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October 4, 2012

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Dark Souls

October 19, 2011

It’s more than past time that I typed up some thoughts about From Software’s latest RPG, Dark Souls.*

I’m well over thirty hours in, and have merely scratched the surface, and so have a lot to say about what is easily my favorite RPG in quite a few years. But before doing that, I’d like to acknowledge a couple of issues with the game, to pull the teeth, as it were, rather than rave about it for a few paragraphs and then say “oh by the way” and sour the ending. So, with that in mind:

  • Dark Souls is published by Namco. It’s predecessor, Demons’ Souls, was published by Atlus. Since multiplayer is one of the core, innovative features of the games, Atlus chose to maintain dedicated servers to coordinate multiplayer activity. Namco, unfortunately, chose not to do this, leaving the game wholly reliant on P2P. The game has a feature where you can leave messages for other players to see; with a dedicated server, you’d see all messages regardless of how far you might live from the player who wrote it. With the P2P implementation, messages will drift into your world over time, in part based on your proximity to the user who left it. Not ideal in any way, and it’s not clear that messages persist after that player logs off. It’s not a terrible omission by any means, and likely only Demons’ Souls veterans will notice a difference. But it isn’t ideal, either, and I would be remiss not to mention it.
  • There’s a leveling exploit. A fairly major one. Someone figured out a cheat to get essentially infinite souls, the in-game currency used to level up and buy upgrades. So, as the exploit has propagated, there are more players running around at maximum level – a level most players would never see in years of playing. The impact from this is slight; because the game’s multiplayer features employ a level cap, most players will never be matched with the exploiters. My sense is that this will even out over time; the people will max level players will tire of playing them and the remaining population will be playing normal characters at the normal ranges. But it is disappointing.  I should note, too, that there is one optional area in the game where level restrictions are ignored for PvP play, and it is not unheard of for players to get matched up with an exploited high level character. This is not a good result – not because it’s impossible to win; but rather because even if you win, the victory will grant far more experience than any normal encounter, thus spreading the exploit like a virus (unless you choose to rid yourself of the souls without leveling up, which is easily done). These PvP encounters can be entirely avoided through an in-game story option. Like I said – it’s not huge, not a long term concern, and hasn’t affected me at all. But it exists, and you should know about it up front.

Still with me? Good. Because Dark Souls is a revelation. A magnificent, engrossing RPG that’s absolutely dripping with exquisite detail. Oh, and it’s hard.

The gaming press has mostly focused on that last bit. Kind of in a hysterical frenzy, actually, with every article shrieking about how hard this encounter was, or how many times they died in that encounter. Now yes, it is true that Dark Souls is more difficult that almost anything released in the last few years, but it’s also not anywhere close to as difficult as games used to be, nor is it as difficult as Demons’ Souls, its predecessor. Demons is a merciless game. Dark Souls is almost gentle by comparison. Yet I can see what the press is getting at; Dark Souls eschews most of the modern conventions – long tutorials, parades of endless chump enemies posing little challenge, linear design, detailed in-game step-by-step guides. Instead, it drops you right in, gives you some basic information about movement, and sets you free in a world where every single encounter can be fatal to your character.

The designers aren’t sadistic; they want you to learn about the game and its world through failure. They are hoping to convey a feeling of dark desperation, of a world that has fallen to pieces, teetering on the brink of destruction, and you’re just one would-be hero caught up in the midst of it. They want you master the system, master the areas, and when you do that – when you put it all together and beat a level boss that’s killed you 9 times already – they want you to stand up and cheer, exulting in your accomplishment.

