Thursday, September 27, 2018

Purple Haze : GW2

From the September 18 Patch Notes:

In order to reduce visual noise, many effects displayed when players hit will no longer scale up on large targets.

 The Scene: Jahai Flats, just south of Almorra's Stand.

A purple, glowing dragon the size of an aircraft hangar swoops down out of the sky, where anything up to eighty or so players are waiting. The dragon summons a vast army of purple, glowing creatures. Hundreds of them. The two sides commence to fight.

Among the dragon's allies is a herd of centaurs. They pound around and around in circles in a tightly-packed group, stunning and knocking down anyone who can't get out of the way fast enough. Among the players allies are several dozen NPCs, half a dozen fifty-foot tall Wurms and a team of giant robots.

As the mayhem continues, another, even bigger (but, thankfully, unseen) dragon perpetually calls down lightning strikes on anyone and everyone. The lightning is purple and glowy.

Throughout the event, which lasts around a quarter of an hour, more purple, glowy mobs spawn, inexorably and endlessly. Occasionally much bigger mobs, called Rifstalkers, spawn. They are purple. And glowy.

The dragon, the rifstalkers, the lightning and many of the creatures cover the ground with red and orange circles, arcs, crescents. Certain players find themselves experiencing flashbacks to the early 1990s.

Meanwhile, every player and every player's pet and/or minion fires off any and every spell, attack and ability they can think of and/or heals themselves and/or everyone around them and/or dodges and rolls about all over the place as if on fire. Which most of them are.

Just to add to the gaiety of nations, some people flap around on griffons, swooping into the frenzy in the hope of unleashing the special attack given to flying mounts for this specific event.

The overall effect is, I like to imagine, somewhat akin to being inside The Feldman Fireworks factory the day Frank Drebin happened to drive by. On mushrooms. You or Drebin. Probably both.

Seriously, I love this fight. It's insane! Doing it as an Elementalist in glass cannon berserker build is a crazed non-stop fun riot and that's just me trying to stay alive!

If this is what happens when ANet decide to tone down the "visual noise" I can't wait for the next graphical downgrade.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Brass In Pocket: EQ2

I love in-game holidays and special events. Really, I can't get enough of them. Even so, they do come with a few... issues, shall we say.

It doesn't really scream "Iksar"
Issues like, for example, who should get to wear the new outfit? The Water Wielder and Earth Wielder sets you can get with the currency from EQ2's pre-expansion warm-up both look fantastic but the former is really suited to a finger-waggler of some sort while the latter would probably best fit a Druid.

I don't have a Druid so that sorts that, but I do have cloth casters of several stripes: a Wizard, a Warlock and a Necromancer. The Warlock and the Wizard looked at themselves in the wardrobe mirror, wearing the new appearance gear, and promptly decided they preferred what they already had.

The Necromancer, who is still in the boosted Level 100 gear from a year or two ago, was very happy to get a makeover but was disappointed to find that, as an Iksar, the new robe automagically turned itself into yet another bell-bottomed pants suit.

As a result, no-one's wearing it. All the pieces appear to be fully tradeable, not even Heirloom, so I may pass it on to another account. I have a very badly-dressed Magician who might be glad of it.

16 of 41 currencies... so far
Another perennial problem is forgetting to spend the currency at all. These days, I'm very pleased to say, the coins and tokens almost always end up in a magic wallet so you no longer have to find somewhere to store them, which is just as well since I try to do all the one-off events and most of the repeatable ones and they all have their own currencies.

They are mostly flagged "Heirloom", which you would think would mean they would appear in all your character's wallets but as far as I can tell they don't. They stay with whoever picked them up and if there's a way to move them I can't find it.

In most cases it doesn't matter all that much because the items you buy with them are also likely to be Heirlooms. My Berserker had the new Elemental Storm Shreds so he bought a set of Water Wielder armor and put it in the shared bank for the casters to try on. Not that they thanked him.

For himself he bought the Rust Colored Kitten he wanted. As a ratonga, he has a bit of a thing about cats. He went straight to his Maj'Dul mansion, where another issue arose. He has a lot of stuff. Too much for one house, even a large one like his main home. It takes about twenty seconds to load his front hall - on a good day.

He has other residences, naturally. No-one in Norrath has just the one house. The problem there is remembering where they are. Also decorating them all. And, dash it, the Maj'Dul house is home. He has a cosy inn room and he already spends far too much time at his Mara Estate, where he put the shared materials storage and the plant that gives the daily rare. He doesn't need to start decorating yet another place.

Stand well back - furniture loading in...

He may yet have to, all the same. His main home is now so full I have to think twice then think again before putting anything new down. It's already teeming with wandering creatures, like a badly-maintained country zoo, so I don't think one smallish kitten will make much difference.

As well as the kitten he also had the Raging Elemental plushie from the collect, which he finally finished. The last shiny was rare enough that another fifty or so Shreds had popped into his wallet before it dropped. That particular collect is going for over 4000 Platinum on the broker right now.

He has a "trick". It's washing himself. He's only little...
Plushies don't roam like house pets so he was able to place the thing in the "weird" room, where all the slightly disturbing stuff goes. Well, some of it. There's a lot out on the terrace and down in the courtyard, too. EQ2 has plenty of weird.

All of that took me an hour or so and got rid of two-thirds of my Shreds. I didn't buy any of the other house items I wanted because I thought I probably ought to have some idea where I was going to put them first.

If we get close to the end of the event and I still haven't decided, though, I guess it would be better to grab them and stash them in a moving crate for the time being. Better that than ending up with yet another unspent currency in my wallet with no NPC left in the game to take it.

As I said: issues. Still, rather have them than not, eh?

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Some Thoughts After Revisiting Dragon's Stand In Late 2018: GW2

Last week I read an interesting post at MMOBro entitled "When Is an MMO Really Dead?". Tyler (of Superior Realities) split the concept of MMO death into four stages: Decline, Maintenance Mode, Closure and Extinction, making the point that MMOs are a lot harder to kill than people seem to think.

The whole idea of games being "dead" is an odd one to begin with. I don't recall anyone ever sticking their head round the door of a pub and asking "Is darts dead?" before deciding whether to come in and chuck some arrows.

Even in video-gaming, the concept of mortality seems to rest solely with online games. Various companies have been making a good living for years now out of reselling not just old games but also the retrofitted hardware to play them on. Syp has a series at Bio Break where he plays ancient games from before the discovery of fire and no-one seems to think that's weird.

Apparently MMOs are different. Quite a lot of people seem to want a written guarantee that they won't be wasting their time on a daed gaem before they're even willing to "risk" creating a free account. What risk it is that they think they'd be taking, I'm not sure. The loss of an hour or two that could have been better spent translating "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" into Sanskrit, perhaps?

People even ask the question of MMOs that are self-evidently vital and vibrant. What anyone means when they claim World of Warcraft is dead is beyond rational interpretation. If WoW, with its hundreds of servers, millions of players and ability to spawn a major Hollywood movie a decade after launch, is dead then presumably almost all other Western MMOs are cremated and scattered to the four winds, their very names no longer even a memory.

In the week that I read Tyler's post there was a thread on the first page of the Guild Wars 2 forum titled something like "Is GW2 dead?". I'd link it but it's gone now, or at least I couldn't see it on the first seven pages, which was as far as I could be bothered to look.

I imagine it was removed. ANet don't have much of a sense of humor when it comes to people claiming their bread and butter has fallen face down on the shag pile and who can blame them?

It's hard (although not impossible) to imagine it was a genuine query, anyway. You have to have bought a copy of GW2 even to post on the forum so it's a bit disengenuous to go there and ask if the game is dead - you could just log in and look for yourself.

Which people do. Not that it makes them any less likely to be trolls. After all, if someone makes an account for an MMO, creates a character, then logs in just to guffaw "People still play this thing?" you have to assume an ulterior motive.

Trolling aside, there are good reasons to be cautious when choosing a new-to-you MMO or even returning to an old favorite. It's there in the title: Massively Multiple. Kind of suggests the games require a critical mass of people to make them viable. But do they?

Back in the day there might not have been all that much you could do without either a bare minimum of half a dozen staunch friends or a pool of  pugs to slot and fit into a group session. And that's not even touching raids.

You'll notice I'm using the subjunctive even for that scenario. I'm not personally convinced it was ever true that you had to have lots of people online at once to enjoy an MMORPG. As the century turned, I learned to play EverQuest  on the Test server, where I sometimes never even saw another player in an entire session, far less grouped with one.

Still, for the sake of argument let's say it was true then. It's surely not now. One of the loudest grumbles from complainers' corner these last few years has been over the supposed way MMOs have all turned into single player games. We're all online, playing alongside each other, hopelessly alone, apparently.

The mechanics of many MMOs have even been tweaked to the point that other players actually make progress harder. Someone was complaining about that very thing in the latest Living Story for GW2, where trying to do the main narrative instances in a group is apparently awkward and offputting.

If you don't need other players to play the game then how can it be dead without them? The NPCs and mobs are still there and these days it's likely they'll scale in difficulty to match your level and your numbers. If they don't, chances are there'll be a Solo setting on the dungeon door to fit your circumstances or a computer-controlled mercenary or three just waiting for you to drop them a few gold so you can group with some imaginary friends instead of trying to badger your real ones into playing.

MMORPGs in 2018 can pretty much play themselves. Players are all but optional. The games could all run on indefinitely, perfectly prepared for the occasional visitor, providing an hour or two of innocent entertainment in much the same manner as a What The Butler Saw machine might have done in a seaside arcade between the wars. Okay, not exactly like that...

A lack of players in itself doesn't make for a dead MMORPG. Left alone, MMOs don't die. They carry on regardless, neither knowing nor caring that they've been forgotten. No, if you want shot of an MMO, it has to be killed.

Sometimes it's a simple business decision. Sometimes there's a political or personal factor. If the servers are shutting down , though, you can bet that someone, somewhere, sometime, made it happen.

Of course, knowing it was someone's choice to flip the switch doesn't make it any easier when the last world goes dark, sending your characters on a one-way trip to oblivion. And that's why everyone is so nervous all the time. Nervous enough to ask "is this game dead?"when it so obviously is not. It isn't now but it might be one day and that would hurt.

You know what? There are no guarantees. Nothing lasts forever, not the games, not the characters, not the players. If there's one server up the game's not dead. If you want to play, give it a go. What have you got to lose? After all, as they say in PvP , it's not like you're going to die in real life, right?

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Soft Kitty: GW2

No, I'm not going to talk about the story. Way too soon, although it's irritating the bejezus out of me, having to keep quiet.

Spoilers are a problem, though. Even with the story safely tucked away behind the velvet curtain of secrecy, it's still impossible to talk about the update as a whole - the new map (Jahai Bluffs) the personal instance (Sun's Refuge), or the upgradeable armor collection - without spoiling something.

Partly, that's because Guild Wars 2's A Star To Guide Us is far and away the most complex and complete update ArenaNet has given us for a very long time. In some ways it feels more like a mini-expansion than a regular episode of the Living Story.

I'll leave it to someone else (Jeromai, maybe) to look into the intricacies of the new Raid. I'm also not going to discuss the new Legendary weapon, except to say that someone in my larger guild had already finished it an hour after the update came out, or so I was told. Not sure if that's an endorsement or a criticism.

Have you ever looked at a tornado and thought "I bet I could ride that!" ?

Better I talk about things where I have at least a little personal experience. There's plenty going on that I am doing without casting my net over trivia I'll never touch, like Raids and Legendaries. A ridiculous amount, in fact. Just look at the Dulfy entry for the "Full House" achievement to get some idea of the scope.

Full House is a portmanteau Achievement for completing all the other Achievements - the upgrade paths and collections associated with the combined second home and nuclear fallout shelter, the aforementioned Sun's Refuge. At a certain point in the story you get gifted the keys to this underground bunker and it's then up to you to blow away the cobwebs (that's not a metaphor) and invite a few hundred of your closest friends and allies (most of whom you never met before) to come set up home there.

You do know there's a gaping great hole in the roof, right? And dragons can fly?

So far all I have managed to do is persuade a Djinn to move in with me (that always goes well...) and open a massive, steel vault door. Oh, and pay some random NPC five gold for no discernable benefit to me.

To get the Djinn in I had to complete a group event, something I did by accident, which is the best way to do anything in Tyria. I learned a little about Djinns in the process but not as much as I'd like. Djinns are an under-developed race and the wiki is certainly uninformative.

In this event there are two, with a rivalry going back centuries or maybe millennia. I turned up in the middle so I was a little lost on the plot but I found the dialog engaging and involving. Like much of this episode it was also a tad on the bleak side with an effective mood change towards the climax. Whoever's writing this stuff must have shares in Kleenex.

Grief affects people differently.
The event also raised more questions than it answered, pretty much the signature trope of GW2 for six years now. I've long ago given up expecting clear answeres to 90 per cent of anything. I quite like not knowing. It allows for a lot of speculation and pondering, which is a kind of player-generated content, in a way.

In this case, the unanswered question is how a Djinn came to be Branded by the Elder dragon Kralkatorrik. Djinns are supposed to be immune to that effect. It does suggest that, having acquired the powers of two other Elder dragons (I think that's right - he got something from both Zhaitan and Mordremoth, if I'm remembering the plot correctly), the crystal dragon is beginning to break the physical laws of his own universe.

The event ended successfully and I hung around for a while, partly becasuse I was curious and partly because someone said in map chat "if you haven't got the Djinn for your instance, go talk to him". This, incidentally, this right here, is why it's impossible to go back to single-player RPGs once you've experienced online games with other players. Or it is for me.

Waiter! Waiter! There's a hare in my soup!

As it turned out I didn't even need to speak to the Djinn. He spoke to me and I gladly accepted his offer to come join my not-so-merry little band of grim survivalists in our heavily fortified hole. Once installed, naturally, he had some projects he wanted my help completing. Don't they all?

One of the first things I did after I took possession of my firelit cavern was to go round and interview everyone with a symbol over their head. In other MMORPGs this would be called "getting the quests" but we famously don't have "quests" in GW2 because we're all humpty dumpties here.

Whatever we call them, there are a lot and they are all on the lengthy side. There are eight separate, substantial quests to upgrade the instance plus another enormous to-do list that comes attached to the new, upgradeable armor set.
Is it just me or are things getting a little HoT around here?
The good part is that, having scanned the walkthroughs, they all appear to be eminently doable. They mostly ressemble previous quests I've enjoyed such as the Cadalbolg, Roller Beetle or Griffon, rather than the interminable, gated grind of something like Mawdry or the new-style legendaries.

At first I couldn't find the armor quest. I could see the correct NPC but she wouldn't talk to me. Apparently you have to exit the instance and come back. When I returned later she was more communicative. And also extremely depressed. With very good reason.

Tell me who did it and I'll get 'em for you!

She'd learned that the shrines she'd built to commemorate her dead lover had been vandalized, because GW2 is nothing if not a barrel of laughs right now, as I might have mentioned. By chance I had already happened upon the vandal in the very act.

I'd had strong words with them but the game offered me no option to do what I wanted to do, which was to boot the bastard off the cliff where we were handily standing. It seemed odd at the time but now I understand why. I didn't have the right quest.

GW2, with its dynamic events and invisible, hot join grouping mechanics, does a better job than most MMORPGs of presenting an organic, living world but quests, whatever you call them, are quests. If you're not on the right step then it's not going to happen.

In stark contrast, opening the vault door had no pre-reqs. It required nothing more than five random drops. Runes, no less. I forget if we've had runes before in GW2 but we have them now and they fit in the slots just like you'd expect.

At first I thought they came out of the chests you get at the end of events so I went and did the New, New Shatterer several times. I call him the New, New Shatterer because we already have the New Shatterer, who replaced the Old Shatterer ages ago.

Dragon down!

The New New Shatterer is tough. Most of the attempts failed. He clearly needs an organized map or at least a good guild at the core of the zerg. We did get him once, though, which popped a bunch of achievements for me.

The runes, as it happens, don't drop in the big chest anyway. They're random drops off anything. I got my last one from a grawl. What grawl are doing on the map beats me but Jahai Bluffs has a bit of everything, from a gorgeous, pocket Heart of Thorns zone to a chunk of another planet that might possibly be Haight-Ashbury circa the Summer of Love.

The colors, man!

That last one also features both the update's most quoted line of dialog and its greatest tease. (The line comes in the story so I won't spoil it, although you'll be lucky to dodge hearing it several times in map chat as you explore Jahai, not to mention in the title of this post...). As for the tease, well, as I suggested last time, nothing is forever. I'm taking Scarlet's cameo here as a hint if not as a promise.

Something's not right here...

With the runes all slotted, the vault door swung open. I was hoping, somewhat prosaically, there'd be an actual bank inside but what I got was a lot more interesting, if less pragmatically useful. Behind the battleship steel doors lies a foliage-filled room, strongly reminding me of other enclaves of nature hidden in obscure corners of Tyria.

The walls are studded with plaques, some readable, others not. The place is evidently sacred to some god or other. My knowledge of the Tyrian pantheon is woefully incomplete but if this were Norrath it would certainly be a shrine dedicated to Tunare.

There's also a Splendid Chest at the back, just like you'd find at the top of a jumping puzzle and with just as underwhelming contents. Mrs Bhagpuss tells me the runes vanish after a while and the door closes again. I'm guessing this is something that resets daily so you can do it over and over.

Before I opened the door this had been a sealed, pitch-black room for hundreds of years. And yet it's filled with plants.

When the door first opened some NPC behind me expressed a concern that I might get trapped inside and suffocate. That didn't happen but it did remind me of the strange thing that did happen to me in a hole in one of the cliffs on the main map.

There's a very large unbound magic node in the cliffside cave. You can see it from miles away. Unbound magic is a currency so everyone heads straight towards any obvious conglomeration to grab it and stuff their pockets. When you grab that particular stash the entrance instantly seals with rock, leaving you trapped in a 10x10 room with no discernable exit. Just as well we have waypoints.

That apparently meaningless but oddly immersive incident is emblematic of the attention to detail lavished on the entire map. So far I feel I've barely scratched the surface of Jahai Bluffs, let alone the whole update. There's enough content here to keep me busy for a week or two if I were to go at it hard and a month or two if, as I most likely will, I just pick away at it when I'm in the mood.

In the words of Donna Summer, could it be magic?

There's not only a lot more here than usual that I could do, there's a lot more I'd like to do. Chances are I'll wander off and get distracted before I finish most of it (I still have plenty of unfinished content from Heart of Thorns...) but at least it's there to begin with. That's a huge improvement over what I've come to expect in the last year or so.

Is this really the best place you could find to hang your washing?

And that's quite enough praise for now. I'm off to look for more children's books to fill my bookcase. That's what I call an adventure!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Goodbye, Path of Fire. Don't Let The Door Hit You On The Way Out.

I spent most of today playing Guild Wars 2, which isn't all that unusual. What was different from a run of the mill day off work was that I spent pretty much the whole time in the new content that came with yesterday's Living World update.

I think the last time that happened was probably Season Three, Episode Five, Flashpoint, the one that introduced us to Draconis Mons. I liked that map. I spent a good while completing it and generally goofing around there.

That was all the way back in May 2017 but most significantly it was before the release of the last expansion. The long and the short of it is that I don't much like anything about Path of Fire, and that very much includes the entirety of the Living World/Story Season associated with it. I don't like the look and feel, the mechanics, the plot, the characters and I very especially don't like the mounts.

Perhaps the best thing about LS4.4, A Star To Guide Us, is that it feels, if not like the end of an era, then at least like the beginning of the end. I'm more than ready.

I guess the real beginning of the end actually came in the last episode, when Palawa Joko, one of the most tedious, cliched, derivative villains I've ever had the misfortune to have to sit and listen to, died. Really died, as in gone for good, never coming back. In case anyone's in doubt or denial (and many seem to be) the permanence of his departure gets some heavy emphasis in the narrative this time around. 

Of course, as anyone who has ever read a comic or played a video game knows, no-one ever really dies. It's kind of a feature. What's more, in this very episode, the one in which several people, my own character among them, state with absolute certainty that Joko won't be coming back... well, I'd better not say any more.

Even so, I think we're free of the pest for a while. There's a distinct feeling of decks being cleared and pages being turned. The new map feels quite significantly different to all the others that came with the PoF expansion or the previous chapters of this Sesson. It may be connected geographically but it seems existentially separate.

As I was playing today, at one point I caught myself wondering whether this was the last episode in the Season. It can't be, of course. There would have been an announcement if it was.

Still, it's mid-September. They're going to have to go some to fit another one in between Halloween and Wintersday, although last year, if I remember correctly they did allow a Living World release to overlap the midwinter festival.

Whether we get Episode Five at the end of this year or the start of the next, either way I would bet on the next one being the climax of Season Four. I think it will set up the announcement for the third expansion, which will arrive sometime in Summer 2019. There will be no Living Story Season Five until after that beds in, so probably around October/November next year.

Or I guess they could wait another year. I don't think the finances will stand that, though. You can see from the financials each quarter how heavily they rely on the uptick from expansions.

I know there was a lot of brave talk in the first couple of years about never having any expansions ever but we saw how well that worked out for them. The game is on the expansion treadmill now and it won't be getting off until it follows the original Guild Wars into maintenance mode.

ArenaNet also once claimed they weren't going to make any more MMOs after GW2, the game they planned to operate and update indefinitely. It's been running for six years now and it probably has at least as long again to go, but some players are starting to get itchy feet. I've noticed an increasing number of in-game comments lately speculating on "Guild Wars 3".

There's even a thread about it on the forum - it was on the first page for a while but the flurry of posts following the update have pushed it on to page two. I wonder if the OP there is on to something when they say "...if ArenaNet does reach the point it can develop and maintain another MMO without having to send GW2 to the curb, I believe they should start up a new story entirely. Guild Wars was great, Guild Wars 2 is great...Guild Wars 3 would be too much."

Anyway, for now and the foreseeable, GW2 is what we have and as of this update it feels surprisingly fresh again. I am even more frustrated now than I was yesterday about not being able to discuss the story here. There's a lot to discuss. Maybe I'll get back to it when a few weeks have passed. Problem is, by then we'll all be on to something new and it won't seem as urgent.

One thing I will say is that the final instance is brutal, but in an entirely different way to usual. There's no awful, dragged-out boss fight. Instead there's a timed jump puzzle that has to be done on a mount. It's also currently very badly bugged, to the point of unplayability, which is traditional.

Nevertheless, I did manage to complete it, by means of a combination of workarounds, multiple deaths and brute force. Even though it was unfair and infuriating, I enjoyed it. I don't think I could honestly say that about any Episode finale since the Living Story moved to instanced content.

What's more, the penultimate instance is also brutal and unfair and I enjoyed that one too. For the first time in a very long time I am seriously considering taking a second character through the story for my own amusement and to see how it plays with a different class.

A Star To Guide Us isn't perfect, not by a wide margin, but it's a major improvement on what we've been used to over the past year and for that we can be thankful. If it's also laying down a marker for the future tenor and direction of the game, well, no-one will be happier about that than me.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Ice Cream For Crow : First Impressions of GW2's "A Star to Guide Us"

When I posted a sour, pessimistic reaction to the recent trailer for Guild Wars 2's next Living Story episode, I confess I was hoping to be proved wrong. Despite my supposed ennui, when patch day came I found myself anticipating the drop with something not dissimilar to excitement.

ArenaNet always update on Tuesdays, almost always at either 3pm, 5pm or 8pm U.K. time. Three o'clock passed without incident but at ten to five, just as Mrs Bhagpuss and I were on the jumping puzzle stage of the Legend Builder torch collection, the ten minute warning sounded.

By five past five I was patching and by a quarter past I was playing. I didn't stop until just now, around nine. I haven't been playing solidly all that time. There were various bag-clearings and natural breaks. I guess, though, that I've put in a solid three hours on the new chapter, working solely through the main narrative.

This minute, as I type, my druid, who always does the Living Story stuff, is tapping his foot impatiently in the new, upgradeable instance, Sun's Refuge. I took possession of it at the end of part three and that's the only spoiler I'm going to let slip.

I have a theory about spoilers: even saying you aren't going to give spoilers is a spoiler. If someone tells you there's a twist at the end (or in the middle) of a movie, that's a spoiler, even though they don't give you a single clue what the twist might be.

When it comes to the story in A Star to Guide Us there is literally nothing I can say that wouldn't be a spoiler. The meta-spoiler is that if I were to tell you the spoilers, boy! would they be spoilers! I exclaimed out loud once and sat back and goggled several times. There is a lot in this episode that I did not expect.

Probably most people who've been paying attention to the MMO news this year will remember that there was a sudden change of personnel in the GW2 story department back in July. Whether that had a material effect on this episode I have no way of knowing.

Certainly I imagine there won't have been any time to change the plot, which means this very welcome return to what I consider to be the real main storyline has probably been in the works for a good while. There may, however, have been an impact on the scripting. It feels that way.

In recent episodes I've gotten used to groaning or shaking my head at some of the sloppy dialog, in-jokes and all-round loose writing. This time, so far, there's been none of that. Everyone sounds like they're taking it seriously for once, which doesn't mean there's no humor and no jokes but that those there are seem to derive - fairly convincingly - from the characters and the situation. It's a relief.

As well as benefitting from significantly above par plot and dialog, gameplay is similarly improved. The first three chapters of this episode are blissfully free of either over-repetitive set pieces or inordinately long and/or complicated boss fights.

There's a modicum of repetition in Part One, A Shattered Nation, and moderately lengthy fights in both Part Two, Chaos Theory and Part Three, Legacy but none of it annoyed me. Most of it I enjoyed. It seemed to me that someone had actually listened to the complaints that fill the forums after every Living Story - the same complaints - and instead of dismissing them as usual, for once decided to do something about them.

There is still the final battle to come, of course. I have no idea what that will entail but there will inevitably be a Big Boss. I just hope the lessons continue to have been learned there, but even if they don't, the earlier stages represent an improvement and a hopeful sign for the future.

The new map, about which I was very sniffy before I'd seen it, is possibly the best new map since the last expansion (although I did quite like that one with the lost Charr tribe). Any fears about the innate ugliness of a Branded map turned out to be entirely misplaced.

Branding, for those who don't play GW2, is something the Elder Dragon Kralkatorrik does to landscapes and people that turns them purple. It's not pretty, or at least it hasn't been in the past. Only somehow, now it is.

Visually the new map, Jahai Bluffs, is spectacular. Unfortunately for ANet, that on its own isn't enough any more. Their art department is a victim of its own success. Work that would draw huge praise in other MMOs is both expected and taken for granted here, not least by me.

Also, because they tend to be rigorously authentic within their own design specifications, it's becoming increasingly difficult to raise any enthusiasm as we arrive on what must be the tenth or eleventh desert map in succession. Well, they found a way to change that up. Not saying any more. Spoilers.

So far so good, then. Indeed, so far so much better than expected. I have a free day tomorrow so I hope to finish the story, even if there is the expected attritional boss fight as a capper.And then I still won't be able to say anything about it for a while, which, based on what's happened so far, is going to be the most annoying part of the whole shebang.

Nice to be able to say that, for once.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

In My Element : EQ2

I count myself lucky, growing up in a culture that worships irony as a god. I've have never had much difficulty holding two contradictory ideas in my head at the same time.

It seems quite normal to me and it's a skill that comes in very handy at times. With the ink scarcely dry on my last post, the one with all the entitled whining about the formulaic nature of current-day GW2, here I am again, posting in praise of something equally predictable, happening in another MMO.

The way that I found out about the upcoming EQ2 expansion and the associated event came with ironic overtones of its own. Massively OP reported it ( not once but twice), both times off the back of tips from Wilhelm at TAGN. That made me wonder about a couple of things.

How come a website like MassivelyOP, which exists primarily to recycle puff pieces from MMORPG comany PR departments, needs to be informed by a reader about the official announcement of a new expansion for a well-known game that they cover regularly? Do DBG not send out press releases any more? Or is MassivelyOP no longer on their mailing list?

Maybe it's just that no-one at M:OP has time to read them. We're all busy these days and I imagine Massively gets a lot of mail. Perhaps that's all it is; a simple oversight.

Or maybe they're having trouble with their feeds, like I seem to be. After all, how come Wilhelm, who rarely plays EQ2 these days, knows about these things before I do? Particularly since I have both EQ2Traders and the main EQ2 News from the official website in my Feedly?

You're a big man but you're out of shape.
I can at least answer that one. I just checked the RSS feeds and the EQ2 News one was dead. I fixed it and now it's fine so I should be as up to date on all things EQ2 as anyone from now on. Feedly claims there's nothing wrong with the EQ2Traders link so I guess I'll just have to keep a closer eye on it. Maybe I should add it to my Blog Roll. I use it far more than Feedly these days, anyway.

Sources nothwistanding, I do now know that there will be an expansion for EQ2 this November. Then again, contrary to Massively's suspicions, we did already know that. It was in a Producer's Letter sometime back in February. The thing we didn't know is that it will be called Chaos Descending. Odd name. Then again, we had Kunark Ascending a couple of years back and I guess what goes up must come down.

Other than the name, all we know so far is that we're staying in the Planes. In the last expansion, Planes of Prophecy, we visited the Planes of Magic, Disease and Innovation as well as dropping in on the gods Karana and Solusek Ro in their respective fortresses (Bastion of Thunder and Sol Ro's Tower).  We also got to spend time in what appeared to be the lobby to the Plane of Valor without ever setting foot in the plane itself.

Oh, and after we put Innoruuk back together we got to visit the Plane of Hate, too. Which was nice. Or rather it wasn't.

Can't say I didn't warn him.
None of those are actual elements, though. This time round we get to go to the proper Elemental Planes: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Or as we call them in Norrath, the Earthen Badlands, the Kingdom of Wind, the Burning Lands and the Unresting Waters.

And then there's the Great Library. Is that a Plane? Oh, wait, you don't think it might be... the Plane of Knowledge? Now that really would be some nostalgia, right there. I hope that's what it is.

At this point I was going to speculate on what the expansion might contain. There's an established pattern that goes back the best part of a decade to The Shadow Odyssey in 2008: one or two overland zones, a bunch of instanced dungeons, a couple of raids and a Signature Quest to take us through all of them. Then there are a few mechanical innovations (aka gimmicks) and a new gear tier.

Every two or three expansions brings a level cap increase. We had one last time so we won't be getting another. Indeed if, as is rumored, this is the final expansion for EQ2, we'll be staying at Level 110 for ever.

For the past few years we've also had a pre-expansion event and it's always been roughly the same. Something Strange starts to happen all over Norrath. A team of investigators, representing one of the many academies, colleges, churches or governments, sets out to get to the bottom of whatever's going on.

Hit things 'til they break? I can do that.
No matter which institution is in charge they always follow the same methodolgy:  bribe a bunch of adventurers with trinkets to go and kill anything that looks weird and bring it back in bits to be experimented on. This time the Strange Thing is raging elementals and the investigating authorities are the Mage Schools of Freeport and Qeynos.

I spent more than two hours helping Freeport’s Academy of Arcane Science this morning. The introduction to the event was even more perfunctory than usual and the quest itself took less than ten minutes, half of which was finding the main questgiver, who was hidden away in the sub-basement of the Academy in a room whose intentionally obscure access protocols reminded me what very different games MMOs were back when EQ2 was young.

This looks like a good spot, Hattie.
None of that mattered a jot when I got stuck into the gameplay. It's exactly what I want from an MMO. There are Elemental Tempests in over thirty of EQ2's open world zones, allowing characters of any level to join in. Each spawns a series of raging elementals, which you get to kill for pleasure and profit, before you deal with the Tempest itself.

The Elementals need to con at least green to your character so I went to the highest-level zone, Plane of Magic with my max-level Berserker. Even though most of the mobs are two-ups and flagged "Heroic", they turned out to be so weak I had trouble targeting them before my Mercenary finished them for me.
Got. Got. Got. Want!

I found a lovely spot on the East zone rim where there are four spawns in a row. The Tempests have a five minute respawn timer which was just about right for doing them continuously. All the elementals drop whatever any elemental might and the Tempest always drops one Elemental Storm Shred, the event currency.

There's also a collection which requires twelve body drops from the elementals. That was how I came to spend two hours there. Collections have that annoying diminsihing returns thing going on, where the more items you have, the harder it seems to be to get the ones you still need.

And of course it often is harder, because developers set the drop rates and they like to make some rarer than others. I set myself a limit of one hundred Shreds and when I hit that buffer I still had one spot in my collection unfilled.

I am very glad I stayed as long as I did because although I didn't know it at the time the rewards are fantastic. Not in the way the Days of Summer rewards are (those are very significant combat and progression upgrades for any casual or semi-casual player) but in the exact way GW2 rewards almost never manage to be.

Cool and refreshing!

EQ2Traders has a great gallery of the full list of things you can buy but even there the pictures don't do them justice. Lots of the house items have particle effects or moving parts and many of them just look beautiful.

The two outfits are truly splendid, with glorious elemental effects. I am going to get them for a few of my magical types - they do look very wizardly. And it goes without saying I have to have the kitten. Prices are extremely reasonable and at the rate I was getting the Shreds I foresee no problems in farming as many as I need. And enjoying it, too.

As the lead-up to the expansion continues we can look forward to the now-traditional Gear Up, Level Up event, intended "to help you get your characters ready" for the expansion. What with that and Yun Zi's help it does make me wonder just how tough the new zones and instances are going to be if we need all this gearing up before we even get there.

Whther my characters are ready or not, I definitely am. The simple fact is, I'm more energized and excited by this underwritten, under-resourced content,  predictable and formulaic as it undoubtedly is, than anything I know of coming down the pipe in GW2. It's not that content needs to be original or fresh or inspired - it just has to be what I want. And this is exactly what I want.

It's going to be very sad if this time next year I can't sit down and bash out a post about how much I'm looking forward to the next EQ2 expansion. That's very much been a theme of this blog almost since the beginning. Fingers crossed those rumors are wrong. Maintenance mode would be fine for GW2 but EQ2 can do so much better - and deserves to.

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