Monday, 30 November 2015

Waking A Tiger: GW2, WoW

Over the past few years there's been a significant change in tone from both developers and players in regard to what we might call the innate difficulty setting of the MMORPG genre. For a long time the wind was squarely in the sails of players, like me, who prefer the game itself to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to tedious things like targeting and positioning. These days there's almost an obsession with bringing the modes and means of regular video games into the previously staid and stately world of MMORPG combat to make it more "challenging".

That's something I abhor pretty much without reservation. If I wanted to play those kind of video games I'd be playing them. I don't. That's why I started playing these ones instead.

I take a much more nuanced view on the current trend towards recovering what was supposedly lost in the long march towards mass market acceptance. Call it the heart or the soul of the thing, whatever it was there are plenty who believe it's not there any more. It's a situation whose underlying causes and present complaints are neatly articulated by Marc Jacobs in the third of his Foundational Principles.

While I have some sympathy with the movement, my general feeling is that I was there, I did pay my dues and I've earned my easy ride. I don't hanker after the days when it felt like it took you half a play-session to get to the place you were going to hunt or when getting six people to the same spot on the map meant four of them dying and two of them rage-quitting before anyone even saw each other.

Neither do I look back with nostalgia to Sunday afternoons spent sending tells to crafters in the hope of finding one who wasn't too busy doing a corpse run or sitting in a guild meeting or attending an in-game wedding to travel five zones to a city with a bank where the guards would tolerate both of us, all so he or she could make me a set of level 15 armor for which I'd hand over all the money I'd managed to scrape together since I last bankrupted myself for the level 10 set two weeks ago.

I could literally tell dozens of stories like that, mostly drawn from memories of things that happened while I was playing EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, Vanguard and EverQuest 2. Marc and countless others would point to the mere fact that not only do I have all those stories but that I can still remember them in detail a decade and change later as offering the strongest evidence in support of their case. It's the argument that says it has to hurt a little if you're going to care.

It's true. The reason those experiences live with me still is because they were painful and in being so the memories associated with them were laid down in accordance with the mechanisms associated with strong emotional reactions. What's questionable, in my opinion, is whether that's a desirable outcome for an activity that is, essentially, artificial and meaningless.

It would be a lot harder for me to come up with an after-dinner speech's worth of anecdotes based on the last five years of playing MMOs. Not because I've played fewer hours or paid less attention but because many of the sharp edges and rough corners have been sanded down and smoothed out. I have fewer scars.

The memories of the elation at last-second wins in boss fights or the sense of satisfaction at the completion of  lengthy questlines don't seem to be laid down to last in the same way as the recollection of the anxious hours spent waiting to see if the guy who promised to build my sloop in Vanguard would ever log in again let alone the traumatic loss of my level six corpse down the hollow tree in Blackburrow (and no, I am not ever going to get over that, thanks for asking). It seems that, when it comes to what we might call regular MMO gameplay, no matter how intense the fight feels at the time, the underlying understanding that it can be repeated ad nauseam until the right result pops out undercuts the brain's sense that anything worth recording for posterity is going on. It probably gets the same priority as your daily commute.

Or perhaps it's the lack of agency that matters. The key part of almost every one of my "MMO war stories" is that I was doing something I'd decided to do, something that required me to make choices and decisions. Bonus memory points if some of those choices were dependent on the choices of others.

It's here that I believe we might find a way in to what was actually lost rather than what we imagine has been lost. In attempting to pave all the roads and open all the gates to allow the smoothest of journeys MMO developers also closed down every side-road and took over the steering wheel. Instead of being the drivers of our own destinies we have increasingly taken on the role of passengers.

When I finally got around to playing WoW  some five years after it began my first character was a Hunter. One of the things that most interested me about the class was the relatively complex and demanding process of finding, catching and taming pets, which I'd read about in some detail on one of the many websites devoted to all things Azeroth. Of course, by the time I got there, all that had been re-assessed and re-evaluated as arduous busywork. I forget what you did have to do to tame a pet but I know there was nothing about it worth remembering.

Three years ago in GW2 my first character was a ranger. I was, once again, looking forward to the process of acquiring pets. It turned out that to charm a pet in GW2 you have to stand next to a juvenile of the species and press a button on a window that pops up on screen automatically. That's it.

Well, the wheel turns. That process hasn't changed a jot in Heart of Thorns and yet gaining the new pets for the first of my rangers has been one of the highlights of the expansion. The pets, which are both powerful and visually appealing and hence very covetable, have been placed in comparatively awkward to reach locations, where you would be unlikely to run into them other than by sheer good luck. Moreover, a couple are soft-gated behind the completion of the Dragon Stand meta-event, which offers only a tight fifteen minute window on success before the whole map resets.

Running across the blighted landscape after Mordremoth's defeat, trying to avoid mordrem snipers and not fall down gaping holes filled with poison gas, while attempting to follow map directions from Reddit and instructions in party chat from Mrs Bhagpuss, who'd done it before, all in the hope of finding my Tiger before being unceremoniously booted back to the Pact base camp on a map reset that loomed ever-nearer, stands a good chance of becoming a story I'll still be telling years from now. If I'd failed to find the little striper that memory would come with a lifetime guarantee.

