Monday, 31 December 2012

Super Mario Galaxy and How It Saved My Soul

As you may be aware, there is a whiff of controversy surrounding games journalism at the moment.  Some fella got his picture taken with some crisps, and then a young lady threatened to sue a Scotsman - it's all very dramatic.  Anyway, in order to join in with the burning, purging wind that is sweeping through "people who write about games" I have decided to be transparent about my own motives from now on.

I hate Nintendo.

Look at them.  LOOK AT THEM.  (Especially the one on the right.)
I hate them, I hate their cutesy wutesy ways, their stupid plumber, their Miis, their insistence on friend codes and their complete inability to design any character that isn't some kind of messed up woodland animal in shorts.  I hate the way they sell themselves as master innovators whilst simultaneously releasing the 6th version of Super Mario Bros and I hate the way that they have diluted the brave, strong spirit which kept gaming pure with their ridiculous pandering to the masses.  Nobody should have to see Harry Redknapp clutching a pretend tennis racquet and playing pretend tennis with his family (who is that guy second from left anyway?) but this is what Nintendo have done.  This is what they have embraced.  They've become something so inoffensive that it offends me.  They make my skin crawl - it's all so wholesome and happy and cheesy and they all love each other and there are no wars, nobody suffers and it's all done in primary colours with plinky-plonky music and just..... ugh.  (He looks Australian, maybe he's their Australian friend or Harry's accountant or something.)

Now hate is a strong word.  It means a deep, abiding and almost physical dislike of something.  It's a primeval force, it has its own power and, if harnessed correctly, can feel like a burning, holy flame inside of you.  However, when left to its own festering devices it can also be intensely damaging, eating you up from the inside - like a parasitic worm, or those flies who lay their eggs in spiders.  You've got to keep an eye on your hate levels, they require careful monitoring, and in my case those flies are hovering pretty close.  So I decided to do something drastic.  Something out of the ordinary, something that to another man may sound trite but which, to me, represented as much of an ordeal as climbing Everest would to an octogenerian tetraplegic - I decided to play a bit of Super Mario Galaxy. 

Kill or cure - right?

Now, I'm not stupid.  I realised that this was going to be difficult, hazardous even.  There was a chance that I may have come away from it with some kind of sense of hope or, at the very least, humming a catchy tune.  I needed a wingman and there was really only one choice - my 3 year old son.  I had tried, oh god had I tried, to inculcate some decency in him.  He had learned how to use a mouse by running around pre-cleared levels in Torchlight II.  He knows what Minecraft is, and has destroyed many a promising castle, but once he had experienced the brightly coloured wonderland that is Nintendo I had lost him and his world had become full of moustachioed plumbers.  I didn't want his world to be like that.  Certainly not when he's 3, he can do what he likes when he's older, but I was desperate and I needed help.

So, we settled down together to play Mario.  This is probably how Harry Redknapp felt when he first gripped that pretend racquet with Jamie.

"Daddy!  Get the star!  Daddy!  Get the star!  Daddy!  Daddy!  Daddy!  DADDY!  GET THE STAR!  TALK TO THE PURPLE MAN!  TALK TO THE PURPLE MAN!  What did he say Daddy?  What did he say?  WHAT DID HE SAY?!?!?" 

This was going to be tricky.

But gradually, despite a few tantrums along the way (and that was just me) I came to a dawning realisation - maybe, just maybe, my prejudices and preconceptions had been wrong.  Maybe, just maybe, underneath its sickly sweet exterior Super Mario Galaxy is really a truly great game because, actually, it does a lot of things that great games should do.

Firstly, it gets the difficulty level exactly right -  and this was made clear to me when I played it with my son.  One of the simplest ways that it does this is by giving its players plenty of lives. These come from a variety of sources; attached to "letters" from other characters in the game, or as a reward for collecting 50 of the ubiquitous star bits that litter the environment. On some of the more difficult levels it gives you one right at the start, which you cannot fail to collect if you wish to do so. This means that the consequences of dying are minimised and players are encouraged to retry levels in order to succeed. As I have said previously, what is important in a game is not dying as such, but what is lost when you do.  In SMG the player is usually returned to the last checkpoint reached (which is unmarked in this game, but is shown with a flag in the sequel.) If the player loses all of their lives then they are returned to the spaceship base and have to restart the level from the beginning.  The number of lives the player has really only tells them how many chances they have to complete the level that they are on - there are no consequences further than that. So if, for example, you want to hand control over to a small child who insists on repeatedly jumping off the first platform they encounter until you just can't take it any more, then you should remind yourself that it doesn't really matter.

On some early levels, and certainly on the spaceship which serves as your home base, it is impossible to die. This is perfect for getting used to controls, for trying out new things or for stopping incipient meltdowns without jeopardising progress. On the other hand some of the later levels, or the prankster comets, give the player a challenge worthy of games such as Dark Souls. Where SMG does well though, is that it allows players to choose the level of challenge that they wish to experience because once the player has progressed a little way into the game they are given plenty of choice on how to proceed. There are barriers to this (some worlds are only accessible after a certain number of end-level stars have been collected) but it is perfectly possible to complete the game without finishing every level. This enables the player to pick and choose their challenges and means that, if one world is proving difficult to complete, they can still progress by going to a different world instead and trying that. The game doesn't really care which order you complete the levels in, it only cares about how many stars you have collected in total - and the worlds vary a great deal in their layout. Some are wide open spaces with easily avoidable enemies, whilst others are strictly confined and full of the lava, moving platforms and bombs with angry faces that you would expect from any Mario game. The player is free to pick what to do next and is able to try a more difficult level before moving to an easier one in order to make some progress if they grow frustrated.

And this leads us on to another aspect of SMG which is genuinely great.  It provides the player with a wide variety of ways to play the game.  Yeah OK, these pretty much all involve Mario but this IS Nintendo we're talking about.  He can be turned into a giant spring, a rolling boulder or a bee.  He can shoot flames, freeze water or fly - and many other things besides.  He skates and he swims and he rides around on Yoshi.  He races various other people, flies birds and chases penguins and, if you get bored of that, you can do it all over again as Luigi.  The gameplay changes from level to level and often even within the same galaxy.  It breaks things up extremely well and means that, if the player gets frustrated trying one thing, they can go somewhere else and try something completely different.

Not only this, but we haven't even mentioned the comets yet.  Comets appear above different galaxies once certain conditions are met and change the way those levels work.  They can have a variety of effects - some impose a time limit, others leave Mario with only 1 life, while others make him race a version of himself.  Some of these challenges can be extremely... um.. challenging, and it's lucky that the game can be completed without beating any of them if you so wish.  However, they provide yet more variety to an already diverse feast and that is no bad thing.  Everywhere you go in SMG there are secrets to discover and hidden areas to explore.  Lumas (the resident star creatures) will TRANSFOOOORRRMM! into different new worlds when fed enough star bits and there are lots of areas hidden away within levels for the intrepid player to find.  In fact there are a total of 242 stars to obtain in the game, while it can be completed after finding only 60 or so.  This isn't anything unusual for Nintendo, one of the great strengths of their games has traditionally been the amount of hidden stuff to find, but SMG feels even more epic in its scope.

And that's it really.  There I sat, with my son shouting almost incoherent commands into my ear (interspersed with "It's alright Daddy, it doesn't matter" when I fell off a disappearing platform for the 50th time), while my whole worldview changed around me.  Let's make no bones about this - Super Mario Galaxy is in many ways the perfect videogame.  You may, like me, resent the primary colours, the characters and the whole Nintendo mythos - but it doesn't really matter.  Because, underneath it all, the game is structurally the equal of any game ever made.  The mechanics of it are so perfect, so tight and well-designed, that everything else is trivial.

So, as I finally vanquished Bowser and my son whooped with joy "YES DADDY!  YOU DID IT! YOU BEAT BOWSER! CAN I GET THE STAR DADDY?  CAN I GET THE STAR?  CAN I GET IT? CAN I?  CAN I GET THE STAR? CAN I?  DADDY!  DADDY!  DADDDYYYY!!!" that was the realisation that came fully formed into my mind.  It was as if my previous self had disappeared, and I'd been reborn.  There may have been some kind of celestial choir, who knows, but as I handed the controller over to my faithful wingman to administer the coup de grace and collect the final star I realised... I couldn't hear the flies any more.

Everything was going to be alright.

DISCLAIMER:  I don't really think that about Nintendo.  Well, not much.  Sue me.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Wizardry 6: Bane of the Cosmic Forge - Lessons from the Past

"The Bane of Queequeg" is a stupid name for a blog.  It's OK, I know that's what you're thinking, it's hard to spell, it doesn't make sense and it alienates a large proportion of any potential readership.  I accept that, and maybe if I was starting again I would call it "Great Old Games" or "Drunken Ramblings" or "Badger Attack!"

Hmmmm... "Badger Attack!"...

This might just work...

Anyway there is a reason why this blog is called the ridiculous name that it is, and that is a game called Wizardry 6: Bane of the Cosmic Forge.  The "Bane" bit is obvious, but "Queequeg" is the name of the  first NPC you encounter.  He's loosely modelled on Queequeg from Moby Dick (in that he is some kind of sailor) but he sells items, and you can talk to him about things (like a captain and some treasure.)  He sidles up to you in as shifty a way as is possible for a graphic from 1990, metaphorically pulls open his jacket to show you a selection of dodgy watches and asks if he could "interest you in a bargain." 

This must qualify as one of the stupidest questions in gaming history.  You're a group of adventurers stuck in a musty castle with the ubiquitous giant rats (who always inhabit the early part of any RPG) constantly nipping at your extremities.  You're wearing the equivalent of suits made out of shattered dreams and you're reduced to trying to kill things by thinking really hard at them - of course you're interested in a bloody bargain!  Queequeg provides you with the first opportunity to sort yourselves out and he's the first friendly face you meet - I can forgive him that his name is hard to spell in Google.

Just like in Moby Dick.

Wizardry 6 is widely recognised as one of the greatest RPGs ever made.  It was released in 1990 and is a classic dungeon crawler; create 6 characters, walk into a castle, kill everything that moves that isn't Queequeg and collect treasure - whilst progressing towards your eventual goal.  This is hardly revolutionary, there are plenty of games where you can do that, but Bane sticks in the mind because of a few things.

Firstly it deviates from the normal fantasy milieu in lots of ways.  The standard Fighters and Priests are, of course, present but lots of other, much more interesting, classes are also available.  Valkyries, Lords, Bishops, Monks, Samurai and Ninjas are all there, waiting for you to use them.  You can wield katanas, you can dual wield katanas, you can use psionics, you can pick races such as a mook or a dracon, and they had khajit way before those johnny come latelys at Bethesda.  It uses enough familiar stuff to make any RPG player feel at home, but it also adds a touch of the exotic - something else to imagine and picture in your mind's eye.  I mean, let's face it, Samurai are cool aren't they?  And half dragon Samurai who breathe acid are even cooler.

Another thing that Wizardry does well are the puzzles.  Here it benefits from a healthy dose of "Old Game-itis".  Basically put Wizardry doesn't really give a stuff about you.  It doesn't follow conventions which are so ingrained in modern games that they have become.. well.. conventions.  Nowadays if you pick a key up then it will be used somewhere in the immediate vicinity.  If there is a locked gate then something nearby will open it, or somebody will give you a hint on how to do so.  This simply doesn't happen in Wizardry.  In this game progress-crucial items are hidden away in dark corners and you have to search to find them.  If you don't find them then nothing happens, nobody pops up to tell you anything, you just have to sit there and try to work out where you've gone wrong.  If you miss something early in the game (like, for example, something that a bargain-obsessed sailor might be selling) and are unable to get past a later obstacle then you have to go back and search the WHOLE GAME to find whatever it is you've missed, so that you can carry on.  And, not only this, but there are loads of obviously really important gates and doors that you encounter right at the beginning of your journey which you can't open for absolutely ages.  So you have lots of items which might or might not be important, and lots of doors which clearly need to be opened, but no way of telling how those match up - or even if they're supposed to yet.

And mixed in with this are some genuinely interesting puzzles.  I don't particularly want to single out Skyrim again but it only has one puzzle - that one with the different animal blocks and the big diagram on the wall detailing exactly what to do.  Compare that with this, which are the instructions telling you how to lower a drawbridge you find once you leave the castle...

*CAUTION* Safety detachment required prior to inchoate winder advancement. Do not activate coilwrap until a wait of 5 seconds post pump nascency, over safety interdigitation. Truss ascension may follow, but under no circumstance should fall extrinsic to pump and winder immurement. Final winder engagement induction for draw bridge facilitation.

Got that?

Modern games have perfected the art of giving the player a constant, gentle challenge.  They provide enough of an obstacle that you feel like you are making progress, but they also follow set rules that make everything pretty straightforward.  Look at the latest Deus Ex game, for example.  I have never seen so many high security complexes with easily accessible and extensive ventilation shafts in my life.  It's almost like somebody wants you to succeed.  There is a lot to be said for this approach and things have become much less frustrating as a result, but it also necessitates that game elements like puzzles become more sterile and similar (hence why fantasy vikings have started to leave the solutions to them on the walls right next to the doors that you're trying to open).  The player needs to know what is expected in order for it all to work, and the solution needs to be in reasonably easy reach because, if that doesn't happen, then they suddenly don't know how to deal with the obstacle that is stopping their progress and they become frustrated.  Wizardry 6 comes from a less polished age, but it actually requires some effort and concentration as a result and, of course, there are plenty of full solutions available on the internet if you decide to cheat.

And, it's not only the puzzles that require thought...

That, my friends, is the first level of the castle - drawn by my own fair hand.  Mapping is essential to making any progress, things are too confusing otherwise, and this was the last Wizardry game not to include an automapping feature.  Nowadays every game has one, but Bane is (just about) from a time when that responsibility was still placed on the player.  In a world full of green flashing arrows, or symbols on a map telling you exactly where to go, it provides a healthy, refreshing change.  There is no hand holding going on here, if you want to beat this game then you are going to have to work for it, and that will involve messing up a lot of graph paper and sharpening a lot of pencils.

To many, many people all of this will seem like a lot of hard work.  I wouldn't like to say that the general gaming population has got soft and lazy but I'm certainly aware that this sort of thing only appeals to a niche market.  I can't see many of the people who voted Grand Theft Auto V as the "most anticipated game of 2013" queueing up to try their luck with a 20 year old dungeon crawler where they have to draw their own maps.  (Rockstar are ripping you all off by the way, they've released the same game 4 times already.)  Wizardry 6 is not user-friendly, it's not polished by modern standards, it has its ups and downs and it can be frustrating and confusing.  However it also rewards effort, it rewards dedication and it gives the player a sense of achievement that just doesn't seem to exist in mainstream gaming any more.  Probably most importantly it shows us some of the things that we have lost in the past 20 years; a trust that the player is able to think for themselves, that they are competent games players and that they are able to cope with something challenging and thought-provoking.  I think it's a shame that this has almost disappeared.  It's hard to see how a game that promotes thought as much as this does could exist in today's gaming world.  It's too raw, it's too difficult and it just doesn't fit, but it illuminates very clearly how far things have gone in the opposite direction - and that maybe it's time to take a step backwards, just a little way.

If you want to try your hand at Wizardry 6 then it is available for free here
You will need a way to play it, as it is a DOS file.  If you have DOSBox then that will work.  Personally I recommend D-Fend Reloaded
This may look daunting but, in fact, it is really easy to use.  Guide here

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Grimoire Thing Just Gets Weirder

A few posts ago I wrote about "Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar".  This is a rather mythical game amongst RPG aficionados because, as I said then, it has reputedly been in development for the past 17 years.  Its story (which is long and strange) is irreversibly entangled with that of its creator Cleveland Mark Blakemore (who might not be long but sure is strange.)

I probably don't have the space to fully cover that story here but I can give you the basics.  Cleve has stated that he started developing Grimoire as a direct consequence of his experiences working for an Australian company in the mid 90s, who Sir-Tech had asked to make a follow up to their seminal game Wizardry 7: Crusaders of the Dark Savant.  This game was supposedly called "Stones of Arnhem" and he described a project full of incompetents, run by an Australian actor Max Phipps (he was in Mad Max 2, here he is),

which devolved into a total mess and was eventually canned by Sir-Tech before anything meaningful was created (but not before they wasted $250,000.)

Cleve makes some, frankly, pretty unbelievable claims about this time in his life (most of which don't bear to be repeated here) and he describes a number of the monsters created for the game, which were mostly based around aboriginal mythology or creatures from the outback, but which also included "the rectum gobbler" and something he christened "the penisaurus".  His version of events paints a damning picture of a project team out of control and completely disconnected from the Sirotek brothers at Sir-Tech.  He details an almost Kurtzian situation, with the leaders heading off on their own doomed jaunts into the creative jungle and nobody (except him) able to tell them that having monsters based on reproductive organs was not necessarily a great idea.  He says that he eventually had to quit the project as it was having a deleterious effect on his mental health, the scars of which he still bears today.

The problem was... no reference to Stones of Arnhem existed on the web (apart from Cleve's own words, and a comment on one website from somebody who purported to be his erstwhile partner, Michael Shamgar) so people found it difficult to believe him.  Add in to this that Cleve's online persona is often extremely offensive, totally unconcerned with the niceties of political correctness (or common politeness) and will say that stuff is true which appears to bend the rules of reality itself (for example that he killed all those Mexicans with the jawbone of an ass during the LA Riots, or whatever that story was.)  He's been trolling gaming sites since the early days and has annoyed or exhausted countless numbers of people.

So you can imagine the reaction when he fronts up with "Oh yeah, by the way guys, did you know there was almost a follow up to Wizardry 7 that was being made in Australia and had dick monsters in it, and transsexual furries killing each other and shit?  And I was, like, the lead programmer on it and spent all my waking hours trying to save it, but it never got made because the project manager got taken into a sanitarium, and hey, have I told you about the time I got hit by a truck but survived cos of my titanium skeleton?"

I mean we've all encountered them; people who make stuff up, who turn themselves into something they're not and try to counteract some kind of deep-seated inadequacy in their very heart by sticking lies up on the internet.  Come on!  This is some kind of bizarre joke isn't it?  A Penisaurus?  Rectum gobbler?  These are just the rantings of a disgruntled, delusional lunatic, a madman, don't pay any attention to it, it's obviously completely untr....



Turns out that Cleve might have a point after all.  Because, in a completely bizarre turn of events, somebody has turned up AT JUST THE RIGHT TIME to provide him with at least partial corroboration.  An ebay user with the "name" of "hotalibl" says that he bought the remains of Sir-Tech, including all of their documentation, sealed games, artworks and so on.  He's even put 50 lots of it up on ebay, with another 50 to go up next week. (Click the link above to see the list.)

Amongst commonplace items like sealed first editions of different games, signed artwork and design documents the auctions include such gems as the letter canning the Stones of Arnhem project

and um... Cleve's resignation letter....

Of course I should probably make it almost legally clear that this doesn't mean that any of Cleve's other claims are in any way true, but you know, that picture does kind of fit his description, sort of almost exactly, and there's a lot of evidence there that "Stones of Arnhem" existed and that he worked on it before resigning and, if that's true, then... well maybe it's best if we don't think about what that might imply...

Oh and, while we're here, Grimoire has a new pitch video as its resolution has been updated.  Demo due end of this month.  Apparently.  The Indiegogo campaign is still running.

Further Reading:
If you want to read the full story go here (be aware it is 50+ pages.)

A demo of the game was released in February 2013 - read about it here

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Why You Should Play Dark Souls.

When I first encountered Havel the Rock I was edging carefully down the stairs in his tower and I had a vague sight of something grey moving swiftly across the floor.  I panicked, turned, and ran back up the way I had come.  I may have been screaming, I can’t remember.  I heard him hit the doorway just as I reached safety.  I had no idea what he was, I hadn’t even seen him clearly, but I was scared.  It took me ages to build up the courage to go down there again.  And, when I did, he killed me in one hit.  Whilst I was blocking.  That made me laugh, just at the sheer front of it.  I went back.  He killed me again.  I tried him again and again and eventually I learned how to beat him and that felt great. 

Havel the Rock isn’t even a boss.     

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

XCom: Enemy Unknown

I remember playing the demo for the original X-Com game on my friend's PC.  Of course, we knew it as UFO : Enemy Unknown then, this was long before those bastardising Yankees got hold of it.  I think it came on a floppy disk on the front of a magazine and I remember reading the accompanying article with a sense of wonder.  You can shoot down UFOs with Interceptors (which you can equip individually)?  You can interrogate aliens?  You can research and manufacture future tech?  And then you get to fight it all out in squad-based, turn-based, isometric combat?  With action points, and different soldiers, all with their own attributes?  Like an uber Laser Squad (another game I had played to death)?  Is this some kind of joke?  This is 1994 for Christ's sake!  What the... but... this... this is amazing.

So we loaded the demo up.  It let us play part of one of the terror missions... I remember firing a rocket or some incendiary ammunition at a Chryssalid and a large part of the display dissolving into flames.  I think we may have cheered.  And then the smoke cleared, and that fucking thing was just left there, still alive, chittering away to itself.  We hadn't even made a dent.  And that was pretty much the moment I fell in love with X-Com.

Happy Days.

Since then I have had a copy on anything that will play it.  I've bought it for the Amiga, for various PCs and on the Playstation.  There is a copy of it on my laptop right now.  I've played it on and off for 18 years.  It is, in my humble opinion, one of the top 5 games ever made (and maybe that's a subject for a post of its own.)  What I'm saying is that I love this game, and like most people who love something I get very protective of it.  So when I heard that Firaxis were "re-imagining" (ugh) it earlier this year, it brought up a lot of conflicting emotions for me. 

I was excited, first and foremost - as great as the original is there are lots of things that could be improved, it is 18 years old after all.  I was interested to see which way they took it and whether it would do the series justice, or whether it would drown under a torrent of quest markers, awesome buttons and effing dragons or whatever.  And, as well as the excitement, I was scared that it wasn't going to live up to my expectations, how could it?  How could anything?

And then it arrived.

(That makes it sound like it plopped onto my doormat.  It didn't.  I downloaded it.  It took ages.  It's a huge file, but you know, progress apparently.)

Anyway finally, finally, after 18 years of hoping, and 9 months of actually waiting, I got to play it.

First things first, this is NOT the original game.  I think that needs to be said right at the start.  In fact there are a whole shedload of things that the original does better.  In keeping with current thinking this incarnation is fantastically streamlined.  It's been streamlined to within an inch of its life.  Action points are gone, most of the soldier statistics are gone; all of them start with the same capabilities and they can't even choose what they carry (beyond some basic either/or choices.)  What's more, a whole range of starting weapons have disappeared - no more auto-cannons, and certainly no more incendiary ammo.  There's also no more micro-management of, for example, interceptor missiles or rocket ammunition.  Your squad size has been cut from a maximum of 24 to 4-6.  The maps are a lot smaller (and can feel like corridors with enemies teleporting in at fixed points.)  The different types of shot have gone and you can't even destroy buildings in order to get at the little grey bastards inside, except by using strictly rationed grenades or rockets.  Armour now adds straight hit points to your soldiers, rather than being a barrier to overcome - and different types of weapons just add more (fixed) damage per shot and possibly increase your critical chance, rather than having a range of possible damage, different weights, different effectiveness against different opponents etc.  You only have access to one base, rather than a possible 8, you can't employ engineers and scientists with actual cash money, there's only one type of UFO craft you can research and build (and so on and so forth.)

See, I miss ALL of those things to a greater or lesser extent (possibly apart from the micro-management) even though I can appreciate why they were changed.  Most people are not like me when it comes to this stuff, and games companies want to sell as many units as possible.  Firaxis obviously decided, like they already had with Civilisation V or Bethesda had with Skyrim, that all this complexity just gets in the way of the "player experience".  (I'm putting words in their mouths but this is quite clearly a conscious decision they have made.)  They're not alone in doing this and I may wish they hadn't (seriously, what is wrong with some numbers?  What's wrong with randomly generating the attributes of your soldiers?) but I can accept that this isn't going to change in mainstream gaming any time soon.  Like I said, this isn't the original game.  I need to get over this and judge it on its merits because, actually, despite everything it has given me some great experiences.

The soldier development is extremely well done.  The designers obviously correctly identified (and this is, after all, why "RPG elements" are so ubiquitous) that players feel much more emotionally connected to characters which they have developed over a period of time, that they have moulded and built up.  So your soldiers get given a nickname and players can customise them, rename them, pick their armour type, what they look like and choose new abilities for them on levelling up.  Players can invest themselves into their soldiers - and then they can take them into a hazardous environment and try to stop them getting blasted to absolute shit.  This emotional attachment to your troops was one of the central parts of the original and the new one takes it by the scruff of the neck and makes it probably the best bit of the whole game.  If you also play on Ironman (where you cannot reload if you make a mistake) it lends everything an almost unbearable sense of tension.  If you mess up, then that soldier who you've put so much time into, and who is relying on you to make it through, is toast.

And combat is another bit of the game which works very well.  The cover system certainly isn't new, as anybody who played the original will tell you, but it's been formalised and made into the central concern.  Your soldiers need to stay in cover in order to survive and this turns any battle into something that can be almost chess-like, as you try to flank the enemies whilst keeping your men and women out of danger.  One of the best bits is the way that soldiers now react to terrain, they will fire around a corner, smash a window or crash through a door automatically, and this together with the small maps and small squads has the effect of making battles a much more immediate affair than before.  That said, there are certainly some downsides to the combat part of the game -  I'm not sure about the way alien squads spawn on the map or the free move they get, and it can be extremely difficult to move your squad accurately through a large UFO as it is often unclear where you are going - but XCom manages to make turn-based combat feel fluid and exciting, which is no mean feat.  I've had games where I've had to execute a fighting retreat to the transport, or where I've struggled until I've gotten my sniper into the correct place and some of these have been genuinely tense and engrossing episodes, which is only to be applauded.

The aliens are also very well designed.  Chryssalids are their same old shit-your-pants selves but floaters are suddenly a much greater threat than before, as they can now flank your soldiers with ease.  Berserkers are a worthy addition, bashing down walls to get to your troops, and Cyberdiscs and Sectopods have also been given a new lease of life - turning into some kind of manga nightmare well capable of taking away your prized officers in a heartbeat.  If you add in the new reptilian Thin Men  and updated Sectoids, Ethereals and Mutons then the whole selection work well together to provide the player with different challenges to adapt to and overcome.

In fact the whole thing is very well presented.  It's like the original game, but if it was directed by the guy who did Independence Day. I kept expecting to see Will Smith pop up and punch a Sectoid on the nose whilst uttering some banality.  Armour is sleek and shiny, your base looks suitably impressive and it's just all very modern.  This is, obviously, very much an area of personal preference. Some people will love the kill cams, the bon mots and the shots of Skyrangers coming in to land, and others will find it a bit off-putting.  It was an area of the game that I was definitely worried about before playing it, but I should probably make a confession.  I like the stuff the soldiers say after they shoot an alien or reload.  Sometimes I even go "hoo-rah" quietly to myself when I kill something.  In my defence, I do fully accept that I am going to burn in hell.

But that aside, it's all very slick and professional, and XCom works because it forces the player to make sacrifices in order to progress and it keeps them constantly juggling resources and making choices - which is what games are all about.  One of the great strengths of the original was that you could take any approach you liked when developing your organisation.  If you wanted to build listening posts across the globe as soon as possible then you could.  If you wanted to develop better weapons, or try to capture a sectoid commander to get hold of psionics then that was also a valid strategy.  Within the restrictions of the game (which were usually money related) then the player was free to take any approach they liked.  I think this is A Good Thing, but there was a downside (isn't there always?) - things could sometimes feel a little bit unfocused and the player could exploit various bits of the system in order to get an often decisive advantage.  Firaxis have taken the opposite approach.  Things are tight in this one.  There is little scope for the player to deviate from the prescribed story arc, but this also has the effect of making everything feel very focused and very polished.  Some of the mechanics they use in order to achieve this are questionable - why can't XCom have more than one Skyranger?  And why can we only intervene in one terror mission at a time?  But the end result is that the player will often have to make some difficult choices in what they can afford to advance, and what they will have to leave by the wayside.  In the main it works well, but it does feel very scripted and the player can often feel that they are being railroaded into advancing the story without being given enough time to enjoy the ride.

As you can see, there are plenty of things that are good about this game.  So why do I feel strangely dissatisfied with it?  I've finished it once through, and I've restarted another game but I just cannot be bothered to play it.  When I first loaded it up I thought it was amazing.  I genuinely thought that Firaxis had totally nailed it, but, the more I play it, the more I realise that a lot of it is style over substance.  Yeah it's exciting, and yeah it's fun and good and all those things - but I just can't see myself still playing it in a year's time, let alone twenty. 

I think that that longevity has gone precisely because everything is so tight.  I know what's going to happen, I know what's coming - so what's the point in playing it through again?  All of the unpredictability of the first one has disappeared.  I've gotten over the bells and whistles, I've made my soldiers' armour bright green, I've watched all the cutscenes, I've experienced all of the plot development and I kind of feel that I've seen everything the game has to offer.  Even the combat has become a bit of a procession at times, sad to say.  There's nothing left to discover, or at least that's how I feel.

To be honest, part of this comes from my own prejudices and expectations and I've found it hard to get over the amount of stuff that has been taken out of the game, but I think there is also a genuine complaint that the developers have disregarded certain elements in order to focus on making a game that is "mainstream" and that appeals to the most possible people.  They've made something that certainly does that, and I by no means think the game is bad - it's a very good game, it really is - but it's lacking the flexibility and depth of the original and I can't help but judge it on that basis.

However those are my personal feelings and one thing that certainly seems to be true is that this game has brought X-Com to a whole new generation of players. I've read things from people who have never played the series before, who have never even played turn-based strategy games before, but who are raving about this. They think it's brilliant, and so it has obviously done its job of "mainstreaming" X-Com - and this is a good thing, as it will maybe make companies more willing to make more games like this. I would like that. I think that would be good. Of course, it may also mean that the next game in the series is even more streamlined and even more linear than this is but you know, as George Michael said, you've got to have faith... haven't you?

The original game is available on Steam now for less than a fiver by the way.  Play both.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Grimoire : Heralds of the Winged Exemplar

Making games can be a difficult business.  There are numerous examples out there of  games which have taken years to create, or which have just disappeared forever.  There are thousands of them that have fallen by the wayside, thousands more that never got past the planning stage.  The eternal highway that we call "gaming" is littered with the burnt out wrecks of projects that aimed too high, too low or in just the right place, but which were driven by idiots.

However, there has never been anything quite like Grimoire.  Grimoire splits opinions, it may be the greatest dungeon crawler ever created - it may never be completed.  Its um.. eccentric developer Cleveland M Blakemore first started working on it in 1995 - in the wake of a disastrous spell at legendary software house Sir-Tech.   He was allegedly employed on the follow up to Wizardry 7, one of the greatest RPGs ever made - but the project quickly descended into acrimony, penisaurus's and 9 inch dildos hanging off shower rails.  Rattled, but unbowed, Cleve picked himself up off the floor, squared his impressive shoulders and set out to make the RPG to end all RPGs.  To make the RPG at the end of time.  To make history!

Now finally, 17 years later, Grimoire has been shown to the public, on Indiegogo. Even if you have no interest in old-school RPGs you should still watch the pitch video as it is hilarious.
Sounds good huh, but unfortunately Cleve is also a little bit strange.  He describes himself as a Neanderthal, a lunatic and famously, in the pitch video for Grimoire, as a madman.  It has taken him 17 years to get Grimoire to where it is today and he has promised faithfully many times during that period that THIS TIME it's ready and that it will be released imminently - needless to say none of these promises were ever fulfilled.  If you combine this innovative approach to building customer confidence with his frequently offensive interactions with the outside world (oh, and he lives in a vault too, by the way) then you can see that the man has a bit of work on his hands if he wants to convince the paying public that they should support him. 

Now Cleve isn't stupid, he knows that people are lacking faith in him and he needs to convince them that he is dependable, committed and that there will be a good game at the end of this to reward their pledges of support.  So... how does he react?  Well, there is the good and then there is the bad.  On the one hand Cleve can say something that seems almost painfully honest, he can respond to criticism in a way that makes it clear how passionate he is about all this.  But then he also can't resist sticking the boot in to other games developers, on their own Kickstarter page no less.  He's an enigma.  That's what he is.  He's the main reason why the game splits opinions.  The game itself looks good.  Assuming it's mainly bug free and playable then it demonstrates a lot of things that people are looking for at the moment.  A genuine old school experience, something authentic, something different and something that is a labour of love.  The problem that many people have is who has made it.

What it comes down to is, do you want to play something that's come out of this man's mind?  Personally speaking (and I would like to make it quite clear that I am not responsible for any money you may lose backing this) I do.  God yes because, if nothing else, I am quite sure that it will contain plenty of WTF moments.  In a world full of identikit AAA games or play it safe indie odysseys this promises to be a madcap ride through the imagination of somebody who is anything but boring.  To my mind that makes it worth the money on its own.  You may not like Cleve, or you may think he's some kind of hero, whatever, any game that he has spent this amount of time and effort on is not going to be boring.  So, really, what have you got to lose?  It's only money.

About a month after this was written the story behind Grimoire took another, bizarre, twist.  You can read about it here.

And a demo was released in February 2013.  See this.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Torchlight II - The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

So... Torchlight II.  I'm in a bit of a pickle, to be honest, because I have already done a preview and it seems like I'd just be duplicating stuff if I sat here and wrote a proper review.  However, I am sure that is what you are expecting, so here’s a quick one if you’re desperate.  “Wow, look at that!  I can do what?  OMG!  Look at that fire!  Ha, isn’t he cute?  Wait a minute, I can get him to summon zombies?  Jesus.  Look at them!  Fantastic!”

So there you go. 

Instead of a review I’m going to list some of the good and bad things about the game, my own personal reaction rather than a full on review.  There are plenty of those out there already, it's hardly a secret.

The Good.

Explosions.  Lots and lots of lovely explosions.  Some of the Embermage skills, in particular, create very pretty and lethal patterns but all of the classes have access to some spectacular effects.  Monsters are blown backwards by your awesome powers and, if you hit them with a critical, they EXPLODE and their blood splatters all over the scenery.

Choice.  Each of the 4 character classes has 3 different skill trees.  So, for example, the Embermage can use fire, ice or lightning.  The Engineer can focus on 2-handed weapons, sword & board or summoning (or any mixture of the 3).  This means that you have to think and plan and all those other good gaming things, and also that you can replay the game with a completely different character (even whilst using what is ostensibly the same class.)   There is real flexibility in how you play the game, and that is good.

Clicking.  There is lots and lots of clicking.  Make sure your mouse is in good working order.  Click where to go, click on things till they die and then click on the resulting loot that explodes from their bodies.  Click, click, click, click, CLICK.  It’s gaming stripped to its essence.  It’s almost therapeutic in its simplicity.  Clear your mind, focus on the void and click until you achieve Nirvana.

Regular rewards.  Every few minutes SOMETHING comes along.  Whether it’s a new level, a new weapon, a piece of armour, some gold or whatever – there’s always something.  Pretty much constant progression, just by clicking on things.  Your character improves, your gear improves, the enemies improve and it only stops when you beat everything.  BOOM.

Pets.  The pets are great.  Everything about them is quality.  They’re great in a fight, you can give them SPELLS TO CAST (so they can summon things to help you, or shoot fireballs from their little paws) and you can even transform them into other creatures for a bit when you get bored.  Not only this, but they take all the useless tat you pick up from your adventures and sell it for you back in town – which allows you to stay out cracking (or burning, or poisoning or freezing) skulls in the wild.  AND, not only THAT, but they can also pick up supplies for you in town while they’re there.  They’re amazing.  They have more functions than a bloody Swiss Army Knife and I love them to pieces.

Guns.  Torchlight hasn't gone for your standard fantasy stuff.  I mean, sure, there are swords and spells and zombies and things, but there are also guns.  Wonderful, shiny guns which are immensely satisfying to use and which blow seven shades of shit out of your enemies.  I would say that more games need guns but you know... that wouldn't be true.  However, that does lead me on to my next point..

Fun.  The game is just really fun to play.  It gives plenty of "WHOA, DID YOU SEE WHAT JUST HAPPENED?!?" moments and it gives you plenty of really cool things to play with.  I found myself picking skills not because I thought they were the best thing for my character, but just because they looked like they would make me cackle with glee when I fired them off.  This is a good thing.  This is a really good thing.
The Bad

Whoah Nelly!  Sometimes the screen can become overwhelmed with mobs of monsters.  It can be hard to see what is going on and your hero(ine) disappears under a scrum of tearing claws and rending teeth.  However, that is what area of effect spells are for.  Don't be stingy with them, the screen will be clear in no time.

The Boss Chests seem to be a bit of a waste of time.  They sit there looking all golden and sparkly and big and great but then you open it up and a green pistol and a small pile of gold comes out.  It’s a bit of an anti-climax to be honest.

The Ugly

Dying.  I’m not sure about the dying mechanic.  When you die in the game you are given a choice of 3 outcomes.  Depending on the amount of gold you sacrifice you can resurrect back at the town (no gold), at the entrance to the area you were in (a small amount of gold) or exactly where you died (lots of gold.)  I’ve pretty much always chosen the last one.  I’ve primarily used gold to enchant items.  The shops never seem to have anything better than the stuff I have already – so I’ve found little other use for it.  Losing some for the convenience of not being bothered about dying seems like a fair swap to me.  On the one hand this mechanic provides the player with a choice, which I like, but on the other it makes death a (slight) inconvenience, which I don’t like.

The observant amongst you will have noticed that the good bits vastly outweigh the bad bits.  Torchlight II is a good game.  There is pretty much no thinking involved (really only in deciding what equipment is better, and what skills to choose) and it is quite therapeutic to progress through the game blowing the crap out of stuff and picking up the lovely, shiny loot .  It’s not going to make you re-evaluate the way you see the world or anything, but it will give you many hours of fun and therapy and maniacal giggling.
Or maybe that’s just me.
I give it 9 chakawarys out of 10.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Faster Than Light

Vocab needed for this review:  The roguelike is a sub-genre of role-playing video games, characterized by level randomization, permanent death, and turn-based movement.

Faster Than Light is a roguelike spaceship simulator.  It is available on Steam, Good Old Games or from the developer’s own website, and it costs around £6.  It is also really rather good and I am going to tell you why you should buy it.

The game, at first glance, does not look especially complicated.  The graphics are not super-realistic, in fact they remind me of Mech Quest, and that may put some people off.  You will usually see a plan of your own ship, a few statistics about your current progress and supplies, and possibly information you may have about any enemies.  It’s basic but it does the job because, when you’re playing FTL, you’re going to be too busy worrying about putting out fires, repairing vital systems, keeping  your precious crew alive and just revelling in the whole “I AM CAPTAIN KIRK”ness of it all to be worrying about shiny graphics.

The game is very reminiscent of Star Trek, and I mean that in a really, really good way.  To be clear, I mean the original Star Trek too - none of this “exploring outer space by exploring inner space” rubbish that came along with Jean-Luc.  No.  We’re talking missiles, lasers and “the engines cannae take any more cap’n.” Honest to goodness space combat and exploration – exactly as God intended.  There are aliens, teleporters and lots of boldly going where no man has gone before.  It is majestic.  

The aim of the game is to transport some bit of vital information or other to your federation allies whilst avoiding the chasing rebel fleet who gradually move through a sector -  forcing you to stay one step ahead.  Each attempt is randomly generated, so you will never play the same map twice, and encounters are also randomly created, which can lead to some difficult moments as your pitifully underpowered cruiser is put up against a series of tough enemies -  often resulting in an early, fiery death.  Death is also permanent and means a restart back at your hangar. 

There are 8 sectors to conquer before you get to the end of the game.  On each map an exit is marked on the right hand side and you make your own way there by jumping from star to star.  Each jump uses 1 fuel from your limited supplies – although you can get more by destroying ships, or from stores or other events in the game.

Whenever you jump into a new system you are given a text message to tell you what is there, waiting for you.  Sometimes this is nothing but more often than not you will encounter pirates or rebels or one of the many races which inhabit the universe.  This can lead to combat, trading, investigating a space station or one of a whole selection of encounters.  Once you have cleared the problem, or your FTL engine has powered up sufficiently, then you can jump to the next system and so on.  Almost everything apart from combat is done with text, and by selecting options from a menu – and there’s enough variety to keep you going for a long while.

Combat, however, is where FTL really comes into its own.  Each vessel is made up of a number of systems and a hull.  Systems vary from ship to ship but all of them have an engine, weapons, steering and shields.  Some may have a drone control system, or a teleporter; crews require oxygen and a medbay.  All of these are powered by the ship’s energy supply and power can be re-routed to different systems as and when the player requires (although the total amount is finite, if upgradeable.)  Shields protect the ship against various weapons but, once they are breached or knocked down, any damage is taken directly from the hull value and once that runs out then the ship explodes. Systems can also be individually targeted in order to damage or destroy them, and there is a chance (which varies by weapon) that a successful hit will start a catastrophic fire which can hurt both the ship and any crew.  Once systems are damaged sufficiently then they stop performing their function so, for example, if the oxygen supply is destroyed then the oxygen level in the ship will quickly drop, if the weapons are destroyed you can’t fire them etc etc.

Weapons themselves take many forms in FTL.  There are conventional types such as lasers, missiles, beam weapons and ion guns (which disable systems without doing any damage), but there are also drones available which can repair damage, attack the enemy or defend you from incoming fire.  Some ships even have access to teleporters which can send over crew members to attack enemies in their own backyard.  The game gives you a wide variety of ways to kill aliens, with different approaches needed for different problems.  For example missiles can get through shields easily, but a defence drone will instantly make them obsolete.  This means that you need to tailor your attack to give yourself the best chance of winning - you can't just turn up with one great weapon and always win.

Crew are present on most vessels.  They can come from a variety of races (all with their own advantages and disadvantages) and they are vital to the running of your ship.  Usually they will be assigned to a specific station (such as shields, engines, steering or weapons) and their presence improves the functioning of each of those.  They can repair damage, put out fires, fight intruders or board an opponent’s craft in order to cause them some problems of their own.  Each crew member has their own health, which can be depleted by fighting, fires and lack of oxygen.  Once that runs out then they die, but they can heal by going to your medbay.

Combat is played out in real time, although the player can pause the action in order to think about what to do next (or, more likely, try to think of a way out of the mess they’re in) and this makes it an intense, exhilarating experience.  The beauty of it is that you are constantly trying to manage everything.  Will your shields hold out?  When does your powerful missile battery reload?  Will your crew member put out that fire before they die?  And what the hell just happened to your engines?  Battles can ebb and flow, it’s very rare that one side completely overpowers the other.  You often come away from a defeat thinking “If I’d only done THAT, then maybe it would have ended differently”, and this is a good thing.  This is a sign of a great game.  Combat is tough, it is difficult and you will die many, many times but the game gives you plenty of opportunities to try new things.

The game also has its own economic system, with "scrap" as the currency.  There are many ways to get this.  Sometimes you are given it by a friendly soul, but more likely you take it from defeated enemies, and you can use it to upgrade your ship or to trade at stations.  You can upgrade pretty much any part of your vessel, except for the hull.  Invest in engines and you will avoid more incoming fire.  Invest in shields and they will take more damage before leaving you vulnerable.  Increase your power supply and you can run more systems...  you get the idea.  You can also buy augmentations such as a hull repair arm, or improved scrap retrieval – all with their own effects and advantages.

And, not only can you upgrade your ship, but your crew also become more experienced as they do their jobs.  If they fight off invaders they get better at fighting, and if they fix systems their repair ability increases.  This means that, as you progress, your ship becomes more efficient and more able to face the increasingly difficult opposition later in the game.  However, it also means that your crew become even more valuable than they were before, which adds yet another layer to the real-time combat as you need to keep them safe and alive if you want to succeed.

If you add in that there are 9 different unlockable ships available (each with an alternate loadout once certain conditions are met), that different sectors can be controlled by different races with differing levels of hostility to the player and that missiles and drones are also strictly rationed then we can see that a game which looks so simple on the face of it is actually remarkably complex and requires some definite strategic thought if players want to get anywhere.

And this is where FTL really excels.  It forces the  player to make constant strategic choices.  Do I run or fight?  Do I help them or not?  Is that ship too powerful for me to beat?  Do I spend my missiles on this opponent or save them for later?  Where can I get more fuel from?  This is a proper game which makes the player plan ahead, but also makes them react to what is happening right now.  Juggling everything during a particularly even firefight is absorbing, and balancing attack and defence is vital.  It rewards exploration but also instils a genuine fear and nervousness in the player of what might be lying in wait in the next system.  The difficulty of it is so well-balanced, and the randomness and permadeath work so well, that each run through is new and exciting and the urge to have “just one more game” is almost overwhelming.

FTL is a great game.  It’s not flashy.  It’s not something that needs massive amounts of hard drive space and it’s not something that prioritises showy set pieces over gameplay. Unlike some other, more illustrious, offerings it understands what games are all about.  It presents the player with a challenge.  It forces them to make choices.  It makes them play a bloody game.  It is a wondrous, beautiful creation and I would urge you to spend £6 on it.  It’s one of the best things I have played all year.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012


You've probably heard of Steam.  It's Valve's digital content delivery system and it has taken over the PC gaming market, quickly becoming the largest gaming download "portal" in the world.  There are lots of reasons for this - the legendary Steam sales where they sell off everything for low, low prices, the perception of Valve themselves as "one of the good guys" and probably lots of other reasons which people in marketing would be happy to talk about for hours and hours.

But that isn't really important.  What's important is that Steam recently announced "Greenlight" - a new way for people to get their games into what is, essentially, a massively lucrative marketplace.  Developers could submit their creations and Steam users voted on which ones they thought were worthy of being put onto the main site.  Finally Indie developers had a way of hitting the big time - if they could get their games through the selection process.

Now, anybody who knows anything about the human condition can probably guess what happened next.  Overload.  A sea of dross in which anything worthwhile was lost.  Obviously this wasn't Steam's intention, but it was pretty predictable.

So, Steam have tried to clean things up.   Each developer is now asked to pay $100 (about £60) as a one-off fee, with all proceeds going to the Child's Play charity.  That's a one-off fee and it allows people to submit and edit all their current and future games once they have paid it.  Steam say this will cut out the timewasters.

And this has caused uproar.

Accusations of class divides, references to "the money middle-class people have" and lots of people saying that they flat out cannot afford to pay the fee and that this means that the game that they have put hundreds of hours into is worthless.

There is certainly an element of truth to this.  University fees make university education less likely for children from poor backgrounds, they perpetuate the gap between rich and poor and make that harder to overcome.  This is similar isn't it?  This means that rich people can still access something which has the potential to make them even better off, whilst the truly poor are excluded.  No matter if the fee is £60 or £9000, the principle is the same.

And Valve could have achieved their aim through different methods.  A lower fee (although this would fall foul of the same principle), an admissions panel (but who watches the watchmen, and this goes against the whole point of Greenlight), an easier way of viewing submissions (now implemented) or a cut off where the game is removed if it receives an overwhelmingly negative reaction.

However, not being able to afford to register with Steam does not mean that all is lost.  Greenlight is less than a week old.  Indie developers were able to sell their games before it came along.  None of those options are now closed.  Everything else is still the same.  If I was developing an Indie game that I had faith in, that I loved and that I had sacrificed a lot of time and effort to develop then I would try to sell enough copies of my game (typically less than ten) in order to afford the submission fee to something which has the potential to expose my work to about 40 million people.

People make the point that it's a gamble.  That you're not paying to get on to Steam itself, but to have the chance to be voted on to Steam.  OK.  But you're also paying for the chance to have anything you make in the future also get on to Steam.  What's marketing if it isn't a gamble?  How do you expect to sell something if people don't even know about it?  And how do you get that word out there without spending some money?  (The answer is that I'll promote it on here if you contact me, but I don't have an audience of 40 million.  Do it anyway.  Can't hurt.)

Ultimately Steam gives small developers the chance to make it big.  To sell enough and make enough money not to have to worry about $100 fees again.  The cost vs. reward equation seems pretty clear here.  Maybe it's time that people stopped wishing things were the way they want them to be and faced up to the way they are?

Monday, 6 August 2012

What Is Up With Skyrim?

Game:  Noun:  A form of play or sport, esp. a competitive one played according to 
                            rules and decided by skill, strength or luck.

Let's talk about Skyrim. 

I think that enough time has passed, the hype has died down and people are finally in a place where they can maybe, just maybe, start dealing with some truth.

Skyrim is rubbish.

It is.  Really, it is.  It isn't even a game, it's a gratification engine.  A really poorly designed, horrible, repetitive, dull gratification engine (with too many loading screens) at that.  This isn't an attack, this is just a statement of fact.  I mean, I'm not a monster, I accept that there are some good points about it - it's just that they are overwhelmed, suffocated and submerged beneath a tidal wave of tedium.
Not singing about Skyrim

Let's take the good points first.  It is a very, very good walking simulator... well, unless you want to actually get anywhere.  If you want to wander around in the snow then you're set.  The scenery is lovely, the music is nice and it can be very calming and meditative to watch the northern lights playing out over a distant mountain top while you decide what to kill next.  However, if you want to get to a specific point on the map then prepare yourself for frustration.  When Marvin Gaye sang "there ain't no mountain high enough" then he obviously was not playing Skyrim.  In Skyrim plenty of mountains are high enough, plenty of ravines are low enough and plenty of waterfalls are smashy, smashy, drowny enough to keep you from getting anywhere - let alone to any kind of baby.

Skyrim is also a very, very good work simulator.  At least that's what I assume the crafting is for.  The mind numbing tedium required to get your smithing skill to 100 really is something to behold.  Hours and hours of running backwards and forwards to different shops (with a loading screen at each door) to collect the materials necessary to make a generic suit of armour, before running to the anvil to make it, then to the workbench to upgrade it and then to the merchant to sell it (usually at a loss, and with the attendant loading screens).  Do this 20 times and... "your smithing skill has raised to 16".  16!  This is supposed to be a break from work!  This is supposed to be what I do to bloody unwind!  Skyrim is the first game when I actually looked forward to stopping playing it so that I could go and relax in the office.  No matter how tedious, boring or soul-destroyingly awful your job is, it apparently has nothing on the life of a pseudo-viking blacksmith.  
Looks exciting, doesn't it?

Skyrim also does away with things like attribute scores and classes - things that are traditionally an integral part of character definition within any role playing game.  Bethesda have their reasons for doing this, and they lead us towards answering why Skyrim is such a bad game.  Bethesda say that they don't want to limit the player in their choices, they want people to be able to change their minds mid-play and alter their character without having to start again.  They want the player to be in control throughout rather than be restricted by a choice they made before they had even played the game, and they want to streamline the experience so that players are able to just play without worrying too much about numbers.  Casting aside my nerdy prejudices, I can accept that these might be things that appeal to some people - silly people, people who don't enjoy actually playing games but still, you know, people.  Freedom and flexibility are usually good things in life and it follows that they would be good things in a game, but the problem is - they aren't.

Let's start with classes and attributes.  Traditionally they are there to define your character, and to encourage you to play in a certain way.  As it is there is nothing when you begin Skyrim to set aside a hulking orc from a frail old dark elf, except for some small differences in skills.  They can carry the same amount, they have the same health, their spells do the same damage, and so on.  The player can take any approach with them and can focus on exactly the same things - with no care about their physical or mental capabilities.  On the one hand this is freedom, but on the other it's a tyranny of conformity.  I want my character to be special, I want to determine who they are and how they differ to others.  I want to have to think about how to solve problems.  I want to be forced to approach things in different ways.  Essentially I want to be made to play a role (this is, after all, supposed to be a role-playing game).  By removing the very things which define them Bethesda have turned your character into a featureless, generic actor.  It takes away the whole point, and this obsession with removing restrictions in order to allow the player to do anything they want causes lots of other problems.
Don't worry, he's not as quick as he looks

Skyrim breaks basic balancing restrictions that have been in place in RPGs since they began.  There's a reason why mages aren't able to use heavy armour.  Usually this is given as some gubbins involving "energies" but it comes down to game balancing.  Somebody who is able to destroy vast areas of the world needs taking down a peg or two.  You've got to give them some kind of vulnerability.  Fighters can't cast spells and archers are bad in melee for exactly the same reason.  Guess what?  Skyrim gets rid of this.  If you want to be a walking tank in heavy armour, shooting flames out of both hands then you go for it!  There is absolutely nothing in the game to stop you, or even encourage you not to do this.  Limiting you in any way is a complete anathema.  The problem with this, though, is that it makes the game dull.  Dull, dull, dull.  What's the point of playing if you just crisp anything in seconds?  Nothing can hurt you.  What's the bloody point?

And this even affects things like the interface.  Lots of people have criticised the interface in Skyrim, but the main problem for me is the sheer volume of items it has to deal with.  As you experience the brilliance of the walking simulator you seemingly cannot help but pick up items, shouts, spells, potions and quests and, in keeping with what we have talked about before, none of them are unusable by your character.  After a few hours the number of options available to you has increased alarmingly.  No matter how much you try to keep your favourites list down, by the end you are scrolling through endless permutations to try and find the one you want.  It's clunky and annoying but only because of the cloying, overpowering choice.
We're up to B!

Having restrictions is good.  If you have limitations placed on your character's abilities then it forces you to approach the game in different ways.  It makes you think about how to overcome things.  It makes you put in a bit of bloody effort.  Skyrim is so dull because there is nothing to stop you doing exactly whatever you want.  It is so eager to give you everything that it forgets that the most important thing is to provide some resistance, something for the player to overcome.  It doesn't really do that.  I mean, yeah, there are enemies, and sometimes those enemies can kill you, but there isn't really any structural reason why you can't have everything.  The game is so determined to allow you to do anything, and shower you with gifts, powers and exalted ranks while you do it, that it just ends up as a bit of a mess.

Want to be the head of the Thieves' Guild?  Sure!  Off you go.  Complete a few quests and there you are.  Now.. want to also be the head of the Companions?  No problem!  You can do that.  Decided to do the Mage's Guild questline?  Fine!  This is all perfectly OK.  Fancy being Thane of a few towns?  There are no restrictions.  Nobody bats an eyelid.  Nobody's worried that you might be stretching your time quite thinly and nobody forces you to make any choices.  Anything is OK and everything is OK.  For a game that prides itself on its "immersion" it seems strange that you can be running everything in Skyrim without anybody seeming to notice.  

No choices you make actually affect anything else.  Nothing is ever closed off.  Nothing is ever restricted.  Nothing you do ever actually means anything.  There are no consequences to any of your actions and you are certainly never, ever going to fail at anything.  Heaven forbid.  If you want to achieve anything then you can do it, because the game won't let you mess it up. Quest arcs become processions.  The things you are asked to do might change, but the process is the same.  Follow the arrow.  Do what you are asked to do (usually killing something, or collecting something, or talking to somebody) and then return to get your reward.  Then do it all again.  Once you decide that you want to achieve something then all you need to do is put in a bit of time and bang, there it is.  There's no uncertainty, no challenge and no failure.  Follow the arrow; talk, kill or collect and go back.  Over and over again.  It's mind numbing.

And this is the answer.  This is what is up with Skyrim.  There is nothing to stop you doing whatever you want.  And, if there is nothing to stop you, then where does the achievement come from?  Where does the excitement come from?  This is why I said at the start that Skyrim is not a game.  According to the definition at the top of this article a game is decided by skill, strength or luck.  You don't need any of these to succeed at Skyrim.  You just need to put in some time.