And that’s what happens. You hit a challenge that seems almost insurmountable, then, through failure, you learn how the encounter works. You see the chinks in its armor, how to dismantle it. And then you put it all together, beat it, and feel an overwhelming sense of satisfaction. Modern games teach gamers bad lessons about failure. You don’t learn, you lose time. MMOs are the worst offenders, where the theory of the “penalty for death” runs prevalent and means that any death is accompanied by a not insignificant loss (either of experience or of player time). That philosophy is in and of itself offensive, failing to respect the player and the overall purpose of the product as entertainment, but worse, it’s percolated out to the industry, so that the fail state in most games equals a loss of time: repeating old content that you’ve already seen and that has little to no value on a repeat visit. In its worst implementations, you lose story progress, you have to watch dreadful cutscenes again, and you lose character progression back to the last checkpoint you hit.

Dark Souls isn’t like that. Failing is not a loss of time or progression. It’s true, of course, that there’s risk: when you die, you leave a bloodstain on the ground that holds all of the souls & humanity – key items in Dark Souls – that you had on your person. Souls (as noted above) are gained after every fight and can be spent to level up your character, upgrade equipment, or buy items. Humanity – well, we’ll talk about that in a minute. It’s not lost, but if you die again before you recover it, it’s gone for good. This can feel painful. If you’re running around with 50,ooo souls for some reason, and die in a very dangerous place, you might very well lose them for good. It’s an element of gambling that increases the overall tension in the game, and is directly tied to the concept of bonfires.

Bonfires are the equivalent of checkpoints, though they are more than that. Scattered throughout this dying world are several magical fires that the player can kindle, and when you rest at a bonfire, you refill your health, your magic charges (spell casting uses a delightful Vancian casting system in lieu of mana bars), and your healing items. Yet you also reset the world around you, causing all the normal enemies that you’ve slain to respawn. So, as progress through an area, you’ll acquire more and more souls, which increases the risk that you’ll lose them all through death. You could alleviate that risk by going back to a bonfire and spending them, but then you’ll have to fight enemies again. Which do you choose?

As it turns out, that’s what Dark Souls is really about: choice. That’s how you’ll define your story as you play through the world. There’s no grand story told through extensive conversations and cutscenes; this isn’t Mass Effect. Instead, there’s a dying world with intriguing NPCs, multiple possible routes, and nine separate organizations to join. Every NPC can be killed, if you so desire; this will not stop you from finishing the game, but may make it more difficult.  It is a world built out of hooks and detail, a rich tapestry that is nonetheless full of white space for the player to fill in. Filling in white space is one of my favorite activities, so I am in heaven here.

Among the other choices you’ll have is how you interact with other players. You may choose limited interaction; in which case you’ll only see messages on the ground, the occasional phantom running past you (no effect on the game), and, even more rare, see other players sitting at your bonfire. This last feature was added to create a sense that the player is not alone, that other players are going through the same struggle. It’s effective. On the other hand, you may choose to partake of the game’s cooperative and competitive features. Co-op, in particular, is important; many of the game’s boss encounters become significantly easier when you summon other players to help you, and the rewards for entering another player’s game to help are significant. The assisting player receives both souls and humanity – the latter of which allows you to temporarily stave off an undead state called “hollowing” that lies at the center of the story, and, mechanically, allows you to summon assistance or partake in PvP combat. The competitive aspect, PvP, is completely optional, and based around several of the in-game organizations, called covenants. A player who joins the Way of White will never be forced into non-consensual Player versus Player combat; everything will be optional. Players not in that covenant may, if they are in human form, invade the worlds of other players and be invaded in turn. Invading turns you into a “black phantom” version of your character, one with the sole goal of locating the other player and eliminating them in single combat. Doing so rewards the victor with souls, and often with items necessary to advance in the player’s covenant.

These covenants have deep story hooks. One, the Dark Moon Blades (the covenant I’m in right now) is dedicated to invading the worlds of those who have sinned against their covenants or other players, and punishing the guilty. That’s right; if someone invades and kills you, you can report them with an item called an “indictment,” causing the player to be listed in a Book of the Guilty, and thus able to be killed with impunity by Dark Moon members like me. Another covenant, the Dark Wraiths, is connected to the “bad” ending of the game, and exists solely to invade the worlds of any player at all, and thus is directly opposed to the Dark Moon. Other covenants are more closely tied to cooperative play.

