Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thief 1 vs Thief 2: Which is Better?

Thief II: The Metal Age is technically a sequel -- it's in the name, after all -- but it's so much like its predecessor, Thief: The Dark Project, that it doesn't really feel like a sequel. It's basically the same game, but with 15 new missions, a couple new items, and a few technical upgrades to the engine. I guess Looking Glass Studios realized they had a pretty good formula on their hands, and chose not to do anything too extravagant with the sequel. The two games are so fundamentally similar that people tend to lump them together as one collective entity, because if you like one, then you'll like other.

And yet, people definitely have their preferences, with some people liking Thief 1 more for its darker supernatural atmosphere, and others liking Thief 2 more for its more robust level design. Some people find the undead enemies in Thief 1 to be a turn off, while others think the same of the robotic enemies in Thief 2. Having played Thief 2 immediately after finishing Thief 1, there are certain things I like and dislike about it; it's a tough call trying to pick one over the other.

I'm not going to treat this article as a stand-alone review of Thief 2, because that would feel mostly redundant, since I've already covered all of the basics in my review of Thief: The Dark Project. Most of what I wrote in that article applies to Thief 2 as well, so I'd recommend you start there so you have an idea of my thoughts going into this review. I'm also not going to make this a direct side-by-side, in-depth comparison article, either, because the games are so similar I can't talk at much length about how they differ. Rather, this review will be a more simple look at Thief 2 and, in general, how it stacks up to its predecessor.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Looking Back at Thief: The Dark Project

I remember playing Thief II: The Metal Age about 10 years ago and enjoying it quite a bit. Alas, I only played a few levels before something drew me away from it. I mostly remember breaking into mansions, warehouses, and slinking through the city streets on my noble quest to liberate as much gold as possible from the city's aristocratic elite. I thought I knew what I was getting into by jumping back into the series where it at all started, with Thief: The Dark Project; I was pretty surprised, then, when I went into the first game and found myself descending into giant crypts and haunted cathedrals to sneak past and, more often, fight off platoons of undead zombies and skeletons, among other sinister, twisted monstrosities.

Developed by Looking Glass Studios and released in 1998, Thief: The Dark Project was a pioneer of first-person stealth gaming. Its design was years ahead of its time, with the advanced lighting and three-dimensional sound effects offering an unprecedented level of immersive feedback for would-be thieves trying to hide in the shadows and avoid detection. It's impressive, really, how well it holds up after all this time; games have come a long way in the past 17 years, and yet modern stealth games really aren't that much more sophisticated than Thief. It would not be that ridiculous to claim that no other game has handled stealth as well as the original Thief, with the possible exception of Thief II, but that's a discussion for another article. For now, it's time to take a look at Thief: The Dark Project (the Gold Edition, specifically) to figure out what's good and what's not good with it.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs Sucks

Halloween is right around the corner, which means it's time for another disappointing horror game that couldn't possibly live up to my high standards nor rouse any ounce of emotion from my cold, blackened heart. This year, it's Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, a sequel of sorts to one of my favorite horror games of all time, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In an appropriately horrifying twist, however, Frictional Games decided not to handle the sequel themselves, and instead handed the license to the team responsible for the torpidly bland Dear Esther. Now don't get me wrong, the retail release of Dear Esther is a solid artistic expression, but it features no meaningful gameplay whatsoever and left me beyond skeptical that the Chinese Room could pull off a successful Amnesia game.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Talos Principle: Probably Worth Playing

What is the difference between a robot and a human being? If you put a person's brain in a mechanical suit, is he or she still a person? What if you replaced the brain with a computer that performed all the necessary functions of the brain, while still retaining that person's memories and personality? What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be a person? At what point does the line between human and artificial intelligence begin to blur?

These are the types of questions that The Talos Principle -- a first-person puzzler by the team behind the Serious Sam series -- explores as the player assumes the role of a nameless robot going through testing chambers in a computer simulation. Guided by the voice of the God-like Elohim, you're instructed to visit all the worlds in his creation and complete each of his tasks so that you can achieve eternal life. All you must do is collect enough sigils hidden away in each chamber, and above all else, stay away from the tower. Do you take it on faith that he'll lead you down the road to eternal life, or do you get inquisitive and try to find out what exactly is at the top of the tower, and what is the real purpose of this world you're in?

The Talos Principle is often compared to Portal, and those comparisons are certainly valid in a general sense. Both games, after all, are first-person puzzlers that have you going through test chambers while a disembodied voice talks to you and everything may not actually be as it seems. The actual puzzle mechanisms are strikingly similar as well, with both games featuring weighted cubes that you place on pressure plates, force field doors, redirecting laser beams, and devices that catapult you (and objects) through the room, among others. If you liked either of the Portal games, then it's a safe bet that you'll probably enjoy The Talos Principle. In some ways, I'd say it's even better than Valve's lauded masterpiece(s), though as usual, I have some issues with it as well.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Pillars of Eternity: The White March Pt.1 - Review

The White March - Part 1 is the first of at least two planned DLC-sized expansions for Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian Entertainment's recent isometric RPG. See my review of the base game here (short version, I liked it a lot). This expansion introduces a new region of the world map with several explorable areas, a bunch of new quests, new enemies, new types of equipment, and a couple new companions. The new content takes place roughly in the middle of the main campaign, once you've begun the second of three acts and have gained access to the player stronghold, Caed Nua, but before moving into the game's final dungeon.  

It certainly makes sense for Obsidian to put the DLC in the middle of the game -- it wouldn't really work if it took place after the base game, since the ending specifically talks about your companions going their separate ways and describing their lives in the months that follow your adventure -- but it's a bit of a nuisance in practice. For anyone who's already completed the game, that means you have to load a save from before the "point of no return" and sort of pretend like you didn't already beat the game, and for anyone playing for the first time, the DLC will feel like a huge deviation from the careful narrative pacing and mechanical balancing of the base game.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Pillars of Eternity Review

I consider Obsidian Entertainment to be one of the best developers of modern role-playing games. That should come as little surprise, considering all of its founders were former leaders of Black Isle Studios who worked on games like Fallout, Planescape: Torment, and Icewind Dale -- some of the most influential and iconic RPGs of the late 90s. Their latest game, Pillars of Eternity, is not only one of the best RPGs of the past decade, it's one of the best RPGs ever made.

Successfully kickstarted in 2012, Pillars of Eternity (then known as "Project Eternity") set a record for the highest-funded video game ever on Kickstarter, bringing in nearly $4,000,000 from project backers. Faced with budget cuts and layoffs as the result of a cancelled project, the outpouring of support for "Project Eternity" allowed Obsidian to stay in business and take its time creating what would arguably become its magnum opus, while also playing a key contributing role in the recent revival of "old school" RPGs. Pillars of Eternity is a brand new intellectual property (only the second original IP Obsidian have ever released) that plays like any classic RPG from the 90s, complete with the isometric camera angle and mouse-driven interface, aided by some crucial updates and a lot of modern polish.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Board Game Review - Shadowrun: Crossfire

Shadowrun: Crossfire is a cooperative deck-building card game for 1-4 players. Set in the "fantasy meets cyberpunk" world of the Shadowrun tabletop role-playing game, players take the role of shadowrunners (aka, mercenaries for hire) attempting to complete dangerous "gray ops" missions for the megacorporations that control all of society in the Sixth World. Missions offer different objectives and challenges while altering the game's structure, but the core gameplay mechanisms remain the same from mission to mission: draw cards from your deck, play them against obstacles, earn money for defeating obstacles, and improve your deck by buying stronger cards from the black market.

Taking its cue from the tabletop RPG, Shadowrun: Crossfire provides a campaign-style gaming experience, allowing players to create their own character who will gain experience and earn permanent upgrades over multiple playthroughs. Players can choose from one of five races (human, elf, dwarf, ork, or troll), which have different health caps, starting money, and starting hand sizes, and can pick one of four roles that each comes with its own specialized deck of starter cards. There's the street samurai who uses guns and melee weapons to control the battlefield, the mage who casts spells to deal high spike damage to single targets, the face who uses social skills to influence the black market and support his allies, and the decker who uses technology to manipulate his discard pile.

Players earn experience points (known as karma in Shadowrun lore) for completing missions, and, in the case of the "Crossfire" mission, for successfully aborting it after a runner's health goes critical, but before anyone dies. In addition to marking your character's name on the character sheets, you can also mark his or her earned karma, which can be spent on stickers that you permanently attach to the character sheet, thus permanently upgrading that character. Upgrades can be purchased in five-karma (5K) increments, ranging from 5K to 50K in cost. Basic 5K upgrades will let you start the game with an extra card in your hand, or increase your maximum health by one; for 50K, you can take an upgrade that will let you deal bonus wild damage, or double the value of basic cards that match your role.