Dragon’s Dogma, Dark Arisen (PS3) – A Bright Spot for Capcom

I’ve written some things about Capcom’s inability to continue the development of its major franchises. At the same time, newer series the company has created constantly appear to be  foundering (is this a screaming endorsement or what?). I’m wondering if it all comes down to development resources, particularly that we’re now in the era of the quarter-billion dollar game. Whatever the reason for Capcom’s woes, Dragon’s Dogma represents another major launch of an original title.

First off, I want to couch any positive review with some warnings that there are some huge problems with Dragon’s Dogma. Surprisingly, they don’t detract from the parts of the game that actually work well, but given the huge amounts of investment that must have been involved in the development, the number and magnitude of flaws is downright perplexing. The long and short of it is that the combat system is very good, but pretty much everything else is bad (or worse). Given that this is a PS-Plus free download for the month of November (complete with “Dark Arisen” DLC pack), I’m assuming Capcom wants to take the risk that more people playing Dragon’s Dogma will allow enough critical mass support to go forward and develop a sequel. Given the raw materials are here for a good game, I’d like to see that.

Look and Feel

Dragon’s Dogma is obviously cast in the mold of Bioware’s 2009 release, Dragon Age: Origins. The comparisons, like similar loading screens, equipment menu layouts, menu selection sound effects, and the entirely-expressionless protagonist, are simply too numerous for it to be anything other than a coincidence. Dragon Age did some things really well, but ultimately I didn’t like the combat system that much and thought it felt flat. The free-roaming world has lush colors and wilderness detail, although it’s not up to the level of Skyrim.

The story and characters are certifiably terrible. Basically at the beginning of the game a big dragon shows up and attacks your village. In the ensuing battle your heart is stolen, but you miraculously survive. Despite the complete lack of emotion expressed by the main character, and the minimal concern that this has happened among your friends and fellow townsfolk, you’re supposed to pick up that your main purpose now is to enact revenge on the dragon. This theme would better be hashed out if your character wasn’t completely mute like a 90’s Squaresoft game though. The main character thus becomes, the “Arisen,” one of many in a cycle of recurring villains and heroes that reappear to threaten, and then respectively save the world. I’m not through the story completely yet, but that’s pretty much it. Story quests do little in answering questions as to why the world is the way it is, or what factions are at play. It’s a far-cry from the narrative conflict between the Stormcloaks and Imperials in Bethesda’s Skyrim, or the million and one ethical dilemmas of Dragon Age. There is no other backstory or pathos. There are no mythology books to pour over, nor a guide giving you any more than the meager bits of story incompetently fed to you by NPCs. Major love interests can be ignored entirely (I wouldn’t even know they existed if it wasn’t for online walkthroughs). To make matters worse, the rest of your party consists of literally soulless beings who offer combat advice, but no narrative content.

With the sheer amount of effort that went into creating a very lush adventure sandbox, and then how that effort was entirely wasted on the complete lack of interesting content. Most side-quests take the form of reading a bulletin board, which generally asks you to kill a certain amount of enemies. Well, you were probably going to do this anyways, as the encounters aren’t randomized and you’re forced to do a lot of walking. There is a fast travel system that is a not explained that well and a little frustrating (although from what I’ve read online, it was improved significantly through patches and upgrades). These aren’t really quests though. NPC quests on the other hand are poorly designed. More often than not, the solution to finding where a certain item is, or where a certain person is hiding comes down to dumb luck. Because there aren’t usually any usable clues on where to proceed next, progressing in a quest usually occurs by finding a random person with a blinking icon over their head. Why would some random guy in the market know what’s going on the castle? The clues don’t even logically follow each other. The “detective” or deductive reasoning aspects are thus reduced to just tedious time-wasters. Another dumb decision is the extreme number of doors you can’t enter. I get it, you didn’t want to have to put stuff in 500 houses. I’m cool with that. But when you go to one of these doors and try to open it, the message often reads “The door is closed.” Yeah, obviously it’s closed, now tell me why I can’t go in. What it should say is that you can’t enter. It’s a pain trying to figure out which ones you CAN actually enter, because that’s seemingly random. Outside combat, music is uninspiring. 

