My name is Dylan Sabin, and I am here to write things about video games.
I'm a contributing author over at No Worries Gaming (www.noworriesgaming.com), and in addition to the many articles and reviews I've posted over there, I'm involved with the weekly podcast "No Worries Weekly"! It's a nice little 50-60 minute show that gets down to some rousing discussion about different topics that pop up in the industry.
I like to write, read, sing and act; I'm a bit of a gamer as well, although I will say I much prefer PC gaming over the console equivalents. I don't think Microsoft is utilizing Kinect as much as they should and I'm pretty sure Sony is doing the same with Move.
In my post-introduction introduction, I made a note of the fact that I play a Protection Warrior named Toast. I also happen to be the leader of a guild on the US-Dragonblight server; we celebrated our 3rd anniversary today, which is kind of a big deal for us. Think of this and the next few posts as a semi-retrospective on my guild. If nothing else, it might be an interesting read.
Disclaimer: Long post ahead. You've been warned.
<with Pancakes> was formed on accident, in a way. To be fair, our original anniversary was a few days earlier, when we were known by the rather unsavory moniker of <Hookers with Pancakes>. I had just returned to the bustling world of Azeroth (During the Burning Crusade it was still bustling, not so compartmentalized with the Dungeon Finder and other strange "innovations") after a several-month break. After cultivating a sense of burnout largely fueled by getting placed on the waiting list raid after raid in (at the time) the top Horde guild on the server, I found myself out of that guild and in a state of predicament upon my return. I shuffled around in a few of the various raiding guilds that there were at the time, but none of them really felt like the place for me.
A few friends of mine that I had known since our early Vanilla days were still playing, thankfully. One in particular, a Tauren Shaman named Jotaro, had also found himself out of a guild recently, due to many different reasons I don't feel like mentioning here. I casually said, "Hey, let's make a raiding guild!" And we did just that.
After the hours-long deliberation on what our name would be, we settled on <Hookers with Pancakes>, and on March 18th of 2008 we had our very own guild. The first two weeks or so were fairly slow; forums were set up, applications were filed, and we started to build up our initial core of players. Our name was reported 6 days later, and we decided to just drop what was found offensive, thereby becoming <with Pancakes>.
People we knew from Vanilla, new players that were just getting into the raiding experience, veteran raiders from other guilds that wanted a new change of scenery; we had a solid group built up only a few weeks later, but not enough to fully field raids on our own. We were determined to not let that stop us. A few mutual friends of Jotaro and I were hanging around and looking for something to do, so we dragged them along with us. Our first recorded kill as a guild was on April 7th, less than a month after our origin. We had taken great pains that night to ensure that we would be able to raid, and this came with a price: we entered into a sort of alliance with the guild that our friends were members of, and from there we set out conquering content at a much more rapid pace than if we had tried to strike it alone.
This alliance worked well for a while: we made strong strides into Tempest Keep and Serpentshrine Caverns, clearing all but a few of the challenges presented in that tier. Unfortunately for us, tensions were rising between the two guilds. A series of increasingly confusing and aggravating arguments pushed the uneasy friendship between <with Pancakes> and <Meow> to its breaking point, and we were nearly forced to dissolve the alliance. It was a decision made rather unwillingly, as losing the 7-8 raiders that they had provided meant we were largely unable to raid.
Stagnation struck <wP> for the first time in its history. People stopped logging on for raids they knew weren't going to start. The officers grew increasingly restless. Dragonblight's only breakfast-centric guild was looking at potential death, not even a year after we had signed the charter. I took a brief hiatus from the guild entirely, choosing to spend a short amount of time in a further-progressed guild. Looking back on it, it was a rather shoddy decision and a terrible example of what a guild leader should do in a time of crisis; but at the time, it was either upgrade or quit playing, and I had no intention of leaving the World of Warcraft just yet.
Fast forward a few months and <wP>'s roster had been bolstered. I found little to no actual raiding time in the guild I had joined (Funny how that works out...), and decided that it was time to return to the people that knew me. I was welcomed back with open arms. I feel truly humbled by the fact that, after intentionally abandoning my guild for the promise of more raids, they had no qualms or worries about letting me take the reins once again.
We entered T6 content (this was now a week or two into the 30% "end of BC" content nerf) with a new roster and found a surprising amount of cohesion in the players we had. It was immensely satisfying to not only see the guild working together, but succeeding at what we were doing. Sure, the content had been nerfed to hell and back: we didn't care. We were enjoying the raids as a guild, and that's what mattered to us. All in all, we managed to push up through Gurtogg Bloodboil in a few weeks before the Wrath of the Lich King crept into the hearts of the populace.
Wrath was an interesting time to be raiding. With the announcement that raids would have both a 10 and 25-man option, <wP> decided to capitalize on this as much as we could: we could have 10-mans that raided on separate nights, and then have a 25-man on our regular schedule that combined the efforts of both groups to push us even further towards success! Many of the officers looked at this as a bold opportunity for us to succeed and make a name for ourselves on the server. With a 25-man raiding roster, this proved a bit more challenging than we expected.
While the group I led, "Toast's Pancakes Squad" (TPS for short, and that was generally what we called ourselves), crushed content left and right and cleared everything the 10-mans had to offer in just over a month, the second group (which to be honest, I don't remember the name of) was under almost constant fire from some sort of quandary or attendance issue. A dichotomy between the two groups was noticed almost immediately and the officers that weren't involved with TPS attempted (rather sucessfully) to shatter the successful raid composition we had. The group never really reached that peak of synergy again, even in future incarnations.
3.0 came and went, and with its passing we arrived at the end of our first year as a guild. Even looking back on it now, a lot happened in that first year. There was a decent stretch where I wasn't sure if we were going to survive. Our first anniversary was celebrated in grand fashion in Dalaran, with kegs of wine and an oversized mammoth straddled by Jotaro himself. To close out this initial post, I'll share the video Nihilistic (our cantankerous raid leader) recorded of the event: a massive race from Falconwing Square just outside of Silvermoon to a boat off the coast of Stranglethorn Vale...on level 1, naked Blood Elves.
I've been spending an awful lot of time thinking about the gaming industry as a whole. I've been working as a sort of freelance journalist and podcast guy for just about half a year now. I don't get paid, I don't make much of a notable change or exert any influence on the industry as a whole. It's only recently that I really put stock into what I've done so far and what I'd like to be doing a few years from now.
Gaming's sort of a way of life for me. I've grown up playing all manner of video games, ranging from Crash Bandicoot and Spyro on the PSX to my 6-year infatuation with World of Warcraft (a story for another time, no doubt). I still have fond memories of 100%'ing Banjo-Kazooie and finally nailing Free Bird on Expert. There was always something to play at my house, whether it was a board game or a Game Boy. Was it unusual? Maybe. Was it awesome? You bet it was.
(My parents both played EverQuest for six years or so, as a side-note. That probably has something to do with it.)
Getting back to my idea at hand, I've thought about where I stand in relation to the industry as a whole. After watching D-Toid's 5-year anniversary video (Awesome job getting this far, you guys!), I realized that half the reason I had gotten so into video games when I was younger (read: this "younger" is only like four, five years ago mind you) was to one day to go E3. It looked like such a vibrant and exciting atmosphere, and watching the anniversary video I could really gain an understanding of the emotion behind this site's creation. I sat there watching and suddenly something clicked: I have the press credentials to go to E3 now.
Yeah, I know that E3 is sort of a shallower gaming convention in comparison to PAX nowadays. G4 makes it their personal plaything for 3 whole days and everyone just kinda goes along with that. I don't mind that. I've always looked at the convention as, for whatever reason, that first step in the door that says "Welcome to the gaming industry". It's surreal to think I could take that step in less than 4 months. The fact that I have the ability to live out one of the many, many dreams I had as a younger teen is sort of bewildering. Sure, it'll cost me a pretty penny; college student flying halfway across the country to play video games and meet a bunch of really cool geeks is not exactly the biggest "required" expense, y'know? It's not so much the practicality of it as it is the reality: I'm a member of the industry, however small my contributions to it might be.
That sorta sounds like I'm gloating now that I look at it, but to be honest I couldn't be more humbled. If I could tell my younger self that one day I would have the ability to go to E3...it'd be a real eye-opener.
I don't really know the first thing about blogging. I've tried it a couple times and every time I got lazy and decided it wasn't worth my time. But y'know what, I'm tired of not having an internet presence!
I don't terribly know what I will blog about here yet (I already posted my review for DA2, although that was sort of a quick-and-dirty copypasta job and now that I think about it doing that was kinda crumby). You will probably find personal thoughts on games and all sorts of miscellaneous quips and queries about the industry.
Some stuff to know about me?
- I play a Protection Warrior in WoW. His name is Toast and I have been playing that game for way too long but the people I play it with are worth staying around for.
- I am a shameless Valve fanboy. Conversely, I do not approve of the actions of one Bobby Kotick.
- I am a friendly individual! I try not to make many enemies, but such things happen. If you consider yourself my enemy, I apologize for whatever it is I did! Unless we're talking about land wars. That was intentional.
- I cannot think of what else to say.
All things considered, Bioware has had a pretty good track record. From their initial, genre-defining releases in Baldurís Gate and Neverwinter Nights, to more recent titles like Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic, the Canadian studio has put out some amazing games that have been the cause of much debate in the gaming community. It seems only reasonable that, somewhere along the line, the studio would have to make a mistake. They would have to slip up somewhere, wouldnít they?
For my initial impressions of Dragon Age II (think of them as a supplement to the main review!), check over on this page.
A surprising amount of people (and myself, for a long time) would tell you that Dragon Age: Origins was this slip-up, this confusing mark on an otherwise flawless report. Many hoped the sequel would fix some of the troubling issues that plagued it (the clunky combat being chief among these concerns), and nearly a year and a half later, Dragon Age II is in my list of Completed Games. After spending nearly 30 hours engrossed in the city-state of Kirkwall, I might not be so inclined to agree with the Origins nay-sayers anymore. It feels like the whole series has been a smudge in one way or another. Thatís a story for another time, however.
Dragon Age II is a decidedly different game from Origins in several substantial ways. While they have made great pains to improve the game in certain areas, with the combat in particular feeling much more active and alive, Bioware has floundered in the one area that should matter the most in a role-playing game of this day and age: the story. Add that major concern to the numerous in-game issues and the many confusing decisions made by the developers and you find a thoroughly confounding, but ultimately salvageable game in DA2. If this game made me feel anything else, itís worry for Mass Effect 3.
The combat in Dragon Age II is well-refined. I can say that confidently and not worry about overstating it, but the fact is that playing as a warrior feels much more explosive and dangerous than it did in Origins, where I felt completely overwhelmed trying to do anything at all. Playing on the PC I still had quite a bit of tactical ability, but I felt that it eventually grew unnecessary: My party found encounters where 3/4ths of them could literally auto-pilot their way to victory. There were also frequent occasions when thatĎs all they could do, given their lack of stamina and mana. This monotonousness carried on for quite some time, ramping up dramatically near the end of the game. I canít comment on higher difficulty levels (I completed it on Normal in around 28 and a half hours), but thereís a fear that the tedium that sets in on Normal could become quite worse with artificially strengthened encounters.
Combat becomes a much more interesting game when you do use your tactical abilities correctly. Each class can inflict some sort of status ailment that can be utilized by a different class for some serious damage, and maximizing your use of these can destroy some trash encounters. Prepare to destroy a LOT of trash too; the many cookie-cutter dungeon cells are packed with a rather small amount of unique varieties. Fortunately, the boss encounters in DA2, however few and far apart they are, are some of the most inspired enemies to defeat that Iíve seen from Bioware this generation. The optional encounter in Act 3 deserves a special note; itís one of the few moments in the entire game where you feel like youíre getting something done on the bare edge of your teeth, down to the last of your consumables and holding out for sweet victory.
The ďcookie-cutter dungeonsĒ are perhaps one of my biggest griefs with the game. Throughout the entirety of the 30-hour campaign on Normal, I walked through a small handful of uniquely generated dungeons. It felt like there were only 7 different selections of maps, with different doors and pathways changing the general landscape only slightly. Itís a complete slap in the face to deliver such little variation in the areas that make up almost a third (if not more) of your game time. The same could be said about Kirkwall in general, but I felt that a special exception has to be made to these dungeons. One in particular stands out near the end of the game; Hawke is asked to investigate a warehouse. The preset warehouse dungeon has a dock inside of it, extending out into the ocean. The only problem with this is that, with the entrance where it is into the dungeon, the dock is in the middle of the Qunari Compound. It felt incredibly lazy on their part to go through with a fundamental gameplay decision like this.
Moving away from the combat (which takes up a decent amount of the game once you get into it), other gameplay mechanics have been updated or improved upon since their inception in Origins, but not all truly excel. Overall, the UI feels much more sleek and well-rounded; if anything, itís a perfect balance between functionality on the consoles and on the PC. Itís been cleaned up and given a new coat of paint. For just a few of the changes:
- The dialogue wheel, ripped from Mass Effect, was improved upon greatly and is a really intuitive way to engage in the dialogue without feeling too constrained. There were situations where it felt like not enough options were available and you were truly forced into a certain option, but they are seemingly small in number. To compound this, the entire dialogue structure has taken a pretty strong bit of influence from Mass Effect, with a strong sense of cinematic appeal as opposed to static 2-camera switches. All in all this feels like the best update as far as a major gameplay mechanic goes.
- To be honest, I quickly grew to miss the micromanagement of several party members, the 4 pieces of gear being whittled down to one upgradeable piece of armor giving me an unorthodox pile of vendor trash. It felt like I was selling 90% of the gear I received, only to frown when I try to upgrade any of my companionsí armor. I donít frankly know why this functionality was switched around; if nothing else your companions couldíve had more palette swaps or slight costume modifications. I did notice several costume changes, but they were still just one-piece suits to the next.
- To carry that idea one step further, with how useless gear management felt for my companions, the stat system as a whole felt purposeless. If my characters each only need two primary to upgrade their gear at all, why would I bother to improve their other four statistics? This locks characters even further into specializations, but this time in the wrong way; you canít have those odd deviations that still somehow work, which stifles the creativity in class combos slightly.
- The talent trees being broken down and split up as they are in Dragon Age lends itself very easily to the player; different shaped branches in the tree designate different types of abilities: whether theyíre Sustained, Active or Passive. All in all it feels like, with 6 talent trees for most characters (and two of three Specializations for Hawke him/herself), youíre able to really define what each character is going to be doing in combat situations. I like the change, but I felt like Hawke never really had enough abilities to match up with his allies. Varric, Merrill and Aveline (my victory team) all had a full complement of abilities, auras and tactics to use by the time they were 11 or soÖand Hawke had 5 active abilities. It was confusing, but it does all even out in the end if you get far enough.
Iíll get into my biggest concern with DA2 in a second, but I must point out one thing before I do so. If youíre a fan of Bioware for their gameplay, youíve probably got a good idea of what to expect from this game from what youĎve read so far. If youíre a fan of the writing, all I can say is that youíre in for a treat. While the story itself is confusing and harangued, the writing is just as good, if not better than Mass Effect. The characters are sharply designed and expertly voice-acted; their interactions in-town and during cut scenes are remarkably well-driven, and if you havenít already heard me say it, Varric Tethras is (in my humble opinion) one of the best characters Biowareís thought up in a long, long time. Dudeís the ultimate dwarven bro, and he happens to be the narrator!
That leads me to the biggest point to make about Dragon Ageís second run. The story of Hawke and the city-state of Kirkwall are a big shift from the world-sweeping epics of their previous titles. Instead of traveling across multiple, varied locations, a LARGE part of the game takes place in Kirkwall, over the span of about ten years or so. The opening begins right around the same time Origins did, with the Blight sweeping over Ferelden. Hawkeís family flees the countryside to arrive in the sprawling city-state of Kirkwall. Forced to make a deal with a choice of two underground organizations, Hawke enters the city and works off his debt for a year. From there, the story unfolds as he moves up in the social ladder, solving issues for the city one destitute individual at a time. This story on its own, spread out in three recognizable acts, is perfectly fine and in many cases highlights just what a remarkable job the writers have done.
The problem I have with this concept is that there seems to be a fundamental lack of an overarching story to it. While there are ties between each of the acts, they feel wholly contained on their own; there is no central antagonist until the last hour of the story, which comes as a sudden and confusing plot twist, several events that are linked by previous events are muddled and donít flow well at all, and in many cases the actual structure of the story is bugged and broken in the gameís current state. There were several points in the game where I was almost entirely unsure of who I was working for, or what I was even doing. The three-year gaps that occur between acts hold enormous story potential, but players hear very little of it and in turn become confused when thrust into the first major situations of each act. The story becomes entrenched in the side-quests, placing Hawke in so many situations itís a wonder the guy has any time to breathe, let alone find a real bad guy and save the day like any other RPG hero would. Thatís not even mentioning the almost complete-stop of an ending that felt criminally abrupt. At the end of the game, I felt confused, cheated and unfulfilled instead of heroic and victorious.
At the end of the day, Dragon Age II is a confusing game. I still havenít fully grown to understand some of their decisions, but I see the potential in what the game couldíve been. The game, at its very core and essence, feels rushed. It seems like the title couldíve used more time, more attention to the various components that didnít excel as well as they could have. Perhaps the future DLC (which we all know is going to happen, just look at all the launch DLC) will remedy some of these issues, but somehow I doubt it. I donít want to say EA is at fault here, but I donít think a few more months of development time wouldíve hurt this game. If you werenít a fan of the combat systems in Origins, you might be more inclined towards this game. The potential influence this game has on future Bioware titles is immense, and I hope that their publisher isnít pushing them into releasing anything else before its time.
Final Score: 7
The review itself belongs to No Worries Gaming and myself; this is sort of an experiment.