Thursday, November 24, 2011

Quick advertisement: Steam autumn deals

Just after praising New Vegas again, the game is available for just 4.99 Euros on Steam for the next couple of days, so if you were on the edge of buying it, now's the time. The DLCs come at very reduced prices as well. NWN2 Platinum for 9.99 is a very good deal too, Dragon Age Ultimate Edition for 14.99, and countless other RPGs including Witcher 2, Mass Effect, etc. etc. I assume the prices in $ are as low as the €. Great time to grab those RPGs you always wanted to try out.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Obligatory Skyrim Post

You didn't expect me to forget making a post about the Game of the year 2011, did you? No, certainly not. Although, frankly, why waste any time on it when everyone's talking about it anyway? Well, I will keep the praises short, because everything that has to be said about how gorgeous it is has been covered elsewhere already. Just read the reviews, but actually... you're probably too busy playing the game already.
Fine, let's get the praise over with quickly, of course I have my obligatory screenies to share again. Just, before going into detail, Skyrim looks amazing. Fantastic. Breathtaking. The world design is wonderful.
And it's not (as some who stopped playing games after Oblivion might think) the latest, greatest next-generation graphics we have here. Actually, technically Skyrim is almost a little dated, at least compared to modern shooters. If you played the last two Fallout games the graphics are just the logical evolution from there on, a lot of it looks very familiar. That's not a bad thing at all, it only makes the game run very well even on slightly dated hardware like mine - much better than the Witcher 2, for example, which I had to tune down a lot. My dated comp (4-core 2Ghz Xeon from 2007, ATI 4870 graphics) easily runs it on Ultra, as long as I keep the Antialiasing on 4x - and there's really no reason to push that further up. Anyway - no, Skyrim is not the next Crysis, technically. But the world design is simply breathtaking. Period. And it runs on a wide range of hardware too, hooray! Chances are good you can play it with decent graphics - if you can run NWN2 with nice settings, you can run this.If you can run Fallout 3, you can run this.

And while we're there, let me explain that Fallout 3 thing here quickly for those who never touch anything non-medieval: Fallout 3 and New Vegas are both very very close to Oblivion and Skyrim technically and are the logical evolutionary steps in between the two. If you played one, you will immediately feel familiar in the other, Fallout 3 could simply be called Oblivion in a post-nuclear setting. And both Fallout 3 and New Vegas are great RPGs you really should play unless you're stubbornly demanding your elves and orcs. Hey, you can even use swords!  That just for those who still think the Fallout games are First Person Shooters...

Back to Skyrim and.... Screenie time!

Water in Skyrim - probably the real "next-gen" thing, at least I've never seen better than this. I get teary eyes when I watch those streams and waterfalls. Wonderful!

Forest - probably not the best screenshot, but the forests are... what else, wonderful. 

Climbing snowy mountains... 

Walking into blizzards... 

... and watching the northern lights over some icebergs at night.

Those are just some of the many screens I took, but I'm sure you've seen enough already. The world is incredibly believable (not to use the word "realistic" for a fantasy game), yet still artificial enough not to pass as a cold, hyper-realistic setting like Crysis etc. In one word, atmospheric.

Interiors and caves actually look a little less realistic, they're still good, but here it's easy to see the roots from Bethesda's past games.

What Bethesda really improved is the character creator. One possible reason why I never really got into Oblivion might've been that whatever you did, your character looked ugly as sin. Fallout 3 improved on that, but only Skyrim is really satisfying now. Whatever's still missing the community can and will fix with some mods.

Oblivion: Whatever you did, ugly as sin. Some mods improve that a bit, but it never got really good. Game of the Year or not, other games at the time had much nicer looking characters, even NWN2 could do better (without the face morphing of course). 

Fallout 3: A lot better than Oblivion, but it still took quite a long time to make a decent face - most of the presets are still ugly as sin and require a lot of work. In the end, my characters always looked quite the same because only a few slider positions really looked okay. Some mods help here again. 

Skyrim: just a googled pic, I think one of the presets. A very decent working base, can even be improved. You can make very realistic and good looking characters right out of the box, with upcoming mods I doubt there'll be anything left to be desired anymore.

What else is left to say about the world design? A lot of it is familiar from older Bethesda games but nevertheless great, like the realistic items and loot, the careful design of it, the little physics games. If other companies like Bioware just invested a little percentage of that into their own games (and don't mark everything as "junk" without even using a unique icon), they could improve their games a lot.
Bethesda also improved the NPC behavior quite a bit, their daily routines and reactions to what happens around them is very pleasant to watch (just run a few items over in their home and listen to them complaining). The Witcher is the only game I know that did better on the daily routines, but then again at least Skyrim's NPCs react to stealing in a realistic way and all, something the other game designers constantly forget. In that aspect, Bethesda's games were always well crafted and improve from title to title. Seriously, the world design can't get much better anymore than this. 

Okay, now enough of the praise. "Casa", you ask, "where's the stinker? You always complain about something, don't let me down here!" 

Why of course, I won't let you down. I'll leave the usual bugs and not-so-great UI design to the others.... The real stinker is the notorious bad writing in Bethesda games. And I don't blame Bethesda alone for this, I also blame you. YOU! Yes, that's right. Because wherever I nag about the writing, people don't seem to care - "It's a sandbox game, I don't expect good writing in one" is a typical reply, or "can't expect Bioware quality" or whatever. I reply: Yes, I expect that, especially in such an ambitious game that focuses so much on the detail in it's general world design. And don't tell me it's not possible - that has already be proven wrong. We'll get to that. 

First of, the notorious "Bioware is the holy grail of writing" thing - I disagree. Bioware's stories haven't really improved since Baldur's Gate, and their standard formula is getting quite boring over the time. They still write a lot of dialogue trees, probably more than any other company, right.

Doesn't help with the fact that e.g. Dragon Age 2 was an incredibly boring game. And don't tell me either Mass Effect's or Dragon Age's main plot was anywhere new or exciting. It was just the presentation that made it good. But this is not about the main plot, because as I heard someone say recently - "who cares for the main plot in a Bethesda game? The main point is avoiding it as long as you can so you can explore the world!".

True that, nothing to add, and frankly, the main plot ideas in a Bethesda game were never any worse than Bioware's. No, it's about the small things, the dialogues and persons you meet on your way where Bethesda disappoints so greatly - and sadly, that's exactly the one and only thing that can't be easily fixed by the modding scene.

Now my real problem with Bethesda is that they just don't seem to care, and the best example for this is again companions. No, I don't expect Leliana or Morrigan in a Bethesda game, that's too much to ask for. But Bethesda's games have companions, and their companions have no life, they are simple tools/player slaves without any personality at all. You can give them orders, but you can't even ask them "who are you, what's your story?"
This was already my main problem in Fallout 3 (I never made it far enough in Oblivion to meet a companion, if they even exist), and Skyrim repeats it. Here's the main dialogue from a follower: 

And you know what? This is so immersion-breaking for me it ruins my game.  Realism (or say, a believable world) is not only nice landscapes, it's the right balance of everything. Bethesda is not Bioware, that's true, but they don't even care, they don't try at all. 
And frankly, when I see reviews, comments or some youtube videos, I see that the target group of gamers just doesn't care either, and that's what saddens me most. The whole setting and atmosphere of this game is gritty, realistic, mature, but then they take a whole jump back and make the writing for kids who go on an egoistic power trip only. If you watch some youtube clips about Fallout 3 quests, you usually end up with the kiddo explaining a quest over his headset while running around like on pills, in power armor with a huge cannon... target audience. Doesn't care for dialogue, wants to blow stuffs up.

No exaggeration here on the power trip too, because another problem I had in the game, regarding quests, is that I'm yet again not only the saver of the world, but people fall on their knees again too when I come by and want to make me king of their own little world once I helped them. 

I was literally bullied into the leadership of three guilds already, simply because Bethesda apparently didn't expect anyone NOT wanting to lead a guild. I promised my soul to 3 different factions too, simply because I had no choice, and my afterlife won't be pleasant when the werewolves want me here, the Nightingales there, the dragonborns... etc. etc. 

Now, the most ridiculous idea Bethesda had was the introduction of in game wedding. This is so sad it's almost funny again. Don't get me wrong, this is not about romances or such - Bioware's romance plots are famous and probably the reason half of their audience still loves them. But what Bethesda did is... sad? I don't know how to put it, let me just explain quickly how it works. You see the above dialogue pic with a follower. Now, if you want a "romance" in game you have to acquire a certain amulet and wear it, which adds another dialogue option:

To which she replies... "I won't lie, I am. And you?" ...

To which she replies: "It's settled then, you and me." Expect a kiss or something? Ha, no no, new quest:

Isn't that romantic? Hand me a tissue... well, the explanation is simple. This is not for the romantic souls among us, it's for the powerplayers who like extras: If your spouse is a shop owner (or opens one), you get extra coins once a day. They cook a meal for you once per day that increases stats (sexism anyone?). Resting in the house you share adds a stat bonus too. Did you expect something like a nice dialogue or a kiss? Well, this is a Bethesda game, go to Bioware, you fool!

In general, during the quests, the story is streamlined like a shooter and often makes no sense at all, I mean, at least give me the option to say "no" sometimes, or let me explain that they can't have my sould because it was promised to someone else already...? What I hate most is not that Bethesda's writing is not up to Bioware's, it's that they don't even give it a try at all. And that's probably because YOU didn't ask for it, but go by the rule "if I want to explore, I play Bethesda, if I want story I play Bioware". 

That there's room in between the two has already been proven by Fallout New Vegas, a Bethesda game. That's what makes this story so sad. Yes, the actual developer was Obsidian, using Bethesda's base, and that makes the huge difference. It's still generally regarded as a Bethesda game though, after all it's their logo most present on the box. 
I already said it in my Fallout NV post back last December - the combination of those two studios would be ideal and Bethsda should for Christ's sake just buy Obsidian and let them do their writing. Obsidian is the notorious "We are excellent writers but have no clue about artwork" candidate who will probably go bankrupt after the next Alpha Protocol disaster, and Bethesda is the one with breathtaking game design but no clue about writing. 
The problem is the gamers: Everyone complained about Obsidian's bad looking games, but nobody complains about Berthesda's non-existant skill in writing. 

Anyway, what Obsidian made of the Fallout 3 base is easy to find out on youtube. And just for the record, Fallout 3 companions were exactly the same as in the Skyrim companion pic above. 
Now here's as an example the dialogue with Veronica, one of the followers in New Vegas (btw, you Dragon Age 2 nuts, that's Felicia Day too, before Bioware decided to hype her for a mediocre DLC):

Notice something? Like, she talks about herself? Notice the amount of dialogue options you get? Should I continue with the whole questline each follower brings with them and that they never get tired to comment on a situation and are generally available for some small talk? Now, they might not be a Morrigan or a Leliana, and I don't even expect half as much from Bethesda as I expect from Obsidian. But hey, a little bit of life just for immersion? Because what Bethesda does with their companions is honestly an insult to roleplaying. And it completely ruins my immersion and throws me far out of the game. And yeah, it's sad that so few people agree. And it's sad that Obsidian brought the whole Bethesda series of RPGs a huge step forward in that aspect, and Skyrim jumps all the way back again. 

Now, there might be hope... at least it can be assumed that Skyrim was already long in the making when Fallout NV came out, it was simply too late and that Bethesda's next RPG might actually be inspired more by Obsidian's writing. For Skyrim there's no hope, maybe for a DLC, and knowing the modding community for Bethesda games I know one thing that they'll never improve is story and dialogues. As sad as it is this is not the NWN modding scene that cares a bit more about things like that. One hope remains, another future cooperation with Obsidian that again gives us (or me) the best from both worlds.

Anyway, even with the huge disappointment on the story side, Skyrim's sure Game of the Year and a must buy. It could just have been even better - if anyone cared.

Friday, October 7, 2011

.. and another laptop post

No, this is not turning into a hardware blog now, no worries. I don't want to show off my gadgets either, not that the thing up there is one. It's again NWN2 related, trust me. :)

So, what about that lappy up there? Well, it's a cheapo laptop, Europeans will know what Lidl is (a supermarket) and what kind of hardware is sold there. I didn't buy that thing either, my dad did. Unfortunately, my dad passed away early last month and left me with the burden of all his stuff (no sympathies needed, we hadn't much contact, although I'm not exactly happy about the sudden loss).

Well, anyway, that lappy up there was his and it's as good as new since he obviously had no clue how to use it. It's recent enough to be not complete junk too, something like 2008 or so. Well, my first thought was, I don't need it. I already have a lubberlee lappy (see last post) and a big comp for all my stuff, so... sell? It's not worth much, I almost considered giving it away as a gift.
Then it occurred to me... when I was working on Middleforest, wasn't one of my big worries about running a PW having to get a dedicated server? One powerful enough to run the server application, but still with a low power consumption that you can hide away in a corner and forget about? My initial thought was getting a used Mac Mini, but even a used one costs money I usually don't have lying around. So... here's the solution, my new Middleforest dedicated server! Say Hi server! 

I already wiped the HD and installed a fresh NWN2, now I'm in the geekish process of reinstalling MySQL and NWNX2. All nothing compared to the router issues I'll have again, I'm sure. Anyway, this takes away a big burden from my past building plans, and I can leave a server up and running for test purposes now while building or playing elsewhere.

I'm still wondering about the specs though and would be interested in what other people with PW experience have used as a minimum server machine for NWN2. This lappy features a Pentium Dual Core T3200  processor at 2.00 Ghz (actually an entry-level Core 2 Duo Merom with no level 3 cache), which I figured should be enough for a server (my thought was that any dual core would do). 2GB RAM might or might not be sufficient (maybe someone has insights?), the HD runs at 5400rpm like most laptop HDs, not sure if this will affect performance. I doubt I'll ever see 20, maybe not even 10 regular players at once, so I doubt I'll need MMO specs. Anyway, if someone has NWN2 server experience or some tips, they'll be welcome.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Just reinstalled NWN2 on my beloved little Apple lappy (in Bootcamp, ha!) when I heard the bad news, so yeah, this is NWN2 related.
Goodbye, mister Jobs... thanks for having given me this bedwarmer that still runs my favorite game, and trusty old iPod. And all that other stuff I used or had to use, including the Microsoft "inventions". ;)
Having used your computers for 14 years and staying updated on any hardware news (even if I couldn't care less about all those gadgets you introduced lately) there was no way around you and it's hard not to be a little sad to see you pass. Even if often I could've sent a bag full of dog turds to your company and many times promised only to build Windows Peecees anymore. Even if I couldn't care less about iPhones as long as they don't run NWN2. Rest in peace old chap. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A late look at Dragon Age 2, part 1: Gameplay, first impressions

Another month without opening the toolset has passed, and I still can't be bothered. All ideas I had for Middleforest during the past months are so different from what I've done last year that I could as well start building from scratch. But I can't find the energy to do anything NWN2-related lately, not even playing.

Instead I decided to finally give Dragon Age 2 a go. Prices for it fell rapidly and it has now reached the sweet spot where it might not be a complete waste of money anymore (EA seems to think different, they still want €54.99 for it in their Origin store... well, the box is available for below €20 nowadays). Same as with Mass Effect 2 for me really, I didn't expect much from it (still more than from DA2 though), but when it fell below 20 Euros I considered it a fair deal.

So, after all the heat around it's release and my hate-driven review of the demo, has anything changed? Well, for those who don't like my long ramblings and want a short answer... no, not much, my expectations were mostly met. But, I have to admit there were some surprises, even good things, and at one or two points I was even wrong. They won't change much of the conclusion I'm afraid, but maybe they are still noteworthy. Anyway, expect a long, chaotic rant again - even though I made 3 letter-sized pages of notes I'm just blabbering away now. Let's start again with the first impressions and the beginning of the game.

The game and the first bad impression starts, of course, with our default Mr/Ms. Hawke.
Have I already mentioned I hate Hawke? And I mean, really everything about Hawke. For me this person stands for Bioware Mass-Effecting everything, for bad taste and bad name choices, for heroes I can't identify with, bad art design (why the f... would I smear a red dash in my face every morning? It does not look cool, really not!) , bad marketing, I could go on and on. Good, fine, we know all that already, so let's get our medieval Shepard going.

So, we find ourselves in the demo again, been there already. But now I must really ask, why does the character creation come after this intro? That Varric exaggerated the breast size in his story, that joke I got by now (it's not that funny really), but using the same excuse for giving me the default Bioware appearance of Hawke in this first part of the game is a bit far off, don't you think? Anyway, knowing myself and that I probably get bored of a male character after level 3 and start over, I chose a female rogue right away.  Shortly after the intro finally the character creation (isn't that the best part of any RPG really?) and I create some Jeanne-D'Arc-style redhead using the new hairstyles I actually like a lot. In fact, I ended up with a Hawke I consider quite an improvement over Dragon Age Origin's looks when it comes to realism, a small positive surprise.

 Then comes the attributes and skill trees and.. well. I'm not really sure about it. First off, the classes are a lot more limited than before, and that's a really really bad thing. Why the hell can't a warrior use a bow anymore? Where are the crossbows anyway? Why can't a rogue use a shield? Right... because Bioware has a very clear idea on how these classes should play and don't want you, the player, to experiment. Fine, moving on. The skill trees might be considered an improvement by some, but I kinda liked the old system as well and don't think it's a real improvement, it's just different. What I miss terribly though is rogue skills, conversation skills, the usual Roleplay skills that are probably not of any interest in an action game anymore. WTF happened to lockpick, traps etc? Oh, just raise your Cunning attributes... really.... fascinating.

No, during the first 15 minutes you learn pretty much everything about DA2's new direction, which is clearly, undeniably streamlined action. It's what I expected, yes, and I still hate it, but maybe I'll also find some positive things? First off, I installed that Highres-Texture patch immediately and must say it does make an impressive difference to the very shabby Demo. Impressive does not mean I stare at the screen in awe and drool t the graphics, but at least the game looks much better now. With this patch, the difference between DA2 and Origins is really clear to see and this patch is a must for everyone who cares a bit about atmosphere, really. Why (and if) it requires a graphics card with 1GB memory while other games get the same thing done on much older cards I cannot say, but you definitely don't need DirectX11 to see it. My card doesn't support it.

The next thing is something I only discovered after a little while... how the look of your family depends on your customization of Hawke. Now that's a neat detail! If you look up at the pic, you can see I ended up with a short-haired sister, and if my Hawke was tanned or black, my family would match that look too. Also, the facial structure changes depending on your choices etc. Why they invested that much into realism here and ditched it totally again at other points in the game is beyond me, but at least this little detail I really like.

Anyway, a small detail, but the big first and lasting impression is the really bad general art design. I know I'm repeating myself, but some things can't be said often enough. I really really wonder who the target audience of this game is, because everything I see is all but a "gritty, mature RPG". Origins was neither, but DA 2 makes it worse, last but not least by taking a few of the more interesting characters from Origins and ruining them completely.

Next, of course, the combat animations. "button-awesome" might have that tiny little advantage that your character really react on click, instead of thinking for the long while that usually decides between life and death. But this... this is just cheesy, come on Bioware. Mages might enjoy their characters moving a little more, but how my rogue flies over the battlefield is just not funny anymore. This is for hyperactive kids and as mature as Ronald McDonald, really.

Or how about weapon design? Origins wasn't a prime example of good weapon design already, but this really isn't funny anymore. I'm feeling like playing some Free2Play kiddie JRPG, but clearly not a mature game. At the latest when Fenris with his two-handers comes into play it's time to hit your forehead on the desk, but my rogue daggers are already bad enough. Most of the time in the game I had to search for weapons that don't look totally ridiculous on my character. The standard daggers were okay, I never got to use any unique weapons because I simply couldn't stand their look.
So, for you, Bioware (I know you're not listening, but anyway). Look at the pic below, there's a a really cool badass sword from a mature RPG, and a really cool badass sword from a kiddie game. Where does Dragon Age 2 fit in?

I know this is a matter of taste and artistic style, but in a serious, mature game I expect one, in a kiddie hack&slay game the other version. And now I present you Bioware's own version of the most badass sword in the game!

 Nuff said.

At least, and I'm thankful for that, you hid some items for us elderly players deeply, and after I found some normal looking daggers (actually swords, look at the size) and an actually really good looking armor, I was seeing things a little bit milder for the next.. well, one or two levels until the stuff got so old and outdated I couldn't survive with it anymore.

Which brings me to the topic of loot... partly a technical, partly an artistic matter. Technical side: Stuff outdates so fast that unique weapons are really not worth keeping or upgrading anymore. That cool thing you found in the deeproads an hour ago is useless junk now. And speaking of junk... you know, before calling every loot that isn't equipable "Junk", just leave it out right away. This is such an immersion killer, I'd rather have no loot at all than an item with a trashcan icon. Give me coins right away.
You know, I hate excessive looting, but in some of the better games it can be really fun to find out what loot is useful and what not. Maybe it has some secret meaning? Maybe it's a gift? This is one of those "minigames" in a good RPG, think of the flowers or shawls in the Witcher for example that you first toss away as junk until you realize you can finally get a nice lass to do you a favor, or such.
And please, the meaningless gifts that are marked as plot items for companion X right away... I actually liked to see the different reactions by different companions in Origins and finding out who likes what most. I know, that's details you might not care about, but it gives the game dept.

Moving on in the art design, let me show you a few random faces from the endless Hall of Shame:

Is this... an... artistical choice, really? To create such freaks? And what have you done to pretty much everyone's eyes anyway? Replaced with candy? And don't get me wrong, I don't mean the new appearance of elves per se - I'm fine with what you did there, make them less "cute human" and more like a really different species. As long as they look like in that pic below and not like those Playmobil figures up there.... *headdesk*

Oh, oh, oh.... and... what the hell is this?

Yes, that's your low-poly default NPC that simply shouldn't be in this game at all. Really not. Origins didn't have those, do you call that an improvement?

As you can see, I'm getting into a rage again when it comes to Bioware's "artistic choices". But seriously, until now I must've missed that part that makes this game "mature" in it's art design. Oh wait, wait, I got it...

Don't worry about Hawke there, it's just a little scratch and she still kicked those Qunari asses.

Then of course there's the matter of the legendary waves.
Now, the initial idea is not so bad because it can, potentially, add a lot of surprises and variation to combat. Not that I like combat that much, I usually play for the story and combat is an annoyance between the cutscenes. But there can be interesting combat, and Origins had some interesting and very challenging combat scenes at times.... between the tedious long hacking through miles and miles of darkspawn of course.
But as interesting as the potential of waves might be, as poor is the execution. Laidlaw and Co. stated multiple times that they wanted to improve combat because one fan somewhere long ago called Origins' combat boring. Now the improvement is the most tedious clickfest I've had in a long time, maybe comparable to the horribly boring combat in Venetica. It wasn't fun, it was even much more less fun than in Origins because I always knew exactly the next parachutes would come for sure. And boy were they immersion-killing.

 Finally, to end this first post about the... what could I call it, main problems, first impressions, overarching issues... the Copy&Paste areas.

Now, when I first read about them I had no idea how bad it actually was, that there was really absolutely no variation at all, that you visited the exact(!) same place a dozen of times and were told "hey, you're wrong, you're in a totally different place now".
Mister Laidlaw said at the Bioware forums that every individual cave or house would take away resources from writing or whatever, but... call me stupid, maybe I'm a n00b to game design and I really only played in NWN2's toolset for a longer time (I tried Bethesda's Eden-thingy briefly and only looked at DA's toolset long enough to figure I hate it), but.... aren't interiors still tilesets, kinda? Can't you click a few tunnels together? How long does it take me to make a simple interior for NWN2? An hour? If it's not that easy, how hard can it be to change at least the lighting, drop a few placeables to change the look, whatever? But reusing the exact same area... There's no excuse. It only proves, just like a lot of other things in DA2, that whatever Bioware says they had NOT enough time, or were lazy as hell. And they can't sell me on the argument that a simple cave would've taken too much effort. Clicking together a basic cave from your existing tiles or prefabs is the easiest thing, and if it's not, then your game base has serious issues and you should consider a new Engine or whatever.

Enough nerdrage. In the next part I'll look at the story, companions and all that and see if I can dig out some of the nicer details. But one thing before I go - a proof that Dragon Age can look quite okay at times. The few exteriors aren't so bad. They have decent texturing, a sky that outshines Origins easily and I would've liked to see that quality standard throughout the game really.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Casa update and a quick look on the Dungeon Siege III demo

Hi there, long time no see!

I guess I owe the few people who read this a little apology again for the silence. But when I check other blogs, I think I'm not the only one who's sometimes thrown out of the loop by reality.

Middleforest has been a little silent lately, especially since last winter. As fruitless as my toolset work was my custom content work too, and on Blender I completely gave up, call it a burnout if you wish, because it was. In real life I was completely burnt out too, which is nothing new. But it got worse and worse since last winter, so I took a little vacation, or should I say, it was suggested to me to take some time off out of town, which I did. Why am I telling you people this? Well, I think I'm not the only one in this rather nerdy circle who's been "under the weather" quite a lot, and I know how much it takes to admit that you need to be taken out, nursed and pampered for a while. Even though I panicked at first at the thought, it was good and I'd do it again anytime. The first week out there was the best week I had in the last two years, which means a lot, and in the end I came back with a lot of positive thoughts and insights - like, apparently you have to go to a place like that to finally meet people as normal as you. Anyway, that much about my long silence. And if you ever thought about doing something similar and have doubts - just do it, it's good.

Anyway, nobody there told me that gaming is bad, isn't that great? I even spoke about my favorite Dammendrech character once and it was quite interesting, I never got an odd look. The task is just finding a good balance between the hobby and real life, and not fleeing into some dreams all the time because you can't face reality anymore. And one thing I promised myself for the first week back home was playing my games until I fall from my chair.

Now that I'm here that's a little bit harder than I thought, I can't decide which one to play first! So what I did was starting with something easy, grabbing the Dungeon Siege III demo on Steam and have a look what Obsidian did this time. And I must say, it wasn't as bad as I thought. I'm not going to review it, just some quick notes on my first impression really.

So, Dungeon Siege III is of course not the latest great AAA title, neither were the first and second part. I only played the first part once, around the same time I discovered Neverwinter Nights 1. And while NWN1 was the much better game with a more interesting story, Dungeon Siege was still a fun casual RPG that was actually nicer looking in many parts. I also liked the lack of load screens...

Anyway, Obsidian making the third part meant to me "oh, it must look shitty and run like crap, but maybe it has a story now!". I can't really compare the games anymore since DS1 was too long ago, but that much stuck. In a review I've found a few weeks ago the usual Obsidian failures were mentioned again: Aging graphics, robot-like animations, horrible controls. Nothing surprising. Anyway, demo time.

Firing it up, it actually doesn't look so bad at all, and the first positive thing I noticed was that a simple assistant for gamma correction was actually forced on me, which was quite good because it helped the atmosphere later a lot. And of course I immediately raised the graphics options to as pretty as possible.

First thing you notice when playing the game is that you can't create a character. Sad, but at least you can choose from a few, which is already more than a Geralt (no customization at all) or a Hawke (looks only). The demo includes two characters, a male warrior and that female fire chick... guess which one I choose.

Now, that character looks actually... okay. You don't have the wonderful customization of a Dragon Age and it looks a little bit dated, more like Neverwinter Nights 2 actually than a 2011 game, but.... it's not ugly, I can live with the lack of realism. Then comes the intro and the first thought of course is "oh, hello Dragon Age". But, it's actually, and here we have a debut for Obsidian, a really good looking intro, rip-off or not.

So, has Obsidian maybe worked on the art department? Some new artists maybe, even though they had to fire employees lately? Good move, after the horrible New Vegas intro it was time to ring some changes! And furthermore, it was an intro I actually listened to - in most games I actually forget it the second it was told.

What comes next is a quick tutorial on how to move and do stuff while you run to your first objective. One word.... clunky. This is truly a console game, moving is no fun and hitting number keys for special moves extremely unfriendly to PC users. But: The game runs smooth! How can it be? It runs as smooth as Dragon Age! Not even my graphics card's fan going crazy like in a 5yr old NWN2! And what can I say... the graphics aren't half as horrible as I thought. No, it looks just "classic". No hyper-realistic, high-resolution textures and polygons up the limit, but the game does not look shabby at all. It reminds me positively of the old Dungeon Siege game which were simply nice looking without being fancy. And this is where I need to give Obsidian many cudos now: They actually managed to do some good area design! Yes it's simple, yes it's dated, but so was Dragon Age 2, an AAA title. And what can I say, this game is just much better looking. Because believe it or not, Obsidian got the atmosphere right!
Yes, I fell from faith too, but I really like the darkness, the autumn colors, the simple but efffective placeables. The game might look like from 2006, but at least it looks good. See...

Early in the demo you have to fight your way through a burning house. I say, this looks nice!

 I really liked these candles too.

A forest road. Warm autum colors, nice tree shadows, and trees that remind me of the Neverwinter Nights 1 forest tileset - you know, where you never see the trees in a whole. I still miss that badly in NWN2

A lake in the forest, texturing is simple but effective, again reminding me of the old Dungeon Siege in comparison with NWN1

A village, not fancy but atmospheric enough. NPCs actually move around and even sweep the floor. Not as nicely looking as in the Witcher and often cloned too, but... again better than the NPCs in a certain AAA game released not long ago.

Last but not least, some more mechanical stuff. Bioware set a standard with the dialogue wheel now and everyone has to do it, but, again, I think Dungeon Siege III makes it a little better and not as idiot-proof as Dragon Age with it's stupid icons. I can live with this.

The dialogues are very static, instead of making horrible animations like usual, Obsidian wisely decided to better not even try it, so these guys don't emote at all and there's nothing like a real cutscene with camera turns. Not good, but in Obsidian's case better than ruining the whole thing with embarrassing emotes. It's okay, guys, you've learned. :)

Okay, that much on the atmosphere, and that's why I even bother to talk about Dungeon Siege III. We all know this is an Action RPG that is mainly about looting and killing hordes of stuff, and it's also really a console game frustrating to play on a PC without a game controller. But, in Obsidian's favor I just have to say that I can see some big improvements here: The general atmosphere is well done, the game ran incredibly smooth and, who knows, maybe even Dungeon Siege got an interesting story now, because that's what Obsidian can do.

Might buy it someday once it's cheap. :)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Death and the Maiden

A picture-heavy review. 

Bored, uninspired, still unhappy about Dragon Age 2? What a good time to play some other game again! Speaking of DA2: More action, more responsive combat with less tactics, no isometric camera, a dialogue wheel, a set character, a city adventure, dumbed down roleplay, more console style: here's my bridge, because today's excursion will feature all that. Is it good too? Let's see. Well, Ben suggested not long ago I should review more games, and actually it might be fun to do that. But who needs the 520th review of DA2 right now? Why not take a look at one of the overlooked "B-Movies" before moving to the next blockbuster? 

Let me introduce you to Scarlett.

Actually, they could've named her Ceira Nighty or Sheera Squirely too, for obvious reasons, but away with that. Scarlett is the heroine in Deck 13's 2009 RPG debut Venetica, and we'll guide her through the game (which is nowadays available for a bargain). The plot line is quickly told:

Scarlett is an orphan who grew up with her aunt and half-brother Leon in a picturesque little mountain village near Venice. She has a goodie-two-shoes boyfriend called Benedict. We start the game in a little tête-à-tête with Benny in a corner of said village, but good gracious! Assassins attack the village and kill poor Benny! Drama time, revenge time! 
Scarlett then finds out her real daddy is Death himself and that she has the power to travel the realms of the death, sort of a spiritual parallel dimension. Daddy Death tells Scarlett that she's the only person who can stop the corrupt and, good gracious, undead(!) council of Venice from taking over the world. Of course Scarlett accepts the task, whether for her dad or for revenge or for Benedict or for her own power, that's one of the first choices we as a player can make for the lass. 

Death and the maiden - meeting daddy

But game mechanics first. Obviously, Venetica is a much more cartoonish game than the other RPGs we usually talk about. It's fortunately not cartoonish in a J-RPG style, otherwise I wouldn't have touched it in the first place. No, actually the style is not uncommon in many adventure games, I'd almost call it quite typical for German point&click adventures. Generally, this doesn't hurt, in Scarlett's case it's actually pretty well done, and the area design is in most cases very well done too. 

Scarlett is a very likable designed character. She's cute, but not your usual RPG amazon with huge curves pressed into a chainmail bikini. Even though the armors she'll get during the game are usually quite "light", there's no point where she deserves a sexist stamp or the like. No, actually she's a character a teenage girl would probably like to play, not the dream of a male gamer. 

NPCs though, here the cartoonish style is sometimes a little too much. Some look good, some look a little too weird really. Doesn't hurt too much, but it's a style I'm usually not too fond of. You'll see more in later screenies. 

But let's stay with the mechanics first. Venetica is labeled as a RPG, so we should find some RPG elements, right? Lessee. 

Here we see the main character screen. As you can see, this is very simple. We have just 4 main stats to put points into, and actually I never got deeper into this than keeping them mostly on the same level. Let's not be rude, but... let's call it an alibi system. 
On top of that character sheet you can see some tabs, half of them are currently hidden: On the left we have a few inventory tabs - one for serious stuff (weapons, armor), one for various junk we find and usually either consume or sell, one for quest items.  On the right side we have our skills tabs. Oh, and as you can see there's a little icon on the right which shows the time of the day. 

Above you see the skill trees, on the left physical skills (weapon stuff), on the right mental skills (majicks etc.). Each of these trees must be unlocked first by visiting a teacher. Or, in case of the mental skills, visiting the realms of the death by using certain portals we find during the game and meeting the spirit of our beloved Benny who teaches us stuffs. 
On every level up you get 3 points to spend on character stats (strenght, wisdom etc.) plus the game auto-assigns a few. And you get 20 skill points to spend each level, where 1 skill increase costs 10 points each. Why they didn't simply make them cost 1 point and give the player two points to spend each level is beyond me. 

One of the main problems with the game and the interface is actually visible right in this screen already: The quickbar. You have 10 quickslots there and nothing more. Well, actually you have 10 quickslots for each of the 4 different weapons you'll use in the game, but still, in most cases you'll want most of the skills to be available regardless what weapon you use (i.e. all the magic stuff). There's not enough space! You'll have to choose your favorites and forget the others, because outside the quickbar, there's no way to activate them. Sheesh. 

Okay, I mentioned 4 weapons, so let's go to fighting stuffs. Throughout the game we'll ony use melee weapons and some majicks. Nothing ranged but spells. The 4 weapon types are: 

  1. The Moonblade: A special blade to cut through things that would not die to an earthly blade, mainly undead and demons. Very quick and effective, but does't shed out as much damage as the other weapons. 
  2. Sword. The Earthly blade. Quick and probably the most used weapon because it works in most situations. 
  3. Spear and shield: Good to block aggressors and counter-attack, but I rarely used it. The giant shield looks funny on lil' Scarlett too. 
  4. The hammer/axe. Now that's actually a fun weapon, or let's say Venetica has introduced a new über-weapon. First, of course, this is the weapon you'd least expect on a tiny little lass like Scarlett, but let's put realism aside - This weapon is much slower than the rest, and when Scarlett swings it, you sometimes think "hope she doesn't fall back over", you can really feel the weight. Enemies also have good opportunities to rip you to shred while you try to lift that darn thing. But once it falls down on them, it's like an earthquake, deals massive damage, knocks them back and on the ground, a final swing does the rest. Oh, and you can also bash some wooden doors with it you can't enter otherwise. 
Right, that's the theory, now how does fighting work? Well, Consoleros, your turn! Fast and furious of course! Hitting stuff is done by clicking the mouse like crazy... actually, there's a system behind it, the good old chain of attacks we know from other games. Click at the right moment, get a 2nd, more powerful swing in, and so on. You can also block attacks, just as your enemy can, and then, you have to move constantly, by rolling out of their way.

Now, the rolling can actually be a little tedious. You certainly have to get used to it during the first hours. It's done by hitting the movement key (wasd) and the space bar simultanously. In some cases, especially when Scarlett is in big trouble, that darn combination refuses to work. Also, tight spaces and the camera can get you into big trouble here. There's always a last way to escape though - later. 

Anyway, the rest of the fight is just a chain of attacks with fancy weapon trails and stuffs.
In the pic you see the glow around Scarlett's sword hand - that indicates it's time for another click to finish the chain of attacks. No worries though, just crazy blind clicking  will get you there too, this part is not rocket science. 

Boss fights are a bit trickier than normal ones. Most of the times, they come as a riddle. The big guy is usually out of your reach until you find a way to hurt him or her with trickery, like... having something collapse or bring down stuff they use against you. Direct attacks mostly do nothing. 
Once the big guy is down, there's the problem that the big guy is usually an undead, a necro, who refuses to die just like that. So we get sucked into daddy's realm of the dead and face the spirit of that boss, usually a pretty ugly monster:

These guys usually need a certain tactic to bring them down, mostly it's about dodging their attacks, then find the right spot and the right timing, which is again sort of a small, but simple riddle. In some cases though it turned out to be a little messy, and especially the very first boss fight took me a while to figure out. 

What should be mentioned here is that the fights are absolutely bloodless. Yes, dear Americans, this is a German game and you know how the silly Krauts deal with violence in games. No blood, nuh-uh, not a drop. But this game is rated 12+ in it's own country, and in Germany teenagers may be allowed see a nipple, but surely no guts and severed limbs.
Now, this doesn't hurt the action much, although there were several cutscenes where it was surely wrong. Sorry, but when I see a sword being poked through a man's chest, I expect blood. Not a fountain of blood like in Dragon Age, that's just as silly as none at all. But some blood. However, let's just go with "this is a teen game" and live with it. 

Matter of taste or cultural differences - what's sillier, huge blood fountains or no blood in an obviously bloody situation? Get real.... 

Now, the little extra element they threw in here to spice things up is "The Passage". As I said, Scarlett can hop into the realm of the dead, sort of a parallel dimension. During fights, where this is often her emergency exit when things get nasty, this has a similar effect as the "Hide in Plain Sight" feat in D&D. You pop out of existence, the enemy stashes his weapons and ignores you while you move to a save position, reposition for a surprise attack or heal yourself up. You can only stay in the passage for some limited time though, then you're kicked back into reality. 
But that's not all about the Passage. The Passage also reveals hidden things to you, like some secret portals, or dead people. So let's hit the quickslot icon... 

Zoom. Reminds a little of Mask of the Betrayer's shadow plane, maybe. In front of us a hidden portal is revealed, the bar below tells us how long we can remain hidden. 
Throughout the game, you can sometimes hear a certain buzzing sound in corners, at walls, etc, that' the sign a portal might be nearby and you can hit the shortcut. And yes, deaf and hard hearing people might have a problem here. Now, where this skill shows a little more potential is around dead people.... 

In the upper screenie I combined a before/after situation. You find a skelleton and can't help but notice it's shadow is moving! Gasp! Let's enter The Passage and see what's going on. Oh, aha! Deader walking around, let's talk to him and see what he's doing here. Sometimes they tell us their story of their fate, give us an item or whatever. Neat idea, huh? 

Ah, yes.... behind the skellie we see a chest. Of course we'll also have to loot a lot in this game. And oh my, some chests are locked! Now, sadly we have a very basic roleplay system here and never take any skills in that direction. But fret not! Help is on the way. In the beginning of the game we meet two brothers who will... soon after... cease to exist. Poor souls. But wait! Their ghosts stay with Scarlett to assist her, phew. So, when we come to a locked door or chest, this will pop up: 

As you can see, there are four lockpicks in different colours. The two now hit them in a certain combination, we have to watch and then just repeat the pattern. Easy? Well, sometimes. A combination of 4 is kids stuff, but a combination of 8 sometimes requires a good sip of coffee. It's a good indicator to tell you when to stop playing - if you fail 3 times in a row it's time to go to bed. Now, to get the basics done, a final look at the interface: 

This is Scarlett about to attack someone. In the upper left you see the status stuffs. Red is her hitpoints, blue her mental energy (let's call it "Mana"). The circle of 5 violet elements is her... well, what's it called... death energy? This could be called her "lifes". When an enemy brings her down, it's not completely game over, no, she enters the passage and can flee or reposition etc. She has 5 chances to do so until that energy is gone and we hit "game over". This energy can be refilled by killing stuffs with the Moonblade, which happens rather quick. This makes the fights rather easy in most cases. 
In the center you see her current level and how close she's to the next one. 

On the upper right you see the minimap. This is quite useless, and especially the option to mark a quest from the journal on the minimap is utterly useless, you never see it until you open the big map anyway. And then there's the small day/night icon. Then we have the quickbar, oh right, and the enemy status bar. The quickbar, by the way, is not clickable - you never see your mouse cursor in the game. Instead, you have to hit the appropriate number key on the keyboard. 

What this screenshot also reveals is another flaw of the game: Tricking the rather stupid enemy AI. As you can see, there are 4 guys there but only one status bar is shown. That's because the other three are out of perception range. "What, but they're right in front of you!" you might say. well, they're wearing shades or something. In this case only the one with the status bar will come over and attack Scarlett. Easy way to decide a fight for us. The worst: In a large, open area like this, you can often simply backroll a lot and they will stop chasing you after a while. Then you can single one out again. 
Call it cheating, or the only tactical element in this game.

Enough about fighting. The last crucial element in the game mechanics are of course the dialogues. So let's take a quick look at them: 

Lolwut? Innit a dialogue wheel? Aye, 'tis. You get a short summary of the flavor and Scarlett does the rest for you! The options are pretty much the same as you know them from Mass Effect, Dragon Age 2 etc, and in most cases it's obvious, sometimes even marked "oocly" in which direction this will go. 

Sooo.... let's actually go into game and look around a bit! The world we're about to explore is basically just Venice, our mountain village and a short trip to Africa. Most of the game takes us through the quarters of Venice. 

Our journey takes us from our home in the mountains over the shoreline to the Outer City, where we can get warm with the city, learn the basic rules and do our first quests that bring us into the inner quarters eventually. Each of these parts is filled with quite a few sidequests and always a mass of people who want to kill us, obviously. And at this point it's hard to find a way to keep this review organized, because the ups and downs come so damn fast. Maybe I should just sum up the ups first by describing how we travel and what we see. 
Let's first note that the game (this is game version 1.02) appears to run very smooth and bug-free (a few remain, that'll come).

Even though the style is cartoonish and the game certainly not made to impress with next-generation graphics, the (somewhat low-poly, mind you!) areas are mostly very atmospheric and nicely done. The simpler areas, let's say, caves, interiors, mountain paths etc. all have a very nice feel to it that makes it easy to get immersed even though they're all but realistic. The small forest area for example would show Dragon Age how a forest is done properly while keeping things simple. There's not much detail, not much effect, but most areas are spot on, mainly due to good lighting. 

Here's a very simplistic, and yet effective enough forest area.

Same goes for interiors. A tavern in an old windmill at the shore. What I like is that the mechanics on the wall and the millstone "table" slowly rotate. Simple, but hey, why doesn't NWN2 feature stuff like that? Details that help immersion. And how does this tavern look outside? 

Not the only time the area design is going for extremes, and it's indeed quite impressive. When we turn around we catch the first view on the city: 

Well, after a while we get there, and in Venice more picturesque areas wait to be explored. 

Canals, lots of them. Actually, after exploring this city I get so many ideas I want to rebuild Rungholt again. And look how we move around, not only by running through the streets, but also swimming the canals searching for entrances to the sewers, or climbing up on the rooftops... 

Swimming, climbing... boy, do I miss these two in NWN2. Scarlett by the way always cuts a good figure, in contrary to some much larger scale productions (I mean you, Obsidian!) She always has cute and appropriate animations. 

And as if this wasn't enough, the Arsenal district rewards us with extremes again. 

This is high on top of the Arsenal district, yes, Scarlett climbed all the way up on her own, even fighting lots of bad guys on the way. 

And the reward on top of the district is a neat little sailor's pub that has yet again one of those simple but spot-on interiors. 

The docks district again is one of those you want to print out and put into a frame. 

Now, what I didn't show you up there is the excursion to Africa. Actually, I did... in that screenshot presenting the main interface and an encounter. Not much to see there, you say? Well, actually, the whole Africa level looks like it was quickly dropped into the game. The exteriors are boring, simple and look more like Tomb Raider 3 or the like. Really nothing impressive, no need to show a screen (we already have enough, don't we?)
Also, not every interior looks as good as the two I've picked out up there, most are quite boring. What needs to be noted though, there's still variation, they're not all copy/paste. What I also liked was the staircases and that the rooms were often more cramped than the over-dimensioned interiors in NWN(2) or the like. 

Speaking of rooms, did I mention resting? Aye, you need to do that too, and you need to find a bed to do so. Thumbs up, I always hated the stupid "sit down for 5 seconds" in other RPGs.
The resting is pretty much like in the Witcher or Fallout 3 etc., you choose the time you want to wake up at on a small day/night cycle thingy. What confuses a bit though is that this thingy never shows you the current time, another (minor) flaw.

Let me sum up the positive impressions I've had quickly:
  • A very likable main character
  • a "different approach" 
  • Many beautiful smaller areas
  • some cinematic exteriors
  • Nice variation in areas with some welcome surprises (suddenly you're part of a pirate crew for a quick sidetrip etc.)
  • Good ideas to spice up gameplay, like the passage and it's secrets
  • Unique, different style (in some parts a negative too, but I'll add that to the plus list)
  • Smooth gameplay with few bugs
  • Small, likable details and ideas or just their execution. A minor thing, but I liked the lamp you have to refill with fishoil, for example. 
  • Climbing, swimming, walking on rooftops
  • Puzzling areas - often you see that chest right over there, but how to get there... where's the ladder, where the door... 
  • The feel of the hammer, heh.

But let's get serious here, somewhere in all that beauty must be something that stinks, huh? Well, let's take a quick look at some reviews. Let's keep in mind here this is not an AAA production but a debut, so magazines were probably not paid big $ for a good rating and all that... 

The biggest German mags said: 

  • Gamestar: 83% ("fascinating story, great quests, charming heroine")
  • PC Games: 79% ("surprisingly good, tight atmosphere, not very challenging for RPG veterans"

I usually put more trust in the Gamestar, its the more "mature" magazine of the two and usually meets my own tastes better. 

But let's see international reviews: 

  • Metacritic: 61 (oops), User score 7.7 
  • IGN: 60 ("If you don't expect much from it, you'll have a pretty good time with Venetica. However, without the patience to figure out quests and gameplay elements on your own, you'll end up incredibly frustrated.")
  • PC Gamer UK: 60 ("The shallow mechanics and technical problems make this one to avoid at full price")

Now what's going on here, Casa asks when first reading that? The usual obviously - cultural differences! What else...

The logic: Look at the huge differences of reviews of whatever European game that hits the US market. Usually, I don't give a shit. America loves D&D and candy, Europe likes dark and gritty, and so on. These differences exist and they show in Reviews. Germany for example just luvs those strategy games like Anno, Settlers and the like, those are selling much better here than over in the US. Did you know that games like Risen come in two versions for both markets, one in dark and greyish colours as intended for the European audience, one more colorful and bright for the US market? Hell, even printer and scanner drivers do that, auto-correction of your Epson/Canon/etc driver delivers different results in America than it gives in Europe. Over here, we loved the Witcher to bits, in the US the reviews were much more lukewarm. Not to mention nipples and guts, hehe. Someone stop me from ranting on and on...
So anyway, that's what I thought when I grabbed Venetica. Trust my game mag, don't mind the silly murcans.

Boy, was I wrong.

"What", you say, "after this giant intro up there and all the shiny pics?" 

Well, the point is that I'm incredibly frustrated about the failure of this game. Because, you can see the potential. It has great ideas, great area design and all that. The combat isn't great, in fact it's tedious, but the system works at least, kind of. 

The actual bugs in the game are tiny, I've found just a handful that stood out, most of them minor glitches like... 

... some items floating in the air where they don't belong (couple of times, maybe 5). A missing floor texture there, just 1. Africa featured more, an example is that relic of something I destroyed long ago, but that wouldn't go away. In Africa I also saw people walking in the air, which again makes me believe that the whole level was rushed in for whatever reason, as a filler. 

So, where are the big failures? Let's make a list. 
  • Controls. It took me long to get used to the key combos. Sometimes I wish all RPG makers could just agree on one standard, like WASD for movement already is. I constantly hit the wrong key because it's mapped to a different one in most other games. The space key dodge often failed for me, and I often was dead before I found the right number key for a quickslot - I'm just used to click my quickslots, dammit! That's something I never got used to in the whole game. 
  • Encounters. The variation is... wait, rephrase, there's no variation. You have like... 10 different things to kill or so throughout the game, plus bosses of course. Most of the levels you only face one and the same type over and over again. Example: All the way from your home to Venice you only run into busloads of always the same assassins. They all look the same, do the same, always come in pairs, and sometimes you run into a boss Assassin. In Venice the same goes on with first Rogues, then Marauders, later some African warriors and Necromancers. Always the same scheme, always a busload, never some variation. The most tedious quest was when I came back to my home and was greeted by "Necros all over the place", then I had 30 necromancers to search and destroy. The only type of Demon you find is called "Lector" and easy prey. 
  • Loot. While I like games that don't spam the player with über-items, some variation or something of interest would certainly be welcome. That keeps people going, you know. Nothing in this game. Only junk you sell for money, mostly ducats and some jewelry. Looting is tedious and uninteresting, even in the most well hidden place with a well-locked chest you only find boring things, nothing that makes you think "oh cool, I want to try this out!"
  • Weapons and armor. Boring too. As for armor, there is no variation. The game features exactly 6 for specific purposes. Scarlett gets exactly 1 casual outfit that does nothing but look nice, exactly 1 leather armor that offers basic protection against everything, exactly 1 plate and exactly 1 dress with magic protection. Those are the basics, then come two more armors I found throughout the game. As for weapons, there is more variation, but basically the only difference is that one does more damage than the other. Again, no brain computing time wasted on what to use, you pick the one that hits hardest and done. All these but junk weapons from enemies are available at stores, nothing that makes looting more interesting. 
  • Character design. I mentioned it before, in some cases the cartoonish style is very fine, it certainly doesn't hurt Scarlett, but some PCs are totally over the top. Actually, some are again good over the top, like the very fat citizens. But the quality ranges from "funny" over "pretty" down to "terribad". Especially the waves of enemies don't look very cool, for sure not scary. Many of the male citizens or merchants feature a certain german casual game cartoon style that makes me cringe. 
  • Sound. I usually don't mind sound in games much. I play with a simple, cheap 2.1 setup and onboard sound on my comp, never use headphones and don't care for cinematic surround stuff at all. But in this case actually some sound effects seriously bothered me, by being too "cheap effective". It's hard to explain. Maybe you know the NWN toolset and the sound effects you can choose for an area, like "Hallway" and the like that adds a big echo. Those are usually way over the top and I rarely ever made use of them. Well, in this game they did, and often it bothered me. Other than that, voice acting (Scarlett) and music was okay.
  • Puzzles. The first time I found one I actually thought "hey, nice, hope there'll come more interesting ones too". There didn't. Hit four items in a specific order. That's it. Everywhere. 
Now, let me catch breath. All that doesn't necessarily make a bad game. At least not for me. There are die-hard mechanics freaks who put a game to the trash as soon as the combat isn't to their liking, but I can forgive. Sheez, speaking of repitive combat, just look at the Witcher's Drowners or Dragon Age's hordes of Darkspawn. Venetica might be a "little" more repitive than that, but I can forgive, as long as the story catches me. 

Really, I don't know where to start. It's not the main plot idea, no no... show me one good RPG that doesn't come with a cheesy main plot (don't come with Mass Effect now, haha...). No, it's the execution that fails right from the beginning. And yet all the opportunities are there, dammit! We have a likable charming girl that is sent on a big mission, and the first impression is "I like her, let's get going". All about this character is perfectly okay. Even the start with the dead lover is believable and something you usually don't see in a game - Bioware would throw 8 potential lovers at you to choose from (including bi, gay, straight and probably a hermaphrodite) instead of taking away the only one right in the beginning, without a replacement. 

But the whole world around Scarlett just fails to add immersion or any kind of dramaturgy completely. There's an ugly aunt and a "who the fuck is this?" half-brother and you're told that Scarlett has a strong bond to them, while you just have no idea what to do with them altogether. Your half-brother is an obvious asshole, but Scarlett (contrary to the player) always seems to care about him, just that you sit there and say "why the hell is she friendly to that douchebag?". All the NPCs right from the beginning are life- and characterless and you feel absolutely nothing for them. 

Your two ghost friends (the lockpickers): You meet them still alive, exchange a few words that are maybe supposed to be funny, but... not really. Soon after they die. Scarlett reacts as if they were old friends, big drama, but you just sit there and shake your head because you, as a player, have known these guys for like two minutes in which they failed to impress.

Throughout the game you never actually meet a character you care for, and honestly, that's a huge element that keeps other games going. Companions, for example... but oh, we have no companions, we always travel alone. Other NPCs like main quest givers? No personality. Often they talk more out than in character anyway. None of them is touching, spikes even a minor interest. Most don't even make sense. 

Which brings me to absolutely horrible quest design. Most are "go there, bring that". Some are so completely unlogical I can only "headdesk". Invade home of necromancer who's supposed to help Scarlett. Necromancer says "Who are you? I don't know you, I don't trust you. BUT, if you go out and join one of the three city guilds, I might trust you. Come back when you joined a guild". I'm sorry, but quests like these (and this is not an exception, it's the rule) deserve the worst possible rating in any review. 

Then we have the exact same quest in multiple locations. Venice, Outer City: "Go to the Outer City catacombs, kill Gribbler queen for a reward". Later we go to the Inner City... "Go to the Inner City catacombs, kill Gribbler Queen for a reward". 

At other points there's obvious Out of Character knowledge on all sides involved in the quests, etc. etc. etc. It's annoying, it's frustrating, because this is the exact thing that brought the whole game down completely. 
The main plot is just the same.... there's no dramaturgy, never does the player get the feeling there's any urgency or pressure. At some points the music raises and for some reason Scarlett cries out "NOooooooo", that's the point where the player wakes up, looks around and figures something must've happened. Then the player wonders for a moment why the lass made such a big deal of it and keeps going, bored as usual. 

As much as I hate to admit it, there's a review on metacritic by "Absolute Games" which gave Venetica a measly score of 44, but is right on spot:

"Despite the picturesque sights of the fictional Venice, Venetica is bleak and mediocre in everything, from two-bit quests and meager weapon selection to tiresome combat. Don't expect proper character development, because there are only four stats, two of which are health and mana. Don't expect colorful characters, because the entire city went through a copier two or three times. Don't expect brain-teasing puzzles, because there is only one variety: "Push four buttons in a correct order"."

All the game-mechanical issues away, I could still enjoy this game if it had proper storytelling. If there were people in it I cared about. If I could at least care about Scarlett who has the potential, but that is taken down completely by the uninspired, dumb world around her. Which means the life in the world. The areas are often wonderful, the world is there, just the people living in it is where the development process of this game obviously stopped. It's a crying shame because you can see the potential everywhere, but nothing of it was fleshed out, and the storytelling fails completely. 

Now If I could just figure out where Gamestar saw a 83 score there... although, if they gave Venetica 83, I can easily see where the 87 for DA2 came from. 
But fascinating story? I'm sorry, if a game magazine found a "fascinating story" in this game, they are completely out of there. 

Sad, sad. Casa would give.... well, that would mean agreeing on a scoring standard. If I go with the big players who shed out high eighties to a Dragon Age 2, I'd go with something like the Metacritic average. On a personal scale from 1 to 10 the 5 is hardly scratched. I cannot recommend it to any serious RPer as more than an inspiration for building. Kids might enjoy it still, and this is one game kids can safely play, rest assured. Maybe they can live with the big flaw of the story and just enjoy some repetitive hack and slay in nice areas. 

But for me.... Next time a blockbuster again, maybe?