Monday, April 01, 2013

Never Winter, Always Spring

Here's a mini-post on some works-in-progress games, plus various odds and ends from the wonderful world of television.

I'm cranking through Neverwinter Nights. I found an old forum post that said something like, "This game bores me to tears, but I can't stop playing it." That's a pretty fair assessment of my opinion so far. That's been a big part of why it's taken me so long to take another serious crack at it. From what I understand, the story gets much more interesting in the expansions, but my completist personality won't let me jump to the better stuff without suffering through the lengthy introduction. The fact that I was doing much of this for the second time made it all the more painful. I actually bought NWN back in 2003: to their great credit, Bioware released the game for Linux, and because I was at the height of my Linux fantaticism, I automatically purchased any major commercial game with a native Linux client (hence the reason why I have "Soldier of Fortune" and "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" on my gaming shelf). As I recall, they did a great technical job with it: the game ran smoothly on my PC, and I enjoyed playing it for hours.

That all changed, though, when I suffered a game-killing bug. In the Neverwinter Woods, I got involved in a quest with a witch and a nymph. I forget the details now, but the quest trigger was somehow broken: the person I took the quest from wouldn't acknowledge that I had accepted, let alone completed, the quest, and so I was stuck. Because I had violated the cardinal rule of RPGs and relied on my quicksave for most of the game, I would have lost days of progress, maybe going all the way back to the start of Chapter 2. I was absolutely furious, and swore off the game, eventually deleting it from my hard drive. In retrospect, I probably should have just done some research online and used the console to un-stick it; having access to the console is the best advantage we PC gamers have, and allows us to fix otherwise insurmountable problems. In all honesty, though, I wonder whether my subconscious had seized upon the incident as an excuse to quit a fairly boring, time-consuming game.

Once or twice before now, I've attempted to start the game over again. Unfortunately, the earlier you are in the game the worse it is. The tutorial introduction, while not terribly long, is mind-numbingly dull. All of Chapter 1 involves running through a dark, depressing city, endlessly crossing and re-crossing the same empty streets over and over again; this is broken up by dungeon crawls, where you descend through five or so levels and fight hundreds of nearly-identical monsters. There's a bit of story in there, but way too little to sustain the amount of time invested.

That's a repeating motif throughout the entire game, at least all that I've experienced so far (up to the start of Chapter 3). Everything needs to be done so many times! It isn't even, "You must go forth and find the MacGuffin!" It's, "You must collect four MacGuffins! One lies to the north, one to the south, one to the east, one to the west. Each lies in a separate dungeon. Each dungeon contains multiple floors. Each floor has a boss. Any one of those MacGuffins would feel like a perfectly fine quest on its own, but you won't feel like you've accomplished anything or advanced the story until they're all reclaimed." It's even true for frickin' side-quests! "Would you help me collect the Five Tomes of Sidequest? They are the Tome of Wind, the Tome of Fire, the Tome of Earth, the Tome of Water, and the Tome of Boredom. They are located in five separate towers, each with multiple floors, each guarded by a boss. Collect all the tomes and return them to me." It feels like an incredibly transparent attempt to increase the running time of the game without expanding the story at all. It also makes me feel profoundly appreciative for what Dragon Age accomplished, where even the side-quests seemed important, and could actually be something you did on a lark rather than investing hours of play-time.

Things start picking up more at the end of the first chapter, so I'm enjoying myself a bit more now, which is to say I'm enjoying myself at all. I'll save my comments on the story proper for my end-game write-up, so for now I'll just note that there are some mildly interesting plot turns and character developments. One of the biggest wasted opportunities, though, is with the henchmen. I remember how, even at the time, this felt like a huge step back from the immediate predecessors like Baldur's Gate 2, which had a rich and varied party system, with characters who not only had their own personalities and ambitions, but who would interact in amusing ways and occasionally interject themselves into your own conversations. NWN's henchmen, in comparison, are so dull. Each of them has their own story, some of which are better than others, but they all exist purely in isolation. You just talk with them, and your only dialog options are a nice, empathetic response or a mean, impatient one. Then you find an item and give it to them, and get another item in return. Over and over again. They don't even comment on the item when you find it. And they never have anything to say about anything going on in the game, even if it seems like they should. And, since you can only have one henchman at a time, you never see them interact with anyone else.

