Back to School.

It’s January, and I’ve just renewed this domain name (and the relevant WordPress domain add-on) for another year. In the recession, I think it’s important to make use of anything you spend money on, and I plan to.

Things are getting more intense and exciting this year, though I share the same doe-eyed wonder when perceiving the world around me as I did last January when Eddie gave me a column over at GamerNode. A year ago, I’d just begun my journey into games journalism, after working an almost month-long stint at IGN and beginning to hound the Escapist for articles, all attempts failing in the process.

A year and a half into this freelance journalism lark, and I’ve got Escapist articles banked and thanked for, along with various other journalistic opportunities. Soon, with luck, I’ll be delving into the world of financial journalism, and I’ve got to be honest, I’m more excited for it than I have been with anything else. It sounds like blasphemy on a blog dedicated to videogaming and my own critique of the aforementioned medium, but I assure you, I have my reasons. The financial industry is a seriously exciting place to be, with new laws coming into place and new rates to tackle recession, and for some reason that seems so much more real, so much more mature, than the current saturation of the games market by titles like Bayonetta and The Saboteur.

It begs the question: do I think about journalism – or the act of critiquing an artistic medium whilst still maintaining some façade of indifference to various platforms for the expression of said artistic think-pieces – differently now than I did whilst working the news desk four years ago at the Financial Times?

I’d wager I think about it very differently, having now seen both the light and dark sides to the art of putting pen to paper with only the intention of either upholding someone’s artistic efforts, or casting them down into the fiery pit of the game-shop bargain bin. “Journalist” is a pretty powerful word; something that symbolises criticism, expertise and the ability to render a marketing campaign null and void through the lack of a single star or half-per cent due to a small hiccup during the review process. Artists, novelists, games designers; all have had their career growths stunted due to the odd disappointment in the eyes of the critics, and it is this power that makes being a reporter, critic, journalist – whatever word you use in place of “advisor to those who wish to be reassured” – such an interesting task to undertake.

Unfortunately, with games journalism you’re at the bottom of that particular food chain. To most of the British public, you’re not really a journalist at all – in fact, you’re most likely a geek with a penchant for slagging things off on the internet, and then covering your own arse with clever rhetoric and a pseudonym in order to avoid any retribution for too scathing a response to a game you had sent to you for free. Most entertainment journalists are accused of simply doing the work they do for the stash – those free games, t-shirts and various other items given to us at preview events in Soho hotels – and not, in fact, to uphold unbiased commentary on the medium they claim to uphold so passionately.

Let me assure you, this is far from the case.

Looking back, I should have known that day in Birmingham was going to be an odd experience. I’d recieved the call two days prior to the event, a collegue back at IGN UK asking me if I’d be interested in previewing a fighting game (whose name I’ll remove for the sake of the lovely man in PR who I’d rather remained anonymous). I knew right then that, through covering Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, I’d been pigeon-holed into the journalist IGN used to cover games that involved people hitting other people in a ridiculously melodramatic display of masculine insecurity and hidden sexual frustration. I sighed, but I knew the money was good and I wanted the experience. That, and the developer’s PR staff are about as pleasant as you can get – their presence at the IGN Christmas bash alone being evidence enough to quantify this, as not many of those who sit on the other side of the fence are then called back into the warm fold of the thankful journalist.

Upon arriving, we stood in the station, a mob of geeky individuals trading banter with the PR staff and various journalists waiting to jump on the coach and go to a gym. They spoke of the gym as if it were a mystical place – as though we’d not really fit into the lean, mean, keen demographic that (I take it back, “lean” may be correct) would visit this place. I’ve got to be honest; looking at us, I had to agree. Eventually, we arrived at the gym and took our goodie bags.

I’m a child, let me state this for the record now, your honour. I am a child, and when someone hands me a bag with presents in it, I’m going to take a look, even if I’m never going to actually use or consume the contents of this mysterious sheath of plastic between me and the free bits and bobs doled out at events, presumably in the vague hope of tilting our bias towards the positive. In the bag was a massive plastic cup – protein shake mixer, I suppose, though I only use it for water, even now – and various discs and bits of paper allowing us access to the images, videos and banners we’d need to compile the visual aspect of the article.

However, hidden near the bottom, was a little tub of what I can only describe as mild steroids.

“Weight Gain Pills,” the label loudly proclaimed. After presuming this to be the case, Lex’s mother – a nurse of some thirty-plus years – assured me this was not, indeed, the case at all. In fact, they’d given a load of games journalists a bag full of steroid-chugging manly equipment to firmly put us on the road to looking like the blokes on the covers of Men’s Health who we all claim to despise but secretly admire for their ability to put the gym over the other G-word (I am, of course, referring to “gamerscore”).

Bags of stuff, however, don’t exist in the financial journalism world, as far as I’m aware. Information vital to the talk taking place is of course, present, but outside this, there are no legendary bags of swag. There are, therefore, no more awkward thank yous on receipt of said bag, and then the mad hunt to find somewhere to leave it inconspicuously so the publication’s office staff don’t think you’ve been bought off (they needn’t worry, the game was of questionable entertainment and filled with the precise sort of hyper-macho bikini-clad sweating muscular bullshit that makes FHM one of the most successful magazines in the country despite a complete lack of journalistic merit – and yet a five star review by The Daily Star is more valuable to my District 9 DVD than a mediocre review by The Guardian).

Soon I’m off to a course to brush up on my knowledge of the financial services industry. My father is an independent financial adviser, and, though he denies it, a bloody good columnist for a number of financial publications. Growing up in that household, I took business studies at GCSE, though initially it was simply to understand what he was talking about when he got home from work. Finding that business studies is simply a mixture of basic maths and common sense, I decided to persue the subject to A-level, before realising I’d rather write about the company with a big return, rather than having a 90-hour-a-week part in bringing the revenue in.

