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.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Everquest: I finally made it to the level cap . . . of the launch era game

I finally made it to the level cap . . . of launch era Everquest.  I hit level 50 about a week ago.  I then promptly got killed and went down to 49, hit 50 again, got killed and went back to 49, and then finally stopped doing stupid stuff and have since made it to 53.  That's light years further than I've ever made it in the past.  My previous record was something like level 24.  Of course these days the level cap is 110.

Holy cow would I have been excited to make it this far in 2000.  Of course, I would have needed the patience and spare time of a homeless saint.  I would also have possibly been willing to murder someone to get ahold of the gear this guy is using.  The last time I played a random object that added ten or fifteen points to one of my primary stats would have been a prized possession. In the modern game by the ripe old age of level 25 or 30 you can expect to cap out all the stats your class really cares about using cheap, plentiful defiant gear.  By level 50 I capped all of my physical stats, even wisdom (which is utterly useless to my class as far as I know).
I recently started playing Everquest on a whim, mainly because I was curious to see how the game has changed since I last played it 10+ years ago.  Everquest is still not a game for the faint of heart.  The best way to really get going in it is to start at level one and read the dozens of walls of text that come up during the tutorial.  Even with that, really essential things like buying and selling using the /barter and /bazaar commands, or where you can get working in-game maps of the majority of zones can only be learned through trial, error, and googling.

The graphics are extremely dated, particularly in the tutorial area.  DAoC hails from the same era and looks light years better to me, particularly the animations and spell effects.  Oddly, once you have played it for a while you stop seeing the cruft and all of this starts to look normal, even pretty in some places.  I suppose it's similar to the phenomenon where if you wear glasses that make everything look upside-down long enough, eventually your brain will flip the image so things look normal again* 
The experience of two-steps-forward one-step-back at level 50 nicely punctuates my impression of the game design of modern Everquest.  To my tastes it's a heck of a lot better game then it was around launch.  I really didn't care for it when I first played back in 2000 (I started right before the launch of Scars of Velious).  Forced grouping meant that you couldn't make much progress on most classes without committing to a session of at least a few hours.  It was also unforgiving and extremely slow paced. These days getting to level 50 solo is quite doable using any class due to the addition of mercenaries.  You can also progress much more quickly due the availability of servers with permanent XP bonuses and plentiful, powerful low level gear.   Finally, some of the more frustrating aspects like losing all your gear when you die have been removed entirely.

Even figuring out what server to play on is a bit daunting when you first start.  There are 22 servers with all sorts of rule sets.  Rules range from PvE servers designed to appeal to modern player sensibilities, featuring brisk leveling and plentiful gear, to a free for all  PvP server.  For those that feel that the baby is missing along with the bath water on modernized servers like Firiona Vie, there are even progression servers available in all of their glacially paced "hurt me like it's 2002!" glory.  
However the game is also still "deliberately" paced compared to most MMOs, especially as you advance in levels.  I can already feel the game getting grindier as I advance, both in the sense of leveling more slowly and combat gradually becoming more taxing; requiring more frequent down time in between fights.  Supposedly at much higher levels grouping still becomes all but mandatory on most classes, just like the sub 50 game in launch era EQ.

Spells, so many spells!  At level 53 my necromancer already has 189 spells (!?!)   However, because you have to pick a loadout of 8 spells, the absurd number of options adds depth rather than frustration. You customize your active spells depending on where you are headed and what you'll be doing.  There is also a clever menu system, that you can see on the right near my spell gems, that makes it really easy to find the spell you want.  I've found I much prefer this manageable number of active abilities to the setup in many MMOs where you end up having 40+ abilities slotted on your hotbars at all times, only six of which you generally use.  
You can bypass an awful lot of the game if you want to, using items from the game's cash shop.  You can start at level 85 with maxed skills and good gear using a level boost.  You can also bypass the economic game by buying Krono (a token worth a month of sub time) and selling it in game for a huge hunk of currency (they go for about 4 million plat on my server).  I've actually got more than enough "daybreak cash" for both from my last time playing EQ II.  However, I suspect either of those options would be self defeating for me.  If I boosted to 85, I'd skip all the fun low and mid-level content and get dumped right in the middle of the grindy high level game I probably won't enjoy.  If I sold some Krono, and so already had millions of platinum, loot from killing mobs would become an annoyance I have to deal with rather than anything to get excited about.

The entrance to Crescent Reach, the town that most new players will be working out of until around level 20.  All of the old starting areas like Neriac and Freeport are still available, but this area has the advantage of quests that grant nice starter gear.
Running through the Emerald Jungle on my way to Old Sebelis. Despite the dated graphics, the game does a good job of making zones feel unique.  Even the floras in different zones are distinct.  

Overall, I'm finding the depth/ obscurity of the game charming.  There is an absurd amount content, more than 500 zones according to wikipedia.  It has been relaxing fun to take my time leveling up, gradually learning the game mechanics and exploring new areas as I go.   I'm honestly not entirely sure whether I'm enjoying the game on it's own merits, or in comparison to the much slower paced game I tried years ago and got frustrated with.  Likely both.  Regardless, I'm having a great time.

*I fell down a pretty interesting google rabbit hole looking for the link I embedded in that caption.  This paper contains a more modern take on the issue.  Apparently it's a point of debate whether your brain really flips the image or an upside-down world just starts to look normal to you.  Either way, my point stands :-)  

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Dark Age of Camelot: The best PvE MMO that you probably don't know much about

For about the last year most of my MMO play time has been spent in Dark Age of Camelot.  Back in the olden days before WoW it was the second most popular MMO behind Everquest, peaking at around 250K subs (compared to the 500K peak of EQ).  According to Google it launched a boggling 16 years ago in 2001, and it's still going.  It was the first MMO I really enjoyed, though in it's early years the grind-wall to get to the level cap was slightly insane (par for the course back then).  It is largely known for it's unique Realm vs Realm PvP setup.  Three factions fight constantly in asymmetric battles where class balance is closer to rock-paper-scissors than what you find in more modern MMOs, and how many players show up to a fight determines the outcome more often than not. 
One of the front gates of Tir Na Nog, the Hibernian capitol city.  
What has kept me playing since I tried it on a whim last year is not the PvP (which is great, and I'll come back to), it's the the solo/ small man PvE.  There is an absolutely fantastic PvE game buried in DAoC, which you'd have no way of knowing even exists based on casual observation.  It's not something the developer really hypes.  In fact just the opposite.  Last year Broadsword set about half of the solo PvE game on fire, removing access to all of the Catacombs expansion for low level players so that the zones could be re-purposed.  In the process they removed hundreds of solo quests across all level ranges from the game.

The central chamber of the Labyrinth, a huge dungeon that almost no-one goes to any more. Funnily, the one time I decided to rely on this and go AFK down there an enemy player came along and killed me the five minutes I was away. You can spend a lot of time in the Labyrinth during an obscure but fun PvE quest chain that opens up at level 50.
It's also something you'd never guess existed from interacting with many of the current players. These days the vast majority level to the cap doing repeatable kill quests in PvP battlegrounds, barely setting foot in the PvE zones.  This play style has become so ingrained that there was recently a thread on the official "unofficial" DAoC boards where a player pointed out that you can still actually level doing PvE, and posted a guide for how to do it in Hibernia (one of the three realms).  The only response he got was pretty close to "Why the hell would you do that?" All of this is a shame, because there is a genuinely great PvE game to be had in modern DAoC if you look for it.

Swimming around underwater near the ruins of Atlantis.  If you level doing PvE, you will spend a surprising amount of time underwater.
It's an old school MMO in the vein of Everquest, but the grind-wall to see all of it has been sanded down to just the right level.  There is a PvE path through the game that will take you to level 50 in 10-20 hours depending on how much time you decide to spend on side quests.  You level quickly enough that you are never bored, but not so fast that you are getting new abilities faster then you can make sense of them.  You also steadily gain new and better gear, such that you always feel a strong sense of progression.  When you hit the cap, every class in the game gets a unique set of starter Epics.

