Monday, 25 August 2014

Work in Progress: QOTSS

Everything was lining up quite nicely. I finally got my old consoles and games sorted out and I had an idea for a new book I wanted to get stuck into. I drafted a few chapters to get a feel for the setting and characters, and I wanted to put together a plan that would see me attempt to complete a first draft in a couple of months. And, of course, allow time to revisit some of those old games I’d retrieved from storage.

And then I got struck down with acute appendicitis which f**ked everything right up. I’m out of hospital now though and feeling a lot better, so it’s time to get back to work. My new book – QOTSS – is a science-fiction/fantasy/historical (possibly) supernatural mix that’s just so bizarre it may just work. And although I’ve been set back by a couple of weeks, I still intend to get a first draft completed within a month or two.

One aspect I like about this project is that it’s split into multiple parts each of which tells its own self-contained story. They all interconnect, of course, and everything will hopefully fall together at the end, but for now, it’s nice to work on what feels like three or four smaller stories, each of which represents a close goal to aim for, rather than a single, distant ending.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Now Playing: The Witcher

This isn’t the first time I’ve played The Witcher, although it is the first time I’ve completed it. I’m sure I’ve mentioned how my previous attempt to play the game came to a grinding halt ten or so hours in. There was a lot I admired about the title. But The Witcher proved as equally frustrating as it did brilliant.

With hype building for the release of The Witcher 3, I had an urge to go back and play through The Witcher 2 again, a game which I rated extremely highly. But given my fondness for the characters and setting, it seemed wrong not to give the first game another shot. So that’s exactly what I did. And whilst I once again found it rather tedious to play at times, in the end it was extremely worthwhile.

So let’s start with the good stuff first. The Witcher has a fantastic setting. It’s a rich, living world, one with a lot of depth, history and lore. It’s a setting established through books, the environment and your interaction with others. And this is a world filled with interesting characters. Even smaller side characters feel like fleshed out, rounded individuals. The Witcher creates a believable world, one which you want to explore and experience.

And this leads us onto the story. Initially a somewhat muddled affair, the story of The Witcher expands and grows into something engaging and thoughtful. It is told across 5 chapters, plus a prologue and epilogue. It’s a story which presents choices to the player and, unlike so many RPGs, doesn’t reduce those choices down to simple ‘good’ or ‘bad’ binary decisions. In fact, you can walk an altogether neutral path if you so choose, deciding not to get involved. It’s a story which doesn’t treat you like an idiot and respects your choices, giving you certain variations of events depending on your actions.

Graphically, The Witcher still holds up well today, with some lush, highly detailed environments. In fact, just compare one district of the city of Vizima in the game with the entire city of Kirkwall from Dragon Age 2. Vizima feels like a lived in place, one with residents and businesses. As opposed to a lazily textured box with a couple of barrels and a static NPC. My only real complaint would be that some quest NPCs are clones of other, regular NPCs. In terms of VA and sound, the game is great. Some VA is a bit dodgy, but on the whole, it’s very good quality.

So what about the gameplay? Well, the combat system is a little odd. It plays out almost like a rhythm game. It’s all about timing your clicks to keep a combo flowing. It’s very simple and not very difficult to do, but the real challenge comes in knowing how to approach each fight and opponent. You have two swords with three combat styles, plus magic based Signs and bombs. In addition you have blade oils and potions to enhance or provide certain effects. Combining all these elements into a single fight gives the combat more depth than it may appear, although I do feel that it’s only on higher difficulties where they really all do come into play.

I played through on the default Normal and didn’t really find anything too challenging, aside from those irritating moments when the game launches you directly into combat from a cut-scene, leaving you vulnerable and under attack for a few seconds before you can even react. Apart from a couple of Signs and some blade oil/attack enhancements, I never really needed any of the various potions or bombs to progress. So the combat system has depth to it in terms of the mechanics behind it, but the actual combat in terms of the rhythm based clicking isn’t particularly engaging. You get used to it, but it’s not something you come to love.

