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Bolt Thrower: XCOM TBG, Steam Sale, Witcher 3

XCOM The Final Team

My Gamerati series is actually running a bit ahead of my columns here, so this week you get another one! This time it’s deconstructing XCOM: The Board Game.

In the sense of looking, sounding and playing like the original video game XCOM is an abysmal failure. And this is a good thing. There’s no way a tabletop game could try and replicate the bizarre blend of strategy, tactics, economics and role-playing that made the original such fun.

Instead it wisely goes for the strategic layer alone. And it does a very clever thing. By using a simple but tense and effective push your luck mechanic for resolving pretty much everything it captures the feel of the video game. That sense of always being one risk away from victory of failure is part of what made XCOM so compelling. The tabletop version has that same texture about it.

So it’s a great game which evokes the sense of XCOM while being nothing like it. That’s smart design. Smart enough that you’ll want to read the original in full for all the detail.

Anyway, on to the actual video games. I’ve spent most of the last fortnight gleefully generating and selling trading cards from the awful Steam sale mini-game. Not sure why the bothered with the effort of coding that, especially since you could get cards without playing.

I’ve spent more than I ought to on games I’ll probably never play because they sound fun and were less than the price of a sandwich. Looking at my vast collection of untouched Steam games compared with my tiny collection of expensive console games made me wonder. What does this glut of cheap games do to our perception of value?

My Steam collection contains a large number of excellent, deep and long-running games that I’ve only played for an hour or two. STALKER, Left 4 Dead 2 and TorchLight 2 are just a few examples. Because I bought them all on the cheap I had no sense of compulsion to plough on and make the most of them. These great games have become throwaway rubbish in my head, just because of the price I paid.

Contrast this with console games that I’ve paid a pretty penny to obtain. I’ve played almost all of those for multiple hours just to be sure I got full value for money out of them. They were all fun, although many were just averagely so. A few, however, like Gears of War, I kept on with in spite of an average start and eventually found to be amazing games. Had they been Steam sale titles, they’d have languished, forgotten.

It’s the same with the low, low prices on the app store. Because freemium exists, excellent games are often priced at a pittance. A hundred or so of them sit barely played on my iTunes account.

I’ve always been dismissive of the argument the music industry makes that making things cheap or free reduces their value in the eyes of the consumer. It seemed like a feeble excuse to try and keep profits up in the face of piracy instead of innovating. Now I’m not so sure. While music and games are quite different things, there do seem to be parallels here. I enjoy games more when I’ve paid good money for them. And I worry about what the value perception here means for game prices in the long term.

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One of those expensive titles, The Witcher 3, continues to occupy all my gaming time right now. It’s very good, a fantastic blend of action, role-playing and fantasy narrative that just makes you want to keep on playing and playing. While not truly open world, the areas you play in are vast, and reward exploration and creativity.

Yet there are aspects of the design that I find bizarre and baffling. The most ludicrous is the teleporting horse. In such big areas you need fast transport, and in this fantasy setting it’s provided in equine form. Because you might need it any time, you can whistle for it and it magically comes trotting in from the edge of the map, no matter how far away you left it.

The silliest example is when you’ve been on the water. The horse can’t swim, so to cross water you have to get off and swim or use a boat. Yet when you get to your destination, you whistle and the horse somehow finds its way across, even if you’re on an island. This is so patently idiotic it ruins my sense of immersion every time.

It’s an example of the way AAA games have arrived at a strange place where they’re forced to be realistic while making endless concessions to design. The horse can’t swim, yet it can cross the water when you need it to. So why not just have a damn magical swimming horse in the first place and save all this silly busy work, this clicking and waiting to no benefit?

Witcher 3 is full of this stuff. Equipment needs repairing so you’re forced to find a smith to do the job and wait until sunrise for him to open. Why? It adds nothing to the game. One smith in Velen highlights the issue starkly. He goes to bed when the sun goes down, yet his kids stay up all day and all night, playing in his yard. Where’s the sense of realism there?

Games are not real. That’s kind of the whole point of games. Even if they wish to strive for realism, the technology is so far away from it as to be laughable. We can’t even work out how to make pretend people who’ll react sensibly when you put a bucket on their head and steal their stuff. Trying to defend the inane “realism” in these games causes fanboys to tie themselves in knots, trying to defend the lack of black people in a land filled with ghouls and griffins. It’s about time we just dropped this stupid pretense, and played.

Bolt Thrower: Gears of War, Bloodborne, Witcher 3

gow-01

Welcome to Bolt Thrower, the gaming column that blows your head off. If you’re new to the format, here’s the deal: I link something I’ve written elsewhere and then pontificate a bit on what I’m playing right now that’s not in the review queue.

My link this time round is the first of a new series I’m doing for Gamerati. The column’s called Bytes and Pieces and it’s about dissecting tabletop versions of video game franchises. First under the knife is Gears of War: The Board Game.

It’s great title in spite of my well-known dislike of co-operative games. That’s partly because the setup feels right for a game that made its fame on the back of co-op online play. Indeed, feel is much of what makes the game special. The fast play feels right for a tactical shooter, as does the balance of excitement and strategy, and the weapons and enemies behave as you expect.

Ultimately it has moments where it fails. The biggest being the way pieces can move around irrespective of where enemy figures are on the map. These are so ludicrious that the suspension of disbelief collapses, although it quickly builds again. If you want more detail go read the article.

The big gaming news in my life right now is finally having gotten hold of a PS4. I’m loving my introduction to Sony’s gaming world. It seems so much softer, more flexible, more alluring than the hard black and green squares of Microsoft’s world. And the controller is lovely, aside from the symmetric joysticks. You can find me on PSN as mattthr.

The console came bundled with action RPGs Bloodborne and The Witcher 3. I dived straight into the former and, I have to say, I was a tiny bit disappointed.

Partially that’s because I’ve just come out of a long period of playing little but Dark Souls. I don’t think I was just mentally ready for yet more of that punishment. Especially when Bloodborne is built so you can’t grind through the early areas: you’re prevented from levelling up until you’ve met the first boss.

But even allowing for that, the mechanics felt over-familiar. Sure, you’ve now got a ranged weapon and the ability to make weapon mode switches. Sure, there’s no shield and a health-back mechanic that encourages aggressive play. However, it turns out that one key use of that firearm is to stun enemies mid-attack so you can counter. In reality, that plays a whole lot like raising a shield to block and counter in the Souls games.

The graphics were also a bit disappointing for a new console. It has the same poor ragdoll effects and animation glitches that plagued Souls. And I was surprised by how cluttered and busy the environments looked. Almost like the designers had decided to use all that extra graphics power just to pack as many polygons on the screen as they could, regardless of what they looked like.

bloodborne-01

Contrast that to The Witcher 3 which looks absolutely gorgeous. It also has a sense about it like a designer finally got an open world game just right. There’s no fake balancing: if you wander into danger you’ll get a warning and the you’d better run or you’re dead. And a great combination of foot, transport and fast travel means there’s no wandering around for hours just for the sake of it.

The result is a real feeling of wonder and the itch for exploration. The world is rich and believable. It’s easy to follow the main quest if you want. And if you don’t, well, side-quests and mini games are plentiful and mostly short. And if even that’s too much stricture for you there’s a lot of fun to be had looking for bandit camps and monster nests and taking them out.

I’m playing on the second-hardest difficulty and it feels just right. To win battles, you need to scout an area and prepare well with the right potions, spells and equipment. Then make use of your move set and the terrain and good twitch skills. If you lose, you re-load and try again. Often several times. That’s frustrating enough to make it exciting without it feeling brutal.

Having spent so long playing Souls games I can’t help but contrast this approach with the unforgiving nature of their limited save system. The Witcher 3 feels so much more approachable. So much more … fun.

And yet.

And yet, for all the frustration factor of failing battles in The Witcher, it doesn’t make me afraid. Souls and Bloodborne gave me moments of genuine buttock-clenching terror under the pressure of having to get things right, or lose an hour of progress. It’s a terror that felt right at home in Bloodborne’s beautifully realised horror theme. Those moments were unforgettable. The moments of pleasure that came from getting them right were even more so.

So I’ll be back to Bloodborne. But for now, contradictory though it sounds, The Witcher 3 is offering me a well-earned rest.

Old School Rules

Old School Rules

My second favourite place to read articles about gaming (NoHighScores being the first, obviously) is Edge Online. And it was there that I learned the news that two well known names in video game design history, Brenda Brathwaite and Tom Hall, were joining forces on a kickstarter campaign to fund an “old school” RPG. The modern incarnations of the genre being apparently, in spite of being “epic” and “wonderful”, in need of some competition from the aged paradigm of stat-crunching. The article from which I learned this asked the pertinent question of what, exactly, the label meant. That pushed my nostalgia buttons sufficiently to make me want to try and answer the question for myself.

I grew up with both computers and with pen and paper role-playing games and I can’t recall a time when the link between the two was not obvious. Gathering other gamers together for role-playing sessions is hard and if you want the full effect of slowly developing a group of characters they suck in immense quantities of time. Computers promised a solution to both issues, allowing you to get your fix any time you wanted and speeding up the campaign arc.

The initial offerings I came across were interactive fiction games, which I found and still find charmless, frustrating things. They have all the book-like limitations of trapping you inside someone else’s imagination without the benefits of character development and absorbing narrative. And the experience of dealing with language parsers drives me to a level of incoherent fury unmatched by anything else in my gaming experience. These were not the things I wanted, where an inventory was a clumsy box of puzzle solving tools rather than a roster of legendary weapons and magical armour.

So the first time I got wind of something that smelled like my beloved Dungeons and Dragons, my delight was incandescent. It was original Bard’s Tale and I was ten. I had no idea how to play the game properly, and I didn’t care. I would carefully roll up a party, lovingly name them and clothe them in skins of iron and steel before setting out into the brutal dawn of Skara Brae where they would stumble into enemies and be torn apart like mewling babes. Whereupon I would go back to the inn and repeat the process over and over, ignoring homework, meals, bedtime, until I was dragged protesting from my dream world, eyes round and red from wonder and exhaustion.

This happened because I was expecting a replica of my childish D&D experience where the heroes went out and slaughtered monsters, collected the loot and went out to slaughter more powerful monsters. I think I solved exactly one of the horrible battery of puzzles the game slammed in front of the player like iron doors, which was how to get into the first dungeon. And once the euphoria of that discovery wore off and I realised that what I’d found was nothing more than a faster way to get my callow band of heroes slaughtered, my interest in the game began to wane.

The Bard's Tale
But unbeknown to me, The Bard’s Tale was just the most popular and visible cap on a mushrooming world of computer role playing games. Ultima had been born five years before and, although I would not play a game in the series until the early 90’s, had set down many genre conventions. After The Bard’s Tale and the home computer revolution they began to sprout in earnest. And why not? On the limited hardware platforms of the time action games looked awful and played in a sticky, halting fashion compared to their arcade counterparts. Role-playing games offered the majestic worlds of wonder and the grand sagas that we craved from both pen and paper RPGs and computer games.

What all the early role-playing games had in common was an obsession with numbers. Character ability scores, experience levels, weapon bonuses, spell counts. That’s where the focus was, or at least the focus of most players. Sure some of those titles were filled with cleverly conceived plots and marvelously inventive settings but what the pen and paper role-playing crowd who lapped these things up really wanted was a computer simulation of their favourite games. And that meant stats and power curves, building up experience points and hoarding loot. It is, as we well know, an incredibly addictive model of game play so titles that stuck to the Dungeons and Dragons formula sold well, got well reviewed, and spawned copies until it became the dominant model in the genre.

Inevitably actual licensed Dungeons and Dragons games eventually began to appear, the first being Pool of Radiance in 1988. But what’s striking about this release is that came after the first video adventure game that struck new ground in the genre, Dungeon Master. With its real time play, peculiar repetition based experienced system and mix of tough puzzles and twitch combat it moved the focus sharply away from number crunching and toward action. The stats were still there of course, buried in the character screens, but for the first time the player didn’t really have a clue what the number represented, what they were for. So obsessively tweaking character builds for maximum power became futile.

Dungeon Master

Dungeon Master laid, arguably, the groundwork for the modern concept of the action RPG. But while people raved about it they kept on lapping up the stats based model. They did so because it was a better mimic for their other hobby and because that reward-response reinforcement is so amazingly powerful. So while technological developments allowed first map-based tactical combat and then real-time combat the numbers stayed totally in the heart of things.

What changed the game finally was Diablo. One hundred percent real time and a character stats system stripped back to its bare essentials, it arrived at a time when computer gaming was becoming increasingly seen as an ordinary everyday activity and not the preserve of Dungeon and Dragons nerds. And it proved that the reinforcement model was just as addictive for mainstream gamers as it had been for the pen and paper role-players before them. From there, slowly, the action RPG model took over as the dominant one and evolved toward pinnacles of near-perfection like Dark Souls and The Witcher, whose difficulty made them once again the playthings of hardcore hobbyists. Video role-playing had come full circle.

Until now, and the kickstarter calls for a new stats based role-playing game to challenge these behemoths of modern technology. It is, as others have observed, a little sad that kickstarter is so often used to stoke the dormant volcanos of nostalgia than to drive innovation. But what I find especially odd about this new project is that as far as I can see, what I consider as old-school role-playing never went away.

If you go trawling around the stony bottom of the internet you will find many, many stats-based role-playing games that will give you many hours of enjoyment without costing you a penny. Just like the arthropods you might find under the real stones of a real stream they’re often ugly and will bite you if you’re not careful, but they’re there. From fan freeware modelled on the console JRPGs of our teenage years to the untold legions of lovingly maintained Roguelikes they will satisfy your desire for stats-based, reinforcement model gameplay to the very brim.

So what does that leave us with from a kickstarter project? A new story, that’ll likely follow any number of tiresome fantasy conventions, perhaps. A graphical update that still won’t be able to match the best looking action RPGs on the market, certainly. But ultimately, and ironically quite unlike the trailblazing adventures its supposed to simulate, this seems doomed to re-tread some very well worn paths indeed. I’ll be sticking with Angband and my action RPGs.

CD Projekt Announces Cyberpunk

CD Projekt Red just had their big summer press conference and they officially announced their new non-Witchery IP – Cyberpunk. A little on the nose, I suppose, but it’s evidently based on an existing pen and paper property from RPG designer Mike Pondsmith. So, who had Cyberpunk in the pool?

Here are the rest of the details from CD Projekt:

At the conference, CD Projekt co-founder Marcin Iwinski promised players that this game would have all of the hallmarks of the Witcher series that has made the developer so well-known and loved, and even more. Their upcoming RPG will be designed for mature and demanding players who expect to be treated seriously, and the game will be richly detailed, non-linear, and with a complex and gripping story. This much is expected from the talented studio, but the new universe brings with it some new twists in their game design. Players will experience the world through their own, unique characters chosen from different classes – be they blood-thirsty mercenaries or cunning hackers – that they will equip with vast selection of cybernetic implants and deadly weapons. As in the Witcher series, players will face morally ambiguous choices, their actions influencing events in the world at large and the fate of the individuals they encounter.

?Original “Cyberpunk” game designer Mike Pondsmith was at hand for the conference in Warsaw, Poland. “For over two decades, I’ve been proud to say that Cyberpunk’s been the gold standard of what it means to be a true cyberpunk game. And it’s been a huge success for me and our many fans, with over 5 million players worldwide. But over all that time we haven’t found the right team to bring our cyberpunk world to full digital life — until now. CD Projekt Red is the team we’ve been hoping for. Their incredible work on The Witcher and The Witcher 2 shows that they share the same dedication and love of great games that we do at Talsorian. I’m especially stoked that they want our participation in making this game a fantastic project that will live up to everything Cyberpunk fans (old and new) have been waiting for. Trust me — this game is going to rock,” said “Maxmike” Pondsmith.

This game will be developed by a new team at CD Projekt RED Studio, composed of veterans from the Witcher franchise. The studio will set new standard in the futuristic RPG genre with an exceptional gaming experience. The most important goal for this division is to create a game matching their vision, a game that corresponds to their high production values.

Yeah, not a lot of intricate detail here, but as is par for the course these days, expect a lot of dribbling out of info over the coming months (years?).