[STO] Look Around You

lookaround

I am still enjoying my slow and rather casual explorations of Star Trek Online. No matter that the rest of my fleet were zooming around in their Tier 2 or 3 ships when we tried some fleet action last weekend, no matter if other people I know have almost reached the level cap, I’m still having fun pottering around in my little Miranda class starship.

One of the interesting things about trying a new MMO, and especially when you are used to something as heavily modded as WoW is that you can’t always rely on addons or quest helpers to let you fly by instrument. In fact, ironically because STO is one of the few settings where it would be totally in character to fly by instrument, I end up doing a lot of looking around me to find quest objectives and crafting nodes (I mean, space anomalies.)

For example, the screenshot above shows my ropey old starting cruiser heading towards an anomaly in space.

lookaround2

I’ve highlighted the anomaly here.

They’re really not hard to spot, but it feels like a reward for keeping your eyes peeled and actually looking at the world around you.

More than just scanning your minimap to find nodes.

I find this setup to be very immersive. I love to feel rewarded for paying attention to the game world, even if it’s just that I can spot the anomalies quickly. I also enjoy that an automatic map or addon won’t do this for me. There is a breakpoint at which it gets frustrating to be looking at a screen of wallpaper trying to spot the little dots which are your quest mobs (this reminds me of pouring dutifully over my little sister’s photos of a cricket match she once saw where she was so far away from the action that all you could see were tiny white dots on a big green field). But despite that, there’s still some fun to be had from spotting things for yourself, even if the game falls over itself to make it easy.

In PvP of course, looking around you is not so much a neat bonus as a way of life. You must pay attention to the surroundings. In high end raiding, the same applies. And of course, shooter style gameplay is all about looking around you, targeting, figuring out how to use cover, and so on.

On Immersion

I have pondered Wolfsheads post about Immersion. And all I can respond with is … that I think gameplay is becoming more immersive, I think story is becoming more immersive, I think character motivation is becoming WAY more immersive.

For example, STO makes it very easy to justify why your character is taking orders from the Federation, and all the missions do actually explain why you are helping with Federation goals. There’s nothing that involves a random quest dude asking you to kill ten rats, it’s all wrapped in more plausible character motivation than that.

In Wrath, I have no doubt at all why my character wants to kill the Lich King (something that was notably lacking in earlier expansions.) And if MMO gameplay is moving towards a twitcher, more shooter style, perhaps that’s also more immersive in its way.

Of course, none of this means that gameworlds can’t have convincing weather patterns, geography, and ecosystem. I like to think that maybe it’s just a matter of time before the different types of immersion all synch up.

Interacting with NPCs

Some NPCs run through long and rambling introductions. Players get bored and find ways to spice these moments up.

None of that is surprising, but I do find it cool that people take a Rocky Horror Show style approach to interacting with the speeches. They’re not just passing the time by talking about football or Lady GaGa, they’re actually interacting with the text. These are just a few examples from yesterday’s raid.

The maltese translation is just one minor example of how hanging out with people from other countries broadens your horizons … or something

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LOTRO and the glory of naming absolutely everything

The LOTRO devs understand that players like to name items in games. I agree, and I think this is a brilliant and utterly Middle Earth compatible mechanic which has the possibility to make a lot of player interactions both more immersive and more memorable.

Of course, like any player generated content, naming also has the possibility to throw up the craziest ‘wtf were they thinking’ moments. Fortunately on RP servers, the GMs are really good about dealing with complaints about names. I always wondered why companies claimed that a naming policy was too difficult or time consuming to implement. It really doesn’t take that long to scan through a list of names and bump any offensive ones. Free Realms, for example, impressed at launch by requiring all player generated names to be approved before they could be used, and they were dealing with huge numbers of players at the time. It’s such a simple thing that can make the game more vibrant, immersive, and RP friendly for all the player base, even the non-RPers.

So here’s a brief list of nameable entities in LOTRO — just to give a feel for how ubiquitous it has become.

  • Your character (first name and surname).
  • Your family tree. You can have “son or daughter of Y” as a title, where Y is another player. This does require the other player’s cooperation.
  • Your kinship (guild).
  • Social chat channels.
  • Your banner bearer pet if you are a captain. You can also name your banner.
  • Your pets if you are a loremaster.
  • Your gear — masterwork crit pieces can be named by the crafter when they are created. If you want a particular name and aren’t a crafter yourself, you will need to negotiate with a crafter to make it and name it for you personally.
  • Legendary items. These can be reforged every 10 levels and when you reforge a legendary item, you can also rename it.
  • Your mount. This was new in the latest patch.
  • Your skirmish soldier.
  • Monster players can also name their banners (Orcish Warleaders) and spiderlings (Spiders)

Things you can’t name:

  • Your house. Strange omission there, really.
  • Your lunch, even if it is a masterpiece of cooking.
  • Your title. You cannot have a custom title, although there are a very wide range of in game titles to collect and select. Especially if you want something that involves ‘orc slayer’, ‘slayer of orcs’, ‘orc massacre supremo’ etc.

That’s a long list of nameable items, especially in comparison to a game like WoW which hasn’t even advanced as far as surnames for characters.

But sometimes, an interesting or especially IC name is the only thing you’ll remember about another player when you have just met. An unusual guild name will catch people’s attention (I know I’ve had a few comments about The Ashen Rose Conspiracy, for example.) In games where so many people love to individualise their characters, it’s a shame that devs often ignore the most basic and fundamental way we make things our own in the real world — by giving them names.

Am I spoiled for MMOs?

Maybe I have been playing too much Dragon Age over the last few weeks (surely not!!!), but levelling a Death Knight through Dragonblight at the moment is a frustrating experience in comparison.

As Horde, you encounter Koltira the blood elf death knight in Agmar’s Hammer where he has some quests. I thought, “Hey! I saved your life in my origin story, you’re going to recognise me now and we can chill out together and bitch about what a jerk Arthas was and how much better things are now, right?” Nope. He treats you exactly the same as a death knight as any other class.

I should know better than to expect more, but I think the damage has now been done. The bar on my expectations has been raised.

Fellow DAO fans, do you think playing that game is going to change your expectations of MMOs?

Dragon Age: Your Ending, and My Summary

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After an epic 45 hour punctuated session of gaming, my journey in Dragon Age has come to an end … for now. It was a bitter-sweet ending — the Archdemon was slain (this surely can’t be a spoiler if you were paying any attention at all), life goes on, my fellowship of NPC companions split up and everyone went their separate ways. I think I did right by them, mostly, but at the end it was just me and my faithful dog, Bitey, and the long open road.

Was my character still the same self-centred but basically well-meaning casteless Carta bruiser that was introduced in the dwarf commoner origin? I think so, but she’d changed. She’d seen the world above, faced horrors underground, faced her inner demons on a religious pilgrimage, and locked horns with some hard bitten political mavens in the Landsmeet. And killed lots of darkspawn, too. A story where the characters have room to change and grow is a good story. My Dragon Age story could easily have been told from the perspective of any one of the companions too, because they also changed and grew and faced their own inner demons.

I enjoyed reading how other peoples’ stories ended in an rpg.net thread setup for the purpose (link is full of spoilers, you’ve been warned). Because rpg.net was originally a community of pen and paper roleplayers, you’ll see a lot of people describe how they RPed their characters, why they made decisions IC, and where that led.

And although there are good endings and less good endings (depending on your point of view), I don’t get the feeling that this is a game that you win or lose. Either way, you have your own story.  I’ve also felt strongly while playing Dragon Age that I wanted to talk to people about how their stories were going, what choices they made, and to compare experiences. Even though it’s a single player game, it was an experience I very much wanted to share.

And now, I’m already planning on playing through it again:

  • I want to try playing on a harder mode now that I understand the mechanics more fully.
  • I want to play through as different origins and races.
  • I want to  learn more about the lore by playing through the game differently. How does Orzammar treat non-dwarves? Does the Landsmeet treat you differently if you are a human noble?
  • I want to tinker around with the storyline by trying different options and seeing what happens.
  • I want to get to know different companions. I only had time to strike up in depth relationships with a handful of them.
  • My dwarf girl was not the romantic type. (I laughed at Zevran and told him to get lost when he called me a sex goddess.) I’d like to play a more romantic type and see how some of those play out.
  • I’d like to do more of the sidequests and dragon slaying. In my play through, I decided that stopping the Blight was my first priority so I didn’t want to waste too much time or take too many risks outside hat.
  • I want to try some of the DLC content – I could do that on my main character but it might be more storywise to run through it on a second one.

So there’s plenty of incentive to keep playing the game, although I think I’ll take a break first. One thing I do note though – I have this notion of ‘playing around with the story’. I’ll be able to go back in and try out some ‘what if’s. There’s no other media than games in which you can approach a story in that way. To rewind and try different choices or different approaches and then see what happens. You can’t do that with a book (barring game books) or a film.

The experience players have with the Dragon Age story isn’t just of going through cut scenes and railroaded platform or combat sequences. You engage with the actual story as a gamer. Your choices drive it, your roleplaying decisions guide it,  and although you control the direction, you can’t always predict how the story will go because it drives you too. The story is the keystone of the game, and its emotional heart.

Is it limited? Yes, it’s only a computer game, and what you end up with are variations on a theme rather than radically, utterly different stories. But I think they are different enough and interesting enough to compel me to want to play with the possibilities given.

I dismiss  the complaints about lack of originality. The best parts of the game are the less original sections, and all fantasy relies on using existing mythical threads to weave a story that appeals to people on a very instinctive level.

For example, the section where you search for the Ashes of Andraste is very clearly based on the Arthurian grail quest. There are monsters to fight, hardships, moral dilemmas, puzzles, revelations and a strong sense of religious pilgrimage. But even a story so well known as the quest for the grail feels fresh and different when you are experiencing it alongside your character. If the emotional core of the story is present and is appealing and FUN, it really doesn’t matter if it is original or not.

(Conversely, it’s easy to tell an unusual story in a way that’s confusing or fails to grab people.)

Issues and Pacing

I love Dragon Age but the game isn’t perfect. There are ways in which it could be streamlined and better presented, although I think the game does succeed totally in many ways.

It is a long game. Sections like the Mage Tower and the Deep Roads can drag, especially if you try to play them through in a single session. But it also simulates a long and difficult journey very well. The sense of ‘oh no, not another set of darkspawn’ is part of the story being told.

From a gameplay point of view, it’s open to discussion whether some segments are too drawn out. (It would be slicker to have decided what the optimal length of game session was and to design the sub-quests around that baseline.) But that decision is an artistic storytelling decision on pacing, not a gameplay one on ‘how many mobs should be in that pack to challenge the player?’

I enjoyed the sense of the long and drawn out journeys in my quests so I don’t have an issue with the pacing there. But as I say, that’s a subjective opinion, others may differ or might have wanted an option to let the game know that you wanted things sped up.

The end game doesn’t allow enough time to tie up loose ends emotionally with the rest of the NPC companions. If you’ve gotten very close to any of them, it would have been nice to have some extended conversation options on the night before the last battle, it would have given a better sense of closure. Tamarind discusses his story here (spoilers behind the link) and explains why he really needed to have words with Alistair … if the game had allowed it.

The DLC is handled awkwardly at the end. The problem here with the storytelling is that this game definitely has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The DLC should logistically happen in the middle while your character is out adventuring and before the final battle. But clearly players are going to finish the story and Bioware still wants to sell DLC to them.  So after the final set of cut scenes and ‘this is what happened to your companions afterwards’, you’re left back in camp and told that for the purpose of ‘continuing your adventures’ you can assume you’re back in the midgame.

I don’t have the heart to really complain about this. I’m glad I had my neat ending and wouldn’t have wanted to skip that just to leave my character in a convenient spot storywise for DLC. A story that was designed at the start to have up to two years of optional but available DLC wouldn’t be able to have that neat ending, it would be more MMO like. Maybe in future games, they’ll have better ideas for how to make this gel more neatly.

Anyway, I’m back to Lothering with my new mage-in-search-of-a-husband. Instead of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it’ll be like Pride and Prejudice with Darkspawn.

And thank you Bioware, for restoring my faith in storytelling in computer games.

The Worst Storyline in Wrath

I know that a lot of players feel that storytelling is a sideshow to the main event in games; it doesn’t involve gameplay, and it’s seen as fluff to keep the punters/ fanfic writers amused. I don’t agree with this view, I think the role of storytelling in games is to make encounters feel meaningful – why else would we care about characters and avatars like Lara Croft, Sonic, sackboy, Commander Shepherd; might as well just represent the player by a  giant blue square.

But like it or not, the quality of storytelling and NPC design has a huge effect on how players respond to different parts of the game. Or in other words, the virtual reward of being able to deliver a good kicking to an NPC who people truly hate is on par with epics for a lot of people. After all, the epics will get replaced soon enough, but the storyline is a lasting memory and experience.

So, in that vein, which is the most unpopular storyline in Wrath? It’s undoubtedly the blue dragonflight – we kill an aspect (that’s like a demi-god) and no one cares. A few completists wonder whether that story was supposed to tail off, and everyone else is glad that Blizzard seems to have buried it. This is partly because of an unpopular raid fight which involved awkward vehicles, but it’s also because the writing didn’t make us care.

Piss him off by killing his consort? That was your entire plan?

malygos

I’ve had the great misfortune to play through Colderra again on an alt recently. It’s a subzone of the Borean Tundra in Northrend (ie. this is Wrath content) and although it’s not horribly painful as an experience, it’s also not a shining beacon of level design. Kill 10 x, collect 10 x, return to quest giver and be told to kill or collect x other things. And so on.

But the low point of the zone is the Keristrazsa questline. A game like Dragon Age would have nailed that storyline, because it has all the right elements. A wronged prisoner seeking righteous revenge, enlisting the PCs help, everything goes pear shaped and she ends up in a worse state than before, doomed to have her mind broken and forced to become Malygos’ new consort.

Now that really should have been good story material. But not in the hands of Blizzard writers, oh no.

What actually happens is this:

You discover the arcane prison and one of the NPCs at the local base is able to unlock it. He tells you to open the prison at your own risk. When you do so, a pretty girl who is really a dragon appears. Malygos (big bad dragon aspect who will die to countless raid groups later on) has imprisoned her – boo. We don’t entirely know why but she’s out for revenge.

You agree to help, having already been told that the blue dragonflight are the bad guys here. She has you gather some stuff so that she can lay a trap for Malygos’ consort, who you later kill on her behalf. OK, so that was kind of random revenge fantasy on the NPCs part but I guess she has been imprisoned for ages and that has to take it out of you.

Then she moves to the next stage of her plan. She has you lay out the consort’s corpse on the ground and she burns it, and calls out to the dragon aspect to come look at what she has done. Now, this really should set danger warnings  because dragon aspects are very badass. In any case, he comes out of the Nexus to mourn? (Well, he laments about the consort so he’s actually got more sympathy at this point than the NPC you’re helping.) Keristrazsa literally flies loops around him for no special reason, she doesn’t seem to want to attack. Then she lands, tells you to run away and … Malygos comes down and spirits her away to an instance. I’m not sure why being frozen in an instance is going to persuade her to be his consort. In any case, when you get to the Nexus, she’ll beg you to kill her so she can hand over some epics … or something.

It’s just that bad. It doesn’t make sense on any level, it’s confused, the characters are stupid and yeah. I got nothing. Dragons have really failed to impress. Again. Except Onyxia.

Dragon Age (PC Version)! My first thoughts.

dragonagegraff1 Trust me, I’m a dwarf

Dragon Age is the game I’ve been waiting for ever since I started to play CRPGs, and I hadn’t even realised. In fact, I’d all but given up on ever having a computer based RPG that came anywhere near the nuances of a tabletop game. But I was wrong.

Bioware have learned a lot since the days of Baldurs Gate and Knights of the Old Republic – BG had a large game world and lots to do but never really grabbed me as a story. KOTOR leapt for the jugular with a character based storyline but made the player so much front and centre that it was almost embarrassing to play. I felt awkward knowing that the game was so blatently all about me.

In Dragon Age, you are the hero. You will do great and terrifying things, but there’s a whole world in this game and a lot of other people too. You will affect them, they will affect you.

The game is a solid blend of CRPG sections where you can explore the scenery, talk to other characters, do quests, and take everything that isn’t nailed down; and party based combat. Both sides of the game seem exceptional to me from what I have played so far. But the story and the immersion is where the game really shines.

The origins of the title are long intro sections for each combination of race/social background which ease you into your character and flesh it out a bit before the main storyline kicks off and you are taken away from everything and everyone you once knew. I’ve played through a few origins and thought they were all effective – although I can see how some might appeal more to different players. The mage background, for example, offers an insight into a life lived entirely inside the mage tower, with some moral and ethical dilemmas thrown in. But because of the moral choices, it doesn’t feel as streamlined as the city elf background where you’re given a fairly arse kicking revenge fantasy (no moral dilemma there!). The dwarf commoner is my favourite so far but none of the ones I tried were clunkers. They all worked at getting me to like my character and connect with it, and offering some long term character  based goals as well as purely quest based ones.

Voice work is great, although there do seem to be a lot of people who talk with posh English accents around the place. I’m a convert to voice work in CRPGs now, although I can’t imagine what sort of resources Bioware must have at their disposal. As others have commented, it is a little jarring that everyone except your character is chatting away – it makes them come across a bit grim, like the man with no name. But appealing voice work brings even the least convincing character models to life. The animation is also pretty good. I especially loved watching my city elf warrior heft a two handed sword around. I’ve seen people do real life swordplay with those and the moves looked right to me (none of this swinging it around your head like a rhythmic gymnast).

The heart and soul of the CRPG is in the companion characters who will join you along the way, and how your main character develops a relationship with them. There is always a danger in CRPGs that because the player is in the driving seat, all the other characters feel weak – they are always deferring to your opinions and letting you make the decisions. That does exist here, but they will also step up and challenge you when they think you are making a mistake. It’s not like having a full AI on board, but they do feel convincing to me as 3 dimensional characters.

For example,  as my dwarf rogue, I was commenting to my husband that I liked Alistair but thought he was naive and a bit of a tit. He said that as his mage, he liked him because he felt that they had a lot in common – they’d both been taken from their parents at a young age and sent off to an institution to be raised. So the character and conversation options were there to support both of those experiences.

The fighting sequences are fast paced, although you can pause the action as often as you need to, and can be as tactically deep as you care to go. Easy mode is a lot easier – you won’t need to pause the game too much and area effects won’t harm your party through friendly fire. Normal mode (which is quite hard in places, even after the last patch) requires more thought and hands on interaction. Although you can set programmable tactics for each character, mages need a bit more babysitting to get the best out of them. If one particular fight is kicking your butt and you get frustrated, you can change the difficulty to easy for that, and then back again afterwards.

Or just play it through in easy mode if you’re more about the story and the character than the tactical combat. That’s just as valid a way to play and I enjoy that the game gives me those options.

And really the one flaw with the character classes is that mages feel as though they have many more options. As a mage, you can have crowd control, you can nuke, you can have AE, you can heal, you can buff. Fighters and rogues are a little more one sided, although my rogue has some stuns and can set traps and throw bombs so I don’t feel restricted with her at all. The game is not set up to assume you always have a healer along, but if you don’t, take a lot of healing poultices and have one of the party train in herbalism (to make more cheaply).

And about the maturity? They’re not joking. Even if you ignore the blood and the entertainment on offer at the brothel (it’s all fade to black) or the options to romance your party (I can’t report on that since I’m having enough trouble getting them to stay with me at all, let alone anything more), the issues and moral dilemmas raised in the game are a step beyond most fantasy fare. How do you feel about casual in game racism? Would you kill a child if you knew for a fact that doing so would also destroy a demon? Free the condemned prisoner, even if you know he might kill again? This is a game where you will be facing those types of choices, and you’ll have to take responsibility for where they lead.

As if all that wasn’t enough, there are also achievements to unlock and lore to discover – Bioware have used something similar to WAR’s tome of knowledge where new pages open up to inform you of what you have learned about characters, items, gameplay, lore, and so on. Lore entries may also be expanded later as you find out more. I found that worked very well, although indexing it by number doesn’t make it easy to search.

My dwarf just hit level 10 with *cough* a fair amount of hours played and I feel as though I’ve barely touched the surface of the game. I’m thoroughly enjoying it, as you can probably tell. In fact,  I absolutely love it and will plan to spring for the warden’s keep DLC at some point, if only because I’m happy to have the chance to throw more money at Bioware for content of this quality.

Tell me about your character

Let me tell you about my character in Dragon Age. She’s a feisty dwarf rogue who began her life as a casteless commoner. She doesn’t take nonsense from anyone, she hates rules, and wants to do the right thing but doesn’t see why she should do it for free because that made you a sucker where she came from. Her story is of someone who came from nowhere and is struggling to learn what ‘doing the right thing’ really means.

When I compare notes with my husband, he keeps saying, “You’re horrid,” or “You’re evil” when I tell him about my dwarf girl’s exploits. But I’m not playing as evil, just as someone who doesn’t know any better and really really wants to try anyway.

Her companions aren’t very happy with her (except for Morrigan who she gets on with very well), and I think being motivated to try to stay friendly with them is probably having a good effect on her. I feel like I actually have a character that could change and grow through the game – it may not be Oscar winning material but it could be a solid fantasy pot boiler! To me, that lifts the whole game up another dimension because I actually feel as though I’m role playing.

So, tell me about your character?