Tuesday, December 27, 2011

In a nutshell

I think the easiest way to sum up Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) is like so:

Take Knights of the Old Republic, increase the amount of content by an order of magnitude, add repeatable dungeons, PvP, and the ability to play with your friends, and the result is SWTOR.

This is not a bad thing.  If the comparison is meaningless because you've never played Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR), you should.  It's getting a little creaky, but it's still a very fun RPG that drips with the essence of Star Wars.  A lot of the stories and characters in SWTOR will make more sense if you've played KotOR.

I think SWTOR is possibly the best game Bioware has ever made, and I've played every RPG they've made.  I've seen plenty of blog posts and reviews out there saying the game sucks, though most of the complaints boil down to "this is not the game for me" rather than "there is something fundamentally wrong with this game".

If you like Bioware RPGs and you liked WoW, SWTOR has a lot to offer you.  If you can't stand the style and gameplay methods used by either of those, then the latest Star Wars game simply isn't going to be for you.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Pondering quests and SWTOR's future

This will be a bit of a rambling post.  Shocking, I know, but bear with me here.

One of the things I'm really enjoying about Star Wars: The Old Republic is the ability to make choices within a quest.  Typically in an MMO you get one choice - to take or decline the quest.  Once you've accepted the quest, you have no choice in the way it plays out, you either achieve the required goals or you fail.  For example, in WoW I remember this quest on the Horde side where you were tasked with feeding a human prisoner some food infected with the undead plague for the purpose of turning him into a ghoul.  It was a fundamentally evil act, and while you could choose not to take the quest, if you took the quest your only option was to kill the poor prisoner, or fail.  I hated that quest.  The Horde weren't supposed to be evil, yet that quest required I perform an evil act or abandon the quest.  Additionally, in the days I took that quest (early in the Vanilla years) I'm not sure it was even possible to abandon a quest.

In SWTOR, many quests give you a choice further down the line, typically regarding how you complete the quest.  To use the WoW example above, SWTOR's version would prompt you with a choice when you got to the prisoner -- feed the prisoner the food, dump it out and say it didn't work, or help the prisoner escape. Whatever you chose, you'd still get some sort of quest completion, and you'd get to do it the way you wanted.  Things like that occur a lot in SWTOR, my Bounty Hunter switched sides during several quests and took a reward from his original target.  He's also tricked his quest givers a couple of times, pretending to give them what they asked for while actually doing something else.  For example, he was tasked with killing a native warrior who had killed a Hutt and bringing back his head.  When confronting the warrior my character was given the option to take the head of another warrior that had already been killed and spare the Huttsbane who was, after all, just fighting for the freedom of his people.  I accepted, and gave the slimy Hutt a head, but not the one he requested.  Quest complete.

This is the story aspect that is going to make SWTOR stand out from the crowd.  It's not that there's voiced dialog for all the quests (although that helps too), but rather than players have choices in many of their quests, choices that change how the quests play out.  That also helps replayability, since it means you can take the same quest with a different character, make different choices, and get a different outcome.  Is it a huge difference?  No, but it provides a solid illusion of player impact, something most MMORPGs sorely lack.

In other news, Massively.com posted an interview with one of the SWTOR developers today and he had this to say:
In other MMOs, the team moves on to other games or gets downsized. We've actually kept our team, and we're not working on anything else. It's a little bit different for me. Basically, when I finished with Baldur's Gate, I went on to Baldur's Gate 2, then I immediately went to Neverwinter Nights, then I immediately went to Knights of the Old Republic. But here I'm finished with SWTOR, and it's just more SWTOR. The whole team is that way. We don't have a secret project. It's nothing but new content for The Old Republic. We have teams working on new flashpoints; we have teams working on new operations; we have teams working on new game systems and on new space missions.
If that's true, if the entire SWTOR development team is continuing to work on SWTOR the game should get a lot of content updates over the next year.  If they can do that and stay profitable, it could make SWTOR one of the most frequently updated MMORPGs in ages and give it another edge over WoW.  Rift updates fairly often, but as many people have noted the nature of the content in those updates is somewhat predictable -- new elemental force trying to invade, special drops from rifts, new daily quests, special loot from a token vendor.

If Bioware can deliver solid content updates to the game every few months . . . then wow.  This game will have serious long term potential:  eight classes with unique storylines, choices with permanent impacts on characters, unique companions for each class, PvP, group instances, raids, and substantial ongoing content updates?  The first and last items on that list will feed into each other too - you reach the level cap, run out of things to do, so make an alt, and by the time they reach the level cap there are new things for your old character to do, and once you're done with that there are new things for new characters to do, prompting you to create another alt, that hits the level cap in time for new things for your old character to do.

Pure speculation of course, but the potential is there.  Here's hoping.

SWTOR: Seven levels of bounty hunting

Holy cow, there's a new Star Wars MMO?!
Unless you've been living under a rock you probably know the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic is imminent - just next week in fact.  Early access for pre-orders has started, and along with piles of other people I got into it yesterday.  Due to an unfortunate cancellation of our Tuesday Night Gaming Group I ended up having time to play, so created my Bounty Hunter, joined my guild, and started adventuring.

I didn't touch any Empire characters during my brief beta stint, and so right away I was struck by just how different the starting experience for a Bounty Hunter is from the Jedi Consular.  The entire feel and tone of the setting is different, and appropriately so, although my Bounty Hunter seemed to have to do a lot more talking before getting to the shooting than my Consular did.  New Bounty Hunter's arrive on Hutta to try and earn a place in the Great Hunt.  If you played the Knights of the Old Republic games you've probably heard of the great hunt - it's a bounty hunting competition the winner of which walks away with fame and fortune.  The Mandalorians are pretty into it.

You arrive on Hutta and make your way to a building where a team of bounty hunters are waiting -- your team.  They go on about what a bad ass you are, and indeed, all the conversation options and NPC reactions reflect your status as a bad ass.  You are a level 1 bad ass, but it doesn't matter, it works.  The fact that I'm playing a hulking Chiss with glowing red eyes doesn't hurt either.  Eventually you go out and start collecting bounties.  Yes, you're not killing random mobs (not at first anyway), you're killing criminals with bounties on their heads, or their minions.  In the first two hours of the game I've taken out several named bounty targets, double crossed several quest givers, crashed the financial accounts of a rival Hutt, and even freed some slaves.  What the heck, right? I'm a bad ass.  You slaves can go, I don't care.

So the Bounty Hunter story seems good so far, but how does the class play?

The Bounty Hunter is the master of combat options, and I'd say the combat style is one of damage and disruption.  I was bothered by the fact that Bounty Hunters/Troopers don't seem to pay any heed to blaster fire -  Jedi and Sith try to deflect it with lightsabers, and Smugglers/Agents take cover, but Bounty Hunters just stand there and take it.  Turns out they don't.  A Bounty Hunter's defense is a disruptive offense -- enemies who are on fire, trying to get explosives off them, or getting knocked down by rockets aren't shooting at you, and within your first couple of levels you can do all of those things.  Attacking groups of enemies became a thing of beauty as I'd open with an Explosive Dart which would stick to a target and distract them for 3 seconds as they frantically tried to claw it off.  The dart would then explode dealing a large amount of damage and knocking all nearby enemies down.  All the while I'm taking shots with my blaster, follow with a rocket when they get back up (which knocks them all down again), and finally use Unload on any survivors that have a lot of health.  Most of the time I could take out the whole group without them getting more than a couple of shots off.

I'll admit that even with that I still tend to try and stand behind cover.  It doesn't actually do anything of course, but it makes me feel better and lets me believe the combat is making sense.  I'll also tend to charge forward, which isn't as insane as it sounds, as the Bounty Hunter has a powerful rocket-assisted punch for melee so opening up with everything you've got and then charging to melee is a good way to deal with powerful targets.  Plus, in the real world it's harder to hit a moving target so running also makes me feel like the combat isn't just "stand there and shoot each other in the face with blasters".  The fact that so far all non-channeled abilities I have can be used while on the move is a big plus in my book.

My Bounty Hunter is level 7 and sitting in a Hutt's cantina earning some rest experience.  I don't have a companion yet, but have several Heroic 2+ (group areas) to explore, so I'm looking forward to tackling both of those things tonight.  So far SWTOR has been the most enjoyable MMORPG experience I've had in years.  Time will tell if it's my favorite MMORPG ever, or if the shine wears off as I play more, but either way I'm looking forward to a good ride.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Diablo 3 - Not sure what to think

According to my e-mail invite to the Diablo 3 beta I am free (and even encouraged) to discuss my experiences as much as I like.  So I'm going to, starting right now.

