Wednesday, February 27, 2013

#57: A Challenger Approaches (And Discusses Role-Playing in Strategy Games)

Hey guys! Instead of your regularly scheduled dosage of newdarkcloud, you’re going to receive a heaping of MaristPlayBoy, courtesy of what I like to call a “writer’s exchange program” between PSTD and my own blog, the Red Shirt Crew. That said, since this is a gaming-centered blog, I figure I should use this time to talk about my personal favourite story-telling games: the turn-based strategy genre.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: strategy games aren’t known for their story-telling abilities. That distinction usually goes to RPGs (both of the Japanese and Western variety) and can sometimes be extended to an action adventure (Assassin’s Creed) or shooter (Bioshock) that rises above its peers. With the exception of series like the Fire Emblem games, turn-based strategy games are supposed to be devoid of all story elements, as scripted events would take away the control of the player in ways that would likely be unfair. After all, Civilization would not be a better game if every advancement in technology featured a five minute cutscene explaining the background of the guy in the town who made the discovery and how his life was affected by it.

However, I stand by my previous statement: turn-based strategy games are my favourite kind of story in games, and while their stories take a very different form than those in the genres mentioned above, I think it’s worth discussing what sets strategy games above other genres in terms of story.

The first thing that makes a strategy game great for stories comes from the actual mechanics of the game. Anyone who’s played a Civilization game knows how rewarding it is to crush a country that betrayed your alliance, or how incredible it feels to see a single archer fortified within your city walls repel swordsman after swordsman, overcoming the odds. Civilization 5 executed this perfectly through their revamping of the game’s combat system. By emphasizing the strategy and limiting the effectiveness of the brute strength approach, every successful or failed combat meant that much more, as it always felt like a reflection of your own skill as a commander. If you defeated your enemy despite being outgunned, the tales of your conquest will be sung all throughout your Twitter feed as you brag about your awesome techniques to your peers (Take THAT, Cleopatra), while a loss can be devastating and make you question while you play this stupid game to begin with (Screw you, Napoleon). While not a story in the traditional events, the sense of responsibility for your country’s victory or defeat ensures each playthrough will be memorable.

While the Total War series also creates story through their mechanics (gotta love that real time combat), it’s the characters presented that keep me coming back to each game, especially Rome: Total War. See, in that game, generals aren’t just random people that you’ve conscripted to serve you: each man in power is a member of your family, or a highly esteemed soldier who marries into the position. They each have traits and retinues that give them memorable personalities and, like members of any family, you’re pretty much stuck with what they give you. The pride of watching the first born rise to the occasion and lead your armies to countless victories is contrasted with the struggle of making his good-for-nothing cousin stop taking bribes and maintain an efficiency in city management he clearly lacks. That said, I love that I can get stuck with bad generals or agents (to a lesser degree, though Medieval II: Total War fleshed assassins, diplomats, and priests out to make them equally interesting in their own right). It makes the empire feel real, as these are real struggles that empires in that age had to undergo. Creating a badass general or reforming one who seemed doomed to failure is as satisfying as any great military victory, and all of it creates a campaign I want to play over and over again just to see what happens next time.

That said, my favourite strategy game of all time, and my personal winner as Best of 2012, has to be X-Com: Enemy Unknown. Why? Because never before in my life have a played a game in which I felt a need to tell people about what just happened than in X-Com. It’s a perfect example of what makes turn-based strategy games great: the non-combat mechanics are difficult, but endlessly intriguing, the combat is exhilarating, and the character customization breathes new life into the game.

Out of combat, X-Com makes a name for itself by forcing the player into difficult decisions regarding the survival of the planet and creating the best opportunities to succeed in repelling the invasion. See, you need money to buy or upgrade just about anything in X-Com, and each action requires time to complete. Since neither is a limitless resource, it becomes necessary rather quickly to plan ahead and utilize your resources in the most efficient way possible, understanding that sacrifices will have to be made. You can’t save everybody; countries will fall, soldiers will die, and some upgrades will have to be put to the side to make way for others. Each of these decisions greatly impacts the flow of the game, and as a result, it is one of the most immersive games I’ve ever played.

X-Com’s combat system is quite invigorating due to the lack of information given. The whole game is based on aliens coming to invade Earth using various tactics. Regardless of the type of mission, you never know how many aliens you will encounter, where they are located, or what type they will be. New types are introduced regularly and without warning (for the most part), making it impossible to plan ahead with anything but the most basic strategy. This creates an incredibly tense atmosphere, made even tenser by the combat system, which works on percentages of success instead of any hard numbers. Every move you make has risk attached, making successes that much more rewarding, and failures all the more devastating. The resulting combination leaves you on the edge of your seat in each mission, equally excited for the possibility of improving your men and gaining supplies while being terrified of the cost that comes from losing a soldier in battle.

What makes that cost so much higher, and what makes the stories of this game the most uniquely interesting and memorable stories of any game I’ve played thus far in my life, is the time and effort put into your characters. Characters come from all countries across the world, and each can be customized to your liking. By the time you’ve created a character and watched them grow into these battle-hardened veterans, you gain an attachment for them unlike anything I’ve experienced in other strategy games. At that point, they’re no longer just “Squad Member #5”; they become “Luigi Pasta-Sallad, the rookie from Italy who was taken over by a Sectoid Commander and had to be killed before he became a danger to others” (RIP Luigi). Every decision you make both in and out of combat becomes crucial when it could be the difference between life and death for your favourite squad member.

I could write all day about the many memories I’ve formed from my time in X-Com: Enemy Unknown. I would love to spend hours touting the comeback story of Zathura Ho, a sniper that went through four battles without hitting a single target before becoming the squad’s most accurate killer. I could speak of Swedish Chef, the medic with fiery red hair, and of his triumph at the destroyed bridge in South Africa, saving the lives of three rookies while shielding them from incoming fire with his smoke grenades. And it would be remiss of me to ignore the sacrifice of Yugi Moto, a heavy that allowed himself to be surrounded by Chrysalids so that other squad members could get into position to take out the enemy hordes.

But to close, I can think of no tale worth telling quite like the tale of the valiant Assault Commander Hingle McCringleberry.

See, back in the day (meaning my first playthrough), rookies tended to die a LOT. So often, in fact, that the X-Com project decided that all rookies would be forbidden to be given nicknames or called by their real names until they had survived their first encounter and specialized in a field (hey, I was really bad at the time; you wouldn’t want to customize rookies if half of them were dying on each mission either). Still, that usually didn’t matter so much, as there was rarely more than one rookie in any particular squad mission.

Unfortunately, things were quite dire in the barracks, as all but one of the troops that had survived past the rookie stage were in the infirmary. Had the aliens waited just one more day, a more experienced team could have been sent to stop the invasion at that warehouse in Brazil. Sadly, the aliens weren’t really in an understanding mood, and HQ had no choice but to send three rookies in with the best soldier X-Com had to offer: Hingle McCringleberry.

The mission began as a testament to Lieutenant McCringleberry’s prowess in the field. His shotgun took out four baddies in as many turns, as each rookie fell in line behind him, watching his brutal efficiency with amazement and wonder. The man was a legend, willing to risk running directly into the enemy’s line of sight in order to execute that perfect shotgun kill. The Sectoids didn’t know what hit them.

After clearing out the storage tank, McCringleberry ran to the top of the warehouse to get a better idea of where the enemy was located. He ordered the rookies to come up to join him, as their weapons had superior range, but they were frightened by the alien noises off in the distance and chose to stay safe behind some vans at street level.

Suddenly, three Thin Men jumped out of the shadows, guns pointed directly at the spot where McCringleberry was hiding. He fired at the first Thin Man to enter his field of vision, but the shotgun was not accurate at that range, and the shot went wide left. It was the lieutenant’s last bullet in the magazine. And now that they knew of his location, he didn’t have time to reload, get into position, and take them out. The rookies were too far away to help. There was only one thing to do.

Obviously, the game didn’t provide specific dialogue for this situation, but I’d like to imagine Hingle crying out to the rookies “I’m going to buy you some time!” as he moved into the Thin Men’s line of fire. Understanding what had to be done, the rookies then got into flanking positions, unable to do anything but watch as their fearless leader faced the inevitable. The first shot destroyed the wall behind which McCringleberry had been hiding. The second shot just barely missed. The third went straight through his temple, and Lieutenant Hingle McCringleberry died on impact.

Now, just about any other squadron of rookies would have panicked at the sight of their field commander dying in battle (there is a panic function in the game, and I genuinely expected the rookies to panic here, since this would be a legitimate reason to do so). But this squadron was special. They charged into position screaming “FOR HINGLE!” and took each of the Thin Men out before they even knew what was happening. The battle was over. They had won.

True story: when Hingle McCringleberry died, I genuinely screamed “NOOO!!!” loudly enough at the screen to attract the attention of my parents. I had to report his death to my sister, who had created the character with me (inspired from this video), and she was genuinely upset at his passing. This is what makes X-Com: Enemy Unknown such a powerful game in my eyes. The mechanics come together to create the perfect atmosphere and immersion, while the customization and out of combat experiences ensure you are emotionally tied to your characters. Maybe you won’t give your characters quite the personality depth that I did, but I can guarantee their deaths will matter to you if you give them a name and make them your own.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to make sure my Irish Major Peaches O’Callahan doesn’t suffer the same fate.

