Sunday, 20 August 2017

Bleedthrough : GW2

A couple of weeks ago, while I was hanging around in Krennak's Homestead, an NPC dive in Wayfarer Hills that I like to use as a surrogate home when I'm in the area, I was startled to hear a conversation strike up behind me. The Norn family that live there, none of whom I'd ever paid  much attention before, began to run through some kind of comedy routine.

It was a pretty funny little skit and quite a long one, too. I laughed out loud a couple of times but my amusement was heavily outweighed by my confusion and surprise. I mean, I doubt I'd be exaggerating much if I said I'd spent a dozen hours in that hut over the life of the game. I camp there almost every time after I've done The Frozen maw and I frequently afk there to web browse or write a blog post.

Since I have the sound of the game set to continue playing while I'm tabbed out, I can absolutely guarantee that, had the Norn Family piped up, I'd have heard them. I never had until then.

Since then I've heard them exchange the same banter so often I could almost recite it by heart. It starts up every time I enter the lodge and replays often if I stay there. It's gone from amusing to annoying to "I really have to find somewhere else to afk".

It would seem very strange for ANet to have paid writers and voice actors to add this kind of flavor to
such old content so my best guess was that it had long been bugged until something in some patch nudged it working. That explanation didn't entirely convince me but it was the best I could manage.

Anyway, I soon stopped wondering about it as the dialog became part of the soundscape of the game. Then today I happened to be in Plains of Ashford when something happened that surprised me even more.

I'd logged in my Free to Play account to take the screenshots for my Elite Spec Beta post (because reasons) and since I had it logged in I thought I'd check whether F2P accounts are allowed to claim the free promo item currently in the Black Lion Store (yes, they are).

After that I thought I'd just do the Dailies and one of them was Plains of Ashford Events. My F2P ranger is a Charr and I used to love doing my dailies in Ashford so much I once wrote a guide on the subject (albeit the long-lost and much-missed "Kill Variety" kind), so that was too tempting to ignore.

First I went to the cave under the waterfall to spawn the Rampaging Skale. As I was standing there waiting, I thought I faintly heard a sound I'd almost forgotten: Drottot Lashtail demanding devourer eggs.

Drottot is a Charr given the unenviable task of teaching cubs how to catch and raise devourers for the Legions. His charges are sassy, the work is tedious and as far as I knew he'd given up trying about three years ago. Not his choice: he was retired as part of the New Player Experience patch that, among other things, strove to do away with many non-standard events that supposedly sent delicate new players into a tail-spin.

This particular event required you to activate some small devices that look and sound like old-fashioned gramophones in order to distract female devourers so you could break into their nests and steal their eggs. It was fiddly enough that a three-year old child might have taken five or ten seconds to grasp the mechanics so it had to go.

Well, it's back! I did it this morning. It was joyous. So good, in fact, that I did it twice. With other people. Still busy in Ashford on daily day I'm happy to confirm.

Of course, now I'm beginning to doubt my own memory. I can't find any sign that I, or anyone else, ever wrote about the event going away, much less anyone commenting on it coming back. If it wasn't for that absolutely, definitely, for certain sure new to me after five years, dialog in Wayfarer Foothills I'd think I was losing it (whatever "it" is and always assuming I ever had it in the first place).

Oh, and there's this, which does prove things get changed under the hood now and again without ANet coming out and making a big fuss about it.  I note that was also a belated acknowledgement of mistakes made in the New Player Experience.

Co-incidence? I think not.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Playing It By Ear: GW2

Last weekend ANet threw open the gates to the Crystal Desert. Metaphorical gates only. Not, sadly, the actual, huge gates that stand so imposingly and implacably outside the city of  Ebonhawke.

Those massive gates were constructed on the orders of Queen Jennah to bar the route southwards through the desert to Elona, after Destiny's Edge's attempt to kill the Elder Dragon, Kralkatorrik, failed. A more egregious example of bolting the stable doors after the dragon has bolted is hard to imagine.

It takes some beating in the desperate face-saving stakes, too. Having wrecked a perfectly good plan that would have worked if she'd held her nerve, having gotten Snaff killed and half of Ascalon Branded, Jennah apparently thought a big public works project was all it would take to restore confidence in her judgment and authority.

Even as I write this, I find it quite astonishing how annoyed - almost angry - I get just thinking about it all, particularly Logan's desperately poor decision-making and Jennah's imperious arrogance.

Herein lies one of GW2's huge problems: the much-maligned story has huge emotional heft if - and only if - it has been experienced in media outside of the game. By the standards of genre literature (far less those of literature per se) the novel in which all this happens, Edge of Destiny, is little more than a classic potboiler. The prose style is professional in the way of competent work made for hire and it zips along like the shooting script for a movie. No claims could be made on its behalf beyond efficiency and purity of function but those are claims that far outstrip anything ever seen in the story within the game itself.

Nevertheless, I have a strong and lasting affinity to certain characters in the milieu, purely because I read that unexceptional novel. It's why I share Rytlock's deep distrust and suspicion of Logan. It's why I do not trust Jennah in any way, shape or form. It's why I feel Zojja's entirely justified bitterness and anger and it's why I have more faith and affection for Caith than anything she's ever been seen to have done in the Living Story could possibly support.

It goes on. Others, who played through Guild Wars Campaigns over the years (and no doubt read and absorbed a deal of out-of-game lore and story, too), have had little patience or sympathy with the raft of new characters introduced to supersede the familiar faces from that era. The emotional attachments they developed to the characters and lore that ANet, apparently intentionally, chose either to ignore or, worse, to trash in favor of an entirely new cast and direction remain far stronger than any bonds the new, in-game material has been able to forge .

