Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Everyone Loves A Parade : GW2

It wasn't long after I began playing EverQuest, seventeen years ago this November, that I stumbled upon a community-organized event. Not specifically something by or for the then-substantial role-playing community, although there were many of those; something looser, more inclusive, with which anyone could join, in or out of character.

The one I remember  most vividly from those very early days was Talent Contest held on The Stage, an open-air theater on the west side of the much-missed original Freeport. Mrs Bhagpuss and I just happened to be passing by when we heard the event being announced in /ooc so we went to see what was happening.

We ended up sitting on the dusty Freeport ground for a couple of hours, watching mostly inept and amateurish performers take the stage to recite poetry or act out barely comprehensible skits. It felt like being in a true alternate reality. It was magical.

Over the years I've seen countless similar community events, from ad hoc improvs that drew a crowd
to huge, organized extravaganzas that took weeks of planning and were trailed across the interwebs months in advance. There have been mass protests and sit-ins, marches for and against all kinds of causes or outrages, demonstrations and celebrations of every stripe and kind.

The biggest and best known can require detailed rules of conduct for the audience like Weatherstock in LotRO or dire warnings for innocent bystanders like Burn Jita, which even managed to break into the real-world global news agenda, because EVE.

The best community events, though, are always the ones you just happen upon. I was in Citadel sorting through my banks as usual on Sunday when someone in guild chat mentioned they'd just seen a whole load of Quaggans marching through Lions Arch.

Quaggan Parades are a thing in GW2 and have been for a while. If you google you'll find a whole load of links to YouTube videos going back several years. Here's a small and annoying one from 2013 or a somewhat larger, better-organized and certainly better-shot version from the year after.

I can't say I've ever shared the widespread affection for Quaggans. I prefer to make jokes about their culinary potential rather than coo over their supposed cuteness but it can't be denied that to catch a whole gaggle of Quaggies toddling along is a bit of cultural milestone in Tyria. Kind of like naked gnome races in EverQuest and about as ethnically sensitive.

It took a bit of effort to find the amphibian posse. The first instance of LA didn't have them so I whispered my guildmate, partied up with him and zapped across to his map, where I found the Quaggan horde trundling through the east side of the city.

Arriving in a rush I hadn't thought to grab my own Endless Quaggan Tonic from the bank, where it waits, hopelessly, not having seen use for a very long time if, indeed, ever. Even if I'd had one on me I still wouldn't have blended in because I only have the Black and Blue versions and almost every Quaggan in this particular parade was red.

It was a very well-organized event, with two Commanders leading the way and everyone following at walking pace. Large turnout too. There was some mention of  charity involvement but in the fifteen minutes or so that I spent following the Quaggs no-one rattled a bucket or linked to a website so I remain none the wiser on what we were supposedly supporting.

Eventually the conga line arrived at the portal to Lornar's Pass and all the Quaggans passed through into the snowfields beyond, where, in a marvelous piece of theater, most of them turned blue. We all hung around for a few minutes while the organizers started to sort out advanced parties of non-Quaggans to head out along the proposed route and clear it of hostiles.

Around then I made my excuses and left. A parade is one thing but this was starting to look like a recreation of the Long March. How many Quaggans made it and where they eventually made it to is going to have to remain a mystery.

This minor, meaningless, serendipitous happenstance is a very small example of what's spoiled offline RPGs for me forever. No matter how brilliantly written and realized, no matter how finely-tuned the AI, with current technology there is simply no chance that you'll ever experience anything like this in any virtual world that isn't populated at least in part by other people.

Maybe one day we'll have algorithms or even sentient AIs that can provide the same level of found fun-making on the fly although the recent example of No Man's Sky suggests that day could be a long time coming. In the mean time I'll just carry on enjoying every new online gaming day as it comes - freighted with the unexpected courtesy of my fellow players.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Just The One, Then : EQ2

Syl started a discussion last week on what she might choose if she was only going to play a single video game for the rest of her life. Telwyn followed suit.

It's actually something I've pondered, idly, a few times over the years, along with that perennial favorite "if you had to live inside an MMO, which one would it be?". For me, the answer to both questions is probably the same: EQ2.

It's not that EQ2 is the best MMO, although it's certainly one of my personal top three favorites. It's more that it's so many different games all bundled up together. It almost feels like cheating to pick it as the only game I'd play.

There's such a portmanteau of ideas, all layered thickly, often chaotically, across each other that it runs far greater risk of overwhelming than boring any player, new or old. It would take a very long time indeed to understand, let alone exhaust, them all.

For example, Crafting in EQ2 is a fully realized MMO all of its own, complete with storylines, solo and group content, quests, gear progression, even "dungeons". So much development time has gone into adding so much content it could quite literally be released as a stand-alone game by now.

In what you'd usually call the main part  of the game, Adventuring, there's a plethora of classes - it sometimes feels like dozens of them - each of which plays significantly differently from the next. Famously - or infamously - every one of those classes has enough spells or spell-like abilities to fill forty or fifty hotbar slots. If that's not variety enough, there are over twenty races, each with its own flavor - although why you'd want to play anything other than a ratonga...

You can start in half a dozen different zones and level up in many, many more. There's absolutely no need to follow the same, worn path each time, although over the years you will certainly develop preferences. You can race to max level and back-fill your AAs or set the slider to any point on the scale you like (always assuming you've ponied up your sub for the privilege), allowing you considerable control and variation in the leveling process.

Like crafting, leveling in EQ2 is a full game - provided you like making multiple characters - but at the top of the level curve the endgame waits with its minutiae of never-ending incremental improvements for those that care for that kind of thing. That's a Zeno's Paradox you'll never outrun.

For pure explorers things aren't quite so infinitely extensible. You will inevitably run out of new places to see before the developers can patch more in. Still, while Norrath after the moon exploded isn't as indescribably huge as the original sprawling Norrath of EverQuest Sr. (itself an extremely good candidate for the One Game) it's big enough for you to have forgotten the start by the time you come round to the end.

Of all the games-within-a-game that would keep me going indefinitely, though, I think the clincher is Housing. Housing in EQ2 ranges from the simple decoration of a basic inn room to the construction via break-out of entire new zones. Indeed, decorating and building are tantamount to two separate games in themselves, especially once permitted player-made third-party tools like the Layout Designer come into play.

If EQ2 was the only game I had to play maybe I'd learn to use that editor. Mrs Bhagpuss did and she created wonders. I just filled all my houses with stuff. Of course I'd carry on doing that, too.

So, yes, if I had to settle on just one game to play for the rest of my game-playing life I think it would have to be EQ2. If Vanguard was still going and growing I might have gone for that instead, since it had all of EQ2's attractions plus Diplomacy as well, but sadly that option's no longer on the gaming table.

EQ would be my second choice. It, too, shares most of EQ2's benefits and adds plenty more of its own but EQ2 is just a more comfortable place to hang out for extended periods, somehow. I guess the only other contender would be GW2, in which it seems I can spend thousands of hours despite there really not being all that much in the way of variety.

Pushed to a choice, though, I'll take EQ2 as my One Game

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Postcards From Ember Bay : GW2

The second Episode of GW2's Living Story 3 hit the servers yesterday. As usual it's very hard to discuss it in any detail without dropping spoilers all over the place. Even the opening paragraph of the official Patch Notes came under fire on  the forums for spoilerizing the previous Episode, which, of course, many people who haven't bought Heart of Thorns already own but have yet to play.

I'm kind of wary about discussing the entire storyline myself. If you're even marginally invested in the plotline that's been meandering through GW2 for the life of the game (and which digs its roots increasingly deep into the lore and story of the original Guild Wars) there are quite a few *gasp* moments and a lot of laugh-out-louds. I enjoyed all of them and I wouldn't want to weaken their impact for anyone else with a few off-hand references.

Sticking to safer ground then, I am very pleased to report that Episode 2 is at least as good as Episode 1 and that they're both better than any episode of Living Story 2. The writing seems tighter, sharper, more focused and less mawkish than it sometimes became in LS2. There's still the odd spurt of self-indulgence but I found those quite forgivable.

The voice acting is especially noteworthy. I've been listening to a lot of MMO voice acting of late, particularly in DCUO and WoW and I have a whole post on the topic mulling over in the back of my mind. Let's just say for now that GW2 has the lead on either of those by some distance when it comes to intonation, expression, appropriate matching of voice and visuals and, most especially, in line reading.

Back in the summer I played through Episode 1 on my female Asura Elementalist. She's 85% Berserker specced which made for something of a white-knuckle ride through the fighty-fighty parts. Bearing that in mind, this time I went with my Charr Ranger.

I was somewhat apprehensive to hear him speak because the voice actor who did all the male player-character Charr voicework from launch to the end of LS2 wasn't available to do the new stuff. I don't generally like my characters being voiced, preferring the Silent Protagonist model of The Secret World, but I'd gotten very used to how my Charr Ranger, the first character I made after launch and my first Level 80, sounded.

Well, the new guy did a great job. At worst it sounds as though maybe my Charr had a bit of a heavy night of it - he's a bit gruffer and a bit deeper - but it's very comfortably the same character talking. Rytlock, of course, remains the star of any show he's in and Taimi is her usual amusing, insufferable, endearing self.

It was a great pleasure listening to all of them along with the other regular supporting cast and new faces but any more detail would be running into spoiler territory. The strange thing about spoilers is that even saying something doesn't happen or someone isn't present can be a spoiler in itself so best just not mention it.

Away from the main storyline there's the not-insignificant matter of a whole new explorable map. And it is a whole map! Not a quarter of a map, like the first installment of Dry Top, nor a bijou maplet like Bloodstone Fen. No, Ember Bay is a full-on, full-feature, full-size full new map in the tradition and scale of the maps that launched with the game.

I spent several hours last night exploring it and I haven't opened it all yet, let alone achieved map completion. It's primarily a volcanic zone (every MMO has to have at least one) but there's some biome diversity, with an extensive littoral and some green foliage areas. Travel is possible by land and air (and sea if you really want, although the undersea seems to be mostly undeveloped) but gliding is definitely favored.

There seems to be a ton of things to do in Ember Bay. Hearts (the original GW2 quest hub analog) make a somewhat controversial return. I really never thought we see them again and I was surprised by how nice it felt to have them back. I hope this means they'll be a part of the next expansion too.

There are umpteen dynamic events in the classical style and some chains that end with big ticket  fights. I did two of those that concluded with a huge Ancient Chest ground drop similar to what appears at the downing of a core Tyria World Boss and they did feel a lot more like that model than the Marionnette/Vinewraith open raid style we've been educated to expect.

Indeed, if anything, a return to basics appears to be the theme of this new map. It doesn't discard the innovations and directional shifts of the last couple of years but neither does it ignore the game's heritage and established successes. So far I like it a lot.

There's a fair variety of creatures to fight and interact with. Skritt and Asura feature strongly, which is always a bonus. There are Karka, which generally isn't.

It was very interesting fighting all the various kinds of creatures solo with the same character. The storyline (extremely mild spoiler coming up...) goes quite strong on the toughness and danger of the new creatures to be found in Ember Bay but I found those to be pretty straightforward. As usual it was the blasted Karka that posed a serious threat.

There was certainly no difficulty exploring and participating in the mayhem, not for a ranger at least. How my Elementalist will get on there remains to be seen. I was thinking of re-speccing her anyway...

On a first trip I'd say Ember Bay is a very welcome addition to the game and I hope it presages more opening of the existing map rather than the addition of previously unsuspected pockets. The story is rolling along nicely. I'm intrigued to find out what comes next.

All in all this does feel like a substantial update at last, one that compares not unfavorably with the kind of content drops other MMOs get every two or three months. If you add in the substantial changes to Fractals and a complete new sPvP map then there's really no arguing that this is a significant addition to the game.

Here's hoping for another just like it in November, where it would sit neatly between Halloween and Wintersday, giving us something to get stuck into for every month of the rest of the year. And how about some hard information on that second Expansion?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Out Of Early Access, Into Early Exit : Otherland

To install and play AdventureQuest 3D on a PC requires Steam. I have a Steam account but I don't use it very often. Most of the time I forget it's there.

One of the few games on my Steam list is Otherland, an MMO with a very checkered past, about which I've written a handful of times. I'd vaguely registered a news squib a while back that claimed Otherland was now out of  "Early Access" and into commercial release.

With that move came a full wipe. and I didn't even have the game installed on my new PC but I thought I might as well patch it back up, start from scratch and see how things were going.

At first glance things everything seemed fine - better, even. There's a largely new tutorial, much tighter and more coherent than the rambling, confusing one I played through earlier this year. I breezed through that in an hour or so. It felt exactly like playing a single-player rpg and that's pretty much what Otherland seems to be right now because I didn't see one other player, even when I arrived at the main social hub, Lambda Mall.

It's still gorgeous to look at. The art design is fantastic. The art team has caught the look and feel of Tad Williams' novels, more so than perhaps I originally thought. It's worth downloading (it's F2P) just to run around and gawp.

As for it being an MMORPG, though...well, first you'd need some other players but it's not just that. It's more that if there's a world here I can't quite find it. The tutorial is linear as you'd expect but when it came to an abrupt halt I couldn't work out what to do or where to go next.

In the previous version the questline took you from Lambda Mall to the first adventure zone and things carried on from there. Based on what I read on the forum when I was trying to figure out what was going on, that should still be the case but it's  not, or not for me.

It'll be a bug. The game is still riddled with them. I had to relog twice just to clear glitches in the tutorial and the recent Steam reviews and forum posts all confirm that Otherland remains as buggy and unpolished in every respect other than the visuals as it always was.

It's a shame because as many people point out it's just about the perfect IP for an MMO, not least because Tad Williams probably retro-fitted a lot of the underlying concepts from the genre in the first place. The potential is almost certainly going to go to waste, sadly, since it seems that there's neither the interest from the public nor the authority from the developers to do it justice.

Even if I had been able to leave Lambda Mall it seems my options would have narrowed. Back then I remember doing a fair amount of open world questing, meeting various NPCs and helping them with their usual range of problems, just like any MMO but reading the forums it seems that even those limited MMORPG aspects that the game had to show when I last played have faded away. Side quests and crafting have apparently failed to make the move to Early Access leaving what amounts to a single, linear main storyline that eventually peters out (although not where mine did right at the beginning...).

This is hearsay and maybe someone reading this, who's managed to push further into the game, will be able to put the record straight. Only I doubt anyone reading has played further or, indeed, as far. And I'm not going to, either.

Sometimes you reach the point where you realize you've given an MMO just about as much time as it deserves. You're playing away and you find yourself thinking of all the other things you could be doing instead. I think I reached that point with Otherland about an hour ago.

Never say never. If I hear that anything's really changed - for the better - I'll always be open to taking another look but for now I think I'm done. On to the next world.

Monday, September 19, 2016

A Couple Of Comments On AdventureQuest 3D And DCUO

It's not uncommon for bloggers to claim that the true measure of success is found not in page views or followers but in the quantity and quality of the comments they receive. That's certainly how I see it.

Five years ago, when I was vacillating over whether or not to take the step up from commenting on other people's blogs to starting a blog of my own, perhaps the biggest concern I had was the risk of opening a comment column to...well, to the world. After all, I certainly wouldn't want to wake up of a morning, sit down with a cup of coffee and find myself confronted with some of the comments I'd made.

In the end I decided to risk it. After all, as Wilhelm observed in his magnificent Ten Glorious Years post, in extremis you can always just switch people off because "life is too short to put up with that sort of thing".

Judging by the moss on the boots I'm guessing this place gets a lot of rain.

So far, fingers crossed, that hasn't been necessary. Most of the comments here are well-intentioned, good-mannered and a pleasure to receive. I'm very poor at checking my spam folder so most of the automated nonsense there goes unseen. Apologies to anyone who may have had a comment left there to languish but there are only so many hours in the day.

The best thing about comments is how much you learn. I try to fact-check before I post but this is a blog not The New Yorker and sometimes I just wing it. It's great to be corrected or be given fresh information by better-informed readers who just want to help, not score points.

Last week I had two extremely welcome comments that I was happy to put to immediate use. One was from an anonymous reader who explained, with appropriate links, how to access the nested levels of DCUO's Style tab so that I could undo the creation error that gave my new character banana-yellow lips.

Tell me again. Why can't we just start here?
It turns out that was a "Make Up" option. I vaguely remember fiddling with that in Character Creation to see what it did before deciding it didn't do anything I wanted. It seems that when I closed the window I left the pointer in the yellow quadrant of the color chart and that's how it saved. Thanks to the anonymous commenter my Hero now has lips that match her face and I have a much clearer idea of how to use the Style tab.

The other comment was from Kaozz of ECTMMO. She was one of the few people who read my  recent post on how much I was looking forward to trying AdventureQuest 3D. The AQ3D fan club doesn't seem to have many members in this neck of the blogging woods. It might just be me, Syp and Kaozz because that post probably had the fewest views of any post this year.

Although I mentioned in the post that Artix Entertainment was planning on doing some Closed Beta giveaways I hadn't come across any on the MMO sites I read and I hadn't taken the trouble to look any further. Luckily Kaozz had spotted that there were keys to be had at MMORPG.com, a site I haven't looked at in years, and thanks to her alert in the comments I was able to snag one of the last few.

They were down to a hundred and fifty or so by the time I arrived and that had dropped to just over a hundred in the time it took me to make and register new accounts for both MMORPG.com and AQ3D. It's not a quick process, let me tell you.

I'll come back when you're ready.
There's no NDA as far as I can tell so I'm free to say that getting the game itself up and running is very quick and easy. I've only played one session so far so I've barely got a feel for the game yet. Still, "First Impressions" matter and so far mine are very positive.

Character Creation was very simple and straightforward. Four classes, two genders, one race. Some basic appearance choices. In and out in a couple of minutes. That leads into a strange kind of limbo wasteland introduction that I didn't really understand, where your character is confined to a very small area with never-ending skeleton spawns and a quest to find a wheel for a wagon to get you out of there.

I couldn't find the wheel and the quest interface was far from clear. After a few frustrating minutes I gave up wheel-hunting and just clicked on the "Travel" option the goblin-analog was offering. A swift loading screen and intro movie later and there I was in the real starting town of Battleon.
Sorry, I can't concentrate on what you're saying with that...thing...watching me.

I'm not entirely sure why we don't just get sent to Battleon directly from Character Creation or what the whole "I can't take you until you get me a wheel" thing was all about. That needs some tidying up or I need to L2P. From then on, though, everything was much clearer, smoother, better explained and a lot more fun.

It's apparent this is still beta. Most of the buildings and some paths to other areas come up short with an abrupt "Currently in Development" screen. There's plenty to be getting on with, though, with some nicely humorous, occasionally disturbing, quests and some delightfully designed creatures to kill.

Combat animations are fluid and satisfying and the UI overall is slick and extremely easy to use. The cross-platform aspect of the game is evident in the clustering of controls at the sides and corners of the screen, where thumbs will naturally find them on a phone or tablet. They work perfectly well for a mouse-clicker as well. It's an elegant solution.

Prime example of meta. Her full name is Robina Hood and she puts the gold on the monsters that you kill so you can loot it. Of course back in the glory days of EQ we literally did do that...
From reading the developer posts on the AQ3D website I was forewarned that leveling in this game is not the blink-and-you'll-miss-it afterthought you might expect from something with such child-friendly graphics and cross-platform aspirations. Well, they weren't kidding. It's flipping slow!

I played for a couple of hours and my character is around 10% into Level 3. What's more, everything is a tough fight. Take on a mob one level above you and expect it to be close. Get an add and expect to die. Go in the Level 4 dungeon at Level 3 and don't plan on making it past the first pull.

I died a lot. A lot. There doesn't seem to be much (any?) penalty for dying other than the delay and the shame but there doesn't need to be. This is a world that requires you to pay attention from the get-go. Try yoloing this and you will regret it. When you wake up.

Surprisingly nihilistic. Or maybe fascist?  Definitely not kitten and bunny talk anyway...

The writing is interesting. The whole game has an off-kilter, meta feel to it, a kind of post-post-modern sub-ironic knowing-yet-innocent stance that reminds me somewhat of Project: Gorgon. This is fantasy gaming for sophisticated gamers who come with an innate understanding of the layered patina of the form. Or else it's for kids. Same thing, really.

Anyway, I enjoyed it. I will play more and write more as I learn more. Whether anyone else is interested I guess we will find out from the comments - or the lack of them.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Muddling Through : DCUO

Somewhat to my own surprise I've played DCUO most days this week. The Hero I created largely at random just to get started has turned out to be very enjoyable to play, even though she's a complete mess from just about every perspective.

There's those yellow lips for a start. I still don't know how that happened but it does mean I can't bear to look at her in close-up. It's as though she's foaming at the mouth with custard and that's never a good look.

I'm just hoping somewhere in the sunbright skyscraper canyons of Metropolis, City of the Future, some enterprising Lex Luthor wannabe has set up a coin-operated "Change Your Face" concession. And that it doesn't have a hidden mind-control function, obviously.

Here's one hero I won't be asking for make-up tips. Or any fashion advice come to think of it...
Then there's my choice of Mentor. I thought I was making a Tech hero, all gadgets and drones and turrets and guns, yet somehow I opted for Wonder Woman. As someone, I think it might have been a guy from STAR Labs, observed last night "Wonder Woman? She's magic, right?".

Yes. She is. So my Free Introductory Tour of The JLA Watchtower took me all around the Magic Wing instead of the Tech area. I think that's the third, maybe fourth time I've taken that tour and I always get hopelessly lost. The Watchtower is huge and labyrinthine and as with most multileveled game spaces the "This way, you idiot" arrows don't really help much.

In the end I had to open two separate out-of-game resources to find some of the more recalcitrant locations and fill out the check-list. One way you can tell that DCUO is a really successful MMO is the wealth of online resources it's generated over the five years or so since it began. The wiki is really excellent and any Google search brings up a plethora of responses.

Posture, darling. Posture!

Some of those pages have been around for a long time but the current robust health of the game is plain from the crowds of players that cluster in the streets outside every police precinct or nightclub, the "Safe Houses" (aka Mission Hubs) for Heroes and Villains respectively. And inside, too, where the pastime of preference seems to be dueling. You can barely check your mail sometimes for the clutch of brawling heroes playfighting across the mailroom.

For some reason that totally escapes me I chose "stick" as my starter weapon. Okay, technically it's a Staff but a staff is just a stick with attitude. Nothing says hi-tech like a tree branch with the leaves stripped. Fortunately, a couple of upgrades later, I've ended up with something vaguely metallic with some diodes down the side so I can fake techno when I go upside the bad guys' heads.

Gear in DCUO is uber-important, which is beyond weird for a superhero MMO but then that's been a major problem for the genre forever. Granted there's a whole sub-genre of superheroes who self-define by their constant changes of uniform and grab-bag of gadgetry - Iron Man and Batman can cheerlead that crew - but the overriding tropes of the genre require an iconic look and innate abilities that rarely alter.

That never fitted well with the vertical progression of MMOs and DCUO is a very traditional MMO indeed as far as vertical progression goes. The ladder to end-game is very, very long indeed but the lower rungs, the basic level-to-thirty before you even get started part, is deliciously smooth. Upgrades come often, new skills filter in fast, there's a ton of choice and the whole thing feels fun.

What do you think? Do these wings go with my hair? With anything?

DCUO has a very simple and straightforward appearance system that means you can keep your character's look consistent through upgrade after upgrade if you want. Or you can just wear everything as it comes and look like you went to a masquerade ball dressed as a Foldee.  I had some great leathery bat-wings for a while but in the end I reverted to a classic cape.

Looks are so important to the up-and-coming Superhero as she tries to build her rep but in the end it's all about who hits the hardest. Despite not being great with the screen-centered, mouse-to-fight, no cursor allowed combat I've rolled through everything with comfort so far. My hero dinged 18 last night after defeating a solo instance boss so fast I didn't realize I'd won.

There's some variation on the leveling path that must come from your choice of mentor (and of course whether you go Hero or Villain) but this is the fourth or fifth character I've leveled into the high teens and most of the set pieces were familiar. Either the game has gotten easier at these levels (very likely - MMOs tend to get easier over time) or I've gotten better at playing (yeah, right...). Either way, the battles with Dr. Psycho and Giganta, both of which I recall being a royal pain in the backside on previous run-throughs, passed in pleasant and entertaining fashion.

As a lifelong DC fan one of the major attractions of the game is the heavy recognition factor that kicks in at every turn. That said, I'm light on my Wonder Woman backstory, which mutes some of the "oh it's that guy" moments. I had to look Doctor Psycho up and I only have a dim memory of Giganta from some Teen Titans connection. Whoever did the writing on the initial mission tranche at launch certainly didn't stint on the trivia. Come to think of it, they had Marv Wolfman on board so that would explain it.

All set for Poker Night.

Somewhere along the way I acquired my own Art Deco base. It's great! I checked bases out when they added them as DCUO's housing option back in 2013 but I never kept up with my housekeeping. Maybe this time I'll get some rugs down. I did get a really nice drop from an instance - a table and chair set that looks like it crossed the streams from Dr. Strange's town house.

A little like EQ2, where you can pretty much have a house for every day of the year, you can have more than one base in DCUO. Given the size of the basic model I think I'd struggle to make a home in even one but then a Base is not a Home. Nothing says "Lair" like a cavernous echo.

At 18 the options to group for instances have been popping for a while. DCUO is fundamentally a group game and I'm not sure there's much mileage long term in staying solo. On previous runs I've done a fair amount of hot-join group instances and enjoyed them but there's no chance I'll pursue that route beyond the casual drop-in here and there. Far too intense.

Someone's working late at the office.

This time round, though, it has occurred to me that there's plenty I haven't seen and done at the ultra-low (sub-30) end of the game. The range of powers and roles alone would reward some serious exploring. I edged into Controller mode this time and the gameplay is very different from the straight up DPS I've done previously. Then there are all the different Mentors and their flavors plus I haven't really given Villain a run...

Having messed this character up so badly and still having had so much fun I do feel highly motivated to start rolling alts. DCUO is never going to be a focus game for me but it's one I find I can come back to again and again with fresh interest. Can't say that about every MMO.

What's more, with the recent revelations about the continuing success of Neverwinter Online and the quiet satisfaction of Bethesda over the ongoing growth of TESO, I'm beginning to wonder if the real future of this genre might not lie in its growing appeal to the vast, mainstream console gaming crowd rather than the grognards still playing on PCs. May as well get some practice in now.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Say Hello, Wave Goodbye : WoW

My subscription to WoW runs out in a couple of days. I had a think about it this morning and decided to cancel.

On the one hand it's only a tenner a month and that's buried in the monthly credit card bill. I could leave it running and not notice. That would mean I could log in on a whim and play my Hunter or my Warlock or anyone else.

I could explore the changes wrought by the Cataclysm and adventure through Pandaria, which just about everyone seems to have re-assessed as one of WoW's highlights. I could try Pet Battles, take a look at my Garrison, get to 100 and open all those boxes in the bank. I could, eventually, buy Legion and join everyone else in what, by then, will be stale, old content, as we all wait another two years for whatever comes next.

The thing is, though, I'm  not playing WoW right now. I was playing, almost daily, for several weeks. Before the Invasions started I was happily leveling my Gnome Hunter and once the dreadnaughts started disgorging demons I was there every night along with everyone else, battling the hordes and soaking up the xp.

Once the invasions ended though, and I decided not to buy Legion just yet, I pretty much stopped logging in. Momentum carried me through the first few days, when I took the Hunter to begin what seemed to be the start of the main Pandaria questline but it felt flat and a little bit, well, dull.

After the excitement of the invasions, much though I complained about certain aspects of them at the time, the prospect of completing dozens, scores, hundreds of quests as a way of leveling up seemed strangely unappealing. After a couple of hubs I flew to The Timeless Isle, about which I'd read some good things on various blogs a year or two back.

Can I at least get a change of clothes before I go?

There I had fun for a while, running around killing mobs that dropped things that might be upgrades if only they were for my class. I bought a few items on the Auction House to fill in the slots the Invasions had missed. Briefly there was a future where I'd grind quests and gear up and Azeroth would be a place I lived...

And then I stopped logging in. Mostly I went on playing GW2, which I play for several hours every day and a lot of hours every weekend. DBG announced their expansion program, handed out Level 95s and fired up a double xp weekend so I went back to Norrath, both flavors. That made me remember I was paying a subscription that included DCUO so I got that fired up and I played last night, did a couple of levels and had a blast.

This morning, home all day with the house to myself, I thought about what I might play and a whole flurry of options presented themselves. All of the above for a start. Then there's the long list of MMOs I haven't logged into for a while but still think about logging into most days - Dragomon Hunter, Riders of Icarus, Dragon Nest, Rift, Landmark... And the ones I was in the middle of and enjoying and then dropped for no reason - Black Desert, Blade and Soul, ArcheAge...

As I was thinking it over I watched a little of MJ's First Look at Twin Saga. I considered downloading that. I thought about AdventureQuest going into Open Beta in a few weeks. And round about then it occurred to me that all of these options plus dozens more were available to me for free. Even the two EQs and DCUO, for which I do pay but don't have to.

My turn again!
And then I though some more and realized that not only could I also play WoW for free under the Starter Edition but that I would probably enjoy that more than playing "real" WoW in dribs and drabs, here and there. WoW is a great MMORPG. It has a vast wealth of content, a huge and fascinating world and something for everyone. Unfortunately, it also seems to have the vampiric ability to suck all the joy out of itself in remarkably short order.

It's been noticeable how the tone has changed as people progress through Legion. The initial reaction was almost universally positive. Gevlon may have been the only naysayer and even he doesn't find that much to complain about. And there could be a simple solution to the main issue he's highlighting: perhaps Gevlon's Girlfriend could follow Belghast's lead and start the conversational ball rolling herself - or Gevlon could sub up and make it his mission to Get Azeroth Chatting. I think we'd all like to see how that might pan out...

A month in, though, and some people are already over Legion, while some still plugging away wonder how much replayability there can be. The general theme seems to be that Legion was a very good expansion and well worth the cost for the solid 4-6 weeks of intense gameplay it offers. Thanks, Blizzard! We'll all get back to you when you have something new to offer.

I guess this works as a business strategy. I mean, any software developer that could spend two years developing a product and then sell 3.3 million copies in the first week would probably consider it a solid return on investment, wouldn't they?

Mark Jacobs would probably lay any malaise in the genre squarely at the feet of the change in payment models. Mark, of course, has always been dead set against the entire concept of Free-to-Play so he's just being consistent when he says subscription gaming "is the model I have always believed in". He's been around long enough to remember how, when the handful of MMOs that existed all had subscriptions, that in itself was seen as some weird aberration by the vastly larger community of non-MMO-playing gamers.

Even I might get a turn..and I'm an elf!

Still, you do have to wonder whether he might not have a point. If all the games on my want-to-play list used either the Buy to Play or Subscription model, would I have unsubbed from WoW an hour ago? Might I not have thought it better to pay one small monthly fee for access to a very big, polished, stable and reliable game and just stick at it rather than squirrel around all over the place trying this and that and the other for five minutes here, five minutes there?

Well, no. I didn't unsub to WoW because of the cost. I unsubbed because the gameplay in the Free Starter edition is, to my tastes, superior to the gameplay in the paid-for game. What's more, I would actually pay a subscription to have access to a WoW that went on being more like the Free Trial but without the restrictions. And I told Blizzard that in the "Why Are You Leaving Us?" box.

I'd like a simpler, slower, less gear-focused version of WoW. One where the concerns are small, the problems human-sized (or Gnome sized). Especially I'd like a version where you don't feel that every minute is vital for Progression of Your Character and a moment missed is a failure on your part to Do Your Job. I'd pay good money for that.

In short, WoW's free Starter Edition feels like play but paid-for WoW feels like work. That can't be the right way round, can it?

So for now I'm back to being a F2P scrub. Looking forward to it in fact. I've enjoyed my paid time and as I told Blizzard in my resignation note I'm "very likely" to re-subscribe at some point. But for now I'm done.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Backwards Into The Future : AdventureQuest 3D

The death of the traditional MMORPG has been on the cusp for a while now. Blog Nation goes through repeated spasms of fear, self-loathing and schadenfreude over the topic. Recent reports that the MMO craze is beginning to wilt in its last remaining stronghold, South Korea, stirred a flurry of concerned chin-stroking and a spat of smug I Told You Sos.

The original article is tucked safely behind The Financial Times' Pay Wall but Google has a ladder that will let you peek over the top. If you take the time to read the actual article you'll find that the FT weren't bemoaning the decline and fall of the diku-mud model per se but pointing out that South Korea needs to pull its socks up if it's going to compete with China and, to a lesser extent, Western competitors in the freemium field.

Part of the problem - a big part - appears to be the ongoing and accelerating switch by consumers (we used to call them gamers, I believe) away from large screens connected to big boxes that sit on special desks in front of revolving chairs to tiny screens they can carry around in their pockets and tap away at anywhere. Convenience, accessibility and, naturally, a vast saving in upfront costs makes mobile the smart choice for the future.

Only the story isn't quite so simple. Blizzard just rang up 3.3 million sales in the first week for the latest expansion to their unfashionable, aging, very definitely not zeitgeisty diku-mud World of Warcraft. That matches "the all-time record achieved by previous expansions...making it one of the fastest-selling PC games ever".

Blizzard, never the fastest to react to changing trends, has recognized the lure of the small screen for its customers. Smartly they've acted to tether those dangerous phones and tablets to the subscriptions already being paid. The Legion Companion app has been well-received and who can say what it presages for an integrated WoW experience further down the line?

If that comes, though, Blizzard will, as usual, be playing catch-up. There before them, with a fully-integrated MMORPG that you can play on your Windows PC, your Android tablet and your iPhone, comes Artix Entertainment, creators of the AdventureQuest IP.

What's more, if  you're on the PC, your friend is on his tablet and your wife is on her phone (this is beginning to sound like a sitcom) you can all play together, in the exact same virtual space. All you need is a Magic Word. Ok, now it's definitely a sitcom. Probably I Dream Of Genie.

AQ began as a single-player online RPG a long time ago. A really long time ago - 2002 in fact. It was successful enough to spawn a fully-blown, if still resolutely two-dimensional MMORPG version, AdventureQuest Worlds, in 2008. It's one of a surprisingly large number of long-established, successful MMOs that no-one in Blog Nation ever mentions. Or plays.

I've never played it. It kind of slipped under the radar, plus I had it confused in my mind with the Cartoon Network's Adventure Time. Not a good thing.

Unsurprisingly I wasn't paying attention when Artix announced a Kickstarter for the third iteration, a real 3D version this time. Had I noticed I very much doubt I'd have kicked in and probably wouldn't have taken a second chance to get on-board early when they were selling alpha access packs either, even if I'd spotted what was happening.

By the time they got around to flagging up the open beta, though, something had caught my eye. I read Syp's cautiously positive preview at MassivelyOP, and goggled at a later news item which seemed implicitly to question the sanity of taking such a totally unfinished project from Closed to Open Beta in a single week, something that, fortunately, Artix eventually decided against.

Open Beta got pushed back and I waited, not particularly patiently. I even considered buying in to the Closed Beta but it seems I was too late for that. And now the wait is over. Almost.

AdventureQuest goes into Open Beta in October. I will be playing. Whether I'll still be playing in November we shall see but the possibility of playing on my tablet and, possibly, my iPod Touch is very intriguing. I already play some MMOs that way but being able to integrate across all three systems is really taking the next step.

Of course, what matters more is whether it's any good. Going back to where we started, given the uncertain future for full-fat diku-mud MMORPGs, I hope it takes off like a rocket. I'm pretty sure it's going to be more appealing to me than Smed's upcoming offering at any rate.

If anyone can't wait until October there will be some giveaways of Closed Beta keys as Artix do "interviews with popular gaming news websites starting Thursday". I think I can hold off until the end of the month but if I happen to see a key then I won't say no.

Here's hoping there's life in the old diku dog yet.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

No More Hero : DCUO

I've always had a soft spot for DCUO. Hardly surprising, given I've been a DC fan since I was four years old. Playing DCUO, though, that hasn't been so much of a thing.

The game's been around for well over five years now. I beta-tested it back in late 2010 and played for several weeks when the game launched in January 2011. The level cap at release was a low-bar 30, something that's never changed and probably never will, because DCUO is effectively two different games.

The first thirty levels offer a very enjoyable, free-flowing, rough and tumble sort-of open world MMO, filled with traditional questing and some exciting all-pile-on large-scale events. If you rolled on a PvP server, as I did, there was also plenty of ad hoc Hero on Villain action along the way.

At thirty the game changes utterly, becoming an intense, group-oriented experience built around instances, raids and an ever-receding chase after the increasingly essential yet ever-elusive Combat Rating.

Here's a guide to what to expect when you turn thirty. I'm not vouching for the accuracy. I've never even gotten that far. All my information on what comes after the watershed I take from Tipa's long-running, highly entertaining but ultimately off-putting tales of life with Team Spode.

That's really not my kind of thing at all but flying through the blue skies of Metropolis or clinging to the rain-drenched rooftops of Gotham very much is. My first character made it into the low 20s before I lost focus and my second, created a couple of years later, stalled somewhere in the teens.

At least I think she did. Hard to be sure. She's not around to ask.

But wait, we're getting ahead of ourselves. First let's get the game installed.How hard can that be, right? I mean, they want people to play...

I hadn't logged into DCUO  for a year - could be two. There's a copy sitting somewhere on one of the HDDs I removed from my old PC but not the one I currently have fitted into a USB enclosure. Rather than swap them over I thought I'd just re-install. We have an excellent cable connection, it's around a 20GB download - should take what, half an hour, tops?

So, about a week later it finishes downloading. Say what? Well, there's a bug in the launcher. Of course there is. For reasons no-one can explain for some people the launcher simply keeps closing itself without warning, sometimes after a few seconds, sometimes a few minutes.

There are umpteen suggested fixes, none of which I bothered to apply. I took the recommended brute force method and just kept restarting the launcher every time I noticed it had closed. Only since I opened it and then left it to run in the background while I played something else I mostly didn't notice it had closed, which is why patching it up took me all week.

 In the end it got done and I logged in to my old account. Of course, in keeping with my entire convoluted history with SOE/DBG, that account is no longer the one I'm paying money for, meaning my old characters are subject to DBG's somewhat intrusive F2P restrictions.

Which we will get to in due course. First, though, there's The Case of The Missing Hero. She's just gone. Not at character select. Vanished. Why? Well there's the mystery.

A F2P player is entitled to two character slots and a "Premium" (ex-subber) six so it's not that. The handy Restore Deleted Character button tells me I have no deleted characters, which is to be expected since I almost never commit virtual murder. Or is that virtual suicide? Whatever.

Maybe there was some kind of low-level purge? I thought she would have been high enough to escape a cull if so but who knows? She was on a different server - a PvE server - but if there's any way to select servers I can't find it.

In fact I couldn't find a way to choose servers even after I decided to stop looking and make a new character instead. At the end of Character Creation (which is as counter-intuitive and badly explained as it always was, which is how I ended up with a character with yellow lips...) the game simply dumped me into the world with no server choice required.

Some quick research tells me that you no longer have to decide from the get-go whether you want to go PvE or PvP. In fact, far from not having to decide, you aren't allowed to make that choice. You have to PvE to level 10 now, at which point you can swap via a teleporter. Not sure if you can come back.

Not wanting to carry on leveling on a PvP server was one reason I decided to start over. The PvP is a lot of fun but I would like to have a chance to remember how the heck to play this game before I front up to any passing supervillains with a whim to kick some clownfox butt.

The other reason was the aforementioned F2P restrictions. Even grandfathered in on a Premium account I didn't have anywhere near enough inventory space to hold all the things I was...um... already holding. I had to spend the first twenty minutes selling and destroying things just to get down to having full bags.

Then there's the currency limit of $2000 - my character already had $5k on him so most of that went into escrow. I looked at the rest of the rules, including having to use DB Cash to use the broker, and decided y'know what, I have an account I'm actually paying for that I could use for this. So I did.

There were a few new options available when it came to powers and such. I took Skimming as my travel power which turned out to be an amazing experience: two discs strapped to my feet and a superb sense of movement. I could have skimmed all over Metropolis only the discs disappeared when I pressed something and I haven't worked out yet how to get them back.

Movement in DCUO is reason enough to play for me. Flight, wallcrawling, super-speed and now skimming - they're all viscerally thrilling. When I used to play I tended to spend more time just haring around than I did fighting anything. And taking screenshots, of course.

I also chose Wonder Woman as my mentor this time. I haven't been tutored by her before so that will add a new frisson. Not that Ambush Bug ever did much for my previous character. Then again...Ambush Bug. What were they thinking?

Anyway, for better or worse, for longer or, almost certainly, for shorter, I'm back in DCUO. Now if I can just work out where I put those skimming discs...

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Blogroll Blues

It would appear that my blogroll is broken. In fact I suspect it's not just mine.

I noticed a few days ago that there seemed to be fewer new posts than I'd expect. If I only used my blogroll to read blogs then I might have just thought it was a quiet week but I read most posts via Feedly and that was still fizzing away like usual.

Cross-checking showed that plenty of blogs were pinging new content to Feedly but weren't being picked up by Blogger. All the ones that don't use the Blogger platform.

A closer investigation suggests that Blogger blogs are updating the roll as normal, including a timestamp, while all the rest have been shuffled to the bottom of the pack. Blogger blogs that haven't seen a new post in months or, in some cases, years now take precedence over non-Blogger blogs that posted earlier today.

Some kind of communication between Blogger and its enemies competitors compatriots must still be taking place because the pack of undated blogs is shuffling itself according to most recent activity - or at least I think it is.

The blogroll just seems to have established a new hierarchy that favors its own. I'm assuming this isn't intentional. It certainly wasn't announced.

It's also possible that it's nothing to do with Blogger per se. For months there have been issues with comments using a WordPress login and I'm wondering if all the affected blogs in the roll are WordPress ones too. It may be a WordPress issue rather than a Blogger one.

If anyone's seeing their non-Blogger, non-WordPress posts being demoted to the lower leagues perhaps you'd call it out in the comments, just for a bit of triangulation. Similarly, if other people are seeing Blogger blogrolls working as normal, please mention that, too. I guess it could be just me...

I doubt that, though, because I took the trouble to check several other Blogger blogs with lengthy blogrolls - Nils, The Grumpy Elf, I  Have Touched The Sky, Null Signifier for example - and as far as I can tell they are all being affected in the same way.

I know that the Blogger blogroll is a well-used and much appreciated convenience, here on my blog and on many others. It would be a very great shame if it ceases to be reliable and trustworthy due to negligence or disinterest on the part of either Blogger, WordPress or any other intermediary. Let's hope someone who can do something about it is paying attention.

In the meantime, until normal service is resumed, you might want to take the trouble to scroll down once in a while.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

That's Exquisite! : EQ2

Something odd happened. I was taking the newly ninety-fived Inquisitor for her first mentored-down circuit of Chelsith (still pound for pound the fastest, if not the most thrilling, xp ride I know). I've been on this merry-go-round so often I could... something something amusing metaphor.

Sorry - Chelsith does that to a person. Anyway, I was killing the nameds one by one and each time an Exquisite Chest dropped.

EQ2 has an ascending sequence of increasingly ornate chests whose degree of ornamentation indicates the attractiveness and value of the contents. It's a concept that's widely used in MMOs but EQ2 was the first place I ever saw it.

In fact, I was there in beta when a patch replaced body-looting, familiar from EverQuest, with the intrusive, alien and utterly immersion-breaking ker-plunk of a wooden box popping into existence from...where, exactly? I sent some blistering negative feedback and waited for another patch to revert the idiocy. Like Diana Ross, I'm still waiting.

The long years have trained me to salivate when I see rusted metal. Or at least to feign excitement. It's not like anything that drops in Chelsith is going to be any use to me. Still, Fabled pink retains a little luster and Masters do sell, sometimes.

As I continued my gallop around the circuit, knocking down fishmen and scooping up the loot, two things became apparent. Firstly, every named was up. That is unusual. The big water worms are triggered and always available but all the Yah`Lei bossfish have placeholders and there's always one or two on a smoke break.

Not this time. Okay, can happen.Thing two, though? Not so much.

Every single named in the zone dropped an Exquisite Chest. I have literally never seen that happen. Not even close. About half way round I began to anticipate each kill, expecting a regular Ornate but no, the Exquistes kept dropping all the way round and back to the beginning.

I ended up with no fewer than four Fabled chest pieces, two sets of legs and possibly the best-named Fabled Footwear ever. Plus a club and a selection of jewellery. If I had a level 80 he'd be made - for a few levels at least.

Just when I thought it couldn't get any further over the top, on the very last named - two Exquisite Chests! One from the boss and another from some random grunt. If this was real life I'd be looking around for the hidden camera. Or running out to buy a lottery ticket.

It even occurred to me that maybe there was some special bonus loot deal bundled in with the Labor Day xp (that being the reason I was trundling round Chelsith in the first place) but no - I went and checked and nothing.

So, freak alignment of the rng planets or what? I'm not going around again to check and not just because I'm on Lockout.

It certainly brightened up what could have been a desultory trip. And the Inquisitor dinged 96 and made a good dent in the level. Overall this has been a profitable weekend in Norrath, both flavors of which were enjoying a rain of bonus xp. I didn't play that much but as well as a doing a full level on the EQ2 Inquisitor the Magician over on EQ added nearly 50% onto level 92. Might not sound much but if you solo in either game you'll know different.

I also noticed a couple of oddities about being hoicked all the way from nowhere to 95. DBG cover most of the bases but they forgot about Status. When I went to Chrono down for Chelsith I couldn't pay the Status bill. Fortunately I had a bunch of stuff in my bags to sell for status so it wasn't a problem but you do have to know to do that.

On the plus side, everything everywhere gives you AA, every other mob you kill starts a Lore and Legend or a Language quest and every shiny you spot goes straight into your collection bag. It's like the game loves you. Enjoy it while it lasts.

That'll probably be it for a while. We're promised bonus events all the way down to the Expansion and treats spoil your appetite for regular food. They do taste good, though.

Exquisite, even.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide