Category Archives: Video Games

Game of the Month: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

I had heard and a read a lot about the game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. But I was not sure whether I wanted to play this game, because the setting seemed to be a very dark. It was the recommendation of a fellow worker that finally convinced me to give it a try.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt takes place in a dark medieval world. Over a thousand years ago a cataclysm called the Conjunction of the Spheres unleashed numerous monsters like ghouls, griffins and trolls into the world. Ever since they pray on the population and their live stock. There are also racial tensions between the humanoid races like humans, elfs and dwarfs which often lead to violence. To make matters worse a war between the Nilfgaardian Empire and the northern kingdoms is ravaging the continent.

The player follows the adventures of the witcher Geralt of Rivia. Witchers are magically mutated monster hunters with superhuman strength, speed and senses. They make a living from hunting and killing monsters for money. Geralt is contacted by his former lover Yennefer of Vengerberg, a powerful sorceress. She tells him that Cirilla, Geralt’s adopted daughter, has reappeared and is apparently being chased by the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt is a powerful group of spectres that leaves death and destruction in its path. Together Geralt and Yennefer must try to find Cirilla first and protect her from her dangerous pursuers.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an open world, third person, hack and slash game with role play elements. The game world is absolutely massive and full of interesting locations like monster nests, bandit camps or hidden treasures. Besides the lengthy main quests there are a huge number of interesting side quests and witcher contracts available. All this is combined with excellent story writing and compelling dialog spoken by brilliant voice actors. The combat system is also very well designed: there are no win buttons and no quicktime events. The outcome of a fight depends on the right mix of preparation, clever use of Geralt’s magic powers and good old reflexes. The game never spams you with enemies to increase the difficulty. It instead presents you with very well designed and thereby challenging opponents and forces you to learn from your mistakes. But it is never unfair in doing so. Spectacular graphics depicting breath taking landscapes and impressive cities, realistic character animations and excellent sound complete this outstanding game.

I greatly enjoyed playing The Witcher  3: Wild Hunt. It felt like an interactive fantasy story full of interesting characters and rich lore. It is possibly the best game not released by BioWare that I have ever played. Along the way you have to make a lot of decisions for Geralt. And it is usually challenging to tell what the correct choice is. More often than not it turns out that there is no correct choice, there are always unfortunate consequences. You can only decide for yourself which is the lesser evil. I was also happy that Geralt gets a good farewell at the end of his trilogy (the first two Witcher games are not available for PlayStation 4 unfortunately). I still have unfond memories of the disappointing ending of another trilogy.

If you like open world games, story driven games or hack and slash games you should definitely consider The Witcher  3: Wild Hunt. It excels in all of these areas.

Game of the Month: Dragon Age: Inquisition

Six years ago BioWare published Dragon Age: Origins, the first game of their new fantasy series. Thanks to its excellent story, rich lore, good game play and the epic size of the fictional world the game became a massive success. Its successor Dragon Age II however was less well received. Oversimplified role play elements, a too small game world and a less engaging story left a lot of fans of the first part quite disappointed. BioWare promised to learn from their mistakes and deliver a much better experience in the third part, Dragon Age: Inquisition.

The events in Kirkwall during the second game have lead to a mage rebellion. The resulting civil war between the mages and the Templar Order is devastating the whole continent of Thedas. The casualties on both sides and among the innocent population are high. The leader of the Chantry,  the dominant church, wants to stop the violence and uses her dwindling influence to host peace talks. But an enormous magical explosion kills her and the delegates of both sides. Even worse it also opens a massive breach into the Fade, the parallel world occupied by magical beings. Daemons pour through this opening and indiscriminately attack everybody in sight. More rifts into the Fade open in all of Thedas and the whole continent is descending into chaos.

The players character was sent as an observer to the peace talks and finds herself (or himself if you must) in the Fade after the explosion. She only narrowly manages to escape the daemons and uses the breach to cross back into the normal world. But the remaining forces of the Chantry arrest her on suspicion of causing the fatal explosion. With no memory of the events and a strange glowing magical mark embedded in her left hand, that is clearly linked to the breach, her chances of proving her innocence seem to be slim. However things change when it turns out that the mark allows her to close the rifts into the Fade and stop the daemons from invading the world. Her attempt to close the main breach only partially succeeds and almost kills her. But her heroics drastically change people’s attitude towards her. While a minority still believe she is responsible for the catastrophe the majority perceives her as a holy saviour that stands between Thedas and its utter destruction. She must now become the Inquisitor to lead the newly formed Inquisition and turn it into a force that can save Thedas and restore peace and order.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is indeed a major improvement over its predecessor. The game world is absolutely enormous. The first major area that the player unlocks is probably already larger than all the locations in Dragon Age II combined. And there are over half a dozen of such regions. The role play elements also offer much more depth again. All classes provide a lot of different skill trees and three specialisations which allow a lot of interesting builds resulting in very different combat styles. Warriors and rogues are no longer limited to a given weapon type and can be trained according to the player’s preferences. These improvements are also reflected in the combat system which features a tactical mode that allows precise control over all four characters in the party and enables devastating combined attacks.

The game also features a record number of companions and love interests. As they all have different backgrounds, beliefs and agendas the player faces an interesting challenge to keep them all in line. For the main character the player can choose one of four races, the gender and the class. All combinations have unique social backgrounds, which are reflected throughout the game. While a human Inquisitor will face less resentments by the exclusively human nobility she will also have more limited options to interact with the other races. A mage Inquisitor has a hard time to earn trust as people have suffered a lot at the hands of the rebel mages.

A common theme in BioWare games are the decision that the player can make. These decision often greatly influence the following events. Dragon Age: Inquisition is no exception and as in its predecessor there is often no right and no wrong choice, no good and no evil option. But there are always consequences and often enough not the ones that you were hoping for. The game even references past events defined by the player’s choices in both of the previous games and seamlessly connects them to the current storyline.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is BioWare at its best: a role play game with an exciting plot, a huge number of interesting characters, witty dialogs and a fantastic setting. The game provides a good compromise between the traditional and slightly unwieldy role playing of the first game and the over simplified action adventure style of the second game. If there is anything to complain about it is the final showdown. BioWare decided to split it over multiple missions and somewhat fail to maintain the arc of suspense. But that doesn’t change the fact that Dragon Age: Inquisition is a great adventure that feels like creating your own epic fantasy movie. And although the story comes to a satisfying conclusion it paves the way for more exciting adventures. I definitely hope to pay Thedas another visit in the future. 🙂

How to ruin a video game with a DLC

A lot of video (and computer) games can be expanded via Downloadable Content (DLCs). A DLC provides more missions, stories, characters or gear. BioWare for example did an outstanding job with the five free DLCs for Mass Effect 3‘s multiplayer mode. They more than doubled the number of maps, characters and weapons and even added a new enemy faction and a challenge systems. This was the main reason for the long lasting success of Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer mode. Unfortunately not all expansions are that good. Some are boring and add very little to the experience of the original game. But none of the DLCs that I played in the past actually made the original game worse. However there is a first time for everything.

The game I spent most time playing last year was most likely Destiny. The original game had some flaws:

  • The piecemeal story telling left many open questions and caused confusion.
  • The game featured too little content, in particular for a game that is supposed to last for a decade.
  • It required too much grinding to unlock interesting modes of game play and to obtain anything but beginner level gear for your character.
  • The high level activities like the raid in the Vault of Glass, Nightfall Strikes or Weekly Heroic Strikes required multiple players (up to 6) but lacked any form of match making. The player community had to help themselves because Bungie were unwilling to even acknowledge this problem.

A DLC would have been an excellent opportunity to fix several of these issues, in particular the incomplete story telling and the lack of content. But when the first extension The Dark Below was announced the hopes of the fans were disappointed. The DLC costs half the price of the original game. For this price it should have included 2 new planets, 2 new enemy factions, 10 story missions, 4 strikes and 1/2 raid. Unfortunately it actually offered much less:

  • 3 new story missions
  • 2 strikes
  • 1 raid (actually 3/4 of a raid at best in my opinion)

Based on that I initially decided not to buy the DLC. I was expecting that I could just keep playing Destiny as before and simply not have access to the new content. But it turned out I was wrong. In the very first week after the DLC was released Bungie selected one of the new strikes as the Nightfall Strike and Weekly Heroic Strike. There was no alternative whatsoever and a lot of the existing player base was locked out from two of the most rewarding activities in the game for a whole week. After a few days they also added two of the DLC story missions to the rotation of the Daily Heroic Mission. Normally it takes about two weeks until a mission appears again on this rotation. But one of the two DLC story mission is scheduled as the Daily Heroic Mission every three days. This is not only unfair to the existing players it is also annoying to the player who bought the DLC because they have to complete these missions very often to get the rewards. But Bungie didn’t stop there. They also changed the rotation of the Nightfall Strike and Weekly Heroic Strike to feature one of the new strikes (always the same one, as the second one is only available on PlayStation 3 and 4) every three weeks. This is again annoying to both the player with and without the DLC. Unfortunately Bungie got to me with this clever marketing strategy and I bought the DLC against my better judgement.

So Bungie failed to improve the story telling (there are again only fragments in the new story missions) or to address the lack of content. But what about the grinding? Believe it or not: they actually made it worse, much worse in fact. They e.g. changed the existing Vanguard and Crucible ranking and equipment vendors for all players (with and without DLC):

  • To buy Vanguard (or Crucible) armour your character still needs to reach reputation rank 2.
  • However chest armour and helmets now require a Vanguard Commendation (or Crucible Commendation). But players only get one of these commendations if their character reaches rank 3 or any rank above 3. A new player therefore needs to reach rank 4 with his or her character before they can buy the complete set of amour. And they need this armour very much to level up far enough to take part in the high level activities.
  • The vendors now also charge more Vanguard Marks for the armour. Previously 195 Vanguard Marks would get you a chest armour, greaves and gauntlet. Since the DLC a player needs 225 marks to purchase these three pieces of armour. And with a weekly limit of 100 Vanguard Marks per character it takes players an extra week to acquire these.
  • Even experienced players which reached level 30 before the DLC was released have to get the new Vanguard gear. It is higher level than all the previous gear (including raid gear) and required to beat the new raid.

There is more equipment related grinding. The existing exotic gear hasn’t become obsolete. But if you have acquired it before the DLC was released it has to be upgraded via one particular vendor (which is only available on Fridays and Saturdays) to reach the new maximum level. The upgrade doesn’t only require two kinds of currency (which you will have to grind for), it will also reset all the gear to its basic state. And a lot of the exotic weapons are quite mediocre until you level them up to unlock their unique features. And levelling them up of course requires grinding. This upgrade scheme is particular bad for the most devoted players because they will have considerably more exotic gear than the average player.

Bungie also added another reputation system called Crota’s Bane. It is particular hard to level up because you can only do so via the limited amount of daily bounties. It will take a player about two weeks to reach rank 3 and another two weeks to reach rank 4. There are no particular nice rewards for doing so except the ability to buy or exchange upgrade materials that you need for some of the DLC weapons. The set of available bounties is also relatively small which results in a lot of repetition. And if you just play the game (and try to have some fun) you will struggle to complete these bounties. Instead players have to come up with cheesy strategies like playing the same sequence of the same story mission again and again.

And that is not the end of the grinding! The main complaint about the existing raid was the unfair gear drop system. Quite frequently all you got for completing the raid was a lot of upgrade materials and maybe an armour shader. This is of course very disappointing when you are after the unique raid gear. In any other game you could simply play the same or a similar mission again. But in Destiny you only get gear drops from a raid once per week per character, no matter how many times you complete it. That left players a lot of time to ponder over their bad luck.

In this case Bungie actually acknowledged that this is a problem and promised to improve this for the new raid. And indeed players get upgrade materials less often when they complete it. However this doesn’t help them at all because the necessary upgrade materials now only drop in the raid. As a result players still need to complete the raid and even more often because they can otherwise never upgrade their raid gear and reach level 32. To avoid having to wait several weeks a lot of players created multiple characters of the same class and ran the raid with all of them every week. The game design again encourages players to combine grinding with cheesy tactics rather than to enjoy the game.

But the best part is still to come: in a few weeks all that grinding will have been for nothing. Bungie already announced that the next DLC (rumoured to be available in March) will increase the maximum level to 34. And just as The Dark Below rendered all the original raid gear obsolete the next DLC will render all the DLC raid gear obsolete. The whole circle of grinding will start all over again.

You may now wonder whether Bungie at least did something about the match making? No, they didn’t. You still have to assemble a team for weekly strikes or raids yourself. Bungie actually tried to justify this decision with the design of the new raid. Instead of another interesting puzzle like the Vault of Glass they’ve created a lacklustre sequence of hardcore combat encounters. Without a well coordinated group of six players which have been playing Destiny together for weeks you will struggle a lot. Bungie either don’t understand or don’t care that a lot of the fans of this game are not part of such a group. The only reason that the new raid didn’t cause a lot of frustration were the huge number of bugs in it. By abusing these bugs the players could once more work around poor game design by employing very cheesy tactics.

Destiny was a decent game when it was first released. I only wish I had quit playing it when the DLC got released. Well, you never stop learning.