It's taken years for even a grudging affection for one or two of those new actors to build. Possibly only Taimi has a real following, even now. Canach, maybe. The best the rest achieve is tolerance. Maybe some curiosity. Jory and Kas, for example, have one of those soap-opera relationships that make you feel guilty for wanting to know how it's going to turns out (badly, of course). You want to look away but you can't.

All of that keys in to why it is that I've wanted to go through those Ebonhawke gates ever since I first saw them, barred to me, five years ago. When we learned the Path of Fire lay in the same direction I thought we might start our journey there but it seems that's not to be. Instead, we're set to take yet another cut-scene trip on yet another unfeasibly buoyant airship.

All of this went through my mind as I sorted the screenshots from this week's Path of Fire beta. Yes, there's another one. You may have missed it. I nearly did, albeit intentionally. For this one no airships are involved, let alone any opening gates.

It all takes place in either PvP or WvW zones, where you can trial the new Elite weapon skills and specifications for each class. I wasn't going to bother with it at all until I read Jeromai's post, in which he tells us he's not "super keen" either, then goes on to write over two thousand detailed, insightful words about his experience. My interest very mildly piqued I thought I might as well at least take a quick glance...

The first surprise was the loading screen, shown at the top of this post. I'd completely forgotten that ANet recently revamped the entire PvP lobby. Instead of a long-familiar scrubby afterthought it's now as visually sumptuous as any other GW2 location, It has waypoints and POIs and everything. Make GW2 another one to add to Massively OP's list of MMOs obsessed with floating islands.

Distracted, I wandered about exploring for a while looking at the old new stuff before getting around to looking at the new new stuff. I am not going to say much about the PoF elites in any detail - Jeromai covered that already - but I am going to echo his tone, when he says

... the prospect of having to learn too many new tricks is a little scary and intimidating, and not a little depressing...

Yes, it's all a bit much, isn't it? I mean, I love the chaotic rush of a new MMO expansion, when all the old certainties get thrown into the air and come down in tatters and for a brief, breathless while no-one knows any better than anyone else, but there's always a hangover after that party..

That iconoclasm is the good part (the best of which I will miss this time round because the pot will be four days off the boil by the time I get a taste). The less-good comes with the construction of the New Certainties that have to last us for the next two years, or at least until some nervous dev pulls the nerf alarm.

At some point, probably a lot sooner than I'd like, there will be a new Meta for every class. In GW2, that's not merely a metaphor: there will actually be an official New Meta. It will be posted at MetaBattle and you will be asked by any number of authority figures (Guild Leaders, Raid Organizers, WvW Commanders) to go read it and apply it to your character.

Therafter, if you choose to ignore such advice, you will be "off meta" and can expect to be treated accordingly. If you want to get old-style groups - although probably the only place that happens nowadays is for Fractals, I guess - or if you want to raid or do ranked PvP or run with a "serious" WvW guild, there will be homework. And practice.

Fortunately, GW2 remains an extremely open, forgiving environment for mavericks, self-starters, bullheads and slackers. If you solo, you can forget the Meta - any Meta - entirely; it means absolutely nothing to you; carry on as you were, no-one cares. Also, if you play GW2 as originally intended, hot-joining Dynamic Events, being a good ant, very little will change there, either. In the Zerg no-one knows your name - or your build.

The anonymity of crowds doesn't just apply to PvE. In five years of increasingly obsessive WvW play I have never, ever, not one single time, been called out for having the wrong build, class, gear or playstyle. People say it happens but I've never seen it happen to anyone, let alone experienced it myself.

It's not that there's no drive for efficiency. Commanders frequently ask for people to swap to, say, Guardians or Eles because they don't have as many as they'd like. And people do swap, willingly. I've just never heard any Commander ask a specific individual to change when they didn't want to anyway.

Certainly no-one has ever whispered me to suggest I stop running around as an Engineer, firing my Flamethrower randomly in all directions (as I do on my third account sometimes) and swap instead to a class or build that might actually be useful. Or even, failing that, swap to a class I have at least the shadow of an inkling how to play.

Consequently, I'm not going to go as far as Jeromai and say I feel intimidated or depressed by the new elites but I did find myself feeling a little ennui as I tried to read through the new Elementalist line, The Weaver. There's such a lot there to take in. Really, such a lot. I'm not sure I remember signing up for extra tuition.

Recent discussion on GW2 in this part of the Blogosphere has circled around how much more complex an MMO it is than it first appears. You don't by any means have to know or understand anything more than the absolute basics; you can play the game enjoyably without knowing much at all about builds or synergies, but it's becoming ever more apparent that if you do know those things, the game gets quite a lot easier.

There's a nuance to this that we all seem to miss. Jeromai alerted me to it when he described playing an Elementalist or an Engineer in GW2 as being "like playing the piano".

When we argue about what "playing" MMOs means, as we often do, the discussion tends to focus on the balance or imbalance between the dual concepts of play as "fun" and as "game"; no-one ever seems to notice that "play" has that third meaning.

Playing almost any video game is directly analogous to playing a musical instrument. It only takes a few minutes to pick up the basics but countless hours to become a virtuoso. Just to achieve basic competence requires dedication and practice and if you want to play in a group - well, you'll need to rehearse together.

Raids in MMOs add the possibility of playing in an orchestra and require the same degree of discipline. GW2's huge, sprawling open map events are more forgiving. Like the Rockin' 1000, the zerg can carry a few passengers and if one or two are off the beat, well, who's ever going to know?.

At a glance, though, getting to grips with a new PoF Elite spec doesn't look so much like learning a new tune as picking up a new instrument entirely. I don't know that I'm up for that. I can knock out a few tunes on the old elementalist joanna but I'm not entirely sure I'm ready to take up the harpsichord just yet!