Fund management, new banking laws, the RDR (a law stating your examination qualifications have to be redone to continue being an IFA in a post-2012 environment): all of these are important to me, now, though I realise they’ve all had some resonance in my life growing up in a household where I was taught to budget before I was taught to pronounce the word itself. An odd childhood, sure, but it’s resulted in financial stability and a forward thinking attitude.

Sometimes, if you’re writing a blog post, it’s best not think forward. I’ve gotten through 1398 words in 15 minutes or so simply by writing without thinking, and it’s all very well. With news, there’ll be press releases, maybe a calculator application open; and with features, simply myself, a keyboard, and occasionally a phone to harass poor IFAs/developers about what exactly makes their pension plan advice/level 27 sub-boss so damn important and better than that of everyone else.

*pause*

Good lord, will someone give my writing purpose, before I start penning romantic comedy novels.

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Tag, you’re it.

I was going through my spam comments when I noticed a ping from the Big Red Potion blog, and decided to check it out. If you download their latest episode, and get to around 45 minutes in, you’ll hear Sinan and Joe tag me on my recent obsession with Dragon Age: Origins.

I’ve got to hand it to them, as they’re kind enough to mention me, not take the piss, and on top of that, implied that my stamp of approval on the origin stories was enough to imply they must be good – a huge compliment for a narrative nerd like me. The two of them deserve a lot of credit.

Big Red Potion was initially a podcast I heard about through GamerNode Ed-in-chief Eddie Inzauto, who flagged them in iTunes after showing me his appearance on said show. The first thing that struck me was it was hosted (initially) by Sinan, solo. Impressive though this was, he was also a Londoner. After listening to 1UP, Gamers with Jobs and other American-dominated podcasts, it was so refreshing to hear that sarcastic, cynical inflection on streamlined audio think-pieces about videogames.

They’ve discussed a wide variety of topics, two of which I’ve personally jumped in on, and we’ve had Sinan over at the Vs. Node podcast during the origin period in which I played editor, recorder and host. The pair of them are an extremely dynamic combination, each bringing their own verbal style to the table. I like listening to a long, eloquent diatribe about PC RPG titles from Sinan, and then chuckle as Joe refutes some of them due to their “click click click” nature. They swap places with blunt and smooth dialogue, almost a Dante and Randal of the videogaming podcast genre.

If you get the chance, check them the hell out, because I promise you of no better podcast to sit and absorb than the musings of two city boys (London and New York) and the occasional outbreak of what I like to call “the giggles,” always unscripted, unedited, and honest. Two great guys, and this weekend I’ll be returning to said audio experience to discuss a few things, and dismiss any rumours about me getting any kind of tattoo related to Bioware, Dragon Age: Origins or Dwarven iconography.

Never Got Round to It: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl

Think of this as a first of many articles in which I, the person who tends to miss more titles than he actually plays, go back and find games I’ve been curious about for years and actually play them. I was a Nintendo-only person for the whole of the last console generation, and never really much of a PC gamer outside Grim Fandango and anything developed by Valve.

This instalment, it’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, a game that I feel I should have tried to appreciate prior to playing seven hells out of Fallout 3. But nonetheless, it’s my first step (excluding Valve) into PC-FPS territory, so I’ll give you a stream-of-consciousness breakdown of what happens when I’m playing.

It’s a Monday night, and I’m trawling through my RSS feeds, absorbing a lot of games news whilst tracking Kevin Smith on his endless Twitter announcements, a pastime I enjoy as it allows me to Twitterise my little world without actually having one of the diabolical pieces of social-network-cancer myself. I notice the fine fellows over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun have drawn attention to an FPS of a few years back that almost slipped past me, if it weren’t for a scathing review in a magazine I don’t remember the name of, any more.

I log onto Steam and see that yes, the price has indeed been dropped to a nice, unemployed-friendly price of three and a half of Her Majesty’s pounds sterling. I drop the cash, and get the download, letting it sink onto my hard-drive in bits over the next 48 hours.

These 48 hours pass, and I’m now loading it up, tweaking a few graphics settings and revelling in a fairly recent FPS my laptop can actually handle. I look over at Lex, watching her work her way through yet another academic paper on 19th-century literature, the odd forlorn glance at my screen betraying the struggle between the FPS-nut and the literary scholar taking place in her subconscious. I watch the opening video, wincing slightly at every bit of dialogue as the sound goes half a second out of sync, ruining any chance I have at reading the quality of facial animation. It’s brilliant regardless.

That being said, I do a double take when the truck in the FMV crashes because it was hit by lightning. I shit you not, this actually occurs in the opening sequence. A truck explodes, from the back, with nothing in the back bar ten corpses, because it got hit by fucking lightning. I remind myself I’m engaging in a medium where marsupials run around collecting crystals for a living, and bite back the instant urge to criticise the absence of realism present.

“Okay,” I mutter to myself. Here we go. I find myself talking to a fat Ukrainian gentleman, who teaches me how to use my PDA, containing the functions of mission-keeping, map-reading, and even ranking Stalkers all in one handy package. Odd, I muse to myself. Food is scarce, and yet everyone’s got some kind of iPhone. He sends me off on my first mission, and I charge across the nearby field to assault a set of buildings, with little regard for tactics. I die fairly rapidly, and decide to change difficulty – I had a “badass motherfucker” moment when setting it – and try a slightly more intelligent approach.

I am rewarded with not only the most brutal shotgun I’ve ever seen, but a gleeful Fallout-esque bout of looting corpses and deciding what I’d like to leave on the soon-to-decay cadaver, and what of its meagre possessions interest me most. I’ve still not worked out the map yet.

