Monday, 24 April 2017

It's A Magical World : Twin Saga

Twin Saga continues to impress. In fact it's getting better. The feverish hysteria of the opening few levels has given way to a much steadier, more measured pace and most of the dubious sexual politics and Benny Hill innuendos have vanished, hopefully never to return.

Instead what we have is a simple, linear plot with few digressions, played out against a series of stunning, vibrant, saturated landscapes that feel both familiar and alien all at once. The characters are drawn in broad strokes but they have personality and, coming back to a new session, I have no trouble remembering who is who, something I certainly couldn't say about every MMO.

The horns and the dress came in the mail. I paid cash for the furniture.

I'm concentrating on following the narrative but I'm aware that all around me lie other possibilities even though, unlike most free to play games, Twin Saga does very little to push them in front of your face. There are log-in rewards and daily quests but you could easily miss them altogether, which would be a shame since the rewards are worthwhile - devil horns, inventory expanders, new outfits...

There are "hidden" quests that you might believe are hidden only in the way your four year-old thinks you can't see him when he can't see you. Any NPC or object with a green exclamation mark rather than a yellow one starts a "hidden" quest.

The name is misleading rather than plain wrong. What's really hidden in these quests isn't how to get them but what to do once you do. The auto-path feature doesn't work for them and they require "problem solving skills" as the wiki puts it. They are, in other words, what we used to call "quests".

Then there are the "Astral Adventures" that pop up all over the open world. Signaled by a hard-to-miss glowing cube followed by a breadcrumb trail of gigantic question marks, these aren't even slightly other-worldly - or particularly adventurous for that matter. I suspect irony.

Astral Adventures are short stories that focus on the quotidian lives of inhabitants of this landscape through which you're always rushing on your own oh-so-important journey. When you take one on, you, the adventurer, become the observer. There's a lot of following to see what happens next and generally very little "action".

"Hand-crafted artisanal matches". Roll that one around your tongue for a while.

At various points you're asked to make a life-choice on behalf of the protagonist and the cat is revealed to be either alive or dead. Next time you encounter the same Astral Adventure you can choose differently and watch the possibilities shift. Heavy stuff.

The third in this triptych of idiosyncratic opportunities comes in the form of  "Conversations". Rein in your excitement! The name of this activity is unarguably accurate as far as it goes but don't go running away with the idea it's you who'll be conversing with anyone.

What you can't see is that off-camera Selena's Entourage are chanting "Kill! Kill! Kill!" I'm getting Manson Family vibes.

No, your role in these conversations is entirely that of auditor. Oh, let's not be coy! You're being invited to eavesdrop on conversations that are entirely none of your beeswax. Well, who could resist?

When you see a gaggle of NPCs standing around with little ellipsis-filled speech bubbles over their heads, take it as an invitation to earwig. Sidle in close and pretend to be studying your map or fixing  your shield-straps and you'll overhear something to your advantage.

Not, you understand, that anyone's talking about you. These people don't even know you exist. They have their own concerns and they don't mind airing them among friends, of which you pointedly are not one.
I think we can all guess where this conversation is going.

Everything in life is a learning experience, though, or it is if you make it one. By the simple act of listening to gossip you can gain loyalty points. Loyalty to what? Beats me. Who cares? You get a title for every conversation you overhear and that's what matters!

Twin Saga is about nothing if it's not about the titles. The last time I saw honorifics handed out so freely was in LotRO, where tripping over a pebble gets you the suffix "Pebble Tripper" (not really, I don't think, although I haven't checked. Maybe it does. Wouldn't surprise me in the slightest).

I haven't counted how many titles there are altogether but I know there are dozens, scores of them. What's more, unlike other MMOs where a title is merely something people call you, in Twin Saga prefixes and suffixes come with stat boosts attached. Run around with "Casual Gamer" after your name, a title I was very excited to receive, and your Attack stat goes up eight points. Earning the right to call yourself "Popular" gets you +16 haste.

Back in the Terracottage there are more subsystems to understand. Your Senshis live there when they're not out acting as your unpaid mercenaries in the field and they have a whole set of quests of their own. They get blue exclamation points and they like to reward you for keeping their loved ones entertained while you hold them hostage as well as for using the facilities in their prison. Okay, that's not exactly how they put it but try telling that to the judge after their families stage an intervention. Stockholm syndrome is not a defense in law, that's all I'm saying.

You know that thing where you put the wrong seed packet on the row marker?
It was through talking to one of my Senshi's, Fina, that I ended up planting cotton, flax and various root vegetables in my greenhouse. It's another interesting entertainment opportunity. For a few silver you can buy seeds from one of the vendors, who's inexplicably made the life-choice to travel with you inside a giant tortoise.

These seeds you plant in convenient molehills. Then you wait for them to grow, which takes anything from a few minutes to a few hours of real time. There are a whole bunch of factors you can affect which supposedly genetically modify your crop. I'm kind of surprised this game's legal in the EU.

I don't yet understand how much of this works. It reminds me of the plant growth systems in Black Desert Online and it took me a while to get to grips with those so I expect I'll need to do some reading and maybe watch some YouTube tutorials. So far I'm just letting the things grow as they will then handing them off to Fina so she'll like me even more than she already does. I'll know she lubs me when she raises my stats.

Here's a great UI trick I've not seen before:
if you scroll the view with the mouse wheel,
your character pops out of the frame.
Simple but very effective.
You'd think that might be the game's Reputation system but no, it has one of those elsewhere. It's actually called "Reputation" and it lets you buy things from special vendors. Giving gifts to your Senshi doesn't appear to have a name unless maybe it's called Gifting. I think I need a lie down now.