Which isn't to say it doesn't all look rather intriguing. In the detail of The Weaver I see a lot of Stability uptime as well as some 50% super-speed and a lot of auto-condi cleanse. As someone who specializes in being slippery and not getting caught, that has real potential I'm keen to explore.

Just not yet. I'm going to skip this beta. I'm interested, yes, but I'm in no hurry. I think I'll wait until the music starts - for real.

Monday, 14 August 2017

From A Distance : GW2

After yesterday's mammoth post and chunky comment section I'm going to attempt to keep this short. We'll see how that goes...

Jeromai has an excellent piece up about GW2's failings when it comes to introducing new or returning players to its particular mechanics. As I was reading it I had a small epiphany about just why I don't seem to experience the same difficulties others do when traveling through Heart of Thorns maps.

I posted a lengthy reply and came here feeling all clever and wise, only to read some of the comments that appeared overnight, after which I realized that my so-called epiphany was in fact a case of me not having been able to see some very obvious wood among a number of extremely large trees.

Here's the thing: I don't melee in GW2. Never have. Not on any character, not on any class.

It's not that I have anything against melee, aesthetically, conceptually, practically or any other adverb. I melee non-stop in EQ2, where I usually play a Berserker. I tanked for years on a Shadowknight in EverQuest and on both a Disciple and a Dread Knight in Vanguard.

Before I ever played GW2, though, I read a lot about it and all the talk of active combat and dodging worried me. I did a bit of research, asked a few questions and when the first beta weekend arrived I rolled a ranger.

Without me he's nothing!

That worked incredibly well. It removed all my apprehensions about GW2 at a stroke. I realized I would be able to play GW2 just like I played EQ or WoW or LotRO, if that's what I wanted, because GW2 had a class with a pet that tanks.

I wrote about it at the time, concluding with this advice: 
I would encourage anyone who found the whole action combat hype too daunting to make a Charr ranger next beta [and] let your pet tank pretty much anything you're likely to want to solo.
That advice still stands (the details I've cut out of the quote, about hunting drakes to craft your own armor and equipping Troll Unguent and Signet of the Wild...well, MMOs change over time). There's a reason why "Bearbow" rangers are looked down on and even laughed at - it's because playing one is choosing to play GW2 on Easy Mode.

I haven't played  a Bearbow ranger for almost five years. I rarely play a ranger at all these days, although Druid is my go-to class for story instances. The thing that carried over from that initial experience, the thing that has stayed with me ever since is this: if the mob can't get to you it can't hurt you.

In GW2 I play ranged. On every class. One of the big advantages of the way the game is set up is that every class can play ranged. Whether every class can also play melee I'm not sure. I haven't tried. They probably can, with the right build.

Jeromai astutely points out that prior to the arrival of Heart of Thorns, the GW2 dungeon meta was Berserker build, stack in a corner, melee cleave. I didn't do dungeons then (I was ahead of my time - now no-one does) so that particular meta passed me by. GW2 is a game very much prone to having "metas" and most of them pass me by so nothing unusual there.

Come here! Yellow stuff bad!

Consequently, when HoT intentionally and by design shattered that meta into a thousand pieces I barely noticed. I arrived in Verdant Brink ready to play the way I always play - stand well back, drop a lot of AEs at maximum range, be ready to get out of Denver at a millisecond's notice.

As I examine this playstyle choice I begin to see just why I find some of Jeromai's detailed accounts of what Mordrem and other mobs actually do to be so surprising. Vile Thrashers, apparently, leave acid trails. Leeching Thrashers heal up to full if you melee them. Who knew? Not me, that's for sure!

And why would I, since I never get close enough to any of them to find out? If I'm traveling I avoid everything I can avoid and use all my tricks to dodge anything I can't. I'm not going to stop and fight any of them. Why would I do that?

If I'm doing events then either I do them with others, in which case someone else can jolly well eat all those CCs, or I pick only the events I can complete comfortably at range. I don't really recall many - possibly any - events that I had to solo.

And yet, soloing is arguably what Heart of Thorns was made for. Certainly I argued that. I wrote about it at some length at the time, in a post wittily entitled "Soloing in Heart of Thorns". In it I suggested that

To me, "soloing" in MMORPGs means having complete freedom to do whatever I choose, while having that choice meaningfully progress my character. It means walking out of the city gate into adventure, alone, and returning, who knows how much later, still alone but stronger, wiser, battle-scarred and proud.
That's not everyone's definition but it's mine and I found HoT matched it perfectly. I summed it up thus:

So, yes, this is solo heaven. For me, anyway. It can be for you. Pick the right class and build. Take your time preparing. Explore until you feel you know how the land lies. Learn your escape routes. Practice your tactics... It's a classic interpretation of the MMORPG solo experience and classics never go out of style.
 And that's exactly how I still feel about it. Only with this caveat: pick ranged.

If you love to melee, if you're never happy unless you 're getting all up in the mob's grill, maybe HoT isn't the best fit. MMOs generally don't come in one size fits all, though. You do need to adapt.

Stick to what you know.

That's where builds and all that jazz come in. Again, Jeromai has some pertinent observations and good advice. You really should have some kind of stun break loaded and these days a condition cleanse too.

Tyler comments 

 "I don't think I've ever even had a stun break equipped on any of my characters. There's nothing in the game that says you should, and in most MMOs such things are considered to only be relevant in PvP, so it never even occurred to me it might be necessary".

He's right. I never used to have one either. I do now but it has nothing to do with Heart of Thorns.

I hate changing builds and I hate changing spells/abilities. I like to set my characters in stone when they hit max level and by preference they would never change after that point until the game closes down. I might not like changing builds but sometimes I have to.

