Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Game of Thrones - Some Thoughts on the Season 6 Finale

In the wake of the utterly riveting season 6 finale of Game of Thrones, I thought I'd provide my take on a few of the plot points and some common lines of thinking I've been seeing in post-finale articles.


Why does Tommen commit suicide?

I've seen many people comment that Tommen's suicide was surprising and assume he did it because of Margaery's death. While I do agree that his wife's unfortunate demise probably played a part in Tommen's decision to end his own life, I would argue that his love for Margaery was only one facet in the deluge of emotion that the young king must have experienced watching the Great Sept of Baelor explode. Here are a few other thoughts I would bet were going through his mind.

1. The Twin Pillars

"The Faith and the Crown are the twin pillars upon which the world rests."

This is Tommen's modus operandi in season 6. We saw previously that Tommen was essentially good-natured, and generally wanted to be a kinder, fairer king than his brother Joffrey. Season 5 saw Tommen emasculated and proven to be a token figurehead. Helpless to rescue his wife, brother-in-law and mother from the newly-empowered Faith Militant, Tommen could do little but recognize the limits of his power even as King. If he couldn't save his family, if he couldn't control King's Landing ... how could he rule the Seven Kingdoms?

His status as a token figurehead only played into the High Sparrow's (and to some extent Margaery's) manipulations in season 6. With their words in his ear, naive, easily-manipulated Tommen fell for the High Sparrow's spiel, hook line and sinker. The burden of ruling wasn't on his shoulders alone now; he had the twin pillar of Faith on his side. The Faith that had - up until his conversion - been an enemy, now was an ally. Tommen's speech uniting the Faith and the Crown had saved his beloved wife from a humiliating walk of atonement. His announcement was greeted with thunderous applause by the masses.

Finally, Tommen had done something right.

All that was undone as the Sept exploded. One of the pillars of the world had collapsed. Only he remained.

2. The Mother's Mercy, the Mother's Treachery

It was not lost on Tommen that it was his mother's personal undead Mountain who stopped him from joining his wife at the sept. If Cersei had dispatched anyone else, perhaps it might not have been so obvious ... but Gregor Clegane blocking his passage could mean only one thing - Cersei did not want him at the Sept. As wildfire consumed the Faith's pillar, it became clear to Tommen that his mother had orchestrated the bombing. His mother was responsible for the death of not only his wife, but of all the men and women present. His mother had destroyed the Faith Militant ... and in so doing had betrayed him and his singular accomplishment as King.

We can note that Tommen's suicide was not accompanied by tears or despair. Rather, he strode to that window with resigned purpose. His mother had simultaneously extricated herself from a terrible situation and exacted a terrible vengeance on her enemies in one fell swoop. It was as if Tommen knew the only way he could do the same was to take that final leap.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Game of Thrones and its Still-Unresolved Plotlines, Part 1

Recent news/rumors suggest that following the conclusion of its sixth season, HBO's Game of Thrones may have shortened episode orders for its seventh and eighth seasons (of 7 and 6 episodes respectively), I thought it an appropriate time to examine what plotlines remain as yet unresolved on the show. This post concerns only show plotlines (and timelines?); the sheer volume of book plotlines that have yet to be addressed are almost too overwhelming to think about. Okay, not really - but I think I'll leave that to more talented and experienced Song of Ice and Fire scholars.

Book and Show Spoilers follow:

Jon Snow's Parentage 

Introduced In: Season 1/Season 6

Lord Snow's parentage has been a question that book readers have been analyzing since what seems like the beginning of time, but as a question worthy of analysis from the show-perspective alone, this plotline seems to have only just been introduced in season 6. While passing mentions of Jon being Ned Stark's bastard son and the mystery behind his mother's identity have been prolific in earlier seasons, it wasn't until we saw Bran's visions into the past that this plotpoint has gained any real traction as anything other than background noise on the show.

Estimated Resolution: End of Season 6

It's almost a foregone conclusion that Jon Snow is not actually the bastard son of Ned Stark, but in fact the secret son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Ned's sister Lyanna. At this point, it would almost be a disappointment for this to resolve in any other way ... and thus it would be best for the show to get this confirmation out of the way, the quicker the better.

House Lannister v. House Stark

Introduced In: Season 1

House Lannister v. House Stark has been an ongoing plotline that has occupied a large portion of many seasons of the show (and the novels). It was apparent from episode 1 that these Houses would not get along (given the closing of the first episode features Jaime Lannister throwing Bran Stark out a window for discovering his and his sister's secret twincest shame). This animosity quickly descended into Ned Stark's beheading by Joffrey Lannister and the war of the Five Kings that strongly featured major conflict between a Robb Stark and Lannister forces. This conflict culminated in the Red Wedding, where Lannister surrogate Walder Frey viciously murdered Robb, his new wife Talisa, and Catelyn, matriarch of the Starks.

Estimated Resolution: Season 8

Yeah, so the Lannisters have pretty much been winning this House rivalry contest for a while now. That said, how does this plotline NOT go down the path of Stark revenge against the Lannisters? I mean, I know the Lannisters have taken a few hits (Seems like all the Lannister Baby Boomers are gone), but their more prominent members still hold an iron (golden?) grip over the Iron Throne (Cersei, Jaime, and to a lesser extent Tommen), even if that grip is tenuously shared with the Tyrells - and now the Faith Militant. And with Sansa Stark and Jon Snow maneuvering themselves into alliances in the North, and Arya on the cusp of completing her assassin training, it seems like some good ol' comeuppance is about to be served.

As an antagonistic dynamic that has spanned the show's entire existence, the culmination has to happen in Season 8 ... right? I'm guessing the Starks and Lannisters have to set aside their differences to fight the White Walkers ... until one betrays the other and starts another murder spree.

Speaking of Arya ...

Arya and the House of Black and White

Introduced In: Season 2

While masquerading as a servant in Harrenhal, Arya meets Jaqen H'ghar, who first displays the power of the House of Black and White to her. Upon escaping the Hound (and Brienne), Arya arrives in Braavos in season 5 and began a multi-season foray into becoming an assassin and devotee of the Many-Faced God (aka the God of Death). Her efforts have been plagued by moral dilemmas, the forced abandonment of her identity as a Stark noble, punitive blindness for indulging her need for revenge and the Waif, aka that high school bully that likes to pick on you just because you exist. Recent events have led Arya to stray from her assassin training and her mentor Jaqen H'ghar, and her latest step - the retrieval of her rapier Needle, the strongest physical tie she still maintains to her true family - only serves to highlight the fact that Arya was never going to become a true assassin.

Estimated Resolution: Season 7 / 8

And in all honesty, who really wanted to see Arya become a fullblown assassin for hire? What we really wanted was for her to become an epic ninja and use her new skills to cross everyone off her list. Season 6 has been telegraphing Arya attaining that expertise and then abandoning the House of Black and White for a while and seems on track for an epic showdown between Arya, the Waif, and Jaqen for the current season finale.

While I've no doubt that Arya will escape the grasp of the Many-Faced Gods and his assassins in the current season, it seems suspect that she could truly free herself from such a powerful and dangerous organization without suffering some kind of retribution for her repeated failures. My bet's on a second confrontation with the House of Black and White in season 7 or season 8, where we can expect Arya's visage to join the Hall of Faces.

Maggy's Prophecy

Introduced In: Season 5

Cersei has been portrayed as a paranoid, vindictive, ruthless, and power-hungry Queen. It's arguable that these personality traits were inceptioned into her - or at the very least exacerbated by - the prophecy she heard as a young girl. Maggy the Frog predicted that she would marry the King - not a prince as she expected. That she would be Queen, until a younger more beautiful Queen came to take her place. That she would have three children, but that they would all die before her. There are subtleties and additional predictions made in the novels, but it's these predictions that have shaped show Cersei the most.

Estimated Resolution: Beginning of Season 7

Parts of these prophecies can be said to have already taken place. For example, we know that Cersei did in fact marry King Robert Baratheon after he usurped the position from the Mad King Aerys Targaryen. We also have already seen her lose her title of Queen to Margaery - though I suspect Danaerys is also a contender for this position depending on Margaery's fate. Finally, two of her children have already been slain - Joffrey by the schemes of Littlefinger and Olenna Tyrell, and Myrcella by Ellaria Sand to avenge Oberyn Martell. Only Tommen remains alive ... and with the High Sparrow, the Tyrells, and his Lannister parents all vying to control him, how long can we expect him to live? I say early season 7 at the latest.

