Thursday, December 24, 2015

Review: X-Com - Enemy Unknown

The call goes out in the middle of the night: far away, on the other side of the world, strange sightings have been made.  Reports of destruction.  Previous squads sent to investigate are missing.  It's time to send in your team.  X-Com: Enemy Unknown is a sci-fi, squad-based combat strategy game in which you take command of an elite group tasked with stopping an alien invasion.  With funding from countries around the world and the ability to deploy within hours to any major city in the world, you are perhaps the world's best hope to oppose a covert invasion of aliens.  It's a fantastic game that mingles a terrific turn-based combat engine with a low-key resource management and technology tree game to create a really compelling experience.

The turn-based combat is highly tactical.  You have four major classes of units at your disposal.  Assault units are your close-combat fighters, capable of running into the midst of heavily armed opponents, surviving their reaction fire, and blasting them with shotguns or (my preference) assault rifles.  Heavy units carry heavy weapons, and (as they advance) are capable of firing multiple times per round and wielding ammo that can take down robotic units, some of the toughest enemies in the game.  Support troops are mobility specialists, effective in combat while also providing medical and cover support for their squadmates.  Finally, snipers are your long-distance specialists, capable of holding back at one side of the map while picking off any enemy in visual range of their squadmates, provided they have line of sight.  Each unit has a number of choices that can be made as they level up, so its possible to have each unit specialize a bit as they develop, although I usually found that some choices were clearly better than others.  Still, your success in the missions will depend on your ability to get the right troops into position, take advantage of their talents, and protect them from the enemy's deadly counterattacks.

Take cover!  But mind the cars; they explode after
they've been hit.
This is a challenging game.  Cover, positioning, and use of all your soldiers' skills are necessary for survival.  Make the wrong move and you can easily be swarmed by several enemies at a time, and they are flat-out deadly.  If an enemy moves up your flank, or even gets a lucky shot on your character when s/he is behind cover, you can easily lose a character with a single shot.  Advancement along the promotion and technology trees can make a big difference in your troops' survivability, but as you advance you will increasingly encounter tougher and tougher units.  As a result, despite significant gains in my troops' capacity, combat missions almost always were played out with a palpable sense of fear.  Just as you start to feel comfortable, the game has a tendency to throw a new threat at you, and you are suddenly left wondering how you can possibly survive.  Fortunately, at least on normal difficulty, you can save in the middle of missions, and the game even autosaves every few rounds for you.  There's no shame in reloading when you're favorite unit gets greased.  It really is manageable.

Raiding an enemy ufo
The game has terrific atmosphere.  Aliens are appropriately mysterious and, well, alien.  The graphics are excellent, with wonderful flourishes of animation on key shots or maneuver that keep your adrenaline flowing and keep it feeling fast-paced, despite the fact that it's turn-based.  Sound is really well-done as well; playing with equipment provides satisfying feedback, and ambient noise and music keep the mood going as you battle your way through urban or rural settings.  Missions vary from pure-kill missions to rescues.  Some of the most intense are those where you are sent into an urban setting and are tasked with saving as many civilians as you can from the enemy threat.  Aliens in these missions regularly will attack civilians just out of your reach, prompting you to advance across the map at a rate faster than is comfortable.

The game is designed to be replayed.  A complete play-through takes something on the order of 30-40 hours, I think, and is long enough to be a satisfying experience.  That's all I've done thus far, but there are options to play again in the Second Wave, which allows you to customize the settings of the game to provide more of a challenge: weapons can cause a wider range of damage, units can be created or advance with different statistics (they are normally very consistent), etc.  Despite still having several other games calling for my attention, I'm feeling compelled to continue on with this game.  It's addictive, maddening, and crazy-fun.  An easy 5 out of 5.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review: Freelancer

One of my first major game obsessions was Wing Commander.  From the moment that I read the review of the game in my glossy PC Gamer magazine, I knew I was going to love it.  It didn't disappoint.  I lived and died with the game, firing afterburners and pivoting past the disc-shaped Kilrathi fighters and locking in on their six**.  It was the reason I got my first sound card, and gave new life to my joystick, which had been untouched since my long foray with F-19 Stealth Fighter had come to an end.  Later incarnations of that franchise included Wing Commander Privateer, a game that took the formula of the game and placed it in a sandbox world, where you could explore a network of star systems as you saw fit.  The ships could be upgraded with a diversity of weapons, and you could choose a life of a merchant, pirate hunter...or a pirate.

**For the record, despite his character's appearance throughout the series, Maniac *always* died in his first mission in Wing Commander I.

Freelancer, published by Microsoft in 2003, is a direct descendant of Privateer.  Designed by Chris Roberts, the same man behind the Wing Commander series, you take on the role of a freelancer pilot much like in Privateer.  As the game opens, your character is immediately swept up in a plot that threatens to destabilize the entire region, and potentially could threaten all human life in this part of the galaxy.  The game walks a balance between forcing you down a plotline (which is well-developed and fun, though basically on rails and can't hold a candle to the story of a game like Mass Effect) and freeing you to explore systems as you go.  As you advance through the plot, you frequently encounter roadblocks in which the story will not advance until you amass more experience (which is simply measured via your net worth).  The solution?  Take bounty hunter missions, transport cargo, and explore.

The game's galaxy is enormous.  During a good chunk of the plot, you only have access to a few systems at a time, each of which might contain a couple of planets, along with 4-5 other space stations, battleships, etc.  In most cases, you can dock with these installations, trade goods, repair your ship, get new missions, and then set off for your next destination.  Nevertheless, this rarely gets old, because the game's plot moves you from system to system.  I usually found that by the time I'd finished exploring a particular region, the plot was ready for me once again.  Upon completing the main plot, the entire galaxy is open to you.  There must be at least 50 systems in this world, and while I spent a good week exploring after finishing the story, I know there was much more to see.  Furthermore, I'm still only part of the way through the ship advancements.  There are at least three more classes of starships that I can purchase (not to mention weapon and shield upgrades), if I can amass enough credits and find the rare station that sells those elite items.  This RPG-style progression provides a tangible sense of advancement in the game; when you upgrade to a new ship, the impacts on your effectiveness are palpable.

The core of the game is its space combat simulator.  I found it to be a very natural game to control.  Unlike other games that relied on a joystick, Freelancer is mouse driven, and it works great.  There are two modes of flight control.  You can play in an "autopilot" mode, where you select a destination in your nav computer, and your ship will pilot you there by the most efficient combination of jump gates and travel through open space.  While in this mode, your main guns will pivot about to fire upon anything in front of your craft (tracking your cursor), or you can jump back to your turret and defend your rear.  Alternatively, you can take total full control of your ship (the ship will follow your cursor).  I generally found that, whenever enemy ships were about, it was important to avoid a straight flight path, and so it was far more important to control the ship than to control weapons separate from flight.  Dogfights in this game are often frantic affairs, requiring on to constantly be turning, firing afterburners, ejecting countermeasures and seeker mines, and managing your weapons' energy consumption as you fight.

Beyond the game's success in modeling space combat, it almost succeeds in creating fantastic atmosphere.  The graphics, particularly while in space, are superb, even compared to today's hardware.  Furthermore, they did a great job with sound.  As you cruise about space near a battleship or science station, you'll hear constant communication traffic as freighters request passage through the current system, or law enforcement patrols scan cargo holds for contraband.  It's a lawless universe, with frequent pirate raids even within protected space.  It is not uncommon to launch from a battleship to see the local fighters skirmishing with a band of ruffian fighters.  Often times, neither side is looking to engage you, which lets you head to the nearest jump point while the two sides pummel one another...or you join into the fray.

There are critiques that one can levy at the game.  The voice acting ranges from decent to awful.  The plot is generally done well, but some of the unnecessary side conversations that you can have with random NPC's in bars are abysmally awful.  They would have been better left as text only conversations, if they were included at all.  The space environment, for all its triumph, is essentially laid out on a 2D plane, which simplifies the space map but is a little jarring.  Combat difficulty can be uneven; randomly spawned pirates, especially off of trade routes, can be insanely hard compared to the "galactic threats" you encounter in the game.

Nevertheless, this game's successes easily exceed its failures.  While finding a copy can be hard (I still somehow have my DVD copy from ages past), the game holds up extremely well today and may still be the best game of its kind published since 2003.  Until something else surpasses it, this game will have a permanent place on my hard drive.  It is beautifully consumed in anything from 30-minute or 2-3 hour play sessions.  4.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Class choices in Mass Effect

With most games that I play, I spend some time reading through the many outstanding resources at  I always appreciate the time it takes people to write those strategy guides, not to mention the walkthroughs (whether I use them, as I did in Fallout 3, or not, as with Mass Effect).

If you read the guides for Mass Effect, however, they all seem to recommend that first-time players to Mass Effect sign on as a Soldier class.  They cite its survivability (which is definitely true), as well as its lethality (also true).  Soldiers are the only class permitted to use an assault rifle, which most agree is the most well-rounded weapon in the game.  It also has the unique ability Immunity, which provides the soldier with short-term damage resistance that makes it almost impossible to take down in a fight.  Its certainly true that they are a powerful and tough class.

However, while you see nods to the Vanguard, I think its underappreciated as a class.  The Vanguard is sort of the equivalent to a fighter/mage: it has skill with shotguns, a lethal close-range weapon, and yet still has access to powerful biotics to enhance its capabilities.  The downside is that it does not get access to heavy armor, and is limited to the shotgun and thus not good at ranged combat.

In practice, these shortcomings are overstated.  I found the shotgun to be effective even out to medium range pretty much from the start of the game.  While there are some cases in which long-range combat was emphasized, most combat in Mass Effect occurs at medium-to-close range.  And unlike the assault rifle, which requires you keep the barrel pointed at a foe while you pump it full of ammunition, many kills with the shotgun require only a single burst.  This allows you to quickly get back behind cover, hit space, reassess the situation, find the next target, and then unpause to fire again.  In a lot of games, I often find that it is sometimes easier to aim effectively when you have just one large shot at a time, rather than a constant barrange, and this was the case here as well.  I found that I really loved the shotgun, as just as I did in Fallout 3.

Furthermore, I am not at all sure that medium armor is a limitation.  Medium armor does, on average, have lower damage resistance and, depending on the armor, lower shield ratings than heavy armor.  However, it almost always also has superior biotic defense ratings, which makes you better able to resist damage from your opponents' biotic powers.  While its true that only a handful of opponents use biotics, it is handy to have those defenses.  Furthermore, the key biotic ability for the Vanguard is Barrier, which creates a powerful energy shield around your character capable of soaking more damage than any heavy armor can provide.  When maxed out along with shock trooper, you can use barrier almost at will, as the ability will recharge within a few seconds of the previous barrier disappearing.

Therefore, the Vanguard might sacrifice a tiny bit of durability and ranged weapon attacks for a great deal of flexibility.  You have a lot of different options for how to deal with a foe, from effective medium-ranged fighting, to biotics, to in-your-face close combat.  Therefore, a typical skirmish in the game would go something like this:

  • Encounter foes and get behind cover.
  • Start shotgunning down any nearby foes.  Use Throw or Lift to disable anyone packing too much heat, or getting too close for comfort.
  • Activate barrier, leave cover, and charge around the cover of any remaining combatants.
  • Shotgun them in the face.
Ah, so much fun!  And by endgame, you can start that sequence with a Barrier and expect to be able to re-activate it mid-fight.  Fortunately, all of this never got grindy, because sometimes there wouldn't be cover, or some other factor else would keep this approach from working.  The most problematic enemy were Krogan, who have an annoying tendency to activate immunity and then charge into melee range.  Melee attacks are not resisted by shields, and Krogan, being so large, are resistant to abilities like throw unless you put a lot of points into maximizing its force.  Vanguards don't have a lot of HP, so getting within melee range was really the key to taking me down.

Another advantage is that, as a Vanguard, you can readily take the most interesting NPC's in the game along with you.  Since you have no tech abilities, you have to take one of the two "tech" companions: Garrus or Tali.  Garrus frankly does all the tech he needs to, plus he wields an assault rifle and is good in a fight...and is a cool character in an "ends justifies means" sort of way.  And then you have another party slot that is pretty much wide open.  I usually took Ashley, for the durability and firepower, and because I enjoyed her spunk.  Wrex also slotted in just fine in that role, without any problematic redundancy.  He brought biotics along with him, and a great deal of attitude.  On Noveria, I even took Liara so she could face off with Benezia, and didn't really miss a beat.  Her support abilities meshed very well with my vanguard's offensive abilities; the team functioned differently when she was present, but not really any less effectively as long as she could stay alive (sometimes a challenge).  In contrast to this flexibility, if you play as a soldier, you really need some biotic and tech help, and so you can't really take Ashley (unless, I guess, you punt on combat for one NPC and take Kaidan).  If you go as an infiltrator or engineer or adept (or sentinel!), you probably won't want to take Garrus or Tali or Liara, because you'll want NPC's like Wrex and Ashley to hide behind.  

The other "multiclass" type class in the game is the Infiltrator, which is what I played during my first play-through.  That class is a mixture of engineer (which focuses on support abilities, though with some useful abilities to jam opponent weapons) and soldier, in that you get to play with sniper rifles.  Sniper rifles are really fun in mass effect, but ultimately are far less practical than the traditional shotgun.  I fond that I had to use my pistol more often than naught while playing as an Infiltrator, because its rare that one can be completely comfortable using a sniper rifle to pick up foes from afar.  I'm sure it's possible to play that character all the way through the game, and there would be some situations in which you'd have a tremendous advantage.  But a tough, in-your-face magic user like a Vanguard seemed to fit the typical combat situation far better than the at-a-distance character like the infiltrator.

Long story, short (too late)?  Try out the Vanguard.  It's fun, powerful, and you won't regret it.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Review: Mass Effect

Meet the Normandy, the pride of the Alliance fleet.
In Mass Effect, Bioware's space epic (released 2007), you play the role of Commander Shepherd, an elite Marine of the Earth's Alliance space force.  Assigned to the Normandy, a prototype frigate in the Marine Navy, you are sent on a covert mission to recover a strange artifact recently discovered on the human colony, Eden Prime.  On that mission, you face a threat that was thought to have retreated to the other side of the galaxy: the Geth, a race of sentient robots who overthrew their creators, the Quarians.  While the Geth were known to exist on the other side of the Milky Way Galaxy, they hadn't invented space overseen by the allied races of the citadel in years.  Disturbingly, their emergence this time seemed to revolve around the Prothean artifact, a relic of an advanced alien species that built an empire across the galaxy, and then mysteriously disappeared.

Explore dozens of systems in the Milky Way Galaxy
That's the hook for what becomes a tremendous story that will have you jumping between dozens of star systems across the galaxy.  It's a beautifully written and skillfully executed tale that gradually peels back at the layers of its mysteries, only to reveal a deeper and more nuanced one underneath.  I found it very original and full of surprises, and yet nothing felt contrived.  Furthermore, despite being the first of a trilogy, a lot happens in this game; by the end, you feel as though you've really accomplished something.  You are forced to make hard decisions in this game, and your decisions really do matter.  I was impressed at how much of the dialog and cutscenes must have been crafted for my character's choices; had I chosen otherwise, entirely different animations and spoken dialog would have been necessary.  This didn't just happen one or two times; this happened repeatedly throughout the game.

The Citadel, the center of the allied races' galactic
civilization, is an enormous space station of
mysterious origin.
Accompanying you along your journey are a wonderful cast of characters.  Some are bystander NPC's that never fight along side you, but are nevertheless so well written and developed--and voiced!  The voice acting is SO GOOD!--that they nevertheless had a great impact on my experience while playing.  The depth of some of the six NPC's that accompany you varies; some are fairly superficial and exist largely to introduce you to their particular race.  Others are deeper, with their own backstory and motivations that inform their reactions during your missions.  Several characters have missions that are clearly designed with them in mind, which encourages you to take them along and vary up your party composition.

This is the second "shooter RPG" I've played in recent years; the first was Fallout 3.  Like Fallout, Mass Effect has features designed to help ease along those like me who aren't particularly twitch-oriented gamers.  Most important is the ability to pause the game.  By holding down the spacebar, you can collect your thoughts, select powers, and even aim your weapon at a foe before releasing the spacebar and pulling the trigger.  It's a big help and takes away some of the steep skill requirements needed in other shooters, while still requiring that you move, dodge, strafe, and fire your weapon in real time.  Furthermore, cover is really important in this game, especially early on.  The secret to many fights is getting yourself behind cover, defending your position, and yet still knowing when to take the fight to the enemy (they'll be using cover too!).

While this is not a space combat game, there are some
amazing cutscenes.
I played through the game as a Vanguard, which is designed as a character who combines close combat with "biotics," which are the Mass Effect universe's version of magic.  It's a great class; you specialize in shotguns and have access to biotics like Barrier, which creates a powerful shield around you to complement your armor's own inherent shields.  On top of that, you have enough points to invest in a few other offensive biotics.  I primarily invested in throw, which is a "jedi-style" power that permits you to toss would-be assailants away from you, knocking them down for a few seconds.  Others, such as lift or singularity, were even more powerful, but I opted to stick to Throw along with my "martial" powers and barrier.  I found the game challenging, but rarely frustrating.  There were really only two fights that required more than a single reload for me to completely, and in one case I'd simply stumbled upon a sidequest designed for a higher-level character than my own.

Ashley, a compassionate, yet hot-headed infantry soldier
is one of many outstanding NPC's with which you
experience the game.
The most maligned aspect of the game, at least upon its release, was the use of the Mako tank during outdoor missions.  Subsequent patches must of done a world of good to improve the Make controls, because I found this part of the game exhilarating.  On super-rough terrain, as exists on many of the planets you'll explore, the Mako does get tossed around quite a bit, making one wonder what kinds of inertia-damping the harnesses inside the tank must have allow someone to survive.  But the worlds you explore are breathtaking.  Each has its own unique description, and that description is manifested in how the world is rendered.  Personal favorite worlds included planets that orbited binary stars, moons around gas giants that take up most of the sky, and even a "binary" world--a pair of similarly-sized planets that spiral around one another as they orbit a star.  Most worlds, as one would expect, are desolate.  But a small few harbor their own, native, multicellular life, and much of the background writing about the worlds focuses on past or current attempts to colonize, terraform, or mine these distant worlds.

Scenes like this never get old.
I bought Mass Effect in 2008, not too long after its release via direct2drive (my first digital game purchase!).  For reasons that I don't remember, I stopped about a quarter of the way through the game.  I remember that it was getting hard; I hadn't chosen a great class, and I remember struggling with the shooter aspects of the game far more than I did this time.  My 100+ hours of Fallout 3 were great training, even though I played Fallout 3 on my Xbox and Mass Effect on my PC.  This time around, I finished the game in about a month, despite the fact that I simultaneously went through my end of semester crunch.  It's not an incredibly long game, maybe 40-50 hours or so.  But it has plenty of depth and plot to make for an extremely satisfying experience.  I'm itching to dive straight into Mass Effect 2, but I don't want to risk burnout.  Therefore, I'm going to play a couple of other titles I already own in the meantime (namely, X-Com, Witcher II).  Nevertheless, I'm already itching to return to this universe; I'm sure that it will not be long.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: Pillars of Eternity

What's this contraption?  Mechanical-magic structures
play an important part in this game world.
While it wasn't the first RPG that I ever played, Baldur's Gate was my introduction to DnD.  It, and frankly all of the Infinity Engine games, were terrific.  They combined diverse character options, party-based gamemplay, a fun, strategic "realtime with pause" combat system, and an engrossing story.  That's a formula that was forgotten for a while as games transitioned to 3D.  And while there have been some phenomenal games that have come out using other paradigms, to be sure, the success of the Enhanced Edition games has demonstrated that the Baldur's Gate formula is still popular and desirable.

Seeing this opening, Obsidian kickstarted Pillars of Eternity, a Baldur's Gate-style isometric game designed for modern PC's.  The interface, graphics style, etc, were all built directly upon the principles of the Infinity Engine games, and the story was designed for a mature audience.  While they did not have a DnD license, the style of the mechanics are largely inspired by DnD.  And the result?  It's a really good game.

Lots of great times exploring large wilderness maps,
just like in Baldur's Gate.
The world the game is set in feels like someone's home-brew campaign world, in a good way.  It's full of mystery and therefore a few layers of history beyond the ones that the modern-day people of the gameworld still know.  Somewhat reminiscent to Baldur's Gate (although only in the loosest sense), the story begins as a personal mystery that ends up being intertwined with a local political crisis, and ultimately has ramifications for the gods themselves.  The pacing, in my experience, wasn't the best.  The first half of the tale plays out pretty slowly, but it picks up good speed in the second half of the game and has a terrific finish.  The story does a good job of stressing gray, rather than black and white: you are often faced with decisions without a clear best answer, and I enjoyed the opportunity actually roleplay a character rather than just stick to the designer's preconceived "good" or "bad" responses.

Some towns, like this one, are struggling just to survive
The graphics are fine.  They used the paradigm of what were effectively sprites (though 3D-rendered ones) moving about on a pre-painted background, a la Infinity Engine.  It worked then, and works now.  Some parts are genuinely pretty, though occasionally some of the painted backgrounds got busy enough that, along with the use of a black-out fog of war in unexplored areas, I had trouble interpreting what I was seeing.

The combat engine felt familiar, but was definitely its own animal.  Like DnD, there's an attack roll and a damage roll.  Unlike DnD, there are a number of things that can happen on a hit.  Miss the target's defense by even a decent amount and you can "graze" them, inflicting a small amount of damage.  Hit them easily and you crit.  Furthermore, again unlike DnD, damage resistance (i.e. soaking damage) plays a big role in this game.  By the end of the game, even decent 1-handed melee weapons inflicted only a pittance of damage; most damage output occurred via the slow, heavy-damage ranged weapons like arbalests and rifles, as well as spells.  This actually got pretty annoying, as some characters became almost useless when monsters had damage reduction against certain damage types.  Thankfully, I opted to play a cipher, which consistently manages superb damage throughout the game with both spells and his ranged weapon.

It's a drake, not a dragon.  But there are dragons.
While there are AI options for combat, I found that these rarely did what I want and was compelled to micro-manage all combat in the game.  It was tolerable, but sometimes felt like a grind because most fights worked the same way: open with my cipher's paralyze ability, make sure the tank aggros everyone else, and then start picking foes off one-by-one.  90% of the time, that's the solution throughout most of the game.  Combat difficulty did not progress smoothly. Early on, it was pretty challenging, though usually in a good way.  Later, it became a cake-walk, except for a handful of key foes that seemed designed to test one's mettle.  Those were so much more powerful than anything else I'd encountered that it was bewildering.

In any case, despite the nitpicks, this is a really fun game with a neat story.  It's a long game that can be very engrossing.  I enjoyed the strategy in the combat (despite the grindy nature of it at times), and really enjoyed the emphasis on quests that require the player to make hard, imperfect choices.  It felt like a game targeted at adults, which is exactly the target audience of a title like this.  I give it a solid and warm 4 out of 5.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Storm of Swords by G.R.R. Martin

This one was a long time coming.  By my best guess, I started this book in 2008 while in the process of finishing my dissertation, applying for jobs, and moving across country.  A lot happened around that time, and for a while I basically stopped reading for pleasure.  A few years back, I finally managed to work reading back into my life, thanks in large part to the wonderful portability (and built-in backlight) of my trusty Kindle Paperwhite.  But even then, it took a while to get back to this book.  The Sundering had arrived in the Forgotten Realms, bringing with it six new and (generally speaking) exciting books, as well as their sequels.  And there are always books to read for work.

I finally started making progress on this again last summer.  After having to take a month or so off for some work-related reading, I got back to it again a few weeks ago and have poured through it since.  Here are my comments on goodreads.
A Storm of Swords continues many of the strong points of that carried the prior two novels in the Song of Ice and Fire series.  There continue to be deep, fascinating characters from prior novels that often seem in well over their heads in this violent, dangerous world at war.  Each chapter tells the story from the perspective of different characters, each with their own voice and motivations.  The story remains unpredictable, and the events of this book are nothing short of realm-shaking.  As fans will point out, no character is ever truly safe.  Nevertheless, Martin managed to set this tone--and, indeed, allow some critical characters to perish--without making it seem forced or intentional, and there was really only one time when I felt like I was being teased.

That all said, there is one pretty substantial way that this book departs from prior novels: magic is real.  In books 1 & 2, despite references to magic, I generally found it easy to dismiss this as character superstition or mysticism.  It was never obvious to me that something that ventured into the true, overt supernatural must be part of the world.  But with book 3, there can really be no doubt.  While all may not be as magical as it seems, some form of divine-inspired magic seems a certainty.  When people talk about how good writers show the reader, and don't tell the reader, this is exactly what they're talking about: Martin allows us to discover this on our own, at our own pace.  I imagine that I was one of the last to believe.

I'm glad that I finally came back into the fold.  While there are a few books I want to read before I start up once again, A Feast for Crows is calling me...and a Dance with Dragons beyond that.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Fallout 4 is Coming

At E3 a few days ago, Bethesda made their first major presentation on Fallout 4. It is below.

And part 2, which is just as good...

I thought that Fallout 3 was brilliant.  My concern was that this new one might not be new or innovative enough to be a worthy successor.  We'll see how the story unfolds, but initially it looks really good.  But in terms of features, it looks amazing.  The crafting system looks ridiculously fun.  And the settlement system looks like its own base defense-style minigame nestled neatly into the game world.  I can't wait to fiddle with it.  Given that I just bought a new computer (which I'm using to type this), I will probably even get to play this in the PC version!  Should be such a blast.

Speaking of base defense games, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Fallout Shelter, the new iOS game they just released.  I just downloaded it, and am looking forward to taking it with me on my family vacation next week.  Hooray!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

RIP My NWN2 Rig; Long Live My New Rig!

Last week, while playing the excellent Pillars of Eternity, my computer froze and went into an loop while trying to load an area.  When I did a warm boot (reset button), I got a blue screen with bad words on it like "disk fault."  I did a cold boot, I was able to load windows, but things seem to be running strangely.  Steam won't load.  There's a lot of cacheing.  Chrome won't launch, only Firefox.  Things look bleak.

It might be possible to fix it.  Maybe it just needs a new hard drive (would be its third).  But the fact of the matter is that this PC is the one that I bought in Fall of 2006 to run Neverwinter Nights 2.  That makes it almost 9 years old, the same age as my oldest kid.  It's still running Windows XP, which has been discontinued.  My wife can't run Adobe Lightroom on Win XP, which has become a significant need as her photography interests and expertise have expanded.  It has been a great machine, but I think it's time to retire it and move on to the modern generation of computers.

My life has changed a bit in the last nine years.  Rather than working out of an office, my desktop currently sits stashed in the corner of the family room.  I don't have time for as much gaming as I used to.  And while I'm hardly wealthy, I'm a tenured college professor now rather than a Ph.D. student.  So this time, I've decided to go with a desktop replacement-style laptop; something powerful enough to run some modern games reasonably well, with a nice screen, solid hardware, etc...but a laptop nevertheless.

This is the first time since high school that I've purchased a computer without buying component parts.  Feels wrong.  But anyway, after a lot of shopping around, I decided on the Lenovo Y70-70.  Here are the specs of the model I've ordered:
i7/4720HQ (2.6 ghz)
16 GB PC3-12800 DDR3L 1600 mhz RAM
17.3" IPS FHD LED Monitor
With the educator discount they offer, it runs $1299 at Lenovo's website.  Compared to other "Gaming Laptops" that are comparably equipped, that's an amazing price.  It was surprising to see that Lenovo's own website has the best prices for its products around (often by several hundred dollars), and furthermore that the products offered there are newer and better updated than those on newegg, best, etc.

You can read a review of the Lenovo Y70 laptop here by the excellent Sherri Smith, but the model I'm buying should outperform the one they reviewed due to the upgraded hard drive (SSD!) and video card (960M!).  Battery will still be an issue, but this thing will almost always be plugged in anyway; as a 17", 7.5-pound laptop, this thing will be a beast to lug around!

I was excited to find a 900-series graphics card with 4 gb of RAM.  I see a lot of the 860M/4gb models around, but most of the 960M cards are 2 GB.  And I'm super-excited to run a laptop with a solid-state drive.  It should result in a huge improvement in the usability of the laptop, with programs opening and closing faster, and hopefully less issues with eternal caching.  Size-wise, 512 GB is a bit small, but I used some Amazon gift card money from my birthday to buy a nice external hard drive for photo/video storage.

I'm also pretty excited to give Windows 8 (and then Windows 10) a whirl.  The screen on this computer is supposed to be bright, crisp, and brilliant.  And it's also a touch screen, which is pretty exciting for me.  This is the kind of thing I once would have had a fit about, but I think it should make it fun to use...and more intuitive to use for my ipad-trained kids.

This is still a 4th-generation CPU.  And it doesn't have the ability to be hooked to an external graphics amplifier like Alienware and some other companies offer.  But it's still pretty powerful, and costs a heck of a lot less than those other systems do.

I've backed up my saved games in Pillars of Eternity so I'm looking forward to giving it a run on this new machine once it arrives.  I have no doubt that NWN1 & NWN2 will also make appearances on the drive; my localvaults for both are already backed up!  I'm probably also going to play Sword Coast Legends when it is released, as well as Torment: Tides of Numenera next year.  And maybe, while I'm at it, I'll give something that pushes the limits as well.  Fallout 4, perhaps?

While I might not get nine years from this one like I did the last, I'm looking forward to many years of fun gaming with this laptop!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Book Review: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

My daughter and I read this back-to-back last week.  The last time I'd read it was when I was about her age (3rd grade).  The book is fantastic.  It provides a wonderfully imaginative, detailed world that feels inherently "real."  The ties to the actual biology of its animal characters -- mice, rats, crows, and owls -- feel real, even as we give even the "ordinary" versions of these animals credit for far greater intelligence and communication systems than they probably have.  The truly extraordinary individuals, whose uniqueness stems from their relationship with the mysterious NIMH, are introduced late enough in the story that they still feel natural, organic, and true.

Everyone loves the rat Justin in this novel.  But I actually found Mrs. Frisby to be a really good character.  She's a recent widow and single-parent of four children.  Nevertheless, despite the book presenting a fairly old-fashioned culture of male and female roles in these animal societies, Mrs. Frisby doesn't balk at her role as sole provider for her family, nor does she shy away from the frequent dangers into which her predicament forces her.  She's no daredevil, but she always does what is needed, without any more than a second thought.

A big chunk of the narrative is told as a story-within-a-story.  I often am not a big fan of this approach, but it worked really well in this book.  If the story was told chronologically, starting with the mice and rats at NIMH, it would be far harder to focus on the plight of Mrs. Frisby's family in light of the other story.  And by keeping the narrative on her family, the Rats of NIMH always maintain an air of mystery.

So, kudos, Robert C. O'Brien.  This is a great example of a book that is just as dramatic and exciting to an adult as it is to an 8-year old.  I've now read the book at both ages, and it will remains one of my favorites.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Review: Vengeance of the Iron Dwarf

The Silver Marches at war.  All three dwarven citadels are surrounded by the massive many-arrows army of orcs and goblins, bolstered by drow from the underdark.  Sundabar and Nesme have fallen.  Silverymoon and Everlund are under siege.  Drizzt and his companions made it through the siege to Mithral Hall, but not before being separated from two of their friends: Regis and Wulfgar as they made their way through the Underark.  Food is growing scarce, the alliance of elves and dwarves seems shattered, and the drow plans for the surface seem unstoppable.

The backdrop against which Vengeance of the Iron Dwarf opens is bleak indeed, and it sets the stage for a book with a vast, epic story in which massive armies come to bear on one another.  This novel, in many ways, resolves the war that has been brewing the past several books between the Many Arrows tribe and the good peoples of the Silver Marches.  As one might expect for a Salvatore book, Drizzt and his friends are right in the thick of it, though are not necessarily the biggest players in the gambit this time around.  The action is far-ranging and unquestionably epic, and some parts of this book are Salvatore at his finest.  He writes of huge, vivid battles that turn on key moments that, usually, feel real and exciting.  The descriptions of hardship under siege were also painfully real, and brought a tremendous sense of urgency to the events of the story.

There are some new characters and plot lines that develop in this book, but this is a book about tying up loose ends.  In that way, it's pretty satisfying.  The events were unquestionably memorable, and I look forward to seeing their ramifications written and described in a future Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide.

I did feel, however, that the book was lacking some multidimensionality.  Tiago, the primary villain in this book, seems like little more than a one-dimensional thug.  None of the villains, in fact, had a lot of depth to them, with the exception of one character who is developing into a potentially interesting character.  Some of the protagonists, similarly, just seem bland at this point, and too "good" at everything in comparison with standard mortals.  The focus of this novel is more about resolving the conflict than character development, but my hope is that we see something deeper with the characters in the future books of this series.

In the end, this book is a worthy finale to storyline of the past three novels.  It's a fast-paced, fun read, with some fantastic, memorable moments that I look forward to reliving with the Sundered book club over the coming weeks.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Short Pillars of Eternity Combat Story

I still haven't figured out how to take screenshots, so unfortunately this is text only.  And minor, non-story spoilers follow...

My party was walking through the Black Meadows, a barren patch of land that appeared to have been desolated by a battle involving a small army of dragons.  As as creep out of the wasted meadow, we entered a small forested region and encountered some Forest Lurkers.  These remind me of the dnd "shambling mound" creature, and are highly resistant to piercing damage, have a lot of HP, pretty good defenses, and pack a mean punch.  I started fairly conservatively with my spell usage, having my cipher paralyze one of the two lurkers, while the wizard used his encounter powers, the rogue tried to sneak attack her way through their high piercing resistance, and my fighter tried to tank.

After a fairly long battle of attrition, I finally dispatched one, but my cipher was out of focus, and my priest was using all of his spells to heal the fighter who was taking a lot of damage from the creatures.  Suddenly, the last of my cipher's spells wore off, and the last lurker knocked Eder, my fighter, prone and started to really pummel him.  I realized that he was not just in danger of being knocked out, but because of all the endurance healing I'd used, he was actually getting very close to being permanently killed!

Fortunately, at exactly that moment, my cipher hit with his crossbow, regenerating just enough focus to cast a desperate spell.  I cast amplified thrust, and, with Eder being only one more hit away from death, the spell slammed the monster back away from my fighter, allowing my priest and rogue to run interference.  The party still might not have survived it--I had completely exhausted all of my spellcasters' spells by that point, and my ranged rogue was rendered useless by the piercing resistance--but I realized that I had a scroll on my wizard.  He rushed forward to cast it and managed to deal 60 points of damage with that final attack to kill the monster.


Also: this game is really fun.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

First thoughts on Pillars of Eternity Combat Mechanics

I'm only a few hours in, but I'm loving Pillars of Eternity.  The mood in the world is terrific, and the writing has been excellent.  So far, it has had something of  Planescape: Torment vibe with its dark, macabre themes, though the setting does not have the wackiness that Sigil did.

The combat engine is fun as well.  It definitely seems built upon something that resembles 4e combat to me.  There are at-will abilities, encounter powers (which are even named as such!), and daily spells.  The exception so far is the cipher, the class I chose to play, which uses a mana-like system with a resource pool called "Focus."  You gain focus by hitting with melee or ranged weapons, and then spend it with your spells.  It's a fun system.

Deflection and Damage Reduction

Armor has interesting differences as well.  Like in 4e DnD, there are four defenses: Deflection (i.e. AC), Fortitude, Reflex, and Will.  Interestingly, while these can be enhanced with magic items, they seem mostly determined by your characters' attributes and class.  Armor, typically, does not enhance Deflection.  Instead, it boosts Damage Reduction; donning heavy armor instead of cloth armor does not change your deflection, but instead adds substantial damage reduction to certain kinds of hits.  Damage reduction can really help, especially given the grazing mechanic: most "misses" actually are grazes in this system, which can leave a small amount of damage.  That graze damage will usually be completely negated with decent armor.

As far as I can tell, there isn't such a thing as armor proficiency.  Instead, the main incentive to not wear heavy armor seems to be a speed penalty.  After each action, be it shooting an arrow, swinging a sword, or casting a spell, there is a recovery period before you can act again.  The heavier your armor, the longer the recovery period.  This can be dramatic; the heaviest armor I've seen so far is still just medium armor, and it has a recovery penalty of 50%!  Therefore, if those numbers are true, suiting up is going to halve your damage output.

I think the main consequence of this is that one needs to have characters specialize in combat roles.  You'll definitely want to have a few characters in a party of 6 who can take on a "tank" role, wearing heavy armor and shields, and using heavy damage reduction to survive on the front lines.  Behind them, you can use ranged attackers wearing cloth or light armor that fling spells, arrows, or shoot guns, and it is those characters who will do most of the damage.  I personally enjoy this degree of specialization, and it stands in contrast to the 5e dnd approach where fighters can serve not only as tanks, but also as legitimate damage-dealers themselves.

It's less clear to me exactly what one should do for a "melee striker"-style character.  I think this is where you end up compromising with medium or light armor, and being careful when engaging to minimize your risk of engaging more than one enemy at once, ensure opponents already are engaged with the tank, etc.

Weapon Choices

The fact that Damage Reduction is such a big part of this game has implications for weapon selections.  In 2e DnD, assuming equivalent accuracy, a fast, low-damage weapon will give you equivalent "damage per second" output to a slow, high damage weapon.  3e and 4e didn't have weapon speeds, but you got similar effects from dual-wielding light weapons compared to swinging a big, two-handed sword.

But if DR is important and common, then you could run into issues where a fast, low-damage weapon can't provide much of any benefit because it can't clear a foe's damage reduction.  I ran into a similar problem while playing The Prophet, which features a lot of foes with damage reduction.  Therefore, you see a lot of folks on the internet boards advocating high damage weapons like firearms, which also have extremely long reload times.

Ultimately, it will come down to how much damage reduction an average foe has, and exactly how much longer the reload times are compared to how much extra damage output you get.  If I was really methodical, I'd get out my stopwatch and start measuring this.  ...  but I'm sure some young buck out there will do this before I get it done!

Endurance and Health

Rather than a single pool of hit points, PoE employs a system that involves a combination of two pools of health systems.  Endurance is a comparably small pool of health.  As you are hit, therefore, it quickly drops in combat.  If you reach zero, you fall unconscious.  Most healing spells and potions work to replenish endurance, as do some skills.  Fighters, for example, steadily regenerate endurance during combat.  Finally, when combat is over, characters almost immediately regenerate all of their endurance.  

In contrast, health is a much larger pool.  As you take endurance damage, you also steadily lose health.  It's unlikely that you'll run out of health in a single encounter.  However, after a long series of fights, you'll eventually start to run low.  This is dangerous, because dropping to 0 health will kill your character, permanently.  Furthermore, aside from a pair of talents (aka feats), I haven't seen a mechanism to heal health aside from resting.  Therefore, while endurance is usually one's concern during combat, health is what will ultimately end your adventuring day.  One can always rest to heal, but you can carry limited camping supplies, and resting may(?) come with risk of random encounters (maybe...I'm not sure of this).

What I like about the system is that, most of the time, character death isn't something that one has to worry about.  Most of the time, you'll bounce back up after a difficult fight, even if you get knocked unconscious.  But at the same time, you have to take damage seriously, because it will eventually catch up with a character, forcing a risky rest out in the wildnerness or within a dungeon.  There is still risk and there are still consequences.

As you can tell, I'm having a blast with this game, and am really enjoying learning the mechanics of this dnd-esque system.  Most of the changes have seemed like very positive improvements, or at least very enjoyable alternative mechanics.  Can't wait to get back in game soon!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Pillars of Eternity Released

Like a fair number of people of my generation, my first true DnD experience was playing Baldur's Gate.  I'd played rpg-light board games as a kid.  I'd played computer RPG's before, starting with Might and Magic 3 as my first "real" RPG.  I'd even played some pen and paper games in college.  But Baldur's Gate, released in 1998, was my first foray into true Dungeons and Dragons rules and worlds.  It was a fantastic game, and launched my love affair with other DnD products like BG2, Planescape: Torment, and, of course, the Neverwinter Nights games.  And, based on my play through Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition, the game still holds up quite well.

So when Obsidian launched their kickstarter proposing to build a modern game along the lines of Baldur's Gate, I do remember taking notice.  But then, for some reason, I decided to take a pass.  I'm still not completely comfortable supporting Kickstarter projects, mostly because of the sense of no guarantees.  I've certainly preordered my share of games before, but at least in those cases it is usually only a short time until a game is released.  With Kickstarter, you pay in your money long before a project will ever turn up in your mailbox, and there's always some chance that the project won't ever materialize.

I might need to start rethinking those kinds of concerns, because I almost overlooked this game.  It was really only through a few retweets on twitter that I noticed the game coming a few weeks back.  I've been catching up ever since.

Today, Obsidian officially released Pillars of Eternity, their modern homage to the Infinity Engine games.  It looks really impressive.  The world looks dark and full of flavor.  The interface looks crisp and clean.  The combat looks strategic and tight, with a lot of neat innovations (endurance vs. health, new ways of thinking about character attributes and how that affects builds, etc).  The early reviews have been very positive (92 on metacritic as I write this).

Right now, I'm at 2.87 GB of 6.33 GB downloaded from GOG.  I teach in the morning and my wifi in this part of the house is not stellar, so it's not going to finish tonight.  I have family coming to visit for the weekend that arrive tomorrow.

In short, I can't wait to play.  But I also probably won't be able to play for several more days.  So, I'm going to content myself to read the manual tonight, think more about my first character choice (cipher vs. druid vs. wizard...decisions decisions), and head off to bed.  ::sigh::

Saturday, March 7, 2015

NWN Module Review: Prophet II - The Century of Sorrow by Baldecaran

Mysterious ruins once again play a critical role in this module
Having unwittingly become the center of an ancient prophecy, and dubbed the unmaker who will bring about the Century of Sorrow that leads to the end of the world, the PC sets off for the desert city of Hierathanum.  There, you hope to meet with the Dreamweavers, a group of mysterious dreamers who, like you, are gifted with The Sight.  With their guidance, you hope to learn more of your powers, and hopefully find a way to avoid bringing about the end of times.
Chapter I of the Prophet featured a vast journey with incredible twists and turns, and featured powerfully-written NPC companions who were integral to the plot.  Therefore, it was with some excitement that I launched the next chapter.  It was a well-polished module, with strong writing, good technical skill, and a bare minimum of typos, small bugs, etc.  Area design was about as good as it gets in NWN1, with creative skillful use of custom spectacular custom content.  The "Mountains" tileset has never been used so well as in this series, and I loved many of the other innovative ideas he used.

Combat remained interesting, with damage absorption continuing to play a big role in the success of my character.  This was also true of the NPC's, and therefore required me to do whatever I could to make use of sneak attack damage to avoid lengthy battles of attrition.  While I started the module trying to "tank" with my rogue/ranger, I did find it necessary to reverse things and let my ranger companion be the primary melee character with the majority of the good damage-absorption equipment.  This meant my character wasn't as well equipped, but it made sense to keep the enemies on him: he had more HP, and if the foes were targeting him then I could sneak attack them.

I love Baldecaran's use of the mountain tileset
That all said, I found the module's story to be a bit disappointing.  The first half of the module established the setting and flavor of Hierathanum, but ended up largely just being a blockade to the character's progress in the story.  The elements of the main plot that were present were largely just a rehash of the events of th first module, which seemed overdone.  And when the story did progress...well, it was on rails.  One's choices did not matter.  ....  I fully realize that this is kind of the point of the module--it's about a prophecy, after all--and is what puts the PC in the center of the story's challenge.  But for some reason, it still just didn't ring true the way the same kinds of themes did in the first module.  

In any case, it certainly serves the purpose of setting up the final chapter of the trilogy.  I had a fun time playing in the author's world once again, and I'm excited to see how my character will work his way out of this situation...if he is even able to do so.  The module ends on a dark note, and it's hard to imagine what can be done amid all of the hopelessness.  Here's hoping for an epic solution in chapter III!

My rating: 8 - Recommended to Anyone

More screenshots after the jump!

Friday, March 6, 2015

Sword Coast Legends by N-Space Announced

Wizards of the Coast recently announced Sword Coast Legends.  Here's the trailer video:

As someone who loves the Infinity engine games, not to mention NWN1/2, this is really exciting footage.  But I found it a bit hard to ge ta lot of detail about what exactly the game is.  But having read this interview, this part grabbed me:

GamesBeat: So Sword Coast Legends itself is almost like an old-fashioned Forgotten Realms boxed set? You’ll have other material coming out that builds on that set in the future? Is this right? 
Tudge: Yeah, it’s pretty close. We’ve often talked about — we hope that fans love this so much and play this so much that it becomes the Sword Coast saga in a lot of respects. We have a lot of stories to tell and a lot of places we’d like to visit, a lot of people we’d like to meet. I can see this going for as long as people keep playing. 
Stewart: I’d definitely like that. My ambition for this title from the beginning is for a new group of D&D players, when they talk about getting together and playing D&D this weekend and whatever campaign they’re doing, they’re talking about Sword Coast Legends. D&D is just the shorthand. It still has the DM and the player interaction and the crazy fun joking. But really capturing that essence and spirit. That kind of base set and then the modules that add on top of it and shape it, I love that analogy, because that’s what I see this game becoming, just a different version of that.
The interview is a little all over the place, but this is the basic breakdown as I understand it for the game's pitch:
  • 1-4 player, isometric, real time tactical combat with pause.
  • Modular, single player adventures will be released and available for purchase.
  • Some of these adventures may mirror the thematic story that is current with D&D Adventurer's League, like the recent Tyranny of Dragons and the current Elemental Evil storyline.  
  • Some future expansions will also include new races and classes.
  • A DM mode by which you can stage your own adventures.
  • Built upon 5e rules (I think!).  I'm not sure that they're going to show dice rolls and be that rooted in the rules.  But perhaps closer, I hope, that Neverwinter was to 4e rules?
All of that is pretty freaking exciting.  Here's more on the toolset:
GamesBeat: Are these going to be easier to use than the tools from the Neverwinter Nights games?
Tudge: I’m happy to say, absolutely yes. For me, the promise of what Neverwinter Nights offered was really exciting as a fan of D&D and a person who enjoys being a DM. Even before I worked at BioWare, I got in there and started working with those. I was a little disappointed. I come from an art background. I got in there and learned it, but I was a little — I was looking forward to something far more accessible, something that could get me creating adventures much quicker.
Right from the start, we’ve talked and made sure that is the case, that you can get together at 7 on a Friday night with your friends for a session and you can start in the lobby at the same time as the players and be DMing right away. You don’t have to spend a week preparing for the adventure. You certainly don’t have to be writing any complex scripting.
Stewart: Another point, you remember months ago now, you guys came out and we set up stations here at Wizards. We let everybody at Wizards who wanted to come in and play, whether they worked on Magic or Duel Masters or D&D, whether or not they were a DM. People who knew D&D but were not big video game people, definitely not any kind of technical people, jumped on and were DMing and having fun in five minutes. The whole team here was so impressed at how cool it was to be a DM, but also how you could really DM on the fly without having to have all kinds of crazy knowledge from the outside world.
Tudge: It was interesting, because initially, when you volunteer — when you have a group you’re demoing with and you let them play, nobody volunteers to be DM. Almost every time, one of the dev team ends up DMing. There’s this immediate intimidation. DMing has to be really complex, right? It has to be a lot of work. But I don’t even think the first dungeon run is even done before everyone is fighting over who gets to DM.
That's awesome.  Look at how successful the Neverwinter Nights games were!  Their toolsets were incredibly powerful, but there's no question that they required a massive time commitment to produce something suitable for play.  NWN2, in particular, with its terrain editing system, required incredible commitment to produce even a small module, even after one had mastered the toolset and scripting language.  Module authors have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours producing content.  What they can do is amazing, but I definitely think there is a big market for something that is easier to use.

The game, so far, reminds me a lot of a blend between Neverwinter (the MMO), the Neverwinter Nights series, and the Baldur's Gate games.  Neverwinter has the ongoing content releases that mirror current storylines.  It also has the Forge, a simplified toolset that allows users to build adventures for other users.  But it's set in an MMO world, which doesn't appeal to everyone--myself certainly included.  Here, we have a game that takes those good ideas, but converts them into a modern, isometric, single or multiplayer experience.

So, we have TONS of promise.  This is exciting.  It's right up my alley, and exactly the kind of game that I could go gaga over for years.  If they execute and deliver on what they're talking about, I am going to be desperate to give them all of my money.

The question, of course, will be how well the entire package is executed.  I'll be watching this one closely...but I'm old and jaded enough that I will most likely be waiting for the first reviews to come in before I purchase it.

Update: More Links
Article on PCGamesn - Excellent preview that helps flesh out some of the basic principles behind the game, though doesn't get into the plan for the future.

Monday, March 2, 2015

True Story

My wife is traveling this week for work.  I talked her down to the garage with her suitcase, gave her a kiss, and waved goodbye.  When I got back upstairs, I was greeted by my five year old holding my Chessex mat.  "Can we play the Adventure Game*?" she asked, wide-eyed and excited.

Apparently, they remembered me saying that we could play while the wife is traveling.  We got about three hours in yesterday, and the girls finally reached level 3.  Having fun playing through the Mines of Phandelver.  Tonight we will hopefully have time to kick some Redbrand bottom!

* The Adventure Game (TAG) is our in-house name for Dungeons & Dragons.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: Elfshadow by Elaine Cunningham

Arilyn Moonblade is a half-elf assassin.  Or, perhaps, Bounty Hunter might be the better term.  Almost unequaled with the blade, she works contracts for a number of shadowy organizations, most prominently among them the Harpers.  But recently, even as she successfully dispatches agents of the Zhentarim, someone else is hunting Harpers.  For each Zhentarim who falls, it seems, so too does a dear ally.  And worst of all, despite not knowing anything about it, signs are starting to point to Arilyn.

Elfshadow was my first Elaine Cunningham novel, and it apparently was her first set in the Forgotten Realms.  I think the thing that stood out to me the most about this book was its characters.  Arilyn is a great character: focused, ruthless, impatient, and stubborn, but still possessed of a strong moral compass.  Along the way she is joined by Danilo Thann, a bard of significant magical skill who spends his time posing as an aloof dandy.  The two make for an unlikely pair, but the fact that they are almost forced into companionship by the events of the story results in surprising synergy, in addition to some genuinely hilarious moments.

I found the plot to be interesting, even if a bit convoluted.  It delves into a lot of backstory about tensions between races of elves within the Realms, which was really interesting to learn about.  I've read my share of Realms books, but distinctions between Moon Elves, Sun elves, etc, have never been given much attention in those books.  The story made sense, but I will confess to occasionally having some trouble following it.  I also thought that Cunningham's writing ranged from excellent to a little bit clumsy in some areas.  I'm no genius with prose, to be sure, but I did feel that she had a tendency to overuse certain writing patterns.  For example, she often referred to Arilyn as "the half-elf," which works a few times per novel but not the dozens of times it was used here.

Overall, it was a fun read.  I'm probably going to read a few more of her books in the coming months at the suggestion of a goodreads friend, and I'm looking forward to seeing if these characters continue to appear.