Monday, October 08, 2012

Fus Ro... Oh, You Know Where This Is Going

Media Roundup Time!

Let me get the title out of the way: yup, I'm finally getting into Skyrim. As I do so, I'm belatedly remembering that all of my previous Elder Scrolls experiences have started the same way. I always start the game a bit late, after the mod community has had a head start on new content. The beginning (after a tutorial-ish opener) feels simultaneously overwhelming and underwhelming: you can go literally anywhere, and do literally anything, but the main plot won't kick into gear for some time, and so there isn't the sense of urgency that you normally get with something like a Bioware title.

So I'll poke away at it with short play sessions, maybe thirty minutes or so at a time. The structure of the game actually lends itself really well to this kind of approach, since that's roughly how long it takes to clear an area of enemies. (As with Morrowind and Oblivion, these areas are a mixture of caves, ruined forts, ancient Dwemer ruins, and other cool, large explorable locations.) Gradually, over time, I come more wrapped up in one of the game's through-plots. Amusingly enough, this is rarely the actual ur-plot; instead, I'm usually more motivated by one of the faction questlines. In Morrowind, my favorite part of the game was the House Hlaalu quests. In Oblivion, I actually had the most fun with the Mages Guild quests, which is interesting since I was playing much more of a thief-type character. In Skyrim... well, it's still far too early to know what my favorite will end up being, but the game started clicking for me once I made contact with the Thieves Guild and started running their quests.

Elder Scrolls games are purposely designed to encourage tangents and diversions. At any given time, you'll probably have 20 or more quests in your journal. You'll decide to accomplish one of them. You'll start walking or riding towards a new destination. Along the way, you'll stumble across, say, a fort full of bad guys shooting at you. You might just skirt around it... or maybe you'll fight back and kill them. Then, as long as the guys outside are dead, you'll poke your head inside. Then you'll clear out all of those people. Then maybe you'll find an artifact or something that will start off yet ANOTHER quest.

