Wednesday 30 June 2010

KiaSA Top Tips for APB

For new players to All Points Bulletin, a quick guide from pre-launch:

  • Voice is broadcast by default; either go into the VoIP section of the Audio options to change it to push to talk, or if you’re wearing a headset be vewy, vewy quiet when sneaking up on wabbits (and enemy players) or they’ll hear you.  Or take advantage, by saying very loudly “I’M JUST GOING TO GO UP THESE STAIRS HERE AT THE FRONT OF THE BUILDING”, then sneak off up a ladder round the back.
  • You show up as a red triangle on enemy radar (and vice versa) when either sprinting or in a vehicle.
  • APB is very much like making love to a beautiful woman (© Swiss Toni), it’s better in a group. Pull up the group window (“U” by default) to find one (a group, that is; beautiful women are currently unavailable via in-game mechanisms).
  • When riding as a passenger in a car, press forward or back (“W/”S”) to lean out of the window and shoot at stuff. Don’t press “F”, unless you want to get out.
  • If there are four of you in a car, the two on the passenger side need to be very careful firing directly ahead or behind, or there will very soon be three in the car. If someone leaning out of the opposite side of the car happens to shoot you, they probably meant it.
  • To add your own music to the game, pull up the music player (default “P”), select “Import”, and navigate to the folder containing the MP3s. You can also toggle between having your music playing all the time, or just in cars.
  • Setting up a playlist containing only the theme from The Professionals to play whenever you get into a car instantly makes the game 42.7% more awesome
  • Pick a gun to suit your style; out of the tutorial you can buy the OCA-EW submachine gun for close-in work, or the Obeya rifle if you prefer longer range shots.  (Speak to a contact to buy weapons, vehicles and upgrades.)  Alternatively, choose the one that best matches your shoes.
  • If an enemy group are holed up around an objective, charging directly towards their waiting guns generally doesn’t work as well as taking a bit of time to scope the area and look for unexpected approaches or overlooking sniper positions. If your clan is closely modelled on the Crimean War era Light Brigade, though, go for it, it’ll make a great poem.

Thought for the day.

In the general case, people don’t complain that <insert competitive sport or board game of choice> is boring because it always involves playing the same scenario with the same rules over and over and over.

So why do a vast number of commentators feel that a PvP game such as All Points Bulletin having a repetitive mission structure is a design flaw?

APB certainly has its flaws, but this is not one of them. Could it be improved by adding new mission content? Obviously yes, but then football could be improved if they secretly added a minefield one week, maybe changed the ball for an angry wolverine the next; it doesn’t mean that football is fundamentally flawed when the organisers choose to leave the framework the same and let the players create the content instead.

Tuesday 29 June 2010


The United(Really?) Kingdom is suffering a modest spell of hot weather at the moment, and as with the snow it seems that we are utterly unable as a populace to deal with any variation in temperature away from Mildly Inclement degrees Celsius; if no rain is seen for more than a few days mothers will begin clutching their children tightly to themselves as they peer fearfully out of their curtained windows, old folk cross their chests and sit on their porches waiting for the end of all things, and men begin to gather in groups in the street and stand stalwartly staring towards the sun, arms clamped in at the sides, fists clenched, humming God Save the Queen through gritted teeth set into defiant perspiring faces.

In order to help my British MMO brethren through this difficult time of pleasant weather, I thought I’d drop a few tips on how to cope in a language that will be familiar to us all.

The big yellow thing in the sky is called Sun, he’s the current end-game raid boss for this expansion, or ‘season’ as regular raiders of the outside world call it.

Sun gives off a massive AoE DoT aura that turns you pink and makes your skin fall off. This aura is a bit backwards because it affects everywhere outside of the dark dank dungeons we generally inhabit of an evening.

To counter Sun’s aura there’s a special Sun Screen buff that you can apply, it’s gained by using a cream every couple of hours or so. The buff doesn’t stack; attempts to apply multiple buffs will simply make you look like a noob when you go outside. The cream can be picked up from most vendors at your local village or town.

Sun’s second phase is to apply an Overheat debuff to those who remain hidden inside thinking to avoid the DoT aura. Players can counter this by removing armour and submersing themselves in any nearby expanses of water. Be warned though, the AoE DoT aura is still in effect in the second phase and the longer a player stays in the water the quicker the Sun Screen buff wears off. Players will need to carefully balance between the AoE DoT and Overheat to make it through to phase three.

Note: Players should drink regularly at all times in order to replenish fluids lost through the perspiration mechanic that was introduced with patch 1.4.7, which as far as we can tell was only introduced to give the players busy work. Be aware that certain drinks will draw aggro from various insect class mobs, some of whom have a nasty poison attack.

In phase three a siren will sound and any players smart enough to think of filling a bath with cold water to survive phase two will be drawn outside to a nearby ice cream van. This phase forces all players out into Sun’s AoE DoT and is a test of group cooperation as the players queue for their frozen monosodium glutamate on a stick. Useful resist gear for this phase includes the knotted handkerchief headpiece, which is generally considered best-in-slot for fire resistance of this type. A string vest and shorts that are too tight around the crotch are generally best for chest and legs, although embarrassingly over-tight Speedos are an acceptable alternative – these items all look like bikini pieces on female avatars, of course. Sandals and flip flops are the best footwear – WARNING do not be tempted to equip white socks at the same time as sandals; although it might seem that the sock’s partial defence bonus to sun block would be useful in these situations, you will draw such considerable aggro from other PCs that it will far outweigh any benefits the socks might provide.

Note: At any time a BBQ event can be initiated by the leader of your party. This event provides considerable resistances to both Overheat and Ice Cream Van Nearby, but will require everyone to take on Sun’s AoE DoT. Be warned that you need a leader with a skill of at least 375 in cooking to be in charge of the BBQ: for every fifty skill points below 375 they are there’s a 10% chance that the leader will serve poisoned food which will debuff players for several days afterwards; it does provide lots of opportunity to practise using the Sprint to Toilet skill however, and is one of the few ways to gain the Both Ends At Once! achievement.

Those players who thought ahead and made their way to the beach in order to be near an expanse of water for phase two will now be punished by the developer for their foresight and ingenuity and suffer a Sand debuff that reduces the effectiveness of ice cream and BBQ food by fifty percent. They will also be attacked by sea gulls at random. And it will rain. Serves them right for daring to enjoy themselves in an MMO.

Monday 28 June 2010

So long as you have one good wife you are sure to have a spiritual harem.

My gaming relationship has transitioned from the traditional simple life — a fairly solid marriage to Lord of the Rings Online while at the same time maintaining a once per week dalliance with my mistress Dungeons and Dragons Online — to a more complicated affair where I maintain a harem of MMOs from which I pick and choose as my desire fancies. The trouble is, with so many delights on offer, it quickly becomes a meta-game of time management, a frantic plate-spinning affair in order to keep as many characters up to speed as possible, and as such the spectre of burnout looms large. As in a foreign restaurant, sometimes a sampling of multitudinous delicacies can lead to new discoveries of piquant flavours and sensations, new insights into how various unexpected combinations can complement one another, and where one set of dishes can show an otherwise unfavourable set of alternative dishes in a new and favourable light, making them more palatable.


And sometimes you get snail Tandoori with chamomile ice cream.

I’m not sure how my current gaming infidelity will resolve itself, primarily because this week marks the start of my descent into wanton lasciviousness. Update 5 of DDO is to be released this week, and with it comes the introduction of guild levels and rewards which may well tempt me into playing for more than the modestly casual one night a week to which I had been restricting myself up until now. In addition to the guild update, the Monk class prestige enhancements are also released with Update 5, and this will allow me to take my Monk/Rogue build and add the Ninja Spy enhancement for some short-sword-waving merriment. My Monk is built around a theme rather than the ideal aim of hyper-munchkined end game raid DPS, so I’ll be taking both of the Ninja Spy enhancements from the Monk line, and the first Assassin enhancement from the Rogue line, thus allowing me to take the level 20 prestige class – Ang Lee Martial Arts Cliché.

Another addition to the gaming gynécée is APB, whose head start begins this week, and of which both myself and m’colleague are intending to partake, along with whoever else cares to join us; it’s all very casual, a sort of modest gaming gangbang really, what with APB only being able to handle four people in a group at a time, the poor dear. There’s also at least one beta that I’m hoping to dabble with in the coming weeks, specifically to determine whether the genre of game that is being introduced to MMO mechanics is even viable; in terms of the harem this is quite possibly tantamount to adding some form of farm yard animal in order to see whether it spices things up a bit more or, as is more likely, just ends up tainting the whole experience with the overpowering odour of manure.

Lord of the Rings Online continues to entertain, and I can’t see myself leaving the lands of Middle Earth any time soon, but it will suffer a loss of attention as I reduce the hours I dedicate to it in order to make room for all of the newcomers. Finally, Warhammer Online is currently slated as the new game to be played on Monday nights as a response to the ‘breakdown’ of the fellowship, so I’ve been pottering around in there, trying to remember how things work and steeling myself for the inevitable PvP conflict. Much like APB, I’m playing WAR in order to have fun with friends: the PvP element is something that I’m able to tolerate in order to achieve this aim but I can’t see it as ever being something that I’d get fanatical about, I’m just not a competitive person.

All of which would be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that Valve has just recently dumped a massive summer sale on us via their Steam service. Exquisite games are now on offer for less money than even a modest person might spend on snacks in a day, and if my MMO gaming menagerie is a harem, then my Steam collection is a bawdy Western brothel, where anything goes: as long as it’s cheap and cheerful, I’ll take it. So now I have two competing camps of games vying for my free time, with cat-fights breaking out left and right as the MMOs pull hair and scratch at the mouthy uncouth single player upstarts, but although the MMOs are complicated and glamorous and can entertain a person for hours at a time, there’s something appealing about a quick and dirty thirty minute play around in the Steam room.

In conclusion: I really should stop watching Desperate Housewives.

Friday 25 June 2010

Entertainment is Ennui.

Spinks wrote a piece lamenting the gradual erosion of the stealth role in MMOs. My comment arrived late and somewhat out of sorts, like a drunk arguing a point with a stranger – the original duellist in the debate having long since left the scene. And as my comment staggered its way drunkenly towards a point it bumped into a different topic entirely, spilling that topic’s pint, and thus the two of them ended-up rolling ineffectually on the floor of the bar struggling to hump a submission out of one another over a subject the substance of which had long been forgotten, while the stranger, in all probability, looked on in quiet befuddlement.

My comment was thus:

Wardens get to stealth a little bit too, but shhh, otherwise the You Know Who will come and get us.

I think I’ve used that stealth ability once or twice so far in my levelling career, and primarily it’s been to avoid fights that I’m really not in the mood for, for example when I’m needing to find a safe spot and log off quickly.

I think the Resolve All Problems Through Combat nature of MMOs definitely is one reason why stealth has been deprecated over the years.

I think the primary reason, however, is simply impatience on the part of the modern player. There are plenty of opportunities in DDO, for example, where a stealthed character could sneak ahead, scout the area, take out a few enemies and disarm any traps before returning to the group, but you’ll find that most groups outside of the role-playing crowd will just barrel through regardless and simply tank the traps and extra mobs and heal through it. Nobody wants to stop playing while one person carries on playing ‘solo in a group’.

It’ll be interesting to see how SW:TOR manages to deal with this, not just in combat, but also in the quest conversation system, because making players wait for other players has generally devolved into being a no-no among MMO developers.

Personally I think it’s a sad thing, because it’s another pillar of play that has been removed to streamline the experience, but at the expense of weakening the foundation of The Group as an entity in MMOs, reducing it yet further towards the rudimentary collection of players trying to get through unsoloable content as quickly as possible for the greater loot rewards.

Stealth no longer fits into MMOs because role-playing no longer fits in to MMOs; I think we’re also witnessing the gradual extinction of danger in MMOs, at which point there comes a time when you have to ask ‘what reason is there to hide from an enemy that I have no cause to fear?’

Back in the days of Everquest players would wait around for hours with other players, camping a mob in the hope that they could all work together to achieve a small but potentially significant goal. These days you’re lucky if you can get a group to wait while the healer drinks to regain their mana.

MMOs develop as a reflection of our modern society.

Bigger, Faster, Better.

Rude, Impersonal, Soulless.

We’re becoming spiritually poor in our MMOs as we are in real life. The rat race mentality is fully entrenched: you must be superior to the next person, richer, better equipped, more achievements, otherwise you are one of life’s losers. You must constantly be proving your worth in some way, chasing the carrot, running faster on the wheel that takes you nowhere, otherwise you are, by definition, worthless. It is a grating horrible attitude that pervades real life, but to translate that into entertainment? That’s just sad.

MMOs are quickly becoming un-games. They are already big business, not just for the developers, but for the gold farmers, the information database websites, the levelling guide sites, the merchandisers. They are less and less about having fun, and more and more about status, wealth and achievement. Players of PvP MMOs generally sneer down at the Carebear players of their PvE counterparts, and yet there’s easily as much competition in PvE MMOs as there is in PvP MMOs, but in PvE MMOs the rules are changeable and ambiguous, and the competition is bitter and more personal; in PvE it’s about destroying the person behind the screen, not the persona within it. PvP MMOs are harmless, generally giving the vindictively frustrated an outlet without their having to interact with the real world, a bit like the role blow-up sex dolls serve for the sexually frustrated. It is PvE MMOs which hide the truly psychotic and malicious.

I wonder if we need a cleansing of the MMO temple, but how would we set about doing this as a society when MMOs always reflect our world in their worlds, and thus we will always see our societies reflected in their society. Our society is geared for survival, for survival of the individual and survival of the human race, but if you’re one of life’s pessimists, as I am, you see very little chance in that society for the survival of the soul. The fact that even our community-based entertainment cannot exist without, as a general rule, devolving into competition, a survival of the ruthless and the fanatical, where he who runs the treadmill fastest wins, removes another layer of doubt for me about the future we face as a people.

“There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always–do not forget this, Winston–always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face–for ever.”
            — George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Thursday 24 June 2010

Have I Got MMOnews For You

Host: This week, teams, news that China is set to crack down on unwholesome content in games, with the Ministry of Culture “aiming to stop any content that advocates pornography, cults, superstitions, gambling and violence being seen in any game that is targeting Chinese teenagers under the age of 18.”

Zoso: Bioware are reported to be working on an acceptable version of Dragon Age, in which you persuade the Darkspawn that violent conflict is engineered by the bourgeoisie as a method of keeping the proletariat repressed, convince them to join with the people of Ferelden in peaceful agricultural collectivisation, then retire to your party camp for a stimulating debate on Marxism-Leninism. Rumours of a “Hot Coffee”-esque mode, in which Zevran makes mildly salacious comments on the shapeliness of the Warden’s ankles, are hotly denied.

Melmoth: Rockstar Games gave up on attempts to bring their Grand Theft Auto series to China when their initial attempt to remove all offensive content left nothing but the main character standing in an empty field holding a small stick. The Chinese government rejected the game, however, on the grounds that the stick might be construed as an offensive weapon and the field was too open and might encourage desires for greater freedom.

Zoso: After the difficulty in getting Wrath of the Lich King released in China, Blizzard are confident that the next expansion, Land Of The Superstitious Cult of Violently Pornographic Gamblers, will have no such issues.

Host: Goodnight!

Studio lights dim, theme tune plays.

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Reviewlet: Dragon Age Origins - Awakenings

I bought Dragon Age: Origins – Awakenings when it first came out a few months back, played for a couple of hours and… just stopped. I think I was a bit Bioware-d out from thoroughly playing through Dragon Age itself and Mass Effect 2 in fairly short order, and Awakenings didn’t ram a crochet hook of pure stimulation up one nostril and yank my brain out through the medium of excitement alone. The icon was sitting on my desktop filed under “must get back to at some point”, and after the Grand Theft Auto IV expansions with their interminable conversations that you have no control over I though it would be nice to actually pick what I got to say for once, fired it back up, got hooked in this time, and played it pretty solidly through to the end.

[The rest of this post has been rated as “Mild” by the British Board Of Possible Spoiler Warnings. No big twists will be revealed, but if you want to know absolutely nothing at all about any aspect of the game, look away now.]

Story-wise, “solid” is probably a fair description; as I said, it didn’t grab me instantly, but in the right frame of mind it’s engaging enough, and there are some interesting revelations about the Darkspawn as you go. In many ways it’s a slightly cut down version of the original, after a brief introduction there’s A City Bit, A Forest Bit, A Spooky Fade Bit and A Dwarf City Bit that you can choose to visit with some interlinking quests, with a Big Final Battle once you’ve completed the other areas. Each segment is quite neat in its own right, and none drag on too long.

Companion-wise only Oghren comes with you from the main game, and hardly develops past Obnoxious Drunk, I never really cared much for him. A couple of new party members are soon available: Anders the Mage who looks and sounds a lot like Alistair in a dress, and Nathanial Howe, son of Arl Howe, who starts off a bit Inigo Montoya (“you killed my father, prepare to die”), but can be conscripted into the party, and I don’t think it would be a massive shock to reveal he can gradually soften to you over time through the right conversation options. Three more are available over the course of the game, a total of six not making quite such a mockery of going adventuring with a party of four while a massive entourage of slackers just hang around the camp. There are no romance options, though, a bit of flirting with Anders was as much as my female Warden could manage, despite there being a perfect rom-com setup with Nathanial (“His father killed her father! She killed his father! Now he’s out to kill her, but through a whacky bunch of hijinks they end up having to save the world together; while looking for Darkspawn, they found each other…”)

Mechanically there’s quite a bit of new stuff to play with. The level cap is raised, with new spells, talents, abilities and specialisations to pick from as you go; where Mass Effect 2 cut right down on the number of activated abilities, by the end of Awakenings my Rogue must have had around 30 icons on the hotbar for assorted attacks, buffs and skills, and few types of health and stamina potion from the inventory (stamina potions being a welcome addition for non-mage classes, who’d previously fling themselves upon opponents using a wide range of devastating moves, get knackered in about seven second flat, and spend the next couple of minutes panting and occasionally auto-attacking). It teeters gently on the edge of being a bit too much, especially for mages, but with the ability to pause in combat you can always spend a while hunting through the spellbook for that situationally useful ability you’re fairly sure you have somewhere.

I scarcely bothered with the crafting options in the original game, finding or buying potions and ignoring traps entirely; Awakenings adds Runecrafting, and a bit of extra weapon damage never hurts (or always hurts, more to the point) so I thought I’d give it a bit of a try. Very broadly, two runes of the same type can be combined into one more powerful rune, and a vendor sells unlimited quantities of the lowest level runes, so to get a level X rune you buy 2X rubbish runes, a stack of consumable-type-stuff, and click away. It’s not a bad system, but each rune takes up one inventory slot, so even if you totally clear your inventory (a difficult task for a compulsive pack rat, even with the storage chest provided) you can only cram in enough raw materials for a couple of the most powerful runes at a time. This wouldn’t be a major problem apart from the fact that I trained one of my party up in Runecrafting instead of learning it myself, and the rune vendor is in your keep, the equivalent of the party camp from the original game where all your companions hang around between questing. As you’re not actually in a party in the keep you can only use your own skills, which meant crafting consisted of buying a load of stuff from the vendor, leaving the keep to form up a party including the runecrafter, standing just outside the door of the keep actually making the runes, running out of ingredients, going back into the keep (disbanding the party) to buy more from the vendor, leaving the keep again… I could’ve respecced my character to learn Runecrafting (official respec books are another addition to Awakenings, though plenty of mods allowed you to do it in the original), then re-respecced afterwards to drop it for more useful talents, but that seemed like a fair bit of hassle as well. Nice idea, perhaps a bit of a MMOG-y timesink, so after creating a couple of uber-runes for my favourite sword I decided to skip the 1% benefit of making a bunch more.

Speaking of crafting, another minor annoyance: Wade the Blacksmith turns up again, and can make powerful weapons and armour from certain rare things you find in your journey. A piece of Heartwood, for example, Wade could turn into a bow or a shield with just a flawless ruby, a bit of catgut, and some oil. Great! I’d found catgut and oil earlier (through the traditional RPG hero method of taking everything you ever see that’s not nailed down), except somehow, either through my own carelessness or a glitch, they didn’t seem to be in my inventory or storage chest; maybe I’d got rid of them while trying to clear space for the runes. Still, something as common as oil, that must be lying around all over the place; store rooms at the castle, merchants are bound to sell it, maybe just pop along to the nearest coast line and scoop some up from a spill… but no. No, apparently oil is just as rare as the living heart of a sapient tree, and there’s only one flask of it in the entire world.

With the arsenal of new abilities I never had too much trouble in combat; I have a suspicion this might be from turning the difficulty down to “Easy” when I made a bit of a start at a second play-through of Origins to get a different ending, and not changing it after installing Awakenings. Even the bigger beasties like dragons went down fairly easily with a bit of pausing and health potion use, I can’t remember having to reload due to party death at all, so it was quite nice as a casual wander around Amaranthine with occasional widespread slaughter. Towards the end of the game I had to choose a party for what I thought would be Something Quite Important But Not The Big Final Battle, picked three characters who volunteered, and was plunged into what turned out to be The Actual Final Ultimate Battle of Finality with three rogues (including me) and a mage. Not really the optimal composition, but they still managed to defeat everything without great difficulty.

All in all, if you liked Dragon Age: Origins, Awakenings is another satisfying dollop of Darkspawn-slaying fun.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Where does she get those wonderful toys?

My Warden’s single-handed maniacal dismantling of the forces of Sauron continues apace. Where apace should be read as ‘at a pace’; that pace being whatever my spare time allows in between real life and other MMOs. Still, despite infrequent play sessions, my valkyrie shield-maiden wannabe has reached level fifty six, and picked up yet another ability that I need to cram into my already hectic martial schedule. That’s the American sorority girl ‘need’, incidentally, as in “Oh! I so need to use that!”, rather than it being some form of mandatory requirement to my character’s combat functionality. That’s the most joyous thing to me about the Warden at the moment: the depth and breadth of choice in how to play the class. The Warden has an almost daunting arsenal of attacks at their disposal, and when you see the sheer number of gambits that they can perform and the varying effects each has, it can be quite intimidating. I find, however, that it’s tremendously liberating. If I’m facing a large group of mobs do I want to pop my defences first and then build some self-heals? Do I just rely on my basic level of defence and dish out some damage over time attacks first, to whittle the enemy numbers down more quickly? Do I want to play with my AoE fear that will mitigate some damage by causing enemies to occasionally pause their attack temporarily, and more importantly is just jolly good fun to use – it’s heartening to watch a gabble of goblins surrounding your character but cowering in fear at your presence. Every combat can be different if the Warden chooses it to be so, it’s a class that I feel really tries to buck the trend of a set ideal rotation of abilities that you line up on your hotbar and macro into obscurity; the mechanics of the Warden class encourages the player to experiment, and more often than not it rewards that experimentation with some quite extraordinary feats of combat.

Thus the Warden treads precariously along the tightrope of overpoweredness, performing a delicate balancing act between survivability and damage output, a fundamental issue with tanking classes in a lot of MMOs, where too great a damage output or too high a survivability means that the developers create a class that is a nigh-unstoppable killing machine. Once such a criminally overpowered class is created the only recourse is for someone to climb to the top of the developer’s building in the dead of night, shine a searchlight signal at the clouds, and wait for Nerfbatman to answer the call. It does, however make the player feel like a hero: I no longer look at a camp of orcs and wonder how I can make my way meekly around it, tiptoeing furtively like some husband coming late to bed and hoping not to wake his wife’s wrath, no, I make my way directly to my destination, and as camps of orcs break on the bow of my shield, graveyards lie in my wake. It’s that sort of heroic feeling, in fact, where you picture camps of orcs getting meekly out of the Warden’s way, straw huts and barrels tiptoeing quickly around corners, into caves and off of cliffs if necessary to avoid the wrath of the hate-shouting venom-eyed warrior queen.

The Warden exacerbates the image of being overpowered because their survivability is based upon a mixture of both the traditional defences such as block, evade and parry, and the fact that they can heal themselves with a number of heal-over-time and life-tap abilities. Combine this with the fact that they have a modest group heal that is used regularly because, in addition to the heal component, it also transfers threat from other fellowship members to the Warden, and as evidenced by a number of Doc Holiday’s posts that show the parse for big instance fights, the Warden is actually a pretty decent healer considering they’re a tank. Healing is the better form of survivability over mitigation in my opinion, because bad luck on the dice can mean that all the mitigation in the world is for nought, a string of unlucky blows can cause a tank that relies solely on mitigation to falter, where a tank that is constantly healing themselves has a chance to undo such a situation and reset the equilibrium of the fight in their favour. Of course in a fellowship situation the mitigation tank is king because the standard formation will always have a dedicated healer at hand, but when it comes to playing in a very small group or solo, the Warden is not a king, they are, quite simply, a god.

There’s a well known quote among the Warden community, “I’m a Warden. I AM a small fellowship” which is a perfect description of the Warden and why they constantly run the dangerous gauntlet of Turbine City’s shady streets, always looking over their shoulder, expecting at any moment to see a dark silhouette swooping out of the night sky and finding themselves face to face with the Nerfbatman. The Warden has mitigation, they have considerable healing, and they can do enough damage to get them through a fight. They’re no damage machine, indeed their damage is nowhere near the scale of their healing and mitigation, but could you imagine if it were? The entire game of LotRO would be reduced to each new player creating a Warden, waltzing their way blithely through the Black Gate and punching Sauron so hard that it winded Chuck Norris. Yet still the Warden’s damage is plentiful enough that they can reduce enemies to gently smouldering piles of ash whilst keeping themselves alive, this is managed through the fact that several of the Warden’s heals are actually life-taps, transferring health from nearby enemies to the Warden; in addition, the gambit building abilities of spear, shield and fist are actually attacks in their own right, which do a small amount of damage that, over time, quickly adds up. It’s a lovely synergy: as the Warden goes through their routine of keeping themselves alive, they’re simultaneously working to take down the enemy.

The Warden is a good tank, perhaps not preferred over the Guardian for end-game raiding instances in many cases, where mitigation plays its trump card over self-healing in being able to deal with alpha strikes with comparative ease, but it’s certainly not a pariah among the game’s raiding community, and yet the astonishing thing to me is that Turbine have taken the concept of the tank, the archetypal sluggish, low damage, barely soloable class, and twisted it into one of the best solo classes in the game, and quite possibly the best class I’ve ever played in an MMO.

Our static Monday night group has decided to take a break from LotRO, defeated not by the forces of Sauron, but by the tedious, bone idle, miserably and incomprehensibly inefficient quest givers of the free people of Middle Earth. A general lack of interest in the raiding treadmill left our last hope of buxom content – fabulous full fleshy excitement that one could grab handfuls of and hang on to – with the Volume 2 Book quests, a hope that was dashed as we quickly settled back into the routine of being Middle Earth’s most gullible whipping boys. For me, at least, life in Middle Earth will continue thanks to the joy that is the Warden; I’ve been taking on challenges that I wouldn’t have even dared consider on either my Captain or my Champion, and I’m exploring and discovering places that I hadn’t found, or dared to tread, on my previous two trips through the game’s one to sixty five content. I just need to watch over my shoulder though, because although I’ve managed to solo even-level elite mobs with relative ease, there’s always the danger that I’ll attract the attention of the darkest knight of Middle Earth, more powerful and more feared than all nine Ringwraiths combined, my biggest fear, every player’s worst nightmare: the goddamn Nerfbatman.

Monday 21 June 2010

Dickens on Public Quests

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” – Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield

“Public quest designed for nine players, number participating five, result misery. Public quest designed for three players, number participating nineteen, result a different kind of misery. Public quest designed for six, number participating six, result happiness. Until someone else wins the loot roll.” – Nanettenewman the Black Orc in WAR

Friday 18 June 2010

Thought for the day

There’s a shiny trailer out for Warhammer 40K Online including the famous strapline “In the future, there is only war”. Amongst myriad online shooters and strategy games that offer little apart from never-ending conflict, isn’t one of the things that sets MMOGs apart the fact that they offer options apart from war?

Still, I suppose the alternative wasn’t so catchy: “In the future, there is only war. And crafting. In the future, there is only war and crafting. And an almost fanatical devotion to cosmetic hats. In the future, there is… I’ll come in again.”

Thursday 17 June 2010

All Paths Blocked.

DJ: “You’re listening to All Points Bulletin on 107.5 San Paro FM, headshotting you with explosive tunes twenty four seven! Traffic and Travel now, and we’ve got large queues backed-up on the I3, I7 and I8a. The I8b, I9 interchange, I12, and I14. The I15… pretty much all of the city really. Over to Tom in our Eye in the Sky for more details.”

Tom: “Thanks Bob. Well, since you started the report there have also been incidents on the I2 and I4 leaving them partially blocked, and at this very moment I can see four armed men have jumped out of a car on the I6, abandoning the car in the middle of the road and backing up the traffic there… and it’s just been rammed by a second car, which is now being machine gunned, and a security van has ploughed into the middle of everything, and someone’s got a rocket-propelled grenade laun-ARGHH, EVASIVE ACTION FRANK!”

DJ: “I’m sorry, we seem to have lost Tom there, some technical gremlins by the sound of it; hopefully we’ll be able to get back to him before too long. In the meantime, news just in: I’m getting reports of a helicopter crash on the I13 which is causing serious tailbacks. So that’s accidents on the I2, I3… on the I1, I2, I3, I4… Actually, here are the roads where there aren’t major incidents: I16. I’m… I’m just getting a report in that there’s a two car pile-up on the I16… a three car pile-up… three cars, and an ambulance trying to get to the wounded… nine cars, several ambulances, a fire truck, and an ice cream van being used as a mobile gun platform.

So that’s your traffic and travel news for this quiet balmy Monday lunchtime, we’ll have more travel in your area during the busy rush hour. Whoooof, looks like it’ll be slow going out there for a while folks, so here’s a little something to cheer-up all those of you trying to make your way across the city right now.”

♫ I like driving in my car, it don’t look much but I’ve been far ♫
♫ I like driving in my car, even with a flat tyre ♫
♫ I like driving in my car, it’s not quite a Jaguar ♫
♫ I like driving in my car, I’m satisfied I’ve got this far ♫

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Why hype is Austensibly out of the developer’s control.


“What we try to do is not talk about things that are not finalized yet because we don’t want to over-hype things. That’s kind of why people are frustrated because we haven’t revealed a lot. A lot of people hype things that just don’t come to fruition and get people very frustrated.”
                 ——Rich Vogel, executive producer for SW:TOR, in a Massively interview.

Versus sensibility:

“Here at Darth Hater, we are known for our painfully thorough dissections of the nuts and bolts that make up Star Wars: The Old Republic. During our hands on time this Tuesday, we furiously scrambled to record as many facts as possible. Our own personal impressions will be coming shortly, but first we wanted to make sure the theorycrafters could get some real facts to sink their teeth into. Here are some of the key facts we discovered with our hands on time.”
                 ——E3: Class Ability Fact Sheet, Darth Hater.

KiaSA Top Tips.

MMO fans, simulate the highs and lows of your favourite MMO’s release cycle quickly and easily and from the comfort of your own home! Simply drink several litres of water until you desperately need to pee, then don’t allow yourself to go until you’re forced to hop from foot to foot just to stop yourself from bursting. When you can’t take any more, and your anticipation of the big event is unbearable, allow yourself to go just a little bit before stopping yourself again, thus experiencing a few seconds of respite before enduring even greater aching desperation than before. Finally, when your eyes are watering and you fear you may start to pee out of your ears, commit yourself to the final outpour of content. Enjoy relief and euphoria for the twenty seconds or so that it takes for you to complete the entire release, before finding yourself spent and exhausted and without anything left to do but flush the entire result of your efforts down the toilet and wait for the next cycle to begin!

Yours bladderingly,

I.P. Forfun

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Assorted Ponderings on Beta

APB has launched its “Key to the City” open beta/demo/stress test event-type thing with codes available all over the place (including Rock, Paper, Shotgun and Eurogamer) for anyone who wants a bit of a peak. There’s a top-notch write up over at Combat Archaeology (with added Gary Numan lyrics), and I’ve been pottering about a bit as well.

The character creator, as unleashed almost exactly two years ago, is indeed amazing, taking slider-sliding to the next level. Crucially it’s not just for a face that you’ll hardly be looking at for the rest of the game (though you can tweak Cheekbone Depth, Nostril Flare and Earlobe Protrusion to your heart’s content) but overall height, weight and musculature as well. I believe the actual hit-box for all players is the same, though, to discourage the emaciated midget look being de rigeur. There are plenty of options for hair styles and colour, face and body hair, scars and the like; certain hairstyles can even manipulated with sliders to adjust lengths and angles of different elements, so if you’ve always wanted an asymmetric mullet this is your chance. And in the game, ah.

Launching into the actual game, the tutorial isn’t a non-stop rollercoaster of excitement, but serves to introduce the game mechanics efficiently enough without the risk of being gunned down. Said mechanics broadly consist of pressing “F”, a multi-purpose key for performing various mission tasks (spraying over graffiti, planting bugs to collect evidence), interacting with scenery (scrambling over fences, climbing ladders, opening doors with a highly satisfying boot regardless of whether you’re raiding a suspect property or ambling down to the police station car park) and getting hold of transport (by showing your badge and commandeering the vehicle if you’re an enforcer, or the more traditional punch to the face and car-jacking for criminals). It generally works well enough, though navigation can sometimes be a little annoying (only certain doors can be opened and designated fences vaulted, sometimes you’ll think you’re on the right track for an objective but end up underneath or just outside it requiring a frustrating search for the door/ladder/stairs you missed).

After the tutorial you have a choice of two “Action” districts to jump in and start gunning down criminals/enforcers (delete as appropriate, though with friendly fire both are an option), or the “Social” district where criminals and enforcers, much like ebony and ivory on my piano keyboard, live side-by-side in perfect harmony. The Social district is also where you can tinker about, terminals allowing access to the auction house and customisation options for your character’s body, clothes, car, symbols, theme tune and heated towel rail. The clothing terminal is a good starting point, after agonising over Ear Hair Density during character creation everyone is dumped into the game itself in the same training shirt and track pants. Hitting the clothing options you find a couple more basic items in your wardrobe, the option to purchase a few pieces, and a big ol’ list of locked items. Clothes unlocks are obviously a significant element of progression in the game so it’s not too surprising that you start with a limited selection, and you can still customise colours and overlay symbols and designs on a basic t-shirt for some interesting looks. Initial car customisation is similar, you’re stuck with the awesome crimefighting power of a two-door Ford Fiesta van type thing, but at least you can spray it in lurid colours and add logos of your choice. Spending time in the clothing and car designers earns rewards in the form of “Fashionista” and “Tuner” levels, granting a bit of cash and some item unlocks; mere time alone (for the first nine levels) seems a bit of an odd decision, and an incentive to leave the game open in a window, clicking now and again to avoid being flagged AFK, while, say, composing a blog post in another window… hey, Tuner Level 4!

Decked out in suitable gear it’s time to head over to an Action district for some, er, Action. Play is generally mission-driven; you can’t directly harm most other players right off the bat. This does take away slightly from the “world” feeling, but on the plus side it means you can survive for more than nine seconds; there is friendly fire, so the spawn points would become carnage, especially if you’ve just been playing a game where “Ctrl” is the crouch key and jump straight in to APB where it throws a grenade… If you did make it out of the front door of the police station, it would only be to get mown down by a random car, so a total free-for-all would be pretty awful. Instead you potter around, and if nothing else happening in the area a mission offer pops up asking you to do something suitably Enforcer-y like collecting evidence, spraying over graffiti or filling out lengthy paperwork to support “stop and search” operations. This is about as far as PvE goes in the game, and mostly involves going to a waypoint and pressing the magic “F” key, not too tricky. The interesting part comes as the match-making system kicks in, looks for a suitable band of criminals out there, and offers them the chance to try and stop you; if they accept, the sirens kick in, and it’s game on. It also works the other way around, with criminals getting missions to go and set fire to cars, nick stuff and drive without due care and attention, and suitable free Enforcer groups get the chance to go against them with a woop woop (that being the sound of da police). Criminals have a few general options without being on a specific mission to go ramraiding or otherwise causing mayhem around the city, and if Enforcers see them in the act they can report the crimes, kicking off ad-hoc missions; if you acquire enough of a reputation from performing well you can also attract a zone-wide bounty allowing anyone to engage you.

One thing I learned fairly quickly was that I’m not really cut out for solo play; one-on-one confrontations are mostly spent either trying to defend an objective, which will almost always have several approach paths, or take an objective knowing there’s an enemy player lurking somewhere in the vicinity. All very tense, sometimes an evenly matched confrontation, but more often a mismatch (usually ending up with me dead a lot, but just sometimes I came up against someone with even less clue than me for a quick victory). Slightly better when solo was answering backup calls; if the match-making system determines forces aren’t quite even on a mission, the weaker side gets to call for back-up, and the message goes out to suitable players or groups to join in. Best of all, though, was hooking up with a group of four, even random strangers, and going on missions mob handed. That way it’s less about stealth and stalking and more about one of you driving a car with the other three hanging out the windows blazing away at anything a bit hostile looking, and if you die there’s a decent opportunity of catching the enemy unaware as you head back from the spawn point. Missions are quick enough that you get a fair bit of variety, and if you meet a highly organised and skilled bunch in one it’s only five or ten minutes of pain before getting to move on.

All in all I’ve been rather enjoying it; it straddles a slightly awkward divide, being slightly wider in scope than most online shooters, but without being a deep persistent world, so I’m not sure how much longevity it will have, but for a few hours here and there of automotive mayhem it could be just the job.

Monday 14 June 2010

It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you place the blame.

Football analogy incoming. You have been warned.

Goalkeepers are the MMO healers of football. In the England match this weekend past, goalkeeper Robert Green made a mistake and gifted the opposition a goal. Of course the English media, being the mindless ranting bunch of hooting apes that it is, vilified him to the public in such a way that you’d think he’d committed a crime worse than the murder of twelve people, an event already fading from the media’s effluent pipes as the shock and drama factor subsides and these misery sharks move on to feed on the sufferings of the next human tragedy.

Yet, in amongst the coverage, common sense has prevailed in some quarters: yes the goalkeeper made an embarrassing mistake which allowed the opposition to draw a game that we should perhaps have otherwise won, but at the other end of the pitch England’s strikers (the DPS of the team) missed a number of easy chances that would have put the team back in front, and yet little is said of these numerous mistakes because, at the end of the day, it’s all the fault of the goalkeeper and his one mistake.

So it’s not unique to MMOs, it seems to be human nature to vilify the most obvious point of failure while singularly ignoring the fact that really the team as a whole has failed; the strikers failed to score from opportunities that they should have scored from; the defenders failed to prevent the opposition player from getting a shot on goal; and, yes, the goalkeeper failed to save a shot that he should have saved. Unfortunately the latter is the easiest failure to categorically identify, to point to and say ‘that was a major mistake’. It’s the same with healing in an MMO, players are either dead or alive, and if they’re dead then the healer – whose job it is to keep players alive – has failed. Never mind that the DPS failed to use appropriate cool-downs to avoid drawing aggro, or failed to not stand in the fire. If someone dies and the party wipes it is always the healer’s mistake first.

Like goalkeeping, healing is one of those tasks where you often cannot win, you are the last line of defence in the success of your group, and when things go smoothly your efforts go unnoticed, but heaven forefend if you should make a mistake.

As with the English media, MMO players are prone to make a mountain out of a molehill, and blame the easy, obvious point of failure without any consideration to the performance of the team as a whole. As with football, in the minds of the fanatical, games are always won by the people standing at the front, and lost by the people standing at the back.

Melmoth likes to play healers in MMOs, and played as a goalkeeper throughout his amateur careers in both football and hockey. Any accusations of bitterness and barely suppressed rage are entirely substantiated.

Friday 11 June 2010

Guitarmageddon, Round II

Mods vs Rockers, Punk vs Prog, East 17 vs Take That, musical history is littered with bitter conflict between violently opposed groups of fans, and the console age has added Guitar Hero vs Rock Band to the list. Pitched battles between gangs wielding plastic guitars, savage drumstick beatings, microphone cable garrottings, none of these things have happened, but some people have been quite cross on the internet and made some rather strongly worded forum posts castigating the rival franchise, sometimes even with multiple exclamation marks to really drive the point home.

Rock Band was the first full band game, of course, and has a formidable library of downloadable songs (over 1,100 apparently); Guitar Hero by contrast have released more individual game discs, drawing accusations of pumping out lazy sequels, milking the franchise etc. Were I to be a US-based XBox 360 owner I’d probably be firmly in the Rock Band camp, but seeing as the Wii version of Rock Band 2 took over a year to make it to the UK, arriving after Guitar Hero 5, I’m pretty evenly split between the two, though I’ve since found that Rock Band’s ever-growing array of downloadable content gives more reason to head back to it.

As E3 kicks off, the two titans are once again squaring off. I can’t recommend Plastic Axe highly enough, it’s a really excellent site and there’s a whole stack of exciting news there as details of Rock Band 3 emerge. Harmonix are picking up many of the nifty features of Guitar Hero 5 like making it easier for people to drop in and out of playing, change difficulties on the fly etc. They’re improving the song sorting and selection, plenty of general quality of life issues to make it a better experience. Those alone would be welcome.

They’re also adding a whole new instrument, keyboards, with a full two-octave controller with MIDI-out. To go with that is a “Pro” mode; it looks like at the easier levels you can mash one of a bunch of keys grouped into the usual red/green/yellow/blue/orange colours, but in Pro mode you’re pretty much playing the actual notes of the song.

They’re extending Pro mode to the drums as well, with three cymbals to be added to the four-pad drum kit and an optional second pedal for hi-hat/double bass. A MIDI adapter will also allow players to connect their own MIDI keyboards or drums to the system.

Most exciting for me, even the guitar gets Pro mode in the form of two new peripherals. You can use existing controllers in normal mode, but for Pro there’s going to be a digital option, a 102-button(!) fret-simulating guitar with six individual “strings” to strum, and a Fender Real Actual Guitar-y Guitar with some added tech to feed back your finger positioning to the game. I’ve been tempted many times to have a crack at learning the guitar properly, but I don’t think I’d have the motivation to sit down with Burt Weedon’s Play in a Day (and certainly not enough to actually go out of the house for lessons or something), this could be just the thing.

There’s also going to be a new Guitar Hero game, “Warriors of Rock”. It’s going to feature… Gene Simmons doing some narration. Oh, and a new peripheral too, with the amazing feature of… being able to take the sides of the guitar off, and put different pieces on instead to make it look like a slightly rubbish axe.

I really did like the previous Guitar Hero games, and Warriors of Rock sounds like it’s going to be fun enough as Yet Another Guitar Game, but hardly bringing much new to the genre. About the only chance it might have had is if it took Harmonix another year to remember where the UK is, but the press release promises “Holiday 2010 in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and other territories”. Alas, poor Guitar Hero; I knew it, Horatio.

Thursday 10 June 2010

Reviewlet: Red Dead Redemption.

Red Dead Redemption: incredible world, mediocre game.

You play as John Marston, reformed gunslinger, family man, cowboy, philosopher, and – in the grand tradition of all Rockstar games – everybody’s bitch. Like Nico Bellic, Tommy Vercetti and his other game-based predecessors, John Marston is a criminal jellyfish: an entity with a vicious sting but utterly spineless. In the case of Red Dead Redemption the excuse for this utter inability to get anywhere in life without having to perform some weird and wonderful set of tasks for a random gaggle of strangers, is that Marston is trying to turn a over new leaf and become a good man because he now has a family. I suppose the game is set in the Wild West after all, where clichés roamed far and wide and free, therefore as much as I’d like to lasso this one, hogtie it and throw it off a cliff, I’ll have to let it slide.

The game follows the traditional Rockstar format, with a main plot that sweeps you around the game world, and numerous side quests offered by random strangers that allow you to build fame and honour and earn a little cash on the side. It’s the nature of Rockstar games that the path to redemption for the (anti)hero involves doing menial tasks for people before they’ll give you the information you need to go to the next person who wants you to do menial tasks for them, but it becomes so rote and formulaic that it often fails to take into account the nature of the hero and his situation. Early on in the game you meet the local sheriff, a brilliant character straight out of finest Western traditions, whose lack of trust for former outlaw Marston is both understandable and sensible. He gets Marston to ride with him and take down a local gang to prove that he’s on the straight and level before even entertaining the idea of doing him a favour in return. But then there are numerous characters where you can’t help but think that, instead of running off to do their laundry or fetch their cat out of a tree, Marston would be better off reverting to type for just a few moments, taking out his revolver, forcing it into their mouth and telling them to stop messing him about and give him the address of the next time-wasting moron he needs to meet up with. The man is a former outlaw whose family is being held hostage, and yet he feels the best way to get what he wants is to act like a spoilt teenager being asked to do chores for pocket money: a bit of whining and huffing and “I hate you!” before tromping off to do what he was asked, hands in pockets, kicking sulkily at stones. Either that or there’s an unquestioning acceptance of situations that seem to gradually escalate in silliness:

“Could you tell me where the bathroom is, sir?”

“You’re John Marston aren’t you? Well, then, I can tell you where the bathroom is Mr Marston, but first I need you to do me a little favour.”

<hopping from foot to foot>”I’m listening.”

“I’ve got this sister over in Mexico who needs to know if I’m coming to luncheon this Sunday, and I’m going to ignore the telephone system and mail service that exists in this day and age of ours, and get you to do it instead. It’s only two hundred miles away, so it shouldn’t take you too long. You do that for me, Marston, and I’ll see you right in getting to a latrine, yessir I will.”

I imagine that will be a quest in the next game in the series, Red Dead Reloaded, before the final game, Red Dead Revolutions, has Patrick Stewart turn up and return you to the holodeck of the Enterprise where it turns out you were stuck playing a broken and buggy Western game set in an incredibly realistic world.

Indeed, it is the world that keeps you coming back for more bum-reaming at the hands of pixelated human plot devices. It is, frankly, astonishing. You could probably spend as much time carefully exploring its every inch of detailed and beautifully crafted expanse as you would playing through the main plot of the game. The wilds teem with life, not your randomly placed crap MMO mobstacles, however, but animals that belong there, hunt there, breed there, live there. It is a living world, a breathing world; it is the best character in the game. The various towns and populated locations feel absolutely genuine, from the dusty ramshackle mining towns with their Deadwood saloons, to the Mexican forts with their weather beaten walls and the equally weather beaten Capitáns, through to the proto-city of the modern era, with its cobbled streets that cause you to pause at the strangeness of the clip-clop sound of your horse’s shoes against the sole-polished stone. It is one of those perfections of craft, where every detail and placement is meticulously made in such a way that the player doesn’t realise that any crafting has gone on at all, the world just exists, has always existed, because it is a real world.

The world is perfect, without being so perfect that it can’t be real.

There are plenty of other distractions in the game away from the main plot, some more successful than others. If you like poker and blackjack for example, then you can easily while away hours playing in saloons across the land; nothing beats reacting to a gambling loss by jumping up from the table and unloading a six shooter into your opponent. You’ll get a bounty on your head, but a full pardon is only a save game away. There are curious design choices, again some more successful than others. Having missions that can only be started at a certain time of day seems pointless, just let the player start the mission and advance the world clock to the correct time, if it’s that important; time-restricted missions are doubly redundant when a player can advance the world clock by several hours for themselves by simply entering and exiting the save game menu until they reach the desired time. Travel is also a curious affair, with your trusty horse always at your beck and call, short distances are never an issue, but the world is huge and missions often require you to travel from one side to the other and back again, something which gets pretty tiresome after your initial awe for the world has been tarnished by the somewhat mundane quest design. There are stage coaches at major locations, but the cost is prohibitive in the early stages of the game, and frankly I can’t really see the point of them at all. You could wait for a train I suppose, but again it’s hardly my idea of a rip-roaring Western adventure. The main issue is that all of these options are made moot by the fact that you can ride a short distance out of town, make a camp, and then travel to any point on the map by marking it as a waypoint; travel like this ruins the size of the world in an instant, and the inconvenience of having to ride out of town to make camp is nothing in comparison to the cost of stagecoaches, the time on horseback, or the improbability of a train turning up any time within a day of you needing it.

Red Dead Redemption also suffers from a problem of pacing. You start off the game slowly, doing mundane tasks as you are introduced to various elements of the game, before rootin’, tootin’ and, in most cases, shootin’ your way across the county, into Mexico and back again. Then you’re back to doing mundane tasks before the final dramatic piece of exposition. It’s like a rollercoaster ride, and that final lull is probably meant to be akin to the final climb before the big drop, but after all the incredible experiences you’ve had up to that point, it fails to act as a builder of tension or anticipation and simply becomes a tedious blockage to the end of the game. Rockstar’s writers come close to getting you to empathise with Marston and his family, they try to show the bond between the father and his son, the love between the husband and his wife, but in the end you just find them tiresome and uninteresting because you’re having to lead their tiresome and uninteresting lives in order to get to the end of the game.

When you’ve finished the game you’re left satisfied but quite possibly not wanting more. It’s perhaps apt for a Western adventure with some of the most beautifully animated horses that I’ve seen in a game so far, where you can almost feel the wind against your face as you charge across a dusty plain, that it feels like such a long ride to the end, and although the ride is epic and exhilarating in places, when you reach your destination you’re quite glad to be free again.

It is the night. My body’s weak.
I’m on the run. No time to sleep.
I’ve got to ride, ride like the wind to be free again.
And I’ve got such a long way to go.
To make it to the border of Mexico.
So I’ll ride, ride like the wind.
Ride like the wind.

I was born the son of a lawless man.
Always spoke my mind with a gun in my hand.
Lived nine lives, gunned down ten.
Gonna ride like the wind.

And I’ve got such a long way to go.
To make it to the border of Mexico.
So I’ll ride, ride like the wind.
Ride like the wind.
           — Christopher Cross, Ride Like the Wind

Wednesday 9 June 2010

History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of men

A CNN article asks Why do video games make such bad movies?, citing turkeys like Mortal Kombat and The Wizard. It’s easy to point at films like those, or Super Mario Bros., or Street Fighter. Or Far Cry. Or the Pokémon films. Or anything Uwe Boll’s directed. Easy to point at those (or Doom) and say “hah, video games make bad movies” (or Double Dragon), but that’s ignoring the really great game adaptations, such as:

  • Lara Croft Tomb Raider. It’s a film with Angelina Jolie in it, and is thus empirically brilliant.
  • Star Wars. Building on the success of LucasArts, George Lucas cunningly wove elements of several games into a film, such as the epic space fights of the X-Wing series. The lead character, gaining Jedi powers through the film, was based on Kyle Katarn from the Dark Forces/Jedi Knight first-person shooters.
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Widely acknowledged as the greatest Atari 2600 game ever, it was always going to be a tall order to try and translate into a movie. Taken on its own merit it’s actually not a bad film, but expectation was so high that there was massive over-production resulting in The Great Film Crash of ’83. Several towns in New Mexico are constructed entirely of betamax tapes of E.T.
  • Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson hardly concealed his sources, just dropping the “Online” bit of LotRO to get his film name. Widely criticised for the cinematic release dropping interminably long journeys, after which the characters exchange a few words of expositionary dialogue and perform a menial task before returning on exactly the same journey in reverse, Jackson corrected this with the Director’s True To Game Cut 476 disc box set including classic scenes like The Fellowship Go From The Shire To Rivendell (Discs 24 – 31:); Elrond Tells The Fellowship They Need To Speak To Someone In Hobbiton (Disc 32) and The Fellowship Go From Rivendell Back to The Shire (Discs 33 – 48, thanks to Frodo getting repeatedly dismounted by wandering mobs).
  • Godzilla. Ishiro Honda was inspired by the arcade game Rampage to create his monster opus. Though forced to leave out much of the depth of the source game, such as George, Ralph and the complex political subtext about nuclear weapons, Godzilla was nevertheless successful enough to warrant a couple of sequels.
  • Citizen Kane. Welles did his best to hide it, but there can be no doubt that Citizen Kane is entirely based on Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing. Cunningly changing the lead character from A Big Truck to a media mogul has thrown most people off the scent, but the basic themes are all there: the manipulation of media and other people explored in a medium of incorporeal scenery, the ruthless pursuit of power portrayed as a race against opponents that don’t move; most notably the idea of mysterious, enigmatic key phrase at the heart of everything, though in order to conceal his sources there can be little doubting that the change to  “Rosebud” in the film is much less powerful than the original “YOU’RE WINNER”.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

The conflict between autonomy and security.

I played Gears of War 2’s Horde mode until silly o’clock this morning; it’s an occasional event that takes place after the Lord of the Rings Online static group that I play with winds down for the evening, what with five of the six of us having Xbox 360s, and Gears of War 2 having a maximum co-op party of five, it makes for a quick and easy way to release steam upon coming to a squeaking hissing halt in the station of resignation after a long evening of riding the rails of traditional MMO content. All change. A quick dash to the coffee shop and rest rooms. Now all aboard the express train to Fun Town, calling at High Octane and Instant Action, before continuing fast to Kick Ass Upon Sea.

The thought that struck me last night, along with the shrapnel and the repeated blows to the head with giant explosive flails, was the fact that although Gears is a co-operative effort – you are, in effect, a five man group – there is plenty of room for players to act as autonomous units. In many MMOs the players enter a dungeon as a group and then remain clumped tightly together until they exit out at the other end, with only those players that can enter stealth mode daring to wander too far from this gestalt of adventuring crab. DDO and City of Heroes, with their selectable dungeon difficulty levels, allow players to pick whether or not they’ll have to hold hands as they skip along the level-quick road to see the Wonderful Piñata of Loot. In many MMOs, however, the players are forced to form this strange multi-appendaged crab-like entity which scuttles its way across the dungeon in a vaguely regimented fashion, the constituent parts rarely straying far from one another, with the exception of the odd appendage bouncing around and shouting “Go Go Gooooo!” on occasion, as though the crab-group had developed some sort of nervous twitch.

This crab-like structure, with the tank at its head and the various other members of the group scuttling along in close proximity, stands in stark contrast to the style of group play found in Gears of War 2. Here, as I stated earlier, each player is their own autonomous unit, capable of tackling a considerable number of foes depending on the player’s skill level and the equipment they have gathered. The equipment itself, although increasing the character’s power level, relies upon the player’s discretion and understanding as to how to employ it effectively. What happens when the player meets an opposing force that is too great for them to deal with alone? Well, assuming that they have taken care to keep an escape route clear, they can retreat and team-up with one of the other players, or they can dig in and call for help. It is then that the teamwork of the game comes into play, because although formidable as a single unit, when their efforts are combined the players can overcome incredible odds. The players act more like a hive or colony than some curious single entity of character class symbiosis, they are free to act autonomously in the interest of the hive, and yet willing to operate as a swarmed force when faced with a considerably superior antagonist.

Again it comes down to freedom and flexibility. Whilst working as a whole, the players in Gears also get to act as individuals, independent of the group. It’s an important feature because it enhances the player’s own feeling of heroism while at the same time relieving a part of the monotony to be found in MMO dungeon running: the tank pulls; the healer stands back; the ranged DPS stands back; the melee DPS place themselves behind the mobs; and the party shuffles carefully forward to the next group of mobs once the current group is dispatched. In GoW2’s Horde mode, one round (equivalent to a couple of groups of MMO mobs) is rarely tactically the same as another, the players’ tactics will change each time depending on what equipment they currently have, whether they are on one of the particularly tricky ‘ten’ rounds (every ten rounds a wave of extremely difficult mobs must be faced), and just what they plain feel like doing. We have one player who likes to grab up a handful of grenades on occasion and try to take down enemies by attaching said grenades to their foreheads; another player likes to grab the shield and pistol, becoming nigh-indestructible from any frontal assault, and thus ‘tanks’ multiple enemies at a time. Each person’s role can change multiple times in one round, depending on how the fight evolves, and thus the role of the group will change dynamically too: sometimes players are all huddled together defending a fortified position against tough opposition; sometimes they are charging around and zerging into the midst of the enemy; sometimes they are working in pairs, perhaps as snipers, or one person covering the back of another who is tanking with the shield; and sometimes they ‘execute starburst formation’ as Van Hemlock dubs it, and run off in different directions at once, revelling in their own ability, self-sufficiency and power as they take on seemingly overwhelming odds, and prevail.

It’s this difference between individuals playing as a team, and a team playing as individuals that I think is interesting, and I wonder whether it’s time to think about creating classes that are entirely self sufficient but which become greater when played as part of a group. There’s no reason that content cannot be created that will challenge a group of self sufficient characters, and indeed it allows the developers more flexibility in content design, because giving players a level of autonomous action outside of the group’s sphere of influence would allow for less linear and regimented dungeon content.

Now excuse me while I curl up underneath my desk pretending to fix my PC, and dream of Frankenstein crabs and space marine bees.

Monday 7 June 2010

In Memoriam Lord of the Rings Online

So. Farewell then
Lord of the Rings
You were quite good
With a subscription.


Without a subscription
You will be rubbish. (Even
if the game
is the same.)
(And there is still the option of
A subscription.)

E. J. Zoso, age 17½

Turbine’s announcement about the future business model of Lord of the Rings Online has been seen by some as the end for the game, notably Keen, perhaps channelling Joseph McCarthy slightly with his suggestion that “Your communities will now be inundated with the free-to-play crowd which will infiltrate and destroy you from within.”

I have to say I’m slightly surprised by the news; the subject had come up in the pub just last Thursday as rumours were rife, and demonstrating my typically uncanny prescience I said I couldn’t see LotRO going free-to-play as its design wasn’t really suited to it, unlike the more modular Dungeons and Dragons Online. (Slight aside: I really don’t like the phrase “free-to-play”, it sets false expectation; developers and publishers aren’t charities, of course they want, and should receive, remuneration. Until someone comes up with something better, though, it’s a catchy shorthand. And it’s slightly less painful than “freemium”.) LotRO also looked to be fairly successfully ticking over, there didn’t seem to be a great need for a radical overhaul to save the game as happened with DDO. The free-to-play “Unlimited” version of DDO, though, has been a natural-20 critical success for Turbine by all accounts, so perhaps it makes sense for them to try and repeat the formula.

As well as being a commercial success for Turbine, I’ve really been enjoying DDO myself, playing almost every Friday for the last nine months in a weekly sort-of-but-not-totally-static group (maybe a non-Newtonian liquid group). It’s the only MMOGing I’m doing at the moment, and it’s working really well like that, no pressure or burn-out, no monthly sub nagging away. I’ve probably spent around £30-40 on “Turbine points” in that time for various other bits and pieces, which seems like a pretty fair deal for both me and Turbine. It’s about options; if you’re really into one game a subscription makes sense, if you want to dabble a bit then it doesn’t. The crucial thing with DDO, and LotRO in turn, is that you still can still subscribe if you want (whether it’s a called a subscription or becoming a “VIP”), that option doesn’t get taken away, and that puts an effective limit on costs for the player. It may be the end of the subscription-driven world as we know it, but I feel fine.

Saturday 5 June 2010

First items in the LotRO Store announced.

In a made up statement earlier today, Turbine announced that the first items available in the new Lord of the Rings Online game store would be the names Legolas1 through Legolas999999 for 50 Turbine points each, and the names Aragorn1 through Aragorn999999 for 100 points each.

In other news, veteran LotRO players seemed most excited about the forthcoming influx of Spunkmaster McGimli and Lukeskywalker vonBigwang37s in to the LotRO starter areas and beyond.

Rumours that Turbine are also planning to sell boars, legendary weapons with decent legacies, and a sparkly Balrog mount that will be the first flying mount in the game (which is fine, because Balrogs have wings), are unfounded at this time.

Patch notes show that one minor change has been introduced to the game’s epic Book content so far: Gandalf now shouts “You shall not pass! Unless you have purchased the You Shall Pass pass[TM} from the LotRO Store for 250 Turbine points. Buy Now!”

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

Friday 4 June 2010

One store to rule them all.

Gives a whole new meaning to the term The Free Peoples of Middle Earth.

Thought for the day

Big, glowing target or destination indicators floating around the screen in games have often been immersion-breaking necessities, but low on health in Grand Theft Auto IV I was searching the streets for a food vendor the old fashioned way by driving around and keeping my eyes peeled, as they don’t show up on the map to allow you to set an easy waypoint. With location-aware “augmented reality” iPhone and Android applications like Layar that use the GPS and camera to overlay a mini-map and points of interest where you’re looking, you could probably pull up the location of the nearest hot dog stand in New York, and get user reviews of it; maybe it’s real life that’s getting a bit unrealistic now. Until a bag of peanuts can cure gunshot wounds, though, GTAIV probably still has the edge.

Thursday 3 June 2010

Cognitive Dissonance as an Obstacle to Performing the Bus Stop

The second of Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City Stories, The Ballad of Gay Tony, is an improvement over The Lost and Damned in that the lead character and his boss aren’t instantly and unremittingly unlikeable, though sadly the same can’t be said of some of the NPCs you work for and have to suffer over-long cutscenes with. Still, the gameplay remains fun, you get a few new toys like parachutes for base jumping, and there are some new activities in the club you manage including dancing.

I do like a bit of a rhythm game, and in the grand tradition GTAIV “dancing” consists of pressing keys in time to music. It starts out a bit freestyle, you can press any key in time to the beat, and if you can manage that for a while then everyone joins in for a bit of a set-piece performance in which you have to press specific keys as they flash up on screen.

After all-too-many years on a QWERTY keyboard I can more or less touch type, I don’t need to look at the keys. When the game flashed up “D”, though, I had no idea where it was and had to glance down at the keyboard, by which time it was too late, and I realised that when “WASD” are used for movement they cease to be letters, they’re just directions, forward, left, back, right. Arrow keys (as used later in the song), no problem at all, and if the letters were accompanied by a direction I’m sure I could hit them easily enough, but “A” on its own required translation to “left” within the context of the game before I could hit it, taking too much time, and I failed the performance earning much derision from the rest of the dance floor. I managed it on the second attempt, but it took a fair bit of effort, and I still missed a few steps. Gave me an idea for a sequel to Typing of the Dead, though: Mavis Beacon Teaches Dancing.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Thought for the day.

Bioware will do to LotRO’s epic story content what Blizzard did to Everquest’s quest content.

But is the Star Wars setting as universally accessible as Azeroth?

Here’s a thought: WoW gained critical mass because very early on it convinced a large enough section of the non-‘male 18-30’ market that it was for them as much as anyone. As soon as you have large population diversity in a social space you will get the Facebook phenomenon, and let’s not forget that WoW was right there with Facebook at the start of the current online social peer recruitment zeitgeist.

Granny posts updates on Facebook. Granny plays a Night Elf Hunter in WoW.

Will Granny want to play a Jedi?

A man travels the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.

The trouble with LotRO’s epic quest book content is not so much the amount of travel, although it is possibly verging on the excessive side, it’s the fact that upon arriving at your destination the task to be performed is often disproportionately short in comparison – speak to Geoff/retrieve Geoff’s glowing object/find Geoff’s mother-in-law/kill Geoff’s slimy scaly enemy – after which you are then required to travel all the way back to the quest giver.

The archetypal MMO moment of misery or madness (MMOMOMOM) comes when you are then immediately sent back to the same location to perform another similarly mundane and quickly completed task – speak to Geoff’s object/retrieve Geoff’s glowing enemy/kill Geoff’s slimy scaly mother-in-law – after which you are then required to travel all the way back to the quest giver again.

The critical thing is this: even if the time spent travelling was equal to the time spent playing the game, the perceived time spent travelling would still be greater. Time flies when you’re having fun, and I think Turbine dramatically overestimated the proportion of the player populace who would rank Equine Buttock Observation in their Top Ten Gaming Greats. If you send someone halfway across the world on a quest, then you really should give them quest content when they get there that’s greater in perceived duration than that travel time, before sending them all the way back again.

I think this is a legacy problem from the early days of Turbine’s design for their game, and they have slowly moved towards the theme park design where quests are clumped together and give the player a great deal to do once they’ve travelled to that pocket of content, along with experimenting with alternative forms of advancement. Perhaps this was always the intended design, that the epic quest book content would require an epic level of ‘dedication’ or ‘work’ or ‘tedium’ to achieve the end goal, the reward for which seems to consist of simply being able to say that you’ve finally done it… I think you get a horse too, a slightly ironic reward for a quest line in which you spend a good seventy percent of the time staring at a horse’s arse as you travelled back and forth across Middle Earth.

I haven’t completed the epic quest content on any of my characters yet. Every now and again it niggles at me that I haven’t managed to slog through it and so, like an itchy scab, I pick at the edges of it occasionally, but as with a scab, I quickly reach the point where the picking hurts more than the itching annoys, and I’m forced to leave it alone again.

Considering their entire MMO is based on a similar idea of epic story content, I hope Bioware are paying attention to this.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Reviewlet: Terry Pratchett's Going Postal

Going Postal is Sky One’s third Terry Pratchett adaptation. The first, Hogfather, seemed a bit of an odd choice, jumping into the middle of the Discworld series with a story about belief featuring an anthropomorphic Death as a hero, and though impressively put together it was a tough place to start for someone new to Pratchett. The second, The Colour of Magic, was rather more logically based on the first two books in the series, but they’re not my favourite of his.

Going Postal is a later Discworld book and features Moist von Lipwig, a con artist offered a choice between death and cake. Wait, not cake, I meant sorting out the Ankh-Morpork post office, fallen into disuse with the advent of The Clacks, an optical telegraph system. The Clacks exemplify the technological aspects that have steadily been introduced to the Discworld universe alongside its more magical origins, making it a more accessible analogue for our world, and the self-contained and comparatively straightforward plot of plucky underdog triumphing over corporate greed kept my non-Pratchett-reading wife interested where she’d wandered off during the previous two serials.

The production is lavish, with great attention to detail in the sets topped off by judicious use of CGI; apparently two million envelopes were addressed by hand to dress the Post Office, and even a minor location like a pin shop is transformed into an emporium to delight the most ardent pointy-fastening enthusiast. The performances are very good as well, Richard Coyle’s Lipwig holding things together (though I still can’t help but think of him as Jeff from Coupling) well supported by Ian Bonar and Andrew Sachs as Stanley and Groat in the Post Office, Charles Dance lends considerably more gravitas than a Culture ship name to Venitari, Claire Foy is a suitably threatening Miss Dearheart, but David Suchet slightly steals the show with a scenery-chewing anti-Poirot performance as Reacher Gilt, the villain of the piece. There’s a particularly lovely cameo from Sir Pterry himself right at the end as well. All in all an excellent way to spend a Bank Holiday, even for a newcomer to Pratchett.

A good description is a magician that can turn an ear into an eye.

At some point yesterday evening, during our weekly sojourn to the lands of Middle Earth, the thread of discussion began to wrap itself around the curious issue of the names of our skills and abilities, and subsequently tied itself in ten different kinds of knot. The naming of skills and abilities is a curious thing, some MMOs, such as WoW, take the prosaic route of explaining what the skill is: Fireball; Fireball II – The Revenge of Fireball; Fireball IV; Fireball III Sir! Whereas other MMOs, such as LotRO and Guild Wars (specifically the Ritualist class), adopt a more flowery naming convention that attempts to invoke the essence of the skill rather than the ability itself: Attuned Was Songkai; In Defence of Middle Earth; Every Sperm is Sacred.

Not entirely sure about the last one.

I’m not sure which I prefer to be honest; they’re like disparate cooking styles, with WoW and company being your traditional home-cooked meal – honest and hearty but unexciting and predictable – whereas LotRO’s chefs cook up something a little more exotic, more nouvelle cuisine, where you marvel at one another about the subtle flavours and aromas of the skill name, how clever the thing is and how delightful it is to look at, and then you all have to admit that you have no idea what the hell it’s supposed to be and have to ask the waiter to explain it. I picture the tooltip in LotRO as a slightly haughty French maître d’ who explains in exasperated tones just what the skill does, whilst heavily hinting that you can’t possibly appreciate its subtle layers, being the cultureless nincompoop that you are.

If you listed all of the Captain’s skills in LotRO by name only and asked me to explain what they do, I’m pretty sure I’d only get a few right. To save face I’d probably have a stab at guessing their meaning, sure, like some hapless Englishman in a foreign restaurant, red cheeked and stubbornly refusing to ask for help in translating the menu, and after a lengthy act of pointed deliberation that would have made the RSC proud, he confidently and loudly orders two platters of “Please do not smoke in the restaurant, thank you” for himself and his wife.

The Captain has a few iconic abilities that I know the name of: IDoME the aforementioned In Defence of Middle Earth, a legendary trait that is probably one of the best buffs in the game; Words of Courage, a single target heal, which I remember because the name evokes an image of my Captain giving a pep talk much like a boxing coach at ringside, the fellowship’s Guardian sits on a stool with a towel around their neck, and I give their shoulders a massage as they gasp chestily between sips from a water bottle “Now e’s a big fella this troll, so yarve got ter get in closer, don give im the range on yer. Keep in tight and slap im wiv yer shield an yer’ll be peachy”; and Rallying Cry because it’s the skill I use the most and the one I’m always trying to activate as often as possible. I’m sure I could stumble through a few others, but generally though the skills along my bar are placed in such a way as to make sense to the way I play, and in my mind they’re named after what they do in the most basic fashion, such that more professional players would sneer the sneer of the maître d’ who was asked for some of that cold leek soup, were they ever to hear me describe them. There’s the stabby one; the stabby one with a DoT bleed; the stabby one that heals someone; the stabby one that gets aggro; the stabby one that I can only use when an enemy has been defeated; and there’s the shouty one that lets me use the other stabby ones; the shouty one that boosts attack speed; the shouty one that stuns; and the shouty one that grabs aggro. And so on. I remember more of the gambits on my Warden, but that’s only because I have to keep looking them up every five seconds to remember how to execute the pattern of attacks required to activate them. And I don’t look up Exaltation of Battle, I look down the list for the ‘big AoE morale draining thing that’s really quite cool’, and then see the name and go “oh yeah, that’s what it’s called”, and then forget it again five seconds later.

Does it matter, this thematic naming of skills over a more practical but immediately comprehensible system? I don’t think so: I quite like the flavourful approach in the main, and although it makes returning to my alts a little more tricky after having been away for a while “Hmm, this character has a skill called Gust of Wind. What does it do? Do I need to hold my nose?” it’s not as though it presents a major hurdle to getting back up to speed with the class in fairly short order.

I did wonder how I’d choose to name skills in the Melmoth MMO, and I further wondered how I’d go about coming up with the names, but in the course of writing this post a very elegant solution came to light. It turns out that the lyrics to the chorus of the Chicken Song lend themselves perfectly to skill descriptions as I think you’ll agree:

Hold a chicken in the air

Stick a deckchair up your nose

Buy a jumbo jet

Bury all your clothes

Paint your left knee green

Form a string quartet

Pretend your name is Keith

Skin yourself alive

Learn to speak Arapahoe

Climb inside a dog

Behead an Eskimo

Eat a Renault Four with salami in your ears

Casserole your Gran

Disembowel yourself with spears

I leave the tooltip descriptions of what the skills actually do as an exercise for the reader.