Pillars of Eternity: My new obsession

pillarsI’d like to say that I spent my gaming time this past weekend on all manner of MMO adventures, but save for a couple brief stints in LOTRO (more on that later), I was completely and utterly enthralled with Pillars of Eternity. It’s got its hooks in me bad in a way that, say, Dragon Age: Inquisition failed to do.

I was a bit sick, so I sat on the couch under blankets with my laptop, going through this game with increasing fascination. It really is, in so many ways, a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate 2 (and many other Infinity Engine games). Instead of taking the full 3-D pseudo-cinematic route of Witcher and Dragon Age, Pillars opted to return to an isometric format where the backgrounds are mostly detailed 2D with the characters and some objects in 3D. But more than just the looks, Pillars is such a callback to the grand old days of CRPGs that its triggering waves of nostalgia and admiration in me.

What I like best, I think, is that it took the old format and updated it to make it much more user friendly and interesting. Character creation and growth, for example, is not a hodge-podge of complex statistics or overly simplistic choices (hello Mass Effect), but a clearly explained system that has many, many choices to allow you to develop the characters you want.

For example, I rerolled my main character after an hour into the game because I had a better idea for her. So now she’s a Moon Godlike (for the endurance boosting) that I’m making to be an expert fencer. She dances on the front line, striking quicky, all while doing chants and summons (and if you’re a Chanter, let me say that Phantasm *rocks*. I had one fight where my whole party was knocked out and the Phantasm helped to kill the last guy and save me from a complete wipe).

Combat is more interesting now, too, with the dual pools of health and endurance. Instead of just having one mass of hit points, you have endurance (which I think of as “fight hit points”) and health (which are “campaign hit points”). It’s easier to heal endurance than hit points, but both are important to keep up. I like how it allows for your party to be knocked down during a fight but not killed outright, making for less stressful encounters.

But probably my favorite aspect of Pillars of Eternity so far — about 8 hours in — is the story and worldbuilding going on. It’s just an interesting fantasy world with plenty of cool little stories (many of which told in descriptive text boxes) and nailbiting choices. I like how there are dialogue options that open up depending on all sorts of background choices — what your stats are in various areas, what your race is, where you’re from, etc. And some parts are simply rendered in “choose your own adventure” prose with sketches displaying the scene in question.

I also really like — and recommend — the option to turn on the voiced developer commentary. It’s slightly spoilery, but I appreciated the insights into making every zone and knowing some of these background details.

Right now I’ve managed to clear out and claim my stronghold, which definitely reminds me of Baldur’s Gate 2’s keeps. Oh, another detail I am warming up to: fights don’t give you XP. They do give you lots of loot, but not tying XP to combat frees players up to fight, stealth by, or talk past some groups. That’s cool.

Anyway, I’m highly recommending this game, especially if you have fond memories of Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, or Planescape: Torment. Here’s hoping the fun keeps going!

Pillars of Eternity: Character creation

chanterPillars of Eternity wasn’t high up on my “must play” list until lately — or even on my radar, to be honest. I saw pictures of it, it looked like an old-school isometric, but didn’t investigate much. But what a difference a week can make, especially when a lot of people are talking about something, and then you see a few positive reviews, and you take the time to really look into it. It was about yesterday that I realized I really had to play this, and so I picked it up today on GOG.com as a lunch break game.

I just finished installing it and rolled up a new character. Already I’m really impressed with the character creator. First of all, it’s easy to understand with a lot of explanations and tooltips so I don’t feel like I’m lost. Second, there are SCADS of options. I was really torn on a few of them, but listened to my gut when it got tough. I very much liked the several screens of options choosing a background — which had nominal stat boosts attached, but I always like picking the backstory to my characters.

So I created Syppi, a Hearth Orlan (the halfling-ish wildling race) Chanter (summoner/buffer) who hails from the White that Wends. I buffed up her primary stats, but invested a few extra in doing damage and making her a little more perceptive. I’m most happy that I have a spell to summon a phantasm to fight for me; one of my favorite things in the Baldur’s Gate games was to use monster summon spells in fights and overrun my enemies with tons of pets.

Back to the game!

Organizing my MMO gaming projects

I got to say that there’s a satisfying feeling in having a max-level character who is ready to participate in any upcoming content, whether it be patches, expansions, group events, or what have you. Considering how much my altoholism has hampered me in achieving this in the past, I think it’s been a very good decision indeed to — as a rule of thumb, but not an inflexible one — stick to a single character per MMO right now.

I have a lot on my plate in terms of gaming, but a few recent goal achievements has fueled this desire to get more games and characters up to the cap so that I can flit around between MMOs easier without feeling that I’m trying to “catch up.” So here’s my current roster of MMOs and the status of my progress in each:

The Secret World

  • Yeti: DONE. She’s finished with all current Tokyo content, has a good build, decent gear, gradually leveling up AEGIS and filling out AP wheel. Ready for Issue #11.
  • Syppi: Lowbie character for the blogging project, but not my main.

Lord of the Rings Onilne

  • Syppi: IN PROGRESS. Level 100 with a second-age halberd, but still puttering through Central Gondor. Need to buckle down and power her through.

Marvel Heroes

  • Squirrel Girl: IN PROGRESS. Level 40, very sporadic play, would like to get her through the rest of the heroic storyline and level her to 60, no big goals past that.
  • Saving up 400 eternity splinters for Gambit (250 at the moment).

Star Wars: The Old Republic

  • Syp: DONE. Level 60, through Shadow of Revan’s story. She’s halfway done with gearing up with comms, could work on daily reputation and do dungeons.

RIFT

  • Syp: IN PROGRESS. Stalled out in the first zone of the latest expansion. Only level 61. Would really like to rev this back up and get ‘er done.

Guild Wars 2

  • Dawnbreak Wild: IN PROGRESS. At least she’s level 80, but my current and most pressing goal is to get her through season 2. After that, the expansion, masteries, and world exploration.

The Elder Scrolls Online

  • Might be rerolling as a mage. What can I say, I need my pets! Also, swinging swords and axes in this game isn’t doing it for me.

Other potential future MMOs:

  • Skyforge: Hearing good-to-mixed things, would like to get in the beta.
  • Shroud of the Avatar: Definitely on my to-do list for this year.
  • World of Warcraft: I keep toying with the idea of starting over with a brand-new Shaman.
  • Asheron’s Call: I’ve never even tried it, and now it’s buy-to-play for $10. Dunno how long it’s going to be around for, however.

Why loving theme parks isn’t a bad thing

disney-world-jungle-cruise-treeOur family is in the midst of planning for our kids’ first-ever trip to Disney, and in my research I found this thought-provoking quote about the Animal Kingdom:

“Rather, the joy of the experience is in the atmosphere, and in discovering little things that make the theme park a place, rather than a collection of rides. To me, the atmosphere and these details are a big part of what separates Disney theme parks from other theme and amusement parks. If all you care about is running from attraction to attraction, why do Disney parks at all? There are better options for that.”

As an MMO player who has *long* loved and generally preferred theme park titles over sandbox ones, this resonated strongly with me. It also illustrated why a theme park isn’t just a theme park, because it’s not merely about the big-ticket rides (dungeons, boss fights, epic quest lines) but the atmosphere, the art, the ambiance, and the details.

I know sandboxes can have those too, but I’ve always felt that theme parks tend to be more coherent and focused in the attention to detail. It’s not a place with a bunch of toys for kids to mess up; it’s a carefully crafted experience that’s designed to make you feel a certain way as you progress through it. Yet even within that guidance, there are personal deviations one can make, particularly to explore the surroundings and investigate the artistry at work.

I was also thinking about how even when you know you’re getting an artificial experience, it can still be fun. I mean, heck, the Jungle Cruise is as phony as all get out, but in a weird and real way, that’s the fun of it. It begs you to use your imagination to get into the moment and unleash your inner child. Even as a kid I knew that I wasn’t seeing real rhinos or elephants, but that it was a play of sorts that was constructed for my amusement. I don’t ever want to lose that entirely.

These days I’m not really in any camp, whether it be sandbox, theme park, or sandpark. I just want good games, period. But I’m also a little tired of the backlash against theme parks that can sometimes overlook some of the genuinely good qualities that they exhibit.

Could 2015 be the year of returning to old MMO loves?

cool yearI don’t think it’s news to any of you that 2015 is not going to be the biggest year for major MMO launches. We might get a couple mid-range and several indie titles, not to mention many alpha “releases,” but it’s not going to be the TSW/GW2/ESO/AA/WildStar/FF14 bonanza that we’ve enjoyed in the past few years.

