Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Witcher

The Witcher
Grade: C
Platform: Windows
Genre: Quasi-Medieval RPG
Steam: $9.99
GOG: $9.99 
Released: 2008

The Witcher is a pretty good game with some interesting flaws.  Developed by a Polish game company, based on a series of novels.

From a gameplay standpoint my main objection is that the combat is boring. This is often the case in games unfortunately.  With the Witcher combat consists of clicking on an enemy, waiting until your mouse pointer turns orange, clicking again, and repeating.  While this is going on Geralt is doing all sorts of acrobatic and well animated moves, but all you're doing is clicking every now and then.  Which isn't bad, but just kind of middle of the road boring.  Combat could have been a lot worse, I've played games where combat was a lot worse, and if middle of the road boring combat is the biggest gameplay problem then the game is doing well.

Since the Witcher is an RPG, not a brawler, combat is sort of secondary anyway.

Leaving aside the mediocre combat system, the rest of the game mechanics are solid and familiar.  They've got a nice alchemy system, which integrates with the game and it's world well, you wander around, barging into people's houses and taking their stuff and no one cares.  On a modern PC loading time is fine, it may have been a bit laggy back in 2008.  And thanks to the Enhanced Edition the graphics are updated and don't look as jaggy as you'd expect from a 2008 title.

Overall the game plays well and is a solid C.

If that was all it had to offer, the Witcher would likely have passed unnoticed despite having solid if standard mechanics.

But in an RPG the setting and character are often a lot more important than the mechanics, they can make or break a game, and in the Witcher's case they make it, and also produce some flaws worth discussing.

There are two main ways to approach an RPG, the first is what might be called the Anything You Want School of RPG's: a giant sandbox of an open world and a total blank slate of a main character.  That approach is nice in that your character can be absolutely anything you want.  That approach has problems in that designing a story around a total blank slate of a character is neigh impossible, and sometimes you get story on rails in a way that feels really awkward and forced since the story (which is always really vague and bland when they take this approach) will often wind up going in a direction contrary to your idea of your character.  Bethesda clearly loves this school of RPG games.

The other approach, which might be called the Be Our Character School of RPG's takes the opposite direction.  There is no character customization, of if there is it's extremely limited, because the game is about you playing their character, not playing any character you want.  The advantage of this approach to RPG game design is that the developers can write a much tighter story, can include complexities and details that would not really be possible with a more generic character.  The disadvantage is that the plot is on rails by design and you may not like how the story develops.  The Witcher takes this approach.

You play Geralt of Rivia, one of an elite group of professional monster hunters called Witchers, and apparently one of the very few remaining Witchers since there were pogroms that wiped out most of the others.

They go for the main character has amnesia trick to explain why you're so totally unfamiliar with everything, which is a bit cheesy but they pull it off with less awkwardness than I've seen in other media trying the same thing.

At the core of the Witcher's plot and setting are issues of social justice.  Which is a bit of irony since the Witcher is often held up by gamergate as an example of a great game that infuriates the "SJW's" they imagine want to ruin their fun.

The TL;DR is that humanity was imported to the world the Witcher is set on, and promptly began exterminating and oppressing the native population of elves, dwarves, and gnomes.  While the game is lily white (more on that in a moment), the non-humans stand in for various oppressed groups, most clearly Jews.  That conflict is central to the plot of the game, and as a technical non-human (Witchers start off human and are modified to get extra combat power in a way that also makes them sterile) your part in the conflict is muddled.

The ethnic Polish population of Poland has a long and not at all happy history with the ethnic Jewish population of Poland.  There have been Jews living in Poland since long before Poland became a unified nation, and for a long time Jews got along well in the Kingdom of Poland.  Then Poland started engaging in the unfortunately very common European practice of oppressing the Jewish population, engaging in periodic pogroms, and ultimately in Poland this turned into widespread cooperation with the Nazis (at leas when it came to killing Jews) during WWII resulting in over 90% (around 3 million) of Polish Jews being killed, and after the war an en environment so hostile that almost all surviving Jews fled rather than continue living in Poland.  In the 1930's over 3.4 million Jews lived in Poland.  Per the 2011 census there were 7,353 Jews in Poland.  It was in Poland, not Germany, where Hitler's Final Solution was most thoroughly implemented.

