Saturday, March 29, 2014

Dark Souls II Online Experiences



So a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to utilize a different connection for a few days and took advantage; and banked around 50-60 hours of online experiences into that small timeframe; this is virtually the same amount of time that I spent engaging in the online features of the first game prior to reviewing it so it seems fine; and of course it was at launch.

I wanted to get the perceived online trophies out of the way (there are tedious ways of doing these offline I’ve discovered since then, but online was much smoother) so I immediately made a character intent on being a Sunbro early on. This is actually more difficult than it sounds as getting to the Sunlight Altar is not a meager feat in this game and most people don’t get there until they’re around halfway through the first part of the game.

The first thing to notice about the online is that WOW summoning works fast, like being summoned was this irritating chore in Dark Souls and it takes seconds now. Put down sign, boom “you are being summoned” message within 5-30 seconds. This allowed me to actually do more white/gold phantoming than I believe I’ve ever done in Dark Souls. My fellow White Phantoms (and they were exclusively white phantoms until later) would also die with alarming regularity; again pointing to the loftier challenge of the early areas of the game. As you gain souls your Soul History goes up so regardless of whether you actually spend those souls on SL you’ll still eventually have to move on; this led me to look for the first “bottleneck” area.

The Last Giant is actually pretty tough in Co-op though I’ve never had any trouble in singleplayer; his AI is much more likely to be in a position to attack at all times and he does have the ability to one shot some classes; over around 15-20 fights the host died perhaps 6 or 7 times which was enough to deter me from focusing on farming Sunlight medals here. Pursuer is much easier in co-op thanks to the ballista capable of 1-2 shotting the boss, but one of the more amusing experiences happened here as well; whomever it is that is tanking the boss is also vulnerable to the bolts being fired and I swiftly killed the Pursuer and then the host in rapid succession in one of the first of these rumbles. This was naturally hilarious (unintentional) and is exactly the kind of stupidity I look for in Souls games online.



On my way to the Sunlight Covenant I had to rush through the Huntsman’s Copse early on still with mostly starting gear; much more difficult than my first, much more powerful character’s run through this area. Still it is doable and knowing how the boss worked enabled me to do that without too much trouble as well (though it did take like 120 sorcery casts). Given the time to digest it the Skeleton Lords actually have a pretty sweet musical track; and in general the game seems to have great boss music.

Now in the Sunlight Covenant I returned to the first few areas but was only summoned with frequency in Heide’s Tower of Flame; and while this area might seem pretty easy that didn’t stop people from dying. The esteemed Dragonrider, perhaps the easiest boss in the game, managed to dispatch a host in about 5 seconds; the host not having pulled the levers to make the boss arena safer. After returning from this wonderful experience I was immediately attacked by the Old Knight I was fighting just prior to the summoning, and lo and behold he had the exact same amount of life remaining.

Another thing that makes being summoned quite swift is that the summoners actually outnumber the summoned, at least for the time being. While it can occasionally be frustrating trying to summon people yourself (“Summon sign was already used”) the sheer wonderment of plopping that golden sign down and literally within 3 seconds being summoned is amazing. While it might not take particularly long to get summoned as a white phantom being summoned as a gold phantom is still undoubtedly faster; and I eventually made my way to No Man’s Wharf.

The Wharf is a fairly labyrinthine zone; another I did with a powerful character to start with which was quite a bit more troublesome on my frail sorcerer. I began by doing summon runs from the first bonfire which was never particularly effective; as the host would frequently die or get lost on the way to the “summon ship” lever. It didn’t help that I failed to stand conspicuously by the lever on more than one occasion and immediately rolled off the edge. I really don’t like how easy it is to miss that lever.

After a while I realized I could just put my sign at the edge of the Wharf and then in about an hour and 15 minutes I managed to accumulate the 30 sunlight medals necessary for Sunlight Spear; I also picked up the Sun Sword and started using it for the wondrous B/B (eventually A/A) Str/Dex scaling; which is still vastly inferior to various traditional 2 handed weapons.  In around 30 attempts the Flexile Sentry failed to kill a single host. It might seem cold but if someone summons you at the end of the pier and the ship isn’t there you can just black separation crystal if they don’t seem to be particularly intent on following you to that evil lever. No Man’s Wharf is of a sufficient difficulty to advance 200-250K Soul Memory prior to losing the chance at being summoned and the boss is the least lethal out of the early game; thus this is the most efficient way to get Sunlight Spear; though people are now doing it at higher levels as well.



I now moved on to the PvP portion of the wondrous spell gathering experience, I had to get the much (not at all) desired “Hidden Weapon” spell from the Bellkeepers Covenant; which again was fairly fast and efficient on the summoning front. The benefits of having an absurd number of Titanite Chunks from this covenant are myriad, but for starters I was able to upgrade the Sun Sword all the way to +10 fairly early on (still inferior to a +5 large weapon).

Prior to this I had experimented with the Bellkeepers in the Belfry Sol on the first character, but there just weren’t all that many people at that high of an SL and those that were were relatively competent at the game (though I still performed quite well in the proceedings, thanks in large part to my excellent weapons). But in the Belfry Luna there were an endless stream of grey invasion opportunities; and in the rare event that there was an interlude I could always invade the Belfry myself and get invaded instantly; because being a Bellkeeper does not prevent you from fighting Bellkeepers. Although most of the players I fought here were of middling skill the best overall player I fought was in the Belfries; he successfully dodged every single ranged attack I threw at him and I just barely won (I believe he had a Bastard Sword?) in melee range; no extensive backstab fishing period. This doesn’t quite trump my previous best experience of just barely dying to a guy next to a bridge at the Kiln of the First Flame, but it was definitely interesting.

On that point backstabbing is no longer a guarantee most of the time, while there will still be glorious lagstabs a lot of the time you can just roll out of the way of the initial animation. This leads to more shield turtling but From introduced a new mechanic of “pushing” the shield out of the way to set up a weaker critical hit to deal with this. Overall a melee on melee match is mildly more interesting than it was in Dark Souls. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for late-game spellcasting.

Spells are just too powerful right now, in PvE and PvP; the most glaringly overpowered spells are hexes but pyromancy isn’t that far behind and sorcery/certain miracles are also quite daunting to deal with. It is possible to roll dodge through almost everything but if you have the slightest bit of lag the dodge may just not record and essentially being hit twice is death. Yes backstabs are mostly a one shot with good builds but now that they’re no longer a guarantee they aren’t really that beneficial. I still won most of my encounters with spellcasters but it never felt like a loss was particularly skillful on the other player’s part. There was one guy who had a whip and was reasonably entertaining, but ultimately even that fight had a fairly unsatisfying conclusion.

In general the PvP experiences I’ve had have been almost entirely underwhelming; not because of the game mind but simply because of the boring approaches most players choose and the lack of any particularly impressive skill save for the aforementioned 2 rare situations. It could be I’m just better at PvP so I know what things to do in what situations and most of the time that leads to victory, but I would just like to see more creativity.

I get the feeling that NG+ is probably where you’ll be able to find the 5% or so of the playerbase that actually deals in inventive builds; and in Dark Souls 2 a whole shitload of builds are extremely viable. I’m not going to be able to engage in NG+ PvP for at least a few months and will probably never have a particularly clear picture on that front, and I also won’t be able to participate in the eventual “balanced” PvP; there’s no fog ring to make you passionately hate the playerbase or anything, it’s simply not a very interesting set of people to fight (note this is almost universally the same experience in other multiplayer games). Basically the overarching issue is the same as people playing PvE, everything is guide/online build driven and very little is driven by personal creativity or inspiration; and that’s just modern multiplayer games in a nutshell. As always my sample size is not overly enormous here so it could have just been my experience.



My second large batch of PvP was on the bridge in the Iron Keep, a fairly boring arena compared to the Belfry Sol and Belfry Luna (the Belfry Sol being the best designed PvP arena in the series); but it was the fastest place to find Dragon Eye signs given the proximity of the covenant. In a little under an hour and a half I managed to win 30 of said duels, winning 15 in a row; losing 10 in a row, and then winning another 15 with 1 loss. This wasn’t quite as successful as my Belfry experiences, but it didn’t take particularly long and I wasn’t using an uber powerful build or anything. For whatever reason backstabs have a huge damage range so sometimes the ol Malformed Skull did 1800 damage and other times it did 1300 damage with no clear reason why (regular strikes doing relatively similar damage throughout); could be the critical hit rings just reduce damage by a % and don’t negate them entirely. With this not so arduous task done I now had some of the best looking armor in the game, instead of looking incredibly stupid the Dragon Covenant actually looks pretty sweet/is pretty viable this time around. I guess some amount of stupid humor is lost so people are complaining about that as well.

After this I embarked on my final grand expedition to get the AI based achievements, escorting some of the worst summons in the game through some of the most difficult bosses in the series. This is actually surprisingly doable with an extremely overpowered hex build but I figured it would be more interesting/legit to do it with the meager Sun Sword+10 and actually engage in some Jolly Co-operation in the process; learning a fair amount more about people’s general experiences with various situations in the game.
The more difficult of these two was Lucatiel’s set; having to fight the much esteemed Smelter and keep Lucatiel alive throughout; as well as the Lost Sinner. For both of these fights her presence functioned as something like a 50 second enrage timer.  For Sinner I did some summons, looking for another competent player to message for my own summon on the boss; it took around 10 tries to find someone with an apparent amount of competence; the host dying about 6 of those times.  But, the process of messaging and setting up the summon was extremely smooth and intuitive; unlike console Dark Souls you can now basically just play the game with friends provided you hide your sign well enough. The guy I wound up playing with was very courteous and understanding and even seemed to have a good grasp on the English language, an extreme rarity in any console online endeavor. This is a huge improvement and server-wise Dark Souls II seems to be just as competent as Demon’s Souls; only there are so many people playing as to make it even more efficient; this is one of the major reasons why Demon’s Souls aficionados are embracing the newest game despite their various misgivings with the predecessor. We were perhaps a bit fortunate and managed to beat the Lost Sinner whilst keeping Lucatiel alive on the very first try; both of us using moderately powerful melee builds.



And now on to the meat of this troublesome experience, the beloved Smelter Demon. It took quite some time but I eventually found another compatriot, this one of the standard 4th grade English level variety. But this guy too seemed to be competent and understanding and we gave it our all, and Lucatiel died 15 times or so.  Yes, my time with Smelter would be a much more exhaustive experience. Smelter is just a monster, he attacks swiftly but at such a different specific rhythm compared to almost any other boss in the series; just enough to fuck with you completely. Yes, yes Smelter is optional so you could just come back at SL 170 or whatever and it’s not too bad at that point with a Great Resonant Soul spammer or two; but trying to do this vaguely legit with an average build will take you a lot of pain. I’m actually quite confident in my ability against Smelter now, only took around 30 summons to get every dodge down perfectly; of course that doesn’t necessarily stop the host from dying. If Gwyn is the beast of fast bosses (assuming you don’t parry) then Smelter is the beast of slower, larger bosses; and he’s just an all-around fearsome opponent.

It was an interesting experiment doing around 80 fights with Smelter as the summoned or as the summoner, by the end I was good enough at the boss to not die with any regularity but the same could not be said for the various hosts and Lucatiel; luckily the  summon range for Smelter is literally over 1.5 million Soul History wide and you get 10-12k souls just going from the bridge bonfire to the boss door (and another 10k from Smelter should you manage to beat him); this is definitely the place to be if you want to leech souls for lack of a better term from other worlds, because as always there’s a nominally limited efficient amount in your own. Eventually you’ll be out of range and have to move on to Dragon Shrine, but until then you should gain a newfound respect for the awe-inspiring powers of smelter (again, assuming you’re using a moderately powerful but not blatantly overpowered build). Eventually Smelter died out of pity on like the 4th or 5th attempt where Lucatiel and he were around 10% in unison, finally he decided to not do the boom attack at this vital juncture.

It should go without saying but the Flexile Sentry with Lucatiel is a joke, as it always is being one of the two completely trivial bosses. So I moved on to fight the Rotten; who while if you fight it early enough can be quite tough with a solitary character, isn’t too bad once you know his patterns and is quite easy to just wail on if he has another target.  Provided Lucatiel doesn’t walk into the lava this part isn’t too bad. For all of this effort you get a trophy, one line of dialog, and a set of armor/very interesting weapon; however if you just kill Lucatiel earlier you can get the weapon near the start of the game for 10k souls and the armor if you want it for another 30k. The dialog difference is minimal in the case of failing her quest.

I moved on to doing Benhart, who had a solitary difficult boss to fight and a few dicey ones aside from that. Giant Lord, Mirror Knight, and the Throne Watcher/Defender were the main obstacles here. Benhart also has a fairly easy (though not entirely trivial) boss in the Congregation; which shouldn’t pose too much of a threat. For Giant Lord basically you have to kill him in a short time period before Benhart dies, how fast Benhart dies is totally random so could be 30 seconds could be 2 minutes; I managed this one on the first try with the friendly neighborhood Malformed Skull lending a hand. Looking Glass Knight is pretty tough with a weaker 1 handed build but not a huge deal with a powerful 2 hander/spells and he went down relatively easily as well. For Throne Watcher/Defender it’s going to be random because that’s just how that fight is; if they don’t aggressively murder Benhart and you’re able to pump out a decent amount of damage it isn’t too bad, if they do then you’re going to get screwed; could see it taking a fair number of tries with a non-overpowered build. Benhart also helps with Nashandra and that conflict isn’t too harsh if you’re smart about it, but usually Benhart will die before you can kill the boss; not entirely sure which boss fight counts and which doesn’t but that isn’t how I wound up getting the trophy. For Benhart the reward is similar to Lucatiel, a trophy, some otherwise acquirable gear, and a single line of dialogue.

Having finished all of the online contingent rewards I moved on to another 20 odd hours of random online experiences. I spent some time in the Rat Covenant but didn’t really want to level a guy to the ideal SL (and thus was only able to summon a few grey phantoms) so I don’t have a clear picture of how that would go on the whole; I imagine it’s simply an easier way to be victorious than the Bell Covenant and a nice source of Pharos Lockstones. Doors of the Pharos seems like a much more ideal area to fight than the Grave of Saints, but you could probably have a fairly deadly dungeon in either case.



The next main thing I had to do was do some Dragon Shrine co-op; because I’m just fascinated by these absurdly powerful enemies. I’ve yet to actually agro the Ancient Dragon in my own games but I do know how the pattern works and I’m sure I could do it, I simply have respect for the boss at this point and since there’s essentially no reason to do it I’ve decided for the time being “we cool” more or less. Dragon Shrine nets you about 25000 souls with soul boosting equipment on the way to the boss door; you’ll get invaded and usually the invader will fail but the enemies will probably succeed around 30-40% of the time before they even get to El Dragon Grande.

Having done it a few times I think running around Dragon Shrine with no shield is a ton of fun, you learn how to dodge very precise attacks and how to approach some extremely daunting enemies in numbers. Yes you’ll still die, most assuredly, but it seems yet another future run to have where I make a full Drakekeeper/2h mace/no shield set and go mano-a-mano or mano-a-2 mano with the Mace Drakekeeper in NG+7 (spoilers: he’ll probably win a few times). The boss however is uh, not fun. Now, conceptually a gigantic fuck-off dragon would probably swat a few humans in a second or so and instantly win the fight every time; and that’s kind of what he does. Even if the phantoms/host know the pattern there’s a lot of times where with multiple players his AI is totally unpredictable and if you’re even in the vague vicinity of the wrong spot you’re just dead. Sure there’s plenty of ways to go about cheesing the AI in this fight but taken on the whole it’s just a massive “why would you do something so stupid dumb fuck” message to the player. Yes, yes the internet will inevitably make this a farmed boss fight but in the general context of a mythical knowledge-less utopia where people choose to rely on themselves this boss is actually pretty damn legit. But, that’s not the case so like many things in Dark Souls and online experiences in general these days it’s just people saying stupid shit because they learned XYZ thing from someone else who learned it from someone else who learned it from the guide who maybe learned it from the development team.

For the record I don’t think the Ancient Dragon is an interesting boss but it does make a lot of storyline sense. I think if he just killed you instantly and there was literally no recourse it might actually be better. As it is it’s just kind of a tedious slog where you hope he doesn’t do something unpredictable. They definitely could have made him Smelter/Guildenstern levels of hard instead of just “recognize the pattern and succeed, fail pattern and die instantly” and that would have been way better. I will probably eventually fight it just for review purposes and likely beat it on the first try because I know what to do; but for the most part he’s kind of just a big ass dude chilling on his big ass platform minding his own business (dictating the future of the world), what’s wrong with that you savages.

Online Stats:

Active PvP: 110-25
Smelter W/L – 60-20
Ancient Dragon W/L – 40-0
Souls sucked from other realms – 2.5 million


Note: If you really don’t like the idea of doing PvP for the Bellkeepers for whatever strange reason about 1/5th of all invasions will be successful without you lifting a finger, so simply afking next to the Servant's Quarters bonfire for 10-12 hours will probably get you 30 titanite chunks.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Dark Souls II Week One - 60 Million Deaths Worldwide


I actually did get some time to play online and will be making an entirely separate post on that front; I played around 50 hours of just however many online activities I could do. So this will be a somewhat shorter post covering a few days; I've been busy for a bit so haven't been able to write this up until now. I gather from last time I left off at the end of the Undead Purgatory. It took quite a while to find the damn lever, but I eventually figured out how to find my way forward in the rest of the Huntsman's Copse; the guide showed up a day or two later and while I didn't use it much prior to beating the game I did eventually use it to save another 4 hour search for the way forward. If part of exploration is getting lost in the world then this game definitely has that and in even greater quantities than the first Dark Souls.

I was really powerful when I was first in the Copse so the enemies didn't seem too challenging and I went on to fight the boss. I gather this boss was in the beta but I was never able to get on at such a weird time; it's not a particularly difficult boss but if you're super aggressive as I was you can get overwhelmed by the secondary enemies in the fight; if you take it slowly it's reasonably easy. Sort of qualifies as yet another puzzle boss in this game which has like 5 or 6 of them.

The next area was the "Harvest Valley" and the long foreseen Ore Merchant was here; she's actually a pretty interesting NPC; like if Gwynevere was disgusting fanservice she's just perfectly acceptable fanservice; but her voice actor is excellent and she's just quite useful given what she sells. Harvest Valley has poison areas that people are already bitching about but for the most part they don't restrict your movement and it's mainly your loot lust that will get you poisoned. One curious thing about the game is that 2 lifegems will ultimately deal with poison at the cost of 1/3rd of a poison moss (600 souls vs 1500 souls), and the poison moss vendor is always in an obscure spot.

The only time I died in this area is a spot where you have to fight 4 "Artificial Undead" (giant dudes with Scythes that don't stagger) to get some loot in a massive trap area, it's actually kind of a cool area since once you know what to do you can run in, run out, and have some nice loot each time for about 3-4 goes of it. If you actually try fighting in there then good luck I suppose.

I took a detour at this point to fight another set of Gargoyles; these perhaps being the most difficult set of Gargoyles given their numeric advantage but also not being inherently unfair due to them being straight up optional. In this fight a new Gargoyle spawns at 3 different percentages, leading to you having up to 5 to fight at once; but if you're smart about it the most you'll fight is a measly 3 at a time. The fight isn't horrifically dangerous if you take your time, if you're overly aggressive you could get smacked though.


I now made my way into the "Earthen Keep" an area so large I only assumed it would be where the next "Great Soul" was. The first boss you fight here is Jabba the Hutt essentially and people seem to be calling out this boss as too easy; but I've seen firsthand people die to it and I myself took a shitload of damage the one time he hit me; even if a boss seems non-threatening in Dark Souls II they've still got an extremely good chance of killing you at least once or twice. He has an absolutely hilarious grab attack that removes all of your equipment for example; maybe you'll never get hit by it but the fact that it exists is rather amazing.

Immediately after this is a reasonably long area with a little more fanservice enemies; but they're the only ones in the game and it's not that bad, at least they're not gigantic. I proceeded to fight the boss of this area whilst the area was completely covered in poison, healing the boss and damaging me; I even went to look for the poison stuff merchant but failed to find him. It occurred to me at this point that there was probably something else to the fight, which I won't spoil. But, even if you didn't do that thing the NPC summon for this area dual wields pyromancy flames and is called "Jester Thomas," if anyone should find Dark Souls II easy it would be that guy.

Beyond the Earthen Keep was the glorious castle sinking into lava, also known as the official bottleneck area of Dark Souls II. A lot of the art design in this game could be described as "Anor Londo + X" and this area is no exception. That doesn't really bother me that much since it still looks really good and is a very rewarding area. The enemies here give a ton of souls and are relatively challenging, but not horrifically so. Eventually if you're going for the Platinum you might have to go through a certain horror show that I'll discuss later.

The first boss in this area is just an absolute monster; he's easily the hardest boss in the series and he's totally optional... But you do have to be on the lookout. Turns out lorewise he actually killed the previous owner of the Keep who is actually the final boss of the area; so I guess in some ways his ridiculousness makes sense. It won't be apparent at first but this is one of the dodge-only bosses in the game; have fun with the timing. There are evidently ways to make the fight much easier, but assuming you're fighting it with a vanilla build on a blind run it's just going to brutalize you, I bypassed him at this point in time.

This area is also littered with various elaborate traps to kill you, mostly involving lava; they're all fairly interesting and they make you fight giant turtles in narrow hallways as well as having Anor Londo style archers scattered about. The soul income you get for clearing this area is very high though so you never feel ill compensated for your efforts. My first time through this area I ran past a few enemies/ did some interesting platforming. and was greatly exhilarated when I reached the final bonfire. Running past enemies is definitely a valid tactic in this game but don't confuse your ability to do that with the game being less challenging; those enemies are still there.


