Witcher 2: Choose their own adventure

After enjoying Dishonored, I felt like getting into a deep swords & sorcery type of game, and The Witcher 2 seemed the logical choice. Settling back into Geralt’s scarred and complex character was like pulling on a comfy t-shirt.

Handsome

It’s a true epic1 of a game and story, and incredibly impressive. From the opening sequences where you find yourself in the midst of a full scale castle siege, to Dwarven citadels, Elven high citadels, and everything in between, the game oozes scale.

As with Witcher 1, the story is well told, the main plot of politics and magic unfurled and intertwined with as many or few side quests as you’d like to partake. There are a lot of long static dialogue scenes, which can be a bit tiresome, but once you sink into the storytelling method it captivates – and you end up choosing every last bit of the dialogue trees on offer in order to flesh out the world and populace.

Most impressive of all are the hugely important narrative choices you can make. At the end of the first act, there is a choice between supporting two factions, and the entire second act is different depending on which choice you make. In other words you could play a quite different game based on one major decision. The developers have effectively created two games in one, not afraid to know that the audience will probably miss out on a huge chunk of content as a result.

The game world seems better planned than the first game, with less running to and fro delivering herbs. After Dishonored it was a bit jarring to suddenly find you couldn’t just jump off castle battlements, instead having to follow the developers rails, but you quickly adjust to the game’s intentions and mechanics.

Character development is improved from the first game, and you can choose quite different play styles based on your preferences. I went deep into swords, basically ignoring the magic and potion based gameplay. Playing on easy mode made that possible, I suspect any of the more difficult modes would require a more balanced approach. By the end of the game I was weaving impenetrable webs of steel with glee, which was fortunate given the challenges some of the boss fights presented.

The dialogue and characterisation is top notch, and, like Witcher 1, the European sensibility results in an adult and decidedly non-cliched approach to storytelling. Characters act and behave as real personalities, rather than storyboard plot devices. The Dwarves are a particular highlight, boisterous and tough as old boots, with lovely Scottish accents to match. And the trolls – genius.

Trolling

Another nice touch is the save game import from the first game2, which impacts starting gear and some (minor) storytelling during this game. Obviously the same thing will apply to Witcher 3, which again will be swayed by some major story choices that are available late in the game. I played through two different endings and was quite amazed by the startlingly different results of the choices made.

I’d guestimate it took about 35-45 hours to play through, entirely worthwhile if you’re looking for a fantasy world you can sink your teeth into. I’m a little scared to start on Witcher 3 with it’s 100+ hours, but it’s definitely in the queue now.


  1. Though it sounds like Witcher 3 ups the epic ante still further 
  2. Which I luckily still had installed. 

Dishonored: choose your own adventure

I remember seeing adverts for Dishonored plastered all over busses driving around Sydney when it was released back in 2012. Another generic shooter I figured, ignoring it at the time. But I also remember seeing some pretty glowing reviews, and the release of DH2 to similar fanfare made playing the first game seem like a good idea. Plus a friend was keen for a playthrough – just the motivation required.

And I’m super glad we did – Dishonored is an excellent first person adventure, leaving the well trodden path of the shooter to deliver something far more entertaining. The keys to it’s success were the fact that you can choose entirely different methods of playing, and that the levels and zones have a refreshing non-linear nature and great freedom of movement.

Set in a steampunkian world that resembles Bioshock Infinite to a degree, you are tasked with clearing your name (hence: Dishonored1) after an assassination. So far so predictable, but once you start your quest the game delivers in delightful fashion.

Never doubt it.

You can approach the game as a run-and-gun shooter, blasting your way through everything, or as a stealth-based Thief-a-like. Compellingly, the choice you make impacts how the world reacts around you from level to level. Too much chaos and the guards are more alert. Too much death and the plague rats become more vicious. I snuck through the entire game virtually undetected using the invaluable x-ray vision – with copious reloads to do so – but the alternate approach is just as viable.

The level design is great, and the early introduction of a Nightcrawler-esque short distance teleport bampf suddenly opens up the game world to vertical and horizontal solutions. You can traverse the streets at great heights along balconies and rooftops, or scuttle through sewers and drains whilst possessing rats. The freedom of movement is very refreshing – trying other games after playing DH brings home the disappointment of not being able to go almost wherever you wish (looking at you Alien: Isolation – ‘no you can’t jump over that tiny wall or move through that obvious gap’).

