Friday, June 13, 2014

Dark Souls II - Great Balls of Fire

Been a fair amount of time since I’ve written extensively about this game. Why you ask? Work of course, though there’s something to be said for playing the best games only occasionally instead of constantly, after you’ve come to the conclusion that they are excellent. I did a no bonfire run and I did a no death run; but aside from the novelty of using different weapons in the no bonfire run there wasn’t a ton to write about that wasn’t regurgitating stuff I already said. However there’s still tons to do in the game and various different playstyles to explore; in this case pyromancy. I’m also doing an online playthrough with a faith build that I may write about at some point, but there’s sure to be a Hexing post and a Sorcery post in the future.

In order to experience the true glory of pyro I’m playing an older version of the game, also I still haven’t done NG+ since there’s just so much stuff to do and explore in basic NG, and I’d like to experience the hardest version possible before I patch it further. Time will tell if I manage to do this before the first DLC comes out. I don’t know if I’ve ever written this on this blog before but the original Dark Souls’ DLC is probably the best piece of DLC ever released and is the main part of Dark Souls that holds up compared to Dark Souls II. I might even write a 2 years late review of that at some point, but it’s more or less a sure thing that the Dark Souls II DLC will be amazing.

So, what makes unpatched pyromancy so special, you ask? Why, Flame Swathe of course. Though ironically it isn’t really as powerful as something like Iron Flesh was at release in Dark Souls, it hits really hard but it can be awkward to cast and you have to rely on RNG to get more than usages of it. Great Resonant Soul is actually substantially more overpowered, but we’ll save that discussion for another time. Flame Swathe hits for 1200-1500 damage, a fairly staggering amount considering; the reason it got nerfed is because it could and did one shot people in pvp. It’s not too difficult to avoid in pvp situations, but getting hit once and dying isn’t exactly an interesting experience.

What else does pyromancy have to offer? Well unlike Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls you can pretty much get an unlimited amount of firestorm casts and use it as your primary spell instead of just an occasional devastating AoE. It really murders just about everything and is quite reliable relative to its counterparts in the other spellcasting schools. The previously incredibly daunting Dragon Shrine becomes somewhat trivial with firestorm, though that’s to be expected from the Souls universe.

The most interesting pyromancy spell is the corollary to Flame Swathe, Lingering Flame. What Lingering Flame does is lay a trap that lasts for ~25 seconds. It only hits for ½-1/3rd as much as Flame Swathe however you can stack up multiple traps and it just is a really cool spell to use in tandem with various pulling methods. If Swathe wasn’t comically overpowered you might see more usage of this spell; but even in the handful of cases where I did use it I had fun setting traps and luring particularly troublesome enemies into them. The main area I used this was the Huntsman’s Copse; on the way to the Executioner’s Chariot boss fight.

Unlike my early playthroughs I’m using very minimal amounts of vitality, endurance, adaptability, and vigor; since it seems more purist to play a spellcaster with low survivability.  This also maximizes the damage output, though in the case of pyromancy the output is already so high that this doesn’t convey particularly large advantages. As you might imagine running around with base- or near base HP (started as Deprived) leads to a fair amount more deaths as you adapt to how your spells work and sometimes things don’t go quite as planned.

Pyromancy also sees the return of fireballs, which have 5 variants this time instead of just the 4; I’ve yet to try out the Great Chaos Fireball since the process of unlocking it either requires online and is arduous or requires NG+; I’m assuming it behaves similarly to the Dark Souls version. The other fireballs are okay, the most notable difference is the first one is more like a small flame but it has a much greater travel distance than any fire spell in Dark Souls. You can actually lob most fireballs at a great distance which adds an interesting element to the game assuming you’re not using alternative ranged methods; though in pre-patch Shrine of Amana that doesn’t work out so great.

The new fireball-ish spell is what the Giant Mages use in Memory of Vammar; that is to say an enormous, fast travelling fireball with a massive radius of impact and huge amounts of damage. It was also nerfed, but Forgotten Sun is very limited in the number of uses so it isn’t controversially overpowered or anything. What ultimately makes the spell so impressive is the cast speed, which is quite a bit faster than every other pyromancy spell. It is probably the fastest primary spell in the game, which coupled with very impressive (though not Flame Swathe level) damage and lingering effects makes it just awesome. While you only get a few spellcasts of it that’s more than enough to have some fun.

The way to get Forgotten Sun is to talk with the kindly Navlaan while he’s in prison and go around murdering NPCs (if you like) to get items for him, there’s alternative methods of getting the items but this is your Mephistopheles equivalent. Granted he also has so much more to him and this is probably the best NPC in the history of the series just for his overall presence. Hopefully the series sees more Jekyll and Hyde type characters in the future.

The combustion spells also return from Dark Souls, though they are fast and do a ton of damage they also use quite a lot of stamina so you can’t just spam them repeatedly as you could in the first game. They’re useful, just not relative to Flame Swathe. Fire Whip is nominally categorized as a combustion spell now, though it varies whether it’s more or less useful than Great Combustion depending on the opposition and your accuracy. Chaos Fire Whip is no more it seems.

The last aspect of pyromancy is the status effects and support spells. The status spells are what you expect with a tad more variety. I guess for SL1 playthroughs these spells are your bread and butter, and they make fights like Twin Dragonriders fairly amusing (perhaps the most interesting fight in the game with spells, just as a barometer for how smoothly you can kill the black dragonrider). Toxicity and Poison both kill enemies at a much faster rate than previously, a single toxic duration can do even more damage than one usage of Flame Swathe (~1500 damage), which while quite powerful doesn’t hold up to just blatantly overpowered stuff for sheer DPS.

There’s no more power within in Dark Souls II, which is probably a good thing; but you do have this spell that lights yourself on fire called Immolation. While this spell looks incredibly impressive it isn’t all that useful in practice, because you’re doing similar amounts of damage to yourself as you are to your opposition. However this could just be that my build was incorrect for it since I didn’t have a ton of vigor, perhaps it’s more useful with a tanky build.

The spell Warmth creates a beacon that pulses every so often and heals everything in the area, you, enemies, allies, everything. What makes this useful is that it lasts for an absurd amount of time and you can kind of use it in tandem with lingering flame; set a Warmth beacon near the beginning of the room, set a lingering flame or two in front of that, and then lure the enemies into the flames. Something like pre-nerf Shrine of Amana becomes substantially easier with Warmth on your side to limit the incoming damage; though it doesn’t do much for the huge damage dealers in later areas.

Iron Flesh and Flash Sweat are both situationally useful. Iron Flesh isn’t even remotely close to being broken but you can still find some value in it. I imagine there’s got to be someone who beat a boss like Smelter relying on these 2 spells as well as phantom support; though it was probably not the optimal way to do it. The enormous arrows from Iron Keep still stagger you even with Iron Flesh up, and naturally you’re not going to be able to avoid them at such a slow speed.

The most interesting thing with Pyromancy is that the best flame scales with your deteriorating humanity. In effect, the more you die the stronger your spells get. The more depraved or primitive you are the more effective pyromancy is. This is a curious thing from a lore perspective and goes along with all the raggedy clothing that pyromancers have. Obviously I wasn’t too concerned with dying with this being the case, even if the spell buff wasn’t irresistible; and perhaps running with low vigor isn’t too much of a bad thing when pyromancy is concerned (non-Immolation division).

For this run since it was going to be overpowered anyway I went with the incredibly generic Greatsword which I've never used before. The Greatsword might not be the best weapon in the game but it's still quite ridiculous assuming you use it right. If you're just using it as an every-day bludgeon this is a decent weapon but ultimately inferior to various blunt weapons in the game; however if you stick exclusively to 1 hand jump attacks it becomes quite impressive both for the absurd reach on the weapon and the very short recovery time after each jump attack. What more can I say other than it's fun and comically overpowered, much like pre-patch flame swathe and forgotten sun.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow is brilliant. Not really any other way to put it, this is one of the best Science Fiction films ever produced. It's sort of an ascension of all the pretty good recent Sci-Fi films (Oblivion, Looper, and District 9 being the most apparent) to their natural conclusion. This is the best film I have seen in theaters since Inception, which is obviously a fantastic movie. More than that I think it might actually be better, though mainly because Tom Cruise is a lot more compelling than Dicaprio (who I like as well), and a 2 person dynamic simply works better than a group of people.

So, how to describe this movie... It's more or less Groundhog Day + Starship Troopers + Resistance: Fall of Man, and it has quite a few elements from all 3. The beginning has vignettes not unlike those found in Starship Troopers; though not quite as campy; and the general space marine vs bugs vibe is present throughout (though the hoo-ah is limited to the first 45 minutes or so). The aliens originate in Germany this time instead of Russia (as they did in Resistance), and Britain is the last stand of Europe more or less.  The hero gains his power in a similar fashion to Nathan Hale as well. The film is very reminiscent of what happens in video games; you start your life, die, and respawn; learning the enemies positions to improve your ability to adapt to them over time. Tom Cruise starts out as this cowardly marketing major for the Army and gradually turns into the ultimate badass after thousands of untold deaths.

The film handles the dying part quite well, making it mostly a comical experience but still having a few heavy deaths along the way and Tom Cruise as "Cage" has one of the more pronounced and indeed "earned" character arcs in recent memory. As you might expect there is a romance element to the plot being that it's a male and female duo heading the cast, but it is extremely well done and there's no meaningless scenes to that effect along the way. Hell even the one-sided nature of the relationship is done quite well, as Cage grows more and more attached to Emily Blunt's (of Looper fame) Rita over the course of the film and she simply has a mild curiosity throughout (the standard sort of curiosity humans have when they meet an attractive member of the opposite sex). I won't spoil any of the really good stuff here but suffice to say there's some fantastic scenes.

I've seen both X-Men and Captain America already this year, both of them were quite good; they don't even come remotely close to being as jaw-droppingly amazing as this film. The supporting cast in the film is excellent to back the two outstanding leads; most apparent being the magnificent Bill Paxton and the great-in-everything Brendan Gleeson. Every movie that has Brendan Gleeson in it is good, even Dark Blue; but this might be at the top of the pile above even Gangs of New York (the anti-Dicaprio factor strikes again, sorry DDL) and In Bruges.  This is a smart, funny, well shot, well acted movie. The action is compelling and not overly CGified and relatively easy to follow. It's going to be difficult for even the mighty Nolan to outdo this with Interstellar; though McConaughey seems to be on a roll. It is pretty much a masterpiece; and no not a moviebob masterpiece. I'll be watching this one for years to come, and you guys should too.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Praise Be to Ray Allen

The NBA finals have begun, and to celebrate I decided to try out NBA 2k14 since it's free on PS+ at present. I used to be extremely good at NBA Live in the mid 00's and that contributed to a greater understanding and liking of basketball alongside my high school, college (MSU), and local professional teams (pistons) being quite good. I'm not particularly deep into the stats section of the game which is evidently all the rage now but I have a general understanding of what PER means and so on (I ma fairly interested in more advanced baseball statistics; but that's my favorite sport). Aside from big budget films the main thing I feel our society's wastefulness has produced worth remembering are the various professional sporting environments and the NBA is no exception.

In NBA Live 2005 (whose best player by their stat system was one Baron Davis) I had a general feel for driving to the basket to create open opportunities for shooters or just to dunk on fools. I developed an interesting back and forth with the hardest computer. It took a solid 20r or so games to get better than the comp who initially stomped me into oblivion; but after mastering some reasonably advanced basketball philosophy I had a good feel for just how to pick apart their defenses. The inexorably dominant Baron Davis surely did help in this endeavour. Richard "Rip" Hamilton of the Pistons was highly successful at the time and sort of made me fall in love with the mid-range jumpshot. Despite being inherently inefficient relative to the 3, the mid-range is still quite powerful given the shooter is accurate enough with it.

Now, you may ask, wasn't NBA 2kxx the game you bitched about causing an absurdly long line at Dark Souls' midnight release all those years ago? Yes... yes it was. Apparently it's actually a pretty good game and has amazing production values relative to the games I used to play. The animation especially feels very fluid and the absurd attention to detail on a per player basis is extraordinary. Even the commentary doesn't have that usual extremely stilted problem that video game commentary tends to have. They must have recorded an absurd amount of dialogue to get that to work out (though admittedly I am running into repeats due to doing the same thing every game so far). There are still candid camera moments where a player will get stuck in an animation loop trying to pick up a ball out of bounds and failing, but that's just part of the charm. This game is so realistic that I feel it cleanly rests in the Uncanny Valley universe; but it sort of embraces that as well.

The most notable new feature of this game is the "path to greatness" mode with Lebron actually voicing over little segments for each game, that's primarily what I've been playing. There's definitely some obtuseness to the introductory portions of the game and even the insistence on immediately throwing a game at you when you turn it on instead of a menu screen. But what's most duanting about this game are the controls, which admittedly do facilitate an incredible level of depth. Going through the tutorial for this game is not unlike going through a difficult fighting game tutorial a la Skullgirls or King of Fighters XIII. The game even has you doing quarter, half, and full circles in specific directions to get your player to do various dribbling or shooting maneuvers. It's pretty intense stuff and I might not have the motivation to actually get to a high skill plane, as even the game's base difficulty computer is quite difficult to beat. However that doesn't mean there isn't fun to be had.

Like every other sports game NBA 2k14 has a hidden stats system on every interaction you make; most obviously impacting the FG% of whatever shot you happen to be taking. However this is slightly more apparent and easier to exploit because of how the game presents its systems and shows specific traits for each player. Dwayne Wade for instance becomes an absolute monster in the 4th quarter and gets a raw boosts to all of his stats in that time period; an already good player becomes ridiculous. Lebron has a whole shitload of icons to this effect and I'm not really sure what all of them do other than "yo this guy's good." However, I do pay some amount of attention to NBA coverage and am aware of Lebron's prodigious passing ability.

Lebron "Magic" James, as it were, triggers one of his traits on passing that instantly boosts the shooting percentage of the recipient of his pass; regardless of the situation in which you threw it. His hand is just that magical to convey shooting competence to anyone. While this is obviously ridiculous it only becomes all the more entertaining if you combine it with the magnificent Ray Allen's ability to "Catch and Shoot" as well as the ambiguous "Dead Eye." Effectively a pass from Lebron to Ray Allen gives him about a 60% chance to hit a 3 (a 40% chance is considered exceptional in reality), regardless of whether he's covered or not. So to beat the merciless comp I embarked on this prodigious strategy: bring the ball up court with Lebron, pass to Ray Allen behind the arc, shoot. In many of these games Ray Allen accumulates well over 60 points and Lebron over 20 assists (as is his wont) and the whole rest of the team does nothing other than what the comp decides to do.

I've pretty much given up on the defensive end so I just pick the shortest guy and hope for the best (defense has more Balrog type moves than fireballs/spinning piledrivers); the comp seems to be pretty decent if you just let them defend. So far I have a 5-2 record, even getting 3 stars on one of the challenges (Lebron's true calling indeed). The comp is content to get the vast majority of their points in the paint while I rain down my barrage of 3's. While they might wind up with a 55-60 FG% I'll be content with my 50%+ from behind the arc. Unfortunately with the bizarre alternate future setting you get moved out of Miami after the first season and I no longer have the outstanding Ray Allen to pin all my hopes on, but Ray Felton seems to be doing alright in his stead. Shane Battier contributed as well and even Lebron himself performs serviceably behind the arc.

This game's fun and sort of dauntingly difficult in a way that I find satisfying. I might never figure out how to get to the rim easily, but I'll probably figure out how to get a decent passing game going and my instincts have already sussed out ways to break the ingame systems in my favor. One day I'll be beating the hardest comp with ease... maybe.