Thursday, January 28, 2010

Quick Hits, January 2010 Edition

For reasons that are inexplicable to me, Cryptic chose to announce on the eve of the launch of Star Trek Online that the first major content update in Champions Online would be a paid mini expansion. Nerd rage is blistering across the net, whether justified or not is hard to say as an outsider. The move does make it seem as if Cryptic intends to offer less value for a $15 sub than is the norm for premium MMOs, which is pretty much the exact opposite impression you'd want to give on the eve of another major launch.

The next major content update coming in LoTRO is ...well a bit underwhelming to be honest. Hopefully we will get some substantive new content in between now and the next paid update (though I won't be holding my breath, to be sure). Two minor items that I am optimistic about are the revamp of crafted jewelry stats and the new recipes for farmers. The stats on crafted jewelry are really screwy in the current game. My maxed out jewlcrafter was using mid 20's jewelry for something like 15 levels. There simply weren't any decent craftable upgrades for a melee class until he hit 40. And farmers... it would be nice if there were any reason in the world to level a farmer. They make items that scholars, cooks, and even weapon smiths can use; but nothing remotely worth the insane tedium of leveling one. Hopefully the new recipes will blow my mind.

I've been playing up a Guardian in LoTRO, and I'm finding him to be a lot of fun. In fact much more fun than my Champion who is a bit higher. When in full offense mode with a good two hander he puts out nearly the offense of a Champ on a single target (if not a bit more), while still having much better defense. Being a rock solid tank in a party also is far from sucky. I especially enjoy the reactionary skill chains. On a block or a parry, chains open up that can lead to an AoE attack, very strong single target attacks, or a self heal depending on where I take them and which chain opens. It makes combat feel dynamic without demanding the technical skill of a say, a Warden or a DAoC melee class.

Turbine's other big MMO, DDO is getting a major patch soon. New high end content, a graphics upgrade to some areas, and a major revamp of the low end game to make it more accessible... all available whether you pay or not. Altogether it at least as impressive as the patch LoTRO is getting. The days of DDO being Turbine's red headed step child are now over it seems.

Server Mergers in Age of Conan

Age of Conan just finished up their server mergers. The merger worked, the servers are packed out now. Unfortunately, it turns out that a lot of the inhabitants of AoC are slightly asshatish. General chat lasted all of ten minutes before I shut it off.

On logging, I discovered that one of my characters had inexplicably been moved to a Role Play PvP server. Though he was my highest character, he was only 20 so I re-rolled him on the server where all my other characters ended up (Set). Leveling him up for the second time, I discovered that the combat in AoC is a little more skill based than I supposed it was. I'm tearing through encounters I found difficult the first play through, and the main reason is that I know how to use all my combos much better now. Any game is easier if you are playing a class and content you are familiar with, but not to the degree I'm experiencing in AoC.

I also discovered an hour ago that I could have moved the guy I'm replacing to Set for free. I have the new one up to 15 so I guess I'll stick with him. And who knows, maybe I'll want to have a mid level toon available on the server where guys gank you while using such clever RP as "By Crom ye are but a stripling! Taste my salty man parts thou foolish cur!"

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Age of Conan versus LoTRO as an Homage

There are a lot of areas of Lord of the Rings Online that really perfectly evoke the feel of the books. If you are remotely familiar with the books, this scene of the Shire at night will look familar:

And of course this image of three stone trolls you will recognize if you have read the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings recently:

Complete with bird nest in the right place if you go back and read the precise description from the Fellowship of the Ring. Even this image from Foreschel looks straight out of the books if you are anal enough to be familiar with the appendices (notice the guy moving over the ice on blades of bone):

There are certainly some elements that stick out like a sore thumb. My hobbit on a goat seems more than a bit out of place:

And this scene of my Runekeeper smiting the hell out of a Dour hand nearly breaks the lore over it's knee:

However, all in all, most of what you will find in LoTRO seems like a perfectly valid extrapolation from the books. Very few of the details of a given zone occur anywhere in the books, but they generally feel as if they could have if Tolkien was given time to write more. While still remaining a compelling game, I think that LoTRO does about as good a job with the source material as you could expect.

At first glance, Age of Conan doesn't evoke it's source material as strongly as LoTRO. I have yet to visit a location I recognize from the Howard stories. For example, I sure as heck don't remember this place (as pretty as it is):

However, I think that's an unfair comparison for several reasons, not the least of which is the difference in the writing style of Tolkien and Howard. It's easy to figure out what to make a lot of the settings in LoTRO look like because Tolkien describes them in such detail that you'd think he was working from a set of blueprints or terrain maps. Howard, on the other hand, rarely has much patience for describing nitpicky details of his settings. The places he describes are meant largely to evoke a mood and provide a set piece for some action.

