Daily Archives: August 22, 2008

Comparison is a death knell to sibling harmony.

I’ve recently been trying to work out why I just can’t seem to get along nicely with Guild Wars; it’s like some sort of truculent sibling, where we both pretend to get on amiably when there are adults around who might clout us around the head as a reprimand for our rambunctious wrangling, but as soon as we’re out of sight, we set-to like a wild west bar brawl: all swagger and posture followed by a short frantic battle of head grabbing, arm flapping and tumbling off of elevated platforms into piles of cardboard boxes, or in my case when I was younger, onto piles of Lego bricks, whence I’d spend the rest of the afternoon explaining to adults that my face wasn’t presenting a strange new version of the pox that consisted of uniform rows of dots in 6×1, 4×2, 2×1 and 4×4 formations.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Guild Wars is a good game, but this only makes it all the more frustrating to me as to why I can’t play it for any length of time before abandoning it. The graphics are not the problem that’s for sure, the environments are beautiful and detailed, and the characters are not the most unattractive I’ve ever seen. Admittedly they do all have this weird hunched shoulder thing going on, as if they’re all trying to make themselves more intimidating in PvP by drawing themselves up higher, like a cat arches its back, only they’ve done it one too many times, the wind changed direction, and now they’re stuck with their shoulders up around their ears. Also, in profile many of the faces look as though they have been worked over with a rolling pin until flat enough to make pasta. Regardless, I’ve never stumbled at the character customisation options, and have always managed to create a character pulchritudinous enough to satisfy my sad desire for an abstractly attractive avatar.

Character creation is fine as well, there are plenty of interesting classes to choose from and the fact that you get another of these classes as a secondary, and can vary it at will (after reaching a certain level), means that there’s plenty of variety to be had with a character’s fundamental abilities. Abilities though, I think this is where things start to unravel for me. The abilities themselves are fine, excellent in fact, so many interesting skills that often can be combined with other skills to create a combination that is more powerful than the individual skills taken on their own. No, it’s the lack of ability to employ many of those skills in a given mission that begins to give me that itch just behind my eyes that tells me all is not well in the mind of Melmoth. The short of it, for me at least, is that eight skills in Guild Wars just isn’t enough when you have so many excellent abilities that you’d like to have to hand. To quote Lazarus Long:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

For each mission you are forced to specialise from a vast range of varying and potentially useful skills into a very limited set, and once you take into account that to be effective you’re usually looking for several of these skills to combine into a manoeuvre that is more powerful than the individual skills themselves, you seemingly end up being able to do only a couple of things each mission. Press 1, 2, 3 and that gives you effect X, press 4, 5, 6 and you get effect Y, and then abilities 7 and 8 are often reserved for emergency use: resurrection abilities and such. At least this is the way things have played-out for me in the limited time I’ve managed to stick with the game, and if it gets better later on I’m in a catch-22 situation, where I’ve got to continue with the thing that puts me off playing in order to get to a stage where I’ll continue playing.

To be honest, I’m disappointed with myself, because if there’s any one thing that I want to see in future MMOs its a deck building sub-game involving a character’s abilities, such that you learn skills and then find interesting ways to combine them in order to create a ‘deck’ of skills as per many collectible card games, and thus have the ability to surprise opponents with unexpected and unusual combinations. And this is what Guild Wars does (I hear the proponents of the game screaming at me, but only in eight different ways), and I recognise this, but it just doesn’t work as well as the CCG mechanic and I’ll tell you why I think this is: chance and variety. In CCGs you build a deck of, say, forty cards and within those forty cards you select a raft of cards that combine with one another in ways that make them more powerful when combined (it’s the Captain Planet way), but because of the number of cards available, you can often include many combinations that work with several of the same cards while keeping within the general theme or purpose of the deck. The joy and excitement, and sometimes frustration, comes from the fact that you don’t know which combinations might come to the fore due to the random drawing of the cards, and the fact that there is a variety of things that you might be able to do, but there is also an equal variety of things your opponent might be able to do to counter you or to make you have to change your strategy. I think this is where I end-up frustrated with Guild Wars, it comes so close to my ideal of a slightly random, wildly varied skill combining combat system, and yet falls far enough away from the mark as to make the contrast between my ideal and the reality of the situation that much more jarring.

The other thing that often drives me from the game is the frenetic pace of the combat. Perhaps I’m just a bit slow, or L2P U GIANT N00B as they say on the streets of downtown Ascalon, but combat for me goes a little something like this:

Ok Melmoth, this is it, come on now, there’s the enemy and there’s only five of them, you’ve got four henchmen backing you up, you can do this!

Right, here we go, move forward a little bit to try to get into range so that I can select them, then I can call a targ… oh lord they’ve spotted us already! Where’s all my health gone?! I, uh, what skills did I pick to heal with?! Too late, I’m dead for sure… oh wait, the healer henchmen has me back to full health! Huzzah for you Mr Healer, you’re a credit to your professi… hey where has everyone gone? Oh crikey they’re all over there attacking the enemy.

Ok, in combat range now, I’ll start my first combo, 1. Pow! 2. Clang! 3. 3. 3? What do you mean I don’t have enough energy?! Oh gods my health is almost zero again, how did that happen?! Mash the heal button. Still not enough energy? Damnit I’m dying here! Ok, enough energy now, Melmoth heal thyself! Damnit the healer henchman got a heal on me first, so that was a total waste of a heal. Never mind Melmoth, never mind, there’re still a few enemies to mop up. Let’s start our combo. again. 1. 1? 1?! Not enough energy? What?! Oh right, my heal used it all. Tum te tum, just wait for a bit of energy. Ok there we go, right, time to attack! 1! Yes! 2. 2? 2?! My target is dead? Oh for fu… ok, never mind I’ll just run over to the last mob and have a go at him, right, almost there. Hello my henchmen! Your beloved leader is here to help! Stand back and watch the master at work, aaaannnnd 1! Oh, you’ve killed the mob.

I seem to spend every combat either trying to get to a new target because my current one has died before I have managed to reach all the way from the ‘w’ key to press the ‘1’ key to start an attack, or I spend time waiting for my energy to regenerate because I’ve already used TWO WHOLE skills, by which time the mob is dead and I have to find a new target. If it’s not enough that I’m limited in a mission to just eight skills from the vast array of excellent skills that my character has learnt, half the time I can’t use many of those skills because my energy supply is so short. I’m basically reduced to being an auto-attack automaton, or so it seems, and I find this very frustrating.

The curious thing is that although I enjoy combat in WoW, when I’ve come to analyse what I actually do during each fight it basically amounts to using probably no more than three or four skills over and over, whilst sometimes throwing in the odd extra ability from the five thousand little used powers that I have spread across half my screen on twenty different action bars. City of Heroes likewise, where you probably have ten abilities that you use over and over, and you don’t get to swap them between missions for other cool and exciting abilities like you do in Guild Wars! Yet combat in City of Heroes is more enjoyable to me, it’s still fairly frantic and it can be quite scary when you’re facing a group of mobs large enough that they can quantify their gross domestic product, but it doesn’t leave me with this feeling of frustration and inadequacy at the end of each fight, more one of elation and power.

For me Guild Wars is one of those curious anomalies in a gamer’s experience, a game that on paper has everything that I could want in a massively multiplayer game, and yet for some reason fails to capture the imagination or present a hook large enough to reel me in. For now I’ll just have to sit quietly next to Guild Wars in the back seat of the car and sneak in gut punches to it when the adults aren’t looking in the rear view mirror.

We have all the time in the world

I’m totally hooked on Mass Effect at the moment, really enjoying it. Exploring the galaxy, Killing evil constructs a-plenty, Achieving the Achievements and Socialising with NPCs (particularly a couple of members of the crew, if you know what I mean), it ticks all the boxes. It strikes a nice balance, giving enough side quests and options that you don’t feel you’re totally on rails without being so open that you’re overwhelmed with choice. While the side quests are entirely optional I’m always drawn to them just in case there’s some especially shiny reward, which can lead to some slightly odd situations plot-wise: “Commander, the GALAXY is in MORTAL PERIL and TIME is of the ESSENCE! You must find the EVIL MASTERMIND with ALL SPEED before he DESTROYS US ALL! Oh, and some cult has gone a bit mad, there’s maybe twenty or thirty people in mild peril on some godforsaken planet nobody cares about.” “Really? Mild peril you say? Sounds like loot to be had, call the Evil Mastermind and tell him to hold off on the galactic destruction, I’ll be round later…”