Thursday, January 10, 2008

Combat on the Open Sea

One of the main differences between combat in Pirates of the Burning Sea and combat in MMOs like EverQuest II or World of Warcraft is that combat is much slower and much more strategic. I think that's why I find it a lot more fun. Even though some of the combat instances are pretty much the same (hey, how many ways can you really instance a bunch of boats on water anyway?), each fight feels different. In EQ2 or WoW, aside from raid encounters, which do require some degree of strategy, most fights feel the same and involve spamming the same combat arts/skills over and over again. That is boring as hell.

Maybe calling combat in POTBS "slower" isn't quite right; combat does have "edge of your seat" moments, and quite frequently. But you aren't spending that time spamming buttons on six hotbars, like my monk in EQ2 does. I actually have relatively few skills in combat (especially as a freetrader!), which is every single one of them, and every decision I make matters, down to which way I turn relative to the wind, which enemy I go after first, and so on.

Another thing that I like about combat in Pirates of the Burning Sea is that level means very little in combat. It does mean you get a handful of skills, but you can't spam them all at once, and winning in battle is more about how you handle your ship, your consumables, who you target, and positioning. The battles have tradeoffs. Do you risk boarding an enemy, knowing that you will just be floating there defenseless (and can be defeated) while fighting the enemy captain? On the other hand, it might be a good move if you are surrounded, since boarding an enemy means you can't be hit on that side and if you win, you'll have one less opponent.

I'm only level 12 or so right now, so it remains to be seen whether I'll still have this glowing opinion by level 50. But right now its providing with an enjoyable respite from the interminable faction grind that is EverQuest II - Rise of Kunark.

Pirates of the Burning Sea Set Sail

... on Monday, for those who have preordered the game, so I'm a little late posting about it, but hey, I've been busy playing the game... So far, I'm enjoying the game a lot. I've gotten past the point where I was in beta, so I'm exploring new territory now.

There's a good variety of missions, and you are rewarded mostly for achieving the objective, so the game doesn't have as much of the grindy feel you get in other games. I don't have to run around sinking ship after ship. Some missions can't be solved by combat alone: for example, if you are tasked with racing a boat through a blockade, there is no way to win the mission by sinking every vessel in the instance. The missions aren't always out on the ocean either; there are a number of escort quests. There are even entirely story-driven quests where you talk to people to advance the mission; the writing is even pretty good!

As a casual player, this game is pretty ideal for me; many missions only take 10-20 minutes (if even that much). Since most missions start from the coxswain, I don't have to trek half a map to get to the mission; I simply start it, finish it, and move on to the next instantly. The only running around happens afterwards when I turn it all in.

I suppose that's one advantage of instancing, but there is one disadvantage: I see the loading screen a whole lot in this game. They may have overdone this. There doesn't appear to be a single door in the game that actually opens. I guess that gives them the flexibility of always changing what might be behind that door. I suppose that's a very minor nitpick for what is overall a great game.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Mass Effect Effect

I got an Xbox 360 for Christmas along with Mass Effect, so I haven't played MMOs very much. I played EverQuest II a little, but gameplay there is going to be sporadic for a while.

Mass Effect is a truly incredible game. Its games like this that remind me what is most missing from MMORPGs: story, and the ability to interact with the world DIFFERENTLY from character to character.

As far as story is concerned, some MMOs dish out little tidbits here and there in the form of story arcs. Some games, such as Final Fantasy XI, have ongoing mission-based story arcs with cut scenes that I enjoyed. Unfortunately, in most MMORPGs, the story arcs tend to play second fiddle to levels and loot as the principle means of advancement. And the missions typically have only one way to complete them (in repetitive steps that only work in one proscribed order).

While the world can't truly change in an MMORPG, your character and the way the world reacts to you certainly can. Some of the really great aspects of Mass Effect include the ability to make decisions regarding your character's background. Ramifications of those decisions manifest themselves later. For example, my character was Earth-born and apparently ran with a gang before joining the military. Later, members of that gang decide to try to cajole him into doing them a favor. Decisions I make regarding my characters alignment (paragon vs. renegade) affect the ways in which I can complete a mission. Some fights can be even be bypassed entirely by charming or intimidating the adversary. This adds to replayability because, even though I already know the story, its still enjoyable playing through the game and seeing how things change when I do things differently.

Future MMORPGs need to incorporate more of that kind of evolution into their story arcs. We need missions that alter how subsequent missions will play depending on their outcome and the decisions you made. We need quests that have multiple solutions. Its not wasted content just because one character won't see everything: everyone is going to hit the level cap some day and roll an alt; there should be something other than a different set of skills and items to equip to differentiate our characters. We need something to give our characters more meaning and more uniqueness than an assortment of min-maxed statistics. Mass Effect (and a few other great RPGs in the past, such as Fallout) gives us that in spades.

The Mass Effect universe would make an excellent setting for a massively multiplayer RPG. With Bioware's story writing, the kind of evolving, personalized story arcs they are known for, and this rich backdrop for a setting, a Mass Effect MMO could only spell success. I sincerely hope they use this IP for their upcoming MMORPG instead of the Knights of the Old Republic IP everyone seems to be expecting. Star Wars is so last century. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who thinks this.

Still, whether its Star Wars (yawn) or Mass Effect, if Bioware can give us the rich story- and character-driven gameplay they are known for from the single player RPGs they've produced in an MMO (a genre that has been notably weak in those areas), that could be truly ground breaking. Anyway, the Normandy awaits...