The last time was when the big Condi change happened. World vs World became almost literally unplayable without a condi cleanse and a stun breaker loaded so I put some in. If I didn't play WvW I wouldn't have bothered but it turns out that choice has also stood me in good stead for Heart of Thorns.

Never mess with those who carry round a fire hose.

In this, GW2 is like every other MMO: it changes, sometimes radically, over time. It also changes across different game modes, at different levels, on different classes and on different maps. What worked in Wayfarer Foothills might not work in Frostgorge and what worked there could falter in Verdant Brink. Tactics that work for a Guardian might not have the same happy outcome on a Necromancer.

So far, though, in five years, in the open world, at every level, on every class and every map, what's worked best for me is range. Range and perpetual motion. Put those together and you'll stay alive longer. Probably.

Somewhere down the line some smart ANet dev may decide ranged classes are having it far too much their own way. We may get an expansion that favors the good old axe to the face approach. If so, I'll have to deal with it. Until then I'll be the one at the back, throwing fireballs.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Taking It Easy : GW2

The Path of Fire demo kicked off a very interesting discussion at Endgame Viable and Why I Game. It followed on, in a way, from another conversation about GW2 that was already going on over at Aywren Sojourner. Some of the insights, explanations and observations in the various posts and comments helped to  clarify a few things I'd felt or suspected about the game but hadn't quite been able to put into words until now.

It's long puzzled me that GW2 can both have a reputation as one of the most casual mainstream MMOs, demanding a low level of player skill and little in the way of dedicated discipline and organization, while simultaneously being castigated for the unforgiving difficulty of almost all of its high-level open world content.

As soon as the first cohort of players started to trickle into Orr, five years ago, the complaints began: the mobs were too tough, there were too many of them, they didn't play fair. Orr got a good few thumps with the nerf bat and the complaints quietened down, only to return with just about every new piece of max-level content or large-scale, open world set piece event we've seen since.

Karka Queen, Molten Core, The Marionette, Tequatl, Three Headed Wurm,  Scarlet's Invasions, The Battle for Lion's Arch... you name it, it had to be nerfed then nerfed again before the mass of GW2 players would accept it. Usually then only with very bad grace. Meanwhile, even as ANet developers found themselves routinely de-fanging the content they'd just provided, the forums were filled with seemingly endless complaints that the game was "too easy", that what it needed was "more challenge".

Come round. Come round, I say! I never had this much trouble with the glider...

Out of that morass of disconnected discontent a tainted flower grew: Heart of Thorns. GW2's first expansion managed to satisfy almost no-one. It was perceived by many as being far more arduous and challenging than they either expected or wanted. The inevitable nerfs, when they arrived, served mostly to alienate the minority who found the difficulty, for once, tuned to their own more rarefied tastes.

By the time HoT had been knocked, dragged and pummeled into shape it was all but too late. Players from both camps had already left, in droves. The lasting impression was of a botched and misjudged attempt to turn a casual game into something more "hardcore". There was a change of leadership and with it a change of direction. Path of Fire will be the biggest test so far of whether that change has worked in favor of the long-term health of the game or run counter to it.

All of which is fine and dandy but how and why did GW2 in general and HoT in particular manage to acquire such a mismatched set of reputations in the first place? If you scan the current #3 thread on GW2's General Discussion forum, which looks forward to the forthcoming expansion and asks: "Has ANet Remembered the Casuals?", you'll find a wealth of comments like these:

"I took a year off too because how terrible HoT was and how I hated every minute playing in those maps".

"HoT made it clear that Anet was moving away from it’s casual base to cater to other gamer demographics"

 "Gw2 is one of the most casual friendly mmos".

"GW2 is the most casual player friendly MMORPG I ever played"

It can't be both great and terrible for casual players all at the same time, can it? Well, yes it can, not least because, as one of the most lucid and well-written comments explains, "while you may self-identify as casual, there is little agreement among all who so identify".

"Are you sure you're the Pact Commander? You look awfully small..."

Talking about whether a particular MMO is or is not "casual friendly" isn't going to get us far when we can never agree on a definition of "casual". That's always been a stumbling block to my own understanding of why it should have been that I, playing with what I would self-identify as a casual mindset, experienced Heart of Thorns as a liberating, exhilarating explorer's paradise, while others, similarly self-identifying, found it a constraining, frustrating turn-off.

UltrViolet, returning from a long sabbatical from the game to give the demo a run, found it confusing and frustrating in a whole number of ways, most of which I heartily endorse. As an advertisement for the game it has all the welcoming warmth of a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. What I found particularly interesting, however, was his description of the combat experience:
"It is a typical GW2 fight–totally chaotic, a million bad guys throwing a million AoEs and other effects at you all simultaneously."
Exactly, in other words, just what I love most about combat in GW2. It's explosive, colorful, exuberant and above all utterly chaotic. It's the kind of combat I think many of us dreamed about back when we were root-rotting treants in West Karana, standing motionless, casting a spell every thirty seconds or so then sitting down to meditate so we'd have enough mana to cast another thirty seconds later.

GW2's frenetic, rolling, dodging, mayhem, where everyone is healing herself and everyone else, where buffs last seconds and part of the gameplay relies on battle-rezzing anyone who goes down, is exactly the kind of free-rolling, liberating fun many of us could never even have dared to imagine, back when we were huddled together in the corner of a dank cave beneath the Crypt of Nadox, shaking with fear as we prayed our tank could hold agro and no roamers would wander along and add.

Okay, we're here. Now what? And remind me - who are you, again?

So why isn't everyone loving it the way I do? Jeromai can explain:
"The number one killer of people used to other MMOs – staying stationary or facetanking mobs in GW2. Every time.

