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dmz2112: DMZ2112 (DMZ2112)
It’s been a while since I’ve felt like I had anything worthwhile to say about video games, but here we are again. Thanks for reading.

When talking about Mass Effect 3 I think it’s important to first address the elephant in the room – the ending. In case you haven’t heard, it is apparently very unpopular, and a movement has sprung up to convince BioWare to change it.

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The big console news right now is the price drops and redesigns going on, and one of the aspects of the Playstation 3 redesign is the absence of backwards compatibility from the new models despite Sony having recently patented a system for software backwards compatibility running on the PS3’s Cell processor.

I hear all the justifications. )
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A short time ago, BBC Radio 1’s website Newsbeat featured an article by Dan Whitworth, calling attention to a British price hike for the upcoming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The new Call of Duty will apparently retail in the UK for £55, rather than the usual £45. Apparently UK gamers are up in arms about it, although judging by the reactions from Dan’s interviewees, it’s not going to affect their purchasing decisions. Maybe that’s because they’re already willing to pay the equivalent of US$75 for a game Americans only pay $60 for. What's another $16? )
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It’s been a little more than a year since Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition, launched, and after six months of playing it regularly and six more of watching it evolve I think I have finally defined what it is I don’t like about it.

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy D&D4. I’ve come to terms with it in a way that allows me to enjoy it a great deal as a sort of beer-and-pretzels, fantasy-combat board game, in the same vein as the old DUNGEON! game or the more recent Descent and Runebound. I’m not being flippant – I really do enjoy these games and I consider D&D4 to be one of the best. In a lot of ways, I’ve been waiting for a game like D&D4 my entire life. But I don’t consider D&D4 to be a roleplaying game.

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I’ve been meaning to write this piece for a while – since shortly after we acquired our new kitten, Jones the Cat – but actually having a kitten around the house made me that famous extra bit busy that knocked this journal off the bottom of my high-priority list for a few months. My apologies; I’m going to try to get back into posting regularly again now that she’s been spayed and the stress is slowly wearing off. I’ve got a few things stored up that need to be given voice.

Jones the Cat is not named after T. S. Eliot’s Bustopher Jones, nor is she named after Ellen Ripley’s cat from the Alien franchise. I admit to being pleased by the unintended relationship with the latter.

Jones is named Jones the Cat to distinguish her from Reverend Jones, Jones the JP, and Jones the Prize Cabbage (which describes both his hobby and his personality). If you’ve not seen The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain, it comes highly recommended. While it is at its core a romantic comedy, I suppose, it is also a really great look at how a village is a living entity and not just a collection of shops and an inn. So in that regard it might even have some roleplaying application, for fellow dungeon masters.

I’m writing about Jones because she’s unexpectedly taught me a great deal about gaming in the five months we’ve had her, and I think her lessons are worth spreading around. She has shown me that cats are consummate and capable gamers, and that I had forgotten a great deal about what that means.

Lesson 1: Frugality

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Lesson 2: A Change in Scenery


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Lesson 3: Do What You Love

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Lesson 4: Get Plenty of Sleep

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Lesson 5: Hallucinate


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--

UPDATE:

So much for the stress wearing off. Jones' keen gamer instincts have helped her to circumvent all five protective measures we've taken to prevent her from pulling out her stitches. I've already had to rush her back to the vet once. We're hopeful that her duct-tape-enhanced Elizabethan collar will hold until she gets the stitches out on Friday, but it is difficult to be optimistic in light of her terrifyingly advanced problem-solving ability. If anyone's reading this, your thoughts and prayers would be appreciated.
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I find myself troubled.  This journal is not, as a rule, for detailing my personal life, but this particular issue is somewhat thematic, so I hope you’ll indulge me.

 

Last month, I turned 30. )
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As regards Metal Gear Solid 4, it appears I may have spoken too soon. As recently as October 15, Konami sources were quoted as saying that an XBox 360 port of the game was something they "are looking into" due to "worldwide demand." The original quote has been pulled, according to the original report from Kotaku, but the teaser flash on Kojima's website is still inspiring curiosity.

EA DICE has announced upcoming downloadable content for Mirror's Edge, and it looks terrible. It is entirely time trials, which is great, but the setting has been changed from cluttered rooftops to massive, floating, three-dimensional geometric shapes reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid's virtual reality missions (without the floor). The only thing that is going to save this franchise at this point is a quality sequel that focuses on the run itself, not on the run as disassociated puzzle or the run as combat training.

Also, while I have not read a lot of news about it and I personally quit World of Warcraft several months ago, everyone I know who is still in the game tells me that Wrath of the Lich King lives up to the hype. Glad to hear it.

