Monthly Archives: March 2011

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty

I just finished the second act of Dragon Age 2, and I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say there was a big fight at the end of it. If you thought it might culminate in everyone sitting down and having a lovely cup of tea, sorry to have ruined the surprise. Being an honourable sort I found myself in single combat against a big man who certainly wasn’t in bad shape, but as a dagger-wielding Rogue I was pretty confident I could put out enough damage to take anything down. Seconds out, round 1, I activate Rush to knock him down as an opener, bounce off him with no discernible results (possibly some light damage to my own shoulder), he knocks me down, I get back up, he knocks me down, I get back up, he stamps a foot a couple of times, charges, knocks me down, I get back up, he impales me on his sword and waves me around like a Hawke Kebab. I’m not sure which was more impressive: that he only needed one hand to heft my writhing body while the other grabbed a pitta bread, some salad and a bottle of chilli sauce, or that he sportingly set me down, withdrew the sword, and I somehow was still fighting rather than scrabbling around on the floor in strangely inverted game of Operation trying to figure out whether a squidgy mess was a lung or a kidney, and which way it should fit back into the gaping cavity that used to be my chest. Still fighting for about ten seconds, at least, until he knocked me down again and finished me off.

Reloading, I took the fight seriously. Boxed clever, avoided his telegraphed knock-down attacks, got my shots in carefully, used my most damaging abilities, and maybe knocked off about 25% of his health. Meanwhile I had no stamina, my big attacks were on cooldown and he’d still catch me now and again for a substantial portion of my own health, so the fight entered the Benny Hill phase: me running away, quaffing health and stamina potions, occasionally running back in and hitting him, then running away again. Varric started playing Yakety Sax, Isabela put on a nurse’s hat (the rest of her outfit already being eminently suitable), the cinematographer started undercranking and a fine old time was had for what felt like about 6 months, during which I maybe knocked off another 25% of my opponents health. I switched to a bow, in case ranged kiting was a more effective technique, but being completely specialised in dual blades I lacked any special skills with it, and the regular attacks seemed to make no impression at all. I had no exotic grenades or poisons as there’d been no call for them on Normal difficulty, so I took the noble and heroic course of action, turned the difficulty down to Casual and slashed him one way, slashed him the other way, slashed him diagonally, much like Connect 4 in dagger terms. He went down, on with the story.

The fight crystallised something I’d been thinking about for a while. I don’t really want to constantly be facing a life-or-death struggle needing every scrap of my abilities to emerge victorious when partaking of a bit of escapism, I’d like to win, thanks. Not without any effort at all, of course, that would render it pointless, but if the deck is stacked pretty heavily in my favour, as in the majority of fights at Normal difficulty in Dragon Age 2, that’s not a problem. So long as the game isn’t too obvious about it, I do like to at least fool myself that my character wouldn’t be more effective still if a hamster started running around on the keyboard. In Madame Gaming’s Boudoir of Earthly Delights I know full well I’m just another punter pitching up with my $15 a month, but I’d prefer my companion for the evening to coo “oh my, such a big weapon you have, I’ve never seen one that size before” rather than looking bored and chewing gum while disinterestedly muttering “wow that’s incredible, really, you’re the best, what time is it? Have you not finished yet?”

Course that’s not for everyone; “no pain, no gain” and all that, some people prefer to pay their money to be brutally thrashed for a couple of hours. In MMOGs in particular there seems to be a bit of Calvinist element devoted to Hard Work above all, at the most extreme end holding any sort of “fun” or “enjoyment” in contempt, or more moderately pointing out that experience is about contrasts, if you don’t suffer the lows, how can you truly enjoy the highs? Hard to argue with the latter, but plenty of scope for debate over the ideal ratio of lows to highs and their respective depths/heights (to use a cinematic example, The Shawshank Redemption is uplifting, but as Kermode & Mayo would say “there’s a lot of Shawshank before you get to the Redemption”).

In single player games there’s often a difficulty slider to allow for this: demand a challenge, crank it up; not so bothered, drop it down. I’ve (just about) passed the point where I consider dropping down to an easier difficulty as some sort of sleight on my masculinity; I see it like reaching the stage where you realise you’re not really enjoying clubbing, you’re finding the music awfully loud, and it’s harder to keep going through the early hours of the morning, and really, what’s wrong with sitting in some nice comfy chairs where you can actually hear your friends and you can come away with some change from a twenty pound note if you order two lemonades and a pint? Least, I might see it like that if I ever enjoyed clubbing in the first place.