There's a passing fair chance I'll buy WoW's Legion expansion next year. I was already minded to give it a try but the odds improved markedly when I saw this. "Most Mechanical pets will be challenging to tame, requiring you to first locate them and then use your Hunter abilities in unusual ways" they say. Well, that's the kind of challenge I can appreciate. In fact you might say it's what I came here looking for in the first place.

The idea that MMOs need to return to the levels of social interdependence that were the norm before Blizzard overturned the tables makes my blood run cold. The numerous pragmatic changes that a succession of developers has brought to the genre seem to me to have made both for better games and better entertainment. Somehow, though, complexity, nuance and, most especially, agency got tangled up with awkwardness, frustration and inaccessibility. Somewhere along the way a few babies got thrown out with a lot of dirty bathwater.

It seems ridiculous but there's just an outside chance that Gnome Hunters could help, just a little, in bringing back a taste of what was lost. Some variety, some choice, some agency. And, yes, even some challenge. It's asking a lot from something so small but who could be  better placed to herald the return of over-engineered design than a gnome?

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Light All The Fires

World of Warcraft is becoming infamous for its content droughts; those long months of blank canvas stretched between the tent-poles of bi- or even tri-annual expansions, when players in their hundreds of thousands lose focus, let their subscriptions lapse and wander off to other realms. GW2, the MMO that started out as the antidote to WoW but which is increasingly growing to resemble it, took its own first stab at the content drought concept this year, letting the game drift in a long, slow arc from the announcement of the expansion that was never meant to happen to the eventual launch of Heart of Thorns last month.

As the glare begins to dim a little on these new lands we have somehow found ourselves calling Magus Falls, light begins to dawn on just why some MMO developers have become so fond of their "cadences";  the drip, drip, drip of content in small packages that we saw exemplified best in ArenaNet's Living Story but which appears throughout the genre in various guises, from EVE's six-weekly "expansion" schedule to EQ2's seemingly inexhaustible calendar of "Holidays". Anything to keep the customer playing and paying.

For some inexplicable reason I began Saturday by reading some of Marc Jacobs' Foundational Principles for Camelot Unchained. CU (working title) is not an MMO to which I have paid much notice in the past and I haven't followed its development with any close interest. I'd never read these principles before.

Several things struck me as I skimmed through the lengthy perambulations. Marc Jacobs is a good communicator and an excellent self-mythologist, that was the main takeaway, but then so many superstar game developers are. It often makes me wonder if they're really in the right business. That aside, it was his apparent willingness to leave money on the table and let dissatisfied or just plain bored customers walk away that got my attention.

The Camelot Unchained website is peppered with bold statements and brave claims to this effect:

"We respect your commitment to a subscription-based game; in return, you won’t see thinly-veiled grabs for more money. Everything you need to succeed in Camelot Unchained requires skill and effort, not an open wallet."

"...we are an RvR-focused game and if you are not feeling it that night and nothing we have interests you, well, it’s time to take a break..."

"I want the freedom to take some risks with this game without enduring sleepless nights as I worry about whether a feature (or lack thereof) will alienate too many players, anger the boss, piss off the investors, etc."

And so on and so on. It's a coherent and rational plan and so far it's raised almost four million dollars. Star Citizen, on the other hand, another game whose development I have barely been following but, if what Derek Smart tells us is true, (don't go there..) is aiming to be quite literally all things to all players, is rounding the final corner on $100m.

As Saylah at Mystic Worlds observes in passing, Chris Roberts' behemoth already has some 900,000 backers signed up and waiting to play. Come launch day (whenever that might be) that number could reasonably be expected to grow into the millions. Mark Jacobs is bullish about the degree to which that isn't likely, necessary or even desirable for his game, which he anticipates "even if successful has no chance of threatening Dark Age of Camelot’s peak subs (250k)".

Saylah is understandably enthused by the chance to live, fully if virtually, in another world or in this case another universe. "It's hard to explain to anyone who's not passionate about gaming, MMOs and/or space sims why people continue to invest so heavily in this project. For many of us, SC has a dream list of features, combined in a way that no company has ever attempted before" she says. She goes on to describe what must be many an MMO player's dream: "The atmosphere, graphics, attention to detail, realism and cinematic soundtrack is breathtaking to behold. No one's pictures will do it justice. The way they knit your introductory experience together, it feels like waking up in a future where man has conquered the stars."

It's what I thought I wanted, once. The chance to lose myself in another reality. To be there. It's a wish, though, that like all magical wishes, comes with a warning. Mercury expresses it well when he writes at Light Falls Gracefully about the freedom that comes from accepting someone else's rules: "There is a certain something that is called into being with the arrival of the holiday events at year’s end when the rules of everyday life are put up on the shelf for a while. As a child, these times were magical: decorations, a festive atmosphere, and a fundamentally different tone to the rhythm of life filled my little body with wondrous awe. Nowadays, the magic lies in pretending that I am not a responsible adult and that these figments of our collective imagination are somehow the real thing."

