Monthly Archives: July 2007

They can be a terror to your mind

Like the entire rest of the MMOGblogging universe isn’t going to pick it up anyway, but I just have to chip in on…

Virtual terrorists
“Kevin Zuccato, head of the Australian High Tech Crime Centre in Canberra, says terrorists can gain training in games such as World of Warcraft in a simulated environment, using weapons that are identical to real-world armaments.”

I dunno if I can even do a punchline after that. “Identical” and “real-world” aren’t the first words that spring to mind, even if you thought Dara O’Briain’s Tough Gig was a combat documentary. “LEVEL 7 FIREBALL TO THE FACE!” “I’m sorry, sir, your credit card is still declined”…

An undead berry is a Lichee?

In many MMOs eating food is a downtime activity used to restore a character’s lost health, and drinking restores mana for magic users. There are many curiosities with the nature of these mechanics, so let’s extend our culinary cognisance and see what the Inferno has to offer on the subject.

But first I just need to grab a quick snack.

The first thing to note about food in MMOs is the sheer amount and variety of food that heroes carry around with them. It’s astonishing. Imagine yourself on a family outing to a park somewhere and you’re taking a picnic, maybe you’ve got a nice hamper and you’ve filled it with all sorts of goodies; you get to the park, and hauling the hamper out between three of you you nearly cripple yourselves under the monstrous weight of the thing, you lug the hamper the twenty yards it takes to find the right number and variation of trees to create a scene from a Jane Austen novel, and then you all collapse from exhaustion and try to find the strength to open the lid of the hamper and lift out the roast turkey with all the trimmings, the barbecue, the fondue, the umbrellas for when it inevitably rains, the backup fondue, the small diesel generator to power the microwave… Ok, so maybe that’s just my picnics, but anyway, there’s a lot of food, and it’s heavy and a pain in the buttocks to move around. Now imagine that you’re doing that whilst carrying a ten foot sword or staff, whilst wearing armour or flowing mystical robes. Now fight a horde of twenty orcs.

Let’s just say that the gateaux is going to be slightly ‘pancaked’ (and don’t even ask what the pancakes look like) and the martinis are going to be very much on the shaken side of things.

Nevertheless, in MMOs it is an absolute certainty that even in the deepest, dankest dungeon, adventuring groups across the land will be pausing next to a pile of fresh corpses exuding cerebrospinal fluids, rat nests full of disease ridden rodents and pits of strange and unnameable slimes in order to whip out a raclette and accompanying condiments, and having elevenses whilst trying to avoid getting cave mould in their Clos du Mesnil.

In skiing they have après-ski, and in adventuring you have après-abattage.

I think the NPCs are missing a trick here. Just set-up a restaurant at a suitable depth in any dungeon and wait for the adventuring clientele to come flocking in:

“Hello? Is that Lou Liches? Yes we have a table booked for a party of five under the name of Thrognar the Red. Seven thirty? Yes, that’s us. I’m just phoning to let you know that there’ll only be four of us now, I hope that’s not a problem, it’s just that one of our party has been unavoidably detained by a pit trap full of vipers. Oh wonderful, I’m glad it won’t be a problem. We should be there on time, but we do have to defeat Mordon the Undying Betrayer of Gotland just before we get to you, so we might be a few minutes late, but I imagine we’ll be in need of some serious food by then. Tell me, do you have anywhere that a magic user can cast his wand about after drinking, if you know what I mean?”

Now don’t get me wrong, adventurers have to eat, but many of the items of food that they carry are these absurdly wonderful gourmet items that wouldn’t last five seconds being stacked next to daggers, rope, items of armour and whatever else is in an adventurer’s backpack. Take the humble pie for example: it’s probably one of the more robust items on the menu of heroic foodstuffs, but one whole pie is usually good enough to restore a depleted health bar once only, and a health bar is generally depleted after every other fight at least. So heroes carry around something like one hundred and seventy five pies in order to keep themselves going, and do you know how many calories that is? I mean, I know adventurers are an active lot, but seriously, never mind being able to find their way back out of a dungeon, it’s a miracle that they can fit back out.

Who ate all the pies? Now we know.

This pie-eating madness could almost be forgiven, except that every fantasy MMO has these stick-thin females, with non-existent armour that protects them from the strike of a two-handed battle axe, and there they are between fights scoffing pies and steaks and the like. I can see the Female MMO Fitness Workout DVD coming out soon: basically girls, just eat whatever the hell you like and as much as you like. Essentially, eat like a pig if you want, just make sure you kill forty or more orcs a day and you’ll fit into the tiniest outfit imaginable, and as an added bonus your breast size will triple!

Considering the sheer variety and culinary diversity that exists in MMOs these days and seeing as adventuring folk spend so much of their time masticating, why not making eating into a mini-game? Yeah, you could make it such that combining foods into ‘courses’ will enable bigger and better buffs as well as healing and replenishing mana. If you have a small soup starter and manage to follow it up with the lamb shanks and roasted vegetables, you’re allowed to try for the power combo finishing desert item! But only if you ate all of your brussels sprouts and you used the correct spoon for the soup. Otherwise the buff fails, and you go straight to bed without getting to fight Bregnip the Merciless.

Buffs from food is a wonderful tacked-on after thought isn’t it? I mean, how does an adventurer eat a wolf testicle pie and suddenly gain mightily in strength for half an hour? Do wolves have magical testicles that imbue arcane energies into a person? Wouldn’t that be the worst evolutionary design ever. Every wolf would be biting off his own ‘bits’ in order to make him stronger than his rivals and then when the strongest of them all has finally become leader of the pack he can’t breed. Maybe they would develop an Amazon wolf society, where the females were in charge. Makes sense, in a ‘none of this last paragraph made much sense’ sort of way. Anyhow, eating a pork pie and suddenly being able to bench press an elephant, or eating cheese and suddenly being more intelligent but only for thirty minutes! is totally bizarre. And what if you melt cheese on a pork pie and eat that, does that count? What happens then? Are you suddenly able to bench press an elephant with your brain? Can your pectoral muscles calculate pi to four hundred places? Food would become dangerous, you wouldn’t know whether to put mustard on your pie in case it combined in some weird way that gave your nipples the power to whistle dixie every time you’re struck in combat. For thirty minutes only.

Buffs from food don’t last that long, and one can imagine this is because the food item has perhaps passed on its way through the adventurer’s body. Yeah, we’re talking toilets now. Why are no dungeons equipped with toilet facilities? I mean, I know these places are run by evilly evil overlords from the evil dimension, but no toilets? That’s just a whole new level of evil, man. Not once in an excursion do you get a hero going “You know what, I’ve been down in this dungeon for four hours straight, I’ve seen sights that would make mere mortals crap themselves inside out, and I haven’t had a chance to relieve myself in all that time”. And thank goodness, can you imagine with the amount of food that gets eaten and the number of drinks that are quaffed, what would happen if nature was allowed to take it’s natural course? An outside observer would watch a bunch of hardened folk, grimly venture in to the entrance of an ancient ruin, only to be washed out again four minutes later on a tidal wave of excrement; hidden entrances to the place would suddenly become clear as geysers of faecal matter erupted from them twenty feet into the air.

So along with all their other skills, such as melee mastery and fireball flinging, adventurers come ready trained with the ability to ‘hold it in’. At least until they get to Lou Liches.

All-in-all it’s a wonder that MMO adventurers don’t just drag a cow along down with them on their dungeon delving deeds, they could all grab a bite from it in between fights without the need to crack open the picnic hamper. Don’t worry though, the cow has a health bar, so all they have to do is feed it something and it’ll be fine to carry on…

As the stars fell down and the fields burned away

It’s hard to get a handle on Star Wars Galaxies. While all MMOGs evolve over time, I can’t think of anything as fundamental and far-reaching as the Combat Upgrade and New Game Enhancements of SWG.

Never having played SWG before, I didn’t take a particularly close interest, but you couldn’t really avoid the backlash. Penny Arcade aren’t big fans, in the recent announcement that Pirates of the Burning Sea would be distributed by SOE they included, as a FAQ, “I hate SOE and I will never play your game” (OK, it’s not technically a question, but never mind), a few guildmates who seem to be perfectly rational people have declared they’ll never touch an SOE game again; I was chatting to a friend and mentioned I was trying SWG, and he asked “Why? Isn’t it rubbish?” I think it’s probably fair to say Star Wars Galaxies doesn’t have the greatest reputation.

From an outsider’s perspective, the impression I got is that, in its original incarnation, SWG was at the “world” end of the “game <-> world” scale, very free-form, a sandbox (quite literally on Tatooine). Naturally it had flaws (notably the randomly-unlocked-Jedi), but generally worked well enough for people who liked that sort of thing. The Combat Upgrade, and particularly the New Game Enhancements, aimed to slide it much further towards the “game” end of the scale with faster paced combat, quests, combat levels and the like. I can only imagine what sort of overhaul of the engine was needed to implement them. Game code isn’t great at the best of times, let alone after you’ve layered a level-based system over the top of a skill-based system, so it doesn’t take too great a stretch of the imagination to believe there might have been a few teething problems with the updates (or the game being a filthy bug-infested pile of banta dung, if you’re reading the forums). So, at a stroke you’ve potentially alienated players who really liked the game the way it was, and then annoyed everyone who stuck around (or joined up from the publicity of the “enhancements”) by essentially sticking them in a beta. On top of all that we’re talking MMOGs here, a genre in which a few minor adjustments to a couple of abilities are more than enough to garner threats of apocalyptic doom and massed protests, so sellotape the insane, wildly over-reacting lunatics to genuine grievances and… well, it’s unlikely to be pretty.

Now bearing in mind these are obviously first impressions from barely a week of playing, so there may still be soul-crushing game-destroying problems lurking up ahead… Star Wars Galaxies as it is today seems to have amazing potential. A year and a half on from the NGE, I presume the worst of the bugs have been shaken out, and I gather some of the more popular features that were removed (like creature handling/beast mastery) have since been put back in some form.

It’s not perfect, of course. The graphics are good enough, without being spectacular, and the animations can be a bit strange. Laser bolts fly around nicely enough in combat, but special abilities are visually lacking; as far as I can make out most of them give a hint of an effect, a few radiating lines or something, around yourself and/or the target. This slightly undoes the manual aiming/fast paced nature of fighting, as the result on the screen is a few static people going “PEW PEW!” from time to time. Player cities, though nice for the homeowners, are strangely desolate places to visit, perhaps a case of “more is less” as far as ‘realism’ goes; yes, you avoid “cheating” with instances/teleports/etc., but every player city I passed through was a ghost town, needing only a few bits of tumbleweed and an Ennio Morricone soundtrack, and that’s after the the Galactic Wrecking Crew have had their fun.

Those are fairly minor niggles, though, when you look at the big picture: the scope is vast (all those planets, *plus* the space-y bits between them!), but at the same time travel is easier (land speeders, shuttleports, free spacecraft for interplanetary travel) than the tedious low-level trudging of many other games. There’s quests if you want them, crafting, houses, shops, dancing, hairdressing, exploration, bounty hunting, space combat. If you like PvP, there’s a Galactic Civil War going on (though I haven’t stuck my lowbie nose in that to see what it’s actually like). When I said I liked games that are “structured but free-form“, SWG seems to have that to a tee, the Legacy Quest gives it the structure, but with more than ample scope for wandering off and doing your own thing when you want a break from it. Whether I’d bog down after that (I gather it takes you to level 40-50 out of 90), I’m not sure, but there’s always the space combat, and I’ve been loving the space combat.

With all that said… I don’t think I’m going to subscribe. At least, not just at the moment; with Issue 10 hitting City of Heroes, there’s plenty there to keep me occupied, and the Freespace Source Code Project should be enough to sate my rekindled joystick-waggling desires (as it were). In its favour is Sony’s Station Access; SWG has proved quite “dippable” over the trial, it’s been possible to hop in for relatively short periods of time and get something done, so if Pirates of the Burning Sea and/or The Agency prove to be fun and leave a little spare time, I might take up Station Access and pop back to Yavin IV to continue the struggle against the Empire.

A pile of sand is all I see and in the distance, Mos Eisley

Back to my Commando in the Star Wars Galaxies trial, and I quickly finished off all the quests I could find in the starting space station and told Han I was ready to go. Off to Mos Eisley we flew, and I emerged, blinking in the sunlight, in The Game Proper.

The first thing I was greeted by was a babble of speech bubbles filling up the screen and chat window, all spam for credit selling websites. Marvellous. I like to think they weren’t just being pointless spammers, merely roleplaying to ensure that Mos Eisley spaceport really is a wretched hive of scum and villainy, but either way I took a minute to find the “ignore” command.

Just outside the spaceport, I got sent to a contact to start the Legacy Quest. As I understand it, this was introduced with the NGE, and rather than pitch you onto a planet and saying “there y’go, do whatever you want!”, the Legacy Quest is a lengthy series of missions that takes you around the galaxy (though you can still wander off and do whatever you want, I don’t think it’s mandatory). The missions start off with standard fare; the mayor needs your help! The town is beset by (smugglers/pirates/tuskan raiders)! Please help by defeating 10 (smugglers/pirates/tuskan raiders)! Well done, [player name], you really showed those (smugglers/pirates/tuskan raiders), now defeat 10 (more nefarious smugglers/more fearsome pirates/more tuskan-y raiders)! That said, they were quite nicely implemented. Rather than running back to the questgiver after every part of the mission, they’d pop up on the comlink to direct you to the more nefarious/fearsome/tuskan-y mobs you were after. You also get given a landspeeder right off the bat, so travel isn’t too onerous.

