Friday 30 October 2009

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once.

One minute: Sixty seconds. The time it took to write this post.

One work minute: Sixty minutes. The time it takes the clock hand to tick that final division so that you can go home.

One MMO minute: Sixty milliseconds. The time it takes to do ‘one last thing, it’ll just take a minute’ that results in you waking your partner two hours later when you try to sneak sheepishly into bed.

Upgrade time

Just to prove I’m not falling under the sway of the oh-so-beguiling XBox 360, I’ve decided it’s about time to upgrade my PC. On the plus side the time between mandatory-if-you-want-to-play-the-latest-game upgrades is getting longer, it used to be pretty much every two years you’d need a complete new rig but I’ve had my current PC for a fair few years now, and with a processor upgrade and couple of graphics card changes (mostly prompted by previous components falling over) it’s still a reasonable system. On the downside, it’s getting ever more difficult to actually decide on what to upgrade to.

For our first PC in the late 80s there was basically one choice, the Amstrad PC1512, though there were two options: two 5.25″ disk drives and a mono display, or one disk drive and a colour display (it was another £100 or more for two disk drives *and* a colour display). I lobbied hard for the colour display (doubtless suggesting it would’ve been vital to some aspect of homework, though I can’t think what now; better for drawing graphs for maths, maybe), but thankfully was overruled. With the display being CGA capable of four colours it didn’t really matter so much whether, after black and white, the other two were cyan and magenta or light gray and dark gray. Curse of the Azure Bonds, on the other hand, came on four (or five?) 5.25″ disks, and every encounter required about three disk swaps; I dread to think how many it would’ve needed with just the one drive.

By the time of the first upgrade the PC boom had kicked in and there were plenty of options for vendors in the adverts in PC Plus, Computer Shopper and Micro Mart, but spec wasn’t too difficult. Intel processors were the only game in town, graphics were just “VGA”, and the price of memory and hard drives meant you usually didn’t have much choice with a limited budget. After that rivals to Intel had started arriving, my third PC had a Cyrix chip, and then the graphics card was something to pay more attention to as 3D accelerators came in. Though computer magazines kept expanding with more and more adverts, it was still nothing compared to the array of options brought by the internet, so these days it’s not just Intel or AMD, it’s i3, i5, i7, Opteron, Phenom and all points between available at a variety of speeds, sometimes with yet more options of cores and lord knows what, and every one has someone singing its praises and someone else panning it for some reason. Graphics cards, well, if you’re not bamboozled by the array of cards out there and their ever-shifting alpha-numeric appellations, you’re just not trying. For the first couple of PCs the case never even crossed my mind. Later it was “desktop” or “tower”, now there are choices out the proverbial wazoo, with their own merits in aesthetics, size, cost, airflow, cable management… For every vendor out there, somebody has had a terrible experience of faulty components and rude staff, and somebody else is full of praise for helpful people and an amazing product. Plumping for a Dell would be a simple option, and result in a perfectly satisfactory box I’m sure, but after a particularly noisy unit a few years back, and with the PC sitting in the lounge, I like to select quiet components where possible, so it’s time to draw up a list of bits then try and find them all in stock somewhere. Wish me luck!

Thursday 29 October 2009

One murder makes a villain, millions a hero.

Rethgood the Redolent blinked sweat and blood from his eyes as he tugged his sword from the limp form at his feet. He staggered as he looked about himself, a haze of nausea welled up inside him as his head hummed from the blows it had received – a swarm of wasps buzzing around inside his head and stinging at his mind. The corners of the world closed in on him, and seeing no more wolves he finally dropped to his knees, placed broken hands into the white carpet that lay upon the grass as he heaved clouds of breath out into the cold morning air.

“Hey maaaaaaaaaaaaan. Like, what’s with all the rage?”

Rethgood looked up and saw an orc approaching from the trees to his right, he scrambled to gain his feet, slipped on the frosty ground and fell prone. Clutching at the grass with hands that stained the pristine canvas with crimson, he pulled himself away from the orc, whimpering to himself all the while.

“Duuuude! Like, wow, you killed all these wolves? Awwwww heck, man, why’d you do that? What have you got against the wolves man, they’re God’s creatures maaaaan, just like you and me…”

“You’re… mot… cweadure ob God” panted Rethgood, the words formed through a swollen mouth full of blood sounded slow and stupid to his ears.

“Oh hey maaaaan, don’t be like that. Don’t be all, like, Mr Angry. Relax, dude.”

“WELAX? I’b dyig here you gween fweak…” Rethgood choked on his anger and vomited blood down his front.

“Oh wow. Well man, maybe you shouldn’t have hurt those wolves man.”

“Wh… harghk… whad?”

“They weren’t doing no wrong. Just livin’ their lives here, like, in peace. With the nature an’ all, man, you know? We’re all happy here man, why’d you have to come along and bring your bad vibes? You’re, like, totally bringing the place down.”

“Thad wab the idea you gobbam monsder”

“Monster? Hey man, I’m not, like, the one who came charging in here killing all Big Mother N’s children. You’re like, totally bad karma man, you know? Like, bad mojo. You need to mellow man. Me-llowww.”

“Yo…. gaghk… you’re mad.”

“Mad? I suppose so man, we’re all a little mad you know? But you crazy folks keep coming in here and killing the innocent children of Gaia, man. We’ve all got a right to live. You people just need to chill, try to understand it from our point of view.”

Rethgood sobbed as the orc bent over him, he could feel the creature’s breath on the back of his neck. He tried to turn himself over, fend the creature off in some way, but his limbs had long stopped obeying his commands. He squeezed his eyes closed and waited for the inevitable.

The orc’s lips rolled back in a grin, huge tusks and pointed teeth framed in red velvet, drew its arm from behind its back and slowly, gently, placed a crown of daisies on Rethgood’s head.

“Peace, man.” it said.

Rethgood watched from one half-opened eye as the orc walked away, a wolf padded along beside it now and a hawk sat on its shoulder; the forest seemed to wrap its long branched arms tenderly about the orc as it melted away into the shadows.

Ever noticed how all the animals that attack you on sight never seem to have any problem with the humanoid NPCs in the area? I picture them all living in perfect hippy harmony, at one with nature and creation. Their lives are happy until adventurers come along and slaughter them wholesale because some stranger told them to.

Think of all the wildlife that we PCs kill during our adventuring lives because someone with a pocketful of gold compelled us. No wonder so many of the wild animals in MMOs attack us but leave everyone else alone.

Sometimes you have to wonder whether we’re not the heroes but the villains after all.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Previewlet: Torchlight.

Torchlight is to Diablo what Champions Online should have been to City of Heroes.

Where Champions Online inherited many ideas, themes, sound effects and such from City of Heroes, but changed some of the core game-play that made CoH so well loved and tried something new and brave, but which ultimately didn’t really work as well, Torchlight has taken everything that made Diablo great and built upon that with new features that just make the player smile at the simplicity and brilliance of the implementation.

Have no doubt, if you buy Torchlight you are buying Diablo 2.5; there’s the brooding, almost melancholy ambient music that drifts in and out of the periphery of your consciousness as you play through a level, and which is so close a tribute to the Diablo score that if you closed your eyes you might be hard pressed to tell which game was actually running on your PC; the piñata mobs that burst open and erupt loot all over the screen whenever you so much as look at them; scrolls of Town Portal and Identify; the disembodied voice of a strange old man that – slightly creepily – follows you around and provides narrative relief while you take a break from your excessive loot-candy highs. I haven’t found a Horadric Cube yet, but I’ve only played an hour or so. It’s there somewhere, I’m sure.

Games like Titan Quest tried to clone Diablo and tap into that rich vein of Blizzard devotees by presenting something that was familiar to them, whereas Torchlight unashamedly is Diablo, but with an up-to-date graphics engine and additional features that are different and unusual enough to tempt even those virtuous souls who are chastely saving their gaming cherry for Diablo 3. One simple and obvious example of a new and excellent feature is the pet companion that accompanies you everywhere you go, it is far more than a token addition to differentiate the game from others of the same ilk because there is an entire sub-game involved with making the best use of the functions that your pet provides. Suffice it to say that any player familiar with Diablo will feel immediately at home but still have plenty to learn and adapt to.

I haven’t played enough of Torchlight to go into an in-depth reviewlet yet, but the game has certainly impressed upon me enough to warrant mentioning it now, because if there are any of you who are wed to the Diablo series but are perhaps feeling that seven year itch, then Torchlight is quite possibly The Girl to spark your imagination.

Dare I say: it’s quite possibly more Diablo than Diablo 3 will be.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Every day is a fresh beginning, Every morn is the world made new.

