Monday, November 16, 2009

King's Bounty: Armored Princess Review

I never played the original King's Bounty. So when my editor at Hooked Gamers gave me Armored Princess to review, I approached it from a fresh and inexperienced perspective. Unfortunately, veterans of the series did not take too kindly to this. That taught me an important lesson: Explicitly state how experienced you are with a series when reviewing an entry in it.

Armored Princess

Baal opened the door to Endoria and stormed the lands, annihilating all who dwelt there. The dwarves and elves fell quickly. Now, only the stronghold of Kronberg and King Mark stand against the demonic horde. Endoria's only hope is the valiant Bill Gilbert, who unfortunately is in another world called Teana. To get to him, the king and his chief advisor, Archmage Shivarius, have devised a plan to…

Well King's Bounty: Armored Princess doesn't really engage through narrative. Its story is fairly forgettable, which is compounded by its presentation - the game displays plot points almost completely through dense dialogue trees that the player can easily ignore.

Without going any further into the back-story, players experience Armored Princess as Princess Amelie, daughter of King Mark. She leaps at the opportunity to travel to Teana, find Bill Gilbert, and hopefully save Endoria from impending doom.

Island Hopping

Upon starting a new game, players have the opportunity of choosing between three different classes - warrior, paladin, and mage. Each has varying attributes that result in the warrior being a better fighter, the mage being adept at magic and casting spells, and the paladin being a balance between the two extremes.

Traveling through Teana provides an experience similar to any action role-playing game. The land is littered with shops to purchase items, characters to provide quests, and enemies to fight. However, Teana is divided into numerous islands, each with their own distinctive atmosphere. The island that Amelie arrives upon is what one would expect from the story - a medieval fantasy kingdom with lush green expanses.

After completing each quest, defeating all enemies, and procuring all items, Amelie travels to Caribbean-esque pirate-infested beaches, Nordic-inspired arctic tundra's, charred and desolate wastelands, and more. Arriving at each new island proves to be delightful and refreshing - that is, until you meet the locals.

Building an Army

Again, like any typical character in an action role-playing game, Princess Amelie has the ability to level-up and gain points for use in skill trees. The player can use these points, termed Talent Runes in the game, to increase attack and defense ratings, available mana, monetary rewards after battles, etc. Unlike typical action role-playing games, the playable character in King's Bounty: Armored Princess, Princess Amelie, doesn't actually fight during combat. She is more of a general in a grid-based turn-based affair.

Amelie has seven different slots for her army - five active slots and two reserve slots. Each slot can hold a single type of unit, and there is a plethora of units available for purchase across all of Teana's islands. Archers, mages, knights, zombies, robbers, pirates, bears, griffons, and dragons constitute only a small percentage of the available types. Of course, different strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities accompany each unit type. Archers and mages can attack from a distance, but have low individual health. Bears can do a large amount of damage, but can only melee and are slow moving.

While Amelie can only take five distinct unit types into battle, the number of units is more variable. Each slot can hold any number of identical units, and those identical units' attributes stack. For example, while a ten-Archer slot is identical to a five-Archer slot from an organizational standpoint, ten Archers will do more damage and last longer on that battlefield than only five archers.

That doesn't mean Amelie can have any number of units in a single slot. Each unit type has a different Leadership requirement. If the number of units in a slot exceeds Amelie's Leadership attribute, she loses control of that unit on the battlefield. Amelie's attributes also build upon the base attributes of each unit type. An increase in level and subsequent increase in attack rating for Amelie, translates into an increase in attack rating for all of her troops.

The Battlefield

Combat in Armored Princess is more reminiscent of a board game than a role-playing game. The battlefield is composed of a hexagonal grid. Each grid space can hold one unit type at a time, and Amelie's units typically start on the opposite end of the grid from enemies.

Battles are divided into Turns. Each Turn is over once every unit on the battlefield has performed the available action(s). A unit's available actions for the Turn are typically exhausted once it has attacked. But before attacking, a unit can sometimes move throughout the battlefield or perform a special ability. For example, in one Turn, a bear can use its special ability to double its movement speed, move across four hexagons instead of two, and then attack an enemy if it is in an adjacent hexagon. On the contrary, Archers may not want to move at all considering their ranged attack.

Battlefields come in many different shapes and sizes, and include obstacles. The standard rectangular grid, with opposing forces starting on opposite sides, is fairly prevalent throughout Teana. However, the player can also encounter circular grids with enemies surrounding the player's units, or irregularly-shaped grids that are specific to certain situations, such as laying siege to a castle.

With an enormous number of units and battlefield possibilities, the combat in King's Bounty: Armored Princess is very satisfying due to its thought-provoking nature - a very good thing considering combat constitutes 99% of the game. This also means that no battle is quick and simple. Even "very weak" opponents (the game conveniently informs the player of an enemy army's strength before combat is entered - a very welcome touch for avoiding "invincible" opponents) can take a good amount of time and thought to defeat, especially when trying to avoid any casualties.

Pet Dragon

Thankfully, Amelie doesn't have to rely solely on her army. She also has a pet dragon at her disposal - as lethal as it is cute. Like any army unit, Amelie's dragon can perform one action per Turn. The dragon can call upon a ball of lightning to follow a single enemy unit, or dive bomb from the sky and severely damage every enemy unit. But these abilities aren't immediately or freely available. The dragon levels up along with Amelie through battle and gains certain abilities while strengthening others over time. Each ability also costs a certain amount of Rage, which is gained by regular army combat - attacking and being attacked by enemies.

While Amelie's dragon is an integral part of battle, and very useful when taking on larger armies, it remains off the grid and carefree. After performing an ability on the battlefield, the dragon will fly back to its resting place and take a nap under its tree, oblivious to any tension on the field. When not in use, the dragon will also grab a piece of fruit from the tree, and munch away while watching its allies struggle. It is both a very welcome addition to the tense and strategic combat, and a nice artistic touch. It is always amusing to watch the dragon as it observes battle nonchalantly.

Verdict

King's Bounty: Armored Princess has a forgettable story and dated graphics that seem borrowed from much older medieval fantasy titles. However, its gameplay is superb. The turn-based combat is the main component of this game and fortunately its strongest draw. While easy to learn, it is deeply strategic and very satisfying, especially when defeating an army that is much stronger than your own.

The overall formula of island hopping also proves to be very addictive. Clearing an island of all of its monsters and loot provides a great sense of pride in your army. Traveling to the next island, and observing the new landscape and atmosphere, results in a sense of wonder. And finally, those feelings of pride and wonder are dashed when you realize the armies on the new island completely outclass your own. Of course, that's what makes the game so much fun.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Dragon Age: Origins -- The Landsmeet

I had an amazing time with Dragon Age: Origins, and the Landsmeet sequence was a big contributor to that. So I decided to recount my experience over on Bitmob, and it was really well received.

Be Warned: This article is basically one giant spoiler.

DA_Landsmeet_beginning

I thought that I knew my enemy. Every single action I had taken served a single purpose: deposing the traitor, Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir. The supposed hero of Ferelden betrayed King Cailan on the battlefield, leaving him to die at the hands of the Darkspawn, and blamed the Grey Wardens for the king’s death.

The Blight loomed in the background, threatening to annihilate all of Ferelden. But as long as Loghain lived and drew support from any noble family, facing the Blight would have to wait.

So Arl Eamon, a victim of Loghain’s machinations and my newly acquired ally, called the Landsmeet. At this event we could formally reveal Loghain’s many betrayals and atrocities to the ruling class and place Alistair -- fellow Grey Warden, illegitimate son of Cailan's father, King Maric, and my friend -- on the throne.

 

Unfortunately, the Landsmeet did not progress as smoothly as we would've liked. Loghain proved to be a master orator, and he rebuffed all of my attempts at discrediting him. He aimed to keep his daughter, Anora, on the throne while retaining control of Ferelden’s armies.

After a heated verbal battle, the proceedings broke down into violence. Cooler heads eventually prevailed and called for the most traditional means of settling an argument: a duel. Loghain would represent Anora, and I would represent Alistair. The winner would, of course, decide the ruler.

DA_Landsmeet_Duel

In the end, my Elvish dual-weapon fighting style was too much for Loghain. He conceded, placing his life -- and the lives of all of Ferelden's citizens -- in my hands.

Indecision

Suddenly, I found myself conflicted. My sworn enemy knelt at my feet, ready for execution. I'd been anticipating this moment throughout my journeys. I finally had the opportunity to kill Loghain and exact my revenge.

But I couldn’t do the deed. I couldn’t kill Loghain. I probably wouldn’t have had this change of heart if we dueled to the death. In the heat of battle, I surely would have killed him. Or maybe my reluctance resulted from a prior encounter with Ser Cauthrien, Loghain’s commander.

Ser Cauthrien was an honorable and principled woman in addition to being a fierce warrior. I thought if I revealed some of Loghain’s crimes to her, she would realize his evil nature and join my side. Instead, I was surprised to discover that she not only knew about Loghain’s betrayals, endorsements of slavery, and kidnappings, she also reluctantly endorsed them.

Seeing Loghain’s actions through Ser Cauthrien’s eyes made me realize that Loghain wasn’t necessarily the monster that I had originally thought. Like my own actions, Loghain’s scheming had a single purpose: saving Ferelden from the Blight.

I could not agree with his methods, but his motivations were certainly just. In fact, his motivations were more just than my own. While I was bent on seeking revenge, he was considering the bigger picture and the greater threat.

Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t execute Loghain when he submitted himself to me. I let him live.

Alistair furiously took exception to this. He couldn’t forgive Loghain’s crimes, especially those against the Grey Wardens

DA_Landsmeet_Alistair_disapproves

Alistair had always been reluctant to become king – he simply didn’t want the responsibility. But when I decided to spare Loghain’s life, Alistair voiced his desire to take the throne. He would become king, if only to see Loghain executed.

In turn, Anora objected to Alistair’s sentiments and questioned his ability to rule due to his selfishness. She, of course, wanted to remain on the throne and see her father live.

Verdict

Finally, both Alistair and Anora turned to me. It was time for me to declare the undisputed ruler of Ferelden.

Even though I attended the Landsmeet with the intention of declaring Alistair king, I had to rethink my decision.

Alistair was my friend, companion, and fellow Grey Warden. We had been together since the beginning. His irreverent humor lightened some of the most harrowing circumstances, and his weapon-and-shield defensive-fighting style perfectly complemented my dual-weapon offensive style.

Alistair also never wanted to be king. He was content with his role as a Grey Warden, fighting in battle with no responsibility to anyone except the man standing next to him.

But I knew that if I did not declare him king now and allow him to execute Loghain, he would leave. I would lose him as an ally on the battlefield and as a friend in life.

We were also really close to having sex, and I didn’t want to ruin that.

On the other hand, I despised Anora. Like her father, she had betrayed me. She had set me up in a diabolical plot to portray me as an immoral kidnapper.

Also like her father, she was unapologetic for her actions. Even though I deplored her means, Anora did what she thought was right, not for herself, but for the kingdom. I had to admire her conviction. Such a quality seemed essential for a strong ruler.

I weighed the pros and cons of both Alistair and Anora for 10 minutes, staring at the screen as the lightning on my sword crackled and the characters swayed slowly, waiting for a response. Option one: “Fine, Alistair will be king, then.” Option two: “Very well. Anora will remain on the throne.”

DA_Landsmeet_king_making

I chose Anora.

Alistair, needless to say, was devastated. “You’re siding with her? How could you do this to me? You, of all people?”

My response was trite and detached. “I thought you hated the idea of being king.”

“What’s wrong with you? He’s repeatedly tried to kill us both, and you side with him over me?”

Alistair left then, and I never saw him again. “Have fun ending the Blight...or whatever. I guess you made your decision, right? So goodbye.”

Why I Play

Videogames have a wide range of appeals. They can provide goal-oriented satisfaction, connect us with family and friends, create adrenaline-pumping moments, and tell engaging stories.

However, anyone can obtain any of those appeals from a number of other mediums and forms of entertainment, such as books, movies, television, and organized sports.

The Landsmeet sequence in Dragon Age: Origins provides an experience unique to videogames. In no other medium can a person gain the experience of determining a people’s fate. No other medium is capable of forcing a person to weigh their selfish desires against the good of the many.

I know developers at BioWare constructed the entire Landsmeet sequence. I know that my decisions in Dragon Age: Origins have little to no effect on the overall gameplay. Nonetheless, in choosing Anora over Alistair at the Landsmeet, I’ve gained an experience that can be applied to all aspects of life.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Borderlands Review

My review of Borderlands for Hooked Gamers.

Role-Playing Shooter

On the desolate and lawless planet of Pandora, rumors abound about a mythical vault, said to contain vast amounts of alien technologies and secrets. Some inhabitants are completely indifferent to these rumors and are content to conduct their lives in arbitrary fashions. Other inhabitants are obsessed with these rumors, devoting their lives to the search for the vault while slowly losing their sanity.

In Gearbox's newest shooter, Borderlands, players take on the role of a vault-hunter, following in the footsteps of those Pandora inhabitants in the latter category.

Players must complete a myriad of quests, collect a ton of loot, level-up, and ultimately fire a countless number of bullets. While Borderlands includes a role-playing mechanic more reminiscent of a title in the Diablo series or an MMORPG, the game is a first-person shooter at its core. This combination of RPG and FPS elements creates an experience that is equally enjoyable and addicting.

