Saturday, 1 October 2016

Revelation Of A New World

When Amazon began snapping up discarded MMO developers there seemed little doubt they had something massively multiple in mind for their game division revamp but as the "unboxing" approached and the tease reveals rolled out certainty dipped a little. It seemed we weren't getting a ragnarok-themed version of WoW after all, just another MOBA, because the market for those is desert dry right now, after all...

That never felt right. For the brief few days when the seal was split but the lid remained unlifted I still believed there'd be something interesting inside. And there kind of was. Is. Will be.

Somewhen, in some future time as yet uncalendared, exists an Amazon MMORPG. Faint ripples in the chronosphere suggest some kind of "massively multiplayer, open-ended sandbox game". The signal is occluded. All we know is what's in the single paragraph.

Oh, wait, no it's not! There's a video!

It's only fifty seconds but I think it answers a lot of questions people seem to be asking; questions raised but not answered by the text description on the website.

This is going to be a PvP Sandbox. Probably one with a non-consensual free-for-all ruleset. Check these quotes:

"...the players are our content." (25s)
"...whatever they do with it and in it and to one another is really up to them." (43s)

Or that's the plan as it stands right now. The game itself is who knows how far out? Two years? Three? Five? We all know the MMO you get is very rarely the MMO you were promised. Sometimes it's barely even similar.

Which is why I can't see much point getting hyped up or riled up. Yet. Let's wait at least until there's...something. At least the setting, one of the very few elements that has both been announced and is extremely unlikely to change, sounds promising.

The elevator pitch would seem to be The Secret World in Colonial America:

"...everything they were afraid of, everything that they hoped for, everything that they wanted to believe in, that they wished wasn't true, all of that stuff is real".

I could go for that. And, as many people have pointed out, Amazon is the epitome of a mainstream mass-market service provider. It does seem unlikely that Jeff Bezos will want to restrict the potential to the relatively small FFA PvP market when there's a much greater restricted PvP and pure PvE audience to tap.

The developers may anticipate a true New World but chances are they'll end up with much the same compromised old version we usually get. Some combination of level restriction, safe zones or even PvE/PvP server splits. Yes, the real target for all these new games seems to be the Twitch viewer (the Wooden Potatoes video linked above is very good on that) but I'm sure they want to sell a few million boxes too.

Not, as far as I can see, that there's been any mention of payment models, although I didn't watch the main stream. Still, it's probably safe to predict these will not be pure F2P titles. Amazon is in the box-selling business, be those actual boxes or digital downloads. There's going to be some kind of fee in there somewhere.

That's all a long, long way off. We can worry about how much it costs when there's something to buy. What interests me more right now is the idea, expressed by both Syp and Syl, that the MMORPG genre needs news of a big AAA release like this right now.

Why is that, exactly? Wasn't it only a year or two back that everyone was claiming it was big budget releases from megacorps that had crushed the life and spirit out of MMOs and the true future of the genre was and always had been niche? Did I miss a memo?

Syp found so many upcoming indie MMOs of interest to examine on MassivelyOP that he had to split his preview post into two parts. That list is just shy of three dozen titles. If this is a genre in the doldrums, heaven only knows what would blow in on a fair wind.

Let's not be negative. I'm a big Amazon fan. I've used their services for many years. I've found them to be reliable and good value. I recommend them often to others. There's certainly a smaller-than-usual chance New World (clever title, by the way) will end up being rushed to market half-baked due to the developers running out of money. It will almost certainly be polished and as finished as MMOs ever are at launch.

Whether it will be anything I'd want to play I have absolutely no idea. I won't know that until there's a game. Call me when that happens.

Oh, and the post title? Apparently all that writing carved in to the face of the guy in the pot helmet up top there? That's from The Book of Revelations, that is. Now you're scared.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Everyone Loves A Parade : GW2

It wasn't long after I began playing EverQuest, seventeen years ago this November, that I stumbled upon a community-organized event. Not specifically something by or for the then-substantial role-playing community, although there were many of those; something looser, more inclusive, with which anyone could join, in or out of character.

The one I remember  most vividly from those very early days was Talent Contest held on The Stage, an open-air theater on the west side of the much-missed original Freeport. Mrs Bhagpuss and I just happened to be passing by when we heard the event being announced in /ooc so we went to see what was happening.

We ended up sitting on the dusty Freeport ground for a couple of hours, watching mostly inept and amateurish performers take the stage to recite poetry or act out barely comprehensible skits. It felt like being in a true alternate reality. It was magical.

Over the years I've seen countless similar community events, from ad hoc improvs that drew a crowd
to huge, organized extravaganzas that took weeks of planning and were trailed across the interwebs months in advance. There have been mass protests and sit-ins, marches for and against all kinds of causes or outrages, demonstrations and celebrations of every stripe and kind.

The biggest and best known can require detailed rules of conduct for the audience like Weatherstock in LotRO or dire warnings for innocent bystanders like Burn Jita, which even managed to break into the real-world global news agenda, because EVE.

The best community events, though, are always the ones you just happen upon. I was in Citadel sorting through my banks as usual on Sunday when someone in guild chat mentioned they'd just seen a whole load of Quaggans marching through Lions Arch.

Quaggan Parades are a thing in GW2 and have been for a while. If you google you'll find a whole load of links to YouTube videos going back several years. Here's a small and annoying one from 2013 or a somewhat larger, better-organized and certainly better-shot version from the year after.

I can't say I've ever shared the widespread affection for Quaggans. I prefer to make jokes about their culinary potential rather than coo over their supposed cuteness but it can't be denied that to catch a whole gaggle of Quaggies toddling along is a bit of cultural milestone in Tyria. Kind of like naked gnome races in EverQuest and about as ethnically sensitive.

It took a bit of effort to find the amphibian posse. The first instance of LA didn't have them so I whispered my guildmate, partied up with him and zapped across to his map, where I found the Quaggan horde trundling through the east side of the city.

Arriving in a rush I hadn't thought to grab my own Endless Quaggan Tonic from the bank, where it waits, hopelessly, not having seen use for a very long time if, indeed, ever. Even if I'd had one on me I still wouldn't have blended in because I only have the Black and Blue versions and almost every Quaggan in this particular parade was red.

It was a very well-organized event, with two Commanders leading the way and everyone following at walking pace. Large turnout too. There was some mention of  charity involvement but in the fifteen minutes or so that I spent following the Quaggs no-one rattled a bucket or linked to a website so I remain none the wiser on what we were supposedly supporting.

Eventually the conga line arrived at the portal to Lornar's Pass and all the Quaggans passed through into the snowfields beyond, where, in a marvelous piece of theater, most of them turned blue. We all hung around for a few minutes while the organizers started to sort out advanced parties of non-Quaggans to head out along the proposed route and clear it of hostiles.

Around then I made my excuses and left. A parade is one thing but this was starting to look like a recreation of the Long March. How many Quaggans made it and where they eventually made it to is going to have to remain a mystery.

This minor, meaningless, serendipitous happenstance is a very small example of what's spoiled offline RPGs for me forever. No matter how brilliantly written and realized, no matter how finely-tuned the AI, with current technology there is simply no chance that you'll ever experience anything like this in any virtual world that isn't populated at least in part by other people.

Maybe one day we'll have algorithms or even sentient AIs that can provide the same level of found fun-making on the fly although the recent example of No Man's Sky suggests that day could be a long time coming. In the mean time I'll just carry on enjoying every new online gaming day as it comes - freighted with the unexpected courtesy of my fellow players.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Just The One, Then : EQ2

Syl started a discussion last week on what she might choose if she was only going to play a single video game for the rest of her life. Telwyn followed suit.