Another big NES-style boner comes from the beautiful, yet constant and frustrating progression between night and day (this could arguably be a criticism of real life if you think about it). This is a classic criticism 1987 game Castlevania II, Simon’s Quest. With 25 years, Capcom definitely had fair warning here. Night and day are a cool concept, and the difference in Dragon’s Dogma between the two is not insignificant. Monsters are usually more powerful at night, and certain NPCs, flora, and fauna will manifest itself at certain times. Also, it’s dark at night, and having a lantern with you is not an adequate substitute for natural daylight. Alright, so this is maybe like those old Ultima games, or like Skyrim or something. Sure. The big difference is that there is no option to wait, or camp until morning, other than going to an inn. There aren’t a lot of inns though, so you’re basically stuck waiting until it’s morning again. Please, Ultima figured out how to avoid this in the 80’s. Obvious fixes other than an option to camp; make the nights shorter, or make then less frequent.

One standout area for Dragon’s Dogma, however, is the character creation system. There is no choosing alternate races, but the choices you’re given are maybe more substantive, as there is some impact on how you perform in combat and what you can carry.

Combat

Dragon’s Dogma’s combat innovations dwarf it’s other flaws. In particular, the combat takes oft-repeated premises and recasts them into a more coherent form. In particular, for a third-person action-style RPG, Dragon’s Dogma has strategic elements that make the standard fighter, rogue, mage dynamic more interesting. Each class doesn’t just have different skills, the upgrade systems impact other aspects of mobility and durability. Getting ambushed in a canyon or having the high ground can be huge disadvantages or advantages respectively. Flanking makes sense and works well, which adds a layer of validity to the genre a lot of other games don’t have. It’s an RPG, but less reliant on using stats and numbers and replacing it with more free-form control.

One aspect that heightens this experience relates to the fact that each enemy you face has a high degree of interaction with your party. This isn’t just stun, but also how groups of enemies function together. For example, one aspect of having a fighter as a pawn is allowing it to grab and pin smaller enemies down in a hold. Airborn enemies are required to be shot out of the sky. In other words, rather than just having stats, a mage, fighter, or rogue all fundamentally offer different playing experiences.

I really like that Dragon’s Dogma took the approach that it wanted fewer enemies, with a very rich interaction possible, rather than having too many enemies. I’d like to see more enemies, but the content that is in here is rich. The contributions of the AI, or “pawn” party members also makes this memorable. The team members don’t just use enemy knowledge in combat to attack, they offer advice and observations to the main character as aid. It feels like real teamwork.

Probably the best thing about combat in Dragon’s Dogma though is the “bigness.” Dragon’s Dogma creates encounters with massive monsters that are exciting, but also unscripted. Action games frequently restrict gargantuan battles to being overly scripted and rote. The best example of this is the gold-standard in mythological brutality, God of War. Awesome acrobatic feats are reduced to cinematic gloss and memorized button combinations. Dragon’s Dogma lets you mount an Ogre or Cyclops and cling onto the arms while slicing it with a dagger. Attacking the weapon arm of a Cyclops can knock the club out of its hand, and, naturally, the snake tale of a Chimera can be severed, thus preventing it from poisoning the party. Hit the weak points, or, more importantly, don’t. You don’t really have to in order to win. There isn’t a single-way to beat theses enemies, just options. This freedom is what separates the large, boss-style encounters from other games. Again, this only can be supported by having great interactivity programmed. Critically, the combat experience is more satisfying when a huge monster isn’t just beaten, but is slowly worn down and weakened over the course of a long battle with a prepared party. 

The most unfortunate aspect about this is that the actual genius of the combat system isn’t revealed until you’re several hours into the endeavor. The combat in Dragon’s Dogma feels quite lame until you make it to Gran Soren, a key story location. After this though, the difficulty is raised significantly. If there were a point where I was ready to give up, it was right here.

Forced Sharing in an Online World

So many games have tried to take the MMORPG format and cast it back into a single-player format. I think the most notable of these is Final Fantasy XII, in which you took the drivers seat in creating an automated party based on a series of simple programming commands. Although FFXII worked well on paper, the system was too complex and ultimately frustrating to tweak. Dragon’s Dogma on the other hand has this aspect figured out pretty well.

