Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Mask of the Betrayer

After the last post about the one-week resurgence of the Seminoles, I hope I don't have to eat my words this coming weekend. The new coaching staff already paid huge dividends last week - last year we'd have never won a game like that - but now it's time to have a little consistency, and boy do we have a chance to prove that coming up. This weekend, the 'Noles again hit the road to battle the #11 team in all the land, Virginia Tech. I think we can win; we just need the "good" 'Nole team to show up. If the bad one rolls in to Blacksburg... well, I don't want to have to think about it.

Mask of the Betrayer
Allow me to continue the sports-themed commentary while I note that Obsidian really hit a home run with the first expansion pack. I've made no secret that I hated the NWN2 OC probably more that the NWN1 OC for a number of reasons. One, the first act was essentially nothing but dungeon-romp filler, and it wasn't even good filler. It was essentially the same encounter trigger over and over until I just wanted to shoot myself. Two, the companions were generally bland and under-developed with the exceptions of Khelgar, Neeshka, and Sand (all of whom were obviously one of the designers' "special projects"). Three, there was a total lack of sidequests. Now this is certainly a viable strategy, but only if you're going to provide a tight central story... which there wasn't. It seemed only to be a conglomeration of locations thrown in so that different tilesets with blah encounters could be thrown into the same campaign.

I don't write the above simply to get off trashing other people's work. It was merely to show what I don't like so that, in comparison, MotB can be seen as the jewel it is. Everything Obsidian did wrong with the OC, they did right with MotB.

Oh, and fair warning. I discuss many spoilers about MotB here, so stop now if you are still playing.

First, my PC
A build that I first played around with when testing Mysteries of Westgate was a Dexterity-based Rogue 3/ Fighter 4/ Weaponmaster X character with maxed out Parry and feats including Whirlwind Attack, everything needed to get there, Advanced Parry, Weapon Specialization in rapier, Power Criticals, etc. The character premise was to use him alongside a high HP and major damage (i.e. Greatsword or similar) meatshield tank. The two charge in. If the enemies focus on the PC, I switch to Parry mode, making me almost impossible to hit, riposte when able, and allow the second tank to switch to Power Attack and take them down fast. The moment, the enemies switch focus to the second tank, I switch out of Parry mode, flank, and allow the +2d6 sneak bonus from my rogue levels, and allow my weapon-of-choice rapier to carve them up. I really fell in love with the concept, and so I brought it forward to MotB.

Therefore, my starting character was a Rg 3/Ft 4/WM 10 tielfling, so I was -1 level adjustment away from the 18 levels. I did switch my weapon of choice to shortsword and added a Weapon Finesse feat. I ended (I believe) as a Rg 5/ Ft 13/ WM 10 and had long since abandoned the need for a second tank to join me on the front lines, though Gann did accompany me in quite a few battles for old-time's sake.

So now let's discuss what MotB did right.

Good Stuff

1. No Over-Long Dungeons. OK, I'm a bit obsessive here, but I hate dungeons that can not be completed with one full-days' use of party resources augmented by a reasonable amount of one-shot items (potions, scrolls, etc.) with "reasonable" defined by the economy of the module. Nothing kills the immersion for me faster than having to rest (ostensibly sleeping, eating, and memorizing spells for eight hours) right outside the dungeon boss' door because - let's face it - after rampaging through a dungeon full of his minions, he probably wouldn't notice a group of four camped outside his bedroom, right? For the record, for anyone who thinks my bosses in the SG series were light-weights, this is the reason. You were supposed to face them with the tank "half-full."

Anyway, the OC did a horrible job with this (the githyanki compound anyone?), but I didn't notice this once with MotB. It made for a much more enjoyable game.

2. Companions. OK, light years better here. Again, Safiya and Gann were obviously the favored characters, as they were central to the main story, but even Kaelyn and Okku were integrated in well and had plausible rationales for both aiding and opposing the PC at various junctures. I especially enjoyed the (surprisingly) complex characterization of Kaelyn. After meeting her, I thought I had her pegged as the typical cleric and was pleasantly surprised to find several layers to her character centered around a non-selfish, yet nevertheless raging ambition. Plus, Obsidian just plain did a better job of having the characters interact with the PC. They spoke up in conversations where appropriate, disagreed with PC actions on occasion, and made several interjections in areas where they were more expert than the PC.

For completeness, I should mention that I don't generally go for the "freak" companions; Deekin pissed me off, for example, but this group didn't really feel like the freakshow to me. My party was a tiefling PC, a human, a half-celestial, and a hagspawn, so that was objectively a freak circus roaming Faerun, and it would have been worse had I added a bear-god or (dear me) One of Many.

Finally, the voice-acting was also pretty good for the companions I took with me: Safiya, Kaelyn (before the little wench betrayed me!), and Gann.

3. The Story/Sidequests. There weren't a ton of sidequests in MotB, though there were a few. But what few there were (such as the farmer's crazy daughter) were pretty well-integrated into the main story. And where MotB really shined was that story. It was first-rate. Not only was it "epic" without being a "shake the multiverse" story-arc, but it tied in a well-thought-out historical tragedy that combined the all-too-human elements of pride, betrayal, vengeance, mercy, and love. Two souls trapped by a dead god in an eternal torment that ensnares the PC, sending him (or her) on a planar journey that allows the hero to (1) save him/herself, (2) forever lay to rest the doomed lovers, (3) shatter the power of a vengeful god, and (4) end the "curse" that had been stalking the Rashemi wilds for generations. A pretty epic storyline without many of the traditionally epic fallbacks. To Obsidian and whatever writers/designers came up with it, I can only say bravo!

Maimed God (Potential) Part 2 Spoiler Follows
However, I have to say that I really grrrred when I saw the inclusion of Myrkul. It doesn't mean anything for Maimed God 1 which I'm currently making; I already have a specific deity in line for that one. But I have a 1-2 page story outline for a potential second part in which a king, returning from an adventure into the depths of Faerun, had suddenly gained the power to prophesy the death of mortals. Creepy enough, but when he prophesied the death of Helm at the hands of Tyr, it was a step too far. The hells themselves break loose, throwing the church of Tyr (and the PC) into action.

Who was the villain deity slated for that adventure? One able to grant the power to predict death? You guessed it! A not-quite-dead himself Myrkul! And it would have involved a bit of dream-scaping too and an attempt by the god's remains to re-establish his own life! What a pisser!
End of Spoilers

4. Spirit Eater. I have not the first idea how canonical this is. I suspect the answer is not at all, but what a great idea it was. It was both meaningful enough to require thought and planning but not so omnipresent as to be frustrating.

5. Area Design. Outstanding. The Astral Plane was a true work of art that was a real highlight of D&D games all time. Beyond that, Mulsantir was a well-designed town, though it, like the original Neverwinter, felt a bit sparsely-populated. (I think we did a much better job of making Westgate come to life, but I digress....) Finally, the shadow plane was a fabulous use of toolset lighting.

6. New Creatures and Tilsets. This is more from a builder's perspective, but the addition of treants, new dragon models, big cats, and more was greatly needed. Several new placeables and two new tilesets, especially the estate tileset, and new snow texturing were all welcome additions. I am already having to redo much of my previous Maimed God work just to take advantage of the new content.

Bad Stuff
Compared to what I liked about the expansion, what I didn't like will really be nitpicky.

1. Epic Non-Epic Monsters. What do they feed gnolls in Thay to make them such bad-asses? When I was a 1st-level pipsqueek in West Harbor, thank all the gods that those gnolls didn't attack! And really, with an army of foot-soldiers like that, how can Thay not conquer the world? Especially when you note that every one of the students in their academy can spam Horrid Wilting spells! It takes the PC an epic adventure to defeat the King of Shadows to learn spells of that power, but apparently every apprentice in Thay can fling Meteor Swarms at a whim.

Seriously, one of the things that turns me off of "epic" adventures normally is stuff like that. A well-done epic adventure requires a lot of creativity to frame challenges appropriate for the PC without doing stupid stuff to the monster manual. In my opinion, it is a sign of extreme laziness to just up the power of monsters so far beyond what they should ever attain. I could buy into a "hero" boss gnoll just like the PC is a "hero" human (or tiefling in my case), but a veritable army of them? Mercifully, this was rare in MotB.

2. Love Interests. It's not that I'm against them; it's just that they're so rarely well done, and MotB didn't do any better than most. It felt like the whole game, I got to say a couple nice things to Safiya, and then at the end I had earned enough goody-points and so she professed her undying love. I assume Gann is the same way. Needless to say, I'm hoping to better these "romances" by several orders of magnitude in TMGS.

One comment on the Bio-boards was also unflattering in this regard; the poster asked how, after surviving many encounters and near-death experiences together, the fact that I said something Safiya didn't agree with suddenly caused her to hate me. It's a good point. One would think that battling alongside one another would naturally build trust that would survive the occasional philosophical disagreement.

So I'm rethinking the way I'm going to track (hopefully more subtely) my own goody romance points. I'll further outline my thoughts later after I've thought through them a bit more, but the gist of it is that I'm considering a two-axis tracker similar to the spirit hunger bars from MotB. One axis will be "trust," which will build over time as obstacles are mutually overcome, and the other will be "romantic interest," which will be much more action and conversation-dependent. If just the first is high, friendship will develop. Both would need to be high to progress through the romance.

3. Music. This wasn't really all that bad; it was just blah. I actually listened to the music in the toolset as I worked before I actually played the game. In-game, I didn't notice it at all, but in the toolset, I just thought the tracks were... well, uninspired.

Summary
The negatives in MotB I think are all minor. By and large, I loved MotB. I loved it so much, in fact, that I've started it again (an aasimar Favored Soul 8/ Battle Priest 9), and second play-throughs for me are very, very rare. I'm looking forward to bringing Okku in lieu of Gann and joining Kaelyn in her crusade against the wall this time. If I was using the Vault scoring system (the new one), I don't know exactly where I would rate it, but it would be at least a 9 and maybe higher.

Of course, Mysteries of Westgate would be a solid 10, no doubt!

7 comments:

Tara said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nadya said...

I did kind of come down from the enthusiastic high I felt from the OC enough to not play it again. MotB on the other hand was good enough to play twice, if not thrice. I blame this on my sometimes naturally exuberant nature, in case I wanted to be defensive, which I don't (I think...).

I am finally rewarded though with mention of "romance" after a long lonely while! Gann was good btw, I just thought the explanation for him being "good looking" a bit laughable, but one carries on I suppose. The writing certainly was better than anything Casavir/Bishop had, which isn't much of a comparision in retrospect. A little oddity here, but I thought they added a lot of emphasis/associations with "farm girls". I can't really analyse why at this point.

He had one line which I thought cool, the swearing line when you encounter the hag. Quite good imo wasn't really expecting that from Obs. All in all he wasn't badly done generally speaking.

I was kinda ticked off at the spirit meter consistently adding lawful good points if I used suppress though. The trust/romantic interest meters seem like a good idea to me after what was written about the Safiya incident. I think perhaps there is a point when you meet the hag with Gann as well, but one could overcome it maybe later on in the game... not sure, since I whatever I chose seemed to work and didn't have an adverse effect.

dirtywick said...

I would have dropped the area design to somewhere from mediocre to poor. That was my only real beef with MotB as a whole, aside from the weak puzzles in the Thayan Academy.

I agree, Mulsantir was good. Other than that, though, I didn't think anything other than the first time you're in the Shadow Plane was spectacular. In fact, most of it was bland bordering on non-sensical.

The frozen cave where you meet the hag, the Death God's Vault, the Thayan Academy, the entire City of the Dead, and the worst offender was the final boss fight area (flat with a ring of rocks? that's it?) I thought those areas were all really uninspired.

Once you get over the cool new lighting effects...I don't know. I'm just saying.

Tiberius209 said...

dirtywick,

The interior areas were pretty bland outside of the Veil, but interior areas aren't what really make a module. With a finite number of placeables, it takes an exceptional amount of creativity to make any of them seem new. In addition, the final fight map, as it was supposed to represent your own mind, could have been done better as well.

You didn't even mention the Astral Plane. Maybe that didn't impress you, but it sure did me.

So I guess I see your point to a degree. I thought the highs of the area design were really high and the majority of the areas were bland, but when I think back on MotB 5 years from now, I'm going to remember those highs much more than the blahs. Compare that to the NWN2 OC, which I only played in January or thereabouts. At this point, I can barely remember any of the areas.

Tiberius209 said...

nadya,

What, no love for young farm girls?

Maybe they wrote Gann better. I thought the big yellow letters that flashed on the screen informing me when Safiya loved me more were a bit much.

Me: "Safiya, I'm sorry for your mother."

Safiya: "Thank you. I love you more now. In fact, I love you 6 points more!"

Oh, if it were really like that. I could compliment my wife's hair, be informed that I just received +6 love points, then promptly ignore her (and watch the game - or 25 consecutive games) only for her to say afterwards that she's still willing to go to the hells and back for me...

dirtywick said...

Well, we have access to a finite number of placeables. Those guys are a multi million dollar game studio with dozens of professionals. In my mind there's really no reason not to go that extra mile. I seen your lighthouse, and I remember a screen of a library you did that looks really cool (did you see those new bookshelves for the estate tileset, by the way?). We can do it as solo buildiers, right? They should be held to a equal if not higher standard.

Don't get me wrong, though. I loved MotB, probably won't play a better new game in quite a while. And in all honesty, you're right that area design is mostly forgettable in general (and by extension, my complaint really minor. Figure if that's the best I can come up with...), but to not go that extra mile when they did for some many other things, I don't know, I felt the need to call them on it.

But I'm not trying to be arguing with you on your own blog!

Nadya said...

There was a bit too much love for those wenches I would say.

Heh and regarding the +6 and hair example, isn't that what true love is? Mind you, I find realistic situations more reflective of love as it is. Another reason why I would think if writing could reflect those inconsequential things, those not having to do with "epic quests and more fantasy oriented stuff" rather with more "mundane" matters regardless of time/era/dimension, it would have a more "personal/associative" element to a player; making it real and bringing it into their spheres, easily identified with.

I think space opera's like BSG work with the same concept. I for one wouldn't be skulking around with a kitchen knife ready to sink it into my spouse's back 'cause he watched one too many games. A frying pan however...:P