Thursday, March 31, 2011

Darkspore Beta Impressions

Darkspore, in case you've never heard of it, is a new action-RPG being developed by Maxis for EA.  You can find out more here if you like.  You can currently get access to the Darkspore Beta through Steam, for this week only.  You must have a Steam account and an EA login (if you've ever played Dragon Age you've got one already), download the client through Steam, and you're good to go.  I had heard about the game before, and since science fiction action-RPGs are rare, and good ones almost non-existent, I've been eager to see if the game will be any good.  I'm tired of fantasy.

Darkspore, as the name and developer suggests, is built on a (presumably upgraded) version of the engine  used to create Spore.  This was a bit of a concern for me, as Spore looked great on paper, looked nice in videos, and ended up being boring as anything to actually play.  Still, this is an action-RPG, not a life simulator, so I was willing to give it a shot.

So far, I've been pleasantly surprised.  The game is not Torchlight in space, which many of the screenshots might lead one to suspect.  The game offers a fairly unique method of gameplay and advancement, and it's really only going to make sense if I describe everything in detail.

To start with, Darkspore is set in a universe where an ancient race known as the Crogenitors went around the galaxy mucking about with other race's DNA, trying to make ever more powerful creatures.  Eventually (of course!) one of them stumbled across a very powerful mutagenic modification that started turning everything into monsters, and the monsters' main instictive drive was to convert everything to more of themselves and destroy whatever wouldn't convert.  These monsters became known as the Darkspore, and wiped out the Crogenitor civilization, along with any others they came across.  You play the role of a Crogenitor that went into stasis while computers anaylized Darkspore DNA and tried to find a way to stabilize it.  You've just awoken from stasis and been informed by your trusty computer that a method to stabilize Darkspore DNA has been found, and it's now possible to confront the enemy.

You're just a weakling scientist-type though, not much use in a fight.  Instead, you create genetically modified supersoldiers (heroes) and control them from the safety of your ship while they romp around on a planet's surface slaughtering everything they find.  You can only control one hero at a time, but teleportation technology allows you to swap out squad members at will.  This ends up being one of the key features of the game, as you deploy for a mission with a squad of 3 heroes (to start).  Each hero is aligned to a specific element, and enemies of that element will deal double damage to your hero.  So swapping out heroes when your current one is confronted by his/her/its own element is an important strategy.

Enemy creatures drop items, DNA, health capsules, and power capsules.  Items are used to upgrade your heroes in the editor, and are generally element or hero specific.  Like any good action rpg, there are a wide variety of items from common to rare, with various modifications and stat effects.  DNA is used as currency for items and upgrades for your heroes.  Health capsules and power capsules are used to restore your hero's hit points and power points respectively, and effect all squad members whether active or not.  So a badly wounded hero can be swapped out for a healthy one, and that hero can collect health capsules that will heal the wounded one as well as themselves.  It's a nifty system, and makes character swapping worthwhile even if you really really love the guy you're playing.

The heroes are not created by the player.  Each hero is essentially a genetic template of one of the races the Crogenitors tinkered with.  They are what they are, at first.  Once you have activated a hero you can change skin colors and modify a few features using the Spore editor.  Heroes do not level up like traditional action-RPG characters, instead they gain power (and "levels") by equipping items.  The more powerful the item, the higher their level becomes.  Items can be attached to the hero using the Spore editor, and can be placed almost anywhere on the body (with the exception of weapons), be scaled up or down, rotated, inverted, etc.  While all heroes will start out the same, as time goes on they have the potential to become very unique.

As I mentioned, the heroes don't level by gaining xp but you, the Crogenitor, do.  As you level up you unlock additional hero templates and gain the ability to purchase upgrades for your heroes.  It's a simple enough system and doesn't require much explaining (which is good, since the tutorial mostly skips that aspect of the game).

Gameplay is fairly typical action-RPG fare.  You have an isometric overhead view, left click to move or attack, and a number of abilities activated by the number keys.  I'd say the pace is generally a bit slower than your typical actioner, and that suits me just fine.  The visuals are sharp and enjoyable, though I'm not a big fan of the monstrous design of the hero characters.  An internet connection is required, as you have to log in to play, but you can proceed through the campaign solo or set up cooperative games with friends.  Co-op might be a lot of fun, and is one of the things Torchlight sorely lacked.  Game performance was excellent, so I'm hopeful Co-op play would be relatively lag free.

