Monthly Archives: November 2011

Have I Got MMOnews For You

News this week of slightly unusual patent rights being granted for “a urinal-based games console”, which does seem to be an actual invention rather than just a terrible misunderstanding of how a Wii-mote is used.

The MMOG potential is obvious, venues such as stadiums offering the potential for 10, 25, perhaps even 40 man raids, though the duration would need to be tweaked slightly to under a minute rather than 18 hours. As for a suitable IP for the game setting, well, there’s only one option, isn’t there?

Looking for one more.

I present to you a loading screen advert for Lord of the Rings Online which I saw last night while logging in to perform some maintenance tasks (pay the house and kinship house rents, check lottery wins, admire my lovely cosmetic outfits, consider playing a skirmish or two and then logging out and launching Skyrim, etc.). The familiar band of LotRO mascots return, with the one-eyed dwarf Champion transformed into a Runekeeper, the elf Hunter slightly tweaked in appearance, and a Warden now joining the fray.

Of course what occurred to me is that the standard LotRO group size is six players, and there are only five present here. What’s more, the Runekeeper is clearly full bore into his lore-melting zappity mode, and thus not healing, so where is the Minstrel?

Doing what healers normally do, I assume: standing at the back, out of sight, and topping up health bars while the rest of the group gets on with the tiresome task of having fun killing stuff.

I expect I was probably supposed to be paying attention to the Recruit A Friend offer or something, but such is the way a mind warped by years of MMO tropes works. Or perhaps that’s really what this offer is about, subtly hinting at a way to solve that age-old MMO issue which occurs with the Holy Trinity style of group play:

Recruit A Friend! (Because you need a healer and nobody else wants to do it)

You’re tired of yourself and all of your creations

Nobody said of Skyrim “why do we need to compare this game to an mmo anyway?” (That’s Nobody the commenter, not nobody in the sense of no-one. Somewhat confusing, though I hear he’s an excellent right fielder.) It’s a good question; many MMOG bloggers have taken breaks for, and posted about, single player fantasy CRPGs over the past few years such as the Dragon Age or Witcher series, but I can’t remember anything that’s prompted the level of pondering Skyrim has, as captured in some of the recent MMO Melting Pot pieces.

Very broadly, single player CRPGs tend to be story- and character-driven, often epic in scope, perhaps taking you from humble beginnings and giving you the chance to save the village/city/country/world/solar system/galaxy/universe/multiverse. MMOGs are virtual worlds, providing a canvas for you to create your own stories, probably accompanied by four, seven, nine, 24 or 39 comrades.

(Massive generalisations, obviously, ample scope for pointing out exceptions to either case, mourning the loss of the worldlier elements of MMOGs to focus on optimisation of mechanics, etc. etc.)

Skyrim is principally drawing attention for its virtual world, hence the MMOG comparisons. It has a story, but people aren’t writing about that side so much, it’s the world, the immersion, the sense of adventure that are sparking posts (such as those, picking an example entirely at random, of m’colleague). Though unusual compared to more story-driven RPGs it’s hardly unprecedented, apart from anything else being the fifth of the Elder Scrolls series (ignoring the spinoffs we don’t talk about), with Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas achieving considerable success as well. It’s not such a surprise that the Fallout games didn’t take hold in quite such the same way as for many people RPGs are most strongly linked with a fantasy setting, particularly when it comes to MMOGs, though I’d like to humbly nominate myself for a John the Baptist award for contemplating the MMOG potential of New Vegas a whole month ago. What’s changed since the previous Elder Scrolls game, then, Oblivion?

Oblivion was released in March 2006, eight months before this blog started, thus in the “beyond living memory” category (though these days I can hardly remember what I had for breakfast half the time, rendering the span covered by my living memory considerably less impressive). WoW was getting into its stride, MMOGs in general were becoming more popular, numerous tantalising titles were in development, things were generally on the up. Some veterans from Meridian 59, Ultima Online or EverQuest were mourning the passing of the Golden Age, but newcomers to the genre could still be awed by a marketplace or plaza packed with actual real-life people (or their digital representations, at any rate). Things feel flatter now, allowing Skyrim to surf the wave of ennui lapping at the shores of the blogarchipelago; it might just be me (and Melmoth), but it doesn’t seem like many new MMOG blogs are starting up, established bloggers have been hanging up their keyboards, even WoW’s subscriber numbers are (slightly) falling.

Perhaps technological developments play a part. Not having actually played Skyrim (I will at some point, but am currently distracted by hopping around virtual reality as a toilet) (no, really) I’m hardly in an optimal position for analysis, but it seems like the cracks that have always existed in the world of The Elder Scrolls are gradually being smoothed over with improved voice acting, human-designed (rather than procedurally generated) dungeons and encounters, better graphics, more sophisticated NPC scripting etc. Of course it’s still obvious the world isn’t real, painfully so if you deliberately stretch the edges and put buckets over the head of NPCs or exploit the inability of a monster to navigate terrain, but each iteration of the series improves things (mostly; cue Morrowind versus Oblivion arguments…) It’s not just making a bigger world, Daggerfall was famously vast, it’s making a better world, a more interesting world. MMOGs, on the other hand, don’t seem to have moved on so much recently; not being intimately familiar with the technical side I can’t be sure, but I guess the challenges they face, of storing data about hundreds or thousands of players and their possessions and shunting that around networks, are pretty tricky before even getting on to the difficulty of player behaviour in a shared world.

The funny thing is, as Skyrim draws plaudits for its single player virtual world, Star Wars: The Old Republic is getting generally positive beta write-ups, especially for its story (or stories). It’ll be interesting to see if it can prompt similar debate over ways single player story-driven games can be improved by online components.

On midriffs and maturity.

Any bets on whether the male version of that battleframe is fully sealed?

I also love the attempt at subliminal sexual innuendo word highlighting and phrase choice in the Firefall advert. Subtle.

And we’re still debating why Skyrim is a runaway success while the reputation of the MMO genre goes from bad to worse?

No respect for a huge section of your paying customer base, garners no respect in return.

When it snows, you have two choices: shovel or make snow angels.

My greatest joy in Skyrim comes from the fact that the game doesn’t make me feel as though I’m doing something for the sake of it. Each and every task I perform is its own justification, and many of the trials and tribulations that I endure have been conjured up by my own sense of adventure and exploration. I didn’t need to delve deep into the dwarven ruins I discovered last night, there was no importunate question mark floating above a head, or in a quest log; no expectation haunted my every step, no imperious demand that I perform such and such a feat, in this manner, at this time, in this place, with these tools, and where all other endeavours would be considered void. I felt no quester’s compunction at my failure to follow the stringent MMO method: ticking off lines on a clipboard as each step is performed to exacting specifications in order to observe the inevitable outcome. Nevertheless, I was richly rewarded for my endeavours.

Indeed, the game specifically doesn’t punish the player for avoiding that plodding plotted path, it gives the players a canvas and paint but does not require the use of a brush if you prefer to use your fingers. And although it provides an outline of your character’s existence, it stops well short of putting little numbers across the page to dictate precisely which colour each shape should be. You are free to fill in the bigger picture as the game outlines, but you are equally free to paint over those lines. Therefore, you are able to make a mess of things as much as you are able to make something entirely unique to you. What is important, however, is that the game rewards you however you play. Exploring and experiencing the world, experimenting with it, these things will reward the player’s efforts as much as joining the dotted path of quests.

The upshot of this experience is a phenomenon which many have embraced, while others have railed against it – pointing out the many failings in the game which can also be found in MMOs and elsewhere, and which people are now seemingly happy to ignore, where they complained before.

It is simply the difference between friendship and enmity. In Skyrim I feel as though we are friends, we share similar outlooks and opinions, and we work well together. We don’t often stumble over one another, but when we do we can often resolve the issue amicably. As such, I am aware of Skyrim’s failings but find myself far more willing to forgive them, not least of which because Skyrim has highlighted many of my own failings as a player, and yet continues to reward me regardless. With many MMOs, where I have often found myself railing against them even as I played them, I feel as though we are enemies. The game is out for my money –as much of it as it can gather– and everything I find myself doing in the game is built around the tenet that the more time I have to spend with the game the more money the game earns. As such, I am aware of an MMO’s failings and I find myself less willing to forgive them because I can relate most of them to obstructions, barriers and hardships which are unnecessary outside of the context of this MMO model; more though, even those failings which I could happily otherwise ignore are dispersed by that parsimonious prism of experience, until a single complaint spreads into a spectrum of baser issues.

So Skyrim does indeed cause the player to suffer many of the limits and ludicrosities which have plagued RPGs since gaming began, but it is with these failings accepted that the review scores have been so high. A high score does not reflect a perfect game, it reflects a game which, on balance, has highs which far outweigh the lows. The impression that Skyrim’s positives have left upon me compared to its negatives are as to compare the size of the universe to a grain of sand. Skyrim is not a perfect game, but a game does not have to be perfect and devoid of faults to score highly in the opinion of players and reviewers, what it has to be is a stunning example in its genre.

Skyrim is a stunning example of an RPG, not in the sense of stats and grinding loot for advancement, but in the old sense –one would argue the true sense– of playing a role in a game. It is, ultimately, a game of choice.

Choose grind. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose dailies. Choose fucking big shoulder pads. Choose stats, pots, mats, and tokens. Choose fed ex, low drop rates and kill ten rats. Choose monthly subscription repayments. Choose a raiding guild. Choose your fleeting guild mates. Choose purple gear and matching weapons. Choose a three piece set bonus in a range of fucking tiers. Choose rep grinds and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that chair watching mind-numbing spirit-crushing game-play, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, giving away your stuff to strangers, nothing more than a relic to the selfish, fucked-up brats that have spawned in General Chat to replace you. Choose your future. Choose grind. . . But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose grind: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got Skyrim?

Character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion.

The city of Whiterun, Skyrim.

Spoke to an innocuous looking priest standing at the bar of an inn, because he seemed merry.

Got into a drinking competition.

Woke up the next morning halfway across the country.

In a temple for a female only sect who worship the goddess of beauty.

And ‘persuasion’ [waggles eyebrows]

Paid for the damage caused to the temple the previous night.

Apparently a goat was involved.

Don’t ask.

Agreed to undertake a penance, once the other priestesses had all returned.

From their private gathering to ‘worship’ their goddess. [waggles eyebrows]

Snuck to the back of the temple.

Picked the lock to their secret chamber.

Gained a skill level in Freudian Imagery.

Covertly observed the ceremony.

It was far less exciting than my skill level in Freudian Imagery demanded.

Decided to steal the expensive gold idol of their deity in recompense for the lack of ‘entertainment’.

Got caught.

Agreed to do yet another more arduous and treacherous penance.

Will be given the gift of ‘persuasion’ when the penance is completed. [waggles eyebrows]

Have been playing for an hour and half at least, and still haven’t opened the map.

Or quest journal.

Or had to kill ten small rodents.

Was in danger of strangling a snake there at one point, however.

Such organic quest development is another reason why Skyrim is simply marvellous.

It’s not just the prospect of getting drunk and waking up after a wild night to find myself in a temple full of lesbian priestesses willing to teach me the art of ‘persuasion’.

That would be orgasmic quest development, which is another thing entirely.

The Emperor’s New Heavy-Handed Parable

Once upon a time there was an emperor who cared very much about his appearance. When two tailors from exotic lands visited his country, he summoned them for an audience and demanded the most splendid outfit that money could buy. Night and day the tailors worked and finally, after delaying the outfit by a week to allow for additional polishing of the buckles and fastenings, they dressed the emperor, and all the courtiers agreed that it was the finest and most magnificent outfit they had ever seen. So pleased was the emperor that he decided to stage a parade such that all his subjects could witness the clothes. As he strode down the street to the adoring cheers of his people, one small child shouted “But the emperor is naked!”, and the crowd gasped!

“Wait a minute” said someone near the child “he’s not naked at all, what on earth are you talking about?”
“I’m the lone voice challenging the tissue of lies built on vanity, fear and pride” replied the child “only my brave innocent voice can expose the truth!”
“Yes, but… he’s wearing clothes”
“All right, yeah, he’s wearing clothes… but the crown’s a bit wonky. And I don’t like the cut of the pantaloons at all. They promised us the most magnificent outfit ever, he think he all that, but he ain’t all that, nuh-uh.”
“That’s an entirely different issue, though, I mean I’ll grant you the shade of purple of the frock-coat isn’t entirely to my taste, but nevertheless it’s pretty magnificent. Perhaps the courtiers were overstating the magnificence somewhat, but not to the point of lying about the existence of the clothes entirely. Anyway, weren’t you that kid who kept shouting ‘wolf’ the other day?”
“Nah, that was a different kid. He got eaten. By a wolf as it turns out.”
“Wow, that’s ironic”

Reviewlet: Alpha Protocol

Alpha Protocol looked like an intriguing prospect in development, a contemporary espionage action RPG allowing players to travel the globe as a secret agent. It received rather mixed reviews on release, tending to “meh”, but when it showed up for less than £2 in a Steam sale a couple of months back it was hard to say no. Playing Alpha Protocol after Fallout: New Vegas and Deus Ex: Human Revolution was rather interesting, in a “compare and contrast” sort of way. You know what they say: first/third person Action RPGs are like buses, you wait all year for one that allows a variety of approaches to meet objectives, and then three come along at a suitable price in Steam at the same time. Give or take a few months. And they all feature a hacking minigame. And two of them are made by Obsidian.

I do like a spy novel, so the setting of Alpha Protocol is a big plus for me; there aren’t many games in the espionage genre, especially RPGs where you have a bit of freedom moving through the story. The key elements should be familiar enough to genre fans: rogue agents, private military contractors, assassination attempts, arms smuggling, double crossing, triple crossing, mysterious beautiful women, that sort of business. You play Mike Thorton, an agent desperately trying to recover the ‘N’ that somebody stole from his surname (and maybe some missiles or something). One of the key features touted beforehand was the conversation system, where you can generally take one of three approaches: Aggressive, Suave or Professional, which the developers broadly equate to Jack Bauer, James Bond or Jason Bourne. There’s obviously something about the initials “JB” and secret agents, lending additional credence to the theory that Justin Bieber is a psychological warfare project. This tends to work quite well, though the exact dialogue that results may not be quite what you expect; the “Suave” node in particular sometimes feels like it should actually be labelled “The ‘What Not To Do’ Example From A Corporate Briefing Video On Sexual Harassment In The Workplace”. Different approaches can lead to being Liked or Disliked by key NPCs, sometimes you can uncover in-game dossier information that may suggest the best approach to take, or you can always use your super-spy abilities to look up a walkthrough on GameFAQs. I’ve been on a bit of a John le Carré kick recently after seeing the film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and was slightly disappointed there’s no George Smiley-inspired approach (apart from the fact that he’d have to be renamed Jeorge Bsmiley to have to right initials), but I suppose it would be quite tricky to create compelling gameplay from listening attentively, carefully writing things down and polishing your spectacles on your tie.

Once you get on a mission, mechanically Alpha Protocol is incredibly similar to DXHR in many ways. Sneak around, crouching to make less noise, avoiding security cameras with sweeping green cones of vision (if you get spotted an alarm sounds, find the alarm panel and you can disable it via a minigame); creep up unnoticed behind a guard and you can tap one button to knock him unconscious or a different one to kill him. Computers holding vital intelligence can be hacked via another minigame. You have a choice of weapons from pistol, shotgun, submachine gun or assault rifle (though you can only carry two), getting into a stand-up firefight is usually a bad idea, but you can take cover behind scenery and jump and roll between bits of cover. Oh, and every now and again you’ll get into a really stupid boss fight.

Just as in DXHR you can specialise in Alpha Protocol as a stealthy master of hacking, able to slip undetected past human guards and cameras alike, delivering precise knock-out blows or tranquilliser rounds where force is unavoidable, and just as in DXHR the game thinks it’s hilarious to stick a superpowered boss at the end of certain levels who has to be shot. A lot. And you haven’t even got the option of a Typhoon explosive augmentation as a handy “I win” shortcut. It’s especially jarring, as at least in DXHR you were facing cybernetic super-soldiers who you could believe were nigh-invulnerable; unless I missed a vital bit of dossier info that revealed a key Alpha Protocol villain had an adamantium skeleton, there was no explanation as to how a middle-aged man could withstand three magazines of assault rifle ammunition emptied into his head at point blank range. One particular fight descends into absolute surrealism as a psychotic Russian mobster snorts coke to become a knife-wielding instant killing machine, leading to a Benny Hill chase around a disco as ultra-cheesy 80s rock blares out until he gets knackered, at which point you shoot him for a while, then repeat. It’s like a reel from Austin Powers got spliced into the middle of The Bourne Identity.

Though the games share several mechanics, freedom is a key difference. At the start of Alpha Protocol you run through a weapons training course with sandbag corridors and pop-up targets, and the rest of the game never quite shakes off that feeling. For one thing Elite Agent Thorton can’t jump, his rigorous training unfortunately not covering “stepping over knee-high obstructions”, and though the level design usually doesn’t emphasise this too much there are occasions when your progress is stymied by an ankle-high sandbag wall. Sometimes you find a sniper rifle, but rather than, say, picking it up and carrying it around, you press Space to start using it, and when finished you put it back down in the same place, like it’s a rifle range and the gun is chained down. There are no boxes to be piled up to reach vents or windows, you can’t punch through walls, and the buildings you’re sent to infiltrate are strangely lacking in conveniently human-sized air ducts that let you into critical areas completely bypassing all security. The levels feel a bit like movie sets, sometimes with two or three paths through them, but with decorative doors and painted backdrops to appear more open.

On the plus side, they’re movie sets in a variety of exotic locations. Where DXHR featured an awful lot of corridors, Alpha Protocol moves from desert compounds to embassies to train stations to museums to parks across the world. I felt a lot more involved in the story as well; though things are headed for an obvious showdown (there’s a slightly clunky flashback structure that I felt broke up the flow slightly without adding much) you seem to have quite a few important decisions on the way.

Overall, then, Deus Ex: Human Revolution had great mechanics but got bogged down a bit in repetitiveness towards the end without an especially compelling plot to drive it on, whereas Alpha Protocol wasn’t so strong in general gameplay, but had a more interesting story and kept the pace up throughout. Worth a try, especially if it’s on sale for less than £2 again sometime.

Belabor day.

Because you’re not yet tired of Skyrim talk and screenshots, right? RIGHT?

My character. Foes call him ‘cat’ as a racial slur, and they tell him that they killed their mother’s cat, and they’ll do the same to him. So he sears them with flame, and stabs them with steel.

And looks fabulous doing it, darling. [purrr]

Did I mention the world was beautiful in a different way at every turn?

It is.

BOOM! Headshot!

BOOM! Head—err, ‘ere ‘ang on, I fink ‘e’s fakin’ it, Frank!