R.S. Hunter

Science Fiction & Fantasy Author

Category: Video Games (page 2 of 2)

Brandenburg 1444 to 1821: My First Complete Game of EUIV

EUIV: Brandenburg 1444

EUIV: Brandenburg 1444

This morning the date rolled over to January 1st. Well technically today is March 11th. Oh yeah. It’s also not 1821. But in my current game of Europa Universalis IV (referred to as EUIV and previously written about here), it’s the start of a brand-new day in a still-brand-new century, but it’s also the end of the game.

The date rolls over to January 2nd. The end of the game screen pops up, and I feel elated that I saw the game through to completion, but I’m also sad that it’s over. For somebody who still considers themselves an amateur (or maybe a little better than an amateur) I think I did well in the campaign, but there were other things I could’ve done much better.

15th Century Expansion and Coalitions

I played this grand campaign as Brandenburg, which in the 1444 start is one of the Prince Electors of the Holy Roman Empire. It’s a landlocked kingdom with three provinces in the northern part of modern-day Germany. I don’t know if it’s one of the harder starts (the little difficulty meter is at about 75% when you choose Brandenburg), but it’s definitely not the same as playing as England, Castille, France, or even Austria.

In a previous attempt at Brandenburg, I tried to create the Kingdom of Prussia. It went terribly. Oh, I created the kingdom, but it fell apart due to religious turmoil and two concurrent wars with most of Northern and Western Europe. This time, I said to myself, we’re going to create Germany instead. We’re going to be smarter.

EUIV: North America 1821

EUIV: North America 1821

The game started, and I made many of the same moves. I allied myself with Austria, which in 1444 is the older brother in the HRE family. Getting them and their 30,000+ troops on my side helped me in my early conquests of Mecklenburg and the like. What I didn’t account for–couldn’t have even known–was that Paradox changed how the AI reacts to the player’s aggressive expansion. I conquered two places before the 1470s and instantly all my neighbors were in a coalition against me. And then the next thing I knew I was fighting for my life as they declared a “punitive war” against me. Thankfully, some help from my allies (which I don’t know if it included France at this point) and a huge infusion of cash via loans saw me through the troubled coalition times. Even though I won the wars, from then on I was constantly behind the 8-ball with coalitions and most my neighbors having “outraged” opinions of me.

Winning & Losing a Throne

Playing as part of the Holy Roman Empire adds a whole other batch of concerns that other countries don’t have to deal with. You’re part of a loose confederation of states (kingdoms, duchies, bishoprics, etc.) that elect an emperor. Brandenburg is one of the electors, and I spent a chunk of time trying to get the other electors to vote for me. While it was useful being the Emperor in the mid 1500s, most of the states were too outraged at me for me to enact any of the possible reforms.

EUIV: South America 1821

EUIV: South America 1821

I became the Emperor as Brandenburg, and then kept that title as I transitioned to Germany. I annexed a few of the electors, which I’m not sure was a mistake or not. If I was trying to get through the list of Imperial Reforms, then it definitely was. However since my goal was to create Germany and then dominate central Europe (colonization was not part of my agenda), I decided that annexing territory was more important than keeping all the electors happy with me. Besides, as the Emperor I was able to create new ones. My choices–Savoy, Mantua, and Milan–were huge mistakes. From what I saw during this playthrough, even though Savoy had +200 opinion of me, I was the current Emperor, and I was the largest country the HRE, they still voted for themselves. Same for Manuta, and then Milan supported them. I lost my throne to Mantua–a two or three province kingdom in modern day Northern Italy. They ended up holding onto the throne for a few hundred years until Milan conquered them and somehow I was elected again (though I swear I only had 2 votes at the time).

Conquering Denmark & Poland

Since I didn’t care about colonization, I decided I needed to win the trade war in Central Europe to fund my expansions. To do that, I needed to control the Lubeck trade node. So Denmark became enemy number 1. It took more wars than I thought–my original plan was to conquer a few provinces and then in a later war vassalize them. For whatever reason, even with only 2 provinces remaining, the cost to vassalize Denmark was too high. So I conquered them. Bye bye, Denmark.

EUIV: Germany Idea Groups 1821

At the same time, I turned on my old ally Poland. Thanks to the tweaked mechanics, because I was allied with France, Poland decided they had too many “Great Power Alliances.” They broke ties with me, and over the next several hundred years, their territory shrank dramatically. They used to control the corridor from the Baltic to Marmara; by 1821 I had eaten up all their northern territory (which included Lithuania, the Teutonic Order, and the Livonian Order), while Crimea, Ukraine, and then the Ottomans devoured their southern portion.

