Thursday, November 30, 2023

You're Never Too Old To Have Someone Else Dress You

To my considerable surprise, last night I was able to spend a good hour and a half with EverQuest II's twentieth expansion, Ballads of Zimara. It was a delightful experience. 

I'm assuming the servers came up on time because they were running smoothly when I logged in twenty minutes after the deadline. I saw one admin message in chat about something that hadn't been working having been fixed but other than that I didn't see or hear about any problems at all.

Expansions offer a key opportunity for MMORPG developers to lure dormant players back to the game, so it's imperative that the initial experience is clean, clear and welcoming. Granted, by the time a returnee gets to see the expansion content, they'll already not only have made the decision to come back but have backed it with their wallet. Still, it only takes a bad first session to undo all of that goodwill and send them, muttering and grumbling, back to former-player limbo again.

In the past, some EQII expansions have been, shall we say, less user-friendly in the opening stages than they might have been, even for current players. There have been issues with the over-tuned difficulty of opening zones and quests, confusion over access requirements, lengthy pre-req quests to grind through and a general lack of helpful information on where to go and how to get started.

In this 20th expansion, Darkpaw seem finally to have taken much of that to heart. I would say that my experience last night was probably the best-directed, least confusing introduction to an expansion I can remember for many years.

The expansion takes place in the Overrealm, the skybound setting of EQII's second expansion, Kingdom of Sky, perhaps not he most obviously accessible location for anyone who hasn't played for a while. In the past, just getting to the zone where the action begins has been a problem but this time it couldn't have been much more straightforward.

As soon as I logged in I got a pop-up telling me I had mail. I checked my Mail window and found two letters, one from the Sky Watcher Sodality, updating me on the situation following the pre-expansion events in Norrath and directing me to an NPC named Orren in Barren Sky, the other from a Hooluk called Baoko, asking me to meet him at the Ulteran Spires on Whisperwind Isle.

Short of actually doing the travelling for me, that couldn't have been more straightforward. As an All Access Member (And it's probably a reasonable assumption for Darkpaw to make that almost all purchasers of a new expansion will also be Members.) all I had to do was open my map and click on it. 

When the zone loaded I found myself standing next to both the named NPCs from my letters. After a couple of short conversations in which the pair of them set both the Adventuring and Tradeskill Signature questlines running, they directed me to the standard form of public transportation in the Overrealm - a white, fluffy cloud. Naturally, flying mounts don't work in the new content. They never do. We're all used to that by now.

Clicking on the cloud opened a map in which my next destination was very clearly marked. I flew there and landed beside a large owl with a book hanging over his head, indicating my quest hand-in. This turned out to be Quartermaster Arkymedus, who proceeded to run me through the initiation process for the new expansion in extreme detail.

This is where Darkpaw really upped their game. In recent expansions there has always been free gear to bump new, returning or just badly-equipped players up to a minimum acceptable level so they don't die on the first pull in the new zones. The gear is always in a container, called something like "Tishan's Box", on the ground next to the first questgiver but there hasn't always been anything to point the player to it and it's been very easy to miss.

In the past, even when you have found Tishan's Box, it hasn't always been clear what to do with it. It contains a huge number of items - full sets of armor for all classes, adornments, buffs, mounts, you name it, it's in there. This cornucopia of free stuff is great but it's also extremely confusing, even for a regular. Sometimes I've ended up with the wrong stuff or missed things I should have taken and other times I've needed to swap adornmnents in and out to get the right fit.

It's been a pain at times. It was exciting the first time it happened but after a few years of doing it it's become something I just want to get out of the way fast so I can get on with the story. Heaven only knows how offputting it must be for people who haven't played for a few years.

In the new expansion, everything is much more streamlined - and it comes with a manual! Well, a tutorial, anyway. Quartermaster Arkymedus literally talks you through the entire process. He starts off by handing you the full set of armor and weapons for your class so you don't even have to look in Tishan's Box for them, although eveything is in there if you want to rummage around for yourself.

He tells you to put it all on but I didn't take him at his word. I was wearing a mix of the latest Panda gear and some better pieces I'd gotten from the last update and a recent event. I was expecting some of those would be better than the Tishan's gear but although it was very close on a few of them, the new "Shattered" gear was always at least a little better.

The new expansion also uses different Adornments, which the Tishan's gear has and the old gear doesn't, so my advice to anyone coming back to the game with this expansion is to take Arkymedus at his word. Open the pack he gives you and put it all on. It's going to be better than anything you're wearing unless you're in Heroic Dungeon gear or better from the last expansion cycle.

The tutorial doesn't stop at gear, though. Arkymedus goes on to explain the importance of Mounts and Familiars as well as where to find them in your spellbooks and how to equip them. For anyone who hasn't played for a while, this is crucial information. A huge amount of a player's effectiveness now derives from the stats of their companions as well as their own. If you don't have an up-to-date Mount, Familiar and Mercenary at minimum you're going to struggle.

Arkymedus doesn't just tell you about Mounts and Familiars, he gives you new ones. I was suspicious about whether they'd be better than mine because mine were pretty new and I'd levelled them up, but it when I looked it turned out so had Arkymedus. The ones he gave me were fully levelled and a significant upgrade.

The Quartermaster also had a new Mercenary for me, standing right next to him or rather hovering, since he's a gremlin of some kind. I ought to know the exact species but I'm afraid the name escapes me. He's got wings, anyway, and he's an Inquisitor, by far my preferred class for a Healer Merc. 

Again, I was skeptical whether Valek, as a Treasured quality mercenary, would be better than my fully-levelled Celestial merc from a few expansions back, so I checked. 

I'm still not entirely sure. I don't think I'm going to know until we get into some tight situations together.

Valek is fully levelled but he doesn't come with any gear. I spent quite a while swapping my old merc's gear onto him and checking the differences in the stats but in the end I still couldn't be sure. Valek has a lot fewer hit points but a lot more mana. Which of those is going to be preferable is circumstancial.

I did remember that you can put regular gear on mercs instead of their own, specific armor so I gave Valek my Panda cast-offs, which seemed to do more for his stats than the aging Merc gear from three or four expansions ago Zel was wearing. That probably has something to do with Zel's less-than-stellar performance recently, now I come to think of it. 

I suspect that my old, Celestial merc in new gear from the latest expansion might be better than Valek but that's an experiment to come. For now, if a returning player just takes the merc they're offered, I think they'll do fine - and save themselves all the fiddle-faddling I went in for!

Finally, Arkymedus explains how the Mercenary and Familiar buffs work. Those are very significant but also incredibly easy to miss. He doesn't just tell you they're in your spell book, either. He even tells you which tab they're on. 

All in all it's a very thorough run-through to get a new or returning player fully prepared for the content they're about to attempt. I'd add something about Mercenary gear to the tutorial but other than that I don't think they missed much. 

It's certainly a huge improvement on the "You're all grown-ups. Just work it out for yourselves" approach we've had up to now. I do have to wonder if it's the work - or at least the influence - of Naimi Denmother, the newish tradeskill dev. I know it's primarily adventuring gear but the whole approach does seem to have her thorough, thoughtful, not to say maternal stamp. 

What with all of my fact-checking and stat-swapping, it took me about forty-five minutes to get past that mini-tutorial. I think it'll be more like five or ten minutes on subsequent characters. It's a small price to pay for the effectiveness of the lesson because once I  got to the killing grounds I really felt the benefit.

In most recent expansions, even though I've not had too much trouble with the opening stages, there has been a significant and noticeable ramp up in difficulty even on the entry-level mobs, compared to the one or two shot kills I'd been used to at the end of the previous expansion. I was expecting much the same this time so I was wary when I pulled my first mob, especially since it was a supposedly more powerful one-up arrow and higher level than me. 

It died in a couple of hits. They all did. It was glorious. I ran around doing my quests just like I was still in the previous expansion, which in my opinion is exactly how it should be. Plenty of time for things to get more challenging when we get to the instances; random wildlife at the start of the opening zone does not need to hit like a boss mob from the last expansion, which at times has been the case.

Whether the very reasonable difficulty is a design choice or whether it's what comes of finally getting clear instructions on what to wear and what buffs to use, I'm not exactly sure. I guess I could test it on another character and I might just do that another time.

For now, though, I'm enjoying being able to explore the new content with the freedom and confidence that being properly prepred brings. Long may it continue.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Is That Supposed To Be Funny? First Impressions of The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk.

The latest EverQuest II expansion, Ballads of Zimara, arrives today but chances are, I won't get to see much of it until tomorrow. The doors aren't due to open until eight in the evening, my time, always assuming there's no additional downtime.

Even if I do manage to get in early enough to have a quick look around and take some screenshots, not something I'd count on, based on long experience with previous expansion launches, I certainly won't have time to post about it so instead I thought I might write something about the game I'm currently playing to pass the time until BoZ launches, namely The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk: Amulet of Chaos.

As just about every review begins, the name is a pain to type so I'll shorten it to DoN from the start. That's the thing about funny names; they're funny once. If at all. After that they're just a nuisance.

Except, is that really true of this one? Is that name even supposed to be funny? It's hard to tell. 

I'm assuming it is because the whole game is a parody but unless I'm missing the pun, Naheulbeuk is just a bit awkward to pronounce. If there's anything intrinsically comical about it, I don't see it. As for the rest, it's just bog-standard fantasy-speak, isn't it?

In a way that sums the game up. It's only nominally parodic. It constantly does that thing of having the characters talk archly and self-referentially about the tropes of the genre but any satirical effect is undermined as they do it while they're following a completely unreconstructed genre narrative that both characters and writers appear to take entirely seriously. 

 I'm in Chapter 3 now and the plot so far is basically this: 

A party of adventurers, who apparently either met in a Tavern or through some kind of noticeboard (I confess I wasn't paying attention at the start.) were hired by someone powerful (Again, not paying as much attention as I could have been.) to go look for a statuette. 

The statuette is supposedly in a dungeon (You can guess which one.) but when they get there, things don't go exactly as planned. The party, who bicker and kvetch constantly, make their way deeper into the dungeon, all the while riffing on their roles and racial stereotypes, something which you might think was satire but could just as easily be standard genre fantasy writing. 

They somehow find themselves stuck with a cursed artefact they can't get rid of, which shifts the narrative from a bunch of mercenary adventurers in search of loot and glory to a more serious tussle with the forces of evil. Along the way they run into all kinds of mysterious and unusual individuals. Some, they fight, others join the party, often with agendas of their own. 

Is any of this starting to sound familiar?

And there's the generic problem with parodies and satires of fantasy RPGs (And novels, and movies...). They pretty much all end up being actual fantasy RPGs (And novels and movies...) only with a lot of metafictional jokes that frequently don't land. I'm always very wary of these things. More often than not they end up just offering weak versions of the exact same things they purport to deconstruct.

DoN is better than that by a fair margin. The jokes are generally well-worn but by that means they've lost a lot of their abrasiveness by dint of familiarity, making the whole thing feel quite cosy and comforting. A good deal of the banter between the characters seems not unlike the sort of well-worn routines you might expect to hear between players of an established table-top campaign.

There's certainly nothing original or surprsing about any of it. The Elf and the Dwarf despise each other and take every opportunity to tell everyone about it. The Ranger and the Bard both behave foppishly, but the Bard has an effeminate air, while every time the Ranger sees a buxom wench he can't resist making the kind of remarks that would have him waiting outside the door of the HR Department in any business where I've ever worked.

The Barbarian has clearly been recruited straight from central casting, where the clerk didn't flick any further through the files than C for "Conan", while the Ogre (Yes, it's a class as well as a race now, apparently.) seems to have wandered in from a kids show. On the other hand, the Wizardess, who both gains and loses points for having a feminised job title, is so bland it actually seems like someone might be making some kind of point, while the Thief manages to be both typically arrogant and yet oddly insecure. 

It won't surprise anyone to learn the Dwarf speaks with a Scots accent. All dwarves are Scottish as everyone knows. It's not the worst Scots accent I've ever heard in one of these games although that's a very low bar. The Dwarf is obsessed with gold, once again as everyone knows. He's quite keen on ale, too. Bet you didn't see that coming.

He does vary very slightly from the absolute stereotype by also being a kleptomaniac and a borderline socipath but that's well within the acceptable paramaters for Dwarves.

The Elf, by contrast, bears literally no resemblance whatsoever to anything ever written by Tolkein. She seems to have a good deal of Fairy blood, probably by way of a Daisy Meadows novel, although it's entirely possible she's on sabbatical from her day job at Santa's Workshop. 

Her objection to the Dwarf seems more of an aesthetic choice than any socio-political schism. To be fair, he is pretty gross.

I should probably make it clear at this point that I haven't forgotten the names of the characters. They don't have names. NPCs get names but playable characters just get job descriptions. That probably says something about the intentions of the writers although I don't think I could tell you what.

Humorous games of this nature rely on the writing for effect but also on the acting when, as in this case, they're fully voiced. The actors do a decent enough job all round although no-one particularly stands out. The Wizardess is played by Felicia Day but so far she hasn't had all that much to work with. 

It's mostly been the Elf, the Dwarf and the Ranger. There's an option to mute both the Elf and the Dwarf, which may be a meta joke in itself or may reflect a genuine concern by the developers that players might just quit if they have to go on listening to the two bicker for the entire game. Personally, I'd mute the Ranger.

DoN opens with no fewer than five Logo screens identifying the various organizations involved in developing and publishing the game. The game development itself was done by French developer Artefacts Studio but everything from the characters to the storyline to the setting and style comes from a very popular French language audio series created by someone with the very unFrench name of John Lang, who even more confusingly operates under the English pseudonym Pen of Chaos.

He is French all the same, born in Paris and raised in Brittany, as his biography explains. The audio series and the game were both originally written and voiced in French, which explains the occasional infelicity in the written text. On the whole, though, the translation is excellent.

Combat is standard XCom apparently. I have to say I realised that pretty much immediately even though I've never played any of the XCom games. I've read a lot of blog posts about them and this felt like that, only with pictures.

There are four difficulty settings. I'm playing on the default, Tavern Song. There's an easier one called Gripping Tale for people who don't care about the fights and just want to enjoy the story and two harder ones for masochists. 

I'm finding the default difficulty about right so far. Most of the fights are close. I've only lost once but I won easily on the second attempt. The main drawback is healing, which is fiddly enough that I tend to try to wing it without healing everyone up between fights. That's fine if the next stage turns out to be travel and talk but not so good if I get jumped by a gang of undead on the way back to the Tavern to rest up.

All things considfered I'm having a good deal of fun. The story may be generic but it rolls along nicely enough. The graphics are excellent so there's always something pretty to look at and the fights are tactical enough to be interesting without being so complicated as to annoy me. There is a lot of RPG management but some of it can be automated and there's a respec item you can buy as often as you want if you need do-overs (Provided you can get the gold, of course.) so making choices isn't stressful.

DoN is nicely amenable to playing in shortish sessions and being turned-based means I can stop at a moment's notice. The game also has a pause function in combat if needed. It's there or thereabouts the game I was hoping for, especially since I'm finding the humor mildly amusing rather than, as I feared, embarrasing or excruciating.

As far as free games from Amazon Prime go, I'd have to say this has been one of my better experiences, thus far at least. The arrival of Ballads of Zimara might put a crimp in my progress through the Dungeon of Naheulbeuk for a while but I'm confident I'll get to the end of it eventually.

Also, now I really want to listen to the audio series. I wonder if there's an English version?

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Another Day or Waiting For Zimara

I had it in my head the new EverQuest II expansion, Ballads of Zimara, was set to launch today, most likely right after an extended Tuesday downtime, but I was wrong. It's not coming until tomorrow. After I'd worked that out, I thought I might at least have a flick through the beta forums; take the temperature of the water, so to speak.

One of the weird "perks" of pre-ordering an EQII expansion these days is immediate access to the beta server. There's a whole clique of regular testers, some of whom I know by name from their regular forum posts going back many years but also from my time on the regular, pemanent Test server. Even though that was more than a decade and a half ago now, I still see a handful of names I reocgnize from back in the day.

I can understand why those folks migrate to the beta server to check out each expansion as it arrives. Some of them are close to being unpaid employees of Darkpaw; volunteers if you will. They play not so much for their own entertainment as for the way of life. The game is something more than a game for them.

At least, that's how I imagine it must be. I think of that level of commitment as being something akin to the old Guide program, where players deeply immersed in the social structure of the game derive as much pleasure from sustaining and enhancing it as they do from playing it, while also perhaps indulging in a fantasy of being on the inside, looking out; one of the crew.

Not everyone in beta is there for such noble or harmless purposes. A lot of players are looking for knowledge that will give them an edge when the expansion goes live or at least that's what I've been told. I don't move in the kinds of circles where World Firsts and taking your guild to the top of the raid charts are the focus of dinner party conversation but I'm given to believe such circles exist.

I don't even know if EQII has a raid ladder any more. I think it did once but I'm not sure there would be enough bleeding edge guilds left to create a meaningful ranking any more. Still, I'm sure there's at least some element of competition, even if it's between friends.

A darker side to that competetive spirit used to be the unfortunate tendency of a few players to withold information on bugs they found in beta so they could exploit them in the Live game. I can't say I've heard of that happening in a good while. Again, I suspect the social structure at the top of the game is now so condensed it would be hard to get away with something like that before peer pressure put a stop to it. 

Or maybe I'm being naive. From what I read recently, gamewide exploits still happen in the original EverQuest. Then again, EQ has a lot more servers and almost certainly a lot more players so maybe there's room there for more bad apples, too.

Even with all of those various motivators, it's not always been easy to attract enough players to give the content a thorough shake before release. It's all very well giving away access with the pre-orders but for many, probably most, players the prospect of stumbling through challenging, undocumented and unfinished content on throwaway characters just a matter of weeks or even days before embarking on the exact same content, albeit minus the glitches, with their regular characters, doesn't seem like such a great bargain.

Even when curiosity gets the better of them, most players are probably content to wander a round a bit, kick the tyres a few times and call it quits. Getting them to grind through the entire quest line let alone all the optional side-quests and ancillary content is a very big ask.

That's why, if you're willing to put in the time these days, you get some solid rewards for your Live characters. If you go as far as to complete the full Adventure Signature Line, for example, you get a Fabled mount that's comparable to the one that comes with the Collector's Edition. There are similar rewards for completing the other major aspects of the expansion but you'd have to be pretty committed to the cause to get them all. It would effectively mean completing all the content in the expansion before the expansion even arrives.

Since I generally don't manage to do that in the full year the expansion remains current, it's not all that likely I'd do it in a six or eight week beta, especially when you consider that during that time much of the content wouldn't even be available or, if it was, wouldn't be working properly. There was a time, long ago, when I was almost that keen but even then I got fed up of spoiling my own fun pretty damn quickly and it's been a very long time indeed since I last beta'd an expansion I was going to play on release.

What I do often do, though, is use my pre-order access rights to browse the beta forums. It's a reasonably reliable way to find out if the expansion is likely to be buggy and half-baked when it gets here as well as whether it looks like it's going to be well received, grudgingly accepted or hunted down and set on fire by a torch-waving mob.

From half an hour or so spent flicking through various threads this afternoon, I'd say the signs are promising. I didn't see any provocative headlines along the lines of "This XPack stinks!" or even more nuanced complaints about ridiculous difficulty (Complementary threads headed "Too hard" and "Too easy" inevitably sitting next to each other in the list.) or an overwhelming number of bugs or unfair bait&switch design, all of which would be fairly standard for any MMORPG beta forum, at least in my fairly extensive experience.

I don't know if this means the expansion is unusually crowd-pleasing and polished or whether Darkpaw have been more than averagely scrupulous in clearing out the negative comments. The threads that I did read, though, seemed pretty sanguine and rational.

They were also quite informative. I learned, for example, that contrary to the trend of the last few years, we will not this time be completing our five new levels in a session or two. Apparently the days of getting half a level on every quest turn-in are over, at least for now.

Instead, the threads I read were discussing whether it's a good thing that even completing the whole Adventure Signature Questline will only take you some way into Level 129 (The new cap is 130.) or whether it's fair that XP potions and boosts don't work on any of the XP rewarded by that same Sig Line.

It seems the plan this time around is for people to level a lot more slowly than has been the case for the last half dozen or so expansions. From what I read, it's not as slow as the dark days of Velious and before but it's certainly going to take a while. 

I'll reserve judgment on how good, bad or indifferent that feels until I find out how much fun the actual content is. Based on my own experiences in other expansions and other games, I can see arguments both ways. I guess if you're enjoying the levelling process, you're not going to object to it carrying on for longer, whereas if you just want to get it over with, having it pegged back to the rate you thought was gone for ever is going to grate.

I also discovered there are some changes to the way the quest journal works. This new feature had actually received the full News Item treatment on the official website but this was the first I'd heard of it. You'll be able to add your own notes to the journal, a change that's structurally significant enough to break all existing custom UIs so I'm rather glad I don't use any.

Perhaps most usefully of all, I came across a set of links to full guides to all the quests in the expansion - Adventure and Tradeskill Signatures and all the Side Quests, even the Dropped Quests. Normally I'd be confident those would be on the wiki from day one but as I've mentioned in other posts, of late that's not always been happening, so it's good to have a back-up plan. (I'd link to them but they're downloadables from a Discord server.)

If I'm reading the room right, Ballads of Zimara is shaping up to be a "good" expansion, although once again, experience teaches me that what beta testers think of anything often clashes violently with the opinions of regular players. By definition, testers are more tolerant of bugs, glitches and broken content and they also have a provably higher level of interest in the success of the game. If they didn't they surely would find better things to do with their time.

Anyway, in a day or so we'll know for sure how the expansion has turned out. Or in a week. Let's say a week. We all know there will be some major bugs no-one's managed to spot and the whole thing will be a minefield at least until the first major patch.

I can't wait!

Monday, November 27, 2023

You're Not Making It Easy To Come Back, Blade & Soul.

It took the best part of two days but I did finally get Blade & Soul to run. I don't know what NCSoft did to make the new launcher so pernickety but I'd have to say I preferred the old one. It just worked. 

Anyway, after downloading something like 250GB of data to get a final install of 66GB I was eventually able to press play and actually have the game start but even then the wait wasn't over. Logging in seemed to take forever. It was probably only about five minutes but in the context of getting into an online game that is forever. 

Do you know how many things I can think of in five minutes that I need to do more than I need to play an old video game , NCSoft? You really don't want to give me that much time to reconsider my choices.

I stuck it out. I mean, I'd given the thing hours already. What's another five minutes? 

When I got in I did not find myself where I expected I'd be. Usually, when I log out of an MMORPG - or an RPG for that matter -  I try to leave the character I was playing in a comfortable spot. If they have a home, my first choice is to take them there. Otherwise I like to leave them in a town or city where they can carry on with normal life.

No room to claim this one.
If I have to leave them wherever they were adventuring, either because it would be too much trouble to get them back there next time or because I had to log out suddenly and unexpectedly, I at least try to leave them in a safe place that looks reasonably sheltered from inclement weather. It seems like the least I could do.

When I logged in Meldra Mye, my main character in Blade & Soul, she woke up in a bush. I couldn't even see her for leaves. I must have been in a real hurry when I logged out, however long ago that was.

I say "Main". I could almost say "only". I do have one other character but I only made her to try out a max-level buff I got for free. As you might expect, getting a max level character that way does not also instantly grant you the ability or knowledge to play one, something I remember people complaining about in EverQuest as far back as the turn of the millennium, when one of the worst insults you could hurl at someone was to accuse them of having bought their character on EBay.

Of course, after more than a year away, I have no idea how to play my regular character either, which was why, the moment I got into the game, I was pleased - and impressed -  to see a link to a New and Returning Player Guide.  Unfortunately, I was a lot less impressed after I'd finished reading it.

As a guide, I'd have to say it's both barebones and overly specific. It tells you a lot of things that are extremely obvious just by looking at your character, such as what "type" your equipment is. A "weapon" is a "weapon", you may be surprised to learn, while a ring or a necklace is an "accessory". 

I could probably have figured that out for myself, along with what kind of stats each slot supports, just by mousing over them and reading the tool-tips. Conversely, telling me a type of item "enhances the ability of certain skills" doesn't really tell me anything at all.

At the other extreme, the guide seems determined to portray the entire game as a series of instanced dungeons and raids, all of which it lists by name and required group size, along with a detailed account of what loot you can get there. I'm not saying that's not meaningful information but it's extremely reductive. Of all the time I've played Blade & Soul I doubt more than ten percent has been spent in dungeons. There's a huge, fascinating open world to explore. Why would I want to go inside?

There's a hugely more comprehensive and wide-ranging guide on the forums, written by a player called HungiBungi. It's fairly up-to-date, having been written at the end of last year, and yet the OP still needed to post a second guide six months later because there'd been a substantive change to the gear upgrade path. Such is the way of online games but at least the currency of the updates and commentary on them suggests a game that's still in active development, with an equally active playerbase.

In the moderately unlikley event I end up playing Blade & Soul "seriously" again (I use the word almost ironically - I have never played B&S in a way anyone in their right mind would call "serious". What I mean, I guess, is "regularly", although even that would be pushing it...) then I'll defnitely be referring to Hungi's guide. 

It's much more likely that I'll just log in a few times, claim all the stuff that's waiting for me (It's a lot!), try on any new clothes, summon any new pets, take some screenshots and call it a day for another few months. That tends to be the way it goes in just about every MMORPG I used to play, don't play any more but still haven't quite given up on.

In the case of Blade & Soul, though, there is a slightly enhanced possibility of my doing a little more than the bare minimum. The world, as I said earlier, is vast and quite beautiful. My character is full of personality and charm. There's a plot that I was quite enjoying back when I could remember what it was and the combat isn't bad for an action MMO. 

All of that works in the game's favor. What works against it is the precipitous re-learning curve common to almost all MMORPGs but also the aforementioned lengthy log-in time, which does put me off firing the game up unless I'm also willing to put in a good session to make the effort worthwhile. 

And then there's the almost Norrathian time it takes to get from one place to another.

Blade & Soul does have some kind of instant travel, at least I seem to remember something to do with map-clicking, but how it works is something I need to re-learn. This time, when I found I didn't have enough bag space to claim most of the stuff that was waiting for me, I could neither remember where the nearest bank was not how to get there if I did.

No room for this pet, either.

If there's anything that acts as a bigger drag anchor on enthusiasm for returning to a former MMORPG than full bags you have no idea how to empty, I don't know what it is. Icons you no longer know the meaning of and combat skills you no longer remember how to use are bad, sure, but if I can't get my bags sorted I'm probably never going to get far enough to need to know how to hit anything anyway.

In this case, I'd only really come back to try on my new gear and take some pictures and I haven't even been able to do that yet. I managed to put on one new outfit, the one at the head of the post, but the rest I could only look at in the dressing-room.

I didn't help myself. I somehow managed to claim one complete outfit twice on the same character despite a clear warning about it requiring some currency I didn't recognize to transfer to other characters on the account. That was how I filled up most of my minimal free inventory slots. It's also why I wanted to find the bank so urgently.

When I work out where the bank is and how to get there (Always assuming Blade & Soul is a game that has a vault system. They don't all, you know.) and I've had time and opportunity to get myself sorted, perhaps I'll be in a position to post a proper fashion show. Until then, this is going to have to do.

Also maybe I'll finally write something about the actual game. I maintain Blade & Soul is a lot better than it ever seems to get credit for being and would almost certainly be more to the taste of many Western MMO gamers than the average import, if only anyone noticed it existed.

Then again, maybe it's just that I like having a giant cartoon cat that follows me about. I mean, it's living the dream, isn't it?

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Friday, Saturday, Who Knows Any More?

When I started writing this, it was going to be one of those Friday Grab-Bags again. And on an actual Friday, too! Then stuff happened and now it's Saturday. Not interesting stuff, either. Just downloads and dogs, which could be the name of the least interesting tabletop role-playing game ever...

The Dungeon of What, Now?

I wasn't planning on a portmanteau post anyway. I had it in mind to write something about the new-to-me game I just got free from Amazon Prime Gaming. It's called The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk: The Amulet of Chaos, gawd help it, although since it's a parody, I imagine the name is supposed to be faintly ridiculous. It's a "tactical RPG", which seems to mean some kind of ultra slowed-down version of an actual RPG like Baldur's Gate

Of course, I'd rather be playing Baldur's Gate - specifically Baldur's Gate 3 - but even though my PC now passes the Can I Play It? test, after I bought my spiffy new graphics card a couple of months back, even Black Friday hasn't tempted Larian to drop the price and I'm not paying fifty quid for it so here we are.

Unfortunately, when I came to write the post I'd planned, I just couldn't find a way in. I'd played the game for close on two hours by then and when I stopped for lunch I was still in the Tutorial. About all I can say about it so far is it looks pretty, the humor isn't as irritating I as I expected and there's a heck of a lot to learn. 

There's so much micro-management. So many things to check. You don't just move, you have to choose an orientation or you'll end up facing away from the orc you want to clout. Mobs aren't just melees or ranged or healers or magic-users - they have strengths and weaknesses and conditions you need to study on mousover. There's cover and partial cover and friendly fire and who knows what else to consider even before you begin.

When the fight ends there are levels and talent trees and gear to deal with and there's a storyline and a narrator and all the members of your party talk and bicker all the time and everything just takes forever. The reason I had to abandon the post I started about the game was that I found myself extemporizing on the existential crisis of spending literally the length of a movie just getting through the Tutorial - and not even finishing that - when I can't seem to find the time to watch any actual movies. 

I mean, what does that say about my choices? What am I doing with my time? Or my life?

I was making myself depressed, just writing the damn thing. I couldn't expect anyone to read it. So I junked the whole thing and...

It's Still Patching... No, Seriously, It Really Is...

... decided to download Blade & Soul instead. Because displacement activity rocks!

It wasn't entirely random. I've been meaning to get back to B&S for a long time but I also had this crazy idea I could get a very quick post out of some screenshots of the free stuff I've claimed there from Prime. I think it might be quite a lot of stuff. I seem to remember claiming something most months and I haven't logged in for at least a year.

I thought I remembered having uninstalled B&S a while back, when I was rationalizing my hard drive space. I couldn't see the icon on my desktop so I went straight to the NCSoft website and downloaded the patcher. 

That was easy enough. I still had my login details. I signed in and got started on the 57GB download.

It stuck at about 25% with a message about some file it couldn't download that had an name so long I couldn't remember it. I couldn't copy it from the pop-up window either. I googled but no-one else seemed to be having a problem with the patcher. I spent a good while messing around, restarting the download, running the File Check from the launcher and getting nowhere until eventually I found some useful advice on reddit that had me digging through the partial installation, deleting files. 

I say "useful" but it still didn't solve my problem so I decided to uninstall and start again, which was when I discovered I did actually still have the game installed after all. It was just on another drive. In fact, I still had the old version too, the one from back before the game was ported to Unreal4.

I cleared all the deadwood out and tried to save myself some time by patching up the installed game only to have the launcher tell me I didn't have it, even though I could see the files right there in front of me. It started downloading the entire thing into the same directory alongside the 56GB of files already there. I tried to fool it by moving the new install into the folder of the old one, a trick which always used to work for EverQuest, but times have moved on. 

This went on for some time. The corrupted file issue didn't recur but instead every time the download and installation ended, as soon as I tried to launch the actual game the whole process started over. By ten in the evening I had three full versions of Blade & Soul and not one of them worked so I deleted the lot and went to bed. 

That's why I'm posting this on Saturday even though it's a Friday Grab-Bag. Also because inbetween all of that I had to play with Beryl for an hour, take her out, feed her, then play with her again. She tends to sleep all day and get manic when the sun goes down. Or when the moon comes up. She's probably a weredog.

As I write this, the game is downloading for the fourth or fifth time. I forget how many it's been. If it doesn't work this time, I'm done with it. If it does, expect a post about how great I look in my new clothes sometime soon. Assuming it was clothes I got. I have no idea what it was.

247 - All Switch And No Bait

Since this seems to be mostly a grab-bag of gripes, let me throw in another entitled complaint, this time about Pantheon. Remember the kerfuffle when Visionary Games announced out of the blue they were putting development on hold to work on a survival extraction spin-off called 247? Well, that's not happening any more.

Predictably, the players being extremely invested in the game they thought VG was making (Some of them to the tune of $1000, which is what it costs to get a pre-alpha spot in Pantheon.) not in some fly-by-night, seat-of-the-pants knock-off moneygrab (As they would see it.) raised a ruckus, at which point the developers faced the exact same fork in the road as every other in-development game that's tried this malarkey, namely carry on down the new road, leaving most of the people paying the bills waving their pitchforks in the dust behind them or pull a screeching, bootlegger turn back to the non-existent safety of a game they already know is making them bankrupt, all the while wringing their hands and begging for forgiveness. 

(That's all one sentence, you know. Good luck picking your way through the clauses.) 


It's a no-win scenario. I'm sure VG wouldn't have opted to make a second game before they'd finished the first if they hadn't been desperate. I mean, I guess they could just have been bored with dusty old Pantheon and thought it'd be fun to work on something cooler but I doubt it. 

Whatever the secret reasons behind the decision, they lost their nerve and 247 is now 007. Er, no, not that. I mean it's dead. Which is kind of a shame. I was looking forward to seeing it. 

I'm not as disappointed as I might have been because although for a while I was looking forward to playing it, I soon found out it was going to be nearly as expensive to opt into 247 as it is to Pantheon, which to my way of thinking kind of undermines the entire point of doing the thing at all. 

Did they really think the same people were all going to stump up a few hundred dollars more just to play a sawn-off version of the game they really wanted? That's delusional. If they weren't going for a much wider audience, why even bother?

Where that leaves Pantheon and Visionary Realms now, I guess we'll have to wait and see. Then again, "wait and see" is all we've ever had from Pantheon so I guess nothing much has changed.

I Think We Used To Play This At School

The Pantheon/247 affair made me realize I have no clear idea what a "survival extraction" game is. I keep seeing the term, or variations that theme, most often in the guise of the "extraction shooter". It seems to have replaced "Battle Royale" as the pot of gold concept for game developers, just like Battle Royale replaced MOBA and MOBA replaced MMO.

I had a vague idea what's involved - running away, mostly, in the hope of getting to a safe zone with whatever you've managed to loot off the corpses of your victims - but how that would dovetail with a retro-revivalist, old school, DikuMUD mmorpg like Pantheon beats me. They seem to be almost antithetical.

I was hoping for a nice Wikipedia article to explain the whole subgenre but there isn't one. It's buried somewhere in the massive "Shooter Game" entry but I wasn't about to plow my way through all of that. The best explanation I found, when I googled "survival extraction game" was, as it so often is, in a reddit thread, this one handily titled "What is an Extraction Shooter?" 


The thread is full of people giving their personal interpretations and naturally they all assume the game will be "a shooter", something Pantheon categorically is not. PvP also seems to be a key element, something I don't think is high on Pantheon's feature list, although most of the explanations refer to a PvPvE environment, which can be more of an MMORPG thing.

Group play appears to be strongly encouraged and there's a surprising amount of reference to persistent worlds and even story, too, so I guess it's not such a big leap from Pantheon's underlying principles as I thought.  I came away with a much better idea of what might have been expected, had the game ever manifested itself. 

Even so, it still seems like a very different kind of game. One of the best summations I read was this:

"Simply put, an extraction shooter has a unique gameplay loop, when you die you lose all of your gear and have to perform a "Regain Run" often referred to as a "Zero to Hero Run". This creates Gear Fear and a desire to stay alive for as many runs as possible before your inevitable death. Extraction shooters are unique with exhilarating highs and devastating lows. They're not Battle Royals or looter shooters but the baby they would make."

I was surprised to see one commenter suggest the genre has been around for almost a decade. I can't remember hearing about it until the last year or two but then I don't pay any attention to what's going on in the shooter world. I only really picked up on the term "looter-shooter" a couple of years back.

Anyway, I don't imagine I'm going to playing a lot of extraction games, shooters or otherwise, but it's always good to know what people are talking about when they propose hacking up a game you're interested in and turning it into something else. There's always the chance they might make something you'd like even more so it's never a good idea to dismiss the whole thing out of hand.

Always End With A Song

It's a tradition. Although I used to hate it when comedians used to do it in the 1970s. Then again, that was mostly because the songs were terrible. And comedians can't sing.

Well, there are exceptions...

Yes, Syp got there first. Thanks Syp! 

That's Elise Ecklund. Mostly she does short, humorous, satirical or parodical pieces to camera about music and pop culture. Like this:

I love her flat, lack-of-affect delivery. That's what really sells it. She doesn't do a lot of full songs but when she does, they're really good. And not necessarily funny. Like this one.

So I guess some comedians can sing after all. 

And with that, we're done.

Notes on the AI used in this post.

For all of these I just pulled phrases out of the text and added a visual style. All of them were created at NightCafe, using the free model DreamShaper v8, which seems to give results at least as good as the Dreamshaper models that cost credits. The second and third image use the default 50% prompt weight but the first gave me a building on that setting so I upped it to 80% to get the image I used.

The prompts were:

Image #1 : "This download is going on forever. retrofuturism"

Image #2 : "some fly-by-night-and-seat-of-pants knock-off moneygrab . High fantasy." You'll note I changed that phrase in the final edit of the post but that's how it was in the draft.

Image #3 : "What is an Extraction Shooter? hypermodernism"

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Ho Ho Ho No-Goes

As I mentioned last week, I've been working on this year's Inventory Full Advent Calendar, for which I've enlisted the help of several generative AIs. It's been a lot of fun, although honestly I could have come up with a better list of possibles just by randomly following YouTube links - and a lot faster. 

In fact, most of the better tunes I've found so far have come to me in just that way, even if I do have to give the AIs credit for providing the seeds that started those searches going.

I also said I was planning on not posting about methodology until after Christmas so as to avoid spoilers but I'm not going to spoil anything by writing about the stuff I'm not going to use so I might as well get a post out of that as well. If nothing else, doing it this way has certainly raised a few new flags about just how unreliable the AIs can be, even after you take into account their well-known weaknesses.

For example, Bing sometimes gets credit for showing its workings by providing links to its sources. Yes, I know I did say earlier that I wasn't going to get Bing involved, due to Microsoft Edge being so insistent on pushing every other browser into a ditch but it so happened I clicked a help link in Windows 10 Settings today and it opened Edge without asking so I thought since it was already there...

Before I get to what I've actually been asking the AIs to do, let's just see what happens if I let them recommend me Christmas songs of their own choosing. Here's a prompt I gave GPT3.5 just now:

Disregard any previous conversations on this topic. Starting afresh, please give me a list of Christmas songs suitable for a musical Advent Calendar to be published on a blog.

Certainly! Creating a musical Advent Calendar for a blog is a wonderful idea. Here's a list of Christmas songs that you can include in your Advent Calendar:

  1. "Jingle Bells" - Various Artists
  2. "Silent Night" - Traditional
  3. "Deck the Halls" - Nat King Cole
  4. "Joy to the World" - Whitney Houston
  5. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" - Gene Autry
  6. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" - Nat King Cole
  7. "O Holy Night" - Mariah Carey
  8. "Winter Wonderland" - Michael Bublé
  9. "Feliz Navidad" - José Feliciano
  10. "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" - Pentatonix
  11. "White Christmas" - Bing Crosby
  12. "O Come, All Ye Faithful" - Elvis Presley
  13. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" - Bruce Springsteen
  14. "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" - Andy Williams
  15. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" - Frank Sinatra
  16. "Little Drummer Boy" - Pentatonix
  17. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" - Sarah McLachlan
  18. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" - Brenda Lee
  19. "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" - Traditional
  20. "Sleigh Ride" - Leroy Anderson

These songs cover a mix of traditional and contemporary Christmas tunes, and they should provide a delightful and festive experience for your readers. Feel free to customize the list based on your preferences and the theme of your blog.

Festive maybe. Delightful? I hardly think so. Suitable for a shopping mall, perhaps. Not for this blog.

To avoid this sort of nonsense, I've been giving the AIs some clear guidance. My prompts have varied but the one I used for Bing, which I'd previously used at OpenAI, was this:
Please give me a list of some very obscure Christmas songs in the following genres - folk-rock, Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter, shoegaze, vaporwave, freakbeat, alt-country, Americana. The songs must be very obscure. Nothing that has ever been in the Billboard Top 200 or the Top 40 of any Independent chart. They can be recent or older but no earlier than 1955.
The most recent free version of CHATGPT available through OpenAI is GPT-3.5. Bing, which is also free to use, claims to be running on GPT-4. Which is better?
We'll see what Bing said later but first here's how GPT3.5 responded:

Certainly! Here's a list of very obscure Christmas songs in the specified genres:

  1. Folk-Rock:

    • "Snow Queen" by The Mamas & The Papas
    • "Winter Night" by The Wind in the Willows
    • "Love Surrounds Us Everywhere" by Pearls Before Swine
  2. Laurel Canyon Singer-Songwriter:

    • "Christmas Cards" by Jill Sobule
    • "Snow" by Judee Sill
    • "Christmas Morning" by David Crosby
  3. Shoegaze:

    • "Snowstorm" by Galaxie 500
    • "Star Roving" by Slowdive (not explicitly a Christmas song, but has a dreamy winter vibe)
    • "Winter Song" by The Dandy Warhols
  4. Vaporwave:

    • "Yule Log" by 회사AUTO
    • "Christmas 通路" by waterfront dining
    • "ふわっと、さようなら" by サクラSAKURA-LEE
  5. Freakbeat:

    • "Magic Potion" by The Open Mind
    • "Don't Believe in Christmas" by The Sonics
    • "Christmas Tree" by King Khan and the Shrines
  6. Alt-Country:

    • "Nothing But a Child" by Steve Earle & Allison Moorer
    • "Christmastime in Washington" by The Hold Steady
    • "Christmas in Nevada" by Willard Grant Conspiracy
  7. Americana:

    • "Christmas Must Be Tonight" by The Band
    • "River" by James Wesley Stemple (not to be confused with Joni Mitchell's "River")
    • "Old Toy Trains" by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

These songs span a range of styles within each genre and offer a unique twist on the holiday season. Happy listening!

I cut and pasted every one of those into YouTube. Then I did google searches on all the ones that weren't there. It wasn't pretty.

As far as I can tell, a dozen of the twenty-one listed tracks don't exist at all. I can't even find an obvious point of confusion, like two song titles jumbled together or a real song by the wrong artist. It looks as though the AI just conjured them out of its twisted imagination.

Two are real but as far as I can see have absolutely nothing to do with Christmas or even winter. One has the right band but the name of the song is slightly off. Another is a genuine song but doesn't seem to have been recorded by the listed performer.

That leaves just five songs that are about Christmas, are called what the AI says they're called and have actually been recorded by the band or artist named. It's not a great result, is it? 

As far as the Advent Calendar goes, it's even less useful than that might suggest because one of the tracks (Don't Believe in Christmas by The Sonics.) I used last year and two of the other real ones are very much not to my taste. That leaves just two I might actually use, although I did find a few more from the YouTube suggestions that came up when I was looking for the non-existent ones.

You'll note that I didn't specify how many songs I wanted when I framed the query. I just vaguely asked for "a list". Bard and GPT3.5 both chose to interpret that as three songs in each category. I was expecting the same from Bing but I didn't get it.

Bing, as I have noticed before, tends to be quite parsimonious with its findings. Whenever I've asked it to work on the same prompt as other AIs, Bing's reply has always been the shortest. This time it outdid itself with its brevity. In answer to the exact same prompt, this is what Bing offered:

Other than the obvious fact that it's a third of the size, the first thing to say about that list is that Bing has a better hit rate when it comes to listing songs that do in fact exist. I was able to find four out of seven of those with no trouble at all. 

As far as I can tell, although the Beach Boys recorded an entire album of Christmas songs, "Christmas Time" is not on it. They did later cover Christmas Time (Is Here Again) by the Beatles though, so I guess we can give Bing a pass on that one.

I'm pretty sure Lush did not record a song called Snowfall, although it's bastard hard to be sure since all searches on the keywords are dominated by the retailer of the same name, whose odorous (Not to say odious.) products stink up the high streets of so many English towns. I can't even go into one of those stores without my eyes starting to stream so I'm not a fan. I saw Lush the band live at a festival once though and they were fine. Didn't tear up once.

Lush are also undeniably a shoegaze band; one of the best-known along with the likes of Slowdive and Ride. Bing is a bit hit-and-miss on genres in these results. I can't really see The Raveonettes as folk-rock... maybe at a stretch ... but The Monkees are categorically not freakbeat by literally any definition.

Some seem defensible. I wouldn't have lumped the Beach Boys in with the Laurel Canyon phenomenon but this is one occasion when Bing has backed up its argument with convincing evidence. That footnote, which goes to an article about the documentary movie "Echo in the Canyon", explicitly cites The Beach Boys as a key band in the movement. I should probably watch it, then I might know what I'm talking about.

While we're on the subject of Bing's citations, this is where I did actually learn something. Namely, don't trust the links they provide any more than anything else an AI tells you. You might well think that because Bing is providing actual links to its sources, they'll go to something that confirms what it said but that would be to fall into its trap.

Check them for yourself.
2. dw.com3. americana-uk.com4. vanityfair.com5.

Firstly, six out of the seven footnotes assigned to specific songs go to the same online article: 30 Obscure Christmas Songs That Are So Underrated, compiled by Erin Watson and published by in December 2020. It appears all Bing did to fulfill the brief I gave it was lift almost all its results from another list. 

It's a bit like being asked to bake a cake for someone's birthday, buying one at the supermarket, putting it on a plate and then putting the plate on top of the empty box so everyone can see where it came from. And then expecting everyone to congratulate you on how clever you'd been to find such a good cake.

Except, to stretch the analogy far beyond breaking point, a close look at the ingredients would prove the cake couldn't have come out of that box at all. Bing may claim it filched six out of seven of its suggestions from that listicle but if you bother to read it all the way through, you'll find only one of them, Christmas Song by The Raveonettes, there. The rest aren't even mentioned.

I was particularly keen to find proof of the existence of Last Christmas by Saint Pepsi, a supposed cover of the Wham classic that GPT3.5 had already tried to convince me was real. It's not. None of the AIs seem able to cope with vaporwave at all, which seems somehow both appropriate and ironic at the same time.

I also searched in vain for any mention of the equally imaginary Snowfall by Lush, which obviously wasn't going to happen but even Low's quite genuine Just Like Christmas or the equally real Monkees and John Prine tracks were nowhere to be found. In some kind of doubling down on deceit, Bing seems almost self-destructively willing to refer doubters directly to the most damning evidence of it own lack of veracity. 

Even the footnotes along the bottom are weird. Only a couple refer directly to the listed tracks. The other two appear to exist purely to demonstrate that, yes, Bing does know more about the Laurel Canyon Sound than I do. It's not a competition, Bing!

Fortunately, I find all of this highly entertaining. More so than playing games right now, which is why you're reading about this instead of Tarisland. More positively, where AI is concerned, I've been having much better luck getting the image generators to come up with pictures to match the songs. That at least is something AIs are getting quite good at doing.

As for the songs, I have forty-three possible tracks listed so far to fill the twenty-four days of Advent plus Christmas Day. I might try to make it a nice, round fifty and post two a day or I might just winnow out the chaff and go with the best of the bunch. 

Honestly, that would probably be best. There's some strange stuff in there. 

However I decide to do it, It's going to be fun! No, really! It is! I promise.🤞

Notes on the AI used in this post.

Apart from the obvious. 

Header image: Dreamshaper Alpha XL2 (50/50) from the prompt "Inventory Full Advent Calendar . Rock & Roll images. Cartoon Art". I did a bunch of these and all the others were variations on an actual advent calendar but with no rock&roll whatsoever. This is all rock, no calendar. I thought that was preferable, even though every rocker seems to be some kind of mutant. I think I can see Keef and Roy Wood in there too...

Second image: Same model but at 50/0. Prompt. "The Beach Boys as Laurel Canyon folkies. 1960s underground comix poster art. No photos." Just looks like the regular Beach Boys to me. No sign of underground comix influence. Not a poster. Otherwise, exactly what I asked for...

Third image: Same model, also 50/0. Prompt: "Last Christmas by Saint Pepsi . Vaporwave" The AI clearly has no idea who or what Saint Pepsi is or might be but who can blame it for that? It does seem to have an idea what a vaporwave asthetic looks like, though. Nice image, anyway.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide