Tuesday, May 31, 2016

All About You : NBI, EQ2

I don't mean to jump the train to blogger's ennui but yesterday I did find myself coming up oddly short of a peg on which to hang my usual Sunday post. Nothing to do with a disconnect from the games or writing about them. Nothing to do with lack of desire or interest or enthusiasm. All of those are present and in good order.

It was laziness, that's all. I had several ideas rolling around but all of them would take a few hours to polish up to a post and it was Sunday and I'd been working all week and I mostly wanted to kick back, run around Norrath and Tyria and not have to think too much. 

So I spent Sunday morning in Skyshrine, working through the heroic signature questline there and Sunday afternoon and evening in World vs World. Doing not very much of any interest or importance to anyone, even to me.

I remember when the Withered Lands update arrived and Skyshrine along with it. Mrs Bhagpuss and I worked through the long, complicated solo questline that took us from where the griffin from Thurgadin landed to where the griffin to Skyshrine takes flight. It seemed to take forever. It probably took at least a couple of weeks. It might have been a whole month.

When you come to a new zone that's been added at level cap there is often a step change. Your old gear doesn't really cut it any more because everything past the first starting area has been tuned for the new normal. Progress slows to a crawl.

I like that. I find it encouraging and motivating, even when, as with Withered Lands, the step is a high one.

As well as slowing leveling down by a factor of five, Withered Lands was the update that introduced Advanced Solo zones, modified versions of Heroic (aka full group) Dungeons tuned for at most two players, more normally one player and an NPC Mercenary. When we finally got to Skyshrine we stepped into the contested (aka  open world) dungeon, where our backsides were neatly packaged and handed back to us by the first few mobs, as expected. 

In the olden days that would have been an end of it. I remember, for example, how The Hole roadblocked our progress in the Sentinel's Fate expansion back in 2010.

Advanced Solo changed all that. In modern EQ2 the EQ stands for equality. Equality of opportunity. No-one has to miss out on the art department's hard hours just because they don't have any friends. We all get to stroll through the galleries, together or alone.

So, I'd seen all the sights before, which is why I didn't take any screenshots yesterday. Usually, if I'm thinking of a post I'll take some shots for insurance but I was feeling lazy so I didn't bother. Plus, neither Withered Lands nor Skyshrine is much of a visual feast. The clue is in the name as far as the outdoor part goes and Skyshrine itself is one of those maps where someone thought it would be a good idea to use a filter, in this case a dark, red filter that makes everything look dull and smoky.

That aside, I had enormous fun, working through the questline from the wiki walkthrough, one-shotting whole groups of heroic Awakened with my bow, thanks to the mighty multi-attack and crit bonuses from my overlevelled gear, burning through bosses long before they could pull any of the tricks the wiki warned me about.

I do purely love being overgeared and overlevelled for old content, especially when I was badly undergeared and underprepared for it when it was new. It's one of the greatest strengths of the MMO genre.  

I can't begin to count the number of times knowing I'd become powerful enough to do something that was out of my reach before has brought me back to an MMO for another few weeks or months. Indeed, now that we have had the opportunity to compare, I prefer it as a gameplay model to the kind of always-at-level scaling that's becoming the norm.

So, I pottered through Skyshrine for a few hours and when I'd had enough and my bags were too full I meandered back to GW2, where I did my dailies on three accounts and then spent the rest of the day in WvW. Which was quiet. Very quiet. Didn't take many screenshots there, either.

It was all thoroughly good fun but it didn't give me much in the way of inspiration. All day as I played I had it in the back of my mind that I "ought" to be posting. I very nearly always post on Sundays, usually in the morning. But I didn't want to. I was feeling lazy. 

I toyed with a couple of ideas for slapping up something short but I couldn't come up with anything that seemed like it would work so in the end it got to be evening and I hadn't posted and I knew I wasn't going to and that was fine. I don't have a schedule. I don't want to have a schedule. If I don't feel it I'm not going to do it.

Tomorrow is the start of this year's NBI although posts related to it have been popping up all over the place for the last couple of weeks. This is one of them. Sort of.

