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Archive for December, 2011

2011: NGD’s GOTY

I sure do love me some acronyms.

You know, for awhile I was all but certain Deus Ex: Human Revolution was going to win the prize for my Game of the Year (the value of that prize being somewhere in the negative zone). I loved that damn game. I even said it was better than the original Deus Ex.

But looking back on it, I think I may have jumped the gun. DX:HR had far more refined and functional gameplay than DX1, especially in the stealth department. I still stand by that statement. It also had a fun hacking minigame and a shockingly interesting and intuitive persuasion system. But on the whole, I just feel like it wasn’t quite as memorable as DX1. HR does pose some very interesting questions surrounding the concept of transhumanism, but DX1 had a myriad of ethical dilemmas and a wonderfully complex web of conspiracies, and I still rate the ending as the best ending of any game ever, and a perfect example of how to do the whole Big Ending Choice trope correctly.

I think the reason I loved DX:HR so much was because it’s such a perfect fit for me that I sometimes wonder if Eidos Montreal made the game specifically for me. It’s a stealth/shooter RPG set in a cyberpunk dystopia where you get to jump abnormally high, backstab unsuspecting guards, and wear a badass coat. I honestly can’t imagine anything that would be more appealing to me personally, except maybe if it also featured space pirates or ninjas. But it seems like nobody else liked the game quite as much as I did, and I guess that’s fair enough. Maybe it wasn’t that amazing.

But hey, you know what was kind of amazing? Bastion. A brilliant independent action-RPG with a virtually unprecedented art style and method of storytelling, one that presents a thoroughly fleshed-out world and an engaging, sometimes heart-wrenching narrative while rarely interrupting the flow of gameplay. This game took a lot of risks and played with a lot of big ideas, and it’s refreshing to see how well it sold and how much acclaim it received.

Honorable mention goes to Portal 2 and Skyrim. They were both great, if for very different reasons, but I think Bastion deserves the pedestal today.

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Morrowind: First Impressions

Turns out my brother had a copy of the Morrowind Game of the Year edition in his closet. Since I’m kind of getting bored with Skyrim, I figured it might be fun to give it a look. I’ve heard it’s leagues better than Oblivion and read arguments that it’s as good as or even better than Skyrim. This is a pretty high expectation to live up to.

The game doesn’t say how long I’ve played it so far. I’m gonna guess that I’m maybe an hour or two in, although I did have to reroll my character. I’ve completed the first two quests in the Fighter’s Guild in Balmora, if that’s any indicator. Now I feel like I’m supposed to talk about it.

Where do I begin?

Hustle!

It takes forever to get anywhere. No, I’m not complaining about the lack of auto-fast-travel. I actually like that. I like the idea of having to travel myself or pay for transit from city to city. I’ve always felt that the instant fast travel system of Oblivion and Fallout 3, while convenient, sort of undermines the whole “big epic world of exploration” thing. And I like having travel and survival as core mechanics. It’s why I’ve spent far more time on Minecraft now that they’ve added hardcore mode.

No, I’m talking about movement speed. This sounds like a petty complaint, but it really screws with the flow of the game and it’s incredibly aggravating. Athletics is one of my primary skills, and yet even when I unequip all my armor my movement speed is still eye-twitchingly slow. Even getting from the armor shop to the magic shop takes far longer than it should.

Also, in Skyrim you can walk at a slow pace, run at a reasonable speed, or sprint at a fast pace, which drains stamina. In Morrowind you can run at a slow pace, or run at a reasonable speed, which drains stamina. Considering you could run into a fight within a moment’s notice and it takes forever to regain stamina, the game is sort of encouraging you to walk everywhere, which is horrendously boring. Jumping also drains stamina, so if you want to be ready for a fight, you can’t even spam jump to level up your acrobatics.

