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Saturday, 16 April 2011

Dragon Age 2 review; better later than never.

First things first, I feel I should admit that, although I have played, and own, Dragon Age: Origins, I merely scratched the surface of the game. This was not down to a personal distaste for the game, but rather my aging laptop’s refusal to run it at over 10 FPS even on the lowest settings. In fact, I probably spent more time scouring the internet for solutions, and pleading with my puny in-built graphics card than exploring the world of Ferelden. However, that’s an (admittedly boring) story for another day.

Now, the reason I’m continuing to blather on about Dragon Age: Origins, whilst it is patently obvious this is a Dragon Age 2 review, is that I find it to be a particularly interesting counterpoint to what Bioware have served up for us this time. Even as I stuttered, lagged and cursed my way through Origins, I felt twinges of the Bioware RPGs of old; Baldur’s Gate 2 particularly springing to mind. It was a classic RPG setup; you were able to create a character from scratch, you had a fully controllable party (albeit with the new Tactics system); the battles, even at the early stages of the game, were challenging, requiring repeat attempts and different strategies, and, most importantly, there was an epic grandeur to your character‘s plight. All very satisfying.

In contrast, during my smooth cruise through DA2 I couldn’t help but wonder what Bioware was aiming for. Your choice of character is limited to three main archetypes (warrior, rogue, and mage) and, rather than being placed in an omnipotent position aloft your party member’s heads, you are plonked directly behind your chosen avatar. ‘Excuse me, good sir‘, I hear you proclaim, ‘if I may be so bold, may I point out that we are able to switch betwixt our allies with the facile nudge of a button‘. ‘Ah well‘, I riposte courteously, ‘I hesitate to suggest you may have missed my point, old chum‘. My quarrel with this design choice is not that you’re fettered constantly to your chosen character, it is that the camera angle you’re chained to, irreversibly transforms the game from the deep, engaging RPG is could have been, into an action-RPG at best, and a glorified hack’n’slash at worst.

You'll be seeing plenty of these fellas during your jaunt through Ferelden.

Okay, I’m almost certainly exaggerating the limitations of the camera, you can of course whiz your viewpoint around panoramically to examine the field of battle, or choose your next target, comfortably, but that is not what I want to do. I want to be able to gaze upon the battle as a whole, from above; have the ability to pause the battle and issue a set of commands without having to traverse clunky radial menus, and then, if I feel inclined, zoom in and view the result of my choices at ground level. Perhaps I’m an RPG purist, or perhaps I’m unreasonably demanding too much from a game designed around 14 pushable buttons, but that either way the sense of disappointment prevails.

It may seem like I have nothing positive to say about DA2, but if I claimed to not have enjoyed the game, I would be lying. The writing is up to Bioware’s high standard, and I genuinely felt an attachment to my compatriots. Varric, the charismatic dwarven rogue, who earned a constant place in my party, is a shining example of Bioware’s ability to bestow a video-game character with, well, character. Of course, there are some duds; Fenris the apathetic, floppy-haired warrior who looks to have been inexplicably transported straight from a generic J-RPG is one of these. I can safely say he never graced my side in combat. 

Here's Fenris. See what I mean?

The story in DA2 is far less grand than in Origins; instead of saving Ferelden from the clutches of the Darkspawn, this time the narrative unfolds at a smaller, more personal, level. The game opens with your village destroyed by the Darkspawn (heard that one before, right?), and then plots your rise to notoriety, from lowly refugee to the city of Kirkwall, to its eventual Champion. Bioware  puts a spin on this, however, by revolving the action within the game around a series of cut scenes which show Varric being questioned by a sexy French Templar, who believes you are responsible for some bad juju that is occurring in the ‘present’

This device has its pros and cons. On the positive side, the fact you know that ‘all this has happened before’, so to speak, gives your actions within the game a sort of resonance; knowing that what you do is, in the ‘future’, being investigated for crimes unknown. Unfortunately, this positive can easily be viewed as a negative, because it telegraphs the fact that this is indeed a ‘filler’ game for the final instalment; the true action is yet to come. Make of it what you will, but I think, although the story suffers from a lack of grandeur, there is political intrigue, and your character’s rise to fame is a gratifying pay-off, you genuinely feel important… in the game world, of course.

The plot pivots around this scene; will Varric rat you out?

The advancement system within the game is also rather satisfying. When you, or a party member, levels up you receive attribute points to distribute, and one ability point, which you can spend within several skill webs, depending on the direction you see your character going. There are many different build possibilities, and I can see hardcore fans replaying the game, even with the same class, due to the scope of different possible play styles. I played through with a rogue, and created a classic glass-cannon  build which was a lot of fun to play, but was rather one-dimensional.

One-dimensionality is also the main issue when it comes to combat in DA2. Most of the time you’ll be fighting four or five different types of enemies throughout the game, and - whenever you think you’ve defeated the last one - another wave will inevitably stumble onto the battlefield, from nowhere, ready to be massacred. The only really challenging fights, and the only fights to require necessary changes in the Tactics menu, are boss fights; dragons in particular. The first time I stared a dragon down the snout in DA2 was a special moment, but after the fourth or fifth try, after modifying my tactics (and Tactics) each time, it became more a gruelling task of chiselling down its meaty health bar, than an epic brawl with a reptilian behemoth. 

Looks cool, right? It ain't so fun on your fifth try...

Bioware attempted to quantify your relationships with your companions with an friendship/rivalry scale, which I personally saw as a waste of good development time. It seemed almost impossible to create a rivalry with one of your companions, unless you intentionally sought to piss one of them off. You can do this by choosing dialogue options that will ruffle the ideological feathers a particular party member, but, unless you’ve made the conscious decision to roleplay as a sociopath, it seems very difficult to get somebody to hate you. The only way to seriously damage a relationship with a companion is to decline a personal quest, which I see as a rather poor mechanic. I would have thought most players would want to experience the content they paid good money for.

The companion quests themselves are a mixed bag, but there are a few gems to be found. There is one in particular in which you assist one of your less silver-tongued pals in seducing a colleague, which provided a few genuinely funny moments, but at the same time added a layer of complexity to a character that I would have never expected to see in that particular light.

The quality of the numerous side-quests thrust at you during you adventures through Ferelden is comparable to the companion quests, there are the good, the bad, and the downright rubbish. The problem with many of the quests is their persistent predictability; before you even enter the hideout of a supposed child-molesting, cannibalistic, xenophobe (not an actual example), you know that there will be a heartbreaking reason, or misunderstanding that will explain the offender’s actions, and you will be given the decision to let him go, or kill him outright. There are of course exceptions to this rule, and some of the decisions you have to make are genuine moral dilemmas, but generally this is not the case. The constant recycling of environments is another issue I have with this department of the game. You will visit the same decrepit mining tunnel, lava filled dungeon, and generic mysterious cave multiple times throughout your adventure, which does a really good job at breaking immersion.

Overall, Dragon Age 2 is a solid game, better than solid actually, it is a good game, but it could have been more. It almost seems as if Bioware (probably under EA’s instruction), have seen their other trilogy, Mass Effect, currently relishing in popularity, and have consequently compromised the RPG aspects of the Dragon Age series in order to appeal to this market, which - to me - is very disappointing. I don’t think anybody asked for a fantasy Mass Effect, did they? Well, maybe they did, but I sure as hell wasn’t one of ‘em.


Thursday, 14 April 2011

Gaming. Morally.

I was talking to a friend today about morality in games, and how you are often rewarded for choosing a certain option when presented with an ethical conundrum. A case in point is Bioshock; you can either cleave into soft head of a tiny girl to garner extra Adam, or be a philanthropic so-and-so and restore the little mite to her innocence, but receive less. Of course, I chose the former option. The reward for freeing the girls from slavery, although it changes the ending, is pitiful, and the extra Adam is worth the discomfort of the sound of a small girl pleading for mercy, and a gratuitous fade to black. Err… maybe that came out wrong.

The point I’m trying to make is that moral choices in games should not have a bearing on actual gameplay. They should affect the story, but not be cheapened by a quantified reward. I feel guilty for using this as an example, having never played it, but Heavy Rain seems to exemplify how I believe a morality system (if it can be called that) should work. From what I have gleaned on the internet, Heavy Rain is a far more cinematic experience than any predecessor, and the player’s choices are just that - choices. You are not judged by a sneering morality scale (hello, Fallout 3), and your character is not transformed physically into a manifestation of your decisions (Fable, I’m looking at you), instead, you are left only with the choices you made, and the consequences of those actions.

If morality is going to become a part of gaming, and I think it is essential for its growth as a medium, it needs to be implemented seamlessly within a game; not just as another means of evaluating your character upon completion. Heavy Rain seems to have made inroads to a more engaging gaming experience, and I think other games should take heed. I’m not saying that first-person-shooters should force the player to consider the feelings of a common grunt, before blowing its brains out, but when a developer is consciously making the effort to create something morally challenging, they should not let it become just another game mechanic, but something much deeper.

What do you think? How do you think morality should integrate into gaming, if at all? I’d like to hear other opinions, and let me know if I’m totally off the mark here!

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

First post, how exciting...

Hello there, internet! Welcome to The Ninth Underworld; a place that will provide you, my dear reader, with the quarry of video-game related hootenanny you so desperately need. Come on in, one and all. Do not be afraid, for all is pure and good down here, nestled under an overpass of the information super highway.

That last paragraph was written with the optimism of a small boy writing love letters to his teacher. In fact, I’m confident that these words will never pass the eyes of any other human, besides myself, but I’d be happy for somebody to prove me wrong!

Anyway, I thought the best way to initiate this video-game review blog, would be to illuminate the small portion of the interwebs I currently occupy with the knowledge of my favourite games. Okay, ready? Let’s dive right in with:

Half Life

Predictable. Well, I’ve got no qualms with that statement, because Half Life is well recognised as the granddaddy of all first-person-shooters filling our screens today. Half Life, if we are stretching the metaphor, would probably be sitting in his orthopaedic chair, right now, complaining about how times have changed, and proclaiming how things were much better in his day. And I’d have to agree with him, to an extent. When I first played Half Life (I must have been 12 or so), it was a time where games were strange, exciting, entities, and fighting off an alien invasion, hadn’t become a tired, over-used cliché. 

From mauling head crabs with your trusty red crowbar, to scrambling around a giant tentacle monster, desperately trying to find the necessary knobs and dials to decimate it; Half Life had it all, and - at the time - it was downright scary. Ah, nostalgia, how it bestows memories with such a glowing aura , but yet - whenever I play it - the same emotions I had, as the small chap I once was, would surface and I would be returned the sanctity of the perspective of the silent scientist, Gordon Freeman. Surely a hallmark of a great game.

Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn

My first proper RPG. I still have the big old cardboard case, brimming with disks, sitting on my bedroom shelf. This reminds me firstly, that game packaging was way cooler back in the day, and secondly of the hundreds of hours I must have spent on this masterpiece. Emblazoned on the front of the box is a quote from PCZone: “A MUST FOR ALL RPG FANS”. If these words had been heeded throughout the years, I’m adamantly sure there gamers all over the world  would be enriched from the experience.

It’s depressing, the number of times I’ve asked a fellow gamer if they have ever played Baldur’s Gate 2, and the answer is either a resounding “no”, or - even worse - a clueless, “what’s that?”. I think the last time I picked up and completed BG2 was just over a year ago, and the experience was just as enjoyable as the first time I tottered unwittingly into the engrossing, and inspiring world that Bioware had lovingly crafted. It is not just the sheer size and depth of the game-world that makes BG2 magical to me. Each character has a unique personality, and friendships seem meaningful and plausible; the story is epic, with you traversing through entire continents, a magical detention fortress for deviant mages, and even to Hell itself. 

I could spend the rest of this article singing BG2’s praises, but I won’t, for all our sake’s. I will, however, demand that anybody reading this, who has not played it, buy it now, and play it immediately.

Grim Fandango

I’ve  just finished replaying this game, and I think I can safely say that Grim Fandango has to be my most favouritist game ever. It is also where I got the name for this blog. If you haven’t played the game (you damned fool, you), GF is set in The Land of the Dead, which is where - in Mexican belief - the souls of the deceased make their treacherous three-year journey to the gates of the Ninth Underworld, where then it will be decided whether they are morally fit to enter.

You slip into the robes of Manny Calavera, a quick-tongued, skeletal, rascal who has to pay off a moral-debt, for bad deeds done in life, by working as a Reaper for the Department of Death. Reapers are effectively glorified travel agents, able to sell better packages to the Ninth Underworld to the more deserving souls they are assigned to reap. Unfortunately for Manny, the only clients he receives are amoral no-good-nicks, so it will be an eternity before he settles his debt, but why? There is corruption afoot, and Manny Calavera is about to get caught up in it.

This is about as revealing as a blurb, because I’m unwilling to divulge any more of the plot, as I think, for anybody who has not played the game, it is something that needs to be experienced first-hand. It seems such a shame that GF was LucasArts final adventure game; it seems they perfected their craft with this gem.

Visually, The Land of the Dead is intricate and interesting, heavily influenced by 1930s Art Deco. Combined with a film noir plot, a cast of fully-fledged characters equipped with hilarious lines of dialogue, and a groovy, orchestral soundtrack, the game world is stylish, and charming.

How the game sold so poorly is baffling. Grim Fandango is, in my eyes, the perfect game, and any adjective I’ve used does not exaggerate my love for it.  Probably why I devoted so much time for it here.


Ah, EVE-Online. I’ve played countless MMORPGs in my time (from EQ1 to WoW, and many more in between), but EVE is the only one I find myself unwilling to resist re-subscribing to. Set in space, you are a capsule pilot (pretty much a bloke, or lass, submerged in gelatinous fluids, within a pod), with no clear goal. The first time you float, warily, into space, you’ll be overloaded with information, scared stiff by the immeasurably larger ships floating past you, but at the same time in awe of the supreme scale of the game. 

This article is far too small to even begin to explain the countless options, opportunities  and excitement that EVE can inundate you with, and I’m wasting more of it now. Put it this way; this is a game where you can choose to roam low-security space, as a pirate (yes, a pirate, a space-pirate!) looking for expensive ships to blow up, purely for the thrill of the fight, and the sadistic joy of ruining someone’s day. 

And believe me, day’s can be ruined. EVE is not a namby-pamby MMO; when you die you do not respawn in a graveyard, tasked with the small discomfort of running back to your corpse, you really feel it. Imagine having just spent all of your hard earned ISK (in-game currency), on a super-shiny battleship, equipped with the latest Tech II gear, and then passing, innocuously, through a low-security system, only to be instantly warp-jammed, and destroyed by a band of marauding pirates, losing everything you worked so hard for in seconds. In fact, I think that is exactly what happened before I quit EVE the last time. 

Damnit, I tried to repress that memory. Back to therapy I go.

So, what are your all-time favourite games, which titles trigger your nostalgia gland into overload? I would love to hear of any obscure games that I haven't played, so hit me!