Sunday, March 1, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: A Brief Explanation of Why I'm Not Playing More Evolve!



It's been almost two weeks since Evolve came out, and yet I haven't written a word about it.  There are two reasons for that.

The first is that I don't feel like I've properly played it yet.  It's a game best played with three friends against a stranger, or with four friends in regular rotation, sliding between the "odd man" position of being the monster and working as part of a team with three other hunters, and I've only managed to play it, so far, with half-full teams of friends.  Even then, there have been fairly major problems, similar to the problems I encountered when I started playing Left4Dead at release.  Voice chat is an iffy prospect, relying on inconsistent detection or inconvenient push-to-talk methods, like most integrated VOIP outside of Left4Dead 2.  Matchmaking is fine when you're just trying to find a random game, but while playing with friends I was repeatedly "banned" from a friend's server without him issuing a command of any kind.  It would sometimes happen in the middle of a game, and required both of us restarting our clients completely to resolve the issue.  Even then, it kept happening with irritating frequency.

Those kinds of bugs can seriously discourage gameplay, especially when people have lives outside of the game.  A younger version of me would've soldiered through and troubleshot all of this shit, but present-me has papers that need grading waiting in his backlog, and present-me's friends all have kids and lives and responsibilities.  Ain't nobody got time for this sort of shit.  So even though all these bug related experiences happened a few days after released, I haven't tried to play properly again since.

I have sunk a little bit of single player time into the game, a few solo drops here and there to unlock new hunters and monsters, but that's not the same.  It's akin to doing maintenance: there's a certain catharsis to it, and the function of play, the function of the game itself, is all there, but the spirit is missing.  Without those tight multi-person maneuvers, without weird, customized teams based on preferred play style and discussion, there's something missing, something fundamental.  It's clear that Evolve is meant to be a social game, an iteration on the tradition of trash-talking social shooter play that Goldeneye established so long ago, and while it's situated in a decidedly virtual couch environment, thanks to the asymmetry, the hook behind the game, which makes split screen play an impossibility, it's still clearly a game you're meant to play with a small group of friends.

The time I have spent in single player has made that clear.  The colorful banter that marks play is sparse, mostly limited to a quick set of quips at the start of each mission.  There's a little bit of dialogue representing situational and environmental issues, but that's just there to give audio cues to players who wouldn't get them any other way while playing alone.  Missions unfold in much the same way each time.  While the Monster's AI is quite solid, there just aren't that many tricks it can pull, and with quick, punchy rounds marking Evolve's play, you get to see those tricks on display relatively quickly.  If I spend an hour playing, I'll see between three and five matches unfold, and two of those matches will likely be the same kind of match, possibly even on the same map.  Bereft of the human element, the game stops feeling random, and feels like an exercise in basic coding: I see the way the AI has been mapped, and while I'm impressed by it, I can still see the seams at the rough edges.

Solo-play is also hamstrung a bit by a shallow progression tree.  It took relatively little time to unlock all of the hunters and the monsters, eight, maybe ten hours all told.  And while that's nice on a certain level (it does, after all, give me a lot of neat toys to play with) it has the unintentional side effect of discouraging grind play.  While the "ah-HA!" response is still there, with leveling up and hunter and monster specific perks unlocking as play progresses, the rewards are so iterative and slight (the first in a series of stacking 2% boosts to damage for one weapon, or an upgrade that makes my 10% movement speed boost a 15% movement speed boost, to name a few) that it's difficult to remain engaged by them.  The initial progression was smart and pressed me into trying new classes, testing out each aspect of those classes, and learning to play them "properly" in game, and additional challenge tiers seem to aim at teaching me how to use my character class in new and interesting ways.  It's a savvy new take on training, but it's a crap incentive structure to keep me playing.  When I do hop in to get some Evolve on, I feel like I'm spinning my wheels, especially with so many other excellent titles hanging out in my Steam Library.  There's something missing in Evolve when you try to play it alone.

Which brings me, at long last, to my second point: there's just something missing in Evolve in general.  I shelled out the absurd $100 for Evolve's super-duper fanboy pack, and while I don't regret it (I think Turtle Rock is an excellent studio, and I'm happy to support them financially) I also don't think I actually got my money's worth.  Evolve released with a staggering amount of content missing, content that is theoretically going to be released in due time but, at present, is just absent.  Hunters, monsters, skins, and maps are sure to come down the pipe later, but for now, Evolve is clearly not complete.  There's a lot of game here, and with a good group of friends it's a promising, enjoyable game, but the fact that I'm sinking time into a product that I know isn't completely released yet does dull my fervor a little.

That's not to say that I've given up on Evolve.  Schedules will soon align, and I'll be beyond psyched to get some Evolve time in with real live human beings.  Content will release, at some point, and I'll have even more incentives to keep playing.  Patches will shift things, I'm confident (based on Turtle Rock's relationship with its community) that new maps and modes of play will emerge over time.  Evolve will, to cornball it up a little, continue to evolve.  Right now it just feels like it's in mid-transformation.  It's been sort of fun before, and when it's finished?  I get the distinct impression it'll be explosive.  I just worry that I'll wear it out before then.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Early Access Adventures!



I've played a number of in-development or early access games in my day.  Most of the time I spent with MWO was during its long beta phase, which was something of a honeymoon for its community.  Dawngate, which I still think was the best MOBA that has been developed and presented to date, never left its tentative Early Access state.  My explorations into Wasteland 2 occurred in a framework entirely unrecognizeable to players investigating the game today.  But all of these games, in their own right, presented end-states that I could reach, end-states that effectively let me say "Okay, game.  I'm done.  We're done.  Task completed."

That kind of objective oriented play-construct is crucial to the structure of video games.  Jane McGonigal defines games partially through the generative inclusion of that construct into a number of different frameworks: it isn't so much the "play" element that makes a game a game, so much as it's the "outcome," the notion that one is being given a goal and asked to complete it.  Even the most open-ended games present these objectives in some form: they tell you to go somewhere, they tell you to do something, or speak to someone.  Free-form procedurally generated adventure-rogues, like Don't Starve, even present end-conditions, though those end-conditions might be buried six or seven layers deep.  I guess what I'm saying is: I've never actually played through an early access title without its end-game in place.  Whatever E-A titles I've engaged with, I've always been able to recognizeably interact with it as a "game" construct, with an "a-HA!" moment, serialized victory movement, and a cute little end button.

Until I played Darkest Dungeon.

Darkest Dungeon has a remarkable capacity for helping me develop narrative.  It's kind of amazing at it, actually: I'm interacting with characters in a framework that makes me feel profoundly connected to them, a framework that pushes them into conflict and forces them beyond that conflict, changing them procedurally in a way that usually, as a "player," I'd have license to determine.  Losing that license makes play liberating, and makes the narrative outcome genuinely satisfying: instead of permitting me to move through a series of generative choices that I can engage with as "successful" outcomes, or satisfying renderings of scenarios I understood as implicit narrative emergences following engagement in certain activities, it lets me inhabit the headspace of characters, and engage with that most elusive of narrative elements in video games: genuine surprise.

That's quite an accomplishment, but there's a problem with Darkest Dungeon's execution: there's no end to this story in sight.

That's not to say that Darkest Dungeon doesn't have goals for me.  There's a long list of shit that my caretaker wants me to do, all of it oriented around murdering various levels of boss monster in the dungeon.  And then there are my "roster goals."  I'm being encouraged to forge my rag-tag band into a dungeon-delving dream team by leveling up one of each class to a somewhat ridiculous extent.  I can also upgrade my town, so that I can more efficiently train new party members, heal old ones, and purchase trinkets that, ostensibly, are aimed at keeping them all alive.

But most of these goals are behind me.  I've logged a considerably amount of time (around 40 hours now) and, along the way, I've crafted my once terrified team into a well-rounded group of badasses.  They're all kitted out in top of the line gear and the best training I can afford.  Sometimes, I even get them special charms so they can do things like dodge blows a little better, or hit a little harder, or starve without taking damage.  I haven't maxed out all of my peons yet, but a good number of them are close, and the ones that are far-off seem to be the only ones at risk of death anymore: I can push my crusaders through any number of battles, and my hellions and vestals are utility players who can rotate in and out of dangerous missions without batting an eyelash.  I've assembled a stable of rear-line fighters who, at will, can step in to fill the "damage dealing/trap disarming wild-card" role that I find myself constantly flexing to fill.  But only the greenest recruits, recruits who aren't terribly well-suited to delving in the first place, seem to end up on the wrong end of a blade, and without new exploration or repair related goals to take on, my path, as a player, seems to be settling into a kind of lamentable "push, push, lose, regenerate" pattern, where I'm no longer pursuing goals that push me towards any sort of narrative.  Instead, I'm just spinning my wheels, waiting for the right Jester to stumble into my camp so I can level him up to the point that he can go on adventures with one of my unbeatable, dungeon-cracking A-teams.

