Monday, December 31, 2012


Well... that was quick! Once I finally buckled down to finish the main quest in Skyrim, I did so with such swiftness that I started to doubt that it actually was the main quest. To make sure, I did another major quest line as well out of curiosity to see if it was actually the main. It wasn't, but both were quite fun.


I had kind of "parked" the main quest partway through the process of training under the Greybeards. After I was done with the Thieves Guild, Dark Brotherhood, and Dawnguard quests, I returned to the mountain and saw what there was to see.

The first surprise: Blades! Blades have been an important faction in all of the other Elder Scrolls games that I've played; they're kind of an elite Imperial force that handles sensitive jobs, a bit like a fantasy mixture between the Secret Service and Navy SEALs. Based on the information within the game thus far, I'd thought that the Blades had all been wiped out during the war against the Dominion. Well, most were, but a couple remain, and they are pursuing one of the ancient duties of the Blades: defending against dragons.

Responding to a note left at the end of my quest to retrieve the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller, I met with Delphine in Riverwood. Riverwood was the first village I ever visited in this game, and Delphine was one of the first NPCs I'd met, so it felt interesting and a little odd to be revisiting so late in the game. Delphine revealed herself and her mission: she had learned that dragons were being awakened, returning from the graves where they had been interred. She was getting good at predicting the order in which they would arrive. We investigated some ourselves.

Delphine had thought that she was the only surviving Blade, but we learned of another, Esbern, who was hiding in the Ratway in Riften, and happened to be the most acclaimed scholar of dragon lore in Tamriel. We rescued him; he was initially filled with despair, convinced that the world would shortly end, but was enheartened once he learned that I was a Dragonborn.

We visited some ancient sites to learn more about the first wave of dragons far in the past. Their leader, Alduin, is prophesied to destroy the world. The ancient Nords were thought to have killed him, but in actuality, they used a spell that removed him from their time and cast him far into the future... which is now our present. Alduin had never died, he was simply gone for a time. Now he's back, and may destroy the world.

In order to defeat Alduin, I learned that I would need to master a new Shout. The Blades reluctantly asked me to consult "that cult," the Graybeards, and get the knowledge I'd need. Well, the Graybeards were none too happy, for reasons that still seem obscure. They don't deny that the world may be destroyed by Alduin, but don't want to struggle against it. Anyways. They eventually allow me to see their leader, who is - surprise reveal! - a giant and ancient dragon named Paarthurnax, who lives on top of the mountain and is the one who taught Men to Shout. He admits that he once served Alduin, but eventually betrayed him by teaching the ancient heroes their Shout as a weapon against the other dragon. He'll do the same for me.

The fight against Alduin is a little confusing, but not too hard. He and Paarthurnax are both fighting aerially, and it was hard for me to visually differentiate the two, so I would need to track the red dot on my compass to figure out which one was him. For this fight, I learned a Shout that is exactly what I've wanted for all of my dragon fights: it forces the dragon to land, where it will be vulnerable to my melee attacks. At least, it's supposed to - in practice, he seemed to ignore it much of the time. Once he did land, though, I just needed to slap on some Lingering Damage Health poison (-24 health per second) and whack him a few times.

Alduin was defeated, but not really dead... he had retreated to a place to recover his strength. This was a perfect opportunity to destroy him once and for all. One catch: I wasn't sure where he had gone or how to follow him. This led to a fairly convoluted but interesting set of goals:
  • Get one of Alduin's dragon thralls to show me the way to his hideout.
  • To make the dragon talk, I'd need to capture him/it.
  • Dragonsreach in Whiterun was built as a trap for dragons. Huh, interesting factoid!
  • I'll need Jarl Balgruuf of Whiterun's cooperation to lure a dragon inside his castle.
  • The Jarl is sympathetic to my mission, but doesn't want to risk the damage a dragon can cause while the civil war is raging between Stormcloaks and the Legion (remember those guys?)
  • So, I'll need to negotiate a temporary truce between the factions.
  • The Graybeards reluctantly agree to host the summit. (Heh, get it? Summit?)
  • Ulfric of the Stormcloaks agrees to attend.
  • I'm supposed to get General Tullius to attend, but this quest gets semi-broken since I've already accepted and not completed the quest to join the Imperial Legion. So, he just snarls at me to talk to Legate Rikke.
  • Meh. I was hoping to put off declaring my allegiance for as long as possible, but by this point I've made the difficult-but-firm decision to side with the Empire. (My previous post has my rationale; I'm very sympathetic to the Stormcloaks' grievances and desire for freedom, but ultimately more attracted by the Empire's diverse society and better long-term prospects as a counterweight to the Dominion. The Thalmor dossiers I'd acquired made it clear that they saw Ulfric's rebellion as beneficial to their cause.)
  • Fine. I clear out the fort she wants me to, join the legion, and then Tullius deigns to speak to me, and agrees to come to the summit as well.
  • Hey, Tullius's voice sounds really familiar. Is he the same guy who plays Saul Tigh on Battlestar Galactica? I check the credits online. He is!
  • I attend the summit, and basically lead it, making crucial decisions about the course of the war. I really like this part. It isn't as cool as the kingsmoot in Dragon Age: Origins, but it's a somewhat similar situation where passionately opposed forces are brought together at a high-tension conference. Ulfric is being a big jerk, demanding large concessions from the Empire in exchange for a cease-fire. I try to negotiate as fairly as I can: he wants Markarth, which is a major and wealthy city, so I order him to surrender Riften, a similarly sized city, in return. He also wants Falkreath, apparently just because he wants it; I say no. At several points he seems like he'll walk out, and he accuses me of harboring well-known Imperial sympathies. (Sigh... I wish I could have waited to join the Legion.) He ultimately agrees to the terms and storms (hah! get it?) out. The Imperial side is subdued, and I can sense some interesting tensions - Tullius is no fan of the Thalmor, who have sent an emissary; Jarl Elisif is understandably furious at Ulfric, while Tullius seems more measured.
  • I lure a dragon into the Dragonsreach balcony, defeat him, and capture him. He swiftly agrees to betray Alduin: he won't just tell me where Alduin is hiding, but will take me there himself.
  • I get to ride a dragon! This cut scene just lasts for about five seconds, but still, it's pretty cool.
  • A portal takes me to Sovngarde, a pretty clear parallel to Valhalla, where warriors who die in battle are eternally rewarded with feasts and other good stuff.
  • Oh, no! Alduin is busily corrupting Sovngarde, laying down mists and false paths that cause warriors to lose their way and not reach their reward.
  • I'm awesome, though, and make it through easily.
  • Inside, I meet the three ancient heroes I'd seen before: they're the ones who originally "defeated" alduin. They're actually really cool, especially the valkyrie-ish woman; I'd have enjoyed doing more with them. We unite our voices together, Shout away the fog, and force Alduin to fight us.
  • This time, the "hey you, stop flying around and land down here on the ground where I can whack you!" Shout seems to work much better. It's an intense fight, but a pretty fast and fun one. Soon, Alduin is dead! Sovngarde is restored to its original state, and all the spirits of dead warriors talk about how awesome I am.
Hooray! Now that I write it all out, I guess it is a longer plot than I had originally thought... it probably felt shorter because I could just jam on it and go from task to task, unlike my faction quests, where I typically was doing a bunch of quests more or less at the same time.

There's still the little matter of the civil war left, though. I started to wonder if THAT was the main quest; after all, I hadn't needed to resolve it before defeating Alduin, so maybe my stature as not just Dragon-born but Dragon-bane would be necessary for wrapping up the conflict?

I reported back to Castle Dour to take my instructions. One mission fairly early on was to convince Jarl Balgruuf of Whiterun to side with the Empire; up until now he had tried to remain independent, but Tullius had learned that Ulfric was planning to make a move. I asked Balgruuf to accept the Legion's help; he sent me to Windhelm to gauge Ulfric's intentions. Ulfric may be a jerk, but he's an honest and honorable one, so he made clear that he intended to start a war. Back in Whiterun, I helped defend the city from an invasion. This was a REALLY fun sequence, one of my favorites in the game: you initially defend the barricades, then eventually fight a running battle, trying to keep the Stormcloaks from reaching the drawbridge. We eventually slew all the attackers and carried the day.

There are quite a few missions on this quest line that involve you fighting alongside the Legion in defeating the Stormcloaks, and while I generally liked them, one thing really bothered me: I had an extremely hard time telling the two sides apart. I'm pretty sure that they have different uniforms, but they're all basically the same color and the same size, so unless I'm paying close attention to the compass radar or the target indicator, I can easily end up hitting an Imperial; and since I tend to one-shot enemies, I often felt bad realizing that I'd struck down a comrade. There was one mission where each enemy had a little quest arrow over their heads; that made it MUCH better, and I wish all of the civil war fights had used this.

Oh, that brings up another point: these fights seemed to be greatly under-leveled. Granted, I would be fighting up to fifty enemies at a time, so it's good that they aren't each as strong as a Draugr Overlord or something, but still... I was fighting in melee, and can't use stealth, so everyone had ample time to hit me, and still, my natural health regeneration always kept my health above 95% throughout the entire fight. A dual-wielded power attack would invariably kill anyone, even through a block, and when my Stamina ran out, it would just take three normal hits to kill an enemy. I tore through them like nothing. Which, granted, is fun, but still, a little more challenge would have been nice. The quest rewards also didn't seem to be leveled: the very first reward I got from Tullius was something like a Daedric Sword with a powerful enchantment, but each of the later rewards were more like, well, Plate Armor (?!) or an Orcish Mace (?!!!!!).

Other than defending Whiterun, most of the Legion quests involved meeting up with a group of Legionnaires, then assaulting a Stormcloak fort and killing everyone outside. In this way, we gradually extended Imperial control over the various regions of Skryim: the Pale in the north, the Reach in the west, and the Eastmarch on Ulfric's doorstep. This leads the way to the finale: a thrilling assault on the city of Windhelm itself. You travel over familiar streets, which are now filled with unfamiliar flames and towering barricades, as catapults rain fiery death down on the city. I summoned my Spectral Assassin and we ran through the city, leaving the Legion in our wake as we rushed to the Hall of Kings.

Once inside, the final fight was very anti-climactic; for some reason, I summoned Durnehviir, who was too big to fit inside and was generally clipped out of the drawing plane. Ulfric and his right-hand man Galmar were pushovers, without any special abilities, and were defeated in something like six seconds. It might have been an interesting fight with just me, but with my summons and Tullius and Rikke, it was just too easy.

The finale is pretty interesting, though. Tullius offered me the privilege of a summary execution of Ulfric; I demurred, and Tullius did it himself. He then emerged and, despite claiming to hate speeches, delivered a rousing barnstormer to the Legion, praising them for what they've done and doubling their pay. (The soldiers audibly cheer more loudly at the financial rewards than at the abstract geopolitical gains they have accomplished. I suspect this to be historically accurate.) Tullius strides off. I chatted with Rikke, who confessed that she isn't comfortable in a political role, but will be assuming more administrative duties as the Empire consolidates its strength in Skyrim.

