Monday, April 30, 2012

Plink Plink Fizz... GW2

Playing a ranger is a known quantity in most MMOs. You can expect to wear Medium armor, have the help of an animal companion and shoot things with a bow. You can call yourself a ranger or a hunter or a scout but in the end it comes to much the same thing.

Ranger isn't my favorite class but I've played more than a few. Usually I'll test drive new MMO with whatever passes for the bog-standard Warrior but I was apprehensive about some of the things I'd read about GW2's "action combat" so I went with a class that could stand off a ways and see what was going on.

I've been throwing my thoughts about this onto various threads in my brief spells out of game over the weekend, particularly at Hardcore Casual and Kill Ten Rats, where some lively exchanges took place. It does seem that my experience of combat has been at variance to what others have found.

Gina on the comments to my First Impressions piece described her frustration withthe difficulty of combat and I've seen advice all over the place about the need to bind Dodge keys, weapon swap, learn combos, circle strafe, never stop moving - any number of things supposedly essential if you aren't going to spend most of your time looking at a black and white world from a very low perspective.

This is variously reported as happening at level five, or ten or maybe it's not until after level 20. I was trying to get as high as I could to find the point where the unavoidable action gameplay kicked in but I didn't manage to find it in the time available. Be warned that I only managed to get to a shade short of 19th and that I can only speak from the perspective of a Charr ranger. Other classes and races may have a much harder time of it than I did. Check KTR for a picture of how different things are for melee classes, for example.

Soloing a Charr ranger is, if you want it to be, identical to soloing a ranger in any other MMO. You wander about the countryside looking for prey. When you see something you fancy you make sure he doesn't have more friends than you can handle, send your pet in to grab agro and plink away with your bow. If your target comes off the pet and runs at you you backpedal and keep firing, having of course ensured that there's nothing behind you which will object to being barged into by a ranger in reverse gear.

Do this correctly and you won't even get hit before the mob dies. I found it as straightforward to do in GW2 as anywhere. Mostly, though, I didn't even need to take all that trouble. Usually all I did was plink the mob to get its attention, let it come to me and tank it while the pet chewed away from behind. Fancy kiting tactics only came into play on mobs more than two levels above me and even then not always.

I moved to the level 15 - 25 areas when I dinged 13 and roamed around leveling up on mobs between 2 and four levels higher than me for most of Sunday. I successfully joined in lots of events, some alone or with one other wandering woodsman, some with lots of people. I only trained up Longbow until a good Shortbow dropped when I was 17 so there was little weapon-swapping. I wore gear I made myself runed with runes I made myself.

I had an absolutely wonderful time playing exactly as I am used to playing. I didn't have to adjust any more than I did moving from, say, EQ2 to Rift. Less than when learning to play Fallen Earth and far, far less than DCUO.

I would contend that this is a Good Thing. Not because I plan on stubbornly insisting on playing GW2 as though it was EQ. I will learn all the new techniques and tricks - I'm looking forward to it. No, the good thing is that I can learn them after I'm comfortable with who my character is and what his place is in the world. The time to learn new mechanics is once I'm settled in, not right at the very start. If other classes don't have this leeway, I know now that I can come to them once I am comfortably established with a character and class that I understand and can play effectively enough for my own purposes.

I would encourage anyone who found the whole action combat hype too daunting to make a Charr ranger next beta, take up leatherworking and go hunt drakes until you have enough leather for a full suit of crafted, runed armor and enough action points to buy Troll Unguent and  Signet of the Wild. which together will let your pet tank pretty much anything you're likely to want to solo. Make sure you don't pull any mob that "reflects projectiles", stand back and plink plink plink ! It's a classic and classics never go out of style.

Burning Down The House: GW2

" Enter the living world of Guild Wars 2 - filled with thousands of dynamic events that ebb and flow through the course of your adventures. One day there may be a thriving village filled with vendors and townspeople, the next day that village may be a smoking ruin overrun by centaurs.
Dynamic events evolve and cascade across the world in response to how you, the player, interact with them, leaving persistent effects in the game world. Will you save that village or let it burn? The choice rests with you and your fellow players. "

That's the theory, as detailed on the official GW2 website. I'd read that a while back but I'd forgotten until I went there today to borrow it for this blog just how brave and bold a claim ArenaNet were making. No wonder some folks have been expecting so much. And no wonder some are already feeling disappointed or let-down even before the game's been given an official release date.

One of the many things I liked about this Beta weekend was the pop-up window that appeared every time an Event completed. The last question on the form was always something along the lines of "How much did this event change the world?" On a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (I don't think we're in Kansas anymore) Usually I had to give a "1". I couldn't see any changes.

That's not to say there were no changes. The form just appeared far too quickly after the event for me to tell. I joined an event, victory conditions were given in the top right corner of the screen, they were either met or missed, I got a grade on my contribution (Bronze, Silver or Gold), some xp, some Karma, some cash. I got a reward regardless of whether we won or lost and the size of the reward seemed to relate more to the size of my contribution than the success of the operation.

Whether the world changed I would only know if I stuck around to see. Mostly I moved on almost immediately. When I did hang about or passed by later on I would frequently see the same event again. And again. In the Charr starter area the Fire Shaman, Tar Goo, Venerable Skale and Workshop Attack events played out as though on a continuous loop. Farther out as I criss-crossed the level 15 - 25 area the same events flipped on and off my screen countless times.

GW2 has a much more immersive way of letting you know something's going down than just flashing up a quest box, though. Wherever you go NPCs charge up to you, grab you by the shoulder-guards and yell in your face.

 " SOMETHING BAD is happening RIGHT NOW! YOU need to DO SOMETHING about it! Yes YOU!! "

This is great in theory but in practice I soon began to react to these hysterics as I might to a particularly obnoxious chugger on the high street, with a glower and a shrug. I helped last time. And the time before that. Don't you remember asking me? Find someone else pal, it's not my problem!

Traveling far and wide across the map I was importuned every time I came close to any kind of population center. Just to use a public road was to be pounced on repeatedly to clear mines (don't I need training for that?), escort caravans or collect eggs. It's no wonder i spent so much of the weekend out in the wilderness - it's the only place i could get any peace!

I loved it, really. It seemed an ideal compromise between static and dynamic environments. Often I allowed myself to be distracted from what I'd meant to do, instead finding myself collecting worm eggs from very unwilling worms for the Meatoberfest (it's a Charr thing - you really don't want to know) or holding off harpies while a crazed veteran launched live cows into the sky. More of that anon.

How much any of this changed the world even short-term I find it hard to say but one very definite and meaningful effect I did notice was the loss of use of certain Waypoints. Waypoints in GW2 are instant teleports. You have to visit each one in person the first time to open it up, a mechanism I love, but thereafter you can use all the ones you've opened just by clicking on your map and paying a fee. Several times when I wanted to return to one that I'd opened I found it marked "Contested" on the map, making it unusable.

The Waypoint in a fortified town in Diessa Plateau was "Contested" more often than it was open. For a long time a Giant was stomping around inside staging his own one-giant raid. After he left the town came under attack by separatists. Whether the latter event was a consequence of the conclusion of the former I have no idea, but either way the town was largely out of action for most of the day.

In another example, a road I'd traveled safely once was impassable the second time because Jotun were holding a key bridge. I cleared them off with the help of the Lionguard and rendered the road useable again. That I was able to do alone, while the events with the giant and the separatists didn't seem to scale down at all regardless of there being very few players attempting to deal with them.

I think it will be impossible to tell how significant this "dynamism" is until the game is Live and we are able to live in the world. At the moment all we see are snapshots. The prospect of not knowing when you log in whether you will be able to go to the same place you were hunting yesterday is appealing and I can see now how this could happen. I hope it does. If it leaves places people want to go in a state that prevents them from going there without letting them do much about it, though, that might not be quite as much fun.

And...Relax! : GW2

The party's over. The last guests leave. The door closes. Now the clearing up begins, along with the gossip, reminiscence and recrimination

It was a great party.  I had a wonderful time. I have so many stories I could write a book, Well, a 10,000 word dissertation. I took three pages of notes and nearly one hundred and fifty screenshots.If I tried to get it all down I'd be blogging about nothing else for a month, so I'll try to control my enthusiasm.


I played all weekend and until I lost him in the Mists late last night I only played one character, a Charr Ranger of the Ash Legion. I played very much as I would expect to play when the game goes Live, as if this was my first, permanent character. By the end of the beta weekend my ranger was a whisker short of level 19, with a skill of 47 in Leatherworking. All comments I make on gameplay are based entirely on my experience of that one class and race.

My experience of GW2 was one of playing a very, very good iteration of the same MMO model I've been playing for over a decade. Many things are done more organically and elegantly than maybe we're used to but the things themselves are the same things. If you still enjoy Everquest (1 or 2), Lord of the Rings, WoW, Warhammer, Vanguard or any of the countless games that have become known as Diku-MUD MMOs, chances are you'll enjoy this latest variation on that theme. If you feel you've been there and done that then it will probably take more than you'll find here to put the fizz back in your mouse finger. Ironically, perhaps, if you were a huge fan of the original Guild Wars you may be less keen to dance to this old tune on a new fiddle. It's plainly the same world but the gameplay is something else altogether.

Ah, the gameplay. So many opinions, so wildly different. Can we all really have been playing the same game? I suspect GW2 is going to be one of those rare and wonderful things, the mirror that reflects back what you want to see.

For the first couple of hours on Friday night I dutifully did my Hearts, Events and Personal Story like a good consumer. It was fun enough but not all that involving so I packed that in and started instead to do just what I would do in any new MMO. First I went exploring, which led me to learn a craft. Then I went searching for the materials needed for that craft, which took me exploring again, along with a good deal of mass slaughter. That about sums up my weekend.

GW2 is an explorer's paradise. A huge, open world in which you can pretty much get to anything you see and what you see when you get to it turns out to be worth the trip. I didn't find any slopes that looked climbable but weren't or any barriers that felt forced. When I couldn't fight past something I could edge past and when I couldn't edge past I could just run like hell. By early Sunday evening I'd opened virtually all of the overland maps for the Charr and Norn lands that were available in the beta. I was hoping to get from The Black Citadel to Lion's Arch on foot, replicating the great journey of the first part of the Prophecies campaign, but sadly the final zone between them was closed.

The big difference between this familiar activity in GW2 and in other MMOs is the famous dynamism. I get what this is, now, I think, and mostly what it is is exhausting. As will these posts be if I don't split them up. More to come on the Dynamic world, on fighting things and on how much whimsy is too much.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

First Hit For Free : GW2

I wasn't planning on saying anything until Monday, but I can't resist a very quick summary of my impressions so far.

It's a beta. I really wasn't expecting that. I was expecting a shop-window with everything on show polished to a gleaming sheen but there are "Work In Progress" warnings slapped on every cut scene and I've already run into one or two minor bugs. Every time an Event ends or you complete a stage of your personal story a questionnaire pops up so you can review it and give feedback. I feel at least a little as though I'm doing meaningful beta-testing, which is great.

Log-in congestion was minor. Mrs Bhagpuss and I were both making characters within twenty to thirty minutes of the doors opening. Once in game I've had none of the graphical or frame-rate issues I've seen reported elsewhere. I let the game set its own defaults, which appear to be mainly "Medium" for me and the game runs smooth as butter.

Always darkest before the dawn
It also looks absolutely stunning. Screen shots and videos really don't do it justice. The whole thing looks like a hand-painted, animated movie. The color tones are just gorgeous, especially in the Charr capital. I have already spent more time taking screenshots (or more accurately framing up screenshots) than I have adventuring. Exaggeration for effect, obviously. If this quality is replicated throughout the whole world then I foresee this iteration of Tyria providing years of entertainment as virtual tourism, let alone whatever gameplay value it might also have.

The Cat in the Hat is Back
Ah, that gameplay. Is it a paradigm shift? Is it a game changer? A step change? A new generation? No it flippin' well is not. I'm very glad I wasn't banking on any of that nonsense because boy, would i have been in for a disappointment. Caveat being that any comments are based on just a few hours gameplay that have taken me only as far as level 6, but what I've seen is an excellent implementation of traditional, standard and familiar MMO tropes. Guild Wars 2 looks to be a really first-class AAA theme-park MMO. If that's what you want then you're going to be very happy.

My gameplay so far has consisted of:

A very familiar "throw him into a battle and keep him running about as if something matters" introduction.

A busy starter area filled with the usual quests, Public Quests/Open Events, random mobs to farm for crafting raws, and countless places to poke your nose into for discovery experience.

A huge, superbly atmospheric home city to explore.

Follow me! I have no idea where I'm going either!
A "personal story" questline that leads you by the nose through a series of instances and cut scenes. Well-written, good voice acting, involving if utterly unoriginal storyline and pretty good characterization. Overall, literally nothing gameplay-wise that I haven't seen elsewhere. But, and as the joke goes it's a big but, I can't say I've seen any of it done much better before. I've been having a blast.

I was apprehensive before I got my hands on the controls that combat would be too twitchy. It isn't. I picked a Charr Ranger deliberately to avoid having to deal with melee combat and so far fighting seems identical to any other MMO. Certainly nothing like the "action combat" of DCUO (which I like anyway) or even the micro-management of GW1. All I'm doing is targeting mobs manually, like I always do, hitting the special attacks on the hotbar with the mouse pointer, like I always do and occasionally hammering the left mouse button. Stuff dies, I don't (much) and I get "Gold" awards in the Events quite often so presumably it's working. To be honest, half the time I have no idea what's going on because I'm in a vast gang of Charr all pounding away on something I can't even see for all the fur and horns.

Anyway, much, much more to say but it'll have to wait for later because I have the game running in the background and the lush, evocative music is calling me. Must play more!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Yak's Bend, Here We Come!: GW2

Guild Wars 2 Beta Weekend. Twenty-four hours to go. We've picked Yak's Bend for our temporary home, because reaching it was such a highpoint of the original campaign I still remember it clearly seven years on. It's A U.S. server so with a bit of luck it might be something less than insanely busy at the times we'll be playing.

I've been reading a lot of blog commentary as everyone gets themselves pumped up. The focus on PvP surprises me a tad. World vs World vs World PvP, that is (already being pared down to WvW, thank the lord). I've not heard a single person claiming to be excited about the eSport. Is that even in yet?

Guild Wars is an odd brand. The original was heavily trailed as a PvP game before launch, to the point that almost no-one I knew playing Everquest back then had the slightest interest in trying it. Mrs Bhagpuss and I gave it a shot and had a lot of fun for a few weeks. I think I tried PvP maybe three times. It was so insanely fast  I couldn't even work out what was going on, far less participate.

As I remember it, that view was widespread. I seem to recall ArenaNet confirming that the majority of players were spending most of their time in the PvE instances. Certainly most of the development of the game over the following seven years and four expansions has added PvE content rather than PvP.

For a long time all the news we got on the successor game was about the PvE. The dynamic content, the eighty levels, the massive open world, the races, the classes, the ambient audio, the crafting, the dress design...the PR department seemed determined to hammer home the point that this was a true virtual world MMO. PvP information seemed very sparse in comparison.

Eventually we got the skinny on both the eSport arena ladder PvP, similar to GW1 (as far as I can tell from an extremely superficial glance) and the very much more interesting World vs World vs World. Ah, a three-way! That's why the excitement. There seem to be a lot of Dark Age of Camelot fans manque out there in blog comment land. Warhammer didn't so much drop the ball on the New DAOC front, more stuck a dagger through the ball and hoicked it into the privy. Prime sorry, Dominus isn't anywhere near ready. Looks like WvW got tagged it, at least for now.

I'm up for a bit of turf-holding, keep-taking, supply-disrupting, three-way PvP. As a side dish, though, not a main course. I'm interested in Tyria for its VW cred. I'm hoping for a solid, well-crafted, extensive, immersive fantasy world to explore. One that will occupy my attention for a good long while, years maybe. I wasn't really planning on paying much attention to the Homeworld thing. So we get some buffs or we don't. Is that going to matter?

It can't, can it? Surely the perks of winning can't be so significant that players on the losing worlds feel sufficiently disadvantaged to be annoyed. Because if one thing's been apparent in MMOs for more than a decade it's that while lots of players like to dabble in PvP not all that many like to make it the main thrust of their gaming time.

The set-up doesn't allow for total opt-outs, which is interesting in itself. There won't be any pure PvE worlds that don't participate in WvW. There will be plenty of players who opt out entirely, though. There was an enormous amount of that in Rift, where arguments would frequently break out between players who'd flagged for PvP and those who hadn't and didn't intend to. In Rift, even on the PvE servers, the PvP often came to you, whether you wanted it or not. In GW2 it will be safely parked in a conveniently separate world. Making it very easy to ignore.

I'm open-minded. I'm hoping the PvE will be so good I won't need the WvW to pique my jading interest. I'll settle for just for the occasional pinch of WvW spice late on a Friday or Saturday night. On the other hand, if WvW turns out to be the Wonder-PvP MMOs have been striving for since, well, since always then I won't be turning up my nose.

Either way, I'm not expecting to find out this weekend. I'm expecting to be overwhelmed, confused and quite possibly exhausted. Anything less will be a let-down.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Stop Twisting My Melon, Man! : EQ2

Miserable day outside. April showers? April steady downpour more like.

That's a real fruit. Who knew?
What could be more welcome on such a wet, grey day than a little harvesting? Gathering if you prefer. It's relaxing, soothing, and profitable. I like to gather, mine or harvest in all MMOs that allow it, which is most of them and I've always particularly enjoyed EQ2's implementation. Simple and elegant, there's a zen-like quality as you move from node to node, depleting each with a series of satisfying sounds and animations, occasionally (very occasionally) slavering at the Skinner Box reward of a Rare, signaled by a DING! worthy of Pavlov himself.

My semi-precious!
Rares in EQ2 have always represented money just lying on the ground. Perpetual revenue-generators for adventurers willing to take the trouble to skill-up their gathering skills, Rares represent a broker staple. Crafters can never have enough yet they don't want to spend the time, suffer terrible runs of luck with the RNG or just plain die too often to find all they need out in the field. Frequently some fad or bug pushes the price of a particular rare through the roof and so it is right now.

Who's the joker with the small change?

The recent update, although no full expansion, did bring two new levels for crafters as well as adventurers and along with the levels came new recipes requiring new harvests. We got a full new tier of harvests, including rares but according to EQ2Wire one of those rares, Osmium is bugged so that it drops 90% less often than it should. Since Osmium is used to make Level 91 and 92 Expert Level Mage spells and Fighter Combat Arts, and since you need to have scribed the Expert to get a Research Assistant to make you the Master version, and since not having the Master version of your new spells is like having the wrong knot in your school tie, this has not gone unnoticed.

Last night the cheapest Osmium on the broker was selling for at least 80 plat. I know, because I sold it. Today the cheapest is 102 plat. I'd undercut that if I had any more but after several hours zipping around Withered Lands on my trusty flying disc I still haven't turned one up.

Dice loaded
It's been a very pleasant day all the same. I completed a number of quests I'd forgotten about, acquired a pet Stormwing Whelp and found many Rares. Just no Osmium. The meditative trance did tend to suffer as various passing elementals, giant bugs or carnivorous plants attempted to rip my head off, but a powerful ratonga berserker laughs at such impertinences. Alright, squeaks.

Not every would-be gatherer can shrug off the advances of a homicidal treant so easily, of course, and there have been many bitter complaints over the years about SoE reneging on their contract with crafters by putting all the nodes in the middle of packs of angry animals, where only adventurers could reach them.

I thought this would be the case with our latest top-end gathering zone, Withered Lands but I was surprised to find that nodes pop up in the safe areas around the Steles, where uncorrupted satyrs maintain small pockets of Tunare-sponsored green-lawned calm among the general corruption. All types of nodes spawn there and the areas appear to be discrete "fields", meaning that as one node is depleted another will spawn in the same area rather than beyond where the wild things are.

We Bought A Zoo
This means that any gatherer, regardless of his or her adventure level, can safely harvest in the Withered Lands. Well, you'd probably want to be able to fly, which would mean being a level 85 crafter, otherwise you might have some difficulty getting to one of the Steles intact. Or at all. You only need to get there once, though, since each Stele has a horse stop and once that's opened you have a free, invulnerable, automatic ride to and from the zone-in camp any time you need it.

I found more nodes faster in that safe spot than I found while roaming, if only because cutting up huge beetles with a sword takes quite a long time. Being able to gather safely in a final-tier zone is surprisingly generous and very welcome. It still isn't getting me any Osmium though.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Alright Then, Just A Small One...

I get plenty of use out of my iPod Touch. I listen to podcasts on it (mostly Mayo and Kermode, sometimes the odd MMOcast). I watch a lot of YouTube. I convert my DVD movies and watch them on the tiny little screen, where the experience survives astonishingly unimpaired. I even use it to listen to music (mostly Lana del Rey and Peggy Sue at the moment, thanks for asking).

Surprise surprise, attacked by a boar
One thing I don't often use my iPod Touch for is playing games. I've tried a few. Ravensword looks great and oozes atmosphere even though the two-fingered control system leaves half the screen obscured most of the time, but looks aren't everything and I soon found the combat very annoying. Battleheart I played once, which was one time too many. Fabled Lands I did enjoy to some degree but it's fundamentally an animated "Choose Your Own Adventure" book and I never liked those all that much to begin with. Author Dave Morris has a blog of the same name which I found a lot more interesting than the game.

Daily Mail sub-editor in missing preposition shock!
The one game I do regularly play on my iPod is Broken Sword, superbly converted for the new device with a lot of additional content. The iPod format suits a point-and-click adventure much better than it does any attempt to mimic the movement and combat controls of an MMO. Tapping objects or characters on the screen when you want to examine or use them is, if anything, more intuitive than using a mouse and in the case of Broken Sword the top-class voice acting and soundtrack are deeply immersive over earphones.

Was Ireland ever this sunny?
I guess the market leader in mobile MMOs is Pocket Legends. It was the first app I downloaded when I got the iPod and I played it for an hour, amazed just to be holding an MMO world in the palm of my hand. I don't think I ever logged in again. Maybe Order and Chaos has overtaken Pocket Legends as the small-screen brand leader in MMOs now. I wouldn't know. I haven't tried it. Maybe if they add pandas...

Anyway, I'd about given up on finding something that looks and plays like an MMO only at 1/10th scale. Then I came across Elemental Knights.

Explosivity to the max
I'm not saying that Elemental Knights is good. It's not, or not especially. It appears to be a standard Korean style grinder with anime graphics and a fairly obstreperous cash shop. But it very much is an MMO. It doesn't just have all the elements, it has them all in the right order and working as you'd expect. The quest-givers stand there giving out typical "kill this" "fetch that" quests, the mobs in the newbie yard hop about oblivious to their inevitable imminent demise, big damage numbers float into the air as you thrash about with your unfeasibly huge sword, junk goes into your inventory, lights flash as you level up etc etc etc.

The controls are extremely easy to use and unobtrusive. Your character can be steered with one hand, which means you can actually see most of the screen all the time, which is nice because what you're looking at is a quirky, attractive world. Well, the little I've seen of it so far. I'm not making any great claims for it, but I've played it half a dozen times so far and had a passably amusing time.

Plants have girls' names, boys have hair ribbons.
All in all, though, I find the iPod screen just too small for MMO gameplay. It's pretty hard to read the quest text and very fiddly to manipulate the menus and inventories. The same wouldn't apply to a Tablet device and that's where I would like to see some real, full-feature MMOs turning up. And a good one would give me that last push I need to make the purchasing decision that I've been putting off for the last 12 months.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Not If You Paid Me: Tera, Diablo 3

Ironically perhaps, given my recent musings on the joys of beta-testing I've decided to forego two fairly major offerings this weekend.

I never played Diablo or Diablo 2. I don't really like Action RPGs. No, that's too weak. There's no "really" about it. The last action RPG I played was Dungeon Siege, which I bought on release back in 2002. I only played it a couple of times. I can see the case on the shelf from here; hasn't been opened in a decade.

Is it the gameplay that doesn't work for me? I don't think so. Dragon Nest is actiony as all get-out and I love that. Run into a pile of mobs, hammer the mouse button, slam them into the air, shoot a bunch of furniture and see it explode...what's not to like? Nor is it the over-the-shoulder three-quarter, third-person perspective or the relatively small characters and mobs. City of Steam has all that and I love it.

It's the pointlessness of it all, I think. I'm very aware that whatever "point" any of this stuff may have has to be self-imposed. I'm not about to argue that there's some ur-significance in playing MMOs that's absent in other forms of video-gaming. And I strongly believe that no leisure activity needs any more "point" than that when you've finished doing it you're glad you did and might even consider doing it again.

No miss, I am not "looking for action"
That's not a feeling I get  when I spend time on an action rpg. The sub-genre seems to strip-mine the larger, slower version (do we call that the Inaction RPG?) for the raw ore of killing stuff and grabbing loot. It's like having an iced bun without the bun.

Maybe I'm doing A-RPGs a disservice. I haven't really played one for a decade, after all. And I'm not going to start with the D3 Beta. I might take a run at Path of Exile though, if only to see how a New Zealand developer's take differs. I don't think I've ever played any kind of RPG from Down Under.

That's D3 out of the running, which leaves Tera as this weekend's possible free preview candidate. Tera is at least an MMO, which makes it inherently interesting, to me at least. I've read plenty about Tera and all its multifarious controversies, from the prurient character modelling to the legal catfights, the in-yer-face advertizing to the contested claims of originality. None of that bothers me enough to put me off giving it a look for free.

The screenshots and videos look attractive. Nice scenery, bright colors, amusing very large monsters. I do like a very large monster. Should be worth a download, no? Well, I got as far as reading the FAQ.  And I got as far down the FAQ as the part about using Alt or Esc to bring up a hotbar to do stuff and only using the mouse to attack. Oh, and "The one tip every TERA player needs to keep in mind is that survivability depends on not standing still." No. Not even No Thanks. Just No.

Big world, small horizons
I'm not interested in having to run about all the time. I'm not roleplaying the frigging Duracell bunny! If I have to dodge when something's coming my way, fine, that I can handle but don't tell me I have to keep moving or I'll move alright, all the way to another game. And don't force me to use the keyboard to open hotbars or menus when you could just put the goddam things onscreen and let me click them with the mouse. FFXIV tried that and look how well it worked out for them.

I'm already sufficiently apprehensive about the GW2 controls and combat. Acid test for that comes in just under a week. I don't need to spend this weekend trying to unlearn twelve years of MMO muscle memory for a couple of sessions in Tera only to have to do it all again only differently in a few days. For Guild Wars 2 I'll make the effort. For Tera? Not going to happen.

Just a boy and his skinned cat looking for adventure
Shame, really, because all SOE's games will be inaccessible for the whole of Monday and I might have given either of these a fair go. Not to worry, plenty more fish in the MMO sea. Maybe I'll take a look at LotRO's fifth anniversary party, explore Loong some more, pick back up where I left off in Allods, do some sub-20 Rifting, try to complete Eye of the North in Guild Wars, see if I can get out of the starting village in Aerrevan...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Withered Goest Thou: EQ2

Saddle up your griffin, we're off to the Withered Lands! Along with everyone else. Within an hour or two of GU63 going live yesterday Freeport, probably EQ2's busiest server, had five instances of the new overland zone running.

EQ2's ability to spin up copies of any zone that gets too full means you never really get that glorious launchday crush, when frame-rates drop to single figures and it's ten men to every wolf. Still, it was busy enough. After a few minutes of being gazumped on ground spawns just outside the opening quest hub I took to the skies and went exploring. When it wasn't raining, that is. There's a storm dragon in Withering Lands who doesn't like to share the skies with anyone so periodically she makes it rain so hard griffins get too wet to fly. Or something. Anyway, you're grounded.

Did I take a wrong turning? This looks like Vana'diel
It's a nice hark back to the terrifying Wuoshi, who used to lurk in agro range of the Druid Ring in the original Wakening Lands. For a long time I had a low level character camped out there on a suicide mission. When my druid wanted to port to Wakening Lands I'd log the unlucky chump in first. If Wuoshi didn't eat him, it was safe to travel.

Nothing in Withered Lands seems to require quite that degree of paranoid preparation. My first impression of our new playground is that it's quite beautiful. It certainly doesn't look withered. Weird, yes. There's quite a variety of terrain in a relatively small area. Corrupted woodland, obviously, but also an odd flat pond with knee-deep water, a lot of craggy mountains, patches of hold-out Tunarean greenery and some arid dustland. Most of our old friends from Tunare's day seem to have survived the intervening half-millennium. I spotted mist panthers, raptors, giants, satyrs and the ever-unwelcome Holgresh but no sign so far of the clunky, clanky empty suits of armor I used to spend hour after hour dismantling in the olden days.

No fair! I wanted a blue one
The zone is one of the best to fly in so far. Lots of canyons to swoop through. Flying inside the giants' magnificent lofty halls is especially entertaining. It doesn't rain in there, either. If you'd rather not fly (and if you don't have Featherfall you probably shouldn't, what with the 20k falling damage I took when it started to rain and I was foolishly aloft with my crafting cloak on) there are horse stations scattered around. The zone is relatively linear and a ride on the very fast horse from end to end takes a good while, although not quite as long as the interminable canter from the Feerrott docks to Cazic Thule. An odd touch is that while riding you display a pennant and the flag is a different color for different characters. Not sure if this means anything...

Withered Lands is quite three-dimensional, with those canyons plus caves, tunnels and insect mounds. The color palette is very varied. Make the most of the scenery on the way to Skyshrine, because Skyshrine is "a city at war"tm and it looks just like the ones in every other MMO. People (well, droags) lying around all over the place, lots of things on fire, barricades etc etc. If you were hoping for a suave, sophisticated city of dragons to hang out in (I was) then you probably should have come a century ago.

Hey Jim! You left some green in. Boss is gonna be mad.
The layout seems to match the template of The Hole in Odus. A small quest hub where you come in and three wings of heroic content which are also available as three separate instances. The difference here is that the instances are tuned for duos. And they're orange. More orange than a Dutch football fan drinking Tango while eating a tangerine. I have never in my life seen so much orange.

The content itself seems fun, although the quest text manages to be both verbose and lackluster at the same time, which is quite a trick. EQ2 has a relatively high standard of wit and humor for an MMO but I've scarcely cracked a smile so far. The actual tasks are the usual; kill me eight of these, get me six of those, bring me back a wolf, find my missing patrol. Yadda yadda and indeed yadda.

 Norrath's Bore of the Year Finalists limber up
The New Combine expedition is as badly organized and ill-prepared as any expeditionary force not led by gnomes could possibly be and of course any random passing adventurer is going to do a better job than these clowns. It's handy, then, that said clowns seem to have more gold than the First Bank of Norrath to hand out, not to mention weapons and armor that would have been considered suitable for gods only a day ago.

Despite the complete lack of logic, internal consistency and anything approaching  sense in the basic set-up, I'm finding it a lot of fun. In fact, I wouldn't be here writing about it now if it wasn't that so many other people seem to have been finding it fun as well that Freeport has crashed. Again.

As soon as I can get back in, I'm going on a monkey hunt. Someone's going to give me pants if I bring him four monkey spell-books. And they're Godlike pants!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Good Things Come: EQ2, GW2, City of Steam

I'm all for deferred gratification but sometimes you can not have too much of a good thing. What with all the the kerfuffle over the Guild Wars 2 pre-purchase I was kind of expecting something more from ArenaNet than tumbleweed rolling past. It seems lax marketing not to have hammered home the advisability of pre-purchase with at least the announcement of a date for a first beta weekend, if not an actual schedule or, god forbid, a release date.

Ravious at Kill Ten Rats says "ArenaNet promises that there will be a Beta Weekend Event at the end of April" in his recent piece (which I linked last time ). He doesn't provide a source for that but he was in the Press Beta so maybe he has seen a schedule. Posters on the Guild Wars 2 Guru forums also seem to take it as read that if there's no beta this weekend there certainly will be next. I have no idea where they are getting any of this from.

Where it all began...
Eager though I am to point my mouse at a GW2 icon I'm happy enough to wait until next weekend because this week is all about the dragons. As I write this, EQ2's servers are all down in preparation for GU63, the Skyshrine update. Kaozz isn't best pleased  about SOE's new Must Be This High To Ride rule, which arguably takes the Theme Park allegory a bit too literally. There's a 280AA gate to pass before Level 90s can begin earning xp towards 91 and adding Prestige Points (not Prestige Classes, which turned out to be a slip of the tongue by now-you-see-her, now-you-don't newish EQ2 Producer Holly "Windstalker" Longdale).

As far as I know (and I have done a modicum of fact-checking up to and including reading some stuff here and there and getting on a Griffin on Test to fly to the first quest hub in Withering Lands) current 90s can access all the new content regardless of how many AAs they don't have. Crafters, of course, don't need any AAs at all to get their two extra levels. Slackers.

I've been slavering for this update for weeks. I hate the phrase "I can't wait" because, well clearly I not only can but will. It's not like I have a time-machine (and if I did I seriously doubt I'd be using it to skip ahead to an EQ2 update, but as usual I digress). Not only do we get a new overland zone to explore and one of my favorite Everquest zones, Skyshrine, to hang out in but we're promised solo/duo versions of group dungeons, something I would very much like to encourage in all MMOs.

And most importantly of all, we get a huge gear upgrade. Yep, we just had one but that was almost a year ago. Nine months then... The solo quest rewards from Withering Lands, obtainable and useable at 90, look to be on a par with current near-top-end raid gear. Welfare epics FTW ! Even without the extra two levels that's going to open up a whole swathe of older content for current non-raiders with max-level characters. Assuming they like to do content the rewards for which are inferior to what they already have, of course. I do, but I'm funny that way.

You want it warmed up, luv?
Another thing I've been waiting on is the City of Steam alpha. No hint yet when it might appear but there have been some very intriguing additions to the website. If you're the sort that loves to absorb lore and background history for worlds that not only don't exist but don't don't exist yet, the COS team is beginning to put some casing over the cogs in the World section, but the part that caught my attention was this on housing.

I didn't even realize City of Steam was going to have housing, so the news that it won't be fully implemented in Alpha didn't come as a crushing disappointment for me. More "Wow! There's housing?!" They hardly need to apologize for not having it fully implemented in Alpha, but then I'm not convinced Mechanist Games know what an alpha test is. I went on at some length  about how impressed I was with their "Sneak Peak" and their version of alpha sounds a lot more like a fairly advanced beta to me. I wish they'd open it up and build it around us rather than try to get it just-so at this stage.

And finally there's that beta with pandas. What's that one called again? Oh yes, Eligium. I've downloaded it twice and installed it several times on various drives and it's never worked. I got as far as patching it last night, which was a first, but my virus checker was convinced it was malware. Getting past that, the client finally attempted to open the game, only to crash repeatedly on the loading screen with a memory error.

Some things are worth waiting for and some aren't. I'll have those 3GB back now, thanks Eligium. I'll be needing them in a week or two when that beta weekend comes around.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Better the Beta You Know: GW2, EQ2

I bought Guild Wars 2 this week, a game that doesn't yet exist. Spinks think this demonstrates poor organizational skills on my part. Ravious put his hand in his pocket but he's a little concerned about where we might end up if a precedent is set. Just to give a little perspective, I was chatting with someone at work yesterday who told me that he and his girlfriend are going to see Michael MacIntyre in August. They bought the tickets last August. Paying for things that don't yet exist is not something ArenaNet just invented.

As I've said before, how we pay for MMOs is quite possibly the single least interesting aspect of the entire MMO phenomenon. We're all adults. We can spend our money how we like (although if it genuinely makes a meaningful difference to your household economy whether you spend £50 on a video game this month or in three month's time it's entirely possible you shouldn't be spending it on a video game in the first place, but then, hey, I'm not your dad so knock yourself out!). No, the part of the discussion that spun out of this which interested me was whether or not beta access counts a "benefit" to players.

So, crabs again?
I've done a lot of MMO betas. My first was Anarchy Online, for which they sent me the client in the post, on CDRom. I still have it somewhere. I spent most of a week trying to install it. Never got it to run but that didn't stop me buying the game when it came out, when it still didn't run. Anarchy Online remains the benchmark for the worst MMO launch ever. I think it was three months before they actually charged anyone a subscription because that's how long it took before the game was playable.

From then on I applied for pretty much every MMO beta and got into plenty. A surprising number of my fondest, most lapidary memories of a dozen years spent trekking through virtual worlds come from betas. The thrill of using a jet-pack in Endless Ages (still the best flight experience I've had in an MMO); seeing the Capryni scatter as they scented a prowling Gingo in Ryzom;  riding into Lomshir for the first time in Vanguard.

And the bugs. My god, the bugs. Pushing through a gap in geometry to break into someone's house in Endless Ages and not being able to get out again (that was a re-roll). Falling for fatal damage every time I even passed close to a griffin tower in EQ2.  The plain unplayable lag in Rubies of Eventide, Horizons, EQ2, Vanguard... well, every beta ever at some point, come to think of it.

Waiting for the end of the world
This is where I should make a confession. I really like bugs in MMOs. I see them as content. I've probably had almost as much fun out of bugs over the years as gameplay, which is partly why EQ2 Test was my home server for more than five years. I like finding bugs and I like reporting them. I've had everything up to and including all my characters vanishing from bugs and while I get as annoyed as anyone would when I can't do what I was planning, dealing with a funny, odd or flat-out game-breaking bug sometimes turns out to be a lot more involving and thought-provoking than whatever I had in mind. It's true dynamic content.

 A huge part of the interest in playing MMOs for me has always come from trying to understand how they work. It's one reason I don't like tutorials much. I like to observe, gather data and test hypotheses while playing. I like it best of all if I'm never quite sure, even after extensive research, what the hell is going on. Bugs open up the cover so you can see the gears whirr and betas pull back the curtain so you can see backstage. More than that, you can chat to the stage manager, the make-up artist and the props team. A good beta will offer multiple channels of communication with the developers, from ad hoc in game chats through organized content testing to lengthy forum discussions. It's not one-way traffic, either. In a good beta you have a real chance to influence the detail, even the direction of the game you eventually hope to play. I've seen countless changes made in good betas as a result of player feedback (and countless more ignored but, hey...)

Wonder if woodworkers get a scratching-post recipe?

That's a good beta. A bad beta is one where nothing you say, nothing anyone says, seems to be getting through to anyone that cares. Where feedback is ignored, issues glossed over or there's always a "miracle patch" just round the corner. I'd name names but the NDAs for betas like that never end. (The only genuine miracle patch I ever saw was in the final week or thereabouts of EQ2 beta when, after a month of game-breaking, unplayable rubber-banding lag and innumerable fiddle-faddling changes to changes to changes that had just about everyone playing believing the launch should be delayed at least another three months, we logged in one day to a lag-free, reasonably smooth, certainly fit-for-launch MMO. They said they had one last patch that would fix most of the major problems and they really did. Of course it didn't address any of the gaping holes in the underlying design - Scott Hartsman had to come in and start on that six months later, but you can't have everything. At least it ran! )

Mandatory letterbox format preserved for disbelieving future generations
Then there's the opportunity to say "I was there", although that can be a very bittersweet experience. Some MMOs I've beta tested have been more to my taste at some point before launch than they ever managed afterwards. It can be a little galling to remember that the game you're playing not only could have been better but was. I'd rather know, though, than not know.

And finally there's the end. The day it all stops. Sometimes the server just closes and re-opens as "Open Beta" the next day and it's all a bit of an anticlimax, but often there's a big party, or an apocalypse. My favorite beta memory ever comes from EQ2. Everyone gathered at the Claymore in Antonica for a party before the world came down but right at the very end, just before the countdown started, I decided to go into the great dark in my own Inn room, just me and my cat. I just made it back in time to sit on my bed and then the world ended. You just can't buy that.

Boom, out go the lights.

Oh, wait, now you can! That's where we came in. Will GW2 beta weekends have any of the benefits I'm gushing over? You wouldn't think so. They will be totally nonexclusive, open to all for the payment of a fee. They'll be isolated weekends, not a continuum. It's unlikely that a community will have a chance to develop (a beta community can be a very different beast from a Live one). Above all, people will have paid to be there and will have entitlement issues off the scale compared to those normally seen in betas (not that those aren't often ridiculous in themselves).

These weekends will probably be much more like the marketing-led Open Betas MMOs throw out like chum to bring in the fish they hope to land at launch. But maybe not. Rift's beta weekends were proper betas, even at the end when they were letting everyone in. Every single Rift beta weekend was arguably more entertaining than any weekend post-launch. Any way up, I'm happy to have the opportunity, even if I did have to pay for it. It's money I would have spent in any event and it will buy fun I otherwise wouldn't have had.

I'd have preferred to have gotten into the closed beta, all the same.
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