Review: Path of Exile

This week, after a long hiatus I returned to Path of Exile. My main computer gaming pastime of late, Total War: Warhammer, is still building up to a major and I am content to give it a rest until then.

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Path of Exile is a free to play action rpg that has been out for several years. The game that most people would compare it to is Diablo (more like 2 than 3). Regular updates and a strong community keep it fresh.

Path of Exile plays like a typical isometric action RPG. Your character will fight hordes of enemies and nasty bosses for levels and loot. Compared to Diablo 3 the graphics are less impressive, but also less gaudy, and when the action starts much, much easier to follow than the explosion of special effects that define a high level confrontation in Diablo 3. It is much easier to follow what is going on in Path of Exile and the no nonsense approach to graphics means that special touches like an impressive boss or unusual item stand out. I also like that the combat is more tactical, with nods to positioning and ability use and less about dodging ground effects.

Path of Exile is a game that does not hold your hand. It is possible to make characters that are far better than others. The game’s skill web makes the skill trees of Diablo 2 look like shrubs and the skill choices of Diablo 3 seem like preschool.

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Each of those tiny nodes is a single skill point. Most are small bonuses, but can radically change your character over time, while some nodes can completely change the style of play. There are also ascendancy classes.

While the sheer variety may seem daunting, it is fairly intuitive once you understand how to read it ad the community are always, always talking about builds. The endless theorycrafting helps promote the game.

Melee (STR/Marauder) is supposedly among the weaker built types, but I have no trouble in single player on the first such character I made.

Not that anyone who likes the game would ever stop at just one character, the possibilities of that skill tree are a great lure.

At first glance the item system in Path of Exile is nothing special. The usual rares and artifacts make their appearances. Slots are in as well, though in Path of Exile this is where you get your active abilities from. In is interesting to note, however, that none of the shops use currency, but rather trade in useful commodities like identify scrolls and orbs that reroll the properties of magic weapons. There is real depth in the item system and it certainly holds the game together.

The dungeons and environments are well designed. My favourite is the labyrinth where you get your ascendancy class; a randomized set of trials with challenging traps and interesting, varying mechanics in the boss fights, all with a tight story about an emperor with no heir trying to find someone worthy.

Speaking of story, the world building in Path of Exile is unlike any of its competitors, steeped with western archetypes and what seems to be some sort of Maori warrior lore and crazy ruined empires than run on blood, gems, and the dreams of gods (and men of infinite ambition). If the story of Diablo is Dante’s Inferno cross with a world war, Path of Exile is more comparable to Vance, Moorcock, and the Malazan series. It is dark and brooding, but teeming with life and ambition. All of that grandness though is brought down to earth by interesting characters and a simple motivation: you have been cast out, exiled and left for dead, but you lived and now it is time for revenge.

Best part is the micro-transactions are not prohibitive at all. No pay to win, or pay to remove obstacles to play here.

Good game.

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A Review

Often, when sales are down, or when a new book does not quite meet expectations, I wonder if I am doing the right thing by continuing to write. I suspect that this is something that almost writers struggle with from time to time. Surely the 20+ hours a week that I spend writing could be put to better use making money for my family. I have children and a wife to think of, and all the adult practicalities of life to bow to. Usually these thoughts are put down with me realizing that I have drunk too much coffee that day, or thinking of the positive reinforcement that I have received from readers, or family.

The thing is, even if practicalities demanded that I stop writing, I am not certain that I could. I have kept writing through some fairly rough (for my life) stuff in the last few years. I am nearing publication of my eighth novel in spite of it all. Its pretty fucking crazy, really. But, I do it because writing is one of the things that I do to feel alive.

It took me a long time to come to this realization.

And that is where Walter White comes into this. If you have never watched Breaking Bad, you should. I came late to the party, finishing the show well after the final season and well-deserved the glory that came along with it. I loved it despite the fact that I do not like outlaw stories, prefer not to watch TV for the most part, and really dislike grim stuff. Breaking Bad rose above all of that, implausibly in my case, and I am glad that my wife prevailed on me to watch it. It is the first TV show that has given me the same feeling, when it ends, that I have when I finish a great book or video game. That is something special.

I cannot offer you any new insight into the show. The acting is amazing from all sides. The characters and the writing are legendary. The descent of Walter White is both gratifying and horrifying, but no matter how you view his morality, it is a satisfying tale. It is cited as one of the best shows of all time for good reason. I have been replaying the last episode and some of the highlights of the show for a week now.

It is a masterwork.

What I can add is what it taught me about myself. I see a little bit of Walter White in me. In the end, he realized that being Heisenberg made him feel alive, and everything else was just an excuse. It was his art, as writing is mine.

Through art we come to know ourselves…

Disclaimer: I do not intend to use my writing for evil… 😀

Musings on user reviews

Reviews are the lifeblood of e-commerce. Without the ability to actually examine the product for themselves consumers are forced to make a judgement based partly on the description of the product, the reputation of the vendor, and the reviews of the item. Yet often these reviews are rife with ideological crusaders, reviews for sale, and odd design choices in the review systems themselves.

As an indy author this is painfully obvious for me at the moment. I have to solicit reviews on amazon because most people who read my work prefer to review it on Goodreads. I have even been tarred and feathered by fake reviewers looking to lower their average score in order to seem legitimate when they give 5 star ratings to their clients. The review system is annoying, and yet I need it to move books and reach potential readers.

The first and largest problem in the review system is that it often reads like any other comment section anywhere else in the internet. I am not popular enough to have this problem yet, but it does annoy the heck out of me when I am reading reviews of games or books and people are using the review system for popular products to push their personal views rather than actually review the product. This can be a fine line, to be sure: should Lovecraft be docked stars because he is racist? for example. Mind you in most cases it is not. I’m sure you have all seen reviews like this, if not go look at the reviews on your favorite (non classic) popular computer game or book. Some are legit, some are lazy, and some people are there to make a point that has little to do with the product itself. I’m not sure how to fix this, yet.

Fake reviews are more sensational. There is a thriving cottage industry in selling fake reviews of all sorts of products, as well as companies putting up their own fake reviews of their products. Since reviews still help drive sales, there is a real economic incentive to cheat if you can get away with it. As I noted these ‘reviewers’ often give crap ratings to low profile indy authors in order to even out all of the five star reviews they give to their clients so that they look like a tough reviewer.

The review systems themselves are sometimes even more of a problem. Amazon, the most important reviewer for my career, has some quirks that annoy the crap out of me. They do not amalgamate reviews from all of their secondary sites on my book, even though the product is exactly the same on amazon.com as it is on amazon.ca or amazon.uk. People who have written reviews for me sometimes do not get them approved from various reasons (some are legitimate I suppose, sorry mom!). Even worse is that Amazon owns Goodreads and could easily show the goodreads reviews on a particular title, like Steam shows the metacritic score, but they do not and thus compete with themselves for reviews. I don’t know too many people who are willing to review a product on multiple sites without prodding. This is not to mention the problems with the scoring systems themselves and even how ratings drive searches.

One solution is professional reviewers, people whose job it is to review a product for a trusted third party. Unfortunately in many arenas Professional reviews are missing in action, or lost in the noise. Even if they are easy to find, a professional reviewer often wants different things than the average reader. This can lead to authors skewing their work to solicit favourable opinions from elite reviewers. This is nothing new, but it is still annoying; authors should be free to write for their intended audience, ideally, rather than jump through hoops for publishers and reviewers. Still, hunting down high profile reviewers who will like your work has been a piece of advice that many of my peers have given me.

For now, I rely on fans and organic growth while examining other possibilities.

Total War Warhammer: Eye for an Eye Beastman campaign review

Beastman DLC

A fun DLC, if not exactly essential for every player.

I am a big fan of Creative Assembly’s Total War: Warhammer. I make no secret of the fact that I feel it carries the banner of GW’s The Old World long after it was ruined in a bizarre business decision. You can read my fawning fanboy review of the base game here.

Call of the Beastmen is the first DLC for Total War: Warhammer. The Eye for an Eye campaign is the mini campaign included with the DLC, which also adds the beastmen as a playable faction to the all-important grand campaign.

The big sticking point for many players was the cost of the DLC at ~20$ and a few important units (Gorgon/Jaberslythe) that were not included. While I can understand that, I am happy with the DLC overall.

The Eye for an Eye campaign has the player take control of Beastlord Khazrak as he seeks revenge against Boris Todbringer for blinding him in one eye. It is one of the more pivotal rivalries in Beastman lore from the tabletop.

The campaign is fun, and does a good job of showcasing the unique mechanics available to the Beastmen. There were some epic battles and interesting choices for a medium length game and I got my money’s worth for sure. On the downside, it does not allow the player to control any leader other than Khazrak and does not quite have enough depth of factions to offer much replay value.

While the Eye for an Eye campaign does not quite knock it out of the park, the Beastman as a faction more than make up the difference. The units offer interesting variations in each crucial role, focusing on mobility, ambush, and charge mechanics. The minotaurs and centigors, in particular, were a joy to use in battle. The roster, despite criticisms, had decent depth.

I did like that Khazrak could get a chariot mount, but you need to focus quite a bit on any chariot to get the best out of it in TWW.

The main difference between the Beastmen and other factions is how they play out on the campaign map. Beastmen are a horde faction (no cities) that have a very unique set of stances. Their basic movement stance has a chance to trigger an ambush battle on the attack, while their encampment stance allows them to hide from all but the most astute of pursuers. They can also raid for money and bestial rage (Bestial rage is similar to the orc WAAAAAGH! mechanic in that it summons a supporting army if you collect enough). Their forest path movement stance works similar to the underways used by the Dwarves and Orcs, but allows access to different areas and map battles.

The stances make for a faction that can survive by guile deep in enemy territory. Where the other horde faction, Chaos, works as an unstoppable juggernaut led by the baddest of the bad the Beastmen are a defter instrument, able to attack in a variety of ways but lacking the same level of brute power. Like orcs, they are very reliant on support character for buffs to give them the edge in a stand up fight. Gorebulls in particular give some nice bonuses.

Ultimately what made the faction for me though is the moon phase mechanics. Every six turns or so the player must choose from four blessings of the Chaos Gods. Each blessing is a bonus combined with a hefty penalty. Depending on the phase of the moon, these can change the character of your horde for several turns. One allows massive casualty replacement, but at the cost of horde growth, for example. Choosing the right bonus can turn a terrible situation around. Choosing the wrong penalty can really screw you. Once I understood it, I really enjoyed it and began to plan my attacks around it. With a little refinement, mostly in making the penalties more consistent (some are easy to avoid), it could become one of the great thematic mechanics of the game.

Overall I would heartily recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the Beastmen. Eye for an Eye is good, but it is really a prelude to using them in the Grand Campaign.

Review: Total War Warhammer – A good time to Waaaaaaaaaagh!

As I close in on the last few re-writes of Bloodlust: The Seeds of Ruin I have encountered a formidable obstacle; I am positively addicted to Total War: Warhammer.

The Total War series is well known among fans of computer wargames and Total War: Warhammer is Creative Assemblies first foray into a non-historical setting. After two less than stellar releases in Rome 2 and Attila (I pre-ordered Rome2, oops) the boys at CA really must have felt the need to knock this one out of the park, and they did.

Let’s start with the negatives, just for fun.

  • Pre-Order DLC: CA managed to cause a stir with  the news that The Chaos Faction was going to be available for free to people who pre-ordered. This was widely seen as a dick move, in an industry where consumers are constantly being milked. Eventually they reneged and made Chaos available for free during week 1, but it still left some feeling sour.
  • My biggest complaint about the game is the dominance of elite and special units. In the tabletop game even the most impressive armies had to field some grunts due to army structure. In Total War: Warhammer you really want to pack as much punch into each army as possible and the main limitation is the 20 unit/army max (although you can have multiple armies, I feel the cost increase still pushes you toward stacking elites).
  • In previous Total War games and some editions of Warhammer, units had better use of formations and special moves. I would like to have seen shield walls on certain units and grape-shots on cannons (the level of unit abilities in TW: Napoleon would be perfect IMO) for example.
  • You cannot customize your regular troops colour or kit.

Here are some features that I feel are neutral, some people will love them, others will hate them.

  • Heroes can be very, very powerful. Some people like this, some hate it. It was the same with some iterations of the tabletop. They definitely have impact on both playstyle and in combat.
  • As per usual in TW, the AI can skirmish like crazy. I found it irritating to fight Chaos horse missile troops, and just ended up auto-resolving against the armies of the North most of the time in my Chaos campaigns. The AI in general is better than the last couple of TW games, but still predictable.
  • Some people feel the diplomacy and city management are too bare-bones. I’m ok with them for the most part.
  • The battlefields are fairly open for the most part. I have seen some unusual fields, but not a lot of terrain cheese.
  • TW agents can be annoyingly OP.

And finally the positives.

  • Fun battles that are just great to watch, especially on a PC that can handle the largest unit sizes. The level of detail just zooming in on the battles is staggering.
  • Each faction has a unique play style, both on and off the fields of battle and unit roster. While some of these choices do not see play, especially later in the campaign or in competitive multiplayer, there is enough variety in late-game units to create interesting armies.
    • Dwarves, for example, lack cavalry, magic, and monstrous units but have tremendous ranged units and artillery while the Vampire counts have a lot of awesome cannon fodder, fast monstrous troops , and fearsome elites but really lacking in missile weapons and artillery.
  • Multiplayer campaign coop: I cannot emphasize how much I love this feature. I can play a campaign head to head or with another player against the AI. Games you can play cooperatively are just awesome.
  • Most of the battles are fun, especially once you get a decent variety of units. Some of them are just incredible.
  • Quest battles in the campaign are very enjoyable for the most part, with some of them presenting interesting tactical challenges balanced for a single army.
  • The map feels just big enough.
  • CA will be adding the full faction roster from 8th edition, including some for free.
  • Magic feels just right. Sometimes it is crazy strong, sometimes it just does not get you there, just like in the tabletop.
  • While the unit abilities are limited, the depth of tactics on the field is still there, once you get use to it.
  • WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!

As a whole, I love the game. I have played orcs, dwarves, and Chaos in depth so far and dabbled in empire and vampire counts. I am already drooling over bretonnia, wood elves and beastmen getting added in. It might not have grapeshot, but hey, maybe I can make a mod for that.

Blood Rage (A Biased Review)

This review is biased because I know the designer well, so don’t expect any pretense objectivity here.

BLOODRAGE

Blood Rage is a game for 2-4 players where the goal of the game is to see which of you can lead your clan to the greatest amount of glory before Ragnarok comes to an end. It is sweet, viking-flavoured mayhem that plays out in ~90 minutes.

I love the game. My preference these days tends towards episodic role-playing games, but Blood Rage hits a sweet spot for me. It is swift and simple to grasp, but there is a decent depth of strategy here. It draws me back like only a few board games do — putting it in the company of Cosmic Encounter, Smallworld, and Katan.

The parts are awesome, with great art. The best part of the game are the amazing figures, ranging from viking warriors to epic giants and a sea serpent.

The game plays out over three ages. At the beginning of each age the players draft a hand of cards. Cards include monsters that will join your viking band, upgrades to your clan, quests that will reward you with extra victory points if you complete them (simple but strategic varieties) and combat cards that help you win or gain extra stuff from the game’s frequent battles. Drafting well is a key to victory, but is fairly intuitive and ensures that no player turtles on the same winning strategy every game.

The stakes raise from age to age with better cards and new strategies becoming available. Random chance plays a role (roll) in the form of what cards are in play and on the whims of Ragnarok which destroys a random province at the end of each age. Any viking sent to valhalla in that way die extra glorious deaths, earning their clan some nice VP.

Dead vikings and monsters return at the end of each age, ready too serve their leader again.

The game is won by the player with the most victory points. The thing is, there are many, many paths to getting those sweet VP. The sheer number of paths to victory means that players can find almost any activity rewarding if they are canny, even picking fights that you cannot win. The key to mastering the game is deciding which of the paths is going to win it for you based on your cards, opponents, and board position.

All in all, I would say that this is my favourite Eric Lang game , beating out Chaos in the Old World, which is damned impressive.

Shadow Wolf Sagas: Red Fangs post mortem.

Hi all.

Last week wrapped up the latest installment of my Thursday night serial, The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Red Fangs. I would like to cap that off with some thoughts and a preliminary examination of what I will likely change for the final write up when I gather it all up in the fall.

Red Fangs begins with Ragnar in a depressing position. After book one, his friends/roommates/lovers, The Twins are embroiled in a conflict to see who runs Doxies’s Guild. Ragnar feels marginalized, since it really isn’t his show, and takes to drinking. Things get worse when his favourite waitress at the willing wench gets killed by vampires.

Right here we run into a few problems.

  • The Twins: Readers want to know more about The Twins. I found this out from reader feedback long after I started writing Red Fangs. I will have to write a bigger part for them, as I did with the final version of Blade Breaker.In this case I will also want to showcase the Whore’s War, who The Twins are up against, and why readers should actually care about who runs prostitution in Myrrhn. A good start would be adding in a little modern politics with one of their opponents wanting to kick out trans-gendered guild members or something like that.
  • Ragnar drinks normally as a cultural artifact. He needs to be more obviously melancholy, perhaps peeved that The Twins have hired security that isn’t him. Not whiny, but maybe feeling a little old. Perhaps a way to endear Delilah to the reader would be to have her explain that this security is a way for The Twins to keep Ragnar out of a bad situation because they care.

Soon we have Ragnar tracking down a mysterious Vampire who seems to be very active in the city’s slums.

  • I like the idea of Cinder, a semi-mythical Vampire who wants to cause a war between humanity and the bloodsuckers. I love the idea that this is really just a monicker taken up by other vampires to stir up trouble.
  • Early references to Cinder all need to be cleaned up.
  • Ragnar needs to bash more heads searching for the information.

The last half of the book involves the Vampire, Berkhilda, a woman who is not proud of her vampire half and really just want to be a viking. They capture Cinder by accident, and eventually discover that they have her. Hijinks and BLOODHYDRA ensue.

  • Berkhilda’s internal conflict needs to be clarified for the Reader. A scene where she feels revulsion after drinking blood would be good.
  • Ragnar and Berkhilda need to talk about Nordan culture more, not only is it a good way to world build, it also helps them better establish a relationship.
  • The Mercenaries that attack them should be tied to the Whore’s War.
  • Cinder and Berkhilda need to argue more.
  • Fights need to be more epic (EPIC!)
  • Delve in Ragnar’s relationships a little more.

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