The return of the old-school RPG

Oh hey look — Brendan’s talking about RPG’s again. I can’t help it, there’s just too much to be excited about these day. Thanks to things like free 2 play, indie development, and Kickstarter, the gaming industry has seen an influx of fresh, creative minds as well as the return of legendary game creators, able to finally create the worlds they’ve been wanting to for years, but that have been pushed aside in favor of the cash-cow, AAA first person shooters and action games we’ve been buried under for the past couple console generations.

Look I know: RPG’s have been around for ages and have evolved with the times to remain relevant while still providing the types of experiences people have come to expect from the genre…

…err, sort of. I’m a huge fan of the Mass Effect series — arguably the biggest RPG franchise of the current console generation — but it’s not really an RPG. It’s a great, great series — truly — but compared to even some of its contemporaries it’s not much of an RPG. It’s also not the only series shifting away from role playing game’s origins.

While I’m not a big fan of JRPG’s, I can’t deny that the Final Fantasy XIII series (that sounds weird) has been a major departure not only from the roots of past FF games, but from JRPGs in general. And I recently vented my frustration with Blizzard, but it’s worth noting that Diablo III, despite remaining true to much of what’s great about the Diablo series, is missing that “RPG” quality. When I say “RPG’s are coming back,” I mean the old-school, hardcore RPG’s of yore.

Ishar 3

To be fair, there’s still a fair amount of Old-School RPG DNA in some of the biggest games today. Besides the few games still adhering to the old school formulas (Dungeons of Dredmor, The Dark Spire, Etrian Odyssey series), there are several titles that appeal to those who were gaming in the 80’s/90’s, or appreciate their legacy. The Witcher 2 is a great example of a game that balances the cinematic, character-based story of games like Mass Effect, with deep combat, skill systems, and character building of true old-school RPGs; Bethesda’s games offer massive worlds filled with quests, dungeons, and NPCs to create your own story — not to mention games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim prove you can evolve character building without sacrificing depth. And, of course, it wouldn’t be an article about RPGs if I didn’t mention Dark Souls, and it’s predecessor Demon’s Souls: truly hardcore RPGs of the modern era.

But when it comes to real old-school RPGs utilizing the same design of classic titles like Wizardry and Ultima, the industry has been in a bit of a drought. There’s always been a small, cult following around a few underground niche titles, but now there are a few projects brewing that will hopefully usher in a new surge of old-school RPGs.

Legend of Grimrock
Developer: Almost Human
Released: April 11, 2012
Website

We reviewed this game back when it was released earlier this year. It remains one of my favorite indie games of the year. Despite middling reviews from some critics, for many gamers like myself Legend of Grimrock was a great throwback to the dungeon crawlers of the 19980’s/90’s, tweaked and modernized for more accessibility. More importantly, it set the ground work for future sequels, and opened the door for new games in the genre to flourish.

Shaker
Developer: Loot Drop
Estimated Release: January 2014
Kickstarter Page

Being developed by Tom Hall (co-founder of id Software), and Brendan Brathwaite (Wizardry, Train, Dungeons & Dragons), Shaker is currently being funded on Kickstarter. The duo started the studio Loot Drop Games, and together with a highly qualified team, are looking to create a game in the same vein as the classic CRPGs of yore a la Wizardry, Lands of Lore, Ishar, etc.. Personally speaking, this is probably one of the few currently funding Kickstarter projects I’m really, really excited about. Check out their Kickstarter page and please back it! We need more games like this.

Project Eternity
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Estimated Release Date: April 2014
Website

Obsidian games are a studio well known to any RPG fan. Recently, the company was able to fully fund a brand new party-based RPG in the vein of Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate. This is another project I’m super excited for, and I’m really happy to see that they exceeded their goal and will be making this game. There is quite an impressive pedigree here, and some of the ideas being talked about remind me a lot of Planescape: Torment, one of my personal favorite games of all time. The success of this project gives me high hopes for the future of the genre.

Wasteland 2
Developer: InXile Entertainment

Estimated Release Date: Oct. 2013
Website

Before there was Fallout, there was Wasteland. In the wake of the massive success of Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter, Brian Fargo decided to reboot his post-apocalyptic RPG Wasteland, and launched the Wasteland 2 Kickstarter. The project has been fully funded, and work is underway. Check out the video above for a small glimpse of what we can expect from this project. I never got a chance to play the original Wasteland, but as a huge fan of Fallout and Fallout 2 (games directly inspired by Wasteland) the footage has me jonesin for some top-down, post-apocalyptic roleplaying insanity.

