Tuesday 29 September 2009

Underestimation of the Force.

Star Wars Episode VIII: Underestimation of the Force

The circle is now complete. When I left you I was but the learner. Now *I* am the disaster.

Society drives people crazy with lust and calls it advertising

For the past ten years Bioware’s name has been a byword for high quality story-driven CRPGs with involving plots, memorable characters, interactions with your companions beyond a couple of fist bumps and shouting “bro!”, and moral choices. Granted the stories aren’t always wildly original, and some of the “moral dilemmas” err towards “Do you save the puppy or burn down the orphanage?” when they’re not randomly foisted on you, but that sort of stuff is picking fairly minor nits.

Most Bioware games also allow the player to become romantically involved with one, or occasionally more, of the other characters, starting off rather chaste in the earlier games and working up to the obscene filth of Mass Effect. With a couple of new games on the way, Dragon Age: Origins later this year and Mass Effect 2 early next year, it looks like Bioware were worried that traditional CRPGs might be perceived as old and fusty, and are building on the widespread coverage that Mass Effect got. To paraphrase Fry & Laurie, it seems like a recent marketing meeting went something like…

Stephen I am thinking, Leonard, that we must use today’s tools for today’s job.

Hugh I see. And what are today’s tool, in your opinion?

Stephen Oh there are so many tools around today. Look at advertising. Pop music. Films. Magazines. Everywhere images of sexuality and coolness.

Hugh And so we must make RPGs …

Stephen Cool.

Hugh Cool. And sexy. And where shall we find them, these young people?

Stephen Wherever blood and money and sexy talk flow freely, there will you find the young.

Hugh And what will we say? How will we persuade them to surrender their ice-skating and their jazz music and turn to RPGs?

Stephen You must say to the young people – Oh young people. You who are young and thrusting and urgent, there is a beat, a sound, a look that’s new, that’s you, that’s positively yes!

Hugh Hmm. Alright. Boys and girls, dig what I am about to say. RPGs are cool.

Stephen Good.

Hugh Throw away those transistor radios. Come on out from those steamy parlours where the coffee is cheap and the love is free. Join us in our playing of roles!

Stephen That’s it!  Now stick some Marilyn Manson over the top and release it on the internet.

So there’s some slightly mixed messages coming out from Bioware; on the one hand Dragon Age: Origins is a portentous saga in which the fate of humanity rests on a chosen few, and on the other it is, broadly speaking, in many ways “the new shit” with lots of stabbing and occasionally someone in their pants.  Mass Effect 2 promises mystery, intrigue and a frightfully cross young lady who forgot to put a shirt on. I think they need to pull them together, really:

“In a world of danger, the player faces tough moral challenges, and…”

“BEWBS!”

“… forcing them to make difficult decisions over…”

“WHO TO DO IT WITH!”

“… with gritty, grown up dialogue…”

“PEE PO BELLY BUM DRAWERS!”

“Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2.  Coming soon.”

“BEEEEE-YATCH. YO!”

Sunday 27 September 2009

A Day in the Lifetime

For the first time in years, I’m subscription free.

I patched up City Heroes to see the Issue 16 changes, logged in, tinkered a bit with power colours, and couldn’t really muster up any enthusiasm for it so finally hit the unsubscribe button I’d been thinking about nine months ago. Monthly subscriptions nag at me when I’m not playing much, like just having a slice of toast from an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. They can be great value for a game you’re playing a lot, but don’t make so much sense for something you drift in and out of; I’ve had Grand Theft Auto IV for ten months now, playing a bit now and again. I don’t know exactly how much time I’ve put in, but there’s an achievement for completing the main story in less than 30 hours and I haven’t wrapped that up yet, though I’ve been doing a lot of the side missions and bits and pieces. With APB looking to have broadly comparable gameplay I can see myself dipping in and out of that, rather than spending several hours a night on it, so the lack of a monthly fee is distinct plus point there.

I’ve still got a couple of MMOGs on the go, though. Firstly Dungeons and Dragons Online, for which the “Unlimited” model seems to be working really well; I’m not sure how it’s looking for Turbine financially, but having the option there, if a few of us are kicking around and fancy a bit of a dungeon crawl, is great, and without even an initial fee there’s no barrier, apart from the initial download, to stop people taking a look around. Then there’s Champions Online; I’m cheating a bit with the “no subscription” thing here, ‘cos I went for the Lifetime option. Now I know full well that any attempt to discuss costs, subscription models and perceptions of value break down somewhat at this point, and a rational assessment is that a lifetime subscription is unlikely to represent better value than monthly payments unless you really, really get into a game, but whatever strange way my brain operates means I can forget the big initial payment and now file Champions as “free to play”; it’s there when I fancy swinging around and dispensing pistol based justice, if I go a couple of months without logging in, not to worry.

Saturday 26 September 2009

It's spelt 'Eon', NCSoft.

I’m not terribly sure as to why you spelt it Aion.

You know, as in “It takes an eon for the game to load, longer than my computer takes to boot” and “It takes an eon to get into the game, if you’re lucky, otherwise it’s sometime around the heat death of the universe”.

Aion Queue 1Aion Queue 2Aion Queue 3Aion Queue 4Aion Queue 5

So that’s the status for each of the five available EU English servers. And yes one of them is “only” half an hour; shame it’s not the one where my character is.

And to all those who have said that this is the smoothest launch they’ve ever seen, of course it bloody well is, nobody can get onto the servers to stress them. I could solve all of the public transport problems in England if I only let ten people on to each bus and then thanked everyone else for their patience while they stand around for two hours to get on to the next one.

To think that NCSoft had the temerity to want to install nProtect GameGuard with their game, as if it’s the players who are the cheap cheating bastards. Talking of cheap bastards, what the hell gives you the right to open a browser up after I close the game down in order to pimp your products?

Cheap and utterly lacking in etiquette.

You know what, at least Aventurine had the decency to not let you buy Darkfall at all in order to keep their numbers down, rather than make you sit around adding up how much of your money you’re spending in order to watch a queue progress very slowly. I could do that at Disneyland, and at least then I’d get the opportunity to punch Donald Duck in the face.

Never mind, give it a year before NCSoft close it all down for no good reason whatsoever, eh?

I might just have reached the point where I’m allowed to log in by then.

Friday 25 September 2009

Thought for the day.

If they’d called it Left 4 Dead ODST instead of Left 4 Dead 2, nobody would have had a problem with it.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Thought for the day.

I’m curious as to why nobody has, to my knowledge, made a niche MMO that has nothing but raid content in it. No levelling, just raiding big monsters with 10/25/40 other people and getting better gear to raid bigger monsters. If niche PvP games can lure in enough subscribers to support themselves, I’m left wondering why there isn’t a niche game for raiders yet.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.

Folk cramming themselves into Aion like spawning salmon, they realise they’re floundering towards a huge faction-imbalanced end game, yes?

As I mentioned in the above quote from Twitter, I’ll be interested to see how the end game for Aion pans out. At the moment I see a lot of frustrated people wanting to roll Asmodians but being blocked by general server queues or the balancing mechanics that NCSoft have in place; therefore these people are rolling Elyos instead, just to get into the game, because, as we all know, joining up with a faction that you don’t really empathise or connect with is always a strong foundation for a long and distinguished PvP career. It works for mercenary groups because they are rewarded handsomely to do so, I’m not so sure that there’s such an incentive in Aion.

And I have to question, on a sanity level, whether it was a sound idea to aim an MMO with an end game focus of PvP at a Western audience when one side looks like the offspring of Disney’s Fairies and a candy floss machine, and the other side looks like the resultant spawn of a blood-bathed orgy between The Crow, Edward Scissor Hands, Marilyn Manson and a Balrog of Morgoth.

They’d have been better off calling the game Care Bears vs PvP Nutjobs Online.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

What's the collective noun for cataclysms?

As Melmoth was pondering whether, in the wake of World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm, Turbine might revisit the starter areas of Lord of the Rings Online to represent the scouring of the Shire, news has started to reach us that other games are planning on far-reaching changes to their worlds…

Age of Conan, following Warcraft’s lead, have announced that a dragon will rise and sunder the earth. Unlike WoW, though, the starter area will remain unaffected as the dragon rampages around, destroys the rest of the world, and leaves only Tortage (also known as “that bit at the start that’s quite good for the first twenty levels”).

EVE Online are taking advantage of the launch of DUST 514 to introduce the New New Player Experience, a more gentle tutorial for the complex and brutal universe of EVE. Early feedback is positive about the ability to connect a console gamepad to control your spaceship, but players are strongly critical of the blue shell, insisting that it should be nerfed to stop skilled players building up a good lead then being hit on the final corner and losing to Bowser.

Lineage II are planning the most radical in-game overhaul yet, removing the need for players to grind through 10,000 Turek Orcs to level up. Instead they’ll have to grind through 10,000 Kerut Orcs, who wear slightly different hats.

City of Heroes are launching an unprecedented comic-based game event, where Alien Space Bats travel through time and assassinate a politician, turning the world against heroes and forcing players in the present day to battle for their lives against giant robots while trying to find a way of travelling back to stop the Alien Space Bats. Nobody really notices amongst the other 73 parallel worlds, including The One Where The Axis Won World War II, The One Where The South Won The Civil War, and The One Where Tottenham Won The 1987 Cup Final.

Dungeons and Dragons Online unleashed strange and powerful “Unlimited” magicks across Eberron, and though nothing had obviously changed in their wake, close inspection revealed little price labels attached to everything.

Auto Assault are planning to re-launch with an amazing world-changing event: as the post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland of the original game didn’t work out so well, an alien terraforming pod lands on Earth, restoring it to a green and pleasant environment populated by pre-war survivors who emerged from cryogenic storage somewhere. Centuries after that event the players take control of their original bio-mechanical cyborgs or green-skinned mutants, emerging from cryogenic storage themselves to face tough new challenges in the reborn world such as commuting to work in their be-weaponed war cars without picking up a speeding ticket, and negotiating the drive-thru counter of their local burger joint.

Aion in a brave move decided to skip the initial revision of the game that was released in Asia and launched in the West with the world of Atreia intact and a sundering cataclysm of epic proportions built into their server system instead.

Club Penguin are getting in on the act with Penguinaclysm, which will see a giant electric Mecha-Penguin storming around The Plaza chucking snowballs everywhere. Players are expected to be generally (*_*) or (o.O) with a bit of (?_?)

Darkfall are also set to overhaul their starting area, finally introducing proper impact PvP. Unlike the original namby-pamby system put in to appease pathetic losers who can’t handle a real game, where death merely results in a bit of lost loot, Darkfall: Teh Ubahclysm introduces permadeath. Not some sort of rubbish pseudo-permadeath either; if you’re killed by another player then your character can’t be resurrected, your account is banned so you can’t create a new character, your credit cards are blacklisted so you can’t create a new account, and an Aventurine employee comes round your house and smashes your PC up with a baseball bat. Eurogamer’s re-review of the game awards it a score of 9/10.

Monday 21 September 2009

Thought for the day.

The precedent has been set.

If Blizzard’s gamble pays off I wonder if Turbine will at some point scourge the Shire. It’s been mentioned that the new Skirmish mode of play to be introduced with the Mirkwood expansion will provide events that represent the beginnings of the scourge, but will it be possible for Turbine to go back and overhaul the starter areas to reflect the story? Would it even work as a concept? Granted it will be many a long year before the story of Lord of the Rings Online reaches that point, but already the hints are there that they intend to reflect the original story as accurately as they can, and perhaps it’s the case that Blizzard has helped them with this.

Or stolen their thunder.

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.

Eregion is famous for being Middle Earth’s only Internet connected region and home to the inventor of Email.

Fine, look I’ll be honest, I’m struggling a bit here. You see, I played through some of the quests in Eregion over the weekend in an attempt to catch up to Van Hemlock and Company Ltd’s (Est. 1835) Monday night static group, to which I have been invited. The fools. Primarily I was pointed to Eregion because of the quest chain that allows you to make use of legendary weapons, but I stayed because the zone is just a joy to play in. And that is why I’m struggling, I need to say nice things about something in an MMO and… it hurts.

And this only shortly after I waxed lyrical about the Warden class. What is the world coming to? Tomorrow: a short article on why cats and dogs can be happy living together.

The first thing about Eregion is that there’s a vague similarity between its layout and that of World of Warcraft’s Stranglethorn Vale, although I should state that I’m not trying to read any deep meaning into the design. They both have a main trunk route running north to south through the centre of the map, although I should probably state that it’s more or less the centre, because this is the Internet and I can imagine the pedants are at this very moment whipping out their slide rules and pairs of compasses and plotting the actual central meridian on a detailed graph with lots of working out. Quests branch out to either side of the trunk route and take the player off into the wilds of the land, and if the player progresses through the quests in Eregion as they are presented to them, starting with those in the north at the ruined settlement of Gwingris, and then moving down through the various Echads – Echad Dunann, Echad Eregion, Echad Mirobel and Echad Echad Echad Echad F’tang F’tang OlĂ© Biscuitbarrel – there’s a natural flow to the design, as you progress through the chain of quests at one quest hub the location of the objectives gradually moves down the map until they are starting to overlap with the objectives of the quests at the next hub.

It’s a tidal progression, if you will. The player washes down the zone, each time getting a little bit further before drawing back to the quest hub to hand in quests, sell and repair. Gradually their tidal progression is such that they’ve covered the upper part of the zone, so the tide comes in a little further and moves down the map, emanating from the next quest hub as it washes back and forth further down the land. As such the player runs the whole gamut of the landscape, and because they are travelling back and forth they have a greater chance of finding those little Easter Egg quests that are becoming a more common theme in MMOs. For example, it was on my second or third run through the north eastern area of Eregion that I found a small glowing object that gave me a quest to collect holly leaves. Once handed in I was rewarded with a Cup of Red Tea which gives a nice temporary boost to Vitality. It’s exciting to find these surprise quests, and it was something Warhammer Online did very well: they knew where to leave these little glowing items in out of the way places such that most players would still stumble across them on their general questing, rather than sticking the items close to the main path through the zone with a twenty foot tall flashing neon arrow pointing at them.

As well as Zen-like quest progression, Eregion itself is just a pleasant place to be. After the frozen wastes of Forochel and the devastated barren wasteland of Angmar, it’s a stark contrast when you turn up to a zone that has lush vistas of the sort that would cause Constable to sprain his painting wrist. And sprain it again when he eventually came to paint the place. The zone also reflects in itself the fall of the Elves that inhabited it, the north of the zone is lush forests, the middle wide-open plains that become more savannah-like and then downright barren as the player progresses to the south.

Travel also runs counter to the LotRO norm, with stable masters in all four of the major quest hubs, making travel between the various areas a simple matter of cost rather than painful and tedious negotiation. And yet, curiously, as well as the abundant points of call for the Middle Earth Taxi Service, the main roads between the various quest hubs are also direct and surprisingly un-littered with mobs, making for straightforward painless travel under your own steam. It’s almost as if they wanted the travel not to be a chore! Wander away from the well beaten track and you will find yourself yet again in the Land of Stationary Mobs in the Middle of Nowhere That Just Happen To Be In The Way Of Where You Need To Go. However, because this is a tidal zone the content is spread far and wide as it slowly washes you back-and-forth down the zone in a relaxed manner, and so the mobs are not packed so tightly together that you can’t negotiate a way around them without trauma. Compare this to the more river-like areas such as Forochel which start you off in a small ‘filter pool’ zone before injecting you along the rapids of a narrower path at some speed, where everything suddenly feels more compressed and claustrophobic and calamitous, and as such there seems to be little room to move without attracting the unwanted attentions of angry aggressors.

The quests in Eregion are also refreshing in that they are abundant and, in the main, soloable. There’s plenty of debate to be had as to whether copious solo content is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, whether it marks an inevitable progression of MMOs into ‘playing alone with others’ or is a reflection of the realities of this thing called Real Life, and the restrictions of duty and opportunity that it presents when trying to commit to a virtual life in a virtual world. When all is said and done, however, it is nice to be able to sit down and adventure through the world of Middle Earth without having to stand around and suffer the trials and tribulations of forming a pick-up fellowship, the likes of which would make the Fellowship of the Ring blush with embarrassment for ever having thought that they had a hard time getting their group going. Not only are there plentiful quests and many soloable ones thereof, but many of the solo quests still present an engaging challenge for a player taking them on (when close to the appropriate level) since many of them require you to fight a signature mob, which although achievable by almost any player, can often be a close run thing requiring the strategic use of powerful abilities with lengthy cool-downs and potions. For those of us who aren’t running a twinked-out uber class, at least.

Last but most certainly not least is the quest line that takes you through the events leading to the reopening of the Hollin Gate, that infamous entrance to the mines of Moria. It’s a nice little instanced area that prepares the player for their forthcoming adventures in Moria, gives generous XP, some splendid quest rewards (including your first legendary weapon) and teaches you how various new aspects of the game work, all the while involving you in the story of the attempted retaking of Moria by the dwarves. Sending your character away with their legendary weapon to gain some experience with it before finally returning you to the instance to face an Ancient Foe[TM] is a nice touch, as is the use of the Session Play mechanic to send you into the past to witness the fall of Moria, something which is only made available to you if you complete all the side quests in the Hollin Gate instance, which are well worth the effort simply for the reward of that experience, let alone the fact that they give excellent XP and rewards in and of themselves.

All in all Eregion is a breath of fresh air; you can tell it was a zone added later in the development of the game. It’s encouraging to see that Turbine have learnt from the, albeit understandable, ‘mistakes’ made in the initial release of the game, and have produced some outstanding content which takes their game’s strengths and builds upon them. It also provides a much needed buffer and refuge between the ever increasing oppression of the first book of content and the continuing dive into the depths of depression as the players enter the unknowable darkness under the Misty Mountains. I hope Turbine take a similar stance when they come to release the recently announced Mirkwood content, and provide a soothing respite from the pain, toil, and privation that comes with the continuous battle against the forces of the Dark Lord of Mordor. It’s nice to have that light in the darkness, that small beacon of hope, a place where players can relax for a while and let the waves of happy content wash over them.

Sunday 20 September 2009

Assemble, Police of Britannia!

APB has been on my radar since footage of the oh-so-lovely character creator emerged over a year ago. Since then Realtime Worlds have been keeping things fairly subtle, mostly focussing on the character creator at various industry shows and in their official podcasts. With the prospect of an early 2010 release and imminent beta, though, more gameplay details are starting to emerge (from unwize’s previous comment, Massively and Rock, Paper, Shotgun amongst others), advancing the interest-o-meter from “hmm?” to “oh!” and prompting that most important of debates six months before game release: what sort of guild to form.

The seeds were sown on Van Hemlock’s podcast, when he suggested a guild based around 1950s and 60s British bobbies, a la Dixon of Dock Green or Z Cars. Under discussion at the International Symposium Of Advanced Gaming Thought (or “the pub”), one potential issue was whether a small truncheon would be sufficient weaponry to take on criminals armed with large quantities of automatic weaponry, the scene at the beginning of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film cited as a case study, where Victorian Peelers unsuccessfully attempt to beat a tank into submission. Bevis proposed this could be solved with “truncheon-fu”, a martial art allowing police officers to wield a truncheon in a similar fashion to a Jedi wielding a lightsaber (yet subtly different enough to avoid legal action). Batting incoming bullets from the very air, hurling the truncheon with uncanny accuracy to provide a ranged attack, the truncheon-fu-ist would be a deadly opponent indeed.

Of the array of weaponry depicted in APB promotional footage so far, though, machine pistols, assault carbines and squad automatic weapons are much in evidence, wooden batons less so. Doesn’t look hopeful for a squad of truncheon-fu-ists, so we thought Dixon could call in a bit of backup from the 1970s; the Sweeney and the Professionals might be just the sort of tough, no-nonsense coppers to bring justice to the streets of APB, and they’ve got shooters. They’ve also got some distinctive vocabulary, so if you want to join in here’s some handy phrases to start practising:
“The blaggers are on the move!”
“You slaaaaag!”
“Shut it!”
“Put yer knickers on and get me a cup of tea”
“We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had our dinner!”

Friday 18 September 2009

Thought for the day.

If my friends are a much higher level than I am then, barring the few exceptions that prove the rule, I must rush through content to catch up with them.

When you rush through content in an MMO, all the little annoyances caused by those gates and obstacles that are designed to slow you down, keep you playing and corral your adventuring, are magnified a hundred fold.

Four Go to Goldshire.

Tiger Ears has been documenting our recent foray back into the world of Warcraft, where we have decided to take one last look at the lands of Azeroth from the perspective of a character at the correct level for the content, before Blizzard performs its latest party trick of whipping away the table cloth of original content, leaving the cutlery of players untouched but now standing on the shiny and polished table surface of new content.

Our initial expedition went well enough, I was determined to get a Hunter to the level cap having tried several times and failed for some seemingly unknowable reason that to this day still eludes me. The Hunter is a class that should be effortless and joyful to play, with a pet that can tank and which you can heal, combined with the not inconsiderable damage you both can put out, it’s a class that is definitely overpowered for solo play. As such I actually found it a little dull. It’s my own fault to some extent, I quickly wrote a macro that performed the major cycle of commands that are undertaken every fight – Hunter’s Mark, Pet Attack, Sting, Arcane Shot, Arcane Shot, Sting, and bake in an oven at 180 degrees Celcius for twenty five minutes or until the target is a nice golden colour – and bound it to one key. So thereafter my every fight went R, R, R, R, R, R, R, R, R (I use the ESDF keys to move, so R is my default attack key). The problem for your average player of the class comes from going from that mode of play into the style of play required for a group, which transforms from pressing R a lot into the more freeform style of Hunter’s Mark. Pet Attack. Patrol! Freezing Trap! Wrong target! Pet Change Targets! Noooo not that other group of mobs! Come Back Pet! Argh, Get It Off Me! Disengage! Into Another Patrol! Crap! Heal Pet! Too late! Run away! Run away! Run away!

I really did have the ‘running away’ down to a fine art.

Ok, so admittedly I had tried to jump my skill level from ‘Press R’ up to ‘Tank multiple mobs, CC others, Heal pet, Do some damage, Compose poetry, Solve world hunger’ and that’s probably stretching my skill level a bit, doable no doubt (although I’m not entirely confident about the poetry), but expertise was required in multiple areas, most of which I hadn’t practised at because I was too busy out there in there world, running around and ‘R’ing entire zones to death whilst reading a good book. One can certainly see how the Hunter class quickly gained a poor reputation in the early days of WoW based on this experience. That and the obvious fact that they won G*ld Farmer Monthly’s Editor’s Choice Award for five years running. The fact of the matter is that, when in a group or undertaking quest tasks that would make other grown classes weep, the Hunter is actually a class that requires a high level of skill and understanding to play well.

Having suffered a bit at the hands of the endlessly refilling population of the Stormwind Stockades (I like to imagine it’s where they put all the chat spammers), we decided that a more traditional Tank/Healer combination would work better for the pair of us, enabling us to visit the various dungeons of Azeroth with far less trauma, each of us filling in our more familiar group roles, he of tank and me of healer. It turned out to be a fortuitous time to re-roll because around the same time a couple of Tiger Ears’ readers had ventured forth and asked whether we had room in our little nostalgia troop for a few more. The more the merrier, I say, and so on Wednesday night we had our first weekly static group run.
Four Go to Goldshire
We all got our new characters to level six such that we were out of the very initial starter areas, our characters had just started to lose that new character smell and were run-in enough that we could rev them all the way up to 60 XP per second without the XP bar exploding and leaving us with an expensive repair bill from the local service centre. We met in Stormwind, made the customary introductions, ‘how do you dos’ and ‘wtf do we do nows’, before our glorious leader made a positive decision and we set off to Goldshire to grab some quests on route to giving Hogger a damn good thrashing. This is where the point of our sojourn started to stab at us a little more soundly: almost everyone who has played Alliance, and many who are Horde for Life, will know of Hogger because he’s one of the earliest points in the game where you get to meet an elite mob. He’s a notorious gnoll who lives in the same area as a pack of lesser gnolls and is only really distinguishable by the fact that his character model is slightly larger than the others. All sorts of DANGER! and BEWARE OF THE GNOLL! signs pop up in your tooltip when you hold your mouse cursor over him, however. Many an unwary adventurer has fallen to him, and his reputation is such that new characters will test their mettle against him, and in fact whole forty man raids formed entirely of level one characters have gone up against him. He’s one of those infamous icons of WoW, they’re not the ones you’ll see on box art and in glossy magazine articles, but everyone who has ever played the game with any conviction will know about them. I have one Horde character at level sixty, but at heart I am a player of Alliance characters, and yet I still know all about Mankrik’s wife. If you have invested any time in WoW at all, how can you not?

And here’s the thing: these icons may soon no longer be. In the forthcoming cataclysmed world of Azeroth, Hogger might no longer exist. I may have bested him for the last time – and best him our little group did, multiple times, and once more around the block for another besting – and you know what, it felt great. It felt like it did the first time we organised a group to go and tackle him back on launch day. Curiously though, I was suddenly made aware of the actual Hogger again. I realised that he had become this dull and lifeless entity, so many times beaten and then forgotten that his memory had become more fearsome than he ever was. I could have drawn a fair approximation of what he looked like, drawn a map for you as to his rough patrol area, described his ability to stun and his uncanny knack of sneaking up on you while you were fighting a pack of normal gnolls, but all this was substituted for the real experience. Even if Hogger exists in the next expansion for World of Warcraft he won’t be the same. If the character model and abilities remain unchanged, he won’t be the same. He is part of the world, and changing the world that he exists in changes him. It’s the same for Mankrik’s wife. I imagine that the WoW developers, having their finger on the pulse of pop culture and never ones to shy away from self-reference, will now hide Mankrik somewhere. There will be a whole new generation of “Where’s Mankrik?” and for a while it will be genuine and funny, because nobody will no where he is. Where is Mankrik’s wife, though? In your mind, if you’ve ever quested for her, you know she’s in a camp with a couple of tents. What do those tents look like, what pattern do they have on their exterior? The camp is near a bridge, what is that bridge made from? If you stand in the camp and look south, what do you see? How about to the east? If you can’t remember, or the memory is vague, and you are a fan of World of Warcraft, go and have a look. Remind yourself, because soon it will be gone.

This is the reason for our return to the lands of Azeroth: to cement people and places in our mind’s eye, to remember the great feats and greater falls, and to pay our last respects to this land as we know it, a land that has given millions of players many years of entertainment.

Mor’Ladim you’re next.

Wednesday 16 September 2009

What really happened to Radagast the Brown.

“I will go to Saruman,” I said.

“Then you must go _now_,” said Radagast; “for I have wasted time in looking for you, and the days are running short. I was told to find you before Midsummer, and that is now here. Even if you set out from this spot, you will hardly reach him before the Nine discover the land that they seek. I myself shall turn back at once.” And with that he mounted and would have ridden straight off.

“Stay a moment! ” I said. “We shall need your help, and the help of all things that will give it. Send out messages to all the beasts and birds that are your friends. Tell them to bring news of anything that bears on this matter to Saruman and Gandalf. Let messages be sent to Orthanc.”

“I will do that,” he said, and rode off as if the Nine were after him.

— J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Alas, he had travelled no more than a few yards from Gandalf before a wandering wolf took a fancy to his steed and began to pursue Radagast. Despite his best efforts, his skill with the steed was no match for the wolf’s almost unnatural speed, and soon Radagast’s mount was brought tumbling down by a cunning bite from the pursuer’s jaws. Radagast regained his feet and using the ways of the Wise he brought the wolf to heel and slew it.

“Any trouble there?” asked Gandalf.

“No, no. I’m fine. I shall away to Isengard at once!” and with that, Radagast mounted his faithful steed and rode off as though he raced to catch up with the setting of the sun.

Unfortunately a short distance further on there was a large bear blocking his path. He swerved to avoid its attentions, leaping his snorting mount over a hedge and into the forest, but was dismayed to find that he had leapt into the midst of a sounder of boars. The boars gave chase and, through some unknown cunning, managed to unseat him from his horse. Tumbling to a halt he jumped to his feet and, calling upon the power of the ancient words that he knew, slew the troublesome beasts.

“Need any help?” Gandalf asked, popping his head through the hedge.

“NO! Fine! … Thank you”. And with that, Radagast flung himself up onto his horse and galloped away as though the world behind him were aflame.

He passed no more than a couple of trees before the bear that he had tried to avoid earlier wandered into view, lazily swatted at him – knocking him flying through the air and into a nearby tree – before wandering off into the forest. Shaking sense back into his stunned head Radagast grabbed for the reins of his horse and with one swift movement propelled himself into the saddle. No sooner had he sat himself upright than a rather crotchety badger poked its head out a hole at the base of the tree and looked at him slightly funny, instantly dismounting him again. As he picked himself up and brushed himself down he glared back at where Gandalf was just now walking around from behind the trees. Gandalf stopped suddenly in his tracks as though struck bodily by the stare, took pause for thought and said nothing. Radagast called his horse to return, wearily climbed up on to its back and trotted off.

He made it fifty yards further down the road before a moth flapped its wings in Mordor and caused him to be thrown forcefully to the ground, at which point he was set upon by all manner of crap angry animals and was never seen again.

____

Not enjoying the mount mechanics in Lord of the Rings Online terribly.

Two things you always wanted to know about DDO Unlimited but were afraid to ask

With Dungeons and Dragons Online now free-to-play in its Unlimited guise there’s no reason not to take a look (unless the 3Gb+ client download is a problem), and Massively have a splendid post with some common questions for new DDO Unlimited players that’s well worth a browse. Your intrepid KiaSA team have also been investigating, and discovered a couple of things.

Firstly, free players only start with two character slots, fine for having a poke around in the game but maybe slightly restrictive for alt-o-holics. You can buy more in the store, but when Melmoth bought some points to unlock the Monk class he found he had two extra character slots; it turns out that purchasing points upgrades you from “free player” to “premium player” with a few extra perks (though obviously not as many as a “VIP” subscriber), including the extra character slots, which is nice.

Secondly, the European DDO site seems to be a bit quiet about this whole “free to play” business (though I confess I haven’t looked too deeply), but not to worry, the sign-up with Turbine seems to work absolutely fine from here as does buying points with a UK credit card. Turbine have even been kind enough to set up an unofficial UK server. See, if you’re a keen student of Eberron lore, you may think of Khyber as the Dragon Below. If you’re a Brit (or at least a Brit of a certain age, I dunno about the kids and their newfangled wheely trainers and hippity-hoppity music), Khyber can only mean one thing, so when there’s a server called “Khyber” in the list I’d be most surprised if the majority of British players didn’t pitch up there. To make us feel more at home, Khyber even has specific NPC voicing; on the other servers when you first meet an NPC rogue on the beach he has some generic accent. On Khyber, he’s voiced by Dick Van Dyke: “Gor bloimey luv a duck do what gert yerself up the apples and pears me ol’ china” he says, “stone the crows it’s all gone a bit Pete Tong we’re in right Barney and you’re borassic, but I’m a diamond so I’ll let you ‘ave a Mick[1], Council[2], House of[3], John[4], Aardman[5] or bus[6] for nuffink, knees up Mother Brown doin’ the Lambeth Walk oi!”

[1] Mick Jagger – dagger
[2] Council Tax – great axe
[3] House of Lords – longsword
[4] John Napier (inventor of logarithms) – rapier
[5] Aardman Animation – falchion
[6] bus nun weave-weave-cheese arm-rave of glider mane – plus one guive-guive-guisarme-glaive of spider bane

OK, that’s a lie, he’s the same on all servers and just has a slightly dodgy Lahndahn accent, but the tutorial does offer ample “lovely pair of melons, miss” opportunities.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Guitarmageddon

Is this the great battle of the plastic-instrument-game end times? In the red corner, Guitar Hero 5. In the blue corner, The Beatles: Rock Band. Released within two days of each other (in the UK, a couple of weeks in the US), which is the best? There’s only one way to find out… FIGHT!

(There’s an idea… Note to EA and Activision: why let hip hop artists have all the fun? With all that effort spent creating a digitised Fab Four, plus Metallica, Aerosmith and assorted other Guitar Heroes, relive the glory years of Marvel vs Capcom with a Rock Band vs Guitar Hero beat ’em up! RINGO FLYING DRAGON PUNCH! SPINNING LARS JUMP KICK!)

Actually, other than the release dates, the two games aren’t really going head-to-head, there are two battles going on here: Guitar Hero 5 vs Rock Band 2, and The Beatles vs The Awesome Power of Hyperbole. Like the opening paragraph.

Starting with the more straightforward, Guitar Hero 5 is the second full-band Guitar Hero game after World Tour (counting Metallica and Greatest Hits as “expansions” rather than main releases), and with Rock Band eschewing full sequels in favour of downloadable content it goes up against last year’s Rock Band 2 (or, for European Wii owners, next year’s Rock Band 2, not that I’m going to keep harping on about that or anything). Guitar Hero 5 doesn’t do anything too radical, but generally spruces things up from World Tour: there’s a single loading screen to skip rather than having to furiously mash the green button 27 times to actually get to the game, the gig venue lists are clearer, the old favourite characters are back with unlockable outfits (despite “create a rocker” being almost as fully featured as the Champions Online character creator, the console interface is pretty clunky when working through hundreds of possible outfit options). The whole song list is open for quick play from the start, and it’s much easier to jump straight into playing, swap players and difficulties without having to backtrack through assorted menus, and, if you have the peripherals, you can have any combination of four instruments allowing for that four-drummer version of Ring of Fire you’ve always wanted to try.

As well as making things much more accessible, Guitar Hero 5 throws in something for the more achiever-centric in the form of Challenges. While playing in career mode each song has an additional challenge for either one of the instruments or the whole band, such as the guitarist whammying notes for a certain duration, the bassist up-strumming a certain number of notes, or the band maintaining a score multiplier. Challenges have Gold, Platinum and Diamond levels of success, offering a potential extra three stars over the main song performance, and they unlock extras as you go.

Song-wise it’s the most mixed bag yet, there should be something for almost everyone, but by the same token it’d be pretty unusual to find someone who loves everything. I’m finding it good so far, and enjoying being introduced to some interesting new stuff (the strength of a disc full of songs over DLC) as well as playing along to classics. There has been one sour note, though: “Bring the Noise 20XX” isn’t a patch on Public Enemy’s original or the version with Anthrax; Zakk Wylde’s riffing is fine in itself but doesn’t fit around the lyrics at all, most disappointing and puts a right crimp on my Chuck D impressions, but still. GH5 also emulates a welcome feature from Rock Band, the ability to import songs from previous games and DLC compatibility, albeit with a lower percentage of songs being transferable (only 35 songs from World Tour and 21 from Greatest Hits so far, possibly with more to come later). I haven’t been able to test this yet, though, as the European Wii music store hasn’t been available over the launch weekend. Annoyingly the only six songs of World Tour DLC that you can’t use are the Hendrix songs, the biggest chunk of my DLC library, but the Hendrix estate has always been strict on licensing conditions with those songs, and those songs only, always using the Hendrix avatar in World Tour (not present in GH5). Speaking of avatars… I’m sure you’ve heard the fun and games over Kurt Cobain being a playable character, which I can’t say bothers me nearly as much as some other people; John Lydon’s advertising butter, Iggy Pop is flogging insurance after all.

Overall, then, a solid development of the series, well worth picking up for anybody with a set of World Tour instruments unless you really can’t stand the bulk of the song list.

The Beatles: Rock Band is a slightly different kettle of fish. Or the same kettle, but with different fish in it. From the purely pressing-coloured-buttons-in-time-to-music perspective it’s fine; technically I believe the only thing it really adds to the genre is three-part vocal harmonies, but that’s not really the point. The point is it’s The Beatles, in the Beatle-iest game ever made (admittedly there isn’t really much competition there). Where the Guitar Hero Aerosmith and Metallica games had songs from other artists and were generally structured as games, with a loose story following some of the band’s major gigs but the songs themselves arranged by difficulty, The Beatles: Rock Band includes only Beatles songs, 45 of them (with more coming as DLC), arranged chronologically. I previously linked to a New York Times article that goes into the care taken over the production of the game, with clinking-teacup ambience added to fragments of studio chat for the in-game Abbey Road sessions; glorious dreamscapes kick in when playing the later songs, transporting the band out of the studio. It’s all very lovely.

There are slight quibbles, from both a Beatles and Rock Band perspective. From the former, it’s undoubtedly a sanitised version of history with no acrimonious break-up, the band always playing together, Ringo on the drums (even if McCartney played them on the song in question). From the latter, the sanctity of the material means you play the songs as they were, no drum fills, no whammy, and no audible effect when you kick in overdrive/”Beatlemania”. Neither seems a particularly major loss to me, though.

The attention to detail is superb, but it’s generally just a slightly more specific evolution of band-centric games rather than a revolution (number nine) in the genre; for a die-hard Metallica fan the opportunity to play the motion-capped band at Tushino Airfield in Guitar Hero: Metallica is probably as appealing as a die-hard Beatles fan getting the opportunity to play Shea Stadium. A more significant difference is that from the very beginning guitar games have been pitched at hard rock/metal fans, but The Beatles: Rock Band has a different profile and target market, potentially spreading the joy of plastic instruments (Matron) further than ever before. In newspapers and the music press, TB:RB is sneaking out of the “Games” ghetto into the wider “Arts” sections, with predictable results; there’s the usual barrage, occasionally in the reviews themselves, always in online comment sections, of “learn a real instrument” from people labouring under the illusion that players labour under the illusion they’re really in The Beatles. Newsflash, folks: the (vast overwhelming majority) of plastic instrument players no more believe they’re actually playing music than somebody playing a racing game with a steering wheel and pedals believes they’re a Formula 1 driver moving around a track. Enough of that before I get cross.

Veering too far the other way and declaring the game of massive cultural importance also seems wide of the mark; it’s possible TB:RB will introduce new players to gaming who’d never thought about it before, but just as World of Warcraft’s massive subscriber numbers don’t seem to have translated into a a similar upsurge in interest in other MMOGs, and Wii Sports drove sales of the console itself but not so much interest in other Wii games, I’m not sure it’ll have a more lasting effect. Last week’s games charts saw Guitar Hero 5 at number one followed by Colin McRae: Dirt 2 and Batman: Arkham Asylym, with The Beatles: Rock Band in at number four; the hefty cost of a console plus instruments might well be putting a dampener on totally new gamers rushing to pick it up, or it may just be a slow burner.

For myself, at the risk of being branded a Partridge-esque Beatles phillistine (“I’d have to say my favourite Beatles album is… The Best of The Beatles”) my collection doesn’t stretch much past old taped copies of the Red and Blue compilations, which in a way is what the game represents too, so I’ve been really enjoying it. I’ll have to find some non-gaming Beatles fans to see their reaction to it sometime.

Monday 14 September 2009

Thought for the day.

Unlike the humorous-then-tedious accidental sword swishes that are regularly heard in DDO as people forget that left-mouse defaults to attack and not camera movement, the advantage to Lord of the Rings Online is that nobody will realise how many times you have tried to tumble your character away from an enemy when you get the two games confused for the umpteenth time.

Long live the New Old Flesh.

I blame the me of yesterday completely. He who, in that wanton curiosity for experimentation justly ascribed to the youths of the day before today, decided to download and install the Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited client on a whim. Not to play now of course, but to tuck away ready for when time and circumstances allowed. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t at this moment be faced with a glistening red icon on my desktop that pulses and throbs and moans at me, the desktop equivalent of the hallucinatory writhing TV from the film Videodrome.

Thus I sat on Friday evening, my own Max Renn under the control of the MMOdrome virus with no Bianca O’Blivion to reprogram my malignant massively multiplayer madness, staring at the icon on the desktop which had now manifested itself into my reality as some moist and fleshy thing. I look down in astonishment – through one of those slow motion camera pans – to my hand which is no longer human but an electro-organic amalgam of PC mouse, flesh, tubes and wire. The veins in my arm bulge unnaturally, pumping blood into this gruesome handmouse and down into the thrumming heart of the PC. I move the handmouse in horror, and as I do so I notice the cursor on the screen, now rendered in three disturbingly phallic dimensions, move in accordance with my gesture. The icon flexes and ripples as it senses the proximity of the phallicursor, and somewhere behind me: the muffled wails of a hundred thousand souls in tormented ecstasy. I move the cursor inexorably towards the icon, and the pulsing of each quickens. They pull towards one another as though magnetised, an attraction that was spawned in the darkness and warmth at the birth of all things, and as the cursor penetrates the gaping space of the icon, the fingerbutton of my handmouse spasms and electrical impulses light up the pleasure centres of my soul as the instructions for creation are injected into the womb of the PC and, nine seconds later, a game is born to my eyes. Then, darkness…

I woke up the next morning with a level 2 dwarf monk called Mun Ki, and a serious hangover.

I’m safe in assuming that it happens like this for everyone though, right?

Friday 11 September 2009

I'm going to tell you how it's going to be

I have indeed got The Beatles: Rock Band (despite the lack of Wiimote waggling “bed-in” mini game), and been Fab-ing it right up; Guitar Hero 5 then turned up last night in what’s widely being referred to as “The Point That Even I’ve Hit Plastic Instrument Game Saturation” (“Though I’ll Still Get Rock Band 2 For The DLC” (“If They Ever Release It For The Wii In The UK” (“Which Is Looking Increasingly Unlikely”))).  I had a quick blast through the first venue, which includes the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil (mostly playing the piano part on guitar, quite tricky for a first tier song).

Somehow, overnight, my subconscious decided the two games would make the perfect mash-up when combined with an 80s video tape commercial, and this morning I woke up from an animated skeleton singing the Scotch advert song, itself of course based on the heavy Bo Diddley beat Stones version of Not Fade Away, to the tune of Taxman, with the Beatles doing harmonies:

I’m going to tell you how it will be
(Taxman!)
With Scotch’s lifetime guarantee
(Taxman!)
Tape want you want both night and day
(Taxman!)
And re-record not fade away, re-record not fade away, re-record not fade away…

I tried to work out what it might mean, but Freud’s Traumdeutung is strangely quiet on the subject…

Thursday 10 September 2009

Wii Can Work It Out.

So Zoso, being the fake plastic rock junky that he is, has recently purchased the Wii version of The Beatles: Rock Band. Actually, he has progressed a large part of the way through the game, and so in a KiaSA exclusive we can now confirm that you don’t, in fact, get to a point in the game where you break up with the rest of the band and then spend the rest of your days waggling your Wiimote in bed with Yoko Ono.

So I guess he won that bet.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Never was anything great achieved without danger.

“Melmoth throws himself fully in to the method of a newbie, going so far as to pretend for half the instance that he doesn’t realise hunters get a frost trap. Even when he finally ‘remembers’, getting a polymorph penguin frozen in the trap is clearly not a mistake, we are just taking a ‘belt and braces’ approach to crowd control. All we need now is a rogue to sap the frozen polymorphed mob to make really sure he’s not going to cause trouble.”

Tiger Ears provides a splendid and light-hearted possible explanation as to why I don’t often get invited to the cool kids’ parties. However, I would have it known that Zoso used to play a Rogue in World of Warcraft but is currently abstaining from the game; so you see it’s not that I’m a total noob, it is in fact all just part of Melmoth’s Master Machination.

Yes.

The Goodly Guide to: A Life Well Wasted.

A Life Well Wasted is subtitled “An Internet radio show about videogames and the people who love them”. You might be fooled into thinking that ‘Internet radio show’ was just marketing speak for ‘podcast’, and that the show was merely another general hour or so of light harmless banter by one or more personages who are excited enough about the subject to be bothered to record themselves talking about it and then publish their output on the Web.

You would be quite, quite wrong. A Life Well Wasted is utterly deserving of its subtitle, in fact I’d go so far as to say that it’s rather modest, and ‘Internet videogame documentary’ would be closer to the mark.

It’s not just the professional audio quality of the show, where speech is always clear and unmolested by external sound sources, it’s that host and producer Robert Ashley has an impeccable sense of timing, a fine taste in musical breaks and backgrounds, and an ear for the perfect sound bite. The production quality is absolutely first rate, the interviews and main narrative are interspersed with the perfect level of background audio, be it atmospheric music or just the general ambience of wherever he happens to be recording from. The interviews are, frankly, captivating. Whether you are interested in the particular gaming sub-genre under discussion or not, you can’t help but be drawn in to the conversation as Ashley asks insightful and searching questions that, although appearing simple, actually drive right to the heart of the subject, which is clearly evidenced by how passionately his interviewees respond. The interviews are cut, faded in and out, the audio output generally played with, and then interspersed with asides and general narrative from the host, whose soothing ‘surfer dude’ accent and laconic style bring an ambience to the show that both relaxes the listener while at the same time captivating them. Not only that, but Ashley isn’t afraid to just let people talk in the classic documentary style, without the need for the rigid structure of a question/response interview at all times; this can be a dangerous thing to do – giving people freedom to run with a topic that they enjoy – but again his expert editing cuts away the chaff and leaves behind only the pure whole grain of the point at hand.

The only downside to the show is that episodes are few and far between, but given the amount of effort that must go into researching and recording interviews, let alone putting the show together and then polishing it until it glistens, it is a disappointment that is easily forgiven. Each time a new show arrives in the iTunes feed it’s like a an unexpected gift has been sent your way.

If you don’t have this on your podcast subscription list, and you are in any way interested in gaming, then go and do so now. You’re missing out on one of the best audio gaming shows on the Internet.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

And we'll fly and we'll fall and we'll burn

Clicking around the newly-imported archives I ran across an old post of mine from MMOG Musings about character builds and the straightforwardness of Lord of the Rings Online compared to City of Heroes, World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons Online. Coincidentally it’s something I’ve been contemplating again in light of the classless society that is Champions Online.

The initial options in Champions don’t seem too daunting. You’re offered fourteen Frameworks of powers (Fire, Ice, Single Blade, Power Armour, Supernatural, Darkness etc.), you pick the one that seems most appropriate to your character (or go crazy and pick a combination for a custom framework), and get two attacks. The first is an “energy builder”, a low damage auto attack that, as the name suggests, builds up your energy, and the second is a more damaging attack that requires a certain amount of energy. This avoids falling down into The Zero-Button Phase (the City of Heroes tutorial as a Controller was quite painful back in the old days, when you could end up with one Hold and one “Heal Other” power and spend half an hour slowly punching frozen thugs into submission), though The Two-Button Phase does last through the tutorial.

There are variations between the Frameworks: some attacks are melee, some ranged, some have additional status effects such as a chance to root or fear the target, so it’s not like the choices are utterly irrelevant. By the traditional taxonomy, though, whatever you choose you end up as “DPS”, whether blade-wielding assassin dealing death by micro cuts or mystic from the city of delusion firing mental blasts; it’s not the game-defining choice you usually have to make in character creation in a class-based game, where your selection generally maps to your role(s) for the rest of the game.

Having chosen your powers you get onto the properly difficult bit of character creation, the costume editor, and spend a good couple of hours tinkering with the sliders so your new born character doesn’t look like some exhibit from a muscle museum with sunburn, then another couple of hours weighing up the eye accessory options (are sunglasses a bit too showbiz for a member of the resistance trying to stage an uprising? Maybe a blast visor is more practical…) Then it’s off through the tutorial, and before long you’re feeling good at level five or six, and levelling up properly for the first time.

This is where things open out more. You need to pick stats to focus on (there’s a useful link in Syp’s handy tips on stat selection). You pick a travel power, and another of those starter tips is entirely correct: swinging *is* awesome. And in the game, ah. You also pick your next “proper” power; a couple of wiki pages go into the full technicalities but broadly, depending on pre-requisites, you could choose another attack (ranged or melee, single target or cone or AoE), or self-buff (active or passive, for boosting energy or damage), or a crowd control power (various roots and holds), or a healing power, or defensive power (passive, or active working in conjunction with the block system), or a pet summoning power (though they might be later on)… It must be a bit of a nightmare to balance, with so many combinations potentially leading to unintended results; I don’t imagine the early tweak to passive defences will be the last change to cause forum hysteria and mass wailing that characters fell less “super”, but being invincible isn’t a very practical base starting point for challenging gameplay.

The classless system is a real fillip for both roleplayers, who can escape the traditional class constraints and select the powers they believe most appropriate for their character, and powergamers, who can really go crazy with the min-maxing after checking out all the small print of every power. If you’re a roleplaying powergamer you can have some fun if an “uber” power seems like an unnatural selection for your character: perhaps the beams you’re shooting out of your hand aren’t flames but lasers from a glove-cannon, or starlight, or strawberry jam heated to unbearable temperatures (take a bow Cream Tea Man, a baker who, when not entirely sober, suffered a blackout and fell into his scone mixer which was then struck with cosmic rays…)

Actually, talking of roleplaying, another general problem with the superhero RPG genre like the “everyone’s a hero” issue is the whole business of gaining levels, and thus powers. It can make sense for some origins (perhaps you retreat to your hero-Cave between levels and come up with a new gadget or two), but if your story is that you gained your powers after being catapulted through a supermassive black hole it’s a bit harder to explain why new abilities keep manifesting themselves (maybe its space dementia and you just forgot the rest to start with…)

Anyway, the upshot of this all is a massive choice of powers for your hero, offering unparalleled freedom, and no “tank” or “healer” pigeonhole to get stuck in (I’ve seen comments that, in the later game, a team benefits from having a more conventional “holy trinity”-type setup, but I don’t have first hand experience of anything like that yet.) Bliss, right? Even if you’re a perfectionist and realise you made a mistake somewhere along the line the tailor and the respec (or “retcon”) system allow you to change everything about your character apart from the name, so long as you have enough in-game money (it seems pretty expensive, so not really practical to be endlessly changing your powers or appearance unless bankrolled by an extremely lucky auction house sale).

Oddly, then, I’m having a problem settling on a character. Deciding between so many powers is difficult, I’m not even trying to work out optimal builds or come up with a map of the problematique, but it’s not a great issue as I’m sure I could scrape up enough cash for a retcon if needed. It’s more that where in another game I’d try a few classes, and one of them would generally click in the way it played so become numero uno, in Champions I can build any character however I like to to suit my style. Characters are therefore more about concept than role or play style, and I’m coming up with a bunch of them, and having trouble choosing. I’ve never suffered altoholism like it before, perhaps it’s long overdue! This wouldn’t be a problem, but the tutorial is getting a little over-familiar (especially after a couple of re-rolls to either fix power selections without paying for a retcon or change names), so I’m going to have to make a decision before too long or go mad at the prospect of re-running the same content…

(Special bonus contest: see if you can guess which band I saw last week and the 30 song titles of theirs embedded in this post…  at least a couple stick out like sore thumbs)

Men are only as good as their technical development allows them to be.

It was upon listening to the Gamers with Jobs podcast #150 that I was struck by a thought on the current trend of development in MMOs.

The conversation had digressed slightly from the listener’s initial question about voice acting in games and onto the more general topic of ‘game character as actor’ and how games go about achieving this. While talking about why they had, in general, left out character facial animation in Bioshock when it clearly would have been complementary to the excellent voice acting in the game, special guest of the show Ken Levine said:

“If you can’t do it right, then you probably shouldn’t do it.”

In his opinion the short sharp motto that should be adhered to by any developer who wishes to produce a game that presents a high level of quality is:

“Don’t do shit you can’t do.”

In this case his example being the fact that 2K Boston removed facial animation from Bioshock because they felt they couldn’t afford to produce it to a high enough standard.

In another comment, which perhaps cuts more directly to the heart of MMO development issues, he points out that:

“There’s very few games that can afford to do everything well.”

Granted, at the time he was talking about games like Bioshock, but is this a lesson that MMO developers have yet to learn? I wonder if MMOs perhaps try to do too much for the initial release, and in doing so end up with a less than sublime release which has many broken aspects to it, which is actually more detrimental to building that vital initial foundation of the game’s community than if they had launched without those broken features at all. Any serious MMO is developed with the ‘long run’ in mind, they’re a very special genre of game which can keep players not only interested (because games like Starcraft and Diablo II manage this just fine) but also paying-to-play for many years at a time; would a potential strategy be to release a very solid core game, where the developer does the basics, but does them very well, on the understanding that they will then continue to add further elements to the game after release?

I’m not talking about content expansions here, or not exclusively content expansions, but whether an MMO could release with just the fundamentals that we have come to expect from such a game: a way to create a character, and a way to develop that character. If the production quality of that game was outstanding, of the sort of quality we’d expect from a console game where, until recently, show-stopping bugs couldn’t be patched out, therefore things had to work ninety nine percent of the time out of the box, would we be prepared to invest and play while we waited for the developer to concentrate on, say, a complex and innovative crafting system if the game initially just had a slick combat system in place? I think the answer might be surprising. Just consider how many players are happy to butt their heads against the same end-game raid content in WoW when it’s made even slightly accessible and provides suitable Skinner Box rewards. So many players, in fact, that Blizzard haven’t got the hardware in place to deal with the increased number of players now trying to enter dungeon instances, and “Additional instances cannot be launched” has very much become the mantra of the frustrated World of Warcraft dungeoneer.

Would MMO players accept a game that did one thing, but did it brilliantly well, with the promise of further elements of the game being added after the fact? Should MMO developers stop trying to do everything at once, because outside of Blizzard and SoE there probably isn’t one of them that can afford to do everything well?

I look at Second Life and wonder whether it wasn’t ahead of its time in many ways, and thus shows us the potential for an MMO to, at least initially, concentrate on doing just one thing well. It obviously tried to do something that the technology of the time was barely able to deliver to the end user, but because they concentrated on that one thing and made it the focus of their entire game, they produced something that kept a wealth of players interested and invested far beyond what the graphical and technical limitations of the game would lead one to believe was possible.

Monday 7 September 2009

Back once again with the ill behaviour.

Well, the DNS changeover seems to be taking effect, the new site is certainly visible for me now, so hopefully the rest of you will catch up in short order.

Just popping this post up to check that the RSS feed is still alive.

Then on with the show.

Thursday 3 September 2009

Playin’ for keeps is still playin’, mon ami, so take a card…

And now we return you to the regularly scheduled program: The Continuing Adventures of Melmoth in MMOland.

My foray into the lands of Middle Earth hit a temporary setback recently when I decided to have a little tinker with the Warden class for a brief change of pace and to see what it was all about. Twenty-odd levels later and I really can’t see myself going back to my Champion any time soon. My frustrations at race/class restrictions in MMOs continued when I wasn’t able to play a dwarf Warden, and although I know that the Lore Lords of LotRO are, even as I type, activating their rings of power and mounting their steeds in order to ride me down, I can’t help but feel that this is quite a pointless restriction, even for a game such as LotRO that attempts to stick to the letter of the Lore where it can. Lore with a capital ‘l’, to show that the only correct way to enunciate it is to holler it in a Brian Blessed fashion whilst slamming one’s fist down on a nearby desk. As I bemoaned on Twitter, it’s all well and good standing by your convictions with regard to the Lore, as long as you don’t then ignore the Lore at the drop of a hat when it suits your game development needs. Which, let’s face it, is what just about every MMO developer does in the end anyway.

Lore is a tenuous beast at best. Take Captains for example, they can only come from the race of men (and women; thanks Stan), an entirely acceptable and understandable premise, because “that’s how it was in the books!”, as the Lore Lords would cry. Captains can also, however, magically heal their allies by shouting things. “Ah!” cry the Lore Lords, “they are not healing, they are boosting the morale of their fellowship through vocal encouragement. Also in the books!”, a sentence which is probably punctuated with some more high speed fist-desk interaction. To which my response is: if you honestly feel that someone yelling encouraging words at me when I am being stabbed in the face by the swords of five orcs is really, honestly going to boost my morale in any measurable way, I have a graph plotting the axes of Morale and Near-Fatal Stab Wounds that might enlighten you. I’m pretty sure that, in the Lore, Sauron was not trying to depress the lands of Middle Earth into submission. Yeah, pretty sure that Stabby Death was involved in a huge number of cases.

So of course, being that I was required to stick to the Lore, I had to pick an appropriate race for a spear-wielding tank class, so I chose that well known stalwart tackler of multitudinous bloodthirsty enemies: the Hobbit.

Yeah.

The Warden class is a thing of wonder, though. A light tank class, primarily to be found wielding a shield and one-handed weapon (traditionally the spear) and with the ability to launch javelins at their foes from range, the Warden is perhaps most easily described as an off-tank ranger. The class comes with a wide scope of abilities, from temporary stealth, to ambush attacks that stun foes and then allow you to follow up with a powerful strike against them, to run speed boosting travel abilities. The primary system of attacks though is based on what are called gambits, and it really is a system that is a joy to use.

The Warden has three primary attack options: Attack, Block and Taunt. They are more correctly known as Spear, Shield and Fist respectively, but I find that using those terms can lead to gambit conversations such as “You’ve got to fist him twice before you can get in behind and spear him” and it all gets very messy, especially when you find that Jones has taken you literally and you now need to prise him off of that orc because after its initial surprise it really seems to be rather enjoying things.

Each of the primary combat abilities that you gain is associated with one of the three attack options, logically weapon attacks are associated with ‘Spear’, shield attacks are associated with ‘Shield’ and taunt abilities are associated with the curiously chosen clenched ‘Fist’ (fight the power!). There is also a secondary set of skills – they even have their own tab in your character window – which you learn as you progress in level, and these are known as gambits. A typical gambit will perform a slightly more powerful manoeuvre, perhaps with an additional minor bonus, such as a buff or heal over time. Each gambit also has a number of icons associated with it, each of which being one of Spear, Shield or Fist; it is the way in which you trigger these abilities which is the fun part. As part of your basic skill set you have an ability that, on its own, performs a mediocre attack. This unassuming skill, however, is actually the Transformer of Warden skills: it is other skills in disguise. When you use your normal attacks, you also, in addition to the attack itself, queue up the associated gambit icon in a little UI element unique to the Warden. When you have queued up a set of gambit icons such that they match the pattern of an associated gambit – order is entirely important here – your Transformer attack changes its icon to match that of the gambit, and you may then use it to activate that gambit’s ability.

Part of the beauty of the system comes from the fact that you very quickly end-up with a vast number of abilities, and yet you only need one quickbar slot for the activating ability and, as it currently stands for me in the low level twenties, one slot for each of the attack, shield and taunt abilities, and yet I easily have twelve or more gambits available to me. Now this system does rely on the player being able to memorise the combinations of attacks that trigger each gambit, if I want to increase my shield block values because I’m taking a heavy beating, for example, then it’s an entirely different combo from the one that enables me to do an AoE taunt and damage over time. Again though, the system works around this issue well, because there’s a beautiful general synergy between the basic attacks and what gambits they trigger. For example, you know that performing two shield attacks in a row is going to open up a gambit which will perform some sort of greater ability which is shield-based, in that particular instance the gambit will apply a temporary buff which boosts your block values. It’s a system that is intuitive, simple to understand and yet difficult to master when under the pressure of intense combat. It’s superb.

As you gain levels with the Warden the initial two gambit slots eventually becomes three, and you move from the simple one-two gambits, onto gambits that require three icons in the correct order before you can activate them using the Transformer skill. You quickly find, however, that many of the two-icon combos then lead on to a more powerful three-icon combo, but again they perform attacks and abilities that follow the same theme as the two-icon combo, such that you know that if you perform the two-icon combo. that starts a heal over time ability, you can add another suitable icon to turn it into a more powerful heal, perhaps with an added secondary effect such as a minor damage over time. It really is an elegant system, a powerful system and a clever system. Is my admiration for this system coming through loud and clear? I hope so.

It’s also worth mentioning that, in the heat of a hectic combat, hitting all these skills in exactly the right order can be difficult, or you may find yourself half-way into a damage gambit when you decide that really you need to be throwing up another self heal gambit instead. Turbine has you covered in that situation too, because one of your non-attack abilities allows you to clear the gambit bar of all icons and begin the gambit chain afresh. It still takes time to build a gambit, because you have to execute each attack in the chain to queue up the appropriate icons, so there is plenty of tactical choice required in just when to start healing, when to start buffing, and when to build-up a nice heavy hitting damage attack, but when it all starts to go a bit pear-shaped, you have the option to reset and change tack without any frustration.

You’ll notice I used ‘combo’ several times above, and it was deliberate, because the way the combat feels is very much akin to the system in arcade fighting games such as Tekken, only slowed down to the more traditional MMO combat pace that exists in LotRO; and also without the need to go searching around the Internet for a million arcane FAQs, each professing to know exactly how to perform a Spinebreaker combo, and each one getting the button order slightly wrong.

The other benefit to the way this system was designed is that, unless I’m mistaken, Turbine kept the standard attack animations down to a minimum in order to allow the building of gambits to be quick and responsive. The last thing you want is to have to wait a long time between each attack when building up to a badly needed heal gambit, the delay is inherent in the gambit system itself (in the fact that you have to activate each of the individual attacks first) so there’s little need to restrain the activation of skills with a particularly stringent swing timer. Or so it seems to me at least, and it is some of the most engaging combat that I have had in a fantasy MMO in a long while.

So if you play LotRO, you haven’t given the Warden a shot, and you think a slightly more thoughtful melee combat experience would suit you, I would thoroughly recommend it.

Just remember that you can’t play a dwarf, even if you want to. It’s the LORE.

To the cynics.

There is returning to WoW in order to be reminded of the good times that you had, and there is returning to WoW in an attempt to relive those times.

They are two different things, and it would behove you to confirm which is being undertaken before being smarmy about it.

If after being proffered the former option you still think it is a waste of time and foolish, you have my deepest sympathies; and tell me, when exactly did you last have contact with your soul? Perhaps we can help you find it.

Thought for the day.

Zoso expressed his wonder at the many epic stories of struggle against adversity that are told by the players of EVE Online, triggered by the splendid series The Five Year Spree by Jim Rossignol over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

It’s one of those things though – like reading about intrepid arctic explorers – that’s absolutely bloody fascinating, and which fires the imagination and massages the soul, but also confirms that these people are bloody mad and that I’m glad I was gifted with a healthily sized sanity gland.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

On the far side.

This side: a Massively post titled NATO seeks Second Life tenders.

The far side: Po the panda gets hit in the groin and cries “My tenders!”

Either way, I think NATO will find what it is looking for.

You can never step into the same river; for new waters are always flowing on to you.

After the long and drawn-out interactive electronic entertainment drought of the summer, where the bounteous river Gaming is deprived of content and dwindles to a mere trickle maintained only by the delta of hype tributaries that continue to feed it, we now begin to see the autumnal deluge of new releases, which rained down on the Beta mountain ranges not so long ago, slowly gather speed as they wend their way down the steep slopes and out onto the flood plain of launch titles. And as the river Gaming begins to regain its strength, returning life to the dishevelled and starved media that line its banks and drink deeply of its waters, the native inhabitants of the river begin to return; here and there gamers frolic once more in the seemingly illimitable expanse of the rejuvenated river, their joyous cries to one another filling the Autumn air with the sound of rapture.

PC and TV screens flow again with the neon light of the river as it streams out and lights-up the faces of gratified gamers across the wide expanse of the world.

Or in short: new games, woo yeah!

Champions Online has now set ‘engines to power, turbines to speed’ and is battling with the evil forces of General Release, where it seems to be winning on the whole. Certainly it’s been a smooth launch for a vast majority of players as far as I can tell, and my experiences with the game so far have been almost entirely positive, with Lord of the Rings Online being the only other MMO springing to mind that has done so well on its opening few days. Still, the game is not without its issues – as is the remit of any true MMO at launch – and Syp reports on at least one rather game-stopping issue for some people, this one regarding frame rate frinkiness.

As for me, well I’ve made it out of the character creator for long enough to get my main character to level fifteen and have thus made my way through the first two introductory zones and into Millennium City and the game proper. I do intend to post a lengthier disquisition on the game, but for now the important thing to say is that this isn’t City of Heroes 2.0. No really, it isn’t. Yes, there are a lot of ideas that have been inherited from City of Heroes, clearly there are. In fact there are some audio assets that seem to be exact copies, for example the ‘vomit’ attack sound of the Qulaar aliens you meet at the very start of the tutorial area are, to my ear, identical to the Vahzilok vomit sound effect from CoH. The character creator is also evidently a spiritual successor to its CoH counterpart, but if saying that a few ideas taken from CoH and improved upon make Champions Online nothing more than CoH 2.0, then we must also say that WoW is nothing more than EQ 3.0. Champions is a very different game to CoH in many fundamental ways. Take combat for one: in CoH you press an attack, wait for that power to fire, then press another attack. If an attack is on cool-down you can queue it up and wait for the power to recharge, at which point it will fire and go back on cool-down. It’s a very traditional PC MMO system, whereas Champions is, as has been pointed out elsewhere already, a Console MMO system: it is fast, it is furious and it is a lot of fun, assuming you aren’t set in your PC MMO ways. As one example of the difference between the two, many attack powers don’t have a cool-down and therefore you can mash the attack as fast as your keyboard and latency will allow, which is, to Cryptic’s credit, really pretty fast and very responsive. In fact, people should really be quite impressed with just how responsive the attack system is in Champions. It’s one of the things that I secretly (not so secretly now, of course) think made WoW great: you press a button, you get a response to that button press. Straight away. Not when some special internal cool-down occurs. Not when the game feels like fitting you in to its diary. If the power is on cool-down, you can’t use it, if it isn’t on cool-down then you can use it Right Now. It’s probably my biggest issue with combat in LotRO at the moment – at least with my Champion, the Warden seems less effected – in that I can press an ability and then seemingly have to wait an age for it to activate. Maybe it’s based on the swing timer, maybe it’s an internal timer, I don’t know, but it makes having an interrupt ability that is used in response to an enemy’s attack nigh-on pointless. Champions also requires you to actively block enemy attacks, you can get away with not bothering to do so with their standard attacks, but if you see the enemy winding up a big power (as indicated by a comic-style BLAM icon above their head) then you’d better get those shields up, Captain. It makes the game more like an arcade beat’em-up, and as far as super heroism goes, it feels a lot more true to the genre than standing on the spot and pressing ‘1’ in CoH. And maybe a bit of ‘2’, just to spice things up. With the occasional excitement of pressing ‘6’,’7′,’8′,’ALT-1′,’ALT-2′,’ALT-3′ and ‘ALT-4’ if a mob knocks all of your toggle powers off. Of course CoH isn’t really as staid as all that, because they managed to make the fights hectic enough that it feels as though you’re doing a lot. As a final thought, another MMO which tried to mix the combat up a bit and went for a more frenetic option was Age of Conan, also slated to be a console MMO at one point, and again the combat in that game was a lot of fun if you were open and receptive to that sort of thing. More on Champions once I’ve had a chance to play my character to a higher level.

Other new games that are now causing a quite audible ping on my game radar are Aion, which I ordered some time ago on a whim and am not sure I will get a chance to play for a while; Batman: Arkham Asylum, about which I have heard what can only be described as the unrestrained screams of orgasmic release; Section 8, which has been pimped quite heavily by Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and seems to be gaining momentum in the blogger hive mind; and last but not least Dungeons & Dragons Online: Unlimited, which I have yet to look into properly but would like to return to at some point, having played the original on release. I think it would need a decent static group to make the most of it though, so I’ll probably dabble in the free section of the game and then determine where to go from there.

The only problem is that until recently I’ve been happily subsisting in the isolated ponds of LotRO and WoW, those enduring habitats that remain a watering hole of gaming life when all other options have dried out. I’m not entirely sure I’m prepared for the rapid influx of fresh gaming waters, and I’m probably at risk of being swamped by the oncoming wave of new ideas and thoughts, sights and sounds. I need to anchor myself, and I shall do so with the next post, where I’ll talk about my ongoing adventures in LotRO, and my recent return with Tiger Ears to the lands of Azeroth, for one final fond tour of its lands before they are sundered by what one imagines is the wrath of a development team who, after being labelled the ‘Blizzard B Team’ for so long, have finally reached their enrage timer.

Tuesday 1 September 2009

We are the Champions my friend

I keep meaning to blog about Champions Online, but then end up playing it instead. I’m really enjoying it at the moment, but then I can’t think of an MMOG that hasn’t been good for at least a couple of weeks, so we’ll have to see how it lasts. One thing that I think could really work in its favour long term is the server-less-ness; though Guild Wars has had a similar model for years, almost all other games have suffered from the problem of getting stuck on a different server, or indeed continent, from people you might want to group up with. Reinforcing the social side, Cryptic have already got some impressive out-of-game elements in place; OK, so the “constantly spam Twitter until all my followers bugger off” aspect of the /socialmedia option might be a little misplaced, but logging in to the Champions homepage you’re presented with your friends list together with their status, and the ability to add friends to that list, very handy for seeing if people are around without having to load up the game. (Unfortunately once in game the friends list has a slightly annoying habit of vanishing, but I’m sure they’re working on that.)

Tip of the hat to Sente as well, who noticed a “My Characters” option on the page, which sure enough takes you to a list of your characters with lots of profile options, so I don’t even have to go back into the game to get a couple of character pictures:

On the left: Eric the Half a Bot, inspired entirely by a Python song title and the fact that you can have different options on the left and right hand side of your character. He wields two pistols and two swords and has lightning reflexes, which I think you’ll agree entirely naturally follows on from having half his limbs replaced. On the right: Tombstone Blue, inspired entirely by a Dylan song title. At least, it would be Tombstone Blue if that was allowed as a name, but I guess there’s a de-Marvel-ifier working behind the scenes objecting to “Tombstone”, so I need to come up with something else.

Another social aspect is the Guild, or Supergroup; without traditional servers, it would’ve been really nice to see a new approach to guilds, perhaps with your global identity able to be associated with multiple groups of interest, but it seems that Champions uses the normal one character, one supergroup approach, at least for now. Me n’ Melmoth have hooked up with Rock, Paper, Spandex, which should be fun.

Speaking of things Rock and Paper-y, Jim Rossignol is putting up a beautiful series of Eve articles, a retrospective of his corp (parts one and two available so far), and according to the latest RPS Electric Wireless Show (no. 27) his book “This Gaming Life” will soon be available in paperback, so that’s one for the Christmas list.