Tuesday 31 July 2007

They can be a terror to your mind

Like the entire rest of the MMOGblogging universe isn't going to pick it up anyway, but I just have to chip in on...

Virtual terrorists
"Kevin Zuccato, head of the Australian High Tech Crime Centre in Canberra, says terrorists can gain training in games such as World of Warcraft in a simulated environment, using weapons that are identical to real-world armaments."

I dunno if I can even do a punchline after that. "Identical" and "real-world" aren't the first words that spring to mind, even if you thought Dara O'Briain's Tough Gig was a combat documentary. "LEVEL 7 FIREBALL TO THE FACE!" "I'm sorry, sir, your credit card is still declined"...

Monday 30 July 2007

As the stars fell down and the fields burned away

It's hard to get a handle on Star Wars Galaxies. While all MMOGs evolve over time, I can't think of anything as fundamental and far-reaching as the Combat Upgrade and New Game Enhancements of SWG.

Never having played SWG before, I didn't take a particularly close interest, but you couldn't really avoid the backlash. Penny Arcade aren't big fans, in the recent announcement that Pirates of the Burning Sea would be distributed by SOE they included, as a FAQ, "I hate SOE and I will never play your game" (OK, it's not technically a question, but never mind), a few guildmates who seem to be perfectly rational people have declared they'll never touch an SOE game again; I was chatting to a friend and mentioned I was trying SWG, and he asked "Why? Isn't it rubbish?" I think it's probably fair to say Star Wars Galaxies doesn't have the greatest reputation.

From an outsider's perspective, the impression I got is that, in its original incarnation, SWG was at the "world" end of the "game <-> world" scale, very free-form, a sandbox (quite literally on Tatooine). Naturally it had flaws (notably the randomly-unlocked-Jedi), but generally worked well enough for people who liked that sort of thing. The Combat Upgrade, and particularly the New Game Enhancements, aimed to slide it much further towards the "game" end of the scale with faster paced combat, quests, combat levels and the like. I can only imagine what sort of overhaul of the engine was needed to implement them. Game code isn't great at the best of times, let alone after you've layered a level-based system over the top of a skill-based system, so it doesn't take too great a stretch of the imagination to believe there might have been a few teething problems with the updates (or the game being a filthy bug-infested pile of banta dung, if you're reading the forums). So, at a stroke you've potentially alienated players who really liked the game the way it was, and then annoyed everyone who stuck around (or joined up from the publicity of the "enhancements") by essentially sticking them in a beta. On top of all that we're talking MMOGs here, a genre in which a few minor adjustments to a couple of abilities are more than enough to garner threats of apocalyptic doom and massed protests, so sellotape the insane, wildly over-reacting lunatics to genuine grievances and... well, it's unlikely to be pretty.

Now bearing in mind these are obviously first impressions from barely a week of playing, so there may still be soul-crushing game-destroying problems lurking up ahead... Star Wars Galaxies as it is today seems to have amazing potential. A year and a half on from the NGE, I presume the worst of the bugs have been shaken out, and I gather some of the more popular features that were removed (like creature handling/beast mastery) have since been put back in some form.

It's not perfect, of course. The graphics are good enough, without being spectacular, and the animations can be a bit strange. Laser bolts fly around nicely enough in combat, but special abilities are visually lacking; as far as I can make out most of them give a hint of an effect, a few radiating lines or something, around yourself and/or the target. This slightly undoes the manual aiming/fast paced nature of fighting, as the result on the screen is a few static people going "PEW PEW!" from time to time. Player cities, though nice for the homeowners, are strangely desolate places to visit, perhaps a case of "more is less" as far as 'realism' goes; yes, you avoid "cheating" with instances/teleports/etc., but every player city I passed through was a ghost town, needing only a few bits of tumbleweed and an Ennio Morricone soundtrack, and that's after the the Galactic Wrecking Crew have had their fun.

Those are fairly minor niggles, though, when you look at the big picture: the scope is vast (all those planets, *plus* the space-y bits between them!), but at the same time travel is easier (land speeders, shuttleports, free spacecraft for interplanetary travel) than the tedious low-level trudging of many other games. There's quests if you want them, crafting, houses, shops, dancing, hairdressing, exploration, bounty hunting, space combat. If you like PvP, there's a Galactic Civil War going on (though I haven't stuck my lowbie nose in that to see what it's actually like). When I said I liked games that are "structured but free-form", SWG seems to have that to a tee, the Legacy Quest gives it the structure, but with more than ample scope for wandering off and doing your own thing when you want a break from it. Whether I'd bog down after that (I gather it takes you to level 40-50 out of 90), I'm not sure, but there's always the space combat, and I've been loving the space combat.

With all that said... I don't think I'm going to subscribe. At least, not just at the moment; with Issue 10 hitting City of Heroes, there's plenty there to keep me occupied, and the Freespace Source Code Project should be enough to sate my rekindled joystick-waggling desires (as it were). In its favour is Sony's Station Access; SWG has proved quite "dippable" over the trial, it's been possible to hop in for relatively short periods of time and get something done, so if Pirates of the Burning Sea and/or The Agency prove to be fun and leave a little spare time, I might take up Station Access and pop back to Yavin IV to continue the struggle against the Empire.

Friday 27 July 2007

A pile of sand is all I see and in the distance, Mos Eisley

Back to my Commando in the Star Wars Galaxies trial, and I quickly finished off all the quests I could find in the starting space station and told Han I was ready to go. Off to Mos Eisley we flew, and I emerged, blinking in the sunlight, in The Game Proper.

