Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Little Something for Us Tempunauts

Lewis Carroll's Red Queen would have loved MMORPGs. So would Douglas Adams. It's a wonder there's not a Milliways franchise in every spaceport from EVE to SW:ToR. If you can't believe six impossible things before breakfast you might as well not bother logging in.

My personal favorite has always been the universal genre trope of swimming in plate armor but I could probably come up with a Top 100 Cognitive Dissonance Moments without pausing for breath. Animal corpses that open to reveal weapons and armor, characters who are always "hungry" and "thirsty" yet never run out of "endurance", the way every simple shopkeeper in any tiny hamlet can come up with the coin to buy gems that would bankrupt a Czar...

Of all the unlikely, illogical and downright unbelievable shortcuts, compromises and simple design flaws that make up the fundamental mechanics of every MMO, however, perhaps the hardest to reconcile, let alone ignore, is temporal paradox. Every MMORPG launches with something that's at least intended to represent a coherent chronology but the illusion starts to break down within minutes of the servers coming online.

Schrödinger's Lion: it both is and is not destroyed.

At the absolute bedrock level there's the Multiplayer problem. If the game has ten thousand players then all ten thousand of them need to be able to do all the things a minimum of one time each. Then do it again for every new character they create. Then all the new players coming along behind them need to be able to do it all over again until the game closes down.

If Widow Jenkins needs ten rats killed in the cellar once she needs ten rats killed ten thousand times. If she happens to live in a popular part of the virtual world, a starting area for example, her cellar will fill with Adventurers, yawning and stretching as they run through their idling animations, arguing, joking or accusing each other of kill-stealing as they wait for the next rat to return from its brief trip to the rat after-life, or wherever it is mobs go until they respawn.

Insurmountable problems with the passage of time come baked into the structure of multiplayer virtual worlds as inseparably and essentially as sugar is baked into the structure of a cake. This is why instances were invented along with that awkward compromise, phasing. It's all in a futile attempt to conceal the unpalatable truth that none of this is "real"; not for any value of real you care to assign.

Pied à terre in Qeynos Hills. In need of some updating.
If there are fissures and fractures in the illusion from the moment the game launches they are as nothing compared to the chasms and gorges that open up the moment the updates begin. Few, if any, MMO producers have been willing to take up the tracks behind them as the content train rolls down the track, so everything that ever happened just goes on happening. Forever.

The first time I can remember noticing this was with something surprisingly trivial. When the long-running "Rude Individuals" storyline began in EverQuest a whole lot of small huts appeared overnight in Qeynos Hills. When the forces of Bertoxxolous were finally routed I noticed that no-one had thought to remove the huts. They never did. They're still there now, a decade and a half later.

At the other extreme stands the increasingly awkward situation in which GW2 now finds itself. The entire game rests on an all-pervasive narrative concerning the ever-growing threat posed by a handful of awakening dragons. When the game began all of these dragons were alive. Four years and one expansion later two of them are dead. As I write the storyline is winding towards the expected demise of two more.

When Jormag is dead will The Sons of Svanir fade away? Not as long as they still drop loot, I bet.

These dragons may be dead but they won't lie down. They can't. Not only are their fates entwined with every character's "Personal Story" but the dangers and problems they present form the background, center and foreground of most, if not all, the open-world maps in the game.

Mordremoth and Zhaitan may no longer live to spread their malign influence across the world but no-one seems to have told their minions, who carry out their orders as though the dawn of a new draconic age is still just over the horizon. Where you would expect clean-up operations to have begun and normality, if not to have been restored, then at least to show signs of returning, absolutely nothing at all has changed.

It can't, of course. For that to happen wouldn't just mean whole maps being revamped, entire zone-wide sequences of Dynamic Events re-written, new art assets created and voice-overs recorded. It would mean change so sweeping that ANet might more reasonably start over with GW3.

The crowds have gone but the anomaly lingers on.

A map clean could conceivably happen, albeit at great expense. WoW, after all, attempted something along those lines with the Cataclysm expansion. Merely bringing the open world maps in line with the ongoing narrative, though, would merely move the problem to a new starting point. Moreover, even if it were made an ongoing process, it would still only address the symptoms. The underlying malaise runs far deeper and any cure would be worse than the disease.

For one thing it would require unpicking and re-writing the Personal Story and that would be a step too far. Not only does the Personal Story underpin the creation of every player character but many new players cleave towards that story as an anchor in what some seem to find an unfamiliar, chaotic world. Without a formal quest-driven structure, the Personal Story offers a lifeline for tentative visitors from more traditional MMOs. Somewhere, something has to stay the same or all points of reference lose meaning.

These kinds of tectonic disparities fracture every MMO I've ever played and the irony is that the more successful the game is, the longer it persists, the less convincing it becomes as a "world". GW2 right now offers perhaps the most outrageous example of utter disregard for chronological congruity. For an MMO that has yet to see its second expansion the degree to which the parts no longer make up a whole is astounding.

It can only be with conscious irony that someone at ArenaNet decided to create a category of Achievements called "Current Events". As if the myriad conflicting legacies of three Living Stories, an expansion and any number of one-off special events wasn't enough, a few months back the developers began a series of sidebar narratives, ostensibly to fill out the gaps between major updates and give impatient players something to do with their hands.

You might have expected each of these to last only until the next appeared. Calling them "Current Events" would lead you towards such an expectation, but no. Once current, always current it seems. All are still with us.

It was only last week when I read the proof of a yet-unpublished novel whose entire theme, structure and narrative is an exposition on time travel that the penny finally dropped. Every MMO is a time travel simulator and we aren't just Adventurers but Time Travelers too.

Self-evidently, few if any of the laws of physics as we understand them pertain to the imaginary worlds in which we spend our hours. Even if the setting is supposedly contemporary, with no magical or futuristic or fantastical accoutrements at all, there's no MMO that attempts to replicate reality with anything deeper than a veneer of accuracy.

If gravity, inertia, momentum, conservation of energy and all the rest are malleable, why then should time be the exception? What's more, if time and space are indeed a continuum and everything happens at once, all the time, forever, only separated into discrete portions by our human perceptions, then MMO time is simply raw time, unprocessed.

The Pale Tree. Not entirely up to date with the news.
Human consciousness evolved to filter time so I guess it's not so surprising that we, most of us at least, seem to find little difficulty tripping through our virtual worlds without giving much regard to the anachronisms and paradoxes that surround us. In this respect the gamer's sense of time is infinitely adaptable, or so it seems.

Far more so, certainly, than the gamer's tolerance for having his or her own past experiences altered by proxy. Blizzard's attempt with Cataclysm to tidy up behind them as they moved on was not well-received. It's a move they haven't chosen to repeat and other companies haven't chosen to copy.

As I pass through the timestorm that is Tyria four years on I do sometimes wonder just how long things can continue this way. Then I consider the alternatives, check my chronometer and carry on.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Added Value : EQ2

As predicted, A Crack In The Ice, put something of a crimp in my progress through Kunark Ascending's main quest sequences. The crafting timeline had already come to a standstill pending acquisition of the nine crafted items required to complete Proof of the Pudding but I was still making steady progress on the Adventure side until GW2 butted in with the latest installment of what we are now apparently supposed to call "The Living World".

One of the many joys of GW2 these days seems to be the complete abandonment of any sense of temporal congruity. I have a post simmering concerning time in MMOs, the idea for which came to me partly from a dementedly complicated time-travel novel I read recently and partly from GW2's increasingly inaccurately named "Current Events".

There's plenty of good stuff to be had from the crafting timeline even if you can't produce your Earring of the Solstice as evidence of your Grandmaster status. Having a goblin gardener with his own quest line in your house is reward enough.

I'll save the analysis for that post, if I ever get around to writing it, but suffice to say for now that if there's one thing GW2 no longer suffers from it's any sense of urgency. There's always a desire to rush through anything new (a desire not shared by everyone) but once I've been through the story instances on a single character and opened all of the new map I feel entirely free to come and go as I please.

Yesterday I changed frontiers, giving Bitterfrost a break, returning to a semi-structured amble through Obolus Frontier instead. It's really an excellently designed zone;  a pleasure to explore. Mob density is very comfortable and there are many safe spots where you can relax and enjoy the varied and detailed scenery. Visibility can sometimes be difficult, what with the lush vegetation and the designers' infatuation with color filters, but compared to the plethora of aggressive wildlife and the ultra-harsh weather conditions of Bitterfrost, Obolus feels almost literally like a walk in the park.

I've done two of the solo instances so far and they have both been excellent. This is Crypt of Dalnir, which could more accurately be called "Sewers of Dalnir". I would probably not have made it without the wiki walkthrough and even with it it took two hours but it never felt too long or too difficult.

My opinions are perhaps not the best standard by which to judge EQ2 expansions. The original Kunark expansion, 2007's "Kunark Rising", now regarded as a high-water mark for the game, irritated me so much on first release that I stopped playing EQ2 entirely for six months and went back to EverQuest instead.

When I returned and did Kunark again I loved it. Like almost every part of Norrath I now think of it with fondness. That's the extreme example of what has often been my reaction to additions to the game: cool at first, warming to approval, even affection, over time.

A change in design philosophy of late has broken that paradigm somewhat. Almost unnoticed, those ambitious, sprawling, often overwhelming expansions of the first few years have given way to a tighter, more focused, directed experience. Chains of Eternity, Tears of Veeshan, Altars of Malice, Terrors of Thalumbra - in some ways they all play more like single-player RPGs than MMOs.

For example, I'd completely forgotten about destructible walls, first introduced all the way back in The Bloodline Chronicles Adventure Pack in 2005. I walked right past the deeply recessed, raised alcove I needed to break through and it was only when I'd cleared everything and was stumped enough to go to the wiki that I realized you do need to look up now and again.

In terms of how I approach them, the sequence, reported in some detail on this blog, is straightforward: I buy the new expansion. I play through the Adventure and Crafting Timelines. That takes somewhere from three to six weeks. If there's an increase to the level cap I may also do a little more to top that off. I potter around for a bit longer and then I drift away until the next update arrives.

For an MMO that is no longer my main time-filler, one that I play for a dozen hours on a heavy week rather than thirty or forty, that's exactly what I need. It's fun, manageable and satisfying. I have a single character (yes, I suppose I must admit it, a "main") as far as Adventuring is concerned and two or three Crafters at the cap. The rest of my extensive roster isn't troubled by recent content at all.

One big difference between Kunark Ascending and previous expansions is the tying of both the Adventuring and Crafting Signature questlines to older content. At first I was a little wary of being pushed into doing some lengthy quests like the Greenmist Heritage and the aforementioned crafter epic "Proof of the Pudding" that I'd previously avoided.

I admit to feeling a ridiculous sense of satisfaction at this point.

Having made my way a good distance through both KA timelines, however, I have to say that having these pre-reqs is a jolly good wheeze. Although I'm still approaching the content in solo-RPG mode, the whole storyline feels significantly more integrated into the virtual world by dint of those hark-backs to earlier times.

Having to prepare for the expansion adds weight, texture and even a little gravitas. My Berserker feels part of the story in a way that's qualitatively different as a direct result of having taken part in the build-up. I hope this trend continues and is expanded upon.

As must be obvious by now, I'm pretty happy with Kunark Ascending. I liked last year's Terrors of Thalumbra well enough but this is a big step up from there. A cursory look at what's offered in a modern-day EQ2 expansion, either under SOE or now as they arrive under the DBG imprimatur, might suggests a diminution in content and a concomitant reduction in value but that would be a false impression. The reverse is the case, at least from the perspective of a mostly-solo player.

All modern EQ2 dungeons are constructed on a scale that makes the older ones feel poky and claustrophobic. I strongly feel that the increased headroom and sense of space makes dungeoneering a much more pleasant and enjoyable experience.

The design brief for expansions, not only in EQ2, used to tend towards several overland areas which would accommodate all of whatever solo content there might be, often in tandem with some group or raid content as well. The rest of the new zones, whether instanced or open, would be "dungeons" scaled either for groups or raids.

Sentinel's Fate, for example, added fourteen zones to Norrath but even though EQ2 was at that time my main MMO and I had a number of characters at the level cap, when I bought and played the expansion at launch I was able to make use of only two of them. Kunark Ascending, by contrast, comes with just seven discrete zones - Obulus Frontier, Arcanna'se Spire, Crypt of Dalnir, Vaedenmoor, Kaesora, The Ruins of Cabilis and Lost City of Torsis - but all bar the raid zone Vaedenmoor are available for both solo and group play.

This sarcophagus is interactable but I couldn't figure out why. I do like an unresolved mystery.

The upshot of all this is that I find the newer expansions to be both much better value and a lot more fun than the old ones often were. EQ2 has become a very specific kind of MMO, very well-tailored to the players it has, playing to its strengths and making the most of its limited resources. Ironically, in doing so, the game has also become more accessible and better-suited to new players than it ever has been.

The expansion comes with a max-level character, geared appropriately to begin current solo content. I wouldn't necessarily recommend learning the ropes that way but if you want to cut to the chase you can. More usefully, the re-fitting of most of the existing dungeons in the game to a "Level Agnostic" format that allows almost all levels to group together has opened up a dozen years of co-operative content at a stroke.

Photo-bombed by a pony. Again.

Were it possible to send the current EQ2 back ten years, configured as it is now, I feel it would stand every chance of being a major success. Sadly, it took those ten years to get it to the point where it might have a hope in a very competitive market. The window of opportunity has closed. Few gamers are interested in giving older games a chance unless it's for a brief nostalgia hit. Especially games whose optimization and graphics can't help but show their age.

Fortunately I don't have to concern myself with how many new players EQ2 can attract. Not, at least, while the game retains enough old players to keep the lights on. For my $34.99, Kunark Ascending is shaping up to be a top notch expansion, one that I'm very happy indeed to have the pleasure of playing. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

In The Bleak Midwinter : GW2

It's round about twelve months since Heart of Thorns, the first and so far only expansion for Guild Wars 2. That landed with a dull thud last October. It seems much longer - so much longer indeed that I had to go check the wiki to make sure I wasn't missing a year.

Since then GW2 has undergone something of a revolution - or perhaps it's a reversion. The less-than-stellar performance of the franchise under Colin Johanson's direction led to his departure in March, after which came a period of retrenchment under Mike O'Brien.

Now, Mike O'Brien is, of course, no new broom brought in to sweep the stables clean. He's the President and Co-Founder of ArenaNet. He was there in the background the whole time Colin was skippering the ship as it yawed and pitched across the increasingly stormy post-launch seas.

His return to full, direct control was supposedly a temporary thing. When he stepped out of the shadows to take back the wheel Massively OP quoted him as saying he would "eventually be hiring someone else to fill the role" because "it takes a lot of work to run a company and [I'm] unable to do both jobs forever"

Forever is a long time but as we near the end of 2016 Mike O'Brien is still at the helm and no further mention has been made of anyone taking over. What this is doing for his personal circumstances only he can say but for the players his tenure in full charge appears to have been broadly welcomed and I'd guess the majority would be happy for him to continue as he has so far.

World vs World specialists may disagree. While the game mode has certainly enjoyed more attention in the last six months than the entire life of the game before that, it has arguably been more quantity than quality. We've had an avalanche of polls on what to do next, some involving serious, structural change, others offering utterly trivial options up for entirely unnecessary votes.

Despite the endless cavalcade of misery, doom and denial on the forums, there is some evidence that things are stabilizing. It's true fewer people visit The Mists than did so so before Heart of Thorns nearly drove a stake through WvW's heart and it's undeniable that Anet's current penchant for making direct amendments to the scores in order to get particular servers into the "correct" tiers has all but destroyed any vestige of "competition" from the Leagues. Nevertheless, you can find a good battle at almost any time of day on any server now and spirits in-game seem to be a lot heartier than you'd imagine from a  "dead game".

Since I neither play nor pay attention to GW2's would-be eSport offering, ranked and tournament sPvP, I'll refrain from commenting on how that leg of the tripod has fared under Mike O'Brien. When it comes to PvE, however, I think it would be fair to say a corner has been turned.

The basic tenets of the new (refurbished) leadership, at least when it came to PvE, seemed to revolve around returning the game to something closer to the original proposition, which was to be a more open, more inclusive kind of MMORPG. One which very much prioritized "play" over "work". Added to that there was to be more openness of communication, fewer promises and more delivery.

All of this has, by and large, been achieved. When unpopular decisions have been taken, like the postponement of development on Legendary Armor, explanations have been given rather than excuses. When targets have been given for new content, like the quarterly delivery schedule for Living Story 3, they have been met or exceeded. Perceived "grind", if it hasn't been removed, has at least been acknowledged and addressed.

Heart of Thorns was promised and got a difficulty pass. It may still seem like a step up for new players familiar only with Core Tyria but, as those of us with the scars from last October can attest, it's considerably more manageable than it was. I liked it from the start but I like it even more now it's been tuned for enjoyment.

What I do find intriguing is the extent to which the much vaunted difficulty ramp that HoT introduced and which Mike O'Brien all but apologized for, has been maintained in much of the new content introduced under his rule. While the storyline instances of LS3 so far have been distinctly more solo-friendly and less arduous than those of LS2, all of the new open world maps could give any original Heart of Thorns areas a run for their money.

From the snipers in Bloodstone Fen, able to pick players out of the air at extreme range, to the return of the infamous Pocket Raptors in Ember Bay, the difficulty setting has raised the bar from anything seen in central Tyria before. The latest addition, Bitterfrost Frontier, turns the difficulty dial another notch. In some ways it has to be the most unforgiving environment we've experienced yet.

It's not merely the extreme density of highly aggressive mobs although that would be difficulty enough. The ice flows swarm with Svanir and their corrupted beasts. It's literally impossible to travel just a few meters without being shot at by cultists or savaged by wolves. Even a supposedly peaceful activity like foraging berries turns into a fight to the death with almost every bush the home of spiders or yet more wolves. And as for the psychotic mushrooms...

Still, the things you can kill are the least of your worries when you come to Bitterfrost. The real enemy is the environment. In the way of all the maps ANet have designed since Dry Top, there's a permanent meta-event cycle that runs inexorably in the background. It's studded with Dynamic Events, many of which turn the immediate area around them into virtual war zones but the dominant feature is weather.

The small, mobile, unkillable ice storms, long familiar from the Frozen Maw event in the Norn starting map, Wayfarer Foothills, may encase you in ice but that's a minor inconvenience. The real challenge are the blackouts and whiteouts that reduce visibility to a glimmer. There seem to be few areas immune to a sudden "lights out!" but the worst of all has to be the supposedly balmy quaggan swimming hole, Dragon's Teeth Hot Springs.

When the Svanir attack and the quaggans moo and chunter in despair, as seems to happen about every ten or fifteen minutes on a schedule that would make Disney World proud, the entire canyon turns to night. Since the jumping puzzle is directly above that can be somewhat inconvenient. It took me forty minutes to get a vista there the other night and most of that was because my charr ranger couldn't see his  paw in front of his muzzle.

That's not the worst of it, though. Not nearly. There's one part of the map that is literally unexplorable without protective equipment. Aptly named The Bitter Cold, entering this isolated canyon means swift and inevitable death for anyone without the requisite cold resistance buff.

That buff can only be obtained by means of a Thaw Elixir. You can't buy it. You have to make it. You can't buy all the ingredients. You have to hunt for some of them. You can't even get the recipe without doing the storyline to a certain stage. Once you do manage to make the elixir it's immediately applied to that character and that character alone so all your characters have to do it individually. And it only lasts until reset so next day you have to do it all over again.

If that's not hardcore I don't know what is. So much for casual convenience!

In practice it's not really that much of an issue, although you might not think so to hear people complaining about it. There's not much of interest in The Bitter Cold if you aren't doing the storyline. There's one Point of Interest needed for map completion but you can get to it for the necessary update in the brief few seconds you have before the cold kills you. There's a Mastery Point that does need the buff but mastery points that require some kind of pre-req are hardly anything new.

Last night I did map completion in Bitterfrost on my semi-glass Berserker Tempest, probably the least robust of all my characters and certainly the one who had the most difficulty in the early days of Heart of Thorns. She only died once and that was on the aforementioned PoI of certain death. It was a lot of fun.

For my tastes the difficulty is fine although I do think the annoyance factor could be tuned somewhat. There might be too many mobs and the storms might be a little too frequent. What's interesting to observe is the extent to which the developers are innovating on "challenge. There seem to be new twists and tricks in each release. Mobs behave more aggressively or in unexpected ways. Most especially, approaches from previous areas are nested in new ones.

What this portends for the second expansion is uncertain. At one point I expected a definite row back from HoT's failed "up hill in the snow both ways" approach but now I'm not so sure. It looks as though a general upping of the challenge level for routine, open world PvE play is still part of the agenda even if it's not the headline feature it once was. And it does seem that lessons have been learned in how to make such an incline feel approachable rather than precipitous.

So, on balance I'm enjoying Chapter Three. The story, which I haven't discussed and probably won't examine in any detail, is the weakest episode of this volume so far. Nevertheless it has its moments. The new map is, for my tastes, the best of the three we've seen.

Here's looking forward to the next one sometime around the beginning of February. Steady as she goes, Captain O'Brien.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Bitterfrost Symphony : GW2

Partly because it's IntPiPoMo but mostly because I don't have time to write a proper post, Inventory Full presents spoiler-free scenes from the great new map, Bitterfrost Frontier.

It's a good-sized map, around half as big as Frostgorge Sound, which lies immediately to the south.

Where Frostgorge is particularly bleak and barren, all icefields and glaring white. Bitterfrost, despite being further north and even colder, enjoys a much more varied environment.

There are forests on a scale not seen anywhere else in The Shiverpeaks. The storms are equally over-sized. White-out conditions are not uncommon.

Hot springs encourage bursts of green among the blue-white snow and dark pines. Rivers flow freely. This attracts quaggans but I guess you can't have everything.

The color palette is rich and varied, especially at night.

Or in the extensive cave systems.

As you would expect, the Kodan are a strong presence here.

And as they say, if you can't beat them...

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Enemy Of My Enemy: Some Thoughts On Faction In Kunark And Elsewhere : EQ2

Telwyn at GamingSF has a thought-provoking post up called "Kunark factions and character loyalties". It chimes with some things I've been thinking about this week as I've been playing through the Adventure and Tradeskill Signature questlines in Kunark Ascending. The two tracks run in parallel for the most part but there are moments when you can almost see the sparks fly as the two streams cross.

It's not uncommon, when playing MMOs, to find that what your character is being asked to do doesn't fit seamlessly with your conception of that character's motivations or personality, but when you run up against something so out of synch that it triggers a burst of cognitive dissonance it can be disconcerting. As I've mentioned a couple of times, the whole Greenmist storyline doesn't sit well with my (mostly) loyal Lucan-supporting, naturalized Freeport citizen ratonga.

That narrative strand, which goes back to EQ2's original Kunark-based expansion "Rise of Kunark" and forms the spine of the Adventure questline in the new expansion, is difficult enough to reconcile with his understanding of himself. Add in the complex, nested set of deceptions and intrigue between the ruling elites of Freeport, Neriak and Maldura that underpin both the current expansion and the previous one, Terrors of Thalumbra, and I confess both my character's motivations and moral compass seem to have swung wildly askew.
When you find yourself nodding in agreement with a lecture on morality given by a goblin, you know you're in trouble.

Not unmanageably so, however. I'm comfortable playing characters caught up in events so large and complex that the demands and rigors of political intrigue behind them go well beyond their pay grades let alone their ability to resist.

And there's an exceptionally demanding requirement for "suspension of disbelief"  in playing any MMO in the first place. Almost any aspect of any MMO you care to name will be incapable of sustaining even a superficial logic check. If you can't sustain a little doublethink then MMOs are probably not the genre for you.

All the same, there are limits.

The "Faction" mechanic used widely throughout the EverQuest franchise, an analog of which can commonly be found among many first and second generation MMOs, is in part an attempt to manage the cognitive dissonance caused simply by playing these games. Ironically perhaps, it's a mechanic over which I've been two in minds since the beginning.

I love faction work as a game activity. I find the slow process by which my characters incrementally improve their standing with a particular race, city, organization or other grouping within the game both relaxing and satisfying. It's always there in the background, something you can pick up and lay down as the mood takes you. Something to do when you can't think of something to do. I miss it in modern MMOs that don't use it.

What I don't like, however, and have never liked, is the formulaic, rote implementation. The way a player can adjust the standing of a character with faction one simply by culling another. What this has always meant in practice is that faction is impermanent and malleable to such a degree that it generally represents no barrier at all. If you want to have all the benefits of allying first to one faction, then later to that faction's sworn enemy, all you need is time and patience.

This can lead to the kind of cynical, self-serving or merely pragmatic decision-making that is the antithesis of the "role-playing" mindset for which the MMO genre is, probably erroneously, named. In the conflicting Adventure and Crafting storylines of Kunark Ascending, I'm currently stymied by my refusal to kill the same goblins, while wearing my Adventurer hat, that I just spent several evenings befriending as a Crafter.

In gaming terms there is no issue. I just need to kill half a dozen goblins for a single quest and not even a core quest at that. The faction drop that would create (even assuming there is a faction drop for killing them, which, since I haven't killed any yet, I can only surmise) would be trivial compared to the thousands of points of faction my Weaponsmith can accrue from a few dailies taking a few minutes to complete.

In role-playing terms, however, the gap is unbridgeable. These aren't wandering goblins he could pick off, furtively, out of sight, in another part of the forest. (He is, at least nominally, "Evil" after all). The goblins in question are right in the middle of Twark, the goblin settlement, in clear view of all the named goblins with whom I've taken time and trouble to establish my good intentions until now.

This is not an unusual situation for an MMO but over the years the effort made by game designers to avoid this kind of open conflict of interest has diminished almost to nothing. Gone are the days of carefully finding a corner of Freeport, where no guards path, then luring your target into the alleyway for a mugging. Now you can slaughter citizens to your black heart's content right in the town square and provided you're careful with your open AEs no-one will bat an eyelid.

All of this doesn't spoil my enjoyment, or not too much, anyway. Times change. It does mean that sometimes there are quests I won't do, even though I would like the reward. That's fine.

Less fine are the times when one of these emotional roadblocks lies squarely in the path of the progress of a lengthy narrative. When you're several hours in and committed it becomes that much harder to hold to principles that are, after all, notional in a virtual world. Easier to say "it's just a game", swallow the sour taste and do whatever needs to be done to keep moving forward.

Every time that happens, though, a thread pulls loose and the tapestry frays a little more. The big picture is made up of fine details. Keep blurring the view and one day you won't be able to tell what you're looking at any more.

There is a self-imposed solution to all this. More than one. You can keep conflicting content for different characters. You can roleplay a narcissistic sociopath. You can get over yourself.

As MMOs move further and further away from their origins in Pen and Paper roleplaying so the number of people who care about any of this, players and developers alike, diminishes. In an environment where most players don't even read the quest text or watch the cut scenes it may well be that the average player not only doesn't care but doesn't even notice.

I do, though, and it itches a little.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A Well-Crafted Introduction To Kunark : EQ2

Two posts in one day? Is it a sign?  Are the End Times upon us? Or could it be that GW2 is having connectivity issues for the third day in a row, leaving me with an unexpected hour to fill before I get my second wind for yet more questing?

I spent most of the afternoon and early evening working my way through Kunark Ascending's crafting quest-line and I have to say it's pretty entertaining. Domino certainly knows how to put these things together.

Without giving too many spoilers, the tradeskill and adventure quests fit together like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. As far as I know, if you're both an adventurer and a crafter, you can do the quest-lines in either order but I'm very glad I did Adventurer first.

The whole crafter storyline has you coming along after the adventurers have hacked and slashed their way to Kunark, leaving you to deal with the mess they left behind. As a story it works very well indeed. I particularly liked Queen Alwenielle's account of the actions of the party of adventurers she accompanied, which, of course, are the actions I carried out as a player only last night.

The biggest advantage crafters have over adventurers is that instead of waking up in a cave the crafters get teleported to a beach. Also Queen Alwenielle has time to explain what she's doing in a little more detail so the transition is less confusing. That all makes for a much more pleasant introduction to the new zone.

It also helps a lot that instead of being threatened by Iksars and sent to fight Sarnaks crafters get to deal with a series of Goblins who seem to fancy themselves as stand-up comedians. I appreciate some people may prefer to be barked at by lizardmen than gurned at by goblins but it got a laugh out of me.

The questing itself is relaxed and laid back. There's plenty of picking up driftwood, catching crabs and making simple structures for simple fisherfolk. The usual routine that, if you're a level 100 crafter in EQ2, which you must be if you're there in the first place, you can almost certainly do in your sleep.

It sounds dull, perhaps, but for dedicated crafters this kind of thing really does never get old. This is DBG playing to the gallery and my experience of EQ2 over many years has been that crafting is often a crowdpleaser when adventuring falls flat on its face.

As yet I haven't run into any brick walls in either quest line so it's not true to say you have to do all the pre-reqs to get started. I am already past the point where you have to speak Goblish for the crafting line (something my Berserker could already do) but I spotted a stone tablet on the beach that would help with that. You could do it on the fly if you arrived under-rehearsed.

There's a handy forum thread giving tips on how to approach the new content, most of which applies to players planning on raiding or doing the harder Heroics. Of the suggestions there I would definitely endorse the advice to come prepared with some form of tracking. I use the scrolls you can buy from the cash shop but there are many free alternatives.

As a max level crafter I also have the ability to track harvestable nodes, which includes many kinds of non-craft-related ground spawns too. I can track shinies in other words. That has to be the single most useful ability in my entire repertoire when it comes to questing. Hard to imagine how I ever managed without it. In my opinion it's worth maxing crafting just for that even if you plan on being a pure adventurer ever after.

With two types of tracking to call on the absence of quest markers seems to make very little difference. I've had to refer to the wiki only infrequently, usually because I couldn't understand the particular mechanic the designer had chosen to employ. There are so many ways now to activate a quest item sometimes I miss the bleedin' obvious.

All in all it's going swimmingly although I do find questing quite exhausting somewhere into the fourth consecutive hour. Which is why I took a break to play GW2 and then, when that failed me, write this.

And now I'm refreshed it's back to the Goblin Workbench.

Kunark Ascending - First Impressions : EQ2

Kunark Ascending, the thirteenth expansion for the twelve-year old MMO EQ2 landed yesterday, bang on time. I wasn't in a tearing hurry to get in, anticipating the usual launch day glitches, patches and frustration, so I carried on with my dailies in Tyria until I was good and ready.

I logged in about half an hour after the servers came back up from the five-hour pre-launch downtime, expecting a lengthy patch but there was none. Presumably the relevant files have been filtered in already over the past few weeks without my even noticing.

That smooth transition continued for the three hours I played. I didn't encounter any technical issues, the servers stayed up and stable and every quest and activity I engaged in worked flawlessly. No doubt there will be problems to come but thus far it qualifies as an extremely clean launch.

So much for the technicalities. What about the fun?

Long-time EQ2 player and blogger Kaozz has a post up in which she expresses disappointment with some of the design choices and frustration over the general direction DBG is taking. Several of the points she makes did also occur to me while I was playing and I definitely felt less thrilled by the return to Kunark than I would have liked, but I had a very good time nonetheless.

It's been a tradition for a good while now that EQ2 expansions  begin with a communication summoning you to speak to a king, queen or potentate, who then sends you on either a fact-finding mission or something more urgent. Consequently, I wasn't particularly surprised by the set-up, although I do have issues with my ratonga berserker, a Freeport Citizen, being placed at the beck and call of Queen Cristianos Thex, the sociopathic despot of the Dark Elves.

Usually the form is a little chat in the throne room followed by a boat trip, not a full-blown quest sequence followed by an instance. Like Kaozz, I was somewhat disconcerted to begin with a trip through Neriak, followed by a couple of quests in Thalumbra and then a full solo instance before I finally reached Kunark

That said, the whole Beyond The Veil introductory questline was engaging, fun and not at all difficult. What's more, once you've done it once it opens access to the new zone for your whole account. I turned General chat off to avoid spoilers and went into full explorer mode.

As Kaozz mentions, DBG have decided to row back on the very overt quest-markers SOE added in the latter days of their tenure, so you can't simply follow the glowing breadcrumb trail any more. It's not a choice I particularly approve of but quest design and structure in EQ2 is generally sound. I was able to complete the questline without once referring to the Wiki or updating EQ2Map.

The instance itself was gorgeous. It reminded me a great deal of the instanced version of Durmand Priory. I very much appreciated the freedom to roam and explore the book-lined rooms and museum-like corridors without having to fight mobs every inch of the way. In fact I believe there were only four or five mobs inn the whole instance.

In terms of mechanics this part played out more like an adventure game than an MMO. There were objects that highlighted a use and other objects to find and pick up. It's a style common throughout EQ2 but here I thought it had been particularly well done. I felt a real sense of satisfaction when I powered up the portal and met up again with Queen Alwenielle, a ruler I would very much prefer to be working for rather than, as it seems, behind her back for the House of Thex.

It would scarcely be a spoiler to say that at this point the villain of the piece, Lanys T`Vyl, appeared. The villain of the piece always appears at this point. It would only be a spoiler if we ever got to this stage of a quest and I told you the villain didn't appear. I was slightly surprised to see her henchwoman, Tserrina Syl`Tor, mistress of The Tower of Frozen Shadows, alongside her. I'd forgotten she was in on the plot.

By this stage of my long exposure to Norrathian myth and history I do recognize names if not much more. Every time significant figures like these pop out of portals or descend from on high it does give me a frisson. I can barely make sense of most of the lore even as I read the rococo quest dialog but understanding it and feeling it are two very different things. Lanys scares me. She always did. And Tserrina and I have history.

After that confrontation, which climaxed in a hasty exit on my part and an unseemly awakening in chains in a cave in Kunark, the actual introduction to the new zone was an anti-climax. I'm never impressed by starting in a cave and beginning with a "prove your worth by killing eight of our enemies" is just adding cliche to cliche

It was all the more annoying because the quest text clearly alludes to the pre-existing relationship
between your character and the Iksar force holding him or her prisoner. This is the same bunch that had us running around Kunark in search of The Greenmist. Rather than setting trivial tests of loyalty they ought to be cheering my arrival.

Then there's the question of the mobs they want killed. Ye gods but they're tough! Tough as in have a gazillion hit points. You expect the enemies in a new expansion to be tougher than anything in the rest of the game, even when there's no level cap increase, but quadrupling the hit-points of basic, solo mobs seems a tad like overkill.

That was the low point. In a cave, beating on hit-point sponges, competing for the limited spawn with a bunch of other people on the same stage of the quest. A bottleneck made worse by the total disinclination of EQ2 players to do anything at all to make any situation easier. Of course no-one (including me) invited anyone else to group so we could share credit. Of course everyone tried to snatch every mob that spawned. Of course it all took far longer than it needed.

On the other hand, look on the bright side! A day or two into the lifespan of the expansion and there will never be competition for those mobs ever again. The problem for the rest of time will be trying to single pull them so you don't get pounded into the cave floor by all eight at once.

With that out of the way my Berserker found himself no longer kill on sight to the roaming triple-up guards (he found out the hard way that they one-shot well-geared solo level 100s without breaking stride) and was able to head for the great outdoors. Which turned out to be a lava zone. And a forest zone. And a snow and ice zone.

In fact, due to budgetary constraints under the new order, what would probably have been three or four full zones back in the days of Rise of Kunark has turned into a single portmanteau map in Kunark Ascending. Coats are being cut according to cloth, that's for sure.

Fortunately it looks like a dense, detailed, gorgeous and very interesting zone. Warslik Woods, for example, may be little more than a coppice now but I look forward to exploring it all the same.

And that was about where I ran out of time. I flew around, took some screenshots, grabbed some shinies and then ported back to Freeport to check out the new Wardrobe feature (about which more another day) before logging for the night.

My initial impressions are that Kunark Ascending is going to be about as good as we can expect from a small developer with limited resources. I look forward to following both the Adventure and Craft storylines, to meeting Raffik again, to setting my gathering goblin free and re-hiring him on a more equitable footing, to acquiring and working out what to do with an Ascended Class and to playing dress-up with my Mercenaries.

Lots of possibilities. Plenty to do. Let's just hope for no more caves.

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