Friday, July 27, 2012

Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition release date announced

Baldur's Gate (1998), a computer role-playing ...
Baldur's Gate (1998), a computer role-playing game based on Dungeons & Dragons (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The big to-do right now in D&D RPG land is the return of Baldur's Gate, specifically Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition.  BGEE is a project by BeamDog, and directed by Trent Oster of the NWN development team, that is essentially taking the old BG code, cleaning it up, adjusting it so that it can work on modern computers (and iPads...), and re-releasing it on September 18.  It will cost $20, and the pre-orders cost $2 less.

I'm pretty torn about this.  On one hand, I'm excited to see this happen, because Baldur's Gate was one of those games that defined me as an rpg-oriented gamer.  I remember well the hours spent exploring the countryside of the Sword Coast, and the thrill of finding new areas for adventure in the countryside.  I played BG as a D&D novice, so I'm interested to see what would happen if I took the game on now.

On the other hand, I also remember it being a preposterously long game.  I have pretty limited time to play games and am finally getting back into Neverwinter Nights 1/2 after a long time away.  I have TONS of modules to play that use wonderful 3D engines, 3/3.5 rules, and have tight, directed stories that can be completed in 5-20 hours.  I'm not that excited--at least on the surface--about returning to the days of THAC0, sprites, fog of war, etc.  I had something of a love/hate relationship with the Infinity Engine, and I wonder if going back to it would be nostalgic fun...or an exercise in frustration.

On top of all that, I still have my BG1 and BG2 CD's.  I don't know if it would work on this computer, but I could give it a try.  And the NWN2 remake of Baldur's Gate, by drechner and company, is due out at around a similar time to BGEE.  

My hunch is that I will go ahead and grab this.  It would be a fun mobile game to have on the laptop (laptop can't run NWN, and definitely not NWN2) or iPad, and will be great for nostalgia.  But I'll probably wait to see how the release goes.  If Trent Oster's twitter feed is any indication, they are still pushing through bugs and user interface issues.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Review: Harp and Chrysanthemum

Having finally finished Storm of Zehir, and punted on Mask of the Betrayer, I found myself a few nights ago finally ready to return to the wonderful world of NWN2 modules.  It's been five years since I launched a NWN2 mod.  Amazing.  I can't remember who said it, but around the time I was leaving the community, someone mentioned in a comment (I think--couldn't find it) that Harp and Chrysanthemum was a pretty good reason to come back and start playing again.  Whoever said that was right.  I had been following this module pretty closely while it was developed, and have long been a fan of Maerduin's earlier work (e.g. The Birthday)  Here are my comments on Harp:

Area design and use of cutscenes, by themselves,
make this module groundbreaking
My vote: 10 - A Masterpiece, Genuinely Groundbreaking
Character: Mers Fener, a level 4 Barbarian, previously had adventured in Once Upon A Time..., leveled up in FRWCC.  Advanced to level 6 by the end of the module.

This is a really spectacular module.  It is stunning, evocative, and powerful.  While not perfect, where it excels it is so amazing that it overshadows its few flaws and drawbacks.

Harp and Chrysanthemum features the most spectacularly designed areas I've seen in NWN2.  Far more so than anything you see in the official campaigns, Maerduin makes brilliant use of vertical scale in many of his areas.  The main town in the module, Drawn Swords, is a shining example of this, and is a major feature of the module.  On top of his area design skills, the author creatures powerful--if not chill-inducing--moments with his expert use of cinematic cut scenes that showcase his areas, as well as custom music.  I have never seen better use of the camera than the author achieved in this module; it should be required viewing for any aspiring modder who wants to learn how to do it right.

Don't cross the line, Orc.
The story is fascinating, and is told largely via the interactions of strongly developed NPC's.  You begin the module in the company of a rogue, an old friend, and shortly thereafter are joined by a paladin.  The paladin, in particular, is a wonderful character.  In many ways, she's tragic: seemingly cold and powerful, but, as you soon learn, also vulnerable and insecure.  It's been quite a while since a character came alive before me like she did in this module--perhaps not since playing some of Alazander's old modules.  Moreover, the story is punctuated by dramatic moments that had me saying "oh my god!" to my screen.

This is not to say that the module is perfect.  As many have said in the module's comments page, the combat is quite challenging.  I initially tried to let my barbarian lead the charge, but quickly found that I needed to boost the paladin's armor class as much as possible and let her tank, only allowing the others to join after the enemies had her surrounded.  Challenging combat isn't a bad thing off hand, but it was even necessary to micro-manage to this degree on "random encounter" monsters.  Some of these monsters were on respawn triggers, at times re-spawning shockingly close to the party, which became really annoying.  At one point, I just ran through an area with the paladin, just allowing the other party members to fall to the monsters, because I just wanted to get back to the inn in town and rest.  On top of all this, even decent healing supplies, such as potions of moderate healing, are in limited supply--though you can buy an extremely expensive liquor at the bar that works just as well, if you have the coin.  Often, you don't.

It's not just the outdoor areas that are spectacular.
On top of some combat frustration, I ran into several bugs.  One innocuous one resulted in the town leader materializing in the middle of town without any scripts attached to him.  At one point, another copy of that same leader had a conversation with my characters and walked right past his clone on his way back to his shop.  I also somehow completely missed what was supposed to be an earlier encounter with some elven tomb defenders.  This made a later conversation with them extremely confusing.

But what this module does right it just does so well that I can't let myself get hung up on those problems.  The author's attention to detail, from the area design, to the stories on each custom item, to some of the charming side quests (the dryad was a favorite), to the fact that (if I remember correctly) the author actually recorded several pieces of the custom music himself, is unsurpassed.  Objectively, maybe this module is a 9.  But I experienced such a genuine, emotional connection to the story and its characters that I can't justify anything other than a 10.  It's not perfect, but I can't imagine a way in which this module can't be considered legitimately groundbreaking.

More screenies below the jump

Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: Storm of Zehir

My vote: 8 - Excellent, Recommended to Anyone (based on engine enhancements more than the game itself)
Party: Human Cleric, Half-Orc Fighter, Wood Elf Ranger/Rogue, and Sun Elf Wizard/Arcane Scholar

I've tried to keep the spoilers pretty light throughout this review, in case there is still anyone else out there who hasn't played the game.

Plot hook: as part of a small adventuring party, you set off for Samarach aboard the Vigiliant, a vessel owned by the Samarch merchant, Sa'Sani.  As the ship approaches Samarch, however, it suffers a collosal explosion and runs aground south of Samargol.  After a thrilling battle with the local goblins, Sa'Sani protects you from arrest at the hands of the Samarch guards in exchange for your service.  As you set forth on a variety of missions for her, you become embroiled in a scheme that affects not only Samarach, but the sword coast and even the gods themselves.

Storm of Zehir, the second expansion to Neverwinter Nights 2, started very well.  The initial adventures on Samarch were simple but full of terrific atmosphere.  There were dinosaurs(!), wonderfully developed goblin cultures, hidden black markets, dinosaurs(!), and the glimpses of what could be an exciting plot.  The game is visually stunning, with loads of new placeables and monster models for modders to play with.  Unfortunately, while the first quarter or so of the game were full of adventure, I found that the middle portion fell a bit flat.  As I wrote last month, the sandboxy style of the game can lead to your characters running into encounters that they clearly are not ready for or intended to experience.  While you can say what you will about realism, I ultimately just found it to be frustrating.

Furthermore, many parts of the story seemed poorly executed.  The main plot with Sa'Sani and her company's struggles felt a bit chaotic at times.  Things happen fast.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, but without some build-up or foreshadowing, it sometimes seemed forced.  This was even more severe with several of the side quests.  There's a big one involving Port Llast that seemed as though I missed several long, important events to foreshadow what ultimately happened.  It was really disappointing, as it had good potential.

That said, there were some real gems among the sidequests.  My favorite were invariably the ones in which you just went off to explore a mysterious area.  My personal favorite happened early in the game when you were asked to explore the remains of what had been the home of three wizards who lost control of their Djinn.  The story is told via scraps of paper, items, and the occasional warnings of a pixie who still lives in the tower.  It's brilliantly done.

The big innovation of the game was the overland travel map and the accompanying merchant system.  The overland maps were beautiful, and in many ways I really enjoyed the sense of scale and wholeness that they added to the game.  But after the first several hours of gameplay, travel on the map became a chore.  Even while boosting survival skill to maximize the speed of my team, travel on the map was slow and bogged down gameplay.  I also found myself almost always avoiding random encounters, which is easy to do once you have sufficient hide skill...and that made me question why they were even there.  The only times I did have to deal with encounters were when either a) the game (annoyingly) switched back to my cleric party leader after a load screen, or b) I forgot to get back to my ranger after a conversation.  By the end of the game, I was using portals as much as was possible, and avoiding the map at all costs.  There were some quests that I didn't complete largely because I didn't want to trek long enough to complete them.

The merchantile system also didn't do it for me.  I get the concept, but setting up caravan routes all over the sword coast was tiresome and a major gold suck early...and then, by the end of the game, it was generating so much revenue that I could never possibly spend it all.  It had its moments, but I doubt I'll ever want to do something like that again in a nwn2 module.

Combat along the main plot was generally fun and well balanced.  I found the final dungeon, including the final battle, to be particularly fun and engaging.  Other areas were severely unbalanced for my characters at the time they first experienced them, with little to warn me that this was to be so.  As a result, there were an annoying number of times that I had to reload a game after stumbling upon a battle for which I was hopelessly overmatched.

Also...perhaps this is just because of the amount of time I spent in nwn modules, but I think I prefer small parties with a focus on character development.  The SoZ model, with four user-generated characters plus two NPCs, doesn't work as well for me.  It was hard to develop much personality for my four characters, and in many ways they were little more than hired thugs throughout the game.  Plus, there seemed to be far less mechanical detail than was needed in the chat window, which got really annoying.

Overall, I think this is one of those games that tried some neat things, won some small victories, but ultimately fell short of what it might have been.  It did enough right that I think it's definitely worth a try.  I'm glad I played.  But I'm also glad that I finished.  If we're judging it for the sake of the game itself, it's a 7 (Very Good, Deserves a Look).  If we're judging it for all of the extensions and fixes of the engine that the expansion brought, it's a 9 (Outstanding, a Must Have).  I'll vote 8 and leave it at that.

More screenies after the jump...