Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Andromedada

 

It's hard for me to hide the fact that I'm a sentimental sap that will fall for anything infused with nostalgia, it speaks right to my heart. I am also a sucker for fiction that blends social commentary, philosophy and fringe science. It's part of the time consuming information addiction that afflicts my mind. That sounds a bit pretentious, I know. But I'm lucky that there are masterpieces that allow me to indulge in spades. When my heart and mind are being spoken to it's all too easy to get blindsided and, from time to time, I have to deal with the resulting hangover. Here we need to be ever optimistic and seize the opportunity to try and learn from the ordeal, analyse it to bits and then rant about it on the internet. It may well be both cathartic and enlightening.

One of the works I read as a hungry, fledgling bibliophile was Frank Herbert's Dune. It's an amazingly rich science fiction told through the eyes of a fresh protagonist as he learns about different forms of government, culture wars, state and religion. What it means to be human and when humanity is lost. The book became a series. The series went on until it ran out of steam and the author passed away, presumably a happy man. I imagine the Herbert estate enjoyed its fair share of royalties but eventually those must have run out of steam too. So it fell to Brian Herbert to team up with Kevin J. Anderson to write more Dune books. The plot trivialized the events of the original books with its onion-like structure. The story was set 10.000 years before the original books, which is a frighteningly long time to set the stage or hold a grudge. The leading characters were a Harkonnen cast as the good guy and an Artreides in the role of the bad guy. A reversal from the original. If I were to make a stab at why the new books had few interesting ideas, I'd say it was because the authors had to work from Herbert's table scraps. They couldn't stray to far from the original either or risk losing its tone. This is why the Dune prequel books set the stage for events about ten millennia in the future in a universe that seemingly doesn't change much in the interim.

Speaking of serialized science fiction epics, when George Lucas made the Star Wars prequels, he famously said he wanted to make them rhyme with the original trilogy. New scenes would echo older scenes. From both thematic and stylistic viewpoints. Results were disappointing. The proposed rhyming way of composing the new script didn't quite pan out, all style with little substance.
For Lucas, they were a way of having the old work try and write the new. A guiding hand, or a crutch, from the past. To me, the performance a particular rain dance. Make it rain! Make it rain! Revenge of the rain! A creative person is in a desperate position when he falls back on magic. Maybe imitation isn't the method to recapture lightning in a bottle.

Dune prequels, Star Wars prequels. Surely you're starting to see rhymes. The latest verse in this dreadful poem is called Mass Effect Andromeda. It too, rhymes. Let me shine a light as I compose a list of sorts, by no means complete. Though it should give some indication of the issues at least. Bear with me as I rack my brain in an attempt to try and impose some structure in the telling.

~
First things first

The first look at Andromeda wasn't bad at all.

Mass Effect Andromeda is the forth game in the series but not a direct continuation of it. It takes place between the first and second installments and tells the story of a massive private colonization effort towards the Andromeda galaxy in order to safeguard the future of galactic civilisation and the Milky Way species - some of them at least - just in case signs of the oncoming Reaper onslaught, a galactic extinction event, are true.
The expedition consists of a hub station called the Nexus and a number of race specific Arks. All are headed towards a handful of golden worlds. The player is cast in the role of one of the children, Sarah or Scott Ryder, of the human Pathfinder: Alec Ryder. A Pathfinder is an elite scout in charge of directing the colonization effort for his race. He also has the added value in the form of SAM (Simulated Adaptive Matrix), an Ai that acts as a hand holding mechanic and personal deus ex machina. Unfortunately not so much for Alec as he doesn't survive the first mission. The story kicks off as he kicks the bucket and with his dying breath transfers his Pathfinder title and SAM link to the player's character. After that, the player takes all the blame of the initiative's mishaps, is left to solve the crisis and has to make all major and minor decisions. No small feat for someone who has neither the qualifications nor the experience to handle the task.

From there the game doesn't know what to do with itself. When the new Pathfinder finds the Nexus, it is dark and sleepy. Ryder is also the very first of the Pathfinders to find his way to the station, all other Arks appear lost. Before long we're informed that an entire chapter has already come to pass. The target planets are in dire shape and deemed uninhabitable. There was an uprising against the managerial staff, it was subdued and the rebels were banished from the Nexus. These outcasts then sought refuge on the golden worlds to eke out a living on them... and succeeded! Having missed all the action, that is to say: the player doesn't get to experience any of this, it befalls the Pathfinder to create the circumstances to make the golden worlds habitable so that the initiative on the Nexus finally feels the need to actually do something and send colonists.
I case you missed the contradiction: the uninhabitable planets are being inhabited. But for some reason the Nexus is mired in inaction and can't send settles of their own, because their ceremonial Pathfinders who are tasked by paving the way are nowhere to be found. Seeing as though prospecting is less of an issue now, the player is chiefly tasked with fighting hostiles and pressing the magic button that marginally improves weather conditions. The game makes the latter the big linchpin, as only Ryder is up to the task because he's the only Pathfinder with the connection to the enhanced Ryder SAM that solves all problems.

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Axial twist

The launch trailer already has a subtle excuse embedded into it. It also features about 60 percent scenes of the final chapter of the game.

The game's initial impressions left me puzzled. Maybe suspicions should have been raised when the Mass Effect Andromeda PR spun the initial pitch of the original Mass Effect (ME) into "a game of exploration" in order to to sell the idea that Mass Effect Andromeda would be a game worth your time because it, like its progenitor, would be about exploration. Only this time, Bioware would deliver where the original, according to them, failed.
The problem here is that this exploration angle doesn't show in Mass Effect. Anyone who played it knows it's driven by the narrative, not by a thirst for exploration. The lead character, Shepard, isn't an explorer. He's a military specialist. An operative for the government to investigate and solve issues discretely and by any means necessary. A kind of space Bond. Bond tends to explore a specific kind of hills on his adventures but it's not the same. Shepard could scale hills in a planetary rover called the Mako but it was an optional mechanic in that game that was cut in subsequent games.
Still, regardless of spin: why exploration? Why would you, as Bioware, keep mining for copper when you had struck gold with the original's story and characters? With Andromeda, Bioware doubles down on copper and tries to sell it as an upgrade.

Why did Bioware select exploration as one of the main pillars for the concept of the new game? The answer lies in its design. Andromeda is an open world game and exploration gels best with the trend in mainstream gaming. Why bend your game to adhere to a popular trend? Because it's conveniently puts a mark next to "open world" on the dollar checklist. Why make your own game, when the market dictates what you should make? Winning numbers feel safe.
A bet hastily made however because Andromeda's open world doesn't even function all that well. The directionless design allows one to skip certain parts to do them later. However this game presupposes you actually do the beginning bits at the start. On one occasions I unwittingly skipped a beginner quest because I drove off in the "wrong" direction. After about 40 hours of gameplay I finally discovered this quest and it felt like traveling back in time: The ingame characters voice their amazement at the attacking alien hordes the beginner quest throws at them... even tough they had encountered countless of these aliens, had met their leaders and had bested their champions. My party was appalled by the abandoned outpost and the loss of human activity in the area the quest took place in, wondering what would happen with the rest of the planet... even though they had, by then, already settled the planet with a new city-sized outpost!
I skipped the entirety of Havarl, the presupposed second planet, at the very end of the game's story. Again, the same naive wonderment of my player characters about the alien technology on Havarl struck a false note because they had seen much more elaborate tech by then - including flying, mechanical sand worms (thanks, Frank Herbert)! Please remind me of the point of having an open world as ill-conceived as this one?

~
The small beyond

Open World design?

In the context of gaming, this design concept usually points towards large worlds that allow the players to roam free and explore, create their own stories, interact with the world, its systems, its denizens. It usually also means that mechanics in open world games need to have a mind of their own, work like clockwork that adapts to the the player's behavior and interacts with him or her. Often there's the idea of choice and consequence that interlocks with RPG game design. Story telling in the Open World can be tricky because of its non-linear nature. Especially when the player starts sequence breaking, contingency checks need to ensure the story still flows in a natural way. The clock must not skip a beat.

The Open World leads to another coveted check mark that goes hand-in-hand with it: a crafting system. Here it's expansive to the point of confusion. Item and inventory management was streamlined out of the first Mass Effect games for not being part of the core gameplay. So why include it? Because crafting in games is hot. Crafting is all the rage. So get ready to mine and craft all over again.
It's the insistence on an open world that gives this sort of extensive crafting system legitimacy. It gives players the opportunity to roam the vast boring world in search of truffles like the pigs they are. This is the next game, after Dragon Age Inquisition, in which Bioware not only fails to replicate the quality of its own past games, but also of those of the other developers they hope to copy. Namely: Bethesda's Skyrim and apparently, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
The proof is all over the map. On which icons are scattered as if a designer sneezed on it. The player's task is to drive to these icons and pluck, collect, shoot or talk them out of existence. Unless they are fast-travel points, in which case you must unlock as many as possible in as little time as possible lest you run the risk of wasting even more time driving around, cleaning up Andromeda's mind-numbingly dull worlds.

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Vroom vroom

The driving is done in the Andromeda variant of the aforementioned Mako: the Nomad. Which is sold to us as a superior alternative. Even though it lacks the Mako's massive cannon and machine gun - remember: the first game was all about exploring! Instead Nomad has two swish driving modes, "fast for plains" and "slow four wheel drive for anything above a slight incline". The functional-tank-combat-gameplay from the original Mako was replaced by abysmal-switch-gear-gameplay that comes into play anytime you leave the road.
The gear switching mechanic is a feeble mask for the the missing combat gameplay which couldn't be present because of, you guessed it, the open world. You see, the game expects you to get out of the vehicle from time to time for some third person action gameplay to deal with combat encounters that are strewn about the maps. Adding cannons to the vehicle would allow you to blow away those encounters in short order and thus would also bypass the entire on-foot combat gameplay that defined the series.

Driving, driving, driving, driving.

The lack of real world logic "tanks are better at dealing and taking damage" gets in the way of the flawed gameplay-inspired logic "explorers don't need guns because they don't get into combat, but combat is fun so get out there and risk you life anyway". The original Mass Effect used the Mako sequences as a palette cleanser. Andromeda forces its boring vehicle on you because it's the only viable way to traverse the open world without feeling the need to stab yourself in the eye with a biro.
The bulk of the gameplay consists of getting unrelated quests from generic, seemingly identical NPCs, then checking the map, then driving out into the wasteland to resolve the icon. The map UI is clumsy but necessary... The driving, always the driving. Switching gears. Getting out to pick up the essential minerals you supposedly need. More driving. Getting to a dead end that results in more driving. Avoiding combat encounters because they only waste more time. Detours mean more driving. Driving, driving, driving, driving... Then you close the game because real life intrudes your gaming habits. Staying within Bioware games, Star Wars The Old Republic drove this much better with efficient zones and quests that drove directly into the main storyline - better voice acting and animation and driving too. It was hands drive a better Mass Effect game than Andromeda.
Know what would have been a true superior exploration tool? A flying craft. There's plenty of them about too: civilians have them, merchants and enemies have them, anyone but the Pathfinder team has them!

~
Blah blah

Bioware remembered that if Mass Effect had loads of dialogue in it, the new game needed loads of them too. So they took on the dumb work of giving voice to everything save the furniture.

The original Mass Effect came with a universe that exaggerated the world as we know it today. With people and cultures that range from being in development to warlike to the scientific. From Empires to matriarchies. From pirate paradise to police state. From cerebral to brain washed. A very wide spectrum of human existence enlarged to a galactic scale. The balance of power, the relationships between individuals and species shone true every conversation the game allowed you to have. Every dialogue built on your understanding of this universe. It even came with a healthy dose of subtle humanist impulses, to my great delight - this is what sets this property above all others. My post on Mass Effect 2 dove into that topic.
Not so in Andromeda. Bioware remembered that if Mass Effect had loads of dialogue in it, the new game needed loads of them too. So they took on the dumb work of giving voice to everything save the furniture. I say dumb because it seems the mission statement went no further then to "write dialogues". The result is hours upon hours of babble that never goes beyond the petty history of the characters you meet. Because of that they're all boring in the same way. What is the point of having the Patherfinder hear an Asari pilots say she likes flying her shuttle craft? Well, the point was look like Mass Effect. Unfortunately Bioware has developed an appetite for their own foot in doing so. Enter the character called Hainly Abrams.

Appearing like any ordinary NPC but with an introduction that goes a little like this: "Hi, I used to be a man, but I came to Andromeda to be a woman, because that's who I really am."
Where to begin. A problem with this is that transsexual people don't really identify as their born sex and thus don't go announcing it like that to strangers. For all intents and purposes, a trans woman is a woman. Only to a special kind of outsider would it appear that "This man wants to be a woman!". By making this sound so important, it's literally the only topic Hainly talks about, the writers seem to imply that trans people are only important because that in lieu of any other character trait they may have. It's even one of her motivations for traveling to Andromeda. The original game portrayed a galaxy that had moved past these kind of petty fears. Now we are to believe that transphobia is so threatening in the Milky Way that fleeing in this way seems like an attractive proposition. Hainly Abrams is like a diversity trophy Bioware has awarded themselves.

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Argle-bargle

Now, let's just for the sake of argument agree that exploration should be front and center of a Mass Effect game. Then why is there so little to discover?

Now, let's just for the sake of argument agree that exploration should be front and center of a Mass Effect game. Then why is there so little to discover? The encountered aliens are capitalist, bipedal, breathe oxygen, have two genders, communicate in the same way as humans, are Buddhists, are Imperialist, use pistols, rifles and shotguns that are identical to human designs, use Arabic numbers, use digital data. The list goes on and on. Things are so familiar that I was surprised to find that the Alien leader wasn't an orange buffoon dressed like an envelope stuffed with soppy oatmeal.

Why are the aliens you encounter in Andromeda more human then some of the original races? The Krogan, Salarian, Volus, Geth, Hanar, Turian and Elcor are all more alien in design than the Angara and Kett. No explanation is given why these are so close to humans, require the same living environments as Humans, have a very similar societal structure as humans and are at roughly the same technological level as Humans. Keep in mind that these are races from another galaxy about 600 years in the future. I won't even ask where there are birds in Andromeda.
The current conflict between the two Andromeda races is immediately of capital importance to the Milky Way races. Instead of observing the situation, the humies wade into the fray with next to no resources.

Andromeda introduces two new Alien races to the stage. First, the Andromeda natives: the Angara. Cuddely, big lipped, big eyes. There can be no doubt that these are the good guys.

The Angara

I kept calling them: fish-people. Not only do they look like fish, they seem to have their character traits based on, what would be typically linked to, the star sign Pisces: emotional, spiritual, insecure, whimsical, hard to define... Sure enough, perhaps not surprising, after a cursory search I found out that, indeed, the Andromeda galaxy is seen in the Pisces constellation. Maybe it takes an old hand in astrology, no I don't advocate it, like myself to notice and uncover this. "What are the aliens from the Pisces constellation like? Why, like Pisces of course!". This is yet another shortcut and nothing more. Being emotional doesn't even do anything significant for the functioning of the Angara. It only makes them slightly whiny. They aren't a race of berserkers that fight harder when they are angry. There's no 'dark side comes with power' connection. It's just another throw-away character trait that is bolted on top of this race. To me it also undermines the scientific inspiration of the originals if you start basing new story elements on pseudo science.
The Angara have female spiritual leaders for a society that seems written by Margaret Mead. A big incentive for fighting for the Angara, the game seems to suggest, is to prevent their pure way of life to be lost.
First contact with the Angara is a laughable affair too, Ryder literally simply walks out the ship alone, unarmed, unmasked, and shakes the alien leader's hand. A small handshake for man, a large gesture for mankind.

True to life, ugly appearance means evil nature.

Secondly, the Andromeda invaders: the Kett. Ugly, bony, slant eyed aliens. True to life, ugly appearance means evil nature. There can be no doubt that these are kill on sight bad guys.
Everyone hates hates hates the Kett with a burning passion. Within minutes of arriving in Andromeda everyone is willing to lay their lives on the line because they hate the Kett so much. No diplomatic outreach is done, no effort is done to make contact. It's guns a-blazing from the word go. Later in the game Ryder learns of the Kett motivation, at which point the hate goes supernova.

The Kett

The Kett seem, quite blatantly, like an amalgamation of the Collectors and Reapers from the original trilogy. They use similar methods and motivations. The collectors harvest bio-matter from existing species to create a new reaper in the shape of the current dominant race and call it salvation. The Kett collect live specimens of species to comically mutate them into more Kett and call it exaltation.
Then there's the Remnant, also referred to as Rem Tech, a neutral faction of drones and automatons that seem to guard and maintain the planets in Andromeda.
There's also an unseen adversary at work in Andromeda. It is suggested that the Remnant creator's race was wiped out by it. Work of the Reapers? Visual hints seem everywhere!
I was expecting a late game twist that would reveal the Reaper connection, linking the Andromeda galaxy to the Milky Way as both would be under supervision of the same super race, experiencing the same cycles. This would set the tone as it did in the original trilogy. Yet this is not the case and the game never expands on the origins or nature of the Remnant - too bad, as I found it a major incentive for the duration of the game. This mystery was almost the sole reason I kept playing. I was suspecting a Reaper reveal around every bend. But there was nothing - not even an alternative explanation. A bitter disappointment.

The presence of the Kett highlights one of the story's biggest flaws: that the exploratory force was sent out without a military grade escort! It seems that no contingency plan was made in case Andromeda was inhabited and the Milky Way invaders were met with a fighting force.
This short-sightedness in the fiction again hints at a spoiler later in the game where the player, in order to meet the opposing military force, begets an army of Remnant machines. The glaring lack of military hardware is filled in with this, literal, deus ex machina one can see coming hours away. How else is the threat to be neutralized? Well, maybe this neutral faction hardware we've seen everywhere in the game can be of use.
At least the Remnant army is a plot point that gets resolved. One that doesn't is that the gene-splicing Kett could and would provide the cure to a deadly genetic disease that afflicts one very important story character.
The entire plot line is harebrained to start with. Alec Ryder uses the Andromeda mission to flee from the human Alliance in the Milky Way for fear of repercussions of his illegal work on Ai. This Ai is the aforementioned SAM, who's made in order to help with finding a cure for the player character's mother who turns out to be alive and with the colonists, in cryosleep under a pseudonym. Wouldn't it have been a better to put her in cryo in the Milky Way while research goes on there and not in the resource and facility starved Andromeda Initiative? The plot point is never resolved, but I assume SAM would be used to magically bend Kett technology to magically create a cure. The problem here is that Alec Ryder has no way of knowing in advance that there will be a gene splicing race in Andromeda. His bet to find a cure in Andromeda seems much worse than it would in the Milky Way.

~
Paragon babysitter

Why is the main character so interested in these strangers? Why wouldn't the Pathfinder bring in professionals from the initiative instead of vagabonds and rogues who've done nothing more than meet him?

As established before. Andromeda is all about exploring. So right off the bat it seems uncharacteristic to have the entire crew dropped into your lap within the first hour of the game. You don't even have to look for them. No tie-in quests. No build up, no explanations. No attachment. All of them appear as unwarranted tag-alongs and as a player you'll feel more like a babysitter than a leader. You'll need to listen to their worries, feelings and petty nostalgia. All of which are unprompted. Why is the main character so interested in these strangers? The only reason he's invested is because the plot tells him to. The dialogues tell starry-eyed, soppy and unrelated stories that don't convey any other message than "care for me!". A pathological tactic from the Bioware writing team that backfires the moment boredom sets in. After that the dialogues feel like a waste of time. Besides, why wouldn't the Pathfinder bring in professionals from the initiative instead of these vagabonds and rogues who've done nothing more than meet him? Being desperate for attention and a place in the world isn't exactly a token of competence.

I think I really pissed that one off, maybe because I shot him in the face!
-Andromeda humour

It also doesn't help these characters that all of them are profoundly unfunny, even when they really try to be the opposite. An example of what passes as funny according to Andromeda is companion Liam Kosta's line from the first mission: "I think I really pissed that one off, maybe because I shot him in the face!" This is the actual tone of a character that Bioware, in publicity, described with flowery language like this: "Every team needs its idealist, and Liam is ours."
That's quite the departure from the norm. for instance, Mass Effect 2 which was pretty grim at times nevertheless left room for humour and self-deprecation. You may remember Mordin singing. Humour proved a charm impossible to lift.
Somewhat easier are Mass Effect 2's loyalty missions, they make a comeback in Andromeda. These are meant to forge a bond with another characters that is so strong they'd fight harder for you. Essentially it's an abstraction from how people bond in real life. You share experiences and become friends through thick and thin. The end of Mass Effect 2 puts the player's relationship with his companions to the test.
Unfortunately, Andromeda trivializes the loyalty mission for nothing other than to unlock that companion's final skill tier in their skill tree. Some missions, like Liam's, have a motivation so out-of-the-blue that I can't for the life of me remember what it's relevance to the story was, what brought it on, or what was the result of it. All I remember is that it was a reckless tumble that risked the team's lives, gained no one anything and many people died. After this Liam wasn't promptly discharged but was simply told not to do it again.

~
Characters within characters

Cora Harper

Your second in command is Cora. She's like a military gargoyle that spouts hardball military copy paste encouragements like "on your feet soldier! We are Asari commando's we don't get lost, we find a way." She's established as uncompromisingly hard as nails. She idolizes her Asari mentor, whom she has never met in person. She values her advice even over yours. "She'll have a plan" is repeated like a mantra. Setting up a plot twist so predictable a desiccated potato could could have seen it coming. We ultimately get to meet said mentor and of course she turns out to be a cheat and an unapologetic egotist.
After learning her mentor is a fraud, even though her textbook lessons were actually sound, Cora, in the good old military tradition, starts blubbering like a child. I guess she wasn't much of a commando anyway if she didn't actually learn those lessens as she keeps telling everyone her mentor has a plan - and she, evidently, doesn't.

In order to have a character come up with a genius plan, the author must come up with a genius plan.

This is a bit of a trick to detract from the fact that, in order to have a character come up with a genius plan, the author must come up with a genius plan. It's much easier to say "She has a genius plan" and then have it as an off-screen event. Easier still to not have to do it at all.
Cora's character takes another dive when she becomes extremely clingy if you romance her. She dreams aloud about settling down, having a home with white picket fence and about eighteen children. Her love for Ryder is pure projection! She's willing to abandon her defining characteristic just to become a mommy - effectively a different person entirely. The game didn't let me break up with her at that point. So I guess the message is: if you have a nice evening out before the suicide mission and make it through, there's a contract waiting for you! Have some fun, but prepare for marriage afterwards.

PeeBee

I did take a bit of a shine to the chirpy Asari crew mate, PeeBee. She's a young, happy go lucky, bumbling yet genius tech-literate archeologist. She loves loves loves ancient Aliens. She's also a bit naive and needs an occasional common sense update and a tight leech. If you think this all this sounds familiar you're not wrong. She too is a shortcut character. The game tells us she's a rogue scientist, but she's little more than a childish tomb raider. She's basically a poor man's Liara from the original game but with a twist in her personality. Instead of the brooding, shy introvert Liara, she's an outgoing laissez faire extravert. The single switched personality trait is common in this game. Maybe to make something feel both fresh and familiar at the same time?

Vetra Nyx

Andromeda finally introduces female Turians to the world and one has to star in a prominent role. Vetra tries to fill the shoes of a gender swapped Garrus (ME). In stead of a jaded police agent who tries his hand at managing a crew of heroes, she's a jaded would-be mother to her orphaned sister who tries to be a hero.

~
The rest of the crew

Nakmor Drack

Drack (Andromeda) is a crusty old Krogan with a cheery slant. He's an optimist about the Krogan colony and wants to work with the other races.
Wrex (ME) is a crusty old Krogan with a mean streak. He's a pessimist due to the genophage and mistrusts the other races.

Jaal Ama Darav

Jaal (Andromeda) is an emotional outsider alien written by someone who read the definition of 'emotional' in a dictionary. He's unassuming and oddly rational. He amazes the other crew by being so different, but not really. Is amazed by human customs. Talks with an African accent.
Javik (ME) is a rational outsider alien who doesn't know the meaning of the word emotion. He's sarcastic and jaded. He amazes the crew by being so different. Is amazed by human customs. Talks with an African accent.

Liam Kosta

Liam (Andromeda) is a human soldier with a sentimental streak. Family is very important to him. Clings to the past. Wants to break the rules to get things done.
Ashley (ME) is a human soldier with a sentimental streak. Family is very important to her. Clings to the past. Wants to do things by the book to get things done.
These characters are very different because they are of the opposing sex!

There's much to lament here. When you'd ask a Mass Effect fan what their favorite part of the series is, I'd wager a top answer would be the characters. Much like it would be for fans of a series of which Mass Effect took inspiration from: Star Trek. It's the likes of Kirk and Spock, Picard and Riker, that keep people coming back for more. There's a simple soap-like appeal to seeing what's next for your favorite characters. How they will be put through the wringer next. It doesn't really matter if they are in a space battle, meeting an alien society or experiencing a Sherlock Holmes novel on the holodeck. It's all about the characters we've grown attached to. A base requirement is that these characters aren't animated cardboard cut-outs. They need opinions, wants and desires and flaws. So it was with the original Mass Effect cast. Only this time you were up there in the wringer with them. You'd talk to them about it afterwards, but you'd stay to hear their story and perspectives.
Yet, we must remember that EA has pushed the PR narrative that Mass Effect is all about exploration, much like Star Trek was much about exploration. I'm sure you remember Kirk collecting copper ore samples on all those planets.
In fairness, Star Trek actually was about exploration but of philosophical ideas. Star Trek took inspiration from Socrates, Plato, Kant, Sartre, Kierkegaard and humanism, to name but a few. Mass Effect followed and became another rare source to inform us of human progress. I for one like that this type of knowledge can be presented in a creative and entertaining way. It awakens the flame of curiosity, a quest for truth that will surely lead our own civilisation to the Star Trek future we could have.
 

~
Money mutes

Why was the game even made?

Not only did EA miss the point of the franchise, they also missed its audience. One important question is starting to make a contour over the background noise: Why was the game even made?
Original Mass Effect was a product of its time. It had no claim to fame. There was risk involved. But there was a sense of optimism not just in the gaming industry but in the culture at large. As problems in the world started to crystallize: sectarian violence, climate change, a dire political climate... and with it opinions and solutions were also formulated. Critical voices ratcheted up the volume.
Some of that ended up in pop culture, sometimes even through games. At least two games that I played dealt with some serious issues and injected them into the mainstream. Mass Effect (November 16, 2007) and Assassin's Creed 2 (November 17, 2009). Which is to say, tear down the myths and walls surrounding people. To unify under a common humanity and move civilisation forward. Even if the message was simple, at least they had something to say. The developer put the grand idea, some idealism, above big money.

There's the belief that everything will work out and that confidence is a viable substitute for competence. As long as intentions are good, good things will happen.

New Bioware glorifies religious beliefs, valuing mysteries above understanding. The player can only tacitly voice his criticism. "Agree to disagree". It aims not to unify, but to protect and let stand old divisions. Don't offend any sensibilities! Shepard (ME) called people living beyond the grave: "Oh, zombies?". New Bioware calls out the amazing creator behind the universe's beauty. Old Bioware had a name for old gods: Reapers.
The scientific and technological basis of the original game seems to have given way to something quite different. It seems informed by a simplistic sense of morality. It seems to have one simple message: that everything will work out fine and that confidence is a viable substitute for competence. As long as intentions are good, good things will happen. It's like an adventure film made for children in which we can already tell from the first minute that every paragon of virtue will make it out unscathed. It's simply magical!
But imagine if there wasn't a second invader in Andromeda which our heroes could liberate the indigenous aliens from. Even though the end result is the Initiative gaining the upper hand over the Angara. Their domination is presented as liberation and cooperation. The initiative is only good when contrasted to a greater evil.

We got this!

A resolute "We got this!" is repeated ad nauseam by the cast. It's how I imagine the creative process developing this thing must have been like: overwhelmed by aspects of game development, struggling to see how everything should fit together, not understanding science fiction, fumbling character building, botching world building, misunderstanding open world design... but having a chipper attitude about it all, confident that it magically will work out in the end because the intentions were pure and honest.
A creative person is in a desperate position when he falls back on magic.

~
In defense of pitchforks

Andromeda hardly tries to earn the price of admission. To briefly summarize: the projected colonization planets turn out to be duds. Luckily for our heroes there are ancient technological planet size engines, called vaults, that conveniently turn the planets into the perfect habitat for humans somehow. Never is it explained why the planets became unstable. Never is it explained why there are vaults at all. Never is it explained why the vaults are broken. Never is it explained why they respond to SAM and the Pathfinder. Never is it explained why the Pathfinder is so important to begin with. Is it because he's the only one with a scanner? Or is it because of the deus ex machina causing Ai? Never is it explained why humans are the standard of living in another galaxy. It's an incomprehensible mess.

At the heart of Mass Effect is a suggested answer to the Fermi Paradox: the Reapers.

So Andromeda poses that all planets are human planets. But when a mouse sees a chunk of cheese wedged in between a plank and some metal wiring. Does it ever stop to think it may be a trap constructed by a higher intelligence? So I thought it would fare our Milky Way colonists. What if they found a table set for a reset? For Mass Effect veterans trying to make sense of it, it would seem that all of this points to a pre-made condition in order to steer evolution in such a way that would allow the Reapers to step in and reset the galactic table. Which is a theme at the heart of Mass Effect. A suggested answer to the Fermi Paradox: the Reapers.
Andromeda even had the ideal topic for getting creative with for real world issues, given the state of the projected golden worlds: Climate change. And it's not just the planets, conditions on the Nexus are dire too, limited resources pose a pressing issue yet never does it occur to anyone to recycle their garbage. Andromeda's comment or solution to this problem? Press the magic button that was enabled by the magic calculations done by the magic Ai in your lucky lucky head. Whenever the word 'magic' falls, I mean to say that none of this is explained within the fiction. The reflex to explain things in a creative way is completely absent. Contrast this with the original game that went through extreme lengths to explain itself and its inner workings in minute detail in its codex. Andromeda is content to leave much to the imagination. It has to, because much of what happens in this game doesn't make much sense.
The gaps in it's fiction is easier to understand when we consider Andromeda is a game where, lacklustre as they are, game mechanics are considered more important than story. The result is a ramshackle skeleton of open world mechanics that tries to fit the clothes of a much tighter gaming experience and comes off looking ridiculous. It's made from a checklist, not from inspiration. It's arrogant and wastes the player's time thinking what it has to offer is worthwhile. It spends capital it didn't earn. It keeps questions unanswered for a sequel that will never be made. It teases DLC that will never see the light of day. It seems it was assumed the Mass Effect label would sell no matter what carries it.
Its biggest attraction remains the concept of the return to Mass Effect. Something so nostalgia driven it has become the best argument for, very simply, playing the original trilogy.

~
Mass Effect is brilliant

Not Andromeda.

In my lifetime I have played the original Mass Effect seven times. I discovered it by happenstance and picked it up almost on Bioware's pedigree alone. What happened next blew my mind. It happened in what seems to me now a lifetime ago. Indeed everyone who worked on it has since retired or moved on. it's a new world now but that doesn't mean it has to be open to be any good.
Which is what you'll find when you're introduced to Mass Effect proper. To me it's one of the best games ever made. So, I'd recommend you play that instead of Andromeda. Much like you'd advise anyone interested in Star Wars to watch the original trilogy. Or to stick to the Frank Herbert's books when it comes to Dune.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Another Star Wars Story

Rogue One
Beware Spoilers

A Star Wars Story is the first instalment in the Rogue One trilogy. Inspired by the blockbuster Star Wars movies made by George Lucas it is directed by Gareth Edwards. Set before Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, It tells the tale of how the Rebellion got the plans to the first Death Star. A key character in this story is Gyn Erso. She is the daughter of the weapon's architect and is the only one who can retrieve said plans to expose a fatal flaw in the station's design.
Right of the bat I'm annoyed by the subtitle. Will every side story need that little bit of extraneous info? This is a story of Star Wars, unlike all the other's you've seen and heard.
Rogue One opens up well enough, evil space Gandalf Orson Krennic, director of the death star program, comes to reclaim the last peon to finish the construction of the battle station. True to tradition the progression of the big project lags behind schedule. Much like every governmental program in history, in any galaxy. Krennic seems amicable at first, but a lie escalates the whole affair into cascade of shouts, violence and death. Unstoppable like a wedding band of a past marriage circling down the drain of a sink, slippery and inexorably as it slips towards its sewery doom. What I mean is that it happens too fast and is really tragic.

Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso

From there the story is pretty straight forward as the film takes the universe into wider focus. Showing the state of the universe. Once again, the Empire are clearly space Nazis. Oppressive, , exploitive, ignorant. It has all the (correct) traits it had in Star Wars: A New Hope. I say space Nazis, but the Empire could quite clearly be some other state found in the world today.

Jedha is the site of an ancient Jedi Temple

Our eye travels to Jedha, a planet whom's culture resembles a mix of eastern and middle eastern, its veiled and robed freedom fighters branded terrorists by the invaders. In the streets storm trooper in parade ensure the populace that they are there for safety and employ justice as their means. Two minutes later there's blaster bolts blurring the lines, rebels shooting rebels, concussion explosions, thermal detonations and a lone child crying out in agony.
All this, only moments before the Empire blows the place up with a moon-shaped drone. Sorry old chaps, all we needed was fuel!
It's a bit on the nose. We all get it.

~

Yes, this is a war movie.
Should come as no surprise, it's right there in the title! But it's quite unlike the prequels. There the troops fighting the war are either throw-away battle bots or throw-away clones. In the clone wars only the heroes actually mattered. In Rogue One the heroes are the throw-away troops (sadly, in more way than one). This rather sets the tone to tragedy. Don't bring you children to watch this movie if you were expecting Jar Jar's silly antics. Don't expect the plucky bantering of Solo vs Organa. Don't expect old fashioned romance of rogues and princesses. Funny lines are rare, involve guns and shooting people and are made by a robot on a suicide mission. These aren't the swashbuckling space adventures of old man Lucas, this is war. This is World War 2, this is the Vietnam War... in space! The rebel forces even look the part. If the movie tried to make a point about war, it even gets a little twist here.

Walks on snow, sand, forest ground and surprisingly: water

Oddly, it also has a few of war game elements to it. One I'm thinking of is one scene set in a tropical beach locale... By the way: add that to the level 'theme list' too after: space, desert, ice, lava, swamp and forest. So this one scene takes place in front of a hangar bay: closed doors, an open space and then some chest high crates for the rebels to crouch behind. Ideal for dishing out potshots with the witless Stormtroopers as they run out from their spawn closets and into the enemy crossfire. This fight takes ages before Empire troops wise up and attack the rebels from one of their three exposed flanks. Akin to virgin players experiencing a round of Battlefield, not aware of their surroundings. A handful of Stormtroopers would have done the job but Command sends in a handful of AT-AT walkers, I guess to show that Rogue One speaks fluent Starwarsian, but more on this later. I laughed out loud when I saw the setup of the scene, because it reminded me of the silliness of simplistic, video game inspired action sequences. It broke my suspension of disbelief. That's not how combat works, especially not in a "war movie".
Sure enough this tactical error on the rebel's part costs them the match, but this foolishness doesn't take away one iota of drama as almost all of them die a hero's death. At least they would have, if I could remember their names and/or character. Their last utterances absorbed by their still unvanquished colleagues, just moments before they too are slain.

Saving Private Ryan is another war movie. It too had nameless soldiers that died in puddles of their own viscera. We did feel for those men, so what's the difference? Well, in the preceding shot we saw them getting seasick, puking, praying, getting themselves ready, fighting nerves. They were human beings, relatable. We would do the same things if it was us in those troop carriers. It makes the troops into nameless but unique characters. Rogue One barely even does this with its leading characters. This is one of its weakest points, in my opinion. For starters, I thought the antagonist, Orson Krennic, was a more interesting character than the protagonists: Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor. The two ambassadors to China, Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus, while not bad on their own, felt tacked-on. Their scenes may have been more believable without their near jedi-like feats and aimbots. The pilot Bodhi Rook was introduced 3 times one third of a time.

Oh.

Also starring: Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook, Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang as Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus (source: www.imdb.com)

It feels like we are to care for too many characters at any given time. The focus from Jyn Erso is diffused by the presence of all the others. Cassian, the ambassadors. Then there's the sarcastic robot, the defected cargo pilot, and the extremist freedom fighter. I have to look up their names because I didn't remember them. I feel that some of these could have been cut from the story to benefit the protagonist, because as a result I ended up caring for none of them. No time is given to make them really stand out in any memorable way. You won't find anything close to a blowhard, laser brained Han Solo. There's very little sci-fi fantasy going on here. The only one is Darth Vader, who is a larger than life villain. All the first billing rebels keep it very real. They're very serious and bland, 'gritted teeth' isn't a character trait.
I even have a bit of a problem with Jyn's motivations. At first she wants to deal with neither the Empire, nor the Rebellion. She even states that she kind of likes the order the Empire has brought. Her father dies due to a rebel bombardment. In a turn of events that are now lost on me, she is willing to sacrifice her life for the rebellion. It seems to me that the Death Star's threat is largely overstated in Rogue One. It's weapon of terror, not a weapon of mass destruction - yet, and only becomes so because of rebel actions. We as an audience know it will blow up a planet. That's why we buy the argument why she would make the sacrifice. Jyn doesn't know that she should. I'm not sure what's in it for her other than proving to the Rebellion that she can get the plans. Or revenge for what's been done to her. Or that her father told her so, would he have wanted her to die for it too? Seems like a big price to pay.

Does the rebellion really have that few pilots and squadrons? The Rebellion seems tiny!

In any case 'new' characters are about to fulfil their destiny. Dramatically introduced, shot from the back as they speak, letting us wonder... Ah, CGI versions of Tarkin and Leia on vacation from the uncanny vally, are here to accept the baton. Known quantities are here, because it's Star Wars.
I could have done without the X-wing pilots that were pasted in from A New Hope though, for some reason they specifically shrink the size of the universe. Does the rebellion really have that few pilots and squadrons? The Rebellion seems tiny! The many cameos also shrink the universe.
We could say that the ideas of X-wings and Tie fighters limit the scope too, but I think that isn't as much of a problem. Ordering in bulk saves funds.
This stems from a greater problem with Star Wars as a whole, and that is that the visual and ideological vocabulary of this universe is rather limited. Especially after the Disney acquisition all extra world building from the expanded universe was deemed non-canonical. So we're back down to brass tacks. Logical, how else could you expand upon the existing films? Forget the Ebon Hawk, there's only the Millenium Falcon. But this means we need to stick with what we know: X-wings, Tie fighters, the Imperial walkers, etc. Only small elements expand this vocabulary: like the newly added hammerhead corvettes, which - to my knowledge first appeared in Knights Of The Old Republic - a role playing video game.
Another new element, another tweak, is the black elite death troopers with their distorted voicecomms. So elite that they need to mask their communications from any bystanders? But the sounds they make with the scrambled grunts and wheezes, sounding very much like the combine soldiers from Half Life 2. Talking as if they had swallowed a white noise Morse code machine. It works very well, the result is an other-than-human appearance, which instills fear and makes one uneasy. Nice to see the an addition to the Empire that instills fear (and isn't Darth Vader) next to the comically incompetent regular Storm Troopers. Those almost look out of place in a war movie.

introDeath Troopers, as the name suggests, are scarier than regular Storm Troopers

This is one of the downsides of the Star Wars vocabulary, change too much and it starts to sound different and unfamiliar. It makes some sense to pick and choose from the former expanded universe to see what fits well enough to carry over.
This, if nothing else, is something that could be attributed to the prequel trilogy: it quite literally expanded the universe, there was a smattering of ideas thrown into the mix. Even going too far some cases (mi-di-chlo-ri-ans).

~

Rogue One is subservient to Star Wars: A New Hope in every way.

Rogue One is subservient to Star Wars in every way. I don't think this movie can work without A New Hope existing. Compare this with last year's The Force Awakens, that movie carries more weight and is allowed to come up with new ideas. In contrast, R1 is slanted towards Star Wars fans, panderingly so. "Remember how awesome this or that was?" So while it can't come up with much new, it can elaborate a bit on vested ideas.
Remember the Force? Here Rogue One sheds a bit more context on how it still exists under the Empire. The line in A New Hope "Your sad devotion to that ancient religion" suddenly makes more sense now. With the passing away of the Jedi, the force has changed from the practical to the mystical, and with the mystical comes religious belief. It validates the common use of "may the force be with you" too. A common use of well-wishing and wishfull thinking, which starts to sound hollow the more it is used, and turns into just something people say.

Remember Darth Vader? Because I simply can't let this post go without mentioning Darth Vader. Neither can any Star Wars movie, really.
I find that the position Vader is put in interesting if a bit problematic. There's a clear discrepancy when it comes to Vader in Rogue One and Vader in A New Hope. In the former he's met with fear and respect because of his acumen, in the latter he is mocked for being a relic and a bully.
In A New Hope it comes as a surprise that he force chokes the general. Didn't this general know that Vader is a big deal? Didn't he see the prequels?
Of course we need to remember that A New Hope (1977) was written as a stand alone. There had been no mention of the Sith. The concept of the Sith didn't exist in the movie. The Emperor might as well been a force-less tyrant. Vader at that time was nothing more but a 'Dark Jedi' in comparison to Obi Wan, a 'Light Jedi'. Both follow the same "ancient religion". Vader also doesn't have much more use than being a strongman for the Empire. A special unit, a powerful tool. A commanding officer, an ace in the hole. He seems valuable, but still expendable. Only by sheer luck does he survive the end of the first Death Star.

DARTH VADER!!¡!

In Rogue One (2016) we have the entire prequel (1999 - 2005) baggage to consider. Vader is regarded as the stand-in person of the Emperor. Which he is in a way - he's Sith royalty. He's the one who should, if all goes as to tradition, replace Palpatine by way of regicide. Therefor he is much more akin to the crown prince of the Empire, if the prequel stated goal of the Emperor is for the Sith to rule the galaxy.
In this story it seems pretty much affirmed that Vader's power is well known. In a callback to Return Of The Jedi, Tarkin even warns Krennic that he is the more amenable of the two, shielding him from Vader's ire should things go awry with the super weapon.
But then, in Rogue One, he is also shown here in the super unit, strongman role of ANH. Granted, its awesome to behold. Not only that, his opinion matters when it comes to military and political issues. Krennic asks Vader if he is still in charge of the Death Star project - over Grand Moff Tarkin. Who's really in charge here? Did Vader get demoted in ANH for failing to get the plans back, so now Tarkin gets to hold his leech? Did Imperial military command campaign against Vader with propaganda for being a costumed clown? It seems to me that connecting the dots from 'awe-inspiring' to 'ridiculous' could be very hard.
Honestly, I do like how the movie portrays Vader as an unstoppable, unnatural force. Why he should be feared. That red light saber igniting , which it thankfully only does once, is a sign of an impending slasher scene... in space!
Quite a contrast with the 'hands on hips, assessing the mess the boys made on the blockade runner'-Vader we see mere moments later in ANH. Presumably the battery on his suit runs low that late in the day. In short, the final Rogue One scene with him is straight out of a comic book. It is awesome, exclamation mark, exclamation mark.

~

Some (battle)scenes feel very much like those in Return Of The Jedi

I was surprised to see the movie ends mere moments before A New Hope Starts. Accept the new cast of characters and keep rolling. The old cast... well I had a feeling they would be expendable and I wasn't wrong. No lose ties means no breaks in consistency. The Death Star is a convenient way to clean up the mess the movie makers made in Rogue One. No stone is left unturned to ensure that none of the new characters make it past the credits and into Episode 4. It's a tease too, since it doesn't blow up any planets yet. That reveal is left to the main attraction.
I liked the plot's simplicity. No obvious plot holes. Nor unexplained mysteries, which would be fine for a "new" story, but would makes this one ask questions that would remain unanswered in ANH. In fact I thought it felt very much like the final part of Return Of The Jedi, minus the Luke storyline. There's a space battle happening as ground troops complete their mission.
Ultimately Rogue One rectifies one of the sleights you could make against the story of A New Hope, "why would the Empire let be such an obvious flaw" by answering "It was done on purpose". Which is one of the best reasons to excuse yourself of anything is saying you meant to do it like that all along. In this case: embed a subtle flaw into the Death Star Systems.
To me A New Hope always felt a bit more unique to the rest of the trilogy, and therefor a bit more distant when compared to its sequels. If nothing else, Rogue One helps to tie its spiritual second act to connect with more with the universe it spawned. Makes it feel like a focused chapter in the bigger story.
Just don't think of it as a snake eating its own tail...

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Overwatched

"Name's McCree". The announcement is jawed and chewed, a cigar playing as much a part as the tongue. Eyes a-squint. Behind the gaze, nary a thought. His six shooter by the name of Peacekeeper is loaded with Justice in need of dispensing. Death brings peace, obviously and I get a sour aftertaste - a meal gone bad, rebelling in the pit of my stomach - in the back of my mouth. On the opposing red team the very same is happening. But nobody cares. Blue McCree steps into the limelight together with other enthusiasts from the cosplay convention. Next to him is Steve in angsty teenage powergarb. Clearly practicing for the upcoming stage show, taking on the most dramatic and threatening pose imaginable. The pose is meant to instill some fear into its beholder. Yet nobody cares. That's just Steve, he does it all the time. Steve dresses up like Darksiders and The Matrix. Steve's favourite class in D3 is the Demon Hunter. Steve is a bit of a prat.

Steve Cosplays ReaperSteve sure knows how to work the camera.

Welcome to Overwatch. Pause for the dramatic musical interlude and late title card. So cool. The concept of Overwatch is quite solid. A team based, competitive, hero based shooter, with familiar game modes. Take inspiration from the rich history of ego shooters and model them onto likable, in some cases awe-inspiring, characters. Soldier 76 is a Call Of Duty facsimile, Mercy seems like the StarCraft addicted daughter of the Medic from Team Fortress 2. Tracer is your flanking, Run 'n Gun class. Widowmaker a Kerrigan inspired sniper. Reinhardt leads, Torbjörn does machines.

His name is McCreeHis name is McCree.

As hinted at, Overwatch cannot escape comparison with Team Fortress 2. It also can't by proxy of Blizzard sibling Heroes of the Storm, to DOTA. Coincidentally: both of those are Valve games. Sadly for Blizzard, both of those are, as of now, still better games than Overwatch. From a gameplay perspective, and tonally, Overwatch falls closer to TF2. The former has a murder of static hero characters, the latter has a handfull of editable classes. These heroes are Overwatch's main drawing factor. Whereas gameplay surely is the main attraction for TF2. Well, next to the hats that is. The gargantuan divide between the two is their setting. TF2 left much to the imagination whereas Overwatch has a universe that is quite pronounced.
 
To say overwatch has excellent character design isn't a sleight against TF2's characters, because they are iconic and well thought-out. No, I'm not just talking about recognizability of the silhouettes. The actual character designs also show some sophistication. Watch some of the character specific shorts Valve made and you'll get the point instantly. The sniper is a bureaucrat with a sniper rifle. The honest Brawn of the heavy is the perfect counterpart for the sly intellect of the, Frankenstein-like medic. The Demoman design, a rambunctious Scotsman, sidesteps any racial stereotyping with some creativity.

Context matters.

Less specific nature of characters, such as those of TF2, pushes them a bit into the direction of a blank slate - which makes them more approachable. In contrast, Blizzard wants to nail every stereotype as hard as it can. "Name's McCree", his diction is terse, there's no such thing as a chatty gunslinger. Gunslingers smolder menace in silence and need to have the linguistic effeciency of a telegram. Each hero spurts the one liners you'd expect. All of which are said in a vacuum. The characters aren't aware of their colleagues. By comparison Call of Duty: Black Ops 3's heroes, called specialists - yes they have them too - do party banter. So why can't Overwatch's?
These characters are similar to those in Capcom's Street Fighter, each has their own global origin. Yet they do not have the associated cultural link. indian Dhalsim is a yoga master. Japanese Ryu embodies a Ronin lifestyle, Chu-Li wears Chinese garb and does kung fu. Guile is the American family man. Overwatch's Pharah wears metroid armour avec arm-mounted rocket launcher, obviously she's from Egypt. I'm sure the link is clear... Uhm. The Chozo? Ah, Pharah-oh!
For fear of stating the obvious, Street Fighter has a Japanese perspective on the world, and Overwatch has an American perspective on the world. Yet Blizzard has many, many (international) world class creative talents. The flaw of Overwatch's setting is borne out of excess whereas it could have benefited from restraint. It needs some 'less is more'. Why? My real problem with Overwatch lies with the way how gameplay is completely severed from its setting.

Tracer and Widowmaker have a momentThe Overwatch Cinematic Trailer is full of nice little pictures.

The game, not very clearly, has a host of less than good-aligned characters. Like Reaper and Widowmaker. But the game doesn't really acknowledge the absurdity that villains are fighting besides the, presumably, heroes. Said good guys are also killing other good guys. The teams themselves have no polarizing element that sets them apart on the battlefield, save for their differently coloured name and outline (UI fixing a problem character design doesn't). Other than that there's no real telling that these are rival factions. Their goals and motivations equally nebulous. Why is defending McCree shooting attacking McCree? Both are claiming justice as their motivation while fighting over a payload on its way from A to B. Presumably the organisation known as Overwatch was created to safeguard the world, like our real world UN, from terrorists like Reaper. So I think it it safe to assume that all these characters are just mercenaries and that, regardless of how lofty their motivations, they are all villains. Or maybe this is just another instance of American policy where it doesn't matter why you have the war.
Rumour has it that Overwatch is all that's left of Blizzard's aborted Titan project, which was rumoured to be another MMO concept. Could it be that faction based gameplay (say: horde vs alliance) was dropped and now anything goes? This also means that whatever reason for conflict there once was, is gone, yet conflict remains.

justice
ˈdʒʌstɪs/Submit
noun
 
1.
just behaviour or treatment.
"a concern for justice, peace, and genuine respect for people"
synonyms:     fairness, justness, fair play, fair-mindedness, equity, equitableness, even-handedness, egalitarianism, impartiality, impartialness, lack of bias, objectivity, neutrality, disinterestedness, lack of prejudice, open-mindedness, non-partisanship.
 
2.
a judge or magistrate, in particular a judge of the Supreme Court of a country or state.

Overwatch has a universe that is really only useful for a trailer. TF2 has could be seen as what happens, or happened, during cold war times where 2 sides of a conflict would be doing very similar things aimed towards the other. Expending gigantic efforts to prolong a stalemate. A zero-sum game of two perfectly balanced parties where neither can get the upper hand - and so the game is played indefinitely - which explains why the game is allowed (do not read as 'granted by an authority') to be played/happens again and again. A more cartoonish take of Orson Welles' '1984'. A capture the flag game mode revolves around "the intel" without ever naming what the intel actually is. Valve could have gone ahead and explain that the intel are the plans of the deathstar, but the game is served just as well by just "the intel", the characters also acknowledge this. All they know is that it needs to be kept. There's only one of them and the enemy can't have it. Grunts as tools, in this instance the players, they are kept unaware because it simply doesn't matter. All the game needs is something to fight over. It's the notion of just because that links it to the often absurd nature of armed conflict. Particularly fitting as the setting of TF2. Its characters are just one amongst many. None of them make any special claim to fame, none of them goes beyond the call of duty.
But Overwatch plays with none of the concepts at its premise. The game seems like it just wants fancy characters to shoot at each other. They could as well not have bothered thinking up a universe for them.
Black Ops 3 has the same problem: factionless characters fighting each other in opposing teams, but solves it by framing death matches as simulated training programs. The game is presented as a video game, which makes it pretty honest.

His name is McCreeHis name is McCree!

Overwatch adheres to the Big Bang Theory style of funny, where funny isn't actually intellectually stimulating.

One of the most severe shortcomings of Overwatch is that it isn't self aware. Funny though the character designs may have been intended. Each of them only hit one note. His name is McCree. See how that's funny? He's a gun-slinging cowboy, just like in those movies where they all sound like that. She needs to raise her APM... because she's Korean. See how that's hilarious? She repeats it every 2 minutes. Maybe even just to make sure you get the joke. Overwatch adheres to the Big Bang Theory style of funny, where funny isn't actually intellectually stimulating, but just an out of the blue reference that is supposed to contrast or compliment with the current context (I had to strain to come up with that explanation - because there very well may be none). But It usually needs the support of a laugh track to signal when the funny bit happens. His name is McCree, and "justice won't dispense itself". Ha... What justice is that again? The only conflict I can see between characters is because they aren't on the same side for some reason. Is difference of opinion (come to think of it, not even that) a crime that requires justice? I think McCree has seen a few too many westerns and is imitating Clint Eastwood while high on psilocybin and sarsaparilla.

The characters themselves don't care either. His name is McCree... and that's all he has to say on the matter. That's all anyone on the team has to say about it. Other than hitting all the cliché one-liners you'd expect: "it's high noon", "much obliged". I didn't hear "this town isn't big enough for the two of us" yet, but I suspect the line is recorded with cleched jaw seriousness and is archived on a secure server somewhere. In fairness, I'm picking on McCree because he's such an easy target, but every characters received the same treatment. There's no true comic relief, yet it's desperately needed because its subject matter is absolutely gruesome. Unfortunately this game has no wit to it. It just has cool art design.

What it also lacks is good level design. Granted this is a beta but the maps lack sophistication. Sight lines, sniping spots, flanking routes, all these may come with future maps, but the ones I played were very basic. What's makes the maps even worse are their bottlenecks. Fights often result in a prolonged stalemate while everyone is cornercreeping to take potshots till someone forces a breakthrough by activating an ultimate skill.

Steve doing workA rough approximation of what Reaper's Death Blossom skill looks like.

Reapers ultimate skill is called 'Death Blossom'. Where he does The Matrix and people fall down in a series of one-hit-kills. Many ultimate skills resemble hacks or cheats from other FPS games. Reaper pronounces "Die, Die, Die", like the dirty terrorist he is. If you play Overwatch you'll probably hear it more than a few times each match. In no way will it ever become repetitive, boring, dull and trite. Not even after playing the game for one whole hour straight, I know because I tested it. His name is McCree. Who cares.

Each match is ended with the once-in-a-lifetime bookmark moment in Overwatch history. Nobody cares. I'm sure it won't lose its luster.

Another event you'll grow painfully accustomed to is the "play of the game" replay. During which a feat of strength, judged by the algorithm, is displayed to all participants of the game. The feat is set to a really heroic sounding score which indicates that something once-in-a-lifetime has occurred. When I say heroic, I really mean it, it's so heroic that the next Medal Of Honor game will only be able to top it by having Nazi soldiers pause in their combat to salute the player character whenever The Star-Spangled Banner plays on the soundtrack. Masterfully paced, it has both the weight of the unstoppable giant and the speed of greased lighting - which is so vividly evocated on the screen that you'll want to find your graphics card's warranty.
But after a few matches you realize each match is ended with the once-in-a-lifetime bookmark moment in Overwatch history. They are all the same. His name is McCree. Each match is ended with the once-in-a-lifetime bookmark moment in Overwatch history. Nobody cares. i'm sure it won't lose its luster. Make them all the same because otherwise some kids will feel left out when they also do not get the good ending. In a game I played the heroic ending was a killing spree of 2. Which instantly undermines the effect and made it seem much more like mommy enthusiastically clapping. It also made me feel like I was riding a tame theme park ride that assumes it's your first time riding it. Isn't this fantastic? While in reality, you've rode it the entire weekend and you're on it because of the view on Widowmaker's ass.
Play of the game also signifies the discrepancy between its team play concept and its ego-feeding rewards. The PotG makes it seem as though the player on display did something special. But in reality the algorithm only seems to detects spectacular kill streaks. Yet the objective of the game is not to score lots and lots of kills, but to get the payload to its destination. What's even worse is that the defeated team may also receive the PotG. Which alerts players that the game isn't even about playing the objective at all. Yet another sign that this game is only really about fancy characters shooting each other.

Overwatch feels light, loose, flashy and fast. On the scale of sugar rush it feels properly Nintendo.

Overwatch is another Blizzard anime game that tries to appear happy Go-lucky but takes itself way too serious. A bit like Starcraft 2 did. Sure it's expertly crafted: the characters, though cliches, do feel really unique and the range of gameplay the game has on offer is pretty impressive. The game feels like it aught to in all it's arcade-like glory. It doesn't have that heavy movement feeling you'd expect from a serious shooter, nothing really hits hard - but it feels light, loose, flashy and fast. On the scale of sugar rush it feels properly Nintendo. But it doesn't offer the statistical depth, the player customization, gameplay modifiers progression horizon of other games. Yet.
I realize I'm critiquing a beta. The amount of room for improvement is substantial and gives a big hint at the game's potential. If it'll live up to that potential is another matter. I'm sure it'll get a ton of progress bars. I also get the feeling Overwatch has been added much sugar, colours and attitude to make it palpable to the widest possible audience, coating the bitter pill that is team play and has done it up to the point where it's mostly sugar. After playing Overwatch, like the latest binge of sweets I had, I felt really quite bad.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What's Next For Nintendo?

 
To be, or not to be, that is the question.

Last week, on September 30th, Nintendo discontinued its Club Nintendo customer loyalty program. A week before this date I was instantly reminded, by an official Nintendo e-mail, of all the leaflets I had collected since the dawn of the Game Boy Advance era. Enclosed with the games they came with, they held all the 'stars' that made up the currency of this loyalty program. These could then be traded online for Nintendo branded tchotchkes. A few nights later I was staying up late, scratching strips of gunk with a 50p coin till I was blue in the fingertips. I had to toss about half of my vouchers because they had expired half a decade ago! Ultimately, the net result was 2200 stars which I readily traded for 2 digital downloads: Wario Land and Metroid 2. Both were made for Game Boy and were quickly downloaded to my 3DS. The whole experience felt rather novel, liberating too. But it also felt like a sign of the times.

As you may have noticed, gaming giant Nintendo has recently entered a state of transition. The middling hardware sales, the retrospective outlook of the company, the recent passing of Satoru Iwata. Though the quality of the games it creates remains high, it seems the company can't get a break. A cynical mind would say that, after the unexpected success of the Wii, it would seem only logical that this giant would eventually stumble over it's own loamy feet. I agree that success can come from a flash in a pan and that recreating it may be next to impossible but Nintendo is too experienced to just fumble its business and perish.

So what could be next for Nintendo?

Nintendo used to innovate. They brought the analog stick, adapting it for 3D gaming; the rumble feature, introducing haptic feedback; the handheld market... and more recently, some would say infamously, the motion controller. The latter opened up an interface that required minimal button input and with it opened up gaming to a wider audience. Personally, at the time, I couldn't help but feel a little puzzled why Nintendo had made a console that was hardly more powerful than the GameCube. The only immediate advantage I felt with the Wiimote and Nunchuck was that the combo didn't make me feel as though I was cuffed to a controller. That feeling never quite changed until I played Super Mario Galaxy. A game that made me believe Nintendo still gets it. What they didn't get was what was happening with the Internet: Friend codes, paid software tied to hardware instead of player accounts... Were they too proud to ask for advice? Time and time again, the headstrong nature of the company seems to have lead to about as many negatives as it did positives.
Case in point: the WiiU. First and foremost proof that brand recognition will not guarantee sales. At least, brand recognition is how the name was intended. I like to imagine WiiToo was on the boards as wel. How the public may have perceived this brand is patently obvious: it was confused. "How is a Wii different from a WiiU? This one has a remote that one has toy version of the iPad, and we already have an iPad. What do you mean this Wii can't run WiiU games?" Queue more brand confusion with games made for the New 3DS and won't run on the 3DS. Have you ever tried explaining a parent that the new 3DS is called the New 3DS? I have yet to master the art of speaking in capital letters. I imagine it's the same with Nintendo, Iwata was the only one to pull thàt particular trick. Needless to say, Nintendo's naming convention is needlessly messy and conservative in times where Android phones and iPhone iterations are numbered, there's no danger in putting a number at the end of a name. Children won't put off because it reminds them of math class and in any case: parents do all the shopping anyway.

I don't think I'll ever fall out of love with my Game Boy Advance SP. This was another go at the 16bit era. This was a nineties gamer's second youth.

I'm of the opinion that hardware has become a liability to the big N. Don't get me wrong, I love the quirky Nintendo branded boxes in my home. Especially the handhelds are some well-designed pieces of kit, I don't think I'll ever fall out of love with my Game Boy Advance SP. The hours spent with Advance Wars 2, Metroid Fusion, Fire Emblem, Wario Land 4, the list goes on... Sterling memories! This was another go at the 16bit era. This was a nineties gamer's second youth. Yet they remain as just memories.
A point could be made that all of Nintendo's best games are in the past. Until they commit yet another classic to history. But what I mean is that we should focus on the Art of Nintendo and not on the Tech of Nintendo - because they haven't been on the cutting edge of technology since the Super Nintendo.

I'm going out on a limb here, but it seems sensible to me for Nintendo to drop out of the hardware business. At least to the extend they are trying to remain inside of it today. It even seems sensible for Microsoft, and to a lesser extend Sony, to do the same. But they are sitting a bit more comfortably in the Tech Green Zone, so for now the pressure remains solely on Nintendo. Couple this to the trend that we, us that deal in games, software, are ever shifting away from a product economy and into a service economy - just look at Steam. Nintendo hasn't been blind to this, given the strides they are (trying) to make with the e-shop. E-shop by the way, is an equally, or should I say: typically, old sounding idea when compared to e-mail or e-music. In times were everything is electronic anyway. The added 'e' is a meaningless additive that only seems meaningful to a company that thinks there's a difference when in reality it has become the norm. That 'e' is superfluous. A bit like the WiiU, but at least they have got the right idea.

This right idea may very well be the Nintendo NX. Widely considered, by the wider gaming press (not this blog) to be yet another Nintendo Console. Queue some e-hand-wringing: will this be another failed collection of taped-together GameCubes with an attached gimmick? Just look at the WiiU, Lolz! People seem to take to these newfangled tablets, so let's stick one in a controller, instantly voiding the appeal and flexibility of a tables (which does away with buttons). Then void their portability by tethering them to a console with a connection so finicky you need to stay withing a 6 meter radius or the controller becomes little more than a dinner tray. Finally we'll demand game developers use this innovative technology into their unique concepts to realize their full potential in times where The Sequel is both the best idea ánd what gamers expect!
Fruit juicers may well become the next technological fad, so expect the Nintendo OrangeBox with innovative, juicy juicing gameplay. Out with the wiggle, in with the wrangle! I can already see Wario wringing coins out of poor old Syrup. Attach the Wiimote on top of it so it becomes a steering wheel! silly old Nintendo, can't you see that all you have left to innovate in gaming hardware are badly ported mainstream gimmicks? Everybody else is innovating for you, because that's all they do: they specialize. The irony here is that Oculus is putting two and two together, they are using 2 technologies Nintendo pioneered with varying success. Namely, the VR headset (the virtual boy) and the motion controls (the Wiimote). Nintendo simply cannot compete with tech specialists. And even Oculus are coming up with new software because of their gimmick. They are outgimmicking Nintendo's gimmicks with Nintendo's old gimmicks!

Games have always been Nintendo's saving grace. The fox may lose its hair, but not his cunning. That is why I think the NX is not a console but an idea. More concretely: all of Nintendo's games presented on a unified platform free from hardware restrictions. Run NX on the WiiU, 3DS or PC.

Nintendo's wealth lies in ideas and intellectual property rather than its material and tech. So they should focus on games and their gameplay ideas without the required USP. Without constant innovation, tech becomes old fast, even more so as time goes by. So why bother? Nintendo realized this when they made the Wii. But today even the gimmick has become old hat. Both their unique console (best when it was the SNES) and unique interface (best when it was the N64) method have become yesterday's news. Everyone has caught up and surpassed the tired giant.
However, they are still on point when it comes to games. Games are, and have always been Nintendo's saving grace. The fox may lose its hair, but not his cunning. That is why I think the NX is not a console but an idea. Or put more concretely: all of Nintendo's games presented on a unified platform free from hardware restrictions. Run NX on the WiiU, 3DS or PC. Maybe even Android or iOS. If Nintendo seems to be aware of the software modding scene with Mario Maker, they must be aware of the emulation scene (see: the Dolphin emulator, to name just one). They must be aware of Steam's success. They must realize that their vast, and frankly: stellar, library of games is a goose that will lay its golden eggs indefinitely whether they make hardware for it or not.

Nintendo must be aware of Steam's success. They must realize that their vast and stellar library of games is a goose that will lay its golden eggs indefinitely whether they make hardware for it or not.

There are more signs that this may become a trend, Xbox will share its platform on Windows 10 on PC, the idea has existed since Xbox Live was first presented. The concept of Crossplay is no longer an idea that endangers a platform, but something that strengthens it - we'll be able to see how it plays out when Street Fighter V shares its player base with both PlayStation and PC players.
But take heart, dear gamer, all this does not rule out new Nintendo hardware. Just not a separate line of spending that would pile the costs into Nintendo R&D, and thus take away from game development which is their primary strength. They may even partner-up with a computer company. After all, even Microsoft and Sony made their consoles in the image of the PC - the real difference is in the platforms they run and these will become more complex and less hardware dependent over time.
Nintendo, learning from past mistakes, wouldn't be a company that would refuse another manufacturer's hardware twice, would they? A Nintendo Branded Vaio? Stranger things have happened. And all things considered it's a vastly more preferable scenario than letting a heritage sink as if a ship, once so beautiful that the inheritors didn't even dare renovate it to keep it afloat.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mind of the Beholder
Part 5

Looking for group!
Pictured: Ranger, Wizard, Hunter, Guardian, Berserker, Gardener, Ring Bearer, Esquire, Paladin.

Most of the role playing games I like have a class-based and party-based system, a fact that must colour everything I write in this series. They're in the Hybrids I like, MMOs I dabble with, the old D&D Infinity Engine Games I remember fondly, and the modern RPGs they influenced. They're in the Japanese RPGs I am tangentially interested in, the occasional Pokemons, some pixel based Final Fantasy games, an archaic thing called Dragon Quest, the brilliant Nintendo masterpieces called Fire Emblem and the RPG that turns boys into men, Dark Souls.
A subset of western RPG are the European RPGs, a rare and interesting breed. Woefully underrepresented on my played-list, even if I started with them as far back as Rage Of Mages. I still need to play any of the Witcher games and I could have spend a few more hours with our own Larian games. As far as mainstream RPGs go I'm still very much a fan of what Bioware and Obsidian put out. The same goes for Blizzard. I was infatuated with Guild Wars, a game I can't keep thinking about when playing its successor. The monumental RPGs of the last 15 years define much of my tastes in RPGs today and all of them had their own take on the class system.

Role playing games literally fill my days. The RPG I'm currently working on at Larian Studios has me involved in the modest roles of Graphics and User Interface Designer but the fact that I get to work on an actual Computer Role Playing Game that topped the Steam best-seller chart for weeks is enough to make me gag with pride.
The thought that kicked off this series of Mind Of The Beholder was the fact that Divinity: Original Sin is a Classless RPG, which a rare beast to me. 'What is a classless RPG?' I asked myself. I thought the term sets wrong expectations, maybe 'free flow class system' would be more accurate if it allows for characters to use skills and embody traits from both Warriors and Mages. Literally mixing classes. In a classless system the expectation is that words like "Warrior" or "Mage" and the structure they represent would be expunged. I am splitting hairs. Admittedly, most role playing games I stick by, play with this idea. Not by chance, I like such systems.

Defining a class cordons off parts of gameplay. But what happens when those boundaries aren't there? Change is the spice of life so it stands to reason to allow for more freedom. RPGs run the gamut, some games allow complete reclassing, dual classing, multi classing, etc. But even classes themselves could become more flexible. Why not have a sword-wielding Mage? After all, it doesn't take much effort to think of all the magical tricks that could apply to a sword. Why stop there? There's plenty of precedence too: Link wields a sword that shoots magical bolts. this Quan Chi fatality, Mesmers, Guild Wars' illusionist swashbuckler, use swords as a magical conduit. Drizzt Do'Urden dual wields a pair of scimitars, he even named them. Gandalf dual wields a staff and sword. I dual wield a fork and knife on a daily basis.

Drizzt, the Drow, the legend Rangers, like Drizzt Do'Urden, are famous for their dual wielding.

Character Class?

A character's class could be described as its role or profession in the world and is defined by traits, restrictions, rules, playstyle; A Warrior wears heavy armour and wields melee weapons and shields in close combat. The Warrior is usually suited for absorbing damage, taking hits on behalf of the party as he is most resistant to physical abuse. Or he takes the one to take the slow but sure approach to combat, low damage but high survivability. Depending on the system, a Warrior could also be cast in a ranged or melee DPS role, focusing on dealing damage instead. The particulars of classes often depends on the fiction or context they inhabit.

In many cases classes are derived from the fiction. From Tolkien to Gygax to Miyazaki. The class descriptions are a result of the stories that birthed them. Sometimes classes can be problematic for story reasons. I had a hard time believing Mass Effect's Shepard would be an adept, given the amount of grief Biotics get and the rigours they endure during training. It seems very unlikely that Shepard could get a similar training given his possible origin stories. He also doesn't suffer any from the side effects from Biotic implants. Dragon Age: Origins did this more convincingly. Every Race/Class combination had its own unique origin story that explained them in the fiction. And why there are no Dwarf Mages. It gave the character a motivation to get involved with the main story. Likewise with Star Wars: The Old Republic, where each class starts out in its own corner of the universe, with a unique storyline. Subsequent Bioware games haven't bothered as much with explaining its classes.

On the whole, Bioware class systems are very much inspired by classic D&D. Luckily they aren't the only developer thinking about classes. To name but one, Squaresoft was equally inspired by D&D and rethought classes for their Final Fantasy game and called them jobs. Each character could become whatever job and grow stronger in said job. At any given time, the player is allowed to switch jobs or resume an old one. This new job would start the character from scratch, but the old job would retain its level and benefits gained would carry over. So it became possible to use Warrior perks as a newly reclassed Mage. The more high level jobs, the more character perks.

Final Fantasy job system Final Fantasy V's range of jobs, props if you can name them all.

Nintendo has its own take on the job system in its brilliant Fire Emblem series. Clear and simple as most Nintendo games are, it has base and advanced classes. Each receiving perks. For instance, a character that starts out as a Chevalier receives two class specific perks. It advances to the Paladin (mounted, speed, magic resistance, swords and lances) or Great Knight (mounted, physical defense, swords, axes, lances) class. Each of which yield their own pair of perks. Those perks persist through reclassing. Some of which counterbalance deficiencies from other classes. But it is the characters that makes the system stand out. Each of them has a natural inclination towards certain roles, collecting perks helps unlock their full potential. These inclinations and perks are inheritable, something to consider when you pair up characters and encourage them to have some offspring. Fire Emblem fully encourages the player to experiment.

Characters can serve more uses, for variation, for play styles (ranged combat vs melee combat), lore flavour (a party made up out of evil aligned classes). A class can be a job or role put on a character. A Necromancer conjures up different character image than a Cleric would. Of course those aren't set in stone. Obsessed with the undead, nefarious, self-loathing, eye twitching, nocturnally perverted... all realistic traits for a Cleric, putting those traits on a necromancer may provide an interesting twist on the player's expectations. Putting Malicia and Devotio together in a party where they need to cooperate sets up a comedy that writes itself: Hating each other at the onset, but then becoming fast, complimentary-role-filling-friends after they vanquish the ultimate evil. Each character is a tool in the shed, each challenge in the game could use a selection of these tools, which when put to good use form a sum greater then its parts. Cooperation is key.

Malicia in action Guild Wars 2 has a spectacular take on the Necromancer class.

Obsessed with the undead, nefarious, self-loathing, eye twitching, nocturnally perverted... all realistic traits for a Cleric, putting those traits on a Necromancer may provide an interesting twist on the player's expectations.

It's hard to mistake a Warrior with full plate armour for spellcaster. There are a lot of associations that go with the usual typecasting. Putting a type on characters also helps explain what they are supposed to do. It also makes it easy to explain what its options are. Focus on the weapon in your hand, or focus on the shield in the other. Or go hog wild and ditch the shield to use both hands for weapons. It's also easier to role play. It's easier to get that a Wizard is book smart and a Warrior would know thing or two about weapon smithing. Compartmentalizing reality is something we do naturally and it's no different in games. But there's merit in subverting the player's expectation. It's what makes Pratchett's Discworld novels such fun to read: A Wizard university where it's exceptional to care about books, a Wizard with no affinity for magic, an elderly Barbarian blind to his own age, a society where everyone eyerollingly knows what the deal with ceremony is... in this universe that turns the fantasy genre upside down, the long lost heir to the kingdom, pure as morning dew, strong as an ox and thick as treacle - the usual starry eyed golden boy we find in every fantasy is the subverted element.
It takes much more creativity to come up twists on known formulas than to copy them. One of those being the usual trinity suspects. But the trinity is a system, not a class definition, and it could be made to work with whatever classes you can invent. Who says a Warrior should draw enemy attention when a Jester, or even a Bard, seems much more suited.

As much as I am a fan of the trinity, I do think there's something to be said about breaking it. Especially the healer role is somewhat problematic, it's arguably the most valuable role but the least spectacular to play. It could be expanded to give it a bit more sheen. Either adding defensive skills or an entirely different take on the support class like Guild Wars (respectively: Monk, Ritualist and Paragon), make it an offensive class where its projectiles heal teammates like Wildstar or make it a Mage with an affinity for healing magic. But there's ways around getting health back without a healing class. Which is perhaps the best way forwards. If something doesn't work as well as intended there's merit in replacing or cutting it. In the case of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the healer was replaced with a limited stack of potions. This also prevents the party from healing back up to full in-between encounters. Reintroducing some risk to exploring. This seems to have been inspired by Dark Souls, which puts the fear of dying back into players because of its relentless difficulty and limited healing mechanic. Note the word limited mentioned again, I'm seeing a trend. All of this makes it easy for a game to qualify as hardcore. Otherwise, when healing is available on tap, each encounter has to be potentially lethal. The difference is that in the one you could die from a thousand papercuts, the other could provide a more puzzle like set of encounters where players need to formulate a battleplan. Obviously, I'm more partial to the latter.

If I want to talk about solo play and the god-character in context of this post, I really should mention a single player RPG, right? How about Fallout 3. It didn't have something called a class but specialization would occur anyway. This answers my earlier question of what happens when there is no class structure: I would effectively make my own "assault rifle class". My custom made AR class also had other specializations bolted on top, he was a pretty good hacker! So some solutions could result from hacking, and they may have had a different outcome that the other, more standard, solution of shooting until the conflict comes to a natural end.

Fallout 3 box art Fallout 3's box art made quite clear this wasn't a game to take lightly.

However there was no way to hack, charm or buy your way out of a fight with super mutants. Which exposes a sore point in the system: one has to make and end up with a character that can overcome all obstacles. Or to put it differently, the game has to provide multiple solutions to a problem for a wider range of play styles. However, in a world of limited budgets, limited hard data storage this means either the game has to become relatively more simple or the player has to become, de facto, a god among mere mortals. Which is a way of letting the player brute force his way through the game. Personally I think it also breaks immersion, doubly so if the story casts you as a plebeian, inexplicably rising above the rank and file or worse still: it can make the game boring. While god characters games have to tone down the challenge. Death in a god character game is a problem. Obviously once your character goes down, the game ends. In a party based game there's more leeway, it doesn't finish the fight for the entire group. A downed character can get revived. It also opens the door for perma death, in which a downed character is gone forever. The perma death of a god character is a possibility as well, but it's pretty hard to weave it into the game's narrative if the game ends with it. The only real possible drama is when the player realizes he's wasted a life, possibly his own.

A Warrior using a wand? A Jedi Knight using a blaster rifle? Preposterous! Is it?

A salient problem with class-based structures is player freedom and flexibility. A class will often get skills that lack any ties to the weapon the character is wielding, which means this weapon becomes irrelevant as it basically gets demoted to 'something to hit the enemy with when not using skills' or is just another piece of gear to boost stats. This takes away from the character's uniqueness, leaving nothing but a vessel for whatever range of skills it carries. In most cases, classes get a limited set of equipable weapons. A Warrior using a wand? A Jedi Knight using a blaster rifle? Preposterous! Is it? Why not tie weapons to the greater web of mechanics?
A half-way solution is to specify skills that require X or Z weapon, but this also works against class flexibility - because X or Z skills is then linked to the sword-class, or bow-class. It's easy to see that weapons replace classes here, making them, in essence, one and the same. I would argue that weapons should have an impact. Just like Blizzard took a page out of the action game playbook with Diablo 3, RPG makers may consider taking inspiration from the unique weapon attack cycles in games like Darksiders or Dark Souls even if only for variation.

This is where the classless RPG could provide a solution where, ideally, all the skills have to be usable by all configurations of outfits and weapons. Skills that are weapon agnostic. Taking inspiration from Skyrim's infamous sword swinger. Let's say there exists a skill called 'Sweep Attack' that denotes the character use its weapon in a wide 120° arc in front of it. This could apply to melee weapons - resulting in a wide sweeping attack and hitting everyone in the arc. It could also apply to ranged weapons where it would mean the character fires a volley of arrows in an arc over a long distance. It could even apply to magical staves or wands where it casts an arc of magical fire or ice, burning or freezing enemies caught in the cone-like attack. This would make this skill truly classless since every character, no matter what its build or weapon, could use it.
This also means that weapons could slot their primary function or effect into skills, transforming them in a way. A magical projectile skill could gain a knockdown effect if a blunt weapon were used or become a fireball if a magic wand with a fire damage type is wielded. Weapons as part in the greater web of connected game mechanics, rather than an appendage that just needs to be there.

Dragon Age: Inquisition's Tank MageThough not classless but vehemently anti-min-max, Dragon Age: Inquisition let me play a Tank Mage anyway when I specialized my Mage as a Knight-Enchanter. Oh, the Irony!

As with all things, a classless system should have balance and proper restrictions. For instance to prevent Mage Tank Syndrome where players min-max their character for maximum offence and maximum defence. Another argument for limited skill bars, balanced stat allocation and a party with members specialized for their role in the gameplan. Additionally the power versus defense trade-off could be explained in the fiction.

Your energy is mine. Guild Wars has a class that manipulates the enemy's energy.

In the end it's impossible to remove specialization from RPGs and we shouldn't strive to. You may as well take the role out of role playing. Better to take the concept and run with it, the more creative the better. As with the theoretical classless system I mentioned. I like systems that lets one class bleed over into the other. I like the way a class or subclass can direct the way you play a character. I like the odd classes too. Final Fantasy Four Warriors Of Light had a Salve-Maker class, Fire Emblem has a Bride class. Think about Blue Mages, Red Mages, Mesmers, ritualists, wayfarers... any game that has odd classes able to play a vital part in a game's gameplay surely points to a game with interesting and creative systems. I like how certain classes are able to focus on specific elements or abilities of the enemy. In guild wars a Mesmer drains the energy pool and directs the enemy spell casting behavior. At the time, I hadn't seen the like. All of these mechanics, and those like it, are symptomatic of a system that offers more depth than the plain "A Warrior absorbs damage". Of course it doesn't exclude this basic function, dealing damage is a primary gameplay element and taking damage is pretty much a given. But allowing the player to pick apart all the different gameplay details and manipulate them is the hallmark of a system complex enough to accommodate it. A system made for player interaction and creativity. Something to aspire to.

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