Monday, 24 November 2014

Dragon Age (without an) Inquisition


Having hacked my way through giant spiders and tiny velociraptors, my journey through the pitch black cave is finally at an end. I step out of the mouth and the light, though dim, blinds me for a moment and in that moment I feel the earth shake and a roar rips through the air deafening the storm that rages around the coast.

As my vision clears I see the rocks and pebbles of the beach still being battered by the unrelenting waves. Rain hammers down all around painting the world in grim grey hues and lightning flashes somewhere on the endless ocean horizon.

Something huge rushes into view, crossing from above the cliffs to my right and soaring down towards the ground. It passes behind some of the gargantuan pillars of rock that climb out of the sea floor and comes to land somewhere across the bay, shaking the ground as it touches down.

With reckless abandon and child-like grin on my face I charge across the stony beach, slipping on rocks and ignoring the grasping plants. I catch another glimpse of the mammoth beast and its head whips out, its teeth bared. It appears to be attacking something.

As I get closer I hear another roar, this one different from before; deeper but not as loud. I move around the last of the stone pillars and crouch down behind a fallen tree so the beasts don't see me and I look up to see a dragon, near filling my vision, trading blows with a tusked giant.

I forget myself and stand, my mouth hanging open at the sight of the spectacle, just as the giant lands a vicious blow to the dragon's head. The winged monstrosity shakes off the attack and launches into the air, flapping its giant wings and fleeing the battle. The giant bellows out a victory cheer and turns towards me, its beady eyes focusing on me...

Dramatic no?


So I've been playing Dragon Age Inquisition (DA:I) and I'm about 20 hours in (fairly impressive in just two days of play but helped by a near terminal case of man-flu... honest) and my first impressions are that I'm loving it. The grand spectacle of it is what's hitting me most at this point. The passage above actually happened! Yes I added a bit more flair to it but good games shouldn't spoon feed us everything, they should tell us where we are and what we're doing but our own imaginations should make the events more real and that's what DA:I is doing for me.

This wasn't actually my first encounter with a dragon in DA:I but the first was a bit different and can be summed up like this.

“Vicki, come and look and the screen. LOOK! A dragon. I just walked out here and it took off and... damnit now my face is on fire.”

It didn't go so well.

Anyway the game starts a bit slow, as most grand RPGs do these days. Choose character class, create character, watch a bunch of cinematics, set the scene, spend 30 minutes learning how to play the game despite already knowing that pushing up on the thumbstick will walk my character forward (don't you just love tutorials). The game doesn't take long in throwing you out into the first of its locations and it's an impressively big one. I've spent the majority of my 20 hours of gameplay in the first zone of the Hinterlands and I've still got plenty of quests to do and a fire-breathing dragon to bitch slap.

As with most games of the ilk you have the option of dancing to the developers' tune and following the story or spending hours upon hours gathering herbs and making potions... or gathering metals and making armour/weapons... or gathering... I'll stop. You pick up party additions quickly and most are instantly memorable though maybe not for the right reasons (I honestly can't understand one elven lass, her language is almost as bad as one my own characters).

The storyline... well only being 20 hours in it's hard to say for sure but: big hole in sky, out pours demons, some big bad wants to take over/enslave the world. Main character has to convince the inhabitants of the world to band together under an Inquisition to beat back the big bad. That's about all I've got so far and I've got a couple of issues: 

First is that this is the plot from Mass Effect 3. If my character has to choose between a) sacrificing himself to save the world, b) sacrificing himself to save the world, or c) sacrificing himself to save the world at the end I will not be pleased.

Second is that I do believe they've misunderstood the point of an Inquisition. Historically the Inquisition (both in our world and the Dragon Age world) was a group of zealots given authoritative power by a religious institution to hunt down, question, and judge those who practice 'heretical' beliefs. In DA:I the Inquisition seems to be a bunch of folk brought together by a common enemy with the express purpose of saving the world. From now on I think I will call the game Dragon Age: Fellowship of the Ring.
Cue dramatic landscape panning.

But these issues aren't stopping me from having fun, from enjoying the game, from wanting to drop my editing in the 'to do' list and jump back on it, and from trying to sex up as many of the characters as possible (anyone who has ever played a Dragon Age or Mass Effect game will get what I mean).

The grandeur of the game is undeniable. It's beautiful from sunlit rolling fields and mountains, to storm-ravaged coasts, to sparsely populated cities where nobody ever moves more than a few feet (one day games devs will get cities right). And it's wonderful to see dragons done well for a change. I loved Skyrim but when I can kill a dragon with 2 arrows and then scoff down its soul... it just doesn't really feel like a dragon to me. They need to be huge and powerful and I should run in terror when I see one.
This is how soul eating should look.

So 20 hours in and I can highly recommend DA:FotR. It's fun, it's grand, and it's so steeped in lore and back story that you can spend hours just learning about the governmental politicking of Tevinter, trust me.


Oh and my character is wearing this hat!

Monday, 20 October 2014

Destiny

Yes. We're all well aware the game is pretty.

Just over a month after release and I have done it! I have beaten Destiny. I have reached the level cap. I have completed every strike and mission. I have ignored a terrible PvP experience. I have completed The Vault of Glass. I have become legend. I have... run out of things to do.

I'm not going to waste much time talking about what Destiny is as a game; I'm going to assume anyone reading this blog for content will already know what it is. I will, however, point out that Destiny is, by Bungie's own words, an FPSMMORPG (First Person Shooter Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game)... just try saying that and you'll notice it doesn't really roll off the tongue.

MMORPGs (such as World of Warcraft [WoW], Elder Scrolls Online, Final Fantasy 11... and 14, Wildstar, Guild Wars 1 and 2, and many... many... many more) tend to be BIG games. They have loads of 'zones' populated by a variety of enemies and housing themed dungeons all the way up to the level cap which is where the game REALLY starts. Once you hit that level cap there are, usually, a few new 'zones', even bigger and badder enemies, dungeons in which you will earn gear that will ready you for, and Raids (dungeons for lots of people instead of a few people). So the end game content is basically farming enemies for crafting materials, item drops, and cash; followed by farming dungeons for crafting materials, item drops, and cash; followed by farming Raids for item drops which will in turn allow you to access the next tier of Raids.

Because animals falling asleep are officially cute!

Anyone not interested in gaming and MMOs has just fallen asleep and rightly so.

So just to use WoW as an example. In vanilla WoW (that's the game upon release):
  • The level cap was 60.
  • There were 40 zones to explore split between the 2 factions and this does not include the 6 capital cities which were pretty massive in their own rights.
  • There were 20 dungeons, 4 of which were considered endgame and each of those dungeons was split into multiple dungeons.
  • There were 2 Raids, one was a single encounter and one was a 10 encounter terror of an experience.

Lets compare those stats to vanilla Destiny.
  • Level cap is 20 (you can reach effective level of 30 through collection of armour but honestly I have no idea what levels actually do in Destiny).
  • There are 5 zones to explore, one of which is a small town with very little in it.
  • There are 5 strikes / dungeons which can be run on higher levels but none contain specific item drops that are needed for progression.
  • There was no Raid upon release but 1 was released after only a couple of weeks so we'll give them that; it contains 5 encounters.

These are not impressive stats no matter which way you swing them.

So the game is small. That's basically what I'm getting at. Size matters and Destiny has dropped its boxers to reveal little Destiny is... well... little. Just last night my fireteam of 6 intrepid explorers picked up in Vault of Glass where we left off just a few days earlier and attempted the final boss. We died... a lot. Then we caught on to the tactics we needed and we formed a plan. Then we died... a lot.

Our final attempt was going well, we had the rinse and repeat tactics of sending people into the Time Stream to kill the Oracles and gain the damage buff and batter the crap out of the boss. He was close to dead and we were close to victory. Then someone didn't make it out of the time stream. 3 of our team went down. I heard someone shout over the mic:



In a glorious moment of sheer win I slapped a new rocket into my launcher even as my screen started to turn red signalling death was at hand. I launched myself into the air, floating my warlocky ass right above the angry 5 storey-high robot, and fired the rocket directly into his face. The boss collapsed, turned red and faded away. Loot was handed out, we all high-fived (over the internet of course) and we were returned to space... That was it.

High five into the sunset: only for winners.

Now while I had a lot of fun during the encounter, and in fact all the encounters of Vault of Glass, the end left me with a bitter taste and it wasn't just me. My entire fireteam was hanging around in space afterwards asking each other if that was it... had we really just beaten Destiny? Yes. Yes we had. And now we're left with a question: What do we do now? Do we farm the Vault once per week for loot? What do we do in between? I now find no reason to start the game up again and I'm already looking for the next game my friends and I can get to keep our team playing.



This is the crux of the issue and it boils down to one statement:


I have enjoyed the hell out of Destiny despite its many, many flaws but I feel cheated by the devastating lack of content. The game is just TOO small.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Designing Jezzet – What Came First, Chicken or Egg?


A few folk have asked me whether I designed the characters to fit the story or the story to fit the characters; in the case of The Heresy Within (THW) it was very much the latter.

The world of The Ties that Bind was forming nicely and I had already written a full novel set in the Five Kingdoms but I didn't think it was good enough to publish. I hadn't yet found my voice as an author. The witch hunter, Arbiter Thanquil Darkheart had existed for some time, though he was very much bereft of a story to call his own and, though I had toyed around with a few ideas, I decided his story, whatever it would be, needed more leading characters.

