Skyrim; Thoughts on Leveling, Layout

Still playing this game.  Suspect I will be for some time.  Hopefully I will keep blogging in the process so I don’t drop off the radar.  My initial impressions have been confirmed, this is a great game and probably the best I’ve played to date.  I can’t think of another experience that comes close.

The convoluted system from Oblivion for levels has been revamped into something that is a little bit less wonkish.  A lot less wonkish actually.  Stats like stamina, strength, agility, vigor (whatever that is) are gone.  Or, at least they’re gone from front menu explanations.  The major and minor level selection systems have also been removed.  These systems for level advancement in Oblivion weren’t bad, but they required the player to make tough decisions about what skills you wanted right off the bat.  The problem with the old system was that increasing “major” skills, which naturally are increased through in game use, were drivers in increasing a player’s level, but also in increasing the level of all the enemies.  If you leveled too quickly, without boosting supporting “minor” skills, you could become quickly outclassed.  Someone gaming the Oblivion system was motivated to choose “major” skills that actually the player would never need, thereby making increasing these skills subject to manipulation while your minor skills are pulled up through the roof.  Skyrim removes this gaming incentive and presents you with a straight-forward, but intricate system.

Now, leveling gives two benefits; 1. you can choose to increase maximum life, maximum stamina (which are used for combat and sprinting), or maximum magic points; and 2. you can choose a “perk.”  Perks are divided amongst the skill classes which are similar to the same classes from Oblivion (and probably older Elder Scrolls games as well).  The perks are setup like constellations of stars, but this is really just a tech-tree format.  Most of the perks seem pretty intriguing.  Making a decision is tough, mostly because there are usually so many good choices to go for.  Also go is the arbitrary distinction of giving perks at ever 25 skill levels.  These perks are how your character is defined, rather than through a series of statistics numbers.  A mage for example, might not have dramatically more magika than a warrior, but because all the skills that the mage has are geared towards reducing casting costs and boosting spell damage, the same skill has a much larger effectiveness.  The warrior skills are the same; the swing of the sword  or blocking with a shield does much more because of the perks.

With respect to layout, Skyrim represents a big improvement over Oblivion in terms of equipment.  The smithing ability has been reworked totally into something more dynamic, complicated, and satisfying.  Armor and weapons no longer wear down in Skyrim, eliminating the repair function that was previously present.  Weapons, armor and accessories can be forged and created from raw materials found in the environment, improved upon, and then enchanted for additional effect.  Although enchanting isn’t new to Elder Scrolls, sharpening blades and improving armor gives a lot of options as far as equipment goes.

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Initial Thoughts (PS3)

Alright, this game appears to be, as expected, way too big to actually give a review on right now.  So far, though, my very lofty expectations have been completely met.

The game’s graphics and physics seem to be mainly based on Oblivion, and Bethesda’s other works.  In particular, the lushness of environmental textures and the glowing look of night-time lighting effects make me think Oblivion or Fallout right away.  If those games did not set a very high bar in quality of environmental design and detail I’d be disappointed, but I’m not.  It looks great though.  Much like seeing a panoramic of an actual natural wonder, you’re always second guessing when looking into the distance in this game where the line between reality and fantasy blur.

It would be unfair to say this is just more of the same though; already some big differences stand out compared to Oblivion that I think show some careful deliberation was used in coming up with the next concept.  In particular, some effort was put into making epic in-game events more epic here.  I think maybe these folks finally hired a director…  First game scene treats you to an action sequence that feels like something from a Hollywood blockbuster.  Oblivion was always a solo quest, and the only really in-game events that occurred that were larger than going into a dungeon and having a group of skeletons run over to you were big fixed battles where NPCs would randomly spawn and engage in a field with each other.  When things happened, they tended to be on a small scale.  I’m seeing progress here from that.  Seriously though, Oblivion and Fallout both suffered from a player-centric focus that made events occurring in real time seem disconnected.  A big problem with this was that the talk and interaction functions with important characters forced portrait zoom-ins and then effectively locked everything else in the environment out while it was happening.  Yes, in those games you can basically only talk to one person at once.  Here, you retain some camera control when engaging in dialogue, and some care was put into letting you know when to listen to other actors finish speaking before diving in.

