the world will have some way of pulling the rug out from under me.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 In an open sand box world you choose your allies, your enemies, what provinces to conquer, what castles to siege and what quests to embark on. With Fire & Sword builds and expands upon the highly regarded combat system from Mount & Blade: Warband. Firearms have been introduced to the battlefield. Additionally, muskets and pistols can now be used as sidearms in hand-to-hand combat to quickly drop your foes. In addition to the enhanced singleplayer mode, With Fire & Sword also provides a host of original multiplayer content including the new game mode: Captain.

Previous Playtime

6 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Well, it was part of a bundle, and this was back in my "why buy the one exact game I want when I could by a whole bunch of games I'll probably never play for only a couple dollars more" phase. I was buying Mount & Blade: Warband, but I'd be damned if I didn't get the whole series at the same time.

Expectations and Prior Experience

This will be my third time playing a Mount & Blade game and so far the experience has been frustrating, but generally positive. I don't expect that to change.

What makes me most uncertain, going into this, is that "With Fire & Sword" is the most recent iteration of the series, but "Warband" is the one that gets recommended most often. I don't know why that should be. Did it take a step backwards? Did it add new mechanics people don't like? The reviews on Steam are generally positive, so I'm not worried, but I am concerned.

It will probably be all right though. I learned a thing or two about fighting effectively when playing the original Mount & Blade, so I should have a little easier time in the early game. The midgame is where I hit a wall last time, but if I dedicate myself to a single character, I should be able to get past it . . .


Sunday, April 23, 2017

SolForge - 20/20 hours

SolForge has the same problem as every other collectable-trading-card-based video game since the old Micropose Magic: the Gathering - not enough cards. I don't necessarily need or even want them all up-front, but as an ultimate goal "obtaining the whole set" should be achievable in a reasonable amount of time.

It's not that way with tabletop cards, sure, but honestly I wish it was. That's why I've been moving away from M:tG and towards expandable but limited games like Sentinels of the Multiverse and Ascension, or buying singles of select rare cards at the game shop. I like the collecting, but the uncertainty bugs the hell out of me.

I suppose SolForge is trying, in its own way, to tap into that tabletop collectable trading card business model, where people keep buying randomized packs of cards, hoping to get the exact one they want, making the best cards scarce, but insuring that any individual pack has a chance to strike gold. I've often called Magic: the Gathering booster packs "scratch tickets for nerds" and that was definitely the vibe I got from SolForge's cash shop.

I'll admit, I was almost tempted. And I had fun enough with the game (despite its mostly terrible single-player mode and competitive scene where every single person was better than me, and not just by a little bit) that tossing the makers a couple of bucks wouldn't have been so bad. However, the main thing that stopped me was the very thing that got me playing this game in the first place - I heard that it was going to shut down soon. My five bucks wasn't going to change that, and as nebulous a form of property as digital simulations of collectable trading cards might be, I'd be upset if they suddenly vanished into the ether.

Overall, I liked SolForge because it's a card game, but I enjoyed in spite of  its presentation. The campaign mode was interesting, but it didn't really teach me how to play the real game. Single player mode was more or less pointless, but I couldn't find multiplayer matches near my skill level. The cards were cool and I liked the art and the interactions between them, but without spending money in the cash shop, I wound up getting new ones at too slow a rate to really engage my curiosity.

So, to sum up, if there was ever a SolForge version of Shandalar, I would snatch that up in a heartbeat, but I don't think I'll ever again play the version I have now. It's just too rough, even for a free-to-play game.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

SolForge - 15/20 hours

Well, I'm in no danger of falling under the delusion that I'm good at this game, that's for sure. There was a point, after I beat the last two campaign missions, where I entertained the idea that I might be getting better, considering I beat both of them on my first try. However, I then lost an easy difficulty match against the PC and have since come to realize my 0-11 multiplayer record is no fluke.

Although, if I'm trying to salvage at least some of my pride, I could fall back on the excuse that I didn't make my own deck for the easy-mode loss. See, one of the things that bugs me about SolForge as a video game is that when you play single player, you can only play against your own constructed decks. Which is a real pain, because one of the things I like about playing a video-game version of a collectible card game is seeing different preconstructs, especially theme decks that use an implausibly large number of rare cards. It was my favorite thing about Magic 2014, for instance.

And I did play a few matches against my own decks for the sake of killing time, but it got kind of boring, because I knew what was coming. So what I did was have the computer auto-complete four decks, one of each faction. My plan was to play each of the sixteen possible matchups and get a feel for how the factions played against each other.

The first match went as I expected. I played the computer's Tempys deck and handily beat its Nekrium deck. Then I moved onto to Tempys vs Alloyin and got my ass handed to me, twice. I don't know if I just had bad luck with my draws, whether the rng just happened to spit out an especially good Alloyin deck, whether the factions are not balanced against each other, or whether the fault was entirely with me as a player. All I do know is that it is demoralizing as hell to lose to an easy-mode AI.

I will probably try the ill-fated matchup a couple more times, just to see if it's a consistent loss for me, and then move on to the rest of the combinations. My hope is that the either the Alloyin deck will prove to be unnaturally strong (I did draft that faction most often of the four) or that the Tempys deck will be noticeably weaker than the others. It would dismay me greatly to learn that I was still so bad at the game after so long (then again, I never did get good at chess, despite playing it off-and-on for years).

