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Vintage Gaming – Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Yes, another Koei game, actually I will cover the whole series of games, at least the ones I’ve played.  Romance of the Three Kingdoms games are at their core turn based strategy games centered around the eponymous timeframe in Chinese history.  You’ll remember that from my talk about Destiny of an Emperor.  There have been eleven games in this series (though not all made it to the states I believe), on platforms ranging from the NES, PC, Amiga on up to the Wii.  At their core, the games are basically the same:  you are building up your territory both economically and militarily, gather troops and generals to your banner, and waging war against your enemies.

I played I on my NES, but my favorite versions were IV and X.  IV, playable on SNES and PC (win 3.1!) was a great example of what the earlier games were like.  You had to improve your territories by repairing dams, improving farms for food, and had to balance increasing the size of your army with not stifling population growth.  Battles could take several forms, with field battles (where your advisor could set traps of pitfalls or bales of hay to set fire to), duels (where a powerful general could take out an enemy army in one fell swoop) and gate battles where enemies could try and bash your gate in and take the city.  That was another thing you had to build up and improve.  While not for everyone, the strategy was deep and satisfying for me, trying to find the right balance of domestic and militaristic improvement.

ROTK X, played on my PS2, was at it’s core the same style of game, with one big difference – it was played ONLY from the perspective of one single general, who could be the ruler of a territory, a vassal of another ruler, or just a masterless warrior wandering across China.  As an example, I played as Zhao Yun, one of the Five Tiger Generals of Liu Bei but at the beginning of the earlier scenarios, a free general.  You can improve your standing in the world by taking tasks to improve whatever city you are in, in the hopes of being recruited by one of the rulers.  I eventually caught on with Liu Bei, and at that point you get your tasks from your ruler.  You are still being tasked to improve various holdings or train troops, with the added benefit of getting to fight in the great wars.  I did well, and was left in charge of a city of my own.  As you advance like that, you get more and more freedom to act.  I eventually conquered all of China for Liu Bei, with he and some other generals gaining a few territories without me, but then Liu Bei died, leaving his son in charge.  Liu Shan, being distrustful of how much power I had, banished me, though part of the empire rebelled and came with me.  It’s a very realistic event for the time period, and played out very cool.

There is zero appeal here to folks who prefer games like Dynasty Warriors, but if you like strategy games, or city-building games, check it out. ROTX X via Amazon has a few used copies, otherwise check your local used game store.

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On Sequels

Reading some of the reviews and discussions out there on Dragon Age 2 got me to thinking – Did Bioware do a disservice to themselves by declaring this game a sequel?  They call it a sequel on the game’s official site, and they put a ‘2’ after it, but it may have damaged the perception of the game a bit to do so.  Even the CNN review says it “isn’t exactly a sequel” and I agree with them.  A sequel, to use the wiki definition as an example, is:

a narrative, documental, or other work of literature, film, theatre, or music that continues the story of or expands upon issues presented in some previous work. In the common context of a narrative work of fiction, a sequel portrays events set in the same fictional universe as a previous work, usually chronologically following the events of that work.

Let’s examine DA2 in this context.  It *is* in the same fictional universe, though DA2 starts during DA:O, not after.  You’ve got a bit of character overlap but not much, but the most important character from Origins is not directly present, the Warden.  The new game is set in the same world, but all new locations.  The DA2 story has some elements you came up against in the first game, which I won’t spoil, but still, to me, doesn’t seem like all this adds up to clearcut sequel status.  It became clearest to me when someone mentioned Baldur’s Gate:  Dark Alliance, a game my wife and I very much enjoyed, but played quite a bit different from other BG games.  DA2 doesn’t stray THAT far away, but it did move.

That isn’t a bad thing, though.  The problem is not with the game, but how it was sold to the consumer.  When I hear ‘sequel’, I’m thinking of games like Diablo 2, Warcraft 2 and the like.  Games that are bigger/better/MORE of what came before.  Yes, there are new features, graphical upgrades, but you see the progression.  You don’t see that so much with DA2.  There’s enough things that are different (some would say downgraded) and enough gameplay has changed that it really feels more like a spinoff than a true sequel.  Instead of slapping a ‘2’ after the name and calling it a day, Bioware should’ve titled it something like “Dragon Age:  The Champion of Kirkwall” while simultaneously announcing development of a true sequel 2-3 years down the road, closer to the Elder Scrolls dev cycle.  Those playing the Kirkwall game wouldn’t necessarily be expecting ‘more of the same’ as DA:O, and a real high fantasy epic world-spanning adventure ‘true sequel’ would still be very welcome.  Everyone is happy, and we can be done with the whiners complaining about not having all the origin stories in the game NOT named Origins.

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Dragon Age 2 Demo Impressions

I played through one full run of the DA2 Demo (male rogue), and to be honest, it’s got me a little worried.  The visuals are definitely different, probably better, but with the way combat jumps around so much it feels more like an older MMO.  The powers recharge quickly, the action more frenetic (yes, I know you can still pause it), and I never got the sense of what was happening to my characters at a glance.  Maybe the interface is TOO sparse, the details too hidden for my tastes.  The conversation wheel is fine, probably a change for the good, as it allows the hero to talk and emote.  I didn’t like Hawke’s family that much,

I definitely want to give the full game a try, as the story could save it easily, and I may just need time to adjust to the new style of play.  Still, I am tempering my expectations just a bit.

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Future Games I Want

  • Dragon Age 2. Still gotta try the demo, but really, I’m all over it.  (have it now, see my reviews)
  • The Elder Scrolls:  Skyrim.  My favorite characters in Morrowind and Oblivion were both Nords.  Looks really, really cool.
  • Portal 2.  Please assume the party escort submission position.
  • Batman:  Arkham City.  Sweet trailer, sounds like a ton of improvements to a game I already enjoyed.  YES.

More as I think of them, and put your suggestions in the comments.  I love RPGs most of all, but RTS, FPS, Sim and adventure games are all welcome.  I have a DS, Xbox360, and a gaming PC.

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Old Game Tuesday – Uncharted Waters

This might be surprising, considering how much I love most other Sid Meier games, but I never got around to the original Pirates! game.  I was deep into war games and looking at it, it just didn’t interest me.  Another thing I found to be cool were Samurai (and by extension, ancient Japan), which led me to Koei’s games, such as Nobunga’s Ambition and Genghis Khan.  Young me enjoyed them, even though I didn’t have the tactical and resource-managing skills yet to do well.

All of which led me to Uncharted Waters.  I always rented whatever Koei games came out, mostly because I couldn’t afford to purchase too many games.  This one looked cool enough inthe store to buy outright, and it was a great choice.  The story goes like this:  you are the son of a Portuguese explorer whose family is going through tough times.  You have one tiny ship and some goods to sell, and you have to build up your fleet from there.  Once you get going, there’s a bunch of different ways to advance – trading goods (with an economic model that changes the prices based on how much bought and sold in certain ports), privateering (for any of the three nations represented), exploration (people will ask you to search for things) and of course, piracy.  There is a plot, advanced by doing the odd jobs that merchants ask you to do, which you hear about in the bars.  Once you gather mates to your side, you can add ships to your fleet, up to 5 in total.  Your sailing and combat skills (for you and the mates) improve with use, and there are quite a few options for customizing ships.  You can begin with bare hulls, pick the type of wood, how many cannons and crew berthing spaces, and so on.  You can specialize ships for trading/exploring by cutting back on crew and guns, but that leaves you vulnerable to pirates.  Conversely, go too far the other way and you can dominate any fight, but not actually be able to carry your captured booty.

The nice thing about Uncharted Waters was the openness.  There’s a storyline to follow, but if you’d rather wander around blowing up Spaniards, exploring the whole world, and make crazy money, you can do that no problem.  Oh, and I forgot romancing a princess.  The game is widely available via emulation, for NES, SNES and Genesis, as well as a PC version (which I’ve never tried).  The NES version is what I had, and I actually prefer that (despite the lackluster graphics compared to the SNES) because the SNES version added random people walking around the towns who serve no purpose but to get in your way.

These games were even more popular in Japan, with multiple sequels and even an MMO game (which they keep saying will end up here,  and at least had been in closed beta testing at one point).  I’ve played the sequel a little but never got to deep into it.  Let me know if you’ve tried Uncharted Waters and if so, what you think!

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Dragon Age: Origins, Awakening, and the DLCs

I don’t think I ever officially review DA:O in this space (but I love it), but I thought that now that all the DLCs are out and the game is basically done, I’d take another look at the ‘story based’ addons.  SPOILERS ABOUND.

First, in case you can’t tell, I love the game.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t be still playing and talking about it.  The story is deep, and some of the moral choices made me think.  I enjoyed many of the characters, and a single player game is a nice change of pace from trying various MMOs and being continually disappointed.  Here are some quick-hit thoughts on the game, the expansion, and the DLCs:




My First Warden. Destruction, personified.

For Origins itself: Good story, like the characters and the interplay between them, though the darkspawn as an enemy are not too exciting.  Some pretty tough fights, difficult choices and cool gear (sorry, that’s the Diablo player in me talking).  The Origin story aspect is really what I love, though.  It really can work to make each play-through different, where you meet someone again and now they take on a whole new importance.  Very few RPGs compel me to play through over and over, but this one is (on the third go-round now).

Awakening: Excellent.  Talking darkspawn are much more interesting, the Mother is gross, the new companions are quite interesting to me for the most part, especially Nathaniel Howe (again, moreso if you’ve played the Human Noble origin).  I kind of wished this module could’ve made notice of Soldier’s Peak somehow, as it did seem odd to have gone to all that trouble to reclaim it for the Wardens, only to ignore it when it might still be needed.  Would’ve loved to be able to bring a different companion over (though Oghren is cool enough) but I understand the voice acting limitations there.  Cost too much when it came out, but has quite a lot of content, to me at any rate.

Warden’s Keep: So-so for me, it does tell a bit of story you may have been wondering about:  Why were the Wardens expelled from Ferelden?

The Stone Prisoner: Little sidequest set to get you a new companion, Shale.  One of the Golems made by the Dwarves, the module adds a bit of fun to the whole game as Shale is a funny companion to have around, and unique to go into combat with.

Return to Ostagar: The gear you reclaim here had been passed by, stats-wise, by the time this DLC finally came out, but I wager it will fit in better within the course of the regular game.  For Duncan and King Cailan!

Darkspawn Chronicles: Just not interested in it.  Not well reviewed, and I like my Warden, thanks.

Leilana’s Song: A favorite of mine, but then Leilana was my love interest in my first play-through.  You play as Leilana as she helps her mentor/lover bring the Orlesian game of intrigue and assassination to Ferelden.  If you ever wanted to know her story, here it is.  Also seems pretty hard to me, though it may just be the fact that it’s lower level stuff than Awakening.  Not really very replayable, though there are different choices you can make for different endings.

Golems of Amgarrak: A return to the Deep Roads for your Warden (though sans your other companions), as you search answers about a group of Dwarves trying to recreate Caridin’s work in Golem creation.  The final critter you fight is supposed to be the toughest battle in any part of the game, though I am not there yet.  Fun, tough, but again, I miss my companions.

Witch Hunt: Hinted at during the Origins campaign, it was finally released just recently:  the story of what the heck happened to Morrigan after the Blight was ended.  Except that it more hints and some of those answers, which bothered some folks mightily.  I loved it, and not only because you get your dog back right smack-dab at the beginning!  I am easy to please.

Well, that’s about all of it.  I’m not going over all the little piddly DLCs (like the Feastday pranks or whatever).  Any other thoughts on Dragon Age out there?

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Seeing Art

If you are like me, and you read Roger Ebert’s excellent Twitter feed and blog, you know he sometimes gets on a subject and won’t let go.  Recently, one such topic has been how video games can’t be art.  Now, video games are pretty close to my heart (as close as movies are to Mr. Ebert’s), and I have felt compelled at times to defend games, but have never posted.  Many others did so so eloquently, and Ebert seemed stuck in his ways, it seemed fairly useless.  Still, after yet good-natured snipe, I had to get this on record:  Video Games Are Art.

I mean, there are some great stories – great stories are art.  In modern games especially, there are beautiful images – images can be art.  I have certainly been moved by games, perhaps not to the same extent as a really outstanding book, but there are levels to everything.  I probably rank games  above most picture art, as far as that goes, but it’s different for everyone.

My favorite ‘video game as art’ example is Half-Life.  Now, I don’t enjoy horror movies, typically.  But the beginning of HL plays out like a horror movie, that is actually supremely enjoyable to me.  It produced real tension, as I crept through the ruined Black Mesa facility.  Doors bursting open, me wildly swinging the crow bar until the headcrab zombie was dead, then laughing and shaking my head at my own reaction.  That’s art, to me.

What causes the outcry about stuff like this is the fact that we gamers are a prickly bunch.  We get derided as childish, lazy, violent-offenders-in-waiting who play killing simulators and brain-numbing MMOs.  So we are touchy when a major media outlet of any kind takes a shot at us.  Even when it’s one we generally like (despite a favorable review for Star Wars: Episode 1).

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Final Fantasy Turns 20

One of my favorite game series, Final Fantasy, just turned 20. 1up has several features on it this week, but I’m pressed for time so hit up this /. article for all the links.