Pointless Nostalgia: Gaming

We now continue with my series of self-indulgent nostalgia posts discussing the sci-fi and fantasy I loved as a child, which turned me into the proud nerd I am today.

A screenshot from the mission Stair of Grief in Myth II: SoulblighterThis time, I’ll be discussing video games. Note that I am limiting this to sci-fi or fantasy games that had a significant impact on my views of those genres, so there are some games that I truly loved that will not be discussed in this post. The Age of Empires franchise, for instance.

Some of these are also games that I’ve discussed before, so my thoughts on them may be a little truncated to avoid repeating myself too much.

Warcraft:

Of course, Warcraft is always the first game franchise that comes to mind on this topic. Warcraft: Orcs and Humans wasn’t the first game I ever played, but I did start on it very early in my life, and it’s probably the first one to have had a major impact on my tastes going forward. I would go on to spend an enormous amount of time playing it and its sequel, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness.

In retrospect, the early Warcraft games weren’t particularly special by modern standards. They were fantastic given the limitations of the era, but looked at through modern eyes, they were fairly thin experiences that shamelessly ripped off Warhammer and Lord of the Rings.

Still, I loved them at the time, and Warcraft II is noteworthy for kickstarting my lifelong love affair with Elves. With their coolly confident voices, lethal ranged attacks, badass capes, and epic hair, my seven year-old self thought the Elven archer units were just the most amazing thing ever.

A screenshot from Warcraft: Orcs and HumansWarcraft III, however, was something special. It vastly expanded the universe and added an incredibly amount of depth and complexity to what was previously a very simple story.

Timing also played a role in my love for Warcraft III. It came around just as I was getting old enough to understand that the world isn’t entirely black and white. I think it had a profound impact on my sensibilities as a writer, and as a person. It helped to waken me to the idea that there is more than one perspective on everything, that one person’s villain is another’s hero.

The expansion, The Frozen Throne, was less impressive, but it did take my Elf obsession to new heights by reinventing the Elves as the Blood Elves, who remain my favourite interpretation of the archetype from any source.

Again, timing plays a role. To my teenage brain, the edgy, sexy, misunderstood Blood Elves seemed irresistibly cool.

StarCraft:

Blizzard’s other great RTS franchise also deserves a mention, but truthfully, I’m not sure it really had that big an impact on me.

A screenshot from the original StarCraft's Terran campaignNow, don’t get me wrong. I loved StarCraft, and still do. It was a great game with a strong if somewhat imperfect story, and from a gameplay perspective, it was a quantum leap forward for the genre.

I’m just having trouble drawing any direct lines between my love of StarCraft and my current sensibilities. I had already developed a certain degree of interest in sci-fi thanks to things like Star Trek and Beast Wars.

Mostly all I can say is that Jim Raynor was and remains my all-time favourite video game character, a rare example of a character who is presented as an everyman forced into the role of hero and actually feels authentic as both.

One nice thing is that StarCraft 1 is the only entry on this list that can be readily played today, without dealing with technical issues or outdated graphics and game mechanics.

Drakan: Order of the Flame

Here’s a game that’s definitely not remembered as one of the great classics. Still, it was special in its way, and I remember enjoying it a lot — despite some glaring problems.

A screenshot from Drakan: Order of the FlameDrakan was a fairly generic fantasy story — Evil McBadPerson is coming back from the dead to destroy the world, unlikely hero must stop him — centered on a young woman named Rynn, who bore a remarkable resemblance to Lara Croft. Rynn stumbles across a dragon named Arokh and winds up soul-bound with him.

So the gameplay split between content played as Rynn and aerial sequences atop Arokh.

Arokh is what made the game worth playing. His wry humour and cynicism gave him infinitely more personality than Rynn, but the gameplay of playing as a dragon-rider is what made Drakan really special.

Few things in my gaming career have equaled the sheer thrill of soaring through the air atop a fire-breathing dragon, and Drakan made it every bit as amazing as you would expect. The controls were simple and intuitive, the maps were expansive and full of potential for exploration, and Arokh’s power was awesome in the truest sense of the term. Enemies that would be challenging or nearly unbeatable as Rynn could be effortlessly incinerated by Arokh.

Despite its generic story, Drakan impressed upon me the sense of awe and wonder that the fantasy genre is capable of, and I still have many fond memories of soaring across the Eastern Archipelago, raining fire on my enemies.

A screenshot from Drakan: Order of the FlameDrakan is also noteworthy for beginning my lifelong hatred of jumping puzzles and platforming mechanics. I truly believe the gaming industry has evolved beyond the need for such things; I wish they’d just go away altogether.

Myth:

I am not given to looking back with rose-coloured glasses. I am not someone who grumpily declares that games were so much better back in the day and the current crop of games just can’t compare.

But the Myth franchise was something so unique and special that even today I’ve never quite seen a game equal it.

For whatever reason, Myth: The Fallen Lords and Myth II: Soulblighter* did not become elevated to the pantheon of all-time great RTS games like Age of Empires and StarCraft, but they deserved to be. They ought not to languish in forgotten obscurity as they do.

*(We don’t talk about Myth III. It didn’t happen.)

Art for Myth II: SoulblighterMyth wasn’t like other strategy games. There was no base-building, no economy. Only very rarely would you ever receive reinforcements during a mission, and you virtually never had any control over when you got them. It was just you and a small group of soldiers fighting against impossible odds.

And things did often feel all but impossible. These were brutally difficult games, which is my one complaint about them. You were invariably outnumbered, often outgunned, and there were a million little things that could go wrong.

Which brings me to another unique thing about Myth, which was how incredibly realistic the combat was. It’s hard to imagine, but these janky old games from the 90s managed a level of realism that is unheard of even today. Wind could blow your archers’ arrows off course. Rain could cause your Dwarves’ grenades to fizzle out. Body parts rolled downhill. Explosions sent deadly chunks of shrapnel wheeling across the battlefield, cutting apart friend and foe alike.

This immense realism and the complexity it created were a big contributor to Myth’s difficulty. One wrong move could send a grenade flying into your own Dwarves, causing a chain reaction as the grenade set off their satchel charges. This would turn your army into a conflagration of flame and severed limbs, at which point the supremely deadpan narrator would calmly declare, “Casualties.”

And then I’d laugh my ass off even as ghols tore apart what was left of my army.

But the genius of Myth was not confined to its gameplay. It also had a brilliantly different story.

A screenshot from Myth II: SoulblighterMyth was a bizarre mashup of some of the best elements of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings, and The Black Company. It was high fantasy in the truest sense of the term, full of magic and fantastical beasts, but yet it also felt incredibly gritty and real.

The interesting thing is that they didn’t give you a birds’ eye view of events as most such stories would. Everything was told from the perspective of ordinary soldiers on the frontlines, who often didn’t fully understand the plans of their superiors. Normally I’m not a fan of ambiguity in story-telling, but in this case, having only incomplete glimpses of the world and its history made it feel so much more real.

Much like the how the gameplay could be unrelentingly difficult, the story of Myth was often ruthlessly bleak, depicting a world bereft of hope in the face of all-consuming darkness, but that only made the characters feel more heroic, the struggle more meaningful.

I’ll also say that despite that almost complete lack of any character development or personality, I still think Soulblighter is one of the all-time greatest video game villains. You’ve just got to respect a guy who cut off his own face and tore out his own heart “in a ritual too dark to name.”

And I haven’t yet touched on my great love for the Heron Guard (Best. Paladins. Ever.), or how hilarious the Dwarves were, or the utter badassery of the Trow, or the sheer terror of the Myrkridia…

Myth bannerOr I could talk about they seamlessly blended traditional high fantasy elements with more obscure concepts out of Irish and Mayan culture and their own unique fiction…

Damn, I miss Myth.

BlizzCon 2014: Overwatch’s Diversity, StarCraft’s New Units, and More

BlizzCon 2014 is now behind us, but it provided us with a monstrous amount of info and some big surprises, and if you’re anything like me, you’re still still digesting it all.

Art of the cast of OverwatchThere’s a lot to discuss, so let’s get to it, shall we?

Overwatch: An intriguing conundrum

I’m still struggling to decide what I think about Overwatch.

Somewhat to my surprise, there’s a lot I find compelling about it. From what I’ve seen, they’ve built a pretty rich history and mythology around the setting — as with all their games — and of course that intrigues me. Despite the “Saturday morning cartoon” vibe, there is also something intangible about the Overwatch setting that I find appealing.

I think a lot of it may boil down to the fact that — like many Blizzard games, but even more so in this case — the developers were clearly very passionate about Overwatch, and they poured all that love and enthusiasm into the game. They told a story about the pitch meeting for Overwatch, where Chris Metzen (jokingly?) threatened to quit the company if they didn’t greenlight it.

I’m also intrigued by the obvious push towards diversity in Overwatch’s cast. It’s still not perfect — I mentioned Widowmaker in my last post as a stereotypical femme fatale, and while the character’s official name may be Mercy, I can’t think of her as anything but “generic healer girl” — but on the whole, Overwatch is tickling my IDIC feels something fierce, and there’s a lot to commend.

We’ve got one character who’s a Middle Eastern woman with a lawful good personality and practical, badass armour. We’ve got an Indian scientist. The poster character for the game is a sensibly dressed tomboyish lady.

Pharah, a character in OverwatchThis is certainly not something I ever expected from Blizzard, but it’s a most pleasant surprise.

Even putting aside the obvious ethnic diversity and strong push for representation of female characters, it’s very multicultural. It has occurred to me that none of the currently announced characters are American. Tracer is British, Mercy is Swiss, Reinhardt is German…

As someone thoroughly sick of sci-fi treating the future as the sole domain of the United States, I find this incredibly refreshing.

But every time I get myself jazzed up about all that, I then remind myself this is a purely competitive first person shooter, and then I feel sad.

I’m not pathologically opposed to shooters or PvP — I have dabbled in both and enjoyed them — but they’re both way down the list of my gaming interests, and a game that focuses exclusively on them isn’t terribly inspiring.

If Overwatch had a single player campaign, I’d be on it like stink on a monkey. As it stands, I’m feeling pretty conflicted about the game.

A battle between Pharah and Mercy in OverwatchThere may be some hope on that front, though. They did mention there has been talk of some sort of story mode, though it’s still just an idea. Metzen is apparently very keen on the concept, but has not yet succeeded in convincing the rest of the team.

Let’s hope.

If nothing else, I look forward to playing the Overwatch characters in Heroes of the Storm. I can imagine Tracer and Hanzo being a blast to play.

Legacy of the Void: New units and game modes

The other big news comes courtesy of StarCraft II, as Blizzard offered previews of the new units and game modes for Legacy of the Void.

Terran gain the herc, an awkwardly named melee infantry with a grappling hook and high health, and the cyclone, a highly mobile tank with strong single target damage.

Zerg gain the lurker, which is the lurker, and the ravager, which are basically those artillery bugs from Starship Troopers.

Protoss gain only one new unit, though another may be added later: the disruptor, a mobile bomb that enters an energy form to gain brief invulnerability before exploding for massive area of effect damage. It’s not a suicide unit; it can be detonated many times.

The new Protoss disrupter unit from StarCraft II: Legacy of the VoidI’d say all these new units fit into the category of interesting, but not terribly exciting. They’re all solid concepts, but there’s not a lot of wow factor to them.

Several units have also received redesigns, some of them so radical as to make them virtually new units. Swarm hosts, for instance, have gone from being siege units to harassment units. Battlecruisers and carriers have finally gotten some buffs, as well, so hopefully we’ll start to see them used more seriously.

On the downside, immortals have lost their iconic hardened shield in favour of an activated defense buff. I can see the logic in this, but there was something so wonderfully Protossy about just shrugging off siege tanks blasts like they’re nothing. I’m really going to miss that.

They also announced three new game modes.

Automated tournaments are pretty self-explanatory. This isn’t a feature I see myself using a lot, but it’s been on many fans’ wishlists for years, and I think it will be very popular.

Archon mode is bizarre. This allows two players to control a single base/army in a 1v1 setting. I guess the idea is to make the game more approachable by splitting the responsibility between two people, but it still seems like it’ll lead to a lot of “too many cooks in the kitchen” issues.

Preserver Rohana aboard the Spear of Adun in StarCraft II: Legacy of the VoidAllied Commanders sounds the most interesting. I’ve had trouble finding details on it, but it’s apparently some sort of never-ending online campaign played cooperatively with fellow players. You have a character that will continually progress between matches (like home cities in Age of Empires III), and from what I understand, each match is an objective-based scenario versus AI like the campaign.

It’s hard to imagine what Allied Commanders will be like based on what little information is at hand, but I’m very intrigued. If they can balance the difficulty well and provide more variety than the standard skirmishes versus AI, I could see playing this a lot.

Finally, they also announced some pretty big changes to the core economy of StarCraft II: More workers to start, fewer workers per base, fewer resources per base. Seems they want to speed up the early game, an idea I whole-heartedly support.

Overall, Legacy of the Void looks to be making SC2 much faster and more micro-intensive. Though this may steepen it’s already harsh learning curve, I think these are positive changes on the whole.

Heroes of the Storm: New characters and maps

Rather than any big reveals, Heroes had a lot of little pieces of news at BlizzCon, mostly centered on new hero and battleground previews.

A screenshot of Jaina Proudmoore in Heroes of the StormMost of the attention was given to three long-awaited new heroes: Thrall, Jaina, Proudmoore, and the Lost Vikings.

To my surprise, Thrall is a melee damage-dealer. I was expecting him to be a caster, and maybe a support. But he does have some of his iconic abilities, like chain lightning and earthquake.

Jaina is pretty much your standard frost mage. She focuses on crowd control and very high burst damage. Lot of people are going to hate playing against her.

The stars of one of Blizzard’s pre-Warcraft games from more than twenty years ago, the Lost Vikings seem ready to replace Abathur as the game’s most mechanically unique and challenging hero. Each is a completely separate unit that can be controlled, or killed, individually. I foresee that they will either be completely useless or brokenly overpowered depending on who’s playing them.

They also had some teases for other upcoming heroes. Sylvanas got quite a bit of attention. From the sounds of it, she may actually be a specialist rather than an assassin, which I find very surprising but also intriguing. Her current design has her able to stunlock anything that isn’t a player. Definitely looking forward to learning more about her.

She's wearing a shirt!Most surprising of all, her in-game model appears to be fully clothed.

Miracle of miracles.

Several more in-the-works heroes were mentioned and/or appeared in the background of the trailer shown at the convention: Rexxar, the Butcher, the Skeleton King, the Warcraft III blademaster, Zul’jin, and the Diablo III crusader. It looks like they’re using the female version of the crusader, which I find mildly disappointing purely because I have a man crush on Gideon Emery.

The two new maps are on an Egyptian theme. Details on their mechanics are still a little sketchy, but Sky Temple is supposed to have some kind of PvPvE capture points to unleash fiery blasts on the enemy base. Sounds a bit like Cursed Hollow and Blackheart’s Bay had a baby. I like.

They also showed off concept art for a new map based on the Diablo universe, where one half is styled after the High Heavens and the other after the Burning Hells. Looks very cool.

Concept art for a Diablo-themed map for Heroes of the StormThe rest: Trailer rage and the barbarian capitol

There wasn’t a lot of news for Warcraft or Diablo fans at this BlizzCon, perhaps not surprisingly.

The most interesting thing for Diablo was that they will be adding a new zone in an upcoming patch: Ruins of Sescheron. This will be in act III, and is the remains of the barbarian capitol.

The impression I get is that this will only be in adventure mode, though I’m not sure of that. I don’t see them adding new story to the campaign for it. It’s a neat-looking zone, though: snowy ruins. I like it.

The only Warcraft news of note surrounded the movie. To the great anguish of myself and countless others, there was a trailer at BlizzCon, but it will not be released to the public.

Son of a…

In the end, the most interesting tidbit to reach the public was our first glimpse of the film’s Orcs, which are created using motion capture like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Looks very good — exactly like in WoW’s cinematics.

A promotional shot of Orgrim Doomhammer from the Warcraft movie* * *

All in all, this was a very interesting BlizzCon with a lot of surprises. I still would have liked some news on the idea of revamped Warcraft strategy games, as well as a trailer for the movie, but otherwise, I can’t complain.

What say you? What do you make of the revelations from BlizzCon 2014?