Riding a nightmare steed in Volcanus.  As you go up in chamion levels, many different types of horse become available, ranging from normal horses to more exotic varieties.
Which leads into how replayable the entire experience is.  From 1-35 or so, there are entirely different "New player" quest chains for each of the three factions, and each faction has a distinct feel to it.  Albion is based on Arthurian legends, Hibernia on Celtic lore, and Midgaurd is inspired by viking myths.  The quest writing is also above average.  It's certainly not up there with heavy hitters like  SWTOR, TSW or LoTRO, but a lot of the stories on offer are entertaining.  Story lines vary from quite silly (e.g., minotaur tipping) to attempts at real gravitas (e.g., watching a NPC commit suicide to protest the political system you are working for).  On top of that there are optional Epic quest lines.  Depending on your class, you will have one of roughly a dozen epic quest lines available.  It's not very likely that any two classes you decide to play will share the same story, and each step in the chain grants a piece of gear uniquely tailored to your class.  Finally, when you hit the cap and get your shiny starter Epics, a challenging but rewarding quest chain that will push solo players of most classes to their limits opens up. 

Fighting a monsters for a repeatable kill quest in Cathal Valley.  Notice the position my character's sword is in.  That animation lets me know that he just parried a blow, which enables chain of reactive attack styles.  DAoC was the first MMO that I am aware of to implement reactive combat abilities, and still does a better job than most of telegraphing blocks, parries and dodges with sounds and animations.
However, that's not really why I find the game so replayable.  At this point I've played through every quest line so many times that I barely even read the text.  However, I'm still having fun trying out new classes.  DAoC has an absolutely absurd number of classes (something like 45), and each class can play very differently depending on how you decide to specialize them.  The class designs are also wildly varied.  You can definitely tell that this is an MMO that was designed before the genre had settled into the basic tropes that dominate modern games.  Yes, you will find fairly standard tank, healer and DPS classes.   However, on top of this you will find classes that vary from subtly different from what you'd expect to fairly gonzo.  For example, on the subtly different end there are three melee stealth classes, one for each realm.  Two of them are fairly standard sneaky stabby types (one dual wields, one uses large weapons), but a third (Nightshade) also has a line of ranged DPS spells.

An enchanter fresh out of the newbie instance wearing the gear he got there.  Notice that his pet, standing behind him, is better dressed than he is . . .
On the more bizarre end you have classes like Bainshees and Animists.  Bainshees turn into ghosts when you activate their abilities, and radiate a death aura that does very high damage to everything near them.  Animists are casters that specialize in summoning mushrooms and kamikaze willow wisps.  With an Animist, in any given encounter you have a lot of choices as to how to proceed.  You can summon a ton of explosive wisps.  They will slowly float towards your target and explode on impact.  By the time your foe even realizes it's under attack, four more wisps are already on the way.  Alternately you can set up a patch of a half dozen attack turret mushrooms and lure foes into it.  Yet another option is to send in your angry tank mushroom and use life draining nukes once it gets aggro.

A level 50 enchanter wearing the free set of epic gear he got at level 50 from the Hibernian King.  The steady trickle of gear that is both better looking and more powerful as you level gives the PvE game an addicting sense of progression.
Even classes that seem bog standard take a while to get the hang of, and for me learning the peculiarities of a new class is where much of the fun of the game comes from.  For example, the Armsman is the Albion heavy armor pure melee class.  Last week I decided to try it out after leveling a string of casters, and specialized in polearms because I had read that Armsmen can do high burst damage with them.  For the first 30 or so levels, I was honestly hating the class.  It did ok damage, but I was going though half of my endurance bar every fight.  However, I eventually discovered a strange two weapon ability rotation that does slightly better damage and uses half the endurance of the pure polearm rotations I was using to that point.  A class I wasn't enjoying suddenly became pretty fun.  DAoC is not a game where you can randomly mash buttons and play effectively, even in the easiest solo content.  Just getting competent with a class actually takes some practice.  Compared to many more modern MMOs I find it refreshing.

A fresh 50 Armsman in his King's Epics.  At level 50 every class gets a different set of armor with a unique look.  Across 40+ classes, that's a lot of different gear sets to discover.  You won't be using most of this gear for long if you decide to get serious about PvP.  However, it's certainly enough to get you started and a nice upgrade over the gear you are likely using to that point, particularly when you make it to Champion Level 10 and unlock the final abilities of the armor set.  
All of this brings me back to my original point, which is that there is a much better PvE game in DAoC than you would likely guess based on the complete lack of hype for it.  There is a pure PvE server, Gaheris.  Unfortunately, this server is also pretty dead.  I'd  be surprised if the entire population is more than 500 players.*  The regular server, Ywain, on the other hand is positively hopping . . .with PvP enthusiasts that don't really care about the PvE game.  For example, recently I was amazed to discover that a multi-year veteran I was running battle grounds with has never even done most of the glass quests (a PvE quest chain that rewards a ton of currency you can use to buy artifacts and master levels).  When you combine the lack of player or developer emphasis on PvE with the intimidating depth of modern DAoC, you end up with a lot of content that I imagine few will ever see. To try and at least make the learning curve a little less steep for new players,  I recently started a companion website where I am posting game guides.

*There aren't a ton of players, but the server does have more hardcore multi-boxers than I've seen in any other MMO.  On the somewhat infrequent occasions that you stumble across someone else, there's a good chance it will be  will be a single player running 3-5 characters.   

If you stray off the beaten path, there are a lot of interesting things to discover.   Some of it serious and hinting at deep lore, some of it quite silly. These gentleman, noticing that for whatever strange reason wild animals tend to drop money when you kill them, have decided to investigate what types of food produce the greatest amount of coin.
So far I am posting guides to things I think are important to know about but aren't well documented in game. Really basic items like where and when you can buy a fast horse or even what to do after the intro quest series runs out at level 35 are much more mysterious than they should be for new players.  So far I have have four guides up:

PvE leveling for new players.  Everything from how to set up your hotbars when you first start to a quest path to the cap and optional side quests as you level.  It covers all three realms and both Ywain and Gaheris.

How to get your first artifact.  Artifacts are powerful magic items that gain abilities as you level them.  The process of acquiring artifacts is a bit arcane, and the game itself doesn't give you much clue that they even exist on a normal play through.

Champion Levels.  This is an essential but poorly documented advancement system that opens up when you reach the level cap. 

Mounts.  Another really important system that isn't well documented anywhere else that I could find.

I have a few more guides planned, but it's not a project I have the spare time to support as much as I'd like.**  The main reason I put the guides up is so that web search engines can find them.  A lot of the resources for DAoC currently available on the web are badly out of date in the modern game and/ or don't really help much unless you already know most of the basics.  Dated graphics and steep learning curve with nary a hand to guide you equals a game doomed to obscurity.  I hope my site helps out with the lack of guidance for new players at least a little bit.

**Update:  I eventually also posted walkthroughs the "obscure but challenging PvE quest line," but after that the project wound down.  You can find an overview of the final website here.

Sheero Hills, Hibernia.  It seems to be set up as an end game PvE zone, but what if anything there is for a solo player to do there besides kill random mobs for dragon scales I still have no clue.  Even after playing for a year, there are a ton of zones I have yet to really explore.    
On the PvP game that you probably have heard of 

No post on DAoC is really complete without at least touching on the PvP.  There are a few MMOs that also offer three faction PvP, but none I'm aware of where that's the primary focus of the game and the player base.  One of the main areas where you can see this difference is in class balance.  Classes are designed to be roughly balanced with their mirrors in other factions (if they have one), and to make for a fun and varied PvP playing field.  No attempt is made to achieve balance among characters of different roles, or really to balance classes in PvE at all.  The PvP on offer is ruthless, very often completely unfair, and surprisingly fun.  Knowing what fights you are likely to win and being on the side that can get organized well enough to bring the most bodies is at least as important as gear or skill.  If you are a huge fan of well balanced battleground style PvP, it probably sounds terrible.  However, it really has a very different feel from PvP in most MMOs.  The persistent PvP areas feel much more like real places than an instanced battleground that despawns after a match ends.

It's also less hardcore then you might think. Death is pretty painless, there is no real penalty for getting killed.  It isn't EVE where one bad choice can make months of progress disappear like a fart in the wind.  Victory, on the other hand, is absolutely elating.  Hitting new realm ranks and earning realm abilities feels very rewarding.  The primary PvP map (Frontiers) is enormous, with tons of objectives to fight over.  There is also keep warfare complete with battering down doors, siege engines, and some classes being able to infiltrate keeps by climbing the walls.  All of this is embedded in a full featured MMO, with crafting, housing and fun PvE content ranging from solo quest chains to raiding.  Overall, I'd say that if you can get past the dated graphics and a steep learning curve, Dark Age of Camelot is absolutely one of the best MMOs on the market today. The main server, Ywain, is also extremely active and the players there are generally quite welcoming.