After cutting a swathe through the local villainy came a much more interesting mission, sending me to a courier company to try and trace a package. This necessitated use of several computer terminals to initially track the package, then investigate the company and its employees. The security guards didn’t seem keen on my investigative journalism, so a little grenade-based persuasion was needed to get access to some of the terminals, and at a couple of points passwords were required from named employees (once again, grenade-based persuasion did the trick, backed up with laser carbine reasoning). With a couple of other players in the area, I had to wait for one of the named mobs to respawn, so I dread to think what it might have been like initially, but on a mature server there don’t seem to be too many other low level players around, so hopefully mob camping won’t be too much of an issue. A lovely touch, I thought, was that while rummaging through personnel and payroll records to find out who was behind the whole business, I got to transfer over the contents of the bank account of one of the named mobs. Muahaha, I love ill gotten gains. Opponents, naturally, get progressively tougher as you go along, so where the Commando abilities like grenades made tutorial missions trivially easy, they’re a lifesaver when you get cornered by a bunch of security guards (maybe “lifesaver” is the wrong word for massive blasts of death, but hey).

Shortly after that, I got the choice of whether to work for the Rebels or Imperials, and went with the Rebels. Well, you have to really, I couldn’t sign up with Captain Evil and his Evil Chums, even if they do get the sexy armour. That’s about as far as I’ve got in the Legacy Quest, as I keep flying off into space to shoot more TIE fighters (and there’s Heroes to watch on the BBC now, and City of Heroes Issue 10…)

The Rebel Pilot Trainer on Tatooine gave me a few missions, and then some additional training that allowed the use of more advanced equipment. I’ve upgraded ship a couple of times, firstly from the Space Moped you’re given in the tutorial to a Z95 (an X-Wing without the X wings… more a Hyphen-Wing), and recently, after tinkering around with the auction/vendor searching system to find the right set of blueprints, to a Y-Wing; the only slight disappointment with that is it turns out a second set of guns you can add to it are for its turret, which has to be manned by a second player. Still, could be a giggle if I can find someone to ride my six (as it were). After the additional training, there only seem to be two “Duty” missions on offer: escort transports (*yawn*), or patrol for TIE fighters (now we’re talking!) I haven’t bothered trying the escort; the patrol is basically flying from waypoint to waypoint, being attacked by ever increasing numbers of TIE fighters as you go, with a particularly miffed Imperial trainer in a slightly tougher fighter turning up every couple of waves. This carries on until you get bored and land back on the planet, as far as I can make out. As well as gaining Space Experience Points to boost your piloting abilities, space kills net you ground XP, so I’ve gained a couple of Commando levels from piloting, credits (always handy), and sometimes ship components to either upgrade your ship, or flog for further profit.

All in all, it’s been fun, especially the space combat. Its a funny old beast, is Star Wars Galaxies, I’ll try and assemble my thoughts into a general verdict…

An outlaw and a wanderer by trade

Hanging up my sequinned dancing shoes in the Star Wars Galaxies trial, I decided to try my hand at being a Trader. The first thing that I ran into was that I’d filled up the two available character slots on the first server I’d picked; not a game for the alt-a-holic (though I believe you only had a single character slot in The Old Days, unless you unlocked the Jedi profession, so it’s an improvement on that). Not really a problem for me, I’ve tended to stick with one main character in other games anyway, and especially not in the trial.

Traders are the crafters of SWG; unlike World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online, where any character can learn a tradeskill, as far as I can gather only Traders can make stuff in SWG. At first I thought that was a shame, I’ve quite enjoyed dabbling in crafting in WoW and LotRO, making a few items for my own characters and friends, making a little money at the auction house. Then again, crafting in those games is sometimes terribly frustrating, and ultimately a tacked on sideshow to the main event of killing bosses for loot; maybe a separate crafting class is one way around that.

Running through the trading tutorial was pretty simple; someone wanted something, they give you raw materials, you pull up your crafting screen, select the recipe, drag and drop the materials from your inventory, and pow: stuff! I made some nice fruit tea for the barman (and glasses to hold it), a shirt, a couple of hatstands and a novelty letter opener in the shape of Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke that plays Sumo Rabbit And His Inescapable Trap Of Doom. Or maybe a small fruit knife. Something like that anyway.

What the tutorial didn’t cover was the gathering of resources, and once Han sent me off for his components again (“Don’t give me any of that oh-so-hilarious ‘how am I going to use my trading skills to do that’ rubbish, just shoot the damn things already”) I went back to my first character to blow up some more TIE fighters. From skimming some guides, it seems a pretty involved business; prospecting to find potential sites, buying or building harvesters, setting them up to extract materials.

As much as I enjoy tinkering about with a bit of crafting now and again in other games it’s not something I could focus on full-time in, so the Trader isn’t for me. I can’t comment with any authority on the economy of SWG, though at least in one of the revamps (or revamps of previous revamps, or new start revision of the revamps, or reversion of one revamp with extra revised revamping) I think they solved the problem Van Hemlock mentioned in a comment on the above linked post, of random-Jedi-unlocking resulting in a market flooded with worthless items.

So, after a minor diversion into Entertaining and Trading, time to get back to the Commando and finally finish the starter space station!

Short pants, romance, learn to dance

So at the end of the last episode, I’d just leaped in to the body of some chap in a cantina being confronted by a bounty hunter, with only minutes to save the station from dread space pirate attacks. Oh boy!

Course I saved the day in the end, taught Chubby Checker how to do the twist, and we all learned a valuable moral lesson. Anyway! Back to the Star Wars Galaxies trial…

I mentioned the ease of introductory missions for a Commando, enemies taking only a couple of laser blasts to dispatch even before I started chucking grenades around, so I thought I’d have a quick look at a couple of other professions. First up, the Entertainer: na na na na na na na na naaaa na na na na na na na na na naaaa (that’s the textual version of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”, in case you were wondering, not “I’m In The Mood For Dancing” by the Nolan Sisters). A natural choice for such a character would be a Twi’lek female, so obviously I rolled up a bright blue male Mon Calamari called Norrmann Lamont (Rule 17: characters named after cabinet ministers are Inherently Funny), and spent the first five minutes of the tutorial informing Han, Chewie and the others in no uncertain terms that it was a trap, until C3P0 snapped and screamed that every Mon Calamari character that had ever been created in the entire history of the game said that, and it wasn’t that funny the first time in beta.

On to the starting space station, and I was given my first life-or-death task: to dance in the cantina. Doo do do do doo do do dooo do doo (that’s the textual version of “I’m In The Mood For Dancing” by the Nolan Sisters, in case you were wondering, not Napalm Death’s “From Enslavement To Obliteration”.) This was achieved by hitting “Start Dancing” on the hotbar, and a minute later hitting “Stop Dancing”. Not too tricky… To make life a bit more interesting, there were also “flourishes” available on other hotkeys, and boy, I had some smooth moves. They were swooning in that cantina, I tell you. Well, maybe not exactly swooning so much as remaining totally immobile, but they were swooning inside, I could tell. Especially Boba Fett. My second mission was to play some music in the sick bay to cheer everybody up, so off I wandered. The music system seemed pretty much the same; Start Music, wait around for a bit hitting one of the flourishes from time to time, Stop Music. I think the patients really appreciated my rendition of Python’s “Medical Love Song”. Least, none of them actually died, so I’ll take that as a bonus.

That seemed to wrap up my entertainer-specific training, so I wandered off and asked Han if I could help out with anything. Turned out he needed some components to get the Millennium Falcon flying again, and I could get them from malfunctioning droids in the repair bay. “Right”, I said, “so you think I can bewitch these droids with my mesmeric musical skills, and get the components that way?”
“Don’t talk daft” replied Han, “a quick burst of From Enslavement To Obliteration won’t have any effect on a malfunctioning droid”.
“That was I’m In The Mood For Dancing, you cloth-eared buffoon! All right then, so a particularly impressive dance move might overload their Terpsichorean Appreciation Circuits, rendering them helpless and ripe for component nabbing?”
“All right! All right! So how, precisely, do you think I should employ my entertaining skills to obtain these circuits?”
“I was thinking you could shoot the droids”
“Shoot them? With my space-clarinet?”
“With that pistol you had to obtain to make it through the tutorial”
“Right. That’s not *very* entertaining is it? Can I at least hold, in my off-hand, this fun sparkler-thingy I’ve been waving around while I shoot them?”
“Nah, you can’t dual-wield at level one”

So off I toddled, and shot a few droids with a laser pistol. I tried doing a bit of a dance at the same time, punctuating particularly impressive pirouettes with a burst of laser fire, but it just made me dizzy and spoiled my aim so I gave up on that. I can’t help but feel they missed a trick by only having Music and Dancing as entertainer skills, Stand Up Comedy could easily be combined with combat. “What’s got six holes in it, and a quest component I need?” *zap zap zap zap zap zap* “That malfunctioning droid right there! Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here until I have the 5 items I need.”

