12/10/2013

Wow: Dungeon Lords

I have to apologize and take back what I said last time about Dungeon Lords being underrated.  I didn't really mean it, simply because I hadn't given the game enough play time.  I usually have a good sense of sniffing out a good game and a bad game just by taking a quick look at it.  My senses failed me this time and my early judgement of the game just didn't quite pan out like I thought it would.  The game just isn't good...

...it's one of the best games I've ever played.

I haven't been able to put it down since I last posted.  That's three weeks of playing pretty much every night.  If you think that's not that long...you have to remember who's saying it.  I don't play games like this anymore.  With my schedule, putting a week into a game is an epic marathon for me these days.  I've become so jaded with RPGs lately, I sincerely thought that I had known of and played every good one that had ever been.

I'm floored by how good this game is.  I have never seen a game get so grossly mischaracterized as Dungeon Lords has.  The negative reputation it has received is practically criminal.  This is an awesome, awesome game.  It really deserves to sit side-by-side with Gothic, Diablo and Neverwinter Nights.  You often see games half as good as this get mountains of praise.  But I don't want to say this without backing it up.  I want to be more specific as to why this game is so good, many of these features are unique and have never really been done before or since.

Let me preface this by really taking back something I prematurely said in my last post.  You need to play the Collector's Edition, not MMXII.  The changes they did in the MMXII edition are very substantial and almost 100% detrimental to the game.  Even saying that, it's a testament to the quality of this game that I would heap as much praise as I did on it even in it's latest, stripped-down state in my last post.  I purchased the CE about a week ago after I had become curious about some saying that it was a different.

The problem with the MMXII version boils down to the fact that they really stripped out many of the old-school systems that made this thing shine.  Specifically, the character advancement system mimics many other run-of-the-mill systems you'll find out there which goes something like: "get level->earn new skills/stats/spells->rinse/repeat".  Not a bad system (but a joke compared to what the CE does, which I'll get to in a minute), but what they failed to do was to re-balance the rest of the world to work with this sort of system. For example, in MMXII, you gain spells automatically every time you level and each class is assigned a specific spell school.  However, they forgot to actually remove all of the purchasable and findable spells in the game which no longer do anything.  This practically renders half of the vendors and treasures in the game useless.  The nerfed magic system means that one of the greatest things about Dungeon Lords is completely gone.

I could go on and on with others besides magic, but suffice it to say that many of the incredible and thought-out systems have been broken or just removed in MMXII.  Repair, identification, death penalties, stat & skill allocation, and equip penalties are all shadows of what they were in the previous versions of the game.  The game's graphical update is also pointless.  The system requirements went way up for what was essentially a more "colorful" texture palette.  No models or textures were actually changed - they were literally just made more bright.  Widscreen has been implemented, but with some simple hex editing, the CE can be played in widescreen very easily (I'll explain that below).  The ONLY thing that the MMXII does better is to add a lot of new random color-coded loot - but the fact that nothing was rebalanced for these uber items, the game becomes an extreme cake-walk.  And that's another huge issue with MMXII: difficulty.  The game is extremely simple, and I was playing on hard the entire time.

I don't want to spend this entire post talking about how MMXII messed it up.  It's still a good game all on its own, even with all the poor changes and simplifications.  But if you want the real experience as it was intended, go with the Collector's Edition.  It's already patched to 1.5 and ready to play out of the box.  The box, by the way is awesome, it comes in a metal tin with a very nice internal layout.  Again, you can get this on Ebay for less than $10.  Even as I write that, what a terrible shame that this game has been almost universally derided for nothing.

[/epicbackstory]

Okay, now on to the meat and potatoes of this game. Hands down, the #1 most awesome thing about this game is the character development system.  I've said for a very, very long time that Morrowind had the best character advancement system in any cRPG.  Dungeon Lords is the first game that seriously rivals it, if not surpasses it.  That statement doesn't come lightly because my #1 game of all time is getting owned by a supposed and near-universally labeled, "terrible" game.  I can't deny it though, the game let's you play practically any sort of combat character you can imagine.  Now Morrowind also allows you to build a pretty effective passive character too, with lots of points in speechcraft, alchemy and such, but what DL does right it does really well.  Let me explain.

Dungeon Lords gives you a decent selection of 7 races and 4 classes (more like archetypes) to begin with, plus another 30+ "prestige" class upgrade to later on in the game.  Not only that, but you can choose to have a total of 5 simultaneous classes to take on throughout the game if you want (though not required).  Now, right there alone, we're talking about thousands of combinations for character builds.  That would be pretty impressive if that's all it was.  But the game doesn't stop there.  The game has class specific skills that can only be acquired by joining a guild or advancing to certain prestige class (eg. Fighters don't get dual wielding right off), and then there are other skills which your class may take, but aren't automatically leveled in at all when the game starts.  In other words, if you aren't yet trained in the skill, you can't actually use that skill yet.

Now, here's where it gets really interesting.  Your "level" in the CE version is mostly arbitrary, being level 23 doesn't really mean a whole lot.  This is because the game uses advancement points that are awarded not only when you reach a new level, but for every time you gain experience doing something.  Attribute stats and skill levels are upgraded with a cost modifier that gets more expensive the stronger your particular att/skill becomes.  You increase these by spending these advancement points from a single universal advancement point pot.  What makes this so great is that you get to decide where exactly you want to put your advancement points when you obtain them.  If you wanted, you could play the entire game putting no points in your attributes (str,int,dex,agi,vit,hon), and putting everything into your skills...or vice-versa.

Obviously, your skills and attributes help determine how you do in combat.  But it's how they work together that make this highly unique.  The game allows you to equip any piece of weapon, armor or use any kind of spell you find, BUT you will incur penalties if you're not skilled or strong enough to use it properly.  Morrowind did this, but the penalty only applied to the specific thing you were trying to use.  So if you only had skill in light armor and you donned plate mail, your armor class would be greatly reduced.  That's a decent way to represent a penalty, but Dungeon Lords does it even better.  Wearing a set of armor you are not skilled enough to use means that you still gain the full benefit of the damage reduction it gives, but your reflexes become severely hampered - you miss more often, your swing is slower, and your general mobility is reduced.

In practice this has an incredible effect on game-play.  It means that depending upon the situation, incurring penalties for higher damage reduction may be desired.  For example, fighting monsters in close quarters where mobility is impossible anyway, the need for heavier armor to reduce damage temporarily outweighs your ability to move around.  Terrain can play a huge role in your choice in using the right tool for the job.  Crossing a narrow bridge where you're being pelted with arrows suddenly means that your heavy plate-mail and big shield is worth putting on even if you wouldn't be able to hit the broad side of a barn.  At the moment, offense is unneeded for a strong defense.

DL also has a neat way of limiting the jack-of-all trades danger that affects other games.  Not only do races give higher ceilings in certain areas (dwarves, for example can have a higher strength limit than elves), but classes give you learning bonuses.  The cost to increase your magic skills will be far cheaper as a magic class than as a fighting class.  Sure, as there is no level cap in this game, you could eventually make a do-it-all character, but it's not practical and it's certainly not as easy as simply practicing throwing fireballs to become a shake-and-bake wizard ala Oblivion and Skryim.

This brings me to a pet-peeve of mine found in nearly every RPG ever made since the beginning of time (yes, this even bleeds into tabletop RPGs).  Why oh why is there never any benefit to going without armor or a shield?  Some of the greatest fantasy heroes of novel and cinema went without these things.  Remember Robin Hood?  Conan?  Inigo Montoya :)?   Dungeon Lords lets you build a character like this.  No armor or shield skill is ever required in the game and since they skill points are all shared from a single advancement pool, it means that there is a trade-off to make when putting points into any skill.  100 points can be divided into thirds between a weapon, armor and shield, or you can put all 100 into a weapon.  You can make Conan in this game and make him effective, and not just for show.

Onto magic.

The magic system in this game is really cool.  There are four schools: Arcane, Celestial, Rune, and Nether.  You can cast spells either as one time consumable scrolls like other games, or you can scribe them into your spellbook.  You can buy spells from shops or find them as treasure.  Now, first off, anyone can cast any spell, just like anyone can wear any weapon or armor, but the spell duration, strength, and range will be impacted by your skill in that particular spell school.  Each school works drastically different.  An arcane spell that is in your spell book can be cast an unlimited amount of times, but after each casting, there is a cooldown period.  The more times you scribe a spell to your book, the more times you can cast it.  Increasing your scribe skill will allow that cooldown time to go faster.  Celestial magic requires you to obtain crystals, and I still don't even know how Rune magic works.

Nether magic is the most unique of the four.  Instead of finding spells to scribe, you find "katals", or items dropped from creatures in the game that you can mix together to find combinations to create spells.  Once the spell is cast, you have to re-mix more katals to get the spell again.  Think a witches brew.  It may sound complicated, but it's really not.  It's a mini-game that is actually quite fun on its own.  Some ingredients are very rare and difficult to obtain, but they will also provide the most potent magic.  MMXII, unfortunately, completely changed this cool system and put in a mana bar that really dumbed it down.

What really makes this game come together is the way it forces you to perfect resource management.  People will often write off Dungeon Lords by labeling it an "action RPG" like Diablo.  It's so much more than the mindless click-fest that such a label implies.  This game's combat, believe it or not, has more in common with Baldur's Gate than Diablo.  Battles can be paused by going into your inventory screen.  In this game, this is part of the strategy to win.  Running into a group of enemies and clicking a way is a quick way to die.  And death in DL is meaningful because it is harsh.  You permanently lose a random attribute each time.  Dying too much means your character becomes seriously handicapped and in the middle of a difficult dungeon, that may mean leaving to rebuild some broken stats.  This is fantastic - I wish more games would think this way.

Anyway, pausing the game will help you plan a strategy using the limited potions, spells and equipment that you have.  I have found myself pausing often during many battles to plan out my tactics.  "What weapon and armor combo is best in this situation?"   "Should I use the potion of power now or save it for later?"  "I should probably save magic missile for the mages and use sleep on the goblins."  These are common and important questions I ask myself all the time playing the game.  I love old-school D&D because it is all about resource management.  You find yourself looking for every advantage, every small shred of leverage, to give you the edge in your next encounter.  DL mimics this well.  I rarely get through a dungeon without having expended almost every scroll and potion buff that I have at my disposal.

I want to take a moment to talk about the weapon and armor in the game as well.  Everything you pick up comes unidentified.  There's nothing that you automatically know about something you find, even mundane stuff.  That longsword your carrying could be magical for all you know.  I realize this may annoy some people, but I love it.  It's old school.  Identification can be done at a shop for a price, or you can do it yourself with the identify skill.  When trying to identify something, you're given a success percentage.  More mundane items will be easier to identify, the best stuff will be difficult to discover.  Repair works nearly the same way as items will wear down after a while and break.

The weapons and armor, as I explained earlier, have both a strength and a skill requirement.  You may be skilled in using a battle axe, but not strong enough to swing it well.  Not only that, but they have ranges as well.  This is a really neat feature, making these item requirements feel multidimensional.  They aren't just stat boosts in your hands as many other games portray them.  They feel like they have weight.  A strong magical dagger may be quick and powerful when it strikes, but it when trying to deal with multiple enemies, it's difficult to hit them without getting very close.  Swinging a big battle axe from side to side can hit multiple targets in one sweep.  I'm reminded of Gimli at Helm's Deep beheading a row of Orcs in one swing.  You can do that in DL with a weapon with enough reach.  On the other hand, a wide swinging weapon is a detriment in a confined hallway where there is little room to work with.  The only other game that does that, that I know of, is Dark Souls.

Shields in DL are implemented better than any other cRPG I've played.  They play a huge role in the game, and taking a barrage of arrows without one is a quick way to get killed.  You can certainly play without a shield, but you'd better have a lot of points put into speed, range, and/or stealth to make up for it.  I've heard many write off bows and ranged combat as useless.  I'm here to tell you, it's not.  It works well in this game.  It's nothing to write home about, but it's certainly not a dump stat.  It has its place and my current character uses a bow quite often.

I want to take a moment to talk about the story.  I've seen it panned so many times for being just another generic, cliche, fantasy clone.  I really don't understand this.  The story revolves around several intertwined plots: The good king and bad king hate each other.  Each has a powerful wizard ally who also hate each other, so the evil king gets his evil wizard to kill the good wizard and threatens to invade the good kingdom if he is not allowed to marry the good king's daughter.  The good king's daughter is in love with the head of the guard, and when the good king finds out, he imprisons her boyfriend.  When his daughter hears this, she runs away and is nowhere to be found.  The evil king begins his invasion of the good kingdom believing the good king has hidden his daughter on purpose.  So, you're tasked with not only helping to defend the kingdom, but finding out what happened to the daughter, her boyfriend, the wizards, and collecting the lost relics that are hidden around the world. 

The story is surprisingly good.  Even more than that, the story is executed very well and the pacing feels perfect.  I've yet to feel a dull moment in the game.  The voiced dialogue is very good, which is surprising because many games, even the AAA quality RPGs, seem to always screw this up.  The conversations are not too long and not too short, you never feel like you're getting bored reading pages of text, yet you feel like you're getting a good feel for what is actually going on.  Unlike most action RPGs where the story is just a footnote to the gameplay, I always feel like I'm part of something bigger that's going on in Dungeon Lords.

To top it off, the game is multi-player which, as I already explained in my last post, has never really been done before in a 3rd person, story-based, action RPG before.  It can't be said enough just how fun this game's combat is.  It reminds me of a faster-paced Dark Souls.  Everything is snappy and responsive.  Your actions feel like they matter, you never feel cheated by the game.  When playing with just a couple other people, the fun factor goes up even further, and the monsters come in larger and larger packs.  It is possible to see monsters come in groups of 30 or more.  Those big battles are really fun when you and a friend are sitting back-to-back, HP and resources are running low, and you just barely hang on for the last kill.  You don't get that kind of emotion from a game of Baldur's Gate even in multiplayer.  And, yet, DL can be almost just as tactical and strategic as BG.  There's plenty of pausing, regrouping, and changing tactics mid battle to take advantage of terrain and locations.  It's got the best of both worlds going in DL - it's a frantic, fast-paced killing spree, but it's also methodical and strategic.

I am honestly having a really difficult time finding a single thing to criticize the game over.  Every part of it is at least good, great, or awesome.  I would right now honestly put this game at the top of my honorable mention list.  It's hands-down better than Gothic 2.  It's tough to say that, but that game doesn't really have anything on this when I begin to think about it.  However, I'm not quite ready for it to supplant any of my top 5.

Now if you're going to play the CE, you will probably want to modify the game to work on a widescreen monitor.  Follow these instructions (Thanks PitBrat at GameBanshee).

D.W Bradley deserves kudos for this amazing RPG, I believe it's by far, the best game he's ever made.  It's old-school meets new-school and, to this day, there has been nothing released quite like it.

11/21/2013

Underrated Games: Dungeon Lords


Perhaps from reading earlier postings on this blog you've already noticed that I have an unusual taste for the obscure or underrated games and movies.  It's true.  I am a big fan of the underdogs and even the unwanted.  In fact, I find I take interest in games far more when I hear something negative about it than positive.  There's a little voice in the back of my mind that gnaws at me, that wants to figure out exactly why something gets a bad rap.

You see, I've come to realize that, especially in gaming, there is a lot bandwagon support and ridicule that goes around.  There are those certain games that seem to just get near-unanimous praise or hate no matter where you go.  The fact is that a lot of this is just the echo chamber.  Someone hears some faint kudos about something, they repeat it a little more loudly, others chime in, and pretty soon the thing hits "critical mass" and everyone is doing it.  Eventually you see just an average or mediocre game hitting top 10 lists all over the place.  The same thing goes for games of derision.

I'd like to start posting a little more about some of these games that, for whatever reason, have become grossly overrated or have gotten way more criticism than they deserve.  I think that many of these games deserve to get more fair looks from people, and the underrated especially should get a second chance.  Now don't get me wrong, most of these underrated games still have their faults and you won't see many of them hit my list of favorites any time soon, all I'm saying is that the level of vitriol and hate for many of them is completely unwarranted.

One such game is something I recently picked up for a few bucks last week called Dungeon Lords.
Now this is a game that I had heard about ever since it first showed up on the shelf nearly a decade ago.  Unfortunately, the game was released when overhead action-rpg clones were being mass-produced like crazy.  The first words that I read off the box's inner flap was, "...a great looking hack-and-slash experience", and I immediately pushed it out of my mind as yet another crappy Diablo-clone.