As has often been observed, part of the attraction of new MMORPGs is the mental stimulus that comes from learning new systems and mechanics. That almost certainly accounts for some of the really quite strong interest I appear to have developed for playing Twin Saga. The fact that it's gorgeous to look at and extremely elegantly designed doesn't hurt, either.

When it comes to what you might call the traditional gameplay - hitting things until they fall over so they give you loot - there's really not a lot to say. My character is in the low 40s and I believe she has died just once. That was in the first story dungeon, when I naively allowed her to auto-path from the entrance to the final boss, where she ended up fighting both him and every single mob in the instance, all of which had followed along behind her in one titanic train. Not doing that again.

"Difficulty", such as it is, seems to ramp up along with the levels only by dint of an annoying mechanic I think of as the "add two" formula. We started off with each quest asking us to kill four foozles. Then it was six. Then eight. At level 42 the per-quest foozle tariff is fourteen. I dread to think what it will be by the time we hit the level cap at 65.

This guy's a Boss that comes over to your side when you beat him. Oh, sorry, PLOT SPOILER!!

Another way the game slows down the pace as it progresses is in the frequency and length of its cut-scenes. There didn't seem to be all that many of these to begin with but now we seem to be fast approaching Square Enix levels of exposition.

Fortunately, quality is keeping pace with quantity. I find myself actively looking forward to every new cut scene then sitting back and enjoying them as they come. There's quite a bit of voice acting, all of it in Japanese. I find it quite endearing and oddly immersive. It's very much like watching a subtitled movie, only in reverse: instead of thirty seconds of dialog crushed into a five-word subtitle, here you sometimes get two lines of text to represent what sounds like a single barked syllable.
Might just as well have called the game Sister Issues and had done with it.

The central narrative itself continues to hold my attention. It has one of those "we're getting the old team back together" skeletons that Hollywood and I find both endlessly appealing and it's refreshingly free of the usual convoluted backstory. The regular boss fights that punctuate the general questing are slick, spectacular and readily winnable. It all makes for a very solid core.

So far, so good, then. Whether I'll still be playing Twin Saga in a week's time or blogging about it a month from now I have no idea, but I'm enjoying it a lot. Can't really ask for more from a game than that.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

It's Grouping, Jim...

The other day, Syl described me in a comment  as "a self-professed MMO soloer". It got me thinking: "solo", like "casual" and "hardcore", long ago lost most of its value as a way of sorting MMO players one from another. We all go on using these shorthand terms as if they still have the common currency and broad acceptance they did back when WoW was young but times have changed, along with the games and the players who play them.

When I played EverQuest around the turn of the century, the line between "solo" and "group" play was unequivocally understood by everyone. With "raiding" there was a de facto Holy Trinity of playstyles, at least in PvE. It was the status quo for quite a while and most players were happy to pin one of those three favors to their lance, even though in truth almost everyone did a bit of everything, here and there, now and again.

When I decided to brave the online waters I arrived in Norrath expecting to find myself fighting monsters shoulder to shoulder with other players. That's how I'd heard it was done. Somehow, instead, I found myself playing mostly alone.

A couple of early experiences in Blackburrow convinced me it was safer and a lot more productive to take direct responsibility for my own health and safety and I spent those first few months mainly soloing, with the odd group thrown for flavor. Still, it wasn't all that long before I found myself beginning many of my sessions  /ooc "20 Druid lfg" or  /tell "want a 20 Druid?".

When Dark Age of Camelot launched in October 2001, Mrs Bhagpuss and I upped sticks and moved there and for the next six months it was pretty much all group all the time. No-one in  their right mind would have wanted to solo in DAOC - it was the solo experience EverQuest was reputed to be but never was - and then some. Plus people - actual people - were always trying to kill you!

It was in DAOC that I got invested, at least to a degree, in Guild play. Guilds formed a central part of my MMO experience for the next five years and yet I never liked the guild concept. Back then I saw guilds as a necessary evil. Nowadays I just see them as an evil. Like them or loathe them, though, there I was in them, either guilds or quasi-guildlike structures built from scratch using custom chat channels.

Even when I swapped from game to game and back, much of my experience remained bounded by guilds and much of my gameplay took place in groups. Most of my long runs in EQ and EQ2 involved guilds, some that I founded or co-founded, some that I joined and then took over. My highest level EQ character, my Magician, the one I'm still leveling, is even now a member in good standing, a senior officer in fact, of the guild she joined almost a decade ago, a guild Mrs Bhagpuss was in before me. No-one else is ever on when I play these days but I'm still flying the flag.

In or out of guilds, over those years I thought myself as much a group player as a soloist. A raider I never was although I raided occasionally. Just enough to remember why I didn't raid.

It was, I think, Vanguard that broke the pattern. We went there intending to join a guild and engage fully in group content but the technical problems the game suffered in the early days seemed to get in the way. I remember trying to group but having so many problems just keeping everyone online that we were forced to gave up.

Mrs Bhagpuss and I were fortunate in that we had a lot less difficulty running Vanguard than most. We ended up duoing or soloing out of convenience as a result. We never joined a guild and never really did any group content in the game, even though we played for years, on and off.

For a good while after that, several years, I think it would be reasonable to say I was mostly a solo player. One who grouped sometimes, yes, but not every day and sometimes not every week.

