Blog 763: If I Wrote… Starcraft II

Ahhh, Starcraft II is an interesting beast. I’ve never had any concern over eSports or online multiplayer, but I have huge respect for what SC2 did with its singleplayer campaigns — tossing the hyper-balanced melee factions out the window and expanding them with bonus units, configuration options and special abilities.

The things is… the meta-plot, of the Dark Voice returning to obliterate all life in the Koprulu Sector (The galaxy? The universe? It’s actually never really made clear that his ambitions are more than localised) is a bit of a mess. Like, Blizzard, you got away with that in Warcraft III because Archimonde was a literal demon — you can’t pull the same trick twice, and definitely not in such a different setting (at least not without groundwork that simply isn’t present).

Having said that, I think there are some good stories in the mix here, so maybe it’s time to do some reworking…

Continue reading

Advertisements

Blog 759: The Guilds of Morrowind

According to this blog, I last played Morrowind a whopping seven years ago. How can a game linger on in your mind for such periods of time? By all means, it’s a massive game and so is best reconsumed after long breaks, but even across such gulfs it is never far from my mind.

Well, for whatever reason, those thoughts bubbled closer and closer to the surface and I could resist no more. I got out my old GOTY edition CDs, lay the printed map on the desk beside me, and stepped into Vvardenfell once again…

Continue reading

Blog 757: In Defence of Wilderness Areas

I’ve been playing proper Dungeons & Dragons for more than six months now, in a staggering display of a-regular-group-of-adults-actually-happening-regularly (albeit through the magic of the internet). While we’re playing the latest edition (5th), the familiar bestiary summons constant reminders of my first foray into that world — the classic computerised 2nd edition adventures that are Baldur’s Gate and its sequel.

(Actually, my very first foray was accidentally getting a Drizzt book out of the library; I just thought it was a generic fantasy adventure novel, I didn’t know any better. When I got Baldur’s Gate and made the connection I was like “huh???”)

Thus I chose to eschew the most productive time of the year to play somebody else’s video games, and spent the post-crimbo haze burning through the Baldur’s Gate saga. (Though to be fair, as I’m pretty much note-for-note rebuilding the Infinity Engine dialogue system for Exon, it most definitely counted as research.)

Playing the two games back-to-back, I was struck by one major contrast between them: the respective presence and then utter absence of “wilderness” areas.

Continue reading

Blog 751: XcellentCOM2: Tactical Legacy

I didn’t need a free bonus pack to remind me that XCOM2 is a brilliant game. And yet, here we are!

It’s always nice when something goes from zero to released in the space of about a week. No sooner had XCOM2 announced it was getting a bonus pack of mini-campaigns than it had dropped into our laps. Swag!

Conveniently, I had just finished playing Divinity: Original Sin 2 when the downloadgates opened…

Continue reading

Blog 750: Divinity: Original Sin 2

Larian have the most beautifully predictable development cycle. They release a game, it’s huge but a bit shaky around the edges, and one year-ish later they release a final edition that’s got a huge pile of fixes and extras. At this point you wonder why anybody even bothers with the first version, but then again, I suppose they only find out what needs fixed or boosted after millions of players have hacked at it for a bit.

So here we are again, with Divinity: Original Sin 2: Definitive Edition. Point one: it is kind of actually a sequel to Divinity II rather than Original Sin (which was a prequel to everything). Point two: why isn’t it called the Divinityve Edition?

Divinity: Original Sin 2

Having played through every Divinity title from the beginning, it’s been fascinating to see them meld a fairly basic trad-fantasy setting into something altogether more vibrant over the course of each game. From lizards being just another type of enemy lurking in the sewers to them being the haughty owners of a vast empire, with elves that eat the flesh of other creatures to read their memories; from “Source” being a random healing fountain in a small town to a lynchpin of the cosmos…

The best narratives are the ones that lean on their settings, where the mythology and the politics of a land are an important element of the story rather than mere set dressing. Divinty: Original Sin 2 has this in spades. The Seven gods are important, the magic powers you wield are important, and there are twists and turns abounding as they unwind how all these things fit together. My memory of the original Divinity is a little hazy at this point so there might be more than a touch of the retcon flying around, but overall it’s a fascinating extrapolation of all the madness that has come before.

I can’t imagine anyone playing the game without the Pet Pal perk, which lets you talk to animals, because the animals tend to have the best banter.

However, while the main plotline of D:OS2 is excellent and full of interesting twists and turns, it does seem to get lost in the minutiae of everything else. The game unfortunately has the same structural flaws as its predecessor that makes working through the it a choppy affair.

Divinity: Original Sin was a confused game in that it acted like an open-world game, where you could choose to “go anywhere” and “do anything” in “any order”, but it was functionally a linear game. Although landscapes opened wide for you, the combat encounters awaiting you were arranged along a golden path — one that was obscured to the player but rewarded you with impossible fights if you strayed off it.

This is most keenly felt again in the second act of Original Sin 2, the town of Driftwood and its surrounding environs. It’s a huge area, huge and dense, with quests sparking off in all directions — perhaps too many directions. Problems arise when you want to follow a particular quest but run up against an encounter beyond your pay grade and have to divert to another; and then you find that other line is also too high for you.

I love how the evil bugs are still incredibly well-spoken in their taunts.

The thing about Driftwood is that over its course you go from about level 6 to 16. That’s a huge mechanical gulf, and as you get to the upper reaches of that range it takes even longer to get enough experience to trip over the next line. That means if you’re level 14 and see some level 16 enemies, you might be another four hours or more of gameplay away from being reasonably able to tackle them. Soon you’ve forgotten who was doing what to whom because it’s so difficult to keep following a single thread.

I think they would have been well to split this second act in half, which would ensure the open world exploration was more constrained, such that seeing somebody slightly too tough would be a source of excitement to be anticipated Soon rather than something to be forgotten about for a week.

Spells are at least satisfying to cast, because even if the enemies don’t go on fire this turn, the surrounding environment sure does.

Combat has also had a tune-up that I’m in two minds about. Traditionally enemies have a single hit point bar to whittle down, but this time there are two additional armour bars added into the mix — one that resists only physical attacks, and one that resists only magical attacks.

In theory, this is an interesting system. It means you need to choose where to send your party members to make most efficient use of their skills. Warriors go up against enemies with light physical armour, where their basic sword strikes can ignore the magical resistances and get to the underlying vitality, while the mages unload on the heavily physically armoured foes who have weaker spell resistances. It means you can’t just whale on a single enemy at a time, but need to shuffle around a lot more.

It is, of course, not shy of deploying the meta-humour.

In practice, though, there’s a spanner in the works, because while a character has a shred of either physical or magical armour, they will shrug off the status effects that come with your special attacks. Physical armour stops enemies from things like being knocked down, magical armour stops them from going on fire or acquiring any number of handy status effects.

Since every encounter starts with everyone at maximum in all meters, it means there’s a strangely dead period for the first few turns where it’s almost pointless to use any special skills — because while they will do damage as normal, the special effects that allow you to control a fight rather than just participate in it won’t take hold. You can make it rain and then electrocute the puddles all you want, but nobody will get stunned until you’re half-way through the encounter. Your best bet is to concentrate on damage until you’ve flensed those armour meters away, at which point the raw vitality bars seem awfully small and it’s all over.

Hehehehe, favourable wind. Although there is a recipe centre to help you repeat good crafting combinations, there are still thousands of items and you’ll never find every combination (nor, to be fair, particularly need to).

Needless to say, there are ways to replenish physical and magical armour during combat, once again disabling those special status effects and thereby drawing out fights into long, hard slogs. Which is especially irksome when you’re on the cusp of the fight being a bit too difficult, and it’s more than half-way through before you realise just how out-classed you are right now.

Even worse, when enemies cast spells their status effects seem to ignore your team’s armour more often than not. So while you can’t get a foothold on them, they tend to be able to lock you down much sooner, fostering feelings of frustration and unfairness rather than meaty challenge.

I always feel bad when the enemies are cute. How bad could these froggies really be? Oh, they want to destroy the world.

The Verdict

So it is a bit of a mixed bag. You can rely on Larian to produce fantastic writing, swinging between delightful whimsy and po-faced heroism and everything in between; of that, there is no doubt. But the pacing spoils it and the triple-layered health meters sound good on paper but in my experience they only served to draw out fights rather than to make them more interesting.

Overall, I did have a lot of fun, but I can’t escape the feeling that I paid a heavier price than I was hoping for it. If Larian can just drop those open world pretences for the next one…

Whoa.

Blog 749: Doom 3

I tried to play the original Doom once. I found it a bit too janky for my tastes, the lack of proper mouse-look (only horizontal motion) subtly off-putting, ultimately not quite feeling where all the legends came from. I have yet to play the 2016 reboot.

But the comic is an enduring classic, fanfic Repercussions of Evil always gets a laugh, I actually quite enjoyed the film and engine-mate Quake 4 will always have a place in my heart; so, needing something short and sharp to tide me over until the enhanced edition of Divinity: Original Sin 2 comes out, I found Doom 3 on sale…

Continue reading

Blog 744: Prey

I didn’t play Prey at the time because it was visually unappealing to me and I’m as shallow as a puddle. While the thought of sneaking and shooting one’s way around a space station ticks many of my boxes, the thought of doing so while fighting the most nondescript aliens you could ever imagine poured doubt on the entire enterprise.

But the reviews all said it was good and I saw it on sale while I was picking up the fantastic XCOM2, so I thought to myself, “how bad can it be?”

Continue reading