The Witcher 2: first impressions

This is my first post on The Witcher 2.

 

1.  First impressions

2. Strengths and weaknesses (as of early Act 2)

 

I picked up The Witcher 2 when it went on sale a couple of weekends ago, and so far, I’m a little way through the game – I’ve finished the prologue and I can’t be far off from the end of Act 1. My first impressions: “Everything you’ve heard about this game contains a grain of truth.” Specifically:

 

Not needing to play the first game: I’ve barely touched the original game, but I’m managing well. There is a huge qualification here, though – I’ve read the stories on which the games are based, so I already know the major characters and a bit about the world.

 

Storytelling: So far, I like it, starting with the prologue, which captured a “cinematic” feel through a combination of cutscenes, QTEs and gameplay. It dragged a bit through Chapter 1 when I had to do more running around the map with fewer cutscenes to reward me, but now it seems to have picked up again. I also like TW2’s characters, starting with protagonist Geralt, who shows how to pull off the “lethal-but-principled deadpan badass” archetype. This extends to the NPCs: the king feels like a leader should, larger-than-life, sometimes generous, sometimes ruthless. As for the world, the obvious comparison is Dragon Age (disclaimer: I never got that far into DA), another brutal take on the traditional elves-and-dwarves high fantasy world. There seem to be precious few heroes in TW2; corrupt lawmen grow fat from shaking down merchants, while elves and dwarves repay human oppression with nasty insurgency. I think if you’re interested in that kind of setting, you’ll like its depiction in TW2.

 

An imposing learning curve/difficulty level: I agree with the reviewer (Todd Brakke at Gameshark) who commented that this game could do with a difficulty setting in between Easy and Normal. As a general rule, outside of boss fights, Easy feels like god mode while Normal feels like God Hand. Enemies hit hard, especially when they attack from behind! Sure, Geralt is tough enough to take any trash mob one-on-one in a fair fight – but three, or four, or five trash mobs are a completely different story. (I was completely unsurprised to learn that Demon’s Souls was one of the inspirations for the combat.) So the trick is using the tools at your disposal – stun bombs, throwing knives, buffs, crowd-control magic, and more – to ensure that 1 vs many fights aren’t fair. This is why the game’s prologue has such a steep learning curve – it hurls the player into the deep end without properly explaining those tools. Eventually I did get the hang of things, and combat is starting to become more enjoyable. On the other hand, I find boss fights perilously close to being frustrating* rather than fun, so hopefully this will improve later on.

 

Hefty system requirements: This game is indeed a beast. I have a reasonably powerful machine (i7 7200M processor, Mobility Radeon HD 5730, 4GB RAM) and I still had to turn down the settings to Low.

 

Dialogue: Yes, the characters say “ploughing” and “witcha” a lot…

 

So far, early impressions are promising, hair-pulling boss fights aside, and I look forward to uncovering more of the game’s story. I’ll keep you posted on The Witcher 2!

 

 

* Days later, I can still recall, “Trap it with the Yrden!” and, “Why are you hounding me?!”

Persona 3 Portable: Finished! Initial (spoileriffic) thoughts on the ending

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Persona 3 & 4

Over the weekend, I finally finished Persona 3 Portable (not long after I finished my Conan the Barbarian post, in fact). In the coming weeks, watch this space for a spoiler-free review, and possibly a “Storytelling in Games” analysis piece. For now, I can say, wow, it was a very good game, maybe even a great game (I’ve yet to make up my mind). Very brief, and very spoileriffic, first thoughts on the game’s ending below the cut:

 

Continue reading “Persona 3 Portable: Finished! Initial (spoileriffic) thoughts on the ending”

Guiltless Pleasures: Conan the Barbarian

For some viewers, Conan the Barbarian (1982) is something to watch while intoxicated: entertaining but not good. While I agree it’s flawed, I think it deserves better than to be thrown into the “guilty pleasures” bucket.  True, the movie is not finely nuanced, morally ambiguous, or character-driven. Its revenge-centred plot is as simple as they come. There is never a moment’s doubt as to who is the hero or who is the villain. It’s often melodramatic, it’s gory, and it doesn’t even resemble the original short stories.

