Friday, November 30, 2012

Flight to the White Wyrm - Part One

I wrote the first two chapters on this some time ago. Maybe putting them on the blog will encourage me to finish it...

Flight to the White Wyrm


   The landscape was a bleak vista of endless scrub plains, stretching far in to the horizon. Distant, bluish mountains shrugged their way up the horizon like lethargic titans. The landscape was not entirely devoid of any character. An occasional riverbed meandered its way across the tundra, frozen now but slight testament to a time when warm weather would thaw the frigid land, bringing back flowing water and possibly even life. An occasional hillock would rise above the featureless plains, from which jutted old, quarry-worked stones marking the remnants of some long-lost ruin, suggesting a time when men could live in this land. That time was too long ago for anyone to remember who or what they were.  

   Draelon Ghorst grimaced, squinting across the barren land atop his gaited Hoagarit stallion. Behind him were a modest company of men, mercenaries all, adorned for war in a harsh winter. The stallion snorted, steam rising in the chill mid-day temperatures. He focused on a thin black line in the distance, what appeared to be no more than a curious blot of moving figures, men on horses, moving quickly toward the distant mountains.

   Draelon was a man of modest height, perhaps no more than five and a half spans high, but what his frame lacked in height he made up for in girth and mass. His arms rippled with lean muscle and sinew beneath fur-padded splint-mail. His wide, chiseled jaw was crisscrossed with long white scars visible beneath his thuck stubble as a beard worked to set its way in. He still held most of his teeth, despite evidence of a split lip and broken nose. No one could confuse this man for anything but a fighter, a warrior born.

    “We have them now,” Draelon muttered. He reached for his wine skin, took a long draw from the nozzle and offered to his nearest companion, a lean woman with raven-black hair drawn back in to a tight braid. Her form was hidden beneath thick smoky grey fur hides decorated with copper plates and raven feathers.  Bright silver and gold circlets were visible along her exposed wrists and neck. She took the wineskin and up-turned it for a quick drink, then returned it.

   “We will catch him soon,” the woman’s voice was quiet, but commanding. Her mannerisms spoke of aristocracy, and contrasted sharply with the vicious line of mercenaries she held company with. Yet no man among them looked upon her with anything less than fear. Something about her very manner evoked a sense of uncertain and lingering dread amongst the mercenaries.

   Draelon remembered the last night they spent in the port city of Khulinon. The story, as it had been told by Draelon’s master-at-arms Khorvish, was that a drunken lout of dubious Kaldinian heritage had affronted the woman. Khorvish, along with a handful of men, were posted as guards by the Lady’s request. They were slow to react when another patron, who had previously been seen sulking in the darkness of a corner stall, rushed the woman and drew a knife on her.

   Khorvish remembered the man vividly, when he recounted the tale to Draelon: “He was a lean, wild-haired sort, with the tattooed marks of a southern Thrall, perhaps a slave soldier of southern Kasdalan. He reeked of fish and goat. I took him for a madman, perhaps some escaped criminal from her lands. He had the same accent as she.”  

   Khorvish continued with his tale. “The man, he had madness in his eyes. He spoke to her. ‘Lady Poe, I have longed for the day I would take my revenge upon you and your kine.’ Spittle ran from the man’s quivering lips as he looked intensely in to her eyes. The woman moved not an inch,” the soldier said, “as we ordered the man back lest he be cut down. He seemed not to hear us, consumed with the inner madness that had been unleashed by Lady Poe’s presence.

   “’You are a good man,’ she said. I could barely hear her. Her lean, fair fingers reached up to stroke the man’s rough and scarred cheeks. Aye, I realized then he had the marks of many a lash upon his form. He gasped, he did, and let slip his hold on the knife at her neck.  ‘You are a loyal man to my family, and to my mother. But you will not harm me. You cannot.’ She meant it. The man seemed to quake in fear, then, and backed away from her in a burst of furious energy.

   “A’fore we could grab him, the madman fled in to the night, a strange, keening wail slowly emerging from his throat as he dashed through darkened, dirty streets, until he was found sometime later, before the pier upon which the Lady’s ship rested, where he had doused himself in lamp oil and set himself a’fire. The men, we watched and waited as he burned. He had stopped making any noise at all. It was eerie, a man dying silently in flame like that. Afterwards, I had the men dump the body. But no one about cared. A nearby old woman, a Hoagarit seer, came out and blessed the body. She said he was ‘Kasii’tin.’ I asked her what that meant. She said, ‘He was touched by the witch’s sight.’ His soul would never rest, she said. I believed her.”

   Since that night, when they set out on this journey in service to the noble princess, Lady Arvillia Poe, Draelon had kept such knowledge carefully in mind when dealing with her. She was Kasdalani, he knew. The women of the Poe family ruled that southern kingdom, and all were said to be necromancers and witches. No men of that distant land ever gained the power of sorcery, and indeed it was said that if a male child showed evidence of magical talent at birth, they were slain on the spot. Such was the way of the southern lands.

   Draelon’s musings were brought back to the present when he observed the thin, distant line of men on horses. A handful of figures seemed to break off from the trail, gathering at a high ridge. “They see us,” he mused.

   Lady Poe nodded. “The game is on.” He noticed that no vapor of chilled breath emerged from her mouth when she spoke. “My brother will now know that I have found him.”

   Her brother, Draelon mused. Ah, yes, it makes much sense now.

   “We had best push hard, then. We want to get to them before they reach the mountains.” If they made it to the mountains, along the Maegar border, then it would be difficult to find them in that rocky maze. Draelon hadn’t fought in this region for more than decade. He didn’t relish a repeat of the old Border Wars, when the Hoagarit warlord Sennegit decided to raid the northlands of Maegar and Syrgia beyond. The warlord still lived, last Draelon had heard, and he was most likely still holed up in those mountains, with thoughts of revenge no doubt in mind. Draelon would rather not have to face old foes as well as new.

   Poe nodded. “He is afraid of me, very afraid. He will push his men hard. If we can time this right, he will tire them out, wear down their faith in him. Then perhaps we can take advantage of that.”

   Draelon nodded. Call the woman a witch, a necromancer, a cruel mistress. She knew tactics. He liked that. It was a good trait to have.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Most Unusual Bustiere EVER

I don't usually post pics here for the hell of it anymore, but this was recently circulated by my wife's online cohorts and frankly it's just...freakishly amazing:

My wife has declined to wear it....

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Secret World's Earnings

MMO Fallout has an interesting bit of news here. Funcom looks poised to sell itself off? The Secret World might reasonably have 50K subscribers, based on reported earnings and cash shop revenues? Interesting stuff. It tempts me to try harder to resub and get some playtime out of the game. My wife played it for several months but as of last month she's not renewing.....I'll have to ask her if its because she's exhausted the content of the game, lost interest in it, or simply can't justify it due to a weak community (she's ultra-social when it comes to MMOs). She's been playing a lot of Rift lately, too....the new expansion smell lured her back; also, I think Rift's got a really healthy community and a pretty decent RP crowd for what she's looking for.

I'd like to try The Secret World again but for the following problems I like to keep complaining about: Funcom ruined my trust a while back with Age of Conan and thus will never be allowed access to my personal credit card info again, but Paypal and Funcom seem to have communications issues, too, as whenever I try to pay that way Funcom seems unable to process the order, and their customer service people can only offer the suggestion that if I wait long enough it might actually process. Yesh... not gonna happen. Paypal has a very precise way it works, and timing is everything; if every other processed order I put through Paypal happens a certain way in a certain amount of time, regardless of whether its a national or international purchase, I expect Funcom to fall within those parameters. Since they don't, it leaves me suspicious that they are doing something different....and different smells funky when it comes to my money.

So yes, this was another thinly disguised Funcom rant, with my ongoing lamentation that I don't understand how two games I should be playing and enjoying a lot, both set in genres or based on fiction I love so much, could be in the hands of a company that has more than earned its euphemistic title of Failcom. Gaaaaaah!

Speaking of Conan, I am still trying to wrap my head around the idea that  Arnold will be reprising his role in a KIng Conan movie. The irony that Arnold himself is older than Conan was in his final tales (from Conan of the Isles) when he sailed off to the west and disappeared is probably, of course, entirely lost on whomever is working on this movie. The good news is that we can continue to treat the Conan film chronology as the funky alternative universe stuff it always has been...

Achievement Unlocked: Level 1!

My kid turned 1 year old on Sunday. He had a big party with relatives on Saturday, and of course got to be a stinker to his heart's content on Sunday. He's running...sprinting!....all over the place, he's inventing his own little language he speaks to his stuffed animals, and he's obsessed with all things electronic, or which have lights or make noises, or pretty much anything that Mom and Dad are holding because obviously those are important! And so he must have them.

Marcus in clothes for an 18 month old that just fit!
Anyway, not much productivity this weekend, otherwise! I can report only that for some reason I've gotten really obsessed with Diablo III and that sort of took me by surprise but I am enjoying it. This prompted me to spend more time with Torchlight II, which is also good, but I dunno....except for the always-online bit, Diablo III appeals to me more than Torchlight II's more cartoony aesthetic. That said, Torchlight II has a lot going for it, with more character customization than just class/gender, and a very open world. Diablo III, on the other hand, has an extremely engaging storyline for a game of this type, and polished game play so smooth and efficient it's eerie.

I started a barbarian warrioress on hardcore (normal mode)'s not too risky, so far, but definitely adds an element of tension to the game! Do not even attempt to play hadcore until the kid is asleep, lemme tell ya!
I also watched The Expendables (at last) on DVD Saturday night. Ultra Mini Review: it wasn't all that exciting or original (surprise), although the later action scenes, when we got to them, were top notch. The  rest of it was a boiler-plate safe, run of the mill action hero plot line lifted straight from the eighties and nineties action film genre, right on down to some petty South American dictator, a CIA agent gone rogue (substituting for Soviets, I guess) and a mess of tough guy heroes who were in their prime in the eighties and are, if this film is to be believed, still in the thick of it as they all hit their geriatric years. Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis had bit part cameos just to say they were in the film, and I think the only saving grace I found was Statham, who remains my favorite action hero of the current crop. Jet Li had a couple decent moments, too.

More later!

If I had to rate it, I'd give the action scenes an A+ (they really were good), and the res t of the film a D for derivative--but with the caveat that Statham and Stallone both made this movie a lot more fun to watch than it otherwise would have been!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Socializing the Beast

The last few days have been interesting, as on Monday night when I returned home from work I found something called Mumble sitting on my computer, and my wife emphatically bringing me up to speed on the world of audio chat on a microphone. Apparently, much of her guild (which is spread out between Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2) had suddenly migrated to Rift. As I was the lone de facto Rift aficionado in the house, and also a known spouse to "The Wookie" as my wife is known by, it was now being made clear that I was going to socialize with other humans. Or else!

Mumble is a voice chat program, and of all those I've seen in the past (which amounts to Teamspeak and Ventrilo) it seems to be the nicest. I think my wife and her crew pay for their extra deluxe edition or something, not entirely sure. I don't own a mike...well, I didn't, so I picked one up yesterday.

Overall the experience of suddenly interacting on a voice level with humans on the internet was interesting. Nice people in my wife's online social club, so I definitely can see why she enjoys talking with people so much (and ergo spends enormous amounts of time in MMOs while doing so). It wasn't at all like the old Xbox 360 experiences I had back in my Halo 3 days when rampant swarms of 13-year old (either mentally or physically) racist homophobes would run in packs on voice chat, rendering the entire experience a bit akin to a metaphorical slog through a sewer.

The main problem I've noticed is: how the hell does anyone get any gaming done when you're too busy chatting or listening to chat to focus on the game? I guess I am an attention-focused person when I play, but I got zilch done Monday night and the only game Tuesday night I could focus on was Diablo III, part of the Blizzard family of "games that require no attention span whatsoever to play." In fact I was stunned to see I finally got through Act I on Diablo III, and I didn't get groggy once....amazing!

To Tony Harris and any other dumbasses  bitching about cosplay women: I officially revoke your geek cred cards and kick you from the clubhouse to make room for more female cosplayers. So there.

In Diablo III's defense I actually like the game, primarily for the aesthetics and attention to story. It also plays well (unless you're having a lag/connection issue, then it plays like tootin' monkey butts). What it doesn't do is keep me awake: it's almost certain that I will get drowsy while playing the game. No idea why, same thing happens with Dungeon Siege III and both Torchlight I and II. Someting about isometric hack and slashers has an almost metronomic, hypnosis/sleep inducing quality to their play mechanics for me.

So I guess the moral of the story is I'm trying hard to be more social online as my wife has never before been so interested in bringing me into her "secret circle," but I may have to mute the chat if I plan to get anything done in a more attention-demanding game like Rift or Guild Wars 2. Either way, it's an interesting social experiment she's engaging in, taking her husband who considers his time at work and his Wednesday night Pathfinder campaign to be all the socializing he can stomach, and adding this dynamic to my PC quiet-time. Maybe she's trying to stave off the grumbling curmudgeonism that seems to grip all men who are past their prime? Who knows...

The Rude Crude Badass Dude

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Zombies Meet Performance Art

Seriously, very nice. I sometimes wonder how interesting (or miserable) it would be to live in New York, but stuff like this makes me wish I lived in a larger, more cosmopolitan city no matter where in the US it might be:

But the important thing is that clearly New Yorkers can tell the difference between one of their own and the living dead! Decades of comedians have convinced me to think otherwise, but this video does an ample job of disproving such notions.

Thanks to the Post-Apocalyptic Blog for finding this one!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Just a Slave to Whatever Pretty Young FPS Waggles It's Ironsights My Way

Which is another way of saying I snagged Black Ops II and am loving it. And of course Halo 4 is kicking ass. This all points to an important fact: I am clearly engrossed with this sort of game, I clearly love the crazy-ass tough guy hombre marine (or space marine) narratives and the glorious, glorious graphics. I am not afraid of consolitis or console cooties like many PC gamers (thus allowing me to enjoy Halo 4) nor am I going to eschew a damned good Treyarch game (because Treyarch makes some damned good games) just because it has Call of Duty somewhere in the title (and yeah it is a CoD but I don't know what to tell ya....Treyarch always makes better games than Infinity Ward. IMO) and BlopsII is very, very good.

So back to playing some Black Ops II or Halo 4. I am officially done buying games for the Holiday...until the Steam New Year's sale, anyway!

House Rules

Erik Tenkar posts on house rules and it got me to thinking about how I used to have loads of them, and over the years I've just reached the point where I hate them.

I don't know if I'm just another indoctrinated victim of modern game design, but these days the more house rules I see the more I wonder why I'm not just using a different system. To look at my own gripes with my ongoing AD&D 1E game, I have been wondering why I don't simply use C&C or S&W Complete instead, solving all my AD&D issues in one fell swoop (because it only takes about ten minutes for me to remember why I also don't play AD&D 2E anymore). I mean, I could house rule the hell out of 1st edition and make it like it actually was for me....but I could also simply pluck C&C, S&W or hell -Pathfinder- from my shelf and have a game pretty much good-to-go, no tinkering required. In fact, I have had to house rule C&C too much in the past, another reason it, too, ends up stalling out whenever I try to run games with it.

I guess what I'm saying is that in my middle years of life I just don't care to tinker with rules anymore, and I really need to keep that in mind when I'm indulging in the vast world of D&D-likes that seem to be 90% of the surviving RPG hobby these days!

I do wonder why I am not just sticking exclusively with Pathfinder and Runequest these days for my fantasy gaming.* Maybe it's time to clean some shelves, focus on the core experience of "what I have time for" as a father and older gamer who's butting up against a jaded wall of "been there, done that" in a hobby he still loves but which feels all too familiar and well-trod. Box some of these games up and leave them in a closet for my son to discover in a few years, maybe. I think of all the D&D-likes I have, both Swords & Wizardry Complete and Castles & Crusades would make fantastic introductory RPGs for him when he reaches an age appropriate for exploring such games. Not sure I'd want to subject him to AD&D though.

Fantasy Future:

Me: "Son, when I was your age we didn't have tablets, or cloud computing, or solid state drives, or computer games. No, I had to play my RPGs with papers, pencils and dice....and I used THESE rule books to play!!!!" >opens chest of RPG artifacts<

My Son: "Wow! Look at these awesome vintage RPGs!"

Realistic Future:

Me: "Son, when I was your age we didn't have tablets, or cloud computing, or solid state drives, or computer games. No, I had to play my RPGs with papers, pencils and dice....and I used THESE rule books to play!!!!" >opens chest of RPG artifacts<

My son: "Too Long, Didn't Listen, Dad. Okay, I'm off to chase women and play football. Cya wouldn't wanna be ya!"

Ah, I am in a foul and pessimistic mood today! Heh.

*I sense a new year's resolution coming on. No D&D in 2013, just Pathfinder and Runequest. Hmmmmm yesssssh......

Blowing the Dust off of Second Edition AD&D

In the days before Perception was a skill

So my two sessions so far of the creeping AD&D 1st edition game have been fun, but the lengthy period of time between games is a real killer for the sort of plotline/sandbox thing I originally set out to do. By session two trying to keep track of who had what plot, who was interested in which potential quest or point of exploration and so forth was a muddy pit of confusion, as too many older gamers with poor memories equals disaster when it comes to consistency (I kid! Mostly it was my own lack of focus thanks to too much going on between games to even think about game scenarios or plots). So the game was retooled on the spot to focus on a core plot instead and migrated everyone in classic fashion through what I call AD&D's archetypal Roadtrip from Hell event (aka wilderness journey), involving boat rides, an owlbear and a large array of goblins using a giant stag beetle as a heavy assault beast. It ended with the discovery of a lost temple entrance, and enough suspicion pointing toward its doors as the solution to their problems.

Playing with 1st edition is a reminder to me of many, many things. Not least of these is that its reminding me that I used a lot of houserules, borrowed liberally when in doubt from B/X D&D, and that I don't think I ever applied the surprise, initiative and general combat rules as written in the DMG, relying instead on the outline of combat in Basic D&D and jumping to the DMG for the charts (and eventually using the Armor Class Wheel published in Dragon magazine).

It has also reminded me of just how quaint and amusing (and infuriating when running the game) the obscure wargame inches & rulers measurement system is. There are a huge number of little annoying bits like this that riddle the system (ascertaining encumbrance last session was another momentary headache). It's easy to see why Classic Original D&D tends to get the most love in the OSR community; it really is a simpler, more intuitive approach to the same basic game, and B/X D&D clearly owed much to the Holmes remastering from which they later were adapted (as best I can tell; keep in mind I got into the hobby October 1980, and I was nine years old, so some of the publication history of the game is something I learned about later on).

In any case, one thing has become clear: every moment with 1E that has been annoying me, or led to rules confusion or clarification, or otherwise caused a head-scratching moment is also an element which would be crystal-clear to me if I was running 2nd edition. 2E is, for me, the edition which I know best, the one where I still remember which page to flip through for whatever specific rule it is I need to's the edition that sits smack dab in my "comfort zone" of old games.

I plan to let everyone know next session (which won't at this rate be until December 8th) that I'll be bringing my 2nd edition books along, as it took about two games of AD&D 1E to remind me of why I stopped running it around 1985 (switching to T&T, Runequest and Palladium) and didn't come back until the game had been formally revised; and even then only because my college group  begged me to consider AD&D 2nd edition after I'd subjected them to several months of Dragonquest and Runequest. Hah!

That first game I ran of AD&D 2nd edition, using the heinously bad idea that was the Monstrous Compendium folio along with the new DMG and PHB was glorious. It involved an old farmstead that was abandoned, giant rats, some angry kobolds, a friendly and obnoxious pixie named Percy and an amassing horde of orcs and hobgoblins that the players realized was a threat to the local town. It cascaded rapidly into one of the coolest campaigns I'd ever run in AD&D.

Meat snacks!
While many players of 1st edition were decrying AD&D 2E for its changes, I was part of a crowd that had been lost to 1st edition, who associated that specific edition with the unpleasant Middle School years, and so 2nd edition was the opposite for was like the game had cleaned up, matured a bit, and at last was trying to make sense of itself. It was the edition which I could embrace.

But I've complained about this before! I have lots of fond memories of AD&D 1st edition....but I just can't go back, it turns out. Hopefully my mess of players will understand. It's either that, or I find a copy of B/X D&D and try running AD&D 1E the way I actually did back in the day, as a hybrid mess of the two.

In any case, those 2nd edition reprint listings that popped up on Amazon are a good sign to me that WotC knows people like me are out there, those who were part of the crowd which embraced 2nd edition AD&D, and that we are all more than happy to shell a bit out on some shiny new copies of our favorite edition. I certainly hope that's how it works out...

Hopefully with a different cover!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Halo 4: First Impressions

Well, I finally snagged Halo 4 and managed to get some play time in. First impressions? It's clearly the best title in the series, and manages to both evolve Halo 4 and still "feel" like a Halo game at the same time...but in a good way. I've replayed all of the Halo games over the last few months, so I've got the general experience fresh in my mind. Halo 4 feels like a genuine sequel with real improvements, both in look, style and lots of subtle bits that might not be all that evident to a casual fan of the series but which really do make a difference.

When people are talking about how Call of Duty is getting long in the tooth and it's engine sort of stale and old...Halo 4 is a good benchmark on exactly how an engine (and series) can get upgraded and feel genuinely better and more innovative while at the same time being true to its roots.

Also, that opening prologue level....holy cow, that was something else. Fantastic level design. I wish Capcom would look at games like this and notice how they have managed to build very, very large levels that bottleneck at a linear pace but do it in such a way you almost never feel railroaded or claustrophobic.

One more thing: the story focus in Halo 4 is very, very well done. It really grabs you right from the start, and I honestly can say 343 Studios is doing a better and more consistently interesting job than Bungee did. As I said, I replayed through all the other Halo titles this year, and while it's true that Halo: Reach was definitely Bungee's crowning achievement, it still fails to narratively grab you like Halo 4 does. Also, 343 Studios is paying more attention to the lore and backstory they've established in the novels (something Reach sort of chewed up a bit). This trailer demonstrates scenes and events practically lifted from the novels:

Oh yeah....the gun designs, from the feel and physics down to the sounds? Extremely well done. The pistol is back, by the way, and is ranking as my favorite weapon right now.

I'm only a couple levels in, so a proper review in a few more days when I (hopefully) finish the campaign! Also looking forward to seeing how the multi-player plays.

Friday, November 16, 2012

NightTaxiRide "Between 4 and 5"

Haven't posted any cool stuff from Jamendo lately. Here's one I absolutely loved:

Resident Evil 6: The Leon Kennedy Campaign

Meet Helena and Leon

I've been promising to talk about it for a bit, so here goes. To fill you in, Resident Evil 6 (currently only out on consoles although it sounds like a PC edition is slated for next year) features four entire campaigns, which interweave but are otherwise solid tales in their own right. This concept is not new to the franchise, which allowed for two separate tales in the very first game, where you could play as Jill Valentine for the easy mode game and Chris Redfield in the hard mode campaign. Back then the subtleties were slight; most of the two tales were fairly similar and all located in the Spencer Mansion, but fast-forward to the present and Resident Evil 6 offers three primary campaigns and one unlockable campaign on top of a multi-player experience. Each of these campaigns appear to be about as long as each prior campaign we've played, so the RE6 experience is directly equivalent, it would seem, to four other RE games bundled together.

Resident Evil 6 is also designed for co-op play, with split-screen support (A HUGE perk which all negative reviews to date have failed to consider; this game could be below average but split-screen play still bumps it up a notch for console gamers). This has allowed me to enjoy the single-player version while also playing the co-op version with another RE fan friend of mine.

Since I'm so slow on playing through this (reasons being: I can only take high-intensity 3rd-person shooter action in modest doses, can't even think of playing this game until my child is asleep, and I HATE QTE EVENTS) I will review each campaign as I finish it.

The C-Virus zombies are sprinters and leapers

The Leon Kennedy Campaign

First, Spoilers and all that. You've been warned!

Leon Kennedy's campaign starts with an elaborate "here at the end" montage of action events in a Chinese city Lanshiang where a zombie outbreak is afoot. Cut to the present (well, June 2013) and Leon Kenndy is forced to shoot the zombified president in the White House after a bioterrorism attack at an event where the President is about to reveal the truth of what happened at Raccoon City in 1998.

Now, there's a lot of exposition going on, and almost none of it is provided in-game in a memorable way; it took me a while to figure out what was going on, as the game focuses on a sort of action cinematic style initially, filled with QTEs (quick time events) before relecutantly relinquishing control of the plot and direction you must take and letting you explore a post-bioterror attack Washington D.C. riddled with zombies.

Before I bitch about the gameplay, let me finish the plot summary so I can complain about (or commend) various issues:

Leon is paired with Helena, a Homeland Security agent who's somehow involved and thinks she's responsible for the President's conversion to zombiehood and death (she is). She promises an explanation which will take maybe six to eight hours of playtime to get to before you really have a clue as to what is going on, and the enigmatic "I can't tell you, better if you see" explanation is so painfully lame when all is revealed that one wishes Leon was chaotic evil so he could explain to her how badly she screwed things up with her whole breathing and moving around and withholding information thing.

Seriously: if she had said five minutes in to meeting Leon, "My sister is being held captive by the head of Homeland Security who is off his rocker and forced me to release the C-Virus to infect the President because he's megalomaniacal and thinks that we all need to be reminded that we need Homeland Security to stop bioterrorism like the secret installation full of bioweapons he's manipulating beneath an old church on a high hill with a bottomless cave of evil beneath it and would you mind helping me out pleaze???" I think Leon, having survived RE 4 and RE 2, would have said, "Yeah, okay, let's do this. I've seen stranger plots."

Instead, Leon trusts blindly in her and her unbearable cuteness and follows her through hell and highwater, in order:

A zombie-infested White House and neighborhood, the sewers, subways, and blasted city streets of the Washington D.C. 

On a bus out into the woods through a scary graveyard, then a big old church in which sits on top of a big old hill, where a batch of survivors are holed up just waiting to become zombies.

Into the secret labs beneath the church where the C-Virus project was well underway, to try and develop a means of immortality (but of course it went horribly wrong).

Through the labs and into a vast series of catacombs that go ever deeper into the earth. Eventually they open up into a sort of Mister Toad's Wild Ride version of a giant mine/cavern of Temple of Doom level quality.

Out of the temple of doom realm and off to China, on a zombie-infested aircraft.

Crashland in Lianshang, China and wreak endless havoc through the streets of the city, including a never-ending ascent up a series of eroding skyscrapers.

Dude, you need a Mentos
The game plays out over five lengthy chapters, and it saves periodically, although not often enough (you'll wish it let you save wherever the hell you wanted to). In fact, on a few occasions I would log out at where I thought was a good spot, only to come back later and find out the actual checkpoint was twenty minutes of playtime behind where I'd stopped. Capcom, this We don't do that anymore. Seriously.

The game's choice of venue is a mixed bag. The city sections at the beginning and the end work well, except when they don't. There are moments where stuff is happening in tightly confined spaces and you will have NO CLUE what the hell is going on, just wildly swinging and shooting and trying not to die. The spots where the respawn point is way, way back are the most annoying.

The quicktime events are indescribably baroque and needless. Apparently you can bypass them by playing in easy mode, but I struggled through on "normal." If you're not partial to what mode you play in, I suggest easy so you can skip them. I have played games with QTE events before, and for some reason Capcom just doesn't seem to understand that these aren't actually fun, and in high-intensity non-stop action games like these, most gamers don't actually want them. When you give us a cool cinematic, we just want to chill for a few seconds and enjoy it. I do not like having to hold my controller with baited breath, waiting for the inevitable crazy-ass QTE icon to appear demanding I shake my analog stick while pressing A or whatever.

That's another thing. All these QTE commands? They suck. Stop it, please. It adds nothing to the game. I've thought about this...about the difference between QTE events and regular gameplay. Technically you can refuse to do either and the game simply stops....but with regular controls you have a range of options, and you have some autonomy in how to execute them and why. QTE's are for things which are bottleneck pass/fails. You either see this cutscene or you stop playing. Don't double-gate these moments with QTEs, Capcom, it ruins the experience.

Part of the QTE problem is that there really are a lot of scripted events in the Leon Kennedy campaign. So many scripted events that it becomes clear after a while that Capcom probably realized that they were pulling a Squeenix* and that they had too much movie and not enough gameplay going on. The solution? QTEs! Wrong.

Something is really wrong with Japanese game design. They seem obsessed with this idea that Simon Says is the pinnacle of game design.

Beside the QTE problem, there's a second issue, and it relates to the autonomy issue I mentioned. The best moments in the game so far are those bits where you have some measure of autonomy. There aren't too many of them, but they do exist. The graveyard, for example, or the bit when you're in the secret labs. There are a couple spots where it is not immediately clear you are in a linear corridor shooter, forced to travel a straight-line path (no matter how dolled up the graphical environments, it's still a straight path), often being interrupted by moments where the game specifically wants you to do something a certain way, and of course forces you to do it.

This heavy-handed scripting is what makes Resident Evil 6 (so far) less satisfying an experience than prior games in the series, although we see the obvious origins of this approach in RE 4 and RE 5, especially #5 where the linearity is obvious and a number of QTEs rear their ugly head.

I did have a problem with the way the Leon Kennedy Campaign slams us with non-stop action, and how it boils over the top and dribbles deep into Video Game Logic on several occasions. Those are the moments where you realize you're playing a video game, that no matter how much it pantomime's reality through good graphics, you are forced to concede that what is happening is just about as logical as Mario or Qbert's realities.

Be ready to get killed by trains a few times in the subways

For example, when they find the catacombs and then the vast mine shaft beneath the hilltop church and laboratory, I was at first interested. Admittedly, I was perplexed at who built these amazingly well-populated catacombs, and what purpose they served....the game offers pretty much no story exposition like prior tales in the series, with no video recordings, diaries, scribbled notes or even just an occasional comment by the characters to explain where they are and what's up with their crazy environment. This is a huge mark against the game, as such extraneous story bits were pretty much vital to the story and atmosphere of prior games.

So not only would I like to have known who made the catacombs and why, I'd like to know why so many zombies were running around rigged to blow with dynamite, or had burning ember spears (there's enough that one would expect to encounter a factory churning them out). The implication is that Director Simmons, evil mastermind of Homeland Security, is behind all this....but there's a massive bridge in logic between "I'm using C-Virus research to perfect human immortality, and also job security by staging my own bioterror attacks" to "I also like to release dynamite-wired zombies into a vast network of hidden catacombs and mines, and also experiment on sharks and stuff."

I've never been to Washington D.C. though, so maybe the region is riddled with bottomless chasms filled with old mines and catacombs. If so, I need to move, that sounds like a lot of dangerous fun.

Speaking of mines, the catacombs eventually connect with a vast mine and a staggeringly deep pit filled with precarious stone pillars. This is one of those moments where you know you're deep in Video Game land, that special place where underground architecture is completely unrelated to the real world, and you might as well be snorting herbs to heal up. Oh wait.

Anyway, after starting in the church, descending to the labs, descending again to the catacombs and then descending into the deep pit, then the mines, then the mine-carts, then the water level with a giant mutant shark-fish that takes you deep, deep, deep into the bowels--BOWELS I SAY!!!!--of the earth, you emerge somewhere outside along a river, just in time to watch Washington D.C. get nuked.

I am still very, very bothered about just how much space...and depth....was inside that church hill.

Amidst all this there's a lengthy boss encounter with Deborah, Helena's sister-turned-C-Virus-Super-Mutant. It was actually one of the better boss fights in the game, and I wasn't insanely frustrated (unlike the first boss when you get to Lianshang, which was tedious and painful). It was also more than a little disturbing just how much effort the Capcom programmers put into Deborah-mutant's naked model. She's disturbingly realistic, in a sort of "undead mutant erotica" kind of way that taps deep into the insane well of Japanese crazy culture.

No stills I have seen remotely do justice to how erotic and disturbing Deborah is

Throughout the campaign Ada Wong shows up. She's alive again (I won't say how) and up to form, providing enigmatic clues and assistance to her remote action boyfriend Leon Kennedy. I appreciated the Ada who shows up to make things more confusing for a change, instead of the weird Aliceverse Ada of the recent movie who actually helped explain everything clearly.

By the Lianshang chapters, once you survive the painful plane crash and first boss encounter in the city, the game once again feels fairly Resident-Evilish, and the final boss encounter (once I looked up what I was doing wrong on gamefaqs) was actually pretty easy to snuff out.

It's a weird campaign. Early on I was bouncing between hate it/love it, with moments that felt very Resident Evil ruined by claustrophobic encounters that didn't work well for the point of view of the camera and controls. Midway through I was cursing it and ready to quit in annoyance and disgust, and then suddenly I was through, only to be assaulted by two inanely painful experiences unrivaled in recent years by other games, followed by a more familiar series of events that were quite fun. Then I had to climb a god-damned skyscraper with my bare hands on dangling cables and was busy trying to figure out where John Maclaine was hiding. Then a series of increasingly irritating boss fights that kept making me wonder just where the boss's extra mass was coming from (all pretense of science is out the window by now) and finally it all ended. It was bittersweet.

If this was all there was to the game, I'd give it a C- and state it was worth playing if your tolerance level for QTEs and railroaded action sequences is sufficiently high. It is also worth it if you are, like me, a Resident Evil fanatic. But there's more to up, the Chris Redfield campaign!

Leon gets all the girls

*A Squeenix: making a movie full of cut-scenes before remembering you're supposed to be making a game. See Square/Enix's Final Fantasy XIII for an egregious example.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Three hours into Rift: Storm Legion, and FF XIV Bites The Big One

As of Tuesday night, after waiting for servers to recover from the shock of upgrade and transition (or something) I managed to get in a few hours in Rift: Storm Legion. So far I have the following initial observations, based on my one level 50 guardian in the kingdom of Pelladane:

1. I'm getting an eerie deja vu sort of "like Burning Crusade but bigger" feeling. This is good, though; Burning Crusade was a real knock-out expansion for WoW and the only expansion where I was actively subscribed and waiting for content back in the day. The reason, I think, is because the new realms have distinct flavors which separate them from Mathosia and Eth.

2. There's a lot going on, and questing has been revamped a bit. Your character is considered sufficiently worldy to find and start quests on their own, a lot more often. Quests pop up spontaneously, or just by being in a certain area, or grouped...or who knows, but I kept acquiring quests through channels far more unusual than the "find guy with quest marker and talk to him" approach, which was good. Those quests appear to mostly be story quests now, which is pretty interesting.

3. There are a huge number of people playing, and for the first time in ages I had to get into queue. Rift, despite having a better focus on group and shared questing experiences that is effortless, is till prone to the occasional resource/quest object hog situation. You're killing a mob of storm legionnaires, and someone runs up and takes the lighting rod you're trying to liberate while you're fighting? That sort of thing. On the other hand, I think Rift has found a fine balance between the "everybody is happy and shares everything" mode of Guild Wars 2 and the "everybody is in a vicious knife fight for quest resource" mode of WoW and older MMOs.

4. The graphics are impressive as always. The God Engine of Pelladane is incredibly cool, Crucia incredibly evil, and the entire area just begs to be explored....although not, preferably, at the breakneck pace of the current day-one crowd, which was head-spinningly fast as everyone seems determined to blast through the game's content in a week or less. Good luck with that, though. Three hours in and I think I moved my XP bar 15%.

More on Storm Legion later, as I get further along! For now, here's the end of the world video of Finfal Fantasy XIV as Square/Enix shuts it down for a rebirth in the near future. Taking out your game like this as an in-story reason for a major revamp (also known as going out of accidental open beta) is kinda cool, and I really hope the new version is worth checking out:

If only Squeenix could reconcile its status as a game company with its love affair with making CGI movies!

Reading Resident Evil: Umbrella Conspiracy and Zero Hour by S.D. Perry

Drinking from the Resident Evil fire hose for the last couple months has been fun. This is a franchise that's a roller-coaster of quality, focus and interest across the board, from movies that appear to be whacked-out psychedelic trips through Alice in Zombie Land on down to the original adventure games full of weird puzzles and the current crop which is high-octane cinematic adventure that, like the films, sometimes requires leaps of logic too vast to span. And then there are the books...

The Resident Evil novel series started many years ago and I recall trying to read them and being unimpressed. I have also learned that almost any opinion of literature (fun or serious) that I had during my nebulous "Seattle years" spanning 1996-2005 is suspect, because during much of that time I was running on empty, literally; I worked a night-shift type job for most of those ten years and rarely got more than 3-4 hours of sleep every night, sometimes for months on end without reprise. I was in a strange relationship with my ex-wife and I often was too fatigued, worried and generally stressed to focus properly on anything. It's a miracle I was able to get anything done during this era.

As a result of this, I've often found that books I tried reading and discarded as too derivative, banal, uninteresting or annoying for whatever reason end up being much better now, in my "nicer years," where I get like...6 whole hours of sleep each night, I have a comfortable 7:30-4:30 PM type job, weekends always free, a wife with whom I have excellent synchronization and a son who is a total joy to raise. So yeah, I sometimes find books that I once dismissed to be actually rather fun.

The Resident Evil novels (not to be confused with the movie novelizations) were written by S.D. Perry and focus on actual adaptations of the original games up through Code: Veronica. There are seven books in the series. S.D. Perry is/was a master at the licensed adaptation, and did a very good job of writing engaging, suspenseful but otherwise lite-reading tales of the Resident Evil universe. I've gotten through two of them so far, will review more as we go along.

Resident Evil: The Umbrella Conspiracy

Umbrella Conspiracy starts with a direct adaptation of the events in the original game. it's a bit rocky, as you might imagine a tale of mercenary cops wandering in a haunted mansion full of zombies solving obscure adventure-style puzzles relying on adventure-game logic might be. We are treated to a bit of "pre-game" lead-in, explaining a bit about who the Special Tactics and Recon Squads (STARS) are, a sort of international mercenary outfit (think Blackwater, I guess) that is employed by Raccoon City to supplement and assist the local police department and is ostensibly also there at the request of Umbrella Corp, the pharmaceutical company that pretty much made Raccoon City what it is. We meet Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, Rebecca Chambers and Barry Burton, as well as the ever-evil Albert Wesker in the few moments we get to know him before he flips his evil switch on.

This was S.D. Perry's first attempt at a novel outside of her work on the Alien and Alien vs. Predator franchises. It's a bit rough, and she does an admirable job of trying to recast the events of the game in a way that works for fiction. When I originally tried reading this I remember being annoyed at specific details, or just how the story was framed relative to the game, which was much fresher in my mind at the time. Today it's been so long that I'm just impressed that the tale is detailed enough to invoke memories of specific events, locations and characters or creatures from the original! So in that sense it's quite a success. Indeed, if you ever wanted to know what the original was about, but didn't have the endurance, dexterity or temerity to find and plow through the game, this book is more than suited to the task of getting you up to speed.

The most amusing bits about this novelization are the pieces which don't quite "fit" with later canon. Wesker here does indeed go evil somewhere along the way, although his motives and complicity in the process aren't as exaggerated or obvious as they later become in retrospect. He also doesn't technically live to the end....but that's a suitable reveal for when he comes back in the future. Other moments, such as Rebecca Chambers and her experiences in Resident Evil Zero aren't entirely in sync with this novel. But as always one can imagine that a fiction like this is an amalgamation of bits and pieces inevitably corrupted by the unreliable narrator if you wish to reconcile the book with the setting canon.

Still, I enjoyed it. This is light reading, and you could easily give this to your younger reader to enjoy; there's little or nothing in the way of purely mature content that I noticed, while an adult looking for something fun to read over a series of lunch breaks (as I did) will be entertained, if not provoked.

Resident Evil: Zero Hour

Technically Zero Hour is the seventh book in the series, but chronologically it happens just before Umbrella Conspiracy, being an adaptation of Resident Evil Zero, which tells about the fate of Bravo Team, the STARS unit that went in to investigate the mysterious cannibal attacks around the Spencer Mansion just a few hours before Alpha team followed. This is one of the Resident Evil games I didn't play all the way through, for various reasons having to do with my horrendous work schedule, troubled marriage and lack of general time during my years in Seattle, so reading it was a chance to fill in some of the gaps in my RE lore.

Rebecca Chambers is a child genius, who graduated from college by age 17 and was hired on to the STARS as a chemical specialist due to her incredible credentials. Presumably she had interesting aspirations for a teenage girl, or maybe the STARS just pay really well...either way, she is the focus of the tale, along with the wanted criminal and accused murderer Billy Coen, recently escaped from a military police transfer thanks to the freakish luck of passing through the remote mountains right when some serious zombie smack-down starts off.

Zero Hour is focused on explaining a few lingering plot threads from the original tale, namely what happened in the first place to cause the outbreak of the T-Virus. If you thought this was fairly evident (if not exactly spelled out) from the first book/game, then you would be right: until Zero Hour the general assumption was somehow, perhaps due to industrial sabotage or sheer ineptitude the virus was released, causing a lock-down at the Spencer Estate and, as it turns out, a previously unseen Umbrella retreat and research compound.

After Bravo team crashes (no helicopter can survive a Resident Evil tale), they spread out to look for evidence as they wait for a rescue from Alpha team. While Rebecca finds evidence of a private transport train to the compound (coming from Raccoon City, presumably) that's been massacred by something spreading the T-Virus, Billy Coen runs into her and they settle into an uneasy truce to survive against the mysterious horrors that are crawling all over the place. As the two explore the train they find evidence of mutated leeches that seem to cooperate like a hive mind, connected somehow to a mysterious stranger. When the train starts up they find themselves deposited at the Umbrella Retreat and Compound, driven to escape the maddening complex by an unseen foe who is bent on helping and hindering them.

Zero Hour is the seventh book S.D. Perry wrote and it is actually very solid, a better read than Umbrella Conspiracy, despite being subject to the pacing and approach of the game's story line. The net result is a more coherent read, and a chance to see what Rebecca was up to prior to her arriving at the Spencer Mansion and running into Chris Redfield. It also helps to set her up for further adventures in the next novel, Caliban Cove (which I shall review next week). I definitely suggest reading it immediately after Umbrella Conspiracy, and not before, despite it being a prequel; it meshes better this way, as the inconsistencies in the timeline caused by Capcom's monkeying with jamming this story line in to the mix are more tolerable with a retrospective approach than trying to reconcile them after the fact. Put another way; Umbrella Conspiracy makes for better reading if you follow up with Zero Hour rather than the other way around. Zero Hour is definitely an improvement all across the board, and worth checking out.

Next up is Caliban Cove, the second novel in the series, and an original story which takes place between Umbrella Conspiracy and City of the Dead (the adaptation of Resident Evil 2). I'm halfway through it right now, but S.D. Perry's chance to shine with an original story is already my favorite. But I shall save details for another batch of reviews next week!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Storm Legion Starts

After months of waiting Rift: Storm Legion is here!

I have no idea what it looks like, however. Between updates downloading, this little thing called work and some internet issues at home that are requiring a technician...well, I look forward to checking it out tonight! Here's a video in the meantime:

Mass Effects to Come

Bioware Montreal is in charge of and actively producing the next Mass Effect game, according to this news release from Yanick R. Roy, studio director in charge of the program.

So good news: more Mass Effect! I am not one of those who have an issue with Bioware, and in fact I've quite enjoyed their offerings for both Dragon Age and Mass Effect over the last several years; these games have collectively been some of the most enjoyable entertainment in RPGs I've experienced, and I find the complaints and general anger against Bioware by some of its fans to be...ah...interesting and rather telling about the nature of today's gaming audience. Let's just say that if you didn't like Mass Effect 3's endings, you might want to avoid most foreign cinema and anything not sanitized through the Summer Movie filter.

Now, I do tend to put more stock in those who cast a scrutinizing eye on how owner EA's bottom line interests impact Bioware's ability to produce a good game. This can have an accidental benefit (the multi-player in Mass Effect 3 rapidly became my favorite co-op gaming online) or disastrous results (Dragon Age II, which was rushed to completion and its repetitive re-use of assets shows). So the question is: will they leave well enough alone with the next Mass Effect? Will EA apply demographics to this next iteration geared toward homogenizing the play experience to the point that the next game suffers for the sake of snagging a few more CoD dollars? Or will they learn from the bombing of Medal of Honor: Warfighter and realize that on-rails Cod-style shooters are starting to fall out of favor at long last?

I'm personally curious to see how exactly they expand the next iteration of the Mass Effect universe. With such a decisive three-way ending for Mass Effect 3 (go check out youtube if you want spoilers) there's only really three options for a new series:

1. It goes back in time and takes place before the end of ME3. Note that Gears of War is doing this for their next game. I call this the, "Milking our art and game assets for all their worth" method, relying on an existing pool of resources to squeeze all you can out of it. Also called the "Ubisoft saturates us with far too many Assassins and their Creeds" method.

2. It takes place immediately after the end (or close enough) to ME3. This has the problem of having to account for whichever ending one got in ME3, and also what was established in the ending sequence (especially the Extended Cut). My guess is they will avoid this entirely, because there is no way that they can keep all of their rabid hand-biting fans happy in this regard; they either rub salt in the old wounds of the countless butt-hurt fans who are angry they didn't get to blow the Reapers up and retire happily, or who simply felt that Bioware's promises about the volume of content options at the end was unsatisfactory...either way these people will be ticked. Likewise, they'll piss everyone off if they try to restrict to one "official" ending because part of the whole point of the Mass Effect franchise has been watching your decisions from one game carry into and affect the next. So most likely they will go with...

3. It's set far in the future, probably in whatever future time we see the (Um, spoilers) grandparent and child walking in the snowy orchard of an alien world, talking about the Shepard's adventures. Now they can leave the events of the game sufficiently vague, expand the universe to the future, and do whatever new story they want. This seems like the most likely arc they will take, but I am still not at all uncertain we won't see option #1 simply because it's hard to ignore the art assets and material available. However, if the next game is aimed at a new console generation, then #3 is much likelier to happen.

There's an unlikely fourth option, that they do a new Shepard adventure, but Bioware is on record as saying Shepard's tale is done. This seems reasonable, even if the ending sequence implies the possibility of further Shepard tales. And --more spoilers-- let me say that the ending I received could easily lead into a "Shepard return" tale. In my ending Shepard merges with the collective consciousness of the Reavers, turning them around and making them friendly. I chose this ending because it struck me as a false premise that machine and biological entities couldn't cohabitate, that the concept of inevitable conflict was created by whatever species first created the Reapers, and propogated this expectation ever since. Likewise, the idea that only a transmigration of organisms into bio-ogranic life wasn't any better solution, implying that only through synthesis could peace be achieved; also a false premise. So I went with the "we're all going to get along" theme, in which Shepard became her literal namesake. Now, Shepard has already survived death, rather impressively; what is to prevent her from regrowing a body and inhabiting it, if the need arose...or build one mechanically? But of course my premise assumes my ending was the "real" one, because it's not clear Shepard lives through any other ending. I'm working on a male Shepard to see, but I'm still on ME1 with him right now.

There's also always that possibility of a Mass Effect MMO. Until they make such an official announcement I'll hold that expectation in reserve. My expectation is that if F2P Star Wars The Old Republic somehow takes off and starts making money hand over fist, then expect the next Mass Effect to be built from the ground up to be a F2P MMO and cash shop adventure. No matter what happens, expect it to have some form of multi-player with a cash shop; my understanding is that Mass Effect 3's cash shop for multi-player stuff has been very profitable, so much so that they have found it worth knocking out the multi-player expansion content for free, because they're making all their money on item sales. Which is crazy, but unfortunately typical of people in general.

Monday, November 12, 2012

MMOnday Madness: SWTOR F2P, Elder Scrolls Online, dead internet tales, and more!

Still chillin', didn't watch any movies this weekend, hardly got any gaming in either (a short run in Gears of War with a friend who is a bit behind the times; and the Saturday evening AD&D 1E retro game, about which I'll talk more another day) and other than that my kid is rapidly polymorphing from a baby into a sprinting, climbing, insatiably curious little daredevil. Marcus is learning new stuff every day, his favorite thing his hanging with dad and doing stuff, and so like 90% of my weekends are spent trying to keep up with him. Whew!

Still, eventually he goes to sleep and then dad gets a little game time in. So this weekend in the MMO world I noticed the following fun bits:

First, Star Wars: The Old Republic is going free to play Thursday the 15th. This is a good thing, I guess! There's going to be a cash shop (and a positive overview on it can be found at the Imperial Intelligence report). It sounds like the cash shop is taking a few hints from the Mass Effect 3 supply pack shop, which gives you mixed random bundles of loot, and the cost goes up proportionate to how many uncommons or rares you are guaranteed. Although I am eternally annoyed at the ME3 shop because I dislike the randomness, it still lets you buy them with in-game currency, so I tolerate it and enjoy the "surprise package" nature of it. I wonder if SWTOR will let you buy random packs with in-game currency...?

Either way, I plan to resume playing SWTOR on Thursday. I didn't really want to stop playing the game, if only because I'd like to see how the spiritual KOTOR 3 successor concludes in some of the storylines. For me, SWTOR was a great single-player game with multi-player options and a monthly fee. If I'd been able to wrap up a storyline or two in a month or three at the most, I'd have been content. As it is, I've got a long way to go. Hopefully I can find a speeder bike or something in-game soon, because running around Coruscant was getting very, very tiring.

On other news, Bethesda's looming Elder Scrolls Online now has some detailed videos on its development available for viewing. I have to say, it looks pretty nice, and I'm kind of excited to see it. I imagine someone who's been drinking from the MMO kool-aid for far longer than I might be a bit jaded at ESO, but as I only occasionally drink deep from said kool-aid (i.e. this last six weeks or so with Rift), I think I'll be ready to check it out when it arrives next year...hopefully.

Sunday night the internet went down and forced my wife and I to consider the realm of single-player offline gaming again. It's always amusing when this happens (amusing being pirated by "annoying and painful" in this case) because you get to see what games do and don't work when the internet dies. Some choice bits I noticed, when trying out games linked to Steam, Origin and others:

Steam's Offline Mode: it worked this time; it hasn't always in the past. However, a number of games still wouldn't work, namely those which still required another agency to authenticate activation (Fallout 3 thanks to GFWL and Max Payne 3 thanks to Rockstar's Online Pass, I guess). However, all the other Bethesda title which were Steam-only without another authenticator worked fine (Skyrim, Fallout New Vegas, Hunted: The Demon's Forge, Wolfenstein, Rage and Doom 3 BFG Edition). Thanks Bethesda, you get a gold star!

Origin: For some reason I have Kingdoms of Amalur linked through Origin (must have been a sale). As such it, along with all other Origin-linked titles freak out when you can't log on online, removing access to DLC and also preventing you from starting save games that depend on said DLC. This remains bizarre and concerning as always, and is one of the reaons I will continue to only use Origin in those cases where I absolutely have no choice.

GFWL: as usual if you don't have internet access GFWL has a heart attack and limits or shuts off access to titles and saves linked to this "service."

All the Cool DRM-Free Games on Gamersgate and GOG: Of course, pretty much any game that I purchase through, say, GOG and Gamersgate with DRM-free or one-time activation requirements worked just fine.

Ubisoft: I recently gave up on Ubisoft and deleted everything related to it on my PC, chiefly under the expectation that I lack the fortitude and determination necessary to plow through three Assassin's Creed II games to get the story to the point where I can see AC III, which in turn is getting reviews that suggest it's probably a bit weaker than I was expecting, not to mention I don't look forward to watching Ubisoft spend the next two years milking this iteration of the franchise. I like the AC storyline, plan to buy the books instead.

Luckily, the internet was back up this morning. Disaster averted! Just in time for Rift: Storm Legion to hit...tomorrow!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Friday Blaaaaaaaaaghhhhhh! Rift and stuff

Well, I feel I earned a well-deserved break for a few days from the tumultuous October blog-o-thon I put myself through. This was a busy week for me, with work ramping up dramatically and calling for a lot of overtime, and of course that whole election thing (and regardless of party affiliation I think we can all comfortably be happy that the victories were decisive and that we won't spend weeks or months watching this get resolved in recounts, recalls and the courts. Yay for democracy!)

I've played Rift like a murderous fiend for the last six or so weeks. Raptr terrifies me with its numbers as I realize that it is still realistically possible to immerse one's self in a MMORPG even with huge work and family commitments, if you can keep yourself to a firm schedule. On the other hand a reasonable chunk of my play time is really "Kalitherios or Alidastra standing around in Sanctuary while their all-seeing god-controller CPU is AFK managing his 11 month old." Which is to say, I have sometimes logged on at 8 AM and then noticed I was still logged on a few hours later. Oddly, I rarely get kicked from the game for being AFK.

Rift has really sucked me in, though. I look forward to relaxing a bit on my playtime, as most of my effort was focused on getting one character to level 50....and by Jove I did! Kalitherios, ascended Guardian on the Faeblight RP server is now level 50. I was a bit nonplussed (and excited) to learn that there was an entirely new leveling system that kicks in then, involving souls, shards and an achievment point concept that is a bit reminiscent of what D&D Online's rank bonuses are like, except all end-loaded for the endgame. There's a ton of instanced content I have yet to scratch the surface on, and I will need to look to grouping to do much of it. Fortunately Rift makes this trivial and bearable.

Rift is one of the new generation of MMOs that tries to actively build easy grouping (or as I like to call it automatic grouping) into the play experience. It does not assume you must talk to people and be nice to them to get into a does not assume you need to communicate at all; it just happens. This really is a good thing for those of us who like our MMOs like we like real life. Journey through your typical day and figure out how often you willingly engage random strangers in conversation, then proceed to invite them on your shopping or work quest (extroverts leave the room for this question, please!) Doesn't happen all that often, does it? I've always wondered why our MMOs naturally assumed we all wanted to talk to strangers voluntarily, when in truth much of your average MMO's content should be looked at as more like the kind of shared experience you get when you go to a theater, or drive a car on the freeway. We all are cooperating to get the job or experience done, and while we might have friends in the car or at the theater with us, 99.9% of the time we're not engaging total strangers in conversation while we're at it. And yes that does mean I'm equating bad PUGs to a car wreck or that talkative person in the theater!

In the meantime, since I suffer from alt-itis (and have 10 active characters in Rift) the Storm Legion prelude quests and instant adventures are happening all over the place and are clearly clever mechanisms by Trion to help aspiring or slow levelers boost their XP to level up characters. You can join an instant adventure in Sanctuary or Meridian and pretty much guarantee going from level 10 to 25 in about five hours. You can reasonably expect to jump 2 or 3 levels per hour afterward if you remain dedicated. Don't try to join a raid group and go AFK though (the temptation will be there, since you accrue raid group XP regardless of effort) or the "work for your share" crowd will kick you out. I've been more than working for my share, and all my alts are now somewhere in the mid to late 20's in level. I think these massive Storm Legion assault adventures won't end until next year, so there's a couple months yet to take advantage of them.

Rift is even creeping into my tabletop experience. My latest plot line (any of my players stop reading here!*) for the Wednesday group involves an eradariin (red elf-the bad elves in my setting) sorceress who intends to use an ancient fey relic called the Heart of the Wood to corrupt a planar gate to the realm of Arborea; she plans to force the gate open using an Astral Tether which will let the Heart of the Wood pass through. When this happens, Arborea will begin to transform into a new feywild.

The reason for this is simple: in the Realms of Chirak the feywild was destroyed, the entire faerie realm the first victim of the apocalypse that wiped out the gods and almost destroyed the world. The plane of the feywild was eaten entirely by Ga'thon the destroyer god, who shortly thereafter perished when he was slain by the protector gods in a Pyrrhic victory. Ga'Thon's corpse formed an entire mountain range, and within that range is the expulsion of detritus that was the feywild, a great wall of stone in which is frozen the terror-stricken, petrified remains of the feyfolk that were annihilated in this destruction. It had lasting ramifications, as many of the feyfolk that survived in the mortal plane were driven mad by the loss, and the feywild, a heaven-like place to which fey souls could travel for reincarnation after death, meant that there was no longer a fey afterworld, either; now, when elves and faeries and other kin die, they are likely to return as terrifying undead of different sorts if precautions are not taken.

Arborea: where the REAL eladrin roam

So this sorceress actually feels she is doing a good thing, but her motivations are cruel; she knows she can't just corrupt an entire godly plane like Arborea, but it has the "essence" necessary to jumpstart the process. So she intends to force the portal open, to allow her artifact to pass through, which will start a subtle change (thing magical strangelets) in Arborea; and while they will be stopped eventually in the planar realm by divine forces, will still channel unchecked** into the mortal world through the open portal, causing an inevitable shift in the mortal plane into a new feywild. Which may very well be bad for all sorts of odd reasons, not the least of which is the adverse effect the laws of the fey realms have on simple mortals, who cannot readily handle the weird time effects of the feywild, among other things.

So yes....some of this was brewing for a while as an idea for a future plot, but my obsession with Rift and the idea of planar invasions made it percolate into reality. I may toy more with the idea; Chirak has for many years now been assumed to be a world where reality is only loosely held together due to the severe damage of the near-apocalypse, and there are supposed to be many, many planar rifts across the land, caused by this fraying of reality. In the past the biggest rift tale I integrated into a campaign incolved the Abyssal Rift off the southwestern coast of Espanea, but I have only really focused on a few minor permanent rifts since then. This new campaign arc may well see an effort at expanding the concept.

Okay, I think I've blathered on enough. Maybe I'll finally do a review of the Leon Kennedy campaign from Resident Evil 6 next week (working on Chris Redfield's campaign now). I may also talk more about Tera soon, which I am slowly but surely playing more of (I love its combat, and its world has a different enough feel from Rift that I still want to explore it). Tera is going F2P through level 28 soon, for those interested and not keen to commit any money.

Impractical armor is impractical

* I don't normally post current game lore/plots on the blog to avoid spoilers, so this is a rare exception

** In Chirak all the old gods are dead and the young avatars and demiurges are too weak and still mortal, thus lacking the ability to protect the realm against such a catastrophe.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Hobbit

This is why I am happy our relatives are not fantasy/gaming/SF means we've got a number of people who are willing to babysit on or shortly after December 14 while my wife and I go catch The Hobbit.

Yay for mundanes!* Or muggles, or whatever they're called these days.

*Yeah I read a lot of Xanth

Don't forget to vote!

I voted early, last week....but for all of you in the US, don't forget to do it if you haven't done so yet! I don't talk politics in this particular blog, but I think we can all agree that all taste like popcorn shrimp to Cthulhu, and seriously, do you really want to vote for someone who tastes like popcorn shrimp when you could vote for the guy who EATS popcorn shrimp?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Bad Movie Monday: Vicious Lips

Vicious Lips (1986)

Free of the need to review only horror films (or films that are allegedly horror) I have turned my attention to more random Netflix goodness...or, ah, badness in this case!

Vicious Lips is the tale of a young woman's dreams realized as she becomes a glam-rock singer in an all-girl band about to go big time. Judy Jetson is a fine singer, and is on open mike night at some random dive when she is "discovered" by band agent Matty Asher, who is looking for a new singer for his band the Vicious Lips, after the late lead singer Ace Lucas (amusingly called Ape Lucas in the IMDB credits but I'm pretty sure throughout the film they were calling her Ace) gets hit by a bus or something (wipes out on her motorcycle? Not all happens off-camera). Oh, and this is all happening somewhere in Spaaaaaace. You see, it's the postmodern retropunk future, the world of the future as imagined through the grainy lens and poor quality set pieces of a 1980's adventure flick.

Where Radioactive Dreams Are Made
Here's the crazy plot of this in a nutshell. This movie is from 1986 so spoilers and all that, in case you care:

Judy Jetson's singing talent is picked up by the Vicious Lips when their cooky trouble-making, double-dealing talent agent discovers her. The rest of the band is like any other 80's era Poofy-hair glam-rock girl band from the 80's....transposed into the 2180's, that is! Or sometime in the future, anyway.

Shortly after their first gig (the music, for 80's style stuff, is pretty good and the segments where they play are done like live-filmed music videos) Matty the agent gets a call from the space-godmistress of rock, a woman who is established in the opening shot of the film to be ruthless and either so influential she can make a man shoot himself or, possibly, she's psychic and can mind control or telekinetically manipulate people. Either way we never see this parlor trick again. Anyway, she has a big event and an opening, so she calls in the Vicious Lips.

With hair like that....I'd stay away from open flames; Ironically everyone in this movie is smoking, constantly
The place for the gig is across SPACE which means a ship is needed, and Matty decides its cheaper to steal a spaceship rather than pay for one. So they do. Coincidentally it's the ship that a serial killer who was known to have "killed 5,000 women" is stowed on board. A serial killer who, as it turns out, looks like a cannibal ape man from Planet of the Apes.

Anyway, the ship is underway, the girls do their thing in classic meandering 80's style fashion (what I have come to realize is "running out the film" or something) when Matty, also a bad pilot, fails to notice his snarky computer screen warnings about an asteroid collision. Bam! Down they go, crash-landing on a desert world.

Matty goes for help....and wanders away to be found, delirious and dehydrated, by to sexy robo-women (I think this is the spot where someone realized that they needed a bit more nudity in the film or being an 80's production and all; up to this point the only nudity has been a triple-breasted alien chick, showcasing several years before Total Recall. Who knew?!?!?

Anyway, the girls hang out on the wrecked ship waiting for help until they get goofy and somehow almost let out the serial killer by accident, before coming to their senses. But too late! He's figured out an escape anyway.

The ship is resting on a dune precipice, and the merry dash to avoid being caught and killed (or eaten) leads to it sliding down the dunes and crashing into an old buried ruin....of the Pleasure Planet complex, apparently. Now the girls escape into this complex, haunted by their mysterious patron, a variety of retropunk undead guys--not retro for the time, mind you; contemporary for 1986, which says a lot about what the 80's thought would survive to the future, culturally, and how it would look; ah, how I don't miss the decade...much!

A lot of nonsense goes on involving zombie punksters, a sudden appearance of the late Ace Lucas, more ape-man serial killer madness and then finally we get to the end when it turns out that Judy Jetson had passed out during her much more normal and uneventful visit to the place where they will be performing for the big time, and a "you were there...and you were there...and even YOU were there, mister Ape Man!" moment essentially transpires. And they all live happily ever after.

It can be hard to tell how much of the plot was intended or accidental when the movie is full of no-name actors, poor quality sound, bad acting, and a muddy plot that starts off as a "girl band gets discovered" tale, quickly migrates to a "road trip in space becomes disaster film meets serial killer" adventure and then ends up being an allegorical tale of Oz. I was genuinely perplexed if they were making this all up as they went along, or if they were actually sticking to a plan.

The Vicious Lips

See this movie if you:

1. Love HUGE FRIZZY HAIR everywhere

2. Like badly rendered derivative "Oz" films

3. Have a fetishistic taste for the wacky glam-rock vs. punk scene of the mid eighties. Like me.

4. Would like to hear a couple decent songs amidst all the carnage.

5. Love watching movies with classic-era badly done shaky starships-on-strings effects.

6. Want to see a triple-breasted woman in a movie several years BEFORE Total Recall.

A perfectly good C for the 80's, although I'd rate this a D- if something like it was spewed out today. It's the kind of film that could only have been made when it came out....any attempt to make a movie like this today would be missing practically every oozing chunk of 80's culture and pseudo-movie-logic necessary for it to work.

Pleasurebots of the Desert World

Friday, November 2, 2012

Travels in Hyperreality and Mogworld

Thought I'd get some sort of blog out today, cap off November. I have nothing in the can right now, will have to take some time this weekend to see what sort of theme or focus I want to work on for blogs in the coming months...the miserable, gloomy, holiday-ruptured Winter Is Nigh months. Woo hoo...!

I've been reading a lot of books lately...all at the same time, which makes expedient completion of singular tomes slow going. Still, some really good books. I set up some apps on the blog to the right of the text to show off some of the better stuff, which I thought I'd talk about.

I'm still plowing through Umberto Eco's Travels in Hyperreality, which is a great book for those interested in the concept of hyperreality, which I really hadn't delved much into before, but the short premise is that he takes times to analyze the many ways that we effectively reconstruct or remodel reality in ways that feel somehow more "real" or focused...from art, to museums, to film and performance. Interesting book.....if you are, like me, into reading about the philosophy of postmodernism and existentialism, you may find this one rather enjoyable. Eco is also a professor of semiotics, and his other books on the subject are equally fascinating.

I couldn't find Travels in Hyperreality on the Nook, so I am actually reading the dead tree edition.

I am also devouring Mogworld by Yahtzee Croshaw, who you may know of if you are A: into video games, B: like snarky humor and criticism, and C: have ever watched his show Zero Punctuation, where he scathingly skewers the latest video games with his rusty barbed wit. His book, Mogworld, is about a young magician's apprentice who perishes (more or less immediately) in the middle of a barbarian attack on his college of sorcery, and awakens some years later as a recently resurrected undead by an aspiring but not overly competent necromancer. As it turns out, this is but the first of many deaths as the apprentice's journeys take him through a land of fantasy that operates on rules suspiciously close to the worlds of MMOs. Anyway I've been having a hard time putting it down and may talk more about it when I finish, it's really one of the first good, fun fantasy reads I've found in a loooong time.

I'm reading Mogworld on the Nook, and I have also picked up his second novel, Jam, which also sounds awesome (the apocalypse world-ending event that NO ONE expected...and it involves jam.)

If you haven't seen them, check out his reviews at The Escapist here.