*

Fast forward around two hours, and I’ve changed level twice. This process baffles me. The first time, I shot a man in the chest, and it asked me if I would like to change level. I was a little thrown at first, truth be told. Yes or no? I choose “yes,” even though I’ve got side missions left to do, which all get deleted as I move on. The second change came shortly after a firefight against ridiculous odds which began to give me an idea of why some men want nothing more than for someone to compare them to Steven Segal.

Currently, I’m helping a bunch of Stalkers fight off a group of army troops. Why they’re attacking isn’t clear, but at this point my moral compass is rapidly devolving into whether the person is a red or a green crosshair. With that strategy firmly in mind, I begin to lay waste to the troops with a machine gun, before looting a couple of them to fill my ammo back up. But of course, their ammo and weaponry is of a completely different scale to my peasant-style aggro-garb. I decide to step it up a notch, and take his gun.

At this point, I feel conflicted. I own a pistol, two machine guns, and a sawn-off shotgun. While in Fallout 3 this wouldn’t be a problem, as I was a stamina-heavy player capable of hauling a couple hundred pounds of gear at any one time, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. won’t let me play the same tune. My weight limit is fifty kilos, but I’m sitting a couple kilos over. What could it hurt, I wonder?

The answer came as me and my new-found friends sprinted for cover out of the army’s reach. My sprint faltered, and my field of vision was now mainly comprised of the floor as I staggered forwards, gasping for breath. They wasted no time, however, in sending me down into a pitch-black tunnel network to kill some bandits, seemingly completely unrelated to the army attack, which was never explained. I take out the bandits, deciding against using my flashlight as theirs is a dead giveaway (tip: when in a firefight in the dark, attach lamps to poles on the ground, not to your skull). I climb back up the ladder, and bam. Level change.

After realising, finally, that “level change” is sometimes the equivalent to Half-Life’s infuriating loading bar that activates geographically, I head back down into the dark, worming my way through passages filled with odd warped-air effects representing Anomalies (physics anomalies… *sigh*). I kill a crazy Licker-like creature that has the ability to cloak (seemingly so it can stand facing a pillar), and die to a horde of bandits who are seemingly impervious to acid, bullets and/or gravity. I quit for the night.

*

And I never actually went back to it.

Most would assume this is me simply copping out, not wanting to make the effort and play the entire title start to finish. Perhaps you’re right if you’re making the rather arrogant decision to force your own mentality on my own and apply them to decisions I myself make. However, the real reason was much more simple; I didn’t enjoy it enough for it to drag me back in.

At first, I wondered about the lack of gamerscore and whether that added to my unwillingness to play the game after being thoroughly sucked into the Xbox point-score fanaticism. But that being said, I play DS games and TF2 regularly enough, and I recieve no points for these, surely? I adore the Medic class and have exhausted most achievements for the gentleman in gloves and a lab coat, but I still play the game because it engages with me on a fundamental level.

With S.T.A.L.K.E.R. it was a different experience. The shooting mechanics are great, the movement fluid, and the inventory system all very neat and Diablo-esque in its own little way. But where was the fundamental background? Telling a long, flowing story is all very well, but imagine The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe starting in Narnia, with no explanation of how they got there, only their dialogue indicating they’d been anywhere at all? Ridiculous, no?

The missions were well-scripted, as was the character animation, but it was the anomalies that finally sent me packing. The concept is beyond inspired; warped clouds of altered physics that will damage anything coming near or into direct contact with them, pacified by a small grenade-type piece of equipment. But ultimately, they were physical obstacles. Characters were concerned with getting their coats and killing other Ukranian thugs in the locality. Yet, were they concerned that the fabric of space-time itself was wandering around, semi-sentient, hell-bent on throwing them in the air and collapsing their skeletal structure from ten yards away? Where were the science-soldiers, the ones tasked with restoring the balance?

I sigh at this point simply because it defies belief that you wouldn’t expand on the anomalies from the beginning. Look at Half-Life, and imagine if there had never been any explanation to events whatsoever. You can’t introduce science fiction into an average, post-nuclear military narrative, and then have it not become the focus of what draws the player in. As I write I wonder what engaged others so much; those brave souls at RPS proclaimed this to be one of the best PC games of the last decade, and in the age of titles that redefined videogaming, titles such as World of Warcraft, Left4Dead and Wii Fit, are we really bestowing this accolade on a title that merely flirts with science fiction and inspired design?

What’s more, where was the emphasis on the post-nuclear setting? Chernobyl is a real place, and I’m confident a title set in the unbelievably bleak wasteland that is the real, contemporary Chernobyl. The second fictitious explosion is logical enough, with that alternate reality being an actual possible reality in today’s Ukrainian society. The playable area you inhabit is based on the real-life Zone of Alienation, an area full of radiation, suffering and poverty brought on by a disaster of unimaginable proportions and a lack of support from those who are fearful of venturing into the cancer-stricken radioactive environment. A moral dilemma exists within the location itself, and in my opinion, the fact this is real, existing place with similar problems (minus the floating lightning balls) is something that needs to have attention called to it. This is no Alternate Washington, this is, minus the excessive gunplay and mutants, something that draws from real life.

