After taking a break, I forced myself to return to Neverwinter Nights for the first expansion, Shadows of Undrentide, and so far I'm surprised and pleased at how drastically it improves upon the original campaign. It feels a bit like Bioware decided a decade ago to respond to nearly all of my specific complaints:
- Your henchmen are now much more integrated into the story. They have personal arcs, but will also comment on situations you encounter and decisions you make, and will also interject when they have urgent information to share.
- Many quests have a lot more options for completion. For example, a giant has kidnapped a dwarf woman to make his wife. You can slay the giant and free her. You can convince him to let her go (which pleasingly is very difficult to do: you need to navigate through a complex conversation tree, thinking about each response and picking the right one, before finally getting the chance to succeed in a [Persuade] check at the end). You can challenge him to a drinking contest, cheat (with enough dexterity, I believe), then steal the key to her cage when he keels over. Or you can deliberately let yourself get captured, thrown into the same cage, and then break both of you out at the same time. Anyways, it's incredibly refreshing to get quests beyond the "Kill everyone and pick up X, then return it to Y" type, and even beyond "Pick A to be evil, or B to be good."
- Speaking of which, even the morality system is improved. It's integrated better into the game, and the choices are more nuanced. For example, I now shift towards Chaotic alignment whenever I steal from all those chests in the village, and towards Lawful when I complete a quest that the mayor gives me. Some decisions require careful moral thinking: how do you treat a group of kobolds who killed a bunch of villagers and then surrendered? Be just and kill them, or be merciful and let them go? Be violent and kill them, or be reckless and let them go? Both intention and outcome seem to be important, which I dig.
- Much more environmentally interesting. Characters will walk around and take actions, which makes conversation cut-scenes much more dynamic, and non-conversation exploration more visually appealing.
- You have better control over your henchmen. You can access their inventory, change their equipment, give instructions on multi-classing, and ask them to cast specific spells or use special abilities. They also automatically stay put if you're in a safe zone, so they aren't tripping over you.
The story is definitely more interesting so far than the OC was at this point, but I groaned out loud when, less than five minutes into the game, someone told me that I needed to Find the Four Stolen Artifacts of WhogivesadarnIcantmakemyselfcareanymore. That said, each individual artifact quest is far more interesting than the Waterdhavian Creatures quests were.
So, we'll see. So far, I'm very pleased at the improvement.
From ancient tech to future tech: I recently bought a Razer Hydra motion controller during a sale. I got it specifically to play CLANG, the Kickstarted sword combat game that should come out in the next week or thereabouts. CLANG seeks to realistically portray martial combat by using actual motion, as opposed to clicking buttons. The Hydra is the most accurate motion controller on the market, and uses magnetic sensing technology to detect the precise location and orientation of the controller. It's far more accurate than my experience of using accelerometer and light-based motion controllers like the Wiimote, PS Eye, or Kinect.
The system is physically rather interesting. You hold two controllers, one in each hand. Each has a directional pad, four face buttons, a trigger, and a bumper. It's a bit like two halves of a PS3 controller, and has a similarly comfortable feel in the hand.
Out of the box, the Hydra only has native support for a handful of games (most notably Portal 2). However, it works with Sixsense MotionCreator, which is a sort of layer that sits between the controller and existing games to map the motion into their existing controls. It's fairly popular with first-person shooters, and also with some tactical games and real-time strategy games.
I was curious as to how well this control scheme would work, so I decided to try and play Mass Effect 3 with it. I loaded a save from <redacted> in the main campaign, and spent a few minutes getting used to navigating in the world with it, before diving into the next combat section. It's pretty fascinating! There are five different control schemes that you can pick from, which basically trade off ease of use for accuracy. I spent a lot of time experimenting with Mouselook, which lets you very precisely orient yourself in-game, but requires using a technique called "ratcheting" that I was never quite able to master. Ratcheting is necessary to solve the problem of how to do a spin in a game: it's intuitive to move left by pointing the controller to the left, but if you wanted to do a 180 degree turn, you can't rotate your wrist 180 degrees; instead, you move your wrist as far as you can, then press a button to "ratchet", essentially turning off tracking; then move your wrist to the right, release the button, and continue turning left.
I had slightly better luck with Hybrid mode, which acts like Mouselook most of the time, but automatically turns you further to the left once it detects that you're at the left boundary. This is also a bit finnicky, but I'm sure that with enough practice one could get used to it.
I have to say: playing ME3 with this new control scheme made me feel a bit like I was a teenager again and learning to play a FPS with a mouse and keyboard for the first time. It's been ages since I had to look down to remind myself where W, A, S, and D lay on a keyboard, and grappling with the Hydra felt a little like that. Certain things came to me more naturally than others. I very quickly grasped that I could reload by shaking my left controller off to the left. However, it took a lot more time to figure out which button was my "sprint," and even more time to associate my powers with their respective buttons, a process than never became completely intuitive to me.
After I could make it through the firefight without dying, I fired up multiplayer and started a Bronze match with my favorite character, a Vorcha soldier. It was a solo match, of course; I wasn't about to penalize other players for my cruddy playing. I managed to make it to Wave Four before dying, and bled out without using medi-gel. It was interesting. I can see how, if someone really spent time practicing, it could be more immersive to play the game this way, as well as more fun. However, the learning curve is pretty steep, and I think it will take me longer to pick up a new trick now than it did when I was a kid.
Interestingly, the sensation of re-learning an FPS even extended to a very slight sense of nausea I felt after playing for a while. It's been ages since I felt motion-sick while playing a computer game, and I'd figured that either I'd gotten used to looking at moving 3D scenes, or else modern graphics' higher resolution had patched over that problem. I now suspect that it's caused by the motion you experience not aligning with your expectations of what you'll see. It's a bit akin to the difference between driving a very fast car on a curvy road, and riding as a passenger; the passenger is much more likely to feel carsick, in part because he or she doesn't anticipate the changes in speed and direction.
After that experiment, I returned to playing ME3 MP with the standard mouse-and-keyboard controls. That was a weird experience too: I felt much more in control than with the Hydra, but it also felt oddly slower than before. Like, it was awkward to return to such a physical interface of manually dragging an object across a table, rather than the ethereal experience of simply looking at what I wanted to see.
The Hydra is definitely a niche product for now; I'm happy to have one, and will probably try it out on some more games, but I don't think it will be replacing WASD+Mouse anytime soon for me. It could play a part in some very cool upcoming technology, though. The Oculus Rift is coming soon, and some enterprising souls have already experimented with combining the Rift's immersive 3D technology with the Hydra's motion sensing, and been pretty pleased at the results. The other day, a friend pointed me to the combination of the Oculus Rift and an "omnidirectional treadmill", which essentially lets you walk endlessly in any direction. If you combined these three things together, you would essentially have a low-fidelity version of the Holodeck from ST:TNG. That's amazing! I wasn't really expecting to get something like that in my lifetime, but it's now close enough to be an achievable goal.
Switching back to ME3 for a moment: I've switched back to ME3 for a moment. Bioware has sadly stopped further development on the multiplayer portion of the game after a year of producing an incredible quantity of very high-quality content. They've stopped running weekly challenges, and as a way to help compensate for that, they adjusted the "Squad Elite" challenge, which previously had required completing a certain number of weekly challenges in order to achieve. Now, you can get points for Squad Elite by extracting from unknown maps and from unknown enemies. Well! I had more or less given up on this achievement, since I don't play Gold games, and didn't think I'd ever be able to get enough First Aid medals for the revive sub-challenge. With two new ways of getting it, though, I decided to take a crack at it.
And, you know, it was really fun, like usual. I love playing my Vorcha and burninating all the Reapers. As time went on, though, I realized that, since the achievements was only counting the number of extractions, and not points, I could get it more quickly and easily by playing Bronze instead of Silver. And, if I play Bronze, I can play as any class. Previously, all six of my classes had been at Level 20 (which may or may not have been so I could maintain an N7 rating of 420), so I was able to immediately promote some of them and start over again with brand new builds. I decided to focus on characters from the free Earth DLC, since I'm closest to unlocking that achievement; I don't think I ever actually will, since I'll need to score a lot of points with particular finnicky weapons, but I have unlocked all of those characters and it seemed as good a place as any to focus.
I'd played a few previously, so I resurrected them to get all the way to 10 extractions each for my N7 Paladin and N7 Shadow. Both are fun classes. I play my Paladin offensively: he can be fairly tanky with his Energy Drain skill, and with Snap Freeze he's quite good at setting off explosions. The Shadow is more squishy, but also a ton of fun. Her signature movement is Shadow Strike, which is kind of like an Infiltrator's response to Biotic Charge: you cloak, teleport across the battlefield, then decloak and STAB A DUDE IN THE BACK WITH A GIANT ELECTRICAL SWORD. All of her sword attacks are melees, so if you pick the right evolutions and pack a pistol with a Melee Stunner mod on it, you can deal out unbelievable amounts of damage with a single strike; plus, with the right Tactical Cloak evolution, you remain in stealth even after delivering the blow, and can run away or do another Shadow Strike on a far opponent. Anyways, one of the big reasons why I like playing as the Shadow is because she fulfills a very specific and useful tactical role. Similarly to how the Vorcha Soldier is fantastic at crowd-control for weak opponents, and at burning down Ravagers, the Shadow specializes in taking out high-damage, low-health snipers like Geth Rocket Troopers and Cerberus Nemeses. Even if they're in cover on the other side of the map, the Shadow can zip right over and take them out with no problems.
Since I got my 10 extractions on those, I needed to start on another Earth character, so I picked up the N7 Demolisher. I'd been pessimistic about her, mainly because she is an Engineer with zero tech powers. But! The interesting thing about her is, she doesn't care about cooldowns at all. Two of her powers are grenades, and the third, Supply Pylon, is an ability that you'll probably only use once at the start of each match. So, I finally had a character that could use all of those super-heavy weapons that would crush my power-using characters.
I'm still leveling her and getting a feel for her play style, but it's been a blast so far. Arc Grenades are fantastic for crowd control and quickly clearing out groups of weak enemies: I took the radius evolution, so even if they start to scatter I can usually grab everyone. It also stuns most weaker enemies, so if they survive the initial blast it's easy to pick them off, or I can just toss in a second grenade to finish the job. I've been playing for long enough now that I have a good understanding of where the spawn points are on each map, and I'm able to start each wave by running into the likeliest source of danger and throwing an Arc Grenade. The Homing Grenade is mostly useful for larger, armored opponents like Brutes, Atlases, Pyros, and Scions; it also sets off a Tech Burst if it follows an Arc Grenade, which can pack a powerful one-two-three punch in a short amount of time.
The Supply Pylon is a cool concept, but it ranges from mildly useful (Firebase White) to completely useless (Firebase Giant). I've read that some people like to use it more offensively, though, since it explodes when you re-deploy. If you were to do that, it might make sense to take lighter weapons for a lower cooldown.
I created my build to maximize grenade capacity. I'm currently just at level 15, and with my Gear I can now carry 9 in a mission. However, this ends up being less of an advantage than I originally thought: I find that I'm constrained more by my ability to restock than my maximum supply, and on certain maps I rarely can keep over 3 grenades at a time. I think this would be even more of a handicap if I tried to play this build on Silver, since ammo boxes carry fewer grenades and regenerate less quickly. (Then again, this would be an excellent reason to finally start tapping some of the 149 Thermal Clip Packs that I've accumulated over a year of playing power-focused characters.)
Last night, after a fun set of games with a stable group of Bronze players on U/U/B, I reached my 25th extraction against Unknown Enemies, and beat the Squad Elite challenge! So, now I have access to a nifty "Operator" banner. Very cool. Apparently, this achievement and my promotions were also enough to push me up to the top 9% of both N7 ranking and Challenge Leaderboard. I never thought I'd make single-digit on either one (and actually had slipped to 11% on N7 just recently), so that was unexpected and gratifying.
I think this would be a good stopping point, if I wanted to stop. I'll certainly never get the Mass Effect challenge, and doubt that I would get the Spectre Mastery one, and those are the only two that feel more significant than Squad Elite. That said, I'm still loving the game, the servers seem quite active whenever I'm on, and I'll probably keep playing for as long as it's fun.