Onward to the 19th Century

By the 1700s and onward, I was basically unstoppable. I didn’t lose a single war I fought. France, Ireland (independent and with colonies!), and then even Great Britain became my allies. Because I was dominating trade in several nodes, and I wasn’t wasting money and resources colonizing overseas, I was able to hire all level 3 advisors, fight wars, and continue to build almost every single province improvement while continuing to make 100+ ducats a month.

germany-africa-1821

EUIV: Africa 1821

Thanks to my idea groups and buildings, I ended up with over 450K in manpower and land force limits above 350. By 1821 I had the second largest army in the entire world, and not even mighty Russia could stand up to me. In the last 2 years of the game, I took four provinces from Russia without using even half my army.

Observations

These are things that happened in the game that I thought were fun or noteworthy but don’t really deserve a whole section on their own.

  1. Enacting an Imperial Reform that outlaws all internal HRE wars just because you can is stupid. Especially when you want to finish off Austria, Lorraine, and the Netherlands.
  2. Austria got the Burgundian Inheritance but lost most of their territory to France, the Netherlands, and Lorraine.
  3. I freed Styria from Austria in the 1500s, and it grew to be one of the more powerful HRE member states. It even ate up all of Switzerland.
  4. Never, ever make Savoy part of the electorate.
  5. Ireland stayed independent the whole time! They even colonized parts of North America.
  6. Both Norway and Sweden broke free from their personal unions with Denmark. Norway took most of Sweden until I gave them their cores back as part of the spoils of war.
  7. Peasant Wars are not fun.
  8. By the end of the game everybody just gets ahead of time when it comes to military tech.
  9. Diplomatic Ideas are amazing.
  10. The USA declared independence in 1791 as a kingdom. They later switched to the Federal Republic government type. However, they only had 1 province the entire time.
  11. I never once fought the Ottomans.
  12. I really wish I had dismantled the HRE.
  13. Milan and Tuscany both grew substantially, while Austria ended up a sliver of its former self. (And I’ve seen Austria get huge in other games!)

And here are some final stats:

Army size: 2nd

Max manpower: 450K

Navy size: 7th

Most provinces held: 3rd

Highest income: 2nd

Most trade income: 1st

Curia controller: over 300 consecutive years

Tech levels: 27, 29, 31

Ideas (in order of adoption): Diplomatic, Innovative, Offensive, Naval, Quality, Trade, Aristocratic

Final score: 11939

germany-1821

End of the game

Maybe these numbers are not impressive at all when compared to the entire pool of EUIV players, but overall, this was a great experience. Now, what country should I play next?

Quick Impressions: A Trio of New Games

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

I bought three new games in February/early March. Well new in the sense that they were new to me. I haven’t put in a lot of time with them yet (damn you, Europa Universalis IV!), but I wanna share a few quick impressions for each. Were they worth my time and money? Let’s find out!

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

The Final Fantasy XIII series and me have a troubled history. XIII broke my original PS3 and was basically shit. The battle system was pretty fun, but the plot was a jumbled mess of fal’Cie and l’Cie, Cocoons and Grand Pulses. Any game that comes with the caveat: “It really opens up and stops being linear after 20 hours” has some deep, deep structural problems.

I took a gamble on XIII-2 and found it rather delightful. It was like Doctor Who meets a JRPG. Weird time travel, end of the world prophecies, an annoyingly charming moogle, and an off-the-wall soundtrack. Even my then-girlfriend-now-wife enjoyed watching me play it, and normally she finds RPGs boring.

Lightning Returns screenshot

Lightning Returns got middling reviews, but I took a chance on it anyway. I liked the idea of playing as Lightning again (I didn’t mind her as a protagonist), and the battle system based on changing outfits (a la Final Fantasy X-2) caught my eye.

Buying it was a mistake. I lasted about two hours before I realized I never wanted to play the game again. See the main conceit is that the world is ending and Lightning has a set amount of time to save souls before the metaphorical lights go out. Problem is, the game’s structure is at odds with that conceit. You can’t level up except for completing side quests, and ones are only available at certain times of day, so you have to wait. And then your precious time is ticking away. And you basically need a goddamn day planner to schedule everything.

It put so much pressure on me–my “do all the side quests mania” against the “explore everything at my leisure.” I hated that I was on the clock. At least with Majora’s Mask you have the ability to redo the three day period if you need more time or mess something up. Lightning Returns doesn’t have that safety net. I think GamesRadar’s review captures my problems with the game (the two hours I played) perfectly.

My time’s too short to waste on a game that feels more like work than play. Later, Lightning Returns.

Verdict: stay away and burn it with fire. Not worth it at all.

Need for Speed: Rivals

Now this is more like it! A game that’s more my (need for) speed. NFS: Rivals looks pretty. It drives well–closer to the arcade side of things rather than the realistic simulation side. And I like that you can play either as a rebel racer or a law-abiding cop. I’m worried that some of the missions might get repetitive, but I’m enjoying playing the game in my spare time.