I’ll expand on this in a longer article, soon, but for the meantime, look at Fallout 3. Everywhere, the emphasis was strong on what would happen if the rockets that sit under our collective feet were ever launched. Most people found it inspired, found it to be “cool,” as it were. Personally, I found it chilling. I don’t see nuclear war as a bogeyman story for children, I see it as a cultural inevitability. In order to cleanse the human race of the arrogance and violence so inherent in its culture – by this I mean real life, not Call of Duty, a game criticised for its violence when the events it was based on were never criticised by the same demographic in turn – the human race will need to destroy and reinvent itself. No pain, no gain.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a good game. Great, even. But it’s just not to my taste, and in my opinion, the taste of any gamer who values a sturdy background in order to accept such a massive change in pace, scenery and historical events that pre-date the timeline of the playable sections. I never got around to it, and I doubt I’ll get around to finishing it, simply because there are other titles where I can sit behind the eye sockets of a hero in a forlorn wasteland and think about nothing but survival, and I don’t see the thrill of a new version of that idea arriving until Bioshock 2 makes its debut. Think of my tastes what you will, but consider this: when a game claims to instil a raw need for survival in the player, are they not making the fundamental mistake of assuming the player doesn’t want to survive already?

Avast Ye, Mythical Beast.

After a week, I think it’s time to start thinking about Dragon Age: Origins, and the interesting effects it’s had both on my life (read: biological clock) and my passion for fantasy and mythology. Daniel and Lewis have been asking me recently, and after reading Lewis’ excellent review, most of which I completely agree with, I thought I’d hit you folks with some thoughts of my own.

At first, I thought I was never going to get the damn game in the first place, when I consider the amount of horrendous run-arounds, bullshit and grief it took to actually get the game into the console’s disc-tray in the first place.

Two weeks before release, I took a look at my bank balance, bit the bullet, and placed a pre-order for the collector’s edition, ignoring the jibes from digital customers (Warden’s Keep DLC free for them) or American gamers (free tin box, cloth map – anything that makes up for living in the States, I suppose). I entered my details, hit the order button, and waited. An hour later, e-receipt in hand, I began forming plans for my character whilst working on getting the PC character-builder to work (it didn’t – any time you see a sticker on your laptop that says you’ve got a certain amount of graphical memory, half it and you’re closer to the truth).

On the Monday night before release, GAME cancelled my order. And the replacement order the night before release.

After moaning about my bank, and moaning at GAME, the order finally went through on Friday morning, and I got to wait until Monday when my wonderful girlfriend brought it back from the house it was delivered to (couldn’t even get the right address), and I finally chucked it in the drive, installed it (I know it makes no difference to loading times, but Christ that noise is horrible) and went for it.

It was around this point I realised this game was going to completely dominate my spare time up until Christmas, if not afterwards as well.

Dragon Age: Origins is, quite simply, the most addictive game I’ve encountered since World of Warcraft. Never have I played a game so rich with back-story, well-written dialogue and engaging, well thought-out side quests, every option open to you from the second you’re done with the Ostagar story. At the current time of writing, I’m near finishing my first play-through, spending around thirty hours delving into the various areas of the game, knowing I’ll notch up somewhere in the region of two hundred before any new downloadable content makes an appearance on the Marketplace.

Like I said in my other post, I’m a massive fan of Dwarves, their lore and the characters that evolve out of said lore. Whilst not considering myself a veritable scholar on the subject, I’d wager I’m comfortable enough with the angry little bastards to be able to judge their incarnation in Origins well enough.

So let’s travel through the origins, trials and tribulations of Grumnir Aeducan together.

With any good origin story comes an even better set of sweeping camera shots and deep, rumbling narrated bits of dialogue about the respective race you are about to become involved with for the next hundred hours (or in the case of my Tauren, several hundred days). Warcraft did this perfectly, and Origins doesn’t shirk this duty either. Orzammar, city of the Dwarves and last true bastion against the murderous Darkspawn, sits beneath the stone of the over-world; dark, ancient, and full to the brim with small people who pride themselves on honour, tradition and an intricate caste system.

False loyalty, circles within circles, two-faced politics – all of this surrounds you from the moment you are thrust into the mind, body and soul of your chosen avatar: the chosen son of Dwarven royalty. You are instantly surrounded by both the harsh and the welcoming; brothers, friends, and politicians enticing you with gifts in order for you to lend your name to their cause. But who are they enticing? Grumnir, or myself? Are they wanting his support, or for me to engage with a moral choice system so inherent to the genre, now?

The contemporary games-design choice worth speaking about as a journalist of the last decade is the moral choice system. Good, bad, evil, noble – so many choices, and all displayed on a little bar divided into sections of blue and red, black and white, or simply monochromatic; an indication of how far gone you are, or how nauseatingly nice you’ve been to everyone for fear making questionable choices with a controller will somehow lead to the replication of said choices in real life. Absurd? I no longer think so. Origins does away with the bar, and through doing so forces us to confront what it is about ourselves we fear so much when wondering whether or not to save the Council in Mass Effect: whether or not we’re prepared to sacrifice those we care about less to save those we care about more. The definition of the greater good, that ultimate choice we can make to enable humanity to reap the greatest benefit is something we have sought for millenia, and even influenced this website’s domain name.

Soon enough, I am seeking out the evil in the small slice of world the developer-gods have afforded me, sword and shield gripped tightly in hand and coming to terms with a genius method of controlling both my character and his various compatriots. Damn the PC version of the game, in my opinion: both have merits, but there’s nothing like being able to use the right trigger as a hot-swap function in the heat of battle – just inching that part of the controller back into its chassis makes me feel like I’m taking things up a notch, and – as great as PC RPG titles may be – unless you’ve got at least four other people on Vent, it’s an experience you’ll never replicate with a mouse and keyboard. PC gaming is fantastic, but console gaming was designed with adrenaline in mind, and it’s now I thank those Ritalin-popping console FPS addicts that have so influenced the design demographic of this generation’s games.

