Finding a Level

  01:05:48 pm, by   , 644 words  
Viewed 16153 times since 20/09/11
Categories: Games, Elder Scrolls

Leveling in TESV: Skyrim is something that's received a fair amount of attention in the gaming press. What's the big deal? The problem of how a game's challenge should be adjusted as the player gets more powerful is much trickier than you might think. The problem is that you need to give the player a sense of power while not making the game a total walk-over, and getting the balance right can be tricky.

In Morrowind, leveling was at a minimum. NPCs and creatures all had a fixed level, although a lot of creatures were picked from leveled lists that produced a more-powerful variant at higher levels. Something similar happened with treasure as you can see on our Morrowind leveled lists page. The advantage of this system was that there were fixed "easy" and "hard" areas. Some caves were essentially off-limits to new players because the creatures or NPCs inside were simply too powerful. This meant you had to be careful when you were exploring in case you found one of the hard ones. The disadvantage was that when you hit about level 30, you were invincible. The two highest-level NPCs were Wulf (level 50) and Divayth Fyr (level 65), but you never had to fight either of them. The most powerful NPCs you had to fight were level 30, and they didn't have access to all the powerful weaponry and armor you did. The expansions offer a tougher challenge, and Hircine's Quest in Bloodmoon is one that you really don't want to attempt until level 40, but it's a one-off. By the time you reach level 50 there's no challenge anywhere.

Oblivion picked a slightly different system. Many of the NPCs leveled with the player, so for instance Glarthir kept the same level as the player (at least at levels 4-12) while Audens Avidius was eight levels higher than the player. Some creatures leveled too: Liches gained 15 health for each level of the player and Ogres got 26. A lot of NPC equipment came from leveled lists too, so it's quite possible for some people to be using powerful enchantments that make them even tougher fights. The upshot of this is that at the start of the game, there's almost nowhere you can't go. The problem is that at high levels, even though you're pretty much unbeatable, killing even a single ogre can be a time-consuming exercise because of all the hit points it has. In other words, even though you're all-powerful you don't feel it. There's not even much of a challenge.

Fallout and New Vegas went pretty much back to the Morrowind model. Levels are largely fixed, although creatures often come from leveled lists. The challenge is much greater in places, though: creatures like cazadores and deathclaws just cannot be beaten at lower levels. Yes, you might get lucky with one, but they come in groups and you'll be toast unless you're a powerful character with good weapons. With the level cap, you end up in a position where you can always beat these things as long as you're not stupid. That's not a bad endpoint - a feeling of power but not all-consuming, ridiculous power.

If reports are to be believed, Skyrim goes a little further. Things level in a similar way to Fallout, but after you've visited an area it becomes fixed at that level forever. This might be a good idea as long as there are difficult places early on and you can't freeze everything at level one.

Of course this is just my preference. I know some people like the über power thing, judging from the number of "I killed everyone and now they're dead" posts we get on talk pages.

Speaking purely from a UESP perspective, fixed levels are great: with no horrendous formulae to construct, summary infoboxes become much easier to construct.

Not too until we find out for ourselves anyway!

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Careful what you wish for!

  02:14:14 am, by Krusty   , 464 words  
Viewed 316815 times since 06/09/11
Categories: Games, Elder Scrolls

While watching Todd Howard repeat himself for the 50th time to a games journalist (must be the worst type of journalists, right after sports journalists), feeling incredibly bored by the hype of Skyrim, something occurred to me. A game like Oblivion succeeded in one area you simply cannot predict or test, regardless of how many dragons, mammoths, running water and snow storms you put in there. It succeeded in charm! Now, this may sound odd, but you cannot design or plan a game world people want to spend 2 or 3 years of their life examining, exploring, interacting with other characters ect ect. You can try, and it definitely looks like they’re trying, but how do they know? How do they know that mining operations won’t be annoying after 3 years? How do they know that packs of wolves hunting mammoths will still be a joy to watch in 6 months? Can they really ignore the fact that even a random encounter with a dragon can get tiresome after a while? And maybe it will get incredibly annoying that NPCs doesn’t stop moving when you talk to them.

Sadly inspired by the hordes of comments on the internet, Beth spends a lot of time pointing out the obvious weaknesses of Oblivion and I guess they have the right, since they created it – but they should to be really careful with that kind of marketing. For a game world to beat Oblivion in pure charm and be fascinating for players until 2016, they have to hit something that can only be described as luck. Yep, Oblivion had all the weaknesses, Bethesda points out whenever they get the chance; the landscapes didn’t really change an awful lot, conversations with NPCs stopped time, Mysticism was confusing (I still don’t understand what they are so confused about) and a lot of other stuff that I’m glad I forgot. But what if the weak spots was what made Oblivion last forever? What if the static and wooden menu were part of what made Oblivion special? NPCs standing around, doing absolutely nothing is not necessarily a bad thing, as they made a perfect contrast to the NPCs that did a LOT. Now we get menus inspired by iTunes, NPCs that walks around at all times and can’t even be bothered to stop doing what they are doing when you talk with them, we have so-called “handcrafted” dungeons, but what if the copy/paste dungeon approach of Oblivion made the more complex dungeons a bigger surprise? In short: unless they’ve played Skyrim for 5 years, they can’t be certain of anything, and I’m sure they are aware of that. To all the people on the forums: Careful what you wish for. To Todd and Bethesda: Good luck.

Three's a Crowd

  12:44:15 pm, by   , 189 words  
Viewed 56251 times since 01/06/11
Categories: Games

I mentioned at the end of April that the end of the year was going to be a busy one because both TESV: Skyrim and X: Rebirth were coming out then. Well now Saints Row: The Third makes it a perfect trilogy of games that use a colon in their titles and that I want to play.

I never played the original Saints Row, but picked up Saints Row 2 after it got a Yahtzee review that was so positive he later described it as an overlong marriage proposal. It wasn't a very realistic game, but it gave several hours of utterly mindless fun and was well worth the money. Saints Row: The Third looks like it keeps the mindless fun while ratcheting up the graphics quality by some distance. The game is due out (in the US) on November 15, which probably means we'll get it a week or so later in Europe.

The full gameplay trailer is available here (warning - lots of violence), but for a better feeling of the sense of humour that the previous game had, take a look at the initial trailer, released on April 1.

Absolutely Not Fabulous

  06:14:53 am, by   , 1166 words  
Viewed 6177 times since 23/05/11
Categories: Games

Well that was a let down.

I've wanted to play a Fable game ever since I heard about the series, but not being an XBox owner I've been denied that opportunity because the game has always been exclusive to that platform. Always until last Friday, because Fable III has finally been released for the PC - months after the XBox version. From a few reviews I've seen it appears that Lionhead Studios have used the time to fix a number of bugs and irritations from the XBox version, so even though we PC users will have to put up with being called out-of-date by XBoxers, at least we got an error-free game, and frankly that suits me fine.

Part of my desire to play Fable came from the subtle dig that Bethesda had M'aiq the Liar make in Oblivion, where he was heard to say "People always enjoy a good fable. M'aiq has yet to find one, though. Perhaps one day." Lionhead return the favour at least once in Fable III: there's an odd quest where you end up as a character in a roleplaying game, and pull a lever only for a swarm of butterflies to appear. "Butterflies?" remarks one character. "Worst. Game. Ever", says another; a not-so-subtle reference to the start of the Shivering Isles expansion for Oblivion.

One of the first things a Brit will notice when playing the game is that it's a who's who of British stars in the voice acting department. John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross, Ben Kingsley, Simon Pegg, Sean Pertwee and Zoë Wanamaker all appear - and that's just the biggest names; there are loads more. All this talent isn't necessarily a good thing though. It means there's a pressure to overuse them, leading to another thing, and one that emphatically does not change as the game progresses: you spend an awful lot of time in cutscenes. These come in two types: obvious cutscenes where you can't really do anything except watch the cinematics, and ones where you can move around as normal, but can't do anything except go where you're supposed to go and listen to whoever you're supposed to listen to. There's far too much of this. Very often your only feeling of interactivity comes from a small amount of running down a corridor to another cutscene, which can get incredibly boring.

The next things anyone will notice is that the graphics aren't that great and that the controls are awful. Okay, I got the hang of the controls a bit more as I got used to things, but at first it was like trying to steer a shopping trolly with several wonky wheels. The graphics... well okay the backgrounds are nice, but the NPCs walk an odd line between reality and cartoon, and it doesn't work for me. They all end up looking... odd. And almost identical.

After a while, you get given the tools you need to fight. As in most games, combat comes down to melee, ranged and magic, but the twist is that magic comes from the gloves you wear rather than spells, and that the ranged combat is done using guns rather than bows. It's still either a sword or a hammer for melee though. At first I tried my hand with a sword: during the tutorial section you have to practice combat against your mentor for a little while and it seemed pretty simple. Unfortunately, one-on-one combat in Fable III is as rare as a sequence of ten minutes without a cutscene, and you can't use all your fancy moves because someone will stick a sword in your back while you're trying to deal with the thing in front of you. After a while, therefore, I switched to magic, because as well as a one-on-one spell, you get an area-of-effect spell that helpfully hits any enemies in a certain radius around you but not allies. The problem is that this quickly becomes unbalanced: when you find yourself charging into the middle of a crowd of enemies just so you can kill more of them with your ultra-powerful AOE spell, something has clearly gone wrong. The gun can be useful in some places because you can use it to aim from a distance, but generally charging in worked just fine for me.

You don't level up as such. Rather, you acquire points called Guild Seals that can be spent on upgrades to your weapons or spells, or on perks that let you buy shops, chat people up, have kids and so on. In a few places you also need to acquire enough of these seals to convince a faction to join up with you. I'm not going to go into why because I don't want to start spoiling things if you're going to play the game.

But this raises the question: why would anyone want to play this? You can talk to the various NPCs who fill up the towns and villages, but they're all totally without personality so after a few times I stopped bothering. You can get married to these NPCs and have kids, but again I didn't bother. All the quests boil down to "Go here, kill this thing, collect this other thing, come back again". Some people may claim that because I didn't bother much with the NPCs I missed out on the role-playing aspects of the game. I disagree. Since the only point of getting married is to have kids, there's nothing to role-play. It's just another game mechanic. The only places where any kind of roleplaying occur are in one or two laughably black-and-white choices where you have to either a) murder a sackful of puppies, or b) pet them and make sure they all go to good homes. Anybody calling Fable III a roleplaying game needs to be made to play Oblivion or Morrowind for a few hours until they learn the difference.

I finished the first part of the main quest in less than 8 hours only to be presented with the prospect of tedious grind spending the next in-game year raising money to avert an apocalypse, at which point I stopped and went to bed because I really couldn't be bothered. It's not even like you can really go off and explore the world: the game is similar to Dragon Age in this respect in that it looks like a sandbox but isn't really. Compared to TES games where there was always something new and interesting just over the next ridge, it's a really small world. This means that if I decide to go back and bother with the grind-fest, I'll have completed the whole thing in around 15 hours. That's not very long.

The good news for me is that I've finally played a Fable game so at least I've got that off my chest. I can't see myself bothering with Fable IV though. If Bethesda return Lionhead's compliment and insert another reference in Skyrim, I hope it's a suitably insulting one.

A Game Worth Watching

  03:37:05 pm, by   , 859 words  
Viewed 18073 times since 03/05/11
Categories: TV/Movies, Hobbies

I think it was about 18 months ago, or it might have been even longer, that Timenn and I were chatting in IRC about books. It turned out we both share similar interests in fiction so were swapping titles to give each other a few new items for their wish list. I think I recommended Adrian Tchaikovsky's (then new) series Shadows of the Apt - and I recommend it to anyone who likes good fantasy novels - and in return, he suggested George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series.

Somehow, I'd never heard of this guy, and I have to confess that after a couple of searches had informed me that he was known as "The American Tolkien", my heart sank. I love J. R. R. Tolkien's stuff. I got a copy of The Hobbit on my 11th birthday. I know this for a fact because my copy has the message "For Robert on his 11th birthday & for passing to L.R.G.S. 26/4/84, From your father and mother - We hope it will not be too hobbit-forming!" Unfortunately, this last hope proved false, because Tolkien was to prove hugely habit-forming over the years. Since then, I've read Lord of the Rings over 30 times, learned huge chunks of The Silmarillion by heart, read all the Unfinished Tales and every other book Christopher Tolkien released, and generally become a bit of a Middle Earth nerd - although not, I must emphasise, enough of a nerd to learn Elvish. The reason I mention this is not just to establish my nerdly credentials, but to help you understand why somebody described as a Tolkien has got a hell of a lot to live up to.

It doesn't take you long to realise that the comparison is total rubbish. It always is. Whenever anybody is described as "The New X", it's merely lazy journalism. Lionel Messi is not "The New Maradonna", Wayne Rooney never was "The New Michael Owen", and George Martin isn't "The New Tolkien". He and Tolkien both write rather good fantasy novels, but that's all they have in common - apart from the two "R"s in their initials. When I read A Game of Thrones, the first book in the series, I was impressed. A lot of fantasy books seem to have been written from a cliché checklist: ancient fight between good and evil? check; low-born character eventually saving everything? check; improbable love interest? check. Many books fall into the trap of thinking they're mysteries, so we get sudden plot twists for no good reason. This isn't necessary: was anybody really expecting Frodo would fail to destroy the ring, or that Harry would fail to kill Voldemort? An ending that you're expecting isn't a Bad Thing by default - a book is about the journey, not the ending.

Anyway, so the books were good. That's not why I'm writing this. The point is that the books have been made into a ten-part TV series on HBO called Game of Thrones after the first book. For once, we can see it in the UK with only a 24-hour delay instead of the usual months or years, but only if you subscribe to Sky Atlantic. Obviously, if you don't subscribe it would be totally wrong to download the episodes using BitTorrent from the huge number of sources that appear within minutes of the program ending on Sunday evenings (US time).

The series gained a lot of hype on the Internet, and when you see the sort of clips that were released ahead of time, it's not difficult to see why. It stars Emperor Martin Boromir Sean Bean, who gives a typically good performance as Lord Ned Stark. A lot of the other cast members are British too, the locations are all in Europe (Ireland and Malta, mainly), which raises the question "Why can't the bloody BBC make stuff like this?" Unlike most of the BBC's output these days, which seems to target the 10-15 age bracket and hopes that adults will be interested too, Game of Thrones sets out its stall from the first moments as Adults Only. After about ten minutes of the first show, the corpse count is already in double figures and we've had two beheadings. That's not even the most outré moment, the award for which probably goes to a scene where a dwarf is in bed with four naked prostitutes. Yup, this isn't for the children. Now I'm not advocating sex and violence for the sake of sex and violence. It's just good to see a program that doesn't set out to be safe for once. The disregard for safety can be felt in the story too. It doesn't take long before you have three or four different stories all progressing at the same time. Too many films and TV shows assume that the audience can barely follow one story, so this is a major departure.

I've waited until three episodes have come out before saying anything because I wanted to make sure that the quality stayed high. So far, so good. If you don't watch this program, you're missing a real gem.