Oh thee of impure thoughts, watcheth my sanctimonious retrospective of Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. Even thou might becometh enlightened by the divine powers of Buddha British emanating from every line of code.
Downloadeth the .mp4, burneth it upon a platinum disc, and storeth it in cedar. Hey, wait a minute--dost thou have an ankh? Oh, whew, there for a minute I thought you were a rapscallion.
This week, I'm looking at what I consider the ten best innovations in CRPGs. That means, I'm looking at games that introduced new gameplay elements or at least adapted existing concepts, forging something that has become (or should have become) important, influential, or at least pretty damn awesome. Keep in mind that the game as a whole might be weak or even a flop; that isn't relevant here. What is relevant is which games introduced which concepts and when. So, let's get started with #10:
10. The mule in Dungeon Siege. Year: 2002. Concept: A pack animal to help carry your lootz. I don't remember much about the original Dungeon Siege game, but I will never forget that crusty pack animal. I'm pretty sure the thinking behind the mule was simply utilitarian; "Hey, that'd be handy to have around." But in one stroke the designers made a game ten times more memorable and self-parodying. And how many times did a battle hinge on the kicking of your mule? Mules literally kick ass. Wait, is that possible? Now I'm so spoiled that I always want a pack of them in assorted colors--what, I'm supposed to just leave that solid gold Elminster statue behind?
I've always been a bit divided on Bioware's games after they abandoned their compromising "real time with pause" gameplay and sacrificed their babies to the god of Twitch. If you listen to some people, they would have been doing this all along, but the technology of the time wouldn't allow it (rubbish). The real goal here is to cater to the widest possible demographic, which everyone seems to think means focusing on spectacle and instant gratification (look, mommie, this button makes him chop!). The only concessions to adults is usually some vague notion of "difficult choices" you have to make at a dialog tree or two, and perhaps a lot of boring text here and there that you can find and read if you're so inclined. You know you've come a long ways down a dark road when the closest thing you get to the tabletop experience is clicking through (not reading) a dozen such screens of text and earning an Xbox Live achievement about being "learned."
But anyway, back to Dragon Age 2. I was one of those poor bastards who actually pre-ordered the collector's edition. I sprang for the PC version, which was apparently a mistake. Still, while I was probably more frustrated by the combat and party AI than anything else, I did enjoy other parts of the game, particularly the characters. Yeah, I know it's a bad when the thing I like most about a CRPG is the drama.
What are the ten worst CRPGs? This is a question that takes a lot of thought, because terrible games typically do not sell well and are quickly forgotten. What I think most of us have in mind with questions like this are high profile disasters--games that received a huge amount of hype, had no excuses to be bad, and turned out to be so spectacularly awful that it was more fun reading and writing the scathing reviews than the game would have been in the first place. We're not talking about low budget, small-team productions that you wouldn't expect much from anyway. These are the big budget games that stank so badly you not only flushed them three times but actually went to the store for a giant can of industrial-strength Lysol. With that as my build up, let's crank up our Roto-Rooters and dredge these crusty wads back up to the surface.
#10. Lands of Lore III. The Lands of Lore series was created by Westwood Studios, the legendary developer responsible for Eye of the Beholder and plenty of other epic CRPGs. The original Lands of Lore debuted in 1993 to critical acclaim, offering an interface similar to Dungeon Master or EOB that holds up well even today. The franchise was brought to an intestine-blocking halt in 1999 with the arrival of this boring game with terrible graphics and enough bugs to keep an entomology department busy for decades. Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is that the game tries to be an FPS, ratcheting up the "action" because that's what all gamers want, righhhht? Uh, nope. Don't worry, though, it's a pattern we'll see repeated. And we all know that the definition of genius is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, right?
A lot of peeps have been asking me to compile a list of my top ten favorite CRPGs of all time. Like most fans of the genre, I have many favorites, and these will shift around as I come in and out of different phases. Also, this is just a personal list of what I either enjoy now or look back on with the most fondness; I'm not worried here about what is most influential or innovative. It's just my top ten favorite CRPGs, as of this moment. I'm also going to skip hybrid games that try to cross genres, such as Mass Effect and Deus Ex, as well as MUDs and MMORPGs. Okay, enough disclaiming already! Here goes the list:
10. Knights of the Old Republic. I have to admit the bulk of my appeal for this game comes from its setting in the Star Wars universe, which I love almost as much as Middle Earth and Krynn. There were times playing this game where I felt I had actually entered that universe and was a part of something bigger than the game itself. It seems to me that after this game, Bioware cut the cord and went Action, Action, ACTION. There's some of that tendency here, but compared to Dragon Age and Mass Effect, at least this still reminds me of a true CRPG.
9. The Bard's Tale. It's a bit of a guilty pleasure to love this game so much, since it was heavily derivative on Wizardry, but what can I say...It didn't take me long to really want to explore the town of Skara Brae and get my pack of wimpy, glass-jawed heroes up to snuff. I also really like the Bard as a class and character; it seems obvious today, but back then it was really fun to think about a guy out strumming a lute as the rest of the party fought for their lives. I also really like the artistic style, which adds a certain character that really is unique. It also has a great box that you can fold out and see a lovely map of the city. Good stuff.
8. Dungeon Master. Another game that I am deeply saddened to have missed out on when it was fresh. I know I would've absolutely loved it. Unfortunately, it required 1 megabyte of RAM to play, and my Amiga 1000 was limited to 512K. That still frustrates me to this day! Still, when I finally got to play it, I was really impressed with the interface, and it's obvious at once how the real-time elements set it apart from its predecessors and contemporaries. It's a bit hard to get into today because of the magic system, which definitely requires some reading, but overall it's still lots of fun. I remember the ads stressed that you need to wear headphones and only play the game at night. I don't know if that was necessary, but it was a neato game for sure.
Here's a venerable classic from the archives: Betrayal at Krondor! I was inspired to review this game after stumbling across Feist's novelization at the used books section of a local thrift shop. I played this one back in the day, but only because I received it free with the purchase of the sequel, Betrayal in Antara. I think both games are worth playing today, but decided to go with the earlier one since I'm also a fan of Feist. Enjoy! If you do decide to buy the game from GOG, please use my link so I'll get a kickback (no extra cost to you!). It's only $6 for both games with full manuals and no DRM, so there's really no excuse not to pick them up.
It's been a long time since I've been excited about a forthcoming CRPG. I usually just find myself disappointed and then bitter when I find that the latest "CRPG" is just another mindless twitch-fest with bigger boobs than ever before. Sigh.
So, what would I like to see in a CRPG? I thought I'd provide a wishlist.
#5. Quality packaging. Yes, I know that games are data and are best distributed over the internet. But that doesn't mean that there can't also be a tangible component, such as nice printed manuals, maps, and reference cards. The goal here should be to make those "extras" not only a pleasure to hold, but truly useful in the game (i.e., no collectors' edition bullshit of interest only to fanboys). Periodically the game should refer you to them, as well, since there is nothing more boring than being asked to read a lot of text on a screen. Why not do like the old games did for copy protection, and ask you to read entry #43 in your lovely printed journal? Hellz yeah! That sure beats trying to read a bunch of stupid text on a screen, or, worse, hearing it read by some voice actor without a clue of its context. As for nitwits who can't be bothered to actually read a book, those idiots wouldn't be interested in my kind of game anyway so to hell with them.
The latest remarkable auction is none other than the legendary computer role playing game hybrid, Shadowkeep, from 1984, by Trillium, for the Apple II, which sold for $529.00 (with free shipping). Trillium was best known for their high quality text and graphics adventures, like Amazon and Dragonworld, that featured solid parsers and excellent graphics, and were typically written in partnership with a famous author. Shadowkeep was something of a departure for the company as it was essentially a lushly illustrated role playing game that had a text-based interface. As for this game's famous author connection, Alan Dean Foster created a companion book for the game with the same title whose existence was advertised prominently on the game box (actually, the company's usual thick multi-fold folder) cover.
Much like with Penguin Software having to change their name to Polarium after Penguin the book publisher took notice, Trillium ended up having to change their name to Telarium after Trillium Press got on their case. That's why today, Trillium versions of the games are worth more than the later Telarium versions, though most releases were otherwise identical. I believe I personally have the complete Telarium Apple II version of Shadowkeep along with the paperback novel, though I'll have to verify if in fact instead it's the Trillium version. In any case, the typical pricing for Shadowkeep has been in the ~$250 range, so for this latest game auction to go for double that is indeed impressive, and is probably due in part to the completeness of the example.
Shadowkeep is also notorious for a few other reasons. First, is an incredibly robust copy protection scheme. Second, is that all of the known Apple II images/ROMs on the Web have been altered. You see, if you play directly on the game disks rather that making play disks, the game is irrecoverably altered. That's right, once you play on the originals, there's no going back to its original state, ever. I have yet to check if my disks are in fact intact or have been played on, and thus, altered. Finally, there's the question of other versions outside of the Apple II version. The Commodore 64 and IBM PC versions were at least ANNOUNCED, and there have been occasional sightings that would make Bigfoot hunters proud, but there's still no credible evidence that those versions of the game were ever actually released.
By popular request, I've decided to review a modern action-RPG called The Witcher. Originating in Poland, The Witcher offers a rich story, great characters, huge leveling system, and intense action-based combat. Check out the review below. Warning: I do make some criticisms of the game here, which seems to be offending the fanboys--so steer clear if you're unwilling to hear about the game's flaws.
Buy the Witcher: Enhanced Edition from GOG for only $10.
Ah, it's Tuesday, May 24th. Weather: unpleasant. News: funny, unless you were looking forward to Shunted: The Demon's Hemorrhoid. Let's go:
I guess you've probably heard by now that Duke Nukem Forever has gone gold. There's already a disclaimer: "Slow down, guy, the game's not out yet." I bet those folks who pre-ordered this back in 1975 are really glad it's finally rumored to almost be coming out eventually. The producers have a vision, though--if they can just stretch it out to October 21st, it won't matter anyway.