Reviews were even worse.  The game was being labeled a buggy disaster - one of the worst games ever made.  And it was certainly true that the game was, and still is (even after 2 more releases) full of bugs, glitches and is poorly optimized.  Originally, some were so bad that many could cause the game to become unfinishable because of a broken npc, script or a locked door somewhere.  I've always thought that it was extremely unfortunate in the gaming world for people to be so critical and pay so much attention to the bugs and ignore the actual content of a product.  Compare this to the restaurant industry, some of the best tasting food I've ever eaten often came from places that looked like it was used previously as 1945 Berlin bomb shelter.  Yet, these hole-in-the wall restaurants often seem to be highly sought after by food enthusiasts because they can often surprise you.  Yet so often in gaming, we seem to blow off everything as crap simply because it may look bad on the surface, never giving it a fair chance.  Even after Dungeon Lords was given more chances to redeem itself through new updates (and the latest release is very playable), the poor first-impression was written in stone and the game was quickly tossed into the metaphorical trash-bin of gaming history.

It's sad that I only really gave it a second chance by accident.  Recently, while reading through a let's play thread about Wizards & Warriors on RPG Codex, I came across someone mentioning that they had wished D.W. Bradley had done a sequel to the game rather than focus so much effort fixing Dungeon Lords.  I never knew this, and was completely shocked to hear that Bradley did Dungeon Lords.  Here's a guy who worked on Wizardy 5-7, lauded by many (again, maybe a bit overrated?) as some of the greatest RPGs ever made.  That guy did Dungeon Lords? My first thought was, "what the heck happened"?

Then another thought hit me, the I have a crush on underdog games, thought: "why do people hate this game so much?".  Here's a guy who has come up with some awesome, really awesome, games over the years.  The guy knows RPGs pretty well, so why would he lay such a rotten egg, much less spend sooooo many years trying to polish it?  See, that's the kind of thing that really gets my interest meter going through the roof.  Bradley saw something in this game that many others didn't and don't, and I absolutely had to know what that something was.  I picked up the MMXII version and have been really surprised so far at how good this game is.

I've spent the last few days playing this game with my two oldest sons - 10 and 7 years old and let me tell you, I've never had this much fun playing a cRPG before with my kids.  Never.  Is it still buggy?  Yes.  There's all kinds of little glitches, rough edges and the thing only runs with a good frame rate on my newest computer, but, holy cow it's a fun and, surprisingly, deep games.  To me, a game with a lot of bugs really means that the programmer was trying to do something original, something unusual that very few have tried before.  As far as originality goes, DL is far from a Diablo clone.

The best way to sum this game up is to consider it a an old-school grid-based RPG first, and an action-RPG second.  I know that sounds weird, but it's true.  I'm convinced Bradley approached this game with attention given to the classic systems first.  Unlike your common Diablo clones today that all follow the same conventions, Dungeon Lords breaks that mold in a lot of ways.  First of all, it has an incredibly deep character progression system.  The current version has, I think, 35 different classes of which your character actually gets to pick 5 throughout his quest.  Wizards & Warriors did something like that, but to a far lesser extent.  I love that kind of thinking because it gives you a chance to mold a character throughout the game, but unlike free-form class-less systems like Skyrim, you still have a character that feels unique and needed in your party.  You have enough choice that you can be who you want to be, but you don't fall into the does-it-all fireballcastingswordswinginghealerarcher class of many other modern games.

When I say that the game feels old-school, I guess it's hard to describe without playing it.  It's all the little things adding up like your character getting status ailments that actually impact movement or performance in real-time.  Or how there are monsters and enemies everywhere, even in the streets of the towns that will attack you.  Or how there is no quest markers, or paths to follow, requiring you to use your brain to solve puzzles.  The art style is non-stylized and fairly gritty.  I almost feel like I'm playing Wizards & Warriors, in a real-time action-rpg combat engine.

The combat system is highly unique in that it is a hybrid skill/twitch-based system that is very fast-paced and is run from behind the back.  And because it's multiplayer that supports up to 8 players, there's no other game in existence that I can think of that does it.  It feels like an MMORPG in a lot of ways, but quick and snappy and without any grind.  I've been saying for a very long time that someone needed to make a game like this.  We either have games like Kingdoms of Amalur or The Witcher that are good and fast, but single player, or we have games like Baldur's Gate that are too slow for multiplayer to work very well.  We need more games like Dungeon Lords.

Other bonuses include a very decent and mature story, a large open world, and a great randomized loot system.  The monsters in the game are done really well too, their animations and AI all feel unique and different.  Every battle feels fresh and, often, real group tactics are necessary to survive to get through a particular area.  I can't emphasize enough how great this game is in multiplayer - if you are going to play it, find someone to play with and your experience will be far better than going at it alone.

The game certainly has its flaws, but I now feel it has received a far worse stigma than it deserves.  It needs a second look from the old-school cRPG community.  It's a roughly cut gem that has been written off as trash for far too long.  Any game, especially one that I can enjoy myself, that can get my kids laughing (and fighting) over is a good game.

Edit: By the way, if you're interested in the game, I've heard good things about the Collector's Edition as well.  The class system worked a little different in that version (which some say is better), but lacks the graphics upgrade and bigger loot variety of the MMXII edition.  I personally prefer the latter myself.  Oh, and if you're a collector like me, the original game is the best one to put on your shelf as it includes the map and the nicer fold-out box art.  You can find any version on eBay for under ten bucks.

11/12/2013

#4: The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall

Eight days ago, my ship sank and left me barely alive, stranded in a collapsed cave and looking for a way out.  I discovered a passageway in the back which led me through an ancient subterranean ruin, riddled with beasts and even the undead.

In the middle of a snow storm, I made my way a few miles south to the small town of Longbury.  Finally gaining my wits about me after a couple days rest at the Inn, I was implored by the local shopkeeper to help him.  Vampires were going to try to kill him at his home that very night and I was asked to fend them off so he could make his escape from the city tomorrow.

I spent the day shopping and found a couple nice outfits as well as a Katana which was far sharper than my shortsword.  I lay up that night at the shopkeeper's home, a small single room home with a loft bedroom.  At a quarter to 9 pm, the undead horrors arrived - two she-vampires with glowing eyes came crashing through the front door.  I swung with my Katana with all my might, but the creature's shrugged off my blows as if made of iron.  I panicked and backed away, but the vampires attacked without mercy.  I thought I was dead.  Then with a great crash, several guards came through the doorway and all went black.

I awoke in a jail cell, wondering why I was chained up.  I was being charged with Vagrancy because I was found in someone's home. I pleaded my cause to deaf ears, "I was only there to protect the home from the intruders!".  When I asked about the Vampires they told me they had seen nothing of the kind when they entered.  I stood trial and pled my case, but was convicted and jailed for 6 days.

I'm free at last, the snow is melting all around and spring is on its way.  I will join with the guild of mages and learn the ways of magic. I wont make the same mistake again, I will hunt the Vampires and find vengeance.

-Jemma June

 And that is a typical week of a character living in the game world of Daggerfall.  The author of the manual's introduction asks the question, "What's the story of Daggerfall?  The truth is simply this: we don't know yet."  Such an appropriate way to introduce a game with so many possibilities.

"And the best thing we game designers and programmers can do is give you what you want, and get out of your way".  How many game developers think this way today?  I dare someone to find any major modern game developer who speaks like this.  Ultimate freedom is a lost art in gaming these days, a mechanic that got pushed out for the eye candy of, what I call, interactive movies.

Today in games, you're put into a movie set with scripted lines, lots of cardboard props and actors and a perfectly orchestrated storyline.  Daggerfall couldn't be farther from this.  It's a giant sandbox where you're given exactly what you need, and almost nothing more, to write your own story for your character.  The game comes right out of the gate and offers you the tools to create a highly unique character.

Character creation is one of the best of any game I've ever played.  The breadth of options to customize your character are great.  My favorite part is building your character's personal history.  The interesting thing here, and one of the things people overlook, is that when you start the game, you can read your personal story based on how you built the character to begin with.  This is a really nice touch when most games never seem to recall character creation again.

Had this game come with better modding tools and we still had access to the source code, there's absolutely not doubt in my mind that this would, by far, be my #1 game of all time.  I've always been a fan of The Elder Scrolls games, but Daggerfall really stands apart as the title that truly gives you a taste of what this series should be about: enormous open worlds.

Enormous doesn't even cut it for Daggerfall, though this game IS, indeed, ginormous.  Unless I'm mistaken, the largest land-based video game world ever made, over 188,000 square miles, or twice the size of the island of Great Britain.  The world is filled with 15,000 locations to visit including cities of varying size, ruins, dungeons, graveyards and much more.  These aren't your average Skyrim-sized locations either, a single larger city in the game can literally have hundreds of buildings (all enterable) and thousands of NPCs to interact with.  To this day, there has never been a game made with the kind of dungeons you will find in Daggerfall.

And the quests.  Oh the awesome quests in this game!  It's amazing how much they were able to do with these when the game was made.  These are not just a bunch of random fedex missions, or kill ten boars grinds.  They are hugely complex and varied, from protecting someone, assassination missions, resolving business feuds, and entangling yourself in political webs.  They are deep as well, often featuring twists and turns that will catch you buy surprise.  Your quest often ends with different results as you make decisions on how to complete it.  Sure, you also get the "kill x" mission, but there is enough variety to make things feel fresh.

You can gain quests in a variety of ways:  through guilds, tavern rumors, political leaders, shopkeepers, maps and journals, and even through common citizens.  I can't think of any game that has as many quest hubs or the variety of Daggerfall.  The game is so huge, you could literally spend a hundred hours in just one town, doing missions for the locals and never even see the rest of it.

You'd think with a game this massive, and as randomly generated as it is, that there would be very little variety and detail.  And it's true that you shouldn't expect the kind of small scale detail as later Elder Scroll games (like being able to pick up silverware), but the game excels at the macro detail.  Each province is unique with different biomes, including deserts, forests, mountains, and jungles, and each has a unique history to uncover.  You can own or steal horses, carts, ships and even houses.  Dungeons, above all, are the prime example of that detail.

Each dungeon location is incredible.  Many have varying locations, such as castle forts, ruins, crypts, etc.  Once you enter the dungeon, be prepared for the most mind-bogglingly massive labyrinth you've ever experienced before.  One dungeon in Daggerfall is probably the equivalent of maybe half the dungeons in Skyrim in size, perhaps even more.  You can literally spend hours in one dungeon and still leave parts unexplored.  The dungeons are quite complex as well, they feature underwater sections, open-standing staircases, and lever-based elevators, secret doors, and traps.  Because of their randomly-based nature, you can find some truly amazing things going on.  Even some of the glitches make things more interesting.  Seeing a door, for example, on the side of a sheer cliff wall is exciting, you'll feel the constant urge to see what's around the next corner, or through the underwater passageway.

They can feel frustrating at times and getting lost does happen often.  But these days it's rather refreshing to play a game that doesn't hold your hand or lead you by the nose through a railroad path, disguised as a dungeon.

I love the Daggerfall campaign, it's my favorite campaign of the entire series.  This is a campaign for grown-ups.  It's deeply political and requires real thinking to get through.  Not only is it a mature storyline, but it is branching and has multiple endings.  Many of the quests can be completed in more than one way as your character can ally himself with different factions throughout the adventure.

The game does have its weaknesses, the biggest being the fact that the source code no longer exists.  If this was still available to modders, I can't imagine how much could be done with it today.  There is currently a makeover being worked on right now using the core engine with some promise called the DaggerXL project, but what this game really needs is a full remake by a serious studio.  Even barring that, this game is still amazing and stands tall even today.

11/09/2013

#5: Neverwinter Nights

I wrestled for quite some time about putting this game in my top 5 and leaving some of the gems I've already mentioned off, but in the end I decided that this game stood out for one major reason.  I'll get to that in a minute, but first let me get the basics out of the way.

Neverwinter Nights is a game that came out with very high expectations.  It was riding on the coat-tails of the epic Baldur's Gate series and had a lot to prove.  3D gaming was just getting started and everyone was jumping on the bandwagon as quickly as they could, often to the detriment of game quality.  A lot of people were caught up in the hype and, to this day, many games from the era were quite overrated because of it.

To be perfectly forthright, I think NWN was overrated right off the bat - it got high marks mainly for the graphics, not for the initial campaign game-play (which was honestly not very good).  But in the end, that turned out to be alright because this game ultimately deserved what it got.

So what is Neverwinter Nights?  It's an RPG/DM client tool that came with a sample campaign out of the box to get you started.  If you were to judge this game solely on its initial campaign, you'd be completely missing the point.  To this day, there still hasn't been a computer toolset quite like NWN.  Sure, there have been plenty of RPGs since then that have tried to include DM tools (including its sequel), but none of have held a candle to both the accessibility and breadth of options that this game had.

It's still quite a mystery to my why there hasn't yet been another game made since that has done so well a job of mimicking the DM/player RPG experience on a computer.  There have been some attempts since then, but none have come close to doing it as well as NWN.

The ultimate beauty of NWN is the plethora of amazing custom modules that can be downloaded and used to play with.  Some of these modules literally rival many of the fantasy classic RPG story lines we've come to consider the best of the best and can last dozens of hours of playtime.  Not only that, but there are some wondrous multiplayer servers out there with custom scripting and massive, amazing worlds to explore.  It's hard to rate this game because, although the core campaign that ships with the vanilla game is less than spectacular, the amount of user-made content turns this into a diamond in the rough.  It's like a hundred great RPGs wrapped into one if you consider it all together.

I've spent a lot of time scouring the web in search of the best modules and would recommend the following as the cream of the crop:

  • A Dance With Rogues
  • Alazander Series
  • Auren Series
  • Careena Krakona
  • Cave of Songs
  • Citadel
  • Cormyean Nights
  • Darkness Over Daggorford
  • Diablo Lord of Terror
  • Eternum
  • Eye of the Beholder
  • Honor Among Thieves
  • Midwinter/Midsummer/Midnight Series
  • Prophet
  • Rose of Eternity
  • Runes of Blood
  • Sands of Fate
  • Shadowlord/Dreamcatcher/Demon Series
  • Tales of Artera
  • The Aielund Saga
  • Torslunda
  • Tortured Hearts I & II
  • Wanderer
My personal favorite is The Aielund Saga, a colossal adventure with an amazing story which will take your character from humble beginnings at level 1 to battling demons and demi-gods at level 30.  You can't go wrong with any of these though.  Many of these modules require the CEP add-on, a free community-made mega-pack of extra assets to really flesh out the worlds.  And don't forget to get the NWN shader mod and updated texture pack (NWNCQ) which does a great deal to bring the game's graphics up to modern standards.

With these mods (and many more), to this day Neverwinter Nights is one of the few "desert island" games that could literally take up a lifetime or two to fully experience.  While I was never that fond of the move to 3D and 3E, NWN's strengths more than make up for its shortcomings.  Because of that, I proudly welcome it to my list of top RPGs.

Delayed

I apologize for being MIA for so long.  It wasn't that I had run out of ideas to post about, it's that I have gotten so caught up in trying to decide which games will go into my top five that I have been experiencing quite a lot of analysis paralysis.  To do these games justice, I've been having to replay them again as a refresher and have been writing their reviews concurrently which has added to the time.  Also, I've been playing some games lately that have really made me consider moving some things around on my lists.

I will be posting my #5 shortly, but may be adding a game or two to my honorable mentions as well in the coming weeks and months.  I just want to make certain that these games are something I truly appreciate and not just hyped up in my mind because they are new.

5/31/2013

Top 5 Video Games: Honorable Mentions

Below is my long list of video games that almost make it to my top 5, but not quite for whatever reason.  In general, I have a more favorable opinion of the games at the top compared to those near the bottom, thought that's subject to change depending on my mood.

Next up will be a post dedicated to my #5 favorite game of all time!

Gothic 2
There was a time a few years ago when this game unseated my long-time favorite for the top spot.  Granted, the newness of Gothic 2 wore off eventually and it slid down a bit when I was able to see things more objectively, but I still have to say that if there was one game that deserves my "sixth man" award, this is it.  It hurts a little to leave this off my top 5, and I can say without any hesitation that this is something very special.  This is one of the very last games made with a modern 3D engine that still held true to old-school RPG mechanics.  And by that I mean, puzzle-solving and high difficulty over level-grinding.  This game reminds me of Fable without the cheesiness of Peter Molyneux; a beautiful, non-scaled open world full of quests galore, and highly realistic AI.

This game makes you feel like there is nobody there to hold your hand.  It's very easy to wander into an area with monsters way beyond your level, but the game never stops you from doing that.  It also doesn't stop you from taking on quests in any order or of any difficulty that you want.  This is one of the few games during this time period that had NPC AI that used real schedules, you had to wait until dawn for the shops to open, and important characters for quests could only be found at the right time of day depending on where you were.  Although this is common in later games like Oblivion and Skyrim, this game was way ahead of its time.  "Radiant AI" truly started with Gothic 2.

Even monsters made use of a highly advanced AI.  Like a Monster Hunter game, each monster had its own tactics that took time and effort to overcome.  They even stayed dead permanently after you killed them, making you feel a large sense of accomplishment after defeating them.

One other thing I have to mention about this game that no other game has ever done as well, is make you feel a sense of belonging.  You don't start out feeling like a hero at all.  You feel like a peasant, and you are treated like one from the very beginning.  However, as time goes on and you accomplish more things, people start reacting to you differently.  I don't think that any other game has ever done this as smoothly and as effectively as Gothic 2.

What hurt this game was the lack of character creation options - sure you could mold your hero between melee, ranged and magic, but you were limited to a static male human to start out with.  Also, the control system was pretty poor.  I would play this game a lot more often if it wasn't so difficult to actually control.

Even with its flaws, this game is amazing.  And while I haven't played it myself, I've heard that the original Gothic is also superb, even if it falls just short of its sequel.

Baldur's Gate 2
Some may be a little shocked to see that this game isn't in my top 5, and to be honest, I'm surprised myself that it isn't there because this game is legendary among RPG fans.  This game is epic in every sense of the word.  Loosely based on the 2nd Edition D&D rule-set and set in the Forgotten Realms, BG2 is a massive game with tons of quests, treasure, NPCs (many of which are recruitable) and story arcs.  Character creation is deep with nearly all of the 2E kits and subraces available to play with.  I've always felt that 2E D&D worked far better as a video game system than a pen & paper game.  The tactical nature of the combat, the strict rules, and all the options worked great with a computer DM running things.

The story of this game is pretty amazing, and features probably one of my favorite gaming villains of all time (perhaps I need to do a top 5 villain list sometime), Irenicus.  There are many choices to be made during the game that can influence the characters you can recruit as well as the direction the story goes.  There are factions that can be joined, including the assassins guild, where you will have a chance to ascend the ranks and battle the opposing factions.  The variety of people, places and things to find is staggering.

The combat system is something that many grognards of cRPGs constantly pine for whenever a new RPG is made.  Each battle can be solved in a variety of ways depending upon your party make-up, and because of the huge amount of spells, combat often reminds me of a frantic wizard battle with a large variety of spells and counter spells.

Now you may be asking why this isn't in my top 5.  For me, its strengths are also part of its weaknesses.  The game, especially later on, starts to become a little too overpowered and bloated if that makes sense.  I've always said that D&D was a game balanced for low level characters, and the high levels kind of got left along the wayside.  On paper, things work okay, but in real practice slaying demi-gods with demi-gods begins to wear thin after a while. 

Another bother for me in this game is the combat system.  In the late game especially, magic characters have become so powerful that combat becomes a puzzle or mini-game and really starts to bog down everything.  In fact, it gets bad enough that in order to win combat encounters you often find yourself dying the first couple times on purpose just to know what spells and attacks the opposition uses.  For me that, really kills the immersion.  In D&D you don't get to save scum failed encounters, you live and learn with your mistakes.  Of course, you do have a choice not to save/reload but much of the large story-based dungeon crawls in the game basically require this or your party will be unable to continue on at all (only way to get out is forward).

Those reasons keep this game out of my top 5.  A great and enormous game, kind of buried by its own weight in a way.  For someone else this may not be a big deal, as I think many people love running battles over and over again to get them pitch-perfect.  Even though I love this game, the high-level combat slog puts a damper on it.

Diablo
No, not Diablo 2 and certainly not Diablo 3.  Diablo was the game that still kept intact many of the concepts of the rogue-likes it mimicked while providing a superbly atmospheric real-time action experience.  The first time I saw this game was on the back of a Warcraft II CD case.  One single screenshot of one of the most amazing games I had ever seen before got me so excited that I pre-ordered almost immediately.  I remembered gazing at that screenshot for weeks and weeks prior to the game's arrival in the mail.  This seemed to be the game I had been waiting for, for a very long time.

When the package finally arrived in the mail, I remember seeing the black and red cover and the amazing gothic art and calling my best friend to run over as fast as he could to check it out.  Over the next few days, I played the game non-stop from dawn to dusk.  My friend bought the game and we were soon slaying demons together.  The initial hype of the game matched the game-play so well that I soon started to feel obsessed over the game, as if the game itself was some kind of Lovecraftian relic of evil.

One day after dying a gruesome death deep in the caves and losing all of my equipment, I took the disk out of the tray, put it back in its case and packaged it back in the box.  I gave the game to my mom and told her to hide it.  "No matter what I say or do", I told her, "don't give me the game back".  What followed was something I can only describe as the scene from Young Frankenstein where Frederick locks himself up with the monster and wants to get out.  Of course my mother wouldn't give me the game back and I had to tear the house apart to finally find it after she had gone shopping.  Yeah, I was hooked on Diablo.

Why is this game on my list other than for the reason above?  Well, the game's good, really good.  This was before we were spoiled with green, blue, yellow, and purple drops, when good drops were really rare.  Hearing that ring or amulet drop became the most awesome sound in the world, it was like hitting the jackpot.  The difficulty was high as well which made a great risk vs reward system.  On a normal game taking on the skeleton king or the butcher was extremely difficult because you couldn't go back to an easier level and grind for experience.  You had to use what you were given up to that point.

The game's theme was really dark, perhaps the darkest, most creepiest game made up to that point.  Corpses were hanging all over the place, blood spattered on the floor when you killed a monster, there were terrifying screams in the soundtrack.  You have to realize that at this point in time, games didn't go this far.  But Diablo didn't pull any punches, it wanted to make you feel like you were literally going to a place of your worst nightmares when you played this game.

On top of that, each time you died in multiplayer, you dropped everything....everything.  Unless you had a friend nearby who had inventory room, or you were extremely lucky, you would never see your accumulated items again.  To add insult to injury, if you lost your internet connection after losing your equipment (someone picked up the phone in your house, for example), you knew you would never see your stuff again.  I can't tell you the episodes of terrible of rage I would feel when the game would suddenly freeze up and I'd hear my sister upstairs yell, "oops, sorry".  NOOOOOO!!!!!

But that's what made Diablo great.  It was a hard, unforgiving game, and the theme matched it perfectly.  Death meant something in this game, entering a new level meant risking everything each and every time.  When those acid spitters started to surround me in the caves, I'd start sweating and tensing up, knowing that I could lose at any moment, and I knew I might possibly never see my new yellow sword again.  Games, especially modern action RPGs, just don't do this anymore.  That's why I'll never see them hold a candle to the original.  All of the crazy loot drops and crap you can get in D2 and D3 will never compare to the chilling moments of survival in Diablo where each step meant life or death.

I recently came across a mod for Diablo that I like very much.  It's called The Hell.  This mod takes everything I loved about the game and enhances it big time.  The game is even harder, multi-player is better, many bugs are fixed, and there is a far greater variety of items and monsters with better AI.  I highly recommend this mod to anyone who wants to make the game even richer and more rewarding than vanilla.

Space Rangers 2
This game will always be special for me.  It's not often that I like a game that is not themed swords & sorcery fantasy, but for so many reasons SR2 does enough to make it one of my favorite games of all time.

What I love most about this game is the living, breathing universe that it is set in.  I can't think of many games that give you the same kind of simulation.  Every NPC-controlled ship in the game has real motivations and goals and affect the way the world works in many ways.  Pirates gangs target specific ships and systems, merchant and other commercial ships travel from system to system trading their goods for profit.  The economy is constantly changing based on how these NPCs move their goods and how things are being impacted around the galaxy.

For example, if pirates are raiding a nearby system, you can get news updates about the situation including quests that will ask for your help in eradicating them.  Depending on the situation, the price of medicine will also go up from the supply shortages due to the destruction in the area.  It is a completely dynamic system that makes you feel a part of an amazing greater world that operates with or without your participation.

The enemy in the game, the Dominators, are also dynamic and survive on their own AI.  They take over systems all on their own, conquering like some Borg intelligence regardless of your participation in the war.  If the game goes on long enough without your help, it is very possible for the Dominators to take over the whole galaxy.  Now, why haven't there really been any games made like this in a fantasy setting?  I think it would work tremendously well.

The dynamic world is not the only thing that makes this game great.  The game-play itself is tight, diverse and a lot of fun.  The game is unique in that it combines a lot of different systems to mix it up.  In addition to the open world exploration where you'll spend most of your time, you'll engage in a turn-based tactical combat system with multiple combatants.  You can recruit a helpful bystandard to your battle or even be called upon by others to help those under attack or preparing to attack.  Many of the game's planetary quests are done using a text-based decision system very similar to the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, some of them are very complex and very difficult, including exploring a planet's surface, and even the adventure of serving prison time.  Less often you will partake in planetary skirmishes with robot armies using a simple RTS interface.

All of these sub-systems taken on their own wouldn't be very interesting, but taken together, the game feels like a collection of working parts that operate well together.  They provide a nice break from the regular space exploration and do a great job of filling in the gaps that most other space games like Elite fail to deliver.

I just love this game, it's a fun romp through the universe, even if it does get a tad monotonous if played over a long period of time.  I recommend getting the reboot edition which fixes bugs and adds even more content to the game.

Wizards & Warriors
Of all the games on this list, I think this may surprise people the most.  The game got panned pretty hard, not only by reviewers, but by many gamers even today.  Some love it, but most probably dislike it.  W&W suffers, more than anything else, because of its timing.  The game was not only released during the same year as Diablo II and Baldur's Gate II, but just 5 days later in late September of 2000.  Had it released a few months earlier or later, it may have had a better shot at success.  Evidence of that can be seen in Wizardry 8 which was released the following year and got far more accolades than W&W.  The result was a game that was unfairly judged based on the elephant in the room rather than on its own merits.

Some criticism of the game was deserving, it shipped with a lot of bugs, some game-breaking which also hurt its score, even if most were later fixed.  This game was also criticized for so many old school mechanics that many people were trying to get away from in the age of isometric, tactical RPGs.  Many, however, fail to realize that the game was designed and programmed by D.W. Bradley, who did Wizardry 5,6 and 7.  This game was meant to be the ultimate culmination of his ideas from those games - the ultimate first person RPG in the vein of the classics.  And in many ways, unlike the opinion of many (with the notable exception of IGN), I think he succeeded.

I've always felt that Wizardry 8 did too much to abandon its predecessors' mechanics in favor of modern gaming trends.  Wiz 8 is much more of a hack-n-slash game with highly-linear locales and a high emphasis on grinding.  W&W still held true to the old-school RPG: a massive open world to explore, crazy options for character creation, difficult and maze-like dungeons, and lots and lots of puzzles.

The reason for my putting this game on this list is simply to recognize that this is probably the best incarnation of the classic first-person RPG ever done.  The game is a joy to play, the world is full of things to see and do, the combat system feels great, puzzles are fun, and customization is deep.  The graphics engine is dark and atmospheric and provides just enough graphical innovation to make it feel fresh while not sacrificing the old-school feel that it was based on.

For whomever has missed this game, or those who want an accessible version of the old school style first-person RPG, this is quite possibly the best representation I can think of.  I highly recommend it.

Deathlord
This is a game I only recently purchased for my Commodore 64.  But I've had so much fun with it, I couldn't rightly justify keeping it off my list of honorable mentions.  In a lot of ways Deathlord is to Ultima as Wizards & Warriors is to Wizardry.  Take what you loved about Ultima 3, 4 or 5; huge world to explore with lots of secrets, dungeons, monsters and treasure, puzzle quests that are solved by deduction, and then multiply it 10-fold and you get something like Deathlord.  I do love the Ultima games, Exodus being my favorite, but I think Deathlord is just plain better.

This game is huge.  It's made up of 16 continents both small and huge, 128 different monsters, 20 gigantic dungeons, 8 races, and 16 classes.  I can't think of another computer game with that many race/class combos.  The game-play is very similar to the early Ultima games which comprises mainly of searching towns and dungeons for clues, gathering relics, and gaining experience points and gold to spend on levels and loot.  It's classic fantasy computer role-playing at its finest.

The game is extremely hard as well.  If a party member dies, the game will auto-save meaning that there is no way to really load a backup on the same disk and replay a battle.  I honestly wish every RPG had this built in, especially for a game like Baldur's Gate where it's simply too much of a temptation to reload and get every fight perfect.  If a character dies in Deathlord, the player will have to resurrect him or replace him with a new character.  If there is a total party wipe, then the player will either have to start over completely with a new party, or use the new party to get cash to raise the old one.

The dungeons are awesome, and unlike Ultima and other early tile-based RPGS, vary wildly from one to the next.  They are full of killer traps, monsters and treasure and, best of all, require you to map with paper and pencil.  A game that has no auto-mapper will always get extra props from me.  A great game should transcend the screen, it should be an experience.

The biggest downside for this game, personally, is the oriental setting, which is quite unfortunate.  Originally, the developer had planned for it to be set in a standard medieval world, but EA forced him to change it last minute.  Leave it to EA to screw a game up, even all the way back then.  This makes it difficult for westerners to figure out the Japanese word for Elf and Chainmail and ends up becoming a barrier to new players.  That being said, the game itself is so good I can live with the setting, even if it takes a little more manual checking (Hint: Don't even try playing without a manual!).

Although I haven't played this game long enough to put it in my top five, it may end up there some day, that is if I can survive long enough to find out!

Pool of Radiance
I've always felt like this is the spiritual precursor to Baldur's Gate.  The game takes place in the Forgotten Realms and was the first game to really get tactical combat right.  The game is really one of the best translations of D&D to the computer, and I believe this is only one of the few games that uses the first edition rule-set.

The reason why I love this game is because it combines Bard's Tale exploration (first-person) with tactical combat to create a very balanced and effective combination.  All of the components, from quest gathering, to shopping for items or hanging out at the inn, to dungeon-crawling make a sweet combination.  This is a complete game here, not a cute system pigeonholed to be an RPG.  The old Might & Magic games were great (2 being my favorite), but they were essentially a grind.  Grind mechanics have become a convention for the lazy developer and are pretty inferior to the old-school puzzle-solving mechanics.  While PoR has some grinding, it mixes it up enough to minimize the effects pretty well.

This, along with its sequel, is a game that I haven't played long enough to put in my top rankings, but there is a great game here.

Fallout
I've already discussed this game in a lot of detail in an earlier post, so I won't repeat it all here.  I just want to say that there's no way I could not include this game on my honorable mentions list.  The game's method of providing a completely open experience, nearly unparalleled by any game, is highly unique.

Why Fallout and not Fallout 2?  Well, unlike most, I felt that the sequel, while even bigger and more detailed, was just a bit too unfocused.  The game meanders a little too much and there just isn't the tight experience there like in the original.  Fallout 2 is a great game, but I felt the original was just a little better.

One might also ask why I didn't put up Wasteland or even Fallout 3.  Wasteland is a great game, but it still lacks the amazing options of Fallout as well as the great combat system and deep options.  And, I'm sorry, but Fallout 3 is just no good at all.  The game doesn't even try to simulate the deep world-changing choices of the original, nor does it make resource management all that important.  Like other recent Bethesda games, it's a first-person-shooter at heart disguised as an RPG.

Space Empires 4
SE4 is the only non video game RPG on my list.  It was a hard decision to include it as I don't play many strategy games, at least those that don't include some sort of character development and choice.  But this game is so good, I couldn't leave it off.

SE4 is the best turn-based strategy game I've played.  This game is as detailed as a strategy game gets.  The tech tree is so vast and detailed, and there are so many options in the way that you can build your empire that games can vary in vast ways.  The game is also one of the most moddable in existence.  You can tweak nearly everything including many core game mechanics.  I'll admit that SE5 is even more detailed than SE4, and I love that game too, but it suffered a little from a poor interface and a little more barrier to modding (and required a better machine anyway).

SE4's game-play is just about as good as Master of Orion 2, but the more modern engine and the modding support push it over the top as my favorite space strategy game.

