Open World Flood

I was browsing some reddit threads talking about Dying Light the other day, and came across a comment chain that started with the following:

I dont know about you, but I”m getting kinda tired of open world games now. Literally almost every aaa title is an open world game that exploring them just isn’t as fun anymore. It seems to be the same thing that happened with military shooters last generation. Rinse and repeat experience. Not to say they’re bad games, but i’m just getting tired of the formula.

At first, the sentiment sort of struck me as being funny. How can you get tired of wide-open games that let you do anything? And then I started reading the example games people were giving. Then I looked at my own unplayed Steam list:

  • Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
  • Assassin’s Creed: Revelation
  • Batman: Arkham City
  • Darksiders 2
  • Dead Island: Riptide
  • Dead Rising 2
  • Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
  • Fable 3
  • GTA 4
  • Just Cause 2
  • Prototype
  • Saints Row: The Third
  • Sleeping Dogs

To be fair, not all of those are technically “open-world” games. To be fair the other direction though, I didn’t include the more borderline titles like Tomb Raider, Thief, Prince of Persia (I apparently own 5 of them somehow), the Hitman series, and so on and so forth. Nor does that list include games I want to play, such as Far Cry 4, Shadows of Mordor, and GTA 5. Nor does it include, you know, Dragon Age: Inquisition, which I am still currently playing.

While I am enjoying my time in the aforementioned Inquisition, I can see the commenter’s point. In fact, they have given voice to the sort of unspoken sentiment I have been fighting against for a while now: open Steam library, look at games, and become physically exhausted.

My issue seems to be more 3rd-person Action game fatigue, but it is basically the same thing. Run around, spam the attack button to auto-chain combos, climb shit, find secrets, defeat boss with large HP bar by waiting for vulnerable spots to light up and completing the Quick-Time Event. Huh… that actually sounds suspiciously close to a cynical MMO description.

Anyway, don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy this specific genre. Just, perhaps, in smaller doses than the horse tranquilizer ones I’m staring down the barrel of. I want to play these games, but somehow I can already feel the sheer volume of virtual space I would have to traverse to get there. When you get sucked in and immersed, you want the game to last forever. Looking through the glass window from the outside though, before it can sink its hooks in you, and it more closely resembles a Little Shop of Horrors.

Detective Vision

About halfway through this already worrying Kotaku article regarding The Witcher 3 is a section on Geralt’s “Witcher Vision”:

Witcher Vision is pretty cool. At any given moment, you can hold down a button to put Geralt’s field of vision into a sort of detective mode. This lets him see footprints, clues, key items, and the like. In practice, sleuthing around various environments—be they houses, dilapidated beach huts, or seemingly inconspicuous forests—isn’t very challenging, but it adds a lot to the feeling of being a Witcher.

All I could do was release a heavy sign and massage my temples.

“Detective vision” and its equivalents has never been good game design in any game I have ever played, for one specific reason: there is hardly any incentive to ever turn it off. Games with detective vision usually have hidden treasures and/or secret doors that are only visible in detective mode. This makes sense in a twisted-logic way, as why have detective vision at all if you can only use it in certain prescribed areas? That is basically “Press B to solve puzzle.” Of course, you don’t want to give players an ability that’s completely useless outside of specific zones either, for the same reason you don’t craft an elaborate cave complex with no treasure chest at the end. That’s just frustrating.

But the end result is that designers hide invisible things throughout the game because they feel they have to, and then the players end up spending the entire game with detective vision active so as to not miss these invisible things. Which means not only is nothing of use being accomplished (the actions cancel each other out), the player ends up spending the entire game in a sepia-colored wasteland devoid of all detail or immersion.

This was my screen 99% of the time.

The bad guys may as well not even have character models.

Case in point: Batman Arkham Asylum. Played and beat it a few months ago, but I couldn’t even really tell you how the game looked, because I was in X-Ray vision nearly the whole damn time. Case in point: Dishonored. The Dark Vision spell is an early upgrade that trivializes even the highest difficulty, no-kill runs. Beautiful game environments reduced to sepia-colored vomit for the whole rest of the game. Hell, I didn’t even like the scan mechanic all the way back in the first Metroid Prime game for these same reasons. I just ran around trying to scan every damn thing, just in case.

Around 90% of the time, your screen will look like this.

Around 90% of the time, your screen will look like this.

I honestly see no good solutions for this design issue. Even if you limit the player when they’re using detective vision (e.g. not letting them attack, or perhaps even move) that doesn’t stop players from feeling like they need to be utilizing it at every opportunity. Only allowing detective vision to be useable when there is something to detect is kinda asinine; why bother including it at all?

None of the solutions feel particularly good. One might think that the “search pulse” ability featured in Dragon Age: Inquisition, the original Witcher games, and many others might be better, but… I spend the whole damn game spamming those keys already. Same deal with the Battlefield series and PlanetSide 2, in spamming Q to spot enemies that I don’t actually see, but could be out there somewhere near my crosshairs. Sometimes it saves your life; there’s no reason not to.

This might well be one of those scenarios in which the “old school” solution of just making hidden things hard to find is best. At the same time, I don’t necessarily want to go back to the days of having to tab out and hit GameFAQs when I can’t find the pixels the designers wanted me to click on either. If I had to choose though, I would rather miss hidden treasure because I was too immersed in the game environment than miss it because I took a break from the otherwise permanent Instagram filters.

Anime Reviews: Clannad, Code Geass

Clannad & Clannad: After Story

Episodes: 22 & 22 (plus bonuses)
Genre: Drama, High School, Romance, Devastating Feels

Clannad

Clannad is the anime adaptation of one of the most popular visual novels ever released in Japan. It follows the high school life of Tomoya Okazaki, as he wastes his days away as a delinquent with his only other friend, Youhei. After a chance encounter with the timid and sickly Nagisa, Tomoya ends up halfway courting nearly the entire female school population, as is usually the case with these sort of shows.

In terms of structure, Clannad and especially Clannad: After Story, good god, is precisely calibrated to deliver devastating emotional payloads. The majority of the series is your standard sort of high school comedy, but it always eventually segues into serious childhood trauma. The visual novel origin means you will become extremely familiar with each of the main love interests throughout mini-plot arcs with little, if any, sort of “payoff.” This changes in the last few episodes as the plot solidifies around one person in particular, and… well. Just keep some tissues handy.

Clannad and its After Story is one of those anime that I both hesitate to recommend while also requiring other people to eventually watch. The series is a great response to someone asking if an anime can be just as emotional as a book or film, and Clannad arguably beats the majority of both. I am not exactly walking away from the anime with a sense of well-being, but the catharsis is real. And to be fair, that sort of thing is extremely hard to pull off.

Code Geass – Lelouch of the Rebellion & R2

Episodes: 25 & 25
Genre: Drama, Giant Robots, Supernatural, Cerebral

Lelouch

The best way I could describe Code Geass is Death Note meets Gundam. Which is more than a little ironic, considering that Code Geass was released concurrently with Death Note back in 2006. It follows the travails of Lelouch vi Britannia, an exiled prince in hiding, as he schemes to destroy the empire of his birth to save his disabled sister from political machinations. His plans are greatly accelerated in high school when a chance encounter with an immortal witch grants him Geass: the ability to force anyone to follow any command he gives… once, and via direct eye contact only.

Over the course of two seasons, Code Geass remains fairly consistently serious. Outside of a cat episode early on, the plot is filled with drama, betrayal, and impossible scenarios in which Lelouch has to rely on his uncanny brilliance to escape. Lelouch’s fight with Britannia doesn’t quite reach the labrythine depths of Death Note’s Light vs L showdown, but it remains pretty satisfying nevertheless.

It is not going to change your life or anything, but Code Geass is worth a view in my opinion. It rather successfully marries the kinetic, mecha action to the more cerebral, supernatural anime. If you only like one of those genres, chances are you will still enjoy this blend. And if you like both? Buckle up, because this show is for you.

H1Z1, HotS, TESO

There have been a number of gaming developments in the past week, but I find them difficult to write about. First, because I remain distracted with the whole television vs projector search. Indeed, I went from 98% gung-ho for a projector to finding out I could get a 40″ TV for ~$205. For such a value-crazed individual as I am, it’s tough to imagine a better deal. But, projector, man. I could be playing Shadow of the Colossus on my wall, instead of on a TV a mere CD-length wider.

Secondly, I just don’t know how to feel about some of these news items.

For example: H1Z1. Much has already been said about SOE reneging on their promise of no P2W shenanigans, which the airdrops certainly were. Originally. The airdrops have since been nerfed to basically have a 10% chance of containing a pistol or shotgun, so… now what? Do we pack up the pitchforks and go home? Or do we stick around and stab some things since we’re here?

One of the terms being thrown around regarding the airdrops is “Pay 4 Content,” in the sense that buying an airdrop means luring other players to come fight you and/or others for supplies. I find it difficult to argue with that bit of cash shop jujitsu. Similar games like Rust already have random airdrops, so is there much of a difference beyond one’s ability to “advance the timer” in H1Z1?

Framed like that, it almost sounds cool. “This is boring – let’s shake things up a little.” If airdrops were exclusively a crafted or rare lootable resource, I doubt anyone would drop them out of boredom; the eccentric players would get one or two at most, instead of the effectively infinite amount they have under this scheme.

Aside from airdrops, I have been following the other bits of news from the game and it reminds me of why F2P is bad: it engenders cynicism and paranoia. For example, the looting system was described this way:

The lot [sic] system is very intelligent. It keeps track of where all the items are in the server and balances loot spawning accordingly. If everybody is all looted up and hoarding loot, then it’s time to hunt some players or steal from their stashes.

When a player logs out, the server knows that there is now less potential loot on the server and will begin spawning more. When a player logs in and puts the server over it’s limit, the server will stop spawning loot (of the kind that the player has) and you’ll need to begin fighting for it.

The first thing I thought of was: of course your looting system would be like this in a F2P cash shop game. Self-sufficiency isn’t profitable. Smedly was more than forthright in explaining the PlanetSide 2 implant nerf was intentionally done to squeeze extra cash out of players “to keep the lights on.” How would you trust any design decision under such a rubric? Your options are to imagine that SOE wanted a gritty, The Road-esque survival game with few resources, or… they’re just another exploitative F2P developer out to make a quick buck. I sure as hell don’t believe that there is a legitimate game design reason why my Town Hall takes six real-world days to upgrade in Clash of Clans, for example. Nor do I believe that Candy Crush’s candy placement/generation is entirely random either.

In the meantime though, it appears looting is getting buffed along with a number of other action items. The game is Early Access, which makes it difficult to feel justified in one’s outrage. This sort of thing is what Early Access is for, right?

Speaking of Early Access, there seems to be some internet consternation in regards to Blizzard charging $40 to get into the Heroes of the Storm Beta. Apparently, if Blizzard copies what everyone else is already doing, then… uh… er, isn’t that the standard Blizzard MO? People also seemed to have forgotten that paying Blizzard for Beta access already happened: the Annual Pass that granted Mists of Pandaria Beta access. While the Annual Pass was also tied to a “free” copy of Diablo 3, I know more than a few WoW players who bought it specifically for the Beta access.

The chances of Blizzard charging for HotS beta access having an effect on any other developer’s decision to charge for beta access is less than zero. Between Kickstarter and Early Access, the days of a privileged beta have long-since died. And even before those programs, people were selling GMail invites on eBay for hundreds of dollars. Beta access has value whether you choose to believe it or not, and I don’t begrudge these game companies cutting out the middle-man. As long as, you know, they slide me a few extra keys.

Finally, The Elder Scrolls Online has dropped its subscription and went Buy-2-Play. While such a scheme is dubious ethically, this sort of payment model trajectory could be a way out of the otherwise unfortunate design trap of $60 million MMO budgets for ~150,000 player audiences. Obviously these companies would prefer a million-plus subscribers, but chances are they wouldn’t be able to get their investment back if they released with B2P, or developed the game under a lower budget at the start. It sucks for the early adopter, of course, but life has always sucked for them.

We’ll have to see how this move plays out for TESO. The game has never been on my radar and more or less remains that way currently, even though I very much want Skyrim 2. When I start seeing it on sale for $20, perhaps I will take a closer look.

Projectors

About two weeks ago, I came to the conclusion that my 32″ TV just isn’t cutting it anymore. That almost seems laughably small these days, but it worked just fine back when I had it in the corner of the bedroom. Now that it’s ten feet away from the couch in the living room? Not so much.

I have no need for for 50″+ monstrosity, but some sort of upgrade seems appropriate. After poking around and seeing as how I could conceivably get a 42″ for $280, I started wondering “isn’t that about the price for a projector?” Yes, yes it is.

And thus began a descent into the madness that is projector shopping.

The basic gist is that you have to be absurdly careful. If you go to Amazon and just type in “projector 1080p,” all the projectors will show up. That is because A) they’re liars and thieves, and B) Amazon and most other sites are complicit with the deception. See, they’re “compatible” with 1080p signal, even though the projector will downscale your Blu-ray to its native 640×480 resolution. If you’re reading this on a PC, right-click on the Desktop and go to your resolution options and switch to… hell, my monitor doesn’t even go below 800×600. Nevermind. Point being, not only is that a resolution from a decade ago, it will also letterbox pretty much any media you would ever play through it.

The other end of the spectrum is legit, native 1080p projectors. Which will cost about $600+ on sale.

I’ll be honest here: I have spent entirely too much time looking at projectors in lieu of, you know, playing videogames. So here is what I’ve got, data-wise:

Projector Price Resolution Bulb life Lumen Zoom Throw Ratio
Vivitek XGA $299 1024×768 4500 3000 ? 1.6 – 1.92
VVME v61 $289 1280×720 20,000 2800 No ?
FAVI RioHD-LED-4T $279 1280×800 20,000 500 ANSI ? 1.6
iDGLAX DG-757 $234 1280×768 20,000 2800 ? ?
EUG 800 $299 1280×720 50,000 2600 1.2 ?

The first thing to note is that top item: it is an example of a tricky Best Buy “deal.” Marked down by nearly $250, everything looks good… up until you realize that it is not native 720p. You might also note how all the other projectors I have listed there have LED bulbs which should last well past 6 years, assuming you run the thing 8 hours every day all year around.

Still, everything feels like a minefield. How loud are the fans? How vibrant are the colors? Why doesn’t anyone list their goddamn throw ratios or the fact they have (or likely don’t have) zoom features? How does 500 ANSI lumen stack up to 2800 bullshit lumen? It’s a mess. How am I supposed to min-max this?!

So once again, dear reader(s), I am open to advice. I’m working with a 12-foot space that’s extremely light-controlled. I’m really just looking for something I can stick on a shelf behind the couch and hit that ~81″ of bare wall next to my computer. If I move my furniture around, I could probably get a little bigger projector space going. I’d love to hit the $300 price-point; if it’s anywhere close to $400, it better be far and away better than the ones I’m already looking at. Not looking to become a home theater enthusiast, I just want a bigger screen.

Tautology of Value

Keen has a post up on the nature of F2P that, at first blush, reads as a truism. Namely, that one should be suspicious of any F2P title – after all, if the developers thought it were a valuable product, they would be pricing it accordingly.

Why do we have to pretend games are free or better yet that they have to be free in order for people to want to play them? MMO gamers are capable of identifying whether a product is worth being paid for or not. A good product will sell. A poor one will not.

This prescriptive sentiment has always bugged me. In one of the comments someone else asserts:

A great product will sell itself.

These all read as tautologies to me. How do you know if a game is great? It sells itself. And games that sell themselves are great, by definition.

…except we all have examples of underrated masterpieces, and garbage that sells millions of copies every year. Unless we are ready to admit that Star Wars Galaxies was terrible and Candy Crush Saga is one of the best videogames of all time, we need to decouple a game’s quality from its sales performance. There is correlation on a good day, but just as often there is not.

Similarly, the trend towards F2P is not necessarily one of naked greed and cynicism. I will be the first to admit that I prefer the antiquated “buy the box” or subscription models, as I believe it properly aligns developer incentives (i.e. make better content vs more cash shop items). But in 2015, there is one reality every developer must face:

1) F2P competition exists.

If you are all set to release a subscription-based MOBA in an environment where League of Legends still exists, you are going to have a bad time. The same is true for subscription-based MMOs these days. It is easy to claim that Wildstar (etc) failed not because of the subscription model, but because it wasn’t good enough to justify a subscription model. But that still sounds tautological to me. “If the game was good, it would not have failed.” Or to shorten it: “If it were good, it would not be bad.”

In the present MMO environment, it isn’t enough to simply be good – one has to be as good or better than all the alternatives, many of which are F2P. This is especially salient in MMOs considering the social dynamics are pretty much the only reason why you would continue playing the game. We can imagine a scenario in which the perfect (to you) MMO is released… but it ends up as a ghost town, and subsequently loses most (or all) of its value.

