Avernum: Escape from the Pit review

January 29, 2015

I pointed out more than a week ago that Avernum: Escape from the Pit was on sale, and that it was worth picking up. Based on the exact science that is my Steam Activity page, many of you did. Good job. If you didn’t, and you like RPGs, you can still fix that mistake.

There are a few things that stand out about Avernum and make it almost impossible for me to put down right now. The first and perhaps most important is that the setting/world of Avernum is so tightly woven and kept together. In way too many RPGs, every town or location you visit might as well exist in a vacuum; people aren’t aware of the actions or motivations of others, and every quest is local and doesn’t impact anything else. In Avernum it almost feels like EVERYTHING matters and is connected, which really is crazy given the sheer amount of content.

Quick example (hopefully spoiler-free): I meet a certain NPC early in the game, who works for a surprise faction, and the existence of this NPC explains a lot of ‘how’ the world of Avernum works. Much later in the game, I met an NPC from a rival faction, and one of the dialog options was “Did you know an agent for your rival is at location X”? That alone shocked me, but even better? The NPC replied that yes they are aware of that NPC, and haven’t dealt with them yet for ‘reasons’. I love that not only are these NPCs aware of your actions, but the game also provides valid reasons why they can both exists despite what they and you are doing. That is amazing world building and story connection.

Now to be fair, I said it feels like everything is connected because not everything actually is. You still have some side quests that are more traditional “go get this, deliver it, the end” stuff, but even in those the writing and flavour ‘fit’. There are also plenty of examples where you can ask “what is X” when you have already had another NPC explain “X”, but even here you often get different bits of info. I think a huge factor here is that the game was made by one man (Jeff Vogul), so rather than multiple writers/designers each adding their own take on something, Avernum has a solid continuity and always ‘feels’ the same from NPC to NPC, location to location.

This continues into its design as well. You are very rarely forced to have a quest in order to complete/acquire a future quest objective if you happen to explore an area/dungeon early (in fact, a lot of the major quests assume you won’t know WHY you are collecting something until much later). Sometimes you must have the quest, but in those cases it makes sense (need a special key, or must know what you are looking for). I haven’t come across a single instance of a quest asking to kill someone, and that someone only spawning once you have the quest, which has always bugged me in other RPGs, while on the flip side I’ve killed or collected many objects early, and when finally meeting the NPC with the quest, the dialog reflected that I already accomplished the task, which is a nice little touch.

Speaking of quests, I love that there isn’t one obvious ‘major’ quest and then everything else plays the role of ‘side quest’ like in many RPGs. Avernum has multiple major quests and major characters, certainly, but even here which one is more important is difficult to say; is helping the king more important than helping a major rebel faction? I don’t know, but I do know that both (among others) feel really important and epic (and not lame ‘epic’ save-the-world-from-uber-death-dragon-god either).

One of the major goals is escaping Avernum, and multiple, multiple times you will find locations that hint at escape, only to turn you away for one reason or another. You can almost feel the hope rising in your characters, only to be crushed.

Much of this is due to the fact that the writing is absolutely top notch, and strikes the perfect balance of enough to set the stage and provide detail, but not bore you with a small novel every time you talk to anyone. The tone is mostly serious, as Avernum is a pretty serious place (being a huge underground prison and all), but lighter moments and characters do happen, and again unlike in many RPGs, they don’t feel like intentional ‘comedy breaks’, but characters that fit the world.

Story/setting/feel aside, the gameplay is also surprisingly solid for an older-styled game. Character progression is varied enough to be interesting, but isn’t a stat overload. Spell selection is the same; enough to be interesting, but not so many options that you have a dozen different ways to throw a fireball. I would say the same for items; you come across enough special/magic items to feel like you are constantly making progress, but it’s not the loot shower that other RPGs can become. Important, major magic items that you find feel like huge rewards/upgrades, and hold their value for a long time in many cases.

All of the above feeds into the combat, which again IMO is surprisingly good. At the start of the game it’s rather basic, but after a few hours and some levels, you will face a lot of different situations that will certainly challenge you (or outright kill you if you visit them too early). Sometimes it will be a tough boss, while other times it will be a longer dungeon that simply grinds you down in terms of potions and mana. I love in an RPG finding something that kills you early, but being able to come back later and inch out a victory; that to me is one of the more rewarding aspects of an ‘open world’ RPG, and Avernum has this in spades.

I haven’t finished the game just yet, though I feel I am fairly close given where certain quests are going and the overall percentage of the world I’ve explored and my character power. I am genuinely excited to see how this ends, and very much looking forward to Avernum 2 to continue the story and get more of this style of game. Obviously highly recommended to any RPG fan able to look past the old-school graphics.

