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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I think I’m done with Blizzard.

Growing up as a PC gamer, there was always one developer you could count on for absolutely amazing games: Blizzard Entertainment. Starting out with 2D sidescrollers like Lost Vikings and Blackthorne on the SNES, the studio unleashed their groundbreaking hit in 1994, Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. Throughout the remainder of the ’90’s they released classic after classic: Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, Diablo, Starcraft, and the expansions Warcraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal and Starcraft: Broodwar, and in the early 00’s Diablo II, Warcraft III, and their expansions.

Then, finally, in 2004, Blizzard unveiled what is arguably the most successful game ever made, the MMORPG landmark, World of Warcraft. Now, 8 years and a few million subscribers later, Blizzard has cemented itself as one of the greatest game developers of all time thanks to WoW’s success.

And I’m totally done playing their games.

“Why?” you may ask. Well, in order to explain myself, let’s take this one franchise at a time.

Starcraft

Admittedly the one of three major Blizzard series I played the least, but still and extremely important series, both to myself and to PC gaming as a whole. The original Starcraft is widely regarded as one of the best-balanced games ever. While the single player campaign was a compelling sci-fi story about humanity struggling against and two hostile alien races, it was the multiplayer where the game’s brilliance shone. It was so well made in fact, that in South Korea it was (and probably still is) the most played game in the country, and probably the widest spread activity amongst the country’s youth.

But for me, it never really stuck. I beat the campaigns, played a some multiplayer, but I never really got into it. Instead, I found my home with another Blizzard franchise, but more on that in a bit.

In my opinion, Starcraft II is probably the only modern Blizzard game deserving of anyone’s time. There’s a big expansion on the way (practically another game entirely) which is sure to reignite interest in the game. But I’m going to skip it, not because of the quality of the game, but because as I said, Starcraft never really stuck with me. I have Warhammer 40k for that instead.

Warcraft

I loved the Warcraft series. To this day, I still consider it the best RTS franchise, and hold up Warcraft 3 as one of my favorite games of all time. Unlike Starcraft, I really got into the multiplayer of Warcraft, and not just the matchmaking, but the custom games especially. This is where games like League of Legends and DotA 2 were born, in the custom maps of WC3. It’s also where I first entered the land of map creation and modding. I have fond memories of spending hours playing online matches, creating custom maps and game types, and even my own campaigns. Back when I was a youngling in private school, I and a buddy of mine would install WC3 on the school computers, getting in a game or two between rounds of Unreal Tournament 2003.  But it wasn’t just the multiplayer, it was the story of Warcraft 3 that really hooked me.

The fantasy tale Warcraft wove was very compelling to me, and the unique take on classic fantasy races like Orcs and Elves gave an identity to the world of Azeroth that few fantasy settings ever achieve.

So, when Blizzard announced they were making an MMORPG set in this amazing universe, I was ecstatic. After a few years of waiting, my younger brother and I finally got our hands on World of Warcraft one snowy Christmas morning. For the next few months, we ground away at our characters, trying to ascend to the mystical level 60, join guilds, and start raids. I never made it to level 60. Ever. As my brother was sucked deeper and deeper into the land of Azeroth, I found myself less and less interested. The first expansion the Burning Crusade brought me back to the fold, but after I hit a wall too steep to grind, I never went back.

All that time, what I really wanted was a Warcraft 4. But as the stories of Thrall, Arthas, and Illadan were furthered and transformed (and, frankly, ruined) in the rather meaningless narrative of the MMO, my hopes were dashed and my interest extinguished. I don’t think we’ll ever see a Warcraft 4, and that’s fine by me, because if their recent track record is any indication, I probably wouldn’t care for it much anyway. Which brings me to the big one…

Diablo 

If you had asked me in between 2002 and 2004 what my favorite game was, I would have answered with a resounding and unquestioned “Diablo II.”

I don’t know why. I was not a huge fan of the original, though I did certainly enjoy it. But something about Diablo II, whether it was the loot, the art, the music, the community — or perhaps all of combined — whatever it was, it resonated with me in a way that not many games had done before. In fact, up until then, it was maybe the n64 Zeldas, Warcraft, and maybe a few of the classic Mario and Rayman games that really spoke to me in that way.

I spent a lot of time with Diablo II. The randomly generated maps; mounds of loot and gold; dark storyline… it’s all still so fresh in my mind.

So after years of waiting, being let down by WoW, and hearing about a Starcraft sequel, when Diablo III was finally announced, I might as well had done back flips out of my chair. Finally, a return to the world of Diablo! As details began to pour out, I got more excited. Then less excited. The more. Then Less. It went like this right up until the last few months before the open beta. I resigned myself to Blizzard’s will, deciding to give them the benefit of the doubt and keep my faith in what was sure to be a faithful sequel to one of my most beloved games.

And it was!

Diablo III fixed and changed so much about what was wrong with Diablo II (even stuff I didn’t know was wrong), while still keeping the spirit of the series intact and sticking to the fundamental design principles fans expected. Blizzard also redesigned Battle.net, so that online play was smoother and playing with your friends was as simple as clicking a single button.

Oh and they made the story a bigger part, but don’t worry, even though it was horrible, it didn’t matter much. Oh, and they borrowed a lot from WoW’s aesthetic. Oh, and the loot has been scaled back so players will utilize crafting and the auction house instead. Oh, and character building has been altered so that, despite vastly improving the skill system, your character’s stats were customized for you. OH! and now, all that random map generation that kept the previous games fresh and new, that’s all been gutted and is practically non existent.

After getting about halfway through the second difficulty, Nightmare, I stopped playing, dead cold. My first play through was great! But as I joined more online games and found myself replaying the exact same parts of the game, over and over again, with little to no change in the set of the environments, I lost interest almost immediately.

Now, I know they’re changing and adding a lot of new features, many of which address some of the issues I have with Diablo III. But that just makes me wonder “Why didn’t you just delay the game until it was complete?” I mean, they are BLIZZARD after all, the kings of “it’s done when its done” alongside Valve.

It makes little difference. I’m sure I’ll hop back in one day. Well, actually, no I’m not. I might, but at this point I have no desire to.

An alleged screenshot of Blizzard’s next project.

There was a time, years ago, when I had every Blizzard game installed on my PC. I’d hop between Warcraft III, Diablo II, and Broodwar on a whim. I thought of Blizzard’s games as masterpieces and regarded Blizz as the top game developer around. But now, with so many of the designers and creators that made those games possible having moved on to new studios and projects years ago, the company that once was no longer remains. Blizzard have stated publicly on several occasions that after the next expansions for Diablo III, Starcraft II, and Wow are completed, they plan on moving to new IPs, including a new MMO that I’m sure will turn the genre on it’s ear, so maybe we’ll see something new that will make me a believer again. But I doubt it.

It’s sad, but that’s the way life works. In their place, numerous AAA and indie developers alike have come in to offer the same type of top-shelf PC gaming I desire. But there will always be a part of me the pines for the glory days of Blizzard Entertainment.

New Console-sized gaming PC coming from Alienware

–By Brendan

Alienware has uncovered its brand new console-like PC, the X51, which seems to be aimed at attracting console gamers and PC users looking for a smaller machine to game on.

The X51 is smaller and cheaper than the average gaming PC, with all the bells and whistles you’d expect from an Alienware machine. It also features 3 different models to choose from. Here’s a quick overview of the specs for each model, as reported by Gamesradar.com: Continue reading “New Console-sized gaming PC coming from Alienware”

Is PC gaming dead?

–By Brendan

We’ve heard time and time again over the past five or six years “PC gaming is dead.” Sure, any gamer can tell the industry is heading towards new horizons; new ideas and innovations like motion controls, super-powered handhelds, digital distribution, and free-to-play games seem to be ushering in a new era of gaming.

Where does the PC stand in all of this? Once thought to be the unmatched king of graphics, speed and multiplayer, the PC is seeing perhaps the biggest changes to its formula in order to meet the industry’s demands. But is the platform truly dead? Continue reading “Is PC gaming dead?”