Dragon Age: Inquisition and BioWare’s triumphant return.

I’m an avid gamer and have been playing games for quite some time.  One of my favorite genres of games is the RPG genre.  When I was younger, I cut my teeth on such greats as the Temple of Apshai on my Commodore 64, Dragonstomper on the Arcadia Supercharger for the Atari 2600, Might and Magic for the IBM PC, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape Torment.  As I aged I progressed through CRPGs and JRPGs, FPSRPGs and ultimately to MMOs, etc.

Electronic Arts and I have somewhat of a sordid history.  They make a habit out of taking old intellectual property, buying it and the company that owns it, then completely gutting the culture and replacing it with bottom-line cash-crop anti-consumer behavior.  This was easy to see after their purchase of Maxis when they launched SimCity, which was widely regarded as being not only the worst game in the series, but one of the worst games ever made.  Unfortunately, it still sold extremely well.

I’m telling you all of this because a company called BioWare spent years making some of the absolute best CRPGs on the market, that I played the bejesus out of as a child (and some as an adult).  They were responsible for such greats as  Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic, and more.  In 2007, they were purchased by Electronic Arts and I was fairly certain that sounded the death knell for their reign of good game production.

One of the first games released after the acquisition was Dragon Age: Origins, a classic-themed RPG in the style of Baldur’s Gate, some 20 years after Baldur’s Gate had been released.  Thankfully, this game had been deep into production before the acquisition, and Electronic Arts did not interject too much of their super-monetization into the game.  Dragon Age: Origins was widely regarded as being one of the best CRPGs that had been made in a very long time.  I spent a lot of time playing that game and enjoyed it very much.  The story was interesting and grabbed me very quickly, the gameplay was tight and strategic and unforgiving and difficult (just like I want from an RPG), and overall the mechanics were extremely well done.  I sunk many an hour into that game!

A few years later, EA / BioWare released Dragon Age II, the sequel to Dragon Age: Origins.  This game is widely regarded as being a piece of utter shit.  While the combat has been somewhat streamlined, gone is the top-down tactical view that harkens back to the Baldur’s Gate days, and gone is the good story and engaging characters.  On top of that, their monetization model included putting obnoxious characters into your town party that try to sell you DLC every time they see you.  In addition to poor quality questing and buggy gameplay, the game itself just wasn’t as good as the first one by a long shot.

Coincidentally, another series that BioWare had launched prior to the acquisition, Mass Effect, suffered the same fate.  Mass Effect 1 was a great RPG-element-heavy FPS with engaging sci-fi story line, great characters, and perhaps too much time spent in elevators.  Mass Effect 2 was an action FPS with little to no RPG elements, 30 diffferent DLC packs, mission based structure that opposed the open-world RPG structure of the first game, and a fairly poor antagonist.  Mass Effect 3 was then a DLC laden mix of the two, requiring phone apps to be used as a time sink in order to get the best game ending in addition to offering a glut of unnecessary and obnoxious DLC — not the least of which was a playable character of a race that was believed extinct, which added immensely to the story.

So, flash forward to 2014 and BioWare/EA is preparing for the launch of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the latest version of Dragon Age.

All I can really say is that it warms my heart to know that there are people at BioWare / EA who still care about making good games.  Dragon Age: Inquisition is easily one of the best RPGs I have played in a VERY long time, and while it falls into the DLC trap that EA can’t seem to escape from, at least it does not brain you every time you play with a blunt stick of DLC.

The game is beautiful, very clean art design and great character design.  Characters you’ve met in previous games have gotten the necessary graphical overhaul for this game and all of them look great.  It was fairly difficult using the character creator to actually create a character that looked decent, in my opinion, even with all of the options — but that’s a minor quibble if ever I had one.

Gameplay wise, the game is a perfect mix of Dragon Age Origins and Awakening.  You have the top-down , paused tactical combat view where you can control each party member individually and provide detailed steps and strategy — but you also have a free-form action / hot-bar style combat system that you can use for easier fights.  I don’t recommend it for boss battles, though, it will be a little more difficult that way than you would expect!

The story is deep and engaging, but it does rely heavily on your knowledge of the lore from the previous games.  If you don’t specifically recall the plotline of the first two games, I recommend going to the Dragon Age Keep to allow it to provide you the recap of what happened, as you will be a little lost without it and there are some dialog choices that require you to remember specific people and events in order to make effective choices.

Exploration in the game is an absolute blast, with huge and expansive environments covering mountains and streams and cities and plains, forests and castles and encampments.  There is no shortage of things to see and do — to put it into perspective, I decided I wanted to 100% the first area that you are dropped into in the game, an area called the Hinterlands.  About 25 hours later (around level 10) I had completed every thing in that area that was possible for me to complete — but still had about 10 things to complete that I couldn’t accomplish yet due to being too low of a level.

At my best guess so far, the game includes 8 or 9 areas of that size, each with that much content.  I’ve been playing the game now for about 45-50 hours and I’m not certain that I’m even half-way through the storyline yet.

I suppose I will have to withhold complete judgment until I can finish the game and see the ending, but I am surprised and pleased to see that BioWare seems to have released a proper return to form.  At the very least, they’ve given me 45-50 great hours of gaming — that’s a pretty good return on $60 investment, if you ask me.

Ocubook Facerift

Or, watching the neckbeards collectively shit a house.

Last week, the tech world was upended as Mark Zuckerberg announced that he had purchased Oculus Rift for $2Bn in company stock and cash.  Pretty much every neckbeard on the internet (myself included) reacted via knee-jerk, talking about how Oculus was dead now, how the product was going to be covered in like and share buttons, and how the upcoming CV1 Rift would be saddled with Facebook login limitations, etc.

Unlike a lot of the internet, I went to bed that night and woke up the following day with an entirely different take on it.  My viewpoint on the matter isn’t extremely unique, nor is this article going to shed any additional light onto the topic, so I’ll be brief:

  1. $2.4M was never enough to get the CV1 hardware out the door.  If you’re one of the people involved in the intial kickstarter, thank you for proving the viability of the market — but you’re deluded if you ever thought that $2.4M was going to be enough to produce quality hardware at an affordable price.  Also, those of you who somehow think that kickstarting earned you equity in the company, you’re fucking idiots.  You were promised a DK1, you got it, that was it.  You are not a partner in the company because you gave them $350.  Just shut up with that nonsense.
  2. If you think Oculus taking money was selling out, then at least get your facts straight — by that logic, they sold out last year when they took the $90M in venture capital.  You remember last year, when you were all grassroots VR’ing all over the place and everyone was up in arms over the $90M of VC, right?  Wait…  No, you don’t, because it didn’t happen, because you’re not upset with this based on principle, you’re upset with this because of the word Facebook.
  3. VR is not a cheap thing.  It is not cheap to get the hardware working.  It is not cheap to get the right types of displays.  Until the Facebook acquisition, the Oculus Rift was a hodgepodge of cell phone parts craftily duct taped together to form a rudimentary VR device.  The acquisition by Facebook gives Oculus the capital required to custom manufacture new equipment (e.g., low persistence, low latency displays outside of standard cell phone pixel count or aspect ratio as one example) which will ultimately cause the production versions of the product to be notably better than they could have been if they were still built on hand me down hardware.
  4. Every single person involved has claimed that the specifics of the deal clearly indicate that Oculus maintains full control over the Oculus hardware and CV1, and that Facebook will be acting as an almost angel investor — seeding money into the project, knowing that the first launch will not be profitable, and accepting of that fact.  Yes, it’s true, companies will PR all over things like this and say these sorts of things when their userbase is shocked by news of this type — but I don’t think they’re blowing smoke here.  Facebook knows that if they want to tap into that sweet, sweet advertising revenue and gather all of those great use metrics about you using their product, you actually have to OWN the product first.  So, their comment that they were leaving the hardware alone and focusing on software does not seem to fall flat for me.

Anyways, my DK2 is on pre-order, so if you still think Facebook is “TEH GREAT EVIL OF OUR TIM3!!111!!111oneoneone!!!eleventyone”, don’t order one (or cancel your pre-order so mine ships sooner), and we will all have a good laugh when the CV1 comes out and Palmer and the Oculus team are proven to be telling the truth.

Starbound is great.

Did you Terraria? Good.

Did you not Terraria? Go buy it. It’s only $15. Why not? Is it because you’re an idiot? That’s my guess. Terraria is effectively 2D Minecraft + Metroid + Ghosts and Goblins (if Minecraft had a point other than making large gold penises). You get a little dude on a planet and gather some resources to make a shelter and then some tools, gather more resources to make some weapons and armor, find the dungeon and summon some bosses and kill ‘m, then find hell and find a boss there and kill ‘m, then clear the world of corruption and hallow. Yeah, I know that probably made 0 sense. Don’t care, it’s an awesome game.

Anyways, buy Starbound. Most of the people who made Terraria formed Chucklefish games and just released the beta of Starbound, which is effectively a more complex Terraria (with additional survival and crafting elements) + space. So, where Terraria was one world, Starbound seems to be hundreds of explorable planets of varying difficulties and with differing resources.

Also, I’m running a semblance of a private server and a teamspeak server for it. Reach out to me if you want access.

I am not an idiot, and I am buying Starbound right now like you told me.

The Legend of Zelda – Windwaker HD

or How I learned to stop saying I hated all 3D Zelda games…

So, let’s kick this off with a combination of both content AND malcontent.  Those who know me may have heard me rail previously about my distaste for the 3D Zelda games.  While I did beat Ocarina of Time on the N64 back when it was released, it marks the only of the 3D Zelda games I have ever beaten.  Even so, though nostalgia may color my memory in attempt to convince me that it was a good game, attempting to play through the game recently made me realize that it really isn’t that engaging of a Zelda game.  I never beat Majora’s Mask, couldn’t get too into Windwaker on GameCube, despised Twilight Princess with a flaming passion, and cannot even express in written word the level of distaste I have developed for Skyward Sword.

Let’s take these one at a time:

  • The Legend of Zelda – Majora’s Mask (N64)

I really don’t know where to start with this one.  It’s a fan favorite, has garnered good reviews, and most people that I talk with tell me they love it.  All I know is that there’s a clock in the top right hand corner counting down to something, and I can only play for like an hour before it bores me to the point that watching paint dry would be more interesting.  I suppose I can’t really say this game is terrible, more specifically that it just bored me and I couldn’t get into it.  Moving on…

  • The Legend of Zelda – Twilight Princess (GameCube/Wii)

Look, fuck this game.  Fuck this game in its stupid fucking face.  This is the absolute dumbest 3D Zelda game they ever made (not counting the two abortions on DS, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, they really are the worst Zelda has to offer unless you happen to have the Philips CDI).  Are you shitting me?  You turned Link into a werewolf?  Fuck this.  Nevermind the fact that they had to mirror the entire game to make Link right-handed, solely to support the waggle-tastic Wiimote controls.  Don’t believe me?  Read about it for yourself.  I think I got an hour into this before realizing that playing as a werewolf was FUCKING STUPID, and turned it the fuck off.

  • The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword (Wii)

I truly don’t know how so many people could have gotten this one so fucking wrong.  If you ask just about any Zelda player, they’ll go on for hours about how this is the best Zelda game in the history of mankind, about how it is a shining achievement of Zelda in our lives and nothing will ever beat it.  I have tried to play this stupid fucking game no less than 9 times.  I bought the stupid Motion Plus dongle, and that didn’t work for shit, so then I bought the Wiimote Plus — SOLELY to be able to try and play this stupid game.  Imagine my surprise when the first 90 minutes of the game is running around in a forest, pushing logs in some ridiculously arbitrary and stupid puzzle.  I’m not against puzzles in Zelda games, it’s one of the core mechanics — however, I am averse to puzzles with absolutely no tie to the game, especially ones with completely arbitrary solutions that are not logical, counter-intuitive, and in some cases seemingly random.  People also want to gush about how every single enemy in the game has a unique method to kill — e.g., you have to swing the wiimote to spin a spider and then thrust the wiimote to stab them.  Did I mention how much I fucking hate bullshit waggle controls?  Because I really, really fucking hate bullshit waggle controls.  So, fuck this stupid game and the stupid birds and its blatant attempt to try and copy Windwaker’s open world, exploration friendly style.  This game sucks and I hate it, and frankly you should to unless you have no idea what you’re talking about.

This brings me to the Pièce de résistance, as it were—

  • The Legend of Zelda – The Windwaker (GameCube/WiiU)

Now, let me first start by saying that this game isn’t perfect.  Link makes way too fucking much noise, which is one of my common complaints with most of the Zelda games made past a Link to the Past.  Just push the ‘roll’ button or ‘sword’ button a few times to see what I mean.  Link is goddamned INCAPABLE of doing a single fucking thing without an obligatory ‘hah’ ‘hyeah’ ‘huh’ ‘ho’ ‘yah’.  Just shut the fuck up, Link.  Shut your goddamned mouth for just a second.  I really don’t need to hear you shout every time I push a goddamned button.  Anyways, moving on…  I tried to play this game on GameCube, got past about two levels (forest haven/deku tree and forsaken fortress, maybe one more level, it was so long ago whatever) and pretty much put it down, never to pick it up again.  Partly this was because I was in the camp of people who initially thought the cel-shaded style was kiddie and silly (especially after Nintendo teased us with the ridiculously good looking Zelda demo at the GameCube’s launch), and partly it was because I hadn’t yet realized how epic in scope Windwaker was (though still admittedly a short game, as Zelda games go), so I moved on to another game and called it a wash.

Flash foward to a few weeks ago, when Nintendo released the HD remake of Windwaker on the Nintendo store.  I downloaded it (the HD looked really good, and even though I was ho-hum on the GameCube version, I have really been trying to find a good Zelda game to play ever since I realized Skyward Sword was the stupidest piece of shit this side of Shaq-Fu) and dug in.  It didn’t take me long to pass where I had gotten in the GameCube version, and I noticed while playing that I was really enjoying the game — the gameplay is solid, the graphics are great, the music is iconic and nostalgic, the sailing is epic, the world is huge, and the puzzles are intuitive and topical.  At the end of the first play session I was further in the game than I’d ever been before, and it wasn’t long after that I realized that Windwaker is the one 3D Zelda game that ACTUALLY gets what a Zelda game is, and executed on that concept near flawlessly.  Here’s the rundown, starting with easy and obvious and then digging deeper:

    • Graphics:  Yes, it’s true.  The cel-shaded look was very polarizing when it came out and that still remains to be true.  While I do think that it makes Link look very childish, the concept of Cel Shading makes for a much cleaner art style that contributes to immersion.  If the game was attempting to look ultra-realistic, it would be jarring when things weren’t perfect.  As it’s artistically styled, the graphics paint an overall aesthetic that is never broken throughout the entire game.  Gorgeous to look at, and very pretty in 1080p, my only qualm here is the few times that the game dips below 30fps (even on the WiiU, that’s kind of silly!)
    • Sound:  I already mentioned it, there’s not too much to say.  They did a great job with the sound design in this game (minus Link’s over-zealous shouting and noise making).  The music is great and catchy, the sound effects are weighty and topical, the orchestral combat is a very nice touch, and the context-sensitive music (day/night/location) makes for a grand sweeping score that varies into and out of focus as needed throughout the game.  Very well done with some memorable pieces.
    • Control:  The WiiU gamepad solves the item-juggling problem from the GameCube (there were more useful items at any given point in time than spots to hold useful items, so you were constantly switching to the item screen to swap them around), and I can’t stress this enough — IT  DOESN’T USE BULLSHIT WAGGLE WIIMOTE CONTROLS.  IT USES FUCKING THUMBSTICKS AND BUTTONS, LIKE A GODDAMNED ZELDA GAME SHOULD.  LET ME NOT GLOSS OVER THIS POINT AS I FIND IT TO BE VERY IMPORTANT.  Fuck the stupid Wiimote, and fuck waggle controls, fuck them in their stupid fucking IR sensors and gyroscopes, I’m so over the waggle bullshit it’s not even funny.
    • World Design:  The world in Windwaker (while not extremely large, overall) is presented in unmatched epic scope.  The water-filled world of Hyrule seems vast and expansive from the confines of your small boat as you navigate the dangerous seas and island hop.  The only complaint I would have here is the overall size of the world really isn’t that large, considering how large it actually feels.  Windwaker is one of the shortest Zelda games from a temple/level perspective and this kind of shows in the overworld.  Though explained in the story, something like 90% of the overworld is water.  This does contribute to the ‘epic’ feel of the scope in the game, as sailing from island to island really does feel like you are exploring the open seas, sailing from location to location with nothing but your sea chart to guide you.  Compare this to the bullshit from Skyward Sword where you had a bird that could only drop you onto open areas through the clouds and you can appreciate the Linear vs. Exploration focus that I feel epitomizes Zelda.
    • Side Quests / Mini Games:  Even though the world is 90% water, they cram an awful lot into that remaining 10%.  Whether it be the forest water / Deku Tree side-quests, the pictograph side-quests, treasure maps, tingle maps, etc., there is something hidden behind, under, or around everything you do in the game.  The game rewards you in many ways for exploring — be it a wallet upgrade here, the ability to carry more bombs there, a piece of heart, etc.  Rarely do you feel like time has been wasted, as even just exploring the ocean can net you hundreds of rupees.  As such, it is a very compelling world to explore — you continually get rewarded for peeking behind things and being observant.
So, what I’m saying here is this:  If you’re one of the 4 other people in the USA who bought a WiiU, and you don’t already own Windwaker HD, you’re an idiot.  That’s pretty much all there is to it.  The absolute paragon of 3D Zelda games has been digitally remastered for 1080p.  Gameplay has been tweaked for accessibility.  Complaints and qualms from the GameCube version have been addressed.  This is the shining example of what Zelda games should be, and if you don’t own it, Nintendo will probably keep making bullshit waggle-tastic Zelda pieces of shit for years to come.  Let’s not let them do that.  Positive reinforcement, it works!

Now go away.