[GW2] Keeps, Auctions, Boulders, and reasons to WvW

gw2_vista

GW2 vistas are a gift to bloggers looking for pretty screenshots. (This is from Kessex Hills although pretty much everywhere so far seems to have centaurs.)

Bree sums up many of my thoughts about GW2 in a brilliant post which ponders whether the game will prove ‘sticky.’ (Or at least, will it be stickier for her guild than Cataclysm or SWTOR?) I have been playing the game a fair bit and I do enjoy it, I just don’t think I love GW2. It’s not you, GW2, it’s me. I loved WoW and I loved SWTOR and I loved LOTRO but there’s some emotional connection with GW2 that isn’t really there for me. At least not yet. Maybe it’s that although the human lands are expansive, well designed and fun to explore, by the time you enter your third zone of pretty rolling plains with towns under siege by centaurs, they all start to meld into each other. Maybe it’s the wide use of travel portals that make even the connected parts of the world feel a bit disconnected. Maybe I just don’t care enough about my character or the story of their people if there is one beyond fighting off centaurs. I think there is, I just don’t get what it is yet.

The game is undoubtedly fun to play, although I’m not finding combat to be a particular high point, but – ironically in a game where heart quests are literally part of the landscape – for me it lacks heart.

There have definitely been some high points while exploring; the dynamic events do a great job of drawing players together, and some of the heart quests are just unique. I loved the one where you get turned into a pig and hunt for truffles. I’ve spent longer trying to figure out how to get up /that/ mountain or into /that/ underground area in this game than I have for a long time in MMOs. Allowing everyone to harvest every node is another great way to encourage players to explore and putz around with the scenery, and I admire the skill of the designers even while I enjoy clambering around rocks or dodging ghosts to try to find a tomb. It means that moment to moment goals are much more interesting than ‘Next I will complete quest X’.

Me and my Mesmer

I am finding my mesmer (level 38 at the moment) intriguing. I like having lots of clones out, it makes me feel as though I have friends. It is also disconcerting in events with lots of players when I look round and think ‘Hey that guy looks just like my character! Oh wait, it’s my clone.” The basic idea is that you can spawn some clones (which are wimpy) or phantasms (which are better) that may do different things in combat and decide whether to leave them out as mobile DoTs or send them all off to converge on your target and explode. It’s different.

I also like that my dude can dual wield swords and do a bit of damage in melee, it feels stylish and effective. I also feel fairly useful in PvP and am sure the clones are annoying as heck to opponents. They are like very low maintenance temporary pets and if they die you just summon some more.

Other than that, I’m not very excited by GW2 combat so far. It’s fun to be able to get your own combos off or see combos flying around while you are in groups, but even with weapon switching it can feel a bit plodding.

The human storyline was good fun but now I’m a member of the Vigil and … I’m not as interested in the post-30 storyline, maybe because it’s in a different zone and again I’m not entirely sure where it is supposed to be compared with the rest of the world.

gw2_falcons

I am also deeply impressed by the attention to detail in some of the critter/ animal animations in this game and have spent far too much time just watching them wander around, stretch, attack each other, and so on. The models are also gorgeous. This picture shows three falcons attacking a rat, which was part of a heart quest. Look at the detail on the feathers,  and how they are posed to strike out with their talons. (I am a bird watcher so I appreciate this kind of thing Smile ).

gw2_keep

Blink and you’ll miss it – this screenshot shows my server actually taking a keep in WvW !!

There are plenty of reasons to try out WvW:

  • It’s fun (subjective)
  • Just about everything you do (that helps your side) will count as a dynamic event if you’re trying to tick some off for daily or monthly achievements, including defence.
  • There are plenty of objectives, including some that are soloable as well as group or zerg type activities. Obviously this depends on how much resistance you receive from the other teams.
  • Plenty of opportunity for xp. Lots of nodes to mine.
  • Supply lines are important. If you like your PvP a bit more tactical, you will probably enjoy this aspect of the game.
  • You can drive a ballista. Or other siege engines.
  • Free teleport to capital cities. Given that travel is a gold sink in GW2, the free port is handy if you need to get back to a trading post or want to do some crafting. Obviously this won’t be very appealing if your server has long PvP queues but its great if they don’t.

I’ve had fun pitching into PvP when I’m bored with centaurs. The realm v realm/ team style play does encourage players from your side to work together, although they may not always do it effectively. I don’t really get where the mists are supposed to exactly be geographically but given that this is server vs server PvP, it’s probably best not to worry about it.

It’s the economy, stupid

I have seen discussion this week about the GW2 economy: Azuriel thinks it is broken, Ravious thinks it is hugely successful. I see large volumes of trade occurring (the front page of the trading tab shows you some numbers) so trade is happening and we’ll call that a win for the moment. The main trade items are low level raw materials and unidentified dyes – cloth is evidently in low supply compared to other craft materials. There are clear gold sinks in the game via repairs and travel costs as well as pricey cosmetic gear that can be bought with gold at high levels.

While there are reasons to craft in the game — for xp, for fun, to eventually be able to make your own legendary gear, etc. – selling crafted gear to other players isn’t likely to be one of them. There may be crafts where a smart crafter can find a niche in the market, but you will be competing with all the other players across all servers in your region. (The trading post may also be cross-region, I’m not sure.) There is a lot more to be said on crafting and economies in MMOs but GW2 doesn’t look as though it will be a particularly rewarding game for crafting fans. I think I preferred the GW1 approach where you just handed your raw materials to an NPC and got crafted gear back, making crafting into its own /thing/ hasn’t really added a lot. Still, its early days yet.

It will also be interesting to watch the exchange rate of gold to gems (and vice versa) to get a feel for how many people are buying gems to convert into gold. Logically, Anet probably want to have plenty of gold sinks to encourage this but without making the game overtly pay to win or demotivating other players.

I suspect that while Azuriel may be right in principle with his arguments, any view that discounts that the vast majority of players do not read blogs or want to put much thought into playing the economy is unrealistic. It won’t matter to the GW2 economy if a minority of players can make loads of gold from it with some work, there will be many more who can’t be arsed.

Boulders and the single instance runner

gw2-boulder

We ran a story mode instance yesterday for the first time, huzzah!

I like this screenshot as it shows all the boulders we had been hurling at a boss stacked up in a corner after the boss died. Boulders are good! They knock mobs over. Use the boulders.

I am currently ambivalent about the PvE group content based on this experience. Although it was a story mode instance, only one of the players actually got the story cut scenes, the rewards weren’t really worth the effort, the bosses tactics were fine for an introductory instance, and our tactics tended to involve lots of boulders and death zergs (this is when people keep dying and running back into the fight until the boss dies). I don’t think this was particularly down to our poor play, some of the traps the bosses put down seemed to do a load of upfront damage which didn’t allow for much time to get out of the danger zone.

I enjoyed the actual exploring and trash fights more than the boss fights, and it’s always fun to hang out with the guys and kill things in a group. It would have been nicer to have gotten some rewards from our first instance that we didn’t all sell. I kept the yellow hood (quest reward) for the looks.

Also, for all Anet have attempted to remove the tank/heal/dps trinity in this game, I do hear a lot of people in general chat asking for plate classes to join their instance PUGs.

First seven thoughts on: GW2 beta

gw2beta_castle

This weekend was the first time I’ve had a chance to play the Guild Wars 2 beta. This is still a beta, which means that things can change before launch (and afterwards, obviously), so I’m not going to sweat the details in favour of sharing some broad stroke impressions.

Short summary: Fun was had but I can’t say I felt hooked until I tried WvW with Arb. WvW is really good fun and looks to me like the heart of this game. PvE is fine also but the parts I saw weren’t as compelling. Mechanically, the game is quite fussy, bordering on complexity just for the sake of it. This probably depends a lot on which profession/class you pick. Not so much ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ as ‘easy to learn enough to play the thing and not realise you haven’t grasped your class’s core mechanics.’  While the game can be quite slow and peaceful if you are in a quiet zone or quiet time, if you are in a zone filled with players you may end up with sensory overload from stuff going on all over the place all of the time. The ‘heart’ style of PvE questing where you get some choices about how to make the local questgiver happy was pretty cool and I liked it a lot.

Oh, and I really liked the vistas (will explain below.) I cannot imagine how genuinely new players would stick with the game long enough to learn it though, and even experienced gamers may find things confusing.

Classes I tried were elementalist, warrior, and mesmer. Up to about level 8 on the highest. I will probably go with an Elementalist main, but I did like the Mesmer a lot even if I totally failed to pick up on the skill chains. I didn’t try any crafting.

Anyhow, here are some points:

1. The game world is large and bright, and interesting to explore.

Some zones do feel much more open than others, the Norn starting area is spacious for example. Asuras felt more boxed in. But Arenanet are comfortable with building huge structures for players to explore; the castle in the screenshot at the top for example. They’ve encouraged some exploration via exploring achievements (you get told how much of the zone you have discovered) and vistas, which are points marked with little floating maps that reward the player with a pretty, soaring, cut scene of the surrounding area if you can get to the vista point. Some have minor jumping puzzles associated with them.

We found them fun.

2. Tutorials are hit and miss. Skillbars get replaced a lot with no warning.

Some of the in game tutorials were great. The introduction to the mists (WvW) for example, was really well done. I did wonder why the guy was emphasising the need to carry supplies around, but we figured that one out fairly swiftly after actually getting into some keep take/defense action. The professions though don’t get much explanation at all. Best you can do is mouse over all your available icons, read the tooltips, and give it your best shot.

The game also loves to completely replace your skillbar icons when you pick up some usable item or get into a downed state (near death), typically without giving you any time at all to check what your new skill icons actually do before you have to use them. Cue random button hitting and hoping for the best. If you find this confusing, it is because it is confusing.

I now realise from comments on KTR that the reason I thought some of my abilities had flickering icons was because there was some kind of chain mechanism going on (where you hit the same skill button more than once and the skill that fires off changes). I have no idea how you were supposed to really figure that one out.

I don’t mind complexity as long as I’m not expected to grasp it all instantly, but it’s a good idea for devs to at least throw players a bone or two when it comes to figuring things out. Even if it’s just a link to a player-driven wiki.

3. Dynamic events are fun. Underwater is fun.

gw2beta_underwater

This is a bunch of Asura fighting a huge shark underwater – still not entirely sure how you can cast fireballs underwater but hey, magic!

One of the nice things about dynamic events is that you can just roll up and join in, no need to be part of a group or have a gear check, if you’re in the area then you’re in. After the event finishes, then medals are awarded for participation (ie. gold, silver, bronze) and you’ll get some xp, karma points (used to buy stuff from merchants) and in game cash. Since the xp is great compared to most of the other things you’d be doing, it’s pretty much always worth joining in. Also some of the dynamic quests have several stages and fun little stories.

I’m not entirely sure about how much they change the world (until the next time), because like most people, I probably wasn’t sticking around long afterwards unless I was already questing in the area.

Being underwater is similar to flying in that you have 3 dimensions in which to move. I enjoyed it a lot, albeit not really sure how badly I wanted to learn yet another tray of abilities.

4. Weapon switching is an interesting mechanic, but ultimately I preferred GW1 skill design

So, depending a bit on which profession you pick, you will have 5 skills that are determined by the weapon/offhand you are using, and 5 slots that are filled by skills earned using skill points, which are a bit more flexible. (It probably gets more complex than this at higher levels but bear with me, I only saw a few hours of beta.)