Chase Wassenar, aka Marist Play Boy, is the founder and lead editor of the Red Shirt Crew (which he hopes you’ll go visit), and a staff writer for Toy-TMA. He hopes his second play through of X-Com goes significantly better than his first, as the trauma that would ensue if Peaches was killed might actually break his heart. You can follow him on Twitter at @RedShirtCrew or email him at

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 9: Shaheed Saudi Writing on the Wall

And now, Saudi Arabia comes to an end. Thank goodness for that, because the game becomes more interesting AND more fun once we get to the core of it.

I think the confrontation with the Al-Samad Lieutenant was a pretty well done section of game. It's short, yet the scene is set up in such a way that there are a couple of different routes you can take to finish it. It allows for either combat or stealth characters to do what they enjoy doing most, whether it's getting the drop on somebody or abandoning discretion in favor of mass violence. As an interesting side note, the Al-Samad Lieutenant is one of the few characters in the game that you actually have to kill. Aside from him and Darcy, the game allows players to choose exactly how murderous they want to be.

I'm significantly less charitable about the fight against the tank. On at least 2 of my playthroughs, the fight against the tank went very much the way Varewulf described it. I had run out of missiles to defeat the tank with, so I was left using the Pistol and my backup Assault Rifle to fell a TANK. I was surprised to see that the Halbech missile launchers didn't respawn. And like Aldowyn, I remember having a few mishaps where it looked like I had a clean shot, but something in the environment got in the way, making me either miss the tank or blow myself up. This game does have the problem Deus Ex: Human Revolution had where the bosses feel entirely out of place. As we progress through the game, you'll learn what I mean by that. (And as an aside, Aldowyn has a huge problem with not using First Aid when he really should. So much so that we almost made that his title in the credits.)

I said this in one of the earlier episodes, but I really like the idea of using the interrogation as a framing device. In the scene that plays after the Graybox is finished, players are initially led to believe that Thorton is the one interrogating Leland. Now that we've finished Saudi Arabia and as we head to other hubs in the game, we then realize that Leland is the one whose interrogating Thorton. It's a really subtle plot twist that I thought was really well done and had me hooked. All throughout my first playthrough I was wondering "How did Thorton get captured by Halbech and thrown into the Graybox?" And, as anaphysik notes, the dialog between Thorton and Leland is really well written and there's a lot of subtext behind it.

The conversation with Shaheed represents a very big turning point in the game. This is the point where Michael Thorton stops being a tool for Alpha Protocol and starts to really think and plan for himself. This is where the game starts offering choices and consequences that reach farther than the hub they are made in. Choosing whether or not to kill Shaheed is a very morally gray decision. On one hand, he is being set up just as much as Thorton is, another tool for Halbech to use and dispose of. Also, he is a man of his word and keeps all of his promises. On the other hand, he is NOT a nice man. He is very much a terrorist and openly admits to planning further attacks, promising to do more harm to innocent people. It's not an easy choice to make and players can justify making either decision.

So this is where we get into the game's main premise. Alpha Protocol has been infiltrated by Halbech and hijacked for their own ends. As a result, we are now a rogue operative. However, thanks to all the secrecy and the "Yellow-Brick-Road" policy that Alpha Protocol maintains, where operatives must find their own resources, safehouses, and funding, we can utilize Alpha Protocol as well, finding safehouses and gathering weapons or intel relatively easily. There are three leads we can choose to follow: A Halbech connection selling missiles in Moscow, an Al-Samad sleeper cell being activated in Rome, and the impending assassination of the President of Taiwan. As Aldowyn stated, this is the usual Bioware MO of making you go through a tutorial mission and then opening up, giving you the freedom to choose the order you take things on yourself and dividing the game into small mini-stories than culminate in the finale. It's a style I enjoy and appreciate.

As anaphysik said, the first meeting with Scarlet Lake seems WAY too convenient. Right after you find out the Halbech's get-rich quick scheme to start a Cold War will end up causing World War 3, you meet a reporter who's clearly trying to use you to get a scoop because her journalistic instincts tip her off to you. The real reason she needs to meet you at that point is because of something we'll talk about in the Taipei mission. I have more to say about her, but right now you're lacking the context, so I'll save it for when we post the first half of Taipei.

I really like the Taipei safehouse. It feels ripped right out of a spy movie, very fitting for a game like Alpha Protocol. And like anaphysik, I enjoyed the news channel you can watch throughout the game. They offer not only a nice source of humor, but also a way to gauge how laymen in the world are reacting to your actions. It's a nice little touch that I can appreciate, much like the dingy apartment we only see in one brief scene.

