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.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


So I've ended up taking another new job just 3 weeks after accepting my last one.  It's way more money than I've ever made and for a company I worked for for 4 years last decade, with a bunch of people I already know (and like).  Kind of a no brainer.

What's weird though, is that the company is using Google docs and gmail for almost everything now, and if I try to log in to my blogger account it automatically redirects to the company google docs login.  Even if I'm in my blog and click "login" from my blogs URL.  My android phone has also decided that the text box for blog posts isn't an editable field and that it shouldn't bring up the soft keyboard when I select it.

So I can't edit my blog, at all, except late at night at home.

Anyone have any idea of how I can get around the redirect on my work computer?  Otherwise I'm going to have to drag in a personal laptop and tether my phone just to upload a blog post :P