[News Bits] DA2 DLC, How much do popcap want for that zombie?, CoH goes F2P, Diablo 3 followers for normal mode only, more on EVE

Apologies for a bits and pieces posts, there’s a lot of news out this week that I thought was interesting but not really enough to write a whole blog post about.

First DLC announced for Dragon Age 2

Arb and I are keeping a weather eye out for announcements about Comic Con 2011 since we’re going to be there (have I mentioned this enough times yet? :) It’s less than a month away now.)

Bioware chipped in this week with the announcement that they’ll be offering demos of Mass Effect 3, SWTOR, and Dragon Age 2 Legacy – the first DLC for that game. The SWTOR announcement is in a different link but I’m sure that was a no brainer anyway. We’ll be aiming to check those out, if only in the hope of picking up freebies such as the inflatable swords which have been on offer the last couple of years.

We don’t know much about Legacy apart from the title, but already starting to wonder whose legacy we’re talking about here, exactly. I would be quite curious to find out what happened to Kirkwall after I left in a blaze of glory skulked out in the night with my batshit insane blond boyfriend of doom. Surely the world can’t keep on turning without Hawke to set it straight/break it horribly??!

ArenaNet will also be demoing Guild Wars 2 at Comic Con this year, so hopefully we’ll be able to report on that as well. As well as snag freebies, obviously.

Is Zynga going to buy Popcap?

Venturebeat reports rumours that Popcap (makers of Bejewelled and Plants vs Zombies, amongst many others) is in talks to be acquired. It’s not known yet if it is true, but they naughtily bander Zynga’s name around as a prospective suitor.

I think the most depressing sentence in the article is:

PopCap is an appealing target for almost any game company because it has several extremely popular games that can be turned into franchises.

I suspect that a lot of us would rather have new games than Bejewelled 17: the slightly sparklier version.

City of Heroes (finally) goes free to play

This is good news! City of Heroes announces that later this year, they’re switching to a model which will allow players to play for free or go with a subscription model. It sounds as though they’re going with a LOTRO-type of approach where subscribers get some free currency to spend in the game shop (which has plenty of fun cosmetic costumes) as part of their monthly deal.

Here’s the side-by-side comparison of what subscribers get in comparison to F2P players. And again like LOTRO, if you have ever paid a sub for CoH previously you get some perks when the game switches over compared to a new F2P player (Note: F2P players are limited to 2 alts unless they buy more slots, it’s not clear to me if older players will be able to keep all their alts if they come back except for directly purchased slots.)

I’m happy about this news partly because it’s a fun game which I think will lend itself very well to this model, and also because I have friends who play and now it’ll be way easier for me to join them occasionally.

Followers in Diablo 3 are for noobs only

Anyone who thought Blizzard had caught the companion bug from Bioware and were planning to amp up the importance of  followers in Diablo 3 can think again. Apparently the main use for followers is to help new players in normal mode in single player (and get them used to playing in a group – although this may backfire once they find how annoying real people are compared to their faithful NPCs). They will become less useful in hard mode, pointless in nightmare, and not available at all in multiplayer.

They’re there to make the single-player, normal difficulty experience feel more cooperative and to aid in enhancing the story. These factors lose some importance in multiplayer and in the higher difficulty settings of the game, and as such, the followers won’t be as relevant there.

EVE and Microtransactions

The latest on EVE is that someone has leaked an internal memo about plans for microtransactions in CCP’s games. Eve News 24 discusses the cosmetic cash shop prices and the data in the memo.

One of the main reasons that I think long term players get concerned about some of these microtransaction plans is that there’s a point where you wonder how far game devs are putting profit above making fun games. And if your main concern as a consumer is to buy (and pay for) fun games, you’d probably like THAT to be their main focus.

Clearly it’s great if companies that make good products do well. But at what cost?

The other main issue – probably mostly for old dinos like me – is that we like virtual worlds because they’re separate from the rat race of the real world. It’s because the real world doesn’t have much effect on the game world that the game world can be relaxed and fun, and being relaxed and fun is important for being able to play. The more the game favours real world tilts, the less ‘fun’ it gets. It’s like the way people always seem to have more fun in betas, because they know there’s no major consequence for failure or not optimising.  Maybe fun is a minority interest.

Some heroes are born, some are made, and some have heroism thrust upon them

There was a time when the standard sort of storyline in games/ CRPGs involved characters who started off weak and then got stronger over time. (This is the whole point of xp and progression, after all.) Players complained about the whole ‘kill ten rats’ phenomenon where you load up your shiny new game and find that your persona is a smelly goatherd who has to kill rats and clean up goat poop for several hours before they let you do the cool heroic stuff you bought the game for.

Now there is more of a rush on the idea of the player as the big damn hero where you start good and get … well … gooder. Or at least you get shinier, spikier gear. I find this gets tiring.

I still kind of like the idea of the quiet heroism of simply managing to survive in a world where the odds are balanced against you. And not only survive, but also succeed. In A Game of Thrones, for example, you see this in the fan favourite characters of Tyrion (a developmental dwarf) and Arya (a girl who wants to fight like a man). In Lord of the Rings, you see it in Frodo (“I will take the ring although I do not know the way…”)

However, in order to portray that type of character, you also have to experience the oppression and the sense that the whole world is against you. Which is something that computer gamers have not typically been up for. Nick Dinicola wrote an intriguing column in PopMatters titled, “I want to play the victim in Dragon Age 2.” And this was about the fact that in Dragon Age, all the lore talks about how oppressed the mages are. Yet if you play one, no one ever tries to oppress you. They talk about the prejudice but they never dare show any towards the player. From a point of view of games as storytelling devices I think they did the player a disservice, because there is no doubt whatsoever that players would have an emotional reaction to being oppressed, even within a game.

In many ways, sandbox MMOs do a better job here because unlike devs, other players will not hold back. This is not to say that rampant elitism, gearscore-phobia, and griefing are desirable gameplay, but they do offer the opportunity for different types of in-game heroism where the premade storyline fails.

For example, the rags to riches story of a new character who works hard and eventually masters the auction house. The knight errant high level character who nobly stops to help a stranger (Justin calls this not being selfish, I call it ‘white knight syndrome’ :) ). (Or the stranger who dares to ask the strange and powerful knight for help …) The new soldier who is jeered by his comrades but perseveres anyway.

Anyone else out there a fan of playing the underdog?

Do you play evil characters in RPGs?

The problem of evil has vexed philosophers for centuries. But fortunately, we now have a solution! I call it Sim Evil, or alternatively, “What happens if I pick the evil options in RPGs?” You can practice being evil in your own little world and see what happens.

And the answer is … nothing much really. You still get to save the world/ grow the kingdom/ max out your gold in the auction house and you probably also get all the best lines. Yet, some of us still are reluctant to play as evil in games, even when it may be advantageous and certainly has no drawbacks.

With that in mind, I love the way Bioware has moved away from good/evil and towards diplomatic/ blunt/ sarcastic on their choice wheel in Dragon Age 2. You can still do plenty of evil things, such as knifing random criminals personally instead of turning them over to the town guard for justice (note: this would probably be considered evil if more people did it iRL, in games it’s par for the course.) Yet your capacity for being a real evil mastermind is very limited – it’s more of an on rails game than a city simulation. You can’t just decide to leave the mages and templars to murder each other while you go off and become a crime lord/ lady. There are limits on how good you could be also, no pacifism in computer RPGs!

But there are genre conventions to be observed. And that’s genuinely more important for good storytelling than unlimited character options.

So imagine my new kingdom in Sims Medieval  (once I had gotten some help from the twitterati in doing the first tutorial quest, thanks all!). As soon as I decided that I’d go with an evil sorceress-type queen, things suddenly got far more interesting.

Her traits are Vain, Scholarly and (naturally) Evil. Her throneroom is decorated in an evilly magic way. When she isn’t busy, she goes to the castle library to read maniacal books which seem to mostly be about tentacled monsters (I missed a trick in not naming my kingdom Innsmouth, really). And she is always extremely horrible to the good priest.

If there was any justice or proper storytelling in the game, the good priest would be constantly warning her about her evil ways and eventually a huge seamonster would probably come and eat her, and drown her kingdom. But because it’s a computer game, none of that will happen and she’ll probably be really successful.

But in my mind, the good priest will be right in the end. I like playing evil characters, but that doesn’t mean I always want them to win.

[Dragon Age 2] My story and review (with SPOILERS) and some thoughts

da2_hawkeact2 Hawke’s finery (which she wears around the manor in Acts 2 and 3) reminds me of a school uniform.

Dragon Age 2 is, I think, going to be a game that provokes strong reactions. In my last post I briefly mentioned some of the shortcomings of the game (the repetitive areas, repetitive fights with waves of mooks teleporting/ rapelling in – funny how we don’t complain about repetitive fights in MMOs really…). I’ve also mentioned briefly how DA2 incorporates more and more elements from good tabletop RPG games – the idea that your character and their companions have families, backgrounds, stories that will impinge into the main narrative and give your character (and companions) extra goals and motivations, and how I felt more of an emotional connection when playing this game.

I thought they did make good use of Hawke’s family and family ties in the plot. Your sister/ brother and mother are intended to be emotional ties and plot elements (OK, there is a whiff of the disposable NPC here). I know that when I decided to support the mages in the end, it was largely because of my in game sister. I enjoyed this in DAO also, with my dwarf warden deciding the new ruler of Orzammar based on the fact he was nailing my sister (it always comes down to sisters with me ;) ), but with this game they’ve taken it further and brought it more front and centre to the plot.

The companions are some of the absolute high points of the gameplay, storytelling, and writing, even against Bioware’s reasonably high standard. I think every one of them is a winner. From reading other people’s thoughts (there is a thread on rpg.net about favourite companions) it looks as though every one of them expands into an interesting three dimensional character if you spend more time getting to know them. What I liked about the thread I linked to here is how passionately people defend their favourites. I still think Merill was an idiot, but it’s cool that some people want to argue that she was a genius.

I enjoyed the idea of a game set in a single city. These single city campaigns have always been popular in tabletop RPGs (I’ll always remember The City of Seven Hills from our old and beloved D&D game) and have been touched on in RPGs before. Balder’s Gate was largely set in a city, as was Planescape. But setting the game in three acts over several years gives some geniune chances to see how the place and the characters change and grow. Seeing Aveline go from being a new recruit to captain of the guard was a good example, and well deserved.

I did think Varric was awesome and loved how his unreliable narrative tied into the game play and the framing story. The quest where he confronts his brother and you get a section where he single handedly takes out waves and waves of trash mobs was hilarious.

I also enjoyed the pacing of the story. Act 1 did feel slow with all of the side quests, but at the same time you really did get to know your way around the city and get introduced to some of the main characters who you would see in later acts. Act 2 was great and I loved the storyline with the Qunari, it was interesting, well played out, and Hawke did get to be a genuine champion. And then Act 3 was very pacey indeed but that worked for me since by that point I was quite keen to get to the end and not get distracted by side quests.

I also think DA2 marks a change in how Bioware write their lead characters. Although there is still the power fantasy element – you are the hero, it’s never been easier to romance the love interest of choice – Hawke in this game is equally pulled and pushed by other plot elements in the background. And to my mind, the game is all the better for it. It’s about you, but not entirely about you. Sometimes you get swept along by forces larger than yourself.

In particular, the love interests are not really under your control. Anders and Merill in particular have their own agendas, and however close you get to them in a relationship, you may not be able to change them … enough. I think it’s a very grown up piece of writing to ask a player how they would respond if a character they were emotionally close to went off the deep end. (And if the player isn’t interested, there are more ‘stable’ love interests who will be more predictable.)

I’m not sure I envy Bioware trying to design love interests that will appeal to any player, it’s pretty much an impossible task. I did generally like the LIs better in this game than in DAO, but fans of Alistair will probably be disappointed in Anders and Fenris. Having said that, it was nice to see a few familiar faces making a brief reappearance towards the end of the game.

And here’s a fun thread from the Bioware forums in which people discuss which they think the best line in the game was.

What I Did

My Hawke was a female 2 handed warrior. The 2 handed trees are super for smashing through waves of bandits et al really quickly. I think if I did it again I’d pay more attention to abilities that improve stamina regen though. I’m not sure how I feel about her voice, she was a bit of a posh girl and to me she always sounded awkward when she was being sarcastic/ witty.

I played my Hawke as being fairly feisty/ sarcastic in the first two acts and more assertive in Act 3. I suspect that the conversational choices are both more subtle and more key to how people respond than is immediately obvious.

My go-to party was Aveline, Varric and Anders, although I did spend more of Act 2 with Isabella in group than Varric because I liked her dialogues with Aveline.

Bethany did not come on the deep roads expedition with me (I was persuaded by my in game mother’s pleas) and ended up being taken to the Circle. From subsequent letters, she seemed to quite enjoy it there but was around to fight by my side at the end. Hurrah!

Astoundingly, all of the companions except for Sebastian ended up fighting by my side for the last fight. Fenris left when I sided with the mages, but came back when I asked him to. This surprised me because I hadn’t really spent much time with him. Maybe I was more charming than I thought.

In Act 2, Isabella left but returned in the nick of time with her artefact when I was talking to the Qunari. I duelled and beat the Arishok in single combat, and that was a tough fight even on easy mode.

I had Anders as my love interest. I do think he was a cool character, I liked how he was introduced at his clinic (you got the sense that he did have a genuine interest in helping people) and he did a great job of stopping blood mages from killing me and helping to identify people who were possessed in the first couple of acts. I also have a soft spot for blondes :P Yes, he went off the rails towards the end, and I was sucked in to hoping I could try to keep him (and everyone else) safe. I kept him in my party though, partly because by that time I just wanted to protect him from himself and partly because I needed him to help deal with the current crisis. I don’t think the relationship would have really lasted so I was amused when Varric said in the narrative that everyone left Hawke except for Isabella at the end. It may have been a bug (probably the love interest was supposed to stay) but I thought it was very plausible since she was pretty much my best friend.

Incidentally I’m pretty sure Anders didn’t use magic to blow up the chantry but alchemy instead. Let’s face it, if he’d had access to that sort of magic, templars would have been blown up a lot sooner than that.

When we went into the fade to sort out Feynriel, I took Varric, Isabella and Fenris, the latter two being corrupted by desire and pride demons respectively. I had no intention of ever taking Anders into the fade :)

As far as the Circle and Templars go, I tend to entirely blame the first enchanter for all the blood mages in Kirkwall. It was his job to train his mages better than that. If everything hadn’t completely gone to hell, I would have tried to get in a decent mage to head up the circle, but the templar/ circle relationship wasn’t really a good solution anyway. I still sided with the mages though since Meredith was clearly someone who had to go.

[Dragon Age 2] Spoilers for Act 3 — you have been warned

So, finished Dragon Age 2, and thoroughly enjoyed the game. For all its faults (repetitive areas, long boss fights, waves of adds in just about every fight), it’s a style of game and writing that I find really compelling.

I’ll write more thoughts on the game when I’ve had time to think it over. I still can’t decide if I liked it more than Dragon Age Origins. It probably was more emotionally involving though for me.

And a spoilery picture from Act 3 …

da2_chantry

Nice chantry you have there …. shame if anything …. happened to it!

[Dragon Age 2] Initial Impressions

da2_act2 Hawke and companions in Act 2 – other companies please note how armour on women can look cool without showing lots of thigh.

I am a big fan of Bioware games, I loved Dragon Age Origins despite its faults, and I’m enjoying the heck out of Dragon Age 2.

Things I love about DA2:

  • I enjoy that it’s all set in the same city and that you WILL get to see how people, NPCs, and factions change and interact over time. Some of that will be connected to things you have done, and some won’t. We very rarely get this type of setup in games, it’s the holy grail of phasing in games like WoW, but single player games can do it better.
  • (Downside: It’s all set in the same city and surrounding areas. Areas do get reused. The city itself doesn’t really change all that much through the years, not as much as most real cities probably would.)
  • I like that in Act 1 I was an unknown noob in the city whereas by Act 2 I have an actual mansion in Hightown and some finery to wear (admittedly the finery looks like a school uniform but it’s not armour!) I’ve no idea what Act 3 may hold in store. It feels as though there is a simulationist element (e.g. you could imagine a game where you have to build up your resources in addition to doing the quests) even though there really isn’t.
  • I also enjoy seeing how actions I took in Act 1 are affecting people in Act 2. Some of this I think is fairly subtle but focussing in on one city does allow this type of storytelling.
  • I’m enjoying the writing, and in particular the companions are great. I don’t LIKE them all, but I enjoy them all as characters. Aveline is a particular winner and a character type we don’t see all that often – she’s a straight edge city guard who tries to do the right thing but isn’t very good at out of the box thinking. The scene where you try to help her chat up a fellow guardsman is painfully hilarious. Her banter with Isabela is also awesome. Varric is also possibly the best written dwarf ever.
  • (Downside: I’m not sure how great a character Hawke really is. Certainly she has a talent for kicking arse and taking names, especially on casual difficulty levels. I am having fun with her, but I keep feeling that the NPCs just seem like better characters.)
  • I also ended up with Anders (pictured on the left) as my love interest, despite the fact he’s quite possibly totally hatstand. Still, at least Hawke got to find out whether a wizard’s staff has a knob on the end :P I find that Bioware take their love interests terribly seriously in this game, it’s all twoo lurve and moving in together after knowing each other for a few years, and not so much a quick shag and then off for breakfast (I guess you’d probably have to play The Witcher for more of the latter.)
  • I enjoy the faster pace of the fighting and I have no issues about turning the difficulty down if a fight is hard. I like having the options and 2H warrior Hawke is rather awesome at mowing down mooks. (A handy talent since mooks seem to teleport into fights in constant waves.)
  • Does DA2 feel rushed? I’m not sure. Certainly there is a lot of resuse of areas, dungeons et al. However, it is supposed to all be set in the same city. I’d say possibly rushed but at the same time, what they were trying to do does work.
  • Giving the character a family to use as plot points does work. There is a whiff of the ‘dependent NPC’ to it all, ie. getting extra character points for having dependent NPCs whose sole purpose is to get into trouble and need rescuing or provide fodder for NPC enemies, but I feel that giving a PC more background in terms of friends, family, and other history does provide for some good story hooks.

One thing I’m not so sure about is what replayability willl be like. I feel as though I have been doing all of the available sidequests and I’m not sure how different it would really be on a second playthrough, even though playing as a mage might be quite interesting.

[Dragon Age 2] Sorting out the DLC and unlockables

da2_hawke1 Lizzy Hawke leans insouciently against a wall in her shiny dragon platemail – a rare scene when she isn’t covered in actual blood spatters.

Hurrah, my copy of Dragon Age 2 arrived today. Apologies for slow blog updates but (aside from the stupid flu) I have to kick arse, take names, and sort out Kirkwall.

When you load up the game, any unlockable DLC (for example, if you have the signature edition, or got some items for signing up to the newsletter) won’t download automatically.

da2_loading

 

What you’ll need to do is get the loading screen up (as shown above) and log into your bioware/ EA account as part of the process. If you then select either extras/ unlockables or downloadable content, the game will open a browser window for you and it’ll be directed to your account on the Bioware Social Network.

da2_redeem

If you select Profile/Redeem Promo Code (if you have a promo code, for example in the signature or collector’s edition) then you can enter that to tie the DLC to your account. Then if you go to Profile/ Your registered game content you’ll see a list of every item/ DLC registered to your account and next to each one is an info button when you can check how to download it.

I do think they could make this process more streamlined but it’s not actually hard once you figure out that you have to use your bioware/EA account to tie things together.

Happy questing, more on DA2 when I’ve had more time with it. For now, I’m one of those annoying people who likes to play through on ultra-easy combat settings – I’ll leave a more tactical play through for next time!