Final Fantasy 6
I know, I know, an eastern RPG?!  Am I nuts?  Well, no, not exactly.  I put so many hours into these games during my childhood that I don't think I could keep this off my list and feel good about myself.  And maybe this mention is more of a compiled tribute to all of my favorite console-style RPGs like Dragon Quest, Chrono Trigger, Tactics Ogre and the Final Fantasy series up to and including 6.  For table-top gamers, admitting you like some of these games could be considered heresy, but having had a chance to revisit a few of these games recently, I have to say that they share a lot in common with D&D.  They often feature customizable character parties, non-linear worlds (at least for some of them), and lots and lots of dungeon crawling.

Are these sandbox worlds?  No, of course not.  And that really makes their label as an "RPG" questionable at best.  But take them for what they are, enjoyable stories with some interesting mechanics, and they can be a fun ride.

I think the thing about these games that many fail to see and what sets them apart from western computer RPGs is the meta-game systems.  What I mean by that is that these games are not meant to be immersive.  If you go into these games attempting to get the same, "I feel like I'm part of another world" experience as a wRPG, you're doing it wrong.  These games and their mechanics are really meant to be exploited and "gamified", if that makes any sense.  The best way to enjoy a console RPG is by using walk-throughs, player guides, and player collaboration.  The Monster Hunter series continues to work in Japan because people understand this there.  Don't play for the scenery, play to exploit.  Creating the most awesome character by finding the best piece of equipment, battling the most rewarding monsters, and combing through the deepest dungeons is how you get the most out of it.  In other words, don't play a console RPG like an RPG, play it like a treasure hunt.

Now, the reason why I put Final Fantasy 6 on this list is because this is simply the best eastern RPG ever made.  I would put Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 4, and Dragon Quest 4 just after it, but FF6 has it all; amazing story, huge list of characters, awesome villain, lots of freedom, and great dungeons with lots of loot.  You'll lose over 100 hours here hunting down the secrets of this world, building up your perfect fighting force, and finding and overcoming challenges.  There's a lot here to have fun with, the type of console RPG fun that has never been outdone since in the console world.

Having said that, I don't put this game, nor any console RPG in the same area as western games.  They make for a fun diversion, but they don't have the same lasting appeal to me as a true fantasy simulation.  That doesn't make them completely worthless, nor worthy of some of the scorn I see them given by some RPG grognards on our side.  Enjoy them for what they are, and you'll see its good qualities.

5/28/2013

My Top 5 Video Games

Ever since I started this blog, I've been wanting to do a post about my favorite video games of all time.  I've been spending some time playing my #1 favorite over the last few days, so I thought it was the perfect time to do a countdown.  Rather than do a single post, however, I thought it would be better to do a separate post on each since there is simply so much to talk about for each one.

The problem with doing favorite game lists is that you inevitably leave some games out that were just on the border, or perhaps so similar to another (that ended up being just a little inferior) that they didn't need to be on the list.  Rather than just make my list even longer by doing a top 10 or top 20 or something like that, I decided to just create a list of special mentions or "runner-ups".  There are simply too many great games out there that come near to perfection, even if they aren't my greatest ever.

It is incredibly difficult to narrow down a list of games as your "best" and do it in an objective manner.   Too often our tastes are clouded by nostalgia or, the opposite, novelty and sometimes the flavor of the moment fades into obscurity.  When coming up with this list, I tried to be as objective as possible, explicitly leaving games off that I may be infatuated with right now that I know may be impacting fair judgement.  Perhaps the new games I am playing (new to me, not necessarily newly released) may end up in my favs list, but it would be unfair to do that until I've let some time to let it sink in or have had more time to play it.

I felt that limiting my list to 5 games was the best because I think that making a list any longer than that results in games being added purely out of a particular mechanic or system that I may be a little too impartial toward.  Another thing I want to say is that my top 5 games likely won't stay the same forever.  If you asked me just a few years ago, my favorites list would look a lot different.  In a few years I may have to revisit the list and add updates.  Having said that, as I said above, I'm trying to add only the games that have lasted the test of time for me, games that have been favorites for many years.  Barring the retail release of Star Trek style holo-decks in my lifetime (which may not be so hard to believe considering how fast technology moves), I can guarantee you that most of the games in my top 5 (especially my #1) will be there forever.

One last thing I want to briefly mention is the the way I judge games.  Right off the bat, I want to say that I don't go by some mathematical formula to figure this stuff out.  If you want that, there's another guy doing this on his own blog.  While I can see the value of this, I feel that it boils things down in such a stale, black and white fashion, that all emotion gets sucked out of the review.  Since I see video games as an art form, you can't simply run a formula to figure out their value.  For example, counting the amount of colors, paint mixture, size and shadowing does not tell you whether a painting has value or not.  "What feelings does the art invoke through its elements?", is the better question to ask.  And, yes, this means that it all boils down to subjectivity in the end, but most people can agree that there are just certain video games that fall within their favorites because of the way the games' components come together to deliver an amazing experience.

So to begin my countdown, in the next post, I'm going to start with the runner-ups and honorable mentions together first.  From there I will dedicate a single post to each of my top 5.

5/13/2013

Tracy Hickman

While visiting my parents over the weekend, I had a chance to briefly chat with Tracy Hickman for a few minutes about some of the projects he's currently working on.  He was out doing a yard sale with his wife as is customary with much of the local community every May. 

He sounded pretty excited about Garriot's Shroud of the Avatar project and has been putting a lot of work into making it as great as it can be.  He also hinted about a new story-based boardgame he's going to be kickstarting very soon which sounds pretty awesome.  This got me talking a little about how I thought it was great that I share the same vision for player-driven content with him and that I thought it was awesome that he was trying to push such innovations on a market that seems to be stuck in a bit of a rut lately.  Before I left, he gave me a signed copy of The Immortals which was great.

I'll admit that I'm not the biggest fan of his books themselves.  I haven't read anything outside of the Dragonlance series, and while I enjoyed those books, I've always had a softer spot for Salvatore's Drizzt and company (sorry Tracy!).  Nonetheless, I greatly admire Hickman's contribution to D&D and table-top RPGs in general, probably more than any other Fantasy novelist.  His story about how he got into the hobby is pretty amazing and something I've always considered a real act of bravery.  Not only were his parents against it at the time (his dad wanted him to work at Sizzler instead), but the faith that both he and I share, like many Christians, was not exactly friendly to Dungeons and Dragons back in the 80s.

We will never know for sure, but without the contribution to D&D from Tracy Hickman, table-top RPGs as we know them may have never truly caught on as a mainstream phenomenon in the United States.  For the first time, the title of Dungeons and Dragons was being widely seen on store shelves, not only in hobby-shops, but in your average bookstore.  Even though this is the point where D&D began to become more commercialized and bloated by rules and supplements, I can't argue that without this metamorphosis, many, including myself, may have never even heard about the game.  So in a round-about sort of way, Tracy Hickman led me to this game through his work and I greatly appreciate him for that.

I hope to have more chats with him in the future, it certainly helps that he lives almost directly across the street from my parents in Salt Lake County.  I'm excited about his new projects and hope I can get some personal insight into his work.  Rubbing shoulders with one of the great RPG pioneers is an awesome opportunity.

4/11/2013

RPG Dictatorships Cont'd

I thought this podcast was really pertinent to the last post on how more rules have actually had a detrimental impact on RPGs, min 17:40 to 26:29, especially around min 24:30.

Link

Fair warning:  There is quite a bit of poorly "bleeped" swearing.

One comment from this section bothered me a little as well: "You didn't know the rules well enough, or didn't know every aspect of it to not let yourself get into a trap".  

This is really the reason why I stopped playing 3rd Edition, more than anything else.  I may have mentioned before in an earlier post, but I was running a Pathfinder game over Skype a few years ago and we got into a combat situation with some Darkmantles that just became unfathomably complicated.  By the end of the session, I was so disgusted with the rules I never touched the game again.

When did RPG preparation go from world building to rules studying?  Seriously.  Who honestly has fun researching monster stat blocks for each unique ability and how those abilities affect your party's skill and feat lists before every game session?  RPGs should be about imagination, they should be about turning that awesome movie we saw into a game setting.  We should be building dungeons with the finest of detail, and fleshing out NPCs, treasure, and traps with all our energy.  That's what RPGs should be about.

But this requirement to know "every aspect" of the rules is offensive to me.  First, I doubt there is anyone who can claim that, considering all of the support books for modern games.  And second, I guarantee you, there is someone who will know it better.  Law is only as good as its lawyer.

