Review — War Crimes

Of the many novels written in the Warcraft universe, I’ve actually read a scarce few of them. To be honest, this is only my second. However, having played WoW off an on for the majority of my life, and having many brothers and friends that are well versed in Blizzard and Warcraft lore, I’m quite familiar with the characters and events, generally speaking. I won’t give spoilers here, though, for as familiar as you may be with the story before and after this book, the novel itself does contain some pretty neat, self-contained things.

War Crimes is a somewhat recent addition to what surprised me to be a collection of over twenty canon books, and chronologically it was the latest addition to the universe until Before the Storm published last month. It takes place between the Mists of Pandaria expansion and the Warlords of Draenor expansion, serving as a segway from one to the other. It explores the trial of Garrosh Hellscream, the former Warchief of the Horde after he basically killed thousands of people and was, to put it mildly, a jerk to everyone, even the people who should have been his friends.

I’ll be honest—I didn’t expect much of this book. The main plot is a trial, and I hated Garrosh’s character simply because he’s boring. In fact, if I were to buy a Warcraft book, it probably would have been one of my last choices for those reasons. When I’m reading a story like this, it’s generally because I want to dig deeper into a universe I’m already familiar with, and not only does this book basically not have that, but it doesn’t have very much action in it, either. It is, as you might expect, almost entirely placed in the Temple of Xu’en, where the trial takes place.

But the book is fair. To call it a bad read or a waste of my time would be out of line. It does the characters justice while also showing different sides of them. It explores the morality and virtues of many of the main characters in Warcraft lore, and you see different sides of them you might not otherwise notice. Flashbacks are used as evidence in the trial (via magic, of course), so we also get to see some interactions between characters outside this moment in time, and that can be really interesting when you didn’t realize those characters knew each other at X point.

I’d say one of the best things about this book is that it’s a balancing act of two parts, and it does a great job. Writing a book (or any piece of media) based on a game where the player has a direct impact on the environment or story of that game is hard. You have to either pretend the player doesn’t exist, which makes any player made choices seem inconsequential, or you make the player a main character, which only works if they don’t get to make their character. The second part is writing a part of the story that isn’t important enough to be essential to the gameplay, but is interesting enough to not waste the reader’s time.

War Crimes does a great job on both of these fronts. The players are the ones that managed to defeat Garrosh and put him in “prison”, but they aren’t necessary for the trial. Players want combat, and this part of the story has very little of it. You wouldn’t want a trial scene to be in your video game anyway, unless you’re playing Ace Attorney, in which case what is a bloodthirsty orc doing there? As far as being interesting but not essential, the story does a good job of that, too, exploring nuances of characters, as I’ve already explained. The ending of the story is a bit obvious if you’ve played the beginning of Warlords of Draenor, or have seen even the trailer of it, but nonetheless it’s a good read.

Overall, this book is a good read if and only if you are interested in understanding the personalities, flaws, or beliefs of the major characters in the Warcraft universe. You really get to know the characters as people in this book, not as the walking stereotypes they can sometimes fall under. If you want to read action scenes, understand the lore of Azeroth (or Draenor etc.), or read about the major events of the world, you’re better of picking up pretty much any other book in the universe.

As a side note, it dawned on me reading this book how little opinion Warcraft players probably have based on the characters in the lore. Basically any player will tell you that Cairne Bloodhoof, or Vol’jin, or Jaina Proudmoore are basically cool people. (Or at least they were, given various points of the story.) For as divisive as Warcraft tries to be—splitting the players into Alliance or Horde—I’ll bet 90% of the playerbase will be able to tell you which are the honorable, good characters from both factions, because while the lore tries to paint in broad strokes of “good and evil”, it does a great job at putting both of those extremes in either side.

Review — Heroes of the Storm (Jun. ’18 Edition)

Since Heroes of the Storm is basically the only game I play given how busy I am, I think it’s only fair that I take the time to dedicate a little bit of my blog to it every once in a while (beyond saying “I’m still playing HotS” in the monthly updates). Being an online, MOBA style game, it’s constantly getting new features and characters to play, so reviewing it at one stage of its development will be totally different from another, even in broad strokes like “state of the game” as I intend to talk about here.

So, for timeline context—the newest character and battleground were released a few weeks ago: Yrel and Alterac Pass. This is following the releases of Deckard Cain and Fenix.

Overall, Heroes seems to be in rough shape, even with the newest batch of content. Keeping myself updated on the subreddit for the game means reading a lot of complaints about how toxic people are (as with all MOBAs), how reporting other players does nothing and there’s no reason to do so, and how frustrating a lot of characters are to play against. There’s a power gap between newer characters and older ones simply because the system is advancing, albeit slowly.

Unfortunately, Heroes of the Storm was crippled from the beginning. The game’s foundation is an engine (at least) nine years old, as it started off as a mod to Starcraft II. This means that connectivity issues and overall capabilities are limited from the start, and it can’t compete with new stuff, given how fast the gaming industry evolves. This will always be the biggest issue with the game—it’s built on old foundation.

And you can see the aging in the game, too. Older heroes like Raynor have very simple abilities, such as “increase attack speed” or “push enemies back”, whereas heroes like Fenix have “fire a laser that spins around your hero twice, hurting and slowing enemies it hits as it passes”. This becomes a problem when most of the characters being picked in high level play are the ones that were released in the past few months.

Overall, Heroes of the Storm is pretty solid. The best thing about it is that the vast majority of games last 15-25 minutes, and only on rare occasions can you give or take 5 more minutes. It’s completely free, you can play with up to five friends, and there is absolutely no “buying power”. You simply can’t buy stuff that gives you the upper hand against your enemies. (The only thing is, as with most MOBA’s, you have to play a lot in order to be able to buy the characters with in-game currency. Not a lot, mind you, and there’s no hero that you can’t buy with in-game currency, but it’s worth mentioning.)

It does have loot boxes, which the entire gaming community hates right now, but honestly I think it’s fine in this case because it’s mostly cosmetic, and you get them at a reasonable rate.

The game is, as it always will be, at it’s best when you’re playing with friends that don’t take things too seriously. Being competitive is fine, but there’s something about MOBA’s that really churns up hatred for other people. So as long as you’re fine with losing, and you can have fun without blaming the people you’re playing with (even if it is their fault), you can have a good time.

Me — March ’18 Update

I’ve been pretty swamped with work lately. The last few weeks I’ve kept a notepad near my desk with a to-do list, because I’ve been having trouble keeping track of everything that needs doing. Because of that, the list always seems to be disappointingly long. I’ve been managing, though, and while I’ve run the risk of burning out and crashing a few times, I’ve managed to teeter on the edge quite well so far.

And as always, here’s the Monthly Update Topic Order™: blog, writing plans, video games, reading/listening, school, and other things.

Like last month, no blog changes are planned. I feel as though I’ve found a schedule that works really well with my school semester and work load. I’ve been posting “Me” posts pretty much every Wednesday even though they’re freebies, but that’s mostly because not a whole lot of “different” things have happened lately. I haven’t been playing D&D the last two months, for instance. I also don’t know what I’m going to do about Sunday posts. I’m not ready to dive back into Spear Gate. In fact, I’m writing this before Sunday’s post. I don’t have a clue what I’m going to do (or what I will have done, as you would see it). I’ll figure something out, obviously. I don’t want to just not publish on Sundays. Wait, I’ve got an idea. More on that later… Well, I mean yesterday, for you.

Which leads me to my writing plans. They’re pretty short and simple. I plan on outlining Part One of Spear Gate soon, and then going back to work on it. Lots of stuff will be different. I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to rewrite it from scratch for the most part. Lisa Stenton is doing pretty well. The second story was hard to write, and I’m hoping March’s won’t be so difficult. They also obviously need work, and if I’m going to publish twelve as a short story collection, they’ll need some serious edits. But as of now I’m still enjoying it and I think I’m certainly up to the task.

Video games. Not a whole lot to say, actually. I’m still mostly playing Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone. I’m eagerly awaiting the next expansion for the latter, because I’ve got a bunch of in-game money saved up for card packs. I’ve also been playing Dungeon of the Endless, but less so the last few days. It takes a big time commitment to play properly.

In conjunction with whenever I’m playing games, I’ve also had the time to (finally) relax and listen to podcasts, too. I’ve caught up on Writing Excuses, and I’ve also been listening to Julian Smith’s new podcast: Spellbound. Each episode is basically an in-depth discussion about a different topic such as space, psychology, technology, etc. The content isn’t out of the park amazing, but since I could start with Episode One as it aired, I’ve been keeping up. It’s nice to not have to play catch-up, like I’m still doing with Voice Acting Mastery. I’m still about two dozen hours away from being up-to-date with that one, as I’m at December of 2015 at the moment. Luckily that one doesn’t post a whole lot of new content. I’m not reading anything physically at the moment. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have the time, but reading has always felt like a chore, and with how busy I am, I just need to relax with my free time.

School has been fine. Actually, most of my classes allow me to express myself alongside peers in different ways, so that’s interesting. I have a writing class, an acting class, and a costume design class. None of them are as high maintenance as my classes were last semester, so I’m not stressing out over it. Being at school literally all day two days a week is exhausting, but it could be worse, of course.

Just as a parting thing, I just want to mention how much can change for me in the next few months. If everything goes exactly how I want it to, I’ll be travelling no less than three times this year, and that alone has me excited. I want to start doing more and seeing more, and just generally getting more out of life. I still like video games, but sitting at home and playing them all day makes me uneasy now, even if I have a day off. I have no news to report for now, but hopefully the May and June 2018 updates will be fun.

 

Review — Dungeon of the Endless

Dungeon of the Endless is weird. I played it for the first time yesterday (well, two days ago as of this publishing), and the only reason I did play it was because a friend bought it for me and wanted to play it with me. I actually had zero interest in it. We booted up the game, it’s pretty small, and then while I was looking at stuff he just started talking/explaining.

I’ll be honest. I wasn’t really listening. I was in a weird mood where I was sort of tired so the enjoyment I was getting was pretty much solely just spending time with a friend (and brother). The game isn’t really fast paced, so it worked. I could just follow orders as he told me to walk in that room, put on this item, etc. Somewhat through osmosis I slowly started picking up the controls and the objective, and I have to say…

This game is amazing. It just does so much right for an indie game. Let me explain how it works. Imagine you’re in a giant tower infested with monsters that want to murder you. The only way to get up is to power the elevator, but the elevator is in a different part of the building on every single floor, so you have to carry the power source to it on every single floor. Problem is, there’s monsters everywhere. Trying to kill you, naturally. So you have to build defenses and power generators while you explore the floor, looking for the next elevator and (hopefully) not running into too many monsters.

Sound boring? Well, obviously it’s a bit more complicated than that. Each room you enter is randomly generated. It could have food you need. It could have an adventurer you can recruit (randomly finding them is the only way to unlock them). It could maybe be encapsulated by a toxic cloud. The fun never stops! You could have an amazing layout on one floor, have it be a cake walk and saunter into the next floor, only to find that you have no way of powering any of the rooms and there’s just too many monsters. The power of random.

It’s just a blast for a variety of reasons. It’s multiplayer friendly (up to 4 player), and is pretty much the same experience regardless of how many people play. If you’re playing single player you control four guys, and if you have three friends playing with you each of you control one guy. The game isn’t fast paced, there’s a lot of strategy involved, so if one of you wants to take a bathroom break or needs to go do something real quick, they can give control of their hero to somebody else and the others can keep playing. (Also, it’s soundtrack is great. The whole aesthetic of the game, especially the music, reminds me of Faster Than Light. Which, I’m just now realizing, I never reviewed! Next week.)

Is it without faults? Of course not. It’s biggest drawback is that in order to win a playthrough, you have to dedicate anywhere from 4-6 hours, because each of the 12 floors can take upwards of half an hour, assuming you don’t die. You can save it and play later, but you’ll probably forget what modules you’ve researched and what your characters were good at. Also, the interface isn’t the best. If you’re in a room with a dozen monsters and two friends, it can be really hard to tell how much health each of your characters have. And switching between characters you control can sometimes be a pain, too. The wording of items is suboptimal, too. You can see an item in a shop that says “Gives ‘Pack of Dogs’ Skill”, but without knowing off the top of your head what that skill does, the only way to find out is to buy it (or use the internet).

I’ve had the game for two days (one and a half, really), and I’ve already put 16 hours into it. It’s just a fantastic game, and if you have the time, it can be both mentally challenging and physically relaxing.

Parting warning. The game has two difficulties: “easy”, and “too easy”. I’ve never won on easy.

Me — Spending Time

This post is sort of a ramble. It’s neither a rant nor a lecture: just talking about me and my lifestyle.

I’m one of those people that isn’t ever satisfied if I’m only doing one thing. If something doesn’t require 100% of my focus, then I’ll almost certainly be doing something else in addition to it. Usually this means podcasts while playing video games, driving, drawing, etc. The last several weeks I’ve had nothing better to do, so I blasted through Oathbringer while I played a ton of Heroes of the Storm.

It’s sort of odd, because I feel like I’m wasting my time if I’m only doing one thing at a time (with the exception of writing, of course). I get virtually nothing out of playing Heroes, so even that sometimes feels unproductive. Couldn’t I be doing something better with my time while I listen to audiobooks? Like laundry, or general house tidying?

I know this probably sounds a bit crazy. I’m totally aware of how obsessed I am with this much constant productiveness, but it’s also who I’ve grown comfortable with being. If playing a video games with an audiobook in the background feels unproductive, I bet you can imagine how it feels when I’m not even listening to that audiobook. But this means I’m always getting things done.

Recently I’ve also taken on meditation, which interacts very strangely with that philosophy. Meditation is all about stopping and just enjoy the moment—doing absolutely nothing. I’ve heard lots of great things about meditation in the past, and while I do feel its helped me be more present in the moment, I don’t think it’s been groundbreaking as far as changing my lifestyle. Admittedly, it can still feel like a chore sometimes, but it works pretty well with reducing spikes in anxiety.

I’ve found that this whole mindset of “everything must have a productive purpose” is hard for other people to understand. I don’t really watch TV shows. If you want to get anything out of it you can’t do anything on the sidelines, and they’re often dozens, if not hundreds of hours long. Movies can be okay—you get through the entire beginning and end of the story in less than three hours—but even then I don’t make a habit of watching them. If I could, I’d watch classic movies a lot, though. I feel there’s a lot I could get out of them, it’s just hard for me in particular to get access to them.

And yet, where has all this gotten me? I personally don’t think this has given me any sort of upper hand among my peers as far as experience goes. If somebody asks me what I’ve been doing with my time not watching the shows and movies everyone has seen, I really wouldn’t know what to tell them. I wouldn’t say I’ve read a large amount of audiobooks, or played lots of different kinds of games. I don’t feel as though I’m much further ahead than anyone my age, really.

I suppose that’s probably pretty good. Maybe it means that no matter what you do or what you’ve done, somebody my age still has all the time in the world to be or do something completely new and worthwhile.

Review — Battle Chasers: Nightwar

It’s been a while since I’ve played a traditional turn-based RPG. I mean, my favorite video game ever is Dragon Quest VIII, which was released over 13 years ago, and I honestly haven’t played many games in that genre since. (Dragon Quest XI still has no western release date, but it’s on the agenda.) So here’s a (mostly) spoiler-free review of the game!

So when I got my hands on Battle Chasers, it was like an itch that hadn’t been properly scratched in a long time. The last JRPG I’ve actually put time into is probably the original Suikoden, and it’s been several years. Now I didn’t know much about Battle Chasers going into it, I just knew that the art was cool and some online people I enjoy praised it. When I found out it was a turn based I was delighted.

This game was just a blast from start to finish. The opening cinematic(s) did a great job establishing the personality of each of the characters, and it did some interesting role reversals that were cool to see. As I played it, I found that the game really had everything I wanted: a meaningful progression of power (leveling up is really impactful to the experience), a sense of exploration, rewarding the player for being investigative, a clear sense of what being a completionist would entail (meaning “what can I do to see all there is to see?”), and challenging them with optional puzzles and quests.

This game was also a lot longer than I expected it to be. It took me 45 hours to beat it 100% (not New Game+), and if I had the time I would have no qualms with going through it again. New Game+ is cool because, while it isn’t necessarily “harder”, you can much more easily get Legendary quality gear and feel powerful, even if the monsters you’re fighting are 6 levels above you (when the maximum level is 30).

My favorite thing about this game was that it had time to put in lots of unnecessary things. All of the dungeons are randomly generated, so the puzzles you see the first time will be different when you revisit it. (This is a double-edged sword I’ll get to in a moment.) It has lots of side quest type things that feel rewarding. There’s also lots of cool lore books that are interesting reads, and the narration in general can be pretty sassy.
Ex: The game gives you an option to throw money down a well. When you throw 1000g in (a good chunk if you’re about a third of the way through the game), the narrative replies with something along the lines of “You have enough gold to feed an entire village for about a month, but you decide it’s best wasted by throwing it into a well.” It’s neat because this game very much adopts the philosophy of “just because your character can do it, doesn’t mean it’s the right choice to make”. A lot of the game actually seems to be modeled as a Dungeons & Dragons type adventure.

 

 

I do have two problems with the game, though. The first is that it can be somewhat unclear with the consequences of something. When you find an artifact, the game makes a big deal telling you that they’re valuable, which implies you should keep them, even though you have the option to sell them for a different type of currency. What it doesn’t tell you is that this is literally the only use for artifacts. They’re meant to be sold. Don’t hold on to them. What’s more, some of the optional bosses can be encountered accidentally if you’re “adventurous” enough, and there’s actually no way to know the power level of what you might be getting into. (There’s a mini boss in one area that’s four levels higher than the monsters inside, and he has a passive of reducing the party’s healing by 50% when you’re fighting him. He’s no joke!)

By far my biggest gripe with the game is how the “random” tiles in dungeons are placed, though. There’s a random encounter in the first dungeon with a skeleton, and you can choose to help him or refuse. If you refuse, he attacks you. If you help him, you can find him (randomly, again) in a later dungeon, and he attacks you there. Here’s the problem. Neither of these events are guaranteed to spawn in either dungeon. And what’s more, you have to do the first dungeon at least twice in order to take both options, because in both instances he’s a unique monster. So in order to fight every monster, you have to do it multiple times. The worst part is it was bugged for me, so I couldn’t go back to the first dungeon to fight him after I helped him in my first runthrough. So I had to do New Game+ in order to complete my monster book. This is terrible game design!

But really, it’s a fantastic game. I expected to beat it within 15 hours, but it had over 3 times that content for me. Overall it’s great, and it can be very challenging if you want it to be. Also, it has fishing. In my experience, every game that has time to add optional fishing stuff to it is going to be a good game.

Life — Upgrade!

So, I’ve finally gotten my new computer, and it’s a pretty interesting experience. All my life has been spent playing the hand-me-downs as far as video games are concerned. Usually, this means getting the old computer when my brother made a new one for himself. That is to say, the systems I had available could usually play all the newest games, but just barely. They would run poorly and the frame rate would be terrible— and this would already be at the lowest graphics settings possible.

So yesterday was the first day of an entirely new experience. When I played Overwatch, for example, there were many heroes I simply could not play. I couldn’t use sniper rifles because it required too much precision on a fast paced game. So I stuck with characters that didn’t really have to aim, and I was usually fine.

This new computer has literally transformed the way I play a game like that. I can do whatever I want, regardless of the circumstances, and now the only thing holding me back is my own skill. It feels great to be able to try new things and test my boundaries.

So, while I’ve only had it for a few days, I’m already super stoked. For me, the concept of opening a YouTube video and having the automatic quality adjuster playing HD without having to buffer is insane. My old computer wasn’t able to play seamless videos on high settings even if you gave it time to load!

One interesting thing to note is the fact that I couldn’t really even perceive graphics well enough to be jealous of other people. I would see one of my brother’s playing on his computer with high graphics and I wouldn’t notice much of a difference between what his game looked like and what my game looked like. But now that I’m doing it, I can feel how drastic the change is. It’s not even the visual aspect that I even care about. In a game like Heroes of the Storm, there were particle effects I had never experienced because of the graphics barrier. Little things like adding a targeting reticle on the ground as opposed to a highlighted circle.

As I wrote this blog post, in fact, I opened up the game. I entered practice mode, changed the graphics, restarted the game, and did it again to compare the two. This process took less than three minutes. With my old computer, it would take up most of that time just getting to the start menu!

The best part about all of this, is that it’s mine. As I said, most of my life has been spent with hand-me-downs, and indeed that’s pretty true in all aspects as I’m the youngest of six. But not only is this relatively high quality, but it’s also something I did entirely independently of anyone else (save the putting it together part). There was no charity here, nobody offering to help pay for a new computer because my old one stopped working. Just me deciding that enough is enough, and I can do this thing for myself for once.

That said, I probably won’t be doing a whole lot for myself again for a while. Computers are expensive!