It's actually something I've pondered, idly, a few times over the years, along with that perennial favorite "if you had to live inside an MMO, which one would it be?". For me, the answer to both questions is probably the same: EQ2.

It's not that EQ2 is the best MMO, although it's certainly one of my personal top three favorites. It's more that it's so many different games all bundled up together. It almost feels like cheating to pick it as the only game I'd play.

There's such a portmanteau of ideas, all layered thickly, often chaotically, across each other that it runs far greater risk of overwhelming than boring any player, new or old. It would take a very long time indeed to understand, let alone exhaust, them all.

For example, Crafting in EQ2 is a fully realized MMO all of its own, complete with storylines, solo and group content, quests, gear progression, even "dungeons". So much development time has gone into adding so much content it could quite literally be released as a stand-alone game by now.

In what you'd usually call the main part  of the game, Adventuring, there's a plethora of classes - it sometimes feels like dozens of them - each of which plays significantly differently from the next. Famously - or infamously - every one of those classes has enough spells or spell-like abilities to fill forty or fifty hotbar slots. If that's not variety enough, there are over twenty races, each with its own flavor - although why you'd want to play anything other than a ratonga...

You can start in half a dozen different zones and level up in many, many more. There's absolutely no need to follow the same, worn path each time, although over the years you will certainly develop preferences. You can race to max level and back-fill your AAs or set the slider to any point on the scale you like (always assuming you've ponied up your sub for the privilege), allowing you considerable control and variation in the leveling process.

Like crafting, leveling in EQ2 is a full game - provided you like making multiple characters - but at the top of the level curve the endgame waits with its minutiae of never-ending incremental improvements for those that care for that kind of thing. That's a Zeno's Paradox you'll never outrun.

For pure explorers things aren't quite so infinitely extensible. You will inevitably run out of new places to see before the developers can patch more in. Still, while Norrath after the moon exploded isn't as indescribably huge as the original sprawling Norrath of EverQuest Sr. (itself an extremely good candidate for the One Game) it's big enough for you to have forgotten the start by the time you come round to the end.

Of all the games-within-a-game that would keep me going indefinitely, though, I think the clincher is Housing. Housing in EQ2 ranges from the simple decoration of a basic inn room to the construction via break-out of entire new zones. Indeed, decorating and building are tantamount to two separate games in themselves, especially once permitted player-made third-party tools like the Layout Designer come into play.

If EQ2 was the only game I had to play maybe I'd learn to use that editor. Mrs Bhagpuss did and she created wonders. I just filled all my houses with stuff. Of course I'd carry on doing that, too.

So, yes, if I had to settle on just one game to play for the rest of my game-playing life I think it would have to be EQ2. If Vanguard was still going and growing I might have gone for that instead, since it had all of EQ2's attractions plus Diplomacy as well, but sadly that option's no longer on the gaming table.

EQ would be my second choice. It, too, shares most of EQ2's benefits and adds plenty more of its own but EQ2 is just a more comfortable place to hang out for extended periods, somehow. I guess the only other contender would be GW2, in which it seems I can spend thousands of hours despite there really not being all that much in the way of variety.

Pushed to a choice, though, I'll take EQ2 as my One Game

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Postcards From Ember Bay : GW2

The second Episode of GW2's Living Story 3 hit the servers yesterday. As usual it's very hard to discuss it in any detail without dropping spoilers all over the place. Even the opening paragraph of the official Patch Notes came under fire on  the forums for spoilerizing the previous Episode, which, of course, many people who haven't bought Heart of Thorns already own but have yet to play.

I'm kind of wary about discussing the entire storyline myself. If you're even marginally invested in the plotline that's been meandering through GW2 for the life of the game (and which digs its roots increasingly deep into the lore and story of the original Guild Wars) there are quite a few *gasp* moments and a lot of laugh-out-louds. I enjoyed all of them and I wouldn't want to weaken their impact for anyone else with a few off-hand references.