And if the rebuttal is, "well just DM Fiat difficult situations", or "use common sense", then why play with such heavy handed rules in the first place if you'll throw them out for classic adjudication anyway?  Do you live by the rules or common sense?  Make up your mind.  If it's the latter, I say get rid of your fat book of rules and start building fantasy worlds, not fantasy court rooms.

4/10/2013

RPG Dictatorships

Being at a 4E table is better than being at a classic table for exactly the same reason why it is better to live in a country with a rule of law than living in an authoritharian country. - Moronic Blogger

I'm not sure what an "authoritHarian" country is, but it must be something like an authoritarian one.  Regardless, I'd like to address this for a moment as it nails down the biggest argument proponents of modern RPGs use to defend their game.

First let's just put aside the fact that using imagery of Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, North Korea or Obama's USA to equate with a game played in your living room is not only an absurd straw-man, but pretty reprehensible to those who suffered under those regimes.  I mean, if your game resembles anything like those kind of governments, I'd suggest, first and foremost, to get out as fast as possible before A) you get gassed to death, B) go hungry, or C) get shot by a drone.  That's my first advice to anyone suffering under such terrible conditions, because those that truly did or do live under such countries didn't/don't have the luxury of escaping themselves.

But for a moment let's assume that the author of this quote was being just a tad bit little hyperbolic.  Let's talk about how dictatorships really work.  I've never heard of one where the dictator literally runs his country without laws he has setup to do the job for him.  Dictators love to sit back and relax, take vacations, and go to lots of parties, you know, the whole getting fed by grapes and getting fanned by his worshipers thing.  He creates a massive police force backed by a laundry list of laws and regulations to do his dirty work for him.

You see, dictators don't last long if they are dishing out their punishment first-hand.  They want to maintain the propaganda of being detached from it all, like video from Hitler's Austrian retreat, his book, Mein Kampf ("My Struggle"), or Obama's White House parties.  They want to put off the aura of "hey look I'm cool, I'm one of you!  Everything's going great!".  A dictator looking like a dictator to his enslaved populace would soon have a riot on his hands.  And that would be no good at all.

I suppose in this way RPGs are not much difference.  Classic D&D DMs had a lot more power than modern DMs...or at least that's how it appears.  In reality, since DMs in the old school game were essentially "the law", they had to be on their best behavior: kind, trustworthy, and above all, fair.  Because if they weren't, the players would know exactly where and how to vent their frustrations and/or leave.  Dictator DMs don't get away with it in classic D&D because they are held accountable for their actions every time they run a game.

And let's not confuse words here.  A true dictator hides his evil behind laws and rules, maintaining a good face in public.  A true leader makes good judgement because he makes himself fully accountable for his actions.  He doesn't hide behind laws or rules.  Even in cases where a bad DM gets out of control, players are fully able to change their group and find one that works for them.  Changing DMs in Classic gives players the liberty to choose the game they enjoy most because the rules are designed to be adjusted and changed very easily.

So who is playing a game that rules most like an evil dictator? In a modern game of D&D, you have a system that claims, "we're fair and balanced because we have a lot of rules to make sure everyone plays so".  A player that comes to the table can essentially dictate anything he wants just as long as he is able to find a rule in a book somewhere to back it up.  So you have a recipe here of a true dictatorship, and not just one, everyone.   Because everyone at the table can wash their hands of their own rules, "Hey don't look at me, it's the book's fault, not mine!".  The term, "rules lawyering" really started during the post classic era of RPGs because anyone could dictate the game if he knew the rules well enough.

Now I'm not here to claim that if someone wants to be devious, they can't be devious in any game system.  A bad DM or player is a bad DM or player regardless.  But in the case of Classic D&D, the arbitrator of rules falls on the lap of 1 person and 1 person alone.  Getting rid of the bad apple is not a matter of arguing over a rule in the book (which can be interpreted in a thousand ways), but a matter of a decision of common sense.

And here's the thing, you can easily change rules by changing DMs in Classic, but you can't change the rules by changing DMs in modern.  The rules are the rules in modern gaming because they are part of the core rulebook.  Now you see how this is starting to remind you of those poor people of true dictatorship more and more.  They couldn't get away from it, the law was the law no matter where you went.

A country where a true dictator or king makes rulings for his people typically ends up in disaster because it's not so easy to get rid of them.  In an RPG, however, where the DM is accountable directly to his players, he cannot hide poor play.

Modern RPGs are a dictatorship of rules and rulebooks, where players and DMs have no accountability, where they can wash their hands of wrong-doing because of rules.  Being a dictator in modern D&D is just a splat-book away.  Classic D&D provides total freedom because accountability starts and stops at the table not the rulebook.

4/08/2013

Plot-Lines

Bing:
plot or dialogue: the plot or story in a book or dramatic presentation, or the dialogue needed to develop the plot
 
TheFreeDictionary.com:
1. A literary or dramatic plot; a story line.
2. Dialogue essential to the development of a plot in a drama.
 
Wikipedia (redirected to "Dramatic Structure"):
the structure of a dramatic work such as a play or film...
a drama is divided into five parts, or acts, which some refer to as a dramatic arc: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. 
 
A blogger recently used the word "plotline" as an ingredient to describe a sandbox RPG.  If any of the definitions above bring to mind a player-driven game, I want to invite you to my new table-top game this weekend, a live reading of Othello where you can have an exciting adventure voicing Iago, and Desdemona with me!

4/03/2013

RPG = Player-Driven Narrative

"Takes two to tango".  A very old idiomatic expression that simply means that "stuff" doesn't really start happening until more than one person is participating.  We can daydream all day long in our basements, living rooms, garages or what-have-you, but until we get off our butts and do something about our dreams, they amount to nothing.

RPGs are not very different.  I spend a lot of my free time world building in my gaming closet, I draw maps, I study modules and publications to get ideas about monster and NPC design, I read novels from various fantasy authors for inspiration, and I play old-school CRPGs and fantasy board games to get a glimpse of where RPG history went.  The result of these things are a collection of great gaming worlds.

But they don't matter.  They are just props.  A collection of props that I put a lot of TLC into, props that have lots and lots of potential, but they're still lifeless set pieces stored away in the closet of imagination (or in my binder) ready to come to life if someone decides to use them.  Me or someone else.  These things are not what makes an RPG.  They could be used for anything at this point: I could write a fantasy novel with them, code a video game, maybe try my hand at a amateur fantasy film and put it up on YouTube.  They don't have to be part of an RPG.

The key ingredient to an RPG is the players themselves.  When they make decisions in the game, these objects come to life and are given a story.  In my games, my players get to make decisions to affect, direct, destroy, or enhance those objects.  When they walk past a street in my imaginary village, suddenly all of the dead NPCs come to life, suddenly the town drunk is yelling obscenities while tripping over himself, suddenly the guards are on patrol, suddenly the world has come to life.

Sometimes as a DM I act as a player, but I have the whole world at my disposal, not just the props where the characters are wandering through.  The assassins' guild is carrying out missions, the caravans are getting attacked by giants in the mountain passes, the king is getting played by his power-hungry advisors.  Many of these things never reach the ears of my players until much later, or never at all.  But I breathed life into them nonetheless, they existed and lived and made decisions because I, as a DM-turned player made it happen.

Are my players forced to know about these events?  Of course not.  Because if they were forced to, they would no longer be role-playing.  They would be READING MY SCRIPT.  They would be under the illusion of role-playing, but they would be simply following a novel written by me.  Any game that forces players down a road that they have not made a decision to follow is not a Role-Playing Game.  They've lost their role, whether they know it or not.  They are merely witnessing a group of characters, like Frodo and Sam, taking their tour through someone's canned world, adding in their input to humor themselves that really makes no difference to the end result.

Am I dissing on my game world?  No of course not.  I once posted about the Lovecraftian approach and how we should view our worlds as perhaps actually existing.  I don't take that back.  Our worlds should be role-played as if they are real. We should take our role-playing with complete seriousness not taking in meta elements from our own world.  When we have entered that world, it should feel like it's something real, but when we leave, it doesn't continue living unless we're there to make choices in it.  It goes to sleep, it freezes in time, the lights go off....that is, until we return.

RPGs are sandboxes, they are created from player decisions creating life out of NPCs, weapons and places that are nothing more than words on paper until they are acted upon.