There are optional goals for each level to satisfy replayability, objects and runes to discover to empower your skills, and the plot is satisfyingly political and mostly sensible (unlike the aforementioned Bioshock Infinite, which whilst fun had a nigh on impossible plot to unravel). DH also throws you straight into the main story, and keeps you there, which means it’s refreshingly short too – probably around 20-30 hours.

Definitely recommended. Looking forward to DH2, maybe when the DH3 bus ads start appearing.


  1. Ugh leaving out the ‘u’ is difficult. Learn to spell, America!) 

Wherefore Warcraft

Back in September 2016 I posted about being stalled in Warcraft. Five months later nothing has changed. I’ve maintained my subscription, but have only logged on to idle about, stare at my character stable, get momentarily enthusiastic about one, then logout shortly after.

As I covered in that earlier post, this is something that happens after every new expansion and I’ve been trying to work out why.

This time it was particularly galling as I’d found a great guild (after the gradual disintegration of my own during the appropriately-named Cataclysm). Reading the adventures of Frostwolves through each patch makes it clear how welcoming and encouraging they are, even through some very hard personal times recently. And I’ve missed out on being a part of that, through my own bizarre reluctance to play.

After some thought I think it comes down to a few different things.

One is the feeling of pressure to level and equip that occurs with each expansion drop. Logging on after a few days and seeing people already at max level and working on gear and rep leaves me feeling like I’m underperforming and lagging behind almost immediately. I like the idea of being on an even keel with other raiders, which is what an expansion should allow, but due to my slowness getting started I’ve always ended up behind before even getting going. I know the guild wouldn’t judge or mind or even notice at all, but it’s a mental block for me.

So I drop behind quickly, and then start feeling like it’s impossible to catch up. Which leads to not logging on, or creating low level alts and getting that quick hit of levels and skills – and getting even further behind.

Another is that an expansion makes the gear/rep timesink somehow more transparent. Rushing through the levelling to get to end game, then having to slowly gear up via daily quests and rep becomes less appealing when you’re starting from scratch instead of working on incremental upgrades. I’m not even sure that makes sense, given loot and gear acquisition is one of the rewards of an MMO, but perhaps being able to see the mountain ahead is more obvious during the first weeks of an expansion, compared to the subsequent patches where you are already comfortably geared and just looking for bits and pieces. The rapid accumulation of new gear should be exciting and fun, but it also puts a barrier up that needs to be overcome.

During WotLK, when I was main tanking for my guild, I was called out for not gearing quickly enough by two guild troublemakers (who disappeared from the guild shortly thereafter). There was probably some truth to it – I was unwilling to put in endless hours of gear grinding being happy with ‘good enough’ (and preferring to fish or find pets with that time) – but that pressure and expectation ended up destroying the guild. Some hangover from that drama no doubt contributes to the wariness I feel now about ‘keeping up’.

There’s some appeal to playing the way Bhagpuss does, levelling and gearing enough to be comfortable with solo content, while avoiding the end game treadmill:

I’m about finished up on the last EQ2 expansion at least as far as my Berserker goes. The main story’s all done and he’s nicely geared for solo. Next comes the gear grind to upgrade everything, the spell grind, the faction grind, all that good stuff that keeps people subbed ’til next time. I can skip that.

But when I play like that I always feel like I’m missing out on the main substance of endgame, i.e. raiding. I end up in LFR, and almost immediately wish I was doing it with a gang.

So why not play at my own pace, enjoying the guild community, and join the Sunday night ‘casual’ raids when I’m eventually ready? That would seem ideal. I think the problem with that approach is that I end up joining raids when they already know all the strategies and tactics, meaning there’s far less of that epic feeling of a team learning and progressing through a new fight, which is so rewarding. Much as I loved and appreciated being able to run through the tail end of the Warlords raids with Frostwolves, I never got to that point of a deep and intuitive understanding of the raid and my class, because I came in so late. I felt I was just barely keeping up, and learning fights on the fly (and with copious Wowhead boss fight revision).

It’s a catch-22. I want to be in a team of raiders learning and progressing, but I don’t level and gear quickly enough, so I end up behind, which means I don’t raid, which leaves me further behind, etc.

So there it is. A brain dump and wall of text about why I’m doing nothing in Warcraft, yet again. I’m not sure I feel any closer to a resolution or way around this, but I suspect one answer is that ‘proper’ end-game raiding is probably just something that is out of my reach. If I can come to terms with that, maybe one of my toons will leave Dalaran and start journeying to 110. Just in time for the next expansion!

Overwatch Listicle

I hate listicles, but here’s one anyway!

  1. Sombra. Not sure I’m a fan of the new class – it really changes the dynamic of the game. Total invisibility is hard to prepare for, meaning you can be dead before you realise she’s even reappeared behind you (and it’s always behind you). This is kind of different to other heroes, even one-shotters like Widowmaker, where you at least have some defensive counter measure available if you see them fast enough. I’m also finding her ability to hack health packs super annoying – it basically removes them from the game which isn’t particularly interesting or fun. To counter those issues, maybe there should be a timer on the health hack (similar to Sombra’s own teleport timer), and maybe a (very) faint motion blur when she’s invisible.

  2. Arcade Mode. Love the new 3v3 and mystery 1v1 modes. Short and sharp, and the new Antarctic map is perfect for them. The 1v1 is interesting because you basically become friends with the other player, complimenting them on their play and vice versa. Similarly 3v3 has much more communication than a full 6v6, as you have to adapt quickly to the other team’s strengths and weaknesses as each round passes. It’s probably similar to how Heroic/Mythic WoW raid teams have to be far more co-ordinated than Normal/LFR, as you can’t afford to carry anyone. Though in OW one super-fast twitch player can dominate the opposition more consistently.

  3. Quick Play. Taking out the ability to hero stack is a bit of a bummer. I can see why they did it, but now it’s a bit of a land rush to get a hero you want, and those with the lowest ping times inevitably get their choice. It was always fun, if often devastating, coming up against a full team of Junkrat’s or Pharah’s, and now that’s hidden away in Arcade Mode which is a bit of a shame. Quick Play suddenly become more serious and less flexible, instead of the default & funnest way to play. People quit now if they can’t get their choice. Then again, I did come up against 6 Sombra’s in Arcade and that was terribad! So maybe it’s for the best.

  4. Talking of Junkrat, I HATE JUNKRAT. Flinging random bombs through windows and hoping for the best, then sending in the wheel of death. Ugh. Refuse to play.

  5. And Roadhog. Why are all the Australian’s freaky? Mad Max was handsome, but Blizzard chose Toecutter and Immorten Joe as a role models instead. Alas.

  6. Symmetra. One great thing about OW is witnessing some genius play a character which makes you understand how it’s meant to be played. I came up against a brilliant Symmetra who constructed matrixes of death lasers in perfect spots, teleported her team to the front, and beamed everyone to death who came near her. Lesson learnt, and now playing her I have a much better idea what to do. That’s not something that can happen in an MMO for obvious reasons, and it’s a real strength.

  7. Spontaneous team co-ordination is another. Seeing a random group coalesce into an unstoppable Bastion/Reinhardt/Mercy/Symmetra whole is a thing of beauty.

  8. Playing with a console controller is hard. PC master race.

  9. I’m starting to miss WoW!

Overwatch Kart

An interesting phenomenon in Overwatch is the 99% comeback. I’ve played many a match where one team is up 99% to 0% on a control map, and somehow the other time makes a stunning overtime comeback for the win. Same on an escort – a last gasp push or save 1m before the objective.

One team often seems to (luckily) spawn pretty much together together, then (luckily) arrive at the point together, and then (luckily) have most of the Ultimates ready to blow. It’s like a 6 person Overwatch zerg – pretty fun, but pretty unlikely to happen as often as it does.

After experiencing it a few times – and it being joked about plenty at the PAX Overwatch tournament – I realised it reminded me of Mario Kart’s catch-up mechanic, which subtly grants advantageous boosts to players lagging behind in the race.

Maybe Overwatch is doing the same thing – giving the team about to lose some kind of hidden bonus in the form of sped up Ultimates or co-ordinated spawns. There are plenty of discussion threads and conspiracy theories out there, though nothing provable.

Many put it down to pure psychology: the fact you have one last chance makes the team suddenly focus and enter some kind of heightened-gameplay frenzy. And as it turns out they’re probably right. Asked if such a mechanic were in place, Overwatch Game Director Jeff Kaplan (a fairly reliable source!) responded with a pretty definitive response: “Nothing at all“.

It’s nice to know it’s our skills giving those last gasp victories, and it sure is an interesting psychological phenomena. I guess sports teams and the military – and Jeff Kaplan and co. – already knew all about it.

Post PAX post

On the weekend I travelled down to Penny-Arcade’s fourth annual Penny Arcade Expo in Melbourne – I figured it was kind of a Blizzcon-lite with far less travel.

It’s a three day event, and I went for the Saturday session with two of my nephews. Having never been to a gaming or comic convention, I was equally excited and apprehensive. Tradeshows can be pretty dire, with bored vendors trying to attract your attention while you studiously avoid eye contact.

I realised pretty quickly this wasn’t going to be your average tradeshow:

Embarrassingly I'm not sure who she's playing, but *wow*
Embarrassingly I’m not sure who she’s playing, but *wow*.

Entering the vendor hall surrounded by thousands of fellow fans pretty quickly allayed all remaining fears: this was going to be fun. Massive displays from major industry players, sound and vision overload, hardware to ogle, and all in the name of gaming.

The dominant games were easily Overwatch and the venerable CS:GO. Overwatch was everywhere, being used to demo super fast monitors, LED headphones and keyboards, controllers and just about anything else. Most of the vendors had LAN setups which were allegedly to demo their hardware, but really most people were just enjoying the opportunity to play 6v6 in the same ‘room’.

On the hardware front, the main thing we noticed was that VR is everywhere, though the queues were so long for all of them that we didn’t get to play any. There’s definitely some momentum around this latest attempt, no doubt seriously boosted by the offical PS4 VR hardware – they had the largest stand and longest queues.

It was also hugely entertaining constantly seeing amazing cosplay everywhere you turned. One moment you might be playing Mei, the next she’d be standing next to you with Reaper and Soldier 76 for good measure.

So far so good, but the real highlight came when we emerged from the cacophony of the demo hall into the (relative) serenity of the second main hall, which is effectively a fan-run celebration of gaming in all it’s shapes and colours. Tabletop, RPG, console, PC, retro, pinball, miniatures, dice, you name it.

You name it.
No really, you name it.

There are hundreds of tables setup for tabletop gaming, ranging from cards to miniatures to old school boardgame history (you could borrow just about anything from a huge selection of carefully maintained boxes). The amazing thing was that there were volunteers for every game, just sitting waiting for people to plonk down and learn how to play. No sales pitch, no pressure, just a celebration of a game they love and knowledge they want to pass on.

A collection of vintage machines were constantly in use (I struggled against R-Type with an very ancient joystick attached to a Commodore-64), as was the console rental area where you could pick any game from a huge library, grab some controllers and play for as long as you like. We entered a PS4 Overwatch comp and were promptly trounced, but it was a great experience complete with an encouraging audience.

Healing stream engaged
Healing stream engaged.

You could learn to paint figurines, enter pinball comps, collect and trade pins, or choose from any number of Role Playing game sessions, complete with volunteer GMs and newbie-friendly guidance. We played a one hour Adventurer’s League DnD mission which was a hoot.

The ‘fan hall’ was the true heart of PAX and no doubt a large reason for it’s continued success and popularity. No matter what kind of gaming you enjoy, there was a way here to enjoy it.

My only regret was not getting to see any of the many many talks and panels that were held throughout – Fight of Fandoms: Fallout vs Witcher, SUPER HAPPY FUNTIME TOKYO GAMESHOW HOUR, the Omegathon etc. Obviously a reason to go back next year!

Accordind to Wikipedia, PAX was created by the Penny-Arcade team because they “wanted to attend a show exclusively for gaming”. It would more accurate to say it was created for gamers, and it’s a huge success.

Team Overwatch

One of the oddities of Overwatch is that if you play with a pre-made team, the game gets harder. I go from a ~60% win ratio in random groups to pretty much 0 in a pre-made with friends.

This is somewhat counterintuitive.

We figured that playing as a co-ordinated group would make you almost unstoppable. Team comps could be spot on, choke points verbally controlled, ambushes and ultra’s given plenty of warning.

All of which is true, but the thing I hadn’t realised is that once you rock up with a 5/6 player group, the game will try to find a matching team of similar numbers to fight against. So while you’re a little more organised than a Quick Play pug, so are they. And unfortunately ‘they’ always seem to be a whole lot better.

Given the rookie status of most of the people I’m playing with, this means we have been getting hammered. We’ve gone 0/10 most nights – we were thrilled (or should that be relieved) when we won one round of a best of three! While our skill level and experience is pretty low, we should be winning at least a few.

Even though we’re theoretically being matched with similar skill levels, it’s pretty clear that most grouped players know how to play, and are probably a lot more organised. Team composition becomes much more important to counter opposition strategies – coming up against a well oiled Bastion/Mercy/Reinhardt team is very difficult to overcome without some thought and on-the-fly planning.

Luckily it’s still fun, and it also means you quickly realise that it won’t be enough to just have 5 people you know playing together: you need to communicate and co-ordinate and play as a team, not a bunch of individuals. That may work in random groups, but it falls apart against an organised attack.

It’s similar to coming up against a well oiled PVP group in WoW. You quickly realise when the other team is used to playing together, and grudgingly prepare for a short sharp lesson in defeat.

The biggest improvement would come from someone taking the leader role and co-ordinating things . Either that or an entire team of D.va’s!

D.va
Nerf this!

Overwatching

Having exorcised The Witcher, I’ve been spending some idle hours in Overwatch as a change of pace. As has been much discussed, it’s a superb implementation of the team shooter with the Blizzard signature slickness plastered all over it. Kind of Team Fortress on steroids and with a coat of shiny paint and a wonderfully varied roster of characters.

bastionFinding a hero that clicks is key and full marks to Blizzard for making each character feel distinct within their designated role. Don’t like whip fast DPS? Choose Soldier 76 over Tracer. Prefer mobility over stomping about? D.va trumps Reinhardt for you (his manic charge notwithstanding). Struggling with the pace? Bastion, despite the jealous trolling, is peerless at plonking in place and holding down a defensive position. The great range of playstyles that are supported is a credit to the dev team and no doubt a large reason for Overwatch’s success – there’s almost certainly a hero that will suit the way you want to play.

mercySo far I’ve managed to get a good handle on Bastion, Mercy, and more recently D.va. Mercy has been my go-to, which has been interesting having never played a healer. Healing really changes your perspective on the game, and makes a nice change from relentlessly hunting down the enemy. I love her flight-escape mechanism, which seems to be key to playing her well. D.va is also a bundle of fun with her two lives, self destruct, and an almost Bastion-like lock down potential.

mccreeNext I need to select a DPS to round out the specialities, with Tracer and Reaper looking most likely1. Tracer seems super hard to play well but it sure is fun having that amazing mobility – I somehow managed to get a POTG in my first ever game with her, but that was more good luck than good skill. Her Ultimate is also a little underwhelming – certainly compared to Reapers’ unstoppable reaping. Unlike WoW, DPS almost seems the hardest to play, but that may come down to no longer being the twitch gamer I aspired to being in ye olde Quake days.

Another highlight is watching good players – some really good – strut their stuff. Witnessing or watching a single-handed team wipe or epic save is humbling, inspiring, and educational. Mastering D.va’s mid-air-Booster-Self-Destruct combo move is next on my list, having been destroyed by it a few times.

It’s fun having a dip-in dip-out game on hand, which is certainly what Overwatch is: no gear grind and insta-play. And it’s also great playing a game which gets away from the drab landscapes of the typical shooter – Overwatch is all saturated colours and lens bloom. Fascinating too to think that this universe might have been the next WoW2 – a story driven version of this universe would be spectacular.


  1. McCree is tempting too, but mainly due to my love of Westerns which I’m not sure is a good way to choose! 
  2. Sadly I’m still finding it impossible to logon to WoW. Such a bizarre situation – maybe I can only play at the end of expansions when the pressure is off. Missing the new Kara in 7.1 may be the final straw. 

ReWitched

“The swamps and slums again, great”

That super-meta line, along with Firewatch, was probably the thing that got me to finally finish a play through of The Witcher.

Yep, finished. Despite my near fdisk fury, I managed to see the game all the way through, and it feels good to be done. There were definitely too many swamps and slums, but it’s an intriguing and well told tale.

Firewatch seemed to clear my head of the fug the Witcher had cast, and I was totally surprised to find myself looking forward to joining Geralt again and unravelling his story to it’s conclusion.

Diving back into a rich fantasy land was fun, helped enormously by the fact that Geralt is a pretty entertaining guy to play. His sharp humour and low tolerance for fools leads to some smart dialogue exchanges, as does his swordplay when words fail. I barely used magic, focussing on swift slaying and reckless attack – and playing easy mode. The story is the thing, not the fighting.

The game is solid if creaking with quest mechanics that remind me of old school Warcraft – back and forth and back and forth between quest giver and destination. One saving grace was unlocking fast travel, the developers finally showing some mercy on we poor suffering players (and their playtesters no doubt) with the sudden appearance of teleport portals.

One criticism is quests that can never be completed because you accidentally trigger the next story phase. A quest to create an epic armour set was only introduced in the penultimate chapter, not completable until the final chapter, and then having collected all the pieces I advanced plot before realising that meant no longer being able to create the fabled suit. Would have been nice to earn that much earlier in the game.

There was also some poor story pacing – introducing what turns out to be a very important character very late, an overlong epilogue, and a strange diversionary chapter where the main story goes on hold while you unravel a love triangle. There were moments where I realised I was really just wanting to follow the story and that the ‘game’ was getting in the way (and hence maybe I should just be reading the books). But each time it pulled back from that precipice with some clever plot twist or promise of more intrigue. And it was a very unusual love triangle!

Overall though I’m pleased to have played it. The rich story, depth of character, and slow journey to all powerful Witcher were satisfyingly delivered despite the engine showing the ravages of time. W2 and W3 are apparently leagues better, with some granting W3 All-Time-Great status, so that’s something to look forward to.

Given it took almost 10 years to play W1, I should be ready for them by…2030?

Watching Fires

Having been defeated by The Witcher’s timesink boss, I was browsing through my game library for something a little snappier and came across Firewatch. And happily a link to an article of ‘great short games’ confirmed it might be an appropriate palate cleanser.

After a little backstory setup, the game plonks you in Shoshone National Park in the US, where you are going to settle into a ‘firewatch’ tower – as a park ranger and lookout for forest fires.

It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous game to look at and listen to. The colour palettes are stunning, ranging from lush greenery to orange-drenched sunsets, and they change and adapt in parallel with your progression through the story. The use of light is spot on, creating a wonderful and enveloping environment that begs for idle wandering and exploration1. I found myself drifting along forest paths and grassy meadows or staring out over a stunning valley, not really paying attention to the story, just enjoying being there.

Firewatch valley
That view…

It’s perhaps not surprising when you learn that the super talented Olly Moss (he of the best Star Wars posters ever) was responsible for the 2D art. The UI and general aesthetic benefit from the involvement of Panic, who develop impeccably designed Mac and iOS apps.

The sound too is beautifully crafted. There’s a real sense of wilderness and peace – or otherwise – as you wander the fields, valleys, and streams. I turned the music right down to let the environmental ambience wash over, though Firewatch is one of those rare games where I found the music to be appropriately used. There are times where a quiet musical score will be introduced at just the right moment, enhancing rather than distracting from the journey.

Firewatch forest

In amongst all this beauty, the storyline could almost be inconsequential, but that too is well delivered and for the most part works – especially if you make sure to dive into the conversation options. There are a few jarring moments, mainly to do with the interruption to the idyll established early on, but the fundamental tale of people dealing with life changing events is built nicely and becomes quite emotionally affecting.

And only 5 hours: recommended.


  1. The beauty of the game world cries out for a free-roaming mode, and apparently such a thing is on the cards