Sunday 25 December 2011

Merry Christmas.

From all here at KiaSA –Zoso, Melmoth, the Captcha AI, and the train of angry mobstacles that chased us back to the blog one day– we’d like to wish a Merry Christmas to all, and to all some fat loots.

May your PuGs be merry and bright, and may all your instance runs delight.

Friday 23 December 2011

Hibernation Time

As the boiling water of time collides with the sweet and sour instant pot snack of fate I notice that the tomato sauce sachet of destiny has been accidentally left inside, which can only mean Steam Sale Season is once more upon us. Thanks to a combination of holidays, family visits and moderate to extensive vomiting (caused by some sort of a bug as opposed to family visits) things will probably be pretty quiet on KiaSA for a week or two over Wintermasludeval, so Merry Christmas to all our lovely readers out there, and it seems an apt time to dust this picture off from a couple of years back…

Tunnelling Jedi rogue class not as stealthy as hoped

Tunnelling Jedi rogue class not as stealthy as hoped

Thursday 22 December 2011

An opening crawl for a crawling opening.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….


Episode IX


It is a period of civil delay. Rebel spaceships,
queueing in their hidden base, threaten to win their
first victory against the evil Galactic Empire, just as
soon as they can get out the door. During the planned
battle, Rebel spies intend to form an orderly line to
steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the
DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power
to destroy an entire planet but very long delays at its
toilets. Not pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents,
because they’re all a bit held up trying to get to their
ships, Princess Leia casually saunters home aboard her
starship; custodian of [item not found] that can save
her people and restore freedom to the galaxy, she phones
ahead to let them know that she might be slightly delayed…

The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.

It’s the little things which are making me smile with respect to Star Wars: The Old Republic at the moment. For example: right click your companion’s portrait and you can instruct them to sell all the trash loot from your inventory, similar to the peddling pets feature in Torchlight which impressed me back in the day. In SWTOR the companion dashes off for sixty seconds (a timer appears on their portrait) and then returns to you, wherever you may be, and hands you your profit. It’s one of those simple ‘quality of life’ mechanics which avoids the player having to spend time and effort doing maintenance on their inventory, something which I very much appreciate having come to SWTOR from Skyrim: Thanes of Inventory Juggling; certainly if there isn’t already a mod in Skyrim to do something similar, I can’t imagine it will be too long in coming.

Of course I also like the feature in SWTOR because it’s terribly amusing to picture Khem Val, also known as Shadow Killer, also known as The Devourer, turning up to a small remote outpost and eating the merchants there, then shouting “I WOULD LIKE TO MAKE SALE WITH THESE MODEST GOODS!” before looking around, then repeatedly slapping his forehead with the palm of his hand and muttering “No, no, no! How many times Khem Val?! Make sale first, *then* devour puny alien population!”

Wednesday 21 December 2011

For bounty, that makes gods, does still mar men.

Bounty Hunters do it with Nerf guns, apparently.

NOTE: Not Bunty Hunter, as I’m wont to typo; much as it amuses me to think of ruthless hardened mercenaries flying around the galaxy looking for errant editions of the British comics anthology for girls.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

December The 20th Be With You

First impressions from a few days in the headstart Star Wars: The Old Republic are positive, a solid MMOG with a nice sprinkling of Bioware story and voice-work. Special mention on the latter to Simon Templeman (if Wookiepedia has the right voice cast) for his honey-coated Grand Moff Kilran, giving the Black Talon flashpoint a bit of a Leslie Phillips/Roger Allam vibe (I say, ding dong!) (Slightly random aside, Roger Allam is particularly fine in the excellent Cabin Pressure, well worth a listen.)

Playing solo is highly reminiscent of a single player Bioware RPG, odd MMOG-ism aside (a marketplace of infinitely respawning bandits here, an orderly queue to click on a quest item there), no bad thing, and in a group the conversation system (everyone picks a reply, there’s a roll to determine which is actually used) has worked rather well so far. With a single voice (per gender) for each class one slightly jarring thing in a party was someone else speaking with ‘my’ voice, which did make me realise how much I was identifying with my character.

With many servers already groaning under the strain of pre-order players it’ll be interesting to see if today’s official launch brings them crashing down like a lassoed AT-AT, but queues aside the pre-launch period has been pretty smooth. “The future’s uncertain and the end is always near”, as Oscar Wilde said when he was fronting The Doors, but for now it’s not a bad start.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Among life's regrets is all the time wasted being early for everything

It’s an exciting old time for prospective Star Wars: The Old Republic players as Bioware reintroduce some Christmas magic, the anticipation of opening advent calendar doors and counting up to the big day. Most advent calendars are a bit dull and predictable (apart from the ones with cool stuff in them), though, so for extra fun Bioware are introducing a random element into when players get their early access, based on when they pre-ordered the game.

It’s an eminently logical system to smooth out massive spikes of demand on game servers, customer support and associated infrastructure, but has naturally resulted in some mild disappointment from those who have yet to get it. That’s “mild disappointment” in the Internet sense, of course, centred primarily around the official forums, but Web 2.0 and distinctly anti-social media allow the keen spectator to experience new and interesting spellings of “ridiculous” across news site comment threads, Facebook, Twitter and the like.

Having only finally decided to pre-order the game earlier this month, we’re very much of the opinion that date of pre-order is a terrible ranking mechanism for the staggered headstart. Zoso suggested reverse alphabetical order based on forum name, but Melmoth wasn’t at all convinced and instead proposed “people called Melmoth first then who cares about the rest”. After discounting those, we put our heads together to come up with some alternative systems Bioware could have used…

eBay Allow one user into headstart every five seconds, allocate each five second window an individual code, then put the codes up for sale on eBay. What could possibly be fairer than a money-based system in these times when I think we’re all agreed financial inequality is a thing of the past?

Chocolate Bars In a completely unprecedented move, invite codes could be printed on tickets and distributed in chocolate bars. As a bonus, a limited number of special tickets (perhaps silver, or another precious metal?) could grant five lucky players the chance to tour the Bioware studios where karma would ensure an encounter in accordance with their failings (an inveterate ganker in PvP would end up being teabagged by a much more powerful developer; an erotic roleplayer who insisted on behaving inappropriately in public areas would end up… being teabagged…)

The Postal Service Just pop all the invites in the post, and thanks to the vagaries of the postal service they’re bound to arrive at random times (or be delivered to random addresses that might look a bit like the right address, if you squint. A lot.) Deluxe or Collector’s edition codes could be posted in envelopes, the rest in larger package that have to be collected from the post office, a bonus if release is timed to coincide with pension day in the UK.

Safari Park Treasure Hunt Adventure In conjunction with safari parks around the world, conceal invitations in animal enclosures. Invites to PvE servers would be scattered around with okapi, tapirs, armadillos, binturong etc. Invites to RP servers would be in with the primates, giving a (sort of) authentic Wookie/Ewok vibe. Invites to free-for-all PvP servers would be scorched into hunks of meat and thrown in with lions and tigers.

Black Friday With a bit more thought given to the timing, Bioware could’ve had early access invites in boxes in Walmart to add to the happy fun shopping time.

Crossword Clues Get players to put a bit of effort in and solve clues to retrieve their invite code. Possible drawback: 25 character strings of random letters and numbers being difficult to set clues for… “1 Across: 25 character string of random letters and numbers”

The Sith Lord’s Dilemma A system developed by Sir Lord Darth Vader of Cheam himself: at a random time, with no notification, a button appears on the player’s account screen to activate headstart. Each time a player checks the account page, an hour is added to a queue before they can log in to the game…

Panto Season Another topical option (oh no it isn’t) (oh yes it is) (etc) offering several methods for invitation distribution such as whether a glass slipper is a perfect fit for the prospective player, making the magic invite available in exchange for a cow, and putting the invites in a bowl of porridge that’s just the right temperature.

Every true, eternal problem is an equally true, eternal fault; every answer an atonement, every realisation an improvement.

It’s quite astonishing how my attitude to a game can alter through the simple expedience of changing how I approach it. That is, how I approach playing it, not how I approach the game itself, lest any of you were having visions of this author walking stiffly, military fashion, towards the computer from the front; then another time sneaking, hunched-over and on tip toes, before slithering into my computer seat from underneath the desk; another time bombing from atop the arm of the sofa while screaming ‘banzai!’; yet another time slowly crawling, sloth-like, with ponderous arms and improbably dextrous legs, from around the back of the monitor.

Heading into Lord of the Rings Online for the recent Update 5 found me completing about forty minutes of, to my mind, uninspiring epic book content. Even Tolkien’s epic tale had its slow patches, and I suppose I should be thankful that at least there was no sign of melancholy poetry or inapposite singing in the LotRO content. I don’t know, maybe the singing in Tolkien’s work was justified, but I always used to skip over reading it because it always seemed awkward to me, the middle-earthian equivalent of the silent mournful contemplation at a funeral being broken up by one attendee gently tapping their foot and then crooning “Oh baby, baby, how was I suppose’ t’know”. Feel free to add head jiving and hand claps to your own taste.

I’m not sure whether it’s the case that I’m simply tired of the game, or if this latest update –and, indeed, entire expansion– has actually been as lacklustre as I believe. I find myself beginning to wonder whether Turbine are starting to focus a little too much on in-game store items, or if this expansion is a stop-gap while they work on a more impressive Moria-like expansion for Rohan, or indeed if they’re working on another game entirely and have perhaps stretched their development teams too thinly. It certainly doesn’t help that the Warden class, which has been a favourite of mine for some time, has been tweaked and tampered with, presumably to the satisfaction and appeasement of raiders and spreadsheet optimisers, but unfortunately to the detriment of the soul of the class. Such a simple and elegant mechanic has now been twisted and tortured, with new parts bolted on, such that it has become a warped image of its former beauty, it is the Hollywood star unable to accept their aging gracefully, undergoing plastic surgery after plastic surgery until they no longer resemble their former selves, instead appearing more like some poor cousin of Gollum, one who has stood for too long in a wind tunnel while orange paint and superglue were fired with great force at their face.

I had dipped my toe back into the frosty unappealing waters of LotRO because I found the fire of my enthusiasm for Skyrim starting to flicker and diminish. Where before had been a roaring inferno of gaming passion, a veritable burning city of desire, there now stood a small camp fire: warm, safe, comforting, but without the flare, fervour or fascination of that former passion. The game had not changed, and I estimated that I had discovered but half of what its vast and ranging lands had to offer, so why had my view of the game changed so? I contemplated that perhaps I had changed the position from which I viewed the game. I took a step back and looked at how I was playing the game now, comparing it to how I had approached it when I first started out, back when it was fresh and I was unaware of how the world operated. It soon became obvious that I had, in the finest MMO tradition, begun to optimise the way I played the game. Instead of heading out from town and adventuring in the world, I had become a slave to the Quest Shopping List. When I wanted to adventure, I realised, I now immediately opened my quest log and looked at which items I could tick off, preferably those which were the quickest. Then… THEN (for shame) I would open the map and fast travel to the nearest location to my destination, so as to cut out any of that messy running around business. It was I who had devolved the wondrous emergent discovery-based game-play of the world of Skyrim into a simple MMO quest pipeline; I was a cog in die MMO Schleifen-Maschine once again, crushing content with maximum ruthless efficiency. All of a sudden, just like that, the game had become utterly bland, it was the bleak whiteout monotony of Skyrim’s storm-thrashed barren ice flats realised in game-play form.

Thus, last night, after achieving this minor epiphany, I logged-in to the game. I checked my equipment was in good order, headed out of the main gate of the city, picked a direction, and began to walk.

Six hours later I tore myself away, but only so that I could give this weak human shell the sleep it deems necessary to function. I still haven’t finished the main quest line, or many of the quests sitting in my journal, and now once again, I’m very pleased to say, I don’t care to.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

One's action ought to come out of an achieved stillness: not to be mere rushing on.

Christmas is almost upon us once again, and as this luminescent blue-white pearl which we call Earth continues its ageless pirouette against that infinite star-glittered backdrop of black satin, people across its circumference take time out of the hectic schedule of existence to celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ; which, in this modern age, seems to consist of taking a list of the Seven Deadly Sins and seeing how many one can tick off in a single day.

An MMO launch should fit right in.

Star Wars: The Old Republic has begun its early access event. You may even have chanced upon this news already from some obscure remote corner of your social network, perhaps old Mrs Crumblejowls down at the corner shop, or in the pained synchronised barking of every dog around your neighbourhood. If you hadn’t heard about the launch of SWTOR, then you may want to consider the case that you are, in fact, deceased – confirm this by checking for your pulse, or seeing whether you can walk through doors without having to open them, that sort of thing. If you are indeed no longer of this mortal coil, you may need to recruit the aid of a small boy who can see dead people to sort out your terrible predicament, although be warned: he may actually be too young to successfully complete the registration of your SWTOR subscription.

Many have wondered at the timing of BioWare’s release of SWTOR so close to Christmas, but we must consider that for many this is also a time of remembrance of Lord Jesus Christ. Or Darth Christ as he is in the Old Testament. Strong in the ways of the Force: able to Force heal, move impossibly large objects with his will –such as the stone doors to tombs–, and return as a Force Ghost upon his death, he was a powerful Sith Sorcerer. He was also prone to acts of rage, such as destroying temples (Anakin Skywalker’s later tribute being considered tasteless and excessive). Lord Christ was also unusual in taking on many apprentices at once –up to twelve at one point– rather than the single Master-Apprentice relationship which is more common among the Sith Lords. Opinion is divided as to why he did this, but the most common assessment is that it was perhaps a show of strength on his part, demonstrating his complete belief in his mastery of the Force. Alas, as is always the way with the Sith, one of his apprentices betrayed him in the end. Of course in many of the depictions of him, Lord Christ is seen to be wearing a beard style more common to the Jedi than the Sith. Not only this, but he enacted numerous good deeds during his time, leading many scholars to question his true nature, and whether he may have in fact been a Jedi double agent.

Back to the seven sins. I think Gluttony is a fairly easy score, and thus isn’t a terribly high value on the Sin-o-Meter. Much like Christmas, the MMO family sits itself around the feast of new content and gorges itself to the point of bursting. And as with Boxing Day, there comes a point where the overindulgence strikes back, with players unable to hear mention of the recently released MMO without grabbing their mouth with both hands, cheeks bulging, and making a dash for the nearest bathroom.

Wrath is also in evidence, as people find themselves excluded from the early access, be it due to a lack of invitation, failing Internet service, or the inconsideration of Real Life, getting in the way as it does, like the cat underfoot that wants feeding as you’re trying to juggle pans of boiling water and molten fat as you serve the Christmas dinner. Envy goes hand in hand, with outsiders watching with green eyes those people who have spent months preparing themselves, and now put their entire life on hold for a day or more, so that they can play the game seventeen picoseconds after the servers have opened. It’s common knowledge in the MMO community, of course, that the experience is so much better when consumed fresh, and that most MMO servers go stale quickly a day or two after launch, whereupon the whole thing becomes pointless. Anyone coming late to the party will have to pick through the messy bubble and squeak of content which is left over. Of course it’s all about community at the start, being there at the beginning, sharing the experience; very much like the crowd at the January Sales is all about community, understanding and sharing with your fellow man.

I also imagine Lust is well covered in certain quarters, and that there are some keyboards out there that could really do with a quick run through a dishwasher to loosen the keys again, but thus far we’ve thankfully been spared the twitpic evidence of this.

Regardless of my cynical musings on the launch of a new MMO, congratulations must be made to BioWare for one of the smoothest launches I think I’ve ever experienced. It may have been a regimented and cordoned and corralled crush, like the queue to see Santa in a major shopping centre, but in combination with an incredibly strong server system, it seems to have worked like a charm. I can still remember fully half of World of Warcraft’s subscribers being unable to play the game for a day or two after launch because they couldn’t register their credit card details on Blizzard’s failing website; I should know – I was one of them. BioWare have learned from and improved upon that debacle by several orders of magnitude, and so I’m left wondering what it will do for MMOs if the actual game can do the same with respect to the current market leader’s efforts.

Monday 12 December 2011

Selectable Narrative Difficulty in Modern Warfare

Reader FraidOfTheLight pointed out an interesting article over at Terra Nova, Dynamic Narrative Difficulty Adjustment: “It would be neat to get a choice when starting a game: Do you want the bare-bones Good v. Evil plot, or do you want Dostoyevsky?”

It seems that someone at Activision read the same piece, as we’ve just fabricated a document that details how Call of Duty 19: Modern Warfare 7 will feature selectable story difficulty, and what effect that will have on the opening scene.

At the normal difficulty level (or “McNab”):

The player and four other troopers are seated behind desks in a hut. The walls are covered in detailed maps and charts. SERGEANT STAN “ICEBALLS” JOHNSON enters and delivers a briefing:

JOHNSON: “All right, listen up. As you know we’ve been pursuing Abdullah Aziz Al-genericterrorist since the squad led by Major “Sperple” Mann foiled his assassination attempt on President McGann earlier this month. At 0400 Zulu, Bravo troop visually confirmed that he’s holed up in a compound in South Khorasan. We need to find out what his links to the North Korean government are so we’re mounting a cross-border snatch operation, obviously it has to be completely deniable so make sure you’re carrying absolutely nothing that might identify you. Let’s go.”

Some players might not want to worry about the narrative and focus more on shooting people with guns, so they can crank the story difficulty down to easy, or “Seuss”:

The player is seated behind a desk in a hut. The walls are covered in brightly coloured posters; A is for ASSAULT RIFLE, B is for BAYONET etc. A human-sized FELINE enters, wearing red and white striped HEADGEAR, and narrates as SERGEANT STAN “ICEBALLS” JOHNSON briefs the player:

Said Sergeant Stan “there is a man
A wicked man, a bad, bad man
The man was in Afghanistan
And had a plan, an evil plan
To poison President McGann
With pecan flan
(McGann is a fan of pecan flan)
But Sergeant Stan and Major Mann
They stopped the man with the pecan flan
And chased him all the way to Iran
Where he’s hiding, under a divan
So you must shoot him if you can.”

If the player really wants a challenge, though, they can ratchet the story difficulty right up to maximum, codenamed ULTRA-BECKETT:

SCENE I. The player is alone in a plain white room with no doors, window or furniture.

From nowhere, SERGEANT STAN “ICEBALLS” JOHNSON appears. He removes his left shoe and places it on his head.

DIRECTOR (OFFSTAGE): No, no, no! A hat, most certainly, not at all!

JOHNSON removes the shoe from his head and hurls it to one side.

JOHNSON: Nothing to be done, nothing to be done.


SCENE II. A ROADSIDE, with two TREES and a STATUE. MAJOR ARTHUR “SPERPLE” MANN stands behind the statue.

MANN: The buzzing, the notion of buzzing, the notion. (Pause) The notion. (Pause) The buzzing. (Pause) I cannot possibly and yet!

ENTER SERGEANT STAN “ICEBALLS” JOHNSON, STAGE LEFT. He wears no right shoe, only the left.

MANN: Well here’s a fine thing.

JOHNSON: (Violently) What is beyond?

MANN: Infinite, but why not a cupboard? (Pause) Perhaps it is still green. (Wearily) And what of the terrorist cell tracked down to South Khorasan?

JOHNSON: (Mumbles) And you’ll give me a sugar-plum?

MANN: (Screams) A sugar-plum? A sugar-plum? A sugar-plum? The very devil!

SCENE III. BARE INTERIOR. ENTER JOHNSON, STAGE RIGHT. He turns to the player. He turns away from the player. EXIT JOHNSON, STAGE RIGHT. ENTER JOHNSON, STAGE LEFT. He turns away from the player. ENTER MANN, STAGE LEFT. He turns to the player. JOHNSON’S TROUSERS fall down. MANN POINTS to something unseen in the distance.


Friday 9 December 2011

From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring.

[A Skyrim quest spoiler follows]

We join our heroine after she has awoken to find herself having been drugged and transported from her bedroom to an abandoned shack in the middle of a Skyrim swamp. The leader of the Dark Brotherhood stands before her, and tells our heroine that the organisation is interested in recruiting her, having followed her impressive progress in the world to date. But first, a test…

Three people kneel before our heroine, their hands bound, hoods over their heads. There is a contract on the life of one of these villains, and –the leader of the Dark Brotherhood informs her– our heroine must decide for herself which one it is. And then she must execute that person.

An entry is added to our heroine’s quest log in this regard.

Our heroine tries to leave the shack, but the way is barred to her; so she speaks to each of the three captives in turn, determining their crimes and judging the reasons for their being here in this place. She makes her decision.

Unfortunately for the leader of the Dark Brotherhood, our heroine has decided to take a path through life which falls not in the shadows. She is a servant of light. No specific deity commands this respect or offers guidance along this path. It is a path she forges of her own accord, a hard path, overgrown with the moral intricacies and complexities of a harsh and unforgiving world. Nevertheless, she follows the light as best she may.

She kills the leader of the Dark Brotherhood and releases the prisoners.

A message appears to the player of our heroine, ‘Failed: Join the Dark Brotherhood’. “Ah well”, thinks he, “I did what I felt was right for my character”. More importantly he felt that he had the choice to do what was right, and that nobody had told him to do so. No quest compelled him to do what he did, it was his decision, and he is therefore happy to live with the consequences, as well as the mild disappointment of having failed the quest.

Suddenly a new message appears to the player ‘New quest: Destroy the Dark Brotherhood!’

A smile appears on the faces of player and character alike.

Time to bring a little light to the shadows.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Moving on is a simple thing. What it leaves behind is hard.

Having spent an entire evening in Skyrim shuffling inventory between my basic starter house in Whiterun and my new super duper, top of the line, ‘oh look at them aren’t they doing well, bet they drive a high-spec German saloon car and wear pink shirts with jeans too’ house in Solitude, I’d like to make a brief appeal on behalf of the This Bit Isn’t Fun party, and ask if some kind soul would like to write a removalist mod. for the game.

Bonus points if, as m’colleague pointed out, the mod. keeps the immersion of the game intact by having a couple of blokes turn up, drop a load of your stuff, bang the rest into various door frames on the way out, chuck it all in the back of a horse and cart, then empty it onto the pavement at the other end and go “nah, was like that when it went in mate”.

Still, kudos to the continued realism of Bethesda’s game: they say moving house is one of the most stressful things a person can do, and that’s as true in Skyrim as it is in the real world.

Accursed inventory weight limit, you win again!

Tuesday 6 December 2011

A great source of calamity lies in regret and anticipation; therefore a person is wise who thinks of the present alone

It’s been fairly quiet on the MMOG front here. Since moving on from Lord of the Rings Online a couple of months ago City of Heroes has been providing splendid weekly group-type fun, but nothing to really inspire bloggery (though some of the user-created content in the Mission Architect has at least raised an eyebrow…) While not exactly in danger of being dragged under the Slough of Despond, there’s a risk of losing a welly in the Fen of Listlessness at least.

After three years of hype I hadn’t exactly given up on Star Wars: The Old Republic, but had become inured to official cinematics and shakeycam footage from expos and had no great desire to jump into the recent beta, but the subsequent dropping of the NDA and tidal wave of blogging that followed rather piqued my interest. A good chunk of the blogroll over there headed off to a galaxy far, far away, and many splendid posts resulted; those of Spinks and Warsyde spring to mind, with apologies to the myriad other fine authors also available. It’s all sounding pretty good (in a balanced, genuine opinion about the (almost) final game sort of way, rather than a frothing extrapolation of a fuzzy screenshot and out-of-context quote into some idealised wündergame), so I’ve stuck a pre-order in.

I’d seen an occasional blog post before the beta complaining about the NDA, some suggesting that leaving it in place so close to launch was a clear sign of damage control, but the broadly positive impressions belie that. From my perspective at least it’s just sensible timing; with a month or so to go before a firm release date it’s all rather more tangible (as much as a digital download can be), if we’d had impressions over a series of developing builds for the past six months I imagine I’d be just as bored of them as official screenshots.

Monday 5 December 2011

There are no better cosmetics than a severe temperance and purity.

A little light LotRO livery now, with a couple of my characters’ cosmetic outfits from the recent Isengard expansion, an update which, if nothing else, brought us some splendid options in the dressing-up department. This is not so much a guide as a bit of a ‘here’s something you can do’, and hey, it might act as temptation to those who are otherwise trying to resist. The devil is in the coattails.

My Captain first. I’ve long been enamoured with the Warrior Priest designs from Warhammer Online, and have wanted something similar for my melee healer in LotRO; with this outfit I feel I finally got close to the spirit of it, even if not the exact substance.

Leather Helm of the Stoic Stag – Rust
Hyrde-Axle – Default/Washed
Wood-Wanderer’s Cloak – White
Clanweave Robe – Default/Washed
Gleaming Gauntlets – Grey
Clanweave Leggings – Default/Washed
Polished Boots of the Dunland Shieldman – Grey

My Warden is still my favourite character by far, and as such I have the most outfits designed for her. Still, this is my current adventuring apparel, a nice mix of elven elegance and that steely sturdiness which is sine qua non to survival in serious skirmishing, if I do say so myself.

Winged Circlet – Umber
Hyrde-Axle – Umber
Campaign Backpack – Default/Washed
Scarred Surcoat of the Pren Gwydh Warrior – Umber
Leather Gauntlets of the Hill Watcher – Umber
Reinforced Leather Dunlending Boots – Umber

Syp recently made a post highlighting a selection of the many LotRO style blogs out there at the moment who are actively pimping outfits, so if you’re interested in LotRO fashion I’d heartily recommend checking out those links.

I would, however, especially like to highlight the splendid effort made by Devonna in detailing all the new and delightful cosmetics that are to be found in the latest expansion – Rise of Isengard, it certainly makes it that much easier to hunt down those rarer pieces which only drop as quest rewards.

Until next time, stay fabulous and carry a fine hat.

Friday 2 December 2011

No legacy is so rich as honesty

News of the Legacy systems of Star Wars: The Old Republic, particularly a common surname across characters on a server that must be unique, has prompted some furious thinking at KiaSA Towers. What could be a lore-appropriate name that would work for all future characters? Aficionados may be aware of several previous Star Wars video games, but there’s also an entire expanded universe of rather obscure novels, comics and even some feature films, so we’ve been scouring these for inspiration. Here’s the shortlist for our characters, don’t go using them up before we get a chance!

  • Skywalker
  • Starkiller
  • Sunwounder
  • Gasgiantgrazer
  • Layheeyodalayheeyodalayheehoo (surname of some green dude who lived in a swamp)
  • Solo
  • Duo
  • Trio
  • Triiiiiiiiiiiooo
  • IwantatrioandIwantonenow
  • Hutt (surname of an intergalactic smuggler, who later branched out into baked dough products, sunglasses and small wooden structures)
  • Vader (most famously Geoff Vader, but also his lesser know brother Darth)
  • Stevens (Mr Stevens, boss of the Death Star canteen, one of the few individuals more powerful than Geoff Vader)
  • Organa
  • Oregana
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Sage
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
  • Coriander-Coriander-Coriander-Cilantro-Chervil
  • Tagliatelle-Frozen-In-Carbonara-ite
  • Pad-Thai Urad-dahl-a
  • Grand Moff Lobster Thermidor aux crevettes with a Mornay sauce served in a Provençale manner with shallots and aubergines garnished with truffle pate brandy and a fried egg on top and Spam Tarkin (Hang on, that one doesn’t really work…)

After reviewing the contents of the list, we would suggest not selecting your legacy surname while a bit peckish…

Thursday 1 December 2011

Thought for the day.

M’colleague and I were discussing his intention to order the Digial Deluxe Edition of the forthcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic. His comment “And an in-game flare gun that serves no purpose has to be worth [an extra] £20, right?” had us looking at exactly what you get for your intergalactic space bucks.

The item that stood out for me was the HoloCam: ‘Keep visual records of in-game adventures.’ To which my immediate response was “Wow, they’re going to make screenshots a feature that’s purchasable from the in-game store”.

But then I realised that they aren’t going to have an in-game store. (Or are they? Ahhhhhhh!)

But then I considered all the trouble people reported having with taking screenshots in the recent stress test, as though the functionality was deliberately absent or hobbled, perhaps because the feature might be something which could be enabled by, say, an in-game HoloCam (free with the Digital Deluxe Edition or purchasable from the in-game store that doesn’t exist or does it ahhhhhhhhhh).

But then I thought that that was an incredibly unlikely and cynical supposition: that enabling screenshot (and video recording) functionality only when the player possessed an RMT-purchasable in-game item would open the floodgates to all sorts of the worst kind of micro-transaction-based shenanigans.

But then I observed that I had a cup of tea and a chocolate HobNob on the desk in front of me. And in the end, isn’t that all that really matters?

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Have I Got MMOnews For You

News this week of slightly unusual patent rights being granted for “a urinal-based games console”, which does seem to be an actual invention rather than just a terrible misunderstanding of how a Wii-mote is used.

The MMOG potential is obvious, venues such as stadiums offering the potential for 10, 25, perhaps even 40 man raids, though the duration would need to be tweaked slightly to under a minute rather than 18 hours. As for a suitable IP for the game setting, well, there’s only one option, isn’t there?

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Looking for one more.

I present to you a loading screen advert for Lord of the Rings Online which I saw last night while logging in to perform some maintenance tasks (pay the house and kinship house rents, check lottery wins, admire my lovely cosmetic outfits, consider playing a skirmish or two and then logging out and launching Skyrim, etc.). The familiar band of LotRO mascots return, with the one-eyed dwarf Champion transformed into a Runekeeper, the elf Hunter slightly tweaked in appearance, and a Warden now joining the fray.

Of course what occurred to me is that the standard LotRO group size is six players, and there are only five present here. What’s more, the Runekeeper is clearly full bore into his lore-melting zappity mode, and thus not healing, so where is the Minstrel?

Doing what healers normally do, I assume: standing at the back, out of sight, and topping up health bars while the rest of the group gets on with the tiresome task of having fun killing stuff.

I expect I was probably supposed to be paying attention to the Recruit A Friend offer or something, but such is the way a mind warped by years of MMO tropes works. Or perhaps that’s really what this offer is about, subtly hinting at a way to solve that age-old MMO issue which occurs with the Holy Trinity style of group play:

Recruit A Friend! (Because you need a healer and nobody else wants to do it)

Friday 25 November 2011

You’re tired of yourself and all of your creations

Nobody said of Skyrim “why do we need to compare this game to an mmo anyway?” (That’s Nobody the commenter, not nobody in the sense of no-one. Somewhat confusing, though I hear he’s an excellent right fielder.) It’s a good question; many MMOG bloggers have taken breaks for, and posted about, single player fantasy CRPGs over the past few years such as the Dragon Age or Witcher series, but I can’t remember anything that’s prompted the level of pondering Skyrim has, as captured in some of the recent MMO Melting Pot pieces.

Very broadly, single player CRPGs tend to be story- and character-driven, often epic in scope, perhaps taking you from humble beginnings and giving you the chance to save the village/city/country/world/solar system/galaxy/universe/multiverse. MMOGs are virtual worlds, providing a canvas for you to create your own stories, probably accompanied by four, seven, nine, 24 or 39 comrades.

(Massive generalisations, obviously, ample scope for pointing out exceptions to either case, mourning the loss of the worldlier elements of MMOGs to focus on optimisation of mechanics, etc. etc.)

Skyrim is principally drawing attention for its virtual world, hence the MMOG comparisons. It has a story, but people aren’t writing about that side so much, it’s the world, the immersion, the sense of adventure that are sparking posts (such as those, picking an example entirely at random, of m’colleague). Though unusual compared to more story-driven RPGs it’s hardly unprecedented, apart from anything else being the fifth of the Elder Scrolls series (ignoring the spinoffs we don’t talk about), with Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas achieving considerable success as well. It’s not such a surprise that the Fallout games didn’t take hold in quite such the same way as for many people RPGs are most strongly linked with a fantasy setting, particularly when it comes to MMOGs, though I’d like to humbly nominate myself for a John the Baptist award for contemplating the MMOG potential of New Vegas a whole month ago. What’s changed since the previous Elder Scrolls game, then, Oblivion?

Oblivion was released in March 2006, eight months before this blog started, thus in the “beyond living memory” category (though these days I can hardly remember what I had for breakfast half the time, rendering the span covered by my living memory considerably less impressive). WoW was getting into its stride, MMOGs in general were becoming more popular, numerous tantalising titles were in development, things were generally on the up. Some veterans from Meridian 59, Ultima Online or EverQuest were mourning the passing of the Golden Age, but newcomers to the genre could still be awed by a marketplace or plaza packed with actual real-life people (or their digital representations, at any rate). Things feel flatter now, allowing Skyrim to surf the wave of ennui lapping at the shores of the blogarchipelago; it might just be me (and Melmoth), but it doesn’t seem like many new MMOG blogs are starting up, established bloggers have been hanging up their keyboards, even WoW’s subscriber numbers are (slightly) falling.

Perhaps technological developments play a part. Not having actually played Skyrim (I will at some point, but am currently distracted by hopping around virtual reality as a toilet) (no, really) I’m hardly in an optimal position for analysis, but it seems like the cracks that have always existed in the world of The Elder Scrolls are gradually being smoothed over with improved voice acting, human-designed (rather than procedurally generated) dungeons and encounters, better graphics, more sophisticated NPC scripting etc. Of course it’s still obvious the world isn’t real, painfully so if you deliberately stretch the edges and put buckets over the head of NPCs or exploit the inability of a monster to navigate terrain, but each iteration of the series improves things (mostly; cue Morrowind versus Oblivion arguments…) It’s not just making a bigger world, Daggerfall was famously vast, it’s making a better world, a more interesting world. MMOGs, on the other hand, don’t seem to have moved on so much recently; not being intimately familiar with the technical side I can’t be sure, but I guess the challenges they face, of storing data about hundreds or thousands of players and their possessions and shunting that around networks, are pretty tricky before even getting on to the difficulty of player behaviour in a shared world.

The funny thing is, as Skyrim draws plaudits for its single player virtual world, Star Wars: The Old Republic is getting generally positive beta write-ups, especially for its story (or stories). It’ll be interesting to see if it can prompt similar debate over ways single player story-driven games can be improved by online components.

Thursday 24 November 2011

On midriffs and maturity.

Any bets on whether the male version of that battleframe is fully sealed?

I also love the attempt at subliminal sexual innuendo word highlighting and phrase choice in the Firefall advert. Subtle.

And we’re still debating why Skyrim is a runaway success while the reputation of the MMO genre goes from bad to worse?

No respect for a huge section of your paying customer base, garners no respect in return.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

When it snows, you have two choices: shovel or make snow angels.

My greatest joy in Skyrim comes from the fact that the game doesn’t make me feel as though I’m doing something for the sake of it. Each and every task I perform is its own justification, and many of the trials and tribulations that I endure have been conjured up by my own sense of adventure and exploration. I didn’t need to delve deep into the dwarven ruins I discovered last night, there was no importunate question mark floating above a head, or in a quest log; no expectation haunted my every step, no imperious demand that I perform such and such a feat, in this manner, at this time, in this place, with these tools, and where all other endeavours would be considered void. I felt no quester’s compunction at my failure to follow the stringent MMO method: ticking off lines on a clipboard as each step is performed to exacting specifications in order to observe the inevitable outcome. Nevertheless, I was richly rewarded for my endeavours.

Indeed, the game specifically doesn’t punish the player for avoiding that plodding plotted path, it gives the players a canvas and paint but does not require the use of a brush if you prefer to use your fingers. And although it provides an outline of your character’s existence, it stops well short of putting little numbers across the page to dictate precisely which colour each shape should be. You are free to fill in the bigger picture as the game outlines, but you are equally free to paint over those lines. Therefore, you are able to make a mess of things as much as you are able to make something entirely unique to you. What is important, however, is that the game rewards you however you play. Exploring and experiencing the world, experimenting with it, these things will reward the player’s efforts as much as joining the dotted path of quests.

The upshot of this experience is a phenomenon which many have embraced, while others have railed against it – pointing out the many failings in the game which can also be found in MMOs and elsewhere, and which people are now seemingly happy to ignore, where they complained before.

It is simply the difference between friendship and enmity. In Skyrim I feel as though we are friends, we share similar outlooks and opinions, and we work well together. We don’t often stumble over one another, but when we do we can often resolve the issue amicably. As such, I am aware of Skyrim’s failings but find myself far more willing to forgive them, not least of which because Skyrim has highlighted many of my own failings as a player, and yet continues to reward me regardless. With many MMOs, where I have often found myself railing against them even as I played them, I feel as though we are enemies. The game is out for my money –as much of it as it can gather– and everything I find myself doing in the game is built around the tenet that the more time I have to spend with the game the more money the game earns. As such, I am aware of an MMO’s failings and I find myself less willing to forgive them because I can relate most of them to obstructions, barriers and hardships which are unnecessary outside of the context of this MMO model; more though, even those failings which I could happily otherwise ignore are dispersed by that parsimonious prism of experience, until a single complaint spreads into a spectrum of baser issues.

So Skyrim does indeed cause the player to suffer many of the limits and ludicrosities which have plagued RPGs since gaming began, but it is with these failings accepted that the review scores have been so high. A high score does not reflect a perfect game, it reflects a game which, on balance, has highs which far outweigh the lows. The impression that Skyrim’s positives have left upon me compared to its negatives are as to compare the size of the universe to a grain of sand. Skyrim is not a perfect game, but a game does not have to be perfect and devoid of faults to score highly in the opinion of players and reviewers, what it has to be is a stunning example in its genre.

Skyrim is a stunning example of an RPG, not in the sense of stats and grinding loot for advancement, but in the old sense –one would argue the true sense– of playing a role in a game. It is, ultimately, a game of choice.

Choose grind. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose dailies. Choose fucking big shoulder pads. Choose stats, pots, mats, and tokens. Choose fed ex, low drop rates and kill ten rats. Choose monthly subscription repayments. Choose a raiding guild. Choose your fleeting guild mates. Choose purple gear and matching weapons. Choose a three piece set bonus in a range of fucking tiers. Choose rep grinds and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that chair watching mind-numbing spirit-crushing game-play, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, giving away your stuff to strangers, nothing more than a relic to the selfish, fucked-up brats that have spawned in General Chat to replace you. Choose your future. Choose grind. . . But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose grind: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got Skyrim?

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Have I Got MMOnews For You

Augmented reality offers fantastic gaming possibilities, and it could be one step closer following successful trials of a contact lens with built-in LED. The trials were conducted on rabbits, a slightly alarming proposition; if they move on to other species how long before a laboratory rat tests a rudimentary augmented reality game where the first quest is to kill ten humans?

Friday 18 November 2011

Character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion.

The city of Whiterun, Skyrim.

Spoke to an innocuous looking priest standing at the bar of an inn, because he seemed merry.

Got into a drinking competition.

Woke up the next morning halfway across the country.

In a temple for a female only sect who worship the goddess of beauty.

And ‘persuasion’ [waggles eyebrows]

Paid for the damage caused to the temple the previous night.

Apparently a goat was involved.

Don’t ask.

Agreed to undertake a penance, once the other priestesses had all returned.

From their private gathering to ‘worship’ their goddess. [waggles eyebrows]

Snuck to the back of the temple.

Picked the lock to their secret chamber.

Gained a skill level in Freudian Imagery.

Covertly observed the ceremony.

It was far less exciting than my skill level in Freudian Imagery demanded.

Decided to steal the expensive gold idol of their deity in recompense for the lack of ‘entertainment’.

Got caught.

Agreed to do yet another more arduous and treacherous penance.

Will be given the gift of ‘persuasion’ when the penance is completed. [waggles eyebrows]

Have been playing for an hour and half at least, and still haven’t opened the map.

Or quest journal.

Or had to kill ten small rodents.

Was in danger of strangling a snake there at one point, however.

Such organic quest development is another reason why Skyrim is simply marvellous.

It’s not just the prospect of getting drunk and waking up after a wild night to find myself in a temple full of lesbian priestesses willing to teach me the art of ‘persuasion’.

That would be orgasmic quest development, which is another thing entirely.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

The Emperor's New Heavy-Handed Parable

Once upon a time there was an emperor who cared very much about his appearance. When two tailors from exotic lands visited his country, he summoned them for an audience and demanded the most splendid outfit that money could buy. Night and day the tailors worked and finally, after delaying the outfit by a week to allow for additional polishing of the buckles and fastenings, they dressed the emperor, and all the courtiers agreed that it was the finest and most magnificent outfit they had ever seen. So pleased was the emperor that he decided to stage a parade such that all his subjects could witness the clothes. As he strode down the street to the adoring cheers of his people, one small child shouted “But the emperor is naked!”, and the crowd gasped!

“Wait a minute” said someone near the child “he’s not naked at all, what on earth are you talking about?”
“I’m the lone voice challenging the tissue of lies built on vanity, fear and pride” replied the child “only my brave innocent voice can expose the truth!”
“Yes, but… he’s wearing clothes”
“All right, yeah, he’s wearing clothes… but the crown’s a bit wonky. And I don’t like the cut of the pantaloons at all. They promised us the most magnificent outfit ever, he think he all that, but he ain’t all that, nuh-uh.”
“That’s an entirely different issue, though, I mean I’ll grant you the shade of purple of the frock-coat isn’t entirely to my taste, but nevertheless it’s pretty magnificent. Perhaps the courtiers were overstating the magnificence somewhat, but not to the point of lying about the existence of the clothes entirely. Anyway, weren’t you that kid who kept shouting ‘wolf’ the other day?”
“Nah, that was a different kid. He got eaten. By a wolf as it turns out.”
“Wow, that’s ironic”

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Reviewlet: Alpha Protocol

Alpha Protocol looked like an intriguing prospect in development, a contemporary espionage action RPG allowing players to travel the globe as a secret agent. It received rather mixed reviews on release, tending to “meh”, but when it showed up for less than £2 in a Steam sale a couple of months back it was hard to say no. Playing Alpha Protocol after Fallout: New Vegas and Deus Ex: Human Revolution was rather interesting, in a “compare and contrast” sort of way. You know what they say: first/third person Action RPGs are like buses, you wait all year for one that allows a variety of approaches to meet objectives, and then three come along at a suitable price in Steam at the same time. Give or take a few months. And they all feature a hacking minigame. And two of them are made by Obsidian.

I do like a spy novel, so the setting of Alpha Protocol is a big plus for me; there aren’t many games in the espionage genre, especially RPGs where you have a bit of freedom moving through the story. The key elements should be familiar enough to genre fans: rogue agents, private military contractors, assassination attempts, arms smuggling, double crossing, triple crossing, mysterious beautiful women, that sort of business. You play Mike Thorton, an agent desperately trying to recover the ‘N’ that somebody stole from his surname (and maybe some missiles or something). One of the key features touted beforehand was the conversation system, where you can generally take one of three approaches: Aggressive, Suave or Professional, which the developers broadly equate to Jack Bauer, James Bond or Jason Bourne. There’s obviously something about the initials “JB” and secret agents, lending additional credence to the theory that Justin Bieber is a psychological warfare project. This tends to work quite well, though the exact dialogue that results may not be quite what you expect; the “Suave” node in particular sometimes feels like it should actually be labelled “The ‘What Not To Do’ Example From A Corporate Briefing Video On Sexual Harassment In The Workplace”. Different approaches can lead to being Liked or Disliked by key NPCs, sometimes you can uncover in-game dossier information that may suggest the best approach to take, or you can always use your super-spy abilities to look up a walkthrough on GameFAQs. I’ve been on a bit of a John le Carré kick recently after seeing the film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and was slightly disappointed there’s no George Smiley-inspired approach (apart from the fact that he’d have to be renamed Jeorge Bsmiley to have to right initials), but I suppose it would be quite tricky to create compelling gameplay from listening attentively, carefully writing things down and polishing your spectacles on your tie.

Once you get on a mission, mechanically Alpha Protocol is incredibly similar to DXHR in many ways. Sneak around, crouching to make less noise, avoiding security cameras with sweeping green cones of vision (if you get spotted an alarm sounds, find the alarm panel and you can disable it via a minigame); creep up unnoticed behind a guard and you can tap one button to knock him unconscious or a different one to kill him. Computers holding vital intelligence can be hacked via another minigame. You have a choice of weapons from pistol, shotgun, submachine gun or assault rifle (though you can only carry two), getting into a stand-up firefight is usually a bad idea, but you can take cover behind scenery and jump and roll between bits of cover. Oh, and every now and again you’ll get into a really stupid boss fight.

Just as in DXHR you can specialise in Alpha Protocol as a stealthy master of hacking, able to slip undetected past human guards and cameras alike, delivering precise knock-out blows or tranquilliser rounds where force is unavoidable, and just as in DXHR the game thinks it’s hilarious to stick a superpowered boss at the end of certain levels who has to be shot. A lot. And you haven’t even got the option of a Typhoon explosive augmentation as a handy “I win” shortcut. It’s especially jarring, as at least in DXHR you were facing cybernetic super-soldiers who you could believe were nigh-invulnerable; unless I missed a vital bit of dossier info that revealed a key Alpha Protocol villain had an adamantium skeleton, there was no explanation as to how a middle-aged man could withstand three magazines of assault rifle ammunition emptied into his head at point blank range. One particular fight descends into absolute surrealism as a psychotic Russian mobster snorts coke to become a knife-wielding instant killing machine, leading to a Benny Hill chase around a disco as ultra-cheesy 80s rock blares out until he gets knackered, at which point you shoot him for a while, then repeat. It’s like a reel from Austin Powers got spliced into the middle of The Bourne Identity.

Though the games share several mechanics, freedom is a key difference. At the start of Alpha Protocol you run through a weapons training course with sandbag corridors and pop-up targets, and the rest of the game never quite shakes off that feeling. For one thing Elite Agent Thorton can’t jump, his rigorous training unfortunately not covering “stepping over knee-high obstructions”, and though the level design usually doesn’t emphasise this too much there are occasions when your progress is stymied by an ankle-high sandbag wall. Sometimes you find a sniper rifle, but rather than, say, picking it up and carrying it around, you press Space to start using it, and when finished you put it back down in the same place, like it’s a rifle range and the gun is chained down. There are no boxes to be piled up to reach vents or windows, you can’t punch through walls, and the buildings you’re sent to infiltrate are strangely lacking in conveniently human-sized air ducts that let you into critical areas completely bypassing all security. The levels feel a bit like movie sets, sometimes with two or three paths through them, but with decorative doors and painted backdrops to appear more open.

On the plus side, they’re movie sets in a variety of exotic locations. Where DXHR featured an awful lot of corridors, Alpha Protocol moves from desert compounds to embassies to train stations to museums to parks across the world. I felt a lot more involved in the story as well; though things are headed for an obvious showdown (there’s a slightly clunky flashback structure that I felt broke up the flow slightly without adding much) you seem to have quite a few important decisions on the way.

Overall, then, Deus Ex: Human Revolution had great mechanics but got bogged down a bit in repetitiveness towards the end without an especially compelling plot to drive it on, whereas Alpha Protocol wasn’t so strong in general gameplay, but had a more interesting story and kept the pace up throughout. Worth a try, especially if it’s on sale for less than £2 again sometime.

Monday 14 November 2011

Belabor day.

Because you’re not yet tired of Skyrim talk and screenshots, right? RIGHT?

My character. Foes call him ‘cat’ as a racial slur, and they tell him that they killed their mother’s cat, and they’ll do the same to him. So he sears them with flame, and stabs them with steel.

And looks fabulous doing it, darling. [purrr]

Did I mention the world was beautiful in a different way at every turn?

It is.

BOOM! Headshot!

BOOM! Head—err, ‘ere ‘ang on, I fink ‘e’s fakin’ it, Frank!

You see things; and you say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say, 'Why not?'

Expressing opinion about a game is always going to be a subjective thing. There are so many variables when it comes to forming these digital entertainment entities, such that even a game which is almost universally proclaimed as being rubbish will still have its devotees. Indeed, cult status comes to many pieces of creativity which were once derided as kooky, mundane or obtuse. So when I tell you that Skyrim is very very good, you will have to take it with the proverbial pinch of salt: my opinion won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, especially if they’re putting a pinch of salt in it.

We use the term ‘universal acclaim’ in the same slightly naive, slightly arrogant sense that many people outside of the United States view the use of the term ‘world series’, because I’m fairly sure the Vegilons of Parsnipcheddarbake IV have no inkling as to the existence of Skyrim. Nevertheless, within humanity’s tiny sphere of influence in the universe, the near unanimous verdict is that Skyrim –as a form of gaming entertainment which the Vegilons of Parsnipcheddarbake IV could not possibly understand, being that they are semi-sentient parsnips– is a Very Good Thing.

But how good is Skyrim? Well, for me, it’s been ‘investing a stupid number of hours into it and barely leaving the first town’ good; also ‘every bad gamer stereotype about not eating, sleeping or socialising’ good; and ‘sitting cross-legged because I don’t want to get up and go to the toilet’ good; not to mention ‘I (like everyone else) received a SW:TOR beta invite and (unlike everyone else) laughed and deleted it’ good. I have been instilled with that fervour and fanaticism which I used to experience in the early days of MMOs, where I’d sit at work all day, dreaming of character builds and dungeon runs and adventures past, as well as those yet to be. I am possessed by the spirits of the game: adventure, wonder and possibility; I do not think that I will be exorcised of them for many months.

The game isn’t perfect, of course it isn’t, but those hairline cracks which do appear are easily plastered over, smoothed out by the deep layer of good will and respect I have towards a game which tries so hard to achieve that oft intangible sense of immersion. The world isn’t just beautiful and huge and wondrous, if it were then it could be compared to many a fantasy MMO, no, the important point for me is that the world is *alive*. I can look at a faraway mountain and know without question that not only can I reach its summit, but that when I get there adventure will be awaiting me, tapping its foot and looking at its watch, as surely as there is a shield on my arm and a sword readied in my hand. More though, the game drives that urge in me to head towards said mountain and find out what kind of adventure awaits; the game encourages my sense of exploration, for the simple reason that it has yet to disappointment me with what I’ve discovered each time I’ve accepted its challenge. I can, of course, collect quests from NPCs in a town, but so few of them feel like errands, and it’s the adventure that is to be had along the way which makes the game great. I set out to kill the leader of a group of bandits and three hours later remember that I had originally set out to kill the leader of a group of bandits – I should probably go and do something about that. Right after I’ve visited that monastery I can see on yonder hill. Twenty miles away. In the wrong direction. Even when I do eventually reach that bandit leader, it turns out that things aren’t quite as morally black and white as they had at first appeared.

There is a danger, as with the proverbial children in a chocolate factory, that I will find too much adventure. I will gorge myself on it, until my Escapade Spleen explodes from the abuse. Or I will go the opposite direction and fall to indecision, presented with such an impossible wealth of quest candy that I’m paralysed from the overwhelming potential of it; I can certainly feel the pressure of choice pressing in on me, the sheer epic nature of this expansive environment, but I have yet to crack under the many atmospheres of atmosphere the game presents. I feel it’s a testament to the game that someone such as myself, an ardent ‘on rails’ player who has enjoyed the theme park MMO for many years, can be coaxed into such an ambivalent attitude to ‘achieving’ or even progressing, like dropping Margaret Thatcher into a hippy commune and returning a day later to find her wearing a tie-dye wrap and preaching peace, love and understanding.

There is variety and depth here, excitement and amusement, energy and potential. What makes Skyrim exceptional is that I can escape to a world as vivid and real as I’ve yet experienced in a game, something which fills my imagination with the fire of possibility, where I am absorbed in a story which I write as I play, where I am hero, villain, anti-hero or ambivalent ‘just trying to make my way in the world, ma’am’ participant, as my whim dictates. And the game is happy, nay strains like the eager charger against the rein, to oblige me in this, to the best of its incredibly accomplished ability.

Saturday 12 November 2011

Gone adventurin'

I may be some time…

Friday 11 November 2011

It is only a step from boredom to disillusionment.

My Warden reached the new level cap in Lord of the Rings Online a week or so ago, and I finished levelling the character’s crafting skills a few days back. Everything else to do with advancement now, even crafting high tier legendary items, is locked behind raid content. For someone who doesn’t enjoy raiding, this means it’s farewell to LotRO for the time being. Perhaps I’ll drop in for the occasional skirmish if I’m really bored, or pay the kinship house fee so it doesn’t go into escrow, but I’m starting to realise that LotRO is slowly developing into a game that’s ‘not for people like you’.

On the consideration of being really bored, I have Skyrim waiting for me, so I’m fairly sure my fantasy gaming needs will be fulfilled for some time to come.

Outside of fantasy MMOs, there are still a few considerations. City of Heroes continues to be an enjoyable once-per-week romp with friends, and the “freemium” model will allow that to continue indefinitely. I still find myself utterly uninterested in Star Wars: The Old Republic, however; I’ll happily jump in if the general consensus after launch is that the game is a wonder, but I still get the impression that it’s more ‘WoW with a bit of Bioware story’, and I don’t think that’s enough to satisfy my basic gaming needs any more, let alone fan the fires of my enthusiasm. The concept of The Secret World had initially tweaked my interests, but the way they are teasing information about the game, rather than delivering solid outlines of concepts and mechanics, has slowly ground into fine fragments any good will I had towards it. I also qualified for TSW beta access by subscribing to Age of Conan a year or so back, an incentive which has now transformed into ‘You’ll get into beta at some point, we didn’t promise early beta access’. Considering that open beta is rumoured to be just around the corner, when presumably anyone will be allowed in, their ‘offer’ from a year ago begins to look more disingenuous all the time. However, it’s the dismissive nature of it that grates with me, as though we’re out of line for daring to suggest that their offer was bunkum. Combined with my less than stellar experiences in Age of Conan, I find myself generally uncaring for any of Funcom’s future offerings, TSW included.

Thus I find myself waiting for Guild Wars 2, and hoping that ArenaNet can deliver on its hype, something which I am, perhaps unfairly, becoming less confident of on a daily basis. The rest of the industry continues to over-hype and underperform, so will ArenaNet not simply follow form? I hope they’ll be the exception, but only time will tell. And time is a tight-lipped obstructive git, as a general rule.

My one secret hope is that there is something flying below the radar, which will suddenly and unexpectedly arrive as a giant MMO-shaped blip directly overhead, and proceed to deliver an atomic payload of excitement and entertainment into our gaming dead zones.

For now, I’m going to have a look at Skyrim. But first I must defeat my great nemesis, that bane of my RPG playing life, the cause of great joy and sharp anguish; first… FIRST I must escape from the labyrinthine depths of character creation.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Wonderful to hear Brainiac on banjo

Back in ye olde days, I spent a lot of time creating characters for pencil and paper RPGs. For most games that was quite a lengthy process; read and thoroughly digest the rulebook, assess the possible races, classes, skills, spells, feats and the like, roll up stats (oh look, the 3d6 came up as 18. Again. Honest.) Best of all was outfitting; I do love a good equipment list. There’s something about a lengthy table of items with their cost and weight, the RPG equivalent of an Argos catalogue, that laminated book of dreams. Weapons and armour first, of course, with many bonus points if the system could spend three pages on polearms alone (I seem to recall Tunnels and Trolls was another one with about seventeen different types of dagger), but you couldn’t neglect the other items that might prove useful. My dungeoneers would be kitted out with rope, grappling hooks, hammers, pitons, torches, lanterns, flasks of oil, flint and steel, parchment and quills for in-game map making, needle, thread, a saw, belts, sacks, pouches, cutlery, kindling, obligatory ten foot pole, canvas, paint, carrier pigeons, scaffolding, oars, a tricorder, first aid kit, fire extinguisher, laser pistol, rations, flour, flasks of water, travel oven, breathing apparatus, space suit and portable folding kitchen sink. They were ready for absolutely anything, apart from moving under the weight of all that junk.

Being something of a rulebook magpie I had a shelf full of different RPG systems, all with at least one character ready to go, usually more. The logistics of getting (real) people together meant actual opportunities to play were far more limited, though, so the vast majority of characters were purely theoretical. OK, so all characters in roleplaying games (LARP aside) are imaginary, but these ones didn’t even go on real imaginary adventures. Though some of them went on extensive theoretical imaginary adventures in order to get hold of the cool stuff from the magical items lists, or to set themselves up in strongholds or castles. Theoretical adventures generally worked out for the best, as they avoided all those awkward issues of where to leave the mule train, wagon and camels (you never know when you might need to cross a desert) while investigating a dungeon, and just how someone could move without slicing their own foot off when they had nine throwing daggers tucked into each boot (just in case). It also avoided the dread spectre of the non-optimal character, that most heinous of MMOG crimes, for every character was perfectly suited to whatever situations I thought they’d probably encounter. Horatio the Multilingual, with no combat skills or spells but phenomenal memory, fluent in 17 different languages (including Dragon, Lizard and French), might not have been much use against wave after wave of kobolds or zombies, but he was the ideal choice to engage in diplomacy and intrigue in a bustling trading port (not that he ever experienced either, but had he hypothetically done so it would certainly have been the latter, resulting in a grateful Duke awarding him command of his own barquentine, outfitted as per table 7, page 364).

Getting into computer RPGs slightly shifted the focus, as they had this peculiar idea that just creating a character wasn’t the main point of the game, that you should take that character (or party) off on an adventure. The adventures had to work within the limitations of the computer, and were therefore mostly combat-oriented, but what they lacked in endless possibilities they made up for in not requiring other humans who, even once you had herded them to the right place, at the right time, with the right number of polyhedral dice for a game, wouldn’t always be on quite the same page…

(You create a brilliant scenario involving the Comte de Drakenfall, a nobleman who goes to war, but on his way home receives word that his younger brother, steward of the estate in his absence, has fallen under the sway of a necromancer, is experimenting with vile magicks, and plotting to kill the Comte before he can reclaim his lands. The Comte disguises himself to evade assassins, and seeks the aid of the players in an inn…)

“A man approaches you; he is wearing the plain clothes of a travelling merchant [rolls dice] but you notice several expensive rings on his hand, one of them with a crest [rolls dice] that you do not recognise. ‘You seem able to handle yourselves’ he says, ‘perhaps…'”
“Hang on, expensive rings?”
“Brilliant. I stab him and nick the rings.”
“Yeah, he’s not expecting it right, so it’s definitely a surprise attack. [rolls dice] That’s a hit, right? [rolls dice] 17 points of damage.”
“But… he… but…”
“Is he dead?”
“Ace. I take his rings and sell them. Now, any dungeons near here where we can kill some goblins and nick their stuff?”

Anyway, even without the option to purchase improbable quantities of camping equipment, I still rather enjoy whipping up new characters in CRPGs and MMOGs, picking races, classes, powers, abilities etc. One area where they tend to shade the old pencil and paper systems is in character appearance; of course they’re limited to what the computer can render as opposed to the unconstrained range of human imagination, but my imagination isn’t terribly visual and is no match for a team of skilled artists and 3D modellers when it comes to potential shoulder pad options.

All of which waffling is really just preamble to saying: I downloaded DC Universe Online the other day. I hadn’t been planning to; after bouncing off Champions Online (again) earlier this year I’ve been having a splendid old time in City of Heroes since it went “freemium”, so it’s not as if there’s been a lack of superheroic-type online fun. It wasn’t the prospect of interacting with DC’s iconic heroes that did it, or a more action oriented style of play, or even the fact that DCUO went free to play (though that was a contributory factor), it was a screenshot from the character creator that made me want to whip up a DC hero, so I kicked off the download overnight.

15Gb and a quick blast through the tutorial later, if I had to pick one word for DCUO I think I’d go with “adequate”. For character creation the interface is pretty big and clunky, presumably to support a controller as well as the mouse, but it does the job. The option to create a character “inspired by” a signature DC hero or villain is quite novel if you want to get into the game with minimum fuss, I went down the custom route with dual pistols as a weapon and fire as the power. The range of costume parts you select from isn’t terribly large, but is… adequate. Launching into the game itself you get a quick cutscene outlining the plot with Brainiac and a time-travelling Lex Luthor involved somehow, but though I enjoy some of the individual titles I’m not much of a fan of the DC Universe as a whole, so it didn’t do much for me.

The tutorial involves escaping from one of Brainiac’s ships, and introduces the usual MMOG moving, attacking, and killing of random integer quantities of things. Combat does feel quite dynamic for a MMOG, on a par with something like Age of Conan, pistols having a melee attack on the left mouse button and a ranged attack on the right, all quite… adequate.

Finishing the story you chat to a few people around a police station then wander out to fight crime in the city, during which time I levelled up to get the “Meteor Strike” fire power. That was quite interesting, as rather than just a bunch of particle effects a tangible meteor rockets down to smite your foe, then rolls around a bit in the landscape (apparently it can even be picked up and chucked). That’s quite novel, though I was a touch disappointed that raining down a giant meteor from the very heavens themselves upon the head of an opponent didn’t squash him flat, but knocked about half his health bar down. Tough cookie.

All in all it’s fine, but just doesn’t really shine. If you really like the DC Universe that might be the clincher, if not it’s hard to recommend DCUO over Champions Online or City of Heroes, I can’t see myself leaving CoH for it in the near future.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Two things are infinite.

Skyrim director Todd Howard told in a phone interview Monday that the game will feature a never-ending stream of procedurally generated content, giving players an infinite number of things to do.

“The vibe of the game is that it’s something that you can play forever,” Howard said”

Unfortunately for players, it turns out that never-ending ‘procedurally generated content’ translates to Kill Infinity Rats.

Unfortunately for Bethesda, it turns out that those beta participants recruited from the MMO playing set completed the Kill Infinity Rats content in only four days, and were outraged that another infinity and half quests were not going to be available until the next expansion.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Have I Got MMOnews For You

Host: This week, teams, news that 6,000 copies of Modern Warfare 3 have been stolen in an armed raid. In a scene that could almost have been part of the game itself, “the robbery allegedly involved a fake car accident, tear gas and knives as the crooks walked away with games worth an estimated €400,000”.

Melmoth: The robbers were almost captured when they wasted precious minutes spray painting low resolution pornography tags onto a nearby wall. The criminals eventually made good their escape through ‘blatant hacks’, a police spokesmen said. The mayor of Paris called for an immediate investigation into whether the local police force were, in fact, lamers.

Zoso: Activision immediately took swift action, and released a patch to MW3 heavily nerfing both knives and tear gas.

Melmoth: Reports that the robbers escaped on a one hundred and fifty ton Brigantine flying the Jolly Roger, which they sailed around the Boulevard Périphérique to escape, are rumoured to have been entirely fabricated by the RIAA and MPAA.

Zoso: Blizzard are reported to be stepping up security around panda enclosures for the release of Mists of Pandaria in case of copycat (or copypanda) incidents; Bioware are less troubled and merely sending leaflets to drivers of Star Wars: The Old Republic deliveries telling them not to worry about plastic lightsabres (even if they have got powerful LEDs) and to ignore anyone in a dressing gown waving at them and saying “You don’t need to see my identification; this is not your delivery truck; move along”

Host: Goodnight!

Studio lights dim, theme tune plays.

Monday 7 November 2011

Sometimes the best solution to morale problems is just to fire all of the unhappy people.

Here’s Sad Geoff. Hello Sad Geoff. Sad Geoff is sad. Why are you sad, Sad Geoff? Ah, Sad Geoff is sad because his friend Big Susan has just shown him a photo of a small rodent she found in the barracks at Isengard. But why is Sad Geoff so sad? Well, let’s have a look at the morale points of the rat shall we? 3066! My, that’s a pretty confident little rat right there, that little fella has drive and esteem to spare! What’s your morale point total, Sad Geoff? 105? Is that K? No? Just 106. Oh dear. Sad Geoff is feeling pretty inadequate right now, that tiny rat would surely give Sad Geoff a blarmed good kicking were they ever to meet. That rat is the feisty go-getting cocaine-snorting marketing rep to Sad Geoff’s poor grey engineer, stuck with implementing the impossible – due yesterday. Not going to be much help to the cause of the Free Peoples are you Geoff? Nnnno-sir. Perhaps you’d better hang up that bow of yours and get into a more sedentary profession, eh?

But wait! Big Susan saw that Sad Geoff was feeling pretty low, so she decided to show him something to cheer him up. Here’s the totem of a defiler orc, also from the barracks of Isengard. Let’s have a look at the morale points of the totem shall we? Six blimey hundred and dear me forty whole morale points for the totem there. I didn’t think it possible for Sad Geoff to become more sad, but finding out that there are inanimate sticks in Isengard that have over six times the level of motivation and confidence as Sad Geoff does, has made our erstwhile Hunter even more depressed: he’s hung up his bow and taken up haberdashery instead. Oh Big Susan, you’re a rotter.

Still, Sad Geoff doesn’t seem quite so sad these days, although that’s mainly because he refuses to stock any items with a greater level of self-worth and positive spirit than himself. Admittedly there was a dodgy moment a while back, when a new batch of zippers got a little too full of themselves, but Sad Geoff quickly smelted them all down into a bunch of moderately depressed button-flies; he keeps an eye on them though, because even now they’re still a significant threat.

Carry on Sad Geoff, you poor demoralised soul.

Friday 4 November 2011

Adventure is hardship aesthetically considered.

Meanwhile, in Paragon City…

[Spinning KiaSA logo] Bannalananala Bannalananala naaaaaaaaa

City of Heroes continues to SOCK! and KAPOW! the pleasure centres of my mind with the improvements that have been made to it over the years, the foremost of which being the sheer unadulterated joy that comes from being able to hop into a group with friends, then straight away proceed to engage in activities both enjoyable and productive. City of Heroes delivers the fist of freedom to the jaw of arbitrary restrictions, and a further flurry of blows breaks down those traditional MMO barriers to grouping, such that when the dust cloud settles the players find themselves blinking into sunlight beneath a clear open sky, the last broken remnants of constraint’s walls crumbling to the floor beside them.

City of Heroes has always been a champion of freedom when it comes to group composition, but I find it admirable that over the years the game has evolved its powers further, enabling even great levels of liberty to the player population. This is a game which has found its Fortress of Solitude, listened to the advice it found there, and used the knowledge to become that much the better. It’s a shame that other MMOs persist in Batman brute-forcing their way through alone, ignoring this shining beacon of Ease, Happiness and the Multiplayer Way that has existed for many years within the same universe as they.

The changes to the Positron task force, however, present an interesting area for debate. On the surface it seems like a change for the better: the gruelling four hour chain of missions, which prevented players from undertaking any other missions until they had either completed or quit the task force (which could not then be rejoined once it was in progress), has been split into a pair of one and a half hour sessions, with far less travel and far more villain pummelling. The new task force is certainly enjoyable, and our group of players came away from it satisfied. But nobody will remember it. I imagine it’s a similar sort of situation to that which we find when considering games such as Dark Souls, where the experience is gruelling, but the memories quickly become rose-tinted and stick with one for far longer than, say, those of a game like Dragon Age 2 ever would.

Synapse, Manticore… I struggle to remember the names of the other task forces, but Positron… Positron has been etched with an optic blast into my MMO soul, such that I still draw in a sharp breath at the mere thought of it in its original format. Perhaps it’s also something about that first dungeon in a game: ask me to think of instances in World of Warcraft, for example, and images of the Deadmines spring to mind quickly, shortly followed by Gnomeregan; I struggle to remember even the names of the dungeons that came with the Burning Crusade expansion. Certainly the Positron task force is now a more pleasant and manageable affair, but I do wonder if we lose too much in our games by removing all the Punishers and replacing them with Jubilees.