games


My friend Lore (whose site badgods is back up, go see) was musing about D&D on Twitter, which made me consider how D&D works as a game. It’s not pretty.

Overall: Gamers will recognize the usual mechanics of the RPG: character creation, stats, hit points, armor, loot, leveling up. But the UI is terrible– everything requires flipping through pages and pages of rules and tables– and everything has been run through some kind of tediumizer. Combat rules are arcane (try to get someone to explain “attacks of opportunity”) yet damage is generic (no headshots). There’s no aiming or skill involved; everything is based on dice rolls. Combat is turn-based rather than real-time, and there’s no option to automate attacks. It can take hours of play to advance a single level.

Character creation: Unlimited cosmetic appearance options, but classes and “races” (species) are limited and subject to bizarre restrictions. There are literally hundreds of monster types available, but only a small subset are available for PCs. Characters can be female, but there are limit caps on their strength attribute.

Weapons: There’s a promising range– you can wield things like a fauchard, bec de corbin, glaive, ranseur, or voulge– but for the most part these are just names for different attack rolls and they don’t feel different. Most weapons can’t be upgraded, and finding better weapons is slow and capricious.

Magic: The magic system is complicated as fuck, but powerful… except that the number of spells you can cast is absurdly limited. There’s no mana regeneration or cooldowns– so you can run out of spells in the middle of a dungeon and, since you’re a squish, end up near-useless. Cross-classing is possible but subject to weird rules.

Graphics: If you don’t use miniatures, it’s basically a text adventure. If you do, the ‘graphics’ are really nothing more than a diagram of combat positions.

Conworlding: Amateur and incoherent. The procedure implied in the rules is basically this:

  • Open up Lord of the Rings, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Conan, H.P. Lovecraft, a mythology book, and your kid’s damn dinosaur book.
  • Use everything from all of them.

Story: Depends on your DM, but almost always derivative and poorly integrated with gameplay. It can be said that roleplaying actions have consequences; on the other hand, you rarely run into an NPC you care about.

Voice acting: Embarrassing.

Difficulty curve: Harsh. No saves. Near-absolute power is handed to one player, the DM, who determines difficulty. Unsurprisingly many DMs abuse this power and essentially make war against the other players. The general mechanic is permadeath— resurrection is sometimes possible, but may take literally hours. It’s all the more frustrating because most deaths aren’t cause by errors so much as bad luck, if not actual DM player-trolling.

Price: Can be significant.  At a minimum the DM will have to acquire several books, plus special dice.  There is an endless array of DLC, though none of it is necessary.  Miniatures can drive up the investment substantially. On the plus side, it’s never pay-to-win and you’ll never run into NPCs hawking extra paid content.

Multiplayer: The redeeming feature for all of this nonsense.  Although it’s all PvE, it’s fun to take on enemies as a team, there are genuine strategic decisions to make that emerge from the gameplay, and often the open-ended rules allow for some improvisational and memorable scenes.

(Pedantic note: molest me not with protestations that such-and-such edition fixes some of these problems. I had years of experience with AD&D 1.0, and that’s what most of this is based on.  Of course the details would differ if my experience was with another edition.)

To put it all more bluntly: about 90% of the fun of D&D is captured, and far better, by video games like Skyrim or Torchlight or Borderlands or Dragon Age or VTM:Bloodlines.  Tabletop D&D is generally too slow and too tedious to be a good goblin-death simulator.

Lore muses, “Maybe what I really want is to write collaborative, improvisational, non-published fanfic.”  And I think he’s on to something there. That 10% of D&D that isn’t captured by video games is the unpredictable, open-ended storytelling that sometimes emerges from a campaign.  I hosted an IRC campaign once, jettisoning almost all of the detailed rules, and including stuff like an excursion into space opera.  In a good D&D game the DM can surprise the players, and vice versa; you’re not going to get that in Skyrim.

Tonight I finished Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (see initial thoughts here), and then had some terrible games in LOL, so I’m a little cranky.  I’ll try not to take it out on BLTPS.

Don't fall off! (I fell off twice)

Don’t fall off! (I fell off twice)

I needed my friend Momo to do the last mission. The jet fighter, MK-5, is a bastard– trying to solo it, I died enough that I was losing all my money. Momo, for once, had a lower-level character, so I was actually keeping him alive, but it worked out fine. The final bosses are actually far easier. (The last area is tedious: it’s swarming with Guardians, who seem to respawn randomly and are generally annoying.)

