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Archive for the category “Gaming”

Game Review–Total War: Rome II


Total War: Rome II is the very first computer game I’ve ever pre-ordered. I’ve been stoked about the game ever since Creative Assembly first announced they were working on it a couple years ago (the tingly feelings I got from watching game-play and development videos over the past ten months could almost qualify said videos as pornography). I’ve been a frequenter of the Total War series since the original Rome: Total War, and followed it from there to Medieval II: Total War, Empire: Total War, Napoleon: Total Warand Total War: Shogun II. Each Total War title that I’ve played has been an amazing, well-put-together game that I would recommend to anyone interested in computer war-gaming. Thankfully, Rome II is no exception.

scrumMy initial assumption about Rome II was that it would be Rome I with better graphics, new campaign and battle features, and naval combat (which would have made for a bitchin’ game, don’t get me wrong). It’s not, however, and I’m still weighing the pros and cons of this development. Rome I and it’s successor, Medieval II were straightforward war games on both the battlefield and campaign maps. While it helped to have a solid grasp of ancient and medieval warfare as well as combat and tactics, players could still get away with simple, cussed brute force. The campaign map was similarly simple: if one city had a food shortage, build them a better irrigation system, if your citizens were grumpy, build a theater.

Rome II, however, really went out of their way to improve not only the realism, but the combat strategy as well. The most noticeable difference in the battle maps is that terrain is a much higher factor all around. Whereas in previous games, combat units could hide in the woods or in the brush only when stationary, in TWR2 an important part of the strategy is to use woods, hills, buildings, and other blind spots as cover for laying ambushes or moving troops around covertly. Plus, the enemy AI does a decent job of using terrain to its advantage, causing players to have to send scouts over the next hill and watch their flanks at all times. It really is a game of move and counter-move that kept me on my toes better than any Total War game before it. My copy of Sun Tzu came in handy frequently.

2013-09-04_00008I learned fairly quickly that city planning and campaign management in Rome II requires more research and evaluation than previous Total War titles. Where in Rome I, players could pretty well build whatever they could afford in terms of facilities in their towns and cities (and I seldom had trouble with money in the game), in II each city has a limited number of ‘slots’ for different types of buildings. Thankfully, these facilities effect other cities the player controls throughout the province. Thus if Rome has an Auxiliary Barracks and a Temple of Jupiter, all of the troops trained in the Italia province receive the bonuses from the Barracks, while the other cities receive the same bonuses from the temple. But there’s a balance to be had: some facilities come with penalties to food production or citizen happiness throughout the province. Thus additional food production and happiness must be attained via additional facility construction.

One feature that continues to trouble me is that armies must be built around a general and fleets must be built around an admiral, but factions are limited in their number of generals and admirals based on the number of territories they control. While having small numbers of large armies was fairly accurate for how the Hellenic, African, and early Roman Republic militaries were organized, it doesn’t at all reflect how the barbarian tribes were organized, nor indeed the later Republic and Empire. Barbarians typically used large numbers of small raiding parties to confound their enemies—thus the Romans had to supplement their Legions with small bands of auxiliary troops to counter this problem. Too, in past games, I got used to building reinforcement columns to send to relieve my frontier armies, which I can’t do as effectively now. While I’ve gotten used to adjusting for this oversight, it’s an adjustment I don’t really feel like I should have to make, from a logistical standpoint.

crashMy favorite feature, and the one I’ve been most stoked about since I heard it announced, is the addition of naval combat units. Admittedly, however, this took a while to get used to compared to the ground tactics. The analogy I use to contrast the ground versus water combat is a football game versus a basketball or soccer game. Like in a football game, much of the planing for the ground battles—things like picking terrain and battle formation—are decided before the lines smash into each other. Taking and holding ground are key parts of the battle. Circumstances in water combat, however, are more fluid, if you’ll forgive the pun. Like basketball or soccer players, ships have to be constantly moving around and vying for position or risk becoming sitting ducks. It was a tricky dynamic to get used to and one I’m still trying to master.

