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Of Orcs and Detectives

I don’t inherently hate orcs. I’m not an orcist. Ditto for goblins. If I kill orcs and goblins in a game, it’s because they’re the enemy. I go to the red marks on the map and kill the red marks and nine times out of ten, said red marks are either orcs or goblins. It ain’t personal, it’s just business.

In this spirit of loving my green skinned brethren, I was excited to visit the Focus Home Interactive booth at E3 to get a look at Cyanide’s upcoming action-RPG, Of Orcs and Men. The fact that the upcoming Sherlock Holmes adventure game was also at the same booth certainly helped. I may not hate orcs, but I despise mysteries. Stupid mysteries.

Of Orcs and Men has you switching between two characters, a huge orc warrior and a diminutive goblin assassin. The game is set in a time after orcs and goblins have been defeated by humans in a great war and the humans, in their stunning capacity for benevolence, have decided that rather than risk another green skinned uprising, they’re just going to kill of anything that isn’t human. Your mission is to make your way towards the current Emperor and teach him the error of his ways. Actually, you’re supposed to kill him, but if a teachable moment shows up while you’re killing him, feel free to take advantage of it. The more you know and all that.

As you might expect, the warrior is big and lumbering with various melee skills and attacks while the goblin is acrobatic and stealthy, able to sneak up behind soldiers and kill them quietly as well as bounce around the battlefield, blades a-flashing. While in combat, you can switch between the two characters at will and assign combat moves via a queuing system. One interesting twist shown was the ability to take control of the orc, pick up the goblin, chuck him towards an enemy and then switch to the goblin in mid-air and manually make with the stabbing upon landing.

In the typical RPG fashion, skills can be upgraded in one of two ways, allowing for some specialization. Similarly, the game gives multiple options for completing certain missions, allowing you to stay with the dynamic duo or split the team up and stick to one character over another for a while. The game’s mission structure will follow that of The Witcher 2 in that each chapter will have a central hub from which you can take on story and sub-missions but once you move on to the next chapter’s central area, the previous area’s missions are no longer available.

From what I saw, the game looked good, the combat looked easy enough to pick up yet with enough tactical requirements that you can’t just take the orc all of the time and wade into battle soaking up damage and breaking human spines. My only concern at this point is that while this is a joint development effort between Cyanide and Spiders, Cyanide is responsible for the design and creative direction. Cyanide’s games often end up unfinished in some way or another and this is such an interesting concept, my hope is that they can follow through with it throughout the whole game. I’m also a little concerned that they won’t be up to the task of handling the AI correctly for whatever character you won’t be using. An interesting story won’t mean much if combat is hampered by a poorly controlled AI character.

Still, even with these reservations, I’m definitely keeping this one on my list of games to watch for when it releases this fall.

While at Focus Home I also got to see the Testament of Sherlock Holmes, the new adventure game featuring the world’s most famous detective. Note I said “most famous” and not “greatest” as everyone knows that Batman is the world’s greatest detective. It’s true. Look it up.

The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is not a quippy adventure game featuring a standoffish Robert Downey Jr. or a modern take a la the BBC’s excellent Sherlock series, but a mature and particularly brutal look at the chief resident of 221B Baker Street. Where previous Sherlock Holmes adventure games focused more on those perpetrating the crimes, this game focuses more on Sherlock himself, and the lengths he goes to to solve his latest assignment.

The demo showed a particularly gruesome crime scene in which a bishop has been murdered, but not just murdered but bound, tortured, stabbed and somehow forced to eat the flesh off of his own forearm. It was pretty gross and definitely not something I’ve seen in a Sherlock Holmes game before. In true adventure game fashion, investigating the crime scene is a manner of talking to witnesses, looking for clues and examining evidence. Frogware has added a system by which the player is notified via differently colored icons whenever they’re hovering over something or someone that has already been investigated, as well as a notification whenever a crime scene has been fully investigated. I can’t tell you how excited this makes me as nothing is worse than revisiting everything in a room simply because you think you’re not done yet. Once all the evidence has been collected, the deduction board from previous Sherlock Holmes game returns, allowing the player to get inside Sherlock’s mind and narrow down suspects and motives based on the collected evidence.

There will be more than sixty puzzles to work through and twenty locations to investigate as you switch between Holmes and Watson to get to the bottom of a mystery involving stolen jewels and the dead bishop. If that’s not exciting enough, for the first time, Sherlock’s canine partner Toby, first introduced in “The Sign of the Four” will be available to help sniff out evildoers, such as men who make terrible puns like “sniff out” when talking about fictional dog detectives.

I quite enjoyed the last Sherlock Holmes game, Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper, so I’m really looking forward to this one. The game looks gorgeous and it will be interesting to see Frogware’s take on Holmes as a character, warts, drug addiction and all.

Finally, before I left the booth I sat down and played Realms of Ancient War, the XBLA/PSN/PC co-op action RPG from Wizarbox. I knew nothing about this game before entering the booth, other than what I just told you. I picked up a controller and started playing as a barbarian before being summarily dispatched by wolves. Undaunted I started a new game. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Oh, yawn, another ARPG” and I hear you. But here’s the thing: I picked up that controller and couldn’t stop playing. Special attacks are mapped nicely to face buttons, downing health potions is easy and there are plenty of enemies in which to bury your bladed weapons. As I played, I kept checking my watch to see how much time I had left before I had to move on to my next appointment and every time I looked, the professional side of my brain told me that I needed to stop so that I could make my next meeting on time, but the larger, more fun focused part told the other part to shut the hell up and to just play for five more minutes. And so I played for five more minutes, and then five more minutes and then five more minutes and then holy hell I am late as shit for my next appointment, an appointment that sucked and one in which I spent wishing I could have been playing RAW instead.