Need for Speed Rivals

It’s not a game I’d sit down and play for hours on end, eager to power through it, but I can’t deny it’s ol’ fashioned high-speed fun.

Verdict: worth my used purchase.

Strider HD

I never played the original Strider games from the 80s and 90s. I picked the HD reboot/reimagining after watching a Let’s Look At by Northernlion. The game stars Strider Hiryu who I gather is some sort of future ninja with a laser sword thing. Sold!

Strider HD

The game’s fast paced, has a bit of that Metroid/Castlevania exploration thing going on. And I even got to fight a giant robotic dragon-snake thing. Yeah. The game’s cool, stylish, ridiculous, and apparently set in a world where Soviets are still bad guys.

The platforming and controls can be a bit slippery at times where I find myself power sliding the opposite way than I intended or slipping off platforms as I’m trying to climb up some dystopian skyscraper thing. It’s a minor irritation, but one I could see getting worse as the game’s difficulty increases in the later levels.

Verdict: worth buying (so far, could change as game goes on)

My Favorite Games of 2013

Even though I’m not part of the video game press/reviewing scene in an official capacity anymore, I thought it’d be fun to write a little post about some of my favorite video games from 2013. (Yes, I know 2013 isn’t over for 12 more days, but I’ll update this post if anything changes).

And because this is my site, I’m going to broaden the topic to include any game I played for the first time this year, not just ones that came out in 2013. I was fortunate enough to play some truly great games this year, so let’s dive right in.

Best of the Best

Fire Emblem: Awakening

Fire Emblem: Awakening

Fire Emblem: Awakening was my first time with the Fire Emblem franchise. Think fantasy chess/tactical RPG meets dating sim. That’s Fire Emblem: Awakening in a nutshell. I reviewed it for Gamer Limit and it was easily one of the few games I replayed this year. If you want a more in-depth breakdown of how Awakening makes the series even more enticing to newcomers and more casual players, check out my review. Recommended if you like Final Fantasy Tactics, Ogre Battle, or other turn-based tactical RPGs.

Available on 3DS.

XCOM: Enemy Within

XCOM: Enemy Within

I received XCOM: Enemy Unknown last year for Christmas and never played it. (I know! Shame on me!) Then the Enemy Within expansion came out last month and grabbed my attention. I’m not done with the campaign yet, but it’s checking so many boxes for me (many of the same ones as Fire Emblem), that I feel confident including it on this list. Sci-fi alien invasion setting–check. Tactical turn-based combat–check. Strategic decisions that can lead to you screwing up your chances to win the game for good–check.

Even if you’ve already played Enemy Unknown, check out Enemy Within because the new elements in this expansion (including power armor!) completely change the way you play. Tactics you’ve learned before will have to be adapted or scrapped entirely.

Available on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.

Europa Universalis IV & Crusader Kings II

I’m lumping these together because they kind of go hand in hand. Both Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV are grand strategy games by Paradox Interactive. CKII’s set in Medieval Europe (867 AD with The Old Gods expansion to 1453) and EU IV picks up right after (technically in 1444).

I got into these games after watching people like Northernlion, Arumba, and Quill18 play them on YouTube. Also Rowan Kaiser’s CKII Beginner’s Guide helped a lot. The games are intimidating if you’ve never played a Paradox game before, but overcoming that intimidation can be done! I’m living proof. I’ve put over 40 hours into Crusader Kings II and 25 into Europa Universalis IV, but that’s just scratching the surface for how long these games can keep you blissfully occupied.

Available on PC.

Torchlight II

Inspired by the Diablo series. That’s really all I need to say about Torchlight II. It’s the sequel to 2009’s Torchlight. Whereas Diablo III veered away from some of the core tenants of its franchise, Torchlight II stayed true to its roots. The game is a loot-filled clickfest. The story doesn’t make a lot of sense, but compared to the first game: there are more character classes, more quests, more locations, more loot, more everything. I’d recommend Torchlight II to fans of the Diablo series and any of its subsequent “clones.”

Available on PC.

Rayman Origins

Rayman Origins

Rayman Origins is the first Rayman game I ever played and the only platformer I’ve ever completed while playing multiplayer. This game is gorgeous with a hand-drawn art style that works so well with the gameplay’s fluidity. Some of the levels are hard, especially if you’re trying to collect all the optional thingies and knickknacks, but when you get in a groove, it just works. If you’re a fan of platformer games like Mario, Sonic, or maybe even Bit.Trip Runner, give Rayman Origins or its sequel Rayman Legends a try.

Available on pretty much every platform.

Honorable Mentions

These are games that didn’t quite make the cut. They’re memorable, but I wouldn’t consider them among my favorites.

Dishonored + DLC

Dishonored: The Brigmore Witches

Dishonored is the best game I didn’t play this year. You read that right. For whatever reason, I find the stealth action gameplay of Dishonored too tense/nerve-wracking to play. But I love the art direction, story, and world building. I think the reason I didn’t like playing Dishonored was due to the fact that the level design and special powers allow you to be a murderous whirlwind, but the story and available endings discourage that style of play. The artificially imposed edict to be a stealthy non-lethal character if you wanted the “good” ending made the game too tense for me to play.

So I watched a Let’s Play of Dishonored and its two-part DLC: The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches. Maybe I truly am missing out by not playing the game for myself, but I finished the series on YouTube with a sense of satisfaction. I’ll be keeping my eye out for a Dishonored 2.

Available on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.

Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D

I’ve written about how the inclusion of motion controls in the Wii version of Donkey Kong Country Returns made the game unplayable for me. The 3DS port is an infinitely better game because they’ve been removed. Nintendo and Retro Studios still made a couple of missteps when it comes to Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, but it’s still a very good platformer (though nowhere near my favorite Donkey Kong game). DCKR 3D also doesn’t come close to replacing Rayman Origins on my favorites list.

Available on 3DS.

Worst of the Worst

And here are a few of my least favorite video games from 2013.

Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity

The combination of Pokemon plus rouguelike, dungeon-crawling elements should be an amazing combination. Unfortunately this game was a boring, boring, oh so boring mess. Full of repetitious dialogue and bland dungeons, Gates to Infinity completely misses the mark on what makes a Pokemon games and dungeon crawlers fun.

Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite wallpaper

I’ve written extensively about my displeasure with Bioshock Infinite as have other better writers than me. I won’t repeat them all here. I will say this though: Bioshock Infinite is the worst game with the highest production values I’ve ever played.

Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams

Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams starts out as an entertaining platformer, but it soon transforms into an incredibly difficult slog that is nowhere near as cute or “punk” as it thinks it is. I reviewed this one for Gamer Limit too, and I wasn’t impressed. There’s a fine line between difficulty that encourages the player to do better and difficulty that feels like the game is just being a dick. This game’s in the latter camp.

It’s not a definitive list by any means. In fact, I find it kind of funny how RPG and strategy game heavy it ended up. I know there are games I missed out on playing, plus others that just weren’t good–or bad–enough to make this list. Plus with Christmas around the corner, this post might get updated if I’m able to get my hands on The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (and I happen to enjoy it).

Now I turn it over to you: What were your most loved or most hated video games this year?

Is It Me or Is It You, Pokémon?

Pokémon X & Y Logo

I’ve been playing Pokémon X for the past few weeks–my first one since Diamond six years ago–and I still can’t tell if my lack of progress into the game is my fault or the game’s. I’m leaning toward foisting the blame onto the shoulders of all 718 Pokémon.

My major gripes with the Pokémon series have only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. I’m not in 4th grade anymore, so I don’t have near endless hours to grind and level up my creatures.

Continue reading

Let’s Talk About: The Lord of the Rings: War in the North

The Lord of the Rings: War in the North

A “Quick Hits” style post today. I got The Lord of the Rings: War in the North from GameFly the other day, so let’s talk about it.

I’m only in the first chapter so these are more impressions than an actual review or anything like that.

First off the story: I get what the developers are trying to do–show a tale that runs parallel to the events of The Lord of the Rings (the movies specifically). The point is to emphasize that the war against Sauron was bigger and involved more of Middle Earth than people imagined. So therefore the developers invented some characters and said this is how they fought in the north, in the former Numenaran kingdom of Arnor. Apparently by keeping Sauron distracted in the north, they helped the Fellowship accomplish their mission.

So basically these guys are the Rogue Squadron on Hoth to the Fellowship’s transports and Millennium Falcon–fighting to buy time.

Problem is the characters are all boring. Maybe this is just a limitation of the source material, or the fault could be with me. I’m not 16 anymore (haven’t been for a while), and I don’t find the setting/story anywhere near as interesting.

The Lord of the Rings: War in the North gameplay

Plus it’s disconcerting to hear British accents everywhere and then the Dwarf main character sounds American. Kinda strange.

So you have three side characters, problem is none of them are interesting either. Again this could be a limitation of the setting: the “good guys” all have to be super good and noble and bland, while the “bad guys” embody evil (though they’re not too evil. Sauron’s supposed to be the really evil guy).

That’s really all I have about The Lord of the Rings: War in the North. It’s bland like plain toast. The art style does nothing special. Lots of brown and grey during the first few levels. Plus within the first couple of hours there were three or four turret sections. That’s kind of ridiculous in a game with supposedly medieval technology. Also boring. Needless to say, I shipped it back to GameFly with no misgivings.

