games


I heard about Sunset long ago on RPS, and it sounded intriguing, so I picked it up in the Steam summer sale. I’m sad to hear that the developer, Tale of Tales, is going out of business due to poor sales. They’re probably best known for The Path, an exploration game featuring little girls and wolves, and Luxuria Superbia, which is about touching flowers and/or sex.

This is a very reflective game. Get it?

This is a very reflective game. Get it?

Sunset has a weird little setup: you are Angela Burnes, an American college grad working as a housekeeper in the fictional Latin American nation of Anchuria. Once a week you spend an hour (always the hour before sunset) doing various jobs in Gabriel Ortega’s penthouse apartment in the capital… during a time of civil war. As you come by week after week, the situation outside worsens, and you discover Ortega’s (and your country’s) involvement in Anchurian politics.

Let’s talk gameplay. You are limited to the penthouse itself (though it’s quite roomy, and two stories tall). You have a minimal task list, different each week; you go find the things to do, do them, and spend the rest of the time looking at things, finding little hidden notes and books, and writing a diary (i.e., you sit in a particular chair, and Angela writes about whatever occurs to her.)

All of this is optional. Each weekly session ends after a fixed period (half an hour in real time) whether you’ve done anything or not. I don’t think you’re ever punished for not doing your tasks. (I left a couple undone either because I ran out of time, or couldn’t find where to do them.) You don’t have to look around for things to interact or do the diary thing. Though if you did nothing, of course, not much would happen, outside some scripted events.

The game is longer than I expected: the weekly sessions last for a year. I spent 7 hours on it, but the exact time would depend heavily on how much wandering around and diary-reading you do.

With most tasks you have an option of doing them in two ways: flirty or businesslike. In effect you can pursue a long-distance seduction of Sr. Ortega. E.g. given the task to unpack his books, you can arrange them boringly by author, or playfully by color. He will leave you notes, and you can respond affectionately, or distantly, or not at all. These choices affect how the apartment looks, as well as how the story goes.

You don’t get to shoot anyone, but along the way you do have to make some choices that affect not only your relationship with Ortega, but the progress of the revolution.

The visuals are quite beautiful; they’ve obviously spent a lot of time on lighting, bathing the apartment in changing purple light as the sun sets. The apartment is filled with art objects, all carefully modeled; from the windows you get a vista of the capital. Helicopters and planes buzz overhead; occasionally a building is set on fire or bombs drop nearby, with a big orange flash. The story is set in 1972-3, and the 70s aesthetic is lovingly recreated. The view is 1st person, but Angela can see herself in the windows and other reflective surfaces.

The apartment changes week to week, first because Ortega is moving in, then because of the complications of the political crisis.  The doors to some areas are sometimes closed, so you can’t always access the whole apartment.  Twice when you come, the power is out.  A couple of times you find that the secret police have preceded you.

(Despite the relative simplicity of the setting and models, the game would sometimes get unresponsive for me– just moving around became difficult. I didn’t attempt to turn down the graphics to see if that would help. The gameplay is simple enough that I just played through it, but it was frustrating at times.)

The story goes some places we don’t normally see in games. The backstory (which you only get if you are fairly interactive with things) is that Anchuria had a communist government, but recently was taken over in a coup by the very conservative General Miraflores. Ortega is a member of the elite, with his own company, who seems to be close to the General. Angela’s brother David is a leader of the rebels. The Miraflores regime is aided by the Americans, and there is a threat of US intervention. Angela herself is black (as is the story’s co-creator Auriea Harvey; her partner Michaël Samyn is Belgian), and her diary entries reflect on racism in the US and her feelings about being trapped in a Latin American country in wartime.

How does all this work as a game? I think, well enough. Or maybe much better than it sounds. I think the idea of the game is very strong, and I like to see people experimenting with and deepening the medium, so I’m inclined to cut the developers a lot of slack.

I’d respond to the most likely complaints thus:

  • It’s not interactive enough. Your interaction is largely limited to looking at things and clicking on them.  Well, yes, and that’s also true of Sam & Max, or your favorite Telltale game. (I’m playing a Telltale game right now, and though it’s clever, it’s often pretty much click-to-advance-the-story.)
  • The story is more experienced than created. You can affect the story, but it’s Angela’s story and words– there’s no room for roleplaying.  Yeah, but that’s true of Arkham City or Mirror’s Edge too: you are not a freeform character there, you are Batman or Faith and really you are just following their story and can’t change their character.
  • It’s too heavy. We just want to relax with a game!  Well, be honest: if you play (say) League of Legends, don’t you swear like a sailor whenever you’re killed? Gaming inherently involves a suprising amount of frustration. As for heavy themes, what about nuclear devastation (Fallout), complicity in a corrupt system (Dishonored), or the dangers of libertarianism (Bioshock)? The political setup of Sunset— corruption, occupation, resistance– is not terribly different from that of Beyond Good and Evil.

The story could have been told as a novel or a movie.  But I think it works as a video game. Wandering around Ortega’s apartment, doing little tasks (or not), deciding how nicely to do them, deciding how much time she spends just messing around, make us at least complicit in Angela’s story.  The developers do better at balancing game and story than (say) Dreamfall did, with its endless cutscenes at the end.

Now, I’d like this sort of thing to work. I think games are mostly about shooting because shooting is a mechanic that developers and gamers understand, and we just haven’t fully understood how to make other kinds of games. Haven’t you spent hours just messing around in Skyrim or Saints Row?  There’s a huge swath of stories that would be interesting to tell, but aren’t getting told because people thinking they’re not game-y enough.  I’m glad some developers are trying out other ideas, and I can forgive some awkwardness.

All that said, it’s not the game I wish it was.  A few complaints:

  • You don’t see Angela doing her tasks.  You hear her hum and get a cityscape for a few seconds.  I absolutely understand this: it saves money.  Tale of Tales is a tiny studio and can’t afford the extra modeling and animation it would require.  But the price paid is a great reduction in immersion. We don’t feel that we’re really there, or participating.
  • I really wanted more interactions.  Dumb interactions are fun, and make an environment feel real.  You can turn on lights, leave the water running, sit on chairs, look through a telescope, comment on the art.  All that is good, but why couldn’t I take a  bath, make a sandwich, drink coffee, dance to the music, read the titles on the bookcase, wear Ortega’s slippers? You can’t even re-examine the art for a second opinion, and though you can play a record when the game lets you, you can’t replay it.
  • The diary mechanic is a little cheap. You see a line at a time and can’t do anything else.  If they couldn’t afford more voice work, they could have either sped it up, or allowed you to move around while the subtitles continue.  I skipped a bunch of entries as they didn’t always repay the time spent.
  • The game has its longeurs. The game is about as long as Portal (1)– but that was a puzzle game and we were learning and using skills.  The devs vary the task list, as well as the appearance of the apartment, and I don’t mind the ordinariness of your tasks– it fits the theme. But it’s also true that a movie could have told this story in two hours, not 7.  I think I’d like to have seen half the sessions, but more interaction within each one.

I’ve read some reviews, and it seems many people are itching to redesign the game. And I don’t think it needs much. You can actually make a game that’s about menial tasks– e.g. Viscera Cleanup Detail. But it really could have used a lot more feeling that we’re actually doing them.

I also have to say, I don’t think it would be replayable.  I’m curious about the “cool” option– what happens if you carefully avoid both romance and involvement in the politics?  But I don’t intend to spend more hours on it.

I chose the wallpaper and made the sculpture. Ortega will be so pleased

I chose the wallpaper and made the sculpture. Ortega will be so pleased

How does it work as a story?  Oh, pretty well, on both the romance and the political sides. The idea of getting to know someone through their living space is clever, and the game does a pretty good job of suggesting dictatorship and revolution through an unusual fixed viewpoint.  The usual storytelling choice might be to show us the soldiers in the streets or have us fight through the presidential palace– but those on the sidelines have interesting stories as well, and their limited options are part of the point.

If you look at the story baldly, it’s the story of a housekeeper falling in love with her boss.  Not impossible, but not highly likely, and not exactly a recipe for happiness, either.  Still, Angela is presented as highly educated, trapped in the city more or less by accident, so you could see her as underachieving, and more of a match for Ortega than her job indicates.

The story does get into all the ironies of being rich in a poor country, and makes you wonder how complicit Ortega is in the Miraflores regime.  However, I’m not sure it fully groks the surreal dissociation of Latin American elites from the common people.  Imagine a class of Mitt Romneys who have been in power for five hundred years and view even bourgeois liberalism as a terrible threat worth killing people to head off.

(If you do follow through with the romance, the story ends with you sleeping in Ortega’s bed.  You finally see Ortega… though he’s asleep and won’t get up!  It’s kind of a sweet ending though.)

I’m not quite satisfied with the Latin American setting though. The story seems to have, let us say, a concerned First Worlder’s knowledge about the politics of elites and revolutionaries in ’70s Latin America, and the spectre of US intervention, but little of the specifics of any Latin American country.  (Making up a country was a bit of a copout.)  Angela describes the previous ‘communist’ regime as earnest and utopian, and talks about the lack of racial discrimination– these, I’m afraid, are complete absurdities.  (Maybe Angela is naïve, but I’m not sure she’s supposed be be that naïve.)  There’s never any hint that the revolutionaries are less than perfect– unlike real-world ones who admired Maoist terrorism, or turned into drug dealers, or simply petered out in pointless infighting. Plus there’s very little actual Latin American flavor to the game.  A few references to Catholicism and tango don’t really cut it.

I appreciate the conceit of using a single setting.   But I think they missed some opportunities to open up the game here and there.  I guess a street scene would have required too much work.  But it would have been nice to (say) see where Angela lives, or be sent on an errand to a shop, or perhaps have to climb a bunch of stairs when the power is out.

At a deeper level, I like the way the game ruminates on power.  Angela talks about it explicitly; it’s played out around us by Miraflores, the rebels, the US, and Ortega. But where most games are a power fantasy, this is almost a lack-of-power fantasy.  Angela is a woman, out of her own country, in a menial job, in the middle of a revolution.  Ortega is rich, but that’s no sure protection either. Both can influence the larger situation, but maybe part of the point is that the dishes still have to be cleaned, and there’s always the possibility of love.

The normal price of the game is $20, and I wouldn’t blame you for blinking at that.  But then I’m poor and bargain-conscious.  Don’t be one of those people who think that $1 is a generous price for an indie game.  Or who never buy indie games.

I haven’t written a game review in awhile. This isn’t because I don’t play games any more. It’s because of League of Legends. I’ve been playing it for a few hours a night for over nine months, with little room for other games.  (There have been a few other games, but they rarely grab me enough to finish. Arkham Knight is coming soon, though…)

Careful, we can still lose this... oh, kaboom

Careful, we can still lose this

So how’s it going? Eh, up and down. You can easily play this game for nine months and not be very good at it. I mostly play ARAM, which is good practice on all the champions and far more low-key.  I’m still kind of terrified of Summoner’s Rift (SR), the normal game mode.  I have over 400 ARAM wins and haven’t quite got to 100 in SR.

Occasionally there’s a game that makes it all worth while, such as this one (I was on the red team, in SR):

We win

We got this

LOL players will grok this immediately: it’s the story of a remarkable comeback in the last 3 minutes of a nearly hour-long game. What’s remarkable is that the other team (Blue) threw it away. They had aced us, and were in our base killin’ our dudes. They could have easily taken the Nexus. Then they all recalled home. Maybe they figured they had only three players up, they’d better come back later. Maybe they wanted to rack up kill counts. I dunno, but we got our act together and blasted right through them.

I was also happy because, unusually, playing an ADC went the way it was supposed to. I was Caitlyn, and had a slow early game, but got better and better as the game went on, ending up 13/7/9. I like Caitlyn because a) she has a very long range, longer than other ADCs, so you can be a little more aggressive, and b) her ult isn’t a skillshot, so it’s rarely wasted. Also c) it’s long range so you can totally killsteal from your pals.

(If you don’t know LOL: ADCs are Attack Damage Carries. Damage is of two types, magic (AP) and normal (AD).  Caitlyn’s gun is almost entirely AD. “Carry” is what’s supposed to happen: by the end of the game, the ADC is doing immense damage and carries the team. But in the early game you’re very squishy and you need a support character just to stay alive.)

The downside of SR is that it’s frigging difficult to learn. You start out with bots, but the highest-level bots are barely a preparation for humans. And the worst feature of humans is that they can get toxic, or give up, when they’re losing.  I’d really like to get good at ADCs, but so far as I can see, the matchmaking almost always gives enemies above my level.  (It’s safer to play supports– supports are always needed– but as with medics in TF2, sometimes players will blame their own bad play on their support.)

Honoring my LOL stoner pals. Srsly the game is full of them.

Honoring my LOL stoner pals. Srsly the game is full of them.

Playing with friends greatly reduces the toxicity and increases teamwork… though I’ve had to defriend more than one person who lost it when a game didn’t go well. But if the friends are higher level, then the matchmaking finds higher-level enemies too. And your pals may or may not be able to carry you.  More reasons, unfortunately, to hang out in ARAM where strategy is limited and people are more out to have fun.

Frustrating in another way: another recent game I went 12/7/20 as Varus… that’s good as it means I’m landing his skillshots more and learning how to play him… the problem being, I had the best score on the team… so we lost.  The tackiest thing people do in LOL is to abuse their teammates, and I’m not doing that… to be honest, I concentrate so much on what I’m doing that I rarely notice patterns in what other folks are doing wrong.  (Except for, like, going 2×5.  Group up, people!)

But then sometimes, like tonight, I get a frustrating game with an exhilarating comeback.  I was Ashe, another ADC, still one of my favorite characters.  This was an ARAM game, nearly an hour long.  We had Ashe, Sona, Ekko, Teemo, and Azir, against Viktor, Katarina, Karthus, Nunu, and Nautilus.  It was even for awhile, then they seemed to be crushing us.  They were at our Nexus twice, but couldn’t quite get it. Looking at the postgame stats, I’m a bit surprised to see that their standout was Viktor. More than once I got nabbed by a nasty Katarina + Karthus combo. None of us were tanky, but they let us get to level 18, when all of us could be effective.  We started to connect while fighting back, pushed through to their inhibitor, and next push got to their Nexus.

(Another comeback story.  Well, that’s because a comeback is a story. A roll isn’t a story; it’s barely a game.)

When a LOL game goes well, it’s like a ballet of microsecond-long attacks and repositions.  A teamfight may depend on landing a skillshot here, taking advantage of a stun there, barely escaping a counterattack yonder.  It’s unlike TF2 where skills and players are more predictable, and any one player doesn’t make quite so much of a difference.  Of course, the lows are lower, too: in plenty of games everyone kind of sucks and can’t seem to figure out why.

I’m kind of a sucker for King’s Bounty games, at least if they’re on sale.  Armored Princess is an adorable, perfect little game. But the developer, 1C, has a way of making new games that recycle 75% of the content and don’t really change or update the gameplay.  Warriors of the North felt more like crank-it-out DLC than a new game, and I never finished it.

But I’m back for more with Dark Side. Switching from good to evil is just enough of a switch to make things interesting again; plus you can choose a female protagonist again… though the developers are apparently 13-year-old boys:

How you dress when you're evil

How you dress when you’re evil

As before, you wander a world map made of cute little islands, with various enemies wandering around.  When you engage one, you start a battle. Your character doesn’t fight– she is the general!  Rather, you have up to five units to engage the enemy, on a chessboard-like hex grid:

Fightin' in a coal mine goin' down down

Fightin’ in a coal mine goin’ down down

It’s like D&D: one unit at a time fights. Plus you can use spells once a turn, and when you accumulate ‘Rage’ (by hitting or being hit) you can call upon a powerful sub-demon to help. Units have different skills and abilities. One of my favorites is the Red Dragon, which can burn an entire rank of hexes. (The supply is limited, though, so I underplay them, afraid of losing them.) I’m also fond of the Scoffer Imps, who can through fireballs every few turns, and when that’s on cooldown, kick an enemy up to three hexes away without letting them counterattack. Cerberi are also fun: they can attack three hexes at once, and their special move is a gallop across the board, which saves time.

In the screenshot I have an extra unit provided by a spell, and one of the enemies has defected, as a result of a subdemon ability.

It’s addictive to fight these little battles– it’s a particular pleasure if you can defeat all the enemies without losing any units. The character animations are adorable, too: e.g. units do little taunts when they kill another unit. I also never get tired of watching an AI unit dash forward into a trap.

When you defeat an enemy it disappears from the world map. You work your way up to the island’s king, and replace him with your own candidate.

The major downside: someone apparently told 1C that the game should be more of an RPG, with quests and stuff. The dialogs (which are not voiced) have a folksy charm, and some of the quests are amusing little stories– e.g. to infilitrate one castle you have to dress up as an elf ambassador, and your initial attempts are completely unconvincing, so you have to find someone to apply makeup. But the quests mostly involve running back and forth between characters, and there’s often no clue which character you need. This part quickly becomes tedious and then frustrating, when it’s unclear what you have to do next. I’m a little stuck at the moment, in fact… there are some quests that are blocked for some reason, and islands I can’t get to. So it’s maybe too easy to fire up League of Legends instead.

In all the KB games units are limited: once a shop runs out of units, they’re gone. In Armored Princess this was nicely balanced: basically you had to take over each island with the units at hand, which meant you had to try them all. This would take you out of your comfort zone but provided a useful variety. In Dark Side you have a near-unlimited supply of whatever faction you start with– since I played the demoness, I have a plethora of demons. Other units are available, but the really good ones are in shorter supply. As a result I tend to keep the same units in my army. This does save some running around, at least.

Thematically, the game has an interesting, not entirely consistent take on good vs. evil. The setup is that Good has nearly taken over the planet– dispossessing all the demons, undead, and orcs. You’ve got elves taking over orc islands and humans banning the Dark from their kingdoms. So you have to fight back for the Dark, for simple justice and for balance.

Rather charmingly, agents of the Dark seem to be unfailingly polite. The Dark Lord himself is polite and supportive, and when you meet agents of the Dark in conquered realms, they’re almost pathetically grateful that you’ve shown up to help. So far this is a kind of territorial/ideological vision of the Dark: they’s people too and they have a right to live in peace. Or un-live, in the case of the undead.

You’re also supposed to find and corrupt the three happiest, purest, and loyallest people on the planet, and bring them back to the Dark Lord for use in dark rituals. This sounds more like traditional Evil, though it’s nothing to what the least Grand Theft Auto antihero does before breakfast. If you play a demoness, you make the loyallest dudes fall in love with you, and they become your companions. (All that means is that they add to your battle stats and give you more slots to apply special items like armor.)

My first reaction was that this was a wrong-headed vision of Evil, one that made Evil into a mere alternative side in a cosmic war, like the Commies during the Cold War. It’s like the alignments in D&D, which never made any sense to me as either philosophies or factions. But on reflection I think there’s something to it. Eeeevil empires or dark lords are a simple-minded distortion of the world, and when we look at human kingdoms as Eeeevil we both miss their own humanity, and threaten to go Eeeevil ourselves. The Commies did do evil, but then so did we– nowhere more so than when we propped up scumbag dictators around the world so their countries would stay on our side. ISIS today is about as close to Eeeevil as you can get, but it has its origins in misguided US attempts to raise up Islamic fighters to fight the evil commies, and in the spectactularly bungled US occupation of Iraq.

So the territorial/ideological model of Dark Side turns out to be a pretty good representation of how human affairs really work. Sinless elves vs. demonspawn orcs was always a lousy idea. Sometimes the elves are bastards and the orcs are the oppressed ones.

Anyway, should you get the game? If you’ve never played a KB game, then yes. Well, except then you should probably play Armored Princess instead. If you played one of the earlier games and it’s been awhile, then Dark Side will be fun.

Ah, one more weird thing: I was stuck for a bit on an island with only Deadly enemies. It was kind of frustrating, and I was playing on normal difficulty. It felt like I’d skipped an island of more moderate enemies. And in fact I had, only I didn’t have the map to get there. So, I just attacked the Deadly enemies… the victories were costly but I did whittle them down, and finally got the map to the island I’d missed. I could then whale through a bunch of Weak enemies… thus discovering that there’s an achievement for winning 25 battles without replenishing your armies.

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.

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