So what about quests? There are loads of quests in The Witcher, almost overwhelmingly so. Each chapter has several primary quests along with many fairly substantial side quests, plus plenty of more basic monster bounties to complete. If you do absolutely everything in each chapter, you’re easily looking at 30 hours of play, maybe more. This is a game with a lot to see and do.

So yeah, The Witcher does a lot of things quite brilliantly, so why didn’t I finish it the first time around? Well, unfortunately, the game has serious issues with pacing and structure. The opening prologue isn’t too bad, but the first chapter is also the first real test of the player’s patience. In terms of story and quests I can’t really fault it as it gives a nice introduction into the wider world of The Witcher. But the way these quests are structured means you’ll spend most of your time running from one side of the map to the other.

Oh dear. And this is where things start to get rather tedious. Things don’t really improve in the next chapter and in some ways, they get even worse. You’re conducting an investigation, speaking to witnesses, gathering evidence. Interesting from the story angle, but in terms of the gameplay it gets very irritating and dull as you run from one conversation to the next, from one corner of the map to the next and then back again. It’s badly paced, with plot progression slowing to an absolute crawl. And this is where I gave up the first time around and honestly, considered giving up again.

But I didn’t. I slogged my way through it. The next chapter, thankfully, picked up the pace significantly. The quests were structured much better, meaning it felt that I wasn’t just being dragged from one location to the next and back again. I was actively venturing out of my own accord, my exploration feeling worthwhile, as I knocked off two or three quests on the go.

The way quests are presented to the player is important. The way a game structures the maps in such a way that doesn’t leave the player feeling that they have to continually backtrack is important. Each journey should feel valuable to the player. When I have to cross the entire map and back again just to talk to one person it doesn’t feel valuable. It feels very tedious. I don’t feel that I’m progressing or achieving anything.

And this is The Witcher’s only real problem. But it’s a big problem. Because as much as I loved the story and setting, there were times when it felt like a bit of a chore to actually play. For example, after the improved Chapter 3 we enter Chapter 4, which although having some interesting quests, feels almost entirely disconnected from the main plot. It’s a strange diversion. The main plot really picks up again at the start of Chapter 5 and from that point on the pacing isn’t too bad. But each chapter does feel somewhat self-contained, and as a result, there’s no real flow of pace from one chapter to the next.

So yeah, I had to really slog my way through The Witcher at times. In the end, I’d say it was very worth it, as I gained a much deeper understanding of the setting and characters I so enjoyed in The Witcher 2, and it’s left me eager to get stuck into that title again. But do I think it’s strictly necessary to play The Witcher before its superior sequel? No, I don’t think it is, but doing so will give you a deeper appreciation of the story, setting and characters. You just have to be willing to work for it.

Overall, The Witcher is a tricky recommendation. I’d actually advise people to play the sequel first, and if they come to love it, then to go back and try the first game. Even then, you may find it too tedious to stick with, but if you can find a way, then you’ll probably come to love the series even more. The Witcher is certainly a flawed game, but it remains a very deep, worthwhile RPG. I’m glad I gave it another chance, but I can’t honestly say I’ll be thinking about playing it again any time soon.


Friday, 8 August 2014

Blog Update

I’ve been planning for some time to sort out all the old consoles and games I’ve had in storage. It was always a pain hooking up a particular console as they were all stored separately and weren’t easily accessible. So recently I took the time to get everything organised into a system that gives me quick, easy access to every console and the majority of the games.

So what does this mean? Well, with hardly any new stuff coming out I’m interested in, it means more reviews of older games, including some games I bought years ago but never got around to playing.

