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Ian O'Rourke
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Two Years of the Lions
Keywords: TV.

There is a point in the life of some TV shows that holds great risk. It's that point where they have to shake things up and change their initial set-up. This may be because the central premise can't continue forever or because the core idea is one that exists in time as well as space and time moves on. All High School dramas with a core of High School characters face this problem as characters age and they graduate.

Friday Night Lights has a number of advantages in this area. It's about the town and the team, not just a small group of teenagers. It's two central characters are adults. Still, the heart of the show is driven by the dramas of the members of the team and their friends and they do graduate. This has meant that characters have rotated off the show, to stay if they remain living in Dillon, or leave if they don't. Season three saw many of the established characters age out of the show.

The splitting of the school districts and the re-opening of East Dillon High School, on the wrong side of the tracks, and the power play for The Panthers seeing the not perfect, but good natured 'past heroes', who funded the team being replaced by selfish 'outsiders' was a stroke of genius. It instantly created a new crucible for the show, the much more socially deprived High School, it allowed The Panthers to become the enemy, and also allowed the show to play with what happens when a the positives of Dillon become negatives (often the more stereotypically expected narratives of such a show in such a location, but more acceptable due the fact it didn't used to be like that).

I accept that the 'school split' is a bit odd if you analyse it too closely, as you're suddenly introduced to this whole community of people, largely black, on the Ease Side of town that you'd never saw before. Surely they'd have had to be going to the original Dillon High School? But it's a conceit that was by far worth it for the reward.

I really liked season four and five. You could really get behind the team and their journey from being incompetent to ever increasing success over two seasons was brilliantly done. The marriage of the Taylor's is put under stress, in the usual, brilliant way. It continues to be the single, best portrayal of marriage on TV as far as I am concerned. The poisoning of Dillan is enthralling in a car crash, unfortunate way as the football team turns ugly, and some of the, so far benign and positive religious elements, start to take a more extreme turn causing further changes in the circumstances of key characters. I watched these two seasons in almost as many days, that's how much I was enjoying them.

The final season also handles things well and it obviously knew it was its final season going into it. This isn't to say it's one long ending, far from it. The story is very much focused on the ever increasing dominance of The Lions and the adversity they face in being accepted by the wider state high school football fraternity, but it also weaves in endings for all the characters. In a way some didn't need endings, but it was good to see them again and get an epilogue or update especially in terms of some unresolved relationships. It felt like a meaningful, and worthwhile conclusion which many a TV series has found hard to pull off.

Season four and five also brings something else into focus, which I've not reached a conclusion on, it's just something that becomes really apparent because it's all happened in the same show. It was quite stark how crime was depicted from the perspective of the 'white trash' (for want of a better word) characters and the black characters once we moved to East Dillon. While both become embroiled in crime due to social pressures and difficult circumstances, the white crime was always lacking in oppressive violence. You know it's wrong, but it doesn't overly tarnish the characters, and has the framing of almost being victimless. As soon as you move over to the East side, and the wrong side of the tracks, we're looking at hard crimes like aggravated assaults, drugs and by association, murder. Hard crimes. Crimes associated with real social consequences. The interactions over these crimes also become less 'well meaning' and enter the realm of almost violent posturing and machismo.

I don't actually have anything to say about this. I have no idea if it's representing any sense of reality? I have no idea if it counts as stereotypically racist? I just know this often depicted dichotomy between white and black crime in dramas was more stark and clear than ever before due to the fact both 'realities' having been depicted in the same show so 'close together'.

Ultimately, there are only a couple of TV shows that have risen above shows I just really like, to hold some sort of special place which is hard to define. Those two shows are The Wire and True Detective (season one at least, who knows about the rest at this point).

I have added Friday Night Lights to that list.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 07/04/2015 Bookmark and Share
Smashing Glass, Penetrating Crota
Keywords: Video Games; Destiny.

A while back I stopped playing Destiny. I just ran out of incentives. I wanted to get to level 31 but I had no idea why I was trying to get to level 31. I also didn’t have my armour exotic, which you have to have to fully upgrade to get to the heady heights of 31. I’d also scrapped two armour exotics I’d regretted scrapping. I’ve now learned you always put exotics in storage, never delete, as you just never know. Basically, I felt like I was waiting for Xur to sell an armour exotic and running endless strikes and bounties to level up gear, the purpose for which seemed a bit abstract.

Now things have changed as we have a fire team of six comprising of relations (brothers, nephews and nieces) and partners which means we are self-sufficient for raiding! New content. New challenges. A reason to play and level. Around this time Xur also turned up selling the exotic helmet I wanted. Win. I now have a purpose and once this exotic helm is levelled a bit more I’ll be level 31.

On this basis we’ve started smashing Vault of Glass and penetrating the early areas of the Crota's End raid.

I’m enjoying Vault of Glass. It’s a raid behind so many people discount it as the gear is old. We have better legendary gear than drops in the raid. The exotics that drop are still useful as there is an upgrade path for exotics. It’s also a bit ironic that now we are in Vault of Glass, a source of some regular ascended shards, I don’t need any! Still, it’s not about the loot, we are happy to see new places and experience new challenges.

Crota's End is a bit more frustrating, but then it would be, as it is the level appropriate raid. The first section is very clever though, and shows how the best game elements of Destiny are hidden within the raids that very few people actually access. It also shows the potential in an FPS raid. An FPS is game is free-flowing, it's in constant motion. It isn't about relatively static movement, rotations and cool downs. The first part of Crota's End involves running through a complex tunnel system from 'energy lamp' to 'energy lamp' while being constantly hounded by a horde of enemies. While running you are de-buffed (it slows you down and can be layered) and this can only be cleared by the lamps. This results in a complex sequence of events involving constant movement, strategies called in the moment, timing, best use of powers (keeping an AOE for each lamp, etc). It's fast, frenetic, and yet, you need to bring order to it. While currently frustrating, it is a very clever bit of game design.

The potential for setting up challenging scenarios is wide open, as they're nothing stopping a raid down the line separating the team for some time and having them coordinate in totally different areas of the raid! It's much more fun than the typical MMO set-up.

I like the feeling of progressive challenge. True, it’s horribly frustrating when you first try it. It seems chaotic. Lacking any sense of order or control. You feel distant from ever being able to do it. Then you slowly wrestle some sense of order out of the chaos and gain control of the various elements of the raid and that is a great feeling. It is very rewarding when what was once frustration and chaos personified starts to feel like some well oiled machine in which all the parts are coordinated, communicating and working well. That’s the feeling we have now in these raids, but obviously Vault of Glass is progressing more quickly.

The raids are also spectacular in terms of visuals. I think I've said this before when we experimented with Vault of Glass sometime ago. The graphics aren't some pinnacle of 4K graphics, but the design put into the architecture of the raids is astounding. They manage to to be inspirational, sending your imagination off in all sorts of directions (not always a good thing), while also being realistic. The tunnel system of Vault of Glass is more like epic potholing than it is moving through dungeon corridors. It feels like a realistic cave system, which just happens to be one floating around in some odd extra-dimensional space out of time. It's all great stuff.

There is some negatives to the raiding, the main one being the pressure to play the game outside of the raid in order to support it. This isn't as bad as it is in many other MMO games, which involves crafting, fixing armour, farming materials and whatever else. The raiding economy is quite low really, but you do need glimmer. The only thing you need for raids are the ammo packs, it just makes things a bit easier to know you're not entirely reliant on ammo drops. They're a bit like potions for your guns, they give you ammo but they're on a 5-minute cool down. They are quite expensive at 900 glimmer a shot. This means you tend to feel the need to do bounties, missions and strikes in order to harvest the glimmer (essentially money). One major bonus with Destiny is there isn't a death penalty or armour degradation.

This is a good thing.

It's a bit of a dilemma moving forward as I'd like to complete Vault of Glass, but Crota's End offers level appropriate loot. I just hope we don't get stuck between the two raids. The energy for Vault of Glass being dissipated because we've tried and got into Crota's End, but in turn the Crota raid becomes frustrating and difficult because we're actually doing it at its most challenging level.

Personally? I'm not convinced I'm interested in 'progression'. What will it get me? To level 32. That's it. I'm already going to be level 31 with the gear I have. Chances I'm already above the level the new material will be when the next expansion comes out. It seems to me to be a lot of effort for little reward. What seems to be important to me is seeing the place, experiencing the raid and finishing it. I'm not sure the final leap in level is worth the effort? Really. It's too small a step, for too much effort (and it doesn't really access more content) and too narrow a time window to be useful.

If I'm going to do anything just for the sake of getting there, the better bet would seem to be a raid behind.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 06/04/2015 Bookmark and Share
Facing The Zombicide Horde
Keywords: Board Games.

I purchased two new boardgames relatively recently: Marvel Legendary and Zombicide. We played Marvel Legendary not too long ago, and today we got our first experience of Zombicide.

Zombicide is a very clever game. It really feels like you're playing in an episode of The Walking Dead. The overall escalation is well implemented. The number of zombies constantly builds. You get experience for killing them, which you always have to do to some extent. The characters become more powerful causing the zombies to spawn in greater numbers and more powerful forms. It gets quite tense and each turn can take quite a bit of discussion about what to do.

It essentially seems to be a game of movement: both the survivors and the zombies, which move by a specific set of guidelines. It's paramount you don't end up in a zone with zombies in at the end of your turn as it's lethal (they cause hits automatically, it is inevitable). This means it's all about timing and predicting their movement which, like the zombies in films, follows certain laws around seeing food and hearing noise. That is until you draw a spawn card which gives them an extra activation, which is potentially lethal as it throws your predictions completely off. This is one reason why escalation due to earning experience is risky as it is a double-edged sword. You get more actions, more skills and whatever else, but you're still quite fragile and the hit on the spawns is quite high. In our second game at least one player was monitoring his experience to try and keep it from transitioning into the yellow zone.

The second game we played was an excellent experience in constant, rolling tension. It was a long trek from the start point to the exit zone and the zombies kept spawning, at one point we had a Fattie in front of us and a Fattie and a small horde behind us. We had rolling and timed movement as we tried to not get slowed down and swamped while sticking together. Very tense. Very exciting. We nearly won, but then we escalated to yellow in the final few moves and that just did us in. A great mixture of the predictable, with just enough unpredictability, to model the genre and keep things exciting.

The noise mechanic is also genius. It's genius because it's perfectly in genre. It's also clever because it acts as a way to control the game as well as expose the characters to risk. Noise brings zombies constantly to you, keeping the threat moving forward, but it can also be used to your advantage. At times, it's useful to create noise to draw zombies to you. I am sure, in some scenario set-ups, it will make sense to draw zombies to particular survivors through noise and let them die. We've not seen it yet as we've only played two scenarios and one of them had two permanent, high noise zones which made all other noise generation irrelevant.

Despite all this tension it is a game that has moments of immense release. There is nothing like tooling up with some interesting weapons (baseball bats, katanas, chainsaws, etc) and, in the right circumstances, diving in and letting rip. The chainsaw is potentially really good for this. In the second game we played I dived in to a zone and rolled five sixes, which is five hits! It did then go on to push me into the yellow experience zone which, as I said, was our downfall, but it was fun.

It has some strange rules which throws up a bit of cognitive dissonance, in that they are there to enforce a certain type of strategic play rather than modelling any sort of realistic scenario. The oddest one involves ranged combat: it's very dangerous to the survivors. When you fire into a zone including zombies and survivors the survivors take hits first, which means they have to die before the zombies start taking hits. This essentially means, unless you're sacrificing one of the survivors, you can't fire into a zone with survivors in it. This rule exists to make ranged weapons a lot more difficult to use and coordinate them with the movement rules. Personally, it doesn't bother me, I don't believe all board game rules have to make some sort of realistic, simulative sense, but it bugs other people...a lot.

The other rule which I suspect may bug people is the splitting rule. It only occurs when a zombie group faces an exactly equal direction of travel. In that situation they go in both directions in equal numbers, so one zombie becomes two, two zombies become four and so on. I am sure if I read forums there will be people complaining it's ridiculous the zombies are genetically splitting. I don't see it that way. I see it as a rule to enforce a challenging game which is fine in and off itself. I also see it enforcing the genre in the sense it adds to the 'oh shit where did they come from' scenes you see in such shows in which, almost out of nowhere, a manageable horde becomes a bigger one.

We did get a number of things wrong, some of them more pivotal to the result than others. We didn't realise you're supposed to take the Molotov Cocktail out of the gear deck as you only get that when you combine other equipment. I drew it and used to kill like 17 zombies at once that had congregated in a large zone. That scenario would have been much harder, if I'd not instantly cleared that room. We also didn't send all zombies to an open door if the noise was coming from a location closer than the door. It only impacted a zombie group that would have never caught up to us anyway, but that was wrong. Zombies will move through through an extensive building to get to an open door only to than go back along the street to the noise. It makes sense, otherwise it would be quite easy to kite zombies within buildings even when there is an open door.

Beyond that it went really well. It's a great game and we're going to give it another go next time. I'm also going to check out the Internet content as I understand there is all sorts of new scenarios to download.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 05/04/2015 Bookmark and Share
State, Murders and Graduations
Keywords: TV.

I've watched the first three seasons of Friday Night Lights and after discussing the brilliance of season one, I feel the need to reflect a bit on the first three seasons, since they represent a transition point in the show. A transition faced by all shows that have a highly locational and temporal focus (in this case a High School) as characters age and need to graduate.

First I want to go back to season one.

After watching it I compared season one to Battlestar Galactica and True Detective, because of the way it's filmed in the case of the former and it's very evocative location and culture in the case of the latter. Having thought about it much more there is another show it reminds me of: The Wire. You might say that's an even loftier comparison than the previous two shows? Yes it is. To be fair it falls short of The Wire, but not by an amount that should take anything significant from the show in season one. It's like The Wire in that it's about a group of people in a specific place, with its own culture and they are all trying to make their life within it. It just happens the culture is a small, depressed, religious, Texas town and the High School Football team everyone seems to put their hopes on, live vicariously through or see as a route out, rather than cops and drug dealers (I realise The Wire went to include schools and town politics, which Friday Night Lights touches on through its lens).

The good thing is it does this while being a much more positive and life affirming show. The marriage of the Taylor's is one of the best written on TV. The aspirational choices of the various football team members and the problems they face are by and large positive. Coach Taylor is amazing, he should have got an award for that role as he managed to take what could have been a saccharine coated role of 'Internet Life Coach' statements and turned it into something else. That's enough about season one, but suffice to say it's very good.

Regrettably, season two is a bit of a mess. It's actually still a very interesting show and it's lack of quality is less about the season itself and more about the lofty heights of season one. It just feels more like a standard show than it's inaugural season did. They run with a bit of a lame murder plot which doesn't really make much sense and is resolved in a way that leaves glaring gaps in it. The focus moves away from the ever escalating pressure of the football season that framed the first season with the ever increasing pressure of the matches, the radio commentary and how this impacts the town to just being slightly more 'general soap opera'. It's not bad, it just becomes more normal. It then just ends, abruptly. The football season isn't over. Characters stories are still really in motion. It's very odd. A bit of research shows the season was supposed to be 22-episodes long but got cut short due to the Writers' Strike, so this might explain a lot about season two.

Season three is much better, it returns the focus to the anchor of the football season. The season is shorter, which I think works for the show as there is only so long you can do 22-episodes a year about this stuff. A shorter seasons brings focus. I liked season three. It's not season one, I've given up thinking the show will return to that, but it is very good. It's very much a season about its beginning and end. The beginning is mired a bit, albeit it's very interesting, by events that should have happened in the missing episodes and have still happened but you didn't get to see them. A number of these things are pretty damned big and would have made a good final third for the second season. It's also about the end as key characters are graduating in season two which means they exit the show if their future isn't within Dillon. This means the season has a final season feel for characters you've been following from the beginning and that is done very well. It's good stuff. It's the whole college, life goals and future aspirations piece and Friday Night Lights does it very well.

