October 2010 Archives

Recently, I have become addicted to the indie darling Minecraft after being inundated with chatter about the game for about 2-3 months now.  Though the game is only in alpha testing now, the fundamental gameplay is extremely solid and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys sandbox games and isn't bothered by the rather primitive graphics.

In an effort to guide my gameplay into something a little more productive in terms of writing (and at the encouragement of a few friends), I've decided to do a "Let's Play" from the point of view of a woman shipwrecked after a storm, forced to face the wilds of the new island she finds herself on, and to build a new colony and explore the territory.  For that reason, I'll be trying to stick as closely to "realistic" looking construction, and avoiding the more game-y constructions many Minecrafters develop, like automatic monster killers, torchlit tree farms, and things of that nature.  At the moment, I don't have any plans to use any mods other than texture packs, which I may experiment with a little.  Setting-wise, I am taking inspiration from the setting for the game Arcanum, which I highly recommend playing if you've never done so.

If you're unfamiliar with Minecraft, the best way I've heard it explained is that it is "Legos with zombies"; you collect materials to make new tools and construct buildings, and the world you play in is populated both with animals like sheep, cows, and pigs, but at night, or in dark places underground, you are likely to be beset by monsters like zombies, giant spiders, and the exploding creepers.  The game is still under development, and new features are being added all the time.

This prologue begins the story and sets up the events which follow; there won't be a whole lot of actual "playing" quite yet, but that should begin soon (I'm debating whether to wait for the Halloween update to begin the actual game part).

27 October 318

The captain of the Dunsany Star has agreed to take me aboard for his trip to the Oestrian colonies in return for almost all my savings, but finally the trip across the ocean is within my reach.  I'm looking forward to continuing my studies of the Oestrian tribes first hand; the library at the University is extensive, but one can only learn so much from books.

Captain Upton has warned me that the sea is no place for a lady, but I have promised to pull my weight and assist the ship's surgeon, Dr. Polton, as best I can.  The doctor seems a reasonable sort, and he seemed most impressed by my letters and knowledge of modern medicine, for which I will need to thank Professor Barton when I eventually return.  I have also volunteered to help with other shipboard duties as best I can, though there seems little call for cooking or other domestic duties here.

While I admit I know little about seagoing vessels, the Star seems study enough, and the captain assures me his crew is capable.  Despite their rough demeanor, which I understand is not unusual for seamen, Captain Upton and his officers seem able to keep them in line and hopefully we will make good time to Oestria.

31 October 318

Four days out of Knightsport and the weather remains good, for which I am eternally grateful.  So far, I have had little trouble with seasickness after the first day (where my troubles brought no end of amusement to the ship's crew).  I did not realize at first how tight the quarters really would be aboard ship; the captain has been nice enough to allow me a berth with the ship's officers, but even in that segregated space I cannot help but feel a bit uncomfortable, sharing a small room with three men.  Still, they have been gentlemen, and allowed me a bit of privacy, which seems a luxury few others aboard enjoy.

I must say that I have never realized how very isolating a trip at sea really is; on land, there is always a farmstead or fishing village or at least some kind of new terrain to entertain the eye.  At sea, there is nothing of the sort, and ever since the lighthouse of Knightsport harbor passed below the horizon, I have seen no other sign of civilization.  The occasional sighting of a breaching whale or a school of fish dancing beneath the waves has given me great delight, to know that it is not quite as empty as it seems, but I wonder how sailors can stand this for so many months out of the year.

2 November 318

There was an accident on the ship today; one of the crew was working in the rigging and fell, tumbling to the deck.  Dr. Polton and I tried to save him, but there was little we could do.  The man's head had hit the ground and nearly cracked open like an egg.  I have never seen so much blood.  Examining diagrams and even the few dissections I helped Professor Barton with did not prepare me for the sight.

What has disturbed me the most though is the attitudes of the crew.  It was not long after we put the man to rest at sea when the crew continued carrying on as if nothing had happened.  The captain tells me that this is the necessity of the sea, that death is not uncommon, especially on long voyages such as ours.  If everything stopped for such events, the ship would be in even more danger than it already was.  While I appreciate the gravity of our situation, it seems uncivilized to be cracking jokes and telling stories of...well, such things as they do so soon after a fellow seaman has been laid to rest.  The captain seems to be bemused by the fact that I am so surprised.

6 November 318

The weather has taken a turn for the worse, as has my seasickness.  Captain Upton assures me that the ship and his crew have seen worse.  Truth be told, I would not be so much bothered by the wind and the rain if I was back home in Cantersbridge, but here the wind does not just howl at the walls and doorways, but pitches the ship to and fro.  I have been soaked to the bone more than once by a spray from the waves, and there are few places to dry off.

8 November 318

The storm seems to have lifted for now, though the skies remain ominous in the distance.  The captain has ordered a change of course, one which is taking us away from the storm front, but will likely add several days to our trip.  This has brought mixed reactions from the crew, and I find myself of two minds as well.  Still, the crew seems to trust the captain's judgement, and I have no reason to doubt him.

16 November 318

The weather continues to hold, and I admit I am beginning to have trouble filling my days as time goes on.  I have been trying to get the captain to teach me more about the practical matters that need to be taken care of aboard ship, but he is busy man and seems to find my questions more annoying than anything else.  I do not think he takes them seriously, either because I am a woman, or because I am an academic.

In reality, I am growing more and more concerned that I am unprepared for the life that awaits me in the colonies.  The last three weeks have shown me a great deal I did not know, or even what would occur to me.  City life is very different from here at sea, and from what I have heard from the ship's officers, from life in the colonies.

23 November 318

The weather is beginning to turn.  The rain has just started, but the wind has been picking up for several hours now.  I've come back below decks for the time being, and it is getting difficult to write as the sea pitches the boat.  Hopefully this will only be temporary; we are still at least three weeks away from Oestria.

LTTP: Alpha Protocol

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So, this is a few months late now, but I really wanted to talk about Alpha Protocol, since it was one of the games I was most looking forward to this year and because it's the latest product from Obsidian Entertainment.  If you don't know who Obsidian is, many of the founders of that company are former people from Black Isle Studios, which made Fallout, Fallout 2, and Planescape: Torment.  Obsidian previously made the flawed gem Knights of the Old Republic 2 and will be releasing Fallout: New Vegas later this month.

My interest had been piqued in the game last fall after I'd watched a talk Chris Avellone, the lead designer, had given at Frameworks in Australia last year, so I had preordered the game in anticipation of it coming out last May.  Unfortunately, when the game was released, it wouldn't run on my computer, despite spending two weeks going back and forth with tech support.  It wasn't until I installed Windows 7 and a new patch finally came out for the game a couple weeks ago that I was actually able to play the game.

With four months between the release date and actually playing the game, it was hard not to be spoiled a little by forum discussions and reviews, especially since I was really interested in the game.  Reviews of the game were lukewarm at best, but there was enough praise of the parts I was concerned about -- the storytelling -- that I was still looking forward to playing the game.  Now that I've played it, the game's storytelling is as superb as I could have hoped, but unfortunately it is wrapped in some very frustrating gameplay.  Here's my rundown of the good and bad:

The Good

  • Alpha Protocol's greatest strength is the sheer number of ways the story can play out based on the choices the player makes in the missions and in the conversations with the other characters.  I played this game side by side with my friend Deirdre, and in general we tend to make similar choices in most RPGs, so I expected our playthroughs to be pretty much the same.  However, we started diverging early in our second mission hub, and the way the game played out got further and further apart as we went on.  The missions we did were all very similar, but how they played out and what was involved were often very different based on our choices.  Compared to Mass Effect 2, which I think was overall a far superior game, Alpha Protocol does a far better job at portraying a dynamic storyline within certain constraints.  The framing device, with most of the game being told in flashback, was also used to good effect, putting your actions in a larger context.
  • As might be expected, the writing in the game is also pretty good, though I think it still falls short of the high bar set by Mass Effect 2 this spring.  While the characters for the most part hold up, and some are simply superb (Steven Heck will be sticking in my mind for some time to come, for sure), none of them really got a chance to shine like almost every one of your companions did in Mass Effect 2.  To some extent, I'm sure the fact that Alpha Protocol is a very single-character focused game causes this, but it's hard not to compare the two games.  The plot is not all that original, but it is presented and executed well.
  • I really liked the dossier system that the game had for finding out more information about the various characters and factions.  It could have been slightly better in presentation (it was hard to find out which dossiers had been recently updated with new information, for instance) but peeling back the layers of the various actors within the game was a lot of fun and really felt like actual spy work.
  • For similar reasons, I liked that there were a fair number of missions that were simply conversation trees where you met with informants or confronted opponents.  The reputation system in the game, which is driven in large part through these conversations, is a lot of fun to play with as well, and the effects it has on the story are rather pronounced, as I mentioned above.  Very superior to both the systems in Dragon Age (which was extremely easy to game with gifts) and the system in Mass Effect 2 (which was a binary not loyal/loyal).

The Bad

  • I really do not like boss fights; they were the worst part of Dawn of War 2 for me (I still never beat that stupid Avatar mission in the campaign) and in a game like Alpha Protocol where, for the most part, it is trying to stay vaguely realistic, it is extremely jarring.  It's especially frustrating because while much of the game can be played in a stealth-heavy fashion, almost none of the boss fights can be played in that way.  However, while they are only somewhat annoying (and at least tend to be rather infrequent) in the main part of the game, the endgame of Alpha Protocol features no less than 4 separate boss fights.  While some are harder than others depending on choices you made earlier in the game, this does mean that a lot of the endgame bogs down to dying a lot and retrying over and over.  This destroys the pacing and really makes you feel like a chump, the superspy that keeps dying to showers of grenades, barrages of rockets, and a hail of bullets.  That's not fun; compare to Mass Effect 2, where none of the boss fights were particularly difficult compared to most of the normal fights, and they were very few and far between -- and the endgame had challenges and new gameplay that was not a sudden ramp up in difficulty, just something to shake things up.  It feels like someone wanted to make Alpha Protocol's endgame feel intense, but couldn't come up with any way to do it other than piling hard fight after hard fight.
  • Aside from being mostly worthless during the majority of the boss fights, stealth is also kind of primitive; most of the stealth abilities seem very gamey, basically boiling down an almost magical invisibility at times.  Deirdre, who has played Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid, also said that the stealth options seemed very primitive; I haven't played those, so I don't feel like I can really speak to it much, but they didn't feel especially organic or well-presented to me.
  • One of the biggest problems with Alpha Protocol is that it is very clearly a console port, and suffers from that in almost every way.  The minigame for hacking is the biggest example of here; it involves moving two character blocks through a shifting field of characters to match the strings.  One string is moved with WASD and the other is moved with the mouse, whereas on the console both are moved with joysticks and locked with trigger buttons.  Unfortunately, in the computer version, the mouse controlled string is extremely sluggish, making completing the puzzle in the alloted time extremely difficult sometimes, especially when you are still sort of figuring it out.  I suspect using the sniper rifles scattered through out the game (and almost required in one of the endgame boss fights) is another case here -- it seemed really hard to control them with the mouse, even though I don't usually have similar problems with other games.  There's also a very small number of hotkeys -- you have to change out abilities/items in a menu to use them instead of simply having individual hotkeys for your most-used abilities, which was annoying at times.

The Ugly

  • Like Mass Effect, Alpha Protocol uses a conversation system where you pick an attitude or the gist of a statement and your character delivers the lines, rather than you picking exactly what your character says.  It's big difference is that the choice is timed, which increases the urgency and keeps the pace going.  While I can see why they made this choice, I'm not sure I like it myself.  There are several places where making a certain choice in a conversation makes Thorton do something really unexpected -- Deirdre mentioned picking a conversation choice that led to her shooting someone she had no intention of shooting, which seems like it takes things a bit far.
  • The tutorial section gets you familiar with the mechanics of the various aspects of the game, but because your skills are so weak at the beginning of the game, many of the things I picked up during the course of the game -- waiting until my reticle shrank to make sure I got a good shot off, for instance -- were really hard to get the hang of, especially on the weapons course, where I was trying to run through and get good shots off.  I am very wary of mixing RPG mechanics and shooting in games -- I couldn't even make it through the first part of Deus Ex because of that, and it was an annoyance in the first Mass Effect too -- but despite a lot of the griping I saw on forums after the game came out, I really didn't think it was that bad once I got further into the game.  It was a little hard to grasp in the tutorial though, and that's something that could definitely have been improved.
  • Buying equipment was a tad bit silly in the game; while I understand the game balance reasons for it, pistols that cost $150,000 that aren't made from solid gold clash a bit with the rest of the game's tone. I wish they had done this a bit differently, perhaps putting more emphasis on making connections with dealers and making money less of an issue.
  • Perhaps because of it's slightly more realistic setting, Alpha Protocol didn't really have any real jawdropping moments like in Mass Effect or Dragon Age; few of the set pieces really stand out, aside from those which were coupled with the incredibly frustrating boss fights. It's harder to do with a more reality-based game than those two, for sure, but Bond and Bourne movies, which Alpha Protocol clearly takes a lot from, certainly have their fair share of amazing action scenes, and Alpha Protocol doesn't really manage to bring that across.  It could be a creative choice, but I think frenetic and exciting set pieces would have been a lot better than gamey boss fights for maintaining the spy-movie feel.

Despite its many problems though, Alpha Protocol is definitely worth a look -- perhaps not at the $50 price point, but once it goes on sale for $20 or so, I'd recommend it to any fan of RPGs.  It's really disappointing that it doesn't appear Obsidian will be getting the chance to make a sequel, because I feel like it's a case where the same sort of transition provided by the Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2 development could really turn Alpha Protocol into a very solid game.  Unfortunately, as it stands, Alpha Protocol is a mediocre game, despite being packed with many really well-done elements.  This is only compounded by the fact that as an RPG it came out within six months of two superb efforts by Bioware, about the only company that can challenge the Black Isle legacy for quality RPGs.  The contrast between Alpha Protocol and Mass Effect 2 is pretty stark in terms of polish, even though it's clear they were not designed with the same intent (despite both being third person shooters for the most part).

I would love to see Bioware take a lot of the innovations that Alpha Protocol has, like the more complex reputation system and divergent storyline, and use them in Mass Effect 3 or Dragon Age 2, and I am really looking forward to Fallout: New Vegas to see what Obsidian can do with a fairly solid preexisting engine, a setting they are intimately familiar with, and the time to really put out a quality product.  I admit that I have yet to preorder New Vegas though, mostly because of the technical issues that kept me from playing Alpha Protocol for four months, and the fact that it was the first of two bad preorder experiences I had this year (the other being the half-baked Stardock effort, Elemental).

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This page is an archive of entries from October 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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