Monday 30 April 2007

You know sometimes you lie

Remember how I said I wasn't going to bother with Lord of the Rings Online? I may have been ever so slightly economical with the truth. No Issue 9 in City of Heroes, no patch 2.10 in World of Warcraft, I was left without responsible adult supervision for five minutes, and, err, slightly bought LotRO.

I still don't really see it as a long-term thing, but all the other cool (blogging) kids are doing it, so I figured I might as well succumb to peer pressure. I can't match Melmoth's epic, and occasionally disturbing journey through the class-selection process, but somewhat prompted by Zubon at Kill Ten Rats talking about Failure FTW, I thought I'd break out of my DPS comfort zone and try a Captain as a bit of a support/pet class.

There's plenty of reviews/impressions out there, and having briefly played the beta there were no great surprises. There's a narrative right away, similar to a traditional single player CRPG and using some instancing to give that feeling that *you* are the hero and saving the day, and that story moves you through the game in a more involving fashion than "You're level (x), best go here to kill level (x) foozles". The only thing is that it does make it even more jarring when you're assigned something like a standard "kill this named mob" quest, and you toddle off and stand in line behind four other groups waiting for it to spawn, but that's MMOG life until someone can find a better system. Just about everything's familiar enough from other games that it's very accessible, but different enough to make it interesting. For a while, at least. Like I said, I can't see it being a long-term thing, but having already performed one vote-face in actually playing it after all, I'm not going to categorically state I won't be sticking around.

Why an' what's the reason for?

I seem to have been slightly tagged by Melmoth for "Five Reasons Why I Blog", so without further ado:

1) I get bored at work.
2) Um...
3) Honestly, that's about it, really. If I could be off doing something else, I probably would be, but I'm at work, and typing away makes me look busy.
4) Pom pom pom... this is awkward isn't it? Like trying to make small talk at a real life guild meet-up without resorting to talking about the game you all play, as that would be a bit tragic.
5) Sooo... you've got a Tauren alt, have you, how do you find the Horde starting areas?

Friday 27 April 2007

Blood dryin' in my yellow hair

OK, so the previous triumphalism of going 8-2 in the arena was grounded by five matches last night (I was a bit pressed for time) when we returned to the more familiar territory of 1-4. I'd be interested to hear from anyone in a two-man arena team as to whether they've reached a fairly stable rating, or whether it tends to yo-yo from week to week.

I suppose, as I tend to play the minimum ten matches per week, the small sample size gives more scope for deviation (in statistical terms, not the outfits of the participants), exacerbated by the "rock/paper/scissors/tiger hand/pen missile" nature of the 2v2 arena whereby team composition can be a significant factor in match results. We're leaving our other five matches to Monday to test Hypothesis B: the later in the week (in WoW terms, weeks begin and end with Wednesday maintenance), the easier the fights...

Tuesday 24 April 2007

Just step into the arena

The World of Warcraft arena is a ladder system, with all teams starting with a rating of 1500. When your team joins a queue for a fight, you should get matched against a team with a similar rating to yours, then after the match you gain or lose rating points depending on the relative strengths of the teams, e.g. if two evenly matched teams meet, the winner gains 15 points, the loser loses 15 points; if Team A is ranked higher than Team B, then Team A might only get 13 points from winning (with Tean B losing 13 points), but if Team B wins they might get 18 points (with Team A losing 18 points). In theory, after a while, you should end up with a fairly stable rating, winning roughly 50% of your matches around that level.

Every week at maintenance time, so long as your team fought in at least ten matches, and so long as you were in at least 30% of those matches, you get awarded arena points based on your rating (and what do points make? Shiny purple items!) The actual formula for calculating the points for a five man team is (apparently):
X = Team Rating, Y = Arena Points
If X>1500: Y = 2894/(1+259*e^(-0.0025*X))
Else: Y = 0.206*X+99
A two man team gets 70% of those points, a three man team gets 80%. If, like me, you haven't broken out your Casio fx-82 since A-level maths, the English version is "High rating: LOTS OF POINTS! Low rating: NOT MANY POINTS!"

For those of you who might like to optimise your arena point gain (not me, obviously, I play for the competition and camaraderie, I'm not some kind of min-maxing munchkin, no no no), your strategy depends on whether you're above or below average. If above, you'll want to play a lot of matches within the first week to reach your stable rating; if below, you'll want to play few matches per week, eking out as long as possible the time when your actual rating is above your stable rating. It doesn't really make much of a difference; in the murky depths of lower ratings you maybe get all of about 20 more arena points for losing 10 matches in a week instead losing 20. If there was a really noticeable difference, there'd be a greater temptation to form a team, fight ten matches, get your points, disband the team, form a new team (resetting the rating to 1500), fight ten matches etc. As it is, the 40 gold per person cost of starting an arena team makes that prohibitively expensive for most sane players.

Now, I'm not under any particular illusion about my own PvP "ability" (and just to forestall the inevitable flamewar, for "ability" substitute "skill", "class/spec", "gear", or whichever other element you think is by far the most important part of PvP, obviously *everyone* knows any noob can win easily if they're wearing epix/(insert class here) is so overpowered they win every time/skill is the only deciding factor). A first week's record of one win and nine losses crushed my very-briefly-held fantasy of stepping onto the arena sand and suddenly finding myself transformed into the ultimate fighting machine dispatching opponents left and right in a dazzling series of blows, and confirmed my more pragmatic forecast of dying horribly a lot (our one win came when facing a single opponent, his team-mate presumably having disconnected). We emerged in Nagrand from our final match, PvP flagged from being in the arena (you can see where this is going, right?), and were just engaging in deep tactical analysis (something like "I' No." "Hrrrmm.") when an Orc hunter opened fire. Not being at all prepared (we're not on some kind of PvP server, you know, we don't expect oiks to actually go around attacking people standing around in the middle of a zone, even if they are flagged), the resulting corpse run really rounded off that week's PvP as Not Much Fun.

Still, you can't put me off prospective EPIC LEWT! so easily, so I've carried on fighting in the arena for the last month or so, starting matches at the Shattrath battlemaster to avoid wandering ruffians. Due to participating in a mix of team sizes, and re-forming the two man team to shuffle the participants, most weeks have consisted of ten matches, losing the majority of them while on the way to a stable rating. As I wrote a week ago "we're hopefully not too far from being lowly enough to be pitched up against other suitable incompetents", and last night our two man team, with a rating around 1350, prepared to die heroically some more. I don't really have a point of reference for arena ratings, I don't know whether 1350 is "fairly bad", "astoundingly bad" or "a hamster running over the keyboard would do better than this", but as our most recent bouts has been five straight losses to end up at that rating the previous week, I thought we had a bit further to slide before encountering more suitable opposition.

A funny thing happened, though. We won our first match. And... our second match. I won't regale you with the full play-by-play gory details, much as I'm sure you'd enjoy my commentary of "then I was all, like 'shiv', and he was all, like, 'mana shield', and I was all, like, 'kick', and he was all, like, 'no way', and I was all, like, 'way!'", but we ended up with 8 wins, 2 losses, and a rating around 1460 (this isn't a great boast, there's still 8716 better teams than us on our battlegroup alone, but it's my best results so far).

I'm not really sure what changed since our last matches. We hadn't been madly practising tactics; I'd improved my gear, but not by a huge amount (the slight run speed boost of the Swift Windfire Diamond meta-gem in my Helm of Assassination being particularly handy in a couple of Benny Hill-type chases). All I can think is we were lucky in getting the opponents we did (or we'd been particularly unlucky previously). Look out for next week's exciting update to feature more triumphalism if we manage to bump our rating above 1500, or for a stony silence indicating this was an aberration and we returned to our losing ways and plummeting rating.

Monday 23 April 2007

The horizon has been defeated

This weekend, with not much Real Life(tm) stuff happening, I spent a fair bit of time in WoW, but didn't really get anything done. A few quests, a few battlegrounds, a bit of crafting... On a couple of occasions there were two or three friends or guild mates around amenable to the idea of a bit of an instance or something, but never quite enough to actually get started, and nobody (me included) had enough motivation to round up likely recruits and try the search for an alt-of-a-friend-of-a-guild-mate of a suitable class to round out the team. Many of the people I've been grouping with over the past couple of months were in Karazhan, or Gruul's Lair, or heroic instances. Chatting to Melmoth, he came up with a marvellous phrase for the problem: the Raid Event Horizon. Once you get into raiding, that's your main focus (naturally enough). This isn't an "us vs them" thing, or a "why raiding sucks" post, some people raid, some people don't, let's all just get along, eh? (Group hug, now!)

The thing was, before the Raid Event Horizon, everyone tended to be doing the same things, so there were plenty of grouping opportunities for a non-raider like myself. Working on getting the key to Karazhan (involving 5 man instances), increasing reputation with the Outland factions (mostly involving... 5 man instances, once you've exhausted the available quests) and improving gear (probably a few quest rewards, augmented by drops from... 5 man instances). Explorers were seeing new areas, Achievers were boosting their characters, Socialisers were chatting away quite happily. On a Steamvaults run, someone might be after a Karazhan key fragment, someone else is hoping a piece of their dungeon set drops from the last boss, everyone's increasing their Cenarion Expedition reputation.

After a while, though, a raider will have decent gear with no real upgrades available in non-heroic instances; they'll have enough reputation to get into the Heroic version of instances; they'll have the key to Karazhan, and have started making a serious attempt on it. There's basically no reason for them to do a non-heroic instance any more aside from helping others out (and plenty in my guild are splendid people who are perfectly happy to help others out, but I'm not expecting anyone to be some sort of crazy uber-altruist who frequently forgoes raids or chances to improve their own character).

If I pushed, I guess I could make it over the Event Horizon myself; a few more Steamvaults run should get me to Revered with the Cenarion Expedition for their heroic key, a saunter through the Black Morass and Medivh ought to let me into Karazhan. I can't summon a huge amount of enthusiasm for it, though, so I can seem myself playing a bit more City of Heroes in the future with Issue 9 (hopefully) out soon. I would have played more STALKER over the weekend, but after restarting the whole game due to a patch, it was particularly annoying to have it crash-to-desktop every time I tried to load a most recent save game, forcing me to re-do an entire level *again*.

Wednesday 18 April 2007

I get my sweet reward

I took a little jaunt to the Shadow Labyrinth last night, so I could pick up the Book of Fel Names and a couple of others could grab a key fragment for Karazhan. It was a splendid run with a party that really clicked together, just one total wipe from being feared into extra groups. There were a couple of other deaths along the way, though... me, to be precise, getting myself killed both during the Blackheart the Inciter fight (savagely beaten by my own team, for shame!) and Murmur (slight orientation confusion meant I ran the wrong way and got hit by a Sonic Boom, then got the Touch of Murmur while slowed to a crawl, far from the healers with Cloak of Shadows on cooldown from a previous Touch). Still, thankfully I proved superfluous as the rest of the team finished off the two bosses; either that or it was my morale boosting post-death commentary that made all the difference.

You might remember my last visit to the place provoked a rant about Dungeon 3 sets; after the Helm of Assassination dropped for me on the first attempt in Acratraz, I could hardly hope for the Leggings on my next instance run, but, on clicking Murmur... there they were! The pendulum of loot has certainly swung in my favour since my "WAH I GOT NO SHINY THINGS" post (as the only leatherworker, I'd also picked up a Stylin' Purple Hat pattern earlier in the instance), so obviously I take back everything I posted previously and am now a true believer in random rolls on loot tables. Well, maybe not, but at least I don't feel quite so personally gypped by the universe at large. The rest of the party might not be of quite the same opinion; the other boss loot consisted of two "well, if nobody else wants it, I s'pose I can at least theoretically equip it and there's no enchanter so I might as well take it" items, and two that didn't even make it that far, not a great return for them.

Tuesday 17 April 2007

Time will vindicate us all someday

A while back I posted my Grand Sword-obtaining Plan, and Step 1 was completed when I picked up the Grand Marshal's Slicer. Last night I finally hit Exalted with the Aldor for Step 2, and upgraded the Slicer to a Vindicator's Brand, huzzah!

Well, slightly huzzah anyway. The awesome purple-ness of the sword (partly the colour of the item text denoting it's an epic weapon, but mostly the somewhat vivid magenta of the sword blade demonstrating that Aldor weaponsmiths have a very different idea of terrifying and fear-inspiring colour schemes) reassured me that a single blow from this devastating weapon would soundly smite any that dared cross my path, but, just as with the Slicer previously, the reality was slightly less than a ten percent increase on damage. Nice, but not exactly game-changingly incredible; ah well, that's incremental upgrades.

To give it a proper test, a group of us set off for The Shattered Halls. Unfortunately the composition wasn't ideal, with a lack of tank-y tanks meaning a retribution Paladin was (slightly unwillingly) shoved ahead of the party with the rest of us pointing and shouting "hit him, not us!" Though we got the first boss down, and made it through the Gauntlet of Flame (somewhat singed around the edges), lack of crowd control meant that the groups of five and six elites in the next room killed our poor tank-lite before the healers could get a spell off, so we called it a night at that point.

With a bit of time to kill, I progressed on to Step 3 of the Grand Sword-obtaining Plan, the off-hand. While I'm still hoping for Latro's Shifting Sword to conveniently throw itself at me in the Black Morass, the only way I can really make sure of it dropping is to ensure I have a comparable or better weapon to start with (cf the Helm of Assassination), so to that end I've been doing a bit of 2v2 and 3v3 arena fighting over the last few weeks. I haven't mentioned this before as frankly there isn't much to mention. Neither my team-mates nor I are particularly PvP oriented or epically-geared, so our primary tactic is to really hope at least one of our opponents disconnects, or at the very least gets a particularly important telephone call during the match. This hasn't been too effective so far as we slowly sink down the ratings (well, I say "slowly sink down the ratings", it's more "plummet", really) but we're hopefully not too far from being lowly enough to be pitched up against other suitable incompetents. In the meantime, heck, we still earn arena points for losing ten matches in a week, so I've almost got enough for an off-hand weapon. Originally I was going to go for the Gladiator's Shiv, a 1.4 speed dagger, as the Gladiator's Quickblade, the off-hand sword on offer, is rather slow at 1.8. Poking around some forums, though, it seems one of the undocumented changed in the 2.10 patch currently being tested is that the off-hand mace, sword and fist weapon have had their speed increased to 1.5 (with damage tweaked accordingly to retain similar DPS), which is a much better proposition, so actually the slow acquisition of points worked out quite well there!

Monday 16 April 2007

The Bends

With another issue of City of Heroes fast approaching, I was thinking about superhero games. Last year both Marvel and DC Comics announced they were working on MMOs, the former with Cryptic (the studio behind City of Heroes) and Microsoft, the latter with Sony Online Entertainment. I have high hopes for Marvel Universe Online, I'm hoping that Cryptic can build on all the things that made City of Heroes great, with the added clout of Marvel and Microsoft. For a moment, I was slightly worried about the setting; for City of Heroes, Cryptic could come up with their own backstory to explain a proliferation of caped heroes running around a city, whereas Marvel recently had a storyline specifically designed to reduce the number of superpowered characters in its universe; how would that work with an MMO? Then, of course, I realised that a universe in which reboots and retcons are as common as spandex and masks wouldn't have too much trouble coming up with a backstory to support thousands of new heroes arriving on the scene. A favourite comic device is the alternate universe; by setting a game in a universe other than Earth-616, Marvel can basically do what they want without intefering with their main continuity. Digging around the Marvel Multiverse, I came across a line of the MC2 line of comics, set in Earth-982. One of the quotes in that article is "we don’t believe in decompression".

I hadn't come across "decompression" in reference to comics before, and was rather intrigued by the idea. There's bit of a debate over exactly what decompression is; have a read of the various articles linked from Wikipedia to get more of an idea. I particularly like this Comics Should Be Good blog entry, with pages from a "compressed" and "decompressed" comic.

One of the central tenets of decompression is that it shows you something happening, rather than telling you it happened. The page from Ocean on the aforelinked blog post uses three panels to show the character drinking from a coffee cup, then discarding it, and the cup beginning to disintegrate; if the "compressed" Spider Man comic were to convey the same thing, you might get a panel of Peter Parker tossing the cup over his shoulder while commenting "Boy, I can't imagine how bad littering was before these self disintegrating coffee cups came along!".

Comics and games are obviously rather different fields, and I don't think there's a direct equivalent of decompression (in the comic sense) in games, but the idea of showing something happening rather than telling you it happened got me thinking about MMOs, and the way they present story to you. Many of the instances in The Burning Crusade don't seem to have much of a story; Coilfang Reservoir, for example. It's... a Reservoir. With... evil stuff in it. Off you go! According to WoWwiki, "From a band of adventurers, it has been identified that the Naga are currently constructing a new Well of Eternity using the vials that Illidan stole, and the water of Zangarmarsh. The Naga have constructed numerous pumps throughout the Zangarmarsh to suck up the water to support the new well. With a new Well of Eternity, Illidan will have enough power to destroy Kil'Jaeden and the entire Burning Legion." I don't know if that's published on the main WoW website, or whether you pick that up as text from questgivers (I must confess I tend to skim quest descriptions, and mostly home in on the bit that says "kill X beasts" or "take this package to (someone)"), or if it only becomes apparent in Serpentshrine Cavern, but it doesn't really make much difference to the first three wings at any rate. You go in, fight trash, kill boss, repeat until finished, and leave.

In contrast, there's the Caverns of Time. I posted previously about how much I enjoyed helping Thrall escape from Durnholde Keep due to the way you actually got involved in the story; in a way it used decompression, showing you (or involving you in) what was happening rather than clicking someone and getting a bit of a speech about what happened. Hopping onto a gryphon and actually chucking bombs around Hellfire Peninsula is more fun than, say, being told to deliver a box of explosives to the squadron leader and having him say "thanks, now we can go bomb stuff!" Pre-Burning Crusade, there was escorting Marshal Windsor through Stormwind and his confrontation with Lady Prestor, which had a bit more impact than just clicking on some NPC to be told "OH NOES! Turns out Lady Prestor is..." (I'm sure everybody knows by now, you could see the scene play out several times just while queuing for battlegrounds, but I'll leave it as a surprise just in case). For me, Escape from Durnholde Keep is much more memorable than the wings of Hellfire Citadel, Coilfang, Auchindoun etc., which have mostly merged together into acres of trash mobs with the odd boss dotted around the place.

I wouldn't give a universal thumbs up to "involving" scripted game elements, though; the precursor to actually getting into Old Hillsbrad, for example. You're shown the Caverns of Time by someone wandering around them, rather than merely being told about them via some NPC text, so it could be thought of as decompressed. And it's incredibly dull. Extra scripting can also cause technical headaches, as demonstrated by both Escape from Durnholde Keep and Windsor's Great Masquerade quest needing to be fixed in patches to remove somewhat frustrating bugs.

Sunday 15 April 2007

Lady Luck, who shines on me

I've been off on holiday for a while, but before I left I managed a visit to the Black Morass for the Opening of the Dark Portal, and since getting back I've popped in to the Arcatraz.

Our Black Morass party consisted of me as a Rogue, a Mage, a Warrior and a holy Paladin. Nobody else from the guild fancied it, so it was off to the LFG tool to find a bit more damage. Another holy Paladin offered his services, and nobody else seemed too keen to join, so our existing Paladin switched to his feral Druid, and off we went. Considering three of us were visiting the place for the first time and we had a pick-up healer, everything went remarkably smoothly. Although we wiped on the last boss, Medivh's shield was still around 85%, so we made it back in, buffed up, and finished Aeonus off in time for tea, cake and the unleashing of wave after wave of invaders upon Kalimdor.

The Arcatraz group consisted of two Rogues, two Paladins (one healing, one DPSing) and a feral Druid tanking, and again we romped on through, wiped once at the last boss, then finished him off at the second attempt. On the way I picked up the last fragment of the key to Karazhan, which means I'll need to head back to the Morass sometime to ask that Medivh chap if he'd mind awfully letting me in to the place. That suits me fine, as I'm rather after a certain item there, which neatly brings me onto loot...

The item I'm really after is Latro's Shifting Sword, dropped by Aeonus, the fastest sword in the game, and about the best off-hand weapon a combat sword Rogue can get. Despite the post title, that didn't drop on my first run. I did, however, end up with a pair of Sun Gilded Shouldercaps, which are pretty nifty, and a Cowl of the Guiltless (which, on reflection, is more for a tanking Druid, really, with +Dodge and Resiliance, but I saw leather with attack power and sort of Needed on reflex; fortunately the feral Druid in the group assured me there are plenty of better tanking helms, which bears (no pun intended) out, so no harm done). What the post title really refers to is the Arcatraz, where the final boss managed to not drop part of the Hunter set. No, he only went and dropped... the Helm of Assassination. And I ended up with it, huzzah! I bet you're glad you don't have to endure a loot whine in this post. After all, a single run through the Arcatraz and I get the Dungeon 3 helm, plus two other blue drops from the Black Morass, what could I possible complain about there?

Well... since you ask...

There was one piece of armour of my patchwork set that I was perfectly happy with, that was right up there with the best items outside epic pieces, that there was no real upgrade needed for. Can you guess which? Yup, the Stealther's Helm of Second Sight. The other Rogue in the Arcatraz passed on the Helm of Assassination, partly 'cos he was a nice chap, but mostly 'cos he had all the other pieces of Assassination armour for the four piece bonus, and the Stealther's Helm is better for DPS than the Helm of Assassination. In fact, there's a veritable plethora of decent helms you can get without holding out for that 10% drop from somewhere; the Stealther's Helm of Second Sight (as modelled by every Rogue ever seen anywhere) from a Shadowmoon quest, the Exorcist's Leather Helm for Spirit Shards (which are pretty easy to come by, so long as your faction controls Terokkar a decent amount of the time), the Helm of the Claw from a Steamvaults quest... Still, I won't complain too much; after posting about how much I wanted the Assassination armour before, it would be like nagging your parents from June onwards about how much you want a shiny new bicycle for Christmas, then unwrapping one on the day, stamping your feet and shouting "I wanted a *red* one, not blue!"

Tuesday 3 April 2007

In the cities of lonesome fear

I've been playing some more STALKER; for the most part, it's pretty decent without being spectacular. A recurring theme in reviews is praise for its atmosphere, which is certainly one of its strong points. "The Zone", the area around Chernobyl, exudes post-apocalyptic decay, a radioactive wasteland of long abandoned villages populated with bandits and mutated wildlife, dotted with strange anomalies threatening to electrocute you or crush you in fields of warped gravity. Most levels so far have been set in these wide open spaces, with one notable exception, a mission to retrieve documents from laboratory X18. I won't spoil it for anyone who might try the game, but going further and further down into the pitch black laboratory, lit by a pool of light from your torch or viewed through flickering green-hued night vision was a *very* creepy experience.

One problem with the game, though; a patch has just come out which requires any saved games to be deleted. I haven't hit any show-stopping bugs yet, and the patch notes seem more focused on multiplayer, so I'm not sure whether to bother patching it or not. Then again, I was half thinking of restarting anyway, so maybe I'll give it a try.