The first thing I was greeted by was a babble of speech bubbles filling up the screen and chat window, all spam for credit selling websites. Marvellous. I like to think they weren't just being pointless spammers, merely roleplaying to ensure that Mos Eisley spaceport really is a wretched hive of scum and villainy, but either way I took a minute to find the "ignore" command.

Just outside the spaceport, I got sent to a contact to start the Legacy Quest. As I understand it, this was introduced with the NGE, and rather than pitch you onto a planet and saying "there y'go, do whatever you want!", the Legacy Quest is a lengthy series of missions that takes you around the galaxy (though you can still wander off and do whatever you want, I don't think it's mandatory). The missions start off with standard fare; the mayor needs your help! The town is beset by (smugglers/pirates/tuskan raiders)! Please help by defeating 10 (smugglers/pirates/tuskan raiders)! Well done, [player name], you really showed those (smugglers/pirates/tuskan raiders), now defeat 10 (more nefarious smugglers/more fearsome pirates/more tuskan-y raiders)! That said, they were quite nicely implemented. Rather than running back to the questgiver after every part of the mission, they'd pop up on the comlink to direct you to the more nefarious/fearsome/tuskan-y mobs you were after. You also get given a landspeeder right off the bat, so travel isn't too onerous.

After cutting a swathe through the local villainy came a much more interesting mission, sending me to a courier company to try and trace a package. This necessitated use of several computer terminals to initially track the package, then investigate the company and its employees. The security guards didn't seem keen on my investigative journalism, so a little grenade-based persuasion was needed to get access to some of the terminals, and at a couple of points passwords were required from named employees (once again, grenade-based persuasion did the trick, backed up with laser carbine reasoning). With a couple of other players in the area, I had to wait for one of the named mobs to respawn, so I dread to think what it might have been like initially, but on a mature server there don't seem to be too many other low level players around, so hopefully mob camping won't be too much of an issue. A lovely touch, I thought, was that while rummaging through personnel and payroll records to find out who was behind the whole business, I got to transfer over the contents of the bank account of one of the named mobs. Muahaha, I love ill gotten gains. Opponents, naturally, get progressively tougher as you go along, so where the Commando abilities like grenades made tutorial missions trivially easy, they're a lifesaver when you get cornered by a bunch of security guards (maybe "lifesaver" is the wrong word for massive blasts of death, but hey).

Shortly after that, I got the choice of whether to work for the Rebels or Imperials, and went with the Rebels. Well, you have to really, I couldn't sign up with Captain Evil and his Evil Chums, even if they do get the sexy armour. That's about as far as I've got in the Legacy Quest, as I keep flying off into space to shoot more TIE fighters (and there's Heroes to watch on the BBC now, and City of Heroes Issue 10...)

The Rebel Pilot Trainer on Tatooine gave me a few missions, and then some additional training that allowed the use of more advanced equipment. I've upgraded ship a couple of times, firstly from the Space Moped you're given in the tutorial to a Z95 (an X-Wing without the X wings... more a Hyphen-Wing), and recently, after tinkering around with the auction/vendor searching system to find the right set of blueprints, to a Y-Wing; the only slight disappointment with that is it turns out a second set of guns you can add to it are for its turret, which has to be manned by a second player. Still, could be a giggle if I can find someone to ride my six (as it were). After the additional training, there only seem to be two "Duty" missions on offer: escort transports (*yawn*), or patrol for TIE fighters (now we're talking!) I haven't bothered trying the escort; the patrol is basically flying from waypoint to waypoint, being attacked by ever increasing numbers of TIE fighters as you go, with a particularly miffed Imperial trainer in a slightly tougher fighter turning up every couple of waves. This carries on until you get bored and land back on the planet, as far as I can make out. As well as gaining Space Experience Points to boost your piloting abilities, space kills net you ground XP, so I've gained a couple of Commando levels from piloting, credits (always handy), and sometimes ship components to either upgrade your ship, or flog for further profit.

All in all, it's been fun, especially the space combat. Its a funny old beast, is Star Wars Galaxies, I'll try and assemble my thoughts into a general verdict...

Thursday 26 July 2007

An outlaw and a wanderer by trade

Hanging up my sequinned dancing shoes in the Star Wars Galaxies trial, I decided to try my hand at being a Trader. The first thing that I ran into was that I'd filled up the two available character slots on the first server I'd picked; not a game for the alt-a-holic (though I believe you only had a single character slot in The Old Days, unless you unlocked the Jedi profession, so it's an improvement on that). Not really a problem for me, I've tended to stick with one main character in other games anyway, and especially not in the trial.

Traders are the crafters of SWG; unlike World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online, where any character can learn a tradeskill, as far as I can gather only Traders can make stuff in SWG. At first I thought that was a shame, I've quite enjoyed dabbling in crafting in WoW and LotRO, making a few items for my own characters and friends, making a little money at the auction house. Then again, crafting in those games is sometimes terribly frustrating, and ultimately a tacked on sideshow to the main event of killing bosses for loot; maybe a separate crafting class is one way around that.

Running through the trading tutorial was pretty simple; someone wanted something, they give you raw materials, you pull up your crafting screen, select the recipe, drag and drop the materials from your inventory, and pow: stuff! I made some nice fruit tea for the barman (and glasses to hold it), a shirt, a couple of hatstands and a novelty letter opener in the shape of Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke that plays Sumo Rabbit And His Inescapable Trap Of Doom. Or maybe a small fruit knife. Something like that anyway.

