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

Video Game Review: Civilization VI

civilization_vi_cover_artYes, I am a declared Firaxis fanboy with Sid Meier’s autograph hanging on my game room wall, but you have to believe me when I tell you that Civilization VI is by far the best game at launch that they have ever released and well worth your time if you want to take the proverbial one more turn. There are a lot of reviews already out there from professional reviewers, bloggers, and game sites that got advanced copies and they have been playing for over a month! The reviews are all resoundingly positive, 94% on Metacritic. I’m hardly a dissenting vote, but I would put it more in the 80 – 85 range with potential to be a masterpiece!

I’ve had only ~30 hours since launch to absorb what CivVI has to offer and I am extremely impressed with how refined the game’s mechanics are at launch. Civ had a reputation of launching the vanilla game and then adding mechanics like espionage and religion on future DLC releases. Not so with CivVI! Not only are all the familiar mechanics present, they are amazingly well developed and balanced for the new game. Though it has a familiar feel, the game is very different from previous releases and it took some time getting used to, even for a seasoned player like myself; however, now that I’ve got the hang of it, I don’t think I will be able to go back to any previous version.

For the first day, I logged 12 hours sitting side-by-side in the game room with my friend David as we each played CivVI on separate computers. At first, we thought we might multiplay, but instead I went with a standard game and David did a smaller, fast paced game. He got two games in quicker than I finished my first game and that’s how I would recommend anyone just starting CivVI. There are so many complexities in this game that it is easy to make mistakes just starting off. For instance, I love the new district system, but if you place your districts incorrectly, you’re stuck with it. And districts really matter! So, David was able to learn from his first game and apply the lessons learned to his second short game almost right away. The other advantage to playing alongside David was that as we each discovered new and interesting events, systems, features, and mechanics, we were able to learn from each other. It is complex, but it is the complexity which makes it such an amazing game with potentially infinite replayability. CivVI feels so complete, I almost wonder what Firaxis plans to add to the base game!

It’s not without issues of course. As with all 4X games, the AI has a few issues which detract from the enjoyment of the game. I believe the issues will be fixed in patches, but the AI issues are most prevalent in diplomacy and war. I would like to say that the leaders follow their stated goals, agendas, and current government types, but it seems like most will declare war on you at one point or another. It’s not necessarily something related specifically to some leaders because Gandhi does it too! War is a part of history, but some of these declarations of war seem ridiculous and the AI is unable to follow through with their aggression. The part I don’t like is how brutal the warmonger system is. When an AI declares war (happens a lot), they will send a peace treaty as soon as you approach their cities with a sizable enough force. If you accept their peace offer, they will be right back to attack you 30 turns later. If you don’t accept the peace terms, they and every other civilization will think you are a warmonger and soon the entire world is against you. The constant wars got annoying, so I ended up finishing off every civ that declared war on me so they would just leave me alone to do my city building.

My favorite new addition is definitely the districts! In older Civ games, there wasn’t much difference between your cities. Most cities could build almost every building, so each city looked about the same by end game, but varying in size depending on the terrain you settled on. Not so now. Each city is unique and you have to specialize nearly every city according to their strengths and what you need at that moment! As with real life, the key to successful city building is location, location, location! Planning the cities is awesome!

My least favorite addition is the proselytizing zerg swarm the AI does. My first game, I was too busy kicking Russia back to the Stone Age (see previous AI comment) to realize England slipped in with 20 or so missionaries and converted all my cities, including my Holy City. So, getting a religious victory absolutely seems to be a viable strategy – it’s just annoying when it happens to you!

Sean Bean isn’t as good as Leonard Nimoy was in Civilization IV, but he does give it some extra pizzazz.

I’m enjoying CivVI immensely, but really hope that the AI is fixed up a bit to make the diplomacy and war AI a little more balanced and less annoying. I think CivVI has potential to be the best of the series and I look forward to seeing what else Firaxis has in store for its flagship title.