Skyrim is a “Nordish” world, which a race of people similar to that of Northern Europe.  Consequently, most of the characters I’ve encountered have accents consistent with this region, or at least from what I’ve seen in the movies.  The architecture is distinctly Viking, and the world itself is a vast tundra.  Notably, the introduction of lush streams and running water are a nice addition.  Alchemy and enchanting have returned, but the developers also added cooking, weapon sharpening, and weapon forging.  I also helped a guy split some logs, which was pretty neat.  The diversity of the voice actors used is appreciated as well, there finally appears to be more than five of them.  Emphasis was clearly put on making certain areas like a blacksmiths shop or a mill more than just set pieces by adding some real interaction and functionality.

Finally, menus seem to be well thought out, at least on this PS3 version I’m playing, which allows for a customizable favorites menu using the D-pad.  Combat is smooth, and, in addition to slash and power-attack, mini-cut scenes for certain death blows have been added which makes the battles feel less like a dice-roll of statistics fight.  One thing that I especially like is the emphasis on mapping both hands for your character.  You can equip an arm with a weapon, a shield, or a spell.  Looking up the skill tree though, there are, of course, skills that allow you to get synergy from doubling up with either dual-weapons, or even dual spells.  This range makes different play styles other than spell-sword more viable.  In addition to leveling up skills through use, the “perk” system that’s been added to the constellations menu (a kid of tech-tree) makes some real player customization possible (that seems to be how dual-spell casting is unlocked).

My closing thoughts are to show some great appreciation to a game company that seems to be able to consistently pump out hits these past five years.  Every time I get into one of these Bethesda games, I initially get that overwhelming feeling I get when I go to a great restaurant.  That is, of course, the fear of having to choose where to spend my time when all possibilities on the menu are new and amazing.  It is the phobia of a world that is too big.  You should probably get this game…

Deus Ex 3: The Missing Link (PS3)

Eagerly awaiting Skyrim to come out, but in the meantime, while it was still fresh, I figured I would try out the first DLC available for Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  Cut to the chase, unless you’re really thrilled to get new content, I think this is a missable addition to Human Revolution that doesn’t offer that much.  If you like the game’s core mechanics and want to try something new though, this might be worth the $9.99 to you.

The story here has been carefully sandwiched in a blackout period that occurs chronologically in the main game.  Although it’s a pretty clever trick to have some tangents from the main story break off to form their own core in this expansion, it also feels a bit like this may have been some stuff omitted just to bump up sales.  The story is tied to the actual game, but also explores some things related to the original Deus Ex.  There is some spy intrigue, but there isn’t anything truly captivating here.  A secret prison where experiments are being conducted?  You don’t say…  The only kind of “ah ha” moments are when you pick up the references to the original Deus Ex, but that’s not really the mark of great writing in this iteration.

As far as action, there are some new types of guards, but really they’re just the same old enemies wearing slightly different clothes.  One neat surprise is a new security system installed in certain hallways that is basically a standing typhoon bomb battery that will activate (and definitely kill you), if you trip the wrong alarm.  It’s one of the few new things this expansion offers other than new terrain and map design.  And yes, it’s the same bomb battery you see in one of the opening cut scenes in the main game, so I wonder why they didn’t make it in, in the first place.

You are stranded on a remote island fortress and have your augmentations, which you have no doubt been carefully calibrating for the entire game, stripped entirely.  Eventually, you are given the opportunity to quickly regain a lot of your core functionality, although you’re given freedom to basically retool by allocating your skill/praxis points in a completely different manner.  For me, this was a golden opportunity to play around with some skills I passed on the first two playthroughs of the main game.  I enjoyed the freedom to rebuild my character and do some experimentation.   Given that the hallmark of this franchise is choice, the choice to tackle problems a whole new way is always a boost.  What I really expected was some new choices or abilities would be opening up here.  There aren’t any though.

Now to extras.  What is new?  There are a few one of a kind weapons that are available, but they’re not really that relevant or game changing at all.  A cool pistol and a neat rocket launcher.  That’s about it.

Why am I complaining so much?  Well, I think a lot of it has to do with my expectations for DLC.  This was a great chance to introduce a new playable character or redefine some of the game mechanics in some sort of meaningful way.  It’s the same knock out the guards and cameras mechanic though.  Although the hacking function in Human Revolution is really cool, we just have more here.  When I think of a great DLC, I think of GTA4 and the two great DLCs that were released later.  The Ballad of Gay Tony and The Lost and The Damned were really welcome additions to the original game, highlighted new elements of the game’s world, and brought different combat and mission philosophy.  They are new characters with new problems, carefully woven into the backdrop of Niko’s story.  It’s a matter of defining what is “more.”  What I am interested to see is whether future DLCs will offer anything new, as the ending suggests there may be more going on with parts of this new story arch.  Only time will tell.


Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PS3)

I’m going to write three blog entries on this game by itself, the second in the context of the series, and the third a review of the DLC that just came out (The Missing Link).  So, here we go.  Long story short, if you like the fundamental mix that prior Deus Ex games offered, this one is for you.  I found the game addicting to play over the course of a few weeks.  It offers a good mix of stealth, action, and exploration to keep you hooked for an extended period based on a proven, and meticulously followed formula established in prior iterations.  Considering the time delay between sequels, and change of key developer staff, this is a significant management achievement for the folks at UbiSoft and Square-Enix.

1.  What the heck is this?

I don’t want to talk too much about prior Deus Ex games in light of later planned blog posts, but understanding exactly what Deus Ex is requires some background.  This game was the first action, first-person RPG that seemed to work.  To give credit to earlier FPS based RPGs like Ultima: Underworlds, this interface should NOT be dedicated solely to Deus Ex.  When PC and console graphics, as well as other technical milestones like actually supporting 3D environments without constant loading delays, it was inevitable someone would put the rendering to good use.  What came about was a full 3D world, where complex interactions with the environment were possible. The option of stealth or brute force are both equally appealing alternatives.  It’s a thinking shooter.  As an actual GAME though, Deus Ex succeeded in two categories I consider critical in anything that is non-MMORPG or competitive based; game mechanics and story.  Human Revolution offers just enough to be great, although not enough to eclipse the original.

2. Environment/Aesthetic

Kudos to the developers in creating a world that looks both like a convincing combination of both the present and the future.  Not only is this a mark of good design, but it ties directly into the point the developers are trying to make about the advancement of technology and its impact on human society.  “Data cubes,” which previously contained notes and all-too convenient plot points like someone’s computer login information have been abandoned in favor of eBooks, “personal secretaries,” and clean looking digital newspapers.  Of course, if you were really covert ops looking to sneak into a big company, this is what you’d look for; someone’s phone with email on it.  It’s a nice touch, and a nod to current developments.  Often the real world can get ahead of what we consider the future; Deus Ex demonstrates a clean view.  My personal favorite touch; K-Cup machines in most kitchens and apartments.  Maybe someone owns stock in Green Mountain, but you can’t deny that this is probably what coffee is going to look like for most people in another few years.

Detroit looks good.  The developers have captured the chaotic nature of what a modern American city looks like; one necessarily carrying on the baggage of the past.  Old buildings have been retrofit with electric car charging stations, and next to high-tech metro centers, we have hobos camping out next to empty barrel fires.  This again is a key design point; the augmentation technology letting some people turn into literal supermen is also alienating the less-fortunate.  It’s all connected, and that’s very nice.  You can contrast this to China, where the old city and the civic attention have completely turned away from the past in an attempt to start fresh.  Hengsha looks good too.  Both worlds are different and the same; social stratification, and no immediate solution for society.  And then there is technology, which only seeks to destabilize the relationship, although it is unclear who will actually reap the benefits.

