Retro Game Review: Halo

Man, this game is old… Oh man! I am old!

halocombatevolved530Old enough to remember when Halo was first announced. At that time Half-Life and Unreal were the big first person shoters of the day that everyone had to have played. (Though I admit I never played Unreal.) Call of Duty and Battlefield didn’t even exist yet, though there was the Medal of Honor series, which quite likely many of you never heard of. It was the time before the decade of World War II shoters and science-fiction was really the big deal, continuing the tradition of Doom and Quake. The first screenshots were just mind blowing. Because it had outdoor areas that didn’t look like total crap! The first videos of the Warthog jeep were just out of this world. The hype was on almost instantly. When Microsoft bought Bungie and announced that Halo would be the launch title for their Xbox project, it really ruffled some feather. The internet was much smaller back in 2000, but there was still plenty of nerd rage in which I heartily participated. In 2001 the game was released and a huge success, and a few years later we actually did get a PC port of the game. In 2012 followed the 10 year anniversary edition with improved graphics for Xbox 360, which I did get used last year. This review is based on my recent playthrough of this version and how it plays now, looking back at the game 13 years later.

When I first played the game, I really quite liked it a lot. Not quite as much as Half-Life or Half-Life 2, but still a fun game. And when I later got an XBox 360 I also got Halo and played through another two times. So this one it was probably my fourth playthrough of the game. I played it on Hard. The one above Normal and below Very Hard. The game doesn’t call it like that, but I already feel too old to learn all the fancy difficulty names games have these days. It was hard. The one with the two swords, but without the skull. And I have to admit, that game is really terribly boring. Okay, in the games defense, I played it the fourth time and I have an exceptional memory for environments, so I always had a pretty good idea what would be behind the next corner and where all the surprise enemy spawns would be. But still, it’s mostly a straight corridor shoter where you run down these big long hallways. These very, very long hallways of constantly repeating copy and paste segments. And playing on Hard meant I died a good number of time and checkpoints are not nearly as tight as in recent Call of Duty games, so effectively I probably ran down twice as many corridors as the actual level length. On top of that, Halo is also very effecient at recycling levels. Usually you have to fight your way from point A to point B, then there is a cutscene and you have to go almost all the way back to A again, this time with different enemies. Generally I like the idea, as fighting your way out of the base you stormed makes perfect sense. But since there is such an excessive amount of copy-paste corridor segments it really becomes very repetitive, as the levels are also pretty long.

Continue reading “Retro Game Review: Halo”

Why Mass Effect is my favorite fantasy game

Most people are under the impression that Science-Fiction and Fantasy are very easy to tell apart. One has space ships and lasers and the other has swords and magic. But when you look a bit deeper, neither genre is actually described acurately that well. There is plenty of sci-fi, like for example Ghost in the Shell or The Matrix, which have neither starships nor lasers; just as there is fantasy with barely any swords, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or with very little magic, like A Song of Ice and Fire. And then you have something like Star Wars

The difference between sci-fi and fantasy is instead one of themes and narratives. Sci-fi is a genre that deals with technological progress and how it might affect our life in the future. Fantasy on the other hand deals with worlds that always have been fundamentally different and usually explore how our past could have turned out differently if some basics facts of life had been different; most commonly the addition of magic and monsters. And if we go with this definition for sci-fi and fantasy for now, it’s easy to see why Star Wars quite firmly falls into fantasy and isn’t really sci-fi at all. In this universe, the technologies of space ships and lasers have been around for thousands of years and different species from different planets living side by side just as long. There is neither technological progress nor social change, everything stays as it always has been. The story itself is the classic fantasy plot of the Hero’s Journey, about fighting a dark lord and his evil legions with magic and courage. Technology is not used as new tools to deal with old problems.

Now the Mass Effect series would seem quite different on first glance. It’s not set long ago in a galaxy far, far away, but is about humans from Earth just a little more than a century in the future, who just discovered advanced technology and met other intelligent species for the first time within living memory. And the writers went to great length of effort to include the most recent discoveries of physics and technology as part of the explanation how stuff in this world works. That all looks a lot lik science-fiction. But once you start looking a bit deeper and look at the themes and plot elements, it really turns to be a pure fantasy story at heart for which the technological elements are really almost entirely decorative. Very much like Star Wars, which isn’t a coincidence. A few years before developing the first Mass Effect games, the developer BioWare had made a huge commercial and critical success with the Dungeons & Dragons based series Baldur’s Gate and continues their amazing rise to probably the most important roleplaying game developers in the West with the Star Wars game Knights of the Old Republic. However, at that point they stepped away from doing licensed games and created their own series with their own setting. Dragon Age as a successor to Baldur’s Gate and Mass Effect for KotOR. Particularly the first game resembled KotOR greatly in style, presentation, gameplay, and controls. But, as I know want to show, it also is really a fantasy story at heart as well. Obviously total spoilers for all three Mass Effect games below:

  • The games have six character classes. Three pure and three hybrid. The Soldier, Engineer, and Adept are really the same thing as Warrior, Rogue, and Mage.
  • The main villains are the Reapers, who are immortal beings from outside the galaxy of incredible power whose sole purpose is to kill all living people in the galaxy. A classic demon invasion plot.
  • Their main soldiers are the husks, which are made from the bodies of their victims, and are basically zombies.
  • The plot of the first game revolves around a powerful madman with strong magic powers collecting ancient artifacts, which he then uses in an attempt to open a portal to the distant realm of the reapers and allow them to invade invade the galaxy. An evil sorcerer opening a gate to hell to summon an army of demons is an old fantasy classic.
  • On the search for the artifacts, you encounter an ancient immortal creature that has been living in the deepest chambers below the ruins for tens of thousands of years and is telepatically controlling the villagers of a nearby settlement and sends them to stop you.
  • Later, in a different ruin on a different planet, you encounter an old artifical intelligence, which is basically the guardian spirit of the place, which tells you how to use the artifacts to stop the evil sorcerer from summoning the demonic army.
  • Right at the start of the second game, the hero is killed, but two years later brought back to life with magic! I mean with SCIENCE!!!
  • At the end of the game, the hero and the team of companions have to travel through an ancient and mysterious portal to find the lair of their enemy. To do that, theh first have to find a special key that allows them passage through the portal without being destroyed like the hundreds who tried to pass through it before them.
  • They find that special key in the very heart of the gargantuan corpse of one of the ancient demons. Where of course it’s spirit is still present and turned the earlier explorers into zombies.
  • When they finally make it through the portal to the villains lair, it all looks as if they have travelled right into hell. And inside the lair they find a gargantuan monster that is being build from the bodies of thousands of humans.
  • In the third game, all the Free People have unite to find an ancient artifact that may be the only way to stop the demons. And of course to do so the hero has to assault the main base of the demons and confront the god that controls it all.
  • At one point, you need to get the Krogans on your side, butt they agree to help only under the condition that you cure a terrible disease that has been spread over their world as punishment for their endless invasions and conquests of other planets. Basically, they want you to life an ancient curse laid on their ancestors.
  • To do so, you have to access a science station on their planet where one of your allies will produce a cure and use the station to spread it over the entire planet. Said cure can only be made from the blood of a single Krogan woman, who also happens to coincidentally be one of the very few high priestesses of the ancient religion.
  • However, you can’t reach the station, as it is build behind an old abandoned temple, which is currently inhabited by one of the immortal demons. So what you do is to start the ancient machines that the Krogans used to summon the great titanic creature they revered as a destroyer and mother of the most terrible monsters on the planet. You really perform an ancient ritual to summon one of the old pagan gods, who arrives to destroy the demon!
  • On another planet, you discover that the most advanced species with the best technology and magic powers have actually been altered by an even more powerful but now extinct race of creatures. They also have another one of the artifical intelligences hidden inside their great cathedral, who is like a messenger from their old gods, who has been teching them all the secrets of their technology.
  • In addition to the demon army that wants to destroy the world and take everyone back to their realm, there is also another antagonist who believes he has the power to make the demons his slaves and through them become the ruler of the galaxy.

It may be a sci-fi setting, but the main story and many of the side stories really are fantasy stories through and through.

Fantasy Safari: Monsters of Faerûn (D&D 3rd Ed.), Part 4

Helmed Horror
Helmed Horror

The Helmed Horror is probably one of my favorite monsters of my favorite monster book. I first saw these guys in Baldur’s Gate back in ’99, and they were terrifyingly strong. Good times. On first glance, the helmed horror is simply an animated suit of armor. But like many monsters in this book, it’s made into something much more interesting by giving it a small handful of magic abilities. Compared to true golems, it is relatively weak. But golems in Dungeons & Dragons are absolute terror beasts, so this guy is still amazingly dangerous. The main ability of a helmed horror is that it can make the blade of any weapon it holds burst into flame, covered in magic ice, or charged with lightining. It really only increases its damage by 1d6 points of damage, but it’s still an impressive looking effect that immediately tells everyone they mean business. They can also see any invisible creatures, which makes them great guardians for wizards. In addition to being made of full plate armor and difficult to hit, they are also have all the immunities of constructs and are enchanted to be completely immune to three specific spells. Usually those will be classic attack spells like fireball or lightning bolt, and while casting a spell that affects everything in a large area on a single enemy is not particularly effective, there aren’t that many other spells that can really hurt helmed horrors to begin with. As constructs, they are already immune to almost all illusions, enchantments, and necromancy spells. Disabling a helmed horror other than by hacking it to pieces is quite the challenge. Fot added fun, it also has the spells air walk and feather fall, which make it almost impossible to use the terrain against it. Pits and barriers won’t stop it at all, and even though being a heavy suit of armor, a helmed horror is just as fast as any ordinary human. It’s a fucking Terminator.

Hybsil
Hybsil

The Hybsil is one of the rare fey creatures in D&D 3rd edition, which for some reason never got much love beond the dryad, nymph, pixie, and satyr. Hybsils look like a small deer with the upper body of a small human or halfling with short antlers on their head. Though individually they are quite weak and vulnerable, they usually live in groups of several dozens and their high speed combined with their reliance on bows and arrows can make them formidable opponents. They also have the magical abilities to move without leaving any tracks and to greatly increase the distance of their jumps, which makes them amazingly well suited for ambushs. For emergencies, they also have a few magical sleep arrows they get from pixies, which can knock out many enemies instantly. They are also lead by druids and have their own rangers and sorcerers, which makes things a lot more complicated for any potential attackers. Picking a fight with any hybsils in their forest homes is much more dangerous than it looks from seeing just one or two of these small creatures.

Leucrotta
Leucrotta

The Leucrotta is a dangerous predator based on sketchy descriptions of hyenas by the Romans. This creature simply runs with it and is exactly what was described. It has the body of an antelope, the tail of a lion, and the head of a badger, It is as large as a horse and has jaws that can even bite through armor. Leucrottas are intelligent creature and completely evil and violent. They simply live for killing. Quite surprisingly to many people, they also can talk and are very capable of immitating the voice of other animals and even people. These guys are some really viscious murder machines and that they are very able at climbing and jumping doesn’t make things better for anyone. Continue reading “Fantasy Safari: Monsters of Faerûn (D&D 3rd Ed.), Part 4”

I freaking love Star Wars!

I don’t have any true insights to share right now. But it’s May 4th and I’ve got plenty of Star Wars art on the tumblr pages I am watching for classic pulp fantasy and sci-fi art and it got me all hyped up again. And as any semi-regular readers will know, I just love Star Wars to no end. It’s pulp entertainment at its very finest. The old trilogy manages just the perfect blend of a completely outrageous and preposterous world and plot and taking itself still completely serious without making jokes about itself. (It’s the moment when the new movies try to crack a joke that they are at their lowest.) It’s far from infantile nonsense, but instead I see it as a story that is all about emotion, with the plot being a rather secondary thing. It doesn’t make much sense, and often it’s outright silly. But it’s silly only on a rational level, when you try to explain things logically. When looked at as a story that does not work by logic but by emotion, it works perfectly.

I remember quite well when I saw Star Wars for the first time. I was 10 when we moved to another city and a few months later I went to visit one of my old friends for a weekend. My dad dropped me off at the train station where my friends mom picked me up, but before we went to his home, my friend first had to get a new toy from the store next to the train station. And it was a Star Wars toy, which didn’t mean anything to me at that point. So once we got home, he showed me all his other Star Wars stuff and it all looked and sounded really fascinating, completely different from anything I’d seen before. It wasn’t anywhere like Star Trek at all. So we got permission to watch Star Wars on video on a tiny TV in his room later that evening. That stuff was totally amazing. And the next day we also watched The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Best weekend of my life! Fortunately, it was 1995 and in 1997 the special edition was rereleased first in theatres and then on video. And of course I got my parents and my brother to go see them and we got them on video for christmass that year. And I’ve stayed with Star Wars ever since. Watched the movies dozens of times, and played X-Wing and Tie Fighter on our first computer to complete exhaustion. My brother and I probably read all the novels that existed at the time, we played Jedi Knight, and Knights of the Old Republic, and my brother got a small stack of comics. And lot’s of posters. Actually I have to admit I don’t care for the new movies at all. I might not even go to see them on release, but unless the reviews are disastrous I’ll probably get around to watch them on DVD some day. Call me old, but I grew up on the stuff that was made in the 90s and early 2000s and that’s the only true way Star Wars is done for me. There are still gems of course. The Knights of the Old Republic comics are amazing and I even love playing The Force Unleashed, even though the story is one of the dumbest things ever written for Star Wars this side of Dark Empire. But even if I don’t really care for most of the things released in the last 10 years, I still love Star Wars and probably always.

I freaking love this stuff!

So here have probably the best movie scene of all time:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-DeI3ohVbY

This is just the greatest stuff ever made. Sorry, Mass Effect, Ghost in the Shell, Dark Sun, and The Witcher. Star Wars is still so much more awesome.

Campaign Setting Worldbuilding: Kings and other major NPCs

One very common approach to creating campaign settings for a roleplaying game is to start with a map, define the countries, place major cities, and then create all the kings, other rulers, and any other big names of global/regional importance. It’s something people do without really thinking about it, because that’s how everyone is doing it. Which is good enough for quick ad dirty, single use and then throw away settings, but when making a setting for a longer campaign and possibly even beyond that, it’s a rather poor approach to the work. To make a good setting one does not just have to know what to do, but why it is done and for what purpose.

Whenever the question is raised “Why is it always done this way?” in a fantasy context, the answer is almost always “because Tolkien did it”. (If not that, then it’s because D&D did it.) But Tolkien had a good reason for it, which in most fantasy games inspired by Middle-Earth is not present. I argue that creating kings and other movers and shakers is not only irrelevant to most settings, but actually obstructive. So why did Tolkien do it? Because Middle-Earth has always been a setting that is about Kings and the conflicts and cooperations between them. That’s in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarilion and even in The Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins might be the protagonist of that story who is going on an adventure in the Wilderness, but it is not his story and it is not really about adventures. In the end it really is all about Thorin reclaiming the rule over his families land and a lot of the problems they run into really are power struggles for control over the region and its economy. Bilbo is looking for treasure, Thorin is making a grav for power which gets him into conflict with the other regional rulers. Similarly, The Lord of the Rings has two stories; one about Frodo going to Mount Doom and the other all about the shift in political power in Middle-Earth. And that’s why so many characters are kings and princes and we get to know all the rulers while hearing almost nothing about the common people. Similarly, the Song of Ice and Fire series is a story about powerful politicians fighting for control and dominance. It’s necessary to know all the royal courts and all the kings and princes, because that’s where the action takes place and who are the main players in the story are.

But almost no campaign setting that has been created for a roleplaying game has really been intended to have the player characters as major participants in global politics. And as such players are very unlikely to ever meet anyof those people and when they do it’s usually as generic quest givers. Kings and high priests are adventure characters, not setting elements. Take a look at fiction in which the protagonists are more like typical adventurers. Conan sometimes have encounters with other kings when he rules Aqualonia, but these are created for each specific story and then again immediately discarded. And I am not even sure if there is ever any explanation how government in Lankhmar works. Because it’s irrelevant.

There are exceptions, of course. Dark Sun has the Dragon Kings who rule over the city states and we have complete lists of all the cities and all the kings, with pretty detailed descriptions. But in the world of Athas, the kings are not just rulers. They are immortal sorcerers of unimginable power and often seen as close to gods. They are indeed so powerful and reclusive that few player characters are likely to ever meet them or have any sliver of hope to survive against them in a fight. However, the kings all have their templars, who are not only administrators and police, but also priests of their kings. And players are going to run into templars and have dealings with them all the time. In this respect the kings themselves are not so much NPCs, but religions and ideologies which the templars enforce within their cities. Who exactly are the kings? GMs don’t need to know and players probably shouldn’t know. All we need to understand about them is what directions they are giving to their highest templars. In Athas, the identity of the king is the identity of the city. Take a city like Baldur’s Gate or Shadizar, and it really doesn’t matter. If there is a war, there is a war. Unless the players are playing generals, they never will really know what’s going on in the back rooms. Spending too much thought and attention on those things is generally a waste of time.

And very often useless information is not just irrelevant, but actively obstructing. Because all that stuff has to be written and later it will be read. And both writers and readers will concentrate on those elements that get the most detail. But unless the setting is meant for player characters who are kings and generals, it is something they should not concentrate on. If you set up a big sign that says “This is important!” and “This is iconic for the setting”, GMs will try to shoehorn it into their campaigns. That even happens when you create the setting to use it only yourself. But is that actually good for the players? Generally not. It often means that they are part of a story which they neither have control over, nor contribute to in a meaningful way. So I say, if it’s not the focus of the setting, leave it out.

I went through some old notes again, from all the way back four years ago, checking if there was anything I’ve forgotten about in the meantime before throwing it away. And I came upon a list and description of the twelve most important ruler for the Ancient Lands setting. Some really good ideas there, but it is meant to be a setting set in the vast wilderness for wandering warriors exploring ruins and encountering spirits. What do the great rulers of the city states have to do with that? The cities themselves are mostly meant to add flavor to descriptions of objects and people who come from there and perhaps places where the players can catch a boat. Not places to be actually visited and explored. And the way the internal politics works are even less relevant. So I specifically chose to not write any descriptions for regular rulers who are easily replaceable. The leaders of the secret societies whose agents are also digging around in old ruins in the wilderness are a different matter, but just like the kings of Athas, they are more to explain the goals and actions of their minions rather than bein meant to appear in person themselves.

I think I am done with Weird Fantasy

I discovered Lovecraft only a few years ago but found that there is a real charm to his works. And the more I read, the more I realized that it’s really not a lot like the “Cthulhu Mythos” I’ve been hearing about for several years before. All the many horrific gods and the alien races with their billion year old wars barely make any appearance in his stories. Calling it the “Cthulhu Mythos” is particularly puzzling as he appears in only one story, which I admittedly found rather lacking, and so much more talk is about Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, and Dagon. There are some hints here and there that strange creatures have been to Earth in the distant past, but there isn’t anything about ancient histories of cosmic wars. Turns out Lovecraft never called it Cthulhu Mythos and all the other stuff was written by other people. And I have to say I find Lovecrafts own stories to be much higher quality because they don’t explain things and leave things vague. All the systemization, cataloging, and historic recording was the work of people who wanted to expand, but in my oppinion didn’t actually get what Lovecraft had been done. Still, most of Lovecrafts own writing is quite good and I still regard those stories very highly.

Some time later I came into contact with various videogames that had some kinship with the style I appreciated in Lovecrafts stories. The Japanese Silent Hill series, and the Ukrainian Stalker and Metro games. All these works have themes of desolation and decay, with protagonists who have to deal with events and environment which they don’t understand but have to deal with alone. And one thing that is really compelling about all of them is not what they explain about the events and environment, but what they leave highly vague and ultimately unexplained. The stories themselves have some interesting ideas, but it’s really everything around the characters and the plot that’s really selling it. In the sphere of games the common term is Lore, but it’s really the same thing as worldbuilding. Perhaps even a better term as the worldbuilding is really the creative process of making the world, while the Lore is the information that actually gets presented to the audience in the finished work. They don’t care so much how it’s done, just what the final result is.

Both the Stalker and Metro games are based on Russian science fiction novels and few people would think of Silent Hill as Fantasy. It’s simply Horror. (And the most terrifyingly, pants-shitting horror I’ve ever seen anywhere.) But they still intrigued me greatly as inspirational sources for the worldbuilding on my own Ancient Lands setting. Having really gotten into fantasy both with Dungeons & Dragons, rereading The Lord of the Rings, and playing the Warcraft games, my encounters with fantasy were highly dominated by works that explain absolutely everything down to the smallest level. The more minimalistic approach of both Lovecraft and Horror games, which also have a lot of Lore but it’s much more uncertain and speculative, seemed both more entertaining and intriguing. I later encountered other Japanese fiction like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Elfen Lied (the manga, the anime sucks), which also went a similar route and did very well, at least for me.

So when I heard of fantasy roleplaying games created with the express intend to evoke the bizarre and unknowable it had my curiosity. James Raggi is the posterboy for this movement with his Lamentations of the Flame Princess game, but there are plenty of others whose creative output is just as important. Raggi made the choice to call his game Weird Fantasty Roleplaying, which all things considered seems quite accurate. I haven’t read any of the Bas-Lag books, which are probably the most popular work by which the “New Weird” is identified, but from all I’ve heard about it there seems to be a clear kinship.

And over the last two or three years, I’ve learned a huge amount of things about creating fantasy that is based on and revolves around the inexplainable and extremely lethal. I came, I saw, and I learned. But I also find it to get really tiresome and also going overboard. The Weird Fantasy roleplaying material seems too deeply focused or even obsessed with the grotesque and being outright repulsive. Mutilated corpses and baby-eating penis monsters get from being horrific to being just obnoxious very quickly. I can’t speak for the literature, but in the area of roleplaying games, the Weird seems to be taken as almost synonymous with being both random and repulsive. And that’s just not doing it for me.

When I am looking at a great mystery, I am seeing a small piece of something bigger. Potentially much bigger; who could tell where it ends? In a good mystery I learn what happened here and now, but how it is connected to all the hidden forces and powers I might never know. That’s just what Lovecraft did. But in the Weird Fantasy there often isn’t anything to know. Weird shit just happens and because the characters of the story will never know, the writer doesn’t make any effort to give some reason or purpose for it. And I think the story as a whole suffers greatly from it. In a total vacuum of information, the characters have no meaningful agency. Investigation is pointless if there isn’t anything to learn. Surviving in a situation you can’t begin to understand might be interesting and exciting at first, but ultimately it really is just pure luck and the writers whim that keeps the characters alive. They don’t really have a hand in their fate. And while that’s bad in literature, it’s just outright terrible in a roleplaying game.

I also found myself trying to make all my monsters horrifying, until I realized that I didn’t really have any idea why I would think that might be necessary or even desirable. Reading Hellboy this week, where fey spirits of Britain and Russia play a major role, I remembered that I went looking into this whole Weird Fantasy business to learn about how to make monster threatening and dangerous, and most importantly ambigous. And there just isn’t anything ambigous about a 30 meter tentacle penis with huge teeth. What I am really after with the Ancient Lands is a world in which spirits are real, potentially dangerous, but also worshipped as protectors and bringers of prosperity. What I am after is “awe”. Not terrified panic. In good fairy tales the protagonist has to get face to face with the spirits and atrempt to have a human interaction with something that deep inside is utterly inhuman. That is the fear I am after. The fear of overplaying your luck and slipping up right in front of a being of unbelievable power and primordial and unrestrained emotion. Something that is like a person, but ultimately not a person at all. Which is something none of the beings in Weird Fantasy have. They just attack as soon as they see you and turn you into screaming goo as soon as they touch you.

My time with Weird Fantasy certainly was not a wasted one. There are actually some really good ideas to how approach and structure things. But these are fine tools, which I believe are much more often misused as sledgehammers. I rather go with Hellboy.