Skyrim: Dragonborn (PS3) – Bethesda

Where Are We And What Are We Doing?

For those of you who came in late: I’m sitting here in the Cave of Assessment, my mystical retreat located halfway up Mount Experience, atop which sits Hazizi’s Palace of Enlightenment, somewhere in Nahyoupushedittoofaristan. This is where I do all my reflection and scoring of videogames while chowing down on some weird grey hallucinogenic algae.

Hazizi’s Holiday House, aka The Palace of Enlightenment

The Cave is a lot like Skyrim – it’s wintry, I’ve spent hundreds of hours in it and it used to be a lot buggier. And Skyrim is why I’m back in the Cave. Beautiful, solitary Skyrim (review here), which I haven’t played for a year.

Skyrim came out in November 2011, yet only now in 2013 do us long-suffering, no-friends-online-having, third-place-this console-generation-getting PS3 owners get our hands on Skyrim’s chunkiest add-on so far: Dragonborn. The question is: is Dragonborn a case of “It’s Too Late“? Or is it “Finally“?

Preliminary preliminings

For Dragonborn, I loaded up my second, less-advanced character: a level 36 sneaky archer Khajiit called Snappy Tom. After such a long hiatus, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to play Skyrim, as if somehow I’d forgotten how a Bethesda game works, or that without my supervision Snappy Tom would have dropped out of shape, gotten rusty on his skillz and pawned all his cool enchanted gear for skooma. But within mere seconds of inserting the disk and then within 15 minutes after that, downloading and installing the mandatory software update, then within a further couple of minutes after that waiting for my save game to load, it all came flooding back: Skyrim is primarily about listening to music while watching a loading screen. I remembered how to do that, no problems!

Once I was actually in the game, it didn’t take long to reacclimatise. All my gear was in my house in Whiterun where I’d left it and — surprise surprise — on Snappy Tom’s person. I took Snappy Tom out to the wilderness, aimed for a map location and slipped right back into the satisfying rhythm of adventuring. Beyond simply remembering how to play, it felt good to be back; the break made the game feel fresh again. It was like returning to a favourite holiday spot a year after you were run out of town by the locals and discovering that no one remembers you so you can do it all again.

The other benefit of a long break is that the game has been patched right up. Water used to be the scariest part of Skyrim, not just because I was playing a cat-man but because the game would freeze up if I even dipped a toe in. This has been fixed, along with numerous other issues. It shouldn’t really be a positive to say that something that should have worked the first time now works, but I appreciated it.

So for my first few hours, I didn’t even touch Dragonborn, I just enjoyed playing Skyrim again. But Dragonborn isn’t happy with that — it has ways of making you engage with its content!

Tell Me A New Tale — Spoiler Free Story Outline

The main story of Dragonborn is that there’s this dude Miraak on the island of Solstheim who has heard of you going around calling yourself Dragonborn and he’s pissed because he’s also Dragonborn and he sees it as a major branding conflict. I mean, he’s already taken out full page ads in the Solstheim Tribune and booked major ad spots during the Fredas night Troll Fight. Plus, he’s using his Dragonborn powers for evil and enslaving people and whatnot.

Instead of coming to a practical franchise zoning agreement where you can be the Skyrim Dragonborn and he can be the Solstheim Dragonborn, Miraak wants to settle things Highlander style — There Can Be Only One — so you have to go to Solstheim to deal with him. Dragonborn brings urgency to the situation in a clever way: Miraak starts showing up when you kill dragons and he steals their souls before you get them. That had me packing my bags toot sweet. I heard he was enslaving people and I went “meh”, but once he started stealing my Dragon Souls, it was Clobberin’ Time!

Solstheim is a separate island which you can go to and leave at any time. Solstheim has been done before in Elder Scrolls games: it was in Bloodmoon, an expansion to Morrowind, and those who played Bloodmoon will notice some continuity with that earlier incarnation. Some of the Morrowind music makes a return too, which will twang a few nostalgia strings.

Geographically Solstheim is located between Skyrim and Morrowind, and this is reflected in the environment. The north side is Skyrim: arctic and Vikingy, while the south is Morrowind: ashy and Elfy. The south side sits in the shadow of a recently-erupted volcano, which smokes ominously on the horizon. It turns everything brown, but despite the brown, the south side has refreshingly different architecture, clothing, wildlife and plants. Virtual tourism has always been one of my favourite things about Elder Scrolls games, so I really dug having different buildings and people to look at. A standout was Tel Mithryn, the village of mushroom houses with nary a Smurfing Smurf to be seen.

Raven Rock really pulls off that “covered in volcanic ash” look

Solstheim is impressively big. It is basically a new Hold, with a main city, Raven Rock, and plenty of forts, ruins and dungeons to traipse around in and find sidequests. Just as each Hold in Skyrim has city quests that lead to getting a house there, so too does Solstheim, and the house you can get has all the crafting facilities that today’s busy executive Dragonborn requires.

You Is Where You At — New Places and Quests

The main quest will take you to the realm of Apocrypha, which has a decidedly Lovercraftian vibe. By “Lovecraftian”, I mostly mean “Critters with creepy face tentacles”, but also the environment itself. Apocrypha has its own flavour, with features you don’t find in other dungeons around Skyrim. The effect is weird and unsettling: physics-defying architecture, corridors that change direction as you walk down them, tentacles that emerge from black miasma and lash you, and toxic clouds of dark gas. The rewards are handy too. When you finish each dungeon in Apocrypha, you can choose from some interesting new abilities or perks, such as the ability to summon your own tentacles, or one of my favourites: summon a Daedric merchant so you can flog loot and restock arrows mid-dungeon without needing to head back to town.

They call him the Seeker … He been searchin low and high … he ain’t gunna get what he’s after … till I stab his eye …

Solstheim is generally just a little bit a freakier than Skyrim. There are dozens of sidequests, which often start out normal enough but take odd twists. One particular example involves a bunch of warriors who have been kicked out of their Mead Hall by a tribe of goblin-like Rieklings. Usually this would be a straight out “clear the critters” assignment, but in this case you can choose to side with the Rieklings. Although many quests are combat-oriented, a number of them have solutions that cater for other skills, with opportunities for persuasion and sneaking. That said, Skyrim ain’t Fallout and it is near impossible to play a total pacifist without subcontracting your killing to a follower.

As for the NPCs you’ll meet in Solstheim, Bethesda seems to have recruited from 2 main voice acting schools: the Arnie Schwarzenegger Academy and the Dick Van Dyke School of Cockney Guvnor. Despite their dodgy voicework, the characters are reasonably interesting and have a little more attitude — you start out as an outsider in Solstheim and people give you some stick. Neloth, the arrogant wizard who lives at Tel Mithryn, is particularly amusing.  There’s even talk of a special dude you only meet once you hit level 80 — I haven’t got that far yet myself.

The Dwemer ruins and other locations are not just carbon copies of their Skyrim counterparts either.  Dwemer ruins in particular have more difficult puzzles in them, so you’re not just looking at a dragon claw to open a door. There’s a few new dwarven guardian robots to cause you grief.  The ballistas on legs pack a wallop, with armour-bypassing, staggering crossbow bolts.

In fact, many of the Dragonborn critters seem tougher than your average Cave Bear, so I wouldn’t recommend going before level 30 unless you are playing on Easy. Ash Spawn can throw fire at you, Burnt Spriggans are resistant to fire, Reavers seem to be a tougher version of bandits and then there’s the annoying jumpy exploding spiders. Also, there’s a few new named Dragons and Dragon Priests, with their highly-enchanted masks. Rieklings are not so tough, until they swarm and one of them rides a boar into you. Ouchy!

A Netch is a Netch, to fetch to fetch, have you ever heard of a retching Netch?

What Have You Done For Me Lately — New Stuff

As well as the new environments and enemies, Dragonborn adds new elements into each of Skyrim’s systems: alchemy, enchanting, crafting, magic, even cooking.

If you are into poisons, you’d love Solstheim because scathecraw is all over the south end and it has 4 poisonous effects.

Enchanting gets a new effect you can add to weapons: Chaos Damage, which is a 50% chance to do extra fire, frost and shock damage all at once — a kind of “all or nothing” effect. Also you can unlock a place to enchant your own staves, something that seemed strangely missing from vanilla Skyrim.

Crafting gets a new material to use, Stalhrim, and new armour and weapon types to craft: Bonemold, Chitin, Nordic and Stalhrim. Stalhrim is especially receptive to frost or chaos enchantments.  And there’s a place where you can make your own annoying jumpy exploding spiders.

Each school of magic gets some new spells. Conjuration in particular has been given a huge shot in the arm with a bunch of new critters to summon. Restoration gets an offensive spell in the form of a poison rune.

Cooking has, err, new recipes for things you can cook and eat.  Does anyone cook in Skyrim?

There’s also new Dragon Shouts to unlock. Cyclone is fun, as it sweeps enemies up in a mini tornado, and drops them stunned to the ground. It’s good for crowd control, if a bit similar to Unrelenting Force. The big ticket item is the shout that lets you ride dragons … yeah baby! Once aboard a dragon, you can direct it to attack targets while casting a spell or shouting yourself, and you can use it to fast travel. I can’t wait to use it back in Skyrim proper to cause some radiant havoc around a giant’s campsite.

They get good mileage, but parking is a bitch

As for loot, it is plentiful and there seems to have been an effort to cater for character builds that may not have got much love in the main game. There’s a unique set of armour and swords that are geared specifically for dual-wielders, some awesome unique two-handed weapons and even some rings to wear if you’re a werewolf. Whatever your build, there should be some loot that takes your fancy.

More, More More — The Digital Appraisal

Overall, Dragonborn is a fantastic add-on for Skyrim. If it had simply provided “More more more” vanilla Skyrim, it probably would have been good enough, but what lifts it to greatness is that Bethesda took the opportunity to try new things, fill some gaps and improve on Skyrim’s original formula. There’s easily over 20 hours of things to do in Solstheim, and besides dealing with Miraak to stop him sharking your dragon souls, you don’t have to do it all at once. Solstheim is just an extra place you can visit now. It had me fantasising about if Skyrim was connected to Cyrodil, which was connected to Morrowind … oh wait, I guess that’s what the MMO will be all about.

As I keep saying, the true mark of good DLC is whether it draws you back into the game, even after a long absence. Dragonborn did this and then some. I am further impressed that it managed to do so after a year’s break. Even after finishing up a bunch of stuff in Solstheim, I am hook, line and sinker back into Skyrim and loving every minute of it!

Category Rating
Game mechanics: 10
Atmosphere: 8
Addictiveness: 9
Overall:

9

 

– Felix

Advertisements

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PS3) – Firaxis

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

The following message was intercepted from a downed UFO and totally NOT plagiarised from a Polish gaming site and put through Google translate.

What is game? XCOM is game.

This game makes fun of alien invasion of Earth, which has serious portent if true.  Not Will Smith being seen however.  Instead become Bill Pullman: commanding soldiers to fight aliens (but not an air pilot).

In giving name and hair to your soldiers, bondage grows thick and playtime ensues with added personal feeling.  Also humorous is to send electronic messages to the reality friends who are the namesakes, announcing to them their death.

Mission maps hold tactical intrigue.  Battlement with adversaries occurs at shopping mall, petrol station or other place.  Cover is important but mostly out of reach.  Best action results from teamwork; the lone ranger rarely emerges victorious.

Choices are relatively few but vital: take difficult aim, dash further for improved shot or stay back and be reactive?  Tactical decisions are boiled essentials, with detritus scraped away.  Controlling is a gale, retaining focus on tactics not twitching.

Similar to benevolent sporting duel, luck also participates.  Do not mourn a misfire from 90% success chance, for such is true mathematics in operation.

Many will die, friend and foe.  When friend perishes, do not reload!  Vicissitudes of war must be borne with dignity.  Memorial with haunting bladderpipes preserves memory of fallen comrades.

After mission, return to base.  Scientists reside to research better kit and engineers abide to build facilities and tasty guns.  Valorous soldiers find promotion and special abilities to use in mission, making increase of team value.

Addiction grows from virtuous circle: mission success yields spoils to imbue base and personnel with belongings.  Once there is the new item, you are tickled to have next mission for item use and need to recoup spoils for next items. Virtuous circle closes.

