Saturday, 20 September 2014

Let's Keep Dancing : GW2 et al

When I log in to GW2 of an evening first I like to get my dailies done. They're easy and satisfying and they serve as a nice wind-down after work. When they were introduced, way back when, dailies were the same every day and I got into the habit of doing them all in Plains of Ashford. After a while they changed things up so that every day's five permed from ever so many and I moved my base of operations to Wayfarer Foothills.

On a good day there you can do the entire daily in fifteen minutes without going more than a few hundred meters from Krennak's Lodge. The Frozen Maw, the World Boss event that runs every two hours, is often good for the full five. Post Megaserver, with a guaranteed zerg, the Maw offers some of the least challenging content imaginable but it's also among the most profitable.

If I never see another wurm egg omelet...

I was estimating the other day that I must have done the Maw event well over two thousand times by now. I do it twice a day, minimum, every day without fail; once on each account. Most days I do it three times and on a Saturday or Sunday I might stretch that to half a dozen. I therefore have a lot of data to draw on.

Excuse me! You there! Charr! Can you see my Rares?
Oh why did they have to make this chest so darned big?.
I began to notice the Shaman's unusual generosity sometime around last November. I started watching my drops very carefully after that and in almost a year I have never, not once, failed to receive at least one Rare in the big chest on the ground. As far as I can ascertain Frozen Maw is the only scheduled "World Boss" event that gives a Rare quality item every single time. Often it coughs up two or three.Why this is, whether it's intended or a favorable bug, I have no idea. I just enjoy nature's bounty while it's there.

The Maw has been through many changes, its popularity swinging wildly. There was a time when it generated its own single-server zerg and for a while, just before the arrival of Megaservers, it had fallen so out of fashion that I often found myself doing the event with just two or three other diehards. It even failed on occasion. Try telling the young 'uns that now. They'll laugh in your face.

I preferred it that way if I'm honest; kiting the Shaman round and around, sending in bears to hold him steady so he wouldn't tether and reset. There was risk then and reward. Now there's just reward. Still, better that than the other way around.

I'm off to the Mists. Want to come?

Anyway, that's by-the-by. Tonight I chose not to do my Daily in Wayfarers but to go to WvW where, in a decent KTrain or just following a commander who knows what he's about, you can knock off the daily in ten or fifteen mindless minutes. Other than the current compulsive, competitive frenzy of a WvW Season or the first couple of days after a Living Story episode, or when I'm leveling up a new character and occasionally need to pay attention, this is mostly what GW2 has become - a repetitive pleasure that often bears more resemblance to chanting a mantra than playing a game.

I'm not complaining. If I wasn't enjoying myself I'd stop. After two years, though, it's really no longer enough to hold my attention full-time. My mind tends to wander. I tab out. I blog. I comment. I browse Amazon. I check the weather. Sometimes I even I dither around in other MMOs.
In-jokes are so funny, aren't they?

That's how it came about a few days ago that I logged into DinoStorm for the first time in a while. The game seems to have been doing just fine without me. It's still busy, still getting updates. It's amazing how many MMOs seem to manage to struggle along, somehow, even without the attention of bloggers and news sites. It's almost as if there were other people out there, enjoying this hobby, about whom we know nothing. Crazy talk!

These last couple of days I've returned to City of Steam too, an MMO that once, indeed several times, gained significant traction in this corner of the Blogosphere, only to lose momentum and slip out of sight. Well, that one's still going too. Also still busy and getting updates. This month they even added a new European server. Another MMO that doesn't seem to care that we stopped paying attention.

In fact it's beginning to look as though just because no-one reading this writes about an MMO any more doesn't mean it fell off a cliff after all. There are hundreds of MMO(RP)Gs out there but we, the iterative subset of bloggers that feature in blog rolls and rss feeds of  blogs that feature in blog rolls and rss feeds, focus on a mere handful. WoW, GW2, ArcheAge, EVE, EQ/EQ2, LotRO, WildStar, SW:ToR, TESO, TSW ... if I listed the entire roster of MMOs regularly discussed in this part of the forest would it amount to more than a couple of dozen? I doubt it.

Oh yes, they're positively hysterical.

There trouble is, there are more MMOs out there than most of us will ever hear about, far less play. Few of us can be Beau Hindman, bravely, forlornly, attempting to play every single MMO ever made. Based on his recorded experience, few of us would want to. It sounds like a grim life.

Even among the MMOS we do get around to trying most don't stick. They slip out of our grasp somehow. The list of MMOs I have "played" is long. Over a hundred. I wrote something about that once, come to think of it. I must get around to Part Two sometime... The list of MMOs I'm still playing, even as infrequently and sporadically as DinoStorm or City of Steam, is much, much shorter.

