Site Index

Here is a link to my Designing a Better RPG series. And here is a list of my reviews to aid in site navigation (my tags are messy so this is not perfect).

Alpha Protocol :: Assassin’s Creed :: Assassin’s Creed 2 :: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood :: Bully: Scholarship Edition :: Dragon Age: Origins :: Dragon Age 2 :: Fable 2 :: Fallout 3 :: Grand Theft: Auto IV :: Mass Effect :: Mass Effect 2 :: Neverwinter Nights 2 :: Prince of Persia :: The Saboteur :: Saints Row :: Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood :: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed :: Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines :: The Witcher ::

Working from home…

For those wondering about how my game is coming along, here is a quick update: I’m very close to what I’d consider beta. All features are now in, the game strikes me as very stable, and it can be played from start-to-finish in every way.

Aside from “polish”, “balance”, “bugs”, (which could take a million years) and replacing the temporary text with final text, it’s done. I anticipate hitting beta in about two more weeks and then I work on the aforementioned until it’s good enough. And, yes, I know it was more than a month ago when I said I was probably “about two more weeks away from beta”. This ended up being far more demanding than I anticipated.

Now that the update is out of the way, I want to take a moment to tell you all how uncertain I was about being able to successfully work from home, even though… *VFX of fading back through time*

… The first time I ever worked from home came when I was working at BioWare — I think it was the first half of 2003. The video game press were visiting to play a game that we were working on (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic).

Our power situation was such that setting up a dozen computers for the press would exceed our supply and cause the power to go out. Leadership considered the best solution and opted to let some people, such as many of us on the QA team, work from home.

My first day home, I did not wake up as if I had to be at work by 9am (or even my more usual 10:30am). I slept in. I slept until I felt like getting out of bed, which was probably early afternoon, and then I took my time actually waking up and easing into the half-gone day.

I repeated this throughout my “sorta” workcation until I had to return to the office. Then I checked out the stats for my average performance versus my performance from home. I’m sure this will surprise no one, but I was far more productive from home despite feeling like I was being lazy.

That’s where I’m at right now. I sleep until noon. I shower. I catch up on Facebook. I eat breakfast and drink some tea. And then I start working until what would technically be lunch — except it’s coming at 7pm or 8pm. Afterward, I work a little more until it’s time to watch some TV or movies with Candice and go to bed to start the whole thing over.

I remember reading or discussing the topic of how many hours of productivity managers were looking for, and discovered that 20 hours of productive work for a junior or mid-level employee was considered good, and you hoped your senior-level staff could hit 30 hours.

To everyone who is working a 40-hour week (or far, far more, as I always did as a teacher), maybe that sounds like a vacation. But from your day, consider what’s left after you chop out time for bathroom breaks, coffee breaks, lunch breaks, chats around the water cooler, time spent goofing off on the Internet or at the foosball table, reading and responding to e-mails (whether or not for work), and enduring agonizingly-long meeting (unless you’re one of those who love meetings and think they’re super productive. I was always happier being left out from them). Commutes may even be a part of your work day. Chop all that out and only mark the time spent being productive. 30 hours may sound impossible after that.

But aside from two light weeks in the last couple of months, I’m hitting between 31 and 43 productive hours per week. And while I’m usually a bit brain dead by the end of the week, this feels very sustainable. In fact, it’s bordering on relaxing. Sometimes I have to force myself to take the weekend off. By Monday, I’m itching to get going again.

The point is that while I initially wasn’t sure if I had what it took to be disciplined enough to remain productive while working from home, once again I am finding that I am likely getting more done than I would were I at an office. It makes me wonder why more businesses-that-can don’t allow their employees to do this — especially when programs like Skype even make meetings easy.

If you’re curious about this idea and don’t want to take my word for it, check out this article (and here are the slides) or listen to some of the smarter companies out there who are also realizing that getting everyone in the same building isn’t always important.

An Idea 30 years in the Making…

There are three games that inspired my game-in-progress in one way or another. Each of these three games are nearly 30 years old (thus the silly title to this post), and worth a little time in the remembering. This post is entirely about those three games. But read between the lines and maybe you’ll get an idea or two about what I’m working on.

Friday the 13th

This game pits you as one of the teens being stalked by the horror movie character Jason Voorhees. Let’s look at a screen shot.

Friday_the_13th_-_1985_-_Domark_Software

Oh my! Those are some outdated pixels. But, to be fair, their game has graphics and isn’t just text like mine is at the moment.

