Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tales from the Lake of Sorrows

My Character: level 1 Blessed Soul, reached 13 (almost 14) by the module's end.
Time Played: ...50 hours?  More?
My Vote: 10 - A Masterpiece, Genuinely Groundbreaking

A delightful little hamlet seen early in the game
As a would-be adventurer just starting on your way, you arrive at the small village of Lakeside that is in need of someone to help solve a mystery.  After teaming up with a vagabond of questionable background (Ember), you begin your investigation.  Quickly, you become embedded in a complicated plot that involves dozens of key players: lords, commanders, clerics, wizards, cultists, and no small number of innocent bystanders.  What follows is a module of incredible breadth that rivals the official campaign in both both length and scope.  By the time you finish, you really have lived the life of your character, and impacted innumerable non-player characters and their families.

How did I get myself into this?
The core Tales from the Lake of Sorrows is its story.  It is a fairly linear game, and PJ makes this clear from the outset in the module description.  There often are a number of intricate and interesting side-quests.  Nevertheless, the area designs are such that they are often more or less on rails, and many do not encourage exploration.  But that's really ok: if there is anything lost by its linearity, the module more than makes up for it with its story.  It is a complicated tale, but the pacing throughout is excellent.  PJ's masterpiece is set in the Forgotten Realms and focuses on small, rural villages where a hero could really make a difference.  As with villages in real life, you meet many key families that have deep roots in the rural society.  I loved that these characters were recurrent throughout the adventure, so that some that you meet in the first couple of chapters show up repeatedly in later chapters, often providing new insights into their sordid histories.  That's not to say that the entire module occurs "in the sticks."  As you progress, you travel to prominent cities...and to even stranger realms.

You receive up to five companions in the game, and none of them will travel through the entire game with you.  Companions enter the story as circumstances allow, and at times they are pulled in different directions and must take their leave.  Most of the time, they do return to adventure with you at some later date...often when other companions are called elsewhere.  All of the companions have interesting backstories, and most become critically engaged in the plot.  The relationships you cultivate while adventuring with your party drive a lot of your character's engagement in the story.  There is a romance available with one of the companions.  While I'm often not particularly excited about in-game romances, I found this one to be very well done.  You grow together gradually as you play, and the relationship is one of maturity between adults as opposed to teen-style crush romances that are sometimes featured.  Roleplaying opportunities are very strong in the game.  The dialog options provide you with real choices that allow you to shift between a heroic crusader to for-the-money mercenary without much trouble, and your choices can have impacts on how the campaign plays out.

Combat is also really well done.  While I would never say that this isn't a combat-intensive module, there is very little filler here.  Virtually every combat has a purpose.  It might be a major setpiece battle between yourself and a known villain, a raid on a large enemy fortification, a trench-to-trench battle to re-take farmland from an army, or even a minor skirmish between guards outside a keep or cave hideout.  You almost never fight the same group more than once, and it all makes sense in the game world.  Furthermore, often times, there are significant tactical considerations in these fights.  One really can't just run in and mash your way through, especially as you approach the end of the game: you need to use tactics, make careful choices of spells, and keep your spellcasters and archers safe behind your tanks.  My blessed soul was a great match for the game: he focused on buffing spells to keep his fighting ability on par with a fighter, and provided healing, restoration, and spell protection as needed.  There are no cleric-type companions, so if you do not bring one with your NPC you will need to be aggressive about purchasing potions of healing, restoration, etc.

Taking the orc fortress
Finally, I do need to take a moment to commend PJ on his area design.  This module is one of the most visually spectacular that I've ever played, and I took a TON of screenshots where I found myself marveling and saying "wow!"  There are a lot of areas in this module, and some are only experienced briefly.  Nevertheless, all of them are crafted with care and skill.

Critiques: I don't have many.  The biggest is probably that, no doubt due to the sheer volume of dialog and custom item descriptions in the game, there are a fair number of typographical and grammatical errors.  Some could be caught with a spellcheck plugin, whereas others would just take a lot of proofreading time.  That said, the writing is great in flavor, feel, and emotion.  The journal also seemed to get a bit "wonky" as I progressed through the game, with several entries from the first chapter, in particular, that were never completed and cluttered up the journal throughout the rest of the module.

In any case, this module is a really impressive achievement.  It's a dramatic, thrilling story that will immerse you in a wonderful cast of companions, allies, and villains.  And best of all, there's more to play: PJ just released out with the next chapter in his series, The Soul Cages - Chapter 1: Loose Ends.  Furthermore, there's a companion module to Tales called From This Comes Strength, which tells the story of what happened to one of the NPC's while she was away from your group.  I'm eagerly looking forward to playing both modules.

Many more screenshots below the jump! (with minor spoilers)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review: The Herald by Ed Greenwood

While the events of the other Sundering novels occurs, and while the deep-pocketed Netherese march on the elven city of Myth Drannor, Elminster and his close allies are instead focused on a smaller, yet no less important task: traveling from site to site around Faerun and strengthening the anchors between the Weave--the field of energy from which all arcane magic is derived--and Faerun.  Such subtlety cannot last long, however, and soon the heroes are wrapped up in a mighty struggle that spans across much of western Faerun.

The Herald is a fast-paced action novel that tells a critical story within the events of the Sundering.  While many questions go unanswered--indeed none of the novels really address the issue of Toril separating from Abeir, in particular--it is nevertheless a fun and fascinating romp through many classic locations within the Realms.  This was my first Ed Greenwood book, and from the reviews and comments I've seen it is one of his best.  Yes, the dialog, the battles, and the themes are often over-the-top.  But it's a really fun ride, and showcases two treasured areas of the realms: Candlekeep and Myth Drannor.  The pacing is superb throughout, with twists and turns that have me oscillating between despair and exhilaration at the author's whims.  It's not quite to the extent of a G.R.R. Martin story, but there are enough ups and downs that it appears no one--and no where--is completely safe.  The book had me up late turning pages many nights.

As someone new the Ed Greenwood's books, I found it pretty easy to step into the story.  I did find it helpful to hop onto the Forgotten Realms wiki to better understand a few of the characters after completing the book (especially the Srinshee!).  But even without doing that, I had little trouble following the story and understanding the stakes.  It's a good place to jump into Greenwood's series, and a fun wrap-up of the Sundering novels overall.  Having read the entire six-book series, I am eagerly looking forward to the Forgotten Realms campaign setting guide for 5e to get a more comprehensive overview of what has happened to each location.  It will be fun to read about each location that we've visited over the past six novels.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

From the Archives: My NWN2 Official Campaign Review

Following the demise of IGN's Vault, I thought it would be good to pull a few things from for safekeeping.  The first has to be my review of NWN2, which ran not long after the game came out.  Because this is old content, I'm running it below the jump:

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

NWN Community Update: Sorrows, Heroes, and Adventurers!

It's probably pretty obvious that I'm getting back into Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2 again.  My copy of NWN2 is finally working (no idea what happened, but windows xp suddenly allowed steam to load!) again, so I am finishing my trek through the very impressive Tales from the Lake of Sorrows by PJ156.  I've entered into the last act of that module, and the difficulty has spiked considerably!  The story is excellent, however, and I'm enjoying the heck out of this campaign.

Several updates this week.

The Adventurer's Club

First, Sir Adril had a terrific idea on the Neverwinter Vault forums to start an Adventurer's Club.  The concept is to run a "book club" style group, but instead of reading books we will be playing Neverwinter Nights modules!  How fun, right?  Well, the group has formed, and we are currently taking nominations for our first cycle.  There will be concurrent discussion of both NWN1 and NWN2 modules.  Finally, Sir Adril also produced a fantastic newsletter / advertisement to kick us off.

Hero's Path Module List

Second, I decided to reestablish the Hero's Path Module List.  This was probably my first big project for NWN1, and it was an attempt to catalog the modules that were best-suited to players who wanted to play with the same character across multiple modules by different authors.  It was last updated in 2007, and so in addition to being woefully out of date it was also was full of broken links in the post-ign vault world.

Therefore, I updated it with working links for all modules that have been posted to the New Vault.  And because I was in the mood, I also created a similar list for NWN2 modules!  The latter is something that I always wanted to do, but there just weren't that many NWN2 modules that had been published yet when I stepped away from the community.  I am going to keep these lists at Neverwinter Vault as articles for visiblity, but I have added links to them in my sidebar menu on this forum.

Forgotten Realms Weave Character Creator

Third, after some hesitation, I've taken the FRW Character Creator project back on.  At this point, it's been transferred only, and I have not updated it yet.  But my plan, in the near future, is to make a small update to include:

  • The usability updates that ladydesire included (e.g. leveling to lv. 30).
  • A new +4 item store, currently accessible through Chatter.
  • Ability to access lower-tier stores for characters level 5 and over.  This is handy if you just want a pair of cheap boots.
Most of that is already done.  Just a bit more conversation work, plus some testing, and we'd be set for an update.

Ladydesire added persistent companions while she was running the module.  While I love the idea of persistent companions, I hear that this hak is pretty badly broken by the SoZ expansion.  Therefore, I'm leaning toward removing those hak's moving forward.  I would keep her last version accessible for those who might like to take advantage of them.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Tchos releases Black Scourge of Candle Cove

I've been following Tchos's work on his module for a long time--years, I think.  Today, he crossed the finish line!
A notorious sea hag pirate has been terrorising the port town of Candle Cove with her crew of ogres, plundering ships and sending men, women, and children to a watery grave.  Now she's gone even further, and seized control of the local lighthouse, preventing any ships from coming or going at all!
You and your party of adventurers have just come into town.  Can you do what it takes to defeat the pirates and free Candle Cove?

Major kudos to Tchos for releasing his module!  I'm looking forward to playing!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn Reloaded (NWN2)

There was an exciting announcement on the Bioware forums today.  The team that brought us Baldur's Gate Reloaded for NWN2 is working on Shadows of Amn Reloaded (SOAR)!

It's still a long ways off, but this team is nothing if not tenacious.

Update: drechner has a new post on the bioware forums with a long list of specific changes in development that their team is planning for SOAR.  I won't copy the whole thing, but it's written with the air of someone who has learned a lot from his process.

These folks love their game.  I'm so impressed with them.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Small Village Woes

How nice!  A quaint little church in the middle of
the village!
This is an oldie but a goodie.  Small Village Woes was released early in Neverwinter Nights 1's tenure, and arrived to a very positive reception.  This included a glowing review from my old pal Alazander (side-note: I still need read Luke's book!).  After a long time away, its author, Bort Son of Bort, returned to give his module an update.  He posted a beta of his update on the Bioware forums, and I decided to give it a go!

Summary opinion: it's a really fun, low-level adventure.  There's a touch of whimsy here to keep things fun, and it begins in fairly prescribed fashion as a romp through hordes of fairly easy to kill monsters.  Nevertheless, through a few good plot twists, the story manages to be have some depth to it.  If you look closely, you could even see a bit of social commentary in there.  Furthermore, the ending sequences are spectacular, with a number of fun surprises in addition to some great pyrotechnics.

You green scum!  This ends now!
There is a lot of action in the module, and I found it to be a well-balanced for my druid.  In this beta, the druid got a bump to level 2 at the module's start, and that is going away.  Nevertheless, even without that bump, I think the module would still have been pretty approachable.  Combat is initially pretty easy (on par with the starting sequences of NWN1's OC--lots of foes, but they're all easy), but ramps up to a pretty solid challenge by mid-module.  Between my character's companions, summons, and spells, he was pretty well protected most of the module as he moved between ranged and melee combat.  It's also a pretty low-power module, with just a handful of magic items even in existence.  I managed to buy a +1 armor, but that's about all I could afford.

All in all, this was a great three evenings of play.  Thanks to the author for making this module, and then taking the time to update it!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Explore a highly customized, visual treat of a city
My vote: 9 - Outstanding, a Must Have
My character: lv. 1 wizard, progressed to lv. 3 by the module's end.

You are a fledgling member of the Auren Society of Weavers, having just completed your apprenticeship.  Ready for your first major task within the Society, your master gives you a task: go to Almraiven and investigate the recent string of strange murders that have occurred there.  The concern was that some form of sinister magic might be at play.

Almraiven is a really interesting module that was written and designed by Fester Pot, a longtime member of the nwn1 community.  It is one of the few wizard-specific modules available, along with Hugie's Tales of a Mage series.  While Hugie's series was focused on combat, this module is very much focused on the other aspects of mage-hood: summoning spirits of the dead, brewing potions, investigation, and research.  The author really dove into what it might be like to be a mage of one specialized school in the Forgotten Realms, and you get to experience a number of really creative innovations.  It's definitely a light-action module; one can play through this module with almost no combat, or you can (depending on your choices) experience at least one fairly large scale fight sequence.

What is here is a lot of fun.  There's a lot of dialog here, including an almost innumerable number of unique NPC's that roam and line the streets.  Everything is on a schedule, and most NPC's can only be found during an 8 to 12 hour stretch at certain times of day or night.  Many of these NPC's are merely "window dressing," which allow you to really immerse yourself in the world.  While the module itself is set almost entirely in Almraiven, you will meet NPC's from all over the Realms; this is a great opportunity to orient yourself to the map of Faerun!  Others will foreshadow major events that come later, which I found really well done.

Now what could these runes mean?
There are also two pivotal sequences that almost represent mini-games.  In one, you'll be roaming through a dungeon while trying to avoid a monster, and it is scripted such that it exists entirely as a first-person cutscene.  In another, you'll be infiltrating a large mansion, dodging guards as they walk around the keep.

It's all pretty well directed, but I will unabashedly admit to making use of the walkthrough in several circumstances.  I was glad to have it; most of the time, you have a pretty good idea of how to accomplish your goals.  But there are times that I needed a prod in the right direction, and the detailed walkthrough was very helpful.

Overall, it's a pretty impressive module.  I think my own bias is toward a bit more of a mix of combat and questing these days, and so there were times when I found myself itching for a fight.  Part of that's my fault; this was my first module that I've played since returning to NWN1, and I was looking for some combat and looty goodness.  But if you are looking for an excellent roleplaying module that lets you really, truly play the part of a wizard in the Realms, this is a great module for you.  The series continues in Shadewood.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Review: Fallout 3

Credit: Paul Porthouse
You have spent your entire life in a vault.  And then, suddenly, one night your father, the vault's physician, simply disappeared.  In his wake is chaos.  The Overseer has clamped down on security, while simultaneously there has been an invasion of radroaches that are killing citizens within the vault.  Furthermore, simply because of who you are, your life is in danger.  There is one solution: you must leave the Vault and venture into a dangerous and unknown fallout wasteland.  Now.

So begins Fallout 3, Bethesda's first foray into the Fallout universe.  I purchased this game at release, played it avidly, and then set it aside for a time.  Then, during December 2012, I picked it back up, started a new character, and have been playing it off and on ever since.  Fallout 3 is enormous.  I logged well over 100 hours in the game, and by the end I was making decisions to explicitly skip areas and quests and just finish the dang game.  I wanted to finish it before traveling abroad this fall.

The neighborhood has gone to hell.
I think the most amazing thing about fallout 3 is its ability to convey its atmosphere.  While it is not quite as jovial as the previous games in the series, it still retains some of that tongue-in-cheek absurdity that contrasts with the desperation of the desolate wasteland.  As I remember the Bethesda folks describing, mankind isn't really don't that well in this setting.  Things are desperate, and the game is filled with incredibly powerful excerpts of the efforts people took to survive--and often their failures.  You come upon houses where the skeletons of children still cuddle with their toys, notes left from desperate parents to their children, and the personal logs of people caught up in the conflict when the bombs dropped...or in the chaos that has ensued afterwards.

Even more amazing is the opportunity to explore the ruins of Washington D.C. in the game.  You have the opportunity to visit the national mall, and visit many of the museums and monuments there.  These include the Washington monument, the Lincoln memorial, the Jefferson memorial, several of the museums (American History, Technology (i.e. the air and space museum), and the National Archives), and the Capitol itself.  Outside of the Mall are other notable locations, including the bombed-out remains of the White House, the Arlington Cemetery, and the Pentagon.  While the external maps had to be scaled to fit within the game, I was amazed to find how well I knew Washington D.C. geography having played this game during a recent real-life visit to the city.  Even many of the smaller locations match reality: the subway terminals are largely based on real life, with the names and sequences of stops in the game often matching reality: Metro Central, Chevy Chase, Farragut West, Foggy Bottom, Vernon Square, Falls Church, Anacostia Station, etc.  Really neat.

Hey, does this planetarium projector still work?  Yup.
But watch out behind you.
Fallout 3 is technically a shooter.  That was my biggest hesitance about playing it, as a master of shooters I am not.  Fortunately, the designers created the VATS system, which, in homage to the original games, allows you to pause the game and select body parts (or just torsos if need be) to attack.  Each shot in VATS consumes action points, just like in the original game, and so you can only use it so often.  Fortunately, I found that I could usually get off enough shots in VATS to kill an opponent, after which point I could either shoot manually at other foes (point-blank with a combat shotgun does not require aiming) or take cover until my action points refreshed to take more shots.  And eventually, once you hit level 20, you can take a feat that replenishes your action points whenever you kill someone in VATS, giving you virtually unlimited action points.  VATS was enough of a crutch that I found my lack of skill in shooters was not that much of a handicap in the game...and by the end, 100+ hours in, I found that I was actually getting to be a pretty decent shot without VATS as it was.

Lincoln's Repeater.  Best small gun in the game,
if you can keep yourself in 44-ammo.
All of the various guns are a blast to use (hehe), with each weapon having different strengths and weaknesses.  I focused largely on small guns, using the hunting rife (and eventually the spectacular Lincoln's Repeater, which I felt was best small gun in the game) while roaming the wasteland, a unique chinese assault rifle for mid-range dungeons, and the combat shotgun for in-your-face enemies.  I only used a sniper rifle in special circumstances, where the range was too great for my hunting rifle.  By the end of the game, I also started using a plasma rifle energy weapon for variety, but I'm not sure it was better than my small guns.  Big guns, grenades, mines, etc, were fun, but mostly inferior to what I was already using...except when dealing with robots, when pulse grenades became essential.

Welcome to the history museum!
Mind the ghouls.
There are a zillion little locations in this game.  Most do not have named side-quests, but most dungeons or other locations have their own stories and tales to tell.  Some are pretty minor, like a father using a radio broadcast to call desperately (and, as it turned out, hopelessly) for help.  Others are major events, like a son who pursues his father into a horror-filled warehouse.  The broader story is also really good, and far more personal in this game than in the previous titles of the series.  The ending itself was mildly disappointing (though there's an expansion for $5 that apparently improves it), but I felt personal motivation to finish the main quest.  You truly have a chance to do more to save all of humanity in this game than has been possible in the prior games.

It was a great game.  It's hard to say if it was better than the original games because they are so different, but at this moment I am leaning toward saying yes.  While the others were arguably more innovative, Fallout 3 brought it all together in an incredibly world that you get to experience like nothing else.  This game is so big and so incredibly satisfying that finishing it feels like I've just completed a chapter in my life.

An easy 5/5.

Postscript.  I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that I made heavy use of eolsunder's Fallout 3 walkthrough.  I'm not great with open sandbox games like Fallout 3, and following a walkthrough helps me keep focused on the fun as opposed to wondering what I should do next.  Eolsunder's walkthrough was perfect for me: concise, generally averse to story spoilers, and yet still enough detail to help me solve some of the hidden riddles and puzzles that I sometimes would get frustrated with.  I know walkthrough's aren't for the cool kids, but I like them, and I like eolsunder's better than pretty much any walkthrough I've used thus far.  Kudos!

Friday, July 11, 2014

NWVault is finally down

I'm a bit late in reporting this, but as of June 26th, it looks like IGN's Neverwinter Vault is finally down for good.  The link now redirects to a wiki page.  Despite the claims there, there's little reason to think that the Vault will return.  And if it does, it will probably be in the same condition it was just before it went down: completely unworkable.

We've had false alarms before.  And fortunately, the guys at the new vault, Neverwinter Vault, have been working to restore access to all of the files that we had previously.  If you go there now, you'll see new files being uploaded around the clock.  They don't contain all of the header information that we had on the old vault.  But at least if you search for a module that you want, you're likely to find it there, along with downloads of all of the other relevant files you need (HAK's, etc).

The main challenge with the new vault is that there is currently not a good system to sort through the thousands of module files.  The file rating system is currently a 1-10 number system, but it sounds like Rolo Kipp (the Hero of vault preservation) is planning to institute something more akin to Nexus's "Endorse" button.  I think that's the right choice.  Despite the fact that I worked hard to revise and improve the 1-10 rating system on the vault back in the day, I think a simple endorse button is likely to be the best way to evaluate files in a community like this.

Why I am noticing this?

Well, after about a year and a half of on-and-off play (pushing 130 hours), I have finally finished Fallout 3.  A review is coming soon!

So, with only about a month and a half left before I am traveling abroad, I decided to give NWN a whirl again.  Steam is not working anymore on my old gaming PC, which means I only can install and play the original NWN2 (without expansions).  This cuts down on which modules I can play.  So, instead, I've decided to go play NWN mods again.  I loaded up Almraiven last night, which I played before but have only the vaguest memories of.  After that, I'll be playing through the Aielund Saga, Saleron's Gambit, and The Prophet soon.  All of those are series that I only played about half-way through, and I'm looking forward to getting back into each of them.  Things might pick up a little bit as I work through each module in turn.

At the end of August I am traveling to France for a little over three months.  My plan, to satisfy my gaming itch, is to play Baldur's Gate II Enhanced Edition.  I have my character from BGEE all ready to go!  And it should run just fine on my work laptop while overseas.