For PvE in MMOGs the content tends to be more fixed (though difficulty sliders aren’t completely unknown, City of Heroes features them), but the capability of the player or group can vary widely, and it’s not so simple as dragging a slider to adjust the number of people you bring, or their classes, levels or gear. If you listen to the Van Hemlock podcast you’ll have been following the tribulations of Hobbington Crescent: The Next Generation in Lord of the Rings Online attempting to find something suitable to do for a group of nine characters with far-from-ideal class balance; 12-man skirmishes are a bit brutal, and though the voice chat on Mumble can still make for a fun evening there isn’t much of an in-game sense of triumph when you notionally “win” a skirmish with 90% of the hobbits you were supposed to be protecting dead, and the final boss only defeated by throwing endless waves of respawning players at him until he gets so weary of the futility of it all that he allows himself to be crushed by a pile of your own corpses. Warhammer Online, on the other hand, with its wide range of public quests for different group sizes and levels, you can quite easily step up or down to find something more appropriate (though it blots its copybook on occasion when bugs prevent you from completing a stage). I really rather enjoy tackling a public quest a couple of levels below my character when the first stage is “Defeat 100 (somethings)”, and start humming the Katamari Damacy theme while rounding up mobs with my Chosen in a bid to meet the requirement in a single pull. It might not be a life-or-death struggle (so long as a friendly healer tops up the ol’ health bar now and again), but it’s tremendous fun.

PvP is naturally trickier still, as you haven’t even got one fixed side to try and work around; in open PvP you’re obviously at the mercy of whoever shows up, and even in an instanced battleground/scenario type of fight, no matter how hard the matchmaking tries I’ve found well matched battles comparatively rare. If there’s going to be a drubbing I’d prefer to be the drubber than the drubbee, but at least you can always take comfort in the knowledge that your victories are down to incredible skill, whereas any losses are obviously due to there being more of the enemy, at higher levels, wearing better gear, and playing clearly overpowered classes (go go Dunning-Kruger effect!) I think this is why I seldom enjoy ‘friendly’ PvP such as informal intra-guild battles, as getting balanced sides set up is just as difficult (if not more so, as Murphy’s Law dictates that the number of people who turn up is inevitably not divisible by the number of possible sides), but victories are pretty hollow when you’re sharing the chat channel with the people you beat, and it’s bad form to grouse about the obviously overpowered build of a comrade. A bit of a free-for-all knock-around can be fun now and again, so long as nobody takes it too seriously (I think it was the Gurubashi Arena in WoW that was the venue for some entertaining guild outings that featured a lot of sapping and sheeping), but generally give me a dehumanised foe to put the virtual boot into, and I’m much happier.

Resolve and thou art free.

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There’s a definite difference in the BUTTOCKS various MMO companies ARSE their free-to-play games. I wonder which method is actually better: the FECK in-your-face system that constantly reminds you that you could be paying NUNS for a better experience? The subtle method that SEMPRINIS you to get on with things, but cripples basic TARTLETS that the player may not even realise can be fixed by a purchase from the in-game FLANGE, perhaps? Some games, such as Pirates of the Burning Sea, seem to give away CLUNTING everything, whereas a game like Champions Online (which I popped back into the other BROTHEL) wouldn’t even let me out of the character FORNICATION without telling me that I had picked costume options which needed to be purchased.

The Champions system act ally p t me off the game somewhat. I mean, it’s a free game and I sho ldn’t complain, b t I fo nd that sort of salesmanship really tacky. I co ld well be mistaken, and will happily stand corrected, b t I didn’t notice anything that told me that those parts req ired a p rchase when I selected them, and it was also really rather diffic lt to work o t which ones I needed to remove for my character to be ‘born free’ and th s act ally allowed into the game. Altho gh players of Lord of the Rings Online find the ‘P rchase Now’ b ttons intr sive – and as someone coming from the s bscription game I wo ld have to add my tentative agreement – the demarcation is at least clear for all to see.

One does not simply walk into Mordor; not without being aware that one has to pay 1900 Turbine Points for the quest pack, at least.



Whether this is due to the fact that Turbine had strong IPs in well-established games which they subsequently converted to their vision of the free-to-play model, whether their version of the model is a good one, or whether the other companies have not quite struck the right balance between marketing the product and allowing players a healthy level of freedom to experience the game without cost, it’s hard to tell.

Regardless, the free-to-play model has been proven as a successful revenue model under certain conditions. What will be interesting now is not seeing how many other companies follow this revenue model, but comparing how those that do follow that path go about trying to make it a success. I think there’s a very obvious method that these companies are missing, something which will grant them a significant increase in revenue whilst also allowing players an even greater level of freedom. Put simply, it seems clear that the next great step in the free-to-play market will be <Please Visit The KiaSA Store To Purchase The Extended Content Of This Post>

Black Prophecy First Impressions

To little fanfare, Black Prophecy has been released (in Europe, at least; in the US I believe it’s just started closed beta testing, which may account for the lack of buzz). I’ve reminisced about space-sims a few times here, enjoyed the space combat in Star Wars: Galaxies, and (briefly) tried the original Jumpgate; with Black Prophecy being free-to-play I grabbed the install files over the weekend and had a bit of a look.

