Monday, October 31, 2016

Yes, I Admit It - I Cheat

After blogging about the new Skyrim Special Edition and the availability of mods, I have to make a confession: I'm using a mod that allows me to cheat.

One of the mods we downloaded is called, appropriately, 'Cheat Mod'. It allows a character to get any mundane or enchanted armor or weapons, any spell tome, any skill increase book, any potion ingredient, any magic accessory, any potion. It also provides a treasure chest containing 50,000 gold pieces and a ring that basically gives you unlimited carrying capacity. This means that a starting character could have some powerful enchanted armor and weapons, and know many more spells that a character ordinarily starts out with.

Just because the mod is available doesn't mean I have to take advantage of it. But I am. I know there are players out there who feel it's part of the fun of the game to work your way up through the quests, acquiring these items as loot or creating them through the crafting system. I like those parts of the game, too. But I've been playing this game for 5 years. I've gone through a lot of the basic quests several times. I know how to craft items, and where to find the minerals I need to make something special. I decided that this time I don't want to go through all of that again as a typical starting character.

Skyrim doesn't use character classes; you don't choose to be a mage, rogue, or warrior as you do in some other games. Every character has the capacity to both use magic and wield weapons. How good a character becomes at either skill is up to the player. When I play in tabletop roleplaying games I like to play mages, and the same is true in console games. But when starting out in Skyrim, your character knows very few spells and has a limited amount of magicka available to fuel them. You are forced by circumstance to pick up a weapon if you want your character to survive long enough to learn more magic. I didn't want to go through that process again, acquiring spell tomes to learn more spells and gradually building up magicka level by level. I decided to use the advantages provided by the Cheat Mod to skip over some of that so my mage could be somewhat more skilled at first level. I read a number of the spell tomes the mod provided. I took a magic staff from the supply cupboard. I also took some nice enchanted armor, and an amulet that increases my magicka. And I took the ring that increases carrying capacity so that I don't have to worry about going back to town to unload loot  in the midst of exploring every cave or mine or dungeon. I can focus on the exploration and stop concerning myself with how much stuff I pick up.

Taking these items doesn't mean that I'm really that much better at magic than a first level character who doesn't have such equipment. I still cast spells at a low level. I can't simply wipe out my enemies with a wave of my hand. But with this equipment, I don't have to worry as much about creeping up on enemies, or rapidly depleting my supply of healing potions (the mod doesn't provide an unlimited quantity of those). The mod means I can enjoy the things I like to do, without spending as much of my time on the parts of the game I find less entertaining.

I also took the 50,000 gold. One of the first perks you get in the game if you follow the main Dragonborn quest is to be given the right to purchase a house in one of Skyrim's holds. It takes a lot of gold to buy a house, and the houses come unfurnished, so you then have to buy furnishings. You can spend a lot of time trying to build up enough gold to put a bedroom suite or an alchemical lab in your house. I decided to use some of that special gold to buy a house and furnish it right away. Technically I don't need a house, since the underground secret lair the mod provides contains two alchemical labs. But I like the idea of having a house to go back to instead of creeping around in a rather spooky basement that doesn't include any incidental music or ambient sounds. Since I've already got a house, I can spend the rest of my money on other things, like potions, or equipment for my traveling companions.

Playing a game is supposed to be fun. The first four or five times I ran through the introductory quests, it was fun feeling that anxiety that my character might die at any moment. But now I want something different out of the experience, and using a mod that lets me cheat the game a bit allows me to achieve that goal. So, yes, I cheat. And if cheating means I can get past level 10 faster and dive into some of the more difficult quests that I've never played through before, then I'm not going to feel guilty about cheating.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

It's Here! It's Here! Skyrim Special Edition

In 2011, Bethesda Games released the next installation in their popular Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim. My husband and I picked it up right away for our Xbox 360 console. We spent hours and hours playing it, because it's an open-world game where you can wander all over the map, visiting nearly every square foot of land in the titular location. You can buy and furnish houses in each of the major towns and cities. You can craft special armor and weapons for your characters, brew potions, create new spells, even cook food. You can become a thane of each hold, and have a housecarl to look after each of your homes. You can take one of your housecarls with you to help you carry loot and fight enemies, or you can hire someone to keep you company. You can acquire a horse, a dog, a magical construct, a mechanical construct, and even a spirit to keep you company as well. The game offers a massive amount of things to do. If you want to ignore the main quests and just spend your time exploring caves and ruins, or roaming the countryside collecting potion ingredients, you can do that.

But there were some things missing from the Xbox version of the game. The PC version offered the opportunity for users to create their own modifications to the game world and characters, something that wasn't available for the console versions. PC players could change the rules of the game so that, for example, all the hiking around in the snow your character will do actually causes hypothermia. Mods allowed players to make the game more challenging for themselves by removing automatic magicka regeneration (the statistic that allows a characters magic 'fuel' to replenish itself), removing automatic hit point regeneration, or removing the fast-travel option. They could also make the game easier by allowing themselves to gain high-level equipment and abilities more easily or increasing the amount of gold merchants would pay them for the loot they acquired. And they could add humorous mods that would make the game more fun, such as a mod that would allow a character to burp and fart after eating, or one that would rain steam locomotives on the player-character's enemies. Other mods added new locations, new mounts, new spells and equipment, and revisions to the challenge rating and level increase systems,

Not long ago my husband and I finally swapped our decade-old Xbox 360 for an Xbox One. The console isn't backward-compatible, so we couldn't play our old copy of Skyrim on the new console. But we didn't buy a new copy right away, because we new the Skyrim Special Edition was coming. Now that we're trying it out, here are a few thoughts on the remastered game and it's biggest selling feature: the availability of mods.

It took a while for my husband to be able to sign up to download the mods from Bethesda's site - there were some technical difficulties on Day One - but after he did so he discovered that the Xbox One version currently has 100 mods available to players. These include mods that I described above, like 'Immersive Indigestion' that adds belching and flatulence, and 'Call of Trainwiz' which creates a Dragonborn Shout effect that rains trains. But one of the most impressive mods (or appalling, depending on your point of view) is the aptly-named 'Cheat Mod'. This mod gives you a secret underground chamber in which you can find every key, skill increase tome, spell tome, specialty quest item, and crafting station type available in the game, as well as massive quantities of loot items, Dragonborn Shouts, and summonable creatures.

The Special Edition doesn't add much else to the game in terms of content if you choose not to use mods. It comes with all of the downloadable add-ons that were originally released, which add the secondary Solstheim location and the ability to build your own house and adopt children. There have been some lesser changes to existing content or appearance. Reports indicate that many of the game's infamous glitches have been fixed; clipping still occurs, but apparently the likelihood that your character will plummet infinitely after falling off a cliff has been removed, along with some of the other more egregious bugs that are amply documented on YouTube. The texture mapping seems a bit smoother, the contrast between foreground and background crisper, and my husband and I both noticed that the colors are much brighter - so bright, in fact, that we chose to turn down the contrast slightly to avoid eye strain.

If you're not like us and didn't recently purchase a new console that requires you to buy a different version of the game, you may still be perfectly happy with your existing version of Skyrim. But if you've never played the game before, or if you'd really like to see what the mods add to your game experience, I would recommend picking up the Special Edition. Skyrim is an endlessly playable game. While it is missing out on some of the features that make competitor Dragon Age: Inquisition a more immersive experience, the opportunity to just do whatever you want in Skyrim continues to make it an appealing game five years after it was initially released.

If you'd like to know more about the mods, you can read Kotaku's recommendations here, or view the complete list on Bethesda's site.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Where Do They Get These Ideas?

I just stumbled across this article from January, and I've got to agree that most of these theories are truly bonkers. Let me count the ways.
Looking at theories 4 and 12, it seems that some people don't know how to calculate the passage of time, since these proposed parental events would have happened too far in the past for Rey to be only 19. I also wonder why so much speculation revolves around her parents having Force abilities. Nothing in the Star Wars canon that I'm aware of dictates that Force users must be descended from Force users. And the idea that the Force can somehow engender virgin births is one part of the prequels that I can happily ignore. Perhaps some Force-user impregnated Anakin's mother and then used a Jedi (or Sith) mind-trick to make her forget about the experience.
Popular Theory #1 seems the most likely explanation. Personally I don't want Rey to be related to the Skywalker dynasty at all, because I'm sick of the whole Star Wars universe revolving around them. But if she is related to Luke, they'd better come up with a really good explanation of why she was left on Jakku with no one to look after her. It could be a David Copperfield sort of story, or Oliver Twist, in which she did have a guardian but something happened to that person and no one was aware of it or able to do anything about it. Maybe Luke couldn't go fetch her because he was busy fleeing from someone, or trying to save Ben Solo, or fighting with the Dark Side somehow. Perhaps he could have been marooned on Ahch-To. Just because he's got Force powers doesn't mean he can whip up a spaceship or fly unprotected through the vacuum of space (although if you watch Star Wars Rebels, it certainly does imply that Jedi don't need spacesuits, at least for short trips).
Rey could also be descended from some other SW canon character that no one thought of, such as an Imperial character. Maybe Palpatine had children of his own and could be her grandfather. Maybe she's Padme's very-much-younger sister, since we know nothing about Padme's family on Naboo. There's a lot of territory to choose from without making her a relative of the Skywalkers. Okay, so Padme would make her a relative. Let's just not make her a sibling or descendant of the surviving Skywalker clan, okay? Are you listening, J.J.?
If there isn't a good explanation for her abandonment on Jakku, I hope that there is at least a thorough one. As I've grown older and watched more Star Wars material, especially The Clone Wars and Rebels, I've come to realize what a lot of other people also think: that the Jedi had become self-righteous jerks by the time of The Phantom Menace. They weren't meant to be a military organization; they were supposed to be more like a monastic organization that gave altruistic aid. Part of what Palpatine did, besides drawing Anakin to the Dark Side, was make the Jedi Order into a military unit and give them command of armies when they had no background for that sort of thing. Their biggest failing was that the Jedi Council didn't say no to any of this. So it isn't hard to accept that someone coming from that history could put a young child in hiding on a rough planet thinking she'd be safer there and then completely fail to check in on her. People are fallible creatures, even Force-using people. Who left Rey on Jakku doesn't necessarily have to have anything to do with who her parents were.
In any case, I'm really hoping that none of the theories listed in the article are true. I hope Rey isn't related to any existing characters, let alone the Skywalkers. I want the filmmakers to surprise me, and surprise me with something that makes such good sense that I'll be amazed I didn't think of it before. Is that too much to hope for?

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Kingmaker #9

Session 61 - October 23, 2016

San’Kari gave the wheel in the center of the icy chamber four turns, until it stopped and he thought he heard something click into place. An opening was revealed across the room, leading to a descending staircase, which took them to a long hallway that curved off to their left. In the center of the passage at the point where it turned stood a chunk of amber as large as a man. Landon checked the passageway for traps. As Silverleaf scanned the walls, he noticed faint sigils that he interpreted as the signs of those warriors who had fought alongside Armag at his most famed battle. Landon noticed that the amber stone had begun to vibrate slightly. He went closer to examine it. Within the amber he could make out various inclusions. He realized that there was some type of interplanar trap in the hallway. Then webs began to form beyond the amber. From the darkness appeared an enormous spider, which Landon realized was a demonic creature from another plane of existence.

San’kari immediately went forward to attack the spider; though its webbing filled the corridor and the strands were as thick as ropes, San’kari’s magic ring allowed him to move freely. Silverleaf moved up behind Landon and gave him the strength of a bull but could move no further when the webbing surrounded him, though it didn’t complete fill the space in which he stood. San’kari and Landon both struck at the spider, which extruded further web and entangled Landon. Silverleaf then summoned an ally and a warrior made of force appeared behind the spider, flanking with San'kari. The spider bit Landon, but he was fortunately immune to its poison. Silverleaf expended a charge from his staff and filled the passage with flames, burning away the webs but also burning Landon and San’kari. Then San’kari chopped the spider with his axe, and it died. With the webbing cleared, Landon eagerly examined the creature before its corpse vanished back to the plane from which it had come.

Silverleaf channeled the healing power of the gods to make amends for setting his comrades on fire before they moved on to the end of the passage. It led them into a circular room occupied by four large pillars supporting a domed ceiling reaching some fifty feet above them. In the center of the pillars stood a very large figure covered in spiky armor. Landon identified this figure as a golem. On three sides of the chamber were massive double doors, including the entrance through which the party had arrived. The fourth side had no doors, but oddly it appeared that someone had attempted to chip away at the stone there. The wall was scarred where it had been attacked with axes or swords.

Avoiding the center area where the golem stood, Landon skirted around the room checking for traps, while, Silverleaf examined the area for magic. He detected that some of the sigils on the pillars were magical, and there was an aura of magic on the damaged wall but he couldn’t make out what it was. Landon found that the other two doors were locked. He approached the door-less wall and consumed an elixir to allow him to see secret doors, hoping to find one hidden behind the stone.

Behind the rock Landon saw a mirror, and caught a brief glimpse of a Black Sister. He also felt a chill. After Landon described this to the others, San’kari used one of his magic rings to shape the stone away from the hidden door. The doorway that was revealed proved possible to open only from the opposite side. Silverleaf attempted to identify what manner of magical door it was, but was unable to acquire any more information. Landon then spent a short time creating another elixir to enable him to learn more. The door seemed to lead to a portal, which might have been placed there by the Black Sisters or was being utilized by them. San’kari wondered if freeing the doorway from its stone surroundings entirely would allow the group to remove the door or open it, but Landon’s examination indicated this wouldn’t be successful.

After spending some time trying to understand the portal, the group members decided to continue looking for Armag’s sword. When Landon approached the double doors to the right of the portal, the golem suddenly awoke and warned them that it did not want to have to attack them. The party then began to question the golem, as it seemed willing enough to respond to their inquiries and made no move to threaten them.

In response to their questions, the golem told them that it had been placed there by Armag himself to protect the tomb, and that it couldn’t move beyond the area encircled by the four pillars. It believed that the doors Landon had been trying to unlock might lead to the tomb, but it didn’t know that with certainty. The portal had been placed there by the Black Sisters and had been there for a year or more, though it admitted that it lacked a good sense of the passage of time. It claimed that the others doors led to a cavern occupied by an imprisoned dragon. The golem also told the group that to get through the door that led toward the tomb could only be opened with the ‘amber key’, which was held by one of Armag’s descendents who was the baron of Fort Drelev.

This particular piece of information really aroused the interest of the party from New Hope, as they understood Fort Drelev to have fallen under the influence of the Black Sisters. If the Sisters had control of the current baron, why had they not already acquired the key and entered the tomb to claim the sword? The party members speculated that perhaps the current baron was keeping the location of the key hidden, or possibly wasn’t aware that the key existed and didn’t know where it was stored.

The golem also warned the group that if they tried to open the doors without the key, the mirror portal would attack them. They concluded that any further examination of the golem’s chamber was not useful at this time, and they decided to go on through the door to the south. This actually led to a passageway that split. The direction they chose didn’t lead them to the dragon, but instead to a thirty-foot precipice with another passage on the opposite side of the cavern it led to. At the bottom of the cliff was a lot of rubbish, and Silverleaf and Tahjah sensed magic items in the trash. Landon descended to the floor of the cave to examine the rubbish. He found the bones of many humanoid creatures, and determined that the leg bones had been cut by something jagged like the teeth of a bear trap. Among the remains Landon found a set of hide armor, a spear, and three oblong obsidian stones that were all magical. He gathered these things up and took them back up to the top of the cliff.

When examined further, the three stones proved especially interesting. They were capable of opening a door between dimensions that would allow a person to travel a short distance without covering the intervening space, and if left in place the person could use this doorway to return to the starting point as long as the magic wasn’t deactivated and the stone wasn’t moved. But both Landon and Silverleaf sensed that there was more to the stones than just this capability. Landon, Silverleaf, and Tahjah each took possession of a stone.

After they had examined the items Landon found, the whole group descended to the floor of the cavern and went through the opening there, which took them back to the area they had already explored. They returned to the golem chamber and talked to it further, asking why the dragon had been imprisoned there if it didn’t appear to guard anything. During this conversation, Landon recalled that Armag had reputedly had a dragon mount. The golem confirmed this, and added that the dragon had been transformed into a worg and sent out into the world. This remark excited the heroes, as their friend Grizz the worg had proved to be a very old brass dragon who had somehow been transformed into a worg against his will.

Once the discussion had got past the dragon, the golem also revealed that it knew the Black Sisters had made an attack on New Hope three days earlier, though the four Sisters leading the attack had failed to penetrate the fort’s defenses. It also revealed that the leader of the Black Sisterhood was known as Lady Fornus, a priestess of Gyrona whose preferred domain was darkness.

After learning all of this information, the heroes decided it was time to leave the tomb and consider whether to go to Fort Drelev for the key next or return to New Hope to check on the citizens there. They departed from the caverns by the same route through which they had entered. Once they were outside, the barbarians encamped there gave them no trouble. In fact, when asked if they would like to be freed of the Black Sisterhood, they confessed that they were all cowards. The group members encouraged the barbarians to leave this area and go to Oleg’s Fort, even going so far as to give them a letter of introduction to present to Oleg. The barbarians were very disappointed that the heroes would not send their two militiamen along with them as protection.

To protect themselves from any Black Sisters still in the caves, the party moved to a point about an hour’s ride away from the tomb to set up camp. After they had made camp, Landon sent his consciousness to one of his simulacra in New Hope to find out what had happened there. He learned that Munguk the giant had taken the lead in combating the attacking Black Sisters, and had also slain one of the chimeras the Sisters had brought with them. Because he knew that Landon liked such things, he had kept the chimera’s carcass, and a priestess who had been at the fort had preserved it so Landon could dissect it. Munguk described that the archers had used fire arrows against the Sisters and had found them to be vulnerable to fire, as most of their robes burnt up instantly when set ablaze. Three of the four Sisters had also been slain, but their bodies had dissolved into a slimy substance upon their deaths.

After learning about what had occurred during the attack, Landon acquired a number of magic items that had been found among the Black Sisters remains, including a belt, a rod, a cloak, and several potions.

While Landon was away the others rested and stood watch over his unconscious body. Silverleaf expended a spell to replace a charge in his staff, then spent time examining his obsidian stone, trying to learn more about its properties. He experienced a vision of a scene of battle in which the sky was dark with arrows and Black Sister pursued giants using an animated trap like the one that had severed the legs of the remains in the cavern. He also saw a mask-wearing skull with glowing green eyes, which he somehow knew was some type of guardian. Though there was nothing in the vision to tell him when it had taken place, he felt that it was a vision of the past.

Landon returned the next morning and told them what had happened at New Hope. He had also learned that there had been centaurs there, though he didn’t know why they had traveled all the way from the other side of the mountains. Fey in the forest had seen the Black Sisters and their forces coming from the northwest, which the heroes knew to be the direction in which an old cemetery lay. They knew they would eventually have to visit the cemetery and perhaps consecrate it to prevent the forces of evil from utilizing it.

After Landon told his story, Silverleaf advised him that he should examine his stone. When Landon did this, he witnessed a vision of giants being consumed by fire. When they died and were burned, a black figure knelt by the remains and put something into their mouths, after which they arose as zombies and followed the figure obediently. The figure was some type of astral projection of evil, though Landon knew it was female and was probably a Black Sister. Like Silverleaf, Landon knew that this was a vision of a past event.

Tahjah then decided that she, too, should look into her stone. Her vision was quite different: she saw a magical quill inscribing spells in a spellbook without aid of a living creature, while a small cloud of fog seemed to rain acid on the pages. Beyond the spell-scribing quill she saw many scrolls, which were slowly being rolled on dowels by a lint-coated imp. Her impression was that this had taken place recently.

Landon began to wonder if the three stones could somehow be combined to do something more. He experimented with assembling them like a menhir and discovered that two of the stones would stand on end by themselves. Once he placed the third stone on top, the stones suddenly enlarged to eight feet in height and through the space between the uprights could be seen an expanse of blue sky. The witnesses felt a strong wind blowing from this place. As they tried to determine if this might be a portal to another plane, four riders in red and silver bearing the flag of Brevoy went past, followed by several nightmares and two nuckelavee. A short time later they saw the same riders and pursuers race past again, and again.

Silverleaf recalled tales of traps made to teleport the victims back to their starting point over and over. It seemed that this strange portal was allowing them to witness such a trap. Tahjah wondered if she could use telekinetic magic to pull the riders through the portal. On her first attempt she was able to thrust one rider off her horse from the opposite direction, so that the elven woman flew out of the portal into the camp. Heartened by her success, Tahjah was able to push the other three riders out as well, though her spell was not strong enough to free their horses. San’kari caught the three additional riders so that they had a less painful landing than the first.

The party members gave the four rescued people food and water and Tahjah channeled divine energy to heal their hurts. When questioned about what had happened to them, the four people told a strange and disturbing tale, though they told it in fits and starts and seemed bewildered by many of the questions they were asked. It seemed that they had been offered 50 gold pieces by Lord Terrion Numeste of Brevoy to go to Armag’s tomb and explore it. They had not been equipped with any weapons or armor, and all of them were tradespeople or merchants, not experienced adventurers. One was a merchant, one a scribe, one a cartographer, and one a trapper. Eventually Silverleaf began to suspect that they were too foolish and na├»ve for it to be natural and he examined them to see if perhaps they had been subjected to an effect similar to what the daemon had done to Landon and Kara. But he discovered instead that all of them had scars on their temples. The four people explained that after they had volunteered for this mission they had been sent to Lord Terrion’s mage to be ‘mentally prepared’ for the task. The party members realized that this ‘preparation’ must have involved removing a portion of their brains. They began to suspect that the Black Sisters were spreading their influence in Brevoy, though they didn’t know if Lord Terrion was a willing participant or had been duped.

Further discussion with the four poor victims led them to learn that Lord Terrion apparently knew quite a lot about the traps in Armag's tomb, and had sent numerous groups of similar people there to explore over the past year or two. These people had first gone to the wrong place, accidentally entering a bear’s lair, and had then been paralyzed by a Black Sister and pushed into the teleportation trap. They hadn’t had horses with them at the time and hadn’t even been aware that they were riding, or being chased. Somehow Lord Terrion, or the Black Sisters advising him, had realized that some of the traps within the tomb would not endanger someone of little intellectual capacity, so they had sent in explorers who didn’t have enough intellect to trigger these traps or draw the attention of the creatures within. The four people had met the black dragon trapped there, but it had declined to bother them. They described the dragon, the ice-covered chain holding it, and even knew its name: Ilthuliak. The heroes realized that his name sounded very much like the name of the black dragon they had met near Lake Silverstep, and in fact Ilthuliak had told the four explorers from Brevoy that he had a twin.

San’kari suggested they use one of their teleportation devices to visit Ilthuliak’s twin at Lake Silverstep and tell him where to find his brother, but nothing they had in their possession could transport a person so far. Only Garrick’s magic boots could do it, and Garrick had left the party temporarily. Then Silverleaf suggested that he send a magical message to the dragon. With the agreement of the others, he carefully composed the short missive and transmitted it to Ilthuliak’s twin: ‘From Garrick of Galisat: Ilthuliak imprisoned in Armag’s tomb near Hooktongue Slough by waterfall, we’re nearby will help if you wish.’

+3 hide armor
+3 anarchic spear
3 dimension stones
Cloak of resistance +2
Belt of physical might +4 str, +4 con
+2 defending longsword
Ring of keys
Rod of splendor
+3 breastplate
Potion of cure light wounds
Potion of haste
Potion of levitation

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Star Wars - Episode 51: "A Princess Lost"

As the New Jedi Order and the Antarian Rangers arrived on the Wookiee resistance colony of Muaagra, they were greeted by swarms of cheering Wookiees shouting Lowarra's name. Lowarra quickly gathered her comrades and encouraged her people to chant their names as well. Then their friend Han Solo, who had come with them to Muaagra to help his friend Chewbacca reunite his mate with their son, looked around and realized that there was someone missing from the celebration. Where was Princess Leia? C3PO also wanted to know where his mistress was. As the group members realized that she wasn't with them and no one knew where she had gone, it also dawned on them that she had last been seen standing in a location that would have been crushed beneath the AT-AT when it fell. Luke Skywalker searched his feelings and told the others that he was certain she was still alive, as he would have known had she died.

With a heavy heart, Neri reported Princess Leia's status to Mon Mothma and explained Luke's certainty that Leia still lived, which Mon Mothma accepted without question. Han Solo immediately planned to reach out to some of his smuggler contacts for information, and Luke intended to seek out other sources. The Jedi and Rangers were ready to start searching for her at once. They decided that Point Nadir would be their rendezvous location and they would leave messages with Dexter Vex there.

Dash suggested that Han accompany the Jedi/Ranger group, but he declined. He also wanted Chewie to remain on Muaagra with his family, who were grieving the loss of his mate's father, but Chewie was torn between his desire to be with his family and his concern that Han would be in greater danger without him. Lowarra had a chat with Chewie and encouraged him to go with Han. Neri then approached Chewie's mate Malla and asked her if she would be willing to let him go. It was Malla who told Chewie that he should go with Han. Chewbacca then picked up Han and half-carried him aboard the Millenium Falcon, with Han complaining all the way that Chewie's fur would clog the environmental system.

Neri found it difficult to choose between meeting with the Rebel Alliance and going directly to Point Nadir. To help her decide, she retreated to her quarters aboard the New Hope and searched her feelings for the right decision. She found that both options were equally likely to lead to success. She also discovered that she couldn't sense Leia, but it was as though something was blocking her from finding Leia's signature within the Force. The only reason she could find for this was that Leia was in the clutches of either Darth Vader or the Emperor, or perhaps both.

After communicating this to her friends, Neri decided that they should split up. She and Taanar would meet with the Alliance to give a report on the action at Kashyykk and return C3PO, while Lowarra, ADX, and Dash would take the Sky River Venture to Point Nadir to talk to Dexter. ADX was concerned that the princess might be in the hands of Vader or the Emperor, worrying that this could be part of a trap and that the Jedi and Rangers couldn't out-think someone as experienced as either Palpatine or his pet Sith Lord. Lowarra gave Neri a huge embrace, and even hugged Taanar before they parted, while Dash warned Neri not to get herself killed as Dash still owed her. Neri and Taanar then took the Mithrim Montes to meet the Rebel leaders. Just before they departed they had a brief meeting with Kanan Jarrus, who had reunited with Hera Syndulla and had decided to go with her and Phoenix Squadron. Neri was glad that he had decided to stop isolating himself.

When Neri and Taanar arrived at the Alliance headquarters, they were greeted by an honor guard and escorted immediately to meet with Mon Mothma and General Hutsell. In the past Hutsell had been antagonistic toward the Venture crew, but now he agreed with Neri when she expressed the opinion that the Alliance should publicize their success on Kashyykk. Mon Mothma revealed that there had been no public announcement from the Imperials about Leia's capture, nor any news about what had happened on Kashyykk. She worried that if he Rebels spoke about the action there, the Empire would then reveal the news about Leia, which would be a huge blow to Alliance morale. Neri argued that this was war and Leia was a soldier, and that sometimes soldiers are captured or killed in warfare. Mon Mothma concurred that this was what Princess Leia would want, but was still uncomfortable with letting the rebel troops know that Leia was missing.

In the meantime, the Venture arrived safely at Point Nadir and the three companions let their friend Dexter Vex know about their mission. He had no information about secret Imperial detention centers where Leia might be held, but he told them who might know: bounty hunters. And who but the best of the bounty hunters would be the most likely to know? The three friends knew that this would mean making contact with their nemesis Boba Fett and risking that he might try to claim the bounty for capturing them, but they decided to take the risk. They went to the Bounty Post to leave a message for Fett.

At the Bounty Post, Lowarra learned that the bounty for her had been increased to 25,000 credits, while the bounty on Neri was still only at 20,000. The bounty for ADX's former identity, ARD, had been removed, as he was believed destroyed. Perhaps this would be an advantage for the group, as they assumed that Boba Fett wouldn't know about ADX or Taanar Ryl. The message they had left told Fett to meet them where he had last encountered them, which was outside of Jabba the Hutt's palace near Mos Eisley on Tatooine. They let Neri know what they had arranged, and she and Taanar flew to meet them at Point Nadir before the whole group traveled to Mos Eisley.

