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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Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock

Posted by on Sep 1, 2017 in Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock, Featured

Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock

For all the high profile games we hear about whether we like it or not, there are legions of titles which release to little or no fanfare. We can’t be everywhere nor expect to know about everything that hits the streets, but it concerns me that had I not randomly come across a blurb on Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock a few weeks ago, I’d never have known it existed.

I am a massive BSG fan; it is to me what Firefly is to everyone else. It’s a human drama with spaceships, not the other way around. Naturally, this focus makes things difficult should someone want to make a BSG video game, although I’m sure TellTale might be the best crew to take a stab at it. Of course, we can’t completely ignore the fact that the remnants of humanity featured in the series are able to persist because of their ability to take to the stars, so it’s legitimate to have a game that focuses on the ships of the series.

Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock doesn’t actually have much to do with the events of the series; rather, it takes place in the oft-mentioned First Cylon War. The 12 Colonies are being the traditionally jerky selves, but the sudden reappearance of their old servants, heavily armed and spoiling for revenge, force the colonies to band together and approve the Jupiter Project: 12 massive Battlestars, one representing each of the Colonies. When BSG:D starts, we only have one Battlestar: the Athena, helmed by Admiral Cain. Oddly, the Galactica is mentioned, but a BSG wiki states that the Galactica was the last Battlestar built before or during the war. I don’t actually remember what the cut scene said, honestly, but will revisit it and see if I can reconcile the difference later on.

So far, the first question people have asked me about the game is “what kind of game is it?” I suspect a lot of folks would like it to be a Wing Commander-esque sim which puts you in the cockpit of a Viper, but BSG:D is more true to the spirit of the series. The best analogue I can come up with is a mix of XCOM‘s meta-game, and the table top X-Wing miniature wargame.

You play the role of Cain’s XO and have been put in charge of defending the Helios systems from rampaging Cylons. You start off in the war room which is represented by a table depicting the 4 stars, 12 colonial planets, and their assorted moons and neighboring bodies. Initially, you receive missions which have you trying to accomplish specific goals, but you very quickly find that your secondary goals include deciding whether or not to respond to randomized Cylon incursions that pop up around the map.  Naturally, your decision to respond or ignore is going to affect your supply chain sourced from the affected colony, which is where the XCOM influence is felt. Each colony supplies tylium, the materials used to keep your fleet operational and which allows you to build new ships; piss off the colonies and they’ll pull their support from the fleet and cost you income. They also provide you with requisition points which allow you to gain new blueprints and recruit officers for your ships. Unlike XCOM, however, it doesn’t seem that losing the support of the colonies is a final straw; you can increase their support from zero by helping them out again.

You can field several fleets and can move ships between them after they meet up in the same sector. When entering into an engagement, you have a limited area in which you can arrange your ships, although you’re not given a specific attack vector, making placement a kind of guessing game. You can also select the loadout for some ships, whether it’s missiles, a compliment of Vipers, a squad of Raptors, or something else. An engagement plays out in rounds: select your ship, give movement orders and/or special attack and/or repair orders, and repeat for all ships in your fleet. When ready, end the turn and all maneuvers play out.

Movement is handled by dragging a “ghost” of a particular ship within a movement arc. A ship has a range per turn limit, so it can’t go shooting across the battlefield. It also has a turning radius. The Manticor corvette can make tighter turns than a Battlestar, for example. Once you have clicked to place the ghost within the distance and turning arc, you can adjust the height and yaw of the ship. Because all ships have front, rear, top, bottom, left, and right strike zones, you might find that certain ships are weaker when attacked from above or below. Yawing allows a ship to fine tune its firing arcs, but putting too much yaw on a ship can cause internal stress which handicaps the ship’s movement during the next turn.

Each ship auto-attacks with its turrets when a target is in range. Smaller ships have a limited strike ability, while larger ships might have more guns to fire. The firing arcs differ for each ship; the corvette has front and rear firing arcs, while the first frigate you build has port and starboard firing arcs. A ship can designate a focus fire target which behaves as advertised: all guns will fire at that target regardless of other targets in range. If a ship is equipped with missiles, those can be fired regardless of facing because they’re homing, and generally have a much larger range. If you’re fielding Vipers or Raptors, you don’t have too many options, as each squad is essentially a “swarm”. They can be used to take out Raiders or harass larger ships or go after less hardened objectives or can be set to defend a friendly ship against anything enemies that might get too close.

As you can imagine, because you’re essentially guessing about where your ships need to be and what they need to do, the game can get pretty tricky. One iconic but potentially difficult feature of the Battlestar is the ability to launch flak to protect the broadsides against small ships (both enemy and friendly) and incoming missiles. In order to use this effectively, you need to activate before anything reaches the ship, meaning you either have to luck out and have a 2-turn salvo headed your way, or you have to anticipate that someone is going to start raining missiles down on your position this next turn. A big part of the strategy of the game is movement, anticipation, and future planning. Because each ship has a limited movement range and arc, you need to consider where everyone is going to end up at the end of this turn as well as where you want them to be at the end of the next turn. Don’t let your ships get too close together: During the very first scenario, I accidentally rammed one of my Manticore into a Cylon ship because I moved it into the path of the enemy. It destroyed both, which helped but was not optimal for the one remaining ship I had.

Fans of the X-Wing tabletop game will instantly grasp the concept and mechanics. Strategy gamers will also find a lot to love because of the need for thinking several rounds ahead. BSG fans will probably get the most out of it, though, because while it does provide a lot of fan service, it’s not a lot of winking and nodding. We meet Admiral Cain and the Athena right out of the gate, and fans know that not much changes in that respect between now and the intra-show miniseries where Cain runs into the Galactica again. The game features a soundtrack that’s very reminiscent of the show’s score provided by Bear McCreary which helps a lot, because the BSG soundtrack is distinct and relevant to the feel of the show. There are also some mechanics from the show that have made it into the game, such as the aforementioned flak cannons, but also the Cylon ability to “hack” a ship. When a hack is in progress, ship systems such as fire control start to degrade, making ships far less effective. In addition to all of the armor and hull values, each ship has a firewall rating that is the defense against these kinds of attacks.

Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock is not a drop in, drop out kind of game. I spent at least a half hour on one round in part because of the micro-movements involved, but also because there are no one-shot-kills going on here. Even a Battlestar, with its cannons and missiles and Viper squads, isn’t enough to fully dismember a heavily armed yet smaller Cylon Talon. Watching your fleet having to deal with a persistent hack that you just can’t shake while simultaneously having to manage movement and position, make decisions on how best to deploy your support craft, whether or not to split the fleet, and who — if anyone — to sacrifice in order to achieve the goal…well, that’s all the fun of strategy games, isn’t it? There are also two other modes: multiplayer and skirmish, but I have yet to try either. Word on the street is that in either of these modes you can opt to play for the other team, should you have warm bread in place of a heart.

Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock should be a good buy for hardcore strategy gamers and people who have wanted a digital version of the X-Wing table top game. It is a slam-dunk for BSG fans who are also strategy gamers, because there’s so much awesome in just positioning the camera to get those quintessential BSG cinematic shots of missiles slamming into the bulkhead of a ship. Sadly, for those who were hoping for a more action-packed Battlestar game, this will do absolutely nothing. We can only hope that someone, somewhere is working on a licensed dogfighting sim set in the same universe.

If you want to view the manual (Yes! A manual!), you can find it right here.

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Stuff I Look Forward To

Posted by on Aug 31, 2017 in Editorial, Project Gorgon, Shroud of the Avatar, Star Citizen

I feel like I’ve been too negative this week, so let’s talk about Stuff I’m Looking Forward To.

Star Citizen

Oh boy.

I was impressed by SC’s 2.6 preview. And 3.0 preview from last year. And 3.0 preview from this year. I know a lot of people have bad things to say about the project at an almost pathological, Internet-groupthink-mob level, but I’ve played what’s there and I see the progress that is being made. I’m sure we could have had something in hand by the point if Roberts and Company had aimed way, way lower, but it’s not like we’re left without anything to play in the meanwhile. Besides, people are always asking for more and different. That’s what Star Citizen is trying to be: a lot more and a lot different. I respect that, and I want that so I will wait for that.

Here, watch a very long video and try and enjoy yourself.

Shroud of the Avatar

Batting 1000 this morning.

SoA exists in that perpetual twilight region of readily available but not officially released. Kinda like Trove was. Or even Minecraft. I got the newsletter this morning and they’re on release 45! I don’t know how often they pump out those updates, but 45 is a pretty high number of releases for something that’s not quite complete. So far I’ve kind of bounced off attempts to really buckle down and play SoA, for which I blame myself. Still, the game has been on my mind recently.

Project Gorgon

Very small team, very ambitious project, very old school for those for whom old school has meaning. I don’t pine for the days when the difficulty was a factor of not knowing any better, but I do miss the dizzying depths of game systems that meant something. Like SoA, the current incarnation of PG is just formless enough for me to slide off (I need some level of structure and at least a little hand-holding to get started), but I really hope the team can get the project to a “release ready” state.

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Rated M for Mayhem

Posted by on Aug 16, 2017 in Agents of Mayhem, Editorial, Featured

Rated M for Mayhem

Listen, I’m no longer the kind of gamer who spends a lot of time pouring over numbers in a bid to find the best bang for my virtual buck. Games have gotten really good at cramming tons of gear and weapons and skills into their offerings such that parsing the data to min-max a build could very well be a full-time job. Even being a lowly consumer of this information leaves a whole lot of crap to sort through. I get the appeal: I used to revel in games that came with 300-page manuals (back when games came with manuals) and there’s some part of me that really wants to get out of the tutorial of Crusader Kings II with my sanity intact.

Agents of Mayhem is kind of the anti-stats game. It’s easy to hit the ground running (and you will do a lot of running) and you’ll never once miss the chore of crunching numbers because you’ll be too busy whoaing at the absurd, over-the-top kinetic action and laughing (or at least chuckling) at the bonkers characters that populate the game.

If you’ve played the Saint’s Row games, then you know 75% of what AoM offers; I consider this a Good Thing because I loved the SR series for its open world setting and it’s insane characters, plots, and gear (the only well-known game series where you can wield a jelly dildo as a weapon). If you’re new to the SR universe (of which AoM is a part, although admittedly a “spin-off”), then the Agents might actually be a better introduction to the setting than the existing SR games.

You play as a team of three Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M (Multinational Agency for Hunting Evil Masterminds), with “Mayhem” being the “good guys” supergroup much like S.H.I.E.L.D., complete with a floating HQ called the ARK. The ARK serves as your base of operations which you can return to in between missions or whenever you want to get away from free-roaming the futuristic vision of Seoul, South Korea. While at the HQ, you can upgrade your team and their weapons, craft new auxiliary armaments, pimp out your rides (of course), buy perks for your team with the money you collect, and even train at various difficulty levels in the holographic simulator.

When you’re ready to return to Seoul, you can accept a mission from the storyline, a mission to unlock Agents that you haven’t collected, one-off missions for advanced loot, or just to wander the city in search of action. The story is basic Saturday morning cartoon fare: Mayhem is fighting the forces of L.E.G.I.O.N. (the League of Evil Gentlemen Intent on Obliterating Nations), complete with cannon-fodder henchmen, tougher middle-tier bosses, and analogous named villains that are perpetrating the bulk of the evil that you’re thwarting. As you make your way through the city, you’ll encounter drop-in mobs that spawn around you on occasion to keep things lively, static mobs that seem to be going about their dastardly deeds, and even event mobs that end in a tougher enemy that drops better loot than you’d get from mowing down henchmen. With more focused missions you’ll engage in actions such as assaulting enemy held territory that requires you to “hack” terminals (a simple mouse-button QTE) in order to claim the area for Mayhem. When you’re unlocking new agents, the game takes you through a preamble which you play with your team, but which eventually switches you over to the new Agent so you can play through a snippet of his or her backstory and how they relate to the Mayhem organization. If you’re tired of working for The Man (who is actually The Woman), you can scour the city for one-off trials like racing, track down loot chests, or just engage in some namesake fun.

The action can be incredibly frentic. Enemies can spawn in from any direction, and often while you’re focused on mobs in other directions. The game doesn’t pull punches in that respect and it’s super easy to find yourself running in circles and weaving through enemies with the trigger held down simply because you’ll be guaranteed to hit something in the process. When the battle is done (or when it slows down a bit) you can collect dropped cash or materials, which isn’t something I’m a fan of because I always suspect I’m leaving loot on the street.

In order to help with the second-to-second action, it’s easy to cycle between characters (sort of) using the mouse-wheel. When you start you’re given a team of three — Hollywood, Fortune, and Hardtack — which means no real customization, but that’s OK because Hollywood is a decent ranged character, Fortune is a decent crowd control player, and Hardtack is a decent close-ranged character. Each Agent has two special attacks: their signature special, and their unique “Mayhem” ability. The signature attack is regulated by an individual cool-down, but the Mayhem ability is regulated by a “Mayhem meter” that fills when enemies are killed. The Mayhem meter is also individual to each character, so there’s a bit of planning there if you want to rely on a specific ability for an upcoming segment. Like Master x Master, another team-based game, any Agent that isn’t active will heal damage over time, although collecting the purple fleur-de-lis that mobs will sometimes drop can heal and pump up the Mayhem meter at the same time. I have to say that I do not like the mouse-wheel cycling mainly because I never remember which direction to roll to for a particular character, even though it shows their order in the lower right corner. I tried using the number keys, but that didn’t seem to do anything. I’m not sure if there’s a keybind for an alternative method of character switching.

Seoul is a big city, and I’ve heard that it suffers from “open world syndrome” — i.e. so big as to provide a lot of space but is mostly absent of purpose on its own. When you’re on a mission you’ll get sent to specific locations, and will often be required to go somewhere else. You can travel around by “nicely” carjacking a vehicle, or you can summon an AI Mayhem car which is a lot faster and comes equipped with a nitro boost for those hot pursuits. Each vehicle handles differently: the tiny smart-cars have no pickup but are pretty easy to control, while lumbering buses are like rolling cinder blocks that are good for ramming other vehicles in missions where you need to stop a rolling target. Whenever required, use the Mahyemmobile, because it’s the perfect combo of speed and handling. If you’re on a free-roam, there are things to do. I’ve seen various terminals at random locations around the city, and based on my experience with Saint’s Row, I assume these will trigger street races or other one-off activities that can earn you cash or loot. There also seem to be open-world events, like waves of mobs that culminate in a mini-boss and which drops better loot than you’d get from random enemies.

At the end of the day, though, AoM has one mission: balls-to-the-wall mayhem, and in that it succeeds. Explosions are big. Combat is satisfying and can get crazy. There’s a lot of upgrades to be had in the service of customizing your Agents and building your mission team. It also retains the SR humor, which is a little on the juvenile side (Hollywood launches grenades with a hip-thrust, and Braddock threatened to “put [her] foot so far up her ass that she’ll sneeze boot polish”) but when offered in the context of stupid and silly fun it’s pretty obvious that it couldn’t be presented any other way. It all just fits together really well. I don’t think that AoM is a “first-tier” game (something you focus the majority of your gaming time on) but I don’t think it was designed with that in mind either. It’s the kind of game you turn to when you want an oversized reaction to a really angry and violent action that can scratch a virtual itch and maybe put a smile on your face in the process.

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