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Dishonored Review: The Modern Day Thief Shuffle

Dishonored is a pretty good game. It’s likely not something that will have a lasting impact because much of this we already experienced years ago in the Thief series and to a lesser extent in the Assassins Creed games. Sure, this time around you have better technology driving the game compared to Thief and there are those neat-o superpowers you have access to such as teleporting, animal and human possession, and the “go to” power of seeing bad guys through walls.

The bigger story in my view is that Bethesda has finally published an externally developed game that doesn’t suck. The list of mediocre to downright bad games that Bethesda has pushed on the public that isn’t an Elder Scrolls/Fallout game is long and varied. And this stuff matters. Track records matter. Decisions matter.

New Vegas defined the term “buggy release”, Brink is love it or hate it, Rage was supposed to be this huge Bethesda/id success story and other (decent) games like Hunted: The Demon’s Forge sort of vanish upon release. Seriously Bethesda’s’ track record here is spotty at best. Dishonored changes all of that and while I don’t think it’s nearly as good as its buzz would indicate, it’s clearly Bethesda’s best outside the studio project in a long, long time and the company deserves some credit for it. I hoped this distinction to go to Prey 2 but…well…yeah.

Dishonored is at its best when you’re skulking around and either quietly killing guards or putting them in the MOTHER of all sleeper holds and knocking them unconscious for hours at a time. The game was clearly developed with sneaking in mind although you certainly have the option to go balls out and kill everything that moves.

However, as a first person shooter/action game, Dishonored is by the numbers. Sure it’s fun to call upon a swarm of plague rats to distract bad guys or to “blink” behind an enemy and stab him in the neck, but the actual “action” bits are nothing you haven’t seen before. The tense moments nearly all come from playing the role as master assassin and trying not to be seen. Using “Dark Vision” to see enemies through walls and seeing their ‘view cone’ which shows you which direction they are facing – yes it’s all very “Thief” but who cares? I haven’t played Thief in nearly a decade and a modern spin on that idea is fine with me.

The modern comparison is really Assassin’s Creed. In Dishonored you get all of the neat powers and admittedly cool art direction whereas in Creed you get a more “realistic” (to a point) take on the world and a world that is much more “alive” than what you get here. There’s a lot more to do in an Assassins Creed game than Dishonored. The hunting AI in Creed is also a bit better – how many guards does it take in Dishonored to commit pseudo-suicide running into an insta-kill lightning trap before they stop?

Answer: more than one.

Dishonored is also a bit on the short side. You can even make the case that the length of the game has been inflated buy the mini quests of locating Runes and Bones, both of which grant you certain powers and will cause Achievement Hounds like Brandon to follow the little arrows to their location until they track down each and every one. I just wish the bones did more. It’s annoying to hunt for an artifact only to find out it grants you a “slight resistance to rat plague” – uh, thanks? You’ll never equip the majority of the bones you find and will likely stick to the no-brainers of increased mana, regen, etc.

Where Dishonored earns huge points is that while the campaign is on rails, the way you approach a problem is entirely up to you. A lot of games boast that you can “play it your way” but here developer Arkane Studios really means it. You can play this game without killing anyone. Even your assassination targets usually give you an “out” which will allow them to live. Going even further than that there are always multiple pathways to get to where you need to go – perhaps a rooftop? Maybe through an open window? Hell maybe you can possess a rat and scurry right past the guards? It’s up to you, as long as you invested runes into buying certain powers.
This is where the game shines—in sneaking around, trying to dodge guards and finding pathways that aren’t at first clearly visible. The game does a superb job of making you feel like an intruder albeit one with the ability to teleport and freeze time.

A quick note: I do wish there was a bit more enemy variety – you spend the vast majority of the game sneaking/killing the same guards over and over again in different set pieces. You may get the occasional zombie (sorry plague infested “Weeper”) and maybe a poison spitting plant thing but that’s about it.

So Dishonored is a good game. It’s not revolutionary and it’s not going to make you forget about similar games such as Batman, Assassins Creed or the classic Thief games. It’s not going on my short list for Game of the Year but I’m glad I played it and actually might go back and play it again trying to play as it as a true shadow. My game ended up turning into a bloodbath. Hey look, when you have exploding bullets and the ability to stab a guy while he’s in stasis what’s a guy is supposed to do?

Run away?

XCOM: Enemy Unknown in Review

I finished XCOM: Enemy Unknown Tuesday night, so that means it’s time for a proper review. (I officially give up on the hyphen. From now on we’ll just pretend it’s there.) Before I get into that, however, a few words about the two recently announced pieces of DLC: Slingshot and Elite Soldier Pack. This is the 2k I know and loath. First, the Elite Soldier Pack is basically armor colors and a few more heads (three helmeted ones and a new hairdo). It’s content (particularly the armor tinting) that should have been part of the main game by default. Asking people to pay $5 for this is shameful. It’s the same nickel and dime for the least amount possible that we got from a lot of the Civ 5 DLC. The Slingshot DLC adds a new playable “hero” to the squad and some scripted missions. It’s not fair to judge sight unseen, but I am not enamored with the idea. I think it fundamentally misunderstands what makes this game good. It’s arguable that the weakest parts of XCOM are the parts where it’s scripted, which is thankfully uncommon, so trying to make people excited about three new council missions that have their own story arc isn’t the world’s greatest sell. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong about that.

On with the review…

Big. Damn. Heroes.

X-COM: UFO Defense, released in 1994, is a gaming legend. As is often the case with legends that means, in addition to being a great game in its time and place, it’s remembered for being a bit more than it actually was. It was buggy, fiddly, and, even for the time, didn’t look particularly good. These things didn’t keep this game about halting an alien invasion of Earth from deservedly becoming one of the most fondly remembered games of its time. I point this out only to dispense with the notion that UFO Defense was somehow a perfect model to which any remake must slavishly adhere.

Firaxis’ new spin on the X-COM legacy, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, is every bit as flawed as the original, if for different reasons, and yet it’s also every bit as memorable as its namesake (for many of the same reasons). Firaxis had an impossible job to do in making a turn-based strategy game in 2012, one that had to function equally well on PC and console, and make it worthy of the legacy. It could have been too wonky for mass audiences. It could have been too dumbed-down to appeal to core strategy gamers that still fondly remember action points and facing rules. That Firaxis was able to strike such a fair balance of streamlined mechanics and wonderfully emergent tactical gameplay is a credit to a talented and storied studio. XCOM is the game I’ve been waiting for, for a long, long time.

The fascinating incongruity about XCOM (old and new) is that it’s a game about stories where the overriding background story is just that – background. That’s because the best stories in XCOM don’t come from any of its largely random missions, only a handful of which are loosely scripted. The real stories in this game are emergent, born of a dozen different decisions you’ll make from turn to turn. Sure, the Earth facing invasion and annihilation by beings from another world, and it’s attempt to thwart disaster by having its major powers unite to form an elite alien-fighting task force (XCOM), provides an adequate backdrop, but it’s when you take your squad of four to six solders, soldiers you customize in name, appearance, and ability, that the real stories begin.

It’s a game that begs you to tell your buddies in the real world or on an online gaming forum about that time your heavy class trooper fired a rocket in a storefront wall to take away a muton’s cover, allowing your sniper a clear killshot. Or how you risked a double-move out of cover with your wounded assault trooper only to have her miss a wide open shot and end up poisoned to death by a thin man. Or what about that time you had a total party wipe when an unseen sectopod caught your squad grouped up next to a UFO power source that it caused to explode? This is a game that ten different people can play and, yeah, they’ll all follow the same rough story threads, but they’ll also have ten wholly unique experiences in the process of traversing them. Old version, new version, that is the genius of XCOM and it’s alive and well here.

No, not everything is perfect, though the line between design brilliance and notable flaw will vary based on your expectations. If you’re a die-hard from the UFO Defense era that treasured large squads of 10+ soldiers on a mission and the more intricate group tactics they afford, or having to worry about what direction a squaddie is facing or whether they’re kneeling or not, or being able to swap large inventories between squaddies and rifle through the effects of dead aliens in-mission, then you’re not going to like the compromises made here. This is a beer and pretzels tactics game that you’ll pick up quickly and then keep playing because the mechanics in place function so effortlessly together.

Die-hards aren’t going to like the narrower environments that don’t offer nearly as much room to roam and explore as X-COM. But there’s a benefit to that too. Missions in this game aren’t designed to go on for hours and hours. Some are longer than others, but most are meant to be bit off in manageable 30 to 60-minute chunks. You’re not going to waste nearly as much time just wandering around, hoping to stumble into that last remaining sectoid before you can pick up and return to base. I call the more directed maps a net win for this reason – oh and they’re gorgeous and wholly destructible.

Speaking of your home base, if the in-mission tactical game weren’t impressive enough, Firaxis has done a remarkable job of making the strategic management of the XCOM project a seamless experience that doesn’t get bogged down in minutiae You get to make plenty of decisions in terms of what technologies to research, what buildings to construct, and generally how you can best spend the finite funding and resources at your disposal, but owing to the fact that you now run just a single base, (with satellites picking up the tab for monitoring the world’s alien activity), the game doesn’t let your time spent making these decisions become tedious. Sure the rewards for doing missions end up feeling rather arbitrary and the game could do with a bit more variety as to types of missions, but the sense of pervasive threat as you struggle to keep participating nations funding the XCOM project in the face of ever-increasing alien activity keeps the game humming along just fine. I could quibble that the research tree isn’t broad enough or that the game doesn’t last long enough, but it’s easy to forget just how crucial balancing all these different elements is to this game and just how remarkably well it achieves that balance.

Would that these kinds of fair compromises were the only issues. Unfortunately, there are problems to which even the most enthusiastic fan of the game must admit. The game is flat out buggy. I’ve mercifully been spared the worst of them, but there are bugs that can hamper your ability to properly play the game. I encountered one in the final mission that, had I been playing in the game’s Ironman mode (which prevents saving and reloading where you like), very likely would have prevented me from finishing the game. It makes playing it a gamble. Will you be among the lucky majority(?) that only sees weird graphical glitches like a soldier firing (visually) in the wrong direction or has its hairdo flicker back and forth between two styles during a mission? Or will you end up cursing Firaxis and swearing off the game forever when 30 hours of work gets wasted because a bug prevents you from opening a door you must pass through to continue on a mission? That’s a problem.

Less severe, but constantly annoying are some of the PC control issues. (I didn’t try the game using a gamepad. I’ve read that it controls better if you use one.) 95-percent of the time using a mouse and keyboard with XCOM is perfectly adequate. In a day and age where games built for PC and console simultaneously are often cursed with abysmal controls, perfectly adequate counts as a rather sad victory. There are hotkeys to control the camera, issue commands, etc. On a flat map, the mouse is extremely effective at letting you choose just the right spot for where to send a squaddie or toss a grenade. The problem is the camera and mouse combination cannot handle elevation, a rather crucial component of the game, and as a result it constantly behaves as if it knows better than you where it should place itself. Sometimes these issues are merely annoying, like how it snaps back to its default view every time you switch from one soldier to another. Other times it actively interferes with your ability to select a particular zone. Sending your team into a medium to large UFO is nothing but an exercise in frustration as you too often have to raise, lower, and rotate the camera every which way to get to a point where you can click where you want to click. Sometimes there is no way to clearly establish where the placement indicator is and you just have to click and hope that just because the ceiling obscures your view that your soldier will still end up where he should. Firaxis needs to address this problem and they need to do it sooner rather than later.

There are other nuisances to be sure, like the frustrating inventory management screen where you outfit your squad for battle. The game’s finale is jarringly scripted and offers a less than satisfying conclusion. And, seriously, why exactly is it I can change the name, ethnicity, and armor colors (with DLC), but not a squaddie’s nationality or gender? Yes, yes, it’s a game about an international organization and it should have soldiers from all over the world. That’s swell and all, but there is absolutely no reason not to let the player make this purely cosmetic choice for themselves.

Yes, these issues do diminish the experience somewhat, but these are largely distractions, blemishes that stand out precisely because the core of the game is so indelibly perfect. As you sit back in your chair wondering if you should direct your science steam to prioritize armor research, or weapons research, or start that alien interrogation; as you make decisions about whether to risk your squaddie’s life to protect a civilian from an approaching chrysalid; as you rank up an experienced team of veterans only to see them picked off one by one over successive missions — these are the critical areas that XCOM had to get right, and it clears the bar with room to spare. This is a game about choice and consequence in which you never stop making choices and the consequences always have weight. When the experience is as good as the one XCOM offers, its few missteps aren’t enough –not nearly enough– to make this anything less than one of my single favorite games of the past five years. Yes, it is that good.

How About a Crusader Kings II Contest?

Why yes, that sounds lovely.

Crusader Kings II is a wonderful game. I played the hell out of it when it was released — a month of non stop Crusader Kinging. With the release of the 2nd expansion, Legacy of Rome, I need to get back in the swing as I love that period of history. This isn’t Glory Days Rome but rather the Eastern Empire — Leo, Justinian and the boys.

In celebration of said expansion we are giving away five (5) Steam codes for Crusader Kings II. This is just the base game and not the add on. So if you skipped it last time around, now’s your chance to score a freebie.

To enter the contest reply to this post and tell us why you should win a free copy. Seriously. Why should I give YOU a free CK2 code? It’s that simple.

Winners will be chosen at random. Or maybe not.

Good luck!

Jumping the Shark Podcast #148

No High Scores Podcast Logo

With Bill spending a few days getting back to nature, it’s the Brandon and Todd show once more and we spend it talking about the things of largest concern to gamers everywhere: The Tigers in the World Series and my nightmares of demonic possession. There’s some game talk thrown in for good flavor, I guess. Brandon goes back to Borderlands 2 and it’s initial go-round of DLC: Captain Scarlett’s Pirate Booty. I get in deeper with XCOM, including an ill-fated experiment with the game’s Classic difficulty. We also talk a bit about game modding and DLC in general. (I was wrong, by the way, that the modding scene hasn’t broken out yet for XCOM. There’s already some interesting options out in the field. You can find and read all about them at XCOM Nexus.)

iTunes Link

Past Episodes
Edit Type: Skype
(The embedded feed is after the break.)

Descent 2nd Edition Conversion Kit Review

Descent 2nd Edition Conversion Kit Box

The original Descent, Fantasy Flight Games’ behemoth tactical dungeon crawler, divided opinion like a sword divides a mewling goblin. Some people loved its combination of old school role playing with board game strategy, others loathed its over-bloated expansion range, confusing rules and gargantuan play time. So when a vastly streamlined second edition came out earlier this year most gamers were delighted. Except for first edition owners who suddenly had their valuable games rendered worthless and were understandably annoyed. To soothe their fevered brows, there is now a conversion kit so they can get some use out of their old investments.

There seems to be wide confusion over what this expansion actually does. It is categorically not the sort of conversion kit that will allow you to use your first edition Descent game to play the second edition rules. The differences between the two editions are too comprehensive for that. No, to use this you need a copy of second edition, and the purpose of this kit is to simply to allow the use of heroes and monsters from the old edition in the new one. No other components, no scenarios or tokens or board sections, just heroes and monsters. And that means it should be of interest to anyone who owns a copy of the second edition, regardless of whether they have older material lying around.

The contents of the box is a deck of monster cards and a set of hero cards matching the beasties and characters from first edition Descent and its many expansions. So the easiest way to use them is of course to just pull out those old figures. But you don’t need to use the genuine Descent figures to enjoy the expansion. If you’ve got Beastmen or Golem figures in your miniature collection, you can use them as Beastmen or Golems in the conversion kit just as well as the original pieces. And if you don’t, you can always proxy them with cardboard printouts. Indeed I imagine that very few gamers own all of the vast range of stand-alone hero expansions available for the original, so a little proxying is probably in order for anyone who buys the kit.

Adding older heroes to your new games is easy. Second edition introduces the concept of archetypes such as Wizard which can then choose equipment and skills from a range of classes, Runemaster and Necromancer in that specific example. So the forty eight new cards just have all the necessary attributes and abilities and an archetype so you can pick your favourite original hero and start using them right away.

Monsters are marginally more fiddly. Most scenarios in the newer game have one or more “open groups” of monsters which allow the overlord player to pick a monster type that matches one of the theme icons associated with the scenario. And this is where the conversion kit offers best value because with the base game alone that choice often comes down to one or two monsters, which is no real choice at all. The conversion kit adds twenty five new monsters and thereby increases the choice to the point at which it becomes part of the overlord strategy. You can look at the scenario goals and the powers of the heroes arranged against you and make a meaningful pick of whatever horror you deem best suited to rend them limb from limb. And with all the new hero abilities and new creatures contained in the kit, that’s a considerable array of possible options.

Descent 2nd edition conversion kit hero cardsBut here also unfortunately lies the downside. There are already a lot of hero and monster and situational combinations in the base game, so many that exhaustive play testing must have been impossible. The result is that there are times when a particular situation is vastly imbalanced in favour of one side or the other. Given the rapid play time and campaign based leanings of the base game, occasional one-sided games aren’t a major problem. But introducing a whole slew of new combinations in the game increases the chances of them occurring. There are already some complaints that certain monsters in this kit are over or under powered. In my own games I found the Beastman ability to attack twice in a turn devastating to inexperienced heroes. I’m sure many more problematic combinations will come to light as more and more people play the new material in the kit.

But of course as it comes to light, players will be forewarned and can balance their games accordingly. And as I said although it makes a minor issue worse, the problem remains a small one in the greater scheme of things. Chance are that if you’re playing enough of a game like Descent to warrant a copy of this kit then you’re likely not the sort of gamer that’s going to be bothered by occasionally unbalanced games.

Then there’s the price. The retail of this product does seem pretty extortionate for the two decks of cards that you get in the box. Of course it must have required substantial testing and design, so comparing the physical contents to the price isn’t entirely fair, but still. So you have to ask the question of whether what’s in the box is worth the amount it’s going to cost you. And that basically rests on how much you think you’re likely to play Descent.

If you like the base game enough to want to play it a lot, to want to play multiple campaigns, you’ll want a copy of this. Ignore whether you’ve got the figures or not as you can proxy or attempt to obtain the parts after the fact. The extensive range of new options it provides are just too tempting to ignore. On the other hand if you’re not going to play a lot of Descent then, regardless of how much 1st edition stuff you own, this isn’t worth your while. That, basically is how the value equation pans out. Now we just have to see how many gamers find the collector in them gets the better of the sensible consumer.