Dateline Internet, October 2009. A Brigham Young University professor heads a recent study which reports that moral behaviour may be encouraged with nothing more than clean smells.

Elsewhere across the globe: the MMO blogosphere was turned into a barren wasteland earlier today when a new law came into effect mandating that all basements be equipped with air freshening equipment. The resultant ninety percent reduction in ninja looting and generally ‘being a smacktard’ in the World of Warcraft community meant that erstwhile bloggers had nothing to talk about other than the weather and which type of emote would be most correct when used to formally greet a new group member.

More details on the MMO Blogging Drought as we get them.

Reporting live for Oh MMO Emo News, I’m Melmoth Melmothson.

A yawn may not be polite, but at least it is an honest opinion.

Our regular Monday night group in Lord of the Rings Online, spearheaded by Messrs Van Hemlock and Shute, tackled the tenth book from volume one of the game’s epic storyline content. It was, as usual, an enjoyable evening, but this was due exclusively to the company of the fellows present, and certainly couldn’t be attributed to the game content that we were playing through.

Book Ten suffers from Yet Another Wandering Narrative Safari – a condition not uncommon in MMO design and certainly not exclusive to LotRO – it is categorised by large amounts of exposition with little-to-no action or adventure until the very end, and possibly occurs because the content designer spent the night before overdosing on re-runs of the X-Files. YAWNS is easily identified, but for those who may yet be unsure, I will outline a typical example for you now.

For an entirely accurate representation, the following should be played at twice normal speed to the tune of Yackety Sax, preferably with the PCs running line astern while flailing their arms in the air above their heads, although freedom is given to allow the PCs to be on separate parts of the quest at any one time and therefore have them running in opposite directions and occasionally bumping in to one another and falling on their bottoms, before getting up and continuing on their way.

  • You are presented with a wall of text from Colin your current quest NPC that essentially translates to “Go and speak to Bob”.
  • Bob is either standing next to Colin, within the same building or possibly in the general area.
  • When you speak to Bob he gives you a two line answer and sends you back to Colin.
  • Returning to Colin he then asks you to go and speak to Neville, who is half a continent away in a location with no convenient travel routes and which requires a fellowship of players to negotiate.
  • Upon finally reaching Neville you are asked to perform a mundane chore including, but not limited to, collecting local flora, killing local fauna, examining inanimate objects in hard to reach heavily guarded places, or grovelling on the floor at his feet until he sickens of your pathetic spineless nature. Bitch.
  • Neville sends you back to Bob, who tells you that he doesn’t give a toss, go and speak to Colin.
  • Colin tells you to tell Harold (who is standing next to Neville) to tell Bob to get over himself.
  • Upon finally reaching Harold he tells you to tell Neville that Colin is bossing him around.
  • Neville waits for you to grovel on the floor a bit before telling you to tell Colin that if he wants to tell Bob something, then he should jolly well get off his lazy arse and get a bunch of pathetic loser PCs to do it for him.
  • Neville swings a kick at your rear as you leave.
  • Colin concedes that he probably should have got you to tell Bob in the first place. He asks you to tell Bob to get over himself, to tell Harold that he’s sorry and to tell Neville that he loves him.
  • Bob cries at the harsh reprimand and can only be consoled by you killing fifty boars.
  • Harold is delighted by Colin’s apology and rewards you with one piece of tattered goblin wang, a barter item that can be traded for amazing gear. Unfortunately you are required to trade fifty pieces of tattered goblin wang to get one solid goblin wang, and you need ten solid goblin wangs to get the “I ran repeatable daily quests for three months and all I got was this lousy goblin wang t-shirt” t-shirt.
  • Neville looks with deep concern at the message Colin asked you to bring, then spits on it and slowly wipes it over your face before giving you a wedgie and sending you back to Colin.
  • Returning to Colin he is excited to inform you that your quest is nearly at an end, all you need to do now is go and speak to Geoff who needs to go the Castle of Death and Blood and be protected while he wanders around aimlessly for a bit.
  • Geoff doesn’t know who the hell you people are, and isn’t going to trust a bunch of strangers to escort him around the Castle of Death and Blood until they prove themselves to him.
  • After killing fifty boars you return to Geoff who grudgingly agrees to go, but first he needs his sword and shield and he can’t remember where he left them, you are to ask his wife where she put them as she’s always moving his stuff around.
  • When you get to the location where Geoff’s wife is supposed to be there’s a note pinned to the door which reads “Geoff, have eloped with Neville to Far Far Away Land, am not coming back. Your dinner is on the fire.”
  • You return to Geoff who is, understandably, inconsolable. You tell him that you really need his help, and he sobs that actually there is something you can do to make him feel better.
  • After killing fifty boars you return to Geoff who snuffles that he is feeling a bit better and that – good news! – he has remembered where he left his sword and shield!
  • You speak to Colin and ask him for the key to the room that has the chest that contains the key to Geoff’s room that has a chest containing a key to the vault in the crypt that has his sword and shield in.
  • Colin says that he did have the key but he can’t find it, but he’s fairly sure that Neville will know where it is…

Monday 26 October 2009

NFL International Series: Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs New England Patriots

This year’s NFL game at Wembley was slightly disappointing after last year. Josh Johnson threw an interception early in Tampa’s first drive that was run back for a touchdown, and just as they were putting together a decent second drive and looking like they might make a game of it a second interception took the wind out of their sails, and New England had control for the rest of the game. The Buccs ground game never got going, and Johnson didn’t get too much help from his receivers as they dropped a few pretty straightforward catches. “Efficient” summed up the Patriots offence, not too much on the ground either, but there didn’t need to be with Brady passing for 300+ yards and three touchdowns, Tampa Bay failing to capitalise on a couple of interceptions of their own. A nice Antonio Bryant touchdown near the end of the first half gave a faint glimmer of hope for the Buccs, but that was the extent of their scoring.

With the result never being in doubt, the atmosphere was pretty flat; nominally Tampa Bay’s home game, there was a bit of noise for their defence, but surprisingly little for New England despite the prevalence of Brady jerseys. Our seats weren’t so great either, low down, without the best perspective on the game. A good evening out again, but I think I’ll wait and see who the 2010 teams are before deciding whether to head back again.

Thought for the day.

If healing spells had a chance to miss.

The Factory Run: Part 1.

It was an eventful weekend. At least, as close to eventful as one such as me ever gets; it started with me mooching around my favourite haunt with no real plan as to what to do, and ended with a successful raid on The Factory, an achievement that most of us have only ever dreamed of.

It was Rex who first suggested it to me and Tom late on Saturday evening. Tom seemed keen right from the off, but he’s always spoiling for a fight, which is why he defaulted to being the group’s main tank I suppose. There’s something reckless in the way that Tom’ll throw himself into the middle of a brawl, but there’s no denying the effectiveness of his fighting style — at some point in time a sumo wrestler and a Viking fell very much in love, and Tom was the offspring of their affections. I was very much on the fence at the time, I’m often accused of spending too much time there, but I find that by setting myself apart from the emotions and persuasions of the rest of the group I can see further afield and often warn of dangers that the others may not have seen. Plus I find it really comfy there. Still, there wasn’t anything better to do other than perhaps engage in a bit of casual world PvP with any wandering packs from the other faction, and that’s only ever idle sport because they’re just so stupid and disorganised. Every time we fight it’s the same: each of them hurtling around solo with their own goal in mind, never thinking about the battle as a whole. I pity them really, they near as never win, and I’m amazed that they continue to turn up night after night chasing their tails around as we pick them off one at a time.

Rex and Tom looked at me imploringly though, and even though I knew I was being manipulated I conceded that it was a fine plan and that we should start looking for group members. I put the call out on LFG, Rex and Tom helping out now and again, but it’s generally accepted that I’m the best at getting a group together. Tom only seems to attract flaky female fire mages who are all angry heat and no concentration, and usually cause as much damage to the group as they do to other mobs. Plus they distract Tom from his tanking duties with their flashy displays. Rex, on the other hand, has an uncanny knack of attracting the attentions of any nearby raid bosses. Thankfully most of them can only attack from range, locked up in their concrete towers as they are. The battle shouts are of no concern to us, but sometimes they launch a projectile that, though rarely doing much damage, can cause a bit of a shock to one’s system, especially if one is in the middle of talking on LFG at the time.