Playing games “the right way”

January 20, 2015

I think I’ve written about this before, related to MMOs and really ‘buying in’ when playing, but playing Avernum right now and recently having beaten Farcry has reminded me that sometimes, a key to really enjoying a game is “playing it the right way”, rather than playing it as you would play any other game.

For Avernum, I enjoy the game a hell of a lot more if I put my normal gaming tendencies to the side and set my frame of mind to “group of people exploring the underworld, trying to figure things out”. If I play it as a loot or level gain-focused RPG, it’s a lot less fun. If I let my min/max side creep in, it’s a lot less fun. If I keep my focus around what my characters would more naturally do, and not focus on the ‘gamey’ aspects, my enjoyment goes way up, because the world in that game is fantastic and it all has a purpose in terms of story/setting, so getting pulled into it all isn’t that hard and is very rewarding.

For Farcry, it was almost the opposite. If I focused too heavily on the story, I wasn’t having as much fun, because the story around the stuff you do is, at best, nice setup for the action. But the action is the point, so deciding which gun to use, if I’m going stealth, and then just enjoying shooting bullets makes the game great. Yea, the ending was just ok, and some of the stories make zero sense, but whatever, a grenade launcher drive-by is awesomely cool, as is taking out an entire outpost by going Rambo with a machine gun, or taking down every single guard with a headshot from a silenced sniper rifle. There is a lot of joy in sniping someone, watching the body fall off a roof, and then waiting for his buddy to wander over to check the situation out only to drop him from long range as well. Does it make a lot of sense? Nope, but whatever, that part of my brain is off when playing a game like Farcry.

Another example is Prison Architect. Played strictly with a Sim City “build as big a prison/city as you can” mentality, the game is fun the first time around, and then you are basically done. But get a bit goofy with it, like seeing how far you can push having all your prisoners be the worst of the worst, while your prison itself looks like a local jail, leads to some hilarious stuff. Yea, you won’t ‘win’ the game that way, but winning in Prison Architect doesn’t really matter all that much.

“How’ you play a game can sometimes be just as important as picking ‘what’ game you play. Do it right, and you can greatly increase the enjoyment you get out of a game.


Smed being Smed?

January 16, 2015

SOE being SOE is well established, but do we now need a sub-category for them with Smed being Smed? I think we might. I present you exhibit A:

“We will NOT be selling Guns, Ammo, Food, Water… i.e. That’s kind of the whole game and it would suck in our opinion if we did that” - Smed

Right now, in H1Z1, you can PAY to have an airdrop fly by that can drop guns, ammo, food, water, which in my opinion makes the whole game suck. Oh Smed.

But don’t worry everyone, Smed is fixing the airborn lottery lockbox by reducing the chance to get the good stuff. Because the only thing more fun in an ‘MMO’ like H1Z1 than paying for a random lottery chest, is paying for a random lottery chest with really shitty odds to give you what you are paying for. Because who doesn’t love paying to get junk? Certainly not SOE fans!

Farcry 4 finished, some thoughts

January 13, 2015

So a few days ago I ‘finished’ Farcry 4. I say finished in ‘finished’ because I didn’t complete all of the side quests before finishing the main storyline mission, and there is certainly plenty of other stuff for me to do. I might still do some of it, as overall I really enjoyed the game. To cut to the very end, it’s certainly a game I would highly recommend to anyone, FPS fan or not.

I’ve already posted about how alive the world in Farcry feels, but I also want to add that the level of detail is mostly interconnected, and if you take the time to put the pieces together, you get more out of the world and the events in it than if you just blast through everything.

I feel that’s a somewhat rare thing in gaming today. For comparison, remember how odd some things felt in Skyrim? You had a civil war going and dragons flying around, yet most people you met didn’t seem aware of this and were still really focused on you just collecting X for them or completing a few tasks so you can become a member of their guild. How much cooler would Skyrim have been if the overall world was aware of the actions happening; be it the civil war being decided or the dragons being defeated? In Farcry, while it’s not 100% perfect, the world certainly feels far more aligned with what you are doing and the impact you are making.

I also appreciate the game knowing what it is and what it’s not. The shooting mechanics feel really solid, the weapon selection is excellent, and the stealth gameplay feels incredibly natural and is a ton of fun. Perhaps even more importantly, the game understands it’s not a platformer, so while it does have minor jumping puzzles and such, the controls don’t force you into a pixel-thin margin of error. Walking across a smaller-looking plank for instance isn’t something you are going to fall off of because you didn’t line up perfectly, just like jumping to a ledge has a large margin of error. I appreciate that because it reduces frustration, and I’m not playing a game like Farcry to get platformer-level of difficulty from timing jumps or scaling cliffs.

So yes, excellent game all around, and a really fun break from what I usually play. It’s also the type of game I’d be more than willing to buy DLC for, like for instance a chance to play on the side of the main enemy.


Heroes of Might and Magic 3 HD – Why am I not excited?

January 7, 2015

There have been a lot of solid turn based strategy games released in recent years. Just off the top of my head, we have Civ V, XCOM, Heroes of Might and Magic 6, Eador, Fallen Enchantress, Endless Legend, Age of Wonders 3, Warlock 2, Crusader Kings 2, and I’m sure at least a few others I’m missing. This is a bit surprising considering that genre has always been, and I think still is, pretty niche. Other than Civ and XCOM, are any of the other titles ‘best sellers’?

Not that I am in any way complaining, as TBS is a personal favorite of mine, and for a long time the genre wasn’t getting many releases or ‘big budget’ games. But all of these choices make a game standing out, lasting, and being ‘something special’ harder, which brings me to Heroes of Might and Magic 3 HD; I just don’t have any interesting in the re-release of a game I played the hell out of originally.

I’m personally a little surprised by this. I mean, I ate up the Baldur’s Gate remakes, so you would think something like this would be right up my alley, but nope. I glanced at the screen shots on Steam, never got really excited, and moved on. That said the pre-order is a top seller on Steam, so clearly a lot of people feel differently, and maybe if I hadn’t played so many of the titles listed above, I’d be up for this remake too. And who knows, maybe the nostalgia bug will bite me during a Steam sale, I’ll pick this up, and be reminded of just how great this game was (is?).


Farcry is a better virtual world than most games aiming to be virtual worlds

December 30, 2014

Cheap and short “I’m on vacation” blog post incoming.

The new PC is awesome, thanks for asking. Having everything on one large SSD drive is not only fast, but also convenient. No more worrying about which drive to put this game on, or where this large download is going to auto-place itself.

The two games I’ve been playing a lot lately are Total War: Rome 2 and Farcry 4. TW:R2 plus some DLC is as great as ever, and looking all that much nicer doesn’t hurt of course.

Farcry 4 continues the long line of “better sandbox than most MMOs” theme that has been on display for a few years now. Seriously, why is it that the ‘world’ in Farcry 4 is more open ended, more real, more alive, and just more fun than anything the genre that is supposed to be about virtual worlds is giving us?

That aside its also a very fun game overall. I never played Farcry 3, so everything is new to me (I guess Farcry 4 is basically 3 in a different setting?), and just the sheer variety of stuff, combined with solid execution, makes for enjoyable entertainment. Also this being the first game I’ve played to use an Indian setting is a breath of fresh air.

Regular posting to return next week, happy New Year everyone!

Hex+Hearthstone: What should have been

December 5, 2014

Having just wrapped up an arena winning 7 games, my main thought for the last 3-4 games was “make it end”. I kept playing just because, but yea, not really fun. Mage deck that happened to pull 4 flamestrikes, zzzz but effective. Oh and the new cards are in the arena, and let me tell you, they are a HOOT with all the random BS they cause. A total hoot!

On the flip side was my experience with Hex. The intro tutorial had no sound. The default size of the chat window is so small its kind of a joke. The whole thing doesn’t feel as polished or solid as Hearthstone, and Hex is a PC game where Hearthstone is an ipad app.

On the other hand, even two games into the PvE series (campaign?), I’ve already made more interesting decisions and felt more in control of the game than 99% of Hearthstone games, and that’s using the intro deck which I’m pretty sure is designed to be really basic (though maybe not, see less polish issue above). I could see myself playing Hex for a long time, if once I get over the learning curve it overall ‘works’. Too early to say just yet, but so far so good.

Playing Hex actually made me realize just HOW dumbed down Hearthstone is. I mean I had a good idea of what a normal game of MtG plays like, but it’s been a few years since I’ve actually done it. Playing Hex reminded me just how many decision points during one full round Blizzard removed, to say nothing about the actual cards or other game systems.

Which highlights why I’m so hard on Hearthstone; there is no reason Blizzard couldn’t have gone with the design of Hex, and the polish of Hearthstone. Yes, I know Blizzard was hoping to capture the masses with this ‘casual’ app, but they failed. “The masses” isn’t a game in the top 50 for revenue, and out of the top 200 in terms of downloads when it has the Blizzard name and Warcraft IP behind it.

If Hearthstone was a massive success I wouldn’t be ranting about it, but rather would just accept that its a game not for me but clearly for a lot of others. But it isn’t. Maybe with future updates it might be, but right now it isn’t. And it could have been something far more interesting and successful. Old Blizzard would have delivered that. New Blizzard didn’t. Maybe they can’t.


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