Divinity: Original Sin II — The Campaign

Posted by on Sep 20, 2017 in Divinity: Original Sin II

Divinity: Original Sin II — The Campaign

[Sorry for the lack of images; I’m not good at remembering to take pictures]

After my initial foray into the GM tools that shipped with Divinity: Original Sin II, I went over to the other side of the fence and fired up the official campaign. This mode is, of course, the bread and butter of the product and I feel its necessary to experience in order to get a handle on the strengths and weaknesses of the GM mode at the very least. Not to say that the campaign isn’t worth the price alone — it is, most certainly!

Being of “advanced age”, I started my game on Explorer mode which is basically the “look, I’m here for the story, not get pissed over combat because I remember the original DOS and the plot was frustrating enough that I don’t need to worry about stupid dying over and over” mode. As I’ve said in the past, I’ve made peace with the fact that I’m not into games for the challenge, especially long-form games with intricate stories and a whole lot of convoluted side quests that require me to be everywhere I can’t get to.

At first, I went into eye-roll mode: you start off on a ship, and there’s been a murder. Jesu, not another DOS game with a murder to solve! Turns out that this one kind of wraps itself up by throwing in a Kraken attack which leaves you washed up on a beach.

Back up — why are you on a ship? The pre-story is a bit vague, IMO. There’s a kind of magic called “Source”, practiced by — wait for it — Sourcerers. Regardless of the application of Source, it has a nasty side effect of summoning evil creatures called Voidwoken which are terrorizing the kingdom. The Divine Order was formed to fight these Voidwoken, but they figured that the best way to do this was to stop Sourcerers from using their abilities. So these practitioners (which includes you no matter which class you pick) are rounded up, fitted with a Source nullifying collar, and are shipped off to a prison island called Fort Joy where they are supposedly “cleansed” of their Source infection. There’s some kind of subplot regarding the leader of the Order having recently died and his son taking over, and he’s on the island as well overseeing things or something, but it’s all very vague at the outset. I’m not sure if there’s some kind of Divinity lore at play here or if it’s one of those “100 years before/after the events in DOS I” kind of situations designers use as a hand wave to divorce what’s going on here from what’s happened previously.

Making your way through the fringes of the island and eventually into Fort Joy itself, you re-meet some NPCs that you originally met on the ship. Several of these are available to take as party members, with a cool twist: although they have their own classes, they give you the option to have them take on different roles that you might need in your party. The NPCs are an interesting lot; they have some of the most unique and defined personalities I have seen in an RPG. I took the undead guy who is looking for a flesh-mask to wear so he can move about the world without drawing attention to himself, the ex-King of a lizard people kingdom who is trying to find a way back to his domain so he can retake what is rightfully his, and an assassin who has a very high profile target to kill within Fort Joy. Along the way, I met a woman who channels spirits and an overly ambitious dwarf who could also join my party, should I tire of my current companions.

As far as I can tell, DOSII follows the same gameplay mechanics as DOS. You have a max of four party members, all of which you can control. Clicking on a portrait on the left side of the UI makes that character active, which plays into how you interact with other NPCs, which is both a mechanic and a potential pitfall. Luckily I’ve found that you can simply switch to another character and restart the interaction as if you weren’t friends with the other guy. Back when you made/chose your character, you could add tags in addition to your standard background class selection. These tags help open conversation options with NPCs. For example, my Soldier background sometimes offers me [Soldier] conversation choices, and depending on who I am talking to, could help or hinder my progress. Supposedly some of the “hero” premade characters have even more options based on their tags, but we’ll see if we get far enough to warrant another playthrough.

Normally the party moves as a clot, but I found that in combat things get a little different. The line of sight is important, so only those party members who have been seen by the enemy are actively engaged in the turn-based combat. Everyone else is still fully selectable from the left portrait list, and they can move about as if they weren’t in combat — until they’re seen by the enemy, at which point they’re fitted into the action queue. This is super important, as a fast mover or proper application of a teleport spell can move an unseen party member to a more strategic position without having to worry about spending AP to get there. At first, this confused me because when the first party member is seen and combat mode activates, it only focuses on party members in combat; those who are not participating just…stand around until you actively select them and move them into the combat zone.

Combat still retains the same strategic elements that made DOS such an enjoyable clusterfuck. You know when there’s a potential for combat coming up because there’ll be strategically placed barrels of oil, water, poison goo, or some other exploitable resource in the area. Some party members come with their own tricks, like how Fane the undead guy can throw a ball of oil into an area that he or someone else can light on fire. Not only does it ignite, but it slows anyone who walks through it. Needless to say, it’s not all fun and games; several times I’ve set my own party on fire. Thankfully we’re on an island that’s bordered on all sides by ocean.

A few quick takes, because I’m not writing the manual for the game here.

  • Questing continues to be obtuse. You’ll get a “purpose”, but absolutely no guidance in the journal on how to get started unless that info was specifically provided to you by the NPC who gave you the quest. For example, I met someone who can apparently remove the Source-killing collars we wear, but…nothing that tells me how to exploit this (yet).
  • The first perk I took was “Pet Pal” which allows you to talk to animals. This is a massive boon. I spoke with a cat who mysteriously took to me and followed me as soon as I entered Fort Joy, but he had nothing to say and was later killed randomly by a fort guard (I hope I didn’t just dead-end a quest there). Then again, I spoke with a dog who said I was his new best friend, and he dug up an ornate key for me to have.
  • Crafting is weird. Each class of recipe is found in a book, which is an item you pick up and cart around. Any crafting station can apparently craft anything, so I stopped off at a campfire and created an “ax” by tying a sharp rock to a stick. I suppose later I’ll be able to craft actual weapons, not just Flintstones cosplay weapons.
  • The camera is a little off-putting. The environments are gorgeous, but sometimes they get in the way of moving around and seeing stuff. Since the camera apparently “floats” along the ground, scrolling the viewport into a chasm will see the camera “fall down”, making recon kind of difficult in many cases. It’s just something that takes getting used to.
  • Conversations are absolutely essential. In a cave at the back of Fort Joy, I ran into an obnoxious kid who wanted to play hide and seek. I was going to blow him off but figured I’d be able to find him as I go about other business. In the end, he liked me so much he introduced me to his “friend” — an undead soldier in a hidden cavern who gave me a kick-ass spear and a quest to free his soul.
  • I like the shopping system. You make your offer of stuff you want to sell and are given a value. You can then choose items from the merchant to “barter” an equal value, or add gold from your side (to buy) or their side (to sell) in order to balance the scale. This makes carting around useless but valuable items worthwhile. Inventory doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue, as each character has their own, as well as a backpack that you can use to get somewhat organized, although you can become overburdened to the point where you can’t move.

I played for…maybe 5 or 6 hours last night, which for me, these days, is a long time. Sometimes it was in order to overcome frustration, but other times it was simply because I knew there was something going on and I had to find it. DOCII pulls off a difficult RPG trick: it doesn’t overwhelm you with stuff to do and shrug when you ask for guidance on how or why you should do it, nor does it rely on combat as the solution to every puzzle or conflict. When I ran into the fort’s “crime boss” I was prepared to fight, but instead he was amicable and gave me work to do despite that fact that I’d seen his brutal handiwork and heard about what kind of an asshole he was from many people around the fort. He’s not a sympathetic character, but he is made human and not just a horrible speed-bump to kill by way of solving everyone’s problem. That is the mark of an excellent system.

I’m hoping, then, that I can make headway in DOCII, unlike in DOC‘s frustrating murder-mystery. Right now I’m kind of stuck in the fort with this damned collar on, so it’s not looking promising, but I know that there’s a whole lot of things to do in my quest journal, and several people that I need to work with and for who are important to various storylines, one of which I hope will help me progress beyond the artificial “wall of mechanics” that are keeping me locked in the fort.

 

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From the Shadows: Divinity: Original Sin II – GM Mode

Posted by on Sep 18, 2017 in Divinity: Original Sin II, TV and Streaming

From the Shadows: Divinity: Original Sin II – GM Mode

I’m sure the folks who tolerate me in their social media circles are going to be tired of hearing about this, but for me, this is a Massive Deal.

Now, I played a little bit of Divinty: Original Sin. This is an old-school RPG in the finest sense, with some modern upgrades. Right off the bat, you’re tasked with solving a murder, the investigation of which is murder in and of itself; I got frustrated with my inability to figure things out that I dropped the game in keeping with my usual pattern. Still, there’s a lot to love about DOS if you are looking for a hard-core, old-school, in-depth RPG that will make you curse the fact that you have to get up in the morning for work or school.

Straight out of the blue, however, I saw a tweet from Harebrained Schemes congratulating Larian Studios on the release of Divinity: Original Sin II.

I’m sure this wasn’t news for anyone who really loved DOS and had been following Larian’s media, but I had no idea that the game was this close to release. There had been no big run-up spectacle (Larian is indie now so that’s to be expected) and I don’t think I follow anyone who is big-time into CRPGs enough to be counted on to sound the alarm at times like this. I thought it was cool because should I ever desire to give the series another go, I would have another entry to roll into once I wiki’d myself through DOS.

That was, of course, until I found out that DOSII has a GM mode.

GM mode is one of those things that a lot of RPGeeks always dream about, but which almost everyone who attempts to include it gets horribly wrong. To this day, the best GM implementation still lies comfortably at the feet of Neverwinter Nights and it’s Aurora Toolset. The last game to try making a GM mode work was Sword Coast Legends, a train-wreck of a game that barely allowed the GM any latitude of control.

After only about 10 minutes of the above video, I jumped on DOSII. It doesn’t go as far as NWN did in allowing for customization of the game, but it seems to strike a decent balance between CRPG and traditional tabletop. If a game leans too much towards the “computer” aspect, we get SCL which puts too much responsibility on the application and hobbles the GM to the point where he or she might as well not even be present. But if it leans too much towards the “tabletop” aspect, then everyone would be better served by a vtable app and a set of player handbooks.

DOSII allows the GM to use 3D maps provided by Larian but can place NPCs and a whole lot of items in the scene as befits the scenario. Stories are started on the world map and locations to visit are denoted by pins. Players “tell” the GM which pin they want to visit and the GM can load that scene for them (contrast this to NWN where doors and hotspots allowed players to transition themselves). Once in the scene, the players have autonomy to look around as if they were playing the provided DOSII campaign, with a few exceptions. The GM cannot script NPCs, and must “speak” for them (ideally using something like Discord voice comms, because I don’t know if there’s text chat) and can even “possess” NPCs to control them directly as if they themselves were a player character. The GM has ultimate powers, though, and can create and destroy items, NPCs, monsters, encounters, and conditions in the world. He or she can set the mood for the scene using lighting, background music, and one-off audio. For those who want to alter the stock materials provided by Larian, many aspects of the props available can be modified, such as the Strength value of an NPC, or the condition damage done by a sword. The GM can even pause the game for everyone for those OOC conversations, or put the entire game in “peace mode” in order to prevent the players from going full murderhobo and sink the plot.

For those interested, I went through the GM tools via the included tutorial scenario which does a pretty good job of at least showing you what tools are available. Without having played DOSII proper, there’s several aspects of the game which I’m not sure on, or how they translate to GM mode, but if you’re interested in getting away from scripted content and want to create some free-form action RPGs for your friends without forcing everyone to invest in massive books and the logistics of getting everyone set up, then DOSII‘s GM mode might be the best option for you.

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Fortnite’s Change of Focus

Posted by on Sep 14, 2017 in Editorial, Fortnite

Fortnite’s Change of Focus

I’ve sat on these thoughts for a few days now, regarding Fortnite‘s new “battle royale” mode. What’s that, you ask? What’s Fortnite, you ask? Well, Fortnite was a co-op game about collecting resources to build a fortress that you had to defend from waves of monsters. You could fend them off yourself, but the purpose was to create a defensible structure complete with traps and obstacles that would at least slow down the hordes while you sliced, shot, and blew them up. I found this game fun, although the title is still in early access and needs a lot of work.

Some of that work, according to the folks at developer Epic, apparently includes adding a whole new game mode out of the blue. The battle royale mode is best known for Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, which is one of the hottest titles in videogamedom right now, especially for streamers and folks who watch them.

Here’s my armchair calculus.

Fortnite kind of came out of nowhere and didn’t have the AAA fanfare that even a lot of indie titles receive these days. Being in EA is also a load of kryptonite for many people. This meant that Fortnite wasn’t exactly blasting out of the gate, although a lot of folks who have played it liked it well enough. Mindful folks agreed that it needed work, but that would come with time. EA means that nothing is final and that things that are broken will be fixed, things that are missing will be added, and things that are rough will get polished.

Instead, Epic has decided to tack on an entirely new game mode to an unfinished game, making the game twice as unfinished. I suppose this is their purview as the owners and operators of the game. To say it came out of left field is an understatement: it just kind of showed up one day and was patched in on the next. If social media is to believed, people are loving it — but of course I’m only seeing the word of mouth promoted by the official game account, and they’re not going to publish Tweets like these:

The account assures folks that the BR portion of the game was actually developed (somewhat in parallel, I guess) by another group, which gives the impression that it’s a skunkworks project that the internal teams thought was cool and polished enough to offer to the customers. In short, work on the original PvE portion continues, and I think it’s safe to assume that this PvP mode will also continue to be developed.

So if another unaffiliated Epic group made the BR version without sanction, and if the vibe I have that people are enjoying it more than they enjoyed the base game turns out to be true, then what does that mean in the long run? Will the rogue developers merge into the official Fortnite dev team? Will development take longer now that the original team has to maintain two totally different game modes? Or…something else?

The fear I have is that if the BR mode proves to be more successful and has greater “engagement” than the original PvE mode, then Fortnite is going to assume the BR mode as the primary while the PvE mode atrophies. I’m sure a talking head from Epic would engage his marketing engine and assure me that I am wrong and that they are committed to [some vague words about making the game the best it can be, which is boilerplate non-assuring assurance]. To be frank, even if they said “we are not dropping the PvE, nor will we allow it to flag, ever”, I’d still shake my head. We’ve all been around long enough to know that what’s present one day isn’t guaranteed to be the case tomorrow and what people say means absolutely nothing. Exhibit A: FireFall, the game that was everything and then nothing until it became literally nothing ever again. I mean, the freakin’ BR mode literally came out of nowhere. As far as intent goes, Epic has already added mechanics to reward people who stream Fortnite, which shows that they place stock in that avenue of promotion; As I am writing this, 10 of the top 12 Fortnite streams on Twitch are playing the BR mode. It’s what people are going to see, and what is going to garner people’s attention. They’ll be attracted to it because of its PUBG-ness, and then maybe they’ll find there’s a PvE mode, which they may ignore or they might create YouTube videos about as if they are revealing something undiscovered.

If BR mode is what makes Epic money, BR mode is what Fortnite will become. Of course, that’s not the game I paid for. Had it been or even included a BR mode from day one, I would have given it a hard pass for the same reasons I’m miffed today. Why not RTS? Tower defense? MOBA? Epic chose to go after the latest hotness because it’s the latest hotness on the street and on Twitch, and because, as they state in their reveal video, they’re “big fans” of PUBG and BR games which pretty much doubles-down on the whole “we did it because we thought it was cool, not because we planned or even really thought about it much” vibe. Meanwhile, the original game still needs love (and is no doubt getting it…for now). I have no faith that Epic isn’t going to favor the new child over the firstborn, and that does make me angry (because this is not what I paid for), but it really just makes me sad. I mean, I can’t be super angry when I have other games to play, really, where the developers actually stuck to what they aimed to do and didn’t simply get distracted by the latest fad.

 

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