Archive for July, 2014

My last post had been sitting in my “Drafts” folder for well over a year, mostly forgotten in the press of other matters. I went ahead and posted it without finishing because it was sufficiently complete to make the point. Not so for the six or eight other items in that folder, which were completely irrelevant by this point. I still have a massive write-up on Mass Effect and the Hero’s Journey in the folder, but am on the fence about finishing it. It seemed like a good idea four or five months ago, but seems a bit too scholarly upon rereading today. I will continue to let it sit for now. Maybe I’ll finish it, maybe not. Time will tell.

But its existence does bring to mind the hazards of writing in the digital age. Where hard-copy writers might stick physical drafts into a filing cabinet somewhere (I’m reminded of a scene from “Finding Forrester”), digital essays just end up as bits on your hard drive somewhere and are much easier to overlook. On the other hand, letting those bits gather virtual dust does tend to weed out the significant from the insignificant as evidenced by the stuff that didn’t survive the “Delete” button.

C’est la vie à l’ère numérique.

NOTE: This has been gathering dust in my “Drafts” folder for more than a year and I never got around to finishing it. It’s good enough to get the point across, though.

Talk about a title that’s almost guaranteed to start a war…

This little rant was prompted by a couple of vlogs at YouTube. The discussion was initiated by Samyoulonline about 6 months ago and followed up about three months later by Jingles1215. In his video, Samyoulonline made several points:

  1. You can’t fail
    1. I pretty much have to give him this one. Aside from dying and its attendant loading of a saved game, this is pretty much the case. Stepping up to Bethesda’s defense, this is something that has been building since Daggerfall, where it was exceptionally easy to fail. In TES2, 12 days meant 12 days. If you took more than that, you failed. On the other hand, the consequence for failure in Daggerfall was merely the loss of a couple of points of reputation with whichever faction assigned the quest. But still…failure was definitely an option in earlier games.
    2. On the other hand, it’s pretty much the same across games. You can’t fail (aside from dying) in the “Halo” games. You can’t fail (aside from dying) in the Bioshock series. You can’t fail (aside from dying) in Baldur’s Gate. You can’t fail (aside from dying) in Deus Ex. This is not something where Bethesda stands apart from the rest of the industry, so I don’t see the point, other than to be bitchy.
    3. In trying to look at this from Bethesda’s perspective, this seems to be “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”. If they heed the complaints of their customers, especially about the quest system, gameplay and the like, they’re dumbing down. If they don’t, they’re deaf to the fans. Can’t win either way. Tell me, do you still beat your significant other?
  2. There are no consequences for faction membership.
    1. True and not true. In Daggerfall, you could join all factions. The only thing limiting your membership were (a) your skills and (b) your patience. Many quests impacted your reputation with factions (most notably the shadier ones). Vanilla, unpatched Morrowind (which Samyoulonline seems to revere) also allowed you to join opposing factions. This proved to be glitchy, especially with the Great Houses stronghold quests, so was patched to exclude membership in some factions if you had joined others.
    2. Morrowind (of which Samyoul is so fond) only had a few factional conflicts:
      1. If you joined one of the Great Houses, you were excluded from joining another (patched version – it was possible to join more than one in the unpatched version)
      2. If you joined the the Thieves Guild, the Camona Tong hated you. But you couldn’t join the Camona Tong, so I don’t see the big deal.
      3. If you joined the Morag Tong, the Dark Brotherhood hated you. But you couldn’t join the Dark Brotherhood, so I don’t see the big deal.
      4. If you joined an Imperial faction, House Redoran disliked you, but you could do neat things for them (quests) and they didn’t seem to mind anymore.
      5. If you joined the Mages Guild, House Telvani disliked you, but you could do neat things for them (quests) and they didn’t seem to mind anymore.
      6. Seems to me that consequences for faction membership were, at worst, a bit superficial, so I don’t see the big deal. Well, aside from an opportunity to be bitchy.
    3. If you play on PC, you get a Construction Set/Creation Kit and the ability to mod your game. This strikes me as something along the lines of “if you don’t like it, feel free to change it”, which kind of moots the whole point, so “kwitcherbitchin”
    4. If you play on a console, you’re stuck with whatever Bethesda chooses to give you. But this is not something that is unique to the Elder Scrolls series; it’s the same for every console game out there. And console gamers accepted that limitation when they chose their platform. Since the whole point of the vid was that the series had been dumbed down to accommodate console gamers, this strikes me as being just a touch inconsistent.
  3. You have little impact on the world
    1. So what? That’s been true in every TES game since its inception. Your reputation might have an impact on how NPCs respond to you, but the world didn’t change, no matter who/what benefitted from your completion of the main quest in TES2, TES3, TES4 or TES5. This isn’t anything new, so “kwitcherbitchin”.
    2. Yes, there are some inconsistencies within the dialogues of the quest system. It does strike me as a bit weird that, after completing the Dark Brotherhood quest line in Skyrim, the Legion has you recite an oath to a dead emperor. But I have a hard time believing that this was something placed in the game to accommodate the wants of console gamers. Rather, it strikes me as a quality assurance issue that fell through the cracks during development. It happens. The only way to fix it would be to have the voice cast come back in, record new dialogue and push it out in a patch. Since it breaks nothing other than immersion, Bethesda seems to have taken a sensible approach. To mangle the Bard, this is such stuff as YouTube videos are made on.
  4. The quest and journal system holds the player’s hand too much (which seems related to #1)
    1. Pretty much true. This seems to be a holdover from Oblivion and I’m not sure that I’m particularly fond of it, either. In TES2 and TES3, you actually had to read your journal and figure out where you were supposed to go based on in the information in there. This is not so much the case in TES4 and TES5. Whether this is good or bad is kind of a matter of opinion and opinion is definitely divided, so Samyoul loses on this one due to subjectivity, even though I tend to agree with him.
  5. Reduced NPC conversations
    1. True, but neither Daggerfall nor Morrowind were shining examples of this, either. In both TES2 and TES3, NPC conversations were integral to completion of your quests. However, outside of quest-related stuff, they were pretty boiler-plate and hardly worth the time to read. This is not depth. It is merely the illusion of depth and most players were quite happy to dispense with it in favor of focusing on quest completion. Is it any wonder the Bethesda pared it down to its essentials? “Kwitcherbitchin”
  6. Oversimplified puzzles
    1. This is nothing new. Daggerfall and Morrowind had some decently designed puzzles. They also required an FAQ to provide the answers to those puzzles for those who didn’t want to (or were incapable of) engaging their gray matter. If players want to be led around by the nose, it is not Bethesda’s fault for catering to it. You write/design with your audience in mind. This should not be a complaint against Bethesda unless you’re going to the logical conclusion that the developer knows what its players want better than the players know what the players want. “We’re born in the Vault, we die in the Vault. All hail the Overseer.”
  7. Reduced value of items
    1. So-fuckin’-what? In Daggerfall, a quick trip to the Rusty Ogre Lodge (with saves and reloads to force respawning) could net you millions of septims in a few minutes. Ready access to cash could be a game-breaker. But I think the devs recognized this and tied access to better quality stuff to your character’s level. Yeah, leveled loot. What a radical concept.
    2. Morrowind and Oblivion tried to address this problem by limiting the amount of gold each merchant had for purchasing the player’s stuff. But players spent incalculable amounts of time trying to figure ways around this limitation. PC players could fire up the Construction Set and mod it in about 2 minutes. XBox players were kind of stuck (see point #2). Skyrim simply continued this trend, but it presented a problem in the minds of some (many?) players.
    3. Contrary to Samyoulonine’s view, items have absolutely no value outside of whatever the developers say that they do. Why does the Cuirass of the Savior’s Hide have a value of 150,000 septims in Morrowind? Because the devs said that it did. Since no merchant had that much money (short of modding it), you either took 30,000 by selling it to a museum or 5,000+ by selling it to a merchant. Of course you could keep it, but if you’re role-playing a class that wouldn’t/couldn’t use it, what’s the point?
    4. It apparently sticks in Samoulonline’s craw that a lot of players have no use for some of the loot they acquire and want to sell it off. But they’d also like to get something approximating the base value of the item. Another one of those “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” issues. Would you rather get 10% of what the game tells you is the base value of an item or would you rather get 50% of what the game tells you is the value of an item? Remember that the item has no value outside of whatever the devs say it has, and I’m back to “so what?”
    5. In one of my recent play-throughs of Skyrim, I gave up the Skull of Corruption. My character wouldn’t have used it if it had been presented on a silver platter (it’s a role-playing thing), so my only options would have been to either never acquire it in the first place or sell it. I opted for the former (I let Erendur destroy it), figuring that the potential benefit of a a follower was greater than the gold-piece value of an item that I would never use. So I’m back to “so-fuckin’what?”. It’s my game and my character. Why does the Skull of Corruption have to be worth hundreds of thousands of septims, aside from the fact that it was worth that in TES2, I mean?

OK, the Steam Summer Sale has been over for a few weeks. I bought a few games that turned out to have little appeal once I sat down behind the keyboard with them, but that’s kind of how it goes sometimes. It’s not that they were bad games, just that they weren’t really my cup of tea. Maybe I’ll get around to reviewing some of them at a later point, but “if you can’t say anything nice…” does have a certain applicability here. One game that I picked up on a lark was EA’s “The Sims 3”. Well, the $6 price tag definitely added to that, but it was almost completely an impulse purchase.

Not having played “The Sims” or “The Sims 2”, the only life-sim experience that I have to compare it to are a couple of offerings from Deep Silver called “Singles” and “Singles 2: Triple Trouble”. There is a guide for Singles 2 on my game guides site (“Singles” was only kind of “meh” for me), but it isn’t linked from anywhere other than Deep Silver’s forums due to its AO rating and my lack of interest in implementing the necessary code for making my other guides work with parental controls. If anyone is interested in looking, it’s not hard to find if you think about the URL directory structure of my main site. But that’s kind of an aside to the point that I have very little experience with life-sim games, so my look at “The Sims 3” is from a fairly inexperienced perspective. With that in mind, here is the quick-n-dirty short version:

Story: n/a (there really is no story – you make up your own as you go)

Technical: 5 (there are lots of unpatched “gotchas” in there – on a 5-year-old game)

Graphics: 9.5

Gameplay: 8.5

Sound: 10

Replay: 10

Overall: 8.5 (Very Good for the price I paid)

First out of the chute is the issue of game clients. I purchased the game and a couple of expansion packs from Steam at the time of the Summer Sale. They installed and ran with no problems aside from the game not recognizing my 1920×1080 screen resolution and not  knowing what to do with quality settings due to my card being newer than the game. Once launched, it took all of about a minute to fix that problem. A week or so later, Origin had a 70% off sale on The Sims 3 and its related goodies. Whether this was in competition with Steam or in preparation for the launch of The Sims 4 around Labor Day is irrelevant. The base game was good enough and their sale prices were low enough that I picked up most of the other expansion packs and ran into my first major headache: game version incompatibilities.

This had not been a problem with games released prior to Origin’s launch. DLC for other EA games like Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect/Mass Effect 2, Neverwinter Nights and the like installed just fine regardless of which client was used for the base game, so I have some of those games running through Steam and some running through Origin and have had almost zero problems with this kind of setup. Not so with The Sims 3. Content purchased through Steam will only install on top of the Steam-installed game and content purchased through Origin will only install on top of the Origin-based game. Major aggravation!

There were a couple of things that made this less of a headache. First, I already had an Origin account and didn’t have a problem with using the Origin client. But some gamers absolutely detest Origin. If you fall into this category, then this is an issue that will be important to you and I’d recommend passing up this game until such a time as you can pick it up cheaply on Steam. The normal retail pricing of the game and its expansions is frankly way too high to be buying it at this point in its development cycle (buying everything at normal pricing will set you back about $400). Second, EA recognized my Steam product keys when I registered the game and expansions at The Sims 3 website, so my Steam purchases were available through Origin, too. In order to use the new expansions, I had to migrate the game to Origin, ran into several headaches in the process and ended up writing a Steam Guide on how to do it with a minimum of pain and suffering.

On the initial installation, I ran into problems installing bonus content from the Sims 3 Store. This eventually required that I completely uninstall the game (which is a tedious process under Origin), download everything again (an 8-10 hour process which required a bit of babysitting), reinstalled it and got the problem mostly fixed. Not “fixed” or “completely fixed” because there are still five or six things that will not install, but it’s not worth the pain to get them into the game.

Once reinstalled, I ran into several unpatched glitches. If this were a newly released game, I’d be a bit more forgiving of them, but we’re talking about a game that was released close to five years ago. That some of these issues remain unpatched is completely unacceptable, hence the abysmal “Technical” rating.

For example, the “Generations” expansion pack added a “Grounded” punishment for teen Sims who get into serious trouble (in my teen’s case, it was being busted by the police for being out after curfew). This confines them to the home lot. If they want/need to leave the home lot, they go into a sneaking animation. Since going to school involves leaving the home lot, my teen had to sneak off to school and got stuck in that sneaking animation, even after being let off the hook on the grounding. As another example, my Sims’ mailbox would not empty (the “Get Mail” option would not go away in spite of my getting mail about 30 times in a row) and the only way I could clear the problem was to move to a new house. Some of the character pathing is horrendous. For example, the shortest route to a community lot might be to get out of the car and walk onto the lot, but my Sim gets out of the car, runs to the corner of the lot and then runs halfway around the lot to the other corner to find an “acceptable” entrance. Under normal circumstances this might not be such an issue, but since Sims age up and eventually die, time is a finite resource and a lot of it is wasted on inefficient pathing. So on the whole, I’m not horribly thrilled at EA’s lack of effort on fixing these issues. None of them is really game-breaking, but they’re all horribly annoying and seriously detract from the experience of the game.

Graphically, the game is great. I’ve run into a few minor clipping issues on pieces of clothing or hair and a few water-reflection oddities, but on the whole, it’s superbly done. I get excellent performance out of my GTX 760 with everything cranked up to max settings. The minimum specs aren’t much higher than whatever is needed for the underlying operating system and go as low as GT 5900 for nVidia, so the game should run fairly well on just about any rig made in the last ten or twelve years. I should caution, though, that low-end systems are going to run at low-end settings.

I’m not as thrilled about the gameplay, though, mainly because the user interface leaves a lot to be desired. For example, edge-scrolling is almost a must if you’re going to be able to see any reasonable level of detail, but EA insisted on sticking notifications in a place that either demands immediate action or risk scrolling away from your Sim’s location. Your Sim has a multi-function cell phone that is accessed from the inventory screen. But you’ll be spending most of your time on the other screens, at least until the phone starts ringing. Your phone always seems to ring right in the middle of something that you’re trying to do (like fixing a broken faucet, keeping your Sim from starving, or Woo-hoo’ing with your significant other), requiring more clicking around to deal with that issue so you can continue dealing with the more important matters at hand. Oh, and your phone has a tendency to randomly break, kind of like any other usable object in the game, but it’s the one item that you cannot fix, regardless of your Handiness skill level.

Objects that you pick up immediately switch you to your inventory, even if you already know what it is that you picked up and didn’t need to see it again. Multi-level buildings/lots present their own set of challenges since your mouse’s scroll wheel controls the zoom level, forcing you to do even more clicking around to bring stuff into view. And there is no scrolling out to map view or in from map view. I’m not sure why the devs didn’t include that feature, but its absence forces a bit more unnecessary clicking around. All in all, the user interface could have been much better and it can really break your game immersion at times. It’s not completely horrid, but it’s annoying enough to warrant its own “honorable” mention and did count heavily in the grade for gameplay.