Ultima Forever
Developer: Bioware,
Estimated Release Date: Winter 2012
Website

Speaking of well known developers, Bioware is resurrecting one of the oldest and most influencial Role Playing series with Ultima Forever. Essentially a remake of Ultima IV, this new title is going to be entirely free to play (or, as Bioware calls it “Play4Free”) and will be playable on PC, as well as iPad. According to Bioware, the game will feature many of the old mechanics of the Ultima series, while combat will be positional and action-oriented, comparing it to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Definitely on my list of need-to-play games —  I mean c’mon, free Ultima!

That list almost sounds too good to be true. So many great names and developers are behind these projects, and my hopes are high. And these are just classic RPG’s; we’re also seeing the return of point and click adventure games (thanks to Tim Schaefer and Double Fine’s highly successful Kickstarter campaign), mech games (MechWarrior Online, Hawken), turn-based strategy (The Banner Saga, XCOM: Enemy Unknown), and of course Chris Robert’s return to gaming and the long-forgotten space-combat sim with Squardron 42. It’s almost too much to handle! With such bright prospects like these, it’s hard to argue we’re not in a new golden-age of videogames. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a basement to return to.

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5 Great Games of 2012 Still to Come

Sure, 2012 is nearly two-thirds of the way over, but that doesn’t mean game releases are. We’re nearing the busiest time of the year in terms of new titles coming out. Fall/Holiday 2012 will see a slew of awesome new games being released, and there are a few in particular that are on my radar — an should be on yours too. So without further ado, here are the 5 games I’m stoked to play later this year.

5. Mechwarrior Online

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve have been enamored with the idea of mechs and giant robots. Being a life-long gamer, I’ve always wanted a really good mech combat game. MechWarrior was that series for me. I have fond memories of Mechwarrior 2 and Mechwarrior 3: Mercenaries, but it’s been years since we’ve had a new game in the series. But all that’s about to change; MechWarrior Online, a brand new, free 2 play installment of the mech combat sim, will soon be here. And I am super stoked. MechWarrior represents the slower, more methodical and strategic side of my love of giant robots, and the interesting squad dynamics Piranha Games have in store for the different mech types have me on pins and needles imagining the type of gameplay experiences they will bring.

4. Ultima Forever

Earlier this year, my old-school RPG love was rekindled by Legend of Grimrock, but I’ve been craving a new classic roleplaying experience to absorb all my time. Well, as it turns out, the much-beloved Ultima Forever is getting a brand new, free-to-play version (noticing a pattern), complete with new graphics and features, including the ability to play on you PC, and move over to your iPad seamlessly for adventuring on the go. Ultima is a series I have little history with, yet immense respect for. This new version, which is being developed by Bioware, looks pretty neat. The game features micro-transactions for access to vanity items like skins and armor, as well as unlocking some abilities earlier, but otherwise the entire adventure is open to you, and gameplay is unrestricted. With an art style that seems reminiscent of Bastion, and the gameplay being equated to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, not to mention the fact it’s free Ultima Forever sounds like a pretty good deal.

3. Darksiders 2

Okay, technically not a Fall or Holiday release, but it’s close. Darksiders 2 is just around the corner, and I could not be more excited. I am a huge fan of the first game in the series, and the fact that this second installment is adding Diablo-style loot to its unabashed Zelda ripoff gameplay (that’s a compliment) sounds awesome. Darksiders established the series as a fun, mature, and highly stylized action/adventure series, and I really hope Darksiders 2 not only continues that, but also does well enough that we see further games in the series.

2. Halo 4

I’ve only recently become a fan of this well-known scifi FPS series, but like they say, converts are the most zealous. My time with Halo in the past month (as you might already know) has been an absolute joy. I have yet to play through Halo: Reach or experience much of the mulitplayer (two things I will be correcting in the near-future) but Halo 4 is going to be special in that it will be the first Halo title I play on launch day, and get to experience from the beginning with the rest of the Halo fanbase. Even if most of them are racists 13 year-olds. I also have immense faith in 343 Industries, and feel that while Bungie’s run with Halo is the classic story, that this new trilogy will (hopefully) take the series to new territory, and new heights.

1. Hawken

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Hawken is the one game I look forward to playing most this year; it’s also the furthest away in terms of release date. It may seem redundant to have two free-to-play mech combat games bookending this list, but that just goes to show how much of a giant robot nut I can be. Adhesive Game’s Hawken is both my most anticipated mech game of 2012, AND my most anticipated game of the year, period. The fast-paced nature of Hawken’s combat looks as if it perfectly captures the intensity and power of huge walking tanks doing battle, yet still features the speed and finesse of arena shooters like Unreal Tournament and Quake, not to mention it’s absolutely gorgeous. A game that includes the mech customization and management of something like Mechwarrior, as well as the high speed adrenaline rush of Unreal Tournament is, in many ways, the game I’ve always wanted. Plus, it’s free to play, will be featured on the OUYA, and will even feature comics, and internet video series, and a feature length film. But while all that sounds cool, it’s Hawken the GAME I’m most excited for.

And those are the 5 games I’m most excited to play this Fall/Holiday season. Quite a few free-to-play titles, huh? There are certainly a few more titles on my radar (Assassin’s Creed III, Far Cry 3, Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition), not to mention the OUYA console. And beyond 2012, there’s already a small handful of games garning some hype here in the Power Cords camp. But what about you guys? What games are you most looking forward to playing in the latter part of 2012? Before the world ends, of course.

Free to Play: SWTOR

Yesterday Bioware and the Star Wars” The Old Republic team announced that SWTOR would be going F2P later this year. This is both exciting and upsetting at the same time. For how much I loved the game in the beginning, it lacked later on and I lost interest. In that regard, I’m glad the game is going to be free to play — however I still am disappointed because in my heart I wanted the game to be an utter success.

It’s exciting that everyone will get a better opportunity to try the game out. Granted the limited amount of features that you have available in the f2p version will make it a glorified story mode. However, this also allows people to take time and figure out if they really truly enjoy the gameplay enough to fork out the monthly payment to try out the bigger better aspects of the game.

However, seeing as there will still be micro-transactions available, the features you get for free are pretty great. I’m not quite sure how they will handle the micro-transactions but if they do it anything like how other games have, then once this game is F2P it will hopefully be a bit more popular. It may not become a favorite for many among the MMO community, however it does give everyone a great option to fall back on when boredom strikes and you’re looking for great story with good people.

Final Thoughts on Mass Effect 3

WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS.

I know, I know. The topic of Mass Effect 3 — the ending specifically — has been beaten into the ground, debated and discussed, hashed out and argued. But let’s talk about it just one more time.

A few weeks ago, I talked about how I felt about the Mass Effect 3 ending in the greater context of story telling in video games. And how it kind of sucks. A couple of weeks later, myself and the rest of the team put our thoughts to rest in an episode of Powercast.

But here we are, nearly eight weeks since Mass Effect 3 was released, and discussions are still simmering in pockets all around the internet. Debates about indoctrination theories, explanations of plot holes, and speculation of the future abound. And ever since Bioware responded to the ending-hate with assurances of expanded ending DLC, the fanbase’s fervor has been reignited.

This is absolutely unprecedented in videogames. Never has a story enthralled players to the point of deeply discussing an ending weeks and months after the game’s release. I’m actually quite  impressed that our favorite entertainment medium has crafted a story which facilitates as much discussion as Lost or Inception. It’s a sign of the medium’s growth and maturation towards something much more rewarding and expressive.

"The work of one man (or woman) results in a shift that leads to change on a massive, galactic scale."

Now, when I offered my two cents on the ending, I said that while I had some big problems with it, overall I was fine. My big issue
stemmed from the lack of control and variety in the endings or how they play out. This opened up the floodgates for why I feel storytelling in videogames needs to change to better converge narrative with gameplay.

To be clear, I still strongly stand by this. In fact, in the time since that post, I’ve found myself seeking out games with more creative or gameplay-driven storylines. In my opinion, Mass Effect still falters in its execution, relying too much on cinematic practices and not enough on gameplay. But in my criticism of Mass Effect’s illusory decision-making, I overlooked something incredibly interesting: Bioware was playing into the constraints of the medium.

By playing into the illusion of choice, Bioware in fact used gaming’s greatest flaw in the Mass Effect 3’s favor. Instead of a cliche “you saved the world” ending, we got three wildly different end-scenarios. I say scenarios because all players saw practically the same cinematic, just different colors or prerendered clips inter-spliced. But all three possible outcomes (and every permutation within them) create wildly different outcomes for the future of the galaxy, Commander Shepard, and your crew. And before you bring up the plot holes or the random Normandy fate, consider this: your relationships with these characters came to a close throughout the entirety of Mass effect 3. The entire game is the ending, not just the last 20 minutes.

“More often than not, videogame endings don’t make us feel anything at all.”

And don’t forget, if indoctrination theory is right, none of this really matters after all.

For me, the “destruction” ending is the most plausible for my story, but that’s because I like the indoctrination theory. For others, synthesis may be ideal, and others still, control. There’s a choice there, and when you look at the ending from the point of view that “these people saved billions of years of life,” the fate of Commander Shepard and a few dozen crewmates ultimately becomes null in vastness of the universe.

And yet, extraordinarily powerful.

The work of one man (or woman) results in a shift that leads to change on a massive, galactic scale. NONE of us will ever cause such change. In that way, Commander Shepard makes quite possibly the most important decision ever posited to a videogame character: the cosmic fate of all organic life. While many have taken away the idea that the ending seems to say “nothing matters in the end,” I believe the opposite. Everything matters. Every choice creates a slightly different path which could lead to radically different outcomes for the three possible scenarios. We, as Shepard, are literally changing the face of the cosmos.

Carl Sagan would be proud.

Don’t get me wrong here: I wasn’t happy at the end, far from it in fact. I was sad. Whether or not Shepard lives or dies, there is massive, soul-crushing loss on such a large and unfathomable scale. But I like that the end didn’t make me happy. That doesn’t happen often in videogames. More often than not, videogame endings don’t make us feel anything at all.

"We, as Shepard, are literally changing the face of the cosmos."

Mass Effect 3 made us feel. We saw many of our favorite characters die, and watched as worlds were lost, and hope eroded. In spite all the positive change you bring to the galaxy, the loss of beloved characters is immediate and harsh. It’s not easy knowing that we can’t get a happy ending, but knowing the power our decisions wield in the face of such unfathomable odds is inspiring. And if it’s indoctrination theory, the door opens for innumerable possible outcomes each player could find for themselves. I love that idea. So much so in fact, I almost wish the expanded DLC wasn’t coming. I’ve decided my own ending, I don’t need Bioware to tell me how it all ends.

Sure, there are issues with the ending outside of just the choices and outcomes. And I don’t dig the reliance on cinematic tropes. But plot holes and space-magic aside, the ending of Mass Effect works. It makes sense thematically within the series and tone of the final game. Did I want a happier ending? I’m not sure. A part of me wants to say yes, but I know I wouldn’t be satisfied with that either. It’s an ending to a great story and series, nothing was going to be ideal. But no matter how dark it was, or how upset it made people, the ending sparked debates which have lasted weeks, and created an opportunity for personal interpretation usually reserved for literature and film, proof the stories in our medium are growing up. That’s an exciting and inspiring thought.

Mass Effect 3: Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the game.

This post was inspired by an article I read on Lasertimepodcast.com entitle “Why Mass Effect 3 scares me”, which can be found here. This is not a direct response, so much as giving my two cents on the issue.

As we creep nearer and nearer to the release date for the final chapter of the Mass Effect series, I get the impression that an increasing number of gamers are expecting to have a poor experience with the game. All over the internet, in forums, comments, and blog posts, people are expressing their distaste for the changes in directions they feel the series is taking with the final installment.

Shots have been taken at EA, day-one DLC, the inclusion of multiplayer, the demo, and the supposed de-emphasis on story. These have led to everything from debates on the game’s outcome, to sexists death threats against a Bioware employee who is not even involved with Mass Effect 3.

I’m sorry, what? Continue reading “Mass Effect 3: Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the game.”

Game of the Week 2/24/2012: Mass Effect 2

Welcome back to Game of the Week! This week, Brendan tells us all about the second part in the epic sci-fi trilogy, Mass Effect 2.

Mass Effect 3 is right around the corner. We’re just a few short days from seeing the end of Commander Shepard’s saga, and his mission to save the galaxy from big, bad, mechanical super-beings. With the closure to this story imminent, I’ve recently gone back through Mass Effect 2 — one of my personal favorite games of all time.

What it is: Mass Effect 2 is the second game in a sci-fi action-RPG series from Bioware. The series is unique in that for the first time, choices made in the first game can affect the entire outcome of the series’ story arch.

The story behind this series is a high-science fiction tale centered around Commander Shepard — the first human to be instated into the Specters, a group of special agents who carry out missions around the galaxy against some of the biggest threats to all species.

In the first game, Shepard was recruited to take down a fellow Specter, Saren, who had gone rogue and was arming a race of sentient robots know as the Geth to go to war against all organic life. This all occurred after he (and Shepard) came into contact with a relic from an ancient civilization known as the Protheans, giving them strange visions of the future. Players had to race across the galaxy, recruit a team to take down Sarin and stop his attempts at galactic genocide. Many options are open to the player, giving them full control over their story, making their experience unique.

In Mass Effect 2, the ramifications of the player’s choices in the first game begin to play out. Saren is defeated, but now the true motivation behind his actions have surfaced: he was being controlled by a race of ancient machines, The Reapers. Every few millennia, the Reapers descend upon the galaxy, harvesting and devouring all organic life.

Mass Effect 2 puts Shepard in a new part of the galaxy — the Terminus systems, something of a “wild west” in the Mass Effect universe. Human colonies in these systems have been attacked and their inhabitants taken by a mysterious race of aliens called the Collectors, who seem to be working directly with the Reapers. Again, the player recruits a team, and is faced with numerous choices that can change the outcome of the game — and therefore, change the entire experience players will have in Mass effect 3.

Why I love it: The Mass Effect is probably my favorite gaming series of this generation. I love sci-fi, and Mass Effect takes the best bits of Star Trek, Star Wars, Blade Runner, Battle Star Galactica, and even Alien, and adds heaps of character and style to create a very unique scifi universe. Possibly the best sci-fi universe in decades.

The origianl Mass Effect is a great game, and when compared to mass effect 2, it’s story is a bit more cohesive, but some odd game play design choices and bugs held it back.

The reason I prefer (only slightly) Mass Effect 2 is because not only did those gameplay hitches get ironed out, but the story is a much more fleshed out web. Instead of a straight line from beginning to end, with some side quests, in Mass Effect 2 you get more bite-sized stories where you get to know each character and their motivations much better than the vast majority of videogames can accomplish. It’s such a compelling universe to be in.

Besides all this, I’ve never put so much consideration into the choices I’ve made in a video game. Where as in games like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, role playing is game play mechanic (I’m gonna be a dual-sword wielding Orc who hates Hig-Elves) in the Mass Effect series the role playing is entirely story-driven. Each moral decision my Commander Shepard faced became my moral decisions to make.

In Mass Effect 1, my decisions didn’t feel  quite so important. There were some big moments where I had make some hard choices, my motivation behind those choices were contained within the game.

In Mass effect 3, the choices of both games will bring a close to a story I’ve followed for the past few years, and any decisions I make will once again be contained within the game, rather than the series.

But in Mass Effect 2, I was seeing BOTH my decisions from ME1 coming into pay, yet the reasons for doing what I did was because I was worried about what would happen in the next game. Because it’s the middle entry, it also hold the most opportunity for not only changing the ending of the series, but also for rectifying (or completely fucking up) the things you started at the beginning of the series.

So, in a nutshell, Mass Effect 2 offers more time to spend in the best sci-fi universe of the past decade, but also for the first time EVER, fans care about a series not for its gameplay, graphics, or achievements/trophies, but solely for the story. In a medium where story is (in my mind, rightfully) less important, it’s amazing to see what these games have accomplished.

To play or not to play: An MMOs hater’s SWTOR dilemma

–By Brendan

I don’t like MMOs. I liked Guild Wars, and Guild wars 2 looks promising, but compared to games like Everquest and World of Warcraft, it’s a very different type of game.

I tried to play WoW, made it to level 40 or 50 on a Bloodelf whatchamacallit, then called it quits.

I gave Final fantasy XI a shot, but the grind was too much, and I hadn’t really found a good group to play with, so once again I called it a day.

do, however, like Bioware RPGs — Knights of the Old Republic and the Mass Effect series especially (the Dragonage series was kinda ‘meh’ for me). With those two truths nagging at my mind, I find myself torn: is SWOTOR the first MMO for me, or just another grinding mill of boredom? Continue reading “To play or not to play: An MMOs hater’s SWTOR dilemma”