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.

12 thoughts on “Things to Do in Denerim When You’re Dead.

  1. Helistar

    How do the Rift quests compare with LotRO?

    It’s probably due to my age, or the number of characters leveled or I don’t know what, but I find LotRO questing to border on the edge of the atrocious, much like pre-Cataclysm WoW. And at least in WoW they were nicely arranged to minimize walk-time…. or maybe it was just QuestHelper doing a great job about minimizing walk time. Whatever the case, slow mounts and messy terrain really detract from the experience. I stopped reading the texts some time ago….. something which I had resumed when playing low-level Cataclysm. Rift is closer to which model?

  2. Melmoth Post author

    Hoom, Rift and LotRO quests are comparable, I’d say, and probably comparable to World of Warcraft too. The thing is, and this is where the original issue of mine comes in: I really like the setting in LotRO; it’s a personal thing of course, but it’s my explanation as to why Rift “is perhaps not capturing my imagination like I feel it should”.

    So taking the fact that, yes, I think quests are pretty dull and tedious in most of these sorts of MMOs, the difference, for me, generally comes down to the game’s setting. Here, I would say, Rift is closer to WoW (and this is why I no longer play WoW either), in that the game is broken into self-contained zones that do not really feel part of a cogent and cohesive world. They feel like micro-worlds, where you go to perform generally generic quests against a slightly different backdrop. Changing zones in some MMOs is like changing the background wallpaper on your desktop before going back to that tedious spreadsheet you were working on. WoW wasn’t originally like that, but later expansions have, to my mind, been cast in that mould.

    Perhaps it’s because LotRO’s world has already been mapped out for it by someone who wasn’t trying to keep players on a levelling treadmill through their game, but the lands of Middle Earth are just far more compelling than the themed pockets of content found in Rift and later WoW expansions. Original Azeroth was also much better in this regard, in my opinion.

    It’s a subjective thing, obviously, but I’m simply trying to explain my lack of enthusiasm for the game, rather than calling the game a general failure, because for a great many people that is clearly not the case.

    I believe the dull quests are brought to the fore because the game world isn’t distracting me enough from realising the truth of it. I don’t think this problem, for me, is unique to Rift, however.

  3. Helistar

    I agree with your assessment of LotRO, but unfortunately it suffers the same fate when it comes to repeatability. Visiting the world is nice when leveling the first character, then it is “more of the same”.

    At least with Cataclysm I read the quest text once, before switching to “full rush mode”. Linearity and compartimalized zones has its advantages. With LotRO you end up with a mess of partly done quest lines, often blocked by fellowship quests for which you find noone or just quest which want to send you to the opposite side of the world (which breaks the chain even for a hunter…).

    At times I think that the entire idea of leveling and questing should be dumped in favor of “something else”, but I admit being short of ideas for the “something else”.

  4. Melmoth Post author

    I think World of Warcraft set a high standard for repeatability which few MMOs dream of attempting these days, but while I agree this can be an issue if you aren’t already a fan of the game, it’s quite a subjective thing. I’ve levelled multiple characters to the cap in WoW and Burning Crusade, and I’m currently levelling my fourth character to the cap in LotRO, yet I struggle to find the enthusiasm to level my first character in Rift. Does this mean that LotRO is categorically better than Rift? No, I certainly don’t think so, but I do like to try to determine why it is that a game isn’t working for me.

    Addressing a separate point regarding LotRO’s mess of partly done quests: I can agree with you there, but I don’t think it was always that way. What I think you’re seeing is the result of the streamlining which the game has received over its years, with a less harsh experience curve, and the addition of other ways to gain experience, such as skirmishes. I seem to recall that in the early days of the game you had to do most quests (and perhaps consider grinding mobs, mercy!) in each zone in order to expedite travel along the XP curve.

    Brian Green has an excellent series of meditations on the removal of levels, and it’s certainly a popular topic among designers and budding designers alike. EVE points the way, but I think the tricky part is finding a way to incorporate that into a PvE setting. Guild Wars, on the other hand, has a mere twenty levels, and players have stuck with it for years after reaching the level cap without getting involved in the PvP game to any extent – I would contend that this is, in part, due to the fact that they find the world and the stories being told there so compelling.

    Somewhere along the EVE and Guild Wars family tree there is a branch which represents a levelless World of Warcraft, we just need a developer willing to risk their neck in climbing out to it…

  5. Pardoz

    “Somewhere along the EVE and Guild Wars family tree there is a branch which represents a levelless World of Warcraft, we just need a developer willing to risk their neck in climbing out to it…”

    The good news is, there’s a developer who is.

    The bad news is, it’s Funcom…

  6. Melmoth Post author

    Well indeed, they’ll certainly risk their neck climbing out on to the branch, but primarily because they’ve accidentally set fire to the rest of the tree.

  7. Pardoz

    Quite so. Were TSW coming from *any* other studio, I’d be on the edge of my seat waiting for it; as it is, I’m just hoping it doesn’t turn out to be an *utter* disaster.

  8. Jim

    “…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.”

    It’s time for you to start writing mmorpg quests Mel. No excuses.

  9. spinks

    I think I’m going for a mage in my second playthrough of DA2 also. I keep thinking that it’d be much easier to hide as a non-circle mage if they didn’t insist on wearing robes and carrying staves though.

  10. darkeye

    Had no idea the sequel to ‘the name of the wind’ was out, used to follow his blog but got bored when it didn’t look like a release anytime soon. Need to pick it up, except I’ve already interupted reading book 8 of the malazan book of the fallen for Joe Abercrombie’s new one, and have two books left to go in the malazan series and then GRR Martin has finally set a release date, will need to give up MMOing of an evening to get through that lot.

    Have been questing a bit in Enedwaith and it seems that questing in Lotro is improving, I like all the drops and picked up objects that start quests and there is a nice flow but still the questing is quite mundane. Finished book 2 of volume 3 and like the bit of mystery they worked into that. Going to be playing the latter half of Evendim on my Captain to see the new quests, mechanics and hubs. I suppose WoW does dress questing up a good deal more, but the linearity is the same and I think they really messed up by introducing phasing. I wouldn’t write The Secret World off yet, at the very least it will have an interesting story and ARG stuff.

  11. Eliot

    @Spinks: That’s always been one of my beefs with the universe as it butts up against gameplay. For the most part, the world and the game exist comfortably alongside one another, but you’d think that eventually the robes, staves, and hoods might start setting off the templars a bit. Not to mention any passive spell effects; it was polite of the templars to never mention that, well, there did seem to be some sort of swirling vines following Merrill at all times and she did seem to be bleeding quite a bit.

    Perhaps there’s an active subculture that would require robes and staves at all times without being mages, though I can’t think of what it might be. Mage cosplayers throughout Thedas? Perverts? Men and women getting horribly lost on their way to a decorative banister gathering while wearing bathrobes?

  12. Melmoth Post author

    @Pardoz: I was being rather unfair to them of course, because although Age of Conan wasn’t the massive hit everyone hoped, I think it’s fair to say that it is still an accomplished game, and I had many hours of entertainment from it. They have a poor track record, but it is at least an improving one, so fingers crossed that they keep improving, or indeed surprise us all with a release that would make Trion jealous.

    @Jim: No excuses on my part: if a game company wanted to pay me money to write such puerile persiflage, I’m sure I’d be quite amenable to it.

    @Spinks: Heh indeed! Funnily enough m’colleague and I were discussing the same thing yesterday. Staves were definitely high on the ‘uhhhhm’ list. We also particularly liked the part where you first attempt to enter Kirkwall: fifty Knights Templar all standing around guarding the place when a fight breaks out between yourselves and some other refugees. First thing one does as a mage in that situation? Fireball! KABOOM! “Me? A mage? Here? In front of all these Templars? With my reputation?” /twiddles evil moustache.

    @darkeye: The Wise Man’s Fear hasn’t been out that long, a week or so I think. It’s deeply splendid, and if you enjoyed the first book, this one shouldn’t leave you disappointed – well, only in the fact that you want to know the rest of the story and will probably have to wait another three years or more for the next book, alas.

    One of the places I liked most for questing in LotRO was Eregion. I even wrote about it at the time because I enjoyed it that much; I don’t think it was any different or any better than WoW or Rift, but there is definitely a shape and feel to a well designed zone, although I suspect that it may well be a different shape for different sets of people.

    I try not to write off any MMO, and I’m secretly excited about the world of The Secret World (how apt!) but Funcom have a bit of a reputation to overcome, so I’m trying to maintain a healthy balancing level of scepticism until I get to witness it firsthand.

    @Eliot: It’s not just the passive effects either, as I mention to Spinks above, full-on Fireballs of Doom in front of Templars (and indeed engulfing them, thank goodness there’s no friendly fire on Casual level… I mean, it *is* friendly fire, clearly, because it doesn’t burn your friends… I’m rambling again. /Merrill). Clearly the Templars are just really, really thick. Sort of Tim Nice But Dim types. Except not very nice.

    Either that or perhaps because they’re religious types they’re very easily convinced that the mage is nothing more than a wise king following a star to the birth of a holy child.

    “Blood? Nooo, no, no that’s frankincense you’re thinking of. Or is it myrrh? I can never remember which is which. What? I *am* a wise man. Well *you* try remembering the difference between them, nobody ever can. Oh yeah? Well if you’re so smart how come you haven’t realised I’m a mage yet, look I’m wearing a hood and robes and carrying a stave after all. And I just set your patrol partner on fire. No it wasn’t really the holy cleansing fire of Andraste. Yes just ordinary fire. Hmmm? Do I think he’ll be okay? Well I don’t know, we could ask the charred remnants of his skeleton, I suppose… N-no I was being sarcast… by Andraste’s lace thong, you really are dim.”

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