Saturday, May 28, 2011

How are you enjoying the dark ages of computer D&D?

Remember when the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons came out, and a lot of old school tabletop players criticized it for being geared toward videogames? That was three years ago, and funnily enough, there still hasn't been a new videogame release that fully implements those videogame-ish 4th edition rules. In fact, until last week, there hadn't been a new D&D video game of any kind in the last four years.

These are dark days for fans of D&D computer games, and it doesn't look like things are going to get better any time soon. Three news items popped up recently to remind us of how bad things have gotten.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

TW2 Playthrough: Uncle!

Hours In: 5
Character Level: 4
My Score: 75 (Paused)
Metacritic Score: 92 (no change)
Player Score: 90 (no change)

    Boy do I suck at The Witcher 2. In fact, for the sake of my dignity - not to mention my sanity - I'm shelving the game for the time being. How bad is it? I had to turn the Difficulty down to Easy and repeatedly check online spoilers just to make it through the Prologue. I've heard the game actually gets easier from here, but I found the sequence immediately after the Prologue to be even more frustrating.

    Mercy, please.

    Friday, May 20, 2011

    TW2 Playthrough: This is not a CRPG

    Hours In: 4
    Character Level: 2
    My Score: 75 (-10)
    Metacritic Score: 92 (-2)
    Player Score: 90 (no change)

    Good news. Installing the new beta NVIDIA driver has solved the worst of my technical difficulties, freeing me up to, you know, actually play the game. I still have the lip-flapping issue in conversations and some mouse lag on certain UI screens, but performance is fine when I'm actually running around in the game world.

    Now that I'm playing the game as it was intended to be played, I can offer my initial impressions. In my search for answers to my performance issues, I've come across a lot of other opinions about the game, and I think the critique I would offer fits with a lot of the complaints. It's early and I could easily change my opinion later, but here is what may be my final take on The Witcher 2:

    While the game is everything one could have hoped for artistically, it's decidedly not an old-school CRPG. When CD Projekt RED said the game was "designed with console in mind," they weren't kidding. Anyone who was horrified by the direction of Dragon Age 2 ought to be downright mortified by TW2.

    Despite being vaguely aware of the "console" quote, I was taken off guard by this myself. In my joke post comparing DA2 and TW2, I had TW2 whispering to PC players that it wouldn't "be thinking of other people when I'm with you." In fact, TW2 is not only thinking of other people, but screaming their names out. And those names are "Xbox" and "PS3."

    Wednesday, May 18, 2011

    TW2 Playthrough: Technical difficulties

    Hours In: 1 
    Character Level: 1
    My Score: 85 (no change)
    Metacritic Score: 94
    Player Score: 90 (-1)

    What a battle! And no, I'm not talking about the opening sequence of The Witcher 2 (though that's pretty good too). I'm talking about my efforts to get the game running properly on my low-end system.

    Initially the biggest issue was mouse lag, which simply made selecting anything annoying. I followed the advice of an anonymous reader out there and disabled Vertical Sync. That seems to have helped (thanks for that, Anonymous).

    Now the only obvious glitch is that character lip-flapping is out of sync with dialogue. Plus there are some awkward pauses in conversation that don't seem to be intentional. Overall, not a big deal.

    The real problem is combat. Specifically, I don't get the sense that I have much control over what happens in battle. I just mash buttons as Geralt spins out of control while getting stabbed from all directions. I'm not sure how much of this is due to lag based on technical issues with my system (and/or problems with NVIDIA cards that have been reported), how much is my own lack of skill, and how much is due to the funkiness of combat system itself. Whatever the case, I'm going to have to figure something out if I'm going to continue.
      And I really would like to continue. I joked about the opening battle, but seriously, it's impressive. There's a level of authenticity to it - from the simple ways the soldiers interact to the towering siege weapons - that's unprecedented in RPGs. It makes Dragon Age 2's Battle of Ostagar look like a minor skirmish.

      Tuesday, May 17, 2011

      TW2 Playthrough: Baseline expectations

      Hours In: 0
      Character Level: N/A
      My Score: 85 (Baseline)
      Metacritic Score: N/A
      Player Score: 91

      Today is the day when we begin to find out if the hype is justified. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is out, and as I did with Dragon Age 2, I thought I'd record my impressions as I play through the presumptive RPG of the Year.

      But before I click Launch game for the first time, let's once again record my expectations at the start so we can see how they change over time. I'm not the type of person to read a lot of preview articles, so some of my impressions could be flat-out wrong. That was certainly the case with DA2, and I knew a lot more about that game than I do about TW2 (thanks to the demo and the Bioware forums). In other words, don't take these impressions as factual statements. Finding out where I'm wrong is half the fun of this exercise.

      As before, I'll be recording the Metacritic score with each post. There are only three reviews listed right now (90, 95, and 100), so this time I've started early enough to track any trends in the score over time. This time around, I'm also tracking the User Score from Metacritic to see if players have a different opinion than critics.

      All right. Here are the things I expect to be the positives and negatives of TW2.

      Friday, May 13, 2011

      Planescape 2: Electric Boogaloo

      Apparently Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart is feeling nostalgic lately. First it's his public campaign to win an Icewind Dale sequel. Now this:
      “I remember right after finishing Planescape: Torment I spoke to Chris Avellone [Obsidian creative director] and asked what he wanted to do, and he was like, ‘I don’t wanna do a sequel!’ We haven’t talked about it in ten years, but it might be different now. But a lot of revisiting old games is about saying, ‘okay, that worked in 1999, what would work now?’ And how would you do it again?”
      OK, clearly this is just blog fodder. Urquhart seems to be humoring the interviewer - based on the quote, he doesn't strike me as being all that thrilled with the idea. And why would he be? The original game's ending is about as final as you can get. And by now it's so old that only ancient gamers and true RPG connoisseurs have played it, and only a subset of them would like to see a sequel (for some, it would be akin to making Citizen Kane 2). And on top of all that, PST apparently didn't sell all that well. Other than that, it's swell idea.

      But still, as a topic of conversation, I find it irresistable (I did say it was blog fodder). In my post about a potential Icewind Dale 3, I ran through what I thought were the essential elements of the original that would have to be continued in a sequel (hack and slash, full party creation, etc). In contrast, I don't think the hallmark of PST was a particular style of gameplay. It was more about the story, characters, and - probably most importantly - the setting.

      The challenge in making a Planescape 2 would be one of narrative design. The first game was brilliantly intricate, and featured possibly the greatest ending in an RPG videogame ever. Figuring out how to restart it would be as hard as trying to continue Baldur's Gate after the epic events of Throne of Bhaal. Actually, harder. In the case of Baldur's Gate, the hallowed property was the sequel, which itself used a fair bit of hand-waving to bridge the gap between itself and the original. PST was a standalone masterpiece - a hole-in-one, to use a golf metaphor - and thus a much more difficult act to follow.

      That said, problems of narrative design are always solvable when you have smart writers, as Obsidian does. The Planescape setting is in many ways a writer's wet dream, precisely because it's so "out there." The lack of verisimilitude provides a smorgasbord of options, which I'm sure would allow writers to come up with a story that connected to the original without trampling on continuity. It could be done.

      The question is, should it be done? You tell me.

      Wednesday, May 11, 2011

      How The Witcher 2 defines "mature"

      No surprise here, but The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings has received a Mature rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board. Among its sins (or virtues, depending on your point of view), the ESRB lists:
      Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs
      I'm not sure what else there is, really. With all those warnings from the ESRB, it's a wonder there's any room on the box for promotional artwork. If you're interested in exactly what got TW2 its Mature rating, the ESRB page linked above also includes a hilariously detailed list of moments that informed its decision (warning: possible lewd spoilers).

      But is it mature? Or is the word just a euphemism, as it usually is in the context of ratings? In other words, does TW2 offer entertainment for grownups, or just titillation for the unwashed masses of nerdlingers out there?

      According to an article on Giant Bomb, CD Projekt RED says it's more of the former. To wit, they've ditched the infamous sex cards, which recently made my list of 6 mortifying moments that make you wonder about RPG developers. Apparently there will still be plenty of sex, but it's going to be depicted in a more - dare I say - tasteful way. From one of the game's senior producers: "It’s about story and emotions, rather than a 15-year-old who wants to see nipples."

      He's talkin' to you, nerdlingers.

      Somehow I doubt TW2 is going to completely avoid controversy, though. Based on its predecessor and everything else I've heard, TW2 is a game designed primarily for (straight) men and therefore is loaded with (straight) male fantasies. That's not gonna sit right with some people.

      Monday, May 9, 2011

      Critics vs. players: The dividing line

      Metacritic recently had an illuminating article about games that have divided critics and players. It was prompted by the reaction to Portal 2, which received glowing reviews from the pros but was - at least initially -  bashed by players. However, the article could just as easily have focused on Dragon Age 2. The article's list of "Games that critics liked but players didn't" includes the following:
      2. Dragon Age 2 (PS3)
      5. Dragon Age 2 (PC)
      9. Dragon Age 2 (360)
      For the PC version of DA2, the "Metascore" was 82/100, whereas the User Score was 4.3/10. I gave the game a rating of 70/100, so obviously I think the critic rating is somewhat high and the player rating is outrageously low. The question is, why the difference? Is there a reason why professional critics might rate a game higher than players?

      The Metacritic article doesn't address that question, perhaps because it's too controversial. Or alternatively, because it's just too frickin' obvious. There's been a lot of talk about the ethics of video game journalism, but this quote from an article in the Online Journalism Review sums up the issue nicely:
      Any player can write a review of a game, but only sanctioned media outlets have access to games before they are available to the public. Brokering these agreements falls upon an untoward mix of editorial and promotions.
      In this particular case, PG Gamer was first publication out of the chute with a DA2 review, and guess what? They gave the game a 94 - a score that not only raised the average, but set a precedent. I'm not suggesting the positive review was the result of an explicit tit-for-tat agreement, but it does raise the question of whether there was something - to use the operative word from the above quote - untoward happening here.

      Monday, May 2, 2011

      Big, BIG news

      By now, surely you've heard the big news. Today, the world is finally free from an unsightly scourge that has plagued it for far too long.

      Of course, the big news I'm referring to is the fact that I've redesigned my blog. And the unsightly scourge is the old, monstrous banner graphic I had running across the top of the page. I quietly buried it in an undisclosed location on my hard drive, where it will never be found again.

      What? What did you think I was referring to?