On the whole, I like Skyrim much more than its predecessors. It improves many aspects of the previous games. Some highlights include:
  • Fast Travel is much more sensible and fun. Previously they limited fast travel to places where it made logical sense (along a Silt Strider route, or between Mages Guild teleportation rooms). Now, Fast Travel is clearly about convenience to you, the player of the game, and not about convenience to your character. You can fast travel between any two places on the map that you've previously visited; it will take however much time it would have taken your character to have traveled, you just don't need to watch every step you take. (There are two downsides which are worth noting but not really complaining about: first, a few landmarks don't get fast travel spots, most importantly the standing stones. I wish these would at least get marked on your map; as it stands, it's impossible to remember where they are, so you need to resort to online resources. Secondly, I do kinda miss Mark and Recall... but again, with the other improvements they've made, it doesn't really matter since you can fast-travel to a spot very close to where you want to be.)
  • Along the same theme of "minimizing time spend in drudgery," I love what they've done with level designs. Levels are still fairly long and complex - a cavern might include several loadable regions and many stairways that lead you farther down - but when you "beat" the area (often this means defeating a particularly powerful foe and taking a great treasure), you don't need to turn around and retrace your steps all the way back to the service. Instead, there's usually some fresh exit from the very end that lets you quickly get back outside. This varies a lot from place to place (another thing I appreciate) - in an ancient Dwemer ruin you might ride a mighty elevator back up to the top; in a cave you might find a small opening you can exit that will drop you back in Skyrim a ways from your original entry; other times you'll raise a portcullis or unlock a secret door that will close a loop that lets you easily access the entry. The bottom line: more time spent doing fun stuff, less time walking.
  • Yet another welcome improvement: smithing. In the earlier Elder Scrolls games, this skill was used to avert a negative. Your weapons and armor would decay over time through use, losing effectiveness with each combat; you would need to repair these at a smith, or use a whetstone and a skill to fix them yourself. Now, you no longer need to worry about decay: a dagger will always be as strong as when it started. Instead, smithing is now a crafting skill, joining the ranks of alchemy and enchanting. You collect raw materials (animal hides, iron ore, steel ingots), and at a blacksmith's forge you can create new weapons and armor from scratch, and improve these items or others that you find on your journeys. Weirdly enough, the analogy I find myself thinking of most is with the Civilization series' treatment of pollution. In the early Civ games, pollution was a negative: it carried a risk of polluting a nearby terrain square and reducing yields, so you would spend a large part of the endgame carrying out the annoying work of having settlers/engineers mop up the detritus of your industrial civilization. In Civ IV, they flipped the system around: instead of Pollution, now we had Health. Health was a positive, something you could act to increase: build an aqueduct, install a sewer system, etc., and watch  your health flourish. Higher health meant full growth potential. If you let "pollution" get out of control, it became a macro issue (growth gradually slows to a halt), but it's something you can treat strategically ("I need to discover new technology to improve my health") instead of an endless series of rote tactical judgment ("Clean THIS pollution up HERE, then clean THAT pollution over THERE..."). Aaaaaanyways... the elation I felt at Civ IV's update to pollution is similar to the elation I feel about Skryim's smithing. It's more fun now.
  • They fixed leveling! This was by far the most-complained-about aspect of Oblivion: the game brutally penalized you for improving your character, and even more so if, like me, you were foolish enough to spend time improving your Speechcraft or picking pockets or sneaking. Skyrim still levels enemies, but in a far more sensible manner now: they roughly track your progression, and are nicely varied (I just cleared out a cave where there were many low-level brigands, a couple of other challenging ones, and a chief who would have been rather deadly if not for my poisonous hidden blade). No more encountering random bandits wearing glass armor and daedric wakizashis!
  • The economy is a bit better in Skyrim... still worse than any Bioware game, but loads better than Morrowind or Oblivion. The fundamental problems still remain: there's too much valuable stuff in the game, it's too hard to sell it all, and there's very little reason to ever buy anything. Each of those individual points are a bit better than in previous iterations, though. I still haven't seen price scaling at the highest level (i.e., I haven't yet seen Glass or Daedric weapons and armor), but it feels like any given item you can find should be worth little enough that a decent merchant can buy it from you. Secondly, there are more merchants who have around 1000 gold or more, so you don't need to camp out as much to empty your inventory. Finally, the houses are a pretty decent money sink, which helps make up for the fact that you'll probably never, ever, ever buy a single weapon or piece of armor from anyone. I hope that they'll continue to improve this in the next game; I would highly value a more streamlined way to convert the loot I acquire into usable coin.
In any RPG, I enjoy playing as a thief-type character.  This has been hard to do in previous Elder Scrolls games... I can mainly focus on thief skills, but since Elder Scrolls are so focused on single-player (as opposed to party-based) gameplay, you basically need to combine thief, magic, and fighting skills in a single character. In the past I've usually gotten away with just focusing on one or two schools of magic, a single weapon and armor skill, and otherwise trying to optimize my thief skills. Now, for the first time, I'm trying to create a character with no magic whatsoever: he's purely a rogue, with minimal fighting skills to supplement his thieving talents. It's actually going OK so far.