The Black Thorn was an easy design for me. I was sat in a coffee shop, staring out the window while waiting for a friend, and I decided that I would create an Arbiter killer. I wanted a nasty killer of a character with seemingly no morals and even less decency and I wanted him to be best known for killing the powerful agents of the Inquisition. With my trusty pen and notepad in hand I hammered out a quick character description (it changed quite a bit from that notepad to THW) and this quote:

“Ya wanna kill an Arbiter do it in their sleep. Fill 'em with arrows before they spot ya. Walk past 'em in the street an' get all stabby. Jus' don't let 'em see ya coming cos if they do... ya fucked.”

I now had 2 characters both without a story.

Jezzet Vel'urn came from a simple walk in the forest and, sat upon a rock while listening to the stream and the birds, I came up with her very first chapter. I wanted her to be strong, nearly unbeatable with a sword, and street-smart, but more than any of those things I wanted her to be willing to do anything and everything in order to survive. With that in mind I came up with her mantra of sorts:

“Fight or fuck.”

Jezzet was going to be the type of character who regularly found her way into trouble, mostly caused by herself, and always thought of only two ways out of it. She was always going to be the type of character who was always at war with herself; thinking one thing and then finding herself doing the opposite. I decided she would have an inner monologue and would refer to herself in it in third person, as though she was actually talking to herself in her head.

Now I had 3 characters without a story and before long I started putting those characters together. The story grew from Jezzet, Thanquil and Betrim and their collision with each other.

Jezzet's core principle remained. As I wrote THW I decided I was going to heap misfortune upon her and every time she would survive it, fight through it, and come out the other side stronger.


For those of you who have already read The Heresy Within, well you already know what I put her through and what she has to do to survive. For those who haven't already read it, well it will be re-released by Ragnarok Publications on November 10th so I suggest you pick up a copy and check it out. You can even pre-order the e-book copy from Amazon right now. :D

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Fighting Like a Viking 2 – Stabbed in the Stones



I am now a good few months into my viking training and I have the scars to prove it. I honestly don't remember the last time I wasn't covered in a yellow/brown motley. The strangest thing is that I actually like my wounds, I truly feel as though I earn my bruises and I will damn well wear them with pride.

Improvement comes from practice above all things and I am definitely starting to improve but thank Odin for infinite re-spawns. I have progressed from the level of noobish fodder fit for dying at the blades of better men and women and I can proudly say that I can now stand toe to toe with teenage boys and women half my size. Honestly though the women are feisty, dangerous and terrifying and I'd rather take on a mountain lion (for anyone who has played an Elder Scrolls game they will know just how high praise that is).


For me I have to say that the shield wall is still the most harrowing, and inspiring, part of the practice. Standing side by side with brothers and sisters in battle, screaming insults and cries of rage, shields clashing against shields, metal against metal, howls of pain, and blood (well there's rarely blood given that we use blunted weapons but...); and so far the largest shield wall I've taken part in has been 5 warriors on each side. I'm told the big events can easily reach hundreds of howling viking warriors on each side all baying for the blood of their enemies and I cannot wait to experience the thrill of it.



I still die more than I kill and I still die in some interesting ways. Just last week I took a spear thrust to the stones and I can assure you the boys were a little sore for a while after that one.

video
Here's a quick video of a 1v1 bout I had against a lad.


Not much else to say other than I am persevering, I am improving, I am dying, but most of all I am enjoying the Hel out of it. I look forward to my first arm-ring and earning my Viking name!

For more information about Vikings fight schools and re-enactment check out http://www.jorvikvikingr.co.uk/index.php


Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Bland Protagonist Number 1 Saves the Day

So I recently had a discussion argument with a friend of mine over the impact of storytelling in computer games of today. Gone are the days when a game was little more than bouncing a square ball between two paddles and gone are the days when a few lines of text could effectively sum up a plot. These days players want (and are accustomed to) branching storylines, twisting plots, and 'real-life' choices that alter the way the story plays out. So why, even these days, do we so often have silent protagonist number 1 as our playable character?

 


To make a point I'll use the example of two games I played at roughly the same time. The first was Dishonoured, a stealthy / hack-and-slashy game I had been looking forward to for a long time; it's set in a fictional world with steampunk-esque elements and is full of corruption, disease, murder, and many other nasty things. The second example is Witcher 2, an rpg / hack-and-slashy game I had never heard of; it's set in a fictional world with traditional fantasy tropes and is full of corruption, disease, murder, and dragons.

In Dishonoured the player takes on the role of Corvo Attano, bodyguard to the empress and prolific wearer of dark clothing. In the intro the empress is assassinated and the princess is kidnapped and Corvo finds himself framed for the entire affair. Skip a while forwards and he is awaiting execution in prison and some shadowy God-type figure appears, gives Corvo mystical powers and a pat on the arse and, with the help of some rebellious folk, Corvo escapes the prison, picks up a mask to hide his face and starts down the path of righteous executioning (also known as assassinating naughty folk). Oh, and he never speaks. Never. He wears a mask and never says a word. I would go into his character; traits, flaws, personality... but he has none.


In the Witcher series of games the player takes on the role of Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher (monster hunter) for hire. Starting the Witcher 2 we discover that some King of somewhere has survived an attempt on his life by another Witcher (not Geralt) and Geralt basically goes about hunting the bad guy down with plenty of side-tracks along the way. Geralt is a surly, scarred individual with a batman-esque growl and a clipped way of speaking gives his character a weighted feel. Now right there, with just a face and a voice, the character already comes alive a little bit. Let's throw in some of his back story (which we learn throughout the game): Geralt is also know as the White Wolf (possibly due his hair which he clearly styled on Legolas' gorgeous locks), and also the Butcher of Blaviken... I have no idea where Blaviken is but anyone given the name 'the Butcher of...' is likely a troubled individual with a storied past.


So this brings me to the point I would like to make this time. For years game developers have given us silent protagonists (sometimes that we can name and design ourselves) as a way of trying to invest the player in the game. Those games want us to put ourselves in the position of the main character as they struggle through the world in which they are placed. I personally find myself disconnected from those games, those characters, and those worlds. Silent protagonist number 1 simply doesn't do it for me. How is this person supposed to save the world / universe, or rescue the princess from castles 1 – 24 when they can't even speak. It's like watching a mannequin save Newt from the alien queen instead of Ripley. On the other hand we have games that are essentially interactive stories with protagonists that are pre-created, with a face, voice, personality, back story, and most importantly; a reason for saving the world beyond “It's your destiny, brah.” I want to see the character (whom I am investing so much time into driving around the world) struggle with their actions and the consequences of those actions. I want to see them affect the world and be affected by it in return. I want to see them love, hate, fight, lose, growl, bleed, spit, fuck, and come out the other side of the hell I put them through a changed person.

You wouldn't read a book with a blank page as the only protagonist description and neither would you watch a film with a cardboard cut-out as the main character so why should we accept it from out games?



It is worth pointing out in regard to the examples I used that the Witcher is an established series of books with plenty of lore and background to mine whereas Dishonoured was a new world created simply for that game. However, I believe my point still stands.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Fighting Like a Viking

Yesterday was an interesting day for me. I was stabbed in the chest multiple times, cut open from navel to neck, dismembered, and impaled upon a spear all in the space of two hours... and it hurt... a lot.

What does this really mean? Well in an effort to improve certain aspects of my writing, and because it sounded like a lot of fun, I went along to my first Viking Martial Arts class yesterday. That's right, after a year of cultivating the perfect beard I decided it was high time to put the facial fuzz to use and make my way to Valhalla... multiple times.

Along with a friend of mine (I wasn't wandering into a potentially hostile Viking village alone) I went along to see whether or not I could hold my own like the Black Thorn and quickly discovered I could not.

They started us off with a traditional Viking helm and a Seax (essentially a long, single edged knife). After a few minutes of sparring (a futile effort on my part considering my friend has had 8 years of practice with open hand knife fighting) we were a little tired and I was a little stabbed.
Image courtesy of rustikrenderings.com

Next we were given traditional Viking shields (circular slabs of wood with about 1m diameter). This evened the score a little and before long I was getting in most of the stabbing. About 5 minutes after picking up a shield it was well past time to put it down again and reflect on just how heavy the damned things are.
Image courtesy of albinjohnson.com

Next we were thrown into a Shield Wall and it's fair to say (even with only 3 men on each side), organised chaos is the word for it. There was plenty of posturing, a few good Viking insults (most likely regarding parent's sexual preferences though my Norse is a little rusty so I wouldn't know), and then the shields clashed and swords, spears, axes and knives came at me from every angle I thought possible and a good few I didn't.

Image courtesy of Vikings (that TV show on lovefilm you all REALLY should watch)

Lastly my friend and I were given a couple of spears and told to have at each other. Given that we've known each other for years upon years, it was fair to say we needed no encouragement to give each other a good thrashing. After a few weak blows traded by each of us the bout ended with my friend experiencing a spear embedded in his thigh and me experiencing being run through.

Image courtesy of Vikings (that TV show on lovefilm you all REALLY should watch)

So all in all I had a lot of fun. The session was run professionally with safety briefings and the experienced Vikings were on hand to give advice and tell us to stop acting like sissies and hit each other. I think I'll be going again... after my wounds have healed... and once I can walk.

For more information about Vikings fight schools and re-enactment check out http://www.jorvikvikingr.co.uk/index.php.