My Name Is Bob, Sire.

I haven’t written about a computer game in a while… mostly because I haven’t played any in a while (unless you count Spider Solitaire and First Person Tetris). That will change soon as the next month is packed full with releases that I’m really looking forward to. Gothic 4, Two Worlds 2 (the release has been pushed back) and Fallout: New Vegas. The scent of add-ons and sequels lies heavily in the air this fall. (And then there’s also the Borderlands Game of the Year Edition, which I suspect to be the cheaper way to get all those juicy DLCs.)

But for now let’s talk about a game that’s not a sequel or a prequel or any other kind of let’s-wring-more-money-out-of-this-dried-out-lifeless-franchise-quel: Dragon Age: Origins. Not that there isn’t a lot of greed involved in this one. The game has been out for less than a year and already there’s an add-on, a whole slew of DLC’s, two novels and a board game. Soon there will be a trilogy of flash games, an anime movie and for all I know a squeaky chew toy for all your geek-dog needs. I find this a little disconcerting, but on the other hand both the publishing industry and Hollywood have stepped up the pace a little when it comes to release dates and sequels and such and it is really too  much to expect the games industry to miss out on all that fun (and money).

Yes. Dragon Age… First a little something to keep the confusion at bay: for all of you who wonder about the fequent use of “we” in a single player RPG: I played the game together with Jonas, which means that he did most of the clicking and I did a lot of “go over there… no over there… there!… stop turning, will you?… you missed a bit of loot… oh, it’s just a dagger.” It’s fun, trust me.

We played a Dalish Elf named (slightly embarrassed pause) Bob. Which isn’t really anyone’s fault, at first we just wanted to try out the game and then we kind of got sucked in… with the wrong name. There is an argument to be made, however, for either not dealing with the name issue at all (like in Gothic) or having a preset name. I’m not going to make that argument, at least not at length, because I don’t write articles about game design theory. In brief, that other approach has two main advantages: a) you can record dialogue for the player-character, which will do wonders for the immersion and b) you don’t end up with names like Gandalf the Awesome or, well, Bob, which really doesn’t do much for the suspension of disbelief. Dragon Age went the other way there. It’s not the end of the world, but I thought I’d mention it.

Dragon Age: Origins puts you in a quasi-medieval fantasy world called Ferelden. Depending on your choice of character and class you will play through one of nine individual intro-adventures that will take you at least ten minutes to play through. Okay, I’m being sarcastic again. The Dalish Elf intro isn’t that bad. Predictable, but not a total loss. And you meet some of the characters from your intro again later in the game, at least with most scenarios, which is a nice touch. But even at the very beginning of Dragon Age I couldn’t help but notice how incredibly linear the game is. I hadn’t played a BioWare game before and I have to admit that I had trouble believing Jonas when he told me just how bad it would be. Sure, in the first dungeon you can choose between going right or left at one point, but both options will end you up at the same cut scene, so where’s the difference? If you’ve played BioWare games before I trust you’ll know what I mean when I say that every area might just as well be a single straight path. If you didn’t… just imagine visiting a very strange nature reserve with a nervous guide who keeps reminding you to never go off the path since otherwise the invisible walls will come and get you.

Once you’re done with the intro you’ll inevitably find yourself in the camp of the Grey Wardens. They’re nice chaps, actually, who enjoy drinking the blood of super-evil demon-spawn and long, romantic evenings by the campfire. And soon you’ll be one of them, rejoice! Dark and gritty games being what they are, things don’t quite go according to plan. You manage to join the Grey Wardens, but unfortunately not much later your king as well as the majority or your new brothers-in-arms get slaughtered by the darkspawn and you kind of get blamed for the whole mess. Treason is involved, naturally, but try telling that to the soldiers that are coming to kill you.

The rest of the plot is essentially all about stopping the Blight, an invasion of darkspawn led by the Arch-Demon, by bringing the different races and factions of Ferelden out of their respective holes and onto the field of battle, and about getting a new king onto the throne. Not necessarily in that order.

Dragon Age has good and bad in it. The good is very good and the bad is… a lot.

What is good is mostly the voice acting and writing on the various NPCs that you can pick up as companions during the course of the game. Dragon Age has a list of characters (and actors) that would put many a Hollywood movie to shame. The cast list on the IMDb has well over a hundred actors, amongst them such august names as Tim Curry, Kate Mulgrew, Dwight Schulz, Tim Russ, Dominic Keating (did they get their hands on an old Star Trek contact sheet?), Claudia Black and Robin Sachs. And while I’m here to praise the voice acting and not fault it, I must say that unfortunately most of the actors named above are wasted on tiny bit-parts. Way to go, BioWare.

Where was I? Voice acting… good. There are a few characters in the game that are just brilliant. Morrigan, for one, although the writers seem to be oddly unsure if she’s really one of the good guys or not. Claudia Black voices her with such a wealth of sarcasm and irony that one cannot fail but love that character (we did, she’s one of the available love interests). Kate Mulgrew lends her scratchy voice to Flemeth, a minor character, but a memorable one. Tim Curry, the biggest name in the cast, is sadly a little colourless as Arl Eamon; I for one wouldn’t have suspected him behind that character. The real gem of the game, however, is the to me totally unknown Steve Valentine as Alistair. There were times in the game, when the combat system was being particularly obnoxious and the plot more transparent than usual, when all that kept us playing was innocent, cute, funny Alastair. The writing on the character, who also happens to be the by far most important NPC, is superb, and you really learn to adore him. By the end of the game we were making a lot of our plot decisions on the basis of the will-Alistair-approve principle (okay, also on the we-don’t-really-care-because-this-is-too-obvious principle, so what?). BioWare games often have, or so I hear, great voice acting and decent writing, but when it came to Alistair and a handful of other characters it really impressed us… and we played Gothic, so we’ve got high standards. (Oh, and then there’s the Leliana issue… the half-Russian, half-French, half-British character that is 150% badly voice acted. Yeah, she wasn’t very good.)

Unfortunately there is a lot of bad to balance out poor little Alistair. I’ve already mentioned the linearity of the game in terms of the terrain. The plot itself is not dissimilar in that respect, just like on the maps you can sometimes choose if you would like to go left or right first, but you always end up with the boss-level enemy at the end of the dungeon.

And the game is small. Again, both in terms of plot and terrain. Sure, there are fourteen or fifteen main locations, each with half a dozen maps attached, but since all you can take is the scenic route along the carefully designed walkway of inevitability, most of these are quickly explored. Denerim, the capital of Ferelden, is particularly disappointing, since it basically only has the marketplace and a few other, tiny locations that don’t give you very much to do.

Speaking of markets: the game has a big problem there. The merchants restock for the last time about halfway through the game. After that there nothing more to look forward too, a severe problem for me (seeing that I am a girl it is only right and proper that I prefer the shopping to the chopping). The unique items are few and far between and often neither really cool nor fairly priced. They did some good with the runes, but then again you can only find a handful of the good ones in the entire game.

Another big problem is the entire messy mess that calls itself a combat system. Okay, so we’ve seen worse, but the developers of Gothic 3 should be hung, shot, quartered and poisoned, preferably at the same time, so that does hardly count. (On second thought… Risen was good, so why don’t we hang, shoot, quarter and poison the bloody release-date-rushing publisher JoWood instead?)

You will play most combat situations with a group of four characters at your disposal. Four characters who can be set either to “be big boys” or “won’t be able to tie their own shoelaces”. In one setting they will merrily run after anything that wags its tail at them, regardless of their own mortality, in the other setting they will stand still, idly picking their noses, while an ogre is biting chunks out of their thighs. Neither are ideal, as you can surely see. The maps are all basically two-dimensional and (again) linear, which pretty much takes the fun out of strategy, and even if that weren’t the case, strategy is only possible at the no-shoelaces setting, which complicates things a little. Oh… and then there’s the camera, which hasn’t been told that we are playing a real-time RPG (as oposed to a turn-based strategy-game) and thus is determined to be stuck on top of your characters at all times. No, I didn’t want to see that dragon halfway down the corridor, why do you ask?

Yes, of course, there’s good too, like the wide range of attack spells that are available to the magic users, but in the end that always led to the fighters picking their noses while the Two Mage-ettes, Morrigan and Wynne, picked off the enemies at their leisure. Not ideal, dear BioWare, not ideal at all.

In the end, after all the fighting and selling and questing and what little exploration there is, the most disappointing thing of all was the plot. The game has a built-in progress indicator somewhere on the character screen and don’t let that sneaky little bastard fool you. Dragon Age: Origins stops at the 50% mark, for whatever damn reason. This was, needless to say, a little bit of a disappointment to us, because… how to put it… WHICH OF YOU CLOWNS CAME UP WITH THAT F***ING IDEA?

That’s not the only problem though. Somewhere around the halfway point (25% in Dragon-Age-speak), the game managed to make us really care about Alistair and the future of Ferelden. Alistair, as I should maybe mention at this point, is one of the possible options for replacing the recently-deceased monarch. And at some point you get to make that decision. Who shall rule Ferelden? We, naturally, decided on Alistair and after that the character kind of vanishes from the game. Oh, sure, he’s still there and you still get to talk to him, he even fights with you provided that you made certain choices earlier on, but somehow the spark is lost. And the same goes for the rest of the characters, really. Writing-wise the air goes out of the game like out of the balloon that snogged a hedgehog. They tried to do all these epic, giant speeches and battles and all that it amounts to is a long succession of cut scenes with battles inbetween that don’t allow you to save for hours on end and that you’re too afraid to skip because there might be a good bit hidden somewhere in all that muddle. (There isn’t… go ahead and skip like your life depended on it.)

It’s a shame really, because without the disappointing ending Dragon Age might have been a good game. Not great, but decent. As it is it barely beats Divinity 2, which isn’t saying much since I’m less and less impressed with that one the more I think about it. I don’t think we will be buying the add-on (Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening), not after that ending. The sequel maybe, but only because it looks like they’re trying to fix a few of the problems that the first one had. Not sure Hawke beats Bob as a name though.

Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked

Where does the time go?

Well. A good portion of “time” went to Pandora. Not the Pandora of the ten foot tall blue aliens, which is very excellent, but Pandora as in the setting of the role-playing-shooter Borderlands by Gearbox Software. Which is also very excellent.

Having come to the genre of computer RPGs only fairly recently, after a long and dark time exclusively spent in the dreaded domain of strategy and building simulation games, I thought I’d never advance as far as  first person shooters.

But once again I didn’t count on my enormous ego that said “sure I can” when my significant other remarked recently that I lack the necessary hand-eye-coordination to play shooters.

And thus I was introduced to Borderlands.

(Note from the significant other: I didn’t actually say that. I said you would start screaming during any action scene, like you did in other action/3D games. I was 90% wrong.)

Borderlands is a first person shooter with RPG elements. Gearbox Software lovingly calls it a role-playing-shooter but it will also respond to a-lot-of-fun and great-stonking-game. Borderlands likes to be played and encourages merciless powergaming by featuring procedurally generated weapons and enemies.

I mean, this game is fun. At first both me and Jonas thought that the ceaselessly re-spawning hordes of enemies would get tiring after a while, and it is true that there are a few areas in the game were the re-spawn could be a little slower. But the positive outweighs the negative by 5.6846 × 10. Seriously.

I don’t put much stock in graphics… let me rephrase that. The graphics of a game don’t need to be state of the art, eleventy-billion polygons per character, oh-look-at-the-shiny-water-type graphics. One of my favourite games of all time is Gothic 2, which was outdated graphics-wise before it was even made. That having been said: Borderlands looks very very pretty. Not only does it look pretty, the game, from the creature design to the cinematics, oozes style in the same way Dana Barrett’s bathtub oozes pink slime. (Yeah, we watched Ghostbusters II recently, so what?)

You gotta love a game that has shotguns that shoot rockets. And rocket launchers that shoot a lot of rockets. And sniper rifles that will turn your enemies into green puddles of goo. Or electrocute them (see how nicely the eyeballs pop).

And don’t get me started on the challenges. (I want to call them achievements, but apparently us poor PC gamers don’t get to have achievements. That’s only for the big boys on the consoles. Pff.)

Okay… well, since you ask: When it comes to computer games and myself the following rule applies:

me = powergamer

I mean it. I’m the person that went to every single location in Oblivion. Every. Single. One. I’m the person that made a point of collecting every single plant in Two Worlds. Every. Single. One. (And I wish I was kidding.) I’m compulsive, and not ashamed to admit it.

And along comes Borderlands. With challenges such as I am become death (kill 10.000 enemies), Nikola is a friend of mine (250 kills with shock weapons) and the unbeatable This is not a flight simulator (4 seconds of vehicle hangtime). What’s a poor girl to do but try and get all of them? ALL. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALL!!!

Erm… yes. Speaking of vehicles. Tis a tricky thing to pull off. You make the vehicle too strong and it’s no fun anymore. You make it too fragile and it’s definitely no fun anymore, because who wants to trek through half the countryside to get back to the next vehicle station every five minutes. Luckily Borderlands does have neither of these problems and running over enemies to raise your total kill count can become dangerously obsessive.

The plot is a marvel. I won’t go into details now, because you all, like, want to find out for yourselves how cool it is, but I’ll say this much:

It’s very well written, containing some of the funniest pieces of writing I’ve seen or heard in a computer game for a looooong time. The writing on the delightfully …peculiar Patricia Tannis is to be especially praised. Also you get real characters. Most of them are batshit crazy, true, but then again that’s some of the fun of it, isn’t it?

And the plot is long. Or the game world big. That really depends on how you look at it. After every large area that Jonas and I found we thought: Okay, so it’ll be a few more missions here, then the final boss fight, then end cinematic. Only it wasn’t. Well, obviously not all the way, every game has to end sooner or later, otherwise you’ll end up with World of Warcraft.

So, wrapping up: Borderlands has very wonderful, insane writing. A cool plot. Supercool graphics. More style than Dolce & Gabana. And the gameplay isn’t too shabby either. We’re going to get the three DLC packs soon, which promise to make the game even more fantastic. I mean… zombies? Yeah, bring them on.  We can’t wait.

It Is Done…

RisenWe finished playing Risen yesterday.

The end came quickly and a little too suddenly for my taste. I had been holding on to the faint hope that the game might have more than four paltry chapters until just before the credits started to roll. No such luck, now we’ll have to wait until forever for the sequel. Gnargh!

But I digress. Let’s start at the top.

We’re both huge fans of the Gothic games. Gothic 1 & 2, that is – as far as I’m concerned there is no Gothic 3, and that one didn’t have an expansion either. What? There is such a thing? No, I don’t think so (sticks fingers in ears and starts humming a tune).

Anyway. The first two Gothic games, both of which I played together with my husband due to severely lacking hand-eye coordination on my part, are the pinnacle of the RPG genre. A genre that is prolific enough, but seldomly brings forth anything to be truly excited about. I liked Oblivion to a certain degree, although it was all in all terribly shallow and levelling enemies are the worst idea since reality TV. And Divinity was okay too, in a way. The same goes for Two Worlds, which of these three games is perhaps the one that I enjoyed most. But all of these games seemed to be lacking something: call it depth, call it refinement, call it quality. They weren’t bad, but they were far from brilliant. And just when we had given up hope that the genre would ever bring forth anything awesome again we bought Risen by German developer Piranha Bytes.

Risen starts out when the player character wakes up after being shipwrecked on the shore of a tropical vaguely mediterranean island. After you have fought your way up the beach, past vultures, wolfs and stingrats, the world, or rather the island, lies at your feet. The game offers you the choice of three principal career options: Bandit, Mage or joining the Inquisition.

I picked the Inquisition, power gamer that I am, and my husband, who was playing the game in parallel with me on his computer, chose the bandits.

From what I picked up I must say that the Inquisition seems to be by far the more cushy path. All you have to do is to get inside the city, which in my case was accomplished by running past most enemies on the way and bribing the gate guard with 100 gold, and once you’re inside  you get to work as a glorified errand boy until you feel strong enough to brave the wolves and stingrats outside the city walls. Oh, yes, and until you figure out how to get out again, I should maybe mention that part.

For a bandit life appears to be a lot tougher, since although you also get to run errands in the swamp the errands here involve killing megalomaniac fireflies and something that looks like it escaped from Frank Herbert’s Dune. Suffice to say that it’s not very easy without proper equipment or skills.

As for the mage path: I could not say, since I haven’t quite figured out how to play a mage. (Which is remarkable since I thought the game had tricked me into becoming one for quite a while until I figured out that in that case I should be able to learn rune sigil magic, which I wasn’t.)

One of the nice things, at least from my point of view, is that the story is far from the same for the different classes after that point. Until very late in the game the different factions will ask you to do things that differ from the other paths. Not in a game-changing manner, but enough so that it significantly raises the re-play value.

A slight blemish on the beauty of the game is to be found in the final chapter, however. Not only is it almost exclusively dungeon crawling, with next to no respawn in the actual game world, but the events leading up to the final boss fight, as well as the fight itself, take away almost any difference that the three classes might have had before that. I won’t say much about the actual fight, since spoilers are evil, but let it suffice to say that there is but one way to do it, regardless of whether you’re playing a magic user or a fighter. And I think that is a bad thing. It is a bad thing to the point where I was close to giving up on the game about five minutes before the end. (To be scrupulously honest: my almost giving up was also related to the fact that the final fight is ridiculously difficult and I’m not a good fighter at the best of times.)

That having been said: Risen is, apart form the final showdown, a joy to play. The world is alive with beautiful creatures, not all of them inimical; it also features tons of vertical space: ledges to climb up on and kill enemies at leisure with ranged attacks, mountains with beautiful vistas… and as a bonus everything is one giant cell (meaning no loading times when entering houses, dungeons, etc.). Another big plus are the NPCs. If you manage to disregard the skimpy clothing that the women wear you will find that most of the NPCs have individual dialogue and personalities and sometimes even more than one quest that needs solving (non-generic NPCs is something I can not prize high enough after drudging through 200+ hours of Oblivion). Also the fighting system is reasonably well balanced and gaining skill points truly makes a difference. And last but not least: you get to summon a skeleton named Fred.

Yes, Fred – or Freddy as we have come to call him. Freddy can handle himself in tough situations, is unexpendable when it comes to taking care of some of the stronger enemies. And to sweeten the deal he’s also low maintenance and, due to a rather helpful bug, will heal if you save and load.

Speaking of bugs: the game has none. At least no significant ones. There seem to be some issues with certain older series of Nvidia graphics cards, but that had already been fixed in the first patch. Jonas had some difficulties with his character being unable to tell the difference between what you mean with going into a building or jumping up on the roof (weird bug, I know), but that was an inconvenience at best. And then there is the friendly NPC health regeneration issue, with is highly beneficial to the player, and if it’s cheating to exploit a bug then I don’t care. Besides that, I had one crash in almost 50 hours of playing, which I think is acceptable. So thumbs up for the Piranhas: good work!

All in all my playing experience has been very positive. Risen, like its cousins from the Gothic universe, is not easy to play, especially at an early level. Also, and here it is different from Gothic, it never becomes easy. Even at level 25 you can still walk into a room and get shish-kebabed before you can say Jack Robinson (if you’re not careful). If that doesn’t frighten you, you will get rewarded with a nicely-told and well-written story, stellar voice acting (not as good as Gothic but miles better than anything else out there; at least in the original German), a beautiful gameworld and interesting, diverse quests that go beyond collect-the-seventeen-polkadot-lollipops territory.

I for one am greatly looking forward to the second part of Risen, so hurry up Piranhas.

P.S.: my husband, who is the game designer in the family, is bound to write his own review soon, which is bound to be slightly more analytical than mine, so keep your eyes peeled for that!

Like Phoenix From The Ashes

RisenJust in case any of you have been wondering why I haven’t updated the blog in nearly a week… the reason is called Risen.

Risen in the new game by German developer Piranha Bytes, the makers of Gothic 1 & 2. They are also, unfortunately, the makers of Gothic 3, a game which is pretty high on my list of things that I should undo if I ever were to get access to a time machine. (There’s other stuff higher on the list, but not much.)

Jonas and I bought the game about ten days ago and it is fair to say that it is slightly addictive. Jonas is good about stuff like that, he can still function normally in the presence of a good game. When I’m playing  a good RPG the only way to get me to do something else than play usually involves a crowbar.

Anyway… I solemnly promise to write a more detailed review of Risen when I’m done with the game, which should be in another few days, but for now I just want to say that Piranha Bytes have truly managed to redeem themselves.

It is true: after Gothic 3 I thought they had lost their minds and that putting them in an insane asylum, a really old-fashioned one without any computers, would be a splendid precaution.

But Risen makes more than up for the agony that Gothic 3 has inflicted on us. They graphics are beautiful. The fighting system is well balanced. Levelling is once again something to look forward too. You can climb (big, wonderful bonus!). And the story is sounding good so far.

Last but not least: the game is a Gothic game in all but name. There are a lot of small nods to the Gothic franchise and even the story seems to be based, at least partly, on one of the possible endings of Gothic 3. (No, this is not a spoiler. You get the relevant info in the first cut scene of the game and if you’re concerned that this might spoil your Gothic 3 experience: don’t, the game manages to do that on its own, it doesn’t need my help for that.)

Also, miracles never cease, the game seems to be pretty much bug free. There seem to be certain issues with a few types of graphics cards, but neither of us are affected by that and in any case there’s a patch out already that fixes it. The only other bug I have encountered is rather beneficial to the player, so I won’t complain.

So yay for Piranha Bytes and Risen on all counts. A more detailed review shall follow soon.

Divinity II: Ego Draconis

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Note: Jonas and I are playing this game together, even though it’s a single-player game. You can read his review here.

Besides reading a lot and going to the movies a lot I also play computer games… a lot. Only recently there has been an appalling drought in the genre of first or third person RPGs. The good kind. Not the kind from Japan, with half-naked twelve year old girls called Simon as protagonists.

So, along comes Divinty II: Ego Draconis. In terms of graphics it looks a lot like Gothic 3, which made me nervous at first, because Gothic 3 was an appalling pile of moose dung. (I shall pretend to be a software-geek for a moment and say that Divinity II is actually done in the same engine as Oblivion and Fallout 3, but fails to look as good as either. Not that it looks bad, mind you.)

Now, after playing the game for about fifteen hours twenty hours way too long (considering we only bought it on Thursday), I have to say: Fear not, it be great fun.

The world is big and open, although you quickly notice when you’ve strayed too far for your current level. (I mean that as a compliment, Oblivion has taught me to fear games with leveling enemies. If I never see a level 40 Xivilai again I’ll die a happy woman.) The fighting system is simple, too simple, I might even say, as there is little variation to the attacks that you can choose from, especially at the beginning. The story is adequate, although nowhere near as good as, say, Gothic 1 and 2. And best of all: You can turn into a dragon. Not at first, and I have to admit that I haven’t gotten there yet, but hey, you can turn into a bloody dragon. So shut up and don’t complain.

Advancing your character stays hard throughout the game and especially at the beginning you’ll curse the absence of “good” weaponry. When you level the game isn’t too generous on the attribute and skill points, so I’d suggest to choose wisely what you raise and what not. If you think this is a bad thing you might do well to reconsider buying the game. Personally I think it is wonderful. There is nothing more refreshing as five minutes of agonized indecision as to where to put your next skill point. (I AM trying to be as un-sarcastic as possible here, I mean it.) Also it really makes you appreciate your first level 20 goblin chief and the 1000 xp that he brings along as a present.

The music is really awesome. Not awesome as in I need to listen to this even when I’m not currently playing, but awesome as in I frequently catch myself whistling the tavern theme when I’m preparing dinner. Which is a coincidence, actually, but these days I do little but play, cook and sleep, so the chances were pretty  good.

The writing deserves praise as well. (For those of you that are wondering: we are playing the German version of the game, seeing that the English one only comes out in September.) Anyroad. I find that it takes a bit to make me laugh when it comes to computer games and this one has managed to do so on several occasions. So, yay for the writing. If I had to change anything I’d remove most of the meta-humour, since it tends to damage the immersion in the same way that a glowing-hot needle damages a soap bubble. But luckily the really gross examples of such “wit” are few and far inbetween.

Despite all my criticism Divinity II is deeply enjoyable. Not one of the greats, but a lot better than anything that has come along in recent years. For people who enjoy a good RPG with a plot that is a little more substantial than candy floss, witty dialogue and a nice big world to strech one’s avatar’s leg in I would definitely recommed this game. So go forth and kill some goblins and don’t miss out on making a creature from decayed body parts, that’s the best bit.

Edit: Here are my slightly more negative thoughts upon having finished the game. It’s still got many excellent parts, but…