Friday, January 17, 2014

Elves and Hobbits and Zombies, Oh My!

After yet another long delay, I have finished the next act of Neverwinter Nights 2. I’ve put together another of my typical albums with some scattered screenshots from throughout the act.


Now that the plot is coming together, in some ways it seems a bit more cliche than I was hoping. There is an Ancient Evil Force that was Defeated Long Ago but Not Fully Destroyed, and is now Gathering Its Power and will Return to Destroy the World. Only your party - let us think of them as a Fellowship of sorts - can hope to Defeat this Evil before it Reclaims Its Powers.

But, there’s plenty here to keep it from being just another retread of Lord of the Rings. For example, while I’m not through the plot yet and can’t say this for certain, it seems like the reason why you the hero are important is not because of your lineage, or prophecy, or any particular powers you possess: it’s because there’s a SWORD INSIDE OF YOU. (I do kind of like Obsidian’s habit of placing inanimate objects inside of living creatures and vice versa.) That’s something that kind of surprised me, and surprises are always welcome in my fantasy RPGs.

Like I said in my writeup of Part 1, though, it’s really the companions that shine, and elevate this from a game about collecting artifacts and fighting into something really engaging. The party actually continues to evolve more than I expected; you have a core team in place fairly early on, but major new party members are joining you throughout Act 2 as well. Rivalries are always great fun, and ones like the Qara/Sand dynamic add a lot of energy, even though I rarely have those two in my party.

My lineup for Act 1 was usually Toman, Khelgar, Neeshka, and Elanee. In Act 2, Shandra Jerro is a non-removable companion for most of the act, and I really liked having her… she’s both practical and compassionate, exasperated at the craziness around her while also stepping up to deal with it. For the first part of the act, I replaced Khelgar with Sand, who is plot-required for most of the trial-related content. I hadn’t liked Sand much during our interactions in Act 1, but he really grew on me as a companion: you can start to see past his arrogance and see what he cares about.

I go into some more detail on the trial in my album, but basically: it was awesome. I love it when an RPG lets you do something besides fight, and there was a ton of stuff that led into the trial; it’s not quite as complex as the Landsmeet in Dragon Age Origins, but that’s probably the closest comparison I can find, as it draws a lot on various choices you’ve made throughout the game, optional side-quests you might have completed, allies and enemies you’ve attracted, loyalty among your companions, and your specific dialogue choices during the trial itself. I replayed it a few times, not to change the actual outcome, but to see all the ways it would go in different directions as it unfolded.

I’d thought that the trial was going to be my highlight for this act, but it ended up being surpassed by the next major development: taking command of your own fortress. This was a lot of fun to play out. It’s initially held by your enemies, so you join forces with an attack squad and launch a surprise attack during the changing of the guard, then fight your way through the courtyard into the keep, and then break into the basement to defeat your enemies. Afterwards, Lord Nasher appoints you the Captain and grants you funds to begin its rehabilitation.

Now, this isn’t the first time we’ve had a similar concept in an RPG. Baldur’s Gate 2 had the Stronghold system, and the de’Arnise keep was most similar to Crossroads Keep. Dragon Age Origins: Awakening added Vigil's Keep, which you had responsibility for and would make some judgments and preparation. The keep in NWN2 has similar concepts, but executed even better than those two excellent comparisons. You need to constantly juggle priorities and determine the best overall strategy to take towards the keep. Do you follow Lord Nasher’s prerogative and immediately focus on reinforcing the fortress walls? Or do you improve the road quality and safety, in the hopes of attracting more merchant trade and therefore help fund later projects? Do you limit your expenditures to what the realm provides, or do you dip into your personal pockets to expand, or exercise your legal right to tax your subjects for funds? Do you want a large and unruly army, or a small and disciplined one?

In addition to all of these major strategic decisions you make by talking with your advisors, you also have a set of throne room-type conversations that let you make interesting story decisions and rule on controversial issues. Will you allow a black marketer to trade in your keep? Will you offer clemency to a Luskan agent who tried to have you murdered? Will you encourage some reckless adventurers in their quest? (This last bit particularly tickled me, and reminded me of the fantastic encounter in the beholder cave in Throne of Bhaal.)

As of the end of Act 2, my castle still hasn’t seen any action, but I strongly suspect that there will be some sort of battle or siege coming in the endgame, and I’m happily dumping my vast amounts of surplus gold into its improvement. I’ve totally prioritized developing the economy, and only started propping up its military defenses once I exhausted my mercantile base. My guard is currently small, but I’m investing heavily in their equipment and training. At the moment they’re primarily focused on keeping the roads safe. Once their numbers increase some more, I hope to start patrolling the surrounding lands and take care of our bandit problem. I’m looking forward to seeing what develops next!


In other nerdy fantasy news, I’m currently working my way through the special features on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I am shocked at how in-depth they are; I’ve learned more about filmmaking by watching these features than I have in the entire rest of my life. (To be fair, I’ve never attended film school or made a movie or anything; but given the various documentaries I’ve watched on disastrous movie shoots, I was a bit surprised by how much I didn’t know.)

They go over EVERYTHING. The financing process, the delayed green light they got, the casting process, assembling the crew, all the way down to the details of how they make prosthetics (and why they need to throw them away each day), how they insert CGI creatures into the middle of live-action scenes, how they trained actors to speak Khudzul, and so on. I’m sure most people would be bored to tears by it, but it’s presented very engagingly, with each feature (typically varying from 5 minutes to 1 hour) staying focused on a particular topic or time period, and a combination of terrific behind-the-scenes footage and eloquent talking heads. It’s great to hear from, say, Ian McKellan and Martin Freeman (who is absolutely delightful), but I’ve also kind of fallen in love with the dialect coach, am fascinated by the movement coordinator, and impressed at the small army needed to put everyone in costume and makeup. The biggest impression I’m left with is the sheer scale of effort needed to do this; it seems somewhat similar to ruling a country.

I’d also watched all of the similar features for the Lord of the Rings movies back in the day, and was intrigued by all the things that had stayed the same (the New Zealand setting, the core creative team) and changed (almost all of the technology, most actors, Peter Jackson’s waist size). One recurring theme was how much more digital content was present in The Hobbit, but in many cases, it was only a last-ditch effort after they had started shooting with people in the appropriate costumes (goblins, orcs) and determined that it wasn’t working. It was also interesting to think about how in some cases the progress of technology had made things harder, not easier. LotR used a variety of tricks to establish the different sizes of hobbits and men, one of the coolest of which was the use of forced perspective, where Ian McKellan would be placed much closer to the camera than Elijah Wood and thus appear bigger. However, as Peter Jackson points out, you can’t use that technique when you’re shooting in 3D, because in 3D you know exactly how far both of those actors are from the camera. So, entirely new methods needed to be developed to solve these old problems.

Those methods seemed occasionally painful. Again, I’m a bit surprised at just how in-depth they go in these things: it’s not just a case of “rah rah, look at how great we are”, but they acknowledge the mistakes they made, the roadblocks they ran into, the people they upset. I cringed during one portion where they showed Ian McKellan struggling to adapt to the new system of shooting. McKellan is a fantastic actor, but the style of acting they were asking him to do was unlike anything he had done before, and he couldn’t take any pleasure from it: he had to sit all by himself in a completely green-covered, downscaled replica of Bag End, while all of the other actors were on an entirely separate set. He would hear their voices piped in through an earpiece, but had no eyes to look into, just little colored dots that indicated eyelines. The documentary format doesn’t gloss over his frustration: with himself, with Peter, with the entire project. It’s somewhat salvaged later on by a touching display of affection from the crew, but still, I was impressed at how they didn’t shy away from showing a mini-meltdown of a beloved actor caused in part by the film’s director.

So later, when they advance to shooting the White Council meeting in Rivendell, you can practically feel the waves of relief emanating from McKellan. At last, he gets to interact with other actors, on a stage! And good actors, too; as McKellan observes, he, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving all started in theater, and they all share a stage actor’s sensibility. It’s fascinating to watch footage of those actors preparing for this scene: in contrast to a lot of other shooting, which seems to consist of the director giving instruction to the actors and the actors carrying it out, these guys drive the process, asking copious questions about their characters’ motivations, background, and thought process, trying to embed themselves within the character.

I could keep going, but I won’t. If you’re interested in filmmaking or the Lord of the Rings, I highly recommend checking these things out!

Other random thoughts, with mild spoilers within each topic:

I quite enjoyed the current season of Sherlock. The current incarnation of the story has been strongly defined by its "modernity": taking many plot and character elements from the original stories, but instead of recreating a Victorian atmosphere, it embraces modern technology, style, and morals. (Leading, for example, to some amusement as to the nature of Sherlock and Watson's relationship. The assumptions one made about two unmarried gentlemen sharing lodgings in the 19th century are quite different from the assumptions one makes today.) However, I've felt like the crimes themselves hew quite closely to the originals: art theft, impossible murders, blackmail. In contrast, the final episode of this season felt like it had a ripped-from-the-headlines quality to its crime. It's impossible to think of Magnusson as anyone other than a Rupert Murdoch stand-in, and I thought they did a fantastic job at tapping into the raw outrage that Britain has felt over the News of the World and similar offenses from the Murdoch empire. It had an immediacy and sense of purpose that felt unusual for this show, but was very welcome.

Archer is back! It looks incredible! That is all.

I belatedly caught up to the current half-season of The Walking Dead. The chronology between the comics and the show never lines up, but I think that it's now definitely past everything that I'd read in the books, so from here on out everything will be a surprise to me. I think I'll keep it that way; I don't have the unreserved love for the show that I have for the Telltale game, but I love it more than the books. Anyways. I was a bit surprised that they brought back the Governor and spent so much time exclusively with his storyline, considering where the story went, but it was also pretty cool, and that actor did a great job at showing the ways in which the character changes, and the ways he still stays the same man.

While on the topic: I'm hearing good things about the next season of the Telltale Games Walking Dead, but I think I'll probably wait for the season to end before buying the pack. Not that I mistrust them, exactly, but they've taken on a LOT more work lately and have already slipped a few dates, which makes me slightly nervous about pre-ordering for the season. I'll do my best to avoid spoilers between now and the end.

The Berlin expansion for Shadowrun Returns should be dropping later this month! I'm quite excited about that. The little I've seen so far looks great, and I dig the stuff they've talked about delivering (more personable companion runners, greater autonomy in determining mission order, etc.)

I've wrapped up Season 2 of Misfits. That show is so ridiculous, I love it. The Christmas Special in particular was one of the most delightfully awful things I've seen.  Season 1 seemed to be mostly about how the characters don't change: they get super-powers, but are still the same lowlifes they always were. Season 2 seems to be about the characters do change: they start to consider whether they have any responsibilities, and how they can use their powers to make changes in the world. I've just started Season 3, and the show seems to be shifting yet again with at least one cast change. It'll be interesting to see the other ways they continue to shake things up.

I may or may not do a full writeup at some point, but I've finished reading RASL, the new comic from Jeff Smith, the creator of Bone. It was awesome, and pretty much the complete opposite of Bone in almost every conceivable way. Bone is fantasy, RASL is science fiction. Bone has a simple art style, RASL has a lush style. Bone starts out with a very straightforward plot and only gradually delves into mythology, RASL starts in the middle of a very complex plot with an elaborate mythology. Bone's protagonists are cheerful and reflexively lovable, RASL's protagonist is kind of a jerk. Of course, both stories are incredible. RASL ends satisfyingly, but there are a few lingering questions left at the end, and I'm curious if we're meant to just ponder them, or if those characters might crop up again in the future.

Now go forth, and do likewise!

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