Memory Shards

I’ve been playing a lot of Final Fantasy: Record Keeper lately.

This is especially odd, because it’s not a particularly good game. I end up putting most of the battles on auto, certain characters are way more powerful than others, and half of my playtime ends up being inventory management.

And yet, I keep playing.

Part of it is that as a mobile game, it’s a great time filler. When I’ve got a few minutes at the train station when I’m waiting on the platform and are not quite ready to pull out the 3DS yet, it’s no matter to blast through a few rounds in RK.

But that’s only part of it.

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Who Sucked Out the Feeling?

In the opening moments of the original Command & Conquer, your CO tells you (in glorious 1990’s FMV, of course) that there is no time to discuss the details, but that you really, really need to land on this beach and take out the forces of Nod.

From there, the mission proper begins. Your landing craft pull up to the shoreline, your first wave of infantry pour onto the beach. Your support gunboats exchange fire with turrets just down the shoreline. And over it all, the pounding soundtrack mixes with the sounds of gunfire and screams.

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Gone, But Not Forgotten

While there is no such thing as permanence in the video game industry, there are some things that you just take for granted.

For me, Maxis was one of those things. When I heard the news that EA was shuttering the studio, I was genuinely shocked. The logical part of my brain understood the words and numbers being tossed around to justify it. Businesses are business, and money talks above all else.

But for the kid in me, this was incomprehensible. Growing up, seeing the word “Maxis” spring up during the loading screen meant that I was in for an interesting (if not sometimes confusing) ride.

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The Best of 2014

The year 2014 has been a bit of a blur for me.

I had a kid, I had some major changes at work, and the world in general seemed to a state of constant tumult.

But that’s still no reason not get in some gaming.

It’s been a bit of a tradition around here that at the end of every year, I pick out a Best of and a Worst of. But this year, in the interest of spreading some more positivity into the world, I’m going to forgo the Worst part and just focus on what brought me some gaming joy this year…

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Reaction – Wasteland 2

Wasteland 2 was not a game I ever expected to play.

The original, as I’ve discussed at great length before, holds a very special place in my heart as the game that helped introduce me to CRPGs. Despite that deep and abiding attachment, after 24 years my hopes had worn pretty thin. Even after Brian Fargo announced the Kickstarter to fund the project in 2012 (full disclosure: I totally kickstarted it) and the project was fully funded, I still had a hard time imagining it was every actually going to come out.

And yet, despite the odds, it happened.

In September 2014, 26 years after the original, Wasteland 2 became reality. So now, some 100+ hours of game later, does this return to the wasteland hold up?

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No Mercy

There I was, making my way down a gently descending mountain road, trying to get as far as I could from the death and destruction I had escaped mere moments before. Getting a last minute reprieve from my own execution by a dragon attack was not exactly how I planned this day to go, but what’s a Nord to do?

With a new lease on life (for the moment, anyway), it was up to me to warn the people of Skyrim that death from above was on the way, and they’d best start finding some hidey-holes if they wanted to survive. Unfortunately for the people of Skyrim, there was a narrow trail leading off the road that I just couldn’t possibly pass up.

Clambering up the trail, I spotted an old mine tucked into the mountainside. As mines so often do, this one had a bandit standing guard outside of it. Clearly, there were nefarious things afoot within, and it was up to me to snuff them out (I was sure the dragons could wait).

Stepping forward, I met the bandit in heated battle. Her sword clashed against my stout shield, iron rang out against iron as our blades crossed, and blood mingled in the dirt beneath us. Shoving her backwards with a blow from my shield, I stepped forward and brought my axe down in a might strike. That’s when it happened: worn down to the edge of death, the bandit dropped to her knees and cried out for me to spare her.

This was not something I expected.