Then, in March 2011, along came Rift. Rift was a genuine paradigm shift. A game-changer. After Rift MMOs would never be the same again.

Rift didn't invent the non-group group. That was probably Warhammer Online with its Public Quests. What Rift did was turn open grouping into a core game system and make it the default playstyle for the majority of its players. It also abraded beyond value the very concepts of "group" or "solo" play.

In the six years since Rift launched (and it seems much, much longer...) MMO gameplay has undergone a sea-change. Co-operation rather than competition has become both the ideal and the norm. Guild Wars 2 made a mission statement of the newly revealed truth: "You don’t have to join a party to join the fight. All you have to do is get out there and start helping."

Today any MMO that has ambitions beyond niche, ultra-niche or heritage needs to offer inclusivity. Players don't like to put themselves in the old boxes, much less find themselves boxed in. Group and Raid play do, absolutely, carry on, but neatly tucked away in instances where they won't frighten the casuals.

And even within those instances everything possible is done to reduce the social overhead of looking for, finding and making groups. There are automated group-finders and matchmakers to put the team together, smart UIs to handle the teamwork and neutral systems to divvy up the loot. "Grouping" no longer requires human communication let alone social conversation.

It's true that there are, even now, people who like to refer to themselves as "Group Players" just as there are people still running around professing their independent credentials as "Soloists". It's just words. The playstyles themselves and the concepts that underpinned them are long dead.

These days I don't consider myself to be much of an MMO soloer. I do solo in those MMOs that I don't play as much, the short-session, late night, keeping my hand in games. In those I'm usually not around long enough to do much more. They tend to be older games, whose systems have yet to adapt to the new realities or, as in Blade and Soul or Twin Saga, where the main attraction for me is a linear storyline that probably would work better in a single player game anyway.

Even in EQ2, though, these days I'm as likely to be in a raid doing a PQ as soloing. The reason I lasted a few weeks in WoW last year was entirely down to the open-group Invasion event. Last time I played The Secret World for a significant period was for one of the big, holiday-themed open raids. Open groups draw me in.

And in GW2, where I've spent more time than anywhere over the last four years, almost all play is group play. That's how the game was built. It's not just ad hoc proximity grouping either. At the moment I'm doing Tequatl two or three times a day and running in WvW for an hour or two most evenings and I'm usually in a Squad, often with a specific, assigned role or responsibility.

In gameplay terms all of this is group play, not solo. It may not be isolated, instanced, formalized group play, even the current bowdlerized version, but it's grouping just the same. It's the evolutionary development of the primitive form and it's superior in just about every respect. It's why the new has, by and large, pushed out the old.

All of which isn't to say that there's no case to be made for formal four, five, six or eight person closed groups (does any MMO use seven as a group size?). I'm very much hoping that Pantheon can make that case when and if it arrives. I'm looking forward to some old-school group fun there.

Much though I'd admire any developer who could successfully rekindle that flame, the last thing I'd want would be to turn the clock back. We don't need a return to the days when anyone thought it was a good idea to make players choose between solo and group play.

We didn't know any better then. Now we do.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Get Your Free Level 100 (What, Another?) : EQ2

There's a new Producer's Letter out for EQ2 and it's chock full of good stuff. Key takeaways for me were the introduction of Familiars and the news that this year's expansion will include a ten level increase, raising the level cap to 110.

Familiars are exactly what they sound like: a new set of companion pets that also give stat buffs. The senior game, of course, has had familiars for a long time. Indeed, there are so many of them that one of the features of last year's Empires of Kunark expansion was a keyring to store them all. It holds up to 125 of the critters!

In EQ2 until now only Sorcerors (Wizards and Warlocks) got familiars, a choice of three: an animated book, a drake or a gargoyle. With the upcoming "Menagerie" update on May 2nd we'll all be able to have a flappy, as they used to be called.

Familiars will come from Kunark Ascending Missions, as drops from Public Quests, or as a reward from the upcoming language-mangling "Co-opetition", which I do not propose to attempt to explain. Read Kander's detailed description and see how much sense you can make of it.

I'll wait to see just what this "Co-opetition" consists of before I commit to anything but I'm up for pet collecting and I'm always down for a PQ so let's hope they're one of the more common rewards there. Whatever, it's a really exciting addition to EQ2's already bulging cupboard of in-game hobbies. Gotta collect 'em all, as you know some people are already muttering.

As for the level cap raise, I'm very firmly in the camp that believes it's not a real expansion if you don't get a few more levels. The usual eeyores are out in force in the comment thread at EQ2Wire, bemoaning the impending collapse in value of the gear they will, by the time the as yet unnamed expansion rolls around, have spent the last two years working on.

I can see how it might be irksome, although you'd have to say that complaining about gear becoming obsolete in a theme-park MMO is a bit like complaining the sea's a bit wet when you go for a swim. It's both inevitable and really kind of the point.

As a casual player, though, new levels are awesome! Power creep means the opening up of new content. In the last few years Daybreak have done a magnificent job of enfranchising all playstyles, with solo versions of almost all Heroic and Raid content, but there are still some things I haven't been able to do. I'm hopeful that another ten levels might see me to the finale of Ages End at least.

Also of note is another free Level 100 giveaway, this time in the form of a "Boost Bauble". For two weeks from May 2nd to 15th any account made before the 20th of April is entitled to claim one bauble that will jump a single character to 100 and give them all the necessary gear to head to Obulos Frontier or The Proving Grounds.