Yesterday Syp posted a great summation of why The Secret World should have been huge. I've been hankering after some TSW for a while now and Syp's piece was enough to make me patch it up. The download was over 2GB. Shows how long it must have been. Syp and several other bloggers I follow may still play the game and I may be itching to give it another run but TSW, the unpleasant fact remains, was not huge. Whether it was the gameplay, the payment model, the timing... who can say? Whatever it was, TSW did not turn the genre on its head, more's the pity.

And yet anyone who's played the game might think it should have done. The quests are
Half of them are people who won't quit it with the in-jokes.
Whoever named the Shaman "Fred", I'm looking at you...
exemplary and so is the world-building. If you're willing to allow voice-acting in MMOs then TSW is the gold standard and then some. In so many ways there just aren't any better MMOs than TSW and yet it failed to find an audience large enough to match its ambitions. I didn't help. I didn't even manage the statutory three months.

Thinking of MMOs I admire but don't play as often as I ought brought me to Project: Gorgon. I patched that too and checked on the progress of its Kickstarter. There's good news and there's bad news.

The good news is that P:G has updated five times this month alone. Following on from yesterday's patch-note-oriented post I'm pleased to report that Eric Heimburg's notes are comprehensive and amusing. More importantly they confirm that this is an MMO that's undergoing a degree of continual development that many big budget games could only envy. *cough* Landmark *cough*.

The bad news is that, with just a week to go, the Project: Gorgon Kickstarter has yet to hit 20% of its target. I encourage everyone reading this to go pledge because solidarity is a good thing but it looks as if there is simply no way this KS will fund. That's bad news for Eric and his team but, if it means the end of development for the project, it may be even worse news for us, the audience.

Damn! This is mini-Maw again, isn't it?

Project: Gorgon is a Vision Game. The people behind it, like the people behind Ever, Jane, Camelot Unchained or Fallen London are making the games they want to play, not games they think will make the most money or satisfy the demands of the most focus groups. That is what creative artists and writers do. There are no good reasons major studios can't do the same. Art does, on occasion, emerge from global, corporate publishers, record companies and film studios. It can be done.

Mostly, though, it isn't and until we see some evidence that the big gaming houses are willing to step up to that mark we had better learn to cherish the little guys who do. It may be too late, again, for Project: Gorgon the KickStarter but I really hope it's not too late for Project: Gorgon the game.

Build it, Eric, and they will come. There may not be many of them but it might just be enough. Keep the faith as Stan Lee used to say. There's an audience out there for just about anything if you can only find it.

After all, if DinoStorm can do it, anyone can.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Run That One By Me Again? : GW2

The Game Update Notes for the Fall Feature Pack that arrived last week bordered on the epic. I fancy myself an aficionado of the form; someone who, not infrequently, visits websites to research and ponder upon the classics; a veteran of the glory days of Everquest, when we'd pore over each enigmatic entry with the focus of a haruspex examining the entrails of a freshly-slaughtered sheep. Even I, however, balked at this Gilgamesh of game changes.

As if the initial torrent wasn't sufficient to drown us in confusion (and map chat and the forums certainly suggest it was) ANet saw fit to shake the fire-hose no fewer than nine more times. Every day is patch day this September.

Each of these patchlets naturally spawned notes of its own but I confess that, in the heat of the intense competition of this first week of the WvW Fall Season, I had been lax in tracking them down. Last night when, during a lull, I finally found a moment to catch up with the ongoing erasing and re-writing of the rules I found this:

  • Fixed a bug that prevented some accounts from having vistas now unlock on an account-wide basis rather than a per-character basis.
  •  Skill challenges now unlock on an account-wide basis rather than a per-character basis as originally intended.

That's phrasing worthy of SOE at the peak of their powers. The great Abashi himself might have been proud of that convoluted, negatively-inflected, self-footnoted delivery. It takes some parsing but the first entry, if I have the right of it, translates as follows:

There was a bug.
This bug affected some but not all accounts.
The bug prevented Vistas from unlocking for all characters on the account.
Vistas are intended to unlock for all characters on the account.
This is the status quo. (implied).
Vistas formerly unlocked per character.
This was the status quo ante (implied).

The second entry confirms that the same state-change that has already been made to Vistas has also been applied, presumably bug-free, to "skill challenges", which I take to be what are generally known as "skill points" in our house. If they aren't then I have no idea what they could be.

Now, if (and it's a very big "if" because I am far from certain I understand what's going on here) that's what these notes mean, then it would represent a major change to gameplay. Vistas and Skill Points are both intrinsic parts of Map Completion, which has always been "by character", much to the disdain of many, although I don't include myself among their number. I would guess that it would be quite feasible, nevertheless, to transfer vista unlocks to ownership of the Account without upsetting too many people or breaking too many systems.

Skill points, however, are not only required for Map Completion but for direct character development while leveling up and as an important form of currency for a number of late-game activities. Granted most skill points at that later stage come from the ever-rolling level counter and those nifty scrolls that Champs drop but even so to move them from character to account would seem problematic to put it mildly.

Well, it seemed easy enough to test so I tested it.

First I checked two characters on the same account - my most map-completed and my least. Had the latter acquired a hatful of vistas and skill points overnight? He had not. Change not retrospective then.

Next I found two characters neither of whom had done a particular vista, the one by the steam bath in the Norn starting area, Wayfarer Foothills. I climbed the hill and opened the vista on one character then logged in the other to see if he had magically received credit for a view he'd never seen. He had not.

Conclusion: either its still bugged or I have completely misunderstood the patch notes. Having trawled both the official forums and Reddit for comments and opinions on what would be, if it were true, a highly controversial change to the structure of the game and having found absolutely no mention of it whatsoever I have to conclude that it's the latter.

The only grasping-at-straws idea I can come up with is that these are changes somehow related to the NPE and therefore only affect new characters leveling up under those rules. I don't have a new character to hand to test that right now but in any case it seems highly unconvincing as a possibility.

I have to conclude that I'm baffled. If anyone has a clue what's going on perhaps they'd care to explain in the comments.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Go! Go! Go! : GW2

First post since Thursday.
Reason: GW2 World vs World Season Three.

Match #1 Yaks Bend vs Crystal Desert vs Dragonbrand

The match began at reset Friday. 2 am local. My contribution? Fast asleep in bed. Probably some snoring.

Saturday morning I woke up, made breakfast, logged into MOSMillennium on my iPOD Touch, hoping ANet hadn't pulled any last minute surprises but no, everything was fine. There we were, safe in Silver. Phew!

Back from work, too many hours later, I was able to log in at last and head straight for our Borderlands. Six hours later I looked up...where did the evening go?

Sunday was much the same only more so.

The traditional approach

It's been fast, frenetic and fun. Tactics have completely changed, from last season and from YB's normal pattern. We don't seem to be bedding down, sieging up and holding stuff the way we usually do. Huge zergs tear around like over-sized havoc groups, assaulting everything. There are  pitched battles everywhere.

Moar Trebs!

We still have golem rushes but now we have crash-builds too. Eight guild catapults up in seconds on a  wall. Five superior rams on a gate. And that's just for a tower. We had ten trebs hitting Bay from south-west camp at one point. Ten!

The Hair Bear Bunch: Extreme Close-Up
Some of this is down to changes in the mechanics. The new siege traps that render siege unuseable for 45 seconds have already dictated a new approach to placement. Many siege engines strung out in a line instead of a few clustered together. If traps catch much of the siege we pound on the door until the rams start up again or we just abandon it and charge on to somewhere else.

If you're sure you can manage without me,
I'll be off
Mechanics aside, most of the new approach is, I think, down to personalities. Our new, dominant WvW guild is fast and organized, burning with energy. They complement our steady, established order perfectly. While they wreck around Eternal Battlegrounds and the enemy Borderlands our familiar Commanders fortify the homelands or arrange to hold what's been taken.

We haven't entirely given up our old ways. On our home Borderlands yesterday we were at siege cap most of the day . People had to be told to let some of the trebs decay. Fears that the drastically reduced achievement requirements for Season Three (they can be completed in a matter of minutes and you can do them all in Edge of the Mists if you want)  would lead to a complete non-appearance of the PvE militias seems unfounded. We had queues, often, across the weekend.

That's one excuse...
Spies and saboteurs are up to the usual tricks, draining supply and strolling golems off of cliffs. If we get Stormbluff Isle next week, as seems likely if I understand the revised Swiss system correctly, things could get ugly. With the short format and freedom to transfer there will be carpetbagging too. Yak's Bend, unexpectedly successful runners-up in two longer, harder seasons before this, look a fair bet for first place this time, although the entire Silver League looks drum-tight. We may yet be bandwaggoned if we look like winning. I hope not but I already see a lot of unfamiliar names and guild tags.

Following the ranger revisions in Tuesday's patch and on hearing that the supposedly broken class I've happily played since beta was now uber I took a long look at my spec. It did not stand up to scrutiny. Not because there was anything inherently wrong with it. I'd wanted a condition damage ranger and I'd made a condition damage ranger. Thing is, I never play as though I'm playing a condition damage ranger.

Can't we use that boat? I hate getting my fur wet.

I re-traited and re-geared for burst damage and survivability and so far its a major improvement, just as it was when I finally cracked and rebuilt my Elementalist as a pure zerker. Sometimes it just doesn't pay to fight the meta. Now if I can just stop barrel-rolling into enemy zergs I should be fine.

ArcheAge opens for F2P scrubs tomorrow and I'm keen to get started but it may have to wait. Although if the Season carries on at this pace I might need to head there for a while just to catch my breath.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Backpack Feature. A Feature In Which I Back A Feature Pack That Features Backpacks : GW2

This week's Feature Pack for GW2 fell at an awkward time for me to make a thorough examination and assessment before penning a pithy post on its benefits and shortcomings. Fortunately Jeromai and Ravious have both found time to give it the once-over in some detail.

