Saturday, December 21, 2019

Endless Conquest (DAoC)

Endless conquest for Dark Age of Camelot, a new system that lets you play the game for free (with some restrictions), went live a little over a month ago.  A lot of other big changes came down the pipe with it.  My impression so far is that it's a bit of a mixed bag, both in terms of execution and in terms of the impact on player populations.

A random quest from the Hibernian new player series.  As simple as they are, some of these quests still have interesting choices.  For example, here depending on whether I choose to honor the past or be greedy, I will end up either with a unique looking horse or a hunk of cash and an annoying curse.

So what's it like?

In each realm a small but varied selection of classes are available to play completely free.  However, if you had a lapsed account, you can now also log into any character that has at least 24 hours played.  For example, I can log into almost all of my old level 50 characters regardless of whether they are from restricted classes or not.

Returning players will find the game much changed from what they remember.  With the launch of EC all alternative currencies such as aurulite and dragon scales were replaced with bounty points.  For example, the quest chains in Atlantis that used to yield glass now yield bounty points, and artifacts are now purchased with bounty points instead of glass.  You can get bounty points doing just about anything you like, from RvR seige battles to solo PvE, and almost any equipment in the game can now be bought with bounty points.  In my opinion this is a vast improvement, the number of different systems and gear currencies that DAoC had built up over the years was bewildering. Related to this, the free "starter epics" you get from the King at level 50 have been greatly improved.  It terms of raw stats they are now very solid, and will put you within striking distance of the effective caps on all the stats your class cares about.  In combination, these changes mean that gearing up a new character is a lot easier now.

Flying between quest hubs.  If I am not mistaken, DAoC was the first MMO to use "taxi cab" style travel routes, similar to what many more modern MMOs use.  WoW, of course, was the game that really popularized them.

On the not so great side an entire expansion that many players remember fondly, Catacombs, has effectively been removed from the game (apart from the races and classes that came with it).  Plans to revamp the Catacombs for the modern game once the Dragon's Curse campaign came to an end never materialized, and I'm skeptical they are even still in the works.  It's been two years since the changes to Catacombs went in, and returning vets still get confused by it (Surfer18's reaction to it here is pretty typical).  On Gaheris (the PvE server) this has contributed to a content gap in the level 36 to level 40 range, when the new player quest series runs out.  Until EC you had two options to get through this, Task Dungeons and repeating a series of quests in Atlantis.  With the launch of EC Task Dungeons have been disabled.  It made good sense the close them on Ywain, it helps funnel players towards the PvP battlegrounds. However, on Gaheris most of the battlegrounds (including Molvik) are also closed.  The low level quests in Atlantis also appear to be bugged, currently they are repeatable on Ywain but not on Gaheris.  Taken together, on Gaheris for roughly four solid levels there is now almost nothing to do but grind random mobs to advance.  Very old school . . . 

Here I am talking to my class trainer in the Hibernian capitol city to start an optional Epic quest.  These quests yield low level items tailored to your class, and also take you through a story that you only share with one or two other classes. However, you level so quickly in the modern game they aren't really worth doing for the gear alone (you will out level most of the rewards in a matter of hours).
So far most of the restrictions on free accounts seem minor to me. For example you can't open a bank tab just anywhere on a free account, you actually have to find a banker. When playing up two new free characters, a Runemaster on Ywain and a Blademaster on Gaheris, I can't say I really noticed the FtP restrictions.  However, a few penalties are more than slight inconveniences. For one, free accounts gain realm experience from PvP at roughly half the rate of subbed players.  That means it will take you a lot longer to get to "par" for RvR fights on a free account, though it's debatable how many ranks you really need to be competitive.  Realm rank five unlocks key class abilities, and my guess is that would take roughly a month of play on a free account for most players.  Free characters also can't use all the temporary buffs that are available to subbed players.  Together these factors potentially produce a significant power disparity.

A blademaster holding a free weapon from his trainer, a sword wreathed in green fire.  A benefit of visiting the class trainers in your realm's capitol city at low levels is that you get offered new weapons with decent stats and an interesting appearance every five levels.  The last of these is available to you at level 25.  However, you will probably find something better in terms of stats within an hour of obtaining any of these weapons, so very few players bother with them in the modern game. 
In addition, there is one restriction on free accounts that I find absolutely bizarre. A player can't log into the game at all without a sub for a few months after a subscription lapses.  That means that if you decide to sub for a month or two, you have to keep subbing or you will get completely locked out of your account during this period.  Meanwhile, players that never give Broadsword any money at all can still log in whenever they like. Largely because of this restriction I personally haven't even considered subbing since EC went live, despite having a good time on my new characters.  I would say that's a problem.