Customizable Characters

At the outset of the game, four playable characters are available. Along with their varying strengths, appearances, and back-stories, each character also possesses a special ability and corresponding skill tree. Roland's special ability for example is a deployable turret that automatically fires on enemies and provides cover. And Brick's special ability is berserk, a temporary state which increases damage resistances and regenerates health.

The corresponding skill trees provide optional enhancements for the characters' traits or special abilities. Upon leveling-up, Roland can increase his bullet damage for all weapon types or transform his turret into an ammunition dispenser. By spending points on Brick's skill tree, players can increase his maximum health or increase the duration of his berserk ability.

Each playable character provides a vastly different experience. In turn, the skill trees ensure that even two players using the same class have equally varying experiences.

Guns, Guns, and More Guns

Outside of the character customization, Borderlands revolves around two gameplay mechanics: shooting enemies and collecting loot.

Some human enemies essentially stand still, while others run from cover to cover. Insect-like creatures have a simple tendency to run at the player, while other flying creatures attack via dive-bombing.

Regardless of the enemy - type or behavior - the game always provides a multitude of opponents at any point in time for the player to combat. As a result, firefights are always intense, which comes as no surprise given Gearbox's experience in the FPS genre. Players have to constantly take cover, use special abilities, and hit those immensely satisfying headshots to remain alive on Pandora.

The millions of available weapons further enhance the gunplay. The procedural system to generate variations of pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and more ensures that no two weapons are the same. Two weapons of the same type can vary in damage, accuracy, firing rate, magazine size, reload speed, and even additional elemental effects.

Each new and improved weapon has the potential to provide a brand new shooting experience from the gun's mechanics and subsequent unique death animations.

Talk More

While the "search for the vault" premise is certainly intriguing, the story's execution is lackluster at best. Pandora is home to some very interesting and well-developed characters with varying motivations. Unfortunately, a lack of voice acting hides such motivations and the resulting plot points.

The majority of dialogue is displayed as text during mission briefings, which makes it extremely easy to skip over and ignore. Thus, it is easy to construe the cohesive main plotline as a series of random and unrelated quests.

The conclusion of Borderlands compounds upon the game's poorly presented story by completely disregarding the main premise. Gearbox leaves many questions unanswered, as if the company simply ran out of time and/or money during the development process.

Not Cell-Shaded

Given the arid and desolate nature of Pandora, there is certainly no shortage of grays and browns throughout the landscape. However, Borderlands includes some vibrant accent colors and an artistic style comparable to cel-shading, but with greater depth and a more realistic feel.

While standard bandits wear clothes mostly in brown, other antagonistic creatures can have skins of bright orange, green, yellow, or blue. Weapons also come in a similar variety of colors depending on the presence of elemental effects from fire, corrosive, explosive, or shock damage.

Beyond the color palette, subtle touches add a great amount of flair to Borderlands' visuals. Gearbox framed absolutely everything in the game - from the environments to the weapons to the characters - in black outlines. As the character moves closer to any object, the object's outline becomes thinner and less noticeable. A hill's outline completely disappears as it lowers beneath the horizon and blends into the surrounding terrain. The effect is subtle yet mesmerizing.

Overall, Borderlands is a stunning artistic achievement. The varied color palette and unique design ensure the visuals never feel repetitive.

Drop-In, Drop-Out

Unfortunately, after prolonged exploration, Pandora can feel like a very lonely place. Vast open environments and aggressive enemies are constants, while friendly faces are non-existent. As a result, Borderlands' drop-in, drop-out multiplayer can increase the game's enjoyment exponentially.

Fighting alongside a friend greatly increases the game's difficulty. Enemies scale to the number of players, which causes firefights to be much more intense, and require an increase in tactical prowess. Multiplayer sessions even improve available loot. As the difficulty of enemies increases, so does the value of the items and weapons they drop.

Despite being one of the game's strongest assets, the multiplayer implementation is also one of its most problematic aspects. There exists no internal mechanic for evenly distributing loot amongst fellow vault-hunters - whoever gets to an item first, keeps it. If Player A wishes to give Player B an item, again there is no convenient method. Player A must simply drop the item for Player B to pick up.

Borderlands' multiplayer implementation is even problematic outside of the game itself. Hosting or joining private games on the PC version is impossible without forwarding specific ports - a bizarre technicality for any software to possess.

Play the Game

Borderlands is a mix of great ideas and inadequate implementation. Fortunately, Gearbox's great ideas far outweigh any of the game's faults. The story and multiplayer implementations could definitely use some improvement, but these are minor concerns compared to the immensely satisfying combat, the addictive looting and leveling systems, and the gorgeous art design.

Oh, and the reference to the Jaynestown episode of Firefly is brilliant.