Thursday, May 1, 2014

Star Wars KOTOR II Playthrough Pt 3 - Starting Dantooine, Nar Shaddaa, Subquests

After messing around in Dantooine, I decided to try another planet out, Nar Shaddaa, and ran into the Visas Marr recruitment plot. I forgot how weird she is. Obsidian games often have that weird Blood Omen/Soul Reaver thing where you look into another character or subplot and find yourself looking into a Bizarro-Home mirror of your own perspective. Pick up enough characters and do enough subplots and you end up in a Hall of Mirrors.

Visas and Darth Nihilius have a Force Bond based upon a trauma inflicted upon the younger of the two. You and Kreia have a Force Bond based upon trauma inflicted upon the younger of the two. Her experience with the other side of the Force caused her to reconsider black-and-white morality. You had an experience with the other side of the Force that caused you to reconsider black-and-white morality. Mass murder of a clan, blindness, warfare, allegiances, the whole bit. And with Visas' redemption (again, presuming canon light side), more is added to the sense of oddness to how so plot-important the Exile is, and more questions are raised as to what exactly the Jedi Order did, and why.


I don't need to tell you about the famous bug that allows you to skip almost all combat in Fallout by activating combat then turning it off before the end of your turn. I've found KOTOR has similar jankiness in its combat when I got to the Visas Mar fight - I used the menu and Cancel Combat to glitch her into not attacking me, long enough to use every stimpack, shield, and buff I had in my arsenal to win. It was doubly funny since she acted astonished by my skill with a weapon just afterwards, not as though I had cheated like crazy.

It's not as though pre-combat boosters haven't been a funny part of DND games for a while but it's pretty goofy to see it done in Star Wars.


Atton's storyline doesn't take too long to get through, mostly cause he's the first character you get to interact with, so you can pretty quickly shoot up the Influence chain. It's not bad - in fact I quite like that Kreia tags him as a murderer so you know he's not what he seems right up front - but it gets pretty silly at the end.

The good parts are good. I dig that in a game that presents Jedi warriors and dudes with vibroblades and smugglers with guns and some butch lady with a staff as equals, they actually give you reasons that it should be the case within relative 'power levels,' to use a term I hate. I'll talk about this later. Atton's resilience and his ability to kill Jedi by creating impassable walls of emotions, which are Echani combat methods - something Kreia, interestingly enough, had no problem bypassing - helps give you logical connectivity to how he can be so skilled.

And, in his case, it also sent him down this extremely fucked up path where he was burying himself deeper and deeper in murdering/capturing Jedi to be broken and turned into Sith soldiers. And because of that experience, he's a powerful ally (if not entirely trustworthy). You get all the fun Han Solo-isms with a backstory of how he's a trained Jedi assassin, thus facilitating how he's got backstab scores in-game, and out of game explaining how he's so helpful to your cause. The game and the story work harmoniously together to show you who Atton is, and it's great.

The downside of this is that the end of his story arc is pretty...goofy. Like, I understand the intent - a woman Jedi tried to save his life by showing him the Force, and he responded with violence and murder because he understood nothing else, and that choice he made hurt him so badly it sent him down a path of self-loathing and depression that gave him his false bravado you see as his Han Solo wit. But man, every time I try to get through it, the weird structure and delivery on "I thought I would love to kill her, but in the end, I killed her because I loved her."

It does make sense when you think about it, since only afterwards could he realize he loved someone and his reaction was based in fear, but man it took me a while to unfold that from the line itself. It just sounds really silly.


You know how the perspective on Superman and DC heroes vs Marvel heroes always has this really weird concept of how characters are 'too powerful' for a story, and how bullshit it is? One thing that Star Wars manages to do - within context of the films, of course - is present the Jedi as special, but not Gods. They can be killed just like anyone else, it's just way harder, if not borderline impossible.

The problem with tackling this sort of subject in a video game is that you have to go in picking which it is for balance's sake - are Jedi juggernauts of combat, or are they just like anyone else? The pen-and-paper RPG set aside the varying classes with their own specializations that work within context, whereas most other games like Force Unleashed and Battlefront present them as combat machines. So you have Jedi Guardians who are skilled melee fighters, Sentinels who are non-combat focused trained, and Consulars who are spellcasters through and through.

But then you have Soldiers who are tougher and, unlike the Jedi, use armor and guns, Scoundrels who get sneak attack bonuses and can stealth with camo gear, and Scouts which were so pointless they added Tech Specialist so they'd keep the combat/skills/support trifecta alive. To compare to DND, Soldiers and Scoundrels fall on a Warrior/Rogue sliding scale, whereas Jedi Guardians and Consulars are more Monk/Wizard. Armorless, specialized combatants with superpowers vs normal guys who are really good at their chosen profession.

KOTOR II continues that by going to great lengths to address why your party members are special, both in the world they have balanced among Jedi and in gameplay. This is what I was talking about at with regards to Atton above. So Handmaiden has powerful Echani fighting disciplines but also Force sensitivity, Kreia has one lopped off hand but also a Force Bond with the Exile, Atton has a past of being a Jedi assassin, Bao-Dur has his electrical field arm, and so on. The game reflects on the characters, and back again - especially when they start class-changing.


I've always wanted to like Handmaiden. Maybe it's the soft spot I have for unnaturally colored short hair, or tough-ass ladies who are no nonsense, or the fact that she's got an exceptionally great voice actress, Grey DeLisle, aka fucking Azula, from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Which, from her hilarious Wikipedia photo, is kind of funny since she looks more like Mai.

I haven't finished the game yet but I don't remember feeling too strongly about her romantic subplot, despite liking her character a lot. I don't remember what her big secret is at the end of her Influence path, so for now I'm passively curious about the pretty front-liner I've got in my party. And, can I just say how immensely relieving it is to finally have a proper soldier in the front lines? I remember my friend talking about how he got his Consular to endgame of KOTOR II, as Light Side, and would walk into every room and spam Force Storm until everything died, but god the early game is such a slog without a Guardian.

I honestly feel like you're supposed to be a woman, and Atton is supposed to be your romantic interest. Handmaiden's a little too 'tragic past only the hero can fix,' despite all the positive takes when you first meet her. I don't remember anything about Disciple. Bastila, despite the goofy ass romance, was always fantastic. She's funny, tough, smart, and has a lot more going for her, most of which is Jen Hale's terrific Hurley-like British voice. Male Revan felt at home with Bastila - Male Exile is such a weird place to be, where the romantic interest feels token instead of on purpose. This game really wanted you to play a lady.

Meanwhile, earlygame, Atton gets all the best dialogue with FemExile. It's just that perfect level of "I'm really not sure if you're flirting or actually hate each other." And given Chris Avelone's writing history, it feels so much more natural to gravitate towards him. He's got the higher highs and the lower lows - he's funnier, more charming, expresses more overt interest, and meanwhile he's got the darkest of dark pasts and could not be worse for you.

One weird thing about this game - as a guy, he's practically invisible. There's no real connection between the maleExile and Atton beyond teammates forced together. He doesn't carry that same Garrus/manShep bromance that made ME2 and 3 so endearing. I don't know if this is part of the rushed content that never got to polish, but it would not surprise me. KOTOR II could really have used some attention to the finer points.


Man, getting a lightsaber in KOTOR I was a totally weak experience. The quest tried to be heavy but it felt less like a trial you have to go through and more like a checklist of themes to go across. I don't think even the construction itself made much sense. And worse yet, when you go to Tattooine (I think it's the first planet), you get attacked by Sith assassins, and you go, "Hey, cool, lightsabers!" So now a group of Jedi on Tattooine are running around in Sith robes and wielding red lightsabers, and nobody goes, "Wait, what?" There's no real personal investment into it, nothing you - the player - have to do to, it's just Q+A and then pick a color.

I can't help but remember that dumb scene in Episode II where Yoda is training kids wielding lightsabers to deflect blaster bolts, even though it's been established that getting a lightsaber is not only a big deal, it's the equivalent of samurai gempukku. You have to make it yourself, and it means you're ready to start carrying one. There's a ton of symbolism involved in it as well as the Padawan braid severing that's completely lost the minute eight year olds are toying with plastic tubes and Industrial Light and Morons colors in a green beam coming out of it.

I might feel differently if I tried it again, but I don't remember liking it. There's no real integration to gameplay - it feels like a foregone conclusion that you're going to get one, not so much teased as delayed.

Obsidian took something given little thought put into it and made an entire subquest out of it. You don't just get a lightsaber. You don't even know where to start. You have to get Bao-Dur, who knows how to build one since he's your tech guy. Then you need three components, one of which you get from the Czerka/Ithorian quest on the first planet. The second is through the Visas Marr fight after you try to leave a planet the first time. Another is buried in any number of subquests on Nar Shaddaa. And, from what I understand, it's perfectly possible to ignore most of them and pick it up in another planet. You could, quite conceivably, spend most of the game building up to it, or rush through to get to it early.

The personal investment of how you get the quest - through helping/screwing over the Ithorians, sneaking into a Hutt's personal safe, fighting off a Sith Assassin sent to kill you, and/or meeting a Jedi Master in hiding. These are all the struggles a Jedi has to deal with on a regular basis. Thematically, it's what makes a Jedi become one. And since you are returning to what you once were, you have to build it back, piece by piece.


Quests are too boring to talk about, so we'll bring that up next time.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Star Wars KOTOR II Playthrough Pt 2 - Exiting Peragus, Telos, Hidden Academy

Bao-Dur is probably my favorite character in the grand scheme of KOTOR II's companions. Being Obsidian, the relationship isn't perfect and both are reflective upon each other. Both of you are veterans of the Mandalorian War, and while you went off to be exiled from your order, Bao-Dur put himself in exile at Telos trying to fix its completely screwed over ecosystem with his tech knowledge. He buries all of his pain and guilt deep beneath his lucid, calm demeanor, and tries to do something that will save lives instead of ending them.

The Exile and he both have a great relationship - it's not happy, but their camaraderie is tight from the getgo. Atton basically fell into your lap (canonically, I think he literally does by the end), Kreia was in the wrong place at the wrong time and now can't leave you, T3 is a loyal servant, and Handmaiden is sent to spy on you. Bao is the one who you feel actually close to, even though you don't remember him at the start. He is a loyal friend.

If you go Light Side, the Exile is just as tortured by what he did as anyone, even though it was for a good cause. Their pain makes them closer. There's no gallows humor, just a lot of despair and unity in how they both feel like horrible murderers and are doing what they can to make the world better. It's a very unique relationship.
Bao-Dur's revulsion at Dark Side actions is some of the most damning in the game.


The section section in Tutorial Planet Telos is where the game stops being nice, yet it offers you only Bao-Dur to accompany you, another tech guy. This game really wanted you to play Guardian. I now have two tech guys (T3), a rogue, and a cleric.

Bao-Dur might not be the toughest warrior, but until Handmaiden shows up to bludgeon things to shit with her telescoping pole like the future version of Donatello (it was a real thing in Archie, look it up), he's the best I've got (which is not great). 14 strength is something.

Due to the sheer volume of mercenaries and robots I had to fight to get out of that area and to the Hidden Academy run by Atris, I ended up dropping the difficulty to get through some of the tougher fights, and I blame this entirely on my not choosing Guardian. I worry the game resents me for it - as though the warning at the start of the game wasn't trying to advise new players, but instead refusing was the game giving me the silent treatment and passive-aggressively glaring at me the whole game.


I like how the game seems to subvert the player's knowledge of Star Wars as a whole. Much of the figures from the first film are in place, such as the wise mentor Jedi, the scrappy rogue, and the villain, but it throws everything into reverse. Kreia is the complete reverse of Obi-Wan's mystery - you literally do not know if she's good or bad. She lands solidly neutral on the character screen and much of her actions seem to imply neutrality is the best path, and she's bitterly cynical of your actions at every turn. Yet, unlike South Park, she always knows where she's going and feels like she has real reasons behind being this way, even if she doesn't say it to you. Meanwhile, Atton's own secret slips to light and he begs Kreia not to tell, calling him a murderer. Han Solo dashing-rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold, he ain't.

From the getgo, Chris Avellone and the Obsidian team make you know this is by them. Kreia's not-malicious-but-not-altruistic outlook is a incredibly hard to get a handle on, and you start to wonder if this is this game's Ravel Puzzlewall; a curious, enigmatic old woman who communicates the game's prevailing themes without you knowing (and spoiler warning, this is pretty much the case). And yet, instead of dying in conflict with him to create a connection to the hero, her hand is cut off, awakening you to a connection that already exists.

Even this early on the writing still fascinates me in how good it is. Characters talk like real people, with Star Wars slang and lingo slipped in. Everyone is a character and feel real, not just a cliche the game felt like it needed to land on (in retrospect, maybe I was a bit unkind to KOTOR, maybe it was shooting to fit in the shoes of Star Wars IV). Even T3, once you get talking to him, has enough of an independent personality to stand alone. He even ends up fleshing out exactly why it is you're running around with the Ebon Hawk, something that, written by lesser talent, would be like the Millennium Falcon showing up in other areas. Even the dumb subquests have gravity and meaning.

People stick to you for a reason, like Bao-Dur's -camaraderie, Kreia's bond, 'Forces' you to stay with her, and T3's direct order given by Bastila herself. The only one who seems to not really state why is not revealed other than some vague mention of your presence and maybe the sorta-friendship he has with you, which (in true Obsidian fashion) I seem to remember being mostly bullshit. Everyone has their reason for what they do. There's no dumb shrug and "guess I'll hang with you now, got nothin' better to do."


The dialogue in this game is superb, seriously. I think the main reason I feel more kind to KOTOR II is because it doesn't insult your intelligence - I recall picking a Soldier in the first game and the tutorial character calling you "a powerful warrior," which not only shatters the concept of this game trying to be serious, but breaks the fourth wall a bit too. Seriously, who says "powerful" in terms of "fighting"? It breaches even the concepts of fantasy-in-space and makes the whole thing an episode of Dragon Ball Z, where power levels are discussed and measured as a fast-track way to set the stakes.

Meanwhile, in KOTOR II, characters exchange dialogue about The Force, the Dark Side, the Sith, and stuff like it much in the same way characters in Rokugan would discuss bushido, honor, and in-world politics.* It might come off a bit heavy-handed, but this is the universe these characters live in - thinking about the comparison between the two reminds me of when The Dark Knight landed at the theaters and movie critics insisted it was genuinely like any crime drama, such as the film Heat (because, at that time, people needed to be told that in a comic book film). Obsidian writes characters in their world with respect of what that world means for people that would exist in it, and it's so, so nice.**

Take the argument with Atris, a Jedi Master who was present for your exile. She hates you for turning your back on the Jedi Order and running off to fight in a war against their orders. You can (I think, I didn't re-play the segment) either confirm her suspicions of falling to the Dark Side and repulse her utterly, or point out - quite rightfully - you went to war for perfectly valid reasons and neither she nor the Jedi Order have a fucking right to tell you what you did was wrong just because the men in charge were Sith.

And, much like the rest of the game, the dialogue is perfect. You can feel Atris' emotions of hatred and fascination at you and your righteous defiance, in direct conflict with the cleanly good/evil axis of Jedi and Sith that she is indoctrinated in for her whole life, twisted through years of letting these conflicting emotions just sit and boil. I'm not positive, but it feels like a Hunchback of Notre Dame situation - everything Esmerelda (Exile) does, Frollo (Atris) was raised and told that he should hate and be repulsed by, and yet they can't help themself to be both attracted and fascinated by it. Esmerelda's "disgusting" sexual display and publicly calling him out repulses him in ways that make his pants feel funny.

The Exile went to fight in a war rashly based on what she believed the right thing, siding with Sith Lords (Revan and Malak) for the purposes of saving lives by stopping the Mandalorians. This concept, fighting in a war led by evil to stop other evil, completely undoes Atris' black-and-white view of morality and the Sith and Jedi. Inside, she's forced either to reconsider her understanding of it all, or take her aggression out on the person who created this paradox. I wonder which she's going to pick!

The difference being that while Frollo just thought about it really hard, then convinced himself that it was okay because he was a devout Catholic and he'd just burn her alive if she didn't fuck him and it's alright, Atris...well, I've still got my fanfiction, but I don't think it's going to turn into a Jedi lightsaber duel that ends with lesbian makeouts (or in my case, straight ones).

*Rokugan being the fantasy world based on Japan, Korea, China, and the like. It might sound like a fetishized asian wank-sock, and the concept of Bushido doesn't help, but it's actually a very fully realized fantasy world that I like quite a bit.