Firaxis makes a game here like Civilization — player can stop at any juncture but is still compelled to play until dawn from pure mechanic flow.  True joy springs from emergent individual feats, recounted later around fluid dispenser.

Foreshadowed replay is inevitable.

Behold!  A new master for consoles arises in the strategy desert.  Some say Valkyria Chronicles arrived previously, but XCOM omits teen angst to be best of kind.

Category Rating
Game mechanics: 9
Atmosphere: 8
Addictiveness: 10
Overall:

9

– Felix

Civilization V: Gods and Kings (PC) – Firaxis

Hazizi: OK Felix, nice to be back in the Cave. I’m glad you got rid of that smell! How did you manage it?

Felix: I drilled a ventilation shaft through the back of the cave.  The shaft runs for 163 metres in a straight line and has a diameter of only 2 cm.  The exit hole is somewhere in the study on the ground floor of your Palace of Enlightenment.   Drilling such a narrow shaft for such a distance was incredibly difficult, painstaking, and required me to jerry-rig some equipment and develop engineering techniques hitherto unseen by man.  I have sold some of my discoveries to mining companies, surveillance groups and espionage agencies.  This skinny air shaft may win me a Nobel Prize or land me in Guantanamo.

Anyhoo, that’s why you haven’t heard from me for a few months.  It’s also how I knew about your NFL fantasy draft choices….BEFORE YOU DID!!

Rightio.  I wondered why my study ponged a bit.  I thought it was an egg sandwich I left in a desk drawer.

Now last time I was in here we did a joint review of Civilization V [here it is], which we both quite enjoyed.  I’d also like to add that the patches they’ve added since that early edition have done wonders (Wonders!!!  BOOM BOOM!!!) for the game – removing glitches, improving the AI and balancing out the power of different buildings, units and social policies.  And I think we might in part have Steam to thank for that, as the game designers can now monitor the success rates of different civilizations and strategies and tinker with the game mechanics to rebalance it.

That’s a good point about using game data for designer analysis … but I am still ambivalent about Steam.  Although Steam is good at managing patches in the background and keeping the game up to date, it’s suckered people into accepting an always-on DRM regime.  I’m not 100% comfortable with Steam being the doorman for my Civ, even if it currently is a very polite doorman who tells me if my friends are in the building.  That could all change one day … what if Steam sold out to Facebook or Disney or something?  Yeah.  Think about it.

Now unlike last time we can’t review this one together because, well, I haven’t actually bought this yet.  But I have spent an afternoon on mate’s couch watching him play, and I know you’ve been pumping some hours into it, so I’m thinking we do this one as a bit of a Q&A session, where I play the role of Tony Jones and take everything you say as a comment.  I did make some preliminary judgements so I’d be interested to hear if my hunches were correct. So here goes…

Q. Firstly, the big ticket changes and additions, in no particular order, are religion, espionage, new Civs, new units, new resources, new wonders and improved AI.  Is there anything I’ve missed there?  And can you tell us about your early impressions of the game and thoughts as you started trying out the new stuff?

What you’ve missed in your list are the amendments to the existing Civ systems: combat, diplomacy social policies and science.  Not every single change is a winner in my book, and it’s hard to itemise them all here.  Here’s some notable biggies though.

Combat has been overhauled, largely for the better.  Most notably, units now have 100 health rather than 10.  This effectively means they can take more hits before going down.  The insta-heal promotion doesn’t fully heal anymore either, it gives 50 points.  There are new units and upgrade trees, most notably being the inclusion of First World War units before the more modern units.  Crossbowmen upgrade to Gatling Guns, a ranged unit with only 1 tile range.  Gatling guns are wicked.

Best of all, naval combat has improved to the point that ships are actually relevant.  Ships now have either melee or ranged attacks, and melee ships can take cities. That’s right — beware the ancient era trireme rush!

On top of this, as I will discuss later, the AI is way better at combat.

Diplomacy has been substantially improved, mostly by being made more transparent.  The diplomacy screen now tells you the consequences of different positions to take with a Civ.  Finally I understand the significance of making a declaration of friendship or being denounced!  You can check your diplomatic history with a Civ and see why they hate you so much.  You can establish embassies – a great way to find their capital on the map.

Other Civs will change their opinion of you depending on your social policies.  It’s funny when you secretly go Autocracy then other Civs pop up out of the woodwork to welcome you to the International Brotherhood of Fascists.

There are more things to do with City States: a larger variety of missions you can do to gain influence, and the option to bully City States for cash or units.  Some City States also have unique resources that cannot be found on the map.

The tech tree has been puffed out to accommodate faith and for other reasons I suppose.  Great Scientists and Research Agreements don’t give one free tech any more — they give you a number of turns’ worth of your research output.  Instead of hoarding scientists for that advanced tech that takes 33 turns to research, there is incentive to hoard them until your science output is at its peak and then cash them in for maximum beakerage:

Overall, these improvements to the pre-existing systems of the Civ V make Gods and Kings a must-have, before you even get to the religion and espionage.

Q. Well, let’s go through the new systems.  Firstly, religion.  My first thought was that it was great to have religion back again. And while in some ways it is handled similarly to in Civ IV, there do seem to be some major differences.  Your thoughts on religion in Gods and Kings?

Religion doesn’t spread along trade routes like in Civ IV.  First you send a Great Prophet to a city and found your religion there.  This city becomes the Holy City for your religion and it starts emanating religious pressure to other cities within 10 tiles.  Cities subject to religious pressure will start to sprout followers of that religion, based on population size.  The rate of follower-sprouting will depends on how many cities that follow the religion are nearby.  If the city is near cities that follow different religions, it will sprout followers of each religion.  Once more than 50% of a city’s population follows a religion, the city is said to follow that religion, and it becomes a node from which religious pressure exudes to other nearby cities.  This process can be hurried along by missionaries, who go to other cities and convert people into followers of your religion, or inquisitors, who purge cities of followers of other religions.

Sadly, you cannot take other religions by conquest.  If you capture the Holy City of another religion, you deprive them of their founding belief but you do not gain it for yourself in some kind of religious Highlander deal.  Also if you capture another religion’s Great Prophet, that unit will remain a prophet of the other religion and cannot be used for yours.

I’ve had games where I’ve been drawn into entertaining minigames around spreading religion.  I would compete with my neighbours as we sent missionaries and inquisitors off to vie for the hearts and minds of each others’ cities and the nearby City States, all while maintaining cordial diplomatic relations and pretending to be buddies.  Missionaries also burn strength each turn that they are in enemy territory without open borders, so you can block them from reaching cities until they burn out and die, without inciting war by attacking them directly.

The Eurythmics foreshadowed this strategy in 1987:

Apparently religion affects diplomatic relations, such that others of the same religion are nicer to you, but in most games I played each Civ had their own religion.  It may affect City States’ regard of you too though.  The main incentive to spread religion is for the cumulative benefits derived from the belief bonuses, speaking of which …

Q. The major difference is that this time around they’ve tried to shoehorn it into another ‘bucket’ system, where you accumulate faith points and go up ‘levels’ when you have enough points.  In the games I saw, each time you ‘levelled up’ in your religion you were presented with a bewildering array of possible bonuses. I much preferred the tree based system they used for social policies and just wish they had done something similar for religion. Maybe it’s not too bad once you get your head around the system. How are you going with it?

It is another bucket — you amass faith points through buildings or one-off boons and when you get enough to produce a Great Prophet, you can found a religion.

The belief bonuses are unique — once they are chosen by one religion, no one else can have them.  Also, each time a Civ founds a religion, the faith cost of a Great Prophet for everyone who hasn’t founded a religion goes up, and there are not enough religions for every Civ to have one.

Whenever you get a choice to add a belief bonus to your religion, the choices can be daunting.  Firstly, they are of different types — some bonuses that apply to your Civ as a whole, some only to cities that follow your religion, including other Civs and City States.  I liked having to make a difficult choice between something of immediate but limited benefit — say, extra culture from wine and incense when you have only 1 city near those resources — or something that starts small but may be of large benefit later if you spread your religion far enough.  The “best” choice may not be apparent,  however some of the cumulative bonuses can be slow burners that pay off grandly.

In particular there is a bonus called Tithe that grants 1 gold for every 4 followers, which stacks to great effect for sprawling Civs that spread their religion, especially if City States follow your religion, because those guys just keep growing.

While religion can be an amusing diversion, you can ignore it completely as there are no victory conditions tied to it.  That said, I kept getting sucked in to the faith game.  I think it’s the scarcity — not wanting to miss out on getting a religion when all the other Civs have one.

Q. Now you’re a big Civ Rev fan, and I always thought that game handled spies in a neat and intuitive way. The new game has espionage too, but now you never actually see your spies, they’re just numbers on a screen. Do you think espionage has added to the game, and how do you think the new system stacks up against the way spies have been handled in previous Civ games?

Yeah, it sucks that you don’t get spy units to move around.  It’s too impersonal.  Nor do you control when you get a spy — the game gives them to you at the start of Eras.  Spies’ functions are too limited to be useful. They can steal tech from other Civs, get some info about a Civ or its city (which is often useless) or be used to tinker with your influence rating with City States.  What about sabotaging buildings, stealing gold, or converting other Civs’ cities?

It’s fun to steal tech, but after a while the Civs that have the tech you want wise up and put in protective measures that make it impractical.  Using spies to shore up City State influence is handy, but also happens slowly over a number of turns and is too easily overridden by a Civ with deep pockets simply buying influence.  Most times I just used my spies to protect against other spies.  Perving on other cities is a little fun, I admit, but it’s hard to put that information to use.

Yep, it’s about as fun as it looks

This spreadsheet approach may be saying something about bureaucracy and espionage but it feels half-hearted.  Considering how versatile spies were in Civ Rev and other Civ games, it’s disappointing.  Those who hated spies in Civ IV and thought they were too powerful will be relieved that they’re not gamebreakers, and people like me who liked the extra layer of options they provided will be disenchanted.

Q. The first thing you notice when you start a game is, of course, that there a whole new bunch of Civs to try out. I had a look at the Austrians and the Dutch.  Austria was great – you could just save up your cash and use it to buy city states outright. Have you had a crack with them? And which other new Civs have you tried and liked?

I’ve tried Austria, Byzantium, the Huns and the Celts, playing on Emperor.  I haven’t won with any of them but had some enjoyable losses.

She looks like a fairy godmother, but wields her money ruthlessly

As you point out with Austria, cash is king.  One thing to consider is that allied City States often give food, happiness and culture bonuses that you lose if you annex them, so buying out City States isn’t always a good idea.  You can at least buy enough City States to deny a UN victory to other cashed-up Civs.

The Celts can be very powerful in the early game due to their Pictish warriors — pre-iron sword units who get a bonus outside friendly lands and earn faith with each kill.  The Celts can drop off once the Picts become obsolete though and you need to plan for the inevitable backlash that other Civs will orchestrate against you after licking their wounds for a few centuries.

The Huns are also geared for early game aggression with their battering rams (which replace spearmen, subbing out a defensive unit for a city-taking unit) but it can end in tears if you’re not fully prepared for some protracted Classical Era war.  I wasn’t, and it did.

I’ve also tried the original Civs playing against these foes and they can be tough to beat.  As fun as it is being Austria, it sucks being against it.  Watching Austria buy an empire of City States, nullifying centuries of hard work pumping up your patronage and currying favour can be crushing.

Q. And the new AI plays a much better game, I’m sure you’d agree.  Have you noticed much of a difference? 

I have, partly because the AI is a lot better at combat and partly because I’ve started playing on Emperor.

The AI pulls far fewer boneheaded moves in combat, which makes me realise I wasn’t as good a general as I thought I was.  The newfound relevance of ships and the smart way the AI uses them makes coastal cities more vulnerable.  You can also dock a ship in town and it will stack with any land unit garrisoned there, doubling up on defence. This alone broke a number of my sieges.

The AI is better at combining different forces too.  For example, in one game I initiated a desperate modern era invasion of Sweden to distract it from building rocket parts.  Sweden basically had a continent to itself at this point.  I used boats, planes and land troops to take a couple of cities and establish a foothold, but the troubles started when I had to defend my new turf from the Swedish counter-attack.  I was begrudgingly impressed when Sweden started using its anti-aircraft guns offensively — rather than let them sit and wait for my planes, Sweden turned them on my tanks and artillery, softening them up to be finished off by helicopters.  Clever sods.  Needless to say, “Operation Hurdy Gurdy Burt Bork Bork” ended in failure.

Emperor Gustavus of Sweden was not happy when invaders had landed on his eastern coast

For a military aggressor like me, it seems that the defensive game is easier.  Taking cities is harder and it’s easier to take cities back on the counterattack.  I guess this brings other strategies to the fore, but when you play at difficulties higher than Prince, where the AI gets advantages over you in nearly every area of the game, it can be hard to come back if you lose the lead early.

Frequently I would “win my continent” and be the dominant Civ on my landmass, but then discover my true rival is the superpower on another continent — that other Civ that has also been expanding and outstripping me in tech, culture or gold (or all three).  If I try to buddy up and be friends, the Civ will just go on to get a science or UN victory, and if I try to invade, it takes me ages to amass an invasion force and then I face problems of resupply while the other Civ is fighting on home turf with cities and roads to resupply lost units.  Maybe Civ V is trying to teach me not to be such an invading jerkwad.

Q. And what about the new resources and buildings and technologies and stuff?  Whaddya reckon?  Huh?  Huh?

As alluded to before, there’s a lot of tweaks, pokes and fiddles, not all of which I’m sure about.  There are a few things I have noted.

Obviously, some of the buildings and Wonders have been adjusted to allow for faith producing buildings.  Temples now produce faith as you’d expect and the good ol’ Stonehenge culture rush is off the table as that hunka limestone makes faith now.  New Wonders are handy — Petra can make a useless village in the middle of a desert into a flourishing oasis, but if you don’t build it before someone else, you’re stuck with your crappy desert village.

Catapults no longer need iron and longswordsman have a reduced attack strength, so the rush to iron is no longer as effective a military strategy.

Resources give a little less happiness, but there are more of them.  You’ll be pleased to see copper and pigs (well, truffles) make a return.  It encourages more diplomacy to trade for resources.

Copper and Pigs, Baby!

The overall effect seems to be one that removes some strategic spikes and instead rewards the long slow grind, where you combine the decisions you make for your research, city building, tile improvement and social policies to augment your predetermined speciality.  It’s deeper but somehow feels more restrictive, like a shrunken pair of long johns.

Q. The big question this release raised for me was: what the hell is it really?  It seems to have lumped together a bunch of stuff that really should have been in a patch (the AI improvements), with a bunch of stuff that could have been optional DLC (the new Civs), with some other stuff that fundamentally alters the game (religion and espionage). It cost 50 bucks, so I guess you have to review it as a full priced game, but do you think the package justifies that?

Don’t forget the three scenarios!  Fall of Rome in particular was interesting: if you play as Rome, you get a degrading social policy tree.  Policies are penalties that are inflicted upon you as you lose cities.  Having to choose between reduced gold income or deserting soldiers — ouch!

Honestly, I would have been happy with the tweaks to combat, diplomacy and social policies without religion and espionage — at a reduced price of course. Of the two extra systems, religion is the more interesting and I’ve yet to explore its full potential.  The cumulative belief bonuses could provide some handy exploits.

For its price tag, it is a comprehensive package of changes, which they could have nickel-and-dimed you on by releasing in bits.  Many of the changes to the tech tree and building functions are consequential upon the introduction of faith, such that it would be hard to unscramble the egg.  Sure I wish it were cheaper, but it did what a good expansion pack should do — it dragged me back into a game that I had left alone for months.  It also brought some of my coworkers into the game.  They bought the Deluxe Civ V edition with Gods and Kings and all other DLC for the same price I paid for vanilla Civ V in 2010, so they’re up on the deal by $80 and a couple of hundred hours.

Q. I remember when Civ V came out I came up with a whole bunch of ways that Civ IV was better, yet after a couple of weeks of playing with hexagonal tiles, ranged combat and unstackable units there was no way I could have gone back.  I guess that’s the big test for you here Felix.  You’ve played this for a while now with all the new bells and whistles.  Is there any way you could take yourself back to the pre-religion, pre-espionage days of plain old vanilla Civ V?

I agree, there is no turning back.  The improvements to combat and diplomacy combat make it a must-have.  Religion, espionage and the extra Civs and scenarios are bells and whistles.

Gods and Kings reinforces Civ V as a game about specialisation and steady accretion.  It flattens out potential game changers like instant techs and megapowered Wonders and adds in more cumulative benefits.  Pick a victory condition, choose a Civ that is geared to achieve it and grind out your strategy.  I used to play Civ games with a “let’s see where this goes” approach, but such generalism hasn’t worked for me in Civ V beyond Prince difficulty.

On one hand, Gods and Kings has smoothed out some of the exploits and strategies on which I used to rely.  As a result I have had to use more of the mechanics and systems to eke out an advantage, thus learning how better to play the game.  On the other hand, I feel that if I don’t get a perfect start, I am doomed.  It can still be fun to play out one’s doom, but it would be nice if there were more ways to dig yourself out of a hole, especially given that higher difficulty levels handicap you in relation to the AI.

Ok, thanks for letting me into the cave again man.  See you back here for Civ VI.  Wow, now there’s a scary thought.

In the meantime, there’s this other Firaxis game called XCOM … wait, where are you going?

Portal 2 (PS3) – Valve Software

Portal 2

Regular reader of my output will know that this year I’ve forsaken playing games from the ever-shifting Quicksand of Currency in favour of reducing my teetering, vertiginous Pile of Shame.  Within the Threepaper household I refer to this project as my Pilgrimage to Yesterday, and then Mrs Threepaper rolls her eyes and mimes the wanky-wanky motion.

Anyway, there’s this little puzzle game called Portal 2.

It came out in April 2011, so you all probably missed it while you were tweeting about the Arab Spring and listening to Adele’s Rolling in the Deep or (though no one admits it nowadays) LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem.  Back then Snoop Lion was still Snoop Dogg.  In many ways it was a simpler time.

Portal 2 is like Terminator 2, in that it is a sequel to something that didn’t strictly need a sequel, but manages to expand and improve on the original instalment.

It starts out in a manner a little too similar to Portal.  You wake up at the Aperture Science test facilities with a portal gun and test rooms to complete at the behest of GLaDOS, the governing computer that says snarky things to you between levels.  The first few test rooms are like a “previously on…” clip to bring rookies and veterans alike up to speed with how the portal gun works.

At least this time we have the bot Wheatley, voiced by Stephen Merchant.  He does a great job here.  I found the opening levels to be slow going, and the Wheatley bits dragged me through it, providing a nice foil to GLaDOS’ passive aggressive banter.  Merchant’s stellar voicework aside, had that been all there was to the game I still would have said “ho hum”.  Although the test rooms introduced new elements to each puzzle, it all feels a bit like a Portal remake.

The Oggmonster is back

Thankfully, Portal 2 really cranks up for its middle and end, and it does so in a surprising way — by delving into backstory.  It’s surprising because “more backstory” was not what I felt a hankering for after Portal.*  Portal 2 gives it to you though, getting into the origins of Aperture Science and GLaDOS herself.  It even ties in to the lore of that other venerable Valve series, Half-Life.

During this segment of the game we are treated with more awesome voice work, this time from JK “That Guy From” Simmons as the founder of Aperture Science.

You know, THAT guy

The game reveals Aperture’s history in a manner reminiscent of exploring a ruined Vault in Fallout 3.  You’re exploring a rundown area while listening to audio logs* recorded at a time before everything went to poo.  It shares that doomed “Yay Science” motif that Fallout has too, where you derive some sort of dramatic irony from the juxtaposition of a voiceover talking about the exciting future of science while you walk among the devastation that such thinking wrought.

The puzzles are more interesting during the mid to late game too.  For this we can thank coloured goo.  First there’s bouncy blue goo, then speedy red goo and finally white goo that allows you to spray portals on to them.  Then — gasp — you may have to use a combination of goos!  These puzzles are where Portal 2 hits its straps.  Once the straps are hit, they stay hit for the rest of the game.  Some of the more fiendish puzzles are between test rooms, moving around behind Aperture’s creaking facade.

I adapted the game’s advertising slogan for use as my personal puzzle-solving catchphrase.  Each time I solved a puzzle, I turned to Mrs Threepaper and said:  “Now THAT’s thinking with Portals”.  As a result, Mrs Threepaper has developed RSI in both of her wrists.

Portal 2 is a superbly crafted game.  It feels honed like a katana blade.  Unlike Portal, it’s been optimised for consoles.  It’s not just the mechanics — every aspect of Portal 2 subtly compels you to keep playing, in the same way a sunbeam beckons you to go outside.  The menu screen and UI are crisp and uncluttered, making it easy to jump right into the game.  The short load times and generous checkpointing within levels mean you can take up pretty much right where you left off.  These sound like minor things, but they are done so well it makes you wonder why others find it so difficult — like when you go to a restaurant and get truly good table service, or when you sit in a chair that feels so much more comfortable than other, punier, chairs.

The levels themselves contain almost subliminal visual cues to hint where you need to go, through lighting and framing.  The size of the environments and the partitioning of levels ensure that there’s no tedious trekking or backtracking.  You can never get stuck.  The controls and the physics are so smooth that when you hit the sweet spot in a level, it lands you right where you need to be without any cheap “missed by that much” moments.  If you progress, it’s because you figured out what to do rather than by fluke or exploit.

Portal 2 doesn’t have moments of heart-thumping tension, teeth-grinding frustration or fist-pumping elation, but it gives you frequent doses of “A-Ha!” moments (no, not those A-Ha moments!) doled out like bits of neural cheese to a lab mouse getting through the maze.  Which is kind of what you are in this game.  Think about that.

It has co-op multiplayer and a level editor too, so … yup.  Those things.

Category Rating
Game mechanics: 9
Atmosphere: 8
Addictiveness: 10
Overall:

9

– Felix

* Strangely, “more test chambers” was what I wanted, and that’s the bit I found to be ho-hum … shows that I would probably not enjoy a game designed by me.

** Currently my 5th favourite videogame narrative device, sitting above “Message scrawled in blood on wall” but below “Fake emails from Brucie”.

Trine 2 (PS3) – Frozenbyte

Trine 2

Not every game has to be a blockbusting 50+ hour epicsaga.  Online marketplaces for consoles are teeming with smaller games that don’t demand so much investment of your time, money or headspace.  Trine 2 is certainly one of these.

Trine 2 is more Trine.  It’s Trinier.  The same set up is there:  you play as a wizard, rogue or fighter and can switch between them with the press of a button. Or your buddies can join you for co-op and you each play a character.  The wizard can levitate stuff and conjure boxes and ramps, the rogue shoots arrows and has a grappling hook and the fighter … fights with sword and has a shield.  You side scroll through picturesque levels, solving puzzles and having some combat.

During levels you collect orbs that go towards upgrading the Triners’ skills, such as fire arrows for the rogue, more boxes for the wizard or a frost shield for the warrior.  Some of the skills are necessary for solving puzzles, and at any time you can reset and reallocate the skill points you’ve earned.

Combat is rudimentary.  The rogue can twang at critters with her bow but the fighter does the heavy lifting.  Group encounters often involve being surrounded and the fighter is the only one who can block attacks.  Critters’ AI can be pretty dumb though — I’ve seen critters jump into bottomless chasms that lay between me and them and fall to their deaths.  I was glad that I wasn’t the only one stuffing up my jumps in the game.

Combat is not the game’s strong point anyway — the puzzles are.  The puzzles are a combination of platforming challenge and physics-based object manipulation.  Objects can behave oddly at times and there are some exploits to be had (plank surfing!), but generally the physics system works well.  I liked the addition of elements such as water, shooty plants and acid.  Some puzzles had red herrings, where not every object in reach was necessary to solve the puzzle.

Trine had an infamously teeth-grindingly, screen-endangeringly frustrating end stage.  Trine 2 replaces this with a fight that’s almost too easy.  As with most boss fights in Trine 2, you can win by attrition– bosses’ health doesn’t reset when all the Trinians die in combat, and when all the Trineteers die, you respawn from the nearest checkpoint orb (like the portals in LittleBigPlanet).  So you can spawn the fighter, run over, give a boss a few mashy sword licks before he is smote, let the other two get smote, respawn and do it again.  I suppose you could also win by dodging attacks and waiting for breaks in attack patterns to strike back, but who does that in videogames?

More bloom than when Orlando Bloom met Judy Blume in the flower section of Bloomingdale’s

For its duration, Trine 2 is adequate.  The story serves as the plate on which the game is served and is about as interesting as one.  The levels ramp up in difficulty, both of combat and puzzles, in a manageably linear way and there is a genuine feeling of progress when you get past some tricky bits.  Because the puzzles must be solvable by either one player acting alone or players in co-op, many of them do not have only one right solution, so it is about finding what works (plank surfing!).

It’s hard to say much more about Trine 2.  It would probably be cool to play with your 5 year old kid, if the kid is into age-appropriate games and isn’t raiding on WoW, teabagging noobs or dismembering necromorphs.  Trine 2 didn’t get me philosophising about the state of the world but it was a suitable diversion on a sick day.

The best thing about it was that it reminded me of this:

Category Rating
Game mechanics: 7
Atmosphere: 6
Addictiveness: 4
Overall:

6

– Felix

InFamous 2 (PS3) – Sucker Punch

InFamous 2

Sucker Punch is an apt title for the developers of InFamous 2.  This game looks generic at first glance, but it contains some design choices that provoke deeper political meditations on the social contract.  It may not be Chomsky, but it certainly makes you think more than the faux-intellectualism in Modern Warfare games where “War’s bad, mmmkay?” quotes are sprinkled between triumphalist gun porn.

Let’s deal with the first glance — it’s set in an open world, you play as a superhero with electricity powers that upgrade as the game progresses, and there’s a binary morality system that influences the story and the powers you get along the way.  Nothing particularly new in that, but it’s in the details that things get interesting.

The first interesting detail is the choice of open world setting — New Marais, a recreation of New Orleans, post-hurricane Katrina.  Apart from mimicking the colonial architecture of the French quarter, they have simulated the effects of flood.  The town is dilapidated and largely without power.  One sector in particular is especially slummy and semi-submerged.  The citizens are struck by disease and there is no government to assist.  Sucker Punch has based its broken city on a real disaster, rather than an imagined one.  This more affecting than the more typical fare of apocalyptic New York or the Fallout 3’s “Independence Day” depiction of iconic DC landmarks being destroyed.

Even though the story is fictional, you can’t help thinking about New Orleans as you traverse the space.  Katrina said to Americans (not for the first time): the government has not got your back.  Despite the myths America tells itself about how special it is based on whuppin ass overseas, it clearly cannot look after its own.

New Marais takes it one step further.  It is in anarchy — the state is not merely incompetent, it is absent.  Private interests emerge to fill the power vacuum.  Because this is a videogame, these private interests include superpowered mutants and militia groups.  Weird swamp mutants are terrorising the people and the militia seem to be the only ones who can keep them at bay.  The militia are mini-fascists who treat citizens like crap and aren’t big on the healthcare and food side of things; their claim to power is based on the protection they provide.  New Marais has been taken back to a near-feudal condition.

Your character, Cole McGrath, came to new Marais with his tail between his legs after being smashed the colossal Beast in the game’s opening.  The Beast is making his way to New Marais too and Cole’s personal mission is to power up so as to be strong enough to take him on.  Every time you start the game up it tells you how many miles away the Beast is, and he gets closer as Cole progresses through missions, which is a nice way to keep the endgame in mind and give a sense of pacing.

The flooded, depowered nature of New Marais city has ramifications for how Cole experiences the place.  Cole needs power to recharge his own electrical abilities and he is not keen on water.  Finally we have a decent narrative excuse as to why a character can’t swim!  The ruined slums also ruin Cole’s ease of traversal and regeneration.  The mutants and militia provide early game fodder for Cole to zap.  Just who he zaps depends on his moral choices.

The morality system is another interesting detail, more for the story it provides than the choice it allows.  It is basically a binary choice between playing Cole as “good” — someone who sublimates his own power to help the people of the city, or “evil” — where Cole regards the people as a means to his own end.  At the extreme ends of the karma meter, you unlock karma-based powers and story choices.  In order to get these benefits, you will have to decide early on to be good or evil and stick with it.  There are no rewards for playing it neutral.

Moral choice based on colour scheme

It is the lack of choice that made the system interesting for me.  I played as a goody-two shoes — which I always do, despite it all — and some of the “good” choices, especially towards the end, are not what I would have chosen for myself but I had to see them through because I was committed to that path.  It doesn’t make decisions difficult, but it makes them painful.  I was genuinely moved by the choices I had to make at the end.  I watched the “evil” endings on YouTube and there was some poignant stuff in there too.  The morality system is more a way to tell two different stories rather than a simulation of real decision-making, but the choices and stories were written better here than in InFamous.

Another interesting detail that made InFamous 2 shine is the mechanics of Cole’s electrical powers.  Many of Cole’s offensive powers are roughly akin to different guns — there’s weak bolts that are like pistols, higher powered bolts like rifles, a zoom-in sniper bolt, an area effect blast that’s like a shotgun, and electro-rockets and grenades.  The interesting bit is that, once they are unlocked, Cole has access to all of them and they use the same ammo — Cole’s own electricity reserves.  I love this for two reasons.  Firstly, it breaks the “2 guns only” rule that so many shooters seem to have these days.  Secondly, I didn’t hoard grenades and rockets.

In other shooters, I jealously hoard my grenades, fretting that there is an even bigger battle around the corner where I will need them, and if I use them now I will never be given another one and I tend to or stick to automatic rifles because of their high ammo capacity compared to shotguns, but here I could pull out whatever I thought was best for the situation.  Sometimes that situation involved grenade spam, I am not ashamed.  It was a revelation to open up my play style to the full arsenal of weapons and powers, instead of finding a few tried and true techniques.

