Pop General

“Showtime’s series tend to hinge around their central player and frequently risk fizzling when that character runs out of yarn or when the audience fatigues of them…”

Been catching Homeland and The Leftovers on television, finished reading The Black Company: The Book of the North and completed watching the last episodes of The Wire as well as the sixth season of The League.

CarrieThis season of Homeland has been pretty good. It’s too early to say if I’m enjoying it more than the fourth season, but the writers took a bold risk in trying to divorce Carrie of the CIA, after the unexpected high of having the “good guys” effectively lose. I used to cheer for the CIA in the earlier seasons when its mission was more defensive. But as of late the agency feels too Machiavellian. There has been some shocking contrasts in how certain characters have remained true to form while others have become increasingly…

Villainous.

I don’t know whether this is just the plot du jour, or if Showtime is preparing for a final story arc and the series climax in the following season (maybe two.) Admittedly I hope for the latter, as Showtime has a tendency to drag on after the ecstasy of a great tale has worn off.

Like Breaking Bad, shows of this caliber should end with an exclamation point, kill their darlings and never look back.

But HBO’s The Leftovers has managed to enthrall me, and even overtake my excitement for Homeland in just two episodes (I intend to see the third tonight.) After some comparisons of how HBO and Showtime manage their television, I’ve come to realize that Showtimes tends to be very protagonist centered, while HBO breaks up their story among various characters. The LeftoversGame of Thrones, The Wire… HBO does a great job of never being too dependent on anyone cast member. But with Showtime, series like DexterUnited States of Tara, and Nurse Jackie tend to hinge around their central player and frequently risk fizzling when that character runs out of yarn or when the audience fatigues of them.

Meanwhile, The League has definitely ground down. In many ways, the show can be compared to Seinfeld; the plot tends to pick up themes early and circles around to connect them (often ironically) at the end, while the characters are deserving snobs for whom we get a schadenfreude kick from seeing punished. Unlike the show about nothing however, The League has begun to recycle its humor and isn’t really adding anything new to the formula. Sure, there were a few moments of gold in the sixth season, such as when Andre was psychologically tricked into “punishing himself” for cheating. But the completionist in me is glad the series is ending.

As if this all wasn’t enough of a mistake in the consumption of my spare time, I decided to begin another game of Shadowrun: Hong Kong.

It’s not like I don’t have enough to do as of late. Three drafts await completion as it is; a military sci-fi piece, a post-apocalyptic story and a unique historical fantasy piece that I’d been researching for a few months. There’s also a novella that will be due before the year’s end and several technical projects that need my attention.

But I’ve been pretty stressed. An hour set aside to finish anything is never enough. Sometimes people need to be reminded of what’s fun to remember why the labor is worth the effort.

Shadowrun4AI actually finished my first campaign about a month ago, with an Italian elf shaman by the name of Bianca “Luna” Panzavecchia. With an emphasis of conjuring over spirit summoning and a focus on pistols, Luna was a great work-horse character. Her conjuring aspects surprised me greatly, particularly the barrier spells which I used to powerful effect… even going so far as to cheese the final boss. However, I put my first replay aside while I waited for a few patches to reduce the sheer of bugs.

Manuel and I had been swapping some build ideas for new characters for a while. About a month ago I had a vision of a troll adept (think monk) because of a natural synergy for Strength, Body and Willpower, and an emphasis in barehanded fighting. I jokingly shook my fist at Manuel for running ahead to try my idea first, but I finally got around to trying the theory myself.

A little karma distribution later and Charlie Shen, better known as Mó Chuí (magic hammer) was born. Shen hits like a semi-truck and can soak a fair amount of damage too. Downside to most melee characters remains consistent though; he’s frequently out of cover and tends to soak up a lot of damage. 50 then 60 HP and good armor will go far towards keeping him alive, but it would be best to keep a few emergency health kits on hand.

One thing I have to respect about this title was the removal of… what we’ll call “paragon” dialogue. Basically, Mass Effect set a standard for characters where as you can be the ultimately goodie-two shoe or evil incarnate. Dragonfall offered dialogue choices which were much more “cool grey” in nature, but did give the player the option of being a total @#$hole whenever they felt like it. Hong Kong tends to be a little more mellow about that, though you can push buttons if you try hard enough. And that’s the road I’m taking Mó Chuí down.