That's the necessary history and background to see the Witcher and it's portrayal of non-human oppression against.

And the writers did a good job here.  Some of the bigotry expressed in game against non-humans is taken almost word for word from antisemitic myth, at one point in game you find a book describing non-humans swearing a pact to eradicate all humans and sealing it by drinking the blood of human babies, the parallel to the blood libel is unmistakable.

For all that humans are undoubtedly invaders and oppressors, the game doesn't present the situation entirely black and white.  The main non-human resistance group is unmistakably terrorists and there are legitimate reasons to oppose their methods, and legitimate reasons to think that their methods may be necessary, but their motive and goal is clearly shown in game as being valid.  There's quite a bit of Israel vs. Palestine in the game.

There are very few black and white moral choices in game, and most of the choices you make do have at least some impact later in the game.  I'm overall quite happy with that part.

That said, the Witcher does have problems.  As an American the ethnic homogeneity is striking and weird, especially given the centrality of ethnic and religious strife to the game itself. Everyone is white, even the non-humans are all white.  Given how very white Poland is it isn't entirely as odd as it might seem, but as an American it stands out in a bad way.  Especially since in theory there are non-white humans in game, just down in an empire to the south that had a recent war with the northern kingdoms.  You'd think there might at least be some traders, prisoners of war, and so on.

Some defenders of the game claim it's all a matter of historic accuracy, that since the game is based on historic Poland of course there wouldn't be anyone but white people.  This doesn't really hold up as a justification for several reasons.  To begin with, there were non-white people in medieval Europe.  They weren't common, but they did exist.  The idea that Europe existed as a perfectly white place until the modern era is simply false.  There's a blog devoted to examples of people of color in early European art.

There's also the fact that the game doesn't actually care about historic accuracy (and talking about hisoric accuracy in a game featuring elves and magic is more than a bit pointless anyway).  The game has a private investigator, a profession that didn't exist until very recently, a medic using modern crime scene autopsy jargon, people casually talking about mutations and genes, and flat-Earth atheist scientists sneering at the mere superstition of magic when people are literally teleporting across continents and throwing fire from their fingertips.

Given all that the idea that "historic accuracy" would have prevented the inclusion of people of color is clearly preposterous.

More important is the treatment of women, and how that mixes with some of the odd anachronisms in the game.

The Witcher is one of the few AAA titles to really include nudity, and it handles the sex and nudity with all the maturity of the average 12 year old kid snickering over some porn they found on their phone.  This, unfortunately, is about par for the course when it comes to sex in gaming.  Geralt can have sex with various women through the game, generally by giving them a particular gift though some women have various quests.  After having sex with a woman, the game presents you with a card showing what is claimed to be the woman in question partially nude.

I say "what is claimed to be the woman", because there was obviously no communication between the 3D modeling team and the artists who drew the sex cards.  For the most part the in game characters don't even slightly resemble the characters on their matching sex card.

Oddly, despite the models in game featuring full female nudity, the sex cards are more restrained and have bare nipples at the most.  There is no male nudity in game, because of course there isn't.

A least one of the sexual encounters is clearly exploitative, though you can choose not to have sex there I found it distasteful to include at all, especially since making the situation non-exploitative would have been simple.

There's also several costume choices that go against the established setting simply for a bit of titillation.  The Witcher is set in a quasi-medieval universe, typical human women wear floor length dresses, long sleeves, and sometimes headscarves, though several women (mostly lower class) also have a lot of cleavage.  

Yet, the two most significant named female characters wear miniskirts for their normal costumes, and Triss' party dress is even skimpier.  Which just jumps out and screams "hi male audience, get a load of these gams!" In a society where women are beaten, oppressed, and wear long dresses the sudden appearance of very short skirts on two women who are portrayed as being respected (or at least feared) by society is jarring and doesn't fit the universe as it is presented.  It comes across as pandering to the presumed heterosexual male audience in a way that breaks suspension of disbelief.

The Dyrad simply doesn't wear clothes at all, and that's fine.  But she's also described as being from a group of warrior archer types who are fighting a desperate last stand to defend their forest from human incursion.  So naturally she walks with super exaggerated hip sway and jello boob physics, which is also just pandering to the presumed straight male audience.

I've got no objection at all to sex in games, but the way sex was included in the Witcher is, at best, trying too hard to be cool and adult in a way that comes across as very juvenile.

The bigger problem, for me, is that the developers decided to include frequent references to domestic violence, presumably as a way of showing how gritty and realistic their game was.  Yes, there was a lot more domestic violence in the past, but in the Witcher it's hard to find a woman who isn't beaten by the men in her life.

None of that makes the Witcher a bad game from my privileged point of view, but it does make it a game with significant problematic elements.  Some people will doubtless chose not to play it based on the existence of those elements, others may find it enjoyable despite them.

Overall it's an interesting game set in an interesting universe. Despite the problems, I enjoyed playing it and will probably play the sequels.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Harbinger, or maybe Battlevoid: Harbinger, the Android version

Grade: C+
Platform: Android
Genre: Space roguelike
Play Store: $3.99
In App Purchases: None!
Released: 2015

There's also a Windows version on Steam, this is not a review of that game.  This is a review of the Android version.

BugByte released a game a long time back called Battlestation, which recently went through a forced name change when someone called trademark, and is now called Battlevoid.  Harbinger is sort of a sequel, or set in the same universe, or vaguely related in that it recycles a lot of assets, setting, and so on.  Including the imaginatively named characters like "Scientist", "Marine", and "Pilot".

It's a Finnish company, and there are a few bits of translation weirdness, or maybe they're just really bad at writing dialog and it sounds equally robotic and off in Finnish.

But you didn't get the game for the dialog, or the character names.  No, you got the game to fly boldly into space, meet strange aliens, and blow them to pieces with missiles, lasers, plasma, and death rays!

And Harbinger does a fine job of allowing that to happen in an enjoyable way.

You start each game with a single completely unarmed ship a tiny bit of cash (scrap), and charge into space to be destroyed instantly because you bought weapons for your ship instead of buying a hanger for fighters.

If you want to win, go fighters early.  It is possible to win by going with a different early weapon mix, and as you get access to more and better weapons swapping out fighters for support craft is a good plan, but your best chance of survival at the beginning is to buy a single energy cannon and as many hangers of the cheapest fighters you can afford.   Eventually, if you're lucky, you can buy extra ships to augment your fleet, buy or find better weapons, and cut through enemy fleets like a hot knife through butter until you either win (if you're playing a normal game) or until the enemy weapons get strong enough that you finally die in a heroic fireball (if you're playing on endless mode).

When you first begin playing your choice of starting ships is very limited, but as you play you unlock other ships by playing (not by in app purchases!) which allows you to start from a stronger position.  Until you've unlocked a few of the better ships playing on Hard is just a different way of saying suicide.

Gameplay is pretty simple, double tap to move, your ships will automatically attack anything in range but you can also tap enemy ships and target them with specific weapon types.  This would seem to be a bit boring for a game, but it works.  It's a clean, minimal, design that is nevertheless enjoyable and fun.  I've clocked over 40 hours of gameplay so far.

Part of the fun is mixing weapons, finding optimal weapon combos, and so on.  There's a few gratuitously OP weapons in game (hi Mega Plasma Cannons), but if you're playing a non-endless game you won't get access to many of those before the game ends, and if you're playing on endless the upscaling of weapons over time makes your old "overpowered" weapons scrap fodder as you find new versions that do more damage at longer range.

In addition to finding weapons from the wrecks of enemy ships, you can also buy them for scrap at battlestations.  I've seen a few people complain that the selection at battlestations leaves a lot to be desired, and that's true.  But that's also part of playing a roguelike game.  You're at the mercy of the Random Number Generator, and the RNG is a cruel and fickle god not swayed by your whining.  Some games you'll get a Celestial Death Ray in the first sector you clear, other games you'll be limping along (if you can survive) on Human Energy Guns and Projectile Guns through the third galaxy.

It isn't a game with a lot of real strategic depth, but it's an excellent game for killing a few minutes while waiting in line, or even spending thirty or forty minutes just for fun.  And it's well worth the $4 you'll pay for it.