Amnesia: A curiously relaxing horror game

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Inspired by the Giant Bomb podcast discussion following Patrick Klepeck's recent playthrough of the game, I decided to finally start making my way through indie developer Frictional Games' celebrated survival horror title Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which I bought when it came out two years ago but for some reason never got around to at the time. Although I have certainly been at least moderately frightened by various horror titles in the past (and YouTube is full of "watch-this-kid-scream" reaction clips featuring this particular game), Amnesia honestly doesn't scare me at all. To be fair, the gothic environments are atmospheric and the game artfully maintains the illusion that grisly monsters could emerge from the dark shadows at any point. Crucially, however, the somewhat Lovecraftian enemies aren't nearly as scary to the player as they are to the slightly unhinged protagonist himself, and these creatures all too soon (not to mention all too often) reveal themselves to the player in all their low-polygonal monster mundaneness, instead of remaining a more intangible but distinctly unnerving threat lurking in the dark corners of Castle Brennenburg (which would have made the game better). Not giving the player any combat abilities was undoubtedly a clever design decision, but in practice the gameplay soon becomes very focused on a few core procedures (i.e. methodically searching rooms for valuable objects and hiding once in a while to avoid detection) rather than on being immersed in any kind of sustained state of anxiety and horror. And while the sound design is great from a purely technical standpoint, the supposedly spooky noises and sudden outbursts of the game's predictably dissonant score are simply not original, unexpected or eerie enough to catch me off-guard. Disappointingly enough, even the infamous water monster scene (assuming it's the one I think it is) turned out to be a lot more silly and annoying than it was scary.

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I must admit that I'm a little puzzled as to why Amnesia has garnered such a reputation for being unusually frightening. A partial explanation for the praise of the game as an almost overpowering experience could be the fact that many younger players (i.e. people below 30) simply aren't accustomed to survival horror as a distinct genre. Self-described genre fans such as Patrick Klepeck aside, an ever-increasing percentage of players got into gaming only after the Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark series began their transformations into decidedly more action-focused affairs. These poor impressionable youths were presumably not prepared for the kind of slow-paced, unabashedly action-free gameplay which Amnesia delivers, but which isn't that exceptional in the context of the genre as a whole.

But even though other games such as System Shock 2, good old Silent Hill 1 (which I played for the first time relatively recently and was genuinely freaked out by) and arguably even some of the more cerebral titles such as Pathologic are ultimately superior as far as horror experiences go, Amnesia still provides some pretty neat gameplay which manages to keep the player engaged via atmospheric exploration, compulsive scavenging and simple but at least moderately engaging puzzles. Taking care to check every chest and drawer in the vicinity is almost always rewarding the player with additional items (mostly oil for your lantern and tinderboxes) or a bit of optional lore, and there's generally a nice balance between moments when you're simply exploring and other times when skillfully avoiding enemies is the primary concern. So while Amnesia doesn't make me scream (even in a good way), I'm still having fun with it. Indeed, you might even call the game relaxing...

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The Payne Of Being Impure at Heart: Thoughts on Max Payne 3 (PC)

Sequels made long after the original game(s) by a completely different developer are bound to make the Internet rage-o-meter rise to 11 and flood the global computational pathways with cries of "sell-out". However, in the case of Max Payne 3 I think the more interesting question is whether the series is even relevant at all in 2012. When MP1 came out 11 years ago it was arguably the most technologically advanced and impressively cinematic 3D action title ever released, but the third-person shooter genre has moved on since then and few of the series' hallmark features seem particularly amazing or ground-breaking today.

Rockstar's strategy has clearly been to retain some of the elements which made Max Payne unique while bringing in a few standard mechanics of modern action games and simultaneously suffusing the whole package with their own distinctive brand of cinematic storytelling (which apparently is referred to derogatorily as "Houser writing" these days). What's particularly Max Payne-ish about MP3 is of course first and foremost the inclusion of a "bullet time" mode as well as the comically absurd painkiller-based health replenishment. Also worthy of note, however, are some rather finicky shooting mechanics which - at least for a modern third-person shooter - seem unusually tailored to precision-based mouse aiming on a PC. The addition of Gears of War-style cover controls have been much-discussed, and there's no question that it fundamentally alters the gameplay formula by effectively relegating bullet time to a secondary role. Apart from the more questionable aspect of merely conforming to contemporary genre standards, I have a feeling the cover mechanics were added because Rockstar realized that handling most shoot-outs by constantly flinging Max through the air in slo-mo would get boring (not to mention silly). That they didn't dare bringing in any other, more original ideas of their own on how to modernize the gameplay is probably a sign that Rockstar still is surprisingly uncomfortable with the whole process of designing basic shooter controls.

Max Payne as a series has always been focused on delivering a more sophisticated, more stylized and arguably also more engaging form of storytelling than most other action titles, and in some ways that makes Rockstar the perfect fit for a sequel/semi-reboot of the franchise. Given that Remedy Entertainment is still around one might argue that they would have made a better job, but considering Alan Wake's flat characters, wooden dialogue and convoluted plot I'm actually somewhat relieved that they're not involved this time around. Rockstar has their own share of problems, though; most notably a one-dimensional and only vaguely political cynicism which dragged down the intermittently amazing Red Dead Redemption and could very well end up making MP3 into more of a downer than is absolutely necessary given the source material. So far it's clear that the writing in this game is less absurd and flowery than in its predecessors, but it remains to be seen if that was a wise choice or not.

The main reason I bought Max Payne 3 wasn't the actual gameplay per se but simply the promise of getting to experience an unusual and well-realized setting (the various locales of São Paolo with all its ruthless inequality and organized brutality) brought to life by Rockstar's usual attention to detail. If it ends up being an OK shooter too that's fine, but I feel the gaming world of 2012 doesn't necessarily need another Max Payne and has enough linear, story-driven action games already.

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How to Spend $700 on Kickstarter

So far I've either pledged or donated a grand total of $700 (!) to various game-related Kickstarter projects. That being said, some of the donations are rather small ($15 each); and could probably be as almost unreasonably cheap pre-orders rather than as altruistic monetary gifts to groups of brilliant but penniless developers. In either case, below is a quick rundown of all the projects I've supported thus far (oh, and I'm still very much looking forward to the rumored Tex Murphy and Dead State Kickstarters...);

Wasteland 2(Donated: $300)

As previously mentioned on this blog, this one was a no-brainer. Wasteland 2 represents more than the mere resurgence of a classic IP; it's a rallying cry against the current action-oriented state of Western RPGs. As much as I can appreciate flashy modern roleplaying titles such as Skyrim, Mass Effect and even Dragon Age 2 I really want to help bring back turn-based, party-based gameplay to the American/European RPG scene.

Double Fine Adventure (Donated: $60)

I'm no passionate fan of adventure games in general, so in the case of DFA I'm probably more interested in the documentary series being filmed during the production of the game than I am in the final product. Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert seem to be super-nice guys, and if the development-oriented discussion video they released at the beginning of the KS campaign is any indication there's much to learn from getting a peak behind the curtains and learn how they address specific design decisions in the months to come.

Shadowrun Returns (Donated: $50)

Apart from having briefly rented the SNES game (sadly not the Genesis one, which seems even more awesome) many years ago my exposure to Shadowrun as a gaming phenomena is very limited, but it sure seems to be a cool and original cyberpunk universe alright and the idea of a turn-based RPG with direct ties to the old console classics is very appealing.

The Banner Saga (Donated: $50)

Turn-based combat, ambitious storytelling by ex-Bioware developers, animated film-inspired art design and a Viking theme? Sold! The Banner Saga is a really intriguing little game which became an early Kickstarter success story when it was 700% (over-)funded and the project grew in scope and scale far beyond what the developers had anticipated.