There is, to my way of thinking, altogether too much angst around the hobby right now. The hobbies I might say, both playing MMOs and blogging about them. If there's one message I'd like to put across to anyone about to take the plunge it's this:

It's YOUR blog

You get to decide when you post, what you post, how often you post, whether you post. I can't speak for the other platforms but in Blogger at least you also have a measure of control of who can comment and even over who reads everything you write. 

Yes, you can have a blog that only people you invite can see - a bit like guild chat I guess. I don't recommend that but it's a thing, if you want it. The important part to remember is

It's YOUR blog.

It doesn't belong to your readers or your commenters or The World. It doesn't belong to whoever owns and operates the platform. You can pick it up and move it somewhere else if you want and if one day you find the game's not fun any more you can take it down and that's an end of it because

It's YOUR blog.

And because it's yours you can skip a day or a week or a month or a year and then, when the mood or the muse takes you, you can spin it back up. You can opine on the burning issues of the day or burble on about your characters or what you're doing to the back yard (Hi, Belghast - I really like those posts, by the way...). 

Just because you got into blogging via the gateway drug of reading MMO blogs doesn't mean you have to write about nothing but MMOs (even though I do). As I think I mentioned

It's YOUR blog.

Write about what you want. Write when you want. Write how you want. And if you don't want to write then don't. 

It's a lot less stressful that way and a lot more fun.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Ready Or Not, Here We Come: Landmark

It's official. Landmark launches on June 10. It's probably not ready but when did that ever stop an MMO?

Launch has arrived at an opportune time for me. I finally have a PC that can run the thing without stuttering, lagging or feeling as though the controls have been coated in treacle. 

I logged in this morning and went through the usual ritual. My claim had lapsed and someone else had grabbed it so I went looking for a new one. 

There was very little free space on my island, which suggests there must be people around, even if it's rare to see anyone. I found a nice hill overlooking a lake, retrieved my Claim flags from overflow, opened my Design tab, located the starter tower and plonked it down.

I really like that tower. I never feel quite settled until I've stood on my battlements and had a good look around. With that out of the way I went for a wander to see what the neighbors were up to.

Screenshots of Landmark look better than the game itself and always have done. It's hard to be sure, even looking back at pictures I've taken over years of development, but I can't help feeling that, although the game now runs far more smoothly and comfortably than ever before, it looks worse. 

I spent a good while fiddling around with the settings but I could scarcely tell the difference between Medium, High and Ultra. It might be my imagination or a trick of memory but I'm sure I remember it looking better than this.

Not that it looks bad. It looks fine, although all objects seen at a distance still suffer very badly from the Plasticine effect. On a couple of Build Sites I found that even up close some of the things people had built looked as though they'd melted a little. Elsewhere they seemed sharp and well-defined. Whether that has something to do with the materials or the techniques the different builders employed I couldn't say but it's odd.

The original Calderock Village as seen in Dragon Nest.
Neither could I say with any confidence whether Landmark is ready for a full launch or, if it is, whether there's an audience that cares. It's certainly less buggy and more finished than it was but that's not saying all that much. On the other hand, it's nowhere near as unfinished or unready as many other MMOs I've played at release.

There's definitely enough there, at last, to comprise a form of entertainment. What that form might take, though, isn't much better defined than it's ever been

The tools are firmly in place to build structures, terraform terrain and decorate and design interiors and exteriors. There's a fair range of options for telling stories and creating adventures. You can place NPCs, make them talk, move, react. Players can pull switches here to open gates there. You can place creatures and make them fight.
Calderock Village - Landmark style.

Combat works. It's not subtle and it's not complex but it's not bad. From my perspective it doesn't feel a lot different to combat in Black Desert. Although I'm well aware that BDO combat has the potential to be quite sophisticated and skillful, in practice all I've done there for twenty-five levels is hold down the left mouse button and occasionally press the right for variety. Landmark works the same way.

Moving around in Landmark is hugely easier than it was. You can port to the Spires to change Islands or home to your Claim at will with no cooldown. Most importantly, players can now find what Builders have built very easily and quickly. 

There's a facile interface called the Gallery that's easy to follow, with a good range of sorts and a straightforward and immediate option that takes you to the location in a click. It's attractive and pleasant to browse, resembling a shop window, which in a way it is.

I visited a couple of mildly disappointing, unfinished builds before I noticed a familiar image. I'm used to finding recreations of familiar places from Everquest or WoW or Lord of the Rings but this is the first time I've ever seen anyone reconstruct an iconic location from Dragon Nest.

It's a while since I played DN but I recognized Calderock Village immediately. I ported there and strolled around. Well, I strolled after I'd killed a few aggressive skeletons that I don't recall ever seeing in the original. 

It's not a brick for brick reconstruction but it's an excellent cover version, entirely recognizable. What's more, it's a very impressive demonstration of the power of the toolset in the hands of a skilled designer. This version of Calderock would make a very welcome village and quest hub in any MMO.

Indeed, it represents a huge improvement on the actual Calderock in that you can go indoors. The buildings are beautifully decorated and finished. I was impressed.
I like a high ceiling, me.

Other than the wandering undead, though, there didn't seem to be much in the way of adventure. I was curious to see how well Landmark can tell stories so I went back to the Gallery, where I found an example of that old classic entree to adventure, a storm drain.

Reading the full description, helpfully provided by the creator, I was intrigued to learn that this particular storm drain served the ancient elven city of Takish'Hiz. You can take the EverQuest out of Landmark but you can't take it out of the players or so it seems.

I ported over and was greeted immediately by a demi-human of indeterminate species, possibly a Kobold, who told me I was late and ordered me to get down the drain, pronto. From there everything proceeded just like an adventure or a quest in any other MMO.

NPCs chatted to each other, walked about, made observations and generally acted like scene-setters should. I progressed through well-designed tunnels and cleared rooms of monsters, retreating as necessary to heal up at the campfire I'd dug out of my backpack and lit in the middle of the passage.

Convenient for The Spires. Good school district.

There were trapdoors to open and wells to jump down. There were mini-bosses and Elites. I was thoroughly enjoying myself until eventually a bad pull got me two tough Overseers at once and I found myself faced with the choice of spending Lumens, the in-game currency, to jump straight back up or taking the free ride back to spawn.

Opting for the latter was probably a mistake because as I made my way back down I discovered the whole adventure had reset to its starting state. I'm guessing that's an option under the control of the designer. I hope so, anyway, because my days of redoing entire dungeons until I get them right are long over.

So that was where I stopped. As usual, logging in to Landmark for a few minutes turned into a session of a couple of hours. I'm by no means convinced that the game is ready for a full and final launch but, as I began this post by observing, when is any MMO ever "ready"?

Anyone for an omelette?

It is, in my estimation, ready enough. Or, if you prefer, as ready as it will ever be. I can't see any particular reason to keep it in "Early Access" or "Beta" or whatever protective cover it's been under until now. 

That's not to say it couldn't be better. If DBG don't just push it out the door and leave it to fend for itself, as some commentators have suggested they plan to do, then in time it almost certainly will be better. 

As of June 10, however, for better or worse it will be done. There will be no more wipes. Builders can build and build on what they build without fear of having to start over and over again. The world will fill out. Maybe it will even find its shape at last. 

For ten dollars you could do a lot worse.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

NBI 2016: Incoming!

It's that time of year again! Or to be precise it's past that time of year. The great tradition that is The Newbie Blogger Initiative usually rolls around in May but this year it's kicking off a month late.

It looked for a while as though we'd be skipping a year but in the end Doone stepped up to the plate. Thank you, Doone!

I'm a bit vague on exactly what's planned but I'm sure it'll all come together somehow. The forums are still up and running, there's a Twitter feed and even something called Discord, about which I know nothing. I'd never even heard of it before. I'm guessing it's some kind of voice chat...

If you've ever read a blog and thought "I could do that" or even "I could do better than that" now's the time to prove it. Go on, give it a go! Blogging may be a whole lot of things but one thing it's not is hard to start.

The easiest way is to just grab yourself a free Blogger or WordPress account and follow the instructions. If you get stuck (you won't) just ask!

The NBI Head Office

Blogging has a fairly high turnover/attrition rate. If you read blogs you'll have noticed that. As blog readers we all need a constant stream of new blood and you could be it! Doesn't that sound appealing?

The NBI has a pretty good record for helping people to get started and supporting them through those early days and weeks. It certainly beats spinning a new blog up out of nowhere and hoping someone notices. Every year sees some great new blogs that go on to run and run. And some that don't but that's fine too. It's not for everyone but you won't know until you try, will you?

I'd particularly encourage anyone who already comments on blogs to make the move to a blog of their own. It really is a natural progression. I always click through new names in my comments in the hope that the link will go to a blog I haven't read before. When it does, in most cases I add it to my blogroll and when it doesn't I'm always just a little bit disappointed.

Here's looking forward to a June filled with lots of new clicks and no disappointments! Now 
let the blogging begin!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Essential Bookmarks For EQ2

A couple of people mentioned in the comments that they were thinking of coming back to EQ2 after a long time away or even giving the game a try for the first time. After a dozen years and as many expansions, plus several Adventure Packs and a hundred Game Updates, getting up to speed can be a daunting process.

With a brand new MMORPG I would see it as a problem if players needed to refer to third-party sources just to be able to get to grips with everyday gameplay but there comes a time in any long-running MMO's life when the sheer weight of the past begins to overwhelm new or returning players. EQ2 passed that point long, long ago.

The official Daybreak Games EQ2 website has a comprehensive list of third-party resources, some of which I would consider essential and some of which I've never used or even heard of. A couple that every EQ2 player probably has bookmarked would be EQ2Wire and EQ2 Traders Corner. They're each run by a pillar of the EQ2 community although I think it's fair to say that their approaches and the way they've been received have varied radically over the years. 

Feldon of EQ2Wire can be something of a thorn in the side of management, be that SOE's or DBG. 

He takes a forthright and occasionally confrontational stance on issues big and small and on occasion certain gung-ho members of EQ2's internal hierarchy have seen fit to ban him from the forums, a fate that, it must be said, can happen to anyone and not always for any good reason. In Feldon's case it has always been from an excess of speaking truth to power - or what thinks of itself as power. 

EQ2Wire is the first and best source of news about EQ2. It's fast, accurate and Feldon has sources that allow him to gloss the facts with nuance that is often revealing.

EQ2 Traders Corner takes a very different tone. Hosted by the inimitable and much-loved Niami Denmother, this is the place to come for everything tradecraft-related. Mum, as she's known for short, has been active on the Test server for as long as I can remember, taking a comprehensive look at all new crafting content before it reaches the Live game so that she can be there on day one with a full screenshot gallery and all the practical information you need.

Her husband, Ngreth, used to be the Tradeskill Dev for EQ1 so her connections with the company run deep, making her more of an insider than Feldon but that doesn't prevent her speaking her mind when appropriate, although the critique might be presented rather subtly in a roleplayed, fictionalized form.

The other two absolutely essential resources are the official EQ2 Wiki and EQ2Map. For years I have used these two so extensively that I think of them as an integral part of the game. I can imagine playing without them but I don't think I'd want to try.

Most MMOs have wikis these days but EQ2's is exemplary. Going by the name of EQ2i it's beautifully organized and thoroughly comprehensive. It's very rare to look for an answer there and not find what you need, whether the quest you're stuck on was added last week or a decade ago.

EQ2i used to have very strong competition from the Zam network (formerly Allakhazam) but as Feldon reported almost a year ago, Zam was bought by China's Tencent Holdings and effectively mothballed. The site is still up but the last posting is former Editor-in-Chief Cylenia's farewell message.

According to Feldon's piece, Zam also owned both EQ2Interface and through it the crucial add-on EQ2Map. As I discovered last week, when I got my new PC up and running and logged into EQ2 for the first time on a fresh install, the default in game maps are barely adequate. Scratch that - they aren't even barely adequate.

I don't like add-ons. My strong belief is that every MMO should provide sufficiently robust tools to make external add-ons unnecessary. In my experience most do but one area where many an MMO falls down is mapping. 

EQ2Map is still going strong at the moment. I re-installed it last week and it updated to the current Scourge of Zek content. Long may that continue, whoever is behind the curtain.

Other resources that I find either useful or fascinating include EQ2 Library and The Athanaeum. And although I don't personally use EQ2U, a spin-off from EQ2 Wire, many would consider it the most important resource of all.

For a twelve-year old MMO with a low profile and a dwindling audience that's still a very impressive range of resources. I would encourage anyone coming back to or starting out in EQ2 to make the fullest use of all of them. And if anyone has any other suggestions please don't be shy about talking them up in the comments.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

I'll Be Back! : EQ2

Last night I finished the Signature questline for EQ2's Tears of Veeshan expansion. It's one of the best I can remember.

Every zone was stunning. As Wilhelm pointed out in the comments, EQ2 has always had some beautiful scenery, even back in 2004, when the game began. Dungeon design, particularly, has frequently been exemplary.

Until a few years ago, though, much of that was hard to appreciate behind the muddy textures and clunky rendering. That problem seems to have been resolved and the whole of the later game looks shiny and modern.

The plot almost made sense or, at least, I could just about follow it. For once the "You are the Hero who can Save the World" trope felt, somehow, just about right. This is EQ2, though. Before anyone saves anything we have to have a meeting. There will be minutes.

Quest structure and dialog in EQ2, as I mentioned before, tends to follow a very particular model. The language is often quite formal, there's a tendency to adopt an almost self-consciously high moral tone and no-one ever speaks in anything less than full paragraphs.

When EQ2 launched it's primary USP, now long forgotten, was that it was the world's first fully-voiced MMORPG. The pre-launch publicity centered as much around the involvement of Christopher Lee as Overlord Lucan D'Lere and Heather Graham as Queen Antonia Bayle as it did around any of the gameplay.

That idea got shelved at the first expansion and ever since EQ2 has been a real reader's game. If you don't like reading walls of text then EQ2 is really not going to be your thing...although I might ask, if you don't like reading walls of text, what are you doing here?

Christopher Lee and Heather Graham may be long gone but Lucan and Antonia remain. They both make appearances in the ToV storyline, along with other familiar names and faces. As a Norrathian veteran of extremely long standing I confess this really works for me. I may not remember much of the detail but there's strong name-recognition and I do get a palpable frisson when certain familiar faces appear.

I found it surprisingly affecting to hear The Duality, perhaps Norrath's most powerful mage, discussing magical theory with my ratongan Berserker as though they were equals. Even more so I appreciated going to call on The Overlord in his floating lair, uninvited, and having him take heed rather than having me summarily executed. Although, to be fair, that was his initial reaction, until I straightened him out and calmed him down.

When Firiona Vie made an appearance my ratonga went so far as to take a selfie standing by her side. It's not like he hasn't met her before. He saved her life once as I recall. But she was looking particularly spiffy in her classic costume.

The best part of all, though, was when The Duality sent him to steal something from Mayong Mistmoore. Not for the first time, I might add. The Duality has very louche morals when it comes to private property.

Mayong isn't merely Norrath's most powerful vampire. He has pretensions to godhood and in the past he's come close to making those pretensions a reality. He caught my little ratonga in the act of ransacking his private chambers and unleashed the full force of his vampiric will upon him with the intention of making him his thrall.

And my ratonga laughed in his face. And pointed out all the dragons and gods he'd met and bested. And wondered why a mere vampire thought he had a chance. It was not only ridiculously satisfying but it finally succeeded in contextualizing just why my character is treated as such a powerful opponent, a major threat, a genuine player in the big game. It's because he damn well is!

The fact that power creep has now made even a solo-geared character a one-rat raid goes a long way towards making this work in a way it never used to do. The Tears of Veeshan content is nominally aimed at level 95 to 100. Everything gives xp without the need to mentor down and many of the mobs are yellow cons. And yet they all fall like wheat before the blade.

Until the final movement, that is. The Signature solo questline pulls that annoying SOE/DBG bait and switch trick of turning into group content at the end. Worse, this time the final act is an Epic X2 raid, meaning it's tuned for two full groups.

I tried it anyway. The opening sequence I found genuinely stirring. Very dramatic. The music, the emotion, the sturm und drang. Kerafyrm beating his wings, Lucan barking orders, Antonia Bayle in her full plate battle gear...

For a while it looked as though I might make some impact. My Berserker and his trusty if psychotic orc mercenary Zhugris were managing to cleave through waves of four Epic X2 Awakened soldiers at a time. And then I started getting one-shotted and couldn't work out why.

In the end it turned out to be a Named general. I knew I'd have to fight him later on but right now he was flapping about above the battle and dropping what appeared to be targeted meteor strikes on my head. Zhugris and I gave it the old Freeport College try. He battle-rezzed me several times and eventually killed two EpicX2 mobs all on his own while I stayed down and watched but the General kept dropping his rocks and there seemed to be nothing either of us could do about that.

So the very final chapter is on hold until we get a level cap increase and power creep takes us to another order of magnitude. Then we'll see. I'm patient. I can wait.

In the meantime I think I might amuse myself by going round all the Heroic Dungeons and Raid instances that were, until recently, out of my league. There are quite a few. That's the glory of the classic level and gear progression MMO. All content comes to he who waits.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Who Says Looks Aren't Everything?

Ravanel raised an interesting topic, almost in passing, in her Friday Fashion post yesterday.
Even though I'd like to play characters as varied as possible in an ideal world, I've found that I enjoy playing characters I identify well with most. Male characters, very short characters or characters with a different build simply don't get logged in, so I've given up on creating them.
I also have to be able to identify but to achieve that I like my characters to look as different from my actual appearance as I can make them.

I have a semi-established hierarchy of preferences when it comes to making characters in MMOs. In loose order of preference, factors that are likely to affect my choice positively include:

Anthropomorphic animal race
Cute or funny
Childlike or naive
Looks good in hats
Normal height Humanoid but has a tail, rabbitty ears or other non-human characteristics

It's tall grass, alrights?
Strong negatives would be:

Very tall 
Overly muscular, especially Viking or Charles Atlas types
Elves (although, counter-intuitively, an elfin appearance can be a positive so long as no actual Elven blood is involved)
Weird creatures that you can't tell what they're supposed to be

Guess which one's me. Wrong.

When it comes to gender I am flexible. When I first began playing MMOs and for quite a few years afterwards, the issue of matching player gender to character gender used to be a very controversial issue. The outside world has moved a long, long way since then and the question of whether the person behind the keyboard is a direct analog of their avatar has largely lost its meaning, what with self-identification outside the game and gender/class locks like Black Desert's inside, not to mention single-gender races or races whose genders are visually indistinguishable.

I always played a mix of male and female characters although over time I have developed a preference for females. I suspect this has something to do with identity politics. Despite being a cisgender male in almost all respects, my upbringing led me to favor female role models over male as a child and adolescent and that has stayed with me all my life. Playing a heroine just feels more natural and comfortable than playing a male.

Embrace the other.

Of course, when you're looking at a three-foot tall fox that walks on his hind legs and wears clothes then the gender of the fox is perhaps the least of your concerns. It's different, and quite strange, when the picture on the screen is a sexualized human (or at least humanoid) female, which is why my female human characters tend to dress relatively demurely (or, in the case of my Norn Elementalist, like an actual nun).

Ravanel mentions that she doesn't make many "curvy" characters and one thing I don't often do is play characters who are overweight. It's not so much an aesthetic choice. It's less political or sociological than it is practical. I had a traumatic session quite early in my MMO career, playing an Ogre Shadowknight in EverQuest, when the group decided to go to Lower Guk and I spent most of a three hour session with my head stuck through the geometry of the walls.

These are small...but the ones out there are far away...
I did go on to play that Ogre Shadowknight for a long time. Although he remained a big lad in theory, whenever he went indoors he would drink a shrink potion or ask a shaman in the group to shrink him, so it ended up being more like playing a weird-looking gnome.

Now I come to think of it, that was his backstory. In those days I actually went to the trouble of creating backstories. Hard to believe. 

My ogre had been found as a baby by gnomes. He'd been abandoned in some unspecified and ill-explained fashion and they adopted him and raised him in Ak'Anon. He did know he was an ogre but by inclination and upbringing he always felt and acted gnomish.

I do quite a lot of that. I have an EQ2 character who has always carried a stack of gnome bones, a clickable item that casts Illusion: Gnome. I wanted to play a class that, at the time, gnomes couldn't be, so I made a half-elf and had him look like a gnome, and indeed claim to be a gnome. Mrs Bhagpuss ridiculed him mercilessly.

For some reason I can't explain rationally I like half-elves. Yes, there's that elf thing, you can't really deny it, but half-elves traditionally have difficulty being accepted by either community and somehow that undercuts the elven heritage in a satisfying manner. I also will play humans on occasion on the spurious logic that, in a full-on fantasy setting, Human is the funky, "cool" race.

Snuffkin? Nah, mate. Nivver 'eard of 'im.

All of this does have a material effect on whether I decide to try an MMO in the first place, as well as how long I stick with it. The annoying trend of recent years to offer very limited choices - usually something along the lines of Human, Big Human, Slightly Feral Human, Elf - has put me off quite a few titles.

If the game is good enough, as in Black Desert for example, I'll usually find a compromise that works. Often that will be a female human scaled down as short as the sliders allow. I think the reason I have so many characters like that has as much too do with the limited racial options as it does with any strong positive preference on my part. Or maybe I'm just telling myself that.
Blue cat for a blue day.

Either way, I think one of the key reasons I've stuck so long and so loyally with GW2 despite its many faults is that although it only has five races they are all very strong, distinctive and different. In the Charr and the Asura the game has two of the best-defined and detailed non-human races I've seen in the genre. I've come a long way towards appreciating the Sylvari, too, especially given how strongly I took against them at the start.

I do hope that as new MMOs come along they will continue the great heritage of the genre, where in games like EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, Vanguard, Warhammer Online and, of course, WoW, players could expect to fight alongside and against a wide array of races and body types. I'd hate to think we'd all end up in a world like Landmark's, where you can be anything you want so long as it's a normal sized human or one who's just a teensy bit taller.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Where To Begin? : EQ2

A short conversation in the comments on the previous post outlined two of the biggest problems older MMOs have in trying to attract and hold new players: they're overwhelmingly vast and they don't look that great by modern standards. A few, Saga of Ryzom, comes to mind, were prescient or fortunate enough to go with a stylized graphic approach that ages well but most older games look, well, old.

As the anonymous commenter observes "the EQ2 graphics were also implemented with an eye to future graphic hardware upgrades". Certainly SOE made a big deal about that at the time. Anyone remember the pre-release video that got everyone so excited and which turned out to look nothing whatsoever like the actual game, when it finally arrived? In practice, though, for the first decade at least, that promise went unfulfilled.

Much though I love EQ2, for the longest time I would never have made any great claims for its visual style. Even back in 2004, coming to the new Norrath from the then five year old 90s stylings of EverQuest, it didn't look that great. Antonica and Commonlands were functional, Thundering Steppes and Nektulos Forest bleak and/or bland. I was always impressed by Freeport but Qeynos was famously so badly optimized that many people simply avoided going there altogether.

Over the years the post-Luclin version of Norrath grew and grew. The Desert of Flames expansion, visually, was much of a muchness with the base game, only with added sand. Kingdom of Sky was a lot more impressive with its soon to become familiar Roger Dean style floating islands but as the expansions rolled out year after year it was the increasingly enjoyable and complex gameplay that kept me coming back, rather than any expectation of anything amazing to look at.

Researching this post I was surprised to find that the EQ2 team only got the new Terrain tools that massively speeded up and improved their ability to create zones from scratch in 2014. That was no doubt why we saw all-new zones in the 2014 and 2015 expansions and updates whereas 2012's Chains of Eternity and 2013's Tears of Veeshan largely re-used and re-vamped older assets.

Something must have changed, though, because as I play through the ToV signature timeline and explore the sky islands of Vesspyr Isles and the alternate-Norrath dungeons they lead to I find myself doing something I rarely do in EQ2: taking screenshot after screenshot just because. As should be readily apparent from the illustrations in recent posts, Tears of Veeshan is a visually sumptuous experience.

It's not just the zones, either. The character models are elaborate and detailed. It's hard to appreciate the sartorial style of a shissar temple guard as he 's trying to cleave you down the middle but these are some snappy dressers and the bixies in the Fractured Hive have certainly followed an entirely different evolutionary path from those buzzing fluffballs I remember back in Misty thicket.

It's been like this for about four or five years. The post-level-95 zones in EQ2, open world and dungeon alike, are much more likely to make you reach for your screenshot key than for excuses. No-one needs to apologize for an aging engine here. The graphics may not be cutting edge but they have, at last, managed to achieve something of the timeless style of good graphic design.

A lot of it seems to have to do with a new approach to surface and color. The ToV zones have a lot of flat surfaces and color washes. Texture frequently seems to be provided by tiles, panels or patinas rather than, in older zones, those tired and tiring texture maps. It reminds me in places of the clean, classic expressionistic comic art of Alex Toth or, to take a less-exalted example, Trevor von Eeden

In other parts there's something of the lush, overripe, almost sybaritic indulgence of the "Studio" artists, Jeffrey Catherine Jones, Mike Kaluta, Barry Windsor Smith and Bernie Wrightson. There also seems to be a deal of constructivist influence going on as well. All in all it's a far richer mix than anything you're likely to encounter in the first few dozen levels and therein lies the problem.

When nearly all of your players are up in the canopy, enjoying the fruits of a decade or more of improvements in both the design of the game and the tools to apply lessons learned attractively and efficiently, how can you hope to draw fresh sap from the roots? Even with modern leveling speeds it's a long road from installing the game to the good stuff five or ten levels short of the cap.

I'm a huge advocate of low level gaming in MMORPGs. I prefer to be down there in the fields, helping with the turnip harvest, running off the gnolls. For me, EQ2's huge, sprawling hinterland is freighted with nostalgia and memory. Nothing there comes clean and raw. But could I start there now, with no foreknowledge, and stay? I don't know. 

EQ2 is an exceptional case, I think. In many, most MMOs I might well suggest the best of the gameplay is at the lower end. I tend to become disengaged by end games. EQ2 doesn't really go there. For a long, long time it's still the same leveling game only the scenery gets better and better and the plots become more and more involving. There isn't any huge change of playstyle when you hit the buffers on level.

It would be probably be better all round if DBG could split the game in two. There's more than enough content from 1-92 to make most MMOs with years of development behind them look skinny. That could be the retro, nostalgists' version.

The game already makes a step-change at 92. It would be the perfect new beginning, jettisoning the dead weight of a decade of overwrought and underused mechanics and systems, offering instead the much more coherent and visually appealing package that begins somewhere around the introduction of Withering Lands, half way through 2011's Destiny of Velious expansion.

Since that's unlikely to happen I think I would recommend would-be new players in Norrath to lay down a few extra dollars in the Store and begin at Level 90 with a Heroic Character. It seems counter to everything I usually espouse and support but EQ2 really is a different game these days and I suspect very, very few players who start at the bottom in 2016 will ever stick around long enough to discover just how different.

Of course, if you're an experienced MMO veteran who knows what to expect of an old game and isn't unduly phased by spending quite a long time staring at some really unappealing scenery then you're in for a real treat. There's an unconscionable amount of content in those first 90 levels and a lot of it is very entertaining indeed.

The best part is that there is a choice. A few years back it was very much like it or lump it and I suspect that after a few frustrating sessions many chose the latter. Most MMOs of a certain age now offer some kind of elevator to the top and the days of shaking our heads over the supposed entitlement issues that brings up are over. Or should be.

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