My biggest issue with the game right now would be the mission content itself.  Essentially you enter a map, clear some enemies, teleport to the next map, clear some more enemies, teleport to another map, clear some more enemies, teleport to a boss map, fight the boss, mission done.  If all the content is like that, it's not going to matter that you're fighting different enemies in different scenery, it's going to get old fast.  Hopefully further into the game you have more involved mission goals.

Still, I spent most of my playtime last night playing Darkspore instead of Rift, which says a lot about its ability to entertain.  At this point I don't know if it's going to be a flash-in-the-pan like Spore was, or something that offers long term fun and enjoyment.  Hopefully they'll do more beta events as they continue development so I can check it out some more.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Features Done Right - Part Three

Part three of my continuing ramble about MMORPG features and which games got them right.


This is a tricky one as everyone has a different definition and expectation, but for me immersion refers to a game's ability to suck you into it's setting and make you feel like you're interacting with a world rather than a game.  A game where you don't mind wandering around doing nothing because just taking in the sights is enjoyable is doing immersion right.  A truly immersive game will cause you to forget you're playing a game at all, just like a really good movie will cause you to forget you're sitting in a theater.  MMO's rarely acheive that degree of immersion for me, but some certainly do it better than others.

Thinking back over the last 12 years, I think I have to give top honors to Lord of the Rings Online.  LotRO has plenty of flaws, but the execution and represention of Middle Earth is not one of them.  Turbine really made an effort to make the game feel like a world, and when you find yourself strolling through The Shire you can't help but admire the lush visuals, the rolling hills, the sensible villages and farmland that all seem like representations of a real place rather than something a level developer cobbled together for people to play in.  It feels like you could lie down in the grass and relax in the sun while birds chirp and clouds drift by. Rather than building a world around the game, it really feels like they built the world first.  They did a great job of weaving story, setting, sounds, and graphics together to give you a real sense of place and purpose.

I'm sure I could go on for a while like this, but I think you get the idea.  If the fundamental gameplay of LotRO had just been more enjoyable I think it would have been one of my favorite MMORPGs of all time.  As it is, I loved the setting, enjoyed the sense of immersion, but didn't especially like the gameplay.  Alas.

In contrast, I think Star Wars Galaxies did the worst job (with honorable mention to WoW for it's horrible zone borders and constant pop culture intrustions) due simply to most of the planets being bland flat plains covered in nests that you'd go out and blow up.  It didn't feel like Star Wars at all, and the game always seemed determined to interfere with it's own immersion.  I've heard it's changed a lot in the years since I played it, so maybe that's improved, but at release SWG had little going for it in the area of immersion or enjoyable representation of a familiar setting.

Tomorrow I think I'll discuss PvE, or more specifically quest-based PvE, as comparing an open system to a quest system seems like apples and oranges.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Features Done Right - Part Two

This is the second part in what will be an ongoing series of discussions on feature implementation in MMORPGs, who got them right, and who got them wrong.

Instanced, Match-Based PvP
I believe (but would not bet) that Dark Age of Camelot had the first instanced PvP of an MMORPG in their training battlegrounds.  These were discrete zones segregated by level that you could enter and fight the enemy for control of a keep.  However, there was no matchmaking and the zone was always sitting there.  You could easily enter and find no opponents or allies and thus have little to do.  So I'm not counting it for the purposes of this article.

World of Warcraft may have been the first MMORPG to offer match-based PvP instances, but most modern MMORPGs now offer something similar.  Just off the top of my head, I know of Warhammer Online, Rift, Age of Conan, Champions Online, Star Trek Online and more. 

I believe that Warhammer Online actually had the best match-based PvP of any game currently available.  Some of the features they invented (such as queue anywhere) have become industry standards, so I can't be the only one.  WAR scenarios managed to be brutal, fast, fun, and surprisingly balanced, but most importantly they managed to make every member of the team have a clear impact, regardless of class.  WAR has to be the first MMORPG to make "tanks" feel powerful in PvP rather than just giant punching bags.  The use of collision detection was a huge plus, and tactics and strategy were vital to success.  You could have fun and be useful no matter your class, and victory was determined by who had the best tanks, healers, and damage dealers, rather than just the best healers (as is more typical).

Scenario design also played a big part in WAR's successful implementation of this feature.  With a few exceptions the scenario maps were balanced for both sides, but more importantly the maps couldn't stalemate like say, a Warsong Gulch match back in the day in WoW.  The scenarios always kept moving forward, and there was enough variety to make playing scenarios often worthwhile.  Unfortunately, the rest of the game wasn't quite up to par, and you can only play so many scenarios before you'd like to do something else.  WAR was a flawed game, but the scenario PvP was generally very good.

I think Star Trek Online has done instanced match-based PvP the most poorly, though Champions Online (also by Cryptic) is a strong contender.  Although they keep many of the modern conventions such as queing from anywhere, there seems to be little emphasis on balance, and those battles I participated in didn't seem to have any terribly interesting objectives.  With no balance and no interesting objectives, teamwork seems to be largely absent as people fly around in seemingly random directions.  STO's PvP balance is extremely punishing, with some classes/builds/ships able to dominate while others seem incapable of accomplishing much of anything.  Woe betide the newbie who enters an STO PvP match, as they're likely to be brutally ganked over and over with no hope of having fun.

Rift and WoW both have robust matched PvP systems, with Rift's edging out WoW's thanks to adopting and refining many of the things WAR and WoW did.  I still have to give top honors to WAR though, for managing to bring it all together in a way no other game did before, or has since.

Rift Dungeon Impressions - Foul Cascade

Last night I had an opportunity to run Foul Cascade with a couple of guild members and a couple of random players.  We had two mages, two warriors, and a rogue (me), which means we didn't have a cleric or a "proper" healer.  One of the mages was specced into Chloromancer, and I switched to a full Bard build, so we had two support/dps healers instead of a pure cleric healer.  Other than the occasional squishy mage death and two wipes due to patrols, we did just fine, and I don't think having a pure healing cleric would have made much difference.  This is probably the greatest strength of Rift -- the ability to make functional, successful groups without being dependent on a single class type.

Death Rift in Foul Cascade
Foul Cascade
Foul Cascade is a level 30ish dungeon on the north side of Scarlet Gorge.  Although Scarlet Gorge is not technically a Guardian zone, I'd be surprised if too many Defiant ever make it up to this one.

Foul Cascade is an outdoor zone, set under a starry night sky.  Considering it was supposed to be night I would have liked the zone to be darker, but I suppose they decided visibility was more important.  I also wish if they're going to keep making outdoor zones that they'd make it possible to mount up for long runs back from the zone entrance.  The night sky is quite striking, but otherwise the visuals of this dungeon are pretty bland.  It gets the job done though, and I found it more interesting than Darkening Deeps.

The enemies in this dungeon are minions of Regulos, the dragon of death.  This meant plenty of undead, warlocks, necromancers, bat swarms, rabid wolves, and abominations.  All but one of the boss fights were very straightforward, though the one that wasn't could have been big trouble if one of the other players hadn't done it before.  Oddly we had more trouble with the patrols than the bosses, with only one death in all four boss fights and no wipes.  Whereas the Darkening Deeps bosses mostly seem quite hard, the Foul Cascade bosses mostly seemed fairly easy.  I think the first and second bosses especially could be made a bit tougher.

Loot was good, and I think everyone except the tanking warrior managed to snag at least one nice item which is always a plus.

Foul Cascade wasn't bad, but it didn't blow me away either.  It was reasonably fun though, and not too long (took about an hour) so I'd certainly be willing to run it again.  Especially since it's currently the guild quest for my guild . . .

If I were to rank the dungeons I've done so far, it'd look like this:
  1. Realm of the Fae
  2. Foul Cascade
  3. Darkening Deeps
So far each zone has had it's own dungeon, and each has focused on a specific element.  Realm of the Fae was life, Foul Cascade was death, and Darkening Deeps was fire.  Hopefully they continue this trend, with a new dungeon in the next zone based around either water, earth, or air.  Water would be nice . . .

Monday, March 28, 2011

Features Done Right - Part One

A friend of mine wanted me to discuss various features in MMORPGs (such as world PvP) and which games got them right, and which ones didn't.  I think this has the potential to be a fairly lengthy topic, so I'm going to break it into several posts over the course of the week.

World Player vs Player (PvP)
Player vs player combat has become one of those "must have" features for modern MMORPGs.  Many players won't even touch a game that doesn't include some sort of PvP (consensual or otherwise), and many players who aren't even remotely interested in participating in PvP still consider a game incomplete if it doesn't offer some form of it.

World PvP refers to player vs player combat that takes place in the normal game world.  Any player can be wandering around and encounter PvP if they're in the wrong place a the wrong time.  The PvP may only occur in certain areas of the game, but there are no artifical barriers to entry.  Contrast this to instanced PvP, which are generally specialized battlegrounds of some sort where players queue up for (hopefully) evenly matched battles against appropriate opponents.

