Monthly Archives: October 2009

Thought for the day.

I’m not sure that giving your players the equivalent choice of playing for a month or fixing their broken character is entirely sound business acumen.

There may be a very good reason (if tax avoidance is ever a good reason) why game companies in general seem to use point systems to price their virtual goods and services, but from at least one perspective it looks like nothing more than a weasel wrapper attempting to obfuscate the real world price.

If I were invited to a dinner party with my characters, I wouldn’t show up.

As a member of a Lord of the Rings Online static group, who meet but once per week to continue their epic struggle against overwhelming odds with the most evil creatures the land has to offer, as well as convene in the halls of the Last Homely House to discuss affairs of state vital to the free people of Middle Earth, such as whether the interior of our kinship house would look better painted pea-green or pumpkin-orange, I am fully aware of how far we are behind the current story arc of the game. We have yet to venture into Moria proper, and are on number ten out of some huge number, at least five thousand I’m sure, of the book based content in volume one.

Even with the Mirkwood expansion soon to be released I, for one, am still in no hurry to get into the Moria content of volume two; I’m looking forward to it undoubtedly, but it is evident that there is still an abundance of things for us to see and do in volume one of the game.

However, one thought that germinated in my brain and sent its tender roots tickling their way through the field of my mind was thus: with the inevitable progression of the story and with its forgone conclusion, are we going to be late to the party? Are we going to be like the embarrassingly late couple who turn up and leap through the door shouting “Surprise!” just as everyone else is heading home? I picture a fellowship of heroes – two elves, two dwarves, a man and a hobbit – huffing and puffing their way across the fields of the Pelennor, clattering up the streets of Gondor under the gaze of astonished and puzzled eyes, shouting “Sorry!” *huff* “Sorry we’re late!” *puff* “Have we missed much of the battle?”, tumbling over each other into the hall of the king shouting “Surprise!”; “We’ll save you Mr Frodo!”; “Down with this Sauron thing!” and “Careful now!”, only to be faced with Eldarion son of Aragorn, Second High King of the Reunited Kingdom of Gondor and Arnor, who can only ponder the purpose of these curiously mannered folk are who cluttering up his throne room, and who then has to put a comforting arm around their collective shoulders and quietly explain that there has been peace in the land for the last hundred years.

A world story is a wonderful thing in an MMO, unless you’re late to the party.

Reviewlet: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Batman: Arkham Asylum was much lauded upon release by game pundits and players alike, and reported pretty much universally as a firm indication of the imminent second coming of our lord and saviour – J. Holy-Christ O.B.E, until the mania died down, people got bored, and everyone moved on to the next effusion of orgasmic halleluiahs, which seem to currently being ejaculated for Uncharted 2, with Brutal Legend surprisingly and sadly being cast down into the pits of gaming Hades where, ironically, it’s probably most comfortable, and is even now rocking out with the Lord of Hellfire; although, if a game that revels in the satanic imagery of the heavy metal scene is sent to Hell, does it really go to the fiery pits of the Inferno, or is it perhaps forced to reside in a quiet country field full of sheep and bunnies and forced to play Singstar: Annoying Whiney Girl Band Edition for all eternity? Regardless, the crowd of gourd worshippers have rushed off after a new messiah, and so I decided to pick through the debris of their wake and see what all the fuss was about.

The introductory sequence instantly lets us know that this game is aiming more at Dark Knight than the television show of the sixties, or even the much acclaimed slightly more serious-but-still-aimed-at-kids animated show of recent years, despite many of the actors from that show being employed to work their vocal voodoo on this game. Indeed, Mark Hamill’s Joker is a masterful work, and had it not been for one Heath Ledger, would probably be considered the definitive acted interpretation of the master villain. The other insight that the introductory sequence gives us is that the game is running on Epic Games’ Unreal Perspiration Engine, a curious piece of technology which can render landscape environments in stunning and immaculate detail but always manages to make skin look overly shiny as though it’s covered with a sheen of sweat. Maybe it’s a deliberate commentary on the future side effects of global warming, or perhaps a reflection on the greater existential problem of mankind’s permeability of thought, that our motives and desires inevitably leak through to the facade that we present to the world, and the people we interact with can see themselves reflected in the sweat-like sheen of this psychic projection. Either that or someone left the PHONG_SHADE_ALL_SKIN_TEXTURES flag set to TRUE again.

