Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Here are a few random thoughts percolating in my brain-pan. Mild spoilers for each paragraph, provided after an introductory sentence stating the topic:

After much dedicating urging from my brother, I've finally started watching the British TV series Misfits. It's really good! It's darkly comic, with lots of fun sex and violence, set in a moderately grim modern London. There are multiple good hooks into the show, but one of the best is that all of the main characters are awful: they've broken the law (and not in the impressive sense of "I stole the crown jewels" or "I avenged my father", more like "I stole too much candy" or "I set fire to a house"), and are various degrees of stupid, greedy, dangerous, or just plain antisocial. The entire cast is really good, but the standout is Iwan Rheon, who plays... erm, an especially memorable character in season 3 of "Game of Thrones". After seeing this show, I can totally see why HBO would cast him in that role: he has the perfect eyes for the part. Those creepy, creepy eyes. Incredibly, though, he and the rest of the cast manage to be somewhat endearing, at the same time as they're being perfectly awful. Anyways! It's a standard British show, which makes me fall in love with it, and then sad that they don't believe in producing more than six episodes in a season. Now I need to decide whether to binge or savor the remaining episodes.

I'm all caught up on Doctor Who.  The two final specials were typical Doctor Who, in that they amused and frustrated me in equal measure. It was a lot of fun to see Tennant again, and I enjoyed the little cameos they gave prior Doctors. On the other hand, pretty much any time they go back in history it sets my teeth on edge, and the Queen Elizabeth storyline elicited a record number of groans from me. Honestly, I'm not really sure why they had that plot line at all: it felt like they weren't confident that a major storyline tying together all the doctors and determining the fate of Gallifrey was enough to keep people's interest? So they dropped in a sub-B-plot with badly-designed aliens and corny dialogue to prop it up? I dunno. The Christmas special was also pretty dumb: fun dumb, but the plot made less and less sense the more I thought about it. Which really is the lesson I need to learn: if I want to ever enjoy this show, I should really stop holding it to any sort of rigorous intellectual standard. But, Capaldi's introduction was excellent, and I'm already looking forward to the edge he might be able to bring to the character. Also, it was pretty fun to catch several direct addresses to the raving Who fanbase, such as a direct statement by Matt Smith calling himself the Twelfth Doctor, instantly resolving the long-running debate about whether the War Doctor counts in the chronology.

Heroes of Dragon Age has acquired a surprisingly resilient hold on my attention. Which, fortunately, is minor: it's the sort of thing I can pick up once or twice a day, make some progress, then put away. I still haven't paid any money for it, so it's way more grindy than I would have thought I could tolerate, but still enough progress to keep me going. I'm currently defending Minrathous against the Qunari during the first Qunari war. My go-to team is Black-oriented, with Grey Warden Carver and Duncan in the front line, Merrill and a Desire Demon in the rear, supported by an Inferno Golem. It's a pretty solid team, especially against the Quest maps (the Desire Demon has low health and so doesn't last very long in PVP). Merrill continues to be my MVP: she Hits All with a lot of power on a Medium speed, so she's effective in PVP at wiping out Desire Demons, Grey Warden Mages or Tevinter Mages before they get a chance to move. She also drains power, which helps a ton in all fights. I maxed out her crit chance a long time ago, and with her in the back row she's very deadly. For a long time I kept my Dark Revenant on the team, since he has very solid stats and made a good frontliner, but I eventually decided to swap him out for a top-tier Desire Demon: she doesn't help much in PVP, but she has a lot of utility in quest maps since she Hits All with a medium chance to stun. For any medium-difficulty challenge, I just need to replay it enough times to get lucky with landing the stuns, and then it becomes a cakewalk. Duncan replaces my Grey Warden Rogue; both are quick single hitters, Duncan doesn't gain power after hits, but he has stronger stats across the board and so can fill the front row spot vacated by my Revenant. Carver is another very solid addition: he has good stats, attacks rows, and even has a small chance to stun. Finally, I love my Inferno Golem, who is a ridiculous damage sponge. He's slow, so he doesn't hit often, and doesn't do a ton of damage, but he can absorb a huge number of hits, distracting enemies from my more vulnerable teammates.

I've slightly updated my strategy for this game. I no longer bother screening my PVP matches at all, and just accept the first fight I'm offered. I hardly fell in the rankings at all, and much more importantly, I'm earning more gold and experience. My previous strategy of only taking easy fights works well for any individual fight, but once you get "too high" in the rankings, these fights will earn a pittance, and your inevitable loss will shoot you way down. Since you tend to lose about 3-4 times as many trophies on a loss as your earn in a win, once you reach equilibrium you'll get about 3-4 wins per loss: and, since you're competing from a lower bracket, you'll earn a lot more for each win.

I have a ton of games that I want to play - I received Burial at Sea for Bioshock, have both of the Enhanced Editions of Baldur's Gate queued up, and am still less than halfway through the main campaign of NWN2 - so of course I immediately started another game of Fall from Heaven 2. It's just so much fun! I wanted to have a builder-oriented game after my more combat-oriented Amurites campaign, so I reluctantly postponed my long-promised try at an evil civ (still love the flavor for Calabim and Svartflar, just don't particularly like the warmongering gameplay they're optimized for), and instead went full elf: Arendel Phaedra of Ljosalfar, promulgating the Fellowship of Leaves faith.

It's been a really fun game so far. I started out isolated in a coastal valley, and so needed to change my plans slightly, building some coastal towns and acquiring sailing techs. Khazad was the first to acquire a religion (Runes of Kilmorph, natch), but I quickly followed up with Fellowship, and then followed my standard religiously diplomatic strategy and founded all five remaining religions. In most games, this makes it far easier to convert everyone else to your own faith, which does wonders for diplomatic relations and the kind of religious peace that's so conducive for builder games. In my particular case, it has been a mixed success so far. Arturus Thorne is angrily set in his Runes ways. He had somehow managed to convert Varn Gosam to the faith, despite the two of them never meeting, and Varn resisted my inroads for a while. Eventually, Empyrean automatically spread to the Malakim lands, and of course he instantly converted to that faith. Fortunately, as another Good member of the Overcouncil, Varn thinks we're BFFs. And then there's Cassiel, who is Agnostic and can't follow any religion (though I can still convert his cities). Ironically, the most stalwart adherents to the Fellowship are the Clan of Embers and the Calabim, who are also the only two civs to have declared war on me. (Sandalphon of the Sidar was long happy to pay lip service to the faith, but recently has converted to the Council of Essus, which does not bode well for our future relations.)

The most interesting part of the game so far has been its strong exploration focus. In most FfH2 games, there's a burst of exploration early on as you expand the map around your starting location, but by the end of the first century you've usually exhausted all of the tribal villages and such, and move into a phase of warring against barbarians and rivals. This game, though, has tons of nooks and crannies in its Erebus map, and as a result I am still finding new villages and dungeons well into the mid-late portion of the game. Along the same lines, this is the first game I can remember where I have put serious investments into the Recon line: I had a strong core of Hunters fairly early on, and currently have two highly-promoted Rangers exploring distant portions of the map. That's allowed me to use some really fun game mechanics, like scouting with hawks, and taming wild animals to build an army of beasts who accompany my lone elf in wars against distant barbarian cities.

I'm currently in a very strong position, with a significant tech lead over my rivals, a solid manufacturing and financial base (gotta love towns built on top of ancient forests!), four hero units, the Exalted Altar of Luonnotar, and significant soft power in the form of good relations with most civs. I was briefly nervous when Jonas and Alexis independently declared war on me within a few turns of one another, but the war ended up being a good thing. I built Baron Duin Halfmoon, then conquered practically all of Jonas's territory, along the way building up a furry tide of fury that devoured his armies and waxed ever stronger. I eventually researched feudalism and vassalized him, then liberated all of his cities. I think this is the first time I've ever taken a vassal in FfH2, so I'm a bit curious to see how it plays out. The war with Alexis was lower-key: I upgraded some galleys to privateers, then sunk her boats so she couldn't reach me. She refused to negotiate for a while, but eventually relented.

Now, I need to resolve the classic FfH2 dilemma of deciding how to end the game. I'm currently leaning towards a religious victory: I've already spread the Fellowship to over 60% of the planet, and if I can convince Arturus to open his borders, I'll have a good shot of getting to the 80% needed for victory. If that proves too difficult, though, I could also take another shot at finally getting an Altar of Luonnotar victory. I've almost totally neglected the arcane line, so it would take a very long time to research and build, though. Or, I could just shoot for a straight cultural victory. Evermore could very easily reach Legendary status - it's currently at a population of 50 or something ridiculous like that, has maxed out its specialists and hasn't even finished building The City of a Thousand Slums yet.  But, I'm not yet sure what my other two candidates would be, and I'm pretty sure that would be another time-consuming goal to reach.

On a very different video-game-related topic, I finally read an excellent article called "No girls allowed" that looks into the history behind the video game industry's awful attitudes towards female gamers. The general idea is that this was a self-fulfilling prophecy that started in the mid-1980s, when video game manufacturers began exclusively marketing to young boys, and continued (and became distressingly sexualized) as their target audience grew into adults. They point out that in the Atari era, games were marketed equally towards all family members, and women held prominent roles at Atari. It's a very well-researched and convincing article, though I have to quibble a little with their chronology. The article gives the impression that Lori Cole and Roberta Williams were part of a golden age of gender equality prior to the gaming crash of 1983, when in fact virtually all of their games came out well after. You can easily explain this away by virtue of the fact that history is complicated, and moves in currents that can't be easily summarized in a single article (even a long one). More specifically, while the article does a really good job at differentiating between arcade and console games, it doesn't delve into the PC/console dichotomy, which would make an interesting tangent for this topic: I personally feel like, FPSs notwithstanding, the PC has historically been far more welcoming to female gamers than consoles have. A more direct response to the Williams/Cole conundrum, though, is that there's no substitute for ownership of companies. If a woman is in charge of a company, and wants to make games with female protagonists, it's going to happen. If we want more inclusive games to be released in this millennium, one excellent start would be correcting the paucity of women in the boardrooms of major game publishers.

Finally, in literary news, I'm about 2/3 of the way done with The Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon. I'm sure I'll do a writeup later, so for now I'll just say that it's the best novel I've read in 2013, and is kind of like a perfect companion to The Crying of Lot 49, one of my all-time favorite books.

Have a happy new year!

Monday, December 30, 2013


I realize that I am squarely in the center of the target audience for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." I grew up on Tolkien, and credit the book The Hobbit with sparking a lifelong love of reading. I love fantasy, love adventure, love Tolkien, love magic and elves and gorgeous vistas and battle scenes and lore. I'm the kind of person who grows baffled when people complain about how long the Hobbit movies are - who would not want to spend more time in Middle-earth? In the words of Ice T, I don't understand why Peter Jackson made these movies three hours long when they could easily have been nine hours each.

I missed out on the midnight screening of The Hobbit this year, but compensated with a pretty nice back-to-back marathon instead: the extended edition of An Unexpected Journey (thanks to an awesome Christmas present from my brother), followed by a trip to the theater to see The Desolation of Smaug (once again in 3D HFR).

MINI SPOILERS for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Extended Edition)

The extended scenes in AUJ feel less significant than those in the LotR trilogy, but were still really nice additions. For the most part they add more humor and song back into the story; in particular, the stay in Rivendell lasts quite a bit longer, with more sight-seeing, more dialogue, and some fun singing and comedy. It also restores another song that the Goblin King sings in Goblin Town.

The other additions are more minor, and seem to primarily flesh out the lore a bit more: some of these add connections to or foreshadowings of the main plot in LotR, others given some more background, particularly on the feud between dwarves and elves.