Sticking to safer ground then, I am very pleased to report that Episode 2 is at least as good as Episode 1 and that they're both better than any episode of Living Story 2. The writing seems tighter, sharper, more focused and less mawkish than it sometimes became in LS2. There's still the odd spurt of self-indulgence but I found those quite forgivable.

The voice acting is especially noteworthy. I've been listening to a lot of MMO voice acting of late, particularly in DCUO and WoW and I have a whole post on the topic mulling over in the back of my mind. Let's just say for now that GW2 has the lead on either of those by some distance when it comes to intonation, expression, appropriate matching of voice and visuals and, most especially, in line reading.

Back in the summer I played through Episode 1 on my female Asura Elementalist. She's 85% Berserker specced which made for something of a white-knuckle ride through the fighty-fighty parts. Bearing that in mind, this time I went with my Charr Ranger.

I was somewhat apprehensive to hear him speak because the voice actor who did all the male player-character Charr voicework from launch to the end of LS2 wasn't available to do the new stuff. I don't generally like my characters being voiced, preferring the Silent Protagonist model of The Secret World, but I'd gotten very used to how my Charr Ranger, the first character I made after launch and my first Level 80, sounded.

Well, the new guy did a great job. At worst it sounds as though maybe my Charr had a bit of a heavy night of it - he's a bit gruffer and a bit deeper - but it's very comfortably the same character talking. Rytlock, of course, remains the star of any show he's in and Taimi is her usual amusing, insufferable, endearing self.

It was a great pleasure listening to all of them along with the other regular supporting cast and new faces but any more detail would be running into spoiler territory. The strange thing about spoilers is that even saying something doesn't happen or someone isn't present can be a spoiler in itself so best just not mention it.

Away from the main storyline there's the not-insignificant matter of a whole new explorable map. And it is a whole map! Not a quarter of a map, like the first installment of Dry Top, nor a bijou maplet like Bloodstone Fen. No, Ember Bay is a full-on, full-feature, full-size full new map in the tradition and scale of the maps that launched with the game.

I spent several hours last night exploring it and I haven't opened it all yet, let alone achieved map completion. It's primarily a volcanic zone (every MMO has to have at least one) but there's some biome diversity, with an extensive littoral and some green foliage areas. Travel is possible by land and air (and sea if you really want, although the undersea seems to be mostly undeveloped) but gliding is definitely favored.

There seems to be a ton of things to do in Ember Bay. Hearts (the original GW2 quest hub analog) make a somewhat controversial return. I really never thought we see them again and I was surprised by how nice it felt to have them back. I hope this means they'll be a part of the next expansion too.

There are umpteen dynamic events in the classical style and some chains that end with big ticket  fights. I did two of those that concluded with a huge Ancient Chest ground drop similar to what appears at the downing of a core Tyria World Boss and they did feel a lot more like that model than the Marionnette/Vinewraith open raid style we've been educated to expect.

Indeed, if anything, a return to basics appears to be the theme of this new map. It doesn't discard the innovations and directional shifts of the last couple of years but neither does it ignore the game's heritage and established successes. So far I like it a lot.

There's a fair variety of creatures to fight and interact with. Skritt and Asura feature strongly, which is always a bonus. There are Karka, which generally isn't.

It was very interesting fighting all the various kinds of creatures solo with the same character. The storyline (extremely mild spoiler coming up...) goes quite strong on the toughness and danger of the new creatures to be found in Ember Bay but I found those to be pretty straightforward. As usual it was the blasted Karka that posed a serious threat.

There was certainly no difficulty exploring and participating in the mayhem, not for a ranger at least. How my Elementalist will get on there remains to be seen. I was thinking of re-speccing her anyway...

On a first trip I'd say Ember Bay is a very welcome addition to the game and I hope it presages more opening of the existing map rather than the addition of previously unsuspected pockets. The story is rolling along nicely. I'm intrigued to find out what comes next.

All in all this does feel like a substantial update at last, one that compares not unfavorably with the kind of content drops other MMOs get every two or three months. If you add in the substantial changes to Fractals and a complete new sPvP map then there's really no arguing that this is a significant addition to the game.

Here's hoping for another just like it in November, where it would sit neatly between Halloween and Wintersday, giving us something to get stuck into for every month of the rest of the year. And how about some hard information on that second Expansion?

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Out Of Early Access, Into Early Exit : Otherland

To install and play AdventureQuest 3D on a PC requires Steam. I have a Steam account but I don't use it very often. Most of the time I forget it's there.

One of the few games on my Steam list is Otherland, an MMO with a very checkered past, about which I've written a handful of times. I'd vaguely registered a news squib a while back that claimed Otherland was now out of  "Early Access" and into commercial release.

With that move came a full wipe. and I didn't even have the game installed on my new PC but I thought I might as well patch it back up, start from scratch and see how things were going.

At first glance things everything seemed fine - better, even. There's a largely new tutorial, much tighter and more coherent than the rambling, confusing one I played through earlier this year. I breezed through that in an hour or so. It felt exactly like playing a single-player rpg and that's pretty much what Otherland seems to be right now because I didn't see one other player, even when I arrived at the main social hub, Lambda Mall.

It's still gorgeous to look at. The art design is fantastic. The art team has caught the look and feel of Tad Williams' novels, more so than perhaps I originally thought. It's worth downloading (it's F2P) just to run around and gawp.

As for it being an MMORPG, though...well, first you'd need some other players but it's not just that. It's more that if there's a world here I can't quite find it. The tutorial is linear as you'd expect but when it came to an abrupt halt I couldn't work out what to do or where to go next.

In the previous version the questline took you from Lambda Mall to the first adventure zone and things carried on from there. Based on what I read on the forum when I was trying to figure out what was going on, that should still be the case but it's  not, or not for me.

It'll be a bug. The game is still riddled with them. I had to relog twice just to clear glitches in the tutorial and the recent Steam reviews and forum posts all confirm that Otherland remains as buggy and unpolished in every respect other than the visuals as it always was.

It's a shame because as many people point out it's just about the perfect IP for an MMO, not least because Tad Williams probably retro-fitted a lot of the underlying concepts from the genre in the first place. The potential is almost certainly going to go to waste, sadly, since it seems that there's neither the interest from the public nor the authority from the developers to do it justice.

Even if I had been able to leave Lambda Mall it seems my options would have narrowed. Back then I remember doing a fair amount of open world questing, meeting various NPCs and helping them with their usual range of problems, just like any MMO but reading the forums it seems that even those limited MMORPG aspects that the game had to show when I last played have faded away. Side quests and crafting have apparently failed to make the move to Early Access leaving what amounts to a single, linear main storyline that eventually peters out (although not where mine did right at the beginning...).

This is hearsay and maybe someone reading this, who's managed to push further into the game, will be able to put the record straight. Only I doubt anyone reading has played further or, indeed, as far. And I'm not going to, either.

Sometimes you reach the point where you realize you've given an MMO just about as much time as it deserves. You're playing away and you find yourself thinking of all the other things you could be doing instead. I think I reached that point with Otherland about an hour ago.

Never say never. If I hear that anything's really changed - for the better - I'll always be open to taking another look but for now I think I'm done. On to the next world.

Monday, 19 September 2016

A Couple Of Comments On AdventureQuest 3D And DCUO

It's not uncommon for bloggers to claim that the true measure of success is found not in page views or followers but in the quantity and quality of the comments they receive. That's certainly how I see it.

Five years ago, when I was vacillating over whether or not to take the step up from commenting on other people's blogs to starting a blog of my own, perhaps the biggest concern I had was the risk of opening a comment column to...well, to the world. After all, I certainly wouldn't want to wake up of a morning, sit down with a cup of coffee and find myself confronted with some of the comments I'd made.

In the end I decided to risk it. After all, as Wilhelm observed in his magnificent Ten Glorious Years post, in extremis you can always just switch people off because "life is too short to put up with that sort of thing".

Judging by the moss on the boots I'm guessing this place gets a lot of rain.

So far, fingers crossed, that hasn't been necessary. Most of the comments here are well-intentioned, good-mannered and a pleasure to receive. I'm very poor at checking my spam folder so most of the automated nonsense there goes unseen. Apologies to anyone who may have had a comment left there to languish but there are only so many hours in the day.

The best thing about comments is how much you learn. I try to fact-check before I post but this is a blog not The New Yorker and sometimes I just wing it. It's great to be corrected or be given fresh information by better-informed readers who just want to help, not score points.

Last week I had two extremely welcome comments that I was happy to put to immediate use. One was from an anonymous reader who explained, with appropriate links, how to access the nested levels of DCUO's Style tab so that I could undo the creation error that gave my new character banana-yellow lips.

Tell me again. Why can't we just start here?
It turns out that was a "Make Up" option. I vaguely remember fiddling with that in Character Creation to see what it did before deciding it didn't do anything I wanted. It seems that when I closed the window I left the pointer in the yellow quadrant of the color chart and that's how it saved. Thanks to the anonymous commenter my Hero now has lips that match her face and I have a much clearer idea of how to use the Style tab.

The other comment was from Kaozz of ECTMMO. She was one of the few people who read my  recent post on how much I was looking forward to trying AdventureQuest 3D. The AQ3D fan club doesn't seem to have many members in this neck of the blogging woods. It might just be me, Syp and Kaozz because that post probably had the fewest views of any post this year.

Although I mentioned in the post that Artix Entertainment was planning on doing some Closed Beta giveaways I hadn't come across any on the MMO sites I read and I hadn't taken the trouble to look any further. Luckily Kaozz had spotted that there were keys to be had at, a site I haven't looked at in years, and thanks to her alert in the comments I was able to snag one of the last few.

They were down to a hundred and fifty or so by the time I arrived and that had dropped to just over a hundred in the time it took me to make and register new accounts for both and AQ3D. It's not a quick process, let me tell you.

I'll come back when you're ready.
There's no NDA as far as I can tell so I'm free to say that getting the game itself up and running is very quick and easy. I've only played one session so far so I've barely got a feel for the game yet. Still, "First Impressions" matter and so far mine are very positive.

Character Creation was very simple and straightforward. Four classes, two genders, one race. Some basic appearance choices. In and out in a couple of minutes. That leads into a strange kind of limbo wasteland introduction that I didn't really understand, where your character is confined to a very small area with never-ending skeleton spawns and a quest to find a wheel for a wagon to get you out of there.

I couldn't find the wheel and the quest interface was far from clear. After a few frustrating minutes I gave up wheel-hunting and just clicked on the "Travel" option the goblin-analog was offering. A swift loading screen and intro movie later and there I was in the real starting town of Battleon.
Sorry, I can't concentrate on what you're saying with that...thing...watching me.

I'm not entirely sure why we don't just get sent to Battleon directly from Character Creation or what the whole "I can't take you until you get me a wheel" thing was all about. That needs some tidying up or I need to L2P. From then on, though, everything was much clearer, smoother, better explained and a lot more fun.

It's apparent this is still beta. Most of the buildings and some paths to other areas come up short with an abrupt "Currently in Development" screen. There's plenty to be getting on with, though, with some nicely humorous, occasionally disturbing, quests and some delightfully designed creatures to kill.

Combat animations are fluid and satisfying and the UI overall is slick and extremely easy to use. The cross-platform aspect of the game is evident in the clustering of controls at the sides and corners of the screen, where thumbs will naturally find them on a phone or tablet. They work perfectly well for a mouse-clicker as well. It's an elegant solution.

Prime example of meta. Her full name is Robina Hood and she puts the gold on the monsters that you kill so you can loot it. Of course back in the glory days of EQ we literally did do that...
From reading the developer posts on the AQ3D website I was forewarned that leveling in this game is not the blink-and-you'll-miss-it afterthought you might expect from something with such child-friendly graphics and cross-platform aspirations. Well, they weren't kidding. It's flipping slow!

I played for a couple of hours and my character is around 10% into Level 3. What's more, everything is a tough fight. Take on a mob one level above you and expect it to be close. Get an add and expect to die. Go in the Level 4 dungeon at Level 3 and don't plan on making it past the first pull.

I died a lot. A lot. There doesn't seem to be much (any?) penalty for dying other than the delay and the shame but there doesn't need to be. This is a world that requires you to pay attention from the get-go. Try yoloing this and you will regret it. When you wake up.

Surprisingly nihilistic. Or maybe fascist?  Definitely not kitten and bunny talk anyway...

The writing is interesting. The whole game has an off-kilter, meta feel to it, a kind of post-post-modern sub-ironic knowing-yet-innocent stance that reminds me somewhat of Project: Gorgon. This is fantasy gaming for sophisticated gamers who come with an innate understanding of the layered patina of the form. Or else it's for kids. Same thing, really.

Anyway, I enjoyed it. I will play more and write more as I learn more. Whether anyone else is interested I guess we will find out from the comments - or the lack of them.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Muddling Through : DCUO

Somewhat to my own surprise I've played DCUO most days this week. The Hero I created largely at random just to get started has turned out to be very enjoyable to play, even though she's a complete mess from just about every perspective.

There's those yellow lips for a start. I still don't know how that happened but it does mean I can't bear to look at her in close-up. It's as though she's foaming at the mouth with custard and that's never a good look.

I'm just hoping somewhere in the sunbright skyscraper canyons of Metropolis, City of the Future, some enterprising Lex Luthor wannabe has set up a coin-operated "Change Your Face" concession. And that it doesn't have a hidden mind-control function, obviously.

Here's one hero I won't be asking for make-up tips. Or any fashion advice come to think of it...
Then there's my choice of Mentor. I thought I was making a Tech hero, all gadgets and drones and turrets and guns, yet somehow I opted for Wonder Woman. As someone, I think it might have been a guy from STAR Labs, observed last night "Wonder Woman? She's magic, right?".

Yes. She is. So my Free Introductory Tour of The JLA Watchtower took me all around the Magic Wing instead of the Tech area. I think that's the third, maybe fourth time I've taken that tour and I always get hopelessly lost. The Watchtower is huge and labyrinthine and as with most multileveled game spaces the "This way, you idiot" arrows don't really help much.

In the end I had to open two separate out-of-game resources to find some of the more recalcitrant locations and fill out the check-list. One way you can tell that DCUO is a really successful MMO is the wealth of online resources it's generated over the five years or so since it began. The wiki is really excellent and any Google search brings up a plethora of responses.

Posture, darling. Posture!

Some of those pages have been around for a long time but the current robust health of the game is plain from the crowds of players that cluster in the streets outside every police precinct or nightclub, the "Safe Houses" (aka Mission Hubs) for Heroes and Villains respectively. And inside, too, where the pastime of preference seems to be dueling. You can barely check your mail sometimes for the clutch of brawling heroes playfighting across the mailroom.

For some reason that totally escapes me I chose "stick" as my starter weapon. Okay, technically it's a Staff but a staff is just a stick with attitude. Nothing says hi-tech like a tree branch with the leaves stripped. Fortunately, a couple of upgrades later, I've ended up with something vaguely metallic with some diodes down the side so I can fake techno when I go upside the bad guys' heads.

Gear in DCUO is uber-important, which is beyond weird for a superhero MMO but then that's been a major problem for the genre forever. Granted there's a whole sub-genre of superheroes who self-define by their constant changes of uniform and grab-bag of gadgetry - Iron Man and Batman can cheerlead that crew - but the overriding tropes of the genre require an iconic look and innate abilities that rarely alter.

That never fitted well with the vertical progression of MMOs and DCUO is a very traditional MMO indeed as far as vertical progression goes. The ladder to end-game is very, very long indeed but the lower rungs, the basic level-to-thirty before you even get started part, is deliciously smooth. Upgrades come often, new skills filter in fast, there's a ton of choice and the whole thing feels fun.

What do you think? Do these wings go with my hair? With anything?

DCUO has a very simple and straightforward appearance system that means you can keep your character's look consistent through upgrade after upgrade if you want. Or you can just wear everything as it comes and look like you went to a masquerade ball dressed as a Foldee.  I had some great leathery bat-wings for a while but in the end I reverted to a classic cape.

Looks are so important to the up-and-coming Superhero as she tries to build her rep but in the end it's all about who hits the hardest. Despite not being great with the screen-centered, mouse-to-fight, no cursor allowed combat I've rolled through everything with comfort so far. My hero dinged 18 last night after defeating a solo instance boss so fast I didn't realize I'd won.

There's some variation on the leveling path that must come from your choice of mentor (and of course whether you go Hero or Villain) but this is the fourth or fifth character I've leveled into the high teens and most of the set pieces were familiar. Either the game has gotten easier at these levels (very likely - MMOs tend to get easier over time) or I've gotten better at playing (yeah, right...). Either way, the battles with Dr. Psycho and Giganta, both of which I recall being a royal pain in the backside on previous run-throughs, passed in pleasant and entertaining fashion.

As a lifelong DC fan one of the major attractions of the game is the heavy recognition factor that kicks in at every turn. That said, I'm light on my Wonder Woman backstory, which mutes some of the "oh it's that guy" moments. I had to look Doctor Psycho up and I only have a dim memory of Giganta from some Teen Titans connection. Whoever did the writing on the initial mission tranche at launch certainly didn't stint on the trivia. Come to think of it, they had Marv Wolfman on board so that would explain it.

All set for Poker Night.

Somewhere along the way I acquired my own Art Deco base. It's great! I checked bases out when they added them as DCUO's housing option back in 2013 but I never kept up with my housekeeping. Maybe this time I'll get some rugs down. I did get a really nice drop from an instance - a table and chair set that looks like it crossed the streams from Dr. Strange's town house.

A little like EQ2, where you can pretty much have a house for every day of the year, you can have more than one base in DCUO. Given the size of the basic model I think I'd struggle to make a home in even one but then a Base is not a Home. Nothing says "Lair" like a cavernous echo.

At 18 the options to group for instances have been popping for a while. DCUO is fundamentally a group game and I'm not sure there's much mileage long term in staying solo. On previous runs I've done a fair amount of hot-join group instances and enjoyed them but there's no chance I'll pursue that route beyond the casual drop-in here and there. Far too intense.

Someone's working late at the office.

This time round, though, it has occurred to me that there's plenty I haven't seen and done at the ultra-low (sub-30) end of the game. The range of powers and roles alone would reward some serious exploring. I edged into Controller mode this time and the gameplay is very different from the straight up DPS I've done previously. Then there are all the different Mentors and their flavors plus I haven't really given Villain a run...

Having messed this character up so badly and still having had so much fun I do feel highly motivated to start rolling alts. DCUO is never going to be a focus game for me but it's one I find I can come back to again and again with fresh interest. Can't say that about every MMO.

What's more, with the recent revelations about the continuing success of Neverwinter Online and the quiet satisfaction of Bethesda over the ongoing growth of TESO, I'm beginning to wonder if the real future of this genre might not lie in its growing appeal to the vast, mainstream console gaming crowd rather than the grognards still playing on PCs. May as well get some practice in now.
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