There are hundreds of hours of play in this game. After finishing a game, you can start a New Game + mode, with harder enemies and larger rewards, and after that there’s New Game ++, and New Game +++, and so on. The sheer amount of character possibilities and secrets to be plumbed in the world alone justify spending a lot of time with it, but combining that with the single best implementation of sword combat I’ve ever seen in a game, and you have something that deserves to be recognized as one of the top tier RPGs in all of gaming.

If you’re at all interested in the genre, I hope you’ll take a look. With that in mind, I’m happy to answer any questions you may have.

*The link goes to Giant Bomb, one of my favorite gaming sites, and specifically to a misnamed hour-and-a-half long Quick Look at the game, if you’d like to see what it looks like.

Publication News!

October 10, 2011

I have news!

It’s been a busy late summer and early fall. I took over a new team at work, which meant some international trips and hopefully will be quite interesting over the long haul.  My children started back to school – a new school for two of them and kindergarten for my youngest. There was an earthquake in DC, and that was a thing, a thing to make the hurricane seem rather boring. And then we had a sudden downpour of rain last month, which dropped 10 inches of water in around an hour, resulting in flooded roads and basements all over town, including my basement. We’ve been in clean up mode ever since, tearing down drywall, jack hammering up the floor to install drains (when I say “we,” I of course mean the contractor!).

All this is to say that I have been neglecting to post some very important news here, news I should’ve posted before. If you’ve been following for a while, you know that I had sent my short story, The Day the Pod Landed out and that it had been accepted for publication. If you haven’t already (quite unlikely if you’re here), you can go and read my story at Redstone’s Science Fiction. While you’re there, be sure and check out their other offerings, including the latest issue. I can’t express my gratitude enough to the editors for their willingness to take a chance on my story. Locus Magazine has posted a positive review, so if you’d like, check that out too!

I feel completely re-energized about my writing. My novelette is still more or less a wreck right now, and still not something likely to get published anywhere due to its length, but I need to finish it all the same. The other stories in progress, Beast (a little experimental horror tale) and Beach (a light fantasy throwback tale) have been kicking around along time, and need to get out of my head before they explode.

Catherine! …and a plea for a 36 hour day.

August 22, 2011

Last night – roughly around 3am or so – a friend sent me a message on Xbox Live about the game I was playing. I promised to type up a few comments here, and, so, here I am.

The game in question is Catherine from Atlus, and there you have the first problem in writing this post: I have to be extremely careful in my phrasing. I mean, I can’t just type “last night at 3am my friend asked me about Catherine.” Or “last night at 3am I was still up with Catherine.”  Or “Catherine is phenomenal!” You get the picture.

I am not going to recommend the game here. I will say that I very much like it, but I suspect that there are people who might hate it, and for good reason. It seems to be quite divisive, with a generally good metacritic score but some spectacularly low scores in the mix. My guess is that if you’d like Catherine – I mean, if Catherine is the kind of game for you – you probably already know about it, and don’t need me to tell you. If not, pick up the demo and see what you think.

I am writing this mainly to talk to people who might be interested, or played the demo, and have questions. I’m here to provide a few specifics.

  • The animation. It’s by Studio 4.C – the folks handling the new Thundercats show – and is solid throughout.
  • Puzzles. The puzzle gameplay hits the right point on the difficulty curve for. It’s challenging enough to be compelling, without ever hitting a point that I wanted to quit. However, two caveats about this. I had to seek assistance on YouTube for two levels: Clock Tower stage 3 (where the opening area has a fiendishly difficult and opaque solution) and Spiral Staircase stage 4 (where I got all but the last block push, which had to be in a very specific sequence). These stages take place in the game’s 6th and 7th areas, respectively, and the first made me worry that the later stages would be maddening. They aren’t; for me difficulty spiked at stage 6. Second, the difficulty is high enough that I don’t see myself ever wanting to do this again. While the story has replay value and the puzzles have many solutions, they are hard and frantic enough for me to accept the completion as a victory and move on.
  • Story sequences. The game is split into three distinct phases: there’s a puzzle section (the Nightmares), followed by cinematics (animated and in-game rendered, with the later looking a little better), finally followed by interactive sequences in a bar where you can talk to characters, play minigames, etc. After the bar sequence, you go to the next Nightmare and the pattern repeats. You can only save in the bar and between stages of the puzzle levels. Since the cinematic sequences get pretty long, this can mean that you can go a LONG time between save opportunities. Plan accordingly. (Also, with no autosave it’s possible to lose massive amounts of progress if you forget to save, and then lose all your chances in a puzzle.)
  • Speaking of cinematics, if you hate long cinematic breaks between gameplay sections, don’t buy Catherine. I don’t mind at all, but I know some gamers do.
  • While the main story dialogue is very well done, some other dialogue is completely skippable – akin to the idle chat in any RPG when you visit a village and talk to all the townsfolk. Luckily, there’s a skip button. So there you go.

As I said above, I quite like the game, and am enthused to see that it sold well. Hopefully that means more quirky projects will see the light of day.

Switching gears for a second, I don’t for a moment know how I’m going to find time to play all of the upcoming releases that I’ve already committed to pre-order. (By the way, I’ve taken my pre-order business to Amazon, as they have several offers for Amazon credit going at the moment, and as a result I ended up with $40 in credit – enough for a copy of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary – plus, with a trial of Amazon Prime, I got release date shipping for free.)  I looked at my pre-orders & their release dates and it’s not humanly possible to play all of these to the extent they are entitled.

  • Gears of War 3 – Sept. 20
  • Rage – Oct. 4
  • Dark Souls – Oct. 4
  • Batman: Arkham City – Oct. 18
  • Battlefield 3 – Oct. 25
  • Uncharted 3 – Nov. 1
  • Skyrim – Nov. 11
  • Halo: CEA – Nov. 15

I think I’ll have to make a schedule. If I spend less time eating, sleeping, and such, then maybe…

RPG Recommendations

August 10, 2011

I’ve been trying to write a post about pen-and-paper RPGs forever, but the post stubbornly refused to come together in any coherent or readable fashion. So, instead, I’ve decided just to summarize four recommendations for current (or soon to be available) role playing games in four different classes: one “old school,” one “modern D&D inspired,” one indie, and one boxed boardgame.

Before doing that, let me jump to the punchline first: there are no products from the Dungeons and Dragons brand or from Wizards of the Coast on this list. My sense is that the current edition of WotC’s D&D line tried to do too many things. I think WotC wanted a product that (1) kept their existing RPG customer base, (2) attracted the boardgame RPG crowd, and (3) attracted the miniature gaming crowd. (You can read “attracted” in the previous sentence to mean that they wanted to fend off competition from those products.) The result, for me at least, is a game that’s at once overly complex but not very deep; and ultimately one that lacks flavor. Instead, I’d tell anyone to look at the following products:

  • OLD SCHOOL. The “old school renaissance” is – briefly stated – a movement to produce games that feel and play like the earlier editions of Dungeons and Dragons – 1st (maybe 2nd) AD&D or the boxed sets. While they might have tables out the wazoo, they are not “rules heavy,” in that the basic idea is not to produce a system with a rule for every situation, but rather one relying more on improvisation and DM fiat. The “old school” feel is centered around dungeon delves or similar adventures where you (more or less) kill everything that moves. In this category, I’d recommend the Dungeon Crawl Classic RPG soon to come from Goodman Games. The beta rules & preview adventure are out now, and the thing even features art from Erol Otus, the guy who did a lot of the D&D art back in the very early 80s. DCC combines an old-school aesthetic with a few modern touches. I do have two gripes. First, the system encourages you to locate and use some non-standard dice types, and though they offer alternatives, I don’t really want to muck about with 10 different dice types in my games. Second, the game goes all out with gore in some places. The critical hit table, for example, is so absurdly gory that it all but rules out the system as something I’d use with younger players.
  • NEW SCHOOL. By new school, I mean a modern RPG that’s not part of the old school renaissance or the indie movement. Perhaps “mainstream” might be a better category title, but “mainstream RPG” doesn’t really seem right, either. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that “new school” began with the 3rd Edition of Dungeons and Dragons and the d20 open gaming license that accompanied it. Unlike old school, a new school RPG generally does try to have a rule for nearly everything. If you tell me you want to climb something, there’s a rule for that. My recommendation here is not, as noted above, the current incarnation of D&D, but rather Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder game. Pathfinder took the 3rd edition rules, revised and expanded them, and created something new. But I wouldn’t include them here if that’s all they’d done. Oh no. What they’ve done – what makes them stand out – is that their products simply drip with flavor. They’ve built a huge campaign world that they continue to flesh out with monthly releases, and they release “adventure paths” based in that world. Highly recommended.
  • INDIE. I’m not even going to try to define this other than to simply say I’m referring to small press products with innovative or experimental mechanics often far removed from D&D. My favorite in this category – perhaps my current favorite RPG at the moment – is Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel Gold. BWG has the most amazing character creation rules I’ve ever seen. The game is about beliefs, or, as they say it, “fighting for what you believe in.” You flesh out a series of fundamental beliefs for your character, and then, instead of picking a class, you go through “lifepaths,” essentially charting out how your character went through life to that point acquiring skills and abilities. You might have been an poor street kid in a gang, and that will come with a set of skills. Then you did something else, perhaps met a powerful mage and got some training, and that came with more skills. By the time you’re done, you’ve created an individual that feels real, and I am already using the system not for playing, but rather for writing. Running one of my story characters through BWG’s character creation rules allows me to understand so much about what that character believes in, how they tick, and then I can go back to the story and really have a grip on how the character will act. It’s great stuff.  Highly, highly recommended. Note, though, that BWG is very crunchy. The rules are complicated and many people don’t quite grok them for a while. The Mouse Guard RPG – which is also phenomenal – offers a lighter version of the rules in David Peterson’s incredible Mouse Guard setting.
  • BOXED BOARDGAME. This is a category that has a long lineage (I’m thinking of the old TSR game Dungeon) but has recently exploded. Fantasy Flight Games are the master of the category, though others (notably Soda Pop Games) are coming onto the scene in a major way. FFG’s Descent product contains everything you need (in two boxes – the basic set & Sea of Blood) to run RPG campaigns with a boardgame feel (lots of pieces, cards, etc., all included in the box). Descent has a second edition coming next year that I’m quite excited about, as it appears to simplify the rule set while simultaneously expanding options.

While it’s outside the scope of this article, I’d hate to close without recommending Privateer Press and their Warmachine & Hordes miniature games. Years ago Privateer offered RPG products from their Iron Kingdoms world that worked with the 3rd Edition system, but now they are working on their own proprietary RPG. This product is easily my most anticipated RPG right now, and the Iron Kingdoms (“an environment that combines the best of traditional fantasy with steam-power and gunpowder”) easily my favorite setting.

Quick Shots

June 23, 2011

A few quick items:

L. A. Noire is in the books, now, and I’m quite torn about the game. To be blunt: the only reason I stayed with the game after the halfway point was my interest in the characters & seeing what became of them. There is precious little gameplay on offer here, and most of it is railroaded and overly simplistic. It’s said that L.A.Noire is a throwback to adventure mystery games of old, but the ones I remember were fairly open-ended. The player chose where to go, who to interview, and who to accuse. L.A.Noire leads you by the nose, step-by-step; the right destination in the game is infallibly the next destination in your notebook. The game’s claim to fame – the interrogating of suspects – is a great story device and impressive tech demo, but staggeringly easy. Think I’m wrong? Apply the following strategy. First, is the person someone clearly unimportant to the case, other than a minor witness? If the answer is no, then exclude the “Truth” option. Does the person shift their eyes or head at all after responding, or look at you smugly? Pick between “Doubt” and “Lie” based on the following 100% accurate formula: look at your notebook; if you have a clue that will directly contradict the person’s statement, pick lie; otherwise, pick doubt. And that’s it.

Shadows of the Damned is a wonderful, satisfying, hilarious romp that provides gameplay in spades. If you like Robert Rodriguez movies, check it out.

Dungeons & Dragons is in trouble, in my opinion. 4th Edition has many good ideas, but two key failings: (1) it’s awash in complexity, and (2) it discarded all the unique, fluffy trappings that gave D&D its special flavor in favor. It is a mechanically competent if bland cocktail right now, that results in hour-long combats and a loss of the dungeon-crawl feel of old. Mages, in particular, have been gutted, with their odd and eclectic spell lists discarded in favor of a system that merely tells you how many dice to roll. A shame. A series of articles on wizards.com/dnd suggests that WotC is aware of the problem, but how will they address it? A system that simplified & streamlined the combat rules, returned mages to their old, flavorful state, and recaptured the lost essence of the past would be ideal.  (As a side note, much of what I think doesn’t work in 4th E is driven by the mandatory miniatures/grid combat. Now that WotC is out of the miniatures business, perhaps they will return to the abstracted combat of previous editions? I don’t want to manage attacks of opportunity, grid movement, or the like. I want to declare something like “I do a somersault over the head of the guards and attack the evil priest!”, and roll a few dice to see how that turns out.)

Hail to the King, Baby (and other stuff, too)

May 23, 2011

No, I’m talking about Duke Nukem.

Last week the best tactical WWII sim of all time got an update – Battlefront.com released Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy. I lost weeks playing prior entries in the series, most Barbarossa to Berlin, the East Front simulator. If you have any interest in serious WWII tactical wargames, definitely give CM a spin (there’s a free demo!). But warning! It may not be your cup of tea. If you’re not already familiar with Combat Mission, the first thing you’re going to say is “Jesus, man, this looks terrible, was this made in 2005?” So, yeah, the graphics are not the game’s strongest point. Gameplay is, though. If you ever wanted to order a platoon of infantry to take a farmhouse while Sherman tanks provide support (and hope to avoid anti-tank fire), and have it all done in a fairly realistic manner, then this is the game for you.

Well that ended sad

We’ve been absurdly busy for the last month or more due to the move, but this weekend we finally had time for another family game night. Most of my RPGs are still in complete disarray as we kit out our game-room-to-be (see below), so we decided to try Wizards’ Castle Ravenloft boardgame. It’s a cross between “D&D Lite” and a simple version of Fantasy Flight Games’ Descent. The overall premise – a castle filled with monsters and one evil vampire lord – was a hit with my kids.  We made the age-old critical mistake by splitting our party, though, and as a result we were overwhelmed.

As you can see, the kitchen table barely contained everything, and Ravenloft is one of the smaller dungeon-crawl games. A full scale Descent game would dwarf all of that. So after drooling for years over the gaming tables from Geek Chic, I’ve gone ahead and ordered a Spartan gaming table. It’s 4×6, has storage below, and all kinds of sweet options. With the dropped playing surface you can keep one game going for days; simply put the table top on and you can play another game on top while keeping the other game safe from harm. So excited.

It’s a Crysis

After long delay, I’m finally nearing the end of my time with Crysis 2’s single player story, and at this point have no qualms giving the game a hearty recommendation. It does so many things right, and the wide open play spaces & variety of approaches keep the levels fresh and engaging.

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