Ten years later I still think Dark Age of Camelot nailed world PvP better than any game before or after.  Way back in 2001 I was fresh out of EQ and Anarchy Online, and not at all interested in PvP.  I picked up Dark Age of Camelot solely because of the setting - Arthurian legend.  I started out in Albion (the human/Arthurian side) but eventually switched to Hibernia (the celtic mythological side).  I leveled quietly in the PvE areas, and PvP was something that happened to other people.  Eventually though, I reached a level where groups were forming for PvP (or realm vs realm (RvR) as it was called in DAoC) all the time, and calls would go out for help defending such-and-such keep or "save the relic" or "help us get control of Darkness Falls" and I got drawn in.  When everyone around you is racing off to defend the "honor" of your side, it's hard to sit around and keep grinding monsters.  So I went out, joined groups for PvP, and was absolutely terrible at it.  But it was thrilling all the same.  Static monsters can't get your adrenaline pumping the way a player opponent can.  One of the compelling factors was that the PvP effected everyone, even the PvE players.  Gaining access to the PvE dungoeon Darkness Falls was a huge boon for PvE players, but could only be accomplished through PvP.

Over time I became merely mediocre (rather than terrible), but the main point is that I participated.  The game managed to draw me in and get me to become invested in a type of gameplay I'd had no interest in.  It did this by fostering an amazing community and providing goals in the world worth fighting other players over.  Balance was always an issue, and I think DAoC was the originator of "flavor of the month" classes/builds, but the core PvP was fun, dynamic, and almost entirely player driven.  The fact that Dark Age of Camelot consisted of three sides, Albion, Hibernia, and Midgard, provided natural population balance by allowing outnumbered sides to join up against the overpopulated side.  This is a powerful population balance tool that has been missed by essentially every game since.

Which brings us to the game that touted world PvP as a feature and did (in my opinion) the worst job -- World of Warcraft.  Early on there was virtually no reason to engage in world PvP.  People did it just for the heck of it, but there were no goals to fight over, nothing to be acheived by beating the other side into the ground except the satisfaction of having done so.  There was nothing to unify the sides over, nothing that could be lost unless players intervened.  There were also only two sides, so if one side outnumbered the other (which was commonly the case) there was no recourse for the outnumbered side except to drown in the sea of enemy players.  So world PvP was pointless, and indeed it pretty much vanished as soon as WoW introduced their Battlegrounds (instanced PvP), but that's another article.  In Wrath of the Lich King WoW added "world PvP" through Lake Wintergrasp, which was a central location with a goal hopefully worth fighting for - a raid instance and a bonus for the side that controlled it.  However, it wasn't really world PvP.  It was more like instanced PvP without a queue.  The objectives could only be attacked at set times, and there were player limits per side.  If you showed up too late and the match was "full", then sorry, no "world" PvP for you.  If you showed up before or after the match time, you were also out of luck until the next match a few hours later.  I understand why the limits were put in place, but nevertheless they were so limiting as to make the area just a glorified battleground.

Why no game since Dark Age of Camelot has launched with three fully developed sides engaging in pitched PvP battles is beyond me.  Even Dark Age of Camelot's spiritual successor, Warhammer Online, only had two sides, and suffered for it.  Nevertheless, I think it's a key part of crafting good world PvP in a standard MMORPG environment, and I doubt any game will topple DAoC from it's throne until they take everything that was good about DAoC PvP and iterate it with modern improvements, much as WoW did to Everquest's PvE.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Dynamic content scaling failure?

Last night after my usual partner in crime had retired for the evening I came across a tear in Rift.  A tear is what occurs before a rift forms, and a player can stand near the tear and use a Planar Lure to cause the rift to trigger early.  This results in extra points for the triggering player, and supposedly a weaker rift event.

This particular tear was in the Scarlet Gorge, a grand canyon-esque zone that I normally see earth rifts in.  I haven't seen any groups around to fight the earth rifts, so I haven't gotten to do one yet.  Opening a tear made it likely to get a soloable rift, so I was pretty hopeful.  I stepped up to the tear, activated my planar lure, and spawned . . . a fire rift.  Oh well, whatever.

It was, as predicted, a minor rift and thus soloable since the planar creatures were of the regular variety rather than elites.  I completed stage 1, 2, 3, and 4 by myself without any trouble.  In fact, it was going well enough that I beat the bonus times for each stage.  Which, I suppose, is what triggered stage 5.  An elite boss.  With 10k hit points.  Even my sturdy tank build only has 3k hit points (which, to put it in context, is about double what most characters have around this level).  I tried four times to take him down but never even got close.  My solo rift had turned into a group rift and suddenly become incompletable.  If I didn't complete it, all my hard work on the previous 4 stages would essentially be for nothing.  I was . . . a little annoyed.

However, Rift managed to redeem itself with another demonstration of why the rift system seems to be working - the community.  I hadn't seen another player in at least 30 minutes, Scarlet Gorge being rather desolate at midnight at this point in the population leveling curve.  Not feeling too hopeful I put out a call in general chat and within 30 seconds had a tell from a cleric.  By the time we had gathered at the Rift two more players had come out of nowhere and joined our open group.  I switched to Bard, we engaged the boss and defeated him handily, the Rift closed, rewards were handed out, and everyone went their merry way.

The dynamic content system sort of failed me here, apparently deciding that since I beat the normal stages so quickly I must be a group, and then spawned group content.  But the community didn't fail me, and if I had just asked for help the first time might have avoided a series of painful defeats.  This seems to be indicative of group content in Rift -- most people want to do it and will jump on the opportunity if someone just makes the effort to advertise a group.  I hope Trion's upcoming group finding tool works for more than just dungeons.  A rift finder function would be good too.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Perpetuum Online - This is done?

So I heard recently that Perpetuum Online had started offering a 15 day free trial for their game.  I've been interested in this one for a while, but dubious enough to be unwilling to shell out for the game without trying it first.  With a free trial on hand, I signed up, downloaded the client, and last night jumped in for the first time.

Many people have compared Perpetuum to "EVE with robots", a comparison that is not without merit.  Unfortunately, it's apparently "2003 EVE with robots" not the current iteration of EVE.  After just a few minutes in the game I started to feel like I was in an early beta, not a finished product that's charging money.  The game just seems filled with unfinished systems, as everything feels unintuitive and primitive, as if they just added the feature but haven't refined it yet.

The interface is pretty painful, consisting largely of clunky windows-style boxes that take up a lot of space.  The graphics are an odd mix of good (robots and buildings) and terrible (ground textures, plants, terrain).  Even on max settings the most impressive graphics in the game are on the launch screen . . .

The sense of scale is entirely off.  I was led to believe these were giant robots, but the robot you start with feels tiny, like a little spider-bot.  That the legs scurry in a fast blur doesn't help with this feeling.  My speed indicator says I'm going 40kph.  If the legs are moving that fast and I'm only going 40kph, these things must be tiny. 

The real killer though, is the enemy AI.  Well, assuming there actually is any.  The first enemy robot I engaged proceeded to back away from me, and back away, and back away, until it encountered a building . . . and back right through it.  Apparently the computer units don't have collision detection . . but players do.  So it went inside the building and I couldn't follow.  I gave up, moved away, and engaged another target . . . and it did exactly the same thing.  I tried again, this time putting myself between the enemy and the building, so that it would move away from the building when it backed away from me.  Nope, this time it walked right up to me, through me, and into the building.  That was pretty much the end for me.  If you're charging for a game with bugs this serious I don't want anything to do with you.

I might try Perpetuum again in a few years, if they're still around.  I really like the concept of the game, but the current implementation leaves a lot to be desired.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Story or Choice?

Bioware is now infamous for stating that Star Wars: The Old Republic would be the first MMORPG to incorporate the "fourth pillar" of gaming - story.  This resulted in a flurry of blog posts espousing the various ways MMOs have already done story, and that SW:TOR won't be doing anything new after all.  Honestly, if all Bioware is doing are novel quality quest chains with voiceovers, the critics will be right.  I don't think story is the "fourth pillar".  I think it's choice.

Currently in just about every MMO I can think of, when it comes to doing quests your choice is purely binary.  You can choose to do the quest, or not.  That's it.  How you carry out that quest is out of your hands, you don't make any choices other than clicking "accept".  A prime example occured to Tipa of West Karana recently.  While playing Rift she accepted a quest that at one point required her to torture a member of the opposing faction.  She found this repugnant, but as a player she had no real choices -- she could either complete the quest as instructed or abandon the quest entirely.  There was no option to try and resolve the quest without torture.

A true innovation in the genre would be to allow a player to reach that point in the quest where they have to torture the enemy, and then say "no, this is not me, I won't do this, I can find another way", and then give them a path by which they can succeed.

