Monthly Archives: June 2010

All Paths Blocked.

DJ: “You’re listening to All Points Bulletin on 107.5 San Paro FM, headshotting you with explosive tunes twenty four seven! Traffic and Travel now, and we’ve got large queues backed-up on the I3, I7 and I8a. The I8b, I9 interchange, I12, and I14. The I15… pretty much all of the city really. Over to Tom in our Eye in the Sky for more details.”

Tom: “Thanks Bob. Well, since you started the report there have also been incidents on the I2 and I4 leaving them partially blocked, and at this very moment I can see four armed men have jumped out of a car on the I6, abandoning the car in the middle of the road and backing up the traffic there… and it’s just been rammed by a second car, which is now being machine gunned, and a security van has ploughed into the middle of everything, and someone’s got a rocket-propelled grenade laun-ARGHH, EVASIVE ACTION FRANK!”

DJ: “I’m sorry, we seem to have lost Tom there, some technical gremlins by the sound of it; hopefully we’ll be able to get back to him before too long. In the meantime, news just in: I’m getting reports of a helicopter crash on the I13 which is causing serious tailbacks. So that’s accidents on the I2, I3… on the I1, I2, I3, I4… Actually, here are the roads where there aren’t major incidents: I16. I’m… I’m just getting a report in that there’s a two car pile-up on the I16… a three car pile-up… three cars, and an ambulance trying to get to the wounded… nine cars, several ambulances, a fire truck, and an ice cream van being used as a mobile gun platform.

So that’s your traffic and travel news for this quiet balmy Monday lunchtime, we’ll have more travel in your area during the busy rush hour. Whoooof, looks like it’ll be slow going out there for a while folks, so here’s a little something to cheer-up all those of you trying to make your way across the city right now.”

♫ I like driving in my car, it don’t look much but I’ve been far ♫
♫ I like driving in my car, even with a flat tyre ♫
♫ I like driving in my car, it’s not quite a Jaguar ♫
♫ I like driving in my car, I’m satisfied I’ve got this far ♫

Why hype is Austensibly out of the developer’s control.


“What we try to do is not talk about things that are not finalized yet because we don’t want to over-hype things. That’s kind of why people are frustrated because we haven’t revealed a lot. A lot of people hype things that just don’t come to fruition and get people very frustrated.”
                 ——Rich Vogel, executive producer for SW:TOR, in a Massively interview.

Versus sensibility:

“Here at Darth Hater, we are known for our painfully thorough dissections of the nuts and bolts that make up Star Wars: The Old Republic. During our hands on time this Tuesday, we furiously scrambled to record as many facts as possible. Our own personal impressions will be coming shortly, but first we wanted to make sure the theorycrafters could get some real facts to sink their teeth into. Here are some of the key facts we discovered with our hands on time.”
                 ——E3: Class Ability Fact Sheet, Darth Hater.

KiaSA Top Tips.

MMO fans, simulate the highs and lows of your favourite MMO’s release cycle quickly and easily and from the comfort of your own home! Simply drink several litres of water until you desperately need to pee, then don’t allow yourself to go until you’re forced to hop from foot to foot just to stop yourself from bursting. When you can’t take any more, and your anticipation of the big event is unbearable, allow yourself to go just a little bit before stopping yourself again, thus experiencing a few seconds of respite before enduring even greater aching desperation than before. Finally, when your eyes are watering and you fear you may start to pee out of your ears, commit yourself to the final outpour of content. Enjoy relief and euphoria for the twenty seconds or so that it takes for you to complete the entire release, before finding yourself spent and exhausted and without anything left to do but flush the entire result of your efforts down the toilet and wait for the next cycle to begin!

Yours bladderingly,

I.P. Forfun

Assorted Ponderings on Beta

APB has launched its “Key to the City” open beta/demo/stress test event-type thing with codes available all over the place (including Rock, Paper, Shotgun and Eurogamer) for anyone who wants a bit of a peak. There’s a top-notch write up over at Combat Archaeology (with added Gary Numan lyrics), and I’ve been pottering about a bit as well.