I’ve only managed an hour or two so these are early first impressions (insert hilarious reference to Eurogamer here, if you like your deceased equines lightly flagellated), but it seems to scratch that joystick-waggling itch, if you know what I mean. After a brief cinematic you get dropped straight into a gun turret blasting away at incoming attackers, a nicely action-packed introduction (though for the sake of the friendly fighters in the area maybe they should put up the hint that ‘T’ targets the nearest enemy *before* telling you which button fires the lasers). A little more exposition and you’re off in a ship of your own, picking missions, shooting waves of enemies and looting stuff from the wrecks of their ships.

Sente at A Ding World has a more detailed write-up (plus pictures), I still haven’t even got to the end of the prologue, but if you’ve been pining for some space-based combat since the days of Wing Commander, X-Wing and Freespace it’s well worth a look.

I perceive these lords at this encounter do so much admire that they devour their reason and scarce think.

Stand at Amon Sûl is a skirmish in Lord of the Rings Online which I generally avoid. Amon Sûl isn’t a terribly lengthy skirmish, and it’s not any more difficult than the other skirmish options available to me; in fact fighting alongside the NPC Ranger Candaith makes the whole affair a walk in the park since he is – as NPCs generally are in MMOs – a hero of far greater power than my character could ever be. Probably a power of two or three greater. So now we know what N really stands for in NPC: PCPC. Thus NPC = PCPCPC or PC3.

Still, there are other NPCs in other skirmishes, and their relative power levels don’t cause me to shy away from heading in and helping them defeat the forces of Sauron on a daily basis; I only help them once per day though, because after that I don’t get the daily quest bonus. No XP, No Fighty-Fighty: the motto of MMO players the world over. In actual fact Candaith’s PC3 power does have something to do with it, but it is the combination of this with the feature mechanic of Amon Sûl that makes for a rather disheartening experience.

The skirmish follows one of the standard templates of events, in this case three stages consisting of multiple waves of enemies each, culminating in a fight with the Big Bad Boss at the end of the third stage. The events take place at the top of Weathertop (Weathertoptop? Weather(top2)?), where the forces of darkness are attacking your camp at the centre of the stone circle at the summit. The mechanic unique to this skirmish is a one hundred percent ‘darkness’ damage debuff to yourself and your allies (Candaith, skirmish soldier) when fighting on Weathertop. To counter this, Candaith has lit a large fire in the centre of the stone circle, and fighting near to this will grant you a fifty percent ‘light’ buff to your damage. In addition to this there is a circle of five smaller bonfires around the outside edge of the stone circle which can be lit by grabbing a torch from next to the central fire and running it over to them. However, the torch quickly runs out and the smaller bonfires are spaced far enough apart that it takes two runs to successfully light them all. The smaller bonfires themselves will eventually go out, and will need to be relit, which is required roughly twice per stage. These smaller bonfires each provide a twenty five percent ‘light’ buff to damage, and also a two and half percent boost to attacks and inductions.

I picture the player turning up to help Candaith defend Weathertop, and he explains that it would be best if the darkness was driven back using the bonfires and that someone needs to light them, and he gives you a significant look. You glance over your shoulder to see who he’s talking to, because clearly it can’t be you, hero of the ages that you are. Your skirmish soldier is the only person standing behind you, but they seem to be intently admiring some invisible piece of architecture above their head whilst whistling to themselves. Looking back to Candaith you point a finger at your chest and mouth ‘me’, making it a question through the exaggerated use of arched-in-astonishment eyebrows. He nods solemnly, and then brushes past you and clasps hands with your skirmish soldier, offers them a puff on his pipe (not a euphemism, although they are indeed terribly friendly), and I imagine one or the other of them directs a firm kick at your behind as you run past to grab a torch and start lighting fires.

And thus the fight goes. Essentially, at the entry level and with all the fires lit, Candaith and your skirmish soldier can happily defeat all the enemy waves without you and – with a bit of luck on critical hits and their choosing to focus on the Big Bad Boss first – the final fight too. The most important role you play in the entire skirmish is to play errand boy (or girl; thanks Stan). It’s a curiously demoralising effect the first time you realise this, as you run off to light fires and watch as a wave of enemies approaches and is summarily slaughtered by the two NPCs. They seem to be having fun, at least.

