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1:51 PM on 01.30.2009

Spiky-Haired Oblivion - A JRPG fan in Cyrodil

Spiky-Haired-Heroes and Me

If you've read my previous article, you'll know that I'm a life-long console gamer, recently turned to the bright lights, fast cars and dangerous women of PC land. You might also know that I'm a big fan of JRPGs, a genre that seems to be, outside of it's devoted fanbase, viewed with bafflement and derision.

However, for my pale and ethereal kinsmen and I, the things that seem to put most mainstream gamers off; the painfully linear plots, the turn-based combat and, yes, even the spiky hair are all plus points (I spent most of my youth wishing I had Cloud's hair, but there was never enough hair-gel in the world). In my prime I could happily spend months at a time carefully leveling my materia and pretending that I had any semblance of a clue as to what the plot was about.

Occasionally I'd take a brief look at a Western RPG (WRPG?), but never actually played through one, at least, not far enough to do more than make a cursory inspection and unequivocally declare that it was utter shit . I had always disdainfully shunned WRPGs, partially because I didn't think I'd like them, and partially out of snobbishness, stemming from my view that playing a WRPG is, to a greater or lesser extent, playing Dungeons & Dragons with a string of binary as your DM.

In any case, beyond this snobbishness, there's the simple fact that I didn't think I'd like a WRPG. The major selling points of most successful ones seemed, to me at least, to be reasons why I wouldn't like them. People had always enthused to me over the 'make your own story' aspect of games like Oblivion and Fable, gushing over how much better this was then traditional, predictable, bland, linear storytelling. I always thought this sounded like a shameless con trick though, like selling a novel with a pretty cover but with every page blank except for a rough plot outline stapled to a Biro.

Anyway, as you can probably guess by now, I slowly came to realize that I was in the same position that I held prior to my experiences with Team Fortress 2, namely refusing to play an entire genre simply because of my prejudices against it. I never played online games until TF2, largely because I thought I'd hate them, and now it's one of my favorite games. I resolved, therefore, to be a beacon of tolerance and acceptance, and give a WRPG a go.
Which was pretty damn convenient.

Obviously Oblivion

As I mentioned earlier, I am the proud owner of a still-fairly-new PC and, a man as with a new toy was obliged to see what it could do without bursting into a beautiful, glittering pillar of heavily overclocked flame. I needed a game that was not only a WRPG, but was a graphically powerful one too. I asked around among some of my more bespectacled friends (which, considering my friends, is pretty goddamn bespectacled) for a good way to combine fantasy frolics with hardcore graphics-card abuse, and each and every one of them gave the same reply, Oblivion.

[Important note: This was written a while ago, a couple months before Fallout 3, so, yeah, Oblivion was still the prettiest fantasy WRPG then]

Oblivion is the fourth game is the Elder Scrolls series, famous for the massive fantasy worlds and all-but-limitless character creation/customization that makes WRPG fans go weak at the knees. It was also meant to be pretty damn attractive and, yeah, they were pretty damn right.
The game is, for the most part, stunningly beautiful. I don't just mean the quality of the graphics either, something which in gaming it is so often mistaken for. No, I mean that when you crest a hill and gaze into the valley below, the view itself is beautiful.

I wish I could say the same about the people.

The majority of people (or cat-people, or lizard-people, or green-and-tusky orc-people) are not so much ugly as they are undead-looking, dull-eyed and featureless. For the first few minutes, the only person you talk to looks as though his face is made of ineptly-sculpted butter on a particularly hot day, though this is more-or-less made up for by the fact that he's voiced by Patrick fucking Stewart. Okay, so the poor bugger gets whacked within five minutes, but you must admit it's a hell of a way to introduce a game.
Beyond the mere aspect of hiring a top-grade actor to voice an incidental character, the entire game reeks of a hefty budget, and for the most part it's well used. The world is freakin' huge, and, as a JRPG fan, there is certainly something incredibly joyous and liberating about picking a point on the horizon and deciding 'hey, let's walk over there'.
And you can. It may take you half an hour, you may have to detour around a bandit camp, you may have to trudge through sleet and snow to get there, but if you want to than you can.

The problem with choice: People are stupid

This was, I must admit, the first point at which I felt the irrational feelings of warmth and adoration that genre fans must hold. The love for playing my own story as my own character in the way I want to play.
I made a hot (or, at least as hot as you can get an Oblivion character) Dark Elf chick, specialized in stealth and stabbed some ogres in the spine before robbing their corpses. Caves were looted and random quests were performed, I explored the towns and joined guilds. For a couple of days I bowled around Cyrodil and had a blast.

Eventually the game gave me a gentle prod towards getting on with the plot (by burning a major city to the ground. Subtle, eh?), so I decided to play some story quests and... it slowly crept up on me that I wasn't really playing my own story. I was playing a version of someone else's story that was smeared out and made as generic as possible so that it could apply to the infinite amount of characters that could be playing it.
I could never genuinely interact with any characters because all they could ever do was give generic responses, and it never felt like I was personally involved with the plot, rather that I was a mindless drone watching in mild boredom, like a girlfriend dragged to a football match. All my much-touted freedom, it seemed, was gone.

And here we come to the problem inherent with Oblivion, and open-world games as a whole; the difficulty inherent in being able to give you freedom to do whatever you want and end up with a good game regardless of what you choose to do this time through. Yes, the character is one that you can fully customize in any way you want and act in any way you want, but you can never have the characters evolve in the same way that they will in a linear RPG.

Anyway, this is getting a bit long, so I'm going to wrap it up in a few pithy statements. Oblivion is a game crippled by it's own choices, who's beauty is only surpassed by it's scale and attention to detail, none of which were enough to save it for me.
It whole-heartedly embraced 'open-ness', but suffered the consequences. My character is one of my own creation, one that I have spent many loving hours carefully nurturing, but she will never mean as much to me as Cloud did.

Thanks for reading,

Oh, and the level-scaling system can suck any part of my anatomy it cares to mention. I just murdered a dozen Daedra lords and plundered their mighty fortress', how the fuck is a wolf killing me?   read

10:31 AM on 01.22.2009

Time travel & TF2

Time Travel

About the title, y'know, 'A n00b reviews'... I lied, I'm sorry. It's all a scam.

To tell the truth, I no longer think I really count as a 'n00b', except for in that deep-seated, primordial way in which we are all n00bs, ruled over by a master race of angelic '1337'. Perhaps it would be best to say that I am no longer a 'newb', which means that when I suck I only have myself to blame.

Why does this matter? Well, six months ago I finally got enough cash together at one time and in one place to get a computer, a decent computer, one that had more than on-board Intel graphics and a processor that didn't leave unfortunate burn scars on my thighs. It was heavenly.
In any case, this gave me an interesting opportunity. I had never played a PC game before, and from rumors I gathered that PC gamers were a secretive and murderous sect, yet here I stood, Jane Goodall hat firmly on my head, intent on a mission to penetrate PC gaming's dark heart and observe those majestic online apes, if I could find any.
It's been a lot of fun, though I think I may have gone a bit native...

A bonus for us all is that I started writing this stuff ages ago, so have a backlog of articles. When you read my posts you will, by the magical power of the internet, be looking into the past. Bet you never thought that time travel could be this easy, huh?.

Anyway, I feel that I'd better hurry the hell up, so, finally, to the real post.

Team Fortress 2

The first time I played Team Fortress 2 (TF2 henceforth) I was confused. Massively, massively confused.
What caused this colossal state of bafflement, you ask? Two things:
1) I had no fucking clue what was going on, and;
2) No-one had called me a n00b, neither my Mother nor my racial background had been questioned, and my mouth remained happily free of tea-bags.

You see, this was my first foray into the world of on-line gaming, and I was, I'm a little ashamed to admit, terrified of it.
As a life-long console gamer, I had spent all my time sat alone in a darkened room, getting a little too into JRPGs and survival horror games. Neither of these are exactly social events, but I was happy playing by myself, and for years they were my 'oh-shit-it's-four-in-the-morning' GamerCrack.
During these years, my friends were busy going out and meeting people, or at least staying in meeting digital strangers, who they then shot in the head. And humped. Sometimes they did this as Nazis, sometimes as power-suited soldiers and, occasionally, as theoretical physicists, but no matter who or what they were playing as, every time they crowbarred me down to the pub I always heard the same kind of stories.
- The 11-year old boy screeching his pre-pubescent way through the spawnzone, cussing his team like a violently fisted dock-worker.
- The violently fisted dock-worker sprays/decals.
- The time they accidentally played against a vastly superior clan, who literally reached through the internet and raped their mothers.
In any case, these sorts of stories, largely backed-up by what I read on forums (such as this one) convinced me to stay the hell away from online games, away from these clearly evil people. No, I was happy enough in my console world of massive hair-do's and zombies.

Fast-forward to last month, and to my acquisition of a 'real' PC, a matt-black beast that could actually play games. Games with graphics! And physics! Amazing! On the advice of... well, everybody, my first purchase was the Orange Box, and it amazed me by totally and utterly living up to the praise. Within a few days I'd torn my way through all it had to offer, and loved every second of it.
Except TF2.
It sat there at the bottom of my Steam page, taunting my cowardice with its '0 hours played' message. In the end I relented. I girded my loins, plucked up my courage (or got bored enough...), and decided to venture on-line, where my head promptly exploded in a shower of confetti and blood, because I had no idea what to do. No idea.
Seriously, Valve, would it kill you to make a manual? The one posted on Steam is a joke (Literally. It's actually a humorous manual for the Engineer's sentry gun), and it just seems incredibly broken that I had to look for a guide on GameFaqs just to find out how to start a game. Yes, most PC gamers could easily work it out, but I wasn't a PC gamer, so I had to work largely through cack-handed trial and error. Anyway, once I'd messed around enough to know that I wanted to 'Find Server', I took the plunge and started playing.

For those who don't know, TF2 is a class-based on-line shooter made with the famous Source engine, where players must use teamwork to achieve specific objectives (capture X, hold Y, escort Z) rather than the more usual 'kill lots of people' Deathmatch. Each of the 9 available classes has a specific role, and whilst no particular class is stronger than any other, a well-balanced team will usually dominate an imbalanced one, emphasizing the importance of teamwork. The weight attached to this, in fact, made me even more worried. What if I screwed up horribly and my own team were nasty to me?

Don't worry, they weren't. In fact, neither was the other team. There were no insults flying over the voice-chat, only a pleasantly-voiced Swedish man asking for 'an oober now pleash'. I had no idea what he meant, of course, and even if it was the perverse sexual act my mind was now imagining, it was a damn sight better than what I was expecting. There was no 'stfu n00b', no cries of 'hax!'. It wasn't what I was expecting at all.
Sure, I died a lot, and for the first week or so I sucked horribly. Again, the lack of any sort of manual or guide lead to me having to find most things out the hard way ("oh, so that's how to change weapons..."), but over time I got better. The few times I was called a n00b, I freely admitted that I was new to the game and, bizarrely, people were eager tohelp me. Help! On the internet! Madness! Sure, there were some dicks, but rarely were there enough to ruin the experience and if there were; well, there's plenty more servers in the sea.

My first foray into online gaming was... not what was I was expecting. It was much nicer, but, I suppose, less interesting. Being flamed to hell would have been nasty, but more interesting,,, Don't worry though, next time I'm playing Oblivion, and get to be mean to it. Much more interesting.

Thanks for reading.

P.s In the six months since I first wrote this, people playing TF2 online seem to be getting ruder. Maybe it's an old enough game that people are taking it more seriously, maybe it's the servers I'm playing on now, maybe it's the general economic downturn making everyone grumpy. Still, it beats the hell out of most other games.   read

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