Once the Venture had taken a docking bay at Mos Eisley, ADX and Taanar went out to do some reconnaissance. Almost immediately ADX was attacked by some Jawas firing ion bolts. The Jawas tried to grab Taanar, but she pulled free. Though she asked that ADX try not to kill the Jawas, he fired his heavy blaster rifle at one Jawa, killing the little scavenger and leaving its burning corpse on the ground. This didn't seem to deter the rest of the Jawas, so Taanar used the Force to stun one of them, which had more effect. The surviving Jawas fled. After ADX and Taanar returned to the Venture, Taanar discovered a message chip in her pocket that hadn't been there before. When played, the chip told them to meet at the Cantina two hours after sundown.

The group arrived at the Cantina at the appointed time, and Neri bribed the proprietor to allow ADX to accompany them inside. He pointed them to a table in the corner, where they found Boba Fett waiting for them. ADX and Taanar hung back while the others negotiated with the bounty hunter, though it now seemed likely that Fett knew more about the newest members of the group than they had expected. Neri asked Fett for information on secret Imperial detention centers. In exchange she offered the iridium chip she carried, which had the potential to give him nearly unlimited funds. Dash tried to persuade Fett to help the Rebel Alliance and then retire on the proceeds from the chip, but the bounty hunter wasn't interested. He didn't want to choose sides, nor did he have any interest in giving up his current occupation. He also not only knew about ADX and Taanar - he knew that the New Jedi Order had acquired the Banking Guild head's secret contingency funds. The group overlooked this disturbing revelation to focus on finding out where Princess Leia was being held. Fett told them that he didn't have that information himself, as he didn't know where she was, but he did know someone who could probably tell them: an architect who had designed several secret detention facilities for the Empire. The architect's name was Golas Aram, a Senitene who had since retired to a compound near the city of Kai Pompos on Irudiru. Fett warned that Golas Aram didn't like visitors and they would probably "have to beat the information out of him."

When their negotiations had concluded with Fett agreeing to ignore the bounties on the group and not report his meeting with them to any Imperial contacts, Fett placed a remote detonation trigger on the table. He explained that it would help them to disarm the explosives that had been placed around the docking bay where the Venture was housed.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Skyrim vs Inquisition - Dawn of Obsession

Just recently I picked up playing The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (Skyrim) again, and now that we've purchased an Xbox One, we've started over with Dragon Age: Inquisition (Inquisition). Back when we first acquired Inquisition for the 360, I started to write a comparison of the two, and now that I've refreshed my memory a bit, here goes.

Both Inquisition and Skyrim provide an expansive game world, and allow your player-character to wander off the beaten path and explore. If you want to ignore the main plot quests and roam the countryside in search of herbs for crafting potions, or see if you can acquire 50 bear hides, you can do that.

Both games are set in medieval fantasy worlds, where your character can cast spells or fight with a bow or sword. Both games pit you against a variety of opponents, from bandits to necromancers to giants and dragons. Both also allow you to collect plants, game, and minerals that you can use to craft weapons, armor, and potions for your characters.

The two games also place your character in a world that is engaged in a civil war, where the character must choose a side. There is also an outside danger that provides a much greater threat than the war. While you can choose to create a character of several different races/species and either male or female, your character will be the "Chosen One" who can help to save the world from an outside danger that threatens to destroy everything.

The setting for Skyrim is much more open than Inquisition. You can go anywhere on the available world map, even underwater (as long as you have some way to breathe). The entire game is limited to a single country in the game world, but you can explore every nook and cranny of that country if you choose to. Inquisition actually offers a bigger game world, as you visit several countries during the course of the game, but you can only explore a limited part of each location. In Skyrim you can access the next jarldom of the kingdom by simply walking to it, without having to complete any quests or unlock any map locations first. But in Inquisition you can only access other locations by unlocking them through quests, and you can only reach them by utilizing the game's travel mode, which skips you past the intervening landscape and takes you directly to the new map location.

Both games include crafting options. You can gather materials to make potions, weapons, and armor. You can only craft at certain designated crafting stations. The mechanics of doing this differ significantly between Skyrim and Inquisition, but the concept is the same. Skyrim's crafting process is more a series of experiments to find out what combination of elements you need to create a particular type of item, especially when crafting potions. You can spend hours combining various substances to see what kind of results you get. The same is true of crafting weapons and armors. Inquisition gives you specific recipes for potions and schematics for weapons and armor that you must fulfill. You can only craft what you have a schematic or recipe for, as well as the necessary type and quantity of ingredients.

As I mentioned above, in both Skyrim and Inquisition, a civil war has begun, and your character is expected to choose sides. Choosing a side opens up some different quests and causes some non-player characters to react differently to encounters with your character. This is much more noticeable in Inquisition. Once you've chosen a side in that conflict, some quest and character interaction options become unavailable to you. In Skyrim it doesn't matter as much which side you've chosen, as you still have most of the same quest options available to you and the NPCs still treat you largely the same way. It's actually possible to play both sides of the conflict in Skyrim, even if you've technically chosen to support only one.

As mentioned above, in addition to the civil war, the game worlds of both Skyrim and Inquisition are threatened by powerful outsiders seeking to expand their influence. Your character is the Chosen One who is the only person capable of saving the world from these powerful villains. You can, if you choose, shirk that responsibility indefinitely, but if you want to reach the end game you’ll eventually have to complete all the quests related to that Save the World plotline. This is especially true in Inquisition. Skyrim doesn't really push you to complete the main plot. You can play for hours without ever completing one of the quests in the main plotline. Your character becoming the Chosen One doesn't really have that much weight in the game world. Nothing bad happens if you don't pursue the 'Save the World' part of the story. By contrast, Inquisition pushes you pretty hard to follow the main plot. If you don't you'll rapidly run out of places to explore. Many areas are locked until performing certain main plot quests unlocks them, so you can't even leave the starting map area if you don't stick to the main plot.

Skyrim and Inquisition both allow you to customize your character's appearance extensively. And in both games, once you've chosen your race and gender, you begin the game as a prisoner. Both games also offer you an opportunity to change your character's appearance later in the game if you decide you don't like the facial options you originally chose. Skyrim also allows you to choose your character's body type, which is an option Inquisition doesn't offer. Skyrim has more races available - 9 as opposed to only 3 in Inquisition. Inquisition has character classes - Mage, Rogue, and Warrior - while Skyrim lets you be whatever you want, though the race you choose will have some influence on how good you are at certain things, like wielding two weapons or casting spells. Inquisition actually sets some limits on what you can do based on the race you choose: dwarves can't be mages. Skyrim has no such limitation; an orc may not be as good at magic as an elf, but you can still play an orc and focus on spellcasting if you choose.

Both games give experience points that allow you to increase your character's abilities as you progress through the game. This is a very open option in Skyrim; as long as you have enough experience to progress in a particular skill, you can expend experience points on that skill. Inquisition uses a talent tree method, which encourages you to specialize a bit more. Inquisition also doesn't offer any skills for personal interactions or crafting; you're just capable at those things automatically and all your experience points go toward combat skills. Skyrim provides a huge selection of skills, including skills for crafting weapons or armor, picking locks, sneaking and hiding, or bargaining with merchants.

Inquisition and Skyrim have similar methods of allowing your character to interact with non-player characters in the game. When you approach an NPC who is available for conversation (not all NPCs have conversation options), you can trigger the conversation by clicking a button on the controller, and then select from a menu of dialogue options for your character to say. The conversation option that you choose may invoke additional options, and in some cases can influence the reaction the NPC gives.

But Skyrim and Inquisition differ dramatically in how they handle conversations, which is part of what makes the experience of playing the two games so different even though they are thematically very similar. In Skyrim your character dialogue is only text. You never hear or see your character speak to anyone, although you do hear what NPCs say to you. The number of conversation options you have are fewer, and sometimes details like your race or the side you've chosen to support in the conflict don't seem to make much difference in how the NPCs react to your character. For example, high elves aren't very well liked in Skyrim, but playing a high elf won't make NPCs treat you differently. Inquisition actually gives your character a voice. Each character gender has two voice options to select from at character creation. You can actually hear yourself speaking, and watch your character having conversations with NPCs in fully animated cut scenes. The side you choose to support in the conflict has a much bigger impact on how NPCs react to you and what conversation options you have available. Some NPCs will completely dismiss you based on your character's race or the side you've chosen to support in the civil war. You also get a much bigger 'conversation tree' to choose responses from. It makes for a much more immersive experience.

Both Inquisition and Skyrim provide your character with companions so that you don't have to adventure alone. You also have the option of playing without companions, at least to a certain extent. But while Skyrim only allows you to have a single traveling companion (not including magical constructs and animals), Inquisition gives you the opportunity to travel with three comrades. Skyrim starts you off with a housecarl, and as you complete more quests you gain other housecarls. You can also hire companions to accompany you. This means you have a wider selection of people to choose from, but there's no cheat or expansion that allows you to take multiple people along. Inquisition only gives you a total of nine companions to select from, but you get to decide if you even want to make them your companions at all. At the beginning of the game you get three starting companions, and if you want to you can just keep those three people for the entire game; or you can get rid of them as soon as you get new companion options and never take them with you again. Taking your companions with you can improve their attitudes toward you, though, so it's worthwhile to accept all nine companion characters and take turns having them accompany you on various quests. Only certain companions can unlock doors for you unless you've chosen to play a Rogue, and some companions will have special knowledge about the various locations you'll visit during the game. In Skyrim your companions don't give you any advantage in social interactions or dealing with certain locations. Even if you have a housecarl who was assigned to you by a particular jarl, having that housecarl with you when you go to see the jarl doesn't improve the jarl's attitude toward your character, and your housecarl can't help you find locations within that jarldom any more quickly than you'll find them if you go alone.

While it's theoretically possible to adventure solo in Inquisition, it's not a good idea. You'll need the extra firepower in combat, because everything in this game is tougher than what you'll fight in most of Skyrim. Your companions also provide interesting tidbits of information, as you can chat with them while you're back at your base, and they'll talk to each other while you're traveling, providing both their own backstories and extra details about the game world. You can have a maximum of three companions accompanying you at any one time, and if you add all nine companion characters to your choices it can become challenging to decide who to take along on individual missions. By contrast in Skyrim your companion serves primarily as extra storage space. You can't have a conversation while you're traveling, except to give simple commands, and you learn very little about your companions or the game setting from talking to them. It won't make much difference to your experience of the game if you play the entire game with your very first housecarl as your only companion, or if you decide to change companion every time you set out on a new quest. If you decide to forego the extra carrying capacity a companion provides, you can still successfully complete all the quests in Skyrim with only your player-character. In both games your companions can die, although they're more difficult to kill in Skyrim. You don't really have any options to direct what your companion does in combat in Skyrim, and sometimes they'll act in ways that create disadvantages for you, by ruining your stealth or getting in your way when you want to make a ranged attack. In Inquisition if your comrades die during combat you can revive them, and you can use some character abilities to provide protection or bonuses to everyone in the party. You can also assign your companions tactics so that your can coordinate their abilities better. If you fall in combat control immediately switches to the nearest companion character, and you can continue to play that character until your player-character can be revived. You can also let your companions take the lead in some social interactions if it seems like they'd be better at it than your character is. In Skyrim the NPCs behave like your companion is invisible.

Both games provide the opportunity to forge romantic relationships with your companions, and some of those relationships can be same-sex. But the complexity of these relationships vary widely between the two games. In Skyrim you just need to pick a companion who is available as a marriage partner (not all companions have that option), acquire a special amulet, and then get married. There's no real romance taking place; you don't even ask if your companion wants to get married. Acquiring the amulet takes the place of that step. In Inquisition you need to pick the right conversation options to get to the romantic ones, as well as be of the right gender and/or race (some companions only respond romantically to certain genders or races), and it takes time for the relationship to develop. If you make a decision your romantic partner strongly disagrees with it can ruin the relationship. There's no marriage option in Inquisition, but the relationships feel much more realistic and believable. If you choose to have a romance with a companion, you'll also see cut scenes of your private time with them - nothing overtly sexual, but definitely more romantic and personal than just acquiring an amulet.

Since both Skyrim and Inquisition are fantasy RPGs with a roughly medieval European setting, you’ll encounter some similar types of monsters in both games. They both include everything from sheep, wolves and bears to dragons, giants, and demons. But as I mentioned earlier, everything is a lot tougher in Inquisition. In Skyrim your character can defeat many of the dragons and giants solo at first level, but in Inquisition you're better off not even trying to fight a dragon until you've got more than 10 levels under your belt and a well-prepared party of four with plenty of healing potions available to do it. Giants are similarly challenging. Even bandits can kill you if you're not careful. And bears in Inquisition are an extreme hazard in certain map areas, especially since they seem to be attracted by the sounds of combat.

You can walk – or run – everywhere in both Skyrim and Inquisition. You can also acquire a mount to ride. In Skyrim your only option is a horse (even if you’re playing an Argonnian or Khajit, which both have tails that would make riding a horse rather problematic). Your horse can also attack in combat, and you can fight from horseback. If you’re not riding your horse you need to leave it in a stable, which can be found outside a major town. If you get a horse, your companion doesn't get one and just has to run along behind you and catch up to you when you stop moving. Inquisition provides several additional options besides a horse, though they function the same way as a horse. Inquisition makes mounts disappear shortly after you dismount, but you can call them again at any time as long as you’re not in the midst of combat or back at your stronghold. Your companions don't get their own horses, but they are somehow able to keep up with your horse without falling behind. Inquisition mounts are also indestructible, but they can’t help you in combat, and you can’t fight while mounted in Inquisition.

In addition to mounts, the games offer “fast-travel” options. You can go on foot or ride to every destination, but because both games involve a lot of back-and-forth from your base of operations when you want to complete quests or off-load loot, players often weary of seeing the same landscape over and over. That’s where the fast-travel option comes in. Skyrim allows a player to fast-travel to any location they’ve already visited and marked on their map. Need to stop exploring that mine because your inventory is full? Well, actually you can’t fast-travel when your inventory is full, but if you drop a couple of less valuable items you can fast-travel back to your house to stow some gear and then fast-travel to the mine again to finish clearing it of monsters and loot. Skyrim also let's you hire a wagon to transport you to towns, so you can add them to your fast-travel map locations without having to walk all the way there first. Inquisition’s fast-travel option is more limited. You can only fast-travel to your headquarters or established campsites, and from there you have to run/ride the rest of the way to your destination. But Inquisition also provides a sort of locator beacon you can set on destinations to help you find your way there a bit more easily. These “waypoints” show up on your quest map and your radar, so you won’t accidentally set off in the wrong direction or overshoot your destination if you use this feature. Since Inquisition doesn't allow you to traverse any of the territory in between the different quest locations, fast travel is really the only way to get there.

The two games follow the current RPG trend of having some loot show up after your characters kill a monster, and other loot just lying around waiting to be found. Random chests appear in the middle of nowhere, and you can walk into houses and take stuff. Skyrim does make walking into strangers’ homes to take their belongings a bit more challenging by locking doors and forcing you to use lockpicks to get in. You can also be arrested by the authorities if you do too much of that, or aren't stealthy enough about it. Inquisition doesn’t include this type of mechanic, because the houses you find mostly tend to be abandoned, their owners driven off by the rampant warfare. Inquisition does occasionally present you with a locked door, but if you have rogue in your party you can usually get past it with little difficulty.

In Skyrim your player-character always picks up the loot. You and your companion have separate inventories. When yours gets full, you can hand off some items to your companion as long as their inventory still has space. You can generally use anything you pick up immediately, and items are usable by either you or your companion as long as you fulfill any prerequisites. Once both your inventories are full, you can go to a shop in a town and sell some items, or you can take them to your house (if you have one) and leave your excess treasure there. You can also just drop items to lighten your load. You are notified that your inventory is full, and if you leave it that way your movement is dramatically slowed until you get rid of the excess, and you're unable to use the fast-travel option. When you gain character-building points by leveling up, you can increase your character’s ability score for carrying capacity. You can also craft magic items that improve your capacity to carry things. If you give an item to your companion and the game's AI determines that it's better than a similar item the companion already has equipped, the companion will automatically start using it without any input from the player.

In Inquisition the character you are currently controlling is the one who picks up the loot, but you can use the Inventory menu to assign specific items to your companions. The items in inventory are treated as a global pool if they’re not equipped by a specific character. The inventory size limit is also global. Once you hit the limit, you simply can’t pick up any more loot until you either sell something, or craft an item using the excess loot. You cannot store extra loot in your headquarters (at least, not in your initial headquarters location), so it’s generally better to sell or craft to reduce your load. You can't drop items you already have in inventory, though you can destroy items to reduce your load if you don't want to head back to base to get rid of them. Some loot items are only usable by certain classes or races, by characters of a specified level, or even by specific named companion characters. Your companions will not equip new items unless you assign those items to them through the inventory menu. You can only increase your party’s carrying capacity by spending ‘Inquisition Perk’ points that you earn by completing quests related to the game’s main plot.

As both game worlds are fairly open, your character can climb any mountain that isn’t too steep, ford rivers, and splash through marshes. Both games permit your character to climb especially steep slopes by jumping, although you can’t climb vertical surfaces. Inquisition uses some very nice animation to show your character descending slopes. The character walks like someone walking down a slope, and can even slide down on her backside if the incline is too steep for walking. Characters in Skyrim tend to move as though they’re always walking upright no matter how difficult the incline. Skyrim also allows your character to swim, although you’ll drown if you stay underwater too long without a magic item that allows you to breathe. Inquisition dispenses with swimming altogether; if the water isn’t shallow enough to wade through, your character immediately drowns. Both games will let your character die if you jump from too great a height, though as your character's hit point total increases the height you can safely fall from increases as well. But there are some falls in Inquisition that will always kill you, no matter how many hit points you have.

Discussing travel brings up the topic of the game world itself. Skyrim is set in the same world as the other games in the Elder Scrolls series, but this game is limited to the country of the same name, Skyrim, which is the homeland of the Nord race and analogous to a Scandinavian country. Skyrim’s terrain is mostly rocky and mountainous, with the only variation in the presence or lack of snow. By contrast, Inquisition allows you to visit two countries, Ferelden and Orlais, and includes a whole variety of different terrain within those boundaries. You can travel from desert to snow-capped mountains, from perpetually gloomy and rainy marshes to lush rainforest. The types of creatures, plants, and minerals you find vary for each terrain type, and even the appearance of the NPCs changes with locale, which you don't see in Skyrim because the terrain is more homogeneous. But because Skyrim allows you to fully explore every part of the map, it also includes a day/night cycle and weather effects. Your character can rest in homes and inns during the night when it's too dark to travel, or you can light a torch and keep going. It may rain or snow on you, and you'll see the seasons change as the calendar advances. Since Inquisition limits where you can go, it also limits the apparent passage of time and changes in weather. You only experience night when you visit one of the desert locations where it's too hot to do anything during the daytime. Every time you visit a location, the weather conditions there are always the same; for example the Storm Coast is always rainy, and there's always snow on the ground at Haven.

The world of Inquisition is simultaneously vaster and more empty than that of Skyrim. Skyrim has a number of towns and villages, but their populations of NPCs are relatively small. In Inquisition you don’t visit many towns, but you find a lot of people roaming the countryside, although quite a few of them want to kill you. You can’t have a chat with them or bribe them to leave you alone as you can in Skyrim. When they’re identified as enemies, your only options are to fight them or avoid them. All of these wandering enemies do serve to reinforce that this is a world at war. Skyrim's war seems more distant, since there's little sign of destruction and the towns you visit don't reflect any reduction in population or amenities as a result of the conflict.

The size of the world of the Dragon Age setting is further emphasized by the variety of accents given to the characters. Orlesians sound French, Antivans sound Spanish. Elves always have British or Irish accents (although you can choose an American accent for your character if you elect to play an elf). The characters of Skyrim don’t have accents specific to geographic location, although some races like Argonnians and Khajit do have racial accents. Skyrim uses a much smaller voice cast than Inquisition, too, so you’ll hear the same voices over and over though coming from different NPCs.

Repetition occurs in Skyrim in other ways than the limited voice cast. Every mine or dungeon or cave contains basically the same elements as every other location of the same type, just arranged slightly differently. Inquisition does some of this too, reusing familiar architectural or landscape elements, but because the terrain options are more varied, the repetition isn’t as obvious. You also don't spend nearly as much time exploring random caves and mines to gain loot in Inquisition as you do in Skyrim.

Probably the most obvious repetition in Inquisition is that you find the same Requisition Officer at every camp you establish in each of the game’s map regions. If you’re in the Hinterlands, for example, your Requisition Officer is always a British-accented female, but in the Hissing Waste it’s a British-accented male. Both games also tend to have non-conversational NPCs make the same random remarks repeatedly when your character passes by them.

But in general the game world of Inquisition feels much more expansive than Skyrim, even though Skyrim is more open about allowing your character to freely explore its world. This is because not only does Inquisition allow you to visit more of the game world than Skyrim, but the game characters in Inquisition talk about the rest of the world often, including areas of it you can't actually visit as part of the game. The titular Inquisition organization is in contact with other parts of the world even if your character never travels there. In Skyrim you only read about other parts of the world in books and scrolls you can find. If you don't read the info-text or have never played another game using the Elder Scrolls setting, you won't learn much about the rest of the world in which Skyrim exists. Locales outside of Skyrim are seldom mentioned in the NPC dialogue.

Skyrim and Inquisition both have excellent musical scores, musical cues, and sound effects. Skyrim warns the player that enemies are close in part by using musical cues, starting a slightly tense, ominous theme. Inquisition doesn’t have the musical cues quite as closely tied to the onscreen action. You may sometimes hear what sounds like combat music when there are no enemies in radar range. The sound effects in Inquisition for travel on different surfaces are especially well designed; footsteps on wooden floors sound like someone walking on wood, snow crunches underfoot, and walking through a cave causes a stony echo.

Inquisition does have a few sound glitches, unfortunately, probably caused by the complex programming for all the dialogue options. Sometimes the character dialogue gets garbled. Other times the characters fall silent during a conversation. There are also occasions where you can hear the sounds of fighting while passing through an area with no people present other than your party. Skyrim doesn’t have such glitches because it doesn’t have as much ambient sound or as many lines of spoken dialogue.

Speaking of glitches, when Skyrim was first released it was infamous for numerous glitches, which have been amply recorded on YouTube. Most of these seem to be related to the PC version of the game rather than the console versions, although we did experience some glitchiness in the console version as well. NPCs could be seen floating in mid-air instead of sitting on the wagon seat or horse they were meant to be associated with; characters could fall into a small crevice and be unable to climb out, necessitating a restore to the last saved game file; and there were frequent episodes of "clipping", when two objects occupy the same space that weren't meant to do that, such as a person stuck halfway through a wall. There were also occasional doors that wouldn't open, or loot that either couldn't be picked up or could be picked up and yet didn't show up in your character's inventory. Dragons frequently keep moving after they die, even when their flesh has all burned off and there's nothing left but a skeleton.

Inquisition has similar issues. There's a fair amount of clipping; characters often don't stand directly on the surface they're meant to be standing on; and sometimes when you use the travel option, your party members appear at the destination by abruptly dropping from the sky. Monsters normally fade away after they die, leaving behind only any loot they produce, but occasionally the monster corpse will linger for a long while before vanishing. One of my favorite examples in Inquisition is 'floating corpses', when an enemy dies and the body falls to a resting position in mid-air. But as described above, most of the noticeable glitches occur in relation to the complex dialogue options. Fortunately the game offers captions as an option, which can help to alleviate these bugs. There isn't much you can do about glitches in Skyrim beyond reverting to a prior saved game.

A big difference in the openness of the game worlds is reflected by the fact that in Skyrim, even if you’ve completed the end game, you can keep on playing. Your character can go on completing any side quests you haven’t already done, or find more materials for crafting, or continue decorating your houses if you’ve acquired all of the available homes. You can join every one of the many organizations the game offers. You can even become a vampire or a werewolf (but not both at the same time). In Inquisition, once you’ve completed the end game, the game is over. You may not have completed all the side quests, but to go back and finish them, you’ll have to revert to an earlier saved game file or start over with a new character. This means that the continuous play possibilities of Skyrim are greater since you can go on playing it for a long time after you've accomplished all the main quests. But the replay-ability of Inquisition may be superior, since you can start over with a different class or race, choose to support a different side in the war, select different conversational options, and/or take different companions with you on the quests, and any one of these changes can lead to quite a different experience of the game.

Which game you'll prefer will depend on what style of player you are. If you like grinding through dungeons and collecting loot, or exploring, or crafting, but aren't as interested in following a plot or getting to know the NPCs, Skyrim is probably the game for you. If you prefer an immersive game where you can get really invested in the story, but you don't care about being able to go anywhere and do anything you desire, Inquisition is probably the better choice. For me personally, it's hard to choose a favorite. Each of them satisfies a different entertainment need. Both games provide interesting game worlds, exciting visuals, and plenty of fodder for the imagination. I would happily play in either the Elder Scrolls or the Dragon Age setting for as long as the makers continue to produce quality games.

Apples to Oranges

Lately I've been seeing a lot of videos and stories show up in my Facebook feed that are intended to show how much better other countries do things than the US. They're supposed to shame us into making ourselves better. While I think it's great to look at what other countries do and think about how we could improve things in our own country, comparing our country to countries that aren't like us isn't really productive. I've compiled some information to show why.

The first one of these comparisons I've seen recently is with the Finnish school system. Finland is reputed to have one of the best school systems in the world. Of course the US would like to be the holder of that title. But let's look at what's different about Finland that makes it possible for them to have such good schools. Finland has a population of approximately five and a half million people. It's the most sparsely populated member nation in the European Union. Their largest city, Helsinki, only has a population of a little over a million residents. The United States has over 300 million residents. The largest city in the US has a population nearly 1.5 times the population of the entire country of Finland. Right there, it's much easier to have a good school system when you have fewer people to educate. Finland also has a much less racially and ethnically diverse population than the US. Nearly everyone in Finland belongs to the same religious group as well. It's also much easier to have a good school system when most of the students and teachers are from the same cultural and spiritual background and speak the same language. In Finland schools are managed by municipalities. Private schools are rare. Kids don't often attend preschool, and after high school they're just as likely to go to a vocational school as to college. All of that reflects an entirely different attitude toward how schools are operated and what their purpose in society is when compared to the US. And probably one of the most important differences: the personal tax rate in Finland is around 50%. The Finns have a lot more money to spend per capita on education than we do in the United States.

So how would we like to make our schools more like schools in Finland? First we have to change the public attitude toward teachers, and then what's our next step - higher taxes? Reduce immigration? Force all immigrants to speak only English and convert to Christianity?

Now we'll go on to the next "let's be like them!" post I've seen. This one is about how Germany recycles 65% of its garbage. Let's look at this. I think we all know that Germany is a smaller country in both land mass and population than the US. One of the things this means for Germans is that people who live in rural areas aren't that far away from a population center. Consequently it's probably not that difficult for German citizens to have recycling pickup or a recycling center in their neighborhoods. In the US there are rural areas that are hundreds of miles away from population centers. Here in the US, most garbage and recycling is handled by private corporations. Can you imagine how much it would cost residents in remote rural areas to have recycling from a company that had to drive a 200-mile round trip to make a weekly pickup? And we know that if the people have to transport the material to the recycling center themselves, it's not going to happen. What rural residents can afford to drive even 50 or 100 miles a week just to get rid of their recyclables? The highest poverty rates in the US are in rural communities. Even if recycling was handled by municipalities, it wouldn't help rural residents. Low population density and low per capita income would mean that many rural communities simply couldn't afford to pay for the service.

The only way the US is going to have a 65% recycling rate is if it's government-enforced and probably government-operated, and if urban residents are willing to be taxed for the service provided to rural residents. And on top of the financial and logistical considerations we'd need a major change in public attitudes, to convince people that recycling is an essential social responsibility, like feeding kids. We're not doing so well at convincing people they ought to feed kids, so it's hard to see how we could convince people they ought to recycle.

None of the above is meant to say that we can't achieve the same results as Finland and Germany. I think we can. But we need to remember that the United States is not like those countries, and what made their successes possible isn't necessarily going to work for us. Let's also remember that we don't know where these stories get their figures. Maybe Germany only recycles at a 65% rate in major urban centers. What basis are they using for claiming that Finnish schools are better? Graduation rates? Test scores? Are we sure those are the figures we want to use to measure success?

It's good to look to these countries as inspiration, but we shouldn't be comparing ourselves to them. It's like comparing apples to oranges.