It’s not a big issue, of course, but one worth contemplating. Making players run mundane tasks is a given in MMOs; I mean, where would we be without the Delivery quest, the Click Ten Widgets quest, the Speak to Five NPCs quest or Harness Seven Critters quest?

Having fun exploring and adventuring like heroes I imagine, ah ha ha ha haaaa… sigh.

But it’s probably quite important that if you’re going to make players perform mundane chores in the name of Entertainment, then you probably shouldn’t have them do this while in the company of a crowd of NPCs who are having fun performing exciting adventurous feats of daring-do. Stand at Amon Sûl is just one minor example that tweaked my nipple of negativity recently, I’ve encountered many quests in many MMOs where I dash around like a subservient butler as an NPC smites the enemy; I fully expect one day to encounter a quest where my character’s job is to literally lick the NPC’s armour clean, then run out and collect rose petals so that they can be thrown at the NPC’s feet as they march into battle. Perhaps the next evolution would be a quest where your character has to crouch on all fours and act as a footstool for some NPC lounging on their throne, with a quest mechanic requiring you to press a key to hold your character’s breath when you see their hair begin to ruffle, otherwise they take the brunt of the NPC’s flatulence full on the nose and have to spend the next five minutes in a quest to clean all of their vomit from the throne room floor or be executed. With suitable improvements in voice recognition, it probably won’t be long before the PC is required to just lie on the floor and allow the NPCs to wipe their feet on them, whereupon it falls to the player to voice their gratitude in an obsequious enough tone that the NPC is appeased, and thus they allow the PC to progress to the next quest, where they attend the secondary ‘royal throne’, and get to wipe the NPC’s bum for XP, and possibly some gold in hand, depending on how thick the toilet paper is.

I think what makes me sad is that in all my adventuring, in all of my smiting of great evils, of all the vanquishings and sunderings and overcomings in the various MMOs I’ve played over the years, I have never had an NPC come up to me and say “Y’know what, you’re a bit of a hero in these lands, and you’ve saved us innumerable times from evil. How about I go out and rummage through that ox dung to find fifteen seeds to give to Farmer Bemybiatch? You put your feet up by the fire and have a rest. Here’s a pint and my eldest daughter, have fun. By golly you’ve earnt it”.

Good Ford! Perhaps we are the children of the Bokanovsky process in these brave new worlds which we inhabit; Alpha Plus developers and Alpha NPCs encourage the Epsilon players that ‘ending is better than mending’ with their infinite supply of experience, gold and goods. Levels and progression keep the players on a soma-like trip, a recursive inculcated belief that fun is to be found in the repetition of doing. It is the conditioning system where players are encouraged to avoid playing alone; where each class is a caste of perfectly uniform equality and led to believe it is more worthwhile than any other class; where the indoctrination teaches players that predictability, homogeneity, and consumption are this gaming generation’s greatest goals. What do those outside our society think as they stare in at us? Do they marvel in half-wonder half-horror when observing the mechanics of our low society, as we toil mundanely at the behest of the leaders of our worlds, our nobles, our heroes: the NPCs?

“My dear young friend,” said Mustapha Mond, “civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended —- there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense. But there aren’t any wars nowadays. The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do.”

When I look back to the Guildford of that time it seems far more exotic to me than Nagasaki

From Eurogamer via Rock, Paper, Shotgun, it seems the ever-neglected straight male gamer demographic is being ignored, yet again. Bastal is taking a stand on the Bioware forums, though! Apparently:

The romance options, Isabella and Merrill, were clearly designed with straight male gamers in mind. Unfortunately, these choices are what one would call “exotic” choices.

So I guess Bioware aren’t ignoring all straight male gamers, just straight male gamers who want to romance mundane female characters. Seriously, though, Isabela? Exotic? Sure, if you met a foxy dagger-wielding pirate captain down the pub that would at least warrant a raised eyebrow, but in Denerim or Kirkwall you can bump into six more exotic things before breakfast.

Fair enough about Merrill, though, she is a strange, mystical creature from a far-off land where they have peculiar customs. Still, that’s the Welsh for you.

Hair News Now Today: Dragon Age 2 Edition.

New FlemethIntroducing a new branch of the News Now Today franchise, KiaSA presents Hair News Now Today, an in-depth feature reporting on the news, now, in gaming hairstyles, today.

For our maiden voyage into all things hair styled, we present Dragon Age 2’s coiffure queen: Flemeth; an entity who probably isn’t actually a maiden, might not even by human, and will probably annihilate us for objectifying her. But for an old bird she’s a bit of a fox; a foxbird perhaps then, or a birdfox. Either way, she’s rather hot, and we’re not just talking about the fire and flame leaking from her nostrils.

Our Flemeth has clearly grabbed some sponsorship from one or more hair care companies since we last met her! Marvelling first at the sudden improvement in glossy shine and flowing tresses in stark comparison to her former self Old Flemeth – Andraste knows how long it takes to wash all that, and how many bottles she has to take into the shower – we can also see that she’s gone in for a bit of hair dyeing, changing from her natural colour of Slightly Damp and Mouldy grey to a lustrous Slightly Divine and Minxy white.

But the question on everyone’s lips is: how much hair product does she need to get it to stay in that shape? We’re talking at least a seven or eight on the Hair News Now Today Spraycan-O-Meter. And in an exclusive reveal by KiaSA’s HNNT team, we’ve plotted data showing the times that Flemeth has washed and re-styled her hair along with the dates for each Blight since records began, and found that there is a direct correlation between Asha’bellanar (or Asha’BaByliss as her new corporate sponsors want her to be known in advertising campaigns) emptying half the world’s supply of hair aerosol into the atmosphere and the re-emergence of the Darkspawn.

Still, it’s nice to see that despite being the instigator of the scourging of the world on multiple occasions due to simple vanity, Flemeth continues to obey Health & Safety work regulations, attaching red warning tape to the sharp hair-horns that protrude a significant and perilous distance behind her head. We all know the dangers of working with a mad capricious shape-shifting dragon lady, but that’s really no excuse for not follow proper safety protocol and avoiding someone having their eye out on the end of one of those things, or being knocked unconscious when failing to duck under them in passing.

Reporting for Hair News Now Today, I’m Melmoth Melmothson.

I’ll cheer you up if you’re depressed, if you get murdered I’ll avenge your death

Back in school a few of us discovered roleplaying and tabletop games through the standard gateway drug of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and formed a bit of a gaming group. Thanks to geographical distribution and shifting school friendships, though, it was quite rare for three or four of us to get together with the requisite space, time and polyhedral dice for an adventure, and they’d often turn out to be slightly disappointing. You know how early teenage fumblings are; you spend weeks preparing, getting everything just right, imagining how it’s all going to play out so flawlessly, but then it’s all a bit awkward in person and you’re trying to nudge them along into a bit of delicate manipulation without being too domineering, but you know they really just want to grab your booty and get out of there. After fighting some orcs.

We still loved collecting and discussing RPGs, though, the settings, lore, art and mechanics. Creating characters was my thing; over the years we assembled a motley collection of systems including Dragon Warriors, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, FASA’s Doctor Who RPG, Paranoia, a couple of flavours of GURPS, the Marvel Super Hero RPG, Maelstrom, Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Battletech, Warhammer 40,000, and probably a bunch of others I’ve forgotten. For each I had at least a couple of characters rolled up or an army planned out, stats calculated, feats selected, starting equipment purchased, progression through to level 20 mapped out, and a provisional rota system posted for the guards of the castle he’d buy as soon as he had the money. Only a fraction actually went adventuring; a couple might even have made it to level two…

Computer RPGs were a natural evolution; about the first I seriously played was Curse of the Azure Bonds, the second of SSI’s Gold Box series of AD&D games. You control a party of six characters in it; I can’t remember if there was option to use a default party if you didn’t want to create six characters yourself, I wouldn’t have cared, I was too busy repeatedly mashing the “roll” button to get a decent set of stats for my seventh tweak of the party composition (“all right, this time I’ll have a Paladin on the front line, and a Half-Elf Fighter/Thief instead of the pure Thief for more damage…”) Other games around the time, notably the Ultima series, might have had NPC companions you’d meet and recruit, but I was more than happy having complete control over a full party, more worried about spell lists and THAC0 than personality or dialogue.

The next landmark of my personal CRPG history was ten years on, Bioware’s seminal Baldur’s Gate, once again an AD&D game giving the player control of a party of six, but this time with a single player created character and the other five recruited the rest from a cast of thousands. Well, several, at any rate. This slightly irked me at first, still being more preoccupied by stats and classes than personalities; I mean look at that character’s Charisma score, complete waste, it could be a far more efficient build… With the writing, though, I did start to appreciate dialogue between my character and the party, and between other members of the party, mostly due to Greatest NPC In The History Of Time(tm), Minsc. I found a pretty good compromise, after reading on the ‘net that starting a Multiplayer game gave exactly the same experience as the single player game but you could bring in as many of your own characters as you liked, and rolled up two ruthlessly min/maxed characters of my own (some sort of ranger/wizard/kensai/thief cross-classed death machines), then rounded out the party on the criteria of (i) fulfilling other required roles in the team, and (ii) being Minsc.