 

What rescues the movie is its ambition – it tries so hard to be a serious, gritty, low-fantasy epic. It doesn’t quite succeed, for the reasons I named above, but it comes close enough to nail the feel of what it would be like to live in such a world. Conan’s foes – slavers, witches, demonic snake cults – imply how cheap life would be, both through their nastiness and through the suddenness with which they intrude. The visuals hint at an untamed world in other ways – the wilderness is vast and harsh, the cities are worn, teeming, chaotic. The soundtrack, stirring and bombastic during battle, gentler when Conan and sidekick are travelling, is worth the price of admission all by itself. The various bodybuilders cast in the movie – led by Arnie, the living, breathing embodiment of physical power – fit perfectly into the setting. Even all that fake blood serves a point – this is not a dainty world. The movie’s final image, a brooding, older Conan sitting on a throne, promised a sweeping story arc just waiting to be told.

 

We never saw the rest of that story. Instead, we ended up with Conan the Destroyer (now that would be a guilty pleasure, if I thought it were any good) and now the new Jason Momoa vehicle, which I haven’t seen but which the critics hate. There have been other good fantasy movies in the last 30 years, but none of the ones I’ve seen have brought a world to life quite as well as the original Conan the Barbarian. This was a movie that excelled at worldbuilding, and for that reason, I feel no shame for holding it up as an example of the genre.

Guiltless pleasures: John Birmingham’s Weapons of Choice series

Formulaic movies. Shallow novels. Glitchy video games. Not the most promising material. Yet even these will have their fans. Some will have differences of opinion. Some, in between gales of laughter, will mumble: “So bad it’s good!” And some will grin shamefacedly and mutter about guilty pleasures. I have my fair share of works that fall into categories #1 and #2, but I am always short of examples to offer when the subject turns to guilty pleasures. And that is because, for me, they’re something of a contradiction in terms. A work of entertainment will succeed for me if it hits the right notes across several categories – in the case of books, these would be “story”, “characterisation”, “worldbuilding”, “themes” and “prose quality”. If I’m enjoying it, then that implies it must have at least some redeeming features. And if I can point to some place where it “objectively” does well, then there is no guilt.

 

My best example here is John Birmingham’s Weapons of Choice series (aka World War 2.0), a time travel/alternate history trilogy about a multinational fleet from the dystopic 2020s that gets hurled back to World War II, in the process inadvertently gutting the US fleet en route to the Battle of Midway. At first glance, the books are just trashy airport novels. The action is gory, the characters are paper-thin – to the point where a major character can die in between books – and the plotline is lubricated with a constant stream of Axis and Soviet atrocities, making it all the more satisfying when the Nazis do find themselves on the wrong end of cruise missiles. The author himself has been quoted as saying that the books “improve with altitude”. Yet for all this, I loved books 2 and 3, back during my student days – much more than I enjoyed many a more highbrow book. Surely this is the very definition of a guilty pleasure?

 

But that’s not the whole story. First, the latter two books in the series are good trashy airport novels. If the raison d’etre of an airport novel is to have a gripping plot, then those two deliver in spades – twists, turns, rising tension, thrilling finales. And second, the pulpy action is underpinned by some pretty intelligent thought experiments. When the modern coalition soldiers encounter their 1940s Allied counterparts, the racism, sexism and homophobia of the era come as a tremendous culture shock. Conversely, the “contemporaries” are at times, appalled by the ruthlessness their descendants have picked up in the course of fighting their shadowy war. The alternate history itself always struck me as well-thought out*, from the micro level (even given the blueprints, the Allies can’t build F-22s with a 1940s technological/industrial base, so what do they build instead? ) to the grand strategic decisions made by Roosevelt, Stalin, et al. So pulpy this series may be, but I feel no guilt about how much fun I had reading it. And I would even recommend it to readers who’d like a pulpy, action-packed pageturner with which to kill time. Say, while waiting for that flight?

 

 

* With the disclaimer that I am not an expert on WW2.

 

 

Next up: why Conan the Barbarian (the original movie) isn’t a guilty pleasure.

Europa Universalis III: The price of freedom is deficit spending

This is part 2 of an irregular series on Europa Universalis III.

 

Part 1: The Byzantine Empire and puzzle-like gameplay.

Part 2: The Manchus, hordes, and the consequences of deficit spending.

 

 

I recently picked up Divine Wind, the Asian-focused expansion for Europa Universalis III, and I’ve had a lot of fun playing the Manchus, the people who would eventually conquer China and constitute its last imperial dynasty. The screenshot above shows the Manchu starting position in 1399 AD. To the south is the game’s sleeping giant, Ming China, and Korea.  To the east, Japan. To the north, unclaimed wilderness. And to the west, the nomadic hordes of the steppe.

 

This last point needs a bit of explanation. Divine Wind introduced a new type of nation to the game: the “horde”. Whereas sedentary nations are at peace with each other by default, they are automatically at war with hordes, broken only by temporary truces. Those truces must be bought with either prestige (via an admission of defeat) or tribute, from one side to the other. And rather than exchanging land as part of a peace treaty, possession is ten-tenths of the law – to claim land from the horde, first you have to occupy it with soldiers, then send in colonists who will eventually bring the province under your control. The hordes on the Manchu border are small and weak, but as we’ll see, even a small enemy can be dangerous in unexpected ways…

 

When starting a game of EU3, it’s usually necessary to cut military funding to the bone during peacetime, and so I did that. This worked out just fine, as for the first few decades I played like an East Asian Netherlands or Switzerland – colonising unclaimed patches of land such as Taiwan and bits of Siberia, sending out merchants to Nanjing and Malacca, and building up my infrastructure. What I didn’t realise was during that time, my game was affected by a glitch that prevented my armies from moving – and I strongly suspect this also prevented computer-controlled armies from moving, thus effectively enforcing world peace. In other words, things should not have been so easy for me. Eventually I cleared up the glitch, but I was able to enjoy a few more years of peace as a result of the Ming armies marching out onto the steppe to deal with the nomads.

 

Then the Ming struck a truce with the hordes. And the hordes, now free to attack me, flooded across the border, crushed my small standing army, and sacked half the Manchu kingdom.

 

But I still held half the nation. And in that half, I rebuilt the army, making it larger, stronger, more cavalry-heavy. This cost money, and lots of it, but I didn’t care. I wanted the invaders out! And with my new army, I was able to drive them back, before eventually settling for a truce that would get them off my land.

 

Five years later, the truce expired. But I was ready. My expanded, and now lavishly funded, army surged onto the steppe. This time, the shoe was on the other foot – the nomads stood no chance. And behind the soldiers came the settlers. The hordes had started this mess, but I was going to end it.

 

Well, I did end it – but not for the reasons I envisioned. Raising my new model army cost money. Maintaining that army cost money. Starting those colonies cost money. Maintaining those colonies, before they became self-sustaining, cost money. Sending out more colonists to make them self-sustaining cost money. When there was no money, I borrowed it. But paying the interest on the debt… cost money.

 

In the end, my budget was being chewed up by interest payments. My inflation* was dangerously high, far higher than I would have let it get had I been playing a Great Power. My technology and infrastructure were suffering. I could no longer afford my campaign. So I opted for peace, though this time I was able to exact tribute from the nomads.

 

In due course, I turned around my economy and paid down the debt, and my future campaigns were much more affordable. But for me, that episode – the diciest so far – will be the high point of the Manchu game. Historical strategy games tend to be about the extraordinary: extraordinary conquests, extraordinary empires.  (Just look at the victory conditions in most of the Total War games – historical kings would have given their right arms to rule over that much land.) Even EU3 is no exception, once you get past the early game. It’s far rarer that they convey a sense of limitation, of why these conquests and empires were so exceptional in the first place. But that costly steppe campaign was one of those rare cases. The limitations imposed by the game helped to drive home why civilised emperors, from Rome to China, opted to throw tribute to the barbarians rather than sending in the army**. It was an example of games allowing me to “reach out and touch history”, and I’m glad to have had the chance.

 

* In real life, inflation would reduce the value of my debts, but I don’t think that’s represented in the game.

 

** For example, every year, Sung China (circa-11th century AD) sent 300,000 bolts of silk and 200,000 ounces of silver to the neighbouring Liao dynasty – and the Liao were just one of the two nomadic states on China’s frontiers.