Yeah, okay, maybe that’s more “realistic” than being able to run from city to city without breaking a sweat. On that note, I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who said, “He who sacrifices fun for an unfulfilled pretension toward ‘realism’ deserves neither.” Games thrive on an engaging moment-to-moment experience, and that falls flat on its face when you have to wait for five minutes while your character paces slowly back to town.

It’s also worth noting that the whole “big epic world of exploration” feel is really let down when the view distance doesn’t let you see more than 50 feet in front of you.

Wow, just look at that mountain! Erm…

The combat is a slog. This was back when devs hadn’t really figured out how to meld the genres of action and RPG properly, so you end up in a scenario where you see your character swing her sword directly into the rat, and yet the game tells you that you missed somehow. What? How? I saw that rat get hit in the face!

The system of missing and hitting according to the Dice Gods works in games like Fallout or Baldur’s Gate because those games don’t involve coordination or reflexes, and you’re not really in direct control of your character. If they didn’t have the dice rolling in place there would be no intrigue and no pass/fail chance in place (until you get to complicated Chess-like scenarios, but I digress). In an action RPG, especially one set in first person, you’re the one that’s determining whether you live or die, not your character. And when you miss because of something that was completely out of your control, that just feels like the game cheated you out of victory.

Beyond that, so much of the combat is spent spamming the attack button and hoping you don’t miss that it gets boring before you’ve even killed your first rat. Skyrim has a fairly elegant combat system in place for fighters, wherein you essentially play an ongoing rock-paper-scissors using attacking, blocking and bashing. Block counters light attack, heavy attack counters block, bash counters heavy attack. You have to constantly pay attention to your opponent’s attacks and counter appropriately, and it’s not exactly God of War, but it works. Morrowind, by contrast, is more sleep-inducing than Ambien.

Sneaking is horrendous. My first character was built to be a sneaky ninja, but once I realized how horribly unintuitive the stealth mechanics are, it was only a matter of time before I’d reroll as a warrior. In Skyrim you can see how close NPCs are to detecting you, as indicated by an opening and closing eye in the center of the screen. In Morrowind there’s no indicator of anything. You just crouch, steal the item and hope nobody spontaneously lashes out at you.

On top of that, in Morrowind crouching into “sneak mode” is not a toggle and can’t be set to a toggle. You have to hold it down constantly. Who thought that would be logical? How often would a ninja attempt to sneak past hostile enemies and then find that his pinky is sore from all the crouching?

Like I said before, I like survival and I like travel. I want to like Morrowind. I really do. But the game is just not making it easy for me. Oblivion was a complete mess, I know. I agree. But I’m really questioning the idea that Morrowind wasn’t also a complete mess.


Ninja Lounge House

I’ve decided to make a second blog. This one’s called Ninja Lounge House.

Recently I’ve really wanted to make posts about things not related to gaming. I’ve wanted to talk about my personal life, and I’ve wanted to link to videos and sites that I find interesting, despite not having anything to do with games or the gaming thereof. But I want to keep Ninja Game Den as a gaming blog, and I don’t want it to get drowned out in miscellaneous crap that most of you probably won’t care about, so now I’ve created NLH as a secondary podium for me to shout at nobody in particular.

I created NGD so I could improve my writing skill, entertain a hypothetical audience, and get my name out. Whether I’ve achieved any of those as of yet is open for debate, but it’s worth noting that NLH does not exist for any of those purposes. It’s there for me to speak my mind, vent my feelings and talk to the Internet when I have nobody else to talk to (which happens often, as a matter of fact). If you do decide to follow it I sincerely hope you gain some sort of entertainment value out of it, but that would be a side-effect of its primary purpose.

Anyway, take a look if you have any interest in me as a person rather than me as a writer of gaming articles. And if you don’t, that’s fair enough. I still love you.


Skyrim: Guild Requirements

There’s one major difference between Skyrim and previous Elder Scrolls games that’s been stirring up a lot of controversy. (Note that when I say “controversy” I don’t mean media attention; I mean nerds arguing with one another on forums.)

