Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why RPG loot has lost its luster

If you've ever played a tabletop RPG, you probably know what it's like to love a magic item. You probably remember how you got that first game-changing piece of equipment, be it from a monster's horde or a hidden treasure chest. You probably cherished it and kept it for the entire lifespan of your character (or at least until your DM moved to another town). In fact, that magic item probably became a key part of your character's identity.

On the other hand, if your only experience is with computer RPGs, you might not know what the hell I'm talking about. Character equipment is not only a defining characteristic of RPGs, but one that is widely assumed to be of great importance in the age of market-tested game development. Yet in many RPGs, item design seems like little more than an afterthought. Wagonloads of magic items are joylessly awarded throughout the game, with no evidence that actual creative work went into any of them. So what gives?

On closer inspection, it's not entirely surprising that computer RPGs have been mostly unsuccessful at reproducing that tabletop feeling of "love at first loot." For one thing, there's no DM in computer RPGs to tailor rewards specifically for the PC. For another, there's a tendency to dole out more loot in computer RPGs, which has the effect of diluting the importance of any one item (more on that later). And then there's the depressing fact that designing items is a finishing touch in an industry where finishing touches increasingly take a backseat to publishing deadlines.

"Precious? Eh, not so much."
But assuming developers had the ability and resources to create truly compelling magic items, what would they look like? Here are some of the characteristics that I think make magic items stand out as something more than vendor trash.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"WTF?" moments from Dragon Age 2

Dragon Age 2 features one of the ballsiest RPG stories in recent memory, what with the framed narrative, the more personal approach, and the complete lack of an epic world-saving goal. Therefore we should be forgiving of the story's many faults, which are the natural byproduct of this noble experiment.

We should, but where's the fun in that? Instead, let's take a look at campiest, most off-putting, illogical, and downright funny moments in the game - the moments that, in the parlance of our times, make you say "WTF?"

It probably goes without saying that this is chock-full of spoilers, but I'm going to say it anyway. Twice. Seriously, do not read this if you haven't played the game but plan to at some point.

Again, SPOILERS. Got it? OK...

Monday, March 21, 2011

DA2 Playthrough: Final wrapup

Hours to Complete: 38
Final Character Level: 19
My Final Score: 70 (no change)
Metacritic Score: 83 (no change)

When I decided on a rating of 70 for my last update, I felt Dragon Age 2 had more upside than downside at that point. I had already experienced plenty of the negatives - the recycled levels, the repetitive quests, and all those console-driven design changes I had disagreed with from the start. The only thing left was the game's conclusion, and I really expected it to raise my opinion. After all, I was impressed with how the second act wrapped up.

But no. As it turns out, Dragon Age 2's ending is almost as flawed as its beginning. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that Bioware tried to set up a difficult decision for the player, but in trying to balance both sides of the equation, ended up making the choice meaningless. The setup also required some logical contortions on the part of key NPCs.

That's about as far as I can go without major spoilers, so let's turn our attention to my baseline expectations and see how Dragon Age 2 measured up.

Friday, March 18, 2011

DA2 Playthrough: Repetitive, risky, and repetitive

Hours In: 35
Character Level: 17
My Score: 70 (-5)
Metacritic Score: 83 (-1)

Wow, this is taking longer than expected. Maybe it has something to do with my tendency to ride the spacebar through these games. Or the fact that I'm always stopping to take screenies (if only there were a way to economize on images). Anyway, since I'm finally nearing what I assume is the end of Dragon Age 2, I thought I'd check in with my latest thoughts before I experience the game's finale.

Last time around, I listed one thing that could potentially raise my score and one that could lower it. Here's a followup.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Rotted Report 07: Adjusting my perspective

It's been some time since my last Rotted Report. Bet you can guess what I've been up to recently.

I was really torn about whether to buy Dragon Age 2 on day one. For one thing, I wasn't thrilled with what I was hearing about the game's development. For another, I was afraid of what I might find - namely, that the game had trampled on some of the ideas central to my standalone mod.

I was half-right. Dragon Age 2 has turned out to be a fun game that's well worth the $47 I paid for it. Unfortunately, my fears in the second case have proven well founded.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

DA2 Playthrough: Ouch

Hours In: 15.5
Character Level: 10
My Score: 75 (+10)
Metacritic Score: 84 (no change)

Don't worry - my character isn't really getting run through by a staff in that picture. It's just a graphical glitch, the type that happens frequently in Dragon Age 2 due to all the combat acrobatics (I also have one that makes it look like my character is tenderly embracing a giant spider). But while my character may not be getting skewered, it's pretty clear that Dragon Age 2 is.

Just look at the Dragon Age 2 forum, which has transformed from a temple of Bio-worship into a fountain of Bio-hate. Or, if you prefer more objective measures, check out some of these player ratings:
I wasn't expecting my own rating of Dragon Age 2 to be above the average. After all, when I go out to Netflix, I typically see stuff like this:

Average of 1,587,069 ratings: 3.8 stars

Our best guess for Mat: 2.3 stars

(That was for Prince of Persia, by the way.)