Treibh Caillte, a Hibernian Dungeon.  Currently on Gaheris the quickest way from level 36 to 40 is to grind mobs in dungeons (there are currently almost no quests in this level range worth doing).  It's not completely terrible, dungeon mobs drop a lot of loot for you to pick through. And of course I have been playing these games long enough to remember when finding a good grind spot was what you did to level in most MMOs.   

How successful is Endless Conquest?

Perhaps the most important question is how successful EC has been at boosting the population of DAoC. To get a sense for this I used data reported at this excellent website, which is organizes stats published on the Camelot Herald. Pretty much however you parse things (e.g., player numbers per week below), there was a significant jump in player activity around the launch of EC.  However, within a very short time nearly half of these players appear to have left.  As of the week of December 15, the number of active players seems to have settled at about 50% more than the game saw in the six months before EC.  Certainly a success, but probably not what Broadsword was hoping for.  The game is also still at a net deficit of players (or at least player activity) compared to December a year ago.

A year of player activity in DAoC, player counts are for level 50 characters.  I focused on player count rather than realm points earned because with the launch of EC the amount of RXP that most players earn per unit time was greatly reduced, and FtP accounts earn even less than subbed accounts. The spike in players near the end of the graph seemingly corresponds to the the launch of EC (the peak is Nov. 24).  I am not sure what caused the massive drop in player activity in the first few months of 2019, that looks like more than just normal seasonal player fluctuations to me.  This overall U-shaped pattern of player activity is remarkably consistent across classes, level ranges and measures of activity (e.g., player kills, player deaths), as is the conclusion that the gains from EC have been fleeting.


Update Dec. 23:  After fiddling with this post all weekend (e.g., expanding on why I keep ranting about Catacombs), I think I'm finally happy with it now.  I also did some digging to try and figure out what caused the "DAoC crash of 2019."  Between roughly January 20 and February 24 the game appears to have lost up to half half its player base.  There is nothing in the patch notes from around that time that hints at a cataclysmic change to the game itself.  However I did find that the free-shard of DAoC* that is currently the most successful went live on January 12, 2019. Very soon after that the live game started bleeding players (or at least the number of players logging decreased drastically), and a patch note from around this time seems bit panicked if you read it knowing everything that was going on.  I tend to think that player run shards of games are generally fairly harmless, but this may be an instance where one did serious harm to a live game that was already struggling.

*For the time being I will not be linking directly to any unauthorized servers for DAoC or any other live MMOs here, though I consider cases where you literally can't play a game any other way fair game (e.g.,  I might blog about the current state of SWG or WAR some time).  

Thursday, December 12, 2019

WoW Classic and Retail: Two for the price of one

With the launch of Classic, a subscription to World of Warcraft has become a pretty good value in my opinion.  Until August it had been years since I set foot in WoW.  In fact I skipped the last three expansions because I didn't want to support Blizzard financially. The studio had chosen to gradually close down a game that I really liked, one piece at a time, and replace it with some other game I didn't enjoy as much.  Warlords of Draenor was where WoW finally crossed a line that completely killed my interest.  The fact that Retail WoW shared the same world, classes and races as older versions made my loss sting even more.  It was as if an impostor was parading around in a suit of skin stripped from the corpse of my game, the eyes of  developers laughing at me through two dark misshapen holes in a crudely tanned hide.

All that changed when Blizzard launched Classic.  I really wanted the old game back (despite what some developers thought), and I have had an absolute blast in Classic these last few months.  Revisiting launch era quests and class designs gives me a keen sense of nostalgia.  However it's more than just nostalgia.  Like a lot of other commentators, I find Classic much more immersive than the modern game.  The stately pace makes it seem more like a living breathing world than Retail. You don't blaze through a zone in an hour, you spend days or even weeks of play sessions in an area, getting to know zones intimately.  "Cruft" like needing to learn skills for various weapons, or needing to visit your class trainer every two levels, fill the game with small events that seem important.  I also love other features that have been stripped out of Retail, like class quests to unlock basic abilities (e.g., defensive stance for fighters, the succubus for warlocks, Shaman totems) and the absurdly deep pet system for hunters.   It makes the experience of playing different classes feel really distinct, and again it adds a series of events to your journey that seem impactfull.

