Now Playing – Icewind Dale

Icewind Dale Icewind Dale was made using the Baldur’s Gate engine, but it was developed by a different company. Bioware, the company behind Baldur’s Gate and KotOR, apparently did not have a hand in the development of this game. Yet there must be some relationship between them, as Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment use the same engine as Baldur’s Gate, are all licensed D&D 2nd edition products, and apparently share some of the same goals. Now I’m curious. And a bit side-tracked. My point is that I consider all the games to be part of the same family, along with Neverwinter Nights to a lesser extent. Of all the games in that big family, Icewind Dale is the one about which I know the least. I do not know whether it is just the least popular, or whether there is something fundamentally bad about it.

I have begun playing it. Not far in, but so far, so good. The combat is a bit better polished than the Baldur’s Gate series, but I don’t expect the story to hold up as well. That might be what kills the game. See, in Icewind Dale, there is no main character. The player creates all of the party members at the start of the game. There is a plot, but I would be impressed if it has something to do personally with the party.

The interface is also a bit nicer than Baldur’s Gate. I can actually scroll down my items with my mouse wheel when in a shop. Item descriptions are cleaner. The game is overall more aesthetically pleasing. That said, the main game was made before Baldur’s Gate 2, so there are still doors that are hard to see. Also, tabbing does not highlight dropped equipment, doors, and lootable areas. Since I am playing on 800×600 resolution, this isn’t so bad, but the game screen is a little dark in some places, so things sometimes blend in with the walls.

If I like the game, I will keep playing it and its two expansions. If I don’t, I am moving onto either Icewind Dale 2 (which has the hindsight of IWD1 and Baldur’s Gate 2), or Dragon Age: Origins.

I also have a questions thread for this game, as usual:

On that note, I am thinking of consolidating my questions into the blog somehow. It would mean being able to edit questions and consolidate answers more easily (and, I think, let people actually revise their replies). On the other hand, posting on GameFAQs connects me with the people whom presumably know the most about the game I am currently playing. I am going to be thinking on this. If only there were some way to have the best of both worlds.

One final thing: don’t forget to vote! For those of you who don’t know, there is a poll on the right sidebar of the blog. You can vote for which game I play next.

Two Sides but One Path – Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Review

It doesn’t matter whether you play Light Side or Dark Side in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I hate to say it, but I have to get that out of the way from the start. The game just does not change much. Think of it this way: when you think Light Path, you probably think of saving the galaxy, associating with legendary heroes, receiving unsolicited praise from grateful citizens, and bringing villains down or over to your side. On the other hand, you would expect a Dark Side character to mastermind cunning schemes, conquer the galaxy, corrupt others, and be harried at every turn by those trying to kick him from his throne. You don’t see your character hanging out with the same group of NPCs, recruiting the same party members, or even visiting half of the same locations. Sadly, the paths really are not that different. Any divergences are short and usually meaningless. Early on, there is a part where the party is given a mission by one group to retrieve an item from another group. The party can betray group one, which means fighting group one. Presumably, this should make the following event, where the party could get something from group two, much simpler, but nothing significant changes. The party might as well have done nothing at all. The main character can act purely evil, or completely good, and people will comment on it, but for the most part, it doesn’t change their overall reaction to the character. In fact, only at the end does the game diverge… and, really, the final dungeon is almost exactly the same, and the endings are different, but under five minutes long, so… yes, the differences are pointless.

Beside that, playing Dark Side often requires the MC to act like a jerk. Not a scheming mastermind, or a terrifying psychopath, but a selfish jerk. Half the time when a Dark Side option came up, my first thought was, “Well, I could be a douche and pick that option…” Seriously, those Dark Side options are a really naive take on what it means to be evil. To be fair, the Sith are stereotypical: “LOOK HOW EEEEVIL WE ARE!” They all but say that. With their red lightsabers, dark hooded cloaks, shaved heads, evil goatees, and sadistic love for killing people just because [em]it’s eeeeeeeeeeevil[/em]. Yes, you will hate the Sith, but you won’t want to be one. It’s like a club for insecure bullies. And, hey… you could be their club president…

The story (and again, there really is just one story) is a bit better. Darth Malak is one of the Sith, evil Jedi (like Medieval knights with magic… in the future with laser swords!). He is trying to conquer the galaxy. That part isn’t very original. But he has a mysterious means of producing his infinite war fleet, and it is investigating that where more of the plot comes from. That, and learning about your character’s destiny. Come to think of it, the plot twist might be the most memorable thing about the game: outside of that, the plot is mostly a standard “find and defeat the villains whom want to conquer the galaxy” deal. I cannot even say the villains are that interesting. All of them are painted the same shade of evil. It’s just a few of them get an extra coat.

Beside the Sith, the plot also revolves around the machinations of an ancient race of people whom existed before the Republic. This part of the plot does eventually get resolved, but it is unsatisfactorily dealt with. The game leaves a lot of mysteries behind, bringing up important matters, then brushing them under the carpet at the end.

At least the pacing is good. I will give it that. The game is relatively short, all things considered, and that works out in its favor. It gives the player a journey, which feels like a short tour of the Star Wars galaxy, and then gives them their final battle. The dungeons are really short, too.

The overall schemes of RPGs aren’t that impressive, usually. It is the mini-stories that have to pick up the slack. Most of the party members have side-quests that let the player get to know the characters better, feel for them, and to be honest, most of the party members are three-dimensional. Except T3-H4, an R2-D2 stand-in who just takes up space and hacks computers. It’s not as cool as you think. He doesn’t even speak. Unlike most characters whom speak in other languages, T3-H4’s dialogue is never translated.

Speaking of which, all of the dialogue in this game is voice-acted: a definite plus. Even cooler, there are a bunch of alien races that speak in their own tongues, which lends the game an air of authenticity.

The game is an excellent representation of the Star Wars universe, at least from what I know of it. I am not very familiar with the Expanded Universe, but there is a lot of opportunity to learn about the culture of various alien species, their worlds, and the different organizations running around. There are hints of more things, too; stories told by NPCs, or items that once belonged to legendary figures, so the game feels like a real universe.

How hard would it have been to have more songs? There are not many tracks in KotOR, or at least it did not feel like there were. The songs are good, and some are riffs on classic Star Wars tunes. But when the music playing after the final battle is one of the same tracks that has been playing constantly for the past 50 hours, it is underwhelming.

But how about the graphics? Pretty. Usually. At times, the views are breathtaking. And the alien races are so finely detailed that sometimes it is hard to believe graphics could get any better. To be fair, this is the most modern PC game I have ever played. Once I get into Mass Effect or Dragon Age, my opinion might change. But for now, I have to admire every little dent and scratch on HK-47.

Ironically, many of the areas are not very detailed. Pretty characters, bland environments. But at least they make good backdrops for the cinematography. Almost all of the scenes are done with in-game rendering, which helps maintain the realism. Plus, characters will be wearing the equipment they were wearing already if they were in your party. Combine that with some fantastic voice-acting, and the game really draws you in.

And now we come to the gameplay. As it often is with video games, this is the real feature that makes the game. There isn’t much strategy in battle: get into the rhythm of mashing the attack button and healing when need be. The weird thing is how fun this is: there are a lot of animations in combat. Swordsmen don’t just stab-stab-stab. They clash steel-on-steel, sparks flying, push each other back, kick their faces, flip in mid-air and bring the sword crashing down. A hit from Force Push literally throws an enemy back and off their feet. Droids explode violently, especially when struck with the Destroy Droid force power. When the party is strong, they can tear through hordes of enemies in seconds, leaving piles of corpses in their wake. The Force powers really are the best part: Force Jumping taking you across the screen in a single powerful jump, to land on the enemy and crush him with a powerful blow; force lightning ripping through enemies; I didn’t even get to see some of the powers.

Not that I don’t have my quibbles with the gameplay. It’s simple, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Yes, battles go fast, but… there is not much to praise about the strategy of matters. The bigger the gun, the quicker the battle goes. There is… one, yes, one battle in the entire game with any sort of strategy; the last battle. Where are the unexpected intrusions? The complicated objectives that require careful time management? It is fair to expect something more of a game where the player has complete control of their character’s movements, AND the ability to pause whenever they want, while also selecting from a dozen options in battle. Why isn’t more done with it?

Also, some of the other features are just weird. There is an option to return to a headquarters, so the party can be switched out and party members can heal. The party can then transit back to their previous location. Why not just make this part of the field? Just say the party can rest on the field and switch out party members there. A touch less realistic? Yes, sure, but having to transit back and forth between headquarters is frustrating.

Also, when entering the Ebon Hawk, the headquarters/ship that the party uses, the player always needs to run to the other side of the ship in order to travel to a new world. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that is the only reason the player will need to use the ship most of the time. Why not just have the character appear at the galaxy map when entering the ship?

Battles end quickly, but enemies don’t always immediately drop their items. Sometimes, I have to run away from the corpses and turn around to get the items to appear, or to be able to click on the remains. It’s frustrating.

Here is why the game is great: it is very engaging, especially for when it came out. Star Wars is a big, deeply developed galaxy, and this game reflects that. The script is not fantastic, but the performance and directing is amazing. It is easy to get sucked into the game, its little snapshots of a much bigger galaxy. It gives itself the weight of its own voluminous background without becoming pretentious. The game makes you feel like a Jedi, instead of just a guy running around with a light sword and using magic. You are visiting Tatooine, not the desert planet. That crystal was found on a Krayt Dragon, and that is why it makes the lightsaber so awesome. There isn’t anything generic about KotOR. Except the villains. One of the game’s weaknesses: although it is a classic struggle against evil, the evil just isn’t that deep. The villains are predictably one-dimensional. Beside that, there is the repetitive music, the somewhat bland environmental backgrounds, and the lack of strategy in an otherwise enjoyable combat system, plus a few other little nagging issues. Overall, a really good game for someone who likes to feel like they are a part of the game’s world, and the combat is enjoyable if rote, but don’t expect moral quandaries or a deep plot.

Next Game: Icewind Dale

What, never heard of Icewind Dale? I’m not surprised. I wasn’t even aware that it existed until I decided to do my Baldur’s Gate blog. I figure that the games were closely related enough that I should have at least put them on the poll when I put Baldur’s Gate up there. Since I might never have the chance to play them otherwise, I am going to give them a shot. But, to be honest, I’m not sure how good they will be. I’m somewhat excited about them, but not terribly. They haven’t generated nearly the same amount of hype as the Baldur’s Gate series, although the combat system is presumably better. The second game sounds significantly better than the first, so if I do not like the first one, I might jump straight over to the second. Even then, it sounds like both games ar ejust combat hacks. I am tempted to just play with all stats set to 18 for all my party members. Worst case scenario, I have Dragon Age to play after this.

The Site – It’s – It’s Different… Maybe.

Playing around with different CSS formats. Why? Well, it’s been almost a year since the blog first came up. I’ll post more about that soon. Anyway, I should have the new site appearance (if I do settle on changing it) settled soon.

Most likely, I am going to keep it the way it is. The other set-ups do not seem very interesting, and my command of CSS is not great enough that I can make an awesome customized layout.

Star Forge: Concentrated EEEEEEVIL! Plus, Endless Swarms of Troops

At last, the time came to destroy the Star Forge itself. The party, aided by some Jedi knights, infiltrated the Star Forge. Because of the small number of troops, they were able to bypass the blockade. Funny, I would have thought a small number of troops would just be that more easily annihilated. But here we are.

The first battle in the Star Forge is a bit funny. Some Dark Jedi come running in and the Jedi Knights already there say, “We will handle this!” But the MC’s group can kill the enemies easily anyway. Then Darth Malak sends hordes of assault droids after the party. Again, Destroy Droid gets rid of these easily. The real fun begins in the next section, where Darth Malak just pours out as many troops as possible: Dark Jedi and Sith Troopers in endless droves. Tearing through them was one of the most fun parts of the game. Past all of them is Bastila. Empowered by the Star Forge itself, she fights harder than ever before, in a one-on-one battle against the MC. I managed to beat her and convince her to come back over to the side of good.

By the way, I was hoping there would be some big revelatoin as to what exactly made Darth Malak and Darth Revan become evil. But there really isn’t. Apparently the Star Forge just concentrates the Dark Side of the Force. Ooh… how… silly. It concentrates the Dark Side? What does that even mean? How does it do that? Why does it do that? Because it is an engine of destruction? Then why don’t other huge engines of destruction do the same? Did the Death Star concentrate the Dark Side? If it is so powerful, why does it not just forcefully convert my entire party to the Dark Side? Or at least the Jedi Knights accompanying us?

After beating Bastila, the MC has to go it alone to encounter Malak. He has a couple Jedi Knights in his grip whom… I guess they somehow infiltrated this far? I don’t know, but he kills them, while the MC stands by and does nothing. Then he retreats and forces the MC to deal with some droids. Once that is done, it is time for the final battle.

Malak has a large group of Jedi Knights hooked up to machines that enable him to drain their life. Whenever he starts getting low on HP, he runs over to one of these machines to recharge himself. In one-on-one combat, he is pretty tough. The real problem here is that Malak is apparently immune to stun, presumably so he can recharge when need be. The problem? That means he is practically immune to the Scoundrel sneak attack, which means it was much harder for my character to injure him. But after using Destroy Droid to shut off his life-support, I managed to put him in his grave.

And thus the galaxy was saved.

And as for our heroes…

Well, we don’t really know. I mean, they escape, sure, and get rewarded, but the game does not resolve what happens to each of them. Huh. Kinda expected a little more. It seems like too short of an ending for such an interesting game.

Korriban: Evil Academy, Evil Tombs

Korriban is the site for the training academy for the Sith. Prospective students can come and try to become Dark Jedi. And in order to find the last Star Map, the MC needs to pretend to be evil. Unfortunately, screaming, “I’m DARTH REVAN!” doesn’t work. Tried it. But just saying, “Hi, I’m a Jedi. I want to be evil,” makes them let the MC in without any further questions.

I am not sure whether the designers were trying to paint a softer picture of the Dark Jedi, but if they were, they failed miserably. There are a few times when the Sith try to explain their philosophy as if it is not evil-evil-evil, but it never comes across as convincing. Especially when the philosophy teacher’s room is next door to the torture lab and the “killing people to see how people die in combat” room.

The head of the academy, and his lieutenant, both realize that the MC is powerful, and try to play her off against the other. I played both sides, which turned out nicely in the end. But first the MC has to convince them that she is evil enough to get to take the final test to become a Dark Jedi. Such deeds are either neutral in nature, or have a light side approach to them. There is a captive Mandalorian, whom the MC can help fake his death so he gets out, in exchange for some information. There are some caves where some rogue students are hiding, and the MC can let them go free. The three tombs are the best part: one of them is full of droids, and I had Destroy Droid by that point. I just tore through them like they were nothing. In another tomb, the party faces the previous head of the academy, whom has been driven mad. He asks a bunch of questions to determine the MC’s true potential as one of the Sith: answer right, and another captive gets injured; answer wrong, get injured herself. I answered wrong every time, and then fought a hard battle against him. Finally, a Sith Ghost haunts the last tomb. After solving a riddle, I actually talked him into accepting the Light Side. It was touching, really, to see the twisted, haunted effigy finally accept peace.

After doing enough tasks, they take the MC to the tomb of Naga Sadow, which sounds like a 12-year-old’s name for a villain, and tell her it is time to pass the final test. Apparently Naga Sadow liked to lace his tomb with traps and puzzles because… I guess he did not mind it if a clever thief stole his things. The hardest part of this dungeon is that it must be done solo, and at one point, two huge monsters must be fought simultaneously. After the battle, I noticed a lever in the room. It might have been useful in the fight, but I never got to find out.

At the end, I got to reveal my triple-cross to both of them, and kill them simultaneously. A delightfully easy fight. And with the last Star Map revealed, it was time to finally go find the Star Forge.

The Leviathan: Big Ship, Things Die, and WTF PLOT TWIST!

I was not really clear on how the party ended up on the Leviathan. My best guess is that Admiral Saul just accidentally happened on the group and used a tractor beam to pull them in. The party had to select one member to rescue the rest. I chose Canderous Ordo, since I never used the Mandalorian much, but I really like the guy. So, he faked an explosion that severely wounded him, and pretended to be dying. When he was taken to the medical bay, his Mandalorian healing kicked in and it was time to kill things. Controlling Ordo, I ran through the prison ward, beating up groups of enemies with just Ordo’s fists, until finally finding a sword in a crate. Seriously, many enemies here have both guns and swords, but he cannot pick up any of those things. Why not?

Eventually Ordo rescued the rest of the group, and the party split up. Everyone except Bastila, Carth Onasi, and the MC, head to the Ebon Hawk. The res tare going to confront the Admiral and ensure that the ship can get out. What follows is another slaughterfest, as the party has to fight past an incredible number of droids, Sith troops, and Dark Jedi. My favorite part was activating the experimental assault droid, then letting it go to work. It cleared several rooms by itself. And there is so much loot in this part of the dungeon. The last battle here is not too hard, actually. But the revelation, ah… this is when I was certain of the truth. Admiral Saul reveals something to Carth, whom gets really freaked out about it. Yes, although they do not actually state it for another five minutes, the truth is that the MC is Darth Revan, just mind-wiped.

There are a few things that I find weird about this: for one, this implies that Revan was very young, remembering that the events in which she participated took place at least three years ago. The MC does not look like she is out of her 20s. Being so young, it seems incredible that Revan could have had that level of tactical genius. Also, apparently Revan never removed her armor or mask, which I find peculiar. Then there is Jolee, whom knew the truth, but never came out with it. Plus, I was playing a scoundrel. Would the council really rewrite Darth Revan’s memory as a scoundrel, someone whom might be inclined toward the Dark Side? Also, I find it kind of weird that they did not just retrain Darth Revan as a Jedi from the start. Instead, it seems they tried to have her originally live out life as a normal person, just supervised. It all just seems a bit too convenient, which is why I dismissed it over the idea that Revan was actually just possessing the MC.

Anyway, Malak shows up and confronts the group as they race toward the Ebon Hawk. And… I gotta say, it is hard to take this guy seriously: I mean, he’s wearing thermal underwear and his forehead looks like half of a badly-painted watermelon. He is also the cheesiest kind of villain: “BWAHAHA! EMBRACE THE DARK SIDE! EEEEEEEEVIL!” About the only time he is actually scary is the one scene in which he is seen without his jaw plate… ugh… I nearly could not eat dinner after seeing that.

The intimidation factor is also lost because the party actually fights Darth Malak here. In fact, the MC has to beat him in solo combat. And he runs away several times. But, because of the power of plot device, he is able to force the party to retreat, and Bastila decides to hold him off by herself. The rest of the group escapes to find the final star map. It is time to visit the sith training grounds.