And the game’s funny too.  The few moments where things seem too easy are a running gag.  For example, the fact that one of the best offensive weapons in the game allows you to effectively blow yourself up is the topic of an interoffice conversation.  Sure, it’s a cool feature in the game, but the developers clearly saw that outside this game it would be a bad idea for someone to develop a reusable bomb-vest.  Another good, but subtle joke is aimed at the game’s being a game.  After a few hours knocking corporate staff and government employees unconscious, you start to wonder why everyone always has only 4 emails in their inbox, and one almost always has the password and login info you’re looking for.  At my job, I have about 2000 (not including archived stuff), and I’m always getting a warning about limited space.  Honestly, you’d figure I could get as much as I could with GMail at a multi-billion dollar company, but I digress.  It’s ridiculous, right?  Poking fun at the fact that this is a suspiciously small number of all-too convenient emails, the developers have populated one company’s employee email boxes with a policy statement limiting employee emails to a maximum of four, and then sending employees that have 3 emails a warning that they are approaching their mandated size limit.  It’s the type of joke someone in a bureaucracy would enjoy.  It’s just smart writing, a nice touch.  Other jokes regarding the fact that solutions are always pretty easy to find are out there as well.  These little breaks offer a nice diversion from the generally weighty tone of the game.  There is even some commentary on how silly it is to use ductwork for building access, an action movie and game staple cliche.  Even the inevitable dick who works in IT makes an appearance in this game (Nucl3ar Snake, classic).

Music in this game is somewhat understated, but in a positive way.  Techno isn’t blaring for the whole game and usually melds nicely into the background.   There is no killer soundtrack, but rather a score that accommodates the action and pace of the story appropriately.  It’s memorable, but not too obvious.  Stylistically, orange is the color of choice.

One negative comment I would like to make is regarding the “city hub” system.  There are really only two cities to explore in the game, Hengsha and Detroit.  The game advertises environments in Singapore and Montreal, but these are really just office environments or bases you can’t escape and don’t really have the finer touches I’ve talked about above.  Was exploring these places left out, or is it planned for DLC later?  Considering the Missing Link DLC which was just released tries to carve out a portion of the main story, and sandwich in some additional content, I’m wondering if this was a ploy to generate more revenue.  The city hubs offer you the best chance at exploration, and also offer insight into what the central conflict of the game really is (it’s not just getting bad guys).  The conflict is between the social impact of technology, and its destabilizing effects.  Seeing people in their everyday lives both enjoying, and struggling with these changes makes the story seem that much more believable.  Again, we’re hit with a direct tie-in to our lives, just as we are when we see that little mini-K-Cup machine lying around on a countertop.  Leaving only two cities to explore, and then forcing the player to go through both twice (spoiler alert???), seems like a short cut for me.

Side quests are around, although realistically you’d be an idiot to avoid them.  I’m not sure if the importance of these quests is good or bad.  Like most current RPG games, you are alerted on a map with navigation help to where these extra objectives are though.  But a Deus Ex player always wants more XP, because a Deus Ex player is an RPG gamer, so it’s unlikely that most players will pass up the chance to resolve a plot question or help out a friend in need.  There’s no reason to pass up the side quests which clearly are extensions to the core story.

Character design is good.  The cast is interesting and the persons are complex.  They also do not feel like cookie-cutter Matrix ripoffs either.  Adam Jensen himself is dark and complicated, but he has the same choose your own adventure possibilities as the protagonist of the original game did, as well as the same cool “I wear my sunglasses at night” aesthetic.  Story is good, although it’s not so much about Adam Jensen as the world he’s in.  He’s both “Adam” in the creation story, but also symbolic of the Icarus who flew too high.  This is smart writing and legit allegory.

As far as interactivity, there is unfortunately not as much here as their could be.  Other than toilets, computers, and the occasional power switch, there is not much to interact with.  You can still pick up fridges and dumpsters (provided you get the arm boost) and stack them to gain access to new locations, however, sometimes the objects are reused and have the ability for the character to manipulate them turned off.  Why?  I’m not really sure, maybe to avoid silly results, but to me it feels a bit like big brother.  Level design is still good though.  You can generally do something three different ways at least.

3. Gameplay

In a word, smooth.  Deus Ex plays well on PS3, which is often a platform that is subjected to bad ports.  The first Deus Ex ported poorly to PS2, and the second one ported poorly to everything BUT XBox.  A big improvement to both the stealth and combat systems is gained from a pretty darn good cover system that’s been implemented.  The cover system controls are seemless and intuitive.  They make you look and feel like real special ops.  This is complemented with good third person camera control to make these systems usable.  Popping up at the right time to take a headshot at a guard looking over a balcony is fun and manageable.

