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

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...)

Friday, 20 May 2011

What is a CRPG? Part 2

Here's a biggie: A CRPG is what you make it.

Every time you are given a choice within a game, you are given another choice alongside it. You are not just given the choice to go to location A first, or location B, to blag your way out of a fight or get stuck in, to behead the traitor or forgive him. You are also given the choice of whether or not it is a roleplaying game.

That is to say: you are given the choice to do what will get you the most in-game benefit, or do what the character you are playing would do. The two are not always mutually exclusive, but there will often be times when they don't match up.

Here's a fairly hefty and generalisation filled chunk of example.

Most games presented as CRPGs (certainly in the non JRPG mold) have a slew of exciting things you can do away from the major storyline; running errands for lazy townsfolk, hunting, working for law enforcement or other organisations, etc. These will net rewards, in the shape of cash and kit, they may affect the way various factions in the game percieve your character, and in most cases they will also provide either XP in themselves, or extra opportunities to earn XP to advance your character's stats.

They are also, it should be remembered, a fair chunk of the content you paid for when you bought the game.

But are they what your character would do?

There are some games where there is genuine in character encouragement to get out and bimble about doing stuff. Morrowind, for example, opens with the PC being sent to meet a contact/handler in a foreign town, who informs you that he wants you to get out there,  blend in with the locals, make a bit of a name for yourself and get trained up and kitted out before he'll set you on the mission the powers that be have in mind for you. The main plot situation is simmering, but has been for years and there's no great rush to fix it, just a sense that it needs fixing at some point in the not too distant future. Obviously there are still IC decisions to be made about what quests to take, who to side with in certain situations, etc, but the decision to do sidequests and level up seems natural because you've been told, in character to do so.

One of the biggest problems I had with it's sequel, Oblivion (a game which I should point out that I adore none the less, more on why in another post...) is that the opposite is true. There's a crisis happening right now, lives are being lost, you have a job to do saving the world, so why would you involve yourself in tales of adultry, petty theft, and sexual harrassment in the mages guild?

Then, of course, there's Mass Effect 2. Oh what a beauty. There are plenty of sidequests that pop up in the game -many of them designed to have an emotional connection for the PC- in between the main missions to assemble and ensure the loyalty of a team of high-end misfits. You'd better prioritise them carefully though, too much faffing about at the wrong times can lead to pretty serious punishment, although that punishment only carries any weight if you're emotionally invested in the story and the characters.

So you only have to think like a roleplayer if you're roleplaying.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

What is a CRPG? Part 1 of what will probably be an extended meander through my subjective views.

So, in a computer game context, what is roleplay?

I've been pacing around this subject for a while, and rather than blurge all over my personal blog, I thought that it would make a good starting point for the gaming blog I've been thinking of doing for a while now anyway. The main thrust of the argument  is essenially my opinion directly opposed that of the denizens of the RPGcodex forum, or at least those I could glean before the smug aggressive tone of that place made it impossible for me to continue reading.

You see, the prevailing theory there seems to be that stats make a game, that there hasn't been a good CRPG since Baldur's Gate and that the option to engage in activities that entail no systemic benefit or major plot advancement is 'LARPing', and that this is for some reason a bad thing.

Needless to say I could not disagree more strongly.

Here's an example: Mass Effect 2 came under fire for having lots of flashy graphics, and a very limited set of stats and weapons available. Now I like chatacter advancement, I have that impulse, and I love the lewts as much as the next geek, but I found this approach liberating, and much more like roleplay as I've come to understand it.

I wasn't obsessively comparing the stats of twelve different pistols, I wasn't waiting for my next level to see if I could get 4% stronger, I was focussing on my missions, on my people, on my interactions with my colleagues and  the ramifications of my decisions.

In other words, I was much more immersed in the character than the character sheet. And the very strong graphics just made everything more immediate and visceral. Even being forced to play in third rather than first person (first always being my preference) wasn't enough to diminish the emotional impact of events that occurred around me, events which - even mid-cinematic - I felt my actions had a genuine impact on, even if the majority of my choices were binary.