So what I really hope SW:TOR will bring the to table, and that other MMOs will adopt, is to give the player choices in how they complete story objectives, much as Bioware does in their single player games.  If those choices also have long term consequences, great!  But at the very least give us meaningful choices to make as we progress our characters through the game.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Rift Dungeon Impressions - Realm of the Fae, Darkening Deeps

Playing on the Guardian side in Rift I have easy access to two dungeons (or instances) at this point in the game.  Realm of the Fae is a level 17ish instance that I've run both as a tank with my Cleric and as DPS with my Rogue.  Darkening Deeps is a level 23ish instance that I've only run with my Rogue.  My Cleric is currently languishing at level 21 and there's no telling when he'll see some play time again.

Realm of the Fae (courtesy of Google Images)

Realm of the Fae
Realm of the Fae is an outdoor dungeon, and really exemplifies the sort of graphics that Rift is capable of displaying.  The visuals are lush and vibrant and very atmospheric.  It's worth visiting just for the art, and I think every Rift player should run it at least once.

Realm of the Fae is broken into four sub-sections corresponding to the seasons.  As you progress you'll move from Spring to Summer to Fall and finally to Winter.  Each sub-section has it's own boss preceded by a fairly large number of trash pulls.  Many of the non-boss fights are optional though, and can be skipped if your group wants to move past them.

The boss fights are more than your basic tank and spank battles, but still not too complicated or difficult, and I think this is a great starter dungeon.  I kind of wish it was a little lower level, maybe 12 or 13, so that you could get to it sooner, but I suspect a lot of characters would be lacking the tools needed to fulfill their role in a group at that level.  Realm of the Fae was a fun instance that felt fresh after running hundreds of World of Warcraft dungeons in the Wrath expansion.  The zone quest rewards a very nice blue item and makes the dungeon worth doing once even if you don't get any drops.

Darkening Deeps
Darkening Deeps (courtesy of Google Images)
Darkening Deeps is a much more traditional dungeon than Realm of the Fae, and I found it be fairly unremarkable in design and art.  The central goblin village you pass through in the beginning is quite striking, but the rest of the dungeon consists of your basic windy passages and caves.  It's pretty drab, and very very linear.  Also, if you die, you're going to be doing a LOT of running.  Darkening Deeps has a strong World of Warcraft vibe, which can be good or bad depending on your preferences.

Darkening Deeps has two paths to take -- one leads up and the other leads down.  The path up contains nothing but trash mobs, but at the very top is a shrine needed for a quest, so most of the time you're going to have to go out of your way to get this.  Going up at least treats you to the dungeon's only worthwhile visuals.  Going down leads into the caves and a series of four bosses.  You can't really skip any trash in this dungeon unless you skip going up.  The bosses are much harder than Realm of the Fae (which is appropriate) and two of them (the werewolf and the spider boss) really require the group to be level appropriate and well coordinated.  I ended up running most of this dungeon as full Bard, as our underleveled tank was making the healer's life miserable.

I now understand why Darkening Deeps groups seem to be hard to find -- I have no real desire to run it again, and I'm sure many other people feel the same.  That the zone quest rewards a green quality item instead of a blue like Realm of the Fae did sort of adds insult to injury.

Overall Rift seems to be off to a good start with their leveling dungeons.  These are World of Warcraft quality instances, and generally superior to the instances WoW had when it first released.  I would say these are most akin to the dungeons of The Burning Crusade expansion, in that they're thematic, long, often difficult, and generally enjoyable.

Realm of the Fae is a definite hit, Darkening Deeps might be a miss, but I think I need to try it again with a tank that's not two levels below all the mobs.  Maybe I'll make a full Riftstalker build and tank it myself . . .

Guild Wars - Seven Heroes yay?

Guild Wars allows players to solo through the use of AI controlled Heroes and Henchmen instead of other real players.  Heroes are distinctly more powerful, being customizable by the player and able to use upgraded weapons and elite skills.  They're also more controllable by the player, as their skill use can be managed manually if desired.  Henchmen are weaker with no customization and controlled purely by the AI. 

Historically groups of a player, 3 Heroes, and 4 Henchmen has been sufficient for doing normal content, but for the harder content in the game you really needed players.  In a recent Guild Wars update the Arenanet team added the ability to fill an entire group with Heroes, rather than the previous maximum of three per player.  This is a huge change that dramatically increases the power of solo groups, opening up the option to do the harder content solo, and steamroll the normal content with ease.  I'd been loking forward to this change for months.