Romance had never been something that had crossed my mind in RPGs. Well, maybe something vaguely related to romance when viewing the cover of Curse of the Azure Bonds and the Armour Of Complete Protection Whoops Apart From That Massive Hole In The Front depicted thereon, but in the games there were dragons to kill and worlds to save and really no time for soppy kissing with Slimey girlS. I recruited Viconia as a Cleric in Baldur’s Gate II on the basis of her vital statistics (phwoar, get a load of that Wisdom), and only after reading a couple of guides did I bother trying “romantic” dialogue options. I wasn’t really feeling a deep emotional connection with the character, though, it was mostly to get her alignment to change to Neutral to cause fewer arguments in the party. Oddly enough, while typing this very paragraph I read Jon’s critique of romance in Bioware games and the way saving the world can become secondary to carving a series of achievement-shaped notches on your virtual bedpost, and it is something that can be a bit crowbarred in (as the actress said to the bishop). Dragon Age 2 has some unsubtle moments, with a big heart next to a dialogue option that leads to a line like “Wow, you had lyrium inlaid in your skin in a ceremony of unspeakable agony, huh? It looks HOT, let’s KISS with TONGUES!” Syp was pondering it too, but there are cases where I think they’ve handled it quite nicely as a developing relationship rather than a shag and an unlock, such as Alistair and a female Warden in Dragon Age: Origins.

The Baldur’s Gate games established the Bioware tradition of NPCs where personalities were as important as stats; Neverwinter Nights had the restriction of a single NPC party member in the original single player campaign, which limited inter-party banter, but you could wheel each potential recruit out during each chapter, engage in a deep and personal conversation about their past, then shove ’em back in a cupboard until the next chapter while you actually adventured with the one with the most useful skills. Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins cemented the formula, fully voicing companions and having them react to your actions. They stripped the RPG back to a few classes, with most party compositions being viable, so in Dragon Age if you wanted a warrior in the team the main choice was down to whether you wanted a drunkard, a strangely impassive giant or a slightly sarcastic ex-Templar running around with you.

Dragon Age 2 has extended the individuality of each companion still further. They have their own outfits, rather than sharing common armour across a class, and some have signature weapons. Their talent trees are more locked down; there are some choices, but weapon choice is fixed, and each companion has one set of talents unique to them. I think they might have taken things a smidge far, though By narrowing abilities, and developing personalities, it’s almost as if Bioware have managed to get themselves into the same position as pre-WotLK WoW raiding: if you crank the difficulty up you’re forced to pick someone for the mechanical reason of what their class offers rather than because you like them as a (virtual) person. You can avoid the issue by turning the difficulty down; as Melmoth said of Casual difficulty “…there were perhaps only three fights which required me to drink a potion, let alone worry about tactics”, and on Normal I’ve scarcely had to pause to manually issue orders regardless of who’s in the team. If you relish difficult combat *and* the interaction with your companions, though, it’s almost like you need Bioware to have their own “bring the player, not the class” moment.

Thought for the day.

A search for “voice of merrill” using Google – because I couldn’t remember Eve Myles’ name – actually returned nothing to do with the Bioware RPG character until I amended my Google-fu by appending “dragon age” to the search string. What it does turn up is a British mystery B-movie called The Voice of Merrill. You learn something new every day, and now I’m going to have to search out that film and watch it.

Strange how we make discoveries sometimes, and strangely apt that Bioware’s RPGs are part of the subset of games where you can still make obscure discoveries through accidental action, be it a conversation option which had unintended consequences, or by searching for something specific in a quest and stumbling across another quest line entirely.

So here’s to the grand RPG tradition of the out-of-the-way quest; the mysterious object off the beaten path; the good deed repaid in kind at an unexpected time later on; the stumbled-upon puzzle; and other such deviations from the course considered tried and true. And here’s hoping that our theme park MMOs never forget these traditions as they attempt to optimise game-play for an ever-increasing audience seemingly uninterested in the delights of discovery, only in the projection of performance and prominence among peers.

Things to Do in Denerim When You’re Dead.

For those of you who were blissfully unaware, Friday was MMO Hard Disk Drive Destruction day. It seems that I’m one of the few people who celebrate this holiday, and it was with great excitement and anticipation that I got home from a long hard day at work, entertained my daughter for the evening and popped her to bed, before turning on my PC and finding that the HDD which was home to all of my MMO games had decided to retire from this life. Insert your own favourite line from Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch here. I don’t know why these things always happen on a Friday, but the fact that it is currently the one day of the week where I get together with a bunch of friendly others from the pool of Van Hemlock static group gamers and enjoy some hot MMO group action, probably has something to do with it. Thankfully I managed to recover the data from the expiring drive by using a little bit of trickery involving other operating systems less fussy than Windows, external cables, a Big Hammer, lots of swearing, and the customary blood sacrifice of a virgin – although I didn’t have one to hand, so I just used virgin olive oil instead; you can also use sesame seed oil if you prefer your sacrifice to have a more ritualistic smoky aroma. So I saved myself many gigabytes of downloads and many hours of painful UI customisation for my various characters across the multitude of MMOs that I play, but in the meantime I had some time on my hands, so I got around to finishing a few non-MMO projects.

Firstly, I finished reading The Wise Man’s Fear, the excellent follow-up to Patrick Rothfuss’ first book The Name of the Wind. It’s not hard to describe why I like the books so much, I think Rothfuss has a style of writing that is very easy to read, compelling without taking itself entirely too seriously, while maintaining a healthy balance between light and dark subjects. I put him very much in the same camp as Joe Abercrombie in this respect, although Rothfuss’ story tends towards the lighter side of fantasy, it serves only to make the dark moments that much more intense and emotionally fraught; Abercrombie’s tales, on the other hand, tend to run towards the dark side of human nature, while occasionally punctuating the darkness with bolts of light humour and joy. The character of Kvothe is pitched just the right side of brilliant and self-assured, without being obnoxious, and the world which he inhabits is fascinating, from the systems of magic, to the hand-talk of the Adem mercenaries, all the way down to the myths and legends, of which Kvothe himself is destined to become a part. If you haven’t tried Rothfuss’ books yet and you’re a fantasy aficionado, I couldn’t recommend them highly enough. And as evidenced by Rothfuss’ latest blog post, where he points out that The Wise Man’s Fear is currently number one on the New York Times Bestsellers list, it seems that many other people are in agreement. What’s more, towards the end of his post, Rothfuss describes how he feels that he needs to do something a ‘little bit rockstar’ in order to celebrate this success, and so what does he propose?

“Maybe I will also drink some rum while I play Dragon Age. Because… well… because I can. And because that makes it just a little bit rockstar. It doesn’t hurt to be just a little bit rockstar sometimes…”

Which brings me nicely on to the second thing I did in-between hitting a hard disk drive with a virgin while sacrificing a hammer to the gods (what can I say: it was late, I was a bit drunk, and I got the instructions upside down): I finished my first play-through of Dragon Age II. I enjoyed the game a great deal, but I’m very much a story person when it comes to Bioware games these days; I couldn’t really discuss the combat in much detail because I set the difficulty to casual, and as such there were perhaps only three fights which required me to drink a potion, let alone worry about tactics other than ‘Darkspawn? We attack! Huzzah!’. I found the companion characters to be interesting takes on standard fantasy tropes, and I enjoyed the voice acting on the whole; as I stated on Twitter, my favourite line in the game having to be Isabela’s “I like big boats and I cannot lie”. The city of Kirkwall is breathtaking (be sure to look up and take in the sights on occasion), and although the locations within it become familiar to the point of being mundane once you’re running through them for the eleventeenth time, I felt that the city never lost its sense of scale. Other than that, it’s a standard Bioware RPG, if you’re any sort of CRPG gamer then you know what that means, and you’ll also know whether it will appeal to you or not. If you want me to try to sway you, I’ll simply say: decent plate armour for female characters, woo! And I’ve included a screenshot of my Melantha Hawke in a favourite armour set from the game.

Contrast that with my High Elf warrior in Rift, who could be fighting off death invasions, or modelling for the cover of Heavy Metal Illustrated, hard to tell. I’m still not finding myself excited by Rift. I’m enjoying it as a dabbling diversion when other games aren’t drawing down my attention, but there’s something about the game that prevents me from being infatuated with it to the point of ignoring all other games, as I have done in the past with, for example, World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online. Part of my issue is the global cool-down system for combat, which I don’t find to be the purported system which ‘allows me to carefully consider my options’, but instead something which restrains me and constantly calls me to heel. I imagine it’s the same sort of frustration felt by two dogs trying to have a loud and tooth-filled debate on who is the best at being a loud tooth-filled debater, while both are muzzled with their owners constantly yanking them away from one another by their leashes. It’s a shame, because the reactive abilities that the game includes – which are off the global cool-down and thus allow you to do something useful while waiting for your main abilities to come off their European Work and Time Directive mandated 1.5 second tea break – are an excellent way to break the system up, giving the player something to do in the meantime. Make the reactive abilities less powerful, maybe make them short duration buffs, say, and you could give players something to do during the global cool-down which would help during combat without unbalancing it. A two tier system, with the main abilities all on the global cool-down, but with a wealth of secondary abilities off the global cool-down, could create quite an interesting system, and one where I don’t feel frustrated at having to spend thirty seconds of a one minute fight chin-on-hand and staring at little glowing clocks counting down on my hotbars. There are reactive abilities in the game, but never enough to make the system as interesting and engaging as I feel it could otherwise be. My other issue at the moment is the fact that I decided to play a Guardian, mainly because being utterly agnostic in real life, I tend to veer towards heavily religious groups in my fantasy escapism, much as being utterly male in real life, I tend to veer towards heavily female characters (read into ‘heavily female’ whatever innuendo you so choose) in my games. The problem with the Guardians is that the first area in the game proper where they adventure is Silverwood: a big bright ancient fantasy forest, full of elves and goblins and ruins, straight out of the fantasy cliché text book. Not a problem, this is a fantasy MMO after all, but after you finish with Silverwood, the levelling conveyor belt passes through border control and takes you into Gloamwood… a big dark ancient fantasy forest, full of wolves and ghosts and ruins, or Silverwood II: The Gloomening, as I have come to call it. My character is level twenty four, and I’m really starting to struggle to carry on with the Kill Ten X quests interspersed with the occasional frantic frenzy of fighting a rift, which alas is nothing more than a zerg wrapped in the illusory cloak of cooperative game-play. Adventuring in Gloamwood feels like I’m still stuck in Silverwod after all this time, only someone has turned the gamma down, presumably to enhance the feeling of depression the player experiences as they’re told to go and find some bat wings because Random Quest Giver X needs them to create Token Artifact Y, in order to progress Arbitrary Plot Device Z.

Still, I’ve got plenty to be getting on with elsewhere, which is another reason why Rift is perhaps not capturing my imagination like I feel it should. I’m starting my second play through of Dragon Age II, this time as a mage, to see how the sissy-robe-wearing set like to live. I’m also still enjoying my time in Lord of the Rings Online, with the Burglar coming along nicely, albeit a bit slowly what with the abundant distractions provided by single player games, books and spontaneously exploding hard disk drives.

The main thing in one’s own private world is to try to laugh as much as you cry.

I awoke yesterday morning and made my way to the bathroom to begin my morning ablutions. With my face buried in a hot flannel I heard the bathroom door open then close, after which followed the distinct motions of someone adjusting the toilet seat and placing themselves upon it. Hands still pressed to my face, I turned my head slowly to the side while pulling the flannel fractionally down, peering over the top. I did not know the strange man who sat perched on the toilet seat next to the wash basin; I watched him in stunned silence for a moment, and he returned my gaze with a level look that indicated he felt perfectly at ease being there. He did not say anything to me, nor I to him, and we both carried on about our business, patently ignoring one another, apart from me passing him a new toilet roll when I saw he was going to run out. After flushing, he generously washed his hands in my bowl of clean water and dried them on my towel. He didn’t bother to close the bathroom door as he left.

I dressed and made my way downstairs to the kitchen. Sitting down at the table with my two fresh slices of toast, I leaned over the day’s newspaper which lay to one side, while my arms remained over my plate, spreading butter and jam on a slice of toast, which I then proceeded to eat. I heard the approach of footsteps and continued to stare at the newspaper, studiously ignoring the woman who walked up to the table and took one of my slices of toast, and then sat down and began to spread butter on it. I continued regardless, leaning back over my plate to take bites of my toast, while my other hand remained stretched out to the side, leafing through the pages of the newspaper. We didn’t say anything to one another, apart from this stranger barking “Jam!” at me when I failed to pass the preserve, even though I had been intending to but was waiting for her to finish buttering her toast. She wolfed down the toast, took a swig from my tea, and then left. I put the dirty plates and cutlery in the dishwasher myself.

Halfway to work I stopped at some traffic lights, and while my car and I idled, four men got in and made themselves comfortable. They travelled with me for some distance in silence, gradually going their own way when it suited them, although the chap who abandoned the car while we were doing seventy along the motorway probably regretted not hanging on a little longer.

That night I paused in the process of snuggling down with my wife, threw off the bedcovers, left the bed, and hung a big ‘Private’ sign on the outside of the bedroom door. Alas, by the time I re-entered the bedroom I found that three men and a woman were in various states of undress and in my bed, helping themselves to my wife. I looked on agape, and then in anger, before leaning my head back out of the bedroom door in disbelief in order to check the sign I had just posted. I quickly took down the Free-For-All sign that I had mistakenly hung there, and made a mental note to store it somewhere safely with the Round Robin sign, as far away from the privacy sign as possible.

It’s a step forward from enforced grouping, but y’know, sometimes the default-to-open group system in Rift can seem a little bit impersonal and antisocial.