Saturday, December 10, 2011

Skyrim Review

Skyrim may be my favorite game of 2011, and that was after I had waited for Batman: Arkham City with great anticipation. Skyrim beat Arkham by enough that I may have to finish the Batman game next year.

Skyrim is the fifth game in the Elder Scroll series, the previous version being called "Oblivion."

Gameplay has improved significantly over Oblivion. Where Oblivion's skill based system was often confusing and complex, Skyrim has made it very straight forward to understand. The best part is you don't really create a character "class". Instead you can simply choose your own play style and your skills will level up appropriately. For instance, if you use the bow a lot, your Archery skill will naturally increase. I love the freedom of play style this offers.

Unlike the seemingly barren landscape of Oblivion, the land of Skyrim is vast and filled with adventures at every turn. I've wandered for hours and not reached an obvious border, though I know they are out there. And this game encourages exploration like no other game before it. Just heading back from one quest I ran into a new village and three new dungeon areas and finally had to call it quits for the day even though I was constantly tempted to look around "just one more bend in the road."

NPC's are a treat as well. Instead of the cardboard mannequin's of Oblivion, the NPC's in Skyrim are alive. You can sit, watch and listen as they go about their daily business. They react to your presence even if you don't approach them. Sometimes a new quest line will be opened up by an NPC who approaches my character asking for assistance. In another instance I entered an Inn and overheard a group discussing a problem that was plaguing the city. As a result I ended up accompanying one of the NPC's on a quest that took the better part of my evening to complete.

The entire experience is incredibly organic. Nothing like the silly "look for the exclamation mark over the NPC's head" of the MMO world.

Graphically the game is stunning. I sometimes just stand an gawk at the clouds hanging over the mountain peaks in the distance. No other game I know of presents the feeling of being in a very real living environment with vista's and scenery to match. 

There are something like eight or nine primary cities and hundreds of secondary locations throughout the Skyrim continent. And with rare exception, no two locations are alike. Dungeons are each designed to represent the specific architecture of the quest you are on. Each uniquely designed to offer a different set of challenges. And there are hundreds of them to explore.

Like Fallout 3, you can be ambivalent about the primary story line as much as you like. The quests are designed to lead you down multiple plot choices, but nothing ever forces you to go in a particular direction or finish every quest if you have no desire to do so. You can very easily play the game through with several characters and never get the same experience.

And as far as I can tell there is no "finish" to the story. You can continue playing and doing whatever you like long after the main quest chain has been completed.

The graphics of Skyrim do have issues. While it is easy to tweak the game to get good performance, the textures often look better at a distance than they do close up. Of course, I spend so much time gazing off into the distance looking for that next adventure, I am never bothered by the few muddy textures around me.

There are glitches. Skyrim is not just a computer game, it is a great big computer game with a vast complex environment and interactive items everywhere. So to expect it to be perfect is unrealistic. The flaws never are significant enough to destroy my immersion. I know there are obsessive types who will examine every brick and bristle when the occasional NPC that gets stuck in a conversation loop.

Combat is also loose in this game, especially if you are into Melee. Your character seems to swing their weapons wildly about in the air, and the system decides what kind of damage you did. There are times when I don't even appear to make contact with my target and yet they take damage. Compared to a game like the Batman Arkham games where melee combat is an amazing series of choreographed martial arts maneuvers, Skyrim can feel somewhat unresponsive.

Archery on the other hand is very satisfying. Nothing beats sneaking up on a target, setting up the perfect shot and getting the surprise attack bonus to take down a target in one shot. I play Skyrim almost like I do Batman, where I spend most of my time in stealth mode, slipping between the shadows and picking off my opponents one at a time whenever possible. Another thing I like is how the other NPC's will often be confused by the silent take down and spend time wandering around looking for where the shot came from. In fact one of my favorite tactics when facing a room full of bad guys is to shoot the one furthest away from me. Nine times out of ten his comrades will turn to see what happened to the fellow, and have their backs to me! Very satisfying, but ultimately fatal for the remaining characters.

Skyrim is really a top notch game despite a number of bugs in the current release. Frankly if the immense amount of content and imagination that Skyrim has to offer on the plus side does not make up for the rare problems, you probably won't be satisfied by a video game released this year.

Of course, if you prefer a multi-player experience, then Skyrim is not for you. I keep wishing Bethesda would add the ability to play these games in co-op mode.

Bethesda has now released several patches, and game play has been improving as a result. Since their games are known to have long shelf lives because of an active modding community, I expect they will continue to patch the game for the foreseeable future.

If you were a fan of Oblivion, Fallout 3 and/or Fallout 3: New Vegas, then I highly recommend Skyrim. Bethesda continues it's legacy of immense and immersive RPG's, each one better than the previous.

If you didn’t try those other games and are looking for a diversion for the long winter nights ahead, Skyrim would be a good choice.

Monday, September 26, 2011

DCU Goes Digital

This month the publishers of the DC Universe comics began their "renumbering" plan for fifty-two comic books in their main lines. Comic book fans are familiar with the concept of a reboot, in which the stories and characters all get to start over again. It's almost become a tradition that when a publisher feels the stories have gotten stale, or need to be retold for a new audience they simply reset everything and start again from the beginning. DC has been doing this so often that they have created a term for the process, it's called a crisis. "Crisis on Infinite Earths," "Infinite Crisis," and "Final Crisis" are all examples of the reboots DCU has gone through over the past few decades.

However, this time they are taking a different approach. Rather than calling it a reboot, they are just saying they are re-numbering the entire product line. This month we have "Justice League #1", "Action Comics #1", "Detective Comics #1", etc. Those last two especially caused an uproar within the long time fan base. You see, the original Action Comics #1 was published over 70 years ago. That's when the world first met Superman. A year later Batman made his first appearance in Detective Comics. Although that wasn't the first issue of Detective, it was a milestone event. So big an event that many reviewers have taken to calling it DCnU (aka DCnew or DC new Universe).

Obviously those first magazines have a special place and get top dollar at auction. That is in the rare event that they appear at an auction. Clearly Action Comics #1 has a very special place for collectors, and while creating a new #1 won't make the original any less valuable, it still dilutes the uniqueness for some people. It also plays havoc with the continuity of issue numbers. There are no other comic books that can claim to have over 800 continuous issues without a break. That ended this month with a new #1. For die-hard fans and collectors there is a sense of loss.

On the other hand, it is clear that the DCU has needed a new beginning. Fans of the magazines are getting harder to find and the new generation of Comic book and Manga readers have increasingly lost interest in the old super heroes. Time for things to get upgraded or simply whither away. Happily the publishers have decided that it is better to change than to fade away. Kudo's to them for having the courage to say "we can take a 70+ year old product and change it for a new age." And while that may make some of the old guard nervous, if it means more subscribers then how can anyone really argue?

Honestly, it's not like all that much is changing. There will still be a Superman, still be a Batman, they will still patrol the neighborhoods of Metropolis and Gotham. As far as we can tell all of the old super heroes will still be there, they will just get a facelift and some new stories will be told. One of the biggest changes will be to the Justice League, which will get a new origin story of it's own. For a change there will be a reason given for the formation of the JL instead of just "it seemed like a good idea."

The biggest thing for new readers is going to be how you buy the comic books. DC has stated that going forward all new books will be available electronically the same day they are available in print. No longer will online readers or users of the iPad app have to wait weeks or even months before the stories are available. Electronic readers will be the same as print readers. Hallelujah to that! For a generation that has embraced greener technologies, the old pulp publishing industry was in need of a revamp. For people uninterested in subscribing to paper products, or unable to go to a comic book store to purchase the latest stories, this is a water-shed event. DC is the first publisher to fully embrace the electronic age, and hopefully the others will follow quickly.

I'll buy the first issues of all the magazines for no other reason than to thank DC for the new model. I'm betting a lot of other readers will do the same.

If there is time, I'll write some reviews of the first DCnU stories. I'm very excited about this new publishing plans from DC, and I hope other readers will be too.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

CES: Smart TV? No thanks.

One of the trends at this years CES is what some are calling Smart TV’s. In fact it is a trend that the manufacturers have been pushing for the past couple of years. However many technology companies are jumping on this bandwagon including Intel who has decided that if they aren’t going to get the Mobile market they will go to the larger consumer devices like flat panel TV.

To all of these manufacturers I say “No Thanks,” and I suspect most of the consumers are going to agree with me when they find out what these devices are going to cost them. I’m not just talking price tag either. The big issue is going to be with upgrades, obsolescence and maintenance.

Consider the old desktop computers that used to come with hard disk, CD, Monitor and even keyboard all built into a single box. They didn’t allow you to update at all as the components were non-replaceable and non-user configurable. If a particular piece stopped working, you had to send the entire thing in for repairs. And if you wanted to upgrade you replaced the entire device. You couldn’t just get a bigger monitor or new keyboard, etc.

What if you buy the new TV set with Google TV built in and find that Microsoft has a better product? Will you be able to change the TV? Probably not. You’ll either have to stick with your purchase or sell it and buy the competition.

Thanks, but no thanks. I prefer my TV to do what it does as good as it can do it: display video and optionally play audio. If I want Internet programming, then I will attach a Boxee or a Roku box. If I want a DVR I can use TiVo or the product of my choice. And if one of those stops working I don’t have to send the entire TV in to be repaired.

So why are the manufacturers pushing this when it seems clear that most consumers will end up taking a pass? Because their sales numbers are going down. They pushed flat panel HD TV for the past few years and we all upgraded. They tried to push 3D TV in 2010 and we didn’t buy it. Nobody is seeing enough advantage in 3D to make it a big seller.

So the manufacturers are looking for the next big feature that will get us to replace the 50” HD TV again. While I laud their attempts at innovation I think this is yet another trend that is not really in the best interest of the buyer.

Give me the best picture quality and the most input options for my devices, and leave the features outside please.