However, an unexpected side-effect of the launch of Classic is that I can now judge Retail on its own merits, since it isn't inhabiting the corpse of something I miss. If you think of Retail as a sequel to Classic, it's actually pretty good in its own way.  Much the same way that EQ and EQ II are both fun games set in Norrath, or FF VII, VIII and IX are all good JRPGs with a few shared elements, Retail WoW is an interesting take on the same setting as Classic. Admittedly some classes that I enjoy in Classic like the Warlock and Hunter have been completely gutted in Retail.  But other classes/ specs that are almost unplayable to me in Classic have also been greatly improved. For example, in Classic I can't stand playing Paladins.  They have terrible rotations and are just generally tortuously slow at solo questing.  In Retail I find Paladins pretty fun. In Retail my Balance Druid is an absolute joy to play (55 so far), yet I was barely able to get one up to level 20 in Classic.

Retail and Classic are different games with different core design philosophies.  Classic hearkens back to much older MMOs like DAoC and EQ, which were obviously inspirations for WoW at launch.  It includes a lot of details that serve no purpose save to flesh out the world being portrayed.  The modern game has stripped many of those out.  In some way it plays like a lobby game that happens to be embedded in a MMO, rather than a MMO per se.  Things like crafting and a world to explore are there if you want them, but really feel like an afterthought in the current design.  The quickest way to advance a character is to spend your time queuing up for dungeons and battlegrounds, and there is little need to even read the text of most quests.  However, that's not inherently bad.  If you are in the mood for a quick dungeon crawl or light questing where you don't really need to pay attention to anything, Retail is actually pretty good.  Somewhat ironically, it also has a slightly stronger emphasis on narrative than Classic.

Now that you get access to both games for one fee, I think it's actually a good thing that Retail is so different from Classic.  It would be similar to getting FFVIII for free when you buy FFVII.  One game is a classic that brought a previously obscure genre into the limelight, and the other is a controversial game with some (to my tastes) suspect design choices.  However, both of them together is a heck of a lot of entertainment for fifteen dollars a month.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Hardcore server in DDO: It's a lot of fun but also slightly pay-to-win

I have been playing the hardcore server in DDO all weekend.  It's been great fun, and it's neat seeing tons of players running around the starter areas.  I have been having a blast feeling like a newb again.  No guild buffs, no years of gear banked or crafting bot to fill it out.  The first time I found a decent heavy crossbow I was ecstatic, I had been using a plain unenchanted crossbow from a vendor in the harbor to that point.  Resist energy wands have also become a precious possession, I won't even try to play up a character that can't either cast the spell or use the wands.  So far I have made it nearly to seven on my main, and I have several alts.

Oddly no deaths yet.  However, I came really close on my main last night. I've been playing DDO for so long I tend to think I can do anything on Normal difficulty with next to zero risk.   I was running Irestone Inlet completely solo last night, not even a pet or hireling.  The way the quest is set up you will get unexpectedly jumped by roving packs of mobs.  I got a pack of adds while I was already in the middle of fighting a camp of six or ten hobgoblins and kobolds, and it was getting a bit hairy.  However, I wasn't worried.  I had plenty of instant cast self heals up, and I was mowing everyone down quickly with a slightly OP ranged build.

Then suddenly I couldn't attack or even heal myself, and six or seven guys were still beating on me.   My health bar started plummeting and I ran for my life while trying to figure out what the hell was wrong.  An icon said I was burdened, so I started frantically dropping suits of armor onto the sand to try and lighten my load. Then it hit me: the Hobgoblin Shamans I was fighting sometimes use Ray of Enfeeblement.  My character only has eight strength. Not normally a problem, but when any of your stats get reduced to zero in DDO you become "helpless" and you can't so much as drink a potion.

I lurched through some bushes while getting pelted with arrows and spears, frantically mashing the useless hotbar keys  for my various healing abilities.  I was way too far from any safe spot, I was certain I was going to die and lose everything. Finally, when I was down to ten health a combination of poor mob pathing and sheer dumb luck saved me. The enfeeblement spell wore off just in time and I was just barely able to pull things out.   It was such a close call that I immediately dropped the quest and went directly to an auction house to find something with a strength enchantment on it.  My build had a critical weakness I had never even considered.  It was a harrowing but thrilling experience.

 But is it pay-to-win?

All in all I am having a blast on the hardcore server, but there is one thing about it that bothers me a bit. Part of the idea behind the server is a fresh start and an even playing field.  However, the field is not really all that even.  If you own 32 point builds, all the classes and all the enhancement trees like I do it's a pretty big advantage.  Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the Inquisitive Enhancement Tree.

The Inquisitive tree is arguably the single strongest ranged enhancement tree in the game right now.  To the point that some  players are arguing that it's completely overpowered in the current meta.  It also starts strong out of the gate.  For example with the right build you can be dual wielding crossbows and getting an extra 3d8 law damage to every attack that lands by the ripe old age of level 2.  This damage stacks with damage from every other source, so your old OP crossbow build is now "OP plus 3d8" if you go this route.

Currently the only way to realistically get access to this tree at low levels is to spring for the $80 Sharn package, the cheapest one that comes with it.  You can in theory grind out access to it for one character with Sharn City Council favor if you have the $40 package, but it would be nearly impossible to do the quests that grant favor with this faction until the high teens.  Even if you did that, the moment you die the character that has unlocked the tree gets banished from the server.

I don't think Inquisitive is really the "I win" button that some players are making it out to be.  However it's undeniably strong, and I am seeing an absolute ton of players dual wielding crossbows at low levels on the hardcore server.  Obviously it's an advantage that a lot of players are willing to shell out for. I can't help but wonder how many of the players on the server are buying even bigger advantages like +8 stat tomes.  Even if they are, it doesn't spoil my fun.  However, having so many advantages available with the swipe of a card does seem to go against the spirit of competition that the developers at Standing Stone Games are trying to sell us on.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

SWL and TSW: Fantastic horror RPGs that happen to be online

After a nearly a year in DDO I found myself wanting to get away from fantasy MMOs altogether for a while, and so I decided to take Secret World Legends for a spin.  I really enjoyed The Secret World back in 2012, and I've been meaning to try out the relaunch.  Secret World Legends did not make a good initial impression, at first I nearly hated it.  The controls seemed off (e.g., the camera is locked to your mouse), I didn't like the changes to combat (it seemed like an utterly mindless button masher compared to the original), and I didn't like how the intro experience is remixed.  In fact I disliked SWL so much that I went back and played TSW (the original version) for a few evenings to see if my tastes had perhaps radically changed in the 6+ years since I last played it.

TSW and it's relaunch, SWL, are both  packed with sights, sounds and experiences like nothing else I've ever played.  For the past few months I have been thoroughly  immersed in a fascinating experiment in interactive storytelling,

To test this, I rolled a new Illuminati character and played through the Kingsmouth Town area.  The first few hours of TSW remain absolutely brilliant to my tastes.  If you have an account, you can login and play TSW 100% for free.  However, seemingly almost no-one else still plays it.  In a week of evenings I only saw one other player, and chat was just as dead.  TSW also remains a singularly challenging MMO.  At least when I play, I tend to hit brick walls of difficulty every so often that force me to spend some time tweaking my deck and trying out new skill rotations to make progress.  Even with a decent skill load out, the gear upgrade system is still quite clunky.  It takes up an absurd amount of inventory space and is incredibly grindy.*  The alternative is to ignore the upgrade system altogether and hope for good random drops, which can work out just fine or horribly depending on how lucky you are.  Around  the launch of TSW I had a very good time but stalled out in Egypt, when I hit my second or third difficulty spike and had to rethink my deck yet again.  On my return I was having fun relearning the game, but could also see that I wasn't going to make it any further on this run then I did at launch.
*Combine stacks of ingredients, to make more ingredients.  When you have enough of those, you can combine them to make....more ingredients! 


The last two weeks have also been the anniversary event in SWL.  Because of it I have been doing a fair amount of completely random group activities.  When you head to town for a bank run and see forty players banging away on a giant pinata with baseball bats, what are you going to do but join in?
In a last desperate attempt to actually see more of the setting this time around, I picked up SWL again.   Say what you will of it, at least the difficulty and gear management of SWL have been considerably "smoothed out" compared to TSW.  My second try I was determined to at least make it to Blue Mountain, the third main zone.  SWL took longer to click with me than the original, but once I stopped fighting the new mechanics I started having a blast.  I hit the ground running in Egypt and have never looked back.  I've now made it roughly half way through Tokyo, which the last major area in the game (excepting whatever small amount of new content South Africa contains).

SWL has a reputation for being creepy that is well deserved. Many classic horror and pulp fiction tropes are explored at one point or another.  Numerous influences from Lovecraft and Romero, to Akira and Indiana Jones are all apparent  [An aside: whatever they are paying these Orochi guys, it's not nearly enough!] 
In SWL I have found an absolutely fantastic single player horror / adventure RPG, that happens to require you to be online.  Despite playing largely solo, I know I wouldn't enjoy it as much if it were offline.  The other players I randomly run into make it feel more real to me than an offline game would.  The presence of a functional player economy also helps a lot.  For example, digging around the auction house for just the right starter gear is a big help and a lot of fun when you are new.

While often quite amusing, at times the game can also be surprisingly somber. I've found myself truly moved more often than I'm used to in a MMO.
Regardless, I'm playing SWL mainly to see the story lines.  Whenever I get done with the stories I will probably be done with the game.  By then all of my gear will be level 30 epics, which is about as far as I would ever want to progress.  Getting into equipment that's much better than this looks to be a major slog that would involve a lot of dungeon runs and raiding.  I have never really been into raiding in other MMOs.  Getting better gear so that I can be strong enough to get even better gear just isn't enough motivation for me to run the same raid encounter dozens of times. I doubt SWL is going to be the one random game that changes my mind.

The remains of another Orochi employee, deep in a secret facility where experiments on children with psychic powers were being conducted.   Experimenting on powerful psychic children always ends well . . .
Despite this, I think SWL is a fantastic game.  I highly recommend it if you like horror themed games at all.  The best parts of it are the story lines, and you can see those 100% for free.  In fact I played it for nearly two straight months before I even bothered with a sub. The stories aren't as interactive as something like SWTOR, you don't make any real choices save whether or not to do a mission in the first place (very few are mandatory).  But the quality of the writing, direction and voice acting more than make up for it.  If I had dropped $60 on a box to play through all the story lines and captivating virtual spaces that I've seen these last few months, I would have thought it money well spent.  For absolutely free, it's hard to knock it.

Hanging out with a forest god in a bar in Transylvania.
I also don't expect to still be playing in a year.  The endgame is reportedly quite grindy, and Funcom seems to be in no danger of adding any substantial new content. The story lines in game now are pretty much all that are ever going to be released for it.  New content being developed for the setting is now apparently going to be released in offline RPGs.  SWL itself appears to be pretty much in maintenance mode.  If you have any interest in it at all, right now while it still has an active player population is probably as good a time as there will ever be to try it.

SWL is a game filled with fascinating stories. One story line might be a gothic  vampire tale with all the cliches you could hope for, the next might be a "science gone wrong" narrative that contains genuinely disturbing body horror, and the next after that might be absolutely surreal journey between dimensions. Despite the variety of tones, somehow the narratives manage to hang together and produce a rich and immersive setting.

Friday, March 15, 2019

There’s not enough time to see everything (a bit of a ramble)

I love MMOs because I love exploring new worlds.  Each time you join a one, at first you founder like a child.  The rules of combat, the rules of advancement, the social rules that govern the small society you’ve chosen to infiltrate, so much to learn!  Between those structures, unique to each realm, I find my own space to occupy and draw delight from.  Depth and mystery is why I love these games.  The places to see and the boundaries to push as I inhabit, either briefly or for months or years, each digital plane of existence that catches my eye.  


Lately my hardware has finally started to feel its age in the latest offerings.  But I’m honestly not really bothered by it.  There are so many places still in my grasp I have yet to visit.  Some titans of their age that still burn bright in my memory:  Guild Wars, Runescape, Lineage, EVE, Second Life  . . . not once have I set foot in any of them. Newer titles also, passe to the fickle masses but still well within what I designed my trusty rig to handle, and to me virgin worlds: Guild Wars 2, Star Trek Online, Elder Scrolls Online, Neverwinter, Tera, and many others from the silver age when I was more active in the blogosphere. There are also the old abandoned ones that I never really got to see all of, but that fans have revived so that you can see them well and truly for free now: Warhammer, Uru, Star Wars Galaxies.  I could play for years more and never get to them all.


So even with my limited resources I have a wealth of dawns on myriad worlds yet to untrod calling to me. But even those I may never get to. I have enough dawns and galas on the worlds I already frequent to attend.  I've been heavily engaged with Dungeons and Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online for months now, and a full expansions loom on the horizon for both.  Other tapestrys begun, woven richly at first but now abandoned, left with threads of adventures hanging, I also have in Everquest 2, Age of Conan, Secret World, Final Fantasy XI, World of Warcraft and many others.  Were I to forever stop visiting new worlds, I could harvest the orchards I have already planted nearly forever.  My digital houses and apartments alone would take weeks to spruce up. So forgive me if I don’t blog much about the latest thing.  I have enough left that I want to see in the 3rd, 4th , 5th, 10th, and 20th most recent things that I can’t imagine my spare time will ever be equal to the task.    


Thursday, February 14, 2019

Adventures in DDO

After my stint in FFXI, I decided to head to more familiar territory and started playing Dungeon and Dragons Online seriously again.  I would say the game is currently in a really good spot.  The developers have managed to address a lot of the issues that I felt dragged the game down the last time I drifted away, while maintaining and in some cases building on the game's strengths.  As a consequence I've managed to make it a lot further than I ever have in previous stints with the game.

The game has continually been adding options to the already absurdly deep character generation system.  Seen here is one of the latest races added, the Aasimar. It's a a sort of god touched race that can start with up to 20 Wisdom and gets access to an ability similar to lay-on-hands (a strong once per rest heal) regardless of class.  Other recent additions include Dragonborn, Gnomes and Woodelves.  
The game's character building systems is more accessible than it's ever been, but still retains an absurd variety of options.  The move to enhancement trees instead of the old menu based system made it much more clear in general what you need to be working towards.  However when the trees first came out, they also shined a light on one of the game's major flaws: not only builds but whole classes of builds were sub-par.  For example, the Eldritch Knight, a melee heavy-armor tree for wizards and sorcerers, was widely considered a "new player trap."   It looked like fun on paper, but in reality spending heavily in the tree tended to produce a character with mediocre spell casting ability, melee damage that scaled poorly with levels, and terrible defense.

Even after all this time I've been playing I keep discovering quests and areas I didn't know about.  Looking for something new to do, recently I sorted all the level 12 quests listed on DDO wiki into alphabetical order by quest name and started at the top of the list.  That led me to this chapel that has probably been in the game as long as I've been playing, but I've never had a reason to go to.
Over the last few years the developers have been slowly but surely tweaking trees like this that were severely underperforming.  Going back to the example of Eldritch Knight, recent updates have made it a viable option on its own and a great splash choice for a variety of defensive/ tanking character builds. Instead of whether it's possible to lean heavily on the tree and not have a completely gimped character, a point of debate is now whether adding two levels of wizard to a heavy armor focused character is too overpowered compared to playing a pure fighter or paladin.

After talking to a quest giver in the chapel, I ended running a quest in this cave complex inhabited by Duergar and their summoned fire elemental minions. I believe this was the first time I've set foot in it.  The quest there was straightforward, but a lot of fun an yielded good XP.  I'm definitely adding this one to my normal repertoire.
Of course DDO still has some balance issues.  There always will be in a game as complex and flexible as DDO.  However I would say that  you can focus on building around pretty much any tree that appeals to you now and end up with a decent character after a bit of trial and error.  That really didn't seem to be true the last time I was playing the game extensively.

In addition to older content I missed back in the day, SSG has been steadily adding new story lines and new settings to the game.  This is a view from near where you first arrive in Shavarath.  Shavarath is a minor plane home to constant three way battles between devils, demons, and angels.  It's one of the smaller new areas, but it has an interesting war torn exploration area and two fun quest lines.  
However I wouldn't say that viable build diversity is what really drove me away the last time I was playing. There were and still are a huge variety of strong characters you can build if you know what you are doing.  What always caused my runs in DDO to stall out was a dearth of content I found fun in certain level ranges.  This has been vastly improved. There is a heck of a lot more content now (as there should be after all this time!), and most of the newer content has been exceptionally well done.  The content presentation has also become much better organized in general, I don't recall so many NPCs offering to guide you through quest chains when I was last playing.  For example, Saga's are chains of suggested quests that reward large amounts of XP, guild XP, or tomes that permanently increase your skills when you complete them (in addition to all the loot and Xp you get from the quests themselves).  Gunning through a Saga at a higher difficulty yields better rewards, which gives you a good incentive to push your limits instead of coast.  There are also a lot of "challenges" now, quests that you can knock out in five or ten minutes if you need a short play session. 


One of the strengths of the game is the variety of settings it incorporates.  For example, a wide variety of quests from level 15 on are set in the Forgotten Realms, a more traditional fantasy setting than the base game (complete with a "kindly old wizard" that acts as your guide for much of it).  Shown here is a village in King's Forest, an enormous FR exploration zone with roughly a half dozen quests. 
The mainline expansions also seem to have been getting better and better.  Ravenloft, the most recent one*,  is not only my favorite content in DDO, it's some of the best content I've ever played in a game.  The story lines, quest mechanics and item rewards are all exceptionally well done.  You get a very nice power boost by questing there at around level ten, and if you like Gothic horror at all you will be thoroughly entertained while doing it.  It's absolutely amazing to see a 12 year old game knock an expansion out of the park like this.  I am eagerly awaiting the Sharn expansion in the spring to see if SSG can pull off a double.  The high fantasy urban setting, complete with skyscrapers, sounds potentially very interesting.
*You can find an in depth review of Ravenloft at Bio-break  here (part one) and here (part two). Unless you are really flipping out for some of the bonuses that come with the full expansion packages, buying the adventure pack in the in game store for SSG points is far and away the cheapest way to get access to it. I waited for double bonus points and ended up spending much less than even the standard edition.  However the adventure pack  is just the content, it doesn't come with the Aasimar race.

Enjoying the floating rock garden on my guild airship, a shrine that grants a 3.5 hour boost to strength and wisdom.  Since I was last playing guild airships have also been greatly improved.  The old guild buffs are still available, but newer buffs that last for much longer and are not lost on death were also added at some point.  Between the two systems, even a mid-level guild like mine can offer a wide array of amenities.  My guild airship offers a tavern, bank, mailbox and auction house in addition to a huge variety of one hour or longer statistical boosts (something like 20 if I'm not mistaken).       
I have been having a fun time in DDO for the last few months.  It's still not exactly the most new player friendly game on the market.  Infinite build diversity leads to infinite potential ways of gimping yourself, for example.  A lot of new players also seem to have trouble making it past the low level game, which may as well be called "Sewer, Warehouse and Tomb Adventures." However, if it's a game you have ever enjoyed in the past or have been curious about, now is a great time to jump in.  DDO has made remarkable strides in recent years, and with another major expansion right around the corner the future seem bright.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Final Fantasy XI in 2018

In another stop on my whirlwind tour of older MMOs, since late April I've been primarily playing Final Fantasy XI. I am a huge fan of the mainline console games from FF IV at least up through FF X (XII I have mixed feelings about, and XIII I nearly hated). FFXI has always been something of a lost game to me both in the sense of the Final Fantasy game I never got to try, but also a once popular MMO I've never set foot in.

This is my main character Greely, right after logging in near a travel point.  He is a level 99 summoner, 99 black mage, and has leveled thief, red mage and white mage to 50 for use as support jobs.  The game is far past it's population peak, but the Asura server is still as crowded as any I've ever been on in a MMO. For a really old game that's till 100% sub-based, the population and community around FFXI are really impressive.
The main reason I never tried it during its prime was the fact that it had a reputation as a game that is very difficult to make progress in solo. I am very nearly a 100% solo player unless I'm hanging out with a fixed group of RL friends, so that put it right off my radar. However, in recent years two factors have made the game much better for solo players. First off, the level cap is now 99 and the great majority of the story content is tuned for level 75 characters. That means that a high level character can steamroll boss fights you used to need a full party or even a raid for, and most of the quests becomes more of a puzzle to solve than a mechanical challenge. Further, the game added "trusts" a few years ago. These are powerful NPCs that you can summon to help you in most content. At first you will only be able to summon one. However, very quickly you will gain the ability to summon three, and then later on up to five. These NPCs make any content that is close to your level trivially easy, at least in the sense that you won't get killed in a fight.

Greely with a full complement of five trusts out (a tank, a healer, and three DPSers).  Within minutes of starting the game you'll have five or six trusts to pick from, and this character is up to something like 40 or 50.  If  you can make it to 86 (!) trusts, a quest-line opens up that you can run through to make them considerably stronger.  
The game has a lot to recommend it. It's absurdly deep, and has a screaming ton of content. The story lines on offer are also just as good as rumor has it. These are some of the best written stories you will find in a MMO or RPG in general. The crazy thing is that the hundreds of quests aren't just a random collection of stories; everything weaves together into one cohesive whole. Quests that seem like one-offs unconnected to anything when you first start playing turn out to reveal backstory about NPCs and settings that you will be visiting again and again. For example, the first time I encountered the NPC Zeid I had no idea who he was save one of the trusts I could summon. Four months later I can recount decades of his history across three different story lines. He's one of the most interesting characters I've encountered in any game online or off. And he is far from alone. FFXI is an extremely rich fantasy setting.
For a game designed to run on the Playstation 2 (a system with a whopping 32  megs / 0.032 gigs of RAM), FFXI looks pretty amazing. I also quite like the visual design of the game.   The first time I encounter a new monster, I often take time to stop and stare.   
It's also a clunky game, even by MMO standards. Getting into it at all is an absurd challenge. To start with, the registration process is painful. You will have to make at least two entirely separate accounts to get going, each with a full registration page and e-mail verification.  If you mess up like I did, and to this day I'm still not sure what I did wrong, you might need to make three or four. Once you get that sorted, installation takes longer than anything I've experienced since the 56K era. Even after I got past those giant humps, I couldn't get the game to run without using a third party application as a shell for the client. Finally, assuming you have the patience to spend close to a day just getting started, the game is almost completely unplayable without out-of-game player guides.

Another character I started in Windhurst so I could follow Aysha's new player guide.  That really opened up the game for me, it was invaluable the first few weeks I was playing. After following it for an evening I was familiar enough with the basics to start off Greely in Bastok.  Since you can see every story and play every class on one character, I've since put almost all of my time into him.  Unlocking the level cap for a character is also a long and involved process. It took me well over a month of playtime on Greely.  This is not a game that encourages alts.
When you log in, the game barely gives you any hints at all about where to go and what to do. However, FFXI isn't a contentless sandbox where there's nothing much to do but make your own fun. Far from it, the game has more scripted content than almost anything I've ever played. It's just that getting to any of that content is incredibly unintuitive, and varies wildly depending on what you want to do. Getting started on a quest chain can vary from opening a menu and digging through a list of options, to talking to a random NPC out of the many that inhabit every city and village (no exclamation points here), to clicking on a random pixel deep in a multi-level dungeon. You are not likely to find most quests on your own unless you walk around talking to every NPC and clicking on every single object or random spot that you can select.

Riding a crab around in the Bhaflau Thickets.  The game is pretty generous with mounts, I think I have around a dozen.  There is also a deep Chocobo breeding mini-game (of course there is!), but very few players mess with it these days since you get so many fast mounts for free.  
Further, once you start a quest, the game itself will not give you the first clue how to advance it. Generally you need to go and do something random that never would have occurred to you in 100 years. "Buy this specific vegetable from one of the two vendors in game that have them and give them to a NPC hiding behind a rock deep in an enchanted forest for a cut scene" would be fairly typical. It makes a pure puzzle game like Myst Online look positively straightforward. Fortunately, there is an incredibly devoted community that has documented the game in exhaustive detail, and I absolutely applaud their efforts.  Were it not for those guides, I wouldn't have lasted a week.

My mog garden, one of the numerous systems I've barely explored.  You can go there once a day to get free stuff to sell by harvesting crops and pulling up fishing nets.  I assume there is lots of other stuff you can do there, but it's taken me months just to level two classes to 99 and see 1/4 of the games major story lines.
For me FF XI has become a cautionary tale of "be careful what you wish for." After stints in EQ and DAoC, the thought of a game with truly deep content for soloists sounded appealing. Indeed, at first it was quite refreshing. However, after working my way through two of the game's major story arcs (Rhapsodies  of Vana'diel and Wings of the Goddess), I'm finding that I need a break. Once you are strong enough to actually see most of the content (hitting level 99 and leveling a support job to 49 are pretty much prerequisites), the basic game play arc is as follows: (1) read a guide out-of-game about how to do the quest you are on, (2) do something completely random from finding and killing a boss that takes an hour to get to, to shopping for musical instruments, to spending days memorizing a maze so that you can run through 20 check points in the correct order in less than five minutes, (3) watch a cut scene that advances the plot and starts the next quest, (4) repeat. My patience with the random tasks of step two was pretty high at first because it was so different from anything else I've played. But lately my response to many quest steps has been "You want me to do what? How does this make sense? Wow, that sounds like a pain in the butt."

The game is absurdly deep. Even after four months I feel like I've barely scratched the surface.  For example this thing is right outside one of the entrances to my in game apartment, and I haven't got the first clue what it's for. Heck, I only recently figured out how to time travel . . .
I'm sure at some point in the future I'll want to see the rest of the game. The story lines are up there with any of the main line Final Fantasy games, and mechanically it's one of the deepest MMOs I've ever set foot in. The housing system alone could keep you occupied for months.  It's also a bit of gaming history I've always been curios about, and I'm glad I finally got to experience it. But for now, my spare time endeavors are moving on to something a bit less arcane and a little easier to make progress in.