The way to see it is this: Friday Night Lights is a great show. Season two is the weakest of the first three but it's a far cry from terrible when compared to other shows. In truth, season two is still good. Season three is very good. The way to look at season one is it's like the ridiculously good mini-series, albeit a very long one, that kick-started a TV show. It's a whisker away from the quality of the The Wire which, considering its subject matter is pretty, bloody astounding.

It's worth watching because three episodes in to series four and I'm fascinated again. The school districts have been split. Jobs have changed. The town has two football teams. We get to see what High School football is like when it's not controlled by its generations of past heroes, albeit not perfect, but well meaning and instead by people who have their own goals in mind. It gets off to a very good start. Its hit the wall that all shows hit when their main cast out grows the locational and temporal crucible it's set within and its done it extraordinarily well. Its managed to make it feel like a new, fresh show while not discarding what makes it great. Very clever.

Friday Night Lights, if like me you completely missed it, then you need to watch it. If nothing else watch series one as it does have a beginning, middle and end that's self-contained enough, and it's ridiculously high quality TV. I then defy you to not want to keep watching.

It's on UK Netflix..go click that button, it's well worth it.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 05/04/2015 Bookmark and Share
Clear Eyes, Full Hearts! Can't Lose!
Keywords: TV.

I often spend more time looking for something to watch on Netflix rather than actually watching something on Netflix. Despite this, you occasionally, well, often very rarely, discover a hidden gem. A while back I saw something called Friday Night Lights. It looked like an interesting film. I put it to the back of my mind. Then this week I went to give it a go but ended up watching a TV series of the same name instead. Mental mix up.

That was good, as Friday Night Lights the TV show is brilliant. I binged watched the first 22 episodes of season one.

On paper you'd think it wouldn't be a good idea. A drama about a High School football team stretched out across 22 episodes a year (though as it happens post-season one it drops to 13). The usual stereotypical characters, the usual plot set-ups. All of which sort of work when fitted into 120-minutes but would get very tired episode after episode. Imagine something like Varsity Blues attenuated across that many hours? Soul destroying. You don't get that though, you get something very different. Friday Night Lights isn't just a sports drama about American Football. It isn't a High School drama, far from that. It's essentially a drama about a town and its obsession with its High School football team because that is, by and large, its biggest success.

The strangest thing about Friday Night Lights is the two TV series it reminds me of the most? Battlestar Galactica and True Detective. I know, a lofty comparison, and there are many ways in which the show is nothing like either of these two shows, yet I can't help but feel the connection.

It's like Battlestar Galactica in the way it's filmed. It has that close, 'amateur', grainy and intimate camera work which works surprisingly well in this small town, High School and football setting. Really odd, but it works. It makes it a very intimate and intense drama. You are drawn into scenes about the most mundane of things. I don't mean mundane in the sense they are boring, but mundane in the sense they're about important, character driven stuff but there is hardly any 'chewing of the scenery' in Friday Night Lights and it is brilliant because of it.

Then you have the setting, it's not as a big a portrait of its setting as True Detective was, but it plays along similar lines. The Texas small town, its inhabitants and its all consuming obsession with football is brilliantly portrayed. The buildings, the rich family owning the car dealership, the poor housing, the fields, trees and dust hanging in the sunlit air. You feel embroiled in the culture and the place and I think this is one of the biggest facets of the show that helps raise it above the numerous genres it's pulled from. As a place on paper it's somewhere that you'd be inclined to not like, make fun of or ridicule, but Dillon with its religion, prayers before games, run-down housing with posters outside declaring their sons playing position, and varied inhabitants, just works. It is the fabric of the series in a similar way to True Detectives setting been woven into the fabric of that show.

Dillon, Texas may not be a place I'd want to live, but as a place for drama it is a thing of beauty. Its fascinating.

Ultimately, it's about the characters and their relationships and there is something being captured in the show that isn't present in others. True, it's easy to see it as sporting all the stereotypes: the star quarterback who gets crippled; the lead cheerleader who is the daughter of the 'better off' car dealership owner; the young quarterback with confidence issues, forced to rise to the occasion; the poor kid, with father issues, who the women fall before; and the super star black running back who refers to himself in the first person.

All this doesn't matter as it doesn't really play out that way while still allowing the characters to be essentially who they are. The star quarterbacks journey through dealing with being in a wheelchair is fascinating and, in my view, one of the best examples of a storyline dealing with crushed dreams and adversity. The issues around that star running back and the pressure he faces as the single way to raise his family out of poverty manages, for the first time, to make me feel the weight of that responsibility. Even the young, naive quarterback rising to the occasion, while dating the coaches daughter is incredibly well done. The relationship between the daughter, the quarterback and the coach is brilliant and you want him to do well. In fact, I'd say Friday Night Nights has one of the best explorations of family relationships I've seen without falling into the safe bet of shouting and scenery chewing.

It's just an incredibly well implemented show. I understand the rating weren't great. In a way I can understand why, it was probably quite a different show when it aired. Very understated. Filmed differently. It's essentially a study of character, place and culture. Now, it would be different, coming in as one of those 13-episode HBO style affairs. Hopefully, it doesn't make really bad changes in the second series onwards to try and become more popular.

I don't know about the proceeding seasons, but Friday Night Lights season one, for me, is a bit of a TV show work of art.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 03/04/2015 Bookmark and Share
Have Ship, Will Travel
Keywords: Video Games; SWOTOR.

I've not played SWOTOR for over a week, a combination of time and fitting in some Destiny raiding, but events have moved on. It also means I'm also totting up a healthy pot of rested XP. My experience playing Warcraft is I tend to favour having a break, playing something else, and then levelling up faster later on with rested XP. This is especially true if I'm not trying to co-level with anyone, which I'm not.

I'm now level 19. I have my personal starship and I've also invested in my first mount. This opens up the game somewhat. I can travel to any planet on the galactic map, in theory, since each planet has level ranges and some are allied to the other faction. I believe the area immediately around the space port offers a zone 'free of enemies'. What's interesting is the planet I've been 'directed' to go to is for level range 16-20. I can only assume rested XP and three instance runs has resulted in me over-levelling on the Imperial home world.

I thought I'd finished chapter one of my class story, but apparently I'm not even close. It felt like a conclusion of sorts, with the events on the Imperial capital coming to the close, the resistant movement, headed by The Eagle, being born and the 'terrorist' attack against a Sith Lord (I'll not be losing any sleep over that one, the git gave me the force lightning when I refused to bow). I am now codenamed Cipher-9 charged with bringing down the terrorist network. Hence the new ship so I can hyperspace around the galaxy doing what's necessary. While it wasn't the end of any chapter of my class story it did feel very much like a graduation, from the Imperial Agent running missions to one being given a sort of personal remit to hunt down the enemy. It was pretty cool. It felt a bit like when you get to be a roaming Spectre in

The ship is nice, as described it is a modified yacht, so it has the elegance of a yacht but with the armament of a heavy fighter. Nice. Got to travel in style.

I'm glad I've got my first vehicle. The running around wasn't bothering me, but the last session it started to. I think it was because I was on a new planet and none of it was discovered and the thought of running everywhere felt like a bit of a barrier. It's much faster via my personal speeder-type thing. I am enjoying being able to rush from place to place and just get things done. There are a lot of varied mounts in the game, including all sorts of animal mounts. I don't know the details you just see people using them in the game. No idea how you get them. I am assuming they are an end game thing. I'm controlling my exposure to such things and just keeping on playing.

I've done three instance runs, Black Talon twice and Hammer Station.

I entered both through the group finder which is a great tool and what's amazing about is it still works at the lower levels. While it took a while for Hammer Station to pop, Black Talon opened up in a couple of minutes in both cases. Not only that, all three instance runs have had someone experiencing it for the first time (and other than me, making it two in the first runs). This is just...fascinating. The lower levels seem to be thriving as the same is true for heroic quests in the various zones.

It seems not all the flashpoints are equal when it comes to story content. Black Talon had quite a few dialogue scenes the results of which created minor variations in the ending. Quite cool. It felt very cinematic. I went into Hammer Station, being polite, making sure people knew it was my first time and I was going to listen to the dialogue. Then there was none. Period. There was a bit more voice work than a Warcraft instance because stuff kept coming over the station comms network, but there was no story scenes with dialogue choices. It'll be interesting to see how many flashpoints fall on either side of the line. While I like the story content, and the flashpoints as contained dramas, Hammer Station does have the advantage you have no group drama over skipping the conversations or not.

As a result of the lack of conversations, the context for Hammer Station felt a bit distant. It's a super weapon in the hands of aliens. It looks gorgeous. Beyond that it went by in a whirl of mobs and bosses. There was no dramatic equivalent to the heroic Jedi Padawn standing against us to protect her charge.

I've started to experience the usual problems with MMO communities. The individual who uses a group to get his quest done and then buggers off not caring what the status was for others. The group quit on my second aborted run at Black Talon because someone wanted to listen to the conversations. Some passive aggressive comments on general chat when asking a question about how gear works: apparently that is so Warcraft. It seems some people on general chat are oblivious or deluded to the fact that, yes, in many ways, SWOTOR is very much Warcraft. I am getting a handle on the gear, it appears a lot of it is much simpler than originally thought. While it can appear gear is complicated, it's incredibly simple: you have one primary stat, upgrade that...always. If the primary stat isn't on the gear then it's not for you. There is no such thing as upgrading other stats in SWOTOR. Like it. Simple.

I am resisting all attempts to create another character. Two reasons. It will spread my time and my time is already spread enough across other things without spreading it within the game itself. I really want to use the legacy system. I know I can already, but what I can't do is make my Jedi Guardian the same race as my Imperial Agent, so they would be siblings, which is what I really want to do. In order to do that I have to get my Imperial Agent to 50, the original max level of the game. I've thought about creating a different class, with a different relationship to the Imperial Agent, but then that would be three characters and that road leads to madness. I'm also finding it hard to get excited about the other classes. I suspect a combination of zones and factions is resulting in me being interested in two very different characters and then calling it.

The mystery remains as to whether a Chiss Jedi Guardian will speak like a posh bird off of the Empire or whether she'll suddenly adopt the cheerleader voice of the Republic? I am looking forward to wielding a lightsaber though. Just the sound of will never get boring. Well, it might after a while. What will get boring is the daft glow stick you wonder around with for a whole until the game has the common sense to give you the real thing.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 30/03/2015 Bookmark and Share
Defeating The Red Skull
Keywords: Board Games.

A gaming first was undertaken today? I played a card game. This is different to playing cards, which I've obviously done. A hobby card game, involving the building of decks. I stepped away from card games during the height of the collectable card game boom as it just all seemed toxic. Collecting linked to tactics, linked to system mastery linked to financial outlay. I know it was a great period for many people, but I was not going to get remotely close to it.

It pushed way too many distaste and dislike buttons.

The move away from collectable card games to living card games and cooperative stuff has got me intrigued. I decided living card games are still not for me. While they remove the hardcore collecting, they still involve too much 'out of game' system mastery. The card games that operate more on board game principles, while still having 'deck building' elements, have drawn me in.

Enter Marvel Legendary, a deck building game. It's not collectable in any way, though it does have expansions. It's competitive and cooperative, more on that later. The genius of it, for me, is it involves deck building, but not in that spend hours mastering the perfect deck as a transaction cost of playing. The deck building is part of the game and exists only in the scope of actually playing. It's also based on superheroes and has all the Marvel theme going on which is the icing on the cake.

So, how was the game?

It broke a number of expectations, but not necessarily in a bad way. I assumed each player would have a hero's deck, so you might be playing Black Widow or Spider-Man. This isn't the case as you'll have cards from each hero, as well as shield agents, in your deck at any particular time. The narrative model is more that a group of heroes and shield are fighting against a Mastermind and the playing of cards represents the activities of those actors. I also went in thinking you'd choose to play and retain cards, but this isn't true either. You always discard all cards at the end of your turn and draw new ones. This was confusing at first and I think there is still probably some detail in how cards are played that we are missing (order, etc).

You draw cards. You recruit, thus building your deck, which naturally gets more powerful over time as weaker cards are selected to be KO'd and you recruit others. You defeat villains and groups of henchmen. You attack the Mastermind. In turn they flood the city with their villains and henchmen, strike out themselves and work to complete their nefarious schemes. This creates an interesting dynamic that can vary considerably each time depending on the cards potentially in play and the ones that get played. It isn't complicated, and I suspect some people may think it's too simple and it's not their thing, but I found it involved enough. We're also almost certainly not experiencing its full depth as there are many heroes we've not used and we were playing the simplest Mastermind and the simplest scheme, so their is an opportunity for things to get more complicated and difficult.

The heroes win by taking down the Mastermind, by taking out each of his tactics, and he has four, and an individual player is declared the victor by having the most victory points (you keep the villains you defeat throughout the game). As stated, it's cooperative and competitive.

On the heroes in play over the course of two games (the same Mastermind and scheme) it's obvious each of them plays quite differently. Out of the seven heroes (Cyclops, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wolverine, Hawkeye, Hulk, Black Widow and Deadpool) we probably clued in to the approach of Cyclops, Black Widow, Hulk and Iron Man (though the last one was by and large my nephew). Black Widow has a capacity to rescue lots of bystanders and then abilities key off those, such as an attack that has +1 power per rescued bystander. That has the potential to be very powerful. The Hulk has a whole card synergy thing going on between his own cards and wound cards. Cyclops was the paramount leader in terms of recruitment and dishing out some damage without much combinations needed. Deadpool was just unfathomably random. Basically, each hero probably has a deck built on specific strategies and / or combinational approaches.

This raises one of the first dualities of the game: to what degree do you concentrate on perfecting the potential of your deck as opposed to taking the odd card away from the perfect deck of your fellow players? It's cooperative as well as competitive, after all. This duality comes up in numerous places. You have a big attack lined up do you go for the Mastermind or a villain in the queue? You'd say Mastermind, right? But what if one of the villain's in the queue gives another player a massive number of victory points because it acts in combination with other cards already in his victory pool? This happens with the Hydra cards, for sure.

We seemed to be able to keep on top of the villain queue in both games, but I suspect this was because we were playing the easiest scheme. I've seen at least one scheme in which the villains in the queue have the potential to be enhanced in power as the scheme unfolds. A few cards proved to be tricky as well. In the first game we got Venom twice and he could only be taken down by an 'espionage' hero and we didn't have one. Then there was the Hydra horde (not their actual name) which, when taken out, had you draw two more villain cards! This meant taking them out at the right time was essential, otherwise killing them could push another villain into escaping. The take down of villains is interesting because of their rules on take down, such as taking a wound, them KO'ing a hero in your deck, and so on, as a result of the conflict.

One issue we noticed, though it didn't ruin the enjoyment, is the experience can be quite dependent on the shuffling of the cards. Despite numerous attempts to not cause grouping of cards it happened anyway. We shuffled them by hand. We spread them out on the table, swirled them around and pulled them back together. We made sure Mastermind Strikes and Scheme Twists got spread out around the deck before we shuffled. Inevitably we still had numerous Scheme Twists at once, often early. We'd also get batches of henchmen in a row. It didn't actually cause a problem but, in theory, where the Scheme Twists fall in the villain deck can bring the game to an early close. We lost the second game because of this. There is no way to claw back Scheme Twists entering the board so it's an inexorable march to defeat rather than one that ebbs and flows as the game progresses.

The confusing element was in how cards are played in your turn. In the one video I watched they just played all the cards at once, but it seemed to me there was advantages in playing your cards in some sense of order due to the abilities on the cards. I'm going to have to read the book again but I don't remember any detail on this, just that you recruit and fight in any combination you wish (and you can see how that is important). It's conceivable you may recruit a hero, only to have another card immediately drawn that may change your next step? Or you may fight and then the outcome of that villain card could increase or decrease your chance to recruit? Around all this is the fact that you do effectively use all cards as you discard them all at the end of your turn. Your hand only has the life of one turn. It's going to take some experimentation. It's possibly there is a process of 'tapping' or 'using' cards that isn't made explicit but is implied - so you always play them all (as that is implicit as they're all discarded) and it's just when you use one or more and the order of that (effectively tapping in some sense of order). It can make a difference for some cards how your turn is processed and in what combination that process happens in.

As for the deck building? Well, this is deck building I don't mind because it's only within the scope of the actual game. It doesn't involve a need for deep system mastery and some sort of 'cleverer than thou' artisan-based deck building done on your own, outside of the game being played, to create the perfect deck. What's also interesting is, under this dynamic, the deck building takes place in cooperation and in competition! You're not sitting and constructing based on cards you have available because of money you've paid, but based on what is available in the hero deck and all other players are trying to do the same thing at the same time! Going for that Black Widow bystander rescuing deck? Great, but what if another player has some of the key cards? While the Hulk damager and rage synergy deck helps the team win it also spread wounds across the team both increasing one player's chance of winning and limiting your chances? It's an interesting one, the degree to which you allow other players to recruit great cards for their deck. The rest is down to memory of what you've recruited and why and the luck of the draw as your deck cycles round (getting shuffled each time).

Overall, it was a great experience. It was fun. It also still has a lot of potential in it both in the options we haven't utilised, in the form of heroes, masterminds, schemes, villains, etc, and in realising the tactics of the game as it's being played. As an example, I was fully focused on controlling the villain queue and defeating the Mastermind, I put little effort into competing with the other player. We've also only played it with two players, I'd like to see what the differences are when Louise fills the third slot.

We shall play again. It would seem the scourge of my gaming existence, the deck building game, has finally been found in a format I can enjoy.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 29/03/2015 Bookmark and Share
Waylan and Red Get to Cyseal
Keywords: Video Games.

One of the reasons I purchased a Gaming PC was the resurgence of gaming genres long since dead, primarily due to Kickstarter. One such genre is party-based role-playing games. It's been an age since the classics of Baldur's Gate, Icewindale and Torment, albeit I never finished any of them and didn't get to experience Torment. I did enjoy them, especially Icewindale. I really loved that game. Now we have Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity providing that party-based adventuring experience combining the great things of yore with a very updated experience.

I've started playing Divinity: Original Sin and the adventures of Waylan and Red have started.

I purchased the game a week before the PC was supposed to arrive. Then it didn't arrive in a working state for over a month. Then I held off starting to play the game as it seemed to have a high transaction cost. A high chance of falling into a 'character trap' were at some point in the game you find yourself with a character than isn't powerful enough, or has the wrong mix of abilities to get passed a specific fight, and you're basically stuck.

Epic options paralysis.

I finally found some time this morning to figure out what I was actually selecting and what my options would be down the road. While I'm still nervous about it I'm now hoping it's not as complicated as was originally thought or communicated by the general chatter on the web. If you follow a few key principles. There is probably two stats I need to level per character and the rest can be left. It's true that talents are in short supply but I'm not sure how key a lot of them are. Despite being the rarest they don't seem to be the game changers. It's abilities and skills that seemed to be the main area of paralysis and potentially where the mistakes can be made and the complexity is. They are in ability groups, these abilities can be levelled from 1-5 and that gives access to skills, etc. Do you save points and get something to five first? Spread them in the early phases? What skills should you learn? And so on.

In truth, Divinity: Original Sin isn't a class-based game, they just represent bundles of attribute, ability, skills and talent distributions around a concept. I decided going totally unbundled would only lead to insanity, so I went with a Ranger (Waylan) and Wizard (Red, specialising in Earth and Fire magic) and tweaked the defaults around that theme. Even this came after a bit of research, as without doing that you don't know the two companions you meet are a Knight and a Wizard specialising in Air and Water magic. You'd be a bit annoyed if you'd duplicated these areas when you started with your duo. I nearly did as I was quite interested in the Knight. Now I'll have a more rounded party once I get the two companions.

I've investigated the area outside the city of Cyseal, after landing on the beach, gone through the first dungeon (essentially a tutorial) and made my way through the gates of the city.

It's a very interesting game. It delivers a cleverer, more smooth and updated infinity engine experience. This is even down to the text-based conversations. Yeah, it would have been great if it was fully voiced, but that isn't the end of the world. The combat is turn-based, utilising action points which I'm still figuring out. I can see it getting more involved down the line. I'm enjoying my giant spider summon at this point (especially since it seemd to aggor enemies, keeping me safe from attach) and there is plenty of opportunity to combine environmental effects. As an example, slicking the area in oil and then hitting the area with flare. I've not even started to use Waylan's various speciality arrows that come with effects like fire, poison, stunning, etc.

It's not going to be a quick game. It's undoubtedly long and it's not quick to play mechanically. You've got the written conversations. Then movement through areas tends to be slow and deliberate. Then combat is turn-based which I'm sure takes more and more thought as the number of abilities increases. Then you're constantly picking things up and many of them can be used in crafting recipes (Waylan is skilled in these things, and that's another skill that has a bit of option paralysis around it based on when I spend points on those skills as opposed to ramping up my primary bow skill).

I am hoping the experience isn't that long it inevitably becomes one that is never finished. While everyone may complain about games being short these days there is an argument to say that too long isn't that great either. A long game is very long if it's not being played for literally hours at a time, late into the night!

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 29/03/2015 Bookmark and Share
Having Gone Cold Turkey
Keywords: Role-Playing Games; Video Games; Board Games.

So, four months ago, I effectively dropped out of playing tabletop role-playing games. The first thing to say is it doesn't feel like four months, which probably says something in and off itself. The second thing to say is it was a bit strange, but only at first. The usual thing happened and my mind started flooding with gaming ideas. It's a bit like Ross and Rachel, you assume you're 'on a break'. You have the deluded belief you'll use the break to put something together and come back with an idea or two and run something.

Never going to happen. I think that was my cold turkey phase. That just seemed to suddenly drop off and now, surprisingly, I don't miss it.

This hasn't really happened before. During previous lulls I've still been involved either because I've been writing material for magazines, buying games but not playing them, avidly involved in various forums or all three. There was always a big armchair gamer thing going on. What can I say? last time I had a serious break, four years in length, it was the nineties and a lot of people did armchair gaming back then, that's why so many supplements were released. I've never really had a complete break.

A core of the time has been taken up with computer games. While it's not something that can be documented like the cycles of the moon, there has been an element of computer games rising as tabletop role-playing waned over the course of my life. It's even got me back into PC Gaming which, despite the dramas getting a PC to me in one piece, is turning out to be a great experience.

I've only skirted the edges of the PC Gaming really, as it's primarily consisted of Star Wars: The Old Republic. There is a number of genres I want to get into but it's finding the time: Divinity: Original Sin, Pillars of Eternity (party-based role-playing games), Elite: Dangerous (space sims) and DCS World (flight sim), etc. I am looking into a joystick, more specifically, a HOTAS, which is a Hands on Throttle and Stick. I'm finding it hard to jump into anything like Elite or a flight simulator without one. I have this vague sense it'll be more...immersive. These things can cost a fortune but there has been some good reviews of a sensibly priced one. A worth an experiment price. In a way, this is a nostalgia thing, but with all new experiences, as I feel PC Gaming is now delivering like it used to back in the day before 'the grand culling of game genres' and the rise of the FPS.

While not PC Gaming, after a bit of a lull I'm getting back into Destiny. The problem with Destiny is I'd just lost any incentive to keep playing. While there is always a bit of gear you might want, there wasn't really much reason to have it. It wasn't giving me access to new experiences, my future in Destiny was grinding patrols or strikes no matter what gear I accumulated. This has changed though as we now have a fire team of family and partners which means we can raid. We are currently giving Vault of Glass a go and it's great fun. It's progressing at just the right speed at the moment while also being a great social occasion. It's brilliant and hopefully this perfect balance will continue as we get to the harder bits. Yeah, it's a raid behind, the loot is behind the curve, but it's still a good enough challenge and you get to see it!

I've also started on a road travelled by many a person who is seeing role-playing games diminishing in their lives: board games. I never thought I'd do this. I'm aware of a number of people who walked this road and I was convinced it was never for me. I guess I was wrong. We're playing board games every other Sunday (myself, Louise and my nephew) and it's great. We've been enjoying the Imperial Assault campaign for the most part, but we've just added Marvel Legendary and Zombicide to the collection. I'm not 100% sure how the board game methadone works, as they don't really offer the same experience at all, yet they seem to be working as a very fun replacement. I guess the social element is a big thing, along with the drama of it. It's a different sort of drama, but the drama of victory, loss and the odd surprising turn of events, while of a different sort, works really well.

Will I ever get into tabletop role-playing games again?

I think the problem comes down to the fact I could see myself getting quite taken with an idea or an experience, but not so much a week in week out gaming group (never say never on that, but at the moment it doesn't feel like it'd happen). In some strange fantasy world were tabletop gaming occurred divorced from a gaming group, and people came with pitches and looked for people who really wanted to fully throw themselves into it, I could see myself really jumping head first into one thing or another. That never happens though, as that is a fantasy world. Gaming groups are consistent. Sticky. They are the medium through which games get run and get played. No problem with that, in many ways it's a great thing, it just doesn't match the way I may currently want to experience them. I guess I'm saying I could see myself being passionate about an idea, not so much tabletop role-playing games as a perpetually regular thing in and of themslves.

As for now? Let the computer and board gaming roll on.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 27/03/2015 Bookmark and Share
Espionage on Dromund Kass
Keywords: Video Games; SWOTOR.

I'm level 15 now. I'm running missions at the Imperial Capital. It's fascinating coming into the game very late, because I'm divorced from the original 'mass disappointment' that hit the game when it was released. This was something I could predict was guaranteed to happen a mile off (the focus on story, too many divergent audiences, the legacy of Star Wars galaxy and its open-world, simulative play model, the marketing, etc). I'm also conscious of the fact I'm not getting the game as it was released, though I am assuming the story content is consistent, so it's hard to make too many strident judgements.

Is the game Warcraft with a Star Wars skin? I am sure someone could make a cognoscente argument that this is true. The mechanics of the game are very much like Warcraft (and I realise Warcraft took lessons from other games, but I have to stop looking into MMO history at some point). The structure of the game is like Warcraft in the sense of zones, capital cities, the way travel works, classes, etc, etc. I would have a different argument, the games feels like I am playing a Star Wars game. It gets that across big style. It's more that I gain the benefit of the underlying structure being similar so that doesn't get in the way! This is a positive for me, as I've been able to dive into the game, concentrate on the Star Wars of it all and not be distracted by a horde of complex new 'plumbing'. This, and the great, slow reveal help screens, have allowed for a very smooth 'in' to the game.

You can contrast this with the other game I have for the PC, Divinity: Original Sin, which is demanding I study it like an MBA module before I start playing it!

One element of the game I'm finding interesting is how it's positioning the Star Wars universe it's presenting. People get this wrong in my view all of the time (and I'd even include Lucas in that, ironically, in that the story he was trying to tell with the Jedi is in the prequels, but hopelessly delivered). SWOTOR does a very good job of keeping it Star Wars while adding a slight layer of moral complexity to drive conflict, which is often where it goes wrong. As an example, the relationship between the Sith and the wider Imperial machinery is very well done, though I largely get to see it through Imperial Intelligence and how my character relates to the Sith Lord she is currently dealing with. They've structured it a bit like how a 'we keep the country stable intelligence service' might deal with their 'religious nut job masters' in a TV drama – but with a bit more potential altruism if, at times, a particularly twisted sort of altruism (needed so your character can have conflict over choices). It is clever. It provides an undertone of conflict without feeling like you're getting into too much realism the conceit collapses, as it is space opera after all, so there is always genre conventions and a conceit you just have to accept.

One MMO staple you notice a lot less in SWOTOR is the kill x amount of x or collect x amount of x missions, this is probably the secondary element that contributes to it feeling substantially more narratively driven. The vast majority of missions feel like they have a story-driven reason and then the x amount of x elements are bonus facets of the mission. I like that. So you might be sent to destroy a critical piece of equipment or retrieve intelligence but as a bonus it will have listed weaken the enemies forces (essentially kill x of x) which you can considering doing as a by-product of achieving the main objective. You usually do it, but it feels less like that's what your'e doing!

I love how the instancing is done. It's clear due to the green 'force field' that you are entering a personally instanced area and it's seamless. No slowdown. You just pass straight through the 'force field' and the game continues on as normally but beyond that 'force field' anything could happen. I particularly like it when surprising story stuff happens as soon as you move through. This is one of the brilliant elements of the game, linked to how it delivers its story that deserves significant kudos. As a game that merges the story of a single-player game with the other MMO stuff it truly is a work of genius. I suspect I will play it like a single-player game and move on to a Republic side character (assuming my appetite remains) once I've levelled this one, but that's beside the point.

The really surprising thing about the whole experience? The game seems to have a vibrant community at the lower levels. This is nothing but..astounding. This is an MMO that is 3+ years old and considered a failure yet it has people still levelling characters from level one. Possibly it's a game that fosters a lot of second, third or fifth characters, but even after 3+ years you'd think people would be done with that. On the two instance runs I've done, more on that in other post, there has been people who haven't heard the story elements before. This means they are playing at least their first characters on the Imperial side. I'd have thought, at this point in the game cycle, the lower levels would be dead.

One criticism I would have at this point, though it may be more an observation as I'm not overly looking for the mindbogglingly challenging, is the game is pretty easy. Okay, it could be argued this is the 'game allowing you to be the hero' thing, but lots of the enemies you fight are very much in the minion category (if they are the same level) with no real way to seriously harm you unless you have an epic pull disaster. Now I've got my Sniper advanced class I've got the AOE 'spray attack' (with a +25% bonus to its damage due to my first utility power) with my blaster and it's largely a matter of running up, going into cover (and now I have a portable cover shield) and hitting the AOE spray...done. The companion jumps in just so she feels useful, but it's largely done.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 18/03/2015 Bookmark and Share
Impounded: Rebel...Victory!
Keywords: Board Games; Imperial Assault.

So, I drew my agenda cards as I'd not done at the end of the last session. I had 5 agenda points and two forced missions came out of the deck. Different. I was in two minds whether to give them a go, as the one I was interested in was four agenda points. You spend the agenda points and if you lose the mission you get nothing and you don't tend to get agenda points as a reward from forced missions.

I thought I'd give it a shot as an experiment.

It was an exciting game. It was timed to five rounds (or all heroes being wounded) and there was quite a few units on the board. At times I think both sides thought the odds were against them only for it swing back the other way. Ultimately, in what is becoming the patented Imperial Assault edge of the seat ending, it came down to? Can you guess? Yeah, the penultimate around and a sequence of exchanges with the Smuggler. This time a sequence of moves to reduce her exposure and the Imperial forces trying to put her in a wounded state. Exciting stuff, but she lasted allowing the Wookie to bring home the pilot in his first move of the final round.

The game is getting more complicated. Not bad complicated but tactically complicated with more moving parts. This is because both sides are getting more widgets to play with. The Wookie is becoming an amazing tank with some healing and is a vicious bastard once you start hitting him hard with his horrendous Wookie variation on being focused. He spent a lot of time focused, but I did finally manage to wound him which gave me the chance at victory in the penultimate round due to his slow movement rate. The Smuggler has quite a complex series of options, often involving in the moment choices. Status effects are becoming critical, especially in timed games. The Imperial Guard in this mission were out positioned long enough to radically reduce their part in the game due to being stunned by the Wookie. Key roles taking out lightning results stopped me stunning the Wookie as he made his slow walk to 'touchdown'. I'm also getting more units, with agenda cards and class ability cards tied to them.

It's great fun, but you're never sure you are making the best move because the characters can move quite fast around the board and the dice add a significantly random element. It makes it exciting though.

The threat went a bit weird as well. In that at the start of the fifth round the threat level was eighteen but I had no units I could bring in. Everything had been played and nothing had been taken off the map. This meant for two rounds plus the threat bonus given as a trigger at a key point in the mission was totally wasted. I think there was a combination of reasons for this. It made no sense for the heroes to kill the enemy forces as they only had five rounds. Possibly I should have been more bold in my choice of open units and gone for more expensive ones. I went for the normal Stormtroopers and Trandoshan mercenaries when I potentially should have went for elites in both cases.

The other interesting facet of the campaign is the fact we only have two players. It's often said the game becomes harder when there is only two players (by people playing it, not the official line). I'm not convinced or it depends. Consider this mission. There was no need to get to multiple locations in disparate parts of the map. This meant the legendary status of the heroes: two activations per round and a lot more hit points works for them. If there was four heroes they could only move once or twice in a round, since there is two they can move twice or four times in a round. This means the players can traverse more of the board in a round if they aren't interested overly in engaging? It also means less units get taken off the map as four characters only moving once or twice are more likely to have some of those heroes engage the enemy!

I think the is it more or less difficult with two players depends very much on the objectives and I'm still not convinced it isn't actually easier!

The forced mission essentially represents a diversion from the main campaign, inserting itself into the structured run. If I'd have won I'd have gained the ability for my leader units to spend an action to add one threat to the count. It might have been interesting. Since I didn't I don't get it and the four agenda points instead got me an extra mission inserted into the campaign. The big mission in the agenda deck is the one that gives you Darth Vader as an ally if you win, but that's not come up yet. It may cost 18 points to bring him in, but he is a bit of a beast.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 15/03/2015 Bookmark and Share
Punching It Out of Hutta
Keywords: Video Games; SWOTOR.

I've punched it out of Hutta, regrettably not in my own ship, but a shuttle to the Imperial Fleet and then on to Dromund Kaas, the Imperial capital. Mechanically, a number of things have progressed. I hit level ten just before I left. I've chosen my advanced class: sniper. I've also got my first companion, though I've been running with her for a number of levels now. It's been great and, as Obi-Wan might say, I seem to have entered a much larger world.

I liked the story on Hutta, it was one of subterfuge and crime, with personal dramas woven through it giving quite a number of opportunities to do the good thing in the web of lies or just act as the most evil bitch imaginable. I must admit, I took the route of achieving my goals while leaving as little destruction in my wake as possible...unless I thought they deserved it. Well, I was willing to do it if I thought they deserved it but it never happened. Ultimately, The Imperials secured the relationship with a powerful Hutt by persuading him his arch-rival was waging a proxy war for the Republic. Fun times.

I loved the touch at the end. You're in the hanger, you're just about to punch it out of Hutta and the Red Blade arrives, the notorious pirate you've been using as a cover for most of your time on Hutta. It's a well done little scene, the way it's 'filmed' is a bit like the moment before a shoot out in a western. Some small talk, a great little 'in game film' of the characters backing away and then combat begins. It was very well done. Quite subtle.

I've done my first Heroic 2+ mission and it was great. I was a bit sceptical. It's a relatively old MMO, right? What's the chance of me being able to group up efficiently for this sort of stuff? If the first attempt was anything to go by, pretty seamlessly and frictionless. Possibly I was lucky. I am surprised by the amount of low level characters running around considering the game is over three years old.

I tried to use the chat, but that didn't get me anywhere, so I went to the entrance for the Heroic 2+ mission area and it wasn't long before people showed up either wanting to go in or running in. In one case they grouped me up as they passed. That's the sign of a good community that they thought of that as the three of them ran on by. The second time I saw someone else chatting to the man with the mission and I grouped him up. The group experience was fluid, thought there was little communication which resulted in the odd death that might have been avoided with a bit of marking and a less haste more speed approach. It wasn't frustrating though. It was great to get into the Warcraft-like 'dungeon' experience again (albeit it wasn't an instance). I can't wait to get into a bit of pulling and marking!

Now I'm at Dromund Kaas, the capital planet for the Imperials, and I'm in the capital city, which seems quite large. I feel the game has suddenly opened out a bit. I'm not sure where my quest hubs are, though I've not done much in the city. I'm already seeing the chat window fill up with arcane sequences of acronyms for flashpoints and operations which make very little sense to me. It's typical mature MMO stuff, acronyms for types of runs, specific characters they need and the entry requirements they demand before they'll let you in on the act. A bit disappointing, but expected. It's also not that big a deal as I suspect a lot of them are for higher end stuff. I was offered my first flashpoint, Black Talon, before leaving the Imperial Fleet to go to Dromund Kass, which I put on hold as I need a group willing to do it (and let the story elements play out).

Technically, a few interesting things have happened.

I like the look of the character progression, in that it seems to be one of very streamlined choices? I like games that have streamlined character progressing as I have zero interest in the 'character build' game. It seems my basic abilities just come as they are as I level. I hit the requirement I can train it. I was thinking my advanced class would involve some serious 'option paralysis', but apparently not. You choose one of three progression routes and then that progression route is on rails. Literally one rail and the abilities activate as you journey, in the form of levels, along that rail. Hardly any choice. I say hardly any as every so often the unlock on the rail is a utility ability and you can choose those, ultimately ending in seven points distributed. It's choice, but probably not a mind blowing choice.

I am sure many people hate the 'on rails' character progressing with a side order of minor choice? I, quite naturally, love it. I can just level and go without worrying about choices crippling me later.

I can see the interface for using abilities getting quite complicated, or it may be I've just not penetrated its simplicity yet. There seems to be a lot of abilities to fit on a toolbar? My initial response to this was to enter the Interface Editor, which is really cool. It's allowed me to adopt a more feature rich interface that also takes less screen real-estate. You can move things around quite freely. It's pretty much the sort of thing that used to come as 'mod' in times of yore and in the early years of Warcraft. Very nice. I now have two toolbars and the one for my Companion. In Warcraft your toolbar never seemed that complicated, it always came down to some key abilities that were mostly manageable. This seems to be a bit more complicated than that but I suspect some 'inner clarity' may appear with experience – such as some abilities only being available when in cover (which I can do on demand now due to my funky sniper shield).

I've also gained access to my Legacy, though it's safe to say it has opened up, there is very little I can do with it at this point. This means I get to give my character a surname and start mapping the relationships between characters in a 'family tree'. As my Imperial Agent gets to higher levels other things open such as being allowed to have a Chiss character on the Republic side! A few abilities transfer across such as having a Jedi that can occasionally call down the Imperial Agents orbital strike. Funky.

That's about it for now. The opening first ten levels of the game were brilliant, for the Imperial Agent anyway. It felt heroic. It felt cinematic and dramatic. You felt in the events. It was well delivered. Now I am in the MMO world at large we'll see how it holds up.That's about it for now. The opening first ten levels of the game were brilliant, for the Imperial Agent anyway. It felt heroic. It felt cinematic and dramatic. You felt in the events. It was well delivered. Now I am in the MMO world at large we'll see how it holds up.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 14/03/2015 Bookmark and Share
It Bloats My Mind
Keywords: Role-Playing Games; Star Wars.

So I finally got my copy of the very dubious D6 Star Wars revised, expanded and updated edition, essentially a third edition fan endeavour. It's a beast of a book and says a lot about my gaming journey. This was one of my favourite games, easily one of the most ran along with Golden Heroes and Vampire: The Masquerade.

Yet now, as I look at the book, the bloat just blows my mind.

I was aware of this during the game's original release and development. The first edition was a work of art. The main rulebook being a thing of brilliance. Throwing a lot of role-playing baggage out and presenting a very simple set of rules, sporting the classic Star Wars poster as its cover, it was yet to be mired in rules additions and 'setting stuff'. Gamers abhor a vacuum and back in the day games survived by releasing new product continually (and it can be said the big hitters still follow this model). As a result, the game went through 2.5 editions and a lot of supplements. Even as the game took this original journey I was aware it wasn't necessarily making it better, but buying into the 'release train' was what you did back then.

Every gamer had creaking shelves of game books they never actually used. In the games defence this development actually contributed lots of material that went on to be canon (pre-Disney anyway).

I scan through the book now, and I'm perfectly aware this is all I am ever going to do with it, and I just can't comprehend how I would mechanically use it. Yes, the core system isn't that complicated and a lot of it is extraneous as well as setting material, starships, aliens, etc, but it still puts me off. I have big issues with skill lists these days. I detest long, granular skill lists with a passion and I especially detest them when the genre the game is meant to playing to patently has characters who seem to be able to do most things they put their hand to. The skill bloat even covers things you never see in the source material. Why? The vast majority of those skills are never going to be used? But gamers like verisimilitude, the simulative element, so all these skills exist. Madness.

What tends to happen is a look at the rules now and think: how did I ever enjoy running this? I certainly couldn't now.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 14/03/2015 Bookmark and Share
Subterfuge on Hutta
Keywords: Video Games; SWOTOR.

I'm going to go on and make some critical observations of the game, but the overall story is I am really enjoying Star Wars: The Old Republic. The main reason being, so far, and it is early days, is it's doing exactly what it was indicated it would do: provide a Knights of the Old Republic RPG sort of feel. Okay, it's an MMO rather than a single-player game. Okay, it does very much follow the Warcraft model. Yet despite all this it does feel very Knights of the Old Republic, it's probably the dramatic voice acting and the fact there is an astronomically larger amount of story in it compared to a typical MMO.

I've gone for an Imperial Agent. Specifically a hot, if unfortunately scared, Imperial Agent who is a delightful shade of blue. Apparently, she's a Chiss, like Admiral Thrawn off of, the yawn, Expanded Universe. Despite having this rather unique colour and pattern of scaring, she seems to be able to go undercover with ease, a bit like James Bond. Her initial operations embroil her in a turf war on Hutta which the Imperials have a stake in. Projection of power and all that.

The general atmosphere of the game is pretty top notch. The game gets to use the various music and sound effects, including original music which just seems like it was from the films from the beginning, which is pretty clever. The various computer animated film segments that are utilised in the beginning are very evocative, painting a picture of a Star Wars universe that is a bit more hard edged. The spot visuals are also great. It's the little things, like the use of the trademark Star Wars, low quality hologram communications, complete with low-res banding and flickering. They game occasionally does something that breaks the mood, such as the odd incongruous character, but this is by far made up for by the great alien voices, etc.

The game can't avoid giving you the odd dissonant quest. You're apparently one of the Imperial's best agents and yet you can get asked to do some pretty odd stuff by the 'locals'. It's not as bad as Warcraft so far, a combination of the voice acting and the provision of dramatic purpose in the introduction of the quests gives each a narrative context and a lot of them are driven by the central conflict on Hutta that your character is trying to destabilise, but they're still present. What can I say? This happens in many a Bioware game, it's doesn't feel as bad so far here (ironically, considering it's an MMO). It's certainly a much more engaging experience than the quest framework in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

One of the odd feelings the game engenders is it feels cramped? I'm not exactly sure if the 'zones' are small or if there is just a lot going on in them. You can't help but compare it to Warcraft due to the familiarity of the games and Warcraft always felt like you were in a vast world with multiple continents of significant size. It felt large. The size of Warcraft's world was one of the great things about the game. At the moment, Old Republic doesn't feel large it,feels very busy. There is a bit of a feel of George Lucas having come along and filled all the space with stuff. It just lacks...expanse. I've yet to figure out if this is factually correct, in the sense of the actual area sizes and so on, but it certainly feels that way. I'll also admit to the fact that, while cool, and certainly full of setting colour, the speeder bike journeys connecting travel points just aren't as majestic as soaring into the sky and looking down on the world from a giant bird or bat.

The combat can also lack..movement. It sounds great. The visuals looks great. It just doesn't seem to involve as much movement as Warcraft. At times I move around out of habit, in truth I could just stand still it doesn’t make that much difference. This could also be related to the amount of ranged combat in the game. It could also change when I get into one of the Flashpoints, as the need to move, use different skills, other than hitting things, tended to come up more in Warcraft dungeons. So we'll see.

Since I'm still in the starting zone and have not passed level 10 I suspect more MMO elements may appear in the future that I've not been bothered with so far, such as collecting and gathering. I also suspect the story may have gaps meaning some level ranges feel more like a traditional MMO. It may just feel like an extended period of voiced side-quests which isn't necessarily the same thing. If I find it hard to do grouped content this may also be a bit irritating. Still, to balance against that I'll get companions and funky things like a spaceship to hang out in!

On this basis I currently have no idea how the character progression works, beyond going to the Imperial Agent trainer and quickly picking up any skill in the list. At the moment it's not offering any choices, it's just telling me new stuff is available to train in. I suspect, choices kick in at level ten. As for gear? It seems both clear what is probably better but at the same time gear seems to provide some stats that are a bit baffling, such as the tech score, etc.

So far though, it's very enjoyable. A great a combination of being relaxing, atmospheric and dramatically driven. It's the best RPG orientated game I've experienced since Mass Effect put it that way, but it is early days!

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 13/03/2015 Bookmark and Share
Fly Solo: Rebel...Victory!
Keywords: Board Games; Imperial Assault.

The fifth mission in the Imperial Assault campaign was another great experience, albeit it came after our first game of Star Trek Catan and it's epic dilithium shortage (all three dilithium planets were set at 2,3 and 4 stalling the whole game).

I have to admit, I thought I had this one in the bag. It was an escort mission and traditionally the heroes have been terrible at them, losing out in both Homecoming (similar to this mission but escaping with Luke) and Target of Opportunity. I also had a significant amount of units, some funky upgrades, the threat had gone to 4 per round and I had some interesting agenda cards. I was seriously thinking that with a 3-1 win ration I may have pulled ahead a bit and another victory would have presented a serious leap.

It didn't work out like that as the heroes opened the door to free Hans Solo during round three and then a literal mad dash for the entrance took place and the Rebels pulled it off. Despite the ridiculous amount of units on the map, the efficient and headlong dash meant that all the event driven units found it hard to catch up and were perpetually chasing. There was figures the heroes had to pass but the luck of the dice was with them. Like all the story missions so far, this one ended the same way, a singular exchange in the penultimate round. The newly arrived, elite Trandoshan mercenaries made a brutal attack on Han Solo knowing, next round, he'd make a dash for the exit and escape. Han got a 'total dodge' result for one of the attacks and that was what won the game. Great stuff.

The mission was significantly different in two ways: there was no win conditions based on a round limit or wounding the heroes or both. Effectively there is a time limit as the threat rises and I can bring more units in and that will slowly punish the players. Players didn't have to worry about being wounded as much as it meant I didn't win anything by damaging them half way, the only way damage could significantly help me was to force a character to retreat. This created the interesting strategy of trying to keep Jyn on the run by punishing her continuously? The white defence die proved to be very weak as a defence unless you get the 'total dodge' result a lot. This means Jyn can be whittled down by continuous tasks, while it is much harder with Gaarkhan because of his better defence dice and his ability to use strain to directly Recover:2.

I finally did take out Jyn in the penultimate round with IG-88. There wasn't much point in that, but I did take her out.

I know I shouldn't think this way, as the Imperial player I should be looking to crush the Rebel players at every opportunity. I was playing hard and expected to win, but I was also glad the Rebels won as I wasn't sure about a 4-1 win ratio. It has altered the playing field a bit as the Rebels got some good gear and class abilities this time around. I sense they got a very big speed bump. Jyn got a couple of interesting class abilities and an awesome Tier II blaster pistol. I forget Gaarkhan's abilities but they are concentrated on his rage and being hit for 3+ damge (and he fiendish ability to Recover: 2 with a 1 strain. Yeah, that ability is really annoying).

It was a really enjoyable game and I'm really looking forward to the next one.

In terms of rules we did go in doing some things differently. We became aware that we could move diagonally in a few edge cases that we thought wasn't allowed, specifically 'around' impassable walls and terrain. In some situations this zigzagging can mean you dance between enemies and impassable terrain to avoid using extra movement points. I'm also wanting to get some forced missions into the campaign, both because it increases the mission count and also because there is some cool rewards in them. They come from Agenda Cards purchased with influence but they've not 'dropped' yet. I need to check if I should be putting used Agenda Cards back into the Agenda Deck as putting them back doesn't slowly increase the likelihood that forced missions will 'drop'.

We really are enjoying the Sunday boardgames. I'll be certainly expanding the collection at some point.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 02/03/2015 Bookmark and Share
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