Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Crew's All Here : The Crew

So, I got a late Christmas present today. The Crew. According to the box it's "the first MMO driving game" which I'm sure would come as a surprise to Need For Speed World.

I have zero interest in cars or car culture and I'm unbelievably bad at driving games but I love driving in real life. When I first heard about The Crew and it's open world implementation of the U.S.A. I thought it might be something I'd like to try.

How it was supposed to work as an MMO I had no idea but I didn't really care all that much. I just liked the idea of driving around a semi-convincing recreation of a real-world space alongside other imaginary real drivers.

Installing the thing from DVDs was clunky. The first disc was fine but the second disc kept hanging and it wouldn't let me do anything else on the PC in the meanwhile. It's an MMO, though, right? And it's been out for a while so it's going to need to patch anyway, so I had the bright idea of just starting it up (the launcher had installed and seemed to work) and letting it download the rest of the game.

I had to register an account with Ubisoft's Uplay, which was painless and quick. Took about two minutes, 90 seconds of which was thinking of a username and password. That done, the patcher connected and immediately began a 25GB download.

It was downloading at a good speed but clearly that was going to take a while...except it only needed to get 5GB in place to make the game playable. By the time I'd made a coffee and toasted a cinnamon bagel it was ready to roll.

The first few minutes were confusing. I just wanted to make a character (or choose a car) then head out on the open road. Cruise around, see what the world looked like. The game had other ideas. Like a compulsory tutorial. With a plot.

The controls were simple enough, especially once I'd swapped the arrow keys to WASD, but there was no character to create - apparently I'm Alex taylor, a 20something guy who looks quite disturbingly like I might have done if I'd been insane enough to grow a beard and wear heavy black plastic spectacles when I was rising 30.

I careened and crashed my way through several tutorial Missions and watched a few not-bad cut scenes until the first genuinely MMO-like event occured: I leveled up. After a while and a very unexpected plot development that I won't spoil just in case anyone reading this ever plays the game I did get to choose a car.

As I said, I know nothing about cars and care less. Just so they don't break down is the limit of my interest and involvement. Since cars in The Crew appear to be indestructible that's not an issue. I picked a Ford Mustang and had it done over in blue with a kind of lizard-scale finish. Looks okay but my copy of the game came with a Mini Cooper option that I can't access until I leave the tutorial so I'll probably end up using that. I'd prefer a smaller vehicle.

The visuals are great. I can already tell the most frustrating thing is going to be not being able to get out of the car and walk around. Until I can beat my handler, Zoe, (don't ask, it's too ridiculous to explain) in a race I won't be going anywhere of my own volition anyway.

A couple of hours in it feels like this is a toy I might play with quite a bit, on and off. Can't imagine getting into the "game" part but that's not why I wanted it.

Maybe I should put one of those driving wheel accessories on my Amazon wishlist...

Monday, December 28, 2015

A Shoulder Pet Is For Life, Not Just For Gnomekindle : Istaria

Telwyn at GamingSF asks what it takes to tempt a player to log in over the Christmas holidays. For him, the double xp extravaganza offered by Daybreak Games for EQ2 did the job.

I also managed a little light leveling in Norrath over the weekend, a mentored-down run through Karnor's Castle that took my Warlock to level 94. Even with full vitality, server-granted double xp, a 20% Veteran bonus and a 110% xp potion running, though, leveling in the 90s is slooooooow.

Istaria's extensive map.
On Yak's Bend apparently all it takes to get people to log on after the presents have been opened is a superstar Commander running riot across the borderlands. WvW, about which I have much to say that I'm still formulating, slipped into a deep, deep malaise for many weeks after the release of Heart of Thorns but slowly, ever so slowly it appears to be reviving.

Last year, when The Bend was under enormous pressure as a very unwelcome addition to Tier 2, Christmas Day saw a miraculous change of fortune. There seems to be some desire to turn this into an annual tradition even though our current, unexpected position as top WvW server NA hardly justifies the effort.

I did spend some time in The Mists over the holidays but I spent a lot more in Magus Falls and just about all of Christmas Sunday was taken up with Wintersday achievements for my third account and an orgy of bank sorting that lasted almost eight hours. I know how to have fun, don't let anyone tell you otherwise!

No, the one thing that tempted me not just to go online over the winter break but also to patch up and log in to an MMO I haven't looked at for a long time was a simple press release. Every year whoever it is that runs Istaria (the game that, as Syp points out, might as well never have changed its name from Horizons) sends me a catch-up email detailing all the things that have happened to the game during the year.

Anyone up for Christmas at the beach?

It always makes me curious enough at least to visit the website, which is looking better-maintained and more attractive than ever, with forums that show a lively and current interest in the game. This time the lure of a Winter holiday event offering "shoulder pets" was incentive enough to get me to hit Play.

Well, I would just have hit Play, had Istaria been one of the many MMORPGs I'd included in The Great Updating a few weeks back. Ironically, even though the icon is right there on my desktop, I skipped it because, to quote myself, Istaria is one of the MMOs "I really can't see myself getting back to any time soon". Twerp.

Logic problem.
The first hurdle was finding my account. Not my account details, which I have safely recorded, but my actual account. Istaria is technically F2P although, based on the large number of subscription-required Dragon players I always see whenever I visit, my suspicion is that most of the playerbase is paying to play.

Last September, apparently, the management re-organized the F2P offer so that you need to log in once a month to keep your free account active. If you have an old, free account it remains valid and your character remains safely mothballed but you need to go to the account page and reactivate it before you can patch and play.

With that sorted out there was the inevitable hefty patch. That took half an hour. Eventually, though, there I was in an all-too-familiar position: staring bemusedly at a screen full of icons that no longer signify. Fortunately, Istaria is a very old-school MMO that uses very familiar controls. It all comes back quite quickly and painlessly, even how to use that weird, floating flying saucer thing that carries your heavy loot.

What turned out to be a lot harder was finding the darned winter festival itself. Of course, if I'd read the press release or the update notes with anything like my full attention I'd have known it was all happening in somewhere called New Koraelia, which would at least have given me a hint on where to go. I found that out about an hour in with the help of Google and the excellent Istaria Wiki.

Hmm. This looks familiar.

In my last two attempts to play Istaria I have never left the starting areas of Spirit Isle and New Trismus. I hadn't quite appreciated just how big the world of Istaria is. When I scrolled the world map all the way out it was pretty impressive. And daunting.

Fortunately, Istaria also has an extensive teleportation system using large, shimmering portals that look very, very similar to Asura Gates. They are at the same time more and less convenient than the Tyrian equivalent, offering menus and prices and multiple options.

It took me some considerable time and concentration to work out which station I needed for the next connection. Before I finally found myself standing at the foot of the long slope up through the snow to New Koraelia's Winter Festival grounds I first visited Kion, the desert home of Istaria's cat people (why is my character not one of those?).

Kion, City of Saris. Or should that be Kion, Kitty of Kats?

I wandered around there for a while, picking up a quest or two and appreciating the newly-added ambient sounds and behaviors of the locals. Cat people are scary when they growl. After a brief visit to a balmy palm-fringed crescent isle just off shore, to which I walked, underwater, there being no swimming in Istaria, eventually I stopped lollygagging and got on with it.

Istaria's winter festival is run by Gnomes (Why isn't my character a gnome? I don't remember but I'm guessing racial choice is limited for F2P accounts). It's called Gnomekindle, which raises disturbing images of gnomes being set on fire, and is a recent innovation according to Hermey Misfit Gnome (actual name) who sent me to visit the Elves to find out what a real Winter Festival might be like.

Oh come on, that's Felwithe. It's even called Feladan ffs!

Well, that set off another bout of portal travel, taking to me to an impressive city filled with what must be High Elves rather than the usual Wood variety. It reminded me of Felwithe. A lot. The elves there were typically flowery and patronizing as they described their ancient traditions in rich and convincing detail. I did wonder why we weren't celebrating with them instead of decorating trees and feeding reindeer with "Mayor and Mrs Clause". Then again, who would you rather spend Christmas with, Gnomes or Elves?

As a level 11 Scout it turned out there wasn't a whole lot I could do to help after I'd returned to Hermey with the elves' encouraging words. Most of the Gnomekindle quests I acquired seemed to require the dismantling of golems or slaughter of winter wolves that could send me back to my bind spot in a matter of seconds.

Never ask an elf a question if you haven't got half an hour to spare.

There was one quest to kill Treants that I could manage, though, because I remembered killing plenty of treants back in New Trismus and supposedly any Treants would do, even the saplings. Back to New Trismus I went, where I competed for a while with a young dragon for the small spawn of walking trees.

The dragon player was clearly trying to communicate with me, presumably with a view to sharing treant-killing duties, but Istaria has an arcane conversation interface that I have yet to fathom and while I was fiddling with the controls trying to get a signal he finished his wood-chopping and vanished, leaving me with the spawn all to myself.

Istaria, the only MMO with proper snowdrifts.

Just as well because the quest requires fifty bits of wood and it's not a guaranteed drop. Probably seventy or so treants will have to die before I get the planks I need. That's a lot of grinding and even then it'll only gets me a couple of Express Checks at most. I need three to buy a snazzy red santa suit from Dolly Day.

Luckily the treants also drop blue ornaments, the currency required by the gnome who sells shoulder pets. I think he wants seventy or so. Treant kills are probably going to run into three figures before I get there if my interest doesn't run out first.

You just decorated the one tree then, Hermey? Ran out of treants did you?

I do like Istaria. It's surprisingly visually pleasing for such an ancient MMO and the old school game systems are comfortable and reassuring. There always seem to be plenty of players flitting about, many of them dragons, which makes the place seem lived in despite the total radio silence caused by the complete lack of anything resembling a default general chat channel.

Were there but time enough it's a world I'd like to explore. Sadly the days are too small for all the fun there is to fill them. I hope to get my shoulder pet, which I think should be a treant, given the provenance (and the creepiness of the other two choices - a maggot or a spider - who wants either of those two inches from their face?) but I'm not promising anything.

If anyone's looking for a well-developed, lovingly-maintained, regularly updated true old-school MMORPG, though, they could do a lot worse than try Istaria.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

You Can Get The Staff : GW2

Among the really quite surprisingly large number of things I've found myself enjoying in Heart of Thorns are the Ascended Weapon Collections. Before the expansion launched I never gave them a thought but it seems that I should have. For once, ArenaNet seem to have found my personal Goldilocks zone .

The Collection system was intended to provide a framework for horizontal progression. Over the year and more since it debuted in the September 2014 Feature pack it has sprouted seven sub-sections including Basic, Rare, Black Lion and three flavors of Legendary but the only one that has really caught my attention is Specialization.

For my tastes, most of the Collections fall into the "pointless time sink" category, a place where a great deal of GW2's "content" seems to reside, but the Specialization Collections have managed to pitch themselves just the right side of busy-work, landing squarely in the realm of  "I could do this and it wouldn't be horrible". What's more, the final reward is something simple, straightforward and clearly desirable: an Ascended Weapon.

The Ascended gear tier has been in the game for so long now that the controversy that greeted its introduction seems almost forgotten. Working through the various routes to acquire a full set of Pink Quality armor and weapons has become routine for many players. I am  not one of them.

I'm happy to cherry-pick the quick and easy Ascended option where it presents itself. My
considerable Badge of Honor surplus (currently standing at just under 13,000 on the main account) provides instant access to all the rings, amulets and trinkets I could want. I've been lucky enough to acquire a smattering of weapons and armor pieces from drops here and there, something that has become a much more feasible means of acquisition since the change that allowed us to change the stats using the Mystic Forge.

The most straightforward way to fill out the set is, of course, by crafting. I do have some 500 skill tradeskillers who could get the job done but it feels far too much like throwing money on a blazing fire and I generally can't bring myself to do it. These new collections, though, are not just relatively economical, they're fun too.

There's a weapon for each of the nine classes. Each weapon requires the collection of fourteen "items". It sounds like a lot of work but since Collections are account-based and some of the items are shared between two or more classes the total is less daunting than it might be. Moreover, while a number of the items are gated by certain Masteries (primarily Itzel and Nuhoch language and Exalted Aceptance and Gathering), once those Masteries are in your book, getting your hands on the items themselves becomes trivial.

The first I knew of the existence of the Specialization Collections was when items I received early in the HoT Personal Story caused a window to pop up telling me I'd started one. I didn't pay much attention but then more updates appeared as I killed my way across Magus Falls and even Core Tyria.

That was when I took a look at the Collection and found myself thinking "Y'know, this looks doable". Over the last few weeks I've been picking away slowly at the first Collection I discovered, the Druid staff Yggdrasil. Other than a couple of trips to obscure Karma vendors around Tyria I haven't needed to do anything much other than things I'd have been doing anyway.

It's not to say that pursuing the vague goal of someday owning Yggdrasil hasn't directed my day-to-day choices at all. I probably wouldn't have Map Completion for Verdant Brink if I hadn't needed at least one Magus Falls map completed by a Ranger. I might not have bothered to do the sub-collect for the Machined Staff or the Mystic Forge combine for the Mystic Forge if they weren't needed for The Project. I might have taken some of the Masteries in a different order.

And so on and so on. The point is, though, that nothing I ended up doing was anything I wouldn't have done at some point, maybe, probably, randomly. All the collection required was that I change my focus: do this particular thing now rather than later. That's the kind of directed activity in MMOs that I find not just acceptable but welcome. If there's one thing I often need but find hard to find it's a bit of focus.

On Christmas evening I finished up both the Machined and Mystic Staff requirements and took possession of Yggdrasil. It looks rather good, I think. A neatened, tidied version of the exotic Druid's Staff that marks a ranger's transition to the druidic life and which appears to be a sapling pulled up by the roots from some public park.

Mrs Bhagpuss, naturally, finished her Yggdrasil weeks ago, following it up with the Thief's Bo, which, being a staff, shares some of the steps. Thief is the only class I don't have on the main account and I have no plans to add one so I'll probably move on to Ydalir, the Dragonhunter's bow, next. Of all the new Elite specs the Guardian's Dragonhunter is the only one for which I prefer the new weapon to any of the old choices.

Over time, though, I expect to complete all the Specialization Collections. They're neither too easy nor too hard. They're just about right.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

'Tis The Season

Because splendiferously is totally a word, right?

These spell checkers, they know nothing. Nothing!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Where Does This Door Go? : EQ2

Sometimes you end up doing things you weren't planning on doing. Sometimes you end up doing things when you don't have time to be doing them at all. Sometimes that works out just fine.

A couple of nights ago I found myself standing at the gates of a Thalumbran Advanced Solo instance I had no intention of entering, most especially not a few minutes before midnight. So I went in.

Just to have a look, you understand. Con the mobs. Maybe kill a couple. Test the waters, so to speak.

And then there was a Named and I thought, why not? Give it a try, see how it goes. And it went pretty well, at least after I swapped into tank mode, and next thing I have the wiki up checking what happens next and before you know it it's half past midnight and I'm looking at the final boss.

Well, at least I had the sense to stop there. Camped out at the front (I say "the front". It was a one-room dungeon, near as makes no difference) came back the next morning and finished it off before work.

That was Stygian Threshold: The Howling Gateway. The howling part was a bunch of Kobolds and the gateway looked like the way to the forge of Brell Serilis, The Duke of Below, creator of all the interesting races - dwarves, gnomes, ratonga, goblins, gnolls. And kobolds, don't forget kobolds. Everyone always forgets kobolds.

There's Brell up there, waving his hammer about. You can see him through the wibbly-wobbly window. Gave me a frisson it did, coming across him unexpectedly. Assuming that's who it is. Looks like him, anyway.

Last night, believe it or not, I did it again. Nearly midnight and somehow I ended up outside the entrance to Kralet Penumbra. There was a choice of three portals and I remembered one from the YouTube video I linked before.

I also remembered Borgio saying his dwarven Berserker had 2.5 million hit points. Well, I've been working on that. Mine has 1.9m and rising now. So naturally I began to wonder if I could pull the whole room and AE it down the way he did. Only one way to find out.

Turns out I could! Of course I had my trusty pirate pal, Raffik, to help but still. And this time I didn't have to get up for work the next day so I was able to finish it all off in one go.

It's a testament to the lateness of the hour and the intensity of the combat that I didn't take any screenshots in either instance other than the one of Brell above. Or possibly there wasn't much to look at. These instances are small. Functional but fun.

Today I carried on the "I didn't plan on doing this" theme by running the full Ratonga racial questline in the revamped Temple Street. On Stormhold, the Time limited Expansion server.

Let's forget I have never yet done any of the Qeynos village stories, nor half the Freeport ones. Let's forget I have done the ratonga one at least three times already. Let's forget that it's a terrible use of the current bonus xp event because it involves mostly not doing anything that gives xp. And let's especially forget that it's one of the least "retro" things available on the TLE servers, being not only  anachronistic to the Pillars of Flame era currently running but also identical to the version available on Live.

Then I followed that up by doing something even more pointless, albeit so retro it hurt, namely the access quest for Fallen Gate, a dungeon that ceased to require an access quest about a decade ago. Who cares if it was pointless though? It was fun and I got to go out on the roof of the final instance and look at the view. That was the best bit.

Is that building available anywhere as housing? Because I want a Freeport house with a flat roof you can stand on and look out over the waterfront. If it's not a Prestige House it darn well ought to be.

Then, finally, I picked up my daily present from Santa Glug and got the best one yet: a santa beard and hat combo that looks even less convincing on a ratonga than it does on a goblin. Result!

So, that was my weekend, or some of it, anyway. Unplanned, random, unexpected and often without any purpose whatsoever. The best kind there is.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

What Landmark Might Tell Us About EQNext

In the recent review of his predictions for 2015 Wilhelm observed that there had been "No word on EverQuest Next" this year. It's true. Apart from the flurry of farewells following Columbus Nova's acquisition of SOE and the subsequent transition to Daybreak Games there's been not a word.

This morning when Mrs Bhagpuss popped her head round the door to ask where her morning tea had gotten to she found me playing Landmark. "Why does it still say "Beta"?" she asked. Good question.

I was logged into Landmark for several reasons. Tipa first put the idea into my head a few weeks ago. Then I logged in briefly during my updating binge. My old claim was long gone but I found a very nice, convenient spot along the coast, close to the spires. I put my tower back up and left it at that but Landmark has a habit of nagging away at me and I was pretty sure I'd be back.
Even in beta we get ugly tank-tops for Christmas.

That's always been one of the big problems with Landmark for me. I'm almost painfully aware that I could get lost there and never be seen again. Ever since the first time I stepped into the tech demo that SOE charged a hundred dollars to play I was hooked. Every time I've ever logged in since I've spent longer there than I intended and left only with the greatest reluctance.

Indeed, it's been fortunate that Landmark runs like a pig on my elderly and increasingly incapable PC. If doing just about anything there wasn't such an uphill struggle who knows how much time I'd waste, digging random holes and building astoundingly inept and amateurish "buildings"?

From this angle you can't see the hideous platform I had to build to fill in the gap where I placed the tower six feet above the slope on the ocean side.
Other than the ever-present desire to just pootle aimlessly around in what is one of the most visually and sonically delightful virtual environments I have access to, I wanted to take a little time to see what, if anything, Landmark's current state might reveal about EQNext. It's a bit like trying to identify a plane by the shadow it casts as it flies past five miles above your head but it's not like there's another option right now.

So, I spent a couple of hours there this morning and the big surprise is how encouraged I was for the future of EQNext by the time I had to leave. (And yes, it was "had to". If I hadn't had to go Christmas shopping I'd probably still be in Landmark now).

I smell elf.

Since almost no-one ever writes about Landmark any more and DBG barely mention it either it would be easy to imagine the whole project has been mothballed. If you read the official forums, as I still occasionally do, that's clearly how some of the die-hard, long-timers do feel. From an outside perspective, though, a lot has changed and all of it for the better.

The world is just gorgeous. It feels vibrant and alive. Well, vegetationally alive. Due to some inexplicable quirk in the ecology all the wildlife lives underground apart from the birds that flit through the trees and fill the air with birdsong. And the exploding mushrooms. Not sure where they stand in the natural order of things.

Today, for the first time, I stood on a hill, looked across a valley and felt the enormous potential. As the baseline setting for new adventures in Norrath what we see now in Landmark would be more than acceptable.
Oh yes, you can laugh...

Character movement and animation feels great. Running, sliding, climbing, jumping, they all feel natural; intuitive, even. Swimming is possibly the best-done I have seen in any MMO. I had a light-bulb moment on the roof of my tower, when I misjudged a step and my character ended up hanging from the lip of the stairwell by his fingertips. It felt like he'd done that, not me. It's probably something commonplace in other video games but as a pure MMO player it took me completely by surprise.

The UI is vastly improved. Just about every element has been re-worked, always for the better. Keys are, finally, completely customizable. The building controls are still a little overwhelming by the very nature of the complexity and flexibility of the system but they are far more intuitive and comfortable than they were. An excellent new visual system for highlighting the voxels you're working on helps a lot. Currently Building still shares UI real estate with Adventuring but they're slated for divorce this month, giving each a dedicated set of controls.
Explain to me how it's "well-worn" when I just this minute made it.

Crafting has expanded out of all recognition. The crafting UI feels very comfortable and familiar and there's now a slate of recipes fit to do any MMO proud, not only on the building side but for adventurers too, with dozens of different pieces of armor and weapons craftable for every available equipment slot. I could easily imagine this crafting system slotting straight into EQNext even as it stands. As foundation for a more complete system it really does look to be in fine shape.

I wasn't planning on doing any fighting but I came across a cave entrance while exploring and couldn't resist. I equipped my bow in readiness but in the event all I encountered on the upper levels were more exploding mushrooms. Using those for target practice I'm surprised and delighted to say that I felt more at home with the mouse-button action combat than in any other version I've tried. Again it did feel almost unaccountably natural to use.

Where the heck did that come from?

The giant calipers that appear every time you fight everything remain an appalling eyesore that needs to go but at least now they vanish after a time on their own when you stop fighting. Get rid of those and combat would be in a good place for me, visually. How well it would work in gameplay terms I am never going to know until I upgrade to a system that won't freeze up with other players around. Assuming, that is, that EQNext is going to have something other than solo fights.

There were lots of highly encouraging little touches that I hadn't seen in previous visits. I found two chests in the first cave I entered, which felt ridiculously exciting and satisfying. They contained mostly large amounts of crafting mats, the things you'd mainly have gone down into the caves to mine and harvest in the first place, so that made an unusual amount of sense.

"Loosely based on the CN Tower Toronto" .
Looks a lot more like it in-game than any screenshot I was able to take would suggest.
As I explored above ground there were occasional eruptions and explosions that startled and confused me until I realized they were mining events. A large lump of copper ore popped up like a boil at one point and several small craters opened up beneath my feet. All of them gave what appear to be bonus hauls of ore or stone. It made traveling feel very lively. I'm not quite sure what the provenance was meant to be but loot is loot!

One area where Landmark and EQNext will have to improve radically is the ability of the engine to display objects at a distance. I visited several heavily developed claims (there seems to be a lot of activity going on still on the building front) but it was impossible to guess what any of them would turn out to be until I was standing right next to them. Further away than a hundred yards or so all anything ever looks like is melted plastic.

When I was at university it took seven years to become an architect. Here it's more like seven minutes.

After a couple of hours I came away feeling optimistic about EQNext. It's a concern that there may be problems both with the Forgelight engine and the in-house voxels that lead to sluggish performance. I've read complaints along those lines. Given the extreme inadequacy of the system I'm using to explore it, though, Landmark seems to be holding up pretty well.

By the time EQNext eventually emerges, something no-one in their right mind would bet on happening next year, I should have a machine capable of running it efficiently. Judging by the reflections of Next that Landmark casts on the water I feel confident in predicting that, yes, come the day, I will return to Norrath once more. And enjoy it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Sniper In The Brain : EQ2

Topauz passed on some excellent tips in the comments of my last, bizarrely titled post, regarding a series of quests added with Terrors of Thalumbra. They all begin when you interact with an item in the world; something you might happen upon by chance. You'll notice the object, if you're paying attention, because it will be slightly odd or out of place. If you're curious enough to check it out you'll see that you can Examine it or interact with it in some way and when you do a quest window will pop up.

Of course, in the 21st Century, the wisdom of crowds and the all-seeing eye of Google mean there's no need to lean on chance or serendipity. EQ2Wire has an excellent guide that covers everything from finding these quests to how to complete them to where to get the rewards.

And the rewards are very good. As Topauz explains, "The quest will give a "dirty key." You unpack the key and it will give you a gold, platinum, or umbrite key. You then need to find a matching chest. Gold will give you advanced solo level gear, platinum is heroic and umbrite is raid level". The potential for a solo or casual player to gain substantial upgrades is considerable.

This type of quest isn't new to EQ2. There were some in the previous expansion, Altar of Malice, and quite probably long before that. Neither is it unique to the game. The format is almost identical to Adventures in GW2, for example. Most MMOs probably have something similar. In theory they're an excellent addition to any game except for one thing: they're timed.

I really, really don't like timed quests. I don't like any kind of timed content, come to that. I hate having to work against the clock. It seems to me to remove one of the key reasons for playing MMOs in the first place - relaxation.

I can understand why it's done. The rewards, as I mentioned, are good. You can't just be giving them away. There has to be some control mechanism.

I get that but personally I'd take lesser rewards any day if I was given all the time I needed. Or, better yet, they could keep the good loot but just offer the quests less frequently. There's already a time-gate on these quests but it's very short: you can repeat them every two or three hours indefinitely. I'd be happy to make that once a day, or even once a week, if only I could take as long as I needed to do each of them, not have to try and cram it all into five minutes.

This feeds back into the discussion on difficulty, challenge and inconvenience in MMOs that always rumbles away in the background and which was stirred up again yesterday by Syp's response to a post of mine from a while back. Looking at the difficulty of playing video games, Pete at Dragonchasers was ruefully counting the cost of aging the other day but even leaving aside fading reflexes and failing reactions there's the simple measure of innate skill to contend with once you start testing players against the clock.

Even given an equivalent amount of playtime and practice no two players are going to perform identically. They won't share the same motivations, expectations, patience or willpower. No challenge level is going to please everyone.

In offline games a good deal of this can be fudged or finessed with difficulty settings. Over the years MMOs have tried to emulate that with levels, gear and the addition of NPCs to stand in for players when the social nature of the genre unravels.

It's never been entirely satisfactory but we've muddled along well enough. All of which is fine until that little timer starts ticking. At that point the task narrows to a much tighter window in which player skill, or at least accuracy, becomes unusually important and that's a highly malleable yardstick.

By comparison with other video games the skill bar in MMOs isn't all that high. About the only benchmark that the genre can claim as a high water mark is large-scale organization. MMO solo play, by and large, is so easy it's embarassing.

And that's kind of the point of it. It's a low common denominator activity and it attracts an appropriate audience. Hardcore gamers don't flock to MMOs to test their skills against solo  quests designed to appeal as much to parents stuck at home with small children and fifty-somethings filling the silence of their empty nests as to young adults with razor-wire reflexes and the drive to Beat Content until it begs for mercy.

Coming across quests with timers while soloing in an MMO just feels weird. And wrong. It'd be like Lana Del Rey covering Blitzkrieg Bop. Okay, not quite like that. That'd be weird but good. I want to hear that now...

Last night I tried three of the four quests rated "Easy" by Faelen Rizzik in EQ2Wire's guide. One of them really was easy. The box-carrying one. It takes about 45 seconds on a timer of five minutes. That got me a gold key. Another few minutes of flying around with a tracking scroll found me the gold chest. Inside was a hand-slot item that upgraded, slightly, the one I'd gotten only the day before from the Frostfell vendor.

The other two "easy" quests didn't go so well. I ran out of battery power in the drained minecrawler before I even got to the top of the first ramp and I'd only managed to destroy five of the ten rocks required to complete Rubble Rampage when the timer ran out. They were certainly easy in terms of what the quests wanted you to do but the timer changes all that. With the clock ticking, simple, fun diversions become tense, frustrating chores.

That's just a first impression. I've been at this game long enough to know that in a few runs I'll be an old hand, a dab hand even. That onerous, coercive timer will slip into the shadows, forgotten, as the allotment of minutes passes from parsimony to indulgence. It won't be long before I'm recommending these quests to people as a simple, quick way to get great upgrades - just as Topauz recommended them to me.

Thing is, though, if it wasn't for the excellent rewards attached I would never get anywhere near that point. My first impression would remain just that. There'd never be a second one to correct it. With those timers running the only reason I'm doing the quests in the first place is to get the key to open the box to grab the loot.

Which is fine. I like loot. I like upgrades. I am, to a degree, a vertical progression kind of guy. I still hate timed quests though, even if it is possible to bribe me well enough to get me to do them.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Sad Gnemlin Girl, Why Don't You Smile Now? : EQ2

Frostfell is back! Over the years EQ2's midwinter celebration has become as much a part of my Christmas as any real-life tradition. This year surprised me in just how much I've been looking forward to it and even more in how the emotions kicked in when it finally arrived.

Stepping through the wardrobe outside the bank in West Freeport to the jingling music and sparkling lights across the snow of the Frostfell Wonderland Village sent an actual shiver down my spine. I remember when the zone was introduced back in 2006. We were playing on the Test server back then so we got to see it from its very earliest days, when nothing really worked and when the lack of instancing meant unseemly scrapping over gifts.

Over the years I've watched Frostfell change and grow from a fairly contained, managed experience to a wild, sprawling celebration that spans Norrath. A quick flip through the wiki gives an idea of the sheer scope of this magnificent sleigh ride of fun. There really is something for everyone.

At the beginning crafting was the big driver of activity and that emphasis has never slowed. New recipe books appear every year. Denmother Niami dutifully records the new additions at the invaluable EQ2Traders website and this year there are some fantastic, must-have additions. The frosted windows look amazing.

Over the years content was added hand over fist for just about every playstyle short of raiding. There are a whole bunch of quest chains, some of them quite lengthy, all of them a lot of fun. There's a dungeon, The Icy Keep, that comes in solo and Heroic versions. There are games and entertainments, dancing and snowball fights and, of course, plenty of presents.

Santa Glug, Gigglegibber goblin and winner of the Least Convincing Disguise competition seven years running, hands out gifts one per character per day. In the past I've had half a dozen or more representatives camped out next to him and the addition of some excellent new Snowglobes and pets this year is likely to lead to another set of cold characters complaining that it must be someone else's turn by now.

The whole zone received an extreme makeover two years ago.It looks much the better for it. It looks positively stunning in fact. The items Gerbi Frostfoot sells for the Frozen Tokens of E`Ci you get as quest rewards and as drops in the dungeon have improved out of all recognition as the years roll by.

The armor sets and weapons he sells for every appropriate level provide an absolutely invaluable once-a-year opportunity for returnees or fall-behinds to gear up to something very close to current at-level solo benchmarks. If anyone reading this has been dithering with an idea of coming back or even starting from scratch this is absolutely the time to do it.

I browsed the new armor last night and my Berserker will be taking four of the new level 100 pieces to fill the slots he has yet to replace with Thalumbran quest rewards. Each piece costs thirty tokens but he has sixty banked from last year so he's halfway there before he's even begun. Just as well because the Warlock at level 93 is going to be clamoring for a set of 95s. I foresee much token farming in my immediate future.

There's a whole new quest series this year that I worked through in two short sessions at the end of the evening over the last two nights. The storyline will be familiar to anyone who's played EQ2 for long. Another innocent in dire trouble, another rescue mission, another trip around the zone putting up decorations, another panel of interviews. I loved it. More of what we already know we like. Yes please.

The only slightly off-key note, I felt, was the Unfortunate Event that precipitated the rescue. I know orphans are synonymous with Christmas but I don't particularly want to meet them with their parents still lying dead on the ground. That's not exactly festive, is it?

You do have to own the new Terrors of Thalumbra expansion to do the questline since some of it takes place in Maldura. That has raised some very mild controversy but anyone with a long memory will recall that several previous Frostfell questlines have also required ownership of the then-current expansion so it's hardly unprecedented. It scales to level, too, so you can do it even if you don't have any high levels yet.

Any way up, it's a jolly good romp. It also reminded me I have that prestige house that I bought two years ago and never got around to decorating. Add that one to all the others. One of these days...

Next week Wintersday arrives in GW2. I like Wintersday a lot but, let's be honest, it's no Frostfell. Unlike Syp, though, I rate the Midwinter holidays in MMOs as second to none. Even an also-ran trumps any Halloween effort for my chocolate money.

I'm off to put up some deccies. And farm those tokens!

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