I've been dragging down user ratings my whole life. And yet, in the case of Dragon Age 2, I see a lot of positives. It's actually beating my expectations at this point.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

DA2 Playthrough: Things are looking up

Hours In: 5.5
Character Level: 6
My Score: 65 (+10)
Metacritic Score: 84 (no change)

A few hours can make a big difference, apparently. I'm actually tempted to raise my score a bit further, but that would probably be an overreaction. If nothing else, this exercise of updating my rating on the fly should illustrate the dangers of voicing an opinion before you have all the facts.

The major improvement is that the "critical path" has released its stranglehold on Hawke, allowing me the freedom to wander a bit. New areas have opened up, old ones have been filled in with sidequests, and I've finally faced my first non-human enemies since Lothering. It also helps that I've met Merrill, a companion who, refreshingly, doesn't have a cringeworthy introduction scene.

I've also become quite enamored of some of the lesser-known design choices. For example:
  • Stores are opened by clicking an object rather than going through a repetitive merchant conversation.
  • Loot is organized in a way that makes it easy to ignore stuff you don't need.
  • Clicking on books launches a popup with the book text, so you don't have to hunt through your inventory or, in the case of Origins, open the Codex.
  • The world map, in addition to being gorgeous, allows you to switch to nighttime locations - an elegant solution to issues raised by having an actual day/night cycle.
Those buttons in the lower-right corner allow you to switch between day, night, and wilderness.
One thing that can no longer go unmentioned: This game is incredibly easy on Normal. I really don't feel like I'm doing anything special in combat, and yet I have not had to reload yet. In fact, I think only two characters have fallen in battle. I could up the difficulty, but eh... I think I'll just continue to breeze through it for the time being.

I'm still struggling with the writing and the dialogue wheel - and most of all, with Hawke's tendency to speak without any direction from me at all. Still, I'm actually enjoying the game now, which is a new and very welcome development.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

DA2 Playthrough: A rough start

Hours In: 2.5
Character Level: 4
My Score: 55 (-15)
Metacritic Score: 84 (no change)

In my previous post, I gave Dragon Age 2 a baseline, "sight unseen" score of 70. I didn't explain my rationale for that score because, honestly, I didn't put a lot of thought into it. It wasn't intended to be some sort of objective measure, but merely a starting point for the sake of comparison. The important thing was for there to be considerable distance to a perfect 100, as I didn't agree with many of the design changes in Dragon Age 2 and was not impressed with the demo. I wanted there to be plenty of room to raise my score in case I was pleasantly surprised.

After my first play session, I don't think that's going to be a problem. So far, it appears the demo is an accurate gauge of the game's quality.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

DA2 Playthrough: Baseline expectations

Hours In: 0
Character Level: N/A
My Score: 70 (Baseline)
Metacritic Score: 84

I was sorely tempted to make this a DA2-free zone this week. For one thing, I wasn't sure I would buy the game on release, which would have made commenting on it a bit awkward. For another, I wasn't sold on the value of adding my voice to the cacophony of internet opinion. I mean, between the deluge of professional game reviews and all the forum chatter (read: bickering), who needs to hear what I have to say?

Then today arrived and I found I had nothing better to do.

However, rather than just jot down a few thoughts under a bland title like "First impressions," I thought I'd try something a little different - something that might help you get a read on how my opinion is evolving as I play the game. So, before I even fire up Dragon Age 2 for the first time, I'm going to predict how much I'm going to like it and adjust my score with each report. I'll also chart the Metacritic score to test the conventional wisdom that it declines over time (in the case of Dragon Age 2, it already has declined somewhat from its peak of 94).

Finally, to provide a more detailed baseline and give you more of an idea where I'm coming from, I'll list what I consider the positives and negatives of the game as I currently understand them. Of course, I could be wrong in my assumptions. In fact, if I'm not wrong in at least some cases, I will be seriously disappointed.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Is this what you call roleplaying?

Nemorem is torn about what to post today. He or she (depending on whether this is regular Nemorem or FemNem we're talking about here) has a number of different issues on his or her mind, and can't figure out a way to tie them all together in one post. In short, Nemorem needs help making a decision.

 Bitch about the dialogue wheel again
 Follow up on the (nonexistent) DA2 toolset
 Go off-topic
 Screw it - I'd rather be reading Kotaku

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Modders could help fix Dragon Age 2

Is it just me, or has the attitude toward Dragon Age 2 soured a bit since the release of the demo? In large part, this is simply because more folks are talking about it now - the "normal" players are getting interested and are disrupting the shiny protective halo formed by the long-term Bioware faithful. Many of these latecomers may not have been aware of some of the major changes in Dragon Age 2 and are only now registering their disapproval.

Then again, the demo did kinda suck. It wouldn't surprise me if it turned some of the true believers into skeptics. In addition to its un-Biowarian lack of polish, the demo demo-nstrated the impact of some of the design decisions that had long rankled old-school RPG'ers and change-averse fans of Dragon Age: Origins. The dialogue wheel, the fast pace of combat, the lack of choices, the console-ified interface - all have become targets of criticism.

Where do players turn when they find certain aspects of a game's design vexing? Well, if they're playing on the PC - and PC gamers seem to be those most distressed about the changes in Dragon Age 2 - they often turn to mods. Unfortunately, there won't be a toolset for Dragon Age 2 available on release, and Bioware is noncommittal on whether one is forthcoming in the future.