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.