It wasn’t long before I got the first reply, Tabitha made it known that she was available, and we all relaxed markedly when we knew that she was in for the run. Tabitha is our regular healer, a real motherly type who keeps us all in check and keeps such a close watch on our health that she usually has any wounds licked before we’re even aware that we’ve got them. I probably looked pained when I got the next reply though, and when Rex and Tom pushed me as to why, I told them that we’d got an offer from The Twins. The looks that they returned told me all that I needed to know as to how they felt about the situation — pretty much the same as me. The Twins are notorious DPSers who always go on runs together. Don’t get me wrong, they are top shelf DPS, possibly the best in our neighbourhood, but they are… eccentric isn’t really the right word. Rex is eccentric: he won’t go near running water, but loves being out in the rain; he can sleep next to open fire but is afraid of the magical light that the raid bosses use to light their dungeons, even though it has been proven harmless – it’s not even hot. Well, mostly harmless, there was that one time when old Cobby poked a broken one with his weapon and got quite the shock. That was a repair bill that wasn’t easily paid off, I’m sure. No, The Twins are just mad, that’s the easiest way to put it. Personally I put it down to their abundance of energy, which is a boon when put to use against the other faction and raid bosses, but when there’s no point of focus for it then it just seeps out of them and usually results in the pain and suffering of innocent bystanders. I mean, for starters they bounce. Now I know that a lot of DPS types seem to bounce for no apparent reason, but The Twins, they bounce a lot. If you’ve seen one of those strange balls that raid bosses sometimes throw out for no discernable reason, that ping around off of walls and ceiling and seem to cause more consternation to the raid boss than to us, you’re still not even close to how much The Twins bounce around. And if they are not bouncing off of the surroundings and each other, then they are duelling. They duel each other; they duel random other team members; they duel inanimate objects. They even duel their own reflection, not that we haven’t all been guilty of that one at one point or another. It wouldn’t be so bad, but they’re such scrawny looking characters that it’s hard to understand where they get such bravado. That is until you watch them at work. I’ve seen them take down a raid boss in seconds; their weapons seem to ignore all armour class, and all of their abilities seem to proc Deep Wounds. Not only that, but they seem to have memorised the strategy for every raid boss out there and know exactly where the weak spots are, and what form the boss’s retaliatory attacks will take. They’re the only DPS to ever make it through an entire encounter with The Baker and not take any AoE damage from his sweep attack.

After some debate and no small amount of caterwauling by Rex who, as our crowd control, finds The Twins style of indiscriminate whirling dervish DPS to be particularly tiresome, we had a vote and decided to take them. After all, The Factory was the hardest raid dungeon that we knew of, and we were going to need help from the best if we were going to defeat the dungeon and reap its rich rewards.

Friday 23 October 2009

An Appeal

There’s a plague, an evil, pernicious virus spreading through the blag-u-spore, and one by one people are succumbing, with another victim claimed this month. All these people have contracted… an XBox 360. There is hope, but we need your help. Please, please, send whatever you can spare to help these poor unfortunates return to the promised land of PC gaming; £2000 will buy a reasonably specced PC that has a fighting chance of getting over 20fps in Grand Theft Auto IV. £300 buys a graphics card that can play the latest games for at least a month or two before it’s out of date. Just £100 would get a 5600DPI 1000Hz ultrapolling hyperresponse mouse. Even a mere £5 would buy some shark repellant to help out when the simple matter of installing the latest video drivers because some game demanded it results in a corrupted Windows installation, loss of six months of data, and aquatic peril.

Really, though I’ve no plans to succumb to the 360 pandemic myself just yet, it’s not too hard to see the appeal of console gaming, which results in a bit of a problem.  Just as Champions Online looked like it might be striking another blow against the annoyance of finding yourself on a different continent or server to your friends in an MMO, there’s now a platform schism for games like Left 4 Dead or Borderlands where I can’t play with my comrades if they’re on their 360s, all the more irritating when a couple of games have shown cross-platform play is possible.  Shadowrun, for example; I’m not sure whether Microsoft are trying to use that as proof that there isn’t demand for cross-platform play, as the Vista-only PC version of Shadowrun was saddled with trying to push not just Vista but also Games For Windows Live (back in the day when it was not only entirely awful, you had to pay for it), possibly the greatest handicap any product has faced since Conquistador Coffee was packaged with cholera and a free dead dog with every jar.  I believe total sales were three, although two were later returned as the purchaser thought, through a drunken haze, it was “shadow rum”.

It’ll be interesting to see, once MMOs start appearing on consoles (if any ever do), if there’ll be continued segregation, or one, happy, cross-platform family.  Fingers crossed for the latter!

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Thought for the day.

I’m not sure that giving your players the equivalent choice of playing for a month or fixing their broken character is entirely sound business acumen.

There may be a very good reason (if tax avoidance is ever a good reason) why game companies in general seem to use point systems to price their virtual goods and services, but from at least one perspective it looks like nothing more than a weasel wrapper attempting to obfuscate the real world price.

If I were invited to a dinner party with my characters, I wouldn't show up.

As a member of a Lord of the Rings Online static group, who meet but once per week to continue their epic struggle against overwhelming odds with the most evil creatures the land has to offer, as well as convene in the halls of the Last Homely House to discuss affairs of state vital to the free people of Middle Earth, such as whether the interior of our kinship house would look better painted pea-green or pumpkin-orange, I am fully aware of how far we are behind the current story arc of the game. We have yet to venture into Moria proper, and are on number ten out of some huge number, at least five thousand I’m sure, of the book based content in volume one.

Even with the Mirkwood expansion soon to be released I, for one, am still in no hurry to get into the Moria content of volume two; I’m looking forward to it undoubtedly, but it is evident that there is still an abundance of things for us to see and do in volume one of the game.

However, one thought that germinated in my brain and sent its tender roots tickling their way through the field of my mind was thus: with the inevitable progression of the story and with its forgone conclusion, are we going to be late to the party? Are we going to be like the embarrassingly late couple who turn up and leap through the door shouting “Surprise!” just as everyone else is heading home? I picture a fellowship of heroes – two elves, two dwarves, a man and a hobbit – huffing and puffing their way across the fields of the Pelennor, clattering up the streets of Gondor under the gaze of astonished and puzzled eyes, shouting “Sorry!” *huff* “Sorry we’re late!” *puff* “Have we missed much of the battle?”, tumbling over each other into the hall of the king shouting “Surprise!”; “We’ll save you Mr Frodo!”; “Down with this Sauron thing!” and “Careful now!”, only to be faced with Eldarion son of Aragorn, Second High King of the Reunited Kingdom of Gondor and Arnor, who can only ponder the purpose of these curiously mannered folk are who cluttering up his throne room, and who then has to put a comforting arm around their collective shoulders and quietly explain that there has been peace in the land for the last hundred years.

A world story is a wonderful thing in an MMO, unless you’re late to the party.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Reviewlet: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Batman: Arkham Asylum was much lauded upon release by game pundits and players alike, and reported pretty much universally as a firm indication of the imminent second coming of our lord and saviour – J. Holy-Christ O.B.E, until the mania died down, people got bored, and everyone moved on to the next effusion of orgasmic halleluiahs, which seem to currently being ejaculated for Uncharted 2, with Brutal Legend surprisingly and sadly being cast down into the pits of gaming Hades where, ironically, it’s probably most comfortable, and is even now rocking out with the Lord of Hellfire; although, if a game that revels in the satanic imagery of the heavy metal scene is sent to Hell, does it really go to the fiery pits of the Inferno, or is it perhaps forced to reside in a quiet country field full of sheep and bunnies and forced to play Singstar: Annoying Whiney Girl Band Edition for all eternity? Regardless, the crowd of gourd worshippers have rushed off after a new messiah, and so I decided to pick through the debris of their wake and see what all the fuss was about.

The introductory sequence instantly lets us know that this game is aiming more at Dark Knight than the television show of the sixties, or even the much acclaimed slightly more serious-but-still-aimed-at-kids animated show of recent years, despite many of the actors from that show being employed to work their vocal voodoo on this game. Indeed, Mark Hamill’s Joker is a masterful work, and had it not been for one Heath Ledger, would probably be considered the definitive acted interpretation of the master villain. The other insight that the introductory sequence gives us is that the game is running on Epic Games’ Unreal Perspiration Engine, a curious piece of technology which can render landscape environments in stunning and immaculate detail but always manages to make skin look overly shiny as though it’s covered with a sheen of sweat. Maybe it’s a deliberate commentary on the future side effects of global warming, or perhaps a reflection on the greater existential problem of mankind’s permeability of thought, that our motives and desires inevitably leak through to the facade that we present to the world, and the people we interact with can see themselves reflected in the sweat-like sheen of this psychic projection. Either that or someone left the PHONG_SHADE_ALL_SKIN_TEXTURES flag set to TRUE again.

If you want a dry but detailed account of the game I would recommend the Wikipedia article. The game has a story typical of the genre, it’s a suitable vehicle to allow Batman to go forth and verily punch punks in the teeth with wild abandon, but it’s hardly going to win any awards for originality. It’s a super hero comic book adaptation, and as such it follows the trend of Big Bad Boss quite astonishingly escaping from a maximum security facility – for the third time this week – and contriving a huge and convoluted plot to destroy the hero’s City of Protective Choice whilst giving our hero every opportunity to stop him under the pretence of needing to toy with the hero first. The Joker is one of the few villains where a writer can get away with this script over and over again, because it’s basically the Joker’s modus operandi – he has to pick at the bat-shaped scab that scars his mind – but even so, if you couldn’t see the whole plot laid out before you from the very beginning of the game – like the walls of the Matrix in that scene where Keanu Reeves finally, oh thank the lord FINALLY, realises that he is Of Course THE ONE, You Plank – then you probably don’t read comics much. The important thing with the story in Batman: Arkham Asylum is that it doesn’t get in the way of running around and giving generic goons a darn good kicking, this is more important than one might think, and I’ll come back to why in a moment.

Giving generic goons a good old fashion knuckle sandwich is what super hero comic book games are all about, because it’s what super hero comics are all about. You can pretend that super hero comics aspire to a higher art status, that they reflect the nature of society’s doubts and tackle the difficult issues of the time, but in the end they resolve those issues by finding someone that they classify as naughty and punching them hard in the teeth. Watchmen – resolved by punching people in the teeth. V for Vendetta – teeth punching. Grandville – there might have been some animals in there who don’t have teeth, but whatever tooth-like substitute they have, you can be sure that they were punched in them. The combat in the game is beautifully realised, it’s not just the simplicity of the Rock-Band-like rhythm system that it uses, where timing your punches to the beat of the fight awards you with a linked combination of moves that cause greater damage, but the fact that these moves flow seamlessly together and look totally natural. If someone attacks from behind and you counter the move, Batman doesn’t just turn mechanically and punch the assailant, but grabs the kicking leg and snaps it with an elbow drop, or back-fists them in the face. There are a huge variety of moves, such that, even if you aim at an enemy who is across the room from you, Batman will move to attack them in a way that couldn’t have been choreographed any better: back-flipping across the room and kicking the goon while Batman flips himself onto his feet being just one example. It’s another nod to the ‘less is more’ style of game design, you essentially mash just one button to attack, use the directional stick to aim at the enemy you want that attack to land on, and the game does the rest. The subtlety is in the timing, in using the counter attack button judiciously, and in working your way around the room of enemies in a systematic fashion such that none of them even get a chance to retaliate. Because the combat is simplistic yet nuanced, and because the player is not having to constantly remember five or six different button actions along with the thousands of additional combinations of those buttons in order to progress, the combat is utterly immersive, you come out of the other end of a fight with Batman standing over a pile of incapacitated felons, adjusting his Batsuit cuffs in the nonchalant manner of one who has just single handedly pummelled an entire steroidally overdosed American Football team armed with baseball bats into submission (they tried fighting with the implements of their chosen profession, but hitting someone with an American football just doesn’t have the same impact), and you think “Wow, look at what Batman did!” and then you check yourself and think “No, wait, look at what I did as Batman!”.

As good a game as it is, I think that immersion is the real triumph of Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Coming back to the fact that the story doesn’t get in the way of the game, this also helps with the immersion. The cut scenes are kept to a minimum, as such you don’t have your immersion broken by suddenly becoming a passenger in a scene that you were moments ago in control of. These cut scenes often change the camera angle so that you view your character in a way that can only be seen as you peering in from the outside, they eject you from the world you were living in and make you watch, helpless, as the entity that was you a moment before is now under the control of Mr Story-Teller. Honestly, I think that Rocksteady Studios could have removed the cut-scenes altogether and had the player play through them in an interactive way, but since they are kept to a minimum they provide, if nothing else, a suitable reminder that it might be time for a quick cup of tea, or to evacuate the previous five cups of tea.

The attention to detail magnifies the level of immersion. Batman’s costume gets ripped on several occasions, and that battle damage stays with you throughout the rest of the game. Therefore, when you come back to the game you are instantly reminded as to what Batman has been through up to this point in the game and you are reminded of your previous battles, as such you are able to settle back into the game that much quicker, even having been away from the game for some time. Batman’s outfit tells ‘the story so far’ and you get your reminder almost subliminally.

Adding further to the feeling that you are Batman is the fact that the game embraces the way Batman generally operates: he piles into groups of enemies and martial arts them into submission, or he sneaks around and uses fear and the shadows as his weapons, picking off heavily armed opponents one at a time. With the former method the game positively encourages you to wade into groups of enemies and revel in fighting against overwhelming odds and winning through, although you quickly come to realise that you are the Goddamn Batman and that unless there are twenty or more of them facing off against you, the odds are not going to be in their favour. The latter method is equally well handled, with Batman quickly being able to learn the inverted takedown manoeuvre from the obligatory character progression mechanic (often incorrectly using the appropriated term RPG, it seems). With the inverted takedown available, Batman is able to hang from the rafters unseen until an unsuspecting enemy walks underneath, at which point you drop down on a line, grab the enemy and whip back up into the shadows, stringing him up for his friends to find. The AI is well programmed, such that the remaining felons come running to their compatriot’s aid, and finding him all Bat Bondaged, exclaim in terror to the room in general “Who are you?!” and other such phrases, and then stick together more often, reflecting their increased fear. This all serves to make the player feel utterly powerful as they sit in the shadows of the ceiling and gloat. The game goes to great lengths to make sure the player always feels like Batman, and feeling like Batman means feeling in control. There’s this dark brooding menace and arrogance of self belief that serves Batman well in the comics, and the player is never thinking “how am I going to overcome this challenge” when it comes to combat, they’re simply thinking “what’s going to be the most entertaining way to overcome this challenge”. It’s never a matter of ‘if I overcome this’, it’s merely a matter of ‘when I’ve overcome this’. There are a couple of disappointments with respect to the immersion in this case: the stealth aspect of the game relies on Batman strategically using oh so conveniently placed gargoyle statues around the ceiling of the rooms in order to execute his divide and conquer strategy; it may just be that the architect of Arkham Asylum was as insane as its inmates, and this manifested itself in stuffing gargoyle heads at random into rooms that were clearly otherwise not designed for them, but in all honesty it just screams game mechanic, which is all the more stark when compared to the cleverly hidden mechanics in the rest of the game. It’s perplexing when considering that the mechanic for the Bat Grapple when used to move around the rest of the game world is, like most elements of the game interface, simple and enjoyable to use. Another immersion breaker is that the stealth sections are clearly defined, you can’t use the inverted takedown in the outside areas, despite there being many walkways and guard towers that would make perfect ambush spots. Apparently it only works from gargoyles. These are minor niggles though, and quickly forgotten when you realise that no matter the environment, there are punks who need to be taught a lesson, and you’re the one who is ideally suited to give it.

So the combat is delicious, and this being a super hero comic game that makes it ninety percent perfect straight out of the gate. There are a few other things worth mentioning though. For example, this being a super hero comic game, all of the female characters (barring Token Dowdy Doctor Lady) are over-sexualised to the point of driving all the way past the suburbs of Parody and heading deep into downtown Juvenile Masturbation Fantasy. For good or for bad, foxy females are a staple of super hero comic books, but in recent years it seems to have devolved from the innocence of pubescent infatuation into a more demeaning, derogatory and dark place better suited to seedy Soho stores. It’s a shame to see the game follow this trend, because although the Dark Knight had an adult audience as its intended focus, it refrained from such cheap thrills.

The Sandman levels are also worth a mention, making excellent use of the villain’s hallucinogenic devices to twist the game on its head and provide a nice change of pace to the ‘explore and conquer’ mode of the main game. Think American McGee meets Mario and you won’t be far wrong.

And finally two design decisions which show the curious nature of game development, where on the one hand the old tropes of past games are ignored, and yet another is included for no added benefit. Throughout the game there are numerous ventilation grates which Batman can yank off in order to sneak around obstacles and enemies, but to do this you have to go up to the vent, press the A button to start the process and then repeatedly mash the A button in order to pull the vent from its housing. Why? It seems utterly pointless, there’s no game to it, you either press A enough or you don’t, there’s no timing or rhythm mini-game, the amount of noise you make isn’t affected by the speed of your button presses, it’s just utterly pointless, and I’m totally curious as to why it’s in there. On the other hand, Rocksteady Studios completely resisted any urge to add a token and utterly inane driving section to the game. Possibly a first in any Batman game to date, and something that they should be congratulated on. When the Batmobile blows up somewhere near the start of the game, I couldn’t have cheered more.

There’s no doubt that Batman: Arkham Asylum is an accomplished game; whether it’s actually worthy of the Second Coming praise that has been showered upon it, or whether that was just a product of a games journalism industry floored out of left field by a competent and compelling super hero game, I think it must be for the individual player to decide, but if you love the idea of the being the one, the only, the true “Goddamn Batman”, then welcome to Judgement Day.

Monday 19 October 2009

Thought for the day

As a bunch of MMOs begin ramping up for their whatever-Halloween-is-called-in-that-particular-game celebrations (this season’s must-have undead clearly being The Zombie), I reckon it’s time for one company to be bold and stand out from the crowd with a totally different sort of event. Why is no MMO staging a Windows 7 Launch Party? World of Warcraft could add an NPC called “Steve” who sends you out to kill hundreds of feline mobs in a wintry zone, rewarding you with rare and powerful Windows Cards (a bit like the Darkmoon Faire cards, only with the Microsoft logo and no actual benefits); Dungeons and Dragons Online could re-purpose an early instance so that the swarms of kobolds, instead of attacking you, shout out helpful tips about how to burn a CD in Windows 7 or get it to organise your photo collection. Extra storage is always welcome, why not hand out 20-slot Windows tote bags? It’s a sure fire hit!

Friday 16 October 2009

I've got blisters on my fingers!

After a vigorous evening of highly scientific testing with Guitar Hero 5 and Rock Band 2 I’m ready to present my paper Upon The Differences Between The Second Full-Band Plastic Instrument Based Entertainment Software Released By Harmonix And Neversoft, and my neighbours are ready to call the local council regarding a noise abatement order.

Guitar & Bass
There isn’t much difference between the two games for guitar and bass gameplay; hit the five coloured buttons and strum, collect “star power”/”overdrive” in certain sections with a whammy on held notes for a bonus, tilt guitar to activate. I slightly prefer the circular “gems” on the note track of Guitar Hero vs the rectangular blocks in Rock Band, but I suspect that might just be a case of being more used to the Guitar Hero games; the other visual thing on the note track is that Rock Band adds some swirly background colours when in overdrive that I found slightly distracting, though not to the point of missing notes particularly.

Each game has a slight nuance; I quite like the Rock Band solo sections that offer bonus points depending on the percentage of notes hit, and in Guitar Hero hammer-on chords and open notes on the bass work quite nicely, but overall it doesn’t make a massive difference. I declare… A DRAW!

Drums
Though mostly playing guitar and bass, I do like to flail around like a madman now and again. And also play the drums, ah! There’s a more obvious difference between the two games here, Guitar Hero 5 continuing the World Tour setup of three drums pads (red, blue, green) and two cymbals (yellow and orange) compared to the four drum pads of Rock Band that represent different drums and cymbal as needed.

Playing Rock Band with the Guitar Hero drums I haven’t had any major issues, as most songs so far have been based around red being snare and yellow being hi-hat, which maps naturally to the GH drums. It does feel slightly odd sometimes with the blue pad often doubling as a cymbal (the orange cymbal of the GH kit can be used in addition to the blue pad, but I’m usually having enough trouble remembering to hit that pedal thing at the right time to worry about anything else), and a couple of songs seem to go a bit crazy and mix the drum mapping up even more, but I’ve generally been doing fairly well on the same Hard level I’ve been playing in Guitar Hero 5. I’d turn to a rather better drummer for a more considered view, though.

Aside from the pad layout the basic gameplay is again pretty similar (“HIT PAD WITH STICK FOR POINTS!”), though there’s a difference in star power/overdrive activation: in Guitar Hero at any point you can hit the yellow and orange cymbals at the same time to activate star power, in Rock Band the game leaves you a space for a drum fill, following which you can hit the green pad to activate overdrive. In theory the GH method sounds better, giving the player full control of when they want to bring star power in for either a score boost or to help out for a trick section, but in practise I’ve found I’m usually a bit busy actually hitting the proper notes to take time out and kick star power in; if I try and go for it, I almost always end up missing a few notes, resetting the score multiplier and slightly defeating the object.

With the overdrive activation counterbalancing the occasionally odd pad layout, I declare… A DRAW!

Vocals
I try not to inflict what could very loosely be termed my “singing” upon the world in general, but I have caterwauled along to a few songs in both games. Once again with the broadly similar gameplay, words appear on screen and you attempt to vibrate your vocals chords in such a manner as to produce a sound wave of a frequency in keeping with what the game’s expecting.

I could make a half-decent stab at quite a few World Tour tracks, but Guitar Hero 5 is either less forgiving or I’ve got worse (or the songs are harder), as even on Easy mode I’m not putting in very good performances; in Rock Band 2 on the other hand I’ve hit 100% in a couple of songs (though perhaps its Easy mode is closer to Guitar Hero’s Beginner). Rock Band 2 also has percussive sections, where the singer hits the microphone in time to the music a la tambourine or cowbell, which is quite welcome, especially in songs with lengthy instrumental sections; in Stranglehold on Guitar Hero World Tour you could sing a couple of verses then wander off, whip up a light salad, clear excessive leaves from the guttering and construct a rudimentary pot from clay while Ted Nugent noodled around on guitar. Guitar Hero sometimes counters the boredom with “freestyle” sections, where, as the name suggests, you can freestyle (hiphopopotamus style) and apparently gain points for fitting in with the general pitch and rhythm of the song, but I’m not entirely sure much of the rock oeuvre lends itself to going “shooby dooby bop bop do ba ba” at random intervals.

This would’ve been a victory for Rock Band 2, then, but it blows it with the overdrive activation. In Guitar Hero 5 you can activate star power by tapping the mic, or more usefully pressing the A button on the Wiimote at any time. In Rock Band 2, you have to wait for an appropriate moment (when you’re not supposed to be singing), and… shout. Or go “woo!” or something. I’m quite self conscious enough about singing at the best of times without needing to draw extra attention to the whole business. At least the rock-tastic nature of most of the songs means it isn’t quite as daft as in The Beatles: Rock Band (“here comes the sun, do do do do, here comes the sun, and I said… right let’s activate Beatlemania YO LONDON ARE YOU READY FOR THE SUN LET ME HEAR YOU WOO!”), but it’s also not terribly precise. I’ve taken to coughing to activate overdrive (*ahem*, sorry, don’t mind me, just overdriving here), but being able to push a button at any time is a much better idea, leading to vocals being… A DRAW!

Musical Selection
Very personal, this one, you’d need to decide for yourself. There’s some cracking songs in both games, and as per usual they’re introducing me to some interesting new stuff, none of which I’ve (really) hated. Yet. After careful consideration, I’d have to declare… A DRAW!

Downloadable Content
While not strictly speaking DLC, Rock Band allows users to export most of the songs from Rock Band 1 to play in Rock Band 2… on the 360 and PS3. Not for the Wii, unfortunately, partly no doubt because Rock Band 2 came out before the Wii had SDHC support, limiting it to 2Gb cards. Guitar Hero 5 does support SDHC, and you can download some of the World Tour and Greatest Hits content if you have those games (only around half the set list in each case, though), which just claws back enough points to stop it being utterly obliterated in this category.

In terms of actual DLC, Rock Band already had a massive head start of a back catalogue when Guitar Hero World Tour was released, and though Neversoft have been churning out three songs most weeks for Guitar Hero World Tour and now 5 the gap keeps opening with Harmonix regularly adding 10 or more Rock Band tracks, it’s really no content (especially as the crown jewels, in my opinion, of World Tour DLC, the Hendrix tracks, are the only ones that can’t be used in GH5).

The only potential fly in the ointment was for us poor old UK Wii users; the music store wasn’t available at release (fair enough, it took a couple of weeks for the Guitar Hero 5 store to be available), and we had the promise of “over 250 songs available on disc and for download by early 2010”. My suspicion was that there’d be a gradual trickle of songs over the next couple of months, but in fact the music store turned up last Tuesday with a veritable Texas Flood of hot rocking action, 170-odd songs to choose from. While that’s only around a quarter of the total library, it’s a damn good start made damnably gooder by the fact that one of those songs is Still Alive by GLaDOS and Jonathan Coulton, and damnationally goodest of all, it’s free! Naturally this renders Rock Band 2 an instant triumph and furthermore great success, so I declare the winner to be ROCK BAND 2!

Career
Finally, the career modes. I touched on these a bit previously, very generally Guitar Hero 5 being a more linear progression through difficulty with achievement-centric challenges for each song, and Rock Band 2 being a sort of RPG-ish development of your band travelling around the world earning money and fans. Both games allow you to branch out from the on-disc songs, which is very welcome, Guitar Hero has an open challenge or two in every venue for which you can pick any song, including DLC and imported songs, and Rock Band 2 venues have a variety of gigs options including choosing your own setlist.

As well as picking your own songs Rock Band 2 offers various mystery setlists, which have all the usual advantages and drawbacks of randomness. On the plus side, if the 100-odd songs on offer lead to paralysis of indecision when it comes to deciding what to actually play, you can let the console decide for you. On the downside, the console is deciding for you, and might like to have a laugh and finish off every sodding set with SODDING RATT.

Overall, I really couldn’t pick between Rock Band 2’s money and fan accumulation and Guitar Hero’s challenges, I suspect they’ll both keep me coming back for as long as I’m interested in either. Yup, I declare… A DRAW!

Conclusion
Get both games, buy whatever DLC appeals, and LET THERE BE ROCK!

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Imagination grows by exercise, and contrary to common belief, is more powerful in the mature than in the young.

I decided to grab the Dragon Age: Origins character creator last night; I’ve no intention of getting the game any time soon because it sounds like it’s going to be one of Bioware’s typically epic games, and I really don’t have the time at the moment to dedicate to it.

But I’m a sucker for a good character creator.

So I downloaded the three hundred and seventy-odd megabyte installer, ran it and then launched the newly installed character creator.

The first thing that popped-up was an ESRB rating certificate, with the following advisory text:

“M for Blood, Intense Violence, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content”.

“Wow”, thought I, “this is going to be some serious character creation”.

So I rolled up my sleeves and got a box of tissues handy.

I’ve never been so disappointed to see a bunch of sliders, stats and text dialogues, in all my life.

Story, achievement and progression

The Beatles: Rock Band, Guitar Hero 5 and Rock Band 2 (yes, they really did release the Wii version in the UK) are RPGs. Honest. Oh, all right, they’re actually music games, you’ve defeated me with your piercing logic, but they do have some RPG elements.

All three games share the basic push-coloured-buttons-in-time-to-music basic gameplay; you can just launch in and play on your own or in a band with friends for fun, or you can play competitively, with each performance gaining a number of points and awarded a rating out of five stars. All three games also offer some sort of extended gameplay mode.

The Beatles: Rock Band features a story mode; those of you who like to play amateur detective may be able to deduce from the title of the game that it’s the story of the Beatles. In this mode the songs are arranged chronologically rather than by difficulty and inextricably linked to famous venues like the Cavern Club and Abbey Road studios, through which you progress linearly. You’re always represented as your chosen Beatle, with garb and instrument appropriate to the time, and have no way of affecting the story; you can’t decide to split the band up in 1968 or keep it together in 1970. It’s a bit like an early laserdic game, one of the ones that basically just played a series of sequences and forced the “player” to push the right button at the right time to keep it going. It makes a lot more sense when pushing the buttons is quite fun, though, and in the case of The Beatles the story is the music, which is the gameplay. As a linear story there isn’t a great incentive to play through it more than once, though there are some bonus bits n’ pieces (mostly photographs and some audio and video clips) for either compulsive completionists or Beatles fanatics.

Guitar Hero 5 and Rock Band 2 have career and tour modes respectively that start with that RPG staple, character creation. Name your band, pick a logo, and create the band members. Rock Band 2 is the more traditionalist, allowing you to select your face, hairstyle, physique etc., then handing you your starter gear of a tatty t-shirt, jeans and a basic instrument; Guitar Hero 5 is more akin to City of Heroes or Champions, offering a massive range of outfits to select from and customisable instruments down to the pick-guard colour and knob configuration (Matron) on your guitar. Both games then despatch you to various venues, and hand out cash as well as points scores and star ratings for playing songs.

The Guitar Hero 5 career is fairly structured. There isn’t a story as such (some of the previous games had little cut scenes, usually of a generic small town band becoming global megastars as you progressed with the odd digression into rock heaven/hell), you’re turned loose into a series of venues, broadly arranged in increasing difficulty, each with five to eight songs. Future venues, and songs within venues, need to be unlocked but it’s a fairly swift process with a degree of freedom, not the strictly linear progression of the first few Guitar Hero games or The Beatles. On top of the usual five star rating each song also has a challenge, as I outlined previously, giving plenty of goals for the achievement-centric, offering a further three stars to collect plus various costume and character unlocks.

Tour mode in Rock Band 2 has the strongest elements of development or progression. Starting out clad in an old t-shirt with $100 to your name, the money you’re awarded for successfully completing songs is vital for expanding your collection of clothes, instruments and accessories. You pick a home city for your characters and the band, and initially have access to a limited selection of small venues in nearby cities; as you play, you can compete in challenges to unlock vehicles, allowing access to venues further afield, and bigger venues as you become more successful In addition to cash rewards you earn fans for performances, giving a measure of success, and you can even hire a member of support staff like a promoter or merchandise vendor. You could almost remove the playing-along-to-songs bit and still be left with a tycoon-style band management game.

While not quite meeting all four of Bioware’s pillars of RPG (“you’ve got exploration, you’ve got progression, you’ve got combat, and you’ve got storytelling”) it’s interesting to see cross fertilisation of mechanics across game genres. Next stop, a proper guitar-wielding Bard class in an MMO! Or maybe a dual-wielding mace class using a drum set for the input, I can think of someone who’d be ideal for that…

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Slow down and examine the mysterious bits of fluff in our lives.

The age old question of character definition continues to wend its way around the hills and vales of Blogland, asking whether ’tis better to suffer the confines and restrictions of fixed character classes, or to take the concept of class away and give players the freedom to create munchkins and gimps in equal measure. Rather than skill points, Champions Online attempts to kowtow to those who fancy freedom by providing pools of skills from which the player can choose, reigning in advancement by placing a prerequisite of a number of basic skills on the more powerful abilities; favour is given to those who stick with one pool of powers, opening up the most powerful abilities sooner by requiring a smaller number of basic powers from that pool to unlock the powerful ability, as opposed to a larger number of basic powers from random other pools. Still, despite the incentive of the power frameworks, as they are known, it is quite easy to create a character which is nigh-on unplayable, the cost of undoing such a mistake… prohibitive.

This is the fundamental design issue with non-class-based systems (skill points as used in EVE are one such system, but not the only non-class system, as evidenced by the Champions Online example previously), with freedom comes great opportunity to gimp your character, with it also comes the power to munchkin a character so hideous in design that the developers, arms across their eyes, reel from it in horror as if the very concept of it burns their eyes and threatens to corrupt their soul. When a game such as Champions Online includes PvP, the need for balance quickly makes the freedom of creativity awarded to the players a rod for the developer’s back. Even EVE Online, which has taken the skill system and implemented it fantastically well, has encountered issues where the developers have had to adjust the game in order to counter very specific character builds which exploit certain skill and ship combinations to create something far more powerful than the developers ever envisioned. Yet EVE has shown us that skill systems can work, and work well. It’s still quite possible to create a gimped character in EVE, but the odds are against it, especially with the certificate system in place that allows an inexperienced player to see easily what basic skills they should be working on when aiming for a certain career path.

My thought is thus: why not have a mix of the two systems? I would suggest that the primary desire for non-class systems is the freedom to create a character that the player wants, admittedly in a large number of cases this would be a dual-wielding melee maniac who can shoot fireballs from their forehead and heal themselves at will, but a lot of the time players just want a bit more flexibility in customising their character and making them unique. Taking World of Warcraft as an example – a game which has tried with its talent point system to provide some limited flexibility within the scope of each of its classes – what would a dual character development system look like?

The example for this came to me recently when I had cause to play my Paladin briefly: I needed to travel across a large expanse of Ye Olde Azeroth on foot, and the Paladin’s Crusader Aura, in combination with an epic mount, just makes this a lot less effort, and there’s something compelling about watching your mount’s character model animate slightly faster than the developers originally intended, it conveys that extra sense of speed and simulates well enough the wind rushing through your character’s hair. Of course this caused me to rue the fact that I didn’t have such an ability on the Shaman that I’m currently levelling, who has a nice travel form which is all but redundant now that mounts are available from level twenty, except for a few special cases where I might be able to use it to escape from enemies, and of course it still has its uses in PvP. I thought to myself that I’d gladly give up my travel form for a Crusader Aura on my Shaman. I’m sure most people would, other than the PvPers and maybe a few Furry role-players. So that’s probably an easy exchange, what else would I give up? Well, my Shaman has several other fluff utilities – Water Breathing and Water Walking to name but a few – would I give those up too? My answer was still yes, because I like Crusader Aura that much; I’d give-up my travel form and the various fluff water-based abilities too. What about Astral Recall? Astral Recall is a spell which emulates the character’s hearthstone, allowing the Shaman to return to their bind point more often than other characters. It’s pretty useful when you need to whip from one side of the world to the other and back again, and it certainly made my levelling life a lot easier. That one would certainly be a more difficult choice for me.

There are many fluff abilities granted to classes in WoW, things that are there to make life a little easier, or to entertain and amuse, none of which affect the fundamental operation of the class. In a redesign of the game I think it would be viable to keep the core skills and spells of the class, and yet provide a more flexible non-class skill system outside of these core class abilities, a pool of skills and spells that players could dip into as they advance, made-up of those fluff abilities which are fun to have and often make life easier, but which would not gimp or overpower a character upon their application. I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of MMO players like fluff items, one only has to look at the clamour and furore caused by various mounts, non-combat pets and housing items, to see that this is the case. Players also – and I honestly don’t know why developers, in general, seem to have such a problem realising this in their games – like to have the freedom to express themselves through their character, although this partly ties in to the fluff items again: given a restrictive class-based system, players attempt to express themselves in other ways. To see such an example of this one only has to look at the costume customisation options in games such as Everquest II or Lord of the Rings Online to see the creativity that many players put into expressing themselves, or for a more extreme example: City of Heroes, where creating costumes and character concepts is often more of a game to the players than the levelling game proper.

Giving players freedom of expression when it comes to the way their character operates at a fundamental level is a difficult thing to do, few MMOs have attempted it, and fewer still have achieved it with any success. Perhaps, though, there is a way to give players some freedom of expression, a way to customise the abilities of their character to their own taste whilst at the same time maintaining a tighter control on the balance of combat encounters with a class-based development system.

Monday 12 October 2009

Thought for the day

As Blizzard’s “make the shoulders bigger, add more horns and spikes” theme reaches its apogee in Tier 10, it’s obvious why a Cataclysm is needed: either they’re rebooting the armour sets before the “upside down Weeble” look goes too far, or all the doorways in the old world are going to be massively enlarged as part of the rebuilding effort so that characters can fit through them again.

Friday 9 October 2009

Warcraft's Tier 10: Horny Edition.

It’s always hard to tell the rumours from the facts with World of Warcraft, but seeing as this sneak peak comes from The Holders of Truth themselves, I guess it’s good.

Well, I say good…

Unhorny Here’s the Warrior Tier 10 helmet and shoulders on a Dwarf, I like the way that the helmet horn, even though it’s sheared-off halfway along its length, still clips nastily with the shoulder armour. Always classy to have your items clip horrendously in the most basic character model pose.

Bet it looks great on Blood Elves and Humans though.

Still, could be worse, you could be a druid.Horny What did your mother tell you about eating all those apple seeds? You’d get apple trees growing out of your ears, that’s right. Those do look more like rose bushes though.

Looks like Blizzard will have to update their collision detection code for this next patch so that they can correctly simulate all these Druids stumbling into stationary objects.

Me So HornyAnd finally let’s all take a moment in thought, a little quiet contemplation, and give thanks to the developers for giving all those Hunters a giant pseudo-phallus sticking out of their forehead to reflect how they are perceived by a large percentage of the World of Warcraft population.

I’m sure they’re all going to love that.

Behind the stage curtain.

Sometimes, be it through error or happenstance, we players get to see behind the stage presented to us by the game we are playing. Sometimes it’s a very literal behind the scenes look, and other times it’s less obvious or impressive. Nevertheless, these opportunities can give the curious a sneak peek at some of the game mechanics that are otherwise hidden from view.

One such mechanic that I run across in WoW more frequently these days is per-area mob (de)spawn. Basically there are areas where, given no traffic for some time, the mobs in the area are despawned, and they dynamically respawn whenever a player enters the area. It’s hard to determine if this is a general mechanic or only for specific areas, for obvious reasons: the amount of time Goldshire isn’t populated with “Oh thee verily thy forsooth methinks” types or bouncing PvP lolbots is probably close to zero, whereas other areas rarely see much traffic.

One of these places is in a starter area, it’s a little out the way within the starter area itself, and when I tell you that the starter area is Bloodmyst Isle, backwater birthing zone for the Draenei race, an area which itself is tedious and unnecessary to journey to for any character who doesn’t have a specific reason to go there, you’ll understand why this place has little to no traffic for large spans of server up-time.

Blacksilt Shore is a small area tucked away in the far south west of Bloodmyst Isle; there is only one quest that ever sends you to the area, although there is another quest to be picked up from a frequently spawning named mob, another mechanic that Blizzard seemed to get especially excited about and used frequently in the starter areas released in the Burning Crusade expansion, but never seemed to take much further than that. Anyway, if you approach Blacksilt Shore from Kessel’s Crossing by swimming across the small expanse of water that separates them and then run along the shoreline, if no other players have been there for a while (which seems fairly common on my server) then you’ll notice the phenomenon that huge clumps of Blacksilt murlocs suddenly spawn out of nowhere at single points in the water as you run past, and then all move off in different directions, generally populating the area which was otherwise empty a few moments before.

Not terribly impressive I grant you, but one of those things that – if you happen to be the sort of person who is looking for it and is curious about such things – can probably be considered QI, if nothing else.

Next week: The little known but more mundane bug where an oiled-up Jaina Proudmoore can be found naked pole dancing for Thrall.

Thursday 8 October 2009

For the loot, honey, for the loot.

I hate dungeon instance loot. Ok, that’s not entirely true: we loves it, we wants it precious. What I hate about dungeon instance loot is the way, like so many other things in MMOs, its awarding is perfectly designed to make one or more people in the group feel rubbish about their evening, and how it turns nice normal people into quietly seething Sméagols or outwardly furious frothing Gollums. I hate it most when it does such a thing to me, especially when I’d promised myself that loot did not matter and I was only there for the companionship of others and to enjoy the World of Warcraft. Yet it manages to do so, loot distribution in WoW is like the One Ring of Middle Earth, it has a will of its own and evil intent.

We’d finished a run of the Deadmines and I’d upgraded my character with two pieces of Defias leather armour, making out like the proverbial bandit. I’d rolled Need on the items, and professed the niceness of them on our VoIP channel, but only because they were, indeed, nice. Our healer, who can also wear leather, did not roll on the items, and I was pleased with my new preciouses for a short while before being hit by a wave of guilt towards the end of the run when I considered that my proclamation of their niceitude had perhaps put the healer off of rolling on the items at all, which was not my intent. Indeed, I was still in my premeditated mindset of The Loot Does Not Matter, and frankly there’re very few healing leather items at this level so any leather loot is free game, although I obviously wouldn’t roll on anything that was clearly healer loot. Things will even out a bit at level forty, as my Shaman moves up to using mail armour and the only other mail armour wearer in the group will move up to using plate armour at the same time, thus making the loot boundaries fractionally easier to determine.

We moved on to Shadowfang Keep, and still feeling a bit of loot windfall guilt (which I think afflicts some players more than others), I passed on the leather pieces that dropped there, one of which was blatantly a healer piece anyway, and the other was a nice upgrade for either of us, it having a chunk of stamina on it. The other two members had grabbed a few useful drops by this point too, and it was all looking like a fairly balanced evening of loot distribution. But the loot system is treacherous, it will betray you, and it is always trying to find a way to ruin an evening’s play.

So a really shiny two-handed axe dropped. I’m currently using two-handed axes until the point I can dual-wield in twenty levels or so, and this item was a huge upgrade for me, with its lowest damage range number being greater than the highest damage range number on my current weapon. That’s a pretty tasty boost in DPS. I think we all professed the shininess of it at the point, and I apologised for rolling Need (why do I feel the need to apologise each time I roll need on something, is this just me?) and rolled for it, so did the Paladin tank. And of course they won.

I think I hid my frustration quite well, and again I like to think that my Loot Does Not Matter mindset at least partially brushed it aside as just one of those things, but as we continued through the instance the loot system pulled at me, taunted me, and drove me to dark thoughts.

(I had posted my reasons for being annoyed here, but I was informed that it looked like a castigation of that person, and that’s not the purpose of this post at all. It’s the loot system that is primarily at fault.)

I wonder if the healer felt the same way about me rolling on those leather pieces, and whether they felt that I expected them to be mine and shied away from rolling. I wonder if I would have been annoyed to not win those pieces either and have come out of the evening with nothing, or whether, having gained a couple of nice items, the loot system took over and twisted my thoughts towards expectation and rightful ownership, exactly the things that I’d sworn to avoid, having been on the receiving end of such rolls in the past, and had evenings ruined by what I perceived as… no, not unfairness, what happened was fair by all the rules. Perhaps thoughtlessness? It’s all very subjective, and that’s the biggest issue with these loot systems. The boundaries of who has a claim to what are often blurred, grey and misty, like putting on the One Ring and trying to see clearly.

I wonder if anyone else even cares about this, or if I’m just someone who spends too much time reading things into situations that don’t exist. I’m not writing this to try to shame that person into giving me the weapon, hell, they may very well have a point of view that, when explained to me, will make me realise that they had just as much claim on the item as I felt I had. And I most definitely wouldn’t want the item now, there’s something odious about getting an item from someone because you whinged about it: it’s just what the loot system would want. No, I’m genuinely writing this because loot systems in most MMOs are utterly rubbish, and instead of just copying the Need/Greed system and forcing the players to come up with DKP and other overlaid systems in order to make things more fair – and often still failing and causing grief between players – developers should really put some effort into coming up with something that is an enabler of group play, not something that causes discord and resentment between otherwise friendly and reasonable players. At the end of the day your character in most modern MMOs is nothing, gear is everything, so why is the gear distribution system in most MMOs such a hideous archaic throwback that has probably never once worked well.

Developers wonder why so many people will happily Play Alone with Others in MMOs, and yet when you look at the odds stacked against having a good time when playing with other people, even people you consider friends, it’s no wonder that more and more players switch to solo play wherever they can.

Firstly you’ve got to be on the right continent as your friends. Then you have to be on the right server. Then you have to belong to the same faction. Then you have to be of a comparable level. Then you have to have the same quests. And if all of that comes together and you can finally run an instance together, you have to hope that the loot which drops is easily apportioned and that nobody is going to feel that they deserved the piece more. Which when it comes to players and loot, is an almost certainty no matter how good their intentions, the loot system bends all to its will eventually.

I’ve resolved to do what I normally do in these situations, and that’s to not give the loot system a chance. Let’s face it, nobody outside of the end-game in WoW (PvP twinks excepted) needs to care about gear, I could probably perform well enough as a meleer in a set of cloth caster gear that we’d still make it through an instance, but quest items are plentiful enough that I will be able to pull my weight with ease. Yesterday I was tempted again, and though my brooding Galadriel-like thoughts almost brought me to a bad place, I think I have resisted the temptation well enough, and hopefully this will allow me to not worry about the loot and just enjoy the dungeons of WoW and the companionship of others.

No longer is the loot is precious to us, we don’t wants it no more; nice friendses, that’s all we wants.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Reviewlet: Grandville

Last week Melmoth and I headed up to Birmingham for the International Comic Show, a definite highlight of which was Bryan Talbot’s Grandville. As well as the opportunity to pick up a hand-badgered copy, Bryan gave a talk on the book within the anthropomorphic tradition, starting with his original inspiration, a book of illustrations by Gerard who worked under the pseudonym of JJ Grandville. As well as old animal favourites like Beatrix Potter and Wind in the Willows characters, he covered some areas I wasn’t at all familiar with, like the early 20th century popularity of animal cartoons in tabloids, the Daily Mirror’s Tiger Tim being countered with Teddy Tail in the Daily Mail and then Rupert Bear in the Daily Express, the only one still going.

The setting for Grandville is a Steampunk version of Belle Epoque Paris, in a timeline where France won the Napoleonic War and England only recently regained independence. Our hero, Inspector LeBrock, can detect with the best of them, starting the adventure with some distinctly Holmesian deductions, but is also a man’s man (badger’s badger?) who’s popular with the ladies (sows?) and handy with his fists when needed, a bit like Daniel Craig’s Bond. An apparent suicide (in Nutwood, home village of Rupert Bear, whose father shows up in a couple of frames) leads to a deeper conspiracy, as these things do, and lots of fights, chases and a spot of “badger-on-badger action”, as the man put it.

Grandville is utterly gorgeous, as the preview images show, and packed with details. One frame is based on Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere (with a slightly different bartender), where our hero orders a Bass ale as seen in the bottom right corner of the original; the whole palette of the surrounding pages is then taken from that image. Another frame, in the apartment of an exotic badger dancer, takes the furnishings from a photograph of Sarah Bernhardt’s apartment. There are a few humans around as well, part of a menial underclass, including Spirou as a bell-boy and Becassine as a maid, long running European comic characters I wasn’t at all familiar with. There’s also a white terrier who may seem familiar to readers of Tintin, but Talbot cunningly conceals his true identity by naming him Snowy Milou.

If I was forced to criticise it in some way, perhaps at gunpoint, like if a slightly odd mugger leapt out brandishing a pistol and demanding comic book criticism instead of money, there are some slightly unsubtle political allegories, and the plot isn’t terribly original, but those are piffling trifles really, and overall I wouldn’t hesitate to award it the highly coveted KiaSA “Best Steampunk Graphic Novel With Badger Protagonist EVER” award.  It’s a fantastic setting, in many senses, so it’s splendid news that there’s already a sequel in the works, “Grandville Mon Amor”.  C’est tres bon!

Monday 5 October 2009

Goin' down... all the way

If you were contemplating a holiday to the Hell region I’d advise taking a nice warm jumper, as early reports reaching us suggest it may have frozen over. In unrelated news, Rock Band 2 is actually coming out in the UK for the Wii this Friday, though I’ll remain skeptical until I’m actually strumming along to Norman Greenbaum, as the not-entirely-accurate “available in April” announcement is still there…

Just to put a slight crimp on the party, though, we’re not going to have the entire back catalogue of DLC available at launch, with “over 250 songs” (out of the 700-odd) “available on disc and for download by early 2010”. Probably makes sense; I imagine people are more likely to buy a few songs each week as they become available rather than going on a massive spending spree in one weekend. It’s still going to be terribly galling, though, if it takes a while for us to get some of the top-notch DLC on the way, like the Electric Six pack featuring that favourite of flying Viking kittens, Gay Bar, ten Queen songs later in the month, and, of course, the greatest news in the history of time ever, Flight of the Conchords coming to Rock Band.

Thursday 1 October 2009

Simulacra and Simulation

I just unlocked Kurt Cobain as a playable character in Guitar Hero 5, so my band now consists of me on guitar, Shirley Manson on vocals (for maximum incongruity, there being all of about 3 songs with a female vocalist), Matt Bellamy on drums (he’s Muse’s drummer, after all) and Kurt Cobain on bass (I’m hoping this shields me from the full wrath of Courtney Love, if he’s only playing along with Bon Jovi rather than singing). In Grand Theft Auto IV I’ve popped into the comedy club a few times to see a digitised Ricky Gervais (or to rapidly skip past a digitised Katt Williams), whole rosters of professional athletes come to virtual life in various EA Sports games, and Charlie Brooker’s Gameswipe had a segment on 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, in which you control the titular mercenary, elite assassin, professional martial artist and sometime rapper on a pretty typical day, laying down a rhyme or two between slaughtering militants by the bucketload.

As a genre, I can’t help but feel CRPGs are missing out with their lack of digitised celebrities. We’ve had the voices of Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean, amongst others, but full motion capture would step things up to the next level. In the forthcoming Star Trek Online, Eddie Izzard would obviously be the perfect bridge crew (“I think this might just be a box with ‘widdly wee’ written on it”; “Set phasers to ‘oven left on at home‘, men!”), as well as the ultimate Sith (“I could kill you with a tray!“) in The Old Republic. In the System Shock games the humans tend to be, with the exception of the protagonist, dead, wiped out by robotic beings; who better for the ultimate opponents in System Shock 3 than the Flight of the Conchords (under the guidance of SHODAN, of course). The exploits of Mr Cent suggest that in future espionage titles like The Agency or Alpha Protocol, if the player needs to call in hard-hitting backup then military special forces or a police SWAT team are frankly second rate when compared to musical entertainers, so I’d suggest players are given a choice of The Sugababes, Westlife or Miley Cyrus to provide fire support.

The one company making notable strides in this area are, of course, Blizzard. After going to all the trouble of digitising Ozzy Osborne it would be a great shame if he wasn’t an actual NPC in Cataclysm, along with William Shatner and Mr T. I’d definitely resubscribe to be in a party with those three.