Gaming: Crushed Between Portals

The Portal game mechanic was always weird. What happens when you get stuck between?


American Truck Simulator: First Looks


American Truck Simulator (ATS) went live a few days ago, and I broke my general rule about not buying games on release day. SCS generally offers reasonably good service and abundant updates, and it was only $20.

It’s a lot like European Truck Simulator 2 (ETS2) with some updated mechanics and Americanized scenery. The ATS assets are an evolution beyond what you get out of a vanilla ETS2 game. ATS shipped with only two truck models due to the chicken/egg issue of vehicle licensing. SCS’s ambitious plan is to expand from California across the entire United States and over all of North America. ETS2 has been very good at updates and expansions pitched at a relatively reasonable cost, in contrast to notorious issues of Microsoft Flight Simulator and Train Simulator where you can easily stack up over a thousand dollars in vehicle and map DLC.

Vehicle and scenic models are a mix of the contemporary and retro. One other review compared ATS to fallout in that respect. The mix saves ATS from stepping on trademarks like McDonald’s, Burger King, or Krispy Kreme.

Knights of the Old Republic 2 with The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod

I spend the last few weeks going through my second playthrough of KOTOR2, this time with The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod (TSLRCM). As background, Knights of the Old Republic was developed by Bioware in 2003. Production of the sequel using the same game engine was contracted to Obsidian and released on a compressed schedule in 2004. TSLRCM developed over time using hidden game assets that had never been implemented.

What does TSLRCM add to the experience? Extended dialogues in the last act bring companions back into focus, which is important given the big reveal that drives it. You get harassed by assassination droids practically everywhere. Nar Shadda, already the biggest mission in the game, gets even bigger. A number of cut-scenes among secondary characters helps bring them to life. Multiple baffling ambiguities are made less ambiguous. The narrative is still loaded with plot holes.

Is there a bad side? KOTOR2 breaks protagonist perspective at multiple points to play scenes as one of your companions: Atton, Mira, or T3. If you’ve not been paying much attention to stocking and upgrading spare equipment, some of these encounters can be excessively difficult. TSLRCM throws in three new Atton-led encounters, one against an endgame boss. The new Atton encounters felt a bit unbalanced if you didn’t luck out in making Atton a Jedi and give him your best lightsabers. Other added encounters were trivially easy.

And having half of the female cast develop a crush on a male protagonist struck me as a bit over the top. I don’t know if that’s the mod or not, but Atris’s unrequited love for The Exile shifted from subtext to text to text between playthroughs.

On the plus side, the Steam workshop made this an easy install.

Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords

This 12-year-old game got a refresh and Linux port on Steam middle of last year, and after The Force Awakens I decided to dust this one off in my library.

screenshot from kotor2 showing character in spacesuit
Spaaace, I’m in space! In space!

The Old Republic storylines take place approximately 4,000 years before the movie trilogy, and have largely been explored through video games, comics, and novelizations. Setting the games allowed for Bioware (Kights of the Old Republic and The Old Republic) and Obsidian (KOTOR2) to explore new plots and conflicts relating to Jedi vs. Sith without stepping on Lucasfilm’s primary movie continuity.

Star Wars as a background story is elaborate and dense. Just for the basics, the Old Republic was invaded by a militaristic culture called the Mandalorians. The Jedi, for reasons that are not fully explained, refused to help the Republic. A young Jedi named rebelled from the Jedi council, became a general, and destroyed the Mandilorian homeworld. Revan returned with their own army to conquer the Republic. And all of that comes before the first game in the series.

KOTOR2 deals with the aftermath of these two wars. Your character is identified early as the Jedi Exile, the only one of Revan’s fallen Jedi to return to the Jedi Council to answer for disobedience (but not, curiously, for the war crime at the center of the plot.) The Exile was banished from the order, and has lived without contact with the Force out in the hinterlands. You return to find the Republic and its individual planets struggling to put itself together.

I’ve joked that the MMO The Old Republic gives you choices between playing the smugly self-righteous Republic on one hand and Marvin the Martian Sith on the other. KOTOR2 offers a bit more ambivalence. Former Sith become key allies. It also offers one of the better antagonists of the whole franchise. The creepy manipulation and philosophy of big bad balances out the obvious excess of Darth Frankenstein and Darth Nosferatu.

screenshot from KOTOR2 showing heavily scared man
Darth Frankenstein

In terms of gameplay, KOTOR and KOTOR2 are transitional games with turn-based mechanics and over-the-shoulder perspective. The results are a bit less immersive than they could be. The graphics are dated but not quite far enough to become “cool” like pixel art has become. KOTOR2 offers a good mix of combat and puzzle-based obstacles to avoid becoming repetitious. The game was rushed through production by Lucas Arts and was released “unfinished.” The last act especially doesn’t make a lot of sense, but still stands better than a number of games that follow it. A massive fan mod fixes many of these problems, and I’m trying it for my next playthrough.

In many ways KOTOR2 is a flawed work that’s showing its age. But it’s $10 for over 40 hours of fun if you can handle going low-polygon.

Games I’m Playing This Month

Since I can’t seem to make the time to dive deep into analysis of any one game.

Invisible Inc.

I’m a sucker for a GOG sale and alternatives to the usual RPG model of killing everything on the map to get from one side to the other. There’s not much story here, and the story cues seem a bit inconsistent. Is Invisible Inc. a freelance operation or a rebellion? This turn-based game centers on a combination of hacking and terrain-based stealth to solve missions. The use of violence against guards is strictly limited and has consequences for solving the level.

Baldur’s Gate, Enhanced Edition and Baldur’s Gate II, Enhanced Edition

It seems time to revisit these classics. I don’t know that BG has aged well. Characters scale from insta-death weaklings to God-like omnipotence at the end of the saga. BG in particular puts a lot of stuff between the prologue and the meat of chapter 1.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall and Shadowrun: Hong Kong

I feel like I can’t quite get my thoughts together on storytelling in Hong Kong or Shadowrun as cyberpunk science fantasy. Something that sticks out is how Spider Shen may or may not be a genderqueer NPC, depending on how you interpreted the various cues. I’ve not quite gotten all the way through the Dragonfall director’s cut after playing the original twice.

Torchlight II

Torchlight II is a bit of a popcorn game for me. It’s light enough to munch on in a half-hour while dinner is cooking.

Euro Truck Simulator 2

ETS2 is another popcorn game. No plot, no problem, and there’s something relaxing about the perfect delivery.

Fallout 4: Everyone is Bisexual (if you RP it that way)

So Fallout 4 is making some waves by allowing for bisexual and polyamorous relationships. Of course, Skyrim allowed to Dragonborn to marry NPCs of any gender, but had hard-coded monogamy. Early reports suggest that Fallout 4 follows the Skyrim model of vaguely gender-neutral dialogue and no hard-coded restrictions. Still, good to have.

Mass Effect, if you got through the entire series, offered the potential for a bi Shepard with serial monogamy and some flings on the side. Of course, there’s Dragon Age but the less I say about that, the better.

That’s just the AAA world. Transistor fairly obviously had a gay couple and a nonbinary background character. Shadowrun: Dragonfall had multiple same-sex couple, including Glory’s backstory. Shadowrun: Hong Kong has the ambiguous Spider Shen. The Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Editions, a re-mastering of the RPG that popularized romantic subplots, include new lesbian and bisexual plot lines.

The point is that game designers are doing it, largely without making a big deal out of it.