Neverwinter Gate, Baldur’s Nights and the Mask of the Sword Coast

And thus ends my tour of the BioWare RPG portfolio.

A few weeks ago, I decided to return to Baldur’s Gate and finish what I never had before.  To me, it was always a crime to never have completed what is universally applauded as one of the greatest classics in the genre, of all time.  It was a seething sort of guilt that hung in the back of my mind and nagged me whenever I would happen across nostalgic threads about RPGs on reddit or other forums.  It ate away at me relentlessly until, finally, I found a copy of the game for cheap and set about making things in the universe right again.  Not only that, but it would provide an excellent opportunity for me to research the RPG tradition and observe it as it grew.

Once I was done cringing at the sight of the graphics, I went about my adventure like any completionist would.  Every map uncovered.  Every nook, cranny and crevice explored.  The game was engaging despite the clunky and obtrusive interface, out-dated gaming systems and irritating character sound-bytes.  I was so irritated by Khalid’s whimpering and Jaheira’s incessant nagging that I actually murdered them.  Yes.  I did.  I sent them headlong and gearless into the hands of eager gnolls, and never resurrected them.  I cheered when Khalid got insta-gibbed.  I was relieved to be done with them.  Of course, this wasn’t until about half-way through the game.  By the time I commited this atrocity, my fledgling mage had already amassed a decent array of spells and protections and could weather the storm of a few attacks before unleashing certain doom upon whatever enemies dared cross her path.  But all-in-all, my experience was a good one.  I made my way slowly, carefully, thoroughly to the final encounter with Sarevok and finished the game.  I was redeemed.

And with that, I booted up Baldur’s Gate II.  Immediately, one could see the improvements from it’s predecessor.  The graphics seemed to be more crisp.  The interface was cleaner.  Even the method for delivering story was refined.  The first stride out of the gates and already, this timelessly classic franchise was ahead of the pack.  After breezing through BGI, however, I felt as though I needed to step up the challenge a notch.  So, my elven thief/mage was chaotic evil this time.  And yes, Jaheira was left to rot in her cage.  It’s really too bad Minsc was able to break free.  I would have preferred to leave that hamster loving pervert to die as well.  I went so far as to murder or shun every possible companion in BGII that I was left to utterly solo the entire game.  And it was actually pretty challenging, up until…   Up until I learned Mislead.  Combined with invisibility (on the glamer) and Improved Haste the game became a joke.  I would enter a room cast my combo and proceed to score sneak attacks on hordes of enemies.  The only enemies that really presented a challenge were Liches with True Sight and even they would go down eventually.  The game got pretty boring after that, right up through to the end of Throne of Bhaal.  I think I reloaded at least 100 times in my fight against Draconis at Abazigal’s Lair.  At some point, I just gave up.  I simply couldn’t continue on.  The game could not be solo’d at that point and my companions had all been neglected to the point of being completely useless.

As I look back on Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II, two things in particular stand out as resounding truths about the series and these two truths stand testament to the direction games in this genre eventually took.

1) The story was deeply engaging.  No matter how you look at it, the incentives for the player to continue progressing the story were consistent and almost always rewarded the player meaningfully.  That carrot was too orange, and too delicious to ignore.  Whatever formula they discovered, BioWare had unearthed a gold-mine of intelligent plot design and immersive story telling.  They had to keep that part of it right.

2) The rules systems were unforgiving.  I would even go so far as to flat out accuse the game system of hating the player.  These games were merciless.  These core systems had to change.

And they did.  As my adventure progressed, I loaded up the original Neverwinter Nights and allowed myself to once again be swept up by the lilting voice of Lady Aribeth and to be filled with seething hatred for Desther.  It’s interesting to note here that NWN almost completely eschewed the companion systems from the BG series in favor of allowing the player to adventure confidently alone.  Sure, there were henchmen and hirelings, but they were entirely unnecessary.   The game system was also a lot more forgiving.  There were tough fights, absolutely, especially in the beginning of a multi-class character’s career.  But they were do-able.  Not like the previous games (I’m looking at you, Draconis).  The fight with Morag was almost frustrating, but fun nonetheless.

