Show vs Tell

There’s an adage in visual media where it’s better to show than to tell. It’s more so related to overexposure, where the audience is treated as incapable of putting A and B together to come to a conclusion. As much as I like Sherlock Holmes as books, they suffered from this greatly as key plot points are never shared with the reader. Whereas you can watch the movies (Murder on the Orient Express is great), or something similar like Knives Out and you have all the clues along the way. Nolan does a great job in this with The Prestige (another awesome film).

Things that go off the rails are more like Lost or Game of Thrones (TV). Creators have painted themselves into corners, and lacked a larger vision, so we end up with some duct tape and bubble gum to try to patch all the loose threads together. Or, in some cases, the author think they are being quick witted, but the reveal stretches the imagination so far that it just doesn’t jive. JK Rowling is a GREAT example of this, wow.

Video games are a tough spot, mostly because they are interactive. That challenge means that the plot points and beats are not experienced in the same order for all players. Throw in player agency, and the plot threads get much more complicated. RPGs and open-world games really struggle here, as side quests can take you all over the place. Final Fantasy is chocked full of monologues to get the plot points across, often meant as milestones so players remember what’s at stake.

I look at something like Horizon: Zero Dawn. The majority of the lore in that game is through text, notes you can read about what happened before. It’s incredibly in depth. Exploring the old labs, you get a better appreciation of what happened before. There are however, some quite ham-fisted points where characters go into pure monologues to explain themselves and why the world is it is. WoW (MMOs in general) is pure exposition now, which if I take a step back, is pretty much required as the writing is atrocious (plot vs character).

Then we get to something like God of War. While you only really deal with Freya and Baldr, Mimir spends a significant amount of time telling stories about the other gods while you’re paddling your boat. They fill in the (literal) blank spaces in the game and provide the context for the larger storyline. With few exceptions, there’s nothing Mimir says that relates directly to the game itself. Learning that Odin will go to any lengths to learn doesn’t change the main gameplay – you never actually meet Odin.

Hades is another great example of context delivery without overly exposing. It helps that the writing is awesome, and not something that prevents gameplay.

And now that I’m in AC: Valhalla, and the foundational context is also the Nordic gods, it makes for a very different shift. AC games have always struggled with managing plot lines, the “real world” never really intersected with the game world in a meaningful sense. The in-game Templar vs Assassin line has become much less relevant too, almost an afterthought in this game. AC is instead moving into the ancient lore, what with Atlantis in Odyssey, and now Asgard/Jotunheim in this one. I won’t spoil much here, but AC is making as solid case that none of their main plot lines actually matter. Eivor’s settlement has nothing to do with the Nordic gods, nothing to do with the “real world”. Just a (very, very long) story about survival.

I can’t imagine the mental gymnastics a game director or creative director has to go through to ensure a game delivers on all fronts for the story. Probably why there are so few good examples over the years, and why the ones that are great really stick with me.

Kitchen Sink Is Here

A rather significant patch arrives today for AC: Valhalla. Hilarious timing of my prior post. I can identify quite a few items in that list that I’ve experienced. Fishing (which I think needs to be in every game) was always a weird one. Fish would haul into me, then swim all the way to the farm end of the water. And when I say far end, I mean out of draw distance. So when I cancelled the fishing action, it would take a solid 5-10s for me to reel in the line.

So fingers crossed here, but with this patch AND AC going on sale in a few places, heck of a time to pick it up.

In-game, I’ve been trying a few different bits out. Similar to Ghost of Tsushima, there comes a time where there’s little need for stealth. In AC, that’s focused on 2 skills from the tree, ironically both in assassination. One where you can parry arrows and launch them back, the other is where a last minute dodge causes time to slow down for everyone but you.

The former makes every ranged attack except crossbows a weapon for you to use. No need to climb to find an archer. Stand there, take the shot, and send it back. Often 1 hit kill.

The latter is pure gold in melee. A late dodge on a “red” attack slows down time for them, but not you. Slow swinging weapons can do some decent damage here. But.

AC’s combat is not balanced against speed. All heavy weapons deal similar damage, regardless of speed. And that’s minor increase on light weapons. In a “balanced” game, the ratio should be similar, so that the DPS is similar. Maybe a bit higher for slow weapons given the risk/reward factor. Not in AC!

Dual Daggers act as a chainsaw. You get the first one in Norway, the 2nd in the first city you visit in England. I had tried it, but had some issues as I was trying to figure out other bits. And really, to start a shield is much more useful to learn the Parry mechanics. When you do get that timing down… nothing and I mean nothing stands in your way. Add in poison/fire on the main hand, speed boosts/runes, and high crit chance (I’m ~80% now), it feels broken. In group combat, where the time to kill is already low, it’s not too crazy. Against named enemies, like Zealots, it’s effectively an “I Win” button. I don’t see anything in the patch notes about this.

