Friday 30 April 2010

True heroism consists in being superior to the ills of life, in whatever shape they may challenge us to combat.

I quite like the combat in Age of Conan. Oh, don’t worry, Moaning Melmoth is still alive and kicking MMO game-play mechanics squarely in the hairy gooseberries, but I’m finding that combat in AoC is an interesting mix of the traditional with the experimental. Of the three MMOs that I’m currently playing on a regular basis AoC’s combat feels like a hybrid of the other two, they being Lord of the Rings Online’s traditional slower combat and Dungeons and Dragons Online’s hectic free-form positional fighting. It’s a strange juxtaposition this slow yet hectic combat, but I do think the contrast of the two styles works well in AoC in the main.

I think the hectic feeling comes from two things, which both DDO and AoC share: no auto attack swings, and a dependence on character positioning to maximise outgoing damage while decreasing incoming damage – when considering combat from a melee point of view, at least. The fact that there are no auto attacks gives a sense of urgency to the player’s actions, this is less pronounced in DDO where one can just keep their finger held down on the attack button, but in Age of Conan if the player isn’t pressing buttons then their character isn’t attacking, and so wandering off to read your RSS feed while your character auto-defeats a mob, possibly with something pinning down the numeric key of your biggest attack or self-heal such that it triggers every time it comes off of its cool-down, is not an option. I think this is what I like about AoC’s system: it’s designed to keep the player invested in the fight; you rarely find your mind wandering on to other subjects. I think it’s a testament to this that among the media-promoted adolescent male gamer population that plays these sort of games, I’ve yet to see anyone running around with a topless female character. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are jiggles of topless females (Oh really? Well you define the collective noun for topless females then) running around in certain areas of the game, treeless open expanses of Serengeti-like grassland, where they bask in the sun and hunt around in packs for unsuspecting prey to devour, while men with cameras venture out on safari and try to capture pictures of them. On Earth we call this place Ibiza. But, at the lower levels at least, I haven’t seen a single one, and I think that this is down to the fact that they are so involved with the combat system that they simply don’t have time to sit, chin in cupped hand, while they press the number 2 button every fifteen to twenty seconds, and wonder whether there’d be more to that side-boob if they unequipped their character’s chest piece.

The second system that keeps a player invested in the combat is the combo system, which is, in a way, a bit like an inverted gambit system as used by the Warden class in LotRO, with AoC’s version being somewhat easier to cope with, which may be a good or a bad thing, depending on your point of view and capacity for memorisation. Where a player of a Warden has to remember a string of sub-moves that will produce a resulting gambit move, Age of Conan provides a number of final moves that the player activates by pressing a button on their hotbar, at which point a UI element pops up informing the player of the sequence of sub-moves that must be performed to achieve the desired final move that they activated in the first place. I like this system, and although I think there is fun and satisfaction to be had from remembering all the various moves in LotRO’s system for the Warden, there’s nothing in AoC’s system that prevents a player from memorising the moves required and thus executing them quicker than someone who has to study the display – a big advantage in a game where combat is a lot less static than more traditional MMOs such as WoW and LotRO – but at the same time the memorisationally challenged such as myself (just ask Zoso: it’s a miracle if I remember to finish a sentence half the time) are not prevented from joining in with the complexities of combat straight from the off, albeit at a slight disadvantage to those with a richer capacity for recall.

The final function that helps to keep each combat exciting and fresh is the dependence on positioning to maximise your damage while minimising that of the enemy, a system which is shared to some extent, as I mentioned earlier, with DDO. It makes for quite a comical experience when you first play such a game, though, especially if you’ve been used to the more traditional ‘stand toe-to-toe and hit each other in turns over the head until one of you collapses’ fight, which sounds as though it would be equally at home at a college fraternity initiation rite, and thus may well explain the popularity of traditional MMOs among that section of the student population. There’s a point when the full comedy (or tragedy, depending on your point of view) of the situation for someone new to this style of combat hits home: generally there’s a point where you’ve got the fingers of your left hand on the movement keys to keep you facing in such a way as to maximise the area of effect of your glancing blows; your right hand is frantically mashing left, right and side buttons while holding on to the mouse for dear life as it flies around the mat like a cat that’s just sat on a hill of fire ants; your nose is pressed across the attack buttons on the keyboard that your left hand can’t quite reach while you desperately tongue the key that you’ve bound to health potions; and it’s usually at the point where you shout profane curses to your deity of choice for not giving you eyelids with enough musculature to be able to depress the F keys that are sitting tantalisingly beneath your eyes that you realise you might not have quite got to grips with this new combat system yet.

The great feature of this more fluid and dynamic flow of combat is that it adds another level of tactical decision making to the fight: as well as picking the right ability based on health bars, number and power level of combatants, and such, you also need to consider how to best position yourself to deal maximum damage while at the same time taking as little as possible, which in turn feeds back into the decision making process as to which ability you might want to use. Sure, fundamentally it’s still MMO combat, so Sun Tzu need hardly plan his undead comeback tour, but it definitely keeps the player more focussed on the task at hand, rather than flicking over to YouTube to watch a video of someone else performing the same fight but in their underwear. No, it isn’t the player’s character in their underwear.

AoC differs from DDO slightly in the fact that, where DDO just needs you to keep the left mouse button held down for your character to begin flailing away, AoC uses the 1, 2 and 3 keys to perform a basic ‘white damage’ swing to the left, centre or right of the target respectively, and while I admire the additional idea of trying to get characters to target a specific location on an enemy it does lead to slightly jarring combat animations where you mash one key in between performing a special move until the enemy switches their shield to that area, at which point you spam away at a different location, it ends up making your character look like a slightly over-exuberant dance or exercise instructor “And lunge. And lunge. And lunge. And lunge. And lunge. And parry. And thrust. And hack their arm off at the shoulder. And relax.” The animations don’t flow entirely naturally when you’re executing them so quickly in succession either, such as when you’re just going for white damage spam (note to search engines – not a bukkake reference) to finish off an enemy, and so it can lead to a little bit of a disconnect at that point, but it’s more comedic in nature than anything.

Where AoC differs greatly from DDO and is more akin to LotRO is in the slowness of combat. When I say slowness I’m talking not about the speed with which you perform actions in combat, but the average amount of time combat takes. I think here AoC marches more in step with the traditional toe-to-toe-head-beating frat party MMOs, where you have time during combat to think about things, to make mistakes and correct for them and to generally get a sense of the thing before it is all over. In DDO you can one-shot and be one-shot, or if not then very close to such, on quite a regular basis. So where AoC keeps the player on their toes by having them make lots of decisions quickly throughout the duration of a long combat, DDO makes players think quickly because otherwise they will either be dead, or the mob they are trying to attack will have been killed so hard that they travelled back in space and time and became their own father.

I think AoC’s combat is a step in the right direction, but they perhaps went a little overboard on the ideas front without perhaps considering the limitations of the human beings who will be trying to perform seventy five different actions at once, whilst at the same time coordinating their efforts with five other players who are all trying to do the same. MMOs are well known for their extensive keyboard layouts for all the various functions of the game, and I’m sure it’s partly to blame for why we haven’t seen many successful MMOs on the console yet:

“Everyone, this is Geoff. Geoff’s job is going to be to fit aaaaaallllll the functionality of our MMO’s UI keybinds onto a controller with six buttons and no alphanumeric input whatsoever.”

<Raucous laughter>

<Geoff sneaks off while nobody is looking, never to return>

and I worry that by extending this theme of “if you design it, they will bind it” to fast-paced combat we’re heading towards a place where N52s will become a requirement for entry into some areas of the MMO genre. The funny thing is, similarities aside, LotRO’s version of the combo combat system is actually perfectly suited to a gamepad, as unwize rightly pointed out a while back in response to my previous thoughts on the gambit system.

In the meantime, however, it’s back to my combaterobics.

“And one. And two. And lift. And stretch. And dismember. And teabag. And rest.”

Thursday 29 April 2010

Thought for the day

One of the requirements for the new Scout video game merit pin is to:

7. Play a video game that will help you practice your math, spelling, or another skill that helps you in your schoolwork.

So next time you see a spelling mistake in the general chat channel of your favourite MMO, be sure to correct it. It’s not being pedantic, it’s helping a Scout get an award.

(As for maths, it just needs the statistics questions framed in the right way:
“If Aeonus has a 17.4% chance of dropping Latro’s Shifting Sword, and an average of three people in your group of five roll on it, how many runs of The Black Morass are needed before people twig IT’S NOT A SODDING HUNTER WEAPON?”)

Wednesday 28 April 2010

The prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts.

In a police statement made to reporters this morning, the Chief Constable for the Greater Blogging Area announced that some time in the early hours of yesterday evening Warhammer Online’s pre-release hype escaped from the maximum security obscurity where it was being held and is once again at large in the greater MMOtropolitan area.

The hype is considered moderately dangerous and the police have warned that bloggers and gamers should not attempt to approach it or believe a word of it. Unconfirmed reports indicate that three bloggers have already disappeared into what witnesses described as “a sucking gaping hole in the universe” after reporting the contents of the manifesto to their readers.

“Our main concern is not with the hype itself” said Chief Constable John Sternbrow, “but that it might fall into the hands of individuals who could use it to destroy the hopes and dreams of millions of innocent civilians”. When questioned on whether he thought that Paul Barnett might make an attempt to read the ArenaNet manifesto in a heavily populated civilian centre such as London, and what the casualty rate might be from the resultant fallout, the Chief Constable declined to comment.

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

Tuesday 27 April 2010

She's so hot, BOOM!

Playing Borderlands as Lilith the Siren I’ve got a skill, Phoenix, that causes fire damage to nearby enemies after I get a kill. It’s quite splendid for tearing through groups of opponents, both submachine gun and self blazing away. Borderlands also features barrels that explode with particularly violent force when shot, most inadvisable to stand in the vicinity of.

The two combine in a slightly annoying fashion when you creep around, find an excellent vantage point, pull out a sniper rifle, zoom in on the head of an unsuspecting bandit, and pow! One shot, one kill. One kill, one flaming aura. One flaming aura, and the explosive barrel you were crouching next to but hadn’t really noticed explodes. Rather takes the gloss off the victory dance, really.

Monday 26 April 2010

Moderation is a virtue only in those who are thought to have an alternative.

I’m currently buried somewhere at the bottom of an alt orgy in Lord of the Rings Online; being sandwiched between a Lore-master’s staff and a Warden’s spear is not the most comfortable experience I have to confess. Then there’s the Captain, my main character, yelling away from her position on top of us all, possibly because that’s what Captains do a lot, possibly because she’s enjoying herself, or possibly because the Lore-master’s pet bear decided to get in on the action and she’s experiencing the discomforts of having a bare behind with a bear behind. It’s hard to tell from where I’m currently buried, and I’m honestly too busy trying to avoid being smothered to care.

The Lore-master is a fun diversion, but it’s very clear even at these low levels that it’s a very cerebral class, one that requires a lot of micromanagement and precision to play well when solo, and that the biggest rewards will come from playing as part of a group, where you can dictate the flow of battle without having to worry quite so much about orcs deciding that you look like a giant elven fajita, and where your cloth armour offers probably fractionally less protection to your meaty innards than a plain flour tortilla. Soloing is mostly frustrating at these lower levels due to the limited number of attacks that you have, there being primarily one fireball-like ranged attack and one ability to thock them gently with your staff just prior to them tearing your face off, like a little old lady trying to train a starved rabid pit bull by bopping it on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. That’s not to say the Lore-master doesn’t have a lot of abilities, but when solo, damage is king, and damage is not really what the Lore-master is about. Join a group, however, and you become a God walking among NPC insects.

It’s the Warden that has captured my soloing spirit at the moment, what with the Captain requiring a slow and steady grouting, it’s down to the Warden to kindle the fire of adventure outside of our static Monday night group, and so far it’s doing a wonderful job of it. For starters the class is as innuendo laden as one could hope for, with all its spearing and thrusting and piercing and fisting, and the fact that I wield a huge purple spear… suffice it to say that most of my fights thus far have been awarded an 18 certificate by the BBFC. I’ve decided that I love shield-fighting classes, there’s nothing better than a warrior taking a sodding-great sheet of metal and slamming it into some orc’s face while at the same time having it provide a massive amount of defence, which is an added bonus because as they teach in schools nowadays: if you’re going to run around thrusting your purple spear into the bodies of other individuals, always make sure you’re carrying some protection with you. Honestly, the Warden class is just a walking lesson in sex safety, and I think Turbine should be commended on making something so enjoyable whilst at the same time educational. The Warden isn’t bad solo, but doesn’t really come into their own until the mid-to-late forties, as I understand it, but I think I’m enjoying the class more than the Lore-master because I am, at heart, a pervert. Mind you, I think I prefer melee combat to being a clothie caster too, there’s something satisfying about being all up in the face of your enemy with your purple spear, rather than running away like a loon and fighting a rear-guard action, because, as we all know, failing to guard your rear as a clothie caster generally means that it’s going to get some unwanted action.

It’s an interesting alternative area of adventuring, this altitus of mine: I’m adventuring not in the content of the game but in the classes. It’s about creating a character – helped tremendously by cosmetic outfit options and trait/deed customisation – and seeing how they grow and develop, and LotRO’s classes are all well-rounded and interesting to play, even though some are more specialised than others. I was speaking with Van Hemlock at the weekend, he has a Burglar alt that he dabbles with on occasion, and the way he described the class makes me want to play one of those too.

There are just so many wonderful classes in LotRO that they become content in their own right, and having so many interesting choices combined with levelling content that is polished, effortless and confident in its ability to deliver a smooth playing experience, makes one want to travel there and back again, again and again and again.

Friday 23 April 2010

Thought for the day.

St George kills one lousy dragon and gets a day of national holiday in his memory.

I’ve killed hundreds of dragons, and all I have to show for it is this miserable +1 sword and bag full of vendor-trash drake toenails.

Thursday 22 April 2010

All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.

If you’re going to have character customisation during the character creation stage of your game, even if it is just of the basic eye colour and hair style hat-tip variety, here’s a simple lesson, a character creation foundation, if you will:

  1. Place them under a neutral, unchanging light source.
  2. Make the character stand still.
  3. Make. The. Character. Stand. Still.

For what reason do character creation screens have those little ‘rotate character’ arrows in the corner of the screen? Why, so that you can play a game of ‘try to see your character’s face’ while the character performs the head-spinning demon possession scenes from The Omen.

I’m trying to view a tattoo on my character’s abdomen and you’re making their body contort in such a way that they appear to be trying to lick their own genitalia from the wrong direction.

Have you seen the average /played time for a player of an MMO? It runs into weeks, if not years, of continuous play. In that time, in this hypothetical week or more of solid continuous game-play, do you not think that I will get the opportunity, nay several hundred opportunities, to witness your animator’s genius in being able to make my character tongue its own rectum? This being the case, it being a fair certainty that I will get to see this more times than I could ever possibly care to during my time in your game, could you not hold back on the ‘paranoid schizophrenic prairie dog on methamphetamines being attacked by bees’ animation for the two minutes that it will take me to get through character creation? Really, is it too much to ask?

Or perhaps your character models are so hideous and malformed that they shun away from the direct gaze of others? Virtual Quasimodos who are doomed never to be loved by the Esmeraldas who look upon them with pity and fear from the other side of the screen?

I’m absolutely sure that I’m in a minority here, but when I see my character flailing about all over the screen, and I have to spend my entire time with the right mouse button held down as I chase my character’s head around the screen like a dog chasing around fruitlessly on the edge of a game of tetherball, I think “These people can’t possibly care about the player experience. Here I am, not even in the game yet, and the most basic of functions is broken. Who in their right mind designs a system such that when a person is trying to create a character and see what the various options look like, the character turns away so that the player can’t see them, forcing the player to either wait some arbitrary period of time for the character to turn back, or making them spin the character around in order to get a look, at which point the character turns and looks back the other sodding way?!”

Actually I don’t think that. I used to. Now I just shout the ‘F’ word very loudly and take my medication.

Today’s post is brought to you by Fallen Earth’s Thunderbird-Puppet-Undergoing-Electroshock-Therapy Character Creator.

And the letter ‘F’.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Why should love stop at the border?

I’ve just wrapped up a first play-through of Borderlands, and enjoyed it so much I’ve jumped straight into a second. It’s a splendidly quick dive-in loot-spewing RPG/shooter of MOAR DAKKA, and thanks to the spiffy new Steam UI that’s in beta at the moment I can see I’ve played it for about 30 hours so far. I’m not sure if I’ll play through the whole thing again, but even if not I feel like I’ve got my fifteen quid’s worth.

It’s heavily reminiscent of Hellgate: London, the loot-spewing RPG/shooter/MMOG of MOAR DAKKA, especially in the rarity-coloured guns with random bonuses that provide much incentive in both for blasting through hordes of foes. Hellgate went rather badly wrong, though, turning out to be a somewhat prophetic title as it opened up a gate to financial hell and dragged Flagship Studios through (not quite as prophetic as Bankruptcygate: San Francisco might have been, but still).

It’s a shame, as I rather enjoyed playing through the story of Hellgate, and it had a great setting in post-demon invasion London with humanity hunkered down in fortified tube stations; Borderlands isn’t bad, and has some strong NPCs, but its world of Pandora feels slightly generically Mad Max-ish with roaming bandits and hostile wildlife. Could just be a bias for London on my part, though. Going by fairly dim Hellgate memories now, I seem to recall its combat being more RPG-influenced than pure shooter, possibly with to-hit rolls going on in the background; Borderlands is more FPS, headshots and all, but modifies damage based on the level difference between you and the target making the two systems feel pretty similar in the end. If Hellgate had been pitched as more of a straightforward single-player oriented game I think it could’ve done respectably, but it had a confused single player offline/free online/subscription model. Seems fairly obvious in hindsight, but if a game works both as a single player offline game and persistent online game either the former is distinctly lacking or the latter is tacked-on, and in the case of Hellgate there never did seem much point to the persistence. Add on a tsunami of hype, and premature and buggy release, and it was too much to recover from.

Borderlands, in contrast to the heavyweight hype of Hellgate, was pegged by one analyst as being “sent out to die” against Dragon Age and Modern Warfare 2, but was well received and had strong sales, along with three DLC packs so far. It doesn’t over-reach itself, it gives you a big pile o’ guns, loads of stuff to shoot with them, and lets you do so with a few friends if you want. Looking at Borderlands and Hellgate rams home that “complexity” or “depth” don’t inherently equal “good”, especially when ambition outstrips available time or resources. Hellgate had six character classes with sprawling skill trees that had to be heavily overhauled at least once, Borderlands has four playable characters with more straightforward skill trees, each character just having one active ability, that seem to be pretty well balanced. You got the feeling that chunks of Hellgate had been rushed in justified by “we’ll patch it to work properly later”, and though the 360 and PS3 do allow patching, you can’t get away so much there which must focus things a bit more when developing for consoles.

Out of the ashes of Flagship came Runic Games and Torchlight, the success of which seems to demonstrate the benefits of keeping focused on core gameplay rather than shooting for the moon (and hitting London, insert Werner von Braun gag here). It’ll be interesting to see if the team can build on that with an MMO version, certainly seems like a more sensible approach than trying to do it right off the bat, and in the meantime there’s always more Borderlands. DAKKADAKKADAKKADAKKA!

Tuesday 20 April 2010

The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.

The static Monday night group spent its time in the Fil Gashan instance of LotRO last night.

It was our second run through, this time with a full fellowship, and we had returned to take revenge on the end boss, one Mr Sir Lord General Talug MBE, who had eluded our best attempts to convince him to lie down and stop moving through the persuasive art of weapons and words. Words of power y’know, because we’re not allowed to call it magic.

A lot of fun was had over-pulling groups of orcs and trying to win through against seemingly impossible odds; I think it was probably a draw on group wipes, sometimes we got them, sometimes they got us, either way it was usually a close fought match, although mobs don’t have repair bills at the end of the night, so perhaps they go through to the next round of the Aggro Cup on technical merit.

There’re very few things that I’ve experienced in the game thus far that illicit childlike glee of the level we experienced when pulling the entire kitchen area of orcs all in one go and seeing if we could AoE them down before they overwhelmed the group. Actually the primary challenge was picking out the hobbit tank from the Katamari Damacy ball of greenskins. In fact, the King of All Cosmos would have crapped himself to see the size of that ball, and we’re talking about a being who is accustomed to seeing katamari which include mountains. And stars.

Then we had a few attempts at defeating the boss. We tried our own strategy. Failed. We tried the strategies on the LotRO wiki. Failed. We tried praying to Gods of various religions. Failed. We feigned utter disinterest in defeating the boss at all in the hope that he would spontaneously combust just to spite us. Failed. We climbed up into the rafters and flung ourselves down on him all at once. Failed. We walked nonchalantly past while whistling and then pounced when we thought he wouldn’t be expecting it. Failed. We set up a complex Heath Robinson device constructed from curious components dug out of boxes marked Acme and Explosive and Danger. Failed. We delivered a petition, signed by half a million people on the Internet, politely requesting that he just up and die already. Failed.

It was at this point, with hands resting on bent knees, panting at a floor that was slowly collecting a pool of sweat dripping from our collective brows, that we decided that enough was enough and left, defeated and a little despondent.

The frustrating part is not knowing whether it is our failing or the game’s: some forums seem to indicate that the instance is broken, others that it has been fixed, others still that it was broken, then fixed, and is now broken again; or fixed, they don’t seem entirely sure about it themselves. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere that you can get solid information as to the status of it. We’ve failed other dungeons of this level – the mere mention of Dark Delvings will make some members of our group arch their backs and hiss wildly before clawing their way up a nearby curtain – and so we can’t be entirely confident that the primary reason for our difficulties is that we’re just a bit crap. We’re fairly certain that’s not the case in this instance because in one fight, which lasted what seemed like half an hour, we tried every combination of ‘cute’ mechanic available to us in order to get the boss’s invulnerability shield to drop in order that we could do some damage, or if we couldn’t do the damage ourselves, to apply a damage debuff to him which was alleged to be achievable through said same mechanics. The fight became quite surreal at one point, where before we’d had trouble even surviving into this troublesome second phase of combat, we had now been in the second phase for so long that some of us were taking time-outs to go and read the wiki, or make a list of possible combinations of doing X, Y and Z to see which ones we’d missed out on, a bit like a tag team in American wrestling, only with no chairs and folding tables being slammed into people. Hoom, maybe we should have tried the chairs. Damn.

And, as fickle Fate often chooses to write the epilogue for such adventures, it was, of course, right at the end of that lengthy fight, when the Minstrel was out of power, the Captain was lying dead on the floor, and the whole party teetered on the brink of a wipe, that we activated the mechanic we’d been attempting for an age of man, and the boss quickly moved into the third phase, a relatively simple tank’n’spank routine. At which point he tanked and spanked our exhausted group.

And we have no real idea how we triggered it.

The moral of the story is possibly this: if you’re going to have instances which involve mechanics that require the group to coordinate and dance a merry jig around a boss, you cannot afford to have a history that tells a tale of broken mechanics and impossible-to-beat dungeons, because then players will not know whether it’s the game that is defeating them or a software bug; often with these sorts of mechanics it’s very difficult to tell one from the other, because many boss encounters in dungeons enforce mechanics that break the standard rules (that players learn in the levelling PvE game) in order to make a boss appear more powerful, to make the encounter more memorable, or to create a new and unique challenge for the players to overcome. It’s a fine line to tread, to make things difficult enough that players are challenged by it, but not so difficult that they feel the encounter must be broken; an issue which is magnified a hundred fold if your dungeons are well known for being broken, as evidenced by the shelves of forum threads one can reference in the library of the Internet.

Monday 19 April 2010

Chaos is a name for any order that produces confusion in our minds.

My love affair with Lord of the Rings Online continues and I find myself wandering the lands of that game more than any other at the moment, which is to say all of the time, barring Friday night excursions into Dungeons and Dragons Online with the static group there, and the occasional mid-week dip into same with m’colleague. Having got my Captain caught up with the Monday night static group, I’ve reduced my play time so as not to burn out on the class, generally devoting hour long bursts every now and again to perform grouting duties. It’s a bit like tiling, levelling a character in LotRO. When you start tiling you’ve got a blank wall in front of you, acres of space to fill and it looks daunting beyond all hope of completion. You’ve planned how you’re going to tackle the thing though, so you pop the first tile up and step back and look at it, and emboldened by the fact that the wall hasn’t fall down or the tile spontaneously burst into flame, you put another tile up and then another. This feverous activity continues apace and after a few hours of slaving away you step back, hands caked in tiling adhesive and hair white with ceramic dust, and realise that you’ve only managed to put three more tiles up. This is the ‘level twenty’ moment in most traditional MMOs, where you’ve got past the initial enthusiasm for the thing and realise that after a fair amount of effort, you haven’t got very far in the grand scheme of things. You battle on, however, and after a few minor hiccoughs – like realising you’ve left yourself a gap at one side that needs a tile cut to two thirds of fifty one and three quarters, which you try to do in your head and go mad, and you take down and re-cut a bunch of other tiles instead; the tiling equivalent of the character respec – you finally manage to get all the tiles on the wall. You’ve done it, you’ve reached the end. You step back and look at your wall, or character, and realise that all you’ve really done is the easy bit, now you’ve got the tedious grind of filling in the gaps. Grouting is one of those tedious jobs that really gives no satisfaction while you’re doing it, but until it’s done you cannot consider the job to be complete. It’s the same with a character in LotRO: once you’ve got to the level cap there are all the deeds and traits to finish, the legendary item legacies to grind out, the book content to finish, and until you do so the character doesn’t feel complete, and doesn’t perform as well as it should.

So you do what any sane person would do when faced with grouting: you go and do something else less boring instead and hope that the problem will go away on its own. Of course it doesn’t, and every time you go to the toilet the tiles are there staring at you and mocking you for your lack of dedication and the fact that you left the toilet seat up one time. ONE TIME. And you never hear the end of it, do you? It’s the same with your MMO character, well obviously not when you go to the toilet, unless you happen to take your laptop into the bathroom with you so you can carry on playing, in which case you really need to evaluate your addiction to MMOs, and ponder whether that built-in webcam is actually switched off like you think it is. Every time you come back to that character you can see the holes where you haven’t filled it in, and it points them out to you as you play

“Oh well, yes, I suppose I can swing my sword at that orc, of course I can, but not so well as if I had that trait all maxed-out that boosts my melee critical damage. But I’ll try to do what I can, even though I’m weak and my heart is not really in it.

And they swing that sword like a wet fish in a sock, and if it makes contact at all it only serves to heal the enemy’s morale a bit, and your character looks at you with that pathetic shoulder-shrugging look that dogs give when you’ve told them to chase away rabbits and they end up killing your entire vegetable patch whilst giving the rabbits a bit of light exercise and a bigger appetite.

So in the meantime, while I carry on grouting my Captain (which will probably sound like a euphemism to anyone who hasn’t read this post – be warned), I’ve picked up the Warden that I left in the early thirties and also rolled a Lore-master to give the class a try after some encouragement, and also because I like the idea of crowd control in MMOs and feel that it can work well as part of the makeup of a group, but then again, as a general rule, I don’t play a tank.

So, seeing as I don’t play tanks, let me tell you all about my time with the Warden, one of LotRO’s tank classes. I’ve waxed lyrical about the Warden before, about how fabulous the gambit system is in giving a greater level of flexibility, strategy and feeling of involvement than you get with many staple MMO classes. What I’ve found out, however, is that this is also not a system that lends itself to being put down and picked up again at a later date. I think it’s safe to say that most of us have that initial period of shell shock when returning to a high level character after a lengthy period playing another class, or indeed game. We look at all the buttons and wonder how we ever played the character with any level of competence when there are just so many skills to understand and remember to use, not to mention all the ways they interact with one another and with the abilities of other classes. We poke around tentatively for a bit, perhaps wander off quietly to some secluded area with mobs that are of no particular challenge to us, spend some time pressing buttons and observing the result but generally get up and running pretty quickly, with the more nuanced stuff coming back to us as we go. It’s like picking up a hire car that’s a make and model you’ve never driven before: you know how to drive cars, but this one is slightly different, the switches are all there but they’re in the wrong positions and it all feels unnervingly unfamiliar for a short while; you perhaps flip on the lights when you meant to find the indicators, but you’re quickly on your way and things start to feel familiar and natural by the time you’ve juddered your way to the end of the road on the clutch.

Coming back to the Warden after any time away from it is like picking up a hire car and finding out that it’s James Bond’s Aston Martin. There are so many gambits that the Warden has, that do such a seeming infinite variety of things when you’re no longer used to the class, that the whole thing comes close to overwhelming to the point of discouragement. You remember that there’s one that boosts your defences, and one that gives you a self heal, well two actually, because there’s one that does a small HoT and a different one that does a larger HoT and they both stack because they’re from different gambit lines. You look them up in your skill list and try to remember which is which; get yourself into combat; try to activate your defences, and watch in shock as a windscreen wiper starts sweeping back and forth across your shield. You’re unnerved by this, of course, but determine that it’s no use running away from combat because otherwise you’ll never learn, so you launch into the gambit again and a parachute ejects limply from your backpack. Things are getting a little hairy now, and you’re starting to regret jumping into a fight with even-level mobs rather than something a touch easier, but you know that if you can get the heals going you’ll easily win through, so you try the more simple of the two heal gambits you have and… succeed! Flushed with this success you launch into the second, more complex, heal-over-time gambit and promptly eject yourself out of your own armour.

The result of this experience is such that I can only recommend most earnestly that you should never try to re-learn the Warden class when in a fellowship, because when that flame-thrower shoots out of your bum at your team mates standing behind you, they are not going to be happy I can tell you.

I got there in the end, managed to get the gambits straight in my mind, primarily by just picking one or two really simple ones and getting myself through a combat with only those, before progressing on to the more complex ones, pretty much in the way the game introduced them to me in the first place, many moons ago. The class is still as fun as I remember, but it’s just going to be a solo class for me: I really can’t do the tanking thing. The Warden is a special kind of tank, however, one that has numerous self-heals and defence boosters that means that they can perform feats solo that might give other classes trouble; this self-sufficiency makes them ideal as a solo class, as long as you’re not planning on getting anywhere fast, because to compensate for their survivability they are somewhat lacklustre in the damage department compared to many other classes. Most battles are about out-surviving the enemy, and this is something the Warden does very well indeed.

As for the Lore-master, well, I’ve only just started playing them, and therefore can’t really judge the class having only reached the heady heights of level fifteen thus far. That is high enough a level, however, for me to have been granted one of the primary crowd control abilities, a thirty second single target stun which essentially takes the targeted mob out of the combat equation until you so desire it to return to the fray, and I have to say, based on that ability alone, I know I’m going to enjoy the class tremendously.

Friday 16 April 2010

Blizzard tells a joke.

Q: Why is Blizzard’s $25 digital mount of limited stock availability?

A: Because they had to reserve the bulk of them to give to level 1 characters in the Cataclysm expansion!

Thursday 15 April 2010

Have I Got MMOnews For You

Host:This week, teams, news that GameStation legally owns the souls of thousands of customers, thanks to a clause added to their online terms and conditions to prove that nobody really reads them.

Zoso: When questioned about a similar clause in the WoW terms and conditions, a Blizzard legal rep responded “A way of pointing out people don’t read terms and conditions? Oh. Yeah. That’s what ours is, definitely, one of those.”

Melmoth: Rumours that Derek Smart has refused to refund souls of customers who signed up for Alganon’s similar offer, on the basis that he’s already eaten them all, are unfounded at this time. Several overly long ranty forum posts from an anonymous author did appear on the Alganon forums, however, intimating that souls all tasted terrible and no real pleasure was to be got from them, although they can be used to sustain a person for several millennia.

Zoso: The EA/Mythic team behind WAR apologised for claiming their players’ souls several times over, while DDO also got in on the action by offering 2,500 Turbine points in exchange for each immortal soul, but rapidly withdrew the offer as it turned out they’d rather overvalued things.

Host: Goodnight!

Studio lights dim, theme tune plays.

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Take a chance on me.

My Captain in Lord of the Rings Online has an ability called Light of Elendil which has the following as part of its description:

This melee attack has an increased chance to critical and inspires your fellows to invoke the Light of Elendil.
Your attack applies a buff to your fellowship that has a chance of invoking the Light of Elendil.

Essentially the Light of Elendil skill is a normal attack which has a chance to do critical damage, and applies a buff to yourself and your fellows for a short while which gives each of you a chance to apply the Light of Elendil damage-over-time effect to an enemy any time you damage them.

My Captain has another ability called Improved Defensive Strike which has the following as part of its description:

When attacking an opponent under the effect of the Light of Elendil you have a 25% chance of restoring some of your Power.

So if I’ve attacked an enemy with Light of Elendil and the chance to miss has not occurred, and I’ve made another attack of any sort and the chance to apply the debuff effect has occurred, and I’ve made yet another attack with Improved Defensive Strike then there’s a chance that I’ll restore some power.

Are we starting to lean a little too heavily on the Kismet Crutch in MMOs, perchance?

Tuesday 13 April 2010


I have so many character names reserved on various servers in various MMOs, each a tiny baptismal victory, to my mind at least, a triumph of finding a name meaningful to myself which was not already taken by someone else. I stare at Rumpole Bailey my Loremaster in LotRO, sitting un-played as he does in my character selection screen, and can’t help the smile that tweaks at the corners of my mouth; it’s unlikely that anyone else will witness my self-congratulatory chef-d’oeuvre of character naming, because I’m pretty much settled on my next alt being a hobbit, a race who can’t be Loremasters, and although the race-class combinations which MMOs enforce are often seemingly arbitrary restrictions, I can’t fault Turbine in this instance for not wanting a flock of Halfling wizards running around Middle Earth.

If World of Warcraft has taught us one thing, it has taught us to place an imaginary sign that reads “Beware of the bouncing GO GO GO… thing” above the heads of all miniature mages, until proven otherwise.

How many other characters are sitting out there at level one, reserved as a concept, a moment of naming eureka, or because a player doesn’t want to see Legolas or any number of variations thereof on their server?

Therefore, a moment of reflection if it pleases you, and raise your glass: to all the level one placeholders out there, may you always afford your creators pleasure, even though you yourself may never see the light of a virtual day.

To the placeholders.

Monday 12 April 2010

There is no end of craving. Hence contentment alone is the best way to happiness.

I’m disturbingly content with my MMO gaming life at the moment. It’s disturbing because my writing engine is powered by discontent and frustration, pumped together at high pressure into my mind it is a volatile mixture that lends itself easily to explosive outpourings given only the slightest of sparks to set it off. I’m just not sure that I’m wired for reporting on my daily happenings in my MMO of choice, or describing those things which make me happy in the game; I try to take the form of those things, transparent and illusive as they are, and wrap words around them in such a way as to give them shape and make their presence felt by others, but I get stuck. I try to describe them, I try to pack the words tightly around them and create a mould that others can pour their mind’s eye into and see the object that I have in my own imaginings, but all I can come up with is ‘nice’. Describing things as nice is like making a mould of the Venus de Milo out of ice cream, it may well form something vaguely like the famous statue of antiquity, but even the greatest supporter of interpretive works would have trouble identifying the object of its mimicry let alone making a case for its artistic merit.

Nevertheless here I am wanting to write, and here you are presumably wanting to read, so I shall try to form some image of what I’m doing at the moment that isn’t entirely beige.

Lord of the Rings Online is… nice. Oh dear.

I’ve been somewhat rejuvenated with regards to LotRO recently, where the static Monday group continues to move ever forward in levels and content, and seems to have found a steady rhythm of play which keeps things interesting. It’s important, I think, this rhythm in MMOs. What we do in these games is generally a repetitive task on some scale or other, be it the repetitive killing of mobs, or further up the scale the repetitive nature of questing, or further still the repetitive nature of end-game content. But, like a ritornello-form in composition, there is a dependence on a constant repetitive rhythm beneath the flourishes of excitement, the rhythm itself can change, of course, but it does so in less marked ways, and so it provides a context and a constant to the variations in the rest of the piece. So it is in MMOs: there is importance in finding a comfortable composition of play, such that you mix the familiar and easily accomplished achievements with those that are perhaps outside the bounds of your comfort zone. It is a balancing act of offsetting those things that may have become mundane through familiarity and confidence of accomplishment, with those that offer fresh experiences that will also bring with them challenges that may, at first, frustrate and de-motivate; strike the right balance and you will find that symphony of game-play which resonates within you so completely that it makes your soul hum. As with music, however, the right balance of play will often differ wildly from individual to individual, and here, I think, is where the greatest barrier to a healthy guild life is to be found. We seem to have found a strong balance in our band of six, but even then it is not always entirely harmonious, sometimes one of us will try to pull the carriage of progression in a different direction, while others continue to forge ahead on the well trod path, but always the reigns of compromise work to steady us and guide us along a suitable middle road. Imagine a carriage that is pulled by twenty or more people, how can one person be expected to hold reign over such a team when they can barely see those out at the front?

As well as the happy harmony of play in our static group I have also found a new class that matches my style of play more suitably. Having originally picked a dwarf Champion because it matched my favourite fantasy genre character – the hearty dwarf swinging a big axe with wild abandon from within a pressing crowd of angry greenskins – I gradually came to realise that the class didn’t match my favourite role in an MMO group, that being a supporter of others. Yes, I’m one of those miserable social types who gets most satisfaction in boosting the strengths of others such that they can overcome challenges which they might have otherwise thought impossible. Healer, buffer, debuffer, crowd control, any of those roles will suit me fine and keep me content. It doesn’t help that I am fully aware of how poor I am at tanking and how lacklustre my DPS usually is. Hence I saw an opportunity to switch roles, with our group having a Runekeeper, Hunter and Champion already, the DPS was safely covered and then some, and a second Champion, whilst not a burden, was not adding as much to the group as another more supportive class might bring. So I quietly levelled a Captain in the background and, having got them to level sixty three, the same as my Champion, I made the switch. I think the response in the group has been – outside of the obligatory “You’ve got an alt to this level already? Good grief!” which m’colleague has been heard to utter in more than one MMO during our adventures together – quite positive overall. I’m happy because I’m playing a role that I find enjoyable and that I’m not terrible at, and the group is happy because, well, with +50 to all stats and insane amounts of Power regeneration from a couple of buffs, I could probably stick myself on follow and read a book and be doing more for the group than I was before with my lacklustre attempt at being a damage dealer, and those are just two of the many tools that a Captain brings to the utility table.

Outside of the static group there’s much to do on my Captain should I want, with all of us fast approaching the game’s current level cap of sixty five, anything that would normally offer XP – the forbidden fruit of a static group – is now perfectly acceptable, and there are plenty of quests that I haven’t completed in Moria as well as Mirkwood. There are also all the completionist tasks to undertake such as getting virtues to their maximum level, which generally involves slogging through low level mobs and quests; I have volume one of the game’s story line still to complete, which, what with the recent modifications that Turbine have made, is now entirely soloable and thus I have no excuse to avoid the joys of jogging back and forth repeatedly across the wide expanse of Middle Earth like some sort of heavily armoured Forest Gump; there are also new skirmishes to play and new rewards to pick up there, both cosmetic and practical; I could grind out more legendary items and attempt to play the legendary lotto in the hope of getting that perfect weapon; I have both my gathering crafting professions at the highest level, but tailoring, my third and final profession, has been woefully neglected; and there are many other things that I can do to flesh out my character.

So what will I do first? I’ll level another alt, of course. I’ll pootle around and pick off some of the bits and pieces my main character needs, but my heart is in the creation of characters and the experience of watching them grow. End-game content in MMOs is so often about incremental steps, little improvements that, while impressive when taken as a whole, can never give that real sense of satisfaction that a new character does. It’s like polishing an existing silver service to a shine, or creating a new one from scratch which will be tarnished. There is pride and pleasure to be had from the polished service, and it will certainly be more likely to impress the Joneses when you invite them around for supper, but for someone like me there’s just so much more pleasure to be had from the act of creation, and with the variety of MMOs that I’m currently playing, the chance of burnout is greatly reduced: I have my characters in various static groups across various games, and need no more, anything I do over and above that will be pure undiluted entertainment, and if it isn’t then I can happily move on and try something else because my investment in my characters and the games that I play is not so high as to cause me great pains if I decide to move on.

It’s a… nice place to be.

Friday 9 April 2010

Smile, breathe and go slowly.

If fighting your way through a dungeon armed with nothing more than a pair of light silk pyjamas and an ability to touch things with your quivering palm sounds like an exciting challenge, or an erotic adventure, then the Monk class in Dungeons and Dragons Online might be the career choice for you. One wonders how a person becomes a Monk in DDO, most likely through a careers fair at school where, based upon the feedback given – like to touch things with my quivering palm; prefer to wear light outfits that leave me exposed; spend a lot of time in a crouching position; able to move limbs rapidly back and forth in quick succession – they were offered the somewhat limited choice of either Monk or Adult Film Fluffer.

The Monk in DDO is an interesting class, I’ve spoken before about how the mechanics for the class are in some ways similar to those of the Warden in Lord of the Rings Online, and that, due to the hectic pace of the combat in DDO and the standard MMO UI, the class doesn’t quite hit the level of harmony that its Middle Earthian compatriot enjoys. It is strange, but for a class that is all about harmonious balance and oneness, the Monk as a class always seems slightly at odds with the rest of the game.

To start with, the Monk relies on Ki to power its special moves and its special special move, or finishing move to properly name it, and although the Monk can store some Ki in between fights, at the lower levels at least, it never seems to be enough. The combat in DDO is so fast paced and frantic that by the time the Monk has built enough Ki to activate three of their special attacks and thus open up the option of the special special ability, the fight is over and the Monk is left with a useful buff or heal that is all ready to go but for a lack of Ki to power it, which is deeply frustrating in itself and doubly so when combined with another element of the class that appears to be there purely to rankle the player.

First a little pondering on front-loaded versus slow-burn abilities. It’s an element of many MMOs: the Mage with their pool of spell points all ready and waiting to be used versus the Warrior or Rogue type who has to build up rage/fervour/combo points/Ki in order to activate their more damaging abilities. It was a frustration for me in LotRO with my Champion and, having played a Runekeeper for a while, was part of the reason that I decided to drop the class and change to something else. For me it’s more fun and of greater utility to be able to let rip with a number of abilities right from the beginning of a fight than have to wait for what seems like an eternity while being wailed on by a bunch of angry pixelated script routines. It also seems that, in a very general case, if you have to wait a while to build-up enough smite juice to perform your class’s abilities, it would probably be fair for those abilities to be of greater power than those of a class that can use them freely right from the onset of conflict; rarely do I see classes of the slow-burn sort with abilities that outstrip the front-loaded abilities of those classes with a fixed pool of power, often they’re lucky if the two are even on a par. Ah, but the classes with a fixed pool have a finite resource, whereas those classes that build-up their power over time technically have a limitless supply! Which is a fair point, but how often do we see concessions to front-loaded classes in an MMO, such that they’re given ways to refill their sapphire scrotums with spell sperm? And how often do fights in an MMO last long enough that these classes are in danger of blowing their load and thus risk standing limp and spent at the back of the battle? Raiding is generally where it balances out, but if you’re not a raider and just enjoy small group dungeons and questing with your friends, it’s hard not to be frustrated by the fellow who can remove two thirds of a mob’s health bar before you’ve had enough time to whip out your weapon, let alone fluff it up enough that you can get some decent penetration with it.

As well as being a slow-burn class in a game where fights are fast and frantic – DDO combat is to WoW as a Vin Diesel film about chess would be to a documentary about Kasparov versus Deep Blue, at least I’m pretty sure Kasparov never played the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit whilst hanging from the bonnet of a speeding car and firing a 9mm at his opponent – the Monk also has a curious phobia of interacting with objects. It’s not a phobia as such, but in my mind that’s how it would appear to others, because if a Monk has their special special move ready to use and they interact with any object before they’ve activated said special special move, the ‘charge’ of the move is removed, or wasted as some might look at it. There’s nothing more frustrating than being in a dungeon and having a much needed healing special special move all lined up, needing one or two Ki more in order to be able to use it, and finding yourself standing at the base of a ladder. Doors also become an enemy to revile, loot chests become bittersweet rewards, levers and switches are spiteful and venomous, anything, anything that requires you to interact with it is anathema. Playing in a group becomes positively embarrassing:

Fighter: “So we’re all set, the Rogue will stealth in to the room right after the Monk opens the door”

Monk: “NO!”

Fighter: “What’s wrong?!”


Fighter: “Why? OMG, TRAP? Rogue, why didn’t you spot the trap?!”

Rogue: “There isn’t a trap!”


Fighter: “Dischar…? Dude, that’s sick!”

Rogue: “What’s up? What did he say?”

Fighter: “Dude said he was going to ejaculate if he touched the door.”

Rogue: “Ewww, god, what sort of sick fu…”

Monk: “No, no, you’ve got it all wrong. My power will discharge. Yes? I will go karmically limp. My ability to buff you all will be removed until I furiously pound some more kobolds and regenerate my energy.”

Fighter: “Oh god, I think I’m gonna hurl”

Rogue: “What? What did he say now?”

Fighter: “He says he wants to get jiggy with some kobolds so that he can get up the energy to rub our co…”

Rogue: “ALRIGHT. Enough. I’ll open the damn door, sheesh. You could have just ASKED.”

Monk: “Nobody understands me. Let me place my quivering palm on you and buff your co…”

<Fighter has left the party>
<Rogue has left the party>

Monk: “…nstitution. Your constitution. Hello?”

Seriously, I’ve stood at a door having the “I can’t touch the door otherwise I’ll lose my special special power” conversation with my group, and I’m pretty sure it only served to further cement in their minds the impression that I am quite, quite mad. And possibly a pervert.

I’ve no idea why the Monk’s special special ability would need to be discharged like that, maybe there’s a facet of the game that I’m not understanding, but I can’t think of many exploits that would be possible by charging up a special move and having it remain until the Monk next needed it, especially seeing as many of the Monk’s special special moves are simple one-minute duration party buffs, hardly an overpowered thing to have ready at the start of a fight.

Which leads me onto the other curious disharmony of the Monk’s mechanics, the fact that most of their special special moves are one-minute duration party buffs. Most fights as part of a competent party last all of fifteen seconds and, if the Monk is lucky, will provide just enough Ki to power one special special move. Now, the time it takes for the party to find the next group of mobs can be much more than a minute, especially if they’re taking things slowly and not trying the Indiana Jones style of trap avoidance by running pell-mell through the dungeon with their eyes closed while holding on to their hats. So the Monk doesn’t want to fire-off the buff at the end of combat because it is highly likely that it will have expired before the next combat begins. So they hold on to it. Why waste it, they think, I’ll just hold on to it until the next fight. I’ll have it ready for the start of the fight and we’ll all have a nice little buff to get us through it. I’ve worked hard for this buff, it took me time and coordination to build up the combination required to activate it while I was in the middle of that hectic fight. Yes, I will hold on to it and use it later, and the group will be most pleased!

And the Monk, cheered by their sensible approach to the situation, breaks out of their personal reverie and rejoins the conversation just at the point when the Fighter says:

“So we’re all set, the Rogue will stealth in to the room right after the Monk opens the door”


Thursday 8 April 2010

Eyeing-up a storm.

There’s already been much gnashing of teeth over the recently revealed Priest abilities in World of Warcraft.

Leap of Faith (level 85): Pull a party or raid member to your location. Leap of Faith (or “Life Grip”) is intended to give priests a tool to help rescue fellow players who have pulled aggro, are being focused on in PvP, or just can’t seem to get out of the fire in time. Instant. 30-yard range. 45-second cooldown.

Inner Will (level 83): Increases movement speed by 12% and reduces the mana cost of instant-cast spells by 10%.

I don’t see what the problem is myself, clearly someone on the Blizzard developer team has simply had one too many Eye of the Storm battleground flags poached out from under them by travel-form Druids and Shamans, so now they can whip those bad boys out of the way and beat them in a race back to the flag and glory!

Or instant death if they’re playing as Alliance.

I’m still working out the logistics of a Warlock-summon/Priest-pull combo. that will send unsuspecting running players off the edge of high places to their doom. Or maybe we could get Priests to stand on the other side of portals and yank players through!

Best skill ever, and therefore it will never make it into the game proper. For shame.

Thought for the day

With 28 days to the General Election, the digital political battleground is hotting up through blogs, Google, Twitter, Facebook and the like. One avenue seems to have been missed so far, though; why no official party guilds in MMOGs yet? “We are standing on a platform of fiscal responsibility, economic savings through efficiency improvements in the public sector, and removal of the random dungeon cooldown.” If stirring oratory doesn’t do the trick, there’s always PvP; first to five flag captures gets to be PM!

Wednesday 7 April 2010

We have seen the future, and the future is arse.

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Easter Gaming Roundup

I’ve got something of a gaming logjam building up; Bioshock 2, Psychonauts and Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising are all patiently hanging around the Steam games list with barely an hour or two played between them, so with a couple of days holiday over Easter I thought I’d be able to get a decent run-up at one or two of them.

MMOG-wise, Dungeons and Dragons Online continues to work quite splendidly as a once-a-week game with the Irredeemable Waifs every Friday, along with the odd extra-curricular dungeon delve and a bit of inventory housekeeping and auctioneering here and there. I’m having enough fun to justify a monthly subscription, but I think it would still irk me slightly if that was the only choice. As it is I’m more than happy to spend Turbine points on fripperies like a bright green ponytail mohawk as well as the more sensible stuff like the adventures packs; we made a start on the Vault of Night this week, which has been a lot of plummeting-into-a-lava-pit fun so far.

With the RUSE public beta drawing to a close I spent a fair bit of time launching massed artillery strikes against my foes. And also playing RUSE (aaaah!) (No, not ‘aaaah’.) I seemed to hit some sort of problem that meant about one in five times when looking for a multiplayer game it would just hang at the “Connecting…” screen, requiring killing the process off in Task Manager, which put a bit of a crimp on things, but I still managed a few decent games. There was quite a fun four player Free For All that ended up as a three-way tie, the timer ticking down as I finished destroying the Blue player’s main base, mostly because the bulk of his forces were off destroying the Red player’s base, and meanwhile the Turquoise player finished with almost the same points total from wiping out the Red player’s attack on him. Also a couple of slightly frustrating 3v3 team games where I’d been doing reasonably well myself, but a team-mate either lost connection or decided things weren’t working out and surrendered; in those cases the game passes on control of any remaining troops to another member of the team, I presume the one with the highest score, which is about as fair as you can hope for, but it’s as much as I can manage to focus on a single sector, and when the second player on the team decides that’s it and quits as well there isn’t much point carrying on. Playing head-to-head would obviously remove the reliance on the rest of your team, but I prefer the scale and unpredictability of the larger battles. I’m still undecided about this in retail, with the backlog of other games I’ll probably wait until it’s on sale, but if you’re after an RTS it’s well worth a look.

I found Napoleon: Total War cheap online a few weeks back, but I hadn’t even got around to installing it with RUSE on the go. From flipping through a few user comments on either Eurogamer or Rock, Paper, Shotgun, general opinion of Empire: Total War seemed quite low, enough to put many people off Napoleon, but I thoroughly enjoyed sweeping across Europe and painting the world the correct shade of British Empire pink, and with the RUSE beta winding down I finally got around to installing it. I’ve only whipped through a few tutorial bits, but it looks like Empire with a bit more polish so should be excellent. Apart from playing as Napoleon, of course; I don’t mind defeating Austria and invading Russia, but I draw the line at re-writing history at Waterloo (stands to attention, plays Rule Britannia etc.)

In other irresistible bargain news Borderlands was half price on Steam, so I felt morally obliged to grab it; fired it up for a quick look on Saturday playing as a Hunter, got to about level 7, decided I wasn’t too keen on the class, created a new Siren, and wound up around level 19 by Monday evening. It’s really rather addictive, with all that lovely randomly generated loot to collect, and probably deserves a fuller write-up. Just a couple of small tips for anyone else who’s just grabbed it recently:
1) If you’re getting blank textures inside buildings, and you’re running the v9.11 ATI Catalyst drivers, then upgrading to the latest version might solve the problem
2) To disable the SODDING UNSKIPPABLE INTRO MOVIES, see this PC Tweaks thread on the Gearbox forums. Whoever thought it’s a good idea to force a player to sit through the four company logos every time they start the game needs to be made to sit through the four company logos ON REPEAT FOR THE WHOLE OF ETERNITY. Or a few hours, if they repent.

Thursday 1 April 2010

April Fool's Day Cancelled

In exclusive breaking news, a KiaSA insider has revealed that the Elders of the Internet have cancelled April Fool’s Day for 2010. “It used to be quite good” said spokesman Neville Most-people-can’t-even-be-bothered-to-find-an-anagram-of-April-Fool-for-names, “organisations would put a bit of effort into carefully crafting humorous yet slightly plausible stories and everyone had a lovely old time. Now you can’t move for people posting any old bollocks; ‘Hatstand elected Prime Minister’, ‘Cheese to be made illegal’, ‘Blizzard to drop World of Warcraft in favour of Hello Kitty Farm Pet World’, ‘Zookeeper headbutted by giraffe’. And the worst thing is half of them turn out to be proper news stories after all, like one of those examples. Yeah. Apparently the EU are totally banning cheese or something, it’s political correctness gone mad.”

The Elders were considering replacing the event with “April Lying Day”, allowing sites to just post stuff that wasn’t true without the burden of trying to be in some way amusing, but were warned off by the copyright lawyers of several major news corporations.