Your own “pawn” serves as a customization member of your party. You can upgrade his skills and equipment accordingly. But you’re aided with two other random pawns as well. This is a novel approach, and I think it adds something unique and refreshing to the gameplay. Because two of the four “pawns” in your party aren’t your own, they is necessarily some forced interaction with the other Dragon’s Dogma community. You can either fill the remaining two slots with pawns you encounter in game, or enter an area known as the rift and use a more refined search technique. These pawns won’t level with you; they’ve been leveled and sculpted by other players.

The process is managed by restricting the level to which you can recruit certain pawns, making a rotation of supporting cast members necessary as you level and progress. It also creates party flexibility without having to start from scratch. A system is in place to force players to leave comments and rank pawns accordingly after they leave your party. I find this to be a perfect element of online gameplay.

Final Thoughts

A tutorial, particularly showing you some of the nuanced aspects of the game, like the NPC “affinity” system, or better battle guidance for beginners would be obvious improvements. But Dragon’s Dogma has the guts to be a winner. Now if only Capcom could hire some writers.

Skyrim: Peeves and Praises (PS3)

Praises

I mentioned in an earlier post that the stat screen has either been obscured or eliminated.  Unless I”m missing something, I’m pretty sure it’s been eliminated at this point.  Initially I was worried there was some aspect of the game that’s been dumbed down or simplified. Final Fantasy 13 does this, and I think it’s a major weakness of the game.  Cutting out the obscure D&D stats is a good thing, but only if it’s done in such a way that gives you some ability to customize what you’re doing.  In FF13, I felt as if I was always constrained as to what was happening with my characters.  There was some sort of crystal grid or some ridiculous mumb0-jumbo, but basically powering up your characters was done in a straight line.  Any shot at taking on the toughest challenges in the game demanded you max out all areas of the grid anyway, so the destination as to what your party looks like at the end is always about the same.

On the contrary though, Skyrim has removed the D&D stats and replaced it completely with the skills system from prior iterations, coupled with the “perks” trees.  The result is to remove all that commitment to what your character is up front by rolling a die to choose attributes, and making the character the sum of his or her own actions.  You want to use great magic, well, practice and your level will become higher.  You want to be better with a shield, use a shield.  There is a certain logic in this that is appealing.  It does away with all this odd terminology and replaces it with something more simple.  Unlike FF13, Bethesda can get away with this by replacing these skills not only with a good leveling system, but also by injecting a higher level of interaction from the player.  Skyrim very clearly wants to break the RPG mold and just be an action game with a ton of customization.  That might be the best way to think of it actually, it’s an action game where you have a lot of options.

Where Skyrim, and newer sandbox games made by other American publishers, completely excel is their ability to replace the RPG menu-drive combat system with something fluid.  Combat isn’t hitting  R1, or “Attack” over and over again, it’s moving around, dodging arrows and parrying battle-axes.  These games are going to continue to smash the JRPG format in the coming years, and it’s easy to understand why.  There are downsides to letting the player takeover as the missing element to statistics tables; it might be harder or entirely too easy for someone.   It’s a risk worth taking though.  Sure smihing or alchemy are basically a menu driven event system, but at least they’re based on the underlying world where you need to either explore, barter, or steal to find supplies.

I suspect the trend of reducing attributes with actual action and player involvement will continue with this franchise, and I suspect Bethesda’s games will get better.  The JRPG franchises of old need to stop experimenting with crazy menu format gimmicks, dispense the sphere grids, junction systems, and crystal grids of old.  The menu system in FF6 was fine, it kept being changed after as the SquareSoft tried to hang onto the quant aspect of gaming, but introduce something to jazz it up.  It didn’t need to be jazzed up though, menus are ok.  The combat’s representative, I get why the guy doesn’t need to run all the way over there to do damage.  It’s just like a game of chess; you don’t need to give the king a knife or something to show how he’s killing the rook.  As you may have guessed, FF13 was disappointing, and the game mechanics were fundamentally frustrating and flawed.  It was another unsuccessful hybrid of action and menus.  If you’re going for full on action, you’ve gotta go all the way.  Skryrim does this successfully, and Oblivion did as well.  Not that the JRPG menu format needs to die completely.  I’m not a firm believer that representative combat is bad.  But the more goofy systems that are introduced to replace good-old fashioned character classes, the worse that genre will do.

Ok, now onto something that’s been noticeably lacking.  A friend of mine suggested that I add some peeves to my review of this game.  He’s right, I’ve given a lot of praise here without any complaints.  At the time, I didn’t have any, but after logging in some serious hours over the past few weeks, I’ve got a few gripes that are worth noting.

1. Unbalanced Enemies

Skyrim uses the randomization elements as Fallout for enemy populating, so if you’ve played those games, you’ll have an idea what I’m talking about.  As you advance in levels, the enemies will advance as well.  Some only have one subset, so a Snow Bear (Polar Bear) basically always has the same stats from what I gather.  Enemies that are based on humans usually have a lot of different level varieties.  From low levels to high, you’ll run into a Bandit, then a Bandit Outlaw, then a Bandit Plunderer/Marauder, etc.  Of course as your character gets strong, the enemies should get stronger too, but Skyrim takes an unbalanced approach to this concept.  A group of bandits at level 40 for example, might be comprised of a low level Bandit, a Bandit Outlaw, and a Marauder.  All these enemies look pretty much the same, but the level of difficulty is completely different.  Consequently, you’ll knock the two first guys down with one sword swing, but the third guy will take 50, or will kill you with one big smack from a warhammer.  I’m a one many army that’s killed 20 dragons, and one guy with a loin cloth and a rock tied to a stick killed me?  What gives?

This problem is about 100 times worse with mages, who all wear the same clothes and look the same.  Unless you’re targeting them, you’ll have no idea whether a novice or a master is throwing some lightning at you, making every encounter a huge gamble as to preparedness.  A weak mage won’t make a dent in your health, but his buddy will kill you with same attack that for some reason does 20 times the damage.  Part of the problem is that the enemies look the same, and have the same animations.  The strongest lightning spell looks very similar to the weakest.  I appreciate that the developers wanted to do a good job with one graphic, rather than making a lot of lousy ones.  However, when you can’t evaluate what type of enemy you’re fighting, you don’t know how to prepare.  It’s not that Skryim is difficult, it’s just that you don’t have any idea when the difficulty is about to kick in.  By increasing the levels of enemies, but not clearly giving a lot of guidance as to when this is happening , or who it’s happened too, creates some frustrating encounters.   Again, it’s not a question of difficulty, but of expectations.  If you’ve played Fallout and ever come up against a Super Mutant that takes about 1500 bullets to kill you know what I’m talking about.

2. Persuasion’s Gone

Ah, I miss the persuasion wheel.  Sadly, one of the goofiest mini games in RPG history is gone.  If you remember from Oblivion, the persuasion wheel would unlock speech options if you successfully made someone like you enough by using the same four speech techniques over and over again.  I mean, come on, who doesn’t like to be flattered?  It was a bad system, and could be avoided if you knew how to use magic to get around it.  Still, it had an important role in expanding the game’s concept of freedom.  It gave you the freedom to influence and get better results or avoid combat altogether.

It’s been replaced with the Fallout 3 system where you have a Persuasion or Intimidation option in certain interactions, and presumably at least, have a chance to get the better outcome depending on how good your speech skill was.  I think these little mini-games are a good break from the rest of the game, and to have only the occasional chance to use persuasion makes the whole speech skill tree kind of useless.  Again, on the riff I just did on stats, this would be classic character “charisma.”

In Oblivion, you’d often encounter persons who had information they didn’t want to give you, if they didn’t like your race or affiliation.  You knew they knew something, and the persuasion wheel was how you were going to wring it out of them.  It’s gone here.  Perhaps this is a good example of how getting rid of certain stats can be a bad thing; there is no replacement here for in-game persuasion that’s nearly as satisfying.

3. Puzzles

I was hoping for more puzzles and more thinking.  Early on, if you’re proceeding with the main story quests, you’ll encounter all sorts of Indiana Jones style temples with traps, and eventually a giant puzzle door.  The solution – spoiler alert – is by identifying what the key tells you are the correct symbols to display on the door.  The way to do this is to manually inspect the key-like item in the inventory screen and rotate it.  Classic!  It’s just like in the first Resident Evil (I bet you had to look up whether to open the book in the game to get the medal, am I right?), a feature that was sadly abandoned in Resident Evil 2.  I was stoked.  This was great. I really liked the oil slicks too, which you can ignite and create some great fire traps with.

Unfortunately, you see very few puzzles later on in the game.  The richness of the world that’s been created certainly would support spells that would let you use fire to melt ice, or shock water with electricity.  Maybe some use of an electricity spell to start an old Dwarven (or Dwemer) machine.  Where the strength of this game should be open-endedness and freedom, there needs to be some additional tools in your arsenal to create new paths or use your brain.  What bothers me isn’t that Skryrim is shorting-changing us here, it’s just that it could offer a lot more options for the thinking player than it does, without a lot more programming effort.  Fingers crossed that there will be some mods or expansions tapping into this need more.

4. Freezing/Loading Issues

Ok, this is really a huge problem with all of Bethesda’s games.  Granted, I would rather they keep making great games, but the issues with loading and freezing, and in some cases frame-rate clipping are pretty extreme.  I didn’t even think these problems were possible on a PS3 until I played Fallout.  Some of the old Fallout 3 style glitches are back.  Every few hours the game can freeze on you when loading a new environment, or freeze during combat leaving no options but to reset and hope you didn’t lose anything important.  It’s very frustrating, and I was caught off-guard as to how frequent it happens, especially considering I’m not even using a PC version.  My 80 gig PS3 burned out while playing Skryim a few weeks back, forcing me to buy a new one.  Hey, it was probably on it’s way out, but now I’m beginning to suspect there are some problems here.  I’m hoping the PS3 patch v. 1.3 will be out soon and will deal with some of these issues.  We’ll see what happens when the next round of patches come out.  It’s  a very complex game that uses a lot of processor resources.  I’ll be patient with a few blips here or there.  Freezing once every 90 minutes though is not acceptable though.

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: 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.

Dragon Age: Origins

Mass Effect has been on my to play list for about as long as it came out.  It just seemed like my thing, I had heard good things about Bioware.  I keep kidding myself that someday I’ll get to it, just like I’ll get to Skies of Arcadia (serious forces have transpired on multiple occasions to keep this from happening).

I had heard good things about Dragon Age in the early spring of 2010 from a coworker, and it was Bioware, so naturally when I had a free $20 or less game coupon at K-Mart (great deal, K-Mart, who knew?), I picked up Dragon Age: Origins as my choice.  This game got stellar reviews, so I was surprised at how unpolished a product it was.  One of the big benefits of the game is to see how decisions made in the story have an impact on the game’s ultimate outcome.  Unfortunately, after finishing with about 30 hours of play time, I’m reluctant to go through it again.  This game has a decent amount of fun moments, but ultimately is unpolished and, at times, frustrating.  The world created is simply not interesting enough for me to want to invest the time to explore it further.

Environment/Story

By a twist of fate, the main character, a Grey Warden, is given the task of reuniting a band of less-than-friendly races to build an army to fight off a menacing hoard of undead known as “the Darkspawn.”  If this sounds like the story of Lord of the Rings; it’s because it is.  The player’s main goal is to unite the Elves, Dwarves, and splintered humans into contributing to fight off a blight that promises to swallow the world.  Along the way, you are constantly reminded that actions have consequences, as well as overarching themes about the responsibilities of powerful people.

The game heavily relies on Dungeons and Dragons, like the Baldur’s Gate franchise, in utilizing a system of battle statistics and special skills.  Characters are not complex, they are cookie-cutter.  Mage, warrior and rogue.  It’s all D&D or Lord of the Rings derivative.  Armor and equipment are equally bland.  The characters have simple stories and simple personalities, but a good deal of effort was put into making them operate as a team (with little asides to each other depending on your party’s composition), and the introduction of of a likeability statistic that can be boosted by taking actions consistent with that character’s belief-system, or by giving them special gifts.

Enemies are less-inspired, and are basically just evil.  There are undead enemies and also demons and Darkspawn, which, aside from humans and the occasional giant bug, make up a majority of the action in the game.  What’s the difference between a Darkspawn and an undead?  Nothing really, they basically look the same.  You’ll see the same thing over and over again during the game.  It used to be that game designers would level-up the enemies and denote the changes by changing the sprite colors.  This simple short-cut was lazy, but it worked.  I wish that the same thing had been done in this game though, as it is difficult to assess what kind of threat is coming out around the corner when the enemies always look the same, but have vastly different abilities.  The same thing over and over again.  I would have been happy with simply changing the colors…

There is no world-map system, moving from place to place is done on a map where sometimes semi-random events are triggered.  These events are just fixed battles though, and often they are surprisingly difficult.  The environments are not interactive in the slightest.  There is generally just a few persons to talk to, and then enemies around filling most of the dungeons.  No puzzles or secrets. Voice over and musical composition are unexceptional.  No complex plot-resolutions that require thought.  Side-quests are flat and uninspiring.  Animations for characters aren’t really that good.  A lot of the non-combat aspects of the game have your character either just running around or standing in place during oddly structured dialogues.  Standing in front of a hostile giant dragon; what a great place for a 15 minute conversation on what you need to do next?

Ultimately, character and environment design seem stifled.  Clearly the developers did not want to spend a good deal of time coming up with gold here.  What you’re left with is a generic medieval fantasy world with graphics that would have been decent on PS2.

Open-Ended

I’ll give this game high-marks on the amount of control the player has over the character.  Tough decisions are frequently forced upon the main character, and those decisions not only can proximately impact the companions in your current party, but also impact the broader resolution of the game.  When I mean tough decisions, they are not the same type of decisions that someone would encounter in say, Fallout.  The decisions are rarely good or evil (evil + a cool item).  Usually the choices that need to be made are true rock-and-hard-place type dilemmas; ratting out a dear friend or and risk catastrophe, or maintaining order at the expense of personal loyalty.  Doubt about whether the ends justify the means will cloud over every one of the tough decisions in this game that must be made.  The game forces a conscience on the player as well, by requiring the player to commit to an ethically complex solution several times.  The dialogue frequently ends up like this?: Do you want to kill X or let him go?  Are you sure you want to kill X?  Kill X/Let him go?  In between these questions, the characters in your current party will chime in and give their own opinions as to what the course of action should be.  And they will disagree.  The consequences of the disagreement are immediate as well; if one of your party members dislikes enough of your actions they may leave or they may agree with you thus increasing a combat statistic as a perk.  Saving individual characters is not the only tough choice you’ll have to make.  You’ll also have to decide which race survives, and how much freedom you’re willing to sacrifice in order to stop the Darkspawn.

The repetition of whether here initially I thought was very annoying, until I realized the game developers were really trying to stress the importance of this aspect of the game on the player.  Unless you’re absolutely obstinate, you will waiver in your course of action when these situations present themselves as all sides of the argument are presented.  I almost always changed an out of the gate hard line on an issue, to compromise position.  Frequently though, the game cuts the possibility of a compromise out of the equation though, making the ultimate decision even harder.  You are berated by the fact that these choices aren’t easy.  Practically speaking though, this back and forth with your party is time-consuming and breaks up any tension in the plot.  Facing a key boss or potential ally/adversary has no climax with a 10 minute break for an ethical discourse.  This is the most unique and best designed portion of the game; generating an emotional rollercoaster that results from having power and the being forced to decide how to use it.

I took a middle of the road approach to most of these actions, but a friend of mine who inadvertently started playing this game at the same time I was, deliberately took an entirely evil path.  He gave me plot resolution outcomes that seemed improbable, but also exposed to me how my oversimplified I made the world out to be.  In a bit of a spoiler, I’ll explain.  I saved the elves.  My friend saved the werewolves.  What you discover relatively early in resolving this particular quest, is that the werewolves at war with the elves are sentient beings.  Necessarily, they must die if you’re to resolve the problem the elves are having.  Did I inadvertently commit a genocide and not even realize it?  Possibly.  The implications are profound.  Should you save the ruthless tyrant?  Probably not, but it’s still a choice at least.  Bioware is onto something here.