With luck and a following wind I may find time to give a more considered impression later although the upcoming World vs World tournament may have something to say about that. Whatever, we're certainly going to be chewing on this Feature Pack for some time given the unwelcome announcement that we'll see no more Living Story this side of November.

For the meantime I do have a few scattered thoughts.

Crafting and Backpacks : Undoubtedly the standout feature of this update and quite possibly this year. Being able to click through recipes to their sub-components is a joy. Of course it's also a feature that most MMOs include from the start but better two years late than never.

There are forty new backpack designs, all different. They are all extremely cheap and easy to make. Mrs Bhagpuss made all forty on the first evening. Some are the exact type of realistic, practical-looking affairs I've longed for since beta, others are utterly insane. Something for just about anyone. Now can we have some decent hats, please?

Collects : Good framework for future development. Deeply uninspiring use of said framework so far.

Trading Post 2.0 : Embarrassing attempt to sell the addition of basic features that should have been there in beta, like a proper search function, as "upgrades"we should all be gosh-wowing over. New interface is clumsier and harder to navigate than the one it replaces. New back-end does not appear, as claimed, to be faster to access and use.

Selling things is now particularly painful. What used to take me a single click now takes several. The lack of a single-click "sell stack" option is physically painful.

Commander Tags :  A hideous blot on the landscape! We are now in desperate need of a "Do not display" toggle at least in PvE. I cracked and bought one last week but only on one account. Don't judge - it was a bargain!

Minis : Embarrassing attempt to sell the addition of basic features that should have been there in beta, like cross-map persistence, as upgrades. Still, better two years late than never. I'm beginning to sense a theme here.

Class Changes : My eyes started to blur half way through the patch notes for the second class. Frankly, who cares? It's not like I knew what most of this stuff did before. Why would I start caring now? I play all the classes and I was happy enough with each of them. I do quite like the marginal extra control over summoned elementals, although I'm pretty sure it's mostly cosmetic.

And the BIG one...

New Player Experience : Otherwise know as the NPE. Hmm...that has a ring to it, doesn't it? Reminds me of something though...

I was in Wayfarer Foothills for my usual couple of hours last night. It's the Norn 1-15 map and since Megaservers arrived last April the conversation there has mostly been cheerful and upbeat, mainly new players (of whom there appears to be no shortage) asking questions and getting helpful replies. After the patch that changed to a non-stop rolling debate about the changes to the leveling process. Suffice it to say I did not hear a single positive comment in two hours.

Established players hate the changes because they perceive that they make leveling both slower and more tedious. New players, from that sample at least, hate the changes because they feel they are being held back from getting to the good stuff and treated like incompetent children to boot.

I don't have a really low level character, nor a free character slot, and even if I did I don't have time to level one up right now. I'd like to reserve judgment until I give it a go but on paper it does look like a very odd way to address the perceived problems.

It transpires that the port of these new functions from the Chinese version has glitched somewhat and the version we are seeing has a number of bugs. Colin Johansen posted a long, detailed and very interesting explanation on the forums, where tar and feathers were being readied and torches lit. By the time I get to try out the NPE it will probably already be the New NPE.

As things stand I very much agree with both Ravious and Jeromai that the NPE represents a significant shift away from the Explorer paradigm GW2 started out with. It also indicates another strong move towards a much more traditional themepark approach. I think  ainekitten on the forums sums it up beautifully in his elegant and heartfelt comment.

Anet thanked him on his feedback. I hope they also take it to heart.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Disenfranchisement : EQNext, Landmark

A few days ago Azuriel curated a collection of quotes from ex-WoW superdev Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street and other MMO pros. It all made for an interesting read for anyone curious about the men and women behind the curtains but the stand-out quote for me came from current Blizzard employee, Community Manager Bashiok, who said, in response to a direct question on what Blizzard considers to be the biggest barrier to entry for WoW :

"Well *I* consider the biggest barrier being it's a 3D WASD game with a movable camera."

Ghostcrawler chimed in to agree, adding that "a lot of data" supports this view, although sadly he declined to detail or link to any of that data.

Yesterday Ultraviolet put up a post about the coming of combat to Landmark. He was understandably puzzled by the implementation. Like just about every other aspect of Landmark's development, what's being promoted (through a PR campaign that includes a video trailer, no less) is in fact nothing more than the very earliest, bare-bones iteration of the underlying system.

Ultraviolet was surprised to find that "Combat" in Landmark currently means player-made arenas only. He clearly doesn't follow Massively's coverage because they have been doing the topic to death of late, with two combat-oriented LiveStreams, an editorial/review and a rundown of the ten best Landmark PvP arenas, all in the space of two weeks.

I haven't logged into Landmark for a long time. It's largely unplayable on my aging PC and development moves at such a glacial pace I've decided it can easily wait until I upgrade my hardware later this year or even next spring.