If you want a dry but detailed account of the game I would recommend the Wikipedia article. The game has a story typical of the genre, it’s a suitable vehicle to allow Batman to go forth and verily punch punks in the teeth with wild abandon, but it’s hardly going to win any awards for originality. It’s a super hero comic book adaptation, and as such it follows the trend of Big Bad Boss quite astonishingly escaping from a maximum security facility – for the third time this week – and contriving a huge and convoluted plot to destroy the hero’s City of Protective Choice whilst giving our hero every opportunity to stop him under the pretence of needing to toy with the hero first. The Joker is one of the few villains where a writer can get away with this script over and over again, because it’s basically the Joker’s modus operandi – he has to pick at the bat-shaped scab that scars his mind – but even so, if you couldn’t see the whole plot laid out before you from the very beginning of the game – like the walls of the Matrix in that scene where Keanu Reeves finally, oh thank the lord FINALLY, realises that he is Of Course THE ONE, You Plank – then you probably don’t read comics much. The important thing with the story in Batman: Arkham Asylum is that it doesn’t get in the way of running around and giving generic goons a darn good kicking, this is more important than one might think, and I’ll come back to why in a moment.

Giving generic goons a good old fashion knuckle sandwich is what super hero comic book games are all about, because it’s what super hero comics are all about. You can pretend that super hero comics aspire to a higher art status, that they reflect the nature of society’s doubts and tackle the difficult issues of the time, but in the end they resolve those issues by finding someone that they classify as naughty and punching them hard in the teeth. Watchmen – resolved by punching people in the teeth. V for Vendetta – teeth punching. Grandville – there might have been some animals in there who don’t have teeth, but whatever tooth-like substitute they have, you can be sure that they were punched in them. The combat in the game is beautifully realised, it’s not just the simplicity of the Rock-Band-like rhythm system that it uses, where timing your punches to the beat of the fight awards you with a linked combination of moves that cause greater damage, but the fact that these moves flow seamlessly together and look totally natural. If someone attacks from behind and you counter the move, Batman doesn’t just turn mechanically and punch the assailant, but grabs the kicking leg and snaps it with an elbow drop, or back-fists them in the face. There are a huge variety of moves, such that, even if you aim at an enemy who is across the room from you, Batman will move to attack them in a way that couldn’t have been choreographed any better: back-flipping across the room and kicking the goon while Batman flips himself onto his feet being just one example. It’s another nod to the ‘less is more’ style of game design, you essentially mash just one button to attack, use the directional stick to aim at the enemy you want that attack to land on, and the game does the rest. The subtlety is in the timing, in using the counter attack button judiciously, and in working your way around the room of enemies in a systematic fashion such that none of them even get a chance to retaliate. Because the combat is simplistic yet nuanced, and because the player is not having to constantly remember five or six different button actions along with the thousands of additional combinations of those buttons in order to progress, the combat is utterly immersive, you come out of the other end of a fight with Batman standing over a pile of incapacitated felons, adjusting his Batsuit cuffs in the nonchalant manner of one who has just single handedly pummelled an entire steroidally overdosed American Football team armed with baseball bats into submission (they tried fighting with the implements of their chosen profession, but hitting someone with an American football just doesn’t have the same impact), and you think “Wow, look at what Batman did!” and then you check yourself and think “No, wait, look at what I did as Batman!”.

As good a game as it is, I think that immersion is the real triumph of Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Coming back to the fact that the story doesn’t get in the way of the game, this also helps with the immersion. The cut scenes are kept to a minimum, as such you don’t have your immersion broken by suddenly becoming a passenger in a scene that you were moments ago in control of. These cut scenes often change the camera angle so that you view your character in a way that can only be seen as you peering in from the outside, they eject you from the world you were living in and make you watch, helpless, as the entity that was you a moment before is now under the control of Mr Story-Teller. Honestly, I think that Rocksteady Studios could have removed the cut-scenes altogether and had the player play through them in an interactive way, but since they are kept to a minimum they provide, if nothing else, a suitable reminder that it might be time for a quick cup of tea, or to evacuate the previous five cups of tea.

The attention to detail magnifies the level of immersion. Batman’s costume gets ripped on several occasions, and that battle damage stays with you throughout the rest of the game. Therefore, when you come back to the game you are instantly reminded as to what Batman has been through up to this point in the game and you are reminded of your previous battles, as such you are able to settle back into the game that much quicker, even having been away from the game for some time. Batman’s outfit tells ‘the story so far’ and you get your reminder almost subliminally.

Adding further to the feeling that you are Batman is the fact that the game embraces the way Batman generally operates: he piles into groups of enemies and martial arts them into submission, or he sneaks around and uses fear and the shadows as his weapons, picking off heavily armed opponents one at a time. With the former method the game positively encourages you to wade into groups of enemies and revel in fighting against overwhelming odds and winning through, although you quickly come to realise that you are the Goddamn Batman and that unless there are twenty or more of them facing off against you, the odds are not going to be in their favour. The latter method is equally well handled, with Batman quickly being able to learn the inverted takedown manoeuvre from the obligatory character progression mechanic (often incorrectly using the appropriated term RPG, it seems). With the inverted takedown available, Batman is able to hang from the rafters unseen until an unsuspecting enemy walks underneath, at which point you drop down on a line, grab the enemy and whip back up into the shadows, stringing him up for his friends to find. The AI is well programmed, such that the remaining felons come running to their compatriot’s aid, and finding him all Bat Bondaged, exclaim in terror to the room in general “Who are you?!” and other such phrases, and then stick together more often, reflecting their increased fear. This all serves to make the player feel utterly powerful as they sit in the shadows of the ceiling and gloat. The game goes to great lengths to make sure the player always feels like Batman, and feeling like Batman means feeling in control. There’s this dark brooding menace and arrogance of self belief that serves Batman well in the comics, and the player is never thinking “how am I going to overcome this challenge” when it comes to combat, they’re simply thinking “what’s going to be the most entertaining way to overcome this challenge”. It’s never a matter of ‘if I overcome this’, it’s merely a matter of ‘when I’ve overcome this’. There are a couple of disappointments with respect to the immersion in this case: the stealth aspect of the game relies on Batman strategically using oh so conveniently placed gargoyle statues around the ceiling of the rooms in order to execute his divide and conquer strategy; it may just be that the architect of Arkham Asylum was as insane as its inmates, and this manifested itself in stuffing gargoyle heads at random into rooms that were clearly otherwise not designed for them, but in all honesty it just screams game mechanic, which is all the more stark when compared to the cleverly hidden mechanics in the rest of the game. It’s perplexing when considering that the mechanic for the Bat Grapple when used to move around the rest of the game world is, like most elements of the game interface, simple and enjoyable to use. Another immersion breaker is that the stealth sections are clearly defined, you can’t use the inverted takedown in the outside areas, despite there being many walkways and guard towers that would make perfect ambush spots. Apparently it only works from gargoyles. These are minor niggles though, and quickly forgotten when you realise that no matter the environment, there are punks who need to be taught a lesson, and you’re the one who is ideally suited to give it.

So the combat is delicious, and this being a super hero comic game that makes it ninety percent perfect straight out of the gate. There are a few other things worth mentioning though. For example, this being a super hero comic game, all of the female characters (barring Token Dowdy Doctor Lady) are over-sexualised to the point of driving all the way past the suburbs of Parody and heading deep into downtown Juvenile Masturbation Fantasy. For good or for bad, foxy females are a staple of super hero comic books, but in recent years it seems to have devolved from the innocence of pubescent infatuation into a more demeaning, derogatory and dark place better suited to seedy Soho stores. It’s a shame to see the game follow this trend, because although the Dark Knight had an adult audience as its intended focus, it refrained from such cheap thrills.

The Sandman levels are also worth a mention, making excellent use of the villain’s hallucinogenic devices to twist the game on its head and provide a nice change of pace to the ‘explore and conquer’ mode of the main game. Think American McGee meets Mario and you won’t be far wrong.

And finally two design decisions which show the curious nature of game development, where on the one hand the old tropes of past games are ignored, and yet another is included for no added benefit. Throughout the game there are numerous ventilation grates which Batman can yank off in order to sneak around obstacles and enemies, but to do this you have to go up to the vent, press the A button to start the process and then repeatedly mash the A button in order to pull the vent from its housing. Why? It seems utterly pointless, there’s no game to it, you either press A enough or you don’t, there’s no timing or rhythm mini-game, the amount of noise you make isn’t affected by the speed of your button presses, it’s just utterly pointless, and I’m totally curious as to why it’s in there. On the other hand, Rocksteady Studios completely resisted any urge to add a token and utterly inane driving section to the game. Possibly a first in any Batman game to date, and something that they should be congratulated on. When the Batmobile blows up somewhere near the start of the game, I couldn’t have cheered more.

There’s no doubt that Batman: Arkham Asylum is an accomplished game; whether it’s actually worthy of the Second Coming praise that has been showered upon it, or whether that was just a product of a games journalism industry floored out of left field by a competent and compelling super hero game, I think it must be for the individual player to decide, but if you love the idea of the being the one, the only, the true “Goddamn Batman”, then welcome to Judgement Day.

Thought for the day

As a bunch of MMOs begin ramping up for their whatever-Halloween-is-called-in-that-particular-game celebrations (this season’s must-have undead clearly being The Zombie), I reckon it’s time for one company to be bold and stand out from the crowd with a totally different sort of event. Why is no MMO staging a Windows 7 Launch Party? World of Warcraft could add an NPC called “Steve” who sends you out to kill hundreds of feline mobs in a wintry zone, rewarding you with rare and powerful Windows Cards (a bit like the Darkmoon Faire cards, only with the Microsoft logo and no actual benefits); Dungeons and Dragons Online could re-purpose an early instance so that the swarms of kobolds, instead of attacking you, shout out helpful tips about how to burn a CD in Windows 7 or get it to organise your photo collection. Extra storage is always welcome, why not hand out 20-slot Windows tote bags? It’s a sure fire hit!

I’ve got blisters on my fingers!

After a vigorous evening of highly scientific testing with Guitar Hero 5 and Rock Band 2 I’m ready to present my paper Upon The Differences Between The Second Full-Band Plastic Instrument Based Entertainment Software Released By Harmonix And Neversoft, and my neighbours are ready to call the local council regarding a noise abatement order.

Guitar & Bass
There isn’t much difference between the two games for guitar and bass gameplay; hit the five coloured buttons and strum, collect “star power”/”overdrive” in certain sections with a whammy on held notes for a bonus, tilt guitar to activate. I slightly prefer the circular “gems” on the note track of Guitar Hero vs the rectangular blocks in Rock Band, but I suspect that might just be a case of being more used to the Guitar Hero games; the other visual thing on the note track is that Rock Band adds some swirly background colours when in overdrive that I found slightly distracting, though not to the point of missing notes particularly.

Each game has a slight nuance; I quite like the Rock Band solo sections that offer bonus points depending on the percentage of notes hit, and in Guitar Hero hammer-on chords and open notes on the bass work quite nicely, but overall it doesn’t make a massive difference. I declare… A DRAW!

Though mostly playing guitar and bass, I do like to flail around like a madman now and again. And also play the drums, ah! There’s a more obvious difference between the two games here, Guitar Hero 5 continuing the World Tour setup of three drums pads (red, blue, green) and two cymbals (yellow and orange) compared to the four drum pads of Rock Band that represent different drums and cymbal as needed.

Playing Rock Band with the Guitar Hero drums I haven’t had any major issues, as most songs so far have been based around red being snare and yellow being hi-hat, which maps naturally to the GH drums. It does feel slightly odd sometimes with the blue pad often doubling as a cymbal (the orange cymbal of the GH kit can be used in addition to the blue pad, but I’m usually having enough trouble remembering to hit that pedal thing at the right time to worry about anything else), and a couple of songs seem to go a bit crazy and mix the drum mapping up even more, but I’ve generally been doing fairly well on the same Hard level I’ve been playing in Guitar Hero 5. I’d turn to a rather better drummer for a more considered view, though.

Aside from the pad layout the basic gameplay is again pretty similar (“HIT PAD WITH STICK FOR POINTS!”), though there’s a difference in star power/overdrive activation: in Guitar Hero at any point you can hit the yellow and orange cymbals at the same time to activate star power, in Rock Band the game leaves you a space for a drum fill, following which you can hit the green pad to activate overdrive. In theory the GH method sounds better, giving the player full control of when they want to bring star power in for either a score boost or to help out for a trick section, but in practise I’ve found I’m usually a bit busy actually hitting the proper notes to take time out and kick star power in; if I try and go for it, I almost always end up missing a few notes, resetting the score multiplier and slightly defeating the object.

With the overdrive activation counterbalancing the occasionally odd pad layout, I declare… A DRAW!

I try not to inflict what could very loosely be termed my “singing” upon the world in general, but I have caterwauled along to a few songs in both games. Once again with the broadly similar gameplay, words appear on screen and you attempt to vibrate your vocals chords in such a manner as to produce a sound wave of a frequency in keeping with what the game’s expecting.

I could make a half-decent stab at quite a few World Tour tracks, but Guitar Hero 5 is either less forgiving or I’ve got worse (or the songs are harder), as even on Easy mode I’m not putting in very good performances; in Rock Band 2 on the other hand I’ve hit 100% in a couple of songs (though perhaps its Easy mode is closer to Guitar Hero’s Beginner). Rock Band 2 also has percussive sections, where the singer hits the microphone in time to the music a la tambourine or cowbell, which is quite welcome, especially in songs with lengthy instrumental sections; in Stranglehold on Guitar Hero World Tour you could sing a couple of verses then wander off, whip up a light salad, clear excessive leaves from the guttering and construct a rudimentary pot from clay while Ted Nugent noodled around on guitar. Guitar Hero sometimes counters the boredom with “freestyle” sections, where, as the name suggests, you can freestyle (hiphopopotamus style) and apparently gain points for fitting in with the general pitch and rhythm of the song, but I’m not entirely sure much of the rock oeuvre lends itself to going “shooby dooby bop bop do ba ba” at random intervals.

This would’ve been a victory for Rock Band 2, then, but it blows it with the overdrive activation. In Guitar Hero 5 you can activate star power by tapping the mic, or more usefully pressing the A button on the Wiimote at any time. In Rock Band 2, you have to wait for an appropriate moment (when you’re not supposed to be singing), and… shout. Or go “woo!” or something. I’m quite self conscious enough about singing at the best of times without needing to draw extra attention to the whole business. At least the rock-tastic nature of most of the songs means it isn’t quite as daft as in The Beatles: Rock Band (“here comes the sun, do do do do, here comes the sun, and I said… right let’s activate Beatlemania YO LONDON ARE YOU READY FOR THE SUN LET ME HEAR YOU WOO!”), but it’s also not terribly precise. I’ve taken to coughing to activate overdrive (*ahem*, sorry, don’t mind me, just overdriving here), but being able to push a button at any time is a much better idea, leading to vocals being… A DRAW!

Musical Selection
Very personal, this one, you’d need to decide for yourself. There’s some cracking songs in both games, and as per usual they’re introducing me to some interesting new stuff, none of which I’ve (really) hated. Yet. After careful consideration, I’d have to declare… A DRAW!

Downloadable Content
While not strictly speaking DLC, Rock Band allows users to export most of the songs from Rock Band 1 to play in Rock Band 2… on the 360 and PS3. Not for the Wii, unfortunately, partly no doubt because Rock Band 2 came out before the Wii had SDHC support, limiting it to 2Gb cards. Guitar Hero 5 does support SDHC, and you can download some of the World Tour and Greatest Hits content if you have those games (only around half the set list in each case, though), which just claws back enough points to stop it being utterly obliterated in this category.

In terms of actual DLC, Rock Band already had a massive head start of a back catalogue when Guitar Hero World Tour was released, and though Neversoft have been churning out three songs most weeks for Guitar Hero World Tour and now 5 the gap keeps opening with Harmonix regularly adding 10 or more Rock Band tracks, it’s really no content (especially as the crown jewels, in my opinion, of World Tour DLC, the Hendrix tracks, are the only ones that can’t be used in GH5).

The only potential fly in the ointment was for us poor old UK Wii users; the music store wasn’t available at release (fair enough, it took a couple of weeks for the Guitar Hero 5 store to be available), and we had the promise of “over 250 songs available on disc and for download by early 2010”. My suspicion was that there’d be a gradual trickle of songs over the next couple of months, but in fact the music store turned up last Tuesday with a veritable Texas Flood of hot rocking action, 170-odd songs to choose from. While that’s only around a quarter of the total library, it’s a damn good start made damnably gooder by the fact that one of those songs is Still Alive by GLaDOS and Jonathan Coulton, and damnationally goodest of all, it’s free! Naturally this renders Rock Band 2 an instant triumph and furthermore great success, so I declare the winner to be ROCK BAND 2!

Finally, the career modes. I touched on these a bit previously, very generally Guitar Hero 5 being a more linear progression through difficulty with achievement-centric challenges for each song, and Rock Band 2 being a sort of RPG-ish development of your band travelling around the world earning money and fans. Both games allow you to branch out from the on-disc songs, which is very welcome, Guitar Hero has an open challenge or two in every venue for which you can pick any song, including DLC and imported songs, and Rock Band 2 venues have a variety of gigs options including choosing your own setlist.

As well as picking your own songs Rock Band 2 offers various mystery setlists, which have all the usual advantages and drawbacks of randomness. On the plus side, if the 100-odd songs on offer lead to paralysis of indecision when it comes to deciding what to actually play, you can let the console decide for you. On the downside, the console is deciding for you, and might like to have a laugh and finish off every sodding set with SODDING RATT.

Overall, I really couldn’t pick between Rock Band 2’s money and fan accumulation and Guitar Hero’s challenges, I suspect they’ll both keep me coming back for as long as I’m interested in either. Yup, I declare… A DRAW!

Get both games, buy whatever DLC appeals, and LET THERE BE ROCK!

Imagination grows by exercise, and contrary to common belief, is more powerful in the mature than in the young.

I decided to grab the Dragon Age: Origins character creator last night; I’ve no intention of getting the game any time soon because it sounds like it’s going to be one of Bioware’s typically epic games, and I really don’t have the time at the moment to dedicate to it.

But I’m a sucker for a good character creator.

So I downloaded the three hundred and seventy-odd megabyte installer, ran it and then launched the newly installed character creator.

The first thing that popped-up was an ESRB rating certificate, with the following advisory text:

“M for Blood, Intense Violence, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content”.

“Wow”, thought I, “this is going to be some serious character creation”.

So I rolled up my sleeves and got a box of tissues handy.

I’ve never been so disappointed to see a bunch of sliders, stats and text dialogues, in all my life.

Story, achievement and progression

The Beatles: Rock Band, Guitar Hero 5 and Rock Band 2 (yes, they really did release the Wii version in the UK) are RPGs. Honest. Oh, all right, they’re actually music games, you’ve defeated me with your piercing logic, but they do have some RPG elements.

All three games share the basic push-coloured-buttons-in-time-to-music basic gameplay; you can just launch in and play on your own or in a band with friends for fun, or you can play competitively, with each performance gaining a number of points and awarded a rating out of five stars. All three games also offer some sort of extended gameplay mode.

The Beatles: Rock Band features a story mode; those of you who like to play amateur detective may be able to deduce from the title of the game that it’s the story of the Beatles. In this mode the songs are arranged chronologically rather than by difficulty and inextricably linked to famous venues like the Cavern Club and Abbey Road studios, through which you progress linearly. You’re always represented as your chosen Beatle, with garb and instrument appropriate to the time, and have no way of affecting the story; you can’t decide to split the band up in 1968 or keep it together in 1970. It’s a bit like an early laserdic game, one of the ones that basically just played a series of sequences and forced the “player” to push the right button at the right time to keep it going. It makes a lot more sense when pushing the buttons is quite fun, though, and in the case of The Beatles the story is the music, which is the gameplay. As a linear story there isn’t a great incentive to play through it more than once, though there are some bonus bits n’ pieces (mostly photographs and some audio and video clips) for either compulsive completionists or Beatles fanatics.

Guitar Hero 5 and Rock Band 2 have career and tour modes respectively that start with that RPG staple, character creation. Name your band, pick a logo, and create the band members. Rock Band 2 is the more traditionalist, allowing you to select your face, hairstyle, physique etc., then handing you your starter gear of a tatty t-shirt, jeans and a basic instrument; Guitar Hero 5 is more akin to City of Heroes or Champions, offering a massive range of outfits to select from and customisable instruments down to the pick-guard colour and knob configuration (Matron) on your guitar. Both games then despatch you to various venues, and hand out cash as well as points scores and star ratings for playing songs.