So run in, hit a couple times to trigger a counter attack. Dodge to slow down time, get back in, pull a full-on shredder, then repeat.

I dunno how I feel about it really. It’s not like AC has strategic combat to start, or the refinement for twitch combat. This speeds up something that otherwise feels like padding. It does make clearing large camps pleasant, as you just run in and everyone comes to you. It’s a weird shift from AC: Odyssey, where 10v1 usually ended up with you dead.

Still a fun game in the larger context.

Marvel Avengers

I don’t think it’s surprising that the Avengers game didn’t make bank. What I think is surprising is the actual margins. Something around 60% of units sold is some rough business.

For a minute here, let’s just go over the things going for this game.

  • The largest IP in the last 10 years, with a multi-billion profit
  • A producer (Squeenix) that understands 2nd chances
  • A developer with a solid single player pedigree (Tomb Raider)
  • A business model that’s been been clearly demonstrated across dozens of games, including how not do do it (BF2)
  • A game design that has both great models (Destiny) and horrible models (Anthem) from which to base upon

There’s no denying that the IP itself is both a boon and a hindrance. People identify Captain America with Chris Evans. Anything that doesn’t look/sound like him is going to be weird.

The rather consistent news in this space is that Avengers as a single player game appears to be universally well taken. This seems reasonable given Crystal Dynamics’ work with Tomb Raider.

Where it doesn’t work is in the risk/reward structure of it’s online component. First was the rather impressive amount of bugs and lack of polish. Launching any game in that state, when there are quite literally dozens of viable alternatives, is a recipe to lose most of your player base. Avengers certainly has. It went from 25k users at launch, to 2.5k users after a month (these are relative numbers). That’s a 90% drop. Recent numbers put it ~500 concurrent, though this weekend’s sale (50% off) brought it up to 1,800. That is far from viable.

The question then becomes, what’s next? If Anthem, dumpster fire that it is, can still be operational nearly 2 years later, Avengers certainly has shelf life. But does it deserve a re-tooling? Does it need an overhaul, or just tweaking? Its lack of content is a challenge, no doubt. But its certainly better to stabilize before adding more stuff. The core mechanics appear sound, just that the reward spigot needs to be changed. Playing 49 floors of a game for no useful rewards, and no checkpoints, is not smart design. There’s a reason it doesn’t exist anywhere else.

Still, $30 for a decent single player superhero game is a good deal. And with the potential for a somewhat rewarding end game, that’s cool too. I’d be game to have something to replace Marvel Heroes. And there are enough success stories of games coming back from the brink (For Honor!!) that there’s some life in here yet.

Assassin’s Creed : Valhalla

Normally I wait for AC games until they get a kitchen sink patch. I don’t mean a day 1 patch, I mean kitchen sink where the game is retooled based on a large list of issues. I did not follow that advice, and decided to get it on sale (well, a coupon). I will flatly say, that it is better to wait. Why?

I have encountered at least a dozen game breaking bugs. The kind where you need to reload. Some where I needed to reload before a quest started, so it’s created a behavior where I manually save before starting any quest step. That is RPG save scum behaviour, argh!

The combat mechanics also need a retune. It attempts to replicate the parry/dodge mechanics seen in other AAA games, like Ghost of Tsushima. It doesn’t work because the indicators are orange/red, which make them difficult to differentiate. And there’s some very odd input lag, or rather, resulting lag that can cause some elastic behavior. Hell, I had one where I dodged and ended up halfway across the map in a tree.

Fix those though, and there’s a dramatic systematic improvement here compared to Odyssey. Questing is much better. Side quests are a joy, and entirely worth undertaking. Inventory management is MILES better. The skill tree is a bit-iffy, if only because of the “fog” preventing you from seeing where you’ll go. Ironically you can explore it all, reset all your points, and then make choices. The home base model from AC2 is back, and it makes for a much more consistent experience than you flitting around the map.

The storyline is so-so. I think I’m done on the “ancient civilization” model, where AC is drawing blood from a stone. I’m sure that they can make the AC model work in another game, just like AC replaced Prince of Persia. You’re effectively an invasive force, and the historical setting (rather than fantasy), makes some parts of this a challenge to work through. There are attempts to focus on the “king making” aspect where you’re working with the local population, but then you go raiding a monastery, and go “hmm”.

So let’s say you get this after the kitchen sink patch. The mechanical parts are going to be a solid improvement over previous games, but the storyline is significantly worse. I do want to take time to highlight that this game went through the final dev/QA during a pandemic. That it met its release date and frankly isn’t any buggier than previous releases is an amazing achievement. The logistics for this to have happened… I know from experience that mountains were moved to make this happen.