I don't appear to be alone. Every one of the many bloggers I follow, who were talking about the game earlier this year, has gone silent on the topic. Interest appears to be at an historic low, although Syp's current "What Are You Playing?" poll shows a surprising eleven respondents have logged in at least once during the last couple of weeks.

Just because I'm not playing, however, doesn't mean I've lost interest in the game or its development. It will, after all, provide the bedrock and most of the structure around which EQNext will be built. So, I read Ultraviolet's piece with interest, watched the trailer embedded above and went to visit the forums, where I spent the best part of an hour reading threads on Landmark's combat and how it's going down with those members of the hardcore fanbase willing to put finger to keyboard.

It's a depressing read, largely because the Landmark forums now consist almost entirely of a very small number of deeply committed, highly articulate individuals with fixed ideas about what the game ought to be. Most threads either have single-figure responses or degenerate into lengthy arguments between two or three individuals who've clearly been in the process of scoring points off each other for months.

What does come through very plainly is that Landmark's combat, and thereby, inevitably, EQNext's, will look and play absolutely nothing like any previous Everquest game, nor indeed like any tab-target, stand-and-cast MMO, nor yet even like any GW2-style hybrid. The comparisons being made are primarily to MOBAs although the more optimistic of the nervous brigade hold onto the hope that they might end up with combat that looks and feels more like Neverwinter Nights.

Perhaps the oddest thing about this latest round of Landmark/EQNext's eternally odd development process is that it would now appear that the games will have two entirely different control systems, in and out of combat: systems that seem to bear no resemblance to each other at all. Maybe we'll end up with two separate cultures living side by side in the same imaginary world, the keyboard clickers doing all the crafting and the mouse-shooters doing all the killing. At this point I'd believe almost anything.

In the comments on my first ArcheAge open beta post Netherlands said "The news that the combat is from what I understand mercifuly not 'action combat' ... does make me more interested in ArcheAge". Yes, it made me more interested too. Indeed, it's one of the key reasons I can imagine playing AA in the future.

My feeling is that we are increasingly unlikely to see very many big-budget new games or virtual worlds using the traditional 3D MMORPG controls that we became familiar with from Meridian 59 and Everquest onwards. Those systems, which appeared to serve us very well for almost two decades, will be discarded without hesitation by the large corporations who fund development of these lengthy, expensive projects if doing so leads to, or is believed to lead to, significantly greater market penetration. If WASD movement and a moving camera really are the biggest inhibitor on take-up for what is often claimed to be the most successful MMORPG so far, and if there's now an established, highly-successful alternative, to do otherwise would be fiscally irresponsible.

Chances are, then, that by moving to adopt the control and combat tropes of other genres the decline in audience interest in MMOs can be halted and reversed. All well and good for the companies and developers who make them but what does it mean for "traditional" MMORPG enthusiasts?

Many MMO players already play other types of video games and are familiar and comfortable with FPS or MOBA fixed viewpoint, action-oriented control systems. Those players may or may not welcome the transition but they at least won't be frightened away. Many more MMO players will be sufficiently flexible and adaptable to learn the new systems, either willingly or grudgingly, provided they are sufficiently interested in a specific game. I count myself among that group.

That will leave a significant number of traditional MMORPG players who currently pretty much only play MMORPGs. For many MMOs that demographic will include both the most casual and the most committed - the grans and the fans. For fans wishing to stick with tab-target and a moving camera the options will almost certainly be reduced to older MMOs or niche offerings. The big, new AAA releases will simply become irrelevant for them, of no more interest than the launch of a new World War 2 shooter or sports sim. For grans only interested in sharing an interest with and having the chance to chat to their grandchildren there are now so many better ways of doing that it should hardly matter.

And that's fine, until you factor in the franchises. Some MMOs have a core fanbase whose interest lies primarily in the lore, the world and, of course, the social connections they have made there. Those players are possibly the least tolerant of change and the least flexible in attitude while being both the most lucrative customers and the most vocal proponents of the games they adore. Those are the people who are going to feel locked out of the future of franchises they have, in some cases, given decades of their lives to support.

When EQNext launches (I want to say if EQNext launches but let's be positive!) it won't be pretty. If it's a runaway success there will be a disgruntled rump of elder gamers, who won't adapt. Left behind in EQs one and two they'll feel bitter, rejected and also increasingly threatened and fearful as their more flexible game-mates make the decision to jump ship for the new shiny. SOE Live won't be a comfortable place for devs that year. Contrarily, if EQNext bombs, there will be a deafening chorus of "I told you so"s from the old guard that should last just about as long as it takes them to realize that EQNext's failure may have closed the door on any future development of Norrath for good and all.

However all this plays out one thing's for certain. No matter how many "build our game" alphas and "you are the dev" initiatives we sign up for, no matter how often or how loudly we speak out in Round Tables or Ask Me Anythings, change will come and it's unlikely to be the change some of us would choose. Adapt to the future or retire to the past - for as long as the past can last.

And I haven't even mentioned VR.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Pocket Review, Take Two : ArcheAge

The brief ArcheAge open beta has come and gone. I manged to fit in two short sessions, maybe four or five hours altogether. I played one character to just under level eight in an MMO where the general consensus seems to be that the real game doesn't even begin until level 30. Many say 50.

It's not much to base an opinion on but that never stopped me before. My verdict is this:

Enjoyed: Will Play Again.

Having dutifully followed the constrictive demands of the tutorial in my opening session, I chose instead, on my second outing, simply to head over the next hill and see what trouble I could get myself into. In other words I began to play normally.

ArcheAge features an extremely unattractive, alienating HUD-style "mini" map (I put mini in inverted commas because something that covers the best part of a quarter of the field of view can hardly be called small) and a lovely, faux-parchment, immersive main map. I opened the latter, oriented myself, and headed off along the road in search of adventure.

After a short stopover at a farm, where I sheared some sheep (hmm, this reminds me of Mabinogi) and killed some bees wasps (the farmer seemed confused over which they were and, hmm, this reminds me of GW2) I wandered around a stable-yard trying to work out how to get a horse. Other people had them. They kept thundering past me on the road, kicking dust in my face.

This scene looks positively Flemish.

No-one would sell, rent, or lend me any kind of mount but I did manage to vault onto the back of someone else's horse, while they were still on it, which was profoundly unexpected and not a little embarrassing. The designated rider just sat there as if uninvited horse-passengers were an everyday occurrence, which, for all I know, they may well be. Since he didn't seem inclined either to comment or to take me for a test-ride, after a minute or two I jumped down and continued my travels on foot.

By now I could see a coastal town of some size on the map so I headed there to get a look at the famous ArcheAge sea. Traveling along the road seemed entirely safe. Even the harpies flapping in the nearby fields declined to pay me any mind. Although horses cantered past me as I jogged along the miles passed quickly enough and the gates of the city soon came into view.

You shall be Lord Mayor, Dick Whittington!

The city, whose name I didn't note, was built on the scale of most fantasy MMO towns, with ceilings way too high and doors way too large to feel natural or comfortable for anyone shorter than a half-giant. There seemed to be a band playing in front of the fountain in the main square. Unfortunately whatever music they might have been making was drowned out by the ArcheAge soundtrack, which is among the worst I have heard in an MMO. If I play regularly it may be the first where I have to turn the music off altogether.

Excuse me, can you tell me the way to The Prancing Pony?

The architecture is no great shakes compared to other worlds I've visited either. That fountain's no LA lion, that's for sure. Gawping around town like a sightseer I found what might pass for an art gallery, although it might have been a palace. Even the guards were editorializing about their own lax security so it's hard to be sure. I have an odd feeling I might have seen some of those paintings before...

Who hung those? The janitor?

Opening the map again showed a detailed view of the city with the docks clearly marked. I headed that way but, on a whim, I spoke to a man in dress-armor reviewing some troops in the atrium on the way out. By a stroke of synchronicity he suggested I speak to someone at dockside about getting a rowing boat.

A boat! That's so much better than a horse! Don't have to ask me twice.

No, I do not want to go on a cruise around the bay with "a real pirate", thank you, fishface.

At the docks there were more of the strange air-breathing fishmen, their scales and piratical stylings looking marginally more in keeping at waterside than in the farmland where I'd encountered them earlier. Marginally. A six-foot tall walking fish in a frock-coat, monocle and tri-corn hat isn't really going to look "in keeping" anywhere outside of a museum of surrealism or a 1950s Disney animated classic.

Are you sure that's the right translation?
They weren't much help but a regular human standing not far off pointed me to a rack of rowboats and invited me to help myself. Which I did. With alacrity. The mechanics of launching a boat seemed familiar. Stand near water, open inventory, click on icon. (Hmm..Vanguard). Boarding and rowing were equally intuitive (if in doubt Press "F").

The boat was a joy to control. It moved responsively and smoothly but with enough heft and resistance to feel convincing. The animations were excellent. I rowed around for a while just for the fun of watching myself row.

Eventually I decided it was time to row somewhere specific. Since I hadn't paid the least attention to what either the rowboat man or the man in armor who sent me to him had said I just looked for a landmark and rowed towards it. The landmark I chose was a pair of large, moored vessels along the coast and by sheer chance (or possibly unconscious memory) that turned out to be the very beach where the pirates I was meant to be dealing with were based.

Once I worked out how to park the boat and disembark fighting ensued. The very first pirate I saw was a Captain. He had one star in a list of maybe five possible stars under his name, the first such denomination I'd noticed. I twigged immediately that he was a stronger opponent than the average pirate, although if I hadn't worked it out for myself the helpful tutorial hint that popped up advising me of the benefits of grouping with other players for more difficult fights might have given the game away.

Now that's a good idea!
I pulled him anyway and, solo in my starting gear and early quest rewards, he was a fair contest. I was always going to win. Indeed, in the entire time I played I never once died to a mob. Players...we're getting to that.

On the pirate beach I picked up a couple more quests and a daily from a signpost. I was merrily slaughtering my way across the sand, facing up to a particularly aggressive crayfish, when a player emerged from the surf beside me. I noticed immediately that her name and guild were all in red.

Red is for danger so I was alert for trouble. Still, so far as I knew, I was still in a safe area. No danger of PvP for me unless I'm the one to start it. Then she stood directly between me and the crayfish and I divined her intention. I sidestepped neatly to the right and sent my arrow past her self-sacrificing shoulder into the crustacean behind her. Passively acknowledging the failure of her crude piratical ruse, she ran off into the scrub beyond the beach, never to to be seen again.

Would that I had been so cautious and prepared a few minutes later. It was growing late so I finished up on the beach and decided to take the rowboat for jaunt across the bay. There was no sign of my boat where I'd left it beached, which made me think of thieving pirates, but a quick check of my bags found it despawned safely inside.

On reflection, maybe he thought I was planning on ramming him.
Back on the water I set out, rowing heartily, towards the far shore. Before very long I spotted a smart yacht cutting through the waves. "Photo opportunity" was my immediate thought and I turned straight for it, meaning to pull alongside. Fortunately I took a snapshot as I approached because the instant the skipper spotted me he hauled on the sail, turned on his own length and BANG!

Whatever he'd done, it one-shotted me. I lay dead in the gunnels, laughing. Well, I was about to stop anyway. At least it gave me the opportunity to try out the Revive option before beta ended.

My money's on the bear.

I respawned back on dry land at a shrine I couldn't remember visiting so presumably thre post-death mechanic puts you at the nearest one available. I wandered around for a little while, stopped for a minute to stare at a curious menagerie outside someone's house, then finally decided to call it a night.

All in all a jolly entertaining romp. Obviously I have barely even scratched the varnish on the surface of the deep layers of player-driven content available. I reserve judgment on that for much later. For now, though, I can say that the exploration is inviting, the questing is no worse than many other MMOs (I found it more interesting than most bloggers and commenters seem to have done, but then I probably enjoy questing more than the average MMO player these days), the combat is satisfyingly mid-school (more WoW than EQ but still very familiar) and the sailing is top-notch. Okay, the rowing.

Excuse me Miss, have you wandered in from another game?

ArcheAge reminds me very heavily of a number of MMOs I've played. Other than the focus on a player-driven economy (which is, of course, the staple of another long-established MMO, EVE) I'd struggle to think of anything in AA that I haven't already experienced somewhere else.

If I had to pick one MMO that AA most resembles it would definitely be Mabinogi.  I always wanted to play Mabinogi a lot more than I did but I struggled with the very odd perspective there and anyway, a long time back, they changed something and the game simply wouldn't run on my machine any more. I think ArcheAge should make a very good Mabinogi-substitute.

I look forward to launch with some enthusiasm. I just hope Trion have re-recorded the voice acting by then. Hearing NPCs speaking Korean doesn't really cut it, immersion-wise.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Another Day, Another MMO : ArcheAge

I wasn't even going to download ArcheAge for the "Open Beta" because a four-day OB beta with a full character wipe for a F2P game that starts in a couple of weeks, what would even be the point, right? Then Mrs Bhagpuss got the invite email and a friend of hers has been bigging the game up for a while so she wanted at least to see what it looks like.

If I have to download it and set it up for her then I may as well do the same for me. Why not? And anyway I was always going to at least look at it when it finally launched and it'll be the same client and I might as well get it done now as later...

So: excuses. There was some late-night kerfuffle getting Glyph set up. Passwords had to be reset and suchlike. Who knew Trion had all those games? The download speeds were excellent. The install was flawless. Whole thing took about an hour. 8GB seems like a small footprint for an AAA MMO though, doesn't it?

It was around 1 am when the big red PLAY button lit up. I was mildly tempted but it's indicative of my lack of fundamental interest that I opted to go to bed without even making a character. Not only that but I forgot to set the alarm and when I finally woke up I did a bunch of blog stuff before I got around to logging in, so it was getting on for midday by the time I hit character create. Hardly off to a running start.

That's one heck of a pair of starter boots!

Character creation is slick. You can pretty much click through if you're in a hurry to get going or you can take hours defining the exact position of your character's tear ducts and the width of her septum. Up to you. Yep, providing you want to play a late-adolescent/young adult in peak physical condition with perfect hair, skin and teeth, ArcheAge has you covered. Oh, and there are cat-people.

Weirdly, for all the myriad of super-detailed options for facial features there seems to be nothing at all for body shape, size, height, weight...anything at all. I'm guessing that because the game is primarily PvP and features player-character collision everyone has to be the exact same size for balance reasons. Or else I missed a whole menu somewhere.

So as to start on the Western continent, and exercising great personal restraint, I eschewed the catgirl option and made a human female instead. I picked the Warrior-looking archetype (Battlerage) for simplicity's sake, chose a server at random and, after I'd watched a lengthy introductory video that was heavy on emotion and short on information, stepped into the world.

Don't ask. Just don't even go there.

On first impressions ArcheAge looks like every other Korean MMO I've played. It has those unmistakeable, slightly blurred textures that make the landscape look like its been blown up from a smaller image. The local wildlife in the starting area consists of real-life animals as re-imagined by a six-year old child. As is normal with Eastern imports, the default settings are low. I tweaked the graphics as far as my aging PC would stand it ("High"), which improved the sharpness and detail somewhat, but there's nothing to be done about the underlying art design. It remains chunky.

As everyone who likes the game has emphasized, strongly and persistently, ArcheAge is not about the PvE quest experience. That, however, is what you get given when you begin. In that respect AA joins a very long line of MMORPGs that choose to introduce themselves with the diametric opposite of the gameplay that might appeal to anyone who sticks around long enough to find it. 

XL/Trion get bonus points for a tutorial that at least takes place in the main gamespace and uses the character's regular skills and abilities. It's a painless transition that morphs seamlessly from handholding to open exploration and foraging if you allow it. Quite hard, though, to set off across the inviting open landscape when there are three different colored arrows at your feet trying to guide your path in three different directions.

But he doesn't. He stays right where he is and starts banging on about brass rubbing.

The content of the Tutorial and early leveling quests is, arguably, just a grade up from bog-standard. Trion has done a good job with the translations, which are idiomatically sound, but they can't change the generic feel of both the subject matter and the way it's being approached. In exactly the same way that ArcheAge looks like an import it also reads like one. If you struggle with the kind of things you'd be asked to do in Dragon's Prophet or Loong, or, more particularly, the way you'd be asked to do them, then you won't think any better of what's on offer here.

Don't worry, little girl,
one badly-animated shimmy up this tree...
...and I'll have your unconvincingly painted-on doll
out of these branches in a moment.
I don't have much of a problem with this stuff myself. I quite enjoy running errands between people at either end of a tiny hamlet, who probably pass each other fifty times a day on the dirt track that passes for the high street in those parts. I don't mind retrieving lost dolls for small girls or taking crayon-rubbings of monoliths, even when I'm doing the latter for the father of the former because he's, well, let's not put too fine a point on it, not responsible enough to be a parent!

At this low level the PvE combat is about as difficult (and as exciting) as you might imagine. I didn't bother to read what any of my abilities did nor how they interacted. I just stood in front of the mobs the arrows pointed me at and pressed all the hotkeys at random and everything fell over. I imagine that only works for so long and clearly it isn't going to work at all when other players come into the equation, but still, it's an act of faith to imagine better to come.

Animals carrying money? Check!
It was pleasant to find that mobs do have loot after all. I had understood from what I'd read that they dropped absolutely nothing, which was a major negative point as far as I'm concerned, but they drop their quest items (rather than those being automagically updated in the quest UI) and they drop bags of coin. That's enough to satisfy my need to get something off a kill.

The coin bags require the use of Labor Points to open.You also need LP to forage, mine or do any form of crafting. As a F2P scrub you get one point every five minutes but only if you're logged in - a total of 288 per day if you never log out. Subscribe and you get a point per minute on or offline. If I ever do play AA casually I imagine leaving it logged in in the background or on the laptop while I play the MMOs I'm really interested in. Chances are it will never even come to that.

Experience comes fast. Just wandering about doing a handful of tutorial quests and mining the odd rock took me to level six. It was pleasant. Well, it was pleasant once I made a chat tab without Faction chat. I tried first to turn Faction Chat off but it seems to be the one channel you can't remove from the default window. It's not that it was offensive - in fact the two people I blocked for homophobic rants were using /shout . It's more that a person can only stand to listen to people discussing how best to build a gaming PC from scratch for so long and I really never want to hear another interminable discussion of which MMO is better than which, ever again.

That's not false perspective. The bunny really is bigger than me.

Will I play ArcheAge when it goes live? Frankly I doubt it. Making headway in any new MMO requires commitment even when you don't have to factor in the considerable time-sinks of an open PvP sandpark. If I was struggling to find MMOs I wanted to play then ArcheAge would look like a possible contender but, unlike GW2 and TSW, each of which hooked me solidly within the first few minutes, there's nothing here that screams "Play Me!".

Also, it's nowhere near as "pretty" as I was expecting. It's unusual in that it looks much better in screenshots than it does when you're playing it. The screenshots in this post look almost like a different game to the one I was seeing when I took them.

It's installed now, though, and I very rarely uninstall MMOs. Most likely it will join the ever-growing list of MMOs I drop in on occasionally on a whim. I suspect I'm unlikely ever to get far enough to experience the PvP by which the game will stand or fall.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide