Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fallout: New Vegas's Downloadable Content

So far, I've had a mixed bag with RPG add-ons. Fallout 3's were generally very good, while Dragon Age 1's were generally lousy. Mass Effect 1's were split evenly between decent and dull. Mass Effect 2's tended to lean towards quality, while Dragon Age 2's add-ons, from what I have seen so far, have leaned away from it. So, let's see how Fallout: New Vegas measures up. While I liked FNV, and recognize much of its storytelling worth for its use of themes of Americana, I feel it didn't have as powerful a draw nor as compelling an overall tale as Fallout 3 did, so I'm not expecting anything too great. Still, FNV did have some excellent moments, so I do have a little hope for something decent.

Dead Money: At first, I was pretty skeptical of how worthwhile this DLC was going to be. Breaking into an old-world casino for a heist of a speculative treasure while under the watchful eye of a crazy, greedy jackass who could kill you at any time, by working with an untrustworthy team of individuals that are probably waiting for the first opportunity to stab you in the back...well, you take the words "old-world" out of that description, and you've basically just described Reindeer Games. So I went into this DLC expecting a story of comparable silly, pointless stupidity.

This DLC is pleasantly surprising, though. Oh, at first it doesn't seem like much, just a romp around a suburban ghost town finding stuff and doing errands, basic Fallout stuff, with a couple extra gameplay twists to keep things mildly frustrating. From a gameplay perspective, I suppose it's alright...one COULD take the extra variables of toxic clouds, regenerating enemies, confusing street layouts, hologram guards, and deadly radio beeps as a positive thing, ways to make the playing more complex. And as long as you're being thorough with your explorations (and why wouldn't you be? It's a Fallout game; scrounging for stuff is half the fun), it'll last you a good while.

As it goes along, though, one finds that the history of the casino that one is breaking into is actually pretty interesting, with simple yet compelling human drama reminiscent of famous American story tropes laced into its background. About half of the characters in Dead Money are pretty decent, too--Christine and Father Elijah aren't noteworthy, but Dean's history is good, and Dog/God's character is quite good and well-executed. The DLC's story as a whole also comes together pretty nicely, showing through the history of the Sierra Madre Casino's creator, his paramour, the antagonist, the party members, and even the gameplay itself at the end (the fact that you won't be able to make it out if you try to leave with all the gold in the vault)*, greed's many forms, that it can lead you to doom, and that sometimes the only right thing to do, for your sake and others, is to let go of what you desire, walk away from it and find a new focus. It takes a little while to get going, but once it does, this DLC's plot has the heart and the skill to make it a solid side story. $10 is a bit steep for most DLCs, but given the quality of the story of Dead Money, and how long it will take (I'd say 6 to 8 hours, if you're exploring thoroughly), it's worth it.

Honest Hearts: After Dead Money's unexpected subtle quality, Honest Hearts is kind of disappointing. The overall story to it, that of saving a peaceful tribe from the aggressions of another tribe in league with Caesar's Legion, is just not terribly interesting, just a by-the-numbers progression of quests that don't feel particularly meaningful.

The characters involved in this Downloadable Content are a huge step down from the previous one's, too. In Dead Money, we had a decent character (Christine), a decent character whose past tied interestingly into the setting and story of the add-on (Dean), a really interesting and well-done character (Dog/God), and a villain who, if not particularly interesting, at least symbolized well the underlying theme of the add-on. This DLC has no one of comparison for its major entities--Daniel, Follows-Chalk, and Waking Cloud are all highly forgettable and have little worthwhile depth, and Joshua, while okay, is not nearly as well-characterized as he should be. All of his dialogue and history is far too understated; you've got a very religious man who fell from his faith to become the legendarily successful right hand general of a tyrannical warlord, was betrayed by the warlord for failing just once, and finally reawakened to his faith and devoted himself to the salvation of others. How the hell do you make a character like that dull? Well, they managed it somehow. And lastly, there's Salt-Upon-Wounds, the villain of the add-on, who only shows up at the very end, has no character development whatsoever, and is completely forgettable.

There are some Biblical references and undertones to the setting, events, and characters of this DLC, but where the theme of Greed was subtle yet thoughtful and significant in Dead Money, here the Christian theme just seems insubstantial at most points, and clumsily pasted on at others.

Honest Hearts isn't all bad--the setting and its exploration are fairly nice, though not noteworthy, and the journal of the individual known as The Father, whose entries you can find throughout the DLC's area, is actually pretty interesting. But overall, it's fairly substandard, and definitely not worth even half the admission price.

Old World Blues: If you read my Fallout 3 DLC rant, you may remember that I was definitely not impressed with the Mothership Zeta add-on. They were apparently going for something lighthearted with it, but all it wound up being was boring, pointless, and moderately stupid. So I wasn't expecting much from Fallout: New Vegas's successor to that, Old World Blues, billed as another lighthearted DLC. But since Fallout 3, someone must have realized that "light" does not mean "lazy and without meaning," because Old World Blues is actually pretty damned funny overall. The dialogue with the Think Tank, along with Dr. Mobius, is generally clever, and consistently amusing, and I nearly bust a gut laughing at some of the personalities in the Sink area of this add-on--Muggy is one of the best things to happen, ever. The DLC also ties itself nicely to the previous Dead Money add-on, and to the upcoming final package, Lonesome Road--the ties are significant, but not overbearing, and all the hooplah about "The Big Empty" (the setting for this DLC) that Dead Money made is surprisingly effectively executed here. The way this DLC's setting had been built up, I figured any actual representation of it wouldn't be able to quite live up to the hype and mental image I had of it, so the developers' turning the whole thing into a joke reminiscent of classic mid-century B-rated science fiction was really quite ingenious, and didn't leave me feeling let down at all.

It's quite good gameplay-wise, too. This DLC's new weapons aren't that interesting, I guess, but it offers a new armor that's very handy, the difficulty's very high for all the people (not me) who wanted a challenge for their endgame levels, the DLC introduces a handy use for several until now useless background items which means more fun, rewarding exploratory looting, and most handily, this add-on provides an immediately accessible, fully-equipped home base location for the player. Up until now, there really wasn't a good one available--the only one with all the proper amenities for a home base in this game was located in a place that, idiotically enough, could not be fast-traveled to. Even when you were at the location for it, you still had to go inside and board an elevator to get to the home base location, adding to the inconvenience. All the other, smaller home bases lacked one resource or the other, and sometimes were kinda cramped. Of course, I have to say that a proper home base should have already been in the game, instead of added in this late, but eh, I guess it's just good that it's there.

The one thing I think didn't really work for this package was just the fact that it tries, towards its end, to become a little too serious. While the revelations that Dr. Mobius has to offer near the DLC's end are interesting, and even perhaps a little moving, everything after that point starts to feel like they tried to cram serious plot significance in at the last minute. It's just not the direction the whole thing was going in, and it's out of place. This one problem aside, though, Old World Blues is a solid, fun Downloadable Content, and I can't imagine anyone coming away from it feeling unsatisfied with their purchase.

Lonesome Road: And finally we come to Lonesome Road, the last Fallout: New Vegas DLC, the one that the previous 3 add-ons, not to mention many references in the game proper, have led up to. How does it hold up? Well...I was surprised to find that this really IS about as cool and epic as the build-up would have you believe. I'll grant you that there are quite a few details that could have been expounded on in more depth, questions about the DLC's antagonist Ulysses that were kind of just passed by during Lonesome Road's narrative, but overall, this side-story of the power of symbols and history does not disappoint, introducing not only a slew of philosophical angles to the conflict between NCR, Caesar's Legion, and Mr. House (and all eloquently spoken by Ulysses), but also providing some much-needed history for Fallout: New Vegas's protagonist. As a bonus, we get some character development for one of the game's party members, ED-E, which was sorely needed. Another, minor bonus is that the characterization of Ulysses through his recordings also better ties his journeys to the Honest Hearts DLC, making it seem, in retrospect, more relevant to the add-ons in general, and more important to Fallout: New Vegas's themes and events. I also appreciate the pace and execution of the story's telling to this DLC; while there's still a component of exploration to Lonesome Road, it is, generally speaking, a very linear side adventure, and there's a finite number of enemies until the DLC's end. This lessened potential for exploration and limited potential for fighting means that there's less potential for distraction from the plot and its narrative. This is a good and appropriate conclusion to Fallout: New Vegas's add-ons, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

So in the end, how did Fallout: New Vegas do with its add-ons? Pretty well, really. While each of these DLCs are a pricy $10, as long as you're going everywhere and doing everything there is to do in them, you're probably going to spend around 7 to 10 hours on each, (you can definitely do each of them faster than that, but if you're just going to rush through each area and forgo half the content and experience, then you're obviously not concerned about getting your money's worth anyway), which brings it to a rate of somewhere around a buck to a buck and a half per hour of gameplay. That's a pretty decent ratio for add-ons (certainly better than others I've dealt with--like paying a new game's price for the Dragon Age 1 Awakening expansion and getting less than half as many hours of gameplay as dollars spent on it), and 3 out of the 4 have worthwhile stories to tell and are quite enjoyable. 1 has interesting takes on a theme of human nature, one has interesting takes on a theme of human society, and one's just really funny. And even the odd one out, Honest Hearts, isn't bad, just somewhat bland, which still makes it an improvement over the worst of the Fallout 3 add-ons, Mothership Zeta, which was bland AND stupid. So Fallout: New Vegas passes with high marks for its Downloadable Content, certainly on equal ground with its predecessor, Fallout 3.

Too bad I have a feeling the next game I'll be doing one of these add-on rants for, Dragon Age 2, isn't going to be quite as satisfying...

* At least, you're not SUPPOSED to be able to. There are a couple of creative little work-around methods for getting out successfully with all the gold, which are helpfully described in several Youtube videos. But the point is that the creators obviously intended The Courier (Fallout: New Vegas's protagonist) to have to give up on most of the treasure to be able to escape the casino alive.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Final Fantasy 9's Strategy Guide

Back in the day, printed strategy guides used to be a pretty standard game accessory. You bought the game, you played it, and if you just couldn't get past a certain part and didn't have any friends to ask how to get through it (or if you just couldn't be bothered to try), you went out and bought the strategy guide. This was back in the days of the SNES and Sega Genesis.

The internet changed this. Dramatically. By the time the Playstation 1 was in full swing, "teh intarwebz," to use its scientific title, was filling with walkthroughs, FAQs, and random tips and tricks dispersed on forums. At present, there are multiple locations a mere few clicks away for any given game out there that can pretty easily tell you everything you want to know about that game. Hell, you can often find a complete walkthrough available on GameFAQs for games that haven't even come out yet, because people will write them based on the original Japanese version released months before the US gets it. Even in extreme circumstances where some aspect of the game hasn't been addressed in an official walkthrough, you have quick and easy access to other people via forums, chat programs, and God knows what else--you're never in a position where you can't find a friend who can help you with a certain part of a game.

I know there are still physical walkthroughs sold nowadays, and God bless whoever's still doing it, because I have no idea how they stay in business. I guess they must really go all out on aesthetic appeal and target games that are complex enough that they can make the whole walkthrough look impressively huge to tempt buyers--I know I saw a Final Fantasy 13 one recently that was thicker than some college textbooks. But I'm pretty certain that the business must be a lot smaller than it was, and is likely to keep dwindling.

Now, back in late 2000, the fan-made walkthrough process was not quite as streamlined as it is now. But if it's in its fully-formed adult life now, it was at least in its competent teen years then. If you needed to know specific game information about pretty much any title, particularly one as popular as, say, Final Fantasy, you could find effective information quickly and easily. There were really only 3 reasons for a person to get a walkthrough for a popular video game. They were:

1. No reliable internet access. Hey, a lot of people still weren't really online at that point. Hell, there are still a fair amount of people in the present who aren't.

2. The aesthetic and/or collector value. Some people just LIKE to look at a page more than a computer screen when they read something. In many cases, I'm one of them (though not in this one; to me a walkthrough is a walkthrough, electronic or paper). They just wanted to get their answers from a physical guide.

3. They happened to walk into a game store on the day that the store was getting rid of its old walkthroughs that weren't selling, and were offered the pretty good deal of 7 game walkthroughs for 1 cent.

That 3rd one there was considerably less common than the beginning 2 reasons, though; I can only really confirm it having happened once. But anyway, the major reasons I can think of, in 2000 AD, to buy a physical strategy guide revolved around lack of internet and preference for paper. Remember this.

So, enough introduction paragraphs. Let's actually try talking about the subject of the rant. For every major Final Fantasy game that comes out for over a decade, there has been an Official Strategy Guide released for it. In 2000, it was Final Fantasy 9's turn, and Brady Games was the one to release the official game guide for it. At first glance, it seems good enough...decent-looking cover, thick enough that it's probably pretty comprehensive, promises that it's the official strategy guide on the front, which must mean that it has everything inside you could possibly need to know about the game. Right?

Alright, so we go along...acknowledgement page, table of contents...hm, what's this? 3rd page in, there's the introduction, and then a section entitled "Using This Book." A quick glance will tell the reader that the "key element" in this strategy guide is its ties with PlayOnline, a website in which you type a keyword, as indicated by the book, and get detailed information about that part of the game, be it an item, location, boss, or something else. The next page gives a visual representation of what the PlayOnline keyword boxes in the guide will look like.


Moving on, the next pages cover the basics of gameplay, expanding with superfluous jabber and charts into a half dozen pages what a tiny instruction manual managed to adequately explain already. But oh well, not important.

Ah-ha! Having done with basic information, it's time to get on with the specific info! Here come the character pages! Time to learn about the characters of the ga--wait, what? What is this?

Since you are (probably) not looking at the guide yourself, allow me to describe what I see here. The page starts with the main character, Zidane. There is a brief explanation of who he is and what kind of stuff he equips. There is then a section called "Stealing Items," which very lightly touches upon Zidane's ability to steal from enemies, and...that's it. Where's the information about his other abilities? He's got quite a few. They just mention in passing that he has other ones. But what are they? They don't list any of--oh, wait. The blue PlayOnline box on the side is saying something. It's saying that if you want to know anything substantial about what Zidane, the character you'll be using almost from start to finish in this game, can do in combat, you'll have to go to the PlayOnline site to find out. Yes, the guide whose purpose for existence is to help you to play the game effectively will not tell you of the capabilities of the character you'll be using.

Oh, no, wait. Characters, plural. ALL of the characters' pages have PlayOnline password boxes where the actual information on their skills should have been. In some cases, there are multiple instances of PlayOnline boxes withholding essential data for a single character.

Now, if you continue onwards, you'll find some pages about the abilities for each character, which DOES list out what abilities the character can learn, and what they do. But still the PlayOnline boxes are holding hostage any detailed information about these abilities, such as, for example, their power, the amount of MP they use, how/where to learn them and how much time is required for the learning process, and so on. If you want detailed information, or, to quote the guide, "a complete list of each character's abilities," you have to put the guide book down and go online for it.

It pretty much just goes downhill from this point. No matter what information you're looking to obtain from this guide, you'll only find, at most, half the story in its pages, with all the details having been kidnapped by the infernal PlayOnline blue boxes. Desire detailed locations for the game's weapons? Gotta look online. Want to know what characters learn from Accessories? Also online. Have an interest, for some unfathomable reason, to better understand the Tetra Master card minigame? Every goddamn aspect they list has had some of its information relocated to PlayOnline.

And things get REAL bad when they start the actual walkthrough itself. Want the guide to give you any information about where to upgrade your party's equipment when you reach a new town? Go to PlayOnline. Want to know where special hidden items are located in any given dungeon/town/whatever? Go to PlayOnline. Want to know anything at all about the Frog Catching and Chocobo Digging sidequests? From what I can see, you have to go to PlayOnline for any knowledge of them beyond their names. Want to know what rewards you could get from the Stellazio Coin sidequest? Go to PlayOnline. Need any strategy for dealing with a boss that's more complex than "Use strongest spells with mage, heal with healer, and steal with thief?" Go to PlayOnline.

Basically, if you want to know anything about this game more complicated than what general direction to have your character walk in next, there's a 50-50 chance that the guide's gonna tell you to go online to find out.

I'm sure you all can see the problem with this. Namely, that the STRATEGY GUIDE that you PAID for doesn't actually have the information you need and is telling you to go ONLINE to find it. There is so goddamn much wrong with this. For starters, how about the fact that you paid for NOTHING. This guide was sold at the regular rate a strategy guide was sold for, yet had consistently incomplete strategy within it. If this had been a car, you would have paid full price for a car with three quarters of its engine missing. There would be LAWS in place that this transaction would violate!

Next, how about the fact that the only reason to buy a walkthrough by the time of FF9's release, as mentioned above, was because of either an inability to go online or a choice not to? As I mentioned, online game assistance was well-established by the year 2000! People buying this strategy guide for any real purpose were doing so because they wanted to see tips INSIDE the book they were buying. So, not only is it a rip-off because it doesn't actually do what it's supposed to--give all-inclusive information about the game--but it's a rip-off twice over because the paltry substitution for the information, its PlayOnline codes, are things that the only large group of people buying it didn't want or couldn't use.

To compound this idiocy, consider the marketing strategy here. Short-term, obviously Squaresoft was hoping that this would make people come to their site in droves, which would give them easier access to fans for future marketing purposes. Long-term...hell, not even long-term, just slightly-less-short-term, BradyGames was publishing a guide book that encourages, nay, requires its readers to become more familiar with the concept of finding information online by typing phrases into search boxes. BradyGames was essentially training its customers how to FIND INFORMATION ONLINE FOR FREE. Who the HELL was it that OK'd the idea of exposing the company's dwindling audience to its greatest threat?

And lastly, to finalize all this idiocy, the goddamn PlayOnline website? It hasn't had Final Fantasy 9 information on it for years now. Yeah, after all that, the strategy guide's pass codes can't be used any longer. Not exactly a product that endured time's test, here.

Yeah, so, overall, the FF9 strategy guide is one of the more unforgivably stupid and blatantly dishonest parts of SquareEnix's history--which, considering what company we're talking about, does say quite a lot. It's a farce of a product, it's transparent that it was made without any thought whatsoever of what the consumer might want or need, it's not even worth the paper it's printed on since the site dumped the FF9 data, and it taught readers how to find their information without having to pay for a strategy guide in the future so the companies wound up screwing themselves over worse than they did the players. It's a miserable, stupid failure on all sides. There's exactly one piece of useful knowledge to be culled from this entire guide: don't trust Square.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Phantasy Star 1

I did a rant recently on The Magic of Scheherazade, and the many ways it was really noteworthy for its time (and the fact that it STILL has some aspects that are creative and different even in the present day), and it was fun. So hey, why not look at another laudable, ancient RPG? An even older one, this time!

When it comes to console RPGs, Phantasy Star 1 for the Sega Master System is one of the oldest to be found. I actually never owned a SMS, myself, and only played PS1 for the first time half a dozen years ago when it was rereleased on the Gameboy Advance. But once I finally did play it, something like 20 years late, I was reasonably impressed with it (and I didn't have to worry about the feeling coming from any sense of nostalgia)--Phantasy Star 1, I found, was quite a pioneer for RPGs in several ways.

One of the earliest RPGs to feature a world map--multiple world maps, in fact. One of the earliest RPGs to give its cast personalities shown through game dialogue. First Science Fiction RPG. All pretty important moments for RPGs. There are 2 aspects of PS1, though, that I feel were its most important contributions to the newborn genre of video game RPGs.

The first is the cut scene. While not totally unknown before the Playstation 1 era of RPGs, proper cut scenes, now a rather huge part of console RPGs, only became commonplace once RPGs hit the 32-Bit scene.* Additionally, most of the times prior to the Playstation-Saturn-N64 where an RPG had a cut scene, it was almost always just reserved for the end, which hardly qualifies it as a cut scene at all. I mean, sure, early RPGs like Startropics and Crystalis had endings with art scenes shown, but a player kind of expects that an ending should pull out all the stops, and it's just one, final place. Phantasy Star 1, on the other hand, has a small handful of cut scenes scattered throughout its adventure's span, seen during the story's most important moments. They're humble, to be sure--scenes of art depicting game events and characters that have to make do with a very limited set of colors and graphical capabilities--but they're certainly not bad, and just the fact that a game on the archaic Sega Master System has them, in multiple instances, is quite impressive. It's not that other old RPGs don't make a try at this sort of thing on occasion--as I said, I recall the endings to Crystalis and Startropics 1, both NES games, having comparable scenes in them...but to my knowledge, PS1 came before them, and was the first to actually include these scenes during the course of the actual game.

More important still to me is the fact that Phantasy Star 1 is, as far as I am aware, the first console RPG--possibly the first video game RPG, period--to star a female protagonist. In 1987, a female protagonist for any video game was almost unheard of; it had only been the year before that the gaming world was blown away by the revelation that Metroid's Samus was a woman. I'm pretty sure that having a heroine was something the RPG genre hadn't made any serious attempt at before PS1, so that's quite something. What makes it even more noteworthy is that Alis is actually a protagonist with a bit of depth, having motivations to go on her quest besides just being unable to deny the whimsical commands of the person holding the controller. A main character with any sort of personality and depth of character was uncommon back then, when RPG characters were most often standard silent protagonists. So not only did PS1 have a female protagonist, but it made her one of the best main heroes of her generation of RPGs. That's worth some recognition; it would be a while before RPGs would see any significant number of leading women, and also a bit of time before the idea of a protagonist that has any sort of plot relevance would take hold in RPGs.

That's about all I can think of, but I'd say that's certainly enough. From the smaller details to the way it pushed the envelope in quality of story telling, Phantasy Star 1 was a trailblazer for the RPG genre, and I say kudos to it for its contributions.

* This depends, of course, on how you define a cut scene. Technically speaking, you can say that any scene in an RPG where you don't have regular control is a cut scene, and so, given all the story events and dialogue of any given Role Playing Game, at least half the game is a series of cut scenes. But that perspective is lame and uninteresting. When I say a cut scene, I mean a part of the story being told in sequential art, animated FMVs, real-life video, that sort of thing. Something special, different, a part (hopefully) so important that it has to be shown as well as possible through art beyond the game's regular capacity.