Saturday, July 27, 2013

Shadowrun Returns: First Impressions

I grabbed Shadowrun Returns as soon as it arrived on Steam, and am now a couple of hours into the official campaign. I'm sure that I'll do one of my standard verbose write-ups after I finish, covering the plot and strategy and such, but there's enough curiosity around the title now that I figured I'd throw in my two cents' worth. There aren't any spoilers in this post.

My Background

I've played the SNES, Genesis, and CCG incarnations of Shadowrun, but never played the pen-and-paper RPG nor read any of the books. I really enjoy the games I've played, particularly for their atmosphere. I was a Kickstarter backer of the game, and have followed its development somewhat closely.


If you've played other tactical turn-based shooters (like X-COM or Fallout 1-2), or one of the earlier video game adaptations of Shadowrun, you'll probably want to change the game difficulty to "Hard" instead of "Normal." After reading online about the difficulty, I've played as Hard from the start, which has made combat nicely challenging but hasn't caused me to die once yet. Normal might be good if you're new to the genre, though, as it will probably let you get away with more mistakes.

If you haven't played any version of Shadowrun before (or only the SNES game), be warned that magic and technology in the same person do not mix. If you want to be a mage or shaman, don't invest any points in Decking or Rigging, and never get any cyberware. The game lets you mix stuff up, which is cool, but in almost every case you're better off not crossing the streams.

The Good

Writing. This was the single nicest surprise for me. The game has a cohesive and very appealing narrative style, which is mostly a hard-boiled noir tone, mixed in with small elements of punk, cyberpunk, and dark humor. Characters' speech and the in-game exposition are really well-crafted.

Dialogue. Yet another nice surprise. I don't remember reading a whole lot about choice-and-consequence during SRR's development, but they're ahead of the curve in crafting an engaging, reactive plot. This is an old complaint, but most modern RPGs have unfortunately succumbed to losing the "role-playing" aspect of RPGs, and one major aspect of that is that in most games, the point of any conversation is just to visit every node on the dialogue tree. In contrast, SRR harkens back to the more complex, nuanced, and risky dialogue of games like Fallout 1 and Planescape: Torment. Picking certain conversation options will tick off the other person, which might prevent you from learning some crucial information or gaining certain items. I wasn't expecting this level of depth, and am really enjoying it.

Style. It's recognizably Shadowrun - rain, pollution, trenchcoats, sunglasses, cyberware, tattoos - but looks great, much less 1980s than I'm used to.

Art. One of the early decisions Harebrained Schemes made was to combine 3D character models with 2D backgrounds, and I think it paid off extremely well. The backgrounds look fantastic, very lush and real; if I have one complaint there, it's just that they look so real that I wish I could interact with them more. The NPCs also look really good. Similar to old-school RPGs like Baldur's Gate, each speaking character has an in-game model but also a detailed portrait, and the portraits look fantastic. I really wish now that I had sprung for one of the higher Backer levels that would have put me in-game as an NPC, just because I would have loved to have one of those avatars. Anyways. It's much better-looking than is typical for a $20 game.

Music. One of the Kickstarter stretch goals let them bring on both Marshall Parker and Sam Powell, who created the music for the SNES and Genesis games. This was a great move. The music for SRR is all original, but very evocative of the older games' music, which in turn triggers all sorts of great sense memory in my brain. It's perfect for the setting - moody, atmospheric, occasionally sinister.

Combat. I don't play a ton of these style of games - I still haven't tried the new XCOM - but I'm really digging it so far. It's fairly puzzle-like, as you try to figure out where to place your characters, how much you're willing to risk, etc. The element of chance adds a lot of tension to the game. I've already missed one 99% shot, which bummed me out. It's cool, though. The combat is actually very different than in SNES or Genesis, both of which were real-time. The SNES version's combat was miserable, awkwardly using a mouse-style cursor that you had to control with your gamepad. The Genesis version was a bit better, and featured target switching, but I still far prefer the turn-based version here. (It's also nice that you can directly control your Runners now, unlike in previous versions.)

Ruleset. Shadowrun is now coming out with 5th edition rules, but SRR is based on a modified version of 2nd edition, which was the version used by the SNES and Genesis games. So, if you played either of those, it'll be quick and easy to adapt to them here. There are some new elements, though, like Riggers and Physical Adepts, which is really cool. Anyways. A good game design is all about presenting interesting choices, and I'm constantly questioning the best way to spent my limited Karma as I shape my character.

The Matrix! I actually just finished my first mission that included a full-on Matrix portion, and absolutely loved it. The design is really excellent - in previous Shadowrun games, a Matrix run was a stand-alone thing one Decker did while the rest of your team sat around and watched. In SRR, though, it's very well integrated into the rest of the game. In my case, I was playing a Decker who shot down a keyboard jockey, then jacked into the Matrix, then helped bring down [PLOT DATA REDACTED] while my team protected his prone body. Time moves more quickly in the Matrix, but still takes time, so there's a fun sense of pressure to wrap up your objective so you can rejoin the fight. I'm so glad that they fit this in!

The Mediocre

Saving. This seems to be the number-one complaint in user reviews that I've read so far. I can sympathize with it, but I also see some benefit to the way it's currently set up. Honestly, if I could save any time, I'd always save before the start of every conversation, and if I didn't like the way it turned out, I would re-load and try again. Over the long run, I think the current approach is much more immersive, and lets me focus more on having fun and less on min/maxing outcomes.

The Bad

Bugs. And not the fun Chicago kind, either! Actually, maybe I should just say "bug", since so far I've only run into one, but it was annoying. At the end of a fairly complex fight, where I'd made extra effort to achieve the result I wanted (zero civilian casualties!), a plot-required NPC failed to spawn. I ended up wandering around the map for about five minutes before checking out YouTube, realizing the mission was bugged, and then re-starting. Fortunately it ended correctly the second time, so it wasn't a game-breaking problem, but it was still annoying.

Loading times. It can take a surprisingly long time for the game to even bring up the main menu, and each map takes a while as well. It isn't awful - not as bad as the interminable loads on Mass Effect 2 or Civilization V, for example - but it's quite a bit longer than other recent, high-resolution, large-scale games I've played like Mass Effect 3 and Bioshock Infinite. Eh. Maybe it just means it's finally time for me to look into upgrading my PC.

Audio stuttering. Can you tell that I'm digging for things to add to this section? Anyways - the sound and music are usually great, but I've noticed that if I switch between sections in the menu, the audio hiccups or stutters for a bit. Hardly a big problem, but another thing that's a bit annoying.

The Bottom Line

... well, you'll have to wait for that. So far, though, my experiences have been very positive! And I haven't even checked out any of the user-generated content yet, but have already heard good things about some of the existing modules, including a fan-made remake of the SNES campaign, and several works based on existing Shadowrun novels. From what I understand, the main campaign is just about 12 hours long, but it looks like I'll have plenty more Shadowrun goodness to look forward to.

Honors of the Underdark

Phew! As promised, Hordes of the Underdark has proven to be the best of the original trio of Neverwinter Nights modules. It builds on the vast improvements of Shadows of Undrentide and expands them, bringing in welcome elements like multi-person party banters and area exploration. Even more impressively, it manages to retroactively improve the stale original campaign of NWN, drawing forward the few key plot elements and putting them in a really engaging context. (I still would recommend that everyone skip the first campaign and jump right into SoU, but for those few who suffered through it, there are some emotional rewards to be found here.)

First things first: the manual to HotU mentions that this campaign is designed for higher-level characters, and suggests that you import either your NWN or your SoU character. I decided to bring forward Cirion Bartlemann, my male halfling rogue from NWN. Unfortunately, it turns out that the game is written such that it assumes you're continuing the story from SoU. Characters from NWN won't acknowledge your history in the first game, while people from SoU will have a lot to say about your past together. I was a little bummed by this, but ultimately decided to keep playing as Cirion, mainly because of the romance options he had available.

You can get incredibly high-level in this expansion, which is awesome. You're auto-leveled to 15 if you weren't already that high at the start of the game; you'll reach Epic level roughly a chapter into the game, which unlocks a bunch of unique new high-level Feats (including stat boosts, Epic Dodge, and other goodies); and by the end of the game you'll probably be around level 30. I played as an almost pure Rogue, with one level each in Ranger (for cheap dual-wielding) and Shadowdancer (for Hide In Plain Sight). It was a lot of fun. My AC was around 50 near the end of the game, plus I had stuff like Epic Dodge available, and so I ended up tanking most fights, especially since for most of the game I had glass cannon companions. I rarely used HiPS, but it was a useful emergency lever to have for certain high-risk fights. I also got a ton of mileage out of Use Magic Devices, which let me equip some great Wizard and Monk equipment.

Probably my single favorite mechanical enhancement to HotU was the addition of another henchman slot. I'll get into my particular companions in spoilerville below, but for now I'll note that it helps on a couple of fronts. First of all, it's much easier to create effective parties, and you're less hamstrung by your PC class choice. (For most of SoU, your only options for a companion were Thief or Barbarian/Sorcerer, which made certain classes very difficult to pull off.) You don't have nearly as many options for companions as you did in NWN1, but simply by having multiples available at the same time, it's become far easier to cover multiple bases at the same time. (I would have appreciated having a cleric choice, but at higher levels your companions have some good options for buffing and healing.) Secondly, having multiple companions lets us FINALLY get back some of the banters that I enjoyed so much back in BG2. There aren't a ton of them, but I appreciate them a lot. Companions will question each other about their histories, motivations, romantic desires, and plans for the future. It's cool stuff, and I like it a lot.

The Henchman AI has long been the weakest part of NWN. In some ways, it's better in HotU, but in other ways, it's way worse. Spellcasters in general seem to be much better off now than they were before: I almost never get into that state where they just stand around, repeatedly starting and then failing to cast a spell. Instead, though, there seems to be a chronic problem where henchmen just stand around in a fight and do nothing, not even responding when they're hit. It seems to go away after your party rests, but is very unpredictable. I've tried tons of changes, like setting their tactics to stick close to me, to avoid stealth, and so on, but still, they periodically seem to just want to chill out. It seems to be somewhat henchman-specific, for better or worse… one of my companions rarely or never got into this state, while others will get into it and sometimes take turns between which of the two is free to take actions. Anyways. Whenever it got really bad, I could always cheese it up with HiPS, and in non-boss fights I could usually solo the enemies anyways, so it was more of an annoyance than a true frustration.

Most of the stuff I write about NWN is about how it's slowly trying to return to the high-water mark BioWare reached years earlier with BG2. However, HotU starts showing some signs of trends that actually point to the future, with some rough concepts that will eventually be realized in Dragon Age. In HotU, for the first time, we get true in-game cinematics. I don't want to set your expectations too high: this was a decade ago, so we're talking low-res textures, low-poly models, and so on. Yet, what they manage to do with it is pretty impressive. In particular, I was struck by what they were able to accomplish with the camera: depending on the scene, sometimes it floats above the action, or zooms in on a figure of interest, or chases behind a rampaging horde, or circles disconcertingly around the scene. It's also synchronized rather well to music and speech, making a surprisingly engaging if low-fi scene. Of course, in-engine cut scenes have been in games forever, but I think this may have been the first time BioWare used a 3D engine for such scenes, rather than kicking you out to a video or using a scripted isometric sprite scene.

All right… technical stuff out of the way, let's move on to

MEGA SPOILERS (HotU and NWN1 and probably SoU too)

It's a little hard to put my finger on just why I like HotU's story so much. I mean, I just got done making fun of NWN1's plot which progressively reveals the real villain behind the previous villain, and HotU is structured in a similar way. I think part of the reason may be that the plot feels more dynamic. The actual situation on the ground in NWN1 didn't change much at all, apart from a major betrayal; for the most part, you were stuck in this morass of hopelessness, trying to figure out what's going on. In contrast, in HotU, stuff is actually happening behind the game. You find a later villain, but it's because that villain did something to shake up the status quo.

It definitely helps that the villains are so interesting. The "insane wizard" is a stereotype, but this one was played to the hilt, and the wizard doppelganger element caught me by surprise. The Valsharess is a presence throughout the game, sending her drow assassins after you at the very start, and I liked how she gradually morphs from a vague, sinister presence to a well-known and even personal adversary. She has a lot of traditional drow traits like ambition and bloody-mindedness, and also a surprisingly sensual side that she starts revealing when you start getting close to her. Finally, Mephistopheles is… well, pretty much exactly what you would expect with a name like that. I'm rarely a fan of the D&D cosmology, and mostly endured all the various descriptions of demons and realms of Hell and whatnot. Still, the actual mechanics behind his plot are pretty cool, and the cinematics showing his assault upon the surface of Toril were genuinely engaging.

I didn't think of this at the time, but there are some really nice parallels between Chapter 2 of HotU and Chapter 5 of Baldur's Gate 2. In both cases, your party uses a Drow city as a base of operations, and must venture out to conquer the most feared races of the Underdark, passing through claustrophobic tunnels filled with Beholders and a city of Illithid. The only thing HotU is missing is a battle against Kuo-Toa.  I don't want to exaggerate the similarities, since your overall position is quite different, but still... while I tend to focus most on the Amnish portions of BG2, its Underdark plot was one of the most exciting, tense, and atmospheric parts of the game, and so it was territory well worth revisiting in the NWN engine.

HotU continues the plot threads from the earlier NWN games in some entertaining ways. You meet most of your companions from before at one point or another, and can even join with many of them for a little while. Some of the NWN1 crew has shown up at the inn where you start the game, and after finding and rescuing each individual you can choose to recruit them. This is one of the first points where I got a little bummed by the lack of continuity: even though I was playing my NWN1 character, Linu acted like we'd never met before. Sigh. Still, it was good seeing her, Sharwyn, and Daelan again; also Tomil, though I never spent any time with him in the first game. Of the SoU companions, only Deekin makes an appearance, but that's good since he was my favorite of that set. Deekin is actually a bit of a constant in HotU: most of the other companions are unavailable after Chapter One, but Deekin can stay for the entire duration if you want him. Finally, late in the game you can actually rescue and recruit Aribeth to your cause, which was awesome. She was by far the most interesting NPC of NWN1, and it was great to see her quality added to a context that could do her justice.

I won't bother recapping the plot of the game, though there's a bit of that in my web album. I'm awfully curious if the game actually does let you play on the side of evil; there are several points in the game where it seems like you might be able to betray the Seer and join the Valsharess, but I didn't try them and don't know if you can actually follow through it or not. I'm sure that, regardless, you end up fighting Mephistopheles at the end.

Speaking of which: good lord, that final fight was very hard and frustrating. Mostly because one of my companions would always go full-passive for the entire duration. I could always get Meph to the last and final stage, but he hits so hard and so fast that, with a few bad die rolls, I could quickly be killed before drinking one of my 30 Heal potions. I must have tried nearly a dozen times, which was frustrating, since the fight is VERY long, requires careful pausing, and doesn't support saving between stages. (You sort of can, but if you do, upon reload Meph will be at full health again.) In the end, I had to reload an older save, head back to the shops, and spend 3+ million gold on upgrading my weapons. Acid seemed to be the most effective against him, so I upgraded all of our weapons to +10 and gave them Acid damage, as well as picking up Acid Bombs. I had no money left, but that's fine, there's nothing else to spend it on. It ultimately did the trick, especially the Acid Bombs, which do a nice chunk of damage with each throw.

Post-final-fight, though, was really cool. It's been annoying playing NWN1 and SoU on a modern machine because the post-game video won't play at all, just the audio, leaving you on a very anticlimactic note. In contrast, HotU ends with a brief cinematic (too brief - the ones earlier in the game were way more complex and cool), and, even better, follows that up with a "Where are they now?" style of thing for major characters and factions from the story. It felt a little like the very end to Throne of Bhaal, or the endings to DA:O and DA:Awakening. It's something that I dearly appreciate, a chance to reconnect with the characters who meant most to me and see where they are going. That said, the specific choices were a little odd. I did enjoy hearing about how Daelan Red Tiger found redemption and helped steer his tribe towards a better future, but why was there no word from Deekin, with whom I traveled longer than any other companion? Also, even though the in-game dialogue seemed to acknowledge that I loved Nathyrra alone, I seemed to get romance endings for both Aribeth and her. Which isn't the worst thing, I guess; I remember modding BG2 to do much the same thing. Those are minor complaints, though. For the most part I found this final set of prose very satisfying and cathartic. It was a great cap to a highly enjoyable adventure, and removed the last lingering bit of bad taste left in my mouth from the dullness of NWN1.


As has now become an inexplicable tradition, I have taken many in-game screenshots of this campaign and placed them online.

BioWare isn't perfect, and does make mis-steps, so it's highly encouraging to see that they're self-aware and introspective enough to recognize when something hasn't gone very well, and then improve upon it in the future. NWN1 was hardly a failure in its time, but for many gamers like me it represented a step back from the incredibly rich storytelling of games in the Baldur's Gate series. It's very cool to see how they took that criticism, acknowledged it, and then put forth greater efforts in the follow-ups to raise subsequent games' quality, ending with something really terrific like Hordes of the Underdark. They seem to be going through much the same process now, synthesizing the often-negative reaction towards Dragon Age 2, and it makes me more hopeful that Dragon Age: Inquisition will see a similarly superior transformation of its franchise.

My earlier advice still stands: if, for some weird reason, you're like me and feel tempted to play a decade-old, technologically-obsolete role-playing franchise, I highly recommend that you entirely skip the original campaign and start off with Shadows of Undrentide. SoU and HotU form a single, unified, epic storyline that is far more likely to impress and entertain you than any part of the first game.

With NWN out of the way, I'll eventually move on to NWN2, so I can eventually check out this "Mask of the Betrayer" game that everyone's talking about. Not right away, though. Shadowrun Returns beckons, and I also want to check out Bioshock Infinite and see what the deal is with that. But, I'm now looking forward to more NWN far more than I was at the start of this project, which can only be a good thing.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Devil Makes Us Sin

Aaaaaa Luther is back aaaaaaa!

(I know, that screenshot is from Season 2, but I like it.)

I love this show so much, and it's a bit hard to explain why. It's much darker and more violent than most of what I watch. A one-sentence summary of the show makes it sound like the most cliched thing ever: "A cop sometimes needs to break the rules in order to bring criminals to justice." And yet, the incredible performances, tight pacing, and surreal crimes makes it a mesmerizing work of art.

I've noted this before, but the show benefits immensely from its adhesion to British show norms. An American cop show with the same concept would quickly devolve into a procedural that presses the reset button at the end of each episode, or else a soap opera. With only four or six episodes a season, though, Luther can't NOT shake things up, radically changing its cast list, mood, and character arcs each season. It ends up being much more like a really entertaining series of films than a television drama.

That movie analogy has been even more pronounced as the show continued. The last two seasons (of three total!) have each essentially been two two-hour-long movies, each divided in half into two hour-long episodes. I've also increasingly noticed some very fine direction and practical effects that elevates the show above the occasionally-cheesy production values that plague other BBC productions. This isn't QUITE up to the levels of Sherlock, but it's in the same zone of visual quality.

As a side note - one of my little fascinations with Luther is its portrayal of British attitudes towards crime, crime-fighting, and civil duties, and how different they are from those in America (both in reality and as portrayed in our own cop shows/movies). I'd remarked before in S2 how odd it felt to watch scenes where a bad guy was running through a heavily crowded area, while being chased by police, and see that absolutely nobody would make an effort to stop the bad guy. It felt like the civilians had a clear understanding of their role in life, which was to keep their heads down and ignore anything that does not directly involve them. In contrast, any American show would have at least a couple of impromptu heroes jump in to try and help out. (Depending on the show, they might get shot for their troubles.) I've wondered if this might be directly traceable back to the difference between the British concept of "Duty to Retreat" versus the American focus on concepts like "stand your ground." In fact, a recurring concept in Luther is that of the vigilante, and the London police have no tolerance for them. Batman need not apply. The final two episodes of this season tackle that concept head-on, particularly in Episode Three, and we get some charismatic words in favor of a more muscular, American-style active citizenry. Anyways. We're obviously not meant to support this, but I'm very curious if American and British viewers have different reactions when confronted with the idea of an armed vigilante interrupting crimes with extreme violence, and if the British find it less tolerable than we would.

