The eternal dance of stealther vs archer

If you have ever played a stealth class in an MMO, you will know the feeling well when you pick out your next mob and sneak up behind for that perfect backstab … only to have an arrow/ spell/ ranged attack hit it first.

It’s frustrating. Partly because it was likely done in all innocence; you were stealthed after all. How were they to know? So chances are that in PvE, you quickly avoid stealthed attacks unless you know you are alone and you really need that added punch. (Or the devs kindly give you some kind of ranged stealthy attack or a teleport, or somesuch.)

It’s equally annoying if you’re duoing with a ranged class and they get aggro all the time, which means that the mob runs off towards them and you have to peg it after them. (Maybe GW2 with its position based aggro will avoid this trap.)

Traditionally, stealthers have been penalised in PvE because they’ve tended to be strong in PvP. But I wonder if it would be better if every class could stealth, and then more stealth based PvE would be opened up for everyone.

Stealth gaming

I sometimes wonder how well stealth classes really fit into MMOs. And that’s a shame because it is a very fun play style. And seems to offer a lot of possibilities that MMOs don’t cater to well because they wouldn’t be accessible to non-stealthers and one has to be fair. And also, in a gogogo era, who has time for sneaking up carefully to a mob when you could just sling a dagger at it?

LOTRO is actually not a bad game for stealthers in PvE. This isn’t because the dynamics are any different but because they do throw in a few quests that ask you to go scout out enemy camps. Clearly you could do this the ‘scouting via full frontal assault’ method, but as a burglar I just sneak in. Job done. Stealth is a great ability for explorers.

The problem of stealth in MMOs

Melmoth writes about his fabulous Warden in LOTRO – it’s a very powerful and capable class, and great for both solo and group work. It can tank a bit, has some self heals, ranged as well as melee attacks, gets some AE capability, and can even teleport around the map (very useful in LOTRO, which has a large world map).

Whereas my burglar …. has stealth. Which doesn’t work all that well in groups, in raids, or against tentacles (this is a real tentacle by the way, not a tame pond one in the garden).

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Stealth classes are usually popular in games. Being able to pick your fights is a huge advantage in PvP – the classic stealther attack of leaping out of hiding and backstabbing an opponent is fun to play (and a nightmare to balance).

Stealth has advantages in PvE also. In particular if you are an explorer.

  • Ever wished your game had a pause button? If you are a stealther, then it does. Any time you need to get the phone or grab a drink, just hit the stealth button. Your character will (probably) be safely there when you get back.
  • Ever needed to get to a quest mob that is behind a bunch of trash and wanted to do it quickly? Stealthers can usually avoid a fight whenever they want to. It’s great for exploring dangerous terrain also.
  • Or even if you’ve ever just wanted to check quickly if a quest mob is present, stealth saves the bother of having to clear an area unnecessarily.

But stealth simply isn’t that great an advantage compared to just being generally badass. You won’t notice this so much in WoW because the classes are all generally very powerful. But if a champion can mow through mobs almost as quickly as a burglar can stealth, then stealth isn’t really much of an advantage. Avoiding combat is never as rewarding as killing mobs in most MMOs.

Most players like to mow through mobs. A rogue-type class that dances around with crowd control, debuffs, and juggling survivability cooldowns is never going to kill a bunch of mobs as fast as the plate wearer with the devastating AE attacks. In WoW they just gave rogues better AE, and watered down the roguelike feel of the class.

In games like WoW that have become so focussed on the group content, and where the main object in instances is to clear then as fast as possible, rogues and their stealth playstyle has no purpose. The tank pulls, the healer heals, and everyone else AEs. No one wants stealth or the more strategic sneak-and-dodge pace of pulls which goes with it.

LOTRO isn’t quite the same style of game. They do provide many more quests which ask characters to scout out an area – something which stealthers can do quickly and neatly. There are entire zones (ie. most of Moria) where simply exploring and finding your way around is a big challenge, and stealth can be really useful. There are solo dungeons where a stealther can explore and set up ambushes without worrying about a group zooming ahead of them and just nuking everything anyway.

It may be that the different pace of a soloing stealther is one that can never really fit into a group based MMO. Not unless the whole game was about thieves (which would be pretty cool, actually). Maybe stealth belongs back in the era where games were more about exploring and less about quick badges and achievements.

LOTRO update, Final Fantasy screws the pacing, and can SWTOR really get 2 million subs?

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Mirkwood by Night (not sure how well this will come out)

The first time Arbitrary showed me around the daily quests in Mirkwood, I was scrambling along behind her hoping not to get lost. Although there are paths and roads through the zone, it’s also a big dark scary forest without obvious road signs all over the place. Strange as this sounds, obvious road signs (for no obvious reason) do feature in a few of the latter WoW zones. I never understood why Horde/ Alliance didn’t go mess with the signs in order to throw off the opposing armies.

A couple of the quests are scouting missions, in which you have to check out four different locations in order, and then report back to base. There are maps which help navigation, but still, when I started doing these dailies on my own I used to have to keep stopping (in stealth, naturally) to check my map like some kind of lost tourist.

No longer. I was able to save up enough daily tokens to buy a new horse for my character – a nice study black creature which seems fitting for a burglar. And I noticed that I was smoothly completing my scouting missions without having to stop and check maps any more. I feel like a veteran of the Mirkwood front!

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I took a screenshot of the new smoky black horse in Bree, since a screenie of a black-clad burglar on a black horse in a black forest might fail to impress. Whereas in WoW, your basic horse will do the job but the more expensive epic mount is faster, in LOTRO the advanced horse runs at the same speed as the basic one but it is a bit sturdier. Or in other words, you don’t fall off it every time a monster looks at you funny. Acquiring one was one of my in-game goals, and I’m pleased that the black one was the more accessible to me from the Mirkwood elves.

The other picture is a demonstration of why glowy daggers and stealthy burglars don’t really mix. Gosh, I wonder where the stealther is in this picture? Fortunately orcs are very very short sighted … or something.

In which I want to slap final fantasy 13

A couple of people commented on my affection for the extremely on-rails presentation of FF13. What can I say? I wouldn’t want every game I play to be linear like this but it’s refreshing to see it done well, like a palate cleanser. In general, the games I have most enjoyed on the PS3 so far have had strongly directed, well designed gameplay. It seems to be a general strength of console games.

Or in other words, I like smoked salmon and could probably eat it for every meal, but I also like other foods and some of them don’t go well with salmon. Ultra-linear, highly directed gameplay is not really what I look for in a MMO, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun in its own right.

Having said that, the pacing of FF13 became glacial during chapter 6. I don’t expect to actually feel bored during a Final Fantasy setting. Interestingly, it was the gameplay pacing that was off, the narrative pacing was fine. It’s perfectly OK to have a long sequence in which two characters who didn’t get along have to travel together, and along the course they learn to trust each other.

Just usually in films you’d go to a travelogue or montage sequence to show the passage of time without boring the pants off people via a sequence of forgettable fights.

odinlightning

But I am a mercurial gamer and the game picked up massively in chapter 7. So now I love it again, I genuinely enjoy all of the characters and their development arcs, and can’t wait for our next session. It’s quite a feat of storytelling to show such marked character development for all of the main characters. They don’t quite pull off the marriage of gameplay with narrative, but I still love what they are trying to do.

Also, Lightning is awesome.

Can SWTOR really get 2 million subs?

A few bloggers have picked up on a report that EA chiefs have high hopes for Star Wars: The Old Republic, and are shooting for 2 million+ subs. I’m not linking to them all because what everyone says is, “Is that realistic?”

Yes. Star Wars is a big and very well known franchise. But if that was all it took, then why isn’t LOTRO larger than World of Warcraft? Still, it certainly helps to get word out of the door, and Bioware’s stonking recent record of story based games (Dragon Age, Mass Effect et al) surely doesn’t hurt either.

I can only conclude that:

  1. Bioware have a lot on their plate at the moment. They’re known to be working on Mass Effect 3, and almost certainly on a Dragon Age 2 (sequel). On top of that, SWTOR is a vast undertaking and also the most expensive project in EA’s stable at the moment.
  2. SWTOR is an incredibly risky project. I’m still amazed that both EA and Bioware chose to go the AAA MMO route at this point in time.
  3. SWTOR rather failed to blow reporters away when they tried a demo at GDC. People liked it, but no one came away saying, “Oh my god this is the next big thing, give it to me now etc etc.” Having said that, the trooper sounds quite fun – a dps class which can switch from ranged to melee and has big guns.
  4. I think they will get their 2 million subscribers. They may end up redefining what a subscriber means, especially if they go with a hybrid pricing model but they’ll get the numbers.
  5. I’ll play it! So now they only have to find 1,999,999 other people and they’re golden.
  6. But I’ll still wish it was Mass Effect Online rather than Star Wars …

And the gratuitous female fighter in platemail picture

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From Alice in Wonderland, of all things. But now I wish Tim Burton would take on The Faerie Queene as a project — I’d pay just to see the visualisations.