Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Visions Of Vetrovia: You Can Call It What You Want But We All Know What It Is.


All this New World all the time has knocked me out of synch with everything else. I haven't logged into EverQuest II for over a week, maybe two, so the first I knew about the official announcement for this year's expansion was when I read about it at TAGN this morning. 

Wilhelm has all the info and the links so I won't rehash the details but I would suggest, if you're at all interested, a visit to the spiffy new official web page. It's pretty. As Bree at MassivelyOp mentioned with some considerable surprise a while back, Darkpaw seem to have invested in either some new web design tools or someone who knows how to use the old ones.

The name of the new expansion, the eighteenth, is Visions of Vetrovia. It's a nice, catchy, alliterative title that follows the long established naming convention for the franchise, the one that goes "Something of Something." Seriously, fourteen of the eighteen expansions use that format. If it ain't broke...

Of course, in this case, there may be another reason. Like "If it is broke, as in "The Broken Shores", for Tunare's sake don't tell them!

Sorry, that's a bit convoluted even for this blog. Let me walk it back a step.

Here's what the press release has to say about the first of the four, new explorable zones in VoV:

Svarni Expanse

  • Located along the western shore of Vetrovia, lies what is known as the Svarni Expanse. The Svarni Gateway was once known as “Natimbi, The Broken Shores”, by the indigenous population.

Everyone knows what that means, right? No? Okay. Natimbi, the Broken Shores was the entry-level zone in EverQuest's notorious, not to say infamous, Gates of Discord expansion. 

That's right. The expansion that signalled the end of EQ's reign as the premier Western mmorpg, saw countless guilds crushed by its unforgiving difficulty curve and drove tens of thousands of players to leave the game for the comparative comforts of the nascent EQII and World of Warcraft.

Even in a business that trades on nostalgia, there are some bells you don't want to ring. I have to wonder whether anyone at Darkpaw considered calling the expansion "Desperation of Discord" or maybe even "Disasters of Discord". 

Then again, I also wonder how many current EQII players even remember the Gates of Discord expansion or its more popular sequel, Omens of War? I don't socialize much in either Norrath any more but I get the impression from the tone and tenor of global chat that there aren't that many original EQ players left in the younger game. 


 

The thing is, I guess, even the spin-off has been around longer than most mmorpgs ever expect to last. Those eighteen expansions represent almost two decades of continual operation. It's a long time. With a history that deep, who needs legacies?

I do remember GoD. What's more, I remember it with a surprising degree of warmth. I wouldn't go so far as to say affection but I made some lasting memories there. A few of my most intense EQ moments were spent in those terrifying, overtuned zones. Trauma like that takes a long time to fade.

I'm keen to revisit my old getting stomped on grounds although I'm not exactly sure how many of them we'll get. Of the four open-world zones that come with the Visions of Vetrovia expansion, only two specifically namecheck the originals: Natimbi and Qinimi. 

Most of the GoD zones had unusual, vaguely African-inflected names - Riwwi, Barindu, Ferubi - or ones that seemed to be missing a few vowels - Yxtta, Qvic, Tacvi. I wonder if we'll be seeing any of them? 

Even if we do, I don't imagine we'll recognize much, even those of us who were there the first time. The description of what was once Qinimi suggests not:

Forlorn Gist

  • The mysterious village that lies at the center of Vetrovia was once the location of a great city known as Qinimi, but nothing of the original structures remain, nor the structures built in their place by the invaders, known as the Muramite. No, what stands here now is a village without mercy, charity, or trust.

I won't hold my breath waiting for anything I recognize then. Just the names. 

What I will be expecting is more of the same we get with every expansion. There are, as I just said, four new overland zones: Svarni Expanse, Forlorn Gist, Karupa Jungle and Manhgavi Wastes. There's also a central city hub, Vacrul

Other than that, I'd have to say detail is a little lighter than usual. We know there's "all new solo, heroic, and raid content" but how many instances that might include doesn't get a line item. 


 

There also doesn't appear to be any Special Expansion Feature along the lines of Mercenaries or Overseer this year. There is an allusion to "New Feats" in the press release but only in a heading, with no subsequent gloss. "Feats" do get a whole subsection on the VoV web page, though, so I guess it's... something?

About the only specific mention of anything I could find that's definitely new is something called Tradeskill Blueprints, which "speed up your crafting for things you've already perfected." I'm sure that will be useful to someone but I can't imagine anyone getting excited about it.

There is, presumably, some kind of storyline, although the promotional material really doesn't make too much of what it might be. "Whispers can be heard in the native villages found along Vetrovia's coast of its supernatural master and the horrors it contains. But are any of them true?" That's about as vague as it gets, isn't it? It's literally a rumor.

It seems we're not going to Vetrovia to save the world, for once. We're going to explore. We're going because it's there. We're going because there's loot and five more levels!

Yes, there's a level cap increase, just like we knew there would be. Every second year the cap goes up. It's expected now. There is a surprise all the same. This time it's only five levels, taking the cap from 120 to 125 for both adventurers and crafters.

That is intriguing. In Blood of Luclin, the last time the cap went up, there were ten more levels aded. Getting them barely took a couple of sessions. I thought that was going to be it for levelling. It seemed the days when the process of getting your levels comprised a major part of an expansion's content were over. 

Maybe that was premature. If the same levelling speed applies to VoV, everyone will cap on the first day. It'll take about an hour or two. Is that really the plan? 

I kind of doubt it. Maybe we're headed back to the days when five levels took about as long as twenty-five once did. In a way I hope not. I like my levelling but I did really like the fast version, too.


 

I guess I could go find out. I pre-ordered the basic $34.99 package this morning and it comes with instant beta access. It's exceptionally good value. As an All Access subscriber I even get a 10% discount so the whole thing only cost me £22.61. That's less than I paid ten years ago or I think it is. Maybe it's the exchange rate...

There are absolutely no perks with the basic expansion this year, unless you count the Level 120 boost. I already have more of those than I know what to do with (literally) so I won't. Count it, I mean. Or use it, for that matter.

Oh, wait, no, I'm wrong! Buried in the detail of the press release, not listed in the specifics for each pack, there's this:

"For all editions, pre-order now and choose between one of two Feathered Stalker Pets for every character." So we do all get a toy, after all.

I did seriously consider the Collector's Edition this year. I've never bought one but at under £45 with the AA discount it does look like good value. Up-to-date, current content viable Mercenaries, Mounts and Familiars for every character on the account is very definitely pay-to-win and also would save me a whole load of time if I ever wanted to concentrate on someone other than my Berserker. 

There's also a Prestige House for every character, which is always welcome, and something new in the shape of a "Weekly Overseer Adventure". If that has rewards that can't be obtained elsewhere it might be significant. I've had some great stuff from Overseer.

Just typing all that out has me almost convinced. Luckily there's an upgrade option, so even though I've aready pulled the trigger on the basic version, if I decide I want the bells and whistles I can convert at any time. Or I think I can. I've never actually tried it. It'll work, though, right?

Finally, there's a release date. Kinda. A release window, anyway. It's December. Guaranteed delivery before the 31st.

Natimbi, here I come!

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Don't Mind Me! Just Passing Through! I VIsit Every Territory On Aeternum And Live To Talk About It.

Once I'd cooled off on the idea of buying that three-story yellow house in Everfall, it seemed like it might be an idea to go take a look at all of my options - or at least as many as I could get to at Level 35. That meant poking my nose into places I wasn't supposed to know about. Fun!

I've kind of gotten out of the habit of taking low-level characters to high-level zones. I used to do it all the time up until a few years ago. It's a good way to get the feel of a new game. It tells you a lot about how the developers were thinking when they were putting it all together. 

In some mmorpgs it feels as though the devs want us to take the game as seriously as they do. There are rules and they're there to be followed. Sometimes you get the impression anything less might be taken as a personal insult.

Those are the games where mobs have faultless radar that locks onto any character more than a certain number of levels beneath them. You've barely set foot in a new zone when everything in a five-hundred meter radius comes barrelling out of the bushes, snarling and spitting and howling for your blood. 

Instant death follows, of course, because those are the same games that ramp mob damage up exponentially against lower-level targets. One hit is all it takes and since all your defenses are automatically negated as soon as you set foot anywhere you're not meant to go, every attack does hit.


 

When I run into something like that, it tells me the whole game is going to be very much an on-rails experience. The devs will tell you where you should be and when you should be there and don't even think about having any ideas of your own.

I haven't run into all that many mmorpgs quite that bad and of those that come close I've purged the memories. I tend not to stick around where my preferred playstyle isn't just unsupported but actively discouraged. Of the games I have played for a while, the one that sticks in my mind as being a little like that is World of Warcraft, although I suspect it falls more into the next category.

These are the games that use some kind of sliding scale to decide how far you're allowed to push your luck. There's not the same kind of cliff-edge you get with the really harsh mechanics of the first category but there's a pretty treacherous slope all the same. 

In zones above your intended range you get some leeway as aggro ranges increase and mobs get more vicious but you can edge past if you're careful and you might survive a few hits. If you keep on testing the waters, though, you will eventually find yourself in over your head. When your level is sufficiently far below the intended level for the zone the devs take away the safety net and it's back to one-shot kills and nowhere to run.

The third category doesn't much care what you do. Aggro ranges might vary by mob type but level has nothing to do with it. A tiger in a starting zone has the same aggro range as a tiger in the endgame. Hits get harder but incrementally not exponentially. Exploring in those worlds is purely a matter of watching where you're going. Don't bump into anything and you'll be fine. Probably.


 

There are, of course, infinite gradations and variations. So many factors come into play: aggro range but also run speed, line of sight, ranged attacks, crowd control effects, visibility, terrain... Even in games that don't differentiate at all by level, some zones are easy to cross while others are all but impossible for any number of valid and less than valid reasons.

In all the time I've played mmorpgs I can't remember a single game where any of this has ever been overtly explained. Usually, about the best you can hope for are a couple of indicators on the mobs themselves (A death's head or a grinning skull is generally a bad sign.) and a note on the map telling you what the intended level might be.

The only game I can bring to mind that marks the exact aggro range of every mob on the map is Guild Wars, where I have to say I always found it intensely irritating. It turned exploring into a peculiarly geometric affair, where you stare at a series of circles on the mini-map and maneuver yours in such a way that it never intersects with any of the others. I'm sure someone enjoyed it but I can see why no other game copied it.

A more common system that I've seen a few times is a radar ping on a mini map or a heads-up display that notes when some mob has noticed you trying to sneak past. You get a small window of opportunity to pull back or freeze or go into stealth, whatever seems appropriate, before the creature launches itself at you. That I also find quite irritating.

When we get right down to it, I don't like any mechanics that make looking at a map or a HUD the optimal way to travel through dangerous territory. I like to look intensely into the screen and feel myself there, in the world. 


 

I like visual triggers, mobs stopping what they're doing, looking up or casting around, as if for a scent. The more that's done with animation or sound, the better but I'll also settle for a big exclamation point appearing over a mob's head to show it's thinking about something. At least it's in my field of view. 

In every new mmorpg, learning the local rules, the physics of the world, the various behaviors of the different mobs and the trigger cues is one of the best parts. Then the next best part after that is learning how to play them to your advantage.

How well all those myriad factors balance and especially how fair it feels is one of the defining factors in how much fun exploring can be in any given mmorpg. Some, Guild Wars 2 for example, are so permissive there's virtually no thrill in exploration at all (Although in GW2's case, the stellar work of the art department often makes it a glorious pleasure, all the same.) Others (I thought Phantasy Star Online 2 was one, from the little I saw while I was briefly there.) are so restrictive there's no point even trying to explore.

After several hours travelling the highways, byeways and unmarked dirt tracks of Aeternum today, I would tentatively describe New World as both fair and exciting when it comes to going where you're not supposed to go. The main reason I'm slightly cautious is that my character at 35 might be a little too high for a real test. Somewhere in the mid-teens would probably have been more conclusive. 

I'm not rolling a new character and levelling them up just to find out, though, so we'll have to make do with what I learned today. Which was that most but not all of the non-elite open world map is accessible to a determined explorer, provided they don't want to go too far off-road and always keep their eyes very firmly open.


 

The map, when used for planning, is trully excellent. Possibly the best I've ever used in an mmorpg. Not only are all the roads and trails clearly and accurately marked but you can see quite plainly where a road goes through a village, town, hamlet or ruin and also when the road itself breaks up and becomes impassable. 

That is crucial for safe travelling because although the larger roads are mostly safe, almost any settlement other than a player-town will be crawling with aggressive mobs, many of which will spill onto the road as it goes through. Bridges, especially the huge, partially-ruined ones, are also always swarming with undead. It's essential to know when you need to come off the paved highway and cut across country to avoid murder-gauntlets like those.

The map also makes it very clear which areas are impassable. The shading and color even tells you if the obstacle is a mountain or a cliff or deep water. Again, invaluable when planing a route.

As far as mob aggro goes, I think there's a sliding scale. I found it hard to be sure. My feeling is that there's a static upper radius that attaches to mobs your own level and all those above, meaning no mob spots you from further away just because it's higher level than you. The reverse, though, affects mobs as you level past them. The higher above them you get, the less notice they take of you, until eventually you all but have to push them out of the way to get their attention.

I would stress I'm not entirely sure about that. I have a suspicion predators may work differently. In the whole time I was travelling, it was always either wolves or cats that seemed to attack from a greater distance. Especially wolves. Bloody, sodding wolves. I hate wolves! Oh, and alligators, too. 


 

Run speed seems to be identical for everything, players and all mobs, although once again, I felt wolves seemed to be able to catch me up when nothing else could. I think that's because of a particular lunge attack they do, though, rather than any specific speed buff. I don't think wolves get Spirit of Wolf in Aeternum and I certainly don't see why they should, when no-one else does.

There seem to be few mobs that use crowd control effects or maybe I was just lucky. I did get killed once when I tried to run through half a dozen humanoid mobs and got chain-stunned but only once and it was in Shattered Mountain, which is a 50-60 zone. I probably should have expected it.

Shattered  Mountain was one of only two of the fourteen zones in which I failed in my mission to visit  all the marked player hubs in the game. Both were zones meant for players between 50 and 60. More importantly, I think, they also have no real player towns. They aren't, as far as I can see, included in the territorial PvP set-up and there's no housing available there. 

Those two zones, along with Great Cleave, which I was able to explore, only have "Outposts" for players to craft and bank and sell. The other eleven territories all have Settlements, one per zone, largeish villages or small towns, filled with activity of all kinds. These three each have two Outposts, which very much resembe those in the original alpha. Just a fort with the basic facilities inside, nothing else. 

I did manage to get to both of the Outposts in Great Cleave and one of the two in Edengrove but Shattered Mountain proved too tough, mainly because of the "mountain" part, which meant I couldn't cut around obstacles without getting trapped against a rockface. Even though none of the Outposts had housing, something I didn't realize until I got there, it was still well worth the trip. Now I have fast travel options and respawn points for all of them.



I had no major issues getting to the player hubs in the other very high level Territories. I'd already been to Reekwater, which is supposedly the highest zone in the current game. Mourningdale and Restless Shores are technically within my level range, although only just. 

I had a bit of trouble with some goats outside of Mourningdale, which would have been a very embarrassing way to get killed, but I made it past in one piece. Restless Shores saw me arrive at the gates with four or five slavering withered chasing me in the traditional Benny Hill manner but they were never close to catching me.

The nearest I came to disaster in sight of the safety of the city was coming up the road into Ebonscale Reach, a zone intended for 55-60. It was so close my Berserker death save kicked in so technically I did die but I didn't fall down. Somehow I kept going and got away. 

It was my first visit to Ebonscale Reach, the zone Belghast compared to somewhere in Mists of Pandaria and for very good reason. I'm planning a post on which towns I'd most and least like to own houses in so I'll probably say more about Ebonscale then but for now I'll just say I did not expect anything like that!

On my run I took about eighty screenshots. I would have taken a lot more. There were plenty of times when I wanted to but couldn't stop for fear of near-certain death. 


 

Mostly I only saw what you can see from a road but it very much looked as though Kaylriene's critical observation about the very limited range of mob models in New World remains true right to the cap. I saw the same mobs just about everywhere, occasionally with slightly different skins. 

I don't think it matters. In a way it makes the place feel more convincing. And convincing is the word for much of Aeternum, although possibly not all of it. The nordic forests of Great Cleave are some of the best I've ever seen in an mmorpg but what's going on with all the tropical flowers in Edengrove, right next door, I have no idea. It must be magic.

All in all it was a lot of fun, exciting, involving, immersive and of great practical benefit. I now have fast travel options across the entire map (almost) and a pretty good idea where I want to live. 

All I need to do is grab another four or five levels and start working on my Standing in yet another Settlement. Which one? That's a different post but I'll give you a clue. You can see the house I want to live in somewhere on this page.

Monday, October 18, 2021

A Portmanteau Post Packed With Plangent Yet Pointless Peroration. And It's Not Even Friday.


It would be nice to be able to post about something other than New World but since that's about all I'm playing right now it might be hard to come up with anything much. I suppose I could give it a try, though. Let's see...

Well, I did log in to Neverwinter Online a couple of days ago. Shintar posted a PSA about some great freebies there that sounded too good to miss. 

There was a bit of patching but it didn't take too long to get in. I found the window where you claim stuff without too much difficulty. Naturally there was a lot waiting there because that's what happens in every Free-to-Play, when you step away for a while. Makes you scared to come back, sometimes.

I had plenty of bag space for once, so I took a risk and claimed everything. To my considerable surprise I still had plenty of bag space afterwards. Then I spent a while looking at those legendary mounts Shintar mentioned. 

That was white space
until I clicked on the blasted box!
There were five to choose from, three of which were either hideous or nightmare-inducing and one of which I thought looked a bit dull. Shintar says it's a "classic" but I don't have the Neverwinter background to know why. 

There was one I did like the look of, a kind of translucent stag with constellations under the skin. I picked that one. It definitely seemed worth having logged in for. 

Then I had to go and push my luck.

There were quite a few unopened chests and boxes and suchlike in my bags and as I said, I had plenty of inventory space, so I made the mistake of opening one of them. After that I didn't have any inventory space at all

There was so much packed into that one little box it filled every last slot I had and probably then some. I don't know what it all was. I was so annoyed I logged out without looking at any of it. See? I told you there was such a thing as too much free stuff!

 

Give me a second. I'm going to take a deep breath and log in again so I can get a couple of screenshots... 

... make that half an hour, three Reddit threads and two forum posts. I was just about to watch a YouTube video, when I finally found someone capable of explaining clearly and succunctly how to swap one mount for another. You wouldn't think it would be that difficult.

Worth it in the end, though. It's a nice-looking mount, even if it does look as though it's got a goiter. You can't really see its head, just one long, fat neck. The stars are pretty, as I hoped they would be, but the stag also changes color continually, cycling through a range of blues and greens from indigo to pale jade. Certainly an upgrade, visually, from my Marbled Stallion and it goes without saying the stats are far better.

None of which is going to make the least difference if I can't play because my bags are full. I think it's mostly new gear from the recent levelling revamp but there are at least another eight unopened boxes in there, too. It'll be a while before I dare open any of those.

As well as dropping into Neverwinter I did make one, desultory attempt to take a first look at Gloria Victis, the game I got for free when MassivelyOP dropped some Steam keys for it a while back. I got as far as installing the game but when the login screen opened it wanted me to go register an account somewhere and I so didn't want to do that I logged straight out again and haven't been back. 

Clearly that says everything that needs to be said about how genuinely
interested in playing GV I must be. I've made dozens, maybe hundreds of accounts for games over the years, some of which I had no intention of playing for more than a hour or two.

Even so, it's not really that I'm not curious to try the game. It's that I do get very irritated with games that are on Steam but also insist on separate accounts with a third party before you can play them. Make up your minds, guys! Either it's a Steam game or it's not. If anyone's taking notes about barriers to entry, that's quite a high one for me.

There was no such double-dipping when it came to the Lord Winklebottom Investigates demo. That, if you remember (I'm sure you don't. Why would you?) was one of the handful of games I downloaded during the last Steam Next Fest. Also, so far, the only one I've played.

Is it any good, I imagine you're asking. I have to imagine because I'm pretty sure no-one's asking anything of the sort. With a name like "Lord Winklebottom Investigates" everyone's mind must surely be made up already.

Actually, it's not bad. I wouldn't go so far as to say it was good but for a game in the relatively early stages of development (It opens with a warning that just about everything from the voice acting to the puzzles is likely to change before release.) I found it quite entertaining for about half an hour.

The pictures are moderately charming, if a bit rough and ready. The writing is mostly solid, raising a slight smile at the appropriate moments. The puzzles are comfortably logical within the paramaters of the genre (i.e. Utterly ludicrous but no more so than usual.)

Perhaps worryingly, given the warning, the aspect I most warmed to were the voiceovers. The two main characters come across as pleasantly understated, the line readings are accurate, there's a wry sense of humor in the performances and the two actors are convincing in the roles of lifelong friends and colleagues. Some of the other characters are a little accenty but again no more so than you'd expect in something like this. I've heard a lot worse and in games with a much bigger budget.


 

Despite those mildly positive opinions I didn't stick with the game for long. I've played a lot of point & click adventures over the last couple of years and it's gradually dawning on me that there are some serious structural problems with the genre itself that the better games manage to conceal behind great graphics, voice acting and writing.

Put simply, I like the adventures but I could do without the pointing and clicking, which does cast a shadow over the whole concept. By far the most enjoyable games involve much more talking and much less "click object A on object B". Broken Sword, Disco Elysium, Neo Cab, Kathy Rain, the whole Blackwell series, they all involve far more conversations than they do clicking one thing against another and honestly they're better for it. I'm beginning to suspect the optimum number of actual puzzles would be zero.

Come to think of it, I don't believe there are any in Neo Cab so maybe that one shouldn't even be on the list. Just demonstrates how confused I am over where the boundaries lie with these things.

Other than that, I ran around in Guild Wars 2's World vs World for an hour after I got home from work on Saturday because I was too tired to deal with the evening lag in New World. I can always play WvW. It's so relaxing, which I know is a strange thing to say about what is effectively open-world PvP, but it's true.

I still haven't found a moment to log into EverQuest II since New World arrived. I know there are a couple of panda quests backed up there, waiting for me, but those aren't going anywhere. I'm also missing the Nights of the Dead holiday, which is a bit more time-critical. I haven't even looked to see if there's any new content for that one. I really should do that.

Today, though, with the whole day to do whatever I wanted, I spent the entire morning playing New World. For me, it's a different game on a weekday morning. No lag, no frame-rate issues, no competition for anything, anywhere. Out in the countryside I could be playing a single-player rpg for all the players I run into and even in towns I only see a handful. 

In the evening, though, at times it's a slide-show, which could be a problem, not least if the server merges pack in even more people. It's seriously affecting my choice of where to live. 

I hit Level 20 Standing in Everfall last night, meaning I can now buy the house there I wanted. I even have the ten thousand gold to pay for it, although then I'd be broke. Trouble is, as I said a few posts ago, I'm having serious second thoughts. No other settlement feels anything even close to being as laggy as Everfall. I haven't bought the yellow house at the top of the hill yet and right now I'm minded not to.

There are a couple of upsides to the rethink. One is it was really easy to get to 20 Standing and I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. It only took just over a week, too. I feel confident I could do it again for any settlement. In fact, more than that, at the moment I kind of feel that raising faction with the various towns is my main motivation in the game, something I like doing more than just about anything else. Maybe I'll get to 20 Standing in a bunch of them before I decide on where to buy that crucual half-price, half-taxed first home.

The other is that I dinged 35 this morning and the perk for that is the right to own a second house. I had that plan I mentioned of maybe buying a big house at the first-timer discount but not living in it immediately so as to avoid the rent. Instead I'd buy a cheap home somewhere quieter, where I'd live until I was much higher level and presumably richer. 

That's a realistic possibility. Or it will be when I've made some more money. Right now I can't afford to buy two houses, big and small, even with the discount.

Making money; that is my next goal. Not sure how I'm going to do it yet but I imagine it will involve selling stuff to people who are too powerful and important to go get it for themselves. That's usually how it goes.

As for posts about New World, which I notice this has somehow managed to morph into, there will be more. I made some notes while I was playing this morning and there's at least a post and a half in there. Oh well, I'll get it all back in spades from everyone else in the blogosphere when Endwalker arrives, I'm sure.

And that's my queue to finish up here and go play New World some more before the roads start to fill up with jogging harvesters and levellers and the towns turn into slow-motion jitterfests. I think I had some ghouls to kill and a painter's easel to place by a waterfall. Don't ask.

Also I seem to remember I had some bags to empty. Pretty sure there was that. 

There's always that.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

#3 I'm All Ears - Let's Eat Grandma


Couple of years between releases seems... fast? Slow? About normal? I don't know what to expect any more. What even is an album, anyway? Sometimes they drop and no-one expects it, sometimes nearly every track's been trailed weeks, months ahead. Is that any different from releasing singles ahead of the album to promote it? I grew up with that but i also grew up with singles that weren't on the album, never were meant to be, with people who wore that like some badge of honor (Roxy Music, looking in your direction.)

First hint for Jenny and Rosa's sophomore effort (Take a note: 1. That sophomore thing is getting old. 2. "Effort" is so patronizing. 3. First names only after full names. There's an etiquette. Adhere to it.) for me, I guess for everybody, was Hot Pink. Came out, I think, as a single. Sounded so different. Harsh, hard, difficult. In retrospect that may have been the late, lamented Sophie, producer on this one track. 

 

Lyrically it's all, all, all J&R. (Better? No, I don't think so.) Line after line leaps out and bites hard. The whole lyric's in the details at the link but just listen. It's all there. So, Hot Pink, an abrasive calling card, left me wanting more.

I got more. Oh boy, did I ever.

There's a dream of promise fulfilled that rarely ever happens. When it does it feels so good. I'm All Ears is that dream. I mean, I love the first album but this is so much more. So much more than most things, really.

It's not that often I get literal shivers listening to music. It happens sometimes. When I listen to this album it happens every time. And I'm not even talking about Donnie Darko, which is up there with all the other ten minute epics from Sebastian and Land to Frankie Teardrop and I Love You Like Gala. I am a sucker for an overwrought, emotional epic, has to be said, but with Let's Eat Grandma it's not even the vocals, not always, not only. Not the words, true as light though they are. It's the dynamics, the changes, the shifts. The way every song feels like pushing through a forest at midnight or falling down a cascade.

 

Oh god! I had Falling Into Me playing in the background as I wrote that last paragraph and then the sax came in and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I had to stop and. And. And.

It does that every time. I had the album playing when I was driving and when the sax solo started I nearly fugued. Some songs shouldn't be played at speed. Not by me, anyway.

It cannot be denied there's something progressive about Let's Eat Grandma and not just in theatrics that would have gladdened the heart of any Peter Gabriel era Genesis fan (the only era that matters.) Listen to the structure. For that matter, listen to the guitar on this live version of Cool and Collected. Close your eyes, it could be Steve Howe, although I wouldn't want to suggest it, not to him or to them.

I won't go on much longer. Taking songs out of context doesn't do truly great albums any favors and this is a truly great album. It needs to be heard as a piece not in pieces. 

So what does that say about Donnie Darko, one of the most intense, transformative songs I've been fortunate enough to hear in half a century? It's the last track because what could follow that? 


Nothing. 

So let's not even try.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

#4 Born To Die - Lana del Rey


Sometimes, when I used to do lists like this back in the '80s and '90s, I'd add some rules and restrictions just so one person or act or theme couldn't roll the rest over, crush them, leave them gasping on the margins, done.  It would have happened. You like something, you like it, or that's how it works with me. 

I didn't exactly do that this time but I was always aware I only had twenty-five spots to fill and three or four artists together could have taken every last one of them. Jane Weaver, Lloyd Cole, Lana... I had to show some restraint.

Let's see. How many albums has Lana del Rey released in the last twenty-five years? Seven, counting #21 in this list, Lana Del Ray (AKA Lizzy Grant.) I guess eight, if you factor in Sirens, the collection of songs she recorded as May Jailer but never released (and that would be on here if she had, trust me.)

And how many did I include? Four. That's pretty restrained of me. 

Looking at the list now, it's obvious it should have been five, at least, Why I left Ultraviolence out beats me. I mean, the title track, Brooklyn Baby, Fucked My Way Up to the Top, West Coast... some of the greats there. And it hangs together as an album, not just a collection of songs.

Honeymoon and Lust For Life don't, really. I can understand why. They're the plateau of Lana's uncertain period, I think, when she was still stretching out into who she wanted to be. A pop star, among other things, which explains a lot of the guest artists and the lack of coherency. There's a bit of a trying on hats, maybe.  


The songs are still great, some of them. The two albums between them gave me some of my all-time favorites - Terence Loves You, God Knows I Tried, Love, White Mustang - but honestly, reading the track listings now, I see a surprising number of titles I barely recognize. 

Strange, when you think I listened to both those albums dozens of times. Although now I come to think of it, mostly I didn't do that. What I did was cue up the songs I liked best and skip the rest. 

It's not that there were any I didn't like. About the only thing I've ever heard Lana do that I never liked are a couple of covers. I don't believe anyone in the world can sing Blue Velvet straight and not make it sound like the dullest tune ever written.

It's just that Lana doing mainstream pop with respectful guests and overfussy production is not my favorite Lana. And that has a tiny bit to do with why I had to think for a while before I put Born To Die in at #4. 


There's certainly no question of my not recognizing any of the titles here. Fifteen tracks on the CD release I own, the one with the bonus tracks, and I could sing you at least a chorus and a few lines of any of them. Okay, maybe not Million Dollar Man. All the others, though. And every single track is stunningly good. Or, perhaps I should say, every single song. Because here's the thing: I knew quite a few of these songs from demo versions I'd listened to a hundred times on YouTube before the album came out and when I finally got to hear the official, released versions...

I didn't like them quite as much. Oh, hey, will you look at that? "Better in beta" works for music, too! Or maybe it's just the old "The original's always the best" trope kicking in. As in, the first version sets the needle. Everything after gets compared.

If I'd heard Born To Die first and then the demos later, the way it usually goes with records, maybe I'd be here eulogizing the official version and not even mentioning the sketches. Never gonna know, are we? But I did hear those takes first - a little rougher, a little rawer, a little faster, a little brasher - and I can't unhear them.

None of which should undercut the power, the glory of Born To Die as we have it. It's just the most glorious sequence of confident, driving, assertive performances, the rising storm of the music always driving the words forward like scattered, flurried leaves, fragments breaking free, spiralling, soaring, falling back.    


 

And the subjects, the stories, the characters. Brave, lost, lonely, knowing, self-deluding, empty, hopeless, yearning, wishing, needing. Lyrics that haunt and harrow and beat back the darkness, just once, just once more, just one more time...

A thing that puzzles me now is how, then, and this would be, what, almost ten years ago, I didn't see how sublime, how well-crafted, assured, skilled Lana's lyrics already were. Sure, now, in the two albums that top this list, it's obvious, apparent, undeniable. Everyone knows. Hard to believe but back in 2012 I thought a few of the lines were a little awkward, an image here or there over-familiar, used. 

I know better now. Of course, I am terrible with lyrics. I only ever hear them in shards, fragments, momentary squalls of language, meaning fractured, bleeding out. You can put them right in front of me and I stare right past. My copy of Born To Die even has a full lyric sheet and I still didn't pay attention.

Oh well, you live and you learn. And, honestly, sometimes I think it's the words you don't hear that carry the greatest charge. The space between, that's where the meaning falls and where it lies. 

Enough, I think. We'll be dancing about architecture next. Talk about cliches.

Three more and then we sleep.

Friday, October 15, 2021

You're Ugly And Your Mother Dresses You Funny: Appearance In New World


I'm enjoying New World quite a bit, as must be apparent by now, but I don't think there's much of a chance it'll become my new mmorpg home. Several reasons but one stands out: identity.

I'm coming to believe identity may be the overriding factor in whether a game works for me long term or not. Gameplay, obviously, is extremely important, along with the mechanics and systems that underpin it and the controls that let me play at all but no matter how slick and satsifying all that might be, bonding with my character trumps all.

That said and perhaps to my own surprise, I'm starting to suspect how a game plays has more impact on whether I stick with it than I like to admit. It's not all about looks.

A lot of it is, though, let's not pretend otherwise. I hope I've never been shallow enough to suggest everything comes down to looks but in the past I have shown a tendency to be uncritically impressed by shiny surfaces. While I'm always more immediately drawn to a beautiful, new world ripe to explore, willing to put up with quite a deal of inconvenience just to get some good screenshots, over time, if I don't feel comfortable with the controls, I'm unlikely to stay, no matter how pretty everything appears.

If it's not all about the look, what about the stories? 

How long I last almost never has much to do with story or narrative, even though I write about those things all the time here. Lore scores highly but that alone won't hold me and no amount of intriguing plots or scintillating dialog will get me to go on playing a game that both feels awkward and looks unpleasant. 

The character I created.
When it comes to storytelling, there are just too many better options in other media to suffer through bad mechanics or boring gameplay for what in an mmorpg will, at best, turn out to be genre staple tales. I have somewhat low expectations of story in the games I play and after decades as a gamer (of sorts) I'm seldom minded to raise them.

If not the stories others tell us, how about the ones we tell ourselves? Naturally, at this point, since we're going down the list of why someone might play an mmorpg, a lot of people will be thinking of playing with other people.That's where the real stories are, isn't it?

It used to be something of a given that playing socially with other people was the fundemental purpose of an mmorpg. Been a while since that was true, if it ever was. For me, mmorpgs have been "alone together" games since... well, I guess since Rift

Rift was the the game that really broke the genre mould. Warhammer Online put some cracks in it with the invention of the Public Quest but Scott Hartsman hit it full in the face with a hammer and shattered it. Rift was an entire mmorpg where you never needed to party up with anyone and could still do everything.

Then, of course, he immediately tried to put the pieces back together with the Greenscale's Blight raid zone and that was the first nail in Rift's coffin. Not that it's quite dead yet but it might as well be.

Guild Wars 2 doubled down on what Rift promised and despite a few wobbles (What is it about raiding that makes every developer feel they have to add it in the end?) ArenaNet have, near as makes no difference, kept to the concept of never needing to talk to anyone to get things done. That's worked very well for me and while I'm happy enough to group up and pass the time of day politely once in a while, the days when I'd come home from work looking forward to three or four hours of lively conversation along with my monster-bashing are long past.

So, if it's not the gameplay, the visuals, the story or the social aspects, what is it that I'm missing in New World badly enough I might cut my time there short? It's just what I said: identity. Specifically, my character's identity and by extension the stories it generates. Those are the real stories for me.

You remember what Gertrude Stein said a propos Oakland, California? "There's no there there". Well, that's not the problem. Far from it. There's plenty of "there" in New World. It's full to bursting with "there". 

No, the problem with New World is there's no "me" there. Or rather, the character that's supposed to be my representative feels like a cypher, a shell, a vessel. Not like a person. Doesn't look right. Doesn't tell me any stories.

There's a reason I take so many of these shots against the sun.

 

I'm not one to talk about avatars in mmorpgs. I play characters. I don't play myself. I don't role-play, not any more, but I do have to be able to characterize the characters I play or there's no feel-through. My hands on the keyboard may be the hands on the pickaxe (New World is exceptionally good with tactility) but when the mining stops, who's that standing there, looking down at the shards? 

I don't know and that's the problem. 

It's not that I didn't make a character I resonated with when I was in character creation. I did. I was pleased with them. I thought I could get to know them, given enough time.

Okay, I'd very much have liked a choice other than vanilla human. It's true I'd rather play something else. The lack of options there doesn't add to New World's hopes of pushing to the front of games I play for longer than it takes that new game sparkle to wear off.  Then, human is all Funcom gave us in The Secret World and I had absolutely no problem whatsoever bonding with the character I made there. 

Indeed, my TSW character, who I remade as closely as possible in Secret World Legends, remains one of my favorites of all my characters in any game. I also have no trouble relating to my human character in DCUO. It's not about being human.

The character I got.
If it's not the lack of racial choices alienating me from my character, what is it. 

(Hold up a moment, though. For clarity, we should really make it clear that when we say "race" in mmorpgs we probably mean "species", don't we? You certainly can make characters of different human races in New World. There's no question of that. What you can't do is make a non-human character, another species. Not even an elf, which as we all know is just a human with funny ears, anyway.)

Without a doubt, a wider choice of species would make me more inclined to experiment, which in turn would make me likely to stick around longer but it wouldn't address the basic issue of identity here, which is that I don't feel I have much, if any, control over what the character I'm playing looks like. 

Yes, we're circling round to looks again. I knew they were important. Although in a way it's the absence of looks we're talking about because for most of the two weeks I've been playing I haven't even been able to see what my character looks like.

I know what they looked like when I created them. I chose to make a non-binary character with an appearance that was broadly female. It was an option Amazon offered and since I hadn't done it before I thought I'd give it a go. 

The character I got has the right pronoun but, perhaps ironically or maybe not, for most of the time I've been playing I would not have been able to tell by looking at them which of the body types I'd chosen. They've either looked like a walking pile of tin cans or a bundle of old washing tied up in rope. 

It very much hasn't helped that until tonight I believed there was no way to hide your characters helmet. By bad luck just about every head item that's dropped in thirty levels has covered my character's whole head. I've barely seen their face since the day I chose the color of their eyes.

I detest full-face helmets in games. It's hard to relate to someone you can't even see. Characters I play never wear them for looks, only for stats and in almost every modern game that's no problem because, should I need to stick someone's head in a bucket to make the right numbers go up, all I have to do is toggle "Display Helm" off.

My character's enforced anonymity is not Amazon's fault, apparently, although I'm blaming them anyway for making the solution so hard to find. I only found it while fact-checking for this post. In case you didn't realize - I didn't and believe me I looked - you can hide your character's helmet in New World. It's fairly simple although clearly not simple enough for me. I mean, I've only played nearly two hundred mmorpgs over two decades.

All you have to do is click on the helmet slot to get the context menu, then click on "Change Skin" and then click on "Hide Headgear". I googled it and found a clear explanation here but I missed it in game even though I did look at the "Skin" thing.

The only "Skin" I own.
I call it "The Fop".

I'm fairly sure the reason I didn't spot it was disdain. Disdain for the choice Amazon made over what, for lack of a more dismissive description, I'm going to have to call New World's appearance system.

Most games have some form of Appearance system, whereby characters can wear one thing but display something entirely different. The mechanics of these systems varies wildly and everyone has their preferences but even the clunkiest and most annoying of them allows you to get your character somewhere close to what you want them to look like, eventually.

New World doesn't have any of that. It has "Skins" and a tab to swap them onto slots but those skins are, as far as I can tell, exclusively extrinsic to the game. You can buy them in the cash shop (of course), you can get them by watching designated streamers on Amazon-owned Twitch and you can be given them in various Amazon-authored promotional events. 

That is not an Appearance system. An Appearance system allows you to swap the look of one item your character owns with another item your character is wearing. Your character. In the game.

I have absolutely no objection to Amazon monetizing New World by selling Skins. Lots of game companies do that. Guild Wars 2 does that. The thing is, GW2 also lets you save the look of every single displayable item that drops into a matrix, from which you can select the look you want and overlay it on the item with the stats you need.

And what's more, ANet also sell you the tokens in the Gem Store that fund those changes. They give you plenty for free but for obsessive fashionistas there are never enough so it becomes another income stream for the game. 

EverQuest II does something very similar. FFXIV, WoW, they all do. Wherever I play I use these systems. I even pay for them if I need to. It's nice to get them gratis but it's a reasonable, acceptable way for games to pay the bills.

My problem with identity in New World isn't about monetization. It's not even about aesthetics, although some of the choices there are certainly questionable. It isn't even about the best looks always going to the cash shop, which certainly happens in GW2 and always has.

It's about my character not being allowed to dress themselves. It's about identity.

I've received plenty of good-looking pieces as drops, pieces I'd love to see my character wearing. I'd be willing to stump up for a few tokens to swap the looks around, if the price was fair. What's driving me crazy is having to destroy clothes that look so much better than what my character has on because the stats aren't right and there's no way to swap them over.

I already dislike the salvage system. I dislike all salvage systems which smack of disposability and waste and run counter to any sense of internal logic let alone realism but that's another bridge to burn on another day. 

My real outfit. As good as it's got so far.
It won't last.

I could put up with salvaging the endless torrent of tat if I could just keep the stuff I actually like. To begin to forge an identity. To give my character some agency over how they present. 

For the first week or so I was carefully storing anything I thought I might want to use but it finally dawned on me my character would never be able to wear any of it. It was just going to sit there, taking up space. So I salvaged it all.

That was miserable. It was even worse when I looked at my character and saw them looking like they'd been dressed by their near-blind grandmother in the dark. If I don't like what I see when I look at my character and I don't see any prospect of that changing, why would I stay?

I guess in the hope things change, for one. It is very early days. None of the games I've mentioned had extensive, flexible appearance systems at launch (although I'm pretty sure some of them had better ones than New World). It's the kind of quality of life change that gets added later so we can look forward to that, maybe.

There's also the chance that by the time my character gets to the cap they'll have found some things they can bear to be seen wearing in public. High end gear is supposed to look better, isn't it? And I do tend to wait until levelling's done before settling on a signature look for my characters, which they then keep pretty much indefinitely.

There is time, then. This might fix itself. If I get to the end of the leveling ladder (A big "if" in itself, given the old-school levelling speed.) and I still don't have a clear idea who my character is, that'll most likely signal not the end of New World forever but the end of my first run with the game.

The clock is ticking. 

Although, not to be melodramatic about it, I'd probably take a break at that point anyway. I'm being a bit of a drama queen, I know. Still, it is annoying and they could do better and they should. 

I hope they change it.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Who Would Live In A Place Like This?

The delightful scene above is a pretty fair representation of what I've been looking at for most of the afternoon. That's Weaver's Fen in New World. Charming, isn't it?

I've had it in mind for a few days to say something about how New World follows the unfortunate pattern of most mmorpgs in making the zones increasingly unatractive, not to say hellish, the higher up the levels you go. That's certainly been my experience so far, with the bright, colorful, coasts of First Light and Monarch's Bluffs shading into rich farmlands and autumnal glow of Everfall, before the gloom descends with the haunted house aesthetic of the ironically-named Brightwood and the dismal swamps of Weaver's Fen.

My faction, Marauders, by far the weakest on Zuvendis, holds just a single zone now. We did have two but we lost First Light days ago and despite warring for it ever since show no signs of getting it back. 

Our stronghold, such as it is, is the truly awful Reekwater, a zone that is, I'm sad to say, very accurately named. I imagine the only reason we hold it is because no-one else wants it. No-one with anywhere else to go would dream of setting foot on the rotten, rickety planks of the shanty town it calls a capital, let alone raising a flag.

I went there to see what our faction town was like, just in case I might have wanted to settle there. I think you get some benefits for crafting and so forth in zones owned by your faction. In my case that gives me a choice of one.

Reekwater is apparently a level 58-60 zone but I had no trouble whatsoever getting there in my early thirties. Well, maybe I did have a little trouble. The first time I tried to come in via the road that travels eastwards out of Everfall but that turns out to run right through the middle of a ruined village populated by angry ghosts. I took one look and thought better of it.

Next time, I came down from the north, along the road from Weaver's Fen. It's one of the bigger roads, not just a track. By and large in Aeternum, the wider the road, the safer it is. It helps that just about everything seems to have the same run speed. Provided you get past something, it can't catch you, so long as you don't turn around to see how far behind you it is.

And this is the nice part of town...


One quick trip around the waterlogged decks of Reekwater town confirmed all my fears. It's a classic mmorpg end game zone - ugly, dark, miserable and depressing. They're always either that or frozen solid or on fire.Of the three, I think swampland is the worst.

Based on everything I've seen for myself so far, I'd have been justified in lambasting Amazon's designers for falling into the trap of making the path from character creation to cap a journey from comfort to despair, visually at least. Only I've heard otherwise.

Belghast dinged fifty today and he's been pondering where he might settle down when he caps out and buys a house. He's thinking about Ebonscale Reach, a level 50-60 zone, which he describes as "...really gorgeous... its layout somewhat reminds me of the temples in Pandaria with everything terraced out of the face of a mountainside.

Someone else (I apologize to whoever it was. I know it was someone whose blog I follow but I can't remember where I read it.) was talking the other day about one of the later zones looking like the Plains in Valheim, an aesthetic that strongly appeals to me. Unfortunately, I also can't remember which zone it was. This isn't helping much, is it?

The point is, there's anecdotal evidence building up that not every endgame zone in New World is dank, dark and deacayed. It looks as though there's actually some geographical logic to it, not just a desire to exploit the inevitable correlation between the aesthetic tastes of players most likely to make it to the level cap and the kind of imagery traditionally found on the covers of heavy metal albums.

It seems that, from the center to the south-eastern coast, the isle of Aeternum is covered by one massive swamp. Upward from that, along the coast, by all reports the climate improves. I'm going to have to go and check it out for myself.

So far I've visited eight of New World's fourteen zones. I find almost all of the game's progression systems compulsive but by far the most satisfying of them all are the Standings. In a way it's nothing more than the faction we're familiar with from many games but the mechanics and implementation and the fact it's linked directly to the towns themselves make it feel different. And desirable.

Where would you rather live? I mean, come on...

 

Improving my Standing in Everfall made up the main thrust of my gameplay from the moment I decided that was where I wanted to buy my first house. I only changed focus when I started to feel a little burned out from running town and faction missions back to back, session after session, by which time I was already Respected, the title you earn at Standing 15.

At that point I was also Standing 13 in Monarch's Bluff and Standing 10 in Windsward, meaning I could have bought a house in any of them. I'm also at least Standing 5 in First Light, Brightwood and Weaver's Fen by now. Everywhere I go I make an impression, it seems.

You can't really help it. The missions bring in the most credit, of course, but just as everything you do gives you xp, so it gives you Standing. Even running along a road from one side of a new zone to the other without stopping will usually get you enough Standing from discovery xp to raise your profile from Stranger to Newcomer.

I took a couple of sessions off from grinding Everfall faction to go level up a bit. That took me from the late twenties into the early thirties and also filled all my resource pools to the brim. At Level 32 this afternoon I couldn't receive any further Azoth rewards, faction tokens or faction reputation. If I could change one thing about New World it would be to take those caps and hurl them into the ocean.

I made some armor I didn't need and ported somewhere I might just as well have walked to get my Azoth down. I bought a rune of holding for 3000 tokens (and 500 gold, which I could ill afford) to let me earn yet more tokens.

The faction reputation, though, I could do nothing about. I'd run up against the hard cap of a new Rank. 

Ranks have a different name in every faction. In the Marauders, the third rank is Ravager. To become a Ravager you need to do a "Trial", just as you did for the previous rank, Gladiator

The trial, which is just a fancy name for a quest, is recommended for Level 35. The Gladiator one didn't just recommend Level 30, it required it or so I thought. I think now I may have misunderstood what was going on because I was able to get the Ravager quest at 32. 

Except when I got it it said it was recommended for Level 40. Gulp! Oh well, it's not like anyone stays dead in Aeternum, is it? (Actually it is but that's a whole other post...) So I followed the marker and went to see how far I could get. 

All the way. With ease. Literally the only difficult part about it was getting to the first of the three or four villages I needed to cleanse. That one was inconveniently crammed between a cliff and a town full of highly agressive Elite mobs, capable of sending me back to spawn in a couple of hits.

Once I'd navigated a route past those obstacles, though, despatching the requisite ten mobs was ridiculously easy. Yes, some of them were six or seven levels higher than me but mobs in New World vary incredibly in difficulty and threat compared to most other mmorpgs I've played. These were all Lost and for my build at least, Lost are just about the softest of kills.

So now I'm a Ravager, which means I can buy the third grade of faction armor. I don't want to, because I don't need it, which is just as well. I can buy it but I can't equip it. Clearly the developers did indeed expect players wouldn't be doing these quests until they hit 35 or even 40 because those are the level requirements to wear the bloody stuff!

Seriously? What do I have to do to get some respect around here? Arm-wrestle alligators? Because I will!

 

Never mind. At least I can gain reputation with the Marauders again and make my way towards the fourth trial so I can become a Destroyer. And there are some useful utilities I can buy for tokens.

Along the way I did do a few more missions in Everfall. My Standing there is now 19, just one level short of being able to buy the Tier Three house I wanted. Note past tense.

I might still want it. I'm not sure. It's a great house. And Everfall is a great town. There's just one problem. It's also an insanely busy town. I get more frame-rate lag there than anywhere else in the game. I can barely move after eight in the evening. I'm begining to think it would be a mistake to settle there.

Then again, I have all that Standing. It would be a shame not to take advantage of it. I can't see myself waiting until I hit the mid-50s to start all over again in Ebonscale Reach, no matter how delightful it is. 

And in the long run, it'll be the endgame zones that are busiest, won't it? It usually is. By then, Everfall might have slipped back into being a quiet, low-level backwater. 

I hope so although I suspect not. It's just too conveniently placed and as we all know... location, location, location.

One thing's for sure. Wherever I end up living it won't be Reekwater, no matter how damn quiet it is. I have some standards, at least!

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