Battletech KickStarter

BATTLETECH_04_HBS

During my teenage years I was a considerable fan of the Battletech universe. To this day, I still have several books including technical readouts and novels by Michael A. Stackpole, William H. Keith Jr and Robert Thurston, as well as a small collection of the tabletop miniatures. If I dig, I might even find several hard copies of the MechWarrior game series.

So when I heard the news about Harebrained Schemes putting together a new KickStarter for a fresh Battletech title, I wanted to take some time to dissect the news. Truth be, this seems to be a situation where KickStarter is the absolute safest approach to gauging consumer interest. More on this in a moment.

For newcomers, Battletech is a war game that puts players on the 31st century battlefield, filled with walking tanks known as Battlemechs. The background goes that a star-settled humanity was united by the Star League, and held together by five Great Houses in the territory around Terra known as the “Inner Sphere.” When the ruling Star Lord (not Peter Quill) and his family were assassinated, the Star League army slew his usurper and disappeared into the unexplored Periphery territories. Left with their private armies, the five Great Houses each declared themselves the new Star Lord and sought to claim the Inner Sphere as their own.

techreadoutThis began a series of conflicts known as the Succession Wars. Several centuries later, the first couple of wars have knocked humanity down a peg or two and have truly desensitized our species to the violence.

Liberal use of nuclear weapons and heavy targeting of science and production centers has sent our technology backwards. As a result, several technology preserved agreements even as the battles and raids continue.

Eventually the Star League army returns, reformed as the Clans. A more technologically advanced and warrior-derived society, they move to seize control of the Inner Sphere. This results in a massive, fragile alliance between the Houses, the effects of which change the political landscape forever.

In the games, players join a side and engage in a variety of machines such as assassinations, protecting or invading territory, scouting or escaping. Depending on the nature of the title, players can pilot the machines themselves simulator style, command lances or companies and/or order them about much like a real time strategy game with very limited resources. The titles with the “mercenaries” suffix also feature a great deal of economic management, giving incentive to avoid damage and minimize ammunition expenditures to keep the C-bill revenues in the black.

Originally created and owned by FASA Corporation, Battletech has faced hardships from its very conception. The earliest fourteen designs were heavily based off of several anime series, and the legal rights came under challenge from Harmony Gold. These now “unseen” designs are gone, but in their place are hundreds of new, original mech designs.

The problems didn’t end there though. FASA Corporation closed its doors in 2001, and the rights to various projects shuffled about for sometime. The franchise was acquired by WizKids, and then by Topps only three years later. The video games have gone through several publishers, including MicroProse and Microsoft. Recently two new games were released, the free-to-play MechWarrior Online from Piranha Games and MechWarrior Tactics whose publisher has filed for bankruptcy.

successionwarsFor better or worse, Battletech separates itself from many similar board top properties with its detailed history, that has been expanded upon for more than two decades. This on-going history can be an impressive barrier-to-entry for potential new fans. While Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 thrive in a universe of ignorance, doubt, deniability and massiveness, no historic event happens in Battletech that isn’t somehow recorded and important.

Clans and factions too have been and will be destroyed, such as the enigmatic Clan Wolverine who may have become the Minnesota Tribe, and Clan Smoke Jaguar who was the victim of the massive The Twilight of the Clans book series. Major political figures have been born, raised and die, though the reasons range from battles and assassinations to old fashioned age and cancer. 

My faith in the series has long died away since my favorite authors have moved on and the ever changing hands weakened the brand. But if there’s anyone out there who can get it right, it’s going to be series creator Jordon Weisman. After his company’s incredible work with the Shadowrun franchise, his name alone justifies tossing a few dollars into the hat.

Look for the Battletech Kickstarter this fall.

Shadowrun: Hong Kong Kickstarter

Shadowrun Hong Kong

Shadowrun is going to Hong Kong.

It happened so fast that before I even knew it was up, the Kickstarter was pushing a quarter million in funding. The initial goal of $100,000 was met in under 2 hours, and several other goals has been added and even satisfied. And it still has 34 days to go, with plenty of bonus material to tap.

I have to admit that I’ve surprised myself over the last year. I was originally quite pessimistic about Kickstarters, but in the last few months I’ve lightened up enough that if I see something very promising, I’ll break open the wallet for a “what if” product. This runs contrary to the deluge of initially optimist supporters who have been burned by bad projects and underwhelming goods.

But Hare Brained Schemes has not only delivered what it promised in previous projects, but also goes above and beyond. When Dragonfall transitioned into a full product in with the Director’s Cut, HBS gave those who purchased the DLC the standalone game for free. Hare Brained Schemes is cultivating a reputation for not only treating their fans with honesty and fairness, but with genuine appreciation.

A New Crew

SRHK CrewAs of the time of this blog post, Shadowrun: Hong Kong has four confirmed crew mates for the player, with a fifth promised at the $400k mark. One thing that made me smile was the increase in metahuman crew mates. The Kreuzbasar gang was great, but only Eiger was anything other than human.

This time however, we’re definitely mixing it up. A dwarf sniper and decker. Two orcs, one being a Rat shaman and the other a security specialist. And fresh off the funding goals, a Russian Rigger with his own pet drone.

Two things about the crew’s roles catch my eye. First, once again there is no hermetic mage nor adepts. Magic in crew crafting always tends to take a back burner, often given over to a mixed-purpose support shaman. In this case, Gobbet.

While the possibilities of magic as a storytelling device were explored through Dietrich and… another character in the previous game, I quietly hope that we’ll someday discover the background of a street mage archetype. In terms of game play mechanics, the lack of a hermetic mage also tends to put pressure on the player to develop a magician, as most other roles are provided for.

Second, there is no designated street doctor or combat medic like Glory provided in Berlin. My guess is that decker Is0bel and rigger Racter might take advantage of their high intellect investment to make decent, patchwork healers in the interim. But no one is really designated to that role.

The Possibilities

SRHK FightI can’t express how glad I am that Shadowrun isn’t returning to the United States as a setting just yet. It’s not that I’m disinterested in hearing more about an Awakened North America, but the cultural differences of Berlin in Dragonfall touched a wanderlust in me that I forgot was there. Hong Kong is ripe for exploration, new magic and technology and a new adventure I can’t wait to sink my teeth into.

Another hope I have is that every character gets their own side mission. At the moment, the Kickstarter tiers mention personal missions for Gobbet, Is0bel and Gaichu, but nothing yet for Racter or Duncan Wu. Maybe they were already getting their back stories with the completion of the funding goals and core game.

Speak of, perhaps the character who intrigues me the most is Wu. Not because of anything about his past (we know nothing about him), but because of his game play mechanics. Wu can go down a skill set called the Lethal Force Track (pretty self-explanatory), or the Crowd Control Track. That latter set focuses on stunning abilities, such as a shock baton, tear gas or even zip ties to halt foes.

This sets up a intriguing precedent, akin to what the tranquilizer gun did for Metal Gear Solid 2. Since Shadowrun Returns, there have been ways of talking oneself out of a brewing fight or two. And there was already one side mission in Dragonfall where you had to capture an opponent. But will there now be a way to fight without killing? Do I have to kill my foes anymore? Or could I perhaps incapacitate all my enemies throughout my missions?

If so… decisions, decisions.

Shadowrun: Hong Kong is due out mid 2015, with a current estimate for August. And I’ve already slapped down 35 shut-up-and-take-my-money dollars. See you in Hong Kong, chummers.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall

The game frequently hits you with challenging moral choices so gray, you’ll forget what defines good . . . No matter what you do, you will feel a bit jaded after.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall

Shadowrun: Dragonfall

How often is it said that a video game is “important”?

Entertaining, incredible, fun. Sure, we say that all the time. But important? Almost never.

So if you were told about a franchise universe that involves elves, orcs, cyberpunk, modernism, corporatism, shamanic mysticism and nature spirits, urban culture, grimdarkness (think Warhammer 40k), racial tensions, poverty, gang life and more, the very first question on your mind would be, “How could that be anything except a total steaming mess of science fantasy crap?”

The very last thing you’d expect is something so well written, it actually challenges the classics of today.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall approaches disturbing and harrowing adult themes and philosophies in an incredibly thoughtful way, without tiring melodrama or clichés.

Set in Berlin, the main character (your avatar) joins an old friend named Monika who runs both a clique and looks after an entire neighborhood. The game begins with a sordid data heist that swiftly goes wrong, putting both you and the team in the cross hairs of a shadowy and well funded organization. There’s no choice but to go on the offense and find out who they are and stop them before they stop you.

The main character (who you design from scratch) has a past, though you choose certain elements of it. Your race and your job both weigh heavy factors in dialogue options. Your first instinct might be to go as a human, but there are interesting interactions and results to be partaken if you choose one of the metaraces, like Orc or Dwarf.

But Boss . . .

Even better, you’re given a team of four individuals with their own back stories. There’s Dietrich, a former punk rocker with strong anti-racist attitudes, who felt the call of shamanism. Blitz, a smart mouth decker (futuristic hacker) with lingering problems of his own, mostly romantic. Glory, a chrome (cyborg) combat medic with one hell of a history that I refuse to risk spoiling. And Eiger, a troll woman hung up on military protocol after her career in the special forces came to an end.

I think Glory has earned a nomination for best video game character of the year.

If it were up to me, Glory here would earn a nomination for best character design of the year.

Besides the depth each of these four characters brings, I really appreciate that Harebrained Schemes only used half a formula for getting to know them. Between missions, you just talk to them, branching out into multiple paths that you can influence. As I played the kinder, understanding leader in the first go around, playing an uncaring ass in the second game is harder.

But sometimes during missions, you get to learn more about them too. It’s interesting to see the conflicts in the team arise from the choices you have to make. Dietrich had a particularly interesting story about a familial relation who happened to have been caught up in the Humanis Policlub, a hate group who advocates a human race “purified” of metahumans. And guess what? Never once did they use the four letter N-word.

That’s another point. The game frequently hits you with challenging moral choices so gray, you’ll forget what defines good. You can forget the Mass Effect “make everyone happy” approach because it doesn’t exist here. You’ll be forced to make decisions you don’t like, and you’ll discover that the seemingly “good” decisions you make have hard unforeseen consequences that aren’t as simple as being stabbed in the back. You’ll rarely see it coming.

No matter what you do, you will feel a bit jaded after.

That Thing’s Operational!

There are many elves out there. Magic elves, dark elves, Keebler and North Pole elves. Trust me, stay away from the party elves.

Party elf: There’s a party in his body and every drug is invited.

Fighting takes place on a grid board. Each character gets a certain number of action points to either move, fight, use items or cast spells. If you hold a defensive position for example, you can actually shoot twice in a round.

And the area isn’t just flat either. There are bottlenecks through doorways and hallways to take advantage of. Sometimes, there are static defenses like turrets, sources of cover with varying strength to reduce the chance of being hit, and terminals that can be hacked to give you an advantage. The setting is quite interactive.

One of the coolest features about the Shadowrun Returns series is the capacity to have two separate yet connected fights going on at the same time: One in the real “meat” world, and one online called the Matrix. Certain missions revolve around your street samurai and magicians protecting a decker as he/she breaks into the building’s sub-net.

Fighting in the Matrix has its own quirks, from summoning special program allies, taking on guard protocols and trying to beat the “heat” a clock countdown that will summon defenses both online and off. The whole effect has a Return of the Jedi Battle of Endor feel to it, where one fight effects and is even dependent upon the other. Often, mutually.

Final Judgment . . .

While I want to brag about Dragonfall‘s fair price of only $15, the problem is that the game is technically a DLC, meaning you have to get the original Shadowrun Returns with the slightly less amazing campaign “Deadman’s Switch.” Maybe in the future, Harebrained Schemes will figure out how to branch off and release the game as an independent, standalone product with the Shadowrun Core libraries.

However, I can attest that overall, Dragonfall is an amazing RPG experience. It’s fun and rewarding, with an inspired story and campaign design that keeps things interesting. Unlike Mass Effect where we were given good vs bad choices until the end, Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall forces the player to really make hard, regrettable decisions that prompt great self reflection. It’s something you likely won’t see in AAA titles.

I already can’t wait to see what Harebrained Schemes cooks up next.