Bethesda has adopted a mentality that the player should be able to experience all the content on one playthrough without having to worry about min-maxing and stat whoring. We first noticed this in Oblivion, where it was possible to become the leader of every guild (though doing so was a challenge and required some planning in the leveling and stats department).

Now in Skyrim you can basically take command of every guild and complete every questline regardless of your build. The two most notable examples are that you can become Archmage without ever learning more than a few low-level spells, and you can become leader of the Thieves’ Guild without ever having to sneak.

So the big question is, is this a good thing or a bad thing? I’ve heard arguments for both sides. Some people say the fact that any questline is beatable with any build diminishes the point of character building in the first place, and that it breaks immersion when someone who is clearly only a beginner at magic is revered in the Mage’s College as a master of the elements. On the other side, people say that you still have the option not to go into those guilds that don’t make sense for your character, and that withholding content from you because you picked the wrong choice ruins some of the fun.

On one hand I agree that my character should not be Archmage when she’s been spending all her time hiding in shadows and backstabbing, but on the other hand, I think Bethesda’s new philosophy with regards to content is great. The idea that you can’t have access to entire questlines until you reroll a character can be irritating, and I always figured the appeal of differing player builds was having different approaches to the same challenge, not being given different challenges altogether. After all, Deus Ex has a wide variety of play styles, but you go through pretty much the same levels no matter what you do. It’s all about how you play, not what you play.

I read a forum post that I found very convincing on the matter…

I love how I can join every guild and be everything in Skyrim. If I had to remake a character just so I could experience the Mage Guild, I would never have experienced the Mage Guild. Do you know what this encourages? Google searches that ask:

“What class has the best quests in Skyrim?”

There’s a lot of truth to this. If I wasn’t a fan of stealth, I wouldn’t have ever experienced the Thieves’ Guild questline if it required me to be sneaky. It’s supposed to increase playtime by encouraging replays, but instead it decreases playtime by limiting your options. And there’s certainly still replay value, because each play style still feels substantially different.

Then again, it still does break immersion when you can lead the Mage’s College without being a mage. Yes, you can simply refuse to join guilds that wouldn’t make sense for your character, but the fact that the option is still there can break your suspension of disbelief. After all, the reason Bill Gates hasn’t won the Ultimate Fighting Championship isn’t because he’s simply chosen not to; it’s because he can’t.

So here’s my solution, Bethesda. Don’t change your approach to player content. Let everything be open to everyone. Instead, simply take away the guilds that are supposed to be accessible only to certain builds, and replace them with guilds whose defining characteristics don’t involve specific character attributes.

Some of the guilds in Skyrim already work this way. The Bard’s College doesn’t really have anything to do with the skills you unlock in the game, so joining it makes equal sense no matter what build you have. The Dark Brotherhood works, because all you really need to be successful in it is a passion for assassination. Even the Companions sort of work, since despite individual members claiming “we don’t use magic” or “we leave the hiding and backstabbing to the cowards,” ultimately it’s just a group of people who like to fight.

The two problematic guilds are the Thieves’ Guild and the Mage’s College. I’m not sure how to make the Mage’s College work, but the Thieves’ Guilds could absolutely work if it was just tweaked a bit. I mean, they already took away that silly idea from Oblivion of the guild basically being an order of Robin Hoods. Now you’re basically an organization of thugs with ties to an influential corporation. All they’d have to do is ditch the pretense of the guild being sneaky and nonviolent and there you go, any and all are welcome.

With that said, I definitely like Skyrim’s approach more than Oblivion’s and presumably Morrowind’s. If the game isn’t fun enough for me to play through a second time anyway, I’m not going to do so just so I can go through another guild or two that I couldn’t before. And if I do want to do a second playthrough, I’d want to go through all those fun questlines again, not be walled off from them because I picked a different class this time around.