Friday, December 19, 2014

Best of 2014: Part Four

I was trying to come up with a fancy little rhyme to kick off Part Four of my Best of 2014 list but I suck at poetry so I decided to stop trying and just stick to prose. So here's Part Four!

Missed the previous entries? Good thing I'm here to make links for you!

And now: on with the countdown!

14. Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game (Fantasy Flight)
A long, long time ago in a galaxy far away...
We rolled dice to kill each other. It was a good time.
Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures is one of the most entertaining tabletop games I've played this year, and certainly one of the best miniatures games I've ever played. (For those not familiar with miniatures games as a concept, each player comes to the table with miniature models representing their forces and is forced to use their own tactics and cunning to defeat their opponent. This is all done on a tabletop surface usually 4' x 4' in size.)

Where other miniatures games (Warhammer and Malifaux, for example) find themselves lost in a mire of minute detail and math, X-Wing distills the experience to its core components and thrives because of it. Instead of measuring distance with a tape measure (and arguing over every millimeter), you are given sticks with set distances that the units must obey. For combat: instead of comparing dice results against a huge chart to determine the outcome, each player rolls dice and certain results cancel each other out. It's all very intuitive and extraordinarily fun.

Heck, Fantasy Flight even managed to eliminate the component of miniatures gaming that stops most people from ever trying it: the painting. Most miniatures you buy are unpainted (and sometimes even unconstructed) so the hobby is generally seen as much an art thing as it is for the gameplay. It’s a hurdle that I still have yet to fully get over: as much as I love the tactical gameplay, having to glue together and paint my own models in order to play is simply not for me. Luckily, all X-Wing miniatures are prepainted and assembled – and let’s not understate the collector itch that having the models scratches! Each of them are wonderful recreations of spaceships found in the Star Wars franchise and would look at home on any Star Wars fan’s bookcase!

It is obvious that Fantasy Flight came into this project with the intent of creating a streamlined experience while trying not to sacrifice depth, and they have certainly succeeded. Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures is an intuitive and easy-to-learn game that rewards strategic thinking as much as the more granular experiences, while also managing to streamline things into a more digestible format. I wholeheartedly suggest checking it out!

13. Banished (Shining Rock Software)
Winter: beautiful and dangerous.
The real-time strategy genre is one that runs deep and gets increasingly more murky the more you search around inside. There are classic RTS titles (Age of Empires), turn-based strategy games (Civilization), MOBA titles (League of Legends), city-builders (SimCity) and even the rare FPS/RTS hybrids (Natural Selection). There are games that span entire ages of existence (Rise of Nations) and there are games that focus on very specific gameplay (Diablo).

And then there's Banished.

I guess Banished could most easily be lumped in with the city-building games -- the entire conceit of the game is building a settlement from scratch, helping the population survive and thrive, without ever really having a win condition beyond "have fun". But where its peers focus on the grand scope of such accomplishments, Banished focuses on the minutiae of building a medieval town from scratch and sustaining the people therein.

You start with a very small group of people that must be assigned jobs but, with such a limited number of people, you have to be smart about what you tell them to do -- and the danger always seems to be surviving through the cold winter months. It's good to have farmers in order to harvest food for the winter but you also want to have tailors making winter clothes because food is only so good if you freeze to death. It's good to have lots of builders to make homes for people to stay in but make sure you don't use too much lumber or you might not have firewood to burn. Mining for stone is lucrative and helpful but is also dangerous and can kill unwary townsfolk, thus reducing your working population.

Town hall and sheep. Fun fact: sheep are incredibly useful!
Banished is a game about risk and reward, and about doing things at the right time and in the right order, but that is not to say that it is stressful or even that difficult. The aesthetic of the game is beautiful, the sound direction is serene and the pace of the game is slow, allowing you to digest things at your own pace. Banished presents a challenge to be overcome, certainly, but never one that feels out of your reach -- and is always entertaining, if for no other reason than the narratives that emerge as you watch your town develop. Definitely play this indie darling!

(If you are at all interested in seeing what this game is like, you should really check out my video series: with seven whole videos devoted to the town of Bondsbriar, you get a really good idea of what Banished has to offer.)

Part Four
And there you have it! Part Four of my Best of 2014, and the first entry to showcase a non-video game title! Next entry will be a return to the more common ground of digital media but may have some surprises regardless. Stay tuned, my friends!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Best of 2014: Part Three

This is the third installment of my Best of 2014 list. Missed the beginning of the list? Fear not: I've got you covered below!


But enough about the past: this list is moving onward and upward, towards number one! So here we go! Best of 2014: Part Three -- ACTIVATE!

16. Marvel Puzzle Quest (D3Publisher)

Even for a mobile game such as this, it still
has some eye candy to offer!
It might seem a bit strange that a mobile title -- and one that is essentially a Bejeweled clone -- would rank anywhere on any "Best of" list but I would be lying to myself if I didn't acknowledge how much fun I've had with this game over the last year.