When I received my beta invite late last week I thought Blizzard and/or fate was playing a cruel trick on me, getting me access to one of my most anticipated upcoming games right as SWTOR (another of my most anticipated upcoming games) is about to release.  "Oh cruel fate," I railed, "I don't have time to play both!"
After checking the beta out over the weekend though, it's not looking like much of a competition after all.

I'm going to discuss the good and the bad of my experiences, starting with the good.

First off, the game runs very smoothly on my moderate spec machine, even with all settings at maximum.  Anyone who has ever played a Diablo game is going to be hit with a wave of nostalgia as you first enter the game world as the music and some of the sound effects are straight from the earlier games.  Combat is the smooth click-fest you'd expect, and loot is plentiful.  Experience seems to accrue at a reasonable rate, but not so fast that you feel like things are whizzing by too quickly.  It definitely slows down after level five or so, maybe too much, it's hard to say.

Some of the new features are really nice, especially the crafting system.  Rather than relying wholly on the randomness of drops and vendors, the Blacksmith has a list of recipes for items he can create.  The item itself has semi-random stats, but the items are blue quality or better, and you can choose which slot you need an item for.  Don't have a helm yet, or only a crappy one?  The Blacksmith can make you one, assuming he's learned the right recipe.  Crafting is paid for with materials acquired by breaking down magical items into their components along with a small amount of gold.  The Blacksmith can be "leveled up" by finding five recipe pages which can be bound into a Tome of Learning.  The Tome, along with some crafting materials, can be given to the Blacksmith to level his crafting skill, which in turn unlocks new recipes.  It's a nice system that lets you turn junk drops into something useful, and my Wizard has been making good use of it.  There are two more crafters in the game, but I haven't encountered them yet.

I also really like the change to character development that they've made.  As you level up you will learn new skills/spells, but you can't just use them willy-nilly.  Instead, you have a limited number of skill slots into which you place the selection of skills you want to use.  You gain additional skill slots as you level up, starting with one at level 1 and eventually expanding to six.  At the lowest levels it feels pretty restrictive as you don't have much to do with only two or three skill slots, especially if you pick a long duration buff as one of your skills.  Still, I like the system overall, as it has something of a Guild Wars feel to it, where finding the combination of skills that works for you is more important than cramming every skill you've got onto an expanded skillbar and trying to remember what they all do.  It means one level 20 wizard could have an entirely different selection of spells than another -- wizard A might toss magic missiles and arcane orbs, while wizard B electrocutes his foes after freezing them with a frost nova.  Most importantly, you can freely re-assign skills by visiting a shrine in town (or at the start of some dungeons) so you can experiment and play around with your build endlessly until you find what you like, rather than making permanent changes that can only be altered with great difficulty.

Another positive is that for the most part there are no class/attribute restrictions on gear.  Certain items are class specific, such as the Demon Hunter cloaks and crossbows, but anyone can wear that suit of plate armor if they are high enough level.  That was true in Diablo 2 as well, except in that game your mage would have to meet the strength requirement to wear the high defense armor.  In Diablo 3, they can just wear it.  This means when you choose your class you're just picking a playstyle, not a role.  If you want to be a plate wearing wizard that fights with a sword and shield, you can do that.  The stats on that sort of gear probably won't maximize your DPS, but you'll have loads more defense than the wizard using a wand and focus, and you don't have to gimp yourself by stacking strength to achieve it.  Good stuff.

It's not all sunshine and roses though.  The beta currently has some pretty severe server issues, which is strange considering the amount of experience Blizzard has in implementing this sort of thing.  They've been doing Battle.net for over a decade, and World of Warcraft since 2004.  They should be pros at this by now, yet most of the time the beta servers were crashed and I couldn't log in.

Part of the reason the game plays so smoothly is that the graphics look a bit dated.  Diablo 3's prolonged development time is counting against it here, as "modern" graphics pass it by.  The in-game graphics are passable, but I have to say the character graphics on the character creation screen (which is significantly more zoomed in than in game) are downright ugly.  The spell effects have so far also been pretty lackluster.  They're upgrades from Diablo 2 no doubt, but seem fairly flat.  I have yet to see anything that makes me go "wow".  It's functional, but uninspiring.

And that, sadly, seems to describe the game quite well - functional but uninspiring.  It's a well crafted game with some solid new features, and should be a satisfying experience for any Diablo veteran.  A couple of hours into the game though, I found myself getting bored.  As I worked my way through the levels of the Cathedral, it really started to remind me of Torchlight, which was a strange thing to note.  Torchlight should have been a game in the vein of Diablo, but it's passed its inspiration by and now Diablo 3 is a game in the vein of Torchlight.  Outside of the things I mentioned earlier, Torchlight already does most of the "new" things Diablo 3 is doing (such as mobs climbing out of the terrain, secret doors, destructible terrain, etc.) and the three dimensional dungeon levels feel almost identical.

This isn't really a failing for Diablo 3, I mean Torchlight was a good game and I enjoyed playing it.  Plus many of the new things it did are just sensible evolutions for the genre and it would be odd for Diablo 3 to NOT include them.  Nevertheless, it gave Diablo 3 a real feeling of sameness, like I'd done all this before and sapped the feeling of "new shiny" from the game very quickly.  I know the game is going to ramp up as you go along, and I'm sure it's way more fun when played with friends, but playing the first act solo was a bit of a let down.

Am I still looking forward to the game?  Absolutely.  Is the Diablo 3 beta going to compete with my SWTOR playtime?  Not a chance.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Moddable Gear

Before going any further, you need to go to the SWTOR site and read this.  It's a post by a SWTOR developer detailing the item modification system that exists in Star Wars: The Old Republic.  For those not in the know (which included me, btw) some pieces of equipment in the game are moddable, they have empty slots into which an item modification can be placed to give it stats.  It's sort of like sockets in other games, but far more central to the functioning of the item.  Sockets in other games were more of a bonus than anything, the mod slots in SWTOR gear are vital to them being useful.

Previously there were two types of moddable gear - gear that had nothing but mod slots, and gear that had some set stats and one mod slot.  The most recent patch has apparently removed most of the latter and created more of the former with the intent of making using mods more focused.  Since everyone gets some items that are fully custom through class quests we'll all be engaging in the system at least a little bit.  As a force user, your first lightsaber is a fully moddable piece of gear.

I think the system is interesting, and as long as mods aren't too difficult to obtain I think it will offer a viable and fun alternative to the typical gear progression system.  The fact that mods can be safely removed from gear is key, as it means really good mods can be saved and used on items you like the look of better, or saved for other items when you find an upgrade that would be better in it's current slot.  With similar systems in other games I have frequently agonized over using a really good gem/enchant/whatever for fear of getting an item it would be better on shortly thereafter with no way to undo my choice.  A fear that is usually born out too (as was the case with the +40 fire damage gem I slotted on my War in the North character's weapon, argh!).

The fully customizable items I've seen so far had quite a few slots, 3-4 if I recall.  Getting to build your own item with that many choices sounds like fun, and I'm sure it's a system I'll use as much as I can.  The fact that crafters can now create armor/weapons that are fully moddable will help.  One thing that isn't clear to me though is that it's been stated you could use a fully moddable item from level 1 to the level cap if you wanted simply by updating the mods slotted in it.  I'm assuming then there must be a mod that increases the dps of a weapon or the defense on armor?  Otherwise I don't see low level custom gear being very useful no matter how good the stat mods on it are.  I don't care that the lightsaber I started with has huge bonuses to stats if its base damage is still that of a level 9 item . . .

Mods can be obtained as loot, as quest rewards, from breaking down equipment, or through crafting.  It sounds like a lot of possibilities, and hopefully it will be enough.  I suspect the crafting skill that creates mods will be a profitable one overall, as it doesn't sound as useful as crafting your own armor or weapons, but in the end absolutely everyone is going to be using mods at some point.

I also really liked that if you see an armor drop that looks cool, someone somewhere has the recipe to craft that armor in a fully moddable version.  If the system works well enough it will reduce the need for an appearance tab as you can track down the look you want and make the stats work by using mods.  I hate looking like a frankenstein's fashion monster in these games, but not so much that I won't wear that piece of ugly armor with awesome stats.  Being able to have the best of both worlds is something to look forward to, I just hope the execution is as good as the idea.

Tank Envy

One of my gaming friends is still playing World of Tanks pretty seriously.  Last night before our little group started its weekly session of Lord of the Rings: War in the North (which after a couple of weeks of play I'd still highly recommend as a really fun action-RPG romp if you can play it with friends and avoid the bugs) he was talking about his progress in WoT, and that he was just 8,000 xp away from the IS-7, currently the tank at the top of the Russian heavy tank line.  As in a tier 10 tank, as high as you can get in the game.

