Monday, February 8, 2016

The Hard Road To Lambda Mall : Otherland

2016 has taken a somewhat surprising turn as far as MMOs go. Looking ahead from the dying days of the old year, once again there didn't seem to be anything very much to look forward to beyond more of the same.

Heart of Thorns was solidly in place. Expansions for every other MMO I play or might consider playing were either not announced yet or drifting far off beyond a haze, release date unknown. Daily news reports for the genre seemed mostly to feature minor updates and tweaks to established favorites and the incremental, glacial progress of a plethora of crowd-funded hopefuls that may or may not eventually reach some state we could generously describe as "done".

Then, out of the blue, one of my favorite bolt-holes received a death sentence. I didn't expect to spend most of a week and a half in January playing City of Steam, that's for sure. For every door that closes, though, as they say...

Blade and Soul is a title that some people have been watching for years but it had passed me by almost entirely. I knew the name, I had the very vaguest understanding that it had released in some other territory and done not terribly well - that was about it. Something about martial arts? Oh and it was an ARPG.

Now I'm playing it and enjoying it. Not sure how that happened.

Otherland, on the other hand, is a project I've been following, in desultory fashion, since the day it was announced. There have been various points at which I could have played some testbed version but didn't. For the last few months it's been in Early Access yet, although I thought about buying in, I never did.

Now I'm playing it I enjoying it? That's hard to say.

There's been a roiling torrent of discussion over the merits and drawbacks of Early Access as the concept has bedded in and taken hold over the last two or three years. I was an early adopter with Landmark, a purchase I have never for a moment regretted, but until now that remained my own venture into the minefield of half-released half-games.

Otherland offers a prime example of why the buyer should beware. It is, to put it politely, buggy as hell. There are even bugs in the tutorial for which the developers' advice on the official forum is to delete your character and roll again. This is at the same time that PR puffs are being sent out promoting the addition of four new zones.

You might, rightly, think that before you start adding more to your game you might consider getting the parts you already have into working order but no, that is not the Way of Early Access, so it seems. One of the most successful of all Early Access titles, ARK, has almost made adding new content while disregarding shortcomings a defining feature and people seem to be fine with that.

There's something of the tottering run of a toddler about all this. To stay on their feet these Early Access titles have to keep running regardless. If they paused for just a second to look around them and consider their position they'd fall in a heap.

Not for them the painstaking iterative processes of a five-year development plan, nor the slow, steady, incremental climb of a traditional alpha/beta/launch development arc. No, just get the damn thing out there, start taking the money, bosh it up as we go and keep adding bells and whistles to bring in more punters all the while.

The people behind the current version of Otherland, Drago Entertainment, do get something of a pass on this. After all, the game was dead in the water before they stepped in. If they weren't around then presumably we wouldn't have the chance to play the game at all in any form.

And that would be a shame because Otherland has...something. Not the vast, sprawling, overwhelming something-everything of Tad Williams' monstrously huge trilogy on which it's based, but at least a clear and present ambiance that reflects some of the strangeness of that setting.

So far I've made it only as far as Lambda Mall, the central facilities hub in both the game and the books. The real (or unreal) world lies outside. To get even that far has been a struggle.

Not because the gameplay is hard. So far it seems to consist of the regular MMO cycle: talk to NPC, kill enemy, interact with object, talk to NPC again. Combat is simple to the point of being simplistic.

No, the difficulty stands in bugs that block progression completely. In order to arrive at Lambda Mall it's first necessary to negotiate the basic tutorial, then a zone known as "Limbo" and finally a third zone, in which your character and his or her helpers are held prisoner in cages.

I managed to avoid the gamebreaking bug in the tutorial itself but I hit one in Limbo. The portal to the next area would not permit any interaction from my character. He was left to stand in frustration as a stream of NPCs he'd saved plunged through the tesseract to freedom, stranding him in Limbo all alone.

That one I "fixed" by dropping and retaking the quest half a dozen times over three separate sessions until, for no apparent reason, it just worked. There followed a rather impressive cut scene that, in the way of these things, wiped away any lingering frustration and freshened me up to carry on.

Until the next bug. This time it was a crate that wouldn't open. Inside were my weapons, taken from me by the finger-wagging gang leader at the top of the post and without which my character would be spending the rest of his dismal imaginary virtual life in a 12x12 boxroom underground.

Again repetition won through. Take quest, try quest, fail quest, delete quest. Close game. Relog. Take quest, try quest, fail quest... I think it took about half a dozen tries before, once again, it just worked.

This is all so familiar. Back in the days of real betas and playing on Test servers I treated this kind of thing as routine. It was part of the deal - players volunteered to test stuff for free on the understanding that they got to see new games and new content before anyone else. Even then some people grumbled about companies getting their QA work done for nothing and companies occasionally felt badly enough about that to hand out rewards to testers just for showing up.

Now here we are, not only testing the games in our own time for no reward but paying for the privilege. This is what's called "progress". Or possibly irony. Or being played for a sucker. One of the above.

In the end, though, you have to face the fact that no-one is making any of us do any of this. I downloaded Otherland because I wanted to satisfy my curiosity. I stubborned my way through the bugs and glitches because I really wanted to see Lambda Mall, a place I remembered both from the novels and the original promos for the game.

Along the way there was something of a plot that seemed mildly intriguing and my character began to acquire a marginal personality that started some vestigial attachment process going. When, due to the inept response feedback of the inadequate selection UI in the makeover store, my character received an unintentional gender re-assignment and emerged as a woman (with the wrong facial features and the wrong haircut to boot) I actually felt more attached to her still.

I've always enjoyed buggy MMOs. I don't like game-breaking bugs. How could anyone? I would prefer not to have to do quests five times just to get them to work once. But glitches and strangeness have a charm all their own.

No, if I end up not playing Otherland all that much it won't be because of the ropy, unstable, unfinished nature of the product. It will be because it's wearing. The data-cluster textures, the harsh neon, the strip mall styling, the Blade Runner on a Budget just wears me down.

After an hour my eyes hurt and my soul feels abraded. It's not a world I can relax in and that's a problem not just with Otherland but with all hard-SF settings. Sharp edges, harsh color palettes, hard surfaces, ugly fonts, clinical UIs, they all make for a tiring place to spend an evening. I love reading SF but I've never been as keen on watching it and I certainly don't have a hankering to live the life vicariously.

Of course, one of the key aspects of Tad Williams trilogy is that Otherland can, quite literally, be anywhere, anything you want it to be. So it may be that, once I step through a portal at Lambda Mall and emerge in Four Square or Water Isle it won't feel that way at all.

We'll see, because I am, at least, interested enough to go and look. Otherland does have something. Whether it has enough of whatever it is to make a mark in the current climate I doubt but it's here now and while the opportunity to explore it exists it would be foolish not to take it. Bugs permitting, naturally.

What lies ahead for the rest of this year I wouldn't presume to say. I have no plans at all, for example, to try Black Desert, which launches in March, but I would have said the same about Blade and Soul.  

Dragon Nest:Oracle, another game that, like City of Steam, I've let slide, has just had a massive technical failure, on the back of which I've re-downloaded and installed it via Steam because my local client no longer works.

WvW, which had seemed moribund to the point of collapse has suddenly revived to the extent that last night there were fifty people in the queue for Eternal Battlegrounds and big fights on the other maps at the same time.

There's really no second-guessing all this stuff. My big plan for 2016 is not to have a plan. I'll just take it as it comes.

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