The mobs I am currently locked in combat with are not new to me in any way. I could say that this is because of the fact that whether I fight goblins, mages or skeletons that I am, indeed, fighting the same thing: the will of evil, the dark side of the souls of the development team who seek to ruin my fun by sending wave after wave of the undead or the green at me, swords flailing as their repetitive death animations take their toll on their dwindling numbers.

However, this is not the case.

The reason they are not new to me, is because, quite frankly, their faces remind me a little too much of the Locust race from the Gears universe, and it’s an uncomfortable memory. The Locust, quite frankly, are ridiculously fucking scary, their third-degree-burn aesthetics, sharp teeth and predilection for guttural, retro-evolved communication triggering a primal sense of fear, panic and will to retreat in me that becomes hard to fight down as time goes on and my stamina levels and health pot reserves begin to drop. The Darkspawn, however, are at an advantage when compared to their Bleszinski-created counterparts: their humanoid appearance is explained through their background, twisted emulations of the forms power-mad human mages once wore before being cast down.

It begs the question – why aren’t the other races simply defeating the Darkspawn, then turning on the human race to make sure this kind of ridiculous bullshit never happens again? It’s a valid question, is it not? Take any major problem in a fantasy universe, and you’ll usually find human mages with inferiority complexes at the god-damn center of it. Anything from trying to become gods to simply trying to save a dying relative, and the demon demographic throw up their collective hands in celebration, as it’s time, once again, to raid the land of the normal and the living in order to sow chaos and havoc because Gordon the Mystical forgot to put away the ritual candlesticks.

But it’s refreshing and soothing to slowly cleanse the land of these despicable little creatures; every one that falls is another notch on my belt as a soon-t0-be Grey Warden, heart burning with the fresh betrayal of my race’s nobility, and the loss of love from my father, the king. Cast out of Orzammar and with only an axe and the desire to atone for sins I did not commit, I launch myself into the first few enemies I see, Grumnir’s sorrow and my frustration at being cast out of a location I adored exploring for the past two hours providing me with the motivation I need to carve my way through the Deep Roads towards Duncan, leader of the Ferelden Grey Wardens.

The last time I saw the Deep Roads was in the first chapter of Bioware’s Origins tie-in Flash game, and I rambled about it at length along with its location. I didn’t understand, then, why the city of Orzammar was arranged in a baffling circle around a black area of the map, not understanding then that a third dimension to the aesthetical proceedings would grant me the knowledge that the city was based around a massive hole in the mantle of the planet on which I am stood so deep within. It also granted me my first insight into the Dwarven passageways that stretched across the entire continent, if not the entire world. The Deep Roads are a place of many design possibilities; their accessibility across vast swathes of countryside means that, feasibly, any race or manner of horrors could take up residence, never saddling the developers with the inglorious task of having to explain why the elves have made a camp in a Dwarven tomb. Not that they have, presently, but the possibility is there and this is important if Bioware are willing to stick to the two years of downloadable quests and new locations they have so passionately advocated in the press.

It’s an odd feeling, to begin your journey down the path of becoming a Grey Warden, knowing that you’re always going to become one. The armour that comes with the Collector’s Edition is Grey Warden armour, and the achievements even indicate to you that you’re doing the work of these fabled guardians simply by killing many, many Darkspawn. Personally, I find their name to be the most interesting part of their mythology. If you’ve ever done an English degree, you’ll know that most coursework tends to lean towards reading into words and phrases and their respective symbolism to an almost fanatical degree, and that this comes in useful when looking at the various names and colloquialisms you’ll encounter in Origins.

To be grey is to be boring, to be bland. To be grey is to be old, withered, but wizened and loyal to a just cause forgotten long ago. Are these brave men and women wardens of humanity, elves and dwarves, or are they guardians of a deep mythology that holds importance above all the humanoids walking the earth in the name of the Stone, the Maker or nature itself? It begs the question of what these people are really guarding. Are they so arrogant they have never questioned what about them makes them so fanatical about defending the realm? It can’t be the desire to live themselves, or they would never take up sword and shield. To shun the rest of humanity with an initiation process that kills more people than it initiates is another negative sign. So what is it? Some secret held by their order that the Darkspawn must never uncover? Or something more sinister?

Ignoring this, we are confronted early on with a colossal battle, of which you are more a part of than the game’s mechanics would indicate to you. Looking down from the battlements on a war you sorely wish you could be in the thick of (though judging by Normal difficulty’s ridiculous spikes, you’re probably thankful you’re not), it’s easy to forget that this isn’t just a set-piece you’re supposed to gawp at before running along to your various anal little quests, the moment forgotten like so many bad microwave meals. Stand in one place too long, and you’ll be hit by an arrow arching up from the battle surging below. You are not some invincible hero to the Darkspawn assaulting Ostagar; you’re just another speck on the castle walls, another little cog in a machine so huge that for one single moment, your place in the Origins universe becomes uncomfortably clear and you back away, fearful that your character no longer holds sufficient relevance to survive through to the inevitable sequel (let’s not fuck around, it’s called Origins).

But what of these moments? What significance do they hold? Are we expected to take up the mantle of the Wardens and fight the good fight, once Duncan falls? It has become RPG tradition for the wise mentor to fall early on in the narrative, leaving us to fend for ourselves like so many panicked university students with low attendance and even lower motivation shortly before the dissertation is due. Or are we expected to simply have fun, grab some achievements, and only play every origin story simply because it’s ten gamerscore closer to finishing the game in terms of the amount of points, and no longer the emotional investment in a universe created by those who see Origins as a labour of love and not a literary masterpiece?

Do we see games as literature, currently? As art? It’s a difficult position to argue, and one certainly a lot of my journalistic compatriots have strived to do for some time. Braid is artistic, yes, but do we hold its off-center literature in such high regard we are able to ignore the flaws in the fluidity of the writing?

In Origins, the dialogue is as important as it was in Mass Effect, Oblivion, Final Fantasy VII and Grim Fandango. Yes, it’s an action RPG on the Xbox 360, with 1100G of achievements and a load of DLC that seems fun for five minutes. But you also need to listen, persuade and intimidate, and a lack of these three approaches to engaging with various characters is a lack of appreciation for the universe you’re engaging with so deeply. You can call up protective spells of denial all you like, but ultimately, there’s no way the average hundred-hour Origins player is going to know nothing whatsoever about the universe. The developers sneak in small ways of coaxing you into a world slightly altered from generic fantasy, even down to changing the name of potions to poultices, a decision which, at first seems ridiculous, and then when a journalist’s spell-checker doesn’t render the word new and therefore void in the eyes of the God-author of the Queen’s English, less so.

But after engaging with the player for so long, how can we then encourage them to run off and bring the quest-giver in question ten rat’s tails as well as a mystical item crucial to saving the world as we know it? We can’t, simply. But we can, however, expect them to veer off course and complete side quests that involve fighting witches-turned-dragons, saving golems from a life of magical servitude and imprisonment, and doing favours for the characters our avatars fall in love with.

The love quests are the oddest of the bunch; almost like an enjoyable rom-com (there are a few), the dialogue slowly turns from the heroic and noble to the coy and suggestive, with tentative kisses and polygon-light lovemaking whilst still mostly dressed (thank Christ) another interesting deviation from the norm. Bioware are refining their methods of setting the tone, turning the lights down low and slipping on some Barry White whilst putting on something a little more comfortable, and it’s a far cry, thankfully, from the “drop and give me twenty” innuendos of their ongoing sci-fi epic. Ashley and Sheperd are in direct competition in my household for the crown of fictional romance against Derek (Shepherd, hilariously) and Meredith in Grey’s Anatomy, and it’s because they are a loveable couple, but ultimately none too realistic. Here, other characters will confront you about your choices, and gossip between themselves behind your back, literally.

However, my dwarf is a little bit of a bastard, as he had an affair with Morrigan.

Oddly enough, he did this at camp, in full view of a certain priestess who was completely and utterly in love with him, having spent the night together less than a week before his night-time exertions with this witch of the wilds. There was no accusation, no reaction, and I remain half tempted to kiss one of them in front of the other simply to find out what, exactly, the rules of engagement are in this fictional universe. For a developer to put so much faith into their romance mechanics only to code in no consequences for cheating on your companion, is extremely at odds with the strong moral counterpart to the rest of the game’s mechanics, especially when playing a character who, in Grumnir’s case, is most definitely a nice guy, most of the time. I found it disappointing that having an affair didn’t count as a negative moral choice, and I lost a significant amount of faith in the game’s realism for a few hours.

Then I fought a fucking dragon, and I stopped caring so much.

The thing with Origins, is that even two years down the line, there’ll still be DLC and things to talk about, and it’ll be a recurring theme on this blog from now on. I’m a big Mass Effect person, also, but I don’t see two years of life in the sequel. My acid test for this game, admittedly, was my girlfriend, of whom I was expecting to see Origins with the eyes of a sci-fi loyalist and simply look at me with pity, her eyes communicating nothing more than “this is complete drivel.” However, two hours in and she’s completely hooked, so I know it’s not because I dig orcs and elves myself that I’m ignoring any major faults, blinded by my bias for the genre.

I hope you enjoy the game as much as I do, and I’ll return from Ferelden with more thoughts as time goes on. For now though, it’s Sunday and I’m itching to kill an archdemon.

And now, we cue the music.

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He came, he saw, he somehow graduated.

Dragon Age: Journeys – Chapter One Review.

Ah, Dragon Age. Origins isn’t even out until the sixth, but thanks to Bioware being forward thinking game designers, I’m already settling into the lore and game mechanics very nicely. Dragon Age: Journeys is an eight-hour (roughly) flash RPG set in the DA universe, released in three chapters, though the first chapter is very much a beta test, judging by the glitches and endless surveys.

The idea behind the game is simple: a click-to-move RPG with turn-based combat, set in a world of dwarves, humans and elves, all set on freeing their lands from the evil that lurks below Orzammar (I’ll refrain from commenting on the fact the name sounds like Orgrimmar and the place looks a little like it, too). You’re set upon by various beasts, and your task is to complete three simple quests per chapter, all involving exploring the caverns beneath the ancient dwarven city.

The user interface itself is pretty advanced if you consider the fact that this is just a simple flash game. At the bottom you’ve got your classic WoW-esque approach to hotkeys, and the set of keys displayed will depend on who you’ve currently got selected, though everyone moves as one outside combat. In the first gallery picture (screencapped from my own save as GamesPress are lacking assets, odd as this game is better than all that FIFA tripe) I’e currently got Ardum, the party’s resident healer/spellcaster selected. What you use him for is up to you, but if you take a look at the hotkeys, I’ve got him geared more towards healing than anything else. In true Diablo style you can chuck pots and various other items onto hotkeys. However, this becomes tiresome quickly as the game insists you click a pot, then a portrait. Odd when you have a pooled set of resources and could simply select a toon to heal.

However, the rest of the UI is pretty swish, with the obvious circles of health and mana/stamina set around character portraits. You can also see that Ardum is pretty close to level six at the moment, due to the genius idea of actually putting the experience bar on the main UI, which is something that, due to it being missing, ruined the flow of Mass Effect by a significant amount. Next to it is a button set for switching between two weapon sets; in most cases, a melee and ranged weapon, though the caster wasn’t a swap I experimented with, though it’s for two different staves (healing and damage, for example).