The game includes lots of little side-quests, mostly of the “go there and do that” variety that most RPG-ers are familiar with. Depending on which expansions you have installed, a few of them are glitched to the point of unplayability (they can be cancelled, but cannot be completed). Some are still not patched by EA, but the vast majority work as intended.

About the only other major gameplay detractors are the loading screens and the time it takes to save your game. You won’t have mess with loading screens unless you have expansions like “University Life”, “World Adventures”, “Island Paradise” or “Into the Future” installed as your Sim can’t travel to a different neighborhood (although you have the option of moving to another city). In those cases, the loading times involved with travel are horribly long. And this was apparently seen as a problem because the developers gave you eye candy and “find the object” loading screens to keep you occupied while it happens (you can opt out of that in settings, but it will make those load times even more annoying).

Saving your game takes about a minute or more (real time). My understanding is that the game saves the entire game world rather than just object states and locations like other games and this is what causes the long save times. That was a design decision, knowing that expansions were going to be marketed, rather than an unanticipated consequence, so points off for that. Also, there is no autosave feature. This may be either a blessing or a curse, depending on your game’s stability. I’ve had a few CTD’s which have cost me several hours of play. The game is somewhat modable and there is a mod out there that will pop up a reminder every so often, but the decision to go with this kind of a save system can definitely work to your disadvantage and the devs did not plan accordingly.

The game’s sound is outstanding. There is enough variety in the background music that it doesn’t become completely mind-numbing and there is enough of a selection of genres that almost every player will find something that will appeal to them. Depending on which expansions you have installed, the musical offerings will vary. The ambient sounds are realistic to each situation, so major kudos to the sound design team for tying it together so seamlessly. One addition from “University Life” (the ability of Sims to get up on soapboxes and shout through megaphones) is completely annoying at times and should likely have been confined to the campus, but that’s a gameplay issue rather than a sound issue. I can hear those megaphones just fine; I often wish that I couldn’t.

Each Sim has a voice, but they’re drawn from a very limited pool of voice talent, so that part gets a little repetitive. Also, I’m not a huge fan of the contralto range and there is one female voice that I find a bit grating at times, but it’s not something that seriously detracts from my gaming experience; it’s just rather distinctive so it stands out from the crowd. Overall, though, the voicing is superb and I have no idea how the voice actors manage to pull it off so well in a completely nonsense “language”.

Considering that there is no story to follow other than the one that you’re making up as you go along, the game probably has more replayability than almost anything else out there. You’re only limited by a few factors: the number of towns that you can start in (which depends on which and how many expansions you add on – only two through the base game and one’s a download) and the limits of your own imagination. Beyond that, the game’s design and mechanics let you weave your own tale that stops only when you do. The game is engaging enough that it will match up with almost any playing style from the casual gamer who wants to goof around for a little while (keep those loading times in mind) to the obsessive gamer who won’t budge from the keyboard for hours at a time to anything in between. All in all, gamers who are interested in this kind of game will have found yet another bottomless hole into which to pour their time (and money – we’re talking EA here).

If we were looking at normal retail pricing, I would not recommend this game except to true Sim-fanatics. The bang-for-the-buck just isn’t there when you consider that MSRP was about $40 a pop for the expansion packs and stuff packs. But the game is now five years old and it can be had on-sale at $10 a pop or less, so I’ll move it to the “highly recommended” list. Keep in mind that the whole shooting match will cost about $400 at non-sale prices today, but only a bit more than $125 if you can wait for sales.

I should point out that “The Sims Medieval” is not an expansion pack for “The Sims 3”, even though it was released after “The Sims 3”. Rather it is a stand-alone game that uses the same engine and gaming mechanics.

The Sims 4 is due out in about six weeks at a MSRP of $70. EA will likely follow their previous strategy of expansion packs and stuff packs every few months, so Simmers who gotta have it all will likely sink close to a thousand into it by the time it’s all said and done. On a price-per-hour of entertainment basis, MSRP just doesn’t hold up in my mind.

Final judgment: 8.5. It’s a great game at sale prices and well worth the addition to your game library. If I had paid AAA prices, I’d be much less forgiving and only give it a resounding “meh”.