Monday, April 29, 2019

Three's A Crowd : City of Heroes

I tried to log in to City of Heroes last night. The queue went 900 deep. Demand was so strong the volunteer team had added a second server so I thought I'd make a character there instead. It was quieter. Only 400 people waiting to get in.

The queue was dropping but slowly. It looked to be a good while before I got in. I decided to leave it. Playing U.K. hours on North American servers, weekend evenings are about the closest I ever come to U.S. Primetime. Not the cleverest time to taste the new hotness.

One of the main reasons I prefer playing on American servers, rather than European, is how it lets me manage population density. Evenings and weekends, any halfway-successful MMORPG feels comfortably busy,  not overcrowded. If I want the place to myself - enjoy rare spawns without competition, say - I just log in between breakfast and afternoon tea on weekdays.

I left CoH to settle. Today, when I tried after lunch, there were no queues at all. Probably helped that there were also two more servers online: four in total. From what I gathered from chat when I got into the game, so many people were trying to play on Sunday, even two servers weren't spreading the load enough. So they brought up two more.

OK, I want you to form an orderly line. There's room for everyone but you have to be patient!

This feels almost like an actual launch. A successful one, too. How long demand will last is uncertain but then isn't it always? Clearly there's a lot of pent-up desire being spent after six years of forced abstinence but against that you'd need to weigh the precarious legal position and the potentially ephemeral nature of any characters or progress being made.

With such an uncertain platform it's quite astonishing just how many players have come out in support. It has to be remembered that, unlike most shuttered MMORPGs, City of Heroes wasn't failing when it closed down. By most accounts it was running at a modest profit, albeit too modest for NCSoft's liking.

Given that CoH was always quite a singular proposition, it's hardly surprising that, in the six years since the sunset, no real alternative has arived to take its place. While tastes do change over time and lives move on, the seemingly perpetual appeal of very elderly MMORPGs like EverQuest, Ultima Online, Lineage, RuneScape and many others does tend to suggest that, if demand existed in 2012, it may very well continue to exist in 2019.

Demand is one thing but, sidestepping the issue of NCSoft's giant cartoon foot, there's also the question of supply. How much does it cost to maintain and operate four servers? And who's paying?

Don't you just hate in-game advertizing?

When you log into the game the very first thing that confronts you is a pop-up window telling you that the server team does not accept donations. I imagine the idea of accepting payment is a very touchy one right now, even if it is entirely and solely for the purpose of defraying expenses.

When I ended my previous post on City of Heroes wondering what the unexpected revenant's impact would have on the multifarious successor projects, Wilhelm suggested in the comments I should have frontloaded that question. I'm sure the teams behind Valiance, Ship of Heroes and City of Titans would agree.

Problem is, I really don't know enough about any of them to hazard a guess at the answer. I played Valiance's tech demo, which I quite liked, but that was more than three years ago. There was a public pre-alpha, which I may have tried (I think I did but I'm not sure). The game is currently back in closed pre-alpha with buy-in access for a minimum of $25. A public alpha will follow "sometime soon depending on how this phase goes".

Ship of Heroes responded to the news of the ghost server with a robust assertion that "Ship of Heroes is developing full-steam, and that we will launch as planned on the schedule we have announced". Prior to the recent revelations the team had already posted a detailed roadmap and confirmed that they were "on track for a solid Beta launch of Ship of Heroes at the end of 2019". So far, so bullish. Don't think anything's been added now the popularity of the revival is in the public domain.

When I said I'd sell my soul for a spot in pre-alpha I didn't mean it literally!
 As for City of Titans,  there's an announcement on its landing page asking backers to check and confirm their email addresses in preparation for the "staged rollout of pre-Alpha", which, I assume, is imminent. I couldn't see any dates.

From the outside it's impossible to tell how far down the track any of these projects has travelled. In my experience, pre-alphas (and even alphas) really don't give away all that much in terms of meaningful insight into either timescales or finished product, fun though they often are to play. If SoH really does make it into "solid beta" by the end of the year then it will be on the home straight, but few are the betas that hit the dates they announce a year in advance.

How things might play out between now and whenever these games come to market is anyone's guess. It's entirely possible that, by the time the first of them hits Open Beta or Early Access, there won't be any competition in the form of  CoH servers, official or otherwise. Or there could be a stable, trusted, NCSoft-sanctioned (or tacitly ignored) permanent City of Heroes server online 24/7, which would certainly obviate the desire of many of the potential audience to up sticks and move again.

The way I see it you're either on the bus or you're not. Or the monorail.

It was always going to be a rough ride for the trio, even without the current local turbulence. Three very similar independent MMORPGs, racing to open their doors to the exact same crowd at there or thereabouts the same time. But none of them could have anticipated having to compete directly with the very game whose absence brought them into being.

There is another possibility. One or more of the trio could turn out to be really good. City of Heroes, for all the affection and esteem in which it's held, is far from perfect. Graphically it's antedeluvian by modern standards and the gameplay loop is not to everyone's taste.

And, as Avengers: Endgame so forcefully demonstrated this weekend, Superheroes hold the core of the culture right now. If the market can sustain dozens, even hundreds of fantasy-themed MMOs, who's to say it can't support multiple capes-and-tights titles?

Before we can find out just what the demand is, though, someone has to make a game. For all their promise and potential, neither Valiance, Ship of Heroes nor City of Titans looks anywhere close to being ready to play.

As I write this, City of Heroes, somewhat astonishingly, is. What's more, for all its grey-market status, it's inarguably the real thing.

Authenticity and availability count for an awful lot.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Switzerland Is The Place To Be: SWTOR

Arriving on Alderaan felt like a breath of fresh air. Cold, clean alpine air. I never thought of Princess Leia as the Heidi of the stars but if her home world's not based on Switzerland, I'll eat my lederhosen.

Of course, Heidi was poor. I don't believe anyone on Alderaan is poor. I'd be surprised if the average Alderaanian had ever met a poor person. Even the servants probably have trust funds.

The spaceport looks like the lobby of a luxury hotel. It has trees. Not shrubs. Full-grown conifers. Actually, I bet they're larches. Also giant succulents that look totally out of place.

You did get all of that Spice out from under your skin, right, Corso? This isn't Nar Shadaa.

What the Alderaan spaceport doesn't have is street gangs that try to kill you in the Arrivals lounge. That's the kind of welcome you only get on Coruscant. At least, I think it was Coruscant. So many street gangs have tried to kill me on so many planets, it's hard to keep them all straight.

What Alderaan has instead of gangland violence is internecine political strife shading into all-out war. Because of course it does. Someone always has to be fighting someone else for the soul of the planet.

Let's see, so far there's been Ord Mantell (seperatist insurgency), Taris (failing reconstruction efforts due to piracy), Coruscant (gang warfare and vigilante justice) and Nar Shaddaa (organized crime and general breakdown of law and order).

Alderaan may look like a tourist brochure but I wasn't even out of the main concourse before someone buttonholed me about bomb disposal. This is a feature of TOR that fascinates me. I understand the trope whereby the Player Character is a de facto Hero, or even a DemiGod, but I'm a smuggler, for heaven's sake!

Yes, off-worlders often mistake it for a Cathedral. Can't imagine why. It's just the old Organa family pile...

On what planet do generals in command of entire armies delegate crucial and specialist military procedures to professional criminals? And it's not even as if they're recruiting The Dirty Dozen. There's only one of me. Well, and Corso, who no-one ever notices. Or mentions.

It isn't only generals and military high-ups who react as though I'd arrived at the head of a full armored division with air support. It's noblemen and senators, spymasters and technical experts of every stripe. They see me step out of the Smuggler's Elevator (let's not even go there...), they watch me jog past the destination boards and somehow they just know I'm the one they've been waitng for.

The extreme expectations placed upon the head of a slightly-built, scruffily-dressed captain, owner of a scuffed star-freighter with a crew of two humans, a wookie and a droid, three out of four of whom never leave the ship, beggar belief. I'm used to stretching credulity to the breaking point in fantasy MMORPGs, where complete strangers often refer to me as the Chosen One or The Ascended, but in this context some of the conversations I'm having verge on Spinal Tap levels of irony.

They must have heard we were coming, Corso. Red carpet treatment, again!
It's become entirely commonplace, normal even, for me to accept Missions that I'm told would be too risky for whole squads of sodiers. I seem to have an almost infinite variety of technical skills, from hacking to explosives to PTSD counselling. It's very fortunate I envisaged my character having a Can Do attitude when I created her because it's apparent she can quite literally do anything.

Which is fine. I've suspended my suspension of disbelief, packed it away for the duration, and now I'm just going with it. Stop a war here, start a revolution there, all the same to me.

I'm just happy to be doing it against a background of beautiful, blue skies and majestic snow-capped mountains instead of jaundiced jungles or claustrophobic corridors. I spent so long on Coruscant and Nar Shadaa, battling gangs, bashing droids and going so deep into the water supply network Corso complained his blaster was going to rust. It's just nice to be out in the fresh air again.

Do you hear that rustling sound? It's too cold for snakes, right? Tell me it's too cold!

So far, Alderaan has been such a refreshing change. I've spent more time tripping across the alpine meadows, waving at the Nerfs and taking tourist shots of the mountains than I have doing missions. I have done a few. I grabbed some guy from some insects. That was weird. And I delivered a headless droid to a brother and sister double act (siblings, yet again - it's becoming quite the theme).

Sis did the straight lines, Bro did the comedy. He was dressed for it, too. He reminded me of a minor member of The Legion of Super-Heroes. Matter-Eater Lad, perhaps. There was some flirting but I just couldn't take him seriously. For a moment I wondered if he might be looking to join me as an official Companion but nothing came of it.

I confess I'm a little vague on Companionship in TOR. I'm never really sure who might be up for it. I can think of at least three possibles I've let slip.

I'll take a Legion Flight Ring for the robot, Tenzil.
There was that treacherous minx on Ord Mantell, the one who got Corso's boss killed. I liked her. I kind of wish I'd taken her instead of Corso. I think she might have come along if I'd asked. Then there was Corso's cousin. She was a bad egg. There was a conversation option about her working for me but I didn't take it. I'm sure there was someone else, too, but I forget. I meet so many people.

Or maybe it's all in my mind. Perhaps I'm reading things into conversations that aren't there. I could find out. I could go read a guide on  "Companions and How To Get Them". But I don't want to. I like muddling along. I'll be "efficient" another time, with someone else.

Now that  my first character's only a handful of levels from the original cap, it would normally be the time to think about starting another. In the old days, when it took months, not days to get to max level, I'd often have four or five characters in play before any of them capped out.

And stay down!

That's why I never subscribed to the "Main" and "Alts" way of thinking. I used to annoy Guild Officers no end with my instance that I didn't have a "Main", but it was true. I had characters I was playing more than others at any given time but it probably wasn't until MMORPGs fully adopted the Free to Play model that I finally reached a point where, at least in some games, I could honestly I had a Main character.

Once the financial barrier fell I played a lot of MMOs. I just didn't have time any more to build up a big roster. I tended to play one character for a few weeks and then, when my interest began to falter, instead of starting another character I'd start another MMORPG.

In TOR, though, I'm beginning to feel the pull. I'm already wondering what some of the stuff I've already seen would look like through another pair of eyes. With the expansions now available and the level cap raised to 70 I could probably stick with my Scoundrel for weeks but I don't think that's going to happen.

Now this beats a yellow cab!

I might manage 50 before I squirrel off to another Class. That should be manageable. I definitely don't want to leave Alderaan for a good, long while. Although next comes Tatooine and I do like a good desert.

Anyway, enough of that. This civil war between noble houses isn't going to stop itself. I'd better get back to what I do best: saving the world by shooting people in the head.

Hey, I never said I was Heidi!

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Experience Preferred : SW:TOR

It's by no means the only MMORPG I'm playing right now, but the lion's share of my considerable free time continues to go to Star Wars: The Old Republic. I've played every day since I downloaded it last week, usually for several hours. It seems more than likely I'll carry on for the foreseeable future, which brings up the question of whether or not to I ought to subscribe.

I had been planning on waiting until my first character hit Level 50 but that seemed to be taking a little longer than anticipated. I wanted to wait so I could assess the F2P model in detail but I'm not sure there's all that much in the way of fresh insight to be had from another ten levels anyway.

As I'm not scheduled to return to work for another couple of weeks it seemed to me I'd be better off subbing sooner rather than later. After some considerable chin-stroking, this morning I paid up. But only for a month.

The general advice for people looking to play TOR relatively casually seems to be sub for a month then cancel. I seriously considered taking the 60 day fixed period option instead of the recurring monthly sub, just to avoid having to do the cancellation dance, but in the end fiduciary prudence won out. I paid my £8.99 and then promptly cancelled my subscription.

A "why are you leaving us?" form popped up: good marketing practice, although it's anyone's guess whether anyone reads them. Regardless, I always like to fill them in. I usually have plenty to say.

I gave the unfortunate intern three or four good paragraphs on how the benefits for subscribing for a single month are so generous they negate any need to go on paying once you have them. I do think giving away all the content for next-to-nothing, then charging relatively large fees for basic utilities, is a back-assward way of doing things but if they insist, then I might as well take advantage.

The two main reasons I chose to subscribe for a month were a) to get access to all the expansions and associated higher level caps and b) to upgrade my account to "Preferred" from "F2P". Getting several years of previously payment-required expansion content for £8.99 is an obvious bargain. Throw in the significant, permanent advantages of Preferred status and you have a very good deal indeed.

I note that I will still need to buy some account or character unlocks to retain use of things like additional storage, but the month's sub comes with 500 Cartel Coins which will cover some of that, while other Unlocks for which a F2P player would have to pay real money are purchaseable with in-game Credits so long as you're subbed. I already spent a bunch of Credits on expanding my Inventory and I plan on spending a lot more before the timer runs out at the end of May.

Another advantage, if that's what you call it, for subscribers is accelerated leveling speed. There's a permanent-while-subbed bonus of 20% to XP and you also get Rested XP provided you log out in a safe place, like your Ship, your Stronghold or a Cantina. You can store up to a full level of Rested XP but it only doubles the xp you get from kills, not from missions, exploring or any other source.

That's more significant than you might imagine because killing mobs in TOR gives a lot of xp. In the 40s, levelled down to 18 by level-scaling, fights with small groups of regular mobs take a few seconds and give something like 500-1000 xp. Elites take maybe 10-15 seconds to kill and give around 2.5k xp.

By comparison, the reward for completing a whole Mission runs 20-35k xp. It takes anything from five to fifteen minutes to finish most Missions and to get from Level 40 to Level 41 takes just over 300k xp.

If you do the expected and fight your way through all the mobs between you and your target, most likely more than half of your experience will come from kills. I have not been doing the expected.

I finally worked out that the main reason I seemed to be leveling so much slower than Pete or Shintar wasn't that I was F2P and they were subbed: it was that I've hardly been killing anything and I imagine they have. I have Stealth on all the time. I skip the "trash" in every mission. I always try to go straight to the target without a single fight. 

When I get to the map marker, if it's at all possible I manouever myself into a position where I can click on whatever switch or panel I need without aggroing anything. Then I re-stealth and carry on.
I have, in fact, been making a game out of doing as little fighting as I can possibly manage. In many MMORPGs this would be highly efficient. In TOR, not so much.

By playing this way I would estimate I may have avoided as much as 75% of the fighting a player without stealth would have had to do. In some MMORPGs that wouldn't make a significant difference to xp. Here, it really does.

Indeed, given the extraordinary amount of transit time, the endless running through corridors to get to your Mission destination then back to your hand-in, the inordinate amount of time spent sitting in taxis watching skyscrapers flash by, the relentless checking and rechecking of maps, I am starting to wonder if grinding mobs might not be faster xp than running missions at all. TOR, once again, proves itself  to be far more old school under the hood than its reputation suggests.

If there was ever any doubt the designers expected everyone to lay waste to everything that crossed  their path, when you arrive at the Mission boss you're often scolded for the way you indiscriminately slaughtered "innocent" defenders to get there. I hear this even though I have generally managed to get to the Boss without even being seen by a grunt, far less having had to kill one.

TOR is quirky like that, which is a good part of the reason I like it. I was going to do a bullet point post today about some odds and ends I'd noticed on the way to Level 40. Then I got sidetracked into talking about how kill xp works. Oddly like my experience of playing the game itself, where often I seem to end up doing anything other than what I thought I was going to do.

I'll go make a list and see if I can't get that post done tomorrow. Maybe if I have notes I'll stick to the plan. Always a first time.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Slightly Foxed : City of Heroes

I spent this morning playing City of Heroes. Now, there's a sentence I never thought I'd type. Mostly because NCSoft, somewhat infamously, shuttered the game six years ago but also because I never bothered to play the damn thing when it was around, not even after it went Free to Play.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I was in the City of Heroes beta, sometime before the dawn of time. Seems like it, anyway. Looking it up, it seems CoH launched in Europe in February 2004, not opening servers in the U.S. until a couple of months later.

I must have beta'd it in 2003. It was relatively hard to get into betas back then. I do remember, being both a lifelong fan of superhero comics and a burgeoning MMORPG obsessive, I was very excited to get an invite.

Too excited, most likely. I was hoping for far more than the game was able to provide. My interest in superheroes, then and now, rests far more securely on the endless soap opera dramatics, the personal relationships, the emotional upheavals, the endless quotidian trivia, than the explosions and the fighting.

I grew up on a diet of Cary Bates' and Elliot S! Maggin's Superman stories, where the highlight of every issue for me wasn't the set-piece battle but the page or two in Perry White's Daily Planet office or Morgan Edge's WGBS studio, when if we were lucky we might get to learn a little tidbit about one of Clark Kent's co-workers.

I'm currently halfway through Season 2 of the Supergirl TV show, which is basically This Life with more aliens and fewer drugs. It comes pretty close to what I want out of a Superhero show (although not as close as Buffy, but then, what could?). Even so, there's still a tad too much beating people up and not quite enough sharing pizza.

City of Heroes in beta was all about the beatdowns. In my fading memories I picture hordes of gangsters, idling on windblown street corners or deserted corridors, lining up to be knocked down, over and over and over. Not unlike Nar Shadaa, come to think of it. I'm sure there was more to it than that but that's all I remember.

As longtime fans who actually played the game, XyzzySqrl and Jeromai have slightly more nuanced takes. XyzzySqrl also posted a link to the current iteration of the on-again/off-again revival and because the last thing I need right now is yet another new-to-me MMORPG to dive into I immediately followed the link, made an account, downloaded the game and started to play.

Well, actually, the download and install took a while, so I passed the time by patching up the latest version of the Alpha That Must Not Be Named. There'd been a major update and yet another server wipe so I spent a pleasant half-hour or so making yet another character (or rather the same character yet again), runing through the short tutorial and ending up back at the same place I logged out about a month ago. Chances are that'll be the last I see of that character because by the time I remember to log in again there'll have been another wipe.

That's what happens in real alphas, of course. For emulators, even trial versions, you'd hope for a bit more permanence. And maybe it's coming. For a supposedly rushed and ad hoc operation, the current iteration of City of Heroes seems remarkably slick and stable. I had no issues logging in and no issues during the couple of hours I played, other than those of my own making.

CoH famously had (has) an extraordinarily complex character creation system. I tried to whip through it as fast as possible but it still took me half an hour to make my first hero. I noticed that she was 1/1000. That's a lot of slots.

I was able to make something surprisingly close to what I wanted. I wanted to be a fox with a fox as a pet but I had to settle for a wolf with a pet wolf. Close enough. I made her as short as the game allows and in retrospect I may have pushed the "orange" button a tad too hard trying for "fox color", but other than that I was rather pleased with the outcome.

I was especially taken with the particle effects that comprise your character's "Aura" (I chose Fairy Dust) and the option to set an individual color scheme for each of your superheroic abilities. That really is attention to detail.

I opted to take the tutorial.  Heroes and Villains get their own versions. The villains get to start on an island but the Heroic one takes place in, yes, a city street filled with burning rubble, demented gangsters and paper blowing in the wind. Just like beta.

My first few minutes were taken up with fighting the camera settings and keybinds. Fiddling with those I managed to break mouse-turn, setting me back to around 2002, the last time I turned using the keyboard. I can't believe we used to do that. Mind you, Mrs Bhagpuss still does, on occasion.

After re-logging and resetting the defaults I was finally able to play. Naturally I began by running around taking screenshots. The graphics haven't weathered the hiatus terribly well, although it was nice to be prompted to run the game on "Ultra" settings instead of being pushed into default potato mode. Given the state of my hardware, though, that does speak volumes about the aging nature of the game.

There's some great art design in evidence, age notwithstanding. I spent a good while reading the posters on the front of the Cinema. They were almost up to The Secret World standard. 

I plowed through the tutorial missions until I dinged Level 2, at which point I was deemed ready to travel to Paragon City, meet Miss Liberty, upgrade my powers and start superheroing in earnest.

I think I remember Miss Liberty from Beta. Or perhaps it was Paragon. I'm pretty sure someone stood on those steps giving out upgrades even then.

The server was, not surprisingly, heaving. There were so many heroes I had to join a line to kill gangsters. At one point my wolf got so bored he lay down and went to sleep.

Chat was non-stop and very good-spirited. I imagine everyone is expecting more wipes and re-starts to come. I think most are just happy to be there, no matter briefly; back in a world they most likely thought they'd never see again.

I don't imagine I'll play much. It's still probably not the game for me. I'd certainly wait until some semblance of permanence is promised before putting in more than a token effort. Still, it was fun to pop in for a flying visit. If I can feel a frisson of familiarity just from the few sessions I spent in beta a decade and a half ago, I can only imagine what a thrill it must be for those who spent years living there.

If COH is back for good, though, I wonder how that bodes for its slew of would-be successors?

Thursday, April 25, 2019

If You Squint It Looks The Same

This week's top MMORPG news story was undoubtedly the revelation that a City of Heroes emulator has been running in secret for six years. The story first surfaced on YouTube, when a renegade invitee to the elite club, estimated to comprise around three thousand players, broke ranks to confirm the truth of what had long thought to be no more than a tin-foil hat conspiracy.

PCGamer has an overview of the story, crediting Massively OP for much of the subsequent  investigative work that teased out the detail. MOP itself has been on fire with extended commenary all week, although the frenzy there pales in comparison to the firestorm raging on Reddit.

In the aftermath of the reveal the source code to the game was released, a publicly available server came online then vanished, following supposed legal threats that turned out to be figmentary. Death threats and worse (!) were issued. Meanwhile negotiations apparently continue with NCSoft in the hope of bringing some degree of legality - and sanity - to the situation.

A story that got far less attention was the progress update on the project to bring back Free Realms, SOE's MMORPG for kids, which closed just over five years ago. I was mildly peeved when I spotted the Massively OP post, not because I'm wasn't delighted to see progress being made but because I was in hospital at the time and couldn't respond.

I've been following the Free Realms Sunrise project for a long time. On a scale between the black ops, NDA-protected secrecy of the COH server and the open access, everyone welcome approach of the team behind the magnificent Vanguard Emulator, FRS sits somewhere in the middle.

It's a very professional-looking project. There's a slick website but core communication happens on Discord. Access to the alpha, when it was running, was by invitation only although active participation on the forums allowed sufficiently motivated applicants a way in.

The alpha has now ended but, as the ever-cagey devs explain, "this doesn't mean we're entering beta". Instead they plan to carry on working on bringing the game back to life, while "posting update videos to our YouTube channel on either a weekly or bi-weekly basis".

Based on the one video we've seen so far, huge progress has been made. The game they're showing looks more sophisticated than I remember the real Free Realms ever being. I certainly don't recall seeing any juggling octopuses on any of my sporadic visits.

I liked Free Realms a lot. When it launched in 2009 it marked the start of Sony Online Entertainment's flirtation with the Free to Play business model, a flirtation that went on to become a full-blown love affair.

It was a popular game. In just a year over ten million players had registered to play. By the time John Smedley gave an interview to in 2011 that number had risen to 17 million. The game had just transferred to the PS3 and Smed was bullish about the prospects for Free Realms future: "I don't see any reason why it can't go to 100 million", he said.

When Free Realms sunsetted four years later it wasn't due to lack of interest; it was, as John Smedley said, because kids don't have money and cost a lot to manage: "Kids don't spend well and it's very difficult to run a kids game. Turns out kids do mean stuff to each other a lot.

City of Heroes famously also didn't go under due to lack of players. When NCSoft decided to pull the plug, COH was making money. Just not enough. The subsequent strange, long death of WildStar suggests that NCSoft felt the PR burn from that cold, financial calculation. Whether the scars still tingle enough to keep them from slamming any would-be COH Emulator with a Cease and Desist order remains to be seen.

The recent farrago over secret servers and entitled elites has knocked a huge hole in the City of Heroes Community Boat. Long touted as one of the cuddliest collectives in MMOdom, the shock of what many have been labeling betrayal has started a civil war uglier than anything seen between Heroes and Villians in the game itself.

People do get emotionally distraught over access to MMORPGs they love. Or loved. I'm not at all sure it happens in other gaming genres. It's not rational but love never is.

When an MMORPG closes it can feel as though someone dropped a bomb on your home. That's traumatic enough but imagine learning, years later, the bomb was mostly noise and smoke. Your home is still standing after all, only someone stole your keys and has been living there ever since.

Emulators have existed almost as long as MMORPGs themselves. Given that gamers and the IT community have a huge overlap that's hardly surprising. The will and the skill combine to make bringing dead games a calling for some, a hobby for others and a lifeboat for the rest of us.

As time passes the focus has shifted perceptibibly from "should we?" to "can we?". Emulators operate in a legal shadowland where nothing is certain until tested by the courts. Euphemistically-named "Private Servers" for MMORPGs still running commercially are clearly dancing on a knife-edge, especially if their operators are foolish and greedy enough to try to charge for access. Community projects that seek only to replicate a game deemed too old, unpopular or uncommercial to bother with by its legal owners are on significantly more solid ground.

Not only is there doubt which way a court might lean, there's also the not-insignificant calculation of relative damage to the brand. Is it going to cost more to protect assets that are never going to be used than would be lost by looking the other way and pretending nothing was happening?

Every time an MMORPG sunsets the brand of the company behind the decision takes a hit. In time that wound heals and most people forget. Why remind them by slamming down the oar on the fingers of the few poor saps still clinging to the wreckage? Is "Corporate Bully" really the look you want?

Daybreak, who inherited the blame for any number of SOE's Public Relations disasters from the botched handling of Star Wars Galaxies' NGE onwards, made a brave stab at turning it all around with one, stellar commercial decision early on. Their handling of the popular and successful Classic EverQuest emulator, Project1999 remains a shining beacon guiding other developers along the tricky path to redemption.

Daybreak didn't just turn a blind eye to P99, they actively engaged with the team behind it, arriving at a mutually acceptable solution which benefitted both parties. It is possible. It can be done.

Whether NCSoft will ever come to such an arrangement with the City of Heroes community remains to be seen. I wouldn't bet on it. I would hope, at least, though, that they have better things to do with their vast resources than pick off minnows in a jar.

I have no particular feeling for City of Heroes, myself. I played it in Beta and found it dull and repetetive. My beta experience convinced me not to buy it when it launched and I pretty much never thought of it again until it closed down.

By most accounts I missed out on a very good MMORPG. It must have changed a lot. Maybe CoH was the exception that proves my "better in beta" rule. If there ever is a stable, reliable emulator, maybe I'll give it a try.

In the meanwhile I'll keep on logging in to the Vanguard Emulator - five years old, developing slowly, utterly wonderful. And waiting on Free Realms Sunrise which will, I predict, be big news when it comes.

We need emulators. The drama, that we can do without.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Mellow Yellow: SW:TOR

Looking back at my flurry of First Impressions posts, I'm conscious I haven't given a clear account of my moment by moment play in Star Wars: The Old Republic. I have said, several times, that I'm enjoying the experience, that I'm having fun, and that I've been following the Class Story while leveling up, but beyond that it's all been a bit vague.

The simple truth is that I've been doing pretty much what I'd do in any new MMORPG. I've been wandering about, looking at stuff, taking lots of photos and doing odd jobs for anyone who'll pay me. Most of those jobs involve murdering someone, stealing something or blowing something up. The basic sociopath's holiday in other words, something we've all come to know, love and not really think about too much, for very good reasons.

This, supposedly, is not what I ought to be doing. Although I've been trying to stay away from Guides and How-Tos and Walkthroughs, it's been impossible to avoid picking up on the general assumption that what every new player wants to be doing is their Class Story. That, it seems, is what the game is best at and that is where it shines. Everybody says so. The other MMORPG stuff, so far as it still exists at all, is just so much legacy baggage, best avoided.

It's not that I've been avoiding my Class Story. I've been following it, on and off.  The Scoundrel, one of the Smuggler's two sub-classes, has one of the better ones, or so I'm led to believe. And it is quite good in its pulp-noir-lite way. It may, of course, get much better. I would guess I'm about halfway through, since the intended level of the Nar Shaddaa stage, which is where I am now, is mid-to-late 20s.

Then there are the Planetary Story Arcs. Even after googling, I am somewhat unclear on whether every planet has these. I don't think starter planet Ord Mantell had one but the second planet, Taris does and I've completed it.

I liked Taris. I thought it was much, much more visually appealing than ugly Ord Mantell. Also way more atmospheric. The backstory tells of a planetary civilization that was bombed into the stone age three hundred years ago. Over the passing centuries nature has reclaimed the ruins. I arrived just as recovery operations had finally begun.

I love ruins. I spend a good proportion of my vacation time wandering around the crumbling remains of long-vanished civilizations. If I can get inside a contemporary structure that's in the process of falling back into its component parts, overrun with vines and turning green, so much better. Taris pushed my buttons.

Okay, it is a tad yellow. And the TOR devs are really frugal with their assets. I'm not sure I've played another AAA MMORPG that reused quite so many structural building blocks, quite so often, with quite so few individual, hand-made touches to personalize the scene. Still, it gets the job done.

As an explorer archetype I wanted to see everything, even if a lot of it did look much the same. I also wanted to talk to everyone who'd talk to me and do whatever they wanted me to do because I'm nosy like that. Thanks to Tyler's tip in the comments I have the map widget switched on to show me every possible Mission-giver. Turns out there are a lot of them.

I'm not sure exactly how long I was on Taris but it seemd like a long time. Many hours. I'm not normally one for zone completion for reasons of achievement alone but I do hate to see unexplored areas on the map. On Taris it seemed like every time I thought I'd been everywhere, some new block of hexes would appear and I'd have to go there and open them up.

There were Missions in all sorts of obscure camps and corners. I lost track of which ones belonged to what sequence very early on, which turned out to be my undoing. As I learned, too late, Taris has a "Bonus" series of Planetary Arc missions, which you are supposed to do after you've completed the original sequence. The idea is that you come back to the planet sometime later and find out how the people you helped are getting on with taming the wilderness.

Unfortunately, whoever designed the missions neglected to script them in such a way that you can't take them out of order. They also flagged the Bonus series with the word "Bonus", which might have helped if the game didn't already use "Bonus" as a flag for an entirely different sort of mission, the ones you get all the time, whenever you kill anything, which ask you to kill more of the same.

After a frustrating few tries to get a particularly recalcitrant NPC to talk to me I googled and found that I was bugged. As countless others have been. Since 2012. There's no fix coming. I just have to suck it up and forget about it.

TOR is a disturbingly buggy game for its age and provenance. In my first few days I've been bugged in various ways at least four or five times, a couple, like this one, quite seriously. It does add to the underlying sense that you're pretty much on your own if you want to hang around in areas that have outlived their usefulness. Especially if you also insist on freeloading. Well, what can you expect?

It's a shame because down in steerage class TOR makes for a pretty good MMORPG experience. Forget the Fourth Pillar and the Big Story. There's a ton of fun to be had, playing just like it was any other MMORPG.

Take the Non-Story Missions; they're solid. If you like regular MMORPG questing as popularized by World of Warcraft, you're in safe, if familiar hands. So far I haven't run across an escort quest but all the other old favorites are there, waiting for you to sign up.

Execution is endearingly old school, too. Sometimes you get a widget to click on the Mission Tracker, other times you have to open your Inventory and find the item in your Mission Tab. Often you have to click a glowy blue thing in the world or kill mobs for drops. Once in a while you just have to get to the right marker on the map.

I've never been sure whether MMORPGs are like this because a bunch of different designers work on the same zone and all use their favorite methods or if it's a single designer trying to keep things fresh. Either way, I prefer questing with this minor note of chaos. Keeps me engaged.

As well as traditional questing, TOR offers a number of other mainstream genre staples. Bosses/Rare Spawns/Nameds - call them what you will - they pop up here and there. Naming conventions and nameplates give strong confirmation but I found I could usually spot them visually (they tend to look bigger or meaner or just slightly out of place), something I always take as a principle of good design. Show, don't tell.

And they have drops, as they should. I think. I couldn't be sure how much was random luck and how much was Boss Loot Table without killing the same ones a few times, which I never managed to do. I never missed killing one when I saw it, though. I love a good rare spawn, even if it's not actually all that rare.

There are also plenty of Chests to open, sometimes right behind the Named that's guarding it. And there's a chance to get good loot from any random mob. I've had two or three orange drops from non-entity rakghouls or pirates.

All of this is sweet music to my traditionalist ears. These are all classic MMORPG systems of which I strongly approve and which feature all too infrequently in more modern games. *cough* Guild Wars 2 *cough*.

I spent much of yesterday criss-crossing Taris, cleaning up the neighborhood for truth, justice and credits. Mostly credits, if I'm honest. Money hunger notwithstanding, my Scoundrel now leans so far into the light you can see her teeth glow through the back of her head. I'm going with it. I'm told (by Tyler again) that it doesn't matter much anyway.

When I finally had no more regular Missions in my journal I turned to Heroics. The wiki describes Heroic Missions as "missions with a slightly greater difficulty than the standard missions on a select world".  If they're flagged "2+", as all mine were, they're intended for two players but at TOR's current degraded levels of difficulty my Scoundrel and her Companion had no trouble.

Except once. The very first Heroic Mission on Taris, I somehow contrived to get my character and Corso killed. It's the first and only combat death I've had in 36 levels and it was entirely down to overconfidence, the game having trained me to treat every mob as a joke.

What happened was entirely avoidable. I was waling away on an Elite Nekghoul, when I noticed Corso wasn't healing much any more. For the first time ever I looked at his health bar and saw he was under fifty percent. He seemed to have his hands full keeping himself alive, so I backed up to do something to help him and promptly aggroed another Elite and his pals, who were lurking just out of sight around a corner.

Corso went down first, leaving me, with only my own limited heals, to take down two Elites and about six or so grunts. I got through the first Elite and a few of his friends but it was clear I wasn't going to make it. If I'd had a clue where the exit was I might have made a run for it but I didn't. I chose to stand and fall where I was.

It was the annoying run back (Taris is very hard to navigate with all the fallen buildings blocking obvious routes) more than the death itself that convinced me to pay more attention. I completed the rest of the Heroics without incident.

There were a lot of them. At least half a dozen. Some were in instances, some outdoors. All the Heroic Missions come with a "Warp to Entrance" so you can do them like shelling peas, provided you don't die and have to run back. They all reward two pieces of Blue quality armor. I got a lot of upgrades.

I thought the Heroics were fun. More fun than most similar systems I've used in other MMORPGs, because they don't use re-cycled dungeons that take too long to finish. I was in and out of most of these Heroics in ten or fifteen minutes, which felt about right. They also showed me some places on the map I hadn't discovered on my own. I tend to avoid this kind of content in most MMORPGs. Here I can imagine seeking it out.

With the last Heroic over I headed back to the Spaceport and my ship. Next stop Nar Shadaa. The name rang a bell although I couldn't have said why. Turns out it's Space Vegas.

After the supermarket car park ambience of Ord Mantell and the "any color you like so long as it's yellow" tone poem that is Taris, Nar Shadaa's neon onslaught came as an eye-opener in more ways than one. I do love a lightshow but until I opened the bay door and stepped outside I hadn't realized how much I'd missed real color.

It's evident that TOR uses its planets in the way fantasy MMORPGS use their zones. Logic suggests a planet might have more than a single biome but game logic disagrees. It's early days on Nar Shadaa but I'll be astonished if it isn't bright lights and dancing girls all the way.

So far I've rigged some bikes to crash, haggled with a Hutt and killed an inordinate amount of gang members. It's fortunate I'm not hung up on authenticity. Or ethics. I do find the sheer prevelance - and acceptance - of wholesale mass murder as the first and only solution to even the most trivial problem rather harder to handwave away in a high-tech, sceince fiction setting than a backwater, quasi-medieval fantasy world.

It occurs to me that The Purge franchise might make a particularly good I.P. for an MMO. Possibly not so much an MMORPG, where we do at least like to cling to some kind of fig-leaf of morality to cover our self-indulgent excesses, providing we're not flat-out roleplaying mustachio-twirling EVIL, of course. On which thought, and getting back to TOR, it occurs to me how curious it is that no amount of random, unprovoked killing can dent your credentials as a flag-waver for The Light. Just don't ask for money up front and your halo will never tarnish.

Leveling speed has slowed considerably. I was expecting to hit 50 before the weekend but now I'm not sure I'll make it. May be if I burned through the Class Story and kept to the rails I'd get there sooner but contrary to most of the advice I've seen I don't think that's a good plan.

BioWare made SW:TOR at the very height of the post-WoW boom. They wanted to bring their own, trademark stamp to the genre with the emphasis on story, but they also tried to catch the same magic everyone else was trying to bottle around then.

Based on what remains, I don't think they gave it a bad shot. The current leveling gameplay of TOR may be strongly watered down from what was, according many accounts, a fiddly, slow-paced, old-fashioned trudge back at launch but there's a very solid MMORPG in there somewhere, even now.

It would be a shame to miss it and I'm not going to.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

You Can Leave Your Hat On: SW:TOR

When Star Wars: The Old Republic transitioned from the original subscription model to Free to Play, the climbdown was widely seen as an act of desperation. The game cost an estimated $200-300m to develop and was fronted by one of the biggest global I.P.s in existence, yet it had failed to pick up significant traction, either with the wider Star Wars audience or within the MMORPG genre itself.

By 2012, subscriptions had fallen below a million. With numbers continuing to slide and the confirmed break-even point standing at 500k subs, something had to be done.

The humiliating climbdown almost certainly saved the game but any P.R. bounce the developers might have hoped for was undermined by what were widely seen at the time as some of the worst F2P restrictions ever. Re-reviewing the game on the back of its new payment model, Eurogamer concluded:

"Over time, yes, all of this may be fixed and improved. As a starting point though, it's impossible not to see most of it as an acknowledgement that The Old Republic isn't a good fit for the free-to-play model and that BioWare isn't really that interested in it anyway. It's less like they've set up a stall than actively taken offence that the game failed."
Of all the petty restrictions against which people took umbrage, the hill on which many commentators chose to die was
the sale of Hotbars. Chopping up the default UI and selling it piecemeal through the cash shop was seen as a sign that these were people who would sell anything. Probably their own grandmothers. To The Hutt.

By the time I finally got around to trying TOR the game had been free to play for more than six years. More than enough time to let the payment model bed down, sand off the rough edges, fill in the cracks. You'd think.

According to the comparison chart on Reddit, you still have to buy your Hotbars. You also have to pay for extra character slots, races and storage. You get crucial utilities like Sprint and Fast Travel later or on longer cooldowns. You don't get Rested xp at all. You're limited in who you can talk to, how you can trade, what mail you can send, who you can have in your guild and how many Operations, Space missions or Warfronts you can go on. Oh, and everything costs more.

Those are the highlights. The list purports to be exhaustive but actually it's not. There's at least one more thing F2P  scrubs can't do: hide their hats.

I knew this going in. I read it somewhere a while ago and it stuck in my mind because it seemed to me to trump even selling pieces of the UI for outright miserliness. It also lingered because I'm in the habit of hiding the headgear of some characters in some MMORPGs I play. Usually the ones who wear heavy armor.

I love hats, in real life and in games. Can't have too many hats, I say. The problem when it comes to many games is that "hat" ends up meaning "helmet" and I hate helmets. Most of them  make my characters look like they have a bucket on their head.

I was aware there might be a problem but the first twenty or so levels passed without incident. At first I had nothing in the head slot anyway and then, quite early on, I got a tracker device that displayed as an earpiece and mic set. It looked cool. I liked it.

And then, at Level 27, I got a drop. The Alderaanian Engineers Cap. It sounded great. Caps always look good, don't they? I moused over it to check the stats. It was a big upgrade. I put it on.

When I was a child we had a thing we called a "meat safe". It was used to cover meat or any other food, protecting it from flies while it waited on a table to be cooked or eaten. It was a rhombus with gauze netting stretched between struts. You could pull a central cord to collapse or extend the sides.

I haven't thought of that meat safe in fifty years. When I saw my Scoundrel wearing the Alderaanian Engineers Cap the memories came flooding back, all jumbled up with Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus.

I know very, very little about Star Wars lore. I have not the vaguest idea who the Alderaanians might be. All I can say is, if this is what their engineers wear to work, they must be a deeply, deeply twisted people.

The Alderaanian Engineers Cap is so utterly hideous, so entirely ill-conceived, that from the moment I saw it I developed a conspiracy theory. Did some nefarious designer, either out of personal spite or acting on instructions from some shadowy suit, construct this atrocity with the purposeful intent to create something so obtrusive, so vile, so utterly impossible to ignore that players would be forced to pull out their credit cards and subscribe just to retain their dignity? Not to mention their sanity.

It's not even just about looks. The hat is so vast, so monolithic, it literally endangers life. On several occasions I've been rendered blind as the flat canvas back of the awful hat filled the entire screen, blocking the camera, leaving me at the mercy of RakGhouls and Pirates.

It even obscures the faces of my conversational partners in cut scenes. It has no redeeming features of any kind. It is the hat from hell.

So why am I wearing it? Well, it's an upgrade, isn't it? You want me to take a stat hit? Do I look crazy? Ok, don't answer that - at least not while I'm wearing The Hat.

I have this weird feeling there's someone behind me but for some reason I can't see anyone...
At Level 33 I'm hoping another hat will drop soon. If not I might have to look into buying one. So far I haven't needed (or even thought about) buying any gear at all but I can't go on wearing this thing indefinitely.

I have already decided to subscribe to TOR for a single month to bump my account up to "Preferred" status. That gets me permanent access to much of the post-50 expansion content and relaxes a number of restrictions, among them the toggle to hide the head slot.

That's fine, but I wanted to get to 50 first to see how the run feels as a full F2P player and I really don't want another seventeen levels of screenshots featuring my Scoundrel looking like a pantomime nun. Also it's very unclear whether the ability to toggle is something you keep as a Preferred player or something that freezes in whichever state it happens to be when the money runs out.

The cost of unlocking the toggle for the head slot is 280 Cartel Coins per character or 775CC per account. Obviously I'd want to take the account option, which would work out at something like $7.00.  That is quite a lot of money to ask for something almost any other F2P game gives you for nothing. I still might pay it, though.

I was planning on waiting until I hit 50 to post on my impressions of the F2P experience. It's very generous in some ways, giving you what amounts to hundreds of hours of AAA quality single-player narrative-driven RPG gameplay entirely for free. So far I haven't found the inventory or travel restrictions to be significantly more arduous than those in many other F2P MMORPGs. At a level of basic accessibility and enjoyment TOR's freeplay model seems quite attractive.

All that good work and generosity, however, can be undone in a moment by something like this. Nickel and diming F2P players with expensive unlocks for basic UI utilities that virtually no other game charges for just leaves a bad taste.

It absolutely isn't going to put me off playing the game but neither does it make me want to subscribe. Yes, subbing would remove these little anoyances but they shouldn't be there in the first place. Subscribing should get me more, not take away less.

After six years you might have thought that would be a lesson learned but I guess the money must be coming in okay because here we still are. I don't imagine much is going to change now.

There is an other solution, of course. Failing another perks revamp, maybe they could just give the guy who designed the Alderaanian Engineer's Hat a job in the mail room and hire someone who knows what a cap looks like instead.

Monday, April 22, 2019

SW:TOR First Impressions: Story, Narrative and Choice

Coming in to Star Wars: The Old Republic cold, there was one thing I thought I knew: it was going to be all about the story. As I mentioned in yesterday's post, the concept of Story as the Fourth Pillar was an overriding principle of BioWare's master plan for their first (and so far only) MMORPG.

That shouldn't have surprised anyone. BioWare's reputation, which at that time was both considerable and largely unsullied, was built on an assured ability to provide branching narratives with meaningful choices. By the time TOR launched in 2011, BioWare had already published, among others, the Baldur's Gate series, Neverwinter Nights, Mass Effect 1 and 2 and Dragon Age 1 and 2, all of which used some variation of the choice wheel and/or companion system.

I played and finished both Baldur's Gate 1 and 2 at launch. I also played Neverwinter Nights, although I didn't complete the single player storyline, instead becoming all but addicted to tinkering with the Aurora world-building toolset that shipped with it.

I skipped the Mass Effect games (more accurately I didn't even realise they existed) but when Dragon Age: Origins arrived in 2009, I bought and played it immediately. DA:O marked my personal falling out of love with BioWare, not because it was a bad game but because ten years of MMORPG gameplay suddenly made the level of nitpicking detail and emotional micromanagement of NPCs seem not just purposeless but infuriating.

By the time SW:TOR launched a couple of years later, in the midst of a furious debate over the relevance or otherwise of Story to the MMORPG genre, I was already of the firm opinion that I wanted none of it. It wasn't just that the I.P. and setting did nothing for me, it was that I'd had enough - more than enough - of the kind of spurious, artifical "choice" I'd rejected in Dragon Age.

Don't try to read anything into the body language. They don't have any.

Very little that I've read over the years since then has threatened to change that fixed opinion. I've seen enough posts where bloggers discuss their character's relationship, romantic or otherwise, with various Companions to give me the heebie-jeebies. I've scanned accounts of supposed moral dilemmas that have made my eyes roll. I've pondered on the infantile duality of Light vs Dark, although not for long. Life's too short for made-up problems.

When I decided I'd give TOR a run the one thing over and above all else that I expected to have difficulty dealing with was The Story. I was well aware that, following the commercial failure of the game as a full MMORPG, it had been re-made and remodelled into a spurious online single-player campaign. In effect it had become the third entry in the Knights of the Old Empire series, games produced by BioWare and published by LucasArts, the first of which I own but have never played.

It would be overstating the case to claim I was dreading engagement with TOR's narrative but I very definitely wasn't looking forward to it. I expected that, at best, the chore of dealing with NPCs and their trite dilemmas, while simultaneously massaging the emotions of my toddler-like companions would feel rote and tedious.

Much more likely, I imagined, it would annoy the living hell out of me.  Even if TOR had other small pleasures, I half-expected The Story would overwhelm and ruin them, driving me to the point where I'd just up and quit. That's what happened with Dragon Age, after all.

With that background and baggage in mind, I am both surprised and delighted to say that, thus far, I have found TOR's storytelling to be engaging, entertaining and mostly not annoying at all.

I seem to run into a disproportionate amount of brother/sister combos.

The narrative itself is pulpy, which is wholly approppriate, but also sprightly and fresh, like an old, comfortable sweater clean out of the drier. The writing is crisp, uncomplicated and clean. There's a very welcome absence of florid description and unecessary adjectives. Most NPCs speak in plain, declarative sentences. Everyone sticks to the point.

If the greatest strength of the writing is that it doesn't get in the way, much the same can be said of the voice acting. In nearly twenty hours I have yet to hear a single dodgy accent, an oviously incorrect line reading or the least hint of hysteria. Every performance has been dialled back and the game benefits enormously from that restraint.

If the Gold Standard for both dialog and voicework in MMORPGs rests with The Secret World, which it does, then SW:TOR is solid Silver. The quality benchmark exceeds workmanlike and rests comfortably at professional.

TOR may not have the unintentional joys of the insane translations in Twin Saga or Dragon Nest, or the quirky, companionable, friendly familiarity of EverQuest 2, but instead it offers a reassuring, steady hand on the tiller that instills confidence. While playing I have that safe feeling that comes when you put yourself in the hands of people who patently know what they're about.

So much for the content. How about those mechanics? In Dragon Age (and even, if I'm honest, in Baldur's Gate), it wasn't so much the writing that raised my hackles, it was the endless preening and posturing of the characters.

Frankly, I'm surprised Corso didn't up and walk out on me the moment I put on that hat. The hat is getting its own post soon.

I got so tired of managing the mismatched expectations of my raggle-taggle bands back then. I'd spend hours trying to Do The Right Thing only to have one of them storm off in a hissy fit because of something I'd said. I was dreading those post-battle debriefings, where everyone gathers around the fire (or the syn-coff dispenser) and rubbishes everyone else.

And guess what? There's none of that! I get constant updates on whether Corso Riggs "approves" or "disapproves" of what I've said or done but so far he keeps his opinions on my performance to himself. I'm starting to get a rough idea what he does or doesn't like and generally it's there or thereabouts in line with what I was planning on doing anyway. I don't yet feel like I have to manage his emotions to keep him onside. I can just observe them, which is fine.

Whether this is "Early Days Syndrome" and later in the game, as I acquire a mulltiplicity of companions, the dreaded emotional micromanagement will make itself known, I can't say. For now, though, Corso is effectively my MMORPG "pet" or "henchman" or "mercenary". He does what I tell him and doesn't argue about it. Long may that continue!

Despite monitoring my choices for moral turpitude, Corso loves a bribe. This is something I've always found an odd trope in RPGs. It's not unique to BioWare; Project: Gorgon makes extensive use of the mechanic, whereby giving NPCs presents makes them like or respect you more. Why or how this works is never explained.

It's understandable that you might go up in an NPC's estimation if you hand over something useful or valuable. That's being a good employer or a good friend. Why anyone should like you more because you gave them the carapace of a beetle you found on a random monster is beyond me.

When there's an option that looks like it's going to give me lore I always take it. I have no idea what that implies on the Dark/Light scale.

There's even a description on each item telling you in advance how much a given companion will like the object in question. Of all the obviously gamelike mechanics in TOR, this is perhaps the most blatant. You could make a spreadsheet. I'm sure someone has.

Much, much better is the Conversation Wheel. Color me impressed.

I've seen countless iterations of the mechanic. In MMORPGs, where choices are rarely allowed to be meaningful for eminently practical reasons, the goal is usually "flavor". In that context you might expect to choose between "Polite", "Funny"  and "Rude", allowing you to create a head canon version of your character without changing anything that actually happens in the game.

TOR, being an MMORPG, is also limited in how much impact your choices can have on the world. Most of the tension is going to rely on how they might impact your character. I was expecting that to be predictable. From what I've seen so far, it's not.

I began with the intention of keeping my Scoundrel as close as possible to true neutral but it became apparent all too quickly that there were going to be serious problems with that. In theory, I should have been able to play off Light and Dark choices to steer a middle course. I probably could still do that, if I could stand it. Which I can't.

Instead,I've been picking the options that feel natural. In character, you could say. Even that's harder than you'd imagine.

Almost all conversations have three responses. I expected those to represent Light, Dark and Neutral. That doesn't seem to be the case. What's more, even if it is, I can't reliably tell in advance which is which.

A very rare binary choice. And even that didn't turn out how I expected.

The Dark choice is often plain because it's also very rude. But sometimes it isn't. I have a significant Dark minor chord rumbling beneath  my underlying Light melody because I have taken several options, which I was sure were Neutral, which turned out to give Dark points. Also, since the one, defining character trait I gave my Scoundrel was that she wouldn't do anything pro bono, it turns out asking about money all the time isn't great for your soul. Who knew?

Conversely, I began to pull strongly towards the Light just from taking what I thought were Neutral options long before I finally threw up my hands and accepted my Scoundrel was more Calamity Jane than Bonnie Parker. And so many of the options just seem too harsh. I find myself drifting towards the light even when I'm trying to hide in the shadows. I'm just too good for this world.

The happy confusion is enhanced by a couple of very simple functions of the system itself. The category of choice is largely independent of the order in which the options appear. The Dark choice does appear at the bottom more often than not, but by no means always. You can't allow yourself to drift into a pattern of always clicking #3 or you will come unstuck.

Much more subtly, the options from which you choose are mere approximations of what your character will say. There's no space on the wheel for long dialog entires and while my Scoundrel is on the terse side, she doesn't speak in fragments. I am frequently suprised by what she actually says after I press the button that hints at what it's going to be.

I love this. It makes the whole process entertaining, amusing and alive. It also adds a frisson of risk that I find refreshing. I always think about what the written response might mean and I always try to pick the one that's going to take me where I want to go but I don't always get it right. I can imagine some people finding that infuriating but I like it a lot.

Here's where I have trouble. I want to talk about pay because that's my motivation but I hate not knowing what's going on.

It does have the effect of turning "my" character something other than the typical MMORPG player's avatar. After spending twenty hours together I feel a strong affection for her but it's the kind of emotion I'd feel for a character in a book or a movie I was enjoying, rather than a character I'd created or a facet of myself. I want to see what she's going to do next but I don't necessarily feel I'm in complete control of what that might be.

And that's fine. Actually, it's more than fine but it's also weird. I find myself talking out to loud to my character as I play, not something I am prone to doing in other MMOs. I also talk to Corso. It's almost as though the three of us are engaged in some kind of dramatic production, possibly with an invisible audience. Perhaps I ought to think about livestreaming...

Thus far, then, I am both much happier and considerably more impressed by TOR's storytelling than I imagined I would be. The mechanics work much more effectively than I expected, the writing and voicework are solid if unexceptional and the storylines are of a standard approrporiate to the source material.

Contrary to some things I have read, I am also finding the non-narrative missions to be well worth doing, not just for the extra XP but for the interesting side stories they tell. Some of them have been more interesting than the main plot, or at least more emotionally affecting. It's always the little stuff, isn't it?

Whether I'd want to go through all eight Class stories is another matter. That might be altogether too much of a good thing. For now, though, I'm enjoying the ride to fifty, seeing the sights and hearing the tales as I go. I'm in no hurry to get there, either. I think I'll just carry on as I am, poking my nose into other peoples' business and seeing what turns up.

So long as I keep getting paid, of course.

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