The Guitar Hero 5 career is fairly structured. There isn’t a story as such (some of the previous games had little cut scenes, usually of a generic small town band becoming global megastars as you progressed with the odd digression into rock heaven/hell), you’re turned loose into a series of venues, broadly arranged in increasing difficulty, each with five to eight songs. Future venues, and songs within venues, need to be unlocked but it’s a fairly swift process with a degree of freedom, not the strictly linear progression of the first few Guitar Hero games or The Beatles. On top of the usual five star rating each song also has a challenge, as I outlined previously, giving plenty of goals for the achievement-centric, offering a further three stars to collect plus various costume and character unlocks.

Tour mode in Rock Band 2 has the strongest elements of development or progression. Starting out clad in an old t-shirt with $100 to your name, the money you’re awarded for successfully completing songs is vital for expanding your collection of clothes, instruments and accessories. You pick a home city for your characters and the band, and initially have access to a limited selection of small venues in nearby cities; as you play, you can compete in challenges to unlock vehicles, allowing access to venues further afield, and bigger venues as you become more successful In addition to cash rewards you earn fans for performances, giving a measure of success, and you can even hire a member of support staff like a promoter or merchandise vendor. You could almost remove the playing-along-to-songs bit and still be left with a tycoon-style band management game.

While not quite meeting all four of Bioware’s pillars of RPG (“you’ve got exploration, you’ve got progression, you’ve got combat, and you’ve got storytelling”) it’s interesting to see cross fertilisation of mechanics across game genres. Next stop, a proper guitar-wielding Bard class in an MMO! Or maybe a dual-wielding mace class using a drum set for the input, I can think of someone who’d be ideal for that…

Slow down and examine the mysterious bits of fluff in our lives.

The age old question of character definition continues to wend its way around the hills and vales of Blogland, asking whether ’tis better to suffer the confines and restrictions of fixed character classes, or to take the concept of class away and give players the freedom to create munchkins and gimps in equal measure. Rather than skill points, Champions Online attempts to kowtow to those who fancy freedom by providing pools of skills from which the player can choose, reigning in advancement by placing a prerequisite of a number of basic skills on the more powerful abilities; favour is given to those who stick with one pool of powers, opening up the most powerful abilities sooner by requiring a smaller number of basic powers from that pool to unlock the powerful ability, as opposed to a larger number of basic powers from random other pools. Still, despite the incentive of the power frameworks, as they are known, it is quite easy to create a character which is nigh-on unplayable, the cost of undoing such a mistake… prohibitive.

This is the fundamental design issue with non-class-based systems (skill points as used in EVE are one such system, but not the only non-class system, as evidenced by the Champions Online example previously), with freedom comes great opportunity to gimp your character, with it also comes the power to munchkin a character so hideous in design that the developers, arms across their eyes, reel from it in horror as if the very concept of it burns their eyes and threatens to corrupt their soul. When a game such as Champions Online includes PvP, the need for balance quickly makes the freedom of creativity awarded to the players a rod for the developer’s back. Even EVE Online, which has taken the skill system and implemented it fantastically well, has encountered issues where the developers have had to adjust the game in order to counter very specific character builds which exploit certain skill and ship combinations to create something far more powerful than the developers ever envisioned. Yet EVE has shown us that skill systems can work, and work well. It’s still quite possible to create a gimped character in EVE, but the odds are against it, especially with the certificate system in place that allows an inexperienced player to see easily what basic skills they should be working on when aiming for a certain career path.

My thought is thus: why not have a mix of the two systems? I would suggest that the primary desire for non-class systems is the freedom to create a character that the player wants, admittedly in a large number of cases this would be a dual-wielding melee maniac who can shoot fireballs from their forehead and heal themselves at will, but a lot of the time players just want a bit more flexibility in customising their character and making them unique. Taking World of Warcraft as an example – a game which has tried with its talent point system to provide some limited flexibility within the scope of each of its classes – what would a dual character development system look like?

The example for this came to me recently when I had cause to play my Paladin briefly: I needed to travel across a large expanse of Ye Olde Azeroth on foot, and the Paladin’s Crusader Aura, in combination with an epic mount, just makes this a lot less effort, and there’s something compelling about watching your mount’s character model animate slightly faster than the developers originally intended, it conveys that extra sense of speed and simulates well enough the wind rushing through your character’s hair. Of course this caused me to rue the fact that I didn’t have such an ability on the Shaman that I’m currently levelling, who has a nice travel form which is all but redundant now that mounts are available from level twenty, except for a few special cases where I might be able to use it to escape from enemies, and of course it still has its uses in PvP. I thought to myself that I’d gladly give up my travel form for a Crusader Aura on my Shaman. I’m sure most people would, other than the PvPers and maybe a few Furry role-players. So that’s probably an easy exchange, what else would I give up? Well, my Shaman has several other fluff utilities – Water Breathing and Water Walking to name but a few – would I give those up too? My answer was still yes, because I like Crusader Aura that much; I’d give-up my travel form and the various fluff water-based abilities too. What about Astral Recall? Astral Recall is a spell which emulates the character’s hearthstone, allowing the Shaman to return to their bind point more often than other characters. It’s pretty useful when you need to whip from one side of the world to the other and back again, and it certainly made my levelling life a lot easier. That one would certainly be a more difficult choice for me.

There are many fluff abilities granted to classes in WoW, things that are there to make life a little easier, or to entertain and amuse, none of which affect the fundamental operation of the class. In a redesign of the game I think it would be viable to keep the core skills and spells of the class, and yet provide a more flexible non-class skill system outside of these core class abilities, a pool of skills and spells that players could dip into as they advance, made-up of those fluff abilities which are fun to have and often make life easier, but which would not gimp or overpower a character upon their application. I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of MMO players like fluff items, one only has to look at the clamour and furore caused by various mounts, non-combat pets and housing items, to see that this is the case. Players also – and I honestly don’t know why developers, in general, seem to have such a problem realising this in their games – like to have the freedom to express themselves through their character, although this partly ties in to the fluff items again: given a restrictive class-based system, players attempt to express themselves in other ways. To see such an example of this one only has to look at the costume customisation options in games such as Everquest II or Lord of the Rings Online to see the creativity that many players put into expressing themselves, or for a more extreme example: City of Heroes, where creating costumes and character concepts is often more of a game to the players than the levelling game proper.

Giving players freedom of expression when it comes to the way their character operates at a fundamental level is a difficult thing to do, few MMOs have attempted it, and fewer still have achieved it with any success. Perhaps, though, there is a way to give players some freedom of expression, a way to customise the abilities of their character to their own taste whilst at the same time maintaining a tighter control on the balance of combat encounters with a class-based development system.

Thought for the day

As Blizzard’s “make the shoulders bigger, add more horns and spikes” theme reaches its apogee in Tier 10, it’s obvious why a Cataclysm is needed: either they’re rebooting the armour sets before the “upside down Weeble” look goes too far, or all the doorways in the old world are going to be massively enlarged as part of the rebuilding effort so that characters can fit through them again.

Warcraft’s Tier 10: Horny Edition.

It’s always hard to tell the rumours from the facts with World of Warcraft, but seeing as this sneak peak comes from The Holders of Truth themselves, I guess it’s good.

Well, I say good…

Unhorny Here’s the Warrior Tier 10 helmet and shoulders on a Dwarf, I like the way that the helmet horn, even though it’s sheared-off halfway along its length, still clips nastily with the shoulder armour. Always classy to have your items clip horrendously in the most basic character model pose.

Bet it looks great on Blood Elves and Humans though.

Still, could be worse, you could be a druid.Horny What did your mother tell you about eating all those apple seeds? You’d get apple trees growing out of your ears, that’s right. Those do look more like rose bushes though.

Looks like Blizzard will have to update their collision detection code for this next patch so that they can correctly simulate all these Druids stumbling into stationary objects.

Me So HornyAnd finally let’s all take a moment in thought, a little quiet contemplation, and give thanks to the developers for giving all those Hunters a giant pseudo-phallus sticking out of their forehead to reflect how they are perceived by a large percentage of the World of Warcraft population.

I’m sure they’re all going to love that.