And... that's it! I traveled to the Blue Palace in Solitude to see if Elisif would be crowned Queen (perhaps with that nice Jagged Crown I had recovered), but she didn't acknowledge the defeat of Ulfric. As far as I can tell, that's the end of the line. I think there will still be at least one more expansion, so perhaps there will be some final action on the civil war plot, but otherwise, that seems to end it.


Phew! What a fun game! The blessing and curse of open-world western RPGs like Skyrim is that there's always more than enough available to do. Sometimes this can make them drag a little, since you don't have urgent narrative momentum like what's offered in games like Mass Effect 2; but on the plus side, if you're ever bored by your current plot or mission, you can just switch over to doing something else.

Now that I'm at a good place to evaluate the game as a whole: Skyrim is good! It scratches my itch for open-ended gameplay, while stoking my appetite for more focused narrative.

Improvements over previous Elder Scrolls games:
  • Voice acting in general is much better. In particular, you no longer get the extremely disconcerting accent shifts when one character uses recycled dialog for some conversation options and bespoke dialog for others.
  • The economy is much better. In particular, once you finish the Thieves Guild quests, you'll have a good chunk of merchants who can afford to buy the most expensive items in the game.
  • Skills. As previously noted, stuff like Smithing is now a more fun, positive skill that lets you do and make new stuff, instead of a rote maintenance chore.
  • Stealth. As previously noted, this is the first Elder Scrolls game where I've felt like I'm able to play a pure-stealth character without being crazily handicapped. (If you're a power-gamer, you'll still want to mix in magic and other skills, but if you're playing for fun, this is a nice way to go.)
  • Graphics are better. They were good in Oblivion too - anything to get away from Morrowind's ugly palette - but characters now look better as well. I particularly enjoyed the idle animations: smiths pounding away at their forges or tempering and sharpening their weapons; alchemists mixing potions; shoppers strolling around; even guards shifting their weight from foot to foot looked pretty good and natural. I should mention that I did install the "no more blocky faces" mod which may have helped this category.
  • Followers. Dawnguard, at least, had one great companion. I didn't have too much experience with the others, but on the rare occasions where I needed to bring someone else for a plot purpose, they... they weren't GREAT, but comported themselves reasonably well, and certainly did far better than those in earlier Elder Scrolls games.
  • Horses. They can be slain, which sucks, but they're much more reliable than Oblivion's. My first horse, Frost, lasted me about halfway through the game before he was unfairly killed; my second, Shadowmere, is still alive, and even participated directly in a bunch of fights, including some against dragons and against entire armies. And they're still very useful for getting around, especially when trying to reach new locations.
  • Personalities. Oddly, I can recall the characters in Morrowind much better than I remember those in Oblivion, even though I played that game longer ago. I still remember Vivec, and the various House Hlaalu folks, and most faction heads. In contrast, for Oblivion I can barely remember Martin (though I do recall Sheogorath quite well... though it would be hard to forget him after a whole expansion where he's practically in your face the entire time). We'll see in a few years how well Skyrim's personalities retain an impression, but at the moment I feel like Elisif, Ulfric, Rikke, Tullius, Alduin, Delphine, Maven Blackbriar, Karliah, Delvin, Vex, Astrid, Babette, Isran, Harkon, and Serana are all interesting, memorable characters. (Granted, still not memorable to the same degree as characters like Minsc, Morrigan, or Moridin, but for Bethesda they're quite good.)
  • Combat feels a bit better than Oblivion, and much better than Morrowind. I suspect it would have been even more dynamic if I played as more of a warrior character and used blocks and bashes. Still, as a melee stealth fighter, I had a lot of fun and a bit of challenge.
Strengths of the franchise:
  • Factions. The more I think about it, this may be the single best innovation of the series. It's just so much fun to be able to choose an affiliation, climb up through the ranks, and improve not just your own standing but also the stature of the group.  
  • Environments. A bit better than Oblivion, but both were wonderful. Mountains, streams, forests, rolling hills, ancient ruined forts, snowy fields... every once in a while I just had to stop and stare at all the beauty around me.
  • Lore. This game has just as many books as earlier ones. I wasn't as thorough this time around in reading entire libraries, but whenever I decided to pick up a book, I was rewarded with a well-written peek into Tamriel's history, culture, or mythos.
  • Stability. Quests can occasionally get broken, but it's rare, and at least on PC can quickly and easily be fixed with a Google search and a couple of console commands. I had almost no crashes throughout the entire game.
  • Equipment. There's a huge range of craftable materials to make your own, and an endless variety of enchanted gear lying around. (Two requests: I'd love to have a "hide helmet" option similar to that in Mass Effect so I can see my character's head if she's in a powerful-but-ugly helm, and I'd like to have a match-hue option so you can mix-and-match bonuses from different sets but still look visually coordinated.)
  • Music and sound. It's not incredible, but the music feels thematically appropriate; best of all, it's subtle enough to not get repetitive and annoying over the hundreds of hours you may play. The foley is quite good.
  • Total freedom. This also has its downsides - I'm sure many newcomers to these games are permanently frightened away the first time that they walk into town, innocently pick up a basket, then quickly find themselves hacked to death by a squadron of guards. Still, I love the fact that this game lets you do anything you want to. Murder people in their sleep? Fill a room with sweetrolls? Swim around the entire continent? Get naked and sit on the High King's throne? You don't need to do any of these things; just knowing that you can makes it awesome.

I enjoy complaining about:
  • While the voicing is better, they still recycle scripts between characters. Throughout the world, you will hear many different people say "Ah, so you're an alchemist, then?" and "Got a pretty full stock of potions and alchemy reagents" and "Just what you see here." 
  • And, they could still use some better quality control on the voice acting. My teeth grate whenever I hear the assistant at the White Phial in Windhelm say "Got a pretty full stock of potions and alchemy regents." Oh, really? You have a full stock of kings and queens that you've chopped up into pieces, burned down into salts, ground up in a mortar and pestle, and are now selling in your store? Or did someone just forget to tell you how to pronounce "reagent"?
  • Money is still pretty useless. There's just so much stuff out there to pick up that you'll almost never need to buy anything, except for raw materials if you're leveling up a skill like alchemy or smithing. Houses are a pretty good money sink, but still not enough to dent the cash you'll have by the end of the game (in my case, just a little under a million gold pieces).
  • While humans looked pretty good, the dogs were terrifying. This might be the most uncanny-valley-ish thing I've ever encountered. They're supposed to be furry and friendly, but they just look like demonically possessed hellbeasts, with weird heads that move wrong, and eyes that blink unnaturally, and a tail that seems to move independently of their bodies. The dogs were so disturbing, they made me retroactively realize that Bioware may have been brilliant in designing the Mabari like they did. At the time, I'd been bummed that Mabari look sort of ugly; but by making them something dog-like-yet-not-dogs, they may have avoided the creepiness of making a wrong dog.
  • The default interface. It's awesome that the game can be modded to fix it, but it's a little absurd that PC gamers need to rely on volunteers to fix problems from a major game studio.
  • Lack of agency in the plot. I complained about this at great length in an earlier post. Basically, you very rarely get to make any meaningful decisions (the major exception being the one in this post, the side of the civil war you choose to back). Most "conversations" just consist of you selecting a single "choice" in a dialog.
  • The world of Skyrim actually felt a bit more static to me than the earlier games. In Morrowind, you could buy your own land and gradually transform it into a grand estate. In Oblivion, an early incident permanently changes the topology of Cyrodil. In Skyrim, certain interiors are changed - you can upgrade your house and faction headquarters - but it would have been really cool if, say, a village would burn to the ground, or someone built a new watchtower, or some other lasting change occurred to the landscape.

There's still a ton left in Skyrim, but I think I've finished the major story quests, so I'll probably leave it here for at least a while. The remaining quests that interest me most are probably the Bards College quests; I do love that the Bards are a joinable faction, and I have a well-documented affinity for playing as a Bard, but at this point all they're offering is a bunch of fetch quests, and I've had my fill of those for a while.

I'll probably peek online just to make sure that I'm not missing anything major, then set this aside for now. I'll likely eventually return and play through Dragonborn, the latest expansion. I hear that you get to ride a dragon! That sounds really cool.

EDIT 1/1/13: I've uploaded an album of screenshots from the game. As is becoming usual for me, the images start from about 2/3 of my way through the game, though they encompass the bulk of the main quest as well as most of the Dawnguard expansion. Consider these images to be mega spoilers.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dah Dahn Gahn

Elder Scrolls games are games of detours. I'm constantly putting off doing something fun and important because I'm too busy doing something more fun and less important. My most recent excursion was the Dawnguard expansion. Since this is a fairly stand-alone set of quests, and available for separate purchase, I figured it might be worth devoting a post specifically to that experience.

MINI SPOILERS for The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim: Dawnguard

I know I just called Dawnguard relatively stand-alone, but actually, it permeates the entire game in various ways both obvious and subtle. One important effect of simply installing the expansion is a significant increase in the incidence of vampire attacks. Lone vampires will periodically attack inside peaceful areas, including the major cities. As you progress through the expansion, the attackers will grow more powerful. I liked the sense of danger and unease that this added; even the strong walls of Whiterun can't protect you from enemies. However, be aware that, while the guards can generally take care of the threat (and, therefore, you don't need to be too involved in the fight unless you really want to), other NPCs are likely to be swept up in the conflict as well, and they are less likely to emerge intact. Some fairly-significant named NPCs, including a couple of shop-owners, were killed in my game. Actually, the thing that impressed me most about this was how resilient Skyrim's AI and scheduling system is. In many cases, when a shop-owner was killed, their assistant or another local would take over their role. So, while it feels like there was a (random) story impact from the attacks, it didn't permanently break anything important. (The one time I did re-load was when an attack in Whiterun killed Niranye, one of my reliable fences and thus one of the few people with enough gold for me to bother visiting.)

The quest kicks off when random conversations you have reference the re-forming of the Dawnguard. You travel to the far southeast of the map, east of Riften, to Stendarr's Beacon. You keep going farther than this, eventually finding your way into a new valley where the ruins of the old Fort Dawnguard lie. For some reason, you can't take your horse here, and the trek to the fort is fairly time consuming (albeit pretty). Later on, as the Dawnguard strengthens and expands, the fort grows bigger and better-looking, and eventually you can fast-travel right to the front door.

The Dawnguard is lead by Isran, a former Vigilant of Stendarr who was kicked out of the order for being too extreme. And he is quite extreme indeed: he hates vampires with every fiber of his being, and will stop at nothing to eradicate them.

Before I plunge into more plot details, here are some overall impressions on the expansion:

My favorite aspect of the expansion is a new companion you get, who is the only companion who I've actually enjoyed enough to keep as a follower for a long period of time. I don't think that you're required to always have her with you - you can ask her to wait somewhere, and I suspect that she'll just pop up when her participation is required for the story. But, she is actually fairly good at remaining undetected, has good magic, and can survive pretty well once you equip her. She can even raise the dead to follow, increasing your numbers even further.

