Thursday 6 May 2010

Never permit a dichotomy to rule your life

Having sorted out Italy in Napoleon: Total War I moved on to the Egyptian campaign, which proved slightly trickier on the motivation front as I faced the British for the first time. To get into character and see the appearance of a Union Jack as a threat rather than reason to stand up and salute I wore a beret, spoke with an outrageous accent and ate lots of croissants to steel myself to send the Rosbifs packing. Turned out not to matter too much; after devoting maximum resources to building up a navy (it took five turns to get one small corvette) I sent it out to scout the Mediterranean a bit, show the flag, discourage the landing of any troops on my lightly defended shores, and it ran into the British fleet. Which consisted of about twelve ships of the line, four frigates and a couple of sloops. There might’ve been an aircraft carrier in there as well, possibly a couple of nucelar attack submarines, it was hard to tell at the speed I was retreating, so my naval policy was modified to staying in port and shouting “zut alors!” from time to time. The land forces made up for it, though, storming through Egypt and capturing swathes of the Ottoman Empire to triumph in that campaign, but it’s going to be more difficult still for the final campaign, Europe from 1805. I’m rather hoping the British will go along with a plan to carve up Europe between us in a 100-years-early Entente cordiale, but that doesn’t seem terribly likely. Courage, mes amies!

Anyway. Much of the attraction of the Total War series is the way it combines two genres: the strategic turn-based campaign, where you build and govern your empire, and the tactical real-time battles that result when you send your armies into combat and trample the enemy with elephants. (If you’re playing as the Carthaginians in Rome: Total War, at least. Not so many elephant-based units in 19th century Europe. Unless the next Total War game covers the 1870 siege of Paris and you get to take the zoo animals into battle rather than just eating them.) You can skip either aspect if you really want, though; the games come with selections of historical battles and skirmish modes to leap straight into the real-time battles side of things, or if you’re more of a political leader and don’t want to get your hands dirty on the campaign map you can leave it to your AI generals and have the computer automatically resolve fights.

Over in Dungeons & Dragons Online I’ve gained a couple of ranks and therefore have some Action Points to spend, and poring over the range of enhancements available it struck me that, as with Total War, there are two quite distinct parts to the game: planning and building your character, and adventuring with them. Most MMOGs have the two elements, but the dichotomy in Dungeons & Dragons Online is particularly pronounced.

Combat in DDO is, for an MMOG, fast paced; when attacking you hit what’s in the cross-hairs in the middle of the screen, not necessarily a target selected by clicking or hitting Tab (there’s no friendly fire, thankfully, or 97.4% of adventures would end in bitter acrimony after the first encounter. Or possibly before, if somebody went to buff another player but forgot that left clicking triggers an attack rather than selecting a target.) Magic users will probably have a hotbar or seven filled up with different spells to cast, but melee characters tend not to have many abilities to activate in a fight compared to other games; my regular in-combat clickable abilities (as opposed to buffs, toggles etc.) are outnumbered by the sack full of different weapon sets I cart around for various encounters.

Where DDO’s combat is streamlined, the character planning side of things has many strange knobbly bits sticking out and causing turbulence. DDO’s rules are derived from a pencil and paper game: the Generic Universal RolePlaying System. No, wait, not that one, Dungeons and Dragons. The clue was in the title, in hindsight. With MMOGs being more combat focused than pencil and paper games the rules are quite heavily modified, but creating a character is still a rather involved business. In WoW, WAR or LotRO after picking a race and a class your toughest decisions generally involve beard style and colouring, in DDO you’ve got stats, skills and feats to worry about. As you ascend ranks and levels the choices open up further still, as DDO allows you to combine classes. I think this is almost, if not entirely, unique for a class-based MMOG, and as the saying goes “you haven’t seen hybrids until you’ve seen a Wizard/Rogue/Cleric and Paladin/Sorcerer/Bard duo in DDO”. It can be a bit daunting trying to choose from a list of 50 feats when you have a nodding acquaintance with the pencil and paper rules, let alone if you’re coming to it fresh.

Like Total War, though, you can, to a greater or lesser extent, skip either facet of the game if you really want. Recognising the complexity of character building, Turbine added Paths that your character can follow, so you just need to decide whether your fighter wants to focus on dealing damage, tanking or whatever, and the game sorts out the rest for you. It won’t give you the most ludicrously optimised min-maxing munchkin build possible, but at least you won’t end up with totally inappropriate stats. If it’s the character planning side of things that’s more interesting to you, there isn’t exactly an option to build an adventurer and hit an “Automatically Resolve” button instead of battling through a dungeon to gain loot and XP, but there is an out-of-game ecosystems of forums, spreadsheets and standalone character planning tools to tinker about with theoretical builds. Again like Total War, I think the game is at its best when you at least dabble in both sides, so time to check when the next rank of Tempest opens up and make sure I’m meeting the pre-requisites for it.

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