It's obvious this isn't the developer's intent: Darkest Dungeon is still missing two areas, seemingly based around the oft-unseen Eldritch enemy type, which I'm guessing is still in internal testing.  And hey, I'm willing to forgive them the fact that this is an incomplete game.  I knew that going in.  I'm not upset by Darkest Dungeon's non-ending at all, but it puts me in a strange new position, one that a game has never actually forced me into before.  On the one hand, I love this game, and I've developed a serious connection to my team.  Even Aungier, that daft cunt, has proven herself again and again, and I'd hold off on a dozen killing blows for the chance to insure her survival.  Darkest Dungeons has made me, someone who thrives on improvised risk taking, to play it safe more often than not.  But, without a concrete end-goal,  I'm not sure I'll be able to keep playing.  At least, not for now: Darkest Dungeons has been tremendously fun, but absent new dungeons to conquer, the potential for new narratives feels stymied, and the challenges I've met, which were once the source of taught excitement, have become a kind of pabulum chore for me.  I know that a properly assembled team will be able to beat any challenge I throw them at.  I know that, if I want to level up a newbie, I have to put them through some pretty desperate starting two-steps so that they can get their dungeon legs quick.  I've learned most of the lessons that Darkest Dungeon wants to teach me, and I think, based on what I've seen so far, that I'm actually quite well prepared for the end-game that Red Hook is still cooking.  But if I keep grinding my gears the way I have to date, immersing myself in the lives of these dungeoneering misfits, I know that by the time the end-game content that I'm longing for is delivered, I'll be long sick of playing.

That's a new sensation, one I'm not entirely comfortable with.  I usually play games consumptively nowadays: I start a project, I complete a project, I move on.  It's especially handy with the kind of narrative checklist games that Ubisoft produces, and with brief narrative oriented indie titles, like Gone Home.  But Darkest Dungeon has forced me into a corner: I can ruin the game for myself, or give the developers time to finish what they started, and come back to it later.  Maybe I'll start a new party up for the occasion.  Maybe finish with the people I've already got on my side.  Maybe I'll yet run in to some unexpected challenges and end up having to recruit a new crew.  Who knows.  For now, I'll be waiting patiently, occasionally checking Darkest Dungeon's store page to see if updates have come down the pipe.  I can't wait to see what the Cove holds, and that final dungeon...

Perhaps this is a statement, then, about the success of Darkest Dungeon as a game, and the sometimes ungainly clomping gait that Early Access titles bring to bear.  When the content that I'm engaging with its partially completed, but the "game" element is self-contained, like in Dawngate or Wasteland 2, it doesn't really impact me much.  I can always come back if I want to experience more polished or developed content, or just hang around and watch it grow play-by-play.  But here, the Early Access heading has manifested itself as a sort of poor-man's episodic content.  I'm left waiting for new adventures, without a time-table or a strong sense of what they'll be, or how they'll unlock.  I've got all these toys, and I can spin my wheels ad-infini as needed, but I can't move forward, no matter how hard I push.  Even the dopest Walking Dead cliffhanger wasn't that cruel.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Delving Into Narrative in Darkest Dungeons!



At first, Aungier didn't really stand out to me.  As a class, Grave Robber lacks the sexy propensity for reliable damage outputs that other back line fighters have, so even though she arrived during my second week at the manor she's spent most of her career since cooling her heels, occasionally stepping in when a party needed a second back-ranks damage dealer and no one else was available, or a Priest (misspelled as Vespel for some reason) was better off in the three-spot in party order because of her particular ability mix, instead of the four-spot, where Aungier excels.

It wasn't until she made a quick hop into the Warrens with a collection of other reserve adventurers, and Bohun, a reliable second choice healer who I thought might be well suited to keeping my band of haphazardly selected misfits alive while they limp-stepped through short dungeons to rank up, that I realized just how good she was at her job.  Aungier quietly hurled knives from the back ranks, danced forward for an opportune killing blow when she needed to and, above all else, kept her cool.  And for her efforts she was promoted before any of her partymates: not because of some flashy, last ditch maneuver that saved the day, or because I favored her heavily, but because she quietly did her job in the back ranks, using her knives to make sure that packs of spiders were weak enough to be killed by follow-up blows once they came into range of front line combatants.

That's also, in a real sense, why she's survived so far.  Other adventurers, adventurers I favored more heavily and threw into combat with more reckless abandon, adventurers I cared about more and thought were better at their jobs, like Tupperbell, Reynauld, Hall, and Paixdecouer, are dead now.  As my A team, I threw them at challenges well before I should have, challenges I didn't fully comprehend, challenges I should've walked away from.  Because of my attention, because of my belief in their competence and desire to see them succeed, they're dead now.  Aungier survives them because she escaped my attention until recently.  I often found myself forgetting who Aungier was when I was putting together critical or dire missions, missions where we lost people (like the great battle with the Wizened Hag and her cookpot, or that harrowing first Long Dungeon exploration).  And so she survived, and has now risen to prominence as one of a handful of adventurers cleared to go on Medium difficulty missions.

Now that she's drawn my attention, I've also got a better sense of just how much character Aungier developed while I wasn't watching.  See, she's one of the best Warren delvers around, adept at scouting that kind of terrain and dealing with the sort of denizens one is likely to find in a Warren, but therein lies the rub: Aungier actually hates being in Warrens.  They stress her out.  So every time I bring her skill set to bear, I'm forcing her to do a job she's good at, in a way that most people in my roster aren't, a job that she also hates.  She has, without me inserting one whit of narrative into her existence without the prompting of the game itself, become a portrait of long-suffering competence who has finally achieved a modicum of success, and is now finds herself in a dangerous position: she's cleared for more hazardous missions as part of a smaller, more elite team of soldiers within my growing army.  How will her story take shape from here?  Will Aungier continue to thrive with her quiet, workmanlike effiency?  Or will her competence become her undoing? 

This is the narrative pull of Darkest Dungeon.  It's not the sort of game that allows you to craft a narrative, the way that Dragon Age: Inquisition or Left4Dead might, with their responsive systems that permit you to make decisions within their limited frames that establish one of a set of known outcomes.  Darkest Dungeons is a set of total unknowns.  The dungeons themselves are just a backdrop, a setting for characters to develop.  The reality of the story taking shape in those dungeons is so much more profound.  That character who snaps and has a paranoid break in the middle of a crucial battle in the Weald might one day redeem himself.  After spending a night drinking heavily, trying to shake the feeling that everyone's watching him, he'll wake up with a nasty hangover.  Then I'll send him on a quick mission with some second-stringers, people I'm less attached to, while my primary party rests up for a more intense mission.  On that sortie that paranoid alcoholic, who once sat in a corner cutting himself instead of fighting with his party, will redeem himself by striking down that psychotic pig-man while one of his teammates teeters on death's door.  After that, he'll emerge from his adventure with a quality.  It could be something positive, like a propensity for dealing with stress, or ire for a particular kind of foe.  Or it could be something a little less positive, like a fascination with corpses, or a refusal to pray in light of the terrible things he's seen.  He'll grow, in part because of choices I make, but also because of how things beyond my control unfold, in and out of the dungeons.

Unlike other Rogue-a-likes, with their unforgiving and sudden swishes of fortune, Darkest Dungeon builds slow.  In Steam Marines, the other Rogue I've been spending too much time on, if I make a single misstep, my party is wiped.  Technicality-no-down-boo-over, wiped in a few turns by a handful of regular enemies I see in every fight on every floor.  If I accidentally turn the wrong way, or misread the terrain, or don't check ammo before I set up guard positions, or just run into something unexpected around a corner without enough action points to flee, it's game over in a few seconds.  The game wears this unforgiving nature on its sleeve, randomizing the names of its marines into ridiculous caricatures.  "Freeze" and "Point" aren't names you can get attached to.  Even "Mac" is barely serviceable.  Steam Marines is going to kill your party from the get-go, and it wants you to know it.  It wants you to get on board for the death-parade.  Its over-the-top dumb naming conventions, its achievements, aimed at letting you tick a new box each time you die in a new area.   When you play Steam Marines, there's no reason to get attached.

But in Darkest Dungeon, you're slowly growing with your stable of adventurers.  You're watching them learn, watching them grow and develop, succeed and fail.  When they die, sometimes it's because you just made one mistake, or there was a spat of bad luck.  Sometimes, it's because you overextended them, or because someone had a morale-break, which cascaded the rest of the party into oblivion, but whatever the cause of your wipe is, you're going to care.  Most adventurers start out as nothing.  You build them up by sending them out on adventures, equipping them with gear and training them in new and interesting skills as they go.  These aren't disposable tools that you break, then replace.  These are assets that you have to invest yourself in in order to build them up. 

And therein lies the rub.  There's some chatter from Rogue fans who find Darkest Dungeon too easy.  It is, in many ways, much more forgiving than other Rogues.  In Dungeons of Dredmore or Rogue Legacy, if my hero dies, whatever.  I get a cute little sentence about it, and they appear in a log of dead heroes, and I randomly generate a new hero to take on the world with.  That's a by-product of the unforgiving nature of Rogue-a-likes as a game type: there's no reason to get attached, since your character is almost certainly going to die, and you're just going to iterate on their story in an hour or two by making a new one.  Darkest Dungeon eschews this punishing cycle of violence, instead opting to ask players to slowly build up connections to their adventurers, sending them out on missions and, in the end, forcing them to sometimes overextend, or field inexperienced parties to complete particularly challenging missions.

So there are fewer character deaths overall, but when those deaths happen it's all the more meaningful.  When you lose that A-list party because you went up against a boss unprepared and exhausted, you're going to feel it a lot more than when you lost that awesome Ninja a few steps into a boss-fight in your fifth or sixth attempt to kill some giant, screaming, flaming skull.  And each death also becomes a learning experience.  I lost a character during the tutorial.  A highwayman ended up in the front line, taking hits instead of a crusader and, sure enough, he died.  Hard.  But that highwayman, whose name is lost (to me, not the game - Darkest Dungeon memorializes that shit to an impressive degree) taught me an important lesson about positioning party members, and the difference between front-line and back-line fighters.  If I'd kept him on the back line, he might still be with me today.  If I'd known to keep some healing items around so I could get up to full-health before boss-fights whenever possible, or if I'd been better at scouting, or if I'd controlled the skeletons that that necromancer threw at me a little better, my adventurers would be alive now.  And that's the power of Darkest Dungeon: it provides me with "never again" moment after "never again" moment, iterating on that tradition until I find myself here, with Aungier, learning an important lesson about keeping strong, reliable adventurers in the wings to fill out my party.  You never know when they might come in handy, after all.  And you never know who might break.  But we'll talk more on that later.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Super Nerd Sunday Presents: Appropriation and Brilliance in Shadows of Mordor!



As the bars of "Under Pressure" fade, one of my students raises his hand.

"Did she get sued?"

I shake my head.

"Who?"

"Queen.  Whoever she is.  Did she get sued by Vanilla Ice?"

I shake my head before I launch into a quick lecture on who came first, who won the lawsuit, and how plagiarism is both a toxic force in art, and an important thing to avoid in general.  Then I have my students listen to The Beatles "Helter Skelter," Jay Z's original "99 Problems" from The Black Album, and Dangermouse's superlative Grey Album rendition of the same track, which combines the two into original work.

"Borrowing from great work to create something original, something wonderfully fresh and new that propels the genre entire forward, is okay, even if your acquisition of previously acquired materials is brazen or heavy handed.  As long as you're honest about it," I explain.  Half of my students nod in approval.  The others look bored.  We're no longer listening to hip-hop.  The fun part of the lesson has ended.  It's a lesson I've taught dozens of times since I started teaching composition, one that contemporary writers and artists often lose sight of.  Between high profile cases of direct plagiarism, like Little Brown's decision to publish a spy novel heavily plagiarized a bevy of spy novels, and reiterations or direct copies of video games populating crowded marketplaces, especially as microtransaction mobile games iterate on the Bewjeled/Puzzle Quest frame to an absurd extent, it's apparent that plagiarism is alive and well.

But influence and acquisition remains a crucial part of any serious creative process.  Little occurs in a vacuum; even digressive or discursive work has to form consciously in opposition to the acquisition of external texts, allowing them to influence the work by merit of avoidance or omission.  All art is built on the shoulders of what came before, and progressive or revolutionary work doesn't do something completely new so much as it plays on what came before in a way that allows us to see both work and genre in a new light.

It's an odd coincidence that I started playing Shadows of Mordor the same week that my plagiarism lecture fell on, but it's super appropriate.  Shadows of Mordor cribs heavily from a bunch of games I like, stealing elements of its combat system from Rocksteady's Batman games, open world climbing and stealth assassination from Assassin's Creed, non-linear plot development through world-map missions from later Grand Theft Auto entries, and its story from Tolkein's Middle Earth worldscape, naturally enough.  There's very little new in Shadows of Mordor on its face.  It's mostly cobbled together from bits and pieces of other video games.  Granted, they're all excellent games, games I love playing, and it has original characters, though those characters meet some less-original characters along the way, and strongly resemble original characters other people have come up with an explored previously in other video games, books, and films, contained within the universe of Middle Earth and beyond, but there's really nothing new here.

And yet, as I move through the lush jungle and mud pits of Mordor, I'm struck by how fresh, how raw and pulsing, Shadows of Mordor feels to me.  It's a perfect example of how you can take an array of concepts, not a one of which is original in and of itself, and assemble those recycled ideas in a way that is simultaneously derivative and original, combining known elements into an unknown whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

I think part of this is owed to where Shadows of Mordor puts its focus.  Where Rocksteady's Batman games are obsessed with a strange hybrid set of boxes where combat occurs, but always feels somewhat restrainted (Batman doesn't kill after all), Monolith's Shadows of Mordor revels in its cartoonishly violent combat.  Where Batman viscerally maims and incapacitates his foes, Talion rips through them.  Instead of leaving them, limping around a campfire, writhing in pain, he flashes in and out of combat, sword blazing, fucking shit up.  Batman's combos were satisfying.  They let me knock goons down so I could try my hand at puzzles, or check areas for collectibles.  Shadows of Mordor's combos let me disembowel orcs en-masse, in a dizzying array of gore that my Lord of the Rings-film loving teenage self would've freaked out over.  The borrowed systems at work in SoM actually feel more at home there than they do in their original titles.

Well, some of the time.  The climbing bits feel less like puzzles and more like shifty guessing games, as if the soul was sucked out of the Assassin's Creed-y bits.  But it's difficult to begrudge Monolith that: climbing is presented as just another movement mechanic, another way to navigate the open world which, while we're on it, feels kind of small.  I understand that the maps are split up, and that they're meant to be navigated back and forth, again and again, in service of mini-missions and achievement challenges, but at about thirty hours in, I already feel like I know this world almost too well.  Where GTA 4 had a density to it that always kept me guessing what would come next, and Assassin's Creed's cities presented sprawling landscapes that I don't think I could fully explore even if I wanted to, by the time I left the first area, I felt like it had begun to wear out its welcome, even with the sudden influx of graug that came with the unlock of a fresh area to explore. 

It's not that the landscapes aren't pretty; they are.  It's just that the Tolkein-esque personality that the landscape ably represents somehow just feels pabulum or generic.  That's less a failing of Shadows of Mordor, in a sense, and more a mark of just how remarkably successful Tolkein's work has been over the years: his setting was revolutionary, and has been copied and modified in tiny ways, saturating our culture so much so that when it's represented with loving accuracy, it feels like it's been done before, even though it's the progenitor of nearly all modern fantasy settings.

And, to be fair, there is one new thing at the heart of Shadows of Mordor: the nemesis system.  By adding a dynamic political layer to the game, and orienting some player progress around that system, Shadows of Mordor does manage to provide quite a bit of personality.  It's iteratively generated personality, personality that randomly emerges in the game in ways that are equal parts eye-rollingly bad and delightful, but it is a definite hook.  And as I move deeper into the game, I find myself becoming more invested in that system.  Getting to know my orc-foes one by one, then pitting them against one another, or butchering them all wholesale is more compelling to me than the game itself.  I've already got a sense that Celerybramble, or whatever his name, is probably going to Palpatine me, and that Gollum is going to Gollum, and that weird-blonde-warrior-lady is going to be some kind of quasi-romantic interest, so there's little to drive me forward in the main quest lines, spare a desire to get new toys to use against my orc frenemies. 

And if those toys resemble things I've seen in other games that I loved too?  Well, I won't mind.