DOS:2 Complete

Guess you figured with the amount of posts ont his topic. I’ll start with non spoilers stuff for those that have not played, then get into more later on.

I guess I’ll just put this out there, but DOS:2 is the 2nd best RPG I’ve ever played. BG2 will remain in that spot for a multitude of reasons, though I will admit that personal preference is important here. BG2 has a better through story, DOS:2 makes next to no sense up until the last bits of the final act. This is only due to the sheer complexity of it all, like 90% of the game is side quests (Reaper’s Coast exemplifies this). Mechanically, I have never played a game like DOS:2 before – it’s borderline 5e rules set in the focus on action points for combat and player agency.

The world building is at another level. Nearly every single line is spoken. At least 3/4 of the entire world population has something to say. Every bit of the map has something to see. Frankly, the main character is the world, and your job is to figure out its bits and bobs, and then how you fit into it. And it has to be, because you can literally kill EVERYONE in this game. They can’t be the focus if they can be removed mid-game.

The act structure is slightly weird for an RPG. It effectively caps each zone in terms of level/challenge, and you can tell from your quest log if you’re “done” or not. I prefer the open world where you return to previous locations and find new things – like Pillars of Eternity really. I understand why, no way a game this complex could operate without clear lines between chapters… the variables would be insane. You find the ghosts of people from previous acts, and you’d need to time travel to make sense of that.

The characters are ok, though lacking the interactions of typical RPG games. They have overly long arcs that don’t really mean anything until the final step. Was kind of hoping for more bickering and dialogue, but hey, that’s a small price for flexibility.

Stats are a bit weird. You NEED 5 Loremaster to identify items, so either you slot those skills or keep gear aside to do so. The latter is an inventory nightmare due to lack of “gear sets”. Persuasion 5 (or even 6 if you can) opens up TONS of options. It’s a weird point where if you are not fully invested in Persuasion, then you should avoid the stat altogether. And that person should initiate all dialogue. Lockpicking 5 isn’t required exactly, but it does save a lot of time chasing clues/keys. Finally, Lucky Charm negates

Mechanically, the combat is serviceable, and this is solely due to the inherent weakness of melee. Given this is a turn based RPG, melee needs points to move, then points to attack. At the end my rogue was rocking lvl 20 daggers, had 45% crit, 60 finesse (runes and armor), and 15% more physical damage (rune). A 2pt backstab dealt less damage than a 2pt spell – and I needed to position myself for it.

Mages though, holy moley. Fine, they have limits on the spells they can memorize but my goodness are they machines. Air/Water combo and a Fire/Earth combo make for insane results, and rarely are cool downs a problem once you reach the Nameless Isle.

If I were to do it again, I’d run 3 mages and a tank with Earth/Poly (those both have STR based attacks). I can’t see anything withstanding that barrage.

It’s a solid 40 hours, closer to 60 if you decide to do every little bit. I finished at level 20, and did every little bit.

HERE BE SPOILERS

Right, character arcs. I only did 4 on my play through.

Sebille’s is really quite bad. Elves actually have a cool history, but then they all but get wiped out. Cool revenge story! Nope, you’re shown to be super important and a pawn. The whole thing gets resolved on the Nameless Isle, which is about 50% of the way through the game. Ehh. There are NPC sidequests that are more interesting.

Lohse is possessed, and you spend a lot of time figuring out who that is. Was hoping for more of that demon to show up, maybe affecting combat. No such luck. The fight against that demon is wild, 12 enemies against you and 4 turns to burn down the big bad or it’s game over. Felt more like a neat side quest than a character arc.

The Red Prince is destined to rebuild his people. Chases a princess, falls in love, they give birth to the first dragons in centuries. Dragons who are destined to burn the entire planet. The idea is sharp, and you get a neat summon at the tail end. It is woven into the God King arc, with a covenant and all. Some good potential here, and the whole lizard stuff works as a general theme throughout.

Fane. Ya know what, I won’t even spoil this. I will say that if you’re going to play DOS:2, your main character should be Fane. His background adds context and extra dialogue to every single major plot point.

There’s this weird thing about RPGs, where they tend to fall into the “you fell for the lies?!” trope a tad too often. Double crosses and whatnot. DOS:2 doesn’t really do that, instead it focuses more on redemption arcs. Sure, there are bad guys that hide behind masks (literally), but on the whole all the characters are truthful in their speech. The last bit, like really ultra last bit, gives a significant twist on the main baddies and gives you a choice – die to save the world, or condemn it. It’s a bit out of left field ya know?

Take the condemn route, you get a major battle against named NPCs, then a 2nd phase. Take the sacrifice route and jump straight to phase 2. End of phase 2 gives you a more nuanced level of choice. One where I stepped away for a bit and thought about it. I had been paying attention to the lore thus far, so this choice wasn’t completely out of left field. It was however a tonal shift. A weird twist on redemption. I made my choice, and the epilogue was quite satisfactory.

I’m still amazed at the journey.

End of Spoilers

The logical question that comes when exposed to something like this is “how does the genre move forward from here?” I’m somewhat concerned for BG3, mostly due to the fact that Larian has a much different view on RPGs than BG had in the past. If they had made something like DOS:3, then yeah, but there are clear expectations here.

If I look at the larger RPG setting, I am not sure anyone could replicate the world complexity/integration that Larian has set here. Looking at something like EA’s/BioWare’s attempts, it’s clear that this is beyond their grasp. Even in things that are quasi RPGs, like Assassin’s Creed don’t even come close. But then you get something like Disco Elysium which can manage that complexity. I do think this is going to put pressure on Bethesda, as the focus there is in player agency and world breadth- not integrated story.

Mechanically, it would seem obvious that environmental tactics are the future – lighting oil patches, moving into poison pits, priming and triggering effects. For all of the woes with Anthem, I think this part was one of the best things. Probably explains why so many games today are moving out of the target based melee space (just look at MMOs, where ranged/casters are the true callings).

I wouldn’t say DOS:2 is the future of RPGs, instead I would consider it a critique of our assumptions. You think you know what’s there, this is a significant shift, and it’s likely to make you think there are problems with the game. It’s a rare event where a developer is able to stick to their vision, have it different than the “norm”, and it still be an amazing experience.

Power Scaling in RPGs

I would hope most people are familiar with exponentials, especially in this current environment. The act of doubling (for example) something may seem small at first but can take off to crazy degrees very quickly. Doubling 2, 5 times gives you 32. Doing it another 5 times gives 1024. Doing it 64 times (like a chess board) is, well, too big to write down (1.8e19).

With nearly every game having RPG mechanics today, it’s a natural occurrence that scaling becomes a challenge. Now, in this regard, scaling only matters in terms of what you’re doing. God tier power on ants is meaningless. Devs go through large pains to find a balance between player power and enemy power. Normally this is done with linear increases – meaning the difference between levels 1 and 5 is the same between 5 and 10. It means the damage going in/out is relatively stable – you deal 1dmg on 5hp or 10dmg on 50hp, it works out to the same.

Where traditional RPGs struggle is in the mage problem. That of quadratic growth. In older RPGs, mages had relatively simple spells – deal some damage to a single target. Very similar to swinging a sword. They were limited in the number of times they could use the spell TOTAL in a battle (needing to rest/recharge). As they leveled up, they gained more spell slots and more powerful spells. A max-level mage had access to multiple god-tier spells and no other class could compete as they often needed to move to attack.

If you played BG2, you will see this problem exemplified. DnD 3.5 was really quite bad a this, though it took a very long time to get a mage there in the first place. DnD 4 decided to take action points into consideration, so the super amazing spells were limited in use, and even the melee folks had access to some crazy stuff. I won’t go into why Pathfinder took off because of this change (and others in 4e) but hey, it did.

Looking at modern RPGs, you see this is still the case. AC: Odyssey had no challenge at max level, primarily due to the abilities and less so the actual stats. Ghost of Tsushima by end game I couldn’t be killed and would take on 20+ enemies in a go. Abilities drove nearly all of it, as it was an action game.

Tactical RPGs are different. You don’t have defensive options, you have stat walls. You either react to damage (Cure poison), or prevent it through resistances/armor/HP. You can’t outright avoid it, at least not normally. To create that wall, you need stats, and in a linear stat game, that’s less pressing. Level 10 gear is worse that level 15 gear, but not so much to be a deal breaker.

In non-linear games, this is a problem. All of a sudden enemies 1 level higher are 1 shooting you, and you’re hitting them with a feather. DOS:2 has a scaling problem in this regard, but I’d expect most wouldn’t see it as it’s only at the tail end. See, it looks linear because to start the numbers are so small, but it’s actually a % base. Each level is about 30% better than the previous (armor/damage), which is peanuts for the for first 3/4 of the game. Most battles take 3-4 rounds to complete at that point and are a real challenge. The last quarter though, battles are over in a round, maybe 2. This makes for a larger focus on the split between a tank (lots of armor and poor attack) vs a mage (little armor and lots of damage). If my mage isn’t able to keep distance, they will be dead in a round. If my rogue isn’t backstabbing, there’s little chance I can take down the target.

I mentioned stats earlier right? DOS:2 follows the RPG model for stats, where melee care about their baseline (say, STR) and their weapon damage. Mages only care about their baseline. A level 5 wand with 2 INT/5% crit is better than 95% of any other mage weapon in the game. An ultimate sword at level 5 is beaten out by a garbage sword at level 10, simply because the damage on the weapon is more important.

What does this mean in a practical sense? Honestly, it means that my air mage can cast Thunderstorm at the start of every fight (Source Vamp to fill up after the fight), which hits an INSANE area, only targets bad guys, lasts 2 rounds, and can stun – all but wiping out every single battle in that duration. God forbid my character with high initiative uses a Rain scroll…My melee meanwhile, are not able to kill a single target in their turn due to the way weapon scaling functions.

It’s a weird model, one that I hadn’t really come to terms with until the Arx chapter. It feels a bit weird where lower items are better, and melee really suffer in the long term, but this harkens back to the pen and paper days. Where weird in something like WoW, it kinda fits here, since you need to think about WHY an item is useful, rather than just as having a higher level. Wonder how BG3 will address this.

Gimmicky Combat

Each act in Divinity 2 has at least 1 fight that includes some really gimmicky combat, the type that makes my blood boil. There’s a reason people save scum in RPGs and this is the BIG reason for it.

In RPG parlance, these battles mean that a TPK (total part kill) is all but guaranteed, and often, there’s a OHK (one hit kill) mechanic included. The only way to beat these battles is through preparation and understanding the enemy AI for better tactics. Often this requires using skills that you would never use otherwise, and a deep understanding of game mechanics in this weird rock/paper/scissors model.

I will point out that one of DOS:2’s weaknesses in this aspect is party formation. You’re always in a tight bunch, effectively melee range from each other. Means that 90% of fights, the first move of the enemy will be an AE attack that hits everyone.

On Reaper’s Coast you can fight a witch that will OHK you if you’re not sporting some amazing fire resist. If she doesn’t do it, then the 4 fire totems will. So you can either cheese it by teleporting her away and chain stunning her to high heck, OR build a character that is a damage amplifier (reduce HP to 1 and reflect damage on caster). The damage reflect is so rare because there are so very few targets that deal out so much damage that it’s worthwhile.

A fight in a nook of Arx is similar, entirely covered by Deathfog. As the name emplies, if you’re alive and you’re in that fog, you be dead. Getting rid of it is a major pain, and only 1 spell does anything decent – Tornado. This spell deals no damage, just clears ground effects. You can imagine it gets zero use anywhere else but this single fight – and then all of a sudden you find it sticking in the hotbar.

As you get stronger, and therefore more access to abilities, these challenges are less about preparation and more about rolling with the punches. You can’t really chain stun someone at level 8, but you certainly can at level 20. Who knows, maybe one of those specific tactics becomes part of your regular rotation (rain scrolls… oh my goodness those are liquid gold).

Reminds me of the various lich and dragon fights from BG2, though those were LONG telegraphed ahead of time. Throne of Bhaal went to the deeep end on these types of fights, which felt like half the content. Even Pillars of Eternity’s “secret boss” was telegraphed ahead of time – and still required a solid 10 tries to clear.

I’m not against these fights – in fact I’m more for than against. They act as a solid challenge and change of pace from the rest, a spike of excitement. DOS:2 does an even grander job on this because it will often (I wish it was always) auto-save before hand. I’ll end up running it blind to see what I’m up against, then a reload to better prepare the more unique aspects of my builds. That they are frequent, rather than end-game activities is AWESOME.

And really, it’s a great feeling taking down a fight that originally seems impossible through trial and cunning. That it forces creativity is a great thing. That the game allows it is even better.

Divinity 2 – Act 2

Or maybe it’s act 1 and Fort Joy is just a very long tutorial… but it’s done all the same.

I took my ship off Reaper’s Coast having completed everything that I found. That’s a weird metric, one that really only applies to RPGs. Action games tend to motivate you through some sort of achievement counter, like “collect all 10 glowing stones” to be some sort of special collector. RPGs tend to just give you a giant map and say “go”.

Which is one of Divinity’s absolute greatest strengths and weaknesses. I’ll use a simple quest as an example – a guy you meet in the tavern says he was ambushed and would like you to try and collect his lost wares. Typical fetch quest in most games, with some sort of combat along the way, right? Well, you CAN do it that way, or you can use ghost goggle vision (TM), find out the guy actually killed his partner, who is royally ticked and wants revenge. But how to get revenge when he’s sitting at a table surrounded by goons? Behind the tavern are some outhouses, knock on one and they tell you about some bad stew and how to make more (why?). So you make some, feed the guy, he goes out back, and you take him out – and take his head. Side note – elves in this game eat body parts to learn memories, so guess what I did? Anyhow, back to Mr Angry Ghost and he says “thanks, take my stuff that’s over there behind the giant troll”. Uh, thanks?

The guy in the tavern is found a found relatively early in your quest. The battle location has you going through half a dozen other events. Ghost goggles can take even longer to figure out. It’s not like it was a linear event, or maybe 3 side quests aside here.

I was running more like 20 active side quests at any given time. And these quests have characters that overlap, and non linear order. Lohar is in like 5 of them, and you can kill him at any point, or ally yourself with him. Maybe you read a book in some other sidequest’s hidden dungeon that unlocks a passcode for a giant vulture. Maybe it’s a special rock, or an amulet. Maybe you don’t pass that persuasion check and close off big option. Maybe you let the lich take more lives for the chance of sweeter loots.

This flexibility makes for some complex and often un-hinged dialogue options. The devs somehow had to keep track of all potentials and write/record dialogue from the NPC/Story perspective. The end result is that there’s no unifying drive – you cannot ever recall what the main quest is actually about. There’s no actual villain that’s twirling a moustache, just the search for the location of the new area to explore. This applies even more so to the pre-written NPCs who never have anything of note to say in relation to what you are doing. You’re a walking god, effectively applying the Highlander mindset, and no one says anything. Their own side quests are 1, maybe 2 steps within a larger map. It’s not for lack of setup either! My 3 companions are:

Fane – An ancient undead, practically immortal. Recently awakened, trying to figure out what the heck has gone on in the centuries of slumber.

Lohse – possessed by some sort of demon who makes her go wacko in scripted events. Zero gameplay impacts (so far).

Red Prince – Destined to his dream woman, according to the fates. A fallen prince from a race of slave takers.

The more I think about it, the more this is like Fallout 4. The characters you met were frankly meaningless, and the urgent quest you were on took 60 hours of building settlements. The world itself is the character, and you’re just a piece of decoration in that larger story. (Which, in my opinion, F:NV did a better job on both fronts.)

This may seem like a complaint, but truly it is not. When I started I was expecting something more akin to the tight storyline of BG2. This is different, and a good different. I really didn’t think this type of RPG was possible.

Divinity 2 and RPG Trends

With few exceptions, I play RPGs once and only once. And I play them. Every little quest gets done, every nook examined, every bear slain. For most RPGs, this means you get to see about 80% of the content, cause there’s always stuff that’s set behind key decision points that can only be seen after replays. Chrono Cross exemplifies this – and yes, I did replay it 3 times to get everything. Long story short, I took a very long time to clear the intro zone in Divinity 2, checking every tiny bit. And for nearly all of it, colour me impressed.

Melee vs Ranged

I was thinking maybe this would be different, but there’s no bullplop here, ranged attacks dominate melee. This is for a few reason: most ranged attacks are area effect, ranged attacks are mostly elemental with effects, caster damage is barely tied to equipment, ranged attacks have much better scaling, ranged attacks barely need to move, and they have the same action point ratio/cooldown as melee.

Not saying Melee is useless, I do enjoy the rogue build, yet it’s 1 target a time. My Geomancer/Pyrokinetic (earth/fire) mage simply destroys everything. Plus he can spec into any other casting spec (there are 7 total) with no penalty since they all use INT to scale. My rogue can either dual wield daggers or use a bow since they are the only ones that use FIN.

This breadth of choice is both amazing and very limiting. It’s entirely possible to make bad builds, especially if you don’t understand all the various elemental interactions. Compared to something like D&D (or Pathfinder), there’s no hand holding here. If you think it will work, odds are it will – but will lean heavily towards ranged.

Elemental Interactions

This is a weird thing for casters, as some things overlap and trigger. Fire makes poison explode, so you have to put them in the right order. Water can freeze or stun people. You can blind, bleed, slow, knockdown and what seems a half dozen other effects.

It’s entirely possible to make the entire screen go BOOM with 2 spells. Earthquake puts our 8 puddles of oil, that oil can explode and most likely chain to other oil puddles. There were quite a few battles that were not going in my favour and I just decided to HAM the fight and things turned out well. The last fight on the jail island is a darn good example of this.

And the environment itself is a stage for a fight. Every single battle has a vertical aspect, where height makes a difference in potential damage, and prevents some elemental effects from spreading. Quite a few battles have things just lying around, waiting to explode or extinguish or block your best laid plans. It is both a great feeling to lay down a river of electric stun as it is to get caught in a puddle of slow-moving and burning oil.

I should mention an interesting talent for casters that reduces the AP cost of spells if you’re standing in that element. Extremely easy for water, quite easy if you’re undead and have poison. Fire is often manageable. That AP cost usually means another powerful spell can be cast, which dramatically speeds up fights. It’s effectively a focused haste.

Status Effects

I think this particular topic bears some mention across all RPGs and is directly balanced against damage. There’s a reason that old school RPGs have turn based combat, P&P battles could take hours to resolve. You needed to lock-down or disable enemies in order to survive for that long, since your damage attacks could rarely strike down a target in 1 turn.

Look at MMORPGs, where 10 years ago status effects mattered, and today everything is a DPS race. We’ve moved the needle closer to FPS models, where power is measured in time to kill (TTK) speed increased vs. survivability. Even modern “active” RPGs are like this, D&D 4e is all about a lot of small battles.

So there’s an old-school approach to managing all the types of status effects, broken down between damage, disabling, and full-on turn losses. Some fights (like a troll that can 1-shot anyone) are entirely focused on the ability to disable them in order to succeed. It’s a refreshing complexity. I will say this puts an even larger focus on movement abilities in order to avoid environmental status-effects (slipping is hilarious).

Focus Fire

Enemy AI here is solid enough. They generally will target the healer or lowest armor/health target. It isn’t exactly focus fire though, or perhaps that’s more a difficulty modifier I have not enabled.

Combat focus from a player perspective is similar to all other RPGs, take out the most dangerous target first and have 1 person focus/control on the scraps. There is some math work here, as there are so many effects possible, it’s entirely possible a target dies while taking a step and you’re better off using an attack against another target.

The D&D Model

Most of my D&D experience is from the 3.5e model. I played a few games with 4e, which felt more like a video game as it focused (to an extreme) on combat and cooldowns, with a dramatic streamlining (some would say limiting) on class choice. A rogue only ever had access to rogue skills in 4e. 3.5 was much more horizontal than 4e. I have not played 5e, but I understand it tries to merge both models. I won’t go into the history of all this, Tobold is much better equipped than I.

Divinity 2 feels like the right balance between combat structure and horizontal choice. It doesn’t feel as obtuse as multi-classing, and there are rarely any complicated pre-requisites for any build choice – have rank 3 in fire skills and get access to all rank 1-2-3 fire skills. You don’t need to be a high elf who has ancient orc blood and cherishes the 2nd moon to get +2 damage. You can make bad choices but they are entirely reverse able on the next level up. You can’t reverse a multi-class, or a specialization in a weapon you’ll never use in a couple levels.

I think this is why Baldur’s Gate 3 seems such a question mark to me. I don’t quite see how Larian’s model can fit into the D&D mechanics. The EA reviews appear rather consistent in this challenge, and I’m quite curious as to how it plays itself out over the next year.

For now, and likely the next couple weeks at my pace, Divinity 2 is scratching a heck of an itch.

Gaming Trends

It feels like ages ago, but it was only a year or so where I posited that the largest shift this generation for gaming would be cross-play. That was related to Dauntless, and it’s ability to link any version together. Frankly, there are nothing but benefits to having MORE people play in an online game. We’ve seen some bits of it moving forward – Fortnite, and PUBG do it now, Apex Legends is in beta. Genshin Impact is another big splash. I still think this is like the largest change to all gaming.

With these OS/hardware refreshes underway, fancifully called new consoles, there’s a common ground in that the foundational platforms are the same. No significant architecture changes, just “new” assets. It’s allowing for backwards compatibility for nearly anything currrent-gen, without real issue. It also means that the efforts to make crossplay work in the past are still valid. There’s more in common across platforms than not.

Some thoughts on current trends and where we’ll end up.

Exclusives

Last gen really only saw Sony do this with their 1st party games. Many GOTY candidates were in this basket, and XBOX users were left in the dark. Last of Us, God of War, Horizon, Ghost of Tsushima to name a few. XBOX was meh. Forza, Gears, and Sea of Thieves. This does explain Microsoft’s insane buying spree of late, Bethesda of note.

I’m sure we’ll continue to see exclusives, but only in relation to timed exclusives for say 6-12 months from the Microsoft team. Sony is a question mark, the drive a serious amount of console sales from their software. The trial run with Horizon’s on PC is the likely future, with again a timed exclusive model.

Software as a Service

So this is a buzzword that can be used for so much, but this is more like the PS and XBOX monthly gaming passes. This allows the platforms to have a consistent cash flow in exchange for keeping a useful digital library. This provides a ton of value to gamers who float from game to game, and tons of value to platforms for those who stick with a game for a long duration. It dramatically changes the cash flow for developers, where they are putting in millions of dollars and not getting that $70 one time buy.

Consoles are going to invest in partnerships with developers to get access to their services (EA and Ubisoft in particular) to increase the attractiveness of the service. Again, due to the shared architecture with PS, XBOX, and PC, the library of games just keeps on growing.

Updates and Networking

XBOX is in a decent spot. PS4 is so much better than PS3, but holy moly the amount of system updates preventing you from playing is annoying. Sony has said that this is further improved in the PS5, so time will tell. A big change here is more related to hardware, with SSD drives being so much faster than disk drives, which should dramatically speed up the install times. Game load times will be SUPER fast (Monster Hunter on PS4 takes 90s to load a zone that takes 5s on PC).

Now for games themselves, this is actually going to get much, much worse. We’re going back to the early CD days where you had multiple install disks because the storage media couldn’t handle everything. The XBOX S only has ~350gb and doesn’t have a disk drive. That’s about 6 standard games, but for the very big ones you may end up with only 1 or 2. As much as we have modular storage upgrades, my gut is telling me that industry is going to go the game streaming route instead.

Production Values

Graphically there isn’t much here that hasn’t already been seen on PC. 4K + ray tracing, everywhere. We won’t see 8K (nor can people really afford those TVs). That said, a console today is cheaper than a PC video card.

Voice acting is everywhere today, even in indie games. Musical scores are astoundingly solid and memorable. The mid-days are long dead. I don’t see much progress in this department, other than just a new baseline.

The weird spot here for me is going to be character creations. With all the AI tools we have around us, I’m surprised we don’t have a more mature “replicate this picture” in games.

Game Mechanics

This console run we saw “open world everything” and “rpg every system”, with Ubisoft certainly taking this to the extreme. With better processing power, I’d expect more procedurally generated content that increases replayability. I’d also expect there to be better support for player-generated content. To me it seems strange that things like Minecraft and Dragon Builders, and I guess No Man’s Sky, are not being explored in more depth. Hell, Roblox is a cash cow.

Rogue likes are everywhere, and mobile is covered in the concept of incrementals. We haven’t seen a big budget version of this yet, unless you’re counting FPS games here. We’re due.

Integration into the mobile space is severely lacking. I don’t mean ports to mobile, I mean having a companion program to “games as a service”. There’s an insane amount of money left on the table here, if only in the ability for the companion app to be in the players pocket during all waking hours. It obviously would need to be optional, but since all the consoles support Bluetooth and cloud connections, this shouldn’t be hard to sync up.

I would be ultra surprised if we don’t end up seeing Early Access games on consoles this generation. If there’s a way for a developer to make money on a broken game, damn sure they will do so. There’s a GOOD argument to be made around Fallout76 and Anthem being examples of this behaviour. Maybe EA gets a subscription service instead.

Maybe this is the generation where we see a return to Myst-like games of exploration, using FMV and VR. The PS VR toolset worked well, and Oculus 2’s requirement for permanent big-brother Facebook links is putting a ceiling on adoption. Using a standard framework, this is a great opportunity.

Mobility is weird one. Consoles are not exactly tied down like a desktop, but they aren’t exactly mobile either. Streaming would allow you to play the console from anywhere in your house, or from another location if the network supports it.

PCs

The days where consoles drive gaming progress are long behind us. Their best bet is home entertainment units, and at a stretch, a potential VR interface. PCs will continue to dominate the bleeding edge, and the indie scene is where we will see new game mechanics iterated upon.

I do think PC has some serious hurdles to get over, primarily on the absolute insanity of custom PC builds to play potato-quality games. Or, at a more extreme level, having to modify the core settings of a game (or find a mod) to allow a game to use all the parts in the PC. Driver support alone is bonkers. The future of PCs is in the hardware space. Larger/faster storage options. Smaller components with non-PhD cooling solutions. A continual price reduction on pre-built gaming rigs.

Mobile

Here is where I think the largest change will take place, specifically in the streaming area. Right now, Apple and Google “own” the app delivery method and they take a 30% cut. Game streaming services mean the game never really exists on the device, and all the compute is done remotely. Assuming the network speed is sufficient, you should be able to play pretty much anything through a streaming service.

Ok, an example. Fortnite right now can’t be played on iOS for fun reasons. Imagine Fortnite being deployed as a gaming stream rather than an actual app. This would likely break the Great Firewall of China and a whole slew of other interesting hurdles. Bluetooth controller, USB-C to HDMI, a TV, a streaming service and you have gaming on the go.

Future

Gaming today feels like magic. The audio/visual fidelity is right at the edge of the uncanny valley (RTX is crazy good). They bring more and more people together. The provide long term goals and a sense of continual progression and community. There are options for everyone. To me, the future is going to focus on gaming where you want with who you want. It’s going to be awesome.