The expansion adds a variety of items. The new areas include some new reagents. It also adds crossbows; I never used these (melee for life!), but from what I've heard, they're more powerful than bows and slower to reload. You can get enhanced schematics for crossbows and some other items. One enhancement was particularly helpful to me: Dragonbone weapons. In vanilla Skyrim, the most powerful weapons you can forge are Daedric weapons, which require going through the Heavy Armor path of the Smithing tree; Light Armor smiths can't forge anything stronger than Glass. Now, the existing Dragon Armor perk has been upgraded to let you also forge weapons that are slightly more powerful than Daedric, finally bringing light armor wearers (like me!) up to parity offensively.

You can become a vampire in the main game (which I accidentally did once; it's a kind of annoying process to cure), but in the expansion, you can choose to become a Vampire Lord. I didn't do this, but from reading the text on loading screens, it sounds pretty cool... you can fly, and cast spells, and reanimate corpses.

The expansion adds a bunch of new areas, some of which are HUGE! There's a single cavern which is larger than any other level I've seen yet in the game, and also some cool, creative new places, both indoors, outdoors, and otherworldly. One downside: the new areas seem a bit more crash-prone than the main game. I've had a grand total of three crashes in my months of playing the game, and all of them happened when I was in one of the new environments.

Okay, I think that's all I can say without going into some


Like I said before, Isran is a hard-core vampire-hater. I had actually wondered early on if they might really push this idea into some strong, morally-ambiguous directions. Like, if the story would indicate that his hatred of vampires had turned himself into a sort of monster, or overpowered his love of humanity. It never really does that, though... he's just a very tough man, but the end of the expansion makes it clear that he's a good guy.

That said, the story might change depending on the decisions you make. That is by far my favorite aspect of Dawnguard: unlike nearly all other quests I've played so far in the game, there's actually a meaningful choice you get to make in this quest, which can have an effect both on the gameplay and on the plot. After helping Isran by investigating an ancient vampire lair, you rescue Serana, a very old (but, of course, still young and beautiful) vampire who possesses an Elder Scroll. I agreed to take her home to her father, a powerful vampire lord who leads a large but secretive clan of vampires on an island to the west of Skyrim. Once there, he asked me if I would like to be rewarded for my rescue of his daughter by receiving the gift of vampirism. As noted above, this form of vampire sounds way more fun and useful than standard vampirism; unfortunately, as noted in a previous post, it also would have required me to become incredibly ugly, unlike the somewhat fashionable form taken by normal vampires.

I assume that, if you accept his gift, you would probably still do most of the remaining quests, but would then be operating out of the Volkihar castle instead of Fort Dawnguard, and working for Lord Harkon instead of Isran. As it went, though, I left Volkihar, and continued working for the Dawnguard. Several quests that I think are optional allow you to recruit new members to the Dawnguard, and further quests you do for them seem like they may upgrade their arsenal. If so, then that may help with the final battle at the end.

Eventually, you are reunited with Serana, who returned to Fort Dawnguard in secret and is trying to win over a highly reluctant Isran. Unlike almost every other NPC in the game who I've encountered so far, Serana is fun and interesting to interact with. She's voiced very well, knows interesting things, is unsure how she feels about certain issues, and can be influenced to some degree based on your actions. I was very friendly and kind to her, and while she can be a little stand-offish she did seem to value our bond. (I don't think she's marriageable, though that may be because I was already spoken for.)

Most of the remaining quests are the standard Elder Scrolls fetch-and-return type of quest, but they're set in interesting environments and have some interesting lore around them that make them more bearable than they would be otherwise. Over time, you learn that Valerica, who is Serana's mother (and Harkon's wife) had deliberately imprisoned Serana and her scroll in order to keep her away from Harkon. Serana gradually fills you in on her family history. At the beginning, she, her dad and mom all seemed to get along well, whatever that means for a vampire family. However, her dad came across a prophecy that turned into an obsession for him: a ritual that could be performed to blot out the sun and allow vampires to freely roam throughout the world at all times. His wife disapproved of the attempt to fulfill the prophecy. Vampires had existed securely if secretively alongside humans for all of history. Coming out into the open, she believed, would only inspire humans to unite and launch a total war against the vampires, a war that the vampires could very well lose.

Serana has been out of commission for millennia, but decides to re-unite with her mother in order to figure out the next steps. Together, you infiltrate the castle, and discover a secret wing that Serana's mother had created. Inside, you find journals that show what she was up to: she intended to thwart Harkon's plans by placing the pure-blooded vampires he needed beyond his reach. Serana had already been ensconced in an ancient temple, and now the mother would retreat into the Soul Chamber.

Remember how one of my favorite parts of Dragon Age: Origins is the trip to the Fade? Well, the next part of Skyrim is a little like this, but instead of being populated by the spirits of the dreaming, it's populated with the spirits of the dead. Actually, I really liked this section since it finally provided some lore around the opaque "soul gem" mechanic that's been present in every Elder Scrolls game that I've played. Basically, whenever you want to enchant an item, you first need to get a special type of gem. Next, you must cast "soul trap" on a living creature. Then, you must slay the creature, and their soul will be trapped within your gem. Finally, you use the filled soul gem to enchant your item, destroying the gem (and presumably the soul) in the process. More powerful enchantments, such as a long-lasting levitation effect, would require a more powerful soul, such as that of a human; weaker enchantments, like a small fire effect, can be obtained from smaller souls, like those of peaceful animals.

Well, this part of Dawnguard finally describes what's really going on here. Enchantments are done by powerful entities who live in or beyond the Soul Chamber, and enchanting is a form of bargaining: the enchanter offers a soul, and the beings reward them with an enchantment. They have similar offerings for necromancy as well: if you agree to a bargain with them, they will let you raise beings back to a temporary form of life.

Serana's mother was a necromancer (and, evidently, Serana is one as well), and so she was acquainted with these sorts of bargains, and secured a place for herself in the Soul Chamber. Most of the beings there, though, are the souls of the dead, who presumably were used in some ritual or other.

After reacquainting with the mother (and, in my case, restoring my soul), I acquired her Elder Scroll. Next, we found a Moth Priest to help us translate them. I'm pretty sure that the moth priests were in Oblivion as well, since the term sounds very familiar, but I remember practically nothing about what they did in that game. Here, the priest offers some initial help, but then goes blind, leaving you to complete the translation yourself. Along the way, you learn the secrets of the priesthood (turns out that there are actual, physical Ancestor Moths flapping around), and visit a surprisingly beautiful hidden glen where the moths congregate.

With the scrolls translated, you finally understand the prophecy. It's tied up with Auriel's Bow, an ancient artifact; it is dedicated to the Sun-God, but if it were corrupted and turned against the sun, it could destroy it. Harkon is pursuing the bow, so you need to find it first.

Entering the endgame now, I initially needed to run through a series of quests that felt annoying, but then was swept away by their grandeur. Throughout the game, you've encountered Falmer, twisted and blind Gollum-like creatures that live in the deep abandoned places below the earth. [Etymological note: in the Elder Scrolls universe, the suffix "mer" is used to denote elves. You'll occasionally hear the phrase "men and mer", meaning "humans and elves." Most of the elves are self-evident: Altmer are high elves (roughly analogous to Tolkien's Noldor elves), Bosmer are wood elves (akin to Tolkien's Sylvan elves, like those of Mirkwood), Dunmer are dark elves (kind of like D&D's Drow, though they look nothing alike and don't live underground). More interesting, though, are the other races ending in "-mer". The most obvious is the Dwemer, the mysterious ancient race that dwelt underground and built technological marvels before vanishing. Dwemer are dwarves, and Dwemer are elves, so in this universe, dwarves and elves are the same thing.] Falmer are the corrupted descendants of the once-proud race of Snow Elves. Snow Elves used to live on the surface of Skyrim, but steady conflict with the Nords gradually pushed them underground, where over generations they turned into the Falmer.

Aaaaanyways... late in the game, you actually get to meet one of the two remaining Snow Elves in the world. He's the keeper of the Bow, and sends you off on a quest before he'll give it to you. The quest is to visit all 5 cisterns to draw sacred water for a sacred urn. I groaned. That's exactly the kind of busy-work quest I hate. And, indeed, the first cistern was a pain to reach, through a tedious (though, granted, great-looking) cave. But! After that, it opened up, into an absolutely massive new outdoor environment. I wandered around, absolutely stunned at the towering mountains, crashing frozen waterfalls, massive sheets of ice (with dragons bursting through!), and more. There were relatively few enemies in this area, other than an exciting two-teamed fight against dragons. There were also almost no quick-travel points, and no horses, so I was glad for all the Stamina I'd invested in throughout the game.

A couple of these cisterns were hard to reach, and required navigating through caves that weren't indicated on the maps, but that made it all the more rewarding once I finally completed the sequence. I had the water, then confronted the other remaining Snow Elf and learned the truth: he had invented the prophecy in the first place, in order to lure a pure-blooded vampire into his lair. Unbeknownst to his former compatriot, he had been infected with vampirism, and abandoned by their god. His revenge would be to use the pure blood of the vampire to kill his god.

This fight was pretty fun. It went through a couple of stages in a frozen throne room, against several waves of enemies, and then led to a climactic battle against the vampiric Snow Elf on a high parapet overlooking the hidden vale. He was pretty tough, but fortunately I have Mehrunes' Razor, so even the toughest enemy will fall if I'm sufficiently determined with my blades.

We checked back in with the good snow elf, and he rewarded us with Auriel's Bow. Serana said that it was time to finish it and kill her father. I was all, like, "Really, babe? You sure you want to do this?" And she was all, "Yeah, man, whatever, it's cool. Just... just leave me alone for a little bit, kay?" So we skedaddled back to Fort Dawnguard. Isran flipped OUT when he saw the bow - I guess it's now a famous vampire-killing artifact or something? - and announced the immediate assault on Harkon's castle.

The finale was a lot of fun. Everyone shows up at the gates and charges in, yelling and shooting and killing. There's a running battle through a couple of rooms; most of the vampires are using magic, while the Dawnguard primarily relies on weaponry. The Dawnguard cleaned UP - granted, I'm a powerful person and I was on their side, but still, I was pretty surprised to emerge from the fight without a single casualty on our side (unless you count a war troll, which I don't). Again, I'd like to think that the strength of our side was due in part to the side-quests I'd done for them, but I can't say for sure whether that's the case.

Isran was all pumped up on testosterone after slaughtering a complex full of vampires, but for some reason he and the others didn't want to help me with Harkon, so Serana and I entered his throne room by ourselves. This led to some more juicy plot-related stuff, with Harkon making it quite clear that he'd willingly sacrifice his daughter to achieve his dream of a dark world. I also got to declare my affection for Serana, leading Harkon to denounce her. He gave me a final chance to hand over Auriel's bow - which seems really weird, since we hadn't said two civil words to one another since I had first returned Serana home - and then the fight began.

This actually ended up being probably the most interesting fight I've had in the game so far. Harkon is very powerful: he has both melee and ranged attacks, can summon a large number of undead, has a large health pool, is apparently able to regenerate health throughout the fight, AND, in the most innovative twist, can transform himself into a cloud of bats to teleport between locations. At the start of the fight, I focused on taking down his skeleton summons and letting Serana focus on him. Then I heard her shout "Use the bow!" Huh. I was carrying Auriel's Bow, which appeared to have some vampire-slaying capabilities, and I had invested in some Sunhallowed Arrows. As I've previously noted, I have entirely focused on one-handed melee weaponry in the game; but thanks to the Elder Scrolls design, I CAN use any weapon, I just don't have special perks for the others. I figured, "Eh, why not?", switched to the bow, and started firing away.

The fight was very long, but quite satisfying. My Skyrim fights typically either end instantly (if I can attack someone from stealth... a 30x backstab multiplier with a dual-wielded power attack of Legendary Mehrunes Razor and Blade of Woe can one-shot even a boss), or very quickly (if I am repeatedly doing that power attack to their face). Well, with this fight, Harkon flits around so quickly that I wouldn't have been able to melee him successfully. As it was, I still missed a good chunk of my shots, but each one that landed took a small yet noticeable chunk out of his health. When he was near the chapel window, I was able to fire through the window into the sun, which did an even more powerful sun-based attack. Whenever Serana seemed to be getting swarmed by the skeletons, I would shoot them to get her out of it; the Sunhallowed Arrows seem to do area-of-effect damage, with both a fire effect and extra damage to undead, so a few shots would eventually take the beasties down, and I could then re-focus on Harkon.

Eventually, he fell, and I won! Isran finally deigned to enter the battlefield and praised us for our work. He begrudgingly acknowledged all the aid Serana had provided, and invited her to join the Dawnguard. She said she would be happy to, unless... unless I wanted her around? Well. Turns out that I did! I don't know how long it will last, but I've been pleased with her as a companion; she can hold her own in a fight, and doesn't bring me into too many unnecessary fights, and has a nice, soft-spoken but insightful approach to the world. (We'll see how long this continues - I think she's marked as "essential" during the main Dawnguard quests, so she merely falls unconscious if her health falls to zero. Presumably, she is now a standard follower, and can die for real. I may send her back to Fort Dawnguard to stay safe if she seems too vulnerable.) She's also just a kind of interesting follower to have around; she'll tinker with nearby alchemy labs, sharpen her weapon on a grindstone, and do other random but visually engaging things.

Oh, yeah: for the record, I've equipped her with my best random castoffs. I've kept her default vampire armor, since it seems pretty powerful, but have added legendary enchanted glass boots and gloves. I had her in a legendary elven helmet for a while, but eventually took it away since I didn't like the goofy look; I replaced it with a Circlet of Destruction, which should make her offensive magic cheaper to cast. I also give her every Staff I come across. She SEEMS to use these; I check her inventory every once in a while, and see the charges gradually dropping. I've also tried giving her soul gems, both filled and empty, but it doesn't look like she will recharge her own equipment, which is too bad; instead, I'll grab her staves once they completely expire and sell them off.

I was chatting with Serana shortly after, and was surprised to see that a new conversation option had opened up to chat with her about being cured of vampirism. We discussed it, and she's going to give it a try! I'm curious to see what happens - whether her appearance will change, whether she will lose any powers, if her personality and dialog will shift to something new. She is thousands of years old, so I do wonder if she'll simply crumble into dust. We will see!


On the whole, the Dawnguard expansion has been possibly my favorite major quest line in Skyrim thus far, right up there with the Dark Brotherhood story and the Thieves Guild. It gets at some interesting lore that helps shed a bit of light on mysteries that run through the entire Elder Scrolls series; it provides some nice item upgrades that apply to the entire game; it introduces some absolutely vast and gorgeous, huge new areas; and it has some very interesting new NPCs, including someone who is BY FAR the best companion I've had in any Elder Scrolls game. (Still not as good as a Bioware companion, but hey, we can't have everything!) It's definitely worth picking up. Now, as I FINALLY turn to the main quest line in Skyrim, I just hope it doesn't feel anti-climactic after Dawnguard...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

+1 Dexterity

Soooo.... television!

I finished this season of Dexter. The finale was better than the last couple of episodes that came before it, but the season as a whole failed to live up to the huge potential of its first half.


I was a huge fan of Hannah - she's sexy and dangerous, one of the few characters with the potential to actually change Dexter. Ever since season three, I've been longing for Dexter to have a true partner, someone he can confide in and kill with. Part of my frustration in recent years has been how the show repeatedly presents someone as a potential addition to Dexter, only to yank them away and return to the status quo. I should have known that this was too good to last - yet again, the writers have built up my hopes for a true partner for Dexter, and denied its fulfillment.

We'll see if that goes anywhere in the next season. I kind of hope so, but I'm not holding my breath. The cynical part of me wonders if this is all part of a negotiating ploy on Showtime's part - I feel like at this point they could talk to both Yvonne Strahovski and Julie Stiles, then pick whichever one would be cheaper for the final season. At this point, both characters have killed with Dexter, know his secrets, and been lovers, so they're somewhat interchangeable.

(My brother Andrew had a great theory that I really wish had been true - he had speculated that maybe Deb had deliberately drugged herself to cause the crash, knowing that it would force Dexter to break up with Hannah. That would have been awesome, but alas, it was not to be.)

Overall, there was just so much wasted potential. Isaac was a fascinating villain, probably the most interesting adversary since John Lithgow in Season Four. His story was really interesting, but it seemed to just be squandered at the end. After that was done, the boring Quinn plot kept running on fumes, for no discernible payoff whatsoever. And, boy, speaking of Quinn, that last episode really twisted the knife in terms of what we lost. Ever since I read the episode title ("Surprise, Mother****er!") I've been waiting to see how Doakes would be involved. My imagination ran wild - could Doakes have a long-lost twin brother? Maybe he was rescued by Cuban paramilitary and turned into a cyborg? Or would he turn into a ghost and defeat Harry in an epic battle of poltergeists? Sadly, all we get is flashbacks, but even those flashbacks were sufficient to remind me how Doakes had more interesting things going on in a single thirty-second scene than Quinn has had over the past five years.

I AM glad that LaGuerta's dead, though. She was hands-down my least favorite regular character on the show. And the way she went was impressive - I was sure that Dexter would do her in, so it was a shock to have Deb pull the trigger. Deb has now gotten pulled as deep as she can into complicity with Dexter's darkness, and I'm awfully curious to see how that will play out during the final season. Is she tied to him now, or will she turn? How will her brutal honesty co-exist with her deep guilt? In a way, this one kill from Deb is worse than any of the hundreds of murders Dexter has committed. LaGuerta, awful as she was, didn't fit The Code at all.

Let's see, what else... I was pleasantly surprised that Angel didn't get killed, since they seemed to be foreshadowing it pretty heavily. The political way Dexter drew out LaGuerta worked pretty well. The tech that the finale relies on is hilariously unrealistic, though. So, let me get this straight... a police officer can order surveillance videos from every gas station in the county? And they take six months to arrive? And they get sent to the officer's grieving widow in Chicago? And it's somehow possible to collect historic GPS tracking data for arbitrary phones from six months ago? (Here's a hint from a guy who programs cell phones: No! It doesn't work that way!) And, assuming it WAS possible, if the person requesting the subpoena was murdered, then the request would just go away? I enjoy suspending disbelief, but I hate when I feel like this show requires me to lower my IQ by 50 points.


I've finished the first season of Doctor Who! It did get better, though I'm looking forward to David Tenant. I think two things in particular surprised me. The first, as I'd mentioned before, was just how corny it can be. The effects aren't very realistic, the settings are often absurd, and individual scenes can be very laughable. The very first episode includes multiple sequences where an actor clutches a prosthetic arm to their throat, vainly thrashing around in an attempt to make it look like the plastic is choking them. It... it gets better than that.

The second thing that surprised me is how much horror is in the series. Having heard a little about the show but not seen any, I'd thought that it would be pure science fiction, something like a British version of Star Trek. Actually, it's much closer to The X-Files. A lot of episodes deal with possession by spirits, or doppelgangers, or seemingly-dead people bolting upright and lurching around. There are sci-fi explanations for all those things, but the settings are much closer to what I'd expect from a horror show.

The characters are pretty good. I grew to like the Doctor, particularly his inappropriate smiles and lurches into good cheer. I never totally warmed up to Rose, perhaps partly because she reminded me a little too much of Buffy and suffered a bit in comparison. The late introduction of Captain Jack Harkness was a lot of fun; he's a very familiar archetype at first glance, and played with full exuberance, and ends up going off in some interesting directions.

Andrew had told me earlier that almost every British actor ends up in Doctor Who sooner or later, and the most fun cameo from this season was Simon Pegg, who gave a fairly villainous turn in an episode set in Earth's future. It still blows my mind that Derek Jacobi appeared on this show; I'm looking forward to eventually seeing him.

And, yeah, I am going to keep going - I liked the few scenes of Tenant that I'd seen from the Weeping Angels episodes, and am optimistic about the seasons surrounding them. It's a different show than I'd expected, but it's an interesting and good show.

Let's see... I think most other shows were already finished before my round-up. The finale for The Walking Dead was awesome, and may be my favorite episode so far from that series, even above the incredible pilot and the barn episode from season two. It seems like the show's creators are listening to the feedback fans have been giving, and this season there's been a drastic decrease in scenes of characters complaining at one another, and a corresponding increase in awesome fight scenes between desperate humans and hordes of ravening undead. There still is character development, but it's much more action-driven now. Plus, we finally are getting some of the coolest characters from the comic, so that's been great.

MEGA SPOILERS (show and comic) for The Walking Dead

It is funny and disturbing that the show seems to be adhering to a strict one-black-man policy. We've had T-Dog for over two seasons, though he never did much other than occasionally saying "Aw, hell no!" Then Oscar showed up, and T-Dog died. Then, in the finale, Tyrese was FINALLY introduced (fellow comic-readers have been confused for a while as to whether we would actually get Tyrese, or if he was getting subsumed into lesser characters), and Oscar died. It's kind of like The Highlander: There Can Only Be One Black Actor.

The fight between The Governor and Michonne was quite brutal. I think it's hard for me to separate my opinion of the TV version of the Governor with the book version. Since I know how horribly he treated Michonne in the book, I was cheering for her while she took him on (though still cringing at the brutality of the violence). Within the context of the show, though, Michonne is the one who comes off as the sadist, not him. In the show, she wasn't tortured, Glen was; she wasn't raped, Maggie was humiliated. Michonne has known that The Governor is bad, but all that she's seen is that he's creepy: keeping enslaved walkers, and an admittedly chilling wall full of living decapitated heads, and a little zombie girl in the closet. Bad stuff, sure, but nothing that directly affects her. I feel like, on the whole, the show version of Michonne isn't as sympathetic as the book version. That's entirely the result of the writing, though; the actress who's playing her is perfect for the role. Oh: also, the TV version doesn't seem to be crazy and hearing voices, so I'm curious if they've dropped that or if it will come in future seasons.

END MEGA SPOILERS for The Walking Dead

Community is coming back in a few months, you guys! I know a lot of people are concerned about what the show will look like in the post-Harmon era. I can imagine it taking a hit in quality, but between the incredibly talented cast and returning writers like Megan Ganz, I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll get some great TV.

The Blobbit: Blere and Black Again

So much to write! Let's start off with The Hobbit. I have a happy history of midnight openings for Lord of the Rings - the first two movies came out while I was still in college, and the third right after I graduated, so I was at my peak in terms of staying up late to enjoy something cool. I just love the ad-hoc communities that pop up around events like this. Any genre franchise movie opening attracts friendly-yet-hard-core fans eager to out-geek one another and show the level of their devotion.

The Hobbit isn't just famous as Peter Jackson's return to Middle-earth settings; it's also been getting a lot of press for its technological advances. Peter Jackson has used this opportunity to champion a switch to a new format for film, dubbed 48 fps. For almost a century, film has been projected at a speed of 24 frames per second; this is a little slower than the human eye can detect, so there is a sort of falseness built into the movie-watching experience; it's what makes something look like a movie and not like reality. Video is shot at a higher frame rate of 30 frames-per-second, which results in a smoother picture. Amusingly enough, people often react to video by claiming that it looks more "fake" than film. Actually, the opposite is true, but in a revealing sort of way: it looks more like reality, and the reality is that those are actors, using props, on a stage, and not characters using items in the world.

(As a tangent: a lot of different concepts get conflated together. High-definition is independent from film speed; the amount of detail you see in a 24 fps version of The Hobbit will be the same as the detail visible in a 48 fps version. Also, the film speed Peter Jackson shot in is different from technologies like "motion smoothing" and "de-jittering" that are built into many new HDTVs. Those technologies actually are awful: they essentially invent fake composite images that get inserted between the actual images, which can, for example, convert from 30 fps to 60 fps. That leads to something that's truly fake.)

The 48 fps Jackson shot in is even higher than the 30 fps of video, and closer to the maximum that our eye can perceive. I decided that I wanted to try watching the movie in its full-on, no-holds-barred form: 48 fps, in 3D, on a huge screen. I initially considered the Metreon IMAX in San Francisco, but since BART shuts down a bit after midnight and I wouldn't be getting out until around 3AM, I opted for the Century Tanforan closer to home. It has a "Cinemark XD", which isn't as large as an IMAX but it still a very big screen, and an awesome theater with large, comfy leather seats.

I pre-ordered my ticket a few days before, but that turned out to not be too necessary. I'm not sure what other theaters were like, but I was fifth in line even though I just showed up a bit more than two hours before midnight. There was a pretty good turnout, but the theater was probably less than a quarter full. (That said, they were doing the midnight showing on three screens, which must have brought down the density. Not that I'm complaining!)

Now, in the past, when I've occasionally gone to sneak-peeks (like for Serenity) or other special events, the pre-movie experience has been great: typically just one or two trailers attached to the movie, and nothing else. Sadly, that wasn't the case here… there was the standard assortment of ads for video games, television shows, beverages, and so on, followed by a long series of trailers. (The reboot of the Lone Ranger looks WEIRD. Most of the sci-fi movies looked grim but interesting.) My theater didn't get the nine-minute Star Trek opening that IMAX got, but we did get to see the new trailer. I'd seen it on Apple's trailers site the week before, and… yeah, definitely looks even better on the big screen.

While the movie trailers were 2D, the DVD trailers before then were in 3D, and the 3D picture looked great. I've enjoyed a couple of 3D movies in the past, particularly Coraline, but I sometimes get the impression that I don't detect 3D as strongly as other people do… I do perceive depth in the image, but I don't get a very strong sense of dimensionality. This time, though, the 3D really "popped" in a way that it hasn't before. I have no idea if that's due to the higher frame rate, or the enormous screen, or what, but it was very impressive.

Ah, but then the movie started. The opening logos for all the film studios (Warner Brothers, New Line, and MGM) were all animated in 3D, and looked amazing. The still images that were shown looked great, with lots of depth and detail. Any time that the camera panned, though, or a lot of action was on the screen, it looked bizarrely awful. There was a kind of streaking effect, so motion was kind of smeared across the screen.

I saw a couple of other people lifting their glasses off and back on, and one or two people left the theater. The rest of us sat quietly and hoped that the movie got better. It really felt like a case of The Emperor's New Clothes - each of us saw that something was wrong, but nobody wanted to be the first to speak up. I think this was partly because of all the controversy around the new format - we all had heard criticism of how 48 fps looked "bad," and were wondering, "Well, is this what they were talking about?"

Of course, it turned out that it was actually a problem with the projector. They softly brought up the lights after about five or ten minutes, and the theater manager (a VERY young guy!) came in and apologized to everyone. He said that they had tested the movie earlier in the day, and everything had looked fine then, but something was going wrong now. His specific words were: "It isn't supposed to look that bad." I just love the use of "that" in that sentence, which seems to imply, "Yeah, sure, it's supposed to look bad.... just not THAT bad!"

They said that they would try to fix the projector and restart the movie. They apologized profusely and offered everyone vouchers for another free movie. Fortunately, we geeks are an amiable lot, and a little punchy when this low on sleep, so folks mostly reacted by laughing and napping. Come on... we had already stayed up until nearly 1AM, there was no way we would call it quits now!

After about ten minutes the movie restarted, and, thank Eru, everything was fixed. The movie began from the very beginning, so I got to re-see all those scenes that had been so painful to watch. Everything was now incredibly lifelike, epic, grand, eminently watchable.

So, whenever people ask me what I think of the new 48 fps format, I have to say that I think it looks great, but I also need to warn them that I'd been perfectly primed to think it was great - after the incredibly awful first showing, and then re-watching in glorious 48 fps, it looked particularly wonderful in comparison!

To be honest, I'm not a huge film buff. I used to go to the movies somewhat often, but for the past few years I see maybe four a year in the theater, and not a whole lot more at home. It seems to be the most enthusiastic theater-goers who are most upset about the format shift, and I cheerfully concede that they probably are picking up on things that I'm not. I will say, though, that I thought The Hobbit was the best-looking movie I've ever seen. It's hard to say how much of that is the 3D, how much the frame rate, and how much seeing it on a huge screen, but it was simply incredible. The epic landscape scenes were jaw-droppingly detailed and gorgeous. You could see an entire forest that seemed to stretch for dozens of miles, and if you wanted to, you could focus on one particular tree and see individual branches, even though it seemed very far away. The actors all looked great as well. I remember being disconcerted when watching movies like Gladiator, that had enormous close-ups that made peoples' faces look freaky. Either I'm used to it now, or Jackson is doing it better than Scott, or there's some improvement from the new technology, since this time around the big screen seemed to enhance and not detract from the close-ups.

The one thing I had trouble with was the battle scenes. They felt exhilarating, but I had a really hard time tracking the action. Unlike, say, the Battle of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers, where I felt like I always had a clear idea of where the various forces were and what each major character was doing, the fights here felt overwhelming and I couldn't always tell what was going on. Again, though, I'm not sure how much of that feeling was due to the technology, and how much is due to how it was shot or edited.

The music in the movie is really, really good. There is a LOT of music that's reprised from Lord of the Rings, generally to good effect - familiar themes for Hobbiton, and the Ring theme, and Rivendell and so on. The new music is excellent, though, and particularly the main "Lonely Mountain" theme. We get to hear that song in a few variations throughout the movie - it is introduced in an acapella vocal arrangement, and returns in more instrumental versions as the movie goes on. It's absolutely haunting, and mesmerizing.

With technical considerations out of the way, let us move on to discussing some

MINI SPOILERS (book and movie)

First things first: Martin Freeman is incredible as Bilbo Baggins. He's the best Hobbit from any of the four movies so far. I did really enjoy Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd from the Lord of the Rings movies, but Freeman blows them all away. He just perfectly embodies Bilbo's character, and the subtle yet crucial qualities that make someone a Hobbit. Bilbo is ultimately someone who is very put-upon, but who bears up under the stress and follows through. He's upset by changes to his routine, and never actually comes around to enjoying his new life, but accepts his lot and does the best he can. Well... that's a perfect description of the roles Freeman has played, as Tim in The Office and as Watson in Sherlock. Freeman perfectly nails that delicate balance of aggrievement and stoicism that the character requires. Even if the rest of the movie was awful, it would be worth watching for his performance alone.

Fortunately, the rest of the movie is quite good as well! Several characters reprise their roles from the earlier movies, in canon-friendly ways. Gandalf is obviously a major character, and it's interesting to see McKellan back in the Grey mode instead of the White. We also see the other members of the White Council: Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman. Along with the 48 fps issue, this is probably the other major controversy around the movie: how Peter Jackson has filled out what's a relatively slight children's novel to a sprawling three-movie epic (and, at just under 3 hours long, each entry in that trilogy is quite substantial already). Some of this extension comes from simple decisions, like some extended takes and a general decision to let the story breathe instead of rushing from plot point to plot point (much like he did in the Extended versions of Lord of the Rings). The bulk of it, though, and the source of the controversy, is his decision to include other events that Tolkien described as having occurred during the time of The Hobbit, but that weren't actually included within the book.

The most obvious is the plot of the Necromancer, which is briefly mentioned within The Hobbit, and later expanded upon within The Lord of the Rings (particularly in the Appendices to Return of the King). Within the context of The Hobbit, the Necromancer is an evil wizard who lives in Dol Guldur, at the southern edges of Mirkwood. Ultimately, he is revealed to be a disguised but re-emerging Sauron. In the books, Gandalf just disappears to deal with him, and reappears at plot-opportune times. In the movie, we actually see what this entails: the meetings of the White Council, their deliberations over the scope of the threat and how to respond.

For the most part, what has impressed me most about Jackson's adaptations is how faithful he has been to Tolkien's work. Yes, there are exceptions, most egregiously his reshaping of the character of Faramir. However, I've been regularly impressed by just how much of the original texts carries forward into the films: whole lines of dialog, visits to particular sites, and so on help to ground the movies within Tolkien's mythos. In contrast, while the stuff Jackson is doing with "The Hobbit" does have a textual basis derived from Tolkien, he's completely on his own when it comes to deriving dialog and fleshing out the details of events.

On the whole, I think he does a good job. Characters sound fairly similar in those "new" scenes to how they sound in the other movies, so it isn't terribly jarring. As an avowed Tolkien nerd, I didn't find fault with most of the expanded stuff he included; it's either taken from the appendices (such as the meeting of the White Council) or fits within a compatible framework (such as Radagast discovering a Morgul blade; I'm pretty sure that Tolkien didn't state that that happened, but it helps make the threat more concrete in a way that works nicely for a movie). The one major invention is actually tied in to the main story with Thorin and Bilbo: Jackson created a new character, a "white Orc," to serve as a grand villain for the first movie. Which is fine, but also kind of funny, since that's EXACTLY what he did for the first movie in "Lord of the Rings" as well. It might have been nice to do something else this time around, but whatever, it's fine.

I've heard a bunch of complaints about Radagast. Personally, I enjoyed him... he's definitely a comic character, and very silly, but I feel like Jackson has more license to play around with him than he does with the other major characters. It is pretty fascinating to consider him alongside Gandalf and Saruman. He doesn't attend the White Council, and I can't remember whether he does in the books, but it seems in keeping with his nature-loving ways to shun even Rivendell.

On the topic of the White Council... I was VERY glad to see Galadriel appear again, because, man, if she wasn't here, there would be NO women at all in the entire movie. I hadn't thought much about gender before, but The Hobbit is very much a boy's book. Anyways, she's wonderful, as always. The thing that had disturbed me most about the first trailer for The Hobbit was a shot that made it look like she and Gandalf might have some sort of pseudo-romantic relationship. That same shot is in the movie, but in the context of the entire scene it's much clearer that their bond is one of affection, not of love. Which, lore-wise, is a relief. I mean, this isn't Melian we're talking about here! I can't get behind a Maiar/Eldar pairing!

I had somehow missed the news that Christopher Lee would be returning for this movie, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him, and it took me a little while to realize that it actually was him and not a replacement. The man is ninety years old, it's great to see him still in action and with such gravitas! It's also interesting to see his character - this is the old Saruman the White, before he was corrupted; but, as shown in this movie, he's still a little overbearing and not as wise as he might think. I thought that was an interesting decision to make - again, since there's little direct textural reference to Saruman, Jackson could have made him very noble and admirable; I feel like, instead, he's showing the seeds of his personality that will lead to his downfall. (Which, in turn, makes me wonder what it will be like when we watch all six movies in sequence after they're all done. The arcs in LotR were already impressive, and for some characters they'll be growing even longer.)

One of the smaller things that had bugged me about Lord of the Rings is how the dwarves in general, and Gimli in particular, were played for laughs; Gimli was generally the comic relief character, and there were jokes about dwarf-tossing and such scattered throughout. Which was a bit of a shame, since in the books I'd always pictured Gimli as an incredibly brave, stoic figure. So, going into this movie I'd been a little concerned that, with thirteen dwarves, it would play as a non-stop laff riot. Fortunately, that's not the case! While some of the dwarves do have a good sense of humor, as a group they're much closer to how I'd imagined them in Tolkien's world. They're serious, and solid, and determined, and honorable, and brave, and tenacious. They're shown to be strong in battle (where Gimli was often portrayed as being lucky), and I rooted for them throughout.


Between the trailers for the movie and the pre-release publicity I'd heard, I had prepared myself for a stylistic adjustment: based on what I'd seen, I would be seeing "The Lord of the Rings Prequels," not "The Movie Version of The Hobbit." The book The Hobbit is a light-hearted, often funny, occasionally charming children's book; the books of The Lord of the Rings are epic, dramatic, occasionally bleak fantasy novels for adults. It turns out that the movie of The Hobbit is actually about midway between the tone of the book "The Hobbit" and of the movies for "The Lord of the Rings". It keeps a lot of the humor of The Hobbit and, a surprisingly large number of the songs and poems. However, the battles and the portrayal of evil feel much closer to that of the earlier movies. Looking back over the movie, it seems a bit jarring just how much the tone can shift from one end to another, but I think it's handled well within the movie itself, since it didn't strike me as odd while I was watching.

Back to the question of length: I do get why people who don't like these movies would be upset at seeing even more of them. Looking back over the almost three hours of the movie, I can picture ample opportunities to cut them down without wrecking the plot: they could pass over the prologue, which establishes the framing device of telling the story, and cut out some of the journeying, and excise some of the side-stories. But, for someone like me who loves Middle-earth, all of those things are wonderful. As long as the material is high-quality, I'll gladly take as much of it that's offered. Since I enjoy this world and these characters, every extended scene gives me more time to spend with them, and every side-plot lets me see another corner of the world. So: people who didn't like The Lord of the Rings should probably stay away, since this is largely more of the same; but people like me who did enjoy it are in for a treat, because this trip to Middle-earth is in some ways even better than the last one.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

In Living Colour

Ryan North's Kickstarter for To Be Or Not To Be recently passed the $300,000 mark, and this unlocked a new reward: all versions of the book will now be illustrated in full colo(u)r! Wow!

The collective read-through of the CYOA has been a great deal of fun as well. We've stuck with Ophelia so far, got a couple of endings (including one particularly awesome one), and are now entering into the CYOA-within-a-CYOA section.

Where will the kickstarter go from here? Who knows! This one has actually been quite unique, in that Ryan announces that there ARE stretch goals ahead of time, but doesn't announce WHAT they are until after we have already passed them. That makes them surprising! And fun! It seems perfectly in keeping with his personality to celebrate awesomeness instead of feeling the need to coax awesomeness from us.

In the (very civil and intelligent and just plain good) Comments section, someone posted a link to a nifty site that does visualizations of Kickstarter campaigns. I love data! It looks like this project has been quite consistent - there was a big influx on Day One, of course, which I imagine is almost always the case for "celebrity" projects like this that tap into existing fanbases, but since then it has been adding new pledges at a pretty consistent rate. It would be interesting to do analysis on the performance over time; I'm curious if the spikes shown follow media mentions of the project, or if certain days of the week are more conducive to pledges, etc.
To Be Or Not To Be: That Is The Adventure -- Kicktraq Mini
Anyways... there are nine days left in the campaign, so if you've been on the fence, now is an excellent time to join in and get a taste of some delicious backer exclusives. The project is even more awesome now than when it started!

Last, but certainly not least, I just had to share this: I was clicking through the Pokey archives the other day, and stumbled across the other intersection of web comics and choose-your-own-adventure stories. It is titled THE HANDS ARE NOT CLEAN!!. Ahhh, Pokey! How I love you!

Monday, December 10, 2012


It's official - I have an Overgoat! For a long time I couldn't even imagine raising the funds for such a beast. One thing led to another, though, and here we are.

I've become a regular reader of the Fallen London forums, and have been fascinated to discover the various ways fans connect with the game. There are different threads of fan-dom. Some are particularly interested in the lore: they want to know more about the story, the characters, the history behind the Neath. Some are role-players: they enjoy creating characters and inhabiting them, interacting with other humans in the shared fictional space that Failbetter has created. Others enjoy hitting the in-game achievements: collecting lots of Echoes, getting the highest-level items and pets, "beating" various storylines. Others are tinkerers, and enjoy analyzing the way the game works, figuring out the math, calculating odds, and trying to discover the "best" way to play the game.

Of course, most players are some combination of the above. Personally, I mostly play Fallen London for the lore, but the nerd/engineer part of me has been inspired by some of the analysis on the forums. This involves calculating the rewards for various storylines, figuring out the optimal way to complete those storylines, and analyzing the relative levels of risk or randomness involved.


The current consensus is that the most profitable way to earn echoes is via the "Case of the Fidgeting Writer" storyline. This is a story that will progress through up to 7 stages, starting with a 50-pence item (a Tale of Terror!) and ending with the reward of a Coruscating Soul (currently the only so-called "Tier 7" component in the game), worth 312.5 echoes. The catch: each stage has a chance of failure, leaving you with nothing. The odds of each individual stage succeeding are good (somewhere between 50-75%), but the odds of passing through all 7 stages successfully are miniscule, only about 3.75%.

Interestingly, the major challenge of Fidgeting Writer is psychological. As humans, we are more pained by failures than we are elated by successes. So, even though you may know intellectually that it's worthwhile to keep plowing through all the failures, it can still feel profoundly disheartening to suffer 26 failures for every 1 success.

Thus, the strategies around Fidgeting Writer are driven more by a desire to keep our emotions in check than anything else. Specifically, the most successful people approach the task with large batches. You'll convert all of your Tales of Terror! to Senses of Deja Vu, then all your Senses of Deja Vu to Glimpses of Something Larger, and so on. That way, all your failures are mixed in with your successes, and it's easier to keep your spirits up. (By contrast, in my first crack at this storyline a few months ago, I banged my ahead against the wall many times before calling it quits with a single Brass Ring and a single Night-Whisper. This attempt took much longer, but felt better on the whole thanks to the new approach.)

There's still ongoing discussion over exactly how much Fidgeting Writer can be expected to return over the long run; a variation of just a few percentage points for a single step can have a big magnifying influence on the progress as a whole. It's further complicated by the requirement for intermediate components. If you already have them lying around, then you can calculate your profit by just subtracting all your component costs from your eventual earnings; if you're missing any, though, then you need to factor in the time it takes to acquire additional pieces, which essentially extends the number of actions you're spending on the batch. This has also led to some in-depth discussions around the best sources for such components.

All that to say: there's a lot of math, which is a nice combination of complex and comprehensible: you just need algebra and statistics, so even my rusty many-years-out-of-college self can take a crack at it. I found myself doing similar calculations when I was creating high-level components to craft special items, and when I was spending an extended time on Polythreme. I eventually filled out several pages of a Google Docs document cataloging my experiences.

And, I'm enough of a nerd that I actually enjoy this stuff, which I think it a big part of what's kept me coming back to Fallen London for so long. It fires all parts of my brain: the analytic part, and the part that enjoys reading a story, and the part that enjoys collecting baubles, and the part that wants to imagine another world.

Speaking of another world: it keeps getting bigger! I'd put off the experimental Heist content while wrapping up the Overgoat, but I finally ran through it this morning. It's pretty fun! It has some superficial similarities to the Dinner Party, which I had quite enjoyed, but feels more game-like. You can spend as long on the heist as you want to, and can do preparation before the heist; once on the heist, there's some nice deck-management to take advantage of, and some risk analysis. I haven't done enough to be very confident, but right now I'm leaning towards this approach for my next attempt:
  • Get just two Inside Information; I brought along three on my initial trip, and didn't need the third. I didn't need a key, and if you don't mess up you shouldn't need an escape plan.
  •  Try to start the heist when you have a full deck of six (undrawn) cards. Like the Dinner Party, starting the content doesn't just clear your hand, but it also resets the timer on your deck, so if you only had 1 minute left for your next card to arrive, you would essentially lose 9 minutes' worth of time. Try to have just one or two actions available. This ratio will basically let you be choosier about what cards you play, without ever risking "wasted" actions.
  • As with Polythreme or the Sea of Voices, only play a single card at a time, and draw after each play. This will let you avoid wasting draws on "bad" cards.
  • What are "bad" card? For my money, they're the ones with only luck-based options.
  • As far as I can tell, most of the non-luck options will either give you 2 progress points (if they take Inside Information or have a non-luck challenge) or 1 progress point; the 1 progress point may also increase Noise. To get the best reward, you'll need 7 progress; so you can get there by, for example, spending your two Inside Information, passing 1 skill check, and taking 1 other non-luck challenge.
  • You need to draw a card to end the heist, but in my game it popped up as soon as it was valid, so I think it has a higher weighting.
I've also started my first of the new cases, the Honey-Addled Detective. I'm taking my time with that one - I was seeing a bunch of faction cards last week that would advance the story, but now that I have it, they're not showing up, and I'd rather wait for the cards than take the slower path through.

Overall, it sounds like the goal of Failbetter with the new content is to add some new stories that don't rely on grinding, which I think is a fantastic ambition. I love spending time in their world, and look forward to having newer, more fun things to do in there.


On a sadder note, the Kickstarter for Below has been canceled. It never took off the way the Silver Tree one did. I'm a bit curious why, although there are several factors that may have contributed. Unlike The Silver Tree, it wasn't connected to Fallen London's lore, and so the fanbase probably wasn't as inclined to support it; it was one of the first Kickstarters to be funded in Great Britain Pounds instead of US Dollars, which may have made some Americans wary; and the rewards seemed a bit pricier than the Silver Tree's (though some of that might be due to currency conversions).

However, Chris Gardiner, the lead designer of Below, has decided to press ahead with Below as a personal passion project. I'm rooting for him! They're taking influences from all the best places (Tolkien's Moria, Beowulf's cave), the writing has been very strong so far, and the gameplay has been pretty fun. I'll be checking in as the project progresses.

In other game news...


I've completed the Dark Brotherhood questline. It's been fun! There's actually a bit of choice involved here, more so than the Thieves Guild, although the only choice is how many optional murders you commit at the end. Still, the overall arc was pretty impressive. I'm glad that I still got to assassinate the Emperor, although the fact he was so blase about the whole thing still weirds me out. The final visit to the original Sanctuary was really creepy and impressive. I was sad that Astrid died - next to Karliah, she's probably my favorite character in the game so far - but at least she died in an impressive and meaningful manner.

I'm currently progressing along the Dawnguard expansion. I rescued Serana and returned her home to Castle Volkihar. I actually like her a lot more than I like Isran, but I don't have any desire to become a vampire, so I didn't accept the offer of blood. (It is kind of funny how her dad offers to show you how amazing vampires are, and then proceeds to turn into an incredibly ugly beast. Um, you're not exactly selling it well.) I also keep meaning to pick up the main Thu'um quest, but am endlessly distracted.


That's it for now! Game on!

Monday, December 03, 2012

Alpha and Omega

I've been getting back into Mass Effect 3 lately. I officially beat the single-player game back in July, but since then I've periodically checked back in to the multiplayer campaign, typically just accomplishing the weekend challenges to unlock promotional weapons from the Commendation Packs. In the last couple of weeks, though, my multiplayer has "graduated" to first place in my gaming rotation. That's driven by a couple of things, but the biggest is probably the release of the Retaliation expansion and its accompanying Challenge system. The challenges are structured to give you nice goals and things to look forward to, and along the way, they've been prompting me to break out of my rut and try some new stuff, with great results.

For example, I've almost always played an engineer in multiplayer, with occasional forays into other classes. The new weekend challenge system, though, has included some awesome, fun challenges that force you to play with a specific type of character. There was one where you had to score a certain number of points with fire-based attacks (Incinerate, Carnage, Flamer, Flame Turret, etc.); another required doing a certain amount of damage through Biotic Charge; this weekend's was to set off a large number of Biotic Explosions. The resulting teams are fairly chaotic, but way too much fun. I would have thought that playing with four Vanguards would be disastrous, and to be sure people died a LOT more than typical, but everyone seemed good-natured, and took advantage of the opportunity to earn some Revive medals. The fire-based and biotic explosion challenges seem like they may be designed to help educate the players about the mechanics and use of Mass Effect's explosion system. If so, it was successful: players can see first-hand just how quickly matches can be won when everyone is setting up and setting off one anothers' explosions.

Along the way, I've finally made the step up to regularly playing on Silver difficulty. There are a lot of things that change from Bronze to Silver: enemies are faster, and hit harder; ammo boxes have fewer grenades; less health is restored after each round; bosses appear in earlier waves (Reapers by Wave Four in Silver versus Wave Seven in Bronze); and there's no limit to the number of times a boss can appear in a wave. During Operation Blast Furnace, I started playing with my Vorcha Soldier, and was surprised at how easy he made it. The Vorcha is an interesting character: with his Bloodlust skill, he's able to regenerate health, but his regeneration rate is dependent on having recent kills. This led to a COMPLETELY different playstyle than I was used to. Generally, as an engineer, I hang back behind cover, spawn a helper to draw fire, and opportunistically take shots with my powers when I can. As a Vorcha soldier, though, I strapped on my flamethrower, started running around, and learned to kill kill kill kill KILL THEM ALL CAN'T STOP MUST DESTROY WARGHARGHAWARGHA!

I kept playing with the character after beating the challenge, and started to get a better appreciation for what he does. He especially shines against the Reapers, who used to be my least-favorite faction to play against, but their mindless hordes of fodder were actually a perfect match for the soldier's mechanics. I'll typically start off by finding some Husks and Cannibals, and use my Flamethrower to quickly kill them, gaining several stacks of Bloodlust. I then run around the field, mowing down all the weak enemies I find. My biggest target is Ravagers, who are hands-down the most dangerous Reaper enemy. I used to always hate facing them, but now, if I have full stacks of Bloodlust, I can actually regenerate my health more quickly than Ravagers can shoot it down; and so I can face them with my flamethrower and burn them down in three seconds, rather than cower behind cover for half a minute or longer. I love it, and I'm sure my teammates appreciate it as well. The health regeneration is what gave me the confidence to try the build out on Silver. I equipped some one-time-use equipment for my first game, made sure to play against Reapers, and was really pleased with how it went. I died a few times, and it was definitely harder, but in a good way: I felt like I needed to be smarter, and more aware of the battlefield, my position and the enemies'.

For about two weeks, every game I played (except for Challenge matches) was a Silver Reapers game. This had a great side-effect: more cash! I typically finish a Bronze match in about 15-20 minutes. A silver match usually takes just a bit longer, a little over 20. (Though, a game on Glacier can take as little as 17.) But, a Silver match awards roughly twice as many credits as Bronze does, and I usually walk away with around 35k in credits. That means that I'm now getting a Premium Spectre Pack after every three matches, unlike before, when it would take seven Bronze matches to get one. That's meant more and better gear, new character unlocks, upgraded weapons, and carry capacity. I think that I've finally reached my maximum for the number of missiles, medi-gels, ammo packs, and survival packs I can take into each mission.

While I love tearing things up with my Vorcha, the Challenge system has been giving me some good incentives to try out some other builds. Thanks to my proclivity with engineers, and the fact that Flamer counts as a tech ability, I was about halfway towards reaching the Tech Mastery achievement. This would unlock a nifty banner, "Mathemagician", which would display in the lobby. To finish the remaining parts, though, I would need to try out some other types of characters to get some points from rarer skills. So, I played with the N7 Paladin's Snap Freeze a bunch, and the Krogan Sentinel's Tech Armor, and so on. I was bummed to realize that I couldn't actually get the banner, though, since I was missing three characters who had four of the rarest abilities: Submission Net, Geth Turret, Shadow Strike, and Electric Slash. So, I went back to my Silver Reaper games with my Vorcha, and sure enough, I eventually unlocked the N7 Slayer character. A couple of matches later, I had my swanky new banner!

I'm finally getting to the point where I'm comfortable playing Silver with other classes and other races. This weekend I did most of the challenge as an Asari Adept playing on Silver, and after getting my packs, I moved on to some other classes: the Drell Adept, and most recently the hilarious Volus Adept. I'm mostly poking away at the Biotic God challenge, but I'm also enjoying building up my skills for Silver without the crutch of infinite health regeneration.

Against this backdrop of multiplayer goodness, I was feeling even more positively disposed towards the Mass Effect universe than usual, and so I perked right up when I heard about the latest DLC expansion for the single-player game. Mass Effect: Omega is set in the Omega space station, possibly my favorite location in Mass Effect 2, and features Aria T'Loak, my favorite recurring character from the series. I haven't bought any of the other DLC for the game - there have been two campaign expansions and a couple of smaller cosmetic weapon or appearance packs - but this story just seemed too good to pass up.


Omega is set during the main campaign of Mass Effect 3, so I loaded a save game from before the final push. I suspect that it's playable after you recruit the Blood Pack during the main campaign. In my case, I got an email from Aria inviting me to a meeting on the Citadel (docking bay 42!), and from there we headed off to retake her station.

I was very pleased with the high level of polish in the expansion. There are plenty of great cut-scenes, dialogue, interesting moral choices to make, some Renegade interrupts. I couldn't find credits specifically for this expansion, but I'm pretty sure that Carrie-Anne Moss is reprising her role as Aria. Her dialog is as awesome as always: she's curt, arrogant, and supremely confident, even when her position seems objectively weak. There were also some wonderful little moments in her scenes. She has some amazing miniscule eye-rolls when someone says something particularly virtuous or naive. Jennifer Hale reprises her voice work as Shepard, and is as wonderful as I've come to expect. She's never showy, and perfectly expresses the role of a strong woman in a dangerous situation. There's also a cool new character (the first female Turian we've seen!) and a colorful assortment of minor Batarians, Vorcha, Turians, and Asari. Almost no humans to be seen, aside from a cute hacker at a terminal.

The combat is pretty fun. I should not have been surprised to discover that my months of playing multiplayer have totally spoiled me for the single-player game; I ended up taking the difficulty all the way up to Insanity, and still was able to beat all the fights without dying or using medi-gel. My companions were less useful than my human companions in multiplayer, but I would still treat them somewhat similarly. Back in engineer mode once more, I would stick behind cover, deploy my tools (Combat Drone PLUS Sentry Turret PLUS Defense Drone), then proceed to fight. With a better understanding of power explosions, I now alternate between Overload and Incinerate, and thus can set off a lot of helpful explosions. My companions would inevitably die, but rather than medi-gel them I would rush to their side, revive, and then get back into cover.

The fights do often feel rather different from Multiplayer, though. In MP, you're in a fixed combat space, and need to survive or accomplish objectives there. In Omega, you're generally moving forward through an area, and rarely backtracking. The levels are still interesting - there's lots of cover, some exposed zones, often multiple levels of elevation, etc. - so that was a nice change of pace. Most of the fights are simple "kill all the bad guys as you go from Point A to Point B" missions, but a few fights towards the end had more complex objectives to accomplish during a fight. Those final fights were the most difficult in Omega, but still probably a bit easier than the fight against Kai Leng, and much easier than the big London battle.

The enemies you fight are mostly Cerberus, primarily the units we've come to know and love from the single-player campaign, but they've also added in the Dragoon that was created for multiplayer, as well as a tech unit that seems unique to this DLC. There's also a new species they've created, which looks really impressive, although almost no time is spent actually fighting them.

It isn't all fighting, of course: besides the cut scenes, you also spend a bit of time in ally-controlled sectors of Omega. This is like a very stripped-down version of the Citadel: there are a couple of people you can talk to, one or two optional missions to pick up, and a single store that sells some upgrades. (One piece of advice: buy every upgrade that you want as soon as you can. You won't have many opportunities to return there.)

As usual, I generally followed the Paragon path, although I did take one Renegade interrupt (shooting out a security camera) and a handful of Renegade dialog choices (while I want to preserve as much civilian life as possible, I don't have any problem with Aria returning to her dictatorial role: I want a strong ally holding down that region). The DLC ended for me with a typically bittersweet mixed outcome. I'm curious now if my choices could have altered the outcome... it would be in keeping with Mass Effect's approach to storytelling if making a choice to sacrifice the lives of innocent civilians could have prevented the death of someone I cared for.


 On the whole, I was really happy with the DLC. I'll address my complaints first. Most of my issues with this are the same as my problems with ME3 as a whole:
  • It's extremely easy to miss items located in a mission - datapads, salvage, credits, weapons and upgrades. It's frustrating since, unlike ME1, you can't revisit an area later to grab anything you missed the first time around; and unlike ME2, you need to be almost on top of an item before it will display in your reticule. I really wish there was some indication that items are remaining to be found.
  • There are a few minor graphical glitches. Nothing too major, but occasionally characters will zap into the frame. On one elevator ride, Aria's shadow was dancing on the floor psychotically.
  • I have a hard time justifying the price tag. On the one hand, it's a great expansion. On the other hand, it's $15. I bought it on Saturday night and had beaten it by Sunday night, and I wasn't playing non-stop. It's about a third the cost of the entire game of ME3, and adds the equivalent of one planet's missions.
If money is an issue, then I'd recommend waiting for a bit, as I'm sure that Bioware will eventually release an "ultimate edition" with all DLCs included. Playing through this DLC, while a good experience, actually makes me less inclined to pick up the first two ("From Ashes" and "Leviathan") - both of those are just $10, so I doubt that they would be any longer or more impressive than this one, and besides, I'm still irked at From Ashes being a Day One DLC. (Conversely, I feel increasingly dismayed that I never tried out "Lair of the Shadow Broker" from ME2, and I'm pretty sure that I'll never go back to experience it.)

If you can swing the cash, though, it's definitely worth checking out Omega. It adds lots of wonderful character moments with Shepard and Aria, and feels like a worthy addition to the Mass Effect epic. Be aware that it's a bit on the short side, but everything you do is fun, so minute-for-minute it's a wonderful expansion.

Switching topics:

I was GOING to say that I had wrapped up Fallen London, but it looks like my timing has been impeccable: right around the time I finished the last storyline, Failbetter started rolling out some new content. Much of the focus has been an extension to the Seeking Mr. Eaten's Name plotline, which I personally do not participate in, but has been fascinating to hear about second-hand. I've also seen some new heists crop up, and some recent changes to the faction Opportunity cards make it look like another wave of plots are coming up.


I'm currently frantically running through the Fidgeting Writer sequence, and I think that I, erm, might end up with an Overgoat. I know, I know, I'd sworn that I wouldn't do it, but I'm so close now!

The last storyline I did was the Mystery of the Plaster Face, and boy, am I ever glad I saved it for last - if I had tried it earlier in the game, I'm pretty sure I would have quit in frustration. So much about it irritates me... starting the second phase will cut off the chance to experience the first phase, without giving you any warning of doing such; the second phase requires a horrendous grinding without any intermediate progress (basically, keep trying a nearly impossible luck-based challenge until you succeed, and get hit by nightmares for each of the many, many, many, many times that you fail); for the bulk of the plot, I was paying my way to keep my companions safe and boost a quality to progress; only to learn that, in the latter phase of the plot, I needed to DECREASE the same quality I had spent so much money increasing, and would have been far better off not parting with the cash; THEN I lost my favorite companion in the whole game, and wound up with a nifty-but-useless pet at the end. It was pretty horrible at every step of the way, and if I wasn't such a completist I would have given up long ago; as it stands, I'm mad at myself for wasting so much time and so many resources when I could have been doing Fidgeting Writer instead.

So, if you're wondering whether to do the Mystery of the Plaster Face, I'd kind of urge against it; but if you want to give it a try anyways (and, from what I can tell, it isn't NEARLY as painful as SMEN), here are a few tips.
  • If you think you might want to eventually do "A Night-time Conference" (the storylet in your lodgings with your rats), do NOT take the first step in "The Mystery of the Plaster Face" (the storylet in your lodgings with, well, a plaster face). Starting the latter cuts off access to the former.
  • I think that A Night-time Conference may actually let you get through the Plaster Face without that luck-based challenge, though you may need to build up a Quality a certain amount to do so. If you do need the luck challenge, though, be prepared to bang your head against a wall for quite a long time - it took me about 20 tries to get it. For me, a good approach was to grind that storylet until my Nightmares reached 5; then take a break and go back to other stuff, using helpful Opportunity cards (A Moment's Peace, A Familiar Face by the School Railings, etc.) to bring Nightmares back down to around 2, then go back to grinding. You'll eventually get it.
  • I don't have great advice to give for the middle portion... I think it might be best to stick with the cheaper bribes all the way through, but maybe it's worthwhile to grind it out with some disposable rats. 
  • For the love of all that is good and holy, do NOT use your disgraced bandit chief ever, for anything, under any circumstances. It simply isn't safe. And you'll cry.
Other than that miserable experience, though, I'm still generally enjoying the game. I do look forward to acquiring my Overgoat, and suspect that by the time it's in my greedy hands, the next tier of content will be available for me to explore.


And, as long as I'm posting random stuff....


I'm continuing along Skyrim, though less quickly now that I'm back on Mass Effect. I've completely finished the Thieves Guild quests, and think that I'm nearing a climax of the Dark Brotherhood. After this, I think I'll probably switch back to the main quest. I'm not too interested in the Companions or the College of Winterhold factions, and many of the other missions are basic "explore dungeon X to acquire item Y and return it to person Z" endeavors.

I do still want to figure out how to buy more houses - so far I've only gotten the ones in Whiterun, Riften and Solitude.  The one in Solitude is awesome - it's sort of a cross between a townhouse and a mansion, three stories of luxury. That's where I took my wife after our wedding. Oh, yeah, that's right - I got married!

After experiencing the romance systems in Bioware games, romance in Skyrim is... pretty hilarious. It's also another great example of the philosophical differences between Bioware and Bethesda. Bioware, in their quest for curated experiences, will offer a handful of romance options; each one will be a full, complex, creative creature, with long relationship plots, myriad dialog options, and ways for you to shape and influence the relationship and your partner. Bethesda, as typical, trades off quality for quantity. You can marry any one of... well, at least dozens, and probably scores, of people. They're rather forward-thinking in that you can marry someone of either gender, and also of any species you like: Nord, Redguard, elf, lizard, cat, whatever. The romance itself is pretty laughable. You need to wear a special ring, see. Then talk to that person. If they're interested in you, they'll comment on your ring. You express your own interest. Then they agree to marry you! The ceremony itself is pretty cute - it's held in a chapel in Riften, with your housecarls on one side and your beloved's associates on the other - and they wear a pretty wedding dress. Afterwards, you can decide whether to move in with her or send her to one of your houses. And then... that's pretty much it. She'll stay there, making you home-cooked meals and providing an extra experience bonus. I think there's like a single line of dialog post-marriage to hear; otherwise she'll keep repeating stuff she'd otherwise say.

Oh, yeah: I ended up marrying Muiri, a cute apothecary's assistant from Markarth who had me murder her ex-boyfriend. I know, I know, THAT old story. I was also kind of interested in Sapphire, from the Thieves' Guild, but she doesn't seem to be marriageable. Aela the Huntress will actually accompany you on your journeys, but personality-wise she didn't seem to be a great match with my character. I'm still much more of a lone wolf, preferring to sneak through dungeons with my dual-wielded daggers rather than leading a charge of companions.

And, as long as we're comparing franchises, playing through ME so close to Skyrim has reminded me of yet another difference: just how pointless so much of Skyrim's dialog is. There are almost no points where you actually get to make any decisions when talking to someone. In most quest-related dialog, there's only one single line to "choose" from. In some cases, like the Dark Brotherhood quests, there might be three responses, but none of them will have any material outcome on the mission. I have so few opportunities to establishing my character's personality. It feels a little constricting.

However, there is one BIG choice you can make in the game, and I have been putting off making it. Skyrim is taking place against the backdrop of two crises. The first, most obvious one is the return of dragons. The second one, which I think is actually more interesting, is a... well, a revolution or a civil war, depending on your perspective. This game takes place hundreds of years after the end of Oblivion, and the Empire has gone through many changes: the Septim dynasty has ended, it's been involved in a war against the Dominion (an alliance of Altmer and Bosmer elves), been forced to sign a humiliating treaty that, amongst other things, forbids worship of Talos. In Skyrim, the Nords are increasingly disillusioned by the Empire and their role in it.

There's a struggle for power between two factions of Nords. One, led by Ulfric Stormcloak and based in Windhelm, seeks to claim independence from the Empire and establish a free Skyrim led by the Nords. The other, led by the puppet ruler Elsif and based in Solitude, seeks to continue Skyrim's membership in the Empire. At the start of the game, I had assumed that I'd be backing the side of independence. Since, you know, I'm in favor of freedom and against oppression and tyranny. So I created a Nord character, sided with the Nord prisoner during the initial attack, and even freed another Nord prisoner on the road.

As I'm delving deeper into the story, though, I'm growing increasingly drawn towards Elsif's faction. Part of this is based on my understanding that the Empire is essentially like the Roman Empire here on Earth: yeah, they're in charge, and have big armies, and appoint puppets to rule; but, they're generally happy to let their subjects run their own lives so long as they don't fight the empire, and they tie together most of the world in a multicultural, cosmopolitan quilt that's helpful for trade and culture. I've also come to understand that the Nord faction is pretty, um, racist. You never see any Khajit inside the Nord cities, and it's extremely rare to see any Argonians. The Empire-friendly cities, while still dominated by Nords, seem much more tolerant of other races and cultures. While I myself play as a Nord, and so I don't directly feel that hostility, it's still something that's pulling me towards allying with the Legion.


Last night's Dexter seriously bummed me out. This happens to me EVERY SEASON since the second one: The show starts out really promising, the first few episodes seem to be taking the show in an intriguing direction... then everything gets stupid, and awful, and I hate myself for getting fooled again into watching it. Note to self: next year, don't be swayed by independent reviewers who say "this season looks good!" - wait until the END of the season when they can use that phrase in the past tense. I'll save hours of time that can be devoted to more worthy programs.

On the plus side, I didn't think it was possible, but I love Parks and Recreation more than ever this season. That show continues to evolve, taking characters in believable, heartfelt, hilarious new directions. I'm really enjoying Tom's arc - I'm one of the few viewers who loved the Entertainment 720 storyline, and it's great to see him learning from his mistakes and trying to succeed again. And the relationships on that show - April/Andy and Ben/Leslie - are just delightful, and growing better as time goes on.

Speaking of relationships, last week's 30 Rock was one of my all-time favorite episodes. Jack Donaghy's reading from Atlas Shrugged was a definite highpoint.

The Walking Dead has been pretty painful this season, but I gotta say, it's still less painful than the comic books. I've been cringing during all the scenes in Woodbury, and am very, very glad to see that the show's creators have stayed away from the most sadistic elements of that sequence in the books. It's been interesting to watch The Walking Dead as an adaptation; they take a far looser approach to the source material than Game of Thrones does, and still hit many of the same story beats while radically changing around characters, timelines, and settings.

I've finally started watching the reboot of Doctor Who, starting with the Eccleston season. It's... very cheesy. I've been assured that it gets better.

Um, I think that's it for now! So many games, so much great TV... it's a wonder I ever manage to read any books these days!

UPDATE: I grabbed some screenshots from my play-through of Mass Effect: Omega. These should probably be considered mega-spoilers. Also, I can't believe it took me until now to realize that, since Omega is typically used to mean "end" (as in, you know, the title of this blog post), that name may have been a deliberate choice from Bioware to indicate that this will be the final piece of content in Shepard's story. Something to think about!