Martell v. Lannister

Introduced In: Season 4

The Dorne plot came into prominence in Season 4 with the arrival of Oberyn Martell and his lover Ellaria Sand in King's Landing for Joffrey's wedding. Oberyn subsequently gets himself involved in Tyrion's defense when our favorite dwarf is accused of orchestrating Joffrey's assassination. Of course, Oberyn Martell looks poised to deliver a flawless victory until his own arrogance and need to pontificate over the Mountain's beaten body gets himself famously eye-gouged and head-crushed. Leave it to the Mountain to go out with a bang ... or disgusting squelchy noises, anyway. Since then, Ellaria has been rousing allies in Dorne to avenge Oberyn's death.

Estimated Resolution: Not Soon Enough, but let's hope for the end of Season 6

BLURGH. Can we be done with Ellaria and her sand snakes already? We get it, Oberyn was awesome ... but he also kinda asked for it. He volunteered to defend Tyrion of his own volition. He lost because he was overconfident. While the Dorne plot in the books is layered with more subtleties (and less leaps of logic like how the lover of one of Dorne's princes could somehow rouse enough support to seize command of an entire kingdom), neither the book plot or the show plot for this Dornish invasion has been very compelling. On the show especially, it's hard to care for Ellaria or her Sand snakes. Maybe Ellaria's army and the Faith Militant can murder each other, that would be nice . Two birds with one stone! Let's put this ish to rest already.

*     *     *      *      *

There are of course tons more plotlines that have yet to be tied up, but that's it for today! What do you think? Did I get any details wrong? What plotlines do you see coming to an end soon?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review - Life is Strange

There is almost too much to be said about Life is Strange, an episodic narrative-driven game developed by Dontnod and published by Square Enix. It pushes boundaries and goes where few other games even attempt, much less succeed. After all, few other games would center on a female protagonist and her reconnecting with an estranged female best friend. Few other games would broach topics and themes more common to dramatic television than typical videogames. Make no mistake: Life is Strange isn't for everybody. But for those open to a game that eschews providing its players cliched power or revenge fantasies and instead delivers a captivating and personal narrative about friendship and the trials of adolescence, Dontnod's followup to Remember Me is beyond memorable. It's magnificent.

-- Review (Draft) - Life is Strange, by wangxiuming

I drafted this paragraph for a review of Dontnod's recently-completed episodic adventure game, Life is Strange after completing Episode 4, in anticipation of a glorious finale in Episode 5 that would cement this thought-provoking adventure as an incomparable piece of art in videogames. And to be honest, while Episode 5 did not exceed Episode 4's narrative climaxes for me, I still would have agreed with what I wrote two months ago ... at least, up until the game presented its final "choice" to me.

Yeah ... I jumped the gun.

That's not to say Life is Strange or its developer Dontnod are without achievement. The game itself, despite the final choice and its subsequent endings, still remains - on-the-whole - a provocative experience, one that is ultimately worth both the time and the money spent on it. It is courageous on many fronts, considering its protagonists, its subject matter, and - at least through most of its five-chapter run - its emphasis on delivering real choice with real consequences.

Unfortunately, while touting its adaptive storyline based on player choice as its greatest strength, the last choice in Life is Strange ultimately serves not to empower player choice at all. Instead, it undermines all of the choices that came before it, and ultimately the entire experience as a whole. It is a tremendous shame, especially when looking back just two months ago, I had been prepared to only heap praise.

Spoilers follow.

Life is Strange centers on Max Caufield, a teenage girl in her senior year at the prestigious Blackwell Academy in the seaside town of Arcadia Bay. Without explanation, she discovers she has the ability to reverse time. The player takes on Max's role and powers - frequently used as a tool for the generous dose of puzzle-solving that is required to progress. Not all is as it seems in Blackwell, and it's up to Max to uncover and connect the mysteries. Her interactions with her fellow classmates and the townspeople will build - or ruin - her various relationships. In turn, many of these decisions have a lasting impact on future events and those subsequent interactions. Kill a man's dog (you monster!) and he'll remember it. Through it all, Max will reconnect with an estranged friend, Chloe, while desperately wondering how to stave off an impending calamity.

It would be impossible to talk about Life is Strange without also talking about Chloe. Max reconnecting and re-establishing their friendship is central to the story, and her efforts to keep Chloe from danger is the impetus that drives the narrative forward. It's enormously compelling to watch them reminisce about old times and catch up with each other lives - especially since Chloe is hardly the same girl Max remembered from before she had to move away. Thankfully, both characters are portrayed beautifully by their voice actors, and so indeed is the rest of the cast. Still, it's Max and Chloe who are the real stars of the show and they are completely believable as two lost adolescent souls, struggling to make sense of what's happening around them and to do the right thing - for each other, as well as for the rest of the town.

And oh the things they'll stick their noses in. Throughout the narrative, Max will have to deal with a plethora of real world problems, not all of which there is an easy fix - or indeed, a fix at all: friends struggle with depression after being slut-shamed through viral media, the sacrifice of privacy in the Academy in the name of security, corruption or despondence in the ranks of authority at all levels, bullying, etc. etc. These are not your typical video-game challenges to overcome, and indeed, not all of these problems can be solved. The game will make you debate encouraging an oft-bullied loner to attend a party where he can potentially stand up for himself but risk more of his dignity, or stay home in the safety of solitude. What choice do you pick? Max's temporal powers only extend so far ... she might not be able to change her mind.

Then again, sometimes she is able to change her mind; rewinding time to the start of a scene can be done in most parts of the game, and it's fascinating to watch things unfold differently based on the different choices you make. Broaching one topic over another in a tense conversation might mean the difference between people ending up shot, and it's not always clear - though the game does leave clues - what option will result in a "best" outcome ... neither is there anything forcing you to strive for that result. Max is perfectly free to live with whatever mess she's stirred up if you so choose ... unless of course, the consequence is her death.

I struggled to find the right descriptor in reviewing Life is Strange when I first started this draft, and I'm still not sure I found it. Courageous, I think, might be the closest thing I can think of, but it's not exactly that. I wouldn't call it innovative either - maybe in its medium, it could be so considered, but it doesn't exactly broach things that have never been portrayed in media as a whole. Regardless, for its subject matter, its embrace of choice and meaningful consequences, and for presenting two strong female protagonists in Max and Chloe, developer Dontnod and publisher Square Enix deserve recognition. I'm even more thrilled that Life is Strange has already become a financial success, reaching 1 million in sales before the release of the fourth episode. The game will hopefully be a herald for other publishers and developers to recognize the market for these types of games, and continue to bring videogaming into the mainstream.

That all said ... I cannot help but feel disappointed by the final minutes of the narrative. A slew of minor quibbles also detract from the experience - minor plotholes that are unaddressed and questions that are left unanswered - but ultimately it was the ending(s) that ruined what was otherwise a thoroughly brilliant game for me.

I should mention it's difficult to discuss this without treading into spoiler territory, but I will do my best.

The last choice the game asks you to make renders almost all the decisions you've made through the first 4.9 chapters null and void, no matter what you choose in the end. I left the game feeling empty, questioning whether anything I did from the beginning up until the last few minutes mattered at all. I was particularly disappointed in one of the endings, which personally I felt could have done a lot to ameliorate that sensation, simply by showing us that Max had gotten something valuable out of the relationships she built from the game.

Instead, Life is Strange detoured into a fatalistic dive off a cliff.

Yes, the endings were different. No, it did not matter... and maybe that was the point?

Could this really be the message behind Dontnod's tale, after spending hours and hours, chapter after chapter, enthralling us, convincing us that what we did made a difference? Is this really supposed to be Max and Chloe's legacy? Is life not strange at all ... but merely the illusion of so being?

Even despite this surely controversial ending, Life is Strange remains a worthwhile experience. On its own, the game is a worthy - if flawed - entry in Dontnod's library. I think it will have to be another title, however, that serves as that developer's magnum opus.

Recommended For:
+ Fans of episodic adventure-narratives AKA "walking and talking simulations"
+ Gamers who want to explore different and real-world themes and storylines
+ Gamers who enjoy/don't mind playing a strong female protagonist and exploring her relationships
+ Fans of story-based games.

Not Recommended For:
- People who don't want to simulate walking and talking.
- If you didn't like Mass Effect 3 because of its last moments, I can't imagine you'll like Life is Strange

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Review - Remember Me

Will you Remember Me?
In 2013, Developer Dontnod released a captivating setting and immensely personal tale in their debut action-adventure game Remember Me. Uplifted by a memorable protagonist and encapsulated in a story focused on identity, memory, and the relationship between those two central themes, Remember Me resonated with me well after I completed the game. It's a shame then, that Remember Me's actual gameplay is not up to par. Unwieldy controls, lackluster platforming, and excessively restrictive level design ultimately drag down what could have been a superb game.

A world that invites you to explore ...
Remember Me is set in Neo Paris: a year 2084 version of the French capital complete with dilapidated slums, sprawling marketplaces, and majestic skyscrapers. You play Nilin, an "Errorist," armed with the ability to see, remove, and modify other people's memories. It's ironic then that you start off the game having lost all of your memories. Edge, a mysterious ally and constant voice in your ear, helps you get your bearings and then guides you through various mission objectives. Your goals are both to restore your own memories and bring down M3M0RIZE, a giant corporation whose research is threatening the security - and the sanity - of Neo Paris and her people.

The atmosphere and setting of Remember Me is absolutely compelling. Dontnod's version of Paris is simply breathtaking; if there's anything worth remembering from this game, it's the truly beautiful vision and artistic direction. Whether its wandering through the slums, casually infiltrating a shopping district, parkour-ing across rooftops, or ascending the seemingly boundless limits of a Neo-Parisian highrise, the game treats you to a buffet of eye-candy. Meanwhile, the musical score successfully accentuates the action with an energetic techno beat while also managing to deliver poignancy to the game's emotional climaxes.

... but then closes the doors.
Unfortunately, while the game's art style, graphics, and music spark a desire for exploration, the game itself is surprisingly narrow in scope. Too often, Nilin is barred by arbitrary barriers, locked gates, or walls that hinder her movements, forcing her along what amounts to a winding railway with only a few nooks off the beaten path to house collectibles and stat boosts. The last time I played a game so linearly designed was the original Final Fantasy XIII, and while it's somewhat more forgivable in this 10 - 20 hour action game, the sensation did make me feel like I was playing an "on-the-rails" shooter. It's just such a shame in such a intricately crafted world, that we are not allowed to see more of it.

The game is also generously splashed with platforming segments that are uneven at best. Nilin spends much of her time hanging from ledges, gliding along as she tries to navigate the precarious edges of buildings, prisons, warehouses, and various other infrastructure. While I did appreciate the shots of the city you get from these segments, the platforming itself is ultimately uneventful. There's no real sense of accomplishment from successfully reaching the end, as far too often the only obstacle to your progress is accidentally falling, or the game's poor on-screen instructions of where you are allowed to go. The game will generate little pointers telling you where the next ledge you should leap to are located, but it does this unenthusiastically. Falling to your death because you can't see a little orange triangle drains the narrative of its momentum; and yet, this is sadly the most danger the platforming ever presents you with.

Don't mess with an errorist.
When Nilin isn't scaling skyscrapers, she spends most of her time beating up the agents of M3M0RIZE. Remember Me's combat system is simple to learn and yet layered with some depth. You start off with access to simple combos. A dodge button reacts timely - and even in the middle of a combo - and allows you to avoid being hit by enemies, who will conveniently notify you via exclamation points flashing on screen that they're about to attack. Meanwhile, Nilin's punches, kicks, and special abilities are all animated fluidly; it's a pleasure to watch as she wades through a pack of armored M3M0RIZE soldiers and disable them with graceful but powerful martial arts.

As you progress through the game and defeat more and more enemies, you unlock additional combos. All of the combos available to you are customizable with attacks of your choice. Available attacks - called "Pressens" in game - include those that increase damage dealt to your foes, allow you to heal yourself with every successful hit, and reduce the cooldown time of your special attacks. Special attacks range from taking control of enemy robots to launching Nilin into a fury mode that allows her to chain attacks together without limit for a set amount of time.

