Friday 30 March 2012

I once told a friend that nothing really ends, no-one can prove it

(BBBC Spoiler Warning: this post finally gets around to talking about the end of Mass Effect 3 but in broadly non-spoilery terms.)

Back at the start of the month I quoted David Mitchell on expectations, and to grab another piece from the same column:

“Our level of expectation is crucial to our enjoyment of food, wine, holidays, plays, films and TV shows. We flatter ourselves that we’re objective but our judgments are clouded by our hopes, by whether something was better or worse than we’d anticipated.”

Some people were particularly miffed about the end of Mass Effect 3 due to anticipation stoked by pre-release quotes from Bioware, but for me it was quite the reverse. The rumblings of discontent started with leaks, the storm broke with the US release, so even before the game was available in the UK the “Retake Mass Effect” initiative had kicked off and it was impossible to avoid the fact that a lot of people were Really Jolly Cross. Expectations duly set, as I started the final mission I was waiting for the game to format my hard drive while the screen flashed “HAW HAW THE REAPERS HAVE DELETED ALL YOUR DATA PUNY HUMAN”, or to cause the PC to eject the game disc with crushing force into my crotch. All through the mission I was anticipating some devastating blow; as we lined up for a final push, I was thinking “hmm, about to go ‘over the top’, a hint of Blackadder Goes Forth?”, and as everyone was cut down and the screen briefly faded to black I thought for a moment they really might have done it. Now that would’ve been brave.

The actual ending, though, was… all right. I’ve read a lot of cogent pieces articulating numerous problems with the ending(s), and some equally cogent counterarguments around certain aspects, a more nuanced and worthwhile debate than a blanket demand for a “better” ending when everyone has a slightly different idea of what “better” would mean. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone come out and praise it as the perfect conclusion to the series, it’s undoubtedly flawed, but it didn’t spoil the whole game for me, possibly in part because I was expecting it to be terrible thanks to the campaigns. Overall, though, Mass Effect 3 was a fantastic three-coarse meal, even if the dessert wasn’t quite up to scratch. Or if taking each course of the meal as a separate instalment of the series, most of the dessert was excellent (the high point of the meal, in fact), but the custard was a bit lumpy. OK, tell you what, if each of the three Mass Effect games is a separate three course meal, with Story, Combat and Progression represented by a different course, and Bioware are the chef, EA the waiter and the internet is the restaurant, then the mariachi band going around the tables (representing the 1981 NatWest Trophy winning Derbyshire cricket team) are playing the wrong song.

That analogy got away from me slightly, so I’ll borrow some words from author-type-person Joe Abercrombie instead:

“[The ending] was confusing, maguffin heavy, not really set up in this game let alone the earlier ones. As is so often the case, the villain’s plot, so mysterious and thrilling when unknown, seemed rather silly and baffling when explained. Plus heavy exposition from a glowing child is really, really never a good idea. On the other hand, I was so impressed with the sheer scale, bombast, and technical achievement of the action leading up to it I didn’t care.”

Thursday 29 March 2012

In pre-preparation for April 10th.

So April 10th is the big day we’ve all been waiting for. Yes indeed, on April 10th fans of KiaSA will finally be able to pre-purchase their pre-order for the post-purchase pre-order purchase of KiaSA: The MMO. Be aware that this pre-purchase of the post-purchase pre-order only gives you access to the beta test for the post-purchase pre-test pre-preview phase of the pre-post-purchase-order part of the KiaSA game. To be able to play KiaSA: The MMO upon release, you will need to return to the retailer from where you pre-purchased the post-order post-preview order for the pre-purchase early access post-beta pre-game access and present a valid proof of purchase, whereupon the retailer will give you a code which fully unlocks the pre-post-pending-past-participle-order for the early post-headstart pre-access for KiaSA: The MMO.

This pre-purchase of the post-purchase pre-order includes the following exclusive benefits:

  • access to the beta test for the post-purchase pre-test pre-preview phase of the pre-post-purchase-order part of the KiaSA game
  • access to the month of June from May 17th
  • an exclusive in-game cosmetic “I pre-purchased the post-purchase pre-order and all I got was this lousy tabard” tabard
  • an exclusive out-of-game make your own cosmetic tabard kit [*]
  • Exclusive forum post template, “You should have seen [class/item/ability] back in post-purchase pre-test pre-preview, that was really [overpowered/underpowered/wombling-free-powered]
  • an exclusive lifesize replica of YOU! [**]
  • KiaSA: The MMO – Pre-purchaser’s In-Game Store, where you can pre-purchase items for your character before they’re available for pre-order in the standard in-game store.

[*] kit consists of a felt tip pen and instructions on cutting a hole in the middle of a sheet then writing “I pre-purchased the post-purchase pre-order and all I got was this lousy tabard” with said felt tip.
[**] to access exclusive replica, look in a mirror.

Whatever you do, please make absolutely sure that you DO NOT enter the code for your pre-order post-purchase purchase before you’ve entered the pre-code for your pre-test post-access purchase order, which is the first four digits of the pre-purchase post-code in reverse order; failure to follow these instructions will result in your account being permanently locked and someone from the KiaSA team coming around to your house and pre-kicking your cat.

Thankfully, being an MMO, the launch of the KiaSA game should be smooth and seamless, and therefore the KiaSA team does not foresee any issue with this slightly expanded pre-release schedule for the post-game pre-order release.

Pre-thanks for your post-attention.

The KiaSA team.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Fans furious about altered ending

“It is too serious a book to be a trivially happy one. Its beginning is unhappy; its middle is unhappy; and the conventional happy ending is an outrage on it.”

George Bernard Shaw, Introduction to Great Expectations

Friday 23 March 2012

Evolution of a Shepard.

I didn’t read many reviews of Mass Effect 3, didn’t need to, I knew I was going to buy it. What I haven’t seen much of –other than in passing comments– is how incredible the graphics are in this game; I mean, it’s more than a modest jump in improvement, it’s as though they shoved the graphics engine through a Mass Effect relay. That sort of jump.

As evidence, here are screen captures of my Shepard from the three episodes of the game. I remember watching some of the cutscene sequences in Mass Effect 3 and being profoundly impressed by the high fidelity and detail of the signal being sent to my retinas, but comparing these screenshots really slams home the magnitude of the improvement.

I really didn’t mind the ending of Mass Effect 3, but more on that in another post; regardless, I still can’t help but admire the improvements (not just the graphics) which BioWare keep bringing to their section of the genre, improvements which seem to have been generally overlooked or dismissed due to the unfortunate backlash which has occurred.

I hope BioWare continue to stick to their beliefs and make the RPGs that they want to make, because, my goodness, they seem to be getting exponentially better at it with each and every release.

The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

“Shepard, where are we?”

“London… I think.”

“London? How did you work that out? Some sort of alien navigation fixing? Did EDI, our spaceship’s virtual intelligence, triangulate the location using the galaxy-spanning Mass Effect relays? Did you manage to patch your omni-tool’s computer microframe and sensor analysis pack into the Alliance spaceship fleet and get them to relay the output of your cybernetic tracking implant via subspace comms?”

“No, look, a red phone box.”

It’s comforting to know that, around two hundred years from now, we English folk will be firmly ignoring the flying cars, VIs, aliens, spaceships, Mass Effect relays, space stations and the like, and stalwartly sticking by the good old copper wire public payphone. ‘If it was good enough for my great-grandparents, it’s good enough for me. Now you kids get your hoverboards off my lawn!’

Did anyone else notice that each civilian corpse was wearing a bowler hat and clutching an umbrella?

Thursday 22 March 2012

Terry you slag you nicked the leg of time, give it back before you get a slap

This post for has been classified as Spoiler Free for Mass Effect 3 by the British Board of Blog Certification, but may include light spoiling of Mass Effect 1 or 2, early Star Wars: The Old Republic flashpoints, Dragon Age: Origins and the film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (spoiler: he eats his shoe).

As widely observed by, to pluck some random examples, Kieron Gillen, Penny Arcade, Melmoth of this parish and Vic Sandman in the comments, the narrative personalisation of the Mass Effect series is rather impressive. The decisions of each player affect their own observable universe, and each instance of the game forms a separate strand of a Mass Effect multiverse in which other characters may be alive or dead, friend or foe, comrade or lover. Every time Shepard dies you take a peek down a different leg of the trousers of time where you fail to save the galaxy before quickloading back onto the right track.

It’s something I posted about before in Dragon Age: Origins, the way that a fundamental story can be the same for everyone at a very broad level (go to planet/village A, planet/village B, defeat The Big Evil, save the galaxy/world), and yet completely different in details. It’s something Bioware do rather well in their single players games, especially the way Mass Effect choices continue to ripple through the sequels, but it slightly unravels when transferred to a massively multiplayer setting in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

During the first Imperial flashpoint in SWTOR, Black Talon, the Captain of the titular ship refuses an order, and your party can either give him a stern talking to (“Now look here, Captain old thing, I’m awfully sorry but we’re really going to have to insist”) or, if taking a more Sith-like approach, kill him (“The penalty for disobeying an order is DEATH! The penalty for the rest of the crew for not killing the captain for disobeying an order is DEATH! The penalty for not bringing me a nice cup of tea is also DEATH! Now I come to think of it, the official Sith ‘Book of Penalties’ is just one page with ‘DEATH’ written on it…”) In a single player game this might crop up again later; perhaps you’d bump in the Captain on another planet and he’d be grateful that you spared him, while down the other leg of the trousers of time another player would meet the First Officer who’d taken over after his Captain had been demoted in a mysterious lightsabre-based industrial accident. In the shared universe of a MMOG both things happened, Schrödinger’s Captain is both alive and dead depending on who you talk to. Chat with someone who’s done the flashpoint a few times and it’s even more confusing:
“Oh, you’ve done the Black Talon, did you spare the Captain or kill him?”
“The first time, we spared him. Second time, we killed him. Third time I wanted to spare him, but got outvoted. Fourth and fifth times we were after the loot from the Republic group that spawns in if you spare him, then sixth through ninth was speed runs for social points so we killed him.”

Much of the narrative is experienced through the class-specific story missions, and these at least aren’t repeatable so make events more definitive per player, but you’re still sharing the world with other players who may have made different choices. I don’t think any of your SWTOR companions can die; if they could, the emotional impact would be lessened by seeing other versions of them accompanying other players around the world. Things are even more confusing across factions, as Spinks mentioned, due to visiting planets at different points in their timelines (or possibly alternate versions of them), rendering it all a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.

The class stories of SWTOR do work, but it doesn’t feel like they naturally mesh with the multiplayer elements of the game, the flashpoints and warzones and operations. It’s almost like playing two different characters, in the same way that you don’t take your Shepard into the multiplayer component of Mass Effect 3. I wrapped up my Imperial Agent’s story and it was interesting enough, albeit with a slightly anticlimactic final confrontation with my nemesis (perhaps it was unfair to have been kitted out with gear from a few operations and quite a bit of end game PvP), but it never felt as personal as Mass Effect or Dragon Age. Like I mentioned I actually got into a bit of raiding in SWTOR, something I’ve hardly done before, and that had less than nothing to do with story; there’s probably some deep backstory about how The Infernal One ended up in The Eternity Vault and why he’s a Bad Person, but the Imperial briefing might as well be “There are dudes. They have loot. GO!” It’s probably best not to try and construct a narrative imperative to explain why this needs to happen twice a week and again at the weekend, the attraction is the prospect of loot, and the cameraderie of the guild who are a great bunch. I’d been meaning to keep dabbling in both SWTOR and ME3 but I’ve hardly logged in to the former since the latter arrived; it doesn’t feel like I’ve completely lost touch with the SWTOR guild, though, with forums, Twitter and blogs, so hopefully they won’t be too put out if I return at some point.

So as Gillen also tweeted “The silver lining to the ME3 ending debate: it shows the “who plays games for story?” position to be complete bullshit.”, but I don’t think a developer-driven story will be a vital pillar of MMOGs until they’re running on quantum servers.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

The age demanded that we dance, and jammed us into iron pants.

There is as much definitive information in this post with regard to Guild Wars 2’s RMT system, as there is information in this post about the underpants I’m wearing:

I am wearing underpants.

So until anyone can accurately tell me the style, colour and condition of my underpants (and whether I’m wearing them on my head or not), they probably can’t tell me how well Guild Wars 2’s complex RMT system is going to interact with an as yet undefined player population, in an unreleased and unknown game system, with an item store that has no items defined for it, for an in-game economy that has yet to be established.

But still it won’t stop people being angry on the Internet about my underpants. Or blindly praising them to the heavens, if they’re fans and believe my underpants will host the second coming… ah, now there’s an unfortunate turn of phrase, but do enjoy the image!

“What are the facts? Again and again and again — what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” — what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!” —- Lazarus Long

Tuesday 20 March 2012

The key to good eavesdropping is not getting caught.

This post for Mass Effect 3 has been certified SF (Spoiler Free) by the British Board of Blog Certification.

I’ve been playing a fair bit of Mass Effect 3 recently, and when I say ‘a fair bit’ I do mean those extensive sessions of intensely focussed play, where every time the player blinks they see the game’s UI as a soft orange glow against the dark backdrop of their eyelids, and upon finally crawling into bed their dreams coalesce from a fog of the evening’s play which enshrouds their mind.

Dreams being dreams, mine didn’t stay true to Bioware’s carefully crafted Mass Effect universe for long, and I quickly found myself as Commander Nipplard, trying to protect the Areola galactic sector from the suffocating constrictions of the Bra’rians. It all turned out well in the end, especially when chocolate Roman Polanski flew me to the local supermarket and I got a job as a badger in the swimming pool section. With the Bra’rians clapped in irons, the finale of my dream was quite uplifting (and separating), unlike the nature of the Mass Effect 3 ending, of which I have managed to learn little, other than the fact that there are people on the Internet who are unhappy about it. ‘Are people on the Internet angry about things?’ is one of those rhetorical questions that’s right up there with popes and woods, or bears and Catholicism.

What I’ve taken away from Mass Effect so far is that it really is an exemplary example of how to gently evolve a game’s systems without breaking the continuity of the player experience. The evolutionary jump from Dragon Age to Dragon Age 2 was a brutal mass extinction event where players either rapidly evolved to the new order, or soon found their enthusiasm suffocating beneath the sticky tar pit of the unfamiliar game system. Mass Effect’s evolutions have been kinder. For example, the quest system has evolved once again in this latest incarnation of the game. Bioware have moved away from the improbable ‘butting-in to everyone’s conversation’ system, which led to such classically surreal scenarios as Commander Shepard helping a couple of complete strangers in deciding whether to abort their unborn child, a sort of drive-by moralising more in line with a comedy super hero, who drops from the sky to smack the unsure about their head with the Holy Book of Morals. The moral decisions have been maintained in the game, but now exist in a quick-fire choice of supporting one side or the other in a public argument, with each argument being tailored towards the events of the galaxy-spanning genocide at hand, rather than a four hour winding conversation which eventually leads to the question ‘Should NPC A continue to kick kittens?’

The new side-quest system instead involves Shepard overhearing conversations, finding the object of that conversation while out fighting the good fight, and then returning it to the NPC whose conversation was overheard. It’s a slightly more organic system, and certainly doesn’t grate as much as running up to complete strangers and punching them squarely in the conversation with your fist of moral obligations, but it’s still just a bit silly in the context of the cinematic and elegantly dominoed chain of events which form the main story. And me, being me, can’t help but wonder how far Shepard will go to overhear these conversations: sweaty naked couples in the heat of passion rolling over to see Commander Shepard peering above the end of the bed. “I couldn’t help but overhear… you were desperately trying to find a rare artifact called the G-Spot? Well, I just happen to have found one while fighting the Reapers on the planet Sirotilc Prime in the Avluv sector. Enjoy!” Then Shepard’s head slowly descends below the bedline, but when ecstatic ululations are not forthcoming, the Commander’s head slowly rises to peer above the end of the bed again. The shocked couple, their actions frozen mid-coitus, stare in stunned disbelief.

“I saaiid: ‘en-joy‘”

Monday 19 March 2012

The future is already here - it's just not very evenly distributed

Here’s a fun new quiz, is the following headline: (a) an April Fools’ joke, (b) an actual news story or (c) a plot element from a near-future sci-fi novel?

“The Pirate Bay plans low-orbit server drones to escape legal jurisdiction”

The correct answer is (b), apparently, but it sounds a lot like something from Brasyl, and may yet turn out to be a mis-timed post that was supposed to go out on April 1st.

I predict the next move will be the RIAA unveiling its own fleet of hunter/killer drones armed with copyright-seeking missiles, forcing The Pirate Bay to launch further defensive forces. At that point there would be a great opportunity to take something like the World of Warplanes engine, hook it into the flight control systems, and make some money out of the conflict by charging pilots $14.99 a month.

The really worrying prospect would be completely automated copyright enforcing drones as they’d surely herald the Rise of the Machines, and it would be slightly ironic if it turned out that Judgment Day was sparked off by an attempt to stop people watching Terminator 2 in ten minute chunks on YouTube.

Thursday 15 March 2012

There never were, since the creation of the world, two cases exactly parallel.

Discussing the barest minimum of Mass Effect 3 details with m’colleague, lest either of us introduce the other to a spoiler and spontaneously combust as a result, we realised that our games had diverged over the course of the trilogy, and that having a meaningful discussion without spoilers was precluded by the fact that the foundations of our ‘universes in peril’ had surprisingly little common ground, outside of the main plotline at least.

Of course it quickly brought to mind the old topic of ‘static versus dynamic worlds’ with respect to the multiplayer experience, such as in MMOs, where games such as Ultima Online and EVE Online took the fine decision to make their game a framework of tools, tools which enable the most dynamic of all possible content –the players– to be the content for one another.

NPCs in my game, whom I love and indeed have loved, are entirely absent from m’colleague’s parallel sphere of existence, a situation over which my Shepard would give his Shepard a stern rebuke, if only she could find a way to travel between parallel universes. Alas, it’s in yet another universe entirely that humanity has discovered how to travel between different universes. And anyway, as soon as you leave your universe, that universe ceases to exist because an intrinsic part of it has been removed, meaning it could never have existed in the first place. Of course when *that* happens, *you* cease to exist, because your originating universe never existed, and thus you could never have existed. Which of course means that your universe could exist, because you never existed to leave it, so it pops back into existence. Along with you. Whereupon you find yourself on the point of leaving the universe and… oh dear.

And so without dynamically generated content, it’s quite the conundrum as to how to let different players experience the same content, within the same world, without introducing a paradox, or at least people getting into terrible fights.

Player 1: “Have you met NPC Geoff? This is NPC Geoff, one of my most loyal followers.”
Player 2: “How can that be? NPC Geoff is DEAD, I sacrificed him in order to save NPC Foxabella”
Player 1: “NPC Geoff is NOT dead!”
Player 2: “Yes. He is.”
NPC Geoff: “I, uh, I’m not. Right here.”
Player 2: “Yes you ARE [stabs]”
NPC Geoff: “Okay, now I am. Urk…”
Player 1: “No you’re NOT [casts Resurrect]”
NPC Geoff: “Well fi…”
Player 2: “ARE! [stabs]”
NPC Geoff: “Ow…”
Player 1: “ARE NOT! [casts Resurrect]”

And as for the ‘which NPC slept with which PC and when’ situation… awkwarrrrd. I mean, giving another playing character an accidental rogering due to an entangled NPC paradox causing your two timelines to intersect momentarily (and my what an intersection!), is the stuff that really bad fan fiction is made of.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

I like to play blackjack. I'm not addicted to gambling, I'm addicted to sitting in a semi-circle.

The British Board of Blog Classification (Game Plot Revelation Committee) has classified this post as Spoiler Free for the single player story of ‘Mass Effect 3’. Please refrain from any revelations in the comments, especially about that bit where that thing happens. I mean I was all totally like “NO WAY!”, and the game was all totally like “WAY!”, and then when the thing turned out not to be that thing but the other thing? Definitely don’t tell anyone about that. Though I was a bit disappointed when it all turned out to be a dream.

Like much of the rest of the galaxy I’ve been desperately fighting off the Reapers in Mass Effect 3, but I haven’t got terribly far in the story yet, so there really won’t be any spoilers. If you’d manage to insulate yourself from ME3 information so completely that “fighting off the Reapers” is a surprise, I apologise for ruining the first 17 seconds of the introduction. One of the main reasons for lack of single player progress is that I keep getting distracted by the multiplayer.

The mechanics are pretty simple, you create multiplayer-specific characters from slightly cut-down versions of the main classes (Soldier, Infiltrator, Adept etc.), kit them out with a couple of guns, then either host or join a co-op fight in a squad of four against 10 waves of opponents. I haven’t heavily played an online shooter since Unreal Tournament 2003 so I’m a bit out of touch, but the combat elements of ME3 stand up well enough on their own, and one round is a nice 20-minute chunk of gaming (so long as everyone hits “Ready” fairly promptly to start things off, and three of you aren’t sitting in the lobby staring at one “Not Ready” status).

There are a couple of slightly troubling aspects to the multiplayer, though. The first is the contribution to the single player story; success in multiplayer improves the “Galactic Readiness Rating”, which is helpful in the single player story. It’s not a bad idea, to give people a bit of a nudge to at least try the multiplayer to see if they like it, but it sounds like it can have quite a significant effect on how the game ends rather than being a bit of an optional bonus (I might revisit the subject after finishing the game myself, until then: NO SPOILERS!). It’s particularly jarring in light of the separate settings for Combat and Narrative that allow a player to adjust one or the other to their preference, whereas the multiplayer is exclusively combat, and not particularly forgiving.

It doesn’t take a conspiracy theory of “world leaders are giant lizards in human skin polluting our essence by fluoridating water” proportions to connect the less than subtle shove towards multiplayer with the second troubling aspect, the equipment upgrades. You earn credits through your battles, and with those credits you can buy Recruit, Veteran or Spectre packs containing a random mix of consumables, weapons, upgrades and multiplayer characters (you can always create a human of any class, other races like Salarians and Krogan are unlocked via the upgrade packs). The kit you get is mostly Common, but with a chance (or certainty, depending how much you spend) of Uncommon or Rare items. Sound familiar? As Evan Lahti of PC Gamer put it, “When I play it I smell Magic cards.” It’s not Magic for me, it’s 1983 Panini Return of the Jedi stickers, isn’t it? Wasn’t it? Small boys in the playground, jumpers for goalposts, got, got, got, got, need! Need! I’ll give you two ewoks and a quarter of the death star for the top of C3PO’s head! No, Mrs Brown, I wasn’t playing with the stickers in class, don’t confiscate them!

Random loot alone isn’t so much of a problem (or churches surely wouldn’t hold so many raffles), it’s a staple of many games, and though it can be annoying when you seemingly turn up endless shotgun upgrades and nothing for your favoured assault rifle it’s nothing that hasn’t been hashed out many times here and elsewhere around the blag-u-spore (and doubtless would have been on the Panini Stickers forum in 1983, had it existed; “drop rate of admiral ackbar is REDICKKYEWLESS!!1!”). As well as being available for in-game credits, though, the Veteran and Spectre equipment packs can be bought for real money (in the form of Bioware Points). I’ve got no fundamental issue with microtransactions (again, see repeated discussions here and elsewhere), but the combination of real money and randomness puts gambling on the table, then spins a big wheel and shouts “faites vos jeux”.

I haven’t really got a problem with gambling, but for whatever reason it’s not something I particularly enjoy, perhaps I’m too risk-averse. I can appreciate the appeal (win lots of lovely money, check), I’ll happily bet piles of virtual money on virtual blackjack in something like Fallout: New Vegas (especially when there’s a Quick Load option), but I’ve no desire to to shovel 10p coins into a slot machine. Mind you the slots player might be just as baffled by me and a friend doing the same thing with a Golden Axe cabinet when there isn’t even a chance of getting money out of it. (Note: adjust for inflation and substitute a more modern game to avoid too much 80s nostalgia.)

Turbine’s treasure hunting event in Lord of the Rings Online has similar overtones, offering random loot and requiring Treasure-hunter’s Picks that can be obtained either via in-game quests or from the store, although they sound quite easy to obtain via quests. Cryptic have rightly been drawing more flak for the Cardassian Lockboxes in Star Trek Online that can only be opened with a store-bought key. Some people can get into serious trouble with gambling, and though a stack of lockboxes are unlikely to cost someone their rent money or bring down a bank, a friend who worked in a games shop had enough stories about Magic players begging, borrowing or stealing enough for a couple of booster packs, feverishly ripping them open, and collapsing in a sobbing heap surrounded by discarded Sorrow’s Paths without a Yawgmoth’s Will to show for it. At least ME3 multiplayer is co-op rather than PvP so it really doesn’t matter if other players are tooled up with diamond-encrusted hyperguns, worst case your comparative contribution to the team might be reduced, but you’ll get the overall team rewards.

Venture Beat spent $100 on Spectre equipment packs in an interesting investigative piece that doubles up as a genius wheeze to claim Bioware Points as a tax deductible expense, and the results aren’t terribly impressive; as it concludes: “I’m sure there will be those who purchase just a couple packs and get some awesome stuff, while others will go on to have worse luck than I did. That’s the problem with gambling. But according to our little test, the odds are stacked against you in Mass Effect 3.” There is another method of boosting your single player Galactic Readiness as well, an iOS game that doesn’t sound terribly good, and *also* has an option to purchase equipment upgrades for cash.

It’s not that the purchasable equipment packs are a hideous abomination that completely ruin Mass Effect 3, they’re just a bit of tarnish on what is otherwise a rather nice addition to the game. If the co-op multiplayer was a separate free-to-play download with microtransactions that would be one thing, buying equipment packs seems a little excessive on top of a big-box full price game, but then so does launch-day DLC and the piles of tie-in merchandise unlocks, such is the way of so many titles these days. The Galactic Readiness aspect of the single player game may not turn out to be such a big deal after all, rendering this something of a storm in a teacup; perhaps we should just be thankful that Bioware didn’t use a less subtle approach to hook in players who care more about the story and relationship between the characters…

“Commander, over the course of our mission I feel we have become close, so close that I can’t help myself, I have to ask… Have You Tried Mass Effect 3 Co-Operative Multiplayer? Why Not Do So Now! Buy A Spectre Equipment Pack For Just 160 Bioware Points!”

“Shepard, I treasure our time together, but… it’s just… your Galactic Readiness score is rather low, so there’s a good chance I’ll die in the climactic confrontation. If you really loved me, you’d play Mass Effect 3 Co-operative Multiplayer and buy lots of Spectre Equipment Packs for just 160 Bioware Points!”

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Artists create out of a sense of desolation.

While familiarising myself with the history and works of El Greco through the power of the Wikipedian Hivemind, I came across the piece displayed here, an oil on canvas work titled The Holy Trinity.

I think this, for me, highlights the true genius of El Greco. Not only was he a fine artist, but he was an utter visionary, predicting the forthcoming plight of group composition in the early days of MMOs, and then realising that vision on canvas.

In the painting we can see the poor Tank, exhausted from the infinite pressures of leading a group through another dungeon instance, falling into the arms of the Healer who continues to desperately keep the Tank on his feet. Meanwhile, the DPS stand around looking confused and generally getting under the Healer’s feet (there’s definitely a foot-based theme underpinning this work); I think the one in the blue dress is probably about to helpfully yell “HEAL MEH!”, or perhaps complain about the Healer’s lack of ability. The DPS just to the left of The Primary Whiner appears to be contemplating the ground – one presumes the subject is curious about the big puddle of fire they all seem to be standing in.

Meanwhile, the DPS in green to the front left appears to be supporting the Tank, but a closer examination shows that their gaze is drawn down, calculating, and focussed elsewhere on the Tank, possibly trying to work out the value of the Tank’s gear score in order to complain bitterly about it, or simply assessing the gear’s value to determine whether it’s worth asking for the Tank’s stuff when they rage-quit the game.

The two DPS on the right of the picture are clearly aligned in the classic Get The F*ck On With It pose used by artists in the late 1500’s, and thus provide the picture’s balancing composition to The Whiners in the left third, with the Tank and Healer in the centre third.

I think it’s obvious that the dove represents Lady RNG, passing quickly over the group, ready to poop onto the head of the Tank from a reasonable height.

Not entirely sure about the disembodied baby heads sitting at the Tank’s feet, however. Possibly an abstract expression of the Tank’s battered self-esteem, or those maddening voices whose whispers sow the doubts and lassitudes which are the harbingers of the desolation of the soul.

Or maybe El Greco was just rubbish at drawing crafting nodes. Who knows?

Friday 9 March 2012

On the impact of quest text.

“You have been spotted and the element of surprise has been lost.

The dwarves of Moria are now doomed!”













Retry y/n?

Thursday 8 March 2012

Hope is generally a wrong guide, though it is good company along the way

I tweeted the other day about patching both SWTOR and STO while Total War: Shogun 2 was installing, and a couple of my dedicated followers (lovely young ladies, judging by their definitely not stolen profile pictures) were kind enough to suggest a link to something that had been really helpful for them in Star Wars: The Old Republic. The fact that their tweets were identical was obviously just proof of the old adage about great minds thinking alike, rather than confirmation that a pair of randomly named accounts tweeting heavily obfuscated links were spambots picking up on any mention of SWTOR.

Being at something of a loose end I thought I’d take a look at what they were promoting. Convincing though the heartfelt endorsements were, I still took basic security precautions and slathered the keyboard with gin, drank a couple of shots of antibacterial hand sanitiser and donned a welding mask to foil the hackers who take control of your webcam then stare into your eyes to read your mind and steal passwords (I originally tried not knowing any of my passwords so the mind reading wouldn’t work, but there was a slight flaw with that system. After that I trained a hamster to randomly generate and memorise a password so to access a game or site I just had to command “Boo! Enter Dungeons and Dragons Online password!”, but I had to abandon that system as the week after creating a home shopping account with Sainsburys a mysterious order was placed for 700 bags of peanuts.)

Sure enough, three or four redirections later, the links led to a SWTOR levelling guide making all manner of AMAZING promises. Now it may be that it really is a fantastic resource and the myriad tweets are from genuine fans, but it seems a smidge more likely to be a scuzzy operation employing spammers. Much like a seedy Gentleman’s Specialist Interest venue, if you were seduced by the gaudy neon and alluring posters into paying the steep price of admission you’d probably find a couple of bored looking women in their underwear handing out information that could be gleaned from game forums with a bit of searching.

A levelling guide seems especially superfluous for SWTOR as I can’t think of a smoother levelling experience in any other MMOG, especially at launch. No extended grinding, no desolate zones with occasional token kill-quests, no “hell levels”. Sidestepping for a moment the question of whether a smooth, guided levelling experience is a Good Thing or Symptomatic of the Decline of Western Civilisation, most MMOGs have needed patches, expansions and/or major zone revamps to knock off the rough edges of launch and fill in the gaps labelled “ADD CONTENT HERE”. If you follow the story quests of your class in SWTOR you can hardly go wrong, and though they alone aren’t enough to get you to the cap you can also pick up solo or group (heroic) quests in the same zones, you can run flashpoints (instances) from the main fleet, participate in PvP or fly space missions, all of which net further XP; a levelling guide (or two minutes on the forums) could probably point out which is the most efficient, but if making a bar go up is your *only* goal, regardless of the mechanism, why not buy a pack of felt-tips and some graph paper and knock yourself out? It’ll be much cheaper.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

No pleasure endures unseasoned by variety.

My current plate of play is piled high with equal portions of Dungeons & Dragons Online and Rift, as I gorge myself once more on morsels from the ‘all you can eat’ MMO buffet. Update 6 for Lord of the Rings Online approaches as swiftly as the flow of The Great River it brings with it, but I find myself utterly uninterested in returning to my mature MMO mistress. For the first time I find that I don’t like the direction in which Turbine are taking their interpretation of the free-to-play model and, combined with yet more of what I see as complications to the design of the warden class, it seems as though I’m gently drifting away from LotRO, the current of its ambitions finally flowing in a divergent direction to the current of my interests. As it is with others, I find the Premium Barter Wallet to be an unnecessary device: a solution to a problem that needn’t have existed in the first place. To sell players inventory space, fill that inventory with barter currency which monopolises that space in an entirely unnecessary fashion, and then offer to sell players yet another form of inventory to solve this issue, should be viewed as a worrisome development at best; I see it as invidiousness.

Curiously, I ended up giving Turbine some of my money anyway, but this time I’ve decided to invest a little in DDO. The new expansion has piqued my curiosity, and by ordering early there is the usual array of bonus trinkets and knickknacks offered along with the expansion content itself. Having lost my mind momentarily and plumped for the Libertine Edition, I found myself with an abundance of niceties, amongst which were included 2000 Turbine Points. With some time yet until the expansion, but with an already renewed enthusiasm for DDO, expansion notwithstanding, I decided to invest some of the Tubine Points into the relatively recently released Artificer class. The fact that the class happened to be on sale at the time only spurred me into divesting myself of my newfound digital wealth as quickly as I had obtained it. The Artificer class is bonkers-powerful in that way which only ‘expansion’ classes can be; as with the Death Knight in World of Warcraft, the Runekeeper and Warden in LotRO, the Beastlord in EverQuest 2, and many others, the Artificer is a new class which seems to thrust through the canopy of classes, before unfurling the tremendous branches of its power and leaving all else somewhat in its shade. The Artificer uses a repeating crossbow, a weapon which has received a revamp to its mechanics coinciding with the release of the Artificer, transforming the weapon from the ranged equivalent of lightly slapping the target repeatedly about the face with a herring, into something more akin to dropping a quick succession of blue whales from a sub-orbital platform onto the head of the unsuspecting villain . That alone, for me, would make the class interesting, but in this Swiss Army knife of classes, that’s just the weird tool tucked behind the tool which hooks the stones out of horse hooves. The Artificer can also detect and disarm traps and locks, much like the rogue class. They also have a pet, which levels-up with the character, can be equipped with various items, and has its own line of enhancements including two prestige lines – in this I believe the pet is better developed than some of the existing classes in the game.

So you can see that the Artificer is pretty powerful, really; unfairly so, some might suggest.

So I probably shouldn’t mention the Rune Arm weapon: a device which has various uses, but starts off as a basic close-range flame thrower which can be charged up to various levels of power, and doesn’t even require the player to swap out their +5 Blue Whale Launching Turret of Mass Extinction in order to use it.

Yes indeed, the Artificer is pretty crazily powerful, I think you’ll agree.

So I probably shouldn’t mention the fact that they can cast spells from a selection which rivals that of Wizards, including, but not limited to, the uberlevelling munchkin caster’s damage spell of choice – Blade Barrier, as well as the ability to conjure crossbow bolts like an Arcane Archer. There’s also the newly added line of curative admixtures, which allow the Artificer to turn health and resistance potions into grenades, which they can then lob into a crowd for an AoE version of that potion’s benefits.

Pretty powerful. Overpowered, some might say.

So I probably shouldn’t mention the fact that – nah, just kidding, that’s about it. I mean, apart from the fact that they’re able to transform into Godzilla at fourth level, but I don’t suppose you’re interested in that. It leaves me wondering what Turbine will have to do to make the druid class –which is being launched with the new expansion in June– appealing to players. Obviously it’s something that players in DDO have been clamouring for with equal voracious verve as players of EQ2 were for the Beastlord, but I can’t help but think that Turbine have to go even further with this class in order to make it stand out against that solitary device of dungeon destruction and devastation encompassed in the Artificer. As such, I imagine that the player of a freshly created level one Druid will look down upon their hotbar and see a single button, with a tooltip that reads:

Lunar Transformation: The druid transforms into a fully operation battle station and becomes the ultimate power in the universe.
‘That’s no moon.’

Despite professing to the contrary, I found myself drawn into raiding in Rift over the weekend. And what incomprehensible minatory threat to reality was it which caused me to throw reticence to the wind and join the noble cause of a pick-up raid of valiant Ascended?


Extra-dimensional death balloons of death and greater death, that cause death with their deathly death rays of much death and deathness?!

No, no – party balloons. Tied to the floor outside of a carnival tent.

Rift’s one year anniversary event is in full swing, and the phase of progress (read: stage of the grind) that has currently been reached allows for players to participate in various carnival games staged around the tented encampment of NPCs, who have set up shop in the capital cities of the two factions, as well as in the Shimmersand region. It’s the standard MMO event, with mini-games rewarding a currency –in this case, prize tickets– which can be used to barter for various event-only items, such as cosmetics and trinkets and the like. The balloon game requires the player character to jump around a small pen bursting balloons (the event is themed around a carnival, and thus balloons play a large part in various aspects) until they have dispatched thirty of the villainous rubbery entrappers of helium. The keys to the ‘exploitation’ of this game are:

a) It is instantly repeatable, rather than being daily.
b) In a group, or raid, any burst balloon counts towards the total for all members of the group or raid.

So, MMO players being, well, MMO players, have optimised this game by forming raids of players who all jump up and down on the spot, only stopping to hand-in the quest to the vendor (standing right beside the balloon pen) and pick-up the quest once again. For a single player the quest would probably take somewhere in the carefully-balanced-by-developers region of a minute; in a raid you can get in about two jumps before you need to hand-in the quest again.

Thus, there I was, for ten or fifteen minutes, in a raid consisting primarily of level-capped heroes, with their giant raider’s shoulder pads; epic weapons encrusted with jewels; trailed by a small choir of angels chanting the player’s great deeds for all the world to bear witness to; as the twenty of us jumped up and down like loons, popping balloons. A grinding platoon, marching to the theme park’s tune.

Are we entirely sure we’re not in Azeroth any more?

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Fury itself supplies arms

While chatting about some of the recent waves of sound and fury sweeping through the intertubes, Melmoth observed “I will be rich and famous when I invent a way to power the Internet from the pure unbridled rage it generates daily.” My first thought was a keyboard that could harness all that ANGRY TYPING to generate electricity, but it seems Compaq and Google amongst others got there first. I’m not sure their patents really make the most of the PURE SPIT-FLECKED POTENTIAL of Angry Internet Men either, so I propose the KiaSA Punchboard: a giant alphanumeric array the user can PUNCH with their FISTS of RIGHTEOUS FURY to convey EXACTLY how WRONG their target is. Velocity sensors on each key would increase both font weight and size of the comment/tweet depending on the strength of the punch, underlining a word if any letter in it was activated by headbutt, and mechanical linkages would convert the kinetic energy to electricity by doing technical stuff (Editor’s Note: run that bit past Trevor Baylis).

By my entirely made-up calculations, four such devices should be sufficient to power a small village, so long as shortly before periods of peak demand (e.g. half-time of major sporting competitions when everyone puts the kettle on) a game developer has the temerity to express an opinion, a new Doctor Who is announced, or Jeremy Clarkson appears on The One Show again.

Friday 2 March 2012

Quoted forsooth

“The films I’ve most loved, as well as those I’ve most hated, are the ones I’ve known least about in advance. When I’m well briefed, my range of responses clusters more closely around the average. It’s almost impossible to find a brilliant film brilliant if dozens of people have told you it’s brilliant in advance. “You have to see it – you’ll be amazed!” they say and then I can’t help expecting it to transcend the medium – to be more than just a film, even though I can’t imagine how. A film with free sandwiches, perhaps, or useful tips for putting up shelves.”

                           — David Mitchell on expectations

“Londoners are not impressed by anything, at all, ever. Everything has already happened here — including the Olympics, twice, in 1908 and 1948. Sometimes, the weary stoicism of Londoners is a boon. But it is an outlook instantly affronted by any suggestion that any future happening is going to be profitable, transformative or, worst of all, pleasant.”

                           — The New York Times explains Londoners

Thursday 1 March 2012

It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself.

I spent an entire evening vacillating over builds for my warrior in Rift. Initially I was just toying with the idea of trying on a new build for size, to see if it was of a style better suited to the way I play. But it quickly turned into one of those epic shopping expeditions, where my weary character was to be found later sitting outside the changing room of the sixteenth store we’d visited, head in hands, feet barricaded by bags full of builds, while I tried on ‘just one more’.

It eventually got to the point where I’d settled on a natty little number –I fancy it was a rather fetching Riftblade/Reaver ensemble– and I swung my way dramatically out of the Soul Tree changing room with a ‘ta da!’ motion, and a “Well?”

“Well what?” replied my warrior.

“Well, what do you think? I mean, I’m pretty sure this is the one, but there was that adorable Beastmaster/Champion build we saw a few respecs back, and I just wondered what you…”


I stared at my warrior, mouth agape momentarily, before my bottom lip slowly crept its way up my face until it covered the end of my nose like a hoodie; my eyeballs gradually filling with tears and becoming slightly macabre snow globes.

“Sorry!” said my warrior, sighing. “I’m sorry. Look, I’ve been stood here performing the idle animation for an hour now. My feet are killing me from all the walking and waiting, my arms ache from hanging on to this sword and shield while being forced to stretch and check my finger nails. And I’m carrying all these bags of builds around. It’s just tiring, you know? I’ve just got to that, tha… I mean, if I hear myself perform a yawn emote one more time I’m going to stab myself in the throat.”

But I’m not listening any more. I’ve put the current build back, in my quiet seething fury, and walked away from the Soul Tree. “It’s fine” I say in a tone which says that it really isn’t, and I pick up the original build I was using at the beginning of the day. “I think I like this one after all” I declare, and my warrior stares at me in disbelief; I stare back, daring them to say something, anything, with regard to the matter.

“Fine.” the weary warrior says.

“Fine.” I say, putting the original build back on.

“I still love you, you know.” my warrior says.

“I know.”

Later that evening, sat on the end of a bed in disarray from the upheaval of frantic passions, I brush flat and start to pull-on my build which had been eagerly cast to the floor earlier.

“I needed that.” I say, as much to the room as anything; perhaps trying to convince myself.

“Feel better?” comes the reply from the other end of the bed.

I turn towards the voice, “I shouldn’t, but I do.”

My cleric alt stretches languorously and smiles at me, “That’s a lovely build, by the way.”