Fuck this, I'm gonna go play Halo.
An adventure in ZZZZZZzzzzzzz...
I have a high threshold for pain. Well, not actual, physical pain. I'm a wuss when it comes to actual pain. But one of the most peculiar things about my taste in gaming is that I enjoy many games other people find intolerable. Sometimes they deliberately punish you, and I endure knowing the the reward will be all the sweeter for the effort. Sometimes they include elements that are complete dealbreakers for most, but I hang in there regardless. And sometimes whatever sort of redemption they offer just takes a long time coming. Either way, I enjoy those titles. Some might find them to be about as much fun as lighting your own pants on fire (Actually that sounds awesome), but I love them to bits.
But even for me there've been games that I simply couldn't play. And while I sometimes quit them in a huff, my usual approach is far less spectacular. I go about my things in game. I work towards a point I can save and quit at. I save my progress. I leave. And I never come back. The actual realization that I'm not having any fun takes places outside the actual game and isn't so much inspired by anger or spite as it is by apathy (Hence why I think Bore-Out more accurately sums it up). Since lists are sort of my thing when I can't be bothered to compile a single long review, I decided to chronicle some of my experiences.
Let's go hunting boars.
An adventure in usermade-patches...
I'm no stranger to the Gothic series. I still hold up the first installment as a brilliant RPG and the second game still fairly resolutely sits on the better end of my top ten games of all times list (At least pre-addon. Let's just pretend that addon doesn't exist). So technically Gothic 3 gets an easy ride because I'm so laughably fond of the series just hearing the familiar voices of all my old friends should have me immersed to the point where I'll willingly starve myself to play more.
I deliberately tried to find unengaging screenshots for this game. It was easy.
Well, pretty obviously that didn't happen. And for the record I'd also like you to note that it took me several of hours of soul-searching to even get into a remotely neutral mindset for this retrospective. If I had to summarize my thoughts on Gothic 3 on the spot my most probably response would be a mixture of disgusted grunts and gargles. It's hard to put my finger on what my biggest problem with this game is, but if pressed I'd probably go for the fact that it has the single most atrocious combat system I've ever experienced. There's a lot of criticism that can be levelled at the combat system from the previous two Gothic games, like how it was scarce about feedback, could be relentlessy punishing or how there was just about a single "right" way to fight, but you know what? At the very least it performed. Did its job. Created a challenging test of skill while successfully giving you the feeling that you were growing better, both through actual mastery of the system as well as ingame experience.
The combat in Gothic 3 by contrast, leaves little room for actual mastery, punishes you regardless and, above else, feels awfully sluggish. At least in Gothic 2 when I clicked to attack, the protagonist would draw the logical conclusion that my intention is to attack and would execute the move with some sense of immediacy. All you'll get for clicking in this installment is watching your character wave his sword in a grand but slow motion. It's so goddam slow that any form of wildlife you meet will be able to dodge your attacks with ease. Admittedly there's the option to right click for a slightly faster slash, but here's the funny twist: That move only covers a tiny area right in front of you. So if you're fighting more than one animal (which you will, since they only come in packs), you're left with the huge swinging motion, trying to drive them into a wall or something. At first this might sound like a somewhat minor quibble, but apart from spoiling any joy there might have been had in combat, it also creates a rather skewed balancing in which single, strong enemies are a lot less dangerous than multiple small critters. In this bizarre scenario the arena champion of any town is less of a threat than say, a pack of wolves.
The boar: Now a dreaded sight among gamers.
Once you go wrong about something as basic as the combat, there's really no recovery. Nothing about this game works, and the sad part is: This is the conclusion I have to draw after installing every fan-made patch there is. Even without the bugs this game is still horrible. It's just littered with bad design choices in everything from the character system to quest design to the plot. Okay, the plot is actually one of the stronger sides of the game, but only because some of the brilliance of the previous two titles has quite literally been carried over. As far as venturing into new territory is concerned, the game falls flat on its face. The most immediate glaring issue here is the inability to establish a successful connection to the previous events. I'll accept that it was a gameplay necessity to reset our hero back to nothing, but they could at least have addressed this in some way. Much as I want to rant on right now, my quibbles will be probably be hard to understand for anybody not familiar with the series, and I'm assuming that's all of you. So let me just summarize the first five minutes of the Gothic 3 experience for you. Nameless hero guy and his buddies arrive at the main land, wander into a coastal town, find out that the orcs have won the war against the humans and get involved right off the bat, out of some reason or other. And of course their ship with all the badass equipment get's plot conveniently stolen. After that your buddies decide the smartest move would be to split up and pretty boldfacedly tell you to re-establish contact with a character from a previous game, who might know what's going on. What. The. Hell. Why exactly did nobody guard that ship? Why exactly did the protagonist even leave the ship without taking some of the badass equipment with him? Why exactly did we get involved? Why should this self-serving group, former inmates of a penal mining colony, might I add, care the slightest bit about the situation? Why is there no immediate reason for me to do anything besides going into hiding and living the rest of my life in peace? Why is the rebel camp located within goddam walking distance of the starting location?
I've played bad RPG's from time to time, but even those usually had some redeeeming value, some part that didn't completely blow goats. Sadly the same thing can't be said for Gothic 3 and I do remind you that this is the perspective of somebody who really tried very hard to enjoy the game. Stay away from this one.
Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines
It's your new leg of lamb, your new champagne, your new fucking heroin!
An adventure in bloodsucking...
I've already established several times that I don't normally do horror for reasons that are none of your concern (read: I'm a total wuss), so that raises the obvious question of why I'd go out of my way and pick up a title I probably won't even be comfortable playing. Well, apart from the fact that I do occasionally enjoy trying new things to make myself believe I'm not the easily predictable economic cog I'd so despise being, what helped most was that this title is an absolute critical darling. Not a great many people have played the game, but those that did responded insanely positively. They don't just like this game, they love it. They even patched it together when the original developer closed doors for good. And if there's anything I truly understand, then it's obsessive love for bizarre video games. Also, it was pretty darn cheap.
Did I mention it's set in present day LA?
But sadly, going into the game expecting it to be right up my alley of deeply flawed but ultimately redeeming games I instead found it to be deeply aggravating. Leaving aside that even with all the various fan patches installed the game ran far from stable, pretty much any part of gameplay felt haphazard to the point of being broken. The controls in particular are among the worst I've ever seen: Movement feels too fast and imprecise, far more like gliding than actual walking (this made navigating stairwells or tight quarters very annoying), which certainly didn't help the dodgy combat.I could go on listing all the little rough edges that ultimately added up to me quitting the game and never coming back, but suffice to say the lack of quality assassment and testing on this title shows. Heavily.
But while I didn't enjoy the game enough to make me tolerate all it's small faults, I have to admit one thing: I love the way it handles vampires. See, my own grasp on the horror genre is a bit loose, so the only deviations of the popular vampire myth I actually know of are the few that made it into popular culture: The sparkly pretty boy from Twilight, who is either awesome or horrible depending on whether you ask a teenage girl or anybody else, and the whitewashed badass hollywood action hero version conversely played by Wesley Snipes in what little I saw of the Blade trilogy. Naturally I was a bit surprised to find the people behind Vampire 2 understood that there was more to vampires than indulging goth fashion trends and occasionally sucking some blood.
You see, what makes the vampire myth interesting is the unnatural fusion of a human, a rational and logical being governed by reason and a code of morals and values, and something diametrically opposed to that concept. Something dark, something animalistic representing our most primal instincts: violence, lust and hunger, all joined together in the violent but nonetheless intimate act that is drinking somebodies blood. The need for blood forces a regular human to come to terms with their dark side. This is the part where it truly gets interesting: choice. It's not werewolves were talking about. The evil side of this fusion doesn't take full control. The course towards a bloody frenzy is not set in stone. A vampire is free to choose where and how he gets his blood. He needs blood to survive, but there's more than one way to fill that need, if he wants to at all. There's a great many intersting approaches to this situation: Does he try to walk that fine line? Or just end his life? Or allow this new hedonistic, impulsive part of himself to run wild? Does he begin seeing humans as inferior or cling to his former self? Vampire 2 takes this basic conflict and creates a great many brilliant characters and factions just by going through the various possible reactions to this gift, or this curse, handed down all the way from Caine. Some embrace their newfound lifestyle and start going nuts, some reject it and try as hard as they can to keep it at bay, while some experiment to use their new nature to amass power, within reason.
And of course no review of Vampire 2 is complete without mentioning Jeanette Voerman. Her quest is interesting, to say the least.
But the real genius of Vampire 2 is just how brilliantly this scenario is implemented in a world we believe to understand. In walking between the completely unfamiliar and the familiar, the game never fails to feel uncanny and it does an incredible job at playing with some of our most universal fears, constantly reminding us of of the limits and fringes of what we "know". Sure, we as a collective know that there's no vampires hiding in the sewers, that the warehouse out of town has been empty for years and that the gothic nightclub across the street is just for people who think halloween shouldn't be limited to one day a year, but have you yourself ever checked such "facts"? Vampire 2 expertly makes use of our fear that there's something going on that everybody but ourselves is in on: The guy next door who never leaves his appartment, the weird homeless guy who's always murmuring something, the "be rational all you want if you meet this guy in the streets at night you'll get the shivers" types. Even as you join this world in the game, you can't help but feel unsettled. Whether you're in the club talking to friendly vampires or out there fighting for your life, you'll always feel uneasy. If there's one message that Vampire 2 communicates through every little detail in the brilliant writing, voice acting and the superb facial animations and music it's this "Something's off". If a game can send you on a twenty minute fetch quest without a single enemy encounter and still keep you on the edge of your seat throughout it's entire length, then I think we can all agree that atmosphere isn't the problem.
Interestingly enough though the game more or less shot itself in the leg with its brilliant writing. Well not so much the brilliant writing itself as the incredible chasm between the quality of the writing and the quality of the game itself. Once I realized that I'd enjoy this game a lot more if it weren't actually a game but some sort of interactive movie what little joy I had found was spoiled permanently. That thought just completely killed the moment. That being said, I can not only understand why some people love this game, but would actually go so far as to recommend you check it out. If you can tolerate the gameplay, it'll probably be the most mind-blowing time of your life.
...Am Shaegar. It means "one without a name" in an old language.
An adventure in collapsing suns...
Arx Fatalis is a game that has been recommended to me. Very often in fact. People love this game. Reviewers loved this game. It established Arcane Studios's sublime reputation. So eventually, after considering how much I loved the other big Arcane release, Dark Messiah I finally gave this one a chance. And I can't stand it.
It's simple really: The game didn't age well. The combat feels dodgy, lacking the polish of Dark Messiah. The character system is rather crude, so are the graphics and I found the underground setting depressing. I don't regret quitting Arx Fatalis, though it's hardly the worst game on this list. There is, however, one thing about the game that struck me as absolutely genius: The magic system. One thing that has always bugged me about the inclusion of magic in RPGs is just how unrealistic it is (the irony of this statement is not lost on me). Whether you're merely lifting an object, creating fire out of thin air or summoning demons, it's always done by pressing a single button. Admittedly the same thing could be said for pretty much any action in a video game, but at the very least in movement and combat there is by now a certain degree of correllation between the complexity of the task at hand and the complexity of the series of keys you have to press. That is to say it makes a difference if you're trying to walk across a room or juggle health potions while platforming over lava blindfolded, if you catch my drift. Despite the fact that pretty much all RPG's ever made ever claim magic use to be an incredibly taxing skill requiring a lot of intelligence and concentration, complexity rarely carries over into this area of gameplay.
Look! I'm drawing pictures!
Enter Arx Fatalis. Rather than just firing up spells with the simple press of a button, this game requires you to draw magic runes into the air using your mouse. Means holding one button down, then moving your mouse in a complicated fashion, several times, for just one spell. A simple horizontal line is the rune Aam. A rectangular U shape means Yok. Aam means create. Yok means fire. Aam Yok, unsurprisingly means create fire, your most basic spell used for igniting torches. Every rune in the game has a meaning, and every spell is created trough the clever and logical combination of these. Want to throw a fireball? Create Fire Projectile. Want to heal yourself? Improve Life. Put out fires? Negate Fire. Levitate? Improve Space Movement. But cool as this logical background might be, the true brilliance of the system is something else: It's dodgy as hell.
Firing up a spell means drawing runes, at least three if you want something past the basics. The game allows you to think ahead by memorizing a total of three spells, no more. That's not three types of spells, just three spells. If you need more than three fireballs in one fight, you have to hope the system reads your frantic scribbles as runes. When I first learned of this system I was shocked, because it sucked so much. Dozens of ways to improve it just popped right up in my head, like the ability to save three kinds of spells. But that's missing the point. The beauty of this system is that magic is hard to pull off, and if you're in a frantic situation it only get's harder. For the first time ever, a game gave me a what felt like a true sense of what it meant to be mastering the arcane arts. Even after I got the hang of spells in quiet-like situations, the rush of battle never failed to make them harder to pull off. You need to be calm and focused when you really should be running like mad. If there ever was a scenario I'd use to describe the challenge of using your mind to bend reality it'd be this one.
All in all, Arx Fatalis get's a recommendation. I didn't enjoy it, but that was due to personal taste. It's worth checking out for the magic anyways.