Monthly Archives: September 2007

Quake Wars: Huh! What are they good for?

I downloaded the demo of Enemy Territory: Quake Wars last night. Melmoth had been talking about the beta, and then some random newsletter turned up with a link to the recently-released demo, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

There’s… a lot going on! I’ve been out of the loop of online FPS games since Unreal Tournament 2004, never played much Counterstrike, and more pertinently for Quake Wars never got into any of the class-based team games like the Battlefield series. Starting off with a nice gentle offline warm-up against Easy bots (ha! Easy bots, they can barely walk and chew gum, let alone walk and shoot you through the head at 800 yards then send you an insulting message), obviously I’d dominate the battlefield, but it’d be a nice, simple introduction.

Parachuting down is a nice, relaxing way to start things off, our home base looks familiar enough, there’s a few vehicles around, I’ll just hop in one… as soon as I find the right key… there we go! Follow my bot team-mates, I’m not really sure what we should be doing, and then there’s SHOOTING AND EXPLOSIONS AND I’M DEAD ARGH and parachuting again and MORE SHOOTING AND EXPLOSIONS and I can deploy stuff or is it hack stuff or ARGH I’M DEAD AND parachuting and I’ve got grenades and binoculars and airstrikes and a targeting device which doesn’t seem to target and something’s happening with a bridge and wahey! I shot a Strogg! And I’ve been promoted ARGH I’M DEAD and the bridge is repaired by someone (I don’t think it was me, but it might have been while I was trying to tie my shoelaces up) and there’s an MCP and artillery barrages and an airstrike and “press m for mission” is flashing somewhere and ARGH I’M DEAD.

Some tutorials can be a drag (“Now walk forwards! Can you walk forwards? Try pressing the ‘W’ key! That’s it! Well done you! Now walk forwards some more… NO! THAT’S TURNING LEFT! BAD PLAYER, WE HAVEN’T GOT TO THE TURNING LEFT LESSON YET!”), but I think there’s a bit of room in Quake Wars to not just chuck you straight into a fight… Still, it’s only the demo, and after a couple of rounds and a fair amount of ARGH I’M DEAD, I got a bit more of a handle on it all, and even managed as a Support Engineer Type Class That I Can’t Remember The Exact Name Of (But Not The Actual “Engineer”) to deploy an artillery turrent, and call in a barrage from it (after standing within the white outline of an artillery turret going “eh, what use is this?”, and dying when the *actual* artillery turret was para-dropped on my head).

The supplied map plays quite similarly to an Unreal Tournament “Assault” game-type, a sequence of objectives that one team tries to achieve, while the other team tries to stop them. It’s certainly piqued my interest, and after a bit more practise I’ll give it a try online so I can spend even more time looking at the “17 seconds to respawn” screen.

She said, "You been gone." I said, "That’s only natural."

This MMOG business is unnatural, y’know. I mean, apart than all those demons and magic stuff. And aliens. And superpowered beings. And physics-defying weaponry. And grown men pretending to be lithe elf chyqs, or pretending to be lithe women pretending to be lithe elf chyqs pretending to like other lithe elf chyqs played by grown men pretending to be lithe women (who like girls who like boys who look like a girlfriend that I had in February of last year). No, that stuff is all fine, the unnatural bit is they expect you to keep playing them.

“Normal” games, you play ’em, you finish ’em, you move on, like books, or films. Now the Law of Imperfect Analogy starts kicking in somewhere around here, wherein you say “you can’t *directly* compare games to books, and anyway, playing an MMO would just be like reading a series of books by the same author”, and then I’ll say, “only if that author totally recycled the same formulaic plot in every book”, and you’ll say “Dan Brown” (and we’d laugh uproariously) “besides which you’re ignoring the investment in your own character in MMOs”, and I’ll say “OK, in that case, Choose Your Own Adventure books”, and then you say “I haven’t read one of those since they were given away with Weetabix”, and then we’re in a discussion about breakfast cereal.

But the basic point is: aren’t Kellogs Variety Packs great? Especially mixing two different boxes together (which also gets around the problem of being left with cornflakes at the end). No, wait… the basic point is: the subscription model of MMOs is quite different from most other forms of entertainment. There’s no incentive for the author of a book to keep you reading it as long as possible, or for a film to keep you in the cinema forever (though the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels seem to think there is, even without an intermission to boost ice cream sales). MMOGs, obviously, want to keep you playing, hence timesinks, “the grind” and related fun and games (though obviously the rest of the game needs to be enough fun to keep you going. Or sufficiently addictive, at least.) I’m not sure the $15/month all-or-nothing subscription is necessarily the One True Way for MMOGs. Course, a single payment alternative isn’t automatically better; once you’ve paid for a “normal” game, as long as it isn’t so disastrously rubbish that you storm around to the developers and demand a refund in person, they’ve got your money and don’t really care how much you enjoy it. OK, they’ll want good reviews so people buy the game in the first place and want expansion packs or a sequel, but why bother giving the user 500 hours of the most exquisite gameplay ever devised, when you could give ’em 30 hours of adequate fun, 10 more hours in a more-of-the-same expansion pack, then a bit of a shonky sequel with a few re-skinned elements.

From careful, in depth research (OK, vaguely scanning down rss feeds at high speed, if we’re being entirely honest), there are other payment models brewing or already here; free basic play with deluxe paid-for bonuses (like Dungeon Runners), microtransactions, RMT (which might all be the same thing), and I think that’s a Good Thing(tm), variety (packs) being the spice of life and all.

Be wary of men wielding dead languages.

I hadn’t really thought about preparing a review for Tabula Rasa because reviews from several other bloggers are already out there, and say pretty much all there is to say; if I were going to write about the game I’d try to put a humorous spin on it, but I’m afraid that I’m not seeing one. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of jokes to be had, but they’re not the light-hearted ribbings that belong here.

I was, however, listening to the ol’ iPodule this morning, and the lyrics to one of the songs became slightly warped in my mind – Warped mind? Me? – and seemed apt:

Lost in time I can’t count the words,
I said when I thought they went unheard
All of those harsh thoughts so unkind,
‘cos I wanted you.

And now I sit here, I’m all alone,
So here sits a bloody mess, tears fly home,
A circle of errors, seen before,
‘cos I wanted you.

Weak as I am, won’t sub. to you.
Weak as I am, won’t sub. to you.
Deep as I am, I’m no-one’s fool.
Weak as I am.

— The ‘Inferno review of Tabula Rasa’ version of Weak, by Skunk Anansie

They touted Tabula Rasa as a blank slate, as in a fresh start; what they seemed to forget is that Tabula Rasa is also the new mind in its primary state, before it receives any of the impressions and understanding gained from experience.

Tabula Rasa indeed, then.

Thought for the day.

If real life had an MMO UI overlaid, what would it look like to you? How would it affect your life?

  • I’d probably have low health, but high mana.
  • My bag slots would be nearly full all the time.
  • Most slots would be taken up with chargers for electronic devices.
  • I’d be able to scroll back through previous conversations with my boss and prove that I didn’t agree to work thirty hours of overtime this week, or any week for that matter.
  • Never be caught short! I would know exactly when I was next going to need to go to the toilet based on that ability’s cool-down.
  • Based on the tooltip information from the debuff icons present, I would be able to tell exactly what illness I was suffering from and instruct the doctor accordingly.
  • People wouldn’t be able to sneak up on me because I would see them approaching on my mini-map.
  • My bank balance would be available, so I’d always know if I could afford to buy that shiny new gadget. Not that that stops me at the moment.
  • Road rage incidents could be avoided as you’d be able to con other drivers nearby.
  • If someone fell over in front of you, you’d know whether they’d hurt themselves badly by the small text number floating up the centre of your vision.
  • You’d never lose the kids on a family outing, because you’d see their group portrait fade when they went out of range, and you could find them by highlighting said portrait and following the big friendly arrow at the top of your vision.
  • Hand-written shopping lists would be a thing of the past: just follow the quest objectives in your tracker
  • Sex would become slightly more mundane, as you’d know when the magic moment was going to happen by watching your cast bar. However, women would have a harder time faking because men could ‘enable enemy cast bar’.
  • If your wife sees you smirk at that last one, you would at least have a pop-up option that allowed you to resurrect at the nearest shrine…

Rest for the wicked

I’ve been having a bit of a rest from MMOs for the last month or so. When not on holiday, I’ve been playing Bioshock, Medieval II: Total War and Wii Sports. I fired up the Tabula Rasa beta, and it looks lovely. All very polished, smooth, great graphics, fast paced rootin’ tootin’ gunslinging action, got up to level three or four or something, and… just couldn’t muster any enthusiasm really. As the quote goes, “Sign me up for ennui. Or not. Whatever.”

Hopefully by taking a break, I’ll be able to return, renewed and refreshed, for something like Pirates of the Burning Sea or Warhammer: Age of Reckoning. In the meantime, the folly of over-specificness in blog naming has become somewhat apparent, but never mind eh?

I’ve already ripped out the phones, honey

Back when Apple announced the iPhone, I made a post lamenting it’s phone-ness, presuming this would lead to major contract requirements or a very high price. What I was hoping for was “a ‘super iPod’, with a large touchscreen interface, which maybe happens to make phone calls too…” Substitute “have WiFi” for “make phone calls” (which is more desirable, dunno why I didn’t put that in at the time), and whaddayaknow… it’s the recently announced iPod Touch, and £200 for the 8Gb model isn’t a bad price. It remains to be seen if my assumption about iPhone pricing is borne out, as it hasn’t even made it to the UK yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 8Gb iPhone at the same price as a 16Gb iPod Touch if you get it *with* a 12 or 24 month contract, and a good £100+ more without.

8 or 16Gb isn’t enough to replace my 60Gb iPod for playing music just yet (though to think, there was a time when a 20Gb Zen Jukebox seemed to offer boundless capacity), but with that touch screen and WiFi browsing, it could well replace my current PDA… I think… maybe… It’s got the calendar and contacts; WiFi is a big plus, though the lack of Bluetooth for connecting up to a phone in areas with no WiFi is a shame. I don’t use my PDA for an awful lot else; ebook reading (sounds like a people are finding a few ways to do that on the iPhone, if not really ideal at the moment), synching web content for offline reading, jotting a few notes etc.

The iPod Touch announcement came at a particularly opportune time, as I was on the verge of getting (or at least thinking quite hard about being on the verge of getting) a Nokia N800 “internet tablet”. Strangely for Nokia it’s not a phone, but offers WiFi and Bluetooth for connectivity on a Linux-based platform. In many ways, it’s technically superior to the iPod Touch, with a higher resolution screen, 2 SD card slots, Bluetooth, and a decent range of open source software. But… with a 4Gb slickly-interfaced iPod Touch being £50 less (the N800 only has 256Mb built in, though high capacity SD cards are pretty cheap), it doesn’t look nearly so attractive. Having a range of software available is all well and good, but I suspect much like the vast array of PalmOS software out there, I’d end up installing a few bits and pieces, going “hey, that’s cool, I can use VNC”, then never actually firing the application up again after that.

I’ve still not come to a firm decision one way or the other, but unless the iPod Touch has some major downsides, it could well be my next PDA (that isn’t a PDA, obviously). It would probably be sensible to wait for a second or third generation, to see what sort of hardware enhancements and software support it gets, but heck, where’s the fun in that?

Then again, after reading this interesting iPod Touch piece over on The Register, I noticed this review of the Archos 605 WiFi media player, with touchscreen… And then there’s those Windows smartphones with slideout QWERTY keyboards… and touchscreen GPS devices that play MP3s… and…

Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world.

MMOs employ many different ways to mitigate damage: parrying, shield blocks, genuine evasion and armour-based resistances are but some of the examples. However, nearly all MMOs still also make use of the ancient and mystical Chinese technique of Open Palm Lotus, Forehead Dragon Slap.

Or in mundane terms: attacking any space that is immediately adjacent to your opponent. The dreaded miss.

<Our noble barbarian hero. Rethgood the Redolent, is sneaking up to stab an unsuspecting, sleeping ogre lord in the back>

Rethgood: “Ha haaaaah! Your head will be mine, ogre lord!”

<Rethgood swings his sword and misses>

Rethgood: “I missed?! But I’m the greatest swordsmith in the land! I, who hath duelled Rodderick the Really Rather Good Swordwangler of Popthekettleon, and won! I, who bested Fiona the Fierce of Frangipane, the greatest sword fighter the world had ever witnessed until I found the miniscule gap in her chain-mail bikini that enabled me to strike the bronzed body beneath! I, who…”

Ogre Lord: “Og, yuk, ders a ooman in me snoozechamber! Ow it get in dis place? Wurz me slipper so I cuhn squidge it.”

Rethgood: “How can I possibly miss from melee range against a prone target? Never mind, I shall not miss you a second time you filthy beast!”

<Rethgood swings and misses again>

Rethgood: “By the seven gods of the Vitamin Sea! Another miss?! What fel magic is this?”

Ogre Lord: “Stop yer flailin about ooman, yer creatin a draft.”

Rethgood: “Stay still, damn you.”

Ogre Lord: “I not move from me bed yet, wat you talkin about clooliss?”

<Rethgood swings. And misses.>

Rethgood: “I don’t understand… how can I miss? I’m standing close enough to smell whatever it is that’s living in your belly button…”

Ogre Lord: “Ey! You leave Charles out of dis.”

Rethgood: “You have a creature living in your belly button, and it’s called Charles?”

Charles: “Will you keep the noise down out there; some people are trying to meditate.”

Ogre Lord: “Don you mind der ooman, Charlie, I’m gonna sort im out.”

Rethgood: “I can’t take much more of this; I pray to the iron god of Monopylae to guide my sword to strike swift and true!”

<Rethgood swings. The ogre lord leaps from the bed>

Rethgood: “There! You definitely moved!”

Ogre Lord: “Weeeellllll, you waz gonna hit me dat time.”

<Ogre lord smacks Rethgood upside the head, yo, for 200 points of damage>

The miss becomes more absurd the bigger the enemy. How can you miss a fifty foot tall mountain giant? Admittedly you’re not going to be doing a lot of damage. Shouldn’t be doing a lot of damage, but that’s never stopped role-playing games from pitting adventurers against monsters eight times their size or more, and letting them win. Does an adventuring party of five bees ever reasonably stand a chance of defeating a human being? I mean, they’ve got envenomed weapons, the power of flight, various fear spells that they can cast (such as Bernard’s Aural Harasser of Humming Just Behind Your Ear), yet we still know that unless they get some, quite frankly, munchkin-maddeningly awesome combination of crit rolls, or they just happen to find a mob with a serious weakness to bee stings (I knew I should have worked on bee sting resistance instead of fire and nature), they’re not going to win. But adventurers defeating fifty foot tall giants? No problem! Hell, in some games dwarves – dwarves! – make a profession out of slaying giants! What in the Inferno sort of tactics do they use to accomplish this? If you’ve ever seen Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s dwarven Giant Slayers you’ll know that they not only pit themselves against creatures ten times their own height, but they do this whilst wearing minimal armour and wielding a small twig. Or something. So how do they defeat giants who are, by their very nature, really quite big. Gigantic, if you will. Do they train in assassination through toenail clipping? “Ha, I’ve given him a nasty subungual hematoma there, if he doesn’t get any medication for a month, and infection just happens to set in, he could die within the year! Or perhaps just lose the toe. Still: For Karak Kadrin! And all that, old bean”. Yeah, I like to mix frothing dwarven battle-cries alongside eccentric upper-class English phrases, it really puts your fellow adventurers off guard.

The point being, as alien and unexpected as a ‘point’ is to any of my blog posts, ignoring the improbability of being able to do enough damage to cause the giant to stop picking his nose and peer down at you, missing any monster that has toes the size of a farm outbuilding is not really terribly reassuring. You literally, although virtually, missed the side of a barn. And you want to be a great adventuring hero? Hmmm.

So, what if an adventuring party is fighting together and one of the melee players misses a mob, does he not then have to roll to see if he hits one of his fellows who are in melee with him? The friendly-fire roll, if you will. And if he misses them as well, then surely it follows that he then has to roll to see if he chops off his own head due to missing everything else in the immediate vicinity. And in the vastly improbable event that he misses that roll too, well, then perhaps a horde of small animals should burst out from all corners of the battlefield and laugh for two seconds in the manner of Chip ‘n Dale the Walt Disney chipmunks, disappearing quickly thereafter.

The problem is that in MMO combat you generally stand still, the mob stands still, and you both stand toe-to-toe and slog it out until one of you is dead; you don’t aim in combat, you select which character to attack and then your aiming is represented by a dice roll. A dice roll is all you have to express the dynamism of combat, and the on-screen representation is two figures standing next to each other, swinging their weapons in one or two animations over and over again in a stunningly mundane battle of attrition. Seeing that combat is such a staple of MMOs, that the main focus of questing and levelling invariably involves running some form of virtual life through with your virtual sword, one would think that an obvious way to break away from the pack and make a name for yourself would be to try to crack the mould on the tried, tested and tedious method of combat as it exists today. We can all accept mobs dodging out of the way, but considering currently how close the melee player is generally standing to them, and the fact that neither of you is moving much, I can’t help but imagine that it’s perhaps the sort of dodging that you see in cartoons, where the character bends improbably at the midriff and forms a question mark shape to one side of the blade thrust, and then flips and bends in the opposite direction at the next blade thrust, which cuts the air where the dodger’s body was moments ago.

City of Heroes is especially hilarious because it animates your misses whilst making no attempt to animate the enemy having evaded, so you can stand right next to a mob, shoot a bolt of fire from your hands at point blank range, and it shoots off at an improbable angle into the ceiling. I can only imagine that those superhero outfits are really quite itchy, and just as my hero is about to launch their bolt of flaming death (that’s not a euphemism by the way) they get an irresistible urge to scratch somewhere sensitive and tender, and therefore flail about shooting flame everywhere other than at the enemy as they try to contend with their own spectacular spandex spasms. With the collateral damage that heroes must cause with all their powers missing and striking the floors, walls and ceilings, you can imagine that insurance premiums in Paragon City are astronomical in value. What’s more, you can simply miss the most blatantly easy targets; only last night a fellow spandex wearer was heard to utter “I can’t believe I just missed a stationary parked car”.

The dilemma is such: if, like World of Warcraft, you make it easy for new players to hit mobs so that the game is fast and fun and painless, they will have an expectation that they will always be able to do so, and the strange phenomenon that as their hero increases in power they are more likely to meet mobs that they are unable to hit seems to be incongruous with their experiences up to that point. If, however, you take the route that City of Heroes takes, that your low level character will miss, and miss quite a lot, but will gain in power until they are practically unable to miss even if they try, the early game experience can be very frustrating to the new player who may not understand that things will improve eventually, and it is therefore quite likely to put players off of the game entirely.

Perhaps all that needs to be done is to remove the ‘miss’ from areas where it is inappropriate due to its vast improbability, when in melee combat or using ranged powers at close quarters, for example. Considering that most MMO combat is now, and will likely be for the foreseeable future, based upon the fickle fling of fate’s fancy, rather than any skill on the part of the player, it would be nice to present that combat in such a way as to not make the player regularly experience the most base helplessness that comes from a fumbled attack roll.

And it should be fixed soon, lest the armies of barn walls become confident in their power to evade attacks, and march upon the homelands of these floundering fighters and destroy them every one!

If I Had A Photograph Of You

One feature of Bioshock is its research camera, which does exactly what it says on the tin. At least, it would if it came in a tin, I think I just found it on the floor somewhere; anyway, it’s a camera, that you use to research the enemies you encounter. Hence the name. The natural, and sane, way of using it is to sneak around, hoping to catch some nice shots of Splicers in their natural habitat much like David Attenborough (were David Attenborough to be crawling around an undersea base toting various weapons and genetic modifications) (and were he to actually be a photographer, rather than wildlife presenter, but I couldn’t think of a suitably well known wildlife photographer offhand) (so maybe more like David Attenborough’s cameraman) (only with a still camera, rather than film) (which rather obviates the point of David Attenborough in the first place… I mean, just him standing in the foreground of photos pointing at stuff, not so much use really.) (Unless maybe you had some kind of audio recording to play along at the same time…) (An audio recording of David Attenborough talking about the photo, that is, an audio recording of Harry “The Hipster” Gibson singing “Who Put The Benzedrine In Mrs Murphy’s Ovaltine” wouldn’t be so appropriate).

What the hell was I talking about?

Oh yeah. The sane use of the camera, then, is to sneak around, snap your photos with a telephoto lens; you wouldn’t want to alert those nasty old Splicers, after all. When doing so, I can’t help but provide a voice-over, in suitably hushed whisper…
“And here we see the Leadhead Splicer, roaming the corridors…” *snap* “… notice the mad, staring eyes, and of course the pistol.”

So. That’s all well and good. However, the resulting photos are usually average at best, so you need lots of them to get the research bonuses. Much better for research purposes are nice, big close-ups. And better still, “action shots”, offering a further bonus. Of course, the type of action they’re talking about is combat (at least, I’m pretty sure that’s the main type of action. I’ve never found a pair of Splicers getting down to some… errr… “Splicing” to see if that counts as an “action shot”). This leads to an interesting technique I like to call the Combat Paparazzi, involving sprinting towards your target yelling “That’s it! Yeah, come on, swing that wrench at me, oh yeah, that’s lovely, yeah, bit more pistol now? Come on, just a bit of pistol, that’s beautiful, perfect, you’re a natural.”

Then you swap the camera for a shotgun, and shoot ’em in the head before they kill you.

Then take a photograph of the corpse (there’s a penalty for dead targets, but hey, research is research…)

Nemesis of the sock thief.

Unlike the mild mannered Thief of Socks, whose light-hearted removal of Joe Blogger’s socks means that Joe is merely left with an odd pair and looks a bit daft when he goes out on a date, the dark-hearted Thief of Keys hides your car keys at the most inconvenient time, when you’re most in a panic and need to get somewhere fast; at other times the key thief will cause you to believe you’ve misplaced your front door key, especially when you’re standing on your doorstep, cross-leggedly in need of a pee.

Oooo, he’s evil.

Dada Online

Inspired by a recent News Brief from The Onion, “Hard To Tell If Wikipedia Entry On Dada Has Been Vandalized Or Not”, I had a great idea for Dada Online, a bizarre world full of nonsensical, incoherent images, text and behaviours, where nothing has any meaning.

Then I remembered someone’s done Second Life already. *badum-tish*

(Subsitute an MMO of choice if you prefer in there, it’s a general observation on the genre, don’t set the essay-commenting Second Lifers on me!)