I increasingly think that BG's six-person party was kind of the best thing ever. What was great was, with six people, you could afford to keep one or two useless people in your party, picking them for their personality instead of their effectiveness. So, for example, there's really never a reason to have two thieves in a party, but if you like both of them you can take them, and not suffer too much from it. NWN, on the other hand, pretty much forces you to pick from one of the couple of viable henchmen for your particular character. For example, if you aren't a thief (single- or multi-classed), then you pretty much need to take Tomi or Sharwyn, and you're kind of screwing yourself (gameplay-wise) if you don't take Tomi. I really like the character of Sharwyn, and try to take her when I can, but since I play as a Rogue she is a poor match for my character. Linu is a much better match, and is also pretty fun to travel with. Hands down, though, the best companion is Daelan Red Tiger, who is boring but is so laughably powerful that I really should never bother taking anyone else. I'm serious: I've been in multiple fights where Sharwyn and I will die almost immediately; Linu and I will fight for close to five minutes, chugging multiple potions along the way, only to die near the end; and then I'll grab Daelan, and he'll just hit it with a stick until it dies, some fifteen seconds later. If the party was bigger, I'd be happy to take Daelan and someone more humorous, but as it was, I need to pick between who I need and who I like.

The other reason I keep taken Daelan is because the henchman AI is so poor, and a poor melee AI is far better than a poor archer or caster AI. Unlike Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age, where the game runs your companion AI but you can always step in and issue specific orders, NWN takes a very hands-off approach. Outside of combat, you can assign some very broad guidelines, such as whether they should use melee or ranged weapons, and how frequently they should heal you. In combat, the only orders you can give are broad commands like "Stand your ground," "Follow me," and "Heal me." Other than that, they're on their own, and they're really stupid. Sharwyn will continue casting Fear on enemies who have no chance of succumbing. Linu will kill sixteen zombies with her mace, and once she's down to just one remaining, THEN cast Turn Undead. And they never, ever, ever disengage from combat. I just hate it when Linu is surrounded by a dozen weak enemies, doing fine, and then, once her health drops down to 49%, cast a healing spell on herself, which of course provokes an immediate Attack of Opportunity from everyone, so of course some of them hit her, so of course she loses her concentration and loses the spell. That's the sort of stuff that no intelligent human player would ever do. It just frustrates me that you can't even override the poor AI, since there's no option to say, "Go over THERE." And they're just generally wasteful. I don't totally understand how henchman consumables work, but I get the impression that they have a limited number of healing potions, so it drives me mad when Daelan will chug one when he's at 30% health, fighting the last enemy of a big group, who is down to Near Death. We're gonna rest as soon as he's dead, big buddy, so save that potion for the boss fight!

Oh, and the pathing! Ugh. It's horrible. Even for the PC, if I click on the other side of a wall, he often won't be able to figure out that he needs to walk around it, so I need to baby-sit him while clicking on intermediate points. And henchmen can easily get stuck not only behind walls, but even around doors, or in some cases behind chests. Once of twice I've actually saved and re-loaded a game, just because it's faster than going back and un-sticking my henchman.

The bad AI is a shame, because on the whole, I think the ruleset of NWN may be my favorite. Feats are really interesting, and make character-building a lot more interesting than it was in BG. I really like the resting system, which is more flexible (and safer!) than the camp system of BG, and more realistic than the regenerating health/mana/stamina of Dragon Age. The set of skills is wide, varied, and useful; as a Rogue I get to invest a ton of points in here, and even so I need to pick and choose between different useful areas. I think I actually prefer the more limited item set in NWN compared to the much broader selection in DA. Typically, you have a weapon, then +1, +2, and (I assume) eventually +3 versions of each weapon, which makes the upgrade path very clear. There are occasional artifact weapons, but they're fairly rare, and it's usually clear whether it will be better than the one you're wielding. DA has tons of weapons, with a much smoother upgrade path, and I end up spending a lot of time in that game trying to figure out whether a given item is better than the one I currently wield. Oh, and although I am a rogue and thus don't care about this, I do appreciate the flexibility of being able to bash open locked doors and chests, which opens up more options for combat-focused characters.

