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.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Reviewlet: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex: Human Revolution feels properly “Deus Ex-y”, but that’s a double edged sword as startling innovation from ten years ago can be old hat now. Back then, for example, the idea that you might not actually be a noble anti-terrorist agent but a pawn for shadowy conspiratorial organisations was pretty novel, whereas in DXHR the presence of the Illuminati is marginally less shocking than the tutorial informing you that the WASD keys move you around. Adam Jensen, the central character of DXHR, has mirrorshades and a gravelly rasp heavily reminiscent of JC Denton, but though JC sometimes had a bit of trouble expressing emotional intensity (“A bomb!”), Jensen is a full-on charisma-vacuum who drones through every conversation in a monotone with an emotional range spanning the full gamut from “mildly disinterested” to “slightly miffed”. Perhaps memory (via rose tinted mirrored glasses) is being kind to the original game, or the writing was better, or the novelty of a voiced protagonist made up for clunky delivery, but it seems a much more glaring flaw in DXHR; as Charlie Brooker tweeted “If any film starred a character as rubbish & po-faced as this Deus Ex prick, audiences would hurl shoes at it.”

What saves DXHR is the gameplay, equally solid whether sneaking, hacking or shooting your way around. Again demonstrating its heritage, you tend to come off second-best in a straight up firefight, especially towards the beginning of the game when lacking an arsenal of upgraded weapons and sub-dermal armour. I remember having terrible trouble at the start of Deus Ex, coming to it from more straightforward shooters, blithely running around the starting level trying to shoot guards while sprinting, running out of ammunition without managing to kill anything and getting pummelled. DXHR therefore offers a similar plethora of routes and options through its levels. Some require augmentations to take advantage of, such as the hacking skill to open a door (via a mini-game) or enhanced arms to be able to pick up heavy objects blocking routes or even punch through walls. The tech tree of the augmentation system works nicely to let you specialise in a particular approach, from improved hacking skills to quieter movement or even a (brief) cloaking device.

If you choose to fight it out there’s a wide array of weapons from non-lethal shock guns and tranquilliser rifles to the staples of pistols, shotguns and assault rifles, with more exotic laser and plasma rifles later in the game, and a few varieties of grenade if you prefer chucking stuff. Avoiding confrontation involves a lot of crouching; I’m not generally a fan of stealth gameplay, especially if it involves ten minutes of analysing camera movement patterns and guard patrols and automatically failing the level if you get spotted, but it’s most enjoyable to sneak up behind a guard in DXHR and hit ‘Q’ for a satisfyingly crunchy takedown (lethal or non-lethal, depending how kind you’re feeling), and if you do get rumbled then you’ve still got options to run, hide, or pull out a plasma rifle and melt anyone who comes to investigate.

Even Jensen’s growl works; in lengthy dialogue sequences he might sound like he’s trying to bore the other party into unconsciousness (maybe his augmentations have made him too perfect as an infiltration agent and conversations are just a different sort of non-lethal takedown), but when out running missions he has a more of the Man With No Name about him, delivering the odd laconic aside but otherwise letting his actions do the talking.

Of course there is a bionically-enhanced fly in the choose-your-approach ointment: the boss fights that even Eidos admit were a mistake, when sneaking goes out of the window (or, more to the point, sneaking is unable to go out of the window, because there are no windows, air ducts, hackable doors or other alternatives). Forewarned is forearmed, though, so after seeing numerous tweets and comments I’d equipped myself with the Typhoon Explosive System augmentation (description: “Deals enough damage to kill all living targets”), which made the unavoidable fights as tricky as running up to someone and pressing “F2” (and sometimes pressing F2 again, if they were inconsiderate enough not to die the first time). Tiny spoiler: there is a later boss who you have to fight without the benefits of augmentations, which turned out to be just the sort of special occasion I’d been saving up a grenade launcher for.

I enjoyed DXHR enough to explore every level methodically, usually punching, stunning or shooting (depending how kind I was feeling) all the guards, hacking anything hackable, then working backwards through any air ducts or lift shafts (the exits are usually more obvious than the concealed entrances), but that did mean it got rather samey as it went on. It probably wouldn’t have been quite so obvious if I’d varied the approach a bit as I’d gone through, but despite the globe-spanning plot you wind up going through lot of strangely similar corridors with strangely similar grilles over conveniently human-sized ducting, evading (or shooting) strangely similar guards and hacking in to strangely similar computers (with the computers, keypads and alarms sharing the same mini-game that’s diverting enough to start with, but not deep enough to sustain that much interest). Maybe it’s a comment about increasingly homogenized globalisation (aaaaah!) The two city hubs are the highlights, with more scope for exploration and side missions, but if you thoroughly explore everything in one playthrough there’s very little replayability. The story is on rails; the first game was as well to an extent, forcing your hand at certain key moments, but it felt like you had more decisions to make on the way, whereas the extent of the choice in DXHR seems to be whether a couple of characters live or die, without a major effect on anything else. It’s fine to keep the action moving but never particularly engaging, not least due to Jensen’s dullness.

Overall a good game, not groundbreaking like the original, but solid enough fun. Deus Ex: Human Revolution gets the coveted KiaSA “Probably Worth Buying in a Steam Sale” award.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

He has the power to choose, but no power to escape the necessity of choice.

Betrayed and turned over to the orcs of the White Hand, we find our captive heroine transported to deep within the fiery orc-infested dungeons of Isengard. Will she survive the hardships of the dungeons? Can she rescue her fellow captives? Will she find a way to break her bonds and return to the surface to warn the advancing Rohirrim? Find out in this week’s exciting episode of A Warden’s Adventuuuuuuuures in Duuuuuuuuuunland!

“Orright ya filfth, we’re gonna get ya t’working, *hard*, until that pretty white elf flesh is all flll… uh?! Burr… where’d they go?”
[Back at the Prancing Pony in Bree]
“So you just used your milestone teleport?”
“Well it was just sitting there and off its cooldown, seemed almost rude not to.”
“Huh. Another pastry?”
“Ooo, rather!”

Tune in next week for more exciting adventures in… A Warden’s Adventuuuuuuuures in Duuuuuuuuuunland!

A splendid attempt at storytelling in Lord of the Rings Online’s recent epic book content, somewhat spoiled by the fact that the diverse nature of an MMO means it’s hard to restrict the player as you would in a single player game. Whipping the player’s character off and locking them in a dungeon –from which they have to escape over a period of many quests– would be fine in a single player RPG, but in an MMO the developer has to give consideration to the fact that the player might want to go and play with their friends in the interrim.

Either that or Turbine simply forgot to turn off teleport travel skills.

I didn’t actually teleport all the way out, just tried the skill and the induction happily began, as my captors stood around watching me reading a map and muttering my incantations. If I had managed to port out, I do wonder how I was supposed to get back in to complete the epic story content, which itself leads to further considerations…

“Morning Grotsch!”
“Back again, elf?”
“Yes indeed, thought I’d drop in, y’know, undertake a few more steps of my escape while I had the time.”
“Orright, you know the way, down the hall, first tur…”
“First turning on the left. One cell each. Yes, I remember. See you in a bit!”
“Whatever. NEXT! Morning human. First time in the dungeon, or returning?”
[Deep in the prison…]
“Oh, lor! Sorry, but I’m going to have to stop you there.”
“Just look at the time! I’m late for my mid-morning dungeon telecon! Sorry, terribly sorry, but I’ll have to take a rain check. I’ll be back later, yah? We can resume our session then.”
“Awww, but I woz jus about to reach the culminashun of me monologue! Iz got a grate bit about ‘the tortured remnants of your soul will rot in the shackles of oppression’ an everyfink.”
“Oh, that does sound truly wonderful, but I really must dash, darling. We’ll pick it up next time, I promise, and I’ll pay full attention to your monologue then. Mwah. Mwah.”
“Bah, fine, off ya go elf.
[At the prison entrance…]
“Cheerio Grotsch, see you next time!”
“Jus don’t ferget to clock out dis time!”
“Oh deary me, I’d forget my own head if it wasn’t pinned on with leaves! There we go. Ciao!”
“Gerroff wiv yer! Bloody elves.”

Still, at least I’m finally finding entertainment in Turbine’s latest expansion – just in all the wrong places.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

No question is so difficult to answer as that to which the answer is obvious

July 14th 2008, Melmoth asks “Where is my BattleTech MMO?”

Looks like we finally have the answer, and it sounds rather promising. “Online”, “free to play” and “proper MechWarrior game in the tradition of MechWarrior 2 through 4” are phrases that earn the KiaSA Stamp of Approval (just as soon as I’ve finished carving it from this potato here).

Not a vast amount on the official site yet but you can reserve your pilot name, so if you want any variant of “Steiner”, “Davion” or “Kurita”… bad luck, by the time you read this “D4v10nnNnSst31nn33rKur1t44442351097230” will already have gone. Anyone else might want to pop over and sign up, though.