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Jumping the Shark Podcast #119

No High Scores Podcast Logo

I missed this week’s show and have yet to listen in, so the description for this week comes to you courtesy of Brandon: “No Todd this week but Michael Barnes joins us to talk about Lords of Waterdeep, the iPad as a board game device and the joy of Dark Souls. More importantly, The Straw takes the hosting reins, ushering in a new era of podcast history. He also talks a lot about The Witcher 2 on the 360.”

I am told Bill hosted this show. Be afraid. Be very f***ing afraid.

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The Wonders of The Witcher 2

So you are a console gamer, specifically an Xbox 360 owner, who has heard PC gamers sing the praises of CD Projekt RED and its stance on DRM and how awesome The Witcher series is, going back to the 2007 original. So what is it about Geralt of Rivia and his monster hunting ways that makes the game such a hit with PC RPG fans? What can you expect tomorrow when the 360 version drops?

As I said, this is a long, long game and there’s a metric ton of dialogue so speed gaming through The Witcher 2 simply doesn’t work. Get ready for a journey with a huge scope. It’s not Skyrim big, but it’s also not Skyrim aimless, either. The campaign is focused. You know what you are trying to do and while there are a lot of “side quests” none of them have anything to do with trivial nonsense. FedEx quests and cats stuck in trees — Witchers don’t play that. Ok granted I could do without the arm wrestling and fistfight contests. One of the best aspects of the game is that you can see Geralt doing all of this stuff. You will not find a quest in this game that seems out of place. After all, Geralt is a Witcher and Witchers are professional monster hunters so going off to kill a Nekkar nest or hunt Harpy feathers for money fits perfectly in what Geralt is all about.

A man has to eat, right? Geralt calls it Witcher’s work. I call it a game with meaningful side quests. Hooray!

While the campaign is tightly focused there are myriad of choices that you are forced to make that will radically change the path of your quest. Some of these choices might even seem mundane, until you realize– they weren’t. I made choices in hour one that had an effect in hour ten. The game does a brilliant job in making things come full circle.

A huge personal attraction is the world of the Witcher itself. While I am leery calling this ultra low fantasy, there remains a certain grimness to the setting that I find appealing. It’s dirty. At times a bit obscene, even. When one of the Dwarf NPCs says about a lesbian female sorceress: “Everyone knows she doesn’t go for cock” it should tell you all you need to know. Crass? Oh yeah. But when you meet this Dwarf you can see him saying that. Sexist? Sure, the Dwarf is, but the game isn’t going for cheap thrills. This world is bleak, dirty, mean, and sexually charged.

The use of sex and sexual imagery is a 180 degree turn from games such as Dragon Age or Mass Effect. In those games, sex is treated like a goal. It’s fake sexy and handled so poorly to be a distraction. Gamers would use every conversation, looking for those subtle clues that the person you are talking to might want to have sex with you.

The Witcher 2 opens with Geralt and Tress in bed, in a tent near a battlefield. You are presented with a shot of Triss’ ass and bare breasts. A guard walks in and his eyes nearly pop out of his head. Geralt looks at him, waiting for him to leave as he gets one last peek at the beautiful woman. Immediately you know this: Geralt doesn’t have to work or beg for it. No trinkets required. There will be no dialogue trees asking gamers to hope that your character has sex on screen. You want Geralt to get laid? Go to a whorehouse. Done. There are only a few potential romances in the game and even then, this isn’t some long drawn out charade. And while Dragon and Age and Mass Effect tease you with its sex scenes, The Witcher holds no such punches.

There’s a ton of sexual imagery in the game, like the aforementioned sorceress — she has a female student/slave that she loves to ‘play’ with. The Witcher 2 doesn’t hide its sexuality. It’s a mature game for mature audiences. I have never had a problem with intense sexual situations in videogames, they just need to fit in the story, make sense, and be handled properly. I hate the sexual stuff in Bioware games. I’m totally fine with it here.

Combat is fast and fluid. In the original game it was more timing based — you watched as Geralt went nuts with his sword and you had to click the mouse in rhythm in order to pull off advanced moves. That’s been toned down a tad in the sequel and while there is still a rhythm to combat it’s not as precise as the first game, which I admittedly miss a bit. Additionally, alchemy is also streamlined. Still, one of the most rewarding aspects is when Geralt faces a tough fight — it becomes highly tactical not only in how he approaches combat but there’s also the question of traps — do you use any? Pre-fight oils for your sword? Do you cover your weapon in a specific oil to aid you in the fight? What about potions? Do you have time to create or drink any? Remember, you cannot drink a potion during combat; you need to meditate in order to consume them because they are all highly toxic. Planning is key, especially when going up against a lot of foes. I also suggest playing the game, if you are an experienced action-RPG player, on the hard setting. Normal isn’t a total cakewalk but as Geralt improves his ability some of the fights become a bit easy and playing on Hard makes every single fight worth thinking about.