You can observe this phenomenon on Twitch or if you watch newbies in the lowbie zones and so on. They lumber up and just STAND THERE because that’s what they do in other MMOs to attack. They expect a tank to deflect the aggro and a healer to take care of their health.

You’re thinking, “OMG move move too much damage incoming you can’t heal that up with your self heal OMG red circle why u stand there still plz MOVE”

Couple minutes later, they fall over. RIP."
Well, no wonder. No wonder people are finding it hard. No wonder they aren't enjoying themselves. I had no idea.

After all, why would I? Here's my description of how I play, from my own comment at Why I Game:
"My tactics, if you could flatter them with such a name, are to fire off every ability on my hotbar as often as it becomes available, while moving constantly. I don’t just dodge all the time, I run about, jump on objects, strafe and generally behave like a toddler on a sugar rush who just peed up against an electric fence".
It's a slight exaggeration. I don't always do that. If the situation requires it, I can be more tactical and anyway I do have a few channeled skills that require me to stand still. In general, though, I like to keep moving.

It's not a new thing for me. I didn't just start playing like this when GW2 came along. The first MMO I remember allowing me to cast and move at the same time was Vanguard; I believe it was one of the key reasons I loved that MMO so much and still do.

Since Vanguard arrived a decade ago I have wanted, even expected, my characters to be in almost constant motion during combat. It's the MMOs that don't allow it which seem somehow off-kilter.

Don't ask me. I just got here.

Once I began to think about this I realized something. Although I shy away from "Action MMOs" that use center-screen or reticule targeting systems and rely on pounding the mouse keys for attacks, it's not the "action" part I dislike. Not at all. Yes, I really hate not having proper control of the mouse and I can't abide having to hit keys for specials, but it's the method I'm objecting to, not the intent or the outcome.

GW2 has all the flexibility, all the dynamism of that kind of set-up and yet I can play it exactly the way I prefer, using the keyboard for nothing but movement and conversation and the mouse for the purpose God intended - clicking hotbars. It feels somehow natural - right - in a way no other MMO has, probably, since Vanguard.

On a slightly different but related topic, commenter Athie said something pertinent in a thread following the post by Aywren I linked right at the start. Referring to Auric Basin, she said

"...this isn’t an RPG zone. It’s a team action game. The story of the zone is: we win or we lose... GW2 is now a grindy action game with great casual grouping and wonderful art."

That description does have a ring of truth about it. Certainly, the "story", such as it is, has less and less relevance: as Jeromai says:
"I think regular GW2 players are starting to block out the story instances out of self defence..The narrative is prosaic and not very memorable, involves some chatter with some NPC you kinda knew once and see every six months when a new story instance is released, and some fight or other. Plot? Eh, whatever, it’s just a cardboard reason to get us from point A to B".
The thing is, I never wanted a story to begin with. And while I was nervous about playing an "action" MMO, it turned out I took to the particular mechanics of GW2 like a quaggan to water. I love the dodging and running and the constant movement. I love the self-reliance and I also love the big events that demand a lot of people, organizing spontaneously, to complete.

GW2 gives me the excitement of action rpg gameplay without the annoyance of action rpg controls. It gives me the camaraderie and sense of satisfaction of raiding without the inconvenience and responsibility of raid schedules or guilds. No wonder I find the game so exceptionally casual friendly.

For a particular value of "casual", that is. One that just happens to have my number.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Path Of Fire Preview - Color Me Impressed

Beta weekend. Demo. Preview. Call it what you will, the doors are open. Last time we did this, when we caught the beta bus that was bound for Heart of Thorns, you needed a pre-order to board. This time you don't need a ticket at all. Just jump on.

Okay, it's not quite that simple. Before you grab a raptor and roam the desert you have to jump through a few hoops. First you have to make a new character. Then you get to watch a rather nice cut scene while you take an airship ride from Lion's Arch to Crystal Desert.

I got the feeling I was missing some plot here. Maybe there's a pre-expansion lead-in we're not seeing. I hope so . If not it seems a bit of an abrupt transition form the end of the last Living Story. The view's nice, anyway.

Next comes what is presumably the first segment of the expansion's storyline. There's a lot of fighting, a lot of fire and it's all very orange. You get a mount. It was easy enough but I could have done without it. I just wanted to get to the real map. 

Once the flames die down you begin to see just how gorgeous this thing is going to be. The scenery is astonishingly lovely - and we're only in a quarry!

I wanted to explore the mine workings but this is one of those story instances that warns you you'll be summarily ejected if you deviate from the program. I hate being on rails. I don't have that kind of tunnel vision. Okay, I'll stop.

After a bit of business with Kasmeer and Rytlock, which I found very interesting and amusing enough that I laughed out loud, twice, the story segment concludes and the real doors open.

Blimey, Charlie! It was night when I arrived and it stayed night until I left which seemed like about an hour but can't have been, can it? The city, Amnoon, is stunning. It's mostly the color palette and the lighting, I think. I just gawped.

And gawped. And took screenshots. And ran around and gawped some more. The desert sky at night, the stars and the moon, the sea, the clouds... I'm not sure you even need gameplay with visuals like these.

There is gameplay, though. Plenty of it. And it's the same as you're used to if you've played GW2 in the last year or so. There's something to do in every direction, some event to complete, heart to fill out, Mastery or Hero Point to get, Champion to kill...

Or all of them at once. Here's a snapshot I took mid-battle. Someone had triggered a Djinn at a Hero Point and while we were killing him a Champion Hyena for one of the new Bounty Hunts got involved, so we had the two of them on the go, when a Veteran (or maybe it was a Champion) Hydra wandered over the hill and thought he'd have a go at us as well.

All good fun until someone loses a head, as I think I heard the Hydra say. And enough for me for a first look. I saw enough to know that I'm going to have a great deal of fun exploring and I'll probably need to buy a new Hard Drive just to store all the screenshots.

Not sure I'll be doing any more of the "beta". I don't want to take the edge off and there's always that niggling terror in the back of my mind - this might be the time a precursor decides to drop.

Looking good, though, ANet. Looking really good.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

I'm Looking At The Big Sky : Guild Wars

After all the fuss and bother it took to get Guild Wars up and running again, I thought I ought to buckle down and play for a while.

I'd already logged my Dervish in for a few minutes to take screenshots for yesterday's post, which briefly entailed a trip into an "explorable area" as instances are called there, and it only took a few seconds of combat for me to remember how much I disliked the class. The question was whether to make a brand new character or go with someone I already had sitting around.

I recalled that there was a fairly long slog through an extended tutorial to get to Kamadan, the starting city for Nightfall, which put me off the idea of starting fresh. Plus, the whole point of doing this is supposed to be to run quickly through the storyline to get up to speed before Path of Fire, which, you'd imagine, would be easier to do on a max-level character.

The account I have linked to my GW2 account is a new one, though, not my original Prophecies account, so I didn't really have a lot of choice. Or any. There's the Dervish (level 4), a Necromancer (level 1) and a Ranger/Elementalist and that's it.

The R/E, fortunately, is level 20 and ranger and ele are two of the three classes I vaguely remember how to play (the third being Monk). She was last seen taking an extended vacation in Lion's Arch so I woke her up she and wandered around LA aimlessly for a while trying to work out how to get from Tyria to Elona.

That turned out to be mindlessly simple. Click on the Ship icon on the map and take the Travel option. I'd forgotten that GW1, like GW2, uses instant map travel. As Telwyn says, when you return to an old MMO, sometimes getting started isn't so easy. It all comes back as you play, I find, but it can take a while.

For me the first problem is often my bags. They are always full. Chances are, one of the reasons I stopped playing the last time was that I ran out of storage space. What's more, if there'd been an easy way to fix it I would already have taken it.

Starting an expansion with bags already crammed just isn't an option but luckily there's one big advantage to a short visit to an MMO where you know you won't be staying: you're free to be ruthless. I sold everything the merchants would take, which wasn't a lot because GW1 merchants are pickier than most. I salvaged some of the rest and sold the salvage and what was left after that  I destroyed.

Which still left me with a bank full of minis, elixirs and other stuff I didn't want to lose. So I fell back into the age old trap; I had a lot of free character slots so I made a bank mule.

The salient fact I'd forgotten when making this stellar decision is that the starting village has no bank. Can there be any creature more forlorn than a bank mule with no bank to lean on? At least I found the option to skip the tutorial - a weaselly option, which still requires you to do some of the tutorial anyway, but I got that done in a few minutes. A couple of swaps back and forth between characters and I had my R/E with plenty of bag space, ready to go.

Only... go where? No-one wanted to give her any quests. Nothing seemed to be showing on the map. I leafed through my quest journal but I didn't see anything in there. So I did what I always do - set off into the countryside to see what trouble I could stir up.

Guild Wars is an odd duck as MMOs go. There has always been a debate over whether it's really an MMO at all.

It has a lot of non-combat hub areas - cities, villages, camps, halls - where players can mingle in true MMO style but everything else happens in "Explorable Areas" - instances by any other name. You can form a group in a hub and enter an EA together or you can go in solo (which in Guild Wars means surrounded by NPC henchmen, heroes, pets and other hangers-on; see someone playing "solo" in GW1 and you could easily think you were watching a raid).

Explorable Areas differ from instances in other MMOs in that they form a genuine open world - of a kind. They are geographically contiguous, by and large, and if you can fight your way through them you can eventually explore your way across the entire map.

I did that for a while, getting as far as Jokanur Diggings before I decided I was wasting my time. Okay, not really, because I was having fun. Explorer archetype - represent! It just wasn't getting me anywhere with the whole "follow the storyline" project, since no NPC anywhere I went wanted to give me anything more than a paragraph of flavor text.

At this point I felt I needed outside help so I went to the wiki. Just as well I did. Even with the full walkthrough for Nightfall to refer to at every stage I got stuck several times. NPCs didn't seem to be where the quest text suggested. The green asterisk that marks the place you need to go next on the in-game map sometimes seemed to lead to a dead end. When I did get to where I needed to be I couldn't always work out what I was supposed to be doing there.

All in all it was one of the more confused, less coherent starts to a campaign that I've seen. Not unenjoyable, though. Being level 20 and fighting level 6 mobs, with Ogden, Jora and MOX, Heroes all, alongside, certainly made things zip along. I'm not sure I'd have had as much fun if I'd been level six myself, as presumably it was intended I should have been.

In a couple of hours or so I got as far as the final quest in the first region, Istan. By then the mobs were in the high teens and it wasn't a cake-walk any more. A few retro-familiar names cropped up - Kormir, Varesh, Abaddon. No sign of Palawa Joko yet. I think he'll show up in the next region, Vabbi.

For a twelve-year old game, Guild Wars looks remarkably good. The graphics, which were generally well-received back in 2005, have aged well.

Elonia, the game's Africa analog, is impressive. The Elonian landscapes are attractively sparse, geologically and environmentally varied and occasionally stunning. The skies are particularly fine. I'm quite pleased we're headed that way in GW2.

I took a lot of screenshots although the perennial GW1 photographer's problem persisted, namely all those myriad companions, restlessly jogging from hither to yon, spoiling every composition. I figured out some workarounds for that and managed a few uncluttered vistas. Getting the team to pose for a group shot, though... you might as well ask a dozen monkeys to form an orderly line.