Hello, I'm the IS-7.  I'll be your bruiser for the evening.
He then started talking about his IS-4, and what a fun tank it is and how it really makes all the other heavy tanks he's played feel pretty feeble in comparison.  My heavy tank experiences have generally felt pretty feeble, so I couldn't argue with him there.  It got me to thinking though -- one of the reasons I started losing interest in WoT was that even though tanks would look like upgrades on paper, when you actually unlocked them and started playing they just weren't much fun, or somehow managed to perform more poorly than the tank before them thanks to being in a higher tier and fighting harder opposition.  That happened to me numerous times and left me feeling like I'd wasted all my time building up to the tank in question.  It happened with the German tank destroyer line, I got up to tier 5 and went "meh".  It happened with the US tank destroyer line, I got up to tier 5 and went "meh".  I'd say maybe I have a problem with tank destroyers, but I actually like the Russian tank destroyers.  Well, so far.  I got up to tier 7 in the US heavy tank tree and was really disappointed by the T29.  I have the biggest gun it can mount and still can't seem to kill much.  To date I still have superior stats with the T1 Heavy, a tank I thought sucked pretty bad.  Apparently not as much as I thought.

So hearing about my friend's experiences with the IS line of tanks shortly had me drifting into the realm of tank envy.  Why did I waste my time with the US heavy tank tree when the Russian one is apparently so much better?!  Not that I could do much about it even if I wanted to, my highest Russian tank is only tier 4, a long haul from tier 7 IS.  If only I could respec . . .

Yeah, why can't I respec?  One could (quite reasonably) argue that the research tree you progress down is no different than choosing a class in a real MMORPG.  If you get halfway to the level cap with a class and decide you don't like it, you're out of luck, you get to start over.  Why should WoT be any different?  Maybe it shouldn't, maybe the way they're doing it is just fine, though one can't help but think that it also serves to drive sales of premium time and xp transfers, something that likely generates more revenue over time than a respec token would.

On the other hand, it's not as if we have characters in WoT, it's just a technology tree.  There's also the issue that Wargaming.net keeps shifting things around in the trees but doesn't reset where you've spent your xp, which can lead to some odd and/or annoying shifts to your progression.  The other thing to consider is that a normal MMORPG offers the possibility of different content if you start a new character.  Maybe a new starting zone, new class quests, new abilities, etc.  That's not the case in WoT.  If you start over to unlock a new tank you'll be doing exactly the same deathmatch maps as you were before, and all tanks have the same "abilities", they just have different stats.  You might switch from a slow tank with heavy armor and a big gun to a faster tank with thinner armor and a smaller gun, and doing so will result in a change in your tactics, but it's not as if that T20 can deploy mines while the IS can call in an orbital strike.  They all have a single gun of varying capability and drive around on the map shooting at things.

So should WoT have a way to unspend your xp in order to shift it into new research areas?  I don't know, such a system would certainly be controversial (to say the least!) and run the risk of flavor-of-the-month tanks.  Nevertheless, if such a system did exist I would almost certainly take advantage of it, even if it cost real money to do so.  My time is far more limited than my funds.

Monday, December 5, 2011

SWTOR: A few pet peeves

I think my ramblings about SWTOR have overall been quite positive, but I do have a few issues with some of the design decisions they made in the game.  They're not really serious issues, so I'd have to classify them as little more than pet peeves.

The first regards the monsters/npcs out in the world.  They just stand there doing nothing.  All the time.  They don't wander, they don't drift, they have idle animations and that's about it.  I thought we were past the age of obvious xp buckets sitting around waiting for someone to tip them over.  The humanoids aren't that bad, as their idle animations often involve them doing something, but the animals are terrible.  They just stand around and sometimes shuffle their feet, or snort.  They don't eat, they don't move, and even the completely passive "critter" variety don't run away when you approach.  The game is otherwise quite immersive and technically impressive, so I find it quite jarring to see all these listless animals standing about waiting to starve to death.  It's 2011, is that really the best we can do?

I mentioned it in another post, but the heat seeking blaster bolts really annoy me.  It's especially bad since most guns shoot a stream of shots rather than singles (like they mostly did in the movie) so you get this clearly defined arc that bends and twists as the target moves.  The flood of shots itself is fairly jarring.  How about reducing the number of bolts fired at once and making them travel faster?  That would reduce the lunacy significantly.  "But then the screen won't be saturated with blaster shots and shiny special effects all the time!" That's kind of the point.  If it was good enough for the movies and KotoR, it should be ok here too.  Blaster fire should look like blaster fire, this is Star Wars not Ghostbusters.

I understand they have to make sacrifices in the name of gameplay, but the appearing/disappearing vehicles really bug me.  It's one thing in a game like World of Warcraft where you can handwave it away as magic, but there's no magic at play here, and the technology of Star Wars does not include teleportation, solid holograms, or matter replication.  Why does that speeder appear out of nowhere, and disappear in a shimmer like a deconstructing hologram?  Couldn't they have designed the taxi pads with a hangar that your character goes into then flies out on a vehicles, then flies into another hangar on the other end.  The effect would be the same, but the visuals would be more immersive.  Or heck, do something that WoW has already done, and have the vehicles sitting out on a landing pad and when you click one you jump in and fly away (leaving another one behind, but it's still an improvement).  For personal "mounts" I'd like to see characters activate some sort of comm device and then have the vehicle of choice swoop in from offscreen, then fly off again when done.  Darth Maul did it, dammit.

 Why do some classes (Jedi Knight) get to turn in class quests via a communications device, while other classes (Jedi Consular) have to trudge back to base on foot and talk face-to-face?  On the one hand I actually liked the interaction the Jedi Consular had with their NPC, it made the story feel more engaging.  On the other hand, it took forever to get through the starting area due to all the trudging compared to the Jedi Knight.  How about a special "return to NPC" button that will automatically take your character to the appropriate story instance when you're ready to complete it.  It can go away when you're higher level and have more transportation options.  It's not teleportation, it's . . . I forget the cinematic term for it, but a scene switch in a movie.  You're assumed to have made the trudge back on foot, you just don't have to experience it.

So, anyone else have some pet peeves?  I think I've gone on about it long enough myself.

Friday, December 2, 2011

SWTOR: The WoW Killer?

Many people are positing that Star Wars: The Old Republic will kill World of Warcraft, that EA-Bioware expects it to kill WoW, and that it will be a complete failure if it doesn't kill WoW.  Then there are people arguing the flip side, that SWTOR can't compete with WoW, that WoW will kill SWTOR, and that nothing will ever dethrone WoW.

To put it simply, I disagree with all of those positions.

The Old Republic isn't going to kill World of Warcraft, no single game ever will.  World of Warcraft is too big, and too many of it's players aren't MMORPG gamers, or even gamers, but rather WoW gamers.  They don't play anything other than WoW now, didn't play anything before WoW, and quite possibly won't play anything after WoW.  Blizzard's behemoth is going to die though, but it will be the slow death of a thousand cuts as people leave for a multitude of reasons and recruiting replacements gets harder and harder in the face of all the other options out there.  SWTOR won't kill WoW, but it will take some of the game's subscribers, and provide viable competition for future recruitment of new subscribers.  Kill WoW?  No.  Wound it?  Sure.

I don't think Bioware expects to dethrone WoW either.  After all, they seem to be hoping for a million or so subscribers, which while hefty by most standards is still only a fraction of WoW's subscriber base.  Anyone officially with Bioware or EA trying to claim SWTOR will kill WoW is just trying to drum up publicity.  Games that seriously claim to be WoW-killers suffer some serious negative publicity when they fail.  Yeah, I'm looking at you Warhammer Online.  Bears bears bears.  Bastards.

I think the argument that SWTOR can't exist alongside WoW is equally erroneous.  If a game like WoW had existed ten years ago, then maybe I'd agree that both games couldn't survive due to WoW's enormous market share.  The MMORPG gaming audience has grown dramatically in the last ten years, thanks in large part to the runaway success of WoW, and we know that the number of people currently subscribed to WoW is far far lower than the total number that have ever been subscribed to WoW.  This is a huge potential market for the game (past subscribers of WoW) as SWTOR will be immediately familiar and comfortable to older WoW players, while bringing the power of the Star Wars IP to the table.  It's not at all hard to imagine SWTOR bringing in a couple of million subscribers without affecting WoW's current subscriber base AT ALL.  I think it will take some subscriptions away, I'm just saying it doesn't have to.

One other thing that I think many people aren't considering when it comes to SWTOR and WoW co-existing is that there's no rule that says people can only subscribe to a single game at a time.  This isn't a binary situation, it's not IF SWTOR = TRUE, THEN WOW = FALSE (and vice versa).  Consider that the average age of MMORPG gamers has been gradually increasing over the years.  The last statistic I recall seeing placed the average age in the 30s, maybe even the 40s.  You know what else increases as age increases?  Income.  Ten years ago most people playing MMORPGs were college students with time but no money, and maintaining a single subscription at a time was probably all most people could do.  As the average age of MMORPG gamers increases, the average income of MMORPG gamers can also be expected to increase, and thus the potential to subscribe to two games at a time also increases.

The downside, of course, is that free time tends to decrease, which would be an argument against multiple subscriptions, except that games like WoW aren't exactly chock full of new content on a weekly basis.  Why continue to sub to WoW for six more months until the next content patch when you could switch to SWTOR, then switch back. Not a constant multiple subscription, but over the course of a year it would amount to much the same thing. I can also easily imagine a growing number of gamers with steady incomes electing to play both games in order to maximize their gaming time.  Most people I talk to who still play WoW only seriously play it a couple of days a week, and spend the rest of their gaming sessions mucking about killing time.  They could very easily be playing SWTOR on those days instead.

Only time will tell, but I think the market is ripe for another big, successful MMORPG, and SWTOR isn't releasing against a whole lot of competition here.  When was the last AAA MMORPG release?  When is the next one?  They've got a wide open window of opportunity here.  I think the market is ready, it's up to Bioware to not drop the ball.

That other SWTOR post . . .

Isn't happening.  I spent several days scouring my hard drive for all the beta screenshots I took and couldn't find them.  Like many others, the screenshot functionality apparently didn't work for me.  Since the screenshots were integral to the whole post, the post sort of evaporated with the screenshots.

I'm not ready (yet) to jump on the conspiracy bandwagon that the virtual item in the CE of the game is required to enable taking screenshots.  Rather I suspect the holocam (or whatever it's called) will let you take virtual screenshots that are stored and viewable in-game.  I can't believe any non-idiotic developer would completely disable the ability to take screenshots of their game without a virtual item purchased with real money.  They'd lose massive amounts of free word-of-mouth advertising if people can't show screenshots to their friends or post them on blogs, facebook, etc.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Star Wars: The Old Republic - Classes

As I've been trying to convince my friends they really do want to play Star Wars: The Old Republic with me I've been describing certain game systems, features, etc. for them. As long as I'm going to the trouble to spell it out once, I might as well put it here in case anyone else is interested. First up, SWTOR classes.

There are four base classes on each side (Republic vs. Empire, though we're talking old Republic and Sith Empire, several thousand years before the movies). Each base class has two possible advanced classes that you choose from at level 10. All the classes on each side are rough mirrors of each other, but differ in style and some abilities. For example, the Sith Inquisitor (primary force user) shoots lightning, while the Jedi Consular (Republic equivalent) hurls objects with telekinesis. Same outcome (ranged dps), different method.

Each advanced class has 3 talent trees, 2 unique to the class and one shared between both advanced classes. Each unique tree focuses on a role, while the shared tree offers general improvements to the class independent of role. The Jedi Sage (advanced class option for Jedi Consular), for example, has a dps tree, a healing tree, and a "balance" tree. The Jedi Shadow (the other option) has a dps tree, a tank tree, and the same "balance" tree. You can respec your talent trees, but as far as I know you cannot respec your advanced class choice.

Every class has some sort of group buff as a baseline ability, so having at least one of each base class in a group is going to be helpful. The group size is apparently 4, so having one of each base class is going to be ideal. If you have two of one class you won't be able to get all the buffs.

First a disclaimer -- the information that follows is based on my quick impressions over the beta weekend. It's not datamined information and some facts could be wrong, but it should be close enough for the most part.

Class breakdown:

Jedi Knight:
Your basic lightsaber swinging Jedi. They specialize in melee attacks instead of force abilities, and are the clear "warrior" style archetype. The class mechanic is Focus. Some abilities generate focus, others use it. Starts with 0 focus and focus decays outside of combat. Early abilities include a couple of lightsaber strikes, a "leap into combat" ability, and a pbaoe.

  • Jedi Guardian - The tank specialty. Fights with a single lightsaber, gets the ability to wear heavy armor, taunts, and a few iconic force powers like Force Push. Luke was probably a Jedi Guardian. Gets a tank tree and melee dps tree.
  • Jedi Sentinel - The melee dps specialty. Fights with dual lightsabers, can wear medium armor, has a new mechanic in addition to focus called "concentration" that allows the use of special buffs. Gets a solo dps tree (survival + dps), or a group dps tree (pure dps). Or something like that. The Sentinel's role seems to be pure dps.

Precursor to the clone trooper and stormtrooper. Heavy ranged weapon class with the ability to wear heavy armor and use shield generators. The class mechanic is "energy cells". Abilities use a certain number of energy cells which recharge over time. There are some abilities to instantly recharge cells.

  • Commando - The ranged dps specialty. Focuses on heavy weapon usage such as rocket launchers and massive blasters. Gets a dps tree and a healing tree.
  • Vanguard - The ranged tank specialty. Focuses on shield generator usage and blaster rifles. Gets a ranged dps and a tank tree.

Jedi Consular:
Heavy force using Jedi. Still gets a few lightsaber attacks, but they're pretty basic (still pretty effective though, at least at low level). Can only wear light armor. Mechanic is Force points (mana) but there's only 100 points, so it's more like an energy bar. Early abilities include a pbaoe + knockback and the ability to rip chunks of rock out of the ground and toss it at your target.

  • Jedi Sage - Ranged force user. Focuses on force powers from range. Gets upgraded range on all the basic force powers (from 10m to 30m), an increase in Force points from 100 to 500, and learns advanced ranged force abilities. Gets a dps tree and a healing tree.
  • Jedi Shadow - Melee force user. Focuses on force powers and stealth. Gets a stealth ability (affects your companion too!), a backstab, and a variety of force powers intended for use at short range. Gets a dps tree and a tank tree.

Han Solo. Well, it is. Mechanic is energy (like a rogue) with a secondary mechanic of "Cover". The Smuggler (and Imperial Agent) are the only classes smart enough to take cover when blaster bolts start flying. It's quite well done, your character literally crouches down behind appropriate world objects, and ranged attacks will hit the cover instead of your character. Enemies can flank you, or melee you to negate the cover bonus. Certain abilities can only be used from cover, and your character will pop out from cover to attack and then duck back down again. At higher levels the Smuggler can use a force field generator to create cover where none is otherwise available.

  • Gunslinger - Range damage specialist. Can dual wield blaster pistols and focuses on damage. Gets a range dps/debuff tree, and an aoe/dot dps tree.
  • Scoundrel - Support/close range specialist. Focuses on fighting from cover or supporting groups. Gets a short range/melee dps tree and a heal tree.

The Imperial classes are rough mirrors of the Republic ones, so I won't go into much detail, just list them. You'll have the basic idea based on the Republic equivalent.

Sith Warrior:
Empire equivalent to the Jedi Knight. They fight with red lightsabers to let you know how different they are from those pansy Jedi.

  • Sith Juggernaut - Tank specialty. Darth Vader was probably a Juggernaut. Gets a tank tree and a dps tree.
  • Sith Marauder - DPS specialty, equivalent to the Sentinel.

Bounty Hunter:
Empire equivalent to the Trooper, but with more attitude. They also have a reverse mechanic to the Trooper. Where the Trooper starts with a full bar of energy cells, the BH uses "heat" which starts at 0. The Trooper depletes energy cells, and when he runs out can't use abilities. The BH generates heat, and when the bar fills up he can't use abilities. Same idea, but they work in opposite directions.

  • Mercenary - Dual wield specialist, fights with dual blaster pistols. Has a dps tree and a healing tree.
  • Powertech - Gadget specialist, has a dps tree and a tank tree. Think Boba Fett.

Sith Inquisitor:
Empire equivalent of the Consular, they also believe in diplomacy first. Force Lightning is typically their start to negotiations.

  • Sith Sorceror - The heavy force user, gets a dps tree and a healing tree.
  • Sith Assassin - Stealth melee force user, gets a dps tree and a tanking tree.

Imperial Agent:
Empire equivalent to the Smuggler, but quite a bit more martial in nature. Uses the same energy and cover mechanics.

  • Sniper - Ranged dps specialty.
  • Operative - Support specialist, gets a dps tree and a healing tree.

If you're counting, you'll note that each side has 3 classes that can heal, 3 classes that can tank, and everyone can dps, depending on how you spec. The most versatile base classes are the Trooper, Consular, Bounty Hunter, and Inquisitor, each of which have the ability to tank, heal, or dps (not in the same advanced class though). The Knights and Warriors can only tank or dps, and Smugglers and Agents can only heal or dps.

I think groups are going to be hard to form until they add in a dual spec ability, though even that might not change much. Companions mean you can solo with whatever build you like and it won't get much harder, you just use a different companion. It won't change the fact that many people don't want the responsibility of being a tank or healer -- it's stressful. I'm perfectly happy to tank or heal for a group of friends, but I despise doing it in pugs. I don't suck THAT bad, I just don't care for the pressure. Having just 2 slots for dps characters means they'll have even more trouble than usual finding groups. Hopefully low level content will be forgiving enough that a Jedi Guardian can tank even if he's specced for DPS, but we'll see.

Monday, November 28, 2011

SWTOR: Quick Impressions

Like practically every other MMO gamer out there I played in the Star Wars: The Old Republic beta this weekend.  I'll have a bigger post up later this week, but here is some of what I took away from the beta:


  • The classes tend to be more fun than they sound "on paper".  I had no interest in the Smuggler or Jedi Consular until I tried them, and now I have no idea what I'll play at release!
  • The companions are game-changing as far as the solo experience goes.  They aren't your usual pets that either can take hits but do no damage or deal damage but die in seconds.  My Jedi Consular's starting companion hit like a mack truck and had more hit points than I did.  Suddenly content that was impossible became doable.
  • The voice dialog is well done, and I don't care what the naysayers say, having a character that not only speaks with a voice but says what I choose for him is a huge immersion bonus.  Interactive audio quest info is far more engaging than ye olde wall o' text.  And no, EQ2 did not already do this.  This is exponentially more voice dialog than EQ2 ever had.
  • Combat is a lot faster than I expected.
  • The class quests are pretty cool, and the special story instances work.  There's no load time to enter them, sometimes a slight stutter, often completely seamless.
  • The zones are huge and feel pretty epic.  Standing on Coruscant with speeder traffic zipping all around is pretty amazing.
  • The game is immersive.  Despite being a themepark it has a "world-y" feel to it, the game doesn't go out of its way to intrude beyond floating icons over some NPCs, and even those are pretty muted compared to some games.
  • The cover mechanic used by Smugglers and Agents is something I'd like to see more of.  I wish all the characters could do it!
  • Multiple bind points -- you can quick travel (hearth) to ANY location on the planet you've previously bound to, not just the most recent like in most games.  That's a huge plus to moving around.  Sadly you can't quick travel to other planets (or if you can, I don't know how).
  • Fighting 1 - 3 mobs at a time is cool, and SWTOR does it way better than City of Heroes.  Combat is just fun, and I didn't mind diverging from my path to take out packs of enemies while on my way somewhere else.  In fact, I often had to make myself STOP diverging, or I'd never get to where I was going.
  • Exploring can pay off, I found a security chest with a nice green item in it off the beaten path.
  • Sound and graphics -- it's Star Wars, you're not going to mistake it for anything else.
  • With release looming fast it still has some bugs and quirks, some of which I'm not sure if they're bugs or just really weird design decisions.  Case in point, my first companion had a massive Aim stat (used for ranged weapons) but was unable to equip a ranged weapon -- he could only use melee weapons, but had really low strength.
  • Blaster bolts will follow the target if it moves after you fire.  It looks really terrible.  I don't mind that happening for magic in other games, or Force powers in this game, or missiles, but blaster bolts aren't guided projectiles.  I know they can't "miss" or this would become a twitch game, but I'd rather they graphically miss and statistically hit, then bend around corners and follow fleeing targets.  It's easier to suspend my disbelief.
  • I hope you like running, because this game is going to make you do a LOT of it.  Not courier quests (thank god!) just a lot of exploring and running to quest givers and traveling to new areas.  Some classes have it worse than others - my Jedi Consular, for instance, had to run back to the Jedi Temple to report in person every time he completed a class quest.  Other classes (such as the Trooper and Jedi Knight) get to use a communicator instead.
  • Global chat needs to be turned off the moment you log in.  It's like Barrens chat but without all the class.
  • I would like to be able to rearrange the UI components (especially the companion window) but couldn't figure out how.  I could move the chat box and that was it.
  • There's not enough quest content at any given level range.  You really want to be level 10 by the time you leave the starter planet, but getting there seems to require doing every single quest AND killing as many mobs along the way as you can.  That doesn't bode well for the higher levels.
  • I won't get to play again until it releases, and that sucks.
I am still looking forward to the game, and it's meeting my pretty reasonable expectations.  For the most part I'd say it's exceeded my expectations, so that's a nice change.  I'd recommend SWTOR to anyone who likes quest oriented, class based, level grinding PvE games -- SWTOR will likely be one of the best games in this genre.  I would not recommend SWTOR to anyone who is hates WoW and all games like it -- if this is you, SWTOR is not your game.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Lord of the Rings: War in the North

On Monday, with Tuesday gaming night fast approaching I found myself looking around for something more interesting to do with the gaming group.  Titan Quest had been ok, but felt pretty bland, and while the multiplayer worked ok it didn't really add anything to the game.  We just sort of moved along in a little pack and clicked on things until they were dead, and didn't really need to talk or discuss what we were doing because it was all pretty brain dead.  So I was interested in finding something a little more exciting, something that really benefited from all three of us playing together.  I just happened to stumble across Lord of the Rings: War in the North and saw that it was 1) an action RPG and 2) designed for co-op with 3 players.  How extraordinarily convenient.  I mentioned it to my friends, and we all took the dive based on the premise alone.  Two of us played last night (the third leg of our gaming holy trinity couldn't make it, darn you Mr. Heals!) and overall I walked away moderately impressed, but more importantly, quite satisfied.

Lord of the Rings: War in the North (WitN) was developed by Snowblind studios, the folks behind a number of similar games, including some decent Dungeons & Dragons action RPGs on the original Xbox.  Much like Lord of the Rings Online, players take on the roles of characters that worked behind the scenes during Frodo's death march from the Shire to Mordor.  In this case, your group of three characters, a dwarf champion,  a human ranger, and an elf loremaster are tasked with running interference against armies of orcs and goblins to prevent them from invading the Shire before Frodo gets out.  It looks like we'll be traveling across Middle Earth, meeting famous figures from the book (Aragorn gives you your first quest) while slaughtering minions of Sauron and his lieutenant Agandaur by the hundreds.

You can't keep us apart.  We're like family!
The three characters in the game are set.  You can choose which of the three you want to play, but you can't change their names, pick their classes, or anything like that.  All three characters must be present in each game (no more, no less) so if you play by yourself, the AI controls the other two characters.  If you play co-op, each player picks one of the three characters, with no duplicates allowed.  You won't have a group of two dwarves and a ranger.  The characters roughly fall into the rolls described by the holy trinity of MMORPGs - tank, dps, healer.  The dwarf Champion is the most logical tank, being a heavy melee class with the best armor.  The Ranger is the most logical dps character, using a bow and melee weapons to deal damage at any range.  The Loremaster is the support class, providing healing, buffing, and some damage as well.  That's just at the start though -- each character has a skill tree that you spend points in when leveling up, and it's possible to focus the Champion on ranged dps, the Ranger on tanking, and the Loremaster on dual wield melee dps.  The trees are pretty short, but in a game like this any sort of customization is good.

The thing that struck my friend and I most distinctly was that the game is clearly, obviously, and wonderfully tailored for co-op play.  Co-op isn't something tacked on as a necessary feature, the game was designed with co-op in mind.  A big example -- all loot in the game is randomly generated for each character and if you find a chest, every character gets to loot the chest and gets a full share of loot from it.  There's no competition for loot, and no concerns about taking things that might be better for your buddy over there.  Instead, the loot I picked up wouldn't have even existed if I hadn't been playing in my friend's game.  When we found things the other player could use, it was easy to trade as well, since you can simply send items from your inventory to any of the other players directly.  No dropping things on the ground and hoping they pick up the right thing. The game is intense enough that communication matters, and we were talking far more than we ever did during Titan Quest.  Teamwork matters here, and that's a great thing for a co-op game.

What do you mean you never saw Gandalf do this?  What a slacker!
Which brings me to the gameplay itself.  It's pretty standard button mashing action RPG fare, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  I found it both engaging and relaxing, and really hit the spot for an evening of gaming. Each character has a normal and heavy melee attack, a ranged attack, and a selection of skills from the skill trees.  Hitting enemies enough time will make them vulnerable to a critical attack, which if done right will reward you with a fancy finishing move played out in slow motion.  It's also possible to do headshots with your ranged attacks for bonus damage.  Nothing deep, but solid and fun.  The skills are varied and interesting, everything from a "sanctuary" spell cast by the Loremaster that prevents ranged attacks from entering (but not leaving!) to heavy melee aoe strikes by the Champion.

The graphics are decent, but not exceptional, due no doubt to the game's console pedigree.  Dialog is voiced, both for the player characters and the NPCs, and your characters will even do battle shouts or announce skill usage during combat for certain skills.  The sound effects and music seemed good, and fit with the Lord of the Rings theme.  I don't recall anything glaring like death metal blaring as we charged up a ruined canyon into hordes of exploding goblins.

All that said the game certainly has some issues.  I was playing using an xbox 360 wired controller, so camera control and movement was fluid and easy for me.  My friend was using a mouse and keyboard though, and it took some time for him to get used to the sometimes wonky camera movements.  The game is clearly a console port, and both the control scheme and user interface reflect that.  It's not insurmountable, but it does take some getting used to, and I think the game is probably best played with a game pad.  Strangely though, the list of controls in the menu refers only to the mouse and keyboard even if you have a gamepad plugged in, though the in-game tutorials and loading screen tips thankfully report how to do things with the controller.

The other rather strange issue we had was voice chat.  The game apparently has voice chat built in and enabled by default, but has absolutely no settings to control it anywhere in the game at all.  We were connected through Skype and when the multiplayer game started my friend's voice started echoing in my headphones, while he was hearing my voice from both his headphones and his computer speakers.  We figured out pretty quickly that WitN was providing voice chat and turned off Skype, but the control and quality of the voice service was inferior to that of Skype and we'd have rather stuck with Skype.  There was no way to turn it off though, so we were stuck.  I'm assuming there must be a .ini file or something we can edit to shut it down.

Reviews of the game have been pretty luke warm, and if I was playing the game single player I could understand that.  I don't doubt it would get repetitive, and the relatively weak story wouldn't keep me going.  Co-op though, the game is a lot of fun and deserves a much higher rating than the reviews are giving the game as a whole.  If you're interested in WitN, play with some friends to really enjoy the game as it was meant to be played.

Overall we had a good time and I'm looking forward to playing it again next week.  We made it to level 6, but are still in the first area of the game, so playing one night a week WitN could last a couple of months.  I think we've finally found a game that we can all enjoy and play together, at least for now.  Finally!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Faux F2P

I’ve played a fair few free to play MMORPGs by now, everything from oddball action fantasy games like Dragon’s Nest to traditional conversions like Lord of the Rings Online.  I’ve played games where the cash shop really isn’t necessary, and others where not using items from the cash shop makes playing the game more an adventure in walking on broken glass than a fun, relaxing hobby (my apologies to all you broken-glass-walkers out there, I don’t mean to malign your hobby).  I find I am less irritated by games that make cash shop items necessary when the game itself is completely free – no box price, no startup cost, no subscription, just the cash shop.  I find I am very irritated by games that make cash shop items necessary when the game itself costs money up front – since most F2P games that started as F2P never charge for the client, I am of course mostly referring to games that have converted from subscription to F2P, or some hybrid thereof.

My City of Heroes account recently converted from VIP to Free, and overall I have to say I am not happy, at all, with the way things have worked out.  When Paragon Studios first announced the free to play change (City of Heroes: Freedom) I thought it sounded like a good idea.  They made a big deal of the fact that past subscribers would have “premium” accounts rather than just free accounts.  In their defense I don’t think they ever detailed what that meant, but nevertheless they implied it was a big deal.  My subscription time for City of Heroes clocks in around 40 months.  I beta tested the game, I paid full retail at release, I beta tested City of Villains, and bought that at full price too, and picked up Going Rogue the moment it came out.  In short, I’ve invested a LOT of money in the game over the years, and that apparently set my expectations a bit high.

The first thing that happened upon converting to a free account was that all my character slots locked.  I have characters on three servers – Pinnacle, Virtue, and Freedom.  Logging into Virtue I had 2 server slots and 3 global slots available.  Checking Pinnacle I had 2 server slots and 3 global slots available.  Checking Freedom I had 0 server slots and 0 global slots available – I couldn’t unlock a single character on that server without spending money.  Not one.  Ooo . . . kay . . . not exactly fair, but I wasn’t that invested in my villain characters anyway.

So I went back to Virtue and unlocked the two characters I’ve mostly been playing lately, my level 50 tanker and my level 28 corrupter.  I logged in my tanker to see how he was affected and discovered he’d lost access to all his Incarnate abilities.  Not only are free players barred from participating in Incarnate Trials, anything you earn while a VIP is lost the moment you stop subscribing.  That would be like raiding in Lord of the Rings Online and getting your epics stripped away if you stop paying.  There’s also no way to access the Incarnate system without paying a monthly subscription – you can’t unlock the content in the cash shop, it’s subscribe or go home.  It left a bit of a dirty taste in my mouth, and I certainly haven’t logged my level 50 in since as he has nothing to do.

Then I unlocked my corrupter . . . or rather I tried to.  He has the Time Manipulation power set, something he’s been using for the past few months.  It turns out the Time Manipulation power set is VIP only so that character was now unplayable . . . unless I cared to jaunt over to the cash shop and plunk down about $10 for the damned thing.  I didn’t care to, but I did want to keep playing this character, so I bought some points and finished unlocking him.  In my opinion my subscription should have paid for the right to use that powerset, but clearly Paragon Studios doesn’t agree. 

I logged my corrupter in, and immediately noticed that my salvage and auction house storage inventory had shrunk considerably.  I was now over my inventory limits and had to sell off a bunch of stuff.  The salvage inventory was especially tight, and made working with the invention system pretty painful.

I then went to a trainer to adjust the colors of my corrupter’s powers and discovered I couldn’t – free players are denied that feature, which really felt like an unnecessary cosmetic handicap.  I tried to access First Ward, a zone I’d been running missions in, only to discover that it was VIP only and I’d have to buy access to it if I wanted to keep going.  I did, so I did (using up the last of my Paragon Points).

By this point I was getting pretty disgusted.  As a veteran player who’s sunk hundreds of dollars into CoH I expected I’d be able to go longer than five minutes without getting a ham-handed reminder of the fact that I wasn’t a VIP any more, but that expectation was thoroughly crushed.  Everywhere I turned there seemed to be a barrier to entry, and this was with just a few minutes of play!  I have to compare that to Lord of the Rings Online, where my existing characters were essentially untouched, and only had to deal with content walls once they’d leveled up enough.  Lord of the Rings didn’t strip anything away from my characters when they converted to free, it just demanded payment to access additional content down the line.  CoH on the other hand, seems determined to make my characters feel second rate while VIP players enjoy the “real” game.

It turns out that all the “premium” status on that free account means is that you get to keep most (but not all) of the things you’ve actually paid for in the past.  So if you bought an expansion, you get to keep access to it.  If you bought extra character slots, you get to keep them.  If you purchased costume packs, you get to keep those costumes.  Wow, I get to keep things I paid for!  What a deal!

I can only imagine how severely limiting it must feel to play as a new free player.  Almost all the additional systems in the game are blocked.  You can’t use the auction house, you can’t use inventions, you can’t access the Architect system, you can only use some of the archetypes and some of the powers, you can’t use a lot of the costume options, etc.  They’re not free players, they’re trial accounts.

If I was a new player and tried to play CoH, I’d quickly lose interest and stop.  I think that’s probably contributed to why the player population of CoH didn’t spike much with the release of Freedom.  Server populations seem roughly the same now as they did before.  I’m sure there’s been an uptick, but pretty small compared to the huge boost games like Lord of the Rings Online and DC Universe Online have seen.

The City of Heroes free to play conversion seems very similar to that of Champions Online.  To the best of my knowledge Champions hasn’t exactly boomed as a result of the conversion either, and maybe there’s a good reason for that – the Turbine method for converting a subscription game seems to work, the crippled-game-unless-you-pay-through-6000-paygates method does not.

At this point I don’t feel much desire to play CoH as a free game, it’s just annoying.  I also don’t feel much desire to subscribe with SWTOR just around the corner.  So I suppose I’ll play it just enough to get something out of the money I spent on my corrupter, and that will be that.  I think in the end, I wish it had simply stayed a regular subscription game instead of jerking me around with false free to play promises.

Friday, November 18, 2011

All aboard the hype express!

I’ve been trying very hard to avoid the hype behind the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic.  My efforts are faltering.  I re-signed up with my old Warhammer Online guild to play in SWTOR, and on their forums was a link to the “class progression” videos.  I shouldn’t have clicked on them.  No really, I shouldn’t.  But I did.  It wasn’t an “OMG that’s amazing!” sort of thing, but it was a “huh, that’s pretty cool.”  Then I looked at another one, and it was pretty cool too.  So was the one after that.  And the next one.  Within a few moments I’d watched all six class progression videos.

What’s that you say?  Aren’t there eight classes?  Yes, there are eight classes but only six have progression videos so far.  No class progression for the Jedi Consular or Sith Inquisitor.  Even though I have no real interest in playing either of those classes, I’d really really like to see the class progression videos for them.  Crap, I just bought into the hype train!

It’s the sort of thing I wish more games did, to give you a better idea of what your character would be capable of (and look like) as you progress through the game.  The videos highlight a newbie member of the class, a mid-level version of each specialization, and an endgame version of each specialization.  I didn’t think it would be possible to have an armor progression in Star Wars that wouldn’t look ridiculous at end game and break with the spirit of the game, but Bioware has done an admirable job of melding ostentation, practicality, and (for lack of a better word) Star Wars-iness.  The end game armor suits are a little over the top for Star Wars . . . but only a little.  They’re not World of Warcraft over the top.  Nobody has Death Stars mounted on their shoulders with miniature TIE fighters orbiting in circles shooting down flies.

The other thing the videos did was make me more interested in classes I’d previously had no interest in.  I didn’t want to play a Trooper . . . but now I want to see if they’re fun.  Sith Warrior?  Blah, not for me!  Except . . . that looked kind of cool . . . in the video . . . that might be fun, maybe I should try it.

I still don’t think SWTOR is going to be all that and a bag of chips.  It’s not going to be the second (or third?) coming of MMORPG nirvana.  I do think it’s going to be pretty cool.  I don’t care if it has hotbar combat.  I’ll put on my suspension-of-disbelief blinders when confronted with people standing a few feet apart shooting each other in the face.   If the game can deliver on the ambience, environment, and spirit of Star Wars while providing an acceptably fun RPG experience (where acceptable equals WoW quality questing) I’ll be quite happy with the game.  If it can finally wash away my disappointment with Star Wars Galaxies it will have achieved something nearly miraculous.

So now the wait has begun, and I’m getting antsy.  I’m essentially done with my current crop of MMOs.  I’m ready for something new.  I’m especially ready for something new and science fiction-ish.  I hate being antsy for games, because it makes it hard for me to enjoy the games I have NOW, in favor of games that for all intents and purposes, don’t exist yet.  It’s only a month away, so I’ll just have to do my best to distract myself.  Some Diablo 3 would do it.  Ah crap.  Well, the Starcraft 2 xpac would be enough . . oh right.  Torchlight 2 . . . dammit.  Skyrim?  Not really interested, but maybe I should.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Allods Revisited

An epic battle of Democrats vs. Republicans!  Err . . .

I played Allods Online for a brief time during closed beta and early in its extended open beta, before they implemented the cash shop.  The game boasted some striking visuals despite WoW level graphics, some interesting new features, and Astral ships, something that sounded a lot like Spelljammer while managing to not seem lame.  Along with many others I was impressed with the quality of the game, and felt it was a AAA implementation of the free-to-play model.  I was a mild fan, and recommended the game to a few friends as something similar enough to WoW as to appeal to that crowd, but different enough from WoW as to not trigger immediate burnout.  Along with many others, I was horrified by the cash shop when it released and rapidly lost all interest in the game.  I never played it again – until now.

It’s been almost two years since I played the game, and looking for something to fill my time between the end of November (when my current sub games run out) and the middle of December (when Star Wars: The Old Republic releases) I decided to check it out.  It was also a candidate for my Tuesday night gaming group as we have still yet to find a game that really grabs us.  What we really need is Diablo 3, but there’s no help for that.  Surely, I thought, after two years the Allods team and gPotato would have learned their cash shop lesson and stopped beating their players with sticks.  Right?

I downloaded, installed, and patched the client, a process that took about 45 minutes over my cable internet connection.  Everything went smoothly, and my old account info still worked so I didn’t even have to create an account.  I booted up the game, and started creating a character.  For those not in the know, Allods Online is a two faction game created by Russian developer Astrum Nival.  I believe Astrum Nival was formed from Nival Interactive, the company that brought us games like Etherlords 2.  The factions in the game are not so much good vs. evil as environmentalists vs. industrialists, the League vs. the Empire.  The League has all the trappings of the good guys, and the Empire has all the trappings of the bad guys, but from the Empire’s perspective the League are a bunch of tree-hugging terrorists who take hostages and blow up factories, while from the League’s perspective the Empire is going to mine and pollute the world into oblivion if they’re not stopped.

Stare at us too long and we'll bite your face off.
I chose Empire, simply because the fantasy-industrial setting is more original, and I dislike the League race choices.  For the League, you can play a human, an elf, or a gibberling.  The humans are, well, humans.  Typical, boring, but generally necessary.  The elves are terrible, tall with funky fluttery wings on their backs, and I believe they float rather than walk.  I’ve never played one, so I’m not sure.  The gibberlings are very unique, as each “character” consists of three gibberlings who work in concert to perform the actions of a single larger character.  Very cool, but still not what I’d want to play.  The Empire, on the other hand, has humans (but grimmer), orcs, and arisen.  The orcs are like WoW orcs, only meaner.  They’re big, burly, and look ready to wrestle bears with both hands tied behind their back and still win.  The arisen are the unique race on the Empire side, as they are either mechanical constructs, or dead people reanimated using magical machinery (not sure which).  They have sort of a magical cyborg vibe going, and are way more appealing than WoW’s forsaken.

I chose to make an arisen, because they look cool.  Next it was time to choose a class, which is an area in which Allods is somewhat unique.  There are 8 base classes in the game--Warden, Warrior, Paladin, Scout, Mage, Summoner, Healer, Psionicist.    Not all classes are available to all races (orcs don’t have mages, for instance) and each class is slightly different for each race.  An elven Summoner is a Demonologist and has different pets and a different ability or two than an arisen Summoner, the Savant. It’s not a huge difference, but it’s a nice touch, especially that different races have different pets.  That includes the Warden class, which gets a bear for human males, a lynx for human females, and a goblin for orcs.  I made a Summoner and entered the tutorial.

The gameplay is still pretty good, and I actually liked my Summoner.  I think Allods does caster classes a lot better than melee classes.  Not only is the combat smoother, but casters (at low level at least) aren’t really that squishy and can do cool things like pre-cast a spell and release it instantly when they need it.  Things seemed hopeful, and I mentioned the game to my friends as a possibility for Tuesday nights.

Then I started doing some research, and I’m still not sure if that was a mistake or a godsend.  The game is apparently pretty decent as a free-to-play, up until level 20.  At that point, the penalties for playing free start snowballing, starting with the harsh death penalty that requires Incense to overcome.  Incense is no longer limited to cash shop only, but the prices on the AH are apparently tuned towards max level characters, which means low level characters are unlikely to be able to afford it, despite needing it to keep playing.  You also can’t stockpile the damn stuff, since it decays, so you could dump all your money buying it on the AH, only to not use it and have it vanish after 30 days.  As you level you also apparently need to start keeping up a “patron” buff just to maintain your relative power level vs. the mobs.  It takes reagents that, of course, expire if you don’t use them in time, and doesn’t get you ahead of the game, it just stops mobs from outstripping you in power.  You can’t even use a mount properly without purchasing a consumable (which, you guessed it, decays).  I won’t even bring up items getting cursed when you die and that you need yet another consumable to remove them.

I’ve also read (on their official wiki no less!) that after a certain point there’s not enough content at any given level to get you a whole level unless you use xp scrolls or just grind mobs.  Since mobs give relatively little xp compared to quests, grinding mobs is a pretty painful option.  The xp scrolls aren’t exactly stellar either.  Rather than giving you double xp for a certain period of time, they give you double xp until you’ve accrued a set amount of xp.  They’re sort of a purchasable rest bonus, but each scroll doesn’t really give you very much.  Plus, of course, the scrolls decay after 30 days if you don’t use them.

Sadly that seems to be the theme of the game—create consumables that are required for players to progress in the game without gouging their own eyes out, and then make those consumables vanish after a while so that players either feel compelled to keep playing all the time rather than waste those resources (and thus consume them at a higher rate and buy more) or have to buy more without using what they purchased before.

It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I can’t see myself playing the game, even though I’d like to.  I’m apparently not alone in that estimation, as the game only has two servers accessible in the U.S., and both of them are rated at “low” population.  Allods Online has a lot of potential, even a couple of years later, but I don’t see that potential ever being realized.  I think Allods could still be fun, but it would be best played with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a full-functioned gaming mouse in the other.  

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Plague of Free-to-Play

There are a lot of free to play games out there, with more and more coming out just about every month.  You can’t throw a brick without hitting a F2P MMO that’s in closed beta, open beta, or beta-that’s-not-really-beta-since-we’ll-take-your-money beta, and if you can think about a popular genre and do a google search, you’ll find a F2P MMO based on that genre, or close to it.  Just to reiterate, there are vast numbers of F2P MMOs floating around the internet, and you’ve probably never even heard of 95% of them.
Sadly, a great many of them are absolute garbage.  This should come as no great surprise to anyone, as F2P games have long had a bad reputation for being terrible.  What might be a surprise though, is that some of these games are getting decent budgets and plenty of marketing, even coverage on major sites like Massively, but are still garbage.  Not just garbage, but derivative, formulaic, uninspired garbage.

There are a lot of companies shoveling this stuff, Aeria, gPotato, and dozens more, but one of the biggest culprits right now is Perfect World International.  They’ve seen a lot of success in China, and are expanding aggressively into the U.S. market.  I get e-mails from them, their games are all covered by Massively, they have advertisements all over the place, and the games are all pretty awful.  Based on screenshots, videos, and ads I’ve tried most of what Perfect World is peddling, and in almost every case I’ve spent more time downloading the client than playing the game before uninstalling it.  They have a clear formula for all their games that I’ve tried so far, such that I feel confident it’s just a standard feature for all their games:

  • Clunky UI
  • Muddy, low resolution ground textures
  • Terrible animations
  • Click-to-move interface
  • Game before world, forget immersion
  • An inventory box that spits out free rewards when you level
  • Generic, uninspired artwork and monster design
  • Heavy armor melee class, two handed melee class, dual wield melee class, magic caster, priestly caster, archer.
  • Meaningless levelups (start at level 1, see nothing new until level 5)
  • Kill x, collect y, and go to z quests. 
Slap together some new environments, give it a new name, and voila, new game!  It’s War of Perfect Immortal Heroes, now with demon knight special class!

A few years ago the market had been trending towards higher quality F2P games, but that trend seems to have died in the new trend of subscription games converting to F2P.  Whether that was the cause, or just a coincidence I don’t know, but I keep trying new F2P games and they keep being absolute garbage. Sometimes I feel like I installed a virus rather than a game and need to disinfect my poor computer once the game is gone.

There are some very solid, very polished and professional F2P games out there – Allods Online and World of Tanks are both excellent examples.  I’ll note that they’re both Russian in origin, which begs the question – is the mindset of the Chinese gamer so different from that of western gamers that Perfect World International has been able to prosper so greatly off the junk they peddle?

I find it quite disturbing that Perfect World International (PWI) recently purchased Cryptic Studios, along with Champions Online, Star Trek Online, and Neverwinter.  They have since insisted Neverwinter become more of an MMO, and the feature list now reads almost like Dungeons & Dragons Online.  Except we already have Dungeons & Dragons Online, and it’s already F2P.  How is a Cryptic version of the same thing going to be useful?  I’m not a big fan of Cryptic’s recent offerings (though STO really isn’t that bad), and had no hopes for Neverwinter anyway, but if PWI starts buying up more western studios, how long until they start imposing their business model on games that really weren’t designed for it?

Hopefully they’ll be smart enough to recognize the western audience is not the same as the Chinese audience, and develop accordingly, but for all I know the proliferation of garbage games will continue until it’s hard to see the good games through all the crap.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Languishing at 50

One thing I definitely have to admit about Star Wars: The Old Republic – their release date is going to be well timed for me.  In both of the games I’m currently playing (Rift and City of Heroes) I have max level characters, and in both games they’re sort of running out of things to do.  Or to be more accurate, they’re running out of things I’m interested in doing.

My City of Heroes tanker is sitting happy at level 50 with all five of the current incarnate slots unlocked, with a power slotted in each that’s been upgraded to at least tier 2 or 3 (of 4).  I have a little bit more I’d like to do with him, but otherwise he’s good until they release more endgame content, and that doesn’t seem to be coming any time soon.  I have some alts that I like, but one of the odd downsides of the Incarnate system is that my level 50 has become very fun to play, so much so that when playing low level characters I find myself wishing I was playing my 50.  But my 50 doesn’t really have much to do, so my interest in playing City of Heroes any further is rapidly waning.

To be fair, it’s not really Paragon Studios’ fault, exactly.  I’m in the, perhaps unusual, demographic of people who want to see the endgame content and make some progress, but not repeat it endlessly to get all the best stuff.  So I’m a bit more invested than a true casual, but not as invested as a hardcore player.  There’s a literal crap-ton of stuff for level 50 Incarnates to unlock in CoH as each slot has multiple powers that can be earned (anywhere from 4 to 20ish) plus multiple levels of each power.  A completionist truly has their work cut out for them, but I’m not a completionist.  I have exactly one power unlocked for each Incarnate slot, and that’s good enough for me.

Rift is facing a similar problem, in that I have my level 50 rogue, and he’s seen all the dungeons, earned a few epic items, maxed out a crafting skill, done a crafting rift, done some daily raid rifts, etc.  Rift has more diversity of endgame content than WoW does, but I’m not interested in grinding content for shiny purple pixels.  I played it, it was fun, now what?  I still haven’t gotten to do the Chronicles instances as I haven’t been able to find a partner to do them with me, and I lack the skill/gear/uber build to do the 2-man instances solo with my rogue.

My primary alt is a level 28 cleric, and while I enjoy playing him, I don’t feel much incentive to keep playing.  My rogue already did the same content, and while the cleric plays very differently from a rogue, that alone isn’t enough to keep me going.  SWTOR claims to have a unique questline for every class from the start to the level cap.  If true, that’ll be a big deal for me, as new content will keep me coming back for more with alts.
The end result is that my time in CoH and Rift is winding down just in time for SWTOR to release next month.  I wouldn’t ask for anything different – that timing works great for me.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A little over a month to go

With just a little over one month to go until the head start begins for Star Wars: The Old Republic, I find myself getting a little excited for the game.  It’s not that I think the game is going to be the greatest thing since the last greatest thing, but rather that I haven’t really gotten to experience that “new game smell” in quite some time.  I was excited for Rift, but that was nearly a year ago.  I also knew exactly what I was getting into, having been in the beta for a while, and had quite reasonable expectations for the game on release.  I’d call my overall experience with Rift “pleasantly satisfied”.  I did end up playing World of Tanks, but there was no excitement, no build up there.  The game wasn’t even on my radar until I downloaded it and tried it out.  There haven’t really been any other big games for me in 2011 so far, MMO or otherwise, most of the games I’m looking forward to won’t be out until 2012 (at the earliest).

WoW . . in . . spaaaaace!
So SWTOR is the first game in a while to get me feeling excited for its release--pent up energy that builds in the belly and radiates out, causing feet to tap and fingers to type.  Release already!  Despite that, my expectations for SWTOR are really quite low.  I’ve read the preview reports, I’ve watched the videos, I know there’s nothing game changing here.  I pretty much expect WoW in space with Voiceovers and Companions.  You know what though?  That’s ok.  Rift has proven to me that tried and true mechanics with some new additions, different content, and tweaks here and there can still make for an enjoyable game.  I’m not quite so jaded that an MMO with hotbars and classes and quest based adventuring is a turn off for me.  In fact, I’m getting old and fossilized enough now that those familiar things are comforting.  What I am jaded with though, are fantasy MMOs.  Sick. To. Death.  EVE and Star Trek Online are the only things out there that come close to scratching my Sci-fi itch, and they just don’t quite do it.  EVE in many ways is awesome, and I love to look at the game, but in the end it’s not really that much fun to play.  STO has some nice features too, but the game is just too flawed to play for long.  I notice it’s going free-to-play a couple of weeks after SWTOR releases, perhaps to conveniently snap up disgruntled SWTOR players (and there will be disgruntled SWTOR players, lots and lots of them).

One of the things I’m enjoying about SWTOR’s impending release is that I actually know very little about the game.  Sure, I know the basic features (companions, etc.), I know the setting from the KOTOR games, and I know the names and general purpose of each class . . . but that’s about it.  I’m not in the beta, so the first time I start up the game during the head start will be the first time I ever see it.  That has an appeal to it of its own, and I’m actually grateful I didn’t get into the beta.  If I got an invite to one of the remaining weekend events I doubt I’d have the willpower to refrain from playing, but I’d seriously consider trying to abstain.  The internet makes it hard enough to approach a game fresh as it is, betas completely ruin the “first day experience”.  It’s funny; I still remember my first day in Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot, and the City of Heroes beta (but not the first day of release) as a time of excitement and exploration.  I can barely remember WAR (which I followed religiously before release) or many details from my years in WoW (which I referenced the internet for constantly).  Going in with a clean slate will be nice.  You don’t form detailed memories when your brain is already convinced it knows what to expect.

I’m excited for SWTOR because it’s got lasers and spaceships and jetpacks and multiple planets just as much for the fact that it’s Star Wars, one of the beloved IPs of my childhood (and today).  I’m trying not to focus on the Star Wars aspect too much, as the last time I let my love of an IP cloud my judgment I bought the collector’s edition of Warhammer Online.  Ouch.  No collector’s edition this time, but I did sign up for a pre-order.  I fully intend to bully my friends into trying it too, if they won’t do so willingly.  You’ve been warned guys.  Just pre-order now, save yourself the trouble.  Star Wars may be fantasy in space, but dammit, it’s got robots, and shiny high tech gadgets, and space travel.  It’ll do.