Except . . . now that it's here, I'm finding my enjoyment a little mixed.  Why?  The Heroes are SO good, that for normal content my participation in the game is almost unnecessary.  I'm not even running an optimized group, I just added four random Heroes to my usual three, and they don't need my silly Warrior anymore.  I can move the group into range of a spawn of level 24 enemies (the level cap in Guild Wars is 20) and stand there and do nothing while my Heroes decimate everything in sight.  I can try to participate, but things are usually dead by the time my melee character can get to them.

For harder content it's important that I be there to direct the flow of battle, but for regular content the game pretty much plays itself now, and that's really not much fun.

Rift PvP - What the heck?

I'm a little confused by the current state of PvP on my server in Rift.  In the level 10-19 bracket, the only Warfront (PvP battleground) was The Black Garden.  I play Guardian side, and in the Black Garden I would say the Defiant won at least 60% of the matches.  Sometimes they outplayed us, sometimes they just used annoying tactics, and sometimes we just plain sucked.  When your groups finish forming and you see no healers in either group you know you're in for a rough ride.  It was sometimes frustrating, sometimes easy (I had one victory that ended with a score of 500 to 26), but usually an evenly matched challenge.  This is all about as good as you could hope for in a game like this.

At level 20, the next Warfront opened up, The Codex, and that's when things got . . . weird.  I've only played six matches of The Codex so far, which is not a huge sample size, but Guardians have one every single match.  Usually by scores in the neighborhood of 1000 to 200ish.  Most matches end with the Guardians penning the Defiant into their spawn point and killing them as they drop down.  What on earth is going on?

I know very well that it's not me.  I'm a casual PvPer, and a rogue to boot.  I'm not affecting the outcome of these matches much at all.  I've encountered plenty of Defiant that clearly know how to PvP.  I'm using my PvE build in PvP as well, so I hit pretty hard but have no survivability.  Even most enemy mages seem to be using survivable builds.  I barely took down a Necromancer that I got the jump on 1v1, and a Warrior (Reaver maybe?) would have easily killed me 1v1 had an allied rogue not shown up.  My point is, I haven't noticed any evidence that these guys suck at PvP.

So, either I'm getting really lucky and getting good Guardian pugs, or there's some sort of fundamental Guardian advantage to The Codex map.  Anyone know?

So I played 2 matches of The Black Garden in the 20-29 bracket and 3 matches of The Codex last night.  The Black Garden was 1 win, 1 loss, with the Defiant wiping the floor with us in the first match and nearly winning the second match too.  The Codex was once again 3 wins, and the closest match was a 1000 to 546 win (so not really that close).

My bafflement continues . . .

Update 2:
The Defiant wiped the floor with us in The Codex multiple times last night.  I think I was just getting lucky before.  Good job Defiants!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Dragon Age 2 Impressions

I've been playing Dragon Age 2 in spare moments when I haven't really been up to playing Rift, or have just wanted a more story driven experience than MMOs currently deliver (whether Star Wars: The Old Republic will truly bring story into the MMO gamebook is another topic entirely).  Overall I do like the game, but much as I didn't care for the simplification Mass Effect 2 wrought upon Mass Effect, I don't like the direction Bioware has gone with Dragon Age 2.

At it's heart, the game is fun.  I have very few qualms with the core gameplay of the game.  I will admit it seems a little too easy compared to Dragon Age, but they have difficulty settings for that after all.  But, the sad truth is I'm an old-school RPG gamer at heart, and when you start ripping out (sorry, "streamlining") core RPG tropes like armor collection, inventory management, and meaningful character development choices I get a little cranky.  I will say that Dragon Age 2 has not been streamlined as heavily as Mass Effect 2 was -- you can still find cool armor for your main character and weapons and accessories for everyone, there are still multiple meaningful ways to spend your skill and attribute points as you level up . . . but there's less variety than there was in Dragon Age.  I am not a believer in the "less is more" approach to RPG development.  Those are nitpicky things though.  I still enjoyed Mass Effect 2 even though I couldn't really find cool weapons and armor anymore, and didn't get to pick a cool specialization, or any of the other things they cut from the sequel.  I'm sure I'll still enjoy the gameplay of Dragon Age 2 despite it's streamlining as well.