In the game, there are several outdoor and indoor areas you can visit. There are 10 other people at the camp with you besides Jason, but in the shot above we can see one person is already dead. Your task is to kill Jason as quickly as possible. Every person who survives nets you bonus points — which encourages you to move quickly. To find Jason, you can wander around and hope to spot him killing someone, or, silliest of all, you can hit everyone you see. If you hit someone with a weapon they’ll either be momentarily stunned and take some damage or they’ll be revealed as Jason in disguise.

I remember thinking that the game felt “broken” from a game design perspective, but I kept coming back to it. I think that says that there were some really good things about the game. In fact, I remember my younger self being quite impressed that you never knew who Jason was disguised as. And I liked the idea of wandering around a few maps with other strangers (almost like a multiplayer game) never quite knowing when he would pop up.

Shogun

This is a game I struggled to understand, as a kid, but I loved to play it. In fact, I’d call it one of my favorite childhood video games. Here’s what it looked like:

Shogun_-_1986_-_Mastertronic

It looks like he’s floating/jumping, but there was no gravity in this game. You could walk anywhere up/down/left/right.

Like Friday the 13th, the player had a lot of maps to explore, and there were a lot of other people throughout these maps, too. Unlike Friday the 13th, you could actually interact with these people. In the shot above, there is a list of tools running the length of the bottom of the window that you used to interact — including the option to take, give, trade, examine, speak, and fight — as well as a few other options. From memory, you were competing to become Shogun against all the other random people. You could find gifts and money and use them to acquire followers, or even receive them from other people. To end the game you had to gather some specific items and enough followers.

What I liked about this game was the sense of forming relationships with specific people. I’d see someone getting picked on, and jump in to help them out. After the fight (which consisted of running away while trying to keep someone barely overlapping your back edge, strange as that sounds), I’d give my new follower a gift or some money to secure his loyalty, then cry when someone else killed him or stole him from me.

Both Shogun and Friday the 13th were relatively short, and the-same-but-different each time you played, reminiscent of games such as FTL, The Binding of Isaac, and Don’t Starve (as well as all the rogue-likes).

Ultima V

The fifth installment in the Ultima RPG series may not seem to fit with the aforementioned short-and-replayable titles, but it’s really one specific element of Ultima V that I wanted to talk about. But first, here’s a shot.

u5lb2

These graphics look retouched…

Ultima V was a lengthy RPG in a huge world that I finished three or four (III or IV, ha) times. One of the things I loved about it was the keyword-based conversation system. You could initiate a conversation with anyone, and then say whatever you liked. True, people had no response to most words you might offer up, but as you played and got used to it you figured out how to get people talking and who was worth talking with. Additionally, people wandered around and had their own schedules. They would wake in the morning, go to their job, stop at the tavern at the end of the day, and then return home to sleep. Most of the schedules were simple, but occasionally you’d spot strange patterns which made the game, and the people, suddenly feel more alive.

One night I entered a town around midnight and spotted a few people who had been standing out in the woods, but were now returning to their homes. I was very curious about what they had been up to, having been out so late, but no one would spill any beans. My memory is a little hazy, but I think I finally met someone else, later on, who clued me in that a small group met on the outskirts of a town at midnight. He gave me a password and I went back to that spot just before midnight. I met the group, told them the password, and suddenly found myself on a new mission.

Now-a-days, in games like these, people have exclamation points over their head if they have a mission, or if they’ve got what you need to complete the mission. It makes it all quite easy, and to be honest I’d consider that an advancement in game design. However, I found it so exciting to peel layers away from this world and discovering the secrets within, as if I’d solved a puzzle.

That’s it for this look at some games from the past. Take from what I wrote whatever you’d like, but after you’ve played my game (when it’s done, and hopefully you will), maybe you’ll come back to this post and have some thoughts on it.

“You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.” — Albert Camus

I recently wrote a bit about my ongoing process of making a game, but I never specified exactly what it is that I’m making. I’ll start by saying that this is not the type of game that exclusively emphasizes starting at point A and skillfully navigating your way along to point B. Instead, one of my game design goals for this project is to create an experience filled with discovery — something this post discusses more in-depth.

Experiential gaming is a genre that is typically lighter on game play and heavier on the feelings that the game’s narrative or story evokes. Experiential games want you less caught up in trying to win, and more engaged in how you feel as a result of moving through the experience of the game.

Hopefully that doesn’t sound too highfalutin, but to be clear it’s not meant to be exclusionary, or sound like something that only an art snob/hipster would get. If anything, it’s meant to appeal more to what speaks to every one of us. If you play a horror game and die because you were too afraid to shoot when the monster jumped out, then I would say you “got it”.

There are many great examples of experiential games to check out, most of them made by independent game developers, and when I was teaching game design I always enjoyed spending a class session or two checking them out with the students.

The first experiential game I came across is Jason Rohrer’s Passage, a free game with simple pixel graphics that you can play start-to-end in about two or three minutes. Beating the game is trivial, but again that’s not the point. Instead, you guide your character through life and, maybe, are left pondering the outcome of the decisions you made against what you saw as the resulting happiness/sadness/satisfaction/regret/etc. that played out on the screen.

Experiential titles have stretched out from independent efforts like Rohrers into bigger budget titles like Journey and The Last of Us. These games injected heavy doses of the experiential genre, each tackling the formation of relationships in unique ways, into more traditional game set-ups to create something that felt very new and deep, maybe more satisfying, or satisfying in a different way, than some other games.

And that brings me back to my game.

I like writing, and I like writing characters and events that feel like they’re from a dream. That is, while the scenarios I write are based in reality, there are more than a few things that don’t quite connect or add up. Additionally, when these strange things do happen, no one even acknowledges them as out of the ordinary or uncommon. Think of movies by David Lynch or stories like Alice in Wonderland and you know where I’m coming from.

And so in my game I want the players to be a little uncertain about which way is up, and maybe to even be a little confused by what’s real and what isn’t. If people keep playing despite thinking “what is happening?” then I’ll know I hit the mark — especially if people think about it after they’re done playing.

I’ve now talked a fair bit about the game without saying anything too specific about it. Excellent, haha. However, in my next post I will write a little about some of the games that have more directly inspired my project, which should give you a more clear sense of the traditional side of my game (that is, the skillful-movement-from-point-A-to-point-B part of the game).

New Project Hits Alpha, World Holds Breath

It’s been a time since I last posted. But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to write some thoughts about what I’m doing.

Back on February 3rd I came up with what I thought to be a quick game concept that I  could knock out in a matter of days. It was to be a board game-esque, text-only game — something to let me get comfortable with the basics of C#.

Skip the next 200 hours later  to today, and I finally hit alpha. Alpha! Who would have ever thought words could take so long to “make do stuff”? Obviously, my planning is getting re-adjusted.

Capture

(By alpha I mean that a player can start-and-finish the game, without cheating, and all the features are in and working — but a lot of the text and content is placeholder. Yes, 200 hours to make a text game and I’m not even done with the text.)

What’s next?

  • Get the content and words done! That puts me to beta.
  • Polish, bug fixes, and balance. That puts me to release.
  • Freely distribute the game to anyone who doesn’t get ill at the thought of playing a game with no graphics. Solicit feedback.
  • Wrap the project –
  • – and then re-build it in Unity… this time with graphics!
  • Sell the game for bazillions (bazillions of what?) and then hopefully move on to the next project.
  • Update this site all along the way.

I have tons of other things to add, but let’s start this thing up slowly.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

A few random thoughts that wandered into my head as I started Deus Ex: Human Revolution for the PS3:

This game has a lot of loading screens. They are long.
I dig the music theme at the title screen.
This game has a lot of gold and brown colors.
I should have known that since the logo is also brown and gold.
The people in this game have small heads and big hands.
And, to Sean: crouching is not only implemented, but it’s important.

I’m not much of a fan of FPS, and I’ve never finished any of the prior Deus Ex titles, but games like Alpha Protocol and Mass Effect 2 have bridged the gap, as I see it, and I’m now happily wandering around New Detroit, trying to figure out how to get into a police station. Read More

Witcher 2: Post #2

The following is based off my current playthrough-in-progress, covering the first chapter of the Witcher 2.

 

***
I’m having fun with the combat in the Witcher 2. The game contains the tools necessary for a great fighting system. But it lacks polish and balance. The outcome is a system that is frustrating not for how bad it is, but for how close it gets to something really well done.

The Tools

There’s quick/weak attacks, and strong/slow attacks. There’s blocking, there’s parrying, there’s evading, there’s juggling, there’s fatigue (which, I now know, prevents you from blocking if you’re empty, and is accompanied by a sound that does not at all suggest at fatigue), and there’s stringing combinations together with properly-timed attacks. Plus, you can weave magic into the mix, but you can’t spam the “drink healing potion” button (because there ain’t one).

The Best

For those who have ever talked games with me, you know that my high-water mark for action game fighting comes from Batman: Arkham Asylum. What a perfect system. It is one of the few games where I was genuinely excited from, and satisfied by, fighting outside of the context of the story. Stick me in a room with a bunch of baddies, as the training rooms did, and I was made content for hours on end. For many years prior, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time held that title.

The latest Assassin’s Creed, Brotherhood, saw me spend a lot of time fighting baddies in a training room. But that was less out of enjoyment and more out of a desire to really grasp the combat system so that the game would be more enjoyable. That isn’t to say Brotherhood’s fighting is anything less than good, but it’s not to the level of Batman.

The Witcher 2′s combat feels inspired by these games. But there are problems.

Fighting against Groups

My primary gripe is that there is no effective way to fight groups — at least, not early on. The game excels when it’s you versus one or two others, maybe three others, but when the numbers rise beyond that the combat is frustrating.

Half of the problem is that if you do it properly, you string your attacks into a rhythm that focuses on one opponent. The moment your rhythm is disrupted or ends, the defender goes on the offensive. I’m not saying you can’t hit 5 or 6 different targets by bouncing around the battlefield, I’m saying that it is not an effective method of combat for a new player based on the controls.

The other half of the equation is the enemy AI. In a game like Batman, where group combat is handled flawlessly, the AI mirrors old kung fu movies. You face off against one foe while the rest circle, take a step back, and then lean in menacingly. They’re standing around, allowing the player to fight and have fun. Realistic? No. But that’s not what we want here. What we want is to see the player finish off one foe, and then one of the circling remainders jumps in for a shot.

In the Witcher 2, the foes all lunge at you at once. And while you start a series of combos against one foe, the remainders hit you in the back — not only disrupting your attack, but dealing double-damage for the rear attack. You’re also temporarily stunned each time you are hit, meaning your three foes now juggle away half of your health bar while you can only watch.

Moves

Movement during battles is handled pretty well. The Witcher can dodge his way about the battlefield by dropping and rolling out of (or into) harm’s way. Presumably, this gives you the ability to roll behind attacking foes and strike them in the back. In action, it never quite works out. Foes respond too quickly to keep you in front of them.

Balance

Throughout the first chapter, combat is balanced to make you feel heroic. Most fights square you off against singular or small groups of foes who are quickly dispatched. Their challenge comes from great numbers, and surviving waves of combat. Killing a few nekkers is easy. Taking on a dozen, a few at a time, is an exciting challenge that forces you to be careful and patient.

But, as mentioned in the first impressions post, some fights fall outside this zone. The fight against Letho is one example. The fight on the prison barge is another. These fights can be very difficult. In the case of Letho, like the fight against the kayran, things are more forgivable because you realize these encounters are pattern recognition challenges. The goal is to figure out your opponents patterns, and then dodge or attack based on the tells. Again, the game isn’t precise enough for these encounters to work well, but I appreciate the effort at a change up.

The prison barge fight is deeply flawed, pitting you against more than a half-dozen armed-and-aggressive guards. The saving graces here are that a) there are locations on the boat where the guards don’t follow, allowing you to sit back and recover energy or try to pick off stragglers from the group, and b) you have an ally who generates a huge amount of threat, meaning the majority of the guards focus on him instead of you. Since your ally cannot die, this allowance comes with the ridiculous humor value of letting you sit back and watch your ally get juggled around the perimeter of the boat by the guards.

‘Tis but a scratch!

In the Witcher, many foes fall from one well-executed string of attacks, a combination of, say, 5 or 6 successfully-timed strikes. Some regular foes, however, can absorb 4 or 5, or more, such combinations. I’ve said this before and I’m saying it again now: when combat is abstracted, as it is with the tabletop version of Dungeons & Dragons, I can suspend my disbelief when I’ve hit an ogre 20 times because I’m imagining little hits weakening and tiring my foe.

In a game like the Witcher 2, where the visuals are so amazing, I don’t want to watch my hero grinding his way to victory by sticking his sword in a guard’s face 20 times, only to note along the way that the guard’s health bar is still half-full. If I can prove I can do something a couple times, don’t make me do it another dozen times or more.

So You Hate It?

No! As I said above, I really like it. I’ve been through countless battles, and I can count the encounters that I became frustrated with on one hand.

The Witcher 2 does a lot of good things. I don’t want to see this game’s fighting re-made to perfectly copy Arkham Asylum. I like the fatigue on blocking, even if it’s not intuitive. I like that you can’t drink potions during a fight. I like that you have to time your attacks. I like the critical hit/kills. I like the animations, especially for the further-along-the-chain attacks. I like the occasionally QTEs. I like the realism that a single hero can be felled by a few normal people if they swarm you (even though they shouldn’t swarm you). And I like the various ways you can level up your hero to shape how you engage opponents.

Tighten up the reaction time so it feels more responsive, give the player an obvious opportunity to “potion up” prior to tough fights, weaken the excessively healthy individuals as in games like Brotherhood and Arkham Asylum, and prevent more than 2 or 3 people from attacking at once and you’ve got something special. Hopefully future patches for the game improve the experience and get it even closer to its potential.

Witcher 2: First Impressions

Despite being very excited for it, and despite calling the first Witcher my game of 2009, thanks to a backlog of games I’ve only now started playing the Witcher 2. And what do I think?

Overall I like it. I’ve just completed the first chapter (which means there are spoilers related to the conclusion of the first chapter only). And I’m getting that feeling that comes when you start to really obsess on something. The game has its flaws, but it does some things so well that the flaws become easy to overlook. Such as?

Here are some specific thoughts and observations:

As with most RPGs, the first few hours are overwhelming. The Witcher 2 is no different when you’re trying to figure out combat, equipment, upgrades for your equipment, herbalism and alchemy, using your amulet, figuring out the map and quest system, etc. It really is borderline unforgiving. And that’s without referencing the combat difficulty when you’re facing off against groups, and trying to catch up on all the intricate story happenings.

Once you get past the learning curve, or at least the first wave of it (in the Witcher 1, it took one full playthrough before I was taking advantage of all my abilities), it’s pretty easy to settle into the game. But this game could have used a smaller, more guided tutorial level that let you practice with and learn the value of your character.

In the opening scene, with you in prison and speaking to Roche, you are presented with three options: three different sections of the story to tell. In retrospect, the game wants you to pick them in a linear order. Each subsequent choice is a little more difficult and builds progressively upon character control lessons you’re learning. But when faced with three options, players can pick in any order for any reason. It might have helped to have that play out more linearly.

While trying to get used to the game, I also tweaked the graphics settings constantly to find the best ratio of performance to aesthetics. Oddly (though maybe this is just me since I’m more of a console gamer), I found that I can play with the graphics set to ultra (minus uber-sampling) and get frames in the 40-60 ranges (and it’s usually right about 60) — at 800×480. That makes the smaller fonts jaggy and difficult to read, but if I raise the resolution to 720 or 1080 pixels wide, even at low graphic quality the frames aren’t nearly as good and drop to the 15-20 range. I’m sure this elicits little more than a “duh” response from most, but I found myself surprised at the contrast. Regardless, I can “settle” for a game that looks fantastic and runs smoothly.

The game’s combat want me to play it as an action game, with quick reflexes and precise responses. However, the engine itself is not up to the task. It is a little sluggish and lacks in precise control.

For example, in my battle with the kayran I died a few times when a tentacle hit where I had been a moment ago. As another example, when hitting block I occasionally (frequently?) hear the sound that accompanies attempting to cast a spell without the requisite energy. The work-around is hitting another button before trying to block again, but a game’s major systems should not need a work-around for basic actions. If they built the engine from the ground up for this game, then they need to put a little extra work into improving the controls.

Balance is poor. The fight against Letho and also the kayran fight both made me want to rage quit. Same thing with the endrega queen. The fights are so far beyond the rest of the game’s combat that it should be a side plot that you can choose if you want to overcome it — except the kayran and Letho are both on the critical path. When I look on-line to find other people’s strategies, they’re a mix of cheating/exploiting the system and its limitations, combined with frequent re-loads until you also get lucky.

The game’s world is alive. Merchants don’t stand in empty courtyards while it’s raining out. Instead, when it rains people run for cover. And when they’re not working, they spend time at the inn or go home or hang out in groups. Additionally, there are people, and signs of people, everywhere — including on the way out to adventure areas where guards are fighting to secure the region with trap-setting and monster slaying. I appreciate the latter note. Most RPGs make you feel like you’re trying to save the world without any assistance from the helpless citizenry. In the Witcher 2, there’s the sense they’ve created a stalemate position which needs your heroic push to topple things in their favor.

Choice is limited. There was the choice of whether or not to fire a ballista to make an ensuring fight easier. There was the choice of fighting a strong warrior one-on-one, or allowing his back-up to assist him. There was the choice of allowing Roche to help you escape, or to die. In other words, choice isn’t a major component of the game.

I was slightly disappointed with the level of choice in the first Witcher since I thought it was their primary goal, but I understand what they are trying to accomplish better now. I’m certain there are a few significant, story-shaping choices later in the game. But the way-you-proceed-through-a-quest choices, and further opportunities to impact the narrative, are more limited. And, not to defend the game against an issue of hype versus reality, wouldn’t choice have to be limited in a game that’s supposed to go as long as 40 hours? Also, there are so many side quests to explore and optionally accept that it satisfies a lot of the sense of linearity that might otherwise have pervaded the game. Coupled with the world’s level of detail and sense of life, I am less the hero changing things as I see fit, and more the traveler, journeying down the path of the story and loving every moment of it — at least, every moment that doesn’t feature an impossible fight that relies on me hitting the block button accurately.

Mid-Year 2011 Review

Inspired by Rock, Paper Shotgun:

1. What games have you played this year?

From the start of January until the end of June, I have played (and finished the starred titles): * Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, Psychonauts, Disney Epic Mickey, * Donkey Kong Country Returns, * Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, * Dragon Age II, Majesty (Gold Edition), * Alan Wake, * LittleBIGPlanet 2, * Heavy Rain, and * Portal 2.

2. What’s your Game Of The Year from that list so far?

Portal 2. Even after finishing it, I found that I was really enjoying going back and re-playing levels for the trophies. Everything about the game was perfectly put together, from the sound to the level design to the voice acting to the puzzles. Loved it. Still have the multiplayer maps to go.

3. What else will you play this year?

In the last few days, I’ve been spending more time with the Witcher 2. I will post a first impression on it soon.

After I finish the Witcher 2 I will move on to L.A. Noire. After that, I aim to play: Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Alice: Madness Returns, Dungeon Siege III, Infamous 1, Ico, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Batman: Arkham City, Saints Row: The Third, and X-Men Destiny.

4. Do you expect your game-of-the-year choice to last until the end-of-year list season?

Possibly. But I imagine Skyrim, the Witcher 2, AC: Revelations, and Arkham City have the best chance of displacing Portal 2 as my GotY.

DA2: Post 02

It’s been a little while since I updated y’all on my DA2 playthrough, so here are some more thoughts…

Is this a good time to talk?

Way back when, in Baldur’s Gate II, I was fighting a dragon. The dragon breathed fire on my party and everyone was looking brutalized. Suddenly, the game froze and the camera shifted. I panicked a little. What is going on?! Turns out, my companion Aerie wanted to tell my other companion, Jaheira, that she really liked her hair (I guess she approved of the fiery/ashen look). I laughed at the time, but I see that moments like this continue to exist. In DA2, Bethany and Aveline decided to have a conversation about having kids — while we were fighting some spiders.

The more the merrier

I didn’t like my group so much when it was just me, Bethany, and Aveline. But now I’ve got a real party happening, and I dig it. Added to the group are: Anders, Fenris, Isabella, Merrill, and Varric. I quite like the variety and the constant debate over the best set-up to complement my hero. Usually, I’m bringing along Bethany for the healing/fire damage, Fenris and/or Aveline for the warrior might, and/or Isabella/Varric for some bonus damage.

Most of my group seems less interested in chatting, but I have had a few food conversations with Merrill, Varric, and Anders.

Slicing and Dicing

Combat certainly isn’t strategic. In fact, it’s quite easy (on normal). That said, I enjoy it. I like sneaking my rogue past the front-line ranks and then chopping them up from behind. I find that when my effort to slip through are blocked, I’m hitting for 8-12 damage at a time and feeling pretty inept. But once I launch a backstab, body parts are flying everywhere and numbers like 250 are rolling up.

I’m tempted to up the difficulty to create more of a challenge, I’ve really only had to re-load a very small handful of times, but I usually resist. I’d prefer to enjoy the story and quests first, get a sense of the overall game progression and master its systems, then, on a second play, I can fiddle with higher difficulty.

Are four stars better than three?

I have heard rumblings that people don’t like the new star-rating system for equipment. They say it’s dumbed down and treats people as stupid. I disagree. If you didn’t have to think about it at all, and your character auto-equipped better gear, maybe that would take it too far. But right now I have 5-star equipment going unused while relying on 3-star and 4-star equipment. It really depends on the side abilities of the equipment and your own preferences.

And on a related note, do I hate that I can’t give my companions new armor to wear — like everyone else? No. I tend to ignore outfitting my companions in BioWare games as it is. I feel like I’ve been let off the leash here. Thank you!

That said, a lot of my companions are wearing 0-star or 1-star armor. I can see how this frustrates people, especially if there is plenty of better armor available. BioWare should have either implemented an auto-upgrade for companion gear — or allowed companions to auto-equip better gear. Or something to that effect.

Last note on this point, I do like the plentiful gear. In DA:O, I complained that I would find something good and be stuck with it for most of the game. Here, I seem to be rotating through equipment much more rapidly. I prefer this.

In and Out

I’m finding that most of the quests feel like they’re wrapped up in about 10-30 minutes. I hit a dungeon and prepare for a long slog, and just as I’m getting warmed up I’m done. Is short bad? No, not necessarily. There are a lot of quests available so instead of taking a lot of time on one long quest, I can jump through a bunch. I’m also liking that I feel less put off to play if time is short. That is, if I have an hour to play — I don’t mind hopping into DA2. I feel like I can still accomplish something.

Other random thoughts

I liked the concept of staying in one location immediately. I didn’t know if it would work, but I did like the concept. So far, I’m liking how it plays out. Traipsing about the world is fun in other games, but delving into the current location here has been just as enjoyable. I look forward to seeing if/how things change when I start jumping forward in time.

Along that same line of thinking, I’m finding that the game establishes a pretty straight-forward pattern. You scan the day-time map, scan the night-time map, and then scan the local-region map. You find the quests. You run through them. You activate new quests along the way. You talk to your companions. You repeat the process. Repetitive? Technically, yes, but I enjoy the pattern. It sets goals, establishes expectations, and creates a sense of reward.

Does this change how I view the motivation? No. I still feel “unmotivated”. I’m caught up in all the little quests now, certainly, but I feel no overall drive pushing me forward through the story. And, at this point, I have no idea what my ultimate motivation is. I understand I will learn this as I play. I hear the last 5-10 hours really tie everything together. But at this point it feels like: make money, invest money to join caravan, make more money… retire? I know there’s more than that, but that’s how I feel now. And, as someone who doesn’t care much about money, in real life or in games, I’m a little wanting for something more meaningful.

Last comment, in DA:O I primarily used one character. When I got to the late stages and had to play with a group that didn’t feature my hero, I struggled. I had played a mage all game long, and this group had only warriors and rogues. I didn’t know how to use them effectively. I’m finding that happening here as well. When Hawke happens to die (rarely — maybe twice so far), and I get jumped over to a warrior or mage — I have this desire to set the controller down and watch. Unfortunately, the AI says to me, “Oh! Let me disable myself so you can play this new character” — leaving me to fend for myself. Sure, I could play around with the others and figure it out, but I am not interested nor encouraged. For people like me, I think the solution is to have a mini-tutorial early on where you play all three character types and can get used to them. This won’t be an issue when I re-play the game, but for those of us on our first playthrough, or those of us who only intend to play once, it’s a problem.

Anyway, I’m at level 9 and 12 hours in. My companions are occasionally spouting off one-liners to let me know that I should hit the Deep Road expedition. Soon! I still have bunches of quests to wrap up. :)

DA2: First Impressions

I’m lagging on adding my Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood reviews; I usually post while playing, but here I’m done and haven’t posted. Don’t take that to mean I didn’t love the game. I absolutely loved it. I finished with around 28 hours of play, and that got me to 60% done with “everything”. I re-built Rome to 100%, went through the Subject 16 storyline, and completed all of the critical path and side plot quests. I also completed the training challenges and found the modern day artifacts. All that’s left to do, really, is remove the Borgia flags from Rome, maybe finish a few shop quests — but I think I will pass on that.

So while I do intend to add at least one more post on AC: Brotherhood — first, there’s Dragon Age II. I recently got my copy and played for almost four hours today. Here are my initial reactions:

Combat:

I played the demo three or four times so my reaction today isn’t as jarring as it would have been otherwise. To be honest, I don’t really think combat is all that different in DA2 from Dragon Age: Origins. I’d say the only differences are that it feels faster, the animations are more diverse, there are more things to do during the fight, and you get to press the [A] button over and over. I don’t see the point in making the player press [A], but the rest of the changes are fine with me and represent a better overall experience from DA:O. I could compare the game to Arkham Asylum or Brotherhood, but that’s not what DA is about. I anticipated spending more time staring at cool-down timers, but so far I haven’t. Then again, I’m a dual-wielding rogue with only one cool-down power, backstab. This is a comment I may have to revisit in a later post.

The system of combat aside, the biggest change in the flow of combat is that it usually occurs in rounds. You see monsters up ahead and you charge to fight them, but then mid-combat more pop up behind you — or all around you. Like ME2, DA2 seems to be moving more in the direction of taking you out of your comfort zone and forcing you to make decisions on the fly. I liked it in ME2 and I’m liking it here.

Story:

(spoilers?) So far, the story is that my guy Hawke, and family, are fleeing the dark spawn. We decided to hide out in the coastal city, Kirkwall. Getting in to Kirkwall meant a year’s worth of indentured servitude for me and sis. Once in, we discovered that uncle gave up our estate to cover a gambling debt. Oh, and Flemeth asked us to deliver an amulet — which I just finished putting to rest on an altar. I’m generally OK with the story so far. It’s a personal story, which is nice, and it’s a simple, easy-to-follow story, which I appreciate. My biggest criticism of the story is how quickly it jumps and how much I don’t get to experience.

When we started the journey, the game’s narrator mentioned that we boarded a ship and endured some tough times, but we were so happy when we finally saw land! And, as indentured servants, me and sis worked really hard in the seedy underbelly — doing those things we did. After regaining our freedom, we even bumped into a guy who wanted to chat about “those things we did.” I hear a lot of people complaining that DA2 has a slow start. I’m guessing this kind of stuff is part of the reason.

Motivation:

The big thing is always motivation. The player should be motivated to progress the story, because he cares about the events or because he wants to see what’s next or because he wants to kill stuff. There has to be some reason. So far, I feel like a back-seat driver. I’m not so much curious about what happens next. I have nothing “to do” in the sense of “goals”. My character seems to want to make money. That’s something. I suppose my motivation to continue playing is that it’s fun so far — I enjoy gaining levels and upgrading gear — and I hear the game gets really exciting after the first 8-10 hours or so. But, story wise, I don’t think there have been any real hooks yet.

Volume:

The music and VO are pretty soft out of combat. And booming in combat. I have to resist the urge to crank the volume when I’m exploring and muting the volume during fights. That aside, I’m finding that I’m listening to the VO a lot more than I have in the past. I think that’s a testament to better flow (fewer long-winded monologues), and quality voicing.

Exploration:

I think I remember playing DA:O around the same time period as AC2. Now I’m playing the follow-ups to each in the same time period. The problem is that exploration is such a focus in AC — and so very, very well done. And in DA2 it’s disappointing. I hate saying that but walking into Kirkwall isn’t impressive; it’s a series of small maps (oftentimes, indoors or out, you’re exploring “hallways”) with a few stationary, repeating-animation shop owners and no crowds. In Brotherhood, Rome feels lived in. I believe it. I loved that city and level design. It created such amazing levels of immersion. You may say this criticism is unfair, and I almost feel it is myself, but my understanding is that I’ll spend much of my time in DA2 navigating the city of Kirkwall. Even a “2D” version (that is, the removal of parkour) of Brotherhood’s Rome would have been pretty awesome — and beaten the pants off of what I’ve seen of Kirkwall. Note to BioWare: that’s your goal for next time.

Equipment:

Money, for one, seems to be coming much faster than it did in DA:O. For a character so worried about making money, I seem to be doing a very good job of it so far. I had heard that BioWare auto-sent items to junk so you knew it was safe to sell. Yes, it takes away some of the realism, but I don’t think it in any way detracts from the game. We’re supposed to be focused on the story, not sorting through our inventory to figure out which items need to be saved for gifts or potions, and which can get us money. Right?

Party Members:

I… generally like the people in my group. Right now I have Aveline, Bethany, Varric, and Merrill. Bethany is my sister, and doesn’t stand out very much one way or the other. Aveline I like because I need a warrior, but I haven’t spoken much with her. I did go out of my way to re-recruit her after she disappeared from my party (I must have missed the line where she said she was leaving me, thankfully she came back). Varric seems to be potentially amusing but hasn’t said much yet, either. And Merrill is too nervous for her own good.

And… ?

That’s all for now. I’ll write more later. Oh wait, you want a summary opinion? OK. I’m enjoying it. I am. It’s taking me a little time to get my mind off Brotherhood and back into a DA state of being, but it is happening. DA2 feels a lot like DA:O to me. Little changes here and there — kind of like the jump from ME1 to ME2. BioWare is figuring out and refining their formula, while at the same time trying to keep the foundation feeling settled. I sometimes worry about the direction their RPGs are moving. I also worry at times that they’re not moving enough. It’s a fine line. But for now, for me, I’m liking DA2 and I’m looking forward to putting some more hours into the game.