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.