Friday, October 31, 2008

The Witching Night

Warhammer Online has introduced its first Live Event, which involves a PQ in the Open RvR areas. It was great fun, and my Bright Wizard, Brendis, walked off with a Massive Loot bag from which I claimed the Mask of the Bloodletter, one of the four special masks for this event.

The event brought out a lot of people into the Open RvR zones, for some constant almost-nonstop (except when the cowardly Destruction dogs took to hiding in their campgrounds) action.

The way this event worked, at least in the Tier 3 zone, is in two phases. The first phase involved killing one hundred of your enemies before they killed one hundred of your side. After you succeed with that, a scary Witching Lord spawns and you have to kill that, unless you are me, in which case, you die running to the event, and then respawn and run as all heck to get back to the chest that drops after the PQ is completed while being chased by lots of sore losers from the Destruction side.

One nice thing about the Open RvR PQ - even if you die after stage 1, your contribution still counts. Unfortunately, I died before I could kill the boss, so I didn't get to experience that, but I still got the top contribution slot for the event. I mention this here because some people were saying that only your contribution towards the boss counted, and that might discourage people from participating. That most definitely is not the case.

All in all, I'm rather happy with how this event turned out. It was pretty fun; I hope Mythic chooses to move more of the PQ style mechanics into RvR zones in the future. It was a good move and participating in this event was a nice respite from the Scenario grind that it sometimes feels like this game has turned into.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Oblivion With Guns" Is a Blast

I just got Fallout 3 and, so far, I'm really enjoying it. Fallout is one of my favorite franchises ever. Bethesda has really captured the feel of the franchise, including its dark humor. Many people disparagingly referred to Fallout as "Oblivion with Guns" when they first heard that Bethesda was making this game with a 3D first person viewpoint. And, yeah, it does feel a lot like Oblivion in parts:

- stiff voice acting
- NPCs sometimes change their voices depending on which conversation item you select
- NPCs like to walk into each other
- running in the third party perspective looks RIDICULOUSLY bad...
- NPC AI pathing is wretched

But those are very minor flaws; the voice acting and other minor issues aren't so bad that they ruin the experience. And while combat is flawed, it works well enough. The VATS system is fun, but real time combat, swinging a handcrafted Deathclaw at a radscorpion is no different than swinging a sword in Tamriel. And I never found that to be terribly exciting. Fallout 3 does not appear to have a cover system, which is unfortunate, because that game system helped make ranged combat in Mass Effect (the other notable story-based RPG with guns to come out in recent times) quite enjoyable.

The thing that made the original Fallout games great was that it gaves you CHOICES. You always had multiple ways to approach problems. You could talk your way past a difficult opponent, take them down by force, sneak by when they turn their back on you, or go the long way around them. In the original Fallouts, you could even (with great difficulty) play the entire game without ever (directly) harming anyone! You were often asked to difficult decisions, and being the good guy was rarely the easy way out.

This Fallout is no different. Very early on you are given the ability to make decisions with very permanent aftereffects. There are so many dialogue options and unlike many games, they do make a difference. Many choices you make open up more choices in the future. Its truly staggering how different the game can be between playthroughs even from the very beginning of the game! Every other game on the planet claims to give you choice, but this is the game that truly delivers.

While some people might get hung up on the subpar combat system, if you are looking for a ROLE PLAYING experience, and were wondering where the ROLE in "role playing game" went, well, it went here: Fallout 3.

Monday, October 27, 2008

WAR is like three games in one

Warhammer Online is like three games in one. And that's not a good thing, in this case, because its like three separate games that don't have much to do with one another.

Right now, you have Scenarios, which are a blast. You launch into a Scenario (instanced RVR battleground) from anywhere in the world; this means if you want to play Scenarios, the world itself is largely irrelevant since its a just an overly decorated lobby. And that, unfortunately, is how most people play the game, since the rewards for PQs and Open World RvR don't match.

The other game in Warhammer is the PVE game. And while PQs offer a nice incremental improvement over it, they are only sporadically populated in the higher tiers, and most of the time, I see people only at the PQ nearest the camp for that Chapter. The biggest problem with PVE right now is that its actually more rewarding to grind the soloable first part of a PQ by yourself... which is counterintuitive and undermines the community-building nature that PQs and Open Groups were meant to encourage.

