Sunday, June 16, 2019

I Can Fly : Riders of Icarus

Before I went on holiday I had a mild disagreement with Jeromai over flying mounts in the comments on his post about Guild Wars 2's Skyscale. The gist is this: I like mounts that operate exactly as though I'm controlling my character directly. I don't like mounts that feel as if I'm controlling my character, while they control another character, one who has independent movement.

Put more simply, I like an extremely gamified version of flying, one with no hint of simulation. I feel the same about all mounts and vehicles in MMORPGs. My feeling is that if I wanted to play a driving game or a flight simulator I'd be playing one, not playing an MMORPG.

That said, I purely love flying mounts. I was very dubious about them before I'd ever tried one. I tended to endorse the idea that free flight would trivialize the worldliness of the setting and lead to shortcuts and exploits that would allow people to avoid conflict.

When I got to fly for the first time, which my ever-unreliable memory tells me would have been in Vanguard, those fears proved to be both true and untrue. Far from trivializing the worlds, flying freely high above them has much the same effect on me as Yann Arthus Bertrand's famous aerial photographs or even the iconic Earthrise.

Seeing the world from above renders it more real, not less. It has the exact opposite effect of trivializing what I see; it adds gravitas. Conversely and paradoxically, my second concern turned out to be both true and no concern at all.

Being able to fly over and thereby avoid conflict in which you would prefer not to engage is liberating. It makes everything about the experience of traveling through a virtual world better. It may harm the game as a game but it enhances and expands the conceit that it's the journey that matters.

With all this in mind, it's perhaps surprising that I haven't paid much attention to those MMORPGs that put flying at the very heart of their worlds. Long, long ago I played Flyff, whose very name is an acronym for "Fly For Fun". I wouldn't know how accurate that acronym is because, as with my run in the later and better-known Aion, another game predicated on flight, I didn't last long enough to get my wings.

I've never felt any desire to try Flyff again. Aion got a fairly recent makeover, which did make me consider returning, but the urge soon passed. But there is one other flight-centric MMORPG I once tried that still lurks in the back of my mind: Riders of Icarus.

I first played Riders of Icarus back in July 2016. I wasn't impressed. I posted about it just once, summing up the experience by comparing it unfavorably to another Eastern import, Dragomon Hunter, concluding "Riders of Icarus is flashier and takes itself more seriously but feels a lot more corporate and bland. Most importantly, though, I actively like my DH character whereas my RoI avatar is a cipher."

Dragomon Hunter lasted a mere seventeen months before closing. Riders of Icarus will be three years old next month. You can play it via Steam, where it has three stars out of five and a 65% favorable rating from over 8000 reviews.

When I posted a list of the MMORPGs I currently have installed on my hard drive(s) a couple of weeks ago, Riders of Icarus was one of them. I annotated the entry with a gnomic observation: "Never underestimate the power of a plush wolf with stars on".

This was a reference to a screenshot at The MMOist. I am highly susceptible to promotions in MMORPGs that appear to have been designed to appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of a six-year old. If it has sparkles, stars or rainbows, I want it. If it closely ressembles a cuddly toy, I really want it.

Since very, very few six-year olds must actually play any of the MMORPGs in which these promotions appear, I can only assume my predelictions are more commonplace than might be imagined. Most games, even those with 12 or higher PEGI ratings, seem to work on the general principle that a significant proportion of their audience consists of would-be Disney Princesses.

In this case, the plush wolf seems to have been part of a limited-time login event in February, one which also came with several highly-desirable cats. I'm sorry I missed it. As with all good MMORPGs, however, no sooner does one limited-time event end than another begins.

The current RoI initiative involves Cherry Blossom, always popular in games of Eastern origin (cf Black Desert). There don't seem to be any special mounts or pets although the event vendor is a rabbit in a hat.

I picked up a few cherry blossom petals as I wandered around the impressive capital, Hakanas. I'd flown there on my brilliantly-colored parrot, a seven-day, limited duration mount gifted me for... well, for finding my way to the big city, I think.

In the aforementioned list, Riders of Icarus fell into the "Been meaning to play these again for ages" category. When I wrote that I had a strong feeling it would be sooner rather than later and so it proved.

I patched the game up via Steam yesterday, logged in to find my only character idling in a quest hub not far from the starting area. Within a few moments I was questing mindlessly and enjoying it considerably more than I expected. 

The controls felt familiar. Combat, at low levels at least, seemed extraordinarly straightforward. The scenery was attractive, the wildlife was curious, the experience ticked over. I dinged eight, following the questlines without really following them.

A couple of solo instances flicked past. Some NPC gave me a ride on his griffin. Another lent me a parrot. And then I was flying.

It took me a moment to acclimatize to the controls and then I was home, free in the sky. Hakanas looked impressive enough from the ground but from the air it was laid out beneath me like a fascinating puzzle. I swooped and soared and landed and ran. I took breadcrumb quest after breadcrumb quest until I knew every major square and landmark. I met the King. Somewhere along the way I dinged nine.

Two hours had passed. I hadn't tabbed out once. My mind hadn't wandered. I realised I was thirsty and a little stiff from sitting so long in the same position.

Two years ago I summed the game up like this: "Riders of Icarus is by no means a bad game or a bad MMO but with so many others to choose from I'd struggle to come up with a good reason to play it rather than something with a bit more soul". Nothing I saw or did yesterday changes that fundamental impression, only sometimes "more soul" isn't exactly what I need.

Sometimes I just want to fly.


  1. I remember the first time I flew on a gryphon taxi in WoW: that sure felt magical in the way you describe.

    Getting my own flying mount was cool, but more in a utilitarian way: there were whole areas that were designed around flying and that you couldn't even access otherwise.

    Over time, the magic really faded though, and it just became this thing that I used to mindlessly bypass the world to get from A to B, to the point that it was actually a sort of relief to return to characters that were ground-bound, and I have no particular desire to play another MMO with flying.

    I'm guessing that it can be done in a way that remains interesting beyond the initial sense of excitement; I just haven't personally seen it done.

    1. Flying is probably top of my list of things I do in MMOs for the pure pleasure of doing them. Contrary to my comments on passive vs active controls, I absolutely love gliding in GW2. I can and often do take characters to Verdant Brink just to glide around using the updrafts. I can lose an hour or more easily just doing that.

      In Vanguard, after I finished leveling and declined to participate in raiding, which was most of what new content there was for the final few years, I used to log in just to get on my flying reindeer (gifted to everyone once active development ended) and cruise around. When the emu began and we all got griffins to test (actually the entire database to play with) I spent hours flying around an empty world and it was more fun than most MMOs ever have or could be.

      If we could fly freely in real life, effortlessly and without running out of energy, would we ever bother to walk anywhere? I don't think I would.

  2. On the subject of "mounts as vehicles", holy hell do I hate the mounted combat system in LoTRO. I've been putting a lot of time into that game lately, and my heart absolutely sinks every time I encounter a quest where I have to use that system to progress.

    1. I haven't tried LotRO's mounted combat myself but I have seen plenty of people complaining about how bad it is. I'm not a fan of quests requiring vehicles or mounts in the first place but it adds injury to insult if the mechanics are badly handled as well.


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