The Morning Bell Podcast 2016: In Review

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As befits review, I’d like to give honorable mention to a new addition to our little team: this year we welcomed on a new co-host, Ian (pictured above on the left), and he’s been a pretty swell (I think) chap to have along. Joel tells me he’s Luke v2.0, so maybe I’m getting the sack, but Ian’s fun enough to have along that you’d probably not really notice if that happened (#silentfarewell). Well, fear not, I’m not gone yet!
I’ve found The Morning Bell Podcast to be quite a fantastic opportunity. We get to talk to all kinds of writers, editors, publishers, developers and more about the cogs and gears of their jobs. It’s insightful stuff, and it’s all done in a laid-back, friendly atmosphere that lets everyone feel comfortable. We don’t (except on special occasions) dissect pieces of writing at great length; we converse about topics that (usually) are right up the guest-of-the-week’s alley, so that we can provide you (and ourselves) with a trove of interesting inside knowledge. Some days that means talking about what makes dystopian fiction so attractive to contemporary audiences; some days that means talking about how to write game narrative (and how different it is to normal prose); other days that means discussing subjects like relatability and inclusiveness in novels. It’s a lot of fun picking experienced people’s brains for information. I hope you guys find it as interesting as we do!
Joel is the dedicated constant of the podcast. Always there, always answering emails, always reliable and approachable, always making sure everything flows smoothly and everyone remembers when and where to go, setting up and maintaining the equipment – and then formatting and publishing the podcasts as well. My hat (if I wore one) well and truly off to him.
If there’s one thing I would like to see happen next year with the podcast, it’s some kind of industry funding. There are plenty of funds and grants that apply to what we do, and Joel (more than the rest of us) puts in so much work and money that I think he really deserves to get some back – but funding for The Morning Bell Podcast wouldn’t be as much about cash as it would be about career recognition by the arts industry. Whether or not that happens, though, Joel will soldier on and you’ll all get to keep hearing awesome interviews with interesting people.
All the best for the new year, and see you there.

Guild Wars 2

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It’s time to tackle a big one. An MMORPG. Take a deep breath and relax.

To be fair, I’m going to approach Guild Wars 2 as a sequel to Guild Wars 1, even though the gameplay differs quite a lot. I’ve followed the trek of the Guild Wars teams since just after Eye of the North was released, and I racked up ~2k hours in the original before its sequel came out.

As a sequel to Guild Wars 1, the opening of Guild Wars 2 was a trip through story lane; lots of things happened and lots of things changed in the world. Many lands became inaccessible through politics or other means. Some kingdoms isolated themselves. Some races got over their differences (this began in Eye of the North). Some places (like Lion’s Arch) remained in the game for nostalgic/historical purposes. Lore-wise, the intro presented a pretty reasonable and curiosity-raising transition.

A few minutes into the game, it becomes chillingly apparent that you are (apart from the occasional human you bump into) completely alone. This is less troubling in explorable areas, but story gameplay and the very way your skills are designed beg the question: where did all our little AI party buddies go? It was quickly made clear that to survive, we would need to rely on a single, profession-specific self-heal skill. No tanking DPS while a monk tops us up, no making conditions backfire on casters, and very limited capacity for restoring party health. Guild Wars 2 is a lone-wolf design. Sort of. More on that later.

Guild Wars 2 tried, somewhat over-ambitiously, to market the idea that each player could (to paraphrase) have a different story. It’s neat that they thought so, but it simply didn’t happen. The game is an MMO, which logically cannot provide different stories to its players. Not unless a lot more thought is put into the design. Sure, you can branch out and choose which race to play as (this gives you about two hours of slightly disconnected story gameplay) and then the sub-faction you want to follow the main story with. This allows you to hear slightly different conversations, but the gist and the plot remains pretty much identical to every other player’s. Don’t get me wrong – it was a neat idea, and I pick the The Vigil every single time – it just can’t feel as organic as it was marketed, because if your world instance looked different from other people’s, synchronization of the MMO world would be pretty tricky.

Dungeons are strange things. They’re fundamental to the MMO experience, and they’re challenges for the semi-educated gamers to hone their co-ordination and tactics… but I’m not convinced that GW2’s combat system is designed for them. I’ve yet to see a dungeon taken conventionally (okay, I did see it happen once, but I’m not sure if players are supposed to die quite that often in any game except Dark Souls). Dungeons are run using hack-style mechanics, like stacking in tiny corners or pulling single enemies at a time and praying (with crossed fingers) that ArenaNet has not buffed the dungeon mobs yet again. With the recent expansion, dungeons also (for no apparent reason) became unprofitable. When both unsupported by combat mechanics and unprofitable… dungeons became unpopular places. I’m not sure if ArenaNet quite understands that players choose to use hacks simply because the experience isn’t fun to play conventionally. They certainly didn’t realize people were primarily running dungeons for the gold.

To support my concerns regarding dungeon combat in GW2, I ought to discuss the combat system next. Combat changed heaps between GW 1 and 2. Some of the changes made things smoother – combat flows better in GW2, for instance, and combinations such as shooting arrows through walls of fire (which makes fire arrows) are nice features – but a lot of things were made worse or removed. There is less synergy and less customizability in GW2. Skills are determined primarily by our equipped weapon, which generally has a couple of decent skills, a couple of mediocre ones, and the “spam 1” – an attack chain that defaults with auto-attack as it has no cooldown and replaces the basic attack from GW1. Each character can equip three class skills, an elite skill, and a single heal skill. For most classes, this is strictly a self-heal (rangers are an exception). Guardians can strap on a couple of level-based sidegrades to add minor healing to some of their AoE skills, and they have an optional elite skill (more on these shortly) that fully heals themselves and up to four other players. Elite skills are a disappointment. In GW1, elite skills were these fantastic skills you could obtain by defeating an enemy champion (which involved both a hunt and a battle challenge). They weren’t the be-all-and-end-all in battle (they aren’t in GW2 either), but they felt like they made a difference and made your character significantly more useful. They also acted like improved versions of regular skills. In GW2, elite skills are obtained by leveling. They are useful, but generally underwhelming. Most particularly, though (and unlike in GW1), they take a very, very long time to recharge. You won’t be using them twice in a fight. Maybe not even twice in two fights. Your character’s usefulness is shaved by an entire skill slot every four to six minutes. Water combat is still viewed on the whole as something of a joke. It’s a 3D, weightless combat system that generally allows you to spend all your skills without hitting anything due to average visibility and could-be-improved targeting on AoE skills. But as to the feel of combat, it certainly plays smoother in GW2. It’s a pretty nice feeling to be able to cast/attack/use skills while moving. You generally don’t have to stand still unless channeling something big.

When it comes to teamwork, it feels like the ArenaNet chaps groaned and said “if we have to”. Apart from a few combo effects, characters are designed to function on their own. There are very few support skills, and there’s no way to target specific allies with your skills (any skills you have that affect allies will prioritize your squad, so long as they’re within range). Targeting, supporting, buffing, and assisting were all key elements in GW1. If you didn’t work as a team you’d likely fail. This was because mobs in GW1 usually came attached to groups. None of this “one wolf spawns in the middle of nowhere and waits to be killed” stuff; foes came in squads, and generally were capable of buffing/saving each other while your group tried its best to do them in. GW2 comes with a “live alone, fight alone, die alone” feel, which effectively kicks teamwork out the door.

The maps are quite pretty. Ascalon (and north of it, in GW1) was my favorite landscape in the Guild Wars universe until the Charr came along and conquered it and then settled it, but it’s still the most charming biome in the game. It’s the way a fantasy kingdom should look. Big trees with leaves that turn orange and red and purple around harvest, rolling hills, rivers, fields, castles, keeps built into the sides of cliffs. Praise aside, though, I feel like GW2 is small. A lot of the places we had access to in GW1 were removed, and only some were replaced. As an explorer gamer, I really want that space back – and some more places to visit! (Pardon the pun, but one reason I went from GW2 to Elite: Dangerous was to explore more – the game is, quite practically, based in space.)

To showcase the new (and controllable) jumping mechanic in Guild Wars 2, ArenaNet set up jumping puzzles. It’s a little challenge with a souvenir at the end (usually just an achievement and a chest of stuff worth a couple of silver). Nice idea, as they are completely optional minigames. There are a couple of jumping puzzles that take hours and hours to complete because of that one jump you can’t make, but that just makes it all the more worth it when you make it to the end. Pity the rewards don’t scale based on how many times you fell down and died or nearly died.

Crafting is the economy driver. Gather resources, sell them to crafters. Crafters take materials, make junk, sell it cheap, then level up and sell things of more value. Higher level materials are (generally) worth more, so the higher the tier, the more return for gatherers, and so on and so forth. Crafting isn’t foolproof (the workbench does not have the most user-friendly layout), but it’s fine. Average. Nothing worth any special praise.

Guild Wars 2 has an average trade function (I’m pretty impressed by the paid-mail system in Elder Scrolls: Online). Trading in GW2 means either sending things directly to other players and not expecting anything back, or listing on the trading post. This is (amusingly) taxed heavily. In-game money, sure, but what in the world does ArenaNet do with the 10% of in-game money profit they tax on transactions (not to mention the listing fee)? In GW1 you could trade from person to person. Granted, you had to stand next to them, but that’s a small price to pay compared to 10% of a nice fancy 40-gold item.

Guilds are not as big a focus as the game’s title makes them out to be. Emblems are cool, guild halls are damned pricey, tiers are average and (nowadays) grindy, but it is nice to have guilds simply to collect your friends and fellow gamers. Guilds are chiefly hamstrung by one thing, in my opinion: items are one of the following: not bound, account-bound, and soulbound. There’s nothing for guilds specifically. There’s guild halls (kind of), but they don’t appear to be incredibly useful (yet?). Basically, guilds are just friend lists with politics.

World vs World is something I found to be a lot of fun. Ever wanted to play out a 100 vs 100 medieval fantasy battle? I did. And I had a ball doing so. Waves of allies crashing into banks of foes, pulling back, smashing into them again, popping buffs and consumables, crashing into them again, forcing them back, cutting off their retreat, circling and wheeling and crippling and knocking your foes down until the battlefield is littered with foes and little bags of loot (not kidding – WvW player kills actually drop items called bags of loot). Recent updates cut WvW back slightly, by replacing a nice map with an unattractive (well, some like it) and unpathable (I’ve yet to see someone say it’s fun to navigate)  map. Still, WvW is the focal point of guild fights, and almost lives up to the game’s title.

ArenaNet recently (well, last October) released the Heart of Thorns expansion for GW2. It added gliding and it added jungle maps. I’m not a jungle fan, but for the sake of somewhere new to explore I took them on. A lot of minigames were added to the new maps, as well as a lot of map restrictions (removed by progressing huge, map-wide events). It’s pretty tricky to get anywhere unless the map is highly-populated – and that brings us back to combat, which was not designed for teamwork. But gliding was a lot of fun. ArenaNet later added gliding to the vanilla maps as well, which is refreshing when traversing favorite old maps.

 

Pros

  • Good optimization for PC (this was hamstrung by the Heart of Thorns expansion, but hopefully that will be fixed by the time you read this)
  • Living World events and quests
  • Nice musical scores
  • Nostalgic locations reimagined and redesigned
  • Pretty landscapes
  • Solid, consistent, enjoyable setting
  • Smooth combat mechanics

Cons

  • Combat and teamwork hindered by restrictive skill design and capacity
  • Low focus on guild play (other than farming guild hall materials)
  • Poor selection of trade mechanics
  • The world feels small after its prequel
  • Tons of items that don’t need to be soulbound/account-bound
  • WvW has had some poor design choices, even though it is one of GW2’s most unique aspects

Star Wars: The End of the Wars

Be forewarned: as with any review or reflective piece, this is wrought with spoilers. For better or for worse, I am making my position on the new Star Wars film clear.

I’ll start by explaining that there are two types of Star Wars fans: dabblers and live-ins. Dabblers watch the movies, sometimes, and maybe buy a Star Wars t-shirt or coffee mug. Live-ins watch, read, write, etc, and can cite various numbers of authors, titles and stories (not to mention countless film or book details word for word) from the series. All true Star Wars fans are now sitting in dark corners, sobbing their hearts out. Their world has been mercilessly obliterated.

Star Wars has lost its heart. Probably the biggest thing about any Star Wars story (this is why the X-Wing or Bounty Hunter spinoffs were so-so) was the sense of nobility. Whether it was sith or jedi, there was always something noble. Sith were coldly noble, something like Alexander or Napoleon. Powerful and cunning and aloof. Jedi were Arthurian knights, noble brothers in arms following an honorable and ancient code. But that’s all gone now; jedi, sith, droids, tusken raiders, they all act the same. Everyone and everything acts base and bland. It’s that beautiful Hollywood principle of flattening the playing field, I guess.

Next, Star Wars has turned to clichés and repetition. For a moment Han Solo brought his familiar, fresh feel and voice to the scene, but I guess the director got sick of letting him say non-bland lines, because a stop was quickly put to that. But what was with using the exact same lines to reintroduce the Milennium Falcon? Why did that even need to happen? Anyone watching the new film will either 1) know the ship already and be confused at how it got lost or why it was lost or what in blazes it was doing out of Han’s possession for so long or 2) not give a damn about spaceships and their general state and certainly not spare a thought about whether or not it is a bucket of bolts. Needless to say, there were many pointless lines that were directly stolen from the movies that directly prequelled this film. The Force Awakens uses countless recycled Hollywood lines (I mention this later as well) rather than original Lucas lines. This isn’t Die Hard X or Jurassic X.

Logic was spilled all over the floor and swept under the carpet from scene one. The very first glance we get of the stormtrooper, he is stunned by the death of his comrade. He goes utterly haywire about it. But two scenes later, without any misgivings, he’s blowing his comrades-in-arms away willy-nilly from the secondary gunning seat aboard a TIE fighter. What happened to the trauma induced by his dying partner tracing a (as in a typical zombie scene) four-finger trail of blood across his visor? But I’ve moved ahead of myself here – the first issue started with the yellow text. Luke has run away for no good reason – he’s fled! He was confronted by darkness (he’s faced that before as he’s had to face his own father in combat) but this time he fled, and for some unexplained reason left a map to his whereabouts (a galactic easter egg hunt) which all his friends and family have to solve if they are to survive the onslaught of their enemies. Back in Return of the Jedi, Luke learned pretty darned well that fleeing was not the way to solve anything. All his friends got in big trouble when he left. So now he’s done it again? The next thing that confused me was the swordplay. Everyone is a master swordsman. Several duels occur during the movie, and somehow sith have fallen beneath even stormtroopers in martial training. Not to mention that the lady of the story (not Leia, although it was nice to see her back) was even able to master a selection of force maneuvers after knowing she had force attunement for approximately a single day. It took Anakin and Luke Skywalker many years to even slightly channel their abilities, even though they were two of the most powerful jedi later in their lives. And why is the rebellion only four wings of X-wings big? They lose nearly ten X-wings and then everybody’s screaming that half the fleet has been wiped out! They’ve had more than twenty years without the emperor or Darth Vader around to build up their forces and contacts. The Empire was in shambles at the end of Return of the Jedi. Not to mention that they never brought in any Y-wings for the bombing runs – X-wings can stock a torpedo or two that can replace a bomb in a very tight pinch, but Y-wings are actual bombers. Any Star Wars fan knows that! And Ben (although Disney, you ought to realize that his name was actually Jacen), switched between two ultra-odd modes. Without his helmet, he cried and cried and cried all the time (very sith of him). With his helmet, he became stronger but for some reason his voice modulator was perpetually broken; it was nigh on impossible to understand anything he said. It’s not like he has voice issues like Anakin had when his body had been ravaged by flame until he had to be reconstructed, so what was that all about? I can go much, much further into logic issues here, but I’d better leave the rest up to you to find for now. This post would be a few thousand words longer if I included them all.

Acting. I’m not sure if this was due to the Star Wars acting competitions or not (budget talent), but so many of the actors appeared to be over-dramatizing non-dramatic scenes (adding unnecessary melodrama). Wide eyes, tense voices, urgent attitudes, all the time. Even in the dead calm of desert solitude, Rey acts sullen and pouty. Why? She might have been apathetic or losing hope. She instead looked like she just got rejected from… cheerleader tryouts? I’m glad for everyone who got to act in such a once-beautiful franchise, but maybe they could have used some direction and/or makeup? This wasn’t the first draft of a web series or a new series. It’s a new instalment into one of the most highly-acclaimed sci-fi franchises in existence.

The canon decanonization was a brutal slap-in-the-face. Timothy Zahn wrote some absolutely epic books for Lucas. The Hand of Thrawn trilogy, to name one series. Jude Watson also wrote fantastic stories for Star Wars. Is Disney really so illiterate that its people cannot take good stories from the existing canon and have to instead blacklist them as unofficial to make their own (severely lacking) story stand on its own feet? Timothy Zahn already laid out thrilling, logical, exciting sequels to Return of the Jedi. The material was there. The story was simple. Instead, Disney scrunched lines from Die Hard and Taken and Jurassic Park (“you’re keeping raptors here?”) and other thriller films and needlessly crammed them into Star Wars. Star Wars didn’t need recycled lines. Words aren’t about to add to global litter or anything. People may have groaned at Lucas for some things, but originality was never one of those reasons.

Will I say anything good about the new film? Sure. The landscapes were gorgeous; the desert panorama of wrecked destroyers, for instance, was simply breathtaking. But concept artists have always done a good job. Seriously. And effects are pretty run-of-the-mill now – they stopped being special after The Matrix 3 and Transformers.

So come on, Disney: was this a joke? Should I have left the cinema laughing? Honestly, I’m not generally one for crying, but this brought me pretty close. You’ve trashed the most fantastic sci-fi & fantasy universe that was ever realized. Just knowing that you’re in the process of making further sequels is carving me up inside.

George Lucas, please… can’t you take your work of art back? I adored Star Wars.

The Witcher 3

The Witcher 3

I did a pre-release post, but now it’s time to ponder the game in all its finally-experiencable glory.

First impression: wow, this is amazing. Everything feels epic and looks beautiful.
A few hours later: this is impressive. And fun. Oh wait, is that level 20 griffon supposed to be circling poor little level 4 me? That’s… disconcerting.
Ultimate realization (days in): can’t leave my computer. Can’t take off my headphones. Can’t even go outside or get food. Must take another witcher contract… and another… and another!

The Witcher 3 wanted to market itself based on the size of the world and the effects of quest choices you make. That would be all good and well, but while the choices and effects are interesting, the world feels super small. Granted, it’s probably bigger than all the worlds of other fantasy games that exist, but I’m a huge sucker for exploration. It’s mildly depressing to look at the map and see that the chunks of the world I can explore are only tiny little snippets of the world map. Seriously! But back to choices and effects. The Witcher 3’s choice system openly demonstrates that Mass Effect (and BioWare in general) has quite a lot of room for improvement. I knew choices could be presented well in games, and CD Projekt Red has stepped boldly in the right direction. It’s refreshing to 1) not be making massive, spontaneous ultimatum choices, and 2) to occasionally not even witness the effects of positive or negative choices until later.

I’m impressed. And possibly bewitched.

The game engine is well-optimized, and patches to improve things keep coming out. Not even sure why! Makes me think back to when I bought Assassin’s Creed Unity. The support chaps told me my computer simply wasn’t good enough. Funny that, because The Witcher 3 (much newer, and definitely prettier) runs like a charm on my rig.

The gameplay is good. Granted, it’s not perfect, but it’s close. Running, riding, hunting, swimming, diving, sailing, all seamlessly joined. The time of day changes. The weather changes. Combat is streamlined (so long as Geralt has figured out that he’s in combat). The world feels diverse and interesting because of the freedom of movement and the interaction. The one main downside to gameplay I’ve noticed so far is fall damage – if you trip over for some reason, don’t be too surprised if your health bar is cut in half.

The music for The Witcher 3 puts a good chunk of other games to shame. As much as I enjoy Jeremy Soule music, I don’t really think that fantasy should be dominated by orchestral music. So The Witcher 3 was a splendid change. Most of the score consists of Slavic-style folky tunes that capture the heart nearly as well as they capture the setting. Battle music is some of the best, but the three crones (no spoilers) are accompanied by the best tune. You’ll know when you hear it. Think dark, dark fairy tale music.

Questing is a real treat in The Witcher 3. There are regular quests that involve talking to people, finding people, killing people, and making choices. Pretty much every game has them. In The Witcher 3, though, we get to watch Geralt’s reaction to these quests. Fetch quests? Geralt doesn’t care much for being a delivery boy. Talking to people? He’s got a hilarious overdose of sarcasm that makes conversation amusing and interesting. Killing people? In style. Making choices? Fun mystery boxes of “what does this button do?” conundrums that make you pay attention. Don’t skip conversation if you want to make intelligent choices. Seriously. Your choice can be as clear as “Mhm”, “Really?”, or “I’ll commit myself to every word you just said and that is my final choice and so much for the other conversation options that would have saved my good friend such-and-such”. Sarcasm aside, I’d list that as a gameplay strength. But those are just the regular quests. In The Witcher 3, you also run into witcher quests – or, more specifically, witcher contracts. These are brillant combinations of hunting and mystery-solving. Geralt is equipped with a marvelous dose of Sherlock Holmes. He has remarkable senses that allow him to pick up details like what kind of liquid has been spilled, what type of claws gouged a wall, or even what kind of blood is at the scene. To accompany these skills, Geralt unashamedly talks to himself. A lot. Good for him, I say. But this sense-and-talk combination makes for interesting puzzle-solving. Geralt starts by talking to witnesses, then moves to investigate the scene, and then (often) follows a trail. Along the way, he spots clues that tell you what you’re going to find, how and where you’re going to find it, and usually also inform you as to how you’re going to need to defeat whatever it is. Hunting quests in this manner are a massive improvement to fetch quests or general kill-the-creature-that-lives-in-the-cave quests. It’s also interesting to learn about each little town and place through the monster(s) that plague the people there – for instance, wraiths appear when people have been cruelly murdered or wronged.

Relationships. Ultimately, you could say that The Witcher 3 does relationships like Assassin’s Creed does combat, which is to say that it’s simple enough if you know the buttons. However, it certainly isn’t Mass Effect’s yes-or-no relationship dialogue options. And the fact that you are playing a solid character makes the relationships more meaningful. Shepard was, well… a husk (pun intended) of a character. Geralt certainly isn’t.

The Witcher 3’s scenery is gorgeous. Fantasy at its finest. Ornate tomb carvings. Sprawling, grassy hills. Flocks of sheep, mobs of horses. Roaming giants. Ruins. The textures were done well. And the game’s musical score complemented the setting perfectly. Charming, haunting, old-Scandinavia-esque melodies. Tracks that make perfect companions for traveling, hunting, and doing grim battle. But don’t expect perfection in every way the game looks. For some reason, 95% of Geralt’s armor options more or less completely fail to please the eye. Heavy armor is accompanied by a giant, round wok (yep, a Chinese frying pan) over the character’s belly. Light armor is bulky and has clipping issues with collars. Medium armor has great textures underneath – but is padded with ugly outer jackets that seem to always have the worst possible color combinations. The only chest armor that I have actually loved so far is the first one I ever crafted – the Warrior’s Leather Jacket.

That brings us to crafting. CD Projekt Red boasted that the crafting system would be innovative and interesting; it’s okay, I suppose, but nothing amazingly special. I will say this for it, though – I really appreciate the fact that once you craft a potion or oil, you never have to go scouring the land for ingredients again. Oils have inifinite use (which makes sense, given the amount you would use on a blade in the game). Potions and bombs have charges that replenish when you meditate (although this consumes hard alcohol in your inventory, so you gotta load up your pack like a boozer). Other than that, crafting is average. Find or buy materials, go to a craftsman with sufficient experience, craft or smith the items you have learned about. Swords generally look okay (certainly not as bad as armor), so it’s mostly about picking the best stats. Silver swords have worse skins than steel, but they’re still okay.

In conclusion, The Witcher 3 is a lot of fun. If you love wandering across open landscapes and hunting dangerous monsters, this game is totally for you. It’s certainly for me!

Pros

  • Gorgeous setting
  • Music to blow your mind away (especially combat music and town minstrels)
  • Enjoyable, weighty combat
  • One of the best fantasy settings ever written
  • Beautiful scenery
  • Good optimization for PC
  • Questing innovation

Cons

  • Combat hindered by unresponsive/unpredictable controls and the in/out of combat control changes
  • The world is – ironically – too small
  • Fall damage is incredibly lethal