What the tutorial didn't cover was the gathering of resources, and once Han sent me off for his components again ("Don't give me any of that oh-so-hilarious 'how am I going to use my trading skills to do that' rubbish, just shoot the damn things already") I went back to my first character to blow up some more TIE fighters. From skimming some guides, it seems a pretty involved business; prospecting to find potential sites, buying or building harvesters, setting them up to extract materials.

As much as I enjoy tinkering about with a bit of crafting now and again in other games it's not something I could focus on full-time in, so the Trader isn't for me. I can't comment with any authority on the economy of SWG, though at least in one of the revamps (or revamps of previous revamps, or new start revision of the revamps, or reversion of one revamp with extra revised revamping) I think they solved the problem Van Hemlock mentioned in a comment on the above linked post, of random-Jedi-unlocking resulting in a market flooded with worthless items.

So, after a minor diversion into Entertaining and Trading, time to get back to the Commando and finally finish the starter space station!

Wednesday 25 July 2007

Short pants, romance, learn to dance

So at the end of the last episode, I'd just leaped in to the body of some chap in a cantina being confronted by a bounty hunter, with only minutes to save the station from dread space pirate attacks. Oh boy!

Course I saved the day in the end, taught Chubby Checker how to do the twist, and we all learned a valuable moral lesson. Anyway! Back to the Star Wars Galaxies trial...

I mentioned the ease of introductory missions for a Commando, enemies taking only a couple of laser blasts to dispatch even before I started chucking grenades around, so I thought I'd have a quick look at a couple of other professions. First up, the Entertainer: na na na na na na na na naaaa na na na na na na na na na naaaa (that's the textual version of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer", in case you were wondering, not "I'm In The Mood For Dancing" by the Nolan Sisters). A natural choice for such a character would be a Twi'lek female, so obviously I rolled up a bright blue male Mon Calamari called Norrmann Lamont (Rule 17: characters named after cabinet ministers are Inherently Funny), and spent the first five minutes of the tutorial informing Han, Chewie and the others in no uncertain terms that it was a trap, until C3P0 snapped and screamed that every Mon Calamari character that had ever been created in the entire history of the game said that, and it wasn't that funny the first time in beta.

On to the starting space station, and I was given my first life-or-death task: to dance in the cantina. Doo do do do doo do do dooo do doo (that's the textual version of "I'm In The Mood For Dancing" by the Nolan Sisters, in case you were wondering, not Napalm Death's "From Enslavement To Obliteration".) This was achieved by hitting "Start Dancing" on the hotbar, and a minute later hitting "Stop Dancing". Not too tricky... To make life a bit more interesting, there were also "flourishes" available on other hotkeys, and boy, I had some smooth moves. They were swooning in that cantina, I tell you. Well, maybe not exactly swooning so much as remaining totally immobile, but they were swooning inside, I could tell. Especially Boba Fett. My second mission was to play some music in the sick bay to cheer everybody up, so off I wandered. The music system seemed pretty much the same; Start Music, wait around for a bit hitting one of the flourishes from time to time, Stop Music. I think the patients really appreciated my rendition of Python's "Medical Love Song". Least, none of them actually died, so I'll take that as a bonus.

That seemed to wrap up my entertainer-specific training, so I wandered off and asked Han if I could help out with anything. Turned out he needed some components to get the Millennium Falcon flying again, and I could get them from malfunctioning droids in the repair bay. "Right", I said, "so you think I can bewitch these droids with my mesmeric musical skills, and get the components that way?"
"Don't talk daft" replied Han, "a quick burst of From Enslavement To Obliteration won't have any effect on a malfunctioning droid".
"That was I'm In The Mood For Dancing, you cloth-eared buffoon! All right then, so a particularly impressive dance move might overload their Terpsichorean Appreciation Circuits, rendering them helpless and ripe for component nabbing?"
"All right! All right! So how, precisely, do you think I should employ my entertaining skills to obtain these circuits?"
"I was thinking you could shoot the droids"
"Shoot them? With my space-clarinet?"
"With that pistol you had to obtain to make it through the tutorial"
"Right. That's not *very* entertaining is it? Can I at least hold, in my off-hand, this fun sparkler-thingy I've been waving around while I shoot them?"
"Nah, you can't dual-wield at level one"

So off I toddled, and shot a few droids with a laser pistol. I tried doing a bit of a dance at the same time, punctuating particularly impressive pirouettes with a burst of laser fire, but it just made me dizzy and spoiled my aim so I gave up on that. I can't help but feel they missed a trick by only having Music and Dancing as entertainer skills, Stand Up Comedy could easily be combined with combat. "What's got six holes in it, and a quest component I need?" *zap zap zap zap zap zap* "That malfunctioning droid right there! Thank you, thank you, I'll be here until I have the 5 items I need."

Further missions on offer all seemed to be the same stuff I'd done with the Commando: kill these pirates, get these items (by killing pirates), clear rogue wildlife from part of the station (I asked if this might be achieved by playing some particularly aggressively atonal Schoenberg at them, which is usually enough to clear any area, but apparently no, shooting them with the laser pistol was the way to go again). I'll confess I didn't spend a great deal of time or effort investigating a career in entertaining, it doesn't seem a very solo-friendly profession. There's a very interesting looking "Build-a-Buff" ability that Entertainers can use from level one, in the best traditions of inspiring competence, but of course that really needs someone to buff. The skills list also includes "Hair Styling" and "Face Forming", which I gather lets characters change their appearance, always handy. If you're sent off on a quest to bring down the Empire, though, to paraphrase Mr Solo: "A nice line in the Charleston and a space bassoon are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid." All in all, it looks like it can definitely be beneficial to know a good entertainer, but I don't think it's really for me.

Next profession to try: a Trader.

Monday 23 July 2007

Oh, are we gonna fly

More to follow on Star Wars Galaxies as a whole, today I'll be particularly focusing on its space combat and digressing wildly and indulging in shameless nostalgia...

As mentioned in the last post, on finding the space flight tutorial in SWG I'd dusted off an old joystick I had stashed in a cupboard (it's not just in games that I'm a terrible pack rat) only to find I had no joystick port to plug it in to.

I used to love flight simulators and space games; Elite, Microprose's F-19 Stealth Fighter (in glorious EGA, before the F-117 was officially designated), Gunship 2000, Chuck Yeager's Air Combat, LHX Attack Chopper, Aces Over The Pacific/Europe, Wing Commander 1 and 2, all that lot. A friend and I played a bit of head-to-head Falcon, for the few brief moments two PCs would deign to talk to each other over a null modem cable, and Air Warrior (which I'd totally forgotten until this post) introduced me to the concept of MMOGs before anyone called them that. Not that I actually played it online, lacking firstly a modem and secondly the vast stacks of used fivers it would've needed to pay for both the phone bill and game subscription; I think there might have been some sort of shareware-type offline single player training option (incredibly dull, there being no AI opponents), just the *idea* of squadrons of player-controlled aircraft was mind-blowing at the time. As "proper" flight sims became more realistic and complex I started to lose interest, not being particularly keen on spending three hours in a tutorial just to be able to take off, especially as around that time the space combat game probably reached its apogee in the magnificent Tie Fighter around 1994. Things seemed to tail off after that, though, and the joystick was consigned to the depths of the cupboard several years ago after finishing (I think) a budget purchase of Tachyon: The Fringe (most notable for being voiced by the legendary Bruce Campbell, though it was a decent enough game as I recall).

Launching into space in Star Wars Galaxies was just like old times, but a gamepad couldn't cut it for flying, particularly as I couldn't find an easy way to use the right thumbstick for flight control. It sufficed for a couple of training missions, but while out and about over the weekend I decided to grab a new USB joystick. Weighing up the pros and cons of a variety of alternatives, I picked up a Saitek ST290, on the grounds that (i) it was the only one in PC World (apart from a similar looking wireless model for twice the price), and... um... no, that was it actually. (Yeah, yeah, I know, PC World... but I couldn't be bothered to wait for an online order, and it meant I finally got to use a PC World voucher I had since Christmas. Plus there was a clearance sale on stationery with 12 sticks of Pritt Stick for about 77p, who could say no to that?) Plugging in and launching into space again was pure joy (if you'll forgive the pun), I'd forgotten just how much I enjoyed dogfighting. After finishing the tutorial missions and moving on to Tatooine, about the first thing I did was sign up with a Rebel squadron and start blasting TIE fighters (it was a tough choice, but at the end of the day there's just something *right* about shooting TIE fighters that narrowly edged out flying them).

The SWG trial (and new joystick) have rekindled my interesting in flight/space sims, and a bit of digging around revealed the Freespace 2 source code has been released, leading to the Freespace Source Code Project, which I'll definitely investigate. NetDevil are developing Jumpgate: Evolution, so I've stuck my e-mail address in there for a shot at the beta. Also, by a strange coindidence, an idle browse of Slashdot this morning turned up a review of Project Sylpheed, which Zonk starts "Space shooters are beyond a dying breed", and ends "... once again, I find myself really wanting a next generation version of Tie Fighter", the latter sentiment echoed in many comments. It seems a little strange that nobody mentioned Star Wars Galaxies in response, though, it seems the Jump to Lightspeed/space combat side of it doesn't get much, if any, attention. Maybe it is a dead genre after all.

Friday 20 July 2007

Out beyond the twinklin' stars

Still in a bit of a gaming lull waiting for Issue 10 of City of Heroes, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Age of Conan, Tabula Rasa, Advanced Hatstand Simulator 2009 edition and the rest, I thought I might try the life of an itinerant MMOG-trialler, travelling through time and space, putting things right that once went wrong (and will continue to go wrong for a long as people work through the tutorial), and hoping each time that the next game will be the one the fulfills whatever arbitrary set of criteria I'm after at that point. Maybe tomorrow, I'll want to settle down, until tomorrow (or the next ten to fourteen days of the free trial), I'll just keep moving on.

Yes, I will be a cross between Doctor Sam Beckett and the Littlest Hobo. I wonder if the two of them ever met? What an unstoppable force for good they'd be... Or maybe the Littlest Hobo was a seldom mentioned part of Beckett's experiment? You just never saw the holographic Al the dog who'd turn up and bark instructions at him...

Anyway, first stop: Star Wars Galaxies. This was almost my first MMOG, I remember reading a few previews and being interested, but never actually took the plunge at the time. I've therefore got no idea what is was like before the NGE furore, I'm coming to it totally fresh. I like the films without being a major Star Wars fanatic, and played a few tie-in games (X-Wing, Rogue Squadron, a couple of the FPS games I can't remember the names of... loved the X-Wing series).

First steps are painless; off to the SWG website, click the "14 day trial" graphic, set up a Station Account with a few details and download a small launcher install file. Once the launcher's up, it heads off to grab the other 4.5Gb of the game, so I left it overnight and came down in the morning to a shiny fresh Star Wars Galaxies install. Starting up the game instantly feels like Star Wars, with appropriately epic music even during character creation.

Character creation was pretty straightforward; pick a race (I went for Zabrak; I'm not sure if race has any effect on your statistics or is purely cosmetic), a class (I went for Commando, as it sounds like they get to play with big guns), and tweak up your appearance. Customisation is pretty reasonable, you can adjust height, weight and musculature as well as the usual skin tones, facial features etc. You also get to pick a starting outfit, purely for cosmetics; I went for what looked liked a ballgown for the comedy value of dishing out heavy weapon damage in formal eveningwear. Then into the game, and... POM! POMPOMPOM POMPOMPOMPOMPOM POM POM POM POMMMMMMMM POMM POM POM POM POMMMMM POM! (that's the textual version of the main Star Wars theme, in case you were wondering, not "I'm In The Mood For Dancing" by the Nolan Sisters) "Star Wars", text scrolling up the screen telling you what's going on (something involving rebels, probably), then a pan down the starfield to a space station. Can't fault it for an introduction, and within a couple of minutes of basic movement/UI instructions, there's Han and Chewie busting you out of captivity and you're blasting Stormtroopers out of the way so you can get to the Milennium Falcon, and Boba Fett's hanging in the Cantina, grooving to the funky sounds of DA DA DA DA DADADA, DADADA DA DA DA (that's the textual version of that cantina song, in case you were wondering, not "I'm In The Mood For Dancing" by the Nolan Sisters).

Gameplay was straightforward, as soon as the tutorial mentioned the Alt key for switching in and out of the shooter-y mouselook mode. All quite conventional, the slight twist being manual aiming and shooting instead of tab-to-target and auto-attack, which I rather liked, though that might be because all the opponents I've met so far have the mobility of statues with their feet glued to the floor, so it's hardly extreme sniping. Everything so far has been remarkably passive as well, only getting mildly irritated if you actually shoot it. This made defeating a room full of pirates somewhat less daunting than it might have been; maybe they're just colossally pre-occupied with weighty philosophical matters, and don't notice their colleagues being atomised mere yards away: "Thus, solipsism presupposes the very thing which it seeks to deny: the fact that solipsistic thoughts are thinkable in the first instance implies the existence of the public, shared, intersubjective world which... hey, someone shot Geoff! ARGH!"

Introductory missions followed the standard pattern; get sent around to a few people, get tasked to kill some stuff, pick up some other stuff. Anyone who gets into a frothing rage over the temerity of LOLEEZYMOED games that dare indicate with large, glowing punctuation who you might want to talk to for quests will probably explode in outrage at the waypoint system, where a glowing trail leads you to wherever you need to go. Personally, I think it's great.

I was almost wishing I'd chosen a different profession a couple of hours in. Much as dishing out damage is my first love, everything so far has been shooting fish in a barrel. Big fish, too, in a small barrel, where the other fish don't even aggro after you shot their friend... I did manage to "die" once (I'd presumably shot some robot once but hadn't really noticed, then continued not to notice him following me around and hitting me... "hmm, the screen's flashing red, wonder what that means..."), but other than that, a few blaster shots were more than a match for any introductory foes, and I felt a bit bad when I went up levels and gained abilities. First there was a AoE "stun" grenade (which seems to "stun" mobs to death), then some sort of volley/salvo ability, which seemed to share the exact same animation as a single blaster shot, disappointingly, though the end result was wholesale death in a large frontal arc. I might try an Entertainer or Spy or something, to see what sort of missions they get sent on.

At one point, I got chatting to some Imperial bloke, who offered me a mission. Hey, I'm not fussy, and there was a nice blaster as a reward, so I took him up on the offer. I'm not sure if that's irrecoverably set me on the path to the Dark Side, or whether I just haven't yet found a similar Rebel-type chap. R2 suggested I might want to get some friends to help, but I ignored him entirely and... didn't have the slightest bit of trouble with the quest anyway. I thought C3P0 was the worrier?

Finally, I went for a bit of a jaunt in space! I was vaguely aware there were space combat elements in SWG, but thought you might have to buy the "Jump to Lightspeed" expansion to indulge. A quick chat to a pilot trainer and a click on a computer, though, and there I was, flying around space! Like I mentioned earlier, I loved the X-Wing games, and space combat sims in general, but I haven't played one for a long time. After some wobbling turns with the mouse, I decided it was time for... the joystick! Some rummaging in a cupboard turned up my dusty old Sidewinder, only on going to plug it in, I found I didn't have a joystick port any more. I probably didn't have one on the previous PC either, it must be longer than I thought since I last used it... maybe for Tachyon: The Fringe, or Conflict: Freespace 2. A PS2 controller on a USB converter sufficed for some temporary flying, and the first few space missions were rather fun (though I suspect the initial opponents were strongly related to their station-bound comrades in terms of their combat abilities). Space combat could certainly provide a nice change of pace in an MMO, I'm tempted to try and find a cheap USB joystick if I can do some more in the trial.

So, first impressions are very positive. I believe the first space station is the noob-tutorial type area, but I'm trying to complete all the available missions there before heading off with that Solo chap. We'll see how things go from there!

Wednesday 18 July 2007

The dividing line

I've been having a blast in City of Heroes with Van Hemlock and the rest of the Disconnectibles (a big shout out, as I believe the correct vernacular to be, to Chained Reaction, Melmoth, Changling Bob and Leese). Unfortunately the 14th day of the trial looms large, at which point Slush Puppeh will go into (lemon and lime flavour) cryogenic storage and I'll head back to my main CoH account on the US servers. I could shut down the US account and continue with the EU one, but then I'd lose my current characters (and 36 months worth of veteran rewards); even if I could transfer them over (the option was available, for people who'd started on the US servers before the game was official released in Europe, but not any more), I'd have to leave the SuperGroup I've been in for two and a half years.

I could've sworn I've rambled about this previously, but there don't seem to be any previous posts about it (either that, or my search-fu of my own blog and/or memory is weak to the point of embarrassment) so forgive me if I'm covering existing ground, but MMOGs don't half make it difficult to team up with people sometimes. You get chatting to someone, and find out hey, you both play Battlefield 2142. Pick the same server, log on, and you can be throwing yourselves into combat against the hated enemy (or, indeed, each other) in minutes. Find out you both play World of Warcraft, and wouldn't it be crazy fun to adventure together? Great! Except they're probably on a US server while you're on an EU server. And if you happen to be on the same continent, you're probably on a different server within that continent. And if you happen to be on the same server, you're probably different factions. And if you happen to be on the same server and the same faction, you're probably different levels. And if you happen to be on the same server and the same faction and you're the same level they're probably only interested in Heroic dungeon runs in places you can't get to. Or they're the same class as you so you fight over all the loot drops. Or they turn out to be an insane stalker you really wish you'd never teamed with in the first place, though I don't think we can blame that one on game design. Course that's a slightly extreme example, but most MMOGs have some, if not all, those potential divides.

It'd be nice if more games had a Guild Wars-y system, where you can flip between "servers" at the drop of a menu, but I realise there's a whole stack of technical headaches that go with that, and probably legal/financial headaches which result in separate national/continental server clusters. In the meantime, the cheapseats idea is rather fun, maybe time to have a look at another free trial... EverQuest II, The Matrix Online, Star Wars Galaxies? Choices, choices...

Tuesday 17 July 2007

What's real and what is not

Picked up from Broken Toys, a list. Lum's comments are pretty much my initial reactions (MMORPGs: SERIOUS BUSINESS. Also, "all skills, abilities, classes, and races must be completely balanced"? Next stop, World Peace: "all people should be cool and stuff and not fight". Sorted!) Ole Bald Angus has a nice piece on it, though, succinctly summarised as "there are no sucky game mechanics, just sucky implementations of game mechanics".

There are certainly bits of that list that could be fun, depending on implementation, or stupendously awful; number 5: you cut down trees (wear high heels, suspenders and... erm, yeah), quarry stone, process minerals etc., make yourself a lovely house. Number 30: then it gets hit by an earthquake and destroyed. Oh yeah, and you were in it at the time so you got crushed to death by those roof beams you spent so long getting in place. Number 17: death is permanent, so that's it, game over, such is the capricious nature of fate, what do you mean you're cancelling your subscription?

A strong theme of the list is realism; real-world physics, characters eating and sleeping, etc etc. And if that's your thing that's great, there's obviously demand for Flight Simulator, Train Simulator, Ship Simulator, Advanced Hatstand Simulator (hang up to six hats simultaneously! Includes favourites like the bowler, homburg and panama, as well as the exotic fez and calotte! Look out for Hat Expansion Pack 1 soon with the fedora, beret and sombrero!), but it's not for me. I didn't play Call of Duty and think "well, that wasn't bad as a World War II first person shooter, but it would have been better if you trudged your way across France for two weeks, only occasionally encountering enemy soldiers but coming under regular nerve-shredding mortar or artillery attack that you couldn't do anything about." If there's a cool gameplay reason for something happening, great; during winter events, lakes in Paragon City have frozen allowing for skating fun in City of Heroes. If rivers freeze "realistically" in some game because that's what rivers do in winter, and if you walk on them there's a chance you'll plummet through the ice (depending on thickness) to your permanent death, and instead of fun skating you fall on your arse if you try and move faster than a slow shuffle (because that's realistic)... what's the point?

Monday 16 July 2007

Wii Will Rock You

I got some four-player Wii fun in on Friday when a bunch o' people came over for a barbecue. I've been quite tempted by the Wii for a while, but other than playing Wii sports with friends I'm not sure how much I'd use one (and half my friends now have Wiis, so I can just mooch off them). Having a wireless browser connected to the television could be handy, especially when coupled with media streaming software like Orb, but it's still not quite enough to tip me over the edge to buying one. It looks like it'll have a killer app later this year, though...

There'll be no more Guitar Heroism for me, to the relief of the rest of the household, as I returned the controller (or had it forcibly returned on my behalf, at least). I'd peaked at 27 songs of the hard career, 23 of the expert, and just couldn't break those last few tracks which was getting to be a bit frustrating rather than fun. I'd started on the "bonus" songs (the main career features 30 covers of well known songs, then there's another 17 songs you can unlock by lesser-known bands, many featuring members of the development team), and liked one of them so much that I went out and bought the rather splendid "Second and Eighteen" by Honest Bob and the Factory-to-Dealer Incentives. Highly recommended if you like songs about Time Cubes and Tatooine.