From an outside perspective, Marvel Puzzle Quest is nothing special: as mentioned, the gameplay is basically just Bejeweled -- it's a Match-3 game, where you slide gems around to form lines of varying length in order to score points. The twist is that you slowly accumulate a team of superheroes, each with their own abilities, which you take into each round to face off against a team of three enemy heroes or villains. All of the gems you match damage the enemy team before going into colour stockpiles which can be spent to activate the different abilities of your heroes. You have to be careful, though, because the enemy team is also accumulating colours and can activate their own abilities to knock out your team. While it appears pretty simple at the face of it, Marvel Puzzle Quest really is a tough game of risk and consequence as you weigh your options against the health of your team.

The game is addictive to a scary degree, with multiple competitions weekly that reward you with in-game currencies to both buy new heroes and level them up to make them more powerful. Each hero has three different powers but you only get access to each one if you find the right version of that hero. You can play competitions against teams from other players (simulated by the computer) or just story-themed missions against the computer teams.

As I mentioned: it might sound stupid but, because of its addictive, "gotta catch 'em all" style, Marvel Puzzle Quest devoured a lot of my time. It is fun and simple to play, scratches both the collection and superhero itch simultaneously, and even allows for some social interaction with the Alliance feature where you can team up with your friends to get rewards. Marvel Puzzle Quest: as embarrassing as it is fun!

15. Sir, You Are Being Hunted (Big Robot)

For the first few playthroughs, my experience was
very similar to this screenshot.
Sir, You Are Being Hunted is another proud member of the crowd-funded fraternity, and one that holds a special place in my heart. It is, after all, the game that I spent the most time recording for YouTube before technical issues ceased my progress -- a twenty-one gun salute for the lost save game file -- and there's plenty of great reasons why that series ran for so long.

SYABH is a game never takes itself too seriously. One needs look no further than the premise to see that: you are alone on a chain of islands inhabited by robots who are actively hunting you. You were attempting some sort of experiment that misfired terribly, causing the machine to explode and sending fragments flying all over the archipelago. You are now out to recover these mysterious fragments in hopes to, at the very least, escape the dangerous robots. A butler-type character gives you tips and updates on your progress along the way which honestly sound more like threats.

Forgot to mention: SYABH is procedurally generated,
so no two gameworlds are ever the same.
Also, the hot air balloons are persistent bastards.
It is also a game that likes to make fun of itself, poking fun at the "British" sensibilities of the developers. Need to increase your vitality to heal up? You could certainly eat some steak but a thermos of tea will do you better. The robots pursuing you have deerstalkers, mutton chops and pipes, and they chase you down with robotic hounds and hot air balloons. It’s British humour at its best – when it’s not actively trying to be funny.

The gameplay of the game has you scrounging for supplies and managing your limited inventory in an effort to protect and feed yourself and, generally, just stay alive. You hide in a ditch, waiting for a hunting party to pass by, the whirr and clicks of their mechanical parts fading from earshot before you break cover, and you suddenly understand what SYABH is all about.

This is a game about simple concepts coming together to create a truly unique and enjoyable whole. Part stealth, part survival horror and part comedy, it takes the best parts of many different themes and mashes them together to create a game worthy of any "best of" list.

(This is where I plug my series again. Go watch some of the episodes: it's good stuff, promise.)

Part Three
Part Three is done and Part Four is on its way! The next installment features the first game on the list that isn't a video game! It's very exciting stuff, you really shouldn't miss it.

'Til next time!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Best of 2014: Part Two

Welcome back to my countdown of my "20 Favourite Games of 2014 (That Maybe Weren't Released in 2014 At All)".

No, I change my mind: "Best of 2014" is still a better title.

If you missed the first article, here's a handy link sending you back: [PART ONE]

And now on with the show! List. Whatever.

18. The Banner Saga (Stoic)
A big part of the game is maintaining supplies for your caravan.
If 2014 will be known for one milestone in gaming history, it will be that it held concrete proof that crowd-funding a game can be successful. Now developers have options other than going to publishers or releasing games on their own dime; instead, they can now go directly to the consumer, pitch them an idea and ask for funding to make it happen. And The Banner Saga is the poster child of this movement.

Though the Kickstarter campaign for The Banner Saga wrapped up in March of 2012, it was finally released in January of 2014. Featuring stunning art inspired by the classic cel-animation style of early Disney films (primarily Sleeping Beauty) and themes drawn from Norse mythology, the game is an RPG that jumps between different groups of people trying to survive in a frozen world invaded by a warlike race known as the Dredge. Together, survivors band together in a large caravan that traverses the world in an attempt to find and defeat the Bellower, the leader of the Dredge.

The combat is interesting and tactical, with all manner of
classes to bring with you in battle.
The game has all the staples of a fantastic RPG: likable and relatable characters; meaningful decisions in the plot; excellent tactical gameplay. The combat, which is on a grid, can be most closely compared to Final Fantasy Tactics: each character has a certain number of action points they can spend per turn, and each of their places in initiative is based on their stats. Combat abilities depend on what sort of weapon the character fights with and you must be extremely strategic in your choices, as the game is fairly difficult and will punish you for poor decisions.

If nothing else, The Banner Saga would have been an important milestone as the realisation of the crowd-funding dream, but it managed to exceed that already lofty perch to bring a solid gaming experience that is truly unique and really quite wonderful. In short, The Banner Saga is a truly excellent game -- and one that I need to return to! Time to add more cloth to my clan’s banner and save the world from the Dredge!