The missions and enemy types are also designed to require you to use your full gamut of powers and I never felt the missions getting stale.  There are some truly large battles to be had, including fights that take part over many city blocks where you are beset by a combination of large foes and annoying small ones and you have to keep moving and switch up your attacks to prevail.  The ability to throw cars may seem like an overpowered luxury, but it’s strictly necessary when a mutant acid-spewing behemoth is stomping after you.

Throw that car … you know you want to

Certain upgrades only become available when you have completed a prerequisite task, eg get a certain number of headshots or whatnot.  This provides further incentive to mix up your tactics.  As I’ve said before, I don’t mind these tasks when they are tied to in-game rewards rather than mere trophies.

Checkpointing in missions is also handled well, which is good because many of them are multistaged affairs that involved going to numerous locations or taking down a beastie in various stages and you don’t have to start all over again if you fail halfway through.

Side missions and collectibles are compelling but not too overwhelming — in my older age, I get put off by too much distraction.  I like to grind to get extra rewards and powers but once I fill out the power tree, I am done.  There’s a reasonably interesting user-generated content feature here too, where players can design their own missions and upload them for others to play.  I gave some of these a go out of curiosity — they were OK, they do not count as side missions for the sake of unlocking upgrades, so there is little reward for playing them beyond just wanting more InFamous 2.  I found there was enough content in the story missions to sate me.

InFamous 2 has its niggles — traversal and building climbing are a lot smoother than in InFamous, but it can get frustrating.  For a guy who can scale the side of a building, Cole has particular difficulty getting onto a ladder.  Sometimes in big battles the camera can betray you But these are niggles.    InFamous 2, has a unique setting and a better-than-average story that combine to be surprisingly thought-provoking.  It’s also got a neat set of mechanics and mission design that encourages you to use them all.  Overall, it’s pretty damn smooth.

Oh and one last thing, sorry I couldn’t resist – I’ve made it this far!

 

Category Rating
Game mechanics: 9
Atmosphere: 9
Addictiveness: 7
Overall:

8

– Felix

Video Game Culture: You’re Not Missing Out On Much, But We Are

These guys … not as lovable as you may remember

More and more people are getting into videogames and I love it.  I can even talk about them at work, which was unheard of 5 years ago.  No longer are games the exclusive domain of stereotypical nerdmen with the emotional maturity of a 12 year old nerd (ie an 8 year old normal human).

However, the nerdmen are fighting hard to retain their dominance of gaming culture.  Whenever I go on the Internet to read stuff about games, these nerdmen are everywhere in the gaming press and resultant communities.  OK, they’re not the whole community, but they are a dominant section of it.  Their constant pissing in the pool diminishes my enjoyment of playing and thinking about videogames, just like my joy of looking up supercoach stats is diminished by looking at any other part of the Herald Sun’s output.

I don’t want to interact with nerdmen and therefore don’t want to join the communities in which they swim.  It’s a big reason why I remain a stubborn single player gamer.  I tend not to like games that are aimed at nerdmen as their core demographic, which is a big reason why I don’t play many shooters.  Online, nerdmen can be just as stupid, bullying and bigoted as the best of them.  Add in the privilege required to sustain an expensive first world hobby like gaming and you’ve got yourself people who are spoiled, whiny AND arrogant.  Not a great mix.

The latest example of nerdmen FAIL is the discussion surrounding the trailer for Hitman Absolution. I’m not going to link to it, but it involves strippers dressed as nuns who get their faces smashed in.

There’s already been some awesome pieces written to explain what’s wrong with it — here and here are a good start.

I cannot speak for anyone else, least of all women as a group.  To me, the trailer just felt wrong.  I’m too long out of cultural studies class to explain why this is, or how wrong it is compared to anything else, other than to say when I watched it, the blend of “sexy” and violence just made me cringe.  Maybe there is a defence of it based on high falutin art principles or whatnot, but it just looked like crass exploitation.  I will not be buying the Hitman game.

What surprised me about trailer was not the criticisms of it, but the vehement defences of it.  Enter the nerdmen.  Particularly egregious was alleged “takedown” of such criticisms by the kings-of-the-nerdmen, Penny Arcade (reluctantly linked here).

After noting that the trailer was “Robert Rodriguez through and through”, they waved away other criticisms of the trailer.  They seemed to be offended that others were offended — describing the others as “swooning and fainting”.  Those who found the trailer offensive, were “preening” and the answer to such things is “more art”.

Leaving aside whether you consider the trailer to be “art” (and thus saving approx 100,000 words on THAT issue) that is just the lamest “look over there!” excuse you can muster, even if you dress it up in a thesaurus.  So apparently you’re not allowed to criticise bad things, but only notice other good things?   Just because other good things exist doesn’t mean the bad things aren’t bad.  Such a point also conflates criticism with censorship, while hypocritically seeking to censor the critics.  That’s a double logic fail right there.

Logic notwithstanding, Penny Arcade is basically saying to a bunch of gamers: you aren’t allowed to criticise or be unhappy with stuff in games because we’ve done it for you and it’s not a big deal anyway.  This attitude is not about making a happy inclusive gaming community, this is circling the wagons with an us-vs-them attitude.  Not for the first time, Penny Arcade have showed that they are less interested in conversation than preaching from a bully pulpit to tell people to go fuck themselves.  I think this knee-jerk defensiveness is a carryover from the days when gaming was more niche and, well, nerdy.

I love videogames as a medium, but the industry has problems.  I can’t shake the feeling that the big studios that pander to the nerdmen are a big part of these problemsIf you want to see what I mean by pandering, watch footage of a major publisher’s E3 press conference and see fawning journalist fanboys cheering at videos of upcoming games.  .  The elephant in the room is working conditions at big studios and the nerdmen culture within them, but that’s a rant for another day.

Increased critical thinking about videogames would allow us to think about these problems and the culture as a whole.  A sociology of videogames would be interesting, as would an analysis of the medium in the context of history and economics.  Why is violence still the most prevalent form of interaction in videogames?  Why are shooters the dominant genre right now?  What capacity does a highly capital-and labour-intensive industry have to speak back to the culture from which it is spawned?  There are some fascinating questions here, but they will not be answered until more people from within the culture are prepared to reflect upon them and look at the games industry and its culture honestly, rather than getting ultra-defensive.

– Felix