And the best part? You can change the difficulty mid game.

Crafting is another key element, not only buying new items from merchants but finding diagrams and formulas. This is why money is so important and why Geralt going out of his way to fulfill a monster killing contract makes sense. Diagrams and alchemical formulas aren’t cheap — and he needs them.

Character customization, while not as deep as in the original, does allow you to focus Geralt’s ability in multiple areas. While you can’t specifically do typical RPG things like “add 1 point to your strength value” — which again makes perfect sense to me. How exactly does that work? Geralt looks pretty strong already, no? Anyway, here you decide what Witcher path to take: you can make Geralt more adept at swordplay, alchemy, signing (spells) or general training. You may also mix and match so you don’t need to put all talent points into one area. It’s a neat system and it forgoes the traditional, and stale, pattern of most role-playing games.

As I said before on Friday, this isn’t the perfect game as there are certainly things I don’t like. The quest map, for example, can be a pain in the ass, especially in Vergen in Chapter 2. Hoo lordy that place is annoying as hell to get around in. When others temporarily join your group for a quest the pathfinding can be frustrating. The interface of cycling from the map, inventory, quest log, etc is much faster on the PC. The dialogue can go in circles and people will greet you like you have never met even though you had a 10 minute conversation a few hours earlier. Those are certainly annoyances — but the good far outweighs the bad.

I’m really excited to hear how people who haven’t played the games on PC react to it. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow, eh?

The Oddities of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings on the Xbox 360

I love The Witcher. I think it’s a marvelously grim world full of low fantasy awesomeness. It also happens to be a hell of a game.

But it has its share of faults and quirks and if you are coming into the game without having first played the PC version, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. I’ve been playing the Xbox 360 “Enhanced Edition” for the better part of a week and I’m still in Chapter 1 — it’s a long game and I’m not ready to write a full on review but I can certainly discuss the ins and outs and the oddities.

Today’s post is about the quirks found inside Geralt’s Quest to find a king killer. Not all of these are technically “bad” (although some are) but even veteran role-playing fans will need to learn the ropes when jumping into the world of The Witcher.

*First the important bits: The game looks fine on the Xbox 360. This whole notion of how it looks just as good on the console as it does on the PC — that’s silly. In fact I’d say the game looks a lot like The Witcher 2 on the medium setting on a modest PC. It looks slick, sure, but the Witcher 2 on a beefy PC is a stunning game. This isn’t that. It looks good and let’s leave it at that.

*The gamepad control is excellent. After a brief tutorial I was up and ready to go. The game was really made for a gamepad so the move here is a smooth one. A and X attacks (fast and heavy), B does the roll dodge, Y uses a Sign (a spell) LB activates a wheel to select your spell or to choose a trap, bomb or dagger. RB throws said trap, bomb or dagger. RT parries. Done.

*The camera is very sensitive. You use the R-Stick to move/spin it and that took some getting used to due to its sensitivity. Still, all in all the translation to the 360 appears to have been a success.

*INSTALL YOUR GAME. Seriously. Otherwise load times are terribly long. Even then there are a lot of load screens when moving from locale to locale.

*The Witcher 2 removes one of the staples of classic videogame role-playing — the sucking down of potions during combat to keep your avatar alive. The Witcher 2 is a hard game because combat is brutal. Swordplay in an RPG SHOULD be dangerous. It shouldn’t be simply a matter of wading into a mass of enemies and coming out unscathed. Particularly early on, even a group of bandits can kill you if you aren’t careful. I consider this a huge boon to the game as a whole but one that you may need to get used to at first. In order to drink a “healing” potion you need to meditate and you aren’t going to do that while a group of Nekkars are leaping at you. Potions are also toxic and you can only drink so many before getting a Witcher tummy ache.

*Geralt might be a famous monster hunting Witcher but he also plays the role of prized herbalist and barrel scrounger. This game does a very poor job of item finding because it makes you play scavenger. Everywhere you turn the “search” icon appears or the “Pick Herbs” text appears allowing you to rummage around like a common street urchin. Even inside someone’s home — with them standing right there — Geralt can browse open chests and table drawers and take 10 gold here and 12 gold there. Geralt picks up alchemical and crafting ingredients this way so it’s almost required that you do this and it gets old and feels totally out of place with the rest of this very real, vivid world. I’d honestly rather have a button that automates me going out in the forest looking for alchemy herbs and then I randomly find stuff. Hey at least there isn’t a “picking herb” animation. It IS fast, which helps.

*There isn’t an animation after you meditate and drink a potion though. Not a big deal but I miss seeing Geralt slam down those glass vials.

*The conversations can get circular. This is classic dialogue tree weirdness and anyone familiar with Black Isle/Bioware games will feel at home with this quirk. You can “restart” conversations and will even get into the exact same discussion with an NPC that you literally had two seconds ago. Some of the conversations with NPCs (and there is a LOT of talking in this game) doesn’t flow as well as it should.

*Quicktime events. More than I’d like. Fist fighting contests and even some actual gameplay elements require pressing the keyed button sequence. I have been playing Resident Evil IV a lot of late and The Witcher 2 has more QT events than that game. That’s too many.

*Repeated canned dialogue — there’s a lot of that too. If you are familiar with The Witcher 2 you likely recall the “Plough em all” song sung by the drunk guard in Flotsam. This song is laugh out loud funny the first time you hear it. The 20th time? Eh… The banter offered up by the NPCs isn’t varied enough and it sorta pulls you out of the world when people keep saying the exact same thing over..and over..and over.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about what makes this game so special. And this is a special game.

Can Survival Horror Survive?

Survival Horror is gone now - Silent Hill 2

When Brian recently flagged up Lone Survivor, I was intrigued, not only by the game itself but by the thought that I hadn’t seen a survival horror title gain a lot of press attention in recent years, and that the genre was on something of a downward slope. A quick google search later I discovered that I’m very far from the only person to have been struck by this observation. Other commentators have put out some well constructed arguments blaming the evolution of intuitive gameplay and the fashion for action shooters, or the ascension of western-style horror over the Japanese version. But those are slightly out of date now, and, inevitably, I had my own opinions that I felt the need to share. And seeing as it’s Friday the 13th today, it seemed a good time to do it.

I can’t claim to be a genuine survival horror fanboy. Of the classic games in the genre I have only played the first two Silent Hill and Resident Evil titles. And I have to admit that I was always slightly surprised that Resident Evil got quite the plaudits and success that it did. Not that it’s a poor game by any stretch of the imagination, rather that its subject matter and shock tactics were so very well-worn from horror films and books even by the time it came out. Zombies as a byproduct of bioweapons research was a dreadful cliche even in 1996. Mad scientists and tyrannical corporations even more so and it didn’t help that the game did cringe-worthy things like using the acronym STARS for a special ops team and naming a female character Valentine to further cheapen the mood. But whilst the basis for the scares of claustrophobic environments and things jumping out from dark corners was equally unoriginal that aspect was pulled off with undeniable skill and made the games well worth playing.

In most respects I was rather more impressed with Silent Hill. I’m not sure there have ever been games that messed with my head in the same way that those first two titles in this series did. In the first one, the simple but extraordinary emotion of a father’s’ love for a helpless, suffering child is leveraged with uncanny brilliance to make the player care in a way that I don’t think any game has managed before or since. The second was less intense but more intimate in the manner in which it cast the player as a person who had committed a terrible, and yet entirely sympathetic, act, forcing you to confront the complexities of morality and human nature. I’m not the only one to have been deeply affected by the content of Silent Hill. The team behind it released the extraordinary Book of Lost Memories to detail, in appropriately artistic terms, their creative process while even more bizarrely one fan was moved to write a 130,000 word analysis of the series, which actually turned out to be a lot more interesting than you might expect someone deranged enough to write it would have managed.

And yet in terms of pure gameplay, I have to give Resident Evil the edge. It was simply more thrilling, more focussed and it lacked the kind of frustrating sequences that I alluded to a couple of weeks ago where you ran around a monster-infested town looking for things that could be, well, anywhere at all. Basically, killing grotesque things with heavy weaponry pushes at your primal excitement buttons rather better than complex plots involving syncretic religions and existential guilt. Developers and designers know this: that’s why so many modern big-budget games have heavy shooter elements, because the big budgets mean that studios can’t afford to fail with their designs, and they know from experience that extreme violence sells. And because those top-dollar designs can’t afford to fail, they can’t afford to be difficult, which is another vital feature of the survival horror genre, because without difficulty, you’re going to have trouble generating an appropriately fearful response in the player. And so in Resident Evil we see a gradual shift in this direction through the course of the series, culminating in Resident Evil 4 which was more of a shmup with horror elements than a proper survival horror game, but which was brilliant nonetheless. And that brilliance sowed the seeds of destruction for the genre because if you can have a great game that looks like a survival horror title but can guarantee top-grade sales, why bother making proper survival horror for an increasingly niche audience any more?

Cliver Barker's Undying screenshot - atmospheric and unsettling
At least this is the way the conventional analysis goes, and it’s hard to argue with its basic tenets. However the presupposition seems to be that you can’t build a game that combines exciting combat sequences with genuine horror: offer the player too much firepower, too much capacity to deal with and control the hostile environment in which they find themselves and they won’t get scared. This is the bit I don’t get, because I’ve experienced otherwise, in at least three games.

Exhibits A and B are relatively obscure shooter Clive Barker’s Undying, and Half-Life 2. Both are in most respects fairly standard, if well above average in terms of quality, first-person shooters. Neither has a clear connection to survival horror, having bountiful levels of ammunition and nothing more than the occasional set-piece scare to keep you on your toes. And yet both feature what are, to my mind, some of the most extraordinarily memorable horror sequences of my gaming career. Undying featured a level set in a snow-shrouded ruin, through which the ghosts of monks flitted in the eerie half-light of a full moon, another in a hellishly bizarre otherworld, Oneiros. It also featured a “Scrye” mechanic in which you could look through the real world into the supernatural one to uncover clues and often, rather horrific surprises into the bargain, giving the player the constant sense that there was a whole gallery of unseen menace lurking just underneath the veneer of normality. In Half-Life 2 it was the intense feeling of sympathy the game generated for the appalling fates of the residents of Ravenholm and Nova Prospekt. In both cases, I was genuinely horrified. In both cases all that did this was carefully crafted environments and emotional responses. That’s all it takes to introduce horror into an otherwise standard action game of extreme violence.

They Hunger Survival Horror mod for Half Life screenshot
Exhibit C is a series of free mods for the original Half-Life called They Hunger. It’s you against the zombies again, that same tired old formula but I challenge you to play one of the games and and tell me that they’re tired, or in fact that they’re anything other than a living example of exactly what’s commonly held to be impossible: a survival horror game in the guise of a shooter. Ammunition is so dreadfully scarce that it got the point where I hated finding new weapons because I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep it supplied and would be worrying constantly as to whether I dared use it now in case something even worse was round the corner. The game rejected set-pieces scares and closed environments in favour of simply being overwhelmingly, oppressively dark. Not the pointlessly impenetrable blackness of Doom 3, but a perpetual inky twilight through which you could see half-shapes, suggestions of creeping movement that would have you desperately blasting with your limited ammunition at harmless bats while what was groaning in the blackness would suddenly come upon you from behind. And yet for all this disempowerment and terror it was still a shooter. Combat was fluid, skillful, exciting and satisfying. And it had the standard open-ended save model of old first-person shooters, so as long as you saved your game frequently, success was assured. Yet the game was so utterly emotionally gruelling that in some respects I couldn’t wait for it to finish, and what surer sign of a genuine horror experience is there than that?

Survival Horror as we knew it may be dead for good. But just as the best writers continue to find ingenious ways to keep our favourite horror villains coming back from the dead for installment after installment, there’s no reason why, with a little more vision, talented designers and developers couldn’t perform similar necromancy over the corpse of this seminal and much-loved genre.

EA Copying Warhammer? Shrug. Get in Line.

Games Workshop might be a monolithic empire that will sue the hell out of anyone who even mentions its games in public if it doesn’t get a cut, but you have to admit that a lot of GW properties have been, let’s say “borrowed”, without the company’s consent. Sure, GW can take this to the extreme, like when it freaked out when users started making custom content for the new edition of Space Hulk. Fan made mods and maps — Games Workshop lost its mind over that one. Games Workshop protects its IP like a mother wolf protects its pups. When Cyanide made the PC game Chaos League, which was a blatant lifting of the Blood Bowl idea, the lawyers were called.

StarCraft and WarCraft would not exist — at least in so far as how the games look — without Warhammer.

The latest “borrowing” comes from EA. Here’s the blurb from Eurogamer:

EA has been accused of copying Warhammer 40k tanks for its browser-based real-time strategy game Command & Conquer Tiberium Alliances. Users on Reddit noticed a number of tanks in C&C, developed by German studio Phenomic, are pretty much carbon copies of tanks in the famous Games Workshop tabletop game.

Whoops. Look at that picture. Might as well slap a Bad Moonz clan Ork on that sucker and call it a day.

Purge the Unclean…call the lawyers.