Further missions on offer all seemed to be the same stuff I’d done with the Commando: kill these pirates, get these items (by killing pirates), clear rogue wildlife from part of the station (I asked if this might be achieved by playing some particularly aggressively atonal Schoenberg at them, which is usually enough to clear any area, but apparently no, shooting them with the laser pistol was the way to go again). I’ll confess I didn’t spend a great deal of time or effort investigating a career in entertaining, it doesn’t seem a very solo-friendly profession. There’s a very interesting looking “Build-a-Buff” ability that Entertainers can use from level one, in the best traditions of inspiring competence, but of course that really needs someone to buff. The skills list also includes “Hair Styling” and “Face Forming”, which I gather lets characters change their appearance, always handy. If you’re sent off on a quest to bring down the Empire, though, to paraphrase Mr Solo: “A nice line in the Charleston and a space bassoon are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” All in all, it looks like it can definitely be beneficial to know a good entertainer, but I don’t think it’s really for me.

Next profession to try: a Trader.

Oh, are we gonna fly

More to follow on Star Wars Galaxies as a whole, today I’ll be particularly focusing on its space combat and digressing wildly and indulging in shameless nostalgia…

As mentioned in the last post, on finding the space flight tutorial in SWG I’d dusted off an old joystick I had stashed in a cupboard (it’s not just in games that I’m a terrible pack rat) only to find I had no joystick port to plug it in to.

I used to love flight simulators and space games; Elite, Microprose’s F-19 Stealth Fighter (in glorious EGA, before the F-117 was officially designated), Gunship 2000, Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat, LHX Attack Chopper, Aces Over The Pacific/Europe, Wing Commander 1 and 2, all that lot. A friend and I played a bit of head-to-head Falcon, for the few brief moments two PCs would deign to talk to each other over a null modem cable, and Air Warrior (which I’d totally forgotten until this post) introduced me to the concept of MMOGs before anyone called them that. Not that I actually played it online, lacking firstly a modem and secondly the vast stacks of used fivers it would’ve needed to pay for both the phone bill and game subscription; I think there might have been some sort of shareware-type offline single player training option (incredibly dull, there being no AI opponents), just the *idea* of squadrons of player-controlled aircraft was mind-blowing at the time. As “proper” flight sims became more realistic and complex I started to lose interest, not being particularly keen on spending three hours in a tutorial just to be able to take off, especially as around that time the space combat game probably reached its apogee in the magnificent Tie Fighter around 1994. Things seemed to tail off after that, though, and the joystick was consigned to the depths of the cupboard several years ago after finishing (I think) a budget purchase of Tachyon: The Fringe (most notable for being voiced by the legendary Bruce Campbell, though it was a decent enough game as I recall).

Launching into space in Star Wars Galaxies was just like old times, but a gamepad couldn’t cut it for flying, particularly as I couldn’t find an easy way to use the right thumbstick for flight control. It sufficed for a couple of training missions, but while out and about over the weekend I decided to grab a new USB joystick. Weighing up the pros and cons of a variety of alternatives, I picked up a Saitek ST290, on the grounds that (i) it was the only one in PC World (apart from a similar looking wireless model for twice the price), and… um… no, that was it actually. (Yeah, yeah, I know, PC World… but I couldn’t be bothered to wait for an online order, and it meant I finally got to use a PC World voucher I had since Christmas. Plus there was a clearance sale on stationery with 12 sticks of Pritt Stick for about 77p, who could say no to that?) Plugging in and launching into space again was pure joy (if you’ll forgive the pun), I’d forgotten just how much I enjoyed dogfighting. After finishing the tutorial missions and moving on to Tatooine, about the first thing I did was sign up with a Rebel squadron and start blasting TIE fighters (it was a tough choice, but at the end of the day there’s just something *right* about shooting TIE fighters that narrowly edged out flying them).

The SWG trial (and new joystick) have rekindled my interesting in flight/space sims, and a bit of digging around revealed the Freespace 2 source code has been released, leading to the Freespace Source Code Project, which I’ll definitely investigate. NetDevil are developing Jumpgate: Evolution, so I’ve stuck my e-mail address in there for a shot at the beta. Also, by a strange coindidence, an idle browse of Slashdot this morning turned up a review of Project Sylpheed, which Zonk starts “Space shooters are beyond a dying breed”, and ends “… once again, I find myself really wanting a next generation version of Tie Fighter”, the latter sentiment echoed in many comments. It seems a little strange that nobody mentioned Star Wars Galaxies in response, though, it seems the Jump to Lightspeed/space combat side of it doesn’t get much, if any, attention. Maybe it is a dead genre after all.

Out beyond the twinklin’ stars

Still in a bit of a gaming lull waiting for Issue 10 of City of Heroes, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Age of Conan, Tabula Rasa, Advanced Hatstand Simulator 2009 edition and the rest, I thought I might try the life of an itinerant MMOGtrialler, travelling through time and space, putting things right that once went wrong (and will continue to go wrong for a long as people work through the tutorial), and hoping each time that the next game will be the one the fulfills whatever arbitrary set of criteria I’m after at that point. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll want to settle down, until tomorrow (or the next ten to fourteen days of the free trial), I’ll just keep moving on.

Yes, I will be a cross between Doctor Sam Beckett and the Littlest Hobo. I wonder if the two of them ever met? What an unstoppable force for good they’d be… Or maybe the Littlest Hobo was a seldom mentioned part of Beckett’s experiment? You just never saw the holographic Al the dog who’d turn up and bark instructions at him…

Anyway, first stop: Star Wars Galaxies. This was almost my first MMOG, I remember reading a few previews and being interested, but never actually took the plunge at the time. I’ve therefore got no idea what is was like before the NGE furore, I’m coming to it totally fresh. I like the films without being a major Star Wars fanatic, and played a few tie-in games (X-Wing, Rogue Squadron, a couple of the FPS games I can’t remember the names of… loved the X-Wing series).

First steps are painless; off to the SWG website, click the “14 day trial” graphic, set up a Station Account with a few details and download a small launcher install file. Once the launcher’s up, it heads off to grab the other 4.5Gb of the game, so I left it overnight and came down in the morning to a shiny fresh Star Wars Galaxies install. Starting up the game instantly feels like Star Wars, with appropriately epic music even during character creation.

Character creation was pretty straightforward; pick a race (I went for Zabrak; I’m not sure if race has any effect on your statistics or is purely cosmetic), a class (I went for Commando, as it sounds like they get to play with big guns), and tweak up your appearance. Customisation is pretty reasonable, you can adjust height, weight and musculature as well as the usual skin tones, facial features etc. You also get to pick a starting outfit, purely for cosmetics; I went for what looked liked a ballgown for the comedy value of dishing out heavy weapon damage in formal eveningwear. Then into the game, and… POM! POMPOMPOM POMPOMPOMPOMPOM POM POM POM POMMMMMMMM POMM POM POM POM POMMMMM POM! (that’s the textual version of the main Star Wars theme, in case you were wondering, not “I’m In The Mood For Dancing” by the Nolan Sisters) “Star Wars”, text scrolling up the screen telling you what’s going on (something involving rebels, probably), then a pan down the starfield to a space station. Can’t fault it for an introduction, and within a couple of minutes of basic movement/UI instructions, there’s Han and Chewie busting you out of captivity and you’re blasting Stormtroopers out of the way so you can get to the Milennium Falcon, and Boba Fett’s hanging in the Cantina, grooving to the funky sounds of DA DA DA DA DADADA, DADADA DA DA DA (that’s the textual version of that cantina song, in case you were wondering, not “I’m In The Mood For Dancing” by the Nolan Sisters).

Gameplay was straightforward, as soon as the tutorial mentioned the Alt key for switching in and out of the shooter-y mouselook mode. All quite conventional, the slight twist being manual aiming and shooting instead of tab-to-target and auto-attack, which I rather liked, though that might be because all the opponents I’ve met so far have the mobility of statues with their feet glued to the floor, so it’s hardly extreme sniping. Everything so far has been remarkably passive as well, only getting mildly irritated if you actually shoot it. This made defeating a room full of pirates somewhat less daunting than it might have been; maybe they’re just colossally pre-occupied with weighty philosophical matters, and don’t notice their colleagues being atomised mere yards away: “Thus, solipsism presupposes the very thing which it seeks to deny: the fact that solipsistic thoughts are thinkable in the first instance implies the existence of the public, shared, intersubjective world which… hey, someone shot Geoff! ARGH!”

Introductory missions followed the standard pattern; get sent around to a few people, get tasked to kill some stuff, pick up some other stuff. Anyone who gets into a frothing rage over the temerity of LOLEEZYMOED games that dare indicate with large, glowing punctuation who you might want to talk to for quests will probably explode in outrage at the waypoint system, where a glowing trail leads you to wherever you need to go. Personally, I think it’s great.

I was almost wishing I’d chosen a different profession a couple of hours in. Much as dishing out damage is my first love, everything so far has been shooting fish in a barrel. Big fish, too, in a small barrel, where the other fish don’t even aggro after you shot their friend… I did manage to “die” once (I’d presumably shot some robot once but hadn’t really noticed, then continued not to notice him following me around and hitting me… “hmm, the screen’s flashing red, wonder what that means…”), but other than that, a few blaster shots were more than a match for any introductory foes, and I felt a bit bad when I went up levels and gained abilities. First there was a AoE “stun” grenade (which seems to “stun” mobs to death), then some sort of volley/salvo ability, which seemed to share the exact same animation as a single blaster shot, disappointingly, though the end result was wholesale death in a large frontal arc. I might try an Entertainer or Spy or something, to see what sort of missions they get sent on.

At one point, I got chatting to some Imperial bloke, who offered me a mission. Hey, I’m not fussy, and there was a nice blaster as a reward, so I took him up on the offer. I’m not sure if that’s irrecoverably set me on the path to the Dark Side, or whether I just haven’t yet found a similar Rebel-type chap. R2 suggested I might want to get some friends to help, but I ignored him entirely and… didn’t have the slightest bit of trouble with the quest anyway. I thought C3P0 was the worrier?

Finally, I went for a bit of a jaunt in space! I was vaguely aware there were space combat elements in SWG, but thought you might have to buy the “Jump to Lightspeed” expansion to indulge. A quick chat to a pilot trainer and a click on a computer, though, and there I was, flying around space! Like I mentioned earlier, I loved the X-Wing games, and space combat sims in general, but I haven’t played one for a long time. After some wobbling turns with the mouse, I decided it was time for… the joystick! Some rummaging in a cupboard turned up my dusty old Sidewinder, only on going to plug it in, I found I didn’t have a joystick port any more. I probably didn’t have one on the previous PC either, it must be longer than I thought since I last used it… maybe for Tachyon: The Fringe, or Conflict: Freespace 2. A PS2 controller on a USB converter sufficed for some temporary flying, and the first few space missions were rather fun (though I suspect the initial opponents were strongly related to their station-bound comrades in terms of their combat abilities). Space combat could certainly provide a nice change of pace in an MMO, I’m tempted to try and find a cheap USB joystick if I can do some more in the trial.

So, first impressions are very positive. I believe the first space station is the noob-tutorial type area, but I’m trying to complete all the available missions there before heading off with that Solo chap. We’ll see how things go from there!

The dividing line

I’ve been having a blast in City of Heroes with Van Hemlock and the rest of the Disconnectibles (a big shout out, as I believe the correct vernacular to be, to Chained Reaction, Melmoth, Changling Bob and Leese). Unfortunately the 14th day of the trial looms large, at which point Slush Puppeh will go into (lemon and lime flavour) cryogenic storage and I’ll head back to my main CoH account on the US servers. I could shut down the US account and continue with the EU one, but then I’d lose my current characters (and 36 months worth of veteran rewards); even if I could transfer them over (the option was available, for people who’d started on the US servers before the game was official released in Europe, but not any more), I’d have to leave the SuperGroup I’ve been in for two and a half years.

I could’ve sworn I’ve rambled about this previously, but there don’t seem to be any previous posts about it (either that, or my search-fu of my own blog and/or memory is weak to the point of embarrassment) so forgive me if I’m covering existing ground, but MMOGs don’t half make it difficult to team up with people sometimes. You get chatting to someone, and find out hey, you both play Battlefield 2142. Pick the same server, log on, and you can be throwing yourselves into combat against the hated enemy (or, indeed, each other) in minutes. Find out you both play World of Warcraft, and wouldn’t it be crazy fun to adventure together? Great! Except they’re probably on a US server while you’re on an EU server. And if you happen to be on the same continent, you’re probably on a different server within that continent. And if you happen to be on the same server, you’re probably different factions. And if you happen to be on the same server and the same faction, you’re probably different levels. And if you happen to be on the same server and the same faction and you’re the same level they’re probably only interested in Heroic dungeon runs in places you can’t get to. Or they’re the same class as you so you fight over all the loot drops. Or they turn out to be an insane stalker you really wish you’d never teamed with in the first place, though I don’t think we can blame that one on game design. Course that’s a slightly extreme example, but most MMOGs have some, if not all, those potential divides.

It’d be nice if more games had a Guild Wars-y system, where you can flip between “servers” at the drop of a menu, but I realise there’s a whole stack of technical headaches that go with that, and probably legal/financial headaches which result in separate national/continental server clusters. In the meantime, the cheapseats idea is rather fun, maybe time to have a look at another free trial… EverQuest II, The Matrix Online, Star Wars Galaxies? Choices, choices…