31 December 2014

The 2014 Post

So, it's New Year's Eve, and I guess it's traditional to take a look back at the past year. I'm not going to pretend 2014 was the greatest of years for me. My creative and social energies have been pretty low and I haven't accomplished much. (And, looking at my blog, I see I've only posted about half the number of posts I've written in an average year.) But let's talk about some of the highlights of the year, rather than mope around!

As anyone following my blog would know, video games have always been one of my greatest passions. I think I managed to play a reasonable number of games this year, by my standards. Finally getting a PlayStation Plus membership allowed me to try out several interesting games I might not have played otherwise. But I think two games really stand out when I look back.

The first was Dark Souls. I spent many an hour playing it last spring (and wrote several blog posts). This dark, challenging action RPG that I'd been somewhat sceptical about for many years turned out to be very much to my taste. And then there's the last game I played this year, another that surprised me with its addictive quality—Destiny. I've never been a huge fan of FPSs, but, as I wrote before, I think I've had more fun with Destiny than with any FPS I've tried since Doom.

I realise that both of these games have an appeal that is not necessarily easy to explain to others, and also not the types of games I've traditionally played most (being less narrative and more grindy experiences). They aren't perfect creations, but I've still greatly enjoyed them.

Tangentially related to gaming, discovering LoadingReadyRun was an important part of my year. This Canadian group produces a large variety of online comedy videos and also streams games live on Twitch. Their works have provided me with a lot of entertainment over the last year. They're also known for their charity gaming marathon Desert Bus for Hope, which I watched for the first time this year, and it was a blast. Speaking of charity marathons, Mario Marathon was another highlight of the year, as it has been for several years running.

The music year was a little slow for me, to be honest. I've been a little lazier than before in my listening, and I haven't really made many interesting new discoveries. I got to see Within Temptation live, which was fun. (And their new album was decent as well.) The highlight of the year for me, though, was probably the new Toehider album, What Kind of Creature Am I, which I backed in a crowdfunding campaign, on a whim, based on the recommendation of Arjen Lucassen. And I'm very glad I did—Toehider was a much needed breath of fresh air in my otherwise slightly stagnant year.

And I guess that pretty much wraps up 2014 for me. Hopefully 2015 will continue to bring interesting games and entertainment my way. And maybe, just maybe, I'll even manage to accomplish something sometime...

23 December 2014

The Destiny Post Part 2, featuring The Dark Below

I'm honestly a little surprised that almost a month after my previous post about Destiny, I'm still actually playing it. Having played through the story missions just before that post, I was momentarily unsure about what I wanted to do next. Usually I get bored with games around that point and move on to something new. But I fought through my hesitation and popped the game into the console again, and, lo and behold, I've been enjoying it ever since, even with all its repetitiveness and lack of obvious goals beyond improving my character.

So what I've been doing is pretty much just grinding. There are 'bounties' in the game that refresh daily, so I wander the planets, killing things and doing little missions, occasionally replaying story missions on harder settings etc. And I've managed to grind to level 30 doing pretty much just that. (The progression is much slower after level 20, which is where I was at when I finished the story missions almost a month ago.)

There are still aspects of the game I haven't really delved into, specifically the multiplayer content. I've only tried doing strikes (the slightly more demanding three player missions) a handful of times. It's been fun and I probably should be doing more of it, but I'm always very nervous about playing with strangers. (It's not like I even have to communicate with the other players, the missions are fairly straightforward, but still...) As for the Crucible, which is what the game's PvP portion is called, I tried it once recently, and soon discovered that fighting human players is very different than fighting AI. I failed about as miserably as it is possible to fail, and I don't really have any desire to try that again. Yeah, what can I say, I'm a scrub. (Which is a shame, since some of the better weapons in the game can only be obtained by playing Crucible...)

Also, a couple weeks back Destiny's first expansion was released, titled The Dark Below. Being heavily into the game at the time, I bought it, of course. Well, actually I bought the expansion pass that includes both The Dark Below and the next expansion when it's released. Something I've never done before—I've never really been in a huge fan of DLC in general, and rarely in a great hurry to obtain them...

The Dark Below adds a couple new story missions and a bunch of smaller objectives called 'quests', as well as two new strikes and a new raid, new bounties, plus new equipment (which I believe is available even if you don't buy the expansion). It also increases the level cap to 32. While playing through the missions as such won't take a huge amount of time, when you consider that the 'meat' of Destiny is largely in the repetition and grinding, any bit of added variety is obviously important. If it was a one time playthrough, the price of the expansion would seem a little bit steep, I think, but Destiny's nature probably makes it more worth it...

Anyway, the new material was pretty fun to play through, overall. The new missions are obviously higher level than the original story missions, with lots of enemies to plough through and keep that adrenaline pumping. The story's no deeper than the rest of Destiny—an old alien threat is about to rise again and you must stop it, etc. etc. But it builds on lore established in the original content, which is important. I'm already looking forward to seeing what the next expansion brings to the setting.

Now it's hard, as always, to say how long my interest in the game will last. I do have other games waiting to be played. But so far I've been enjoying Destiny... Even if I do take a break before too long, I'll obviously return to it eventually, since I've already bought the next expansion...

26 November 2014

The Destiny Post

Not being a huge fan of either FPS games or online multiplayer games, I wasn't initially particularly interested in Bungie's new game, Destiny. But after recently getting a PS4 and watching the game streamed by members of LoadingReadyRun (who have previously inspired me to try several other games, like Dark Souls, that I've quite enjoyed), I figured I might as well give it a shot and bought a second hand copy. I ended up playing a not insignificant amount of hours of it over the last week or so.

Destiny was initially released to somewhat mixed reviews, but I think this was largely due to the fact that it had generated a lot of hype before its release. So it might not have been quite as ground-breaking as some might have hoped, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily a bad game. I've heard more than one person I respect comment that the criticisms the game received can't really be argued with, but it's still a fun game to play. As I write this, I've finished playing through the game's main story missions, but there are still aspects, namely the game's multiplayer elements, that I haven't tried. I may return to those in a future post, if I ever get around to playing them...

So what exactly is Destiny? It's actually a little hard to sum up in just a few words. Destiny is a sci-fi first person shooter with RPG elements. It's set in a distant, apocalyptic future. A long time ago, a vast alien entity known as the Traveler came to earth, bringing about an era of prosperity across the solar system. But eventually the Traveler's old enemy, a mysterious force known only as the Darkness, came and caused society to collapse. Humanity's last survivors now live in a single city on Earth, while the rest of the solar system is overrun by hostile aliens. You play as a Guardian, a warrior brought back from the dead by the Traveler's power, who must venture out into the world to fight these alien invaders...

While the game was obviously designed with multiplayer in mind, there is plenty to do on your own as well. A series of story missions introduces you to the game's locations and enemy factions. The story's not exactly very deep or complex, but that's fine. Destiny is clearly more about gameplay than it is about narrative, and I think its storytelling went well with the game's style and pace. Graham Stark of LoadingReadyRun once commented while streaming the game that it's not so much a game with story as it is a game with lore. And the setting is, indeed, pretty cool.

Which brings me to one of the game's features that caused some controversy. As you play, you unlock 'Grimoire Cards', little snippets of lore concerning many aspects of the game and its setting. However, you can't read these in the game, only by logging into Bungie's website or using the game's official mobile phone app. The possibility to read this background information online or on my phone, in and of itself, is a pretty neat idea, I think. But not being able to access it through the game doesn't really make any sense. It's not like we're talking about a huge amount of data...

But let's get on to the game itself! Destiny controls much like any FPS. The action is fairly fast and fluid, and pretty fun. There's a significant RPG element to the game as well, though. You pick one of three classes and three races. The latter choice is only cosmetic, but each class has slightly different abilities. As you play you level up and gain more abilities, and find or buy better gear. Loot is important, and items come in a range of different rarities. Once you hit level 20 you can only increase your level by acquiring better gear, up to an overall maximum of 30.

The game has four major areas (Earth, Moon, Venus and Mars), each of which features a fairly large, open public area and locations for several missions. Multiplayer is woven through the entire game. Each mission will usually see you travelling through a public area populated by other players as well, to the actual mission area, where you'll be alone—or with your 'fire team', if you're playing co-op—not unlike an instance dungeon in a MMORPG. Or you can patrol the public areas doing little side-quests and bounties and participating in random 'public events' that will have you engage a particular enemy or defend a location with any players that are around... Destiny's not really a MMO game, however, since you'll only ever be in a level with a handful of randomly selected other players.

Like I said, there's plenty to do on your own as well. Playing through the story missions, maybe doing a few patrols and bounties on the side, should get you close to level 20. According to the stats in the phone app I've spent some 16 hours doing just this (although I'm not entirely sure if this includes everything or just time spent in missions). Which is already a decent amount of content for an action game.

If you're interested in multiplayer, there are additional missions, called 'strikes', intended primarily for three player teams (and of course you can play any of the regular story missions and patrols with a team as well), as well as a lengthier 'raid' for a six player team. (More strikes and raids are to be added in DLCs, I believe.) And of course there are PvP modes as well—a fairly decent variety of content, all in all, catering to different tastes. (It should be noted that multiplayer content is not cross-platform, as far as I know.)

Destiny looks and sounds pretty good, in my opinion. The soundtrack has a lot of variety, ranging from epic orchestrals to fast electronic segments, all of which fit the game pretty well. (And I recently learned Paul McCartney himself worked on some of the tracks, which is pretty interesting.) I'm not the best at evaluating the graphics of modern games—I don't feel like Destiny is especially ground-breaking in that department, but I certainly had no complaints. Performance (on PS4) was always pretty smooth. The only technical complaint I had was that, because of the online elements, Internet connection hiccups might cause the game to kick you out, making you restart at the last checkpoint. This happened to me a few times, but overall it's a relatively minor annoyance.

Admittedly I haven't played a ton of FPS games, but, honestly, I think I had more fun playing through Destiny's story missions than I've had with any FPS since, well, Doom (though of course the RPG elements and level structure make it pretty different from most typical FPS games). It may not be the deepest gaming experience I've ever had, but it's a fun game with a cool setting. What more would I want?

With its multiplayer elements it's a game one could theoretically keep playing indefinitely, although the number of missions is somewhat limited and I imagine they could get pretty repetitive after a while... Like I said, I haven't really tried the multiplayer at all yet. I honestly don't know at this point if I will. This tends to be the point in many games when I lose interest and move on to new things... We'll just have to see whether Destiny repeats this pattern—though even if it does, I feel I've gotten my money's worth from the game already.

14 November 2014

Child of Light (Game Review)

So I finally got myself a PS4! I say 'finally', although honestly a year after release isn't that long for me, quite possibly the earliest I've ever gotten a new console. But I knew I would have to get one eventually, so here we are...

So, brand new console out of the box and hooked up, but no actual games in my shelf yet, I turned to the PSN store to look for a cheap game to try. Child of Light caught my eye. I've been meaning to try it out for a while. It's available for PS3 as well, but obviously I was going to play it on PS4 now that I had one (buying it on PSN actually gives you access to both versions). Of course I can't say if there's any difference in appearance between the two, since I've only played it on PS4.

Child of Light was developed by Ubisoft Montreal, but it's not a typical large western studio production. It's a cute (some could even say twee) fairy tale game that combines features typical of indie sidescrollers and Japanese RPGs.

Aurora is a girl from 19th century Austria, who due to an illness succumbs to a deathlike sleep. However, she awakes in a magical land called Lemuria, where a dark queen has stolen the stars, moon and sun. Naturally it's Aurora's destiny to fight the queen and save the land from eternal night... The story's hardly very deep or original, but it goes very well with the style of the game. The characters are all fun as well. Most of the dialogue in the game is written in rhyming verse. Honestly, it's often a little awkward and could have been improved with just a little effort, but I still think it's quite charming.

Aesthetically the game is quite pretty. It has a 2D hand-drawn look that goes very well with the game's themes. The music, composed by Canadian musician Béatrice Martin (aka Cœur de pirate), is quite good as well.

The 'overworld' part of the game plays much like a 2D platformer (although quite early on you gain the ability to fly, so it's not really about 'platforming'). There are some puzzle elements, many involving your 'firefly' companion that can be controlled with the right stick (or the PS4 controller's touchpad), who can interact with various objects.

Coming into contact with an enemy triggers a turn based battle sequence, much like typical JRPG battles, although there are original twists as well. Timing plays a crucial role in combat. Time advances between actions, and you can follow characters' progress on a graph at the bottom of the screen. Different actions take a different amount of time to complete, and if you hit an enemy (or you yourself get hit) in this 'casting' phase, the action is interrupted. The firefly companion is used in combat as well. It can slow down enemies, heal allies etc.

Over the course of the game you'll acquire several allies. Only two characters can be in combat simultaneously, but you can switch characters at any time. The characters all have unique abilities, of course, that develop as you gain experience. There's no equipment management per se, but you'll find gems that you can equip for additional bonuses.

The game has two difficulty modes, 'casual' and 'expert'. I went with 'casual' for my first playthrough, looking for a primarily relaxing experience, and the game was mostly pretty easy. (I only died once, and that was due to environmental hazards rather than combat, and I very rarely had to use any of the many healing items I picked up.) However, even on this easy setting, I felt the battle system encouraged me to think about what I was doing, which is naturally good.

The game wasn't very long (at least by RPG standards). I played through it over the course of a few days. (Alas, no in-game timer, as far as I could see. Seriously, game devs, it can't be that hard to include one!) Then again, it's not very expensive either. And I may want to replay it in 'expert' mode some day, too...

Ubisoft isn't one of my favourite game publishers due to their attitudes toward DRM and recent debacles concerning diversity, buggy game launches etc. The game bugs you to register with their entirely unnecessary Uplay platform. Thankfully it's optional, though. The reminder when starting the game is only a minor annoyance. Still, it was one of the few things that really bothered me about this game.

So yeah, in summation, Child of Light is a very pretty, unique RPG with a fairy tale feel, and an interesting, well balanced battle system. The cute look and themes obviously may not be for everybody, but fans of fantasy RPGs might get a kick out of this game. I know I enjoyed it myself.

21 October 2014

Hatoful Boyfriend (Game Review)

So I'd never really played a 'visual novel' style game. Then I watched members of LoadingReadyRun stream some of Hatoful Boyfriend on Twitch. I watch a fair amount of LoadingReadyRun's streams and other online videos. They're a cool bunch, and they stream a wide variety of interesting games. In the past they've inspired me to play at least Dark Souls (which I love) and XCOM: Enemy Unknown (which I never actually got around to beating, but it was still an interesting experience). Hatoful Boyfriend looked like an... interesting and funny game, and it wasn't terribly expensive either, so I decided to give it a shot.

Like I said, Hatoful Boyfriend is a 'visual novel' game, meaning it's primarily presented through dialogue sequences, occasionally requiring you to make choices about your actions or replies, which in turn determine the storyline and ending you get. A little like the 'choose your own adventure' books of old, I guess... The game was originally release in Japan in 2011, but a new 'HD' remake was released this autumn, and is available on Steam and other online services.

The game puts you in the shoes of a Japanese high school girl, following her life through a school year. You'll have to choose what extracurricular activities you take, which boys you hang out with etc, as you'd expect in this kind of game, except... all the other characters in the game are birds. Mostly pigeons or doves of various kinds. Yes, you are the only human pupil at a school for intelligent birds! And there's other weird stuff going on, as well. Like, early on in the game, it's revealed you live in a cave, and you're apparently a 'hunter-gatherer'...

Some of the storylines the game takes you through are relatively mundane, romantic stories. That is, except for the fact that they're between a human and pigeons! Other stories go into... weird and sometimes dark places (don't worry, it's not a 'hentai' game, but it does have some horror elements). There's a lot of humour through the game (obviously, there'd have to be in), and a lot of references to Japanese culture, games etc.

Each playthrough only takes an hour or two (probably less once you've played through it a few times and can speed through repeated dialogue). There's more than a dozen different endings, though, so you'll be playing through it a bunch of times to see all of them. Which is also what, in my mind, makes this a 'game' and not merely a story. You'll want to unlock all those endings, and you need to find the right choices to get you to each of them. (Most of them were fairly easy to get, though I did look up hints for a few endings—most of which were simply alternate versions of endings I'd already gotten that hinged on relatively minor details.)

It sounds crazy and random, and I guess it is, but there is actually a surprisingly detailed backstory to it. However, through much of the game you'll only be given hints about what's going on and why the world is like it is. After you've unlocked the game's other endings, you unlock a special ending—a long (like, literally several hours) story sequence that explains a lot of what's actually going on and ties together loose ends. All in all it took me some 15 hours to complete Hatoful Boyfriend, which I think is a respectable amount of entertainment for the game's price.

Technologically speaking the game's hardly impressive. There's virtually no animation, just static character images superimposed on simple backgrounds. The character images are actual photographs of birds (though when you first meet major characters, you have the option to see a manga style representation of what they might look like if they were human)... There's no voice acting, and the music is, for the most part, quite generic (largely making use, I believe, of public domain tracks). There was also a fair amount of typos in the text, and occasionally the game would crash when trying to load a saved game. But none of this really matters, the game's real value is in its crazy story and concept.

So yeah. Hatoful Boyfriend is a weird, insane, sometimes silly, sometimes dark and even gruesome, often hilarious... thing. It's actually quite hard to explain its appeal, and I'm sure it isn't for everyone. It wouldn't necessarily be my first recommendation to people who aren't already into Japanese games and culture, at least. On the other hand, I don't think you need to be a fan of other visual novel or dating sim style games to get a kick out of it.

Also, pudding.

15 October 2014

Batman: Arkham Asylum (Game Review)

The Arkham series of Batman video games has been fairly popular, but I never really got around to looking into it, even though I do think of myself as a Batman fan (but then again, who doesn't)... However, when the first game in the series, Batman: Arkham Asylum (from 2009), was recently offered as a PlayStation Plus member download, I figured I might as well give it a shot.

The story begins with Batman delivering a recently captured Joker to Arkham Asylum. Lo and behold, Joker breaks free and begins taking over the facility. Naturally several classic Batman villains are released in the process, who Batman will have to deal with on his way to defeat Joker... Honestly, I found the story mediocre at best, a collection of Batman tropes to ferry you from level to level. And I wasn't hugely impressed by the dialogue and voice acting either, even though the game was written by Paul Dini—who worked on Batman: The Animated Series—and several original Batman: The Animated Series voice actors (most notably Mark Hamill as the Joker).

The actual gameplay, however, is somewhat more interesting. At its core it's nothing really original, deeply rooted in the 3rd person action-adventure genre. But there are many little features that make it fun to play. Naturally Batman has a variety of gadgets to help him, from batarangs and explosives to grappling guns. Which adds variety to the game, even though the controls for some of the gadgets felt unnecessarily clunky. Mobility plays a large role in the game, as Batman can grapple to high platforms to escape enemies and the like. An important element is also a special 'Detective Vision' mode that gives you additional information about your surroundings.

Combat is fairly straightforward and fluid. You gain experience that unlocks more powerful combo moves etc. Nothing really new there, but nothing wrong with it either. The regular combat sequences could feel a little repetitive, though (as did many of the boss fights), and some of the more interesting scenes were stealth oriented sequences where you have to pick off enemies one by one, using a variety of tactics, including sneaking behind them or dropping down from above.

I had no complaints about the look and feel of the game, aesthetically. It did feel... Batman-y enough. Interior level design, of course, can feel a little 'game-y' sometimes and not always exactly realistic. Not that that's much of a surprise. A particular pet peeve for me was the frequent use of gargoyles... on interior walls. Sure, they were quite practical as a gameplay element, but the point of real gargoyles was to funnel water from a roof so it doesn't run down walls. Not something you'd want inside a room...

The game didn't have a timer, as far as I could see, but the length felt fairly typical for this kind of game. For the obsessive completionist gamers there's a ton of secrets and collectible items scattered through the game, but, as usual, I couldn't really be bothered with that stuff...

In summary, Batman: Arkham Asylum was a reasonably fun little action-adventure game, but, despite some interesting features, didn't really stand out from other games in the genre, and felt like it had potential for more, in terms of narrative and gameplay variety. I don't really see myself replaying this game much, with so many other interesting games out there. But I could consider picking up the sequels, should I run into them at an affordable price...

23 September 2014

A Weekend With WoW

So, almost a decade after the game's release, I finally did it. I actually tried World of Warcraft.

I've been mildly curious about MMORPGs as a phenomenon for a long time. A few years ago I even tried playing a handful of free games, but all of those turned out to be either uninteresting to me or suffered from poor performance on my system at the time. But that was a long time ago, and, on a whim, just for kicks, one boring Friday night I decided to try if WoW would run on my current Debian laptop, using Wine. I figured what the hell, it's free up to level 20, I have nothing to lose. Perhaps a little to my surprise, it actually ran. Not at huge frame rates or on full graphical settings, of course, but smooth enough to be perfectly playable.

A few days later I reached the Starter Edition's level cap. Those 20 levels... actually succeed at giving new players a fairly decent glimpse of the variety and scope of WoW. There's a vast world to explore, a variety of different enemies and quests, and loot to pick up. You can do solo quests, or even try out instanced dungeons with a group.

So those would be some of the pros of the game. The cons, however... Yes, the world is vast with a multitude of different environments, and there are tons of quests. However, a lot of that world is, to be honest, a little on the bland side, not exactly teeming with detail. (Well, the game is ten years old, after all...) And while there is some variety, a lot of those quests are hopelessly repetitive. Go here, kill X creatures, report back... The controls also seem a little awkward and I don't think I've still quite gotten used to them. (Perhaps this is partly due to my mostly console background—playing third person games with a mouse feels weird. And speaking of which, boy has my hand been hurting, I'm so not used to using a mouse these days...)

So my feelings about WoW are somewhat mixed. It feels like a world with a lot of potential, but on the other hand it could obviously be much more interesting. Still, just exploring the world and doing quests has been pretty entertaining for these past few days.

Then there's of course the social aspect of the game, which is a whole other story. And one I can't really comment on much. I only did one instanced dungeon before hitting the level cap, and it was fun, but kind of a hectic blur, and I didn't really interact with the other players at all. (I know some of my friends have played WoW in the past, but I'm not sure any are currently active, and I doubt they'd be on the same server anyway—I just picked the first one the game recommended for me, out of quite a few).

So the big question is: is it worth paying a monthly fee for? Right now, sure, I could see myself paying for one month and trying out the game a little longer. When you think about it, a month's subscription isn't a whole lot of money, if you actually play the game on a fairly regular basis. Compare it to, for instance, buying a new single player game. It'll likely cost more, and mostly I don't play a game like that after I beat it, which rarely takes much more than a month, often considerably less. But would I be interested in WoW in the long term? That... I'm a little sceptical of. I've never really played a single game for extended periods in the past. I'm always moving on to new experiences. Ideally I think it would be something to occasionally kill a little time with. But paying a not insignificant monthly fee for something like that just doesn't seem like a viable option.

One more observation, relating to a theme in recent blog posts: this game could really use a manual. If one is provided anywhere with the download or in-game, I haven't found it. And the guide at Battle.net isn't nearly as helpful as the one for Diablo III was. It doesn't really go into the basic controls and mechanics at all...

EDIT: Well, I actually found a downloadable PDF manual, in the account section of Battle.net under my WoW details. Wish someone had pointed that out earlier... Mind you, the file is very unoptimised for computer screens and quite hard to read...

I guess that wraps up my admittedly brief experience (so far) with one of the world's most famous games, so I'll just leave you with this: for the Horde!

16 September 2014

A Moment of Nostalgia with Heroes of Might and Magic III

I recently bought a copy of Heroes of Might and Magic III (1999) when it was on sale at Good Old Games. I was a little surprised to find it works almost flawlessly on my GNU/Linux machine using Wine. (I also installed an unofficial HD mod to make it run in bigger resolutions.)

Back in the 90s, I had a copy of Heroes of Might and Magic II. I recall it was probably one of the first games I bought after my family got a new Pentium computer. It was a cool fantasy strategy game, with pretty graphics and great music. Right up my proverbial alley at the time. Before that I'd been playing Master of Magic a little, but Heroes' more polished, modern aesthetics, and perhaps also the slightly more streamlined mechanics, quickly won me over.

But I was never very good at it, or should I rather say not patient enough. I never got very far in the campaign, mostly playing single scenarios on easy difficulty settings and sometimes hot-seat multiplayer with friends. (I never was very patient with games back then—I hardly ever 'beat' games until a little later when I got into more story-driven stuff, like JRPGs...) Even so, I might go as far as saying that Heroes II is the game I remember most fondly from the 90s (together with TIE Fighter).

So, I started up Heroes III, and I felt right at home. Even though I didn't play it back in the day, the game's similar enough to it's predecessor to feel instantly familiar and intuitive. I still love the aesthetics and feel of the game, so many years later. I started up a scenario, played it for several hours... and then I drifted off to other things and haven't been back since. Yup, that sounds very familiar as well.

It's a problem I've had with many classic games, and perhaps particularly strategy games. There would be a ton of content to play through in Heroes III (the GOG version includes the two expansions as well). But alas, it seems more like an itch that needs occasionally scratching than something I'd be really motivated to stick with. (I'd still heartily recommend it to fans of classic strategy games, though. Even when not on sale, the game's only ten bucks at GOG.com, which seems like a bargain.)

11 September 2014

Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition (Game Review)

Blizzard's Diablo and Diablo II are among those classic computer games I never played. Thus I was only vaguely aware of the hype surrounding Diablo III when it was finally released a couple years ago, and the maybe somewhat lukewarm reception it had. But when the expansion, Reaper of Souls, was released earlier this year, and people were saying how it improved the game, coinciding with when I was getting into watching more gaming streams and thus exposed to a wider range of games, my curiosity grew.

When the expansion was released for consoles recently, bundled together with the main game as the Ultimate Evil Edition, I decided it was time to finally check out the series and bought the PS3 version. (It's also out for PS4, but I don't have one yet...)

I'm sure many people reading this will already be aware of the Diablo series, but for anyone who's not, the games are isometric hack-and-slash style action RPGs, with a focus on randomly generated content and loot. The story is set in a dark fantasy world called Sanctuary, and deals primarily with the war between angels and demons, with the player taking the part of a human hero going up against the demon lords, particularly their leader, the titular Diablo. Diablo III takes place 20 years after the previous game. Diablo has supposedly been vanquished, but the remaining demon lords are again spreading evil in Sanctuary. You set out to investigate a mysterious falling star and the dead rising from the graves...

The gameplay itself is quite simple, on the surface. Basically you hit buttons until the monsters die. The console version, out of necessity, has vastly different controls than the PC version. Where the PC games have always been heavily mouse oriented, the console version plays more like a standard third person action game (you use the left stick to move, buttons to attack etc). The menus and inventory management were also completely overhauled to work better with controllers.

Despite the simple premise, Diablo III has a surprising amount of depth, for a hack-and-slash game. You can pick one of six different classes, each with unique abilities, which are unlocked as you level up. Most of the locations you explore are random generated. Each time you start up the game they change, so you'll never have the exact same experience twice, even if you go back to locations you've visited before. Difficulty seemed something of a mixed bag. I played much of the main game on the maximum allowed difficulty, and didn't die once, which was a little surprising. After beating the main game (i.e. up to Act IV) you unlock higher difficulties. Playing the expansion content on the next higher setting seemed more suitable for me, except now some of the bosses felt a little too hard, and I ended up lowering difficulty for them... But at least you can change the difficulty at any time, which is good.

The game's reasonably long, too. (As far as I can tell, there's no timer in the game that would tell me how long it took to beat it, which is a shame. I find that kind of information interesting.) It doesn't end with beating the campaign, either. After that you unlock 'Adventure Mode', which lets you freely travel the word hunting down randomly generated 'bounties', and exploring randomly generated dungeons. Character level is capped at 70, but after that you can continue to improve your character by gaining 'paragon levels'. I'm not quite that far yet, so I can't really comment on what that entails.

And then there's the loot. Dropped by enemies and discovered in chests, or bought from merchants, or crafted by a blacksmith... So much loot, most of which is also random generated, so you'll find an endless number of equipment with different combinations of magical properties. There are several levels of rarity in items. Though, honestly, this seems a little unnecessary. Not long into the game it became obvious that 'rare' (and above) items were much better than more common items, and plentiful enough to simply not bother with picking anything else up (except occasionally to salvage for crafting materials).

The game looks very nice, even on the PS3, which probably has lower resolution than the PS4 or higher end PCs (I noticed some occasional slight slowdown too, but nothing that really detracted from the experience). There are lots of different environments, and tons of cool monsters. The music, on the other hand, was... well, background music. It's well enough done and suits the atmosphere of the game, but not exactly what I'd call memorable.

Another aspect the Diablo series is famous for is the multiplayer. You can team up with up to three other players for co-operative play. In the console version you can even play local multiplayer. I haven't had a chance to try it out yet, but I'm sure it, together with the randomly generated content, greatly increases the game's replay value. (As far as I know cross-platform online play isn't available, and for local multiplayer I assume each player needs a local username and save file, which slightly limits the potential. But it's still a cool thing.)

Now, I've listed a lot of positive things about Diablo III Ultimate Evil Edition. I certainly had fun playing it on my first playthrough, and I'm still having fun checking out Adventure Mode. But when it comes down to it, the core gameplay is quite repetitive, and the story is hardly very deep or original. While in theory it's one of those games you could keep playing indefinitely, how long it can keep me interested after 'beating' it once is a question I can't answer yet. (My past experience with games with a lot of 'post-game' content doesn't exactly speak for me sticking with it. Always moving on to new experiences...)

One last complaint  I have (which I touched upon in an earlier blog post) is that the game came with virtually no manual, beyond a simple controller diagram. It turns out there's a game guide on Blizzard's Battle.net website, which answered some of the questions I had. But this guide was not mentioned anywhere in the packaging, as far as I could see...

2 September 2014

The Forgotten Art of the Video Game Manual

Blizzard's Diablo is one of those classic game franchises I never played. So, now that the expansion for Diablo III is out for consoles as well, and conveniently bundled with the main game as the 'Ultimate Evil Edition', I finally decided to pick up the PS3 version and give it a try. But I've barely started the game, so I'm not actually here to talk about it yet, but rather a related observation.

So I bought Diablo III, and opened up the box to check out the manual: a single folded sheet, featuring only a controller diagram and the usual warnings and customer service numbers.

Out of curiosity, I checked out the manual for Diablo II (2000) online. It's almost 100 pages long.

Another example. Some years ago I picked up a cheap second hand copy of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for PS3 ('Game of the Year Edition', 2007). Its manual is over 50 pages, which is actually fairly impressive for a PS3 game. A little later I bought the then brand new Skyrim (2011): a 'quick start' guide a couple pages long. (In multiple languages—this was the Nordic version, I don't know if UK/US versions differ.)

The trend is obvious. The video game manual is a dying breed. There are many reasons for this, of course. Designing and printing manuals is an additional expense. Online distribution of games is growing. Many games these days have extensive tutorial sections and in-game reference guides.

But there's a certain feeling when you open your brand new game and flip through the manual for the first time that an in-game tutorial can't replace. At best, manuals of the past have been much more than just about teaching you the controls. They could immerse you in the world of the game, expand the experience, get you hooked even before you start the game...

And all that aside, there are still games even in this streamlined, hold-you-by-the-hand age complex enough to benefit from a detailed reference guide. (Dark Souls springs to mind...)

I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule, game publishers still making decent manuals. But for the most part the manual seems to be a thing of the past, and I'm not very hopeful of seeing a resurrection. Which is a shame.

28 August 2014

Brief Procastinatory Ramblings on Learning Dota and Stuff

Hello blog. What have you been up to? Not much, I see. Well, maybe I'll just scribble down a little something, just in way of procrastination...

So in my last post I mentioned trying out a little Dota 2. I've been playing a little more over the past week. I'm not sure how worthwhile it is actually writing about it with still so little experience under my belt, but whatever...

I have now completed the tutorials and practice battles in the game's training section, except for the last one, which is matches with other real players. And I really don't want to do that. Even if some people playing in those matches may well be as inexperienced as me, I am well aware of how bad I am at this game and I have zero confidence in my ability to compete against other humans.

I'm not sure I'd be willing to try that even if the MOBA community didn't have a reputation of being very harsh towards noobs. But of course it does. When you read about MOBAs, the one thing you always run into—in addition to how they're challenging but rewarding games, of course—is how unwelcoming and aggressive the community can be. Which is a shame.

It's funny, really. For a long, long time I simply wasn't interested in online games, favouring engaging single player experiences. And that's obviously just fine. But various factors lately have, just slightly, piqued my interest; like getting into following gamers on Twitch and social networks, esports becoming more mainstream etc.—overall exposing me to a wider range of gaming. And just when I'm maybe opening up slightly to these different parts of the hobby and to gaming as a more communal thing, I begin to discover that some parts of the gaming community can actually be rather shitty... Not that I have experienced anything very negative first hand—since, as said, I have hardly ever played online games and also the communities I have had touch with are pretty much composed of actually decent people—but it seems like these days you're constantly hearing stories about harassment and abuse... Actually, come to think of it, no, that's not actually funny at all.

But let's get back to Dota. Because, possible community issues aside, it is actually an interesting and entertaining game. Or at least has been so far. And I can see it will require a lot of practise. I honestly don't know at this time whether I'll have the motivation and patience to stick with it. It's quite similar to my relationship with fighting games, really. I find them cool and fascinating, but I'm terrible at them and lack the patience to really practice.

I'm slightly surprised I didn't lose any of the training section battles. But I think the game was rigged in my favour. It was obvious that the bots on my side were vastly more efficient than the enemy bots. I expect when I get into the 'proper' bot battles, which is probably the next step for me, my side will lose, even on easier settings. Because, all other things being equal, I still suck.

[EDIT: OK, so I actually played one bot match soon after writing this with the bots set to 'easy', and... the result was very much the same as the matches in the training section—i.e. I sucked but my team still dominated. So I guess I'd need to play on a higher difficulty for the teams to actually be equal...]

20 August 2014

On Things Steamy, Esportsy, and Never Wanting to Be a Lumberjack-y

I haven't been blogging much this summer. Sorry about that. Just not a whole lot going on in my life to blog about. I spent a few weeks in the countryside recently, much of which I spent cutting up firewood with a chainsaw. Turns out using a chainsaw isn't as cool as it might sound, but actual hard work. Especially when you're doing it several hours each day in the middle of Finland's longest heat wave in 40 years... Let me tell you, I was not built for manual labour...

So let us talk about geekier topics instead. I've written in the past about how I'm a dedicated GNU/Linux user and how this isn't exactly ideal for gaming on the PC, and about the (relatively few) games I've actually played on my computer. Of course the situation has slowly been improving. A major contributor to this is Valve's decision to bring Steam to GNU/Linux. I stayed away from Steam for a long while (partly because, in addition to running GNU/Linux, my laptop isn't exactly great and I've had a lot of issues with graphics drivers), but I finally took the plunge and installed it.

Steam's GNU/Linux support is still far from perfect, I'm afraid. The release is tailored for Ubuntu, for one thing, which has caused some compatibility problems with the Debian testing release I currently use. Getting it to run required a little trickery, like removing outdated libraries bundled with it in favour of actually working versions in my OS. But lo and behold, I did eventually manage to get it to run.

The main reason I decided to try Steam was that I have a whole bunch of games I've gotten from the Humble Indie Bundles, most of which are redeemable on Steam. I figured Steam might make installing and managing these games simpler. I installed a few of these games before I went on my trip... but of course I never had the time or energy to play anything after all the woodcutting. But I've finally been playing around a little over the past few days. I've played a little Legend of Grimrock, which seems pretty fun in an oldschool, nostalgic way—harking back to classic dungeon crawlers like Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder (the latter of which, if I recall correctly, might have been the first PC game I ever bought, back when I got my first PC in the 90s).

Perhaps more surprisingly (to myself at least) I've also been playing a little Dota 2. Just tutorial matches against bots, of course. I doubt I'll ever have the skills or confidence to actually play with other humans... I suck so bad at it. I'm still completely lost with all the powers and items and whatnot. But I find the basic premise of these kind of games interesting and I figured I might as well try to learn some of the very basics. And I spent a fair amount of time watching The International (not least because it happened to coincide with my woodcutting 'holiday' and I had little energy to do anything more productive), which I guess instilled a little interest in me.

Plus Dota 2 is free. Which is cool. I'm actually quite surprised it even runs on my laptop. Though of course I have graphics settings almost at minimum...

I'm not going to go any deeper into these games at this point, since I haven't actually played that much of them yet. There's a bunch of other games I now own on Steam I'd like to try some day as well. But can't play everything at once, alas...

3 July 2014

What Kind of Creature Am I? (Album Review)

It's not very often these days that I encounter a new band or artist that I get really excited about. But Australian prog band Toehider is proving to be one of those.

I first heard of the band when frontman Michael Mills was featured on Ayreon's latest album, The Theory of Everything. I didn't look into it too deeply then, but sometime later the man behind Ayreon, Arjen Lucassen, posted a link to a crowdfunding campaign for the new Toehider album, What Kind of Creature Am I? I thought it looked interesting, and the cost for the CD wasn't too high, so I decided to take a chance, even though I wasn't at all familiar with their music.

The album isn't officially slated for release until next week, I believe, but backers got a link to download the album last week, and today I discovered the CD in my postbox. I have listened to the album several times now, and... yes, I'm quite enjoying it.

I often talk about how much I appreciate albums as physical, aesthetic objects, and this one is no exception. The artwork by Andrew Saltmarsh is delightful. The liner notes are quite hilarious (another thing that adds value to owning the physical version). My one complaint is that the font in the booklet is quite small and hard to read. (Alas, this is a far too common problem in CD booklets.)

While Toehider has additional members for live performance, almost everything on the album is done by the quite talented multi-instrumentalist Michael Mills (which makes the music all the more impressive). Best I can describe Toehider's music is as prog rock. The songs display a wide range of styles and influences, with intricate, skilful arrangements, often complex (as prog tends to be), but still frequently quite catchy as well...

There are obvious Queen influences in several songs. There are heavier guitar parts, at times venturing close to metal (though much of the music is fairly cheery), as well as softer, more folky sequences (parts of the epic 12 minute track 'Meet the Sloth', for instance, remind me greatly of Jethro Tull).

Mills is a quite competent singer, as well, with a remarkable vocal range. The lyrics are frequently surreal, fantastic, even whimsical, though occasionally veering into darker, more personal territory.

I will probably have to try to get my hands on Toehider's earlier works eventually, although that may take a while. Meanwhile, I'll just go on listening to What Kind of Creature Am I?

22 June 2014

One Solstice Night, Pt 5

So, as my followers could conceivably know, for the past few years I have stayed up till dawn on the night of the summer solstice, the shortest night of the year, and blog my activities during that night. The actual moment of the solstice (astronomically speaking) was at 1:46 p.m. my time, so I guess tonight is the closest to it.

This year is a little different from my previous solstice nights, though, because, as it happens, the solstice this year happens to coincide with the awesome Mario Marathon for Child's Play Charity, which (as my followers again may be aware of) I follow every year with an almost religious fervour. So my night isn't going to be a whole lot different from the rest of my weekend. But I'll try to write up some of the highlights, anyway. (I also don't have any booze, like I usually do, largely because the stores have been closed for the last couple days due to the Midsummer holiday...)

22:51 - Sunset. The MM crew has now been playing for almost 29 hours and they've raised over $26,000 for charity. Pretty cool. They're currently playing Super Mario Bros. 2. That's one of my favourite games from the good old NES days, and (iirc) the only Mario game I actually beat (without Game Genie codes) back in those days. (Before this they played Super Mario Galaxy, which is probably my favourite modern Mario game...)

23:00 - A couple words about my marathon watching set up. I went all out this year, hooking up my laptop to my 40" TV so I can watch the stream way bigger than I ever have before, and I can have my laptop next to me for chatting in the marathon's IRC channel (and, you know, writing this blog and stuff). It's pretty cool. Don't know why I haven't done this before. Just laziness, I guess (and of course I didn't have a TV this size in previous years).

23:25 - And they just beat SMB2! I think this was the fastest playthrough yet this marathon, faster than SMB1 even. Next up is Super Mario Sunshine for the GameCube, which should be a much longer game... Not one I've played, not likely in the foreseeable future, but Mario is Mario...

00:00 - Midnight calls for a midnight snack. Gonna make me some nachos! Well, I call them nachos, but it's pretty much the simplest version I can imagine. Basically I just put slices of cheese on top of tortilla chips and toss them in the microwave. Well, I've got some salsa for dipping, too. Fancy.

1:00 - Should be about as dark as it gets around now. Been a pretty rainy week, but apparently the skies have cleared up just in time for tonight. And the skies are a nice shade of blue, fading to almost gold on the horizon... Yup, that's midnight at midsummer here in Finland...

1:20 - Ah, good old blindfold mode, always good fun to watch.

1:40 - Hah, wouldn't be Mario Marathon without the eventual technical difficulties. Apparently the website is down. Stream still works fine, luckily, 'cause it's through Twitch.tv. Of course the stream is a lot more quiet when people are fixated on fixing issues...

3:10 - I probably shouldn't be having more nachos at this time, but maybe just a little... Hope I won't regret it soon when I'm actually trying to sleep...

3:55 - Sunrise. Which means I should be heading to bed. Fun enough night, just a bummer about Mario Marathon's server issues. Tomorrow will be... pretty much the same as tonight! Hopefully the issues get sorted out soon and the rest of the marathon will be a huge success!

22 May 2014

BioShock Infinite

BioShock's one of those game series that's been sort of on my radar for a long time, but, perhaps mostly because I've never been a particularly passionate FPS fan, I never got around to buying them. However, I recently joined PlayStation Plus and one of the free member games at the time was BioShock Infinite, so of course I decided to download it and give it a try.

Infinite is the third game in the series, but it's a more or less independent story set in a new location, so I didn't have too many qualms about not having played the first two. Booker DeWitt is a private investigator living in 1912, who, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, ends up in a floating city called Columbia, looking for a girl called Elizabeth. Of course things soon get crazy. Or crazier, I should say. Columbia turns out to be a religious white supremacist community on the verge of rebellion. Mix in supernatural powers, strange quantum technology that keeps the city in the sky, alternate realities, mechanical creatures and whatnot, and you've got a pretty cool, original environment and interesting story.

Quirky vintage environments have of course been a defining feature of the BioShock franchise from the start. I really enjoyed the look and atmosphere of this game. Radios and gramophones play music in the style of the period and the aesthetic in general is not quite like any other game I've played. For much of the game you travel with Elizabeth, which, from a story point of view, added opportunities for dialogue, something that normally isn't perhaps the strongest point in FPSs. The storytelling in general was pretty good, although it did feel like there was the occasional unnecessary MacGuffin used to add more action sequences that didn't quite fit in the otherwise original and high quality design of the game...

Gameplay-wise, BioShock Infinite plays much like any FPS. It does have some slight RPG elements mixed in too, though. You gain a variety of different supernatural powers you can use. There's a lot of loot lying around for you to gather and you can buy upgrades for your weapons and powers. There are also sequences with little fighting, some exploration to do and a few sidequests as well (though honestly I didn't find the sidequests particularly interesting or rewarding). All in all, it plays pretty smooth and fun.

The amount of choice in weapons and powers is good, I guess, but honestly the game didn't really give much incentive to experiment with them. You're limited to carrying two weapons, and although there's plenty lying around that you can pick up, I rarely felt comfortable switching away from the familiar weapons I'd been using from early on and had spent resources upgrading...

I've always considered myself pretty bad at action games and often pick easier difficulty settings when available. But I decided to go with the default setting this time, and... honestly, I don't know if I've actually improved over the years or whether this game was on the easy side, but I found most of the game not very hard at all. Dying wasn't really a problem, as enemies you've killed stay dead. Really only the final battle caused me any trouble, largely because it had a different type of objective from most battles (protecting a target, rather than just killing things). But I still had fun playing, though, and that's what counts, of course.

I also had some complaints about the save system. Namely, the lack of one. The game only saved at particular checkpoints, and should you have to quit at any other point, you'd have to start again from the last checkpoint...

So yeah, overall, while not perhaps exactly perfect, I quite enjoyed the game. Once experienced, though, I don't really see myself replaying this in the foreseeable future. I guess I should eventually check out the other two games. But it's not a terribly high priority, got plenty of games to play as it is...

12 May 2014

One More from the Normandy: the ME3 DLC Post

So I just finished my second playthrough of the Mass Effect trilogy. It was a great, epic journey once again. And a long one. (Some 140 hours, at least, spread over the last six months or so—I tried to be as thorough as possible this time, probably doing a bunch of optional stuff I might have missed first time round.)

When I first played Mass Effect 3, a year ago, all the DLCs were already out, but I was somewhat low on funds and they were, all put together, pretty expensive. So I decided to postpone purchasing them, hoping they'd be on sale before too long. Well, they finally came on sale in the PSN store earlier this year, just a little before I was moving on to ME3 in my replay of the trilogy. So obviously I bought them all (the single player expansions, that is), meaning I had a ton of exciting brand new content for my playthrough. So, let me just go over those expansions briefly.

From Ashes features a new mission, revisiting Eden Prime. Some nice scenery, but the mission itself was hardly anything special. The 'meat' of this expansion, however, is a new squad member. And not just any squad member, but an actual living prothean. Who turn out not to be necessarily the nicest of peoples. But I don't want to spoil too much. Though not hugely important, it's a fun enough addition to the game, and obviously expands on some elements of the game's lore, which is always cool.

Leviathan has the team chasing after a mysterious being in several locations around the galaxy. The story builds on some concepts from the game's ending, particularly the origin of the Reapers. This was a fairly entertaining mission, overall, in my opinion, with a decent balance of action and story.

Omega sees Shepard helping Aria recover the Omega station from Cerberus forces. The loss of Omega was of course mentioned in the main game, but more importantly, this DLC ties in heavily with one of the Mass Effect comics, Invasion (which, of course, I re-read before embarking on my replay of ME3). As a mission, though, it's mostly pretty straightforward and linear combat, little more. While it was still a lot of fun and offered several hours of gameplay, in some ways it seemed perhaps the most overpriced of all these DLCs. You don't even get to revisit Omega again after finishing the mission or anything...

Citadel, on the other hand, features a pretty fun mission with plenty of variety and new areas to visit on the Citadel, along with a ton of little dialogue scenes with various characters, mini-games etc. You get to see the Normandy's crew just hang out and have fun, for a change. Compared to most content in ME3, which can be quite grim, this expansion has a very tongue-in-cheek tone throughout. Some parts are just downright hilarious, which is a nice change. Anyway, I think Citadel actually had the most 'bang for buck' of the expansions, although it's still not exactly cheap.

Overall, the DLCs add a fair amount of fun content and variety to ME3, easily adding 10+ hours of gameplay. I do, however, feel that, at full price, they're somewhat overpriced. The four major single player expansions together (in the PSN store for my region, as of the writing of this post) cost almost as much as a new game, and probably a fair amount more than you'd actually pay for ME3 these days. Which is just ridiculous. Well, I guess it's hard to be a fan of anything without someone, somewhere squeezing money out of you...

5 May 2014

A Noob's Guide to Dark Souls

I recently beat Dark Souls and thought it was a very entertaining, cool experience. It is, however, not one of the most easily approachable games around, so I thought I might write down some of my thoughts for potentially interested gamers.

I am by no means an expert on Dark Souls. In fact, I'm barely more than a noob myself. I've only played through the game once, and there is much I don't know, and much I probably could have done better.

What Is Dark Souls?

Dark Souls is an atmospheric, challenging action RPG title by Japanese developer From Software, originally released in 2011. Set in a gloomy, desolate fantasy world, you take on the role of an undead warrior, banished from the lands of the living, on a quest to learn ancient secrets of the world.

The game has a reputation for being rather hard. And I guess it is. You will likely die many, many times while playing it. But it can also be very entertaining and rewarding. And for all its hardness, the game is still, mostly, fair. You learn to deal with the challenges. You improve your character and equipment to help you overcome them. I'd say anyone with some experience with action games, and a little patience, should be able to beat it.

That being said, Dark Souls definitely isn't for everybody. If it's not your thing, that's perfectly fine. It's just a game, not some sort of holy grail, although some may portray it as such. From what I hear, the community for this game can be a little elitist sometimes. But you can just ignore such people. Remember there's no one correct way to play the game. As long as you're having fun, you're doing it right.

Do Your Research!

Here's the thing about Dark Souls: it tells you very little about anything. The manual that came with the version I bought is not very informative at all, and doesn't even list all the controls (for instance, I don't think it makes any mention of jumping—not something you need often, but occasionally useful). The game itself is not much better. While there is a tutorial section of sorts, it doesn't really hammer a lot of stuff in, or explain every aspect of the game. The menus may well be confusing. Like, what do all these stats mean?

However, there is a wealth of information about the game online. Several wikis are dedicated to it. (Here's the one I ended up using most.) You'll find more detailed info about locations, enemies, items, NPCs etc. For a game like this, I don't think there's any shame in doing your homework. There are so many things you simply cannot know. Once you get some way into the game, you'll likely want to explore more on your own, but getting to that point is much easier with at least a little more information than the game gives you. The story of the game isn't hugely complex, and the style of storytelling quite minimalist, so you're not likely getting a whole lot of big spoilers if you read up on some stuff (heck, it might even clarify some plot points that aren't necessarily all that obvious from the game's dialogue).

Early on, watching other people's experiences can be valuable. I watched Alex Steacy and Graham Stark of LoadingReadyRun play the first few hours of the game on the LRR stream, which I'm sure was helpful. (Here's the first broadcast of Graham playing the game, archived on YouTube—it's fun and also informative.) (There's also a post by Alex giving advice to new players here, which I recommend, though I'm covering some of the same ground in this post.)

Character Creation

The class you pick determines your beginning stat levels and starting equipment. But over the course of the game, you can increase whatever stats you want and use whatever gear you want; the class is only your starting point. So the class you choose isn't hugely important, although it does give you a small head start in certain areas and you may wish to focus on those areas. Some sources have recommended warrior or knight for beginners, as they're fairly straightforward melee oriented characters, and I have no argument with this. You might not want to trouble yourself too much with magic on the first playthrough. (I played a warrior and used almost no magic, and it worked fine for me.)

The gift is probably even less important than your class in the long run. Many of these are of very little consequence at all. Some are single use items that would be soon expended, so they don't seem especially valuable. The binoculars you can actually obtain fairly easily quite near the beginning of the game. Be wary of the description of the Tiny Being's Ring—it does not, in fact, regenerate your health, only gives you a slight increase in total hit points. The Old Witch's Ring allows you to speak with a particular NPC. It doesn't really affect the game, but is a fun little scene. (You can obtain it late in the game, but it requires a little work.)

The one gift that actually has a significant game impact is the master key. This allows you to open several doors in the game before you get the keys for them. I have seen some sources recommend it, but it's a double-edged sword. It might allow you to skip some potentially difficult areas early on. But it might also give you early access to areas that are too tough for you, and confuse you about where you're supposed to be heading. And if you're playing for the first time, do you really want to be skipping content anyway? I, at least, wanted to experience the whole game, from beginning to end. So I would only recommend the master key if you really know what you're doing. (Note that the thief class gets the master key as part of its starting gear, so beginners might want to be equally wary of picking that class.)

General Gameplay Considerations

I played on PS3 and have no experience with the PC version, but I have heard many people heavily recommend using a gamepad rather than mouse and keyboard. The game was obviously designed with consoles in mind.

The easiest tactic against many early enemies is to wait for them to attack, block with your shield, and then hit. Repeat until it's dead. Being too hasty will likely get you killed. Beware of getting crowded by multiple enemies.

Kicking is useful against enemies that constantly hold their shield up. It's a little tricky to perform, so you might want to practise it. Parrying is supposedly a really effective technique, but if you have trouble getting the timing right, don't stress over it too much. I beat the game just fine without learning to parry. Backstabbing is a little easier to do and quite effective against many slower enemies, so you might want to practise it.

Remember that you cannot pause! While you're in menus, you can still be attacked, so make sure you're in a safe place before you adjust your gear of whatever. Also, make sure you're fully out of the menu when you continue, as you can still move but you might, to your surprise, not be able to block or attack because there's still a menu tab selector active in the corner...

Once you do something, it's done. You can't go back. There's only one save file per character, and the game is frequently autosaving. When you quit, you carry on from where you left off. However, there's not a whole lot of things you can screw up permanently. If you use or dispose of an item, it's gone. Some you may be able to replace, others not, so take care. If you kill an NPC, they're gone for good, so be sure about what you're doing in such situations.

If you're ever stuck at a certain point, there may be other areas you can explore, and you can usually also grind and level up or upgrade your equipment.

Getting Invaded

While Dark Souls is primarily a single player game, it has some online features woven in. The most noticeable (apart from the many messages popping up all over the world) is the ability to 'invade' other players. You will get invaded, sooner or later. It is quite possible you'll die, since the invaders are likely more experienced players and likely to have better gear. Some may be actively trying to troll other players.

But, overall, it's not really that bad. At least it wasn't for me. You can only be invaded while in human form, and you can play much of the game just fine without restoring your humanity. (You will want to do it every now and then to kindle bonfires, though, and in order to summon NPCs to assist you in boss fights. But those are the only important times.) There's a cooldown before you can be invaded again, too. At worst, invading seemed like a minor annoyance. At best, it can even be exciting, especially when you actually manage to beat the other guy. Just be mentally prepared for the possibility.

A Few Useful Early Game Hints

There are several useful items you can get around Firelink Shrine when you first get there (in the nearby graveyard, and down the lift into New Londo Ruins). Getting some may practically involve suicide runs, but that's fine, because you keep all items when you die.

Try talking to NPCs more than once. Sometimes they have more useful information, gifts etc. if you talk to them two or more times.

Find the merchant in Undead Burg. He's got some useful stuff to sell, and there's a bonfire fairly near, so grinding for souls isn't too hard, if you don't have enough. The repairbox is really useful, especially if you use gear with low durability. You should probably also buy the residence key. When killed, he drops the uchigatana, which is a very good sword for anyone going for a dexterity-heavy character build (I pretty much used it as my primary weapon throughout the game). But if you do decide to kill him, make sure you buy everything you want from him first.

When you get to the bridge with the dragon, you can fairly easily get the Drake Sword by shooting its tail from a location under the bridge. You'll need a bow and plenty of arrows, which you can buy from the merchant. It might take a few tries to get the aiming right, and dozens of arrows before it drops the sword. Once you get a little further in the game and start upgrading your gear, the Drake Sword is easily outclassed, but at this point in the game it can be really good.

If you kill Lautrec when he shows up in Firelink Shrine, you'll get a rather good ring. You'll miss out on a storyline involving him if you do this before ringing the second bell, but it might still be worth it, and easier at this point... (Just make sure you never remove the ring, though, as you'll lose it!)

Before you head into Blighttown, go to the Darkroot Garden from Undead Parish and kill some of the tree creatures. They drop varieties of moss, which cure status ailments and can be quite helpful.


There's probably important stuff I've forgotten, and obviously I haven't gone into a lot of detail about the game's mechanics and controls. But you should be able to find a lot of this on your own, if you're interested.

I don't know if anyone who might find this useful will ever stumble upon my blog. But if even one person out there actually finds this helpful and ends up enjoying Dark Souls as much as I did, I'd be happy!

4 May 2014

Linking the Fire: The Day I Beat Dark Souls

So I did it. I beat Dark Souls. After years of being somewhat sceptical about this game, once I actually got into it I simply devoured it, spending a lot of my free time playing it over the last couple weeks.

The final boss... was actually easier than I was expecting. Beat it on my second try (and came very close to beating it on the first). But that doesn't mean I'm a skilled player, just that I've taken my time and levelled up my character and equipment. I feel like I've explored Lordran fairly thoroughly now, although I'm sure there's still a ton of hidden content that I've missed. The ending was... arguably kinda anticlimactic, but that's just so Dark Souls all over, with its minimalistic storytelling.

Since I already discussed many aspects of the game in my last couple blog posts (my first impressions, and second impressions), I'm not going to write a proper 'review' blog. Suffice to say, I had a lot of fun playing Dark Souls. I loved the atmosphere, the action, even the silly NPCs. That being said, I'm sure this is not a game for everyone.

Dark Souls has a reputation for being a hard game. And I guess it is. But if I can beat it without too much trouble, I think most people with a little experience in action games, and a little patience, should do just fine. It is not the most easily approachable of games, however, and, as I've said before, you're much better off if you do some research beforehand. (Actually, maybe I ought to write some kind of noob's guide to the game. Although I'm not sure if any of my friends might actually be contemplating playing this game or that anyone else would actually discover my writings...)

I don't feel a great hurry to play the sequel. I guess I'll have to some day, but I'll wait at least until the price drops a little. The little I've seen of it... is fairly interesting, I guess, but I'm not sure about some of the changes... I'm also not sure I want to try a 'new game plus' with my current Dark Souls character. I think it might be more rewarding to try an entirely different character build. In any case, I probably should be playing other games as well, for a change.

And... I guess that's about all I have to say at this time.

28 April 2014

The Continuing Adventures of the Chosen Undead

So over the past week or two I've been playing a lot of Dark Souls. I honestly don't remember when I was last this excited about, or addicted to, a video game. It fills my free time, and when I'm not playing, I'm checking up stuff on a wiki. (OK, I exaggerate slightly, perhaps—I've done other stuff too, like read the latest volume of Saga, which was brilliant, as always. But I have played a lot of Dark Souls.)

Last week I wrote about some first impressions of the game. Now I guess I'm getting relatively far into it. I've beaten a bunch of cool bosses. I've managed to find the Lordvessel. I've got my trusty katana upgraded to maximum level, and some fairly decent armour as well. All is going pretty well. Oh, and obviously I'm still dying a lot.

It's hard to really put my finger on what exactly makes this game so addicting. On the surface it can look like a fairly simple hack-and-slash game with not much plot—not exactly my usual cup of tea—but the world of Dark Souls is surprisingly rich. I love the way the levels are constructed, from the darkest depths to the loftiest castles. There's a surprising amount of variety, yet it's all connected (and interconnected). The NPCs are scarce and there's not much dialogue—and what there is is frequently kinda silly, even cheesy—but even those NPCs seem to fit well in the atmosphere of the game.

Of course that would all mean very little if the gameplay wasn't good. While the game is basically all about combat, you have options about how you go about that and how you build your character—heavy weapons, lighter weapons with more speed, magic etc. There's a ton of equipment to choose from to supplement your chosen style. The combat is fun and fast, but usually not too fast—you actually need to think about what you're doing, block attacks etc. Button mashing will get you nowhere. There's some advanced stuff too that I'm not really even trying, like parrying, which requires really precise timing and reading your opponents moves—things I'm pretty bad at.

A thing that is sometimes said about Dark Souls is that it's hard—but fair. It's tough and you'll die a lot, but very little is random or cheap. You get better. You learn to read enemies and adapt to their patterns. And it is an RPG, so you'll often have opportunities to grind and improve your character, or explore alternate routes. I have certainly been taking my time, not rushing into things.

The one catch that I already mentioned in my previous post—although it really isn't a catch at all as long as you're aware of it and act accordingly—is the frequent lack of information on some important topics. I've probably spent more time reading about this game online than I have for any other game in the past. Not actually a lot of actual 'walkthrough' stuff, as in what I'm supposed to do next, but mostly about strategies for bosses, what equipment best suits me and how to upgrade it, where to find certain helpful items, making sure I haven't missed any really important secrets in a particular location etc. I think that's all actually pretty cool and rather than being 'spoilers' might even add to the experience. Very rarely have I felt that I'm actually stuck in a place and had to check a walkthrough—although it has happened, sometimes the right exit or switch can be hard to spot.

The PvP part of the game is something that many people don't appreciate, and I'm inclined to agree. That sort of thing really should be something you can easily opt out of. It can be a source of annoyance for new players, since invaders are bound to be much more experienced players, and, I'm given to understand, sometimes actively trolling other players. That being said, I've actually had a fairly easy time with PvP thus far. I've only been invaded a small handful of times (you have to be in 'human' form to be invaded, and I tend to use my humanity only when absolutely necessary), and, somewhat to my surprise, I think I've actually won more than I've lost...

I'm a little concerned about how the difficulty will develop from here on, as, my gear already being pretty high level, I'm getting lower on ways to improve my character. I can keep levelling up for a long time, but it's a slow progress. No challenge so far has been insurmountable, though, and I've had fun encountering them. I expect I'll write more when I actually beat the game.

22 April 2014

How I Came to Darken My Soul

So I spent much of last weekend playing Dark Souls.

I remember watching 'let's play' videos of this game already, like, a couple years ago, but for a long time I was pretty sure it was a game I was never going to play. It looked hard. It looked, frankly, a little monotonous. It didn't seem to have much of a plot.

I have largely the LoadingReadyRun crew, and Alex Steacy in particular, to thank for changing my mind. I think I've mentioned in recent blog posts I've been watching a lot of their material lately. Well, some time ago Alex got into Dark Souls and streamed a session of it. I figured it would be fun enough to watch. He also wrote this helpful post on Tumblr for people interested in getting into the game. Enthusiasm can be infectious sometimes, and sure enough, I was infected, and eventually went out and actually bought the game (since it's a few years old already, and the sequel just came out, you can get it for a fairly affordable price these days). Since then I've also been watching LRR's Graham Stark play the game, with helpful advice from Alex.

'Helpful advice'—those are fairly important words.The thing about Dark Souls is that it has a pretty steep learning curve. The game tells you very little about what's going on and how you should be playing it. The manual is pretty slim, as they tend to be these days, and makes basically no mention of many important concepts and techniques, nor does the game have much of a tutorial section, beyond briefly mentioning some very basic controls. Unless you're a lot more hardcore than I am about such things, you'll really want to do research online, watch tutorial videos etc. before getting into the game. This'll make the first few hours a lot easier.

But when you do get into the swing of things, I think it can be an interesting, entertaining and rewarding experience. I'm still not very far into the game, so I can't really make any final judgements, but I've had fun thus far, and been pretty excited to play it. Sure, I've died a lot, but that's part of the game. Just exploring the different areas is pretty cool.

Uh, yeah, so what exactly is Dark Souls, someone might be asking? It's and action RPG title from Japanese developer From Software. Not a typical JRPG, though—actually more reminiscent of later Castlevania games (those in the Symphony of the Night vein), or perhaps even Zelda games, featuring an open world of connected levels that you can explore with some degree of freedom, but will need to beat certain bosses or find certain items to be able to progress. There's a robust stat and equipment system that affects many aspects of the game.

The tone is quite dark. You basically play as an undead character in a world filled with other undead and monsters, most of which are trying to kill you. There's not a whole lot of plot, and the cutscenes and dialogue that you get... are not perhaps the clearest, so I'm not going to bother going into a lot of detail at this point. While I'm a big fan of strong stories in video games, honestly, I don't think it really matters in this game. It's just not really the point. A lot of plot might even get in way of exploring the game's desolate world. What's important is that the atmosphere of the game is delightfully gloomy and, well, atmospheric... (There's also some atrociously bad pseudo-archaic English in some of the dialogue snippets that makes the linguist in me just want to punch somebody.)

I may write more about this game once I've played more. In the meanwhile, I'm still writing those Breakfast Battles updates on Tumblr I introduced a couple weeks ago. I still haven't finished my Mass Effect playthrough, but in the very near future I'll likely be focusing on Dark Souls...

10 April 2014

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Been a while since I played an entirely new video game, largely because I've been working my way through the Mass Effect trilogy, which has turned out to be a fairly lengthy undertaking. I decided to to take a little break from it, though, and played Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

This is quirky little indie adventure game from Swedish developer Starbreeze Studios. Two young brothers in a medieval fantasy world set out to find a cure for their ill father. Their journey takes them through a variety of strange places. Most of which seem to be in a fairly ramshackle state and difficult to navigate through...

The characters all speak in a made-up language, and the story's relatively simple. Starting out, it looks like a pretty light-hearted, non-violent adventure game. Be warned, though, towards the end the story gets pretty grim and emotional, as the brothers encounter their share of destruction and death along the way. Can't say much without spoilers, but some of the twists actually managed to surprise me.

For a fairly small indie game, Brothers looks really nice, with its grand landscapes and whatnot. Music's pretty cool and atmospheric, too. The gameplay is largely puzzle based, with a twist: you control both brothers simultaneously, one with each analogue stick, using the left and right trigger buttons to make the characters interact with the environment. And that's it. Controlling two characters at once can be a little disorienting at first, but you get the hang of it.

The puzzles honestly aren't very hard. Certain sequences require fairly precise timing, but once you get into the swing of things, the game progresses pretty smoothly. I found it pretty fun and relaxing, overall. It's not a long game, I played it through in just a couple sittings. Since the game is highly linear and puzzle based, and not particularly challenging, I'm not sure it really has a whole lot of replay value, though... Still a fun experience, though, for anyone who likes fantasy and adventure games. Nothing much more to say.

7 April 2014

New Things, New Games, New Experiences

Been very lazy with my bloggings lately. Nothing really major going on in my life, but several little titbits I probably should write about. Starting a new Tumblr, subscribing to PlayStation Plus, trying games I never thought I'd play...

1. First of all, I've been trying to rework my daily routines in an effort to be more productive (I'm not sure it's actually helped much yet, but it's a gradual progress). One thing I'm trying is starting my days with a little gaming, to relax and invigorate me for the day to come, and perhaps also in order to have a regular timeslot for gaming that wouldn't have to compete with other hobbies. Then I came upon the idea that perhaps I should write some kind of journal about my experiences. So I started a new Tumblr page for this purpose, which I'm calling Ben's Breakfast Battles. (Why Tumblr? I felt this should be separate from my other outlets, and Tumblr seemed like a relatively light weight system for writing and sharing these short posts.)

2. In today's post I received the Iron Sky Director's Cut Blu-ray. It's a 'limited edition steelbook' version, signed by director Timo Vuorensola, to boot. (This was part of a merchandise package I bought last year when they were crowdfunding the production of the Iron Sky sequel.) But perhaps the real blogworthy news here is that this is, believe it or not, my first ever Blu-ray movie. Even though I've had a PS3 and HD TV for many years already, I've still heavily favoured DVDs when buying movies and TV shows. There are some simple reasons for this. Firstly, DVDs have been, and I think still are, cheaper than Blu-rays. Secondly, not every location I regularly watch movies and shows at (namely some family members) still has a Blu-ray player, and I want to keep my options for when and where I watch open. Even when that changes, price will still be major factor, although I might be more willing to look at the alternatives.

3. I have been watching a lot of gaming streams lately, particularly by LoadingReadyRun and Day[9]. (Well, a lot of these I've watched on YouTube, because the time zone difference makes catching most streams live hard at best.) It's interesting to see games I haven't played and (often) am not likely to play. Sometimes watching stuff like this might even inspire me to try new games and genres. (See below. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, watching Hearthstone footage was partially to blame for my rediscovered interest in Magic: The Gathering.) And a good, engaging streamer can make it really entertaining, too.

4. Perhaps somewhat related to the previous, I've been thinking about my options for new games to play, once I'm through with my current playthrough of the Mass Effect trilogy. There's a bunch of games that I'd like to try out, but I have limited money to use and a lot of these games are still pretty pricey. So somehow I found myself once again looking at PlayStation Plus. I have scoffed at the idea before, and I am, generally speaking, not a big fan of subscription based services in most fields. I'd much rather just buy an item and be done with it. But here's the reasoning that finally made me cave in and buy a three month subscription, to try it out. The 'meat' of Plus membership, I think, is the selection of 'free' games you can download. Even if you'd only play a few games that way during, say, a year's membership, I guess you've pretty much got your money's worth. Still, I'd much rather have games on disc than download games I can use only as long as I'm a subscriber. What sold me was the idea that the games I'd be downloading, for the most part, probably aren't games I would normally buy. If I'm spending money on a specific game, I kinda want it to be something I know I'm likely to enjoy, like a new title in a favourite series. There'll be less experimentation, which I'm hoping these downloadable games will inspire more of. (The ability to back up save files in the cloud is an additional bonus. Wish I'd had that last autumn when my old PS3 broke down...)

5. The first PlayStation Plus member game I downloaded from the PSN store, once I'd signed up, just yesterday, was... dramatic drumroll... XCOM: Enemy Unknown. This was inspired by Cam Lauder playing the game (well, technically the expansion, Enemy Within, but that wasn't available to download) on the LoadingReadyRun channel. Now, I never played the original classic UFO: Enemy Unknown, nor do I have a lot of experience in general with tactical games, so this is entirely new territory for me. I'm sure I'll write more once I've had a chance to play more.

11 March 2014

First Steps of a Planeswalker 2: Cubed

So I haven't had a chance to actually play yet since my recent post about buying new Magic: The Gathering cards. But Magic has been much on my mind, and I'm gradually preparing things for when I actually do get around to playing. Among those things is building some decks, of course. (For my first deck, the pool of cards I had led me to choose green-white. But I might write more about that if and when I actually play with it...) Today, however, I'm writing about something different...

As I've said before, one of the things I love about Magic is the variety of formats. Limited play is... interesting, but not something I'm necessarily very keen on, as such. I don't want to purchase new boosters every time I want to play. And I'm not that crazy about making decisions on the spot, like when drafting cards. (Drafting, for newbies, is when you open boosters and each player in turn picks cards to build their decks with.) However, cube draft is a whole other matter. Ever since I heard about it, it's been something I thought I might like to do some day.

What is a cube? Here's what WotC's page on casual Magic formats says: 'To prepare for this format, a player ... prepares a "cube"—a specifically selected set of at least 360 different Magic cards. ... Once the cube has been built, you can use it for any draft format. The most popular option is to build makeshift "booster packs" out of 15 randomly selected cards from the cube and then run a regular Booster Draft.'

One of the obvious pros of cube play is that everyone doesn't need to have their own decks, and it also places players more or less on the same level (although knowing the cards in the set will of course be an advantage when drafting).

I didn't imagine this would be something I'd do very soon, since obviously it's something that requires a reasonable number of cards to get started with, and creating a balanced set of hundreds of cards wouldn't exactly be easy. I toyed around with some ideas about what might make a fun, cheap, easy to make cube. But, as it happens, an opportunity presented itself. I took a little peek at what a local online auction website had in way of Magic cards, and one thing that caught my eye was a guy selling a complete set of four each of all the common cards from the Theros expansion (that's a total of 404 cards), for what I felt was a pretty reasonable price.

Initially I wasn't that interested in buying just common cards. But then it struck me: what I had here was basically an instant cube. Since it was a complete set of cards from a single expansion, it was bound to be pretty well balanced, and it would obviously be highly themed and flavourful. A playable set of cards with next to no work building it. Sure, it's not the most creative way to make a cube (a format that lends itself to almost limitless possibilities), but it was easy and affordable.

OK, so currently it's a pauper cube (i.e. it only has common cards), and has a somewhat limited number of individual cards (101 total). I might consider some day expanding it with uncommons from the same set, or even cards from the other Theros block expansions. But I think it should be fun to experiment with already as it currently stands.

That's it for now. Maybe next time I write about Magic, I'll have actually had a chance to play it...

3 March 2014

First Steps of a Planeswalker: Rediscovering Magic

Well, the last month was kinda slow, blogging-wise. But of course there's always something going on. The last week in particular was quite busy and interesting. I got to see Within Temptation live. It was a great experience. There was a BioShock Marathon, benefiting Child's Play Charity, by the g33kWatch team, which kept me glued to my computer for much of the weekend. It was a lot of fun, like previous g33kWatch events (and boy am I pretty tired after it).

But the thing that's probably most worthy of a blog post is my growing interest in Magic: The Gathering.

A month ago I blogged about trying out the video game version, Duels of the Planeswalkers. Since then, I found myself reading more about Magic—its history, lore, the variety of formats etc. I also started watching related material on YouTube. One of the first shows that hooked me was Friday Nights by LoadingReadyRun. This is a semi-fictional comedy series about the LRR team's experiences playing Magic. (Here's a YouTube playlist.) (The team also does a video podcast called TapTapConcede, where they open booster packs and discuss various aspects of the game—pretty entertaining.)

(I must admit I wasn't familiar with LoadingReadyRun before. I have since watched a lot of their other material as well, though. But that's an unrelated story.)

OK, so through all this, my interest in the game and its various formats was steadily growing. There's so much depth and variety to the game. I was approaching a point where buying some news cards was pretty much inevitable, even though I wasn't sure how much chance I would have to actually play, so I mentioned my interest to a few friends (some with past experience, some newcomers potentially interested—none of them currently active players, afaik), and last week me and a couple of them finally got around to visiting one of the local gaming stores.

I wanted a decent, but reasonably affordable, pool of cards to start with. What I ended up buying was a Deck Builder's Toolkit and a Fat Pack of the latest expansion set, Born of the Gods (I might've actually preferred a Theros Fat Pack, since it's the first set of the current expansion block, but the store didn't have them in stock). Let me walk you through these products briefly.

The Deck Builder's Toolkit is a pretty good product for novice players. It features 100 basic land cards, 125 'semi-randomized cards' and four booster packs. In the current (2014) version of the box, the cards appear to be drawn from the 2014 core set and the Return to Ravnica expansion block.

Fat Packs contain nine booster packs of the set in question, together with 80 basic lands, a custom d20 (for use as a life counter), a 'Player's Guide' booklet covering core concepts of the set (with a complete card list), and a decent looking cardboard card box.

Now, a Fat Pack is priced at almost twice the price of a Deck Builder's Toolkit, but actually contains a little less cards. There are reasons for this, I guess. Except for the boosters, the cards in the Toolkit are all commons and uncommons. You'll get more rares (and potentially mythic rares) in a Fat Pack. And even though the Toolkit states that 'no two toolkits are alike', the bulk of the cards are only 'semi-randomized'. I expect it's probably not really worthwhile buying multiple Deck Builder's Toolkits, unless you really need the land cards or a lot of commons for something (like, say, building a cube).

Even a Fat Pack is probably not something you'll be buying very often, since it costs a little more than just the boosters. Unless, again, you need the lands. The booklet is a neat thing to have, I'd like one for every expansion out there, but it alone doesn't quite justify the extra cost.

I haven't been through my cards very thoroughly yet. I did check what my rares where, of course, but alas, no really expensive cards there, I think. Should still be some interesting stuff in there for playing, of course. The art and design of the cards is quite high quality. The aesthetics, I think, have come a long way since the 90s, when I last bought Magic cards. I think I already have more cards in total here than I ever had back then. Like I've said before, I never really got into the game then. Of course I still have those old cards, too. There may be some in there that could be useful for some decks. But I think for my first decks I'll favour the new cards.

Speaking of different decks, one aspect that fascinates me about Magic is the variety of formats (that is, different rules variations for building decks, playing with different numbers of people, etc). I'd definitely like to try Commander, or building a cube for drafting. These types of play probably require a little more cards to get started with than I currently own, though. I would also be very interested in trying some kind of co-operative play.

So, next up, I should try to figure out some kind of sensible deck from the cards I have. Not exactly a small task, even with the fairly limited pool, when I'm hardly familiar with the cards. And hopefully some day I'll get a chance to actually play as well...