Tag Archives: Baldur’s Gate

First Impressions – Pillars of Eternity

Oh Baldur’s Gate!  It’s been too long!

I sometimes feel that a particular genre or type of game falls out of fashion because someone decided it wasn’t worth doing any more.  2D platformers, JRPGs, and turn based strategies are all enjoying a renaissance due to smaller developers taking a gamble on the idea that these games aren’t outdated, just under appreciated.  Pillars of Eternity joins that crowded field by reviving Black Isle style CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape Torment.  From the first few hours playing it, I can say that Pillars of Eternity is a solid revival of the great CRPGs of yore.

For the uninitiated, the CRPG is the spiritual predecessor to Bioware’s Dragon Age.  Most CRPGs were made using the Infinity Engine which allowed for pausible, three quarter view combat relying heavily on position, line of sight, and party composition.  When not killing all manner of fantasy beast, CRPGs had branching dialogue paths and wide open worlds to explore.  The combination of a deep combat system, interesting quests, and unique settings carved a special place for CRPGs in the greatest games of all time.  That being said, they weren’t without their flaws.  CRPGs were notoriously difficult, dialogue heavy to the point of being pedantic, and stapled to the Dungeons and Dragons systems, with warts intact.  This genre was undoubtedly a fun one, but it needed an update before making its way into the modern world.

Pillars of Eternity appears to be that update.  The first and most welcome change is freeing the CRPG from the confines of the D&D universes.  The D&D license imposed arcane rules that allowed for incredible flexibility assuming the player could ever figure out what was going on.  Pillars of Eternity developer Obsidian Entertainment simplifies the interactions and battle rules into something far more approachable than Baldur’s Gate’s old “do I want this number to be higher or lower?” game.  This includes the welcome addition of a stash that allows for the infinite accumulation of items without having to manage an ever shrinking number of spaces. Overall, Pillars of Eternity takes better advantage of the video game medium.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t extend to the game world.    The world of Pillars of Eternity feels very similar to the fantasy worlds of old school CRPGs.  Replete with distant gods, wizards, and old wars, this is a world we’ve seen before.  Even the playable races are pulled from the Star Trek “Every alien is just a human with different skin color and a horn” school of creativity.  Of course, I haven’t gotten too far into the game, but what I’ve seen doesn’t impress.

On the other hand, combat remains a highlight by pulling in the old system wholesale.  Party composition and management are vital with success hinging on clever use of terrain.  Fights are pleasantly difficult, though unwelcome difficulty spikes crop up around boss characters.  Players will likely need to level up specifically for bosses or else repeat fights over and over again until they get a lucky roll.  Party members cover the usual professions with two new additions.  I haven’t had a chance to play the Cipher, a psychic, but I have enjoyed my time with the Chanter.  Chanters fill the bard role of buffing the team while still being able to fight.  The player can craft the Chanter’s songs allowing for interesting combinations of supporting songs and debuffs that lend the class a high degree of flexibility.  For my part, I’m just glad druids aren’t weak priests as they were in the previous generation.

There’s a lot to love in Pillars of Eternity.  I’m hoping to see more development out of the world, but the game already feels like a worthy purchase.  For players jonsing for that old Infinity Engine style game, this will be a welcome update to their favorite genre.  For new players, it’s hard to gauge how they’ll react to the complexity and difficulty.  Still, I’m glad to see this kind of game return.  Thanks Oblivion.

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Opinion – Cheating and the social contract

Cheaters never prosper…except when they do….which is often.

Most players object to cheating.  Whether through a hack, exploit, or a code, most players object to the idea that their opponent is getting an advantage over them that the game does not allow.  We often see gamers objecting to cheating in single player games as well.  This is interesting as mods or previously agreed upon buffs are generally considered acceptable or even laudable.  The contradiction begs the question, what about cheating do players object too?

One of the most commonly made arguments is that cheating violates the intentions of the developers by affording an advantage they didn’t include in the game.  As this thinking goes, the game is sacrosanct and the developers are the final arbiter of what the experience should be.  With the age of patches and mods, that seems obviously wrong.  Developers are constantly updating their own programs, including basic gameplay changes. Even if they aren’t, the game’s fanbase is.  Mods can extend the life of a game considerably by adding new features, content, or addressing old problems.  In their actions, neither the fans nor the developers consider the initial game sacred.  So what’s the problem with cheating?

The problem is that cheating can violate the social contract between players.  Players pick up a game with the expectation that their opponents are playing with the same benefits and limitations as the game allows.  This forms a basic social contract that allows each player to judge their skill relative to their opponent.  If both players have an equal playing ground, then presumably the best will win.  In addition to skills testing, the denial of cheating appeals to a sense of fairness.  It forces each player to operate under the same constraints and therefore acquire achievements (be they ranking, speed of run, praise, etc) using the same tools.  Players who acquire the achievement with an unearned or granted advantage both achieve a status they have not earned and undermine the value of the achievement for others.  If enough players cheat, then other players cannot trust the achievement, and it becomes worthless.  This is particularly problematic in tournaments where players and viewers need to reasonably expect that what they’re seeing is the result of player skill and not cheat assisted.

The same contract can extend to single player games.  At first blush, cheating in a single player game effects no one.  After all, there are no other players playing said game and therefore no one else relying on the cheater’s input to determine the value of their own achievement.  The problem with this line of thinking is that single player experiences are often shared.  We don’t just play games, we share our stories.  We talk about the awesome things we’ve seen and the amazing things we’ve accomplished.  When someone cheats, particularly if they don’t acknowledge it, they make the comparison less valid.  They attempt to high jack an achievement they didn’t earn and bask in the glory of friend’s praise without the effort.

I’ll give you an example.  In my youth I played Baldur’s Gate 2 concurrently with a friend.  We both got stuck at a dragon until he told me one day that he’d beaten it!  It was easy!  He sat me down and I watched as he took his party, hid in a corner, and attacked the dragon.  The dragon’s AI couldn’t figure out how to get to the corner so it flailed about helplessly as it slowly died to arrows.  My friend was very proud and sought credit for “killing the dragon”, but that wasn’t really the achievement we discussed earlier.  Yes, the dragon died, but he didn’t actually face it.  He didn’t overcome the challenge of the dragon.  He found an exploit, used it, and took down one of the games hardest enemies without having to deal with the parts that made it hard.  Our social contract that conferred praise onto whoever beat the dragon was cheapened by his inclusion of methods that removed the challenge.

This is not to say that cheating is bad.  Also long as all relevant players are on board, cheating can be a great way to enjoy a game.  The problem with cheating is the value established on achievement between players.  When cheating is used to undermine achievements, be they compared skillsets or shared milestones, it breaches the social contract that establishes a hypothetical shared value on certain in game actions.  Without that social contract, the social and comparative parts of the gaming experience mean less and, assuming total breakdown, may be no fun at all.

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Truth – Of Hamsters and Spaceships

The truth, revealed.

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to write the post I wanted to write, so I’m instead going to share a little theory I have concerning the excellent Mass Effect series: Mass Effect is the prequel to Baldur’s Gate.

It all begins with a miniature giant space hamster with Boo.  For those who recall BG, they will remember the great duo of Minsc and Boo, man and hamster.  The warrior Minsc claimed that Boo was none other than a space hamster who counseled him on important matters.  BG and the developer, Bioware, wanted us to write off Minsc as a fun, deranged fighter and Boo as an item slot sacrificed for giggles, but, dear reader, Boo was far more than that.  When the player clicks on Boo in Minsc’s inventory, Boo makes a distinctive and pleasant squeaking noise.  In ME, Commander Shepard also acquires a hamster that makes the exact same noise.  It is reasonable to conclude that we are looking at Boo, the space hamster.

Now, the question arises how did Boo get to BG?  After all, Mass Effect happens in a far flung future and BG is a technologically primitive and magic existent universe.  Furthermore, how does the magic of BG jive with the science of ME?  Simple.  In the final scenes of the original ending of ME3, the Normandy crash lands on an unknown planet with much of the crew surviving.  I hold that this planet was actually BG’s Forgotten Realms and that Boo escaped when the ship landed, freeing him up to join Minsc for the events of BG.  As for the magic, ME’s biotics act very similar to BG’s magic.  They can cause elemental damage, push people and objects, and create shields.  Furthermore, we know that biotic gifts are caused by exposure to element zero, the required fuel of the Normandy.  The mages of BG could have been exposed to element zero from the Normandy (or any other crashing ship) and so gaining biotic, not magic, powers.  To the technologically ignorant population, they wouldn’t know the difference.  There are other connections.  BG’s ruins of lost civilizations could easily be space ships, the various monsters could be ME’s alien races, and the Big Metal Unit could just as easily be ME tech.  There are many connections.

See that Bioware?  I’m on to you.

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