And, last but not least, there's the Open World RvR. In theory. I've seen this only a few times, and only when my guild mustered up people to take on a Keep. But while its great fun to storm a Keep, ultimately its not very rewarding. In the time it takes to run back and get one-shotted again (I'm playing a Bright Wizard, so that doesn't take long), I could play a Scenario and get better XP and loot...

Any one of these sub-games would be great in its own right. A PQ-based version of WoW would be amazing. A game solely focussed on Open World RvR would be fun. But as long as the rewards remain out of balance between them, the whole game suffers.

Mythic has been very responsive so far, improving XP for PVE and RvR. I'm still planning on continuing to play WAR; I just subscribed for three more months (on top of the two subscriptions I have with EQ2!), so I'm still convinced in the future of this game. But to keep that fee past January, we will need to see more improvements besides simple XP boosts.

There also need to be fixes to itemization so that RvR rewards justify the time and effort invested.

We also need better travel options. Scenarios aren't just popular because they give better XP; they are also popular because you can get into the action very quickly. There are too many zones where (even on horseback) I have to run around forever to complete quests. Better PVE travel options also means more people can get to the Warcamps faster for RvR.

I would also like to see dynamic mechanisms created as a way to TIE the separate games together into a more cohesive whole... so, for example, if lots of players are in PVE dungeons or Scenarios, maybe that gives the RvR players some sort of bonus (because our warriors are stalwart enough to defect some of the meanest and nastiest critters to plague the lands, see). It may seem counterintuitive to reward someone OTHER than the ones doing the work here, but the idea is this: if people are doing really well in the dungeons that means they aren't in RvR, so this helps encourage people to come back out into the daylight and venture onto the real battlefields; it also gives a little boost to the people who are already on the battlefield to make up for the fact that all their friends are underground. The other advantage is that the game feels less like three separate games and more like one interrelated whole.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Irreversible Decisions

Apparently someone is making a new Star Wars game. Have you heard of it?


I'm not a huge Star Wars fan, so this normally wouldn't interest me. However, it is being made by Bioware, and they are known for having a strong focus on characterization and story. One of the things that is intriguing is that you have the possibility of picking up NPC companions who become a part of your story. Also, you have the ability to make irreversible decisions and even find a love interest.

Irreversible decisions are very rare in MMOs. After all, irreversible decisions tend to irritate people when they are playing a game that involves hundreds of hours of time invested. EverQuest II used to have an irreversible decision: if you killed centaurs in the Thundering Steppes, you were forever Kill on Sight to them. Well, that decision was changed not too soon after release, because of the uproar from the player base.

Providing irreversible changes to the game world isn't something fans would typically enjoy either. A PVP game where one side could literally win (permanently, as in, your Order-aligned Germanic-speaking Order character literally starts learning Norwegian [or whatever Destruction speaks]) would lose players fast. Ultimately, MMO conflicts become constant stalemates that never go anywhere. And if they do go somewhere, it just results in a big, giant reset so people can start again.

The only real way to provide irreversible decisions is to do it within a player character's personal storyline. We've seen this type of approach done before... Pirates of the Burning Sea let you meet NPCs, who would become a part of your story, and various decisions you make would affect future missions. NPCs you meet during your role-playing story arc missions could evolve into allies, enemies, rivals, or otherwise, depending on decisions you make.

It wasn't always done well... Sometimes you were forced down certain paths. And naturally you couldn't do anything that wasn't scripted into the missions.

Early on in my short Caribbean stint, the game announced that I had found my love interest. It actually came as a surprise since I wasn't particularly paying attention to that quest's writing. I never played the game long enough to see that quest arc to fruition. I saved some Sultan or somesuch who had a bunch of sons and daughters, and apparently whoever I clicked on became a love interest. Then they went and stood in some instance and ignored me. Maybe if I stuck around for about ten or more levels, I would have received the mission that would allow me to win their heart. But even if the implementation was a little flawed, the idea was great.

Some of the other quest arcs had more immediate feedback. I was given the choice to choose a side between two rival NPCs, and immediately gained an ally and a rival that impacted future missions. The role-playing story arc quickly became my favorite aspect of the game for me, despite its flaws. I was able to make decisions that determined just what kind of character I was playing: noble or villainous, impetuous or reflective. My character became much more than a bundle of levels and loot.

A story can only be meaningful if you can make decisions that are permanent that you can't reverse simply by grinding another 40,000 faction for the other side. Irreversible decisions are integral to story telling and playing a role. Most dialogue trees in EverQuest II or Age of Conan simply resulted in getting you closer to receiving a quest, or leaving the dialogue tree. You couldn't piss off a quest giver such that he would decide not to work with you. You could slaughter your way through centaurs and still find that some of them will gladly give you quests.

