I’m trying really hard not to look at election-related news right now. I want to wait until it’s meaningful news rather than punditry, plus I’m feeling very burned out about national politics any way. So instead, a quick gaming round-up, for those of you with an interest in digital games. This is the wretchedly wonderful time of the year when game publishers are releasing their best stuff or their franchise sequels ostensibly to get ready for the Christmas season. I think sometimes this leads to perfectly good titles being overlooked because there isn’t any time to play more than a few of the best (not to mention $$$).
Mount and Blade
A lot of people played this independent title while it was in development, but I had never tried it before its commercial release. I’ll probably write about it a bit more in a Terra Nova post soon, because I’ve found it curiously enthralling. It’s a very simple game in many ways. You control a medieval-type character who starts with the shirt on his back and then decide what you want to do in a fairly generic semi-realistic medieval setting. (No elves or magic, etc.) It’s more or less open-ended. You can raise an army in service to your liege, play as a black-hearted mercenary captain, trade goods from town to town, or even if you want a real challenge, act as a lone wolf. Part of what I enjoy about it is the great design of combat, which is vivid and intense, the antithesis of the way you just press buttons and auto-attack in most massively-multiplayer online games. Part of it is a narrative version of the “uncanny valley”: because this game actually lacks a lot of the narrative content of many more expensive titles, I found myself generating stories in my head about events in the game. It’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of what’s been called “emergent narrative”. I also knew that the game had a big modding community, and I suspect that will be a continuing draw. It’s a boutique title in the sense that you have to be looking for certain kinds of experiences from gaming to enjoy it.
I have a real love-hate relationship with Peter Molyneux’s games. The ideas are always so good, the ambitions so very much what I want developers to be striving for, and then somehow he always manages to wrap his one great idea with a sub-par game full of annoying design mechanics. Black & White was the worst offender. You played an off-screen deity who controls a creature who acts as your divine avatar. The creature grew and adapted to the personality The A.I. for the creature was often compelling: it had a dynamic, living feel to it. I even sort of enjoyed how intractable it could be sometimes (the creature had a bad habit of eating your followers when you wanted it to be nice to them, or occasionally flinging them out into the ocean for no obvious reason). But then the actual game, which you needed to pursue, was simply aggravating.
I always tell myself that this time is the last time and I usually end up buying his games anyway. This time I may not regret that decision: so far I’m actually liking Fable II. It’s a lot closer to what I had imagined the first one might be. It has its share of odd mechanics and bugs, sure, but also a lot of small touches that are really fun. It has the same premise as Fable: you are a fantasy hero (thankfully this time you can be female or male) whose moral choices transform the world around you as well as your own looks and powers. I’m playing as an upstanding citizen this time, but I’m inclined to play through a second time as a black-hearted fiend. I also appreciate how consistent the aesthetic of the game is: the humor, the visual design, the narrative, all align harmoniously.
Another game I’ll be writing about more at Terra Nova shortly. Here I’ll just say that I found it very disappointing after a brief enthusiastic two weeks of play. As with a lot of massively-multiplayer virtual worlds, too much attention was lavished on the initial player experience and not enough thought given to what the long-term, renewable attractions of playing the game might be. Devotees of this form of game can rip through the initial content within a few days. If a developer hasn’t thought about what will keep people wanting to play in a persistent world, they might as well leave the whole form alone. In this case, the developer (Mythic Entertainment) is well on the way to repeating some of the mistakes they made in their previous product in terms of how they respond to player dissatisfaction. The game’s basic design hook revolves around player versus player combat, which is a solid niche in the marketplace. A lot of Warhammer’s actual design doesn’t service that objective very well, however, or it herds players into a narrow range of intensely repetitive experiences.
I’ve been waiting for the “enhanced” (meaning fixed) version of this game from a Polish developer. It’s based on a series of novels by the Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski. I’m not very far into the game so far, but I like it. The combat mechanics are clumsy, and some of the “mature” content is presented in a very geek-male, adolescent manner. The fantasy setting and story are a big cut above the usual genre reprises found in many computer games, however. It’s an interesting contrast with Mount & Blade: the story is very “fixed”, but it’s laid out within a compelling setting, with some more interesting characters than the norm.
If I’m not very far into The Witcher (or Fable II), this is the reason. The original Fallout is pretty much my favorite game of all time. (See the introductory visual sequence for an inkling of how great a game it was.) A lot of Fallout fans were worried about this sequel because it changes quite a few of the game mechanics. I didn’t have the same apprehensions, and I feel quite vindicated. This is easily my favorite digital game of the past year, and very much in my all-time pantheon. It hits all of my buttons. The post-apocalyptic landscape it offers is dripping with detail which is both consistent with the aesthetic of earlier entries in the series and extends those visuals in all sorts of new ways. You can go almost anywhere you want within the gameworld, when you want. You can improvise actions within the world in all sorts of ways: there isn’t a single sequence that you have to execute letter-perfect in order to beat a boss or get through a tough level. There are all sorts of amazing emotional hooks to draw you into the world and they’re remarkably adaptable to the decisions you’ve already made. (Fallout 3 is a vastly better implementation of a lot of the design ambitions of Fable II, in terms of a world that responds dynamically to your moral choices.) I’ve giggled with pleasure at some of the unexpected consequences following from my combat actions interacting with the AI, in a good way. I’ve also been more genuinely startled at some events than in any survival-horror game. (Last night, I turned away for a minute to talk to my wife and when I looked back, several mutant mole rats were about to rip my face off. I yelped with genuine surprise and horror.) This is the game of the year, as I see it..