Or in my case to sit around in a Freeport inn room for a few years, I imagine. I now have three level 100s and a level 96 on my main account and at least one level 100 on all the others. I have time to play, at most, two of them.

Not that that's going to stop me logging every account in and grabbing my birthright. I love the fact that it's a consumable this time rather than a straight boost from character select. Assuming these things don't have an expiry date that means I can sit on them until I find a use for them. Which, let's be frank, is going to be never, but, hey, free stuff!

There's also yet another Time Limited Expansion server, Fallen Gate. Like Agnarr, the upcoming EQ Progression server that's not going past LDoN ever, the new EQ2 version is eschewing democracy for a set schedule of quarterly unlocks. I'll probably pass. There are only so many servers you can meaningfully play on after all.

All in all, though, and especially after Easter's Beast'r home run, lookin' good, DBG!

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Road Goes Ever On...And On...And On : LotRO, Twin Saga, FFXIV

The MMORPG genre is a very broad church indeed. It stretches from spreadsheet spaceships at one end to prancing ponies at the other. Looking at the big picture, there isn't perhaps quite as much distance between Twin Saga and Lord of the Rings Online or FFXIV as you might imagine.

They all have central storylines revolving around momentous power struggles among godlike entities for a start. They also have tab targeting and hotbars, dungeons and boss mobs. All the good stuff.

One stark difference, though, is the extent to which the developers appear to give consideration to the value of time. The player's time, that is.

Twin Saga follows the common practice of Eastern MMOs: you can click on a quest in the tracker and have the game auto-run you to where you need to be. It's a particularly flexible version that delivers you not just to the general area but right to the precise creature you need to kill or to the object with which you need to interact to complete the quest.

When you're finished, another click takes you wherever you need to go to sign off on what you've done. Oftenyou need to see the same person who gave you the job in the first place but equally often they aren't where they were when they gave it to you.

It allows for a very relaxed, smooth questing experience that keeps you moving through the landscape without a lot of doubling back (although taking side-quests messes with the flow  somewhat). It also means that you can sit back and enjoy the view as you travel.

Neither LotRO nor FFXIV, at the equivalent levels, seem interested in running package tours for armchair adventurers. Although they both have equally dominant central storylines, (in FFXIV's case, like Twin Saga's, unavoidable if you want to open up certain options for your character) how you get from where you are to where you need to be is your responsibility.

To be fair, neither game follows the full, old school practice of giving you a vague description in the quest dialog and then leaving you to run around until you trip over whatever it is you're looking for by sheer luck or stubbornness. They both have some form of quest tracker that allows you to select whatever you want to work on and have the general location highlighted for you on the map.

After that, though, you're left to your own devices as to how to get there. This, I think, is supposed to be immersive. Or maybe it's meant to be morally instructive, inculcating some kind of protestant work ethic or boy scout sense of self-reliance.

Having played all three games in sequence several times recently I'm in two minds. I did find an odd sense of satisfaction in traveling from Rivendell to Forochel but it took so long I ran out of time the first night and had to camp half way, coming back to finish the journey the next morning. That's the next real morning, not game day, by the way.

What's more, what I was doing wasn't actually all that different from the auto-pathing in Twin Saga. I was going to a Stable Master, looking to see what routes he serviced, opening the map and choosing the best option, then mounting up and letting the game auto-run me to the next staging post. At which point I'd do it all over again.

LotRO has instant travel of a kind but there's some arcane rule over what you can and can't use as a Premium player and in any case by no means all routes have an instant option. Mostly I just sat on the horse and let the countryside flow by. Actually, mostly I tabbed out and web-browsed. So much for immersion.

LotRO's maps are vast. Incredibly huge. I don't think I ever realized while I was playing the first time just how sprawling the game-world is. I happened into Angmar the other night and after a full five minutes of riding on my reasonably fast pony I looked at the map and saw I was - maybe - five percent of the distance across the map. West Karana is like walking across the room compared to this.

Eorzea feels quite big but that's mainly because it's awkward, I think. It, too, has an automated travel option via the Chocobo Porter system and like LotRO it's one that leaves a lot to be desired. There aren't too many stops and most of the questing seems to happen in the wilderness where the only option is to travel on foot.

FFXIV famously made a huge concession with tradition when it allowed jumping. It was an innovation made grudgingly. While it's true that you can't be blockaded by a six inch rut in the road as you could in FFXI, there are still a lot of impassable slopes. Just because you can see your quest destination marked clearly on the map doesn't mean you can get there - or not the way you think.

All of this leads to some very different gaming experiences. Whether or not I prefer one over another comes down more to mood than any innate superiority in one design over the other, I think. The trip across Middle Earth was okay the once but I surely wouldn't want to make a habit of it. By the time I reached the snowlands I was very happy to have it over with.

Once there, though, I was entirely absorbed exploring the bleak, forbidding landscape, I'd never been past the first village before but with a couple more levels notched on the hilt of my sword I felt confident enough to press ahead and see what lay over each next hill. It made for an immersive and exciting session but that's because it was all new.

In FFXIV, where I'm criss-crossing the Central Shroud and occasionally running back to Gridania for a hand-in, I would kill for an auto-run button. It's a beautiful forest but I've seen it so many times now and when it comes right down to it there's not really all that much there, is there?

Against that you have to set my lack of interaction with the environment in Twin Saga (whose world is called - hang on, let me look it up...nope, can't find it...I'm sure they mentioned it once, somewhere). I have no idea how anywhere connects to anywhere else let alone what's in any part of any zone where I didn't have a quest to do. Maybe there isn't anything!

In the end any automated movement option, be it GW2's waypoints, LotRO's pony express or Twin Saga's UI driver, is only an option. No-one has to use it. I could just ride my giant ginger guinea pig around until I happen to spot the cluster of crocodiles I need to club to death. Like all easy options, though, if you know they're there it's hard to resist.

If I had to choose I think I'd come down on the side of automation. It doesn't detract as much as you might imagine from my involvement in the world  - not as much as getting really annoyed about yet another ten or fifteen minute run just to get to somewhere I've been countless times before. Then again, if you always know where you're going you never run into anything you weren't expecting.

There's no easy or right answer to this one. I do think that weak compromises like staged rides and limited instant travel are prone to create more problems than they solve, though. And once you start highlighting quest locations on the map you really might as well make it straightforward to get to them.

Or maybe I'm just spoiled after two days of click 'n' run.

Monday, 17 April 2017

There Goes The Neighborhood : Twin Saga

Well, that went a lot faster than I expected. Only yesterday I was speculating whether I'd last long enough in Twin Saga to makes it into the twenties and get my Terracottage and here I am this morning, riding around in one.

After I finished in GW2 last night I went back to play some more and this morning when I sat down at the PC after breakfast I realized this was still the game I wanted play. I put in another three hours or so and now I'm a homeowner.

I was somewhat tentative about posting twice in a row about a game that, most likely, no-one reading this is even going to bother to download. Nevertheless, it's what I'm playing and also what I'm thinking about so I guess we'll just go with it.

There's also an issue of fair reporting to consider, or fair reviewing, if you consider this to be a review, which it kind of is. One of the very specific things I drew attention to in yesterday's post, the fruity tone and overripe prose, just seems to vanish around the time you leave the starting areas.

There's a major tonal shift from nudge-wink to gosh-wow! It's as though the writer and the translator both got up, took a walk to stretch their legs, came back and noticed what the game they were working on actually looked like. And who the audience might be - either tweenage girls or people who think like them.

That may not be an accurate assessment of the playerbase. It's the internet, after all, and as we know, everyone on the internet is a 57 year old trucker from Boise, Idaho. Still, it's quite hard not to assume the developers were targeting a very particular demographic when they came up with Rita and The Kitty-Cat Crew.

If Twin Saga has a screenshot function I haven't been able to find it so I'm relying on good old FRAPS and sadly I didn't have it running when I bumped into Rita. Someone on YouTube did though so if you're interested you can share the entire experience vicariously. Ailurophobes and diabetics beware. Also anyone who considers themselves to have either taste or standards.

It's probably not a good idea to dwell on why, but I'm enjoying Twin Saga more than just about any Eastern MMO I've played since...well, probably since Zentia. I suspect this may have something to do with TS being Japanese rather than Chinese or Korean in origin but then again Zentia was Chinese so maybe not.

Anyway, it's good. It's also coherent and easy to follow, which is not something I've been able to say about any imported MMO for a long time. So far it has a single, linear plot that makes sense. Okay, it's the regular nonsense about gods and goddesses but it's clear who is who, what happened to them, what they need to do about it and what your role is.

It may be that I've now played enough of these games to get an intuitive feeling for the "break it down and re-use it" progression mechanics they all use but for once I had no trouble working out the specifics of how to improve and upgrade my gear. It's also because Twin Saga is one of the most ergonomically acute MMOs I've ever played.

The UI is a model of efficiency. I found it immediately accessible and understandable. I didn't really need the tutorial tips but they're there and they're among the best I've seen. Twin Saga is a very comfortable game to settle into, with a very shallow, gentle learning curve.

That said, the Terracottage has turned out to be a bit of a challenge. You get one for nothing at level 21 as you progress through the Main Questline and it functions both as a house and a mount. It took a few mouseclicks and some trial and error to work out how to spawn and unspawn it and a few more figuring out how to get inside.

Once I was in there I somehow managed to set the shared storage so that no-one can access it, not even me! I think that was mainly because I'd become so (over) confident by then that I didn't bother listening to the NPCs as they explained everything. That's also how come I have a chair that I don't know how to place.

Nothing the wiki won't sort out, I'm sure. The Terracottage itself is fantastic. It really is. It has three floors - the Hall, which you can decorate, the Greenhouse, where you can grow genetically mutated plants and then cook them, and the Workshop, which is a full-function crafting center.

All three settings are quite stunning. Indeed, every setting in Twin Saga is stunning. It's a gorgeous game. Once again, as with Revelation Online, I've scarcely explored anything or anywhere. The on-rails auto-questing mitigates very strongly against doing so. Yet I feel as though I have. There are so many wonderful, rich, strange sights that it's as if exploration comes to you without you having to go looking for it.

In the early twenties I notice leveling speed beginning to slow. I see from the map that there are at least sixty-five levels. There's three-quarters of the overland yet to see. I could be here a while.

Just as well I have somewhere nice to live.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Seperated At Birth : Twin Saga, Dragomon Hunter

What I need is another MMO to play, right? Or how about a couple? I mean, according to my own account, I'm only playing five right now, with another dozen lined up, waiting to go. That can't be enough, right?

I didn't even mention Dragomon Hunter when I was counting down the possibles although last year I was playing it and enjoying it. I even blogged about it a few times. I took a break and the main reason I didn't go back was I lost my log in details, something I only found out when I tried to play another MMO in the Aeria Games stable, Twin Saga.

