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Side Quest: A Long And Disappointing Summer

by VoxClamant, 2010-10-04

Things are finally looking up again for RPGers after a long and disappointing summer.  Divinity 2, Drakensang, Mass Effect 2, Torchlight and Kings Bounty: Armored Princess seem so far back in history now.  They were replaced by badly flawed new offerings, inadequate and near "rip-off" DLCs, and (for large portions of the globe including NA and AU) seemingly endless delays in the predicted delivery dates for the release of localized game versions.
But summer ended a few days ago (well, unless you live down under) and things are looking up.  The last couple weeks marked a huge change.  So far we have just gotten the appetizers to what should be a fall feast -- so far just a combination plate of appetizers that includes three classic old games, a promising demo and an expansion.  But you can smell the main course coming from the kitchen - this should be a very good fall for RPGers.


A Disappointing Summer

2010 is an RPG summer I would like to forget.  With the possible exception of Starcraft (as close to a major new RPG as I got) it was largely a summer of disappointments and failures.  And it was matched by some discouraging trends in the game industry that are slowly trying to sap the life out of gaming.  Were it not for mods to old games, indies such as Eschalon: Book 2 and Underworld - and DLs of some classics now available - I might have had to actually do something as distasteful as step outside into the real world, or fix my shed, or trim the hedge. Worse, I might have had to play some first-person shooter.  Thank you Archon (U6 Project) and a legion of Morrowind/Oblivion modders for saving me from a fate worse than real life!
New content ranged from abysmal to near "rip-off" quality, if it ever arrived at all.  Elemental and Disciples 3 set the standard for new games and they were not alone in their poor quality.  Both of those titles were launched in such bad shape that they were all but unplayable.  Elemental is just now, a month after launch, getting to the point where one third of the game (Sandbox) is approaching its potential -- owners have had to live with a grossly overpriced game full of problems.  Disciples 3 just took our money and didn't even bother to try to fix all the flaws.   Both offerings were unworthy of professional studios and will give their developers a black eye that will take years to correct.
The tier-two games were no better.  I was so desperate for a new RPG that I purchased Konung 3 and Grotesque Tactics.  Neither was worth the expenditure despite a much lower price tag than the above two.  Originally I had planned to review Konung 3 for RPGWatch but after trying to play it for 4-5 hours, I found it so bad I didn't want to continue.  I emailed Dhruin that I would pass on it, as I could not get myself to play it long enough to provide readers with an informed and objective review.  Grotesque is so shallow and the dialog mechanic so irritating that I dropped it without trying to write a review.  Wait for bargain-bin prices on these two if you wish to try them at all.
Meanwhile, didn't the expansions to some games we all really enjoyed seem to disappear into the e-void? Spellforce, Drakensang and Divinity 2 all promised some new expansions.  All were released in some parts of the globe.  But the localizations for NA, AU and parts of Europe never seemed to surface.  I think this was the biggest disappointment of the summer of 2010.  Spellforce especially hurt for me -- this game is easily in my own personal all-time top five (especially SF1) in terms of how many times I have enjoyed replaying it.  Drakensang was the sleeper hit RPG of the past year.  Divinity 2 (at least the first half) was great.  So where are these expansions that have been available in some parts of the world for months?
And don't even get me going about DLCs.  Bioware is a company that to me is on a pedestal no other company in the industry can match.  I enjoy and respect them immensely.  Yet this summer, they showed me a different side of them that has me deeply bothered.  A company that arguably is the finest RPG developer on the planet decided that 2010 was the year of the DLC ripoff.  Look at the DLCs for Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age.  With one exception, they ranged from overpriced to absolutely valueless.  For $5 to $10 (USD) you typically got an hour of shallow fluff.
The Dragon Age DLC Witch Hunt (reviewed by Dhruin on this site a couple weeks ago) was the low point in DLCs.  It openly promised closure on the Morrigan story (the "Final Chapter") and ended up enticing many of us to pay $7 for a linear, content-free 45 minutes that turned out to be just a teaser trailer for Dragon Age 2.  The promise was so far from what was delivered that it nearly moves from "marketing overstatement" to outright lie.  Do the math -- a 45 minute DLC for $7, when compared to a game that the developer says provides 50 hours of game time, means that a game priced at the DLC rate would have cost $465!  Conversely, were the DLC priced at the same rate as the original $50 game, it should have cost 75 cents.  And that is only if it is a good DLC, which most of these were not.
Look at the list of DLCs for DA:O -- they are all at - or near -  that same poor value.  Shame, Bioware!  That is unworthy of the company that sets the example and standard for the industry.
And Bioware's ME2 was only slightly better.  Most of the DLC was at or near the poor DA level.  At least a couple were interesting enough that they probably were worth purchasing (though still overpriced).  We can argue about the high price but ME2's Shadowbroker DLC was excellent and well-worth purchasing (for perhaps $3-5).  A couple others were worth trying for a couple dollars each.  The rest were down to the level of worthless DA DLCs.


Industry Trends in the Summer of 2010 -- Ugh!

I find myself more and more discouraged by the trends in gaming.    Game theft, invasive DL clients, online DRM, forced advertisements on my desktop, program upgrades that work on some version but not others (only for DL vendor #1, or retail, or ... but not DL vendor #3...), prices, ripoff DLCs and the dumbing down of games.
Prices, of course, must go up.  If "NewAwesomeGame" demands $60 to play, so be it -- but deliver a game of quality and challenge that is supported and will be fixed if a few flaws were missed during QA.  Then, if I am careful enough to read reviews first before purchasing, I can make an informed decision as to whether I want to spend $60 of my limited funds on that particular game.  We can argue all day whether a good game is worth $30, or $50, or even $60.  But the key word in that sentence is "good."
This summer, it seemed that we were being actively conned by developers and distributers more than in any time I remember.  A lot of that feeling is based on the absolute rip-offs of DLC content.  Some is paying full price for Elemental or Disciples 3.  But a lot is also based on this awful feeling that the industry now believes that a new game does not have to ship "good", but instead is not expected to be ready to play until there have been a few patches.  They are even pushing pre-orders for what turns out to be a badly flawed offering.  I used to rush to buy new games -- now unless I am "taking a bullet" for RPGWatch by buying one to review, I wait!
Another trend that bothers me deeply is invasiveness.  I am so feisty that I have not purchased a single game that has the new Ubisoft online DRM.  Many of my friends disagree and say it is no big deal.  Sensible people even point out the obvious -- that it is perhaps the only real answer to software piracy and is needed.  But I am a curmudgeon -- I want to buy a game and play it quietly in my own home.  I don't want anyone online monitoring what and when I play a game.
And the download clients from the major DL vendors are getting to be just as invasive  I don't want a client to say "Scanning your disk for installed games" every time I start it.  I don't want to have advertising popups appear on my desktops.  I don't want to have to be online to play.  I don't want chat unless I intentionally go to a chat location.  I want to choose whether or not I upgrade a version.   I want a DL version that can be upgraded easily (so many upgrades today are specific to one version and often upgrades to other DL versions are delayed or do not happen).  I want a version that plays nice with all other DL or retail versions if I engage in MP play.  And because I love mods, I want a DL version that does not make .exe changes that conflicts with mods.
Game theft has me shaking my head in wonderment.  That is a whole other topic so I will gloss over it here.  But I deal a lot with children, and when I talk to them about game theft it is as though I grew a second head.  They have no clue what I am saying.  It seems it is their "right" is to steal any game.  It is a challenge to own them.  I remember showing some high school kids Spellforce and was happy they liked it so much and wanted to get it.  I took them to GoG and showed it was just $5.  They looked at me as though I was crazy and said "... why?  I'll bet I can find a free version within 5 minutes."  I absolutely hate online DRM, yet wonder how anything else will ever work with a mindset like this among the new generation of gamers.  I wonder, 10 years from now when these kids are 25ish -- what percent of them will pay for ANY game that is released without invasive DRM?  I wonder what percent of game revenues to support new game development are paid by a handful of old curmudgeons like me? And I fear that the on-line DRM I hate might be the only practical answer in another 5 years.
And the last trend that scares me is the "dumbing down" of games.  I think this has hit RPGs more than any other genre.  When you get a quest, the games today all but reach a hand out of the screen and drag you to where you need to be.  No need to listen to NPC conversations -- just follow the bouncing ball on your map.  No need to think through your character development, just click the easy skills trees.  Exploration -- what is that?  Why explore when any significant character glows or has an exclamation point over its head.  Why try to find hidden locations when they will be telegraphed to you on your map if they are needed?


But -- back to the good news -- the fall is coming!

And I mean the season "fall" (Spring to those of you hanging upside down on the bottom of this planet).  The last two weeks marked the re-launch of three great oldies, one expansion, and one demo that promise a great couple of months ahead of us.
Classic OldiesBaldur's Gate, Planescape, and the Age of Wonders series are no-brainers for any RPGer.  AoW is so good that I still played it with discs, and being able to download all three in the series was a wonderful upgrade for me (by the way -- the trilogy version being offered has a "4th" title -- but that is just a compilation of the game music).  AoW1 is a bit clunky but Wizard's Throne and Shadowmagic are as good today as they were years ago.
Just the name Baldur's Gate says it all -- Minsk, Boo, and Imoen are BACK!  I have been playing this for the past few days and find myself excited about having to figure things out again rather than be led by the nose.  No NPCs with glowing exclamation points.  No maps with quest locations flashing.  It is not even clear what your mission is.  Yes -- my level one mage is pretty useless and levelling up takes a zillion hours but it is pure fun.
And last night I downloaded Planescape: Torment and began playing it again.  It worked smoothly under Windows 7.  It was just as much fun to play as I remembered from years ago and was far enough back in my memory that it seemed sort of new, again.
Kings Bounty Expansion:  If you have not tried it, the King's Bounty: Crossroads expansion is well worth it for people who liked Armored Princess.  The main menu offers four choices and two of the four options are new and quite good.  Option one is just the original Princess campaign.  If there are any changes to it they are subtle and under the hood.  Option three is a "new" Princess campaign that is sort of a weak afterthought.  It is very short (six total battles!) and quite linear.  But the other two choices are well worth playing.  Option 4 is a remake of the Princess campaign with more areas, spells, skills, enemies, etc.  Enough changed that it feels like a new game, not just a slightly reworked mod.
Option two is a whole new campaign based on a male character.  This one is fun.  It is based on winning a series of arena battles against boss mobs.  To get members of your army you have to join and meet the requirements of various "guilds" nearby.  Some guilds are elven characters, some dragons, some orcs and so on.  One nice thing about the game concept is that it is well-suited to casual play.  Unlike a campaign, if you put it aside for a week you quickly see where you are and can restart it.
Arcania demo:  Wow!  If the Arcania demo is indicative of the full game, Gothic 4 is a nice improvement over Gothic 3.  Immediately you will be struck by the better graphics and responsiveness.  But the quest lines and design also seem a lot better.  Fighting has improved over Gothic 3 -- it now uses a combination system a bit like The Witcher -- strike when your weapon is glowing to achieve a special attack.  The skills system has changed a lot -- seems to be more emphasis on tactical skills rather than just weapon skills (more "do I improve parrying or riposte" as opposed to "do I want better axe or swordplay."   The demo ended before I was able to see much about spells other than use of scrolls.  Fights, quests and equipment drops (as much as you can tell in an hour's demo play) seemed very good.  Oh yes -- the blooming Gothic/Risen/Witcher wolves are back!  I really wish I knew why Gothic has packs of vicious wolves wherever you go.
Bottom line - based on the demo - Arcania is a no-brainer for me.


And it only gets better later this fall...

Look what is coming in the next few weeks.  Arcania looks great based on the demo.  Fallout: New Vegas is almost certain to be another hit for this series.  Two Worlds 2 looks interesting (though a delay was just announced).  Maybe even the long-lost expansions to Drakensang, Spellforce and Divinity 2 will finally show up.
Two Worlds 2 might be the sleeper in that group.  It just slipped to January for North America and some regions but international users will see it shortly.  I am one of the minority that really enjoyed TW1 -- but I was lucky and did not play the initial offerings.  From what I heard, the release and first few revisions were horrible -- as bad as Elemental or Disciples 3.  I skipped it completely because of that and only purchased it a year or so ago when the fully patched version showed up on GoG.  That version was a lot better than the original reviews. If TW2 learned from TW1, and avoids all the legal problems surrounding their upcoming launch, it will be a game well worth considering.


The Bottom Line

It has been a miserable summer of 2010 for RPGers with poor releases, missing releases and ripoff DLCs.  The industry continues the downward spiral in terms of prices, intrusive games and clients, theft, and poor QC that bothers the minority of us that still think penny loafers will make a comeback soon.  The best releases this summer were re-launches of games a decade old.
But that is finally changing!  The past two weeks offered the first baby steps.  The next month or two look very good from my home here in the tiny town of Curmudgeon.  With all the good titles on the horizon, RPGers will need to either get a second job or choose very carefully with so many offerings calling for your dollars.  As Yoda said -- choose wisely!

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