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Computer Games

Pillars of Eternity: Gather party, venture forth

Group shot. Complete with little green circles, like your parents used to bake when you were little, or something
Group shot. Complete with little green circles, like your parents used to bake when you were little, or something

It wasn’t until about four hours in that I heard it first. The triggers for it aren’t the same as previous games, it’s more forgiving in that respect at least, but attempting to get out of an underground maze:

You must gather your party before venturing forth.

This is sixty hours of nostalgia trip, an old school CRPG ripped from last decade and presented at 1080p, from the zero-to-hero character arc to the micromanagement of fights to the little green circles on the ground, it’s the infinity engine reborn.

I’m a way in now, just having finished Act II, so while these aren’t thoughts on a completed game, I’m fairly sure they’re grounded, unless the rest of the game suddenly massively changes.

You can turn off the HUD for nicer screenshots, but you lose the targeting circles
You can turn off the HUD for nicer screenshots, but you lose the targeting circles

Combat is semi-turn-based, in the Final Fantasy style more than anything. Your character will do an action every N seconds, if you set what that should be, it does that, otherwise it’s an autoattack. There’s no AI, no script behaviors, if you want to cast a spell you need to do it yourself. Hit points are in two pools, endurance and health. Points come off endurance first, and then health later on, and endurance recharges between encounters, while health requires a Rest. This improves the D&D cycle of heavy fight, camp, while retaining danger. Zero health is maiming first, or straight to permadeath, depending on your difficulty settings.

They are difficulty settings, too. While there is the standard slider of easy to impossible, there are separate options for Iron Man delete-save permadeath, Expert Mode, how much you see in conversation trees (Do you want to know that there’s a [Perception 13] conversation route you didn’t quite make? Would your game be enhanced if you could see that taking this option will boost my reputation, while that one will decrease it?), the aforementioned maim-before-kill, and a few other options.

It’s not a game if you don’t like reading, either. While most of the characters – and all the party banter – are voiced, conversations with NPCs tend towards “key phrases” rather than full narration. The intro and explanatory set pieces get full voices, but the deeper routes – and roots – of the conversation tree are plain text. This makes sense, but does sometimes lead to voicework trailing off into silence before suddenly launching into a monologue several choices later. It’s an advancement on and an inspiration from the original games, but occasionally a disjointed one.

A screenshot of combat in Pillars
Six party members, plus pets for any or all, means combat-micromanagement can become a macro task.

It’s a brand new universe, too, and one that Oblivion are really keen to give you a grounding in. The whole game is filled with books, exposition and characters willing to educate you at great lengths on metaphysic and history. There’s loads of identifiable NPCs who you can click on for a 500 word vignettes on their past lives. It’s all entirely optional, but still occasionally overwhelming. There’s also a weird lack of time in all of it, possibly to avoid aging the characters. The universe is interesting and has a few fascinating basises, but is ultimately a very familiar fantasy universe. They could have made it much better by, for example, just not having elves or dwarves at all, or at least calling them something else.

Your party is made up of characters, in both senses of the word. There are more companions than you can have in your party at once, eventually. Some of them are more interesting than others, some give good banter but aren’t very useful in combat. One very useful innovation is that at any inn you can pick up a random adventurer – whose skills you specify exactly like on chargen – to come along with you and fill in any gaps your party has.

The aesthetics are nice, I suppose. There’s a certain chunky quality of the character models that works oddly with the beautifully hand-painted backgrounds. It’s honestly lovely to have a game not built out of familiar tilesets. The sound is so much like Baldur’s Gate that it could be from the original soundtrack and I couldn’t tell, but I wish there were more variations on the battle music.

The tone is a bit bleak, and beyond party banter there’s not a lot of humour in it. To discuss this more, I’m going to have to get into the story a bit, so if you’re avoiding spoilers completely, you probably should just skip the bit between screenshots. I’m not going to talk about anything that actually happens after the first half hour, but I am going to talk about general themes and possible triggers.

"It will take you 1 day, 24 hours, 30 minutes to complete your journey"
I think we’re going to differ on what a day is, game

The overarching theme of the game is The Soul, with a lot of science-vs-religion in there too. The big bad state-of-the-world problem is that babies are being born without souls at all, and this is being blamed on a) something big that happened a while ago and b) a class of magic-users who manipulate souls, and put souls into things, and such. There’s a lot of plot around ways they’ve tried to fix this problem – binding souls into bodies, putting animal souls in instead – but the main character’s Distinguishing Power is the ability to peer into the souls and past lives of people.

Because the main way this problem manifests is with soulless babies, there are major elements around killing babies, and a certain amount of dead-babies imagery in the game, and effect on mothers (and, indeed, fathers). It’s not roughly handled, as such, but it’s occasionally heavy. There are quite a few writers named in the credits, and while the lead writer and most of the “Additional Writing” credits are – from names – male (and I know that at least one of the “Additional Writing” credits wrote the scripts and character for two companions), the two overarching “Writer” credits are both female. It’s not balance, really, though I can’t tell from outside, but I’m both glad they didn’t dive directly into “the importance of motherhood” with a full white-male team, and kind of wishing there were more front-facing female voices in Oblivion. Certainly none of the main narratives in the kickstarter videos were. Anyway, I’ve strayed off my original point.

A loading screen
A loading screen! With a combat tutorial! Just like in the olden days! and also every other game.
For full disclosure: I kickstarted this project. $40 of the 4 million pounds it raised was mine.
For full disclosure: I kickstarted this project. $40 of the 4 million pounds it raised was mine.

Generally, though, it’s great. Like, consume my day great. If you liked Infinity games – even if you didn’t love them, or found the mechanics overwhelming – I can highly recommend it. It’s a kickstarter project I’m happy to have backed, and the first Kickstarter game that’s been everything I ever expected of it.

In fact, I stick by the brief review I posted a few hours in:

Did you like Baldur’s Gate style games? Don’t buy this. This will suck sixty hours of your life, and do you have sixty spare hours to spend on computer games? I didn’t think so. Don’t get this game. Your loved ones and dependants will thank you. It’s awesome.

There are niggles. While it’s hard to end up with “Trap” builds, where your party is functionally useless, it’s far too easy to get in over your head. Mobs and areas aren’t levelled, so your first clue that everything’s about to go arse over teakettle is often when the shorts are already arcing over the samovar. In fact, in the process of writing this review I managed to take a one-way trip five levels down the megadungeon under your stronghold – two features I’ve not even mentioned in the 1300 words above – and had to restart from my last manual save after it put me nose to nose with a small dragon. My last manual save was about two hours prior to completing Act II. That has, however, given me a chance to complete some quests that I didn’t realise were suddenly going to resolve as failed when Act II ended. We’re back to Infinite Engine basics again: Autosaves are good, but manual save often.

It’s also got a few other narrative annoyances, like NPCs who are perfectly reasonable though a complicated dialogue tree until they suddenly attack, meaning if you fail the fight (see unlevelled monsters, above) you’ve got to go though the tree again. Trying the same conversation with “You could have taken this option if you were higher level in $foo” options on tends to reveal that there’s nothing you can do, this is a funnel to a large fight, and all your talking cannot convince them. Sometimes you can, but when you can’t it seems very… computer gamey.

It’s still an outstanding example of its type. The third Baldur’s Gate I didn’t even realise I was missing, fifteen years since the last one. This is the new bar that Torment, the next Shadowrun and even Beamdog/Overhaul’s forthcoming licenced Baldur’s Gate 3 are going to have to clear.

And now, I’m going to go play some more of it. See you later.

Categories
Computer Games

Origin of the Species

One of the reasons I like Steam is because it works.

The prices are good, the software’s fairly reliable, I’ve never really had the massive issues others have with Offline Mode (That is not that it is necessary, but that it works for me in a way it appears not to work for others). It is a form of licence protection, and putting more DRMover the top of it is annoying, but in return for it I get infinite redownloads, cloud save and screenshot storage, a decent gaming social network and a client that allows me to access a web-browser from within the game without having to guess whether this game can alt-tab without crashing.I realise some people don’t like Steam, and that’s fine, you are entitled to valuing aspects of licencing higher than I do.

But one of the most useful things about Steam is that it works and, if you copy the Steam directory to a new hard drive on a new Windows install, it still works.

The big difference between Steam and GFWL, GOG and Origin is that Steam is a games install management system, and the others are wrappers for setup.exe, and this has most effect when you perform the operation mentioned above. Whereas Steam downloads the files and installs them itself, at least for back-catalog titles Origin & GFWL both just download an archive of the standard install files, then run the installer in more-or-less silent mode.

For GOG this works well, they’ve rewritten the installers where necessary, and that’s what they give you. They don’t pretend to be a game management platform, just a purchase one.

I own The Sims 3 on Steam, but bought the Pets expansion on Origin because it was cheaper. Origin allows you to add the CD keys of most EA games you’ve ever bought elsewhere, and they are added to your game library just as if you’d bought them though Origin. I like this feature a lot, and would like it if more publishers allowed you to add games that are available on Steam to Steam via this method. By this method I added TS3 (and various expansion packs) to Origin, installed Pets, and played the game. That was a few months ago.

Yesterday I decided I wanted to play TS3. This being a new install (I’ve wiped it and put Windows 7 back on, having given up on Windows 8 for now) with the old data drive on it, I tried just starting up the Origin install that was still there. It launched fine, but didn’t detect any of the games it had previously installed (under the previous Windows installation). This was reasonably expected, since under Cloudburst it had been C:, and now it was F:, so I pointed at Sims 3, which said “Ready to Download”, and clicked, agreed to three EULAs, and…

Click, whirrr, Installing….

… Installing ….

Dialog box: Pick a country. (UK). Can EA games track your gameplay? [ ] (Fuck No)

… Installing …

“Ready to Install”.

 

Hmm. Okay then. *Click*

… whirrrr….

… Pick a country? (UK). Track gameplay? (No) …

“Ready to Install”

 

So I turned to the internet, which told me to try reinstalling Origin, which didn’t help.

So I tried uninstalling Origin, followed EA’s directions about deleting things from the registry, restarted…  Country?/Gameplay?/”Ready To Install”.

 

I deleted the game cache. Deleted Origin. Deleted everything marked “Origin” or “Electronic Arts” in my registry. Went though AppData, slashing and burning and destroying all that stood in my way. Redownloaded all SIX FUCKING GIGABYTES of TS3. Still, the blatant lie “Ready to Install”.

So I turned to the forums, which sold me snakeoil of the “Delete the installshield folder” type (Still no), and finally a tutorial on taking the archive Origin had downloaded, renaming files and running setup manually.

This asked me about my country. Asked for permissions about Gameplay. Asked me to agree to an EULA. Left me with a “SimsLauncher.exe” file, which I clicked on.

KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN

Fail. By this time I’ve downloaded The Sims 3 four times in two hours, and am happy that my weekend internet access is uncapped. I’ve reinstalled everything above Windows itself and entirely screwed up the installation of any other Origin games I had installed. I give up, Origin has lost.

So I’m reinstalling from Steam. I’ll see if I can attach the “Pets” installer to the Steam install, otherwise I’ll live without it, or buy it from Steam.

But EA? When your direct competitor, with whom you have such unassailable issues that you took one of your best selling games off of the Steam store in a fit of pique, is handling the installation of one of your flagship games better than your own online store, you seriously need to take a step back and look at what  you think you’re doing to your customers.

It’s not good enough. It doesn’t *work*, and your official support network is entirely useless.

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