Old 03-24-2016, 04:21 PM
sd.schpmn sd.schpmn is offline
Join Date: Dec 2011
Posts: 2
Post Excellence in World Building

***This content was originally posted to my blog, threesecondrush.blogspot.com , as part 1 of a 2 part review. Check it out to find part 2 (which will be up in a few days), or to read more commentary on games and geek culture.***

Slogging through the sparsely wooded highlands I observed a gaggle of Bloodsworn Cultists around the entrance to some ancient ruin. I charged, intent on wiping their demonic taint from the world. Having killed the sentries, I delved into the ruins, determined to leave no cultist survivors. Initially, I was surprised to discover little resistance, until I discovered that the Bloodsworn have also been attacked from within. The ruin was a tomb; the Bloodsworn had angered whatever rested there. I soon found myself knee deep in ghouls and skeletons intent on my destruction, but my curiosity had been piqued. If there are undead here, what treasures must they be defending? I Hacked and slashed my way through the rotting hoard until I reached the burial chamber, only to discover that it was the last hold out for the cultists. In their desperate effort to survive, they had summoned a greater daemon of terrible power; I induced vitality sapping chaotic energies and lightning to envelope my ax as I prepared for the fight of my life.

Grim Dawn takes place in a beautifully realized Edwardian Gothic setting that takes it's cues liberally from H.P. Lovecraft, Greek Mythology, and the Warhammer Fantasy mythos. The developers have succeeded in creating a believable, breathing world that provides a sense of immersion that is often lacking in action role playing games. They have achieved this through fantastic attention to detail and micromanagement of the game resources to create a bevy of both scripted and organic narrative moments, like the one described above.

The worlds of most ARPGs, such as the Diablo franchise's Sanctuary, are perpetually stuck with their doomsday clocks at one minute from midnight. Not so for Grim Dawns world of Cairn; the bell has long since tolled, and mankind is merely struggling to survive as their world becomes a battleground for otherworldly powers. The disembodied Aetherials and eldritch Chthonians have long been at war with one another and Cairn is their new battlefield. The first seeks to use mankind as a resource, while the second is intent on wiping us out before that can happen. Their conflict, however, is not merely a background plot device; throughout the game we can observe armies of Aether-warped mutants and Chthonian daemons battling one another. Most of the time, they'll actually ignore the player until one of them is destroyed. We're simply too unimportant to be a priority.

We're unimportant, that is, until we prove ourselves to be a genuine threat to their goals. In addition to a well fleshed out reputation system for friendly factions, Grim Dawn has a reputation scale for the various enemy factions as well. The more members of an enemy faction you kill, the more they start to realize that you are a threat, and the more likely they are to focus their ire on you. Raise your hostility level high enough, and they'll start sending more of their heroes and champions to try and take you down. Mechanically, this has the benefit of providing more opportunities for high quality loot, but it also gives a real feeling that there is an intelligence behind your foes.

The enemy factions grow and change in other ways as well, modifying their tactics in response to both the player and each other as the game progresses. In a cynical way, we could just view this as the developers escalating the difficulty level of the monster tables, but the thing is that it's done so well that we don't feel like that is what's happening. I was particularly pleased to watch the progression of the Aetherial forces as they shifted gears from armies of weak human zombies supplemented by a few mutants, to armies of mutated trolls supplemented by possessed spell casters, to finally adding in heavy support in the form truly terrifying mutant abominations. It makes one feel like they are actively learning about their new environment and finding ways to take advantage of its resources, even if, terrifyingly, their idea of a resource is human flesh.

Unlike many ARPGs, Grim Dawn eschews procedurally generated maps for ones that are entirely hand drawn. This choice reduces the random replay factor of the game zones, but it provides for a high level of developer control over the places and events that the player sees. The Grim Dawn team uses these strengths to their advantage by creating beautiful set pieces that show us the terrible cost of the eternal war. Ruined villages, with meals still warm on the table, are crawling with Aether spawned zombies and mutants, while cultist camps in the wilderness send out raiding parties to gather up blood sacrifices for their Chthonic "gods". In the Black Legion castle of Fort Ikon, we see ranked arrays of steam powered tanks which could help turn the tide in mans favor, if only our limited resources weren't so necessary for survival. These dour images provide a very real feeling of despair and help to place in stark light the terrible futility of mankind's hope.

Another element that contributes to the excellent world building in Grim Dawn is the fact that the game oozes lore from it's every pore. From the mastery selection screen, which explains how science is mistrusted as simply a new form of magic and therefor explains how a world with Edwardian cultural sensibilities lacks Edwardian level technology, to the conversations to be had with just about every NPC about the way their lives were before the grim dawn, no opportunity to share the worlds back story is wasted. There are also "lore notes" to be found throughout the world which not only provide information about the grim dawn, the Empire, and the core narrative, but provide experience bonuses for reading them. The game actively rewards you for showing an interest in the back story, something I think that more games could benefit from.

Unfortunately, for all its world building excellence, Grim Dawn is not without its flaws, the largest of which is its stunted and poorly presented core story. The games central story arc, about a possessed human regaining control of their body and then waging a one man war against the forces arrayed against mankind, suffers in quite a few areas.

To get my commentary on the game's narrative flaws and my suggestions on how to fix them, check out my blog in a few days: threesecondrush.blogspot.com
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