So what are we left with? Does AoC evoke the mood of the Howard stories effectively? Yes, largely I'd say. The combat is fast paced, and some of the crit animations are quite gory. This is in good keeping with the source material; Conan tends to send limbs, heads, and intestines flying around all over the place wherever he goes. If anything the game is tame compared to the books. And Howard spends as much time describing the action as anything else.

Further, even though we might not recognize many (or any) of the locations, they all look like they could have come from one of Howard's stories. This early view of Tortage certainly looks like it could have been from one of his stories to me:

The the game elements I've encountered so far are also mostly logical seeming extrapolations from the Howard short stories. Sure, there are a few glaring exceptions. Some of the casting classes feel almost as out of place in AoC as they do in LoTRO. For example, while there are certainly beings with amazing magical abilities in the Conan stories, you just don't see large numbers of (or any that I recall) fire spouting were-demons wielding giant two handed swords. Here's my Herald of Xotli "hulking out:"

While I can imagine that such beings existed in Howard's world, it's odd to see them as common as merchants and beggars.

Despite this and other quibbles, the Hyborian Age is overall a lot less restrained setting than Middle Earth and the developers can get away with more. And, to reiterate, all of the locations I've explored so far seem as if they would be right at home in one of Howard's short stories. All in all, I'd say it's an MMO literary homage right up there with LoTRO. It remains to be seen whether rumored MMOs based on harry Potter and other literary IPs can meet the bar that has been set by the first two big ones.

Elder Scrolls MMO in the Works?

I have a long post about AoC coming up that's mainly waiting to be dolled up with screen shots to illustrate some of my points. However, I stumbled on this story at Gamespot and thought I'd pass it along.

I have often cited the Elder Scrolls: Morrowind as an example of a sandbox done right. It gives you incredible freedom, while also giving you a compelling series of quests and story lines to follow should you care to. I am skeptical that a design with so much freedom would work well in an MMO. For example, how do you balance a game where anyone can design and create pretty much any spell or magic item they can think of? I think the answer is that you can't, and that the game would have to be a lot more restrictive than it's offline counterparts.

Still, if Bethesda can give us the first sandbox MMO that is a game first and a sim second, I think I will be pretty happy with a product that is "only" as open in its design as UO or EVE.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Conan the Barbarian: a bit of a ramble

While playing age of Conan, I have found myself rereading a lot of the original Conan short stories and thinking about how well the game and the movie that made Arnie famous reflect their source material. I'll get to the game in my next post, I hope that you will forgive a brief digression.

Conan in Literature

The original short stories were written by Robert E. Howard. Until very recently they were available mainly through a series of short story collections edited by L. Sprague De Camp. It turns out that he took some liberties with the source material.

In the original collections, you can tell a huge difference between the stories written by L. Sprague De Camp or Lin Carter and the ones that Howard wrote himself. Howard was a gifted storyteller that used terse and engaging prose. His stories also tend to twist and turn, you are never quite sure where they are going. De Camp on the other hand, is just a writer. The stories he wrote to fill out Conan's back story in between Howard's stories are certainly competent (I'd say De Camp about on par with R. A. Salvatore), but rarely as engaging as the material he seeks to mimic. If you prefer to stick to the real deal, there are some recent collections that reprint the Howard short stories unedited.

However, if you don't read any of De Camp's stories, you will miss out on the literary origin of a lot of minor fantasy tropes. For example, the numerous jelly and slime monsters of the Dungeons and Dragons pen and paper game (which from thence went on to innumerable PC and console RPGs) seem directly inspired by a creature that appears in De Camp's "The Curse of the Monolith." They even share a vulnerability to fire. In another example, several of the scenes from the Conan movies were taken from De Camp stories rather than Howard stories. De Camp may not have been the caliber of writer that Howard was, but a lot of his ideas stuck with us.

Conan the Barbarian, the Movie

My first exposure to Conan was in the movie with Arnie. I still think it's a fantastic movie. Though very little that happens in the movie occurs in any of the original short stories, I think the movie does a good job of evoking the feel of the source material. And this sets up one of my major criteria for whether an adaptation from one medium to another is competent. The changing moods of the movie, the way that the music plays off of the cinematography, and the quality of the dialogue still hold up well nearly 30 years after the movie came out. The sequel slightly bit, but is still entertaining in a "Remember the 80s?" sort of way.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sitting out the STO launch

Star Trek Online looks like a great game. But I can't see my way clear to cramming in another MMO right now. I'm already splitting my time between Age of Conan (impressions coming soon) and Lord of the Rings Online. And then there is Champions Online, which I have yet to crack 15 in.

I'm also not too eager to risk falling in love with one game before launch and having it become another right after launch. I'd rather wait a week or two for the dust to settle around whatever last minute changes Cryptic feels the urge to make, and then try the game from there. I never experienced the defense nerf (hey...that sounds familiar) that Champions Online got on launch day, they had adjusted things back to sane levels by the time I got my PC up and running again. However, I don't think I would have enjoyed it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Yeebo's 2009 in review

Inspired by this post at Dub's Diatribe, this post at A Ding World, and this post at Blue Kae I decided to come up with my own end of the year summary.

LoTRO: as a life time subscriber, this has been the home I always come back to for the last few years. Moria was a stunning virtual space, but a lot of the mechanics that Turbine chose to add fell short in my mind. Radiance gating of end game content I particularly loath. Lothlorian was also a bit of a let down to me. Struggling through Moria to a final zone where the quests have you you meditate, gather berries, and scold drunken elves was more than a little anti-climatic.

The Shadows of Mirkwood expansion was a pleasant surprise. It fixed the arc of the final few levels; the leveling game ends on a bang rather than a whimper now. There are also a lot of little changes I enjoy, such as the shared bank slot and the fact that horses no longer take up bag space. Mirkwood itself is a fun questing zone, my favorite since Foreschel. Finally, I really like skirmishes, Turbine added an engaging side game. All in all I'm having more fun in LoTRO than I have since the SoA era game.

Wizard 101: another game I keep coming back to. I have now bought permanent access to the first two worlds and about half of the third. I mainly play a string of alts. I enjoy the content in the first two worlds more than the third, and there are several combinations of magic schools I am interested in and have yet to try out. I never seem to play for more than a month at a stretch, but I keep going back.

City of Heroes: the Mission Architect really revived my interest in this game. One of the things that always bugged me about it was that the game was too repetitive, and the missions weren't well written. The Mission Architect fixed that problem. Most of the missions players came up with bit, to be sure. However, the best player generated missions are some of the most engaging stories you can experience in an MMO. I got a solid couple of months out of it, which is the longest I've played COH since the few months after launch.

Champions Online: fantastic game that I never was able to get very far in. I love the pacing and flow of the combat, I love the graphical style, I love messing around with all the different travel powers, and I love how flexible the character generation system is. I didn't think anyone would top CoH on the latter score, yet Cryptic did manage to do just that. Unfortunately, both times I played CO, my computer committed suicide in the middle of a session. I am now on my third power supply, and too superstitious to fire CO up again for the time being.

Runes of Magic: plays similarly to WoW, and it's free. Not quite enough to hold my attention, but I did play it for a week or two and I still have it installed.

World of Warcraft: I did the WotLK trial in the spring, and I was fairly impressed. I went ahead and bought the expansion. As if by magic, the game started to bore me to tears again within a few days of buying WotLK. It's as if Blizzard knew exactly how long the new content would hold my interest, and timed the trial to be a bit shorter than that.

In addition to my brief time in the spring, the first time my main gaming rig died I ended up firing WoW up again to have something decent to play on my backup PC. Say what you will of the game, but the graphics engine powering WoW is amazing. Toasters can run it at good frame rates, and due to the art direction the game still looks pretty good by even modern standards (at least if you don't mind cartooney graphics).

Dungeons and Dragons Online: great game that really came out of the blue for me. When Turbine announced that the game was going FtP, I figured that meant the game was in it's death throes. Nothing could be further from the truth, the game seems to be thriving based on the activity I've seen. And the game itself is one heck of a lot of fun. It has the most fluid and fast paced combat of any MMO I've tried. Can't recommend it enough if you are looking for something different from typical turn based fare.

Age of Conan: the unlimited lifetime free trial was enough to get me to try this. I've had enough fun in Tortage that I decided to buy the game and see what the rest of the world offers. Finding a copy that was only six bucks (including shipping) on Amazon didn't hurt. I'll be paying less than the $15 sub fee for my first month whenever it arrives. Fast paced combat (though not as fast as DDO), stunning graphics (environments almost as good as LoTRO, and character models better than anything else I've played), and engaging story lines least in the free trial area. Word on the street is that that game falls flat on it's face once you leave Tortage, but to me it's worth six dollars to check out the rest of the game.

The Blog: I've had a great time getting this blog off of the ground. It's been really gratifying to see my readership go from zero to "more than that." Special thanks to those of you that regularly comment here. Anjin, Jaydub, Sente, Aspen, Blue Kae....thanks so much! I feel like we are all engaged in a grand conversation among our blogs, and I enjoy it quite a bit.