... like, seriously. Just don't.
These diverse options afford what is ultimately a serviceable combat system. Unfortunately, the controls leave something to be desired. The auto-targeting function is horrendous, and targeting in general is unwieldy at best. These problems are exacerbated for Nilin's ranged weapons, which force you into a first person perspective in the heat of battle. The game also has a tendency to throw waves of enemies at you, causing too many of the battles to feel like wars of attrition.

Even when overwhelmed by staggering odds, however, the combat can feel too simple at times. This is especially true of the Regeneration "Pressen," which allows you to heal yourself with every hit. The result is that Nilin is never truly in danger of being defeated, as refilling your healthbar is as simple as executing a regenerative combo attack. The game attempts to ameliorate this problem somewhat in the later stages of the game with enemies that hurt you with every successful hit you land; even so, I never felt like there was any real risk.

Just another day kicking ass.
While the platforming is otherwise innocuous and the combat manages to be engaging enough, it's the story elements of Remember Me's gameplay that truly capture the imagination. Of particular note are the "Memory Remix" sequences, which task you with altering certain key memories of your target in ways that cause their entire personalities to change. It's utterly fascinating to watch a person's memory, then tweak certain details within - the undoing of a leather strap tying your victim's beloved to a medical bed, or the removal of a safety in a loaded gun - and then see how just these minor changes cause your victim's memory to play out in entirely different ways.

History is in the eye of the remember-er ...

These remix sequences truly beg the questions: do our memories define who we are? Does history change with memory? Dontnod doesn't directly address these questions; indeed, their treatment of Nilin's power is not entirely consistent. In an early section of the game, Nilin's use of the memory remix causes another character to completely change her behavior, but it seems clear that it's only through our protagonist's manipulation that this result is achieved. Nilin knows she's revised history for her target alone. However, in later segments of the game, the remix of another character's memory seems to bring to Nilin a sense of emotional closure, a catharsis, that doesn't quite make sense considering Nilin more than anybody should know that the remixed memory is not in fact reality.

... or is it?

Cue Sarah McLachlan's "I Will Remember You"

Despite its problems, Remember Me is nonetheless a memorable experience, one worth experiencing if only to provoke the questions it brings up for yourself. While parts of the gameplay are lackluster, the story, the protagonist (a woman of color! As the lead character of a game!), and the setting are all well-worth the look. Remember Me is available on Steam, PS3 and the Xbox 360.

Recommended For:
+ Fans of stories in their games
+ Fans who like their games with atmosphere and style
+ Fans of thought-provoking games
+ Gamers who'd like to see more minority representation in games!

Not Recommended For:
- People who blaze through stories
- Fans of challenging or difficult games

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Spotlight - Skyrim Soundtrack (Updated with Gamespot Feature)

(Update! Looks like Gamespot posted a featurette about the music, sound, and voice acting today too. What are the odds?! Check it out at the bottom!)

One thing I'm not going to fret about related to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is its soundtrack. Jeremy Soule has taken the helm as composer for the Elder Scrolls series once again, and from what limited previews we have seen - or heard, rather - of the music, he's done a stellar job. I adored his work on Morrowind, raved about the soundtrack for Oblivion, and now I'm eagerly anticipating the same for Skyrim.

An official soundtrack for Skyrim has been announced and will be shipped the week after the game is released on 11/11/11.

Unlike his previous soundtrack work for the Elder Scrolls series, Jeremy Soule has scored and compiled a whopping four-disc set for Skyrim! That's a lot of music! One of the criticisms leveled at Morrowind and Oblivion was that their soundtracks - while enchanting - quickly became very repetitive as they tended to loop ad-infinitum during the hundred of hours of questing players could get in the game. A four-cd soundtrack shoud alleviate that problem somewhat (just a tad).

The four-disc set is available at Directsong exclusively for $30.00. Pricey, but it just might be worth it. Check out Gamespot's featurette on Skyrim's soundtrack, sound effects, and voice acting below, and head on over to Directsong to preorder.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Review - Dragon Age: Mark of the Assassin

Dragon Age 2's second story-based DLC outing is "Mark of the Assassin," an adventure that - apart from sporting around 5-6 hours of additional questing time - also features the remarkable voice talent of Felicia Day as the titular assassin, Tallis. Fans of the actress will find a pleasant treat in this DLC; Day brings Tallis to life in an engrossing way, and while the character herself may not be the most interesting of Bioware's creations, she still houses a personality and backstory that's worth a look.

The same can be said for the DLC itself; the premise, execution, and twists along the tale prove to be an entertaining diversion that will provide a solid chunk of additional gameplay. It's worth the pricetag - more so than Legacy. Everything good about Dragon Age is here: intricate lore woven into an interesting story, new creatures that provide varied and interesting battles, a puzzle or two to wrack your brain, challenging boss fights, and even a few surprising cameos from Dragon Age: Origins.

It's Felicia Day! In Dragon Age! As an elf!
The folks at Bioware have learned their lesson from Dragon Age 2. Mark of the Assassin once again sends you to a completely new location for you to explore. Gone are the recycled maps and endless waves of enemies (at least, for the duration of this DLC). Instead, you're sent on a mission to liberate a treasure from an Orlesian stronghold. Here, you'll take part in a wyvern hunt, chat up a few nobles in a party, and work your way through a fortress - by stealth or by force - to complete your mission. Though there have been complaints that the stealth portion of the game is buggy, I did not experience any of the bugs that have plagued other reviewers.

As to be expected from Bioware, the story twists and turns along the way (though I have to say, releasing the Dragon Age webseries along with the DLC might have given away a lot of one of the "surprise" moments). The highlight of the story and the DLC is definitely Tallis. With her snarky yet bright outlook, she is a welcome addition to your cast of companions. She's played wonderfully by Felicia Day, and it's a shame that the character is limited to the DLC; she will not join you on your main quest (though it seems possible she'll show up in another Dragon Age iteration).

Your choices in the DLC also have consequence; unlike Dragon Age 2's main game, where your choices often have little effect on the narrative, Mark of the Assassin will play out differently based on a few key choices you make. Anything that gives your actions more weight is a plus in my book.

If you're itching for more Dragon Age 2 that's not set in Kirkwall, Mark of the Assassin is worth a look. The DLC is available now on PC, Xbox 360, and PS3. 

Recommended For:
+ Dragon Age 2 fans
+ Felicia Day fans - don't worry, she differentiates Tallis from Codex quite well.

Not Recommended For:
- Dragon Age 2 haters
- People expecting Mark of the Assassin to solve all the problems of Dragon Age 2

For those looking for more history on Tallis, check out Dragon Age: Redemption.

Spotlight - Pre Skyrim Jitters

If you're fans of the Elder Scrolls series, then you indubitably know that Skyrim, the fifth installment of Bethesda's epic open-world RPG, is about to be released on 11/11/11 - less than 15 days away. Now there's been an impressive amount of hype for the game, considering it has been over 5 years since the studio released the previous game, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Yes, in addition to taking frivolous legal action against indie developers, Bethesda also still makes games! Imagine that.

Oblivion was hailed as one of the best RPGs of 2006, featuring stunning graphics (for the time), a massive world to explore, almost countless quests to complete, and its signature RPG leveling system; unlike most other models of the roleplaying videogame, the Elderscrolls uses a system where your abilities improve based only on use. That is, swing a sword enough times and you'll become a master swordsman. Blast enough enemies with fiery death, and you'll become a master mage. Spin enough diplomatic circles around your enemies with your silver tongue and you'll become a master ... debater.
Heh. Had to.

Skyrim allows you to kill bears like never before. As long as they aren't pandas, I say.
Still, for all its innovation and technical marvel, there was one area where I felt Oblivion fell short compared to its peers: narrative. Plot. Story. Now, I realize that these factors aren't really selling points of the Elder Scrolls series. Still, in a world where fans often feel justified in demanding improvements to game sequels (often to suit their own esoteric tastes), I feel okay jumping on the bandwagon here. After all, what gamer hasn't dreamed of ways to make the games they play better?

It has been my contention that there are two kinds of successful fantasy stories in RPGs: one based on setting, and one based on characters. Either your setting must be absolutely original and immersive, or your characters have to be compelling. Preferably, you would have both an original and interesting world to explore coupled with characters that you care about. In the absence of both, you must at least have one for a good story to be told.

Pretty? Yes. Interesting? That's debatable.
Case(s) in point. While Dragon Age's setting may not be the most original in all of fiction, the series still told an absolutely captivating narrative through your many party members. One of the best parts of the story in the first Dragon Age was trying to penetrate the witch Morrigan's caustic exterior. Or getting to know the man behind the string of sarcastic jokes that was Alistair. Or trying to decipher exactly what the mysterious shapeshifter Flemeth was planning.

Morrowind, the third installment of the Elder Scrolls series, took the opposite approach. The game managed to make up for its lack of memorable non-player characters using a fascinating and stunningly-well crafted setting based on a truly unique culture and intricate weave of lore. The sheer drama of this politically and religiously charged world more than made up for the lack of NPCs. You didn't just get to know a character in Morrowind. You got to know a whole nation.

Morrowind's capital city of Vivec, a thousand times more interesting than Oblivion's generic fantasy.
Unfortunately, Oblivion's setting seemed in comparison to be utterly generic fantasy with an unremarkable plot and dull, forgettable characters. Oblivion's narrative had neither the expansive and intricate backstory of Morrowind, nor the well-developed and layered characters of Dragon Age. The result was an utterly uninspired story. You got to know a world in Oblivion, yes. But it was like getting to know your husband/wife of forty years. Been there, done that. Seen it all before.

Note, that I don't think Oblivion itself was bad - just this one aspect. In terms of technology, gameplay, and sheer expansiveness of its world, Oblivion should still be considered the top of the top in its sub-genre of RPG.

Standing stones in Skyrim will impart special benefits to various skills.
With that tedious and overlong introduction done, I finally come to the point of this post. What will Skyrim do to address these concerns? Most other gaming sites seem to have conceded that the story aspect of the Elder Scrolls series is unworthy of note; the emphasis in most previews I have read has been decidedly focused on gameplay. That's fine; Elder Scrolls' massive worlds and unique gameplay are after all the major selling points of the series. Still, for a gamer who enjoys games primarily for their story content, what is there to expect?

Well, Skyrim is set in a brand new location, the home of the Nords. In terms of real world correlations, Nords are essentially fantasy Vikings. They make their homes in snow-covered plains that are broken apart by frost-covered crags and frozen tundra. This is a welcome change from the generic forests and medieval cities of Oblivion. As for the actual lore and backstory, we'll have to see when the game releases, but what's been shown so far seems to hit closer to Oblivion than it does Morrowind.

We can visit everything you see here, from Skyrim. Maybe not the clouds I'm guessing. Or can we?
As for plot, very little has been revealed. Apart from the fact that for some reason, dragons are trying to destroy the world, and your character is the fated hero chosen by destiny to defeat them and save the realm. Generic? Yes. Can it be done well? Again, guess we'll have to see.

Finally, Bethesda has not made a big deal out of its NPC characters. This isn't surprising, considering Skyrim's predecessors. There's supposed to be a new NPC AI system which is supposedly pretty revolutionary in terms of giving all the thousands of NPCs their own schedules. Gameplay wise, this sounds great. Story-wise, not so much. Quantity can't make up for lack of quality in terms of developing memorable characters to interact with. If every non-player character in the game has their own schedule, but none of them has any personality, that's big minus points in my book.

Dragons are an integral part of Skyrim's lore. Also, expect to kill a lot of them.
So, in short. Looks like Skyrim's not going to satisfy any narrative cravings. I look forward to being proven wrong, but I won't go so far as to hope for it.

That said, I still plan on fully enjoying this game. Despite Oblivion's lackluster storyline, I still found its massively open world absorbing and engrossing. Fans of the Elder Scrolls series often claim to forgo the main plotline entirely, choosing to carve out their own story and make their own mark in the Elder Scrolls universe. From what we've seen of Bethesda's latest RPG so far, there's no reason to think we can't do the same in Skyrim.

It's not an Elder Scrolls game if there's not a weird zombie skeleton all up in your grill.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim releases on November 11, 2011 on PC (via Steam), Xbox 360 and PS3.

Check out my review of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion here (please note that this was done on my old 5-point review system, which has since been discarded) and then catch some of the latest footage of the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, plus the live-action trailer below!

Latest Gameplay Footage, via G4TV

Live Action Trailer!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Spotlight - Movie Love

Something short and sweet for a monday morning. Maybe not that short. Sometimes not that sweet. Probably not sfw (there is some cussing. Though I suppose it's naive to say that would really bother any of you that much).