Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Digits & Dragons
  by Greg Allen
April 2007

Games Worth Coming Back To

Just because a game is sitting on the new releases shelf is no guarantee that what's inside is going to be any better than an older game or even a game you've already put aside. Some games are fantastic regardless of their age and others keep getting better over time. A game like Neverwinter Nights is just as playable today as ever, and with new content still being produced it is one of the best purchases a role-playing gamer could make. The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion is just over a year old now but it, too, provides a huge world to go adventuring in, and just came out with a great expansion.

New Lands in Neverwinter

I've talked plenty about Neverwinter Nights in previous columns, but it continues to get playtime from me due to the huge library of user-created content available. The quality of the mods that people create and give away for free is simply astounding and keeps me going back to NWN1 rather than the prettier follow-on, NWN2. This content really runs the gamut, from persistent worlds that you can play in with a whole bunch of other people to long single-player or small group campaigns with detail even greater than the developer's original campaigns.

As I mentioned in an earlier column, some friends and I spent a few weekends last summer going through a community-made module that was a pretty faithful Neverwinter interpretation of Diablo. If you've ever played Diablo you'll know that storyline and role-playing fall distantly behind insane, mouse-clicking battle action, and this mod was just the same.

Looking for something different, we set out after a module with a more immersive, more complex world. Wow, did we find it; Sands of Fate is a three-part campaign that has some of the most impressive scripting and complex puzzles that I have seen in any RPG. And it's free.

Sands and Suffering

Sands of Fate 1 takes you into the desert, where it is up to you to save the town of Heliopolis from destruction by a number of threats. Cool effects like getting dehydrated in the sun and a day and night cycle that actually matters make for a pretty immersive experience, and some of the battles with massive sand worms and beetles are epic.


Stylish underwater helms let you go deep into the sewers.

If you manage to save Heliopolis from certain doom, Sands of Fate 2 brings you through the desert and sewers to the city of Aqualis, where you have the task of convincing the city council to entrust you with the secret location of the Gem Tower. To gain the trust of the council you'll have to win favor with the city guilds which means--you guessed it--accomplishing a number of side quests.

The side quests and adventures in Sands of Fate 2 are a lot more complex and memorable than those in its predecessor, but the authors seem to have been just as creative about ways to make the player suffer as they were about their characters and stories.

For example, while roaming in the sewers my party came across some were-rats (half man, half rat) who were quite infectious. So infectious in fact that when one of them attacked me I turned into a were-rat and started attacking my allies. This wasn't a temporary transition, either. I lost control of my character and once my new rat buddies and I killed my parties there was no hope of resurrection for me. Ouch. Time to reload.

Or for another experience in suffering, the creators filled the sewers and caves with slimes that would either cling to you and suck your life away with no way to rip them off, or the dirty slimes would rot away your armor and weapons. When my friend realized that the weapons and armor he had spent literally hours finding and crafting had been completely dissolved, he wailed in anguish that taking away a player's loot was breaking a cardinal rule of gaming. And you know, maybe he's right. Losing your prized possessions really isn't fun - but it does make you respect a module.


Not even a couple of arrows to the face will slow this bad-boy down.

Sands of Fate was fun, but after the first two chapters and many hours of running around lost and frustrated we decided we just weren't up to going through the third and last module in the series. Looking for something a little simpler but still not mind numbing, we found the Shadowlords campaign.

Now, I'm only about half way through the campaign right now but one of my favorite features is that all of the modules come in bite-size pieces. Each chapter takes about two hours to complete and while there is some creativity in what you do, it's pretty hard to get lost. The balance of combat and story is perfect and the henchmen are pretty hilarious. And, best of all, no soul-sucking slimes!

Getting Crazy

It's been a while since Oblivion sucked my every free hour from me, but never fear, it is back and beautiful as ever with a new expansion pack. Shivering Isles takes Oblivion to the edge of sanity, and a little beyond, with the mad and twisted realm of Sheogorath.

Now unlike some mods, Shivering Isles doesn't add anything to the main world of Oblivion (apart from what you bring back); all of the additional quests, dungeons, and fiends are contained in Sheogorath, which you can access through an easy-to-find portal.

Stepping through the portal into the world of the mad, I found myself in the Fringe, a community of people only mostly mad who couldn't get past The Gatekeeper into the rest of the realm of Sheogorath. Being the fearless warrior that I am, I decided to pay this gatekeeper a visit and was promptly thrashed by this new fiend, who was bigger than anything I had previously faced. With a little sleuthing and the help of some townsfolk, I was able to slay the giant and really begin my explorations.


The new lands are as beautiful as you've come to expect from Oblivion

One of the best features of Oblivion, and all of the Elder Scrolls games really, is the near-impossibility of staying on task. Even if I think I want to rush through a quest, I always find myself distracted by new places on the map or new people with new problems. Which is cool--a lot of games feel too much like work. When I play Oblivion, I play it to get immersed in a new world.

Shivering Isles does pretty well on the immersion factor by combining the already great atmosphere and depth of Oblivion with crazy new monsters, stronger and harder-to-find weapons, and some refreshingly different quests.


Working with computer controlled teams makes for some fun new quests

Still, I wish the designers would have gone further in their creation of an insane world. For example, in a quest that seemed like it would be ridiculously cool, you get to take the helm at being a dungeon master in a fortress for a little bit. Sounds like a good idea, making traps and tricks would be cool, but in reality, all you get to do is choose between pressing two buttons and the choice doesn't really even matter. What a letdown!

Later on, you have to ingest some mind- and body-altering drugs in order to enter a cave and find a cure for the addiction to this drug. Well, if we're going to be on drugs, how about something a little more mind-altering than just dropping strength and agility a little bit? How about some visual indication of our mind warping, some change in the way we see the world? I guess my problem is that as impressive as Shivering Isles is, there isn't much in there that goes beyond what a dedicated (very dedicated) modder could do with a lot of time. I just expected things would be a little bit crazier.

Lack of border-breaking aside, this really is a fun module. For a while, the word on the street was that Bethesda was just going to continue releasing their small downloadable modules, but I'm glad they decided to go with a full-on expansion. I had put Oblivion on the shelf, but this gave me good reason to pull it out again. I'm glad I did!


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