Heart of Thorns has proved much more involving than I imagined it would be. Before it landed I had arrived at something close to equilibrium in the allocation of my gaming time. I had a stable of titles I was paying some attention to and while GW2 consumed the predator's portion there was still time to flit between half a dozen other MMOs and make something that could, in a poor light, be taken for progress there.

This is a familiar experience. Every time an MMO in which I'm emotionally invested drops a large update it wins focus from all the others. It's a time of great excitement but it comes at a cost. Everything else slides. When several games decide to overlap their major updates time won't stretch to accommodate them. One will win.

And that's how I came to understand that content drought isn't necessarily a bad thing. In a way it's like breathing out. It took ArenaNet's six-months of purdah and pre-expansion crunch to create the space for me to break the pattern of habit and open out my horizons again. I'm actually happy we won't be seeing any more Living Story updates this year and quite probably not before next spring.

I have a long, long list of MMOs that I want to get back to, to re-invest in, to play. Even updating the clients and logging in would be something. There seems to be a lot of that around at the moment - Tipa, reminding me about Landmark, Wilhelm dipping back into LotRO, Stargrace firing up ArcheAge... Plus the conveyor belt never stops. There are already half a dozen new candidates I'd like to give the once-over, although not necessarily the ones on Syp's list of conversation starters.

I'd welcome some downtime just for all that although I know I'll probably have to wait for Wintersday and Frostfell and all the other quasi-Christmas celebrations to pass first.

Mark Jacobs isn't unduly worried about players like me, those who have itchy feet and eyes elsewhere. He says of his avowedly niche, specialist offering: " If on some nights it isn’t what you are looking for, well, that’s okay, your realm’s enemies will be still waiting for you when you get back." And, barring the game going dark for good, they always will.

These days that feels closer to what I want. Not a world that feels more real than the real world, where missing a day feels like a small death; more a room in a mansion filled with rooms, all warm and waiting for my return, with my things all safe where I left them and a small stack of welcome-home gifts waiting on the mantle for me to open.

In the end though I don't get to choose. When the game takes over the game takes over. That's why a little drought sometimes can quench a thirst.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Sisters Under The Skin : EQ2, GW2

Playing through two such different expansions as Heart of Thorns and Terrors of Thalumbra at the same time is a curiously instructive experience. It highlights not only the great differences between the two games and their design strategies and ethics but also some unexpected similarities.

Heart of Thorns is the first expansion for Guild Wars 2, arriving at the very late entry-point of three years after launch. Terrors of Thalumbra is EverQuest 2's twelfth full expansion; by the time EQ2 had been running for as long as GW2 has now it had enjoyed four full expansions and three smaller "Adventure Packs", one of which, The Fallen Dynasty, was probably as large as HoT just on its own.

Indeed, the sheer scale of some of EQ2's expansions looks breathtaking in retrospect. Echoes of Faydwer, for example, could perfectly feasibly have been released as a standalone MMORPG. For almost a decade these expansions were produced, at the rate of better than one per calendar year, under a subscription payment model, for a game that even its most ardent supporters would not claim was among the market leaders in its genre.

Don't start with the waterworks.

GW2, on the other hand, has a fair claim to be one of the largest, certainly the most celebrated, MMOs of the last few years. Despite operating primarily on a Buy-to-Play business model that, one might imagine, would encourage the creation and release of new product, the ArenaNet team has produced just this single example and that with considerable reluctance.

Heart of Thorns has turned out to be a controversial first step onto what we are assuming (but cannot be sure) is the expansion ladder. Although I, personally, have been very pleasantly surprised by the value I've been able to extract from what looked like a meager offering I think it would be fair to categorize the response from the paying and playing audience as "mixed".

Metacritic has settled to a "Generally Favorable" rating for Heart of Thorns but only after a prolonged battle between wildly polarized factions voting 0-1 or 9-10. As for what either the average player or video-game critic thinks about Terrors of Thalumbra, well that's anyone's guess. No-one has reviewed it. Almost no-one has even mentioned it.

Have you tried switching it of then switching it on again?

So far, I like the two about the same, although I have seen far less of ToT than HoT. Both of them are much smaller in terms of explorable imaginary real estate than we've been spoiled to expect in the past but both have made a good fist of providing depth of content through density and verticality where it might have been lacking in raw mileage.

ANet, with what must be one of the very best art departments in the field, working with a relatively new graphics engine, provide breathtaking visuals but DBG, with a tiny team and an eleven-year old infrastructure, manage to work some small miracles of their own. As for audioscapes HoT just has the edge for ambient sound but ToT has by far the superior score.

Anet certainly packed a lot into the four new maps and when it comes to exploring and sightseeing Terrors of Thalumbra is also larger than I was expecting. Twice as large, in fact. It was trailed as coming with just a single open-world zone, Thalumbra the Ever Deep, but it also contains a full-size, new city, Maldura, which barely got a mention in the pre-publicity.

