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Invaders: Dragons On One End, Aliens On The Other

Since the last post, I've been working too hard to have much time for leisurely pursuits.  Just yesterday was the worst of it: I got up at 8am to get to work by 9am, was scheduled for a 3 hour lunch too far from home to drive there and back, and ended up returning home by 8:30pm.  The very next day, I was expected to be up at 7am and, assuming I need 10 hours in bed (mostly tossing and turning, I'm afraid) that was barely enough time there to get cleaned up and ready for work the following day.

That's miserable; I couldn't live if I had to be away from my precious computer for 12 hours every single day.  Fortunately, even though this is my second week of working 6 days a week, this is a really unusual schedule.  I can't complain: I volunteered for it, after all.  I knew that sitting around on my rump in front of my computer is not particularly beneficial to anyone... at least, not until I get around to actually developing something of worth using the computer.

Anyway, today I had a little more free time (blew it mostly on a forum) but here's a few things I wanted to mention have happened in my quest to digitally stave off boredom:

Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim Progress:

Miirak is defeated, and so I can count the Dragonborn expansion as pretty much completed.  I did not know how close I was to finishing in the last entry: all I really had to do was speak to the shaman in Skaal Village, who busily sacrifices himself, and then read a black book (right in the village if I want). This delivers me to the beginning of the longest of the dungeon delves through Apocrypha, and Miirak was waiting at the end.
Here I am taking down a Lurker on the way to give Miirak what for.  This pretty much encapsulates
my entire combat strategy: summon a dramora lord and stick arrows in the enemy until it falls over.
Resummon my demonic decoy as needed.
Despite taking the place in the darkest depths of a demonic dimension, I found the fight with Miirak himself to be a  bit of a disappointment.  I suppose it was pretty cool how he kept escaping and healing himself by sucking the life from a dragon.  (You know, Miirak, I can do that too, but I use health potions: much easier to carry.)  But it was too easy!  Maybe it was the fact that, like Miirak, I was using the Dragon Aspect shout, but his attacks barely hurt at all.  Each time he came at me, he was defeated pretty effortlessly with my usual tactic of using a dramora lord decoy while I filled him full of arrows.  Anyway, he ran out of dragons after his third one, and then that pesky Hermaeus Mora stole my kill. 

Soon afterward, I managed to get killed by a reikling charger on the definitely-not-part-of-a-demonic-dimension island of Solstheim.  My dramora lord decoy got lost in pathing and so the enemy just rode up and skewered me.   For those of you keeping score at home, the titular dragonborn (boss of the entire expansion) is actually less dangerous than a garden-variety goblin riding a pig.  Bethesda game balance skills at work.  Oh well, I reloaded a save game that was only about 3 minutes old and continued.

Back in Skyrim, I decided to forget about Dawnguard and go straight for beating the main campaign.  Disappointingly the shout that lets me ride a dragon is not all that effective at cutting down travel time because I have to find a dragon first to use it.  Pity, I thought i would be able to summon a dragon wherever I was, but I guess not.  Given the relative rarity of dragons, I'm better of killing them and taking their bones, which my Dovahkiin is not quite good enough to smith into dragon armor yet, but soon.

The Bureau: X-Com Declassified, played:

Before the greater bulk of my hours at work flattened this procrastinator's soul, I managed to get a bit of time into The Bureau as it was freshly released on Tuesday.
I was worried this game might suck, and Jim Sterling's early leaked review supported this worry.   But then the rest of the reviews came in, revealing Jim to be a tad over-reactionary in contrast, and you know what?  Despite a mediocre 68/100 score, I played the game, and I think it's actually quite alright.

It helps one's enjoyment of the game if they think of The Bureau as not being related to X-COM.  Its only real relation to X-COM is that your enemies are alien invaders (of the cross-dimensional variety this time) and you can give orders to your squaddies (but you only have two of them, not counting yourself) and that being out of cover is as much death in this game as it is in X-COM: Enemy Unknown.

Those fleeting resemblances aside, The Bureau actually has a lot more in common with Bioshock than it does X-COM:
  • At times, I see signs that this game was made in a Bioshock engine.  (Mostly in the font of the tooltips.)
  • There's the same remarkable attention to detailed environments.  Unlike the third person perspectives in X-COM: Enemy Unknown, they're meant to be observed from the inside, by your protagonist.  That a lot of that is a 1950s motif (not unlike Bioshock) certainly helps with the resemblance.
  • The various abilities you (and your squaddies) use are not unlike Bioshock plasmids.  They're more like magical powers, really, and this time they're on a cooldown instead of needing to pick up special ammo to use them.
  • You'll come across various scraps of paper to read and even audio logs that you can play back, something that Bioshock also did to enhance the environment. 
So, basically, it's like if BioShock came above ground and out in the open, you can travel all across the country via cutscene, you actually get to order around two people (which adds to the depth of the tactical combat) and your character can actually talk (using a Mass Effect-like interface).  Yes, there is a lot of resemblance to Mass Effect overall, but the flavor is more Bioshock than anything.
The "sleepwalkers" (civilians inflicted with an alien virus) remind me a lot of splicers:
1950s clothing meets physical disfigurement in people who are trapped in their own heads.
I would go even further and say that the Bureau is not only more like Bioshock than X-COM, but The Bureau is actually a pretty fantastic BioShock.  True, there's no player character inventory here, and the focus is less on survival horror, but The Bureau hits all the important bases while giving the player more freedom overall. 

Maybe this game should have been about facing down Splicers who were leaving Rapture as a result of the "bad end" in BioShock 1?   You'd still get your G-Men versus invaders, but with something the developers were much more attuned to delivering. 

Knowing this, it's interesting to read down all the reviews for The Bureau because the reviewer's score seems to be a reflection of how much they wanted it to resemble X-COM.  The more they were willing to let go of this, the higher they were willing to score the game.  Thus, it should be no surprise that Jim Sterling's unusually negative review made that the main point of the conclusion:
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified desperately wants to be liked, but by failing to satisfy in any direction, all it succeeds in being is a disappointment. It wants to be a strategy game without being a strategy game, it wants to be a shooter without being a shooter, and it wants to be XCOM without being XCOM. (Source)
That said, I was willing to let it go that this is no X-COM game, and consequently I generally like The Bureau, but I do have a few qualms with the game:
  • Your squaddies will get themselves incapacitated, bleeding out, rather quickly unless you stay near them and babysit them constantly.  This isn't necessarily a bad point if you consider part of the challenge of the game is learning how to place your squaddies in such a way that they're more useful than liability.  Yet, it can still be annoying, particularly because your squaddies are bad at staying put where you ordered them to go.
  • It's all prefab maps, no procedural generation methods.  There's missions and side missions, and you go between them by simply selecting where they are on a map of the country.  I guess people who prefer hand-crafted content would prefer this method.
  • The story goes overboard.  I was hoping it'd be a secret war fought between undercover aliens and 1950s men in black.  Instead, we get a fullscale invasion by an expeditionary alien force that completely wipes out the chain of command in Washington DC and invokes a full communication blackout for the civilians in the entire country while performing radical terraforming that includes the creation of gigantic alien structures that can be seen from miles away.  How am I supposed to pretend to be covering that up?!
  • At some point during the development, the developers gutted the research and development mechanic in the game.  Instead, your agents get all sorts of outlandish abilities from the very start, including cloaking devices and the ability to spawn laser turrets on command.  This is happening in the very start of the invasion, during the tutorial mission, no alien technology recovered, the plot just says scientists had been experimenting with elerium.   Yeah, right: X-COM is apparently more capable at its fledgling beginning in the 1950s than about 45 years later when Earth is invaded in the first game.  The result really does feel like Bioshock plasmids have been pulled out of nowhere.
  • The enemies are even deadlier than they are in games that take place in the canon future of the game.  We've got sectoids coming at us piloting mechs, enemy gunships bombarding us from the air, drones flying around, ect.  It just seems more overwhelming than a bunch of 1950s G-Men using cobbled together alien technology would have any hope of opposing.
I guess I could overlook all of this.  Most of it is nerd complaints, anyway: canon is and always was the developers' plaything that they care about less than the fans.  Once you get that out of the way, what have you got left?  A gorgeous, fairly-competent (I never said "perfect") tactical shooter with a decent (if tactless) plot worthy of a good B-movie. At least a 7/10.

I actually sort of like one really unique gameplay mechanic The Bureau does: the idea of being in a squad of three that must distract their enemies.  Basically, if you attack the enemy while you're under fire, you'll be incapacitated in seconds, even if you're behind cover.  What you need to do is take turns between yourself and your various squaddies, wearing down the enemies while they're shooting at your allies, remaining in cover if they're shooting at you.  This is particularly the strategy you will be using when facing big, nasty enemies like mutons.  For the average grunts, it's mostly a matter of using cover against them: they can't advance on somebody in cover but, if you can surround them, they will have no cover of their own.
Don't underestimate those abilities: they're game-breakingly powerful, at times.
If I had to isolate an undermining factor of the gameplay mechanic in The Bureau, it's that your various squad abilities are simply too powerful.  Calling in something like an artillery strike can pretty much wipe out all of your enemies with minimal risk to yourself or your squaddies.  There are taunt, scatter, and lift abilities that force enemies out of cover, possibly right into land mines or laser turret arcs.  Nearly every ability is as potent as these and, even though they are on fairly long timers, why use strategy when you have a big, "I win" button at your disposal?

Oh well.  In the end, The Bureau should prove a fun enough experience, and what else do we play games for?  I look forward to playing this one right up until it inevitably torpedoes its own story in the conclusion.


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