Video Game Review – Divinity: Original Sin 2

Divinity: Original Sin 2 (D:OS2) is amazing and Larian Studio has earned my Kickstarter money! If you like RPGs with great writing and detail, you should be throwing your money at the developer. It’s not a perfect game, but it is very close. If you loved Baldur’s Gate and wish there were more games out there like it, this is your game. D:OS2 has earned the 95% Metacritic rating!

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I concur. It’s awesome!

D:OS2 is great because the writers really took the time to develop a story which is easy to follow, but has a depth and intricacy that I became immersed in. The character development, especially in the playable companions, is exceptional. I only played through once, so I only experienced four of the seven potential character stories. While I enjoyed each of them, I have to say that Lohse is a MUST HAVE as a companion! No spoilers, but her personal quest was exceptionally well done and rewarding at its conclusion. Thank you, Larian Studios!

In my playthrough, rather than go with a custom character and background I decided to use an established Origin Story for my main character. I didn’t regret it. Also, once you get to a certain point in the game, fairly early, you can freely respect and customize all your characters at nearly any time in the game. So, don’t stress too much at character creation.

Complementing the writing and characters is a complex and difficult turn-based tactical combat system that will often frustrate. Every battle on Classic mode felt like the characters were hopelessly outgunned and I had to reload many battles to develop alternative strategies to defeat the enemies. Use of the environment is critical to success and the enemy will always use the environment and complimentary status effects against you. I quickly realized also that I should never get comfortable in battles – many times when I thought I had the upper hand in battle (especially boss battles), another seemingly insurmountable challenge would appear.  “Oh, crap,” and other expletives were often used as I played the game and each was a compliment to the writers and developers.

Though I won the game, I feel like there are so many loose ends, missed opportunities, and different quest strings left to be explored. D:OS2 is definitely replayable on many levels if you have another 70+ hours to spend playing through it again.

If I had one gripe it would be inventory management. There is so much detail in this game that I still don’t know what half the stuff in my inventory does, but I didn’t want to get rid of it (just in case it was important). Also, every time I got a new random piece of gear it felt like I had to remove myself from the immersion to take quite a bit of time figuring out what gear was best for my current character build. It’s another layer of the strategy, but it felt cumbersome at times. The crafting system is complex, but helped along by the many recipe books found throughout the world. Some of the quest lines seem to be broken, but it could also be that my decisions may have prevented me from completing those quests.

I loved this game and I hope you will to! Well worth the $45 to buy and experience now rather than wait for a Steam sale.

Video Games: “Old School” RPGs

I am currently playing and loving Legend of Grimrock 2. I’m embarrassed to say, I bought it after succumbing to a PC Gamer clickbait article of “Great Role Playing Games,” but I haven’t regretted it! I even don’t regret getting 8 hours in and realizing my party build was terrible and restarting. Grimrock is representative of a type of RPG which I have fond memories of – “Old School” since it was a long time ago and I was in grade school.

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Wizardry – To this day, seeing this box art gives me a warm fuzzy. Some people have comfort food… I have my games.

In the mid ‘80s I had the fortune to visit with an older boy across the street. In his room was an Apple computer and all around his computer and taped to his walls were several maps meticulously drawn on graph paper with amazing detail and annotations. I asked him about the maps and he booted up a game which I will forever hold dear – you never forget your first! Wizardry!

Wizardry was the best! It was an amazing interpretation of a Dungeons & Dragons party in an epic dungeon crawl and I was hooked from the start. He showed me his party and allowed me to go into the dungeon and explore with his super powerful characters including ninjas, a samurai, and bishops. I eventually could purchase the series for my Tandy 1000 and then my walls were plastered with maps of my adventures – though, as an adult now (some would say), I am very grateful for the auto-map feature of Grimrock 2!

My appetite for games in high school was insatiable and I played a lot (still do!), but some remain my absolute favorites.

Wizardry (1981). One game to rule them all, or at least get the trend started. Don’t get me wrong, I played Adventure on Atari and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin on my Intellivision as a kid and they were great, but they were also very simple and not very representative of the D&D experience I was looking for. Wizardry brought the wonder of exploration and adventure, as well as characters I could name and mourn when they died – Wizardry was pretty brutal and unforgiving of mistakes. It was always good to have a backup character disk! Wizardry brought the dungeon crawl to life and the best part was that you could import your characters from one game to the next!

Bard’s Tale (1985). Bard’s Tale took Wizardy’s concept and added some great art, music, and humor to their dungeon crawl. It borrowed all the best concepts of Wizardry and added its own flair. All three came out in a six-year period and each one consumed dozens of hours of my time, and probably contributed to me being a B student. Totally worth it!

Starflight (1986). Starflight was a game changer for videogame RPGs in my opinion because developers threw off the shackles of fantasy and jumped into science fiction. I loved it! Starflight allowed me to be a starship captain with a crew in an unexplored galaxy full of interesting new alien races, planets to explore, and enemy starships to blow up! Starflight II was an even better game. Years later, in Mass Effect, as Shepperd explored the galaxy in his starship and planets in his ATV, I felt like I was reliving the “glory days” of Starflight.

Wasteland (1988). Holy crap! Post-apocalyptic, party-based RPG with zombies and machine guns! Yes, please! Wasteland made quite an impression on me and to this day its spiritual successor series (Fallout) is still my favorite.

Honorable Mentions:

Ultima. While Wizardry was often self-contained adventures, the Ultima series gave the feeling of an open world with an amazing amount of lore and adventure. I didn’t play it as much as the Wizardry series, but thought it deserved mention.

Dungeons & Dragons Series. OK, yes, I loved Pool of Radiance (1988) and Curse of the Azure Bonds (1989), but honestly, other than being canon D&D, they were just jumping on the money train and ultimately forgettable experiences. Fun at the time, but not lasting memories.

So, those are my favorite “old school” RPGs. The cutoff for me is 1990, when I graduated from high school and entered the Army. Of course, I had the fortune of growing up at this pivotal time in computer game development. I love my modern RPG experiences like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fallout, and Elder Scrolls Skyrim, but sometimes I want to feel the wonder of the games of the past. And right now, that game is Legend of Grimrock 2.

Those are my favorites – I look forward to hearing about yours!

Video Game Review: Total War Warhammer

For a computer gamer, one of the most magical times of the year is Christmas.  It is when we get to experience something called, ‘The Steam Holiday Sale’!  For the uninitiated, Steam is a digital delivery service for PC games – there are a few others but Steam is by far the largest.  Popular new PC games can cost upwards of sixty dollars but a couple times a year Steam has a sale and it is possible to get sixty dollar games for a fraction of the price.  If you’re ever on the fence about a game and don’t want to pay full price, Steam sales are a great time to take the plunge.

This past Christmas, I took the plunge on a game called Total War Warhammer (TWW).  The Total War franchise is a series of popular strategy games which have been around for about fifteen years.  There is a grand campaign strategic campaign, but the real draw is the tactical battlefield where you can control thousands of warriors in gloriously detailed mayhem.  Rome, Feudal Japan, and the Middle Ages have gotten the Total War treatment.

On the surface, TWW represents a departure from the formula.  Where the other games were grounded in history, Warhammer is a popular fictional fantasy universe.  Unlike Tolkien’s better known fantasy world, Warhammer is a grimdark universe where a marginally bad xenophobic theocratic empire is the only thing that stands in the way of the evil forces of Chaos and a host of other baddies.  Warhammer tabletop games are all about the horrifying spectacle of bloody warfare where the question isn’t ‘are you going to die?’ It is how gruesome is the death going to be.

In other words, it is the perfect world to get the Total War treatment.

For followers of the series, the gameplay isn’t remarkably different than what has come before.  It has been refined though to the point where an enthusiast can jump right in and feel at home within five minutes.  For the newcomer, the campaign mode can be a bit overwhelming at first with tons of options thrown at you.  It doesn’t help that the sides in the conflict are asymmetrical so there is a lot of nuance one must learn to effectively execute their strategy.  I could get it after a few tries but I think a newcomer might bounce off this level of the game.

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But really none of it matters once you get down to the tactical battles and this is where TWW excels.  The controls are quite intuitive and within a few moments, you are maneuvering hundreds of soldiers around the battlefield.  The asymmetry and loads of options which are aggravating on the campaign level become interesting tactical problems at the battle level.  TWW rewards good tactics and employment of forces – I couldn’t just throw everyone at the enemy, I had to consider where to place the spear wall, when to disengage the skirmishers, and when to launch the cavalry charges.

Ultimately, the highest praise I can give TWW is that it stayed in my mind long after I finished it.  The atmosphere, terrain, graphics and detail all combined to lead into a gaming experience where instead of playing the game, I felt like I had lived the battle.  I may have been in my living room but for a moment, I was on the side of a hill behind the shield wall repulsing the charge of the hordes of Chaos, arrows and musket balls whistling past me as the guttural war cries of the enemy signaled yet another charge.

Best of 2016: Computer Games

It is almost Christmas and I note there is the Christmas sale on Steam.  Means it is the time of the year to get computer games for dirt cheap.  Here are my recommendations for best games of 2016 to help guide your holiday choices.  All the games here are PC and IOS games:  I enjoyed Overwatch on XB1 but wasn’t infatuated with it and I’m still working my way through Final Fantasy XV on PS4 but they didn’t make my top games.

Stellaris:  One of my most treasured gaming memories was playing Master of Orion 2 on an ancient PC in the basement of my parent’s house on summer break.  I feel like I have been chasing that memory my entire gaming life.  I finally caught up with it with Stellaris.  Not every design decision works in this game and like all Paradox Interactive products, it is a toybox which gets dramatically better and more complex with every expansion.  But Stellaris manages to pull you in to its galaxy of galactic exploration, warfare and intrigue.  It reminds me of the old TV show, Babylon Five.  It has sunk its teeth in and I imagine like PI’s other game, Crusader Kings 2, I’ll probably be playing it for years.

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Endless Legends:  I liked Civilization 6 – I got a solid month of enjoyment out of it and then put it back on the shelf and haven’t thought much about it.  I first played Endless Legend in 2014 and picked it back up again with its latest expansion and the magic is there.  Endless Legend is what would happen if you mixed Civilization 6 with Skyrim and a great Science Fiction novel.  There really is nothing like this game out there and with five expansions and a bunch of DLC (all dirt-cheap right now on Steam), now is the time to pick it up.  Amplitude, a French studio, is one of those studios that dares to put out radical new ideas.  There first game, Endless Space, was an interesting failure.  This one is a knock out of the park and a better game than Civilization 6.

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Rimworld:  A newer game and like personal favorite, Cataclysm Dark Days Ahead and Crusader Kings 2, it works best as a story creator.  This game is what happens if you dumped a bunch of toons from ‘The Sims’ onto an alien world and told them to get to work.  The graphics are simple but the underlying game systems are a complex web of survival and relationships.  Get one of the variables wrong and the whole colony can descend into cannibalism and flames.  It is one of those games where failure is fun and you revel in the chaos as everyone dies in interesting ways.

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Pathfinder Adventures:  I have grown to love collectible card games but interestingly, Hearthstone really doesn’t do it for me.  Pathfinder Adventures did click and has become an addiction.  It can be frustratingly random – you get through a game well played only to lose in the end because the dice rolls go against you.  But it has that ‘one more click’ factor which brings me back for game after game.  Unlike a lot of IOS games, it doesn’t try to steal your wallet.  You can pay one price and get all the content.  Also, available on PC but honestly, this is the perfect tablet game.

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Sentinels of the MultiverseAnother collectible card game but much different than Pathfinder Adventures.  There isn’t any random dice rolls here – it is all strategy and playing your cards in the right order based on the situation.  It is a superhero game – those are always welcome – and they have several expansions out with several more funded.  I love the game because with all the expansions, there is an endless array of possible matchups which delivers a unique experience every single game – none of them play out the same way.  Pathfinder Adventures is a more addictive game, but Sentinels is the more complex and thoughtful game.  Available on IOS and PC though like Pathfinder, enjoyed best on tablets.

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Other ‘Best of…’ articles for 2016:

Movies

Books