Saturday, January 19, 2019

All Or Nothing - Post Mortem And Review: GW2

Following Jeremai's advice in the comments on my earlier post on Guild Wars 2's latest Living World episode, All or Nothing, I'm going to say a few things about what I saw there. If anyone hasn't played through the storyline yet but intends to, I'd look away now...


Thursday, January 17, 2019

Same Old Song : Astellia

As Mailvatar noted in the comments to the previous post, I do have a lot of MMOs on my desktop right now. Can you ever have enough MMORPGs, though? That's the question. There's always room for one more, isn't there?

A couple of days ago, MassivelyOP reported on a new one to me. I probably should have remembered it - they first featured it back in 2016 - but I didn't. It's yet another Eastern import, coming to us in here the West, this time, from South Korea. It's called Astellia, which is a perfectly functional, -if rather bland - name for what looks to be a standard Eastern take on Western fantasy.

It also just happens to be the name chosen by "a leading provider of network and subscriber intelligence", whose website currently leads the Google search race. If the new MMORPG succeeds in emulating the success of another fairly recent import, Black Desert Online, those rankings could easily change.

On the topic of BDO, while we're talking about it, I patched the game up the other day. I already had a full installation from a few months after the Western launch but to bring it up to date I had to download another 36GB. BDO has had a lot of "expansions" since I've been away. It is, by most reports, thriving.

When I was finally able to log in I found my characters all still where I left them. I'd forgotten I had three. Multiple characters in a particular game is usually a sign that I'm enjoying myself. I did indeed find Black Desert quite compelling for a while.

There's a non-trivial chance I'd find it so again but unfortunately my current installation appears to have a bug that's close to game-breaking: my keyboard doesn't work. When I got into the game I couldn't move or do anything. I stood there by the side of the road and watched horses and carriages pound past me. A giant airship cruised by overhead. I don't remember those being in the game when I last played.

That thing's going to frighten the sheep.

Some fiddling about via the Escape menu eventually got my WASD keys working but that was about it. I can run about and talk to NPCs but not much else. I remembered the way to my cliffside cottage, another indication that I'd been fairly invested in the game at one time. I made my way there and found it exactly as I'd left it.

By this point I was quite keen to carry on playing so I did some research on the bug and tried a number of suggested fixes. None of them worked. If all else fails I can try a full re-install but I can't say I'm looking forward to it so chances are I'll let BDO lie fallow for a while longer.

Anyway, right now I'm patching up Elder Scrolls Online, so I don't have the bandwidth. The ESO patcher doesn't tell me the full size of the download but I'm guessing it's huge because I've been at it for several hours and there's no sign of it stopping. Maybe it'll be ready for the weekend.

I did succeed in getting Dragon Nest installed and patched. It seems to have changed hands yet again. I've lost count of how many different owners and publishers it's had. None of my several previous login IDs worked so I made a new account with the oddly-named Cherry Credits and started over from scratch, yet again. I think that's the fourth time - no, the fifth if I count the mobile version.

Cherry Credits appears to be some kind of Singaporean portal for any number of games. Why I now have to go via Singapore to play a game called Dragon Nest EU beats me but Dragon Nest is worth any amount of hoop-jumping. I think it's probably fair to say it's one of my favorite MMORPGs of all time, now. Maybe one day I'll actually manage to get far enough to find out what's going on in the demented storyline.

Dora Dora Dorah!

With all that re-installing and re-investing going on I probably don't need to be looking to new games to satisfy my craving for "novelty" but I am anyway. What caught my attention about Astellia was the producers' insistence that it's going to be "a Classical MMORPG striving to return the genre to its roots". 

Doubling down on that bold claim, in an interview with MOP, Astellia's Western publisher, Barunson (no, me neither...) goes on to predict that "Astellia is positioned to appeal to players who have enjoyed EverQuest, Guild Wars 2, and other content based MMORPGs". 

The game uses the modern version of the Holy Trinity (Tank, Healer, DPS) and has an old-school PvE/PvP split, with solo and group dungeons, instanced battlegrounds and large-scale, three faction realm versus realm PvPvE. That's quite a list of things I like, if only they're done the way I like them to be done.

What's been somewhat harder to establish is how the controls work. Combat is tab-target but I have yet to ascertain for certain whether it's also hotbar-enabled in what we've learned to call "WoW Style". It doesn't necessarily follow but from this video it certainly looks as though there's a free mouse pointer in play. 

So far, so good, from my perspective, at least. Also, the world looks visually attractive and the characters and animations seem smooth enough. I did a bit more digging and found some comments from people who have played the Korean version. For example: 

"I played a healer (it has defined roles) but found it really mediocre - its not horrible, but its also not anything groundbreaking or amazing. The questing is boring, its hub based - the game just feels like something that belongs in 2005."

"The questing was really bad - kill stuff, pick plants - and always have to run back to the quest guy - no remote turn in - just a bunch of time wasted. The first mount comes in early - I think at level 7 or 8, but even with the mount I felt like I was moving really.... slow... back from one NPC to another to do these mindless quests. The game does have sort of an old-school feel to it but it's nowhere near as good as old school MMORPGs." 

Which is... kind of what I wanted to hear. Not the part about it being not as good as the games it professes to model itself on, obviously, but that it does, in fact, ressemble them to a significant degree.

Something I found significantly more intriguing was this interview. It seems to have been Google-translated, which makes it for a highly, if unintentionally, amusing read but there are also some quite surprising revelations concerning the thoughts and intentions behind the game.
"Q. The composition of the content looks like a game that requires patience, which should last a long time. I wonder how you look at the age group playing this game.
Chung Hyun-tae, CEO: It aims to make sure that a game is convinced, and it is aimed internally and at the 30th and 40th user groups. Of course, it is said that the age group is the same for all ages."

Borrowed from the official website
What this means (it's clarified later in the interview) is that the demographic targeted by the Korean developers is players in their thirties and forties but younger players might enjoy it anyway. The character visuals do play a little younger than the setting suggests but targeting an older audience makes quite a lot of sense when you consider the retro gameplay.

Chung Hyun-tae goes on to say "I want to point out that if you were targeting users of 3:40, you are not focusing heavily on a niche market", by which I interpret him to mean that there are a lot of MMORPG players in that age bracket. And I think that's right. You just don't often hear MMORPG designers admit that their core audience is aging.

Al this and I haven't even mentioned the title's USP, which is the eponymous "Astell Companion System", which consists of  "Dozens of Astels to acquire, level, and build effective support teams that can combo directly with your character based on classes and skills". It's a collectible card game inside an MMORPG, essentially. I remain to be convinced how well that will work but it'll be something different to play around with and learn, which is always fun.

All things considered, I'm not expecting much of Astellia. It's going to be a very odd duck, something of a hybrid throwback, combining WoW-clone era gameplay and design with relatively recent Eastern visuals. It's also likely to have a Buy-to-Play business model. They promise no "Pay to Win" and a relatively inocuous cash shop but we'll see.

I'll probably buy it. I'm not so sure about the "play" part.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

If I Can't See It, It's Not There

Above is a screenshot of my desktop. Some of my desktop. I cropped four columns - forty icons - from the left-hand side.

Apart from a handful of single-player games - in fact, all the single-player games I currently own - everything that remains is either an MMO, an MMO platform or an application related in some way to playing MMOs.

The background is a screenshot from Guild Wars 2. All my desktop backgrounds in living memory have been shots from MMOs. I have tens of thousands of them so there's plenty of choice.

Obsession is such an ugly word. Then again, so is breezeblock.

As I mentioned in some post or other a while back, I got a 2TB HDD for my birthday but I only got around to installing it after Christmas. That gave me three internal HDDs and four terabytes of onboard storage in total.

This morning I hooked up an external HDD via a USB caddy and moved a bunch of MMOs across. Then I went through all three drives and made sure the icons for all those MMOs were present on the desktop.

Well, I say I went through them. I mostly opened folders in a haphazard fashion and pulled out any launchers or executables that I happened to spot. I am no more organized in filing or ordering my games than I am in playing them. Still, I think I got most of what there was.

This means I currently have thirty-eight MMOs, MMORPGs or limited tests for MMOs immediately available from the screen. Having an active icon on my desktop significantly increases the chances I will actually play any one of these. If I have to go find the game on an external disc, or even go digging around in the files on an internal drive, chances are I'll get distracted and end up doing something else entirely.

That said, not all of those thirty-eight MMOs are playable right now. The icon for Valiance, for example, one of the numerous would-be successors to City of Heroes, used to go to some kind of tech demo or sneak peak. I don't think that's running any more. Hang on, I'll find out... no. it's not.

As for Minions of Mirth, it used to be an MMO but now it's not. I'd forgotten all about until it got a mention on MassivelyOP a while back. The server hosting the MMO died but the offline single-player version still works. I patched it up today, made a new account and logged in to check. I never got very far in MoM the first (or second, or third) time around and I certainly don't plan on trying to get any further in single-player mode but I've confirmed it's there if I want it.

Dino Storm I did used to enjoy playing. I might very well fancy another go. Is that one still running? It didn't work when I tried it a few minutes ago. I thought maybe it had finally died but nope! As it turns out, it's just not on Bigpoint any more. Not that I 'd remembered it was.

Bigpoint decided to get out of the cowboy dinosaur business back in September last year but the game continues under the banner of Splitscreen Games. I just downloaded the new launcher from their website. It let me log in with my old username and my character was waiting for me just as I left him, what must now be several years ago.

It never ceases to amaze me just how many MMOs there are and how long they last. Also how devotedly they retain our data even when we don't seem to have any more interest in using it. Dino Storm was fairly busy when last I played but there seemed to no-one but me around this time.

Auteria, an MMO in comparison with which Dino Storm is World of Warcraft, is also still plugging away. I just logged in and there it was. Why, and for whom? No idea.

Speaking of obscure MMOs that no-one ever talks about, let alone plays, one that's not on the desktop screenshot above is The Hammers End. Actually, it is on the desktop now but I added it after I took the screenshot. I remembered it as I was writing this post si I went to see if it was still around. It is.

The website has been smartened up somewhat. Not only that but the ludicrous payment model I balked at has been replaced with a straightforward F2P/Premium system. I downloaded the game and, yes, my old login still works and my character is still there.

What's more, THE seems to have received some significant quality of life attention, possibly as part of the F2P conversion. If I can find a spare hour or two I'll have a run around, see what's changed and maybe do an update post. It's an interesting little game that deserves more attention that it gets. Well, it would be hard for it to deserve less since it gets approximately none...

The main reason I started all of this wasn't to dig up obscure old titles and see how they're doing. It was to dig up big, successful titles I keep reading about and see how they're doing. The two I specifically would like to look at again are Elder Scrolls Online and Black Desert Online.

There's always seem to be plenty of people willing to bang on about how no-one makes proper AAA MMORPGs any more and how the entire genre is doomed and yet there's these two, seemingly doing great business, both popular and successful. Not to mention Warframe. And FFXIV. Just off the top of my head.

I don't think Warframe's ever going to be my sort of thing, mainly because the suits your character has to wear are so unremittingly hideous. I have never seen one single screenshot of the game where the player-character didn't look repulsive. I thought it might be different in the game itself but if anything it was worse.

If Warframe's off the table for reasons of fashion, FFXIV certainly isn't. Characters there are a pleasure to look at. I might play some more of that, some day, seeing as how Square were kind enough to offer the first thirty or so levels for free.

What I really want to do, though, is to visit my old house in BDO. The housing there doesn't get much of a mention but i thought it was pretty spiffy. and maybe see how much ESO has changed.

I might also, finally, get back to Dragon Nest. That turned out to be another icon that didn't work. Dragon Nest has a convoluted history of ownership/publishing/regionalization that I could never keep straight but it seems whatever version I had installed isn't around any more.

Dragon Nest Europe is still available via Steam, though, and I'm patching that up as I type. (Ed. It didn't work. Now I'm downloading it direct from the website). I also have the mobile version on Android. Supposedly it's cross-plattform now. If I could find my old log-in details I'd test that but I have a horrible feeling I might have to start again from scratch.

Anyway, enough of this. I'm just hoping that having all these titles directly to hand, ready to fire up on a whim, might lead to me playing a wider variety of MMOs again. Of late I've been in something of a comfortable rut, doing dailies in GW2 and pottering about in EverQuest II. Very enjoyable it's been, too, but it wouldn't do me any harm to branch out a little.

I am very definitely not going to follow the blogging trend and start setting myself goals or targets, let alone producing some kind of schedule. Heaven forfend! I am hoping, though, that merely seeing the icons in front of me each time I sit down at the keyboard might lead to a little meander across the MMO map.

After all, there's so much out there I haven't seen.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Hope Is A Dangerous Thing : GW2

Yesterday, sometime around five in the evening, "All or Nothing", the fifth episode in Guild Wars 2's fourth season of The Living World, went live. At the time I was playing EverQuest II. Later, I stopped to have tea. Then Mrs Bhagpuss and I watched something on iPlayer.

It wasn't until around eight in the evening that I logged into GW2 to start the new chapter. By a quarter past eleven I'd finished it.

I was still thinking about it when I went to bed. I dreamed about it in the night. I woke up thinking about it this morning. Mostly about the way it ended.

There's not much I can say that isn't a spoiler. Nothing, really. I took plenty of screenshots, some of them excellent, but I can't use any of those either, especially not the best ones.

I guess I can talk about the new map, Thunderhead Peaks. I haven't really explored it yet, other than the parts that I needed to visit for the storyline. It's a very large, multi-layered area that sits above Desert Highlands. I think it's technically part of a region known as Deldrimor Front, which may or may not be part of The Shiverpeaks. It's a moot point. As yet it doesn't connect to anything else.

Visually, Thunderhead Peaks is stunning. I found it difficult to resist running off in all directions to poke around the ruins, caves, tombs, mines and mountains. As I was working through the storyline there, banners flashed across my screen, announcing various stages of what I took to be the meta event chain.

I declined to join in. Too busy. Too focused. Word on the meta isn't very positive, anyway, but I only found that out later. I'll reserve judgment until I've tried it for myself.

The other big ticket item in the update is a new Fractal along with a lot of tweaks to that game mode. I don't do Fractals so I have nothing to say on that. There's also a new Epic weapon, something else I have no interest in, a new mount mastery that sounds marginally useful at best and an "Upgradeable Weapon Set" about which I know absolutely nothing.

None of which matters in the least, not after that story episode. Which I really can't talk about.

I suppose I could comment on how very, very short it is. That's not really a spoiler. Even by the long-established standards the Living World, this is blink-and-you'll-miss-it short.

It took me barely three hours on a first run, when I had no idea what I was doing. Those three hours included at least thirty minutes of dithering and probably another ten or fifteen taking screenshots and generally gawking. Plus I spoke to every NPC that would talk back.

Added to that, I do the Living World on my heal-specced Druid, who wishes he had the DPS of a limp dish-rag. I'd estimate that a second run, on a character with decent DPS, knowing where to go and what to do, would take no more than a couple of hours.

And yet, I'm not complaining. One of the reasons All or Nothing is so short is that, finally and thankfully, almost all of the really pointless, timewasting filler has been removed. It's true that there is still a certain amount of repetition but the barefaced padding isn't quite as obvious as it used to be.

The big fights were... ok, I guess. They didn't last forever. I was able to use my normal class abilities. Nothing made me want to throw my monitor out of the window. It's an improvement. I'll take it.

The story, though. The story and the ending. That ending...

So, now what? We wait three months for Episode Six? Or was that the finale of Season Four? Do we go all the way to late Summer, early Autumn and a third expansion that hasn't been officially announced or even unofficially hinted at? Which might not even exist?

We're supposed to just carry on? As though nothing happened?

Anyway, I can't discuss it so I'm going to shut up. And you know what? By the time it's all common knowledge and fair game for analysis and dissection and speculation we'll all have moved on and it will be too late. No-one will want to know. So I'll never get to discuss it.

This is what I will say: it's the kind of thing that, the moment you've finished it, you want spend a whole evening talking about. Preferably in a bar, loudly, with hand gestures. And you know someone's going to cry and if someone else says the wrong thing then, friendships could end over it.

Where does that leave us? Well, that's what we'd talk about, isn't it? We'd have to. We couldn't not.

But we can't. So let's leave it at that.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

What Do I Do Now? : EQ2

This is the post I planned to write yesterday, until my plans went awry and I ended up posting about how I don't plan ahead. You can see why.

Leveling up my Bruiser in EverQuest II these past couple of weeks has been a journey. Actually, several journeys. At around level 60 he started in Tenebrous Tangle, the beginner zone from 2006's Kingdom of Sky expansion. From there he moved on to Kylong Plains, the opening zone of 2007's Rise of Kunark. In doing so, he skipped an expansion entirely, Echoes of Faydwer. That too, almost unbelievably, also launched in 2006.

I often refer to the glory days, when EverQuest routinely released two full, boxed expansions per calendar year. EQ2 never quite matched that astonishing production rate but between September 2005 and November 2007 the game received four boxed expansions, any of which was easily large enough by modern standards to merit release as a standalone MMORPG.

For a while my Bruiser diligently followed the solo path the RoK designers intended. He scooped up all the quests at the dock - there are many - and finished them all. These opened quest hubs elsewhere in the zone. Some he happily cleared; others he began, then left hanging.

He visited the zone's main city, Teren's Grasp and got his Sokokar mount, a big moment back in the day when we didn't all have flying mounts of our own. He ventured into the opening dungeon, Karnor's Castle, where he found someone else already soloing the heroic mobs once meant only for full groups.

Didn't think to take any screenshots until much later. Here's one of the Bruiser posing in his fancy new raid gear.

By the time he'd made it to RoK's sophomore zone, Fens of Nathsar, and completed the opening faction quests, everything was once again turning green. In search of that sweet xp spot that comes from questing just ahead of the expected curve, he moved on to 2010's Sentinel's Fate expansion.

There he abandoned any pretense of following the plot. He flew around on his Patchwork Pegasus (a mount from a holiday event that allows anyone to fly long, long before the original level restriction of 86), swooping down to pick off named mobs as he saw them, cherry-picking a few, short quest chains I remembered with affection.

When he'd had enough of that he moved on to 2011's Destiny of Velious expansion, passing over the opening zone to start in Eastern Wastes. He jumped straight into the quest chain involving the Ry'Gorr orcs and by the time he'd wrapped that up it was time to move on.

At this point my Bruiser was at the very end of his eighties. Throughout the few brief sessions it had taken to get him there, experience had been coming so fast he'd barely scratched the surface of any of the expansions, which flicked past like the turning pages of a calendar in a 1940s movie.

At around this point I paused for a rethink. While everything continued to be very easy, it was clear that the Mercenary was doing all of the heavy lifting. Since it looked very much as though the Bruiser was going to promote himself into the front ranks of regularly-played characters, I thought he should sort himself out.

Cobalt Scar has spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

I checked the broker for upgrades. To my surprise there were plenty of Masters in the right level range on sale at very reasonable prices. I bought all of them. Then I filled out the few gaps with Adepts. For a few hundred platinum his spellbook was suddenly up to date.

Next I spent a while sorting out his AAs. I thought they'd been auto-allocating but they hadn't. He had around sixty unspent. That made a significant difference.

Finally I took him to the bank. As a counterpoint to levelling I'd been taking my max-level berserker around some old raid dungeons; Fabled gear had been raining down on him and all of it was Heirloom tagged, meaning anyone on the account could use it.

About half of it was Level 90, the rest 95. As soon as he hit 90 he slipped into his shiny raid gear and took the Griffon to Withered Lands.

He'd already popped over in the late 80s, only to find that the minimum level to get quests was 90. Withered Lands is the Velious zone that was added between expansions to take characters from 90 to 92. It was an irritating period, when SoE decided to slow leveling to a crawl, so that doing one level took as long as five.

Whatever code underpinned that design evidently persists. Xp did indeed slow down to a crawl. A relative crawl, that is. I remember completing Withering Lands when it was new. It has a long and meandering storyline and what feels like hundreds of quests.

By "intrusion" Malra means "altrusitic response to our duplicitous pleas for help". And by "proper guest", Allura means "someone who can't resist our coercive mind-controlling powers".

It took Mrs Bhagpuss and I, mostly duoing, several weeks to complete it all. My Bruiser knocked off a good chunk in a couple of days, taking him to 92. There was still plenty more to do there but at 92 he'd picked up the breadcrumb quest for what I believe to be one of the best zones in the game, Cobalt Scar, so off he went.

Cobalt Scar, gorgeous to look at, fascinating to explore, has a long, involving and very nearly coherent storyline. My Bruiser did all of it. It was both a pleasure and a revelation. Not only was the storyline as entertaining as I'd remembered but there turned out not only to be some parts that I'd forgotten but even some that I'd missed.

At the conclusion of the zone storyline there's a segue into a Signature quest involving the long-running Ages End prophecy that underpins a number of expansions. I'd started that with my Berserker, back when Cobalt Scar was current content, but never finished it.

When I started to hit content and cut scenes I was sure I'd never seen before, I had to log my Berserker in and check his completed quest log to try and figure out why. It transpires that he'd stopped at the point when the questline moves into an Advanced Solo dungeon. It had been simply too tough for him. He'd shelved it for later, then never gone back.

Ongoing power creep has made deep, structural changes to the game. It's highly significant that my Bruiser didn't falter at the point my Berserker balked. The boss fights were harder in the instances toward the end, it's true. He did have to Feign Death and wait for me to look up strategies on the wiki once or twice. In the end, though, he finished the whole thing at the first attempt.

Bildi! This is an important meeting for important people! Go away!

Over the years, the many, many years, EQ2's deep storyline involving Gods, Dragons, Mad Scientists, Vampires and Elemental Forces has seeped into my subconscious. I know so much without knowing what I know. The effect is that the appearance of certain characters or references to certain events triggers an emotional response even if I'm not entirely sure why.

The Ages End storyline, though I barely understand it and couldn't summarize even the main plot points if my life depended on it, always manages to wring some kind of reaction from me as it unfolds. The final movement of the Cobalt Scar sequence was no exception. I'm going to have to finish it now on my Berserker so I can see it from Freeport's perspective, my Bruiser being a quiche-eating Qeynosian.

All of that put my Bruiser into the mid-90s (not unlike that quiche reference). I scratched my head a bit on where to go next but as it happened the game had its own ideas. On my way to visit Queen Antonia Bayle for a de-briefing session, no fewer than three NPCs stopped me in the streets of Qeynos to offer me lead-ins to  Signature questlines I'd missed.

That led to a confusing few minutes, where I visited Antonia three times in quick succession to talk about important events, some of which were already over even though they hadn't happened yet. MMORPGs are like that. It was nice to see her Palace from the inside, anyway. And of course I took a selfie next to the Queen!

On his sporadic returns to EQ2, Wilhelm often expresses some confusion about where to level next. It can be a problem. Because of the way EQ2 has grown over a decade and a half, with expansions often overlapping in level range and between-expansion updates filling in the gaps, there's a huge variety of options available at most level ranges.

Alas, poor Yelinak.

Not only is there no specific place you should be at most levels, the aforementioned power creep means that if you just play normally you stand little to no chance of completing a whole zone before you outlevel it.

EQ2 has some excellent tools to fix that particular issue if it's a problem for you. It's never been a problem for me, not being any kind of completionist. There's an XP/AA slider, for example, or Chronomentoring, but if you did decide to use those to do all the zones in order you'd probably be Level 100 before you got as far as Kunark - or possibly Faydwer. (Hmm... that could be an interesting project...)

The options don't really narrow very much until you hit 100, at which point they suddenly coalesce to a single point. That can feel like hitting a brick wall if you don't know what's happening.

A couple of expansions back, Daybreak finally lost patience with one of the partiularly egregious, inured habits of bitter veterans. A cadre of players would spend the first few days of each expansion cycle grinding to the new level cap by soloing old dungeons, complaining bitterly all the while about how bored they were and how SoE (later DBG) made them do it.

DBG fixed that by upping the experience needed for the ten levels from 101 to 110 by orders of magnitude, then attaching that xp to the quests in the new zones. From 101 onwards you can solo the old stuff for hour after hour and never see your xp bar move a nanometer.

Say what you like about sirens; they do know how to decorate a grotto.

My Bruiser is currently sitting in the middle of level 98. He cleaned up a few old quests, mainly for status, then he went to Tranquil Sea and did all the quests in the Isle of Refuge starting area.

I already have another character running those at 100, though, so rather than burn myself out, repeating the same content, I took him to some dungeons where the mobs were green and blue. The xp there is okay but the draw once again is that this is stuff I have never seen before, even if I thought I had.

It seems I never really explored The Hole, for example. There are a lot of dungeon instances in the Sentinel's Fate expansion and I thought that over the years I'd been through all of them. I was wrong.

It is a shame to think that as we move forward we probably won't see this kind of diversity any more. Both the new design aesthetic and DBG's reduced resources mean that there's likely to be only one road ahead from now on. That's assuming there's a road at all. I think it's odds on that EQ2's seen its last expansion.

If this extremely enjoyable last couple of weeks, running through old content, has taught me anything, though, it's that there's always something fresh to discover. EQ2 is just unfeasibly huge. If someone can manage to keep a server up I plan to keep playing forever.

Then again, what did I say about making plans?

Monday, January 7, 2019

Making Plans

Every year, bloggers I follow post their plans. Things they want to do. Things they hope they'll do. Things they need to do. They set out a stall for a whole new approach to both gaming and blogging.

They lay down rules about the games they'll play, how often and for how long. They imagine the new adventures they'll have as they seek to change patterns or break habits or somehow turn themselves into better, more rounded, more complete gamers.

It's New Year, so naturally there's been a flurry of such posts but there are quite a few bloggers I can think of who share their detailed play-plans a lot more often than just once a year. Evidently, quite a lot of gamers like to have their days, weeks and months mapped out ahead of them.

I don't. My gameplay is a lot more whim-based than that. Which is not to say I don't have a few vague plans and some firm expectations.

I know, for example, that I'll be doing my GW2 dailies, every day, on three accounts. I have a mental list of MMORPGs I'm not playing but haven't abandoned, meaning I have a theoretical intention to play them again at some point. I know there are new games or events or expansions in the works that I'll want to take a look at when they appear.

It's not anything that I feel needs to be tabulated or timetabled, though. I just sit down of an evening or on my days off and let the mood of the moment drive my decisions. It's also pretty much how I write these posts, come to think of it.

Now, please pay attention, Bildi. We don't want any repetitions of last time, do we? I still haven't got the ichor out of my cloak.

I certainly had no pre-ordained plan to level a Bruiser in EverQuest II the old-fashioned way. Why would I want to do that? I have so many reasons not to:
  1. I already leveled a Bruiser the hard way, through the advancing level caps as they changed, expansion by expansion, capping out at 90 before I changed servers.
  2. I'm in the middle of working through the excellent current expansion, Chaos Descending, with my solo-endgame-capable Berserker. 
  3. I have two boosted, geared Level 100s waiting to be taken through the last ten levels. 
  4. I have an unused Instant Level 110 boost sitting in my /claim window.
And yet, that's what's been happening. All the time I've been posting about Atlas and Ashes of Creation I've really been spending most of my time in  EQ2, playing through old content and loving every minute.

I kind of know how it started. It began when I spotted that unexplained 100% server XP boost all the way back in November. It's still on now. I still don't know why. I knew at the time that I "ought" to use it to get my slacking Level 100s to the cap but that would have meant grinding through Plane of Magic twice more and I'm a tad burned out on that zone after a year of faction quests.

Anyway, xp boosts always feel more spectacular on lower-level characters, where you can fly through a level in a matter of minutes. I had a look at the roster and the most likely candidate seemed to be the Bruiser, then in the very low 60s.

Are you committing all this to memory like I asked you, Bildi? Because all I can hear is you humming that new song you wrote about treants. What is it with you and treants, anyway?

As of last night he's just a few bubbles short of 97. I've played him most days since before Christmas, sometimes for long sessions lasting several hours. When I first logged him in he was in Tenebrous Tangle, the opening zone in the twelve-year old Kingdom of Sky expansion. I did a few quests there, then I took him into The Sanctum of the Scaleborn, an old favorite for level-grinding.

For many years people would circumvent the unpleasant chore of playing through brand new content they'd never seen - and which they'd just paid for - by going to an old dungeon they'd already cleared a thousand times. They would then grind through that dungeon solo, over and over, while complaining how awful the game was and how empty and dull their lives had become.

You can't do that any more. Daybreak staged an intervention. Last year or the year before they fixed things so that, when they increase the level cap, you have to go to the new expansion zones to level. They didn't do anything to stop you speeding through old content before you hit the current ten-level cap cycle, though!

I don't think they could, really. Depending on how you look at it, the leveling game in EQ2 is either catastrophically broken or the best it's ever been. Having played since beta and experienced every variation, of which there have been many, I very much cleave to the latter interpretation.

Honestly, leveling solo in EQ2 now is a joy. It's pure pleasure from end to end. It still has considerable granularity; if you go it totally alone, without a mercenary, using only quested gear, you can have a smoother, less frustrating version of the original experience.

Yes, Bildi, I am sure we're "up to this". Just follow the plan and we'll be fine. No, it won't be like last time. Anyway, you got paid, didn't you?

If you employ a mercenary, however, your sessions will feel like the very best kind of powerleveling. For a pittance many orders of magnitude smaller than a paid powerleveling partner would have asked back in the day, when players offered such services, your Mercenary will begin by one-shotting anything you point them at.

What's more they'll keep at it for as long as you want, without complaining, patronising, chuntering on about their own problems, leaving you cowering in a corner while they take the dog for a walk or yelling at you for getting them killed when they overestimate their own abilities and pull the entire floor at once.

As you progress your Merc will become slightly less godlike but not by much. Even in the 90s my Bruiser's partner, a Troubador (one of EQ2's several Bard classes), does considerably more damage than he does.

It's not just about the Merc, though. There have been some general changes to both difficulty and rate of xp gain over the years that affect everything you do. These days there are account-based benefits, like the bonus to xp for every max level you have. I get a 60% bonus from that. And the Divine Stamina and Potency boosts that affect all characters on the account as soon as one character gets them.

Then there are item boosts from things like the pre-order illusions. And that mysterious server bonus. And Vitality, which can be refreshed once a week with one of the Veteran Rewards, the Orb of Concentrated Memories. Not to mention the multiplicity of xp potions that pop out of various anniversary bags.

So, your character is more powerful but also the mobs seem weaker. Many of them are. There have been several difficulty passes over the years, with mobs intended for groups being downgraded to solo status and whole zones and instances being re-assigned for solo or duo play.

It's just as well I'm not scared of heights. Drops, on the other hand...

It's not just intentional downgrading that's weakened the wildlife. Playing through the mid-to-high level zones as I have been, I would say it's really not so much what has been changed that affects current difficulty as what hasn't. Where your characters have benefitted from any number of boosts and buffs, the mobs haven't gained at all. 

When I began my current climb up the level ladder, my Bruiser was completely untwinked. All he'd really ever done was a few holiday events and some low-level dungeons for fun. When I picked him up again he was dressed in whatever quest rewards and drops he'd happened upon. Many of them were way below his level.

The mobs he was fighting, even the solo ones, all higher than him, should have been able to eat him alive but even when his Merc was engaged with another mob, the Bruiser was more than able to stand his ground. As levels flew by and better (level-approporiate) gear began to replace the old stuff, everything became easier still.

In the old days I would grind levels very pleasurably in Sanctum of the Scaleborn and other dungeons, either in a duo with Mrs Bhagpuss or solo but mentored down. It wouldn't have been feasible to do it alone and at level. It still might not always be practical, wholly solo, in level-appropriate gear, without a Merc, but only because it would be too slow. It certainly would be possible, as in you wouldn't die, over and over. That didn't used to be the case.

With the Merc it was a breeze. In a session I was high enough to think about where I'd like to go next. I opened the map and had a look at my options. In EQ2 they are many. Too many, some might say!

Why is it always night-time when I arrive in Kylong? Oh well, look on the bright least no-one can see what I'm riding. I really must look into getting a new mount.

After a couple of hours in the claustrophobic halls of an underground dungeon I thought my Bruiser would appreciate the wind in his whiskers (Ratonga, of course). He was perhaps a level or two shy of the recommended starting level for Kunark but I was sure he'd cope.

And that's how it came about that I've been playing mostly EQ2 over Christmas and the New Year. Inbetween, I had some fun in Atlas, scratched that new game itch. Looking ahead, while GW2 has been on the back burner, it should come to the boil tomorrow with the release of the next episode of the Living Story. My focus, though, has been on Norrath, yet again.

I wouldn't have expected to get such a fresh-feeling, new experience from a fifteen-year old MMORPG I've been playing for, well, for fifteen years. This is why I mostly don't plan my gaming and even when I do I often end up veering wildly off-course  No plans I could think up could match the kind of serendipity inherent in the wildness of the games themselves.

When I finish this post I'm going to go back and level up my Bruiser some more. It's the most fun thing I can think of to do in MMORPGs just now. So much so that I might move on to some other characters afterwards. I'm not sure if that counts as a plan.

And I'm going to write up some of my Bruiser's adventures here, because there's quite a lot more I have to say on that topic. I guess that's a plan, too.

In fact, I had planned to go into detail about just what he's been up to in this post this morning. I even had the screenshots prepared. I had a whole lot of pertinent observations to share and some wise conclusions to draw from the experience, too.

Well, I got sidetracked, didn't I? Sideswiped by serendipity or poor concentration skills. One or the other.

So much for making plans!

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Girl Singing in the Wreckage : Final First Impressions

There's something about pirate-themed MMOs that just seems to demand an extended metaphor, isn't there? Maybe it's because coming up with them is just about as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, a mini-game that is, no doubt, in development on Wildcard's private test server even as we speak.

According to MassivelyOP, Atlas, after a hasty and ill-prepared launch, has slipped past the treacherous rocks of overwhelmingly negative reviews to sail into the calm seas of very satisfactory player retention. I'm sure we're all very relieved to hear that, not least the twelve thousand people who posted negative reviews on Steam.

Is Atlas an MMO, though? And if is, is it also an MMORPG? When first we learned of its existence we were excited, not to say astounded, to hear that Atlas would host "over 40,000 players in the same world, all exploring it simultaneously".

Go to bed fully dressed.
That sounds like a bold claim but M:OP reports a current concurrency of 44,000 and a high just shy of 59,000 while Steam gives a monthly average of 38,000. On the other hand, when I logged out this morning, the stats on my exit screen told me there were 19 other people playing. You do the math because I can't.

Let's give the confusing numbers a pass and agree that Atlas is in some ways both "Massive" and "Multiple". It's definitely "Online". So I guess it's an MMO. Is it an MMORPG, though?

No, it bloody well is not! There's one very simple reason that Atlas falls at the first hurdle in any race to join the ranks of bona fide MMORPGs: persistence. The key defining feature of MMORPGs is persistence, not only of the world but of your character's place in it. This is something Atlas, entirely by intent and design, neither has nor wants.

It's hard to find out accurate information at this early stage, but as far as I can tell Atlas follows the general principle of survival games when it comes to persistence, namely Use It Or Lose It. If you log out, any structures or craft you own are vulnerable both to predation and decay. If you stay offline for long enough to get a good night's sleep, let alone take a few days off, you will come back to find your corpse floating in the water or face down on the sand.

On a PvP server this is a mechanic designed to foster co-operation and competition. On a PvE server... I have no idea.

The game is unapologetically marketed and promoted as something suited to organized groups of players, be that clans, guilds or co-op teams. Presumably there's a market out there for PvE gameplay with almost all the downsides of PvP except for actually being killed by other players.

This is not to say that keeping your character alive and your stuff intact while also performing the necessary functions of an actual life is impossible, even playing solo. It's hard to be sure, though, as information at this stage is sketchy. I'm not even clear yet whether Storage Crates decay over time, for example, let alone buildings, so I can't say for certain whether true persistence is actually impossible or just very difficult to achieve. 

Wake up in your underwear.
You don't have to do everything yourself, even if you have no actual friends to lend a hand. Atlas
does have hireable NPCs - "Crew" - who can be set to perform all the necessary functions of running a ship, including repair. They don't do this for love, though; you have to pay them. If you run out of Gold they walk off the job and down goes your boat.

What's more, you have to supply them with the necessary materials to keep everything ship-shape. You also have to keep yourself fed, watered, healthy, not too warm and not too cold, all at the same time as earning enough gold to pay your crew and gathering enough materials to keep the entire operation afloat.

This, in my opinion, is not a game. Neither is it entertainment. It's a pastime, a hobby, and very possibly a great way of avoiding issues you'd rather not be thinking about. As an effective way to keep your hands, eyes and at least some of your brain occupied for most or even all of your waking hours it can hardly be faulted.

I'm on record as being very much in favor of hobbies and pastimes. I strongly prefer them to games. People do, however, tend have quite strong preferences, likes and dislikes, when it comes to hobbies and I'm no exception. While I'm entirely comfortable with spending inordinate amounts of time doing things that have little or no extrinsic purpose or value, I often find myself drawing my own personal line at treading water.

It's one thing to carry out repetitive actions for hours on end, to perform by hand repetitive tasks that could easily and more efficiently be automated, or to work through extended storylines and dialogs that you've already heard or read. It's another to do any of those things purely to prevent your character and your possessions from despawning.

Tobold has been talking about Progression. Atlas has it. Your character's level, statistics and skills neither decay nor disappear if you don't service them. They are truly persistent and, so long as you keep playing, they will continue to progress, at least  until you hit the caps.

I don't find that helps much. Neither does finding that a decade has passed in game since I last logged in a few days ago. When I logged out on Monday my character was twenty-three years old. When I logged in this morning she was thirty-five. That's the kind of progression I could do without.

A lot can happen
If I leave it another couple of weeks I'm guessing she'll be dead. As in permanently unplayable - she was dead in game when I logged in today. I might log in to find out, just out of curiosity. It's unlikely I'll be logging in to play.

I would play Atlas, if it was an MMORPG. If I knew I could log back in and find my character where and how I'd left her. If there was some persistence in the things that matter. I might also play it if the overall experience was something much more throwaway, if everything happened quickly and easily and having to start over was a pleasure rather than a pain.

Atlas is neither of those things. It's a harsh and unforgiving world, filled with hard knocks and vicious knockbacks. It demands constant attention and commitment without the promise of anything lasting or substantial in return. There's nothing wrong with that if that's what you want. It's not what I want.

Also, just to put the cap on it, while the game still runs well while I'm playing, some recent change
means that every time I log out my entire PC hangs for anything up to half an hour. It's almost as though the game is trying to tell me something.

in a dozen years.
I'm going to keep an eye on Atlas. The potential is huge. This month Wildcard are releasing the Developers' Kit which will open up the game for modding. I'm fairly sure someone will use it as the platform to build something interesting, somewhere down the line.

Next week's patch is also set to reduce the difficulty of getting started significantly. That's quite encouraging and it might have persuaded me to start over yet again if it wasn't for the fact that GW2's next Living Story update also drops on Tuesday.

Probably not. The incoming changes likely wouldn't have made enough difference to draw me back even without the competition. I've enjoyed learning what Atlas is trying to be, but as a PvE MMO, right now it's pretty much a bust. It's still a co-op survival game under the hood and that's a genre that's never appealed to me, no matter how fancy the paint job.

I'm still very happy to have bought and tried it. Atlas's journey has barely begun. It's going to be around for a long time.  If - when - things change, I'll be back to give it another look. For the time being, though, I think I'm done.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Water, Water, Everywhere: Atlas First Impressions, Part The Third.

Steam claims I have now played Atlas for six hours. It feels a lot longer than that. Probably because I've spent at least as long again writing about it.

Yesterday, once again, as soon as I'd finished recounting my previous day's exploits, I logged back in and knuckled down to getting the hell out of Freeport. Spoiler: this time I succeeded.

The big difference happened in my head. Instead of trying to tear through the minimum requirements at the fastest possible speed I sat back and thought about it. The problem was hides. Hides, skin, fur, fleece, whatever you call the coverings you strip off an animal.

Everything else you need to collect is incredibly easy. Punch a tree, you get wood and thatch. There are trees all over. Wave your hands at bushes or grass, you get fibre. No shortage of bushes and grass. Stones? Pick them up, that's what the beaches are made of. Flint? Punch a rock.

Wait, what? Punch a rock? Is that wise? Come to think of it, punch a tree?

Okay, you have stone, wood and fibre. Make a stone axe. Now you can chop wood by the cord. Make a stone pick. Now you can break rocks and get stone and flint by the ton. And your hands don't bleed.

You still don't have any hide, though, do you? That's because you can't just go up to an animal, wave your hands and have its fur magically fall into your pack. More's the pity. No, you have to punch it dead and no animal is going to stand still for that. They all either run away, a Benny Hill scenario that's not funny even once, or they fight back and mostly they win.

Oddly, my success at killing wildlife seemed to deteriorate as I ostensibly became more powerful. When I started and didn't know any better I won three consecutive fights with two pigs at once, wearing nothing but my underwear, hitting them with my bare hands. As I levelled up and began to make weapons and wear protective clothing, even a single pig got the better of me every time.

I am gradually revising my opinion of the visuals. They are better than I thought.

My problem, then, wasn't collecting resources per se. It was killing animals. In order to get the hides I had to fight. Every time I lost, any materials I'd gathered vanished into the void and I was back to square one.

As I was standing around by the docks, thinking about all this and wondering what to do about it, I noticed that the bay seemed remarkably full of craft. There were rafts, schooners and boats of various designs moored up and down the coast in all directions. Clearly not everyone was fleeing the starter area at the first opportunity - or if they were they were coming back.

Maybe I didn't need to rush so much after all. And what was that on those rafts? Boxes? Didn't I read something about storage that persisted after you died? And hadn't I already spent skill points opening some talent tree relating to furniture?

Ah, yes. Talent trees. I haven't really mentioned them, have I?

Atlas has a very extensive and intriguing progression system based around a multiplicity of talents. It does look fascinating. At the moment I'm pretty much picking things at random since you can respec at no cost. That's how I came to put points into building even though I had nowhere to live.

And how glad am I that I did! I opened my Inventory and browsed the Crafting panel. Yes! I can make storage boxes! A plan began to form...

If I made an axe I'd get hugely improved gains from skinning animals. If I could just kill one animal and skin it with an axe I'd have enough Hides for a raft. If I had a raft I could make a storage box and place it on the raft. If I had a raft with a storage box and I kept it moored at the dock in Freeport I could stash all my stuff before I tried to kill animals and then if I died I would still be in the same zone as my raft and my storage box and I wouldn't have to start from scratch.

Bed, boards and box.

So that's what I did. I very carefully and cautiously hunted down a single, low level pig with no friends. I'd made a spear to increase my damage and with that I managed to kill the pig. Then I skinned it with my axe, took the mats to the man, got my raft and named it and I was off and running.

The box was easy to make. Next I needed a bed so I could respawn on the raft after I travelled to the next zone. The bed needed more hide which meant more animal fights. Since it seemed next to impossible to find single animals near the dock I went exploring along the coast.

Within a few hundred yards the landscape changed completely. Whereas the coast to the left of the docks had been rocky and barren, to the right it was all forest glades and dappled sunlight. Quite gorgeous. And I had it all to myself.

I found a spot where animals wandered aimlessly around in typical MMO fashion. There were some sheep there. Sheep are famously non-aggressive, aren't they? Also they are fat and they run slowly. And what do you get from sheep? Fleece and lots of it.

That solved my Hide problem for the time being. Night was falling and the nagging prompt warned me I was getting cold so I headed back to my raft. I built myself a bed, lit a fire and waited for dawn.

While I waited I messed around with the options on the raft, the box and the bed to figure out how they worked and what they could do. I'd made Level 8 while I was preparing my escape and that's the cap for the starter zone. I had most of what I needed to survive the journey (although not, as I was going to find out, everything) so there didn't seem to be any reason to hang around.

This is all the fog I have cleared so far. This is one zone out of maybe a hundred. If you squint you can see my old raft.

I was curious to find out whether my original raft was still where I'd left it. It was still marked on the map. My plan was to sail the new raft to where the old one was and find out. That didn't happen due to circumstances beyond my control. Or at least beyond my ability to plan ahead.

As soon as it got light I unfurled the sails, spun the mast and set off at a fair clip. The raft is easy to steer once you get the hang of it and it seems fast enough until someone on a schooner cruises past you as though you were standing still.

When that happened I got a shock, not because of the relative differences in our speeds, which I expected, but because the guy on the boat yelled at me as he went by. Loudly. In real words that came out of my speakers. I had no idea voice chat was on by default. In the hours I'd been playing not one person had ever said anything out loud.

It was like one of those moments when you're walking along, minding your own business, and some yahoo yells at you out of the window of a speeding car. Exactly like that. Just as annoying. Just as disturbing. Fortunately at the speed he was going he was out of range before I could work out what he was saying. I'm sure it wasn't anything good.

The main reason I'm sure about that, other than his tone, is that I was playing a female character, alone on a raft in the middle of the ocean, wearing nothing but some skimpy underwear and a hankie on my head. I'd not gotten around to crafting any clothes before I left, having lost so many sets already and having gotten used to wandering about in my vest and shorts with no-one paying me the slightest interest.

Somehow I don't think he was yelling "Is there anything I can do to help, Miss?"

The unwanted attention made me aware for the first time almost since I began playing Atlas of how  my character actually looked. As well as the state of undress, my hair had grown out. Yes, really. When I made a quip about it two posts back I was entirely unaware it was a thing that could happen.

I have a number of screenshots now in which my character's hair is different lengths. The buzz cut has grown out and she now has wild curls down to the middle of her back. It also changes color, particularly when it gets wet.

Not only does her hair grow but she's getting older. I've been playing for six hours but my character, who was 20 when I started, is now 22. It tells you your age next to your paper doll. How the passage of two full years squares with the day-night cycle beats me, unless the Atlas planet has a year that lasts about a week. Also, what happens if you've played the same character for 60 hours rather than six? Do they die of old age?

I might have been worrying about that had I not been dying of heatstroke. There's no shade on a raft and I'd lit a fire when I set out because it was too cold. With all the distractions I hadn't noticed the sun was blazing down and I was in mortal danger of burning up.

I doused the fire but it was still way too hot. Luckily, by this stage I'd crossed the zone line and I could see land ahead. It didn't look like the same coastline where I'd made landfall last time but as well as heatstroke I was also now suffering from dehydration. The one thing I'd neglected before setting off was to craft and fill several waterskins.

It looked like it was going to be touch and go whether I'd get to shore before I died. I desperately wanted to get my raft securely anchored first but in the end I was in such a panic I just ran into a wharf, leapt off and swam ashore in search of fresh water.

The red mist descends. Slowly.

Jumping into the sea fixed my overheating issue but you can't drink seawater and survive. I ran around the inshore area looking for a river or a lake or a puddle but there was nothing. I did discover something as I choked to death: it takes a lot longer to die of thirst in Atlas than you'd expect. At one point I'd been on the verge of expiring for so long I was contemplating attacking a bear to get it over with.

Eventually the red mist closed in and I choked my last. This was the moment of truth. Would I find myself banished back to Freeport, in which case I'd be closing down the game for good, or would I be offered the choice of waking up in bed on my raft a few hundred feet away?

It was the bed! Praise be! I hit the respawn button and reappeared on my raft. Still no corpse, mind you. I guess I should have gone to look for it to see if it was still there, waiting to be looted, but I'd put everything of value in my locker anyway and I forgot.

Eeeickythump (great username!) left an extremely helpful comment on the last post that offers a workaround to losing everything when you die. So far I haven't seen so many people roaming about that I'd expect my dropped gear to get picked up by a passing stranger so it seems highly practical.

According to the in-game stats there were 71 people online with me when I logged out last night. Even if that means 71 in the zone I was in rather than the whole server it's hardly the advertised 40,000, is it? I have seen plenty of other players but only in the kind of numbers you see in the average not-too-busy MMO.

Six hours in I have enjoyed Atlas hugely so far but there are several reasons why I believe my interest won't be sustained. I probably have one more post about the game to conclude this series of First Impressions, after which I don't expect to be playing or writing about it for a while. I'm working the rest of this week so that post will probably have to wait until the weekend.

There's something to look forward to...or not.

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