Thursday, November 17, 2011

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: 10/20 Hour Checkpoint

Playing Through:
Normally my gaming habits are fairly scattered and it takes me a week or more to reach the 20 hour checkpoint even with a game I like. Skyrim is breaking my usual patterns, as I struggle to focus my thoughts from yet another night of playing entirely to late into the evening. As a result I can't cleanly break down where the 10 hour checkpoint stopped and the 20 hour started, so i'm combining both into this review.

A World not a Power Curve.
Skyrim has taken a step away from the previous Elder Scroll entries by reducing amount of level scaling that happens in the game. Instead of making sure you're always fighting level appropriate monsters, the difficulty of the enemies you face depends entirely on where you are. Ice Giant camps are around regardless of level, and some areas have Sabercat problems, while others are more overrun with Wolves, it all depends what you're lucky or unlucky enough to encounter as you wander about Skyrim. Instead of the monsters you meet arbitrarily changing with your level different areas seem to have preferences in wildlife that occupy the area, so it feels more like a world instead of a game and establishes a sense of immersion.

Procedural Generation as a World Building Tool:
My programmer background was intrigued by the mention of procedural content in Skyrim. While I was skeptical of how well implemented procedural quests would work, i'm fairly impressed so far. While I can tell certain quests are designed quests, others are more ambiguous, and I'm often not sure if what I'm doing is a procedurally generated quest or not, and that gets a passing mark in my book.
The world seems to change and react to your actions or inaction. I had an encounter when I first went to Whiterun where a group of the Companions were finishing a fight with a Ice Giant, and they came over and fussed at me for not helping. Later while battling a group of evil mages in a ruin I came under attack by a dragon. It's little events and details like that where you're never sure if what's happening is procedural or scripted that draw you into the world.

Combat and Playstyle:
I've been impressed that the game seems to reward a variety of combat styles, and different enemies are easier or harder depending on your combat style. Some enemies are easier to take down with a flurry of power attacks and melee techniques, while others reward magic use, and yet others are easier to pick apart at range. I've been leaning toward a stealth oriented style with a mix of both melee and ranged attacks, but it doesn't always work well, and sometimes spells are more effective.
It feels like the game is trying to reward the effort you make no matter how you choose to advance your character, whether it's magic, melee, or craft and cunning. Everything serves toward making your character stronger in one way or another, and it feels like there is no 'wrong' way to build your character, just more difficult ones depending on what you're dealing with.

Little Details:
I've explored several ruins, and yet it hasn't gotten samey the way the 'random' dungeons in Oblivion did. Instead of each dungeon feeling like variations on the same template, each dungeon and location seems to tell it's own story. There are little details that tell stories that make each thing unique, one place is 'haunted' by an insane thief with a potion that makes him look like a ghost, at another Dark Mages experiment on a group of captured vampires, each location seems to have a story to tell instead of being an excuse to fight things.
There are also other little details like the addition of killing blow animations and other minor improvements that add up to place Skyrim as easily my favorite Elder Scrolls game, and probably among my favorite RPGs.

Final Thoughts:
While I am nowhere near completing the game, I'm looking forward to spending more time exploring Skyrim.
My quest logs seem to grow larger, with each area I explore opening into several new things to do and locations to check out. Even when I'm not on a quest and just exploring an area for explorations sake I'm likely to run into some manner of quest.
While nothing is perfect, and Skyrim does have some fiddly things to get used to, the good greatly outweighs the bad, and while it may not beat Arkham City on short term enjoyment, I get the feeling that the replay value of Skyrim while probably have more staying power. I sprung for the collectors edition of the game, and despite the rather high price tag the game has followed through and I have no regrets for dropping some extra cash to support such a great game.
If you've enjoyed any of the previous Elder Scrolls, Skyrim is a must. Even if you've never played them before this is an excellent addition to anyone that likes fantasy games, and might even serve as a good introduction to RPGs for gamers that have otherwise never been exposed to an RPG.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: 5 Hour Checkpoint

Initial Impressions:
In proper Elder Scrolls fashion you start the game as a prisoner and events unfold that set you on your quest. In this case your execution is interrupted by a Dragon attack when dragons haven't been seen for centuries.
The tutorial is handled in the form of your daring escape from the dragon attack, teaching you to jump, fight, cast spells, and sneak about, introducing different styles of play so you get a feel for what you want to do. At the end of the tutorial you emerge blinking into the realm of Skyrim and are told to meet someone in the nearby town. You are then turned loose on the world to do as you see fit. If you played Oblivion this may sound rather familiar, however the idea wasn't really broken so they saw no reason to change it.

The Leveling Overhaul:
Despite the tutorial being similar to Oblivion, the mechanics of Skyrim have gone through a considerable change and while many of the core ideas from Morrowind and Oblivion are intact, the stats and skill system has gone through a major overhaul. Instead of customizing a class with preferred skills and raising a dozen different physical and mental stats, Skyrim has simplified things with only three main stats, Mana, Health, and Stamina. The skills are still intact, however the movement skills have been removed, focusing instead on the main combat, magic, and stealth skills, allowing for a more focused presentation.
Leveling has been completely changed, where in Oblivion only your class skills would raise your experience, in Skyrim all skills give you experience toward your next level. Instead of getting stronger through an increase of dozens of stats you gain Talent points you can spend in the various Skill talent trees. These talents require a certain level of skill to be taken, so as your character grows at a certain skill you are rewarded with better talents.
Both Hands Ready:
Skyrim is built on the idea of using both of your hands in combat, whether its a sword and shield, a two-handed battle-axe or a combination of spells. As a result you can have a sword readied in one hand and a spell in the other, and can use both at the same time if you are so inclined. The various talents you gain as you level can help further improve your dual wielding ability, and encourages a variety of spell and weapon combinations.

Your Character:
Where previous Elder Scrolls gave you the framework of classes to build your character out of, and barraged you with a landslide of options and stats to worry about. Skyrim seems to be trying to make things easier and allow you to make a truly unique character that grows exactly how you want them to, anything and everything you do is making your character grow stronger. Grinding up skills to try to gain an optimal stat increase has been done away with, and everything seems remarkably streamlined so as not to detract from the game.
While sometimes 'streamlining' can be a dirty word in videogames, often equated with dumbing things down, these changes seem to actually enhance the game and cost none of the customization and depth that the Elder Scroll series is known for.

Overall Impressions at 5:
I didn't want to stop playing to make this review. While I have been a fan of the Elder Scrolls series for several years, despite the changes to the old stat heavy presentation of the previous games, I think Skyrim is quickly becoming one of my favorite iterations of the game. Leveling is cleaner and easier, removing skill grinding to reach optimal stats, combat is more interesting with larger variety of play styles readily available, and the story quickly thrusts you into the center of events, while still encouraging exploration. On that note, back to playing Skyrim for me.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Batman Arkham City: 20 Hour Checkpoint

Story time, Spoilers Time:
With the game now complete it's time to talk about the overall opinions of the game, and that is difficult to do without some spoilers. While I'll avoid 'major' spoilers I will be discussing some of the characters the make an appearance in the game and the flow of the story.
The story ties in well with Arkham Asylum, and the story focuses Joker's deteriorating health from his use of the TITAN serum. Batman is coerced into tracking down a cure, and through that quest for the cure he is exposed to the various warring factions in Arkham City, all while Protocol 10 is ominously counting down.
I'm not going to spoil the ending, but it was absolutely fantastic, and easily puts the game among my favorites.

The Supporting Cast:
While the main story showcases an impressive catalog of Batman's enemies and associates, the side missions do an excellent job giving other characters appearances in the game. Bane is around to address a TITAN problem, Riddler makes a return with his trophies and challenges with a much greater amount of face time, Zsasz returns with a game of phonetag, and Deadshot makes an appearance as an assassin eliminating key witnesses around the city. Several other characters are also around, and the face time for Batman's enemies seems to be greatly increased. While in the previous game the villains seemed to show up to present periodic boss-fights, the build up and payoff seems far better in Arkham City. There is a glorious segment where the Mad Hatter makes an appearance, and even with his being one of the shortest side missions, he establishes his menace quite soundly.

So Many Toys:
By the end of the game Batman's impressive arsenal of gear grows quite large, and there is even a slight quip from Alfred about why he didn't take everything with him in the first place. The game seems to make an effort to emphasize multiple uses for his tools, to give everything both a utility and combat use. It can sometimes feel a bit clumsy with so many options, but at the same time the options give the game a strange sense of depth that makes both exploration and combat interesting.

Final Thoughts:
The plot of the game was fantastic, with several extremely dramatic moments and epic reveals. The boss fights were varied, and didn't overstay their welcome. (I'm looking at you Killer Croc segment in Arkham Asylum.) The side missions added a wonderful distraction from the main plot, and made the City come to life as things happened all over the City as the various villains went about their plots. Overall there were very few criticisms I can level against the game, other than the brevity of the tutorial. I'd strongly advise this game to anyone that enjoys the Batman franchise or enjoys other adventure/action games.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Batman Arkham City: 10 Hour Checkpoint

Playing in the Sandbox:
Having finished some basic storyline I started exploring Arkham City in earnest. Wandering the various parts of town I came to appreciate the little touches here and there that add depth to Arkham City. The gang members talk about the recent events from their different gang perspectives, side missions are scattered about to encourage exploring, gang members to interrogate, lots of little things that make Arkham City come alive.
All of these things add up, creating a wonderful sandbox of things to do. They add a sense of immersion as you stalk the streets of Arkham as Batman.  Leveling is important to improve your survivability as the story progresses, but there are some many things to do that you never feel like you're grinding, just doing other Batman things. 

The Rogues Gallery:
The cast of Batman villains is larger this time around. While the original Arkham Asylum did an excellent job of incorporating several different villains into the game, the generic thugs were all associated with the Joker. Arkham City it brings other villains to the forefront as the different baddies wage war over the City. In addition to those showing up in the main storyline, several other villains show up in the side missions and in little details around the City.

New Toys:
As you complete various missions new gadgets unlock for Batman, including several new abilities and gadgets he didn't have in Arkham Asylum. The new items serve various purposes, but add even greater depth to Batman's bag of tricks, and as an improvement over Asylum, many are given quick-key combos to activate them without having to select it in your inventory.

Treasure Hunting gone Crazy:
While Arkham Asylum had some treasure hunting with the Riddler Trophies and Jokers Teeth, Arkham City has added several more types of collectibles to be destroyed around the City, including security cameras and Joker Balloons. It seems a fairly common idea in 'sandbox' games to add a mess of collectibles and treasure hunts, and Arkham City doesn't skimp on this standby.

Thoughts after 10 Hours:
It's difficult for me to pinpoint when I hit the 10 hour mark gameplay wise. I was so completely enthralled with the game that I lost track of time. I have actually finished the game at around 20 hours, but in the spirit of 5/10/20 I'm posting my thoughts at around the mid-point of the game, and the details that caught my interest. For a game to be so good that I lost track of time, and played it through to the end in a matter of weeks when my free time is at a premium, you can rest assured that the game is great.

Next Time, The End and What Comes After:
In the 20 hour review I'll present my final thoughts on Arkham City. Due to the nature of the game and the importance of Story I'll probably have to warn against some spoilers to express what parts of the game I really enjoyed and why. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Batman Arkham City: 5 Hour Checkpoint

5/10/20 Review, Batman Arkham City:
I came late to the game with the previous entry in this series, Batman Arkham Asylum, only picking it up this year. With the memories of that game reasonably fresh in mind, I've been looking forward to this newest iteration of the Batman video game franchise.

On Pre-Order Incentives:
Before I go into the primary review, I feel I should touch on the rather massive pre-order campaign that this game launched. With both a Premium and Regular edition of the game available there were several special features added to help differentiate the games.
One of the major features that was added was special costume skins available for play, and apparently it was very popular with the marketing team for this game. Long story short, there ended up being almost a dozen different unique costumes for the game depending on which edition you bought and where.

Opening With a Bang:
I attempt to avoid major spoilers in my posts, favoring to explain my overall feel for the game, its mechanics, and the story at the different checkpoints. Arkham City opens full throttle and gets you invested in the happenings of Arkham City almost immediately. A few brief tutorial sections later you are introduced to the basic mechanics of the game, though familiarity with the previous game is a distinct advantage. Also the basic storyline of the game has been introduced, and you're motive for Arkham City is clearly established.

I Know What I'm Doing:
While playing Arkham Asylum isn't strictly required for Arkham City, it definitely helps. In an interesting deviation from the norm of most games, the game doesn't ignore or use plot to remove the abilities you had in the previous game, the batsuit comes with the full compliment of interesting toys from the previous game, with the Batgrapple, RC Batarang, and Explosive Gel all making return appearances.
Several new abilities have been added as well, so it feels like Arkham City is a true sequel to Arkham Asylum, and you don't have arbitrary explaining away of your old abilities. Batman feels like he has grown and progressed since the events of the first game, and as sequels go this earns it extremely high marks in my book.

The Gameplay:
If you have played Arkham Asylum you will already be familiar with the basics of Arkham City. The combat maintains its action packed punch and counter style, and stealth and surprise are still important elements, particularly when dealing with armed enemies. However, the new open cityscape style of Arkham City changes the feel of things considerably, with stealth, mobility, and exploration having a much more epic feel than the previous game.

The Setting, The City the Villains Built:
The feel of Arkham City itself is fantastic, with many interesting building scattered across the different sections of Arkham. Another nice touch is the new ability to overhear the conversations of nearby thugs, which gives the baddies more personality. This personality is even further magnified by their reacting to different story events, and different parts of the the City being controlled by different gangs.
Batman also feels much more like a detective in this iteration. In Arkham Asylum there were interesting moments where Batman did some investigation or followed certain clue trails to the next story point, a detail I most certainly appreciated. Arkham City seems to take the detective angle to the next step, with investigations happening as he discovers things around the city. The addition of numerous side-stories and optional investigations really adds to the flavor of the City, and takes the game from a great action game, to a truly delightful sandbox.
It feels like the game was designed to give you a very flexible experience, adapting to however you choose to play the game. This creates a wonderful sense of immersion as you go about the City and create your own Batman. Do you save a random mugging victim, or are you busy unraveling the latest series of clues left by the Riddler? Maybe you're to busy dealing with the main storyline to deal with the other Villains, but will stop to clear out a den of Two-Face's thugs. Does your Batman try to sneak around enemies and minimize his presence, or does he brawl his way through waves of armed thugs?
Arkham Asylum was a wonderful game, and i admit to have been a bit leery of a sequel, however Arkham City not only lived up to the original but has surpassed it. If the game continues to maintain this momentum throughout I may very well laud it as an example of everything i sequel should be, both a continuation of those that have gone before, and both gameplay and setting that strive to exceed the standards set by the games that have come before it. 

While I tend enjoy a wide variety of games, I try to take a fairly objective stance and embrace both the good and bad parts of a game. This is a rare instance where I can level few complaints against the game, and it approaches a near perfect status where there is little I would change. The only complaint I could level against it is that it might be a bit brief on the tutorials, so knowledge of the previous game helps.
If you have any love for action games this is an absolute must for your collection. I'm often rather skeptical of games that get extremely high ratings, however Arkham City is most certainly worthy of the praise it receives.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Disgaea 4: 20+ Hour Final Checkpoint

Having completed a couple romps through Item World, I decided it was time to continue the main story for a few more chapters. With my powered up characters the story progressed without to much difficulty, the increased power of my characters, and their now upgraded equipment brought the difficulty of the fights back down to a fairly easy level.

Chapter 3: The Story Starts to Solidify
With the introduction of the three main protagonists complete the story starts to move forward. In Disgaea fashion the plot to overthrow the current overlord starts in earnest, and character motivations start to come into focus. The motivations for overthrow are introduced in this chapter, and have a humorously dark twist to them, which emphasizes the setting. The last battle of this Chapter gains another character for your party as well, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite characters in this iteration of Disgaea. The earlier Item World grind paid off, as the last Stage of this chapter requires that you have an item leveled up to 10 from the Item World.

Chapter 4: The End of the Beginning?
This Chapter seems to draw the intro to a close, and starts the main story in earnest. A couple more reveals are made, and each of the story characters have some character building time. With the pieces now in place it feels like the main story is about to begin in earnest.

Closing Thoughts and Overall Opinion:
Having reached the 20 hour checkpoint it's time to give the summary review.

The gameplay seems much improved over previous Disgaea games, with several new additional elements to the game. The online community elements add a sense of scope, and also an element of competition to those so inclined. Item World feels less like a chore with the new events and decisions being made, though make no mistake it's still a bit of a grind. The Cam-Pain map is a brilliant addition, and gives you an extra degree of planning.  

While the story started out slow, Chapter 3 and 4 greatly improved my opinion of the characters, and have introduce a couple more cast members. The increased party interaction seems to greatly improve the story, since it gives you a better view into all of the characters personalities. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing where the story goes from here.

My overall opinion is that this is an excellent addition to the Disgaea franchise. While the series is most certainly not for everyone, I would definitely recommend it for anyone that likes other NISA titles, or those that enjoy other Tactical RPGs like FF: Tactics or Tactical Ogre.  

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Disgaea 4: 10 Hour Checkpoint

Item World, where freetime goes to die.
Having finished Chapter 2 of the plot at the end of the 5 hour checkpoint i decided it was time to dive into the Item World element of Disgaea 4. However, to describe my opinion of Item World I have to explain how it has changed from previous iterations and discuss the mechanical side of Disgaea games.

Item World Basics:
Item World itself is a side-area of the game used to improve your items. This is accomplished by working your way through a random dungeon associated with the item you want to improve. After completing 10 floors of one of these dungeons you are given an opportunity to leave, alternatively there is a special item that can be used to leave the Item World early. You can also enter the same Item World several times, picking up on the floor you previously stopped at. 

Item World and Leveling:
Item Worlds act as an optimal place for leveling. Each item has an initial experience level for its monsters, and each floor you clear leads to progressively tougher enemies worth even more experience. While you can gain experience by replaying Story missions, it is often far less efficient than attempting an Item World of an appropriate starting level.
Additionally, completing floors in Item World increases the stats of an item, and allows you to create items vastly superior to those that will be readily available from the item shops.

Item World Layout:
One of the major features of Item World, which goes back to the original Disgaea, is the use of complex random maps. It's not unusual to get a highly diverse mixture of monsters and condition panels that make each floor unique and interesting. This new version also adds a branching paths map and known event locations which makes Item World feel more interactive, and provides additional motivation to go 'one more floor.'

New Features:
I was pleasantly surprised by  the number of new features that have been added to Item World. A Mini-Map displaying event location gives you guidance, which can help inform what path you take through Item World. Item World suddenly feels a lot less like grinding down a tower, and more trying to maneuver toward events you want. 
The choice of paths is a new addition to Item World and has the effect of either making the individual item better, or making the stat improving residents better. The advantage of improving the residents is that they can then be transferred to other items, so the branching paths make you chose between short term power or long term improvement.
Another new feature added to Item World is Player generated Pirate Crews, a potentially very difficult but interesting random encounter compared to the previously fixed Pirate Crew encounters. Disgaea 4 has added a number of network features to this newest iteration of the Disgaea series, with the ability to create your own Council Senators and Pirates to gum up the online works and make the game feel like more of a community of players.
There are several other additions to Item World as well such as Leveling Spheres and special event platforms, all of which seem to help break up the monotony that Item World can sometimes have. 

WTF Moments:
Is that Pirate riding a spinning space turtle?!?

Closing Thoughts:
Having spent almost this entire checkpoint in Item World and the Cam-Pain map, I now have an appreciation for the new features of Disgaea 4. While the Story hasn't completely sold me yet, the improvements to Item World and the creation of the Cam-Pain map features, as well as the addition of several new online features, have sold me on this latest addition to the Disgaea series. I'm impressed with their taking the Item World mechanics, that have been more or less the same between all the iterations of the Disgaea family of games, and improved it noticeably.

Next time, the twenty hour checkpoint. Advancing the Story, and the lure of side-quests.