The Fighting, Fishing Farmer (Stardew Valley)

I’ve never played a Harvest Moon game before. I’ve eyed up the games on more than one occasion, but Nintendo typically doesn’t like to sell any of its big franchise titles below £20 and the very minimum. (Steam may have spoiled me in this regard.) I have, however, played my fair share on Animal Crossing games (Wild World, City Folk, New Leaf) and am a sucker for this genre of game.

It is easy, then, to see why Stardew Valley caught my eye. To this day, it remains as one of the only games I’ve bought upon its release without waiting for it go on sale in a year’s time. (Other games in this special category include Rocket League and Robot Roller Derby Disco Dodgeball.) After seeing approximately 5 seconds of a little pixellated guy planting some seeds of whatever, I leaned in intently for a closer look. 5 minutes later and it was downloading.

So here’s how my day begins: I get up, I water the crops. Preferably I’d like this to be automated eventually, as my ever-expanding farm takes longer and longer to water, but for this I need iron, and that’s a whole other enterprise. After watering the crops, I say a quick hello to Tocco the dog, before trotting into town. When I get there, I typically stop and realise that I’ve no idea what to do with my day. Should I go fishing? Foraging? Monster slaying and mining? Try to make friends and woo potential future wives? (Yes, marriage is another goal to work towards in-game.)

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This game is a little too realistic for my liking.

Currently, my main demand is making money. I need to buy a silo, and a chicken coop. I need to buy more crops to sell more crops. I need to buy a house upgrade to get a kitchen and delve into cooking. I need to buy tool upgrades, too, and I’m torn as to whether I should do that first or continue saving up. The game’s economy is a perfect balance of not having enough money to race through the game, and being able to make money fast enough to the point where you actually feel like you’re doing something.

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Having not yet grasped the workings of the gifting system, I’d become convinced that you could gift any villager anything and it’d raise your friendship. Mayor Lewis was not impressed with the rock I gave him.

Never before has a game simulated the whole “not enough hours in a day” problem as Stardew Valley. (Well, maybe Harvest Moon, but I’ve never played those games.) I mean, at least in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask you could play a handy little tune to send you back in time. In Stardew Valley, I’ll sometimes be in the middle of cave diving and monster slaying when my character suddenly yawns, and I realise it’s midnight and I need to get home before I collapse at 2AM. Then it’s a rushed 6 hours sleep in which I dream about how much money the stuff I’ve dumped in my box has sold for, before it’s time to get up and water the crops again, bleary eyed and wondering how to spend my day.

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Had I known that the change of seasons would outright kill my crops, I’d have perhaps planted them a little earlier.

You may worry that Stardew Valley would get a bit routine, then, but the depth of the game counteracts this problem. Not only do you have plenty to do regarding skills, people and dungeon-running, but the game also has a good story, day-specific events and, of course, the changing of seasons to keep you occupied. Sometimes characters give you quests, asking you too find them a specific item and thereby rewarding you with gold and friendship. Sometimes you’ll walk into a room and a cutscene will start, cued by either storyline or level of friendship. There’s plenty to keep you busy, immersed, and out of a rut.

I have few criticisms, but I’ll express them anyway. Firstly, the controls. It’s difficult to explain, but sometimes when you click on a tile, you’ll instead interact with a different tile due to your character’s positioning. I feel that clicking on a tile that’s next to you should override the current position you’re facing and turn you, so that you don’t accidentally smash your potatoes with a pickaxe rather than that inviting looking stone behind you. My other small gripe as that, although the game’s soundtrack and ambiance is mostly perfect, the ambient noises they’ve included in forests for summer namely include flies buzzing loudly around the place. This might be realistic, but games like the Sims have conditioned me to believe that this noise is of negative origin, and I spent an embarrasingly long time trying to track down the source of the flies. It’s also just a, er, annoying noise.

 

That’s it, though. My two criticisms. Weighed against hundreds of points of positivity, I think it’s safe to say that Stardew Valley will be one of my longer-lasting companions in the gaming world.

 

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The Sky is the… Rimit? (Skyrim)

This blog post contains some spoilers for the main story and civil war questline in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

So after defeating Alduin and saving the world-

Haaaang on just a moment. Let’s dial this back a bit.

So after playing around 12 hours of Oblivion I realised that I wanted more; namely, that I wanted to graduate to the frozen lands of Skyrim before saving the world in Cyrodiil. I mean, sure, the story in Oblivion was interesting, but I was able to catch up on the events by reading a handy little in game book named The Oblivion Crisis. (Though I’d recommend actually playing the game, in all seriousness.) I decided to play Skyrim as it was meant to be played: with no carry limit removal mod, and on the standard difficulty.

I started out as a lowly prisoner, as this is an Elder Scrolls game and that’s essentially the tradition. After morphing into a few races before the eyes of the nonplussed Imperial before me, I settled on the decision of being a High Elf, as I’ve shown on this blog before:

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You may see Lydia there in the background. We’ll get to her in a moment.

Now, I’ve played Skyrim a few times before; firstly on PS3, secondly on PC, and both times my attention wavered. Before this playthrough I’d piddled through 11 hours of the game, messing about with commands and mods. I was very wary of starting yet another new character due to this. However, 35 hours later, I’m not regretting this decision. I’d previously never made it past High Hrothgar in the story, but once I decided to focus purely on one thing at a time (namely, one questline at a time) then things became much more fun.

I’m a destruction / conjuration user; I summon my Flame Atronach, back away a few paces, summon my Bound Sword, and start blasting people with fireballs. I also learned to use shouts to my advantage, as the game wants you to do but many people seem to forget exist. In passive roleplay fashion, my character has no solid backstory but happens to be a law abiding citizen with high moral values, who sees both sides of the civil war as flawed and remains the neutral party… whilst the dragons remain an immediate threat.

So, after defeating Alduin and saving the world (there we go), I decided to browse Skyrim a little more and learn a little of its history. I bought a house in Whiterun; I adopted a child; I saved a town from its collective nightmares; I adopted another child; I married Carlotta Camilla, who continues to stress to me every day how much it means to her and her brother that I brought back the golden claw. I proposed to her after I completed the silly love triangle quest and also, directly in front of her brother. Awkward.

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A little direct, perhaps, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t work!

I am yet to do many things, but there are some side quests I’ve completed, such as slaughtering the inhabitants of Northwatch Keep to save so-and-so Grey-Mane, joining the Companions and becoming a bit of a werewolf, and obtaining a daedric artifact in the form of a soul gem which will never break upon use. And on my way to the Shrine of Azura, this occured:

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Tesco appear to have adopted a less… conventional means of freezing their meat.

But I’m afraid Lydia’s days of photobombing my screenshots were numbered. I have a rule in my playthroughs: when a companion dies, you may not revert time to save them. It sounds silly, but feeling the genuine guilt and regret when you accidentally kill your follower (for they can only die by your hand) legitimately enhances my gameplay experience. It makes the world feel more real, and it creates a sense of the world having consequences.

Lydia met her end in a cramped hallway in some shoddy cave when I was clearing the place out of bandits for the Companions.

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I don’t think it’s possible to die in a dignified manner in Skyrim. R.I.P Lydia… you were one heck of a pak-yak.

Perhaps I should have given her some better armour. Perhaps I should have advised her to stay behind me when I was casting spells. Or perhaps I should have let her stay in Whiterun, tending to my garden, free of the burdens of my many dragon scales and dragon bones, happy to live a peaceful life with my wife and kids and a never-ending awkward tension of feeling out of place.

Well, anyway! Times change, people die, things move on. Desperate to bury my guilt in the youth of a new follower to aid my cause, I returned to Riverwood and sought out a new apprentice. I came across Sven, the Bard, whom I helped with his affections for Cam-

Wait-

Camilla’s my wife now. Well, that would be an awkward conversation.

Anyway, I approached Sven with the offer of a lifetime – to carry the Dragonborn’s shit – and reluctantly, he accepted, saying that some guy I’m presuming was his bard master had always told him to get out and see more of the world. (Not very good advice for a bard, if you ask me. Counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t he be getting acquainted in taverns? Leave adventuring to the adventurers.) Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, I spent 2,000 gold to kit him out with a set of armour to keep him breathing.

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Aw c’mon Sven don’t be so self-conscious, you look tough! No no I’m laughing because of how strong you look! It’s intimidating!

Sven was… an interesting companion. Sometimes, upon fast travelling, he’d get out his lute and start playing a tune to the open forest around us. Whilst in full battle-mode gear. He once did it even as a dragon was swooping down on us. Poetry in the face of adversity; it would be commendable if it wasn’t so ridiculous.

Well, anyway, I was messing around with my werewolf abilities and, uh, those swinging arms are hard to control, and…

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I ate his corpse. Out of a sign of respect, you understand.

Nobody tell Camilla.

Torn apart by grief, guilt and feral instincts, my Dragonborn High-Elf Werewolf of a Destruction-Conjurer took a look at the world around him, and decided that civil war was tearing Skyrim apart. By this point my hybrid hide had read many books dotted throughout Skyrim, and spoken to many people; I’d discovered the recent war and the threat of the Aldmeri Dominion (more specifically the Thalmor) in basically taking over Tamriel. And the Stormcloaks are a bunch of racists who’d throw me out anyway, so…

I joined the Imperial Legion to bring unity to Skyrim.

So, alright, my moral values loosened up a bit. I completed the civil war questline on day two of my Skyrim playthrough (those 35 hours were not played far from each other). It was morbidly satisfying to blast through forts, killing at will with an army at my back, winning back Skyrim piece by piece. Tullius wasn’t exactly fond of me, given that I signed half his holds away in the peace treaty, and I never did mention the slaughter of Northwatch Keep to him… but hey, I helped him take down Ulfric. And he only gave me the swiftest of glances whilst I undressed the Stormcloak leader and took his clothes.

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He was a prick anyway.

His bloodlust satiated, my character finally settled down and considered his actions, and settled upon the idea of living the quiet life for a while. He ventured to Falkreath where, after being tasked to kill some lowly bandits, he was given permission to buy a plot of land.

He built a lovely little house.

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I’ve yet to build the extensions due to lack of resources, but they’ll be coming soon.

There’s still much to do. Every time I pass a guard nowadays they shout “HEARD THEY’RE REFORMING THE DAWNGUARD!” in my ear like it’s going out of fashion. Alright, I get it, I’m the almighty and famous Dragonborn, you want me to kill vampires, just freakin’ ask instead of screaming hints. There’s also apparently some work to be done in Solstheim. But man, this High Elf needs some rest. For now, his adventures are on hiatus; he’s going to settle down in his quiant little log cabin and read the adventure of another type of elf, one who lived around 1,000 years ago…

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Passive Roleplaying

When you hear about “roleplaying” in an MMO, the first thing that will probably rush to your mind is level 1 human females running around Goldshire Inn sending winky faces and selling their virtual bodies for in-game gold via a series of private messages composed of erotic text, thrown together almost more carelessly than the works of Fifty Shades of Grey. But when you take away some of the more modern experiments with the MMO experience, what was the full name of the genre? MMORPG.

Roleplaying is not about getting naked and kinky with your overenthusiastic level 1, but instead the idea of creating a fictional element to your in-game character. Even when you get past the stigmatic notion of nude dudes swapping pubes, the typical expectation of roleplaying a character is that you walk rather than run, speak as that character would, and imagine yourself to be living in the game world rather than playing it. And some people enjoy this, I’m not knocking it, I find it to be an interesting experiment into fiction. Nor am I denying that this is roleplaying, as that’d be absurd. What I am denying is that roleplaying has to be a different approach to playing the game, and that only a minority of players do this.

In my eyes, roleplaying is done by many of us and we don’t even realise it. Once you spend more than a few seconds in the character customisation screen, choosing your forehead colour and elongating your nose, you may have already started to question just what your High Elf is even doing in Helgen. You don’t even have to flesh out the backstory; just paying attention to the story in relation to your character and the significance of these events is enough to warrant the title of roleplayer. I find that giving your character a good name, personality, and contextual presence within the game world, as well as a set of dashing good looks is enough to enhance your gameplay experience. In all of my previous gameplays, I’d been dashing around the land as Kritigri the whatever-the-race-he-felt-like-choosing-at-the-time, ignoring backstory and killing at will. Now that I’ve actually stopped to give thought as to my character within the game, I’m much more receptive to the world and find that it just can’t be ignord.

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My High Elf, lookin’ sharp. The quest required that I wear the fancy clothes but they remain in my chest at Breezehome.

…yeah, that was terrible.

The most prominent example I have of the difference between passively roleplaying and not is a World of Warcraft character I once had. My friend and I decided to make Worgens, and given the restrictions of class combinations, I ended up making a Worgen Shadow Priest whom I named Kritigrawr. He made it all the way to level 50 before his name, race / class combo and the ridiculous appearance of a wolf in robes bothered me enough to delete him. He has since been replaced with a Human Discipline Priest, and her name is Divinitaine. I have thoroughly enjoyed this change, and have made similar deletions in the past, typically deleting a character whose name was a variant of “Kritigri” (see: Kritigrawr the Worgen Priest, Kritigro the Dwarf Warlock, Kritigru the Draenei Monk) to make more befitting names and races (i.e the aforementioned Divinitaine, Netherwarp the Human Warlock and, ah… Thunker, the Human Monk. The name amuses me.)

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Here is my WoW character Netherwarp, before I found him a decent staff to wield. The robes were intentionally gathered, though; transmogrification allows you to make your armour and weapons look like different armour and weapons, further enhancing your character’s fantasy.

 

Some RPGs such as Borderlands and the Witcher put you into the boots of a character with little to no customisability. From a narrative standpoint, this has its merits and advantages (I’ve only played a little of the first Witcher game but I already very much like Geralt), and your immersion lends itself more to the story of that particular character than your own passive roleplay. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing, for I sure as hell know I wouldn’t be able to create as much of a glorious Italian badass as the Ezio Auditore that Assassin’s Creed 2 through Revelations presented me with.

M-M-M-MONSTER KILL! (Unreal Tournament)

My father bought the PS2 version of Unreal Tournament off eBay when I was around eleven years old. It seemed like a bit of a random purchase, considering we didn’t typically buy stuff online, but perhaps he was interested in it; perhaps he thought I’d be interested in it. If he thought the latter, then my goodness did he turn out to be right.

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Unreal Tourmanent on PS2, in an exclusive map.

Unreal Tournament was the first FPS I ever played. To start with, I was somewhat dumbfounded by the controls, but after many agonizing hours of running into walls and falling off elevators, I got the hang of it. I came to like this new breed of game (from my experience), and then I came to love it. After many hours of fragging (always Free For All), I came to believe that I must have been one of the greatest Unreal Tournament players in the world, having become able to dispatch bots on Inhuman difficulty in both normal and Instagib modes with ease. This was, of course, innocent childhood arrogance that was quickly dispelled upon my first treading into online multiplayer waters.

I played the console version of Unreal Tournament for many years before I finally acquired the PC version, and a PC to play it on. I believe I’d already played some FPS games on PC, and had gotten used to the controls there, but that didn’t stop me from having to re-learn how to play Unreal Tournament after losing to average bots. I was also overwhelmed with the new amount of maps and characters and options there were. This, I realised, was the full version of Unreal Tournament, and not that junior version over on the console (although the PS2 did have some unique maps which I still miss to this day). Once I’d re-acquainted myself with the gameplay on PC and made myself at home, I figured I’d venture into the online servers and kick some butt over there.

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Somebody head rolled allll the way down.

Unreal Tournament, at this point, was already almost a decade old. I failed to account for the fact that the only remaining playerbase would therefore be one of hardcore fans who’d played for hundreds, possibly thousands of hours more than I. They were also multiplayer veterans in the sense that they didn’t train themselves on bots; they were used to the unpredictability of players, which rivals that of even the highest level bot. Needless to say, the walls of Deck 16 were painted red with my repeated loss of blood and limb.

And dignity.

I decided to stick to bots, mostly because I didn’t feel like sinking hundreds of hours into getting as good as the hardcore players around me. I’m not a particularly competitive gamer, certainly not enough to warrant such a commitment of time and frustration. If I’m competitive at all, it’s in the sense of single player progression; I’d happily do some sort of achievement race, and often try my hardest to get the rarest achievements in a game. But dying over and over in the hopes of getting better and defeating strangers I’ll never meet again? Not my cup of tea. Not to say that that’s a bad way to play, of course. If you find something fun, do it!

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The one thing I dislike about UT2004 is the design of the pulse rifle.

A few years ago I got my gaming-capable laptop, and bought all the Unreal Tournaments on Steam after having been deprived from the sequels for so long. I remembered looking up videos of Unreal Tournament 2004 and longing to play it, but having an awful PC and no money. UT2004 may be my favourite of the Unreal Tournament games, partially for how it looks; it has an aesthetic which ages incredibly well. There’s also a fair amount of tweaks to the movement, and of course, a different selection of maps. It’s my go-to fragfest, if I want to kill a few hours with a podcast.

I vividly remember reading about “Unreal Tournament 2007” in a gaming magazine on a long road trip and becoming highly excited. This would go on to become Unreal Tournament 3, the estranged cousin of the franchise that nobody’s really certain about. Epic decided that combining the grittiness of Gears of War with the happy-go-fraggy gameplay of the previous games was a good idea. It was not. That’s not to say it’s a bad game, though, as I’ve spent a few hours playing it and whilst it’s not currently installed, I can see myself going back to play it in future. Maybe for the achievements- yes I’m aware that I have a problem.

I’ll quickly mention that they’re making a new Unreal Tournament that’s completely free, and it’s playable now. However, last time I tried to play it, it was very unoptimised and my PC didn’t like it, so I’ll wait for the full release and hope that it gets better. I’m very pleased that the folks at Epic decided to make another Unreal Tournament. It’s awoken a dead community from the slumber of eternal replayability.

The entire reason I’m writing this blog post is because of a series of events which happened yesterday. The website Bundle Stars was selling a Quake bundle which I was tempted by, but ultimately did not end up buying because I’m currently as rich as the quality control in a Ubisoft game. I then remembered Quake Live, the formerly free to play Quake game which I’d dabbled with for about half an hour in the past. I say “formerly free to play” because an interesting turn of events has taken place; the game, which had been free to play with a premium service for the last five years, is now listed as costing £6.99. I’m not sure when this happened, but it was sometime this year. People are furious, because it’s no longer free and it reset everyone’s progress, but I’m in the rare position of being better off for it as the premium service no longer exists and the game is already registered to my account! Having access to all 100+ maps, I decided to give it a proper spin, and learning this alternative (let’s be honest, probably original) arena shooter for the first time caused me to reminisce about my first time playing Unreal Tournament. I do miss the announcer from UT, though.