I was struck by how much, visually, GW2 has taken directly from the older game. The wooden scaffolding along the Cliffs of Dohjok, for example, is almost exactly like the scaffolding used in the reconstruction of Lion's Arch after the Scarlet War.

This does make me feel the attempt to run through Nightfall before Path of Fire arrives is worthwhile. Given that the current development team is actively promoting the idea that there will be nostalgia triggers baked in, might as well give them something to trigger.

Now I just need to rally the troops and it's onwards to Vabbi we go!

Monday, 7 August 2017

Unintended Consequences : Guild Wars

When GW2 was not much more than a twinkle in Mike O'Brien's eye and a seemingly endless series of press releases, I thought it might be a good idea to go back and take a look at the original game.

I remember a whole load of kerfuffle over trying to get my old account back. I hadn't played it since about three months after Guild Wars first launched. I'd finished the original storyline, which I don't remember calling "Prophecies" back then, hit max level at 20, stood around aimlessly in the Ring of Fire for a few days (the irony!) and then left.

Mrs Bhagpuss lasted a couple of weeks longer, finishing up the Ring of Fire and whatever else there was to do, then she stopped too. I forget where we went next but neither of us ever thought to go back. I don't recall even noticing the various expansions as they appeared over the next few years.

ANet did manage to recover my account - their customer service was excellent - slow but thorough. By then, though, for some reason I forget, I'd decided to make a new account anyway. I bought the DVD pack with the base game and all the expansions, which was selling for next to nothing at the time, and started over from scratch.

I tried Nightfall first. I made a Dervish and couldn't play him. I struggled to level four then gave up. Instead, I played through Prophecies again. Like everyone else I loved pre-Searing Ascalon. It was delightful to pay another visit to that pre-lapsarian eden. This time, though, when the Charr arrived to burn down the gates of Heaven I had a vague idea who and what they were. I knew they were cats for a start, which is more than I had done the first time around, when I took them to be some kind of demon - literally, not metaphorically.

 I left it there for a while but later, as we were getting close the launch of GW2, I came back for a third bite.  It was busy as I recall. The Hall of Monuments thing, which we all obsessed about for a while, was going on and everyone wanted a piece of that pie.

The Hall of Monuments was part of the Eye of the North expansion. I liked that one. Mrs Bhagpuss joined me for a while and we got pretty much to the end of the storyline. I'm not sure we ever quite finished it together - I think we got as far as you needed to open the Hall and probably lost interest after that.

In the end I got enough HoM points for the armor, a flaming sword and a cat, all of which I have characters in GW2 using to this day. As you might have expected, for all the enormous fuss made over the Hall of Monuments in the weeks and months before launch, a nanosecond after the game went live no-one ever mentioned it again.

Five years later, here we are with the second expansion coming over the hill. Unlike the last one, which was magicked out of whole cloth, it feeds back directly into the elder game. Not just the lore but the story too.

Supposedly GW1 veterans who played through the Nightfall expansion will find much to please them in Path of Flame. Well, we have a few weeks. It's not too late to catch up.

Or so I thought when I was going through my various hard drives last night trying to remember where I might have left my GW1 files. Coming up empty after half an hour of plugging drives into enclosures I decided it might be quicker just to re-install.

I could see the box right there on the shelf. It was just one DVD. How long could it take?

Eight hours of my life. Eight frustrating, annoying, infuriating hours.

Firstly, new PCs don't come with DVD drives any more. I remembered that when I went to put the DVD in and found the front of my machine is a flat, blank panel. That's why I bought a USB DVD drive last year.

I went and retrieved that from where Mrs Bhagpuss had been using it to watch Horrible Histories. I plugged it in and it whirred a bit then...nothing. I fiddled with it for a while and still nothing. It was at that point that I made my fatal error.

Perhaps it needs its own power source, I thought. With the drive still plugged into the USB socket I unplugged the power lead from the HDD enclosure and stuck it into the DVD drive, which had a hole exactly the right size and shape.

The monitor went black, the PC made an unhappy noise and powered down. Luckily there seemed to be no smoke, flame or even any smell of burning so, fingers crossed, I unplugged the thing and rebooted.

Everything seemed okay except for a strange sound like static on an old radio. That was my speakers. Which my PC no longer recognizes. Oh, and a completely innocent USB drive that just happened to be plugged in at the time seems to have been fried. Collateral damage.

To cut a very long and exceptionally tedious story short, somehow the power outage left my computer unable to recognize when or if it has speakers plugged in. Many, many trial and error tests, Google searches and a lot of swearing later and it still won't recognize them.

Apparently this is something Windows 10 does now and then. In the end, rather than futz around with it any longer, I went to buy a USB soundcard from a local PC chainstore. I checked online that they had one in stock at that branch before I drove to get it. They did indeed, the guy in the store confirmed when I got there. Their database said they had exactly one on hand -only they couldn't find it.

A lengthy conversation with their customer service department confirmed that neither of the next two nearest stores had one they could actually find either. The nearest one that did I deemed too far to drive so I went back home and ordered a soundcard from Amazon instead, taking advantage of one of Jeff Bezos's periodic attempts to lure me into becoming one of his Prime customers by means of a free trial. That should be here tomorrow.

In the meantime, because I cannot under any circumstances play games without the sound, I had a bright idea. I thought I'd reinstall Splashtop, stream my PC to my laptop, plug the speakers into that and Presto! Sound!

Which would have worked perfectly - if there hadn't been this annoying bug whereby, even though you have a perfectly valid account and you know and use the correct password, Splashtop won't recognize one or other of them. I could stream from my laptop to my PC just fine but using the very same account on both I got password errors every time I tried to do what I needed to do and stream the other way.

Finally - FINALLY - I remembered I once installed Splashtop on the Android side of my dual-OS tablet. I booted that up, tried it and it worked! After a whole day of frustration, at last I found myself happily playing GW2 with the sound only a millisecond out of synch.

In the middle of all that, when I had the sides off my PC, I installed one of the loose HDDs that were lying around and guess what? Hidden inside a folder cleverly labelled "MMOS" was my original installation of GW1. So I've been playing that, too.

Well, I say "playing". I logged in, checked my bags, found them entirely full, checked my bank, found that was full too, tried to sell some stuff then remembered you can't just "sell stuff" in Guild Wars. Instead I deleted enough things I no longer remember the uses of, assuming I ever knew, until I had room to open all the Anniversary presents that had piled up while I was away, took a couple of screenshots and logged off.

Whether I ever return we shall have to wait and see. If I do, it's not going to be as a Dervish, I'll tell you that much.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Fly, My Pretties! : GW2

Two years ago, red desert sand replaced white alpine snow as the backdrop for World vs World. There was no explanation for the (deeply unpopular) change, which appeared to have absolutely no connection, either thematic or lore, to the jungle-themed Heart of Thorns expansion of which it was nominally a part.

ArenaNet were very clearly aware of the discontinuity. Someone was either amused or uncomfortable enough about the whole thing to script a couple of conversations in which NPCs question each other about who built all the towers and where they might have gone. Naturally none of those NPCs comes up with any kind of explanation.

The Mists, the realm where the endless struggle over territory between worlds takes place, has always been something of a mystery. According to the wiki, they are "the oldest thing in existence, the proto-reality that exists between the worlds, constituting the fabric of time and space that connects the multiverse together."

The entry goes on to tell us that "The Mists resonate from the worlds around them, forming bits of their own reality - islands of existence that reflect the histories of their worlds." The Mists are a reality but not the reality, which is handy, because it means anything can happen there and no-one has to tell us why. Or how.

Rytlock Brimstone went to The Mists and came back changed. Changed into a new Class, The Revenant, one of HoT's key selling points. Far from explaining how that might have happened, the writers turned not explaining it into both a plot point and a meme - "Later, Cub".

At the time, the vast majority of WvW players were so incensed with the supposed unplayability of the new map that not even the few who acknowledged the game even had any lore cared to speculate on where that hated map might have originated. When anyone did comment on the provenance the general assumption seemed to be that the Desert Borderland was a rejected or surplus PvE map from the expansion that arrived at the same time.

That theory was given considerable credence by the design and structure of the map itself. It seemed to have been created with gliding, a signature feature of Heart of Thorns, very much in mind. The entire map is riven by cliffs and fissured with clefts. Rope bridges cross canyons, steps descend dizzyingly from blue skies to dark shadows. Anyone who has learned to glide in the vine-clogged Maguuma depths yearns to glide in the clear, free air here.

And now we can. In a move many had long requested but few probably believed would ever come, out of the blue Anet have enabled gliding in World vs World. The response from WvW veterans has been predictably curmudgeonly and the addition of gliding is only "a test for gliding in WvW. If we discover with this test that gliding is not appropriate for WvW, we will disable it". Enjoy it while you can.

I foresee unexpected consequences by the barrow-load. Gliding hasn't just been enabled for the Desert Borderland, for which it is eminently suited, but for the old Alpine Borderlands as well. I can immediately think of a whole raft of previously unreachable areas that could open up with just a short flight and if I can think of them you can bet our Commanders are already drawing up lists of spots to place siege where no-one can destroy it and our Mesmers are plotting their new, impregnable hidey-holes.

And that's only thinking of the borderline "fair use" problems that will need to be addressed by changes to code or structures. I'm sure there will be a slew of flat-out exploits for the spies and cheats and hackers to enjoy at our expense as well.

Still, I'm really looking forward to Tuesday, 8th August, the day my glider will unfurl in The Mists for the first time ever. My Elementalist will be riding her Magic Carpet into battle and with luck I might finally stop dying when I misjudge the drop as I jump off the cliff in a mad dash from Citadel to save North West Tower.

All of which is very well, but once again it begs the lore question. Why have our gliders started to work when they never did before? Why is it that they only work around structures we control? Who's behind all this?

Well, did you know that according to legend the only current access to The Mists comes courtesy of none other than... Balthazar? I didn't. According to the wiki "...the only known fixed means of entering the Mists is within Lion's Arch, which is said to contain a portal with a bluish hue made by Balthazar which fluctuates between different places of the Mists".

Balthazar, the very same rogue god - the God of War, let's not forget - currently filling the Main Villain slot in both the Living Story and the Path of Flame expansion. How intriguing that both gliding and Legendary Armor, another key feature of Heart of Thorns, should come to The Mists just as the God who gave us access to them strides to the fore.

And think about this: if it hadn't been for the intense player pushback that forced Anet into a U-turn, right now all the borderlands (save Eternal Battlegrounds) would feature a desert map that looks for all the world as though it fell, not from the Heart of Maguuma, but straight out of the forthcoming expansion.

It never made any kind of sense for the Desert Borderland map to have been a rejected design from the jungle-themed Heart of Thorns development cycle but it fits right in with everything we've seen from The Crystal Desert, where we're going in September. There's one screen shot that looks almost identical to Air Keep and Fire Keep could be Balthazar's Summer Palace.

Is it too much to imagine all this was planned out before the last expansion? That at least some of what looks from the outside to be fractured, reactive, pragmatic might in fact be considered, patient, imaginative? That somewhere in ANet Towers there remains at least a vestige of the rumored ten-year plan?

Pretty to think so.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide