Tuesday 4 August 2009

And you may ask yourself: how do I work this?

With the world map turned a suitable shade of pink in Empire: Total War and Grand Theft Auto IV heading towards the culmination of the main plot, I’ve had a nice break from MMOGs and I’m starting to think about seriously contemplating heading back into a massively multiplayer world. Not *actually* playing just yet, that would be crazy; just as you need to warm up before exercise, and as every good meeting needs a pre-meeting (preceded by a pre-meeting agenda discussion), you need to take a run-up at these things. Y’know, Google around a bit to find out what’s going on, keep up with the blogs, form a guild for a game that’s not even in closed beta yet, and disband the guild in a violent schism over a hypothetical interpretation of what a metaphorical guild policy might or might not mean in relation to the non-existent terms of agreement that won’t be drafted by the legal team for at least a year. The usual stuff.

I’m hankering after something new. World of Warcraft peeks around the corner every now and again reminding me there’s a level 70 rogue who hasn’t yet felt the Wrath of the Lich King; there’s the Land of the Dead to visit in Warhammer Online; Dungeons and Dragons Online has the alluring prospect of Unlimitedness soon, Age of Conan and Lord of the Rings Online both tried to tempt me back with free activation, but there’s something about being in a new MMOG at launch time. Queues, bugs, frustration and server crashes, for example, that prove the wisdom of Van Hemlock’s three month rule, but there’s also the other side. The Shiny New Game Experience, like opening up the box of a glossy new gadget, or shoving a teaspoon through the foil of a new jar of coffee; everyone’s starting together, in the same areas, experiencing the same things. At least for an hour or two until the more dedicated players pull away, and 72 hours later, before the head start is over, they’re at the level cap, amped to the eyeballs on Pro Plus and Mountain Dew, and posting bitterly on the forums that there isn’t enough content.

Another perk of playing a game at launch is that, whenever you talk about it in the future, you can liberally pepper the conversation with “when I played it back at launch…”, then shake your walking stick and tail off into mumbling until they wheel you off for Horlicks and Countdown. That said, actually having experience of what you’re talking about is usually considered bad form in the blag-u-spore when making grand pronouncements, so it’s not like you actually have to have subscribed to join in the Four Yorkshireman style one-upmanship. Just open with “fire blast was so overpowered back at launch”, someone counters “… oh, they hadn’t sorted that out? I raised it as an issue in open beta”, someone else chips in “… course, it was totally useless in closed beta, they went too far the other way when they tried to fix it”, and you can trump the lot with “… when I said ‘launch’, I meant the launch of the pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-one-before-alpha version, where you punched the spell you wanted to cast onto a Jacquard card, fed it into the mill, cranked a handle and the Engine printed the outcome of the attack as 40-column ASCII art on vellum.”

On the new game front, there look to be two main possibilities launching in September: Aion and Champions Online. Aion sounds… fine, Melmoth’s had a look around, the leopard skin leggings appear most laudable, but nothing I’ve read about it yet leaps from the page and screams “YOU MUST PLAY THIS GAME!” Which is good. If that happened, I’d really need to lay off eating cheese before bed. Champions Online, on the other hand; having spent many hours tinkering with the City of Heroes costume creator, and being intrigued by the Champions equivalent for over a year (from pieces on Massively and elsewhere I think we can now safely say customisation extends further than a single hat), I could probably spend the first month just playing with that. There we go, then: I’ll play Champions at launch, and if you’re going to play something at launch, you might as well pre-order the box for a few bonus tchotchkes. Touring several online retailers I was weighing up the pros and cons of a bonus harlequin hat vs. an item that gives minor damage resistance vs. some insect-wing-type-things, and wandered over to the Champions site to see what they had to say, and noticed their lifetime subscription offer.

Hrm. Dilemma, that. I’m certainly tempted; I’m not convinced I’ll dive right in at launch and stay there for a solid year or more, but I could easily see myself dipping in and out over several years… if the game is still running, I imagine people who took out lifetime subs to Hellgate: London were mildly displeased when Flagship went into receivership. Somewhat less dramatically, I might just not like it that much, it’s a bit hard to tell without having played it, so I might as well stick the pre-order in, as that comes with beta access of some variety, give it a crack, and postpone the decision ’til then. There’s a deadline of August 31st on the lifetime subscription at the moment, but I wouldn’t be wildly surprised if that was extended by a couple of weeks, or even a longer, “due to popular demand!” There’s every chance the deadline won’t be extended, though, so don’t go printing this out and waving it at Cryptic telling them it’s a contract if you want a lifetime sub on September 2nd and they’re not offering them any more.

A big factor with Champions has to be City of Heroes; can they both succeed, or must one fall? Are there enough superhero MMO players for them both to be viable? I imagine a decent chunk of the current CoH player base will at least take a look at Champions, quite possibly pick up the box and play for a month, but after that? NCSoft obviously have one eye on Champions with their announcement that CoH players subscribed between August and November will get beta access for the Going Rogue expansion, but from a personal perspective I’m more interested by the fact that they recently combined the North American and European forums; it may have no significance beyond the forums, but perhaps it’s a precursor to combining the North American and European servers? I’ve got all my high level characters, shiny veteran rewards and the like on the North American servers, and couldn’t face leaving them behind to start over on the European servers, but if I didn’t have to… I might get back into it. Interesting times. Until then, anyone interested in a guild for Transformers Online?

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