So no more Guitar Herosim, at least until... Guitar Hero III. That Wii killer app I mentioned in the first paragraph? Unleash the wireless Les Paul of pure rock! I couldn't justify the purchase of an XBox 360 or PS3 just for living room concerts, but I rather suspect it could be the straw that breaks the camel's back (where by "straw" I mean "guitar controller", and by "the camel's" I mean "my", and by "back" I mean "last vestiges of resistance to purchasing a Nintendo Wii". Just to be absolutely clear, no actual camel's backs were harmed in the making of this post.)

Friday 13 July 2007

It was during the Roman times

In a MMOG, you're not special. You know the drill, in Generic Single Player Game you're the son (or daughter, thank you Brother Stan) of a wizard/king/god/king of the gods/wizard king of the gods/a bloke called Geoff; in a MMOG, you're one of the crowd, nothing special, even if your shoulder pads are wider than every door in town. Blah blah blah, we've done this before. But! While idly browsing around the Gods and Heroes site, the solution came to me.

Thousands of people, but you all want to play one iconic character? Well now you can, in Spartacus: The MMO! Yes, you're Spartacus! And so are you! And you!

The gameplay might need slightly tweaking, as currently it consists of logging in, saying "I'm Spartacus!", and getting crucified. Still, on the plus side, it's a great segue into the sequel, Brian of Nazareth: The MMO.

Wednesday 11 July 2007

March me away to the station (again)

Following on from the previous post, the Station Access website itself didn't turn out to be terribly helpful after all, being a flash page with all of one useful looking link on it, "FAQ", which actually resulted in a nice line in server errors. Presuming the FAQ it was trying to point to was something along the lines of this one, it's still not enormously helpful for non-US players apart from the comforting news that we get to shell out 17.5% VAT on top of the basic price. All the available games are listed as "(U.S version/SOE servers only)", but the only reference I could find to other servers was that Station Access specifically excludes "EverQuest European Ubi Soft servers", so I don't know if the other games have regional servers and/or clients which might make life difficult if you bought a boxed game in the UK but wanted to play on US servers to take advantage of Station Access. I have to confess I didn't look terribly hard though, as I got bored and went off to play Guitar Hero (21 songs through Expert, woo!) I'll check it out properly when Pirates of the Burning Sea / The Agency come out.

I got to thinking a bit more about the general idea, though. I like the theory; you have a bunch of games available, you can jump in to whichever you fancy whenever you want, and you don't need to worry you're "wasting" a subscription if you're not playing. In its current incarnation, though, I'm not sure Station Access makes a whole lot of sense. Not having played any of the games in question I could be doing them a colossal disservice, but I get the impression that, Planetside apart, they're all pretty similar. "In the grand scheme of things" similar, that is; obviously they all have their own settings, and particular implementations of levels and crafting and skills and abilities and that malarkey, but they all seem like fairly conventional MMOGs. Though I know plenty of people who go from MMOG to MMOG, they do it in series, not parallel (well, "never say never" and all that... I had three subscriptions going myself not so long ago, but that tends to be a transitional thing). Part of that's to do with the cost of subscription, but I think it's more that most MMOGs aren't really aimed at... um... I'm desperately trying not to use the words "casual" or "hardcore", 'cos we all know how *that* debate goes (rapid descent into semantics, flamewars and flamewars over semantics... actually, that's every internet debate isn't it?) *reaches for a thesaurus* It's more that MMOGs aren't really aimed at the more insouciant playstyle, a single game will quite happily soak up any available free time if you want to get into it that heavily. How many people play enough of more than one MMOG in a given month to make it worthwhile?

Hmm. Looks like everyone's already done this one, back when the price was raised from $25 to $30 a month. Someone points out in the comments there that twenty quid a month is "peanuts" compared to dinner out, a visit to the cinema or whatever, but that's a justification for an MMO subscription in the first place rather than Station Access over and above a single game sub; starting and stopping game subscriptions really isn't that difficult (so long as you can remember your account name and password), even Captain Apathy here can manage to log in to an account and click a couple of buttons for the sake of a tenner a month.

Monday 9 July 2007

March me away to the station

Another busy weekend meant little gaming (apart from a bit of the now-obligatory Guitar Hero). While out and about, I did manage to catch up with the most recent Virgin Worlds MMORPG News podcast, which covered Pirates of the Burning Sea being published by SOE. Not having bought any rootkit infested CDs, or been a Star Wars Galaxies player, I don't have particularly strong feelings one way or the other towards Sony and hadn't paid much attention to the original announcement, but Brent on Virgin Worlds mentioned the inclusion of PotBS and The Agency, a fun sounding (as much as all games sound fun long before they launch) espionage-type shooter, in Station Access.

Station Access, I'm vaguely aware, is some sort of package subscription deal for SOE games, but I didn't know any specifics. Unfortunately the logical place to look, the Station Access site itself, is blocked at work for its games-related content, so I trundled off to my favourite not-blocked information source, Wikipedia. Some people get rather snippy about Wikipedia, pointing out that it covers something like Doctor Who in as much depth as the Spanish Civil War. That's patently nonsense; obviously Doctor Who is covered in much greater depth than the Spanish Civil War, but even so there clearly isn't enough emphasis on ephemera/"geek stuff" as I couldn't find anything about Station Access there. I could wait a few hours, and investigate properly at home, but where's the fun in that? From what I can divine, at the moment Station Access covers Everquest, Everquest II, Star Wars Galaxies, Planetside, The Matrix Online and Vanguard, all titles that I've vaguely considered trying at one time or another. SWG, The Matrix and Vanguard haven't exactly enjoyed the unqualified success that might tempt me to start now, though, and although the general EQ2 "vibe" is very positive, I'm not sure I really fancy another fairly traditional fantasy MMO at the moment. Adding Pirates of the Burning Sea to the list is good, but probably not enough to warrant full Station Access subscription over just PotBS. Chuck in The Agency too, though (if it turns out to be half decent) and that's a really rather tempting package (presuming it's available to UK subscribers, they don't shove the price up again several times in a year, yada yada).

Friday 6 July 2007

The Invasion of the Cheapseats

I managed to tear myself away from Guitar Hero (up to 21 tracks of the hard career *extends index and little finger and lightly moshes*) for a couple of hours last night. Van Hemlock's Operation Cheapseats had come to Paragon City, and with City of Heroes being my first MMO (and you never forget (and in my case so far, unsubscribe from) your first time) I thought I'd pop along and say "'ullo".

I normally play on the US servers, having started back in 2004 before there were any EU servers; there was an option to transfer when the game was officially launched in Europe, but the rest of my supergroup were sticking around so I stayed with them. Plus the exchange rate works out pretty well at the moment for a subscription in dollars! Having signed up for a 14 day EU trial, I had a bad feeling there might be some unpleasantness involved in trying to run two versions of the client, but it turned out to be simplicity itself thanks to a handy post on the boards. All it needed was to download the EU version of the launcher, stick that in the folder of the existing client, then fire up the appropriate version of the launcher to connect to your desired continent's servers.

The customary hours of soul searching over that perfect hero identity and powerset eventually resulted in Slush Puppeh, an ice/electric blaster who got her powers in a particularly bizarre incident involving an iced beverage machine, and much splendid crimefighting followed with Van Hemlock's ice tank, another ice blaster, and Melmoth's thankfully non-icy kinetic/sonic defender providing invaluable healing and damage boosts (as well as shouting at stuff). Clockwork robots were stopped from... doing whatever they were doing, a bunch of suspiciously well-armed art thieves were frozen, electrocuted and shouted at, I nicked several PvP gags, and there was ;dancing in the streets of Paragon. Huzzah!

Tuesday 3 July 2007

You might be a rock 'n' roll addict

I'm still firmly ensconced in Guitar Hero. I completed the medium campaign last night, and started on the hard version. Surprisingly enough, it's... hard! It's almost like the textual description of the difficulty level conveys some meaning...

However! Fear not, faithful reader, for I have been racking my brains as to how the worlds of MMOGs could benefit from the world of pressing buttons in time with music and pretending it's in some way related to actually playing a guitar, and I've come up with something. This is true innovation, mind, not the half-arsed rehashes of existing ideas some people try and pass off as original stuff, oh no.

Right, so, in some games, you have classes who use musical instruments. Bards in DDO, Minstrels in LotRO, those types, and you press buttons on a keyboard to activate their music-based abilities. Now hold on tight, because this is where the pure rush of innovation comes at you like a Prussian kickboxer: what if, instead of pushing buttons on a keyboard to activate their music-based abilities, you pushed buttons on a chunk of plastic shaped like a guitar to activate their music-based abilities!

But that's not all, oh no. Others would probably be exhausted after coming up with one idea that revolutionary, which certainly isn't staggeringly obvious to everyone who's played both LotRO and Guitar Hero (or seen them being played... or been told about them by a passing acquaintance), but what about melee? You've strummed away with the guitar based abilities, but your foe has nevertheless engaged you in close combat. At this point, your standard MMOG bard drops the lute, and begins fighting with a sword or something. Very inefficient. What he should use is... a lute bayonet! I know, sheer genius already, but it gets better. How, as a player, to employ this devastating weapon? It would be totally immersion breaking to have to switch to a keyboard, so the answer is: motion sensing technology. More pure innovation straight from my brane, not inspired by playing with a Wii over the weekend, certainly not. As the mob closes, you stab and slash at it with your controller, all the while continuing the hard-rocking assault upon its senses. For a particularly devastating special attack, you unstrap the guitar, grip it by the neck and spin it around and around and around until you get a bit dizzy and your foot gets caught in the cable and you fall onto the sofa crushing the packet of Frazzles you left there.

So far so good, but it's all a bit single player isn't it? Not very massive. Rock Band is in the works, for up to four players (guitar, bass, drums, vocals), so we just scale that up! Imagine, a 40 player rock-raid! If Lynyrd Skynyrd's triple lead guitar approach was good, 10 lead guitars would be better still! A choir of vocalists! They could bring out hurdy gurdy controllers, and sackbuts, dulcimers, giant truck-mounted pipe organs launching projectiles from the bass tubes...

... y'know, I think I might've been consuming too many sugary beverages while playing Guitar Hero, I might just have a quick lie down. After one more crack at Ziggy Stardust on hard level...

Sunday 1 July 2007

Is it just solid rock?

I'm afraid there may be something of a lull in musings on MMOs, as I've just borrowed a PS2 and Guitar Hero, and have spent a most substantial part of the weekend... rocking. And not just rocking, no, but rocking hard. Well, in my mind at any rate, I'm sure I look like a loon cavorting around the living room. The game is a work of genius, and now I must go and play Iron Man...