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.