Sunday, June 29, 2008

Digging for Treasure

Apart from a Baldur's Gate marathon Wednesday night, I have spent precious little time gaming lately. I have gotten in quite a few hands of Texas Hold 'Em and completed a few of the game's single-player scenarios, though. Strangely, I tend to do better when I pretend I am playing against real people. Most people would probably not think that unusual, but I tend to lock myself into a metagame of sorts, where I look for ways to exploit a game's coding to the exclusion of the game itself. I have noticed that the 360 title's AI tends to assume raises mean a strong hand, so I can thieve quite a few chips by simply making sure I am the first player to raise the stakes in a pot. However, I zero in on finding the magic raise amount which will drive opponents away. Pretty much anyone can see the flaw in this scheme; if someone else has a strong hand, they will not throw it away just because some schmuck keeps flinging money at them. I finally won one of the game's tournaments when I remembered that I am playing poker rather than merely number-crunching. Make no mistake -- I am still quite aggressive, but I am more likely to fold a weak hand than doggedly push my way into oblivion.

I was finally able to acquire a PlayStation 2 copy of Deus Ex this weekend. I have yet to play it, and I will not get the chance until at least tomorrow, but I was shocked in one respect. Either this copy of the game is brand spanking new, or the person who owned it before me took more immaculate care of their discs than I do. Ask around town, and you will find the latter is well nigh impossible.

My wife spent this afternoon playing Dragon Quest VIII after our television service lost our coverage of the European soccer championship final. She pulled a true Phil, starting from scratch rather than picking up her last save file. I never would have guessed when I married her that she could spend several straight hours with a Japanese roleplaying game. Forget Lou Gehrig -- I am the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Bachin' It

My wife went out of town for a work-related class, which leaves me at home with the pets for thirty-six hours. We had originally planned for me to go with her, but no one would have been here to take care of our dog. In hindsight, this is probably for the best, since her room is directly across the hall from a game room with a Ms. Pac-man cabinet. Had I been with her for two full days, I most likely would have spent approximately the gross national product of Burkina Faso in quarters. Other than the previously-mentioned massive backlog of reading, little was left on my agenda for today and tomorrow. Well, aside from watching the semifinals of the UEFA European soccer championships.

I still have a problem with situations like this, though. When confronted with a schedule this open, I have a nasty tendency to do, well, absolutely nothing. The first gaming idea that comes to mind is to pop Baldur's Gate into the DVD drive on my laptop and pretend I just cast Time Stop. However, I then look at my game shelves and recall all the titles I have yet to finish. BioShock . . . Assassin's Creed . . . Invisible War . . . Corruption . . . the list goes on. Heck, I have even thought about tossing Lego Star Wars II into my 360. Never mind my back stock of fantasy novels or the temptation to just surf the Internet all night.

Of course, many gamers would kill to be in my position. I seek no pity; I just dread the indecision which swarms over me whenever I get a chance like this. Wish me luck!

Monday, June 23, 2008

When Life Hands You Forty-Five Seconds

Due to a gimongous backlog of reading that absolutely must get done, I have not had much time to play any games lately. What precious time has been available has not been enough to further gad about the Forgotten Realms. I suppose this is all right, though, since it gave me a chance to actually use my consoles for the first time in about two weeks. I had mentioned before that I tend to 'zero in' on a single game for long periods.

Mostly, I find I can spare a few minutes to get in a few hands of Texas Hold 'Em (should I capitalize all those words or not?), which enabled me to unlock another achievement tonight. In other news -- go Team 2500 Gamerscore!!

For the past couple of evenings, my wife and I have put several hours into a replay of Final Fantasy VII. I read on Kotaku a couple of months ago about rumors of a PlayStation 3 remake of the Japanese roleplaying classic, and I felt the itch to revisit one of my fondest gaming memories. While time has made me chuckle at the fact that I used to rave about these graphics, and the localization was pretty rough, I still find the storyline interesting. My exposure to games made by Bethesda and BioWare makes me very reluctant to attach the term 'roleplaying' to games in the Final Fantasy series, since you can do virtually nothing to alter the roles of the games' characters except decide who uses what abilities in combat. However, I am still able to enjoy what the characters do during the course of the plot; honestly, very few games enable you to do more than choose how your character goes about dispatching the obstacles in his or her way.