That's all that comes to mind at the moment. May the MMO gods favor your endeavors. Happy hunting in 2010!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

MMO sandboxes

This post over at Bullet Points reminded me of one of my major peeves with MMOs as a genre.

Sandbox MMOs tend to suck.

I certainly don't mean that they suck in some objective sense. EVE is doing pretty well after all, some 300K players find enjoyment there. Pre-NGE SWG obviously had a very passionate following. And UO is nearly the longest running sub based MMO, only Meridion is older as far as I know.

I simply mean that to my particular tastes, sandbox MMOs tend to fall far short of what they could be. Offline, sandboxes like GTA and Fallout are among my favorite games. You'd think something like that, but online and multiplayer, would be "the ultimate game." The problem is that designers of online sandbox MMOs seem to care more about systems than immersion.

To give you an idea of where I'm coming from, here are two experiences I have had with sandboxes (out of at least a dozen I've played, online and off).

Star Wars Galaxies, pre NGE: I logged in and went through short tutorials that showed me how to walk around and equip a weapon. After that, I was given no guidance at all. I found myself in some random town in a big ass desert. I wandered around, and found a bar. There were a lot of PCs playing music and dancing, which was at least interesting. After that, lacking any clear motivation save to "get more butch" I headed out into the desert and killed stuff. I did indeed get more butch, but there seemed little point to it. With no idea at all of what I was working towards or why, I didn't have a lot of motivation to continue. Certainly, in my time there I didn't encounter any content that was fun enough to become an end in of itself.

The Elder Scrolls, Morrowind: I awake from strange and disturbing dreams, a prisoner on a ship. The guards direct me off the ship. Several insult me as I pass, but the guard on the isle of Morrowind seems kind enough. He leads me to a building where I design my character through a series of conversations. I am also told a small part of why I was captured, and why my life has been spared. To learn more there is an NPC in a nearby town I must talk to.

I head off into the jungle in the direction of the town with little idea of what I will find. On the way, I encounter a door leading to a cave...inside, bandits. An hour later, the treasure once held by bandit corpses in my sack, I continue on my journey.

I arrive in the town and find my contact. He talks of the Emperor and of three great houses. The Emperor himself spared my life it seems. To repay him I must serve as his agent. I am told to curry favor with one of the local factions. Earn the trust of mages, thieves, or sellswords; it make no difference.

So the mages. I wish to learn the secrets of true power. What is the power of steel or shadows compared to the power to bend the laws of the world? The elders of the mages guild send me on many errands, but I am more than equal to any task I am set.

One task sends me to the house of an old woman. I have been collecting books, and she has many shelves. When my duty is completed, I set her to screaming by blade and fire. Her corpse cooling, I shelve my books. Her home becomes mine.

After many tasks (and more slaughter), I become master of the mage's guild. Those who once sneered are now obsequious. I have free access to the mage's teleportals (which span the isle), and have learned all the spells known to men or spirits. More importantly, spells unknown I can create. I can even imbue these witcheries into inanimate objects. A two-handed sword named "Soulstealer" I imbue with the power to drain the life of my foes and add it to my essence. Even demons from beyond the mortal circle fall before it quickly enough. No foe can face me and live.

Flushed with pride at my success, I go back to my contact. He sets me another task and . . . . I butcher him where he stands. Be he the agent of the Emperor or god, it matters not. I control my own fate. In time I come to lead one of the three great houses.


The above comparison might seem unfair. But it pretty accurately reflects what was going through my mind as I played each game. One game dumped me into a world a with crap ton of deep systems and no guidance save "Go forth and prosper!" Another dumped me into a game with equally deep systems, but gave me a lot of scripted content to interact with (or not) if I felt like it. That scripted content was absolutely essential to helping me connect to the world that the game designers envisioned.

In a comment to one of my other posts Anjin put it really well. To paraphrase, to be fun a game has to be a game first and a simulator second. The designers off offline sandboxes (the GTA series, the Elder Scrolls series, the Fallout series, Crackdown, ect.) seem to get that. MMO sandbox designers so far apparently don't.

Back in the saddle again

I had a long and relaxing Holiday. The only downside was that I was MMO free for most of it. Towards the end, I started cracking out so hard I installed Wizard 101 on my parents PC. My mom had never played an MMO, she seemed to enjoy it.

Even if I wasn't on enough to comment, I have been following your blog if you are listed off to the right. Ironically, several posts I didn't comment on because they were so thought provoking that they gave me good ideas for posts. I'm going to try and get some of those out over the weekend.