Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided: Desperate Measures and System Rift review

    Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was a game I gave a pretty bad score to (5/10) due to the fact it, literally, felt like half of a 10/10 game. It was a score I struggled with because the parts of the game I played were fine, it's just it had an incredibly disjointed story and wasn't nearly enough of the game for what I was paying for it. Also, I felt microtransactions were shoe-horned in and were necessary to get through the game smoothly.

    So, I was intrigued by the concept of playing Jensen's Stories, which were the DLC sidequests for the game. They would be played independently from the main game with entirely new builds for each entry. This means you can't carry over your character from the main game but have to make do with the provided points to build a unique Jensen for each game. While some may appreciate the option to change your Jensen up, the simple fact is this is particularly irksome with the fact microtransactions were such a big part of the original game. But more on that later.

Tarvos Security is a fun punching bag. Much like Belltower Security. Which is completely unrelated. :sarcasm:
    Before I decided to play two of Jensen's Stories, I had heard rumors these were possibly missions which had originally been slated to appear in the main game. I don't necessarily listen to internet scuttlebutt but I decided to keep this fact in mind while playing to see if it was true. My opinion is that Desperate Measures almost certainly was part of the main game and still should be but System Rift feels like genuine DLC.

    The premise is that Adam gets contacted by a train station employee at Ruzicka Station. She claims a member of Tarvos Security paid her in order to allow him access to a computer terminal that contained the security tapes of the bombing. Believing Tarvos Security might be involved in a cover up, Adam goes to their region office to hunt for evidence.

I did Desperate Measures quietly first then hard.
    Desperate Measures is a short one-hour level which takes place during the first day of the game and deals with the bombing of the Prague train station. The train station plot was largely dropped from the game so getting it solved was something I was looking forward to. There's a nice little human story involved here and also a tie-in to the main story's plot. It's not a particularly deep level but it's well-designed and I think it should have been part of the main game.

    I think I would have been less harsh and moved my score for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided up to a 6/10 if Desperate Measures had been part of the main game. It really does feel like this was a part of the main narrative and patches one of the major holes in the game. Not all of them, mind you, but enough for me to believe this shouldn't be one of Jensen's Stories but a mission right before Adam goes to Golem City.

The "Boss Fight" of Desperate Measures is a conversation.
    System Rift, by contrast, feels like it's own thing and something I enjoyed entirely on its own merits. Its premise is Adam gets contacted by his friend from the first game, Francis Pritchard, who is "vetting" the Santeau Group for an employee (later revealed to be David Sarif in an off-hand conversation). To do this, he needs Adam's help to break into the Palisade Blades information bank.

    It's the most secure database in the world and helping them do it is the beautiful hacker ShadowChild, who has her own agenda (because it's Deus Ex--everyone has an agenda). Along the way, Adam decides to investigate a young woman's murder because he's Adam Jensen and can leave no stone unturned.

The return of Pritchard is welcome.
    This is about a 2-3 hour expansion and there's a lot to explore in this game. While I don't think it exactly fits the timeline for the main game, I think it's inclusion in the middle of the game or final third act would have resolved another set of issues I had with the main game's length. Hell, it could be set after the main campaign and be just as much a non-ending except longer.

    I really appreciated the spike in difficulty as well as the focus on stealth for System Rift. There's actual employees rather than just guards hanging around the Palisades Blades. At one point, I found a ball pit which they'd set up for a returning co-worker. It was such a ridiculous and silly bit of fun that I immediately started to regret punching all the employees I had.

I like the character of ShadowChild.
    I was also a big fan of ShadowChild and hope she shows up in future games. The thing is, she's confusing to me because Jensen really shouldn't need a new hacker friend to crack his software problems. Jensen is already part of the Juggernaut Collective, which was an Anonymous stand-in. It's as if they're so obsessed with the idea of the Juggernaut Collective as "the resistance" they keep forgetting its a bunch of hacktivists first.

    Neither of these DLC really breaks the mold but they provide a lot of much needed extra-content to the main game. I like how System Rift provides tweaked sensors and some unique stealth challenges plus many non-human enemies you can destroy with extreme prejudice. Even so, the fact you have to pay for these levels rankles. Unfortunately, at the end of the DLC, you have to play some Breach mode in order to resolve the story and I can't say I was very fond of that segment.

I love the design for the Palisade Blades.
    There's some decent storytelling in both DLC with Desperate Measures having a twist that reveals the "cover-up" has more to do with human decency (as well as misguided love) than conspiracy while System Rift shows a feuding pair of executives sitting at the top of the world. Neither is among my favorite of Deus Ex's stories and I think they're both inferior to The Missing Link's social satire but they weren't brainless rote works either.

    In conclusion, I liked both of these games but they really do feel like something which should have been in the original game even if they'd have to make adjustments for System Rift. Furthermore, they would have improved on a lot of the original game's flaws. Re-setting Jensen's stats every time I played them also really annoyed me. Still, these self-contained stories work better than the original game.


Thursday, January 12, 2017

An end to my relationship with Ragnarok Publications

    It is with a heavy heart that I announce my withdrawal of my books, ESOTERRORISM and WRAITH KNIGHT from the Ragnarok Publication calendar. I've enjoyed my time there and made several friends but it's time for us to part ways. We have, in Hollywood terms, "creative differences" and the books will be taken down soon from Amazon.com before they are re-edited and re-released. My new publishers for these books, Amber Cove, and Crossroad Press will hopefully get them up later this year.


    My present plans for the books are to continue to allow their publication through Audible for the indefinite future while doing a re-release of ESOTERRORISM through Amber Cover publications while WRAITH KNIGHT is re-edited and re-released through Crossroad Press. I also plan to change the title of the first Red Room book from Esoterrorism to SECRET FILES to avoid confusion with the Esoterrorists tabletop RPG (which is awesome, btw).

    I'm pleased to say we'll be keeping the art of the original covers thanks to the generosity of Raganrok Publications with Eloise Knaap continuing to do her spectacular covers for the Red Room series. We'll also be keeping the same for Wraith Knight's brilliant artist Alex Raspad.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Social Satire of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

    I consider Deus Ex to be one of the more thoughtful and intelligent series around. The original game tackled such diverse issues as transhumanism, anti-terrorism as an excuse for government support of business, and solutions for failed systems ranging from more control to complete anarchy. Human Revolution continued this discussion with intelligent questions about false religious movements in the service of corporate interests as well as augmentation as symbolic of privilege.

    But what about Deus Ex: Mankind Divided? Is it up to the same level as its predecessors or is it more like Deus Ex: Invisible War where the science fiction trappings arguably make any of its issues irrelevant (aside from a commentary on religion and materialism as a social control issue as framed through competing coffee chains). Deus Ex: Mankind Divided made a lot of headlines by co-opting words like apartheid and "Black Lives Matter" for their discussion of the oppression of Augments, who were previously a privileged caste in the Deus Ex world.

    Honestly, to begin with, I want to address the controversy over the choice to use real life issues of contemporary and not-so contemporary oppression  in context with their fictional oppressed minority. I believe such things are perfectly valid storytelling tools and allow complex issues to be examined from different angles as well as through self-projection into fictional groups. Andrjez Sapkowski discussed racial issues and terrorism through the Scoia'tael in The Witcher novels while the X-men have done an amazing job (and sometimes a not-so-amazing job) analyzing prejudice with their flexible mutation metaphor.

Adam's place as a privileged Augment gives him a unique insider's perspective to the Aug crisis.
    Certainly, Gilles Matoubo, one of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided's directors had a great deal to say on the subject:  "Deus Ex is a very mature and thoughtful franchise that wants to hook gamers on essential questions and considerations: power, control, species, science, sociology, singularity, etc. Racism is a key dark part of our human nature and we wanted to treat this subject. It was especially important for ME to treat this. So it makes me sad and angry that these ignorant people just ASSUME that everyone behind this game is ill-spirited, stupid, and more importantly for me, that they that they are all WHITE (For them devs==white, gamers==white). What these bloggers and tweeters did to me here is beyond mere insults: They have degraded me and have literally erased my identity as a Black developer and as a Black creator that just wanted to share a piece of himself with this game. I wish that they will feel bad about it. I wish they will have the decency to apologize of their gross false assumptions and accusations. To apologize to all the people back in Quebec that have been working hard FOR YEARS to make this game to happen. But since they have no spine, no shame and no self respect they will simply ignore this post (once again denying me voice, legitimacy and identity) and will at best move on another AAA target to toss their freshly defecated shit at. They don't deserve anyone's attention. They don't deserve our industry, our games and the dedication we put into them. They disgust me."

    The premise of the game is after the "Aug Incident" at the climax of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, where almost all Augs were driven temporarily insane by mad scientist Hugh Darrow, they have been segregated from society in specialized cities. Augs are treated with a great deal of fear and hatred by the public at large with an upcoming resolution called "The Human Restoration Act" being designed to permanently strip them of their rights or keep them in said cities. Adam Jensen, as a soldier for the United Nations' Task Force 29, is assigned the task of investigating Augmented terrorism in retaliation for this treatment.

Constant police harassment is a small but real annoyance in the game.
    Interestingly, before I begin, I'm inclined to rebuttal some more criticism that I think is unfounded. One of the common criticisms of this metaphor is the fact Augments make a poor substitute for minorities since they're people who have been subject to surgery to become more than human versus being born this way. Another is that, unlike real life prejudice, Augmented actually are something people have a reason to fear. This last one is one I have a particular issue with.

    Augments actually serve as a fairly decent substitute for minorities being persecuted as they are people who can't help being who they are. They may have been created through science but as we see with Adam Jensen, they often didn't ask for this. Even those that do ask for this are becoming who they feel they were meant to be. The metaphor continues to function because the government and society feel threatened by Augments despite the fact it is fundamentally the bodies of the people they are persecuting and it is none of their business. The choice to become Augmented can be a metaphor for religion, fundamental qualities of a person, or even medical conditions (which it actually is).

One man's saint is another man's agitator.
    The belief they need to be feared is also one which seems to miss the entire point of the game. A violent event occurred with Augments but any player of the game knows it was rigged by Hugh Darrow as a terrorist attack. They were victims of the attack rather than persecutors thereof. The game also makes use of ARC (The Augmented Rights Coalition) to discuss a fairly nuanced view of the still-controversial issue of terrorism and violent resistance. The Augments as a whole are blamed for the actions of the few or the one. It is literally impossible for Augments to go crazy and harm people unless someone wants to build another seventeen kilometer facility while replacing their brain chips.

    The area where I think Mankind Divided most excels is it's discussion of the issues behind modern terrorism and how individuals on both sides of it take advantage. Adam Jensen, as a former police officer turned Interpol agent, doesn't ever justify terrorism. He may sympathize with the people or believe they were driven to lash out but his decisions are always to take down those individuals involved. Even so, the game does an excellent job of showing the vicious cycle which results in terrorists inciting the government to crack down on minorities before said minorities are radicalized, so the terrorists recruit them to continue the cycle.

    Interestingly, the issue of terrorism is one which benefits the series' archvillains in the Illuminati. The activities of ARC, once its radicalized, provide them an excellent smokescreen to put through laws they consider beneficial to themselves. Picus News, more transparently a substitute for Fox News this time around, particularly does everything to inflame public opinion against Augments to benefit its sponsors. Dog-whistle politics where hatred against minorities, immigrants, and other disliked groups framed as "anti-crime" or "anti-terrorism" has been a case in many dictatorships as well as free world societies.

Ghettos remain an unfortunate reality across the world.
    The idea of radical augmented terrorist, Viktor Marchenko, being a agent of the Illuminati is a bit conspiracy theorist (In Deus Ex? NEVER!) with his real-life analogues being true believers of their rhetoric. Even so, the use of him as nothing more than a larger-than-life villain for the public to hate upon is a criticism of the real-life War on Terror. Osama Bin Ladin and other terrorists were turned into supervillains which justified all manner of criminal activity to track them down when the actual discovery was more a matter of standard investigation as well as intelligence work.

    Law enforcement is treated with a nuanced depiction in the game with the police of Prague having been radicalized by the recent bombings but also are riddled with corruption. Even so, they are nowhere near as brutal as the police of Golem City. The police of Golem City are not composed of Augments, however, and are surrounded by a hostile populace they abuse because they're ordered to as well as afraid of while the public hates them since they know they're not there to benefit them. Technology like exo-suits and drones show the police have also become much more militarized than probably beneficial for keepers of the peace.

    Yet, despite this, we see plenty of police officers who don't favor the current situation or are doing the best they can. Despite being catspaws of the Illuminati and establishment, Task Force 29 is composed almost entirely of individuals who believe they are doing  the best job they can. They are, however, pressured by political forces to place the blame for terrorist attacks wherever their civilian leadership tells them to.

"Villains" are often created in order to justify war.
    Being a member of Task Force 29 puts Adam Jensen in an interesting place, socially, as he's essentially an Augment who can avoid the majority of the problems which come with his status. Minorities in positions of authority like police officers (or wealthy enough to avoid most consequences of their status) are often loathed by both sides. Adam Jensen still getsregular police harassment but his position of privilege allows him to ignore the plight of "his" people if he wants--as long as he comes down hard on them.

    The Augmented Rights Coalition is also an interesting group that has many real-life equivalents. It's an organization which is accused of being a terrorist organization and has an extremist offshoot who are terrorists. The organization is a much more complicated than a group devoted to anti-human violence. It is also as close to a local government as exists within Golem City but one unrecognized by the Czech government. They provide for the locals both in terms of resources and security as a government but also force Augs to follow their ideology or else. When the group as a whole moves from one charismatic leader to another, it also takes the entirety of its members with it.

The police constantly abuse those beneath them in the game--because they're afraid of being killed.
    Mankind Divided also has an interesting idea on ethnic homelands as well as larger issues of segregation versus integration. Aside from the Human Restoration Act, a major goal of the Augments in the game is to reach a sort of "Holy Land" where they will be safe. This is where Augments draw from Jewish folklore and the game makes a subtle joke with Golem City in Prague. The original golem being created to protect the Jewish ghettos of Prague. The city of Rabi'ah (Rabbi-ah) is one which many Augments believe will be their hope for the future but it can only hold a tiny minority of them. Likewise, other Augments believe this is either running away from their problems or a trap which won't save anyone.

    In conclusion, I believe Mankind Divided is a far more intelligent game than people give it credit for. It takes a very strong stance on the idea of prejudice, terrorism, militarization of the police, and other major issues by presenting them as horrifying. It also, however, allows the player to express their own views on the subject through their avatar in Adam Jensen. That kind of interactive social commentary is perhaps the best thing which a video game can give to the ongoing debate about many world issues.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided review

    I've been hesitating to do my review of this game for a long time because of a number of reasons: 1. It was a gift from my wife for my birthday. 2. I really-really love Deus Ex. However, just as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was a beautiful spiritual successor to the original Deus Ex, this basically feels like a redux of the controversial Deus Ex: Invisible War. Actually, no, Deus Ex: Invisible War had a beginning, middle, and end. This just has a beginning and then stops.

    To clarify before we begin, I am not the world's biggest Deus Ex fan. I am, however, in the top hundred. I am a huge fan of the lore, I can recite the games damn near verbatim, and can tell you such facts as Illuminati member Elizabeth DuClare was the mistress of France's Prime Minister. My love for the franchise informs my disdain for the work here and the general sense I've been sold a half-finished product which doesn't seem like it would be that good even if it was finished.

I asked for this game. I didn't ask for its mistakes.
    The premise of the game is Adam Jensen survives the destruction of the Panchea Project from the first game, getting dumped in the middle of the freezing ocean, and being rescued by what is implied to be the Illuminati (before being outright confirmed a little while later). He spends a year in a medical clinic before emerging into a world which now fears and hates Augments. This is due to the "Augment Incident" where

    Mankind Divided used augmentation as a metaphor for privilege so this is kind of a weird reversal that initially took me out of the game before I accepted that, yes, most Augments going crazy and murdering people around them would do a decent job of making them social pariahs. However, this is the start of the game's troubled storytelling but I'll get back to that.

    Adam Jensen has joined UNATCO, err, sorry, Task Force 29 as part of a secret plan of his and the Juggernaut Collective's to track down the Illuminati. The Illuminati wasn't actually responsible for the Augment Incident but they killed a bunch of Jensen's friends so let's go with that. Stuff happens and Adam Jensen has to stop a big Russian cyborg terrorist who wants to start a race war with Augments.  Okay.

The gameplay is perfectly serviceable.
    This is where I get back to the issue I mentioned earlier. This game awful pacing. Incredibly important stuff is skipped over with a couple of lines of dialogue, new characters are introduced as old friends, old friends are removed from the game, and the motivations of characters are told to us without much justification. I can't help but think Adam escaping the Illuminati's control, finding out the world is now a ghetto for Augments, and ending up a Interpol wetworks operative with the secret friendship of Anonymous would have been a much better game than the one we got.

    The sense of stakes and priorities also feel really askew. The previous games were about stopping a globe-trotting conspiracy out to control the world through transhumanist evolution, money, media, and population control. This game is mostly about making sure a guy who builds ghettos isn't assassinated so he can build a really nice one for Augments to segregate themselves. It doesn't even feel like the main quest because major questions like Task Force 29's purpose, the Juggernaut Collective's goals, and so on are all left unanswered. If they want to make Adam Jensen's adventures a regular franchise, fine, but at least give us something meaty to deal with.

    What's really frustrating is there are some really good bits in the game. I genuinely do enjoy sneaking up behind people and punching the crap out of them. I like the expanded range of non-lethal options which the game has provided me. Albeit, I feel like some of the options are absolutely ridiculous and kind of make lethal combat lose its few temptations. Prague is a nice enough city even if I don't want to spend the entirety of my time there. However, even the better elements are twisted as we have a recast David Sarif and the opening level is a Call of Duty-esque attack on terrorists which feels nothing like Deus Ex.

Prague is a decent setting but they should have had more.
    Then there's the microtransactions. I'm an abnormally forgiving guy about this sort of thing. If Eidos wants to sell "Super Easy Mode" by charging real money to purchase Praxis Kits and in-game currency, that's their business. Except, playing the game, I was constantly blocked off from finishing side-quests unless I had specific augments even early in the game. I couldn't help but wonder if this was meant to be an "encouragement" for me to shell out RL money so I could play the game organically. If so, that's just....not cool, Eidos. Not cool, Eidos.

    The game has interesting ideas about mechanical apartheid and the attempt to get rid of unwanted individuals by segregating them out of sight so they're out of mind. A lot of the darkest and most interesting elements of the game come from appropriating this imagery. Still, I'm not sure it works as a metaphor since even mutants from the X-men are in-born as a persecuted minority. Augments, by contrast, are people who are made. Still, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on this and I may yet change my mind.

   There's some decent things to say about the gameplay. It's still pretty much Deus Ex: Human Revolution and there's even an option to have the original game's control scheme. I also like how they've expanded the non-lethal options so you can more easily disable people without killing them. This includes a non-lethal version of the Typhoon which can knock out a whole section of enemies without killing them. It's still incredibly fun to just go around punching criminals and thugs without a care in the world.

There's some good ideas about terrorism but not great ones.
    I will say that Prague, one of only two hubs in the game, is pretty well-designed. There's a nice contrast between an ancient city and a technological dystopia which I only remember the original Deus Ex doing with Paris. You can feel the apathy and loathing for the environment which radiates off the citizens and police.

    There's a lot of relevant topics discussed in-between the heavy-handed "Augs=Minorities" metaphor like police brutality, the militarization of the police, and overreaction to terrorism. I also generally liked the sidequests as Adam playing cop is enjoyable, just not as his main mission. I even have a few moments which I really enjoyed like annoying the locals by constantly getting on the "Naturals Only" tram.

    In conclusion, Mankind Divided is a underwhelming sequel that I feel I'd have enjoyed even less if I hadn't read Deus Ex: Black Light beforehand to fill in the gaps. I'm still looking forward to the next game but I think they should find someone else to plot the main quest.


Monday, January 2, 2017

2017 Writing Update

Hey folks,

    It's 2017 and I'm happy to report that sales are going wonderfully for my existing books. Sales were particularly good for Cthulhu Armageddon and The Supervillainy Saga. There were a few works which didn't work out very well but you win some and you lose some in writing. So, what are we having for 2017? Allow me to tell you.

Cthulhu Armageddon II: The Tower of Zhaal 

    Cthulhu Armageddon is a work which I am particularly proud of. John Henry Booth and Mercury Takahashi managed to survive the events of the first novel but still found themselves in an endless monster-ridden wasteland. In the Tower of Zhaal, set one year later, they find themselves recruited by the mysterious cultists inhabiting the ruins of Miskatonic University.

    There's a terrifying horror still unawakened, imprisoned by the ancient pre-human Yithian race, which is preparing to emerge and destroy humanity's last remnants. Teaming up with a gang of murderous scum, they may just save the world--or fail miserably trying.

    The Tower of Zhaal will be published by Crossroad Press and its audiobook will be done by Jeffrey Kafer. I have hope we'll be able to release it sometime this Spring.

The Supervillainy Saga IV: The Science of Supervillainy

    The Science of Supervillainy is the fourth volume of the Supervillainy Saga. Gary Karkofsky a.k.a Merciless: The Supervillain without MercyTM finally tracks down and faces President Omega after having had his life ruined by the time-traveling Chief of State. Unfortunately, defeating his nemesis turns out to be less of a victory than Gary hoped. 

    Seconds after their victory, Gary and his wife are captured by Merciful: The Superhero with MercyTM. Merciful, also known as Other Gary, is our antihero's doppelganger from a previous reality who believes he can rule the world better.  Gary and Mandy manage to escape but not before Merciful has conquered Falconcrest City and reformed it into their worst nightmare: a clean, efficient, retro-futuristic paradise. Can our heroes get their revenge or are they doomed to live in a world without villains?

    The Science of Supervillainy  will be released March of this year with Jeffrey Kafer doing the audiobook.

Agent G: Infiltrator
    Agent G: Infiltrator is the first volume of the Agent G series. Agent G is a Letter, one of those individuals employed by the private military organization known as the Society. Cybernetically enhanced and his memory erased, G is very good at what he does and what he does is murder. 

    Unfortunately, while he doesn't have any objections to the work he's done, G has become suspicious about the Society's promise to restore his memories after his ten years of service is done. His investigations into his past hit a wall when the Society is attacked by their closest rivals in the mercenary Carnivale. Sent on an infiltration mission, he has a unique opportunity to find out the truth of his past--and potentially make a run for freedom.

    Agent G will be released in March of 2017.

Eldritch Ops.

    Eldritch Ops. is the second volume of the Red Room trilogy. Following the ascension of Derek Hawthorne, former assassin and secret agent, to the mysterious Committee, he's found himself bored out of his mind. After a meeting with the representative of the Vampire Nation goes disastrously wrong, he finds himself investigating his own organization to see if it is involved in a massive program to turn the world's supernaturals into agents for the House's agenda. A plan which has the potential to blow up and ignite a war between humanity and the superhuman across the globe.

    Discovering his old partner, Christopher, has been turned into a vampire and that Shannon may have been spying on him the entire time, Derek finds himself with precious few people to trust. Worse, he discovers his own potential for abuse when he acquires a weapon which can transform him from a barely talented hedge magician to a killer capable of seizing the House's power for himself. But is harnessing the power of hell and the aid of a beautiful demon his best idea or his worst?

    Eldritch Ops. will be out on April 1st and no, that's not an April Fool's prank.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Dishonored 2 review

    Dishonored is one of my favorite games of all time. It is an update of everything I loved about the Thief games but with an even richer steampunk setting. I loved the character of Corvo Attano, even if he couldn't speak, and was emotionally invested in his desire to save his daughter Emily. The dark and rat-infested Georgian nightmare of Dunwall combined the Black Death with the worst of the Industrial Revolution. In short, I was all for Dishonored 2 and eager to see what Arkane Studios would do with it.
Choose but choose wisely.

    So, what do I think? Well, this is a difficult game to review because I'd very much like to give this game a 10 out of 10 but I can't do to the fact so many little things bug me. There's a lot of things from Dishonored 2 I wanted which the game gave me but there's also places where it zigged instead of zagged that lowered my overall impression of the game.

    Overall, I have played the game twice so I don't see a reason not to purchase it but I don't think it's going to be remembered as a classic the way the original should be. Instead, I'm going to summarize my review as, "More Dishonored without much in the way of changes and about as good as the original's DLC content."

    The premise is Empress Emily Kaldwin has been ruling the Empire for the better part of fifteen years. You can see the changes brought about by her reign in the fact there is now a greater egalitarianism in the Empire's city guards, composed now of women and people of color as well as men. However, she is less interested in ruling than late night adventures with her father. Unfortunately, her lack of interest in ruling has resulted in a conspiracy to frame her for executing her political enemies which seems like a strange charge given most rulers did that around the 18th century.

Delilah is a decent villain but feels rehashed.
    Delilah Copperspoon, Big Bad of the The Knife of Dunwall as well as Brigmore Witches DLCs, has returned from the dead to menace the throne. Claiming to be Empress Jessamine's bastard sister, she uses clockwork soldiers and spells to overthrow Empress Emily in the span of a few minutes. You are then given a choice between playing Emily or Corvo again. While the game developers made an excellent decision getting Stephen Russell to voice Corvo Attano (the one true Garrett from Thief), I think this game is "meant" to be played as Emily since it's all about her learning just how badly she misjudged her responsibilities as Empress.

    The majority of the game takes place not in Dunwall but on the island of Serkonos, which is the equatorial island beneath the island of Gristol. It is a very different kind of location than the dark, dank, and cramped streets of the Empire's capital. This is something I have mixed feelings about because so much of the game takes place in a sunny tropical paradise, which seems an odd choice for a steampunk stealth game. While there's hints about the immense poverty and corruption in the city of Karnaka, you only rarely get to see it. Part of what made Dishonored such a great game was how much of a crapsack hellhole the place was. Here, a lot of the "dark avenger of the night" atmosphere is lost when you're wandering around in broad daylight wearing your skull mask.

Karnaka is a beautiful city. Marred, a bit by Disney trams.
    The game's plot is basically a rehash of the original game with Corvo's particularly bad as you have to rescue Emily again and restore her to her rightful place. In Emily's path, you're at least restoring yourself but I think they could have done something a bit different. It wouldn't be so bad if they weren't also rehashing the original game's DLCs too. None of this is done poorly and it's all well-handled but it definitely feels like seconds rather than a new meal altogether. I wouldn't be upset if they decided to keep Emily and Corvo as the protagonists for the game series but I hope they can think of better material than another conspiracy against the throne (of which this is the FOURTH in two games).

    What the game lacks in story, it makes up in level design, though. Despite my wish all of the levels took place at night, I very much enjoyed exploring the imaginative levels. The Clockwork Mansion is the stand-out environment with its parts moving and changing based on what levers are pushed. There's also a level which actually has you go back in time, to and fro, due to the assistance of the Outsider. I liked even the less imaginative levels with the Asylum and Conservatory both being extremely well-done. All of them contain multiple pathways to reach your goal as well as numerous ways to eliminate your foes. Assassin's Creed could learn a lot from Dishonored just as it has learned from Assassins' Creed.

Emily has the power of the Darkness! Bwhahaha!
    The characters in the game are a mixture of standouts and ehhh. The targets of Duke Abele (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Kirine Jindosh (John Gegenhuber) are great while Alexandria Hypatia (Jessica Straus) and Breanna Ashmore (Melendy Britt) feel underused. Then there's targets like Liam Byrne and Paolo (Pedro Pascal) who can literally be skipped. I'm also less than impressed with how plain some of the Low Chaos eliminations are.

    In the original game, the non-lethal takedowns of targets were genuinely sadistic and put to lie the idea you were being "merciful" by not killing them. Here, some of them just feel too tame with rare exceptions. I think the only ones which live up to the original game are lobotomizing a man with his own machine and replacing another with their body double as they're dragged off to an asylum. One non-lethal takedown, arguably the most important one, gives the target everything they could ever want and I hated it.

The Clockwork Soldiers are a great Thief homage.
    I will give the game credit for having the levels respond to your actions. At one point, I murdered Delilah's lover, Breanna, in front of her during a magical communication. Delilah reacted to it in disgust and horror. Later, I redid the level and had her disabled before I had the option of calling Delilah up to taunt her about it. Similarly, in the time travel level, there's a number of opportunities to change history which I found quite cool. The game doesn't point them out, either, but you have to figure them out for yourself.

    Gameplay wise, things have been tweaked rather than changed, if that makes sense. There are more non-lethal attacks and there's an option for a limited parkour-like movement which I never used because I was more interested in sneaking softly. There's also a lot more methods of non-lethally disabling opponents but a lot fewer sleep darts you can carry with you. So, you have to be somewhat smarter than just darting everyone like I ended up doing. Also, you need to find black markets to restore your stash rather than just refilling in-between missions.

The villains have a lot of cool relationships.
    Still, I absolutely loved playing Empress Emily Kaldwin and think she's a great video game protagonist. She reminded me a great deal of Assassin's Creed: Syndicate's Evie in appearance but had a much more likable personality even if I think she overstated how important the Empire was to her. I didn't really buy she cared one way or the other about save basic human sympathy. Even so, I'd happily have her be the protagonist of the next game and wouldn't at all mind her father being one too, even if he's getting a bit long in the tooth.

    So what did I think, overall? Well it was fun and perfectly serviceable as a video game. None of the flaws are particularly bad and I've had a lot of games I just couldn't finish lately but this has been one I've done twice. On the other hand, I think the game is very much a sequel. It's very much more of the same and doesn't do the dark, grimy, Industrial Revolution atmosphere of before. In short, it's basically a much lighter and softer version of a game I really enjoyed for how dark it was. I'm glad I played it and think this is a game which isn't remotely disappointing, unlike most of 2016's offerings.


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Dishonored: The Corroded Man review

    I'm rather wary of video game fiction as a general rule. Not because I don't want to give it a try but because so much of it is a shameless cash-in. There's exceptions, mind you, but they tend to be diamonds in the rough. Nevertheless, I wanted to give this work a try and see if it was better than the forgettable Wyrmwood Deceit comic book. I'm a huge Dishonored fan so I was hoping Adam Christopher would do a great job. Did he? Well, he did an entertaining job, which was better than I expected. It's not going to convince anyone video game adaptation work is a new medium but it's still a pretty decent adventure novel even without the tie-in elements.

    The premise of the book is Zhukov, a prisoner from the Russian-esque Tyvia, escapes from a frozen prison with the aid of his newly-acquired supernatural powers. Wanting nothing more than revenge against the people who unjustly imprisoned him, he sets out to Dunwall in order to acquire the means of doing so. Meanwhile, a year before the events of Dishonored 2, Empress Emily Kaldwin is enjoying her newfound freedom gained by studying as a assassin under her father, Corvo Attano. Emily chances on Zhukov's newly-acquired minions in a revived Whalers assassins guild while they're robbing graves, putting her on a collision course with the organization.

    I really liked the novel for giving me what I wanted from Dishonored 2, which was Corvo and Emily working together on a case. Seeing the two play off one another is quite entertaining and Adam Christopher captures an easy going relationship which is quite heartwarming. Corvo Attano wants to protect his daughter from all the evils of the world and has become a very competent spymaster as a result. However, he also is too protective and has indulged his daughter too much as she's become focused more on adventure than ruling her country.

    Zhukov is a great character and represents a nice alternative to the somewhat whitewashed Corvo and Princess Emily. He's definitely a "High Chaos" run of the standard Dishonored protagonist and not without his own understandable grievances as well as discernible code of honor. Much of the book is about finding out what he's got planned and how it all fits together with the setting's mythology. Despite looking like a combination of Hush and Freddy Krueger, he's a character you can believe people will follow.

    The supporting cast is also quite good with Gaylia as a former member of the Whalers assassins guild and the introduction of Empress Emily's lover Wyman, who is kept gender neutral for reasons which I think were well-intentioned but limit Wyman's development. I even liked the inclusion of Esme Boyle, minor character from the original Dishonored game who has gone on to be a high society matriarch.

    If I have any complaints about the plot, it's that the book is a little too morally straight-laced. Dishonored was a game where the "good" play through had you send two men to be worked to death in a mine, a woman kidnapped to be given to her stalker, and another branded as a heretic in a society which ostracizes said beings. I would have preferred a little more darkness from our heroes but this is a complaint which extends to Dishonored 2 and might not have been the author's choice.

    The writer also feels the need to make things feel a little more 'gamey' than they necessarily should. Much is made of Princess Emily sneaking around and basically playing out levels as if she were a video game character. I would have preferred a greater focus on the emotions of the characters and their sense of danger. I also felt a number of interesting characters were unceremoniously killed off when their stories had been laid out for something more. Some readers will dislike this sort of writing style but I was okay with it. I will forgive a lot for a chance to get back to Dunwall and visit with old friends.

    The Corroded Man is full of action, adventure, and quite a bit of character development for the series' protagonists. I recommend fans of the series pick it up and even those who aren't familiar with the games will probably enjoy it as a fun steampunk fantasy adventure. I hope future books will recapture the original game's darkness, though.