On an elementalist, for each weapon you can also unlock four different elemental attunements (ie. 4 whole bars of skills). This feels like a lot of skills to remember. Plus you have to unlock them by killing mobs/players while using that weapon. I had thought that needing to train up weapon skills had gone out of fashion but clearly that’s not the case here. The elementalist is a particular edge case because it’s crazy flexible and has a massive amount of abilities available at any time. I can’t actually think how other professions are balanced against it.

It is definitely interesting, particularly in the early game when you still have a lot of skills to unlock. I suspect later on things settle down and get less confusing as you get used to what is available.

But still, the weapons felt like a hindrance rather than cool themed sets of abilities. So I might have one cool ability to leap into combat and zap people and another that lets me leap backwards and leave a trail of fire … but they’re on different weapons and different elemental attunements so I can’t easily use one followed by the other. This is where I was missing GW1 and its more flexible skill set design.

GW2 (like GW1) is a bit fussy with its buffs and debuffs. There is a fairly complex game around applying and removing various buffs, conditions, and other variously named categories of buff/debuff. There are also combos in the game, which I know because the game told me I completed one during one dynamic event. Since it did not tell me anything more than this, I have no idea how that happened or how to repeat it. It is something to do with how abilities of different professions interact, presumably it’ll a) all be documented on websites somewhere and b) we’ll have more time to figure it out while playing with friends anyway.

5. If you hate miniskirts, avoid the Norn casters.

gw2_beta

This was the point where I decided my elementalist would not be a Norn. I don’t care how soon I am able to pick up a longer skirt so I don’t have to see her knickers when she runs, IT ISN’T SOON ENOUGH.

Asura costumes are fine though. The characters generally looked good, and I was sad about the knickers thing because I liked the Norn hairstyles (even though long hair clips horribly). Anet give some good long hairstyles for male characters also. I was also amused that I could create a human male mesmer who looked a bit like Littlefinger.

6. World vs World PvP is really good fun. We were reminded a lot of DaoC (which is good)

In our brief 2hr stint in WvW, Arb and I had a lot of fun. The zones are large, the keeps and castles are large also. There are siege engines. You can tote supplies around and help build siege engines or mend damaged walls/doors (and in fact you probably should.) It can all seem quite complex at first but if in doubt, you can just follow someone who looks as though they know what they are doing, or look for current battles marked on the map. People were quite good about yelling useful instructions (like ‘go to keep X everyone’) on the general chat.

The WvW zones have some vistas and skill challenges, which work the same as PvE zones. I’m not sure if they have dynamic events other than player driven ones.

gw2beta_siege

This is us with a zerg attacking a keep door (I think we are Team Blue in this zone). You can see fire being flung from the trebuchet behind us. The green door is where Team Green (ie. the team who held the keep currently) could slip inside, which is a similar mechanic to WAR and DaoC. The gate’s healthbar is shown in red, when the health is zero the gate breaks open. You can also attack sections of the walls. Defenders can stand on the ramparts and shoot at attackers, stand behind the gate and repair it with supplies, or use their own siege engines.

Basically, if you are involved a keep siege you WILL want a ranged attack otherwise you will be very bored. I think every profession has at least one ranged weapon

gw2-oil

Defenders have access to burning oil which they can throw on people attacking the gate also. I probably shouldn’t have been walking so close to the burning oil with a lit torch.

gw2beta_treb

Trebuchets have a pretty long range. I marked the treb with a red circle here, and you can see its been set up well out of reach of the defenders (unless they have a treb of their own) but can still attack the ramparts.

In our game, we ended up with a three way fight inside the big castle – there are three teams involved in every WvW zone, coded red, blue, and green, and players will also have a name label showing which their home server is. It was a bit mad and the lag with a lot of people involved was quite significant.

Arb said immediately, “Lets go upstairs, you always have to go upstairs in keeps. There is probably a keep lord.” And she was absolutely correct. To take a keep, your team kills the keep lord who is an NPC.

7. The Auction House has buy as well as sell orders.

You can buy or sell on the AH from anywhere in the world, but have to actually be in a trading post to pick up things you have bought. This all seemed to work very well. It is possible to set up buy orders, and when someone sells an item, they will see if anyone has buy orders out on it. If so, and you sell for that price, it sells instantly.

I would imagine the buy orders are generally lowball so you’ll probably make more by selling at a higher price and being patient. But this was beta so who cares, really?

I liked the functionality of it. By comparison, the mail is weaker. You can’t mail your own alts, so if you want to give them spare items, you will have to leave those things in your vault (which is shared between alts on that account/server). You can however, send and receive mail from anywhere.

[Links] “I wasted time and now doth time waste me”

Summer is the usual season for exciting gaming announcements about upcoming release schedules, usually made at one of the big gaming conventions such as E3 or Gamescom. It is less usual for large MMO releases to take place over the summer, which is traditionally the low season (due to players being outside or on holiday). 2012 breaks with that schedule smartly, with The Secret World (TSW) in headstart for a release this week, and Arenanet announcing an end of August release for Guild Wars 2.

Bloggers have been very positive about TSW, finding it substantially different in pace, setting, and playing style to more DIKU based MMOs (yeah one day I’ll write something about MUD codebases and why DIKU tends to spawn different types of games than Godwars or Circle).

Windsoar writes about how a game’s setting affects the way he plays. He gives a good example of LOTRO as a slower paced game than WoW, where he is more inclined to run around the map than to mount up and use a horse. LOTRO is a slower paced game in many ways, and I personally always finds it takes a session or two to get myself back into that headset which doesn’t automatically get frustrated if a quest takes more than 10 mins from start to completion. Windsoar also ponders how his playing style in LOTRO might change if he decided that it was his main game and not just a casual ‘stepchild.’

“LoTRO is a stepchild in my gaming time. I pick it up and drop it off, much more like a console game than my main MMO. I’m not max level,  I have yet to see all the content, and who knows if I’ll even be max level when the next expansion rolls around. I’m in a guild. They didn’t even kick me during my extended hiatus. I think they have some guild stuff they do when they feel like it, but that’s not my role. I show up, I hang out, and I grats people when they announce they leveled up their 3rd bard.”

I compare this with how people are playing TSW because I’m picking up a sense that it also is slower paced than other more familiar MMOs.

Xintia helps people to figure out, “Is The Secret World for you?”

Stabs finds it a fun game to dive into and just learn to play by playing. Which is an interesting perspective from someone who is usually way more hardcore a player than I am.

“… not having much idea about anything it’s quite soothing to be eased into a slower pace more exploratory frame of mind.”

Syp comments that he has a good feeling about the game, and lists out some of his favourite and least favourite features.

“I’ve spent maybe five hours in the game so far, and have come away charmed by a very different type of MMO experience.  I think “different” is good in TSW’s case, because even if it relegates to a permanent niche status, at least it’s hard to label as a copycat of anything else.  It’s just kind of its own beast, and it takes a large mental shift to get into the game’s desired groove.”

Pete at Dragonchasers has been enjoying the ambiance in TSW also.

What I’ve been reading

Entombed writes at Divinity’s Reach about whether you need to be in a guild to play GW2 and concludes that you probably don’t, at least not for any of the mechanical reasons players usually join guilds for. That has some implications for in game communities, and this could turn out to be one of the least sociable MMOs ever created if that is the case. For some players, that could be a big selling point.

I’ll reiterate the question, are guilds needed in Guild Wars 2? If you are in the majority of players that cares about seeing all of the content, having fun, but not necessarily being the best in the world. Then my answer is no, but they can help you create and form groups for specific content.

MMO Gamer Chick writes about how her MMO playing pattern has shifted from sticking to one game for a long run to “MMO hopping.”

I think while the MMO playerbase has grown, it has not grown anywhere near fast enough to keep up with the rate the new games are being pumped into the market. Obviously, we can’t play all these games at the same time. The result is a chunk of the population that goes from game to game, leaving a game once the new car smell has worn off to check out the next big thing.

Do games get hyped more these days? Tobold feels that blogging against the hype cycle attracts a lot of angry comments, even though people (or at least regular MMO blog readers) must know the cycle by now: There is an extremely predictable news cycle for every new MMORPG, with early hype always being followed by disappointment, and then the game not being mentioned at all any more.

Liore discusses the hype cycle too and why she’s trying to opt out of it by sticking to one game for a year.

… the hype cycle we have now.. despite my happily participating in it on many occasions, I’m not sure it’s healthy for the playerbase. It creates this culture of animosity, and always jumping around trying to find the greenest virtual grass.

Bree blogs about Hi-Rez Studios insistence (to the point of rudeness) of keeping Hindu deities in their mythological themed MOBA. Apparently including Jesus was considered too risque though. She wonders why Jesus or Moses couldn’t make it into the game. I’d have thought throwing in a few archangels and demons from Judeo/Christian mythology, rather than prophets, would fit quite well into a game called SMITE myself. Ultimately, mythological characters are generally out of copyright, and some genres like JRPGs tend to use world mythology as a grab bag (remember Shiva in Final Fantasy) without attracting much comment. It’s the rudeness of the response that is the more newsworthy item here.

Melmoth presents the 16 rules of altitis in MMOs.

Shintar, having expressed her concerns about SWTOR server transfer, made the leap and describes her first night on the new server.

Targeter discusses patch 1.3 in SWTOR with the new group finder, noting that this is a systems patch and doesn’t contain any new content. I’ll add some of my experiences later this week.

The Grumpy Elf presents a series of 5 posts discussing problems facing a new player in WoW. He sounds quite pessimistic, and I don’t think these experiences will be universal. But none of them will be surprising to a more experienced player. They are all things that COULD happen.

First time in a battleground, unless they pick up really fast it is going to take a new player some time to understand the concept of how the battle is done.  If they do anything wrong, someone in this wonderful community will be so kind as to point out that they are a noob, a retard, a moron, and the worst player they have ever seen.

M at Killing ‘em Slowly discusses social games and how they seem to have a constant stream of new content.

I’m sure this is a completely unfair comparison. Apples to Snapples, if you will. Still, it was a thought I had as I was looking at my CastleVille quest log. I’ll exhaust the novelty of the gameplay long before I run out of quests. When was the last time that happened to me in an MMO? Ever? I can’t say that I rightly know.

Belghast explains why he’s back in WoW after a long break.

Syl links to many posts written by bloggers responding to her invitation to explain “How has WoW changed you?”

Boatorious explains why he’s done with Diablo 3.

Ryan Shwayder discusses Sandbox PvP MMOs and why there aren’t many around other than EVE.

To see why they haven’t generally worked out, let’s briefly examine what makes them so fun: Dominating other players, doing almost anything you want to do, exploiting, holding territory, griefing, taking things from other players… in short, the Wild West. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Well, it is fun as long as you’re one of the people doing those things to other people instead of having them done to you.

[SWTOR] Are we there yet?

Bioware have taken the fairly brave step of allowing new players into their shiny new servers/ game in waves, depending on when they entered their pre-order codes into their accounts.

Naturally this has spawned some classic board-rage on the official boards from people who don’t think they got their money’s worth. I don’t normally have a lot of time for board rage but in this case I think they have a point. Retailers/ Bioware were charging extra for those pre-order bonuses, and I think people are entitled to know exactly what they get for their money. Stepped pre-entry might have been fairer if the pre-order had not cost extra over the box version.

Arb and I cheesed the whole thing by getting given pre-order codes for free at Comic Con back in July, so we got in early and made our characters last night. I have a pretty blue bounty hunter and a pretty red sith and a pretty green smuggler. Who knew my life was so devoid of characters with primary-coloured skin? (I know people have criticised SWTOR for the fact so many of the races are recoloured humans, but I actually kind of like the way they look. I also like that you can make dark skinned humans, and that so many of the NPCs also have dark skin. That’s been missing from far too many games, given how easy it should be to do.)

So far the early start seems to have been going very smoothly. That’s not a small thing at all, so props to Bioware and hope they can keep it up. The pre-loaded guild setup means that if you had joined a guild and noted it on the Bioware site before launch, when you log into the server to which that guild was assigned, one of your characters (you can choose which) gets an automatic invite. This has also been working neatly, and saves a lot of hassle around “omg, is anyone around who can invite me???!!” (especially if one’s guildmaster did not get into early start until near the end.)

I will write some more specific posts on particular mechanics or storytelling tricks that I think either work or don’t in this case. But I am continually blown away by how clever the camera work is in the cut scenes, showing different characters’ reactions to conversation, and giving extra information about my character from her posture and movement. I see her leaning casually against a wall, pacing up and down like a caged animal, and all in the background of whoever is actually speaking. It very effectively gives the impression of the sith warrior as a lioness, ferocious, arrogant, contained. How can you not love that?

I am trying to decide whether to give amusing updates on how my budding sith warrior is faring. I don’t want to give spoilers, but … if they’re funny…? Maybe I will mark any such with spoiler tags.

Favourite moment so far: My warrior messing around and telling her master, “If you see the emperor, say hello from me.” His response, “I’m sure he’ll be thrilled,” which sounds like nothing unless you actually heard how dripping with sarcasm the voice work was. I wonder if I’ll have that level of sark when I’m a big strapping warriorette; one can but aspire to greatness. Have also decided that my warrior will suck up to the empire military because they have nice uniforms. Other than that, it’s light side for me.

Also teamed up with a friendly inquisitor (shurely shome mistake?) to complete a couple of group quests. We died a couple of times, but never both at the same time, so were able to press on and complete them both. Naturally I have forgotten her name and didn’t friend her at the time.

[LOTRO] First impressions of Isengard

So, the latest LOTRO expansion was released earlier this week. I’m not sure expansion is really the right name for it, but there’s plenty of new content for high level characters and lots of class changes.

The game has been busier than I have seen it for a long time, underlying Turbine’s claim that Rise of Isengard is their biggest selling expansion for LOTRO of all time. The game does allow for multiple instances of zones when the player load is especially heavy, and I’ve been seeing that a lot this week (so if you get an unexpected zone load message when entering or leaving an area, it’s because your character is being assigned one of the multiple instances.)

The storytelling so far in the expansion has been of Turbine’s usual high quality. Unlike most other MMOs, LOTRO doesn’t digress hugely with gonzo zones or plotlines, and is mostly bound to its core lore and background. So in many ways the challenges for writers are how to make the zone storylines fresh and interesting when they are bound to involve similar NPCs and themes.

One theme they have been working with is that the human settlements become more and more influenced by Saruman the closer you get to Isengard. So in Enedwaith (the last zone), the human camps were in the process of speaking to emissaries from the white tower and the PCs (along with the Grey Company, the rangers with whom they are travelling) had to persuade them not to cut the deal. In the end, I seem to remember that they decided to remain neutral, which we counted as a win – sort of.

Now in Dunland (first of the new zones) the first large town we encounter is already allied with Saruman and is fielding men and supplies to his armies. But there are still some rebellious factions who would prefer to be free … your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find them and help their cause.

I find this interesting because it’s a similar storyline to the first Horde encampment in Twilight Highlands, in WoW. There you also encounter a town which has been taken over by a cruel overlord and have to help the rebels take over. It’s just that in WoW it’s all over and done with in a handful of quests and then you can move on. In LOTRO, you get the extended version in which you get to know more of the individuals. Although the game can feel a bit glacial, I quite enjoy the contrast of the slower storylines.

Also:

  • Minstrels seem very powerful in this expansion. Just from hearing kinmates chat about how much they are enjoying soloing.
  • A new crafting tier. Many of the recipes are available from random drops (which has also been true in previous tiers) and in the excitement of a new expansion, it’s still quite cool to get one. That will fade fast, I am sure.
  • One of the themes in the new epic book so far is encouraging players to choose whether they want to stay in an area and finish all the other quests before picking up the next book quest. You always had those options, but now they’re explicitly saying things like, “Decide for yourself how long you want to stay and help the men of **wherever** before going to the next ranger.”
  • Whilst LOTRO storytelling is pretty cool, I don’t think it’s all that plausible that elves, dwarves or hobbits could really pass as potential allies to the Saruman-allied men of Dunland.
  • I don’t really think my burglar has the best disguise ever either. (She’s wearing one of those typical ‘burglar’ domino masks. I love it, but it does scream “I AM A BURGLAR!”)

My tour in Call of Duty Black Ops

call-of-duty-black-ops-arctic6

I could hear the crunching of footsteps on snow, and froze with my back to the wall. Suddenly there was a flicker of movement in my peripheral vision and I spun round in time to bring the light machine gun (LMG) to bear on the man behind me.

“Oh shit, which button is it to fire…” I said, accidentally swinging the viewpoint round so that I was pointing my gun at the floor. I may possibly have said rude words to the PS3 controller.

My friend, patiently, waited until I had gotten the controls together and could happily obliterate him with a headshot.

“Sorry,” I said, as his blood splattered over the snow.

“You don’t have to say sorry every time you kill someone.”

Call of Duty doesn’t do unhappy endings. You don’t really die, you just respawn round the corner with a full clip.

————————————————

So here’s the setup. I was round visiting friends over New Year and had a chance to play Black Ops on a lovely big TV. “You write about games, you should try this,” seemed like a great idea at the time. And then there I was, controller in hand, feeling like the clumsiest soldier in the western hemisphere. Do real black ops personnel spend 5 minutes trying to get through an open door? I suspect not.

I can’t get over how awkward the controller is for this type of game. I haven’t played shooters for years, not since playing Quake on the office LAN (despite my partner’s best efforts to interest me in Unreal Tournament) and never on a console.

And yet. Once you have a vague feel for the controls, it’s a very exciting game. Sure, it’s just a souped up version of hide and seek. That actually is the basics of most shooters, as best as I can see. But add in interesting buildings, vehicles, and obstacles to duck around, and hide and seek with imaginary guns seems like a perfectly good afternoon’s pastimes.

I personally find that the ultra realistic uniforms and guns add approximately zero interest to the genre for me. If anything, the more realistic it gets, the more uncomfortable I get. I have no desire to shoot real people. I don’t really want to do anything more violent than paintballing (which I have done iRL and was a lot of fun.)

And compared to the MMOs I’m used to, Black Ops with its first person view feels very claustrophobic. You can’t see the whole battlefield, you can often barely see a few inches in front of your own face and if you tweak the controls awkwardly then the camera careers around, not only making you feel seasick but also destroying any chance at all of you getting a feel for the layout of the area.

I can see though that once you are comfortable with the controls and can get more into the ‘hide and seek with guns’ zone, you can get a good deal more fun out of it.

Reflections on FPS and Black Ops

One of the stand out points for me is that Black Ops was not especially more fun than Quake, despite the length of time between the two games. The actual gameplay wasn’t all that, at least not that I could see. It certainly has prettier graphics, more hyper realistic settings, and lets you interact more with the environment (or at least shoot holes through doors and break windows), but I’m not really seeing the great leap forward in FPS that I was expecting.

The second thing is that really, paintball is a lot more fun and way less claustrophobic. I did find the controller was a hindrance. The studio that can make a good Kinect based shooter will be onto a winner.

The third is that there’s nothing really novel about playing hide and seek online. It’s very basic gameplay, even compared with other console games like Uncharted 2 or Grand Theft Auto. (GTA in particular shows off the console much better, to my mind.)

The fourth is that although it is kind of fun to tag your friends, I just don’t like actually shooting people. So I feel a bit conflicted when I kill anyone. (I think once we started playing for real a bit more, although I obv. wasn’t as good as the guys who had more practice, I did get some actual kills that weren’t pity kills :) ).

The last is that if Blizzard are working on a PvE/ MMO type shooter for Titan, they could well be onto a winner. I think there are lots of players out there like my friends who enjoy playing with people they know, and like the PvE game, but aren’t all that excited about being massacred by random 14 year olds (the game, astoundingly, has no player rank matching a la Starcraft 2, which is an inexplicable omission for me in a genre that stands or falls on it’s PvP tournament modes.)

[Pirates] Happy Caribbean Christmas!

Last night we went to see Tron Legacy (short review: pacey, exciting, great graphics, and light cycles have never looked this good – but disappointing in that it failed totally to build on the rather cool themes of the original story) and one of the trailers was for Pirates of the Caribbean 4. (A film about which I’m pretty excited because a) Geoffrey Rush upstaging Johnny Depp in every joint scene and b) it’s based on a goddamn Tim Powers book!)

And being in the piratical mindset, it seemed time to take a longer look at Pirates of the Burning Sea, which recently switched to a Free to Play/ Cash Shop basis. Arrrrr!

potbs_jennybay

Bloggers have claimed that you need to play an MMO intensively for several months to really get a good feel for it, and while there’s something in that, I also think that within 30 mins or so I should be able to get a sense of what a game is about. Pirates does a stunning job in that respect.

I’m never really sure what the ideal newbie experience should be like. Should it be a carefully scripted in media res storylike experience which draws you into your new character and the game world? Should it focus more on introducing you to the UI? Or is it enough if you just want to keep playing after the newbie quests are done?

potbs_alice

With the Pirates opening sequence, you first get to create your character. And this is one of the high points of the game, for me, because they tend to look absolutely stunning.

You can choose between British, French, Spanish, or Pirate as your faction of choice and then have a vast array of clothing options alongside the usual skin colour/ hairstyle/ facial hair (for guys) etc. I do love the clothing of this era and PotBS loves it just as much as I do.

After that, there’s a practice naval skirmish, controls of which will be familiar to anyone who played Sid Meier’s Pirates or Star Trek Online and a practice fencing bout which follows the more typical MMO model. Then a chance to explore the starting town, which is interrupted with another scripted sequence where you get  to use your newfound duelling and naval skills in anger.

And while exploring the town and talking to NPCs, I find that there’s a deep sandbox aspect to this MMO. Players can become Governers of towns, they can take part in a player based crafting and merchant economy (which, like EVE, requires you to travel between ports to access the best prices) and there seems to be a lively faction based PvP game as well. Also, if you are arty, you can design your own flags/ sails and upload them to your ship (they charge for this, which strikes me as reasonable).

potbs_church

Whatever the locals do for Christmas, it clearly doesn’t involve going to the church, which was fairly empty. Instead, as I wandered into town, I ran into the local Christmas event in the shape of a drunk Irishman who inveigled my new captain into taking him round town to sing to some of the local people about burying a wren – apparently connected with his home traditions.

Pirates loves its lore with a deep and abiding passion that seeps into every part of the game. On the Christmas quest, I got to learn about how the Spanish, the French, and the English celebrated Christmas in the Caribbean in this era and it felt very solidly researched. There’s an attention to detail in this game which totally won me over.

potbs_britishxmas

I was also totally bowled over by the sound track. As I wandered around town, the sounds reflected the area I was in. If I walked next to the chickens, I could hear them clucking. If I went to the fiddle player and dancers in a corner, I could hear the violin and the laughing. If I wandered closer to some gossiping women, I could HEAR what they were saying.

Not only that, but all the music is put together with period sensibilities in mind. The instruments sound authentic, so do the songs. It’s just a brilliant demonstration of how much sound can add to a game, without needing everything to be fully voiced, Bioware-style.

So although my game time at the moment is mostly taken by Cataclysm, this is definitely a game I intend to play for awhile longer. (So if anyone knows any friendly guilds on EU-timezones who can put up with newbies, feel free to note them in comments.) I can’t comment on play balance or how well all the various elements work, but there’s something very cool and different going on here, with a theme unlike anything else you’ll find in the genre.

The players on the general channels also seemed friendly and helpful, something which you often find on smaller games where players are more conscious that every new player who gets hooked is someone else for them to play with in future.

 

So if you are finding that WoW is a bit linear at the moment, and have any interest in pirates or historical sandbox type games, give this one a look.

Torchlight: Imagine if Diablo had fishing

fullscreen

I mentioned Torchlight in dispatches last week, and the game was released yesterday to a flurry of excitement and acclaim.

If you liked Diablo, this game is going to feel like coming home. The devs (who include some of the Diablo II team) have captured perfectly the visceral feel of the old game. It even uses many of the same keybinds – alt to look for items on the floor, shift to stand and shoot, mouse clicks to move. Even down to the music, it’s obvious where the inspiration for Torchlight is coming from (the composer had also worked on Diablo).

But influences aside, from what I’ve seen so far it’s a darned good game. It’s fast paced, pretty, adds functionality that people would have LOVED if it had been in Diablo 2, has good voicework for a little game and I’m already pondering how I can keep this post short so that I can sneak in another half hour of play before heading off out today.

Torchlight is currently a single player  game with no multi-player features. The team are currently working on using it as the basis for a future F2P MMO.

If you are intrigued and want to try it, there is a demo available on Steam. The full game costs $20/£15 and there’s a free level editor included, so expect to see a lot of player generated content coming down the wires.

Some of the extra features:

  1. The pet. Roguelikes (the big influence for Diablo) come in two types, those with pets (nethack) and those without (angband). Torchlight lets you have a lynx or a dog. You can equip it with items, teach it spells, send it off to town to sell unwanted items, and feed it fish to give it a temporary shapeshift. You can change the pet’s stance to aggressive, defensive, or passive but other than that, it does its own thing and fights alongside you. I’m glad my RL cat can’t cast fireballs is all I’m saying.
  2. Fishing! While wandering the depths you may come across a fishing hole, and like any self respecting adventurer you naturally carry a fishing rod (10’ pole?) wherever you go, just in case. Fishing in this game is a simple minigame which is more fun than in any MMO I’ve ever fished. It’s hard to explain why, because you’re still sitting and waiting for your character to hook something and then clicking to pull the line at the right moment. I have some screenies below.
  3. Shared bank vault. You have two bank vaults, one for your character and one which is shared between all of your alts so you can save those awesome items for a future character.
  4. Diablo had a slightly awkward control mechanism where everything was controlled by mouse clicks and you swapped which abilities were accessed by the mouse via number keys. Torchlight is smoother, you do bind abilities to the left and right mouse button (attack seems a good one for the left click) but you can also bind abilities to number keys and use those alongside.
  5. TNT barrels. Everyone always liked destroying barrels, right? Well now you can take a few mobs out at the same time. This is particularly good fun with the Vanquisher who is a bow/gun user so can destroy the barrels from a safe distance.

(Edited to add: Because someone asked, it’s shift+F9 to take screenshots, and they are stored at C:\Documents and Settings\<username>\Application Data\runic games\torchlight\)

More on Fishing

fishing hole

First, find your fishing hole.

howtofish

When you click on the fishing hole, your character gets the fishing rod out and settles down to wait.

The fishing icon comes up and the two blue circles around it pulsate slowly. When they converge to make a single blue circle, you click on the hook icon….

caught one

There!

yayfish

And the fish is reeled in so that you can find out what you’ve caught.

Fish are placed directly into the fish slot in your bags, where you can mouse over to find the different buffs  your pet receives when  you feed it the fish.

A little touch of Spellborn in the night

Maybe I shouldnt have picked the thin setting

There is such a thing as too thin

The Chronicles of Spellborn (TCoS) is in beta at the moment, and I was bored … a dynamite combination. And so Spinks the Rogue Trickster was born.

Spellborn is a fantasy MMO, so you will be running around doing quests, killing boars, casting spells, crafting stuff, listening to other people noob it up on the zone channel, wondering what happened to your bag space, and all those other much beloved features that people expect to see these days.

The more unusual features, which I’m going to dwell on, are the combat, the immersive use of stats, and lack of gear dependence.

There are both PvE and PvP servers. On the PvP server, there are safe zones, but after you get out of the starter areas, it becomes more of a free for all.

And although I didn’t level up high enough for that, PvP in this game is going to require quick thinking and good observational skills, because there’s no way to tell what class/discipline an opponent is just by eyeballing them. You have to see what they do and then react.

So let’s start at the beginning

Character creation lets you pick between two different races: Human or Deva (a satyr-type demon). You can pick between three different builds, from skeletal thin (as in the screenshot above), athletic, and an adorable fat suit that I wouldn’t expect to be so popular. Although the temptation to make a Fat Bottomed Girls guild and only let fat characters in, and sing Queen covers as we roam the landscape cutting bloody swathes through our more svelte opponents is quite high.

You pick your base class from the three standard choices of warrior, rogue, or caster. You will later (at level 5) pick a discipline in which to specialise, which is basically your class. Each base class has three subclasses to choose from.

And if it sounds as though there isn’t a ranged class, think again. Due to the way the skills work, classes have a wide range of skills, Guild Wars style. Just you have to decide which ones you want to slot for any particular situation.

So, for example, my rogue has a full suite of ranged attacks. If I wanted to set her up as an archer type, it would be very easy to do.

You have a wide choice of skin and hair colours and a reasonable range of styles. (My test character is blonde because I was briefly obsessed by trying to make her hair the same pale colour as the skin. I’d have had better luck matching skin and hair if she’d been black. Will do that next time, and there are hairstyles and faces that would look good like that.)

Clothing wise, you are not actually stuck with a standard set of newbie gear. You can design your armour from sets of different parts that you mix and match. Again, don’t read too much into the fact that my test character looks like a scrapheap. The customisation is limited but you do have some scope to pick your own look. The armour is also all dyeable.

If you change your mind about gear later on, as well as being able to pick up drops, you can also buy any of the chargen armour in towns.

Note: every character, regardless of base class, uses the same chargen. This means that you can’t tell from the gear what class someone else is. Yes, casters can use heavy armour and two handed swords if they want. But the gear is largely just for show.

Once happy with that and you have picked a name, you are dropped into the newbie tutorial. This is a little solo instance where you can practice moving around, interacting with NPCs and items, and try a few simple fights.

And then you’re off into the outside world.

Look and Feel

The game uses the Unreal Engine and although the proportions on the characters can look mildly odd, the way they move and fight looks very fluid. The starting area is attractive, and characters fit well into the world. I mention this because in some games the world is gorgeous and the characters feel tacked on, or move so badly that it’s painful to watch.

That isn’t the case here.

Combat!

Combat is what really sets this game apart. There are three main reasons for this:

1/ The reticule. You have to target an enemy in order to hit them. Like a FPS, this is done with a targeting reticule in the middle of your screen. It changes colour to red when it is moving over something which you can attack.

2/ Moving around in combat is important. You can actually duck out of a mob’s melee range to avoid a blow and then run back in. Mobs have to aim at you in order to hit you, so if you are good at moving around, strafing, and so on, you can take almost no damage.

3/ Skill selection. When you go up a level, you can pick one of a number of skills to add to your skill deck (ie. the skill deck is the set of skills you currently know). From your deck, you assign skills to your combat quickbars. You use the mouse or number keys to pick a hotkey and the left mouse button to fire it, while aiming at the enemy. But wait, there’s more. The quickbar is actually a set of three (initially) bars. And after you have used an ability, it rotates to the next bar automatically (after the third bar it goes back to the beginning). So when you assign skills to the quickbars, you have to think about which order you might want to use them in. Does one debuff need to happen before another attack? When might you want a heal to be available? What about ranged attacks?

So once you have set your quickbars up, combat is an involved mixture of selecting abilities, moving around, keeping the enemy targeted, and watching your quickbars rotate to gauge what ability will be available next.

There is also a semi-complex set of buffs and debuffs to add into the mix. Some abilities do more damage if an opponent is debuffed in specific ways.

It takes some practice and I’m not sure I’d ever be good at it, but it is for sure a lot less dull than standing around and hitting frostblast repeatedly.

Meaningful Stats

We’re very used to seeing stats on our character sheets which aren’t very meaningful. They mean something to the game mechanics, sure, but aside from amounts of health, you wouldn’t notice them by looking at characters.

Spellborn isn’t quite like this.

There are three main stats: physique, morale, and concentration. When you go up levels you get some points to assign between there. And as a general rule, warrior classes specialise in physique, rogue classes in concentration, and caster classes in morale. NPCs and mobs have these stats too, and they will affect how they fight.

Physique affects how quickly you move. And since dodging and turning are  important in combat (not to mention running away!), this is one of the more important stats.

Concentration affects your attack speed. In game this means how quickly your quickbar wheel rotates between one attack and the next.

Morale affects how much damage you do.

So for example, a boar in game has low physique. Even if you didn’t know this, you’d see how slowly it turns in combat. Wolves, by comparison, have high physique and are much quicker. So there are subtle differences in mobs that you fight beyond how much health they have and what spells they may or may not cast.

And if you debuff one of these stats on an opponent, you’ll see the effect immediately.

I like this. It’s a nice change from having to squint at little icons to check what debuffs you have up. Although you can do that too.

On the downside, if you get attacked by a pack of mobs who all debuff the same stat, you can end up in some serious trouble. I was able to run away from a load of humanoids who all debuffed my Physique… but I was running very very very slowly. Fortunately I was able to strafe a bit to avoid some of the hits which is how I survived, but it is a bit savage.

Gear in general

Gear is basically cosmetic in this game. But each item has slots into which you can add sigils (ie. thingies with stats, if you find or make them). Don’t expect to know what class someone is just by looking at them.

My summary, from the heights of level 7

I really liked the combat. It felt involving and immersive. Needing to keep the opponent targeted lent the whole thing a very FPS feel, although it really isn’t a first person shooter.

So if you’re looking for something like that from a fantasy MMO, definitely go try Spellborn. I also think the skill deck has the potential for some fairly deep, tactical gameplay. I liked how my rogue could have easily fitted herself out as ranged OR melee dps. Or probably even both, but I’d have to juggle skills around and really decide which I wanted.

At higher levels, this will get more interesting due to longer quickbars, more bars, and more skills to choose from. At low levels though, trying to decide which skill to learn on reaching a new level is quite overwhelming.

It is also bizarre to me that the tutorial stopped just when it was about to get to the complex parts of the combat/quickbar system where a tutorial might actually have been useful.

The newbie quests themselves weren’t very exciting. Kill ten boars cropped up on more than one occasion. But to be honest, I was happy to have something to practice my noob combat skills on, and that’s what the starting quests are all about. There is a definite paucity of mobs in the starting area when lots of other people are questing too. The areas themselves were attractive and once you got past the whole ‘kill ten boars’ness of the quests, they’re written well enough.

In the next zone up I did more exciting things like lead lost cows back to pasture!

The world building and lore that I picked up was intriguing. There are politicking great houses, a world broken into shards, and lots of history that I didn’t really understand. But it was really the combat that I found more enthralling — the starting areas and quests are serviceable but not more than that.

I liked my roguelet well enough, the trickster looks to have a fun bunch of things to do. Sure, I saw casters soloing groups whereas my main experience of soloing groups was ‘how to run away from stuff’, but that could just as easily be my inexperience at strafing around and moving in combat.

I spoke to one guy who had a high level trickster on the EU game and he really liked it. So take that as you wish.

More reviews:

Dragonchaser has a great first impression post here. And for another view, check out Melmoth’s first impressions.