Menu’s up top and you’ve got a compass in the form of two icons that flit around your screen in geosynchronous position relative to where your current objective is, and the nearest door back to Orzammar, your hub for this particular chapter (and I’m hoping only this chapter). Quick travel is, as you can see, most definitely an option, and the smartest element of it is it’s not based on place names, but instead what you’d be doing in that particular area once you arrive, for example “going back to Orzammar” or “destroying the Darkspawn machinery,” transporting you to Orzammar and a sub-level of the Deep Roads, respectively.

All this travelling, however, may wear thin the soles of your shoes, so it’s important to keep your armour and various other bits of meanie-bashing equipment to a high standard relative to your level (or level of arrogance; we all know the one person whose WoW character has a “poser set”). The inventory screen is very clean and straightforward, split into two main windows. Your toon, in this case, my own character Ordan Doomseeker (who’ll be transferring his name into the next-gen title next month), and on the right, a list of equipment. Equipping this angry little fellow is a simple drag-and-drop affair, with slots for one- and two-handed weapons, ranged weapons, weapon sets, armour, accessories, and so on. His stats are shown above and below, handy if you’re wondering how to best tweak your character’s numbers to suit a particular role.

There are two elements of this screen that make equipping characters a joy in Journeys. One is the item comparison system, originally a basic addon for World of Warcraft that then not only made it into the game’s core set of UI mechanics, but spread to almost every RPG released since. Hover over, and compare. Beautiful. The other is the set of category buttons just below your money count, which allows you to sort your items as all/weapons/armour/accessories/potions/quest items. Glorious.

Right, combat. I’m aware this sounds like a checklist, but this is a roleplaying game. To not organise everything into anal little semi-bullet points would be remiss of the characteristics of the genre itself: lots of little details all under helpful headings. Not that my journalistic style is in any way helpful. That being said, thank god the combat system is.

What you’ve got here is actually a fight very far into the game, against a couple of normal mobs and an ogre, who you can think of as That One Ridiculous Mob, or TORM for short. At the moment, the caster is selected, and he’s just finished moving forward, about to cast a spell called Staff Bolt – no mana cost, decent damage. I know. No mana cost. Makes you cry, doesn’t it? His range is shown by the blue hexagons, and the red indicated where he can fire. The hand hovering over TORM’s right foot is my mouse cursor, to give you an idea of what the mouse changes into once you’re hovering over a viable target, helpfully indicated to you by the red hexagons. Also interesting to note is that the larger mobs take up more than one space, though it seems to be either one or three spaces in a line, indicating they’re all very long, but very thin. Silly Bioware. Abilities remain on the bottom, and you can handily see mob health/mana/stamina on the right, with an order of combat up in the top left, which proves incredibly helpful for timing alternating waves of offense and defense in the later, harder battles.

Combat is fun, and – for a turn-based combat system – very swift. Characters move around very smoothly and respond immediately to commands. There’s no victory dancing or ridiculous taunts by your team or the enemy, just pure, visceral combat. It’s incredibly fun and really accelerates the combat to a pace that even non-flash-RPG fans can appreciate whilst racking up items for the game on PC/Xbox/PS3. Healing is a simple job, as is casting and melee, but it’s important to remember that there will sometimes be boulders and small trees on the battlefield (though this is clear, frustratingly, in the screenie), so you’ll have to plan around lines of sight, which can be used to your advantage in a melee heavy party fighting a team of casters.

Your characters can and – on Normal and above difficulty levels – will die during combat. This is remedied in one two ways; either level your caster’s healing talents so he can ressurect in and out of combat, or simply use Injury Kits, which come into use automatically once you’re out of combat. Interestingly, the second I bought an Injury Kit at a shop, the game instantly used it on one of the KOed members of my little fantasy-platoon, saving a fair amount of time digging through my inventory screen.

However, if you’re thinking about boosting your caster into a Super Healer who can bring people back to life by simply blinking, you’ll need to plan his abilities carefully, and this is where the talent tree screen comes into play. In the last picture you can see Ardum’s Mage talent trees, though we’ll focus on Spirit Healer talents as the example, selecting his most recent spell-based acquisition; Revival. Select a spell and spend your points. Simple, right? The different trees are sometimes named a little cryptically, but it’s easy enough to figure them out. “Class name here” is usually basic stat boosting across a wide range of categories, whilst you’ll get the ability to tank, heal, and deal fire-wrath damage should you want to specialise with anyone. Personally I ended up with two offense Warrior class members and Ardun, who was a Healer with a mean Staff Bolt spell that kept mobs from stomping his face into the cave floor.

At first you’ll get a few talent points to mess around with, but sadly it soon drops to one per level. That said, there are only four levels to every tree, so this makes a fair amount of sense, as otherwise by level 20 you’d be proficient in everything and the game would begin to resemble Animal Crossing more than a fantasy brawler RPG. It’s a nice, clean talent tree screen and it makes no bones about what it does, which speeds up your character advancement as there’s no auto-talenting in this. But that’s for idiots anyway, so it’s all good.

Right, that’s basically everything there is to Dragon Age: Journeys so far, and I won’t talk about the quests. Though simplistic (it’s a flash game, let’s not expect Ikaruga), it’s a great storyline and sets up the narrative of the next-gen title very well, introducing you to the various antagonists in the simplest way possible: getting you to spend hours on the web bashing the living daylights out of the little bastards. There are five achievements overall, and another five per chapter, so after twenty little metagames you’ll be sitting on a pile of four or five items at least, transferable into DA:O once it releases on November the sixth, or the third if you’re over the pond. Remember to fill out the surveys, because unlike most people, Bioware do actually take criticism into serious consideration, though if Ubisoft mention more quest-types in Assassin’s Creed II one more time I may go postal.

And, of course, a link to the game itself. Enjoy, all.

Thoughts on Dragon Age: Origins.

Okay, before we start, I think I need to nerd out for a paragraph or two, here.

I’m a massive fantasy nerd. In my lifetime, I’ve absorbed huge swathes of swashbuckling elves and evil wizards, I’ve painted little mages and sent them into battle, and I’ve even dressed up as a mythic fantasy warrior and charged around for a weekend smacking people around with a fake sword. In short, I absolutely love fantasy, though I’ll say now (naysayers can moan, but it’s true), that Lord of the Rings is not really what you’re going to get from mainstream fantasy, in the same sense Harry Potter isn’t really a true fantasy wizard.

There are a few tenets of fantasy that are vital to creating a successful legion of fans who will, often, put overweight people in leather armour whenever you’re signing their novels:

  • A back-story stretching thousands of years, preferably with at least one race who was “there when the (insert creator-race here) were first beginning their work.” I’m talking races, politics, great wars you’ll only hear about in whispered discussions in dark taverns over a mug of ale from a dwarf with more scars than skin.
  • A world in which everything is possible, geographically. I’m talking about dwarven mine-fortresses, lava and daemon-filled wastelands, lush, verdant forests and tiring, endless desert. Everything must be covered, and at great length, though you’re welcome to take the time, as most fantasy novels barely leave the starting town for eight hundred pages.
  • A strong sense of factions – I’ll give an example. Dwarves are not all linked, generally, by the fact they’re all small, hyper-masculine and extremely pissed off. There are many different types of dwarf, and it’s important to establish that not everyone in your novel/fan-fiction/game/film/glue-and-macaroni sculpture is simply a cookie-cutter stereotype with nothing to individualise them whatsoever. Strong characters need to break the mould, and rebel against the constraints set upon them by men like Tolkien, in which every dwarf is angry, ridiculously noble and hiding some kind of secret pain. That’s not fantasy, that’s a Hatebreed concert.
  • I like dwarves, have you noticed?

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Now, to look at Dragon Age’s character creation screen, we’re presented with a wealth of options, but not so many as to spoil the idea of fun and logically-contained originality for the player. Dwarves (hah!) can be commoners or nobles, humans can be of similar varying backgrounds, and most interestingly, elves are either rebels or slaves. Chew on that, Legolas.

I think this is an important idea, and one they’ve built on since Mass Effect. In ME you were given the ability to give your Commander Shepherd one of three different backgrounds, and within that one of three defining moments in his military career. The six bases for the avatar you’d be playing for a long time (and at my girlfriend’s last count, over 100 hours) are simple. The son of a Navy couple, bathed in blood defending a strategic objective from a horde of oncoming foes whilst his friends lay dead and wounded. An Earth-born urchin with no future save enlisting, earning his recognition in the galaxy as a ruthless war-hero who would ignore civilian casualties to take out the enemy. Many options, and they all contribute to certain missions cropping up, certain reactions from those aware of Shepherd’s reputation.

Bioware have built on this idea in DA by not only giving you six different choices, but ensuring the first two hours or more are completely based on whose mind you choose to immerse yourself in for the next fifty-plus hours. I think it’s a great step forward for the RPG genre – remember, WoW fans, how you’d start a new character simply to immerse yourself in the one-to-ten starting zones? It’s essentially a very similar thing with DA, and I think it’ll be a massive success.

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I will nitpick about the graphics, and that’s simply because I don’t think it fits the genre. Good science fiction, or in the case of ME, amazing science fiction, is all about believable, mature conversation about topics NASA would kill children to put into active use. The animation for these conversations in-game are what make them so effective, as no one is in any way being melodramatic or putting too much physical emphasis on their lines and more lines of dialogue.

In fantasy, I’m not so sure I can see this working. Fantasy is William Shakespeare to science fiction’s August Strindberg – the melodrama serves the universe in which the fiction is set. Dwarves are angry, Elves are arrogant, and humans are, generally, bumbling idiots but hold a few exceptions that amount to either suave anti-heroes or comedic relief. However, the conversations in the trailer still look fairly Bioware-static, and I’m worried they won’t be able to convey the stage-presence style of the dialogue that, by the look of it, remains very true to the genre in which the title is set.

As for the skill system? It’s WoW meets Mass Effect, and I couldn’t be happier with it. Specialise in one or two handed weapons, blocking, agility, tanking… and this is just for the Warrior class. Obviously, this is never going to become a multiplayer game, and it’s always a shame to see a three-man RPG suffer like this, especially if it’s on the PC as well. However, we said this initially about Too Human, and the eventual multiplayer in that case was abysmal.

The squad system has taken some seriously clever cues from the best RPG combat mechanic, in my opinion, of all time: the gambit system from FFXII. The gambit system, for those who never played FFXII, was a simple set of instructions for your allies that were all conditional: use potions when low on health, use magic until out of mana, then use a mana pot and keep on blastin’, and so on. The only major difference between the two was you had to unlock gambit options in Square’s epic RPG, and here it’s all up to you from the word go. This works very well in a game where you’d really not feel like managing the minutiae of your squadmate’s spells if you’ve chosen a physically-focused character for a reason.

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The game comes out on November 6th in Europe, and I can’t wait to stick up an in-depth review here on FTGG, though you’re looking at Christmas, earliest: if it’s being done for my enjoyment, you’ll know I’ll have only touched the review once I’ve geeked out and done every single possible thing in the game. Most reviewers will be skipping a fair bit of content, as it’s ridiculous for someone to have to write a thousand words while compressing down fifty-plus hours of gameplay, especially in the space of a week before the article due date. There are some games I’m so glad I played, rather than reviewed. This will be one of them.