Monthly Archives: March 2012

I like to play blackjack. I’m not addicted to gambling, I’m addicted to sitting in a semi-circle.

The British Board of Blog Classification (Game Plot Revelation Committee) has classified this post as Spoiler Free for the single player story of ‘Mass Effect 3’. Please refrain from any revelations in the comments, especially about that bit where that thing happens. I mean I was all totally like “NO WAY!”, and the game was all totally like “WAY!”, and then when the thing turned out not to be that thing but the other thing? Definitely don’t tell anyone about that. Though I was a bit disappointed when it all turned out to be a dream.

Like much of the rest of the galaxy I’ve been desperately fighting off the Reapers in Mass Effect 3, but I haven’t got terribly far in the story yet, so there really won’t be any spoilers. If you’d manage to insulate yourself from ME3 information so completely that “fighting off the Reapers” is a surprise, I apologise for ruining the first 17 seconds of the introduction. One of the main reasons for lack of single player progress is that I keep getting distracted by the multiplayer.

The mechanics are pretty simple, you create multiplayer-specific characters from slightly cut-down versions of the main classes (Soldier, Infiltrator, Adept etc.), kit them out with a couple of guns, then either host or join a co-op fight in a squad of four against 10 waves of opponents. I haven’t heavily played an online shooter since Unreal Tournament 2003 so I’m a bit out of touch, but the combat elements of ME3 stand up well enough on their own, and one round is a nice 20-minute chunk of gaming (so long as everyone hits “Ready” fairly promptly to start things off, and three of you aren’t sitting in the lobby staring at one “Not Ready” status).

There are a couple of slightly troubling aspects to the multiplayer, though. The first is the contribution to the single player story; success in multiplayer improves the “Galactic Readiness Rating”, which is helpful in the single player story. It’s not a bad idea, to give people a bit of a nudge to at least try the multiplayer to see if they like it, but it sounds like it can have quite a significant effect on how the game ends rather than being a bit of an optional bonus (I might revisit the subject after finishing the game myself, until then: NO SPOILERS!). It’s particularly jarring in light of the separate settings for Combat and Narrative that allow a player to adjust one or the other to their preference, whereas the multiplayer is exclusively combat, and not particularly forgiving.

It doesn’t take a conspiracy theory of “world leaders are giant lizards in human skin polluting our essence by fluoridating water” proportions to connect the less than subtle shove towards multiplayer with the second troubling aspect, the equipment upgrades. You earn credits through your battles, and with those credits you can buy Recruit, Veteran or Spectre packs containing a random mix of consumables, weapons, upgrades and multiplayer characters (you can always create a human of any class, other races like Salarians and Krogan are unlocked via the upgrade packs). The kit you get is mostly Common, but with a chance (or certainty, depending how much you spend) of Uncommon or Rare items. Sound familiar? As Evan Lahti of PC Gamer put it, “When I play it I smell Magic cards.” It’s not Magic for me, it’s 1983 Panini Return of the Jedi stickers, isn’t it? Wasn’t it? Small boys in the playground, jumpers for goalposts, got, got, got, got, need! Need! I’ll give you two ewoks and a quarter of the death star for the top of C3PO’s head! No, Mrs Brown, I wasn’t playing with the stickers in class, don’t confiscate them!

Random loot alone isn’t so much of a problem (or churches surely wouldn’t hold so many raffles), it’s a staple of many games, and though it can be annoying when you seemingly turn up endless shotgun upgrades and nothing for your favoured assault rifle it’s nothing that hasn’t been hashed out many times here and elsewhere around the blag-u-spore (and doubtless would have been on the Panini Stickers forum in 1983, had it existed; “drop rate of admiral ackbar is REDICKKYEWLESS!!1!”). As well as being available for in-game credits, though, the Veteran and Spectre equipment packs can be bought for real money (in the form of Bioware Points). I’ve got no fundamental issue with microtransactions (again, see repeated discussions here and elsewhere), but the combination of real money and randomness puts gambling on the table, then spins a big wheel and shouts “faites vos jeux”.

I haven’t really got a problem with gambling, but for whatever reason it’s not something I particularly enjoy, perhaps I’m too risk-averse. I can appreciate the appeal (win lots of lovely money, check), I’ll happily bet piles of virtual money on virtual blackjack in something like Fallout: New Vegas (especially when there’s a Quick Load option), but I’ve no desire to to shovel 10p coins into a slot machine. Mind you the slots player might be just as baffled by me and a friend doing the same thing with a Golden Axe cabinet when there isn’t even a chance of getting money out of it. (Note: adjust for inflation and substitute a more modern game to avoid too much 80s nostalgia.)

Turbine’s treasure hunting event in Lord of the Rings Online has similar overtones, offering random loot and requiring Treasure-hunter’s Picks that can be obtained either via in-game quests or from the store, although they sound quite easy to obtain via quests. Cryptic have rightly been drawing more flak for the Cardassian Lockboxes in Star Trek Online that can only be opened with a store-bought key. Some people can get into serious trouble with gambling, and though a stack of lockboxes are unlikely to cost someone their rent money or bring down a bank, a friend who worked in a games shop had enough stories about Magic players begging, borrowing or stealing enough for a couple of booster packs, feverishly ripping them open, and collapsing in a sobbing heap surrounded by discarded Sorrow’s Paths without a Yawgmoth’s Will to show for it. At least ME3 multiplayer is co-op rather than PvP so it really doesn’t matter if other players are tooled up with diamond-encrusted hyperguns, worst case your comparative contribution to the team might be reduced, but you’ll get the overall team rewards.

Venture Beat spent $100 on Spectre equipment packs in an interesting investigative piece that doubles up as a genius wheeze to claim Bioware Points as a tax deductible expense, and the results aren’t terribly impressive; as it concludes: “I’m sure there will be those who purchase just a couple packs and get some awesome stuff, while others will go on to have worse luck than I did. That’s the problem with gambling. But according to our little test, the odds are stacked against you in Mass Effect 3.” There is another method of boosting your single player Galactic Readiness as well, an iOS game that doesn’t sound terribly good, and *also* has an option to purchase equipment upgrades for cash.

It’s not that the purchasable equipment packs are a hideous abomination that completely ruin Mass Effect 3, they’re just a bit of tarnish on what is otherwise a rather nice addition to the game. If the co-op multiplayer was a separate free-to-play download with microtransactions that would be one thing, buying equipment packs seems a little excessive on top of a big-box full price game, but then so does launch-day DLC and the piles of tie-in merchandise unlocks, such is the way of so many titles these days. The Galactic Readiness aspect of the single player game may not turn out to be such a big deal after all, rendering this something of a storm in a teacup; perhaps we should just be thankful that Bioware didn’t use a less subtle approach to hook in players who care more about the story and relationship between the characters…

“Commander, over the course of our mission I feel we have become close, so close that I can’t help myself, I have to ask… Have You Tried Mass Effect 3 Co-Operative Multiplayer? Why Not Do So Now! Buy A Spectre Equipment Pack For Just 160 Bioware Points!”

“Shepard, I treasure our time together, but… it’s just… your Galactic Readiness score is rather low, so there’s a good chance I’ll die in the climactic confrontation. If you really loved me, you’d play Mass Effect 3 Co-operative Multiplayer and buy lots of Spectre Equipment Packs for just 160 Bioware Points!”

Artists create out of a sense of desolation.

While familiarising myself with the history and works of El Greco through the power of the Wikipedian Hivemind, I came across the piece displayed here, an oil on canvas work titled The Holy Trinity.

I think this, for me, highlights the true genius of El Greco. Not only was he a fine artist, but he was an utter visionary, predicting the forthcoming plight of group composition in the early days of MMOs, and then realising that vision on canvas.

In the painting we can see the poor Tank, exhausted from the infinite pressures of leading a group through another dungeon instance, falling into the arms of the Healer who continues to desperately keep the Tank on his feet. Meanwhile, the DPS stand around looking confused and generally getting under the Healer’s feet (there’s definitely a foot-based theme underpinning this work); I think the one in the blue dress is probably about to helpfully yell “HEAL MEH!”, or perhaps complain about the Healer’s lack of ability. The DPS just to the left of The Primary Whiner appears to be contemplating the ground – one presumes the subject is curious about the big puddle of fire they all seem to be standing in.

Meanwhile, the DPS in green to the front left appears to be supporting the Tank, but a closer examination shows that their gaze is drawn down, calculating, and focussed elsewhere on the Tank, possibly trying to work out the value of the Tank’s gear score in order to complain bitterly about it, or simply assessing the gear’s value to determine whether it’s worth asking for the Tank’s stuff when they rage-quit the game.

The two DPS on the right of the picture are clearly aligned in the classic Get The F*ck On With It pose used by artists in the late 1500’s, and thus provide the picture’s balancing composition to The Whiners in the left third, with the Tank and Healer in the centre third.

I think it’s obvious that the dove represents Lady RNG, passing quickly over the group, ready to poop onto the head of the Tank from a reasonable height.

Not entirely sure about the disembodied baby heads sitting at the Tank’s feet, however. Possibly an abstract expression of the Tank’s battered self-esteem, or those maddening voices whose whispers sow the doubts and lassitudes which are the harbingers of the desolation of the soul.

Or maybe El Greco was just rubbish at drawing crafting nodes. Who knows?

Hope is generally a wrong guide, though it is good company along the way

I tweeted the other day about patching both SWTOR and STO while Total War: Shogun 2 was installing, and a couple of my dedicated followers (lovely young ladies, judging by their definitely not stolen profile pictures) were kind enough to suggest a link to something that had been really helpful for them in Star Wars: The Old Republic. The fact that their tweets were identical was obviously just proof of the old adage about great minds thinking alike, rather than confirmation that a pair of randomly named accounts tweeting heavily obfuscated links were spambots picking up on any mention of SWTOR.

Being at something of a loose end I thought I’d take a look at what they were promoting. Convincing though the heartfelt endorsements were, I still took basic security precautions and slathered the keyboard with gin, drank a couple of shots of antibacterial hand sanitiser and donned a welding mask to foil the hackers who take control of your webcam then stare into your eyes to read your mind and steal passwords (I originally tried not knowing any of my passwords so the mind reading wouldn’t work, but there was a slight flaw with that system. After that I trained a hamster to randomly generate and memorise a password so to access a game or site I just had to command “Boo! Enter Dungeons and Dragons Online password!”, but I had to abandon that system as the week after creating a home shopping account with Sainsburys a mysterious order was placed for 700 bags of peanuts.)

Sure enough, three or four redirections later, the links led to a SWTOR levelling guide making all manner of AMAZING promises. Now it may be that it really is a fantastic resource and the myriad tweets are from genuine fans, but it seems a smidge more likely to be a scuzzy operation employing spammers. Much like a seedy Gentleman’s Specialist Interest venue, if you were seduced by the gaudy neon and alluring posters into paying the steep price of admission you’d probably find a couple of bored looking women in their underwear handing out information that could be gleaned from game forums with a bit of searching.

A levelling guide seems especially superfluous for SWTOR as I can’t think of a smoother levelling experience in any other MMOG, especially at launch. No extended grinding, no desolate zones with occasional token kill-quests, no “hell levels”. Sidestepping for a moment the question of whether a smooth, guided levelling experience is a Good Thing or Symptomatic of the Decline of Western Civilisation, most MMOGs have needed patches, expansions and/or major zone revamps to knock off the rough edges of launch and fill in the gaps labelled “ADD CONTENT HERE”. If you follow the story quests of your class in SWTOR you can hardly go wrong, and though they alone aren’t enough to get you to the cap you can also pick up solo or group (heroic) quests in the same zones, you can run flashpoints (instances) from the main fleet, participate in PvP or fly space missions, all of which net further XP; a levelling guide (or two minutes on the forums) could probably point out which is the most efficient, but if making a bar go up is your *only* goal, regardless of the mechanism, why not buy a pack of felt-tips and some graph paper and knock yourself out? It’ll be much cheaper.

No pleasure endures unseasoned by variety.

My current plate of play is piled high with equal portions of Dungeons & Dragons Online and Rift, as I gorge myself once more on morsels from the ‘all you can eat’ MMO buffet. Update 6 for Lord of the Rings Online approaches as swiftly as the flow of The Great River it brings with it, but I find myself utterly uninterested in returning to my mature MMO mistress. For the first time I find that I don’t like the direction in which Turbine are taking their interpretation of the free-to-play model and, combined with yet more of what I see as complications to the design of the warden class, it seems as though I’m gently drifting away from LotRO, the current of its ambitions finally flowing in a divergent direction to the current of my interests. As it is with others, I find the Premium Barter Wallet to be an unnecessary device: a solution to a problem that needn’t have existed in the first place. To sell players inventory space, fill that inventory with barter currency which monopolises that space in an entirely unnecessary fashion, and then offer to sell players yet another form of inventory to solve this issue, should be viewed as a worrisome development at best; I see it as invidiousness.

Curiously, I ended up giving Turbine some of my money anyway, but this time I’ve decided to invest a little in DDO. The new expansion has piqued my curiosity, and by ordering early there is the usual array of bonus trinkets and knickknacks offered along with the expansion content itself. Having lost my mind momentarily and plumped for the Libertine Edition, I found myself with an abundance of niceties, amongst which were included 2000 Turbine Points. With some time yet until the expansion, but with an already renewed enthusiasm for DDO, expansion notwithstanding, I decided to invest some of the Tubine Points into the relatively recently released Artificer class. The fact that the class happened to be on sale at the time only spurred me into divesting myself of my newfound digital wealth as quickly as I had obtained it. The Artificer class is bonkers-powerful in that way which only ‘expansion’ classes can be; as with the Death Knight in World of Warcraft, the Runekeeper and Warden in LotRO, the Beastlord in EverQuest 2, and many others, the Artificer is a new class which seems to thrust through the canopy of classes, before unfurling the tremendous branches of its power and leaving all else somewhat in its shade. The Artificer uses a repeating crossbow, a weapon which has received a revamp to its mechanics coinciding with the release of the Artificer, transforming the weapon from the ranged equivalent of lightly slapping the target repeatedly about the face with a herring, into something more akin to dropping a quick succession of blue whales from a sub-orbital platform onto the head of the unsuspecting villain . That alone, for me, would make the class interesting, but in this Swiss Army knife of classes, that’s just the weird tool tucked behind the tool which hooks the stones out of horse hooves. The Artificer can also detect and disarm traps and locks, much like the rogue class. They also have a pet, which levels-up with the character, can be equipped with various items, and has its own line of enhancements including two prestige lines – in this I believe the pet is better developed than some of the existing classes in the game.

So you can see that the Artificer is pretty powerful, really; unfairly so, some might suggest.

So I probably shouldn’t mention the Rune Arm weapon: a device which has various uses, but starts off as a basic close-range flame thrower which can be charged up to various levels of power, and doesn’t even require the player to swap out their +5 Blue Whale Launching Turret of Mass Extinction in order to use it.

Yes indeed, the Artificer is pretty crazily powerful, I think you’ll agree.

So I probably shouldn’t mention the fact that they can cast spells from a selection which rivals that of Wizards, including, but not limited to, the uberlevelling munchkin caster’s damage spell of choice – Blade Barrier, as well as the ability to conjure crossbow bolts like an Arcane Archer. There’s also the newly added line of curative admixtures, which allow the Artificer to turn health and resistance potions into grenades, which they can then lob into a crowd for an AoE version of that potion’s benefits.

Pretty powerful. Overpowered, some might say.

So I probably shouldn’t mention the fact that – nah, just kidding, that’s about it. I mean, apart from the fact that they’re able to transform into Godzilla at fourth level, but I don’t suppose you’re interested in that. It leaves me wondering what Turbine will have to do to make the druid class –which is being launched with the new expansion in June– appealing to players. Obviously it’s something that players in DDO have been clamouring for with equal voracious verve as players of EQ2 were for the Beastlord, but I can’t help but think that Turbine have to go even further with this class in order to make it stand out against that solitary device of dungeon destruction and devastation encompassed in the Artificer. As such, I imagine that the player of a freshly created level one Druid will look down upon their hotbar and see a single button, with a tooltip that reads:

Lunar Transformation: The druid transforms into a fully operation battle station and becomes the ultimate power in the universe.
.
‘That’s no moon.’

Despite professing to the contrary, I found myself drawn into raiding in Rift over the weekend. And what incomprehensible minatory threat to reality was it which caused me to throw reticence to the wind and join the noble cause of a pick-up raid of valiant Ascended?

Balloons.

Extra-dimensional death balloons of death and greater death, that cause death with their deathly death rays of much death and deathness?!

No, no – party balloons. Tied to the floor outside of a carnival tent.

Rift’s one year anniversary event is in full swing, and the phase of progress (read: stage of the grind) that has currently been reached allows for players to participate in various carnival games staged around the tented encampment of NPCs, who have set up shop in the capital cities of the two factions, as well as in the Shimmersand region. It’s the standard MMO event, with mini-games rewarding a currency –in this case, prize tickets– which can be used to barter for various event-only items, such as cosmetics and trinkets and the like. The balloon game requires the player character to jump around a small pen bursting balloons (the event is themed around a carnival, and thus balloons play a large part in various aspects) until they have dispatched thirty of the villainous rubbery entrappers of helium. The keys to the ‘exploitation’ of this game are:

a) It is instantly repeatable, rather than being daily.
b) In a group, or raid, any burst balloon counts towards the total for all members of the group or raid.

So, MMO players being, well, MMO players, have optimised this game by forming raids of players who all jump up and down on the spot, only stopping to hand-in the quest to the vendor (standing right beside the balloon pen) and pick-up the quest once again. For a single player the quest would probably take somewhere in the carefully-balanced-by-developers region of a minute; in a raid you can get in about two jumps before you need to hand-in the quest again.

Thus, there I was, for ten or fifteen minutes, in a raid consisting primarily of level-capped heroes, with their giant raider’s shoulder pads; epic weapons encrusted with jewels; trailed by a small choir of angels chanting the player’s great deeds for all the world to bear witness to; as the twenty of us jumped up and down like loons, popping balloons. A grinding platoon, marching to the theme park’s tune.

Are we entirely sure we’re not in Azeroth any more?

Fury itself supplies arms

While chatting about some of the recent waves of sound and fury sweeping through the intertubes, Melmoth observed “I will be rich and famous when I invent a way to power the Internet from the pure unbridled rage it generates daily.” My first thought was a keyboard that could harness all that ANGRY TYPING to generate electricity, but it seems Compaq and Google amongst others got there first. I’m not sure their patents really make the most of the PURE SPIT-FLECKED POTENTIAL of Angry Internet Men either, so I propose the KiaSA Punchboard: a giant alphanumeric array the user can PUNCH with their FISTS of RIGHTEOUS FURY to convey EXACTLY how WRONG their target is. Velocity sensors on each key would increase both font weight and size of the comment/tweet depending on the strength of the punch, underlining a word if any letter in it was activated by headbutt, and mechanical linkages would convert the kinetic energy to electricity by doing technical stuff (Editor’s Note: run that bit past Trevor Baylis).

By my entirely made-up calculations, four such devices should be sufficient to power a small village, so long as shortly before periods of peak demand (e.g. half-time of major sporting competitions when everyone puts the kettle on) a game developer has the temerity to express an opinion, a new Doctor Who is announced, or Jeremy Clarkson appears on The One Show again.

Quoted forsooth

“The films I’ve most loved, as well as those I’ve most hated, are the ones I’ve known least about in advance. When I’m well briefed, my range of responses clusters more closely around the average. It’s almost impossible to find a brilliant film brilliant if dozens of people have told you it’s brilliant in advance. “You have to see it – you’ll be amazed!” they say and then I can’t help expecting it to transcend the medium – to be more than just a film, even though I can’t imagine how. A film with free sandwiches, perhaps, or useful tips for putting up shelves.”

                           — David Mitchell on expectations

“Londoners are not impressed by anything, at all, ever. Everything has already happened here — including the Olympics, twice, in 1908 and 1948. Sometimes, the weary stoicism of Londoners is a boon. But it is an outlook instantly affronted by any suggestion that any future happening is going to be profitable, transformative or, worst of all, pleasant.”

                           — The New York Times explains Londoners

It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself.

I spent an entire evening vacillating over builds for my warrior in Rift. Initially I was just toying with the idea of trying on a new build for size, to see if it was of a style better suited to the way I play. But it quickly turned into one of those epic shopping expeditions, where my weary character was to be found later sitting outside the changing room of the sixteenth store we’d visited, head in hands, feet barricaded by bags full of builds, while I tried on ‘just one more’.

It eventually got to the point where I’d settled on a natty little number –I fancy it was a rather fetching Riftblade/Reaver ensemble– and I swung my way dramatically out of the Soul Tree changing room with a ‘ta da!’ motion, and a “Well?”

“Well what?” replied my warrior.

“Well, what do you think? I mean, I’m pretty sure this is the one, but there was that adorable Beastmaster/Champion build we saw a few respecs back, and I just wondered what you…”

“I DON’T CARE! I JUST DON’T BLOODY CARE. PICK ONE, FOR GOD’S SAKE, PICK ONE, AND LET’S GO!”

I stared at my warrior, mouth agape momentarily, before my bottom lip slowly crept its way up my face until it covered the end of my nose like a hoodie; my eyeballs gradually filling with tears and becoming slightly macabre snow globes.

“Sorry!” said my warrior, sighing. “I’m sorry. Look, I’ve been stood here performing the idle animation for an hour now. My feet are killing me from all the walking and waiting, my arms ache from hanging on to this sword and shield while being forced to stretch and check my finger nails. And I’m carrying all these bags of builds around. It’s just tiring, you know? I’ve just got to that, tha… I mean, if I hear myself perform a yawn emote one more time I’m going to stab myself in the throat.”

But I’m not listening any more. I’ve put the current build back, in my quiet seething fury, and walked away from the Soul Tree. “It’s fine” I say in a tone which says that it really isn’t, and I pick up the original build I was using at the beginning of the day. “I think I like this one after all” I declare, and my warrior stares at me in disbelief; I stare back, daring them to say something, anything, with regard to the matter.

“Fine.” the weary warrior says.

“Fine.” I say, putting the original build back on.

“I still love you, you know.” my warrior says.

“I know.”

Later that evening, sat on the end of a bed in disarray from the upheaval of frantic passions, I brush flat and start to pull-on my build which had been eagerly cast to the floor earlier.

“I needed that.” I say, as much to the room as anything; perhaps trying to convince myself.

“Feel better?” comes the reply from the other end of the bed.

I turn towards the voice, “I shouldn’t, but I do.”

My cleric alt stretches languorously and smiles at me, “That’s a lovely build, by the way.”