I’m thinking of rotating between the different generations, one game at a time. Don’t expect too many too soon, as I’m currently working on a new project which is taking up a lot of my time. I should get out at least two more reviews this month though, plus a writing update depending on how things go.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Now Playing: Skyrim (DLC)

So I figured it was time to finally pick up and play all of the Skyrim DLC. Despite my issues with the game, it’s one I’ve sunk a lot of time into since its release. Over 500 hours, in fact. I’m not sure where all that time went exactly, although the fact that I can spend 6 hours meticulously placing every item I’ve collected in a new player home mod, before scrapping it entirely and starting from scratch, it’s easy to see how Skyrim can become something of a time sink. So let’s start with Hearthfire.

In Hearthfire you get the option to buy three plots of land and build three customisable homes. Which seems kind of neat, at first, at least until you realise each home is identical to the last, aside from any specific wings you choose to build. Structurally, and in terms of decoration and clutter, each home is identical. Seriously? They couldn’t have three unique homes for each location, fitting for the area they are in? Plus, it doesn’t seem like much thought went into the placement of each home, as at least two seem to fall upon a random enemy spawn/patrol path.

Every time I fast travelled to one in particular, I’d immediately come under attack by bandits, a bear or a flippin’ giant! Usually resulting in the death of my cow and/or horse. Wonderful. Also, some clutter in the home and outside hasn’t been well placed, so stuff seems to float in mid-air. My advice – stick with player created home mods. They offer far more in terms of content, design, function, variety and quality. Oh, and Hearthfire also lets you ‘adopt’ a couple of small, homeless children you can find wandering around in some of the towns. Which is actually just a little creepy. Plus they all have cold, dead eyes. If you use a multiple adoptions mod it must be like something out of Village of the Damned.


Next up is Dawnguard, which is all about vampires. Or at least it should be. Do you like Falmer? Because I don’t! But if you do, you’ll probably grow to hate them over the course of this DLC. It has a promising start, at least. Vampires are returning, annoyingly attacking people at random just because. They even killed that blacksmith in Whiterun. You know the one I mean. She’s conveniently placed at the entrance so I can sell her my crap on my way in or out of town. Not any more though. Now she’s dead, which is frankly a bit irritating.

So these bloody vampires really inconvenienced me and payback was in order. Luckily, some dude was reforming a band of vampire hunters called the Dawnguard. Sign me up! I got some fancy new togs and a cool crossbow. My first mission was to investigate some ruin, in which I met a vampire who didn’t immediately try to kill me. This led to the option of becoming a dirty, skulking creature of the night. I declined, although it’s not like the choice has any real impact on how the DLC plays out anyway.

So far, so fine, but unfortunately, the bulk of the DLC is taken up with an extended quest to find an artefact protected by what feels like a never ending army of bloody Falmer. Where my vampires at, yo? I got pretty bored, but I slogged my way through, hoping the conclusion would at least be somewhat exciting. Ha! Everything is wrapped up with a rather crappy final ‘battle’. And then everyone just goes home. Meh. Dawnguard isn’t terrible, it just suffers from a lot of the same problems as the core game. It’s shallow, repetitive and although some of the quests sound interesting in terms of the story or the lore, the actual gameplay execution is just a bit dull. Plus, not enough vampires and too much Falmer.


Lastly we have Dragonborn, which is thankfully an improvement. We get to visit a new location. Well, sort of new, because we already visited the place in one of the Morrowind expansions. So I was curious to see and explore the place again. Dragonborn introduces a lot more new gear and weapons, a lot more new side quests (Dawnguard only really had one) and some new enemy types. It gives us new shouts and new abilities. It also has some new and varied locations. Ultimately, the core quests aren’t all that interesting and once again, the final battle is all rather anticlimactic, but it was okay overall.

Compared to Hearthfire and Dawnguard, Dragonborn offers a lot more to see and do, and quite a bit of cool new stuff to explore. Like Dawnguard, it still suffers from the same old problems of Skyrim, but if you can still find enjoyment in what it offers, as I do, then Dragonborn is worth picking up.