Thursday, 25 June 2015

Space Quest I: The Sarien Encounter (VGA remake, 1990)

Space Quest I, the start of Roger Wilco's adventures, going from lowly janitor to space hero and back again (and repeat).

This is the remake of the first game in the series, and I'll be replaying it for the good folks over at The Adventure Gamer!

So go check it out there, since there's no point in me posting it over here.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Pillars of Eternity: Character Creation and the Crisis of Countless Choices

Is this the spiritual sequel to Baldur's Gate that I've been waiting for all these years?
No spoilers here for Pillars of Eternity, I've barely started it. I seem to have got stuck on the character creation. Not because it's bad, but rather because it has so many options I can't quite make up my mind! Instead, I'll ramble on about RPGs for a bit and the gameplay posts will come later on.

The introduction: You are travelling with a caravan to a new settlement when you get stuck in a mountain pass.
If there's one thing I really do love about RPGs, it's the character creation. Good character creation can add a wealth of possibilities to a game. As a first impression though, it can provide a daunting plethora of options, many of which might be completely unknown to the player. How important every statistic, every class, every spell, every choice can have unforeseen consequences for the future of your character.

First choice: Male or Female? No idea how much this affects things. I chose Female this time. I've also missed a screenshot where I chose my race, and I've gone for a strange looking "Coastal Aumaua" who are taller and stronger than most others it seems.
Class: A large selection, with some familiar and some new. I pick Paladin. Usually a warrior type, but with a bit of magic and a sense of self-righteousness.
Sometimes a character creation is reliant on rules not fit for the game itself, or badly fit in. This can lead to superfluous skills which might seem highly valuable to a new player but in fact are a dead end. Fallout 1 and 2 had it's skills like Doctor and First Aid, which at first might seem highly useful in a radioactive post-apocalypse, but in fact have very limited use due to the vast amount of healing items available. Specialising in the wrong character can make the game punishingly difficult, and may reduce the enjoyment of the player.

Subclass: You have to pick an order, I went for a "good" one. I had thought there might be a choice of God to follow, but I guess not.
Your basic statistics: Here at least some guidance, the game highlighting which stats are most useful for your chosen class.
Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights used the Dungeons & Dragons rules, which are suited for tabletop/pen-and-paper roleplaying and not very well suited to a computer RPG. The systems are designed around larger possibilities than a single-player cRPG can manage, and certain skills may never come into use. The Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir was the best I've seen at using these otherwise superfluous skills, making certain characters like Rangers useful (allowing you to notice enemies on the world map before they can see you, avoiding them with stealth and still getting experience for this!).

Culture: Again, this is a bit opaque. I don't know much about the world yet but I have to pick which culture I associate with. I chose Aedyr, an old slightly crumbling empire.

Background: A little vague boost here to your character, here I gain +1 to Stealth and Survival skills for being a "Drifter", which seemed appropriate for someone tagging along with a caravan to a new settlement. 

Pillars of Eternity is trying to tread that fine line, in giving the player a wealth of options, whilst also trying to guide the player with as much information as they can. While I appreciate this information, it can still feel quite daunting. The game seeks to guide with the basic character statistics (strength, intelligence, etc.), and will recommend which ones are most important for the class you have chosen. For every other choice, there is a lot of text explaining the possibilities, but such things are a touch opaque when I know so little about the world. What effect will +1 survival have on my playthrough? Or +1 Lore?
There are various cosmetic changes you can make to your character here, unfortunately the number of portraits is small, so you can only pick one with a vague similarity to your character (choosing human would have made this a bit easier, but the non-human races have far fewer portraits). Some of this can be changed later, which is a marvellous boost. The voice choices all seem to be the same actor, which is a bit crap (but they are rarely used, generally just a bit of shouting in combat).

Here is my completed character: Level 1 Paladin, Morgana. Until I decide to restart with someone entirely different.

What would be a missed opportunity is to allow for a vast array of starting choices, but have them proceed to have minimal impact on the game as you progress. If your starting choices have minimal impact, it is perhaps best to begin with a blank slate and fill in the character through encounters and dialogue during the opening area of the game. On the other hand, if your myriad choices will have definite impact on a playthrough, then it is imperative that the consequences are felt as soon as possible, so that if a player decides they've made a terrible choice the restart is less painful.

A tree blocks the path of the caravan, and my character is suffering from some form of mild nausea so it's off to the forest to pick berries, rather than chopping the downed tree and getting out of here. Note the big glass-like green protrusions surrounding this camp, I'm sure they will be important!

For what it's worth, I truly hope that the first choices that Pillars gives are ones that will shape the rest of the game, because if the game is truly great I will want to play it multiple times. As it happens, I've already played it four times (sort of), because I can't decide what sort of character I want to play as. Do I want to be an honest paladin, a bitter druid, a mysterious spellcaster, or something else? I'm always tempted to pick the noble paladin as a first-time playthrough of most cRPGs if only because it's what I'm used to from various Ultima games (in which the player is literally the paragon of virtue, the hero who gets called whenever there's a threat to Britannia).

Here's the inventory screen, and my very own Giant Miniature Space Piglet (a callback to Minsc's Boo, a Miniature Giant Space Hamster from Baldur's Gate). I also get an Obsidian Dragon if I prefer (Kickstarter backer perks). Not sure what these animals do, except for follow you around.

So far I've only played through the opening section, which contains a brief tutorial (which will be mostly unnecessary to anyone who has played Baldur's Gate or a similar infinity engine game), and consists of a few fights and some snippets of dialogue to introduce you to this strange new world. Hopefully this week I will delve into the game and discover how much my choice of character will affect how I approach the encounters and quests that the game throws at me.

And so my adventure begins, accompanied by a reluctant hunter and a blue piglet.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Cyberpunk Returns: Shadowrun: Dragonfall

Shadowrun: Dragonfall is the sort-of-sequel, sort-of-DLC for Shadowrun Returns. It's available as a standalone "Director's Cut", so you don't even need to play the first one (but I would recommend that you do, I really enjoyed it). I played the Director's Cut standalone version.

The world of Shadowrun presents you with a future filled with biomechanical engineering, magic, metahumans, dragons, virtual reality and so much more. It's futuristic cyberpunk meets high fantasy, and while the geography of the world might be the same as ours, this "Awakening" has caused huge wars and a massive change to political and social dynamics. There are new empires, new city-states and new dangers, and it's up to your team of "Shadowrunners" to navigate them.

Shadowrunners are teams of people employed often as mercenaries, for a huge range of (often illegal) missions. Because you get to decide on your missions (to a limited extent), your moral compass is your only guide as to whether you take on a risky mission or not. Opportunities arise to do deals with shady corporations, gangs or worse - and you can choose to double-cross or destroy some of them too.

The game opens with your character on a mission, brought along by an old friend. Your character can be chosen from a wide range of races and abilities, enough for a variety of play-styles. The only recommendation is to not vary your character too much, spreading your limited upgrade points too thinly around various categories can leave you with a mixture of low powered abilities. Best to pick a specific character type, and use the rest of the team when other skills are required.

Your first mission is hardly a tutorial though, and includes a tough combat section very early on to remind you that not all problems can be solved by hacking or talking your way through. To this end, I chose to make a gun-toting combat-focused character, but I think a magic user would be a very good choice for my second play-through (your initial team includes two combat-focused characters and a shaman, with a decker/hacker as leader).

Combat is the same as the first game, and is a turn-based tactical affair with similarities to XCOM. You get defensive bonuses for being behind cover, offensive bonuses when you flank people and a massive array of weapons, grenades, spells and such to wage war with. I would argue that the game relies a touch too much on combat, but it doesn't overplay it compared with other RPGs. There's far less required combat than in many other RPGs past and present, and the system is good enough that I enjoyed it rather than feeling it was a boring slog.

The most interesting parts for me will always be the conversation choices, the ability to find back doors or work around a problem. While the full frontal assault is often the easier choice, the other options do break things up a bit. In particular, a decker (the hacking type) can make things much easier on certain sections.

I enjoyed particularly how the game dealt with the companions, allowing you a limited choice of how they improve their abilities and a small amount of leeway for giving them additional equipment. They are often talkative at key points, and have their own side-missions that you can get involved with. I prefer this approach rather than just getting blank-slate characters to micro-manage, and it's better than the first game's approach of letting you pay for random people to back you up at certain points (but the characters that were actually characters were good).

The game sets up a story about a great dragon, and slowly but surely gives you plenty of information about how the world is run in this new future, and how the dragons (for there are several of them) are a possible threat to all of the lesser races. The dragons are immortal and massively cunning and powerful, and to know too much about them is dangerous and to fight them is a near impossibility.

There are several other smaller stories throughout the game though, which might be of lesser importance but allow you to make real choices that you can imagine would have lasting consequences (if only the game were over a longer time frame, and you could see the world you were shaping come to pass...)

I tried to play the game as "good" as I could, for the benefit of all people in the Flux State (an anarchistic government system, covering the area the game is set in). This was relatively easy with the smaller missions and smaller choices, but if you are lacking in certain skills, the choices you make can be based on minimal or misleading information, and may have consequences you don't readily foresee.

The end-game in particular presented me with a difficult choice indeed, and I am not sure I made the best choices in the end. The game's epilogue is quite short and gives you only limited information, so I suppose I will just have to replay the game and see how I could have done things differently.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Space Quest IV: Part 3: Out of Time

After having foiled Vohaul's plans in Space Quest 1 and 2, it seems that famous galactic space-hero, Roger Wilco would have to do it again. Armed with nothing but his charming personality, good looks, quick wits, a pocket full of acidic ooze and a cigar stub, I exited the time pod for the last time.

The Sequel Police dispatch station was empty, and their aircraft sat quietly in its hangar. The only other place to check was off to the right, where there had previously been a guard but now only a strange tunnel entrance lay ahead. Presumably, all of the Sequel Police were chasing my shadows around space and time, so they thankfully couldn't get in my way.

The tunnel entrance had a rather complicated locking system, but I was carrying what is commonly known as "a fool's lockpick", by which I mean a glass jar full of incredibly corrosive green ooze. Being very careful not to spill any on myself (something that would mean certain death), I melted the lock and that seemed to have the effect I was looking for.

The tunnel itself had further security measures though, with a laser barrier designed to slice open any fool careless enough to wander forward. Using the matches and the half-chewed cigar, I coughed up enough smoke to highlight the laser beams and used the control panel to move them to a safer orientation.

So far so easy, but I was unprepared for what lay ahead. A vast chamber filled with a strange, almost organic looking electronic brain. Amongst the twisted spires of living machinery there were walkways winding maze-like to unknown destinations. I picked a pathway, noticing a small box by the hand-rail. Ah, a use for that all-important PocketPal Terminal I had not bothered to pick up. Of course, I would have needed a PocketPal Terminal Connector, and of the right kind, something almost impossible to know before now.

I could go back and try to get this important equipment (if not for a bug preventing me from actually going where I needed), but I instead decided to push forward and brave this bizarre environment without such aid. I could hear the sentry droids in the distance though, so I would need to be on my toes.

Evading the droids, I worked my way towards the central chamber, in which my son (something I only really knew from a cutscene that I wasn't present for) was being held in some sort of beam. There were laser defences preventing me from approaching, so I had to find some way of shutting them down.

The answer lay in another direction, a walkway leading off to the left. Inside, a room looking like something out of a H.R. Giger painting, with a large locked circular door at the centre. The way the eye-like protrusions on the walls were looking at me reminded me of a section of the Space Quest IV hint book I had read through earlier. Turning to the appropriate page, I noticed a hint containing a number code - a code that would let me enter this chamber and gain access to this artificial brain.

 The terminal screen was filled with strange symbols, and I flushed each one in turn, leaving only the brain and the SQIV ones (note: flushing the SQIV symbol will exit the game!). Not knowing what I was doing exactly, I decided to flush the brain symbol and see what happened, leading to a countdown and some sort of format/restart process.

Hoping that this had disabled the security measures guarding my son, I raced against the clock to the central chamber once more, only to find to my disgust that Vohaul had downloaded his mind into my son's body! Of course Roger might look like a lazy slob, but when it comes to the crunch you can count on him to kick some ass, or at the very least push Vohaul back into the holding beam for long enough to recover the disk with my son's brain on it and switch him back into his body.

With my son saved, and Vohaul deleted, all that's left is a victory celebration! Mind you, there's not that much to celebrate when most of Xenon is dead and in ruins, but at least they can rebuild. After a brief tantalising glimpse of my future wife, I'm dropped back off in Space Quest IV to continue back on my way. I don't think my life is going to be quite the same after that...

Final Thoughts

So long Space Quest IV, we hardly knew you (because we spent most of our time in other time periods!), and after this game the Space Quest series takes a bit of a detour. It's technically still the same series, but it begins to stick to a more Star Trek parody rather than a general space-comedy that it was previously.

Personally, I think this is the highlight of the series. It handles the time travel pretty well, it allows you to re-visit most of the areas of the game in case you missed something (with one exception that I can think of - the bird's nest in Space Quest X). It even lets you bypass a few puzzles on the way (the PocketPal stuff). It also has some wonderful artwork and music which will always be memorable for me.

And finally, previous Space Quest games were given plenty of mentions throughout (a nice touch), and as well as visiting SQ1, and the mention of SQ2 you can also visit Space Quest III! Careful though, you seem to have misplaced that thermoweave underwear somewhere so I'd stay inside the time-pod if I were you.

Space Quest IV: Part 2: Babes, Burger Time and Back to the Future

Last time, on Space Quest IV...

So we've arrived in the past. Well, it's the future to Roger, but the past compared to where we were and oh no I've gone cross-eyed. Best not to worry about that too much and instead lets just get on with the game. We've arrived on a desolate looking planet, but thankfully it seems free of both cyborgs and other futuristic dangers so lets go and take a look around.

A brief wander leads to us meeting some local wildlife, and this avian fellow has brought us home, presumably to meet the family. How nice. The other guest, a Sequel Policeman (officer?), fared less well and has been impaled on a stray branch. A quick search of the dead (?) police officer gets us a piece of paper with some gum in it. These cyborgs don't seem to have the capacity to chew gum, so where did he get this from? Either way, it contains half a time code so we'll keep it next to that dangerous ooze for later.

There's a hole in the nest, so obviously we decide to fall to our deaths. Alas, our fall is broken by one of the deep watery pools on this planet and we survive yet again, only to be greeted by a bunch of swimsuit wearing women with spear guns. A rather attractive blonde woman claims I'm her ex, and that I ran out on her! This time though, I won't escape and I'm forced into the submarine and back to their underwater base.

It seems I've made them rather angry, which is understandable because Roger isn't exactly the most suave or dependable bloke in the galaxy, but I think torture is a bit uncalled for. But before they can "shave my legs clean off", we're interrupted by a huge sea monster. Phew! Roger's quick wits here get him out of a jam, and using his knowledge of Jaws he remembers that sea creatures don't like to get a mouth full of pressurised gas, so he throws an oxygen canister down the sea slug's throat. Once again, Roger is a hero and as a reward we're treated to a trip to the mall! Um, thanks?

The space-mall is a temple to futuristic capitalism, so not much has changed. There's a rather limited selection of shops, but enough that I can replace my trousers and find myself a job at the local Monolith Burger. This involves a classic Space Quest tradition, the arcade sequence. The burgers arrive on a conveyor belt, and require a selection of toppings to finish them off before they can go to a lucky customer.

Crisp lettuce, sour pickle, creamy mayo, spicy mustard and sweet ketchup topped by a soft bun. Easy, especially with the speed setting turned all the way to the lowest setting, but as you complete each burger the conveyor belt speeds up (as does the music), and you only get paid a buckazoid for fully complete burgers. Three bad burgers, and you're kicked out of the door, but by that point I've got an extra $94 in my pocket and I can search the rest of the mall (and pick up the half-smoked, half-chewed old cigar that was thrown at my head my my former employer).

Next I decide to poke around in a computer software shop, and although I'm told that all the good stock has gone, the bargain bin turns up a Space Quest IV hintbook which is surely the best 5 buckazoids you're ever likely to spend. The information doesn't quite tally with my experience so far, but I guess I've been in SQXII and SQX so it's not exactly relevant. It does have half a time code though, which hopefully pairs with the gum wrapper.

A trip to the arcade next, and after a score of 238 on Ms. Astro Chicken, I find the Sequel Police have tracked me down. Time to do a runner! I leave before they can shoot me, and try to give them the slip through the Skate-O-Rama anti-gravity rink. It's an awkward task, as they chase me through the mall but eventually I find my way back to their time pod and steal it. I pop the two halves of code into the keypad, and make my way to Ulence Flats - back in Space Quest I!

It seems I've arrived not long after the old me had left (back when I had brown hair), and looking around reveals there's still not much to do here. Before leaving, I check out the bar and find myself thrown out by three monochrome bikers. Time to teach those bullies a lesson, the Roger Wilco way, by kicking over their bikes and then running and hiding. After I'd lost them, I headed back to the bar and picked up a matchbook left on the counter. I avoided the barman, knowing he was still annoyed that I'd broken his fruit machine, and made my way back to the time pod.

One of the monochrome biker bullies tried to run me down, but I easily dodged him (on the second attempt, anyway), and climbed back into the time machine. The only place left to go was back to Space Quest XII, and to try and finally stop Vohaul. At this point I should really have made the most of the mall, by accessing my ex-girlfriends bank account from the ATM card she dropped, but alas when the Sequel Police arrived the appropriate stores I needed to visit closed and never re-opened (a bug, but thankfully not one that will impede my progress, merely prevent me from gaining maximum points).

Arriving in Space Quest XII again, the police dispatch is quiet, and the music tense. This will be the end-game...