I'd deliberately avoided all reviews and articles about The Desolation of Smaug, so I went into the movie with no expectations other than those set by the book and the previous movie. And, unsurprisingly, I loved it. The story turns even more serious than the already-somewhat-dark first section, seeming to lose all of the singing and much of the comedy. But it's also more focused, with the quest in full swing, despite a division in the plot (reminiscent of the trifurcation of plot threads after the breaking of the Fellowship in LotR). The story itself is exciting, and at the same time it's sowing some seeds that will pay off explosively in the third movie.

I don't think I can do justice to the beauty of these films. They're absolutely stunning. Even when re-watching AUJ at home, my breath was taken away by the gorgeous sunset lighting that fills the frames at Rivendell and at the climax. Similar beauty surrounds the action in TDoS as the party travels through Mirkwood en route to Erebor. Individual locations are deliberately ugly - Mirkwood has a sinister sheen, and Laketown feels desperately insular - but even these are intricately designed, and help establish the contrast with the heart-wrenchingly exquisite landscapes we see adjacent to them.

While I'm not a musical person, I've steeped myself in these movies enough to have an autonomic response to the major themes written by Howard Shore. I love how he can incredibly subtly drop in a sly reference to the Ring Theme in the scenes where Bilbo is using his ring - it isn't as fully developed here as it will be in the future after its power is revealed, but the insinuations send shivers up my spine. Other old friends return as well, like the sweet Hobbit theme that crops up whenever Gandalf marvels at the courage and resilience of these tiny Englishmen. And, of course, tons of new music has been composed for the new films as well. The Lonely Mountain theme remains my favorite of the new crop, but there are also some cool new pieces set around Dol Goldur and Thranduil's Court.

MINI SPOILERS for The Desolation of Smaug

In no particular order, here are some opinions!

Tauriel is a terrific character. I'm not a huge fan of Evangeline Lilly, but I loved her portrayal of this character, and was really impressed in general by the addition. I should probably note that I have a fairly catholic approach towards Tolkien fandom: the books are my first love, and I'm generally happiest when they're adhered to, but I really enjoy other artists' interpretations of the stories; I tend to tolerate differences from the source material so long as they don't make things actively worse than the original (as in the re-interpretation of Faramir's character). I think that Tauriel is a case study in the right way to adapt a work: she serves a particular purpose, and while she isn't present in the initial lore, she doesn't contradict the rest of the lore.

First, the purpose: clearly the reason Tauriel exists is to add a female protagonist to The Hobbit. That is, frankly, something that's rather sorely needed: if AUJ hadn't had a scene with the White Council including Galadriel (which was also an addition from the book), it would have had absolutely no speaking female roles at all, which is a particular kind of Bechdel hell. Why doesn't The Hobbit have any female characters? Well, one very likely reason is that Tolkien had his three sons in mind when he was writing it: he would tell them stories, and if you're telling a story to a young boy, you'll probably have a young boy as a protagonist. His daughter Priscilla was only three years old when he finished work on The Hobbit. Years later, when working on The Lord of the Rings, Priscilla was a teenager and complained about how the boys had all the fun in the book; so Tolkien, the good father and good writer, created the character of Eowyn, an intelligent and brave young woman who rules wisely and slays the Witch-King of Angmar, greatest of the nine Nazgul. If The Hobbit had been written a decade later, would we have gotten more female characters? I like to think that we would have. (And maybe finally gotten a straight answer as to the identity of dwarven women.)

Anyways: all that to say, I think there are great reasons to add female characters to the movie. It makes the story more interesting, provides a more-relatable role model, and hopefully will make the movie more attractive to potential female fans. Importantly, the idea of a strong female warrior is consonant with other writings in Tolkien's legendarium. Besides Eowyn, Haleth was a famous amazonian warrior chieftess who led one of the tribes of men back in the First Age. In other writings specifically about elves, Tolkien noted that:
In all such things, not concerned with the bringing forth of children, the neri and nissi (that is, the men and women) of the Eldar are equal... There are, however, no matters which among the Eldar only a ner can think or do, or others with which only a nis is concerned.
This isn't to say that it would be wrong to create an awesome female warrior elf if Tolkien didn't have a precedent, but I think it smooths the way considerably.

As you can probably tell just by the number of words I'm writing, this is the sort of thing that creates big controversy among Tolkien fans. Many devotees cringe at any deviation from the canonical text, and tampering with Tolkien's work is often seen as disrespect for the man's great work. So, I think it was not only good, but smart, of the writers to pay so much attention to the lore in crafting the dialogue of her scenes. There are just a couple of sentences exchanged between her and Thranduil, briefly referencing the distinction between the sindarin and the silvan elves; it isn't particularly important for the story, and will certainly fly right over the heads of people who aren't steeped in the lore, but for those of us who have devoured the Silmarillion and pored over pages of charts of geneologies, it's an immediate, soothing reminder that the creators of this movie are also fans, and also know the lore, and are crafting a component that will slip into place, not carelessly ripping apart the story for their own whims.

While book fans appear divided on the issue, it looks like Tauriel is striking a chord among movie and fantasy fans, judging from the excellent fan art and cosplay I've seen. She might end up becoming one of the best legacies of these movies.

Similarly, I was fine with the addition of Legolas. It's well-established that Legolas is the son of Thranduil, and he would almost certainly have been in Mirkwood at the time of The Hobbit. He isn't named in the book, but almost no elves apart from Thranduil are, so it's totally reasonable to imagine that he was present. (The best counter-argument is probably that he would have mentioned in TLotR if he was; but I can certainly imagine why a proud sindar lord would not want to notify his noldor hosts that he failed to prevent the escape of a company of dwarves.)

Legolas's action scenes were as ridiculous as always. It no longer irritates me. By now I'm just willing to accept that that's what he does.

Speaking of which, though, the choreography for the fights in TDoU were incredible. That escape from Thranduil's Court was particularly exciting: almost entirely invented, of course (the barrels leave uneventfully in the books), but it was a really fresh twist on the chase scene trope, and also included some of the most comical sequences in the movie.

Not everything was reinvented, though. For example, the Beorn section played out pretty much exactly like it did in the book. They also did a really good job at developing certain themes, such as the tension between elves and dwarves; while not using the exact same techniques as the books, I feel like they landed in the exact right emotional spot in conveying the mutual bad blood between the two groups, the dwarves driven by greed, the elves by pride, and both by stubbornness. Scenes like the confrontation between Thorin and Thranduil were really well done: you can see how each of them, believes that they are right and just, and neither has sufficient empathy to consider the others' desires. (I hate to keep riding this hobby horse, but it's stuff like this that makes me baffled whenever people describe Tolkien's universe as morally black-and-white. Granted, Eru is perfectly good, and Morgoth is perfectly evil, but everyone else is drawn in varying shades of gray, from the greatest of elves to the lowliest of men.)

The casting for the movie seemed really solid. Martin Freeman continues to impress me, and further solidifies his position as the best hobbit, ever. Beorn looks a bit different from how I imagined, but his character's affect was perfect, all suppressed menace. Evangeline Lilly disappeared inside her role and let the fantastic character shine through. Thranduil's role from the first part was greatly fleshed out, and is arguably even a deeper portrayal than the character shown in the book: he isn't just a capricious meany, but a dedicated isolationist (and one we can sympathize with, too, as he's one of the few creatures alive to know first-hand the terrible tolls of war).

Things get really fun in Laketown, which is the first part in the movie where we've had a large cast of Men (as opposed to males). I haven't seen the guy who plays Bard in anything else, and at first I thought it was Kit Harrington (Jon Snow in Game of Thrones). I had heard about Stephen Fry playing the Master of Laketown, and loved him in that role. He's an interesting character, kind of an affably, menially corrupt charlatan. Even the minor characters in Laketown were a lot of fun; the gatekeeper reminded me a lot of Tony Robinson, and the Master's stooge recalled Blackadder in a particularly sniveling role. (Also a nice bit about Laketown: we finally see some people of color! Yet another thing that's been pretty lacking in the films, and that also meshes nicely with the lore. Laketown has active river trade with the Rhun area, and therefore more traffic with the Easterlings, in contrast with the more isolated northerners west of the Misty Mountains.)

Oh, but Smaug... wow! Everyone's been waiting to see him, and it's about five hours into the series before we get our first look at him. He's fantastic. Great and terrible, indeed. I'd been particularly excited to see him ever since I heard that Guillermo del Toro did the creature design for him, since del Toro is almost certainly the best monster-maker of the last two decades. I'd been curious if he would come up with a particularly crazy concept, but it turned out to be an extremely well-conceived take on the traditional idea of a dragon. You've got your serpentine neck, your wings, your talons, your fire, your scales. But... the look of it is awe-inspiring, and grows impossibly more overwhelming as you see more of him in action. They did an incredible job at conveying the scale of the beast, which is incredibly hard: how can you make a mind grasp how much bigger this beast is than the hobbit?

Of course, the voice is responsible for much of the effect, and the terrific Benedict Cumberbatch brings his A-Game; the voice is digitally manipulated to be even deeper than usual, but his precise diction and haughtiness still radiate out from every syllable. I haven't re-read The Hobbit lately, but I'm pretty sure that much of Smaug's dialogue with Bilbo is lifted wholesale from the book, and their exchange really captures all the fraught contradictions of the scene: Smaug is so much more powerful than Bilbo that it isn't even funny, but his vanity and pride urge him to put on a show for his victim. Bilbo's in constant danger, frantically drawing on all his reserves of courage, flattery, guile, and magic in order to survive.

Also on the topic of Benedict Comberbatch: he also did the voice for the Necromancer / Sauron. The scene that showed Gandalf's confrontation with Sauron was fascinating. Sauron has no physical form at this point in history, and is merely a disembodied evil spirit. How does one portray that? Well, the way the movie does is darn impressive, offering a pretty convincing idea of what "darkness incarnate" might look like. Likewise, kudos for being able to portray a struggle against evil, when there is nothing physical to struggle against.


My biggest complaint with the movie is that - get ready! - it isn't long enough. Or, more specifically, I'm a bit curious why they cut it at the point they did. Assuming that the movies continue to follow the main plot of the book, an excellent climax would have come up in the next couple of scenes. As it is, I'm wondering how the pacing of the third movie is going to feel. I can already imagine how all the critics who complained that the first movie took too long to get going will soon be complaining about how the third movie has too much action.

Be that is it may, middle entries in trilogies are notoriously difficult to manage, and I did enjoy the set piece that the film ends on, even if it ends in a shockingly bald cliffhanger. I'm just not entirely sure why they felt the need to have one. Do they seriously think that we won't be back next year for the third?

Friday, December 20, 2013


It’s sometimes a fun thought experiment to ask, “If I could only have 1 X for the rest of my life, what would it be?” where X is a form of entertainment. My thoughts tend towards those items of sufficient length and complexity where I can see myself continuing to enjoy digging through them for year after year. Thus for novels I’m drawn more towards pieces by Pynchon, Joyce, or Melville, over simpler (though still high-quality) works. For movies I would want something like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but if that wasn’t available, I might pick The Princess Bride, for its combination of genres. Why pick between comedy, adventure, and romance when you can have all three?

When it comes to video games, though, I am much less hesitant in selecting a victor: Civilization IV, with the Fall from Heaven 2 mod installed. Civ games are already bottomless sources of fun, endlessly variable and endlessly interesting each time you start up a new game. And FfH2 just adds even more orders of magnitude of complexity, differentiation, and replayability to an already-solid core engine. In some ways this feels like a bit of a cheat, since I’d practically be getting a dozen games instead of just one.

It’s been a while since I played FfH2, and even longer since I did the standard game; my most recent efforts were devoted to working my way through the impressive set of scenarios. The itch has been growing for a while, though, so I finally scratched it and set off on my latest quest.

This time around, I decided to play as Dain the Caswallan of the Amurites. The Amurites are one of the arcane-focused civs, and it’s been a long time since I did much with the arcane line. Way back in my first Kuriorates game I had advanced pretty far along that part of the tech tree, but that was a much earlier version of the mod: the AI still wasn’t smart about spellcasting, and the set of spells have shifted considerably since then (back then, Law III let you cast Unyielding Order, which was critically important to my megacities). Since then I’ve had some experience with divine spellcasting, or largely ignored magic altogether. Magic is something that most players will either fully commit to or ignore entirely: adepts are fairly expensive to build, and require specialized prerequisite buildings, so the opportunity cost of taking magic is fairly high.

I did some advance reading online to set my strategy in place. Obviously, I was going to want to build several adepts and eventually promote them up to become archmages. However, there are some fascinating wrinkles in this strategy available only to the Amurites. Their hero unit, Govannon, can teach Level 1 spells to ANY unit, even those without arcane abilities. The general idea here is to allow footsoldiers access to useful utility spells, so a Swordsman could Haste himself or grant an Enchanted Blade. But, it also allows other units with access to higher Channelling tiers to then go on and learn higher-level versions of those same spells.

Tier 3 Arcane spells are VERY powerful. You can summon an Earth Elemental, who has 11 STR + 1 STR for each Earth Mana you have. You can cast Resurrection, which lets you bring a dead Hero back to life. You can cast Domination, which lets you take ownership of an enemy unit. In order to balance this power, FfH2 limits each civ to only building 4 Archmage units, which puts a cap on the amount of damage you can do.

However! There are ways around this. One common loophole is to have your Archmages learn Death 3, and then transform themselves into Lichs. Lichs still have access to Channeling 3, but count as a separate class from Archmages. So you can end up with 4 Lichs and 4 Archmages, for a total of 8 top-level spellcasters.

Well, with the Amurites, you can push that even further. You can teach spells to Druids, and to Divine spellcasters, and then train them up to top-level Arcane schools. This strategy works for any unit with access to Channeling 3, which includes some Hero units. All told, by the end of my game I had NINETEEN units on the field who were capable of casting these ultra-powerful spells. That’s quite an advantage!

With this strong base, you’re in a good position to go for any of several victories. Thematically, though, I wanted to attempt the Tower of Mastery victory, which is oriented for arcane players (and which I hadn’t yet achieved). This behaves somewhat similarly to the Space Race victory in standard Civ. You need a lot of research in order to embark on it, and you need a solid industry in order to complete it.

After advancing past the basic magic techs, you start gaining access to specialized schools of magic - necromancy, elementalism, etc. Each lets you upgrade raw mana nodes to more particular types; for example, Necromancy lets you build Death, Entropy, Chaos or Shadow nodes. If you manage to gain access to all four types of mana in a school, you can then build its corresponding Tower, a Wonder that grants you an additional bonus. Building the Tower of Necromancy, for example, will provide you an additional Death Magic mana source, and will also increase the number of skeletons your civilization can summon. Finally, if you build all four Towers, you can then start work on the Tower of Mastery, a BIG project that will take a long time to finish, but result in a victory upon its completion, as you have gained control over the fabric underlying the universe.

In practice, Tower of Mastery is a very difficult victory to pull off. Most civs will start with two mana sources thanks to their palace, and might get one or two upgradeable raw mana nodes in their empire, depending on luck and the size of the map. Beyond that, though, mana is very hard to come by. Some religious shrines provide one. If you’re very lucky you MIGHT be able to trade if a rival happens to have an excess. In practice, though, winning this victory will generally mean going to war in order to capture additional mana nodes. You don’t need to get all 16, but you will need at least three and probably four: after building a Tower, you can Dispel a node back to its raw source and then build a new type of node.

I aggressively explored the map when starting out, and kept mana nodes’ positions in mind while plotting my expansion. An ideal location for a node is 3 squares away from your city center. Nodes don’t yield any food, hammers, or trade, so it’s best to keep them outside of your workable radius; ideally you’ll expand to cover their territory on the first culture growth past the full radius. As always, though, reality must bow to theory. I had one node deep in tundra, and planted a city further away from it than I would like. I eventually managed to gain access to it, but it took centuries more than I had hoped.

As such, it took me a depressingly long time to get started on my first Tower. I could easily get 3 sources in any of two different schools, but that elusive 4th proved hard to acquire. So, I started some projects on several simultaneous fronts to get over that hurdle. First, I began working on the Rites of Oghma project, which creates new raw mana nodes throughout the world. Second, I launched a war against the Clan of Embers, an already-hostile civ that was decently close to my capital and had several mana nodes. Thirdly, I bumped up my culture production in Darian, the city so tantalizingly close and yet so far to that final raw mana node - I had been surprised when the bump to Refined didn't expand my borders in quite the way I'd expected, leaving that resource languishing adjacent to my borders for the entire next, significantly more difficult tier.

Of course, all three prongs bore fruition at around the same time. The Rites gave me a couple of new nodes within my borders, but also some new ones in the area I'd already earmarked for conquest, and by the time I'd wound down that war, Darian finally gained access to its node. Even though I'd been hamstrung in my attempts at tower construction, though, I'd been progressing at full steam on building up my arcane frontline. I'd already promoted my Archmages, and had a set of Wizards waiting for me to achieve Lichdom so they could be promoted up. More excitingly, though, I had also trained a full set of four Druids, then cross-trained them with Govannon. I build druids even less often than I build archmages: they're at the end of an expensive line of nature/recon tech that, while thematically strong, doesn't support my key goal of capturing enemy cities. In this game, though, I finally came to realize why Druids are so awesome. First of all, yes, as Amurite druids they could do amazing stuff like cause devastating snowfalls and withering corruption. Beyond that, though, they are very strong and versatile fighters to begin with, which also means that they can gain XP much more quickly than arcane units (not to mention that they start with Tier 3 when you acquire them, and don't need to first gain XP and level up before upgrading).

Druids still had one more key ability, though, which I had not appreciated or even known about before this war. First, I should back up and describe the geography of this particular incarnation of Erebus. Most civs were on a large continent that filled most of the map. I was located near the center, inland. I could extend all the way south to the antarctic. A set of mountain ranges blocked me off from the Clan of Embers to the east, and also provided a border between me and Amelanchier of the Ljosalfar to my northwest. I'd initially had open jungles to my west, but Acheron the Red Dragon established his city there, and for several centuries he was a potent buffer between me, Ljosalfar, and the Sheaim to the far northwest of the continent. The Sons of the Inferno were also very active, creating numerous fires that wreaked havoc across the west; I eventually chopped down my border forests in order to create a firebreak between those lands and my own.

Eventually, once I gained access to Tier 2 Summons and attached a Great Commander to a highly-promoted Dwarven Axeman, I managed to defeat Acheron and claim the city for myself. Tensions quickly escalated with my now-neighbor Tebryn, and I went to war with him, then was surprised to find that he held only two cities. I now held control over the entire western half of the continent, except for a rump state of Ljosalfar, which was protected to the south and east by impenetrable mountain ranges, to the north by the ocean and another mountain range, and only accessible through a narrow gap in the west.

So: even though my territory bordered that of Jonas, I had no way of reaching him. The mountain range ran the entire distance of the map, from ocean to pole. Now, ordinarily this is the part where you would say, "Let's build a ship!" Except, in this particular continent, a coastal range of mountains blocked access to the water. The only exceptions were within Ljosalfar's territory, and on my newly captured (and small, and rebellious) Sheaim cities, which were on the opposite side of the world from my intended destination.

Ordinarily, this would be a great thing. Jonas had already declared war on me, which meant he was spending resources preparing for battle, but he had absolutely no way to reach me without sailing halfway across the globe and fighting a long, punishing battle through my entire kingdom. Now that the tables were turned, though, I was distressed to find that I faced a similar problem in reaching him.

As if that were not enough, I had a fresh source of urgency. Shortly before the Sheaim were destroyed, they completed their Infernal Pact and summoned Hyborem into the world. The Armageddon Counter had been floating around in the teens for a while, but it swiftly shot up as Hyborem began aggressively spreading the Ashen Veil and causing destruction. Thank goodness the Sheaim had already built the Prophecy of Ragnarok and it was now sitting safely in my hands; if Hyborem held it, the situation would have gotten far worse. As it was, though, the Counter jumped up to 30, triggering the first Blight. Yikes! The last time I'd gotten the counter that high, I was playing as Hyborem and so it didn't affect me; before that, I've been playing with mostly good/neutral civs and haven't had to worry about Armageddon; before that, I was playing on an earlier version of FfH2 (perhaps Fire?) that had the Horsemen but no Blight.

Anyways: it's nasty. There's some damage to all military units, but that isn't a big deal. What is a big deal is massive unhealthiness in all your cities. My huge 20+ population cities came crashing down to as low as 8. The Sheaim cities, which were hit by the Blight in the midst of our very short war, came out even worse, with one city a measly 3 population at its nadir. I grimly bore the suffering, and after several decades began the slow process of recovery, but it served as a very clear warning: if I wanted to build my precious tower, I would have to take more direct action to prevent the spread of the Ashen Veil.

But how to get there? I glumly contemplated building a port and raising a flotilla just to ferry across a handful of my archmages. In the meantime, I was unmarshalling my forces from the Sheaim conflict and building up my infrastructure. A crucial element of this was my druids - who, again, I had never built before. With Channelling 3 and Nature 3, they can cast the "Revitalize" spell, which effectively terraforms their current square: ice turns to tundra, tundra to plains, plains to grassland. Previously marginal cities were swiftly becoming population and economic powerhouses, thanks to my longstanding combination of the Aristocracy and Agriculture civics, now coupled with nearly limitless grasslands. While moving my druids around, though, I stumbled across something odd. Typically, if I want to figure out how long it will take a unit to move somewhere, I'll right-click and drag around the cursor; by default, it will move to the indicated spot when I release the button, so I'll typically hover over a mountain or other impassable terrain to cancel the move. With the druids, though, it wouldn't cancel. And, furthermore, it would show their path moving right through the mountains.

"Huh," I thought. "That's a weird bug." I verified that it only happened with the druids. And then... my heart started racing. I popped open the Civilopedia and read the druids' entry. I hadn't dared hope, and yet it was true: druids can move through impassable terrain! Even as a griffon might fly overhead, so these intrepid guardians of nature could move easily through even the most daunting of obstacles.

Well. That changed everything. Forget the boats! I was now set on a familiar plan of attack, with a novel spearhead but a much-loved shaft. I scattered my most powerful units (archmages, vicars, highly-promoted melee units) amongst my dozen-or-so cities. I set my capital to building The Nexus. This unique world wonder creates an Obsidian Gate in every city. The Obsidian Gate functions the same as an airport in vanilla Civ IV (though obviously is much cooler): it lets you instantly teleport one unit from a city each turn. Because it only limits the city of origin, and not the destination, I would just need to capture a single foothold city within the Clan of Embers, and then could instantly deliver my entire army.

While The Nexus was under construction, I sent my druids to reconnoiter in the mountains. Fortunately, the AI doesn't seem to grok that hostile units can hang out in "impassable terrain", and so Jonas never bothered to protect this flank. The druids were able to swoop down, pick off vulnerable single units, then retreat to the mountains for healing before striking again. In this way, they rapidly gained levels and were able to take the spells I would most rely on in my war of conquest: Snowfall (thanks to a lucky acquisition of the Letum Frigus; most games don't have any sources of Ice Mana), which does approximately 40% HP damage to all adjacent units up to a maximum of 80%; Summon Earth Elemental, which raised (for me) STR 12 units; and, later, Summon Djinn (which has 2 movement per turn, and started with just 9 STR but was 17 STR by the end of the game), and Enchant Spellstaff (which lets you cast twice on the same turn).

Jonas never knew what hit him. The moment The Nexus opened its interdimensional portals throughout the Amurite empire, my four druids swept down from the mountaintop. Their target sat at the heart of the Clan's empire, far from the sea where they were expecting me to strike, and it was laughably lightly defended. On the first turn two Druids blanketed the valley in harsh ice, shriveling the defenders down to a mere shadow of themselves. Then, two massive Earth Elementals rose from the ground, easily wiping out the once-mighty Ogres with the merest gesture. His army began desperately wheeling south, but it was far too late. On the next turn two new Earth Elementals, a Djinn and an Ice Elemental knocked out the archers and other defenders, and then the druids (decent fighters in their own rights) slaughtered the ritualists and mages left hiding inside. They marched through the gate, claiming the city for our own. A shimmering Obsidian Portal arose in the middle of the square. The time had come, and mere moments later, the brave vanguard was joined by the most fearsome force on all Erebus: wise archmages, valiant dwarven axemen, loyal vicars. Now that I was on his turf, Jonas didn't stand a chance.

The war was brief and exhilarating. Jonas fought desperately, throwing wave after wave of fodder at me in hopes of breaking my front, but his cause was doomed from the beginning. Never fight a war against a sorcerer. Every single turn I could summon up another dozen disposable units, each individual one more powerful than anything the Clan could muster. Even on the rare occasions when they managed to defeat one, it did not matter: it would have vanished in the next turn anyways, replaced by a fresh one in any case. My mortal units could just join in to pick off the weak survivors, or simply watch and enjoy the show.

So, I took my precious mana nodes, including my first source of Death mana. I then carried out the Dark Pact, sacrificing my heroic archmages to become lichs, and then promoting their old apprentices to fill their previous masters' robes. Also, though I had only recently turned to divine matters, founding the Empyrean and belatedly training up vicars, I was finally able to bring Chalid to the front and begin promoting Luridus...es. (Luridi? Luridii?) My already-formidable spellcasting squad was now becoming simply ridiculous as we expanded and united across discrete modes of magic. I had gone from too few mana sources to an abundance, and was now able to start simultaneous work on two different towers at once. It was also around this time that I began transitioning from Earth Elementals to Djinn as my preferred city-smashers.

I was about to learn a new lesson, not just for FfH2 but for Civ IV: War weariness is important! It's kind of ridiculous how much I avoid fighting wars in these games; I've proudly won major victories in both games without ever fighting anything but animals and barbarians, and when I have fought wars in the past, they're either defensive or extremely pointed (typically capturing a single strategically important city). In contrast, while I had no interest in completely wiping out the Clan, I did want a big swath of their land, which would mean taking five of their cities. Of course, they wanted to keep it, and I ended up defeating most of their considerable army. All of this led to war weariness. A lot of war weariness. So much that I had to do some research to figure out what the heck it was and how to resolve it.

War Weariness (henceforth WW) is tracked on a civ-by-civ basis. So, if I fight both the Clan and the Sheaim, each has their own separate WW counter. The counter increases with each skirmish, by a differing amount depending on the nature and outcome. Successfully defending one of your cities will have no impact; attacking and losing a fight on foreign soil will add to it considerably. (I'd seen a comment from Kael mentioning that summoned units don't affect WW, but as far as I can tell, they do.) As the counter rises, unhappy citizens are added to your cities. This seems linked to city size, so a population 20+ city might have several unhappy people while a population 8 city will not. As WW continues to rise, though, more and more people will become unhappy, to the point where it can lead to massive starvation. At one point, fully half of the 28 population in Cevedes was rioting, plunging the city into a cycle of self-destruction.

Ending WW is deceptively simple: end the war. As soon as you sign a peace treaty with your opponent, that civ's WW value will no longer affect you (though any other combatants' will). The underlying WW value is still present (visible by hovering over the leader on the Diplomacy screen), and will decay slightly each turn. So, if you re-start a war as soon as the 10-turn ceasefire is over, you'll still have a major problem, but if you return to battle a century later, the earlier conflict will be mostly forgotten.

In my case, I had to press on through several turns of agony: I had routed Jonas's standing army, but still had to smash my way through the defenders of some key cities. Finally they fell, and I quickly opened negotiations. I now learned something else entirely new: you can get really good concessions to end a war! Again, I rarely fight at all in these games, and when I do it typically either leads to a complete wipeout (if you're going for a conquest-type victory or a dangerous foe) or a rushed conflict and early truce (if I was attacked or just needed one city). In this case, though, I had decisively defeated my opponent, and was in a position to dictate terms. I had captured only three of the cities I wanted from him, but convinced him to cede ownership of the other two I was eyeing to me as well. This was fantastic: it turns out that, when you acquire a city as a result of negotiation, you don't need to deal with a period of civil disorder, and even better, seemingly none of the city improvements are destroyed: you get a fully-functioning city and territory immediately ready to become a productive part of your empire.

My WW with Jonas was around 800 by this time, but signing the treaty instantly removed all the unhappiness from my cities and we quickly got back to work building our towers. I had a hunch I might be fighting him again one day, though, and wanted to be ready for it. Civ IV and FfH2 give several means for mitigating WW, none of which I had invested in before, but whose value I now suddenly understood. Several civics (like militarism / conquest / police state) can lower the effect of WW; I believe that it something says "-25% War Weariness", then if WW would typically cause 4 citizens in a city to become unhappy, only 3 will become unhappy instead. However, I was too heavily reliant on my current civics to be able to switch; abandoning agristocracy would devastate my population and economy, and I didn't want to curtail the massive science boosts I was getting with scholarship, caste system, and my many specialists. Alternately, several buildings and wonders help deal with the problem. I set one of my major cities to building the Tower of Eyes. This creates a free Dungeon in every city, which in turn reduces your WW by 25%. I figured that this could provide several valuable turns of respite should a war spring up again.

By this point I had made contact with everyone in my game. The roster included:
  • Myself, Dain of the Amurites, occupying the landlocked center of the megacontinent, with large cities and lots of trade but little production.
  • Amelanchier of the Ljosalfar, in classic turtle mode, with several major cities, ancient forests, and Fellowship of Leaves, a longstanding friend and trading partner (though religious rival).
  • (Dead) Tebryn of the Sheaim, who ran a tiny empire and was responsible for bringing Hyborem into the world.
  • Jonas of the Clan of Embers, a sprawling evil empire on the east of the continent, now divided into noncontiguous northern and southern territories after my conquest.
  • (Dead) Garrim Gyr of the Luchuirp. I'd never met him, but eventually learned that he'd built a decent-sized empire in the far southeast of the continent before being conquered by Jonas.
  • Hyborem of the Infernals, who thankfully was restricted to a valley surrounded by the Clan on all sides, and thus limited in expansion potential.
  • Capria of the Bannor, who occupied a sizeable island to my north, spent most of the game fighting an endless struggle against the numerous barbarians occupying the flaming lands of the continent's northeast.
  • Finally, Rhoanna of Hippus, who, in a cosmic joke, was placed on an isolated island far to the northwest. Her legendary horsemanship had little use, and she wasn't involved in much of anything this game.
 Once I had finished my fourth tower, I started work on the Tower of Mastery. I gulped: it would take over 80 turns to finish, even in my most-productive city! I'd somehow overlooked that crucial fact in my numerous trips to the civilopedia. Unlike in some other versions of Civ, I couldn't build caravans to let other cities help in its production either. I was going to have to tough it out.

And then, in the very next turn, everyone in the world declared war on me. Even Capria, with whom I'd had a longstanding friendship (and only recently had gifted some advanced technology and iron, in the hopes of supporting his fight against the barbarians), and Rhoanna, whom I viewed only with pity. Well. I felt up to fighting anyone on the planet, thanks to my mastery of all arcane knowledge, but still, there were logistical obstacles to fighting along a front that encompassed, um, my entire sprawling empire.

I didn't particularly want to fight anyone, so I checked to see if I could negotiate an early peace treaty with anyone. My heart sank: most leaders wouldn't even talk with me, and those that would could not even consider peace as an option. Would this mean 80 turns of war? What on earth would that do to my war weariness?

I quickly determined that I faced three very different threats. Amelanchier shared a border close to my civ's core, and had built up a ridiculously large army (at one point I observed over one hundred units inside a city). He was decently advanced, and had multiple civ and religious heroes, plus a good amount of mana. Jonas was still recovering from our earlier fight, and I wasn't too concerned about his attacks (which, regardless, would only strike my periphery); but the remaining war weariness was already causing production problems in my cities, and I couldn't afford it to add substantially to whatever new WW I racked up with the other five civs I was fighting. Finally, Hyborem posed no immediate threat to my borders; but these wars would provide a fresh source of damned souls for him to conscript into his army, and so he had the potential to rocket up into a megapower if the other conflicts got too heated.

Carefully monitoring movements in the first turn or two after the onslaught started, I determined that while Amelanchier was sending some raiders to pillage my fertile heartland, his prime invasion target was Galveholm, the former Sheaim capital. His force was formidable. At the same time, Jonas and Hyborem were both striking the east. Most of my veteran forces were there, since that's where I'd been expecting any future trouble to occur. I set them up to weather the assault and counterattack, then marshaled my lower-level wizards, vicars, and several crossbowmen to help defend against the elves.

Oh: and I also cast my World Spell. Initially, I'd thought of Arcane Lacuna as primarily a boosting spell, since it adds XP to your arcane units based on the total number of upgraded mana nodes in the world. However, I now realized that its second effect, of disabling spellcasting among rival civs, was even better. This seems to extend to divine spells as well as arcane ones, which proved a great advantage in my fight.

The fight against Ljosalfar was nail-bitingly close. Unit-for-unit, I far outclassed him, but the sheer bulk of his forces made things difficult. Once again, Snowfall proved incredibly useful: it meant sacrificing the vitality of my own land for several turns, but the wintry storms are as effective against a stack of 60 units as they are against a single foe. Each round I would open with Snowfall, then summon up my mostly-tier-2 elementals to eliminate as many enemies as I could. The battered remnants of his force would then limp back to the city to heal, while fresh reinforcements would set up position outside my city and the cycle would repeat.

In the meantime, I weathered the first wave of evil attackers in the east, then divided those forces into two units. One pressed northeast towards Braduk the Burning, Jonas's capital; I was hoping that capturing it would force him to open negotiations with me, and then I could trade it back to him in exchange for peace. The other moved southeast through Clan territory towards the Infernal cities. Knocking out Hyborem would be tough, but it was necessary, and would only get more difficult the longer I waited. Hyborem had hated me to begin with, and he never suffers war weariness, so he would be fully prepared to fight me until the very end. I wanted to make sure it was his end and not my own.

Braduk fell, and I ironically signed the first treaty with my biggest foe Jonas. This immediately lessened the pressure of war weariness; the dungeons had helped, but it was still climbing alarmingly high, and making peace here helped immensely. However, this had the unintended consequence of kicking many of my in-transit units out of Clan territory and back into my own. I had only successfully moved through about half of the force I'd intended to attack Hyborem with: I could move my druids there through the mountains, but otherwise was stuck with just one lich, one archmage, one luridus, my 150-ish-xp axeman, and several werewolves. It would probably be do-able, but with no possibility for reinforcements, I'd have to be very careful.

Meanwhile, in my more existential struggle against the elves, I lost some crucial units, but Galveholm managed to hold. At considerable cost I managed to defeat Gilden Silveric, Yvain, Kithra Kyriel, and approximately 100000000 Priests of Leaves, archers, and other assorted invaders. I briefly considered heading inland to take one of Amelanchier's cities, but decided against it: my victory would be hastened more by an early peace than it would by adding still more to my territory. Sufficient military defeat brought Amelanchier to the bargaining table, and we negotiated a settlement on favorable terms for me. However, I neglected realize that, absent an Open Borders agreement (which he absolutely refused to consider, despite our longstanding friendship up until construction began), the heart of my empire was cut off from the Sheaim cities; and, through their ports, my expanded empire in Clanland. It wasn't a game-ending problem, but did mean I lost access to several resources, and was unable to access some freshly-captured Mithril in my industrial core. If I had it to do again, I might have taken that city after all, just to make my territory contiguous.

With my two immediate threats on the sideline, it was time to face down Hyborem. His avatar unit was still in play, so I needed to kill him - twice! - to remove that threat. It was a fun, epic battle, as you would expect, with many close calls and very strategic deployment of disposable elementals. At last, one of my martial Druids entered one-on-one combat and slew the devil:

He took Gela, Hyborem's unholy blade, and then led the contingent on towards Dis. Hyborem's troop movements were rather strange: he had large armies in his cities, but moved most of them out before my vanguard arrived. I think that he might have been trying to strike at my homeland, but I took advantage of the unexpected advantage and struck hard and fast. By now my djinns had utterly eclipsed all elementals, and I had acquired the Blitz promotion on some Greater Werewolves, so it did not take too much time to break down the cities. I mercilessly razed each one, then had my luridus sanctify the ruins, gradually bringing the armageddon counter back down to the low 20s for the first time in over a century.

Dis fell at last, and from then on I was primarily focused on Operation Press Enter Many Times. The elves and orcs were furious at me, but were too cowed by my military power to attack again. Capria had declared a Crusade against me, and was unavailable for negotiation; but he seemed to have forgotten that he would need to build boats in order to cross the ocean and attack me, and so spent the remainder of the game building an enormous, impotent military stationed in his city. Rhoanna actually mounted a fairly effective blockade for a while, but after I signed my treaty with the Ljosalfar I gave Fire 2 promotions to all of my wizards and firebows, and wiped out all of her privateers and frigates with an onslaught of fireballs. She rather cheerfully accepted peace afterwards, and even resumed normalized trade relations.

I was still feeling slightly bummed about how long it would take to finish the Tower of Mastery - by this point I had no doubt of my eventual victory, and it felt like a grind to get there - when I suddenly realized that, duh, the Tower is a production, and I can hurry production with gold. Sure, it would be expensive - something like 20,000 gold by the time I noticed it - but I wasn't going to need that money for anything else after it was done. And, for that matter, I didn't need the 70% of trade I was devoting to research! I was already up to Future Tech 5 (bypassing a few lower-level techs that I did not need), and belatedly did what I should have done long ago: bump my tax rate way up, and also devoted a chunk to culture for the first time (which wasn't necessary, but did help firm up my borders with hostile neighbors). Also, since many of my cities had run out of useful buildings to construct, I switched them to creating raw wealth instead of additional military fodder for some hypothetical future conflict.

Now that I've been through this, I realize that the best strategy is probably to start hoarding cash well in advance of starting work on the Tower (or the Altar, in the case of a divine victory strategy). That way, you can start construction and then almost immediately complete it, and deny your rivals much of a chance to thwart your plans. Which, now that I think about it, is really close to the strategy I would use on culture victories back in my vanilla Civ IV days: I would carefully manicure my three target cities until they had the proper buildings and technologies for victory, then abruptly switch off my science and dump all available revenue into Culture. When planned correctly, I could make all three reach Legendary status within a few turns of one another, which would prevent my rivals from taking effective action once they finally realized my plans.

So, I kept periodically checking in on the Tower, as its cost to completion gradually ticked down and my treasury exploded in size. Finally the ascending curve met the descending line, and I pressed the button. Huzzah! I had achieved mastery over all that is in the universe, and could add yet another victory to my string of FfH2 success stories.

Sadly, for some reason I'm no longer able to hear audio on the gameplay videos, but I was able to download a Bink video player and manually activate the appropriate victory. It's very well-done, as are all the other FfH2 videos I've seen. The polish of this mod continues to astound me.

After spending so long in the game, what I really want more than anything else is to immediately start another one. I don't even know what to do first... maybe try the Calabim as my first-ever evil civ? Or return to the Khazad, who have awesome mechanics, and actually stick with them throughout the whole game? Or try any of the dozen or so intriguing civs I've never played as, like the Sidar, Svartalfar, or Grigori? Or return to the pure fun of the Lanun? Too many choices!

This post has been really long, and I still feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what went on in this game. I haven't even touched on my dungeon explorations, or the exploits of Baron Duin Halfmoon, or the religious cold war between the Fellowship and Empyrean, or the vast plains of endlessly burning hellfire, or the unusual availability of unique mana terrain features, or Capria's indecisive wavering between Runes and Empyrean. Most video games must choose between breadth and depth. FfH2 refuses to compromise either one, and continues to create some of the most expansive, exciting, complex, and just plain fun gaming experiences I've ever had.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Heroes of the Underdark

I think I reached a new low point over the weekend. At one point I realized that I was switching between no fewer than four games, spread across three separate devices. I was wrapping up The Last of Us on my PS3; navigating a particularly tricky war against the Clan of Embers and Hyborem while plotting construction of the Tower of Mastery in Fall from Heaven 2 on my PC (which will probably get a post of its own later); playing Heroes of Dragon Age on my iPad; and checking in on Fallen London on my PC or iPad depending on where I was at the time. Yeesh.

That said, it seems to be winnowing somewhat (TLoU is in the can, and I’m rapidly approaching the endgame in FfH2), and I don’t think I’ll be starting any new games before the end of the year, so I figured now would be a good time to check in on a few minor gaming topics. First of all, Heroes of Dragon Age!

My antipathy towards freemium, social, free-to-play games is well established by this point. I dislike their repetitiveness, their grindy-ness, their overly pavlovian construction, and their shallow gameplay. (Fallen London is, of course, a counterexample that shows how wonderful this category could be in the right hands.) So, my hopes for HoDA were not particularly high. After playing it for a few days, I can say that it’s… fine, really. Which is more than I was expecting.

I’m not super-familiar with the genre, but there are apparently several games with somewhat similar constructions, generally aimed at mobile or Facebook audiences. It’s based around a trading card game concept, not unlike something like Magic: The Gathering. The idea is that you build up a squad composed of various creatures and characters from Thedas. These creatures have different rarities, with rarer cards being more powerful and/or possessing special attacks. You organize your squad, then send them into combat; winning battles will give you prizes, which you can then trade in for additional heroes, which will let you take on more dangerous opponents.

The graphics are really well done, particularly for a mobile game. I’m playing on a retina 10” iPad, and was really impressed from the intro video all the way through to the actual combat. Characters aren’t quite as detailed as in the canonical DA games, but they do a great job at capturing their look, making use of iconic signifiers like Morrigan’s cowl or Cassandra’s haircut to make them readily identifiable. Combat animations are fluid and visually impressive, like those seen in DA2 (and in contrast to the more realistic animations in DA:O).

The tutorial goes on for what feels like an incredibly long time. The teacher (who looks a bit like a happy version of Velanna) shows a recap of a battle, then walks you through all the various mechanics of the game: organizing your heroes, entering combat, purchasing new heroes, using runes, leveling up, etc. It went on for long enough that I started to feel a bit annoyed at how un-interactive it was: I was just tapping on the screen over and over again! It took me a while after the tutorial finished to realize that this was actually a very accurate representation of the game. There are no tactics involved, and no need to click anywhere after a battle starts: everything auto-resolves automatically without your involvement. The only thing you can do is buy more heroes, decide which heroes to use, and where to put them.

Once I accepted that, though, I started to have a bit of fun with it. Most of my pleasure has derived from the fun of seeing beloved characters and things from the Dragon Age games crop up. I was really happy to get Ser Cauthrien as my first Rare hero; she was one of my favorite minor characters in DA:O, with a surprisingly well-developed background and personality, and I felt happy to have her fighting by my side. And my other Rare was… a Revenant. That’s the point where the lore starts to break down a little. It’s fun to make up little stories for yourself about, say, how a Gray Warden might join forces with a Carta Thief, or why an Apostate Mage might travel with a Sylvan. But I can’t think of any universe in which Ser Cauthrien and a revenant would fight side-by-side.

The concept of the game is deliberately rather loose. The single-player portion is divided into a set of separate quests, set in many different Ages, generally covering events referenced in the games and other media but not directly experienced previously. Some are truly ancient, like the fall of Arlathan and rise of the Tevinter Imperium; others cover more recent territory, like the origins of the werewolve’s curse that you ended in DA:O. The “story” is incredibly light, just a brief paragraph introducing each new map and a single sentence giving motivation for each fight, along the lines of “Defend the elves against the invaders” or “Defeat the Lady of the Forest”. Each map will end with a boss fight, and defeating the boss will open up the way to the next map.

There is also a multi-player portion of the game, which is optional but seems pretty essential to leveling up your team unless you’re prepared to spend a decent amount of money or a ludicrous amount of time in the game. These fights theoretically have you facing off against other real-world opponents, but I’m 99% sure that there are some AI opponents as well. At least, I’ve seen a LOT of matches against “Alistair”, “First Enchanter Orsino”, “Oghren”, etc., who always seem to be tuned to approximately my level; I’m fairly confident that my fights against “dani0002” and “SIR FLUNKUS” are actual people. Even then, though, you really aren’t fighting in real-time, which removes the stigma I usually have for these types of encounters…. instead, there’s essentially a list of opponents, and you can pick which one you want to fight against. I’m pretty sure that the server just stores the current version of your squad, and then offers that up as an opponent against anyone else.

Winning a single-player fight will give your characters experience and you gold. Characters get more powerful as they level up, but rarity is still far more important than experience; a Level 1 Legendary character is much more useful than a Level 15 Common character. They don’t learn any new abilities or get faster with higher levels, just more raw power and health. Multiplayer games also award experience and gold, scaled to the difficulty of your opponent. They also grant trophies, which are only used for leaderboard ranking and can be completely ignored.

Like seemingly all F2P games, HoDA has two types of currency. Gold can be easily earned in combat, and can be used to purchase low-level packs that will generally reward Common or Uncommon heroes. You can theoretically get rarer heroes as well, but I’ve only gotten a single Rare in perhaps 100 sets I’ve purchased. The other type of currency is Gems. You can earn a limited number of Gems by beating a map, or by achieving “mastery” by beating more difficult versions of maps you’ve already cleared. These are fairly easy to come by at first, but the difficulty ramps up drastically after the first few maps. However, spending enough gems lets you guarantee getting a Rare hero, with a chance at an Epic or Legendary one. This is the main source of income for the game, since it tries to sell you gems for real-world money.

When HoDA first came out, I read some blurbs along the lines of, “This game is crazy, the most expensive thing you can purchase costs $99!” The reality is both better and worse than that. Yes, you can spend $99 in the game. However, this doesn’t give you heroes, it gives you gems. So, on the one hand, $99 can buy you a LOT of heroes (and action refreshes). But, on the other hand, if you really wanted to get, say, Isabela, you could spend $99 and still not get her.

Unsurprisingly, the game gets really grindy after a while. These sorts of games are tuned to introduce pain points, then offer to remove those pain points in exchange for money. So you can breeze through the first map pretty easily with your starting team (probably 2 Rare characters, a Bear and 2 other Common heroes). Soon, though, it will get hard to progress any further without adding an Epic (available for just $1.99!). It gets exponentially more difficult; and, while I can’t prove this, I’m fairly sure that the game levels its single-player challenges along with your team, so even if you upgrade/level-up your characters, you’ll quickly hit a roadblock again.

So, that’s annoying. I like the game for what it is, but the more I feel like it’s dinging me for cash, the less likely I am to actually give it anything. (Again, Fallen London provides the best counter-example of how to behave: delight your users by giving them scads of content, then politely allow them to acquire small pieces of additional content for small sums of money.)

I doubt I’ll keep playing this much longer, but for posterity’s sake I figured I’d toss together a few thoughts on strategy. Note that this game is still pretty early, and these sorts of things get rebalanced a LOT to make sure nobody gets a strong advantage, so everything is subject to change. With that out of the way:

I (and the game) keep using the word “hero”, but really, there are 2 types of distinct units: Hero characters and Beast units. Your squad can have 1 Beast and 4 Heroes. You start with a Bear, who is useless and will usually die before getting a single attack. Actually, his one use is diverting an attack that would otherwise hit your heroes, which is a good thing to keep in mind. Units with column or row attacks that strike a beast will “waste” what could have been a multi-unit attack; as such, beasts are particularly good as meat shields, since the longer you can keep them alive, the more damage they can divert from other characters. As such, I’ve become a fan of Beasts with high health, even at the cost of lower speed of fewer abilities. (I’m currently rocking a Wyvern in that slot, which I’m pretty happy with.

Anyways, an early priority should be replacing the Bear. You can try repeating the Challenge Mode in the Brecilian Forest, which has a small chance to drop a Sylvan. Otherwise, save your gold and get Uncommon packs, since Beats units never drop in the Common pack.

For all of the game I’ve experienced so far, the quality of your individual heroes is much more important than any strategy or synergy around them. I think that at the upper levels, there’s more to be gained from having a deep bench so you can get squad bonuses, use vulnerable factions, etc. At the starting levels, though, it will help much more to identify your most valuable units and then pump them up as high as you can. The game lets you “consume” units you don’t want to improve the units you do want, so in general you should only keep 5 units (4 heroes + 1 beast) in your party, and consume everyone else.

That said, position is somewhat important. Each squad occupies a 2x2 grid. The units in the rear are better protected: they can still be hit by AOE attacks or by abilities like Archer’s Lance that penetrate an entire row, but in general, units back here are safe until the front row is defeated. So, the strategy is fairly straightforward. You’ll want to put your high-health, low-power units in the front row, and your high-power units in the rear row. (Note that all units have higher health than power, but the relative magnitudes will be different.) This will help make sure your big damagers stay alive as long as possible, which will let you burn down the opposition.

There are three other factors to consider: speed, attack style, and special abilities. Each unit attacks one at a time. This is somewhat randomized, but in general Fast units will strike first, followed by Medium and finally Slow. Combat is turn-based, not round-based, so it’s possible that one unit might be able to strike twice before another unit has moved even once. Being faster is always an advantage; this is generally offset by giving slower units better abilities otherwise. It’s important to note, though, that there’s a good chance a Slow unit might be fully defeated before it can take a single action. Because of this, you’ll almost always want to put Slow units in the back row.

There are four styles of attack. The most common strikes a single opponent. These tend to do the most damage, and if you get lucky, you can quickly eliminate a unit from the field. A column-based attack will either strike the beast unit, or all units in the front row; if no units remain in the front, it will strike all units in the rear row. A row-based attack will either strike the beast unit, all units in the middle row, or all units in the bottom row. Finally, an AOE unit will strike all units at once, including the beast.

In the single-player game, you can actually design some good strategies around what attack styles to use based on your opponent. If you’re facing a single, very strong unit, then you’ll do best using single-attack units; others will have a portion of their attack “wasted” with no extra targets to hit. Similarly, if there are two units in the front, a column attack might be good.

Keep in mind that, like many RPGs, all units remain at full effectiveness until their health turns to 0, at which point they die and are of no use. The difference between 0HP and 2HP is infinite; the difference between 2HP and 200HP is negligible. So, your goal is to eliminate enemies from the field as soon as you can. Unfortunately, since you have no tactical control over your units, you can’t focus on one enemy at a time. If you’ll get lucky, your heroes will attack people in the “right” order and their side will quickly fall; if you’re unlucky, they’ll spread their attacks around, bringing down their health but leaving those threats on the board. All that to say, in my experience it’s generally best rely on AOE and single-target attackers. AOE is great for wiping out already-weakened units: even if your other attackers spread their damage around, an AOE can finish multiple units off. And a single attacker’s blows are never wasted, since they’ll always strike a valid target. If you have a really good column or row unit, feel free to include it, but all else being equal, I’d recommend building entirely around single-target and AOE fighters.

The most limited resource in this game is gems, and the second-most-limited is action points (energy/stamina). I’m of the opinion that you’ll only ever want to start fights that you can comfortably win. That means fights listed as “Easy” in single-player, and fights with good odds in multiplayer. If you lose a fight, you get 0 gold and very little XP; winning a more challenging fight will give you slightly more of each than an easier fight, but not nearly enough to make up for the opportunity cost of the fights you’ll lose.

In single-player, this often means that you’ll want to either focus on clearing new maps, or revisiting challenges on earlier maps, depending on what’s easier at the time. Like I said before, I’m fairly sure that this is leveled difficulty, so beyond a point you may no longer get any Easy challenges. In those cases, you should turn to a Challenge node: these are repeatable fights that give a lot less Gold than usual, but have very good odds of dropping low-level Runes or Heroes, and slight odds of dropping an occasional Rare Hero.

In multi-player, check out your opponent. If it looks like a tough match, click Next to cycle to another opponent. If you’re running low on time to start a fight, click Retreat and then Battle again; there’s no penalty to backing out before a fight starts. Here are a few cues I follow when looking for a match:
* Avoid any fights against Grey Warden Mages. These are nasty units that can slow down your entire team, causing a frustrating loss.
* Tevinter Battle Mages are also fairly challenging, since they can stunlock your team. Note that both types of mages are Slow, so if you’re lucky and hit crits with AOE attacks you might be able to get rid of them early; but if they get in a single attack, you might be screwed.
* I avoid any fight with green (Legendary) units. In general, I try to avoid orange (Epic) units as well, though an epic is still generally easier to handle than either of the two AOE mages.
* Check out your opponent’s level (shown in a blue burst in the upper right). In general, an opponent who is much higher-level than you may have stronger units. But, this is a less reliable indicator. Some players maintain a broader stable of units, so an individual squad might be weaker than that of a more focused lower-level player. Also, someone who has directly bought a lot of units wouldn’t have a correspondingly high level. You can tap the question mark icon for a more detailed look at their individual unit levels, but I almost never bother with this.
* Take a look at the amount of money you’ll win in a victory and the trophies won/loss. As far as I can tell, the server generates this based on the win/loss record of a squad, so it’s a fairly reliable indicator of how effective a team is. (On the other hand, though, if you’ve just added a powerful new unit, you’ll probably enjoy advantageous odds until your record catches up to your capabilities.) The specific numbers will shift as you advance; I used to take matches that would cost me 8 trophies if I failed; now I generally try for matches that would cost me 30 trophies.
* Finally, it’s helpful to just see how fights play out. There are a lot of potential units out there, but a handful of them are most popular and will show up over and over again. Soon you’ll be able to recognize which innocuous units are actually deadly, and which scary-looking ones are quite manageable.

Two more things before I wrap up:

First, runes. You’ll occasionally get a rune when purchasing a hero, and can also win them in challenge rounds. These will give some benefit to your entire team. Some of these are generally useful at all times, like increasing your speed, increasing your health, or earning more gold. Others are more situational: a unit that protects against stuns won’t help at all in a fight with no stun attacks, but can totally de-fang a strategy built around Tevinter Battle Mages and Fenris. A bunch of bronze runes increase your chance at targeting certain types of characters (ones with low health, or high power, or low speed). In my experience, the particular rune you pick here doesn’t matter much; however, they are useful in that they encourage your characters to focus their fire more, leading to faster enemy death.

Runes expire after a few days, so you’re encouraged to use them instead of stockpiling. You can have two runes active at a time, and once you activate one, it will last for a fixed duration (between 5 and 30 minutes, depending on its ability and rarity). If you’re going to use a rune, you should probably activate it at the start of a play session so you can get the most of its utility, instead of waiting until you only have a few bars of energy or stamina left. Also, it’s a good idea to use the fast forward toggle button during battles (available on the left side of the screen), since the runes use a real-world time limit. Finally, have a plan of attack ready before activating your rune, so you don’t waste time navigating the map or menus.

Finally, card-buying strategy. I haven’t been able to figure out how the odds break down between common and rare packs. You can buy 4 Commons for the cost of 1 Uncommon. I’d guess that you get an Uncommon in a Common pack at least 25% of the time, maybe a bit higher than that. So, if you’re buying cards to improve your characters, Commons are the way to go. I suspect that Uncommons are a better bet if you want to acquire new Rare or higher cards, but I don’t have enough data to support that.

Consuming a card will increase a character’s critical-hit chance, so it’s best to use this on characters who (1) have a high power, (2) do AOE attacks, and/or (3) you’re sure you want to keep around. You’ll also get a slight boost in XP, which will help you gain more levels, but that won’t be as big of a boost.

Combining two cards of the same character will give a 10% XP boost, and raise the maximum level of the character. Usually, commons max at level 15, uncommons at 20, rares at 30, and legendaries at 70. (I’m not sure yet about epics, but I’d guess 50). Combining two rares will give a new max level of 35. This isn’t good enough to raise them into the next tier, but it probably helps in the endgame if you like a lower-level unit’s abilities and want to keep them viable in a more powerful party.

It takes a lot of battling to earn a pack, though. A safe fight will generally yield somewhere around 130 gold. You’ll need about three fights for a single common, or a dozen for an uncommon pack. In practice, if you want cards to consume, an even better approach is a repeatable grind challenge node. You might get nothing, but I often get a common character, and uncommons are not that unusual. With that in mind, you might want to save your gold to gamble on uncommon packs, and use grind notes to gather fodder for your heroes.

Anyways! Oh, yeah: I was delighted when I got Merrill in a gold pack. She was my love interest in DA2, and she’s also a fantastic fighter in this game, doing AOE attacks on a medium cooldown, and lowering everyone’s damage when she does so. I’ve been feeding all of my minions into her gaping maw (which seems incredibly appropriate for a blood mage), and have gotten her crit rate up to 13%; with her in the back row, she crits a LOT, which is a huge help against some of the nastier back-row opponents.

Currently I’m supporting her with my Dark Revenant, Ser Cauthrien (my starter Rare), a Dalish Warrior (a Quick unit who also drains power), and the aforementioned Wyvern. I’m also leveling up a Grey Warden Rogue and a Tevinter Slaver. The Rogue complements Merrill’s faction, and is also like a Quick version of my Dalish Warrior; but, until I get a fourth black Hero, I’m reluctant to sacrifice the higher-level Dalish Warrior, on the off chance I get two Blues before then. The Slaver is another unit that does AOE damage, which is awesome, and he also steals health, which seems intriguing; unfortunately, he is a Slow unit. I’m toying with a strategy of putting him in the front line, so he’ll soak up the brunt of enemies’ attacks, and then get back much of his health when he finally moves; but it would take a long time to make him catch up to Merrill, and it’s hard to see how well he’ll perform from his current level.

Oh! Between the time I started writing the post and now, I see that an update has come out. Apparently, it’s now possible to earn gems from grinding, and there’s a new challenge system too, which is awesome. I guess this game will be keeping my attention for a little while longer!

Oceanic Feeling

Reading a new Neil Gaiman novel is always such a delight. The form and tone of his works vary widely from one offering to the next, yet he has certain interests that reappear across disparate mediums and genres. A Gaiman novel isn't really defined by any one thing, but a cloud of ideas that he draws freely upon: classical mythology, growing up, memory, dreams.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an interesting entry. It feels like it sits about halfway between his young-adult books, like Coraline or Stardust, and his more adult entries. Structurally it has the feel of a YA fantasy, but it crosses over into some fairly discomforting subject matter, and even some threads of horror that exceed the disquiet encountered in Coraline.


The book uses an interesting framing device. The narrator is a middle-aged man returning to his childhood town for a funeral. He visits an old friend's house, and begins reminiscing and remembering the events that occurred thirty-ish years earlier. I had initially thought that this would just be a brief section that provided necessary background before starting the main plot, and was a little surprised (but not displeased!) when it kept going, and going, and eventually I realized that the flashback was the story.

Like Coraline, this book features a young child and does (I think) a really good job of getting into his head, showing the kinds of things he pays attention to, the way he associates ideas to one another, and how he views the adult world. Some of this is particularly poignant, like an early scene describing a birthday party to which no other child came. That scenario seems extraordinarily sad, yet he chooses to focus on the brighter aspects: the kind love of his mother, the tiny comfort of disappearing into a book after disappointment.

If you have read anything Neil Gaiman has written, odds are excellent that you've encountered the Three Fates. I don't think he ever calls them that, though he will occasionally mention the Maiden, Mother and Crone. They show up yet again here, and actually end up being arguably the most important characters in the book, in contrast with their more normal role as purveyors of cryptic prophecies. I really liked what he does with their personalities: they're still a bit mysterious, but they're simultaneously down-to-earth and friendly (albeit odd). They have deliberately limited their powers, and so they don't have the immediate omniscience apparent in their other appearances. The result is fractured and interesting, where they can know enough to seem strange, but not so much to avoid causing problems.

The main plot of the book felt really abstract, which was weird and cool. I'm more used to plots like those in Murakami books, where there's a readily identifiable threat, but with a disquieting sense that there's something larger and more unknowable behind that threat. Here, the actual threat is very supernatural and obscure, yet it impinges in some oddly concrete ways on the boy's physical life. The prose varies between some very purple sections that convey how the boy can't fully comprehend his opponent, and some nasty, cringe-inducing passages that go into great detail on physical discomforts.

The book's intended audience doesn't fully reveal itself until perhaps a third of the way in: early on it seems like this could be yet another companion to Gaiman's younger books, but despite the setting of childhood, it gradually starts exploring some fairly dark and adult territory. Again, I liked the way Gaiman set this up. With the first-person adult providing narration through the eyes of his young self, we can simultaneously understand the actual actions, as well as his confusion at the time about their significance. As usual, Gaiman does a terrific job at reminding us of just what it felt like to be a kid, and specifically how our memories change over time to protect against the truth of unpleasant things.


I think I'm going to have to stop hoping for another American Gods; that's still my favorite Gaiman novel, but he doesn't seem interested in revisiting that territory. Still, there's a ton to enjoy from the books he's written since then, and this book stands up very well among the other books he's written since then.

Monday, December 09, 2013

First Among Us

While it seems like I play a lot of video games - and, to be fair, I kind of do - I’ve never felt remotely qualified to declare something the “Game of the Year” or something like that. At best, I’ll play a handful of new games in a year, most likely entries in franchises that I’ve already decided I love. The rest of my gaming is devoted to catching up with overlooked classics, or revisiting particularly engaging games from my past.

That said, this year, I’m tempted to declare something my game of the year. It’s the game where a middle-aged man takes custody of a remarkable young girl, becoming a sort of adopted father-figure, as they seek to escape their dangerous surroundings.

That game is… well, it could be any one of three games. The Walking Dead, BioShock Infinite, and The Last of Us all fit that bill. The Last of Us maps onto the others with even more precision. It’s the game where the middle-aged man lost a daughter twenty years ago. He’s become stronger, and bitter. He’s contacted by a shadowy figure to escort a young woman out of a hostile city. Shortly after meeting her, he realizes that she has a special ability. She follows him gladly at first, then feels betrayed by his intentions, then they reconnect again, forming a stronger bond. Mechanically, she follows him around, helping him out in combat, never breaking stealth, and helping him get into hard-to-reach places. That’s The Last of Us… and also BioShock Infinite.

Or, it’s the game where a zombie apocalypse has ravaged the land. Social order has broken down, and survivors try to go it alone, or cluster into groups to try and survive. The protagonist helps the little girl stay safe. Along the way they contend with zombies, cannibals, and many bands of dangerous roving men (it’s almost always men) seeking them. Oh no, a zombie has caught you! Press the square button many times quickly to escape! That’s The Last of Us… and also The Walking Dead.

I have to admit, though, that I didn’t think of any of these overlaps while actually playing The Last of Us. It sucked me into the game, and became one of those very rare total successes that seems to fire on all cylinders: it didn’t cover up some shortcomings with greater successes in other areas, but became a kind of perfect game that nails every aspect just right. Often times I’ll say something like “The storyline is really good, but the combat is boring;” or “The mechanics are very solid, but the graphics feel dated;” or “It’s a really cool idea, but the voice acting is inconsistent;” or “It’s fun to play, but feels too short.” Not so with The Last of Us. It feels fully-conceived in a way that many games rarely do, with each aspect of the game supporting the others.

The game I find myself most often thinking of in comparison to TLoU is BioShock Infinite, so let’s take a specific example from there. As I noted in that writeup, I absolutely loved the setting, and enjoyed the story, but found the combat less than engaging… it felt like it was kind of bolted on, and despite some unique mechanical aspect (like sky-hooks), most of the fighting seemed fairly generic and superfluous. At the time I’d thought that the game could just as easily have been an RPG, and that I would have liked that more than the action game I got.

In contrast, TLoU’s combat is an intrinsic part of the game. It’s hard: I played both games on Medium difficulty, but I probably only “died” once or twice in all of Infinite, and I probably died somewhere close to a hundred times in TLoU. It’s brutal: when someone shoots you in the chest with a revolver, you don’t just see a bar tick down, but are actually thrown back a short distance, have the breath knocked out of you, and take a second or two to recover. It’s creative: you need to carefully consider your environment, and can use any of several available strategies to triumph in an encounter (unlike Infinite, where my default approach of “Hide behind a wall, pop out, shoot at the bad guys, duck back, wait for my shield to recharge, rinse, repeat” worked for virtually every fight in that game). And it is tense. It’s hard to communicate in words just how effective TLoU is at ratcheting up tension. Once again, all aspects combine in service of one another. The audio quality helps: you’ll hear your quiet breathing as you try to avoid detection, which might turn into ragged gasps after you’ve taken fire. (Not to mention the terrifyingly almost-human noises made by the Clickers as they stumble, possibly towards you, possibly not.) The graphics help: TLoU is one of the most lifelike games I’ve ever seen, and I can’t help but wince when I see a very human-looking face getting chewed on. But, even the controls help, too. In stealth mode, you’re usually safe so long as you stay out of the line of sight of your opponents. The most dangerous enemies, though, have very keen hearing and poor eyesight. With them, you can safely creep in front of them without being noticed, BUT only if you move even slower than normal. That means you can’t move your joystick like normal: you need to… hold… it… just… a… little… forward… gasp! It’s a unique sensation that I haven’t encountered in many other games: you’ll see an enemy stumbling towards you - or, worse, your back will be to it, but you’ll hear it getting closer - and you want nothing more than to get away from it as quickly as possible, and will need to constantly beat down that impulse in order to continue moving painfully slowly away.

So: I like that! The gameplay reinforces the story, and the story reinforces the gameplay, and the mechanics reinforce both. You’re not some superman, leveling up and gaining enormous powers, crushing those in your path. You’re a lone man, in a world filled with danger, taking the tough actions necessary to survive. The constant death reminds you of just how precarious your position is, and fills the game with caution.

This is also true of exploration and even looting. I often complain about how games train me to be OCD about obsessively going over every patch of ground in search for loot, trying to make sure I pick up every single item in the entire game, and then I complain about how the economy is broken and I end the game with way too many resources and too little to spend it on. Well, uh, I think the gaming gods heard my whining and rewarded/punished me with this game. Like many survival horror games, your equipment is incredibly limited in this game. There’s a finite amount of ammunition, and a finite amount of raw resources that you can collect, and I only rarely reaches the maximum amount of either. This in spite of my continuing obsession with searching out everything I could find. And it isn’t exactly easy to come by, either… many times you find a desk, and open the drawer, to find… nothing. Then you’ll move to a nearby locker, and open it to reveal… nothing. Again, this isn’t just a matter of game mechanics, but something that also flows very logically from the game’s setting: we are twenty years into the zombie apocalypse, and almost everything that can be scrounged, has been scrounged. You’re left picking over the detritus, and delighted when you find half a pair of scissors, or a scrap of cloth. Survivors like you have learned how to get by with these things, improvising creative solutions from unlikely materials. The setting explains why you need to do this, and doing this helps you feel the setting even more keenly.

Creative solutions form the core of the gameplay. The game is divided into a series of “encounters”, which typically have you and one or more allies, facing off against a collection of foes. The nature of those encounters can vary drastically: sometimes you’re infiltrating a secure location, and can use stealth and guile to advance; other times you’re fleeing a disaster, and need to race away from the enemies as quickly as possible. In almost all cases, though, you have choices about how to proceed. My personal favorite M.O. was to use stealth when possible: I would carefully observe (and listen for) my enemies’ positions and movements, wait for one to separate from the group, sneak up behind him or it, choke it out, then retreat to safety and look for my next victim. However, in many cases this is difficult or impossible. In a room filled with a dozen non-chokeable Clickers, I would often try to sneak slowly and evade them. But, sometimes they might be blocking my exit, in which case I would need to evaluate further trade-offs (use a precious shiv to silently kill a lone threat? or use my more plentiful ammo, but draw the attention of others?).

You have a huge repertoire to work from. You can use silent take-downs. You can use firearms (but with limited ammunition). You can use improvised explosive and incendiary devices. You can toss bricks and bottles, either at an enemy to briefly stun them, or away from you to draw their attention. (Even that is a tradeoff, though. In the short term you’ve diverted their attention, but they’ve also become aware that someone is here, and they will become more active and alert while searching for you.) Your companions can help, too. They’re a bit more active than Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite, who played a purely supporting role; here, they can draw enemies’ attention, or provide covering fire, or even attack them outright. Thankfully, this game does follow Bioshock’s lead in making companions zero-annoyance: they will never break stealth, will never be noticed, and will only attack after a fight has started. You do need to keep them alive, but that’s only rarely a factor, and you get plenty of warning when someone’s in trouble.

Like most games these days, TLoU also has some mild RPG-ish elements. You don’t gain XP or money, but in addition to the consumable equipment you can find, you can also collect Gear and Pills. Gear is roughly analogous to money, and is used to create upgrades for your weapons. Some of these are gated by Tools, so you’ll need to wait until late in the game to craft the highest-level upgrades (and may or may not want to keep some Gear in reserve until you reach the next level of Tools). Personally, I maxed out my Hunting Rifle (which is great for sniping once you add a scope), and also the Shotgun. I wasn’t as big on pistols, but gave a decent amount of upgrades to the Revolver, and also a bit to El Diablo (a scope-equipped single-shot handgun). If Gear is money, then Pills are XP. There are a couple of areas that you can improve, generally with 2-3 ranks available in each, for varying Pills costs. I got the most utility out of Weapon Sway (a single point helps a ton when sniping), Maximum Health (very expensive but worth it), and Listen Mode Distance (lets you locate enemies from far away without exposing yourself). The crafting and healing speed ones seem fairly useless, since you should never do either of these in combat.

Pills are the one thing that sort of strains credulity in the game - hey, look, I swallowed a bunch of pills and now my hands don’t shake as much! - but it’s still miles better than just adopting an XP system would be. Almost everything else is handled very logically. For example, you can find some upgrade manuals that improve the utility of your items, and these are fairly well explained through in-game lore. One book describes how to use a whetstone to sharpen a non-knife blade, which results in making your shivs sharper and thus able to be used more times without breaking. Another manual will note that, when tossing a molotov cocktail, you should time when you throw it so it shatters before igniting, which will increase the burn radius. And so on.

Probably the single greatest achievement in the “realism” department, though, is how it graphically depicts your inventory. Action RPGs and survival horror games almost always give your character a ludicrously large number of weapons: hey, look, I’m carrying a gatling gun, a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher, a flamethrower, a sniper rifle, and a half-dozen pistols! The Last of Us also features a fairly large inventory, but - and here’s the amazing part - it actually shows how it could work. In a first-person shooter, when you switch weapons you’ll see your old weapon lower down off the bottom of the screen, then your new weapon rise up to take it’s place. In the third-person-camera view of TLoU, you see Joel holding a weapon in his hands, with one or more accessible in a holster on the side of his body, and carrying a backpack containing the rest of his arsenal. When you switch weapons, he’ll actually put one away and take the other one out. Incidentally, you can upgrade this, crafting an additional holster that lets you quickly access another weapon… and you can see where it goes on your body. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible, but there it is!

I noted earlier that the game is good at giving you multiple choices in how you resolve encounters: depending on your skills and playstyle, you might tend more towards stealth, or shooting, or evasion, etc. I should note that this is just about the only choice you get in the game. In terms of exploration, it runs on rails: you’ll enter an area, do whatever you need to there, then move on to the next. You can never revisit earlier areas, and never have a branching choice of where to do next. This extends to the story, too: there are no dialogue choices, no picking whether to kill or save a particular NPC, no “Press the green button to save the city, press the red button to destroy it”.

And you know what? I’m totally fine with that. I increasingly feel like, if a game is going to offer choices, they should be difficult, interesting, compelling choices (like those found in The Walking Dead). By avoiding choices, TLoU is making a different kind of game, but doing it very well. They control the environment more tightly, giving the protagonist a very specific and very well-crafted arc. I occasionally felt bummed when Joel would do or say things that I disliked, but after a while I recalibrated my expectations: Joel wasn’t an avatar of me, but a flawed hero in an excellent story I was watching/playing. I would MUCH rather have that experience than another game with inane decisions that exist only to artificially increase replayability.

That’s an awful lot on mechanics! Before I dive into spoilerville, I’ll note that The Last of Us is almost certainly the most realistic game I’ve ever played. There are a lot of scenes (particularly the pre-rendered cinematics) that are so lifelike that it’s easy to forget that you’re looking at a video game character. To compare with Bioshock Infinite, I’d say that Bioshock is deliberately a bit more cartoony, and has a more fanciful setting that I enjoyed more; but TLoU is more realistic, and they do a terrific job at depicting the grime and despair of a wrecked country. Both games have great character animations, particularly for Elizabeth and Ellie. (Ellie’s ponytail is especially well-designed, and gives me great hope for the future of animated hair in video games.) (Also, kudos for featuring a major American city other than New York or Los Angeles. Their Boston is wonderfully realized.) Again, it’s technically excellent on every front: great level design, great art direction, great voice acting, good dialogue, compelling story, great music (subtle and affecting), terrific sound effects, etc. etc.


This game is very much the Joel And Ellie Show. They cross the paths of many other people, and travel with some for a while, but everybody else pales in comparison to those two. So, it’s definitely a good thing that they’re so well-developed.

Joel is a good character, but in all honesty, not really that great of a human being. I went through the game with a regular low-grade irritation that he couldn’t be nicer to other people. This isn’t entirely the fault of the zombie apocalypse, either: even in the prologue at the beginning of the game, while he’s definitely a good, loving dad, he’s also not the most emotionally available person. His arc is very believable: you can see how he struggled to find something worth living for after his loss, then grew increasingly embittered as promises of hope failed, and eventually settled into a grim mode of survival that seemed motivated by spite as much as anything else. He resists making any connection with Ellie because he fears reopening old wounds or exposing himself to tragedy again. If you don’t care about anyone, then nothing can hurt you. Over the course of a year, he gradually adjusts to their relationship, finally accepting the role of a surrogate father. Not the kind of father you or I would want, but the perfect father for the nightmarish world they inhabit: someone dangerous and resourceful enough to keep you safe.

Ellie is way more likeable, and has some unexpected layers of her own. She has a lot of attitude, which tends to really grate on me when I encounter it in child actors in movies, but it feels fully earned and appropriate in the context of the game. She’s lived a hard life, even by the standards of the post-disaster world. She blurts out little snatches of profanity, propelled by hints of fear and anger. She is a child, and wants fun and safety like any other child; but she’s old enough to know that she won’t be able to find those things. She’s also incredibly brave, and remarkably unselfish for an adolescent. (Well, unselfish in the big picture. One of my favorite minor plot threads of the game is Ellie’s background as a juvenile delinquent. She never directly steals from Joel, but seems to have acquired interesting objects from almost everyone else she has met.)


I may be alone in thinking this, but I actually felt like Joel got less sympathetic as the game got further along. Or, specifically, he’s a jerk in the beginning, and a deceitful… uh… potential populicide at the end, and sympathetic in the middle.

Frankly, if I were somehow in Joel’s shoes, I would almost certainly have made the same choice at the end as he did. Still, though, the more I think about it, the harder it seems. Joel did the virtuous thing, and may have exterminated the entire human race as a result.

I wasn’t totally surprised by the situation. Ever since first finding out Ellie’s situation, I’d had a hunch that the cure would cost her personally. In the best case, she would just need to give up some blood or something; more likely, her life would be subject to a long series of painful tests; and there was an outside chance that it would require her death. From early on in the game, I started rehearsing my objections to the scenario: what if they were wrong? If she ever died, they would be able to get what they needed from her body, but once they kill her, they would lose their chance at studying it in a living organism. They actually did a good job of explaining/justifying this once we got to that point, by describing how the fungal infection had infiltrated her brain, but still… yikes! I suppose I should be happy that Joel was able to make that decision without any input from me.

The game was bleak, and the ending as well, though in an interesting way. I’d kind of prepared myself for one of the two protagonists to die, or for there to be a cliffhanger, or something of the sort. Instead, we get what on the surface seems like a happy ending: Joel and Ellie both survived, and are about to reunite with Joel’s surviving family, in one of the only safe places left on the planet. But the very last words spoken in the game are a lie, an enormous lie, one that attempts to cover over the massive sins Joel has committed, and will almost certainly drive a permanent wedge between him and his would-be daughter. You know why he told that lie, and may even agree with his reasons for speaking it, but it casts a very dark shadow on the end.


Hey, it’s list time!

  • Favorite weapon: Ellie’s knife! Unlimited stealth kills? Yes, please!
  • Favorite long gun: Hunting rifle with scope upgrade
  • Favorite pistol: El Diablo
  • Favorite craftable item: Shiv
  • Least favorite enemy: I HATE the combination of Clickers and Runners in the same room. Either individually is fine, but put them together and it’s death.
  • Favorite playable character: Ellie
  • Favorite NPC: Tess
  • Favorite NPC, non-pictured division: Ish
  • Scariest map: Boston T station
  • Prettiest map: All of the outdoor nature scenes were wonderful. The area around the hydroelectric dam might have been the best.
  • Prettiest view: From the nature trail in winter. Those mountains, wow!
  • Favorite map (mechanics): Escaping Pittsburgh was fun. Took me several tries (of course), but felt great once it was all done.
  • Favorite cinematic: Hrm… maybe the long one that starts with Ellie declaiming Bill’s stash, and ends with “He ain’t hurt.”
  • Saddest cinematic: “What are you scared of?”
  • Most intense confrontation: Ellie versus David
  • Favorite in-game scene: Monkeys! (Close follow-up: Giraffes!)
  • Favorite artifact: Ish’s notes were wonderful. I also really liked the various maps. The sniper’s log was good, too.
  • Favorite field manual: Shiv upgrade
  • Most terrifying sound: A clicker who is just starting to become aware of you
  • Most familiar sight: An empty container
  • Likeliest prequel story: Joel and Bill


It looks like I haven’t mentioned this yet, so I’ll do so now: I keep saying “zombies” even though they technically aren’t. TLoU’s creatures are the “mycologically infected”, or just “infected”. The game goes into much more detail about the condition than most zombie stories do, explaining how people get infected, and how the disease progresses, and why it makes former humans act they way they do. Still, while it’s a step up from talking about a “rage virus”, it’s obviously deliberately drawing on the long and plentiful legacy of zombie fiction.

So, one wonders: why zombies? Out of all the horror genres, what makes zombies so bankable in our culture, able to support a major television series, frequent movies, and tons of books, comics, and video games? And, more specifically, why do two of my favorite games of 2013 feature a man and a girl struggling to survive the threat of zombies?

Patton Oswalt actually touched on a form of this question in his titular essay in “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland”. I won’t try to replicate his argument, but one of the observations he makes is the natural progression from Zombie to Wasteland. A work of fiction like Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later is set at the brunt of the zombie assault, when the world has turned upside down and everyone is scrambling to figure out how to respond to the threat. The current wave of “The Walking Dead”-ish zombie fiction, though, is set after the transition to Wasteland is mostly complete: zombies were the cause, and remain a persistent threat, but they’re not really the point of what’s going on. The most frightening enemies now are not the mindless ravening undead, but the cruelly intelligent brutal survivors.

And, if I can be forgiven for making a gauche cross-genre analogy, I think the tone set by works like The Walking Dead is very similar to that established in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, with zombies sitting in for cylons. The franchises open with incomprehensible tragedy, so many humans perishing that the very continuation of the species is at risk. This upends our moral calculus, and forces us to consider questions that we never encounter in the real world. Should we grant the accused the benefit of the doubt? Yes, of course. Well, what if getting it wrong means thousands of people die? Well…. Do people have rights over their own bodies? Yes, of course. What if making certain choices meant that the next generation will not survive? Well…. And so on. In a lot of games, it’s relatively straightforward to map our morality onto events and decisions within the game, deciding whether certain things are good or bad. But the zombie apocalypse has upended our existing measurements for morality, and forces us to reconsider previously settled values with fresh urgency. It’s disturbing, but gripping, and that can help make for great fiction.

Hooray for tangents! Anyways: it should be clear by now that I really, really like this game, and I’d make an argument for it being the best game I’ve played this year if it weren’t for (a) the fact that I’ve just beaten it, and am undoubtedly experiencing a post-victory high; and (b) the fact that I played The Walking Dead back in January. Speaking of which, new episodes for that are coming out soon. And a prequel DLC for The Last of Us! I think I need to take a break from all these zombies, but I’m really looking forward to making their reacquaintance in a few months.