Archive for November, 2009

My gaming geek saga: Divine Divinity as a mage, on hard, with no saved games!

November 26, 2009

I am admittedly kind of a PC gaming nut. I play them just about every night and even build the custom gaming rigs I play them on. Unlike those gamers who jump from game to game, however, I find one I like and put a lot of time into it. The best stuff gets better when you have learned all it has to teach. I logged hundreds of hours of game-play into Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3 has chewed up many evenings.

I also like to try to play what is known as “Iron Man Mode”, which means playing on hard difficulty and not reloading a saved game if your character dies. You die, you start over. It really makes you approach the game from a more tactical basis, without hoping to get lucky in a boss fight. I have likened it to playing a chess game that can go on for 60 hours or more. You win when the end credits play (or all the quests are done) and the character is still on the same life.

A further tweak to Iron Man Mode is to play as a weaker character, like a rogue or mage. You can’t wade in and hope your high health stats get you through a tough fight. Nope, you have to plan.

Recently I found a gem of an RPG for $3 at Goodwill called “Divine Divinity”. It is from 2002 and got great reviews at the time. I decided to give it a try for $3 and was delighted when it proved to be more value than other games that cost considerably more. It is still available on some of the legal download sites like gog.com and impulse.com and I urge readers to check it out. It has a score that is really quite lovely and I would play it sometimes just to hear the music.

Anyhow, it looked like a good candidate to try as Iron Man. I played it through once as a warrior to learn the game, then switched to a female mage. Mages in this game simply don’t have much health and you cannot hope to survive as a melee fighter.

Anyhow, after several tries, I finally went from opening screen to final credits on one life. I did all of the quests, except one optional one tailored for melee fighters that didn’t have a mortality risk. I fought every boss and then defeated the Lord of Chaos. Along the way I started taking notes with the thought to compile a blog item on how others could accomplish the same feat. It grew into two full pages of tips, tricks, cheap kill methods (my mage would fight dirty), and survival skills. Since the old game seems to be selling again as it hits digital download sites, I thought there might be readers who could use tips. I add that there are several excellent walk-throughs, maps, and FAQs out there as well put together by fans.

Anyhow, here is more than you could EVER want to know about how to play Divine Divinity on hard and not get your mage killed a lot (or even once).

WARNING: This post contains a lot of potential spoilers for those who have never played the game. If you are a “let me discover the game myself” purist, read it AFTER a play-through.

General thoughts:

You mage is weak, has few hit points, and can easily be killed. You must be tactical. Your brain is your weapon, not a sword. You will survive by using others to fight for you (summoned creatures), using ranged attacks (bows, spells, poisons), and by striving to reach the point where you defeat armies without actually drawing a weapon.

Think like a quarterback. Your goal is to create layers of defenses around you while remaining in a protective pocket. You will max out armor, protective spells, and have a wave of linebackers to protect your delicate little mage body.

Here are some tips for early in the game, when a lot of stuff can kill you easily:

  • The use of the teleportation magic pyramids that Lanilor supplies you is vital. Get them ASAP and set one by a bed in an abandoned house. When in doubt, teleport out! Sleep in a bed and recharge your stats, then wander back to where you were in trouble. Key the teleport to F1 and be ready to use it. I have seen boss monster axes literally pass through me as I was teleporting away to safety.

Here are a list of places where those neat little magic pyramids can save your mage behind or make certain quest easier:

  • Stealing back Finnegan’s magic lockpicks and Penumbra’s dagger. Once you have the items, don’t try to escape past the guards. Simply teleport away. Also, be sure to buy these magical lockpicks back from Finnegan for a large Agility stat boost. Just keep them in your inventory through the rest of the game.
  • After you grab the Dragon Armor Belt from the basement in Verdistis you fell into (and took a lot of damage), don’t try to leave the upstairs room by walking past the hole in the floor. You might fall in again. Teleport out!
  • You face two vampire fights in the game, both in close quarters. They will easily kill you in one hit. The trick is to use Deadly Gift, leave steel scorpions in their dens, and then teleport to safety when the blood-suckers appear. When you return the steel scorpions will be making short work of the vampires. I will have a section of tips on how to use steel scorpions to their most lethal advantage.
  • Recovering Slasher the Axe, which is protected by a skeleton guardian with lots of friends. Load up Deadly Gift, select steel scorpions as the attack, and then drop just one in the first room. Wait in the corner while it clears everything in the next two rooms, including the guardian. You can use this same trick in other rooms and areas covered by tough foes.

Back to early game tips:

  • Mages come with a ranged magic attack called Meteor Strike. Use it. A lot. It does more damage than the cheesy short bows you can use early in the game and will hit the target more. Kill enemies until you run out of mana, then drink a potion or teleport to your bed. Recharge, then wander out again.
  • Fight some orcs in the open areas around the healer village early to gain lots of experience points. Standard orcs won’t kill you with one melee or crossbow attack and fights in open areas are less risky than in dungeons. However, avoid the Orc War Drummers and Brutes you will encounter. Flee fast,  as they are “one hit wonders” who can end your game with a single successful attack. I will tell you how to defeat them later. Map the spots where you encountered them on your map. You can also lead them away from the places you need to travel and teleport out. These tougher enemies will then tend to remain where you left them. Come back when you are ready to fight them.
  • Do the quest to heal both patients with one healing gem first (use the magic mirror trick), as you gain enough points to level up with no fighting involved. Be sure to grab the gift of a level of Restoration from Goemoe the Lizard as a thanks. You will also receive a powerful magic ring from one of the grateful patients later in Verdistis. Use that first level up to grab five points of Constitution so low-level enemies are less of a threat.
  • Do the quest to recover the pyramid early. You will likely gain enough points with minimal risk to level up again. Just be ready with a spare healing potion and Meteor Strike set to go. You will teleport into a room of skeleton warriors and you can launch magic attacks faster than any other attack — and they do more damage. As soon as you place the other stone into your inventory (pick it up manually), you gain a lot of points and a means to survive the rest of the game.
  • Do NOT enter Stormfist Castle until every other quest available is done. An imp takes your teleporter stones when you enter and you don’t get them back for a while. They are too valuable to loose, even for a bit. You also need to be a pretty tough character to survive a dungeon crawl escape later.

Early skills to grab include:

  • Alchemy 1, so you can mix potions to get stronger ones with better effects. Mix Stamina and Magic to produce Shadow — which is a life-saver.
  • Alchemy 2, which lets you use small flasks to make potions from herbs and mushrooms and other plants in the game. You will need to recharge your mana a lot and buying a cheap flask to make a potion with is cheaper than buying the finished product. You will also need it to make the poisons that you will use in your Poison attack.
  • Deadly gift. Get it as soon as it is available. It will save your life all though the game.
  • Augment Defenses, which increases your armor stats.
  • Poison, which makes any bow a tool of death to enemies like orcs and the local unfriendly wildlife. However, you can only use this attack IF you have poisons in your inventory. Don’t run out!
  • Aura of Command is critical to get as soon as it is available. This lets you order summoned creatures to stay with you. You can use it on steel scorpions, too. Having five level-five steel scorpions — with melee and magic shields protecting them — is a defensive line that makes it very hard to sack the mage quarterback.
  • Aura of Guarding (melee protections) and Spell Shield (magic attack protection) are must-have items. You can also cast both on your summoned creatures, so even a lowly skeleton can take a few hits.
  • Summoning is good, in that it can increase your “defensive line”. However, it is best to look for spell books to buy to grab items like Summon Skeleton. I got it up to level five without using up a single skill point. Pay regular visits to vendors who have magic items, as they are where the spell books pop up.
  • Charm, but be wary how you use it early on. Only use lower-level charms on weapons and armor that you will NOT carry until the end of the game. Save the charm slots in the super-weapons and armor (like the Dragon Armor pieces) until you get the gold charm stones that cause a very large stat increase. These charms are very rare early in the game, but common once you become the Divine One and hit the final Wasteland map. You will be tripping over them and cursing yourself if you filled your Uber-Weapon’s charm slots with junk.

Early stats to focus on:

  • You need 25 points of Agility to use a compound bow and 30 to handle a long bow. Short bows simply can’t do enough damage unless you use poisons. Get your Agility up to both equip better bows and to raise your defenses and hit odds. I would put everything into Agility until I hit 25.
  • Strength is also important, as your ability to wear better armor hinges on it. Once I got enough Agility to handle a long bow, I would add two points into strength at each level up.
  • Constitution is important, as you need to eventually get enough hit points to survive the attacks you can’t avoid. I added a point each level up.
  • Intelligence is not vital, which goes against everything you tend to believe about a mage. Few spells really drained mana and I carried gallons of Restoration potions. I only started putting points into it very late in the game because I wanted to use some of the really powerful spells without having to recharge during the fights.

How to score massive XP early on:

  • As soon as you have gotten a few levels under your belt, move along the far left (western) part of the map until you come to a creek. You will have a cut-scene once you are near the creek. You face far fewer enemies along this edge of the map than taking the road or eastern edge. Once you get to the creek, start to follow it towards the east. You will fight two trolls before you reach the bridge and need to help fight two more attacking friendly NPCs on the bridge.
  • Once you have a clear path to the bridge, take the scroll the wizard gave you and activate the teleport pad just outside the fence at the southwest corner of the healer compound. Teleport back to your bed, walk to the teleporter pad and activate it, then follow the path you clearer along the western edge to the bridge.
  • Your goal is to work your way over to the trader village in the northeast part of the map. Once you get there, walk around a bit and a character name Tingalf will try to sell you shady merchandise. He always has steel scorpions in stock. He is now your newest, best-est friend. You will lose him later in the game as part of a quest to eliminate the local black market. However, use him while you have him and postpone that quest until late game. You can also buy scorpions from Finnegan in the basement of the Ducal Inn once you join the Thief’s Guild. Other merchants like Blake also sometimes have them.
  • Activate the teleporter on the north edge of the village — and now you can bop back to the healer village to slaughter things and back for more scorpions as you need them. And, trust me, you will need them a lot.
  • Now, load up on three things: steel scorpion, shadow potions, and poisons — and get ready to slaughter orcs. Here is the trick: Simply drink a shadow potion and run into the middle of an enemy stronghold. Now, drop a few scorpions and watch the XP start to pile up. Simply sprint through the areas full of orcs and spam scorpions any time you see a concentration. Target the War Drummers and Brutes you ran from earlier. Then, once your metal troops are spilling blood on your behalf — grab your bow, cast Poison, and start aiming at enemies distracted by the scorpions. Poisoned arrows are deadly to orcs, trolls, imps (only found late game), and most of the wild life (wolves and boars, especially).
  • Once you clear the area around the healer village, you can cross the bridge and head east. There are a gazillion orcs on that edge of the map, along with thousands of gold in weapons and armor dropped by enemies or stored in numerous racks and chests. Just beware that your shadow potions wear off if you interact with an object, attack, or during certain scripted sequences (like encountering a boss with dialog). So, if you suddenly become visible — cloak again! Be aware that mana starts to drain after a while and you will become visible if it hits zero. However, I found that drinking Restoration potions didn’t end my cloaking.
  • You can also run up at least three levels of XP by clearing out all of the undead in and around the Haunted Abbey. They are immune to poisons, but scorpions make short work of them. Cloak, run around triggering undead to pop out of the ground — and then drop deadly gifts.
  • You can use your scorpions as advance troops, too. Releasing them in a dungeons or cave means they will tend to follow a wall. They will slaughter everything that walks, crawls, or slithers that is encountered.
  • To rack up a lot of points early on, go to the Dark Forest and use the same cloak, run, and drop scorpions trick with its tough enemies that you employed with the orcs. Once again, you will see your progress bar filling up like crazy as your minions clear a path.

How to spot the “one hit wonders”:

In general, 90 percent of the enemies are annoying and 10 percent are a threat. About one percent are one-hit deadly, even for a late-game character. Knowing how to steer clear of the ones that can kill you in a blink is vital if you want to survive to the credits.

Tips:

  • Orcs follow the rule of “bigger is badder”. A big orc is more dangerous. A really big orc is more dangerous still. Some of them are HUGE. The trick is to look for larger enemies with axes as weapons. Steer clear of them and let your scorpions take their toll. if you must fight, use poisoned arrows.
  • The zombies are the undead that are deadly. They tend to be darker skinned and bigger. They also have what I took to be helmets. Again, scorpions, ranged attacks (magic and arrows) and using Shadow to escape works. Use teleporting if you cannot get away.
  • Big skeletons with axes are terrible for your health. They also tend to be guarding things you want. This is a bad combination. Be very wary when opening doors into new rooms, tomb lids, etc. Be prepared to freeze the action (spacebar is the default) and teleport out. Leave scorpions lose in the area, which should pummel the foes you left behind once you come back.
  • Lizard mages have some sort of a peck attack that is simply deadly. Do NOT let them get within attack range. They don’t carry weapons , are dressed distinctly, and will cast spells. You find a lot of them in the sewer levels. Release scads of scorpions and let them be your advance team.
  • Female Assassins are very dangerous, as are some of the male ones with an explosive attack. But, they can’t attack what they can’t see — and it sucks to die with an inventory full of Shadow potions. Use them and leave new scorpion friends for these black-garbed backstabbers.
  • I was 95 percent or more through the game one time and got one-hit killed by an Imp Chieftain in the Wastelands. They are harder to spot, as they really are not much bigger than a standard imp. I noticed they were redder and had a different helmet. If you see one getting near, don’t try to engage it directly. Let it get to know your little (scorpion) friends.

Specialty tricks:

  • You tend to run into a lot of enemies that use poison early on when you have no resistance. Some can kill you with one attack. However, once you get Alchemy 2, you can make a potion from the plants that George the Healer asked you to get from Lanilor’s garden. Drink one and you are basically immune from poisons, but have no resistance to spirit. The effect lasts a very long time, though napping seems to make it wear off. It can be a trick to let you survive all of the spiders, bees, snakes, etc., encountered earlier in the game.
  • There are some power weapons and armors that you can get somewhat early in the game, but there may be a trade-off where their stats are not as good as getting them late. However, I always grabbed the Strange Amulet of Mardec from the Engineer’s chamber in the Haunted Abbey early and the ring found in the storage under the bed in the abandoned locked house behind the Abbey by the creek. In both case, you should get replacement magic items later that are more powerful, but that early-game stat boost and likely charm slots helps a lot.
  • You will be chugging strength potions a lot, as their effects seem to stack. When one is one a loot-gathering frenzy, the ability to keep filling up the inventory before teleporting to a merchant is nice.
  • Move your teleporting pyramid from by your bed to in the merchant area early on. You will need to go there to sell items and buy stuff constantly.
  • You can’t use magic when you are in the treasure room in the castle. Before you sneak into it from the sewers, save up a couple of crappy bows and cast Poison on all of them. Poison your melee weapons and skin, too. While you can’t cast the Poison spell inside the treasure area — any weapons retain their poison charges until you use them up. So, you can drop those orcs you encounter with poison from a distance. Drop the bow once it loses its charge and be aware that some may break while using them. If so, simply replace the bow with a spare and fire away.
  • One may use summoned creatures like skeletons to draw enemies into scorpion range. Cast them at the edge of your vision where enemies lurk. They draw the enemies out and may engage them while you release a scorpion or two.
  • Summoned creatures can be used to test areas for traps. Scorpions work well because they wander. They do a great job of clearing out the basement of the Haunted Abbey.
  • You can use magic like Hell Spikes to damage distant enemies and get them to attack. As soon as they “see” you due to the attack, your scorpions will see them and swarm in.
  • The best use of some weapons and armor is simply to have them equipped, but not use them. I had a super quest reward sword and the Dragon’s Shield. I carried both equipped a lot, but never used the sword in combat. I just wanted the stat and powers boost from having both the shield and sword equipped — especially once I filled their charm slots with gold charms. My minions did the killing, not me.
  • Powerful items like spell books and high-level charms can show up for sale with random NPCs. Talk to everyone. I bought a gold charm from an elf in the last playthrough — which was the only one I came across until I became the Divine One and entered the wastelands.
  • You can get the branch needed for the summoning lesson and the herbs needed for alchemist from the living tree without a fight if you tell him you are leaving as the first dialog choice. Simply grab the items and go. The next time you come back, however, be prepared for a fight. But, since you don’t have to get close in now to grab the needed items, you have time to dodge his magic attacks and rack up XP fighting his summoned creatures.
  • Drop you pyramid by Kroxy’s store for the final levels. You will have tons of items to sell and he will tend to have new gold charms each time you check back. Fill all your weapon and armor slots you patiently kept empty for the whole game with these mega-charms.Be sure to check your stats before buying though. For example, there is not use buying a gold charm with very large resistance to poison if you ar already at 200 percent resistance. The gold charms are so plentiful now that you can pick and choose the ones that boost critical stats.
  • Save any rings, etc., with lots of charm slots even if their other properties are not so great. I had a Ruby rings from early in the game that I kept until the end for its two charm slots. I swapped out the ring I had with no charm slots when gold charms were available that boosted the Ruby Ring above what was available with the non-charmed ring.

Conclusion: I hope these tips on Iron Man mode for Divine Divinity are of help. Just think like a quarterback with a fragile set of knees and that your career hinges on not getting sacked. You are all about letting your defense crush all who would do you harm. See if you can get to the point where you can clear levels never drawing your weapon. That is the job of your minions and magic. When in doubt, cloak, drop more scorpions, and teleport to safety if you feel in danger.

I also hope you will consider a play-through of this wonderful little game. It will run on just about anything and look pretty and some of the game is wickedly funny. It also offers a very deep level of strategic game play with a lot of tricks you can employ to turn the tide in your favor. And hey, it is also really cheap fun.

NOTE: The only optional quest I skipped was Bar Fight. I figured it would take forever to win the fight as a mage with no access to magic and stripped of armor and weapons. There was (so far as I know) no mortality risk to me in the quest, so I didn’t count it as one required in an Iron Man play-through. The ones that can get you killed are the ones I figure I needed to do. I beat the quest on an earlier play-through as a warrior character and it requires lots of Constitution and Agility.

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The PC gaming industry still doesn’t understand “user-friendly”.

November 8, 2009

I love PC games, but loathe the hassle that too-often comes with trying to play one. Console games, like the ones my grandson plays, are easy to use. Pop them in and they work almost all of the time. PC games, on the other hand, are needlessly complex and frequently require extensive troubleshooting before you get to play them.

Let me give a recent example.

I saw that Mass Effect was now $9.99 at STEAM. I have a retail box copy of the game and loved it (once some early bugs were squashed), so I decided to get a download for the grandson.

The game downloaded and installed with no problems. However, Mass Effect has a piece of free downloadable content called Bring Down the Sky. It adds a new and rather lengthy side mission and I consider it part of the game.

But, it isn’t included in the STEAM download. You have to find it. Then you have to hunt the forums to figure out how to install it. Then you have to jump through a series of hoops to actually get it and install it. Let me elaborate.

I Google-searched until I found a link to the DLC on the game studio’s webpage. However, to get it required registering the Mass Effect key code. Of course, given that this was a STEAM download, there was no CD key code. So, you have to hunt through STEAM forum files to find post on how to locate a Mass Effect game config utility within the STEAM files on your hard drive. Once there, you can have it look up the key code for Mass Effect.

The you have to create a Bioware Community Account, which requires creating a username and password. Once you have done that, you can input the key code. Oh, and you can’t cut-and-paste it. You have to write it down and manually enter it, as cut-and-paste is apparently forbidden in the utility.

Then, once you enter the Mass Effect key code, you are supplied with ANOTHER key code to use for Bring Down the Sky!

My goodness this is a lot of hoops to jump through to access a silly piece of FREE CONTENT that should have been bundled with the original download! I figure at least an hour was spent to do this and it was only accomplished because I had the computer technical skills (and bullheadedness) to do it.

I also had to manually hunt for a patch for my copy of the game, which I couldn’t locate at either Bioware or Electronic Arts. I found it at a LEGAL games file download site that warehouses patches.

Hey gaming industry, why not make life simpler for your customers. We want to play games, not engage in tech support and Internet detective work.

My ideas for making things more user-friendly include:

1. Bundle any free DLC in with ALL VERSIONS of the game that are sold once the DLC is released, to include STEAM distribution. Include WORKING links to any paid add-ons you have available.

2. Alternately, make the DLC available as an optional free download that is readily accessible in all version of the game that are sold. This includes having it available via STEAM.

3. If it is free content, then stop making people have to register key codes, create user accounts, and generally be hassled to access their free content. We are NOT the pirates. We buy our games. Pirates already have both the game and all of the DLC readily available for fast download.

4. Make sure EVERY game shipped has an auto-update function. Don’t make me have to scour the Internet for patches. If your game is buggy, then please make it easy for me to get the fixes as they are released.

5. Keep downloadable copies of all patches in EASY TO FIND sections of both the original games studio’s and the publisher’s web page. It is inexcusable to make customers have to access third-party file download sites to get patches. If you want File Planet to host your patches, then make sure you supply links on the tech support web page. This also increases my piece of mind that the files will not be infected with viruses or malware.

NOTE: Kudos to STEAM for their automatic patching service. It is one of the reasons I buy games through them.

6. Stop making users of STEAM have to access the living nightmare that is Games for Windows Live (GFWL) to get DLC for games like Fallout 3. We get blatantly ripped off via their point system of purchases AND you manually have to cut-and-paste games files to other directories to get the DLC to function with STEAM. Please Bethesda Softworks, pretty please, make your Fallout 3 DLC available via STEAM so I can use one competent download service for all of my games transactions. It would save me money, time, and a whole lot of frustration.

7. If you are going to operate a games download service, then have a way for customers to contact your tech support or get refunds on screwed up transactions. I have had generally good support via STEAM, but Microsoft GFWL is a pathetic joke. You can’t even FIND a relevant online link for support if you have a problem. If they mess up a transaction (as they did for me), I guess you have to contact your credit card company and have them intervene.

In summary, it is time the gaming industry considered just how much time and energy their customers have to expend to get a game they bought to work, with all patches and DLC installed. We would much rather spend that time playing the games.

NOTE: Let me also give a big thumbs up for http://www.gog.com for making legal games downloads of classic games such a great experience. These folks seem to “get it” when it comes to customer service and they are getting more and more business from me as a result. I just bought three more copies of Divine Divinity from them as gifts for friends and family. Go gog.com!