But I don’t think 2015 is going to be a wasteland, either. Actually, I am starting to suspect that it might be a fertile field for enriching older products with (a) expansions, (b) promotions, and (c) players returning because they’re not currently chasing the hot new thing. Is that bad? Absolutely not!

Right now we’re staring at two big expansions — GW2: Heart of Thorns and FFXIV: Heavensword (I prefer to think it’s “heavensword” and not some hick “heavenSWARD!” that absolutely does not roll off the tongue) — and that’s just the start. Oh, and an Ultima Online expansion too.  Ultima Online, people. SWTOR is aiming for two expansions along what it’s been doing the past couple of years.

TSW will finally be moving past Tokyo to new territories. Elder Scrolls Online could see a FF14-like rebirth with Update 6, the buy to play transition, and its upcoming console launch. Games like ArcheAge, Age of Conan, EVE, RIFT, LOTRO, Neverwinter, Star Trek Online, Allods, EverQuest II… well, just about every MMO that isn’t on minimum life support has made noise about content plans for this year.

I’m actually really OK with all of this. Sure, I’d love it if we were suprised with more Crowfall-like new game announcements (because following up-and-coming games is awesome), but taking a year off of the hype highway to enjoy current and past MMO loves that are still developing content is a great excuse to exercise contentment, reestablish old online friendships, and finish up content that we’ve otherwise been ignoring.

MMOs grow, and our adventures in them are not necessarily one-and-done. The short-sighted “three-month MMO” stereotype is falling apart from the reality of players and bloggers cycling back to an ever-growing roster of virtual homes. We no longer have to just have one. We no longer have to be waiting for that one, mythical MMO that will solve all problems. We have choices that are becoming more attractive by virtue of their maturing.

Grow and prosper, games in 2015. Experiment, enjoy, and game guilt-free, players of 2015.

10 solo RPGs that I wish I had time to play

crpgTime is such a precious and rare commodity these days. Free time, that is. Apart from my brief stints at the Rasperry Pi (which is cool as all get out), I’m not doing any retro gaming. Any free gaming time I get needs to go into MMOs, because I want to stay on top of stuff (and there’s SO much that I’d love to be playing). But that also means that I’m missing out on some solo RPGs that I wish I could play but lack the 60-80 hours apiece to tackle. Here are ten off the top of my head:

  1. Chrono Trigger: Now that the original is on my Pi, I have fanciful dreams of playing all the way through it like I did back in high school. My iPad version keeps crashing, alas.
  2. Final Fantasy III/VI: A SNES classic I never played (outside of the first hour), it would be a good notch on my belt to beat it.
  3. Wasteland 2: One of my most-anticipated games of last year… and I haven’t even bought it yet. Heard mixed-to-good things about it, so it’s still on my radar.
  4. The Witcher: Played but never beat it. I like the morality choices and detailed game world, but I’m less thrilled with the combat.
  5. Witcher 2: I have it, never even loaded it up yet. Has good word-of-mouth from friends.
  6. Dragon Age: Inquisition: Well, there was that ONE night I played it, so that justified dropping $60 on it. I’m sure I’ll like it… but it’s not an MMO. And that’s weird but it keeps me from getting super-invested in it (also, I’m not as in love with the DA universe as some).
  7. Fallout 2: Another “would love to go back and replay all of the way through” projects.
  8. Ultima 6/8: Ultima 7 was interesting enough that I would like to try out at least one more of the series (since, y’know, I have them all on my GOG account).
  9. Sunless Sea: Boy howdy, that looks neat and weird. It’s on my to-get list.
  10. Darkest Dungeon: I have it, I played it (one session), and I enjoyed it. Need to do more with it.

Procedurally generated worlds/zones are not a selling point

Is it just me, or are devs’ excited claims to have solved the problems of, y’know, making zones and planets by using procedural generation so much more of a turn-off than a selling point?

I see what you did there, devs. You figured out a way to not only cut corners, but to rack up staggeringly huge numbers (10,000 zones! Five billion star systems! Infinite diversity in infinite combinations!) just to sound good for marketing.

At least for me, I do not find any aspect of procedural generation exciting or engaging. If it’s a bunch of cobbled together randomness, then why do I want to explore it? None of it is connected to a special narrative, so it exists without purpose, without meaning.

I would, ten times out of ten, prefer a single smaller hand-crafted area that is filled with narrative, developer ingenuity, personal touches, and “life” than a 100 expansive zones that are vomited from an RNG.