As far as difficulty balance, you are immediately made aware that without using the game’s cover system, that enemies are actually not weaker than you.  In fact, they probably have more life and endurance.  With that being said, being good at combat either means taking them out by surprise one at a time, or using close timing and aim.  This is not the same steep learning curve the original Deus Ex had, which is both good and bad.  Although point blank shooting isn’t any more difficult at the beginning (because there is no arbitrary skill), it also makes combat later in the game dull.  Although the enemies definitely get tougher, they never really behave that differently from the beginning.  There is also not much growth in terms of your augmentations with respect to combat skill, which I’ll get to in a sec.

The big mystery with this game was how good the leveling system would be.  The initial game had both a biomod upgrade system and a typical RPG experience system that let the player focus on a crazy amount of stats and abilities.  Here, your options are much more limited.  As far as combat, only a few of the upgrades will make meaningful differences.  Most are frankly a waste or have limited use.  I was particularly disappointed by the fact that new skills will not open up as the game progresses, although I suspect some blank spots in the upgrade tree are probably there to be filled in with DLCs later on.  You’re still at the mercy of your weapons here.  The augmentations available help a few key mechanics in the game, but you never really get to dominate a particular play style here, and there are so many opportunities to upgrade your system, you’ll basically have all the skills towards the end anyway.

As for actual combat, aim for the head, just like every other game.  Most enemies seem to have too much life, but that’s just how it goes when you’re in the realm of fantasy I guess.  As a shooter, the smooth controls and reticule system work well.  The reticule grows bigger if you’re moving, but you’re probably not going to try and take shots unless you’re behind cover anyway.  All weapons have strengths and weaknesses, and the limited inventory that you have available always make a prolonged firefight a gamble because it could be a big net loss to critical ammo.  The reaction time of enemies is very fast, so you’d better not get caught with your head popping out around a corner at the wrong time.  Guards move around on fixed paths like in Metal Gear, which is probably a close comparison as far as stealth goes.

The melee combat mechanic has been removed, which I’m not sure is a great thing.  In place of it, there is a “takedown” system, which is basically like the automatic kills from the Tenchu series of games.  You have the choice of knocking out or killing your enemy depending on how long you press the button.  This mechanic works pretty well, but because it takes energy that is often pretty scarce to come by or recharges too slowly, leaves you vulnerable if you’re caught pulling off one of these moves.  It’s actually a little frustrating to have no recourse with your hands or a crowbar when someone catches you lurching with low energy.  The takedowns are cool, but the one button aspect of the game seems a little cheesy.  The stealth takedown also works on every enemy in the game, with the exception of bosses, making it at times feel extremely overpowered.  This is especially considering that you make pretty much no noise when walking while crouched.  Although there is a modification to make running and sprinting silently possible, because this drains your battery, you can never sprint over to an enemy and then do a takedown because you have less than the required energy (although there are items that let you basically overcharge your batteries).  The concept here frustrates the core usability of your augmentation skills.

One big criticism I’ve read out there in other reviews and compared to the first Deus Ex is with respect to the boss fights.  I think these criticisms are unfounded for the most part.  These battles are few and far between in the game, and have you facing super-powered cyborgs with all sorts of deadly cool stuff.  I think the big hangup is that they are too long; again, the enemies have too much life.  Still, the first game had some boss fights as well.  These fights force you into a gun battle, in particular, because none of your combat skills are unavailable (don’t try one using your takedowns here).  This brings out the flaw in the one-hit takedown in the first place.  Not that nonviolence was really possibility in this conflict.  I think these confrontations keep you on your feet and finally add some toughness to most encounters.  Still, some sort of stealth or novel way of winning these battles would be a neat bonus.

4. Final Thoughts

If I had to give this game a score, it would be ALMOST a 9.  It’s a fun game, and is addicting as hell to play over a long weekend.  It is not the perfect open ended masterpiece the first game arguably was, but it’s still great.  I think as far as design and the level of detail put into the story and cohesiveness of the world, this game is at the top of the class.  If you appreciate thinking, but also like a challenge, this is probably the game for you.  I might just play through it a third time myself.  Approximately 30 hours to finish, depending on how anal you are.