It's been ages since I last did any serious gaming - I've been moving, changing jobs, and generally just very busy with other "real life" things. I'm all settled now though, so here's a little about the last game I completed before I dive into something new...
"State of Decay"
Perhaps my favorite aspect of The Walking Dead (both the comics and the TV series) is how human-centric the story is – more than any other zombie movies, shows, books, or games I’ve experienced, The Walking Dead is about the people trying to survive this radically altered world. The struggle really isn’t about the zombies, and as the show’s many, many detractors have pointed out, it’s really *barely* about zombies at all, but it’s instead against a world whose infrastructure has been gutted, where the rules of society have crumbled, and where only those who can successfully adapt, for better and for worse, can make it. Be it a nuclear war or a zombie plague, this is the key to a good post apocalypse story in my opinion. Imaging survival in such a setting is what I find most captivating about the genre. At this point there have been more zombie related games than I care to try to count but few of them even attempted to capture this essence. Instead, most zombie related games resemble the zombie movies of the 80s (even the good ones!) where zombies are simply a specific variety of antagonist that needs to be defeated. State of Decay, by Undead Labs, changes all of that.
"Scouting from up high."
State of Decay’s basic gameplay loop is what is so damn good: it’s all about that survival. In this case, “survival” simply means establishing a base where you can hole up and scavenging for enough supplies to maintain it as well as meet your character’s own individual demands. The most compelling part of this, for me at least, is the exploration involved in that scavenging or, really, anything else in this setting. While the process can become rather laborious and repetitive (more inventory room, please!) exploring and “clearing” all of these old abandoned and dangerous buildings never really gets old. There’s always a sense of creepiness as you sneak around in the dark trying to locate lootable containers, never knowing when a zombie might show up. Sure, a zombie probably won’t put you in much dangerous unless it’s one of the special “freak” class zombies, but sometimes getting mobbed by too many, in just the right way, can still put you in a very bad spot very quickly.
"A good pair of wheels is essential for exploration. Planes? Not so much."
Back to the subject of establishing a base of operations though. One thing State of Decay does to make this interesting is that you don’t just play a single character. You can, sure, but you can also switch to almost any of the other survivors that are part of your enclave and play them too. The injury and fatigue systems in the game actually actively encourage it, even, as do the RPG like skill leveling and item systems. This also makes the addition of permadeath without entering into a total fail state a thing – your character can die, permanently, and the game keeps going. Speaking of keeping going, like other open world games, the world also exists as somewhat of a “simulation” with all kinds of systems in play that do not necessary tie directly into what is occurring to or around your character. More dramatically, some of these systems continue on when you’re not in game. It’s not uncommon to log in a day or two later to find that one of your survivors has died or that there are new missions waiting for you. All of these systems together alter the focus of the game from being about you killing zombies to being, like The Walking Dead, about you and your group of survivors getting by in this strange and twisted version of life.
"Did I mentioned the skill system? Oh yes!"
At this point my main criticism of the game is that it really doesn't push far enough in either direction – as a more directed, story based experience, or as a sandbox open world game where you make your own goals. I feel like most people are probably drawn more towards the open world nature of the game but the systems in place don’t really allow for a huge amount of freedom or variety playing in a pure sandbox way. More potential base locations, more possible customization of them, more variety of item and resource types, and possibly more dangers (unlike The Walking Dead, fighting other groups of human survivors is almost entirely absent from State of Decay) might go just far enough to fix this though. As it is though, it comes quite close.
I know an enhanced Xbox One port of the game came out just a couple of months ago, and who knows, I may tackle the DLC for the original Xbox 360 and PC versions someday too, but what most people seem to want from the series right now is some type of co-operative gameplay experience. At first Undead Labs were pretty loudly toting that the next State of Decay game would feature co-op or maybe even be an MMO of some sort but lately they seem a little bit more coy on exactly what their next project is. Intriguing for sure!
Xbox 360 screenshots swiped from Google image search, and probably actually PC screenshots. *shrug*
Almost immediately after beating and loving the first of the Mass Effect games I heard about a couple of others games that were purported to be attempting very similar things. The first was Obsidian's Alpha Protocol. Apparently it was going to be Mass Effect meets a modern day spy thriller. How is that not amazing? Then there was Rise of the Argonauts which was Mass Effect set in ancient mythical Greece. Why not? I determined way back then that I'd be playing both of them. Period. While neither of these games turned out to wear that Mass Effect comparison quite so favorably, here I am...
"On our way to slay Medusa despite the lack of Perseus."
Rise of the Argonauts is an RPG that is very much influenced by the "post-KoTOR" era of BioWare games. I definitely get a Jade Empire vibe from it but again the comparisons to Mass Effect are hard to avoid as well, especially considering the game's Unreal Engine roots. You play as King Jason of Iolcus on his legendary quest for the Golden Fleece. Now, don't get ahead of me too much here. I'm sure a lot of you have read about the myth of Jason or at least seen the rad Ray Harryhausen effects laden movie from the 1960s. This game takes innumerable liberties with the legend and indeed others so don't think you already know the plot. That said, if you get a kick out of Greek mythology like I do then you'll definitely enjoy some of references here.
After your journey aboard the suspiciously steampunk Argo kicks off you'll be going relatively freely from place to place completing main quest objectives, doing side questions, and recruiting new members for your crew. Sound familiar? Despite the little bit of freedom you'll have, you're directed fairly narrow through the main plot and the games wraps up relatively quickly, which for me isn't really a complaint - the length and the pace felt quite acceptable. You spend a surprising amount of time interacting with NPCs with a very Mass Effect like dialog system. Combat feels almost entirely separate from the conversations and even the exploration as it usually involves sections of the maps being cordoned off into little arenas with multiple waves of enemies that need to be defeated before moving on. There's relatively little of it too, which isn't such a bad thing since I never really got into the combat system.
"Heavy attack, heavy attack, block, whatever..."
The combat isn't terrible, mediocre perhaps, but it just never "clicked" with me - whether an enemy blocked or dodged my blows, what weapons and attacks worked best for what situations, etc. just always felt fairly random and arbitrary to me. It wasn't until one of my weapon/skill trees got nearly fully upgraded that combat became so easy I could simply stop feigning concern and do what felt the most cheaply effective. Even then, I didn't care much for using many of the "active" special skills or powers as they took way too long to recharge and while boss fights could be challenging, the fodder wasn't ever really worth wasting time using powers on.
"You'll be seeing our protagonist from this angle *a lot* throughout the game."
That said, there are some high notes as well. Although the dialog system didn't seem to produce any decisions of consequence I felt like it was mostly well written and acted and Jason, while a little dry, is a fairly likable character, at least the way I played him as a devotee to Athena. Oh, and about that! I also liked the upgrade system, which had you earn "deeds" for meeting various goals, whether they be completing quests or more "achievement" like goals such as slaying 15 enemy mercenaries. You then chose which of four Greek gods you wanted to dedicate the deed too, essentially giving you XP to spend in that god's particular skill tree. The dialog system incorporates this as well, with choices often differentiating between associating with each of the four gods rather than the more black and white, good savoir of humanity vs. evil dickhead choices RPGs usually give you.
Oh, I should also mention that a lot of the the videos and user reviews and whatnot I found online mentioned bugs and performance issues. Perhaps it helped that I had it installed on my 360's hard drive and maybe its been patched since then too but I encountered relatively view bugs with the game and nothing I'd consider major.
"A meeting with Prometheus."
Sticking with the technical stuff, graphically the game is quite a mixed bag. It left me a sour first impression with some extremely ugly pre-rendered (from the engine... why?) cut-scenes and some beyond awful animations. Once things got going for real though I started to admire some of the character models and designs as a whole. They're not all good - the generic human NPCs found on Iolcus, for instance, are utterly fucking hideous, but some of the main characters such as Jason himself, are rather nice. Animations never get too much better but thankfully most of the other cut-scenes are kept in-engine so aren't quite as jarring. Finally, the environments are, all in all, rather beautiful. There's a lot of variety in color palettes and themes without feeling too contrived. I was especially impressed with my encounter with the Titan Prometheus down in... well, I don't want to spoil it. Finally, the soundtrack is rather good for a game seemingly no one knows about and indeed a quick search resulted in a lot of people raving over it.
In summary, if you love BioWare style RPGs and Greek mythology and don't mind going into it without huge expectations I'd certainly recommend Rise of the Argonauts. It's a relatively short romp (for this type of game, at least) so I certainly don't regret my time with it but I do have to admit that more than loving the game, it has me really wanting to play an actual BioWare game again ASAP.
As usual with Xbox 360 games these screenshots were stolen mercilessly, as is the way of Aries! I stole these ones, which are probably from the slightly better looking PC version, from http://www.computerbild.de. Danke!
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.