This is why we need to play games at E3, because that paragraph hopefully told you more about Realms of Ancient War than any press kit ever could.

Realms of Ancient War is slated to release some time this summer, with The Testament of Sherlock Holmes following in September and Of Orcs and Men rounding out the trio in September/October.

A Game of Thrones: Old School Role-Playing

I finished Chapter 1 today of the Game of Thrones RPG from Atlus/Cyanide. You have to understand that I go into this with a huge deal of skepticism simply due to my experience with Cyanide’s games — specifically Blood Bowl and the Game of Thrones RTS. I like Atlus as a publisher quite a lot so I’m hoping for the best but expecting…well, Cyanide.

This is merely a cursory look as Chapter 1 isn’t terribly long, but so far — I (mostly) like this game.

What strikes me is how old school the design is. If you are unfamiliar with A Game of Thrones the RPG it’s a 3rd person action game set in the George R.R. Martin A Song of Ice and Fire universe.

You almost always read “action” after 3rd person but this is anything but an action game. It’s the anti-Dark Souls in terms of combat. Mechanics like these are a relic of role-playing games past. That’s not necessarily a knock on it but it’s not what I was expecting. It’s sort of…Mass Effect/Dragon Age-y in its approach. Here’s how it works:

You have your avatar, in all of his 3rd person glory. You start as a veteran of the Night’s Watch with your war dog companion. You move around like a normal 3rd person game, but when combat starts you can slow-motion pause the action. It’s not totally paused — it’s sort of like the “pause” mechanic in Witcher 2. Things are still moving so you don’t have unlimited time but it’s slow enough to make decisions.

What you are deciding in AGoT is what skills to use. You start off with a few skills from which to choose –a knockdown attack, an attack that stuns foes or a headbutt. Each skill requires energy so you can’t just spam them over and over. You may also chain skills together if you have enough energy. So I can try the stun attack followed by the headbutt (which causes extra damage). If you don’t use a skill you just do a regular attack and you don’t need to keep pressing buttons to do it, it will auto attack your desired target. The game will also automatically move you to the closest enemy after you kill your current one. Very old-timey.

It comes off feeling almost turn-based in its pace.

When in a group you can switch members by pressing Y or even issue commands to your war dog by pressing LB which brings up its own radial menu. There is a certain amount of pleasure I still get from a slower paced combat model such as this. It’s not hands on tactical like Dark Souls or Witcher 2 — it’s more methodical, but I don’t mind that.

The writing isn’t bad, either and much like the books no character is safe — you learn that as early as Chapter 1. There is a metric TON of dialogue so far and I’m thinking you may need to be a fan of the books (or the show I guess) to get a lot out of what is going on. They include a codex but it will help if you know King’s Landing from Castle Black. Hell I even like the dialogue tree options because unlike a Bioware game you don’t click on EVERY option eventually — you have one choice in how to approach a situation verbally and it is not clear cut how “best” to handle it. I really, really, like that.

I also love the perk system. You can choose “advantages” and “disadvantages” when creating your character — like “gifted” or “asthmatic” but you can also earn them as you play. I tortured a Wildling early on and gained the Sadistic trait. I like how your actions can shape your character; a nice touch.

There are some oddities, of course. I don’t like that a veteran of the Watch will find a Wildling armor set that is better than what he’s wearing and don it without hesitation. I put on a weird demonic looking helmet which looked ridiculous in context. Same with some heavy armor I found. I mean just…no. I also don’t like that I can find coins in crates. Come on, now. Will we ever get past this in RPGs? And yeah, it’s not the best looking game around, either. Murky textures, mediocre animations, the budget was clearly limited here. This isn’t a sexy game by any stretch. If you demand top shelf visuals, move along.

This game, and again I am a mere two hours in, comes off as Todd likes to say as a “slow burn”. It’s not instant action but it shows promise.

After writing that I went to Metacritic out of curiosity to see that the game is at a rough “54” score. IGN gave it a 4/10 which for IGN is like saying the DVD is radioactive. Guess I’ll have to wait for it to turn terrible?

Right now, I admit, I’m into it.

Game of Thrones “Epic Plot” Trailer

So here’s another video for Game of Thrones, the Cyanide/Focus Home/Atlus rpg production set in the world of incestuous blonde people. The text that accompanies this trailer announcement is incredibly adept at using a lot of words to say very little.

This new trailer will immerse you in the heart of the intrigue of the Game of Thrones RPG, a story tainted by treachery and backstabbing! Guided by vengeance, allegiance, honor and family, the two heroes of the game – Mors, sworn brother of the Night’s Watch, and the red priest Alester – will travel across Westeros and its most famous locales to accomplish life-changing quests. From the Wall to King’s Landing, the destiny of our two heroes weaves a complex tale as they meet famous figures, discover plots and conspiracies, all the while seeking answers to their questions.

Ok…

I’m going to play this, don’t get me wrong, but Cyanide…the gun is getting empty. How many bullets does this company have left?