The later missions are mostly set on Helios, Hyperion’s H-shaped space station, which makes a nice change. There are some beautiful vistas– such as the one above, which is from the most interesting area, an under-construction area outside the space station itself.  I think they missed an opportunity to show us something really huge. Helios is made up of half a dozen maps, so mostly you’re in a huge building with a few nice exterior sights. Saints Row IV, where you get up really high over an immense map, had more of a sense of hugeness.

There were times when I experienced, I hate to say it, a bit of Borderlands fatigue. I don’t think it was anything wrong with the game. If I add up all my BL hours, I get… well, a very large number. It’s an awfully long time to keep going hoping for one really cool-ass gun. Could I spend another few hundred hours with that hope? Probably, but for BL 3, I really hope they don’t just do more of the same, but add new kinds of gameplay. Weird puzzle sections? Less linearity?  Romance options? Spaceship races? Farming simulation? I dunno, but I’d like to see them shake it up a little. (Or maybe it’s just that BL2, abd BLTPS even more, feel like they’ve damped down the awesome-weapon-getting. I could play for hours without finding a better gun.)

On the story, they set out to explain how Jack turned into Handsome Jack, and I think it works pretty well. It left me with some questions, though. Spoilers follow, so select the text to read:

1. Moxxi’s betrayal seems premature. Jack’s personality may be evil, but he hasn’t done much at that point, certainly not enough to justify killing everyone else on Helios.

2. Is Zarpedon supposed to be evil, or misguided, or actually doing the right thing? It’s hard to see how she needs to destroy the moon when the whole notion of the games is that you can hire a few Vault Hunters to get the job done. (Hell, Lilith and Roland were available.)

3. Wait, didn’t BL2 tell us that Jack and Angel were masterminding the events of BL1? Yet there’s a picture on Jack’s desk of what appears to be a years-younger Angel. I’m not sure they thought this bit through.

4. I really liked Nisha, and now I feel sad that she was such a pitiful boss in BL2. (Wilhelm is a tough fight, at least.)

5. I wish they’d addressed why NPCs who’ve been PCs can die for good. Did somebody lose the New-U files?)

I began a playthrough with Fragtrap. It’s fun, though the Gunzerker will tend to annoy your co-op partners as it wastes ammo. My one complaint is that it takes awhile to fire up your skill.

So, it’s Borderlands 2.5 time!  I’m about 16 hours in, taking my time.

How is it?  It’s very Borderlandsy. That’s a relief, since it’s made by a different studio, and we’ve seen that not work so well. But 2K Australia has got the basic elements: the gorgeous visuals, the shooting and looting, the over-the-top characters, the redneck humor.

More things to accidentally drive into!

More things to accidentally drive into!

In terms of gameplay, the big things are the reduced gravity, allowing you to jump up and deal down death from above, and the oxygen mechanic. The O2 is done just about right: it’s rarely onerous (there are frequent O2 fields, and enemies drop canisters), but it provides a light constraint that will sometimes affect your decisionmaking. The jumps are fun; you can also slam down onto the ground, which I haven’t mastered yet. You can also use the oxygen to glide, which takes some getting used to.

There’s also a hovercraft, not like the skimmers from the BL2 DLC, but one that can actually go up in the air, which adds to the theme of verticality. There’s also lasers and guns that freeze your enemies solid.  Oh, and what are basically Portal 2 aerial faith plates (complete with a similar sound effect)

The story this time is set on that big Hyperion space station, and then on the moon, Elpis– which turns out to be populated by Australians. The accents are adorable. More cheekily, they’ve made Handsome Jack from BL2 into a good guy, more or less. Mostly less. He’s a mid-level Hyperion guy, who you have to rescue from an attack on the space station, and who then helps you save Elpis from the pirates who took it over and, for some reason, want to destroy the moon with a giant laser. And you play what were minor villains in BL2: Nisha the sheriff, Wilhelm the cyborg, Athena the assassin. Or a more than usually crazy Claptrap.

So far they’ve handled this very well, principally by keeping Jack’s basic character: he’s a total asshole. The arrogance, the sadism, the amorality, the fratboy pleasure in exercising power, are all there– they just haven’t focused yet into complete psychopathy. They didn’t Anikinize him into an actual nice guy.

I’ve been playing as Nisha, whose skill is a few seconds of auto-aim and high damage– not quite as fun as the Siren powers, but not bad. (It’s not entirely skill-less– she won’t fire at enemies behind you or otherwise out of sight.) I’m eager to try Claptrap, too.

(sound of Western music)

(sound of Western music)

The PCs talk more than in any previous BL. I think all you got in BL1/2 was a few grunts, plus comments when they leveled up or got a critical hit. Nisha talks back to Jack and to quest givers, and I think this makes everybody seem more human. It turns out that a silent protagonist really isn’t more immersive.

The level design is notable for not holding your hand too much. There are multiple routes through any one installation, and buildings you can choose to explore or not. You can get a little lost sometimes, but I like the move away from railroading.

I only have some minor complaints. They took away the “junk” icon– you can still sell all your junk at once, but you do this by marking “favorites”, which seems backwards to me. Some of the vehicle jumps don’t work well. I’d also have to say that Nina, who replaces Dr. Zed, is rather a clumsy stereotype.

Oh, and I still resent the price… $60 is steep, though I’d’ve happily paid $50. But Borderlands is about the only game on my must-buy-now list. Arkham Knight comes close, but there I can wait for a sale.

One more thing… again based on the first 16 hours, the game seems easier than BL2. The boss fights haven’t been as hard, and though you can face a bunch of bandits at once, it’s also rarely hard to find some cover to recover your shield.

Edit: Thoughts on finishing the game.

Let’s start with the positive: this is an enchanting game for about the first 20 hours. The art style has a distinctive, toylike blockiness; the environments are big and varied; and as in Borderlands, there’s an endless stream of weapons and skills to try.

Are you a friendly steampunk monster?  No, huh?

Are you a friendly steampunk monster? No, huh?

It’s really a lot like Torchlight, except that rather than one near-endless dungeon (35 levels!), there’s a wide world, itself full of monsters, plus a number of smaller dungeons.  So, you still have several playable classes, a mixture of magic, swords, and guns, a pet who’ll fight alongside you and who will sell your loot back in town, fish to change the pet temporarily into another creature, portal scrolls to go back to town.  And the game consists of bundling through the rooms, blowing away a wide range of enemies, collecting gold, and evaluating loot.

Also as in Borderlands, the player characters from the first game have become NPCs in the sequel. Indeed, one of them has gone evil, and is the penultimate boss.

Your basic attacks (LMB) are supplemented by skills and magic– i.e., some of these use mana and some don’t. You can assign any of these to RMB, as well as to 0-9. I played as an Outlander– essentially a rogue, specializing in ranged weapons– and didn’t have much trouble anywhere in the game. If you like a skill, you can improve it by adding skill points; you won’t have enough points to try everything, much less max them all out.

A hint for the last two bosses: have plenty of health potions on hand. I had 71 going into the final dungeon, and used about 30. It’s really easy to run down your health bar quickly. (However, the boss doesn’t regenerate HP, so if you die you don’t have to replay the whole fight.) Mana potions are a little less important, as you can always just get out of range for a few seconds, but grab a few extra.

On the negative side… well, the last 15 hours or so were a chore. I never finished the first Torchlight: all the levels started to feel the same. And though the environments are more varied here, it’s pretty repetitive. It’s never terribly hard– even the final bosses go down quickly under a barrage of skill-spam– just remember to watch your health bar.

Also, it seemed that after a certain point, I only rarely got any loot worth keeping. Part of this is because you can add enchantments, and gems with their own enchantments. So I was making a lot of comparisons like this:

2014-10-10_00005

That’s a final boss item, and it only does 2/3 of the damage of the bow I’d had for many levels. The whole slots and enchantments thing is expensive and makes it hard to switch weapons– which in turn erodes most of the fun of finding loot. It’s OK if most loot is trash, but this kind of game really needs the feeling that the next chest might contain a really insane weapon.

The other problem is that the game is nearly characterless. There’s a plot– evil guy is gonna destroy the world– booring. No characters are memorable, no quests are quirky, there’s very little to care about. Plus, no jokes. Torchlight had its moments (check out the Sword of Adam in the link above), but Torchlight II, for all the cartoonishness of the art, is deadly serious. Maybe they figured they couldn’t top Dungeons of Dredmor.

Now, there’s also co-op, and maybe that changes everything. A lot of games really shine only when you’re messing around with friends. I have a good gaming group, and yet the only thing we play consistently is TF2, so I rarely get the change to try multiplayer in games.

When you finish, you can either replay it at a higher difficulty level, or play a bunch of random dungeons. I tried one, which was not hard, and also built up my distressingly low gold resources.  But I don’t see myself playing through the whole set.

I’ve written a lot about Fallout 3/NV, but not in a consolidated way. So here’s some thoughts on why Fallout 3 is the best open world game.

more like Nuka-Cola Futurity, 'cos you're dead

more like Nuka-Cola Futurity, ‘cos you’re dead

  • It’s got a killer theme: the devastation of nuclear war. Fallout tells us that war never changes, but it’s wrong. Before 1800, the European great powers engaged in near-constant wars, not least because they were rarely fought to the complete destruction of one side. From Napoleon on, great power war is played for much higher stakes, and is thus rarer. And nuclear war, which can destroy civilization, is so terrifying that even politicians can see they’re a bad idea.

    Fallout uses it as a background for a game, of course, and it embraces the ’50s-sf-movie style of radiation as a form of magic, giving us mutated giant animals and maybe superpowers. But it also viscerally communicates the horror of devastation in a way no impassioned editorial could. It gives everything a little punch and pathos that you’ll never get in Tamriel.

  • It’s gorgeous. There’s nothing quite like that opening reveal, when the vault opens, you’re blinded by the sun you’ve never seen before, and you look over the destroyed, strangely beautiful, enticingly new landscape.

    (I’m sorry, I don’t like the bird’s-eye-view-of-tiny-little-characters genre, so Fallout 1/2 don’t appeal to me.)

  • Bethesda creates the best first ten levels in video games. You want to progress and unlock the good guns and get your skills above 20 and not cave like a Radroach when the nearest bandit plugs you– but savor it, because you’re in the maximum fun zone. You’ll enjoy those bigger guns, but there’s nothing quite like the tension of facing a ruinful of bandits with rapidly dwindling ammo and not enough Stimpaks. Plus everything is still new and a short walk in any direction can give you three new quests.
  • Many games have beautiful level design, but it’s just set design for you to look at as you blitz past. Not here. Few other games create such a interactable, livable world.
    A knife is a good way to interact with bandits

    A knife is a good way to interact with bandits

    You can talk to anyone, at least anyone who’s not trying to kill you. There’s lore to find in every computer terminal and recording tape. Almost all the junk strewn about the map can be picked up, and even the lowliest bits can be used for something: people will pay you for scrap metal, cola bottles, holotags, pre-war books, and certain body parts, while everyday junk can be recycled into weapons. You’ll eventually get the opportunity to own your own house, which you can decorate it as you like. And it really will feel like your own little place in the Wasteland.

  • You can do as you like. The game booklet– I got F3 as a physical package, so there was a game booklet– tells you that you can follow Liam Neeson’s trail, or you can strike off on your own. And you can! There’s a huge world to explore, and people to meet, and other people to shoot. And your choices accumulate, and affect the world.
  • F3 has a quirky underbelly. The main quest includes the Twilight Zone weirdness of Tranquility Lane as well as a talkative Super-Mutant. And President Eden, with the mellifluous voice and delusions of still running the country.
    Now playing at the Museum of History.

    Now playing at the Museum of History.

    Then there’s things like the Republic of Dave, the vampires, the lesbian ghoul couple, Three Dog (because two dogs aren’t enough), Little Lamplight, the Mysterious Stranger perk, Tinker Joe and his robot companions, homages to classic comic books and Lovecraft, and Bethesda’s own studios.

  • It respects your choices. It’s illuminating to read the Fallout wiki on, say, the initial mission. There are a lot of branching paths– many of them involving things it would never occur to me to do. You can be the Wasteland’s greatest monster, or its savior.
  • The world is rich enough that you can make your own story. I did a whole playthrough concentrating on collecting bobbleheads.
    Got the intact garden gnome too

    Got the intact garden gnome too

    You could make it your mission to eradicate those annoying Talon ops, or blowing up slavers.

  • It has one of gaming’s cleverest tutorials. It starts with your birth– a natural time to choose your sex and appearance. You appear as an infant– perhaps the only game where the character is learning WASD at the same time you are. I wouldn’t want every game to do this, but it gets you through the basics while respecting immersion, and setting up the main story.

I greatly enjoyed Oblivion, but F3 is a far superior game: looks better, quests are deeper, theme is more involving. And though Skyrim is even prettier, it’s hard for me to get past the bland medievalness.

What about Fallout New Vegas? Well, overall, it’s more Fallout, and it has improved game mechanics (and a little more openness about sex), so that’s great. But I prefer F3, though that’s probably a minority opinion. It has poor voice acting, it’s more railroaded, and the middle of the game bogs down in endless gabbing. New Vegas itself, though initially impressive, is unconvincing: it seems dead and dull, not a hive of activity and depravity. Also, its plot deals with how you reestablish things after an apocalypse. That’s a great theme but it’s not explored in any interesting way (Caesar’s Legion is a boring answer to the question).

But FNV redeems itself in DLC. The four DLCs tell much more compelling stories than the main game. By contrast, F3’s DLCs are a bit meh, except for the refreshingly amoral Point Lookout.

I created a Steam curation page which consolidates just about all the game reviews from this blog. You can get the same effect by using the Games link over on the right, but in case Steam Curating is the next big thing, I want in on it.

Lego Batman 2 was on sale recently, so I picked it up.  In brief: the main story is fun and very cute; the open world bit is only half cooked.

Where should I stand to press G?

Where should I stand to press G?

I’ve never played one of these Lego games before, so here’s how that works: the characters are made of Legos. So are part but not all of their surroundings– in general, the Lego bits are the things you can interact with, which is a pretty clever bit of design signaling.  (If you’ve played the others, apparently it’s a big thing that in this one the characters talk.)

A level basically consists of a series of obstacles, to be solved by the characters’ special abilities. E.g. you might use Batman’s batarangs to destroy something out of reach, or Robin’s acrobatics to climb, or Superman’s super-breath to turn water into ice (which can be traversed). It looks like it’s optimized for two-player co-op, but it’s quite easy to play solo– there’s a key press to switch characters. At first you only get Batman and Robin, but later you get Superman and then a whole slew of heroes. The puzzles are designed so that you have to switch frequently.

Sometimes when you destroy something, they can rebuild the Lego pieces into something else. Often this is a suit dispenser: jump on it and Batman or Robin changes into a different outfit with new powers. In the screenshot, Bats is wearing his Electrical Suit, which lets him walk through electrified areas and power devices up or down.

The story levels are a lot of fun. The designers have worked hard to make the game look and act like a set of toys: the characters waddle around cutely, they look pleased as punch when they change suits, when a character dies it shatters into blocks, and you are encouraged to mindlessly destroy things. If you die yourself, you respawn right there, so it’s never a real setback. Most of the time it’s fairly clear what to do; I am not very good at the sort of thinking required and had to consult a walkthrough.

The game was evidently designed for consoles, so it comes with a pretty horrible set of controls– all keys, no mouse. I had to remap just about everything to have it make sense. (I recommend using the arrow keys for movement, using space for jump and E for action as in sanely designed games, then using T for tag and G for ‘special’. Then you move with the right hand and do stuff with the left.) There aren’t many controls, and most are explained in-game, but they neglected to tell you how to punch things (it’s Action, the one I remapped to E).

After the Asylum mission you can wander Gotham City as you like. The walkthrough suggested that you wait till the story mode is over before doing so, as there’s a lot you can’t do till you’ve unlocked all the basic heroes. This is bad advice, because the story missions are the best part, and you shouldn’t rush through them.

In any case, the main mission took me about 15 hours. After this you can roam Gotham and pick up new characters.

Robin and Catwoman on a date at the carnival

Robin and Catwoman on a date at the carnival

This part of the game is frankly disappointing. For one thing, you have to buy each character– not with real money, but with the studs you’ve collected by destroying Lego objects. This was a strange design decision, because it’s easy to run out of studs, so you can’t collect more heroes till you go on a rampage. And busting up objects, in the quantities needed to collect 50 characters, is not that fun.

There’s a lot to do– climb buildings as Robin, rescue citizens, drive or boat around. But it feels like you have to run a round quite a bit to find these diversions. Finding the unlockable characters sounds like it should be a great time– each one is slightly different– but for the most part the fights are too easy and the payoff is low. (One exception is Lex Luthor, who you want for his special gun that destroys black Lego objects, which no other character can do.) Plus if you defeat them and you don’t have enough studs, you’re out of luck, which is a strange punishment for the game to apply.

So, it’s fun to run around for awhile changing characters, but actually unlocking everyone and finding all the collectibles doesn’t seem very attractive. I think they would have done a lot better to have fewer characters, but more challenging mini-levels to get through to unlock them.  Or have more character-specific things to do, like the Robin acrobatics diversions.

Story mode has a story, by the way.  It’s pretty good, as Batman stories go. Probably the best thing about it is the interaction between grumpy Batman and cocky jocky Superman. It lightly pokes fun at their relationship, and yet it actually creates a character arc for the game, which is more than you might expect in a kids’ version of DC.

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