Warning: potential main quest spoilers ahead!
From Garn's recollections:
After informing my most trusted knights that I was embarking on a new, crucial, and for now, totally secret quest, I packed my saddlebags in preparation for potentially spending a very long time living back out on the land and rode out of the West Weald and north towards Chorrol. Sticking mostly to the roads the journey was uneventful and Chorrol seemed more or less exactly as I had last left it. Weynon Priory resembled the Knight's own compound save for its far less remote location, sitting just outside the city walls and along a main road. A monk that was tending the gardens greeted me and directed me to the main house of the priory. I entered and found Brother Jauffre sitting at his desk scratching on some parchment.
"Weynon Priory, at long last..."
Jauffre seemed unfamiliar with my garb or my name and, probably mistaking me of some young knight-errant looking for his next quest, was all business when it came to addressing me. I most definitely captured his full attention when I told him that Baurus had sent me to him and that I knew he was in fact the Grandmaster of the Order of the Blades and not just a simple monk of the Order of Talos. His demeanor changed even more dramatically when I revealed the Amulet of the Kings to him - he demanded to know more about how I acquired the relic and what I knew of the Emperor's assassination. Having carried the burden of my tale for so long it was a relief to finally tell someone what I knew. Carefully listening to my story, Jauffre seemed to let his guard down and believe that I was indeed there to help rather than to further sully the reputation of the empire with blackmail or extortion.
"Err, okay? You really don't believe me do you?"
Feeling fairly confident that I could trust him, I let lose the last, scandalous detail of that infamous day: the Emperor's mention of an heir to the throne. Jauffre seemed less phased than I had expected with this news. He told me that he in fact knew of the potential for such an heir to exist, as he had seen to an illegitimate child when he was much younger and assigned as one of the Emperor's personal bodyguards. As he explained it seemed to dawn on him how important that detail was given the political state of the empire and, it seemed, rumors concerning this would-be heir's last location, Kvatch. That boy, now a man, was known to the Blades to be a priest in the Chapel of Akatosh there.
The Blades had been largely de-activated in the wake of the assassination, with those few remaining active members mostly working on investigating the assassination and occasionally detailed to guarding members of the Elder Council. It would take some time for Jauffre to rally them. He asked me, upon my honor as a knight, to journey to Kvatch and escort the heir, Martin, back with me to the safety of the priory while drawing as little attention us as possible. It had to be done.
"Hm, your city is slightly less impressive than I remembered."
I had been hearing rumors regarding the city of Kvatch for quite a long time. At first there were tales of attacks in the city, some said bandits had been openly challenging the city guard while others reported demons patrolling the alleyways at night. Regardless, it was enough to cause many of the citizens to eventually flee and with that the rumors shifted to a plague outbreak within the city walls. In any case I had almost totally avoided the city since escaping my cell. When I started up the road to its main gate I was shocked to find it lined by a tents in some sort of a makeshift refugee camp. The tattered population of the camp spoke in incoherent ramblings about Daedra attacking and burning their homes but mostly overwhelmingly referred me to Savlian Matius, the guard who was heading up the defense of the city.
Upon riding hastily further up the road I could see that their ramblings were more sensible than first believed - great plums of smoke flowed up from behind the crumbling city walls and some sort of massive, pulsating portal stood menacingly directly in front of the city gates. A small contingent of city guard barricaded themselves with bow and sword at the ready directly in front of me. Bodies, rubble, and fire littered the small field in between.
"An Oblivion Gate you say?!"
At first, as if by reaction alone, Savlian warned me off, telling me to return the encampment. It was only after a double-take, noting my armor and weapons, that he began to explain the scene before us. Apparently the citizens had been reporting more and more random sightings of Dremora, evidently scouting the city, sometimes leading to confrontations with citizens and city watch. Months of these events steadily escalated, culminating in great gateways to Oblivion opening up and legions of Daedra pouring into the city indiscriminately killing and burning. Savlian was confused about how Daedra were able to invade our realm in such a way, and even more confused about why they could be targeting Kvatch in particular. I had my suspicions as likely did Jauffre.
"Taking in this *incredibly rare* sight."
Savlian knew of the priest, Martin, and believed that he was last sighted still alive inside the city. Unfortunately there was no easy way into the city while this great portal sat active in our way. He told me that he had seen other such gates close during the initial attack so he believed this one could be closed somehow too and had sent a small contingent of his men in earlier to investigate. Much to his disbelief without a second thought I volunteered to join them in this mission and set off towards the portal, sword in hand.
Immediately upon stepping through the portal I found myself in a desolate land of fire and smoke, unlike anything I had ever seen before in all of Cyrodiil. Besides the strange plants and the blood red sky, this world was filled with massive cliffs of great shattered boulders and impassable seas of flame. Barely perceivable, nestled amongst the chaos, were traces of crude roads, bridges, gates, and other signs of civilization. I spotted the most impressive of these structures, a massive tower jetting up on the horizon, and made reaching it my goal. Along the way I was attacked at various times by patrolling Dremora soliders along with other Daedric creatures but given that the Daedra clearly weren't anticipating an incursion of their own they never came at me in numbers that made them difficult to defeat.
"Odd being on the receiving end of a Dremora attack for once."
Arriving at the base of tower and entering I found fierce resistance from the Dremora who manned this place. With the power of my crusader's artifacts I was able to cut through my foes and climb my way up the tower all the same. In one of the tower's chambers I found Menien Goneld, evidently one of the Kvatch guardsmen Savlian had sent in earlier, being tortured for a Dremora warrior's depraved amusement. After a brief confrontation Menien told me that the Dremora I just killed was in fact the "Sigil Keeper" of the tower and with his keys I could access the Sigil Stone at the top of the structure which he believed was what powered the portal. Setting the man free I continued on my way.
"On my way up to the Sigil Stone."
Breaching the fortified Sigil Keep at the top of the tower and slaying its occupants I took the risk of betting on Menien and his men's hard earned information and reached into the powerful energy beam that shot through the great tower, pulling out the Sigil Stone. After a brief moment of violent quaking which threatened to shake apart the entire structure I found myself, with the blink of an eye, back outside of the main gate of Kvatch - the Oblivion portal was gone! Savlian and his men rushed to welcome me back will all manner of questions about what lay on the other side of the portal and the fate of their fellow guardsmen. I was relieved but my task was not yet close to completion.
"Charging into Kvatch!"
I told Savlian that we had no time to rest - that I must get into the city and find Martin. Savlian needed no convincing as he was eager to get back into the city himself and soon we were all charging into the city's ruined plaza, summarily dispatching anything of Daedric origin we spotted. Hard fights, all, but with minimal casualties we pushed our way through the burning streets and into the chapel. It seemed that the chapel had served as some sort of a gathering point for refugees and we were greeted by a few more Kvatch guards and dozens of survivors that had holed up there. After escorting them to the relative safety of the camp beyond the city walls, we pushed our way all the way to the castle, and while we saved many more lives and dispatched many more Daedra, we were too late for Ormellius Goldwine, the Count of Kvatch. Savlian and his men had much work to do to finish securing the remnants of the city. I left them to it.
"So apparently all of these NPCs just think I'm full of shit?"
Back with the refugees I identified Martin and pulled him to the side where our conversation could not be easily overheard. Exhausted from the previous fights I made no effort to mince words and told him exactly why I was there. Martin was, of course, incredibly confused but, given what he knew of his own mysterious past, he somehow didn't seem to dismiss the notion of being Uriel Septim VII's heir outright. Instead, having little left for him in Kvatch, he agreed to journey with me back to Weynon Priory to at least hear Jauffre out. One of the guards who had fought alongside me found Martin a horse and soon we were on our way back to Chorrol.
Oh, Far Cry 2! What to say about Far Cry 2? I've been struggling to sit down and write this game log much more than most, not because I don't have a lot of thoughts and opinions about the game but more because none of them are extremely well-formed or otherwise decisive at this point, so let's just do this off the cuff:
To start off with, I never played the original Far Cry. It was definitely a bit of a staple of PC gaming during its heyday but I somehow (narrowly) avoided buying and playing through it. When Far Cry 2 was announced I thought it looked absolutely awesome - a very forced first person perspective which looked particularly unique in respects to interactions with NPCs. Conversations with other characters and buddy rescues immediately spring to mind as scenes I saw in previews that looked extremely intriguing to me, as did the overall gritty look of the game. When it was finally released their seemed to be quite a bit of disparity in reviews and opinion in general, with most people ranking the game as fairly mediocre despite a lot of critics praising it, especially in hindsight. Some such critics are the cast of one of my favorite gaming podcasts, Idle Thumbs, whose unanimous love for the game became one of their more infamous, self-referential in-jokes. This was probably what pumped me up the most about finally pulling the game out of my backlog... to see if it lived up to all of the hype.
"This exact scenario will play out at least 300 times in the course of the campaign."
So what is it? Well, Far Cry 2 is an open world first person shooter set in a fictional civil war torn African nation. It's a damn oppressive place for sure. You play as a mercenary who gets stuck in the country and ends up finding himself having to perform jobs for various factions in an attempt to gather the resources to somehow find a way back home. Honestly, that description of the plot is probably making it sound much more narrative driven than it actually is. For the most part the story barely matters. The aforementioned oppressive setting though, that matters! It matters because the game is oppressive in nearly every other way as well and that is perhaps its most standout element.
This has got to be the most purposely unfriendly game I've ever played. Some of the design decisions are quite interesting to dissect as, being a modern FPS and not one that is particularly concerned with tactics and realism, many of its systems are quite friendly relative to older games of the genre. This just serves to highlight the contrast of its more notable design conceits: your character starts the game with a crippling case of malaria which you end up dealing with for the rest of the campaign, ammunition is limited, weapons suck and even the good ones you purchase wear out quickly and start jamming at inopportune moments, you've got to travel fucking everywhere which is made more difficult by the fact you need to stop to fix your vehicle any time you take more than a tiny bit of damage to it, oh, and virtually everyone in the world seems to put an oddly high level of priority on killing the shit out of you, and ohhhh yeah, they respawn too! That's just a taste. The interesting thing is, having some vague idea of what the game designers were going for here, I kind liked it!
"First person driving, get used to it!"
Sure, the massive travel distances for virtually every task were a huge bummer, and the fast travel points (which I used constantly) seemed almost purposely placed at equally inconvenient locations. That, and the frequency at which you encounter blood thirsty, incredibly determined enemies while traveling and the fact they do indeed respawn also felt more than a bit overwhelming at times, but otherwise? Bring it on. I enjoyed how the game made my character and in turned me as the player feel, well, not that special. You get dumped into this dangerous place and expect to be mowing everyone down and treated like some impervious god of war? Nope, not here buddy! You're just a guy, and your experience as a mercenary isn't enough to mean you're safe when you're facing 5 guys with light machine guns and satchels full of grenades when all you have is a rusty pistol and the cover of an old shack to protect you. While I don't think this whole arrangement quite works as intended, when it does all click it creates some wonderful emergent moments that don't feel exactly like any other game I've played. Here's a taste:
An end of chapter mission (and one of the more structured ones, I'd say) has you having to assassinate a high ranking officer in his mountain top compound. Knowing I was at a pivotal story mission I poked around online trying to figure out how long it might take me to complete so I'd know if I could squeeze it into an already busy night and ended up a watching someone basically speed-run through the mission by sneaking to a rare sniping position, picking him off from afar undetected, and then making a brilliant dive off of an adjacent cliff into the river below. Given that the alternative involved a lengthy firefight against numerous enemies I decided to try this guy's method.
"You can practically feel the explosions, especially when you get nailed by debris."
I stole a riverboat near Pala and made my way all the way up north to Goka falls retreat at Mt. Thabamolaetsa, pulling onto land just outside of the compound's docks to take out a few patrolling enemies from afar with my newly acquired dart rifle (a silenced sniper rifle, basically.) After that I carefully worked my way up the mountain to avoid alerting any of the guards to my presence. Unfortunately I completely fucked this up, as I found myself in totally the wrong spot on the opposite side of the mountain and ended up in a smaller but still protracted firefight regardless. Whatever, I survived and took up the appropriate position to finally snipe the officer and dive to victory. Only, not having done much leaping around in this game, I completely miscalculated my jump and instead of a beautiful James Bond like escape, I hit the ground below in a hilariously violent moment of sheer failure. A literal laughing out loud moment of ridiculousness. To compound it, somehow the buddy system kicked in and despite being extremely dead from this brutal face first dive hundreds of feet off of a cliff, my buddy showed up to revive me and drag me to "safety" and I completed the mission successfully, adding a hilarious "WTF?!" moment to my already brilliant death. Perfect!
Really, probably my biggest complaint about the game would be its length. I more or less got it when the game reached its half way point. It could have ended there, or maybe gone just a tiny bit longer, though instead it tosses you into a whole new map with a whole new set of almost identical objectives and missions to tackle. *grumble* At least it all went by a little more quickly at that point since I pretty much knew what I was doing.
"Even just looking at the map means you might get shot in the back or accidentally drive off of a bridge."
Continuing with the negatives, the infamously jilted dialog and the (in my opinion) ineffectual story didn't detract too much from the game but were definitely notable. While I mostly enjoyed the weapon and combat feel it didn't seem quite varied enough, especially given the open world nature of the game. Further on the "eh" side would be the buddy system, which while unique and interesting at first, and certainly somewhat provocative, eventually grew to feel completely tiresome and unnecessary to me towards the end of the game.
All of those negatives and still I'm saying I liked it? Sure! The parts of the game that do work and are fairly unique really feel like they make the game something special, especially amongst triple A games. The weird, oppressive setting and equally oppressive gameplay systems, the gritty, immersive forced first person perspective that helps draw you in, the uncommon and beautifully rendered African wilderness you get drawn into, the minimalist and often in-game-world UI which lends at hand there as well, and on the perhaps more shallow side, the bizarre but often compelling fire propagation system, all deserve nods. There are other things I enjoyed as well such as the health/healing system and the utterly epic explosions but those are the most standout. I'm actually very much looking forward to finally playing through Far Cry 3 and seeing just how much of this game's influence is still detectable and what systems they've completely scrapped. All of this when Far Cry 4 was just released? Wow, I think I'm officially a "patient gamer" these days...
Screenshots are actually from the PC version and stolen from various sites on the Internet. I actually played this on Xbox 360 for some difficult to justify reason but if this game has you at all interested you should be able to pick up a digital PC version for next to nothing and even mod out some of the annoying bits to boot!
Since I've been making a concerted effort to go through my Xbox 360 backlog I've been sneaking an Xbox Live Arcade title between every game or two. Having just completed Orcs Must Die! I figured I’d also go ahead and mention a couple others I put some time into recently.
"Not pictured: imminent painful death."
First, I ended up buying and giving Trials HD a whirl. For those unfamiliar with the series (who are you?!) the game is kind of like a modern day Excitebike, only using an amped up physics engine and courses designed by total fucking sadists. You play an anonymous motocross rider negotiating various obstacles (that aren't necessarily based in reality) as quickly and smoothly as possible. It’s not really a “race” in the traditional sense but you’re always racing against the clock to beat pre-defined goals. There’s also a nice feature that lets you easily compare your scores against your XBL friends'. I knew this game had a reputation for being brutally difficult but that it was also built from the ground up on that premise, making restarts and retries convenient and forgiving. It definitely delivers there, instilling a “just one more try!” attitude on even the least addictive personalities. Personally, while I feel like I could play this game forever, attempting to gold medal every race, unlock all of the achievements, etc. I honestly have too many games on my backlog to justify subjecting myself to the kind of frustration that started rearing its head once I got into the “hard” and “extreme” rated levels for too long. Yeah, I shamefully put this one down before completing it. If I had bought it when it came out I might have finished it but I just can’t force myself through it right now.
Speaking of which, I also ended up picking up Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD during a XBLA sale at some point. Thinking of the first three Tony Hawk games causes an almost instant nostalgic flashback to my college years, with just about every one of my punk rock, wanna-be skater friends that owned a Playstation or Dreamcast at the time totally addicted to the series. I owned the barely adequate Nintendo 64 port of the first game myself and was totally addicted to it despite its shortcomings. How does it feel to go back? Eh, kind of shitty actually. The game looks pretty good and, at first play, controls more or less like what I remembered the series playing like. Unfortunately those positive impressions didn't last long as I began to notice that the controls didn't quite make the translation to the new HD engine which itself “feels” totally different and is chalk full of some now rather infamous physics bugs. Most offensively, the classic THPS soundtrack has been totally gutted. Licensing issues, most likely, but it still changes the experience drastically. While I wouldn't necessarily tell any fans of the original to totally steer clear of this remake I’d definitely suggest giving the demo a shot first. Personally, after clearing about half of the levels I've decided to put it down.
Finally, an XBLA game I couldn't even start to put down early was Orcs Must Die! Holy shit, I love this game! I've talked very fondly about both Toy Soldiers and Defense Grid on this blog in the past so it probably comes as no surprise that I’m raving about yet another highly polished tower defense game. Orcs Must Die! probably more closely resembles Toy Soldiers, as it gives the player the ability to participate in the action themselves rather than just hover above the battlefield like some kind of micromanagement obsessed deity. Actually, this game goes even further with the third person action component being a much more fleshed out and indeed, important part of the game. Some of my strategies actually centered on my reinforcing one or two paths with traps while guarding the other with my character’s selection of weapons and spells.
"Step into my web, little orcs..."
Let me back up for a second and explain the premise a little better – you play as a sarcastic apprentice “war mage” who has been tasked with guarding the magical portals from one world, apparently occupied by all manner of nasty orcs and other stereotypical fantasy monsters, to your own. These portals are all inside of dungeon-like fortresses, some of them fairly elaborate, though unlike a lot of tower defense games their layouts never really get *too* complicated. As per usual, your enemies come in various “waves” of different combinations of enemies with breaks in between in which you can use the money you've earned by killing enemies from previous waves to shore up your defenses. In this game your “towers” actually consist of various types of dungeon traps – spiked floor panels and wall dart launchers to kill your enemies, swinging maces and crushing ceiling tiles to maim them, and sliding walls and springing floor panels to send them hilariously flailing off of ledges and into lava pools. There’s even placeable archer and paladin NPCs to help guard your paths. Unlike some tower defenses games, you can also place them just about anywhere they'll fit. The traps and other defenses are rolled out to you steadily as you progress, which means back tracking in the campaign can be helpful to improve your score, and there’s even an optional (and ultimately very useful) skill tree system that gets introduced a little further into the campaign.
"No good shots showing the UI, unfortunately."
I ended up working my way through the entire War Mage campaign (normal difficulty) with 4 or 5 skull ratings on every map. I highly considered going back and chasing 5 skull ratings on every map, or playing through the campaign on a higher difficulty, but again, too many games too little time. It’s a shame that the sequel never got released on Xbox 360 but I MOST DEFINITELY plan to pick up Orcs Must Die! 2 on Steam. Robot is also apparently working on Orcs Must Die! Unchained now which turns the whole thing into some kind of weird, Team Fortress 2 inspired 5 vs 5 competitive game. Intriguing!
Per usual, Xbox 360 screenshots stolen from wherever possible.