Some of us would like to see a game live up to the ROLE in "Massively Multiplayer ROLE Playing Games". You can see it all over the blogosphere; time and time again, people rail against the mindless grinds we suffer through. It's high time that developer started allowing us to make our characters more than a simple bundle of levels, loot, and unlocked flags. I can't wait to see what Bioware cooks up.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Shadow Odyssey Approaches

I'm eagerly awaiting the fifth EverQuest II expansion pack, The Shadow Odyssey, which brings back the dungeon crawl to the forefront. The last expansion pack was good, but it introduced tons of solo quest chains, like in World of Warcraft; however, they made it the only viable way to level from 70 to 80. It was a bad move on Sony's part, since if we wanted to play in the World of Warcraft vein, we would play World of Warcraft. Most EQ2 veterans have probably given WOW a shot already, and decided it sucks. The thing that made EQ2 more fun is that it has a thousand times as much content, and there is literally something for everyone. You could do a group dungeon crawl, raid from even the really early levels, you could solo, level up via PvP alone, you could be a pure tradeskiller creating items to level from 1-80 without ever killing a single monster; heck, you could even be a home decorator, and play the game solo for the in-game homes and guild halls, moving items around in game in a creative fashion for purely aesthetic purposes.

So it seems like TSO might be a return to form as it brings us twenty new dungeons for group adventures, a new landmass with new solo quest chains, and a new innovation: tradeskill raids! Although I have yet to get a crafter to level 80, I'm actually interested in doing so now (just a few levels left on my Alchemist), because the twist of being able to craft as a group intrigues me.

I guess that's why SOE just keeps bringing me back every time I start to wander. It wouldn't be Sony if they didn't introduce some new innovative form of gameplay. This is the game that brought us quests that involve moving items around in the world (such as stacking crates to get over a barrier), interactive barriers (such as walls we could smash our way through), climbable walls, dynamic camps, appearance armor, and more. I think people often don't give SOE as much credit as they deserve. Sony does like to change entire game mechanics and systems wholesale, and that can piss off some players (SWG NGE, anyone?), but they do plenty more that is right.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Waxing Nostalgic for Final Fantasy XI

There's no MMO like your first MMO. Well, the first one that hooks you. I tried MMORPGs before they were called MMORPGs; I tried several MUDs in college and never got into them. Then I moved on to Meridian 59, one of the first graphical MMOs, and despised the gameplay. I kept dabbling with MMOs but none of them ever hooked me, until Final Fantasy XI.

And I'm not sure why that is, since the repetitive gameplay and hardcore grind that turned me off of MUDs and MMOs before is even WORSE in FFXI. Its one of the most hardcore games out there. This is a game where some of the boss battles literally take 18 hours to kill!

But they do so much that is right: even though the game is designed to run on lousy hardware like a PS2, the quality of the graphics, armor, monster design is top notch. The particle effects are brilliant. I loved way that combat was designed to be more active with the skillchain system and even involved an element of player skill (by having to time certain attacks; particularly the way in which players can REACT to events, such as using the Paladin's shield bash to make a Goblin sometimes drop a bomb at its feet blowing himself up instead of the party.)

So I enjoy these new Japanese commercials for the 14-day trial; they are cute little reminders of my former MMO home of Vana'diel...

But, alas, the major flaw in FFXI was that you could not do ANYTHING without a full party within a very tight level range. There could be 2500 people on the server, but often there would only be a few dozen within a level or two of you that needed a character of the particular job (class) you wanted to play. So, I gave up and moved on to my new home, Norrath. And from there, well, I've been stuck. I have tried every MMO on the market since EQ2 and nothing else is as compelling. But its still fun to wax nostalgic once in a while.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Missions in the WAR Overworld

While I love Warhammer so far, it really feels like the PVE portion of the game was sort of tacked on. Scenarios and PQs are a blast, and RVR is fun, but the PVE quests themselves are disappointing, mostly because they offer nothing new. It's still designed as a collection of quest hubs that send you from one to another, collecting kill X badger quests in your Tome of Knowledge, and then rinse, repeat ad nauseum.

What I would like to see instead of static quest givers standing around perpetually in search of their lost coin purse is a sort of mission system. It should provide a PQ style set of objectives to a party, but not be tied to one location. The various objectives could even be tied together. For example, add an NPC to war camps that asks for supplies. A party of players could ask the NPC for a PVE mission which sends them to caves to mine or a spider-infested forest to collect wood. When they turn it in, they can repeat the same quest. However, every time one group turns in a batch of supplies, it allows one other party to pick up a quest to deliver those supplies to a Keep or some other location.

Perhaps more complicated missions (even competitive ones where a party is sent to talk to a spy while an opposing group is sent to assassinate him) might even be possible.

While there are "collect X supplies" and "deliver X supplies" style quests in game right now, what I'm looking for is for them to gain a more dynamic aspect and make some kind of (temporary) change to the world. The quest givers should stop asking for supplies when they get them, and stop asking people to deliver them when they run out. One group might collect supplies while a braver band of players might deliver them into dangerous territory. There should be an effect on the game world and the community at large based on how many of these quests are being completed (if enough of your side's spies aren't killed, you might see nearby enemy movement on the map, for instance.)

Missions could also reward Renown (if they involve travel into the RVR lakes) as well as XP and coin and should be repeatable. Anyone in the party will be rewarded when it's completed based on their contribution.

What I want to see a mission/quest system created that is somewhat dynamic (if no one is collecting resources, then no one can get the mission to deliver the supplies), tied into the RVR system, has aspects that PVE players can still get involved with, is tied to the combined efforts of multiple parties over time, and, most importantly, takes place in the REAL WORLD where all other the players are, and not locked away in an instance, so the world feels more alive.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

EQ2 is Like a Black Hole

Wow, what a great GU... Although I've been spending more time in Warhammer, GU49 sucked me back into Norrath big time.

The big hits for me this time: guild halls, and the first multicore improvements. Guild Halls are a welcome improvement for the game. While our guild already had the necessary amount of plat and status for the big island fortress, decorating and buying amenities will give us a nice new set of objectives to work towards together as a guild.

As for the multicore improvements, they aren't quite perfect. It only uses one additional core, and only for animations. It saddened me that, before this fix, I could run on maximum quality and get better FPS in a performance hogging, memory hemorrhaging game like Age of Conan than in a four year old game like EverQuest II. But with this fix, EQ2 runs a lot better; I've been running around in Extreme Quality (though, still with shadows off, as those still cause a 20-30 fps drop) and everything runs smoothly. I don't notice nearly as much hitching as I used to, so I'm very pleased.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some sand to dump in the deserts of Ro. I wonder what they have buried under there???

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Thoughts About WAR

Well, I now have a level 18 Bright Wizard and I'm bringing up a Sword Master. I've started a few other alts to see the starting areas but I haven't given them much play yet. So far, I'm really enjoying the game. My favorite features are still the PQs and Scenarios. However, nothing is perfect. So far, I have a few oh-so-minor gripes. Well, it's more like a wish list really.

- Like some have noted, the reward for PQs can actually be greater if you are a solo grinding the first part alone. That needs to be fixed.

- PQs should probably scale in difficulty based on how many people are around. If there is a large warband around, there's basically no challenge at all. But if its just one or two people, its impossible to finish.

- I'm addicted to scenarios and want to see more! I guess this is not really a gripe, but scenarios are increasingly becoming the better place to go for XP, and it can get rather dull doing the same three over and over again. In theory. It hasn't yet, though. :)

- I'd like to see a way to scale down in levels. Its a shame I can't go back and play T1 scenarios or RvR after I've outleveled; I'd like to be able to do outleveled scenarios with a friend who is just starting out or to bolster numbers in a lower-tier RvR warband. Sure, I guess I could use a new character, but eventually that means I will have to keep characters locked at each tier if I want to RvR in any tier or any scenario. The renkown/XP rewards could be reduced so its not the most viable way to level up, and they could scale us so we would be worse than a natural character of that level, so its more of a convenience thing (IF I have a level appropriate character, we'd use it, otherwise, we'd use a scaled-down character.) I suppose there are always glitches in scaling that could be exploited though, but being able to play with anyone of any level is one of the features I like best about EverQuest II.

- I'd like to see some minor rewards for standing around guarding a location. It seems everyone wants to go offense. Granted, smart groups won't have that problem, since they play to win, but the XP and renowkn rewards at the end of the match seem weighted more in favor of the people who go offense instead of defense. It would be nice to just help lessen that a little. (But not too much, of course, or everyone will just stand still instead of fighting.)