Maldura is a dwarven settlement on the model of Thurgadin, the Coldain city added in the Destiny of Velious expansion. I never really took to EQ2's version of Thurgadin, perhaps because I spent so much time in and had so many fond memories of the original back in EverQuest. Maldura, though, is a knockout.

A rat can look at a queen.

It has all the feel of a Dwarven capital. It reminds me of both Kaladim and Thurgadin from the original game and yet it also feels original and fresh. It's both easy to navigate and to get lost in as a dwarven city should be. The stone glows in a wonderfully homely fashion and yet there is the inevitable and necessary existential threat that all Dwarven cities have to face, necessitating barred doors and armed guards at every turn.

Every Dwarven city needs a pub, of course, and in The Mushroom Bar and Grill, Maldura has one of the best. I've already spent a considerable while there just listening to the live music, most of which is provided by gnomes.

We Play For Tips.

The gnomes, know locally as Gnemlin, have their own quarter that reminded me a little of the gnomish enclave in Azeroth's Ironforge. I'm unclear whether the gnemlins lost a city of their own to end up sharing a billet with dwarves but if so it would be par for the gnomish course. Losing cities seems to be a cultural pre-requisite with them.

Perhaps the story will emerge in time from the Signature questline. Both HoT and ToT offer a lengthy narrative sequence as a spine, something that seems almost mandatory in modern MMORPGs. EQ2 doubles down with a full-length questline for crafters as well as one for adventurers. I've completed, and thoroughly enjoyed, the tradeskill story but the adventure equivalent is proving...tricky.

Whose move is it?

Here's where ANet and DBG appear to have swapped hats. Where I was expecting to find the new Personal Story an arduous, tedious, neck-aching, shoulder-spasming grind similar to the largely unpleasant and annoying Living Story 2, it turned out to be a reasonably sprightly, quick-footed, gambol, at least in terms of the gameplay. Over in EQ2, however, where I've had little to complain about when it comes to difficulty while soloing the signature lines of the last several expansions, I found myself running into a brick wall in the very first Advanced Solo instance.

The experience illuminates how another strand of the supposedly divergent philosophies of the two games surprisingly intertwines as they seek to expand. GW2, famously or infamously according to taste, eschews both gear and level ladders. The theory is that HoT adds neither. EQ2 trades heavily on both but this particular expansion has no level increase and ostensibly offers horizontal not vertical progression.

In fact each of them deals directly in serious increases to the power and capability of your characters. HoT may not give us weapons with bigger numbers but it adds Elite Specializations for every class, at least a few of which have immediately become Best In Slot and Required For Raids.

A stepladder. How d'you think we hang them? A really big stepladder, okay?

As the player of two HoT-enabled Rangers I can also attest that owning the expansion allows you to tame several new pets that are very significantly more powerful than any you have access to through the base game. Once tamed, they will be the ones you choose to use from then on, unless (like me) you have an irrational, sentimental attachment to some of your old, loyal favorites.

Even though there's no level cap rise to justify it, ToT goes the familiar route of providing quest rewards for the opening, menial, introductory tasks that render the best items from the previous expansion utterly redundant. Merely for killing a few sky-rats and gathering a few mushrooms my Berserker received items that increased his hit points by a third and that's very clearly just the start. Where he'll be by the end of the questline I dread to think.

Except that, of course, at best he's running to stay still. Just as, in Heart of Thorns, the Mastery system largely exists to allow you to grind xp for weeks to earn the right to see all the content you paid for, so in Terrors of Thalumbra you need to quest to get the gear to be able to survive the quests you get sent on to get the gear. My unfortunate and repeatedly fatal experience in the very first instance just indicates that I haven't yet done enough side-quests, much as suddenly pegging out in an apparently innocuous location in Magus Falls reminds me I haven't ground out enough masteries for poison resistance.

There goes the neighborhood.

For all the supposed differences in approach, attitude and intent that separate the two current expansions for these two apparently unrelated MMORPGs I have to say the experience of playing each isn't as far removed from the other as you might expect. There may be a lot of new paint on the wagon but the wheels are rolling down the same old track.

Which is fine by me. I'm enjoying the ride. Now I just need to quest for some better gear and grind out those masteries. Oh, and I should get on with the collection that gets me my class Ascended weapons and I need to look into these Infusions that go in the new slot on that quest-reward sword because that's a big upgrade and what about this new Deity/Tithe thing and...

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Black Citadel Friday : GW2

This is the greatest city in the world. And it's only going to get greater.
 Charr Citizen - Black Citadel

I count myself exceedingly fortunate that my first character in beta was a Charr. Nothing prepared me for the sheer impact of The Black Citadel. It hit like a fist.

The smoke-filled skies stink of sulphur and Armageddon. The polluted air shrieks and groans with the tortured cries of steel.

Every sunrise, every sunset, burns with apocalyptic fire. And it's always sunset or sunrise in The Black Citadel.

The iron walkways echo with the heavy tread of war. The legions spar and banter in the streets while citizens growl and curse. In the fretted shade of the Gladium Canton the lesser races sweat and trade. 

The craft halls of the Factorium whir with the spinning of looms as the smiths' hammers pound. Beyond the plated walls the scholars of the Priory pore over ancient scrolls among the vine-clad ruins of Old Ascalon.

This is The Black Citadel.

It stands.

It will stand.

It must. 

A fit from the House of Phoebe for #intpipomo 2015

Monday, 23 November 2015

Dragon Down! : GW2

Around teatime on Sunday afternoon Mrs Bhagpuss asked me if I fancied taking a run at the final chapter of the Heart of Thorns Personal Story, "Hearts and Minds". Well, actually what she did was type "Hearts and Minds?" in party chat out of the blue while I was off doing something important, namely fiddling about in my bank vault as usual.

At first I had no clue what she was talking about. The Personal Story kind of fell off my radar around the end of the first week after launch, by which time I had run one character to the penultimate chapter and half a dozen more through the Prologue and Chapter One. It's hardly surprising I'd let it slip my attention after that, at least not when you consider that, after three years and over a dozen Level 80s, I have yet to complete the original Personal Story on any of them.

I was highly skeptical of the need for GW2 to have a "Personal Story" in the first place but we are where we are, which appears to be in some kind of bizarro world where "personal stories" have become mandatory for MMOs and not even just for the pure theme parks either. Indeed, the supposed failure of SW:ToR's "Fourth Pillar" is beginning to seem more than a touch ironic, not least since BioWare re-tooled their ailing franchise into something that looks more like One Pillar and Three Stumps.

I'm by no means as down on the whole concept of story arcs within MMORPGs as J3w3l, for example, but neither do I worship them with quasi-religious fervor. Story is just another of the rides in the park. If an MMO offers me a take on narrative that turns out to be both entertaining and easy then I'll generally give it a run; those that fail on either count join the large pile of "things I might get round to some day if I have nothing better to do".

GW2 has a checkered history with story. Actually it's more like a Jackson Pollock painting than a chess-board. We started with an ambitious, hand-crafted version, where the responses you made to a series of gnomic questions in character creation decided your forking path. I always thought it was daft. It must have been hell for completionists.

Those paths came together somewhere in the middle and from there on we all followed the same plot to Arah and the Downing of Zhaitan. I did see the final chapter, tagging along in Mrs Bhagpuss's team back when you needed a full group, but the furthest any of my own characters has made it is, I think, the first step into Orr.

Anet changed mode once the game went live. They began to heap their all dragon eggs into one basket they called The Living Story. The first telling was a sprawling, chaotic, largely ill-received mash-up of open world zerg action, scavenger hunts, lore tidbits and instanced set pieces. I liked it at the time and in retrospect I feel we didn't know how lucky we were. I'd have that format back in a heartbeat now.

Operating on what appears to be their default mode of passive-aggressive reaction ANet gave us a very different iteration in Living Story 2. They chopped the whole thing up into tidy, re-saleable packages, front-ended in the existing maps but with the meat of the gameplay and story sealed neatly in instances.

They also upped the difficulty or, perhaps more accurately, the frustration, to one FFS! short of a ragequit. Although I struggled through it on one account I didn't much enjoy LS2 and I definitely wasn't looking forward to another, even "more challenging" version in Heart of Thorns. Luckily, for me at least, I didn't get one.

In what I guess we could call Personal Story 2 (unless it's Living Story 3?) ANet finally seem to have found a sweet spot. Bugs and gates aside the general response has been positive. I haven't seen many complaints about it being either too easy or too hard, too long or too short. I found most of it engaging and sprightly as far as the gameplay went, to the point where the prospect of repeating it on all my characters feels like a possibility not a penance.

I'm aware I'm being a little vague here. Jeromai asked recently how long we need to wait before we can discuss plot points without risking spoiling the experience for those who haven't yet gotten around to experiencing it first-hand. The answer to that is there's never going to be a point short of the game closing down or the content being removed when discussing it in open conversation won't risk revealing something someone would rather not have known. So I won't do that. Yet.

Suffice it to say that, now I've finally seen it through to the end, there's a lot I'd like to discuss where the lore and story is concerned but instead, I'll stick to a quick critique of the style and the gameplay. I'd rate the latter a big improvement but the former quite a disappointment.

In short, the fights were a lot better throughout. They were generally well-balanced, requiring attention but not expecting perfection. Crucially for me they were almost entirely gimmick-free. All my characters were able to play as themselves, using their own gear and abilities, making their own choices about how to approach and defeat each challenge. There were few coercive set pieces and those there were permitted a number of solutions. Compared to LS2 it was freedom city.

The final, big boss fight, which Mrs Bhagpuss and I duoed successfully yesterday evening without any major problems, is lengthy as you'd expect but not so much so as to outstay its welcome. It has been, infamously, some have found unplayably, buggy, to the point where I had until now deferred even attempting it, following the appalling reports of those who had.