The character creator, as unleashed almost exactly two years ago, is indeed amazing, taking slider-sliding to the next level. Crucially it’s not just for a face that you’ll hardly be looking at for the rest of the game (though you can tweak Cheekbone Depth, Nostril Flare and Earlobe Protrusion to your heart’s content) but overall height, weight and musculature as well. I believe the actual hit-box for all players is the same, though, to discourage the emaciated midget look being de rigeur. There are plenty of options for hair styles and colour, face and body hair, scars and the like; certain hairstyles can even manipulated with sliders to adjust lengths and angles of different elements, so if you’ve always wanted an asymmetric mullet this is your chance. And in the game, ah.

Launching into the actual game, the tutorial isn’t a non-stop rollercoaster of excitement, but serves to introduce the game mechanics efficiently enough without the risk of being gunned down. Said mechanics broadly consist of pressing “F”, a multi-purpose key for performing various mission tasks (spraying over graffiti, planting bugs to collect evidence), interacting with scenery (scrambling over fences, climbing ladders, opening doors with a highly satisfying boot regardless of whether you’re raiding a suspect property or ambling down to the police station car park) and getting hold of transport (by showing your badge and commandeering the vehicle if you’re an enforcer, or the more traditional punch to the face and car-jacking for criminals). It generally works well enough, though navigation can sometimes be a little annoying (only certain doors can be opened and designated fences vaulted, sometimes you’ll think you’re on the right track for an objective but end up underneath or just outside it requiring a frustrating search for the door/ladder/stairs you missed).

After the tutorial you have a choice of two “Action” districts to jump in and start gunning down criminals/enforcers (delete as appropriate, though with friendly fire both are an option), or the “Social” district where criminals and enforcers, much like ebony and ivory on my piano keyboard, live side-by-side in perfect harmony. The Social district is also where you can tinker about, terminals allowing access to the auction house and customisation options for your character’s body, clothes, car, symbols, theme tune and heated towel rail. The clothing terminal is a good starting point, after agonising over Ear Hair Density during character creation everyone is dumped into the game itself in the same training shirt and track pants. Hitting the clothing options you find a couple more basic items in your wardrobe, the option to purchase a few pieces, and a big ol’ list of locked items. Clothes unlocks are obviously a significant element of progression in the game so it’s not too surprising that you start with a limited selection, and you can still customise colours and overlay symbols and designs on a basic t-shirt for some interesting looks. Initial car customisation is similar, you’re stuck with the awesome crimefighting power of a two-door Ford Fiesta van type thing, but at least you can spray it in lurid colours and add logos of your choice. Spending time in the clothing and car designers earns rewards in the form of “Fashionista” and “Tuner” levels, granting a bit of cash and some item unlocks; mere time alone (for the first nine levels) seems a bit of an odd decision, and an incentive to leave the game open in a window, clicking now and again to avoid being flagged AFK, while, say, composing a blog post in another window… hey, Tuner Level 4!

Decked out in suitable gear it’s time to head over to an Action district for some, er, Action. Play is generally mission-driven; you can’t directly harm most other players right off the bat. This does take away slightly from the “world” feeling, but on the plus side it means you can survive for more than nine seconds; there is friendly fire, so the spawn points would become carnage, especially if you’ve just been playing a game where “Ctrl” is the crouch key and jump straight in to APB where it throws a grenade… If you did make it out of the front door of the police station, it would only be to get mown down by a random car, so a total free-for-all would be pretty awful. Instead you potter around, and if nothing else happening in the area a mission offer pops up asking you to do something suitably Enforcer-y like collecting evidence, spraying over graffiti or filling out lengthy paperwork to support “stop and search” operations. This is about as far as PvE goes in the game, and mostly involves going to a waypoint and pressing the magic “F” key, not too tricky. The interesting part comes as the match-making system kicks in, looks for a suitable band of criminals out there, and offers them the chance to try and stop you; if they accept, the sirens kick in, and it’s game on. It also works the other way around, with criminals getting missions to go and set fire to cars, nick stuff and drive without due care and attention, and suitable free Enforcer groups get the chance to go against them with a woop woop (that being the sound of da police). Criminals have a few general options without being on a specific mission to go ramraiding or otherwise causing mayhem around the city, and if Enforcers see them in the act they can report the crimes, kicking off ad-hoc missions; if you acquire enough of a reputation from performing well you can also attract a zone-wide bounty allowing anyone to engage you.

One thing I learned fairly quickly was that I’m not really cut out for solo play; one-on-one confrontations are mostly spent either trying to defend an objective, which will almost always have several approach paths, or take an objective knowing there’s an enemy player lurking somewhere in the vicinity. All very tense, sometimes an evenly matched confrontation, but more often a mismatch (usually ending up with me dead a lot, but just sometimes I came up against someone with even less clue than me for a quick victory). Slightly better when solo was answering backup calls; if the match-making system determines forces aren’t quite even on a mission, the weaker side gets to call for back-up, and the message goes out to suitable players or groups to join in. Best of all, though, was hooking up with a group of four, even random strangers, and going on missions mob handed. That way it’s less about stealth and stalking and more about one of you driving a car with the other three hanging out the windows blazing away at anything a bit hostile looking, and if you die there’s a decent opportunity of catching the enemy unaware as you head back from the spawn point. Missions are quick enough that you get a fair bit of variety, and if you meet a highly organised and skilled bunch in one it’s only five or ten minutes of pain before getting to move on.

All in all I’ve been rather enjoying it; it straddles a slightly awkward divide, being slightly wider in scope than most online shooters, but without being a deep persistent world, so I’m not sure how much longevity it will have, but for a few hours here and there of automotive mayhem it could be just the job.

It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you place the blame.

Football analogy incoming. You have been warned.

Goalkeepers are the MMO healers of football. In the England match this weekend past, goalkeeper Robert Green made a mistake and gifted the opposition a goal. Of course the English media, being the mindless ranting bunch of hooting apes that it is, vilified him to the public in such a way that you’d think he’d committed a crime worse than the murder of twelve people, an event already fading from the media’s effluent pipes as the shock and drama factor subsides and these misery sharks move on to feed on the sufferings of the next human tragedy.

Yet, in amongst the coverage, common sense has prevailed in some quarters: yes the goalkeeper made an embarrassing mistake which allowed the opposition to draw a game that we should perhaps have otherwise won, but at the other end of the pitch England’s strikers (the DPS of the team) missed a number of easy chances that would have put the team back in front, and yet little is said of these numerous mistakes because, at the end of the day, it’s all the fault of the goalkeeper and his one mistake.

So it’s not unique to MMOs, it seems to be human nature to vilify the most obvious point of failure while singularly ignoring the fact that really the team as a whole has failed; the strikers failed to score from opportunities that they should have scored from; the defenders failed to prevent the opposition player from getting a shot on goal; and, yes, the goalkeeper failed to save a shot that he should have saved. Unfortunately the latter is the easiest failure to categorically identify, to point to and say ‘that was a major mistake’. It’s the same with healing in an MMO, players are either dead or alive, and if they’re dead then the healer – whose job it is to keep players alive – has failed. Never mind that the DPS failed to use appropriate cool-downs to avoid drawing aggro, or failed to not stand in the fire. If someone dies and the party wipes it is always the healer’s mistake first.

Like goalkeeping, healing is one of those tasks where you often cannot win, you are the last line of defence in the success of your group, and when things go smoothly your efforts go unnoticed, but heaven forefend if you should make a mistake.

As with the English media, MMO players are prone to make a mountain out of a molehill, and blame the easy, obvious point of failure without any consideration to the performance of the team as a whole. As with football, in the minds of the fanatical, games are always won by the people standing at the front, and lost by the people standing at the back.

Melmoth likes to play healers in MMOs, and played as a goalkeeper throughout his amateur careers in both football and hockey. Any accusations of bitterness and barely suppressed rage are entirely substantiated.

Guitarmageddon, Round II

Mods vs Rockers, Punk vs Prog, East 17 vs Take That, musical history is littered with bitter conflict between violently opposed groups of fans, and the console age has added Guitar Hero vs Rock Band to the list. Pitched battles between gangs wielding plastic guitars, savage drumstick beatings, microphone cable garrottings, none of these things have happened, but some people have been quite cross on the internet and made some rather strongly worded forum posts castigating the rival franchise, sometimes even with multiple exclamation marks to really drive the point home.

Rock Band was the first full band game, of course, and has a formidable library of downloadable songs (over 1,100 apparently); Guitar Hero by contrast have released more individual game discs, drawing accusations of pumping out lazy sequels, milking the franchise etc. Were I to be a US-based XBox 360 owner I’d probably be firmly in the Rock Band camp, but seeing as the Wii version of Rock Band 2 took over a year to make it to the UK, arriving after Guitar Hero 5, I’m pretty evenly split between the two, though I’ve since found that Rock Band’s ever-growing array of downloadable content gives more reason to head back to it.

As E3 kicks off, the two titans are once again squaring off. I can’t recommend Plastic Axe highly enough, it’s a really excellent site and there’s a whole stack of exciting news there as details of Rock Band 3 emerge. Harmonix are picking up many of the nifty features of Guitar Hero 5 like making it easier for people to drop in and out of playing, change difficulties on the fly etc. They’re improving the song sorting and selection, plenty of general quality of life issues to make it a better experience. Those alone would be welcome.

They’re also adding a whole new instrument, keyboards, with a full two-octave controller with MIDI-out. To go with that is a “Pro” mode; it looks like at the easier levels you can mash one of a bunch of keys grouped into the usual red/green/yellow/blue/orange colours, but in Pro mode you’re pretty much playing the actual notes of the song.

They’re extending Pro mode to the drums as well, with three cymbals to be added to the four-pad drum kit and an optional second pedal for hi-hat/double bass. A MIDI adapter will also allow players to connect their own MIDI keyboards or drums to the system.

Most exciting for me, even the guitar gets Pro mode in the form of two new peripherals. You can use existing controllers in normal mode, but for Pro there’s going to be a digital option, a 102-button(!) fret-simulating guitar with six individual “strings” to strum, and a Fender Real Actual Guitar-y Guitar with some added tech to feed back your finger positioning to the game. I’ve been tempted many times to have a crack at learning the guitar properly, but I don’t think I’d have the motivation to sit down with Burt Weedon’s Play in a Day (and certainly not enough to actually go out of the house for lessons or something), this could be just the thing.

There’s also going to be a new Guitar Hero game, “Warriors of Rock”. It’s going to feature… Gene Simmons doing some narration. Oh, and a new peripheral too, with the amazing feature of… being able to take the sides of the guitar off, and put different pieces on instead to make it look like a slightly rubbish axe.

I really did like the previous Guitar Hero games, and Warriors of Rock sounds like it’s going to be fun enough as Yet Another Guitar Game, but hardly bringing much new to the genre. About the only chance it might have had is if it took Harmonix another year to remember where the UK is, but the press release promises “Holiday 2010 in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and other territories”. Alas, poor Guitar Hero; I knew it, Horatio.

Reviewlet: Red Dead Redemption.

Red Dead Redemption: incredible world, mediocre game.

You play as John Marston, reformed gunslinger, family man, cowboy, philosopher, and – in the grand tradition of all Rockstar games – everybody’s bitch. Like Nico Bellic, Tommy Vercetti and his other game-based predecessors, John Marston is a criminal jellyfish: an entity with a vicious sting but utterly spineless. In the case of Red Dead Redemption the excuse for this utter inability to get anywhere in life without having to perform some weird and wonderful set of tasks for a random gaggle of strangers, is that Marston is trying to turn a over new leaf and become a good man because he now has a family. I suppose the game is set in the Wild West after all, where clichés roamed far and wide and free, therefore as much as I’d like to lasso this one, hogtie it and throw it off a cliff, I’ll have to let it slide.

The game follows the traditional Rockstar format, with a main plot that sweeps you around the game world, and numerous side quests offered by random strangers that allow you to build fame and honour and earn a little cash on the side. It’s the nature of Rockstar games that the path to redemption for the (anti)hero involves doing menial tasks for people before they’ll give you the information you need to go to the next person who wants you to do menial tasks for them, but it becomes so rote and formulaic that it often fails to take into account the nature of the hero and his situation. Early on in the game you meet the local sheriff, a brilliant character straight out of finest Western traditions, whose lack of trust for former outlaw Marston is both understandable and sensible. He gets Marston to ride with him and take down a local gang to prove that he’s on the straight and level before even entertaining the idea of doing him a favour in return. But then there are numerous characters where you can’t help but think that, instead of running off to do their laundry or fetch their cat out of a tree, Marston would be better off reverting to type for just a few moments, taking out his revolver, forcing it into their mouth and telling them to stop messing him about and give him the address of the next time-wasting moron he needs to meet up with. The man is a former outlaw whose family is being held hostage, and yet he feels the best way to get what he wants is to act like a spoilt teenager being asked to do chores for pocket money: a bit of whining and huffing and “I hate you!” before tromping off to do what he was asked, hands in pockets, kicking sulkily at stones. Either that or there’s an unquestioning acceptance of situations that seem to gradually escalate in silliness:

“Could you tell me where the bathroom is, sir?”

“You’re John Marston aren’t you? Well, then, I can tell you where the bathroom is Mr Marston, but first I need you to do me a little favour.”

<hopping from foot to foot>”I’m listening.”

“I’ve got this sister over in Mexico who needs to know if I’m coming to luncheon this Sunday, and I’m going to ignore the telephone system and mail service that exists in this day and age of ours, and get you to do it instead. It’s only two hundred miles away, so it shouldn’t take you too long. You do that for me, Marston, and I’ll see you right in getting to a latrine, yessir I will.”

I imagine that will be a quest in the next game in the series, Red Dead Reloaded, before the final game, Red Dead Revolutions, has Patrick Stewart turn up and return you to the holodeck of the Enterprise where it turns out you were stuck playing a broken and buggy Western game set in an incredibly realistic world.

Indeed, it is the world that keeps you coming back for more bum-reaming at the hands of pixelated human plot devices. It is, frankly, astonishing. You could probably spend as much time carefully exploring its every inch of detailed and beautifully crafted expanse as you would playing through the main plot of the game. The wilds teem with life, not your randomly placed crap MMO mobstacles, however, but animals that belong there, hunt there, breed there, live there. It is a living world, a breathing world; it is the best character in the game. The various towns and populated locations feel absolutely genuine, from the dusty ramshackle mining towns with their Deadwood saloons, to the Mexican forts with their weather beaten walls and the equally weather beaten Capitáns, through to the proto-city of the modern era, with its cobbled streets that cause you to pause at the strangeness of the clip-clop sound of your horse’s shoes against the sole-polished stone. It is one of those perfections of craft, where every detail and placement is meticulously made in such a way that the player doesn’t realise that any crafting has gone on at all, the world just exists, has always existed, because it is a real world.

The world is perfect, without being so perfect that it can’t be real.

There are plenty of other distractions in the game away from the main plot, some more successful than others. If you like poker and blackjack for example, then you can easily while away hours playing in saloons across the land; nothing beats reacting to a gambling loss by jumping up from the table and unloading a six shooter into your opponent. You’ll get a bounty on your head, but a full pardon is only a save game away. There are curious design choices, again some more successful than others. Having missions that can only be started at a certain time of day seems pointless, just let the player start the mission and advance the world clock to the correct time, if it’s that important; time-restricted missions are doubly redundant when a player can advance the world clock by several hours for themselves by simply entering and exiting the save game menu until they reach the desired time. Travel is also a curious affair, with your trusty horse always at your beck and call, short distances are never an issue, but the world is huge and missions often require you to travel from one side to the other and back again, something which gets pretty tiresome after your initial awe for the world has been tarnished by the somewhat mundane quest design. There are stage coaches at major locations, but the cost is prohibitive in the early stages of the game, and frankly I can’t really see the point of them at all. You could wait for a train I suppose, but again it’s hardly my idea of a rip-roaring Western adventure. The main issue is that all of these options are made moot by the fact that you can ride a short distance out of town, make a camp, and then travel to any point on the map by marking it as a waypoint; travel like this ruins the size of the world in an instant, and the inconvenience of having to ride out of town to make camp is nothing in comparison to the cost of stagecoaches, the time on horseback, or the improbability of a train turning up any time within a day of you needing it.

Red Dead Redemption also suffers from a problem of pacing. You start off the game slowly, doing mundane tasks as you are introduced to various elements of the game, before rootin’, tootin’ and, in most cases, shootin’ your way across the county, into Mexico and back again. Then you’re back to doing mundane tasks before the final dramatic piece of exposition. It’s like a rollercoaster ride, and that final lull is probably meant to be akin to the final climb before the big drop, but after all the incredible experiences you’ve had up to that point, it fails to act as a builder of tension or anticipation and simply becomes a tedious blockage to the end of the game. Rockstar’s writers come close to getting you to empathise with Marston and his family, they try to show the bond between the father and his son, the love between the husband and his wife, but in the end you just find them tiresome and uninteresting because you’re having to lead their tiresome and uninteresting lives in order to get to the end of the game.

When you’ve finished the game you’re left satisfied but quite possibly not wanting more. It’s perhaps apt for a Western adventure with some of the most beautifully animated horses that I’ve seen in a game so far, where you can almost feel the wind against your face as you charge across a dusty plain, that it feels like such a long ride to the end, and although the ride is epic and exhilarating in places, when you reach your destination you’re quite glad to be free again.

It is the night. My body’s weak.
I’m on the run. No time to sleep.
I’ve got to ride, ride like the wind to be free again.
And I’ve got such a long way to go.
To make it to the border of Mexico.
So I’ll ride, ride like the wind.
Ride like the wind.

I was born the son of a lawless man.
Always spoke my mind with a gun in my hand.
Lived nine lives, gunned down ten.
Gonna ride like the wind.

And I’ve got such a long way to go.
To make it to the border of Mexico.
So I’ll ride, ride like the wind.
Ride like the wind.
           — Christopher Cross, Ride Like the Wind

History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of men

A CNN article asks Why do video games make such bad movies?, citing turkeys like Mortal Kombat and The Wizard. It’s easy to point at films like those, or Super Mario Bros., or Street Fighter. Or Far Cry. Or the Pokémon films. Or anything Uwe Boll’s directed. Easy to point at those (or Doom) and say “hah, video games make bad movies” (or Double Dragon), but that’s ignoring the really great game adaptations, such as:

  • Lara Croft Tomb Raider. It’s a film with Angelina Jolie in it, and is thus empirically brilliant.
  • Star Wars. Building on the success of LucasArts, George Lucas cunningly wove elements of several games into a film, such as the epic space fights of the X-Wing series. The lead character, gaining Jedi powers through the film, was based on Kyle Katarn from the Dark Forces/Jedi Knight first-person shooters.
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Widely acknowledged as the greatest Atari 2600 game ever, it was always going to be a tall order to try and translate into a movie. Taken on its own merit it’s actually not a bad film, but expectation was so high that there was massive over-production resulting in The Great Film Crash of ’83. Several towns in New Mexico are constructed entirely of betamax tapes of E.T.
  • Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson hardly concealed his sources, just dropping the “Online” bit of LotRO to get his film name. Widely criticised for the cinematic release dropping interminably long journeys, after which the characters exchange a few words of expositionary dialogue and perform a menial task before returning on exactly the same journey in reverse, Jackson corrected this with the Director’s True To Game Cut 476 disc box set including classic scenes like The Fellowship Go From The Shire To Rivendell (Discs 24 – 31:); Elrond Tells The Fellowship They Need To Speak To Someone In Hobbiton (Disc 32) and The Fellowship Go From Rivendell Back to The Shire (Discs 33 – 48, thanks to Frodo getting repeatedly dismounted by wandering mobs).
  • Godzilla. Ishiro Honda was inspired by the arcade game Rampage to create his monster opus. Though forced to leave out much of the depth of the source game, such as George, Ralph and the complex political subtext about nuclear weapons, Godzilla was nevertheless successful enough to warrant a couple of sequels.
  • Citizen Kane. Welles did his best to hide it, but there can be no doubt that Citizen Kane is entirely based on Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing. Cunningly changing the lead character from A Big Truck to a media mogul has thrown most people off the scent, but the basic themes are all there: the manipulation of media and other people explored in a medium of incorporeal scenery, the ruthless pursuit of power portrayed as a race against opponents that don’t move; most notably the idea of mysterious, enigmatic key phrase at the heart of everything, though in order to conceal his sources there can be little doubting that the change to  “Rosebud” in the film is much less powerful than the original “YOU’RE WINNER”.

The conflict between autonomy and security.

I played Gears of War 2’s Horde mode until silly o’clock this morning; it’s an occasional event that takes place after the Lord of the Rings Online static group that I play with winds down for the evening, what with five of the six of us having Xbox 360s, and Gears of War 2 having a maximum co-op party of five, it makes for a quick and easy way to release steam upon coming to a squeaking hissing halt in the station of resignation after a long evening of riding the rails of traditional MMO content. All change. A quick dash to the coffee shop and rest rooms. Now all aboard the express train to Fun Town, calling at High Octane and Instant Action, before continuing fast to Kick Ass Upon Sea.

The thought that struck me last night, along with the shrapnel and the repeated blows to the head with giant explosive flails, was the fact that although Gears is a co-operative effort – you are, in effect, a five man group – there is plenty of room for players to act as autonomous units. In many MMOs the players enter a dungeon as a group and then remain clumped tightly together until they exit out at the other end, with only those players that can enter stealth mode daring to wander too far from this gestalt of adventuring crab. DDO and City of Heroes, with their selectable dungeon difficulty levels, allow players to pick whether or not they’ll have to hold hands as they skip along the level-quick road to see the Wonderful Piñata of Loot. In many MMOs, however, the players are forced to form this strange multi-appendaged crab-like entity which scuttles its way across the dungeon in a vaguely regimented fashion, the constituent parts rarely straying far from one another, with the exception of the odd appendage bouncing around and shouting “Go Go Gooooo!” on occasion, as though the crab-group had developed some sort of nervous twitch.

This crab-like structure, with the tank at its head and the various other members of the group scuttling along in close proximity, stands in stark contrast to the style of group play found in Gears of War 2. Here, as I stated earlier, each player is their own autonomous unit, capable of tackling a considerable number of foes depending on the player’s skill level and the equipment they have gathered. The equipment itself, although increasing the character’s power level, relies upon the player’s discretion and understanding as to how to employ it effectively. What happens when the player meets an opposing force that is too great for them to deal with alone? Well, assuming that they have taken care to keep an escape route clear, they can retreat and team-up with one of the other players, or they can dig in and call for help. It is then that the teamwork of the game comes into play, because although formidable as a single unit, when their efforts are combined the players can overcome incredible odds. The players act more like a hive or colony than some curious single entity of character class symbiosis, they are free to act autonomously in the interest of the hive, and yet willing to operate as a swarmed force when faced with a considerably superior antagonist.

Again it comes down to freedom and flexibility. Whilst working as a whole, the players in Gears also get to act as individuals, independent of the group. It’s an important feature because it enhances the player’s own feeling of heroism while at the same time relieving a part of the monotony to be found in MMO dungeon running: the tank pulls; the healer stands back; the ranged DPS stands back; the melee DPS place themselves behind the mobs; and the party shuffles carefully forward to the next group of mobs once the current group is dispatched. In GoW2’s Horde mode, one round (equivalent to a couple of groups of MMO mobs) is rarely tactically the same as another, the players’ tactics will change each time depending on what equipment they currently have, whether they are on one of the particularly tricky ‘ten’ rounds (every ten rounds a wave of extremely difficult mobs must be faced), and just what they plain feel like doing. We have one player who likes to grab up a handful of grenades on occasion and try to take down enemies by attaching said grenades to their foreheads; another player likes to grab the shield and pistol, becoming nigh-indestructible from any frontal assault, and thus ‘tanks’ multiple enemies at a time. Each person’s role can change multiple times in one round, depending on how the fight evolves, and thus the role of the group will change dynamically too: sometimes players are all huddled together defending a fortified position against tough opposition; sometimes they are charging around and zerging into the midst of the enemy; sometimes they are working in pairs, perhaps as snipers, or one person covering the back of another who is tanking with the shield; and sometimes they ‘execute starburst formation’ as Van Hemlock dubs it, and run off in different directions at once, revelling in their own ability, self-sufficiency and power as they take on seemingly overwhelming odds, and prevail.

It’s this difference between individuals playing as a team, and a team playing as individuals that I think is interesting, and I wonder whether it’s time to think about creating classes that are entirely self sufficient but which become greater when played as part of a group. There’s no reason that content cannot be created that will challenge a group of self sufficient characters, and indeed it allows the developers more flexibility in content design, because giving players a level of autonomous action outside of the group’s sphere of influence would allow for less linear and regimented dungeon content.

Now excuse me while I curl up underneath my desk pretending to fix my PC, and dream of Frankenstein crabs and space marine bees.

In Memoriam Lord of the Rings Online

So. Farewell then
Lord of the Rings
You were quite good
With a subscription.


Without a subscription
You will be rubbish. (Even
if the game
is the same.)
(And there is still the option of
A subscription.)

E. J. Zoso, age 17½

Turbine’s announcement about the future business model of Lord of the Rings Online has been seen by some as the end for the game, notably Keen, perhaps channelling Joseph McCarthy slightly with his suggestion that “Your communities will now be inundated with the free-to-play crowd which will infiltrate and destroy you from within.”

I have to say I’m slightly surprised by the news; the subject had come up in the pub just last Thursday as rumours were rife, and demonstrating my typically uncanny prescience I said I couldn’t see LotRO going free-to-play as its design wasn’t really suited to it, unlike the more modular Dungeons and Dragons Online. (Slight aside: I really don’t like the phrase “free-to-play”, it sets false expectation; developers and publishers aren’t charities, of course they want, and should receive, remuneration. Until someone comes up with something better, though, it’s a catchy shorthand. And it’s slightly less painful than “freemium”.) LotRO also looked to be fairly successfully ticking over, there didn’t seem to be a great need for a radical overhaul to save the game as happened with DDO. The free-to-play “Unlimited” version of DDO, though, has been a natural-20 critical success for Turbine by all accounts, so perhaps it makes sense for them to try and repeat the formula.

As well as being a commercial success for Turbine, I’ve really been enjoying DDO myself, playing almost every Friday for the last nine months in a weekly sort-of-but-not-totally-static group (maybe a non-Newtonian liquid group). It’s the only MMOGing I’m doing at the moment, and it’s working really well like that, no pressure or burn-out, no monthly sub nagging away. I’ve probably spent around £30-40 on “Turbine points” in that time for various other bits and pieces, which seems like a pretty fair deal for both me and Turbine. It’s about options; if you’re really into one game a subscription makes sense, if you want to dabble a bit then it doesn’t. The crucial thing with DDO, and LotRO in turn, is that you still can still subscribe if you want (whether it’s a called a subscription or becoming a “VIP”), that option doesn’t get taken away, and that puts an effective limit on costs for the player. It may be the end of the subscription-driven world as we know it, but I feel fine.