That flexibility is another thing to appreciate: while it seems incredibly limiting to have a maximum of two adventurers, the 3rd edition D&D ruleset makes it very easy, and potentially rewarding, to add multiple classes. So, while you might only have two people, you could play as a Thief/Mage/Monk, and travel with Linu as a Cleric/Fighter, and thus be prepared for any type of situation. That sort of dual- and multi-classing was also possible in 2nd edition D&D as in Baldur's Gate, but I prefer the style of NWN, which lets you pick each class as you level, and thus lets your character evolve over time, unlike dual-classing, which required careful advance planning, or multi-classing, which tightly and eternally locked you into a particular distribution.

One final complaint: the graphics. That shouldn't be surprising. The game came out a decade ago, after all, and we've come a long way since then; since I've most recently played Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age 2, it's particularly jarring to jump back to this, Bioware's first 3D title. What's weird, though, is that I think it actually looks worse than the earlier Baldur's Gate games did. That's a trend I've noticed. More primitive graphics often hold up much better than slightly-old graphics do. I can still play and enjoy ancient sprite-based games like Super Mario Brothers, Final Fantasy, and even (after a brief period of re-acclimation) Ultima. Those games are all incredibly ancient and low-resolution, but something about that blocky, vaguely cartoony style still works for me. On the other hand, though, early 3D games like NWN, the original Tomb Raider, the original Doom, and so on, leave me completely cold. Which is funny, because I still remember how when I first played them, back when they were released, I thought they looked great. Like, way, way better than those dumb old flat sprite-based games. Now, though, all I see is low-poly models, low-res textures, cheap or absent lighting, and it makes me want to claw my eyes out. Few things look grosser than the way NWN characters talk to each other, which is this weird little head-bobbling thing, where their hair seems to move independently of their skull, and the entire head is a total of maybe twelve polygons. Now that I know what 3D is capable of, I can't stand to even look at these early efforts.

All right, that's enough ranting for now. I think I got it out of my system, so once I finally beat the original campaign, I should be able to do a post on just the story itself. I'm looking forward to the expansions, which is whether it's supposed to start getting really good (and, I believe, finally let you bring along multiple henchmen at once).

Now, on to happier times: Sil! I continue to obsess about this game. I'm getting a little better every day. I had one character make it all the way down to 900', whereupon he swiftly died. I must say, this game is not very forgiving at all, and even a single mistake can prove almost immediately fatal. In my case, it wasn't even a strategic mistake, or a tactical one, merely a mechanical space: I meant to move to the upper-left, and instead moved to the lower-left, and so I was stuck, and so I was slain by Turkano, Balrog of the Hosts. It was fun, though!

I've been sticking with and refining my "archer assassin" concept. I've come to think of it as a high-risk, high-reward approach: only a handful of my characters survive past 400', but if they do, I have sufficient XP to put together an awesome set of abilities that make them virtually unkillable (provided I don't pick any stupid fights). That lets me survive for a long time, and I can usually find some really good pieces of kit that supplement my missing skills.

I'm sure this will continue to be refined as I hopefully figure out how to actually get down to Morgoth, and what I'll do once I get there, but for now, here's my basic approach:

I always roll a Noldor elf of the House of Feanor. This isn't so much for the Smithing affinity as for the extra point of Dexterity. Dex is the most crucial statistic for this character, so everything helps. I always end up going 2/5/4/3. 1 STR would probably be sufficient, given the bows I end up finding, but 2 is nice on the rare games where I find a good longbow, and on my very long game I did appreciate the extra carry capacity. Once I'm more comfortable, I think I might switch around the values for CON and GRA: CON has been a huge help as I learn the ropes, but the extra hit points become less important as I get better about avoiding dumb fights. I used to avoid GRA since I don't use much Song, and so Voice isn't important, but the skill boost would come in useful.

For skills, I put 2 into Smithing, enough Archery to get Precision, a little into Evasion, and everything else into Perception. At Depth 50, I take my free abilities in Precision and Weaponsmithing, although neither will be useful yet. I'll carefully explore all of 50' and 100'. If I find a bow, terrific; otherwise I'll make one at the forge. I'll also craft a mattock, then use any extra forge options on arrows. And, that's it. It does seem like a bit of a waste of my smithing skill, but it doesn't require any XP or stat points. (I did have one game where I found a bunch of forges very deep down, and spent a bunch of XP to get Jeweler and Artifice. That let me make a Feanorean Lamp, the only one I've gotten in all my play-throughs. It was awesome, but I do hate sacrificing stat points for it.) As I descend, if I find safe forges, I just make more Arrows.

My main goal is still to get Lore-Master. As I'd noted previously, this helps a ton with XP generation: you'll get a chunk back immediately from all the un-identified stuff in your inventory, and will automatically gain more XP as you continue to find new items. I've been pleasantly surprised, though, to find out that the other part of the ability, which I had just dismissed, is arguably just as useful: you can immediately see complete information about every new enemy you encounter. Typically, you only get some general information about your enemy and some flavor text, and further details are added as this particular character experiences them. So, for example, you won't know how many hit dice they have until you slay one, won't know how much damage they do until they hit you, won't know any special attacks until they use them, etc. Having access to this information is crucially important for an archer assassin like me. The first time I found a sleeping Cat Archer, I saw that it had 4D4 hit dice. I knew that I could safely take it out without waking the neighbors. When I found a sleeping Cave Troll, I saw it had... I forget, something like 8D12 hit dice. I could probably take one one-on-one, but not a group, so I let it go.

The single most important skill, though, may be Listen, which is yet another Perception ability. Listen lets you see where monsters are. You won't necessarily know what they are (though this information does occasionally pop up), but will usually see asterisks indicating their position. This information alone has saved my life many times. If there are no stars around, I won't bother sneaking, and will sprint around looking at everything. If I see a single star, I'll switch to stealth, and sneak up until I can check it out better. If I see a huge cluster of stars behind a closed door, I just leave it shut, and go on my way. Plenty of other fish in the sea.

Perception is hand-down my favorite tree of abilities. I would take every single option here if it didn't get so expensive. The other one I go for is Keen Senses, which lets you see enemies just beyond your pool of light (especially useful in early stages while you're still using torches) and makes it easier to find hidden enemies (although this is somewhat redundant with Listen).

After I get Lore Master and Listen, I switch back to building up the rest of my skills. I generally try to keep Archery, Evasion, and Stealth roughly equal up until around 8 or so. It's a slightly weird build... as a stealth archer, I don't have a whole lot of use for Evasion (my build is focused around avoiding fights, and if I get into one, running away as quickly as I can), but the abilities in the Evasion tree are very useful. Conversely, Stealth is incredibly handy, but most of the abilities in this tree are more melee-oriented, and not very useful to me. I actually tend to minimize Archery at this stage: by picking my fights carefully, I can usually kill a decent amount without needing a very high score just yet.

My next priority is the Sprinting skill from Evasion. After I get this, I start slowing down on Evasion investment; I'd love to get that DEX point, but there's no way I'm investing 20 points into the skill. At Stealth, I only start getting the good abilities above 8 points. Vanish, combined with Sprinting, lets me get out of trouble. I also always try to pick up Exchange Places. Honestly, I hardly ever use this... but if I use it only once in a game, it was worthwhile, because it's probably getting me out of a situation that would otherwise have meant (permanent!) death. It's critical for those cases where you're stuck in a room and a foe is blocking the doorway, or if you're trapped in the middle of a hall (though that rarely happens after I get Listen).

From then on, I try to get the DEX boosts from Stealth and Archery, and otherwise start shifting most of my points into Archery. I used to buy a lot more abilities in Archery than I do now: my last few long-running games, I've only taken Precision, Flaming Arrows, and Dexterity. Careful Shot isn't  useful if you're using Flaming Arrows. I found Versatility extremely helpful when I was first learning to play this character type (and Sil in general), but I don't really need it now. Thanks to my decently high evasion, I don't need to worry much about Point Blank Archery. I'm a bit intrigued by Crippling Shot, but I get the feeling that the monsters I'd really want to use it on are probably highly resistant. I haven't tried Rapid Shot yet.

On the one game where I made it to 900', I finally invested in Song. It took a lot, but I bought a ton of points (I want to say... 10, maybe?) to get the Song of Sharpness (from the Song of Slaying). This was to overcome a particular problem: how to handle Grotesques. These are fascinating monsters. That's another thing I love about Sil: there are dozens of enemies, and each one has a unique and interesting set of mechanics, whether it's the flocking behavior of giant bats or the patrols of orc soldiers or the weakening of violet molds or whatever. In the case of Grotesques, they basically behave like the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who. They only move when you aren't looking, and so you can stare one in the face for hours without taking any damage, but as soon as you turn your back, you are in huge trouble. Worse, they are Mindless, and will never stop pursuing you after you encounter them, which of course can prove deadly. I'd gotten in the habit of simply running to the nearest set of stairs when I encountered one: they have ludicrously high protection, and are completely immune to criticals, so I couldn't damage them at all.

Well, the Song of Sharpness solves that! It lets you cut through armor - or, more specifically, it reduces the amount of protection an enemy has. For some reason, it didn't seem to work with my flaming arrows, but I think that may just be a math thing - I usually rely on criticals to do damage with my arrows. Instead, I start singing the song, and whack it as hard and as often as I can with my sword. It's always very close, down to one or two stars by the time my Voice gets down to the single digits. Twice I managed to destroy it in time (leaving behind a very cool pile of rubble). Once my voice gave out first; so I just sat down there and rested, never taking my eyes off the grotesque, not looking away, never blinking, until my voice was restored. Then I started hitting it again, and this time triumphed.

I haven't yet figured out the optimal rate of descent. I tend to be pretty thorough, and will try to explore every single room on a level (even if just peeking my head in for rooms filled with monsters). But I don't back-track, either. I used by be pretty close to my minimum depth, but I think that my 900' hero had a min depth of just 750' or so. The exception: if I happen to fall through a false floor, I'll usually head up the first flight of stairs I find. If the monsters on a particular level seem too difficult (where, like, I wouldn't even be able to beat one in a one-on-one fight), I'll head up a level. My goal is actually not so much to get more XP (which always has diminishing returns) as it is to find better gear. I'm usually well-equipped by the time I reach 500', assuming I make it that far, and looking to upgrade already-decent pieces. So far, the favorite gear I've found for this character type are:
  • The arrow 'Dailir'. This may be my single favorite piece of equipment: it gives +11 (!!!) to attack. There's only a single arrow, but it's indestructible. Which means (mild exploit) that you can set it aflame for the extra die of damage, without destroying it. As a one-shot-kill stealth archer, it's absolutely perfect. If I'm in a room full of sleeping cat warriors, I can stand in the door, assassinate one of them, creep in, reclaim the arrow, creep back to the doors, shoot the second, and so on. Against tougher opponents, this is usually my opening shot, which can often get them down to 50-25% health. From then on I'll use standard Flaming Arrows; since I don't need to use my arrows for most fights, though, I don't really worry about ever running out if I have 'Dailir'.
  • The Bow of... Celeborn, maybe? There are two really good artifact bows I've found; I forget which is which, but both have a little nice lore around them (one was from an elf who hunted with Orome himself). My 900' character found a bow that was (+1, 1d9) and slew wolves; it penalized Grace, but was still probably my best bow ever. Another great bow was (0, 2d7) [-1]. It slew... Dragons and Raukar, maybe? Sadly, I died pretty soon after getting that one.
  • Shadow Cloak! I was ecstatic the first time I found one of these, at around 700'. Now I seem to find them on every sub-500' game, and often find many in a single game. They come in a variety of stats, but my favorite is probably [+3] <+4>, with a significant boost to Evasion and pretty much the best-ever boost to Stealth. The downside: it reduces your light radius by 1. This is sort of micro-manage-y, but I like to take the cloak off while I'm exploring, and put it back on when I'm approaching monsters. It's really cool how it is shrouded in darkness even when lying on the ground, which makes them hard to find in the first place, but also can make you realize that there MUST be a Shadow Cloak there (assuming you have Listen and know that it isn't a monster!).
  • {item} of Clarity. I tend to run with very-low-Will characters, so the nice set of resistances this gives (I think it's Hallucination, Confusion, and... maybe Stunning?) are extremely useful.
  • Brass Lantern of True Sight. My 900' character had this thing. Very useful. I still want to find a Feanorian lamp sometime, though.
  • Rings. Any rings. I usually don't find any until I'm several hundred feet down. It's nice that you have two slots, so you can find and use multiple good ones.
  • Dried Meat. You wouldn't think so, right? But (perhaps as a side-product of my habit of methodically searching every floor) I often run low on food. I've never actually run out while I was hungry, but I've gotten awfully close several times. I now tend to either use an {item} of Sustenance or invest XP into Mind over Body to keep afloat.
  • Mail Corslet of Fingon. I agonized for ages over whether to replace a nice Leather Armor of Stealth [0, 1d6] <+2> with this. On the surface, it's horrible for my character, since it hurts my evasion and required surrendering some stealth. However, it boosts both CON and GRA plus it provides resistance to fear, which comes in incredibly useful when facing rauko and drakes on the lower levels. A+++, would loot again.
Of course, any given game will have a variety of cool and useful stuff. I generally prioritize equipment that boosts my stats, then equipment that provides resistances to negative effects, then equipment that boosts my useful skills (Archery, Stealth, Evasion, Will, Perception), and finally pick the best numbers, generally preferring lighter weapons over heavier. I still have trouble figuring out how to compare disparate items... for example, I couldn't decide whether a ring of evasion <+1> was better than a ring of protection [1d2]. I also need to do a better job of managing my inventory. By the time I get down to about 600', my pack is practically full, plus I like keeping a spare slot free so I can doff my cloak or switch to the mattock for digging. I tend to keep all the "good" potions I find: potions that boost stats, that heal, Miruvor (heal + clear conditions), or slow poison. I keep a full quiver, plus an extra stack of normal arrows and whatever other special arrows I have. (If I'm using 'Dailir', this means my Poisoned and <+3> arrows are in inventory.) I keep food. I'll have my Mattock. I'll have some spare light sources (torches or another lantern or flasks of oil). If I've found a useful trumpet or staff, I'll bring it along. (Staff of Light is useful, as is the Trumpet of Blasting.) And that's usually about all I can carry. I'd love just a few more slots, so I could carry an extra hand weapon for attacking Grotesques and some alternate pieces of armor, but there just isn't room. Heck, even weight got to be an issue at one point.

Oh, and a total tangent: I fired the game up on Sunday, March 31st, and my inventory brought a smile to my face.

Isn't that neat? Ordinarily those are labeled as "herbs", not "easter eggs". Very cool. I'm impressed that programmers would take the time to put in something like that, which will only be accessible 0.27% of the time. 

So! I'm still loving this game. The atmosphere is incredible, despite (or, arguably, because of) the nonexistent graphics. Returning briefly to NWN, this is another example of how sometimes less is more, and a little is worse than nothing. When I see primitively animated 3D models jerking around on the screen, it's impossible for me to suspend my disbelief. When I see that H standing still in the corridor, my heart freezes in fear. When I notice that v silently yet absentmindedly floating through the room, I give a little grin as I quietly draw back my arrow. And few sights seem as powerful or mysterious as sneaking into an isolated chamber and discovering a grey 0 at its center. When that 0 is golden, you know that the Valar smile upon you.

Moving from Tolkien to Martin... Game of Thrones premiere was Sunday night! I really liked it!


It was a more low-key episode, as you would expect: there's some scene-setting, introductions to new characters, and a bit of well-delivered exposition. (Dany's time in Astapor was particularly well done. It constantly communicated important information, while still feeling dramatic.) I'm still amazed at just how good these actors are. I think this is the first time we've seen Peter Dinklage and Charles Dance share a scene since Season 1, and it's incredible: it feels short, but totally captures so much about their relationship. Bronn gives fantastic line readings. And so on, and so forth.

I think it was very smart for the show to directly introduce Ser Barristan the way that they did. In the book, it's a more mysterious thing: a robed figure shows up, enters Dany's service, and we go through much of the book before learning who he really is. That works very well on the printed page, but not so much on the screen, where we the viewers would quickly be able to just see who he is. So, well done.

I'm very curious to see exactly what goes down in Harrenhall now. I wonder if they will move some of the stuff that happened in A Clash of Kings into this season, perhaps fleshing out (ha!) Roose Bolton's character a bit more. I was surprised (albeit pleased) to see that they included Qyburn; I'd thought they would write around him. Of course, with Arya gone, they can't just do all the Clash of Kings stories, so maybe they'll jump ahead? I dunno.

Did you notice how the opening credits now show Winterfell burning? That's very cool, and very sad. No Theon this episode. I haven't checked to see if Alfie Allen is even cast this season. He disappears from the books entirely at this point for quite a while, but given what they did with Jaime in Season 2, I suspect that they will check in on Theon to show what he's up to. This could have some... powerful resonance with later events this season.

Mance Rayder seems very well-cast. My brother and I both noted what a great job they did at his introduction, which plays out basically like it did in the books, but so effectively that we both were "fooled" by it.

And, there's a ton more to come! Based on what I've read, we'll also be meeting the Reeds, Thoros of Myr, a new Berric, Stannis' wife and daughter, Olenna Martell, Edmure, and (finally!) the Blackfish. It's incredibly cool that HBO has brought in so many beloved characters who were cut from the earlier seasons. Since they've given themselves two seasons for Storm of Swords, they should have time to tell their stories now.


I also caught the finale to The Walking Dead. It was good. This season was hands-down my favorite of the show so far. The show has always had brilliant episodes, but they've often been surrounded by episodes with too much whining or pointless digressions. This season has been fantastic, with a steady dose of action, lots of tension, huge moments, character deaths and evolutions, and arcs that were both satisfying and disturbing. It's an incredibly bleak show, but one that's very well done.


Man, they sure did a great job at pulling off Andrea's death. The way the episode played out, I was sure she would escape... the way Milton tried to kill the governor, then the way he set up her release, and the close timing between cutting her bonds and Milton reaching her... it was shocking to realize that she'd been bitten after all, after all of that. It's a repudiation of how we expect these stories to play out, and I'm always happy to be surprised.

I've never really understood the dislike for Andrea that so many fans have. Next to Michonne, she's probably my favorite female character. She's capable, and a great shot, willing to work hard and willing to speak her mind. She got her rude awakening early in the first season, and has been part of the "survival faction" since then. Sure, she has made plenty of bad decisions along the way, but no more than, say, Rick has.

I'm happy to see Tyrese back together with Rick's group. Tyrese was one of my favorite characters in the comics, where he was a presence for much longer than he's been on the show. I can't believe it took me this long to figure out that that actor is the same guy who played Cutty on "The Wire" - now I like him even more! His character is somewhat different from the comics, though, and the stuff with Woodbury was very different. That whole arc ultimately felt a little anticlimactic; I was expecting there to be more dramatic consequences to his time on the inside of Woodbury. I suppose that might come into play in the next season.

Speaking of which: I'm not sure if I totally understand why the Woodbury survivors would move into the prison, instead of the prison folks moving into Woodbury. Given everything that has happened this episode (fence torn down, gate busted open, walls and guard towers shot with a frikkin' bazooka), the prison hardly seems the strong, defensible place it once was. In contrast, Woodbury's infrastructure seems intact. I'm not even thinking about the quality of life, just the height and strength of its walls. But, there may be tactical considerations I'm overlooking here. Maybe Woodbury requires a larger military force to man all the stations than the prison does, and the demise of the Woodbury army could mean that there are no longer enough bodies to maintain it. I dunno.


That's it for now!

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