Well, let me back up a little: here are the skills I'm taking my perks in. (I also am leveling Speech and Lockpicking a lot, but those perks don't seem terribly useful and so I'm not perk-ing those.)
  • Sneak. Probably the single most important skill I have. It's currently at 80, the highest of any skill by a pretty wide margin. I'm pretty much always undetectable, unless I'm running right in front of someone in strong light.
  • Pickpocketing. This skill is crazily easy to level, so much so that I've had to cut down on it to avoid building a skewed character. This tree has some fun extra perks, especially one that dramatically improves your carrying capacity, and another that lets you silently poison people by giving them potions.
  • Alchemy. One of my two crafting skills. This is plugging a lot of the potential gaps from skipping any actual magic skills. It's also a lot of fun... I enjoy the discovery that goes into both finding ingredients and learning new recipes.
  • Smithing. My other crafting skill. It's very practical. Weirdly, I spend most of my time, and get most of my profit, from making jewelry, but the armor I do craft is better than anything I've found in-game so far, including the enchanted stuff I find. 
  • One-handed. I actually haven't put that many perks into this: the biggest benefit I've gotten is a 15x damage multiplier from the Sneak tree, by attacking via dagger from stealth. This has an incredibly sick and fun animation when you attack a humanoid from behind: you grab the top of their head, pull it back, and drag the dagger across. Ewwww. Most of the perks in this tree are useless to me, but I did grab one for improving my power attack. I may or may not invest in the dual wielding perks at some point; currently I'm holding a shield for the armor bonus but not investing in Blocking perks at all.
  • Light Armor. Cuz, y'know, I don't want to die. This is leveling very slowly, due to my incredible sneaking skills.
I am enjoying the perks system. It slightly decouples the level advancement process, the skill advancement process, and special ability acquisition. You now level up by gaining points in any skill; there's no longer a classification of "major" and "minor" skills for your character. And, you can spend your perk in any skill you want, but most perks do have minimum skill requirements. So, I still can't get that top point in the Sneak tree until my skill reaches high enough for it; but I also don't need to spend any perks in Lockpicking or Speech, despite the fact that they factor into my leveling up.

My play style has been really fun so far. I'm a very stealthy character. In towns, I'll generally just walk around and talk to everyone, but when night falls, I break into houses and steal everything valuable. Pickpocketing is fun too, though I confine myself to just one or two items from everyone. (A surprisingly large percentage of Skyrim's upstanding citizens are walking around with lockpicks in their pockets. Can you imagine?!) In lairs (forts, caves, temples, etc.), I stay in stealth the whole time, carefully watch for enemies and light sources, and try to maneuver so I can one-shot everyone from stealth. It's high-pressure, exhilarating fun. It's most effective against humanoid opponents like brigands. It works OK against undead; they're a bit slower, which is good, but they're also immune to many powers. So far it's been hardest against dwemer constructs, especially those spherical guys who move around very quickly in well-lighted areas.

When my stealth fails me, I'm only a mediocre fighter, but that's where my alchemy comes in very handy. I carry around a variety of poisons and "restore health" potions, so I can heal myself pretty much indefinitely while whittling down my opponents' resistances. I've been pleased with how often I'm able to stick to stealth, though... there are even a few "bosses" who I've been able to ambush, with good results.

In the open countryside, I'm a bit weaker and more exposed, but I also don't feel the same compulsion to defeat everyone. I got (well, okay, kinda stole) a horse relatively early on, and ride it any time I'm traveling to a new place. If I run across a pack of wolves or a bear or some other baddie, I can always outrun it.

The one enemy type I've had most trouble with so far is dragons. As a stealthy character with a backup of melee weaponry, I'm an extremely poor match for a gigantic flying fire-spewing beast. I'm very vulnerable to its unblockable aerial flame assaults. When it lands, I can rush in and whack it and account for myself rather well, but then it will take back off again. I can still win, eventually, thanks to all my potions, but it's a long and annoying process. I'm not totally sure what to do... I don't really want to pick up archery just so I can handle one enemy type, but I may need to.

Oh, I should mention mods. I'm playing with a pretty light set at the moment. One is absolutely essential for playing on the PC: Sky UI, which makes the game's menus actually usable and useful. The Elder Scrolls has been targeting consoles for a while, which makes sense from a market-share perspective, but also sucks since the PC controls and UIs tend to get dumbed down to something that can be controlled with a thumbstick and viewed on a low-resolution screen. Trying to scroll through a list of 50 potion ingredients and only being able to see 8 at a time is pure pain. Sky UI drastically fixes this by completely reworking the menus: they fit the color scheme of Skyrim perfectly, but are (finally!) designed with a mouse in mind, and take advantage of text that's perfectly readable from two feet away instead of across a living room.

Other mods I'm happily using: a World Map upgrade, a water-enhancement mod, the wonderfully-named "No More Blocky Faces," and a tiny patch that improves the way Transmute Ore works. (Remember when I said my character uses no magic? That was technically a lie. I do cast Transmute Ore. It's infinitely more usable with this patch, which (1) affects all the Iron One in your inventory at once, instead of requiring a separate cast for each unit, and (2) doesn't force you to transmute all your Silver to Gold before you can transmute more Iron.)

I haven't tried any NPC or quest mods yet. I may roll some in if and when I start running out of stuff to do in the main game.

Speaking of NPCs... it looks like there are more followers here than in the earlier games, but they still don't really have personalities, and feel pretty cookie-cutter. In each town, there's one mercenary drinking in the inn who you can hire for 500 gold. In each town, after you become famous and get a house, you get a "housecarl" who you can ask to follow you. They seem to all be fighters; I haven't found any mage or thief followers yet. And since I'm a thief, followers are useless: they're no good at sneaking and would just give me away.

It sounds like romance is possible for the first time in an Elder Scrolls game. I haven't explored that avenue yet; I won't get my hopes up, but I look forward to seeing what Bethesda is doing there.

So, that's all been fun!

Let's see... I haven't tried out Leviathan for Mass Effect 3 yet. I peeked at the reviews, they look good-but-not-great. I suspect (but haven't yet bothered to research) that it adds content earlier in the game, so I would need to reload an old save to do it. I do occasionally jump in to Mass Effect 3 multiplayer; if there's a weekend challenge that I'm capable of doing (e.g., not requiring perfect extraction from Reapers on Gold while only using melee attacks), I'll play to beat the challenge, and typically stick around for a few more matches. I'm pleasantly surprised at how easily I can slide back into the game, even if it's been over two weeks since I last played. I think that's a testament to the awesomeness of cooperative multiplayer, and also how well multiplayer matches are constructed, with gradually increasing waves of difficulty.

Regarding Fallen London:

I'm currently on Polythreme. It's very strange here! I've made some new friends. My new friends used to be my clothes. It's... it's rather confusing.

I came to Polythreme to fulfill my Ambition, and finally got to dispose of that bottle of Fourth City Airag that I'd been carting around for ages. It was a little frustrating at first, but I consulted the ever-helpful-and-brilliant community, and now I have a system down that works beautifully. It's based around deck management and opportunity cards. I did all the special stuff, and lately I've been acquiring bazaar permits by becoming fascinating. It's quite lucrative! I'll eventually travel back to London, and probably pick up a Plated Seal along the way to I can complete my menagerie.

I do think that I'm nearing the end of currently available content, though... I need a Hound of Heaven, and to finish the Affair of the Box, and do the Jack's Back story. Which will take a little while, but the end is finally in sight. Well, the "end"... I'm sure Failbetter will roll out some new content for the game later (probably after StoryNexus is available and the Silver Tree comes out). I'm very close to capping my first stat: Persuasive is at 129, and I believe that it's the lowest cap at 130. (As far as I know, the other stats all cap at 140; other than Watchful, I'm pretty far away from those caps.)

I might try some other fate-locked storylines then, or just park my character and wait for another wave of updates. The alternative is grinding, which I don't think I want to do... some of the hard-core completists in the community set goals for themselves like gaining the highest rank in Master Thief, or becoming the most Hedonistic. The most popular goal is gaining an Overgoat, which costs a staggering 11,712 echoes (and some change). Many players are taking advantage of the stomach-churning but highly lucrative Fidgeting Writer roulette wheel to raise that cash. I... I don't see myself doing that. At most, I'll improve my wardrobe so I'm ready for the next content wave.

Hrm... I really want to talk more about the plot, at least a little. Let's drop into

MEGA SPOILERS for Fallen London

On Polythreme, I spoke with Hundreds, the king and ruler of the city. A LOT of pieces of various puzzles fell into place here, thanks to some astonishing flashbacks all the way to the First City. Let me try and piece these together:
  • As we suspected before, the Manager of the Royal Bethlehem Hotel was the ruler of the First City. In flashback, he appears as a Priest-King, with bronze raiment (a wonderful evocation of the brass buttons on his modern jacket!)
  • The priest-king fell in love with Hundreds, back when Hundreds was a man, who traveled from the orient. 
  • Hundreds fell ill, and the priest-king bargained with the Masters of the Bazaar to take his city in exchange for his lover's life. And so the first city descended.
  • (What is the First City? It's clearly in the Middle East. We know that "Even the First City was young when Babylon fell," which disqualifies my first choice of Kish.)
  • This seems to match our understanding of the fall of the Fifth City: Queen Victoria made the deal with the Masters in order to save the life of her own lover, Prince Albert. Presumably, variations on this same deal were done for the second-through-fourth cities as well. 
All very exciting. Also, I'm pretty sure that the Rubbery Men are totally disconnected from the masters... I don't want to get into Flute Street too much, but based on what I saw there, I'm pretty sure they're pursuing an entirely separate, though not necessarily antagonistic, agenda.

Oh, oh oh! I also finished the Diocesan Intrigues storyline. Well, at least as much as there is so far. I was INCREDIBLY nervous about the last choice. I kept that opportunity card in my hand for, um, I think about three days while I warily weighed the pros and the cons of a frontal assault on Hell. At last I gulped and threw in my strength fully behind the Bishop. I may not always approve of his methods, but I'm in complete agreement with his goals. It looks like the end of that story hasn't yet been written. I can't wait to see what happens!


Let's talk about TV!

I was extremely disappointed in the previous two seasons of Dexter, and had promised myself that I was done: no more of that show. I was surprised to see a fairly decent review of the season premiere on the AV Club, though, and browsing the comments I saw a lot of variations of "Wow, I was convinced this was going to be awful, but it's actually pretty good!" So, I broke my promise and am watching it. It's definitely way better than it's been in a long time, but I still maintain my skepticism: Dexter has a pattern of creating seasons that start off extremely promising, only to peter out and get super-dumb near the end. We'll see how it goes. I reserve the right to bail at any moment if it starts to slide. (Oh, and if it does turn out, I think it will be yet another argument in favor of setting hard dates on TV shows to end. It gets good results!) (Heh, wow... reading my previous posts on Dexter is pretty amusing. I seem to always post a few episodes into the season, when I'm really optimistic about what the show is doing, before it goes of the rails and becomes unbelievably stupid and annoying. I... I may be continuing that trend here.)

I've been watching old Monty Python's Flying Circus episodes. Man, those things are absolutely hilarious. Even forty years later, when they've inspired multiple generations of imitators, their weirdness remains fully intact. Of course I grin when I see something like the Ministry of Silly Walks, despite having seen it dozens of times before; but I'm also amazed at how much of this show I haven't previously seen, or had completely forgotten about. There's a lot of Gumby material there that I don't think I've seen before, and it's as funny as the operation sketch. Also, for the first time in my life, I'm finally able to identify each individual Python immediately, as soon as they appear on screen, and I think that's helping me get an even deeper appreciation for their talents.

And... did I mention that I'd also re-watched Chappelle's Show's entire run? (Well, except for the third season, which I'm deliberately avoiding.) I was kinda-inspired by an AV Club tour of the series, but I'd have gladly done it without any prompting. What impresses me most is how well that show has aged. Even stuff that seemed extremely topical at the time, like one about how Dave's life is just like Grand Theft Auto, and a brilliant piece that compares the Internet (remember when that was a thing?) to a skeezy shopping mall, still feel fresh and valuable today. I'm impressed all over again at Dave's incredible comic brilliance. What a huge shame that he's not sharing his gift with as many people these days. I really need to catch him the next time he makes a commando appearance at a show here in the city.

Parks & Recreation is back, and is wonderful. I'm curious to see if they come up with any major arcs for this season. Well, I guess we're kind of on an arc now, just based on where the characters are located. And it seems like Ron may be embarking on something new. Yay! 30 Rock just came back too, and had a nice, appropriately meta premiere. I'm a little sad that show is going away, but at the same time I feel like now is a great time to end it... I still love that program, but it feels like they're finally starting to reach the end of what they can get out of characters like Kenneth and Jenna. That show has never been nervous about shaking things up, and I'm curious to see what they do for the rest of the season, now that they no longer need to worry about the future at all.

Speaking of shaking things up... I'm very belatedly jumping on the bandwagon for Breaking Bad, and just started watching the first season. No spoilers, please! I'm already completely engrossed, and will probably blow through the rest of the series in short order. I can already see why everyone likes this show so much. Wow, Cranston is just incredible.

Robot Chicken's pretty strong as well... I wasn't super-impressed with last season, which may have just been my own problem, but I loved their DC Comics special, and the first "regular" episode also hit me right. They have a new title sequence now. Maybe that's helping?

Oh, man, Louie! Such a good show. Such a good, good show. It doesn't even need to be funny, it just needs to be good. It sure goes to some unexpected places; I defy you to find anyone who predicted where the season finale would end up. Lots of great guest performances this season, too, both from comedians and non-comedians. I'm impressed at what that show can do: get really famous and well-respected comedians to play parts that make them look awful; and almost single-handedly rehabilitate the reputations of comedians that the cool have long since written off.

Speaking of comedy... I saw an awesome show last Friday at Cobb's. Patton Oswalt was the headliner, and was incredibly funny, as I've come to expect from him. I was really impressed by how strong the openers were across the board, though. Typically you'll get a mediocre local MC who opens up, then some decent-to-good comedians, then a great performance from the headliner. Here, though, everyone was just great. Next to Patton, the very first guy may have been the funniest. Argh... I'm trying to find his name online and I can't. I think he's local. He's Cuban, maybe? He had some phenomenal material: starting a Mariachi band in the Mission, describing his experiences at Outside Lands last year, the contagiousness of nervousness, and so on. There was a former Muslim from Los Angeles who had a short but really funny set that included some autobiographical material (the process of getting US citizenship) and some outright lies (a very resourceful cat). Right before Patton was Mike Drucker, a really funny guy who I follow on Twitter and had no idea did stand-up comedy. Drucker's comedy was very much aligned with my sensibilities: very focused on geek culture, male insecurity, and so on. Patton killed. Absolutely killed. I think this is the third time I've seen him in a bit over three years, and I don't think I've ever heard any repeated material (well, unless you count his Magical Black Man bit that was on the AV Club's Stand Down series) (man, this is turning into the "plugging the AV Club" post!).  Aaanyways... it's interesting. In some ways, Patton seems like the same guy who we all fell in love with years ago: he complains about his weight, and is broadly self-deprecating, and also launches really funny, scathing, yet surprisingly good-hearted assaults on things he dislikes. (One highlight of his set was a quasi-justification for Nickelback's horrible music.) But, he's also a dad now, and part of his routine is incorporating those sets of experiences. It's great! I look forward to many more years of great comedy from that talented guy.

And, Louis CK in just a tad over a month! I am truly blessed.

On the book front: I've been coasting for a bit since finishing Cloud Atlas, just catching up on my New Yorker issues and some political stuff. But I have made it about a hundred pages into Telegraph Avenue and am really enjoying it so far. Great characters, fun sense of humor, really interesting atmosphere. It's hitting a lot of, um, thematic beats that I should probably expect from Chabon, but that's good.

No comments:

Post a Comment