Neverwinter Nights II was next.  I don’t remember my first time playing through very well, but I’m almost certain I didn’t blaze through it as quickly as I did this time.  Perhaps it was my character choice.  For NWN2 I took a path that had previously been taboo for me.  A cleric.  And it was deliciously fun to be lawfully good for a change.  Although, I tried my absolute hardest to stay Lawful Neutral to stay in keeping with my chosen deity, Kelemvor.  When I look back on my fight with the King of Shadows, it occurs to me that the game had become far more forgiving than BGI or II.  Additionally, I didn’t feel compelled to murder any of my companions (and thank God for a lack of Noober).  Perhaps taking the healer/tank spot in the party allowed for a stronger DPS core with Khelgar, Qara and Neeshka.  Whatever it was, I’m sure the core game systems also had something to do with it.

So, the story telling has remained in tact, and the game systems have become more and more user friendly over time.  It’s just sad that they didn’t know when to stop.  I mean, look at Dragon Age 2.  Too far, guys.  Too far.

 

Thanks for reading,

SZ.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution in review

After about 40 hours of playtime during my first playthrough, I believe I’ve got a good grasp on Deus Ex: Human Revolution and what it has to offer.  It was only a week ago that I was counting the number of “sleeps” left until I could play the game, and squeeled with delight when it finally released on Steam.  My first impressions of the game were good, as the opening music, menus and cut-scenes had me hooked right away.  In fact, not even five minutes into the game and I was already overwhelmed with the amount of detail and loving care the team at Eidos Montreal had put into the game.  If you’re not aware, DE:HR is a game where you play the role of Adam Jensen, the security manager for a company called Sarif Industries in Detroit in the not-so-distant future of 2026.

Graphics:

Throughout the game it is quite apparent that the developers cut no corners with the environments in which the game would be set.  Minute details abound, there is never a shortage of things to simply stop and stare at in wonder.  The world we’re presented with is a dark and gritty cyberpunk setting in which technology has become so integral, so pervasive, that it is omnipresent.  No matter where you turn your eyes, there is some evidence of technological influence.  I can’t say enough times how graphically marvelous this game really is.  The attention to detail in the world is unparalleled in my gaming experience.  The only baseline I can give is Mass Effect 2, and DE:HR makes that game look bland in comparison.  The first time I set foot on the streets of Detroit I was immersed in a living breathing (albeit digital) world.

And all of that is why I felt disappointed with some of the NPC animations.  Their jittery, unfinished animations felt garish against the velveteen backdrop of the world of DE:HR.  It’s almost sad, in a way, because even the NPC character models were consistently showing signs of clipping issues and awful texturing.  Such a dichotomy could not be fully ignored and I feel the game would have been flawless except for this one aspect.  If as much attention had been paid to the NPC characters, especially in their delivery of critical plot information, as had been paid to the world itself, I dare say that I could continue existing in the real world — my immersion in the game would have been complete.  Sadly, that was not the case, and found myself being bounced out of my reverie every time I came to another plot exposition.

There were so many more visual delights in the game that would have gone beneath my notice, if it weren’t for how well they were done.  Just a few examples off the top of my head are: the blood spray patterns when scoring a headshot on an opponent that is near a solid surface; the wisp of wind-swept debris carried along the ground; the bright glow and ashen fade of a cigarette as it is smoked; and so on.  As I said before, there were simply so many beautiful aspects of the game’s graphical presentation that I would wager at least an hour (possibly two) was spent gazing at my monitor, mouth agape.

Sound:

Where to start?  I guess the most outstanding aspect of the sound design in DE:HR was the ambient soundtrack.  The only way I can truly describe it would be to say that it was an “organic masterpiece of trance electronica.”  There was never a moment where the music in the game seemed inappropriate for whatever activity I was doing at the time.  It was ever-present; and yet, at the same time, completely fluid and unnoticable.  Mixed with ambient sound effects such as the backdrop of urban streets or the frantic staccato of a tense fire-fight, the music in the game was, I dare say, perfect.

And that brings me to the foley work.  All of the weapons were well designed, from the resounding blast of the shotgun to the satisfying snap of a taser shot — there weren’t any moments when I questioned the audio impact of the weapons I used.  Mind you, I never even took the opportunity to fire the laser rifle as my first playthrough focused almost entirely on the use of a silenced 10mm.  With that said, however, I’m certain that it would not have disappointed me.

Beyond the guns, grenades and the muffled screams of a guard being rendered unconscious by a chokehold; the panicked shuffle of his sneakers as he seeks a foothold; the subtle swiff of clothing as he gasps his last breath — the rest of the world was as detailed and life-like as it could possibly be.  At one point, I came across a basketball court in Detroit.  A ball on the ground beckoned me to pick it up and toss it into the eager net above…  The tap and pang of the inflated ball on the court was audible reality, as far as my senses were concerned.  I stood there for at least a solid 10 minutes trying to score a basket, but alas, I could not.1 [Edit: During my second playthrough for the “Pacifist” achievement, I scored a basket and unlocked the corresponding achievement.]

As I mentioned before, the only aspect of the graphics that I felt let down by was the lack of detail in the NPCs.  Thankfully, the voice acting done for them helped offset their poor presentation.  No two characters were the same.  Most games these days will “double-up” on a particular voice actor’s roles.  Not so, for DE:HR.  If they did, I didn’t notice.  Altogether, the cast was well played and high-calibre.  I was even happy to hear Susan Boyd Joyce play the mother of Jensen’s love interest.

Gameplay:

For my first playthrough, I focused simply on achieving objectives without any regard for a specific methodology.  Sure, I tried to use stealth and hacking whenever possible, but I was no slouch if it came down to doing some wet-work.  I mentioned earlier that I used the silenced 10mm almost to the point of exclusivity.  Any opportunity I had to line up a headshot on an unsuspecting guard, I took.  And whenever I was unable to kill them with the pistol, I would first use the taser or nerve darts and put them to sleep before executing them with a coup de grace in the safety of cover or a dark corner.  The stealth mechanic could not have been done better.  There are games in the genre which bring decent competition, but all of them seem to fall flat at the feet of DE:HR.  Most notably, Metal Gear: Solid, Splinter Cell, and Theif all paved the ground work for DE:HR.  Their influence is clear.  But Deus Ex has taken those initiatives and remade the stealth/espionage genre in the 21st, to a brave new degree.  Although nothing really groundbreaking or new was done, there are elements of all the best stealth concepts remade here to the fullest effect.  Splinter Cell’s mark & tracking, Metal Gear’s audio-aware guards, social alarm systems, and so on.  In fact, there are even a few aspects of the awareness of the NPCs in the game that suggests that the genre has in-fact been evolved.  Although that is certainly debateable it is still absolutely clear that DE:HR will be a classic among classics.

There are other aspects of gameplay that were just as satisfying.  Gunfighting was well designed, despite the fact that I can hear Yahtzee saying “cover based shooter” already.  The hacking mini-game was a special delight for me.  Way back in the day I played a tabletop role-playing game called “Shadowrun” by Fasa.  I was reminiscent of that game as I hacked the various computers and terminals in DE:HR.  The concepts of nodes, IC (Intrusion Countermeasures, or ice), and program-based attacks against the system were all present.  I’m curious as to whether the “matrix” hacking concepts in Shadowrun were repurposed for Deus Ex.  But I guess I’ll never know.

The exploration or customization options in DE:HR were also outstanding.  To be brief, the world is an open book, only the will to turn the pages is needed.  There are so many side-passages, dark alleys and hidden avenues in the game that I believe there are probably at least 10 different ways to approach each and every single objective.  The best part is that the game constantly awards the player regardless of the path he or she chooses.  I never felt like I was missing out on potential loot or exp by taking alternative paths through a mission.  Regretably, however, so much experience is rewarded throughout the course of the game that I was almost able to get every single upgrade and augmentation available.  The only augs I had left to activate were my social enchancement chip and a few leg and eye upgrades.

Story:

For me, the story of Deus Ex: Human Revolution is probably the hardest to really evaluate.  In the tradition of the Deus Ex franchise, the story is a complex spaghetti maze of major, minor and even red herring plots.  There is only one NPC that I knew I could trust.  I won’t say who, but her role in the game really kind of made her loyalty unquestionable.  But that was it.  I never really felt as though I could trust anyone else.  Everyone had an agenda and no one was willing to do the dirty work.  And that was where Adam Jensen came in.  The quintessential errand boy.  One thing I felt was a nice change from the pace of other RPG games lately, was the total lack of a morality meter.  Other games recently have taken the black and white nature of their scruples to such a fragrant point as to measure them with the Halo vs. Horns Meter of Vicissitude.  It’s all grey-area in DE:HR.  There is no right, wrong, evil, good, or even neutral.  It’s all about perspective and personal agenda.  Sure, some characters will imply that one point of view is evil and that their own is quite benevolent.  What really matters though, is the judgement of the player.

Other:

Which brings me to my final point about Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  As a long-time fan of cyberpunk sci-fi, I’ve been exposed to concepts of transhumanism, religious dogma surrounding evolution, and pervasive technology at the most fundamental societal levels.  This game brings home one of the most important questions of our generation: how can we keep up with the break-neck pace of technological progress?  Whether you have an answer for it or not doesn’t really matter.  The point here, is that it is a real issue.  Population, food production, waste management, and “green” technologies are all serious social concerns in the 21st century, and unless you have your head so far up your own ass that these things have never crossed your mind, this game is sure to grip you by the cajones and shake them a bit.  I consider myself open and welcome to change, but the ending I got in the game disturbed even me.  Take a look at this last screenshot and tell me this: would you welcome a world in which babies were no longer born, but rather, grown?

1: There is actually an achievement called “Baller” for scoring a basket on that court.

Pre-review: Risen

Recently, I decided to get back into Risen, and took the path to the bandit camp rather than becoming a mage.  It’s really difficult to say which experience is better when all things are considered.  For the mage path, I remember feeling as though I were really in a school learning to cast spells, make potions and write scrolls.  It truly was an academic experience.  The path of the fighter/rogue, however, has its own ups and downs.  On the positive side, the combat system in Risen is much like one would experience in a game like Age of Conan, wherein all combat is decided by skill and timing.  With that said, however, even while the system requires the player to learn all of the various monster tactics it does tend to get very frustrating as there is never really any indication of determining whether an enemy is too strong.  Because of this, there are several occasions when the game must be reloaded due to having adventured too far into dangerous territory.

One aspect of the game that is universally excellent is the world in which it is set.  Although the entire game story takes place on a single island, the island itself is huge, fully explorable, and seamless.  There are dozens upon dozens of caves, hidden groves and secret passages to explore.  What’s more is the magic system in Risen lends itself to creative interpretation, and sets itself aside from other games in the genre.  Rather than focus on the traditional fireball and icebolts that are all too common, Risen puts emphasis on those magics which bend the laws of physics.  Levitation, polymorph, and telekinesis all become invaluable tools to further the exploration effort.  For example, one can levitate across perilous chasms, or use telekinesis to manipulate a distant lever.

The spelunking in Risen is top-notch.  But so is the role-playing.  The voice acting and script are prime examples of what other games in the genre should strive to achieve.  Humour, sarcasm, perspective, and morality all come into play with the myriad of people one will meet on the journey.

Finally, the game world is simply breathtaking.  I have been set aback on multiple occasions by vistas that stand testament to the wonders and beauty of real life nature.

Risen is a hidden gem.  A must-play for any dungeon-crawler-at-heart.