Monday, March 24, 2014

Interlude; Dark Souls 2

As promised, the Backlog Killer blog has been on blackout for a while because of Dark Souls 2, which I picked up for PS3 on release day. Being a married guy who has to share the television, I haven’t been able to play as much as I want and have not even finished the game yet. That’s OK, though. I just wanted to stop in and say a few words about Dark Souls 2, what I like about it, and a few recommendations for you.

Dark Souls 2?

Dark Souls 2 is a direct sequel to 2011’s Dark Souls which is an indirect sequel to 2009’s Demon’sSouls. The Souls series of games are action RPGs in which you play one character who must kill enemies to collect souls which are in turn used to make yourself stronger by leveling up your statistics and improving your equipment. The one wrinkle is that the game does not allow active saving which gives it a roguelike feeling. Instead, upon death, the player is transported back to the last checkpoint with all enemies being resurrected and all gathered souls being lost. The player does have one chance to make it back to where he or she died to collect the lost souls, but another death results in a total loss.

This brutal punishment requires careful play, mastery of controls, and a deep knowledge of geography and enemy placement to succeed. Not only is traversing the world difficult, but most areas are capped with an insanely hard boss fight which allows progress to the next area.

[Yahtzee didn't care for Demon's Souls to much at the time...]

My Souls History

I love the Souls games. After buying and completing Demon’s Souls the first time, I was hooked. The series harkens back to a time when games did not hold player’s hands and were very difficult requiring an advancement of skills to progress rather than simply making the player feel empowered by giving them a boost. The game is out to wreck you and it will, until you get revenge. The game has a malevolent feeling where the player is an actual enemy to its existence. Unlike games that want the player to feel powerful, the Souls games want the player to die. Many give up, but those who are willing to keep working will succeed and feel more successful than most other games on the market these days.

It almost reminds me of Nethack, which is not so much a malevolent game, but an aloof one. The game doesn’t care whether the player lives or dies. It just IS and will not make any concessions or acts of spiteful aggression against the player. Demon’s/Dark Souls (2) will take some measures against the player, but none that an even moderately skilled person would call unfair.

[Me completing Nethack for the first time.]

I also enjoy Souls’s attitude toward cooperative play which moves away from the always connected voice chat bluster of most modern games and takes a more contemplative stance. The game is, in itself, a single player game in that there is no ‘Multiplayer’ option on the title screen. However, players may enter into the multiplayer experience by either laying down or using “summoning signs” that invite other players into your world to help with any difficult situations or bosses that may be encountered. Do not relax, though, as spiteful players may also invade your world in certain cases after which you must defend your hoard of souls lest they be lost after death and you sent back to the last checkpoint. Also, voice interaction between players is strictly not allowed, as in not supported (until Dark Souls 2 which requires you to have an item to turn it on). I love this because it not only keeps twelve year olds from calling me questionable names, but also backs up the game lore in which spirits can pass between dimensions within the game world. All interaction is performed through gestures such as pointing, waving, and cheering.

I also love the tone and stories of the games which are both bleak and unique, but I do not want to spoil anything for other players. I whole heartedly recommend the game to just about anyone who enjoys some action in their RPGs and is looking for a challenge. I have completed Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls several times and am about 25 hours into Dark Souls 2. I’m not sure how much time is left, but I estimate I’m about halfway to two-thirds of the way through and am already planning on my next character build, but I will not be playing as non-stop as I am now.

[Dark Souls 2 launch trailer.]

Thank you for your patience.

I thank you for your patients before I start S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat, but it’s just a very exciting time for me. I rarely get excited about any modern games and it is nice to feel that way once in a while. Have you played Dark Souls 2 yet? Any tips for builds or good stories? Let me know, I love talking about it.

For any Dark Souls fans out there, I would also like to recommend the Bonfireside Chat podcast hosted by friends of the blog Gary Butterfield and Kole Ross. The two host a biweekly podcast in which they discuss each of the Souls games, area by area, in great detail. They have just begun their Dark Souls 2 season which you can listen along to, of you can go back and listen to the entire catalogue of the original Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls, as well as some other media that influenced the game.

Thank you again and see you soon.

--Backlog Killer

Friday, March 14, 2014

52 - S.T.A.L.K.E.R. -- Call of Pripyat

I’m happy to announce that the next game I will be playing and talking about is the previously abandoned S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Call of Pripyat. After destroying Serevok and his friends in Baldur’s Gate, I ran some tests and found out that my modifications of CoP had pushed it way beyond my machine’s capabilities. The vanilla game, however, ran really smoothly and looks like it is good to go. It’s very lucky that Call of Pripyat is the most stable out of the box game in the entire S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. One little hiccup in the plan is that Dark Souls 2 also came out a few days ago so bear with me, please.

Pripyat Calling

In 1986 a catastrophicnuclear disaster befell the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant located in the Ukraine. During a routine test, water flow to the fuel rods of the power plant decreased and they began to overheat. This led to uncontrolled power increase and an eventual rupture in the casing of the reactor. An explosion followed spreading radiation throughout the area that is still devoid of human life following the emergency evacuation of the nearby town, Pripyat.

[The actual scene of the disaster.]

This is the real life tragedy that occurred in the area where S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Call of Pripyat occurs. The game, however, takes place in an alternate reality where attempts were made to repopulate the area. Research institutions were organized around the abandoned power plant, its core contained in a concrete sarcophagus to stop further radiation leaks. These experiments and the released radiation resulted in monstrous creatures, dangerous anomalies, and irradiated slag heaps. It also resulted in highly sought after objects, known as artifacts, which were formed by the chaos following the disaster. Collectors with endless money sought these artifacts for their unique properties and appearances. Enter the Stalkers.
Stalkers are the boots on the ground in the disaster area, now known as "The Zone". Fenced off from the modern Ukranian nation, the zone is a dangerous source of wealth for those who are willing to risk it. Stalkers with nothing to lose search the zone for these artifacts while battling bandits, mutated creatures, warring factions, and other dangers.

This is the world of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.  Pretty cool, huh?

[Chernobyl Power Plant in the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R.]

A Little History

First, a history of the game. In the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R., subtitled Shadows of Chernobyl, the player takes the role of an unnamed Stalker who is searching for another Stalker named Strelok. Strelok traveled to the center of the zone to seek the sarcophagus, known in local legend as the Wish Granter, which will grant one wish to those who find it. After searching through military facilities, abandoned labs, and turning off an experimental weapon known as the “brain scorcher” for its ability to fry the brains of anyone in the area turning them into zombies, the unnamed protagonist eventually discovers that he himself is Strelok and finds the Wish Granter which will grant his wish in a monkey’s paw type fashion if evoked. If the proper actions are taken, the player may also discover that a malevolent human powered type of AI, known as the C-Consciousness, is capturing and reprogramming any Stalkers who reach the wish granter. After fighting through zealous guards and destroying the C-Consciousness, the player finds himself outside the plant believing the zone to be destroyed…

[The introductory movie of the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R. to give you an idea of the tone.]

Now for Call of Pripyat. Call of Pripyat begins soon after the events of the original game. After Strelok deactivated the brain scorcher, hundreds of Stalkers rushed to the center of the zone to collect artifacts and seek the Wish Granter to fulfill their own wildest dreams. The deactivation also attracts the Ukranian military which wants to recon the area and eventually destroy the facility. As the result of some electromagnetic pulse, or something even more sinister, several helicopters are knocked out of commission and crash land throughout the zone. You take the role of a marine named Major Alexander Degtyarev who is dispatched to the zone, undercover as a Stalker, to discover the fate of these helicopters. And then we are off to the races.

My History with the Game

Even though I have not played the second game in the series, I still feel like I have a pretty rich history with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. I bought the original game on the day of its release and completed the game twice; once with the ‘incomplete’ ending and another time when I discovered I had missed a vital piece of evidence. What really struck me about the game was its bravery to not treat the player with kid gloves, the bleak and spooky atmosphere, and the untheatrical combat. From the very beginning of the game, the player is able to explore the entire map, aside from the brain scorcher which requires the completion of one small quest series to attain a protective apparatus which prevents zombification. Bleak and oppressive atmospheres always capture my imagination, as well. Strolling around the zone while avoiding roving packs of dogs, encountering two NPC groups fighting, and running into the same Stalker NPC several days later and several miles down the road is always interesting. But what I enjoy most about the game is its combat. A long way from the glorified and choreographed gunfights of Call of Duty and other similar games, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. couches these types of encounters in natural and brutally random areas. Aside from a few scripted sequences, there is no set up. You may be strolling down an abandoned highway only to hear several pops that sound like boards breaking finding yourself at the game over screen. It really drives home the brutality of the world and how quickly your fortune can change. I hope to capture this type of situation on video, if I can.

What’s next?

Assuming I can tear myself away from Dark Souls 2, another brutal, oppressive, and difficulty game, I hope to begin the journey of Major Alexander Degtyarev and introduce a little about the game and why it spoke to me at the time I played the original. Stay tuned, and happy gaming.

(I also welcome any Dark Souls discussion, it's a really good game.)

--Backlog Killer

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Quick Update

Sorry, it's been a while again. Looks like I've failed up update and write about Baldur's Gate, but what hasn't been written about it? I'm having a great time, I'm really doing much better than I did when I was younger, and I'm also almost finished. I'm currently running some tests for the next game that I am very excited about because it's one I really wanted to do for a while, one I wanted to play, and one that I thought I may not be able to. Stay tuned because things may get radioactive...

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Interlude: Baldur's Gate

I’m really enjoying my time with Baldur’s Gate right now. I’ve cleared out the western side of the Sword Coast and am getting ready to attack the bandits’ camp led by Tazok. I have Tutu installed so I could progress directly on to Baldur’s Gate 2… but I have other plans. I look forward to revealing what they are as soon as I get closer to finishing this game, I think once I actually get to the city of Baldur’s Gate would be a good time.

What I really love while playing is the ingenious combination of turn based and real time combat that lets the action be paused at any time so that I can give orders quickly and efficiently. I am, by no means, a dexterous player anymore since I quit playing FPS games competitively online, so having this option is great. I’m also quite bad at maximizing the spell potential in the game so it’s very challenging at the normal skill level. People who can beat Baldur’s Gate on the highest difficulty and still find it so easy that they need to install further difficulty mods amaze me. I’ll just stick with the default.

Anyway, sorry for the delay, but I’m having a good time with Baldur’s Gate and Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup when I have less time to play. I may do a write up on that in the future. Thanks for sticking with me.

--Backlog Killer

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Abandoning Britannia... for now.

As you may have gathered from my previous pessimistic posts, I will not be continuing with Ultima V at this time. I don’t like to quit games in the middle but my reasons are very clear:

1          1)      I’ve spent more than 8 hours playing and have gotten nowhere.
2          2)      I’m not having fun playing.
3          3)      I started Baldur’s Gate and I am having a blast.

Even though I don’t need to justify for anyone, I’ll just clarify that I was very excited about Ultima 5 and just steadily lost interest as I played and got frustrated. Playing Baldur’s Gate came in naturally since I didn’t want to play Ultima and heard that friend of the blog, Gary of Watch Out for Fireballs, was playing the enhanced edition and thought “Gee, I haven’t played that for six or seven years” so I put it on and just fell right back in.

This isn’t to say that I am giving up on Ultima forever, far from it. It takes up so little space on the hard drive that I’ll just leave it on there and probably dip in every once in a while to see if it takes. But, for now, it will remain shelved and ready for the future. Sorry for any disappointment, but I’m getting ready to go investigate the Cloakwood Forest for Tazok and his minions.

I’m not sure what the next game will be, but it will come to me and I’m thinking it probably will not be an RPG since I have been overdosing a little bit. Stay tuned since I’m sure I will also have a few things to say about my experience playing Baldur’s Gate (1/2 together using Tutu!). Stay tuned.

--Backlog Killer

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Big Trouble in Little Britannia

I’m not going to beat around the bush here: Ultima 5 is not going well for me. I’m having a real heck of a time getting started and feel like I have accomplished almost nothing in the four to five hours I have played the game. Now I understand that the game is difficult and its objectives are a little obfuscated, but I am having serious difficulty determining HOW to overcome the simplest of problems such as leveling up my characters. I have been grinding monsters such as trolls on bridges and have not noticed even a slight increase in experience for my characters. Some of them have difficulty dealing with even one encounter with almost any enemy. How can I progress if I can’t even survive? Anyway, here’s what I’ve done.

Clutching at Straws

After being resurrected at Castle Britania, I was pleased to find a safe place I could walk around and get some solid information. I talked to several denizens of the castle, including the infamous jester Chuckles, but was not able to learn much other than they really miss Lord British. Exploring the area surrounding Castle Britain was a little more fruitful. East, North, and West Britain all contained useful shops and information, including a shipbuilders with a clue about the HMS Cape, the legendary ship from which I was able to invoke massive power in Ultima 4. Unfortunately, I could not even afford a skiff and was off to do some more grinding.

I returned to Yew to pick up some more information when I noticed a moongate which I jumped into popping me out near Moonglow; the town in which I began my adventure as a mage in Ultima 4. Gleaning little information from this town, I was sent packing to Lycaeum, keepers of the flame of truth, where I was able to find some important information. I learned the true name of one of the shadowlords, the lord of hate. This information will definitely come in handy, but I was unable to make any use of it at this time.

[The true name of the Shadowlord. Notice Shamino is dead.]

Another moongate journey took me to Trinsic, the city of Honour, where I was able to learn one word of power for opening a dungeon which I am not ready for yet. After leaving the city I visited its shrine where I meditated and received a quest to go read the Codex at the isle of the Avatar, formerly where the Abyss was located. With no boat and no hope of leveling up, I stopped for the session which lasted several hours.

Please Help Me

I really want to like this game, and I can really see why people do, but I am in dire need of tips. Combat is the major sticking point for me because it is much more difficult. It seems like no matter how much I fight and how many times Lord British visits me while camping, I never see any advancement. My characters are weak, they are not good at anything, and I have some empty clues I can do nothing about. Please help me out because I am seriously considering hanging this one up until later.

Slight spoilers are OK as I am pretty familiar with what will happen in the game having read lots of info about the Ultima series in my free time, but please respect any others who may stumble upon the blog in terms of any serious spoilers… even though I doubt there are many. I hope I can push past this, but I won’t force myself.

>What Mantra do you wish to meditate using?
>Please help me.
>Please help me.
>Please help me.

Thou art granted a vision!

--Backlog Killer

Monday, January 13, 2014

Ultima 5 pt. 1

Just as the avatar is returning to Britania after years of resting and inactivity, I am also returning to the blog with a bit of rust in my hinges. In addition, Ultima 5 is a very daunting game to come back to. It is going to take a long time; a very long time. The scope is much larger than the previous installment and my past experience is literally nonexistent. Please stick with me as I go through Ultima 5 as I will probably be breaking it up and not power gaming in marathon sessions. Playing slowly, thinking about my next step, and how it fits into the whole story will be the most difficult aspect. Anyway, without further delay, let’s head back to the world birthed from Richard Garriott’s insane dome: Britania.

Back in the Saddle

Years after returning to earth as the paragon of the virtues, The Avatar, our in-the-matrix alter ego is eager to get back to Britania to visit his friends. The long silence is finally broken when he is awakened by the floating symbol of the codex which indicates it is time to suit up and get ready for adventure. After donning the garb of the Avatar, he enters the moongate only to see his friend and former companion, Shamino, be struck down by the cursed magic bolt of a Shadowlord; the corrupting forces of Britania. After scaring off the Shadowlords with the power of the magical ankh, we take Shamino to Iolo’s hut where we are filled in on the whole situation.

[Much improved over the last entry.]

Things are not well: Lord British has been lost in an effort to secure the underworld after sealing the dungeons, his formerly upstanding vassal named Lord Blackthorn has taken over the land, and all of its virtues have been subverted into tyrannical laws. It is up to us to find out what has happened and restore Lord British to power. How we do this is unclear and, having no previous experience with Ultima 5, I have no idea where to begin.

Welcome Back

Welcome back one and all! I am happy to begin blogging again, but I am not as happy as the Avatar to get back to Britania. Let me back up. I am very eager to play and am looking forward to it, but the idea of a whole new Ultima game is extremely daunting. The world of Ultima 4 was huge and had many secrets that required training, research, travel, and, most importantly, time to uncover. Starting up the game for the first time was a little bit of a gut check for me.

[Hal has been unceremoniously nerfed by Ultima 5.]

The interface is quite familiar and the graphics have improved vastly from the earlier version. Many more tiles are available to represent terrain and objects, there is no longer the need to use weird signs for shops as they can be represented accurately as pictographic signs, and the world is much more interactive. Everything seems ripe for exploration when…


Richard Garriott strikes again. This is the runic alphabet that was touched on in Ultima Underworld, but now makes its first real appearance in a strictly canonical Ultima game. Not only does this require frequent translation by me, but is also used for spells which are called upon by using a series of syllables instead of simple names such as “cure” or “fireball”. I understand the world building itch that this kind of thing scratches, but if my character is intimately familiar with the world of Britania he would be able to read this easily. Since the Avatar is my lens into the fantasy world, can’t you just print it in English to let me read it more easily? (This adherence to verisimilitude continues through several more games in the series.)

Fortunately, other than that small complaint, everything is just as it should be and I have begun my journey by visiting the close by Empath Abbey and town of Yew which has been changed quite a bit. The city formerly represented Justice, but now it has been taken to the extreme and anyone who does not confess any crime they have committed, no matter how small, they will be put to death. The town square also holds a set of pillories confining a man who had not donated 40% of his income to ‘charity’ and his young son who had failed to report his crime. I have the option to free them, but I will probably take that opportunity when I am a little stronger.

[Sweet subversion.]

After buying some supplies and reagents for some curing and healing spells, I returned to Empath Abbey where I collected a new follower and some information. I was reunited with Julia from Ultima 4 who has become a bard for some extra fire power. It appears I can only have a maximum of five followers in Ultima 5 instead of eight, so I may trade some characters out later. I also learned that I could find more about the Shadowlord of Hate (foil to Empath Abbey’s love) from a Daemon located in the desert to the east. At least I have one lead I can follow up on.

I traveled back to Yew and found a mage to join my quest (Jaana), but when I tried to look around some more I accidentally bumped into a guard who immediately demanded a tribute for Blackthorne. Not having enough money, I refused and was forced into a fight. Fights are generally the same as they were in Ultima 4 with a battle grid and cardinal movement directions. One big difference is characters are now allowed to attack diagonally making combat much more flexible. Unfortunately, it did not help in this case and I was wiped out almost instantly.

[British brings us back. (I didn't mention Toshi, but I restarted and left him behind)]

As in other Ultimas, after the party was killed Lord British resurrected us in Castle Britain where I stopped journeying for the night. I plan to visit some of the towns and look around, but getting stronger will take top priority before I get too deep into the plot.

Why I like the idea of Ultima 5

Ultima 4 was written in direct response to criticism of the previous Ultima games in which theft, murder, and being what is considered ‘evil’ was actually rewarded instead of punished. Parents said this was a bad influence and warranted a change in tone. Garriott agreed. Ultima 4 was the ultimate tale of being a do-gooder who can serve as an example for the rest of the world. It was literally impossible to finish the game without being a squeaky clean hero. After becoming the Avatar, players were sent back to Earth and served as a religious figure in the world of Britania.

Unfortunately, pure good can still be twisted by men into something bad, which is why I like the concept behind Ultima 5 so much. Even though I am not really caught up in the mechanics yet, the idea of having the original eight virtues (humility, honesty, justice, honor, compassion, sacrifice, valor, and spirituality) be subverted into enforced laws is very compelling. As in Yew, any failure to follow the virtues results in torture and execution. Of course it is a similar ends, but the way in which the virtue is enforced is reprehensible.
For me, personally, one of the most frightening things I have come to consider is that “Evil” is not going to come in the form of a moustache twirling sociopath who is looking for the next crime he can commit. Evil will always come camouflaged as good; as necessary means to keep what could be called order, morality, or justice. Evil will not reveal itself until it is too late and everyone has subscribed to its twisted whims. Thinking about Ultima in this way is very worrying when compared to our society and world both presently and in the past. Will we see evil as it is happening? Or will we actually think it is good?

With regards to Ultima, this corruption is blatantly spelled out as many citizens regard Lord Blackthorne to be a good man, worthy of being a successor to Lord British, but he has just been corrupted by the Shadowlords who haunt the land. We can translate this to the possibility of any world leader or any person with great power who is attempting to do what is good but by the wrong means. Unfortunately, the shadowlords will not be at fault and any corruption will lie in the heart of men themselves.
Anyway, I think that is what Richard Garriott was trying to explain, if only the mechanics were a little smoother. I’ll get the hang of it. I was cruising through Ultima 4 before I knew it. Check back next time where I will investigate the areas surrounding Britain and maybe do some moongate hopping.

--Backlog Killer