Screenshots – Dragon Age: Inquisition

Full “First Impressions” coming soon!  In the meantime, enjoy some of the screenshots I snapped during the intro playthrough last night.

First Impressions: Divinity – Original Sin

Once upon a time in 2002, there was a brilliant game that paid homage to Ultima VII, (my comment to Larian’s developers at the time was that it was the game that 1994’s Ultima VIII should have been) and it was called Divine Divinity.  Now, 10 years later, Larian Studios is paying homage to the third generation of PC RPGs, a genuine throwback to Black Isle’s Infinity Engine games, most notably Baldur’s Gate.  In fact, it’s such a convincing imitation that I almost found myself thinking I was playing Baldur’s Gate III.  If Interplay had survived and Black Isle released a new sequel on a new game engine in 2014, no doubt it would look a lot like Divinity: Original Sin.

The man campaign has you creating two characters to role-play.  In this aspect, it isn’t unlike the sequel to the original, Beyond Divinity, where the player controls both protagonist and antagonist.  Character creation is very straightforward in terms of appearance customization, but it keeps in line with the classical “hero” look of the early games.  The male is “statuesque” as one NPC nicely puts it.  In addition to basic hair style and color, you do get to choose the color of your underwear, as well (indicative of the game’s subtle tone of whimsy.)  While there are no classes in the game, Larian has provided some basic prototypes to start off with: Wizard, Rogue, Enchanter, Ranger, Fighter, Knight, Cleric, and some others.  You can adjust your stats and choose the skills you begin with, so this choice is more of a cosmetic one.

Stats in DOS are composed of your basic D&D-style scores: strength, dexterity, intelligence, and so forth, as well as abilities, talents, and traits.  How many of a given type of ability you are able to master is determined by how talented you are with it, and then your traits determine one-off bonuses.  For example, if you put a point into the talent “Expert Marksman,” you can learn up to 3 marksman abilities.  Another point, five, and so on.  The more talent points you put into it, the more abilities you can learn, and the more powerful they will be.  If you choose the trait “Courageous” you won’t be susceptible to fear effects – but you also won’t be able to flee a battle.  When you gain a level, you have the option to put additional points into some or all of your primary stat trees, depending on the level.

While there are no classes, you could say that the talent trees represent classic archetypes: there are air, fire, water, and earth magics; the aforementioned marksman, scoundrel, man-at-arms, and witch.  Because you can put points into any of these at any time, its possible to build diverse jack-of-all trades, master-of-none characters, or to focus narrow and deep.  New abilities are learned by collecting ability books.  These can be bought from merchants for exorbitant sums, or found stashed throughout the land.  Rarely, they are dropped off of monsters.  Gear, also, is only restricted by your base stats.  In order to wear plate mail or wield a heavy weapon, you have to be sufficiently strong.  If you want to do extra damage with a particular weapon, you have to invest talent points into it, much like the old proficiency system of D&D.

The world is presented in a top-down, oblique isometric view.  If you’ve ever played Ultima games or any of the Infinity Engine games, you’ll be well acquainted with this perspective.  The primary difference between DOS and its most relevant predecessors is that this game is fully rendered in 3D, rather than 2D.  You can spin and pan the camera (to a point), zoom in and out.  Lighting is scarce in dark places – you can turn up the gamma, but it’s clear that the intention is that when you are in a dark basement or dungeon, you should be using existing torches, or your own limited field of view, not able to see every single detail clearly until you get close to it.  Walls and obstructions to the camera POV nicely tear away as you walk under or past them, affording a generally unobtrusive view.  You can pivot and swivel the camera to a degree if things become too awkward.  Also, the Fog of War is in full effect in DOS.  Unexplored places don’t appear on the map, leaving you to seek them out.

Your party is controlled by you, and up to two companions can join at any time.  While the NPC companions will make commentary periodically, and speak their mind, the PC only role plays the primary two characters, the ones created at outset.  Like Baldur’s Gate, you can arrange your party into various formations — square, diamond, single-file, and so on — as you adventure, and any one of them can be assigned to the point position.  However, if you attempt to interact with any named NPC other than merchants, they will generally request to speak with “the boss.”  Similarly, the NPC companions themselves will make it clear that they are not the leaders of the group.

Once you actually embark on your journey, there is a short tutorial dungeon.  Like its predecessors and forefathers, just about everything is loot able, but in particular, barrels and crates.  Those of you, again, who are familiar with Baldur’s Gate will understand why it is that I said I felt like I was playing Baldur’s Gate III.  Never has opening barrels and crates proven a more effective way of gaining items and gold.  There are improvements, too.  You can actually lift and toss such items, effective for disabling or otherwise disarming traps, or clearing a blocked path.  Due to the 3D environments, there is more of an opportunity for interaction with your surroundings.

Dungeons are filled with three things, like all good dungeons should be: traps, monsters, and treasure.

Traps consist of the standard pressure plates, but also gas vents.  Gas of all kinds plays a large role in this game, actually.  You can have steam clouds, poisonous clouds, or static clouds (lightning.)  You can also have poisonous pools coagulating on the ground, electrified pools of water, and charred patches.  To make it more interesting, there are methods of dispersing these things that sometimes have consequences to consider.  For example, you can fire a burning arrow into a gas cloud to dissipate it — but as you might expect, anyone standing near it will be caught in the sizable blast.  It might seem like a good idea to send a lightning bolt hurling toward a zombie that is standing in a puddle of water … until you realize that your melee fighter is also in the same water, who gets stunned just like anything else, and that the zombie bursts into poisonous goo when it explodes, infecting everything around it.  Burned areas and those on fire can be tamed using a Rain spell, but then sometimes steam clouds appear, obscuring your ranged vision.  Other times, it might be as simple as locating the offending vent or grate, and tossing a barrel onto it, to stop the flow.

Treasure can be found, as mentioned, almost everywhere.  Barrels and crates are the most prolific, but also sarcophagi, shelves, desk drawers, jewel boxes, and, of course, chests.  Speaking of chests, there are a fair number of locked ones.  Taking another cue from Baldur’s Gate, you can use a lock pick, if you have one and a character with high enough lock picking skill, or you can bash them open.  Bashing locked chests and doors quickly damages your weapons, though, and so isn’t generally effective.  Usually, there is a key, somewhere, that opens the locked item.  Sometimes they are in the immediate vicinity, and sometimes they are laying around a nearby area.  You occasionally may need to move other items to discover keys laying underneath them.  The other method of accumulating loot is through the good old fashioned method of killing monsters.

Monsters, the staple of all old school PC RPGs.  Lest we should forget how truly hard the Infinity Engine games could be, while we remember them fondly through our rose colored glasses, DOS is here to remind us: they were brutally, soul-killingly hard, and Larian’s ode is no exception.  This game is hard at the default setting.  Fortunately, Larian understand that not everyone has hours to re-roll characters, or reload every 15 minutes, and has considerately included a slider.  Those of you who are masochists, or who like to point fingers at the rest of us EZ-mode slouches, will be glad to know there is also a harder setting available.  There are a great number of undead — as there should be in any self-respecting RPG of this type — and also orcs.  Why?  Because orcs.

One of the ways to succeed in your battles is to use everything around you to your advantage.  There are generally ways to exploit abilities at your disposal, whether it’s a barrel filled with oil that you can fire a burning arrow into, or using the weather to your advantage to freeze or electrocute wet enemies.  Sometimes the monsters themselves have weaknesses.  Got a little gremlin with a bomb strapped to its back?  Perfect!  Wait for it to wander in the vicinity of some skeletons, or better yet, another gremlin with a bomb and some skeletons, and then fire an exploding arrow into their midst.  KABOOM!  You’ve downed 4 mobs in a single shot.  The game is constantly giving you such opportunities, but you have to be savvy about making use of your limited time to execute upon them.  One missed opportunity usually means a swift and bitter end to one or more of your party.  By the way, resurrection?  If you don’t have a scroll, you aren’t getting resurrected – and scrolls are rare, or expensive to stockpile.  Don’t think you will wander into the nearest town and pay 100G for 10 Phoenix Downs.  F5 Quicksave will become your best friend.

While on the subject of combat, let’s talk a little about the different forms of magic.  I mentioned earlier that the primary elements are present.  Some of them are fairly standard: fireballs, fire shields, lightning bolts.  Others, less so.  One of my favorites is the teleport ability.  You might think that this means teleporting yourself — but actually this nifty spells i best used to teleport mobs around the battlefield, and its even better when you realize you can teleport exploding gremlins into barrels of oil that are sitting in the middle of a group of mobs and make a big, big explosion, without using a single arrow.  Skeletons, also, are quite prone to breaking apart when dropping out of the sky and hitting the ground.  The teleport skills is part of the Air abilities, called Aerotheurgy in this game.  Water spells, like the aforementioned, and very useful, Rain spells, are called Hydrosophism.  The rain spells can be used to wash away poisonous pools, put out fire, and make enemies wet, which makes them easier to freeze using a Chill spell, or to stun using a lightning bolt or stunning arrow.

Other forms of abilities, like the Man-at-arms skills, are more martial: ram into enemies and knock them down, best used in a line.  Spin around and chop them down in a group.  Call a giant fist out of the air to slam them into the ground, leaving them laying there for several turns.  Also, fighter types can take “attacks of opportunity” – particularly useful for running into melee range with archers and mages, then smacking them with a blade as they try to get back to range.  Of course, the same applies in reverse!

All in all the game gives you plenty of ways to get creative, but it does have a learning curve, and it also requires some forethought about what skills to invest in. Because leveling happens very slowly, and skill points are limited to one or two, the player has to consider carefully how to set up the group.  I will give one piece of personal advice: have at least one person focus on archery, right away.  Being able to use the variety of arrows in different situations is probably the single most important strategy you can have.

Finally, I should mention questing and story.  Larian has injected its game with its trademark sense of humor: subtle, but highly amusing for those who have been playing RPGs of any kind for very long.  There’s a little bit of breaking the 4th wall going on.  Also, the writing is top notch, and the voice acting, where it occurs, is very good.  Storylines have a way of organically weaving into a larger whole.  For example, taking a quest from the guard captain that at first seems to be unrelated to larger goings-on, but it soon becomes clear that by solving a different quest, you’ve also made progress on the other one you thought wasn’t related.  There are also multiple ways to solve some quests, and sometimes unexpected outcomes.  After obtaining a shovel, I dug up a grave while trying to solve a specific plot line, and in the process I decided to dig up some other graves, because who doesn’t want to find out what kind of stuff is buried in a mysterious grave with a ghost story behind it?  A dog who recently befriended me (you can learn to speak with animals, by the way) came to my rescue when one grieving woman didn’t take too well to my digging up her daughter’s grave right before her eyes, and instead of my having to kill the woman for her insolence, I fled combat one by one while the dog finished off the mouthy townsperson.  He then quietly went back to sniffing about the graveyard.  I did not get in trouble with any of the guards or lose any reputation with the townsfolk.  Unexpected things like that happen all the time in this game, and it makes it fun to explore and do things that you normally wouldn’t.  Overall, there is a sense of mystery to the game, I’d say almost a noir quality – you’re an adventurer, but also a crime solver, an explorer, and a sleuth.  Right off the bat, you’re sent to investigate why someone got murdered and it turns into a very long, twisted, convoluted story, best of all – interesting.

In closing, Divinity: Original Sin is the closest thing to a sequel to Baldur’s Gate II that we’ve ever had, and its also an incredibly faithful adaptation of the old school PC RPG: sufficiently challenging, encouraging exploration and discovery, filled with loot around every nook and cranny, and full of combat.  In addition, DOS adds to that formula its own unique combat situations, an interesting set of abilities, a diverse character building system, and intriguing quests.  The icing on the cake is a glorious soundtrack (in keeping with the Larian tradition of exquisite musical scores) and a very beautiful rendering engine with great atmospheric environments.

Below, the game’s official launch trailer:

EQ2 Intro Guide, Part 3

This is the third video of this series introducing new or returning players to some of the basics of EQ2. In this I show off a little bit of combat, discuss using the mini map and quest tracker, collection system, ways to customize your character options, harvesting materials, the world size, and give some general commentary.

EQ2 Intro Guide, Part 2

In this segment I discuss the customizable UI, demonstrate some gameplay, and give commentary.

EverQuest 2 Intro Guide Part 1

This is a video I recorded the other night, in it I discuss the character creation, racial, and class selections, and I give some glib commentary on the evolution of those things since the game’s inaugural launch.