DLC Done Right

I bought Red Dead Redemption for Xbox 360 the day it was released. I feel that it is a very good game and this was echoed in my review of it but I had not played the game much over the summer so I missed the release of the new DLC which had come out for it. Last night I fired up RDR and tried the Outlaws to the End DLC and was greatly impressed.

First of all, the DLC is free. Many games offer free DLC, but there is usually little content to it, or it is content that was on the disc the whole time. Since Battlefield: Bad Company 2 was released, DICE, the developer, has slowly been opening maps that are already on the disc for different modes which were obviously done before the game even came out. DICE are most likely doing this so that people buy the game new with a VIP code which lets you play on these maps for free.

Outlaws to the End seems to be different to me. There are no new areas in the game, but they are engaging set pieces based at locations the player is familiar with. Cooperation is what the DLC is all about because the missions can be tackled with up to three other people. At the end of each mission your round is scored and you gain experience based on how well you did. Co-op was obviously not in the original game, so in that way the DLC is more legitimate than the DLC DICE has released recently for free.

Secondly, not only was DICE’s DLC pathetic and on disc, it did not add much else besides maps to the game. No new guns, no new strategy, just opened up more of the map. From my time with the Outlaws to the End DLC I can tell Rockstar actually thought through what they were going to put into the content. The missions are not, for the most part, like ones from the main story. You are going to drive a wagon across part of the map, but this time with four friends on it, ONE MANNING A GATLING GUN!

So what Rockstar has given us here, for free mind you, is a reason to come back to the game and actually have fun. You will have just as much fun playing this DLC as you did completing the story and there are new things added to move to keep you coming back for a bit to make sure you don’t miss anything.

How about you? What developers do you think make DLC the right way and who will you never allow to use a bit on your hard drive again?

In the Newspaper – 10 August 2010

Sighting of Dale Earnhardt?

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In the Newspaper – July 27, 2010

Glad she ain’t my mama.

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Review – Red Dead Redemption

The world John Marston grew up in, the world in which he killed, drank, and ruled, and world he lived in, is slowly dying. It is 1911, and the Old Wild West which was the subject of so many tales and legends is succumbing to the East, the land of the civilized. Federal agents are ramping up their quest to rid the West of all the undesirables who are digging in in towns and canyons throughout New Austin and Mexico. However, ‘the Feds’ are not looking to kill the criminals of the West themselves, they just want to take the credit for the dirty work John Marston is hired by them to do. Not so much as hired, though, but extorted.

The West is dying.

You see, Marston tried to go the way of the lawful. He left the act, bought a farm, married, had a kid, and was on the way to live a normal hard-working life when his family is kidnapped and he is told to kill Bill Williamson or his family will be killed. It seems as if you have no choice, but it is a Rockstar game so there is much to do besides worry about your families well-being.

Now comes the choice: are you going to stick with the main storyline, or will you explore the world, meeting strangers, chasing bounties, or admiring the landscape?

Following the story strictly will lead the player through a very cinematic, sometimes emotional experience. Scattered throughout the world are various characters Marston meets to try and learn about the whereabouts of Williamson. Usually you will have to do some missions for each character before they help you. This is the major drawback of the story, in follows a formula, nary ever straying from it. So you always know what is coming up: doing some missions for a character and then being rewarded with a continuance of the story. For the most part it is not that bad, but once Marston enters Mexico, he meets two different characters which will lead to some of the most redundant, formulaic quests of the game, to the point I would play Texas Hold ‘Em and make money instead of doing quests.

Alas, Mexico brings with it one of the best aspects of the game: the moral ambiguity. The two above-mentioned Mexican characters are on diametrically opposed sides of a battle for power. You take missions from both of them, and you never really know which side is the good side, or whether there is any good side. There are some very good philosophical undertones here. However, nothing really comes of this moral conflict, because it will end the same no matter what side you think is right. This is not Mass Effect, but the game could have been so much better if it explored the consequences of your choices by actually giving you choices to make instead of forcing Marston into all the situations with a predefined outcome. Mexico shows us a glimmer of what Rockstar’s writers are capable of, but it seems that they are held back by the ambition of Rockstar (never thought I would say that!).

Of course there is shooting

Similar repetition problems show up in the side quests of RDR. At the beginning of the game when Marston is travelling from one town to another (the towns are quite far apart), he may encounter a horse being stolen from someone or a horse-drawn wagon being robbed. You have the choice to help the innocents, usually demarcated by a blue dot on your mini-map, or you can kill the innocents and help the bad guys, or, hell, you can give everyone. Whichever action you choose will give you fame points, making you more famous and will also give you hero points, or subtract them, making you a good guy or bad guy. As far as I know, none of the points matter for much except that some townspeople will say your name in town once in a while. I maxed out my hero points on the good side and maxed out the fame bar, and neither helped me much for anything as far as I know.

Halfway though the game, though, the random world events will start to repeat and you will become bored with them. According to the stats menu there are about 30 unique world events, but I have encountered these events about 200 times. I have only seen the coolest one, a carriage being robbed, twice, but have seen a horse being stolen about 10 times.

The side quests have their jewel in the Stranger quests. Some of these rival story missions in scope and writing and I have never been bored with these. They show up on the map as a question mark where you talk to a person and receive some actions to do to complete the quest. I imagine these can be ignored with no real discontinuity to the story, but I have completed all of them so far and have got some good laughs from them and been utterly surprised by others. Almost all of these events take you around the world exploring the landscape. And boy is the landscape a technical wonder.

Red Dead Redemption puts forth a masterfully crafted landscape. From the barren deserts and canyons, to the mountains and forests. Towns are few and far between with a sparse populace. Many people may not like this, used to the big cities of GTA4, but it really makes the setting believable because it is what I thought the West was like. It is barren, but willed with flora and fauna. There are animals everywhere to shoot and plants to pick and sell. Standing on top of a canyon and looking below you as the sun rises above the mountains is absolutely beautiful quite possibly rivaling the real thing. The landscape adds to the immersive quality of the game, making the computerized West real and believable. Add in Natural Motions Euphoria engine, and we are presented with a beautifully crafted landscape with the quirky physics of real life.

The whole game is like this. Beautiful.

Red Dead Redemption bestows upon the gamer a landscape second to none, topped with a cinematic story hampered by repetition and lengthen by cheap tricks. There really is something here to experience, especially if you always wanted to follow in the footsteps of Wyatt Earp, or a brutal outlaw with no remorse. Too bad Rockstar wasn’t just a little but more ambitious with the story, diversifying this mission here and cutting out that there.

Rating: 8/10

Why I Love RPGs (and Gaming in General)

Not everyone is particularly drawn to the genre of video games known as Role Playing Games (RPGs). RPGs are sometimes viewed as for nerds who love living in their own fantasy world where they can climb to the top ranks of a civilization and rule the world with an iron fist. However, every once in a while an RPG breaks the world sales charts because they happen to capture a much wider audience, usually through dumbing down the experience for the lay-gamer (see: Oblivion and Fallout 3) or because they are a series so entrenched in culture they will never fail except by a massive apathy from the developer (see: Final Fantasy 13).

For me, I have an experience with RPGs akin to that of the stereotypical nerd. I love leveling up and becoming stronger than everything else in the game world. I love slaughtering dastardly foes and the occasional innocent NPC. However, I was thinking recently, there must be more to my infatuation with RPGs, something a little deeper that may play on the real outside world around me. So I got to thinking and below I will lay out what I pondered, whether it is right or not.

In almost every RPG that exists, one of the main ways of progressing your character is by gaining experience killing monsters and completing epic quests leading to a stronger character. Once one gets a certain amount of experience, usually denoted by experience points, your character gains a level where skill points are then given to you and you can allocate them to various skill trees to better your characters strength, wisdom, or swordsmanship, depending on how you wish to play the game. This progression of skill and gaining experience is what has always intrigued me about RPGs and why I am drawn to them more than sports games and FPS games.

A (rather simple) skill tree from Borderlands

Why gaining experience and building my character to godhood so fascinates me is probably for one reason: the sense of achievement as compared to how we achieve in our real, daily lives. You see, in a video game, you can usually experience something, which you yourself control, which will take you across continents, worlds, and sometimes galaxy, all in an 8-40 hour experience. We can go from a tepid boy to the hero of fictional world with all that comes in between.

In a well-crafted game world, you never need to travel that far to come across a person that needs help. Once you talk to the character and get the details, it usually takes 30 minutes to complete the task, after which you, in real life, feel some accomplishment. In recent years, with the advent of near photo-realistic graphics the immersion factor of games has increased dramatically, helping game developers convey a grander experience, and pulling the player deeper and deeper into the world. The more I have been drawn into the world, the easier it is to feel the impact of my accomplishments and transgressions and how they effect everyone else.

I set apart RPGs from other games because in an RPG your character progresses levels and ranks noticeably, usually visualize by numbers in the stat menu or graphs on a website. Zero to hero is nought but taking a few days to go into the game world and have at it. You become stronger than the monsters and more adept to fighting and magick than any NPC could wish upon themselves. Eventually, depending on the game, you can attack once formidable foes and kill them with one strike. Rising through the ranks in an RPG is noticeable and usually necessary to get anywhere in the story or to even enjoy the experience.

In the real world, we all accomplish things also. However, I think we accomplish our goals and tasks in less propinquity than we do in RPGs and video games in general. In Oblivion, you start out in the Imperial City prisons and end the game the hero of the land, a strong and hardened man or woman. In the real world, you have to go to school for 12+ years just to graduate and try to be somebody. There is no guarantee you will ever be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or become President of the USA no matter how hard you work. In an RPG, if you do the quests and kill the monsters, you will level up and you will progress the story as long as you perform the necessary actions for that is the nature of the entire experience. Some games it is very hard to reach the end level, but it is always necessary that you reach it if you perform the correct actions, no questions asked.

YES! Level 99!

Hence, generally in gaming, the sense of accomplishment is ever present. Almost every game is split into several levels all requiring me to meet a certain criteria to get to the next one and every time I complete a level I am awarded with something of value in the game, some sense of accomplishment to keep me going. Real life is of course not so. There is little back-patting and every action is irreversible in the span of time. There are of course accomplishments abound to be had and a lot of them trump anything that we will ever experience in games (having kids, getting married, completing college). Yet, being in the game world and delivering the head of a criminal to the authorities is an accomplishment just as reaching level 99 in Diablo is. That is why I keep coming back to RPGs (and video games in general) for more and more.

Review – The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Five years ago, this was the game most RPG-heads were waiting for. Of course I was also, but I did not have a next-gen console, nor did I have a PC capable of playing this then resources-hogging game (and I still don’t have a capable PC). So maybe this review is too late to bring any real news material to any discussion about the Elder Scrolls series, but the next game is still not announced, and well, I just finished it and have some opinions about it. Let me just get this off my chest first though: I will be reviewing this game with a 2010 oriented-mind, not a 2005 one, therefore, I will have to explore this game in the context of the recent games which I have played which may even have been inspired off Oblivion. Bear with me though, as this could be interesting.

Oblivion starts out as many of the last games in the Elder Scrolls series started out: with a nondescript character in an equally nondescript location. Almost immediately though, you are thrust into the main story of the game as guards threaten to kill you because the Emperor for some reason needs to use a secret passage in your cell to escape an assassination attempt. From here on, you are invited to follow the Emperor and his guards as the Emperor trusts you for  whatever reason (the aspects of your character have not even been defined yet). In the secret passageways you watch the Emperor and his guards fight a bunch of weird magical beings that eventually kill the King and thus starts your actual journey in the game. Well, not really, you still need to fight your way through the sewers against various rats and dungeons, but once you see the light at the end of a tunnel, you really do get to do what you want in the Elder Scrolls’ signature sandbox manner.

As the game is so nonlinear at this point that you could literally just walk in circles for dozens of hours or embark on the Main Quest, which involves looking for an heir to the throne or something, the following experiences can only be attributed to the manner in which I decided to play. Thus, there may not be things I have ever came close to stumbling upon in the game that another person has happened upon dozens of times, so the best I can do is relate my particular experiences and what I grasped from the game.

Some good loot

First of all, as related above, Oblivion is nonlinear to the core. You can do anything you want if you are willing to chase your dreams. Yet, it is not so linear as to leave the player initially lost as many people, including I, felt at the beginning of Morrowind. There is an easily accessible journal which puts a marker on your map designating the location of where you can pursue information pertaining to the then active quest. if you have visited this location before, you can fast travel there. Some major cities are already open to fast travel at the start of the game. Once I entered the world of Cyrodiil for the first time, I immediately went to collect information regarding the first, active Main Quest mission. Afterwards, I decided to start exploring the world and collecting loot as to make the completion of the Main Quest easier as I thought it would be frought with challenging monsters and quests.

I decided to have a fighting character knowledgeable in the arts of swordsmanship, blocking, and armor. To progress my skills in this area I decided to take to the Arena in the main city. Here, you fight progressively harder characters for gold, experience, and fame. I completed the Arena in its entirety in one (long) sitting. In the Arena I came to master sword combat to the point that I was practically exploiting the game. You see, in Oblivion, instead of calculating the chance of possibly hitting the opposing character, if you swing your sword and hit the enemy, the game always registers a hit. This is in direct opposition to the standard in many RPGs where chance usually dictates attacks to some degree. I do not have much of a problem with the current set-up of attacking with swords in Oblivion besides its one major flaw. If you get a somewhat high level in Block, around 20 if I remember correctly, blocking an opponents swing has a large chance of causing the opponent to recoil, or, in most instances be somewhat stunned from attacking for a few seconds. At this point, you can let go of the block button, attack the oppenent with one or two swipes, then continue blocking and wait for them to attack again. Repeat this and your character will most likely lose very little health and the opposing character will be slaughtered. Once you know how to do this, combat with melee weapons becomes boring, repetitive, and easy.

Block, Attack, Block, Attack, Block, Attack ....

Combat is not wholly flawed though, as the spells and magic in the game are really something to witness. In most games, I stick to the standard melee weapons such as swords and shields. Usually magic in games does not have the punishing effect on enemies you want them to have. It is usually something used as a last resort or only after extensive grinding because magic usually does just not damage enemies enough. However, in Oblivion, the magic is easy to use for simple spells and enchantments, but also one of the deepest aspects of the game. Weapons can be enchanted, wearing certain articles of clothing or armor add constant effects. I stuck with the simpler spells that regenerated lost health points or that throw fireballs. I did not enchant weapons or armor but I learned how to do so and was greatly impressed. The visual effects of the spells are astounding and allow the player to be wholly engrossed in the experience. Magic in Oblivion is something of near infinite depth and discovery.

Just as deep and varied are the side quests, though that may not be a sufficient name for them. They are not sides to anything, but a whole experience unto themselves. Quests and missions originate everywhere in the game from random dead body encounters to those given out by guild leaders. Located in many major cities in Cyrodiil are guild halls housing Mages and Fighters, and lesser known buildings where the Dark Brotherhood or Thieves’ Guild meet. Each guild has its own, massive line of quests. Traversing the ranks is fun as some guilds give you small leadership rolls over other members which leads to some quite fun battles in the caves that dot the map. Some guilds will lead you down a dark road with twists and turns everywhere. Each quest line is practically a game itself and some of the quests are so fun that you will want to do them more than once in different ways just to see the reactions of the NPCs.

With so many interesting side quests, I just cannot understand why the Main Quest line is so boring. It is sufficient to move the story, which I hardly cared to understand, along and that was it. The main story came down to finding the heir and fetching things he needed to save the world. Here and there you had to go into Oblivion gates and close them which is only really fun the first time. You eventually find out you can just run through the Oblivion gates, bypassing all enemies and grab the Sigil Stone at the top of the main tower which immediately closes the gate. I resorted to this many times during one Main Quest mission (which I later found out was optional) almost ten times because so many gates had to be closed. This missions has you closing gates to get military support for another city from the Chancellor of each of the other cities and Cyrodiil. It is boring, long, and worst of all, repetitive which pretty much sums of the first 90 percent of the Main Quest. Somewhat redeeming the Main Quest is the second to last mission which takes you to a beautiful locale and the last mission which has you fighting with many, many NPCs, for and against. Much fun was had here though I don’t see why Bethesda did not implement more cooperative missions into the game when they seem to work so well.

More repetition comes from exploring the world presented as Cyrodiil. It is big, or at least it seems so to me. The land is scattered with dungeons, towns, artifacts, and the wildlife here and there. However, the dungeons and caves are all the same. the layout of each may be different for the most part, but once you have stepped into the first one, you have seen them all. Once in a blue moon you will happen upon a dungeon with an eclectic mix of creatures on the inside, but there is little incentive to explore the underworld of Cyrodiil. Loot whores will be very sad to learn there is little, if anything, of value in 95 percent of the dungeons. Literally nothing. A 100 gold stone here, a rusting piece of armor there. It sucks that there is so little loot worthy of your time and you start avoiding caves and dungeons, only venturing down into them for quests and running to the outside world as soon as you get your prize so that you don’t die of boredom underground. But is there really anything on the outside to look forward to…?

Cyrodiil, with all of its towns and forests, just gets boring. You can look for different things to do, find people to talk to, explore towns. After the first five hours though, and there is just no life. Each town is different from each other, but all the buildings inside are same. The architecture is lack-luster at best and just downright uninspired at worst. Running around in the woods would be better if the game actually ran well on the XBOX 360, but sometimes the framerate drops drastically and any small sense of immersion is lost. Sometimes beautiful, mostly drab and deplete of anything interesting (they could have marketed the game as “1 MILLION [of the same looking] trees”) the landscape gets boring fast as if Bethesda had absolutely no inspiration. In fact, a mod I have recently run across on the Internette shows what Oblivion should have and could have been. Something different from the normal medieval crap everyone has seen before. It is called Nehrim and looks better than the game it mods. Bethesda better be taking notes. View the mod here.

Oblivion is not wholly a bad game. The ending of the Main Quest is certainly something to witness, but the rest of it should have been so good. Side quests for the various guilds are long and much more fulfilling than anything else in the game. Guilds and side quests may not be something to get the game for, but at a bargain bin price, they add some adventure-ness to your gaming. I am sorry to see that a mod made by a small group of programmers are set to release something that looks to be a hundred times better than the game it is based on. Hopefully Bethesda will learn from their mistakes and release a superior sequel for the Elder Scrolls series.

6/10

Bought Some New Books Today …

Although I currently have no free time to start reading many books at the same time as I usually do, while I was at Delaware River Books I decided to pick up some books to further add to my lengthy list of books I very much wish to read.

Oh, and by the way, if you have not been to Delaware River Books, check the place out. It is astounding. Although tight and small, the collection of books is easily browse-able and the collection is of the highest quality and absurdly cheap. And as another plus, the man who runs it is nice.

Onto the books I bought:

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This book looks interesting purely based on title. Granted, I did not read the entire inside flap, but it has to do with the Shroud of Turin, which I am vaguely interested in, and implicates the Roman Catholic Church into the conspiracy surrounding the Shroud.

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I read The Dispossessed by Le Guin and loved it. This book was fifty cents (50 CENTS!) and decided to pick it up because I think I can really relate to this authors viewpoints, plus, it is sci-fi.

Genly Ai is an emissary from the human galaxy to Winter, a lost, stray world. His mission is to bring the planet back into the fold of an evolving galactic civilization, but to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own culture and prejudices and those that he encounters. On a planet where people are of no gender–or both–this is a broad gulf indeed. The inventiveness and delicacy with which Le Guin portrays her alien world are not only unusual and inspiring, they are fundamental to almost all decent science fiction that has been written since. In fact, reading Le Guin again may cause the eye to narrow somewhat disapprovingly at the younger generation: what new ground are they breaking that is not already explored here with greater skill and acumen? It cannot be said, however, that this is a rollicking good story. Le Guin takes a lot of time to explore her characters, the world of her creation, and the philosophical themes that arise. - Amazon.com

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A book to brush up on some anarchist political and social theory.

Can social order be maintained in a stateless society? Is anarchy viable? The contention of this book is that stateless social order is possible only if relations between people are those characteristic of community. Rejecting the libertarian argument that the goods and services which make up ‘social order’ can be provided by private firms competing in the marketplace, and the liberal argument that because social order is a public good its maintenance requires the state, Michael Taylor goes on to examine the methods actually used to maintain order in anarchic and quasi-anarchic societies and shows how these methods can be effective only in a small and stable community. Community in turn requires a rough economic equality. But according to a traditional argument (recently revitalised by Robert Nozick), no equality would survive for long without state interference – so that communitarian anarchy must break down. Here this argument is shown to be fallacious: the development of gross inequality can be prevented in an anarchic community. At the same time, the small community is not portrayed as continuously harmonious, free from constraint and coercion – the contention is rather that community is necessary if we are to live without the state or substantially reduce its role. But community is defended against the charge of being incompatible with individual liberty. That claim is shown to be no more accurate than the opposite and equally simple assumption, that liberty is possible only in community. For evidence and illustration, the book draws on the experience of stateless primitive societies, peasant communities and utopian and other ‘intentional’ communities. It sets a new standard of clarity and rigour for theoretical studies in anarchism and will interest a wide range of readers, including political theorists, political anthropologists and sociologists, and anyone concerned with the justification of the state. – Amazon.com

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I watched JFK by Oliver Stone and liked it to some degree. Although I was not impressed with the ending, the movie as an experience was exactly what I wanted it to be. Jim Marrs’ book Crossfire is apparently the book JFK was (loosely?) based on. To have a counterpoint to my reading of Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi, I decided to by Crossfire and give it a read.

Twenty-five years after the event, assassination books continue to appear. Marrs, a Dallas-area journalist who teaches a college course on the event, has, however, produced a special one. Its nearly 600 pages are jammed with detail on every aspect of the shooting, the investigations, the suspicions that fell on the Mafia, the FBI, the CIA, anti-Castro Cubans–all the usual suspects. For its comprehensiveness alone, this would be the one book for anyone seeking a really thorough examination of the assassination (but it sorely needs an index). Marrs is sensible and straightforward, giving every side of disputed questions, though it is clear that for him, as for most thoughtful people, the Warren Commission’s picture of Oswald as a lone assassin doesn’t work. The author talked to witnesses never officially interviewed, even offers never-before-seen pictures (though these contain nothing very startling). His conclusion: Kennedy made so many enemies in business, the military, the right wing, the mob, that his death became inevitable. He sees no Washington-based assassination plot, simply a willingness at the highest level (specifically Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover) to relax protective vigilance enough to allow the deed to be done. – Amazon.com

And the proof of just how cheap Delaware River Books is (yes, it is for ALL the books pictured above):

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