Catching up: Neverwinter, WoW Raiding, Diablo

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“I got eaten by a gelatinous cube!!!” she said, “This is the best day of my life!”

I feel late to the party so going to link to a few other people’s experiences with the Neverwinter open beta. I haven’t really seen any bad reviews, it’s a solid game and if you like that sort of thing, it’s F2P so you can go try it. For me I get strong vibes of a mixture of Diablo and standard hotbar MMO play, and it mostly works. Also my character has a really cool devil tail that waves around.

  • Dusty Monk – “… when you first log on, you’ll be presented with a Home Page of the various kinds of content available and how to get to them.   And for most of that content, a robust LFG queuing tool is available, and works really well.  So whether for skirmishes, dungeons, or PvP matches, you can queue up, and typically within less than 20 minutes or so, be whisked away to the instance of your choice.”
  • Tipa at West Karana – “I play the game, I like the game, but I don’t know why. Game just _confuses_ me.”
  • The Jester, a blogger at wizards.com (blogging for a pen and paper audience) – “The static world reflects a style of MMO design on the way out. It’s very much a third-generation MMO despite every MMO in the last three or four years trying to become an early fourth-generation MMO. There’s not a whole lot of innovation. Excluding the Foundry, it’s an unremarkable game I would have not looked twice at had it not been using the D&D licence (and even then, only because it’s free). There’s also only enough official content for a single playthrough.”

Like many of the other bloggers I follow, I’m finding a lot more fun in the game than I had expected. It is, as The Jester says, a very static world design but I don’t entirely agree with him about the third-generation MMO. Cryptic have been looking at more recent developments in other games, so Neverwinter features companion NPCs and crafting based on facebook style games/ SWTOR, LFG queues for all the group content in the game, a web interface where you can check your crafting/ auctions/ etc., and a more active combat style than typical MMOs. I find the dodging works better here than in GW2, for example. The game does default to mouse look, and binds your two main attacks to the mouse buttons for that classic Diablo feel. This didn’t annoy me as much as I was expecting although it feels awkward when you want to drop out of mouse look mode so that  you can click on some other part of your screen. All in all, it feels like a modern take on an oldschool genre, which is pretty appropriate for a game based on Dungeons and Dragons.

And Arb and I do get a kick from the oldschool D&D references that are studded through the game, especially when we remember the monsters showing up in tabletop games that we ran as teenagers.  The gelatinous cube shown above was an old GMing favourite, as were the illusory walls that have featured in other dungeons in the game. Fortunately this particular cube was not immune to cold and lightning damage, given that my wizard has a lot of ice spells. And that shows up one of the downsides of Neverwinter – it’s not actually as tactically interesting as a D&D game probably should be. Monsters are supposed to have strengths and vulnerabilities, but that doesn’t really work with this type of MMO where players don’t want to be told “You should really bring someone with fire spells if you are going to fight gelatinous cubes.”

It’s a dilemma. In any case, we’re having fun with the game at the moment. I don’t know if it really has long lasting stickability but Cryptic have played to their strengths by including The Foundry for player generated scenarios and that is something I am curious to try out.

Raiding in the Throne of Thunder

Kadomi has written a much more colourful description of our raiding progress over at her blog (I love being in a guild with other bloggers, I can just link to what they wrote and say “just read this.”)

Short form: We got council down last week in normal mode for the first time. So we’re making slow but steady progress through the raid. I have had more fun raiding in MoP than in any aspect of WoW since Wrath, although the encounters are sometimes overtuned in normal, they’re pretty well designed. I don’t know what other people consider good encounter design but for me, I don’t mind a complex boss fight that takes us a long time to learn as long as we can feel we are learning on every pull.

Encounters like Elegon and Council have been incredibly rewarding fights for our guild to master, I think. So I don’t much care that we’re not on heroic modes, the raids we are doing are at a really good difficulty for us I think. But I’m pretty tolerant of slow progression if the company is good and fun is being had.

At the same time, LFR being available helps a lot with keeping the general good mood in a casual raid guild. I think back to Burning Crusade and just how darned important it felt to be in progression raids because it was the only way you could be in with a shot at the gear you’d need to be included in the next progression raid. Now you can keep up reasonably well with gear levels by running LFR and collecting rep gear so it’s not the end of the world if you miss a week or two. Plus if we don’t have enough people on a raid night, we can take a guild group to LFR and still have the opportunity to hang out together.

As anyone who has been reading gaming news recently will know, WoW posted a drop in accounts over the last quarter. This can’t be surprising given general trends in the genre and doesn’t really reflect on MoP – anyone who quit because there were too many dailies probably wasn’t going to be in it for the long run anyway.

Diablo III

Since the new patch, I have been tentatively trying out my old Barbarian in Inferno level and … this is probably not surprising but now that several nerfs have been applied to the mobs and buffs to the characters, I am quite enjoying it. The original difficulty just wasn’t fun for me, this is.

I have enjoyed all the Diablo-esque games that I have played recently, Torchlight 2 is a lot of fun also, but Diablo 3 does have some very moreish design factors to it. I love silly things like the increasingly outlandish types of arms and armour you pick up (what is a Schynbald? Heck if I know!), which brings me back to original Dungeons and Dragons with it’s lovingly illustrated pages of exotic polearms.

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[Diablo 3] The good, the bad, and the state of the game (minor spoilers)

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So, I’m coming up for air from some serious bouts of Diablo 3 this week, albeit not as serious as the guy who already soloed Diablo on Inferno mode, or the guys from Method who killed him in a 4 man group on the same setting. That does seem quite fast given how difficult Blizzard touted inferno mode as being but I am sure it will still be plenty hard for normal players, especially since they’ll have had to play the game through three times before they get to pick that setting.

Meanwhile your narrator is on Act 2 of Nightmare Mode (that’s the next one up from normal) and has been playing a bit of co-op in Normal Mode with Arb. I’ve been enjoying it; Diablo 3 is a fun game, I am a sucker for the gothic grimdark Heaven and Hell themes, and there is a lot to like about it. In fact, there are many utterly and genuinely great things you should know about D3.

The Good

* THE CLASS DESIGN AND TALENT SYSTEM. This isn’t just good, it’s amazing. No futzing around with talent trees trying to decide if you want 1% extra block here or +10 resist vs undead trees there (that kind of fiddling is purely in the gear), instead you get to pick 6 attacks which will be bound to keys 1-4 and the left/right mouse buttons. Each ability is distinctive and has immediately recognisable effects on the screen and in play, and you get to further customise the ability as you unlock runes by levelling up. Finally someone has twigged that players want their choices to matter immediately and in every fight. That is what this system accomplishes. While Blizzard start you off with a balanced power set which involves one key for defensive spells, one for your long (ie. 2 min) cooldowns, etc., you can leapfrog this and just bind whichever powers you prefer by picking the Elective Mode (Options-> Gameplay-> Interface).

I’ve never been a fan of talent trees but I adore this system. I’m also fond of being able to respec whenever you aren’t in combat. It encourages players to experiment with some of the synergies and try things out, or respec to more appropriate skills after a boss kicks your arse. And you can tell fairly swiftly if a given skill set is working out for you or not.

Each class is fun, distinctive, and has some solid signature abilities which are thematic to the class. Moving away from mana and the associated mana potions was a great move too. It all works. This is Blizzard design at its finest and deserves to be widely copied.

* COMBAT AND LOOTING. It’s fast and furious, there’s lots of clicking, it’s Diablo.  I especially enjoy the physicality of the whole thing. When characters use their movement powers (ie. charge or leap on the Barbarian) they bound around the screen scattering mobs in their wake in a way that’s both easy to follow and strangely satisfying. When mobs or chests or barrels are destroyed, they throw out a veritable fountain of loot that lands with another satisfying crash on the ground. I also like how you collect gold or health orbs just by being in the vicinity.

I think D3 must have a design goal that the player never has to wander around for more than 20s before encountering some monsters. But that suits me.

* LOYAL TO THE ROGUELIKE ROOTS. There is going to be a lot of discussion with this game about what exactly makes a Diablo game into a Diablo game. Some of this is doubtless Blizzard being lazy, there’s no special need for a Diablo game to go Tristam->Desert->Mountains or reuse plot elements and NPCs into the ground. But there are definitely gameplay features where the game remains close to its roots in a good way. The random packs of mobs with randomly assigned abilities/ suffixes means that the game on harder modes rewards cautious and defensive play above pure damage. It also means there is a heavy dose of luck in exactly how difficult any random fight will be for any class/group.

That’s very much the way you play roguelikes. Sometimes the game throws you into a situation that’s just plain unfair – deal with it, that’s how procedurally generated games work. It drives you into developing a play style and character that is able to cope with the unexpected.

* GOOD USE OF ACHIEVEMENTS. I’m not the greatest fan of achievements but they do work really well here, there’s a good set of achievement goals for everyone from the casual player who is happy rerunning normal mode over and over again to the ultra hardcore.

I think it’s a nice touch that you get to see when any of the people on your friends list get an achievement. I liked it in WoW and I like it here too.

* SLICK MULTIPLAYER. It’s a fun game on multiplayer, and very easy to drop into one of your friends’ games and then teleport to them.

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* DIVERSITY. After the general fuss over the demon hunter (I still hate the heels) I’m really happy to say that D3 actually does make some good steps with diversity. In particular, Tyrael appears as a dark skinned guy, there’s some use of older characters (such as Cain, Adria, and the male Barbarian and Monk) and younger ones (the emperor) and it isn’t always the women who betray your character/s.

I’ve also shown images of the female barbarian (NM Act2)  and wizard (Normal Act 1) above, and I think they both look great without being stripperific.

It’s open to debate as to whether any of the PCs or NPCs are or could be gay. I actually think all the main characters are written to be sexless, and the enchantress and templar are just naive.

* GOOD USE OF BOOK SNIPPETS. I enjoyed the use of lore text via snippets of books, diaries, and journals that you find around the world, which are read out to you. I like that you can keep killing stuff while you listen. The actual game journal itself could have used being better designed so that you could search it more easily afterwards. Bioware’s codexes are good examples of how this could work.

* GOOD WRITING FOR COMPANIONS/ CRAFTERS. For me the best written parts of the game were the companion storylines, which are fed to you via snippets and short conversations as you progress through the game, Bioware-style. All those companions and the two crafters had solid story arcs and I rather enjoyed them. Yes, they’re stereotypes but that’s not really an issue for this game.

There is also some fun NPC dialogue on the various villagers and associates at your camp which changes between quests as the story progresses.

I did feel very Conan when I ventured out on my Barbarian with the sleazy scoundrel companion. It could have happened in a Robert E Howard book.

* ATMOSPHERE. I think this worked best in Act 1, but there is a definite atmosphere. I felt immersed, I wanted to know what was going to happen. I don’t think this game is as effective as Diablo 2 in setting up either the mystery or the terror of these vast unknowable good/evil powers duking it out over the earth. Back then, I was genuinely scared when I first encountered Diablo himself – my partner ended up sitting next to me and using the healing potions because I was so nervous of actually fighting the dude on my own. Maybe I’m a more hardened gamer now, and used to tanking boss mobs, or maybe they just don’t set up the terror like they used to.

The Neutral

* SERVICEABLE STORYLINE. The story in D3 does the job, but it’s patchy. Act 1 is generally solid. Act 2 is all over the place but picks up after you get the dead mage guy on board (I love his voice actor), Act 3 is slow but picks up a lot towards the end and Act 4 is fast but has some good set pieces. Like TAGN I wasn’t thrilled to find myself heading out for the same desert in Act 2 that I played in Diablo 2. It’s reusing old plot elements just a little too much there.

There are plot holes, noticeable when you find yourself thinking, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense,” or “How did my character know that?” The biggest one to me is from Act 1 where someone talks about the rarity of Nephelem to Act 2 (I think) onwards where everyone starts referring to you as one. I don’t recall that particular revelation taking place. It would have been better if it’d been part of the PCs backstory, included in the initial introductory video clip.

There is also some plot driven stupidity, noticeable when you find yourself thinking, “Curse your sudden and inevitable betrayal,” or “OK, I figured out who character X was within about 2s of first meeting them, why has it taken the PC and everyone else the entire rest of the act to do so?”

* NPCs mostly exist to open doors for you. I just thought I’d note that in passing. I liked the ensemble feel of Acts 1-3, with NPCs occasionally dropping into your party for a quest or three. It did feel as though you were interacting with them.

* The Auction House really changes the difficulty of the game. If you are regularly buying appropriate yellow gear from the auction house, you will be playing this game on a vastly easier difficulty rating than if you go it single player style and only use your own drops and merchants. I think this will definitely affect how quickly people blast through it.

* You will need to play defensive in higher difficulties. Ignore the tempting 2H weapons and amazing offensive powers, if you want to survive in the harder modes, you’ll need to grab a shield and spec defensively. This means lots of vitality. So really, the game isn’t as flexible as its billed. It’s not that there is one true spec for each class, I think they have more diversity than that, but defensive trumps offensive.

The Bad

* LAG. It’s just not right to have lag in a single player game. It directly affects the play experience and it’s built in. I don’t much like the always-online requirement, but where gameplay is affected I find it unforgiveable.

* THIS IS THE NPCS STORY. Blizzard do this a lot, in SC and in WoW also, and that is focussing so much on telling the story through the NPCs that it becomes their story. You are the hired muscle. It worked for them in WC because you were actually playing the story NPCs in the scenarios. But as soon as you introduce your own character, there isn’t really much space for it in their storytelling.

The final cut scene really highlights this. There isn’t even a closing narration from your character about whatever it plans to do next.  There isn’t much closure for some of the NPCs either. I get that there’s bound to be an expansion but the ending here feels rushed, and they could have done better.

* DIFFICULTY. It is partly due to the auction house but this game falls on the easy side. Admittedly I’ve only touched on the first two difficulty levels and I can see how it will ramp up, but there’s difficulty and then there’s difficulty. I’m struggling to put this into words really, but I feel as though there’s something missing.

* RANDOM EVENTS DISAPPOINT. I loved the random events during the beta, but those ones near the beginning of Act 1 are by far the most interesting in the game. After that, it’s mostly ‘defend this objective against waves of mobs’ or ‘kill these demons which suddenly appear.’ Blizzard have the ability in D3 to slot in some far more interesting random events and we know from WoW that they have the skills to design them. They just didn’t.

* HOW MANY TIMES DO WE WANT TO REPLAY THIS? The idea of having to replay the game several times in order to set a harder difficulty was fairly core in D1 and 2, but feels very dated now. It’s like having a MMO where the maximum level is 60 but they only put in half the zones and after that you had to play them again on ‘hard mode.’

It’s not that I precisely mind replaying it, but having four difficulty levels highlights the issue.

* INCOMPLETE. This game was released without the ranked PvP or real money auction house. The latter is due to be online sometime soon (I think they said 23rd May) and I have no personal interest in PvP in Diablo but those were two sizeable factors that appealed to large sections of the community. And they aren’t there.

Sooru (you should follow his blog if you are playing D3) rounds up some more areas where he feels that game lacks polish.

A Game of Hormones

While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.

I realise this is mostly a gaming blog, but I felt it was probably worth dropping in a quick comment about female geeks. Both me and Spinks are female, and you may have guessed that geekiness runs proudly in our blood. As children we asked for the original D&D boxset to play with our other sister, and we’ve been playing tabletop and computer RPGs ever since. We read sci-fi and fantasy along with more ‘mainstream’ fiction, but honestly, for me the SF fiction IS mainstream, it’s what my friends read, it’s what I enjoy most. We read comics, we understand the tech we use, we love gadgets as much as any of our male friends. And – we both LOVED the Song of Ice and Fire series and are very excited about the forthcoming HBO adaptation of ‘A Game of Thrones’ (starting on sunday 17th in the US and monday 18th in the UK).

The above quotation is a clip from the New York Times preview of the show, written by a woman. It’s quickly becoming infamous, as women around the internet step up to rubbish its claims. It’s worth a read purely because it’s a really bad piece of journalism. Not because the comments about women offend me, but because it makes so few comments  about characterisation, storyline, style – all the things I might want to know about a TV show that’s new. Instead, it comments about the sexual shenanigans and the genre – clearly one the writer doesn’t enjoy one bit. Even in reference to the sex on the show, she writes:

The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise.

Yeah, I watch shows for the sex scenes, I really do. Especially while my husband can enjoy all the politics, violence and swordplay. What am I looking forward to about the show, for that matter? Well, seeing the deep and rich characters from the books brought to life with sumptuous settings and HBO financing. I’ve read the books, my husband hasn’t, as it happens. We’re going to see how differently we react to the TV show while watching it together. I do love fantasy books, he tends to prefer hard science fiction. But when I recommend ‘A Game of Thrones’ to people (and remember I work in a library so I get to do this a fair bit), it’s because it’s not all swords and sorcery – it’s got incredibly complex characters and storylines, politics plays more of a role than magic and there are NO ELVES (yet!). It’s fantasy but written more like a historical novel (a genre of books that, by the way, seems to appeal to women as much as to men from my basic observations at work). And I think because of all the intrigue and the fantastic setting, it fits really well within the HBO remit that includes True Blood, The Sopranos, Rome and The Wire. In fact, I think it relates more to Rome than to True Blood, if it comes down to it.

The article has received many better responses than I could ever give. Here’s a selection of my favourites:

Reading them gives me hope!

[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.

My WoW Report

Boss: I told my son about you playing, what is it? World of Warcraft?

He said ‘I bet she’s like EIGHTY and EVERYTHING’, so I said ‘what level are you, Jack?’, and he said ‘12!’.

kizi1That is a legitimate exchange between my boss and myself while discussing whether I could have the week of Comic Con off work in 2011, on the off-chance I can sort myself out for going for a third year in a row. But it reminded me I have never really spoken about my return to WoW, a little intimidated by the number of WoW players amongst Spinks’ readership.

I left WoW just before Burning Crusade. I’d been playing since Friends & Family Alpha and was classically burned out on the game. I mostly played druids, in fact, it was a kind of joke that I’d played around 5 druids consecutively, bouncing between Alliance and Horde between various alphas, betas and the launch. This was at a time when druids were a little bit rubbish and although I played them to heal and because I loved all the hybrid goodness, I found things pretty tough. But mostly, I was burned out on the game and blamed it on the people, my last guild and the struggle of raiding Molten Core and how long it always took. So I left, and took a fair break from MMOs until I eventually landed on LotRO by way of the disastrous Vanguard launch month.

From that time on Spinks has still been playing WoW, and keeping me abreast of the changes. Some I was sceptical of, still harbouring some bitterness towards the game, but others sounded cool. Mostly, I never really felt a pull back to it, my account was gone and I didn’t want to start over from scratch even if I did go back. I’m pretty stubborn about things like that. So I ignored Burning Crusade and the launch of Lich King. I was pretty busy with LotRO also, and didn’t really have time for a second MMO.

But, last year sometime, in all the talks about Cataclysm, I thought it might be interesting to have another look, using the refer-a-friend scheme to play with Spinks. It wasn’t a completely successful first 3 months. While we enjoyed the added xp and summoning abilities, I kind of played one month on, one month off, so I didn’t get the full rewards for the r-a-f scheme. But it did get me to level 40-ish, which was over the hump of ‘how many freaking times have I done all these starter zones’. I picked a class I’d never liked previously, the shaman – and started to truly love it around level 30. Why a shaman? I was fairly sure I’d never want to play one in Cataclysm, I’d never managed to get one past level 5 before but with Spinks playing a hunter we could pretty much manage anything!

The dungeon finder really impressed, even when some of the PuGs created were rude, it was a nice break from grind if I needed it. Also, being on WoW meant I could catch up with my other sister who’d been chugging away soloing a rogue over there. Using realID meant that we could always tell when each others’ alts were on. And eventually I caught up to her level (I have more time on my hands!!). I had a really rough start to Lich King content and was really unhappy around level 70, but a few months ago I got to my first ever level 80 on WoW. And I adore shaman now, naturally – thinking of making another in Cataclysm. Yes, I have a problem remaking the same class over and over, I know this!

So Spinks has been trying to teach me about emblems, gearing up, heroics, tournament stuff and anything else I may need to do to be ready to raid. I tinker with it. I log on and do a dungeon or two, sometimes heroic, I head to Wintergrasp and I mine or muck around. While I’d quite like to see a raid, I’m not feeling really pressured to do so, and I think that’s been the real reason I’ve enjoyed my return to WoW so much. It feels quite peaceful to me without any pressure except to heal to a decent standard. Though I am considering switching to Spinks’ main server and possibly joining her guild there so I can explore the raiding side of the game.

I’m not the greatest player in WoW. I’m not trying to be, yet. But I’m no longer a snob about it either. It’s a great game, with the same grindy, rocky patches any MMO has. And sometimes it’s nice for me not to have to care and to just find a fun class and chill out with it.

Dragon Quest IX and some musings on wandering monsters

Dragon Quest IX arrived on my DS this weekend, so if the posts this week are a little slow, you can blame the slimes. I have barely had a chance to scratch the surface of this game but I already love it dearly.

Twitter (140 word) review so far: DQ9 will make RPG fans very very happy. It’s a single player MMO in a box. Slimes adorable. Kill them all.

Since I really can’t write a proper review yet, here is one from The Telegraph. (Insert whine about the difficulty of getting screenshots from a DS unless you are a media outlet who get a special cable.)

The game starts with you doing some customising of your character – you can pick hairstyle and colour, eyes, a face, a gender and a name. Then you are dropped into one of the prettiest little prologues I’ve seen in any game ever. You are a Celestrian (this involves wings and a halo) and the guardian angel of a sweet little village. Your job is to make the villagers happy and keep them safe, even in the afterlife. This is one of the best in game motivations I have ever seen for nudging you to accept lots of random quests from people.

And DQ continues to do a great job with modernising the whole notion of quests. Later on you will be guilt tripped into helping some people, and pointed towards which quests are optional and can be happily ignored. There will be classes to choose from, companions to pick up (and customise), gear to collect and equip, skill points to spend, turn based combat, dungeons and open world areas to explore and (many many) monsters to slay.

There is also the possibility of having other players in your party via wifi, and your character can even learn some emotes to allow rudimentary conversation if you do this.

This is a game which, like Torchlight, just makes me happy when I am playing it. Maybe it’s the mixture of the old school RPG (wander around, kill things and take their stuff, level up), the JRPG storyline (you are a little angel that fell out of heaven and now you have to wander the world and help people), the gorgeous DS graphics, gameplay, and beating up slimes – but I’m having a great time with this one. Recommended to any RPG fans who own a DS.

Also, we need more games which let you play a martial artist who fights with a fan.

Dragon Quest and the numbers game

Apparently (according to wikipedia) DQ9 had 2 million pre-orders when it went live in Japan. 2 million pre-orders. And that’s just in Japan.

It’s pretty much guaranteed to break more records when the western numbers are in too.

The cult of the wandering monster

One of the other interesting notes from wikipedia was that this is the first Dragon Quest game in which you can actually see monsters in the open world before you attack them. It was very much a trope of JRPG (and some regular RPG also) that you would wander around the game world and every so often the game would decide, “Ah, time for a fight” and would launch you into a random fight.

This came straight from D&D, which had wandering monster tables on which the DM could roll if players looked bored. The original idea of the wandering monsters was that a DM could set up two types of fight. There would be static fights with mobs that had been designed into the scenario in advance, and there would also be the possibility for random encounters.

The wandering monster was the most simple of all random encounters. “Roll D10 to see what attacks you.” The aim was to make travelling through the world more interesting, because whilst fantasy epics do involve a lot of travel, it’s not very interesting to RP through it step by step. So instead, travel was modelled as some descriptions of the landscape, punctuated by brief encounters with wandering monsters.

(AD&D also, infamously, had a wandering streetwalker table for when players were exploring cities, “Roll d10 to see if you encounter a wanton wench, a strumpet, a call girl, a pimp, etc.” Even at the time we thought this was very silly.)

Later, scenarios evolved more interesting types of random encounter. It didn’t have to just be a random rust monster that wandered into camp, it might be some brief but amusing encounter (a band of travelling players need help to put on a show, etc.), or even the seed of a mini-adventure that players could choose to follow up or not. Yet in computer RPGs, the wandering monster had the great bonus of being very easy to code so it remained popular.

One of the great bonuses of MMOs, with their persistent immersive worlds, is that players could always expect to see monsters wandering the world before they attacked. There would be no ‘wandering monsters’ coming out of nowhere – although WoW experimented with very large wanderers such as the Fel Reaver, even they could be seen from a distance.

One of the exciting things about games like Warhammer Online and  Guild Wars 2 is that their public quests look to be reviving the notion of the random encounter, quests that just happen in the world as you wander through it and with which you can get involved.

Gaming News: What’s hot at E3, APB and the embargo of doom, WAR drops producer, Microsoft still has no sense of humour shock

Mourn with me now for the ongoing death-by-boredom of English football, coming to a TV near you on Wednesday night.

And in other news, another E3 industry convention has come and gone. So what did 2010 have to show? I’ve covered much of the MMO news here with a special SWTOR post here.

The two biggest stories of the convention, to my mind, are hardware related.

  • Sony and Nintendo are betting that we’d all like to see our gaming in 3D – the PS3 will get a compatibility patch for 3DTVs and Nintendo’s new 3DS handheld (no glasses required) will offer a 3D experience. In fact, if I had to pick one single news story from E3, it would be that everyone who tried the new 3DS said – in shock – it just works. And it will also apparently be able to show films in 3D.
  • Sony and Microsoft also showed off their respective motion controller technology. The Sony Move looks like a stick with a ball on the end, and Microsoft’s Kinect (the renamed Natal technology) doesn’t require the player to hold a physical controller at all, it picks up your actions as you move around. But somehow, despite giving a new XBOX to everyone at their presentation, Microsoft doesn’t seem to have captured the journalists’ attention.

Jon Shute blogs at VanHemlock about the various new hardware on offer, and concludes that neither of the two motion controllers seem to be aimed at the hardcore gamer.

The big three E3 presentations

Each of the big console manufacturers traditionally gives a big presentation at E3. The aim is to build up some excitement about their hardware, future plans, and what’s in store for their customers over the next year.

This year, I think Nintendo did the best job of capturing people’s imaginations. The 3DS wowed everyone who tried it. Their software lineup includes new outings for a lot of old favourite franchises (well, if you are a nintendo head anyway) including Zelda, Goldeneye, Kirby, Metroid, and Donkey Kong (yes really). There’s a strong lineup of software on offer for both of their consoles and as an avowed DS fan, I can’t wait to get my hand on a 3DS. I also look forwards to more DS RPGs and puzzlers. All very crowd pleasing stuff.

What Nintendo do extremely well is put the message across that their portfolio offers something for everyone. I’d be surprised if anyone saw that presentation and didn’t find at least one game or genre that caught their interest.

By comparison, Microsoft just can’t seem to get it right. Even when they have technology as potentially exciting as the Kinect, they somehow … miss the mark. Instead of a coherent ‘we offer something for everyone’ message, they just give the impression that they’re incoherent and confused. On the one hand, they’re chasing the 18-30 male gamer with a slew of shooters and a deal with ESPN to show premium sports on Xbox live. To hammer the point home, EA introduced a new Xbox loyalty program called ‘the Gun Club’ – I guess they won’t be including any family type games with that then.  … And then there’s Kinect with some dancing games which M/soft is trying to portray as the Xbox’s great white hope. It does not compute.

Then there’s Sony who are trying to sell people on the future of 3DTV – a rather expensive future given the current recession for sure. Their presentation leaned heavily on third party games, but what a great lineup. Sorcery – a magical combat game based on using the Move controller – sounds amazing, exactly what you’d want of a Harry Potter knockoff.

They also put one over on Microsoft by actually announcing prices for the Move. And also, whilst confirming that the PSN (online aspect of the PS3) will remain free, they plan to offer a premium service which will include extra downloadable content. I think we’ll need to see what’s on offer before people decide whether to go for this or not. The other big news from the Sony presentation is that Portal 2 will be available for the PS3, along with steamworks.

Some of the other games that caught my attention at E3 were Tron, Bulletstorm, Portal 2, the obligatory SWTOR and a whole slew of games for the DS.

No reviews for APB until a week after release?

All Points Bulletin, the GTA-alike PvP based MMO is rumbling towards release at the moment. And the developers decided that now would be a good time to demand that reviewers not release any reviews until a week after the release date. RPS state in this link that response to the beta has not been positive – I’m not so sure. Plenty of rpg.net players seemed to like it well enough.

In reponse to press complaints, Realtime Worlds produced another press release and moved the embargo forwards.

Whilst I understand that MMOs take time to review, the answer is glaringly obvious and is just to read impressions from several different sources – blogs, bboards, professional sites. A MASSIVE multiplayer game needs to be seen from a massive number of views, and most casual blogs also treat foolish press embargoes with the disdain that they deserve. Trying to get a blogger to not tell their mates what they think of their latest purchase is a fool’s game.

Drescher leaves WAR

I had hoped that WAR might be settling on an even keel but in news this week, Josh Drescher (the producer) got the boot. I wish him luck in future – I still do have a soft spot for that game, but it cannot be a good sign.

No more red ring of death

I cringe for Microsoft, I really do. There will not be a red ring of death (the nickname for the indication that hardware has failed) on future XBOXs because …. they’ve removed the red LED.

That’s a classic marketing solution to an engineering problem, by the way.

Dragon Age, and the unending battle of fluff vs crunch

I am still working my way through Dragon Age, and still thoroughly enjoying the game. While people agree in general that the game is of high quality, there is a split of opinions online as to how well it actually works … as a game. All of these games which tell stories have to provide a mix of storytelling (ie. exposition, introduction of NPC characters, exploring the world) and actual gameplay. So it isn’t surprising that different players value different parts of that mix in different ways.

Brainy Gamer has a fair summary of gameplay issues, particularly with how persuasion works in the game. (This has been an issue with pen and paper games since forever also. How DO you play a character who’s smarter or more persuasive than you are in real life? In P+P we either roll the dice, or the GM shrugs and has the characters respond as though you were being convincing.)

evizaer picks apart the combat gameplay

Mitch Krpata finds that the game doesn’t do anything to show a non-RPG guy how to play or relate to it.

It’s also not surprising that a lot of MMO players are really digging Dragon Age. The mixture of quests, exposition, combat gameplay, and large world setting isn’t that different from the MMO standard, but being a single player game, DA is far more tailored for the single player experience. The UI is familiar, the basic tactics are familiar (crowd control? heals? tank? check.)

Neither is it surprising that a lot of gamers like the game, but criticise the gameplay. It does feel awkward to show such awesome storytelling, and then follow it up with a scene where you run around picking up everything that isn’t nailed down. That doesn’t really help the story, and it feels old fashioned. Really, everything your character owns or acquires should have some sort of story behind it, whether you earned some money and bought it from a merchant, or it was gifted to you. Picking up loot from random monsters is often daft, and grabbing everything in sight in town is just stealing.

I also agree that letting you queue up commands on characters in combat, or switch to a full turn based option, would have improved the combat experience. In many ways, DA isn’t even trying to raise the bar or change anything major about RPG gameplay – a genre which is old and already feels strained. Even as a roleplaying game, DA is an awkward mess of old skool D&D tricks such as old fashioned puzzles, problems that can be solved by killing more stuff and dungeons with the equivalent of 10’x10′ rooms with traps and wandering monsters, and more modern RPGs which take a more story based or character based approach and offer more nuanced moral dilemmas.

But still, somewhere along the line players have to decide whether the good side outweighs the bad, and that’s a personal decision. Whether the fluff (everything that isn’t direct gameplay, like dialogue, story, worldbuilding, character design and animation,  achievements) outweighs the crunch (hard gameplay, stats, how gear relates to performance). And when the fluff is this good, it feels churlish to ignore large steps forward in one side of the game and just cavil about locked chests.

Dragon Age is one of the most immersive RPGs I have ever played. The human noble origin brings tears to my eyes (I’m a sucker for stories where a character’s beloved parents die, probably because my mother died young). I have felt genuine regret at decisions I have taken in the game, I’ve certainly wanted to shout at some of the characters. And I’ve laughed at others. That sort of strong emotional response shouldn’t be brushed away as ‘Well, the storytelling is OK I guess.’ It’s far more than OK. It’s the response you feel to a good film or a good book. This is why people love it, and the tactical gameplay is probably better than most MMOs.

You can’t compare that to a game on rails like Uncharted 2. Yes, the cut scenes in Uncharted are great. But they’re just bridges to the next platform/shooter section. I don’t care about those characters, except that they amuse me. The cut scenes in DAO are interactive, and although that just means picking options from a list, it also means that you have ways to drive the story forwards in different directions.

As a gamer, I’d love to see better gameplay for interpersonal interactions. There’s no reason why dialogue shouldn’t be as exciting as a shooter – it’s easy to imagine scenarios where someone’s life could just as easily depend on how a conversation proceeds as how quick a player is on the draw. It’s totally fair to criticise DAO for not even trying to advance the state of RPG gameplay.

But it feels harsh and one dimensional to me to fail to note the advances the game has made in the areas of storytelling and immersion. I never wanted to cry when I was playing Uncharted 2 (except possibly in frustration at not knowing where I was supposed to go).

5 things I learned about Dragon Age

edited to add a link to the review: Read it here — it’s now up on the web.

PC Gamer this month features a glossy and rather glowing full review of Dragon Age — this one is notable partly because of the writing but also because the reviewer played the whole thing through to the end (he comments that it took him about 80 hours for his first epic playthrough). Even the editor notes:

The last two months have been excrutiating. We’ve had Dragon Age in the office for what feels like an epoch, and John’s been raving about how sensational it is almost daily.

There’s also a pre-review in Eurogamer. And as a sign of EA’s confidence in the game, they note:

It’s an important game, then; we got an indication how important (and how big) when publisher EA started distributing a complete PC review version to press months before its release. That never happens.

OK, enough of the behind the scenes stuff, what have we learned about the game itself.

  1. There will be two modes of play. Easy which is similar to MMO style play, and Normal where you can pause to set up actions for each party member repeatedly during the fight.
  2. In addition, you will be able to set up combat tactics for members of your party, similar to the way you could program behaviour into your party in FFXII. So you can set them to heal when they get low on health, switch from range to melee weapons, and so on. It sounds as though it can get quite complex if that’s what you want.
  3. Similarly, if you are interested in picking out a complex talent and skill spec for your character and party you can do it. If not, they can be set to skill up automatically along preset paths.
  4. Dwarvish culture — we’ve heard a bit about the elves, humans and mages. Dwarves have a complex caste system by which young dwarves take the same caste as their same-sex parent (ie. dwarf girls get their caste from their mother, dwarf boys from their father.) Then there are casteless dwarfs, unrecognised as members of society and with their ancestry removed from dwarven history (so presumably their children are fated to follow in their footsteps.)
  5. How your fellow party members feel about you will affect some romance options (apparently there are gay romance options too, my money is on the naughty tattooed witch for the female one because only ‘naughty’ girls are ever allowed to be bi in games, but I’d be happy to be proved wrong) but also give them gameplay buffs, unlock personal quests, and determine whether they leave or not.

If there was one comment in the PC Gamer review that really intrigued me, it was discussing  NPC vendors who follows you around:

Treat them as more than a shop, talk to them, and the details of their past emerge along with a surprising ethical quandary.

What I’d give for an NPC merchant in a MMO who rewarded you for treating them as more than a shop! In any case, the reviews sound as though the game is everything it has been described as and more. Reviewers praise the immersiveness of the setting and the sense of detail and having experienced a world, not just a game.  Phrases like ‘the RPG of the decade’ and ‘it feels like the consummate, traditional PC RPG’ are not bandied around lightly.

How will I survive the countdown to release date now, dammit?! I already decided that my first character will be the city elf fighter — the city elf beginning involves a wedding, an abduction, and possibly a rape, so I’ll try to model her on The Bride from Kill Bill. Anyone else got any ideas for characters?

[rhetorical question: I'll survive by playing Torchlight, clearly. And maybe playing Dragon Age Journeys, the free flash game that goes live tonight.]

Review: Free Realms

Free Realms is Sony’s engaging new teen-friendly MMO, and as Zoso so wisely sums up, “It’s free and it has realms.” I’ll go into that more later but in practice Sony claim that you can access about 60% of the game without paying.

The game itself is bright, friendly, and doesn’t have heavy hardware requirements. There’s plenty to do and see, it’s very easy to get started, and Sony are keen to impress on parents how safe an environment it is for kids. Free Realms is also exceptionally polished for a newly released MMO, and the pretty avatars have a good variety of quests, mini-games, and different environments to explore.

It is a super game for casual players, or even just players who like casual games. Whether or not it has the kid appeal that Sony are hoping for remains to be seen.

So we begin

One thing that the team have gotten very right is how quick it is to get into the game. You sign up on the website and can create your character before you even load the game up.  You can choose between a human or a small winged pixie, and although the range of customisation options isn’t huge, it is  easy to create a pretty avatar of your own. It’s also nice to see a choice of dark-skinned options for characters. I loved the character design, they’re nicely drawn and appealing.

For naming, you have the choice between using the semi-random name generator (it’s random but you can tweak it) or submitting your own custom name to be approved later. If you go with the latter, you will then get to generate a semi-random name to use while the approval process is going through. They were approving the names very quickly when I tried and it’s an innovation I wish more MMOs would use, particularly on RP servers.

Then you select the ‘play’ button and after a few minutes wait for the initial download, you pick your server and you’re in. The game continues to download segments while you play, which is why the initial download is so fast. I love this system of content delivery. You get straight into things without having to either buy a box or wait several hours for a massive download and it’s been working very smoothly indeed.

The starting tutorial is laboriously slow and non-optional, and holds your hand while you move around and try out a couple of careers. But that’s me speaking as an MMO vet, and it’s a small enough price to pay so that kids and people who are newer to the genre can have a quiet environment in which to find their feet.

Free as in bird

One of the endearing things about Free Realms is that there are so many choices about what to do. And no penalties for making ‘incorrect’ choices. If you aren’t in a mood to do quests you won’t regret it two months later. If you get bored of mining and decide to go have a beach party with some friends, it doesn’t matter.

It can feel very confusing when you are first thrown into the world proper. It’s so bright and so shiny and there are lots of icons all over the place beckoning you to go and investigate, and no railroaded directions on what to do next.

What you SHOULD do next is go and play. Try things out. Lose the mindset that says “what’s the optimal thing for me to do next” because there probably isn’t one.

To me this takes the notion of a theme park game up a whole notch. I have seen real life theme parks that were less theme parkish than Free Realms. you only have to look at the (beautifully colourful and interactive) map to see how the different attractions are laid out. Want to play chess or do some demolition derby? It’s easy to mouse over the map until you find the nearest chess table or driving minigame.

There are quests around also if you’re stuck for things to do. And you only have to talk to any of the local trainers to be introduced to one of the many in game careers.

A look at the careers and minigames

There are several careers in which characters can progress and endearingly, you can switch between them whenever you want. Each one is distinguished by it’s own minigame, and as you play the minigame you can go up in levels (I’m not really sure why this matters, but for those who like to see numbers ticking up the option is there):

  • Kart Drivers play a racing game
  • Demolition Derby has a Mario Kart minigame
  • Cooks have a set of minigames where for each recipe, you get to chop, smash, slice, fry, and stir your way to victory.
  • Mining and harvesting share a bejewelled-alike pattern matching game.
  • Brawlers have a more standard MMO experience, where you select hotbuttons to use your different attacks on mobs.
  • Card Duelists have a fully featured card playing minigame which is based on a Magic: The Gathering style of collectible card game. There’s some decent depth to the game, it’s beautifully implemented, and good fun to play.
  • Pet Trainers can train their pets in a Nintendogs type of setup. Note that you do have to shell out real cash to acquire a permanent pet, but you can pick up temporary ones for free in game to practice your training skill.
  • There’s a post office career too that I haven’t tried yet.
  • And there are other careers that are only accessible if you choose to pay the 5$ pcm subscription (medic, wizard, fighter, blacksmith, archer).

Of the ones I tried, the card duelling and the harvesting bejewelled game were the real winners for me. I thought the car steered like a slug in the demolition derby, and the brawler just wasn’t interesting (I have a WoW account if I want to play that kind of game, after all).

You will notice though that there’s nothing here that’s very novel. All the mini-games are based on tried and tested games. You can also play chess, draughts or several versions of tower defence (which is one of my favourite casual games so no complaints from me), none of which have careers attached.

Despite being aimed at kids, the mini-games themselves offer a good level of challenge. Bejewelled is bejewelled. The game comprehensively beat me at chess (but to be fair, so do 9 year olds). The cooking minigame required fast reactions if you wanted to get the best scores.

Mini-games as a way of life

Most things that you do in FR will take you into a minigame of some sort. If you see a mob and want to fight, you have to walk up and click on it to get into the fighting minigame, for example. And it did make me think about how dull MMO playing often is. The ‘minigame’ of farming mobs is simply a lot less interesting than bejewelled. Although the FR minigames are way more fun than typical MMO solo fights or crafting, they aren’t visceral in the same way.

One thing I did note is that despite the bright cartoony graphics, I don’t find the game at all cute. I think this is down to lack of personality but I can’t really put my finger on anything in particular.

So where are all the people?

I found it surprisingly difficult to add people to my friends list. You can do this either by seeing them in game or by being on the same server at the same time and typing their name into the friends window.  Since you pick your server when you log in (another subtle but smart innovation) it means you need to prearrange with your friends to be online so that you can friend them. It doesn’t really feel like a safety measure because random people try to friend you when you wander past anyway (you do get to option of whether to allow them to be your friend or not though). There are also no guilds.

As far as playing with others goes, you can certainly play against other people in some of the minigames. The card duellist, car racing, and demolition derby in particular. Keen spent more time playing the MMO-type side of the game in beta and had fun grouping up with friends to go kill stuff (he liked the dungeons, which I haven’t seen yet).

So there are options to play with and against other people. But the minigames I liked were just as good solo. I’m hoping at some point  to try some of the group content but given the total lack of a looking for groups function and the difficulty of adding people to the friends list, I’m at a loss to figure out how. Can’t see me getting the other half to try this one.

Show me the money?

If you do decide to give Sony your money (and they’re reasonably shameless about asking for it), you have two options:

  1. Pay the $5 pcm subscription for access to all the careers and sub-locked quests. I think there is also a level cap for regular careers if you aren’t a subscriber but I hadn’t hit it yet. Since you don’t need a particular level to play the minigames I’m not sure how much this matters.
  2. Pay for tokens which can be used to buy items in game such as a permanent pet, clothing, and booster packs for the card game.

I think a lot of people will take them up on the monthly sub, it’s cheap and does unlock a fair amount of content. But the main money maker is likely to be the card booster packs.

Collectible Card Games (CCG) have the ring of gambling about them. You pay your money and get your booster pack and if you are lucky you’ll get powerful or rare cards. If not, then you won’t. CCG in an MMO where there’s pressure to keep up with lots of other players sounds like the sort of environment where if you don’t pay, you might as well not turn up. It’s like being in constant tournament mode.

I’m not sure if they have some kind of ranking system which will match you against people who have spent similar amounts (I’m betting not, because that would negate the idea of spending more to be better than others) but I wouldn’t want to be the parent of a keen and competitive card duellist.

Good Points

  • It’s pretty and has low hardware requirements
  • Quick to set up and get started
  • Very polished implementation. Fun minigames.
  • Lots of choices of things to do in game. Very easy to switch from one activity to another.
  • Lovely map.

Bad points

  • Friends list is awkward.
  • It’s not actually free to play, although a lot is. Adjust expectations accordingly.
  • A little unfocussed. Is it trying to be fun for kids or fun for adults?
  • Poor customisation options. Maybe because it’s trying to be simple for kids but you have very limited options to rearrange the UI, remap the keyboard, etc.

It’s harsh to complain about what isn’t there in a new MMO. After all, this is just the beginning (and a very polished beginning it is). But Sony do have plans for the game:

There are some things that we actually have talked about, but they just didn’t make it in time for launch. We do still have soccer coming. I know Smed has been talking about that a lot. I can’t give any exact dates for any of these because we’re in player feedback mode right now. So we really want to make sure that the game is solid, we’ve nailed all the bugs and that we’re paying attention in the forums and paying attention to what people are talking about. So that’s our first priority right now, which is making changes and pleasing the customers that we already have.
We do still plan to let you have a garage and let you customize your car, which was always something we’ve talked about. Also some new jobs that we have in the works, but that’s all I can talk about that’s in the pipe. It’s not close as in next month, but it’s definitely something you’ll see sooner rather than later.

Hopefully one of the new jobs in the works will be the rock star which is hinted at enticingly in one of the pictures in the loading screen that shows a female character with a guitar.

I can’t help being disappointed that there’s so little educational content in a game aimed at kids. Even a couple of minigames involving words and numbers (Scrabble and Sudoku?), a world map (Risk?) or a little more reference to real world mining and extracting techniques in the mining minigame would have gone a long way.

When Sony talked earlier about the lack of directed quests making more room for kids to create their own stories, I was also expecting more … storytelling tools. A fashion designer maybe, or collaborative drawing package, but no. What they actually meant is that there is no story. There’s no lore, no background to the world, no reason to do any of the quests besides ‘NPC x has lost her chickens, go find them.’ One of the other things that makes the card duellist stand out is that the introductory quests actually do have a story.

So the game is great as far as it goes. The mini-games are fun and challenging. I hope it’s successful and finds its audience. I’m sure I’ll be hanging out in Free Realms (my character is called Linnet Lightfoot) also for the odd game of penguin defence or to do some mining. I may even try the subscription or succumb to the temptation to get the permanent pet (I can’t stand Nintendogs is the stupid thing, just one of the  cats looks exactly like my cat and … yes I know, it’s very lame but still tempted). But if this is the future of MMOs then I’ll bow out after this generation of games.

You see, I like my stories.

Other Reviews

Syp explains why he wasn’t all that impressed

Dusty@ Of Course I’ll Play it tries the game with his own kids

Jennifer’s first impressions are mixed

Tipa has a technicolour review with lots of pictures.

Tobold really liked the card game, if only Sony would let him give them his money