Friday, April 21, 2017

SolForge - 10/20 hours

Well, I'm 0-7 in multiplayer matches. Since five of those losses were in drafts, I'm feeling kind of demoralized. There was a part of me that thought I couldn't possibly be so bad at a card game that I wouldn't win at least 20% of my games purely by chance. I guess that's just how it goes, though.

The only loss that really upset me was my most recent one. My opponent had several opportunities to defeat me, but purposefully held back so they could stack buffing effects in order to get one of their creatures up to 25,000 damage. That's not a good feeling. I probably should have forfeited when I realized what was going on, but I had a slim hope that I might be able to surprise my opponent and make them regret their arrogance.

No such luck, though I did learn that the thing about newbies having no chance in the Constructed format was not an exaggeration (or maybe it is - it's hard for me to tell, considering how bad I am at the game).

The campaign missions are progressing fairly well, though. I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to finish, however. The latest mission has me completely stumped - you can only play one card per turn (instead of two) and I don't even know where to begin to solve that problem.

I think my goal for the next ten hours is to somehow learn to ignore the fact that I am not good at the game. If I can just enjoy myself on my own terms without having to compare myself to others, I think I may do all right. I will, however being playing at least six more online games, for the extra cards. And while I hope my future opponents are more generous in victory than my most recent one, I am just going to try and adopt an attitude of equanimity either way.

We'll see how well that works out in the long run.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

SolForge - 4/20 hours

I guess this game is pretty good, considering I've played for four hours already and it seemed like the time just flew by. Unfortunately, I think multiplayer is going to be a bust. I successfully connected for one match in a draft tournament (I hear the constructed format is pointless for newbies, given how essential having the best cards can be). I completely got my ass handed to me, which I should have anticipated, given I haven't played the game in years and had no clear idea about how to build an effective deck, but I enjoyed myself.

The only reason I do not anticipate participating in more online games is because of the frustrating connection issue I ran into in my second game. I had a match lined up, but then the game seemed to freeze in the middle of connecting. Apparently the tournament interpreted this as me forfeiting the match and I was bumped from it entirely (you're allowed to lose twice before you wash out).

I mean, I seriously underestimated the skill of my opposition in the first match, and would almost certainly have been eliminated anyway, but I would have liked to at least play the game one more time. Still, it wasn't a total waste. I got a booster pack and I got to keep the cards I drafted for my tournament deck. I will almost certainly join another draft tournament before the end of my twenty hours, for the cards if nothing else, though I will probably wait until I get a little more practice on single player (I'd get my practice in the tournaments, but each attempt costs you four "event tickets" and I only have eight, though as I was checking the price I found that they also accept a "draft coupon," which apparently I had without realizing it, so I'll be able to get at least one more tournament in as well).

Though I'm unlikely to have a great time with multiplayer, I don't think single player will be all that bad. I've been tackling the campaign and while the tutorial missions are trivial and the proving grounds missions are barely challenging for a novice, the mastery missions have so far been incredibly satisfying to beat (though sometimes demoralizing to play through).

Basically, there are four "factions" in the world of SolForge and each faction has its own strengths and weaknesses. The "mastery" matches are played against powerful enemy decks, but more than that, each one has an extremely unfair special ability that activates during the course of the match. Your foe in the Uterra Mastery mission spontaneously heals about 100 hit points (you start with 120) during the course of the match. In the Nekrium mission, every time your creature does damage to the enemy, it dies. Needless to say, these missions demanded my utmost problem solving abilities, and while I can't say I was always smiling when I played them, when they were over, I respected the puzzles they presented. I'm really looking forward to (slash-dreading) the last two missions.

All-in-all, I expect SolForge to be pretty diverting. My next move is to wash out of the tournament I accidentally entered myself into. Then I'll probably play random AI decks for awhile. Then I'll tackle the remainder of the campaign, and only then will I use up my last draft tournament entry.

I don't anticipate any great problems along the way, but there may be unpleasant wrinkles to the game I have not yet encountered. I've got my fingers crossed that this will go as smoothly as every other digital card game I've played so far.

SolForge - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 Designed by the creators of Magic: The Gathering and the Ascension Deckbuilding Game, SolForge is a free-to-play digital collectible game in which players construct their own decks to challenge their friends or battle against the computer. There are multiple modes of play, including tournaments, drafts, ranked play, campaign mode, and a variety of new events every week! Players can customize their decks with cards from their collection that they can earn through gameplay or purchase from the store. Try it now for free!

The core mechanic in SolForge is leveling. Whenever you play a card, that card levels up into a new, more powerful version. As the game progresses, you level up, and gain access to your more powerful higher level cards. Some cards start off weak and level up into powerhouses, while others start off strong and don't improve much as they level, presenting strategic and tactical choices that will challenge even the most seasoned gaming veterans.

With hundreds of cards that each transform as you play, SolForge is a game unlike any other. Try it free today!

Previous Playtime

5 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Well, it's a free-to-play, and in 2014 I was more naive about these things. However it wasn't just the price that attracted me. I was mostly hooked by the fact that it's a card game "designed by the creators of Magic: The Gathering." I was a huge M:tG fan from way back and the idea of a free Magic-like card game really appealed to me.

Expectations and Prior Experience

One thing I've discovered over the course of writing this blog is that it's entirely possible there is no digital card game I will not like. I've played four of them so far and every one is among my favorite games overall. It's been a long time since I played SolForge, but I don't anticipate it breaking the trend.

If I recall, it rather ingeniously uses the fact that it only exists in digital form to do things that would be impossible (or at least rather complicated and tedious) to do in a tabletop game. This appeals to me purely as game-design nerdery, and it would take a simply awful execution to turn me against the idea.

My big regret, though, is that I probably won't get a chance to play multiplayer. From what I understand, SolForge is a bit of a zombie game at this point. They were planning on shutting down the servers entirely, but then they somehow managed to keep a few of them open. In all likelihood, the multiplayer scene is pretty close to moribund.

I did once play this game online with my friend Daniel, but that experience was not a good one. The game was good and the company was great, but actually setting up the game to get two human players in the same game at the same time was a monumental chore. And while this is the part where I say I hope they've fixed it in the interim, it seems likely to me, given the overall state of the game itself, that they have not.

So here's how I see this going - I will play a large number of games against the AI, and be unreasonably delighted to do so, but I will never get the chance to see SolForge the way it was meant to be seen.

I'll try not to be too morose about it.

Neverwinter - 20/20 hours

Neverwinter does one really annoying thing that I'm sure I could forgive it for were I playing it over the course of months, but which is an unbearable roadblock when you're trying to play as much as possible over the course of two weeks - it makes you wait for stuff to happen. Like, there's a crafting system, and one part of that system is that you recruit these various non-adventuring experts to help you out. But once you press the recruit button, it makes you wait 18 real-world hours before that expert is successfully recruited.

I'm sure there's some sophisticated marketing/psychological reasoning behind this. Maybe the knowledge that there's a ticking clock they have to wait out will cause players to come back for session after session, just to collect the rewards that have been delayed. I, personally, have put off removing Neverwinter from my hard drive (and I really do need the space) because I want to finish a quest I started about six hours ago. I know I'm being played, but it's going to bug me otherwise.

Anyway, aside from that, and those damned treasure chests I kept picking up, I enjoyed Neverwinter a lot. I think I may have chosen the wrong class (I managed to be fairly self-sufficient as a character by recruiting a healer as an NPC companion, but every time the healer levels up, he leaves your service for a half-hour, and during one of those half-hours, I decided to try playing a Ranger, and I actually found that class to be more engaging than the great weapon fighter), but it was a minor issue at most.

Ironically, the thing that held me back most from enjoying this game is also its greatest draw - it's an MMO. I'm not super familiar with the genre, but after having played Neverwinter, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Warframe, Guild Wars 2, and EVE Online, I think I have a handle on its basic tropes and from what I've gathered, for a hermit like myself, there are much better options than playing solo content. However, there's always the promise of the MMO that I sometimes convince myself I'm going to realize - grouping together with friends, and making new ones through groups. Handling the hard content together and using your combined resources to make yourselves much richer and more powerful than you could ever be on your own.

The notion of this sort of MMO camaraderie really appeals to me, but for all that I've played these games, I've never actually been able to tap into their distinct cultures (except, perhaps, for EVE Online, if "tapping into its culture" means "accidentally wandering into PvP and having the other players make me cry.") Maybe it's something that takes more than 20 hours, or maybe it's that the quality of character that makes me well-suited to working a night-shift job where I can easily go four to six hours without even seeing another human being is one that also makes me reluctant to connect with my fellow gamers.

It's probably best not to get too into self-reflection here. Let's just say that MMOs aren't a perfect fit for everyone, and I'm probably never going to get very deep into them. That's all right. Not everyone likes tedious strategy games either, but that didn't stop me from playing 75+ hours of Stellaris over the course of blogging about Neverwinter (not to say that Stellaris is tedious, just that some might fin my pacifist way of playing it so).

So, thank you, Neverwinter. By requiring a reliable internet connection and not allowing me to pause, you enabled me to finally get a chance to dig deep into one of my new favorite strategy games without having to simultaneously blog about it. Sure, that's a back-handed compliment, but my sincere praise would also be somewhat tepid. Your gameplay is more exciting than a point-and-click rpg, but not quite smooth enough to match a top-shelf action game and you kept putting the breaks on me for economic, rather than legitimate gameplay, reasons. I'd rate you "good, but not great" - a decent way to waste some time, if, for some reason, wasting time became difficult all of a sudden.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Neverwinter - 15/20 hours

Free-to-play games are always tricky beasts to evaluate. I've generally liked all the ones I've played so far, but only one, Path of Exile, really managed to make me forget I was playing a free game (it is probably not a coincidence that it's also the only one, so far, I've spent real money on, but if I could figure out the psychology behind that, I'd probably have a lucrative career in the game marketing business waiting for me).

This isn't a problem, per se. All of those people who made the game need to get paid for their work and the premium services are how that happens. However, as someone who is going into this tentative and uncommitted, I can't help feeling like a bit of an interloper. This is, of course, silly. They wouldn't have made the game free-to-play if they didn't want people playing for free. Yet, when I see people riding around on their fancy mounts, there's an irrational part of me that feels like, for lack of a better word, a peasant.

I think part of it might have to do with Neverwinter's inexplicable pricing structure. It's a good enough game that I wouldn't feel bad about dropping 10 bucks on some of its real-money currency and unlocking a few pieces of premium content. However, 10 bucks will by you approximately squat. Okay, there's a wolf companion for 8 bucks that sounds pretty cool, but most mounts cost between 20 and 35 dollars and unlocking a new race costs 60 bucks for Moon Elves and 75 for Dragonborn. Call me old-fashioned, but I think if the prices were a tenth of what they are now, they'd sound pretty reasonable.

I guess that's why they're prestige items, though. You buy yourself a gelatinous cube to ride around on to prove you're a Neverwinter super-fan. Fair enough, even if it does trigger my class envy. What's truly aggravating, though, are the functional uses of real money. Look, I won't say that I'm not intrigued by the dozens of enchanted chests I've picked up in my travels, but there's no way I'm paying $1.25 each to open them.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not the sort to object to spending $75 on a video game. And in theory, I understand the argument that you're not really paying 35 bucks for a mount or 20 bucks for a demon to follow you around, you're really voluntarily paying $55 for the whole game, most of which you were generously allowed to preview for free. However, there is some inflexible part of my gaming psychology that just can't come to terms with this. I'd much rather just pay an fixed cost upfront and then play the game without being confronted by any extra-textual gatekeepers.

Call me spoiled, if you must, but I live in a world where I can buy the Fallout 3 Game of the Year edition for five dollars.  From an economic perspective, there is very little room to offer a better value than that. In fact, I'm not sure that it's actually possible. Even if Neverwinter was cleared of all of its cash-shop annoyances and everything was attainable with the gold you find from random monsters, it would not be as good a game as Fallout 3. It wouldn't even be five dollars less good. Aside from already owning it on every platform you regularly play, there's no situation where someone coming around and saying "you know, instead of Neverwinter you can get Fallout 3 for just five dollars more" would not be a tempting offer.

Which I know seems like a harsh assessment of Neverwinter, but truthfully I just meant it as an example of today's over-saturated video game market. Maybe you think I'm being too generous with my assessment of Fallout 3, but I could say the same thing about Borderlands 2, Civilization IV, or Super Mario World. It's something that still continues to blow my mind. If I had picked up the hypothetical feature-complete version of Neverwinter for 20 dollars, I would have no complaints about it. It's easily a solid second-tier game, better than The Last Remnant, but not quite as good as Kingdoms of Amalur. However, I doubt I will ever again be so hard up for entertainment that I'd be willing to pay out that 20 dollars piecemeal, just to unlock those chests the game keeps dangling in front of me, unbidden and unwanted.

I guess Neverwinter had taught me where I draw the line on free-to-play business models. I'm fine with the cash shop as long as its trivial stuff that doesn't make a difference to gameplay, like that five dollar hat I bought for Path of Exile or the 35 dollar unicorns you can buy in this game. However, once mechanical weight is attached to the purchases - if paying real money makes the game easier or less frustratingly random or even just notably different, then I start to lose interest. I want all the widgets up front or I don't want them all.

This isn't a moral stance. I'm not objecting to the companies setting up their games that way. It's mostly an aesthetic issue. I've bought DLC in the past. In fact, it's often been my favorite part of the associated game (I've got one question for you - EXPLOSIONS?), and functionally that's not too different from cash-gated content in a F2P game. It's really just a matter of presentation. Regular games are presented as complete-in-themselves. Even without the DLC Fallout 3 is still Fallout 3, an amazing action-rpg epic. The DLCs, then, are presented as a sort of demi-sequel. "You know that thing you loved, well here's more of it." Whereas with an MMO, you never get that sense of completeness. It all boils down to a single question "how much money do I have to pay to not miss out on anything?" and for most regular games the answer is a finite number that may, in my opinion, sometimes be too high and for most F2P games the answer is "how much you got?" And there's no situation in which I prefer the second answer to the first (it also doesn't hurt that even many of the more expensive "finite" games eventually go on deep discount as they age and a greater portion of their income comes from the long tail, which, almost by definition, F2P games can't rely on).

Okay, long post, but here's the takeaway - I like Neverwinter, I look forward to playing it for another five hours, but its revenue model keeps me at arm's length and I don't think that's a distance I'll ever be able (or perhaps, more accurately, willing) to bridge.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Neverwinter - 11/20 hours

Neverwinter is a good game over the short run - darting around the battlefield using a collection of powers to slay monsters in kinetic action/rpg hybrid gameplay is a lot of fun, but as entertaining as it is in the minute-to-minute hack-and-slash, it doesn't really nail the slower loot-rhythms of the Diablo-esque rpgs from which it draws its inspiration. Equipment drops for any particular slot are rare (I think I've found exactly two swords in six hours of playing this character) and not much of an upgrade when they do happen. I've not yet figured out whether it's for competitive balance or to encourage players to spend real money, but it's kind of a bummer.

It may be that I simply haven't figured out the game's economy, though. There aren't really weapon shops, but there is an auction house and maybe I'll get some use out of it when I start earning Astral Diamonds (another form of currency that runs parallel to the gold you find off of enemies and the "zen" you can buy with real money). As far as I can tell, each of the three currencies is meant to be spent on different things and there is very little crossover between the categories. However, I'm still far too early in the game to entirely understand how it works.

My current character is finding new heal potions slightly faster than I'm using them, so I think I'll be all right, despite not having innate healing powers, though I'm wondering if maybe I wouldn't have been happier playing a more robust class. I guess it's probably too late to change, though, seeing as how I'd have to spend hours just catching up to my current location and have practically nothing left over for further exploration.

So I'm just going to stick it out. I haven't run into anything I couldn't handle, even if some stress-free extra healing would have let me feel more secure in a couple of the hairier battles. It's my hope that something will break in the next couple of hours and I'll start to feel more like a participant in the economy than a wandering beggar, looking for scraps, but I'm worried that I'm running afoul of the game's revenue model and the slow evolution of my gear is meant to mildly frustrate me.

We'll see. In any event, more hacking and slashing is always welcome, and I doubt I'll get tired of that any time soon.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Neverwinter - 5/20 hours

My biggest problem with Neverwinter so far has been the shift key. You use if for your dodge move, sprinting (or teleporting or rolling or whatever) in the direction that you are moving with WASD keys. The issue is that in order to pull this off, I have to move my pinky off the "A" key and subsequently shift my whole hand to move. I'm sure old hands at PC controls find this a natural and comfortable thing to do, but I have to think about it too much. And that's the last thing I need when the situation calls for dodging.

So I spent a half-hour configuring joy-to-key so I could play with my xbox controller. It just feels more natural to me. Although I'm not sure why I had to do it myself. This game is available for the console, so the professionals have already figured out how to make it work with a controller, but for some reason have decided not to implement it as an option on the PC version. It may be that "PC players who stubbornly refuse to grow accustomed to standard PC controls and insist on using the controllers they've cut their teeth on during decades of playing on console exclusively" is a smaller niche than I've been imagining

Anyway, my quixotic jousting with modernity aside, I've been having fun playing Neverwinter. I've tried out all the classes, and they all have something to recommend to them, though my favorite so far has been the Great Weapon Fighter. I love just rushing into battle and laying down massive damage. Unfortunately, I'm not sure if I am going to stick with the class for my larger playthrough. When you go solo, you need some reliable self-healing and this class just doesn't have it. On the other hand, I have been getting potions slightly faster than I've been using them, and if that trend keeps up, I think I'd rather just play the reckless barbarian dwarf (interesting side-note on that - the Great Weapon Fighter's sword is bigger than the Dwarf model, so when it's sheathed across her back, the tip clips through the ground - a bit of an oversight, there).

In other news, I think I've completely tuned out the game's plot. It's probably a side-effect of playing the intro eight times in a row. I've skipped over the opening dialogue so much I've conditioned myself to barely hear any of the game's characters at all. I know there's a missing crown, and worries that it might embolden rebellious political factions, and there was a slightly daffy seer trapped in the dungeons that I had to rescue on most of the timelines. It may all evolve into something later, but I didn't gather enough to even venture a prediction.

Overall, I'm pretty optimistic. Neverwinter definitely has more of an action feel than some other MMOs I've played, but I've found from playing as an aggressive class that there's not a lot of dynamism in that action. It mostly comes down to slugging it out directly. Though perhaps I would feel differently if I were playing a rogue . . .

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Neverwinter - 2/20 hours

This game took more than an hour to update and then another half-hour just to get to work. I've only played it for a little a little bit, but I'm going to count all that setup stuff because, fuck it, I'm upset at the game for making me wait around.

Anyway, my observations about the first few minutes of the game - the opening cinematic is very impressive for the sort of game this is supposed to be, too many of the proper nouns in the game's lore include the word "never" (there's the region, Neverwinter, and in that region is Castle Never, ruled by Lord Neverember - and I think there might be another couple of them that I'm forgetting at the moment), and finally, selecting a class to play is going to be a chore, I can tell.

I went with the Paladin for my first choice, because that's generally the easiest solo class in these sorts of games - the hand-to-hand combat strength of a tank class, but with supplemental healing to smooth out the rough spots. However, I'm now wondering if another class would suit my playstyle better. I'm sorely tempted to run the opening mission with each of the available classes before I make a final decision, but maybe it would be better to just commit to something now and see more of the game.

Choices, choices. I guess it wouldn't be a true crpg experience if I didn't see the first half hour more times than I can stand. Feckless dithering, it is!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Neverwinter - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Neverwinter is a free, action MMORPG based on the acclaimed Dungeons & Dragons fantasy roleplaying game. Epic stories, action combat and classic roleplaying await those heroes courageous enough to enter the fantastic world of Neverwinter!

Previous Playtime

2 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Well, it was free, so there wasn't much of a commitment involved, but if I recall, I downloaded it specifically because one of my friends was playing it extensively at the time. I always think it's going to be fun playing online multiplayer and then I rarely get around to it.

Expectations and Prior Experience

Case in point - this game. I played through the first dungeon with my friend and then never touched it again. From what I remember, it was fun. A little bit faster paced than something like Dungeons and Dragons Online, but not quite fast-paced enough to be an actual action game.

My big worry when starting any free-to-play game is the question "what did they hide behind a pay wall in order to try and make people spend real money?" I've had pretty good luck so far in that all of the FTP games I've played have been truly fun games in their own right and not too tricky with the real-money shop. It should be fine if I only have a limited number of character slots or lack access to certain cosmetic bits of flair, but I'd be pretty concerned if there's an essential mechanic locked behind a daily timer or deliberately stingy random drops.

On the other hand, at the very worst, this is going to be a fantasy rpg with a lot of loot and character customization, so even if I hate it, I probably won't hate it, if you catch my drift.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Space Empires V - 20/20 hours

Playing a "real" game didn't turn out to be that bad. Things got a little tense with my neighbors, but eventually we settled into a pattern of benign neglect and they stopped talking to me. The result was much the same as my isolation game, but I had half a dozen star systems instead of one.

I was actually getting really into it until I ran into a bug where my atmospheric converters simply stopped working. I was really keen on having 30 huge planets, all churning out research at an impossible rate. Building a megastructure in solitaire mode is great and all, but there's nothing quite like the thrill of doing it when you actually have opposition to worry about.

Bugs notwithstanding, Space Empires V is almost a contender for my regular 4X rotation. I love the sheer variety of technologies, and the fact that I'm almost always tinkering with build queues. It's very satisfying to settle a new planet, plan out its infrastructure years in advance, and then come back periodically to alter your plan according to new technological discoveries and the shifting galactic situation. And the tech tree isn't just bigger numbers (though there are a lot of those). You eventually unlock things that give you wholly new capabilities, allowing you to make a profound mark on the universe.

Unfortunately, as much as I love all that stuff, after playing the game for nearly sixty hours, I have to admit it's not very well put together. Navigating through menus is slightly less of a chore than it was in Space Empires IV, but still much more involved than it would be in a more modern game. The AI is just flat-out terrible. And you never know when a bug is going to sneak up on you and ruin your day. I can overlook these faults in the short-term, but in the long term, I'd much rather play a game that works, even if I can't research a hundred subtle variations on the standard cargo hold.

So, final verdict - I enjoyed almost every moment of playing this game (with the exception of trouble-shooting my terraforming projects and finding out that they simply weren't finishing when they were supposed to ), but I think, like Fallen Enchantress, the time where I could choose this game over my other options has passed. It's an interesting link in my gaming history, but rendered obsolete by more modern design.

(I am going to miss blowing up star-systems, though.)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Space Empires V - 13/20 hours

I finally got to the end of the tech tree. Thirteen hours is a pretty long time for that, especially since I barely had any fleets and didn't do any exploration until I'd already unlocked most of the higher-power stellar manipulation techs. It turns out that the Space Empires V AI is a lot worse than the Space Empires IV AI. It doesn't seem to understand how to handle a one-system empire. When I finally made contact with my rivals, they hadn't terraformed any of their planets, or even settled many of them, and they were nowhere near mastering the technology to open and close wormholes.

This made actually winning the game an exercise in systematically visiting ever star system in the quadrant. I'm just going to declare victory without doing that, however. Not only is the UI for opening wormholes awful (it gives you an alphabetical list instead of showing them to you in order of proximity, or better yet, letting you pick from a map), but it's kind of depressing when you show up in a primitive star system with a fleet of top-tech warships and the inhabitants try and swarm over you with frigates that can't even penetrate your shields. And then get angry at you and refuse to engage diplomatically, despite the fact that they attacked first.

That said, I don't regret it. When you're powerful in this game, you're really powerful. By the time I first met an alien, I had two Dyson spheres and a ring-world. I was research a dozen new weapon technologies a turn and had a fleet of constructor vessels that could turn out an unstoppable warfleet each and every year, from anywhere on the map. It was a little like being the ancient, incredibly advanced elder civilization from virtually every science fiction story out there, except I could never figure out how to be benevolently condescending instead of incidentally genocidal.

Anyway, now is time to come up with a new plan. Obviously, I have to attempt at least one regular game. I'm a bit worried that the needlessly aggressive AI, combined with a more even technological playing field, will make the early game an interminable slog. Which is a shame, because the diplomatic system in this game is incredibly deep. There are so many things available to offer and haggle over and share . . . yet none of the NPCs in my last game seemed even slightly interested in talking. Maybe the power disparity was too great? Maybe if things are more even, they'll act more reasonably.

It seems like a long-shot, but I should at least give it a try.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Space Empires V - 6/20 hours

Well, there's been a lot of clicking "next turn." And, inexplicably, Space Empires V repeats Space Empires IV's godawful "click again to confirm you really want to end your turn" policy. Damnit, SEV, if I wasn't sure I wanted to end my turn, why did I press the fucking button? The confirmation coming up when I have unspent research points or ships with remaining movement is good. Very helpful, and I appreciate it, truly. But the utility of the "feature" in every other circumstance is dubious at best. I suppose, theoretically, that I may forget to perform some action at a higher level of strategy than the game is capable of detecting, like designing a new ship or scrapping some of my old building to refocus a particular planet's mission, but even in that situation, it's more likely that I've gotten so used to double clicking as my standard end-of-turn ritual that I'd just glide past the confirmation and make the exact same mistake the confirmation was implemented to prevent.

Ah well, enough grousing. The Space Empires series has a terrible UI. If that were a deal-breaker, I'd have given up on it long ago. You know what I really like? That's right, optimizing my construction and research orders! And Space Empires V definitely delivers in the tedious micromanagement department (readers who are new to the blog might assume this paragraph is sarcasm, but I assure you, I mean it as the highest of praise). Six hours in, I haven't made contact with any of the AI empires, and I'm utterly engrossed.

See, this game has the biggest and most complex tech tree of any game I've ever played. There's dozens of different technologies, each of which can have up to a hundred different levels (though they run the gamut - some have only one level). And unless you are familiar with the trees beforehand, there's no telling when a particular tech will end, or when it will unlock a totally new facility or component or when it will branch off and give you a completely new technology to research. What is certain is that each level of every tech will at least give you something. All of the buildings and components have their own levels, increasing in effectiveness as you rise through their associated technologies (but you don't get the boost until you manually upgrade the stuff, resulting in yet more micromanagement). What's more, you can actually divide your research up among technologies as finely as 1%, and while I certainly wouldn't recommend trying to research 100 different techs simultaneously, it's nice to have the option.

The only downside to this technology and infrastructure paradise I find myself in is that I'm becoming increasingly convinced that going through the full tech tree on my own will do little to help me in the "real" game. Yes, I'm getting a feel for the general "shape" of a civilization's development, but there are so many branches and paths that I'm not sure I could make the necessary tradeoffs or manage the inevitable risks that would come with having aggressive AI neighbors.

Still, I have a long way to go before I get to the end of the tech tree (seriously, in terms of research points to spend, I think I may be about halfway there - and that's with the research cost set to "low"), and so maybe I'll reach 20 hours without having to give it serious thought.

Space Empires V - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Space Empires V is the latest edition in the Space Empires series. This new chapter completely updates the UI and takes the player into a real-time rendered 3D universe. Watch space battles played out in glorious detail and realistic effects. Expand, Explore, Exploit, and Exterminate in a huge living breathing galaxy. New features abound with political alliances between multiple empires, a top-down ship design system, a hexagonal movement grid, and many more. Due to player demand, the game is completely 'moddable' and even adds a scriptable AI system to the mix. Space Empires V boldly takes the next step in the genre of space strategy.

Previous Playtime

38 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Looking back at the store page, it's hard to remember what, specifically, inspired this purchase. I'm pretty sure it being on sale with Space Empires IV for only five dollars helped, but the title and presentation are so generic, I'm not sure what about it caught my eye. I guess being a feature-rich space 4X was enough.

Expectations and Prior Experience

That being said, my tepid reaction to the game's Store page is not at all indicative of how much I eventually enjoyed the game itself. The things that leap out in my memory are its massive tech tree, complex game setup, and its truly staggering number of diplomatic options. I also remember that some of the mechanics were pretty opaque and the user interface was scarcely better than its predecessor's.

However, I have to confess that my memories of the larger game are somewhat distorted by the fact that most of my 38 hours were spent playing on a "no wormholes" start and that the time I spent "really" playing the game, complete with alien rivals, diplomacy, and warfare, was probably less than a dozen hours.

And if I'm being super-duper honest, I expect that I will repeat that pattern once again. It's my usual custom to play at least one easy game from beginning to end in order to get a feel for a game's tech tree, and I'm not the sort to get bored just by clicking "next turn" a thousand times in a row. So playing a game where it's basically just me, by myself, is not an issue for me. And if I remember correctly, the game's tech tree is so large that even this optimally fast way of playing is likely to take close to 20 hours.

So strap in for an extremely dull and uneventful ride!

The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom - Gold Edition - 20/20 hours

The plot of the campaign isn't even worth talking about. Suffice to say, I completed the last two missions, humiliated the Kings of two kingdoms, and was crowned Queen of Tandria by a grateful people, going on to rule with justice and kindness for many years . . . for some reason.

I think the problem with the campaign's plot is that it is referencing a sort of prototypical fantasy story, without actually showing any of its work. Like, why are the people of Tandria celebrating Zoe for overthrowing King Balderus? They already overthrew him on their own, then she put him back. Did they just forget all those months where she was marching around the kingdom, defeating the heroes of the rebellion, accompanied by a guy who looked suspiciously like the king?

Achh! It doesn't make any sense . . . unless you view Zoe and Dracorian and Balderus as representatives of common fantasy archetypes - the plucky princess who rebels against a corrupt patriarchal authority, the dashing hero, and the sleazy, decadent monarch. That their actions only vaguely conform to these types is, perhaps, best overlooked.

Anyway, in total I really liked this game. As always, any game where you have to manage long production chains, direct traffic efficiently, and can win through economic prosperity is one that is going to be on my good side. It's definitely on the complex side of the strategy spectrum, but I found it to be fairly forgiving, even if it didn't always explain itself in the clearest of terms (and there was one occasion, at least, where it just plain lied to me - I got an error message saying that my sheep ranches didn't have enough water when, in fact, they simply weren't built on fertile enough land).

Final thoughts - The Settlers 7 is a fiddly, fiddly strategy/resource management game. I think the military aspects probably made it weaker, overall, and I'd have liked to see more trading and peaceful interaction between players. However the victory point system is pretty cool, and was definitely more dynamic than the economic victories of similar games. Overall, I'd say this was definitely a good purchase for me. It's probably a low-priority replay for me, but that's mostly because I have so many other great games I need to replay first. It's staying on the hard drive, though, and that's like the third-highest video game honor in my power to bestow.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom - Gold Edition - 15/20 hours

I have discovered a downside to the victory point system. Because it takes into consideration every aspect of your empire, and awards you points for being first in a wide range of activities, the game tends to end just as I'm finally getting my shit together.

Like in my latest mission, for example. For the first hour and fifty minutes or so, I was thwarted in my trade ambitions by the fact that the enemy parked a garrison right between me and the trading post. I'd been counting on using that trading post to shore up weaknesses in my gold and iron production, but even though the enemy army was small, it was hiding behind some powerful fortifications that would take a disproportionately large force to break through. As a result, I had to instead painstakingly expand through the production of priests until I could scrape together just enough coins and weapons to break through, all the while amassing a huge stockpile of coats (377, at last count!).

Frustrating, but fair enough. However, less than ten minutes after I cleared out the last fortress between me and the trading post, I get the "three-minute warning to victory" timer, because it turns out that the garrison I assembled to ward off a counterattack was so large it earned my the "Field Marshall" victory point. I didn't even get to sell any of my damned coats!

Okay, so at this point, I had to control so much land and gather so many materials and recruit so many soldiers that, without that key chokepoint, the enemy was, realistically, a spent force. I get that. That battle was indeed the turning point, the single moment that made my victory inevitable.

But damn it, that's my favorite part of the game, where I'm completely unassailable, and thus free to become a coat magnate, or pursue whatever other interest strikes my fancy at the moment, chipping away at the enemy whenever they have something I want and it would be more convenient to take it than to do without, until finally they are so small and dysfunctional that I dispatch one of my secondary forces to put them out of their misery. Some would call it "tedious mop-up," but I call it "living large," or "finally reaping the benefits of all that assiduous infrastructure management."

Taking off my "power-mad coat merchant" hat for a moment and putting on my "reasonable observer of both video game mechanics and the human condition" hat, I can recognize that The Settlers 7 way of doing things is better. I don't think I'd be entirely pleased if all these complex production and trade mechanics served only as the backdrop of a winner-take-all deathmatch. It's just that I tend to grow attached to my little villages, and I wish there were a gentler drop-off before having to say goodbye to them forever (I considered sending my troops to attack the enemy's most fortified town in order to lose a couple and fall below the threshold for the VP, but that would have been both senselessly cruel and only bought me a couple of minutes before my trade routes matured and brought me in enough gold to earn an entirely different VP).

I did discover that you can play a solitaire version of the game by picking Skirmish mode and then setting your AI opponents to "none," and I did very much enjoy being able to focus purely on city-building, but you still earn VP in that mode so it still has the same basic problem. According to some online research, the only way to play indefinitely is to create a custom map and set the VPs to something that will never accidentally come to fruition. I may well do that if I either finish or quit the campaign mode.

Speaking of which, I finally got to the big betrayal. And . . . Never before has a plot twist both been so incredibly predictable and yet also left me so incredibly confused. It's like, okay, your friend Bors is actually King Balderus (OMG! Who could have possibly seen this coming?!), and once you've defeated the rebels, your father gives control of the kingdom to him instead of you, offering you the lesser prize of a castle filled with treasure. . . and this is portrayed as a profound betrayal, instead of, you know, the most sensible outcome.

Seriously, I am at sea here. Princess Zoe wasn't exactly someone at odds with the status quo. Bors was always pushing her into some shady shit, but she never exactly pushed back. There was never a scene with her witnessing the plight of the people of Tandria and cursing King Balderus or vowing to do better when she had the crown. Her response to the rebels' (admittedly half-assed) expressions of ideology is best summed-up as "yeah, that's nice, whatever."

Is the story of The Settlers 7 really "A princess wants to be a queen, so when the opportunity comes to conquer a neighboring kingdom she promises to do so in exchange for the crown, and then after putting all her enemies to the sword she comes back and is not, in fact, given the crown and must settle for merely being fabulously wealthy, which enrages her enough to spring the most powerful of the rebels from prison and turn against her father."

I mean, there's no denying that the King's actions were kind of shitty. He shouldn't have promised something and then went back on the promise. And yet Zoe was perfectly prepared to have the Tandrian hero, Dracorian, executed.

Not that the King's motivation make a heck of a lot more sense. He gives Balderus back the throne because the two kingdoms will now have a "mutually beneficial relationship" and I can't help but wonder how it could possibly be more beneficial than having his daughter on the throne, especially since he would have been the one to put her there.

I guess I have to hand it to The Settlers 7. It managed to find a way to completely validate my predictions while also making me feel like a fool.