Bioshock Infinite as Dune Fan Fiction

Bioshock Infinite wallpaper Facetious jokes aside, I have a lot to say about Bioshock Infinite. This post is going to be relative unstructured and is something of a response to two other fantastic posts: “Notes on Bioshock Infinite” by Brendan Keogh and this actionbutton.net review of the game by Tim Rogers.

I agree with the majority of both those fine posts–Tim’s granular criticism of the game’s mechanics and Brendan’s bullet points about the game’s themes. So let’s dive in–wait, wrong game. Bioshock Infinite is the Bioshock in the sky.

Never before have I played a game that so badly wished it was a book. Bioshock Infinite tries to tell a big story with big themes. It’s like something you’d see in your favorite genre novel written by an author with literary fiction aspirations. There’s tears in space-time, giant mechanical birds, but also racism, classism, and bits that explore the nature of violence and redemption. r there would be if Bioshock Infinite was either a) a book or b) didn’t abandon these themes by the wayside halfway through.

I don’t know if it was just a failure of execution or if those at Irrational were hamstrung by their choice of genre: the first person shooter. There’s only so much story you can tell while staring down gun sights. Infinite isn’t an essay on a blog. It’s a commercial product with grand aspirations, but at the end of the day it needs to sell copies, to return its investment, or as Rogers aptly puts it, “Most likely, the only worthy conclusion here is that when you’ve spent One Hundred Million Dollars building the densest game environment in history, if shooting games are the only ones making billions of dollars, you probably want shooting in your game.” Those factors probably limited the story Infinite desperately believes it is trying to tell. To quote Keogh, “Infinite doesn’t aim for the moon; it cuts props out of cardboard and stages a moonlanding in the basement.”

Bioshock Infinite Columbia

As pretty much every piece mentions, Infinite is a visually lush, dense game. The first hour or so of the game that follows Booker’s arrival in Columbia are some of the game’s best. It’s also when it’s most committed to building a setting around those big themes the game wants to be about.

Seriously, Columbia is gorgeous. There are things to see, hear, and interact with. If only the entire game had stayed this way. Instead it becomes basically just another shooter. At one point, you go through multiple tears with Elizabeth and emerge in some sort of alternate Columbia. It’s all very Fringe-esque; some things are different but others are the same! And according to the game, you’re fighting different enemies, but they all look the same. They’re men and women with guns. They shoot at you much the same as the Columbia Police before them. Except these enemies wear red instead of blue. Again, very Fringe-esque.

It’s all the same and it makes no difference whether you’re shooting at red enemies or blue enemies. This mirrors the way the game drops the racism angle from the beginning of the game. Near the beginning, an interracial couple is trotted out in front of the player and a gathered NPC crowd. The couple is being punished for the crime of existing–of being an interracial couple in a city built on Manifest Destiny, American Imperialism, and racism. The player is handed a baseball and given a choice: throw the ball at the couple to the delight of the crowd, or risk drawing the crowd’s ire and attention upon yourself by throwing the ball at the announcer on stage.

Bioshock Infinite George Washington mural

In his piece on taking Infinite seriously, Daniel Golding calls this choice “thunderously stupid.” According to Bill Gardner, the game’s design director, “We are trying to pose these questions and let the player decide how they feel.” Golding takes issue with this: “On the ‘question’ of violent public humiliation of an interracial couple,BioShock Infinite wants to let the player ‘decide how they feel’.”

I have to agree. Not only are binary moral choices simplistic and overused in games, this one falls into the “save the kitten/burn the orphanage” paradigm. And of course there’s no room for nuance. Obviously I (the player) did not want to throw the ball at the interracial couple. Even if I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, as a note in the game warns you just before this scene, it could’ve been entirely possible that my character could have attempted to throw at the couple and deliberately missWhy was something like that not an option? Without prior knowledge of how the scene plays out no matter your choice, the option of missing would have allowed me to get through the scene unscathed–both morally and within the game’s fiction.

This choice didn’t make me “decide how I felt.” Instead it made me feel manipulated, especially because the end result is the same; the crowd turns on you when you’re discovered as the “False Prophet.” I would be able to look past this if the game had remembered to bring these things up later. I thought my choice would have at least affected the narrative in some fashion near the end of the game. Considering how much emphasis Infinite places on little clues, hints, and foreshadowing, that would have been a safe assumption.

Nope. The game “stopped being ‘about’ racism and just started being racist.” And adds Golding, “BioShock Infinite uses racism for no other reason than to make itself seem clever. Worse, it uses racism and real events in an incredibly superficial way.” Racism and a whole host of other -isms become parts of the setting like the Disneyland-esque streets of Columbia or the posters on the building walls.

Bioshock Infinite Elizabeth

But let’s move away from that. Let’s talk about the narrative. For a while things make sense. Then they don’t make sense. By the time I got to the end of the game and Elizabeth explains how “there’s always a man and always a city” everything made sense again. This was a game character literally explaining to me how this game was connected to the previous Bioshocks. This lined up perfectly with what Ken Levine said in an interview with Matt Peckham:

But BioShock Infinite was always to me a BioShock game. We just decided that BioShock didn’t mean Rapture exclusively, that it means the look…the sort of hyper-stylized look of the world, the saturation of color, the feeling, the sense of humor, the combat mechanics and the kinds of themes we take on. We deal with the time period and we take the politics, the art, the music, the culture, the science, the advertising, the technology and then we give it a twist — a little bit of science fiction, whether its plasmids or buildings that float and tears that open in space — and we sort of put that all on a pod. I think that makes BioShock Infinite very much a BioShock game. I think as people play it, they’re going to learn more and more how it’s a BioShock game.

As soon as Elizabeth gave me that speech, my mind instantly flashed back to that interview. In that moment, she was less of a character and more of a mouthpiece for Levine, trying to tell me exactly how Infinite fit in the larger Bioshock universe.

It was a weird, jarring moment at the very least. Plus, it didn’t help that all of a sudden I was somehow behind the scenes for the multiverse, seeing thousands of lighthouses that apparently lead to other worlds. And then Elizabeth says how she can see everything. At that moment all I wanted to do was tweet: “So…Elizabeth’s a female Kwisatz Haderach right? Bioshock Infinite is Dune fan fiction.” But I didn’t want any of it to be considered “spoilers.”

Is this really what all of the buildup in the beginning amounted to? A mediocre mishmash of DuneFringe, and Doctor Who that completely ignores all of its substance for the (debatably) momentarily gratifying twist? “Christopher Nolan puzzle plot about time travel” according to Golding. Rogers might be right with his analysis of the story… Though I really hope he isn’t: “Oh my god if these alternate dimensions are a layer-caked ‘commentary’ on the repetitive nature of side-quests in videogames I will eat every T-shirt in my dresser–”

And finally, when Booker makes his comment about an “underwater city”… You just spent how many hours in a floating city and going through tears in spacetime, and now he laughs at a city underwater? All it did was remind me again that I was in the middle of a “Bioshock Game.”

Bioshock Infinite the Songbird

I had lots of other little issues with the game, and Rogers brings up many of them in his review: protagonist with no feet, needs no hands to grab things, eating food out of the garbage, etc. I was also sick of the game reminding me what gear was every single time I found a new piece or to “remember to use my Vigors in battle!” Perhaps I wasn’t using my Vigors because I found the guns to be the best option for dealing with the repetitive fights?

A small aside if you’ll indulge me (hell, I’ve already written over 1,500 words so you’ve already indulged me): what happened to the Songbird? Easily the most interesting thing about the game, it feels like Infinite designed the character for an earlier version of the game, found out it didn’t fit with a later build, but decided to keep it anyway. Considering how heavily the Songbird was featured in the marketing, it’s bizarre how unimportant he is in the game.

Don’t even get me started on the Handymen. Those are in the game not to flesh out the narrative like Big Daddies but just because somebody decided “Hey this is a Bioshock game so it needs a big mechanical enemy thing!”

Bioshock was regarded as one of the smartest games. Hell, it even spawned a whole new term used to talk about games and storyBioshock Infinite doesn’t fall into the same category for me. It doesn’t come close. Again I turn to Keogh who put it so succinctly, “Bioshock convinced a lot of people that games could be smart not because it was the smartest game ever made, but because it was the smartest game a lot of us had ever played. Bioshock Infinite‘s biggest problem is that it is not 2007 anymore.” No, it certainly isn’t.

Psychonauts Impressions

Psychonauts Logo

I’ve been on a mission to fill in the gaps of my gaming knowledge. Critical darling and cult favorite PS2/XBox/PC action-adventure game Psychonauts is currently on my plate. I didn’t play it when it first came out in 2005 because I wasn’t as immersed in videogame culture and had no idea what the game was about. It looked weird.

Not gonna lie. Psychonauts is weird. But it’s one of the most delightful varieties of weird I’ve ever played. Too bad the game’s mechanics–controls, combat, and camera–cause frustration to throw a moist (not full wet) blanket over my enthusiasm and enjoyment.

For those who’ve heard nothing about the game, Psychonauts, is a quirky (not really a fan of that word, but it fits here) action-adventure game about a summer camp…for psychics. Strap yourselves in. That’s just the beginning.

Your character–Raz (short for Razputin)–has run away from the circus to attend Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp in order to train and become a Psychonaut–from what I’ve played so far, that’s some kind of government psychic secret agent/spy. I dig it.

While undergoing his psychic training, Raz uncovers a sinister plot that appears to center around a strange dentist with a metal claw for an arm removing the brains of the camp-goers. He does this with some sort of pepper grinder that makes them sneeze out their brains. Gross (but quirky!).

Psychonauts’s humor, dialogue, and writing are its strongest assets. The off-kilter nature of it all is supplemented by the wonderful visual aesthetic. Characters are supposedly human, but none of them share similar anatomies. Camp bully, Bobby Zilch, has blue skin, an incredibly long, slender neck, and a giant orange afro. On the other hand, main character Raz looks kind of like an ant with yellow skin. The color palette used for all the skin tones reminds me a lot of the cartoon Doug. The characters in that show were all blue, green, yellow, purple, etc. Anything that recalls Doug gets points in my book.

psychonauts_wallpaper_by_ayem-HD

The level design also complements the humor and unique character design. Whenever you enter into a character’s mind, the levels are always widely different from each other. Vaguely German/Eastern European, stuffy  Agent Nein has a highly controlled mind that looks like one of those massive computers from the 60s and 70s. But on the other hand, the mind of the giant mutated lungfish is a tiny city called Lungfishopolis. It’s bizarre, surreal, and wonderful all at the same time. And of course everything is made up of slightly deformed shapes and quirky angles just like the game’s version of “real life.”

However, Psychonauts falls apart a bit for me when it comes to the actual game mechanics. Jumping is floaty enough for an action platformer like this, but the camera angles and control sometimes make it hard to judge the distance of your jumps in 3D space.

Combat is another weak spot, especially during boss encounters. One boss fight against a Psychoblaster Deathtank was particularly frustrating because you needed to hit it with a ranged attack only at a certain time. However, your attack can only go a certain distance. But the enemy tank has much greater range than you, and it has a dash attack that’s much faster than you. I spent most of my time trying to stay out of its range, while simultaneously targeting it with the game’s version of L2 targeting/lock-on. Again, the range for the targeting mechanic is much shorter than the boss’s range. The entire fight was an exercise in frustration. Sadly, other enemy encounters aren’t much better.

The combat is where Double Fine’s lack of experience making this type of game really shows. It’s really sad because everything else about the game is just delightful, but I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t want to play it. If I could watch somebody else play the game so I could experience the humor and story, I’d be fine at this point. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I’ll finish the game, but from what I’ve played so far (about 6 hours), Psychonauts isn’t the perfect, quirky gem that it’s been hyped up to be. It’s got a lot of high points but also some deep lows.

A New Way of Looking at Elves in Fantasy Literature & Games

I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy and playing games like The Witcher 2 and Dragon Age: Origins lately, and I find myself focusing on elves. It’s fascinating to see how much Tolkien influenced the depiction of elves in popular culture. Even within this all-encompassing version of elf-ness, there are many different angles that could be explored to create something new within the fantasy literature sphere.

Common depictions of elves

So these games and books got me thinking: elves are always kind of depicted the same way, but even in these similar forms, there are issues that nobody really explores. For example, elves are usually “similar to humans but fairer and wiser, with greater spiritual powers, keener senses, and a closer empathy with nature.” While games like Dragon Age portray them as persecuted, second-class citizens, that wiser/fairer bit is generally accurate. In addition elves are usually immortal or extremely long-lived. This fact is what inspired this post.

If elves live longer than humans, then why is it a common theme in fantasy literature and games for elves to have a smaller population than humans? You commonly see elven characters saying things like, “Humans multiply like insects” or “humans are short-lived people with no connection to nature.” Why is this?

It seems to me that an author could create something really interesting if they explored the underside of “elven culture.” While they are normally serene and harmonious, sometimes authors portray elven society as rigid and socially stratified. There’s so much potential there: a society where you live a long time, but are kept limited in the role you’re able to play.

Elven societies in fantasy literature

Also if men multiply quickly, then why don’t elves? Apparently Tolkien wrote about elven reproduction and sexual norms in “Laws and Customs among the Eldar” in The History of Middle-earth, but I haven’t read it so I can’t elaborate. But still, you’d think because they live for such a long time that elves would be having children like crazy. Do they only have one set of children or something? Why do you rarely see works that focus on elven overpopulation? Think of the social implications of that.

Or if elves don’t have lots of children, is that because they have an extremely low birth-rate where their pregnancies, eggs, larvae–I don’t really know how these made up beings breed–rarely carry to the full term? If that was the case, that low birth-rate would influence almost every level of society.

Imagine if a writer explored these things in a fantasy setting. A stratified society dominated by reproductive issues like a low-birth rate or a high infant mortality rate would at the very least be different from the standard “elves as wise, harmonious nature-lovers” you see so often.

Other fantasy tropes and races

What other fantasy races would you like to see explored from a different angle? Sick of technologically-inclined dwarves that mine for treasure all day? What about blood-thirsty orcs or hungry halflings? Let me know in the comments.

Repost: When Mass Effect 3 and Doctor Who Collide

This is reposted with some minor adjustments from my gaming-related blog over at Destructoid, but I thought it was worth sharing here.

The original article talks about how the interactivity offered by videogames made me feel in ways that books, TV, or movies couldn’t. There’s definitely something powerful at hand when you can take ideas from one type of media and apply them in another. Mass Effect 3 wouldn’t have affected me emotionally if they hadn’t used good characterization and storytelling techniques perfected in places like books.

When Mass Effect 3 and Doctor Who Collide

Originally posted on Destructoid 3/19/2012

I want to talk about Mass Effect 3, but don’t worry, I’m not here to talk about the ending; I haven’t gotten that far yet. Instead I want to talk about how it made me experience one of the most awesome moments in gaming ever. Better yet, it combined my love of the Mass Effect series with my love for Doctor Who. There will be spoilers for those playing through Mass Effect 3.

Mass Effect is one of my favorite series of all time. I played the original back in 2011, years after it was released. I’d heard the name of the game before that, but nothing about more about it. I picked up a deeply discounted used copy and decided to give it a go. I’m so glad I did. Despite certain flaws, the game grabbed hold of me. I loved the space opera story, the meticulousness of the in-game universe and backstory, and the music. (The soundtrack deserves an article all its own).

As soon as I finished the game, I bought a copy of Mass Effect 2 and proceeded to play it through twice back to back. I enjoyed its many improvements and loved its character-oriented story. My companions became my friends, especially ones carried over from the first game: Tali and Wrex.

At first I felt like the character interactions in Mass Effect 3 were lacking compared to Mass Effect 2, and I missed seeing my old squadmates. Then I got to the Tuchanka mission and everything changed.

You go to Tuchanka to earn the krogan’s support by curing the genophage (basically a sterility plague) that’s affected their species for years now. But there’s a twist. Another species–the salarians–implores you to sabotage the genophage cure because they’re afraid that once the Reapers are defeated, the krogan will go on another bloody rampage across the galaxy like they’ve done in the past.

Since I’m playing as a Renegade, I decided to do the “evil” thing and agree to sabotage the cure. Several times during the mission I had to lie to my companions, including Wrex, about my intentions. I know it’s just a game, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.

In order to rationalize my decision, I ended up turning to Doctor Who. In that show, one of the running themes is that everything has its time; everything dies at some point. That’s what I told myself as I progressed through the mission, inching closer to the point when I’d stab Wrex and his entire species in the back.

I thought: The krogan had their time before. They devastated their world with nuclear war. They got a second chance when the salarians uplifted them. Then they blew it again with the Krogan Rebellions. It’s just their time to go now. Everything has a time.

I told myself that over and over until I reached the mission’s climax. I was in a crumbling facility with the salarian Mordin (also one of my favorite characters) seconds away from deploying the genophage cure. Mordin decided he had to make sure it deployed properly. The game presented me with a terrible choice: let Mordin go cure the genophage and potentially unleash the krogan on the galaxy again or murder him and basically doom the krogan to a slow extinction.

My resolve crumbled. Then in my mind’s eye I saw Matt Smith (the current Doctor) standing there in his coat and suspenders. His head is lowered and he’s saying, “Everything has to end sometime…” Dramatic pause. You think he’s going to go through with it, condemning an entire species to death. Then this song kicks in. The Doctor looks up with a maniac’s grin on his face, he points right at the camera and shouts, “…but not today!” Then he saves the day.

As soon as I saw that in my head, I leapt to my feet, pointed at the TV and shouted, “But not today!” My girlfriend in the next room probably thought I was crazy. It didn’t matter that I was ruining my pledge to play as a Renegade; I couldn’t bring myself to betray a friend, murder another one, and condemn a species to death on a mere possibility of a future disaster. I let Mordin go cure the genophage. And then the game ripped him away from me.

That mission affected me deeply on multiple levels. I felt so much for these fictional characters that I couldn’t betray one of them. Then I was devastated when another one was taken from me. But multiple types of media are able to make you care for fictional characters, so it couldn’t just be the fact that I cared.

No, Mass Effect 3 really brought home how the interactive nature of videogames allows the player to experience feelings that TV, movies, or books can only show them. I’ve watched all six seasons of the current Doctor Who, but I’ve never had a moment where I felt like I was in the Doctor’s shoes. This Tuchanka mission did that to me. I felt like I had the weight of galaxies and entire species on my shoulders.

I feel like that kind of experience has to be unique to videogames. Movies and books have played with my emotions before, but nothing quite on this level. Rather than absorbing things passively, I had agency (within the confines of the game’s mechanics and narrative of course) and the ability to change things on a galactic scale. Mass Effect 3 was the perfect game to make me experience something like this because of how well the characters were written and presented since the first game. I doubt I would’ve felt the same way if this type of decision had been presented to me in a different game.

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