Which makes this part of Keen’s post a little ridiculous:

Charging for a game is absolutely acceptable, and it won’t dissuade people from playing.

Of course charging a subscription or box price will dissuade people from playing, else lowering prices would not generate any increased sales. Obviously there are people out there willing to purchase $60 titles on Day 1; what is less obvious is whether there are enough. Unless you are willing to settle for Minecraft, most MMOs are released with $60+ million price-tags which need to be recouped by volume. Populations in the 100,000 range simply can’t cut it anymore, nevermind the negative social effects of low server concurrency. It is quite a pickle that you place MMO developers in when they either need to craft a more valuable product than WoW (etc) or go with an extremely low-budget project… which will still be called a failure anyway due to low sales volume. “A good product sells,” remember?

Overall, I do think the warning vis-a-vis F2P games is sound – there is no payment model better suited to erode consumer surplus than F2P. And there are certainly a million and one examples of very bad, very cynical F2P cash-grabs. But I do not agree that good games necessarily sell (or sell themselves), I do not agree that sales is necessarily an indicator of quality at all, and I would suggest that developers have many perfectly valid reasons to “give their product away” even if they could have charged for it. In fact, they very well may have to these days, just to get enough warm bodies in the door to achieve the social critical mass that MMOs require.

Inquisition Update

Considering I was pretty down on Dragon Age: Inquisition at first, I feel like it is only fair to state how I have been pretty obsessively playing it for the last week or so. By the time this post goes Live, I will likely have past the 40 hour mark. There are some rather annoying design decisions that will be examined in my final review, but for the most part I am very pleased. The plot has picked up significantly, and I am enjoying my time – this is what I remembered being good about Dragon Age: Origins.

Also this:

I don't actually like dragons, conceptually. Dragon Age's are alright.

I don’t actually like dragons, conceptually; Dragon Age’s are okay.

In the off-chance you were wondering about how I handled the FPS thing, the short version is I overclocked my i5 2500K processor from the stock 3.3Ghz to 4.2Ghz. It’s actually pretty goofy that I never even tried to do that before, as bumping it from 3.3 to 4.0 appears to be the safest thing in the world; it is only past 4.2 or so that you might need to mess with voltages.

The process I followed was updating BIOS, booting BIOS, clicking Advanced tab, clicking AI tab, clicking manual, and then typing 40 (later 42) and saving. That’s it. My rig was custom built with water cooling already installed, so heat was not that big a deal. I mean, it went from the usual ~30°C to ~60°C under load, but that’s well within acceptable temperatures.

I later tried to overclock my 560ti graphics card using some values I saw on the internet, but after my computer crashed to desktop, I figured the 5-8 FPS I got from the processor overclock was enough. Well, that and I downgraded everything to Medium settings… which is likely where the bulk of my gains were realized. I have since increased Meshes back to High despite the 10 FPS hit for the sake of Scout Harding’s cute freckles. And Varric’s chest hair.

You can [innuendo] me, any time.

You can [innuendo] me any time, Scout Harding.

Hey, don’t knock it till you play it.

Why Aren’t You Playing Minecraft?

A lot of people are:

As noted in the Reddit thread where I first heard of this, the nigh-million concurrent players is only counting “PC (win/osx/linux) only, versions 1.3 and higher, modded or vanilla it doesn’t matter.” So not only is that number not even close to peak time, it does not count anyone playing on consoles or mobile devices. Or, you know, anyone playing offline.

For the record, as of June 2014 the sales broke down like this:

  • PC/Mac: 15 Million
  • 360: 12 Million
  • PS3: 3 Million
  • iOS/Android (Pocket Edition): 16.5 Million

It’s probably not a stretch to say Minecraft achieves concurrency numbers of 3 million or more any given day.

So the question I have to ask everyone – especially those constantly pining for “virtual worlds” – is why aren’t you playing Minecraft? Is this not everything you want in game? Crafting? Check. Small communities where name recognition matters? Check. No LFR/LFD? Check. Customization options? Check. Freedom to progress at your own pace? Check. A virtual world where things that matter happen around you? Check and check. And hey, it’s also a Buy-2-Play box model without a cash shop or other F2P shenanigans (as far as I know). If this isn’t a Jesus game, it’s at least a Moses.

I’m only being somewhat facetious here.

Minecraft isn’t for everyone (although it is for a lot of people), of course, but I always find it somewhat interesting in the reasons people give for why it isn’t good enough. Maybe there aren’t enough people per server? Maybe it’s the graphics? Or perhaps you are a little more attached to the traditional WoW content structure than you would have everyone else believe. After all, with the notable exception of Star Wars Galaxies and perhaps City of Heroes, many of the Jesus games are still around. Here is Dark Age of Camelot. Here is Ultima Online. Or if you prefer, Ultima Online Forever. EVE continues to be a thing. Hell, even EverQuest is still churning away. Is… there a reason you are not playing them instead of complaining about the “sorry state” of current MMOs?

I mean, I get it. A remade FF7 would be the ultimate exercise in nostalgerbation for me. There is no particular shame in saying you want an MMO to look like Wildstar but play like something that came out a decade (or more) ago. But I think it safe to say that it is a bit unrealistic. The original EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot had budgets around $3 million back in 1999 and 2001. By the time the original Guild Wars came out in 2005, that went up to $20-30 million. RIFT was $60-70 million. SWTOR was around $200 million. I don’t think you often get green-lit for budgets of that size for game-types that clearly weren’t profitable enough to save the original title (in the case of SWG/CoH).

Still, there may yet be hope for… well, if not for you, perhaps your kids. Minecraft is the third-best selling videogame of all time, behind Wii Sports and Tetris. Microsoft bought it for $2 billion. This type of game will very clearly continue to be serious business. Then again, I’m not entirely sure that (F2P?) copies of EQN: Landmark are flying off the digital shelf, nor that ArchAge is doing particularly well, nor that virtual world supporters are supporting (supposed) virtual worlds like The Repopulation.

Camelot Unchained got funded, although the release date appears to be mid-summer 2016. Star Citizen will also (maybe) come out in 2016, with it’s $68 million in crowdfunding. So there’s a horizon out there at least, even if the actual long-term profitability of virtual worlds remains to be seen.

In the meantime… you could always play Minecraft.

What is Dragon Age Even About?

I was trying to describe the Dragon Age series to a friend the other day, and failing miserably. You see, this friend is a huge fan of the Mass Effect series. Should be easy, right? “It’s like a fantasy Mass Effect. It’s even made by the same studio!”

Except that is not really true.

I mean, yeah, it’s made by Bioware. But the longer I look at the Dragon Age series as a whole, the less it looks like a coherent narrative and more a mishmash of one-dimensional fantasy tropes. Dragon Age: Origins was a breath of fresh air with the Mage/Templar relationship, turning Elves into wandering Gypsies, and otherwise subverting a lot of traditional fantasy. Perhaps the genre has evolved in parallel or the novelty has worn off, as these days I’m finding the Dragon Age setting floundering for an identity.

I liked the Grey Warden schtick in the first game, even if it ultimately meant you were fighting dragons and orcs. In Dragon Age 2, you really weren’t doing anything of note; things just happened around you. While there is still time for Inquisition to kick into gear plot-wise (no spoilers, please), I’m at a bit of a loss in mustering up the motivation to care about anyone around me. Don’t get me wrong, party banter is pretty much the reason someone plays Bioware games; I just find it hard to like someone when there’s no real context for their decisions or personality.

For example, I have lost all investment in the Mage vs Templar narrative arc. The concept of anti-mage knights overseeing mage initiation rituals was pretty cool in the first game. It evoked a sort of Wheel of Time “mad dog on a leash” image; I started thinking that perhaps a similar thing should exist in the Star Wars universe vis-a-vis Jedi. It gets the mental gears moving, you know?

But now we are left with insane Mage vs insane Templar generic fantasy 101. My next Inquisition plot point indicates I will need to choose between seeking Mage support or Templar support, with the decision being mutually exclusive. I’m honestly about two seconds away from looking it up on the Wiki and making a decision based on which side gives the better loot. Quite simply, the game hasn’t given me any reason to care about the outcome. Compare that to my utter agony over the Genophage decision in Mass Effect 2. Same sort of binary, morally grey decision, but Mass Effect managed to get me to care. Dragon Age doesn’t even try anymore.

If someone asked you to sum up the Mass Effect series, you could say “scrappy Commander gets ship, builds galactic coalition to defeat Reapers.” As for summing up Dragon Age… uh… hmm. “Series of unrelated scrappy heroes collects NPCs and fights mobs.” Obviously it’s a lot harder to come up with a coherent narrative when you change heroes every game, but I’m not sure how much slack Dragon Age deserves. The Far Cry games have nothing to do with one another, and yet I can feel the thread that binds them. Where is the Dragon Age thread? What is Dragon Age even about?

I think Bioware would have been a lot better off sticking to the Grey Warden angle. Having a new Blight every game would be pretty formulaic (and unsustainable), of course, but I would of loved to have seen a more nuanced exploration of what life is like for the condemned Wardens in the post-Blight period. Sort of like a subverted fantasy plot, wherein your coalition and party members start strong and then fade out, slowly ground to dust via political machinations that find the Warden treaties inconvenient once the world is no longer ending. Perhaps there is a schism that develops amongst Wardens that desire children and security for their families. Maybe the Mage vs Templar rebellion could have started by the Mages deciding to free themselves en masse by joining the Warden cause.

Shit, can you imagine? Do you allow the Mages to essentially subvert the Warden code to emancipate themselves? They get their freedom, but there won’t be enough safeguards amongst the Wardens to keep a check on their power. Plus, what of the nobles who suddenly see the Wardens become a stateless army whose treaties supersede their sovereignty? Do the Wardens become complicit in the subjugation of Mages by rejecting them, especially when the Templars crack down extra hard after the attempted mutiny? Meanwhile, an Archdemon stirs from the all the conflict and bloodshed…

That would be an interesting decision. Not choosing between two NPC leaders that I was introduced to 10 seconds ago.

Who knows, maybe Inquisition will turn out to be super interesting in the final analysis. It isn’t terribly interesting now though, and it will have a hell of a time matching the plot I just invented a minute ago. The game is still fun, but I’d rather be playing Skyrim 2. Since I can’t, Inquisition will have to do.

Dragon Age Online

After around 20 hours of Dragon Age Inquisition, I am more convinced than ever that this is all an elaborate beta testing of the inevitable MMO sequel. Seeing other Heralds running around and closing rifts would not at all have seemed out of place. Hell, there are already dungeons, bosses, grouping, abilities with cooldowns, action combat, mining and herb gathering every 5 feet, crafting, gear upgrades, something approximating reputation meters, companions, mounts, talent trees, and repeatable/grindy quests.

After 20 hours, I am also convinced I am playing this game all wrong. Witness:

Do all the things.

Do all the things.

Basically, I have 4 Inquisition perks, 67 “Power,” and hit level 10… all before recruiting another party member beyond the default ones. No, I did not stay entirely within the Hinterlands; I simply did most of everything aside from the Main Plot that naturally unlocked as I leveled up. If they didn’t want me completing the swamp zone until after the first major encounter with the Chantry, perhaps they should have made the enemies stronger.

Or… maybe they did, and I didn’t notice because I’m goddamn level 10. Oops.

Although I have clearly screwed the game up for myself this way, I am not entirely convinced it is my fault. The genre in general – and Dragon Age in particular – is fond of having plot progression tied to permanently closing areas and eliminating quests. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in of itself, but if I am always paranoid that this particular foray into Zone X might be the last chance I have to acquire Something Something Y, you can bet I am going to do all the things.

At least I'll never have to run away from bears again.

At least I’ll never have to run away from bears again.

It is one of those unfortunate Design Catch-22s wherein you give the player a variety of activities to complete (in case they don’t like a particular kind) and then the player ends up doing everything. What’s the real alternative though? Only having a very limited selection of quests? Relying on a player’s self-control to move on from an area simply because one has become a god amongst men?

Hah! We’re MMO players: we pay by the month for the privilege of performing pointless activities.

In any case, an hour or two after I took that screenshot I advanced the plot by one degree and suddenly recruited four new party members. I am guessing that there is still one more out there somewhere, if only because my total party is otherwise mirror images of each other: male/female shield warrior, male/female mage, male/female ranged rogue, and then just male 2H warrior. Perhaps it will be a melee rogue, just to shake up the symmetry.

I’ll find out eventually, I suspect. Just as soon as I feel like advancing the plot one more degree. In the meantime, I got some more shards to find.