Computer games reviews and ramblings on games and gaming, from a gamer, roleplayer and LARPer.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

What is a CRPG? Part 4

Would you like to run along a mountain path, through the hardy evergreen forest, hearing the wind hiss around the spiny leaves, reach the cliff edge, take the spit second decision: do I face what's chasing me, or jump and hope I hit the river and survive the fall?

Or would you like a copy of Excel, because you can have that if you want.

The big problem with CRPGs is that they grew from Tabletop -or Pen and Paper, if you prefer- RPGs, which need to use highly visible stats to resolve challenges and conflicts. Because the first CRPGs simply ported the numbercrunching and plusones from the tabletop to the screen, an obsession has ingrained itself in the inds of some CRPG players that those numbers are the essence of roleplaying games.

The thing is, the beauty of computer gaming is that it can take all the stuff that we need to do by hand to create the game experience on the tabletop, and hide it away from us. Yes stat progression is good, but do we have to see it? No, not any more, we certainly don’t have to obsess over it. What we need to see is the world, and our effect on it. One of my favourite Oblivion mods is one that makes all levelling happen automatically, feeding off the already organic, practice based system the Elder Scrolls games use. I never look at my skills page anymore

For a CRPG to be good it does not have to have an exhaustive stat manipulation screen, it has to have either a solid, well presented narrative where the player's choices matter (or don't matter, but in a dramatic fashion, but this is a musing which will have to become another post) or enough freedom for emergeant narrative to grow from the gameplay, or a good combination of both. Add to that a well imagined setting...

Actually, about setting: even a well presented fantasy soup is fine, but can someone please give me a good fantasy RPG without the words 'elf', 'dwarf' or 'orc'. I mean, you can still have the willowy magic users (eg. Feyron, willowkin, imagii?), stocky racial crafters (Hearth clan? Axe lords?) and hairy brutes who hate everything (RGPCodexers!), but at least call them something different. The elder Scrolls, for example, would be much improved by sticking to the '$mer' nomenclature and dropping the bog standard names.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Guest Review: Alpha Protocol, courtesy of Innokenti

Man, I love Alpha Protocol so much. After completing DE:HR:IT:QA I felt a desire only to go back to Alpha Protocol and play around some more. Obsidian toiled long and hard to produce a game with so much variety of character and interaction - they thought about as many situations as they reasonably good and tried to make sure as many of them were referenced as possible by the characters in the game. Where you go first, what you do, how you look, how you complete missions - so much of it (even the stuff that's not really relevant to the plot or progress) is picked up in conversation (and in how some missions occur).

It makes the game world feel alive. It makes you feel loved as a gamer. It's such a seemingly simple thing. Yes, you have the grander decision that change world outcomes - we've come to expect that, and it's there. But that's not what make you feel invested in the world - it's all those little things, and Alpha Protocol's decision to reward everything you do. Not to make it 'easy' or to laud the player unnecessarily, but to confirm that mechanically, they are not prejudicing a particular approach - there is no right way to play it, and the developers aren't just saying that, they're making sure it's reinforced. Kill lots of people? Earn some perks. Avoid everyone without raising an alarm? Earn some perks. Be an utter dick to everyone you meet? Earn some perks. Be courteous and professional? Earn some perks. AND, more importantly, do a combination of those? EARN SOME PERKS (valid middle-ground option you say? Woweee).

And everyone has their own agenda and preferences. And it's your job to pick it up and act accordingly - ignore what people want to hear or have you do and go your own way, pissing some people off and ingratiating others. Be a dick to everyone you meet, getting on their nerves intensely - be still rewarded for it AND get some of the game's best lines to boot. Pick and choose to be a friend to all - great.

And I don't really have a problem with the 'action' bit of it either. The animations might not all be swanky, and there are a few graphical problems, but none of them really affect the game.

So there. Also, Steven Heck is one of the most memorable characters in any game ever. And SIE is one of the most disturbing (and it's great that the devs have put in little things like Mike having a little smile when SIE is saying outrageous and offensive things to your handler who you hate...)

Wednesday, 3 August 2011


Recent events have got me thinking about character death.

Generally, in any computer game, CRPGs included, the player character losing a fight and dying doesn't really happen. Sure, the blood splattered corpse drops to rhe floor, everything fades to black and the game ends (unless, of course, another party memeber survived, in which case everyone's fine), but then, it's five minutes earlier and the fight goes differently, or the decision to get into the fight doesn't get made.

There are exceptions. One that springs immmediately to mind is the Mount and Blade series, in which named characters -including the player- never die at all, but, in a 'lucky characters from Game of Thrones' kind of way find themselves either imprisoned in a castle or dragged around the map by their captors until, by game engine randomiser fiat, they are either ransomed or manage to escape, at which point they find themselves stripped of their finest gear, most of their gold, and with no army at their backs but the memory of the pile of corpses they spent so long gathering and training up.

What I'm not aware of is any CRPG where death is permanent, as in, gen up a new character and start again. And I can see why, being forced to plough through the whole plot again from start to finish because of a miss-click or slightly off decision in the final boss fight would be a massively offputting experience, especially after a couple of runs through on a game with enough content to be worth buying.

I think I might be more interested in a well balanced MMO if it included such a mechanic (though I'm told that doesn't sell), but it would have to be a one with persistant world plot, as opposed to the general run of lazily built single player game with roughly the same sequence of quests for every character but you can only play online.

Another approach might be something along the lines of the standard party based get-out and the Mount and Blade approach that makes death final, but unlikely. It would certainly make more cautious play advisable, but it might add real intensity to the game, especially if the roleplaying experience is solid enough that you care about the character, not only their stats and kit, but who you're playing, and their relationships with NPCs. Loath as I am to quote metal all over this blog, perhaps Marilyn Manson has something to say about roleplaying when he sings "without the threat of death, there's no reason to live at all."

Guest Review: The Witcher 2. Courtesy of Draconas

Otherwise known as: CD Project Red need to play Dragon Age 2.

I've just finished Witcher 2, and have very mixed feelings about it:

On the plus side:
* Good story.
* I like the world
* Once again very few "right" decisions. Lots of picking the lesser of 2 evils.
* Geralt is cool.
* Less sex, this time every woman in the game is not despirate to screw geralt until his eyes pop out.
* They worked the returning memories and unfolding plot in very well, making me hopeful for number 3.

On the minus sides:
The user experience is dire.
Lets start with to of combat: there is massive lag in doing things in conversations or the shop screen. Going through a door frequently takes multiple attempts, trying to make potions when you have no idea of what ingredients you actually have and how many of a specific type, ending up accidently buying several copies of a craft recipe because there is no way of automatically telling, you have to manually find them in your inventory. The "storage locations" are not explained and poorly marked so are very easy to miss, leading to your carrying around all your crafting items on the off chance they will be useful.

Oh and lets come back to that: crafting recipies in chapter 3 which requires items from chapters 1 and 2, if you haven't collected them or sold them because they had no use, sucks to be you.

Numerous quests with no map markers or helpers, leading to large portions of time of frustrating searching and doubling back.

moving about to make the auto-focuser lock onto a specific item is also a pain, leading to 30 seconds back and forth to be able to collect a key item.

Oh and no real intro / tutorial, you get thrown in at the deep end and expected to learn fast. Or in my case die a lot, because i accidently went straight to dragon fighting, which is very unforgiving and has large amounts of "be 100% right or die instantly" moments.

There is a backstab mechanic: hit someone from behind and do double damage, including on you... combine this with an auto-targetting system that makes geralt leap through enemies and engage the one at the back and you go from winning to game over in half a second flat. Buying the talent that reduces this is mandatory just to overcomes the games own stupidity.

Several enemies can STRIKEDOWN lock geralt, leading to the same problem.

See control lag: makes using grenades very much not fun.

Don't get me startewd that the entire control itnerface has been designed for an Xbox 360... I am a PC user, I have 30 keys and 5 mouse buttons, let me fucking use them rather than having to use your quick menu that pauses my game every few seconds.

Oh an inconsistent key/mouse buttons for different sections frequently ends up with accessing the main menu when you want to go back.

Most of them would be individually small things and easy to overlook, but combined together they take the fun off a lot of the game. Don't get me wrong, I had a lot of enjoyment from it, but especially when I compare it to dragon age 2 - and specifically the refinements they made from dragon age 1 to cut out the less fun bits, Witcher 2 seems not to have learned any lessons, and takes what could have been a great game down to only an above average game.

I want to play through again to play the other main plot path, but I just can't take the pain a second time.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Game Reviews From Beyond The Dawn Of Time: Mount and Blade/Warband

I've been playing Mount and Blade since it was a little shareware DirectX7 skirmisher, and have watched it grow and develop in huge ways in the hands of its tiny indie developer and enthusiastic modding scene.

The basic premise is actually very simple. Here's a large Pseudomedievaleuroland (Calradia) with a selection of feudal kingdoms in dynamic states of war and peace over their borders. You turn up and do whatever you can get away with. And this hasn't changed since the ancient first release, although the options have grown with each iteration, helped along by mods like the Native Expansion, and the new version/sequelish (I refuse to use the (oxy)moronic term 'Stand Alone Expansion*), Warband.

When I say you do what you want, I mean it. This is a game where you really have to make your own story happen, there's no overarching plot beyond the contant struggle for supremacy  in Calradia, but your story will grow dynamically from your interactions with the vast number of NPCs living in the same circumstances.

You want to be a merchant, and trade your way around the world, making your fortune? Do it, you'll need some strong lads at your back though, the place is swarming with bandits and the nobility are not above hitting trade caravans when they're on the warpath either.

Fancy being a professional tourney fighter a-la A Knight's Tale? One hell of a way to make a living, do well and you'll go far, fail and you'll lose money very quickly. And you still don't want to travel alone, outside the arena, people are playing for keeps.

Me, I do a bit of this, a bit of that, but mostly, in my current game, I've sided with one of the kingdoms, and pledged my sword to its Queen (they're all kings in Vanilla, but Native Expansion makes it a bit more interesting), and I fight her enemies, chum up to her knights and nobles, attend her banquets (when I have time, between managing my castles and villages and building and training my army)... you can see the scope of the game? And that's just on the map screen and a couple of menus.

Where it really shines though, is in combat. The graphics are not the very best that any game has ever had, but they do the job, and Warband improved them markedly over the original, but the sheer physicality of the movement and fighting makes for one of the most immersive experiences available on the PC.

Fighting with a melee weapon involves twitching the mouse in the direction you want to -depending on your configuration- strike, or pull back, holding the mouse button and then releasing it to attack. It can take a bit of getting used to but I've never experienced sword fighting in a computer game that felt anywhere near so immediate and visceral. Archery is also a hold and release affair, which is fairly common these days anyway.

One does not fight alone though (unless it's all gone wrong) and you can have a warband containing named NPC companions, hired mercenaries and peasents that you recruit and train yourself, and you have a small range of orders that can be given by keyboard shortcuts to allow some (convincingly) rudimentary tactics.

The game is not perfect. It can get repetative, there are some AI problems (when aren't there) and it's impossible to die -you get taken prisoner, lose your army and most of your stuff and have to start over from where you are arbitrarily dropped off by your captors- but as a rather complete free-play experience, I've not yet seen its match.

*I've only ever encountered one game with actual stand alone expansions, and that was Dawn of War, where the addons contained two armies each and could be played independantly, but could also be combined to give the full range.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

What is a CRPG? Part 3

I've talked a little about choices, and in the rambling nature of my discussions, we shall alomst certainly return there. However, this post is about immersion.

There is a theory that states that roleplaying is divisible into three overall philosophies, and all RPGs will contain aspects of all three, and fall somewhere in a triangular chart between them. Likewise, all Roleplayers will have a sweet-spot on that same triangle.

The three philosophies are:
and Immersivist.

Gamism is about the system. It's about balance, fairlness, playing challange, and-a lot of the time- the stats.

Narrativism is focus on storytelling, with a fair chunk of the characterisation involved.

Immersivism looks towards the convincingness of the player experience. Both in the ways the system allows for interaction, and in the audio-visual-tactile presentation of the setting and characters.

When looking for examples, one could say that Bioware tend towards the heavily narrativist, with a substantial quantity of gamist level balancing, 'ability' use, and stat tweaking, and less focus on Immersivism. Although with the Mass Effect series they seem to be balancing out the last two, while keeping their narrativist focus.

The Elder Scrolls and Gothic (disregarding Gothic 4) series both seem to be aiming (with varying degrees of success) for a fairly even balance.

Interestingly though, it's quite rare for something billing itself as a CRPG to focus on Immersivist philosophy except in terms of graphical quality. The Mount and Blade games do, to an extent, but that's about it.

To find true Immersivism, one often has to look outside the official boundaries of the genre.

For example, Grand Theft Auto 4 is not billed as an RPG, yet even without the first-person-POV mod which I use to truly immerse myself in Liberty City it has a great deal of Immersivist roleplay.

Note that you, the player, never get any dialogue options, Nico will say what he says in the script, Nor are you presented with a huge number of options about accepting 'quests' and how they pan out, although ignoring the plot seems like a viable option (I'm not in my playthrough, I'm really rather enjoying the story), which gives you... actually as much if not more control over the plot than most JRPGs at least..

Where you do have a lot of choice is in protagonist Nico Bellic's day to day activities and his relationships with the people in his life. As Nico, you can kill an afternoon in your flat watching (hilariously satirical) TV, you can invite a girl out on a date, hang out with your idiot cousin, go drinking with friends, take in a show, find honest work buy clothes, go for a walk or a drive around the city, mug an old lady in a dark alley (it's a GTA game, after all). You live the chracter's life, in a vast and somewhat realistically presented 'living' city. That's immersive.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Game Reviews From Beyond The Dawn Of Time: The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion

The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion has to rank as one of my favourite CRPGs of all time. But not in its original form.

It's a first or third person action RPG which had seom dreadful weaknesses at release, most of which were solved very quickly by the (still) extensive and talented modding community that surrounds it. The community's work was facilitated by the publisher's decision to release a powerful set of modding tools along with the game, and design the software to accept modifications essentially from day one.

This meant that it didn;t matter that the excitement of exploration was limited by the fact that all enemies were statted to provide exactly the same level of challenge wherever you went, because a download and a tickybox later, they weren't. The slightly clunky, uninspiring combat didn't matter, because several new ways of handling fights are freely available.

Even the bizzare urgency dissonance of the onrushing crisis vs. sidequests can be fixed by starting your story in a different place, and an earlier time.

With all that out of the way, I can talk about the game.

When it was released, it was one of the best looking games that had ever come out, certainly with the level of freedom and variety of gameplay available. It's a little dated now - though again, that has been and is being being worked on -  but the times when I found myself just stopping on a hillside and taking in the view were many. The cities, though small, are fairly lively and colourfully populated, NPCs natter (albeit inanely) with each other and go about their daily business, popping into the pub for a beer after work and generally giving a sketchy impression of a living world.

The forces of evil (or, at least, destruction. The theological ambiguities of the setting never cease to entertain) seek to burst through from their domain, one of the realms of the titular Oblivion, and put a stop to all the above loveable nonsense, and only one man can stop them.

Not you.

This is the big thing I adore about this game, you are not the main character, you're pretty much The Lancer to The One, Chosen By Fate, Born To Rule, Played By Sean Bean. Everything you do in the main plot centers around helping him acheive his destiny. Sure, the action focusses on you, you with the immense freedom granted to you by the game are essentially the narrator, but the tropes that make the classic fantasy hero are embodied in this quiet, slightly melancholy royal by-blow. This is his story, you just make it happen.

I'm not sure I've encountered this approach to storytelling in a CRPG before. Of course, I've been controlling the actions of characters whose choices I've had not hand in, but that's not an RPG. What I mean is that normally the player's ego is pandered to; of course you're the chosen one, you have it in you to be the messiah, you were born to rule, to win, to save the world - well not this time, it's time to see the adventure from the standpoint of the stalwart companion (or with the appropriate mods, the betrayer...)