**Holy shit I just made myself think of Chris Avellone and the Obsidian team working on a Rokugan wRPG and I think I need to clean myself off now.

Screenshots are taken from Google Image Search, I'm still working on a widescreen hack and haven't started taking screens yet.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Star Wars KOTOR II Playthrough Pt 1 - Tutorial and Peragus

I ended up going Jedi Consular, male, for my first character, mostly because - despite that I know that lady Exile is canon - I really remember liking Handmaiden, and I want to see about pursuing a romance with her. Atton's great and all, but I'll leave that to future playthroughs. Besides, I've always liked playing 'myself' in these games, or at least as close as I can ever be to myself, IE the reactions I am drawn to first.

I'm a sucker for en media res, through and through. So when the game starts and you control T3, the astromech from the first game, on board the Ebon Hawk which has been completely wrecked, with Kreia (seen only as an unnamed old woman) and your character in the medbay, I'm already going, "Oh this is going to be good."

Anyone who's playing this game for the first time is already blown away, but the fact that it features iconic details from the last game here makes it even more confusing for returning players. How did the Ebon Hawk get here? Did T3 steal it? Where did they come from? How long is this after KOTOR, anyway? Is Revan around? Are you Revan again? Where's Bastila? Is Carth far enough away you can't hear him?

It's an effective tutorial too. T3 has a lot of charm I don't remember him having in the first game, and his determined work to saving the day is enjoyable. There's no tension and panic, of course, but there's enough questions that it doesn't matter.

The first game I remember tried something similar, with a sequence featuring you as a soldier on a ship transporting Jedi Bastila Shan, before getting wrecked and crashing on Taris with someone nobody cares about. However, the first game's lack of urgency on Taris compounded with Carth's irritating character to make the whole intro so obnoxious as to be a chore. It, among the corny writing, is one of the reasons I'm not too compelled into playing it first. Don't get me wrong, getting the sexy voice of Jennifer-Hale-as-Elizabeth-Hurley super flustered at me through flirting was a treat, but there's little beyond her. You know, it's just archetypes like Mission as the scrappy teenager, Carth as the dignified soldier, Jolee as three-days-from-retirement, and HK-47 as....well, okay, HK was a bright spot too, but he's in this one, so he doesn't count.

One thing I always thought was a nice touch, as someone who played D20 Star Wars, was the hybridization in the first game. You started off on the first world as one of the three non-Jedi classes - Scout, Soldier, or Scoundrel, and through the game become a Jedi and hybridize the classes. It sounds silly, but since each one get perks to keep pace with Jedi (because Star Wars never cared about realism, so you shouldn't either), Soldiers get natural defenses, Scoundrels get sneak attack bonuses, and the like. Meshing a class for optimization was a ton of fun, even though Jedi were so strong you'd end up intentionally finishing the game at a lower level to get more Jedi levels. Here, the whole system replaced with Jedi prestige classes, which serves the same purpose (picking between sneak attacks, combat bonuses, more Jedi powers, etc) while still initiating the whole "Exiled Jedi" thing.

I quickly was starting to regret my choice for Consular. Having played the games enough, I figured I could figure out how to make the game work for me, but I forgot that the D20 system is entirely based upon Dungeons and Dragons party lineup. Your warrior, your support, your rogue, your mage. With me being the support-class Consular and Atton running Scoundrel with double-pistols, I found myself getting my shit kicked in every fight. The addition of T3 later didn't help, and Kreia herself is just a Consular anyway, so I have a party lineup consisting of two White Mages and two Thiefs. Shortest straw drawn has to wear armor and throw away all their best abilities, and yes it was me.

I know it's old hat by this point but if there was ever any doubt as to how Star Wars as a whole - not just this game series, but the entire franchise - is not sci-fi, I hope this game and the SW D20 system both cement it. Instead of picking locked doors, it's slicing doors. Instead of journals, it's datapads. Instead of winches and gears that control the bridge, it's a computer console that opens the bay doors. Instead of stealing a horse or a sea ship, it's a star cruiser or shuttle.

The components of the first movie were heavily drenched in cliche to draw sharp contrast - the whole point of seeing Obi-Wan guide Luke to defeat the evil Vader with a scoundrel with a heart of gold named Han was not to see how it ended. It's that a wizard fighting an evil wizard with his apprentice of magic and the princess and the dashing rogue isn't in Not Medieval Europe, but in space, was the reason to go. It wasn't until the later films and the expanded universe let this concept breathe into its own vibrant universe.

Seeing this pen and paper game engine created for Tolkien the RPG, put to Star Wars, then translated into a computer RPG along the vein of Baldur's Gate, is such a harmonious coming-together I can't believe it took Lucasarts so long to let Bioware have the license.

Star Wars KOTOR II Playthrough Pt 0 - Preface

Not sure why I decided to do this, but what the hell, I've recently acquired KOTOR II in a Steam sale since I've had a huge lust for Star Wars lately. And, with that, I found I have a lot to say about the creation and substance of KOTOR I and KOTOR II, so I'm going to embark on a long, segmented chronicle of my journey playing through it.

This is Part 0 because it's not really a chronicle of the experience as much as a few short words to detail my experience and what I'm going in with.

For starters, it's one of the internet's most common knowledge that there were huge chunks of this game completely gutted for a last-minute rush to the Christmas deadline. For more, I turn to you with a Kotaku article:

Although KOTOR II was released in December 2004, it was never quite finished. Deadline restrictions forced Obsidian to remove a great deal of content—planets, scenes, and plot points were all left on the cutting room floor. Crafty modders would later find and restore this content, as Obsidian left it in the game's source code, but back in 2004, it was all just scrapped.
So why was it all cut? 
"What happened was—and as a lot of these things happen, no one means anything nefarious, no one means anything badly or anything like that—what happened was we were on the track to get done for Christmas, and the game was looking really good," Urquhart told me. "I think there was some surprise within LucasArts that we were doing as good a job as we were. I think there were some parts of LucasArts that were worried that ‘Oh, this new developer and they're gonna fuck it up like all new developers fuck everything up.'
"And so in early 2004 they took a look and they were like, ‘Wow!' Their QA was playing it, and they were like, ‘This has a lot of potential: let's move it out, let's give it time.' So they moved it out to the next year." 
Urquhart was perfectly fine with that decision, and he changed the project's schedule to reflect that new 2005 release date. But he forgot the cardinal rule of dealing with executives: make sure everything's in writing. 
"On our side we didn't make sure that we had the contract changed," Urquhart said. "And then post-E3 I think financially something happened—I don't know what it was. And we got the call and they said it has to be done for Christmas... Again, I don't think this is anything nefarious, it just happened. Some of the onus is on us: we didn't get the contract changed. So we had to make this decision: get in trouble or get it done."
Yeesh, talk about hindsight. It kills me thinking what this game could have had in it if Obsidian got to do whatever they wanted. And so, according with what the game was Supposed To Be, I'm going pretty barebones with minor exception of The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod, a few texture packs, a Widescreen mod, and a mod that makes the lightsabers light flicker look like the one from the old movies (I'm a purist).

EDIT: A complete list of mods that work with TSLRCM can be located here. The lightsaber mod I mentioned I believe I found here. (It's hard to remember).

Additionally, now is a good time to talk about the original KOTOR - to be honest, it's not great. The amount of critical acclaim it received might have been overwhelming at the time, but Attack of the Stupid Name had come out just one year before, and, well, beggars can't be choosers. This phenomenon would be repeated a few years later with Revenge of the Sith being not offensively terrible and therefore gaining 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, despite the terrible dialogue and being directed by George Lucas.

I can't speak for certain but maybe the writers at Bioware had been conditioned on some kind of volunteer Clockwork Orange procedure and thought that campy, corny dialogue was some sort of Star Wars staple. Sure, Han Solo yelling about "the way you feel about me" wasn't romantic gold, but at least it didn't involve Clark-Gable-written-by-idiots lines like, "Shut up and kiss me, you babbling fool!" Tycho of Penny Arcade (yes, I know, but listen first) once called it "a bad game with one really great plot twist," which I feel is an accurate assessment of what the game is today. The combat animations are choppy and break, the combat's kind of boring, the plot is kind of silly, the dialogue is corny, there's no real 'life' to the game beyond watching talking heads, but overall it was just a good game that didn't age especially well.

Age was one of the main things that made me not want to play this game - a game I thought looked okay on the original Xbox, even if I downscale my expectations and go into a decade in the past, is going to look like garbage today. And what kind of old-game bullshit is it going to pull? I still remember getting frustrated and quitting Bioware games only a few years old for a lack of appropriate autosave.

Speaking of which, my experience with this game is limited. I remember a few bits and details, but I never finished my original Xbox version when it first came out due to, well, fairly obvious reasons - not only was the game horrendously buggy and kept crashing and breaking on me, the game's frustrating missing content was agonizing. Watching quests literally just end for no reason and doors that are supposed to be open go "nope!" was the most frustrating thing, and between the two I just dropped off after a few hours.

I'm still familiar with a decent chunk of the plot, but it's all foggy and I'm kind of excited to play this game for the first time - or at least enough of a 'first time' that I will be surprised by sequences.

And, lastly, if you haven't yet, the first two volumes of the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic comic are completely fantastic, at least before they completely changed creative teams and the series underwent a dramatic shift for no reason. It, as well as this, are the main reasons I love the KOTOR universe. It's a universe where huge chunks of it have nothing happening, and there's infinite canvas to paint upon. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Bioshock Infinite Sorta-Review

Bioshock Infinite is a good game. I'm just going to say that because I feel like if I don't hang that disclaimer up, I'm going to have rocks thrown through my windows by the time this hits publish. Because as much as it's a good game, as much as it has a lot of really interesting ideas and tends to snowball you with a lot of sights and sounds, I am really, really let down by it.

At first I felt like I had the issue of overfamiliarity. Instead of being in an underwater city full of magic powers and gunplay where the protagonist, bad guy, and support character are not quite what they seem, I was in a skyborn city full of magic powers and gunplay where the protagonist, bad guy, and support character are not quite what they seem. But let's be slightly more fair to it and Ken Levine – we are, after all, not playing Space Marine Wacky Adventures. Bioshock is in the title, and perhaps these things all come with the territory of being a Bioshock game, in the same way that Tomb Raider is inevitably about Lara Croft climbing and shooting.

But even then, Bioshock was a landmark because everything just worked. Anything that was in the game had a reason – the science-softening microwave in the form of ADAM allowed the rest of the game room to work, and everything that surrounded it tied into the central theme. Ryan's objectivism built a house in which genetic modification could flourish, but it inevitably collapsed as the abuse ran rampant, and Big Daddies served as both an ADAM tool in-game, a service in the game's world, and a metaphor for the downfall of Rapture.

Meanwhile, the equivalent to the Big Daddies in Infinite are giant clockwork robots with gatling guns that spout patriot mantra. Subtlety? Bioshock Infinite seems to say, What's that? If you didn't like our robot soldiers, try our blue-robed racist KKK knockoffs who worship John Wilkes Booth as though he were a golden idol for his work assassinating Lincoln.

It's like the creators never even played Bioshock – all sense of subtlety and world building feels like it's been dropped in favor of more gunplay and big dramatic events. Elizabeth's powers don't even really have much of an explanation that feels in line with Bioshock, almost as though they weren't sure how to explain it, so they just gave up. The presence of ADAM in Bio allowed for the existence of Plasmids. And in Infinite, there are Vigors, which allows the same effect. Now, how did Vigors get created? Well, good question, one that seems more an afterthought than anything, like they saw Elizabeth's powers that they didn't explain thoroughly and went, “YES! A loophole!”

Being fair, maybe the lack of subtlety was the point. After all, Rapture was about the power of the individual rising above, and that probably sounds pretty good if you're fourteen years old, so I can understand how it would come about there. But Colombia draws a sharp contrast by being upfront about its horribleness and how completely awful the entire two-thirds and slavery laws were. For that, in fact, I have to commend it – the barbaric way I ripped a man's throat out, after the drawn out intro of colorful utopia, honestly surprised me, and being shocked by Bioshock turning horrifically violent is like being surprised when Superman saves Lois Lane. It's no shocker this trauma only happens after you're asked to, well, stone an interracial couple to death. It is, no joke, one of the best moments in the game, and it's the first hour of gameplay.

And yet, when you get down underneath the polished presentation, the game feels a bit erratic in its focus. Bioshock, at its core, was about the folly of Randian objectivism. What is Infinite about? American exceptionalism, sure, but you don't have to dig very deep to find out that racism is bad, and then the black lady rebel leader turns out to be completely insane and homicidal (which tends to be a pretty significant issue), in which case so much for that. Is it about power corrupting? I can't tell, because after that the entire political conflict is dropped and it hopes you forget in the rush to find out what's behind all the mysteries. The end story is wrapped up well, but I find myself wondering what I was supposed to take from it. Was the theme of the story just set dressing, not really meant to be played with conceptually?

Daniel Joseph says that it's all about extremes at war, and how the middle – the working class – don't care about the conflict because they want stability, but (and I say that with full respects to Joseph) I don't agree because it feels more of a biproduct of the game's creation than its real point. Levine said from the beginning he was inspired by the Occupy protests and the Tea Party, but politically neither of them are as mercilessly evil like Comstock, nor are they as psychotic and bloodthirsty as Daisy Fitzroy. What, precisely, is Infinite's stance on this political agenda?

In the end, all I see Infinite telling me is, “Both sides are wrong.” I saw the post-rebellion civillians of Colombia evacuating for about ten seconds, and Booker mentioned offhandedly they were going “anywhere the Vox aren't,” and after that, the game barely mentions it, not even when the civil war has torn the city apart.

There are buckets of issues with making jingoism, xenophobia, and religion the focus of a villain. There are two sets of buckets of making the lady of color and revolutionary just as crazy and psychotic as the villain. But to introduce that everyone and everything sucks, then simply drop the issue and speak no more of it? A lesson or moral that 'Everything sucks, the end' is a shitty, lazy message, and I really expected more from the brain behind Bioshock, especially going in when he promised that he saw inspiration from hot-button topics of the period. Racism and oppression of the underprivileged are issues today, not just in 1915.

On the bright side, the game probably steals all of the awards ever for Elizabeth, who is probably one of the best sidekicks in gaming in recent memory, and not for the reasons you figure. Sure, she can summon objects as per her realitywarp powers, she tosses you fully loaded guns (so long as we're on about gameplay, that's a nice perk), and that's all well and good, but at her best, she's just a fun character.

At first glance, she seems to be set up to be a quirky maniac-pixie dream girl, replacing romance with a touch of parental care on the part of Booker, and while that turned out to be entirely the case, Elizabeth is everything I ask for in noncombat lady characters – she's determined, complex, shows surprising strength, independent, a lot of fun, and imaginative. There's none of the dainty frailness of a princess in a castle, Elizabeth is a fully realized character, and every moment of ambiguous morals, flaws, aspirations, talents, trappings, and growth all fit to her personality. When she sobs into her hands and lures Booker close enough to club him in the head with a wrench to commandeer the vessel, it makes her genuine moments of vulnerability (with Songbird, or when she attacks Fitzroy) so much more vibrant. Her moments of naiivity early on are endearing, but when her one ally (Booker) turns on her, she becomes cynical and distrustful. She's a complete character, top to bottom.

For what it's worth, the combat of Infinite is just fine for a shooter. The problem is, much like the rest of the game, I genuinely wonder how we got a Bioshock game that plays like this. Scavenging has been a core component since System Shock 2, but now it's been cut down to streamline everything into more gunfights. I feel like there's a bit of a chicken-or-egg situation here; did the lowering of stat adjustments on food render the Take button obsolete, or did they find the game more fun to just Take All at every turn so they lowered the food penalties to make it less frustrating? I can only imagine the next Bioshock game removes food entirely and just has you running over bodies to retrieve ammo.

It seems obvious at first to remove all the side content to Bioshock – like the hacking minigame, among others – to turn everything into either powers or gunplay, but the contrast of doing six different things at once made the hectic and panicky gameplay and dense atmosphere totally enjoyable. Walk through tunnels hearing 60s tunes, see a wandering Big Daddy and Little Sister, get into a gunfight with a group of Splicers, barely scrape your way through, hack a vending machine for lowered prices, get into a conversation with a crazy person.

Instead, Infinite is just a conga line of gunfights cut up with interesting story segments, and the spice has all left. There's optional quests that involve finding keys and going back to the last area and using it on a door you couldn't enter, but it feels like an afterthought, like the sandboxy world from Bio is just gone. Colombia never felt like a big city – it felt like Afghanistan in the clouds, a string of shooter setpieces I adventured to with some nice setdressing. It's just gunfights and magic powers and gun upgrades. Bioshock is now the Bioshock knockoff, in that way, like Singularity before it, even in the specific way it uses puppet shows in place of the drive-in movie advertisements.

The gun-upgrading is still there, but since you're only allowed two guns at a time and have to constantly swap out weapons, each upgrade loses meaning as you frequently have to discard your six-upgrades machine gun and shotgun after running out of ammo. You're never allowed to prefer a gun because of how frantically you have to keep swapping weapons. And there's such a ridiculous amount of guns, the upgrades feel vestigal at best. Remember when the hectic and panicky combat of Bioshock demanded upgrades to keep any level of edge over your opponents? Where is that now?

Why is the hostility of the environment not creating a sense of oppression and terror rather than just making the game into a shooting gallery where I sometimes summon turrets or possess turrets or shoot fireballs? Why is a Bioshock game repeating half of the core mechanics then applying them to a new system? The skyline is there, sure, but in a different game the entire mechanic would have had the whole game built around it.

Are we just doomed to cut down every aspect of an interesting RPG/action game in favor of streamlining the gunplay and turning every game into Call of Duty? Is this really what we want, deleting features instead of adding or improving to them? 

It's kind of relieving to see the reception first overwhelmingly positive then, after a spell, collect their thoughts and step away. It's important to try to go in unbiased, and I can understand the difficulty of doing that with a game carrying the Bioshock torch. And I'm really glad. Because as great as the game is - and it is great - the seams where one game became another are showing. And I really want to see the other game more.

Friday, December 28, 2012

I Really Don't Like The Adventure Time Game

WayForward, you have let me down.

The Adventure Time game, on first glance, practically screamed things I would appreciate. I felt like the last fan of Zelda II in the world, and here was one that was embraced by hands-down my favorite cartoon ever, Adventure Time. How could this go wrong? Beautifully drawn sprites, kickin' music, and a plot that would crack me up.

I don't think it did any of these right.

Core combat felt annoying from the get go, by forcing me to use bareknuckles to fight with. With an absurdly short range, I slipped frequently into enemies, taking more damage and occasionally knocking me into the too-frequent pits scattered everywhere about. Thank god, I finally got Scarlett, Finn's sword, which gave me bonus range, but only provided I had more than one heart (four hits). Which makes a lot of sense, right? Only after you take a lot of damage do you lose your ability to attack from safety.

The annoyance of the clunky and frustrating combat is assuaged by a plentiful amount of healing items, but they're dropped at an absurd rate. After a few combats, you've got more apples than a produce store, and the less-useless powerups go unused as you tank-and-potion your way through. There's a pseudo Earthbound-like aspect of combining condiments with food, but neither is especially useful, convenient, or interesting. Earthbound did the same thing over a decade ago, and it was automatic and fit with the RPG system. AT does neither of these things.

I could forgive annoying combat with a stronger compilation of features, but HIKWYSOG borrows all of the worst aspects of Zelda II and removes all of the compelling points. There's overworld random encounters, but you can't run from them, there is no experience or level progression to grind, and all they do is give you more items, clogging your inventory with a needless amount. Every important landmark has a small level between it, but the quests in this game are aimed almost entirely at the 'fetch' variety.

In every zone you have to run errands before you can enter the dungeon, and not in a fun way, but in an obnoxious way. Collect three of something by talking to famous Adventure Time cast members, then run around and talk to someone they tell you to talk to. Talk to Lemongrab, talk to the three people in the area, talk to the Gravedigger, talk to the Nut King, talk to Mr. the time you're done, you've given up on genuinely fighting the enemies before you instead of jumping over them or running past. There is no fast travel at all. You have to run everywhere. There's a map, but it tells you only that there are landmarks there, not what they are or even where travel locations are.

With the 2d combat, the dungeons had a lot of things they could play with, but there's practically nothing there. Most of the dungeons can be cleared in about ten minutes, none of the bosses are especially creative, and it's not so much a 'puzzle' as it is 'hit button, return to previous room.'

Again, all of these things could be forgiven for being a huge chore, but the writing just is...lacking. Not only does it feel oddly out of place compared to Adventure Time, there's no writing charm either. None of the gags made me crack up laughing like the show frequently does, instead most of them are just kind of cute. They also have this odd habit of making a storyline reason for Jake to learn a power, but Finn learns something like the downthrust (Zelda II, again) out of opening a chest. The consistency from the show vanished.

Additionally, the lengths the game goes to put characters into the game starts to have serious dissonance with the show to anyone, not just the hardcore. The most egregious example of this is Earl of Lemongrab - in the show, there's no episode where he shows up that people like him. He only takes over after Princess Bubblegum no longer can be the Princess. So then why does she offhandedly mention that Lemongrab is running the investigation? And further, the bad guy is the Ice King, but he's been in the same category as Bowser as 'humorous once-bad guy turned mild annoyance,' so how am I expected to take him seriously as a villain? And why are Finn and Jake trying to fight him about their garbage? They handwave it as 'It's Adventure Time', but it feels out of place with the writing really missing the AT justifications. I don't understand how Pendelton Ward could have participated in this when they're so haphazard with the canon.

The game just feels so soulless, in every way. The visuals are nice, even if many events happen with a fade-out-fade-in rather than an animation, and the music is great, but everything else just misses the mark. The combat is boring, the dungeons are brainless, the writing can't even make you smile, the plot is threadbare, and the tenuous connections to the show barely exist.

It feels like this was not a labor of love from WayFoward, but instead from their publisher at Cartoon Network Interactive. As though the game was a product that a machine turned out after the entire series and a cartridge of Zelda II was dumped into it - wearing a mask, waving its wobbly arms, spouting "butts" and "mathematical!", begging you to mistake it for the real thing. No love was put into the game, and it shows horribly. I was hoping something with this much potential would be impressive, but it fails in every way it can.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Killing is Harmless Pseudo-Review

When Fight Club landed in 1999, it was glanced over, dismissed by reviewers, and overall mostly ignored as a confusing mess of a movie. But it resonated with a very large group of moviegoers - since then, it's become a cornerstone of that time period, something that touched a very raw nerve with the men of the 90s. It dealt with a lot of very touchy issues and, perhaps more importantly, never specifically said if they were right or wrong, just that some people handled it in different ways. Many critics who hated the movie called it 'facist', among other things, critically missing the point (in my opinion anyway, as one of those people who was strongly affected by the film).

The videogame industry has been riding the coattails of the immensely successful modern military shooter for what feels like forever. What is about five years in game industry years? It feels like twice that. And now, when all but the diehards have just about gotten exhausted of the genre, we have the video game industry's Fight Club. An intense, uncomfortable, shocking, raw, disruptive game that doesn't gut the tropes we have gotten used to, as much as it exposes them, asks questions, then walks away and leaves them to you.

And, similarly, there is a strong negativity to the game - calling it hypocritical for its dissonant 'a shooter that hates the genre,' or even just dismissing it as 'just a shooter'. With the utmost respect, I can't describe how much I disagree. Spec Ops, to me, is a very important game (the details of my experience I still have yet to publish here). It's a game that speaks to me as someone who liked all the Modern Warfare games, who has grown a bit tired of the military shooters, and puts a very scary, humanizing spin on it. It's not just the big moment that everyone gets surprised by - it's the hallucinations, the disorienting amount of plot shifts, the constant sensation of 'this is wrong,' the fact that by the end, you hate Walker for everything he made you do. For me, it's not even a shooter - it's a horror game, one that suckers you into thinking it's a Call of Duty clone before yanking the mask off.

So what would happen if you had someone who was strongly affected by the game sit down and analyze literally everything in it? You get Killing is Harmless, by Brendan Keogh.

I'm going to just warn from the getgo that this is not the book for everyone. In fact, if you don't know what Spec Ops even is, and are uninterested from the description I just gave you, I don't even think you'll get anything out of it. But, if you played and were as deeply shaken by it as I was, or even just are curious why so many people were so strongly affected, this is worth your $3.

The strengths are obvious - Brendan is a talented writer, and he was deeply shaken by Spec Ops. It's a match made in heaven to have him write a novel-length analysis about everything that is this game. And he's not the kind of person like Yahtzee who has a long, deep-seated hatred of military shooters. Brendan speaks as someone who gleefully loved Modern Warfare 3, even when (in his own words) he had no idea why. His turn of phrase is always entertaining and engaging, and he breaks up the reading of Spec Ops with frequent (but very relevant) asides and comments on similar events, or notes how infrequently other games have events such as the primary characters cracking under pressure and begin infighting.

He occasionally resorts to over-repetition when returning to advancing the game ("Moving on," "We approach..." "We continue..." "We enter..."), but these are minor nitpicks. His writing style is always entertaining and stays focused enough to get the important message home without tiring you of the topic. Almost all of Chapter Eight is discussion about the white phosphorous strike, but it is smartly structured and never feels over long.

Brendan's book is to 'analyze everything' in Spec Ops, and 'analyze everything' he does, even a stop sign at the very beginning and Walker's own name are both foreboding and ominous. That is, honestly, the thing that will drive some people away from Killing is Harmless. Extra Credits said, in their two-parter, that some of the plot structure, fourth wall breaking, and psychological aspects will pull many people out of Spec Ops, as their suspension of disbelief is broken. Brendan, however, seems to revel in it, even when he otherwise shouldn't. Darius Kazemi's review most strongly criticizes this, with a moment where Radioman blames all the violence on video games, and Brendan admits it's unfunny and forced, yet approves of it for being right.

And yet, it's very difficult to feel like the book is worse off for it. Sure, I don't agree that the crows are symbolic, I don't agree that the stop sign is that important, and there's plenty of times where I thought to myself, "You're overreading a bit here, Brendan." But I can't bring myself to dislike the book. It is, at its core, an analysis both on the game, and the man Brendan himself. It's even in the foreward - "Ultimately, this is an act of interpretation." He wants you to understand what he has interpreted from Spec Ops.

I would not consider a reading of Fight Club bad if it makes a lot of statements and suggests things about the movie I do not disagree with. Even the director said in the commentary, "You'll notice how Tyler says the same thing as the therapist earlier in the movie, 'I look around and I see a lot of men...', etc." I didn't think there was anything to that, except maybe that a script/screenplay writer's style of speech coming through. Would I like the movie less now knowing that? Or any of the actors? Or any other writer? Not at all. Fight Club asked a lot of questions, and gave you very little answers. It played with the concepts of nihilism and anti-consumerism, then simply ended the movie. Was Tyler evil? Was the narrator? Maybe, but maybe not. Similarly, Spec Ops is not interested in telling you the answer - it wants to ask you questions it does not have an answer for. Killing is Harmless is Brendan's book about his answers, not everyone's.

Killing is Harmless had a goal of critcally reading Spec Ops, top to bottom. And that's what it did - even when I disagree, it helped me (as it may help you) to understand the game itself more. Even when the book is overreaching or wrong in whatever he has conceived, even when it misses things I believe (such as how Extra Credits says it used the aged gunplay to give the player a sense of 'wrongness' early on), even when the book is probably just objectively wrong, and you will find these moments....Brendan was successful in his goal.