A Tale of Two Mods
It’s the middle of the summer and outside of complaining about the weather, I have little to share. Unless people would be interested in my vacation to Algonquin. Here it is:
It was buggy.
So instead, I’m going to share my thoughts on how I’ve been spending my free time over the last several months. This site has certainly documented much of my video game enthusiasm – perhaps even documenting too much enthusiasm in the process. However, one thing I really enjoy about this little hobby – and experiencing it on the personal computer no less – is the breadth of experiences you can enjoy. While console gaming which requires the use of a television and a dedicated machine is more popular, the ever present computer has a long history of wildly different opportunities. You can have varied products like exacting flight simulators find success alongside two dimensional whimsical farming games about falling in love with your sheep. Or you can play Dota and give up on just about anything else.
Another oft-spoken perk of the computer is the open access. This applies to both developers (as visual novels are finding their first success there and will likely spread onward) and those that would love to know what developers do. PC games have a lovely history of modification which has led to the creation of wholly new genres of games in the process. Even games that weren’t designed to be modded by their playing community can be wholly changed with enough ingenuity and dogged persistence.
Xcom (the reboot) is a lovely example. It was initially developed by Firaxis for both console and PC use. Many would complain that its design was hamstrung by this split focus. I would, certainly, because anyone trying to navigate some of those pre-fabricated maps with a mouse will instantly see how poorly optimised it was for none joystick manipulation. Its code was pretty locked but somehow a small, dedicated team was capable of releasing the Long War modification that drastically turned a lot of the reboot’s systems on its head.
Then, of course, there are the massive overhauls on games that are designed to be tweaked and changed by the gaming community. Bethesda may release questionable quality games in the first-person/role-playing domain but their support of fan made changes is to be lauded. It was the one thing I could never understand as Bethesda’s reputation was built and they received commercial success: the joy and enthusiasm for console gamers to have Bethesda port their work to their systems even if they owned a personal computer. For sure I can understand the (misguided) desire to experience what others were enjoying but for me Bethesda’s worlds have always been wonderful little sandboxes awaiting you and your own tools to come and make of them what you will. Some of my best hours have been in heavily modded Bethesda worlds and it’s the sole reason I keep close attention on their newest releases even if they go ahead and shove a dialogue wheel and voiced protagonist in my Fallout franchise.
Thus, I was really excited for the announcement of two fairly long awaited community mods and the time to poke around in them. Over the last six months I have put quite a few hours into Skyrim’s Enderal and Xcom 2’s Long War 2. What makes these two mods special, outside of being complete reworks of two games I love, is that they’re both sequels to community beloved releases that I never played. Enderal is the follow-up to the Oblivion overhaul Nehrim: At Fate’s Edge by SureAI. Derek played it and the mod itself was so well received that several enthusiast publications had it nominated for best role-playing game in the year of its release. I never got to try it since I was busy doing… something. And I rather regretted never getting around to it.
Enderal: Shards of Order is quite obviously a direct sequel as it makes several references to what I assume happens in Nehrim. My first impression of the mod was largely impressed with how incredibly easy it was to install. Not only did it come with its own executable but it had its own mod launcher which I immediately used to apply some of my favourite quality of life mods. Course, this turned into a typical Bethesda modding experience very quickly: spend two days trying to get it to work then not touch it for a week due to life, work and just needing a break from getting all the fiddly bits to cooperate. However, if you’re just hoping to hop into Enderal without any third party (fourth party?) additions, then what SureAI releases is a god send. The executable also packages up your old Skyrim folder so that, when you’re finished with Enderal, you can uninstall it and enjoy all your other mods you have for the main game.
And if Enderal is anywhere close to Nehrim, I can see how the other game got so much praise. There’s a great attention to detail and clearly a lot of work put into the mod. It’s a pretty near revision of the entire scope of Skyrim. The map, characters, races, magic, levelling system, crafting systems, narrative, menus, armour and combat are all pretty much new. If you’ve plunked five hundred or so hours in the original game, it’s really refreshing to jump into something entirely new. You’re basically getting a new game without having to buy one!
And there’s a lot that Enderal does that’s really good. The story is the biggest improvement and definitely why you’d download the massive conversion. Bethesda’s stories are… workable at best. But Enderal is heavily informed by its narrative. It’s a reminder of the old top-down role-playing games of the late nineties and early two thousands like Baldur’s Gate. In it, you play a character touched by… fate I guess and this gives you access to magic and memories that aren’t your own. Thus, you level through unlocking abilities corresponding to different archetypes. Course, these are your stock warrior, thief and mage but you’re free to pick and choose to discover cute combinations of abilities. Me being me, I was leaning heavily on the mage tree but was starting to make a stealthy mage build that leaned on turning invisible and killing things before they found me. If an enemy didn’t die to my initial backstab, I fell back on otherworldly summons and ghostly bows while keeping away from any retaliation.
As such, I don’t really know how well the warrior and most the thief reworks function but it was certainly a different experience than playing a mage in Skyrim where I could summon demons to do most the fighting for me while I stood back and tossed the odd fireball or stabbing for a short paralysis enchantment with my craft dagger. Enderal definitely had a different vision for its world and how magic and all the underlying systems wove into it. Your progression isn’t tied to your levels and fantastical elements were, on the whole, largely subdued. You aren’t crafting demon armour and becoming godly powerful after about eight hours into the game.
Course, a large part of that is changing how the player levels their character. Enderal relies on classic methods of character progression. You earn experience through the completion of quests and after a certain threshold is reached, you’ll receive your next level which grants new perks and an increase to your health, stamina or magic. Skyrim, on the other hand, levels your skills through use. Which leads to the obvious abuse of people doing mindless actions over and over again to pump their abilities as quickly as possible instead of staggering it throughout the entire journey.
And this bleeds into my issues with Enderal. Don’t get me wrong, I love it and think its marvellous. But it’s just not Skyrim. And there’s just something about being in a world created from Skyrim assets with a camera mode suited for Skyrim gameplay and exploration but being stuck in a different kind of game’s mechanical system.
I will readily agree that Bethesda’s games have significant design issues. But part of those arise from its design philosophy. I don’t feel that Bethesda is striving to make good role-playing games. Which is good because they typically don’t. Instead, they create these weird simulation/rpg hybrid experiences. The fun of Oblivion and Skyrim isn’t going through a high fantasy story of good and evil that concludes with the slaying of a god (though that’s ostensibly what Bethesda creates). No, the enjoyment comes from the hunting of an elk across a blistering cold field, felling and skinning it then returning to the nearby village to sell the furs to afford a warm room at the end of the night. It’s learning of some forgotten ruin by a tavern patron and poking through spider filled tunnels for long lost treasures that you immediately sell to afford a modest house in the trade district.
It’s all about the stories you make within the game world with Bethesda’s “crafted” experiences serving simply as window dressing or framing to contextualize the personal journey you take. Which is why I’m so adamant about modding my Bethesda experience to get exactly what I want from the game.
And the whole time I’m playing through Enderal, with its carefully crafted quests and interwoven story, I keep thinking “This isn’t what I want.” At least, it’s not what I want in the format that I’m being presented. There’s this weird disconnect where the systems are at odd with the core presentation. I kept searching Enderal for side villages and little personal stories to craft for myself. But they don’t exist. Sure, there are hidden collectables that reward going off the beaten path but I was more apt to stumble into mobs of enemies well beyond my current capabilities (necessitating that I toss my poor spirit pooch at them as a I sprint madly past) or I came across areas strictly sealed off because I hadn’t progressed through the game far enough to unlock them.
I kept having the fantasy world simulation broken by the necessity for telling me the fantasy story.
Had Enderal been presented in any other fashion – say even in a third person, top-down perspective – I’d be entirely behind it. But more than anything, I kept thinking how it wasn’t Skyrim. It wasn’t allowing me to play some dastardly thief merchant who stole from the one town that had slighted him in order to peddle the villagers belongings a few holdings over leaving them with nothing. There’s simply no room for that in Enderal. It addresses all the complaints people level against Skyrim but in doing so it completely guts the spirit of Skyrim.
It is an entirely different experience.
So I was torn and it’s part of the reason that I’ve abandoned it. It’s good. It’s really good. And I did enjoy the characters and the narrative that they offered. But instead of it making me think “Yes! This is what Bethesda should have done all along!” it made me appreciate more what Bethesda had accomplished. I came to like the flawed systems of Skyrim more while playing Enderal. I liked knowing that areas wouldn’t become too easy to the point of trivialised simply because I hadn’t explored them early enough in my wandering before I progressed past the point of their design. I liked that there was a better contextualisation of levelling up in Skyrim due to practicing and perfecting a skill rather than just magically knowing how to wear heavy armour better because I delivered a letter to a grieving mother detailing the final moments of her missing son.
And as I was playing through Enderal and getting a better grasp of its system, I kept thinking of different character builds I’d like to try that I know I never will. Because anytime I think of restarting the game I remember the lengthy intro sequence and I realize I’d have to go through all those early game zones that are unchanging and with no opportunity to strike out in a new direction. It would be the exact same experience except I could kill the enemies in a slightly different manner.
For the gameplay systems of Enderal to really work, I feel you have to use the traditional presentation systems that it mimics. You need a simple perspective that allows greater content creation and deemphasizes the personal element because those old systems are so impersonal.
Now, I’ll probably try and get through Enderal because its quests and world are so well crafted that I genuinely want to see how a lot of it concludes. I just need to divorce myself from its presentation and remind myself that, while it walks and talks like Skyrim, it is anything but Skyrim.
I’m not sure things will fare as well for Long War 2.
I am definitely one of those players that cranks the difficulty up on most games then downloads mods to make things ever harder. Long War for Xcom: Enemy Unknown was so well received that I was excited to hear the same people (Pavonis Interactive) were going to do a second for Xcom 2. The only reason that I didn’t play Long War was that I was so incredibly tired of playing the same maps over again in the original reboot. Even after the handful of additional maps added in the expansion couldn’t entice me back for yet another run through the same damn bar or train station. Since Xcom 2 had procedural generated levels (sort of), this wasn’t going to be an issue.
And for awhile I really digged the changes that Pavonis introduced. I found their classes quite interesting and was amazed at how much changing up the core classes really freshens up gameplay. Not only that, but all of the Long War 2 classes had three options of perks to choose whenever a soldier levelled so there were even more combinations to consider. I liked their idea of liberating regions and infiltration as it really emphasized the guerrilla warfare theme that was hardly utilized in the original’s release.
It was difficult too. I had to turn down the difficulty for the mod, though I refused to budge off Veteran (even while it was kicking my ass as I learned the systems). It was fun, refreshing and exciting. I was entirely behind the release and could really see why I had such widespread appeal.
And then I cross the twenty hour benchmark and realized that I had made so little progress.
Long War 2 really demonstrates the adage “There is beauty in simplicity.” To be fair, my forthcoming complaint is readily warned in the mod’s name. It truly is a long war. It’s far longer than I can possibly devote to it. I don’t have endless hours in the day and sometimes I may only have an hour or two a night to play. It’s thus incredibly frustrating to get so little progress done in that time. Even more frustrating that there are many missions in Long War 2 that will take over three or four hours to complete on their own!
In order to diminish the “issue” of the godlike alpha squad in Xcom – a group of four soldiers so powerful that they complete all battles for you in the end game – Long War introduced many changes that would ensure you had a high rotating roster in your barracks. Now, I know I read that part of my difficulty was that I also included several map pack mods that increased variability and Long War 2 was most certainly not designed to accommodate them. But when you have a squad of ten soldiers routinely facing off against maps of 50 or more aliens, the game stops being fun and strategic and turns into a massive grind.
Some people may like that. I do not. And it’s not like Xcom is a short game either. When I dropped Long War 2 and went back to grind some achievements, it still took up to two weeks in order to finish a single campaign on normal. I don’t know if I could do a Long War 2 campaign to completion (at least a completion that wasn’t a loss) in six months – of my actual, real life.
That’s a level of commitment I’m simply unprepared for at this stage in my life. Which is unfortunate since some of their improvements like the adjustment to enemy AI are truly wonderful.
There were other complaints I had for the mod but they pale in comparison. Now, I recognize I was playing Long War 2 during one of its earlier iterations. I’m passingly aware that they have released a new version – ostensibly to remove the fact that a two party infiltration team was pretty much the best way to approach most missions – but am unlikely to return. From my understanding, the massive time commitment is an intended portion of Long War 2. And Firaxis have announced an expansion for Xcom 2 that appears to have some of the better ideas from the mod team incorporated into it.
Which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t want Long War 2 to exist. In fact, I think their mod makes Xcom 2 better. Partly, it allows me to appreciate what the original developers did but overall it creates a more impressive form of communication between creators and fans. It allows a sharing of ideas that really can’t happen in any other way. The original works inspire a new generation which can then turn around and influence those that came before them. It’s rather remarkable and probably one of the best things to come from this type of open system.
So while Enderal and Long War 2 aren’t really for me, I’m happy that I had them.