The other open-ended aspect of the game relates to side-quests and the order at which the main plot of uniting the races of Fereldon can be completed.  What is unclear to me thus far is what impact going to recruit one race has on the outcomes of the other; but I generally like choice.  Side-quests are a key weak point here though.  Basically you are given a list of objectives, but because the game doesn’t really have a complex item or interaction system with the environment, all quests are essentially go to X, kill/talk, go to Y.  A game like Oblivion had a way of disguising the fact that all you’re basically doing the same thing over and over again, here there are less layers of complexity.  None of these side-quests seem to matter or impact the story.  They are filler in an attempt to give the player a chance at slightly better loot or experience.

Action/Combat & Difficulty

My girlfriend’s comment upon stumbling home at midnight was “this looks like World of Warcraft.”  Indeed, the new vogue in RPGs seems to be creating a team experience where the player’s main goal is to manage a party in combat, rather than direct its every move.  You’re given a programming system that reminded me a lot of Final Fantasy 12, although in practice it didn’t seem to work as well.  Party members rarely did what I wanted when there were more than one or two enemies.  I suspect a significant portion of this result was operator error.  But without a more complex tutorial system I was lost.  You can also switch to other party members and control them directly, but critically you can never control all 4 at once.

I mentioned Baldur’s Gate earlier, and I extend that comparison to the combat here.  The skills the mage character class has, for example, are virtually identical.  When the going gets tough, the chaos that emerges from a big battle is both overwhelming and exhilarating.  It really does feel like an MMORPG.  The difference between one spell cast or special ability cooling down means life or death.  The post-combat auto regeneration of life and mana also are a kind improvement over Balur’s Gate.  An enemy getting close to you means death if you’re the wrong class.  Often I held back on enemies I thought were weaker only to find myself surprisingly dead.  This is dangerous ground.  A close call makes the game a lot of fun, but a lot of repetitive losses in situations where you can’t exit and start over made it frustrating for me.  Towards the end I found myself begrudgingly turning down the difficulty.

Enemies tactics and toughness seem quite evenly matched to your own party during the game; so this is not the possibility of level grinding for super-equipment or amazing abilities is not there.  This isn’t necessarily a problem, but sometimes I prefer to trade incredible playing skill for brute grinding force in an RPG.  Maybe this is a lesson long-unlearned from Dragon Warrior.  I often found it difficulty to acquire enough money for equipment that was any more than marginally better than what I already had, and this was a bit frustrating.  The side-quests the game provides offer some detours for more experience and power, but I stopped doing these after I realized a town on the world map was swallowed by the impending hoard in the game.  Obviously doing side-quests was going to limit other possiblities (another important choice), so I, perhaps prematurely, stopped trying to tie up some of these loose ends.  I would have liked the opportunity to have more control over the odds of winning in this game.  The branch structure of leveling, and the fact that 10 or 15 levels is kind of a lot make the stakes of choosing the right abilities higher as well.  I wish I had picked up different abilities for virtually all of my party members.  You can find yourself investing 4 levels into getting the master skill that turns out to be a dud.  No going back after this one.  Very harsh.  This combined with the difficulty of even some routine battles can be discouraging.

Map and menu options are detailed, but are poorly organized if you have this game on a console.  This is a sharp contrast to the level of control in real-time you have over special character abilities, which is both economical and intuitive.  The 6 special button slots (three buttons, with the back buttons swapping out triangle, square and 0 work well).  Curiously though, a lot of menu options or special abilities freeze the action in the game though, so it’s unclear whether the real-time aspect of the game was fleshed out here.

Final Thoughts

I’ll admit I played this game compulsively for a few weeks over the summer, but this review is less than glowing.  If I had to give this game a score, it would be around 7.5.  The strangely addicting aspect comes from the WoW feeling the game gives.  If you like those types of RPGs, then this should be something you experiment with.  Perhaps a second-play through would have given me more confidence in completing the battle aspects of the game.  New decisions might be fun to make.  But my interest in going back into this world would be to discover new things, resolve new problems.  Changing the NPCs that pop up along side you at the end is not worth 30 hours of game time.