58 – Giving up on KOTOR; Jade Empire and about 30 other games I’m playing

I have given up on KOTOR.

After much wrangling and finagling, I was able to get the damn thing to run vaguely reliably: In only 800×600 resolution, of course, and I was able to have the game maximized, and have it puttering along. Unfortunately, movie sequences required a resolution change, which crashed the game. An option to disable movies also crashed the game. And so my solution became to be to play the game in fullscreen, saving very often, getting to a movie, restarting the game in windowed mode, watching the movie, then maximizing.

One segment, however, involved several cutscenes and movies after a boss battle, and then an immediate cut to a turret sequence, which I immediately died on, and the most recent save file was right before the boss fight. And you know something, I just don’t have the fucking heart to try it again. It’s not KOTOR’s fault that it’s not working on my system, but I still don’t want to deal with how temperamental it is.

I have, in the meantime, been advised that KOTOR II is somewhat better and fine to jump straight into, and that KOTOR II is an even buggier mess that I should stay as far away from as possible.

So I have ended up playing Jade Empire, which I’ve played before and, after a few false starts, ended up loving. In a move which suggests Amanda Lange is right, as usual, I’m playing an evil–er, “Closed Fist”–character, which is a little harder than it seems. Partially it’s because there’s a lot of useful stuff for doing the Good–Open Palm–path, like it looks like more quests go to XP-giving completion–but partially it’s because you really do end up acting like a money-grubbing asshole. In true Bioware tradition, it isn’t quite good and evil, in theory, and the game does stress that it’s competing philosophies of motive rather than of end results: You can sabotage the dam because you’re being paid to, or because the resulting crisis will make the town stronger. But either way, the dam gets destroyed.

Of course, it’s still the early stages of the game: Right now you’re dealing with town disputes and local events, but by the end you’re given the opportunity to slay gods and bind souls, which come to think of it, the game does seem to pan out from the local to the celestial if I remember correctly. In terms of scope, I remember the first two chapters–I’m in chapter two at the moment–being the most open and sprawling, a bit in chapter 3 as well, and then the game becomes progressively linear. I don’t remember that being a bad thing: It’s, frankly, Just Enough Game–my final save file for my previous game is about 20 hours and I’ll probably end this a little closer to 15 or so. There’s been a lot of really long games I haven’t had the heart to finish lately so it’ll be nice to have something quick.

In terms of smaller games, I dug Andrew Shouldice’s Ludum Dare entry Our God Lives Underground, which is a very linear exploration game that I think totally nailed it–it’s basically a five minute trip somewhere claustrophobic, with a few very eerie moments. I had one of those nights last night where I was poking around the more avant corners o the exploration game scene. It’s a genre I always want to like–I love game environments–but I find so many of them to be…way too ponderous. It’s the walking speed, maybe. I’m a very fast walker in real life, and I hate when games walk slower than I do. Maybe it’s just my sense of aesthetics–like I always thought Proteus was extraordinarily ugly–or, I don’t know, I mean these things can get so goddamn pretentious sometimes, you know? OGLU is this streamlined, five-minute experience that more or less hits from the moment it begins, does what it does very intensely, and ends at the exact right moment.

Actually, I also ended up playing 9.03m thanks to indiegamestand, and I can’t say I necessarily liked 9.03m, because memento moris filled with somber piano music aren’t really my thing. But given the game’s subject matter–the victims of the Tsunami in Japan–I mean, it’s a very good memento mori filled with somber piano music. It’s really pretty to look at, and if I wasn’t exactly Overcome with Emotion from it, I Admire Its Technique.

But the reason I got 9.03 was as a tie-in for Space Budgie’s new game Glitchspace, which is goddamn wonderful–and apparently only in Alpha, which surprises me because, the bit I’ve played of it, at least, seems fairly well-done. Having done exactly no research on this–having literally found out it’s in alpha just this moment–I’m not sure how much is left, if this is just a couple of levels that I’ve got or what. But it’s a very…soothing puzzle game. Everything is just blocks and calm. The main gimmick is the ability to “reprogram” objects–each has logic behind it and you have to arrange things like “Collisions: False” to allow you to walk through walls, things like that. Um, I’m explaining it poorly, but I liked it. That it’s in alpha makes me worry they’re going to add a storyline to it, and the last thing I want for this game is to have a wisecracking narrator. Given that 9.03m made the very wise decision to exclude narration, I think I trust it.

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57 – KOTOR, Pt 1

Knights of the Old Republic is proving to be a little difficult to love. Largely this is the result of bugginess: For whatever reason, the game doesn’t play nicely on modern systems, and it doesn’t have the advantage of ten years of patches like Bloodlines did. It took three separate configuration sessions to figure out how to get the game running in fullscreen mode. (Which is a necessity for me: I don’t know how people play games in windowed mode without inadvertently clicking outside the window into other applications every 30 seconds, and that’s not even taking into consideration that the edges of my desktop background–a picture of Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and RuPaul holding a crying Francis Bean–poke through, utterly ruining any immersion the game has.)

But KOTOR is having some of the same issues that the first Mass Effect had for me, which is that after a really exciting initial mission, you’re umped into a boring planet and doing some beginner, kind of uninteresting quests. I’m an unusual-planets and weird alien species guy. When I think of Star Wars, I think about Dagobah and Endor and the Cantina and all of that; KOTOR, after a well-done tutorial sequence where you’re on a ship that’s being attacked–after, essentially, a recreation of the opening scene from the original Star Wars–you’re placed on a sprawling city planet. I know that Bioware loves it some cities. I’m assured that if I ever make it to the part of Baldur’s Gate where I make it to Baldur’s Gate, I’ll enjoy myself there. I appreciated the idea of what they were trying to do with Kirkwall in Dragon Age II. But Taris–the main city where you find yourself at the beginning of KOTOR–is one of those Star Wars-y cities with all white, clinical walls, and it’s, frankly, not much to look at. There’s an Undercity where the poor live, forever blocked from seeing the sun–but a series of graphical glitches make that area difficult to navigate (and kinda crashy), and, frankly, Final Fantasy VII did the atmosphere of that concept a lot better.

It might partially be coming off of Bloodlines, I’ll admit that. Bloodlines was only a year after KOTOR–they’re more or less contemporaries. I enjoyed exploring its hubs in a way that I am not enjoying Taris.

Well I am sticking with it, if only for Bioware’s reputation and the fact that I’m enjoying it enough–after all, Jade Empire had an extremely dull opening sequence that I played through twice and abandoned before finally muscling through and finding it was an absolutely wonderful game. The storyline is good so far–it is, in its way, fulfilling that little-boy need to pretend to be a Jedi from time to time. I know the major Twist to the game, and it’s nice seeing the foreshadowing starting from pretty much the beginning. I don’t love the character development system–there are too few skills and I am unclear how I should be diversifying them–I’m frankly using the Autolevel option for my other party members because I don’t quite care enough to think about how I want to build them. Combat is decent–and yet so far I haven’t noticed any better results from manually controlling my characters as opposed to letting the AI take over.

I mean, the game needs to open up, and I’m closing in on the end of this first planet. Give me someplace more rural and adventuresome next, and I think it’ll be enjoyable. I hear you get to go to the Wookkiee planet, and I’m cool with that. It’s just the kind of game I’ve been playing for 5 hours and am still kind of waiting for it to start, and that’s, obviously, Bad. The slow boil doesn’t always work.

 

12

There have been a lot of single-company bundles floating around lately–Blendo Games did one, I think, as has Telltale and Double Fine; while the recent Bundle In A Box was not, it did feature all four of Wadjet Eye’s flagship Blackwell series as well as three separate iterations of Hacker.

It’s a mixed bag. I’m not particularly fond of Telltale or Double Fine, and so it does dissuade the biggest incentive to buy a bundle, which is, why the hell not. If you’re an indie gamer, most bundles will have at least one game you already own, or one game that isn’t to your taste. Too many, and yeah, a bundle isn’t a good idea, but even getting three out of five games for five bucks is still a pretty good deal, and you can always give away a code to a friend. It would seem that, particularly for prominent indies such as Double Fine and Telltale, there’s already a pretty good chance of people owning most or all of the games, or having a particular feeling about a company or genre. And hell, while Telltale might be an extremely polarizing company–I and a lot of classic adventure gamers that I’m friends with all actively hate the company’s games–their products are consistent and their fans loyal.

The current Indie Royale is for Arcen Games, and this is a case where I love the company’s games and already own all of them. The only exceptions are the expansion packs for AI war–I own the base game but have never given it a proper try and so getting expansions would be premature. But again: Why the hell not? The bundle cost is still cheaper than getting the expansions separately, and I can always give away the codes to friends. I don’t mind tossing them a couple bucks.

The hell of it is, I’m not sure Arcen has ever made a completely successful game. I picture their games as jalopies piled with dusty Joads, and crates of chickens, and trunks with the hems of light blue dresses, the kind Dorothy Gale wears, and a cousin pickin’ on a banjo, and they’re tryin’ their darnedest to get to California and the whole package is tied up with some tough rope, and there’s a hound dog in there somewhere, and Ma’s in the driver’s seat, solid as America, and they’re ambling down the road, hoping like hell there’s a diner and a gas station somewhere in the next 50 miles, some milk for the baby and maybe even a clean sink where they can wash their faces and hands, and then it hits a bump and the whole thing explodes and goes flying everywhere, valises opening up and spilling long johns and nightgowns over the scrub, the tangled and gangly limbs of children splaying in the air, the dust clearing, Grandpa waking up with a sneeze and searching for a wrench, car parts strewn everywhere except for Ma’s chair, Ma sitting in it, her hand still clutching the gearshift which is no longer attached to anything. At first she is holding it at waist level and it looks like a scepter, but she raises it up and one is immediately struck by her resemblance to the Statue of Liberty.

Arcen games are extremely ambitious, and I think most of their games fail because of difficulties with focus. In many ways, they’re too ambitious. A Valley Without Wind is one of the most obvious examples–it’s a playset with a billion different pieces. But while their games usually fall apart, every single one of them is made with extreme gusto and enthusiasm. A Valley Without Wind is a Frankensteinian Godzilla monstrosity, but goddammit, it really does give the sense of vaguely trying to do things in an almost infinitely vast world. At first, it’s hilarious that it runs at all–but after a while, its drunken gait develops a charm and you begin to get into its rhythm. I have this feeling with all of its games.

In many ways, Arcen is one of those devs like Sid Meier or Mousechief–it’s less making “videogames” than board games that are impossible to physically build, or feature too many unwieldy calculations to be played by humans, or require too many pieces. Its newest, Skyward Collapse, is beginning to be famously described as “Chess you play with yourself”; A Valley Without Wind 2 is like taking a turn in a board game and then having a fight with your action figures; I can easily see a home game version of Shattered Haven with cardboard tokens on a slickly printed grid and some players playing zombies and some humans.

I do wonder, incidentally, if the fact that I’ve actually never played their most popular game, AI War, is coloring my opinion. Based on the number of expansions and its still devoted player base, it’s quite possible that the dev simply knocked that one out of the park and is concentrating its serious efforts into that one while making more wildly experimental games. Skyward Collapse seems to be doing well, and a couple of possible expansions seem almost self-evident–different factions, new types of buildings, campaigns, etc.

There’s a sense of draft–updates to Skyward Collapse came almost daily for about a week after its release, and while obviously there were some bugfixes, a lot of it was balance tweaks suggested by the fan community. (In one case a change was made, found to be wildly unpopular, and changed back the next day.) I like that. Changing games based on fan feedback is kind of a controversial subject after Mass Effect 3. But in that case, the issue was with Bioware’s artistic intent with the original ending. Arcen is very obviously looking to entertain. People play games like AI War for years–it’s clear they’re releasing updates and expansions to it because they want to keep people enjoying it. I find that level of dedication endearing. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff on their blog, and I really like it. Usually their explanations hit the proper balance between giving a lot of information and realizing they’re speaking to an audience of non-programmers.

So the upshot is one ought to buy the bundle. Why the hell not, right?