Tuesday, July 31, 2012

I Have Nothing To Say About Runescape

There was a discussion over at Spinksville the other day in the course of which I rashly mentioned Runescape. Spinks suggested that if I had something to say about the game maybe I'd like to say it instead of pointing out that no-one else was saying anything.

I've never played Runescape. No, that's not strictly true. I did play it a handful of times, for a few hours in total. The first time was November 2011 which is spectacularly late to the party for a game that started in 2001. I really have no explanation for why it took me ten years to get around giving it a try. I'd known about it for years and back in the pre-WoW era there weren't so many English language MMORPGs going around that you could afford to ignore one. I bought and played all the other big names of that generation - UO, EQ, AO, AC, DAOC, the whole alphabet soup. I even jumped on lesser-knowns like Rubies of Eventide and Endless Ages and played the heck out of them for a while.

I've been racking my brains over why I wouldn't have given Runescape a run and I can't come up with a good answer. For some reason it literally never occurred to me. I had nothing against it, indeed I knew very little about it. Still don't, which is particularly surprising since Runescape isn't just any old MMO, it's a Guinness Record holder: the world's largest free MMORPG with over 200 million accounts created. And more than that, it's British.

I don't have any pictures of Runescape.
That's why I used it as an example in Spinks's discussion when I was commenting on how many MMOs there are that never get written about on any of the blogs I read. Spinks and I are both based in Britain and this game is British, far and away the biggest MMO ever made in this country and the biggest F2P MMORPG in the world and neither of us has played it to any degree nor considered writing about it.

Well, as  Spinks points out, she's only one person. So am I, one who complains constantly that I don't have time to play all the MMOs I'm interested in let alone write about them all. It really makes no sense for any of us to start writing about ones we don't play. But someone must. All those players, there must be blogs. So I went to look for them.

Runescape blogs seem to operate entirely differently from the MMO blogs I'm used to reading. No-one seems to use Blogger or Wordpress. Most of the google results took me to Sal's Realm of Runescape which appears to host blogs through a forum. As far as I can tell, this precludes adding them to a blog reader although maybe someone reading this knows how that can be made to happen. The other excellent, extremely informative blog I found was on something called Wizzley, another blog-hosting service I've never heard of. It's no wonder I never ran across any of these. It's like a mirror world.

All these are from Wingnut's Steam Fair
So, what's hot in the Runescape blogosphere? Pay-to-win. It's a dirty word almost anywhere (alright, three dirty words) but the dust is really flying over there. Apparently veteran players are leaving in droves and all the active Runescape blogs I tracked down seemed to be talking mostly about the death of the game as they'd known and loved it.

In the extensive, heated discussions on cash shops and microtransactions that I've read and taken part in over the years Runescape has rarely if ever come up. I couldn't have told you if it had a cash shop or not. Apparently it didn't but now it does and this is a very big deal indeed to the Runescape community.

Until this year Jagex, creators and publishers of Runescape, funded the game through a combination of premium accounts (subs) and advertising. In February this year they introduced something appealingly called the Squeal of Fortune, a form of roulette where players can win items including some that give xp. A mere two months after that a microtransaction currency was added, allowing players to buy turns on the Squeal for real money. This month they added a full Cash Shop.

EQ2, Freeport server, Medium Homes. Go visit it. It's free!
That's a decision at least on a par with SOE selling Europe to PSS1 in terms of controversy and ethics. Oh come on now, Bhagpuss? Ethics? Bit strong, what? Well, I didn't bring the word into the discussion. Jagex's Chief Executive Mark Gerhard did in an interview he gave to The Guardian. After soundly rubbishing the entire concept of funding an MMO via microtransactions he finished by saying "Ethically you can say it devalues the product".

That leaves disgruntled Runescape players in the place disgruntled SOE players know so well. Get used to it or get out. One response of Everquest players to a never-ending sequence of changes they didn't like was Project 1999. Runescape has RS2006 for which almost 125,000 people have signed up.

All this happening in my own country, in my main hobby, right now and yet I didn't know about any of it. You don't find if you don't look. I still can't tell you why I never played Runescape but it doesn't look like this is a good time to start.

Gone Cogging: EQ2

Boy, is Tinkerfest popular this year. I'm used to Norrathian holidays drawing a crowd. EQ2 players are a tolerably cheerful bunch as MMO players go (raiders excepted) and they do like a party.  Throw in something to collect and you'd have to run 'em off with a cattle prod. Even so, this particular Tinkerfest seems exceptionally busy and there aren't even any new quests. I found one that I thought was new but it turns out I did it last year. Bummer.

So what's the big attraction? Well, it's mounts, isn't it? For the first time the gnomes have put their tinkered platforms up for sale and they do look good. Naimi Denmother has pictures of all of them along with details of everything Tinkerfest, old and new.

Kajigger is a technical term
 I do like a nice hovercar but I have a lot of ground mounts and I probably wouldn't use another. The chance of a new one certainly wouldn't drag me back from fragging werewolves in Carpathian Mountains and put me to grovelling for cogs. And smart as the hovercars are, I doubt they'd bring out these crowds.

No, it'll be the Wings. Oh yes, wings. Wings were introduced into the Station Store with some controversy quite a while back. Not nearly as long ago as I'd "remembered", as it happens. Had you asked me (and why wouldn't you?) I'd have said we'd had flying wings for a couple of years. Then perhaps I'd have remembered that we couldn't fly at all until the Destiny of Velious expansion and that didn't arrive until February 2011.

How much???
According to TAGN, which is almost as good a Journal of Record for the Everquest games as Allakhazam and a lot more entertaining, the first wings that actually let you fly appeared just under a year later in January 2012. They cost $20 in the Station Cash Shop then and they still do.

No-one's looking, grab it!
I've always fancied a pair but I'm not crazy enough to spend real money for them. Not twenty dollars of it, anyway. 500 cogs, though, that's a very fair price. A lot fairer than the bottom-floor ask of 50 gold a cog the gougers are asking on the broker. No wonder it's busy. That's how I came to spend more than two hours this morning grubbing up Shiny Tinkerfest Cogs from all over Norrath.

The Blue Batonga
I did try yesterday but it was far too busy. Three ratongas to a cog is no fun. It was still busy this morning. I tried and abandoned Inventor's Outlook in Freeport, Gnomeland Security in Steamfont, the Drednever Crash Site in The Bonemire and Dropship Landing Zone in The Moors of Ykesha. All being picked over in a frenzy by elves, arisai, even ogres. In the end I settled for Indigo Hollow in Neriak on the grounds that most goody-goodies won't or can't go to Neriak. Another advantage is that the Neriak authorities keep their gnomes penned up in a very small corner so the cogs don't roll too far. Makes them very easy to pick up.The cogs, not the gnomes.

I'd listened to two radio plays and a comedy show before I had my 500 cogs. Painless, even enjoyable. I've always found gathering in MMOs relaxing. Then off to buy my wings. I chose the blue ones to go with my blue pirate outfit. Ok, a ratonga with wings is technically a bat but I fly like a bird!

I'm halfway to my second pair already.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Smile! You're In Transylvania! : TSW

11:20 AM British Summer Time. Monday morning. The west coast of America is sleeping, the east just beginning to stir. I log onto the Arcadia server. It's Full. It was full all day yesterday and felt it. As we approach the end of the first, free month, the population appears to be doing better than holding steady.

Oi! You'll have that tree alight!
I will be re-subbing for at least a month. Were Guild Wars 2 not looming I'd probably take a longer option. I may yet. I'm far from sure I'll be done with TSW in just another four weeks, particularly if the monthly content updates appear as promised. Mrs Bhagpuss, I think, will not re-sub. Despite it being her interest that got us into the game in the first place, she finds it too depressing a world to want to spend much time in.

Vampire Fast Food
Depressing wouldn't be my choice of words. I'd go for grim. Also disturbing. I'm not a fan of the horror genre, never have been, but as a long-term consumer of science fiction and fantasy, in books, movies, comics and video-games a certain exposure to its tropes has been unavoidable. Little that I've seen in The Secret World has been unfamiliar but quite a lot of it has been mildly uncomfortable. A handful of images (like the one on the right) I'd probably rather not have seen at all.

The real-world setting sharpens up the emotional response as does the relative realism of the graphics. I've yet to see anything in The Secret World in essence more viscerally vile than the disjointed, dismembered dwarves hanging on meat-hooks in the Troll city of Grobb, nor a game concept more repulsive than the casual use of body parts of player races in the craft of Baking, but the difference is that the 1990s graphics and fantasy setting of Everquest dilute the force of the horror, rendering it whimsical and fey whereas in The Secret World it comes at you raw and undiluted.

Gnomes on a roundabout! This is what we want!
Which is not to say that The Secret World doesn't have a whimsy all its own. The whole game soaks in it. Every other character seems to raise an arched eyebrow or adopt an ironic tone. The clutter in every house and street could be an art installation satirizing How We Live Now. Even the ambient soundscape quirks the corners of my mouth. But it's a dark humor. Laughing into the night. Whistling to keep your spirits up.

For me, far from being depressing traveling through this world has largely been a joy. The New England zones were fascinating. The towns and hamlets were charming and attractive, the sunlight through the trees and over the water beautiful, the coastline begging to be explored. It made me feel that Maine, on which I believe it's based, would be a very good place for a holiday. The endless dimming Fog and the constant zombie attacks were wearing, though, and those bloody moths really put a damper on the whole holiday vibe. I think it's my least favorite region.

A CRT? When will these fey-folk join the modern world?

About Egypt I have only good things to say. The sun shines all day and the stars come out at night. The gold of the sands and the blue of the sky lift the spirits. The ruins are fascinating, the locals and the visitors all have compelling stories to tell and the monsters have the grace to die quickly when you shoot them. I'm not done there and I'll be happy to go back.

And then we come to Transylvania. What must the Romanian Tourist Board be thinking? If we take it (and I think we must) that Funcom have done a lot of research and made a great effort to portray their locations as close analogs of their counterparts in our not-so-secret world, Transylvania does not look like much of a holiday destination.

Visit Traditional Village!
People do go there on vacation. I sometimes sell them the guide books. Somehow I don't imagine Harbaburesti figuring in anyone's itinerary. Even without the ghouls using uprooted roadsigns to dig up the dead and half the cars overturned and set on fire, it wouldn't look very appealing, what with the litter and trash in the untended gardens, everything looking used and worn out and the factories pouring pollution into the streams.

Further on the prospects improve a little. The Shadowy Forest looks, well, shadowy and forested. The Carpathian Teeth are snowy and open. I plan to explore those a little over the next couple of days, now that I'm strong enough to do more than just jog along the main roads. I have high hopes for Transylvania.

A grim world it may be, but it's an enthralling and compelling one, too. I want to see as much of it as I'm able.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Hey, Take A Little While - EQ2

Tinkerfest is here again
The skies above are clear again
So let’s sing a song of cheer again
Tinkerfest is here again !

Tinkerfest, finest of all Norrath's public holidays! How happy we are to see you! How much longer than one short year seems the wait for your annual appearance. How all too brief your stay with us when at last it arrives.

The crowds gathered in breathless anticipation as the hour approached. And passed.
Pardon me. I didn't realize it was formal dress.
Had the gnomish alarm clock failed to go off? Had Bristlebane finally defeated Brell in an arm wrestling contest and become the Gnome owner he'd always believed he was born to be? Would there be no tinkering til Bristlebane Day and nothing but clockwork whoopee cushions in the new blueprint?

Or had SOE chosen this most hallowed of holidays to trot out their party piece yet again? Ladies and gentleman, a big hand for the Mr Bean of MMOs, the one company incapable of organizing a drinking contest in a Dwarven alehouse, I give you Sony Online Entertainment. At least one of those words always spoken with an ironic intonation. Probably not the first one.

Time passed. News came there none. The crowds grew restive, then restiver (is that a word?). The discovery that one of the gnomes in Gnomeland Security was killable led to repeated and entirely unjustified reprisals. If in doubt, kill a gnome. It's the Norrathian way.

Sorry mate. Not my department.
The four celebratory aether races continued. The gnomes responsible for those had miraculously assembled them both instantaneously and on time. They had no comment to make about the ongoing absence of their tinkering compatriots. It was Hamlet without the Prince, Queen without Freddie. It was bloody annoying is what it was.

Adding insult to injury since 1999
 Some eight and a half hours past the scheduled time, with no fanfare nor even a Broadcast "Better late than never", up popped the gnomes. Just at the exact time the Sunday shift would have arrived at work, sat down at their desks, checked their messages and... "Geez! Can no-one do anything right? FFS, ok, give me ten minutes to finish my coffee and I'll sort it".

I've lived in Norrath for a dozen years. I'm British. I grew up in the 1970s. Honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way. Seriously.

In case you're interested, Tinkerfest is here until August 8th. Or until someone remembers to switch it off.

In other news, Qeynos got revamped. You may have missed it. Even if you were there. Since I waxed apprehensive then relieved about Freeport, I felt duty-bound to visit Qeynos, to take some screenshots of the changes. I went but I couldn't find any. Wilhelm did, sort of, so go look at his.  

And a No Prize (remember those?) for the first person who correctly identifies where the post title comes from.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Better Pair of Pants: GW2, TSW

As I contemplate the upcoming launch of Guild Wars 2 I find myself giving quite a lot of thought to just why I'm looking forward to it so much. Taking the abstracts (entertainment, amusement, excitement, satisfaction) as givens, there's a single cord that binds me to any new MMO more securely than any other. Not all MMOs have it but I believe GW2 does.

It's not a convincing, believable virtual world, compelling, involving gameplay or an intriguing, well-written story, important and welcome though any and all of those may be. No, the one thing that draws me in and holds me more securely and certainly than any other is the feeling that I'm making my own way in a world indifferent to whether I live or die.

No-Pants Cat. Don't be this guy.
At its best it's like being a cross between Robinson Crusoe and Huckleberry Finn. Here I stand, a naif about to set out on a journey from ignorance to understanding, bouyed up by strength of will, filled with indefatigable self-belief and with my pants held up by string. In the end it all comes down to that: walking out of the city gate in a torn shirt and a pair of ragged trousers, a cracked stick in my hand and two coppers in my pocket. Forget the heroics, forget the plot. Just let me find a decent belt.

In the Guild Wars 2 beta how did I spend most of my time? Trying out builds and classes? Exhaustively testing and submitting reports? Making a useful contribution to my own journey of self discovery or to the good of the game? A bit of that, yes, but that wasn't most of what I did. Nothing like.

Yes, I took photos of my Discoveries in Beta. What are you, my therapist?
What then? What did I do while playing a character that I knew had no future, a mayfly born to die? Make a fleeting reputation for myself by filling hearts? Pursue my heroic destiny through the medium of personal story? Nope. I spent hour after hour hunting Skales for leather and Bandits for cloth to make my own armor, that's what. Chopping down trees to make my own bow. Roaming the Ash Plains like a one-Charr barbarian horde, filling anything and everything with arrows until it fell over and I could see if it had anything I could use. And I did it with no purpose other than the sheer pleasure of doing it.

Amazing what a creature with no pockets can carry.
Change the scene. Why am I nailed onto The Secret World, eager to start playing as soon as I come home from work, itching right now to stop typing this and log in? Is it the compulsive storytelling, the finely-drawn characters, the emotionally involving voice acting, the intellectually engaging gameplay? They all figure, but mainly it's so I can kill an inordinate amount of ghouls in the hope that one might drop a thing that's better than a thing I already have.

Drill down into this and it becomes clear that I'm not doing it to get better at anything in particular or to get stronger so I can do anything specific. Nothing, that is beyond getting better and stronger so I can go further, see more and thereby get better and stronger to go further and see more still. That's my motivation. Get better, get stronger, see more.

#1 priority for Headstart. Get this hat.
It's why The Secret World works, why Guild Wars 2 works, why Everquest, EQ2 and Vanguard work. Start off weak in a wide and wonderful world, discover how to become strong enough through your own efforts that you might go out and explore it all. And along the way, try to look less like a hobo and more like a hero.

Ah, there's that word. The one that, in the end, causes all the problems. I do want to look like a hero, or at least an anti-hero. Like Keith Richards, perhaps, or Phaid the Gambler, an ironic grin, a ready quip and a twist of crystal in my watch-pocket. I want to look like a hero, yes, but I don't much want to do anything heroic, certainly not slay dragons or delve dungeons.

Am I too early?
I put in all those hours, weeks, months pulling this look together. Now I just want to sit in the city square, sip absinthe and savor the envy. Which, of course, works fine if the city square in question is the Placa Reial in Barcelona but not so well if it's Execution Plaza in Freeport. And that's where alts come in.

Here's my recipe for happiness in each new MMO: start with nothing, work your tail off (metaphorically speaking, for all the ratongas and charrs out there) til you have everything, then gracefully retire stage right. Re-enter stage left in fresh rags and do it all over again.

A dozen years in and it's beginning to look as though that process is infinitely recursive. My pleasure fails to diminish. The luster does not dim. It's good to find new worlds in which to repeat it because a change of scenery is welcome now and again but if the flow of new worlds ever stopped (it won't) I believe I could step out over and over into Norrath or Telon or Tyria and bootstrap myself up as a fox or a rat or a gnome for the tenth, hundredth, thousandth time with an anticipation almost indistinguishable from the first.

Everything else, the story, the socializing, the adventure, all of them trail along behind, supporting cast to the never-ending search for a better pair of pants.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Getting Back To The Plot...: The Secret World

For a while I veered off the main storyline in The Secret World. It's allowed. Recommended. Funcom plug the idea repeatedly in the loading screen tips, which I've had ample time to commit to memory. I haven't seen load times this long since the glory days of Everquest, when I could sometimes read two pages of a novel between Butcherblock and Greater Faydark

Don't tempt me. No, seriously...
Don't try to do all the main story at once, they warn. As if you could. When last I was following the main plot I was supposed to find someone in Blue Mountain, which I heard as "hey, wanna come score some sulphate tonight? Someone told me there's a guy, I think he might be biker? Its over at that place where the police won't go after dark so it's like totally cool. No, I don't know exactly where. Just somewhere around there. No, I don't know what he looks like, no, nor his name neither but I bet we'll know him when we see him, right?". I mean, what could go wrong?

The colors, man!
So I left it for a while and then another while but eventually the Egyptian sun toughened me up enough that I thought I'd give it a go and it all went a lot better than I expected.

I only had to look up a couple of things, locations mostly. The fights were just right, stretching but with success rarely in doubt. The plot was twisty and hooky and the end was really very good indeed. Can't really say too much, spoilers and all that, but someone got what was coming to them and someone else I'd forgotten all about did the giving.

There was one very dodgy bit right at the end that I thought came down to poor design. I was sufficiently cagey to google before I committed myself and I found lots of other people who hadn't been so cautious bitterly regretting it. They have my sympathy. Having the game mess with the personality of your character through an unclear game mechanic isn't really on.

Handy, comic shop right next door
My non-spoiler warning? Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. No, really. Don't. Keep your hands in your pockets and walk away.

The storyline took me back to London, what with me being a Templar, where it turned very dark and nasty. I sort of enjoyed it and sort of didn't at the same time, like reading a crime novel and having to skip over the gruesome parts but not giving up on it because the characters and plot are so compelling. No, not like that. That.

It did give me the opportunity to explore London again and remind myself just what a superb rendition of the real city it is. Well, if Everything was True. I've been crediting Grant Morrison for inspiring much of The Secret World but I found evidence it may have been one of his contemporaries instead. Or more likely as well. I present my evidence in visual form. Oh, and as they say on the buses, Read Comics.

Never look in the kitchen in a place you're going to eat.
The Haitian market is a real work of art. I knew that but I hadn't come across the Rastafarian cook in the gumbo parlor before. He's a real highlight. Once I found him I couldn't stop watching him skanking around his kitchen pulling ganja out of his hat. He's how I found out the in-game video options don't work. Just a screenshot, then.

Another chat with the ever-amusing Sonnac and it was back to Egypt, on official business this time. Having already explored just about the whole zone saved a ton of time. Whenever someone mentioned something, instead of scratching my head for half an hour then giving up and googling I was able to go "oh I know exactly where/who/what you mean! I went there/talked to her/shot at them indiscriminately only the other day!"

Said at a disadvantage. Relish it.
My favorite character so far, Said the three-thousand year-old Jay McInerney wannabe turned up. Oops, sorry. That's sort of a spoiler. But you knew he had to be more than a mission terminal in a panama hat, right? Monty and his very close friend at the dig also have a hand in things it seems. Egypt is really rich on strong characters, but then where in the game isn't?

After pounding through seventeen stages of story mission almost without a hitch I finally ran into the wall on Tier 4 of Red Sun Black Sand. It's not even a difficult puzzle, just a tough mini-boss I can't beat. Can't be bothered to beat, truth be told. I know how but it's too much like hard work actually doing it so I'm going exploring again. Don't go away Mr Fire Golem, I'll be back for you when I'm all togged up in Q8 and then we'll see who leeches whom.

Monday, July 23, 2012

What To Do 'Til GW2

Wave goodbye to the Guild Wars 2 beta. There it goes, trudging over the hill with all its belongings in a hankie on a stick. I won't miss it. In the end I logged in just once over the last weekend, when I made that unfortunate and unloved cabbage elf.

I'm prepped and ready for headstart on the 25th, not just the weekend cleared but a whole ten days off work. I know what race I'm playing first (Charr) and what class (Ranger). Second up will be an Asura, probably an Engineer. After that, ABS (Anything But Sylvari).

What to do with the thirty-three days until then?

Well, there's The Secret World, which I'm still enjoying a great deal, although something odd has occurred. I currently have around 130 unspent Action Points and no desire whatsoever to spend any of them. The cap for saved AP is 175 so this is going to become a problem sooner rather than later. It's all getting a bit Brewster's Millions. No matter how much I spend I keep earning more and it's getting harder and harder to think of what to buy next.

It's a nice problem to have but I'm entirely happy with the build I'm using. It does everything I need it to do, l understand it, I'm practiced with it and it works. This puts me in something of a quandary. All I can do with my ever-increasing pile of AP is buy new abilities, but I don't want any new abilities. What I'd like to do is upgrade the abilities I've got, but there's no option for that.

Worse still, if I buy new abilities I can only use them if I drop abilities I'm currently using and there are none I want to drop. I've studied the entire Assault Rifle and Chaos trees and there are literally no abilities anywhere in them that I'd prefer to have over the ones I'm using. My skill wheel currently stands at 8% complete but as far as I'm concerned it might as well be 100%.

When I hit 175 points I'll have to buy something. Can't just let xp fall into a hole. I wouldn't enjoy that at all. My current plan is to go into Blades as an alternative and probably Blood after that but it does feel a bit pointless. I thought the whole "no classes, anyone can do everything" deal looked great on paper but in practice it seems I'd rather have separate characters after all.

The Secret World is likely to take up most of my time until GW2 but there are two more City of Steam alphas, next weekend and the weekend after. I'm really beginning to sour on playing up characters that are going to be deleted. I never really had a problem with it in old-school betas that went on for months but the novelty of making a character that lasts a weekend, or even two or three weekends, has worn right off. Even so, I like City of Steam enough that I'll almost certainly pay another visit, disposable though my time there may be.

EQ2 comes thumping back into the room on Tuesday with GU64, "Qeynos Rises". The Freeport revamp about which I was so nervous last year turned out fine so I'm optimistic for the Qeynos version. I haven't found time to log on to Test and scope it out but Mrs Bhagpuss has and she reports that it "doesn't look much different". I'm looking forward to doing the new Class and Race quests. I really enjoyed the Freeport ones. Also looking forward to the changes to Battlegrounds that should mean no longer having to level cap at 39 if you're looking for a punch-up.

Still no firm date on the Vanguard F2P relaunch. If that comes before the last week of August, I'll be there. If they leave it later then maybe I won't. Depends how deep GW2 is able to sink its claws, I guess. I'll always come back to Vanguard eventually, though, or at least as long as there's a Vanguard to come back to. F2P can only be good for the old girl.

Last and very much not least, Summer has finally arrived. Time to get out and explore the huge MMO I can see out my window, the one with the famously wonderful graphics but no real storyline, and also time to sit in the garden and play Celtic Heroes on my iPod, perhaps. Been meaning to write something about that one for a while.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Hey! This Thing's Sticky! : City of Steam

Contrary to whatever plans I might have had, I spent most of the afternoon playing City of Steam. Just as I remember from the Sneak Peak, it's a disturbingly compulsive experience. Only the knowledge that nothing I'm doing will count for anything long-term gives me sufficient leverage to disengage. Well, that and a strong desire to get back to The Secret World.

If only I could swim...
Anyone still harboring a prejudice against browser games ought to take a look at this one. It uses the Unity engine, with which I've had problems in the past, but which here performs impeccably. From password to play takes but a moment and once there you might be in any client-based MMO. Sure beats the customary multi-gigabyte download, especially when it comes to short-term testing.

Think of the scrap value alone
Leveling proceeds at a satisfyingly stately pace. After several hours my Warden is a shade into level eight. One thing I'm glad to see changed from last time around is the experience you get from killing mobs. In Sneak Peak it was exceedingly tiny, making questing obligatory, a mechanism I abhor. This time progressing just by exploring and hunting feels comfortable. Quests add direction, purpose and flavor, as they should. And a nice little reward at the end, naturally.

Nowhere near as cute as they look
As a Warden in heavy, albeit rusted and worn, armor, most fights seem exceptionally unchallenging. Whether this is due to untuned alpha content, my current lowly level or an indication of intended gameplay is hard to say. Death comes infrequently, usually when the mob I'm chasing flees around a corner, where half a dozen of his chums are lying in wait. Mobs here really love to run and dodge and the otherwise-welcome combat autofollow can get you into trouble sometimes.

The fights themselves last seconds. Sometimes not as long as that. Coin and loot flies out of the falling bodies like clowns from a clown car. It's very much the action rpg that way, but the sparse and well-considered mob placement I liked back in Sneak Peak remains, allowing an unaction-like tactical pace. It's an odd combination but for me it works very well indeed.

The new Abilities tree is elegant and easy to follow, although I foresee that the usual complications and decision making dilemmas will surface before long, what with points to spend in Judgment, Leadership and Duty and options in all of them for both skills and buffs. Blast these developers and their expectations of our intellectual capacity!

Hmm. Dog walker wanted.
There's a plethora of places to explore and a variety of locales from sewers and crypts to open coastland and the inside of houses. There's plenty to do in the city too. Each district seems to have a Dungeoneer, a Hunter, a Historian, a Trophy Seeker and a Ranger and all of them have ideas about how you should be spending your time. The helpful Quest Board (needs a less generic name, I can't but think) brings this to your attention and autoruns you where you need to go in the same innovative and immersive fashion as the signposts.

City of Steam has quite a few wrinkles like this, new twists of the old rope. The Trophy Seeker in Meluan's Gate, who wants you to find eight Trow Trophies, for example, actually has an example of a Trow Trophy on the floor next to him so you at least know what you're looking for. I also appreciated the way the corpses of the creatures you kill lie around indefinitely so you can admire your handicraft and use them as landmarks. Also worth mentioning, this has to be the only MMO I've ever played that has both Elves and indoor plumbing.

British developers? Check.
There are quite a few bugs showing up, as you'd expect in an alpha, but all in all it's eminently playable. So much so that I think I might go and play it a little more right now. I just need an altigrator and a chem cell and I can fix my cousin's re-canter, and you know how important that's got to be.

Settling In: City Of Steam

The first City of Steam Alpha Weekend has started and boy, have the Mechanist Games team been busy. I expressed some puzzlement back in the Sneak Peak a few months ago about the alleged "pre-alpha" description of a game that I would have played as it stood, which probably says a lot more about my standards than theirs.

The difference between the current "Alpha" build and the game I saw back in March is like watching a movie on TV and seeing it at the cinema. Everything is bigger, brighter, fuller, deeper. What looked like an intriguing world to peer in at from the outside is now a fascinating world to inhabit and explore. I have my graphics slider set to "Beautiful", a choice of nomenclature that might sound a tad arrogant but which turns out to be fully justified. And there's a setting above that!

In the couple of hours I've given it so far I've mostly wandered around gawping at stuff, although first I had to struggle through the new tutorial, which is one of the few things I didn't find much of an improvement. I don't like tutorials to begin with, as I may have mentioned, but the one we saw in the Sneak Peak wasn't bad. It took things at a nice pace, didn't rush you and did a good job of introducing you to the basics.

The new one tries to add an entirely unnecessary sense of urgency and loses a good deal of the quirky charm of the old one in the process. It also commits the unpardonable sin for any tutorial in that it makes the controls seem harder to use than they actually are. Needs more work.

Our Founder
Spin Arounder
Don't let that put you off, though. Indeed, never let a tutorial put you off. They rarely resemble anything you'll find when you step out into the actual world. And what a world this one is. The Nexus teems with refugees, great airships cruise overhead, the air is thick with racial tension and the warnings of the ever-present guards. Maybe it's as well only human refugees are getting in this weekend. Little enough love seems lost between their four races even without the inevitable greenskin prejudice to stir things up still further.

I tidied up last year!
No-one arrives at Nexus alone. In true refugee style we all de-train with family in tow. I haven't quite worked out our relationships yet but whoever my companions are they seem to have taken the full NPC training course. They're stationed in front of my house making demands of me, complaining about ratlings under the floorboards and not very subtly suggesting I'm the one who should Do Something About It.

Yes, we have a house. I went in the wrong one at first, having forgotten the name of my race (Heartlander, since you ask). I was shocked by the state the Stoigmari leave their homes in, or at least I was until I found my own in exactly the same condition. Last tenants were probably Goblins, that must be it.

Some cleaning and shopping later and the place is looking half-decent. Apparently the odd items I mentioned last time , pleap, toap, hawte and the like, are house items. I have a pantry full of them now so that's one mystery cleared up.

Don't I know you from somewhere?
Speaking of Goblins, not to mention Hobbes and Draug, I met some celebrities. The three from the amusing trailer turn up in an early quest. I recognized them immediately and it had a curious effect, not dissimilar to seeing someone mildly famous in real life, something that happens where I work at least once or twice a week. (Coming fresh from The Secret World it's also strange to see a Draug and not want to shoot it in the head. Although...).

I did manage a little dungeon run. Ratlings spread disease, don't you know? Got to keep the numbers down. Fighting seems to be moving to a place somewhere between MMO hotbar style and ActionRPG "mow 'em down". I notice the FAQ now describes City of Steam as neither, preferring to style it an "online RPG".

Fair fight, ratling style.
Whatever it is, I like it a lot. This is a very busy weekend and I don't think I'll be able to do the human alpha justice. I hope to get a much better run at it when the elves arrive next weekend. Elves. Can't believe I'm looking forward to playing one.
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide