Friday 26 February 2010

Events occur in real time

The TV series 24 was fresh, bold and different when it first aired; shown in (more or less) real time, there were more plot twists than you could shake a particularly twisty stick at, dramatic revelations all over the place and it wasn’t afraid to break genre conventions by killing off major characters. From the second series on, though, the unexpected twists and broken conventions started to become something of a convention themselves; if a seemingly trusted agent was actually a mole in the first series, next time around if a seemingly trusted agent was acting suspiciously and it looked like they might be a mole it would actually turn out they were a trusted agent working under particularly deep cover to infiltrate an enemy group. Fast forward another few series and a seemingly trusted agent acting suspiciously isn’t a mole they’re just in deep cover, only that in itself is a cover for the fact that they’re working for a second terrorist organisation, except really they’re in even deeper cover for a group of ex-government agents who’ve gone outside the law because highly placed members of the government are in on the conspiracy, except that’s really cover for the fact that they’re a member of a group of ex-ex-government agents who were disillusioned by their abandonment by different members of the government and are out for revenge, and then it turns out they’re not human at all but a robot sent from the future to stop other robots who’ve been sent back from a different future where they were built by the monkeys who took over the world except the monkeys are ghosts and they’re all clones and he’s his own brother.

When the eighth series started in UK recently I watched the first episode, but despite the requisite excitement, chases and exploding helicopters I couldn’t really get into it. I think that’s partly to do with the character of Jack Bauer, who started out as a believably magnificent bastard (within the bounds of “TV ex-Delta Force hero” believability), struggling with his wife and family life but able to saw somebody’s head off with a fish slice when push comes to shove. Since then over the course of seven really tough days he’s been kidnapped, captured, tortured, shot, imprisoned, released, fired, re-hired, disowned, put on trial, fired again, exiled, infected, irradiated, killed and resurrected more times than he’s had hot dinners (which isn’t terribly tricky as I don’t think he’s managed so much as a sandwich, let alone a full dinner, on screen). He’s ascended to the status of cut-n-paste replacement in Chuck Norris facts, and is slightly unreal as a character as a result.

That got me thinking about MMOGs updates and expansions. You get your character up to level 30/40/50 (in DIKU-land), and have progressed from being a rookie barely able to punch out a marmot into a fearsome hero able to take down the biggest monster/villain out there (or at least watch a YouTube video of a bunch of other people doing so), and then an update or expansion is released and it turns out there’s something even bigger out there, and you gain another five or ten levels, and an even bigger set of shoulder pads and sword to hit stuff with. How long can one game be extended that way and still make sense as a coherent world with the character you started out with (in as much as MMOGs ever make sense as coherent worlds)? With games like Everquest still going, and viewing figures of 24 holding up, I guess it’s not a universal worry by any means. In the meantime I’ve had a great idea for a 24/WoW crossover, in which Jack Bauer has to hunt down Arthas before he can assassinate the president, and Warcraft’s Cataclysm is caused by a nuclear device planted by a group of Forsaken militants who are really being controlled by a privately-funded corporation who are actually a front for a shadowy cabal of Alliance politicians…

Thursday 25 February 2010

One man's wilderness is another man's theme park.

Despite my unashamed love for Lord of the Rings Online it is still an MMO, and as such there are still wonderful incongruities that leap out suddenly and often unexpectedly, knocking me from the horse of immersion and into the cloying dreary mud of reality that lies beneath its feet.

One such curiosity, which I experienced recently, gave me cause to stop and ponder. I had just completed the run from the Ford of Bruinen in the Trollshaws to the entrance of Rivendell, and had made my way slowly down the winding path that leads towards the home of Elrond & Company (est. 1697). The path is lined with trees that cleverly block the view of the valley to all but the most persistent of observers until the player is close enough that, assuming you have a decent drawing distance set in your graphics options, your view of the valley becomes unobstructed by trees just as the bulk of Rivendell’s buildings ping into the back of your Z-buffer.

The majestic waterfalls around the Last Homely House sparkle in the soft sunlight that always seems to smile upon the elven city, and the delicate otherworldly architecture whispers hints of the secrets of many ages that it has known. The elegant haunting music of Rivendell begins to sigh its way to your ears on the gentle breeze, and all of nature seems bent on welcoming you with peace and love into Middle Earth’s last haven of calm and tranquillity.


Ok, so I’ve exaggerated the actual message, but you should expect that of me by now, after all I’ve been exaggerating things for nigh-on a million years now.

I think the phrase, uttered by an elf who stands forever immobile at the first junction on the path into Rivendell, is actually a simple “Welcome to Rivendell!” perhaps there’s an ‘adventurer’ tagged on the end, I forget, but it was enough to slap me out of my sense of awe and wonder and into a Mighty Boosh-like dream sequence. In it I pictured the welcoming elf as one of those people you see just inside the turnstiles of amusement parks, where they offer a hearty welcome, give you a map of the park along with some vouchers for tacky items in the souvenir shop that only require you to spend another fifty pounds there in order to qualify for the promotion, and perhaps shepherd you towards a pair of people dressed in giant costumes representing the theme park’s main characters, which can only have been designed by an individual who hates children and is bent on scarring them for life by creating eight foot tall versions of popular cartoon characters with gaping hungry maws and dilated crossed eyes fixed in a malignant insane stare that screams bloody murder. I pictured my character standing between a giant Elrond with a slightly lop-sided head three times too big for the body beneath it, and an equally engorged Galadriel with impossible breast dimensions packed into a dress that was too small to be considered anything other than slutty. Our elf greeter hurriedly snaps a photo and hands me a ticket to collect the picture in an hour from a booth outside of the Last Homely House, and I’m given pointers on my map to the main attractions around the zone, and told to get to the Last Homely House as quickly as possible because it’s the most popular ride and the queues get very long fairly soon after the park has opened.

I look around in a panicked fashion, expecting to see a herd of other adventurers all making their way down the path, balloons and candy floss in hand, shuffling past one another and parting, like rapid waters past a mid-stream boulder, around those adventurers who have stopped in the middle of the path to attend the mini adventurers sitting crying in their armoured prams. It’s just me, however, and a slightly bewildered elf; he cowers away from the angry red-haired lady on a horse, who points her sword at him and shouts “I DON’T WANT MY PHOTO TAKEN!” before snapping out of her trance, sheathing her weapon and trotting off slowly and slightly embarrassed towards the city of Rivendell waiting quietly below.

Looking on the bright side, the next time that elf decides to offer a vapid and hollow greeting to a passing adventurer, it might only be a subtle hand wave from his hiding place behind a nearby tree.

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Riding a horse is not a gentle hobby, to be picked up and laid down like a game of Solitaire.

I often find that it’s the little details which capture my imagination the most in an MMO, I’m not really one for the ostentatious and meretricious things in these games – or in life, for the most part – which is one of the reasons that I appreciate having costume outfits in games such as Lord of the Rings Online, where I can create a look for my character which is slightly less King of Clowns than the average MMO adventuring ensemble. That’s not to say that I can’t appreciate the grand and the theatrical, surely there are always those elements which even the most obstinate curmudgeon can’t help but stand back in jaw ajar, misty eyed admiration. The vista of Rivendell when approached from the Trollshaws; the cavern within Blackrock Mountain with its ever-circling mobile of dragons; the wide expanse of magnificent rolling mounds that make up the buttocks of Atlas’s statue in Atlas Park; all of these things manage to inspire and impress without the need for flashing neon and riotous fanfare. Horrible thought for the day: the next tier of World of Warcraft epics will blast out a loud trumpeting fanfare as the player walks around Stormwind or Orgrimmar, a foghorn-like blarp, perhaps, that causes the monitor screens of anyone nearby to tremble in enforced awe. Hoom hrum, either that or it will have one of those announcements which are often used on heavy goods vehicles: *beep* this Epic Player is reversing *beep* please stand clear *beep* this Epic Player is reversing *beep* please stand clear. Let’s face it, with the size of the swords that characters have hanging beside their hips and jutting out behind them, it’s probably a feature that would prevent a lot of the more unpleasant impalings when the more epically geared players try to back their way carefully out of the auction house.

Anyway, a feature that I noticed in Lord of the Rings Online recently, that I haven’t been able to stop playing with and smiling at, is such simple thing. It has to do with the player’s horse mount, and I don’t know whether it’s only recently been added, whether it applies only to horses where I’ve predominantly ridden ponies up until now having played a dwarf for most of my adventuring life in Middle Earth, or whether I just didn’t notice it because I’ve been too busy considering just how ugly horse bums are, having had ample opportunity to do nothing but sit and stare at them during my time in the game. Regardless, I’ve only just noticed it and now, like a child who has just discovered the noise that can be made by holding a ruler over the edge of a table and flicking its end, I can’t stop playing with it at every opportunity. It’s such a daftly innocuous thing: when you steer your character left and right by holding the right mouse button and dragging the mouse (and probably by using the left and right turn keys for all you keyboard turners out there), the character turns in that direction, as does the horse’s head, in a very realistic and delightfully true to life manner. And now that I’ve noticed it I can’t seem to stop turning in circles in order to make myself grin in that slightly gawpish way, like a child who has found for the first time that they can make rainbows magically appear on the wall or ceiling if they tilt their watch into the sunlight just so.

It makes adventuring difficult. Picture one of those Indiana Jones segues where a map appears and a little red arrow-headed line depicts the path of our hero’s long but uneventful journey from one location to the next; now imagine that the line starts out straight but very quickly begins to veer off to the left before completing a full circle and continuing on its original course, for a short while at least, before it veers off to the right, then back left, and thus slowly wriggles its snake-like path across the map, stopping every now and again to fight a bunch of crap creatures that have had the audacity to cross one of the red line’s wayward swerves off of the beaten path. As if I didn’t spend enough time riding from one location to the next, now I’m actively drawing out the process because of a bit of ‘simple’ model animation. Don’t even get me started on cresting hills.

Oh, cresting hills is so splendid! I don’t know why, but when you ride up a hill and then turn left or right as you crest it, it looks like one of those shots from a Western just before the hero pulls up sharply, the horse performing a pirouette on the spot as the rider flicks around in the saddle trying to maintain their fixed view of whatever it is in the distance that has given them cause to halt. There’s no horse pirouette emote in LotRO yet alas — Riders of Rohan expansion, you are my only hope — but the feeling and imagery is triggered nevertheless, and I will confess to more than once riding back down a sharp incline just so I could crest it again. To my, albeit minor, credit I haven’t yet tried to perform any skateboard tricks as I hack pell-mell up and down these slopes. So back to our map and the red line now also turns around whenever there are a bunch of closely packed contours, and then turns back again and continues on up the steep gradient a second time. Basically by this point our little travel map looks like the impassioned scribblings of the clinically insane, which is probably apt considering that it has been generated by yours truly.

Spinks, Tamarind and many others have been discussing immersion recently; for me immersion is, in part, down to the little details: the way a character swings a sword, the way a horse moves, the way a path wends its way up a mountainside. If the details of the game world that we can relate to are congruent with our own world, then it makes the suspension of disbelief with regards to the fantastical elements that much easier, thus priming the jaws of immersion, allowing them to snap shut and grab hold.

And now, post delivered into your expectant hand as you watch from the porch of your RSS Reader, I hold my hat up in the air as my steed rears up, and then charge rapidly off, ahead of a cloud of dust, into the sunset.

Swerving wildly left and right as I go.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Thought for the day.

Is there a Facebook game that uses your friends list to name mobs in the game?

Zoso was talking to me about his adventures in S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat, and explaining that there’s a character in the game with a very similar name to his own. This freaked him out for a few seconds, before he calmed himself down and realised that it was just a coincidence. And then shot himself in the face. The other himself, that is.

I thought: it might be fun to have an MMO use your Outlook or Address Book to derive names for mobs within the game. It would give a whole new meaning to “raiding the boss tonight”, if the boss mob in question happened to be named after Mr Johnson from senior accounts. There’d also be some pleasing karma in a giant flatulent ogre in the game being named after the attractive but spiteful secretary from down the hall.

Hey, if the MMO did this without asking your permission, and your friends were all able to log-in and see everything, we could call the game Buzz Online.

Monday 22 February 2010

Free is the magic number

There’s been Alliddle bit of a fuss over the cash shop in Allods, and mbp has a series of posts covering the initial furore and developing some interesting thoughts on the whole financial approach of the Free to Play model (which really needs a better name, like Pay Different Amounts Possibly Including Nothing to Play Various Aspects, but PDAPINTPVA isn’t really as catchy as F2P).

I’ve long held that MMOGs could do with pricing plans in addition to flat rate subscriptions; £10/month is great for one game you’re really dedicated to, not so good if you want to dip in and out of games here and there. I’ve lost count of the number of blog reports from open betas of MMOGs saying “it’s not bad, I had fun, but… I wouldn’t pay £10/month for it”. A more direct relationship between cost and time is an option, but possibly starts having a psychological effect on players; someone going AFK or otherwise slowing down your dungeon group isn’t just costing you time, but also money, and there’s the prospect of being taken to the small claims court because you stood in the fire, wiped a raid and cost your guild £42.50. It used to be a standard model though ($6/hour plus the phone call for Neverwinter Nights), it’d be interesting to see if it did still work.

Rather than taking the old “time is money” adage literally most Free to Play games have an item shop, making their money by selling in-game bits n’ pieces. There are any number of options here; potions or items to make your character more powerful temporarily or permanently, cosmetic fluff, access to certain in-game areas, additional races and classes, XP boosting items to speed your progress, etc etc. The structure of the game can dictate how essential or merely desirable these items are; a purchasable mount might be a nice-to-have in a game with a fairly small world, or all but mandatory if most quests involve around travelling a vast continent that would take hours on foot. I’m not familiar enough with Allods to get a handle on exactly what’s being charged for and how necessary any of it is (though I might grab it just out of curiosity; no publicity is bad publicity and all that), but some people are using it as a stick to beat all item shops. That’s daft, though, item shops aren’t bad per se, *bad* item shops are bad (Captain Tautology saves the day!) In the five months or so since Dungeons and Dragons Online went Unlimited I’ve dipped in and out, averaging about one night a week, mostly with Van Hemlock & similarly Irredeemable Waifs. I’ve spent something like £20 in that time on a few different things; unlocking the Drow race (entirely optional, but necessary for my totally unique character concept of a Drow who’s actually quite nice and wields two scimitars), several adventure packs and a couple of container items (most fundamentally the collectables bag to stop my main backpack overflowing with moss, documents, glittering dust, idols, primitive tools, cheese, sandwiches, socks, geese and tangled slinkies). I couldn’t really justify a £10/month subscription, but with sensibly priced items Turbine get a bit of cash and everyone’s happy.

Press Release: Squire Online.

Squire Online is an exciting next generation MMO from the creators of GrindFace and Ant Farm Online, where you take on the role of squire to a hero of the seventh age, armed only with your wits and a small sack barrow.

It’s the Grindeenth of Grindember, in the year of Our Lord 1337, and you start your adventuring life as a squire in the small town of Grindburg, in the kingdom of Dross. There are many heroes in the world, too many some might say, and they are each so powerful that they can destroy whole towns with nothing more than a baleful glare. Yet there is one problem: they cannot move. Due to the alarming and preposterous dimensions of their mighty armour, the heroes of the world are no longer mobile. Were it even possible for the immense joints of the cumbrous fragments of armour to move freely, our heroes would not have the physical strength to shift such weight, especially when attempting to wield a weapon that could double as the hull of an ironclad warship. Even those heroes wearing only cloth armour cannot get far: wrapped in so many ponderous layers they find themselves held rigid like a scarecrow in a clown suit, and can only totter short distances by hopping from one locked-straight leg to the other.

And so the heroes of the world are stuck, fuming and straining with the sweaty, bulging-veined, squashed-dough face of one who is constipated with destructive power, like geriatric Super Saiyans.

Enter the squire and his sack barrow, able to wheel a hero from location to location, you are responsible for manoeuvring your hero into harms way and then, through a complicated series of levers and pulleys, operating your hero’s weapons.

Game features:

  • Start the MMO with a level 1000 Hero of Ultimate Heroism equipped entirely in epic equipment!
  • Level your squire and invest points to improve their skills:
    • Negotiation (Stairs).
    • Avoidance (Gravel Driveways).
    • Dodge (Bollards/Raised Curbs).
    • Curse (Low ceilings).
  • Gain unique and amazing powers!
    • One Wheel Cornering.
    • Super 180 Reverse.
    • Sack Barrow Charge.
    • Fallen Hero Scoop and Scoot.
    • Impersonal Sponge Bath.
  • Find new and exciting equipment for your squire!
    • Anti-hernia Girdle.
    • Head-mounted Periscope.
    • Buy increased capacity for your hero’s Port-A-Bucket[TM] in the Cash Shop, and save yourself the in-game downtime of having to clean poop from off of everything.
  • Upgrade your sack barrow with greater manoeuvrability and lifting capacity, and discover the ultimate upgrade, the Hero Shifter 3000 forklift!
    • Hydraulic and Pneumatic systems for animating your hero’s armour with increased power and response times.
    • Shopping Basket attachment.
    • Magic Tree Air Fresheners are available in the Cash Shop in a variety of scents. Neutralise the odour of your sweaty angry hero for bonuses to diplomacy with the various in-game factions.
    • Your hero comes with various mount points which you can use to personalise them and add further bonuses. Add freshly laundered underpants to their helmet spikes to gain extra righteous fury for use in combat, for example!

Squire Online will be wheeling its way onto your PC in Q4 2011.

Saturday 20 February 2010

Behind the News

In a recent interview with IGN Ray Muzyka of Bioware was asked about the lack of gay relationships for a male Shepard in Mass Effect 2, especially in comparison with Dragon Age: Origins. Muzyka responded by talking about Mass Effect as a third person narrative with a more pre-defined character, as opposed to Dragon Age being a first person narrative in which you define your own character at a much more fundamental level.

Here at Behind the News, though, we’ve fabricated exclusive documents that reveal the true reason a male Shepard can only be romantically involved with female team members: when word emerged of a third person cover-based shooter with strong homoerotic elements, Epic threatened to sue for blatantly copying Gears of War 2.

And now here’s Geoff with the weather…

Friday 19 February 2010

KiaSA Appeal.

Imagine a world in which you can only see a foot and a half in front of your face. Imagine having to live a life where you are able to hear everything, but unable to pinpoint where each sound is coming from. Imagine that day after day you suffered beatings at the hands of malicious adventurers. This is the daily life of George and Colin, two Dourhand dwarf guards who have worked together for the past four years guarding the ruins of Ost Galumar with others of their kin.

“It’s not a bad life,” says George, talking to a nearby hedge that he’s mistaken for me “it’s just that we aren’t really particularly well qualified for the role of being a guard, what with us not being able to spot intruders.”

“Yes, it can be utterly frustrating to hear combat going on all around you, but not be able to tell which direction it is, or see where the fighting is until it’s too late” Colin explains to an empty space, with his back to the rest of us.

“We’ve taken to tying ourselves together with a bungee cord”, Colin says, tugging absently on the tail of a passing cat whilst trying to demonstrate the bungee cord in question. “So whenever one of us happens to get lucky and spot an enemy, the other one gets dragged along as well”.

“Of course, we’ve had our problems” George earnestly explains to a passing goat, “we once tied one end to a gate post by mistake, and when I ran off to attack some folks, Colin tried to follow but was yanked back and dashed his head quite badly.”

“We laugh about it now, of course” Colin admits “but it’s hard to maintain the guise of serious and intimidating guards when it’s pretty obvious that we’re blissfully unaware of most things going on around us” he goes on to explain, not realising that we left the area some time ago.

Hello, I’m Melmoth Melmothson. I’m here to talk to you today about a charity that has been set up specifically to deal with the plight of NPC guards in MMOs. You encounter NPC guards on a daily basis during your adventures as a hero, but have you ever stopped to consider the unfortunate circumstances under which they are forced to live? Cursed with incredibly short sight and mono-directional hearing, these poor people are expected to stand guard and defend their homes against able bodied adventurers whose only handicap is perhaps a slight propensity for impatience and carelessness. It’s hard enough for guards to have to stand still and wait for an adventurer to introduce themselves before the guard can try to apprehend them, but consider the poor souls who have to patrol around, unable to see their own feet in front of them, let alone a party of twelve adventurers ‘sneaking’ past, armour clanking and weapons clinking, a mere metre or so away. Guide Bots for Guards is a registered charity that aims to bring help to the NPC guards of MMOs everywhere; for just five gold per month, you can provide an NPC guard with a bot of their own. Our bots are trained from early on in their lifecycle to develop AI routines which help NPC guards to see and hear, and also provide sensible pathing information. We also provide training for NPC guards in how to use their bot effectively, and together they form a partnership which benefits both parties. As an added bonus our guide bots are hellishly cute, and thus also serve to attract unwitting PC adventurers into the clutches of their NPC masters.

“It has changed my life” George tells us, while tickling the tummy of his bot, “I’m alerted to adventurers coming from miles away, and I’ve been able to set up ambushes, sneak up behind them, all the sorts of things that I just couldn’t manage before.”

Colin agrees: “Before adventurers would just sneak past me, or fight all of the other guards first, one at a time. Now we work together as a group. If Norbert here hears fighting off in the distance, he alerts me straight away and I can prepare an ambush or rush off and join the fight. We’ve caught so many adventurers, we actually feel as though we’re a defensive force now, and not a bunch of skittles to be mindlessly knocked down as an adventurer passes through”.

George and Colin have had their lives transformed; for just five gold a month you too could be providing a much needed new lease of life to an NPC guard at a ruined castle or dungeon in Azeroth, Middle-earth and many other deprived worlds. Please donate today. Thank you.

Today’s appeal was read by Melmoth Melmothson on behalf of the charity Guide Bots for Guards.

Thursday 18 February 2010

What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?

Via the peerless Rock, Paper, Shotgun I’ve just been playing Record Tripping, the game that DJ Hero could have been if programmed by Lewis Carroll fanatics with plenty of Elemental on the soundtrack. Lovely!

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Levelling the playing field.

Could Blizzard compress the ‘levelling’ component of World of Warcraft into the first ten levels?

Let’s face it, the levelling game these days is just a very long-winded way to introduce a set of abilities and talents to a player without swamping them with information. Could a character be given all of their abilities, graduate if you will, in the first ten levels and the player still be expected to play that class with some level of competence?

If so, would it then be possible to have three paths of ‘end game’ content: raiding, PvP and adventuring. Level ten and higher zones could be revamped to present quest and exploration content of varying difficulty for graduated characters and also provide rewards that are equivalent in power to those found in raiding and PvP. Trying a new class would be trivial, as would finding other players to group with for quest content, since you’d all be the same level.

Raiding follows the generic arcade game design: a static playing piece that moves from game level to game level, repeating that level until perfected and then moving on. PvP arenas and battlegrounds follow the generic board game design: static playing pieces and a static board, with random chance and the players’ decisions making each play through unique. Currently WoW’s adventuring game is a legacy of the generic RPG design, where a character gains levels slowly, out-levelling one set of content (some of which may not even have been played through) whilst levelling into range of another set, and subsequently gaining new abilities slowly over a long period of time; this slow bloom is pronounced in WoW, where many classes really only gain some of their more powerful signature abilities in later levels, often feeling underpowered or lifeless before that time.

I think the introduction of the Death Knight class shows us the way, and games like Guild Wars show us that a relatively short levelling component to a game does not preclude players from going out and enjoying general PvE content, doubly impressive when the game’s main focus is PvP. So it is possible to have a much shorter curve of character graduation and still provide PvE content that keeps players interested and adventuring within an MMO, but alas I imagine that it would take an event of cataclysmic proportions for Blizzard to repurpose their game in this way.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Rocked Off

Dear Technology Sites (and the rest of the world),

“Rocking” is not a synonym of “featuring”, “running”, “including”, “wearing”, “demonstrating”, “eating” or whatever other sodbuggering verb, noun or adjective you’ve randomly decided to replace today.

“We’re totally rocking updates from the Mobile World Conference today where the latest Nokias are rocking a new operating system, HTC have unveiled a handset rocking a 3.7″ screen, I’m rocking a cool t-shirt and I’m going to rock a sandwich for lunch then rock a taxi to rock to the hotel to rhythmically move backwards and forwards myself to sleep.”

Monday 15 February 2010

Sickness comes on horseback, but goes away on foot.

I spent the weekend being raided by what seemed like several hundred different virus pick-up groups, as though it was patch weekend in the virus world and I was the new dungeon content. None of them managed to defeat me, I’m happy to report, although one group did get me to about ten percent on Saturday night before my enrage timer kicked in and I dropped a couple of Paracetamol into their midst. The vanquished viruses struggled valiantly on, but once they were flushed out of my nose and the Tissue of Infinite Absorption came into view, they quickly resigned themselves to the inevitable wipe.

In between alternating sips of hot Lemsip and adding more white boulders to the tissue barricade that I was slowly erecting between myself and the rest of the world, I spent a little bit of time running a new character around in Lord of the Rings Online as a bit of an easy and mindless diversion from the interminable attempts at raid progression that were going on within my own body. Turbine really are working wonders on the starter areas of the game, they’ve gone back to several of the early zones now and have tweaked things to make the levelling progress swifter and less painful than it was when the game first launched. There are horse taxi ranks at various halfway points between major quest hubs where before the player had to slowly jog back and forth between said hubs and the objective of the quests found there, which invariably required you to be exactly as far away from any travel route as was computationally possible; now you can grab a handful of quests and then hop on a horse to somewhere that is, if not precisely where you need to be, then somewhere within the same geographical region.

Progression through the Lone Lands has been smoothed out as well, where before there were quests that sent you from one end of the zone to the other and back again, many of which required a fellowship, the progress through the zone is now a gentle wave of predominantly soloable progression running west to east, from the Forsaken Inn on to the new camp near Minas Eriol, via the still central focal point of Ost Guruth, then further east to Dol Vaeg which deals with the undead at Nan Dhelu, and also the Earthkin camp to the south, which sends you further south still, to visit the trolls of Harloeg. And for those who keep their eyes open there’s also a small contingent of dwarves who are having trouble with an excavation they are undertaking, located somewhere between Minos Eriol and Ost Guruth.

Although the Lone Lands is still a fairly drab place to adventure, with wide featureless rolling plains sparsely dotted with the odd ruin, albeit punctuated impressively by the looming imperious presence of Weathertop, with its stone watchtower crown, the actual quest experience is now vastly improved, the player finds themselves having to tread over old ground far less often than before, which helps to alleviate some of the previous frustration resulting from the feeling that one has seen it all before, and can we please move the tour bus of Middle Earth on to the next point of interest please?

So I’d like to give Turbine the KiaSA Hearty Pat On The Back In A Tentative-Yet-Manly ‘Jolly Good Show!’ Fashion To Show That We’re Not Coming On To You Or Anything, Just Trying To Express Our Appreciation Of Your Efforts award for service to new MMO players and alts. They’ll hopefully be pleased with it because it’s a bloody great big trophy, as it needs to be to fit that title on the plaque around its base. I didn’t win KiaSA’s Most Likely To Make Up A Spurious Award With A Title That Is Far Longer Than Really Necessary And Thus Causing All Sorts Of Trouble When Trying To Find A Trophy Large Enough To Fit The Title On The Plaque At Its Base award for three years running for nothing, you know.

Right, time to go and wipe some more raids, it might just be my imagination, but I’m sure I can see the tiny viral NPC vendors rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of more repair bills.

Friday 12 February 2010

And pay no worship to the garish sun.

One of the things that I like about Lord of the Rings Online is that, in order to claim at least some sort of adherence to the spirit of Tolkien’s mighty work, they needed to keep the game’s armour and weapons towards the more subdued end of the General Garishness Scale as we can see in Figure A.

Figure A - General Garishness Scale

Figure A - General Garishness Scale

Dragon Age: Origins on the other hand is hard to place on the scale because it has, on the whole, a fairly sombre design philosophy with regards to armour and weapons, but has the occasional Warcraftian eyesore whose effect is only magnified by the fact that it keeps such sober company. Take the longsword version of Starfang, one of the better swords in the game, which appears to have been designed by the car stylists from The Fast and the Furious. With its vivacious eggshell blue neon glow from hilt to tip, I think it’s safe to say that it stands out against the more traditional steel on offer, but not in a good way to my mind; it has what I can only describe as veins of glowing neon blue running the length of its blade and it does seem to resemble a giant blue penis in sword form, as though Dr Manhattan had detached his wang and altered its molecular structure in order that you could beat Darkspawn to death with it. Now there’s a fanfic crossover idea.

I suppose that swords in these fantasy games are a bit like lady’s pleasure devices: most want a subtle, discreet unit that doesn’t draw attention to themselves and can be slipped in and out of a body without any more fuss than a modest breathless gasp on the part of the recipient; other people, and I’m not entirely sure that they aren’t either mythical or the sole preserve of fans of adult entertainment films, want a humungous intimidating thing, that glows and sparkles and which could have someone’s eye out from over six feet away, the primary design goal of which seems to be to scare the living crap out of pet cats sneaking around under the bed, or a partner who accidentally stumbles upon it whilst looking for their slippers there.

I don’t really understand the whole ‘the bigger the better’ and ‘if it glows it must be special’ idea behind items in these games, I’m sure the heritage of it lies in fantasy literature and Dungeons & Dragons, and it has since evolved as a cheap and easy way to allow players to quickly identify those with the biggest eRogenous Zone from some distance – half a continent away in the case of World of Warcraft – but all the neon and flashing lights and ridiculously inflated proportions seem tacky and uncivilised to my mind, doubly so when it appears in otherwise sober games like Dragon Age: Origins or Lord of the Rings Online where the starkness of contrast is at its most pronounced, like finding a Constable watercolour titled 37DDs Outside Las Vegas Casino.

Thursday 11 February 2010

Thought for the day.

Can it really be called crafting if you just press a single button and then go and watch a movie for half an hour?

Wednesday 10 February 2010

KiaSA Top Tips.

MMO raiders, stave off boredom whilst on holiday by picking a fast food outlet at random from the local directory and then attempting to drive there without using the brakes on your car. Learning all the traffic light sequences along the way in order not to have to slow down will simulate the complex knowledge required for end game raiding, and pedestrians crossing the road in front of you can be equated to trash mobs trying to stop you from getting to the boss.

Once you’ve managed to get to there a few times without braking, or have had enough of the fatty loot at the end, simply pick a slightly upmarket restaurant and start all over again for higher rewards!

Yours repetitively,

Stu Pidraid

Tuesday 9 February 2010

Rejected side quests in Mass Effect 2

As Melmoth rather splendidly points out Bioware games do have a bit of a formula, a key part of which is getting to know the other members of your party by chatting with them, discovering unfinished business in their past and helping them out on some form of quest. When Bioware are on form with characters, story and voice acting these can be amongst the most engaging parts of the games, forging bonds with your comrades beyond the fact that they’ve got Shield Block Level 4 to handle an alpha-strike and helping to establish popular characters like HK-47 and Minsc (and Boo, of course).

It’s a short hop from formula to formulaic, though, and Mass Effect 2 does tend to emphasise the latter a bit. If you had three or four companions it might not be so noticeable, but running through the same set of actions ten times in a row rather drives it home; crew member has something on their mind (if you don’t pick up the subtle signals like them appearing distracted in conversation then your Yeoman will shout at you every time you pass: “hey Captain, someone wants to see you!”), have a bit of a chat to find out that their brother/sister/mother/father/son/daughter is in some sort of trouble, fly to a planet/space station, have a bit of a chat to a few people with some connection to your party member, shoot a bunch of bad people, get to the big finish where your party member is pointing a gun at someone, right click the blue option to grab the gun off them and say “you don’t want to do this”, home for tea, cake and Paragon points.

It could’ve been worse, though; entirely fictitious leaked documents that we’ve just invented reveal Mass Effect 2 originally had no less than 25 recruitable characters, and they were starting to run out of ideas for new and interesting side quests with some of them:

Eliza, a biotic freelancer: “Shepard, I’ve just got word from my brother Jeff; he and his wife live on the frontier worlds, they went out shopping leaving their children with the nanny, and while they were out there was a planetary alert warning of Batarian slaveships.  On returning home the children were nowhere to be seen, and they couldn’t get hold of the nanny.”

   That’s terrible, we must get after the Batarians, there’s not a moment to lose!
   I’m sorry Eliza but the fate of humanity is at stake, we can’t dick around looking for a couple of kids.

Eliza: “Oh, no, they’re fine, turned out they’d gone to the zoo and the nanny hadn’t charged her mobile comm unit so the battery was dead. Anyway, my brother and his wife had bought a load of furniture while shopping and it’s all flat-pack; they had a go at putting it together but silly old Jeff, he’s all fingers and thumbs and almost nailed himself to the coffee table when putting it together, so could we pop around and help them finish it off?”

Sharmura, the Asari Commando: “Shepard! I am so sorry to disturb you, but I do not know who else to turn to. You have already done so much for me, but I must ask for a favour. It is my… I am not sure how you humans would describe the relationship, but somebody I met while on holiday and exchanged addresses with and we send each other a postcard now and again. They are facing one of the ultimate rites of Asari culture.”

   We must go and help them at once!
   Yeah, whatever.

Sharmura: “Thank you, Shepard, I knew I could rely on you. The ritual is difficult to describe, but… do you humans have what we would know as Cornflakes? They are like flakes, made of corn; served with milk they are a breakfast delicacy, or sometimes even as an evening meal when you can’t really be bothered to cook and you’ve run out of Pot Noodles. My friend had a bowl of them, and forgot to rinse it out straight after finishing as the ancient texts decree, and now faces the Rite of Brillopad to cleanse her crockery. I was thinking we could pop along with the M920 nuke launcher, that should do the trick.

Abel, an ex-Alliance soldier turned Mercenary: “Hey Shepard! Y’know how, like, I don’t talk about my family much? Well I just got this message from Uncle Geoff, he’s the guy who got me into the Alliance in the first place, I really looked up to him as a kid, he’d let me dress up in his tac pads and stuff. Well it’s bad news; see, his patrol got caught in a duststorm on one of the dark zone planets, took out comms, their support ship had to pull out ‘cos of heavy Geth presence, Uncle Geoff caught a slug in the knee and can’t walk.”

   Don’t worry, we’ll pull him out and make those Geth sorry!
   I haven’t got enough Renegade points so I’m going to be pointlessly insulting.

Abel: “Huh? Oh, no, this was last year, the patrol holed up until the storm cleared and the Alliance came back in force. No, he’s fine now, well, apart from the knee, even with reconstruction he was invalided out of the military. He used the pension to set up as a handyman, though, and he needs some business cards and a few fliers. He got a quote from a local printer for 79 Euro, and I was all “Whoah, total rip-off, I could pick up the blank cards and stuff and do them for 20 Euro tops”, so can I use the Normandy’s colour laser printer? We’ll put 10 Euro through to cover the costs of the paper and stuff, split the other ten between us, whaddya say?”

Monday 8 February 2010

I can believe anything provided it is incredible.

So that was the weekend that was; that is to say, that was the weekend that was when I finished Mass Effect 2. I’m left feeling slightly more empty than I was when I finished Dragon Age: Origins, I think it’s probably as much to do with the fact that I took time to complete everything I could in Mass Effect 2 and therefore have no desire to go back through it, even if there is the option to play as a renegade rather than a paragon. Let’s face it though, there’s no real difference between the two at the end of the day: in the paragon version of events you would verbally persuade a guard that it would be better for their family and friends if they let you through the door, and they would thank you for the advice and let you go on your way, whereas in the renegade version you explain things via the arcane diplomatic art of fracturing their skull against a door frame, and they thank you for the advice through the remaining half of their jaw, and let you go on your way.

Both Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2 follow Bioware’s now standard technique for telling a big story with various branches: hero exists; hero is tasked with saving the country/planet/universe; hero goes around recruiting a formidable group of allies through various location-based missions; hero finds out that all of the people they have recruited are wet-blanket children who can’t solve personal problems on their own; hero runs around several other locations solving the teenage angst of their companions; hero runs around a bit more to make sure they’ve done any plot-inconsequential side missions that might award some sexy looking armour or weapons; hero goes to obvious location of Final Battle; hero defeats inevitable Big Bad; some party members leave/die depending on a few arbitrary decisions that sometimes make sense, sometimes not. The End.

As far as it goes it works, and works well enough, because they’ve had several generations of games to iterate through and perfect the system, but once you’ve played through a few, Bioware’s games do seem a bit like RPG Trivial Pursuit: fill up your little party-wheel with coloured wedges of heroes, and once you have a full set, head in to the middle of the board to answer the final boss question, which is always either about dragons or giant robots depending on whether you picked the Fantasy or Sci-Fi category.

So the game design is fairly formulaic within the little genre that Bioware have created, which, in a fit of inspired originality, we shall call Bioware RPGs, but also the game play often has obvious flaws or bugs in it.

In Dragon Age: Origins my rogue character kept heading into melee every battle, even though I had their preset tactics set up for archery, because I’d picked a selection of archer talents. I didn’t want to have to micro-manage them every fight, like some sort of errant three-year-old child who happens to like stabbing people to death with daggers.

“No dear, I’ve told you before, use your bow to kill the bad men or you won’t get any pudding tonight. Oh now, there’s no point in rolling around on the floor like that, it’s not going to change anything. No, banging your head on the chest of loot won’t work either. And stabbing the cat is right out! Go to your room young lady and think about what you’ve done!”

So I bit the bullet and went into the tactics menu and set a bunch of options, I can’t remember what, precisely, but essentially the plan was to force them in any situation to get their bow out and shoot from range. I don’t know quite how I managed it, but what I ended up with on the first fight was a rogue who stood on the edge of the battle and just constantly swapped between their daggers and their bow, unsheathing one, only to put it a way and draw the other. It’s like my rogue was having some sort of authority crisis, or they had suddenly turned from a tempestuous toddler into a sullen teenager who was going to do exactly what I asked in just such a way that meant they weren’t doing what I intended, before stamping up the stairs to their room and sulking to the sounds of Ben Folds Five or Jimmy Eat World. So I did the thing that any parent would do given the chance, I took them gently to one side, made thoughtful meaningful eye contact, and carefully smacked them upside the head. Then took the dog with me instead.

In Mass Effect 2 I had a similar problem, but this time I was Bugs Bunny and I had Daffy Duck on my team. There are various ammo abilities in the game that, as a soldier, I could level-up to add extra effects, my favourite being the Cryo ammo which had a chance to nullify enemies by encasing them in ice, and if you got a lucky shot, you could then shatter them into a million satisfying pieces, essentially getting a kill for far less ammo than you might otherwise have had to expend. At its maximum rank you can choose to have this ability freeze more often, or instead have it apply to every member of your group; since it already froze enemies on a pretty regular basis, I went for the latter option with the thinking that more people using it would mean more frozen enemies, and indeed that worked wonderfully. The issue came when I was forced to take Jacob along with me for his side mission. I hadn’t used him much on away missions as I didn’t really care too much about him, primarily stemming from the fact that every conversation option about Getting Jiggy With It led to him being all coy and bashful and… YEAH, RIGHT, have you seen my sexy female butt in this officer’s outfit? I’m offering it to you, no questions asked, and you want to talk about it later because you’re unsure? Fine, I’m following Tamarind’s advice and going gay for Garrus instead. Look, I’ve had a placard made up and everything; we’re doing a march around Citadel next Sunday: Garrus Pride.


Not really caring in the slightest for little miss prude pants over there, I hit his auto-level-up button. Which was a mistake, I admit. It turns out that he gets an ammo boosting ability too, one that sets people on fire; a flaming enemy is useful enough, but having both ammo types myself I found the soft control provided by the Cryo ammo to be a far better option. He also, as it happens, had taken the Give This Effect To All Group Members ability. Now, it turns out that you can only have one of the group ammo abilities apply at a time, so you can probably see where this is going. Of course I hadn’t realised that he had this ability, I had just punched the Yeah Whatever level-up option, and got on with the mission. It was shortly after the first fight that I began to wonder why the enemy forces were suffering a large number of flame-based deaths when I had my Cryo ammo set — I was reasonably certain that Flamey Death and Freezey Death were at opposite ends of the F’ing Death spectrum. I checked my gun and, sure enough, I had Inferno ammo set. Curious, never mind, I’ll set Cryo ammo and away we go! Freezey Death. Freezey Death. Freezey Death. Fiery Death. F… wait, what? And so it would continue: Set Cryo ammo; enter combat; Freezey Death; Freezey Death; Fiery Death; Swear Loudly.

It didn’t take me too long to realise what was going on, and that there was no obvious way to tell him to turn off his Inferno ammo. I did a quick search on a few forums and all I turned up was a bunch of, y’know, Forum People (imagine that phrase whispered, with that haunted look in one’s eyes, in a tone of voice reserved for use when talking about the criminally insane. Or Right To Roam advocates). The next combat I entered I waited until he had activated his Inferno ammo, overwriting my previously active Cryo ammo, then went in and switched the power off in his power selection bar. Turning my Cryo ammo back on I carried smugly on with the fight. Freezey Death. Freezy Death. Fiery Death. F’ing Death to you Jacob, you git!

I wouldn’t be beaten though, oh no.

It was at this point that we got into the aforementioned Bugs Bunny versus Daffy Duck battle of wills, as I resolved to pretty much ignore combat and concentrate on turning on my Cryo ammo whenever I saw Jacob turn on his Inferno ammo.

“Cryo season”

“Inferno season”

“Cryo season!”

“Inferno season!”

“Cryo season!”

“Inferno season!”

“Inferno season!”

“Ok, good, glad you agree”

“Fuck you, Jacob!”

All the while the enemy is stood around, some looking nervously at each other, others twisting one foot on its side and staring embarrassedly at the sole of their boot as they rock back and forth on it, yet others kicking at stones and suffering that intense moment of panic when they see the stone veer off in the direction of the two idiot humans yelling red-faced at each other on the other side of the battlefield. The humans see the stone whiz past, look up and seem to see the enemy for the first time, and then set the poor unfortunate individual on fire under a hail of Inferno ammo, then just as rapidly extinguish the flames and freeze the poor sod in place, before melting the ice away with a hail of incendiary fire, and so on and so forth, until eventually the poor fellow simply evaporates into a steamy mist and his companions look on in slack-jawed disbelief and wide-eyed horror while the humans go back to arguing with one another.

Thankfully my two regular companions didn’t have such ammo options; even so, I made sure I levelled them up by hand, just in case they tried to sneak a new ammo power in there while I wasn’t looking.

So what makes these Bioware games great? The game design is formulaic within the Bioware RPG genre. The game play is good, but isn’t outstanding by any measure: the cover system in Mass Effect 2 is a great addition, for example, but just doesn’t seem to be as elegant as that found in, say, Gears of War; the cover system is also somewhat infuriating.

“Hah, I see you Mr Enemy, and I shall duck behind this wall and fire from cover, what do you think about that?!”

“Well, I can only commend you on your tactics. I concede that it is a well thought out and thoroughly good plan. I, however, will see your ‘Cover’ and raise you ‘Walking Through A Hail of Bullets and Crowd Control And Just Punching You In The Face While You’re Glued To A Wall And Unable To Attack Me Back’.”

“Touché. And also: Ow, my face.”

There are a number of game play ‘features’ that are undesirable; also, the textures on many of the NPC character outfits look awful to the point of distraction when in a close-up shot, such as in most conversations; and then there’s the planet scanning/probing/mining mini-game. Actually, let’s not go there, that’s a dark place and my counsellor worked so very hard to help me get through it without too much medication. Suffice it to say, if you’re an MMO player it will nearly kill you via your OCD completionist indoctrination, and if you’re not an MMO player then you’ll do the bare minimum to gather the resources you need to complete the game, and remember later that you were quite bored at the time.

So what makes most games journalists froth at the mouth at these Bioware games, because on the whole, if you take a hard look at them, they’re not perfect by any sense of the imagination. My theory is simple, and probably fairly obvious: they tell a good story with your character at the centre of it. That’s it. If Bioware remade Pacman then Pacman would go around trying to recruit pellets to help him, those pellets would refuse to activate his super power unless he helped them find their long lost aunt on the other side of the map, he’d do a bunch of side missions in order to grab some fat fruit loot, and then he’d head in to the final battle with a bunch of ghosts, using his pellet companions to weaken and defeat them, and any pellets he didn’t need to use would come back for Pacman 2. There would be problems with the game play: sometimes pellets wouldn’t activate properly, or Pacman would go off one side of the screen and never come back on the other. However, there would also be a tale woven between all of this, about how our man was the last in the long and noble line of Pac, and that an ancient blight of undead was once again upon the lands and could only be defeated if he discovered how to wield the unknowable Power of Pellet, knowledge long lost to his people in the dim mists of history. Pacman would become a personality to you, because you influenced his decisions on which pellets to get and which paths to take, and therefore you can identify with the character, because that character is, in part, you.

Until a character becomes a personality it cannot be believed. Without personality, the character may do funny or interesting things, but unless people are able to identify themselves with the character, its actions will seem unreal. And without personality, a story cannot ring true to the audience. — Walt Disney

And Bioware’s Pacman would be a magical experience.

There is another company that offers magical experiences, one form of which is the theme park. They have people they call Imagineers who build systems that offer escapism, albeit briefly, into another world. If you look too closely at the rides you can see the wires, the smoke machines, and the rotating mirrors that cause things to appear out of nothing as if by magic. If you sit back, however, and relax into the ride, let the experience wash over you, you find yourself transported somewhere fantastic, and when you come out at the other end you find yourself a little disappointed to find that the world in which you live is somewhat mundane in comparison.

I imagine that Bioware’s version of Imagineers have been busy for some time crafting the Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 experiences, and I find myself joining the back of the already miles-long line of people, breathless in anticipation of my chance to ride on Bioware’s next great digital ride.

We like to have a point of view in our stories, not an obvious moral, but a worthwhile theme. … All we are trying to do is give the public good entertainment. That is all they want. — Walt Disney

Sunday 7 February 2010

The love that lasts the longest is the love that is never returned.

The Ewok Festival of Love returns to Star Wars Galaxies on February 9th.

Empire agents everywhere will get the chance to charge around the galaxy, hunting and locking up all those sexual deviants who like to participate in festivals where the objective is to love-up small children dressed in teddy bear outfits.

In the meantime, members of the Rebel Alliance will have the opportunity to show George Lucas just how much they appreciated Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure by slaughtering Ewoks wholesale and crafting a lost-technology-quality bind-on-equip coat from their skins, called the Fuculucas.

As one would rightly expect from the name, the Ewok Festival of Love is a wondrous time for wholesale slaughter in the Star Wars galaxy. Enjoy!

Saturday 6 February 2010

Solo polo vision

When stuck in a small cargo area with Zaeed, the Mass Effect 2 mercenary from the planet of Saaf Lahndahn with a strange eye, is it just me that starts to worry you might be trapped in a box with a cockney nutjob?

Friday 5 February 2010

Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

Top tier guild renowned for knowing fights inside and out, and pouring through combat logs and spreadsheets in order to understand the minutiae and thus maximise their ability to beat encounters, suffers sudden and convenient oversight of exploit which happens to make the encounter dramatically easier, and is shocked to be punished for it.

Guild claims wide-eyed angelic innocence, guild’s friends agree.

Film at 11.

Thursday 4 February 2010

Dogs are better than human beings because they know but do not tell.

There’s something about Mass Effect 2 not having an obvious key bind for screenshots that is nagging at me. Silly, I know, but it does. It’s like a small dog, yip yip yipping away in the back yard of my mind, bouncing up and down at the fence of my reason and trying to get my attention. The problem is that it sets off all the other dogs of deliberation in my mind. Now I have cause to think about the fact that Bioware have streamlined the inventory system to almost non-existence, something which veers very much towards the console end of the Console – Normal – Fiddly – Needs A PC With Seven Input Peripherals end of the HCI spectrum; that’s a big shaggy dog, hoof hoof hoofing while standing on its hind legs with two huge paws pulling at the fence of reason. Then there’s the general lack of micromanagement required of your team members when in combat: simply point and assign one key or, more importantly, one scarce button resource, for each of the two companions; a scrawny mutt, howling and trying to dig its way under the fence. There’s also the combat, which flatters the fast action of Gears of War with its imitation whilst paying only token respect to the tactical deliberations of Knights of the Old Republic; a sleek dog that spends its time running in ever faster circles around the fence line, barking all the while.

This canine cacophony is driving me to distraction, and so I have to feed the dogs of deliberation, in order to silence them, if only for a little while. So excuse me while I publicly deliver them their food for thought: Bioware are going to bring Star Wars: The Old Republic to the consoles. I know. I know. There’s no evidence for it, and what little evidence there is points against the fact – for example, HeroEngine offers no support for anything other than the Windows platform, as far as we know – and yet the thought persists. Blizzard have always supported the Mac platform with their games wherever they could, and World of Warcraft was faithfully released for that platform, and a fine implementation it was too. Bioware are consistently getting their RPGs onto the console platform with considerable success; wouldn’t it make sense for them to release their biggest undertaking yet on those platforms too, and thus reap the benefits of a wider audience?

Bioware could take MMO popularity to even greater heights, as Blizzard did before them, if they can deliver a top tier MMO to both the PC and the console market.

Ah, peace: the dogs of deliberation are muzzled once more.

Until the next foolish notion lets them out.

The demand for equal rights in every vocation of life is just and fair.

Dateline Internet, February 2010. Hot on the heels of the announcement that they’ll be opening the auction house in World of Warcraft to people from outside the game, Blizzard have been quick to respond to the inevitable and probably fictional forum outrage that has erupted.

Ground zero for the fat-tongued whininess appears to be centered on those people who are able to sit around all day, every day, playing the game, and who therefore find this introduction of greater access for all to be a massive disadvantage to their AH-flipping monopolies. Outrage has been expressed in poorly spelled words of no more than two syllables that something needs to be done to redress this balance of equality, so that it is once again fairly balanced in favour of the AH campers.

This reporter is able to disclose that earlier today a high ranking inside source at Blizzard has exclusively revealed that, towards the end of the week, they intend to take measures to answer these criticisms by announcing the imminent release of an official in-game web browser for World of Warcraft that will allow players logged-in to the game to pay to access the auction house via the Blizzard armoury pages too, thus creating balance and equality for all.

More details on this and other theorised stupidity as we get them.

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

Wednesday 3 February 2010

I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

As we alluded to yesterday there’s a curious element to Mass Effect 2 where the first part of the game involves you running around and recruiting some of the biggest badasses in the universe — don’t make the same mistake as me and run around trying to recruit some of the baddest bigasses in the universe, that’s a different game entirely. Ass Defect 2, probably — and then, having fought your way through the labyrinthine corridors of some random aggressor-filled warehouse/skyscraper/nursing home/factory in order to rescue said badass and free them into indentured service to you, you then spend the rest of the game leaving them to rot in some forgotten corner of the Normandy, only speaking to them every now and again to see if they are willing to offer you a) some equipment upgrades b) a side mission that might offer the chance of equipment upgrades or c) hot steamy intercourse of the third kind, with post-coital equipment upgrades.

The fact that you can only ever take two companions with you is a curious notion which Zoso has previously touched upon for Dragon Age: Origins, and I grant you that its a well known staple of Bioware RPGs, and in fact most RPGs in general. In some instances it works and is understandable — Star Trek episodes would have been a lot shorter if everyone on the Enterprise had just beamed down at once and crushed any opposition with weight of numbers — but in other cases you can’t help but feel that, given the fact that you have an entire ship filled tribble-like to bursting point with badasses, your current mission to fight through overwhelming odds in order to recruit yet another badass would be much easier if you made those odds less overwhelming by simply employing a few more of the badasses currently lounging around your ship picking out their toejam. Or clawjam, depending on species. Or thingyjam, if they have those… you know, ‘thingies’.

Where Mass Effect was a more cohesive whole, Mass Effect 2 starts to feel like two entirely separate games, there’s a tangible dichotomy of combat and conversation. Where the Normandy is a social hub, most away missions involve a fair amount of combat and, unlike Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins, you fight all of these missions alone. You see, the thing is, although you are able to take two companions with you on your away missions in Mass Effect 2, when it comes to combat they aren’t really companions, they are merely extra mobile weapons that you can deploy. It’s a curious artifact of the more streamlined shooter experience that Bioware have employed with Mass Effect 2, but you actually fight alone, and once you notice the fact it becomes increasingly obvious the more you play.

A couple of examples to illustrate. There is a standard boss fight at one point, I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice it to say that you enter a room, the doors all close behind you (Shock. Horror. Want to buy Door Wedge ability, please and thank you) and you have to fight off the standard waves of enemies before the boss turns up to see what all the fuss is about and you shove a rocket up its backside. And, as per usual, in the pre-boss warm-up there are fast moving weak mobs and a couple of big and slow heavy hitters. I must have played through this section seven or eight times before I managed to win, and I eventually won by realising that I’m fighting on my own. You see, unlike, for example, Dragon Age, if you die in combat in Mass Effect 2 the game is over and you have to reload. Where in Dragon Age you can take over one of your companions and carry on the fight, in Mass Effect 2, if you die – Game Over. So what tactic do you think the enemy (read AI programmers) would sensibly employ in order to ensure victory? Well quite: they ignore your teammates a disproportionate number of times in order to take you down. Honestly, within about five seconds of the start of that boss fight, no matter where I hid and where I placed my team mates, I’d have five of the fast mobs chewing on my very attractive arse, whilst the two big heavy hitters pummelled from range the area of cover I was hiding behind. If I stood up to shake off the fast mobs, the heavy hitters wasted me; if I stayed in cover the fast mobs chewed me a new Omega-4 Relay. There were at least several comedy attempts where I placed my team mates out in open ground in order to distract the mobs whilst I hid, and yet within five seconds of the start of the fight I had fast mobs clinging to me as though we were the inter-species equivalent of Velcro’s hooks and loops; all the meanwhile the big heavy hitters were pummelling my ‘hiding’ place from range, whilst my two companions stood directly in front of them and unloaded submachine guns, shotguns and biotic powers into their general facial region.

Another example that made me boggle and laugh was when I attempted a flanking manoeuvre. It was a standard corridor setup, with a main route through and a little side room that allowed one to sneak to the side of the enemy ‘unseen’. I set my two decoy… companions up to start attacking from cover along the main route, and I snuck around the side. A quick aside: in Mass Effect 2 there are enemy-seeking missiles that can change direction somewhat in order to make sure they’re not wasted and hit a target each time; the enemy has these missiles too. My totem… companions were doing a sterling job of attracting the attention of the various entrenched opposition, and I waited until the more dangerous member of their number had launched a missile at my companions before I burst from cover to launch my flanking assault on their exposed side. At which point, and I kid you not, the missile that was half a metre or so from my companions turned through about ninety degrees and travelled across the corridor to hit me instead; I wish I’d had the presence of mind to hit the screenshot key because the path that the vapour trail of the rocket left behind was a marvel to behold.

It’s not always like that, obviously, but it soon becomes very obvious that there appears to be a heavy bias in the AI to taking down the Game Over objective as a priority over any companions who might otherwise present a more immediate clear and present danger. Once you realise that you’re primarily playing on your own, and that your companions are really just slightly more attractive mobile gun turrets, you can adjust your play style to match and things become significantly easier. I actually think I prefer it this way, I’ve often found myself tiring of the tedious micromanagement required in RPGs where your party members are essentially another character for you to level up and play. Mass Effect 2 makes sure that Shepard is the focus of all things (be it your attention or the AI’s) and as such your companions are designed to not draw your attention away from your own character and story; sure, they all bring stories of their own with them, stories which you can choose to develop or not, but they are characters in their own right, and as such you feel that you can just let them get on with whatever they’re doing and concentrate on what you do best – kicking names and taking ass.

Wait, that’s Ass Defect 2 again, isn’t it.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

Pictures deface walls more often than they decorate them

In Mass Effect 2 you can decorate your captain’s cabin with various bits n’ pieces like model ships or, quite splendidly, a space hamster (thus empirically making it the best game of all time). While shopping for these knick-knacks (and other less important stuff like weapon and armour upgrades) in the Citadel, every shop gives you the opportunity to offer an endorsement in exchange for a discount: “Hi, I’m Commander Shepard, you may know me from Saving The Entire Galaxy From Mortal Peril And Generally Being Brilliant, and this is my favourite store on the Citadel.” This seems like the sort of deceitful manipulation that would characterise a Renegade character, as not only is every single store on the Citadel your favourite, but you get to record your message before you’ve even glanced at what they’re selling let alone tried any of the goods to see what they’re like (“Geoff’s Emporium of Sex Aids, Cut and Shut Shuttles and Malfunctioning Weaponry? Oh yes, it’s my favourite store on the Citadel.”) Only it’s not. It’s the “Paragon” choice, apparently, netting you +5 Paragon points every time you shill. I haven’t tried the “Renegade” option, I’m guessing you strong-arm them into a similar discount, which at least would be a bit more honest. Speaking of advertising, while wandering around the Citadel it’s well worth having a look at some of the billboards, there’s a particularly excellent one for an all-Elcor production of Hamlet.

Anyway, after putting the finishing touches on your own cabin, there’s the small matter of the rest of the ship to decorate. Thanks to a slight misunderstanding (the original plans were metric, the new ones imperial) Normandy 2 is much larger than the first ship, driving your most vital mission…

“Look, Shepard, all this empty space is a bit of waste, so go around and find a bunch of amazing people to decorate it a bit, lean on bulkheads in a broody fashion and the like.”

So off you toddle around the most dangerous spots of the universe, assembling a crew of the amazing and powerful warriors…

“I will help you fight the Reapers!”

“Err, yeah, don’t worry about that, I’ve already recruited thirty seven other amazing people and can only take two of them with me at a time anyway. Could you just lean on that bulkhead over there for me and chat about your life history now and again?”

Monday 1 February 2010

A life without cause is a life without effect.

Yes, it’s true, I too have been sucked into the universe of Bioware’s Mass Effect once again, where I generally run around enjoying the effects of various projectile weapons on the body mass of various alien species.

‘We come in peace’? Oh please. Allow me to introduce you to my heavily armoured gunship. Pile of charred smoking meat remains this is my gunship, gunship this is… oh, you’ve already met?

So yes, I’m missing the release of Star Trek Online at the moment but feel that, should I want to, I can happily simulate the experience by yanking the power cable out of the back of my PC at random intervals and not allowing myself to plug it back in for three or four hours. ‘Missing’ is probably the wrong word, and ‘avoiding’ is probably more appropriate, possibly with the words ‘like the Phage’ concatenated on to the end.

I imported my previous Mass Effect character into the game, and as I watched the introduction movie I looked forward to seeing the ol’ girl again, and I am willing to admit that I got a little bit emotional in those last few moments of the introduction sequence when you see them out in the silent blackness of space, and all you hear are those breaths…

Sexy breaths.

The character generation screen loaded and I waited those last few moments for my imported character to appear, thinking back with that fondness one often has for one of their virtual partners. I remembered being quite pleased with myself when I created her — I do pride myself on my ability to create a good looking avatar against all the obstacles that some of these Uncanny Valley models seem to throw in the way, and Bioware’s games do allow for some really freaky looking characters, especially when contrasted against the painstakingly and lovingly sculpted avatars of your companion NPCs. I remembered that Aria Shepard was a real looker though, and she was once again going to bring sexy death to the enemies of humanity. Or Uoomanity, if you want to believe the pronunciation of the otherwise splendidly dulcet tones of Martin Sheen’s character, the Invisible Man.

“Commander Shepard, Uoomanity is still in desperate danger.”



“Sorry, one moment, I’m looking for the “Who the fracking frell are the Uoomanity” chat option, but it doesn’t seem to be here”

The character screen loaded.

I’m not quite sure how to convey the horror. Imagine walking up behind a cute little dog of one of the toy breeds, one of those fluffy little things, you know the ones — a cross between Lassie and Winne the Pooh. Now imagine that as you pick it up it turns towards you and you see that it has the face of Margaret Thatcher. And then she/it licks you enthusiastically all over your face.

I quickly rushed back to my old post to confirm that this was indeed an error in the way that Bioware were importing old characters into the new game. But no, she really was the freaky-looking wax sculpture with melted liquorice for hair that was being presented to me now. Fie cruel memory and the tricks that you play! Thankfully Bioware allows you to change the face of your imported character, for reasons that are obvious to anyone who has played the first few minutes of the game, and so I set about creating a character who didn’t look as though they’d be more at home swinging around the rooftops of Notre Dame.

The funny thing was that, no matter how much I tried not to, I eventually came back to something that looked pretty much the same as my original Shepard. Yes the eyes were slightly tweaked so that they both at least pointed in the same direction, and the nose was toned down somewhat so that it was less likely that Joker would try to accidentally dock the starship Normandy up there, but she had the same overall look as the original. Because this was the virtual woman who I’d shared so many adventures with previously.

The more I looked at her the more attractive she became in my eyes, even though she wasn’t really any different to the Margaret Thatcher Pomeranian cross-breed of earlier. Because, I realised, I liked this person regardless of how they looked, as long as they looked like themself.

“Person”, I thought.

I think this is what Bioware does so well: they create virtual people. Not characters. The reason that the conversation and story is so compelling is that, as with a truly exceptional movie, you forget that the lives you are witnessing aren’t real, that the people who you’re getting emotionally invested in aren’t real. The genius of Bioware, however, is that they manage this by coordinating several people to bring to life one person. Whereas a movie director has to direct just the one actor to bring a person to life on the big screen, Bioware has to direct voice actors and animation artists in order to create life. It’s a fantastic feat, and it helps to lift their RPG games above most other contenders.

Not only that, but they are able to create convincing worlds and even, in the case of Mass Effect, universes that are both familiar and yet at the same time differ wildly from our expectations in many ways. Take the much vaunted Agent Zero of Mass effect 2, a ball-busting no-nonsense lady of no mean combat ability who, with shaven head, a body covered in tattoos, dungarees and overtly aggressive make-up turns out not to be a raging bra-burning feminist lesbian. Honestly, the moment I saw her I thought that, with the right conversation options about how all men are bastards and the liberating empowerment of armpit hair, it was a sure bet that there would be some cravat-exploding interaction between my character and her. “Ah ha!” cries Bioware, “not in this future universe. You’ll never know where you stand with us. Things are different here. Lesbians aren’t what they appear to be”. It’s a strange and confusing place, to be sure; I’ll have to talk it over with Yeoman Kelly Tokenlesbian the newly appointed ship’s counsellor at some point, maybe she can clue me in on how to spot them.