See! I told you this post more be more substantial!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 8: Rouge Agent

We had planned to only do four episodes in Saudi Arabia. However, this hub ran longer than anticipated, so we had to stretch into 5 episodes. The next one SHOULD be posted either by the end of the day tomorrow.

This is one of those episodes where nothing worth commenting on happens. It's basically just us talking with Aldowyn playing in the background. Sorry, but sometimes that happens.

But rather than leave this space nearly blank, I'm going to instead talk a little about the save system of Alpha Protocol, mainly because it isn't particularly good. For context, before we record a particular segment of the game, Aldowyn usually performs a practice run, streaming it to whichever one of us wishes to watch. (It's usually anaphysik, since I am often busy doing one of the following: College coursework, writing articles for PSTD, or playing whatever game-of-the-week interests me.) When he went to start his practice save to begin our next hub world (which I'll talk more about next episode), he had difficulty finding the correct save. This is because of a couple of problems with Alpha Protocol's save system. First, it only saves checkpoints and while you can manually save, you can only save progress up to the last checkpoint. Second, unlike other games like Mass Effect (Yes, I know. Shut up!), game saves aren't neatly divided into careers for your convenience. They are all in one list. These two facts in combination combine to great irritation. If you're like Aldowyn and have multiple saves in the same spot, it can be trouble when trying to find a particular save (which you would almost always want to do whenever loading a game). You can't rename saves either, so best of luck to you if you have 5 saves all at "Saudi Arabia Safehouse."

I have to wonder if this is a fault with the engine or with Obsidian's programming. Honestly, by now saving systems should've been perfected years ago. We should not have to put up with bad save systems in the modern day. I had a similar problem with Hitman: Absolution and its god-forsaken checkpoint system. Why am I seeing developers and game engine programmers so often screw up this part of the game? Save systems may say nothing regarding your game's mechanics, themes, or play, but done poorly they're tedious and annoying, which may cause players unnecessary frustration and agitation with the game.

Sorry for not having anything substantial to say about the game. Once shit hits the fan in tomorrow's episode, I'll have a much more interesting post to give you.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 7: Mike Hates Sean Doorcy

In this episode, we piss off Darcy, break into a weapons stockpile, and have a brush with Glitch.

Let it be said that I really, really dislike Darcy. While he has an interesting backstory and character, it does ever go anywhere. And as previously stated, his relationship to Mike is one of the most static relationships in the game. Whether or not he likes or hates you, nothing really changes about him and how he reacts to you. In a game like this, that really stands out.

Anaphysik made a great point about the reputation system. That is: What Mike actually feels about any character in the game is left entirely up to the player. The game gives you the possible interpretation that you are just manipulating them to suit your whims, whatever those whims may be. It is also possible for players to make what Mike says what he genuinely feels. It's all left to interpretation. The game itself generally assumes nothing about the player and his/her attitudes, which is a point I want to elaborate more on when we get further into the game.

My question that I posed to you viewers still stands: Do you consider Alpha Protocol to be a "good" game? It's a difficult question because it really depends on what you are looking for in a game. Some people will be put of by the admittedly rather mediocre gameplay, some will adore the way the game handles choices, and even more will find the way the game handles dialog to be off-putting. None of these states are mutually exclusive either. While I personally enjoyed Alpha Protocol, there is no denying it is a flawed game. What do all of you guys think and why?

I have heard many stories in the past about Alpha Protocol being glitchy, but honestly this recording was the first time I've seen the glitchiness firsthand. It was actually quite amazing to me the amount of bugs we encountered. I can hypothesize that it has something to do with how FRAPS, the stream, and the game itself interact with each other because this is an oddity to me.

Confession: When I first played through the game (Recruit/Hard/Assault Rifles), I ALSO put very few points into either Sabotage or Martial Arts. I didn't think I would need either of these skills. Because of that, I became all too familiar with the 8-12 numbers keypads and super difficult hacks/lock-picks because I put no points into Sabotage. I learned from my first playthrough, and I can only hope that those who watch this and decide to play Alpha Protocol learn from my mistakes.

Did I seriously call him "Mikey" at the end of this episode? Good lord!

(As a side note: Whenever Aldowyn stomps on a guard, I think of this clip from LA Noire.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 6: Ha Ha, Finally, Some VIOLENCE!

In this episode we bond with Mina over romantic dinners, a sense of honor, and killing waves and waves of terrorists.

As the game goes on, Thorton will get various trophies from characters in the form of items scattered about the safehouses. When you approach one and examine it, Mike will make a quip regarding the gift or its giver. Some of these trophies and quips change depending on your reputation with the person that is represented by them. It's a nice way to remind the player of notable events that have happened in their career while fleshing out the characters of the game. In particular, the certificates only come up if you score 100 or more on the orientations in the Greybox (1 for each of the 3).

Mina serves as the game's primary moral compass. If you kill an innocent person during a mission, she is the only person that will lower their opinion of you. If you're role-playing, this means that you have a way of knowing when you're doing collateral damage. However, mix/maxers may wish to consider pissing her off to get the -5/10% cooldown bonus as her handler perk. Either way, since Mina the character you'll be dealing with most, getting her reputation up or down is fairly trivial. I should apologize for talking about people we'll meet in the future, if only vaguely, but this game is very hard to talk about without referencing past and future events because of how involved everything tends to be with everything else.

Several times during this episode, I demand that Aldowyn cut his microphone. During the recording session, Aldowyn's roommates were particularly loud and irritating. Because Aldowyn doesn't have a good headset yet, we hear a lot of what goes on in his room during recording sessions. This can reach the point where literally none of us can hear him or even ourselves over that background noise on his mic. We're still trying to find an adequate workaround, though Skype's push-to-talk and Aldowyn's masterful(?) editing should help to mitigate the problem.

I am curious as to why Obsidian chose to make the Sniper Rifle a static object in the world as opposed to a gun that you can carry with you like an Assault Rifle or a Pistol. I understand that it is a very powerful piece of equipment, but really players should be able to carry it with them. The easiest way I could see to remedy the situation would be to very tightly control the Sniper Rifle's ammo supply. If anyone here has any thoughts about the decision making behind the Sniper Rifle, feel free to leave them here.

I will never tire of telling this story, but playing on Recruit on Hard with Assault Rifles really gave me a negative opinion of the game when I first played. Like I said in the recording, I almost refused to touch the game ever again after that. Fortunately I changed my mind and DID playthrough again... and again... and again. This just goes to show how you need to know what difficulty is right for you. I misjudged the game and paid for it. If not for the fact that I was already at the Moscow boss before I realized my mistake, I would've restarted the whole game. This is why I recommend playing on Easy and with Stealth/Pistols. The gameplay is just not worth doing otherwise. Your experience will suffer for it.

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 5: Canadian Christmas Trees

I apologize in advance for the quality of the recordings this week. Our mission in Saudi Arabia was fraught with peril. And by that, I mean Aldowyn's roommates wouldn't shut up, the Skype call went down a few times, and the game glitched on us more than once. Fun stuff!

Intel is really one of the best investments of your cash in Alpha Protocol. They give you so many useful bonuses to help you on your missions at a very cheap price compared to any decent piece of equipment. Each piece of intel confers a passive bonus in the mission that it was purchased for (with the exception of dossiers, as they just unlock the next section in a given character/faction's dossier). You can use them to get Sniper Rifle drop offs, lowered guard presence, maps detailing the ideal routes through areas, and occasionally they can even give you side-objectives you otherwise wouldn't have access to.

The whole conversation with Canadians and Christmas Trees really does highly how mind-numbingly dumb many of the Suave quips can sound. Part of the problem (or humor, depending on your viewpoint) is how deadpan Micheal Thorton delivers any of his lines. The voice actor, Josh Gilman, doesn't exactly have an extensive record. Aside from this role, his most notable credit is Angeal from Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. Other than that he is mostly known for "Additional Voices." Maybe once he gets some more notable roles under his belt, he will become a bit better with regards to VA work. On the other hand, it could also be attributed to writing or voice direction. Sometimes it is hard to tell.

In this episode, anaphysik says "I would rather have a game like Mass Effect or Alpha Protocol where I enjoy everything but the controls than a game where the controls are perfect and it is just pointless and dumb otherwise." This is ultimately what will make or break one's enjoyment of Alpha Protocol. If one is willing to overlook the mediocre gameplay that we have so prominently put on display, then there's a very solid RPG here that focuses on player/character interaction. Also, I get to gloat to anaphysik and Aldowyn right now because special guest Varewulf and I were right, Awareness is a skill unlocked by default that becomes a permanent boost once you get enough ranks in Stealth. (As a side note: Firing that missile with the computer terminal is one of my favorite moments of the game. It's hilarious in its own special way.)

At the end, the game glitched at the end of the mission. Since Aldowyn bought an specific intel before the mission, we should have been able to alter the shipping labels of one of his crates to our safehouses address, essentially stealing his supply and netting us a boost in cash. It's nothing important, but it still sucks.

And we end with the confrontation with Nasri. This very early event in the game highlights how choice and consequence work. People who Killed or Arrested him get the benefit of having guards arm themselves with inferior equipment in exchange for losing access to his inventory in the Clearinghouse. Arresting him and Extorting him also offer cash rewards, though Arresting him nets you a larger cash bounty (since Nasri is a wanted man). This is all on top of the perk a player would get (there is one for each choice).

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 4: Our Chance to Seduce Yancy

This episode is a rather dialog heavy one, where we finally leave the Greybox and head to the mission hub in Saudi Arabia. Also, Yancy gives us the low down on Alpha Protocol's most important mechanic: dialog.

Yancy's conversation here highlights what anaphysik and I were talking about: There are no bad conversation options you can take in Alpha Protocol. Every choice you make confers some sort of perk. Even if someone is upset with you and becomes your handler in a later mission, you don't get a penalty for it. Instead, you get a different perk, which could either be better or worse depending on the character archetype you are going for. No matter which way you go through the game, the game will react accordingly, giving you different perks and possibly dialogue options.

We also learned a bit about dossiers, which are another important element to the game. As you explore the levels, you can learn much more about the people you encounter by scavenging for documents and details on them, unlocking more of their dossier. While this has the benefit of helping you figure out how people will react to you pushing and prodding them, they have another benefit. If you complete a dossier on any of the boss characters in the game (we'll get to that, I assure you) you gain a damage bonus against that boss. This is more useful than those unfamiliar to the game might think.

We want Aldowyn to wear civilian clothes for the comedic value, but there is actually a good reason to wear regular clothing over armor. While civvies do not have the same protection and potential for upgrades as any of the armors (which come in Combat, Stealth, and Utility varieties), they offer some of the best noise reduction in the entire game, only matched by the Advanced Stealth Suit. Daring players can use it as a cheap replacement until they can gather the necessary funds for the suit.

Lastly, I want to take the time to mention how hilarious I think it is that every intelligence agency and criminal enterprise goes through the same Clearinghouse system to do business. I understand that it has to be that way because Alpha Protocol is an RPG, but it still amuses me. Several characters reference this because oftentimes when you meet them for the first time, you'll get an e-mail later saying that they've marked you as a preferred buyer at their Clearinghouse store. The guy who runs the service must make a fortune off all the sales that happen over it.

#56: The Timeless Question: What is an RPG?

Most of you out there know that I love to talk about video games. I derive pleasure from discussing what makes certain games work, where they go wrong, whether or not their stories make sense, and so on. Out of all of the questions related to video games that one could asked, there exists two that I dread seeing. These two are “What is a game?” and “What is an Role Playing Game (RPG)?”. This week, I will be discussing the latter because the topic came up on Twitter the other day and the realization dawned on me that I would be unable to answer that question in a series of 140-character posts. The fact is that there are so many games under the umbrella term of RPG that a definition that is broad enough to include all of them, yet narrow enough to exclude other types of game. With that in mind, coming up with my own definition and then working it around all the kinds of games in the genre would be impossible. Instead, I think it would be best to analyze all the games, from Mass Effect, to Fallout, to Final Fantasy, to Kingdom Hearts, that people mostly agree fit under the term and create a definition of “RPG” based on what all of them have in common.

The first of these characteristics that I notice in all RPGs is an overall sense of progression. By that, I mean that as the game goes on, there is generally a sense that the protagonist is growing and getting better at certain feats. Most of these games accomplish this through an experience/leveling system. As players accomplish objectives and dispatch enemies, they gain experience. After enough experience, they level up and gain stats and/or skill points used to purchase abilities. This model is one of the most common, appearing in Final Fantasy, Persona, The Elder Scrolls, and many similar games. Other franchises like Fallout add perks to this to further a sense of growth. While this is the most common method of instilling a sense of progression, it is by no means the only way to go about it. Both Deus Ex and its modern sequel, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, employed different systems. The original Deus Ex gave players Ability Points directly, after completing objectives or finding certain locations, which they could spend on skills from different types of weaponry to more passive skills such as First Aid, Lockpicking, or Swimming (which I would not recommend). Deus Ex: Human Revolution had experience, but instead of ability points which increased certain skills, they allowed protagonist Adam Jensen to unlock the cybernetic augmentations he is equipped with. Regardless of what systems are in place to encourage it, an RPG always has some way to make the player feel like his/her character is growing in either skill or power.

Another very common characteristic in RPGs is that designers tend to place a very large focus on the world and its inhabitants when making them. If players take the time to talk to people and explore in an RPG, they can expect to learn about economies, cultures, society, geography, political struggles, and more regarding the world or region that it takes place in. Games like The Elder Scrolls and Fallout (both older and newer titles) can boast a very rich and detailed world just waiting to be explored. That is one of the biggest draws of those games, and a topic I have written about before. Also, Bioware games like Mass Effect, Baldur's Gate, or Knights of the Old Republic serve as good examples. Like it or hate it, a major part of what makes the Mass Effect franchise so popular is that Bioware took the time to envision and develop a very vivid lore that most of the fans fell in love with. Learning about all of the various races, their cultures, and beliefs is half the fun of the game to some players. This is also true for the Japanese side of the RPG moniker. While games like Final Fantasy and Persona do not necessarily need to have very detailed background information due to how linear those games tend to be, players of them are often treated to pretty interesting worlds like the land of Spira in Final Fantasy X or the rural town of Inaba in Persona 4. The people and places all have there own story. The church of Yevon and the story of its creation and internal corruption are as fascinating as the discovery of a world inside the TV and all of its mysteries. When it comes down to it, all RPGs have deep, interesting worlds to learn about and/or explore.

The last element that I have noticed in all Role Playing Games to some extent is a feeling that the player has some element of choice in how the player character/party develops. Admittedly, this one is going to be a bit of a hard sell, so hear me out. In most western-style RPGs, this characteristic is pretty obvious. Usually, the player gets to choose what skills the protagonist has and/or how they develop. This is usually tied into the development system, similarly to the sense of progression. Players can often be asked at the start what class they wish to play as, a tactic employed in Alpha Protocol and other games. This can either be used separately or in combination with a system that gives players Ability Points to spend on skills as they rank up. Another well known system in Western RPGs is Skyrim's system where skills develop as they are used. From the other side of the coin, in JRPGs, this characteristic may be less noticeable, but I feel that it is still present. Games like Final Fantasy usually have characters evolve on static and fairly predictable paths, at level X they acquire ability Y. However, all of these games have some form of customization. The very first Final Fantasy allowed players to choose their character classes at the start of the game. The second had abilities level up upon using them. The third and fifth had job class systems that allowed players to experiment with different classes and truly customize their characters to their own playstyle. And most others allowed players to pick their party from a very large group. All of these games have some element that allows players to pick their own way to play through the game. The other notable JRPG, Persona, is also extremely well known for this thanks to its system where the player character and hold and use different personae while the rest of the party can be chosen from a diverse cast of character, although earlier games in the franchise allowed all party members to switch personae. Every RPG allows for players to think for themselves and play through them in their own way.

To me, all of these elements are what separate an RPG from other genres of video games. A strong sense of progression and customization along with a detailed world are ultimately what binds all of the games under this heading together. While this is the definition that I have reached, I will not claim that this definition is absolute by any means. Feel free to dispute and criticize my opinion on this subject all you like. I would welcome the conversation gladly. Whatever your own opinion is, I encourage you to discuss and share it with others.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 3: Sweeping Up the Park-er

In this episode of Disclosure Alert, we continue on to the game's last orientation: The Stealth Orientation.

One interesting fact worth noting is that the Stealth orientation is almost the complete opposite of the Gadget one. While the scored section of Gadget training can be completed without actually using any of the gadgets (it only asks that you take out the guards, meaning Martial Arts can be used to take them out), Stealth requires a little bit of hacking and lockpicking along with the assumed skill in sneaking to get a high score.

The proctor of this exam, Alan Parker, is also an infinitely more interesting and important character than Darcy. While Darcy's roles in the game could be easily done by any other character in the Greybox, Parker is vital to the way the story plays out and the backstory of quite a few characters in the game. As he so confidently points out, his role in Alpha Protocol is one of the most vital. He specializes in analyzing and tracking world events and deciding the most appropriate action with which to deal with them. Also, when Alpha Protocol gets discovered, he's the one who shuts the whole thing down and starts it up again. While Westridge is officially the leader of the organization, it can be said the Parker is the guy who is truly in charge.

His importance is even extended into his side quest. Unlike the other two side quests, you get a bit more than money or reputation from his quest (in fact, you can lose reputation with Parker, as we did, for screwing it up). You get intel and information which can be quite interesting and useful for the upcoming missions in Saudi Arabia.

Lastly, we talked a bit about Tranquilizer rounds. This is another reason why I strongly recommend Pistols. They are the only weapon-type that gives players a non-lethal option to deal with foes, although it is also possible to use Martial Arts for that. It is astounding how imbalanced the weapon skills are in this game. While the other weapons are indeed decent, the Pistols offer much more in terms of combat ability and versatility, which is ultimately what you want. Also, as it turns out, Aldowyn's lack of sneaking skill is not entirely his fault. Since we are playing Veteran, we were given combat armor when opening the locker. That armor has low noise reduction, so guards could hear us coming from a mile away. Recruits gave civilian clothes with high noise reduction, so they are actually better at sneaking in this segment than Veterans. While you can fix this by not opening the locker and/or using Silent Running, it was pretty dumb of Obsidian to make that appearance anything put cosmetic. Seriously, while I love those guys, they can be particularly daft at times.

As my final remark (I know I already said lastly, but whatever): Since Aldowyn has been having a particularly difficult week with 3 tests and 1 project and I have been having internet troubles of late (I hear the storms been causing similar problems all over New England), we haven't actually recorded this week's episodes and it will cause a delay in our posts. Since this show just started and has already gained so many viewers, it is distressing that we are having these kinds of problems so soon. We hope you understand and appreciate your patience. :)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 2: Gettin' Darsey With Us

Because a lot of people were requesting that we post the videos on a blog, and since I am nothing if not shamelessly trying to attract an audience to this site, I have decided to post updates on this site as well. So without further ado:

This episode really highlights one of Alpha Protocol's biggest issues, which is that some skills are blatantly better than others and it almost forms a kind of hierarchy of weapon skills.
Pistols are clearly the best weapons in the game. I do not think that anyone who plays this game can really dispute that. They allow you to equip silencers, have pretty decent range and power, are easy to make critical hits with, can make shots from behind cover, and have Chain Shot, which allows the user to make up to 6 headshots at the same time (depending on the player's ranking in Pistols). The only downside is the lining up the sights for critical hits can take a bit of time.

Assault Rifles are the next best weapon in my opinion. If you don't want to use Pistols, they are your best bet. They allow you to line up your sights similar to the way a Pistol can, but they don't require a target to lock on to the way a Pistol does, so you can sit and wait for enemies to walk into your sights. This combines well with their incredibly long range. Their power is Focused Aim, which is not as good as Chain Shot, but still very solid. It temporarily slows down time and gives Mike's Assault Rifle an auto lock-on where the cross-hairs track enemies.

Next, we have Shotguns. As you would expect from video games, shotguns are strong, but are really only good at close range. Their critical hit mechanics work in that all that is requires is holding down the aim button long enough and then firing, which will knock down targets. Their special power is Room Sweep, which makes all shots critical hits, along with a higher rate of fire. I wouldn't recommend specializing in Shotguns, but they can make for a decent sidearm.

Lastly, my least favorite weapons are SMGs. SMGs are good for clearing small rooms, which is a situation most players won't incur very often in Alpha Protocol. They don't necessarily have a critical hit, but rather a damage multiplier. As enemies are wiped out with the SMGs, the multiplier increases. Once you reload, the multiplier is reset at one. SMGs offer the Bullet Storm skill, which makes your clips bottomless temporarily, but you are forced to reload once the skill is over. I honestly do not see much of a use for SMGs. They are points better spent on other weapons.
(As a side-note, my copy of Alpha Protocol came with a "Stealth Pack" that included a Pistol and an SMG. I guess SMGs are more "stealthy" than the Assault Rifle and Shotgun in the "Combat Pack," but really they have no business in a Stealth Pack.)

Gadgets are another discussing entirely, and exist somewhat outside the combat skill hierarchy. Alpha Protocol throws all the Lockpicking, Hacking, and Gadgetry into a blanket "Sabotage" skill. Combined with Technical Aptitude's passive bonuses and it's Brilliance skill, I suppose it would be entirely possible to create a gadgeteer character, but I do not think I could recommend it. Gadgets are an expensive investment which can often preclude players from higher level weapons and armor. Fortunately for gadgets, most players will likely invest a bit in Sabotage anyway for the hacking bonuses (which also give more money from infiltrated computers and safes), so it's not a huge hit to skills. Also, most players will want to make investments in EMPs and First Aid Kits to make life easier.

And, for the record, the skill to disable devices with EMPs w/o damaging systems is available at Rank 1 of Sabotage. It basically allows you to use EMP grenades to bypass hacking minigames. We should have been able to do that, but I imagine that it was disabled as part of the training.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Not an Article, but a plug for some of my other stuff.

So with college starting up, I've been a bit too busy to write something this week. In order to make it up to the more consistent viewers out there, I'd like to plug some of my other projects.

First off, I am now starting up a new Let's Play series with my friends Aldowyn and anaphysik. Called Disclosure Alert, we will be doing Alpha Protocol as our first game. The first episode can be found here with updates on the groups Twitter and YouTube accounts:

There's also the Let's Play of Vampires the Masqurade: Bloodlines that I have been doing with Exetera and Krellen. The first episode can be found here and updates can be seen on Exetera's YouTube account.
Lastly, some of my old friends from high school and I occasionally update our group YouTube channel, ZombieKrew. Though we have not updated in awhile, you can find the channel here.