You Get What You Pay For: Sword Coast Legends
This weekend, Sword Coast Legends had it’s phase two head-start access for anyone who pre-ordered the game. This allowed pre-order folks to download the game engine and mess around with it. I qualified that with “engine” because the campaign was not made available for reasons spanning “we don’t want to ruin it” to possibly “it’s not done or refined yet” ahead of it’s September 29th release date.
I had been wonderfully excited for SCL since I first learned of it’s construction capabilities. I had spent a lot of time with Neverwinter Nights back in the day, creating all kinds of cool systems for games I had planned on making within the engine, although I never actually got around to making a game…just systems…but I still had a great time doing it. Based on what I was seeing with SCL, I had high hopes that I could once again find that level of enjoyment in creating stories, even if it’s within a narrow framework of a specific IP and with specific resources and assets.
The “DM tools” is kind of the nebulous name given to the non-player side of SCL, and encompasses two activities. The first is the “live DM”. Here, a fifth player can follow four other players around the game and manipulate the NCPs and creatures, possessing them and fighting as them with and against the party. The DM can also drop in new content on the fly, such as traps and new encounters. The second of these tools is the part I was really after: the construction kit.
I had watched some of the dev streams over the past few weeks, especially those focused on the construction tools. My initial, blind, back-of-the-box-blurb impression was that SCL would be a worthy successor to NWN when it comes to being able to build your own campaigns and modules. The live streams knocked that expectation down a peg or two, as it seemed that the toolset was considerably streamlined compared to the Aurora tools that NWN used. Each of the streams I had watched were pretty focused, or so I thought, on showing how easy it was to create something with minimal fuss, and each stream having the goal being able to set up a scenario for players to run through a mere hours before everyone was set to convene.
This weekend, I found that the easy mode wasn’t a choice; it was the only mode available during head start. I had to immediately banish any ideas that this was going to compete with NWN‘s ability to create a distribution-worthy campaign. There was no option to create unique maps; the system generated them based on some internal algorithm and then “baked” them so what you received is the only layout you had to work with. Outdoor areas were tiny. Indoor areas were almost insanely large, even when I specified that I wanted a “small” map. Placement of creatures was handled by using the floating d20, and in using that method, the only way to place creatures was by accepting a random sample the system provided. You could place individual creatures as you like without using the d20, though, and while you could create your own characters (NPCs and standard D&D racial types), the overall system felt like it lacked a sense of control. One of the worst realizations was that there didn’t seem to be a way to create in-depth quests. Everything I saw was relegated to a three-act “grant-advance-complete” structure, all of which ended only in giving the players an item, cash, or revealing a new location they could travel to.
Even the DM mode seemed to be impossibly under-powered, although I didn’t have a chance to actually try it out with live people. While I could possess NPCs and monsters, I couldn’t actually act as them. Possession seemed to be for combat only, not for using an NPC or creature as a mouthpiece to interact with the players.
Needless to say, I was terribly saddened. This was not the game I had been excited for. Even the actual gameplay was weak and uninspired, like a more shallow and repetitive version of Diablo. I gave it an honest shot, though; after my initial (angry) foray into the DM tools, I decided to calm down and sit down to actually try and work within the confines of what I had in front of me, but I couldn’t make it happen. There was always something about the results that didn’t look right and which I couldn’t change, or some mechanism which was either way too much or far too little for what I felt I needed it to be in order to be satisfied with the outcome. At best, I figured that these tools would offer a decent method for making a module for multiplayer that relied on only the most bare bones of narrative reasoning. There’ll be no modeling of some intricate, Dragon Age level interpersonal intrigue here, but if you want to run yet another module whose purpose if for you to retrieve a lost item or to kill a named boss, you’ll be happy to know that SCL has your number.
But then I stepped back and realized that none of this is the game’s fault. It’s mine. I had expectations that really never fit with what the game was selling. Nowhere did SCL advertise (that I saw) that this was anything like NWN in terms of creative horsepower. I watched the videos and thought that they were cool and all, but that their limited interactions must be holding something back for release, or because it was unfinished, or it was just a focused presentation. I assumed there had to be more to it, because it’s always “go big or go home”, and there’s no way what I was seeing was big enough to not get this game sent home. My impressions were all about what I expected, not what I was actually witnessing.
I always maintain that “games don’t suck”, that any non-technical flaws we attribute to the game are results of our own misplaced expectations, and this is a perfect example. I had expected a spiritual successor to Neverwinter Nights in both gameplay and toolset, but Sword Coast Legends is neither. It’s its own game. As a single player game, it’s terrible; as a multiplayer game with a DM looking over shoulders, it’s probably pretty damn good. It’s more Gauntlet with an Overlord than it is Baldur’s Gate. The tools are more to support extensibility than they are for creating sweeping narrative experiences, but considering there was nothing that I could see that indicated that SCL was even about sweeping narratives, the tools work towards the purpose they were intended to work towards. This is a multiplayer dungeon crawler with dynamic, real-time interaction by a (somewhat) all powerful DM…basically, it’s original D&D.
I can’t say that I don’t still harbor a bit of resentment at SCL not being more than it is. I had hoped that it would build upon NWN‘s legacy, or even Star Trek Online and Neverwinter‘s “Foundry” tool set (which is more powerful than the tools found in SCL), but that’s an unfair comparison and shouldn’t detract from what SCL will be bringing to the table. SCL looks to be a good game for those who want the tabletop experience of D&D but don’t have a local group or are daunted by or uninterested in virtual tabletop gaming. In fact, SCL is more akin to a souped-up virtual tabletop program than it is a game, and even the limits observed in SCL (like not being able to talk through a possessed character) can be gotten around with come creative thinking.
Now, before I close out on this hopefully more-positive-than-not note, I wanted to add that my turn-around not only came to me when I realized that I needed to put my money where my mouth usually is and think of the game based on what’s in front of me, but also because I saw a few folks on the official forums talking about how the game might be purposefully missing some key features beyond just the lack of the main campaign. This gives me hope that there’ll be an update waiting for the 29th that will address at least some of the disappointments I have with the product. Even if those posts were just wishful thinking, I’m hoping to be able to try the game as it was intended to be used: with others in a traditional dungeon crawl scenario and a DM at the helm.