The last boss of this area is the giant fire demon looking guy from various trailers; and while he looks impressive what's most interesting is how different the fight is from everything else. It plays more like you're avoiding projectiles and his various attacks instead of the standard "Hold shield/circle strafe" routine and it's quite fun. I don't consider this boss to be overly difficult but there are certainly people having trouble with it and I did wind up getting tossed into the lava a few times myself. That's the thing with this game, there's really only 2 pushover bosses in the whole thing out of around 33 bosses, you might kill 15 of those bosses on the first try or whatever but rest assured you could have easily died in that process and you could easily die in the future. I'm watching Northernlion go through the game at present and he's frequently died to things he's never died to before on his second playthrough; while there are certainly overpowered builds in the game your chance of lucking into them on a truly blind solo run is miniscule. Even the relatively easy bosses generally are very dangerous if you get hit by them. The best barometer for a bosses' difficulty (to negate your own bias) is to play a summoned character without a particularly powerful build (simply being of slightly above average strength is sufficient), you will see hosts die at a rate much higher than in the previous 2 games; note this usually isn't because they're totally incompetent it's because the game is straight up hard as balls.

At this point I had no clue where to go, having gathered all four "Great Souls." The area where you have to go is ridiculously obscure and I just eventually looked it up in the newly arrived guide; this is one of a handful of situations where I used it just to save a few hours of aimless wandering. I do think it is a valid criticism that the largest over-arching path isn't more obvious, it doesn't need to be in this narrow ass staircase in the side of an inscrutably brown area; this doesn't really hurt the game that much but it can be frustrating.



And now I made my approach to the beloved Drangleic Castle; this is one of the more impressive looking areas in the series; Anor Londo in the Rain. This area has cool enemies and a really interesting mechanic, and it's also just quite difficult as you  might expect. I guess the question is does it match up to Anor Londo? Eh, debatable; there's no walking over buttresses section which some people will like a lot and some people will dislike, that was ultimately an extremely cheap move by From in Dark Souls but it was certainly memorable. The closest thing to that level of absurdity is the first room after the first bonfire. In this room you have to kill enemies in the proximity of doors to open them, but if you're not careful you'll aggro way more than you could possibly handle. If you take it calmly and methodically opening every door in this area will take you merely an hour or so and you'll find some good items on the way; if you're very fortunate you'll pick the right way straight out and it'll only take 5 minutes; I really like this design even if it seems abnormally cruel; it's a very, very interesting room.

After this it's not too far to the boss of this area, the twin Dragonriders. This is why I don't feel the original Dragonrider is too much of a joke as this boss is reasonably difficult, perhaps not overly so. But that soul you get is just so damn useful so I will certainly never look upon either fight with scorn. Directly prior to the fight you'll meet the queen, and evidently a lot of people just never talked to her so the latter portion of the game didn't make a whole lot of sense; I didn't find the talk prompt that difficult to see but I may actually be in the minority. To be blunt the story in these games is largely an elaborate extraneous thing so it doesn't matter that much, but I could see that being confusing/annoying.


The second area of the castle is actually much more impressive than the first, after going through a series of varied rooms with numerous enemies and hazards you'll wind up in a stormy corridor. I gather this is one of the first areas they demo'd and for good reason; it is visually incredible. If the game wasn't so long this might actually be the bottleneck; the Looking Glass Knight (formerly Mirror Knight) is quite a difficult boss with a standard build, at this point in the game you're perhaps a little more likely to have some overpowered stuff but if you don't this fight's extremely intense and I was rather happy with myself that I only died 3 times in the process (I've already heard tales of people dying 20-30 times to it); I probably won't have a ton of trouble in the future, but this is another one of those bosses that requires you to "escort" NPC AI through it to complete a quest, and that just makes it much harder.

After this you'll wind up in the beloved Shrine of Amana; oh what a gorgeous looking area. One of the brightest areas in the game is also perhaps the deadliest as enemies here will fire long range homing soul arrows at you ad infinitum. This is actually possible with a melee character, the trick seems to be to roll diagonally forward instead of directly into the oncoming projectile; with said dodge it's not too bad until the final pack which you'll probably still have some trouble with. Most people are just sniping them from afar and that makes it not much of an issue at all; but I salute those who went through this area as melee. 

The boss of this area isn't too bad but he does still hit extremely hard, assuming you don't have the summon in this area you'll probably die once or twice. Again another boss that some people will perceive as easy and then lo and behold on another run they'll die to it multiple times (the Iron Golem phenomenon if you will). I'd say there's around 7 or 8 bosses that could potentially fall into that category, there's other bosses that you can simply be powerful for because you did that area last out of the first four major branches, but that's just an obfuscation of the true difficulty.

After this area (which has just a shitload of stuff to find off the beaten path) you come to the Royal Crypts, it's time to see the King guys! Despite it being a dark, grey-ish area I had just a ton of fun with this place because the enemy design is really great, the pacing is solid, and the exploration element is very strong for a fairly confined space. I died only once to a sort of ambush in this area, but I never ceased to feel challenged by it. Oddly enough the boss here isn't particularly hard, but again he hits like a mammoth, maybe you won't get hit by him but if you do watch out. After this you meet the King, he's a jolly kind fellow I assure you (actually he just totally ignores you); pick up his ring and move on.

Now you can finally open those enormous doors that have been taunting you so, and it takes 30 seconds to open them, every single time. This is another very small complaint with the game. I went to the area in Drangleic first since it seemed it might be the most prominent, but turns out this is just a boss walk a la the Kiln of the First Flame. It's certainly an impressive area but not quite as impressive as the Kiln. The boss here was going to be my first legitimate disappointment with a boss in the game, since the two easy ones were very early on, but then I died with the boss at 10% health and summoned aid to try to make it go faster next time. Well lucky me, the fight is MUCH harder with summoned assistance even of the player kind as the enemies will get faster, more aggressive, and take half the damage they were taking; I eventually figured this out and went back to soloing it, but the AI seems to have greatly improved in that timeframe and it still took another try or so. This a rather interesting boss because of all of the above, I would not classify it as easy, it's simply somewhat random how the enemies approach you during the fight but becomes less random/more aggressive the more people/NPCs are in the fight. And once you win the area's just empty, but you can go talk to the queen and have a sort of general sense of direction I suppose.



The next "main" area is a sort of monster's menagerie type place, with enormous enemies in cages and loads of optional stuff to do. If you just blitz the area it might only take you 20 minutes but if you take your time it's a very interesting area. There's an NPC here who's basically Mephistopheles but he's also schizophrenic depending on if you're undead or human when you talk to him; and furthermore there's a lever, oh boy there's a lever with the only offline messages in the game before it. I won't spoil it but they basically made Yurt in a much, much better fashion than previously. I suspect Navlaan will wind up being one of the most beloved(or despised) NPCs in the series' history. The boss of this area isn't particularly hard but the area where you fight him looks really awesome and again he can pretty much kill you in 2 hits. You'll eventually be adept at fighting this enemy and probably never die to him but if you don't approach it correctly from the get-go you could have some trouble.

Following the keep, which if I had to guess maybe 95% of players did not explore on their first go around, you'll come to the most visually impressive area in the entire series. It's that big ol' area with Dragons that you've seen in various previews. This one of the last areas in the game so it's a little weird that it got so much pre-release showing, but there are definitely a wide range of different graphical qualities in the game, so I guess it makes some amount of sense. The Dragon Aerie isn't too long but it is quite fun/rewarding and it has a few rather interesting mechanics that won't be apparent immediately.

After you cross a very rickety bridge (well, maybe) you'll come to the Dragon Shrine (Anor Londo in the Sky), and oh let me tell you about this place. The Dragon Shrine houses the most difficult regular enemies in the series, and it's not even close; there's another area with Phantom type NPCs, some of which are on par but the Drakekeepers here are just fucking serious business; they will fuck you up and just utterly destroy you. So what will people do? Run like hell. Sure you can try to cheese them with ranged attacks or what have you, but in a Melee fight some of these guys are just unbelievably tough. People are already saying "DIS GAME SO EZ" but there is nothing, nothing even close to the 2H Mace Drakekeeper with a melee build, that guy is harder than almost every boss in the series by himself; if he had like 5000 HP he might even be harder than Smelter. I do think the enemies here are probably a little too hard, maybe they could have made the NG+ version psychotically difficult;  but the ol' run away from everything strategy still holds up. Eventually you meet a Dragon that's like bigger than anything you could possibly imagine, he's probably as big as the room you fight Ornstein and Smough in, maybe a little bigger. He's friendly though, I'll get back to talking about him later; he gives you the awe inspiring power to travel into the past.


And now the game sort of comes full circle and you can go to the Forest of Fallen Giants and explore their memories; I didn't realize it at the time but most of these are totally optional. One of them, the Memory of Vammar, is even more difficult than the Dragon Shrine. Basically you have a time limit, there's absurdly hard enemies and you're kind of just sprinting to get items. Nothing is even remotely as challenging as this area in the entirety of the series, but it isn't super long and the proceedings will eventually be over. The main items you get in these areas are "Souls of a Giant." And while it doesn't seem to be explained anywhere Vendrick is weakened by how many of these you possess, he's basically invincible if you have less than 2, I managed to go in and fight him with 3; which to give you an idea chewed through the entire durability of 2 very powerful large 2 handed maces (Malformed Skull and Great Club). The fight with Vendrick isn't overly hard he just basically kills you instantly if you're not careful; he's certainly much better than the alternative boss fight.

After you kill the Giant Lord in one of the memories (fairly simple, just has a time limit) you'll get another item, and maybe you'll figure out what to do with it, maybe not. Basically you just go back to the "Throne of Want" area which definitely gave a "final boss" vibe; and you'll fight the last boss when you get there. This boss isn't horrifically difficult and it doesn't have the ridiculously awesome music that Gwyn had; but I mean really any minor mistake and you're dead pretty much. People will say this boss is easy for whatever reason but again you're sort of walking on eggshells the entire time, barring a specific pretty obviously overpowered spell build. This is a boss that will kill a fairly large number of players multiple times, probably over 50%; that seems a sufficiently difficult final boss fight. True, it's no Guildenstern but there can be only one Guildenstern.



After beating the last boss the game doesn't force you into the next playthough, which is a godsend; you're able to explore the rest of the world at will which could take as much as another 30-40 hours depending. Personally I went to explore the "PvE" covenant for lack of a better term. This lets you go into the Dark Chasm of Old and fight some ridiculously difficult enemies to get some decent Hex spells and just challenge yourself in general. You have to use a human effigy every time to enter which means limited attempts and some people will straight up not be able to do it in 15 attempts or whatever; you have to take these areas very, very calmly. If you rush, you're fucked so just calm down. After you clear out these 3 areas you'll come to the boss, Darklurker.

Darklurker is a pretty nasty boss, then you get him to 60% and he splits in two and you have to fight two of one of the harder bosses in the game at once; I don't think it's quite as hard as Smelter and it's certainly easier to cheese than Smelter but this is probably the second hardest boss in the series. If you do this with a melee character I salute you; it's not quite as hard as fighting a Drakekeeper with a 2 handed mace while you don't have a shield (I find this to be hilarious) as melee, but if you can do one you can probably do the other. Every time you die to the boss you have to clear another Dark Chasm area, in which any enemy can murder you if you're not careful; but after taking like a 60 odd hour break to make my online character when I got back to Darklurker I managed to beat him on that try.

And here we are at the Death Count, my final tally was 192 at the end of the game, about 40 of those deaths were due to platforming for ridiculous items so I "count" about 152, which is still higher than Vagrant Story and Dark Souls II takes the title of hardest RPG ever made. The question then becomes is it harder than XYZ other game in other genre? Well, in terms of time investment and ability to boost the challenge of the game without setting up a challenge run yourself, it almost certainly is; in terms of just ability to make it through the game on a solo blind run it might merely be like the 4th or 5th hardest game of all time. If you're not playing blind you could probably make it through with like 75-100 deaths, if you're summoning people nonstop maybe even under 50; but in a blind solo run most people are going to be at or exceeding 200 deaths at the end of the game, and that is an extraordinary figure. The game gets even harder in NG+, adding amongst other things enemies during boss fights; and all of that contributes to the overall difficulty of the game. Guildenstern is still the hardest last boss and it doesn't look like he's ever going to be supplanted, but this is a tough as nails game and a truly excellent experience.

Death Count
Falling - 10
Ore Pit - 2
Gargoyles - 1
Poison Mytha - 3
No Poison Mytha - 0
Iron Keep Traps - 2
Smelter Demon - 4
Old Iron King - 2
Stone Sentinels - 3
Looking Glass Knight - 3
Shrine of Amana - 2
Song Demon - 1
Throne Watcher/Defender - 5
Guardian Dragon - 1
Dragons - 2
Drakekeepers - 6
Giants - 9
Giant Lord - 1
Nashandra - 4
Vendrick - 6
Dark Chasm of Old - 9
Darklurker - 3

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dark Souls II Day One and a Half Impressions


Ah the day finally came! I went again to the same Gamestop as last time, the line was around 150 people and seemed to be evenly split between Dark Souls II and Titanfall; last time it was Rage, NBA 2kwhatever, and Dark Souls; the NBA game evidently had like 200 people showing up to buy it alone. For some reason this Gamestop makes you go there a few hours earlier to set it up, which saves time for them but loses a half hour or so on the part of the customer; not especially surprising just found it weird.

On to the game! I've played about 25 hours in the past 34 which is almost twice as much as last time so this is going to be tough to summarize and I'm just going to forget stuff. Luckily I have my death note pad to guide me. For starters: this game is really fucking hard. In Dark Souls where you'd fight 1-2 enemies you'll now fight 3-4 at once; where you'd fight 3-4 enemies you'll now fight 7-8 at once. Firebombs and their various cousins are a lot more powerful and useful as a result; but one thing I've found to do in groups is just backstab, backstab, backstab; you might take some damage coming out and starting the animation but during the middle you are invincible for a second or so.

The tutorial area is much more free form than in the past, there isn't even a tutorial boss for example and every offshoot way is optional. Not knowing this I went to fight the Hippo/Cyclops (very large enemies with around 1300 health) things in this area; though the first time I was just using my fists and so I had my first death. I then went and made my character/got equipment and beat the crap out of that dirty hippo. There were 2 more to deal with, these two at the same time. After a while I managed to get one to fall off a log into the ocean (insta-drown) and fought the other one normally. 3 times this guy did a grab motion and I rolled well out of it, 3 times the hitbox decided otherwise despite my character being a good 2 meters away from the Hippo's extended arms. There's only a few attacks that were "Bounding Demon" hitbox style so far, but it was kind of annoying that one of them was in the tutorial. One of the first things you'll notice is the AI is a shitload better at tracking you/following you/not whiffing with attacks. Since the roll has very few I-frames you have to rely on positioning and patience to win the day.

Now I stopped by Majula. I later found out there's an estus shard here but it's pretty obscure; I didn't have it for another dozen or so hours. Majula is great, basically a Nexus/Firelink hybrid with some awesome music. I'll say more about it later. Anyway the Estus flask you get from the Maiden in Green (I'm going to take a shot and say she's the "King's" relative). starts at 1 and grows as you find shards which are super duper scarce; I've found more than twice as many boss souls as estus shards. I'm finally up to like 7 estus but I'm so used to lifegems at this point that I don't really use them that much. Estus is much slower than in the past and cancels out if you don't stay stationary through the entire healing. Instead the game gives you consumable healing over time items; though not that many for the opening area.

The online on PS3 is pretty busted right now but for me the servers don't work at all so no messages, no hints, no player summons to get frustrated when the summon doesn't work. It doesn't matter right now but in a week or two I'll need some sort of variety beyond just making new characters. Getting summoned and watching people fail or succeed is very enthralling. I'm probably too big to get invaded so that's not much of a concern anymore.


The "first" intended area, the forest of the giants, is one hell of a doozy; it's at least like 10 times harder than either the first area in Dark Souls or Demon's Souls. You're going to die here, a lot, just embrace it and move on; try not to waste your effigies. I think it's quite possible to completely screw yourself because the enemies eventually stop respawning and if you don't cash in your souls they're gone forever. I've lost somewhere around 150,000 souls over the past day; and all of those monsters have finite respawns. I mean I've made/banked probably 4 times that, but still that's a lot of souls. For lifegems use them very sparingly to start out with, you don't want to be out during a boss fight; you're just going to have to slowly master every encounter in this area. I did not hit the no respawn point prior to this boss, but I still died something like 10 times prior to fighting it. I summoned NPC help because losing healing items/maximum HP is not really a good thing, but first boss is easy enough that I could have beat it anyway; also Pate (voiced by Peter Serafinowicz) kind of sucks.

At this point I was pretty much lost, I could go fight the obviously much later in the game boss or keep looking for a different way to go. I failed to find the other way, so after 30 minutes or so I said fuck it and fought the Pursuer a whole bunch. Pursuer is basically a slow version of Gwyn/Artorias; but since shields really suck at the start of the game there's not a great deal you can do about it. With an ideal build I could see taking him on the first try even at low levels; assuming you got lucky with his attack patterns. He has around 10 attack strings, and some of them are pretty easy to avoid/land damage on; and others are ridiculously difficult. For my first 2 attempts he just straight up shield bashed me and then hit me before I could roll backwards; every other time he shield bashed me after this I was able to get away. Basically just fight Pursuer as though he was a large, dangerous normal enemy; slowly wait for him to do the ideal attack and take advantage.

I guess just to spit on you the developers put an amazing set of armor/shield directly after Pursuer; as if to say "don't you wish you had this shit before? *evil laughter*" I've used the shield ever since. You see a baseline normal ass shield in Dark Souls is as good as one of the best ones in the game in Dark Souls 2; it is one of 2 shields I've found with 100% physical reduction; the other having very low durability (though maybe it's farmable if you got lucky). I did some more exploring but eventually just went to the next area after Pursuer (via everyone's favorite mode of transportation).


This where I sort of figured out I was doing things "wrong," as the enemies were all facing the opposite direction in this area and I was able to dispatch them with relative ease; though there were several doors I couldn't open. Turns out you can get to the Lost Bastille in a couple different ways going through completely different areas. This game isn't like Dark Souls 1 where it's exploration but you sort of have a general idea where to go; in this game you haven't got a clue; in fact I still have no clue where the hell to go and I'm 75% done with the main quest; this is just pure exploration all the time and you have to figure out where exactly you're supposed to go in every extremely elaborate labyrinthine area that you face (starting with Majula). It's really awesome from an exploration standpoint but the cohesiveness of the world is a little off from the first game. You can teleport from any bonfire to any other and that basically let the developers do whatever the hell they wanted with the environment. Mandatory Great Hollow type zone? Check. Falling where you can't get back up? Check. Confusing as hell? Check.

The next boss which I guess is intended to be the fourth or fifth one in the game (Pursuer just being an optional beast you can fight whenever), has not one, nor two, but 3 equal strength enemies. This boss is very tricky solo but I think it is doable. Unfortunately the same issue rose up here where I'd eventually run out of healing items trying to do it; thus I summoned an NPC and the boss was still really damn hard but miraculously I made it through in a few attempts.

After this you go across some very lovely architecture and eventually wind up at a hugeass tower. This is one of the "final" areas for the first portion of the game and as a result there's enemies here that give almost 2000 souls and respawn a whole bunch. I guess the most amusing thing here is the bonfire that has 3 crossbowmen literally perched over it right when you start there. Yep, bonfires aren't necessarily safe anymore; From just had to take away all sense of security outside Majula. There's another NPC summon here before you even get to the boss who will help you fight the large enemies. She does pretty terrible but while doing this I figured out a good way to fight them solo and commenced the soul farming, for fear of losing all my souls when I fought the boss. Later I tried summoning the NPC against the boss and she totally got annihilated. NPC AI is better but I guess this boss doesn't give a fuck. It's another Gwyn/Artorias type fight where-in it's extremely difficult to heal and pretty hard to deal damage as well. Have fun with that.

For beating the boss you get what amounts to a key that you can use in any number of random ass places (there's another thing like this as well but a bit more common/way more many places to use it); I figured I'd use it on the safest location where it was guaranteed to help. And here was the shaded forest; whose enemies have enormous genitalia. I've started calling these guys "Dongers" in honor of twitch chat. The game likes ambushing you in weirdass places where you thought you were safe, and the dongers will have their way with you. I eventually wound up fighting a mini boss similar to a Dual Katana skeleton, and lo and behold it was a regular verison of an actual boss that I was supposed to fight hours prior; but I didn't know that yet.

Through some confusing geography (I picked the right way, fortunately) I met one of the most interesting NPCs who gave me a nice trophy both on the PS3 and in-game which I'm still using. I then wound up at what amounts to a curse area. I won't spoil this too much but suffice to say if you're already at 50% hp cursing does nothing to you, because all it would do nominally is lower your hp by 10%. The boss here is Quelaag's distant scorpion cousin; relatively easy but some attacks are hard to avoid and some attacks you benefit from not avoiding them so takes a lot of healing. I'm guessing there's an NPC summon somewhere around here but no clue where it is exactly. She was actually the second easiest boss I'd fought in the game at this point, died a few times to her anyway because easy in Dark Souls 2 means hard in every other game including Dark Souls.

Running out of Dark Souls 2 images


At this point I had 2 major options and went through both of them. The second kind of key you get has maybe 50 or so doors in one of these areas and you obviously won't find that many in the course of the game; I haven't explored this fully (if that's even possible) but I did find a fucking great boss name. "Royal Rat Authority" is basically Capra Demon + Sif; the fight's decided in the opening moments and if you screw up you're dead pretty much; it doesn't feel as random as Capra but it's still really easy to die. After this I got to join the "Rat King" Covenant, which I assume is the forest covenant but there's several different areas you're allowed to invade; I really want to try this out but no online sort of kills that. Alvina in rat form, with a very distinguished accent. I'm still in this covenant because you don't have to join covenants to get the trophy for discovering them, hopefully online works at some point.

The other area is just pretty good all around, very unique aesthetically and in terms of enemy/world design. You fight pilgrims first, then after the pilgrim boss you fight spiders and then the giant fuck-off spider boss. The Pilgrim boss is really really fun/good, might not be overly difficult but it is still quite satisfying. The Spider Boss is basically if Gaping Dragon had harder to avoid attacks and you could only damage it by hitting the serpent head, and it's ass was also a head. I'm sure that makes a lot of sense. The fight isn't hard but if you solo it it will take somewhere around 20 minutes so just summon the NPC, he's actually quite useful for the fight and speeds it up immensely. You can still die because the boss hits ridiculously hard and it's hard to predict some of the attacks; but you shouldn't need more than a few Effigies. 2 Lord souls down, 2 to go.

At this point I finally upgraded my weapon a bit more and it maxed out; Titanite Slabs aren't quite as scarce as they were in Dark Souls; though evidently Large Titanite shards are (took super long just to get past +4). I've been using the Heidl (?) sword most of the game because it has a nice attack pattern and it does reasonable damage; but there's a shitload of new weapons to try on later runs/NG+; and I do mean a shitload. If I had more upgrade materials/an easy way to find them I'd mess around this playthrough but I'll probably just stick with Heidl/one old buddy from the first game that you can get after Mrs. Spider.

So at this point I had no clue where to go, I bought the cat's ring and tried to fall in the giant hole; but I didn't have enough HP to survive the fall; the proverbial "Laters!" So I went and looked it up, scumbag that I am; yes wandering aimlessly is fun and all but only if you have some guarantee that you're actually making progress. I found the area where I imagine you're supposed to go after the first boss because Pursuer kicks your ass and you're not as stubborn as I am. And I proceeded to tear through about 4 zones and boss fights without dying in combat once; perhaps finally getting a hang of things and perhaps my character was a tad overpowered for this area. One thing to note other than the gorgeous visuals is the big "Old Knights" can drop a ridiculous shield, but it does seem to be random whether they drop it and of course finite respawns; if you got like 5 you could just use them all game, low durability and all. I'm still mixing it with the shield after Pursuer.



After the pretty place I went to test the well again, full HP and all; lo and behold it was possible to survive the drop! Another day, another weird ass rat boss. Also quite cool and sort of a puzzle/combat hybrid. After this I had to fall in a pit with a bunch of suicide bombers; because that has to be the way forward in this game. They got me a few times but eventually I made it out... to your Blighttown/Valley of Defilement/Great Hollow shithole stand-in! Despite myriad occasions where I could have fallen to my death (loads of platforming here at least the route I took) I miraculously made it through unscathed. It's very dark so have fun trying to do the same.

After that is the last area from Kotor 2; don't know why. Did I mention the geography doesn't make a whole lot of sense? Protip: statues can be broken. This area has 2 very proximate bonfires but I suppose if you don't break the statues you could die over and over here. It's not too bad and I'll probably return for soul farming eventually. The boss here is basically a super difficult version of the Adjudicator + environmental hazards; I summoned the NPC help here and he promptly walked into some fire and died. Now, somehow or other I didn't die on this boss but it is just ridiculously hard to get into a good position to attack him; keeping in mind that you'll probably just get smacked down in an unbreakable combo if you act too aggressively. I guess this could be the Kalameet equivalent. He's probably pretty easy with good sorcery/pyromancy, but tough as nails with melee.

At this point it was around 3 AM and I should have gone to sleep. I didn't. On we went to another forest with difficult aggro radii and hidden enemies. Still pretty sure I haven't actually found the way through this forest but I did find that really fucking sweet chariot boss and died to him or on the runback a bunch, then I went to sleep at like 5:30. And now *drum roll* the moment you've all been waiting for:

Death Count:

Falling - 15
Hippo (Barehanded) - 1
Hippo (Grab) - 3
Hollow Infantry - 2
Hollow Soldier - 7
Last Giant - 0
Pursuer - 7
Dongers - 2
Boulder - 2
Turtles - 2
Three Sentinels - 3
Large Indescribable things (Bell X?) - 1
Suicide Bombers - 5
Royal Infantry - 2
Lost Sinner - 3
Ambushes - 3
Minotaurs - 2
Giant ass Frog - 1
Royal Rat Authority - 4
Giant Spider - 2
Dragonrider - 0
Old Dragonslayer - 0
Royal Rat Vanguard - 1
The Rotten - 0
Ghosts (?) - 1
Chariot/Chariot Skeletons - 3

Note: I died at least 20 times more than this, at some point you're paying too much attention to the game to take a note every time you die. I didn't count really stupid platforming deaths, because yes there's your stand-in Avelys jumping puzzle to get one item; but if I died without knowing that the jump was a 10% success rate I counted it. Depending on how long the game is could be on pace to have the most deaths in any RPG ever; and that's not even thinking about the game's built in hard mode covenant.

SL - 89 (seems to be roughly 70 or so by Dark Souls terms)
Boss Souls doing nothing in Inventory - 13 or 14

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ukraine/Crimea Strategic Thoughts


The Russian takeover of Crimea is perhaps the most interesting thing to occur in my lifetime; so I feel I should write about it. I'm reasonably good at predicting various things so I suppose I should highlight the outcomes and potentialities of this conflict. Firstly the Russian action is an extremely well timed maneuver. While lethargy on the part of the militaries of the various Western nations is ultimately going to get worse and worse the less wars are fought (not to say wars are a good thing, but they might as well be inevitable), the global economic troubles are somewhat unique so reliance on Russian natural resources is much higher than it might be in a few years. Doing it immediately after the close of the Winter Olympics is also quite smart because those events are ostensibly about peace-time activities; and the Ukrainian athletes at the event were not to my knowledge treated poorly in any respect.

So, what can the West do about it and what is at stake here? Well, Crimea and the Ukraine as a whole are a very bloodied area historically, while fighting over the Crimea has happened on numerous occasions Ukraine itself is just in this sandwich area between Western and Eastern Europe that has been the stage of numerous military campaigns. The Crimea is ridiculously valuable as a naval bastion, it is the best Russia can hope for in terms of naval basing in the Black Sea and as a greater outlet to the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. Russia gaining this territory, whether as a satellite independent nation or as an unlikely annexation is quite useful for them, strategically and economically.

The natural and over-used comparison here is Hitler's invasion of the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, and Austria; the situation is not inherently comparable except for the justification of the war goal (i.e. protection of Ethnic Russians). What Russia being successful does is derail the "peaceful Western world" theory, that in a post nuclear weapons world we needn't fight conventional wars, which has always been an extremely, even foolishly optimistic outlook. Eventually some stronger nation is going to realize that it can become even stronger through military action and is unlikely to expand purely on the basis of trade. Essentially China has no real reason for military restraint in any situation if Russia wins this war without firing a shot; and while China is inevitably the most powerful country in the future it could become a veritable titan encompassing 1/3rd of the world's population instead of just 1/5th or so.

What can the West do about it? Well, basically in the next 48-72 hours the US and NATO have to send a sizable force to Ukraine and sit on the Crimean/Ukranian border under strict orders to not provoke the enemy. As long as they stay there there's a decent chance the Russians back down a la the Cuban Missile Crisis. Sending NATO troops to Kiev is not enough; because Russia is not really all that interested in Kiev to begin with.

A military conflict arising here might serve as a deterrent to other powerful nations but probably wouldn't stop Russia in this case. While the US could theoretically beat Russia in a land war it would take an extraordinary toll on our military forces and probably require a draft et cetera. This would probably fuel our economy back up to an impressive status since people would have to work a whole bunch for the sake of the war machine; but it doesn't matter because the vast majority of the United States' citizens are not even slightly interested in a war, particularly not one where tens of thousands of Americans would die. Russia's army is almost certainly more prepared for this sort of conflict at this point in time, while we obviously have technological advantages we don't have unified morale under a strong leader and we don't have all that many combat-ready troops. Our special forces can go toe to toe with the Russians but we just don't have enough of them, and the sequester sure as hell isn't helping.

I don't really have a stake in this war to be blunt, but I think the most likely result at this point is that the Russians just sit on Crimea until we allow them to grant the nation independence. This country would serve as a puppet state more or less but might eventually be a perfectly normal country in Eastern Europe; the Crimean Tatars were in possession of the land hundreds of years ago and them reforming that nation is not a particularly abhorrent action. It just depends what the US and the EU do; they can't really offer serious military resistance but they can put non Ukrainian troops in a dangerous situation and see what the Russians decide to do; if the Russians open fire first then that might propel various nations to send a more sizable force; at which point a larger conflict would begin. Ultimately economic sanctions that don't include China aren't going to be enough to stop the Russians or Putin; and it doesn't seem like there's any way China imposes those sanctions. However they could well be the swing power in this situation that I haven't heard many people highlight up to this point.

I may well write more on this in the future as it develops; but aside from that 5 days to Dark Souls 2, hopefully the world doesn't end before then.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Great Captains - Frederick the Great


Ah Frederick, he and Fred Bear have contributed to my nomenclature. Frederick basically held his own against various much larger foreign powers over the course of 2 major wars and managed to expand Prussia both nominally and on a prestigious level. His efforts basically set the precedent for the eventual formation of Germany under the Iron Chancellor. The Prussian military was trained to great effect by his father and thus Frederick II had a decent base to work from (similar to Alexander in that regard). Like Alexander he won because he found a distinctive flaw in the opposition's strategy and exploited it numerous times.

Essentially all of Frederick's major battles after the first were won via outflanking the opposition, most famously at Leuthen but perhaps most impressively at Rossbach. At Leuthen Frederick advanced under cover of fog and hills to a position on the opponent's flank and successfully attacked and destroyed a numerically superior enemy successfully; solidifying his country's hold on Silesia (the primary objective of all of his wars) in the process. This is usually the battle held up by historians as his finest effort, and in terms of diplomatic effect and decisiveness it was certainly the most important, but I find the battle of Rossbach to be entirely too fascinating to elevate Leuthen in its place.



In an utterly brilliant maneuver Frederick abandoned his position on the eve of battle and lured the enemy into a foolish pursuit, then surrounded and destroyed the opposition. It's the sort of thing you'd read about in Three Kingdoms, a novel based on history but prone to stretching certain facts. Basically the opposition assumed Frederick was retreating because of their overwhelming numerical superiority; but Frederick used this to his own advantage and successfully exploited it. This sort of maneuver requires an exceptional amount of courage on the part of the commander and on the part of his troops.

Said troops were perhaps some of the finest in the history of the world; as they fought time and again against larger enemy forces and won almost every battle. Faith in their exceptional leader and reliance on their extensive training won out, more often than not. Frederick was not a leader of a great world power when he began, but he most certainly had turned Prussia into one by the end of his reign. In the Seven Years' War he defeated France, Russia, and Austria; a coalition more than 10 times his size. Britain was an ally in the war (which is known in the US as the French and Indian War, and for George Washington's befuddled participation), but he basically did all of the fighting and funding/supporting of his men; and somehow miraculously won. That is the strength of a great commander, the capacity to succeed when there is no logical chance for success.

Addendum: I guess there's some vague chance that someone from Ukraine will read this so I'll add an additional commentary here. What can this information be used for practically you ask? Well it's important to understand that no matter how dominant the opposition is they will usually have quite a few characteristic weaknesses for you to exploit, it is only up to you to find out what they are and to correctly anticipate their actions because of said weaknesses. With such information and the audacity to execute wideranging ambushes or flanking maneuvers (admittedly more difficult in the age of satellite observation) one can defeat a nominally superior opponent.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Non-Stop


Non Stop is brilliant. There's not really any other way to put it; the incredible power of Liam Neeson early in the year continues and this is the best one yet. This is one of the best suspense films ever created and almost certainly the best one involving a plane. The usual issue with a suspense film of this nature is that the plot is revealed too early or is too obvious; while you might be able to figure out parts of the final setup figuring out the entire thing is rather unlikely and it doesn't show its hand until the final 20 minutes.

The previews simultaneously show a lot from the film without really revealing much about it. The basic plot is that Liam Neeson is on a plane and needs to protect it from a potential hi-jacker who vows to kill someone every 20 minutes. I can't really say a ton more than that without spoiling parts of the plot, but suffice to say that the film handles essentially every component quite well. There is a veritable sea of red herrings in this movie and that just adds to the suspense; though you might correctly guess that everyone on the plane can't be a red herring.

Despite ample opportunities to do so the film never gets cheesy either; there's no easy thing to point out that's obviously wrong or silly about the movie; like wading through water in sub freezing temperatures in The Grey, or January Jones in Unknown, or the weird primary sub plot in Taken. The film just doesn't have any major flaws to speak of. Now, it doesn't have any tremendous monologues or things to put it on par with something like the Silence of the Lambs but I am quite comfortable saying this is easily going to wind up being a top 10 film for 2014.

Shea Whigham is in this movie, because he's been in like every good movie (and True Detective) in the past 12 months (either him or Paul Dano); and he's great... again. This is that guy from Bad Lieutenant... whoa. I mean he is certainly a talented actor it's just awesome to see him getting a lot of work/recognition. Something else this film does just perfectly is the casting, every damn person looks shady for some reason or another and there's always a shot of them looking so, except for one notable exception. The film has exemplary pacing, casting, acting, and even knows when it's getting close to being cheesy but throws in dialogue to eliminate that immediately. A damn good film.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Great Captains - Gustavus Adolphus


Gustaf Adolf II was King of Sweden from 1594-1632 and he was naturally a major player in the Thirty Years War of that time period. His reign is seen as a sterling example of how to "modernize" and greatly improve the efficiency of one's military in a short time period. In terms of training and strategic competence he is one of the foremost military leaders in history. Training is a very difficult thing to grasp, whether strict methodology and rigorous drills are the best method or more flexible procedures. The Non-Orthodox (loosely translated as "Guerilla," though any non traditional troop falls into this category) vs. Orthodox paradigm essentially; an ideal military utilizes both types of troops to their advantage. Hannibal is perhaps the foremost at integrating vastly different troop types into a seamless whole; but Gustavus may have been the best at simply training exceptional Orthodox troops (which dominated much of Europe for the next two centuries).

Gustavus is recognized by the vast majority of military historians as a commander on par with Napoleon (who also recognized him as such) or Frederick the Great; but his campaigns show no great tactical competence, though he definitely demonstrates the other elements of being a "Great Captain." The general consensus is that he died too young (in battle, at Breitenfeld) and in the midst of his zenith campaign. Sweden was certainly the most prosperous during his rule and retained much of its power for several generations thereafter; so his capabilities as a ruler are unquestioned. But typically you'd want someone who had demonstrated tactical acuity in addition to strategic and marshaling competence; ultimately it is not for me to say as he did die young.

So, what things can be learned from Gustavus? The most important thing is that what you start out with does not matter, you can have a mediocre military framework or even a particularly bad one and can still innovate and improve upon both your internal military strength and your external military reputation worldwide. Once power over the military is attained a truly competent leader can reform and refit his men into the finest fighting force in the entire world. His system was largely merit based, one's family did not play a role in his ability to be promoted and thus the military blossomed as they were aptly rewarded for competence. This is a fairly early example of such a process; and even most of today's militaries don't follow this procedure; nepotism is perhaps the first sign of decay in any organization and having a truly merit based system is the antithesis of that.

Still, Gustavus' lack of any exceptional battle to look back upon is worrisome and it is difficult to teach precisely what lessons you could learn from his administration. To be sure he had fairly competent leaders against him in both Tilly and Wallenstein, but neither had the sheer initiative that Gustavus had and I feel in time he could have summarily dismantled parts of the Holy Roman Empire. The Protestant faith itself would not be what it is today without Gustavus Adolphus protecting it, and this is perhaps why Dodge specifically recognized him. His pre-eminence was also the consensus of the thought period and may even be in the historical consciousness today (though said consciousness is quite static and in need of reform).