Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Baldur's Gate, part 6

There's quite a bit to do in the city of Baldur's Gate, being the largest city in the game. Unlike the rest of the towns, which tended to have quests with objectives to be found in the surrounding wilderness, the quests in BG City all seem to be self-contained. After waiting so long to get here, and having thoroughly explored four of the nine districts in the city, I'm already wanting to leave, to get a change from the persistently urban environment.

The game-breaking "poison" quest

If you'll indulge one small spoiler, for the purpose of preventing you from finding yourself several hours further along into the game with no way to avoid dying, take my advice and don't kill Lothander. Lothander is one of the many assassins sent from the Iron Throne to kill me, and all of them have been pretty straightforward until now. This one previously approached us with his partner Marek in a dark alley to deliver a threat, and hadn't been seen again until we went to the tent area of central Baldur's Gate. This time, he tells us that Marek poisoned us while we slept, and we'll all die in 10 days, and no spell or potion will cure us, but surprise, surprise, he has a special antidote that he'll give us if we do a task for him. He says that killing him won't help, because he only has half of the antidote. So, I'm supposed to believe an Iron Throne assassin is both telling the truth about this antidote and won't double-cross me at the end?

Well, apparently I am supposed to believe him, because killing him ensures your death. You can take his half of the antidote, certainly. Marek has the other half, right? Yes, he does. Too bad Marek is removed from the game unless you complete Lothander's quest. In fact, the way the game handles the quest, it's not actually the antidote that cures you, but talking to Marek after doing Lothander's quest. The antidote itself is unnecessary. The only way to deal with the whole ordeal cleanly (without going through the quest) is to attack and kill both of them before they disappear from their first threatening warning.

But don't do that, because the quest that Lothander sends you on is actually a very nice questline with lots of experience and loot, and you get some conversations you would have otherwise missed out on. I just didn't know what I was setting myself up to miss by killing him, any more than I knew that killing him would make the game impossible to win (unless I managed to finish it before 10 game days had passed). Fortunately, I keep incremental saves, so I was able to go back a few days to do it again the right way, but that meant losing some progress. (I also later had to backtrack a day's worth of progress when I noticed far too late that my familiar had been killed.)

Anyway, it's quite a surprise that after a game full of alternate ways to approach quests, there's one quest where you have to help out an assassin who's under contract to kill you, or die. So, don't kill Lothander.

Alyth in the Elfsong Tavern

There are a number of curiosities in the game in the form of NPCs who give you brief, cryptic messages about other places or about things that sound like they might be quest-related, but which never come up again. Earlier in the game there were NPCs that seemed to be heralding upcoming games in roundabout ways, like Neverwinter Nights (an NPC talked about the "nights in Neverwinter", where he was heading).

Well, here, in the Elfsong Tavern, there's a conspicuous NPC upstairs named Alyth who laments that their tavern has "lost the Lady", a phantom voice of an elven maid, and that her absence must be an omen of something to come. Then she changes the subject and says no more of it. I was curious enough to look it up online to see if there was something I missed, but there's nothing further about it in the game. But I did find references to this same thing in another game, the console game Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. I have to wonder how far back some of these games were planned, if these are all references to them in the first BG game.

Temple of Umberlee (WaterQueen's House)

On the docks of Baldur's Gate is what's called the "WaterQueen's House" (it's spelled three different ways in the game: with camel case in the map, as "Water Queen" in the journal, and as "Water-Queen" in a dialogue), AKA a temple of Umberlee. Umberlee is apparently an evil goddess of the ocean (also called the "Bitch Queen" by her followers), but we helped one of her priestesses before entering the city, who was being harassed by a group of farmers, who tried to hire us to kill her.

All I really want to say about this place is that it's the most interesting temple I've seen yet. Very appropriately outfitted for this goddess' attributes, with most of the floor area occupied by pools that presumably go all the way down into the ocean, since this temple is built directly over the harbour. There are what appear to be small statues mounted on poles in the middle of each pool. Narrow tiled walkways lead around and between these pools to small decoratively tiled platforms where the priestesses can stand. I'm generally very impressed with the originality of design of the temples in this game, especially as compared to the ones in Oblivion.

The temples in Oblivion were extremely uninteresting and unoriginal, especially compared to the previous games in the series. Oblivion's temples, despite each being dedicated to different gods and goddesses, all looked exactly the same -- like generic Christian chapels, with hard wooden pews, stained glass windows, and an altar in front. Even the temple of Dibella! Go back to the second game in the series, Daggerfall, and you'll see how the temples should have been differentiated in Oblivion.

Ajantis shows his true colours (black and white)

Ajantis has abruptly started getting pissy. He had been getting along fine with Viconia for the past few game days, but once we stepped into the Undercellar, it triggered no less than three bits of dialogue from Ajantis. Again, I'm not sure which dialogues are original to BG, and which were added by the NPC Project.

The first one was his usual unprovoked insults toward Viconia, insulting the way she dresses, for one thing. Hey, Ajantis, if you don't like the +2 Ankheg plate armour she's wearing, then you should be complaining to me, the one who gave it to her! Or maybe you're feeling insecure, since it's the exact same armour you're wearing? Anyway, the rest of his insults are basically racist rants against the "always chaotic evil" drow, and ignoring the fact that Viconia ran away from her people because she didn't fit in, much like Drizzt Do'Urden. It's also the case that she has never done anything evil or immoral in the time since we've known her, and has in fact been indispensible in helping us with all of the noble deeds he had previously been praising.

Next, he began a new rant complaining about being in the "famous" Undercellars at all! He said they were "no place for a paladin," and rather imperiously demanded we leave as soon as possible. Keep in mind that I didn't even know what the Undercellars were at that point. I stumbled upon the place through a door in the sewers, and so far all I could see of it was an empty room, and I assumed from the name and its location that it was just another "dungeon" sort of place (turns out it's a harmless brothel). Would have been nice if Ajantis would have given a little more information about the place other than that it "stinks of crime and oppression".

Finally, before we could even take a step, he just blew up at Viconia and started yelling at her with every hateful insult in his repertoire, and then had the audacity to command her to leave the party within a day or face his wrath! So now Ajantis has gone from harassment of fellow party members to trying to go over my head in command. The game at least offered me the option to either confirm or belay his order, and I chose the latter, of course. It was far too politely worded, however; I really wanted to slap him down for that. If it comes to a choice between Ajantis and Viconia, Ajantis will be the one getting kicked out. He's a troublemaker, and his only useful paladin ability is his instant "heal minor wounds" ability, which is getting less and less useful as our hit points increase.

One strange thing about the rules in this game is that stealing is apparently not an evil act. Our resident paladin never complains about Imoen being a thief, nor seems to mind when she picks locks and steals whatever's inside, and there's never any loss of reputation unless the guards actually catch us. I'm curious if the D&D rules state that a certain number of thefts will eventually change a character's alignment.

Imoen shows her stuff, too

Until recently, I had mainly been having Immy stay at range with bow and arrows. I picked up a nice Eagle bow (+2 damage, +2 THAC0) from Marek when finishing that poison quest, and I have plenty of special arrows scavenged from enemies, as well as thousands of normal arrows from same (unlike sling bullets, I never have to buy arrows). But when I ended up with a +2 short sword and a +2 dagger, I played around with equipping her with those items dual-wielded, and then later tried swapping the dagger for a +1 long sword, which she could also dual-wield.

For a couple of fights, when I could tell a conversation was likely to end up in battle, I started positioning my party strategically around the soon-to-be enemy, with Imoen behind him and stealthed into the shadows. It would be a nice game feature if NPCs would react to such an obviously threatening action, but it would probably be impossible to pull it off without getting into false accusations, like the Fallout 3 NPCs giving you stern warnings if your line of sight happens to briefly fall on a door or container that you didn't even know was locked.

Anyway, all that positioning wasn't even necessary in these cases (except for Imoen and the one in front initiating conversation, of course), because both times, Imoen got critical hits, triple-damage backstabs, and took them out before any of the other party members even landed a shot. Now that's an impressive rogue! I never saw Leliana pull off one-hit kills like that in Dragon Age!

I know the usual advice is to dual-class Immy to mage once she has enough thief skills, but I was fuzzy on how many is "enough", and I wasn't really in need of another mage anyway, so she's still a pure thief at level 8, with Open Locks at 90, Find Traps at 85, Hide In Shadows at 70, Move Silently at 72, and Pick Pockets at 45 (that last one needs work -- there's one person's pocket that I can't seem to pick successfully). I think I wasted 17 points on the Set Traps skill, because I never use it, and I also have 1 point in Detect Illusion. I actually don't think I'll be dual-classing her at all. There's no time in the game that I can foresee not needing a thief, and if I dual-class her to mage, she won't be able to use her thief skills until her mage level equals her thief level, which would be a very long time. I think I'd rather just have an excellent thief, and leave the spellcasting to me and Edwin. I'm looking forward to taking her into Durlag's Tower, which should be soon, I think, since I hear the minimum level for it is 7 or 8.

Some more of the comedy in Baldur's Gate

In another example of the kind of humour in BG (where they can have a perfectly serious storyline, but really not take themselves too seriously), I entered what was marked on the map as "Poultry Store", and found myself facing a room full of rabid chickens. No NPC, no explanation, just chickens. It was an easy fight, but a good laugh.

In a nearby tavern, I met an NPC named "Borinole Mann" who told a very rambling, incoherent story with no real point. Joke names like this "Boring Old Man" are fairly common in this game. And yet it doesn't take away from the real emotion of the more tragic and serious questlines.

Did I ever mention that the game is also very pretty to look at in some places? Most of the screenshots I see online focus on the more fantastic dungeon-looking places with fancy lighting, but the normal forests are quite nice, and some of the upper class inns and other interiors (like Ragefast's home) are very nicely decorated.

Desreta & Vay-ya the nihilists

On the gambling ship The Low Lantern, there's a small encounter with a couple of strange women who appear to be simple thrill-killers who justify their actions with some bizarre nihilistic notion of "entropy" (which Edwin disputes in an amusing flirtation), which amounts to the idea that since there is no "ultimate purpose" to anything (if the universe will eventually use up all of its energy and die out), then we should all just give up now and embrace death. I have actually heard real people express similar sentiments before, which made it all the more satisfying to kill these two after their inevitable attack.


I finally came across Skie, in one of the last sections of Baldur's Gate I explored. It seems I'm pretty late in the game at this point (I'm late in chapter 5, and there are a total of 7 chapters), so I don't see why they hid several of the potential party members locked inside a city you can't even access until chapter 5 (plus the fact that you'd have to take her boyfriend along as well, and I'm pretty happy with a bardless party). Not much to say about her, except that I'm tempted to pick her up temporarily just to see some of the banter between the two lovers. As Ragefast said, "Eh, love is a-blind, a-deaf, and ever, ever so dumb."

There's also a gnome in the docks who seems to have something to say, but only if I have that gnome mage Quayle in my party.

Alora and the Iron Throne fight

Okay, wow. I take back what I said about not needing any thief but Imoen. I regret that I took so long to get around to the telescope-stealing quest, because that's where you meet Alora, and this lovable halfling thief is an instant addition to my party. She's so cheerful and happy, it brightens up everything. I love her voice, and the things she says.

"Isn't this great? All of us, doing nice things, being happy! It's great!" --Alora <3

I left Ajantis on the steps of the House of Wonders where I found her, and good riddance to that troublemaker. After the incident mentioned above, and also running into another paladin in a tavern, who righteously attacked us because he detected two of my party members (Edwin and Viconia) as evil, I think my party's better for the absence of bigoted, self-righteous zealots.

Alora gets along great with Imoen, and even with Edwin, who she sees as someone who just needs to loosen up a little, though unfortunately she seems to be bringing out a mean side in Viconia, who doesn't seem to like halflings. A backlash against the persecution from the now-absent Ajantis, no doubt. I hear I can find a helm of alignment changing in BG2, and if I do, then I know what I'll be getting Viconia for her birthday. Should pretty much solve everything.

So now my party consists of Minsc, Edwin, Viconia, Imoen, and Alora (and myself). Two magic-users, two cheerful, perky, pink-haired thieves, one cleric, and one tank. I think the rest of us are strong enough to carry Alora through a couple of levels, especially if I give her the Eagle bow Imoen was using, and have Immy doing the stealth backstabbing dual-wielding thing (finally her catch-phrase "My blade will cut you down to size" will be appropriate, since she's using blades now instead of arrows.)

I can say with fair confidence that we can make it through, since we made it through our first really difficult fight, in the Iron Throne tower. It took me four tries, but I managed it finally, after trying different strategies and buffing everyone up with all the advantageous spells at my disposal. I tried the first time stealthing everyone up by using my fairy dragon familiar's 10-foot-radius invisibility spell, and that got us all up there with no problem, but the rear assault in the narrow hallway wasn't very effective. As an aside, it was a bit confusing when I did that, since Ambassador Tam did not approach us when we were invisible, and thus never went upstairs, but she was upstairs anyway when we got there.

It was interesting getting up to the roof, and suddenly recognising it as the place where the opening cinematic took place, where the big evil armoured guy threw someone over the edge. Fortunately, this evil armoured guy was not currently at this location, but perhaps I'll meet him on my return to Candlekeep, because that's where the quest took me after I finished up everything there was left to do in Baldur's Gate.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Lovely happy holiday card

As an owner of The Witcher, and being signed up for news and updates on the series, I received an email from CD Projekt Red containing this very pretty holiday greeting card, with greetings for Kwanzaa, Christmas, and Hanukkah, featuring a beautiful painting of smiling characters from The Witcher preparing for a holiday celebration. Geralt's carrying a tree, Triss is holding a presumably magically-lit menorah, and Dandelion is carrying some kind of candlelit object I'm not familiar with, but which may be related to Kwanzaa. I like the use of "non-linear" here to refer to the multi-holiday nature of the card. I hope they don't mind me showing it here!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Age of Decadence

The upcoming game Age of Decadence looks like the sort of game I've been enjoying lately, and it's good to see new games being made in styles and genres that the larger publishers don't seem to want to touch. I thank Dragatus for referring me to the AoD site. It's a turn-based isometric RPG with a visual style similar to games such as Fallout, Baldur's Gate, and Icewind Dale. The features look very appealing, allowing for a wide variety of non-linear gameplay, with seven distinct character "classes".

For once, it looks like someone is using the word "decadence" correctly, because the game setting is about a world in decay, long after the fall of an empire inspired by the ancient Roman empire of our world. However, I dislike the use of the term "post-apocalyptic" to describe the world, because I don't like how a perfectly good word ("apocalypse", from Greek "apokalypsis") that literally means "uncovering" or "revealing" has mutated to mean "disaster" or "cataclysm" in common usage.

From the gameplay videos, it appears that it's a single-character game with no party, similar to Fallout 1 and 2. I was hoping for party mechanics, but I have Fallout 2 on my wish list, so I'm clearly not opposed to games where you go it alone. I believe I read a post on their forum that stated they were working on a setting to allow players to speed up the combat animation as well, which I consider a must for a turn-based game.

Speaking of their forum, it's full of fascinating, detailed posts on game design theory and world-building, which will take me weeks to read, at the minimum. Their depth makes me look critically at my own inexperienced musings on the same topics, in unfinished articles yet to be posted here on my blog, and wonder if they're worth posting after all. It's giving me both things to look forward to for their game, and also a couple of disappointments, in the areas of visual design and narrative tone:

Visually, the game is nearly ideal, with a nicely designed interface, and backgrounds and characters that from an isometric perspective in the screenshots look almost hand-painted, despite this being a 3D game. The only trouble is what I mentioned in my comment before this post -- that all the screenshots are predominantly brown. From interface, to character clothing, to backgrounds, all are in shades of brown. I had thought at first that this was just due to whatever finished areas that were available to show in screenshots happening to be brown, so imagine my dismay upon being informed that this is an intentional design decision, with the idea of having a "consistent" colour palette. In reading their screenshot thread, I note many people complaining about the monochromatic nature of the works, even though most of the images seem to have been "removed to save space", as well as the lack of contrast. They appear to be using some kind of dull greenish-brown filter that lays over everything, eliminating any whites and dulling specular highlights (if any).

Now, I know this is another world, and despite being based on the Roman Empire, it's not actually the Roman Empire, but you know, the Romans built with concrete and marble and plaster, and used paint. Why is everything brownstone here? Well, who knows -- maybe there actually is a lot of concrete and grey and white stonework, but it just looks brown to me because of their browning filter.

As for narrative tone, I'm apprehensive about it due to two of the developers' comments in that same forum post, regarding the inclusion of jokes and references:

"No references, no jokes, no easter eggs. Much like the infamous internets, AoD is a serious business." --Vince

Developer Scott expressed a similar distaste for humour in an adjacent post.

So now I'm worried that this game is going to be a drab, monochromatic, humourless game that takes itself too seriously, unlike the other games in whose footsteps it's following. The Fallout series (prior to FO3) may have been set in a wasteland, but it had high contrast graphics, areas full of colour (especially in the interface), and lots of humour and references. Baldur's Gate probably doesn't even need to be brought up here, since I've specifically praised its use of humour before, which is sometimes referential and even self-aware, and it's full of colour as well.

Now, mentioning WoW might just throw my credibility out the window as far as some people are concerned, since it's not in the same category of game, but I mention it here because they have a brilliant art team that can make even brown deserts and wastelands look visually interesting and appealing with contrast and good use of colour.

It seems that the brown filter is not present in the screenshots of interiors, which I see in this more extensive archive of screenshots, so this gives me hope, since the contrast and colour look good for those, so it's only the exteriors that I'm concerned about.

I look forward to the game at any rate, and I hope to see more along these lines.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Windows Vista Game Explorer (and 7, too)

Having picked up so many games this summer from the sales on Steam, I found myself looking into convenient ways of organising my games. Up until now, I've generally just kept all my games in the normal folders in the Windows Start menu, and putting an occasional shortcut to a game on the desktop. That last bit is usually unnecessary, since the Start menu ends up just showing my most often-played games in the list of most recently used programs.

But I started using the Steam client to launch the games, since they required the client to be open anyway, and I got tired of the "details mode" and/or "list mode" I usually kept my games list in, and tried out the grid view. I ended up liking that mode much better, with its large box-art-like graphics for each game, since looking at the images gave me a better sense of which game I felt like playing at any given moment.

The Game Explorer with partial remodeling underway

The problem: Not all of the games had that nice box art. Notably mods or non-Steam games, which showed only the little ugly icon. I searched online for how to change or add custom art to the Steam list, but to no avail. So, I ended up looking for other options.

A long-neglected wasteland on my start menu was the "Games" button, what I usually see called the Vista Game Explorer (or sometimes "Games Explorer" in the plural -- the window itself only says "Games", so I don't know which to use). Of course, it's also in Windows 7, so I guess we shouldn't call it "Vista Game Explorer" anymore.

It was mostly full of default Windows games, and the occasional other game that it happened to detect. From what I've read, the Game Explorer only officially supports games that bear the "Games for Windows" logo, which requires the company to include a special icon and rating information to appear in that window. Some older games are also supported, if they're popular enough.

At any rate, the Game Explorer offers pretty much the same kind of thing the Steam Grid View does, and with almost the same inability to customise the graphics. I say "almost", because there are some programs available that let you customise them, as well as add any games the Explorer never detected. This allows you not only to change the icons, but also edit the names.

For instance, you may have several games in a series which are named inconsistently, causing them to be ordered strangely. Or, perhaps you only have one game in a series, and you want it to be named by that particular game's name, instead of by the series name. Look under "K" for "Knights of the Old Republic", or "S" for "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic"? Look under "O" for "Oblivion", or "E" for "Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion"? (Or worse, "T" for "THE Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion".) With this, you can order them however you like, unlike on Steam. Also, some publishers felt the need to add things like (TM) to the ends of their games' names, which makes it look ugly and tacky, so I removed those as well.


After some work, I'm very happy with my new, shiny Game Explorer with all my games (including Steam games) added into it (at least all the ones I care to play lately), and it has become my preferred method for selecting and launching my games.

I took the time to make custom graphics for almost all of them. Firstly for the ones that didn't have any graphics at all, and only showed a tiny icon like some of my games in the Steam list. Then I moved on to box art that was ugly. The box art gets downloaded automatically from some box art database, and sometimes it's low-contrast or projected onto a faux 3D box, even if it was a download-only game that never had a boxed version. Then I replaced graphics that were too abstract. Some games like Torchlight and The Witcher have nothing but abstract symbols with no title, as if the developers thought it should just be a really big icon, even at 256x256 pixels.

All in all, it was a consistency problem. Front shots, isometric shots, and icons, some round, some skinny, and some fat, all jumbled up together. I liked how Steam did it. All graphics are the same size and shape. What I didn't like about the Steam graphics was their choice of aspect ratio. Why a long horizontal rectangle, when most game boxes are vertical DVD-case-sized rectangles? This odd choice has some apparent problems for the design of the graphics for some games, with awkward blank space off to one side, or other strange element placement.

So, for my custom graphics, I chose a square for the canvas, maximising the available height and width, since the max limit was 256x256 anyway. This way, I've found I have no trouble placing the graphics and titles into the images in visually pleasing ways.

Making your own graphics for it

I took graphical elements from official game art, wallpapers, screenshots, box art, and whatever else I had on hand, and made them into nice little collages emphasising the themes of the games I enjoyed most about them, and getting rid of any ugly company logos that get in the way of the art (when you only have 256 pixels to work with, you don't want a lot of clutter). You've seen one of the results if you've read one of my earlier Baldur's Gate posts, which has a square logo I assembled from the cover of the manual. Moby Games is a good place to get box art, since they tend to have scans from numerous different editions of the game covers, some of which have fewer logos getting in the way of the art, or simply different art selections to choose from. You might also take a look at VGBoxArt.com, which has mostly fan-made alternate DVD covers for a decent selection of games.

If you want to make your own graphics, I recommend finishing it up at about 350x350 pixels, and saving it as a PNG. Larger is probably unnecessary. You could use a JPEG, of course (the manager will convert it to whatever Windows actually needs), and you can use whatever size you want. The maximum size Game Explorer will use for it as an icon looks to be about 242x242 px (you can resize all the icons with the view slider like all icons in Vista/Win7), but you should also take into consideration that it also displays larger art in the Preview pane if you give it enough space for it, where all the rating info goes, and where in Win7 there are some additional features. I don't really care about the preview pane, though, and keep it hidden on mine. More space for games that way.

Windows standard icons are 256x256, but it's definitely not displaying them quite that size when the window is set to its maximum view size. I'm assuming Game Explorer Manager deals with the sizes when it makes the display DLL, though.

However, there are a large number of already-made icons for just about any game you can think of in PNG format at 256x256 resolution, if you just want to use pre-made ones. Using Google Image Search with the size restriction set to 256x256 seems to be ideal for finding ready-made icons for the game of your choice. Many of them seem to be using a circular template, though, or a partially-rotated 3D box style, so most of them aren't what I want, but you may like them that way, or just find them more convenient to use.


The two programs I tried out for doing all this custom work were Vista Game Explorer Manager, and Vista Game Explorer Editor (check out their nice "before and after" screens, which illustrate it nicely). I found VGEM to be much easier to use, so I'd recommend that one, even though it's no longer being updated (the author switched to Mac) and that it doesn't have an entry for adding Steam games (VGEE has one). I may revise this recommendation if VGEE continues to be developed and surpasses VGEM's no-nonsense, always-works ease of use. But you can add Steam games with it anyway if you do one manual tweak, so I'll give instructions for that in the next section. And despite the "Vista" in their names, they work the same for the Explorer in Windows 7.

There is one issue with VGEM that took me a while to overcome -- that it's designed for a minimum vertical screen resolution of 768px. This is a problem for netbooks, which typically are locked to a maximum resolution of 1024x600, because it means the most important buttons (add new game, edit existing game), which are located at the bottom of the window, are cut off and unable to be activated. There are two solutions to this, because netbooks generally can display higher resolutions, and they're just instructed not to for the small netbook monitors.

The easiest solution is probably just to plug it into an external monitor. The netbook should allow a higher resolution if you do that. If it doesn't, then try the second solution.

The second solution is to unlock the higher resolutions for the netbook screen. It's a simple registry edit. Just search for 'Display1_DownScalingSupported' and change the value from '0' to '1'. There are several entries with that name, and I'm not sure which one was really necessary, but I just changed it for all of them, and it worked fine. After a reboot, the higher resolutions should be available to you.

Getting it to work with Steam

There are two ways to get Steam games to show up and work properly in the Game Explorer, and one works better than the other. The not-so-good way is to just make your shortcut to the game executable in the Steam folder. When you execute it, it'll launch the Steam client and run the game its own way, but for some reason it didn't work for all games when I did it that way.

This might be why the other way works better: If you use the Steam client to make a shortcut to your game on the desktop, and you look at the properties of that shortcut, you'll see it doesn't actually link to the executable, but it rather sends a command to the Steam client to launch the game with that game ID. So, the way that works best for the Game Explorer is to:

  1. Create your new Explorer entry using Vista Game Explorer Manager (for the icon and such). Point the entry at the game executable for now.
  2. Create a shortcut to the Steam game on the desktop.
  3. Copy the address from the shortcut's properties.
  4. In Game Explorer, right-click on the game's entry and choose "customise". (This option was removed in Windows 7, so see below)
  5. You should see several unused "play commands" near the end of the list. Select one of those and click "Add".
  6. Paste the Steam address into that field. It treats it as an URL, which it basically is.
  7. Move that command up to the top so it'll be the default when you double-click the game.

All done!

Another way to add Steam games that I just learned about is something that also works for Windows 7. There's a program called Steam Assistance that can detect your Steam games, or let you choose them from a list, and it'll add the proper entry to your game explorer. It uses the wide-aspect Steam graphic for it, though, which amounts to only using maybe 35% of the available height for the graphic in the Game Explorer window. I couldn't find a way to get it to let me select my own image, even though it seems from the screenshots that there should be a way. If there's a way to get out of the "add/remove Steam game" wizard in that program and into an "Edit entry" screen like I think it's showing in the screenshots, I'd like to know how.

So, all in all, getting your Game Explorer in order is a bit of work, but I think of it as a crafting project, and I'm happy with having a nice, universal central location from which to launch all my games, with customisable graphics, reorganisable series names, and cleanup of unnecessary garbage.

Baldur's Gate, part 5

Finally, the promised fifth part of my Baldur's Gate saga. In the time since my last one, GOG has fortuitously enough released Baldur's Gate 2, along with many of the other RPGs that I've been talking about, including in the post about games similar to Baldur's Gate.

As it turns out, when I said in my last post that I was still in Chapter 3 of Baldur's Gate 1, I was actually just a few steps away from Chapter 4, which begins once you face the boss of the Bandit Camp. Officer Vai tells you to go there pretty much as soon as Chapter 3 begins, and it would have been a shame if I had done so immediately, as it would have made a very short chapter. Chapter 4 was short enough on its own, and I'm now in Chapter 5.

As mentioned before, I'm using Dudleyville's guide, because I want to avoid progressing through the chapters until I've done all the side quests that are available for those chapters. Some people do that just for the XP, but for me it's primarily so I can experience all the story and meet all the characters I can. Not that I couldn't do those quests after progressing, of course, but the game does relegate any quests aquired in a previous chapter to a secondary quest log, even if you haven't finished them yet.

A few of the side-quests have been rather emotional and moving to me in the way they were written. There was a side quest that you first hear about in Nashkel, about a former captain of the guard named Brage who has a bounty on his head for going on a murderous rampage that included killing his own family. Seems like "Rage" would have been a better name than "Brage". But by the time I found him, I had actually forgotten about that quest, and didn't remember the name. All I knew was that his cousin Laryssa was begging me to try to help him, and so I did.

He was remorseful, and his actions were apparantly due to a curse. My dialogue options included summary execution, but Ajantis agreed with my personal inclination toward mercy, suggesting bringing him to the temple at Nashkel for treatment. As you may know, I have no love for paladins, but frequently they do what I also consider the right thing, and I thought it was best to forfeit the reward bounty and take him to the temple, since temples in this game's setting are the equivalent of hospitals, where actual healing takes place, and not just places to pray. The temple took him in, and tried to comfort his despair. Afterward, I saw that the sword he had been carrying was, in fact, cursed. It had very high enchantment benefits, but the curse was that the wielder would be stuck in a berserk state, and kill indiscriminately.

There probably should have been a dialogue option to explain this information to Brage after I identified the sword, so that he would know that the deaths on his hands were out of his control. But aside from that, it was a very satisfying quest.

Chapter 4

Chapter 4 of Baldur's Gate went very quickly, as the only new area to explore was the forest of Cloakwood, the site of the only working iron mine in the game's area (as far as I know). Here, there were druids, large numbers of spiders and ettercaps, and three new possible NPCs to recruit as party members: Coran, Eldroth, and Yeslick. Oh, and some crazy druid named Faldorn, so make that 4. It was also here that the random encounters started including wyverns and better-outfitted humanoids.

The spiders and ettercaps offered a challenge thanks to their poison and their web traps that can sometimes kill off several of my helpless party members. I have one free action item, and several spells and potions, but of course, you can't drink a potion if you're already ensnared, nor cast a spell. I may have to look into strategies for dealing with that sort of thing, but perhaps I'm already past it, since I've already reached chapter 5. The strange thing is that the spiders don't seem to have any ensnaring abilities on their own. Instead, the webs are triggered only as traps, which are set up in advance and can be detected and disarmed.

Eldoth was the first of the new NPCs that I met, and he seems the most interesting, even though I haven't found much use for a bard as a party member. Unlike the idealistic chaotic neutral bard Garrick, Eldoth is a neutral evil, pompous but smooth-talking freeloader who drifts to any new lover that can keep his coin purse full. Since he says he wants help getting his girlfriend Skie away from her father in Baldur's Gate, I'm thinking this is another inseparable pair of party members, since I know she's a thief. I hope not, because I really think there were already too many "buy one get one free" specials in this game. I sent him to wait at an inn, since the city of Baldur's Gate wasn't open to me yet, but I do want to bring him along later, when I head up there, so I can see his side plot.

I almost forgot to mention Shar-teel, another joinable NPC that I met back in Chapter 3. She's a chaotic evil barbarian fighter, and even the Happy Patch couldn't keep her happy. On my way to sell off some loot at the Friendly Arm, she complained about my party's high reputation. I told her that this is the way of most profit, since loot seemed to be her main concern, and she said words to the effect of "Fine, we'll see," but just as we arrived at the Friendly Arm she complained that this so-called "profit" hadn't arrived, and she left the group. Well, good riddance to her, anyway. Her personality was very unpleasant. She's also apparantly of the "evil is stupid" variety, equating random murder of innocent peasants as "profit", and ignoring the 30 thousand gold pieces I was carrying around and all the loot we were about to sell off. (It's up to 70K at the end of chapter 4.)

So Shar-teel's denial in the face of evidence that one can be both rich and helpful makes me happy to be rid of her. The ideas of "good" and "evil" here are difficult to understand, but I think they got it right with Viconia and Edwin, who get along fine in the group aside from occasional bickering. I'm not evil myself, but I'm definitely not lawful good like Ajantis. I don't do what I do because it's my "duty". In fact, I look out for myself as a priority, and I do good deeds when I feel like it. It's just that I happen to feel like it most of the time, when I have the means. How much good does it do for a pauper to give a portion of his meagre income to charity, when if you instead first seek to secure your own affairs, you can give so much more and help many others? As they say: to love others, you must first love yourself.

This is one reason I like keeping Ajantis around despite his constant blathering about his god Helm -- because of his reactions, acting like I'm a model of paladin virtue despite my world-wise dialogue options and my lack of condemning people for being human. At the end of chapter 4, he told me (I imagine with sparkling eyes and a puppy-dog grin):

"Your actions are in the true spirit of honour and righteousness! I am exulted to be in this group, and to fight at your side!"

I'm not sure what I did to make him fall all over himself like that. Possibly it was because I offered some gold to make sure some slaves escaped the mine, and then I abided by the wishes of the rightful owner of the mine, by flooding it. Perhaps also because I showed mercy to the ones in the mine who threw down their weapons and surrendered (I allowed them to leave).

So, back to the new NPCs. Coran was the second one I met, a chaotic good fighter/thief, and he just wanted to kill a wyvern for some reason. Profit, I think. He said the priest at the temple next to Beregost would pay high prices for the head of a wyvern. Well, I already had a wyvern's head from a random encounter, but the priest wouldn't acknowledge it. So I had to add this strange elf to my group and leave poor Imoen waiting again, just to get the money. And he only bought one. I booted Coran as soon as possible (his stats looked like crap anyway, and his personality seemed annoying) and took Imoen back. I don't need any thief but Imoen.

Yeslick was the last one I met (I'll get to the druid in a second), a prisoner in the mines under Cloakwood. Yeslick is a lawful good fighter/cleric, which is an interesting combination. I temporarily said goodbye to Viconia and tried out Yeslick doing cleric duty for the rest of the dungeon. Not bad, but not as good as Viconia. Not enough spells to allow him to do full group support and heals like she can.

Being a prisoner when I found him, he was in need of some armour and weapons, and from the clearing of the rooms and from all of the random sleep-interrupting encounters (almost every time!), there was plenty of gear lying around, so I pulled some plate off of a dead body, wiped some of the blood off, and handed it to him. (Really, you'd think that if a group of guards came across a small band of adventurers trying to take a little snooze on top of a very large pile of dead guards, they might stop, close the door, and pretend they didn't see anything. This was what it looked like after being woken several times from trying to rest by groups of guards.)

I like Yeslick's personality. His interjections are pleasant and non-annoying, and the NPC Project adds some charming interactions between him and Imoen, where she takes him as a grandfather figure. However, I don't think I can keep him, because his multi-class would cripple my party's healing and buff abilities, and I don't think I need more tanking, since Minsc and Ajantis are doing the job well. I'll go pick up Viconia again before I head to BG City.

Shadow Druids: Terrorists of the Woods

The crazy druid girl Faldorn was the other recruitable NPC I met in this chapter. She's a member of this group of "Shadow Druids" in Cloakwood. Perhaps I shouldn't condemn all druids based on the example of her and her associates, but so far my impression of druids in Baldur's Gate has been rather negative, including normal druids such as Jaheira.

Now, I love the druids in WoW, who are also nature-based. My interaction with them and their culture during my time in Darnassus and Auberdine is a fond memory I'll long recall. By contrast, these arrogant, violent Shadow Druids seem to be what I would call "evil", despite their proclamations of devotion to the concepts of true neutrality and "balance".

And other druids like Jaheira are what I would call borderline psychopathic -- intentionally refraining from doing "too many" good deeds according to some nebulous quota, or abstaining from evil acts only because their rules told them not to, and not because they find such an act repugnant. Or, indeed, intentionally committing an evil act, not because it benefitted them, nor out of any heat of passion, but merely to serve this "balance". Jaheira made several statements expressing such a sentiment (though those lines may have been added by the NPC Project). Perhaps I can't call Jaheira's type "evil", but I can call them "dangerous".

Faldorn's portrait depicts her as a feral sort, her face twisted into a nasty scowl, her hands raised like gnarled claws. Her time in my party was brief -- only long enough to do her little side-plot with a man raising wyverns in a cave. It was mainly her associates that soured my experience with these druids. I met a man near a lodge who asked for help, fearing for his life. He was a snooty, egotistical sort, out in the woods on a hunting trip for sport, and he apparantly ran afoul of the local druids. They killed one of the hunter's old friends, and planned to come back to kill off the rest later.

Now, I found this hunter to be a bit of a jerk -- a pompous ass, you might say -- and I probably wouldn't care to work for him or associate with him in normal circumstances, but that's a far cry from saying he deserves to be murdered for hunting in the forest. I don't hunt, and I don't understand why anyone would want to, but I see little difference between their actions and what goes on in the forest as a matter of course. Especially in this forest, where the most common animals appear to be giant killer spiders, who snare victims in their hidden web traps, slinging painful, steadily killing poison. More than once I heard Imoen's pitiable wavery cry, "I feel so...cold..." after being attacked by these things -- here is Tennyson's "nature, red in tooth and claw." I have a hard time sympathising with the druids here.

So, right after Aldeth the hunter asked for my aid, along came Seniyad the druid and a gang of his fellow druid thugs, telling me to get out of the way so they can execute the guy like gangsters for dissing their hood. They also claimed that the hunters killed one of their gang during the same confrontation in which they killed a hunter, but it doesn't take much imagination to guess who shot first. There were only two dialogue options, and one of them was a flippant comment, expressing a lack of concern for human life, while the other one was more in line with my actual sentiments -- a kind of "Calm down and let's settle this peacefully".

Well, my impressions were pretty much confirmed when the druids took my plea for reasonable discourse as an excuse to murder the whole lot of us. Their subsequent deaths do not weigh heavy on my heart.

Faldorn didn't do anything extreme like that, and her dialogue was pretty mild by contrast, but I wasn't tempted to keep her in my party anyway.

Final thoughts about the mine:

The boss of the mine, Davaeorn, had a nice speech for my party when we stumbled into his room.

"Why have you come? Is it to steal my riches? Or perhaps you seek to righteously punish me for my affront to your morality. It matters little, for you will do neither."

After delivering those cool lines, he then proceeded to zip around the dungeon like Daffy Duck going "Hoo! Hoo-hoo-HOO! Hoo-HOO!" and wiped my party with a lightning bolt.

Attempt #2 went much better for me, and I was happy to find a present just for Edwin: The Robe of the Evil Archmagi! It's your birthday, Edwin! I've been wearing the Robe of the Good Archmagi that I bought from Thalantyr in High Hedge, but he didn't sell the evil variety. This one has an extremely high collar in the back, much like what Ming the Merciless wore in Flash Gordon, except angular where Ming's was rounded. I think it suits Edwin nicely.

This will probably be the last post illustrated with screenshots in 4:3 aspect ratio, as I've recently upgraded to a 16:9 monitor.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

BG2 Redux

In Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age related news, the Baldur's Gate 2 Redux mod has been released, and is available on DA Nexus and the Bioware Social Network.

I've been looking forward to this mod since about the time I bought the BG 4-in-1 box, and to be honest, I thought I would have actually finished BG1 by the time it came out. I had been following its progress on their forum and I've been occasionally searching for updated video previews on Youtube beyond the two that had been there for a while, but nothing had indicated that they were still making progress. I don't even recall hearing Mikemike37 dropping any hints as to its imminent release on the Dragon Age Podcast.

So I'm pleasantly surprised to find it available now. Even though I knew they were shooting solely for recreating Irenicus' dungeon in this mod, I was expecting a longer wait.

It does not, as was previously planned, require you to convert the voice files from your own Baldur's Gate 2 installation, though they say that future installments will have this requirement.

My brief preview of BG2 only included the first few rooms, and I understand the dungeon is much larger than that, so I think I'll have to hold off on playing the mod until I've gone through the original version. I'll just have to pause in my BG1 progress and play through the BG2 starting area before returning to BG1.

I'm disappointed to read that traps have been removed from the release due to problems, however. I hope that by the time I get to play it, they'll have restored them.

There is another full Baldur's Gate post written, but I need to add appropriate illustrations before posting it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Superiority of certain older games versus their modern counterparts

I've been reading message boards here and there, talking about how modern games compare to some of these older games, and often I've seen others who agree with my recent conclusion that these particular classics are superior in almost every way except graphically (see earlier posts about, for instance, Morrowind being superior to Oblivion, and Baldur's Gate being superior to Dragon Age).

However, I've seen more than once people expressing the sentiment that any such perceived superiority is only nostalgia talking. In other words, the games weren't really superior, we just remember them more fondly.

To that I can simply point at myself. I played the latter games first, and enjoyed them for what they were. I only played the earlier games after getting tired of the newer ones, and it took a good amount of convincing from friends to make me give them a chance. Graphics are important to me, after all. But after I got to know the games, it became clear how much content and gameplay had been removed from the more recent installments, with more emphasis put on unnecessary frills such as big-name actors playing the characters, or sensationalistic gore like the incessant (and time-wasting) slow-motion dismemberments in Fallout 3 or the buckets of blood in Dragon Age. (Here's a note for the developers: I always play with blood and gore turned off when I'm given the option. But I digress.)

At any rate, in these cases, the older games are richer and more complex and nuanced games; no question about it. And I say that as someone who is incapable of looking back on them like glories of the past with rose-coloured lenses (unless I were living backward through time like T.H. White's concept of Merlin), since I'm playing the older ones now for the first time.

I'll have to devote an entire post to exploring the possible underlying reasons why current games just aren't filling these giants' shoes, as well as game design philosophies in general.

Other games similar to Baldur's Gate

This is a revision of my original post, since I have more items to add and better information about some of the games.

It's too early for me to cast my wandering eye about, but my newfound taste for this kind of game has made me curious to find what other games exist with the same kind of style and gameplay. Basically, a party-based RPG with lots of quests, free exploration, and probably an isometric display. I do have to restrict things to a certain level of quality, at least graphic-wise, though. Turn-based or realtime with pause, and the option to speed things up are definite pluses. Here's a list of games like Baldur's Gate, with links to gameplay videos to serve as examples.

The ones closest in feel and gameplay to Baldur's Gate are of course the Icewind Dale games, though these don't have any party banter, since you have to create every character in your party. Second closest is Planescape: Torment. After that, there aren't any more Infinity Engine games, so what is "close" branches out further in several directions.

Dragon Age: Origins is the closest "modern" equivalent to the Baldur's Gate games that I know of, followed closely by Drakensang: The Dark Eye. Dragon Age: Origins is of course the game that got me into this cRPG genre in the first place, and although I don't actually play it in the isometric view, it does offer one. It's not necessary for my purposes that the games be D&D based, nor even fantasy, but it seems most of them on this list are.

The Temple of Elemental Evil is a turn-based D&D game, and like the Icewind Dale games, you have to create your whole party (or choose from stock characters), and there's no BG or DA:O-style party bantering. I've heard a lot about the horrible bugs in Temple of Elemental Evil, but I've also read that they've been fixed by official patches and fan mods, like what I found here: The Circle of Eight modpack. (Release notes for latest version as of this posting)

After those, the games by Interplay/Black Isle/Troika offer a somewhat different, but very enjoyable set of RPGs, those being Arcanum, Fallout 1 and 2, and Lionheart. The main difference here is that although you can have a party of NPCs (at least in the first 3; I'm not sure about Lionheart), you can't control them directly. You can access their inventory and equip them, but I find part of the game is preventing them from rushing into large groups of enemies. It's doable, though, and once you get the hang of it, the games are enjoyable.

I haven't played the other games in the list, so I can't say where Pool of Radiance fits in the lineup, nor where Eschalon and the Spiderweb games fit, though those are independent titles, and are graphically much more primitive than any of the others on this list. I did buy Eschalon: Book 2 just a few days ago, though, due to a nice sale on Steam, so I should be able to say something about it at some point.

Neverwinter Nights 2 is a new addition to this list. When I wrote this list originally, I had assumed that it followed the same party style as NWN1 (AI-controlled party members), but in fact the sequel gives you full control over your party. See my other coverage of this game for more details.

Close, but not quite:
  • Neverwinter Nights 1
  • Sacred 2: Fallen Angel

NWN has a lot of the right elements, but there's no real "party". You can hire "henchmen", but you can't control them directly as in the other games. It has a gigantic modding community, though, with thousands of adventure mods and some graphic mods which might actually make the ugly blocky 3D characters look decent.

Sacred 2 looks beautiful, but seems to be solo as well. I'm not quite sure where it falls in a scale between "hack & slash" and "RPG".

The Fallout games as well have a lot of the right elements, and I'll probably want to play them at some point, but as far as I can tell, you go the whole game solo (I'm speaking here of the first two Fallout games, of course, since I've already played and modded Fallout 3).

I'm generally not counting hack & slash games like Diablo or Torchlight, and Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone looks like it's in that style.

Games I haven't had time to research yet

These look promising, from what little I've seen of them:

I would welcome any additional pointers for other games that fit the criteria.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Baldur's Gate, part 4

I received an email a couple of days ago from Good Old Games, announcing that they've started offering Baldur's Gate 1 for sale, with the original game and its expansion Tales of the Sword Coast bundled together in a new pack they're calling "The Original Saga", which I think is a bit of a misnomer, since the "saga" of Gorion's ward isn't complete until BG2 and its expansion.

I already own the 4-in-1 pack, so I can't conveniently find this out for sure, but since GOG always packages their games with their own installers with all patches pre-applied, I'd expect that their version installs the game and its expansion all at once. Speaking as an owner of the disc version, I can say it's a bit of a hassle to install the game, then the expansion (on another disc), and then the last patch, and also deal with the unskippable advertisement movies the installer launches at the end of the install process on both discs. (BG2 at least makes them skippable). I would assume, given GOG's no-DRM policy, that they've also eliminated the CD check for playing it, which would be very convenient. I'm almost tempted to buy it again.

[Edit: This is confirmed. And in retrospect, it was pretty silly to think they might not have eliminated the CD check, considering there is no CD included with the digital download. Duh!]

They're not offering Baldur's Gate 2 yet, but I expect it's soon to come. If I were them, I would have released them together, because I personally wouldn't want to play BG1 without Tutu.

The price for GOG's BG1 is only slightly less than what I paid for the 4-in-1 pack, though, which means that if BG2 is at the same price, it will actually cost a little more than what I paid for the disc version, which I doubt is in danger of going out of print soon. The shipping cost balances a little of that out, however. Whether it's worth a somewhat higher cost for the installation convenience and lack of CD check is for the individual to decide, of course. I am curious about the 47 included pieces of artwork, and the soundtrack would be nice to have.

Still haven't reached the titular city

The game's called Baldur's Gate, but I still haven't gotten to the city of Baldur's Gate. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that I'm also playing other games as the mood strikes me (such as Icewind Dale, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Dungeons & Dragons Online -- and I have some blog entries in progress for some of those games too), as well as other obligations that occupy my time, but the city is barred to access until you reach a certain chapter of the game. I'm still in Chapter 3, 179 game-days in, as I methodically clear out each zone that's appropriate to my level. I'm following Dudleyville's Baldur's Gate walkthrough, just as a guide to which areas I should go to in which order.

I'm more anxious to finish it now, though, since I've just recently tried out a few minutes of gameplay from Baldur's Gate 2, and it's really astonishing how much better it is! I really like BG1 as it is, but the first few rooms of BG2 really raise the bar, with characters reacting to things in the environment, descriptive text appearing as you enter areas (much like a DM describing the area you're entering), and puzzles to figure out! I can see why people always specify that BG2 is their favourite, instead of BG1.

There are also a lot more mods available for BG2, including at least one total conversion. I haven't played it yet beyond testing to make sure it works, but Classic Adventures will certainly be getting a writeup at some point, because it looks like hours and hours of fun -- old D&D modules being made playable in the Infinity Engine.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Baldur's Gate, part 3

Regarding reputation. As I mentioned in my last post, my character's heroic reputation had been increasing at an alarming rate while simply questing around the Nashkel area -- alarming only because the evil members of my party had been complaining about it more and more. When I turned in a quest near the end of my gaming session yesterday, and my reputation hit 16, Edwin delivered a warning, saying he would have to take his leave if things kept going like this.

While evil characters have the ability to improve their reputation by donating money to a temple, the vanilla game has no simple option to negatively adjust reputation aside from killing innocents. As I'm not the murderous sort, I was glad to be able to take advantage of a clever option added by the BG1 NPC Project mod. In the Friendly Arm Inn, as well as some other places in the game, there are Lake Poets who offer the service of singing slanderous songs to damage your good name, in exchange for money. I paid 500 GP to decrease my reputation by the maximum 3 points (I think it's more expensive the higher your reputation is).

Unfortunately, the poet then wanders off to go spread the slander, and doesn't return for 3 days, by which time I've already accumulated more reputation points. That, combined with the cost, made me find a different, less in-game solution. Roleplaying aside, I just didn't want to lose Edwin and Viconia, nor did I want to play an evil character, so I ended up using the Happy Patch, which prevents NPCs from leaving the party for reputation reasons.

So now Ajantis can continue singing praises for my actions and acting like I'm a fellow paladin of Helm, and Edwin and Viconia will stick around without complaints, even though I'm up to reputation 19. Now if I could just get Ajantis to stop picking on Viconia. I'm not pleased that there's no way to say something during those arguments.


When I rescued Dynaheir, I expected something to happen, since I had Edwin and Minsc both in my party. And there was indeed a conflict, but perhaps the NPC Project is to thank for not making it a disaster. I forbade Edwin from attacking her over his protests, reassured Dyna and Minsc that I wouldn't be attacking her either, and they all agreed to remain in the party, with Edwin using his "keeping an eye on her" excuse.

However, I was only rescuing her so that Minsc and Edwin wouldn't leave on their own. I thought I could safely dump her after that, not realising that she would take Minsc with her. So, as I sadly found, I had to choose between Minsc or Edwin after all.

Regardless of Dynaheir being considered the second best mage after Edwin, I just can't stand her personality, and that's as important a consideration for me as her stats or abilities. Firstly, she's lawful good, so she's as annoyingly self-righteous as Ajantis (they get along well together, though -- they seemed to be forming a mutual admiration club before I got rid of her).

Secondly, I hate her speech patterns. I hate half-arsed attempts at Elizabethan English in general, but this grates on me every time I hear her say "Thy called?" or any other time she says "thy" where she should be saying "thee" or "thou". Better yet, how about "you"? It's so bizarre, I think it had to have been intentional, because I can't imagine the writers making such an egregious mistake. If that's the case, I just can't support the stylistic choice to give her such an annoying speech pattern.

Stand easy Minsc, thy needs not be so motherly.

So that's why I've lost Minsc and Dynaheir, and have been using Kivan as a temporary 6th party member. I really hate these enforced duos. Isn't party management challenging enough already, with the alignment and personality clashes? I even tried the trick I read about of leaving her in a house, closing the door, then kicking her out, but it didn't work. I'm guessing it's because I'm using Tutu, and the trick only worked in the BG1 engine, or else it's something that NPC Project fixed while adding other party management options.

Alas, Kivan became so much of an arsehole, acting like a jerk every time he was directed to do something, and joining Ajantis in picking on Viconia, that I had to do something about it. Since I couldn't find any other decent tanks to replace Kivan, that meant picking up Minsc, and separating him from Dynaheir by any means necessary.

"Whatever thy need," she said, as I sent her naked to say hello to a group of hobgoblins.

Bad, I know, since she didn't really deserve it. It's the only real break from my character. Minsc seemed to get over it pretty quickly.


I did learn a little from Xan when I picked him up the second time, catching up to the furthest point I'd played on my first character. Despite not wanting to add him to my party, I still wanted to complete the quest and get him out of the dungeon so if I happened to need him later I could find him at the Inn. I chose to temporarily remove Imoen from the party to fit him in, but she refused to stand by long enough for me to add Xan and then send him away to the Inn, since characters won't agree to wait in their current location if it's a dungeon or other dangerous area. So she went off to the Inn, and I just had to go there myself to add her again.

I kept Xan with me for the trip, of course, since something's better than nothing, and I found some of his spells useful for dealing with the group of amazons we encountered en route to the map border (which wiped out my party the first time I tried to fight them, since they kept paralysing everyone). Xan has the Charm Person spell, which I'd never had the chance to use. I'd used Kivan and Minsc's Charm Animal abilities, which first showed its usefulness when the Xvart Village brought out their guardian cave bear. I thought it would just make the creature complacent for a while, and was pleasantly surprised to see it start fighting my enemies.

So I tried the same thing with Xan, having him cast Charm Person on one of the amazons, and sure enough, she started fighting the others. I actually tried casting it on a second amazon as well, but she apparently resisted it. This fight went much better, and even though a couple of my party members were paralysed, I finished it with no deaths.

I still got rid of him after getting back to town, though. Minsc, Viconia, Imoen, Edwin, and Ajantis are my current best party.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Baldur's Gate, part 2

I'm currently on my second character in Baldur's Gate, since my initial attempt turned out to have too many mistakes. I took the advice of reader Dragatus in an earlier post on this blog, and rolled a new character. Not a fighter though, as was first suggested, since I have a heavy preference for magic-users, and I enjoy the whole idea of "warriors are linear, wizards are quadratic". Since I'm using Baldur's Gate Tutu, I have several options that otherwise only appear in Baldur's Gate 2, and one of those is being able to play as the Sorcerer class. This class is more appealing to me than the other magic-user choices because it uses a different spell system. Instead of the Vancian system of having to choose specific spells from my repertoire to memorise in advance (and hoping I picked the right ones for what I'll be facing), the sorcerer is born with innate magic ability, and can cast any of his known spells, and is limited only in number cast per day (or between resting).

My previous character was a "neutral good" aligned, half-elven, multi-classed mage/thief, and that seems to have been a mistake from the beginning, because it started me at level 6 that way, and all the other NPCs I encountered were similarly leveled. I was days into Chapter 2, had long since cleared out the Nashkel Mine, and still no one had leveled up. Very confusing for a first time player.

I also didn't put much thought into my character stats, because I assumed I would get additional points to assign to them as I leveled up, like in later Bioware games. Now I know that the only way to increase the base stats is through gear or magic items found in the game.

My new character still has a couple of issues, because I still had to figure out what I was doing, and see how things worked, and I didn't quite understand why Dragatus said I wouldn't have the Identify spell, since it did appear as one of the spells I could learn. I didn't realise at the time that sorcerers can't learn new spells from scrolls like other magic-users, and didn't know it would take several levels before I even got the option to learn a new spell (the first level-up only increases the number of times you can cast your spells). So, in retrospect, perhaps I shouldn't have chosen Identify as one of the two spells I would be able to cast for the next couple of levels. On the other hand, the other spell was Magic Missile, which took care of most of the fighting. I rather wish I had chosen Armour instead of Identify, since it's a long-lasting spell that compensates for the sorcerer's inability to wear physical armour. But at least I never had any problem getting magic items identified.

I got to pick a new spell at level 3, and I considered both Armour and Chromatic Orb, but ended up going with the Armour, since Chromatic Orb didn't seem sufficiently different from Magic Missile, and I wanted better variety in my spells. Between my spells, Viconia's crowd control and buffs, and Edwin's assortment of offensive and CC spells (and later Ajantis' buffs), battles were going pretty smoothly at level 2 despite the initial limitations.

Party selection

My initial party was just whoever I could run into on my way to my destination, so it therefore was made of Imoen, Xzar, Montaron, Jaheira, and Khalid before I met anyone else. Unfortunately, I didn't like any of them except Imoen. I was pleasantly surprised that all five of them fit in the party, though. A six-member party (counting my player character) feels like a real luxury after being limited to 4 in Dragon Age, and 3 in Mass Effect.

I ran into a few other joinable NPCs while questing around the Friendly Arm zone, so I tried out several other party configurations before settling on my current group, though it was difficult to do since Jaheira/Khalid and Xzar/Montaron were inseparable pairs, but at least I could boot some out without losing them permanently. It might be due to the NPC Project Mod, but I have the option of telling them to wait in their current location for my return, or to leave and wait for me at the Friendly Arm Inn.

Writing now, having subsequently experienced another inseparable pair, my conclusion is that there are just too many otherwise decent characters chained to crappy ones.

My best party I've experienced so far is comprised of Imoen, Edwin, Viconia, Minsc, and Ajantis. So that's a fish-out-of-water drow cleric, a snarky red wizard of Thay, a jovial berserker, an uptight paladin of Helm, and of course the cheerful, perky thief. And I myself am a sorcerer, so it's a nice mix of two tanks, two DPS, one healer/CC, and one ranged DPS with stealth, trap detection, and lockpicking. Here's what I thought of each of them, and the others I left behind.

Ajantis (lawful good paladin)

Ajantis can't seem to go more than two sentences without mentioning the name of his god, Helm. He's annoying, but he makes a good tank and has several nice paladin abilities like the healing "laying on of hands" (which I suppose is as close as one of these paladins can allow themselves to get to a woman), and Protection From Evil (almost all enemies in BG are evil, so...), and also Detect Evil, which I tried out once, but didn't see the point of, since it just made Edwin light up briefly. I'm imagining what that would be like in person, just out in the wilds leading an adventuring party, and turning to Ajantis and asking, "Hey paladin, do you detect any evil nearby?" and he'd just turn and point intently at Edwin, looking at me with an expectant look on his face, probably thinking "Now? Now? Can I smite him now, please?"

But like I said, he's a good tank, and he really likes my leadership, always saying "We follow the righteous path! The path of Helm!" Not that I'm trying to follow his god's path, or even particularly trying to be "good". I'm just doing quests and choosing the most interesting dialogue options, or the ones that suit me personally. I can tell this is becoming a problem, since Edwin and Viconia complain more and more often, and reputation points seem to be flowing like water lately.

Xzar (chaotic evil necromancer) & Montaron (neutral evil fighter/thief)

Out of necessity, since I was otherwise alone, I tried out Xzar and Montaron, the first two joinable NPCs you meet on the road (not counting Imoen, who joins you immediately). Aside from them being evil, I found both of them to be rather weak and death-prone. Xzar, being insane, should have been more amusing than he was, and instead struck me as simply annoying. Once I started finding more joinable NPCs, I really wanted to boot Montaron out (I didn't need his thieving skills, and he made a poor tank), but I needed Xzar's spellcasting to augment my own limited ability at level 1, and the two were a team that came and went together. Of course, I could have allowed one to die in battle to free up that space which in fact happened during my first play attempt, but I wanted to keep my options open this time. It wasn't until they got impatient with my delay in getting to Nashkel that I had to deal with their departure.

That departure was very inconvenient, because I wasn't expecting them to actually leave on their own, and I couldn't appease them in time. I was too far away from Nashkel to travel there before they'd leave, unless I went back several saves in the past, and I didn't like the characters enough to sacrifice several hours of game progress just to get them to Nashkel before they bailed out, so I just removed all their items in the save just prior and let them go.

Interestingly, it looks like I could have at least kept Xzar if I had a bit more luck, because in my several attempts to get them to Nashkel I was waylaid by wandering enemies just at the right time. Entering combat appears to slightly break the script that makes the two leave together. Montaron delivered his "You're taking too long! We're leaving!" line just after the enemies initiated combat, and the two started to leave, but then Xzar initiated the "are you sure?" prompt that usually occurs when you intentionally kick people out of your party. I told him to stay, and he stayed, while Montaron kept on going. Unfortunately, the enemies were too tough for my reduced party, and I wiped each time this happened.

Minsc (chaotic good ranger)

"Ranger"? I was surprised about that, since I think of rangers as stealthy bow-using hunter-types, not as loud, plate-wearing, sword-wielding berserkers. But I suppose it explains his affinity with his hamster Boo. It's just strange to me to see the abilities "Berserk" and "Charm Animal" right next to each other. Minsc is a very strong character, making him very useful for carrying the heaviest loot, and his dialogue is funny and lively. Outfitted with good armour he makes a hardy tank, but I very rarely use his Berserk ability because I have other mêlée characters that usually fight next to him, and I quickly found Minsc chasing one of his own allies due to his blind rage in berserk mode.

I picked up Minsc with Edwin in the party, despite Edwin wanting me to help him kill the witch Dynaheir, and Minsc wanting me to help rescue her. I thought, at the time, that I could just keep them both by never going to rescue Dynaheir at all, but Edwin started expressing impatience after some time, and I recalled what happened with Xzar and Montaron, so I knew this couldn't last.

Viconia (neutral evil cleric)

For my cleric/healer, I'm using Viconia, the fugitive drow who wasn't quite evil enough to want to stay in the Underdark. I'm playing as chaotic good this time, and she's neutral evil, but so far she seems to be fitting in better than the other evil characters I've included in my party. She only started complaining a little once my reputation reached "popular", but on the whole her banters are cute and pleasant, especially with all the drow-speak she uses and other amusing things like "There's no roof to this world!" I had to turn on subtitles to find out the spelling of what she was saying in drowish. "Lulu loooo! For sure!" is an interesting and amusing battle cry, and I think I'll always hear it that way, even after finding out it's actually "Lil alurl! For Shar!", which apparently means "The best! For Shar!" according to the drow dictionary I found. Alas, since I'm an elf, there can apparently be no romance with Viconia.

I have her keep 2 healing spells memorised, along with two Command spells and 1 Hold Person spell for crowd control, as well as a couple of buffs. She also has a Turn Undead ability that seems to toggle on and off like Imoen's Hide In Shadows or Detect Traps, but I can't seem to get her to use it without immediately breaking it by going on and attacking something.

Imoen (neutral good thief)

I haven't found any other pure thieves in the game so far, but even if I do, I don't think I'll want to replace Imoen. Not just because her abilities are shaping up nicely with the talent points from her leveling, but because I like her voice and personality (even if most of that personality is due to the NPC mod). Several times, the lines she says when I clicked on her to direct her somewhere have created some cute pseudo-conversations. Minsc interjects something while I'm about to direct her to unlock a chest, like:

Minsc: "Camaraderie, adventure, and steel on steel. The stuff of legends! Right, Boo?"

Imoen: "Yup!"

I have her Detect Traps ability up pretty high already, in anticipation of running through the Nashkel Mines, remembering my experience with my previous character, where I attacked the mines pretty early. I rolled my current character fairly soon after that event.

Jaheira (true neutral fighter/druid) & Khalid (neutral good fighter)

I might have kept Jaheira if her husband didn't have to tag along. He died a lot, couldn't carry much, and his dialogues with Jaheira were saccharine and annoying. "C-could we please settle down some time and have a b-baby together Jaheira, please, please, p-pretty please?"

At least Jaheira was fairly strong and provided an extra heal to the group, and her selection of nature-based druid spells were an interesting change of pace from the mage/sorcerer spells and the priest spells. She had some amusing phrases as well, like "Yeessss, O Omnipotent Authority Figure?" But on the whole, I don't miss them.

Edwin (lawful evil conjurer)

Like Imoen, his personality alone is enough to make me want to keep him, to the exclusion of other characters, and despite him being evil. He's egocentric and snarky, which I find much funnier and enjoyable than Xzar's shrill whining, Jaheira's condescension, Xan's moaning, or Dynaheir's stuffiness and misuse of Middle English (I'll have more to say about Dynaheir in another post).

Currently I have him memorising Colour Spray (for crowd control), Larloch's Minor Drain (for draining an enemy's health to replenish his own if he's hit), Magic Missile, and Chromatic Orb. When he runs out of spells, I have him stand back and throw daggers at the enemies, finding a use for the piles of daggers scrounged from all these walking skeletons. I guess it's nice that I never seem to need to buy arrows or throwing weapons, though I do need to buy sling bullets.

So far, the only Level 2 spell he knows is Horror, which seems of very limited use. I haven't yet found any useful Level 2 spell scrolls to teach him.

Kivan (chaotic good ranger)

I only used this character briefly before sending him away, but I've taken him back in out of necessity for reasons I'll explain in the next post. I don't like this guy, and plan to get rid of him as soon as I can find another useful tank.

He's as morose as Xan, except while Xan just predicts doom and acts pessimistically, Kivan incessantly speaks in unnecessarily heavy detail about the torture and murder of his wife, and his guilt and suicidal depression over it, and he keeps asking nosy questions. He's bad for morale. I've been giving him relatively sympathetic responses, but my finger hovers temptingly over the ones that tell him to shut up.

Branwen (true neutral cleric)

I like her voice, but I already have a good cleric. Well, an evil cleric, but you know what I mean.

Garrick (chaotic neutral bard)

A bard. I tried him out for a little while, but I couldn't find any good use for him. Am I missing something?

Kagain (lawful evil fighter)

I had him in the party just long enough to take care of his little quest, then sent him back to his store. He seems okay, and I do need another fighter, but do I really want another evil character in my party? I'm considering it.

Xan (lawful neutral enchanter)

As mentioned above, I couldn't stand his moaning, and he can't use some of the most useful spells. He has a little side quest to find his magic sword that no one but he can use, but why would I want a sword-wielding squishy? No wonder you foresee doom all the time, Xan -- you're doing it wrong!

So those are the characters I've had in my party so far, for varying amounts of time. I understand there are still plenty more to find, so I expect there will be more shuffling around coming up.

Crash fix and technical stuff

I ran into a crashing bug soon after losing Xzar and Monty, and in looking up solutions I found this was a well-known crash centered around the town of Beregost. Happily, there was a repair utility made specifically to address that problem, and it fixed it for me with no trouble.

On the technical side, I have the game running at 60 FPS, which is an option available in the config program. As it explains there, the game is supposed to run at 30 FPS, and the effect of running it at a higher speed is that it speeds everything up. I did this so that it doesn't take so long to get my party from one end of the map to another. Since I play with auto-pause options enabled, it doesn't affect my gameplay, since I'm playing it the same way I play Dragon Age -- pausing the game to give specific commands or control specific characters for each turn, making it a pseudo-turn-based game.

While this is an improvement for pacing, in my opinion, cutting short the most tedious parts of the game (walking from one place to another), it's not without its drawbacks. Primarily it's just that during scripted dialogue scenes which include voices, or during spell incantations, the animations finish before the voice finishes playing, so my characters never finish the "Vita, Mortis, Careo" incantation before being cut off with the sound effect of finishing, or in the case of dialogue the characters tend to speak over each other.

To be continued

There's a lot more to say about this game. I can tell I'm going to be playing it, and its sequel, for some time. Depending on how I feel about it when it's over, I might also want to look into the Icewind Dale games, and Planescape: Torment. I already have Arcanum, which was an impulse buy thanks to a sale on GOG, and played it briefly, but it was my first isometric RPG experience, and probably not the best introduction. Perhaps I can return to it after my BG experience with better insights.

These games have a sense of fun and a tone that doesn't take itself too seriously, which is sort of lost in the realism of later games. Even when I see little jokes and references in games like Oblivion, Fallout 3, or Dragon Age, they seem to be overwhelmed by the general serious tone, and in some cases the grey, dirty, "realistic" art design. They all have their moments, of course, and I think Dragon Age has the most of these kinds of jokes, like the "poem" by Paragon Seuss, or Leliana naming her new pet aardvark "Schmooples", and there are some examples for Oblivion and Fallout 3 as well, but in general I find myself having more levity in this game than in those others.

Anyway, this post is long. Ending for now.