Pinkerton Road Studios/Moebius (Donated: $50)

It's admittedly not saying much given the generally miserable state of video game writing, but industry veteran Jane Jensen remains one of the more ambitious game writers and designers around. I'm normally a gameplay-over-story kind of guy, but titles such as the underrated Gabriel Knight: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned and the mostly over-looked Gray Matter overcome their mechanical flaws by providing mature (if undeniably pulpy) storylines and compelling characters. Jensen's "Pinkerton Road" initiative has an unusually long-term perspective for a Kickstarter project and promises to bring us several new adventure games over the coming years, starting with the intriguing Moebius and an as of yet unrevealed mystery title...

Grim Dawn (Pledged: $50)

With Torchlight II and Diablo III coming out pretty soon the world might not appear to be needing another click-heavy ARPG in the near future, but Grim Dawn's ambitious open world design, distinctive art design and deep character customization got me interested. Also, the game has been worked on for quite some time before the Kickstarter initiative and thus represents a more substantial proposition than a lot of other KS projects.

Republique (Pledged: $40)

In the brief history of Kickstarter game projects, camouflaj's slick and innovative stealth/survival horror game Republique is probably the most nerve-wrecking tale of an experienced team of affable developers racing against the clock to get their dauntingly ambitious new IP off the ground (they got fully funded with less than 8 hours to go). Part of the problem with Republique - as well as its underlying appeal - is that unlike most Kickstarter games it's not at all about feeding on nostalgia and resurrecting a dormant franchise; this is a new and decidedly "modern" game with intentionally high production values, innovative control mechanics and cinematic storytelling. Some grumpy Luddites were undoubtedly put off by the emphasis on iOS, but for once I feel that a "serious" (i.e. non-casual) gameplay idea has been tailored convincingly to the strengths and limitations of the platform. And while it's clear that the team didn't take the decision to add a PC version lightly, they've been very clear about their ambitions to go beyond a mere port and adapt the experience and interface to PC standards.

Xenonauts (Pledged: $30) (not including a previously placed pre-order)

Almost everything I hear about Firaxis' re-boot of X-COM warms my geeky heart, but there's no question that the independently developed Xenonauts is even more of a "spiritual successor" to the original Enemy Unknown. Lead Designer Chris England has already invested a lot of his own time and money into resurrecting this innovative combination of isometric combat, UFO spotting and base management, and judging by the early demos this looks like a very accomplished and faithful take on the classic gameplay formula.

Legends of Eisenwald (Pledged: $15)

Probably one of the nerdiest indie game project on Kickstarter (...and that's saying a lot!), Legends of Eisenwald was almost worth $15 just for the adorably geeky promotion video in which the Eastern European developers dress up in silly medieval-looking costumes (with considerably less irony than might be expected given the surplus of fake armor). The game itself is an intriguing Heroes of Might & Magic-style strategy/RPG hybrid with a dynamic campaign and lots of tactical turn-based combat. As with Grim Dawn and Xenonauts, the game has been in development for some time already and could be among the first Kickstarter games to actually get released.

Leisure Suit Larry (Donated: $15)

Helping to fund a remake of Leisure Suit Larry is not exactly on the top of my list of priorities in life, but the original game was an early and formative adventure game experience for me (disturbingly early and formative, given the subject matter), so it could be interesting in more ways than one to get re-acquinted with the tasteless sleazebag Larry Laffer. If nothing else, "Ken sent me" is forever etched into my brain...

Nekro (Pledged: $15)

I'm not sure I quite understand what Nekro is all about, but the guy and the gal in that video looked like awfully nice people so why not? To be serious, though, I get a cool Overlord/Dungeon Keeper vibe from this action/strategy hybrid (Myth is also cited as an inspiration) so I hope this one turns out well.

Carmageddon: Reincarnation (Pledged: $15)

The original Carmageddon always had its twisted heart in the right place; belonging as it did to an interesting era in video gaming history when the industry was becoming rather large but not big enough to constantly have to worry about being all respectable and tasteful. My strongest memory of the original game is playing it together with a classmate who had been hit by a car a few months earlier and, well, needless to say he wasn't too excited about the whole experience. In either case, the mere concept of mowing down pedestrians might not be as quite as cool in 2012 as it was in 1997, but it could still be capable of providing some mindless irreverent fun. If nothing else, Stainless Games are the original creators of the series (as well as a fairly distinguished developer of downloadable XBLA games such as Risk Factions and Magic the Gathering), so one would think that they know what they're doing.

Two Guys SpaceVenture by the creators of Space Quest (Pledged: $15)

I know embarrassingly little about Space Quest, but apparently the games were very funny. Worth $15 for a spiritual successor? Only time will tell, but this one will probably get funded on the strength of its (implied) brand...

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Homecoming: Legend of Grimrock is out now

There's been quite a lot of excitement surrounding Legend of Grimrock in the months leading up to its release today on April 11th 2012, so it's perhaps best to start by putting this game in some kind of perspective. First off, Grimrock is obviously not the first traditional Western RPG in a long while, since the last couple of years have seen the release of more than a few excellent and deliberately old school indie roleplaying games (such as Swords & Sorcery: Underworld, Darklight Dungeon Eternity and Frayed Knights to name just a few). However, if we're talking very specifically about Western first-person/"step-based" dungeon crawlers with really high production values, polished user interfaces and proper budgets behind them, then the latest relevant releases before Legend of Grimrock were arguably DreamForge's Anvil of Dawn and Interplay's Stonekeep way back in the late autumn of 1995 (!). That is well over 16 years ago by now, and since the late 1990s just about the only companies producing this kind of RPG (either realtime or turn-based) have been obscure indie teams on shoestring budgets and Japanese developers of console and handheld games such as Etrian Odyssey, Class of Heroes and Strange Journey.

So, yes, against this particular historical background it's safe to say that Almost Human Games have achieved something historical by breathing new life into genre long since thought dead. This small Finnish developer might theoretically qualify as yet another indie studio, but in reality there's no question that the AAA-level pedigree and modern professionalism this group of seasoned veterans of the game industry bring to the table puts their product in another category entirely than most independently produced RPGs. If nothing else, the simple fact that Grimrock looks and sounds so darn good has resulted in a fair amount of attention and recognition from mainstream sites such as IGN and Destructoid which to the best of my knowledge have not previously been known to cover the indie RPGs scene much at all.

Historical or not, though, the more important question is whether this nostalgia-inducing new release is actually any good? Well, I haven't had much time to check it out yet but as I had anticipated everything about the game feels exactly like a Dungeon Master-style game from 20 years ago, except with a thoroughly modern presentation and an (even more) accessible and streamlined interface. In 1920*1080 the game simply looks stunning and modern features such as dynamic lighting and shadow effects add significantly to the atmosphere, as does the excellent sound design. The overall experience might not quite have the unique flavor of my beloved Dungeon Master 2 - and definitely lacks the goofy charm and character-rich storytelling of a game like Lands of Lore: Throne of Chaos - but as long as we're talking core gameplay mechanics here I think Almost Human have really nailed it with this one. Best of all; despite being an accomplished product on its own this is just the developer's first, relatively hastily thrown together release. If Legend of Grimrock sells well enough, well, who knows what amazing stuff the future may hold...

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Why Dark Souls on PC will very probably save the world

By now the unofficial confirmations regarding a possible upcoming PC port of From Software's unapologetically hardcore action RPG Dark Souls are numerous enough that it's no longer meaningful to file this in the "rumors and wishful thinking" category. With that in mind, here are the top three reasons why I personally think having this game on PC is such a great idea;

1) Ensuring the long-term preservation (as well as incremental enhancement) of a truly great game.

Being able to play old games can be a hassle regardless of platform but console hardware developers such as Microsoft and Sony aren't exactly helping by severely limiting or even going so far as to actively strip out backward compatibility from their dedicated gaming systems, and the infamously subpar quality of (some) so-called "HD" re-releases of late don't inspire much confidence in the motivation of publishers to keep their older console games fully and faithfully playable on future entertainment rigs. Now, the PC platform has its own share of problems - enough of them, in fact, that entire commercial services (such as The Artist Formerly Known as Good Old Games) have sprung up to deal specifically with an increasing demand for easily playable classics patched up to work well with modern computers and OS setups. But the operative term here is "patched", since the inherent flexibility of the PC platform obviously allows both commercial and non-commercial actors to tinker directly with the game files and develop workarounds which adapts or even tricks the product in question to function properly on current operative systems and hardware configurations. An added bonus in this respect is modability, but at least in the case of Dark Souls I have a feeling that the focused design of the game in question makes modding a comparatively superfluous activity. User-made high-res textures, custom shaders etc. make a certain amount of sense but I'd probably put such efforts in the "modern compatibility" column since they don't directly influence gameplay.

It goes without saying that none of this perhaps needlessly pedantic concern with preservation would mean much if the actual product we're concerned with here wasn't worth saving from the slings and arrows of outrageous backward incompatibility in the first place. But despite not actually having played much of Dark Souls myself (I own PS3 copies of both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls but have only played the former game extensively), judging from what has already been written about the grim brilliance of From Software's latest RPG I think it's already fair to say that it's one of the finest releases in its genre during the current hardware generation. Whether or not the cool but not altogether essential online functionality is switched off at some point - and here the PC as a platform could presumably make unofficial networking solutions a viable option - the mere thought of having this challenging, lengthy, multi-layered and extremely replayable RPG experience readily available on digital distribution networks such as Steam etc. for many years to come is enough to warm my old school heart.

2) Increasing the likelihood of more frequent console-to-PC ports of high-quality niche titles.

Provided that all those petition writers and forumites who have expressed their strong desire for a computer version of Dark Souls manage to put their money where their mouths are and actually support this PC release the game could do very well indeed; both immediately at launch and during a longer time frame which includes the inevitable price drops and Steam sales etc. In turn, that would make it somewhat more likely that the recent bout of more or less unexpected PC announcements (including Warren Spector's Epic Mickey 2 and Yakuza developer Toshihiro Nagoshi's Binary Domain) might become a real trend and carry over into the next console era, during which increased technological parity between consoles and PCs should at least in theory make the business of porting a less jarring "oh shit, this looks awful in 1080p"-kind experience.

More specifically, Dark Souls is probably the one big test case in terms of an almost universally acclaimed but still relatively niche title, which in all likelihood would never have been ported if there hadn't been a very vocal demand for it among both ordinary gamers and more professional journalists and media content producers alike. The broadly Westernized aesthetics might seem to make this is a somewhat special case, but I personally doubt that since one would have expected to see a lot more of, say, King's Field on PC if this line of reasoning was correct. Thus, a successful PC port of Dark Souls potentially could play a significant role for future PC releases of previously console-exclusive Japanese games.

3) Promoting a cease-fire in the unhelpful console/PC culture wars.

This third point is rather speculative, and there have admittedly been some not entirely unreasonable arguments made for why Dark Souls - with its' gamepad-oriented control scheme and resolute lack of quickload functions - could very well end up alienating at least those exceedingly dogmatic PC players who conflate platform standards with design imperatives (which even otherwise well-meaning enthusiasts sometimes do). If that indeed turns out to be the case, it's their loss.

However, I do believe that Dark Souls represents a golden opportunity for those often uninformed skeptics who mostly associate console gaming in general with, say, Gears of War and Final Fantasy to discover the rich Japanese subculture of challenging and often surprisingly Western- and/or PC-influenced console titles. Indeed, apart from their most recent titles Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, it's not hard to see why From Software's focused gameplay and understated art design have enabled them to make a breakthrough of sorts in the West at the exact same time that some of the Eastern heavyweights such as Square-Enix are disappearing further down the rabbit holeof tired JRPG conventions. Ideally, Dark Souls could serve as a rebuttal both to the notion that all Japanese games are messy, impenetrable and influenced by the least tasteful anime imaginable as well as the embarrassingly wide-spread idea that console games by definition are dumbed-down and shallow compared to PC games.

But, yeah, all I really wanted to say with this is that it sure is nice to know that there's going to be at least one version of this game without the much-discussed frame rate issues in Blight Town...

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Age of Fear 1.4.0 - Tactical turn-based combat with RPG elements

Some of you might remember Age of Fear: The Undead King, a turn-based wargame with strong RPG elements I briefly mentioned on this blog about a year ago now. Well, since then developer Leszek Sliwko has released tons of free updates adding more detailed graphics, multiplayer options, new units, extra upgrades, balance tweaks, code optimizations, camera options and much more to make an already rock solid tactical game bigger and better.

While the first few battles of Age of Fear include a very small number of units on screen at any given time, the scale of the skirmishes quickly ramps up. Holding the line is crucial in this game, since the AI will immediately seize on any opportunity to go after the player's archers, mages and monks. There are often distinct groups of enemies on the map, and it soon becomes clear that the different parts of the enemy force perform their own unique tactical functions on the battlefield. The gameplay does not include height variations to consider but as there's no grid-based movement in AoF the positioning of units requires a bit more thought than in most turn-based strategy games. In particular, it's easy (perhaps a bit too easy) to create bottlenecks in the battle line which limit your own attack abilities more than it protects your weaker units.

The game's campaigns are broken up into self-contained missions but the player gets to keep surviving troops from the previous battle; an interesting gameplay mechanic which always reminds me of Homeworld. The persistent unit economy is a crucial factor since soldiers gain XP on an individual basis and recruiting advanced versions is costly compared to making low-level units more experienced by having them kill enemies on the battlefield and then get out alive. Gold is awarded between missions and spent on buying and upgrading units, and any remaining gold likewise carries over to the next army-building session. The inherent risk with such a system is of course that, unlike in most games, Pyrrhic victories are quite possible; i.e. you can win battles with heavy losses and still make progress in the game but sooner or later find yourself unable to proceed because you simply don't have enough good units or money to stay ahead of the difficulty curve. Thankfully, AoF allows unlimited saves both during and between battles (and even includes autosaves during each turn of the current battle); making it easy to return to an earlier stage in the game if things get rough.

Considering the two full campaigns included and extensive support for stand-alone skirmishes I can think of few better ways to spend $15 for fans of serious turn-based combat. Most important of all, though, is that Mr Sliwko is currently hard at work on a sequel called Age of Fear 2: The Chaos Lords which will include a total of 70+ unique units, a completely new faction, fearsome boss creatures and even smarter AI. Any additional AoF copies sold will surely help the development of AoF2...

Official web site: http://www.age-of-fear.net/

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The Downfall of the Occident: "Age of Decadence" Demo Out Now

I've been following the development of indie studio Iron Tower Studio's Age of Decadence for several years now, and it's no exaggeration to say that it's one of the most promising hardcore PC RPGs in a long time. The game is nothing short of a Fallout-inspired isometric/turn-based RPG set in a rich pseudo-historical setting (strongly resembling late Antiquity/early Middle Ages) built from the ground up to support player choice, with lots of non-combat skills which have a major impact on the overall gameplay experience. Combat has intentionally been made the most difficult approach to finishing quests (rather than the default option, as in most RPGs), since you don't start out as a particularly capable warrior at all and going up against a numerically superior enemy is supposed to be as bad an idea in AoD as it is in real life...

The first time I took part in spreading the word about this game was way back in 2008 (when it was also mentioned on RPS), and even then the project had been going on for quite some time already. There have been significant delays along the way but unlike a few other implausible ambitious RPG projects out there (Grimoire, anyone?), AoD is not some vaporware threatening to dissolve into mere rumors; this is very much a real thing and a tremendous amount of work has already been put into everything from the graphics engine to the skill system, dialogue and quest design. None of the developers work on this full time, though, and given the sheer scope and scale of the project progress is understandably slow.

A short (and in my view somewhat underwhelming) combat teaser was released a while back, but now all fans of serious RPGs have a great opportunity to finally check out a much larger and more refined chunk (called "public beta") of the game, experiment with different character builds and experience how the chosen character class affects both the story and the gameplay options. It's not a game for everyone, though, and during my brief time with the new demo so far I've had some amount of trouble figuring out where to go and what to do despite some reasonably clear quest introductions, a seemingly helpful journal and many ways to go about solving a particular problem. Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention or maybe the available options will be better telegraphed in the final game, but in either case it's fair to say that careful attention to dialogue, thorough exploration of the environments and a knack for specializing characters properly (jack of all trades need not bother; AoD's skill system is all about making uncomfortable choices) are all necessary to get something out of this purposefully methodical RPG.

Download the public beta for free at:

http://www.irontowerstudio.com/

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The Sky is the Limit: Wasteland 2's Kickstarter exceeds 1 million

The Kickstarter project for Wasteland 2 has exceeded $1,000,000 in just over 2 days time. That's already a pretty remarkable achievement, but I really hope the donations keep trickling in during the entire month (!) remaining until the project is finished and our credit cards actually get charged. From reading the official Kickstarter page, one certainly gets the sense that there's a lot of room for the scope and scale of the game to grow incrementally with each additional donation beyond the bare minimum which was required to ensure that the development and release of Wasteland 2 is practically possible. I for one threw in an additional $50 as soon as it became bleedingly obvious that the project was going to reach and exceed it's intended goal of 900K, and even for more cautious and sensible people than me there's obviously always the option to add an extra $5 or $10 to their existing $15-50 pledge. Indeed, especially for small donors the deal has been sweetened now that the project is getting bigger than was initially planned and they're going to get an (increasingly) ambitious game for a very reasonable price which even most truly independent RPG developers can't compete with.

With so much money already being pledged, it's easy to see that a lot of different hopes and dreams are being involved here. Some players probably just want a cool new post-apocalyptic game which isn't structured quite the same way that Bethesda's Fallout titles were. Others may care deeply about the choices and consequences and difficult moral choices which are often associated with older and less linear RPGs. As has been previously mentioned, what's most important for me personally is the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of actual turn-based combat combined with a freely customizable party of characters and a reasonably deep stats system to go with it. If former Interplay overseer Brian Fargo had sought funding for, say, an Infinity Engine-like game with pause-and-play combat I would have been much less interested in contributing (a lot of) money no matter what cool settings, good writing or fancy plot devices it might have been associated with.

In either case, I think all of our expectations for Wasteland 2 actually says a lot more about how incredibly narrow the publisher-driven mainstream RPG market has become recently than it does about the supposed fluidity of Fargo's fan-funded and to some extent fan-directed project. After all, you don't get a whole lot more specific than "party-based Western roleplaying game with turn-based combat and a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-inspired setting". That specificity was undeniably one of the major stumbling blocks for publishers, but it's just as clearly one of the current project's real strengths. Like others have said before me, beyond my own narrow concerns I really hope the video game industry is willing to learn some lessons from the Kickstarter phenomena; especially in terms of what medium-sized developers with clearly defined goals and a very loyal audience can accomplish.

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A New Hope: Wasteland 2 on Kickstarter

Today I pledged $300 to veteran game designer Brian Fargo's Kickstarter project for Wasteland 2. There's obviously a real risk that the actual game - which only exists in a few design docs at this point - happens to be less than good, but irrespective of how this particular project turns out it has now been more or less a decade since a non-indie developer published a party-based Western RPG with turn-based combat (I would count Troika Games' Temple of Elemental Evil in 2003 as more or less the last one). And I'm sick and tired of merely complaining about this sad state of affairs; I want to do something about it. There really needs to be enough room in the video game industry for what has been called "big niches" (such as, say, point-and-click adventure games or traditional RPGs) to exist alongside the artsy indie projects on the one hand and the Call of Duties and World of Warcrafts on the other. Thus, I've now clearly stated my willingness - should the Kickstarter project reach its goal of 900K, that is - to invest/spend/throw away a rather sizeable chunk of disposable income in the mere promise of a new turn-based RPG; simply because I care a lot about sophisticated interactive entertainment and am willing to put my money where my mouth is. Publishers all over the world, take note...

Do you also like classic Western roleplaying games like Wasteland, Bard's Tale and Fallout? Well, then I'd strongly recommend that you pledge/donate a few bucks or more at; http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/inxile/wasteland-2

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The Sense of an Ending: Preliminary Thoughts on Mass Effect 3

Note: This blog post was written without any knowledge about the overblown ME3 ending controversy - I'm simply not entagled enough in the intricate web of gaming community grapevines to have picked up on all that stuff before the release of the game - and for the record I think it changes little about my overall impression of the game nor has any real impact on these general, preliminary remarks below.

With Mass Effect 3, it's very easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Using EA's bombardment of ME3-related news and trailers as their dubious data points, everything from the addition of a multiplayer mode to the unorthodox choose-your-playing-style option and even the new default appearance of the female Commander Shepard has been meticulously scrutinized, picked apart and extrapolated from in pretty wild ways by anxious fans fearing the worst; as people tend to do whenever they care passionately about something and it isn't clear what the future holds.

But with this game it's more important than ever to focus on the basic facts, because they are spectacular enough on their own. With the completion of its ambitious sci-fi trilogy, Bioware has pulled off a grand 5-year experiment the likes of which the gaming industry has simply never seen before. Sure, there are lots of classic RPGs which have allowed importing save files from previous installments; my personal favorite example being the implausible long-lived "Dark Savant" story arch from Wizardry 6-8 (published inbetween 1990 and 2001 (!)). But any such previous attempts are utterly dwarfed by the scale and sheer audacity of what Bioware set out to accomlish with the Mass Effect games, which include a staggering amount of big and small decisions all being carefully carried over (in some way or another) from each of the two first parts of trilogy and brought to bear upon the third and final chapter in the epic Reaper saga. EA's desperate marketing pitch about new players being able to jump right into ME3 is not only wrong; it's also a rather disingenuous invitation to miss the point completely about what makes this game - and the fact that it even exists at all - so remarkable.

Now, judged very narrowly in terms of the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of the Western RPG as traditionally conceived, ME1-3 are in some ways all too predictable examples of a genre schizophrenically (although in this case also rather competently) incorporating the outwards trappings of action games and by doing so arguably getting further and further away from what, for better and worse, used to define the genre. However, when viewed from the broader perspective of making significant advances in interactive storytelling and player engagement in a fictional world fraught with meaning and emotional resonance, there's no question in my mind that Mass Effect as a whole represents a ground-breaking, historic achievement in interactive entertainment. Even for someone like me (who complained that a game like Witcher 2 strayed too far from the stats- and turn-based roots of hardcore RPGs), it becomes downright silly to think about Mass Effect solely in terms of how it does or does not conform to certain long-established tropes of the genre. For all Bioware's somewhat abrupt changes of direction along the way (involving everything from combat controls to class system, levelling up mechanics and the overall tone and atmosphere etc.) which have made these past 5 years into a bumpy and emotional ride for many fans, the series is a sui generis in video gaming and easily stands on its own regardless of whatever quibbles one might have over mere genre classifications. It's far from perfect but it's certainly unique, and that ultimately matters more - especially in an AAA landscape in which playing it safe has long since become the norm...

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