Quite a while ago someone - it might have been Kaozz at ECTMMO - wrote something about Twin Saga that made me think it might be worth a look. Then Syp at Bio Break wrote it up for one of his Try-Out Tuesday pieces and almost everything he said reminded me very strongly of Dragomon Hunter, which I took as a recommendation.

Wait a minute...I'm Level 2 and I haven't logged in yet.

So I downloaded it and installed the inevitable Aeria Games front end, which for some reason I'd never needed for DH. It was at that point that I realized I could use my existing Aeria Games account to play both games. Only, not having hunted any dragomons for quite a while, I couldn't remember the password. Or even which email account I'd used.

I searched around but I couldn't find the details. At that point I could have made a new account - they're free after all - but then I'd have had to start Dragomon Hunter over from scratch, which I really didn't want to do.

So I shelved the project and mostly forgot about it, except the Twin Saga icon stayed right there on my desktop, eying me balefully, which meant I could never completely forget about it after all. Then yesterday, when I was trying to find my Dragon Nest log in information (successfully, I might add, although my installed client is now so far behind the current version it won't even patch, so I have to download the whole thing again before I can play), what should I stumble across but the missing Aeria Games details!

Gatefold album sleeve c. 1973

A little window into the chaos and serendipity that I call a life, there. Anyway, with that incentive I opened up the Aeria patcher and patched both games. I tried to log into Dragomon Hunter but the servers were down for maintenance (at EU prime-time on a Saturday night on a holiday weekend if you  can believe it!).

Which is how I come to be playing Twin Saga. And guess what? Enjoying it, too. Probably more than I should.

Follow the yellow mud road

Couple of things to say about it up front. Twin Saga is hands down one of the most visually attractive MMOs I've ever played. The screenshots, for once, do it justice. It does look that good in game.

I realize you have to like the particular style, which won't be to everyone's taste, but as an example of that style I have never seen better. The colors are extraordinarily rich and the environments deliriously lush. I get the profound feeling this is a game that's been art designed to within an inch of its life and that's always a positive in my book.

And it wasn't even the most disturbing encounter I had that day...

Secondly, it's lubricious to a disturbing degree. No, perhaps "lubricious" doesn't quite catch the flavor. It's fleshy. There's a disturbing delight in sexual imagery that seems all the more inappropriate given the doll-like characters but the game doesn't rest at bawdy. Appetites in general are the focus here: from a delight in violence to an orgy of gluttony, character after character indulges in a frenzy of lust - for weapons, for pies, for defenceless elf girls.

It could be unpleasant.  It often is unsettling. Twin Saga is saved, just about, from outright creepiness by two things: the sheer gusto of the writing and the relatively demure visuals. The quest text isn't merely extensive and verbose, it's baroque and bizarre, while everyone dresses as though they're about to take a walk-on part in a restoration drama.

Okay, that's not at all inappropriate...

I haven't taken the trouble to determine whether Dragomon Hunter and Twin Saga share a developer but I'm all but certain they share a translator. TS's quest text is nowhere near as batshit insane as DH's, which may speak to an underlying difference in authorship, but tonally they're identical.

Syp was taken aback by the vocabulary, saying "listen, I write professionally, and this game is throwing words at me that I’ve never heard of before". He wondered whether Google translate might have had a hand but I think the explanation is much more likely to be one particular translator having the time of their life and getting away with it - possibly because they're the only one in the office who speaks both languages.

Flocculent? Flocculent?! "Bushy" wouldn't have done?

Whoever it is knows their way around both a thesaurus and a dictionary. Almost every arcane word that appears - and there are many - is used correctly. On the other hand someone did decide to render "curlicue" as "curly-Q" so who knows? Either way I love it. I read every word, which is why it took me nearly three hours to get to level 12. Syp estimated he spent 60% of his game-time talking to NPCs but I'd guess my tally came in closer to 75%.

What I certainly didn't spend much time doing was fighting. I think almost every single quest was either a fetch or kill, usually four, sometimes six, one time eight. The universal MMO gathering action is faster here than the average and combat at these levels consists literally of drumming your fingers as fast as you like on keys 1 and 2.

That's if you're in a hurry. Autoattack works just as well. It just takes a few seconds longer. Combine that with auto-find on the quest locations and auto-complete on the hand-ins and you have one very relaxing MMO.

I've seen a capybara. Trust me, they do not look like this.

And it very definitely is an MMO. You could assume that a game such as I'm describing would be indistinguishable from a solo RPG but these are precisely the kind of mechanics that attract what is probably the real global MMO audience.

The starting areas are heaving with players. I got two friend invites in a few minutes when I was hanging around the starting village - one in a pop-up and one in a whisper. All around you can see player characters standing in pairs or clusters talking to each other. It's like these are people who've come to an MMO because there are other people there to play with not in spite of it.

If I had unlimited time I would happily play Twin Saga for an hour or two every day. It's a bit of a sugar rush but it's bright and zippy and there seems to be plenty to do. What's more, the progression mechanics don't appear to be as abstruse as they often can be. I almost understood them right off the bat.

And so to bed.

If I can fit a few sessions in I'm going to try to get at least as far in the main quest line as it takes to unlock the housing option - The Terracottage. One of these stomped past me while I was out adventuring and it was quite something.

That means completing the main quest sequence as far as level 21, which sounds entirely doable. I think I got further than that in Dragomon Hunter. Speaking of which, I guess I should do some more there, too.

So many games...

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Irons In The Fire

At the very end of my "What I'm Playing" post the other day I threw in a line about how I wasn't even mentioning the mobile and non-mmo stuff. And, in doing so, mentioned it. So, here it is.

There isn't a lot because, well, I don't really play any video games that aren't MMOs, not for a long while now, but I do have three non-MMOs bookmarked so I can keep track of them in a desultorily obsessive fashion. None of them is officially released yet although two are getting close.

Furthest along by far is We Happy Few, which also happens to be the least MMOish of the three. I came across this one when Keen's jaw dropped at the E3 reveal. "WTF…Creepy. Skipping.!" was all he had to say but it was enough to make me go check out the trailer and I've been following it ever since.

WHF went into Early Access via Steam in July last year. I briefly considered buying in then but equally swiftly decided that would be a bad idea. While I can very much understand the attraction of watching an MMO grow up around me as I play it, it would make very little sense to do the same with a game built on narrative.

It's only now, pushing towards a year later, that Compulsion Games are getting around to patching in the 1.0 version of the full story. This does seem to be a case where Early Access has worked very well both for company and players. We Happy Few currently has a Very Positive Steam rating and when they say "very positive" they really mean it: 83% all time, rising to 90% over the last month.

Running your narrative-driven game successfully for nine months without actually having the narrative in place is quite a feat in itself but such acceptance comes at a risk. Compulsion Games are well aware of this and they're understandably nervous about the big switch. "It seems like a lot of people who haven’t played the game think our game is just a sandbox survival game with zero story", they say in the latest of their admirably frequent and detailed progress reports.

To that end there's going to be a series of videos (starting with this one) explaining what current players can expect the game to become, while encouraging people who don't start salivating when they hear the words "survival sandbox" not to pass by on the other side. The video features Alex Epstein, the game's narrative director, who has an interesting blog of his own, which you can find in the blog roll to the right. I was tipped to it by Tyler Sanchez in the comments last time I mentioned the game and I've been following it ever since.

We Happy Few looks set to be a success. Whether Early Access really does a game like this any favors is less certain. At current pace of development I'd guess the full launch won't come this year and by the time it does this kind of publicity may be hard to find. Then again, you can't time every game launch to coincide precisely with a once-in-a-lifetime lurch in the zeitgeist.

Next up on the assembly line is Tanzia. This colorful online RPG has been in closed testing for a long time. It missed its intended late 2016 EA launch date but not by too much. A few days ago developers Arcanity Inc. finally announced a firm date for Early Access via Steam: April 27th.

There are a couple of reasons I've been paying attention to Tanzia, which I first heard of through a brief piece on Massively OP.  Justin "Syp" Olivetti who wrote that squib caught my interest with the tagline: "Tanzia gives you the MMO experience without the ‘MMO’. I've long believed that it's as much the actual mechanics of MMORPGs that bind me to the genre as it is any of the multiplayer or social aspects, something that certainly seemed to hold true when I played Ninelives.

Ninelives is a moody, surreal work of art whereas Tanzia looks to be more of a sugar-overload romp but it's the gameplay rather than the graphics that intrigue me. Official descriptions make repeated references to the importance of kiting, which is something I don't think I have ever seen bigged up as a PR win before. I purely love kiting so it's a hook for me.

The other reason I'm paying attention to Tanzia is the pedigree of the team behind the game. The full skinny includes a whole load of prestigious studios and games but my eye was immediately caught by mention of SOE, Vanguard, EverQuest and Free Realms.

Whether Tanzia can live up to the rep of the games that underpin its design brief remains to be seen but this time I'll most likely buy in to Early Access, depending on the cost, which I don't believe has yet been confirmed. If there are packages announced already I couldn't find them.

On the other hand, Early Access for Tanzia is slated to last for just eight weeks. If they're going to hit full launch two months after EA then maybe I'll just wait. It sounds optimistic!

Bringing up the rear, a very long way behind both in familiarity and progress, but right at the front when it comes to MMO credentials, comes Antilia. Antilia was going to be an MMO but that turned out to be too much for the developer, Right Brain Games. There was a failed Kickstarter for the MMO version back in 2014 and since then the focus has been on making something smaller.

RBG describes itself as "a small team of developers dedicated to creating unique video games for the online game market" but as far as I can tell they haven't released any games. They have made a number of tools designed to aid in the creation of games but they aren't currently licensing or selling any of those for commercial use either.

What they do have is a website with some very nice screenshots and concept art and a trickle of detail about a virtual world that I find rather appealing. The game, if it ever appears, is set to be "a sandbox-style fantasy RPG, featuring a dynamic world simulation and anthropomorphic characters", which is pretty much a nailed-on "I'd play that" as far as I'm concerned.

First I have to live long enough. Whoever is behind Right Brain Games certainly isn't in a hurry. Last year the website was barely updated at all but this year has seen a relative flurry of activity with three posts so far.

The year began with an outline of project goals for 2017. The approach is very open and honest, full of self-deprecating statements and explanations:
"Progress in 2016 was very limited. This is just something that needs to be acknowledged. There wasn't really much in the way of 'secret progress' that I'm not showing. For most of the year my time on Antilia was limited to a few evenings and maybe one day each weekend...Let's face it, the development team behind Antilia is very small. While I am grateful that a good many people have expressed interest in helping the project in any way they can, these offers are from enthusiastic gamers and community members rather than seasoned game developers. Including more people on the project means more communication and coordination, as well as an investment of my time getting people set up and training them in our development tools. Doing this one-on-one has not led to much success."

It might not be what anyone wants to hear but at least they're telling it like it is!

Those are the only three non-MMO projects I'm keeping an eye on right now. Naturally the one I'm most interested in playing is the one I seem destined least likely ever to get my hands on. And I still didn't get round to mobile games. Maybe another time.

Friday, 14 April 2017

An Easter Egg Hunt : EQ2

Mrs Bhagpuss and I were talking the other day about Easter Egg Hunts and how they were never really much of a thing when we were growing up. I think I may have done one, once, as a child but I'm not even sure about that.

The concept is one I know more from popular culture than personal experience. Maybe I would have felt differently about it when I was eight years old but the idea of poking around in the shrubbery on a cold April morning looking for my chocolate eggs has considerably less appeal than simply having them handed to me indoors.

Going on an egg hunt in virtuality, though: that's an altogether more appealing prospect. It was late last night when I happened on an alert from the invaluable EQ2 Traders Corner. What would we do without Niami Denmother? You can have all your Developer Appreciation Weeks - praise where praise is due - but what we really need is a Volunteer Appreciation Week for all the people like Mum and Feldon and whoever it is who runs the EQ2 Library.

Rather than rush into something while I was tired after a long day at work I wrote myself a reminder to check it out next morning. I'm at that age now when if I don't make notes I can't be sure I'll remember what I was thinking about the day before. Actually I was always that way. I can't blame it on the passage of time.

Pet egg. Do not pat.

EQ2 wasn't the first thing I thought of when I woke up this Good Friday. That would have been Hot Cross Buns. After a brisk walk to the bakery and a breakfast that was fruity if a little dry, I sat down at the computer, where I immediately spotted my note. So that worked!

The egg hunt is itself a genuine "Easter Egg" in that it's neither a quest nor an achievement nor any sort of directed content. As Niami Denmother puts it "With no announcement, an eggstra special surprise appeared in Norrath".

There are five "Beast'r" eggs, each with a name more suitable for a dwarf bent on taking up a career in animated movies: Bumbly, Cheeky, Cheery, Frisky and Lovely. They spawn in all cities and starting areas so I went to the place I know best, Freeport, to look for them.

They aren't trackable and they don't appear to be lying about the streets in the flagrant fashion of most holiday collectables. All the ones I found were in relatively out of the way places. Even so, they weren't hard to find.

Just answer the questions and the beatings won't be so severe.

The eggs are quite big and bright and hard to miss. As soon as they appeared it won't have taken long at all, I'm sure, for people to begin noticing them and inquiring about them in chat. I wonder who it was who thought to ask a guard about them?

It would certainly never have occurred to me. It's been a very long time since I asked a guard to show me the way to anything. I'd pretty much forgotten it was something they did. It is, though.

When I was growing up we may not have had Easter Egg Hunts but we did have helpful policemen. I was taught as a child that if I was lost I should ask a policeman and even as a young adult on some of my early trips to London I would ask a policeman for directions before I'd ever think of looking at a map.

These days it could be days - weeks - before I even saw a policeman and even if I did I'd certainly think twice about asking where the nearest post office might be. Times have changed.

When it comes to MMOs, it's hard to think of a law enforcement agency you'd be less likely to approach with a frivolous enquiry than Lucan's Freeport Militia. They have an appalling reputation for casual brutality and that's the nicer ones. You'd expect the Qeynos lot to send you on your way with a snappy salute and a kindly gesture but in Freeport it's generally best to keep your head down and not make eye contact.

He was brought up by humans in case you're wondering. A troupe of traveling actors by the sound of it.

Still, a seasoned adventurer has little to fear from any city guards these days. Training's not what it was and most of the militia couldn't take a firm handshake from a level 100. My Berserker posed the question and got a swift and positive reply. "Cheery Beast'r Egg, is it? That way sir, above you and to the South East. Just follow the glowy trail. All part of the job, sir. Mind how you go!"

I found the first egg at the back of the inn in East Freeport where all the mercenaries hang out, that cosy little balcony over the harbor, where sailors gaze out to sea and soak their troubles in rum. I found the second one there, too. And the third.

At this point I was beginning to think all I had to do was lean on the rail and wait for the rest to spawn but I got into conversation with an ex-captain who'd lost his ship and next thing I knew I found myself in Beggar's Court searching the slave quarters. Somehow I accidentally killed one of Lucan's taskmasters (it was self defense - these things happen, you know how it is) so after I'd hidden the body I thought it might be a good time to look for eggs a little further afield. Like The Commonlands.

It took no time at all to find the last two I needed: Bumbly and Cheeky (or was it Cheery?). The final egg turned up in a Kerran hut, where the entire family was standing around staring at it, probably wondering how to cook it. They're a fussy, faddy race.

Anyone would think you cats never saw an egg before.

Picking up the final egg popped a new title - "The Eggcellent Adventurer". No pun left unturned. And all five of the eggs become cosmetic pets. Very well worth the small effort involved.

With the detour into piracy and subversion the whole thing took a couple of hours but the egg hunt alone you could probably knock out in half an hour or less. It's short, simple and a lot of fun.

Like the "Current Events" in GW2 increasingly I find that this kind of unpublicised, low-intensity background content is what I look forward to and enjoy the most in MMOs. Far from being mere filler it seems to me that this stuff is a lot more satisfying than many of the over-hyped big ticket events.

Seeing Blizzard working this seam with with their micro-holidays I am guessing it's something of a trend. It's a good one. Long may it continue and let's not be limiting to holidays, either.
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