It's been about five months since my last entry that I claimed would be "placeholder for now." It's about as good a time as any to get back to that entry, and in some ways it's an even more poignant time to finish it off.
I went on a major tear in the fall of last year after the relaunch of www.gog.com. There were a lot of games that they were releasing (or had already released), that I either did not have the opportunity to play in the past, or had my copies go missing/get destroyed. I was very pleased by the notion that the majority of these games work flawlessly after an install on Vista64, and a great deal of them have seen updates from the community that have improved the visuals, and expanded the scope of the campaigns.
The DescentThe first series that I delved back into were the old Descent games from Parallax (and Outrage/Volition later on). If anything, this was one of the more refreshing throwbacks that I hit on during this time. So many shooters these days are super serious, with lots of scripting, and story thrown into them. I like a lot of story, but for anyone that has played through Bulletstorm knows... the attempt to cram a story into an action game can be met with extremely mixed results. I was pleased to get back to a game where there was just a tonne of game in there, and then little bits of story to give it all a context. It was a nice reminder that systemic design is still compelling.
This is one of those arguments that I see pop-up every time a game like Serious Sam has another major release. There are invariably a lot of people who criticize those types of games for being nothing more than a shooting game. You shoot your way through seemingly endless numbers of enemies for a very long time. In a day and age where scripting and story sequences have become part of the standard lexicon of the genre, it can be frustrating for some people who find a lot of their enjoyment value comes from those aspects of games. I think Borderlands did an excellent job of showing people how this kind of design can be leveraged well to this day.
What was even better about Descent 1 and 2 at the very least, was that there is a very nice group of people who have written a renderer for the game, and updated some assets that let them run very nicely in 1080p. Strangely Descent 3 is more difficult to get running as well, but still possible with a little bit of tweaking. Make no mistake... they will still look old, but they'll look GOOD and old. =)
Playing a RoleDuring this time, the people at GOG.com also released a lot of older RPG's from the infinity engine era. I had played only part of Planescape before I had a hard drive nuke itself, and I had loaned my discs to someone who has now fallen off the face of the earth. It was at this time, I decided I should finally get my way through Baldur's Gate 2 and the expansion... so I dug my discs out, and set that up again as well. I also re-purchased a copy of The Temple of Elemental Evil from GOG at this time as well... which now sets the stage for my next series of comments.
I really enjoy the old Bioware/Black Isle Infinity engine RPG games. There was always something about them that bothered me in the end however... and it revolves around the combat engine. The overhead view certainly allowed for a tactical approach to the combat, but the real-time nature of the systems were, to me, inherently at odds with the turn based nature of Dungeons and Dragons. Combat quickly became a very confusing mish-mash of clumped sprites with the textual feedback of the proceeds scrolling wildly by in this tiny window that not at all useful for providing me with anything valuable. This leveraging of a turn-based system bolted on over top of a real-time system continued through all of Bioware's games from Neverwinter Nights to Dragon Age: Origins.
I'm willing to accept that the source of my discomfort might come from my early interactions with the old SSI gold box games like Curse of the Azure Bonds. In these games, the combat is laid out on a terrain where each character makes their own turn, and movement is as important as attack. This to me was also one of the defining systems of the later Black Isle RPG of Fallout and Fallout 2. One of the best implementations of a turn-based systems in an RPG to me has to be The Temple of Elemental Evil. The game is very buggy, but the combat system stands as one of my favorites to this day.
It's my conjecture that a properly designed turn-based system is far better for the style of RPG that Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age: Origins were trying to be, rather than duct taping a turn-based system onto a real-time system. The normal argument is that pausing with the spacebar allows for this, but that's not really true. Issuing combat commands using the pause system does allow for a certain amount of strategic planning. Turns happen so quickly in these games however that it is very easy to let several turns slip by before pausing again to issue orders. This also degrades the value of movement, as it can happen so quickly that actions like attacks of opportunity no longer play any (apparent) role.
Visually speaking... I also think the real-time system looks a little ridiculous. The combat animations just play themselves off over and over again and inevitably make the combat feel like it has little impact. In their defense, building an animation system that could react quickly enough to player/AI input in a believable manner is extremely difficult... but a problem that could be solved with a turn-based system. Each combat move is now given more gravitas, and would also allow them to design animation interactions that look better and more exciting.
I did not include Dragon Age 2 in that list, as to me... Bioware has finally decided to implement a combat system that is better suited to this real-time mode that they have been working with for so long. In essence, the combat system in that game feels more like something that you would find in an MMO with a reliance on a fewer number of quickly recharging skills (per character), and faster activation of those skills. It still requires a certain level of tactical execution (if... you turn up the difficulty on the PC anyway), but to me it isn't as compelling as a proper turn-based system would be. I'm certainly less angry than some people are about this game... but still disappointed by their decision to re-brand the series so soon (and since the first one was successful).
There were many more games that I dove back into through this period. I finally found a good method to re-connect with Jagged Alliance 2, re-installed my copy of Homeworld 2, and worked my way through the old X-COM collection. This blog entry is already extremely long... and probably is acting as an excellent demonstration of the sorry state of my life. I've got my partner, my work, my music, and my games... so I don't have a whole lot of other great things to discuss. Look on the bright side... I'm not polluting the boards with long diatribes about public policy and the way we need to better leverage our local markets/producers to combat corporate consolidation.