Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Witcher

Yeah all right, its a computer game, not a book. So sue me.

I am - right at this moment, as I type this - playing a game called The Witcher. I'd heard good and bad things about it when it first came out. Its an RPG, and the moral choices you make in the game are supposed to have something like real consequences, so I liked the sound of that. But there were complaints about the graphics and bugs and long loading screens, and life's too short, so I left it alone.

But here's a twist: the publishers of the game apparently responded to the criticism. They released a new version of the game that supposedly improved the graphics (not just the detail, but the style) and fixed (most of) the bugs, and removed a bunch of loading screens and shortened the others. So I like to reward that kind of responsiveness, and it did sound like an interesting game, so I picked it up. (The fact that it was on sale for like $10 on gog.com, as a marketing stunt to drum up interest in the sequel, certainly didn't hurt.)

And I've enjoyed it so far. Its a dark story, and if you assume that pretty much everyone is a bastard you won't be far wrong, but your choices do seem to make some sort of difference to the plot. And the character you play is only really likeable at a stretch, but if you play him as more good guy than bad then you can fill in around the gaps and not hate him. Something must be working, anyways, because unlike most games of the sort I actually _cared_ enough to _try_ to make him likeable by doing the right things. The combat gameplay is kind of simplistic and feels like it was designed for a console (which is odd, because I think it was native PC, and don't think it was ever ported to a console) but it works well enough.

But here's the thing. Long about the end of act 3, when you've been playing the game for just about exactly as long as I have, and you've got a feel for things and how they work, suddenly, out of the blue, it all comes screeching to a halt. The myriad parallel quests I was working on are all obviously stalled with things like "so-and-so needs to think about this come back later" kind of messages. The only quest I have anything concrete to do in is to go to a party with some old friends; cue backstory montage. No! Wait! Instead of showing me some cutscene from out of my character's history, they instead decided to torture me with the most tedious, makework, obnoxiously pointless serious of tasks ever invented by adventuregamekind. First I have to invite someone to the party... by walking around town and finding the couple of people I have the option of attempting to invite. Then I have to talk to every merchant in the game until I find some very specific types of alcohol I'm supposed to bring. Then I have to talk to the hostess - but only when she's at home, and there's no indication of when she'll be at home, or why I can't talk to her about the party when she's not at home. Then you have to get into her apartment past her landlady, who ambushes you automatically as you walk in the door, and engages you in a randomly selected conversation _only about 1/5 of which have ANY correct answer which will get her to let you in!_ Yes, thats right. You just keep trying over and over til you're lucky enough to be allowed in. No skill. Doesn't matter what you say. No influence on the outcome at all. Just bang your head against the door til one or the other gives. Then they get you horribly drunk - which in this game makes any activity, including walking, _incredibly_ slow and painful - and then they force you to creep around in this near-paralytic state to perform some fetch-it type quests, because apparently the game designer thought it would be funny to watch drunk people stagger incompetently around. Slowly. Very, very slowly. Hope they enjoyed it, as I certainly didn't. Then they force you to leave but tell you that you have to come back again - and again you have to talk to your hostess, but only at home, with no idea when she'll be home, and presumably all because it lets them force you to smash your head repeatedly against the Random Landlady Crapshoot every. Single. Time. You want to check.

This is the worst segment of any adventure-style game I've ever played. I'm serious. I'm not just saying that because I'm currently spitting lava over the fact that I just waded through it (most of it, and there'd better not be much more or I'll never know how this ends...) I played Infocom's Hitchhiker's Guide. I got the Babel fish. I've paid my dues. I am trying very very hard not to let this one passage ruin the entire game for me (remember? Up the top there I was quite enjoying this thing...) and I'm sure taking a moment to vent here will help with that. But wow; in whose twisted dreams from past the edge of sanity did anyone ever imagine that this sequence would be fun to play? Incorrect. Guess again. Maybe if you try the exact same plan 5 or 6 more times it'll randomly work one time. But somehow I doubt it.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Review: A Dance with Dragons

A Dance with Dragons
A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So like the rest of the series, this is very very good.

However, its not quite as compelling as some of the earlier pieces in the set. If you're not aware, he's essentially split 1 book into two between this and the last one, following only some of the characters through a span of time in the first book, and then coming back and collecting the rest of the characters in the first 2/3 of the second, before twining them all back together again. I don't think this works out very well, even with re-reading the first one just before the second came out. You spend too long apart from some of the characters you're very attached to (in both cases,) and by the time you read the second one you essentially know a lot of where things have to end up, since you know what happened to some of the other characters in the first.

There are a couple of other things that don't quite work as well in this one. We introduce a bevy of new characters - which is fine, since we were starting to run out - and some of them are really interesting. But I think maybe we got a few too many and a couple were just too similar to one another. One dies by the end of this book (I'm not even going to count that as a spoiler, in this series) and I _wanted_ to care, but I really didn't much. There was the potential for them to turn into someone interesting, but there really just wasn't time to develop them much, what with all of the other people we had to keep track of. And in the meantime, there were some long chapters of nothing much really happening with Daenerys except her working out that ruling a city is hard. I'm sure thats an important thing for her to learn, but I didn't feel like we needed to watch quite so much of it to get the point.

These are minor flaws in an otherwise excellent novel, and the whole series is still well, well worth reading. Hopefully we wont have to wait 6 years for the next one!

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