One of my few hesitations (I won't say complaints) about S3 is its use of social media as a plot device. It isn't actually bad, but does feel a little too trendy. I get the feeling this is something that will date these episodes in a few years, while the earlier episodes are more timeless. Still, for what it is, it's done rather well. It's hardly original to worry about the blood appetites of an anonymized public, and the show ties in concepts that seem borrowed from American Idol, Running Man, and The Hunger Games, casting a pretty bleak view on our current culture. I would expect no less from this show.


I'll get the bad news out of the way first: there's entirely too little Alice. There's a subtle and very welcome nod to her early in the first episode, which makes me miss her a great deal. Luther is still a great show without her, but she provided such an incredible, unique energy that hasn't been replicated since she left for America. (I remember reading a while ago about a proposed spin-off featuring Alice, which I absolutely would have loved, but am pretty sure won't happen. I'm also probably never going to see my desired incarnation of the show where Luther and Alice join forces as super-criminals, traveling the world, stealing priceless artifacts, and befuddling police everywhere.)

Season Three finally crosses that vague line separating thrillers from horror. It's skirted close to that line for the show's entire run, notably in episodes like Season 1 Episode 3, but it now embraces full-on bogeyman mode. Of course, it all stays scientific and realistic, and I can't decide if that makes it more or less frightening.

This season has stepped back a bit from S2's interesting angle of featuring villains who appeared absolutely ordinary, the sort of people you'd never look at twice if you passed them on the street. The second villain is pretty tapped into the public, but sees himself as more of a martyr or a demagogue, and not "the spirit of London" in the way that a character from S2 seemed. Anyways. The big S3 villains are all very different from one another, and also different from the characters we've seen previously on the show.

Compared to earlier seasons, there's a much stronger institutional adversary against Luther from within the force this time around. Schenk kind of played this role in S1, and Erin Gray in S2, but both were, frankly, a bit ineffectual... enough to raise tension, but not enough to seriously threaten Luther. This time around, Stark is a huge danger, mostly because, unlike past opponents, he isn't content to merely confront Luther on a professional standing. Stark is ready to wage total war, meaning he's willing to fight as dirty as Luther and strike out at vulnerable targets when he can't reach the man himself. Watching him was infuriating, exactly as the show creators must have intended.


This whole season was pretty good, but by far my favorite episode was #4, for the obvious reason that it marks the return of Alice after being gone for pretty much the second half of the entire series. I felt like cheering when I saw Ruth Wilson's name pop up on the opening credits. I was a bit nervous before she appeared: could she possibly match my ridiculously high expectations? Would a show that thrives on so much change feel compelled to irrevocably damage her relationship with Luther? After getting used to the new look of her shorter hair, I was once again beguiled by this awesomely unhinged woman. She gets the best lines of the episode, which are some of the best of the series. "Some little girls grow up wanting ponies. I always wanted to be a widow" was one of my favorites. She's possibly even more capable than during her season-one heyday, single-handedly saving Mary with incredibly cool aplomb.

Oh, yeah, Mary! I was pretty impressed with how well the show handled her. Zoe is such a huge figure in Luther's psyche, and I wasn't really expecting him to ever get a new love interest. Their initial meeting is a bit contrived, obviously, but I thought they did a good job at creating a believable scenario that would show how these two could fall for each other. I got pretty invested in their relationship, even while continuing to mentally ship Luther and Alice. Anyways. I liked Mary throughout the whole season, but thought she was particularly great in the finale: she's obviously under unbelievable stress, having never been in a situation like this before in her life, and yet she's able to struggle through her terror and do what needs to be done. Her final little sacrifice is one of the most admirable things I've seen on the show.

Little mysteries: what was on the sheet of paper that Benny handed Luther? I don't think we find out, but I think it can't be anything other than "Meep meep!"

I was really glad to see that Erin survived. I had assumed that she died, based on Marwood's previously demonstrated willingness to murder police officers. (It was hard with Ripley, but seems to be getting easier, which is a terrifying thought.) But, given how the shot happened off-screen, I should have anticipated it would be non-fatal. I'm left wondering if he shot her in the leg (mimicking his earlier disabling of Luther), or if he tried for a fatal shot and missed the vitals. Probably the former, given his survivalist training. And... well, given Marwood's motivation for embarking on this crusade, I imagine that he's less likely to kill women than men. Well. I'm curious if anything happens with Erin in the future (if there is a future to this show), but I can see her following a trajectory like Schenk, passing through an adversarial role to eventually become a loyal supporter of Luther.

Oh, but Ripley... poor Ripley! What a shame. I don't want to say "waste," since it worked very well, both from a dramatic sense (it was fully earned and gave an incredible propulsion to the finale), as well as an in-story sense (by sacrificing his life, Ripley single-handedly branded Marwood as a cop killer, instantly robbing him of his public support and putting an end to his campaign). That was still really hard to watch, though. Ripley has been such a constant in the show, and had such a great arc each season. He will be missed.

All in all, I was pretty happy with this season, and particularly with how it ended. Season One had a particularly powerful cliffhanger, and I would have hated it if the show had ended there. S2 and S3 have each ended at good spots, where there's still room to tell more stories in the future, but also would be a decent spot to end the show. I say that in spite of the huge ambiguities left at the end of the finale. Most particularly, will Luther choose to go with Alice, with Mary, or neither? Will he finally leave the force, as he's talked about wanting for the last two seasons? If so, where will he go? If not, how will his career progress in a post-Stark, post-Ripley world?


I do hope we get to see more Luther, in one form or another. Idris Elba is deservedly becoming more famous and popular, and I expect this will make it increasingly difficult for him to do additional series of the show. But, based on the little I've heard, it sounds like both he and series creator Neil Cross are very interested in doing a movie, which could possibly be a sort of prequel/origin story taking place before Season One. That would be pretty cool, even if it means no Alice character. And there still are periodic rumors of a spinoff, which could be very good indeed depending on who was involved. We'll see! This show has continued to be edgy, unpredictable, and darkly entertaining, and with luck we'll see that continue in the future.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Random Roundup Time!

I recently finished reading the novelization of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. I'd previously read the comic adaptation, and was a bit surprised to note just how similar they are. I think that pretty much every single character and story beat is the same in both versions. Which is pretty impressive, I guess. It's a good story… it definitely doesn't replace American Gods as my favorite Gaiman novel, but it's fairly high up the list. I have no immediate plans to check out the BBC television version, but imagine I'll hit it sooner or later. (Whoa: looking at that link now, I have learned that Natalie Dormer plays Door! OK. That moves it a few spots higher up the queue. Plus Anthony Head, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Christopher Lee? Well, all right then.) It's funny to see another story that, like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, has gone through a number of incarnations in a surprisingly large variety of media.

I recently tore through The Stolen Throne, a novel written by David Gaider that serves as a sort-of prequel to Dragon Age: Origins. I enjoyed it. It could have used a bit more love from an editor (or maybe the eBook version I was reading hadn't been corrected), but the actual story was propulsive and engaging, and showcased some nice lore for DA fans like myself. At first glance it seems like a hack-and-slash sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel, with some intricately described bloody fight scenes and melodramatic revenge plots; but it features a core of four very well-drawn and interesting characters (Maric, the rebel prince; Loghain, a common-born commander; Rowan, an awesome warrior woman and Maric's betrothed; and Katriel, an Orlesian elf bard), and together they give the story a very welcome emotional depth. I kind of feel a bit like David Gaider enjoyed the unfiltered platform he had as a novelist, and could make the kind of sad, melancholy, bittersweet story that he wants to, without an organization pushing him to sand off the harsh edges and make a more palatable heroic tale. Anyways, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and from what I've heard the later novels are even better, so I'm sure I'll get to those soon as well.

I picked up 400 Days, the first expansion to Telltale Games' phenomenal The Walking Dead adventure game series. I'm increasingly convinced that The Walking Dead was the best game of the past year, and have been excited to see whether they could continue the quality. 400 Days is very different in form from the previous installments, but is really engaging nonetheless. Instead of a single linear (albeit branching) story with a single protagonist, 400 Days contains five smaller stories, each set at different times after the apocalypse started and featuring a different main character. By necessity, these stories are shorter and so we don't dive into them as thoroughly as we embraced the lives of Lee and Clementine, yet I was thoroughly impressed at just how well the game is able to communicate these characters' situations and personalities. There's no real exposition, just incredibly well-crafted dialogue that brings you up to speed while you create their futures. I think that 400 Days would be fine as an introduction to the series, but if you continue a game from Season One there's some nice and very subtle nods back to decisions you made in that game (and some even more subtle, even chilling, links between the various stories within 400 Days). I expect that we'll see more of these people in Season Two, and I'm already curious about just how that will be presented. It's a little disconcerting to think that, by strengthening some of these characters' positions, I could actually be making life more difficult for Clem in the future.

I'll do a full write-up on Hordes of the Underdark later, but for now I'll just briefly mention that it's been my favorite installment of the series yet.

From current games to future games… we're just about a week away from the launch of Shadowrun Returns! It was originally scheduled for June, then pushed back a month for some final polish. This will be the first major game that I've Kickstarted to have been released (I'm not counting The Silver Tree), and I'm excited and nervous to see how they've done. The previews and demos I've seen are looking really sharp - I was really happy to see that they went ahead and implemented the Matrix for real, which removes any hesitation I might have had to play as a Decker. Anyways, here's a nifty preview for it.

I'm getting the game for free thanks to my Kickstarter backing (along with some fancy swag), and will probably be playing it fairly heavily after it drops. Expect one or more Shadowrun-specific posts in late July or early August.

Also in future game news: Chris Gardiner's Below is approaching its public release. If anyone would like to try the private beta, drop me a line - Chris will probably do one more round of beta testing to get fresh eyes on the latest changes he's made. I've been playing the beta since, well, forever, and I'm really excited to see it reach this step. Below is a unique game that draws inspiration from a lot of different sources (roguelikes, adventure games, fantasy novels, etc.), and hits that sweet spot of something that's easy to pick up and play and yet satisfyingly rewards planning and strategy. Once the final version is released, I'll probably write up a separate post covering my own personal techniques for the game, which have served me very well thus far.

In less explicable Storynexus news, Spacemarine9 has created "Rat Sending Simulator 2K1". It's awesome. It's so gleefully unbalanced, thoroughly deranged in its approach to all aspects of gameplay, that I can't help but smile while playing it. Definitely right up there with Doghunt for my favorite comedic Storynexus games.

I'm up to the current season of Doctor Who. That show still kind of baffles me. The best episodes of it are really, really good. The worst episodes are incredibly corny, anachronistic, and infuriating. I've really dug Amy (probably my second-favorite companion behind Martha), and Rory has grown on me as the show continued. I'm a bit intrigued by the mini-reboot the current season pulled off in its pilot, but based on scuttlebutt from Dr. Who fans, I'm not exactly looking forward to the rest of the season. Eh. I increasingly agree with people who say that Doctor Who is such a quintessentially British invention that we Yanks will never really understand it.

I've recently started digging into Adventure Time, and am absolutely loving it. I've finished all three comics compilations, the first season of the show, and am about a quarter of the way into its second season. It's such a perfect show for me… I love its combination of absurdity, fantasy tropes, goofy good-natured humor, non-sequitor transitions, and loose continuity. I also think its characters are surprisingly complex; the Ice King in particular is such a fascinating villain, and I can't really think of any good analogies to other similar characters.

Hm, I guess that's it for now! Expect more focused (though no more noteworthy) posts to follow!

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Under Shadows

I can confirm what many before me have already said: Shadows of Undrentide is a much better game, and has an infinitely better story, than the original campaign of Neverwinter Nights. I found that nearly every single one of my complaints from the earlier game had been answered satisfactorily in this follow-up. This game is imbued with many of the qualities that I associate with my favorite BioWare RPGs like Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age. I can't say it quite rises to their heights, but it's still a stunning elevation from the disappointment of the OC.

The single best improvement is the revamp of henchmen. SoU has fewer on offer than NWN did: only two to pick from at the start, with a third available roughly one third of the way into the game, in contrast with the six to choose from in the first game. My very immediate response was negative: I was playing as a Thief again, and wanted a tanky fighter to fight alongside, but could only pick between another thief or a barbarian/sorcerer. (Frustratingly, a paladin who would have been perfect is non-recruitable.) My disappointment quickly faded, though, once I realized that my companion was actually engaged in the story in a way that henchmen in the original campaign never were. He would offer his thoughts about my current quest, interject himself into conversations, field questions from onlookers, and generally act like an actual person who cared about what was going on around him. What a relief!

Along the same lines, dialog options have drastically expanded, to the point where you can actually do some role-playing. I've complained before about how NWN usually only had two options available when responding to someone: aggressively mean or cloyingly nice. In SoU, it's quite common to have four options or so, which might cover attitudes such as tough love, blind justice, amoral greed, or friendly curiosity. I found myself actually thinking about my choices for a few seconds before responding, which is one of the hallmarks of a great game.

Consequences feel more consequential in SoU, in ways both big and small. One thing I quickly noticed was that small gameplay decisions you make would be noted by the game and responded to accordingly. In NWN, you could break into peoples' homes and steal their stuff, and at worst they would ask you to leave. In SoU, even if you aren't spotted, your Alignment will shift more, towards Chaotic or even Evil. You're likely to be noticed by a guard, though, and sternly asked to stop. I found that this was very quickly shifting the style of my gameplay. I had deliberately created this character as a Neutral Good Rogue, in contrast to my Chaotic Good of the first game, and decided that she wouldn't engage in the same sorts of shenanigans that Cirion Bartlemann had.

Side-quests have even more interesting choices, and more noticeable consequences. I was delighted when, a short way into the game, I ran into a quest that actually had multiple solutions! I know; isn't that incredible? I could fight my way through some bad guys and risk the life of a hostage; I could try to talk them into releasing the hostage; I could offer myself up in exchange. After the situation had been defused, there were additional choices to make: do we kill the bad guys, or show mercy and let them go? Importantly, you are able to articulate your intentions and the game takes them into account. If you let them go because you want to unleash a wave of evil upon the unsuspecting populace, you'll get one type of alignment shift; if you let them go because they've held up their end of a deal and pose no immediate threat, you'll get another type of shift. This wasn't a one-off experience, either, and I was happy to see similarly nuanced quests sprinkled throughout the campaign.

The campaign itself is shorter than NWN, but frankly, that's a very good thing. As I've complained about at length before, NWN's main campaign is... too lengthy. Specifically, it has a great deal of padding that requires you to accomplish seemingly-redundant tasks that seem to exist merely to extend the playing time and don't advance the story. SoU has some of the same structure (I groaned when I realized that my first quest was to retrieve 4 stolen artifacts), but it does a far better job at making each leg of a multi-prong quest feel unique, and its overall story structure is a lot more enjoyable than NWN's.

Mechanically, SoU has some nice enhancements over NWN. I'd inadvertently experienced some of these since I was using the SoU/HotU engine when playing the original campaign, so I've already seen things like Prestige Classes and new skills like Appraise. Other features had been visible in the NWN UI, but not actually accessible until now. The single best one is probably being able to access your henchman's inventory. For a low-STR character like me, that immediately has some major benefits as I can turn them into a pack-mule to help bring back that Chain Mail +4 armor back for sale; it also lets you customize their equipment, so you can set them up with powerful armor, upgraded weapons, and other good stuff. On a related note, you have many more tactical options when talking with your henchmen. NWN pretty much just let you toggle whether they would help open locks and control how close they followed. In SoU, you can ask your henchmen to cast specific spells, activate particular abilities (such as Bard Song or Barbarian Rage), identify your equipment, and so on. This is incredibly useful for tough fights, since now you can actually buff up before starting combat; in NWN, even in the best case, your companion would lose the first couple of turns just activating all their helpful abilities.

I'm not totally sure if the in-combat AI is better in SoU than in NWN, but I know that I spent far less time swearing at my henchmen here than I did in the earlier game. The worst part is still the AI for spellcasting and using ranged weapons: they have a habit of getting in too close to enemies before using those abilities, which can provoke massive Attacks of Opportunity. On the plus side, they seem to actually cast spells now; in NWN, they would often get stuck doing repeated spell animations that never produced any actual spells. Oh, and also there are a lot more battles in SoU with friendly AI, where you can recruit a small squadron of allies who will show up for a boss battle. They mostly serve as extra bodies to feed into the maw, but still, it's a really cool dynamic that makes these fights feel even more epic.

I found my skill usage shifting quite a bit in SoU. I still maxed out Persuasion, but it is far less useful in this game. In NWN you could use it all the time; it would often give you higher rewards for quests, and it would also unlock some parts of the game that were otherwise difficult or impossible to reach. In SoU, the skill is practically useless; you can use it a few times in Chapter 1, and hardly at all in the latter two-thirds of the game. Also, as a thief, I felt much less essential in this expansion. There are far fewer locks to open here. There are still a decent number of traps, but since you can sleep off a trap's ill effects, that isn't too essential a skill to have. I personally was a bit bummed by this, since I enjoy being a thief, but honestly I think it was a smart decision to make. In NWN, it was absolutely essential to have a thief along, which meant that if you weren't playing as a thief, you pretty much had to take along Tomi Undergallows in your sole companion slot. In SoU, many players will probably still want to take the thief (for various reasons), but you won't be as badly penalized if you'd rather not have any thieves in your party.

From an aesthetic perspective, I think that SoU is a nice improvement over NWN. They added some new tilesets to give a wider variety of terrain, and overall you spend much less time in dark cities and gloomy dungeons than in the previous game, which is a welcome change. There seem to be more cut-scenes (or at least they come more frequently), and they're a bit more cinematic than those in NWN. They're still nowhere near the peaks that would be reached in Dragon Age, but there's some cool camera movements and neat environmental effects that make them more interesting to watch.

For the curious, my character's story continues in the


SoU lets you import your NWN character, but recommends starting at Level 1, so I ultimately decided to roll a new one. In what has now become a tradition for me and BioWare games, I followed up my Chaotic Good Male Rogue with a Neutral Good Female; unlike normal, though, I decided to stick with the Rogue class instead of my customary shift to a Mage. Rogues are just fun to play, and in any case I don't trust the AI to handle trap-related operations.

So: instead of Cirion Bartleman the Halfling Rogue, I was now playing as Erianna Talissan, the Elf Rogue. SoU gives you more of a backstory than NWN did: NWN was basically, "You answer a Help Wanted ad from Neverwinter," while SoU starts you off with a father figure and several companions with whom you have studied for years. But, there are still ample opportunities to not only define your personality, but also fill in other elements of your background. I loved it!

I picked Xanos as my companion, of course, since two thieves would be ridiculously redundant. He was annoying, but I got happier once I realized I could ask him to ignore his Mage training and just focus on his Barbarian levels. He never quite became the tank I needed, but he did fine. Personality-wise, he was very different from Erianna, but still fun to engage with. As in other BioWare games, I try and engage my companions and win their sympathy, even if we have fundamentally different ways of viewing the world.

The early going of the game was actually surprisingly difficult. In the first (annoying!) chapter of NWN, I could follow each of the Waterdeep Creature quests to their conclusion before switching over to the next one. Here, the difficulty seemed both higher and more consistent, with fights that I couldn't win even in repeated tries. So, I ended up switching between quests: follow one artifact as far as I could until the going got too tough, then switch to another lead and follow it for a while, and so on. In this way, I was able to gain a couple of precious early levels; so, when I later would return to the first artifact, I could breeze past that difficult fight and make more real progress. (The difficulty curve leveled off considerably after the first chapter; probably not coincidentally, it also gets more linear then.)

The personalities in the game are pretty interesting and well-drawn. Beyond the companions, who I've already talked about a bit, allies tend to have their own stories and motivations. Even better, though, villains also have unique agendas of their own. A lot of the mystery of Chapter 1 focuses on untangling the web of deceit and betrayal spun by multiple powerful players, and canny characters like Erianna are able to manipulate the circumstances to their own benefit.

Oh! I should also mention that the game is funny. It's not a comedy, and it certainly has a lot of bleakness in parts, but there are several welcome flashes of comic relief. Some of this is just goofy, other times there are clever references or amusing dialog. Anyways. Add that to the ever-growing list of things I prefer about this installment.

Back to the villains: I ended up pulling off a nifty double-betrayal, defeating both J'Nah and the White Dragon, thus freeing Deekin and getting back the remaining artifacts. In the Interlude (a section of the game between Chapters 1 and 2, though I'm pretty sure it's about the same length as the other parts), I ended up switching to Deekin as my henchman.I'd intended to stick with Xanos, just for class-composition reasons; his Fighter/Mage classes would balance out my Thief orientation well. However, some bug kept me from being able to even talk to Xanos, let alone recruit him. I ended up taking Deekin, and am really glad that I did. He's a great character: well-written, funny, curious. He initially presents as a sniveling, grovelling sycophant, but over the course of your quest he gradually grows more confident, embracing his dream of becoming a famous author. He has a habit of narrating the action as it happens, which was tremendous fun. Weirdly enough, he ended up also being a better combat companion than Xanos: I set him up with a ranged crossbow, so he wouldn't be tempted to get too close to the action. That way he could cast spells without provoking attacks of opportunity (unlike Xanos, who operated in melee range). He actually turns out to be quite powerful: once he reaches high levels of his Bard class, he has access to a bunch of really useful spells like Haste and Improved Invisibility, which you can have him manually cast prior to a fight.

My own build was a bit different here than in NWN. Since the Elf preferred class is Mage, I couldn't easily do the Rogue X/Ranger 1 multi-class that I liked so much on my Halfling. Instead, I stuck with pure Rogue, focusing early on the Feats to fight with DEX and then the ones to help me dual-wield. Because of this, I didn't get the Dodge and Mobility feats needed for Shadowdancer until near the end of the game, and so never took Shadowdancer. But, life as a pure Rogue turned out well. There aren't quite as many opportunities for DEX boosts in SoU as in NWN, but you can still boost it and your AC up to quite high levels, and so I ended up actually doing all of my own tanking. For a difficult fight, I would typically have Deekin buff us first, then have him hold his ground while I snuck forward and sneak attacked my main target. Once I had their attention, I'd direct Deekin to attack from afar. Thanks to my high AC, I could dodge almost all blows directed my way. Also, this time around I was able to take advantage of some good Resist and Soak clothing, so if I knew that, say, I was going to face a mage for a fight, I could equip accordingly and then tank on Resist instead of via dodge. As a result, Erianna got much less use out of her sneak attacks than Cirion did, but this was still a fun playstyle. I also played around a lot more with traps on this character, and they proved a crucial edge in a couple of fights.


I won't recap the remainder of the plot, except to say that it's good, notwithstanding my one complaint of the annoying mythological mishmash that plagues so many D&D settings. The story surprised me far more than NWN's original campaign ever did, and goes through some varied settings while still following a coherent thread. There are some particularly creative segments that I enjoyed, such as a clever story-within-a-story construction that nicely frames what could otherwise be a rote fetch quest.

For reasons I myself fail to understand, I've continued taking random screenshots of this old game. Those are posted in a fresh album for posterity's sake.

Getting through the original NWN was a slog, but (despite the interruption) SoU has been invigorating, and is providing me with a nice burst of energy going into Hordes of the Underdark. From what I understand HotU is the best installment of the first trilogy, and one of the better games of the franchise (behind Mask of the Betrayer). So far conventional wisdom has proven accurate, and hopefully I'm justified in looking forward to this next entry.

Thursday, July 04, 2013


Editor's note: This post is ancient! I found it while going through my old posts and re-tagging them. I think this was originally written in... 2008, maybe? If memory serves, I was planning on giving this game to a friend (which was a production in itself, but that's another story), and decided to sequester this post to avoid tipping my hand. And then decided to forget about it altogether for years. The good thing about retro gaming, though, is that this post is no less applicable now than it would have been then. The unedited text follows.

In the grander realm of Discworld ephemera, I'm naturally most drawn to the small yet compelling field of video games.  Unlike what you might expect from other works, the Discworld games are not re-interpretations of existing stories into a new medium, but rather original tales that draw upon established characters and settings to create new adventures.

There have been several games, but the last and best-regarded is Discworld Noir.  Both "last" and "best" should be understood relative to the competition of other Discworld games, as it is more than a decade old and has been forgotten.  Still, a passionate tiny minority (tinority?) continues to sing the praise of this lost entry, and so after spreading the wealth around to a friend as a gift, I was compelled to seek out another copy to experience it for myself.

It is... well, it is a darn good classic graphical adventure game, with production values that are decent for its time, and a script that is about 75% as good as one actually written by Pratchett would be.  Which is to say that I wasn't blown away, but I was impressed and pleased.  Perhaps best of all, it may be the least buggy of the various 1990's graphic adventure games that I've attempted to play.  I never once had a corrupted save game, got stuck, or crashed.  The sound did occasionally cut out, but other than that it ran like a charm.

Once I actually got it running, that is.  Based on what I'd read online, I knew it would be hopeless to try and run it on my 64-bit Vista system, "compatibility mode" or no.  Fortunately, after the agony of Quest for Glory V, I knew what would be required, and already had a lot of the ground work prepared.  I set up Microsoft Virtual PC, installed Windows 98 SE on it, then installed the game on the virtual PC and ran it.  Poof!  Just like that, I was transported back to classic gaming land.

The basic interface of Discworld Noir will be familiar to anyone who's played a LucasArts or late Sierra adventure game.  You have a single-action pointer that you sweep around the room, right-click to examine an object, left-click to move, and double-left-click to interact with it.  You also have a traditional inventory system that lets you acquire, combine, and use objects.  On top of this conventional interface, though, they have layered a system that's more appropriate to the... mood of Discworld Noir.

As you may or may not be able to guess from the title, Discworld Noir is a detective story.  The single most important thing you use is your notebook, in which you write down clues as you advance the plot.  You can use your clues on items in the world to, or combine them with one another to try and divine connections.  For example, if you have notes about two separate murders, combining them will cause your character to puzzle out the possible connections between the two.

There are occasional frustrations in the puzzle system, but on the whole it's one of the better adventure games I've played.  It achieves the obvious-yet-to-rarely-done trick of scattering around hints about what you should do that make puzzles non-obvious and non-frustrating.  For example, you may ultimately need to use a particular object in a particular place.  You could eventually figure this out yourself, but if you show the object to various contacts, odds are that one or two of them may offer ideas that point you in the right direction of where to use it.

The voice acting is... generally good.  I was much more impressed after I realized that it's basically one guy and one girl doing every person in the game.  There's, I dunno, maybe two dozen or so characters, each of which has an incredible amount of dialogue, including some pretty involved hard-boiled exchanges.  I can cut them some slack for having the occasional cheesy accent.  Some of the characters are really well done.  You hear an incredible amount from Lewton, your avatar, so it's a relief that he's well spoken and entertaining; I never would have lasted the whole game otherwise.  When characters are really frustrating, it tends to be more the conversation/graphic programming than the actual voice acting... there are a few in particular who, whenever you ask them a question, you'll need to watch this really annoying idle animation for a good five or ten seconds before they say "Well........... hmmmmm.....errrrrr...... I don't know."  That tends to be the exception, though.

Oh, and the sound is quite good.  It's noir, pretty jazzy, a bit repetitive in spots but nicely atmospheric.  And, speaking of atmosphere, they totally nail the mood they're going for and keep it up throughout.  Every scene is dark, it's almost always raining, all buildings are shown with severe angles, and so on.

The graphics themselves are kind of hard to deal with.  They live in that awkward adolescence, between the cheerful cartoony primitive animation of early adventure games and the pretty, smooth animation of modern games.  Studios had figured out how to do 3D and texture models, but didn't yet have enough polygons to make really lifelike characters, and so you're stuck with fully-realized yet amazingly ugly people.  Again, the setting of Noir helps here, as, for example, your avatar walks around in a big trenchcoat with a fedora pulled over his face, so you only need to see his creepy eyes and gargantuan chin in the occasional cutscene.  Like most classic games, it's really only a problem for the first hour or so, and after that you get acclimated and don't really notice it much any more.  (Just to emphasize one more time: while the execution is a bit crude, the overall design is quite excellent.)


This is actually the only Discworld game that I've played, and I'm not extremely tempted to catch the others... not because I didn't like this one, but because I doubt the others would be more appealing to me.  From what I've read, the other Discworld games are based around Rincewind, who is a perfectly fine character but not one of my favorites.  Noir, in contrast, is based around an entirely new character, Lewton, who is the Disc's first private investigator.  Even better, the game entirely takes place within Ankh-Morpork.  After reading more than a dozen of these books, I feel confident in declaring that one can adopt a rough rule of thumb that the quality of a Discworld book is directly proportional to how much time is spent within Ankh-Morpork.

A-M has always been pretty vaguely defined within the books.  Much like the Discworld itself, you gradually learn a lot about specific locations (the Mended Drum, Unseen University, the Patrician's palace, etc.), but unlike other fantasy authors, Pratchett never sees fit to actually provide a map showing just where these things are.  And good for him - that's not the kind of book he writes, and this method gives him perfect freedom to make new geographical declarations whenever it is convenient to a new plot.  A little bit of that flexibility is lost here, because there IS a map provided, but even so, it maintains the overall feeling of amorphousness.  That is, you can see where the docks are, and you can see where Dagon Street is, but it's presented in a more artistic manner, without bothering to define every street name between the two. 

Besides Lewton, a lot of new characters were invented for this game.  However, more than a few classic characters make appearances as well.  These are generally pretty good.  Least enjoyable is Vimes, who only appears in a few scenes, and comes off as just cranky and (!) incompetent.  Since Vimes is my favorite character in the books, I was disappointed in this portrayal.  On the other hand, they do a surprisingly decent job with Nobby, who is notoriously impossible to represent in any form.  He does look entirely too human, but they offset it nicely by giving him weird twitchy movements, and providing decent dialog that captures his peculiar mix of pride, pettiness, and craft.  The Patrician is mostly absent, but when he does appear, you can believe in him.

Oh!  And I can't skip the bizarre tie-in with Discordianism.  The game out-and-out steals from the Discordian mythos: you meet a priest named Malaclypse (the elder, perhaps?) who worships a deity called "Errata," who is the goddess of chaos.  Sound familiar?  Errata was responsible for starting the Tsortean wars.  Malaclypse is also a repository for every conspiracy theory on the Discworld, and was always entertaining to talk with even when he was useless. Anyways, the theft was so obvious that I have to forgive it.


The plot itself turns out to be surprisingly good.  The game is divided into, um, I think four acts.  The start of the game is quite slow and boring, with a lot of tedium and some of the least-sensible puzzles of the game.  It gets much better once the murders kick into high gear, though, and becomes downright fun once Lewton turns into a werewolf.  Things become nicely layered as more and more players are added, and it was fun to puzzle out and predict who would betray whom. 

The werewolf bit itself was... wow, pretty surprising.  Only in the Discworld would your main character die halfway through, and continue in the game.  Adding the new "scents" subsystem was cool as well; I just wish that they had ended up doing more with it.  I think that you can collect maybe thirty or so scents, but just a fraction of them are useful, and you couldn't do as much with them as I had hoped.

The cut scenes throughout the game are pretty good, but the ones in the second half are excellent.  I especially enjoyed watching Death appear to take the final murders himself... they totally nailed the character's attitude and speech.  Mooncalf's death was entertaining as well.  "I'm a born-again atheist!" he calls out before getting zapped by lightning - which you can totally see coming from miles away.  Atheists don't last long on the Discworld.

One regret: the actual ending proper was pretty anticlimactic.  Double-click on the flying device, watch Lewton pedal, watch Lewton swing a sword, poof!  Game over.  I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting, but... I dunno, at least interacting in some meaningful way with Nylonepheteh (sp) would have been fun.  Still!  The closing cut-scene was satisfying in an overly referential, cheesy, self-aware way, and I enjoyed it immensely.


So, where does Noir fit within the Discworld canon?  I'd label it "worth checking out if you enjoy adventure games AND Discworld."  It's not the greatest adventure game ever, and isn't the best Discworld story ever, but it's quite good at both, and how many chances will you have to find that?