UPDATE: Ha! The new MGS game is for the iPhone, thus explaining for what the "i" in the aforementioned equation stands. I don't know for what the blatant homage to the pulsing green XBox power circle stands, other than a symbolic middle finger aimed squarely at the XBox. The universal power symbol does not appear anywhere on the iPhone. I stand by my previous assertion that there is some seriously mean-spirited nonsense going on, here.
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Two-and-a-half stars out of five.

Mirror’s Edge, from EA DICE, is as far as I know video gaming’s first foray into the world of parkour. It executes the subject admirably. The innovative engine it uses to simulate running along rooftops and jumping from foothold to handhold to foothold is excellent; neither so difficult that it quickly becomes frustrating nor so forgiving that the player does not feel like he is working hard for every meter of ground. I frequently found myself holding my breath during particularly challenging leaps. The parkour portion of Mirror’s Edge could be a game in itself. In fact, it probably should have been. )
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Last week, a friend of mine said that he had heard that Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 4 (warning – lots of Flash) had been confirmed for the XBox 360. Of course, I immediately began searching the internet for further evidence of this fact, and I found nothing – MGS4 for the 360 is still vaporware, if vaporware is even the term for something that was never intended or announced in the first place. But the search for more information did find me a 26 August 2008 Eurogamer interview with Hideo Kojima, creator of the Metal Gear games, that didn’t sit right with me. I feel the need to respond to what seems to me to be dramatic hubris on Kojima’s part.

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So it’s been almost two months since the launch of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. I’ve run several sessions using the new system. My opinion can be summed up as follows:

The game has its issues: needless complexity is greatly reduced, for instance, but this does not necessarily equate to faster play because rejiggered combat math means higher hit point totals and lower accuracies. Players calling out the same power names in every round and in every combat becomes extremely monotonous, but this is easily circumvented by forbidding players to call their powers by name. D&D4, like Third Edition and 3.5, still builds adventures around encounters, not encounters around adventures, and the rules for non-combat encounters have only made this more pronounced. The tactical reinvention of monsters and character classes means that the use of a battle mat is almost a necessity. But the game is fun. It is simple, engaging, and intuitive, and I look forward to playing well into the future.

Now, when can we expect the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition? )
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My significant other has begun playing Final Fantasy IV for the first time, thanks to Square-Enix’s recent port to the Nintendo DS. We learned of this port about a year ago, a few months after she had discovered the DS and fallen in love with its intuitive interface and pick-up playability. I immediately expressed the hopeful opinion that the FF4DS release would be her introduction to the world of video roleplaying games, and she agreed that she would have to try it out, if only on my fervent recommendation.

I have always held that FF4 is my favorite among Square-Enix’s many offerings. The WonderSwan port is the only version of the game of which I do not own a copy – I even have translated and untranslated ROMs of the Japanese Super Famicom original. I begrudgingly admit that it is not the best of Square-Enix’s games – that honor still belongs to Final Fantasy VI, which essentially took a moderately upgraded version of FF4’s engine and blew the doors off of fans’ expectations for a VRPG in a fashion that has yet to be repeated. I enjoy FF4 more for a number of reasons, most notably the characters, story, and music. All three speak to me in a way that FF6 is hard pressed to match.

I bought FF4DS on release day mostly on blind faith. My significant other and I stay together largely on strength of personality and sincere mutual affection; we have few interests in common, and as I mentioned before, VRPGs are not one of them. She had frequently expressed distaste for games involving combat, and had responded to my argument that turn-based VRPG combat was puzzle-like by saying that it sounded boring. I had every expectation that I would the only person in our household to play FF4DS, but the possibility of sharing this story that I care about so much with my significant other made it worth buying one more version of the game.

I was nervous. I’d heard that the game’s difficulty had been ramped up from the Japanese original, and I thought for certain that, on top of her other concerns, would put her off the game. And she didn’t play it that first night, although she did open the game and read the book (she always reads the book, which I find adorable). But in the early evening on Wednesday, I heard the dulcet tones of Nobuo Uematsu’s Prologue wafting out of the bedroom, and I dared to hope. On Thursday night, she came into the front room with a troubled look on her face. I asked her what was wrong.

“Well, I got through the first dungeon. And the ring burned down the town, and we found a little girl. And something… bad happened. Now I can’t seem to go back the way I came, and I keep getting attacked by monsters! I found the entrance to another dungeon, but if I go inside I pretty much die instantly, and there’s nowhere else to go!”

I smiled and explained that she needed to find the desert town of Kaipo. I expressed my sympathies that it was proving so difficult, and her without a healer in the party.

“There’s a town? There’s no town on my map,” she despaired. “I get potions sometimes, and I had these tent things that I could spend the night in and restore my health, but the tent things are gone now, and the occasional potion just isn’t cutting it anymore! There’s this worm thing that shows up and does 200 damage to me, and that’s more than I have hit points!”

I promised her that Kaipo was there, having visited it a number of times myself. I discovered in doing so that I’d been waiting my entire life to give someone directions to Kaipo. I don’t remember the last time I felt so warm inside. Clearly I’m in the wrong business – I should move to the Sahara and become a burlap-cloaked, bestaved wanderer, pointing strangers in the direction of the nearest oasis.

Later that evening, my significant other had finally discovered Kaipo and moved on to the next stage of her journey, the Underground Waterway. She met Tellah the sage, and expressed great relief and wonder at how much easier his spellcasting abilities made her quest. I explained to her what his Recall ability does.

“Oh, like that wizard from Dragonlance, who was always trying to remember how to cast Fireball!”

I smiled. On my first playthrough of Final Fantasy IV, back in 1991, I renamed Tellah ‘Fizban.’ I asked her if the combat was giving her trouble, and she looked embarrassed.

“I kind of like it.”

Later that evening, as I was climbing into bed, I expressed an interest in trying the new version of the game myself, and I was admonished:

“Just don’t pick it up without telling me. You’ll overwrite my quicksave.”
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Blizzard Entertainment has updated the Wrath of the Lich King expansion preview on their World of Warcraft website with the latest in a series of zone descriptions, this time focusing on the dragon graveyard known as the Dragonblight.

My initial reaction is that I would be a lot more impressed if dragon skulls and spines weren't already standard palette for zone design in WoW. Instead, there are simply going to be more dragon skeletons in the Dragonblight than there are in any other zone, which I'm sad to say makes me shrug with indifference. The existence of this zone is not a surprise -- it has been included in WoW Roleplaying Game canon for at least two years (Lands of Mystery was published in April of 2006), and one would think that Blizzard could have prepared accordingly. I fully acknowledge that I'm geeking out, here, and that this seems like a fairly minor issue, but the zone seems riddled with similar unusual design choices.

Most notably is the revelation that the first humans to be infected with the Scourge lived in the Dragonblight. The flash video on the website features what seems to be a sizeable abandoned human settlement. It just seems unbelievable to me that the dragons, who are fiercely untrusting and protective of their secrets everywhere else in Azeroth, would allow anyone to settle in their sacred grounds in such numbers. A small tauren settlement does not stretch the limits of the imagination, but a large human town seems very out of place in a zone that is home to the dragonflight shrines and Wyrmrest Keep, and which is presumably littered with the spirits of the draconic dead.

The revelation that the red dragonflight will be joining the bronze as an ally to characters who are willing to do the necessary legwork is very welcome, although the establishment of the blue dragonflight as inimical is yet another disappointment. The lore paints the dragonflights (with the exception of the blacks) as being honorable, if distant, guardians, interested overall in the advancement of life and peace. In game, however, interaction with dragons comes primarily in the form of combat, even with those dragonflights with which occasional interaction of other kinds is possible.

I understand the lore supporting Malygos turning on the mortal races, and obviously, why his dragonflight would follow him. I do not understand why the bronze dragons were hostile to everyone before the Caverns of Time were opened (or, alternately, why they are so "welcoming," now). I don't understand why the red dragons around Grim Batol are hostile to everyone. I gather that the green dragonflight has somehow been corrupted by Hakkar's influence on the Emerald Dream, but that story remains to be told in full, and it will likely remain murky until the Emerald Dream is opened as a playable zone or instance. All in all, I feel as though the issue of draconic involvement in mortal affairs has been schizophrenic at best, and could really have been handled with more grace throughout the evolution of the game. But I'm diverging into another topic -- the handling of factions in general -- and I should save that for another post.

I am made really nervous by the mention of Angrathar, the Wrath Gate, and the Horde and Alliance "gearing up for the siege." This sounds suspiciously like the war effort event that was required to open the Gates of Ahn'Qiraj, which essentially involved the entire server slaving over fetch and gather quests, earning gear rewards, so that a few top-tier 40-man raiding guilds could get their content on. This entire premise seems completely backward to me, since it is the majority of the server population (including raiders, of course) that cares about content, but really just the raiders and PvPers who care about better gear. It seems to me that it would be better to give the raiders epic fetch quests for epic gear, and just make the new content five-mannable. I know that it bothers the designers that so many WoW players never see their work. But I acknowledge that my attitude is a bit radical. Content accessibility is another pet peeve of mine -- I'll leave that for another update, as well.

All in all, I think Wrath of the Lich King is shaping up to be more of the same, which is to say that it will be good stuff -- for a given value of good. Many of the improvements and additions to the way the game is played sound like they are going to be a lot of fun, but the new content is looking increasingly like it will be either irrelevant or inaccessible, which has proven to be par for the course. I look forward to discussing the expansion further as more information is revealed in the coming months.