Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Cab It Up

 

If I was on Twitter this would be a tweet but I'm not so it's a really short blog post instead. 

Neo Cab is the best game I've played in a long time. And I want this picture on a T-shirt.

Full review tomorrow. Maybe. 

Depends which timeline we're in.

I Run Missions

The latest instalment in Guild Wars 2's Icebrood Saga, which I previewed somewhat sarcastically just one week ago, dropped last night. It seems to be called either "Champions" or "Power" or "Primordus Rising" or very possibly "Icebrood Saga: Champions: Power: Primordus Rising". I admit I've lost track of the current naming convention.

Whatever it's called, it's alright. I'm not sure I'd go much further than that but I've played through the new story content and I didn't not enjoy it. It took the traditional two and a half hours, on the nose, only with more fighting and less standing around chatting than usual. 

The format is different to what we've been used to but I suspect not to what we're going to have to get used to in the future. After years and years of muddling around with various combinations of open world and instanced content, none of which ever seemed to suit enough people for ArenaNet to stick with any of them, we've arrived at something called "Dragon Response Missions". 

Theese are repeatable, instanced sequences of events that can be done either solo or in groups of up to five players, either premades or put together by the game, as you prefer. They seem to tick more boxes than most of the previous content delivery systems while avoiding some of the most egregious pitfalls. They also bundle up into a relatively saleable package for the Gem Store so they would seem to have a better chance of sticking around than most of the gimmicks ANet have tried over the last eight and a half years.


 

And I have to say, somewhat grudgingly, that they do work. I'd vastly prefer to have this content presented as it was in Season One, as time-limited events in open world maps, hanging around only as long as it takes for the next chapter to arrive but I accept that ship sailed long ago. A vociferous faction within the playerbase hates anything that's not forever and one-time content is uncommercial since it costs the same to produce as repeatable material but can't be repackaged and resold.

I was surprised at just how many DRMs (Dragon Response Missions. You'd already forgotten, hadn't you?) I had to do this time. Six of them. At least, I think it was six. Wait, no, I mean I know it was six as in that's how many I did. I'm just a little vague on whether maybe the first couple were ones I hadn't done from last chapter. I am finding it hard to keep all this stuff straight in my head these days.

Now I check the press release it does indeed look as though the first two missions I did, one down some cave and the other... no, it's no good, I already forgot where the other was and I only did it last night... aren't part of Power at all. The official four this time around seem to be the ones in Fields of Ruin, Thunderhead Peaks, Lake Doric, and Snowden Drifts.

That might explain why I noticed a significant jump in quality when I got to Ebonhawke. (That's the Fields of Ruin one for those who've never played GW2 and indeed for those that have but don't care to waste brain cells on Tyrian trivia like what city is in which map). The dialog and plot didn't change all that much but the mechanics of the fights became considerably more interesting, suggesting a different team might have had a hand in designing them.


 

This is the really surprising thing about the new chapter. The fights are genuinely enjoyable. It's been a while since I last thought that about a story instance. Sure, they have been getting much better but that's "better" on a scale that begins at "tedious" somewhere back in Season Two and floors out at "unbearable" in the middle of Season Four before slowly climbing back up to the dizzy heights of "tolerable" and even "okay"during the Icebrood Saga. 

Or something like that. Honestly, I've blanked a lot of it. Or tried to. Anyway, the instanced fights used to be something I dreaded and now they're not. In fact, on this latest evidence, they might even be something I could find myself looking forward to. I never thought I'd say that.

I'm not saying I'm going to do what I'm supposed to do and start repeating these missions over and over until the next set drops. Life is neither long enough nor dull enough for that to sound like a good option. It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that I might do them again on another character, though. Maybe even more than one.  

It sounds like damning with the faintest of praise but it really isn't. These instances truck along. They don't waste a whole lot of time. Something's always happening but none of it takes too long. Well, okay, the bit with the dragon spears did drag on a little but I thik that had more to do with most of my pickup group spending more time lying down than standing up.

There was a quite a bit of that in the final instance in Snowden Drifts, too, although that group was a lot more capable. Just had too many glass cannons. I was very glad I was doing the missions on my heal-specced druid, the one I always use for story content. He's hard to down let alone kill, which came in handy for getting everyone else who can actually do more damage than a kitten on valium back up off the floor. It's not always all about the dps, even in GW2. Okay, admittedly it usually is...

I'm a little in two minds about how the new direction approaches narrative. Traditionally, the story part of the Living Story has been delivered in lengthy scenes where the player and any number of important NPCs stand around and tell each other the plot. At inordinate length. Sometimes the PC will be given something to do, like in that party we had back in Beetle Manor. Often they'll get to chip in now and again. Basically, though, it's sit back, relax, watch and listen.

With the missions it's more like trying to hold a conversation with three people while jogging through heavy traffic. Everyone's shouting over everyone else, there's a lot of background noise and you only have one ear on the conversation because you have to watch out for things that might kill you.

It's fortunate the entire dialog gets printed in the chat box because I would have missed whole chunks of plot without it. As it was, appreciating the subtle nuances of the voice actors (whom we're all very glad to see (or hear) back at work, I'm sure) took up most of my attention. Having everyone talking during the action sequences certainly works dramatically. I'm just not sure it works practically. Maybe I need to adjust my audio settings to prefer speech over the sounds of stuff being set on fire.


 

And there's a lot of stuff being set on fire. Either that or frozen solid. That's the theme - fire and ice. Believe it or not, I'd kind of missed the memo about Primordus being Tyria's official Elder FIRE Dragon. I'd always had him pegged as "Earth" or "Stone" for some reason. Possibly because he comes with attached dwarves and dwarves always suggest solidity and earthiness, not fiery armageddon.

I did know Jormag was the Ice dragon, of course. Can't really miss that. So it makes sense in a mythological way that they're twins. Twins who hate each other and want to kill each other. Or at least Jormag wants to kill Primordus. If Primordus has expressed an opinion I must have missed it. I don't think he's spoken yet.

As you can probably tell, this recent episode has re-onboarded me a little with the storyline. I do find the whole elder dragon thing quite intriguing. There were some pointed conversations on the nature of dragons between Ryland, Caithe, Braham and the Commander. Kas might have chipped in, too.

Oh yes, the gang's all here. Rytlock grunted a couple of times but he took a back seat for once since he was on Logan's home turf. Marjory and Taimi had cameos and even Gorrik showed his face although he didn't get any lines. Still, he's doing a lot better than Zoja. Seriously, recast her role already, don't just keep ghosting her. She's the greatest living Asuran! How would she not be there, telling everyone they were doing things all wrong?



Marjory's not much better off. Clearly no-one in the writers' room has clue one what to do with her, which is ironic seeing she's supposed to be a detective. Whatever happened to that, anyway? Taimi, once so over-exposed half the playerbase would cheerfully have drop-kicked her off Rata Sum, had one short scene, which she managed to steal by coming over as excitable as a dog in a sausage factory. For someone with just a few months to live (Remember that plotline? No, neither do the writers, apparently) she seemed remarkably chipper. 

Everyone seems remarkably chipper given the situation but then I guess we all know something about that these days. There's always some bleedover, isn't there?

All in all it was a creditable effort, I thought. I had fun.

I think there may have been a bunch of other non-story stuff in the update too but you'll have to wait for someone else to tell you all about that. Oh, wait, no-one else writes about this game any more, do they?

I guess that'll change when the expansion lands. For a couple of weeks, at least. And it'll take a full expansion to redirect attention this way because for sure the Living Story doesn't have much impact outside the installed base any more. 

Tough business.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Cruel Garrison

Time for a very quick update on what I've been up to in World of Warcraft. Dithering, mostly. My monthly subscription falls due in five days and I haven't yet decided whether to cancel. 

I re-subbed back in October with the intention of checking out the Shadowlands pre-patch, the level squish, Chromie Time and the new tutorial zone, Exile's Reach. I did all of those, wrote a bunch of posts about it and generally had a pretty good time. 

The plan had also been to open up access to the Vulpera allied race, make a fox and level that character to the cap but what with one thing and another I ended up levelling a goblin shaman first, all the way from character creation to the pre-Shadowlands level cap of fifty, something I definitely hadn't expected to find myself doing. After that I didn't quite have the determination to push the fox to fifty, mostly because the EverQuest II expansion arrived when she was about ten levels shy.

When Reign of Shadows appeared in early December I didn't stop playing WoW altogether but my hours dropped to a bare minimum. I was still logging in but almost entirely to keep my ricketty garrison working on hexweave bags. 


 

Even so, that took more time than I expected. I'd imagined it would be like EverQuest's Overseer, just a few clicks on the UI each day, but it seems Blizzard intended something a lot more hands-on. Making bags required me to keep my tailor supplied with sumptuous furs, while upgrading just the few buildings I needed to get the operation up and running cost gold I didn't have. 

I found myself out hunting wolves and cat-people for their fur for an hour or so almost every other day and making repeated forays into old raid instances to make money. For the last two months I've played WoW every day and while I've been there, that's all I've done. 

At first it was fun. Then it became a habit. Now it's starting to feel like a chore. I guess it's the WoD experience in microcosm. And I'm beginning to realize it's also all been a bit... pointless.

First I noticed that hexweave bags can reliably be bought for between 250g and 300g on my server. Using my garrison I can make a bag every other day or so for free but I can make enough gold to buy three or four bags in just the time it would take me to gather the fur. 

It's more satisfying to make them, in theory, but that satisfaction wears off after the first half-dozen or so. I'm at the point now where I feel I might as well just do a bunch of old raids once a week and buy my bags.


 

More significantly, I realized eventually that having an Alliance character with a garrison isn't going to help my Horde characters with their inventory issues. Blizzard take their faction split a lot more seriously than most other developers. Since one of the main reasons I was doing this in the first place was to put thirty slot bags on my Vulpera hunter I clearly didn't think it through.

Of course, I have Horde characters who could build garrisons of their own. And that sounded like a fairly attractive option until I realized something else. Garrisons are unique to the character that quests for them, not the account or even the faction on that account. 

Since my end-game here is to be capable of supplying big bags on demand to any new characters I make and play under the free-to-play rules after I cancel my subscription, what I should have done was send one Alliance and one Horde character, under level twenty, to start a garrison and then be very careful not to let them level too far to be able to keep using it. 

I'd already confirmed on my other free account that you don't need to subscribe to have a garrison and that under the new levelling rules you can get the quest at level ten. Today I spent half an hour getting my level fifteen druid from Stormwind to Shadowmoon Valley just to make absolutely sure she couldn't use the garrison I already had. I've found that no matter what online guides tell you about WoW you never really know for sure until you test it in game.


 

This time I could have saved myself the swim. She couldn't even see the damn thing. It exists in some other plane of reality, apparently. I spent the next half hour porting back to talk to Chromie then heading back to Shadowmoon to get the necessary quests.

That was just for proof of concept. I'd have to do the same again with a horde character and then I'd have to level up the garrisons and the necessary buildings and keep farming the furs and I'd have to fund all of that with characters in their teens. It makes absolutely no sense and I'm not going to do it.

A better plan might be to use the remaining five days of my sub to make enough gold with my Horde and Alliance level fifty characters to buy enough hexweave bags for everyone. That would be far, far easier and an ideal project for keeping my hands busy while I listen to the second England-Sri Lanka Test Match.

That's sorted then. Grind some gold, buy some bags, cancel the sub, go back to playing for free. Only...

I've been wondering whether I ought to buy Shadowlands. I've read a lot about it and it sounds pretty good for someone who enjoys levelling. I'd probably get a month or two's solid entertainment out of it and it's looking likely I'll be at home for about that long before I get the call to go back to work.

So, I'm dithering, as I said. Shadowlands is tempting but I haven't really finished with Reign of Shadows yet. It would make more sense to concentrate on finishing one expansion before I start on another. 

Or I could just let the sub roll on for another month and decide later. That's how they get you, isn't it? 

Well, it's how they get me, anyway.


Monday, January 18, 2021

Next Cab On The Rank

One thing about playing mmorpgs that hadn't really occurred to me until recently was just how incredibly self-sustaining a hobby it is. I mean, I knew... I just hadn't been confronted by the evidence in such a personal fashion until now. Of late it's become something I can't easily ignore as I find myself spending more time and money on single-player titles.. 

There's been slippage, for sure. I didn't plan it but there's a lot of it going around. As Syl put it in her comeback post today, "the star of MMO gaming has also waned for me these past years as it has for many". 

Okay, maybe "waned" is a stretch. I'm not convinced I'm even spending less time playing mmorpgs than I was five years ago. I just have more time to play them. I've been at home an awful lot these past two years. Even I can only log so many hours in the same old, familiar games, week in, week out, year after year.

Circumstances certainly don't help. I have been feeling more than the occasional craving for novelty. Not so surprising, given I can't have travelled more than a couple of miles from my front door for the best part of eighteen months. If there was a constant stream of fresh mmorpgs to try I'd most likely have been happy to stick with those but as we know only too well by now, mmos take a hellishly long time to bring to market. Even early access can't get them to us fast enough. 

In common with just about everyone with a blog that used to focus on mmorpgs, of late I've been playing and posting about games in other genres. The newfound desire of gaming platforms to act like pushers in some 1950s exploitation flick, with their "just try a taste - the first one's on me" has had the hoped-for effect. 

Hoped-for by them, that is. What they don't tell you is just how fast you'll burn through these things. After two decades of mmo gaming it's a shock to the system. 

We're not three weeks into the year yet and already I've started and finished five single-player titles (Disco Elysium, three of the five chapters of the Blackwell Chronicles and Along the Edge which I never even got around to posting about) plus a couple of one-act demos. I've also tried several other freebies from Amazon and Epic, including two I'm still playing, Anna's Quest and Darkside Detective.

That's a hell of a lot of games to get through in eighteen days, especially when you consider there have been times when a lot fewer than half that many mmorpgs would have kept me fully occupied for eighteen months.

I'm beginning to see now why I've read so many people complaining about backlogs. Once you realize just how fast you get through this stuff it must be tempting to panic buy. I mean, what if the supply dried up? You need a massive stash just to feel safe.

With mmorpgs you don't have that problem. When you're deep inside one there's always more. The big fear is keeping up, not running out. 

And there are a lot of mmorpgs. In the past I've handled any moments of ennui by just downloading another. I'm still doing it. This morning, after yesterday's post and comments, I re-installed Allods Online. (Geez, that My.Games portal is annoying. I remember now why I uninstalled it last time.)

The thing is, after two decades I feel I've all but exhausted the supply of mmorpgs that interest me. Everything now's about taking a second look. Or a third. Or a tenth.

And doing that doesn't scratch the novelty itch. Not the most appealing metaphor but let's press on. 

The worrying thing is how moreish I'm finding the single-player titles. Finish one, you want to start another. It's chain-gaming and I'm not sure it's healthy.

Last night I began playing Neo Cab. I'm not going to give it the full first impression treatment because I kind of already did that back when I played the demo just over a year ago. I already have a lot to say about it, though. 

I'll get around to posting about it in detail when I'm further in but for now I'll just say it's excellent. Also it plays suprisingly differently than I was expecting. You get out of the car more than I thought you would. I find it quite stressful, but that's something I was expecting. The demo made me sweat.

The question is, how sustainable is single-player gaming as a pastime? For me, that is. For a start, there's the potential cost. One of the best things about playing mostly mmorpgs for twenty years is the money it's saved me. Even allowing for subscriptions, expansions and new games it's been incredibly economical and that's mostly because mmorpgs go on forever.

Single player games don't - at least the ones I enjoy - and that's the real problem here. The kind of single-player games I like don't just end, they end before I'm done with them. A long time before. All of them, pretty much. It's annoying. 

I could replay them but mostly I don't. The plain fact that there's an ending and I've seen it tends to put a cap on the experience. Maybe I could revisit it in a few years but first I have to build up that buffer.

Mmorpgs, as Kaylriene was saying, though, those you can keep on playing even when you're not sure why you're doing it. I can whittle away the afternoon or the evening just doing dailies, sorting inventory, dyeing my armor. It's not exciting but it passes the time. Literally. 

Best of all, there's almost never a point where it feels like you've reached an ending. And that's relaxing. It takes the pressure off. Mmorpgs, the way I play them at least, are relaxing. Sometimes I get so relaxed I fall asleep. Single-player games, they keep me awake. Make me think. Concentrate. Even, in the case of Neo Cab, make me a little scared to log in.

Hmm. That's the question. (Good! I was wondering what it was!). Do I want to feel relaxed and have it cost me next to nothing or would I rather pay money to be stressed? Put that way, it sounds obvious but it's not as easy as a choice as you might think. 

I'm pretty sure if I was working, not sitting around at home under lockdown, I wouldn't even be having this conversation (with myself). When I get home from work or I'm on a day off it's relaxation I'm looking for but after weeks of sitting about at home I find I'm in need of stimulation. Also new things to write about. And I don't mind paying to get them.

I'll probably keep on doing both, then. For now, anyway. 

Later in the year? 

We'll see.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Way We Were


This afternoon I got an old PC working again and on it I found a few folders of screenshots I hadn't seen for a while. Nothing all that far back, but some half-lost memories all the same. Here's a selection.

The house Mrs Bhagpuss was working on in Landmark way back in very early alpha. It was called Little Qalia in homage to Vanguard's superb open-world housing.

And here's the original, Mrs Bhagpuss's Qalian home on a very stormy day. We had properties on close-by plots along the same beach. I'm hoping the Vanguard emulator team gets around to restoring housing one day. I'd love to build my house again. In the same spot.

While we're on the subject of housing, I think this is from a project Mrs Bhagpuss was working on in Rift. There were a lot of shots of it on the drive I was lifting files from. I'm always very loyal to EverQuest II and Vanguard when it comes to housing but I never really investigated Dimensions in Rift. 

On this evidence it seems I really should have paid more attention. Of course, the way mmorpgs work, I imagine these houses are still sitting there, in stasis. I'm not sure what level of dimensional access you get in Rift on a free account these days. Maybe I should log in and find out.

Finally, just for comparison, here's a shot of a room in one of Mrs Bhagpuss's many, many houses in EQII. It's striking how rough the textures seem compared to any of the other shots in this post. I'm not sure if that's what the game's graphics generally looked like back then or whether the quality had been dialled down for practical purposes, which was sometimes necessary when working on large housing projects. Whatever the reason, EQII looks a lot better these days - on my screen, anyway.

Allods is another game I regularly think about revisiting but never follow through. I don't even have it installed on this PC although I noticed it was there on that old one. Allods would feature high on my list of underappreciated mmorpgs. Visually, it's stunning, paricularly for it's age, and the graphics have aged exceptionally well.

These shots are from beta back in 2009 I think. The PC I was tinkering with was an old one of Mrs Bhagpuss's, as must be obvious by now. We both played gibberlings in the beta and had a great time.  There's no race anywhere in the genre like the gibberlings. Or if there is, I've never been lucky enough to find it.

The images I was most excited to see again were the ones from our time on EQII's Test server. We played there for several years, duoing with a variety of characters but most often with these two: Mrs Bhagpuss tanking as a ratonga Bruiser and me providing dps, off-tanking and heals as a Necromancer. Between the two of us and the pet we could just about make a full group. I loved healing as a necro although it required constant vigilance. I've seen necros main-heal groups in both EverQuest and EQII because necros can turn a claw to anything but a duo is about as far as I'd care to push it.

I even found a handful of shots from Final Fantasy XIV. We came close to sticking with that one after the revamp but in the end we gave it up to go back to Guild Wars 2. Good decision, I think.

If we hadn't, we'd never have seen the things we did. I haven't cropped the UI from this so as to leave the chat box where you can watch Yaks Bend's much-missed superstar commander setting up another of his hallmark golem rushes. This looks like a big one but I've seen bigger!


A golem army's not just for offense, of course. This defensive ring is a prime example of why Yaks Bend was the most-hated server in World vs World for many years. No-one remembers any of that now, it seems. Sic transit gloria mundi.

And that's why we take screenshots. And hope not to lose them.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

A Hero Comes Along

 

Tipa's post on playing DCUO on the Switch reminded me the tenth anniversary celebrations had just started. In theory, I already knew that. I'd already logged in to pick up my freebies. I just got distracted.

What happened was, as soon as I arrived I remembered I'd never done the two event missions from the previous update, Long Live The legion. Since those seemed to be the only way to get a look inside the Legion Clubhouse and I had the vague feeling access for casuals with no hope of meeting the required combat rating might be rescinded when the next update dropped I thought I'd better get on with it.

I queued up as DPS and in less than thirty seconds I was grouped and in the instance. Unfortunately as far as sightseeing went my new group were already at the final boss. By the time I worked out who we were supposed to be fighting it was all over. I picked up my loot and skimmed around a few corridors but there didn't seem to be a lot to look at. Some corridors, mostly.

There was still the second event to try. It turned out to be a raid, which I should have expected because now I think about it the format for these updates is often one group instance and one raid. (And didn't they used to call these updates "Issues", in keeping with the comic book theme? Now they're Episodes, which presumably speaks to the influence of TV, where DC's been so successful in recent years). 

I queued up and once again it took less than half a minute. Probably more like fifteen seconds. This time I got in at the beginning so I saw the whole thing. Unfortunately, once again, there wasn't much to see. Just some cavernous space. We weren't in the Legion's headquarters, that's for sure.

Long Live The Legion!
There were several fights. I died (Sorry, got "knocked out") I think it was three times. Might have been four. Not many other people seemed to be getting K.O.'d but that was because they knew what they were doing. Every time I play I tell myself I should have made a character who stands at max range and channels beams of light or force or magic or whatever it is, like I see other people doing. I'd probably stay on my feet longer doing that instead of whacking raid mobs with a stick.

Not that it matters. I log in most updates and some holidays, pick up my freebies, do the open world repeatable quests once or twice, maybe the event instances if they sound interesting (Thematically interesting, that is. They're all pretty much going to be fights, I know that.)  

If I get anything for my base I go there and decorate for a while. That's probably how I spend most of my time in DCUO these days. Also it's good to see Krypto. He always seems so excited to see me.

There were a couple of base items in the rewards I got from the event instances so I spent a while trying to find somewhere to put them. The Legion symbol was easy. I put it behind the Legion conference table I got last time. The giant fountain was a bit of a poser, though. 

Let's be honest, my whole base is a mess. I got the basement one back when housing was first added and it's thematically appropriate for Batman types or maybe moody magic users. It really doesn't work for most of the furniture I get. I ought to go read up on how housing works in DCUO these days. I'm fairly sure you can have multiple bases. I definitely need one that's bright and breezy.

Come over here and say that!
While I was fiddling about with fountains and such I was thinking about that and about the ranged attacks and maybe having the wrong character and it occurred to me that one of the tenth anniversary gifts was a CR290 token. With that I could make a new character and blast them up to a level from where I could at least see current content, if not actually join in with it. Or, as Tipa explains:

"This is actually the perfect time to pick up DCUO. Daybreak is celebrating DCUO’s tenth anniversary this month, and one of the benefits is a free boost to the max level of 30 and enough gear for a combat rating of 290, as well as a free 75 skill points to spend however you like, and a leveled-up artifact of your choice. PlayStation and PC players get the same benefits, as well.

This won’t bring a new character up to the latest content (requiring a combat rating of 310 or better), but it’s not far from it, and a serious player could make up the difference fairly quickly."

And DCUO is generous with character slots. I have plenty left. I went to character creation to see what I could do with my new token which was when I realized I still have several others unused from previous events, letting me make characters that start at various CRs from 190 upwards.

I have no clue how I got this red mist around me. I have no idea how to make it go away.

 

There's a reason I haven't used them. I remembered what it was when I made my latest new character. It has nothing to do with the tokens. They work perfectly. It's my attitude that's faulty.

Every time I make a new character in any mmorpg with the intention of using one of these near-max-level bootstrappers the same thing happens. I get to the moment of truth, when I'd have to apply it, and I start to wonder if this is really the best time. 

I mean, something might come up, mightn't it? Somewhere down the line there could be an occasion when being able to make a fresh high-level character might be hugely to my advantage. Like... well, I don't know what like but it could happen. And what if it did and I'd used up my tokens on random characters I'm never going to play? Eh? Eh??

The upshot is that I have a load of these things in various games just waiting for the perfect moment. Which never comes. I only used the ones ANet handed out because they super-annoyingly gave them to us in one of the ultra-rare shared inventory slots so that if you don't use the token you can't use the slot for anything else. And even then I kept it for the best part of two years before I finally caved.

So, inevitably, what happened was that I spent the best part of an hour making a new character (Superhero games. So many options) and then I ended up logging her in without using a booster.

And while we're on the subject, why is it when you log your hero in, they never look like you thought they were going to? Is the lighting different in game? I swear I gave her a sun-yellow costume with flame-red boots but here she is in gold and orange. Worse, indoors it's shades of brown!

I knew I shouldn't have washed it on hot cycle.
I did at least skip the tutorial so she started at level four. Then I played her for long enough to get her to level eight and logged out. I even did the first solo instance. The thing is, I really like the first thirty levels of DCUO. I'd actually prefer the whole game to be like that rather than how it is. So there's not much incentive for me to skip it.

On the positive side, I did at least have the sense to make a character whose main powers are blasting people with rays from her hands. So long as I stick with that as I level her up and take the relevant options when I spend my points I could end up with someone who doesn't spend most of her missions running back from respawn.

All of that took so long I never got round to doing the new tenth anniversary content itself. It's something with the Anti-Monitor, I believe. I watched Crisis on Infinite Earths last year so I know who the Anti-Monitor is. 

I'm kidding. I've been steeped in this stuff for nearly sixty years. I know who everyone is. 

I'm kidding! I don't know who anyone is after about 1992!

Never mind. The new stuff will hang around for a few weeks yet. I'll get to it before it goes. But first I really need to do something about that base...

Friday, January 15, 2021

Into The Light

The Blackwell Chronicles is a five-game series, written by Dave Gilbert and published by Wadjet Eye Games, which is to say Dave, his wife, Janet and an artist by the name of Ben Chandler. I believe the first person to recommend the series to me was Jeromai, some considerable time ago, but it was only after I played the same team's standalone title, Unavowed, which shares some concepts and at least one character with the Blackwell series, that I got around to playing the others.

The individual games are quite short. I have to believe that because Steam tells me it's true. My combined playtime for the five comes to a shade over twenty-six hours. Memory tells me it must have been a lot longer. The overall experience is quite intense, intellectually and emotionally. Time slows down while you play.

The format is part point and click adventure, part mystery puzzler, part visual novel. These genres and categories are becoming about as useful as the thousand kinds of house music. Distictions to be debated by devotees only. All that matters is they're character-driven supernatural mysteries. Good ones.

The coherence of the series is its greatest strength. The games were produced over an eight-year period from 2006 to 2014. Their narrative consistency speaks to their origin as the product of a single mind, writer Dave Gilbert, although, like a long-running TV show, the power and impact lies in the gestalt.

It's something of an ensemble piece with many recurring characters but at its core Blackwell is a two-hander. Roseangela Blackwell is the initially unwilling medium, Joey Mallone her cynical spirit guide. Over the course of five games what begins as a cliche concludes as an elegy.

The series strengths are manifold. The gameplay is solid throughout. The controls, which vary only in a few small details from chapter to chapter, are intuitive and functional. I did have one persistent issue with useable items sticking to the cursor but other than that everything felt well-polished.

Much of the busywork of adventure games is edited out to the great benefit of the narrative. Every interactable object and any notable background elements are described on a right-click, used on a left. There are enough non-significant items to keep things interesting but the game is smart about housekeeping. You only get what you need.


 

As you'd expect in a detective game, which these are, much relies on questioning suspects and wtnesses. Dialogs feel natural, within the necessary strictures of the process. There's a looseness that pleases. Not everything has to be about the case.

Across an eight-year run the games themselves remain remarkably constant while technology changes inside the game-world. Roseangela graduates from a desktop computer to a smartphone. Plot points revolve around the way data travels, from dictating machines and notepads in the flashbacks and prequels to usb sticks, email and downloads in the near past, the games' present. Decades of cultural shift, documented.

The puzzles are mostly reasonable and logical. Sometimes I ran into things I wouldn't have done but never things no-one would. I did occasionally revert to a walkthrough but almost always because I knew what to do but couldn't figure out how the game wanted me to do it. A handful of out-of-game hints was all I needed although I did make good use of the neat in-game mechanic whereby the two protagonists discuss what they think they should do next.

That works so well in large part because of the real excellence of the voice acting. It's some of the best I've encountered and one of the reasons is the tone, uniformly understated. I can't think of a single instance of overacting across the entire series. No-one puts on an accent they clearly can't manage. No-one hams it up or clowns about. No-one attempts to sound portentous or meaningful. 

The cast don't sound like video-game voice artists although I'm sure they are. Self-evidently they must be. What they sound like is experienced, professional actors in a radio drama. They also sound like they're being well-directed, the lack of which is so often the downfall of game voiceover. I don't believe I noticed more than a couple of false line readings in the entire series and even those could have been a matter of interpretation.


 

It's as well the voice acting is so good because there's a lot of it. A good deal of those twenty-six hours I spent sitting back, watching and listening. Some sequences run on for quite a while without the need for intervention from the player. And that's fine. Both the material and the execution are more than capable of sustaining that level of attention. I never felt twitchy for a scene to end.

If the actors are exemplary, so are the artists, given the limited tools at their disposal. Unlike voice acting, where video games run well behind the pack, video game artists lead the field. Even the makers of global hit movies look to videogame artists for inspiration. 

Blackwell doesn't have that kind of art. It has simple, flat illustrations that remind me of cels from a 1990s cartoon. Maybe a retro animation harking back to the 1960 or '70s. It's a hard style to pin down but it very much works. 

The colors are vibrant without being garish. The set design is clean without resorting to minimalism. The world has a used, lived-in feeling, slightly heightened but never to the self-conscious level of something like Backbone. No talking animals, either.

The animation is very limited but also effective. Coming off Disco Elysium, which has some of the best incidental character animation I've ever seen, the notional movements of the Blackwell characters feel eliptical, sketched, but they do their job. 


 

Much more important are the cameo portraits that appear when characters speak, the facial expressions that have the nuance needed to carry the emotional heft. And there's plenty to carry. Blackwell's themes are cosmic, sure, but also intimate. The series is studded with failure and loss, character after character breaking down, being broken down, then being borne up. 

And so we come to the greatest of the series' many strengths: the writing. It starts out assured and gains in confidence from there. There's a difficult balance to maintain between the supernatural, the personal, the puzzles and the plot. Gilbert handles it deftly. The mysteries are involving, the meta-mystery is nuanced and elusive, the characters are consistent, well-rounded, good company. There's nothing flash or show-offy about any of it. It's class.

As with any long-running series, over time the characters become friends. Even the ones you don't like. Roseangela is likeable throughout, with her unsubtle questions and chemical crutches. I wish she'd say yes to a drink once in a while. She obviously neds one. Her character arc is really something to see although when you've seen it, at the end, you might wish you hadn't.

Joey irritated the hell out of me for most of the run. He starts out a smart-mouthed cynic you want to slap and scarcely redeems himself with his increasingly frequent bouts of passive-aggressive self-criticism. By the end, though, I came to understand and even sympathize. He's had a difficult unlife. Cut him a little slack.

There are so many memorable characters, lives glimpsed in vignettes. Every game does a superb job of recalling what came before with photographs and memorabilia scattered around in places that make perfect sense. There's a texture to the tapestry. A consistency. I'm very glad I played though the series not just in order but also in quick succession, so those memories were fresh. 


 

That said, I started at the end with Unavowed which, despite not being part of the series, clearly is part of the series. And I'm happy I did. There's a moment in the final chapter, Blackwell Epiphany, when you meet a character who later appears in Unavowed. When it happened I literally sat back my chair and exclaimed her name out loud. With an expletive. It felt like meeting an old friend unexpectedly in the street. "It's you! It's really you!"

There's a strange, looping asynchronicity. The set-up is for the reveal in a then-unrealised future. I'm sure Blackwell veterans, meeting the same character in Unavowed, have the same sort of reaction in reverse. It makes my head spin to think of it.

As does the internal logic of how this particular character comes to be who they are in Unavowed, doing what it is they do there. Because given the way the final Blackwell game ends, that can't happen. 

Another mystery. One I hope to see solved or at least elucidated in the next game Dave Gilbert writes. At least, I hope he'll write some more. The FAQ on the Wadjet Eye website worryingly still seems to think there are only four Blackwell games ("Soon to be five") and Dave's personal blog hasn't seen a new entry since 2016, although he's very active on Twitter.

Even though I couldn't find anything to confirm it, I hope he's working on something. A sequel to Unavowed or another story set in the same world. I haven't seen enoough yet. I want to know where all this is going. 

And if that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.

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