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Dwelling Under The Sun

Outside of trying to make my own little project, the last couple weeks' free time was largely spent in They Are Billions, Dungeon of the Endless, and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (again).

They Are Billions:

The real time strategy genre was largely cemented and popularized by Dune II: The Building Of A Dynasty and then hijacked by everyone wanting to take it everywhere.  It's been over 25 years since Dune II, and I would not be surprised if there were thousands of real time strategy games released since then.  So tell me: why should I not be completely burned out from ever wanting to play another real time strategy game ever again?

They Are Billions mixes things up a bit.  At the core of the game is basically everything you can find in your typical example: gather gold, wood, stone, iron, and oil.  Plop down buildings.  Build units.  Set them up on your hotkeys and away they go.  However, it does a few very important things differently:
  • Instead of a faction versus faction conflict (like 99% of all RTS ever, though there have been exceptions) it's a versus environment game.  You are building a settlement in a zombie-ridden apocalypse, which entails both clearing land of the shambling masses and surviving the occasional raid.
  • It's basically a survival game played from a real time strategy game perspective.  The goal is not to beat the other guys, the goal is to survive.  The final waves of zombies are virtual rivers of undead.
  • The zombies use optimized algorithms that allow for thousands of them to be on the map (albeit not literal billions).  The sheer number of baddies being simulated would bring other RTS to a crawl (and, at times, They Are Billions is a bit slow trying to handle them all).
  • The maps are procedural generated.  Choosing a map just chooses the generation scheme.
  • It has an adjustable difficulty level, both in how long you have to survive and how thick the zombies are, so you can keep coming back again and again.
  • You can pause the game, an uncommon feature for a real time strategy game.  This adds a more thoughtful layer than usual, and is highly necessary to attempt to reach adequate efficiency to survive the zombie hordes.
  • A steampunk setting.  Comes with neat little ticktock clockwork sound effects and visuals, and an adrenaline-pumping score.
In summary, They Are Billions' survival mode is very much a pressure cooker scenario.   The zombies get tougher and come at you in bigger and bigger waves as the game moves on.  It is both heaven and hell for a turtler: sure, the purpose is to fortify against enemy hordes but, if you just sit and wait, you'll be crushed.  To win, you need to expand... and be very efficient at it.  Confounding this, the zombies are always trying to get in!  It is an addicting, fun formula. 

They Are Billions is not perfect, still in early access, promising a campaign mode down the line to supplement its survival mode.  Perhaps the most damning trait the current version is random map generation can cause difficulty to vary wildly from game to game.  However, it is already a darling among streamers, inviting the public to come in to watch them fail, again and again.  Of course, some people are actually good at the game, rocking a top difficulty, and considering its difficulty that garners more attention yet!

Overall, a pretty solid investment for $20, perhaps real time strategy has a niche yet.

Dungeon Of The Endless:

I would have sworn I wrote about this game on this blog before.  I am probably thinking of my old Steam review.   Well, it's basically a cross between a board game, a tower defense game, and a roleplaying game, and it's pretty awesome and intense.

Somehow, the game is cursed: it deserves a lot more attention than it got, both from me and the world in general.  Now, it's already three years old, and has not been patched since 2016, the same year it was re-released on the XBox One and iPad.

I've been playing it with an old high school buddy and we've been having fun.  Then he looked up a guide and we started to follow it, and it became a bit less fun.  I think the primary appeal of Dungeon of the Endless is it introduces a number of important decisions.   Everything is nicely balanced around the idea of give and take, dicey risks.  If you follow a guide, your decisions are taken from you, and this neuters its appeal.

Skyrim: Special Edition: Again:

Speaking of games that were made topical by recent re-releases, Skyrim is six years old, but just keeps coming back!
  • Two years ago (October 2016) a "special edition" was released with enhanced textures and all of the expansion packs.
  • It made big controversy in the middle of last year (August 2017) when they released a framework for selling mods, that players can pay for, called the Creation Club, also supported by Skyrim's post-apocalyptic younger sibling, Fallout 4.  People are still raiding patch posts with ASCII middle fingers.
  • Just two months ago (November 2017) they released a virtual reality version on the Playstation 4.  This has yet to reach the PC, although a Vive-exclusive version of Fallout 4 is here.
  • That same month, a version of Skyrim was released on the Nintendo Switch.  It's pretty much the Special Edition, albeit on a screen too small to appreciate the texture, but now you can fit this huge world in the palm of your hands. 
Considering I have spent over 600 hours between the original Skyrim's release and that of the special edition, I find myself in very familiar territory.  Familiarity is a comfortable place, but also builds contempt.
Skyrim is not without its faults.
  • The above horse's ass sticking out of the ground is just one of those janky, uniquely Creation Engine things we've come to know and subtly resent the disruption of our immersion about. 
    • The buggered physics of the plates that float just slightly off the tables until the player picks something up.
    • Things flying off tables as characters walk too near or sometimes for no clear reason at all.  No wonder they call it Havok physics.
    • The manic shuffle of characters standing on stairs, the engine arguing which stair their feet should properly rest upon.  
    • Giants that can and will bounce your corpse into orbit.
    • Ragdolls like B-movie stunt mannequins. 
    • The pathfinding, powerful enough to take a character from one side of the world to the next, but too stupid to walk between two stalagmites without a lengthy think.  
    • Unlike player characters, NPCs can't jump... but they do warp at times.
    To an experienced player of Creation Engine games, this level of inadequacy is almost comforting, like a handicapped old acquaintance.
  • The end game balance falls to shambles, once I figured out why I largely gave up trying to find a balanced experience, every game-breaking problem at high levels that I mentioned five years ago is still there.  The developers either do not play this game at higher levels, or have no idea how to fix it.
  • Though unable to completely fix the balance issues, the community has used the creation kit create a mod to fix literally thousands of other mistakes.  Unfortunately, if you run the game with this mod, it's treated like any other mod: achievements are disabled.
Part of me wonders why I'm playing Skyrim.  I never did finish The Witcher 3, and it's an all around better game.  I can say the same about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  Both are open world games that have better gameplay, setting, and all-around solidity than Skyrim, so what gives?  I think the answer is that same familiarity; I was craving a comfort zone for some reason.  Skyrim, in all its broken majesty, is a place I know like the back of my hand.
The hook that got me back in was one of those "paid mods," survival mode.  Enticing ramifications include:
  • The introduction of the need to eat, sleep, and stop from freezing brings a whole new facet of play.  
  • I don't mind that it disables fast travel, on account of how I prefer not to fast travel anyway.  Now, it feels like an important part of the game.
  • No natural health restoration is kind of enticing, from a hardcore perspective.  That said, it's sort of unnecessary considering everybody in Skyrim knows how to cast a healing spell.  
  • Something not enticing is the reduction of carry weight and addition of weight to formerly weightless things like lockpicks and arrows.  That has been a real kick in the dragonborn jimmies.  Inventory management was always one of Skyrim's weakest links, and this just makes it worse.
The important part about survival mode is that it changed just enough to be worth giving the game another try.

Too bad I had to drop a few dollars on it, as it used to be free, but I suppose that's the whole debate about the creation club, isn't it?  It was only a few bucks, though, and it was worth it to me.
Since I knew that the game breaks at higher levels, I set up a number of additional self-enforced rules to keep things challenging:
  • No utilization of smithing-improved armor or weapons is allowed on my main character.  I can give them to my follower, whose feeble AI brain needs all the help it can get, but in players' hands they simply break the game.
  • My primary means of interacting with the world needs to be completely magicka based.  This limits my influence to my magicka reserves, and my direct damage output to the hard-coded limits imposed by spells.  This does not prevent the broken magic versus melee balance from existing, but it does put the player on the more challenging end of it.
  • The aforementioned survival mode is enabled.
No need to bump that difficulty above default settings: this is as balanced as Skyrim gets. Granted, if I were extremely hardcore about it, there's more I could do:
  • Simply don't smith any gear at all.  Why introduce additional imbalance into the world?  
  • Forbid cheap advancement methods like casting Muffle over and over again.
  • Don't wear enchanted gear that can reduce the costs of spell casting certain spells at or near enough zero.
  • Forbid the application of the endless meat shields provided by the Conjuration spell school.  
  • Pretend the healing spells from the restoration school don't exist, so there's no direct mana to health conversion, thereby preserving the difficulty introduced by survival mode disabling normal health regeneration and requiring I lean on other means.
But I decided not to because, even played in such a way as to mitigate the damage, Skyrim's endgame balance is designed around being broken.  As such, you have to be willing to cheese it just a little in order to make smooth progress.
As if I was not dumping too much time into the PC version, the Switch version arrived from GameFly, and I gave it a spin.  The Creation Club, and its access to survival mode, is not currently available on the Switch, nor mod support in general.  This limits it to being the same game I already invested 600 hours in, albeit now played in considerably more consolitus-hobbled interface.  I should probably send this rental back... but there is something appealing about having this slice of nostalgia so readily accessible to me, it's like holding a little slice of home in the palms of my hand.

What would be better than re-living my wasted hours in Skyrim?  Actually being there in VR.  The hacks I could pull together now is not adequate: I want a well done VR Skyrim that fully supports motion controllers.  It's probably not going to happen, especially on the Oculus.  I suppose I could see how the Oculus hacks for Fallout 4 are coming along... but why would I want to be there?  Dystopias are dystopian.  I need Skyrim in VR for the PC on Oculus.

Better yet, give us Elder Scrolls VI, VR or not.  7 years is far too long to wait for a sequel.
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