Monday 24 December 2007

Happy Christmas (war is over)

So this is Christmas
And what have you done?

Alterac Valley, mostly. What with it being bonus honour weekend, in between assorted family festivities I've managed about 724 rounds[1] of AV.

[1] not to scale.

I have to say, post 2.3 Alterac Valley doesn't seem so different to the previous version. On our battlegroup, at least, there's seldom any defence, and when there is it tends to be from the Alliance. Standard issue zergs are still the order of the day, the typical ending being a narrow Alliance win. Every now and again some decent defence will net a win with all Alliance towers intact (though seldom with Balinda alive as well), though those battles tend to last somewhat longer, sometimes ending with Horde reinforcements gradually being whittled down in a pitched battle rather than Drek'Thar being defeated. Ironically the greatest honour per minute actually comes from a couple of occasions of meeting Horde premades, 30+ players from the same server, who ride directly up to Vanndar (stopping briefly to take out Balinda) and take him out. As all Alliance towers are still standing, that's a hefty amount of honour (better still if Galvanger goes down) in a few minutes.

So the honour points have racked up, enough for a couple of bits of Vindicator's leather armour, with a final piece to come tomorrow (so long as the estimated honour total isn't wildly off) as an extra Christmas present, and that'll probably more or less wrap up my brief return to Azeroth. It's been a bit of fun, but not that much has changed in the last six months. It's on to 2008 to see what that brings...

Friday 21 December 2007

Them that defend what they cannot see

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. (That's French for "same shit, different day".) A year ago, almost to the day, I was posting about Arathi Basin, and I've just spent the last few days in... Arathi Basin! Though not exclusively, thankfully.

I kicked off the World of Warcraft Scroll of Resurrection, so I've got ten days to poke around and see what's been happening in the last six months or so. One addition is the daily quests, covering, amongst other things, cooking, regular and heroic 5 man instance runs, and battlegrounds. Battlegrounds, you say? Let's rack up some honour for those season 1 arena epics!

With that legendary Dwarven sense of humour, our Lieutenant-General set me the task of winning a round of Arathi Basin. Sure, boss, I s'pose you'll want me to hand in the moon (on a stick) at the same time. Ah well, into the queues, and first good thing: it was a couple of minutes. In the last four days, the very longest I've had to wait for any battleground is ten minutes, and that was Alterac Valley at an ungodly time of the morning. The average has been five minutes for Alterac Valley, a couple of minutes for the others. I don't know if the Alliance/Horde populations have evened out recently, or if there's some strange magic going on behind the scenes, but it makes the whole business much less tiresome. So, a couple of minutes later, I'm riding around scenic Arathi as the Alliance mindlessly wander and fail to ever hold more than two nodes, displaying their usual technique of mounting up and buggering off if there's been no action at a node for more than seven seconds (this technique also extends to Alterac Valley bunkers and graveyards, it seems). It's good to be back... no, wait, not good, the other one.

Still, in a triumph of hope over experience, I queue up again, and in a freak turn of events, the Alliance somehow win. Bonus honour, woo!

Next day, our Lieutenant-General punishes me for the insolence of claiming to have won a round of Arathi Basin by sending me back there. Oh well, here we go again... I met some interesting characters that day. Captain Defeatist, for one. "The trouble with the Alliance" he pronounced "is that they don't know when they're beaten. Just lose this quickly and get the mark. I only want the mark. I've lost 85 AB's in a row." Really? I wonder what the common thread through those 85 battlegrounds might possibly have been? I actually felt my will to live being physically drained into the screen at that point, and despite such stirring optimism inspiring all around to ever more heroic deeds, we strangely lost that round. Next up was the Frightfully Cross Tactician. You could tell he hadn't read my aforelinked pickup tourist's guide as he gave out his instructions: "grp 1 LM, grp 2 ST, grp 3 GM" shouted he. "Sure!" responded the valiant battlegroup, milling around aimlessly. Maybe we hadn't heard, so he repeated his shout a few times, that would surely work, right? Well, obviously we took the stables, and a big enough group turned up at the gold mine to take that, but the Horde made a major effort on the lumber mill, turning up en masse. Our master tactician would surely note this, and revise his plan accordingly, right? Suggest checking the farm and blacksmith, and attacking the more lightly defended? Oddly, no. "Get LM" he shouted. A lot. As others probed the other nodes, he'd encouragingly shout "[name] obviously cannot read, GET LM". As time went on, and somehow the heavy Horde defence continued to hold out in the face of occasional disjointed Alliance sorties, his language became progressively worse, the rest of the team were retards and noobs; I'm sure anyone who's spent more than 30 seconds in battlegrounds has seen the same. You'll usually get a quick "OMG ally aer noobs", and if you're lucky an ever-amusing cascade of "no wai u r noob" "no u r" (etc.), or possibly a hugely ironic discussion on how the problem with the Alliance is they're always holding discussions on whether they're noobs or not in battleground chat. This chap was the most persistent I've seen, though, he just kept at it, non stop, telling everyone to attack the lumber mill and castigating anyone who dared go anywhere else. Oh, and shouting at people not to hang around the stables, then being surprised when they all buggered off so shouting at them not to leave it undefended (file also under "DUH!").

Now, I've never reported another player for anything so far in MMOGs. Partly it's my easy going, laissez faire, live and let live attitude. Mostly it's my British sense of reserve and desperation to avoid confrontation ("somebody pushed into the queue? Why, that's outrageous! I'm going to... raise my eyebrows in a most disapproving way at them, just you see if I don't! Wait, they're looking this way, I'll pretend I haven't noticed.") Some people live for that stuff, providing ever-entertaining forum threads as they inform ne'er-do-wells in no uncertain terms precisely what they've been reporting (offensive names, kill stealing, whatever they consider to be exploits, etc etc), and then other people wade in and call them Nazis (oddly enough, I don't remember a key feature of SS Panzer Divisions being that they got in a big huff over the risqué nose art of American aircraft and reporting them under the Geneva Convention or something), and everyone has a tremendous amount of fun. You could probably make a perfect game for some people by releasing a flood of bots programmed to shout obscenities, tag any monsters another player was trying to attack, etc., and automatically respond to all complaint tickets with "[reported player] has been banned", they'd love it. Anyway; I've never been driven far enough to actually bother to even find out how to report another player in a game yet (that's another reason for not doing in, pure laziness), but this drivelling idiot in Arathi Basin was really getting on my wick, so I finally snapped and filed a complaint against him for swearing. Not that I give a fuck about the language, but I sense it's a more straightforward issue for GMs to deal with than "Reason for complaint: the most amazing display of idiocy coupled with a total inability to learn. I mean, really, he's obviously been in Arathi Basin often enough to know what the nodes are called, which means, unless he's solely been fighting with pre-made teams, he's witnessed the fact that pickup groups will inevitably rush around with no co-ordination and the only hope is that the Horde are similarly bumbling, and surely after five minutes of total failure to capture the lumber mill even a goldfish might have twigged it's perhaps not going to be a genius battle-winning tactic, and look, with the points as they are we're still going to lose if we somehow freakishly managed to capture four nodes so there really isn't any need to go on about it."

So that was fun. A couple more average AB losses, interspersed with a few goes in Alterac Valley, and the Alliance fluked another Arathi win, and thankfully the Lieutenant-General's come to his senses and sent me to Alterac instead, so I'm never going back to Arathi Basin, ever! Unless the daily quest winds up there again...

Monday 17 December 2007

I was thinkin' about diamonds and the world's biggest necklace

Is there anything in MMOGs quite as divisive as loot? (If you're playing along at home, the answer is "Yes: PvP, raiding, forced grouping, soloing, class balance, skill systems, crafting, grinding, how long you should grill cheese toasties, and who'd win in a fight between William Shatner and Mr T. (Results 1 - 10 of 214,822)") Still. Loot. Treasure. The shinies, the rewards that keep us desperately pushing those levers. To paraphrase Danny DeVito in Heist, "Everybody needs loot. That's why they call it loot!"

I'm poised to kick off my World of Warcraft scroll of resurrection (not long 'til work is finished for Christmas and I can go back to glorious studenthood, crawling out of bed around lunchtime then gaming for twelve straight hours... for a couple of days, at least, before needing to be vaguely sociable for a family Christmas), and obviously the reason I'm going back is to spend some time with old friends, meet up with the guild again and casually enjoy the game at a relaxed pace, which is why I've been furiously googling away to see what "lewt" (preferably of the "phat" variety) might've been added while I've been gone. A couple of areas particularly stand out from the recent 2.3 patch: season 1 arena items being available for honour points, and additional epic items obtainable with Badges of Justice from heroic dungeons (together with only needing to be Honored, instead of Revered, with an appropriate faction to get into heroic dungeons in the first place). Cue massive outcry over "welfare epics" (principally applied to the arena gear, but you know how forums love pithy phrases like that and start applying them to... everything, really. I think my hamster might be a "welfare epic" now), and much learned discussion over the same Badges of Justice coming from both heroic dungeons and 10 man raids, the power of PvP weapons in PvE compared to the suitability of PvP armour, and the relative difficulty/effort required to gain items from battlegrounds, the arena, 5 man dungeons and raids. Well, I say "much learned discussion", that might be a slight overstatement. The ideas of "earning", and "rewards", and particularly the word "welfare" map all too easily (and badly) to vague political notions of capitalism, socialism etc., and we all know there's no better way of keeping a discussion sane and rational than chipping in with something like "handing out epic weapons just for turning up in the arena is the kind of UN-AMERICAN COMMIE LOVING FILTH that is CORRUPTING the NATIONS YOUTH". It's a marvellous flamewar, raging from hardcore vs casual to PvP vs PvE to raiding vs small group vs solo play, and really... what does it matter? Why is it an issue if Neville the Undeserving is wandering around in the same shiny gear as Reginald the Devoted?

Ah, now there's the nub, crux and/or nexus, if you will, of the matter (Mr Fotherington, and an extra point for being so clever). Why do we want those lovely epic items? (Why do we want anything? Why do I want an automated bean-to-cup cappucino maker and a heated towel rail? Because I like coffee and warm towels, actually, but I fear I've strayed from the point somewhat.) Why do we *not* want others to have them? For some people, gear is all about the statistics, the improvement that better gear offers, enabling more challenging encounters to be attempted or giving an edge in PvP combat. For others, looks are the thing; who cares about stats so long as it's stylish? World of Warcraft gear is also about accomplishment, though, it's the main way of showing that you've defeated a certain boss (and been lucky that he dropped a particular item that you fluked the Need roll for) or that you've slugged it out in battlegrounds or the arena, and I think it's that latter case in particular that can cause great annoyance with "undeserved" epics.

It's a bit of everything for me. I've made quite a few posts about avatars and visuals, that's quite important to me. If I'm going to have a crack at heroic dungeons, I sense my old gear is a bit lacking, so some upgrades from battleground honour (if I have any left, I really can't remember) would be handy, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't take a certain amount of pride in the odd epic item I do get hold of. If there was nothing at all on offer from running instances or battlegrounds, I'm not sure I'd bother (due to my achiever streak, but then I wouldn't keep playing some aspect of the game I didn't enjoy just for something shiny.

Anyway, I'm not entirely sure there was a point to all this, except perhaps "WOO! FREE EPIX LAWL! TO ALTERAC VALLEY!"

Friday 14 December 2007

The sun went down and the music did play

Guitar Hero! Ah, Guitar Hero, three weeks on and I'm still hooked on Guitar Hero 3 at any available opportunity. Yahtzee's latest Zero Punctuation reviews it (as usual in the most magnificent possible fasion), nailing the primary appeal of pretending to be up on stage as GOD of ROCK (holding a small yapper-type dog) (possibly feeding it Caesar). It works well as a game in a number of other ways, though. One great advantage it has is that a song provides a natural 3 - 6 minute chunk of gameplay; short bursts of frequent achievements that can hook you in for hours with that "go on then, just *one* more" feeling familiar to anyone who's done those early WoW quests (the very first time when everything is still shiny and new and fresh, not on your 17th alt as you pilot through Westfall with the cold dead eyes of an automaton on your way to level 19, dual boxing through the Deadmines eight times for that optimal twink gear so you can butcher poor innocents in Warsong Gulch with all the joy of a 1978 East German public information film), or eaten Pringles. Equally, if you have a shorter chunk of time (like the average play session of Half Life 2: Episode 2, now down to 25 minutes), you can still feel like you've achieved something. It would almost be verging on genuinely casual (as in Bejewelled-casual, not the MMO-casual definition of anyone who spends more time sleeping than gaming; there are, of course, the hardcore three armed spider-trainers of Guitar Hero and people who rack up *billions* of points in Bejeweled, but still) if it didn't take five minutes to get the Wii going, load up the game and click through the SEVEN HUNDRED AND THIRTY NINE loading screens.

Though Yahtzee's right about the game hitting a bit of a difficulty wall in the final tier of the Hard career (still haven't got One and Raining Blood), the song based nature of Guitar Hero gives it another advantage in replayability. Where I tend not to re-read books or re-watch films (at least, not for a few months/years), I'll quite happily listen to songs or albums several times over (though not quite to the extent of a friend of mine who'd take a single song, endlessly loop it on tape and play that in his car for weeks at a time), and I'm getting into the Guitar Hero 3 songlist to the extent of uploading a good chunk of it to my iPod (even some of the bonus tracks, Naast's Mauvais Garçon is rather fun. There's something about foreign lyrics... in another "weird things to wake up to on the clock radio" experience, there was a trailer for Pop in Translation this morning, playing a German version of Petula Clarke's "Downtown" that was a strangely confusing thing when not entirely awake). There's even "grind" (lots of practice to get through songs on expert mode, sometime more frustrating than trying collect assorted livers and spleens from seemingly internal-organ-less wildlife) and "PvP" (I've played a few online matches, winning most, though only playing on Medium difficulty; the range of Hard means I'm pretty decent on the earlier tiers, but would be hopelessly thrashed on the last couple by the legions of trained spiders).

All in all, the musical base of the game gives a number of inherent advantages, so I'm most intrigued to see how Audiosurf turns out.

Tuesday 11 December 2007

Hi Ho Sky Raider Lining

Inspirations behind popular songs, part XVIII: Hi Ho Silver Lining

While wandering around a recent City of Villains mission, our intrepid duo were beset by Sky Raiders, a paramilitary cabal formed by people who've seen The Rocketeer rather too many times. Among their number are be-jetpacked Wing Raiders, and Porters, so named because they can teleport around the place (and not because they carry luggage around. They get quite touchy about that, I asked one to take my bags to my room, and he shot me with a submachine gun.) This makes them a bit mobile, and in the absence of someone like a Dominator with a group immobilise power (or a hammer to nail the buggers feet to the floor) they run, swoop and teleport all over the place when you're trying to punch them in the face with the POWER of DARKNESS. M'colleague was moved to comment at one juncture "they're everywhere!", at which point the three Porters in our vicinity promptly vanished and the Wing Raider flew off, leading me to rejoin "... and nowhere, baby." And that's when it hit me, Scott English and Larry Weiss, writers of the nether popular Hi Ho Silver Lining, were clearly fighting Sky Raiders at the time:

You're everywhere and nowhere baby, that's where you're at
(The aforementioned Porters appearing and disappearing)
Running down a bumpy hillside, in your hippy hat
(A reference to the standard Sky Raider headgear. Far out, man.)
Flying across the country, and getting fat
(The Wing Raiders must get a bit portly, the lazy sods, flying everywhere on their jetpacks instead of walking)
Saying everything is groovy, when your tires are flat
(English and Weiss must've been playing characters with the Caltrops power)

And it's hi ho silver lining,
(Silver being the prevalent colour of Skiffs and Jump Bots)
No matter where you go now baby
I see your sun is shining
(The "sun" being the targeting reticule that remains fixed on Porters, allowing you to keep track of them when they teleport away)
But I won't make a fuss, though it's obvious
(But don't tell the mobs, they think they've lost your aggro)

Flies are in your pea soup baby, they're waving at me
(Well that's obviously... erm...)
Anything you want is yours now, only nothing's for free
Lies are gonna get you someday, just wait and see
So open up your beach umbrella, while you're watching TV

OK, my bad. Hi Ho Silver Lining isn't about Sky Raiders at all, the authors were probably just off their tits on acid.

Friday 7 December 2007

Everybody got to move

Woo! My Nokia N810 arrived today, so I'm blogging on the go (well, on the sofa, to be strictly accurate)

Thursday 6 December 2007

I've tried running but there's no escape

I thought it was finished, over. Finished with. Over. Finished and done with. Over. Completely finished over. But then... the Steinbeck file. It was like Aylesbury all over again...

Well, not Aylesbury so much as World of Warcraft. Daily battleground quests... Season 1 arena items available for honour points... an inquiry about Rogues that sent me over to talent calculators...

With Christmas coming up, time off work, relatives around (making impromptu Guitar Hero concerts in the lounge slightly less popular), it could be fun to run a few instances, head back to the battlegrounds, so I dropped a couple of hints, and there's a scroll of resurrection beckoning to me at the moment...

Tuesday 4 December 2007

Time will tell just who fell

So, I've been playing Guitar Hero 3 during every spare moment for the last week or so, much to the consternation of assorted neighbours and a hamster (I don't know if the songs themselves the hamster objects to, or my butchering of them on Expert level, but either way she starts chucking stuff around the cage when the rock kicks in). I'm 92% through the Hard career (just One (tricky solos!) and Raining Blood (tricky... all of it!) to go), 54% through Expert (the introduction of Holiday in Cambodia is doing my nut in).

In other news, after my amazing futurologism in predicting a Wii shortage, obviously the only conclusion that can be drawn after the Activision/Blizzard merger is that they're working on my genius MMOGPR (Massively Multi-instrumental Online Guitar Playing Romp).

In moments between plastic-guitar-button-pressing, I've also been playing a bit of the new issue of City of Heroes, starting a new dual blade wielding Brute (being able to select each weapon individually, on top of all the usual options, meant I spent so long in the costume creator I only actually played enough to get to level 3), and travelling back in time with my level 50 Blaster to help the Ourororororobous put right what once went wrong. My first mission saw me leaping into the body of a struggling soul singer in Memphis in the late 60s... no, wait, that was something else entirely... my first mission saw me tangling with the good old 5th Column, then the second was quite a fun take on the tutorial, sending you back to the same map, at level 1, only this time the mobs had taken the helpful-hint dispensing NPCs hostage! Better still, it meant I could finally get the Isolator badge, though it took a while with only one attack (thank heavens for veteran reward powers). The only slight hitch was a later mission, when I got sent against an Elite Boss at level 25 or 26, which meant I lost all my useful Ancillary Pool Powers and defences and ended up with a travel power, Stamina and a handful of attacks. Still, a quick bit of assistance from a kleptosockomaniac sorted that out, so history turns out OK after all. Or will turn out OK. Or had already turned out OK. Confusing stuff, this time travel.