AKB's Auto Korrect Blog: Fan Accessible Betas and the Future of the Elder Scrolls

  07:37:00 pm, by AKB   , 891 words  
Viewed 6949 times since 03/09/14
Categories: Elder Scrolls

Because I wanted a fancy name for my own entries, I will now be presenting these under the name of AKB's Auto Korrect Blog, because I like playing with acronyms.

One of the most interesting things about Elder Scrolls Online is the fact that despite the game release date still being a month away, millions have already played it (or at least that number of invitations have been sent out). So really, the whole official release date is just the point where getting to play it when you want to will be less of a pain, as countless ES fans have already gotten the chance to experience it and make up their minds on it. In return for providing  relatively free scale testing and bug hunting, we got a chance to take an early look at the game. For the developers and the players, this is surely a great working relationship. We get to make a more informed decision before buying the game, while ZeniMax gets free testers and the chance to address our concerns.

So if this publicly available beta is so good for all involved, why doesn't everyone do it?

Well, the answer is, everyone is already doing it. I'm sure I'm not the first person to tell you about the wonders of services like Steam's Early Access, which allow you to play your favorite games before they are even out. Of course, this is blurring the lines between when a game is out, and when it is in development.  And that is not necessarily a good thing. Take a game I looked forward to for ages, Starbound. Months ago, I got my first chance to play it after they announced it would be available as an Early Access game, and quickly set it down again. While the developer, Chucklefish, did do its due diligence in dealing out the information that it would be rather buggy and not finished, I still had to play this game I've been looking forward to since I heard about it through the Terrarria fan base. And I hated every moment of it for it not being done. And I imagine a lot of people are like me in this regard, you can't just not play the game you've been looking forward to for ages, even if you know it's not the game you've been looking forward to for ages yet. So thanks to Early Access experiences removing the barrier between the content complete product customers are expecting and the barely functional garbage most games are early in their life, you have a lot of people tired of the game before it is even "released".

There are other issues, such as the lowered standards that go with this, and the fact that a lot of games that shouldn't really be getting money for their half-thought out ideas are now selling themselves on assets that simply do not exist yet, but that's the biggest issue for me. First impressions are a big part of any experience for me, and when my first expression is vomit inducing, I'm probably not going to stick around for the end product. And this has happened to me for ESO. I took my first shot at the beta when I got it during the NDA portions of it, and didn't play it much after that. I just could not care as much after hearing Microsoft Voice Simulators sing my praise for completing a quest, learning a lot of the things I was specifically looking forward to are not in the game yet, and seeing my character deleted the moment the weekend playtest was over. I never felt motivated to play the future rounds of beta as I did the first one, since my first shot at it was such a mess.

Still, unlike with Early Access games, I can disassociate my experiences with ESO beta from games like Starboound for the simple fact that I haven't given them a red cent to play their game as of now. I did not buy ESO into the beta, so as far as I'm concerned, the beta won't be the ESO I have to put money down to get. And in the little time I tried the later rounds of beta, I do feel like it is getting better than worse as the release date approaches. So with that said, letting the fans play test the game for the developers, at no cost to the fans, is a pretty fair way to go about developing your game. Because the simple fact is, we can either bug proof the game now, or after we buy it. Even the most casual fan knows ES games are buggy, especially at launch. If you give the fans a chance to squash those bugs before the game comes out, well, you might just release the very first working launch ES game ever.

So do I think future ES games in the main series should do something like Early Access? No, I don't think you should provide a single player experience that is not at least completed to a reasonable level should see the public eye, especially if I'm giving you money for it. But should they try giving it out to more of their fans for free, so they can help make the game a better experience. Absolutely.

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Quick Beta Impressions

  03:57:00 pm, by   , 440 words  
Viewed 4569 times since 03/04/14
Categories: Code

My experience was very glitchy. Eventually, just trying to talk to people in Stonefalls or trading with a merchant would usually end with a reboot. Crafting was largely out of the question. Logins failed, I got trapped in areas I shouldn't have been able to access at that moment, sometimes my attacks didn't affect enemies (and vice versa), and quite frequently, I couldn't move the camera while moving the character.

In other words, it felt a lot like playing Morrowind. I was playing in the wilds of mainland Morrowind two days ago. I waited a decade to do that. If you played Morrowind, do yourself a favor and make an Ebonheart Pact character.

The music is excellent. Except one melody sounds nauseatingly reminiscent to that of "My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion. This is intolerable.

Because of the glitchiness and control limitations, I had to stick to using sorcery and a destruction staff. Which is amazing if you're in the same position, by the way. It's likely one of the easier combat styles in the game. Keep a summoned daedra around at all times, and when you see an enemy, cast your favorite ranged spell (I think mine was called Shadow Touch), spam with the staff as they charge, then use a fast-acting and powerful spell as they get really close. Almost any enemy you will encounter (in the early days, at least), will be dead before they can hit you twice. Piece of cake, as long as you don't face three or more enemies at once by yourself.

My laptop is far from top-of-the-line, but the game looked like a slightly enhanced version of Morrowind. Of course, it was a relatively empty version of Morrowind.  However, there are apparently skills in the game to obtain which will allow players to perceive things at greater distances, which might make the game feel less empty. Also, I imagine there are plans to flesh it out a bit in the future.

Regardless, I don't see the emptiness as a bad thing.  It's thrilling if, like me, you're annoyed by the trend of shrinking sandboxes in each game. In Oblivion and Skyrim, the player character, relative to the world around him, was a giant who moved like a cheetah. Things feel bigger in ESO, and the player character more... proportionally appropriate, I guess.

That's all I got for now. The Dunmer sorcerer Yewie Espee shall continue his quest for knowledge in the next beta, hopefully. For now, he will continue praying to Azura that his universe becomes free-to-play, as he fears that he may cease to exist if it does not.

The Censorship of TES: A Lament

  02:50:00 pm, by   , 538 words  
Viewed 5307 times since 02/28/14
Categories: Elder Scrolls, Rants

The Elder Scrolls, like any truly great fantasy epic, is defined by a certain degree of filth. This is a series that once featured topless female humanoids as a matter of routine. Newer TES fans might not even be aware of the TES: Daggerfall book series King Edward, which featured a child overhearing two adults engaging in sexual intercourse. It's conveyed by implication and innuendo, but if the makers of a future TES game actually have the balls to include something like that again, I'll chop off my toe. Alas, TES has been thoroughly Disney-fied.

Nudity and strong language have been getting toned down in TES over the years, presumably to make the games more suitable for children (who shouldn't be playing games rated Mature by the ESRB in the first place). Besides the infamous censored passage of The Real Barenziah, there has been a litany of smaller revisions to take the adult out of this adult series, such as the removal of one of my favorite words from Feyfolken.

But as we've been combing through literature available in TES: Online, I can't help but feel that Zenimax has taken it to a new level. Molag Bal isn't the "King of Rape" anymore, he's the "King of Brutality". Even slightly lascivious portions of books have been carefully censored (an exception being Opusculus Lamae Bal ta Mezzamortie, though it isn't too explicit in the first place).

This is a problem. First of all, it detrimentally affects immersion, which is what should be the end all-be all for any RPG. The affect a little bit of sex and obscenity can have on bringing a fantasy world to life is incalculable. Secondly, it reeks of cowardly artistic compromise. I'm of the opinion that entertainment is generally better the closer it sticks to the artists' vision, and when pencil-pushing number-crunchers, frightened attorneys, and integrity-bankrupt marketers get their hands on it, they tend to strip away the flavor and uniqueness of the work in order to make it appealable to the lowest common denominator. And when you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. At least, not me. Art can't be afraid to piss people off!

Some might wonder, "The game has a mature rating, so why are they afraid to make a mature game?" The answer is that some people have very immature definitions of maturity. The popularity of videogames has been increasing all over the world. While I would like to view this as a good thing, some countries, notably Australia, have relatively inflated yet still nebulous standards of propriety which businesses are afraid of violating. The ambiguity has a chilling effect on pieces of art (people aren't sure where the line is, so they overcompensate), but more importantly, companies attempting an international release of their product don't want to lose money by making more than one version.

The result is that oppressive standards of decency in other nations affects the quality of games I can play in my country. Which just goes to show the truth of Dr. King's words, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Free expression is sancrosanct, folks. All we ever really get in life are our opinions. Put yours to use.

Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition Review

  08:20:00 pm, by Damon   , 858 words  
Viewed 8336 times since 02/15/14
Categories: Games

I've heard from many, many people about how bloody amazing Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II are, and for the last many years (since around 2011, I believe) I've still not gotten around to playing it or giving it much thought until around November of 2013 when I started watching SorcererDave doing his Baldur's Gate Let's Play, which he had started over the summer during my internet hiatus. Then, two weeks and a few days ago, I finally decided I had seen enough, and I gave it a shot, buying it off the Mac App Store with an iTunes card I had laying around. So, here's my thoughts on Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition.

I have a personal blog that I post to sporadically, and I use my own set of criteria and opinions on my blog reviews, which can be found here, for anyone who wants to read it.

Also, as I've never played the original game, this post will not cover differences between the game, how good of an update it is, etc, since I don't know.

Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition

  • Platform: Windows, iOS, Mac
  • Developer: Overhaul Games
  • Release Date: 18 Nov, 2012 (Win), 7 Dec, 2012 (iOS), 22 Feb, 2012 (OS X)
  • Price: $19.99 (Mac App Store)

Plot (9/10)

The story of Baldur's Gate is centred around the ward of Gorion, a mage residing within Candlekeep. At the beginning of the game, the Sword Coast has entered a difficult time: iron production has virtually halted, metal already produced quickly 'rots', tools and weapons break easily, and bandits scour the countryside seeking iron over any other treasure. There are mercenaries with designs on the main character's life, beginning inside the once-secure walls of Candlekeep.

When Gorion and the PC leave the safety of Candlekeep, they are ambushed by mysterious armoured figures who demand the PC be handed over to them. Gorion refuses and a fight ensues with Gorion losing his life to buy the player time to escape. Armed with only what the PC has acquired within Candlekeep, knowledge that two friends of Gorion are in the nearby Friendly Arm Inn, and the aid of childhood friend Imoen, the PC sets out to investigate the troubles plaguing the Sword Coast and learn how they relate to it all.

I found this story to be remarkably well-written. Being a game of text, rather than dialogue, it's got many engaging and suspensful moments that really make you think about what's happening, though I am reluctant to share and provide unnecessary spoilers in case there is someone like me who hasn't played the game before and wants an opinion of the game, but as spoiler-free as possible.

In addition to the central story, there are numerous side quests given by many NPCs throughout the region, though there are no joinable factions like in The Elder Scrolls. Not that that's a bad thing. I rather like how the side quests don't detract from the main story like TES games can, though that's a blog posting for another time.

Graphics (9/10)

I am truly at a loss what to say. I'm inclined to think it looks good, though I have no comparison to give for HD remakes of 90s era games. It doesn't look bad, let's leave it at that. The game is presented in an isometric perspective, similar to the Black Isle Fallout games, and zoomed out, the game presents a nice clear image, while still maintaining a classic look, which not many games can achieve.

Controls (8/10)

The game is controlled by clicking and dragging to lasso your characters (or click the Select All sidebar button), then you click on screen to designate where you want your party to move to on the map. That's very straight forward. There are no complaints as far as I care.

The hotkeys present a slight problem to me, though it's just nitpicking really. While most of the controls are in places that make sense ("I" opens the inventory, "R" opens the Character Records, etc), there are a few hotkeys that aren't in a place that feels natural to me, and I am frequently slowed down by the need to click on pages through the sidebars, as I can't remember what the specific hotkeys are when I want them.

Voice Acting (N/A)

This section is not applicable, for as I stated, save for a few battle cries, the game's communication is done via text rather than dialogue, though characters unique to the Enhanced Edition, such as Neera, have voiced dialogue, in addition to the text. However, a small handful of new characters with alright dialogue doesn't justify a rating for V.A. as a whole.

Replay Value (10/10)

The game is based on the Dungeons and Dragons rule set, meaning the characters each have the nine different D&D alignments to choose from, and you can play the game according to each different alignment, based on what you choose for the player to have, given the player different reactions from the world and NPCs. A remarkable amount for such an old game. This game can definitely get many replays from it, and in the last two weeks I've tried numerous different character types to look at different responses they get.

Overall Score: 9/10

Now That the NDA is Over...

  12:29:00 pm, by AKB   , 1525 words  
Viewed 4129 times since 02/15/14
Categories: Elder Scrolls

I liked it. Quite a bit, actually. Alright, I don't think I can get away with such a brief statement on the game, so please allow me to expand on that thought some.

Poorly Organized Thoughts That I Had No Expectation That I Was Going to Write Today, but Suddenly Had to

The ESO beta was somehow the least buggy Elder Scrolls experience I have ever had. It is not a secret that Elder Scrolls games are buggy, hell Daggerfall could not even be beaten at release due to bugs, so that is quite the prestigious claim since what we have seen so far are not release candidates as far as I am aware. That is not to say the beta did not suffer from a ton of problems. Constant crashes, non-finished assets, and complete shut outs were not uncommon. That is not to say that I didn't expect all of that, it is still a beta after all, but it still somehow played just better than the single player games. I've personally had to spend weeks sorting through possible bugs just to get past the title screen in the main series before, so having a more stable client was definitely a unique perk to the beta. Still, there is a lot that needs to be tweaked to make the experience truly stable. The good news is that one of the main purposes of these beta tests is stress testing their servers so they may remain stable at launch. However, the pandemonium created from a poor launch will be quite catastrophic, if these issues are not worked out now. As ES games have been mainly single player (Battlespire had multiplayer, but who cared about Battlespire), not being able to play the games due to server load capacities will surely trigger virtual riots. I know I didn't appreciate just being told I could not play the beta at the moment because I was in a waiting list an hour long, but once people have paid for the game, the reaction to this error will be terrible to see. I'm having trouble thinking up a good analogy to this, so please go read on about the Diablo III or the Sim City game outages, you'll eventually find a good one in the comments.

As for the gameplay itself, I had some mixed experiences with it. The actual game itself was fun, the combat was well put together, the interactions with NPCs were interesting, and the quests were varied enough to hold my interest. While I didn't get to experience much of crafting due to game crashing issues and my own time limitations, it did seem to be a nice way to play the game more passively. But for all the fun I personally had, there were a ton of gripes experienced alongside this. Here's a tip to anyone who is new to MMOs and is only getting into this for the attached franchise, as soon as you start the game you will want to change your chat tab to ignore all those players around you. Unless you specifically want something from them, you'll just get annoyed that your flower picking is getting interrupted by a bunch of amazingly literate goat creatures trying to work out how to ram people through that strange screen device they are in front of. That's not unique to any multiplayer game, but it will be quite irritating to the many people who are more interested in the RPG part of MMORPG.

Combat was probably one of the better parts of the game. It happily mixes some of the best parts of Elder Scrolls combat with the gleeful convenience of hotkey MMOs. The result is surprisingly well done. While I kind of dislike the clear warning every NPC gives you for their attacks (highlighted by giant red hit boxes to indicate any kind of special move so you know to block or dodge), it was still fun beating on the wildlife. I imagine that the player versus player combat is even better, although I did not get that far in. 

Now that I've brought it up, let's talk about the RPG mechanics built into the game. In most ways, it performed better than I would have expected. From the very start, the character creator is leagues ahead of what Bethesda has been putting in their recent games. You have a more options for manipulating your character's appearance than ever before, from name (Akba), to race (I chose Argonian), to class (I was a Nightblade as I imagined that would be the class most likely to secretly be Batman), to gender, (I played female) height (absolute minimum for me), to weight (eating disorder), to hair style (horns), to eye poutiness (EXTREMELY), to appreciation for local businesses (would say she would support them, but never truly found the time to spend her hard earned gold at them. She's a working girl, after all. Once a long day is behind her, she just can't run to a dozen different shops, she needs that little bit of convenience that large chain stores bring in her life). I was honestly impressed with the variety of character appearances possible, and that's coming from the kind of ES veteran who knows how to easily mess with the game to produce the kind of monstrosities that makes my family deeply worried for my mental health.

However, I nor anyone else played with the character creator enough I fear. There seemed to have been some kind of setting for "Fear of Water" I missed. See, by default it seems to be stuck on "Will enter water, but not dunk head". I would imagine the slider would go between "Hydrophobic" and "I don't know why I would be afraid of going underwater, I have gills", but I failed to find it to confirm this. So for my experiences, my naturally water-breathing lizard never actually did that. While I'm sure they'll add in underwater exploration at a later date, this was actually the first thing I tested out, and my first disappointment with the game. 

After my tweaks to my avatar were completed, my actual experiences with the game was... very linear. Character creation and stat choices was just about all I got to do. After the initial tutorial area in Molag Bal's Coldharbour, you move onto another tutorial area in Tamriel. The problem I experienced is that I never got out of the part of the game I'd call a tutorial. In most ES games, the distinction between tutorial and the actual game is obvious. Once you can ignore your main quest from the start of the game and walk a fairly huge distance in the other direction, the tutorial section is over. This did not happen here. The game seems to hold you hostage, with the world never opening up as much as one would expect from an Elder Scrolls game. Maybe I didn't get far enough, but after about ten hours of play and still not being able to just leave whatever was going on behind, I began to lose hope. By the time I stopped playing, I finally reached a section that felt like the game part of the game, but I was too disheartened and short on time at that point. From a role playing perspective, I was playing someone who just really didn't care about all the faffing about with the Alliance Wars and just wanted to fix her issue with not having a soul, but I never got to any section of the game where I felt like I was moving forward with the main quest.

I do want to acknowledge the quality of the Alliance Wars that I did play through. What could have been just a tacked on player versus player feature was woven into the story to an impressive degree. I was worried it'd be a lot more like the dreadful experience brought on by the Civil War and Skyrim, but they did put some serious effort into making it good.As someone who went in not caring, I cared much more afterwords. To talk more of its good qualities, the voice work in the game so far was, for the most part, above the average for the series. Additionally, while the graphical quality isn't superb at the moment, it is a truly pretty game. While I could easily pick at something for every good thing I found in the game, ESO is shaping up to be a very excellent experience.

Would I buy it? Well, I probably am going to have to get a copy, considering my position on this site. But truthfully, if you have any doubts about the game now, you have good reason to have them. While there is a lot to like here, it is still a flawed game. If you think you'd like it from what you've seen so far, the previews we've seen from it are not inaccurate, so I would honestly just suggest follow your instincts when choosing to buy this game. If you have any doubts in your head, waiting is probably your safest bet for now.