By the way, go call your gamer friends and see if any of them just felt an inexplicable urge to argue vehemently how much better Final Fantasy VI is than its successor. Final Fanboys seem to have some sort of Jedi awareness of discussions of their passion.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

New Editions, Fleecing, and You

I had a few minutes to spare this afternoon, so I went to my local bookstore to check out their stock of roleplaying products. I know, I know -- I need to find a hobby shop in my area instead. Anyway, the store had an endcap displaying the new fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons core rulebooks. I looked as much as my conscience allowed (I have a pretty narrow interpretation of what constitutes grazing), after I perused what remained of their third-edition merchandise. Before I delve into my thoughts on the contents, I ask you to indulge a somewhat quick aside on the history of D&D.

According to Wikipedia, the original D&D set was released in 1974. The second edition of AD&D hit the marketplace in 1989, fifteen years later. After the fall of TSR, Wizards of the Coast unleashed the third edition of D&D in 2000; this gives a span of eleven years between editions. Now 2008 sees a fourth edition of the world's most well-known roleplaying franchise and/or corrupter of impressionable youths. Notice that the timespan between editions keeps decreasing by about four years, or, more accurately, the span difference shrank from four years to three in the last edition jump. Suppose Wizards of the Coast follows this pattern a couple more times, such that the sixth edition of D&D is on the shelves in the same amount of time it took to go from the third edition to fourth. Does this model sound familiar?

It should if you follow collectible card games, since it smacks of the setup used in Magic: the Gathering, the mother of all CCG's. Every couple of years, a new core set of cards outmodes everything which has come before it. I have no real quarrel with this structure for a game like Magic, primarily because I think it is necessary to prevent outlandish power escalation in card design as well as deck type stagnation in the metagame. Should a model like this be used in roleplaying products, though?

Being the cash-strapped lout that I am, I was compelled to look first near the UPC bar to check the price on these new books. The three core manuals now cost $34.95, as opposed to the $29.95 price point of the previous edition. I thought to myself, "Self, what could have caused the price increase? Did the good folks at Wizards of the Coast still need to replace some of their sterling silver toilets with gold ones? Are they trying to buy up all the copies of Skullclamp they let loose a few years back in some Orwellian attempt to retroactively deny it ever existed?" Perhaps an explanation lay in the pages of the player's handbook.

I thought this might be the case due to a sidebar from my version 3.5 manuals which attempted to explain the motivation for the revision to the third edition (well, besides 'to make more money'). I took what it said with a grain of salt or forty-three, but at least there was an effort at justifying the publication of new books after only three years of the last batch. This time around, I saw no such effort. I did, however, see that this new edition is 'bright and shiny.' I kid you not -- those words are really in there. I suppose that could explain the price hike; the extra money is going to brighten and shine the books. I always thought my manuals needed some extra luster.

I will post further feelings in the future, once I have had the chance to actually look at the material contained within the new edition. For now, it suffices to say that I will use the third-edition resources I already own for my upcoming campaign, solely because I already own the products.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Backtracking and a Fetch Quest?!?

After my workshop, our vacation, and a somewhat improvised trip to North Carolina this weekend, my life is finally settling into the comfortable rhythm I was expecting for the summer. Except for the day-long trip to Knoxville I will be taking on Friday, that is. However, the voyage home gave me the opportunity to collect some long-lost relics.

Most importantly to me, I found the manual to Baldur's Gate, which I had stupidly placed underneath some Christmas decorations in a closet, along with most of the reading material I stored in the home country. "But Phil," you say, "why would you need the instructions to a decade-old PC game? Do you not know the interface by now?" I do, in fact, but I wanted to dual-class Imoen into a specialist mage (my created character is a thief), and for the life of me I could not remember the flipping opposition schools from two D&D rules sets ago. Then I remembered that BioWare took liberties with the actual opposition schools anyway, making the manual doubly important. Beyond that, I am one of the stark minority of gamers these days -- a manual reader; having the game but not the book in hand was eating at my psyche.

I also recovered my copy of Deus Ex: Invisible War for the Xbox. Due to a few ridiculous twists of fate, my mother-in-law's house in North Carolina is equipped with an Xbox and two GameCubes, and I had taken some software home for weekend jaunts, Invisible War among the pile. I have always been proud of my acquisition of the game, since it has the highest Game Rankings score to purchase price ratio of any title in my collection (I picked it up for three dollars at a GameStop a couple of years ago). I wanted to indulge the stealthy side of my gamer id, free of the required violence Assassin's Creed ends up entailing. A local used games store has a copy of the PlayStation 2 original, which I intend to claim once I can free up the cash flow and the time to visit the store.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Approaching the Wall

This afternoon, I managed to complete the second chapter of Baldur's Gate. If memory serves, this marks the third time I have collected Mulahey's letters and set off to find the bandits mentioned therein. Both times previously, extended periods away from the computer on which the game was installed kept me from advancing any further.

While taking care of my duties around the house this evening, I started to think about various 'walls' I have hit in video games. The aforementioned chapter boundary in BioWare's classic is one of the three biggest examples I can remember. I have yet to complete the first chapter of Neverwinter Nights, after a few distinct attempts. The last occurred in Final Fantasy X, where I managed to run out of steam on the game three separate times upon arriving in the Calm Lands. As any Final Fanboy can tell you, this is doubly creepy, since the Calm Lands are a place in the game's world where many journeys like the one your party is undertaking come to an end. Cue the eerie music . . .

Why do I have issues like this with games? Most of it (I think) comes down to my desire to follow a game's narrative. Like most gamers, I play several different games at once. However, I also tend to get absorbed by a single title, so it is not unusual for me to play, say, Oblivion for almost a month, to the exclusion of every other game I own. I then recall the thirty other games sitting on my shelf awaiting play and spread the love again. For games like the Elder Scrolls series, this poses little problem, as the main storyline is approximately one twelfth, if that much, of the game's true appeal. But for stuff like Japanese role-playing games, the story is the main draw, and a disjunction of several weeks or more drives me to start over rather than try to remember the nuances of what is going on in my existing save file.

Time will tell how I handle the remainder of Baldur's Gate, but I intend to see things through the end this time. Besides, Xan the enchanter cracks me up. 'Our quest is vain' . . . what a crack up!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Remembrance of Engines Past

We returned from our vacation on Saturday, and I am finally getting back into my usual routine. One curious note from the trip: my internal game clock seems to have started winding backwards. We took our laptop to the coast with us, and I spent my evenings playing . . . Baldur's Gate. Not Dark Alliance, not even Shadows of Amn -- I mean the maiden voyage of the vaunted Infinity Engine, screaming back at us from freaking 1998.

I found my CD-ROMs for the game while at my mother-in-law's house, which was a waypoint on our trip. Mostly on a lark, I decided to install it on our computer, convinced the processor would run the poor game too fast to be playable. I was astonished to learn that Baldur's Gate will still run on our twenty-first century machine; now I just leave the game speed at its default setting rather than cranking it to the maximum. This is quite cool, since I was never able to finish the game back in the day. Jumping back to the second edition D&D rules is sort of a mind-screw, but the gameplay is still very enjoyable.

When not wandering the Sword Coast, I have managed the completion of another couple of levels of Tomb Raider: Legend, as well as checking out the trial version of Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode One. The latter is fun, but not quite worth twenty bucks, in my opinion. It should definitely win an award for 'shweetest name,' though.