I find it awesome as well that the game allows land and sea battles to occur on the same battlefield. Shipboard marines can reinforce land armies by beaching their ships and joining the fray, while shore-based artillery can give fire support to their navies. Cites can be stormed by fleet troops in D-Day-like scenarios, where soldiers storm the beach and walls while under fire from defenders.

beachIn terms of historical accuracy, it’s not the best I’ve seen, but it’s more authentic than the original. I played the Europa Barbarorum total-conversion mod for the first Rome: Total War for a while, and I feel like Creative Assembly payed close attention to it and mods like it for going out of their way to capture a more authentic feel to the game. I like that they used traditional Greek hoplites and other heavy infantry for the Hellenic factions, rather than just giving them all generic pike-men with Greek or Macedonian helmets. While each Hellenic faction gets pike phalanxes—as was the standard way to fight following Alexander’s popularization of the tactic—they also have a wider range of spear, sword, and skirmisher infantry. I appreciate, too, that independent territories are no longer just static conquest fodder for playable factions: each counts as it’s own minor faction, representing a city-state or barbarian tribe. Thus players have to balance out wars, trade, and alliances with each minor faction independently in their rise to empire.

pikesThere were a few minor issues, historically, that bugged me. Firstly, two very important cities were left off the campaign map: Corinth and Byzantium. Corinth was quite clearly sacrificed because the Peloponnesian Peninsula only had room for one city, and the fans of 300 would have thrown a crying, swearing hissy-fit and boycotted the game had CA not included Sparta. (Despite that Corinth was the most powerful independent city-state in Greece and the final obstacle in Rome’s conquest of Hellas, while Sparta hadn’t been politically or militarily significant for almost 150 years.) Byzantium’s absence still baffles me, considering it was eventually the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire. Secondly, one graphics feature CA has been guilty of that I’d really hoped they’d do away with is color-coordination for individual factions. Not even the Romans color-coordinated their uniforms, yet all of the units’ outfits in all of the factions in Rome I, Medieval II, and Shogun II have identical colors in their soldiers’ uniforms. Considering that the units have tags over their heads in each of these games for players to click on to select the unit, I don’t feel like a uniform color coordination is necessary and I was rather hoping CA would do away with it for Rome II. While on the whole the coloration doesn’t bother me as much as it did in previous games, I can’t bring myself to play the Suebii, a German faction, because they all wear purple and gold.

ughAs far as the technical details go, the graphics are impressive, even though my mediocre graphics card doesn’t handle the higher settings. I like that you can minimize the interface on the battle maps, offering a more cinematic experience than in the early Total War games. The interface on the campaign map is fairly streamlined as well, which is nice. I’ve not tried the online campaign or battles, so I can’t really comment on those (but part of the reason I game is so I don’t have to deal with people).

So, am I going to forsake the previous Total War titles and only play Rome II from now on? Honestly, probably not. Rome I and Medieval II in particular offered a straightforwardness in their campaigns and battles that none of the other titles really achieved. Yes, it helped to have solid understanding of direct and indirect battle tactics as well as economics and logistics, etc in order to be effective in battle, on campaign, or on the throne, but they weren’t as necessary in those earlier games. When I wanted to, I could shut down that part of my thought process and just enjoy stomping Carthage into the dust or chasing the Germans back across the Rhine. I could take my hands off the keyboard in the middle of battle, zoom in close and just watch the Gaul battle lines collapse before Caesar’s legions. I can’t do that in Rome II because I’m too busy maneuvering my units around and watching the nearby forests and hills for ambushes. This doesn’t make either game in any way inferior to the other, play-wise, each just offers a different fix. When I want to think more, I play Rome II, when I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around, I play Rome I or Medieval II.

phalanx(All screen captures taken directly from game play.)


Sartorially Smart Heroines


Source: Deviant Artist LuckyFK

I’m a big fan of smartly-dressed heroines. Of these, there are far too few in fantasy-adventure stories. Like the unfortunate elf maiden above, there are far too many women characters in fantasy stories who wear armor and apparel that would get them killed under most combat circumstances. Too many Amazon warriors in chain-mail bikinis and elf sorceresses in lingerie-ish robes of +3 sexiness. Video and computer game makers are especially guilty of this, choosing to market their product to the pocket-mining demographic so common among gamers. And it’s hard to fault their marketing overmuch—boobs make money. But, realistically, armor that covers as much as the average bikini won’t keep the busty Amazon’s insides inside, nor will the sorceress’s frilly robes hold up for the average forest trek or dungeon crawl. And, believe it or not, there are some of us who prefer realism in our fantasy.

This isn’t to say that the armor and apparel has to be historically accurate. Just because a story is a “medieval fantasy” doesn’t place it under any obligation to be historically faithful to the Middle Ages. If it’s a period piece, that’s different: I hope the writers, filmmakers, game makers, etc do what they can to make the piece as historically accurate as they know how. But a medieval fantasy story should be able to include whatever adventuring apparel it wants so long as its (a) thematically appropriate for the genre, (b) protects what needs protecting, and (c) suits the character’s quest/mission/role.

Do I have criteria for what is acceptable versus unacceptable? Not really. Every adventuress’s situation is different depending on her mission, environment, fantasy world, type of enemy, and fantasy genre. The lady knight is going to choose a different armor depending on if she’s leading men-at-arms or scouting for brigands. The steampunk sniper will want different camouflage whether she’s hiding in the city, desert, forest, or mountains. And the intergalactic huntress will need a different type of armor for combating rail-gun-toting battle droids than she will for giant beetles that bleed acid. I rather doubt that any of these ladies will journey out clad in beachwear or formal, evening attire.

Here are examples of fantasy adventuring apparel that I find very effective:

LotRO Ladies

Lord of the Rings Online ladies. Left to right: Captain, Hunter, Champion, Burglar. Screenshots taken from game play.

One of the big shout outs I’ll give to Lord of the Rings Online is that it does a very good job of keeping the Heroes and Heroines of Eriador well protected. The costuming is more customizable than any action RPG I’ve encountered, but other than the occasional noble’s dress or elvish gown, all of the attire is appropriate for the standard adventuress in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The dwarven plate mail is somewhat bulky (Champion) and the elf armor in general borders on overly ornate (Burglar), but I feel like in both cases the armor is protective as well as practical for any character who expects to be in the thick of the action.

I see this as a direct contrast to games like World of Warcraft where high-level shoulder armor is the size of Volkswagens, or Rift where the fronts of some of the armor are open almost to the poor girl’s bush. Whether it’s ridiculously massive or ridiculously sexualized armor, I tend to be leery of games, comics, etc that typically feature women warriors in impractical armor. Sadly, as medieval fantasy-adventure goes, few games are consistent as far as protectiveness in women’s armor. Dragon Age and Neverwinter Nights are generally okay, outfit-wise, but ones like the Guild Wars and Elder Scrolls games are fairly hit-and-miss.

Another form of impractical armor that is being smacked down more and more often of late is boob-plate. And with good reason. Sculpted cleavage essentially functions as a wedge positioned next to the warrior’s sternum, and thus receives most of the force of any blow she takes to the chest. It wasn’t something that I paid close attention to until recently, but after reading a couple articles on the structural problems with sculpted women’s breastplates, it’s hard for me to not take this into consideration.

Of course, not all adventuring apparel is armor. (I mean, if you think about it, the only use for armor is protection from physical attacks. It doesn’t protect from the heat or the cold, it’s often heavy and cumbersome, and typically a bitch to try to sleep in.) Adventuresses such as pirates, sorceresses, scouts, and rogues often adventure without armor and manage to get the job done. The important part is that these outfits fit the character’s particular role.

And none of this is to say that women characters can’t end up in a fight wearing less-than-practical attire. Sometimes adventure catches heroines unprepared and they have to save the world in their street clothes, evening gown, or bathrobe. Sometimes enemy insurgents start a riot during a parade and the Lady General must help quell it in her officer’s cuirass with the sculpted breastplate. Or the healer gets abducted in her sleep and has to break out of the enemy dungeon in her nighty. Or orcs attack the town while the Paladin is in her bath and she’s forced to battle the unwashed hordes wearing a towel. I mean, armor and many other types of adventuring apparel take time to don and sometimes even the most prepared heroines don’t get the chance to prep their battledress, so I don’t think this is impossible to realistically portray in a story. But I feel like in most scenarios when a competent woman fighter is prepping for the coming adventure, her clothing and travel attire will be the first thing she considers before stepping out her door. To assume otherwise is kind of insulting to competent heroines everywhere.

I’ll leave off with one of my favorite cartoons on the topic:

There are so many thing wrong with that outfit...

By Grace Vibbert (Milesent) for SCA.

Quick examples of smartly-dressed heroines in webcomics (in my opinion, anyway):

Also, here’s a quick list great articles, image galleries, and blog posts I found on the topic:

Fan Art: Sluggy Freelance

I’ve been reading the webcomic Sluggy Freelance by Pete Abrams since around April of 2010. I saw my brother reading it off and on when he was home from college and he told me a bit about the story and characters. I finally got curious enough to check it out for myself. For those not familiar with Sluggy, it’s a daily comic that’s been running since August of 1997—do the math, that’s a lot of friggin’ comics to wade through. My recommendation for those who want to check Sluggy out but aren’t sure they want to read the entire archive: click the archive drop-down menu beneath the comic, go to “Comics not yet in books,” and select the chapter titled “bROKEN” as your starting point. This particular storyline is kind of the main lead-in to the current story. One of the nice features of the Sluggy website is that Pete thoughtfully provides hotlinks whenever he references past comics in his current story. Thus if something doesn’t make sense to a new reader (or to a current reader who’s forgotten), they can link directly back to the pertinent comic instead of having to hunt through the archive. (I wrote up a blurb for Sluggy Freelance in a previous post about some of my favorite web comics. It can be found here.)

In the spirit of webcomic artists who like to draw their characters dressed as other characters, I decided to draw the six main characters from Sluggy Freelance as the Light Warriors from Final Fantasy I. Shortly after I joined the message boards at Sluggy, someone put a call out for fan art. And so I posted my original drawing, with the intent of drawing other pictures along the same theme.

Sluggy Warriors

Final Fantasy’s Light Warriors, Sluggy-style!

I originally drew this for Halloween in 2011. I don’t recall precisely what inspired me to draw them as the Light Warriors, but it seemed fitting for some reason. Left to right: Sam as Thief; Kiki as herself; Zoe as Black Belt; Torg as Fighter; Bun-Bun as himself; Riff as Red Mage; Sasha as White Mage; and Gwynn as Black Mage. Some elements from the drawing I’m happy with, other elements less so. I’m particularly happy with how Torg and Zoe turned out (despite that Zoe looks a lot buffer than she does in the comic). I’m not so happy with Sam and Sasha’s faces–in fact, I’m not sure everyone can immediately tell that’s Sasha.

Gwynn as the Black Mage

I was going to make a “Black Magic Woman” reference, but I think Pete did that in the comic when Gwynn got possessed by a demon and tried to murder her friends.

This technically was the second image I drew for this theme. I originally used it as part of the coloring book I drew for my cousin/godson, Paul. It made most sense to make Gwynn the Black Mage since she gains magic powers after being possessed by the demon K’Z’K. They aren’t something she uses often, as she seems to be somewhat afraid of them. I find Gwynn also fits this this role aesthetically as her coke-bottle glasses can be made to look like the Black Mage’s glowing eyes.

Shasha as the White Mage

The classic White Mage typically wields a mallet or a mage’s staff. Leave it to Sasha to carry both, just in case.

Here is my revisitation of Sasha as the White Mage. Unlike the picture I drew of Gwynn, I made sure to include a couple references from the comic in this one. I threw Kiki in for good measure, with a funnel on her head because it just seems like the kind of thing she’d wear on her head like a party hat. There is just something infinitely huggable about Sasha, in contrast to Zoe’s intimacy issues or Gwynn’s prickliness. (The stuffed animals and the pool floaty are a reference to one of my favorite story arcs, which begins here.)

Riff as the Red Mage

Chances are he’s screaming underneath that mask.

It just somehow made most sense to cast Riff as the Red Mage, as we have a caster who can also wear armor and fight. A battlemage, if you will. Originally I’d intended to have Riff casting a spell of some kind as he ran, but I just couldn’t make the spell look convincing. Instead I opted to have him running with the Water Orb (one of the key mcguffins from the original Final Fantasy). The armored boots and bracers seemed to fit Riff’s personality, and I added a chain-mail shirt because the Red Mage can wear chain armor and chain mail is a fun texture to draw. (Just ask any Prince Valiant artist.) I’m also quite happy with how the pommel of his sword looks, but less so with the scabbard.

Sam the Man as the Thief

Neither Sam nor Bun-Bun seems overly impressed by the Rat’s Tail as a quest item…

I think one of the things that bugged me about my original Sam drawing was the lack of coat. Sam’s long coat is almost as customary as Riff’s, and I think drawing him without was a mistake. I cast Sam as the thief solely because the they both have pointy ears. For no apparent reason, I opted to give Bun-Bun a helmet. The only requirement was that it had to have an open face. The Roman centurion helm was the first look I tried, and I liked it well enough that I decided to roll with it.

Zoe and Torg as the Black Belt and the Fighter

An action shot of Torg and Zoe, with Zoe vaulting over Torg’s head as she leaps into battle.

All along I’ve intended to put Torg and Zoe together for theirs. It just took me a long time to decide on a pose for them. I considered pictures of Torg standing behind Zoe and of Zoe standing behind Torg. I considered drawing them standing back to back. I considered a number of action poses, finally deciding on this one of Zoe vaulting over Torg’s head as she leaps into battle. Torg’s action pose comes directly from a Captain America comic I’ve had for years. The battle axe is a Norse design, to reflect Torg’s viking heritage. Zoe’s pose is from a picture I found of the thief gal from Trine. I like Zoe’s outfit much better in this than in the original cast drawing above.

At any rate, there was some talk on the discussion forums about Pete using some of our fan art as filler, but I haven’t heard anything back about it. As far as fan art goes, I also drew and submitted a piece for Amya Chronicles, another of my favorite comics. I heard back from Savvy, the comic’s writer, and she wants to use it for filler art here in the next few months, so I’m kind of stoked about it. I feel it’s only courteous to wait until Savvy posts it before posting it here, though.

Role-Playing as Girls

MMORPG: Many Men Online Role-Playing as Girls.

Pirate Queen

“Pistol-packin’ mama, won’t you put that pistol down?”

I’ll admit, I’m one of those guys. One of those dorky guys who builds and plays female characters in various video and computer role-playing games. This isn’t to say that all of my characters are ladies, but a good percentage are. Four out of my seven Lord of the Rings Online characters are women. Three of five of my Guild Wars 2 characters are. About half of my Knights of the Old Republic 1 & 2 characters are. Admittedly, most of my Neverwinter Nights 2 characters are ladies. (In my defense, do you have any idea how hard it is to make male characters that aren’t stupid looking in NWN2 without them all looking alike? With the exception of the dwarves, it just isn’t worth the effort.) I’d have to look, but I’d guess that my ratios for Dragon Age: OriginsNeverwinter Nights 1Titan’s Quest, and other games are similar to LotRO or GW2.

Lady Highwayman

“Many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade. Many a soldier shed his life’s blood on my blade.”

Guys like me take a lot of shit for our willingness to roll and play fem characters. The fact that so many of these games are willing to pander to the pocket-mining demographic by designing impractically revealing women’s armor and allowing players to strip their characters down to their underwear really only gives these critics more ammunition. (One big shout-out I’ll give to both Neverwinter Nights 2 and Lord of the Rings Online is that neither does this. Unequipped characters wear conservative under-tunics and none of the armor features exposed midriffs or cleavage.) I seriously hate this kind of cheesecakey pandering. Not that I lack interest in cleavage, I just find it kind of insulting that they’d think any reasonably competent warrior woman would want gaps in her armor just above her heart and entrails. (I’ll probably discuss this pet peeve further in a future post.)

Drow Warrior

“Such a coaxing elf, I’d to pinch myself to make sure I was standing there!”

I guess the most obvious reason I tend to build and play lady characters is aesthetics: I just find women more interesting to look at than men. After all, most of these games are third-person POV, and I’d much rather follow a gal’s backside around than a dude’s. And, honestly, I just like the look of smart, self-sufficient women in commando’s armor or a ranger’s cloak or a rogue’s cowl or a Jedi’s robes. I feel like smart game designers have figured out that women’s armor can be both protective and sexy—that chain and scale mail can be delightfully form fitting and that leather and plate armor can feature appropriately feminine curvature. As far as science-fantasy RPGs go, I’ve been similarly impressed with women’s armor in the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic series and with the Mass Effect games. In both series, our heroines’ armor manages to look protective and practical, yet feminine at the same time.


“They locked you in the tower and they threw away the key,
But this tower’s no match for a wag like me.”

I think, too, that women hero archetypes are fun both to play upon and play against. In Dragon Age: Origins I had as much fun playing the quintessential skinny, bow-toting elf maiden as I did playing a skinny elf maiden with heavy armor and greatsword. (That, and I found the elf dudes to be a little on the derpy-looking side in that game.) And while my champion from Lord of the Rings Online typically wore a suit of battered dwarf armor, it was amusing a couple times to put her in an elf gown and pick fights with swamp trolls. My favorite party build from NWN2: Storm of Zehir was six bat-shit-crazy Dark Elf maidens. My Drow fighter with the bastard sword took one level of sorceress (for the Dragon Disciple prestige class), and to go against the grain, I gave her a bunny rabbit for her familiar. I just don’t think the sentiment would have been as funny had I instead used some tough-guy Drow soldier instead.

Ice Hunter

“‘We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.”

Indeed, one factor that defines the role-playing game genre as a whole is story-telling. From the epic saga to the basic dungeon crawler, every game tells a story. Thus each player becomes the character or characters in the story. The classic figure of the handsome knight in gleaming armor on a quest to save his kingdom has certainly earned it’s right to be a classic, but what of the beautiful knight in gleaming armor on a quest to save her kingdom? I think I’d rather tell her story. I’ve beaten the main story for Dragon Age: Origins on four of my characters, but only one of them was male. The stories of the exiled sorceress, the noblewoman seeking to avenge the murder of her parents, and the elf-maiden on the run after killing the lord who raped her friend: all were more interesting stories to me than were the dwarven thug escaping his former employers or the pretty-boy forest elf trying to remove an evil curse.

Dragon Food

“This dragon had a plaguey hide,
fa la lanky down dilly,
That could the sharpest steel abide,
fa la lanky down dilly.”

From a literary standpoint, I think that adventure games in general owe a certain amount of debt to figures like JRR Tolkien and Gary Gygax. First to Tolkien for giving us a character like Eowyn, a skilled shield-maiden not afraid to disobey orders by donning men’s armor and riding into battle to protect her people. And to Gary and the other Dungeons & Dragons writers for creating a world where women adventurers are in every way equal to their male counterparts. Certainly, there have been plenty of women figures throughout history and literature who’ve demonstrated a woman’s ability to fight in battle beside the men, but I feel it was the works of writers like Tolkien and Gygax and Arneson and others of their respective generations that really encouraged contemporary and modern adventure writers to include strong, smart, independent heroines in their stories. Playing women fighters in video and computer role-playing games is my way of creating my own strong, smart, independent heroines.


“Everyday I’m shufflin’.”

All images are screen shots taken directly from game play.
Image 1: Guild Wars 2. Song: “Pistol-Packin’ Mama,” by Bing Crosby
Image 2: Lord of the Rings Online. Song: “The Highwayman,” by The Highwaymen
Image 3: Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir. Song: “Star of the County-Down,” traditional Irish
Image 4: Mass Effect 2. Song: “Scalliwag,” by Gallic Storm
Image 5: Lord of the Rings Online. Song: “Immigrant Song,” by Led Zeppelin
Image 6: Dragon Age: Origins. Song: “Sir Eglamore,” by Kate Rusby
Image 7: Guild Wars 2. Song: “Party Rock Anthem,” by Lmfao
Image 8: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2. Song: “What a Way to Go,” by Ray Kennedy 


“He said, ‘women gonna be the death of me, but what a way to go!'”

Tabletop Dungeon Crawl

I had the opportunity this past spring and summer to try out Dungeons and Dragons for the first time. My cousin invited my brother and me to join in a couple tabletop campaigns with him and three of his buddies. I played Neverwinter Nights I & II pretty extensively, as well as Icewind Dale II and one of the Baldur’s Gate games a little bit, so I felt I had a decent understanding of the game and it’s mechanics. Both campaigns used the D&D 3.5 rules, which I’m more used to through NWN II anyway. The campaigns were set up alternate weekends. My brother played a barbarian in the first and a dwarf fighter in the second. I played a rogue in the first and an archer in the second.

The first campaign was more story-driven. The characters were all sailors on a ship in a world where sailing is powered by magic. Clerics use divine spells to control the wind, thus propelling the boats. My rogue carried a rapier, but since I had little familiarity with how to set up the skill points, I ended up being fairly mediocre at my trade. In particular, as Spot and Listen checks are pretty much useless in games like Neverwinter Nights, I didn’t put any points into them. After suffering the embarrassment of constant failed checks, I put all of my points into Spot at next level and made hearing problems part of his character from there on out in the story. Our characters were quickly built and so not thoroughly researched or thought out. But it was fun. I got kudos from the more experienced gamers in the group by using a fishing net to catch an enemy with Greater Invisibility who’d been tearing us up pretty bad.

The second campaign had minimal plot or story, but was set up as an excuse to play around with level 20 characters. My brother built a dwarf fighter with a spiked chain as a weapon, who had the ability to ‘attack of opportunity’ enemies twice before they could reach him in melee combat. Mine was a combat sniper using a fighter, rather than the traditional ranger build. (It was kind of funny when I had to assure the party’s paladin that I was a combat sniper rather than an assassin. He admitted that it was an important distinction.) I gave my sniper all of the fighter-exclusive longbow and ranged-combat feats that I could find as well as feats to increase stealthiness and awareness. Interestingly, none of the more experienced players had ever experimented with a fighter-archer build. I think I created a certain respect for the build when I wiped out a third of a group of mid-level NPCs in the surprise round.

Both campaigns broke up after a little over five months, due to my cousin needing to get ready for his upcoming wedding and personnel conflicts between a couple of the other players. It was fun, though, and I’d do it again given the opportunity. The strategy in character builds as well as the combat held the most appeal for both my brother and me. I think my brother’s only real issue was the role-playing aspect of it. I think he felt silly trying to get into character. Having had experience in drama and theater, however, I had a lot more fun getting into my character—even adopting a pseudo-Aussie accent for my sniper.

(I’ve looked at some of the rules to D&D 4.0, and I honestly didn’t like it. The combat in particular fees like it caters too much to MMO fans in how it breaks classes down into tank, support, and damage rolls. A: I feel like this limits the scope of how battles can and should function. B: Not having one or more of these rolls filled shouldn’t cripple your ability to function as a party.)

I know blogging’s been slow. Blame Guild Wars 2

I’m not actually sure what this place is. It’s visible from one of the harbor towns, but I don’t know what it’s for or how to get there.

My thoughts on Guild Wars 2:
Very much worth the hype. It’s a streamlined, easy-to-learn, beautifully rendered MMORPG that I strongly recommend for anyone who likes computer action role-playing games. The overall look of the game is stunning. I honestly think I’ve become addicted to taking screen captures of the landscape throughout this vast, beautiful, and dangerous world. The game itself feeds this addiction by providing vista points for players to discover, where by selecting the point, players are treated to a camera flyby of a nearby landmark or landscape.

Milady Greensleeves, guardian and noblewoman, out exploring and rock climbing.

One of the key points for me is that it’s one of the more sand-boxy MMOs I’ve seen. There is a decent amount of territory to get lost in if I just feel like exploring for a while. While this might otherwise suggest that it takes a long time to get from place to place, Arena Net thoughtfully added various waypoints players can teleport to for a nominal fee, simply by clicking on them on their maps. The only stipulation is that it must be a waypoint that their character has visited in the past. I also think Arena Net did a great job of taking into account that players want to explore. We enjoy climbing mountains and dancing on rooftops. Other game makers seem to forget this factor. Whereas Blizzard was long known for suspending World of Warcraft players for getting up onto the roofs of buildings or mountain climbing into closed-off areas, Guild Wars 2 has waypoints and scenic vistas that are only accessible through rigorous mountain climbing or jumping from building to building.

Viarra the Thief. Though not in the first-edition Dungeons and Dragons sense.

Character creation, game play, and customization are about as streamlined as I’ve ever seen in an action RPG. In contrast with my Champion from Lord of the Rings Online, who has at least thirty abilities—only six of which I use in a given battle—my Guild Wars 2 Guardian has around twelve abilities equipped at any given time. Technically she has more than that, but I’m free to equip, un-equip, and customize these depending on the situation. What this essentially allows players to do is specialize their character for a given role. My thief, for example, can be set up as a melee fighter with swords or knives, a ranged fighter with short bow or pistols, or even some of both with sword in one hand and pistol in the other. I can swap between any two combinations of weapons with a keystroke and make more extensive changes on the fly between battles. Perhaps a more effective comparison is the Dragon Age series, where many of the attacks and other abilities depend on what weapons the character has equipped at a given time.

I also appreciate Arena Net’s break from the standard elf, dwarf, orc series of cliches in the character build. Instead we get Humans, ordinary people like you and me; Norn, a race of viking-like giants; Charr, an apparent amalgam of the Beast from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and various members of the genus panthera; Asura, a grey-skinned cross between the Brain from Animaniacs and Yoda; and Slivani, a race of plant-people with leaves for hair, petals for undergarments, and flowers growing out their butts.

The Charr: Villains in Guild Wars 1, now a playable race.

But the factor I think makes Guild Wars 2 most revolutionary is the questing system. Say, for example, a player character arrives at a farm beset by marauding centaurs. In a standard MMO, there will be three or four NPC farmers standing about, offering quests to do things like repair fences, retrieve stolen crops, and bring back fifteen centaur brains. The centaurs, meanwhile, are milling about in a field and only attack  if the player gets too close (approx. 15 feet). And apparently only 1 in 3 centaurs even has a brain, as it takes killing 40 to 50 centaurs to get fifteen centaur brains. In Guild Wars 2, the player might arrive at the farm to find the centaurs burning buildings, riding off with loot, or openly butchering NPC farm hands. Instead of having to talk to an NPC to get the appropriate quests, a message pops up in the top corner of the screen, letting the player know what needs to be done. Thus players are able to immediately enter the fracas and start rescuing NPC farmers and recovering stolen crops.

In addition, there are random events that occur throughout the questing areas that players can choose whether or not to participate in—assuming, of course they don’t get caught up in the middle of them when they hit. In the human lands, for example, there are areas being fought over by the humans and the centaurs, with outposts on both sides being contested. Players are invited to join in the attack when the humans make a push against a centaur encampment. If enough players don’t join the assault, the attack fails and the human troops retreat. If enough players do come help, the encampment is taken and the humans gain a new foothold. Similarly, if enough players don’t come to help defend a besieged human fortress, it will be taken by the centaurs and players lose access to all vendors, repairers, teleport waypoints, and other facilities until the fortress is retaken. I love this feature in that it creates a tug-of-war dynamic between factions in contested territory. I have, however, been caught outside a besieged fortress just as the defenders slammed the gates shut against the oncoming horde. Hilarity ensued.

There is also a story-based campaign of quests that players have the option of whether or not to pursue. The quests have been only mildly interesting so far, and some of the voice acting is of the mediocre persuasion. I try to keep up with them, though, because they tend to provide decent on-level gear as quest rewards.

An alpine road guarded by giant statues of the Norn spirits, Raven, Snow Leopard, Wolf, and Bear.

A few things I feel could work differently (not that any of these factors ruin my gaming experience):
Mounts would be helpful. Sure, the waypoints eliminate any need for a flight-path system like in WoW or a stable-point system like in LOTRO, but at the same time there is enough open territory out there that I feel it would come in handy to have a horse to ride around on. I get tired of hearing that centaurs are attacking the southern encampment, but missing out on the battle because I had to run the whole way.

I also think a costuming system like in Lord of the Rings Online could seriously benefit the overall look of the game. Yes, there is a civilian clothing toggle, so you don’t have to run around town in your armor, but I felt like they could have done more with the outfit customization. While I like the selection of dyes and the amount of color customization available for individual pieces of clothing, I keep finding aesthetically pleasing armors that I know I’m likely to miss once I update them to a newer set. My other reason is that I have a profound dislike for some of the cheesecakey armor that shows off a lot of skin. Not that I’m particularly bothered by cleavage or bare midriffs, I just find it mildly offensive that Arena Net’s armor designers think a reasonably competent warrior woman would want massive gaps in her armor just above her heart or entrails. (Though Guild Wars 2 is hardly the worst culprit in this pet peeve of mine.) Thus I’d prefer the option to cosmetically substitute some of the more lingerie-ish armor I’ve seen for the more sensible scale and chain mail armor I’ve used so far.

I especially love how characters’ feet actually adjust to sloping terrain—unlike most 3D games where toes disappear into hillsides and wide stances involve one foot buried up to the knee and the other hovering off the ground.

Screen captures taken directly from game play. The images should be full resolution, so feel free to use them as desktop wallpaper. I often do.

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