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Know Thy Enemy

A memorable villain in a game can be a powerful force. Players can learn to hate them, fear them, or even pity them. Everyone who has played Final Fantasy VI remembers Kefka, and any StarCraft player in the world probably has a firm opinion on the Queen of Blades. The big villains – the bosses – have a lot going for them when it comes to memorability: the story usually revolves around them, they usually get the most epic battles, and quite often they get the best graphical treatment, too.

But what about the little guys? What about the endless underlings the player crushes on their journey to the Big Bad? What makes those guys memorable?

Consider, for a moment, the humble Goomba. Almost anyone who has had contact with video games over the past 25 years can probably identify one in an instant, most likely right down to even knowing their name. Even those that might not know the name still know they are “the little mushroom men from Mario” (as my father has called them). Koopa Troopas fall into that same category. Heck, most of the enemies from the Mario series fall into that category. But why?

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Friendship is Rare

As it turns out, I am a dangerous person to travel with.

First, there was Uthgerd, who I met in the inn at Whiterun. She had a fiery temper, and insisted that we get down to fisticuffs after the briefest of conversations. I gave her a sound thrashing (as heroes are wont to do), but her toughness impressed me. She was happy to find a travelling companion, so with that, the two of us set off into the world.

Our first few weeks together were spent merrily exploring the lands around Whiterun; slaying bandits, dispatching wolves, that sort of thing. Eventually, I decided it was time for us to push our horizons a little further, and we set off to the west to see what adventures lay there. All was well and good until the fateful day I agreed to check out some Dwemer ruins buried beneath Markarth, for it was there that our adventures came to an end. A might spider, far greater than it’s pathetic kinsman we’d been purging from caves across the land, confronted us in its lair. Seeing this foes power, I fell back into the tunnels, using the rocks to my advantage to pepper it with arrows. Uthgerd, on the other hand, did what she always did: ran directly up to it and began hacking away. The spider had her on her knees in a few moments, clinging to life. Mere seconds after that, its deadly poison finished the job and she was gone (or perhaps it was an errant arrow of mine; let’s not dwell on the past).

I felled the mighty beast shortly thereafter, and knelt by Uthgerd’s side to mourn her. Also, to take her armor and weapons so I could sell them back in town. With that brief bit of ceremony out of the way, I returned to Whiterun to find a new travelling partner. Fortunately, I knew I had a housecarl named Lydia more than ready to take the job…

You Don’t Have to be a Doctor to Have a Companion

The concept of the companion is not anything new in gaming: a computer-controlled character that travels with, and fights for, the player. And in most cases, for as long as I can remember, I have never been able to care about them. On the surface, the idea seems sound: provide the player with a character that is out of their control, but that they can begin to feel responsible for. In that manner, the player should begin to connect with them, and thus have a deeper in-game experience.

The problem is that AI companions are usually have about as much depth as the puddle of spilled coffee I inevitably step in on the train. Take Wasteland, for instance, which offers several potential NPC companions through the course of the game. Beyond whatever initial situation you rescued them from/hired them in an alley/agreed to help them with, they really have nothing going on. Once Ace convinced me to go deal with the problems in Vegas, he pretty much just sat around and wasted ammo if I gave him the opportunity. For the most part in Wasteland, you handed your companions a melee weapon and treated them like a glorified pack mule. Now, I know what you are thinking: Wasteland came out over 20 years ago. And yet, here comesSkyrim.

Much like Wasteland decades earlier, Skyrim offers an array of eager companions through its world. Much like with Uthgerd, the player usually has to accomplish some minor task before earning the devotion of these followers. Once that’s out of the way, however, they don’t have much to say. All it took was a few swings of the fist to earn Uthgerd’s eternal loyalty, and as we travelled Skyrim together, about the only thoughts she could muster were that she had  bad feelings about places.

My second companion, Lydia, was no better. Quite literally assigned to me by the jarl, Lydia was – to quote herself – “sworn to carry my burdens.” And carry them she did, back and forth across the lands of Skyrim. She too spoke often, but had little to say. In a fight, she was more than ready to run ahead and get herself hacked to the edge of death. And, much like Uthgerd before her, met her unfortunate end in some forgotten ruin when she caught the wrong end of a fire burst scroll.

No Tears for the Fallen

Now, I know many Skyrim players have become obsessed with their companions (Lydia specifically), but I think that has more to do with being able to remove her armor than any sort of depth she possesses.

The thing is, it doesn’t take much to make me, as a player, care about my companion. In the original Fallout, the player could pick up a handful of NPC companions to travel with them. While Tycho might not have been the most talkative guy in the world, when he did choose to speak up about a location, it gave me glimpses into who he was. Upon entering the Deathclaw lair, for instance, Tycho states: “Note the lack of any animal life for quite a distance. And the piles of bones. Whatever lives here is a real beast. Keep your weapon handy.” Based on Tycho’s already established history as a Desert Ranger, this simple comment helps reinforce that he is a knowledgeable traveler, and someone you would want at your back while navigating the wasteland. A simple thing to add, but with a powerful impact on the player.

On top of that, Fallout – even with its simplistic companions – at least let me give them some combat orders along the lines of “stay back” or “charge forward.” InSkyrim, while I can give them some basic instructions about waiting for me or pulling levers and things, when it comes to combat they pretty much seem to do whatever they feel like. If I’m hurling fireballs down into a pit of draugr, they seem more than happy to dive right in the way. Not to mention their perverse joy in setting off every trap we come across.

With no personal connection to these companions, I can’t really feel that bad for them when they hurl themselves into the line of fire and suffer the consequences. That being the case, I’ve left a lot of dead travelling partners in my wake.

I bring this up because, as with most of the flaws in Skyrim, it stands out so starkly against so much of what is done right. In such a lush, detailed world, why is it that the people that can accompany me on the journey are so shallow?

Bredth, Not Width

In Skyrim’s case, the experience would be better served with fewer potential companions, but more richly developed ones. Rather than just plunking down another 500 gold for a new mercenary, or working my way up to another housecarl, why not trim the fat a bit and give me a more richly-developed Lydia? Skyrim is a huge land with a rich history, so how does Lydia fit into all of that? She must be from somewhere, and surely a skilled fighter such as herself has done some travelling before. Much like the example of Tycho from Fallout so many years ago, Lydia must have some opinions on the places we’re travelling. Even if it is something as simple as telling me that Markath is famous for its dwemer ruins, or even that she really, really hates necromancers. Just a few little touches to give her some personality beyond her penchant for sounding sarcastic. Or Uthgerd could have a habit of insisting we visit every meadery we pass, or of picking fights with giants. Anything, really, to give me some reason to feel something for these walking loot stashes.

I fully understand that in our current world of having to have every single bit of text in a game spoken, adding dialog is not as easy as it used to be. However, I think eliminating some extraneous lines elsewhere, and refocusing that time and money into creating a few richer companions would be well worth it.

In terms of combat, we’ve seen that AI companions can in fact be smarter than a bag of hammers; Alyx Vance managed it over eight years ago in Half-Life 2, so I would hope that we could see some more advancement in that area.

That Special One

Again, I focus on Skyrim here because it does encapsulate how little we’ve advanced in twenty-odd years, but by no means is it an indictment of the game as whole. The developers took a look at the massive world they wished to create, and they obviously put some priorities ahead of others. From my vantage point, though, if it comes down to Skyrim having 10 more semi-identical caves vs. better travelling companions, the choice is pretty clear. A player is far more likely to remember the way Jordis overcame her fear of spiders to bail you out of a tight spot in a Frostbite nest than they are that one fort up on that one hill.

You know, the one with the bandits?

Yeah, that one.

Revisiting the Wasteland, Part 13 – Natural Selection

As we’ve discussed before, it probably goes without saying that one of the most satisfying parts of playing an RPG is watching your character grow and develop over the course of the game. In a party-based RPG, of course, you get to spread that joy across your entire party, watching each of them flourish into the doctor/safecracker/killing machine you know them to truly be. I bring this up again because it is in this that I believe Wasteland takes its biggest stumble.

Experience, lifeblood of the RPG character, is handed out in Wasteland for one thing and one thing only: killing enemies. And here I mean that very specifically: characters ONLY get experience if they deal the killing blow. In practice, what this means is that even if Eddard deals 99 damage to an enemy, if Tyrion hits it for that final 1 point, Tyrion gets all of the experience and Eddard is left with nothing.

In the early part of the game, when characters are limited to single-shot weapons and enemies tend to go down in only one hit, it’s not much of an issue. During most normal fights, every character (unless they are truly terrible at combat) is likely to rack up at least a kill or two. It isn’t until you start getting stronger weapons and facing stronger enemies that you will probably start to notice some characters pulling ahead of others. For me, it first became clear with Drogo. One other important note about experience is that any melee kills are worth double. Drogo, who is a big fan of beating things to death, began to pull ahead of the rest of the team during our time in Quartz. With his increased leveling, Drogo began to have better stats than the rest of the party, which in turn meant he was more likely to be dealing killing blows, and therefore was likely to continue to get the lion’s share of experience.

The mitigating factor in Drogo’s case is the fact that we don’t always close to melee range during combat. As such, sometimes he just sits around and twiddles his thumbs. Where the experience gap starts to be more of an issue is with Daenerys. In our adventures in Needles, once we had our hands on some assault rifles, because of her stats or just sheer luck, Daenerys began to rack up a few more kills per combat than everyone else. When this in turn led to leveling her up sooner, again, that led to higher stats and more kills.

Where this experience gap really begins to rear its ugly head is now, during our Vegas adventures. During the first sweep through Vegas, we got our hands on our first energy weapon: a laser pistol. Now, any character can use any weapon, but to use it without the appropriate skill is an exercise in frustration. Without skill, characters will miss pretty much constantly, jam their weapons, and on the rare occasion they do hit, they will do almost no damage. Laser guns, as you might expect, fall under their own skill category: Engery Weapons. Energy Weapons are a high-IQ skill, and can only be learned from a few specific libraries in the game. Of course, energy weapons are incredibly powerful, so having somone skilled in their use is a must.

In our case, Daenerys (who was the smartest in the party to begin with) is the only member of the party currently eligible to learn the skill. Thanks to her slight lead in levels, she has a high enough IQ and enough available skill points. So, with Energy Weapons now a skill under her belt, Daenerys can equip that shiny new Laser Pistol and get to shootin’. This is very, very good, because once we get back to Vegas will be facing even tougher robots that can hardly be damaged by anything less than energy weapons.

I’m guessing at this point you can see where this is leading.

As the most “advanced” character, Daenerys is now equipped with the most effective weaponry, meaning that in most combats from this point on, she is the one earning the lion’s share of the experience. As such, she continues to advance at even faster pace, which in turn leads to sucking up even more of the experience. With the winner-take-all awarding of experience, she is almost always in the position to be the one doing the most killing. It’s an insidious chain of events, and one that the player may not even realizing is happening at first. After a steady stream of one or two characters being promoted while the others are still struggling to figure out which end of the gun to point, it becomes clear there is a problem.

For me, the answer to this problem lay in meticulous micromanaging of some of the tougher combats we faced on the road ahead. I would actively take rounds where Daenerys and Drogo would do nothing, simply to give Eddard and Tyrion a chance to start earning some kills. Obviously, this made combat slower and a lot more dangerous, as letting enemies hang around shooting back at you is always a risky idea. Ultimately, though, I was able to bring the boys up to a point where they too could wield energy weapons (though, spoiler: this didn’t happen for quite a while), and from there on out it was less of an issue.

With such a strict experience award system, such a disparity seems a statistical likelihood, and is the reason I suspect you never see any games using such a method anymore. Lump experience for the entire party, or proportional experience based on actions/damage are more egalitarian ways to divide up reward, and ways that are more likely to keep your party members on roughly equal footing. While it is a joy to see your characters grow, it can be equally as joyless to watch some of them fall behind through no fault of their own.

Now, don’t misunderstand: this doesn’t make the game unplayable by any stretch. Honestly, it’s quite possible to get through the game with only one or two super-characters and the “normals” backing them up. But, like I said, a proud player usually wants all his creations to grow up big and strong, and in Wasteland that can usually only be done with some either some very good planning from the start, or some very meticulous scheming towards the end.

Revisiting the Wasteland, Part 12 – Vegas, Baby!

After wrapping up in Needles, we take a quick detour back to the Rail Nomad’s camp to pick up another engine. Bringing it back to the garage, the mechanic fixes up the jeep for us and Ace gets us back on the road to Vegas. A short jaunt to the northwest, we arrive just in time to get jumped by a gang of thugs who steal our car. While I understand that the jeep was merely being used as a way to (quite literally) drive us along the plot, I have never much appreciated that it is taken away without so much as a fight. We are the the Rangers – we enforce justice, we stop blood cults, we hit on barmaids. We do not like “thugs” making off with our car without us even getting a chance to shoot back.

At any rate, dropped at the southeast corner of the city, it is easy to see that Vegas is far and away the largest location we’ve seen so far. It is also, we quickly discover, the most deadly. Almost immediately upon entering the city, we are set upon by packs of killer robots. Apparently these robots are the “trouble” that Ace was speaking of. Some of them are easily defeated by our current weapons, but others, like heavily armored mini-tanks, send us scurrying for cover as we are barely able to dent them.

The most dangerous of all, though, sits smack-dab in the center of the city: The Scorpitron. This giant armored tank controls the entire downtown area, and getting near it at the moment is pretty much a death sentence. Avoiding the Scorpitron makes exploration much more difficult, and it also cuts us off from a large chunk of the city. Sticking to the edges of Vegas for now, we find a surprisingly well informed hobo who gives us some vital info about the city. It seems Vegas is mostly run by Ace’s boss, Faran Brygo. However, Fat Freddy – a ruthless gangster – wants to take Brygo’s place as top man in town. Freddy has gone so far as to kidnap Convenant, one of Brygo’s men. It seems Covenant is being held in the Vegas jail by Freddy’s men. It seems that Brygo’s best man, Max, is also missing, but no one seems to know what happened to him.

Continuing our loop of the city, we stumble upon the Vegas jail and decide to liberate Convenant from Fat Freddy’s clutches. Granted, we’re not entirely clear of the situation in town, and inserting ourselves directly into the middle of a power struggle might not be the best idea, but sometimes the long arm of the law needs to make snap decisions. Covenant, at any rate, is thrilled with our decision, and offers to join us. We take him up on the offer, as he is quite the formidable fighter, with high stats and lots of valuable skills.

After finishing our sweep of the outer edges of the city, we are beaten up pretty badly from robots fights, and still have no chance of getting past the Scorpitron. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, we limp our way back into the desert and decide to explore elsewhere in the hopes of getting our hands on some better weapons and armor. Doing as men have done since the days of old,  we follow the river to see where it leads us.

Coming up to the far north edge of the map, we push Eastward along with the river. Eventually we come to a bridge and are forced south by the map’s eastern boundary. Slipping though a mountain pass, we spot a town we hadn’t noticed before. It is fortunate we arrived from this direction, as an approach from the south would’ve taken us directly into a ring of radiation around the city. Stepping into town, we are informed that we have arrived in Darwin. Like most places in the wastes, we are immediately set upon by a roving gang of thieves and robbers.

This time, at least, they are nice and soft and fleshy.