Friday, June 18, 2021

Layers And Players


MassivelyOP
's talking point for the day asks "Is ‘layering’ tech actually MMO community poison?" A little over-dramatic, maybe, but it's a worthwhile topic for discussion. Predictably, perhaps, much of the commentary revolves around "making friends" and whether instancing and layering makes that less likely to happen.

I have to wonder if focusing on whether or not people “make friends” with each other isn't kind of missing the point of what a community is. A community doesn’t rely on friendships, it relies on acquaintances. 

Think of your local community, whatever that happens to be. A school, a college, a workplace, a neighborhood. Anywhere people find themselves gathered together out of circumstance. In just about every scenario you can call to mind there's an expectation that some kind of community will result. Communities aren't an aberration, they're a norm.



Welcome them or shun them, communities are what we all know, and in any of those communities "friends" will make up, at most, just a small fraction of the whole. It's entirely possible to feel part of a community - and be accepted by others as part of it - without having any friends there at all.

Sam Kash, in the in-house intro that frames the MOP thread, offers an excellent example of how community is founded on experiences other than friendship. He talks about his time in Final Fantasy XI, when there was "the character who remained in the kneeling position by the shops... He wore a pumpkin head and was always there, like a fixture of the landscape". Sam goes on to describe the day that "fixture" got up off his knees and ran to the trading post: "It was like the whole map was involved, like a celebrity was moving amongst us".

It's exactly why layering and instancing works counter to the spirit and intent of any virtual world. For community to form there doesn't need to be friendship but there does have to be familiarity. You have to be able to recognize the same individuals over time.



In a real-life community or neighborhood there will be any number of them, people you recognize only by sight, about whom you know only a very little. Their presence seperates the place where you live from the places where you don’t. It's the difference between feeling like a stranger and feeling like a local. At its best it brings a sense of belonging but at the very least you know where you are.

You don’t need to talk to these people, although it might be nice if you did. You certainly don't need to befriend them. All you have to be able to do is retain a vague sense of familiarity. You have to know them but you don't have to know them.

When the mmorpg genre was young, no-one had to engineer any of this. The technology to sift players into discrete copies of the same zones didn't exist. Would-be virtual worlds cleaved much more closely to the conventions of the physical. Zones had maximum capacities in just the same way sports stadia or cinemas do.


 

Back then, if too many people wanted to be in the same place at the same time there would be overcrowding. If things got really bad some players - paying customers - might have to wait outside until others left. Unsurprisingly, that wasn't popular with either the players or the companies and since the companies were the ones paying people to manage the situation and deal with the complaints they were more than happy to employ technological solutions to prevent it happening.

By the time those solutions became available the direction of travel for the genre had already begun to drift. The whole concept of "virtual worlds" was going out of fashion. Mmorpgs, having begun as something new and strange, were being re-integrated into the mainstream as just another type of video game. 

The advantages were clear but for a few, at least, so were the disadvantages. Not every company was thinking about the effect the new technology might have on community but some were aware of the risks they were taking with the glue that held their games together.


 

When Guild Wars 2 implemented their megaserver architecture they used some fairly sophisticated parsing to try to make sure people got sorted into new maps alongside roughly the same subset of other people every time. As you can see from the conversation (okay, monologue) I recorded in screenshots when the change came it wasn't an immediate success but ANet iterated on it for a while and in the end it worked out okay.

These days I never think about it but by and large I do tend see the same names pretty regularly even when there might be several instances of the same map. Long after the megaserver took effect I would run into the people I'd added in my test, particularly on the World Boss train, something that regularly kicks off secondary maps. I still see a few of them even now, on occasion. It's not as obvious as the glory days of Lion's Arch, when I'd both see and hear the same people chatting in the same place day after day but it's something, at least.

In GW2’s World vs World, however, where the old single server architecture still applies and there’s no instancing at all, I see the same people all the time. (Until the bi-monthly relink resets the whole thing but that’s a different issue altogether…). I’m still playing alongside some of the same people who were in the Mists with me six, seven, eight years ago. I don’t chat with them, or not often, but I “know” them, right down to how reliable their call-outs are likely to be, whether I can expect any back-up if I call for help and what I can expect to hear in chat when one of the team's "characters" logs in.


 

Phasing, instancing and layering all work very efficiently. If all you want from your mmorpg experience is a single-player or co-op game that's always available and which gets a steady stream of new content, it's a done deal. And that's exactly what many, quite possibly most, modern mmorpg players do want.

If you still yearn for that sense of stepping out into a living, breathing, persistent virtual world, though, finding yourself being sliced and sorted and separated in ways you can't control can be disorienting, disheartening and destructive. It risks turning the entire experience into a succession of unrelated episodes instead of the long-running soap opera it ought to be.

That's the problem right there. It's nothing to do with making friends. Layers don't stop you talking to anyone you meet and adding the ones you like to your friends list. Instancing doesn't prevent you sending people whispers. Nothing about the siloing of content mitigates against discussing strategy in guild chat let alone meeting up with online friends at conventions, assuming such things ever come back.


Layering doesn't even remove all possibility of chance encounters. You still see other people all around you. You might even see some of them more than once. 

What layering does strip away is context. You don't arrive at a world boss knowing the show-off who always does a count-down in /say will be there. You don't log in after an update expecting to recognize the names of half the people logging in alongside you. These things might happen but they probably won't. Everything feels much more random than it was. And the human mind does not enjoy randomness half so much as it enjoys patterns.

Layering doesn't harm the gameplay, though, far from it. The opposite in fact. The reason the technology was implemented in the first place was to make playing the game easier for everyone. If all you want is to get to the designated fighting area as quickly and efficiently as possible, kill your requisite number of rats and get out, then layering and instancing were made specifically with you in mind. 

 



If you want to feel part of something that feels a little more, somehow, than just a video game, then the picture's a lot less clear. You haven't lost everything, not even nearly, but you've lost a little. And when it comes to community, every little counts. 

I'll go back to that soap opera analogy. Soap operas last for years, decades even. Episodic dramas come and then they go. Mmorpgs need to emulate soaps if they want to survive because the alternative is simply too hard. No-one has the resources to provide a never-ending stream of content at the pace players eat it up but communities create content, continually, for free.

Just think of your school, your office, your neighborhood. Most of the people there aren't your friends but they are what you and your friends talk about. Other people are content but you have to be interested in what they do to care to consume it. You aren't going to hold that interest for long if you only ever see someone once and never again. 

None of which is to say there should be no technological solutions to the problems of lack of access and overcrowding. There should. Those are real problems. They deserve sensitive, well-designed solutions not quick fixes.


Thursday, June 17, 2021

Try Anything Twice

Sometimes it pays to ignore your preconceptions, to give yourself the opportunity to be proved wrong. When ArenaNet posted their roadmap for the summer I was positively scathing about the planned revisiting of Living World Seasons Two and Three:

"I would literally rather spend my evenings cleaning my oven than ever do any of LS Seasons two or three again and as for achievements I never did most of those in the first place so that won't be happening. Once again, good luck to them as likes it. I'll pass, thanks."

Extra sarcasm points for a brave use of "literally" there. Brave it may have been. Correct it most certainly was not.

This afternoon I completed the first of the four Seasons of the Dragons meta-meta-achievements, comprising everything from the opening of Dry Top to the apocalyptic cut scenes that preceded the Heart of Thorns expansion. On original release that content spanned the six months between July 2014 to January 2015. The rerun took just one.



Finishing the first of the extremely asymetric meta-metas netted me an Ascended Weapon chest. Also a metric ton of lesser loot but we'll pass over that for now. The halfway mark requires another six metas. If I can stand it 'til then I'll get an unlock for a guaranteed precursor for an End of Dragons legendary.

I've made no secret over the years of my lack of interest in Guild Wars 2's legendary weapons. And the armor or accessories come to that. Even so, I am interested in the lesser-quality precursors reqired to craft them, if only because of how insanely low the drop rate has always been. 

In nine years, playing two or three accounts each, logging in virtually every single day, Mrs. Bhagpuss and I have seen exactly two pre-cursors drop. One each. I must have had hundreds of thousands of opportunities, maybe millions. Just one came good.

I'm not going to pretend there was any other reason I started doing these "Return to..." missions a month ago. I looked at the rewards and decided I wanted them. I was prepared to shift my fixed position in the name of greed. 

 


I'm happy enough with that decision. I wanted some stuff. I got some stuff. What I wasn't bargaining on was enjoying myself while I did it.

Let's be clear: the parts of Living Story I never liked have not changed a jot. Nor have they improved with age. The awful, poorly-designed, poorly-implemented boss fights are as clumsy, tedious and infuriating as they ever were. The clunky dialog hasn't magically found a spark. The plot holes haven't healed over. None of that has changed.

The saving grace of these repeat performances is that the bad points are much easier to ignore now. The big fights take a fraction of the time because most of the bugs have been fixed, because my characters are somewhat stronger than they were and most importantly because there are accurate, detailed walkthroughs for everything. The infelicities, inconsistencies and outright insanities in the story don't jar the way they did because I don't come to them with the hopes and expectations I once did.


 

With those objections removed, the chapters are better able to stand or fall on their merits. They also benefit strongly from being exposed on a weekly rather than a bimonthly schedule. It's something of a novelty for me to be able to remember what happened in the previous episode when I start a new one.

Conversely, back when these episodes were first released, I was much more invested in the story they were telling. I also didn't know what what was coming next. There is a bit of the "yeah, yeah, let's move it along folks" to my appreciation of the material these days.

That said, it has been unsettlingly nostalgic at times to see these familiar passages play out once again. I'm quite surprised at the things I remember and the things I don't but perhaps what surprises me more are the nuances I must have missed. 


 

I recall just about everything from Fort Salma, the big reception in Divinity's Reach, the trip to Durmand Priory. The Inquest's attack on Taimi is just as distressing even when you know it's coming. Hearing Zojja's voice makes me angry all over again when I think about what's going to happen to her, the way she'll be gaslit and forgotten. 

I learned new things, too. Much of the lengthy series of flashbacks showing Caithe and Faolin's early years struck me much more forcibly this time around. Retrospective foresight casts a weird set of shadows.

One of the really unexpected pleasures has been the interstitials. GW2 is moderately famous for the quality of its art team but most of that praise is directed at the environmental artists. It's very easy to forget how evocative some of the cut scenes and, especially, the loading screen art can be. If the game ever does get the player housing system it so obviously deserves, many of these illustrations would make wonderful wall art.

The Living Story missions only make up about half of the necessary achievements for the meta. The rest come from open-world activities in whichever new map was introduced with the chapter in question. That's almost been more fun than revisiting the story, having a reason to do some of the content I very much enjoyed when it was fresh.


 

Over the past three or four weeks I've completed the whole of the Dry Top meta several times and the Vinewrath meta in Silverwastes as well. I shouldn't really have needed the crutch of the current event to open any of this stuff up for me. ArenaNet are quite possibly the most successful of all the major mmorpg houses at keeping older content in play and you can find a map full of people doing these metas without too much trouble most days. 

The thing is, I never do that. There's a lot of older content in GW2 now and I tend to need a prod to revisit most of it, even though I almost always have a good time when I make the effort.

Overall, I have to say this whole "Return to..." event has far outstripped my expectations. It's even made me reconsider the role and function of structured, personal narrative in mmorpgs. I wonder sometimes if I really know what I want. I'm all but sure I don't always know what I need.


 

Whether this mellow mood will extend to the next set of returning Living Story chapters does definitely remain to be seen. These, after all, were the direct lead-in to Heart of Thorns, the expansion I really liked, and the story at that point was comparatively coherent and compelling. Season Three was the preamble to Path of Fire, the expansion I really didn't like, and if I remember anything about it at all it's not with much affection.

But that's almost the best reason to stay with the process. The rewards may have been why I started but now I'm getting an education. I'm learning new things about the game and about myself and that's a lot more than I expected to get out of something that, when it was announced, looked very much like filler. 

If I find I'm not enjoying it any more then I'll stop but for now I find I'm actually looking forward to each "new" weekly instalment. The next drop should take us to Bloodstone Fen. I spent a lot of time there, once, and I had some very complimentary things to say about it. 

It'll be nice to see the old place again.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Always Nothing Much To Say

For once this really might end up being one of those "short" posts I'm always promising. I don't have anything much I want to talk about but I didn't want to miss another day after I took Monday and Tuesday off while we took our first mini-holiday of the year. 

With the pandemic making proper travel far too unpredictable we're opting instead for random day trips with the odd overnight stay here and there thrown in as the mood takes us. On Monday we drove down to the south coast for a very enjoyable seaside break. The weather was positively Mediterranean, which made it very easy to imagine we'd gone somewhere more exotic.

It really was a short break although we packed so much in it felt a lot longer. We timed it all so neatly I  managed not to miss any of my dailies in Guild Wars 2. I did one lot around breakfast before we left and another just before bed when we got back. I suppose I could even have played an mmorpg while I was away - I have two or three installed on my Kindle Fire - but I didn't need much more entertainment than the sunset from our balcony.

Speaking of my Kindle Fire, it's starting to give me some concern. For the moment it will still take a charge, with a bit of fiddling about, but it likes to sit there bleating like a distressed sheep while it's doing it, something I find unreasonably disturbing. 


 

I tried several different chargers, one of which almost fried the whole thing, but eventually I discovered it's most likely the charging port beginning to fail, a very common design fault with Kindles. 

It's particularly annoying since I bought a Kindle quite specifically for the build quality, which I thought would be good. Certainly better than the several previous tablets I've had, some of which have developed faults on their own and the rest of which I've managed to break.

If I have to replace this one, I think the average lifetime of a tablet owned by me will dip below twelve months. I have a box of the things now. Some of them kind of work, in a way. Some are completely inert and I should throw them away. A couple could, theoretically, be repaired but since that would cost almost as much as the price of a new one it seems somewhat pointless.

It's getting to the stage where I do wonder if maybe I should just buy an iPad. The ridiculous upfront cost has always stopped me even considering it in the past but if I'd bought one as my first tablet it would probably still be working now. My iPod Touch is and that has to be at least ten years old. 

On the other hand, although the iPod hardware lasts forever, it's been a long time since anything much would run on it. The most recent version of iOS my Touch can use is so out of date there's barely an app left that will accept it.


 

But enough of my problems. Let's talk about Crowfall's. And Phantasy Star Online: New Genesis's. 

I imagine I'll have something more to say when Crowfall launches three weeks from now but for the time being I'm done with it. I found it a very strange experience indeed. As I wrote, I kind of enjoyed myself even as I was thinking what I was doing was utterly pointless. And quite possibly stupid.

The extended tutorial takes you all the way to the soft cap at Level 30. I believe you can do five more levels after that but to do so involves a bizarre necromantic practice by which you dig up body parts to upgrade your "Vessel", the disposable entity you've probably been thinking of as "my character". That's a habit you're going to have to break.

With increasing effort I pushed through to thirty. The entirely linear questline takes you just about that far although I did have to kill a few extra mobs along the way to fill out a few small gaps. It was fairly painless. Xp for mob-killing is decent and the sacrifice mechanic, where you throw items you've looted from mobs into a fire, gives significant bonuses.

At thirty the game sends you to the zones that used to be a separate world called the Infected, a tripartite Realm vs Realm set-up similar to so many others. As many people have observed, good luck finding anything to do there. I ran around for an hour or so and saw one other player. And he was on my team.

When I went to Reddit to see if other people were finding the whole thing as weird and ill-judged as I was (they were) I found many cynics recommending ignoring the quest line completely and just grinding mobs from the get-go. 


 

Apart from one or two obvious white knights, the near-universal opinion seems to be that the New Player Experience is about as useless as it could possibly be. It determinedly trains players to expect an on-rails PvE questing experience and then throws them into a game with literally no quests of any kind, where almost the entire gameplay consists of fighting other players. It would be disorienting enough if there were any other players to fight. It's completely mystifying when there are none.

The general theory appears to bethat the dev team, having given up any hope of making the game they were originally planning, settled for bolting something they could manage on the front and leaving it at that. I have no idea where the truth lies but I'm going to say right now that I can't see how this game is going to find any kind of audience after launch, much less make any money.

PSO2:NG is having very much the opposite problem. As MassivelyOP put it today, when they reported on the apologies and compensation coming to players very soon, "having so many players that it’s hard to play isn’t a bad problem to have". 

The lag that's had Sega handing out the goodie bags hasn't affected me at all. I'm not sure I noticed it even once. I was playing in EU hours on the east coast NA server but even so there were loads of people around and everything was silky-smooth all the time. 

I haven't played much since the last time I posted but I do keep thinking about it. I was trying to work out how I could have wrung the small amount of pleasure out of Crowfall that I did and it came to me that I just want a good, old-fashioned mmorpg leveling experience right now. It seems like a while since I last had a new character I cared about in a new game I didn't already know pretty well.


For the reasons I gave in the first impressions posts, PSO2:NG isn't going to be a game I devote a lot of time to but it might just have to stand in for that game until a more suitable one comes along. That might be Bless Unleashed, which I find myself almost pining for after my brief beta exposure, or I guess it could be New World.

Amazon are really priming the pre-launch pump right now, with press releases and lore and gameplay videos aplenty. It's all having an odd effect on me. I find myself less and less excited at the prospect of playing, not least because the game seems to be lining itself up to be the next Elder Scrolls Online, a game I never really got on with all that well.

I have an uncomfortable feeling New World is going to end up being one of those games I'll harp on about having been "so much better in beta". Not because it was better, of course, but because it was smaller, more manageable and less overwhelming. 

Really, all I liked doing there was exploring, gathering and fighting zombies. It was extremely atmospheric and very relaxing. I can't say the prospect of a full-on quest-hub exprience with instanced dungeons was what I imagined I'd be getting when I pre-ordered. 

Still, I'd sooner have that than what the poor sods who pre-ordered Crowfall are going to get, that's for sure!

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Big Production Thing


When I checked the Latest News feed on Pitchfork a couple of days ago, something I'm prone to do after breakfast most days, I spotted a couple of welcome items of interest. Two artists, whose work I've enjoyed in the past, have new albums coming out. That's always exciting to hear.

It's been a while since Lorde's last album, even longer than I would have guessed. According to Pitchfork her last "piece of original music" was back in 2017. That makes it sound as though she's done some covers at some point since but if so I have no idea what they might have been.

Clairo's last album came out only a couple of years ago in 2019. Also her first album. Also her only album. She's released a few songs since then, though, I'm pretty sure of that.

 As I read the two articles I noticed a familiar name. Both Lorde's upcoming "Solar Power" and Clairo's "Sling" are co-produced by the singers themselves in partnership with Jack Antonoff. Antonoff produced Lorde's previous collection, "Melodrama", which he also co-wrote. He doesn't seem to have anything to do with Clairo's debut, "Immunity", but Clairo herself sings backup on the eponymous single from Solar Power, on which Antonoff also plays both guitar and drums. 

Neither Taylor Swift nor Lana del Rey feature on either of them but it's probably only a matter of time. He co-wrote and co-produced some of both Swift's "1989" and "Reputation" and did the same for much of Lana's 2019 masterpiece "Norman Fucking Rockwell" (aka one of the best albums I have ever heard and will ever hear). He then went on to do it again with the very-nearly as wonderful follow-up, "Chemtrails Over The Country Club" earlier this year. He's listed on the production credits for the upcoming Blue Banisters but the three tracks trailed so far were produced by others.


It's almost as though there's some kind of Antonoff Universe in the making. Which there kind of is. In an interview he gave to the New York Times last year (to which I'm not going to link because you have to make an account with the paper even to access the limited number of free articles they allow) he said he planned in future only to make albums with friends.

All of this made me wonder. 

Some of the music I've enjoyed the most in the last five years comes from the people I've named so far. When I stop and think, all of it has a certain sound or perhaps a soundscape. Listen to the Jack Antonoff produced version of "Blouse" above and compare it to Clairo's acoustic take on Jimmy Fallon. The difference is a hint but no more. 

 

None of the records above could possibly have been made by the same person. They're all far too original and individual for that. But their sound could have been made by the same people. It has been, sometimes.

Producers are a real wildcard in popular music. I've been ocean deep in pop for fifty years and I still couldn't say with certainty what it is that a producer does. It's one of those roles that defines itself almost by the way it's done rather than what it is. Movie director, that's another. Game developer, too, when you reach the status of a Chris Roberts or a Brad McQuaid.

Music, movies, games - all of these are collective enterprises and unravelling individual responsibilites in a collective is a chancy proposition, made harder for pop music because it doesn't have the language for it, never having developed the fancy set of theories cinema did. There's no mirror in pop for auteur theory, at least not as far I know. 


In fact, in pop music references to the role have frequently come freighted with nuance. The language used brings to mind manipulation and malfeasance. "Svengali" has often been the term of choice, even when the work is deemed worthwhile. Joe Meek, Phil Spector, George Martin, Brian Wilson, Guy Stevens, John Cale, Brian Eno... most of the superstar producers who come immediately to mind are difficult, even dangerous propositions. Well, maybe not George...

Jack Antonoff seems more benign than brooding. Positively cuddly, he is. He sounds friendly and affable and looks the part, too. I'd trust him. I do trust him.

Why wouldn't I? He's had some significant part in some of the best music I've ever heard. He also, with his sister Rachel (my favorite name, for what it's worth), co-founded the excellent and much-needed Ally Coalition, whose work is essential and ongoing. He seems like one of the good guys, alright.


No, I have no problem with Jack. Entirely the reverse. I need to thank him not just for adding to my general sum of happiness with his work but also for making me re-assess the properties of ownership, something I probably needed to do. 

It's good to learn it's neither necessary nor appropriate for the listener to unravel each thread of a collaboration to be able to enjoy what they're hearing. I can safely leave that to someone else. Because you know someone will always want to. It just doesn't have to be me.

Pop music has always been a collaborative process, of course it has, and often a troubled one. I'm not thinking of the more nebulous issue of influence and appropriation. That's a whole other hornet's nest. I'm talking about more formal arrangements, credits on the label, money in the bank, that labyrinth of rights where improper assignment leads to fallings out, fist fights and the law courts.

There have been times when songs came so thick and fast it was okay to give them away. The heady sixties rush led Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards to hand off minor classics to lesser contemporaries glad to run with them, all the way to the top of the charts. Only ever the also-rans, songs they had no use for, tracks that wouldn't make the cut for the next LP. No sense giving away the farm.


As the industry matured, tales circulated: mistakes made, fortunes lost. Being generous with credit went out of fashion for a while. Songwriters became even more cagey about credit. Ask Morrissey or maybe just read the seventy or so pages he devotes to it in his autobiography.

It may be like that still in some quarters but elsewhere things have changed. I'm not going to question why. Technology gets a lot of credit. Social media. Cultural drift. However it happened, collaboration for many seems to come more naturally now. Remixes, collectives, collabs, everyone does them, is in them, promotes them. Pop music as one big family and no-one thinks it's weird.

It's never been easier to make music and who makes it with whom matters less than it ever has and also more. Geography, style, attitude, age, mix and match an make your statements or sidestep as you like. Creatively everything has changed. Money still matters so those credits always count but when it comes to creative ownership the lines aren't just blurred, they're mostly rubbed away. Sometimes that just makes a mess, sometimes it's chalk in the rain, everything runs together and it all just works.  


You can see the ripples spreading. Lorde on her secret beach, Lana's Chemtrails album cover, Billie Eilish's sleepover party, all that messaging, it's not hard to read. You could blink and think it was the sixties, some days, when musicians led the culture and people folowed. I thought those days of influence were over but everything comes back, doesn't it?

Is it just the sign of these times, though? Our Pandemic Years. Maybe. There is that. Take things away from people, let them feel what they've lost. They'll want it back and they'll value it more. There's something else, though. If it was just the fractiousness, the fretting for freedoms, the furious need to shake loose, then the work wouldn't be this wonderful this often. Would it?

Maybe it would. How should I know? Don't look at me. I still don't really know just what it is a producer does. I don't know who's responsible for what I'm hearing. 

All I know is, whoever's doing it, I'd just like them not to stop.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Movin' Too Fast: PSO2:NG First Impressions Pt. 2.


When I came to look at the screenshots I'd taken for this, the second part of my Phantasy Star Online: New Genesis First Impressions post, I was a little taken aback to find how few there were to choose from. That could have meant one of two things: either I'd found the game so bland or downright unpleasant to look at I hadn't want to take any pictures or I'd been so engaged with what I was doing I hadn't thought to.

It was the second. PSO:NG isn't the most beautiful of games but it's definitely not an eyesore. The textures are a little strange, with that peculiarly scratchy feel that seems to be endemic to a certain kind of generic spaceworld setting but there's no shortage of striking views and spectacular scenery. 

I had plenty of time to appreciate that as I spent an hour or so exploring the hinterlands of the small central city. I was looking for things I could kill to grind a little xp. I'd stalled on the main quest sequence at a stage requiring a specific "Battle Power". That was literally the quest: "Achieve a Battle Power of 830 or greater".

I was already quite close. The obvious way to heave myself over the line seemed to be to level up. If I'd been able to find anything to kill it might have worked, too. Why I couldn't still puzzles me somewhat.

A handy pop-up appears every time you cross a zone line telling you what the new area is called and what Battle Power would be best to take on the challenges you might find there. The area immediately outside the city was flagged for BP 800. It sounded perfect. 

Shopkeep! Service!

 

It wasn't. All the mobs I could find were either Level 1 or Level 15. Absolutely nothing in between. At level five as I was, the low ones gave me almost no xp while the high ones killed me in a couple of hits. After I'd worked my way all around the city walls with no success I decided on a change of plan.

First I went shopping. I had a stroll around the city, looking at all the mechants. There were quite a few.

PSO2:NG has a penchant for interactions with NPCs for many of its systems and mechanics. Part of the tutorial introduces you to the game's method for upgrading weapons and armor. It's not crafting as such. I believe there is crafting in the game but no friendly NPC has popped up to tell me about it yet. 

The upgrade system involves merging similar items with the one you want to upgrade while using another item as a catalyst. To access the interface you need to go to an NPC. I had a few swords left over from the quest that explained the mechanic but I didn't think I had enough. I found a vendor who sold them and bought some more. While I was browsing I spotted a better sword than the one I was using so I bought that as well.

There was a small crowd at the stall where the NPC who ran the upgrade franchise was standing. I shouldered my way to the front and got to work. The first batch of swords didn't get me quite over the line but I threw in the one I had equipped, which I'd already upgraded for the tutorial. That did the trick.

It sounds fussy but I found it engaging. I don't know if later developments allow you to perform these kinds of operations through the UI but I kind of hope not. Going to a specific location in a city or outpost, be it an NPC or a crafting station, is something that eventually loses its appeal but in the early stages of learning a game I find it works well to create a bond between player and world.

Summer re-runs.


And it's quite a nice world, at least when the DOLLS aren't trying to blow it up. The small central city is a pleasant place to hang out between missions. I love the wall screens that show the opening cinematic from the game itself. That's a very clever touch. I stood and watched the whole thing play. It was a lot better without the music.

Ah, the music. Let's deal with that now the subject's come up. I rarely switch background music off completely in mmorpgs. I often turn it down so it really is in the background, where it ought to be but I still like to know it's there. 

Not so with PSO2:NG. I have heard plenty of worse tunes but few that distracted me as much. After the third or fourth time I found myself unable to concentrate even with the music turned down to a normal level, I turned it all the way down to not much more than a murmur. I doubt I'll be turning it back up.

Getting back to the city, I noticed an appealing bar with outdoor seating and plenty of benches. It's a shame there's no mechanic to let you sit down on any of them but that's something most developers don't see as a priority. 

The ability to sit on chairs is often touted as a sign a game wants to be thought of as roleplay-friendly. PSO2:NG doesn't immediately strike me as a game made with roleplayers in mind. Then again, it does have what feels like some solid lore behind it and the series has been running for a long time, so I'm probably talking through my hat here.

Oh, I wish I hadn't mentioned hats. I still haven't found a way to take mine off. I don't believe there is one. I'd re-roll but I'm not convinced this is a game I'll stick with long enough for it to matter. The reason for that is the combat. 

The only combat shot I was able to take and even then it's after the fight.

 

Not that the combat system is bad. It isn't, not at all. On the contrary, it's very good. Far too good for me. Even in the tutorial, fighting involves all kinds of special moves and extra key presses. When the game's trying to explain elemental weaknesses and specific location targeting at level five you know you're supposed to be taking the fighting seriously.

Combat training in mmorpgs tutorials is usually a formality. Hit this target dummy three times so we know you can tell which mouse button is which. Kill three goblins who probably couldn't beat you in an arm-wrestling contest if you took all of them on at once.

Not so here. I died several times in various combat trials during the tutorial. One instance went so badly I gave up and logged out - not in a fit of pique but because it was the only way I could find to reset the thing and start again. 

I had similar problems with some of the movement training. PSO2:NG is hyper-kinetic. You can run, glide, jump, double-jump, wall-jump... And you have to demonstrate your skills in all of them before the main quest will let you carry on. 

It took me a few tries to get a passing grade. The wall jump I found particularly challenging. It wasn't frustrating, though. It was fun. Part of the reason I spent so long running around the city was because I was experimenting with my movement skills and enjoying the freedom they afford.

There's even a side quest to climb to the top of a very high mountain. I took that and then wished I hadn't, at least for a while. But I persisted and eventually I found myself way up in the clouds with a solid sense of a job well done. It felt more somewhere between the sheer joy of climbing in Genshin Impact and the grim satisfaction of finishing a jumping puzzle in Guild Wars 2.

I've come across exotic movement and kinetic combat in other mmorpgs. The thing about PSO2:NG that makes it different is the way it rams both of them together. It took me a while to figure it out but the reason I couldn't kill some of the DOLLS I was faced with in missions turned out to be because I was naively determined to keep my feet on the ground.

Did they recast the Flash again?

 

Double-jumping and wall-jumping in combat seems to let you hang in the air for ages and ages. Fighting massive monsters involves using them like a springboard then pummeling them around the head and shoulders like a frenzied hawk. Or it does when I'm playing. Other times you need to be spinning them round and round so you can smack the weak spot in their back or running between their legs to stab them in the foot.

It's fast and furious and a lot of fun but it's also a lot of finger-work. I can handle it for a few minutes but the idea of keeping it up for a session is terrifying. And of course I ought also to be putting combos together and exploiting weaknesses and generally making good use of all my ever-growing bag of tricks.

That's not going to happen. I can barely hold my own with a big DOLL at level six. There's no hope of me being able to play the game at the higher levels, not even the easy solo stuff. Well, probably not. I guess I'll find out as I go along.

If I stick around, that is. I don't imagine I will. Compared to what seems to be expected of me here, other action-oriented games like Black Desert Online or Genshin Impact seem positively restful. 

My overriding first impression of PSO2:NG is that it's a strong, solid, entertaining game. It has excellent combat that I'm sure many people will absolutely love. Neither the graphics nor the story look set to win any awards for originality but the game looks good enough to justify spending long periods staring at it and it has a story that seems to be about as coherent and comprehensible as you'd expect. As an imported game, the translations are excellent and the voice acting (of which there doesn't seem to be all that much) is convincing. The UI is a little idiosyncratic but it works.

All in all I'd give it a solid B+ from the little sliver I've seen. As I said, I don't think it's really my sort of thing and I do have a lot of other mmorpgs to choose from, old and new, so I can't imagine I'll be devoting much time to this one. I'll probably give it a couple more goes then put it quietly away.

Don't let that put anyone else off, though. This is definitely the right game for someone. Just not for me.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Burning Down The House: Phantasy Star Online: New Genesis - First Impressions

There is such a thing as too much fun. Right now I'm struggling to keep up with the torrent of game releases, open betas and free weekends. It almost seems as if there's a new announcement every day. It's one thing to stay on top of the news, quite another to take advantage of the opportunities.

Just this morning, when I logged into Steam, I ran straight into another: five-days of Fallout '76 for free. It's a game I've never considered buying, although this would be the ideal time. It's on sale at 66% off. 

I've read enough blog posts about it to be curious enough to take a run around for free, though, so I dithered my pointer over the "Play Game" button for a few seconds before getting a grip. I do not have time for this. No, really, I don't.

The current glut of new games highlights a curious irony in the way I've engaged with the mmorpg genre since I started blogging about it nearly ten years ago. Way back in 2012, when the blog was fresh and new (well, new, anyway), when I was still in the process of leading all my hobbyhorses out of the stables and riding them around for everyone to admire, I wrote a whole post on how I don't like tutorials. And what have I done ever since?

Review tutorial after tutorial, that's what. I play a lot of new mmorpgs and write a lot of First Impressions pieces but half the time the tutorial is pretty much as far as I get before I lose interest and wander away. 

Judging by the costumes you start with, I'm guessing there's a cash shop full of outfits.

 

I was thinking about it this morning. I could quite feasibly start a blog where all I did was review tutorials. Most tutorials are good for a couple of posts; some can be stretched a good deal further than that. Throw in a few YouTube playthroughs and I probably wouldn't need to find more than a couple of games a month to sustain a regular posting schedule of two or three posts a week.

I don't in fact intend to start a second blog right this moment and if I did it would not be all tutorials all the time. If I did, though, I'd call it "Press WASD To Move". Who the hell would want to read it is another question but that's never been much of a concern here. 

Just as well because "here" is where all those tutorial reviews are going to keep turning up. Look! Here comes another! Brace yourselves.

Today's example comes courtesy of Phantasy Star Online 2: New Genesis. Like Fallout '76, this is a game I never intended to play. I remember being very mildly curious about the original Phantasy Star Online many, many years ago, mostly because mmorpgs were a lot rarer back then and PSO was not easily accessible to Western players.

I was never curious enough to do anything about it, though, and by the time the sequel appeared I'd all but forgotten the game existed. It was only when PSO2 received a very belated Western release last year that I began to pay it a modicum of attention. I probably wouldn't even have given it that much, had Belghast and one or two others not blogged about it a few times.

PSO2 scarcely had time to bed in before PSO2:NG arrived to replace it. The relationship between the two rests somewhat obscurely in the hinterland between sequel, expansion and revamp. I'll leave that discussion to someone more familiar than I with what came before. I'm just going to talk about what I've seen for myself.

Manon strikes me as a character with something of a backstory.

 

I played PSO2:NG yesterday for three and a half hours. That's a clue in itself as to how I felt about it. Three and a half hours is quite a long time to play a brand new game fresh out of the box. Developers used to cite statistics suggesting players often take not much more than a tenth of that time to make up their minds. 

When you consider the game uses a control system that would never be my first choice, has a setting that's never been one of my favorites, has scrappy, scratchy textures that generally feel slightly abrasive on the eye and, perhaps most tellingly of all, demands a level of skill to play effectively that I simply don't possess, the very fact that I stuck at it for almost four hours is probably all I need to say.

Yeah, that's not going to happen. I'm going to give chapter and verse on why I played for as long as I did and why it's more likely than not I'll go back and play some more.

The game opens with a swooping introductory video which I didn't watch because the music was so loud I was scrabbling for some way to make it stop. Once I'd sorted that out I had to pick a "Ship", a neat conceit for a space-opera game to use for servers, before it was on to the main event: Character Creation.

You can make two characters for free. If you played the previous version you can import that character. There are four races, all basically human, although only one is actually called "Human". Of the other three, one is a human in a mech suit, another is a human with horns and the third is a human with long ears. You can call that last one an elf if you want.

Like Crowfall, PSO2:NG neatly sidesteps any gender stereotyping by not referring to gender at all. The choice here is Humanoid Type 1 or Humanoid Type 2. It's going to be very interesting to see how this develops. I wonder if having just two choices is going to present a problem in the future, no matter what those choices are called.

Where did you get that hat, where did you get that hat?

 

There are plenty of options but the very first is a choice between three "Base Characters". DO NOT TAKE THIS LIGHTLY! I did and it was a bad, bad mistake. I picked the one with the funny hat because it lreminded me of the hat Michael Jackson used to wear when he was about twelve years old and I thought it would be funny. 

So far I have not been able to find any way to take the hat off! As far as I can tell it's glued to my character's head. She can change her hairstyle but she can't take off her hat. It's space magic of the worst kind. If I carry on playing I am going to have to re-roll because I cannot go through life, even virtual life, looking like that.

It gets worse. I spent a long time fiddling with the many sliders trying to get my character to look just right. I was pleased with what I saw in the editor but when I saw the same character standing next to the first two NPCs I realized what I'd done: I'd made her face as round as an apple. 

Compared to every other character I've since seen in game, NPC or player, mine looks inert. I'm not sure why, exactly, but her face neither moves nor has definition. If she could take her hat off I'd redo her - you get five hours to make changes for free, after which you have to pay - but the options available don't let you go back as far as the Basic Character. 

All in all I'd say Character Creation in PSO:NG is good but not great. There are a lot of options and you can make a reasonably diverse range of appearances but the controls are not always intuitive and mistakes are easy to make. Of course I may be bitter because that hat.

The game begins with a cut scene. I watched that and then I started playing with the graphics. You can actually do this in character creation but I was too excited to think of it then. I go a bit peculiar when I get my hands on a new character creator.

Mindful of my experience in Crowfall, I checked what default setting the game had given me.

Well, that seems harsh! Over the course of the next few hours I gradually ratcheted my graphics upwards until by the time I logged out they were on Super. The game looked better and better and my performance remained exactly the same. 

Movement was smooth and fluid, there was no hitching or stuttering, nothing flickered or glitched. The entire time I played everything felt as smooth as butter and just as sweet. Even when I arrived in the main city and there were other players everywhere my frame rate remained the same and I had no graphical or performance problems of any kind.

About the only difference I could tell was the fan on my graphics card had to do some work. Most times I play most games you can't even hear it. I checked the temperature and it was more than fine. I'm forced to assume whatever algorithm the game is using to determine appropriate settings is either ultra-conservative or just broken.

With that sorted it was time for action. In short order I learned how to move, jump, glide, fight and open boxes. My character and her two companions met, fought and defeated a DOLL, the game's oddly-named prime enemy. It was a good fight. We won. Then half a dozen more DOLLS arrived and a big, musclebound oaf with a bare chest leapt in to save us.

 

Here I am to save the day!

I confess I took against him. And the game, for a moment. It seemed so retrograde a scenario, the plucky but barely competent girls being rescued from the big bads by a brawny boy. I still think it's ill-judged but the revelation that the man was the father of one of my companions and the mentor of the other, along with his concern for his as-yet untrained daughter did give some ameliorating context.

As things progressed my concerns withdrew a little. The writing, while in no way original, is better than merely competent. There are some nuances. The voice acting is variable but the actor playing the big fellow makes him seem genuinely concerned rather than merely overbearing. Conversely, the other Meteorn (Just go with it. It'll take too long to explain.), my second female companion, turns out to be oddly reticent and uncertain. After a while I could see why intervention might have been deemed necessary. The three of us really wouldn't have been able to handle all those DOLLS.

After that it was on to the usual introductions. The big man, subverting his stereotype, went off to cook us all dinner, while I wandered around the village introducing myself to the locals, doing them favors and getting a series of short instructive lectures in return. It was jolly restful. I should have known what was coming.

I'd get those drinks down you while you have the chance...

The evening concluded with a cookout and dance party on the beach. With horrifying inevitability my host declared his intention to make absolutely certain no harm ever befell his paradisaical home or its innocent inhabitants... whereupon a vast portal ripped the sky apart and a fleet of spacecraft screamed across the bay, disgorging an army of DOLLS, which set up on the revelers with grim abandon.

We fought them. We beat them back. Then a gigantic spaceship like one of the Easter Island heads blown up to the size of a small moon arrived and began razing every building in the village to the foundations with blazing blue laser beams. 

My character and her two friends were told to run for the caves and we didn't need to be told twice. I could see we were so far out of our league we didn't even deserve to be carrying the oranges for half time. The big guy seemed to think he could handle it. I had my doubts. I was right, he was wrong.

Uh oh! That can't be good...
The first part of the tutorial ended with everyone but my character and her two companions either dead or missing, the village destroyed and a general sense that the world as we'd known it was at an end. Just like the end of every other Tutorial Pt. 1 in other words. This is literally the same basic plot as used by Blade and Soul, Bless Unleashed, Guild Wars, Allods Online... 

It gets used over and over because it works. At least, it does when it's done well. It establishes a connection between the player, their character and the world that feels comfortable, pleasant, desirable, welcome... and then it rips almost all of that away, leaving the player feeling something's been lost that they want back. 

Do it too well and you get pre-Searing Ascalon, a five level tutorial a whole load of players moved heaven and earth to keep alive forever. Do it badly and you get Rift, a confusing mess almost everyone hates. PSO2:NG does get it just about right, although I did come out of the far end wondering just how the hell the planet was going to survive.

No-one's walking out of that.

 

That's not the end of the tutorial but it's the end of this post. I think I was only Level Two when I came out of the first phase and the next introduces a whole bunch of movement and combat concepts that I barely managed to understand let alone perfect. I was Level Five by the time I got through that section and it deserves a post of its own.

Whether it will get one depends what else happens between now and Monday. We're going away for a couple of days at the start of the week so there probably won't be any posts here after the weekend. If I don't get the second part of this First impressions piece done before then it's going to be too late to bother.

In case that happens I'll say now that I was quite impressed with Phantasy Star Online: New Genesis. I don't think it's the game for me for quite a few reasons but I would bet it's going to be the game for somone. It's well-made and it has a good feel about it. 

Of course, I have only seen the tutorial, but I've seen a lot of those and I've seen plenty worse.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Bullet Time


There was no post here yesterday because I had to take my mother to the eye hospital to have a cataract removed. That went well but I didn't get home until just before dark so I thought I'd skip a day. 

It's only the sixth I've missed this year. Probably some kind of record. I'm not really sure. I find I'm less and less interested in statistics where the blog's concerned. In the early years I used to pore over them obsessively but as time went on my interest waned, partly because I felt they were becoming less and less reliable but mostly because I realized I just didn't care much any more.

That drift has started to accelerate recently to the extent that I began googling for ways to turn google analytics off. Oh, the irony! Didn't find any, either. 

I could just not look at them, of course. I was down to no more than a five minute glance at the monthly report but then Google started sending me emails. Quite snippy, they are, telling me things are wrong with my blog and I damn well ought to do something about them  because I'm letting the side down. At least that's how I take them. It might just be me.

At first I tried to comply with their peremptory demands but after a while I got irritated and looked into what might happen if I didn't. Apparently my rankings would slip and the blog might not show up in searches any more.

So be it. I think it's probably too late to worry about that now. If my intent had ever been to attract random page views I pretty much scuppered any hope when I started to insist on using incomprehensible and utterly irrelevant titles for almost every post. I even dropped the little coda I used to use saying which game a post was about because I felt it detracted from my obscurantist aesthetic.

I am planning on adjusting some of that attitude later this year. Indeed, I've already started, although more informative titles are about as far as I'm likely to take it. I am not going to be digging into the html code Blogger generates to correct the perceived anomalies that unsettle Google's crawlers. I would suggest that since Google owns both of them they might want to do it themselves if they're that bothered.

And with that passive-aggressive opening (alright, just aggressive) it's on to the meat of the post. Except there isn't any meat to speak of. More like a few table scraps. I have a few teeny-tiny topics that barely merit a paragraph, let alone a post. Time to break out the bullet points.


 

  • Welcome to the neighborhood.

The EverQuest franchise has a new Community Manager. Since I thought it was worth a mention when the old one left I guess I ought to extend the same courtesy to the new one now he's here. His name is Accendo and yes, he is a he. Someone asked and he said so. 

Both the threads (old game and new) pour yet more praise on the departed Dreamweaver while putting pressure on the new guy to step up and follow his lead. Based solely on the answers Accendo gives I suspect that pressure will be resisted but we'll see.

  • Oops! I missed one.

There was (at least) one obvious name missing from my recent list of mmorpgs to look out for this summer: Phantasy Star Online 2: New Genesis. Really trips off the tongue, doesn't it? Then again, probably better than Phantasy Star Online 2.5, which is what it seems to be.

I really wasn't interested at all in PSO2 (much neater) when it finally made its long-overdue debut in the West last year. Belghast wrote about it several times and it neither sounded nor looked like anything I'd want to play so I didn't bother. The revamped version looks considerably more interesting. It's been given a complete graphical revamp and from screenshots it looks orders of magnitude better. The old quests and combat have been completely replaced and the game now has a proper open world. I'm still not sure it's for me but at least now it looks interesting enough that I want to find out for sure.

It's available on Steam, although it's a huge download, just shy of 100GB. I have it all set up and ready to go so expect an ignorant, uninformed and highly inaccurate first impressions piece any day now.


 

  • Dust on the lens.

Shintar queried in the comments whether I had my graphics settings for Crowfall turned down to the minimum. I said I'd check next time I logged in so I did and I had. 

Not my choice. I usually allow a new game to choose its own settings but if things look odd I go in and fiddle about. Crowfall didn't look odd, just bland. When I checked, though, I'd been assigned the lower of two settings: Basic. That didn't sound good. The only other option was Medium, which didn't sound much better. 

I swapped to Medium and it made a surprising amount of difference. There was nothing the higher definition could do about the exceptionally bland and undetailed design but it did do plenty for the lighting and the textures as should be evident from the screenshots. I'm guessing there are settings above Medium. There'd have to be, wouldn't there, or else you couldn't really call it "Medium". I assume the game has checked my aging hardware and decided anything higher would be a fire hazard. Probably best to bear that in mind whenever I say anything uncomplimentary about Crowfall's graphics from now on.

  • How much?!

I took the hint and thought about upgrades. I forget how long ago I bought this PC but it could have been five years. It might even be more than that. And it was low mid-range then. Given the kind of games I play, though, it's very much more than adequate and I haven't seen much reason to change anything.

Until now. It's not so much that time's catching up with me. It's more that there are finally some new games I'd like to play coming on stream and they have recommended specs significantly higher than anything I can match. I probably should do something about it before I can't even meet the minimum specs.

With that in mind I went to look at new CPUs and graphics cards. I specifically bought a PC that's easy to upgrade with the intention of doing just that rather than replacing the entire thing. What I wasn't expecting was that I'd be able to replace the entire rig for scarcely more than the cost of the two key components. I'm not sure how that works but it makes me think I might as well soldier on as I am until the time comes to scrap the whole thing and start over.

And maybe Crowfall's an exception, anyway. New World's coming later in the summer. I never had any problems with that in the betas. It ran smoothly and looked amazing. If the release build does the same I think I'm fine for now. If not, I guess I'm going to have to spend some serious money.


 

  • Garbage In, Garbage Out

In common with many of us, the Nosy Gamer has been wondering whether Final Fantasy XIV on its  way up might have passed World of Warcraft on its way down. As part of the evidence he referenced a website I hadn't heard of before: MMO Populations

I've always been interested in specifics on how many people play certain games but the methodology employed didn't inspire confidence: "By combining online social activity, sentiment tracking, public statistics, rankings and more MMO Populations estimates the total subscribers, players and active daily players for the top MMOs". Still, I thought it was worth a look.

I didn't spend very long on it. By the time I'd scanned through the "big list" of more than a hundred mmorpgs I'd seen as much as I wanted. 

The list includes several of my all-time favorites, including Vanguard, City of Steam and Fallen Earth as well as some I wish I'd been able to play, like EverQuest Online Adventures and others I yet hope to play, like Pantheon and Ashes of Creation. You'll notice all of those either closed down years ago or haven't yet been made available for general play.

According to the list Vanguard "is estimated to have 42,600 total players or subscribers". The detail does say that this month's estimate for daily players is zero but if you mouse over the graph on the same page, for June 2021 the figure is 1209. Even if they were polling the emulator, the most people I've ever seen logged on at once didn't hit double digits.

As for City of Steam ("estimated to have 4,865 total players or subscribers") 462 people supposedly logged in this week. Logged in to what is the question. As far as I know there isn't even a private server for City of Steam and believe me I've looked. I'd be playing on it if there was.

There are lots more fascinating facts where those came from. I'm sure I feel far more confident about Pantheon's prospects, for example, now I know that "12,484 people play per day, with a total player base of 1,314,070." Go have a dig for yourself. It's very entertaining.


 

And that will have to do for now. I have a feeling there were other burning issues of the day I was going to be flippant about but I can't remember what they were and anyway I want to go try Phantasy Star Online: New Genesis. Or PSO:NG as I'm happy to call it. It's  nice to say out loud, too, so long as you sound the "P". Otherwise you're just saying "song" and that's very weird.

Next week and the week after that I'm officially on holiday, although since I'm still furloughed the only material difference from every other week this year will be twenty per cent more in my pay packet. We've abandoned any plans for foreign travel in 2021 but I will be taking a day or two out of my busy schedule of staying home playing video games to go visit some interest spots a little farther afield than normal. 

We might even stay overnight. If so, that will almost certainly mean a few more missed posts, although maybe "missed" isn't exactly the right word. I'm fairly confident it'll take more than a few days of me not posting for anyone to start "missing" anything.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Boost Me Up



By way of a public service announcement here's a paragraph from today's update notes for EverQuest II :

Destiny of Velious – New Heroic Character

Start your adventures in Destiny of Velious with a free limited 85 heroic character! With the launch of Destiny of Velious, each account will earn a single Level 85 character boost upon logging into the Kaladim server.

This boost is granted once per account and grants gear appropriate for starting adventuring in Destiny of Velious overland content, and may be placed in the shared bank.

Yep! Another one. 

As you might guess from the headline, this particular boost is in honor of the opening of the Destiny of Velious expansion on the Time Limited Expansion server Kaladim. It's kind of a big deal for several reasons, not least that a lot of people have been waiting none too patiently for it to get here.

DoV is one of the larger and more favored expansions. It added the hub city of Thurgadin, consolidated Public Quests as a central feature and it was also the expansion that introduced flying mounts, something that, as we all know, can often be a literal game-changer. I believe the raiding was well-received, too, although that's a long way out of my remit.

For once, the basic Level 85 boost is entirely appropriate. DoV shifts the cap to 90 so 85 is the starting line for what will be end-game content for a good while to come. If anyone had been thinking about playing on Kaladim, this would definitely be the time to do it.

You would, of course, need a subscription. Sorry! A membership. EQII's free to play offer, while still generous, is no longer anything like as inclusive as it was back when Smed was trying to convince everyone F2P Your Way was the future.

I do have All Access membership. And it's the account where I made my character on Kaladim back when the server started. I would not be averse to starting a new level 85 there and running around with the leveling crowd for a week or two.

Shame I don't have a free character slot.

I did consider buying (yet) another one. It's not like I don't have the Daybreak Cash. Thing is, I just did that a few months ago when I made my Vah Shir and I haven't even finished levelling her yet. It seems a bit of a stretch to imagine if I made a fresh 85 on Kaladim that I'd actually play them.

There is another option. It's not a free level 85 character Darkpaw's giving away. It's a free level 85 boost. And as I said I have a character on Kaladim already. I could bump her up to 85. 

I considered that too. The thing is, I really like her. I haven't played her much recently but I did get her all the way to level twenty back when Kaladim launched and that certainly wasn't nothing. She's wearing all her starting armor in her appearance slots and she looks great in it. And I named her Lana. That pretty much sealed it. We bonded, she and I.

Any excuse, eh?

From experience, jumping an existing character sixty levels makes for a disconnect. I've done it a couple of times and it tends to derail the process. It would probably be okay if I went straight from boosting to levelling up to that 90 cap. That would give some context and continuity. 

I'm not going to do that, though. Partly because I have too much else going on at the moment and partly because I've done those levels in Velious a few times too often. I enjoyed it the first two or three times but I'm not keen to see it all again just now.

So that'll be yet another character level boost in the bank. At least it's a bit different from the rest in that I can only use it on one server. Is that an improvement?

The level boost is a freebie but naturally Darkpaw would also like to sell you something. Normally I don't even bother to mention the packs that they put together for occasions like this but I have to say the Destiny of Velious Crate is pretty darn good for the price.

It costs $34.99, which is a lot, but there's a lot inside. There's a flying mount, appropriately, although perhaps less-appropriately it's a dinosaur. Now that's new. Then there's a Velium Multi-forge you can place in your house that acts as any craft station. Incredibly useful. 

There's a 66 slot bag, always very welcome, but this one "includes a friendly (antagonistic) goblin that will jump out and make faces at people behind you. " Seriously, who doesn't want one of those? And there's an NPC who'll port you "right outside all of the critical Velious dungeons". I might want to see a list of which ones count as "critical" but that sounds spiffy, doesn't it?

There's a load more in the crate and it's all good, useful stuff. I'm not going to go through the whole lot. Just go check the link if you want to know. If I go on much longer about it here someone's going to start wondering if I'm being paid to plug the thing. Which, sadly, I'm not. I just know a bargain when I see one.

All the stuff can be used on any server and frankly if this was at a different point in the expansion cycle I'd be seriously thinking about buying one. It's that good. Yet again, though, it's not a good time to invest in EQII because I have too much else going on and it wouldn't get the use it deserves.

Wilhelm had a post up recently about some unusually timely and relevant advertising Daybreak had been doing. I do think this pack looks better targeted and better priced than some we've seen before. I wonder if EG7's influence is beginning to make itself felt?

There's stuff going on in EQII that doesn't require either membership, real money or much of a time commitment, too. I ought to mention that while I'm here.

The Oceansfull festival is back with some nice, new rewards and a new three-part Overseer mission. That will get you a house pet, a permanent illusion and a title. I'm going to run it on several characters. It doesn't take long. Oceansfull runs 'til the 18th and then Scorched Sky begins a week later on the 25th.

I think that's about it for now. Oh, except to honk my own horn a little. I put in a bug report back at the beginning of April and today's patch notes confirmed it had been fixed. Always nice to know someone's listening.

I'll leave you with this mysterious message, also from today's patch notes:

Names

  • All servers, except Thurgadin, will now enforce English character names.

Really? We all have to call ourselves things like Nigel or Hilary? 

Bags me Arbuthnot!

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