17. Titanfall (Respawn Entertainment) 
I call this: Carnage.
You remember earlier how I mentioned that, because of the whole Call of Duty legal thing in 2009, I had put aside money for the first game to be developed by the studio that formed from the remains of Infinity Ward? That game was Titanfall -- and man, what a game.

While Call of Duty thrived on the strength of its multiplayer, it eventually got to the point where the singleplayer content started feeling tacked on instead of its own feature. Much to their credit, Titanfall avoided that controversy entirely by eschewing the separation of those two halves and combined them into a single whole, all the while delivering one of the most solid shooters I've played in a long time.

Being inside a Titan is a lot like being on foot, except
the guns you have are bigger than a person. No big deal.
Now let me be honest: the accolades this game received pre-launch concerned me greatly. It was named Best of Show for E3 2013, a fact that provoked me into writing a big rant on the problems inherent with rewarding a multiplayer-only game in the face of other narrative-driven experiences -- and I stand by that stance. But what I didn't understand at the time was how well Titanfall would be able to embrace a hybrid model of gaming, melding a narrative with multiplayer action. I also didn't understand just how damn fun Titanfall is.

Dynamic action and freedom of movement is the bread and butter of Titanfall; wall-running, jetpacks, tightly designed maps and the eponymous Titans make this a shooter that rises above the others. Advanced Warfare tried to follow their lead but Respawn has set the bar for shooters higher than ever -- as they did with the evolution of Call of Duty before them. I am more than excited to see what Respawn does with a sequel for Titanfall, especially because they have already stated they intend to include a dedicated singleplayer mode. What little we have seen of the world is intriguing and compelling, so to extrapolate on that and allow us to explore it? I cannot wait.

(Way back I did a video commentary on my first match in Titanfall. Check it out!)

Part Two
Part Two is complete! Part Three will land on Wednesday and with it comes two games that couldn't be more different. Come on back to see what I'm talking about!

Enjoying the list so far? Think I'm completely off my rocker because of how low some of these games are? Drop a comment! Berate me into submission! I'm open to all sorts of conversation so don't be shy! I only bite when I'm hungry, promise.

...anyone have a granola bar...?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Best of 2014: Part One

Welcome to the first installment of my picks for best games of 2014, and the first entry on my path to get this blog up and running again! This is an experiment I tried before for 2011 and the games industry has changed substantially in that time -- as have my interests. While I still adore video games and devote more than my fair share of time to them, 2014 was also the year where I discovered many excellent board games and spent time playing them instead of digital media. 2014 was also a year where I rediscovered games from my past and grew to enjoy them more than I ever did before.

(It was also the year that I got married. So I guess there's that too. Love you, babe!)

With all of that in mind, I want to preface this list by saying that not all of my picks for "Best of 2014" actually came out this year. Similarly, not all of the games below are video games -- some are board games, or games that one would play at a table face-to-face with friends. As 2014 passed by, I realized that my interest in gaming is not wholly housed within digital media -- there is evidence of this on my blog, as I started doing week-by-week recaps of an ongoing Dungeons & Dragons campaign that I run. There is something exceptional about an excellent board game and the social aspect of such games are not to be understated, especially because it is something that video games are slowly drifting away from. (I mean, really: when was the last time you played a couch co-op game?)

TL;DR: Basically, don't be surprised if half of the titles below aren't video games. But rest assured: every game here is excellent and I highly recommend trying all of them, if you haven't already.

So, without further ado, let's dive into my list of my favourite games from 2014!

20. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (Sledgehammer Games)
Hello, Mr. Underwood...
Two words: Kevin Spacey. Need I go on?

In all seriousness, Advanced Warfare was the first Call of Duty game that I have purchased in the last five years. After the legal battle surrounding Modern Warfare 2 with Infinity Ward v. Activision, and the disappointing experience I was having with the franchise to that point, I decided to do my duty as a conscientious consumer by simply not buying the product. Hell, I put aside the money I would have bought the next Call of Duty with to buy the first game by Respawn Entertainment (the developer formed from the employees of Infinity Ward who left during the legal action mentioned above).

But Advanced Warfare arrived this year bearing the face of Kevin Spacey and, surprisingly, the franchise actually delivered a solid offering this time around. Though I don't particularly enjoy the multiplayer of Call of Duty -- something that most people play the game exclusively for -- the singleplayer campaign of AW was quite entertaining. It still features the same shooting corridors and linear vehicle sections as its predecessors but in some places it gives the player freedom to explore. That’s something I haven't seen in a Call of Duty game for... Well, I can't remember how long!

The first vista of the game. It will not be the last.
Set in a near-future sci-fi theme, complete with realistic technology, the gameplay is as polished as we’ve come to expect, though there is a greater emphasis on enhanced movement to liven up the gameplay. Best of all: though the story might be obvious from the very beginning, with the always inscrutable Kevin Spacey delivering the kind of performance he has become known for the whole thing holds together a lot better than you might imagine.

Honestly, I have to give kudos to Sledgehammer Games -- this is their first Call of Duty game and they did a spectacular job with it. Time will tell if it manages to breathe new life into the decaying franchise but I know I’ll be watching intently in the future. 

19. Child of Light (Ubisoft Montreal)
I'm not sure a game has ever had as beautiful an art direction.
Child of Light is a turn-based RPG (think Final Fantasy) but it isn’t the gameplay that sets it apart – it’s the themes it invokes. It’s almost childlike in nature, innocent and full of wonder, presenting enemies and puzzles and environs that are simultaneously dangerous and harmless. Heck, all of the dialogue in the game is delivered in rhyme. It's almost sickening how charming this game is. Truly, this game captured what it was like to be a child better than most other games I've played.

But, in all honesty, the reason I have Child of Light on my list is because it marked the first game that my wife Kait and I ever played together by ourselves. We have certainly played other video games together with friends -- one of our earliest bonding experiences was me jumping off the helicopter to save her from a horde of zombies in Left 4 Dead -- but until Child of Light we had never played a game just the two of us.

The combat system, complete with multiple party members.
(Spot the firefly!)
The co-op play is where this game shines; one person controls the princess Aurora (who Kait controlled), the other a firefly named Igniculus (who I played, for obvious reasons), as you venture through this fairy tale world trying to find Aurora's father, fighting monsters along the way. The gameplay for Aurora is fairly straightforward -- you have an action bar that fills up as battle progresses, whereupon you can use your abilities -- but Igniculus is purely a support role, and it is this asymmetric gameplay that sets Child of Light apart.

As a firefly, Igniculus can reach places in the map that Aurora cannot, activating lifts or collecting power-ups to help Aurora. In combat, he can use his power to either assist Aurora or hinder the enemies. It's a purely support role but it never feels passive which means, even as the obvious sidekick, you always feel invested in the story and genuinely helpful. Ubisoft Montreal did a fantastic job with Child of Light -- not just as a game but as a way to bond with those closest to you. 

Part One
And there it is, part one of my twenty picks for Best of 2014. Part Two will land next Monday, with the rest following suit in the week. I'm hoping to hit an every-other-day schedule but, regardless, we shall complete this list by January 1st!

If you played either of the games above, or have some predictions for what the rest of the list might hold, drop a comment! Every little bit of support helps and I could talk endlessly about the games industry. Like, honestly, for hours.

Wait, that wasn't supposed to scare you away. Come back, we're only just getting started! Don't close this windo--

Thursday, December 4, 2014

On Inspiration and Dedication

(Holy wall of text, Batman!)

Inspiration is a funny thing. As I'm sure many of my friends -- or, indeed, anyone with a creative streak -- can attest, inspiration can certainly be fickle thing. Sometimes you will be awash will brilliant ideas, your creativity pouring forth in so many directions that sometimes it's hard to keep up with it all. But seemingly just as often, the well can dry up and you're left sitting with a dearth of ideas. Authors and musicians call it "writer's block", and many others just call it a "dry spell". It is something that everyone has encountered at one point or another and, unilaterally, it is something that sucks.

Searching for "Lack of Motivation" on Google is
really entertaining, actually.
A very different but related -- and arguably worse -- problem is finding the drive to stay dedicated to a project. Even if you have a veritable spring of creativity bubbling forth, if you are having difficulties staying focused or motivated to continue something you will never make any progress. It's a frustrating process; you have all these wonderful ideas that you want to breathe life into but just can't bring yourself to make it happen. You make all sorts of excuses as to why you aren't working on these ideas -- maybe you have other stuff going on right now, and you will get around to it sometime later; maybe you need better equipment/software/connections/locations/sleeping patterns/catering services/et cetera; or maybe you feel like your mind has so many amazing ideas that you couldn't pick just one to work on. You list excuse on excuse and nothing gets done.

It's something that I have firsthand experience with and something that consistently plagues my life. It's something that society battles with on a daily basis. And I'm the first to admit that it's all based on baseless excuses that all boil down to being lazy. And I'm tired of it.

Fun fact: I created this blog back in 2008. I had thought up the excellent name Loading Checkpoint and immediately stole the account name for it. That being said, my first post wasn't until April 2011 -- the first bad sign -- when I posted a review of the movie Paul, the alien stoner movie with Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Seth Rogen. I wrote solidly for about three months and had a decent amount of success, writing about everything that interested me -- I focused primarily on video games, but also wrote about movies, music, fun YouTube videos, and just anything else that struck my fancy. During that same span, I actually got two articles published on The Escapist (yes, a real video game journalism site) and got a ground floor position providing content to a different blog called Digitally Downloaded. Things were looking up!

Then the summer hit and I lost my dedication to all the projects I was involved with. To be honest, I had been losing dedication over the course of June. The updates were coming less and less frequently, which meant the possible spike of traffic from The Escapist and Digitally Downloaded was squandered and, eventually, the updates just stopped altogether. (I still regret that I didn't capitalize on that "success", as limited and inconsequential as it may have been.)

At the time, I was making excuses for my behaviour. Right at the beginning of June I was in a nasty auto collision with my now-wife and father-in-law, an event that totaled my car and set our finances back quite a bit. It's easy to say that things spiraled downward because of that but, really, it's just an excuse. If anything, such an experience should have given me drive to make my dreams reality, to buckle down and really focus on this sort of thing. I mean, that's what all the success stories and Hollywood movies tell us, right? Creativity + Brush With Death = Unbreakable Focus and Unending Drive to Success. But that didn't happen to me and it annoys the heck out of me.

I didn't post anything on the blog again until the New Year, when I decided to do a top 25 games for 2011. I spent a lot of time writing entries for it, going so far as to write up blurbs for my picks from 25 to 2 -- but then lapsed and didn't write anything for my game of the year. (Bastion, for the record. That game was amazing.) And then the blog sat empty until late into 2012, when it became what Loading Checkpoint looks like now, logo and all.

I'm going to stop detailing everything so intricately -- you can go back into the archive and follow along with the bouncing ball, if you really want -- and just give the Cole's Notes version: this blog has been a rollercoaster of activity. Sometimes I will update things regularly for months on end, but it always seems to spiral back to inactivity in short order. Recently I changed topics from video games to tabletop RPGs, thinking that would keep me motivated. Hell, earlier this year I started recording videos for YouTube but that, too, only lasted a few months. You could probably do a quantitative analysis of my online activity and find that each "cycle" lasts somewhere around three months, with a peak toward the end of the first month and then slowly petering out. It's frustrating and, frankly, a bit embarrassing.

This. Times a million. Ugh.
You see, I have all sorts of inspiration for creating online content, written or otherwise, but my dedication lapses after a while. After every bout of silence, I'll come back offering apologies as to my absence but, really -- internally -- I'm frustrated at myself. There's no reason to lapse but sometimes I can't bring myself to write or record anything. "I don't have enough time right now," I'll say to myself. Or: "I have so many ideas, how can I pick just one?" Or maybe: "This is just not logistically possible right now." Or even: "I'm too tired from work, I just want to relax." I make as many excuses for myself as I do for my imagined fanbase and, ultimately, nothing changes. And I'm tired of it.

Which brings us back to the start of this article.

Sometimes inspiration is tough to find. But, for some people, dedication to and motivation for a project is harder to keep. I am one of those people, and it sickens me, and I'm tired of it. So I'm going to start doing something about it.

The end of the year is quickly approaching and, because of that, I am going to do a list of my Favourite Games of the Year. I am pledging to finish this list by no later than January 1st. I will do whatever it takes to make it happen! And, though I don't want to pass the buck on to my friends, I would really like your help with this. If you are reading this -- and I really don't care who you are -- I am asking you to help me by making me accountable for this list.

I am going to set a schedule for myself: there are four weeks between now and January 1st. If I make a list of my top twenty picks, that is five games per week. That is absolutely possible -- easily so! I ask you, whoever you are, to call me out -- privately or publicly -- if it seems like I am not keeping to the schedule. If I make excuses for a delay, berate me until I get caught up. There is no reason I can't meet this deadline so make sure I know it.

I want to get in the mentality of being accountable for the blog and I think this exercise will help me with that. As for what happens in January... Well, I don't have any plans yet. But if I can make it that far sticking to the schedule I have set for myself, then there's absolutely no reason to stop. I have plenty of plans for what I could do but let's take this one step at a time. First thing in January, though, we'll talk about what the future can hold.

If you've made it this far, I want to thank you. I started writing this with the intent of doing a quick blurb about the difficulties I've had with this blog, and a promise to make things better moving forward but I just couldn't lie to myself any longer. It's time to move forward, to prove that I really want to do this and just go for it. There's nothing in my way except my own excuses -- it's time to realize that and just make it happen.

So let's do it!

(TL;DR: I am lazy and a procrastinator and it annoys and frustrates me. I want to get back on track and stay motivated. I am going to write a Top 20 Games of the Year list and have it posted, in full, by January 1st. I plan on releasing it in installments -- probably five games per week -- until the entire thing is posted. 

I want help making me accountable for this list! If it looks like I'm making excuses, or just not posting at all, I want you all to berate me -- publicly or privately -- until I complete the list! I want to make myself accountable to this blog again and if I have people egging me on if I lapse, I think it will help me maintain my drive to do better.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Looking Ahead: A Year of Plenty

It's been a long time since I've talked about video games on this blog which, ostensibly, started as a blog about gaming. I've talked a lot about tabletop gaming, of course, but with E3 2014 just around the corner let's get back into the digital age and discuss the upcoming releases in the next year!

As with any first year after the launch of new consoles, 2014 has been fairly devoid of truly amazing titles. When the Xbox 360 and the PS3 released, way back in '05 and '06 respectively, the only standouts at launch were games such as Resistance: Fall of Man and Condemned: Criminal Origins. There were ports of older titles that ended up being released for the new consoles as well but the titles that had been developed specifically to take advantage of the new hardware were few and far between -- and, by and large, were fairly disappointing. And, sadly, that trend didn't really change until after the first year of both consoles being available.

Come 2014 and, though people complain, things are a lot better by comparison. The launch titles offered to first adopters for both consoles were actually a fairly varied selection of big budget games: the Xbox One gave some exclusives, such as Dead Rising 3 and Ryse: Son of Rome; the PS4 had exclusive titles in Killzone: Shadow Fall and the downloadable Resogun; and both consoles had ported versions of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Need for Speed: Rivals and Battlefield 4 ready to play at launch, along with the regular lot of sports titles and a small selection of others. Compared to the previous generation, which relied on smaller ports and brand new IP to sell the new hardware, it seems apparent that Microsoft and Sony finally understand what gamers (and especially first adopters) want in a "next gen" experience.

Of course, since the launch day the offerings for both systems have dried up considerably. There are evident standouts, of course, with titles such as: Outlast (PS4); Thief (both); Titanfall (XBO); inFAMOUS: Second Son (PS4); Child of Light (both); and Trials Fusion (both). But things still seemed to be progressing slowly and there was some definite fatigue being felt by the first adopters who wanted to use their new hardware.

But fear no longer! With May nearly over and June about to begin, things are starting to look up for the gaming community. The month of flowers has brought us such gems as: the sublime Transistor, Supergiant Games' follow-up to the best game of 2011 (Bastion); Wolfenstein: The New Order, a reboot of the very first FPS that, by all accounts, is really quite excellent; and the exceptionally slick Watch_Dogs, which I have been playing to death and simply cannot get enough of. Couple that with Murdered: Soul Suspect, a game dropping this upcoming Tuesday (June 3rd), and things look to be picking up indeed!

So what does the rest of the year hold? What wonderful and exciting titles do we have to look forward to? I'm glad you asked! Despite what appears to be a fairly dry spell during the summer months (which is fairly typical for any year of gaming), the fall and winter months are chock-full of titles to get your blood pumping. Below, you'll find a quick rundown of some of the biggest titles of the year ahead, but please note: I've intentionally omitted titles that do not yet have set release dates. Read on!
  • Murdered: Soul Suspect (June 3rd)
  • Destiny (September 9)
  • Alien: Isolation (October 7)
  • Dragon Age: Inquisition (October 7)
  • Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (October 7)
  • Batman: Arkham Knight (October 14)
  • The Evil Within (October 21)
  • Evolve (October 21)
  • Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (November 4)
  • Far Cry 4 (November 18)
Over the next few weeks, I'll do my best to bring you some previews of these titles, along with any others that I come across. There's lots of excellent content coming to the new console generation and I'd like to provide a source of information for people about it all; I spend so much time explaining new games to my friends, why not spread that out a bit wider and offer a source like that to everyone?

Stay tuned for the first article, hopefully to go up sometime soon this week, which will detail what Murdered: Soul Suspect is all about -- and, depending on when the article goes up, may also include some first impressions of the game. Thanks for reading, everybody!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Return to Ravenloft: Act Four, Session Three

When last we met our intrepid heroes, deep in the heart of a volcano, they had vanquished a contingent of duergar and their dragon lord Antül, long atrophied in the luxurious confines of a pit. The party had discovered the resting place of the primal spirit of the Firewalker; freeing the spirit from its confines, the players turned to return to the surface, only to see the volcanic dragon of Antül rise again from the lava and bellow forth a roar in challenge. What will happen next?

Our Cast
Jack Vitous (Werewolf Warlord) - Played by Nick R.
Paelias, the Seer (Eladrin Wizard) - Played by Dallas
Gustav, Vistani Explorer (Human Ranger) - Played by David
All characters are Level 6.

We Now Return You To Your Scheduled Programming...

As Antül emerged from the lava, his atrophied wings now replaced with wings of magical flame, the Firewalker imparted some of its power into the heroes, restoring them to their full fighting capacity. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, however, the whole party turned and fled up the stairs they had used to descend to the level of the lava. Their exit was punctuated by another blast of flame from the dragon behind them, which then rumbled into a great quaking around them as the entire mountain seemed to tremble. Not wasting any more time, they turned and raced up the spiral staircase as quickly as they could muster.

Their ascent was interrupted, however: halfway to the top, it felt as though the entire pillar holding the fortress aloft was shaken by an impact, and the party had to quickly brace themselves in the staircase. The roaring of Antül in the cavern outside and the proximity of the impact told an easy tale to decipher: Antül was attempting to topple the fortress to stop the party from escaping.

Doubling their pace, the party made it up to the cavern with the pit where Antül had previously made his home. As they arrived, another shuddering impact shook the fortress and caused a noticeable tilt in the fortress' orientation. The exit was on the far side of the cavern but the entire room had tilted to one side, leaving a small incline to reach the door.

Rushing headlong across the room, another impact caused a larger tilt; Paelias used his magical abilities to teleport up to the ledge and turned to assist his companions. Jack, the most athletic of the bunch, rushed forward and made an epic leap to the doorway above, managing to catch on just barely and began to pull himself up. Gustav, on the other hand, took a running leap and came up short, causing him to use Jack for leverage and causing them both to fall.

Paelias noticed the concussive force was starting to tear the fortress of basalt apart as a large crack appeared in the wall behind him, so lowered the others some rope to accelerate the ascent.Gustav was able to make it up to the ledge just as another impact shook the fortress, then turned to urge Jack to hurry.

The large man first tried to hoist himself up while Paelias held the rope; Gustav had to act fast to stop the eladrin from toppling over the edge back into the cavern. Deciding Gustav might be the better candidate to brace the rope, Paelias handed the rope to him just as Jack took another pass at a jump; instead, Jack grabbed for the rope and pulled it through the hands of both of his companions, causing him to fall back down regardless.

Now at a severe deficiency of time, Jack urged his companions to leave him and allow him to find his own way up. Deciding against that, Paelias instead took Gustav's rope and froze it in place in one of the cracks behind them; the strength of the ice was plenty to hold Jack's weight and the man was able to pull himself up just as another impact shuddered through the fortress.

Rushing up the stairs, the party retraced their steps into the hallway above only to find that it had tilted almost entirely on it's side, causing them to run on what had been the wall. This also meant that the hallways running perpendicular to their exit route were now drops down into the rest of the fortress. Getting a running jump, Jack and Gustav easily cleared the first gap, only to watch Paelias fall short and fall into the pit, sliding down the incline into a set of double-doors below.

Jack lowered him the rope yet again: the eladrin was able to climb halfway out of the pit before another impact from Antül knocked them all off-balance and caused Paelias to swing out wide from the wall. Crashing down onto another door, the wizard found himself in sleeping quarters with a door on the other side of the room. Urging his companions on, the eladrin picked his way across and opened the door, revealing another hallway/pit that connected to the exit route above.

Using a magic missile to blow open a door across the hallway/pit, Paelias leaped into an office on one of the exterior walls. Inside, the exterior wall had a large chunk missing, revealing the cavern outside. The perspective had changed but Paelias found his bearings easily enough, but was instantly disturbed by the revelation that the stone bridges used to connect the fortress to the exterior of the cavern (and thereby the exits) were completely destroyed.

Heading back to the hallway/pit, Jack lowered another rope to Paelias and hoisted the eladrin up. The three companions, fully reunited, continued up to the main level of the fortress. Upon arriving, another impact from Antül dislodged large chunks of basalt above their heads and tilted the fortress so it was fully on it's side.

The hallway/pits were now straight drops down dozens of feet, posing an even more serious danger now. The party continued on their path down the hallway ahead, clearing the pits underfoot with ease, but realized the main exit was no longer viable -- for one, it would now be halfway up the exterior wall in the open courtyard; for another, with the bridges destroyed, there would be no use going to that door anyway. Deciding to follow their current heading, the party started up the staircase that would lead them to the interior parapets of the fortress, figuring it was their best bet to get on top of the fortress and get their bearings.

Throughout this entire sequence, Gustav had ever been the voice of dismay. "We're totally going to die!" he would comment often, leaping over 50+ foot drops and inching through the fortress. Jack merely gritted his teeth and soldiered on, while Paelias -- old as he is -- did his best to keep up.

Antül, born again from the heart of a volcano!
Climbing up onto the side of the fortress (which was now the top) through a huge hole in the design of the fortress, the party observed Antül raging about before dive-bombing towards the party. Veering off at the last minute, the dragon instead collided with the fortress under their feet and caused a complete collapse of the basalt building. The party all deftly managed to find basalt stones to cling to (Jack very nearly simply falling to his demise) as they plummeted down through the ruin of the fortress below. Crashing through the courtyard and into what had been the Great Hall, the party fell down towards the lava below, all three of them offering prayers to their deities as they fell to what they believed would be their demise.

Instead, the basalt -- still imbued with the heat resistant magicks they had detected before -- kept them afloat as they reached the lake of lava. Managing to gather their wits, the party stood to just as Antül came swooping towards them. Letting loose a torrent of flame from his belly, the Firewalker stepped forth and diverted the fire away from the party and down into the lava itself.

That seemed to be the final spark the volcano needed; with a growing rumble, the party suddenly felt an uptick in pressure and heat and watched as the lava around them started to surge upwards. Suddenly, they realized their situation:

The volcano was erupting with them still inside.

Seeing no other recourse, the party turned to deal with Antül. The party was forced to leap from stone to stone of the crumbling fortress above them to maneuver about the battlefield. The basalt, even with the magicks on the stone, only lasted a few extra seconds before melting and joining the molten rock below; as such, the party was forced to continually navigate about the battlefield in an effort to not fall into the lava below.

While Jack ran forward to engage the dragon head-on, Gustav and Paelias maintained their distance to utilize their ranged abilities. While Gustav was relegated to using his crossbow, firing bolt after bolt at the fiery lizard, Paelias brought all of his arcane might to bear in rather ingenious ways: starting off with a Ray of Frost cast deftly into the lava at the feet of Antül, he instantly created a patch of steam that forced the dragon to start the encounter blinded as the cloud raised into his eyes.

Following that up with a Freezing Cloud, it became very evident that Antül was susceptible to damage from cold attacks. While Paelias did his best to maintain that type of damage, Jack was doing his best to keep the dragon distracted while maintaining some semblance of cohesion with the rest of the party. He traded blows with Antül, always trying to stay out of the range of the noxious fumes still emanating from the creature, and mostly served as a distraction for the dragon. One such blow, however, connected so solidly as Jack Led the Attack that the others could do nothing but feel encouraged to match the ferocity of Jack's attack and struck with even more fury.

A Balrog isn't a dragon, but I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that
this analogy was made during the session. Go Paelias!
Paelias, having another brilliant idea, targeted his Icy Rays spell towards the fiery wings keeping Antül aloft, hoping to freeze them at the source and force the dragon out of the air. One of the rays missed it's target but the other hit with solid force and instantly extinguished the fiery wing. The dragon's weight was too much to carry on a single wing, made of magical fire or not, and Antül descended until he was half-submerged in the now rushing lava. The volcanic dragon, used to this environment, seemed immune to any effect from the lava, but that blast was enough to draw his attention away from Jack and towards the others in the party.

Always moving, Gustav soon dropped his crossbow in favour of drawing his scimitars and striking out at he now swimming dragon. Having severely reduced Antül's mobility (in no small part thanks to the constant barrage of Ray of Frost spells Paelias was throwing at him), the ranger was able to deftly step in and out of range and slice at the dragon's hide, causing bleeding wounds and slicing at delicate tendons in the legs.

All the while, the lava rushed higher and higher, accelerating the party up through the remains of the fortress and closer to exit passages. The party originally thought they might be able to maneuver themselves to leap into one of these passages and make their way to the surface again but a quick consideration of the situation (this time paying close attention to the rate at which the lava was accelerating upwards) caused them to rethink their plan. Instead, they decided they would have to ride out the eruption, come what may!

When the noxious fumes Antül was emanating started to grow in radius, Paelias used his Dispel Magic ability to cause them to return to their normal disgusting range, then continued to pepper the dragon with his Ray of Frost ability. Gustav switched back and forth between his crossbow and scimitars, striking out time after time to finish off the great best. Jack, having maintained his human form for the majority of the battle (mostly in an attempt to help better the attacks of his allies) turned into his werewolf form and began to savagely attack Antül with everything they had left. They were running out of time and stamina: the top of the volcano was already cracking under the pressure but they were fast approaching it, riding the basalt ever upward.

Finally, Paelias summoned Bigby's Icy Grasp and used the hand of ice to attempt to strangle Antül. The fiery beast, on the verge of defeat, began to freeze from the neck up as the hand crushed down on it's throat; moments later, when he collided with the top of the volcano, his head shattered into millions of pieces as the ceiling burst forth into the open air above.

Searching Google for "Fighting a Dragon" is pretty awesome.
Relieved though they were that they had finally vanquished the beast, the party had no time to collect themselves: instead, each of them clung to the piece of basalt they were riding and rode the stone like sleds as they cascaded down the mountain. The three of them encountered various obstacles and debris on the way down but were able to avoid any further serious harm.

Coming to a stop somewhat near each other at the bottom of the mountain, the party regrouped and looked up to watch the eruption continue; molten rock was cascading down the mountainside and black brimstone and ash was shooting into the sky above, causing the valley to fall even darker than before. Deciding to leave, the party turned to do so -- but not before Gustav could feel the Firewalker step forward and take control of his body.

The primal spirit of fire turned and used his powers to instantly harden the lava cascading towards the party and reversed the spout of the ash cloud, stopping the eruption dead and sealing the mountain back up. Turning to regard the party once more, the spirit relinquished control of Gustav's body before speaking to all of the party:

"I have ceased the eruption and saved the valley from further disaster, but Strahd will surely know of your presence here and my newfound freedom. We must depart, and quickly, if we are to avoid his gaze."

It was evident the Firewalker had exhausted himself with that show of power but the party had no time to rest yet. They turned tail and fled back towards Gustav's cave hideout, avoiding Strahd's forces on the way. They then took some time to wash up and rest before setting off to find the next spirit.

And There You Have It!

This session was probably the best combat I've ever run and definitely ranks as one of the most enjoyable sessions I've ever had. There was very little roleplaying (besides some small inter-party stuff) but the skill challenges to get out of the toppling fortress were excellent and intense, and the actual combat while riding the volcanic eruption was exceptionally fun. Never before had any of us had a combat encounter in the heart of an erupting volcano -- it was classic medieval fantasy at it's greatest! Afterwards, all three of the guys at the table said that they enjoyed it immensely and most agreed that it was one of the best sessions we've had thus far -- to have that sort of reaction at the table definitely makes me feel good! I just hope I can maintain that result!

I had to write up some custom rules on how to have a combat amidst a volcanic eruption, including rules on how to transfer from stone to stone, that I think came across very well. I also designed rules for the finale scene where the party was riding the stones down the side of the mountain, which I feel were also pretty solid. (I can share these, if anyone would like: I have them in a Google Doc!) Admittedly, the finale was a bit rushed; after having defeated the dragon, it was already fairly late in the evening so I skipped some of the stuff. But it was originally meant to be an additional part of the encounter!

As it was originally written: Antül, near death, would survive the eruption of the volcano and would pursue the party down the mountainside. The characters would be forced to engage him at range (or somehow get close enough to strike at him) while they slid down the mountain on their stones, and then the environment would act against them on a separate turn in the initiative order (as with the environment in the volcano). But the party was able to dispatch Antül before the eruption actually happened so some of the extra stuff was cut. However, that brings me to my next point...

In stark contrast to the previous session, the party managed to rack up somewhere close to a dozen critical hits in this fight alone. I admit, it was a long combat which meant lots of dice being rolled -- and probability dictates that rolling a natural 20 would be bound to happen from time to time -- but it was absolutely amazing how much damage the party was dealing! And the ingenious attacks from everyone (especially Paelias, effectively clipping the mobility of the dragon by freezing his wing) really made this an epic and cinematic fight.

So yes: all in all, an excellent session! Next time, the party has to choose between venturing to the resting place of either the Cloudsleeper (atop a mountain) or the Deepdrinker (at the bottom of the lake). I believe the party has solved a riddle to find the Deepdrinker, so they may head there first, but we shall see next time!

As always, thanks for reading! Stay tuned for the next session report!