Supposedly the worst of those bugs have been fixed but we still had to restart the final fight because one of the rifts spawned outside of the playable area. On the positive side, we had a bug in our favor where one of Mordremoth's AEs only stretched half as far as it should have, meaning as two rangers we could stand outside it and pepper him with arrows while our newly AE-immune pets hammered away in melee range, oblivious to all damage.

If the fights were, on the whole, an improvement the dialogs were at best lacklustre and the lack of player/NPC interaction was verging on the dismal. One of the strengths of the whole Living Story and, to a lesser extent, the original Personal Story, has been the considerable freedom player characters have to talk to both significant and incidental characters outside of the main narrative.

I spent a lot of time in both LS1 and LS2 chatting to NPCs, enjoying and appreciating a good deal of banter, witty repartee, moody background detail and lore snippets. I never left an instance or an area until I'd spoken to everyone. In the HoT Personal Story that just doesn't happen.

Most of the NPCs don't show any indication they have anything to say or indeed that they are aware of their surroundings at all. If they don't have a line of dialog they stand there, cycling their racial idle animations but otherwise inert. More disappointing still, even those who show the speech bubble icon when targeted, something that in almost all other circumstances indicates the presence of at least a line or two of incidental dialog, prove mute when approached.

I found that the most disappointing part of the expansion so far. It feels at best rushed and unfinished, at worst thoughtless and cheap. The scripted dialog itself isn't great, either. Without entering spoiler territory, much of it feels flat, some of it awkward. The storyline itself offers huge emotional potential but the presentation bleeds it dry.

Like a Hollywood movie, all the best bits are in the trailer. The moment where Rytlock appears for the first time, which we first saw back in the Spring, is unmatched anywhere else in the story. The hairs on the back of my neck were still, literally, standing up as late as the fourth play-through when the big Charr comes over the hill, returning like Han Solo just when he's needed most.

As for what happens next...well, that's the big question. I doubt it will spoil anything to reveal the whole thing ends with yet another cliffhanger, albeit an enigmatic one. Where we go from here I imagine we won't discover until well into the New Year, once Wintersday and perhaps another Raid are out of the way.

Whatever the future holds it's Rytlock as usual who cuts to the chase and sums everything up in a few words right at the end:

That's all we need to know right now. Bring it on!

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Forging Ahead : EQ2

It's been a while since I spent a Sunday morning prospecting for rares. It used to be kind of a thing Chez Bhagpuss once upon a time. Many peaceful and relaxing hours drifted by among the ore nodes beneath Cliffs of Rujark or the root crops of Kerra Isle, Mrs Bhagpuss and I passing each other in opposite directions as we scoured the sands for beryllium or toxnettle.

One down, one to go.
The move to Tyria largely put paid to that. While GW2 has gathering of a kind it's a pale and feeble version by comparison and not something you'd want to spend hour after hour on.

EQ2 has always been a gatherer's dream. The whole process is deliciously complex, with a full range of items, consumables and gear available to enhance your character's effectiveness. Harvesting even has its own epic questlines complete with signature NPCs.

The nodes spit out their highly desirable rares just often enough to make the whole process feel worthwhile rather than a waste of valuable leisure time. The chime of discovery when one pops is less the ringing of a pavlovian bell than the sound of a shot sweetly struck in the middle of the bat.

Satisfying is what it is, frankly. There's nothing in MMOs quite like it, not at least since Vanguard shut up shop. Consequently, when I completed my Research on Containing Magical Gemstones and discovered that I'd need not one but two Arcannium (Arcanniums? Arcannii?) I found my heart flutter more in anticipation than anxiety.

My ore! Mine!!
Checking the broker quickly took the lazy option off the table. At the time of writing Arcannium is selling at close to 500 platinum a piece, which, for comparison, puts it in the same bracket as a successful SLR auction for a max level piece of Fabled gear. Ignore the jargon - just take it for granted that means it's a lot of money.

I confess (and it is a guilty confession) that the relatively recent addition of instant access to the Broker from anywhere that comes a perk of All Access Membership has led me into bad habits. To save myself a few minutes travel time I have been buying mats that previously I would at least have taken out of my own bank, mats that even if I hadn't mined or lumbered or gathered at the direct behest of the questgiver would at least, at some time in the past, have been dug or chopped or picked by me, personally.

Shopping was not an option this time. I had no choice but to flap my wings and go prospecting in Thalumbra. Because it was a Sunday morning and I was in no kind of rush, for once I took my time, stood back and had a think about the best way to go about this potentially time-consuming project. That was how I came to discover my AAs were up the spout.

EQ2 lore. It's an acquired taste.

A little out-of-game research reminded me I should have access to an AA ability that tracks harvesting nodes. Couldn't find it. Also I supposedly own a goblin that goes foraging for me, and unlike my old, trusty pack pony, he can forage rares. Couldn't find him either. And I should have at least a 6% bonus to rare harvests. Only had 1%.

How did we ever manage without?
Something was clearly awry. It took me twenty minutes of fiddling about in my AA window, reading tooltips and swearing to myself before I found the problem. I'd set all my AAs and spent all the points but I hadn't pressed the Commit button. They were notional not actual.

A key-press, a long channeling animation and a smart blow to my own forehead later and everything was as it should have been all along. I also received a string of suffix and prefix titles, almost all of them relating to adventuring, and had to re-cast all of my combat buffs so I wonder if I've been fighting without AAs all this time? If so I can't tell the difference!

My AAs now correctly set and working, a couple of +harvesting items swapped in for adventure gear and having swigged one of the Bountiful Harvest potions provided long ago by my much-neglected Othmir apprentice, I was running a 37% chance at a second pull per strike and an 8% bonus chance on pulling a rare. Nothing more I could think of doing so off I went.

The current, excellent, signature crafting questline for Terrors of Thalumbra is the work of Domino, EQ2's recently-returned Crafting Queen over the Water. Unlike some lesser lights, Domino has always been scrupulous in ensuring that a pure crafter, maxed in her trade but with next to no adventure experience or levels, can still complete the crafting quests safely.

Always knew this would come in handy
With the ablity to fly and carrying a variety of crafted stealth, invisibility and speed totems, plus the invaluable option to turn into a rock for twelve hours, granted by an earlier crafting reward, I'm sure that's possible even in the caverns of Thalumbra. It very much helps that the great majority of nodes are carefully placed out of agro range of the level 100+ creatures that skulk or squat or hover all around.

Even so, I'd rather be doing it with a full set of level 98 plate and a level 100 Mercenary to back me up. There were some disputes between my Berserker and a few cave locusts that came to blows. Also there was that time with the named one. Stinger, he was called, not entirely originally I feel, but entirely appropriately as it turned out. Had a nice upgrade for me, he did. Would kill again!

We're going to need a bigger swatter.

The RNG in EQ2 is no better than any of them. Everyone always thinks the odds are set against them when it comes to playing the numbers in MMOs. There are even people who believe that different characters (or classes or races) have different luck. Even if that were true, which it isn't, there's nothing you can do about it. You just have to get on with it.

It doesn't help when the particular ore you need comes from the sort of node that has two different rares, of course. That really does halve your chances of getting the one you want. Factoring that in I was expecting a few hours work but the RNG gods must have had a good breakfast because in less than an hour I had the two rares I needed. I also had three Lucites and a Glittervein. Pretty good for around fifty minutes work.

Remember, I'm a professional crafter. Please don't try this at home.
All that remained was a short flutter back to Maldura, the new city-zone that deserves a post of its own, and a session with The Forge of Brell. Brytthel warned me to be careful. You don't mess around at the forge of the god of smelting. When the reactions there say "Lethal" they aren't kidding. I'm ashamed (again) to admit I let my attention wander for a second. It's lucky I always have Visions of Madness up, that's all I'm saying.

I guess it'll have to do.
I took more care over the equally risky ritual conducted by Elenluelle and her coterie of moths. When it said Lethal that time I reacted appropriately. And fast. Turned out I should have been faster but that's another story and a spoiler too so let's not go there.

Let's go back to Mara instead and the distinctly unempathic Captain Ethan Dariani. He pays well, I'll say that much for him and not much more. Speak to him and that's the crafting signature quest completed.

Took about five or six hours all told, a good deal of which was traveling and gathering and all of which was excellent entertainment. Next comes the Adventure version in which I am betting I get to do what the trade-obsessed Captain wouldn't. I hope so, anyway.

As I was leaving another player arrived to hand in the quest and an achievement popped (for him, not me - we don't get Achievements for seeing other players hand in quests - well, not yet...). Out of curiosity I clicked on it and saw it was for completing both the the Craft and Adventure lines and now I know that comes with a gift I know I could put to good use.

Onward and downward for glory and reward! And fun. Let's not forget the fun.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Going Underground : EQ2

As Wilhelm noted in his capacity as Blogger of Record, EQ2's twelfth expansion, Terrors of Thalumbra, went live yesterday. I'd pre-ordered it a while back and yet somehow it still managed to sneak up on me. I thought we had a few weeks to go.

The Author as a Young Roekillik
The unexpected all-round playabilty and high fun content of GW2's Heart of Thorns expansion has all but pushed every other MMORPG off the table over the last few weeks but the drive to Do All The Things in Tyria is beginning to abate at last, leaving at least a little space and time for other worlds. I had planned to wait until today, when I'd have time for a good, long look at the new underlands but in the end I couldn't resist.

Within a few minutes of the servers coming back up last night I logged in, expecting the usual immediate post-launch chaos of bugs and emergency patches, but no, everything seemed remarkably calm. Coming so soon after HoT's exceptionally smooth launch I'm beginning to wonder if, after getting on for two decades, maybe MMO producers might be starting to get the hang of how these games work.

Nah. Couldn't be that. Must be a fluke.

Anyway, I can hardly talk. How many expansions have I experienced now? Thirty? Forty? More? And yet I still begin by rushing straight to the portal and jumping in with both feet. Do I read the in-game mail first? Do I go and find the NPC with the briefing notes? Do I have any kind of understanding of what I'm getting into or why? Of course not!

Somehow, probably from EQ2Wire,  I'd picked up as much as that I'd have to go to Neriak first. Why is it always Neriak for us evils? No-one wants to go to Neriak. and in any case, since when did Queen Cristianos usurp The Overlord as Grand Poobah of Badness?

At least the portal was right there at the docks next to the World Bell. Hard to miss, too, great, whirring mechanical monstrosity that it is. Gnomish work, I fancy. They should have got a ratonga in. Just sayin'.

It works though. Got to give the gnomes that much. It spat me out somewhere in what I took to be The Underfoot until Al'Kabor corrected that misapprehension much later on, when I finally got around to doing some of the questing spadework.
I'll just chip off a little bit.

The whole expansion, in a really excellent play on words, is set in Subtunaria. I believe the region went by that name in EQOA although I can't be sure. I was never fortunate enough to explore that version of Norrath, which is why I'm so excited to get this unexpected, late opportunity.

It really is the connection to the Lore that lends impact to these extensions of the franchise. You can hear it daily in GW2 as players laud or lay into aspects of Tyria's transition from the elder game to the current version. Over in Eorzea Square Enix are milking player recognition for all it's worth, setting longtime FF devotees like Syl "squealing like a fangirl" (her words!). As the games (and the gamers) age so the emotions deepen.

None of that was apparent last night as I flew around the underground sea of Thalumbra the Ever Deep. It looked entirely unfamiliar. And weird. The level 110 Triple-Up Arrow guards at the gates of what I took to be the city were scowling in my general direction so I stuck to the "countryside", such as it was.

Hmm. Now that I look more closely I'm not sure that is a fairy. Might be a moth.

After a while I found some very big fairies. Tallest fairies I've ever seen. They were willing to speak to me or should I say willing enough to send me on a Kill Ten Foozles quest to let me speak to them. And it was 22 Foozles if you're counting.

So I did that. The foozles were easy enough (they were ooyogs and poxfiends according to my journal but I know a foozle when I see one). I died to some flower that got caught in an AE and didn't see the funny side of it but other than that it all went swimmingly.

Even so it was clear I wasn't going about things the right way. Pootling around running errands for oversized fairy-folk  wasn't going to get me into the city. I called it a night and ported home to Maj'Dul.

Don't just stand there, Raffik - pull! And why are you in my bedroom in the first place???

When I reconvened this morning the day didn't get off to the best of starts. I couldn't get out of bed. Not metaphorically; literally. I'd logged out on my bed for a good night's sleep as I'm wont to do and I woke up wedged into it. Couldn't move. Had to use my handy portal thingummy to port me to the dock in Tranquil Seas just to get free.

From there it was off to Mara, where all tradeskill quests tend to begin. I usually start an EQ2 expansion by doing the crafting Signature questline before I get round to the adventuring version. There are several good reasons for that.

Of wee. Tee hee!
Firstly, it takes a fraction of the time because although the crafting line often has as many steps there aren't any fights and it's all the killing that pads things out. Secondly, it will open up a whole lot of areas, set the necessary factions to Don't Kill On Sight, and provide you with anything you might need in the way of flying permits, teleports and so forth. Thirdly, and most importantly, the crafting quests in EQ2 are almost always entertaining and well-written.

Explain to me again how these bushes grow on solid ice?
This one's no exception. It's meaty, too. I spent nearly three hours on it this morning and I'm just at the point where the new guards don't want to rip my head off any more. The lore was really interesting, with plenty of background about the Dwarves and the Roekillik.

Ah yes, the Roekillik. For a ratonga they are the racial nemesis. They are the anti-ratonga in fact. I still remember vividly the ratonga racial quest line that was added when the old villages were revamped in Freeport and Qeynos. Ratonga are terrified of Roekillik. We left our lovely underground home to escape from them but they followed us to the surface world.

The high point of the expansion thus far has been getting my old mate Al'Kabor (aka The Duality) to make me a Roekillik illusion spell so I could prance around in their secret lair, talking in their silly accent and feeding fish rolls to one of their Elders. Don't ask what I put in those. He didn't, more fool him.

Me and Al'Kabor, we're like *that*, we are.

That got me a truly excellent map of Old Tunaria which is in my mansion right now and looking great. Another prime reason to do the crafting quests is all the house items you get.

That's where I've left it for now. I have a suspicion that compared to some previous expansions this one might turn out to be a little on the lean side. Only one open-world map instead of the usual two, for example, and that one doesn't look all that big.

Excuse me, I think your mushrooms are on fire.
Size isn't everything, though. I enjoyed the previous expansion, Altar of Malice, as much for what I learned about the fate of Luclin and the history of the Far Seas Trading Company as for the loot or the fights. I'm even more interested in the history of the lands below Tunaria so as long as I get my lore fix I'm more than happy I'm getting my money's worth.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide