Blaugust Day 24 – Shadowrun: Hong Kong – a brief review

You can get it on Steam.

It’s what I ended up playing the most this weekend, and although I’m only a little ways into it (I think) I figured a brief review wouldn’t hurt for those who are considering picking it up. Note that this, like any other review I might do, is entirely subjective and does not aim to offer anything but my own impressions.

I backed the Kickstarter campaign awhile back, not because I’m a Shadowrun PC game fan (I didn’t even know there had been any) but because I’m a Shadowrun the tabletop game fan. I had the first edition rules and a few modules, and for me Shadowrun is probably the tabletop game that got away — we played it a few times and I was keen to do more, but after the usual romp through D&D / AD&D our group went down the White Wolf path and into all things Vampire for a while before transitioning into Ars Magica, which is what we played for several years until I left for the States in 2001. (And what the group is still playing as far as I know. Without me. Bastards! I know some of you read this!)

Mr. Plastic-Face. Shouldn’t be creepy but is.

All of which is to explain that I approached the game as a tabletop role-player and not as a computer gamer. I had no particular expectations of the game other than that it would allow me to immerse myself in the rather fun Shadowrun mythos for a while. For an approach based more on having played the two previous PC games, check out Wot I Think on RPS; I agree with a lot of it from what I’ve played so far, but I wanted to add my own take on the tabletop or more RPG elements.

The intro is a rainy, grainy, typical cyberpunk/noir tale of things gone wrong shown through a series of moody and evocative semi-animated panels. Some will no doubt miss the grand and expensive full-action cinematic, but I loved the format because it leaves more room for my own imagination to fill in the blanks.

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After that you’re thrown into a normal computer-RPG adventure where you track down mysteries, deal with NPCs good and bad, help the downtrodden or do the treading, and gradually unravel both your own main story and the stories of the group that’s decided to help you out.

RPS is right in saying that there’s a lot of text, but — though I didn’t know it when I started — that was exactly what I wanted from this game. It’s been like playing a tabletop adventure where I’m the only meatsack player and everyone else is computerised, including the GM. The descriptions are long, ornate, even florid on occasion… and they bring me right back to the grand old days of reading out boxed text from Castle Greyhawk or the Temple of Elemental Evil. (It didn’t take us long to grow up from purely parroting those out to doing our own flavour and descriptions, but still, boxed text is just one of those things you never forget.)

Heoi

I’ve even kept the music on, which is something I literally never do in games because no matter how long the loop may be, it’s always a loop. And it’s often way too rumpty-pumpty martial or deedly-wheedly fake-Medieval for me to be able to bear it scritching at my brain for more than a few minutes at a time. The SR:HK music is low-key for the most part and well-adapted to the environments, although it does go up and down in volume in certain locations with no apparent rhyme or reason. I can live with that – even though I’ve kept the music turned on, I’ve also got the volume for it down to about 30%.

The exploration gameplay is fairly standard – click to move, right-click to pan, click on things to interact with them – and the combat gameplay is probably nothing too new either (I wouldn’t know, I don’t play many of these games). It’s turn-based and was quite easy to pick up on. This is a plus for me, since I’m far more interested in the story than in the combat.

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But it does lead me to one of the game’s failings, which is the utter lack of a tutorial. There are a few help screens that are more useful as a reminder than as an introduction, and basically that’s your lot. Fortunately I elected to play on Easy mode — because as I said, I’m far more interested in the story — and wasn’t penalised too badly for making the odd mistake; and after a few fights you pick up most of what you need to know. But still. There’s zero help on the Matrix and what you might want to do in there, or how, so it’s a good thing I’m a cyberpunk fan and could figure most of it out for myself.

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In the Matrix

There’s no real help on how stats and skills work, what builds you might want to use and how you might want to develop your character, other than rather ironic warnings that you don’t want to mess up your own development or that of your crew, because you can’t go back and that would be bad!

In fact after a few hours of play I restarted with a new character, partly because I did mess up my xp allocation a bit and partly because the archetype I chose (Decker, i.e. hacker) was already far better covered by one of my crewmates. My second character is a shaman and although there’s one of those on the crew also, two shamans on the same mission crew isn’t as redundant as having two deckers.

I played quite a lot over the weekend so I’m probably a dozen hours in. Not being very well-versed in these games I’m not sure how far into things I am, but it feels like I’ve just hit the opening of the second act — not even, in fact, because I have a couple of missions I want to wrap up before I move on (and the game kindly reminded me to consider doing just that). I’m a very slow player in these games because I like to read everything, talk to everyone, and interact with every last object, so a super goal-oriented playstyle might have got to the same point in 2-3 hours if not faster.

My character choices throughout have been consistent with the persona I play in most games: street-smart, cynical, skimming on the border between legal and not, but generally a decent person. I give NPCs the benefit of the doubt and let people live when they surrender (including the rather fun ghoul crew-member you can get). I try to find non-violent solutions where possible, and the game gives you quite a few of these and fully supports not killing everything in sight. I don’t shoot my mouth off too much — just enough to exemplify my characters’ usual distaste for any kind of authority. And so on.

vamp queen

All in all I’m having a great time, as evidenced by the fact that I totally forgot that I’d invited folks to check out the ARK server I can fire up when needed. ARK didn’t get loaded up at all; nothing did, actually, since SR:HK was the only game I did play this weekend.

I’ll definitely play some more as soon as time allows, and this might be the one and only SRPG game of the last 10 years I actually finish. For some reason I usually lose steam about two-thirds of the way through (DA:O, DA2, DA:I…). But I have a feeling that SR:HK’s combination of screen-based running around and text-based depth is exactly what I’m looking for in a SRPG. Yes, it has a few flaws — the lack of newbie help, for one, and the rather unwieldy inventory and team UIs; for example, I can’t check my crew’s stats when trying to buy weapons or armour for them — is that because their gear updates (which it may do, but not in any way that’s been mentioned to me in game) or because they forgot to include that functionality?

But ultimately, when it came down to spending crowdfunding on tutorials or content — as I’m sure it did — I’m glad they opted for content. I’m at a little over a dollar an hour for my entertainment right now and that’s excellent value for money in my book.

 

 

 

Reviews: Ur Doin’ It Wrong

wrong-mike

Having seen this article over at Sarcastic Gamer, on the need for platform specificity when reviewing a game — in this case, Dragon Age: Origins, since that’s what everyone is talking about this week — and given that the author feels the need to call reviewers moronic, I want to clarify a few things for such of my readers as may actually give a shit. I’m not taking that article personally at all — the author doesn’t know me from Adam, or in this case Eve, but it did make me think.

(I happen to agree about the need for specificity when reviewing anything that comes in different flavours.)

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll already know that I don’t OWN any consoles. I won’t debate why. I’m not anti-console at all, I just don’t happen to have any in the house at the moment, and that may not change for some time. Therefore anything I play, I play on my PC. Besides which this is (mostly) a blog about MMOs, and last I checked you can’t really play MMOs on consoles.

For those of you who are new here, here’s the 411: I. Don’t. Do. Console. Reviews.

So if you read anything here, you can be 10 out of 10, 100%, A+ certain that it’s about a PC version.

Ahhh, that’s better. I don’t feel like quite so much of a moron now, nor nearly as shameless as I was before.

This post was not sponsored by anyone and I haven’t been paid. (Remember, the Endorsement Police Are Watching.)

Dragon Age review: second third fourth fifth…

Let’s start off with the traditional gamer apology: Ahhh, I didn’t do NaNoWriMo and I didn’t do all my chores and I didn’t quite finish all my work because… I was playing Dragon Age: Origins.

Point the second: yes, this is another DA:O review and impressions thing. You’ll be seeing a lot of that in the next few days and weeks. You know why?

Because the game is just THAT good.

Tertio: I’ll try really hard to put no spoilers at all in this post. Spoilers are just empty calories!

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"So, cake or death." -- "Orly?" -- "Ya rly. If you fail, you die."

I must have been one of the lucky ones, because the installation went without a hitch, the configuration utility figured out its settings quite accurately, and there were zero problems trying to get into the game. Well, apart from the fact that my character creator chars get morphed into fugly bastards (or byotches) when I import them, but that wasn’t very hard to get around.

Just one thing I thought was weird: the installer — at least on the CE version, though I’d imagine they’re all the same — doesn’t create a shortcut to the game. That puzzled me for a minute, considering that everything wants to put at least two, better yet five! shortcuts in every possible place (and several anatomically unlikely ones) it can think of. However, the handy dandy configuration utility does come with a “Make desktop shortcut” option … in the repair section. Not my idea of extreme good organisation but hey, it’s just a shortcut. If you don’t know how to make your own by now you probably shouldn’t be near computers without adult supervision.

As you probably know by now, there’s this whole “Look how freaking 1337 I am!! {mypage.bioware.dragonage.epeen.com}” social networking thing going on with Dragon Age too, where the game will take screenshots and update your characters and whatnot on this newfangled internets. It’s worth noting that this is very easily turn on-and-offable in the options. I turned it off to begin with, because I’ve always hated that kind of thing (WoWArmory and Thottbot being two examples) and I’m borderline militia-gun-stocking-paranoid-peering-weirdo when it comes to the internet and my illusion of privacy. Then I turned it back on again, because it was pretty unintrusive, didn’t impact performance in any way I could measure, and I discovered I wasn’t paranoid enough to care.

(Quick tangent: that site is a pain in the ass to navigate. The main bioware player stuff site is fine, but you have to hit MyGames–>DragonAge[platform] to get to the Dragon Age stuff, and once you’re there there is NO easy way to navigate. If you hit the manage characters link, there’s no way back save through the browser. And so on. Yeah, it’s beta, which is why I’m not foaming at the mouth and ranting. But it’s pretty shoddy right now.)

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"Dude, not against the wall!"

As for the game itself… It’s not just better than I expected it would be. It’s a LOT better than I expected it would be. These days, I assume a product’s touted greatness is 95% hype, 3% truth, and 2% pure bullshit; well, DA;O is, so far, 99% pure win. (I’m too cheap and not far enough in to give it 100%.)

Each possible origin has its own introduction, and this is no mere 30-second trailer, oh no. At my pace, it’s several hours of adventuring and interaction and lore-reading (a lot of lore reading) and trying to stuff everything that isn’t nailed down into my pockets. My invisible pockets, in the case of the Daelish elf.

I’ve only managed a couple of the “origins” parts of Dragon Age: Origins — a Daelish rogue and a human Mage — but I intend to try all six. This is Syp’s fault, but it’s a brilliant idea. I’m going to experience them before I know too much about the game and the story, and it’ll give me a chance to see if a clear favourite emerges from the pack. Just because I’m a proud, card-carrying member of Elves Aren’t Bad doesn’t mean I’m utterly incapable of playing anyone else. In fact so far my human Mage, Antimony, is ahead in terms of sheer personality and buzz-cut Buddhist nun-look coolness. Plus, her spells are pretty badass.

Antimony_001
"You're gross, yet oddly cute. Can I take you home?"

Hrm… what else to write that isn’t spoilerish? The UI is clean and works well, at least at 1920×1200, though double-clicking is a little unresponsive sometimes and the now-you-see-me!/now-you-don’t right click context menu (on some items) is a little counter-intuitive. That’s probably because the game has you right clicking to interact with most things, but to interact with items in inventory you need to right click and hold. I usually end up right clicking 2 or 3 times before I remember. It’s a minor thing, anyway. Other than that the UI is quite nice, which probably makes it wtfbbqgreat! for less sadistically critical people.

Combat is fluid and fairly easy to control even for someone who — like me — is kind of a noob at this type of gameplay. I picked easy mode to begin with because I was afraid I’d get my ass kicked by the first rat I needed to kill, but I could have selected normal and done just fine. Now that I know this, I can change settings on the fly, which is another nice touch.

Oh, and the journal has a Codex section that contains all the stuff you learn as you go along. This is pretty standard in RPGs these days, but this one is done quite well. It’s very easy to see when you have new entries and they’re very easy to read. As an extra bonus, they’re really excellently written. My mage char had a butt-ton of lore to read, as you might expect (hey, I see books lying around, I read ’em!), but it didn’t really intrude on my gaming. I would play a bit, collect lore and stuff as I went, and then take a few minutes now and then to read the details. It worked very well.

The graphics are pretty good. Actually, they’re excellent, especially the landscapes. The characters aren’t bad, though I’m not a huge fan of the somewhat wooden standing pose (as shown in some of the screenies above). The knees are a little too bent, the legs are a little too far apart, and the hands are a little too far from the body — at least on female characters. I have a sneaking suspicion that the male pose was used as the basis for the female one, and it just doesn’t look quite right. On the whole though it’s not something I really notice unless I’m being critical and staring at screenshots.

"I think this gore-splatter is rather tastefully done, myself."

The gore is … okay. I’ve left it on for now, because scenes and locations are changing often enough at this stage that my characters don’t stay grossly gory for too long. It’s definitely more cartoon-goreish than anything else, which means I’m not bothered by it. I’m not sure how much grit and grimness it adds — but I haven’t turned it off either, so maybe it does add something. In any case, that too is easily turned on and off.

And then, of course, there are the… er, what are they called? Cutscenes? Stuff where you’re not controlling your character. Well, there’s a lot of those. When I first saw how very many there were I got a bit dubious, but in fact it’s been quite seamlessly integrated, and if it suddenly stops once you’re out of the first few sections I’ll end up being quite disappointed. I doubt it will though, because it looks like the cinematic dialogue thing was worked into the whole fabric of the game — and when it’s constant and consistent like that, I have to admit, it’s pretty damn good.

eloise_003

The only downside of that, as I think Syp already pointed out, is that one’s own character remains strangely mute while all the other characters are happily babbling away. The only way we can talk is by picking conversation options, and we never actually say anything in these scenes; the only time the voice option is used is during normal play, where you get the usual “I’m out of mana! Argh! I’m dying” and “I’m on it!” type comments. I can understand the difficulty in doing anything else, but the game is so ambitious and succeeds so well (from my very limited experience) that it’s a real shame the main character is always going to be silent.

What else can I say without actually saying anything about the story? The story is, in fact, the major part of this game, and that’s exactly as it should be. Apparently one’s conversation choices will have an impact throughout a character’s odyssey, but since everyone claims that these days I’m taking it with a grain of salt. All the same, I’m intentionally NOT exploring absolutely every available conversation option with every single available NPC — not just because some of those things just aren’t things my character would say, but also because in many cases you’re supposed to be in a hurry to see someone else or do something else, and I take those hurry-ups seriously. I know I probably shouldn’t, because games never seem to actually say “Ah, sorry, you were supposed to hurry to talk to the old mystic and instead you dilly-dallied about the camp opening every damn box and chest and stuffing your pockets, and now the guy you were supposed to go and save… well, he’s dead. Abort, retry, restart?” But they should, and I’m still hoping that this one might. Even if it doesn’t, that’s how I play. Don’t tell me we’re in a tearing hurry to save the world then let me faff about scratching my butt for three days — that’s immersion-breaking.

Antimony_003
"No, I'm Antimony, not Sinnead. Who's Sinnead?"

But lo, there was story, and the story is good. I don’t even mind watching NPCs ignore me while they’re arguing with each other, especially not if I get the option to tell kings something like “You’d have to get really lucky” when they ask if they might know my name. Gotta love sass.

I’d give the voice acting 8 out of 10, and I’m really, REALLY mean when it comes to tearing apart crappy dialogue and wooden voices. So far the worst offenders were the three hapless humans my Daelish rogue (Eloise) encountered right at the start of her Origins — the characters aren’t very well done artistically, and they’re not all that well acted either. However, it only got better from there until I was well and truly sucked in. There are a few famous and semi-famous names on that voice acting roster, too: Kate Mulgrew (the gravelly she of Voyager), Tim Curry (always a winner!), Steve Valentine (best-known to me as Nigel the forensics guy in Crossing Jordan), Claudia Black (Farscape, SG1) and others whose names are too small for me to read without my contacts.

So what does all this amount to? If you liked Baldur’s Gate then you’ll probably love this. I didn’t play that game much because my computing power was totally gimped back then and because I found the whole party UI thing incredibly frustrating — but mostly because I couldn’t get the game to run reliably and decently. For that and various other reasons, the whole party-RPG thing kind of passed me by until Neverwinter Nights 1 (not the AOL version), which was enjoyable though ended up being a damn sight more fun as something you played with other — real — people.

I seem to recall reading something to the effect that there were no multiplayer plans for DA:O. But if that’s true, why is one of the installation folders (dragonage –> modules) called “single player”? Eh? Riddle me that, Batman!

Anyway — if you don’t have DA:O and you’re wondering whether you should, I hope this (and the million other reviews) was useful in helping you decide. If you’re planning on getting it but not right now, that’s fine. Get it whenever — it’s not like the gameplay will degrade if you don’t get it right now. The only difficulty you might have is avoiding spoilers, though to be blunt anyone with the teeniest sense of plot can guess that the Origins parts don’t go well for one’s character. After all, they have to have a reason to leave what they’re doing and head out into the wider world…

Gah! The Spoiler Police are beating down my door! /flees

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