However, where's the story?!  I'm several hours into the game now, and have no idea what my goal for the game is supposed to be.  In Dragon Age you after the starter area that your goal was to find a way to defeat the Blight, and no matter how many side quests you diverged on, you always came back to this core storyline.  In DA2 . . . I'm running errands.  That's it.  I know there must be a story here somewhere, since there's a narrator retelling the story from his point of view and it can't all be about errands, but I'm having trouble logging into DA2 lately because there seems to be no point.  I've even had quests that seemed like they should be leading up to something (such as the DLC "The Exiled Prince") that just . . . stop.  If this is still the "tutorial" area, then . . . ugh.  Final Fantasy XIII had a "tutorial" that just dragged on and on and on, but at least it was clearly directed.  Either give me an open world where I can do whatever I want or give me a well crafted story.  Don't give me a guided errand running experience.

MMORPGs are the ultimate "errand" games.  Most quests in those games are just errands for NPCs.  If single player RPGs start devolving into that they're really going to lose me.  It's especially galling that Bioware, champion of the "fourth pillar", seems to have forgotten the importance of story in their single player games.  Mass Effect 2 was like this as well -- the actual "story" for ME2 lasted a mere couple of hours.  The rest of your time was spent running errands . . .

Tripping the Rift

No, not that one, this one.  I started playing Rift during the closed beta.  I did not have a "VIP" invite, yet got invited to every single beta event anyway, so I have to wonder at the exclusivity of those VIP invites . . .

Well, anyway.  I've been playing the game for a couple of months now, and unlike many MMOs I could name (Champions Online, Star Trek Online, Warhammer Online, DC Universe Online) I have no regrets for buying the game at release and have every intention of playing for a while.  Is this the game that I'm going to love forever and never ever leave for any other game?  No.  That game doesn't exist, and I seriously doubt it ever will.  However, I played World of Warcraft: Cataclysm for all of a couple of days before abandoning it (again) for the potential I saw in the Rift beta.  I couldn't go back.

There are lots of bloggers screaming back and forth about how Rift is a total WoW clone, or how it's nothing like WoW at all.  The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle.  Rift borrowed plenty of things from WoW.  This is hardly shocking, WoW borrowed plenty of things from EQ.  Believe it or not, levels, classes, hit points, mana bars, energy, different races, swords, spells, experience points, and quests were not invented by Blizzard Entertainment.  Rift sits firmly in the genre of "traditional" fantasy MMORPGs, and so naturally has many similarities to WoW.  Just as it shares many things with WAR, EQ, DAoC, and all the other fantasy MMOs that came before it.  This is gaming evolution at work.  The game is not revolutionary, it's evolutionary.

In addition to the generic genre mechanics it shares with WoW, Rift has clearly borrowed some things directly from WoW.  The interface is clearly derivative.  The combat point system used by the Rogue calling is an obvious copy of the combo system used by the WoW Rogue.  To argue otherwise is silly.  But guess what, there's nothing wrong with that.  Stealing things that work and incorporating them into your design is just part of good design.  When building a bridge you don't throw out all the lessons learned by bridge builders beforehand, you steal that suspension mechanic and run with it.

On the other hand, Rift does bring new things to the table.  The dynamic content provided by the Rifts and zone invasions sounds inconsequential on paper.  Wooo, a portal will spawn and spew out some mobs that I can zerg down with other players, yay.  Right?  Yet in practice, it adds something to the game that has been missing from modern MMOs (especially WoW).  Player cooperation.  Forming groups to fight rifts and invasions happens organically, almost subconsciously.  You don't yell in chat that you're "lfg for fire rift", people show up on their own and groups form.  The rift goes down and the group disperses.  It's not social on a communicative level, there's very little chat or organization, but it's the sort of gaming experience that could ONLY occur in a massive online game.  Invasions are even more spectacular, and really require the players in the zone to pull together.  Then you have the graphics and the soul system as two more features that really set the game apart from WoW.

Players who try Rift and go "meh, WoW clone" just don't get it.  And that's ok.  If you don't get it, Rift isn't the game for you.  If you tried it and didn't get past the tutorial area though you're doing yourself a disservice.  The tutorial area of Rift is the worst part of the entire game (so far).


Welcome to my blog!

I've been posting comments on other people's blogs for years, and decided maybe it was time for me to vent my long-winded opinions in my own blogspace rather than someone else's.  This blog will mostly focus on gaming, and simply be about whatever I happen to be playing at the moment.  I am a serious MMO polygamist, so I'll always be playing some MMO or another, but I also play single player RPGs, strategy games, and even console and handheld games.

I hope to entertain, or mildly amuse, or at least be somewhat informative.  However, if anyone actually ever reads this blog, I'll be pretty amazed ;)