Wednesday, 7 December 2016

A Very Merry Frostfell To You : EQ2

As is generally the way of things when news editors are involved, the only headlines DBG saw yesterday concerned a couple of bugs in the latest update. I'm sure the disappearance of the Signature Questline reward set a few pulses racing but it was swiftly addressed - no rollback necessary.

Far more worthy of comment in my opinion is the ongoing effort DBG's EQ2 team consistently maintains in order not only to keep the game ticking along but to make sure it's continually growing. We've just had what I consider to be an excellent expansion and yet, before the paint is dry, here comes Frostfell.

Of course, every MMO - quite possibly literally every MMO -  will be putting up some sort of mid-winter festival this month. I happened upon a swarm of Grimps over in Qeynos Hills when I popped into the original EverQuest to take a few screenshots and Tyria will begin the Wintersday celebrations next week. It's a racing certainty that everyone reading this will see some kind of snow-related event in his or her MMO of choice within a matter of days.

Frostfell remains my favorite nonetheless. I can vividly remember the excitement when the Frostfell Wonderland Village first opened its wardrobe doors way back in 2006. The times we spent there, fighting over present spawns or running the Icy Keep instance over and over and over for Eci tokens. The Christmases we spent running through half-finished quest chains on Test. The goblins, the gifts, the bad puns. Happy days!

Year in, year out Santa Glug's Goblin Helpers SOE developers and designers went above and beyond the call of duty, adding new quests, new presents, new crafting recipes, new house items and new gear every year without fail. In 2013 the zone got a complete makeover and it looks fantastic.

The transition to DBG may have reduced the budget but the Frostfell Spirit remains undimmed. This year, yet again, we got a full, new quest in addition to three new books of recipes, seven new gifts, and more besides. Playing GW2 as I have been these past four years, where ANet profess to make an actual virtue out of leaving holiday events unchanged, (if, that is, they don't remove them entirely), I am acutely aware of the exceptional efforts of Holly "Windstalker" Longdale's small but dedicated crew.

The new quest, which I completed last night, is excellent. A fun romp through a repurposed Sleeper's Tomb involving plenty of snowballs, it's straightforward enough that I was able to complete it without reference to the wiki. Just as well, since when I checked afterwards to see if I'd missed anything I found no-one had written it up yet.

The rewards are excellent - if you like housing as much as Syp or I do. I was spoilt for choice between the two icy gargoyle models but in the end I chose the one that didn't look like it was about to bite my head off.

With that it was off to my Maj'Dul mansion to find somewhere to put it, along with the rat in a snowglobe given to me by Santa Glug. My ratonga's is house is now so full of junk treasures that it takes up to thirty seconds to load every time I zone in.

I really should think about using one of the  several Prestige houses I've acquired over the years to take some of the overspill but somehow that  place is home. It was a lot of hard work getting the faction to buy it and I can't really imagine living anywhere else.

The other big Frostfell news is that the festival is coming to the TLE Stormhold server for the first time. That is very definitely enough to get me to log my SK there in and spend some time in the Village.

I also took advantage of the free transfer token offered to everyone on the now-redundant Race to Trakanon server, which closes in the New Year, that race having been won by...someone. I moved my mid-teens Bruiser to Skyfire and he may be the one to get the benefit of the Level 100 Boost that came with Kunark Ascending. I did play a max-level Bruiser regularly back when the cap was 90 so I feel reasonably confident I'd get the hang of it again. He deserves some Frostfell fun too.

In the old days, when EQ2 was my main game, I'd have seen so much of Frostfell by the end of December I'd be almost as keen to see it go as I was to see it arrive. These days my concern is more over how I'm going to fit in all the things I want to do over the holidays in both Tyria and Norrath.

I guess I'd better get on with it instead of sitting here chatting!


And look what Santa Glug had for me today! This fantastic "Alabaster Pekin" house pet! Just what I wanted!

Sunday, 4 December 2016

One Size Fits All : EverQuest

A post by Telwyn at GamingSF reminded me of something I hadn't thought about for years, namely the way just about every MMORPG has vendors who stand around selling things that no-one wants to buy. It's not just weapons and armor, either.

Food, drink, potions, crafting and harvesting tools - you name it and there's probably an NPC with an inexhaustible supply standing ready to serve your characters day and night (literally). It goes deeper than that too. If your game has housing of any kind then odds on there are basic tables, chairs, beds and bookcases up for sale in a crafting hall or town square somewhere not far from your door.

The longer established your game of choice, the more extensive the range of merchandise available, but even brand new MMOs start out with busy marketplaces and well-stocked tradespeople. And it makes sense in a way, there at the beginning, as hordes of eager adventurers pour out of the gates of the tutorial dressed in little more than a few meager quest items and the odd stat-free drop, while the crafters have yet to find their way to the forge.

Whether anyone actually gears up at an NPC vendor even in those early days in any modern MMO I'm not so sure. It probably depends on any number of factors: how generous the developers have been with the loot tables in the starting zones, whether gear progression is tied to questing, how fast the leveling speed is set and so on. My guess is most of those NPCs find the trade going only one way as they shell out for an endless stream of beetle mandibles and spider eyes without ever earning a copper back from sales of their unfashionable stock.

When I first stepped out into Norrath those many years ago, though, things were very different. I had no concept of "gear progression" for a start. EverQuest, famously one of the most inaccurately named MMORPGs of all time, didn't begin to use questing as a primary means of supplying usable equipment until many years later. In those days we wore and wielded what we could find and we felt pretty darned lucky if we found, well, anything.

Back then I very definitely wasn't concerned over the quality of the armor and weaponry the NPC vendors had for sale. My big problem was with the prices they charged. I remember standing in North Qeynos scrolling through the stock on the marketplace vendors, wondering how anyone could ever hope to save up the outrageous sums they wanted for basic leathers.

That, of course, was when the sight of a gnoll waving a stick could start a feeding frenzy among new players. It might be a  Cracked Staff (non-magic, no stats)! Such a windfall, not something you could expect every session, meant either a major upgrade to DPS or, if you already had one, a boost to your finances of around a platinum piece, always assuming your character had good faction and high charisma.

In such a world, armor selling for two or three times that per item seemed almost unimaginably
desirable, and equally unimaginably out of reach. Even now, seventeen years later, I can recall the astonishment we felt when some high levels (they must have been in the low twenties at least!) swung by the bank in Qeynos and dumped a whole set of chain armor on Mrs Bhagpuss's shaman. It felt like winning the lottery.

It was relatively common back then for higher levels to offload trinkets and trash from their packs on passing newbies, the basic principle being that one man's trash might as well be another man's treasure. And how were we to know otherwise? In those days, hunting out of Qeynos, the East Commons Tunnel marketplace was little more than a rumor and the advent of the NPC Broker system was still several years and a space voyage away. We had no way of judging value other than the prices we saw on the vendors in the starting towns and villages and those vendors were gougers, every one.

They didn't sell rubbish though. The items the vendors had were either identical to the stuff that dropped, often without even the names changed, or, in some cases, better.

The sequence I remember went thus: you began with the newbie short sword you were given at character creation. That, you upgraded at the earliest opportunity to a rusty version, as soon as you could prize one out of a gnoll pup's lifeless paw.

You'd then use your minimal smithing skills to put a dull shine on it with a sharpening stone. That would give you a Tarnished Short Sword, which would most likely have to last you until you were high enough level to hunt bigger game in a dungeon like Blackburrow, where, theoretically, a Bronze weapon might drop.

Might but rarely did. If you had the coin, though, you could skip the unwilling middleman, avoid the RNG shuffle and simply buy a generic Short Sword from a vendor.

If you follow those links you'll see that not only is the vendor-sold sword always available it's also a superior weapon to any of the others mentioned so far. In fact, dropped weapons didn't supersede vendor-bought until you hit Fine Steel, which you wouldn't normally have expected to see until you began grouping in earnest for serious dungeons like Unrest or Mistmoore.

Can I help you, Sir?

So, when MMOs were young and we were innocent (relatively speaking), these basic vendors did serve a purpose and weren't, after all, so basic as you might imagine. I certainly bought my share of Swords and Staffs from NPCs before I had characters high enough to twink their juniors with hand-me-downs.

As the genre matured, if that's what we call it, the window of opportunity between launch and the end of a useful life for basic vendor stock (which in EQ probably lasted at least a year, or until the arrival of the first expansion, Ruins of Kunark) shrank almost to nothing. I remember going through something similar in Dark Age of Camelot, Vanguard and a few more but I struggle to remember having bought anything other than consumables from the vendors in the last half dozen or so mainstream MMORPGs I've played.  

Blade and Soul, Black Desert, The Secret World, ArcheAge - theme park, sandbox or hybrid alike, just about everything comes via quest, drop, crafter or auction house. GW2 was slightly different, it's true. The plethora of Heart and Karma vendors did give an impression that low-level shopping might be a major feature of gameplay but it turned out to be a mechanic more akin to quest rewards for a game that professes to have no quests.

And yet every new MMO seems determined to roll out with the same indefatigable salesforce set up to sell the unnecessary to the uninterested. It's become a trope of the genre and one that I would miss were it to be taken away. I may not want what they sell but I'll defend their right to sell it to the end.

And anyway, they must be selling the stuff to someone, right? Else where do they get the money to buy my all my burned out lightstones?

Friday, 2 December 2016

Fire And Ice : GW2

With impeccable timing, now that IntPiPoMo is over, here's an all-picture post.

I was flipping through my screenshot folders the other day, looking for something I didn't find, when I noticed a whole sequence of shots from GW2's two most recent maps, Ember Bay and Bitterfrost Frontier.

GW2 has always been a spectacularly beautiful game. Over the years there have been many, many criticisms of the way the operation has been run and the direction the game has taken but no-one ever claimed the Art Department wasn't pulling its weight.

GW2 has always had a lush, overblown visual signature, but in the new lands we're discovering there's a fresh emphasis on special effects and spectacle.

Sunsets in Ember Bay explode as though yet another of Tyria's many dragons has awoken right in front of you. Every color seems supersaturated.

In Bitterfrost Frontier the tangerines and rose pinks give way to blues that shade to white. Indigo nights and snowblind days abound.

The snow softens everything to a blur although nothing in the game could be softer than this snow leopard cub, which you can rescue and have as a housepet.

And this last frame is the odd one out. I picked this thinking it was another Bitterfrost shot but it's not. I took this on the run through Frostgorge Sound. Everything old is new again when you look at the world with fresh eyes.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

A Little Something for Us Tempunauts

Lewis Carroll's Red Queen would have loved MMORPGs. So would Douglas Adams. It's a wonder there's not a Milliways franchise in every spaceport from EVE to SW:ToR. If you can't believe six impossible things before breakfast you might as well not bother logging in.

My personal favorite has always been the universal genre trope of swimming in plate armor but I could probably come up with a Top 100 Cognitive Dissonance Moments without pausing for breath. Animal corpses that open to reveal weapons and armor, characters who are always "hungry" and "thirsty" yet never run out of "endurance", the way every simple shopkeeper in any tiny hamlet can come up with the coin to buy gems that would bankrupt a Czar...

Of all the unlikely, illogical and downright unbelievable shortcuts, compromises and simple design flaws that make up the fundamental mechanics of every MMO, however, perhaps the hardest to reconcile, let alone ignore, is temporal paradox. Every MMORPG launches with something that's at least intended to represent a coherent chronology but the illusion starts to break down within minutes of the servers coming online.

Schrödinger's Lion: it both is and is not destroyed.

At the absolute bedrock level there's the Multiplayer problem. If the game has ten thousand players then all ten thousand of them need to be able to do all the things a minimum of one time each. Then do it again for every new character they create. Then all the new players coming along behind them need to be able to do it all over again until the game closes down.

If Widow Jenkins needs ten rats killed in the cellar once she needs ten rats killed ten thousand times. If she happens to live in a popular part of the virtual world, a starting area for example, her cellar will fill with Adventurers, yawning and stretching as they run through their idling animations, arguing, joking or accusing each other of kill-stealing as they wait for the next rat to return from its brief trip to the rat after-life, or wherever it is mobs go until they respawn.

Insurmountable problems with the passage of time come baked into the structure of multiplayer virtual worlds as inseparably and essentially as sugar is baked into the structure of a cake. This is why instances were invented along with that awkward compromise, phasing. It's all in a futile attempt to conceal the unpalatable truth that none of this is "real"; not for any value of real you care to assign.

Pied à terre in Qeynos Hills. In need of some updating.
If there are fissures and fractures in the illusion from the moment the game launches they are as nothing compared to the chasms and gorges that open up the moment the updates begin. Few, if any, MMO producers have been willing to take up the tracks behind them as the content train rolls down the track, so everything that ever happened just goes on happening. Forever.

The first time I can remember noticing this was with something surprisingly trivial. When the long-running "Rude Individuals" storyline began in EverQuest a whole lot of small huts appeared overnight in Qeynos Hills. When the forces of Bertoxxolous were finally routed I noticed that no-one had thought to remove the huts. They never did. They're still there now, a decade and a half later.

At the other extreme stands the increasingly awkward situation in which GW2 now finds itself. The entire game rests on an all-pervasive narrative concerning the ever-growing threat posed by a handful of awakening dragons. When the game began all of these dragons were alive. Four years and one expansion later two of them are dead. As I write the storyline is winding towards the expected demise of two more.

When Jormag is dead will The Sons of Svanir fade away? Not as long as they still drop loot, I bet.

These dragons may be dead but they won't lie down. They can't. Not only are their fates entwined with every character's "Personal Story" but the dangers and problems they present form the background, center and foreground of most, if not all, the open-world maps in the game.

Mordremoth and Zhaitan may no longer live to spread their malign influence across the world but no-one seems to have told their minions, who carry out their orders as though the dawn of a new draconic age is still just over the horizon. Where you would expect clean-up operations to have begun and normality, if not to have been restored, then at least to show signs of returning, absolutely nothing at all has changed.

It can't, of course. For that to happen wouldn't just mean whole maps being revamped, entire zone-wide sequences of Dynamic Events re-written, new art assets created and voice-overs recorded. It would mean change so sweeping that ANet might more reasonably start over with GW3.

The crowds have gone but the anomaly lingers on.

A map clean could conceivably happen, albeit at great expense. WoW, after all, attempted something along those lines with the Cataclysm expansion. Merely bringing the open world maps in line with the ongoing narrative, though, would merely move the problem to a new starting point. Moreover, even if it were made an ongoing process, it would still only address the symptoms. The underlying malaise runs far deeper and any cure would be worse than the disease.

For one thing it would require unpicking and re-writing the Personal Story and that would be a step too far. Not only does the Personal Story underpin the creation of every player character but many new players cleave towards that story as an anchor in what some seem to find an unfamiliar, chaotic world. Without a formal quest-driven structure, the Personal Story offers a lifeline for tentative visitors from more traditional MMOs. Somewhere, something has to stay the same or all points of reference lose meaning.

These kinds of tectonic disparities fracture every MMO I've ever played and the irony is that the more successful the game is, the longer it persists, the less convincing it becomes as a "world". GW2 right now offers perhaps the most outrageous example of utter disregard for chronological congruity. For an MMO that has yet to see its second expansion the degree to which the parts no longer make up a whole is astounding.

It can only be with conscious irony that someone at ArenaNet decided to create a category of Achievements called "Current Events". As if the myriad conflicting legacies of three Living Stories, an expansion and any number of one-off special events wasn't enough, a few months back the developers began a series of sidebar narratives, ostensibly to fill out the gaps between major updates and give impatient players something to do with their hands.

You might have expected each of these to last only until the next appeared. Calling them "Current Events" would lead you towards such an expectation, but no. Once current, always current it seems. All are still with us.

It was only last week when I read the proof of a yet-unpublished novel whose entire theme, structure and narrative is an exposition on time travel that the penny finally dropped. Every MMO is a time travel simulator and we aren't just Adventurers but Time Travelers too.

Self-evidently, few if any of the laws of physics as we understand them pertain to the imaginary worlds in which we spend our hours. Even if the setting is supposedly contemporary, with no magical or futuristic or fantastical accoutrements at all, there's no MMO that attempts to replicate reality with anything deeper than a veneer of accuracy.

If gravity, inertia, momentum, conservation of energy and all the rest are malleable, why then should time be the exception? What's more, if time and space are indeed a continuum and everything happens at once, all the time, forever, only separated into discrete portions by our human perceptions, then MMO time is simply raw time, unprocessed.

The Pale Tree. Not entirely up to date with the news.
Human consciousness evolved to filter time so I guess it's not so surprising that we, most of us at least, seem to find little difficulty tripping through our virtual worlds without giving much regard to the anachronisms and paradoxes that surround us. In this respect the gamer's sense of time is infinitely adaptable, or so it seems.

Far more so, certainly, than the gamer's tolerance for having his or her own past experiences altered by proxy. Blizzard's attempt with Cataclysm to tidy up behind them as they moved on was not well-received. It's a move they haven't chosen to repeat and other companies haven't chosen to copy.

As I pass through the timestorm that is Tyria four years on I do sometimes wonder just how long things can continue this way. Then I consider the alternatives, check my chronometer and carry on.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Added Value : EQ2

As predicted, A Crack In The Ice, put something of a crimp in my progress through Kunark Ascending's main quest sequences. The crafting timeline had already come to a standstill pending acquisition of the nine crafted items required to complete Proof of the Pudding but I was still making steady progress on the Adventure side until GW2 butted in with the latest installment of what we are now apparently supposed to call "The Living World".

One of the many joys of GW2 these days seems to be the complete abandonment of any sense of temporal congruity. I have a post simmering concerning time in MMOs, the idea for which came to me partly from a dementedly complicated time-travel novel I read recently and partly from GW2's increasingly inaccurately named "Current Events".

There's plenty of good stuff to be had from the crafting timeline even if you can't produce your Earring of the Solstice as evidence of your Grandmaster status. Having a goblin gardener with his own quest line in your house is reward enough.

I'll save the analysis for that post, if I ever get around to writing it, but suffice to say for now that if there's one thing GW2 no longer suffers from it's any sense of urgency. There's always a desire to rush through anything new (a desire not shared by everyone) but once I've been through the story instances on a single character and opened all of the new map I feel entirely free to come and go as I please.

Yesterday I changed frontiers, giving Bitterfrost a break, returning to a semi-structured amble through Obolus Frontier instead. It's really an excellently designed zone;  a pleasure to explore. Mob density is very comfortable and there are many safe spots where you can relax and enjoy the varied and detailed scenery. Visibility can sometimes be difficult, what with the lush vegetation and the designers' infatuation with color filters, but compared to the plethora of aggressive wildlife and the ultra-harsh weather conditions of Bitterfrost, Obolus feels almost literally like a walk in the park.

I've done two of the solo instances so far and they have both been excellent. This is Crypt of Dalnir, which could more accurately be called "Sewers of Dalnir". I would probably not have made it without the wiki walkthrough and even with it it took two hours but it never felt too long or too difficult.

My opinions are perhaps not the best standard by which to judge EQ2 expansions. The original Kunark expansion, 2007's "Kunark Rising", now regarded as a high-water mark for the game, irritated me so much on first release that I stopped playing EQ2 entirely for six months and went back to EverQuest instead.

When I returned and did Kunark again I loved it. Like almost every part of Norrath I now think of it with fondness. That's the extreme example of what has often been my reaction to additions to the game: cool at first, warming to approval, even affection, over time.

A change in design philosophy of late has broken that paradigm somewhat. Almost unnoticed, those ambitious, sprawling, often overwhelming expansions of the first few years have given way to a tighter, more focused, directed experience. Chains of Eternity, Tears of Veeshan, Altars of Malice, Terrors of Thalumbra - in some ways they all play more like single-player RPGs than MMOs.

For example, I'd completely forgotten about destructible walls, first introduced all the way back in The Bloodline Chronicles Adventure Pack in 2005. I walked right past the deeply recessed, raised alcove I needed to break through and it was only when I'd cleared everything and was stumped enough to go to the wiki that I realized you do need to look up now and again.

In terms of how I approach them, the sequence, reported in some detail on this blog, is straightforward: I buy the new expansion. I play through the Adventure and Crafting Timelines. That takes somewhere from three to six weeks. If there's an increase to the level cap I may also do a little more to top that off. I potter around for a bit longer and then I drift away until the next update arrives.

For an MMO that is no longer my main time-filler, one that I play for a dozen hours on a heavy week rather than thirty or forty, that's exactly what I need. It's fun, manageable and satisfying. I have a single character (yes, I suppose I must admit it, a "main") as far as Adventuring is concerned and two or three Crafters at the cap. The rest of my extensive roster isn't troubled by recent content at all.

One big difference between Kunark Ascending and previous expansions is the tying of both the Adventuring and Crafting Signature questlines to older content. At first I was a little wary of being pushed into doing some lengthy quests like the Greenmist Heritage and the aforementioned crafter epic "Proof of the Pudding" that I'd previously avoided.

I admit to feeling a ridiculous sense of satisfaction at this point.

Having made my way a good distance through both KA timelines, however, I have to say that having these pre-reqs is a jolly good wheeze. Although I'm still approaching the content in solo-RPG mode, the whole storyline feels significantly more integrated into the virtual world by dint of those hark-backs to earlier times.

Having to prepare for the expansion adds weight, texture and even a little gravitas. My Berserker feels part of the story in a way that's qualitatively different as a direct result of having taken part in the build-up. I hope this trend continues and is expanded upon.

As must be obvious by now, I'm pretty happy with Kunark Ascending. I liked last year's Terrors of Thalumbra well enough but this is a big step up from there. A cursory look at what's offered in a modern-day EQ2 expansion, either under SOE or now as they arrive under the DBG imprimatur, might suggests a diminution in content and a concomitant reduction in value but that would be a false impression. The reverse is the case, at least from the perspective of a mostly-solo player.

All modern EQ2 dungeons are constructed on a scale that makes the older ones feel poky and claustrophobic. I strongly feel that the increased headroom and sense of space makes dungeoneering a much more pleasant and enjoyable experience.

The design brief for expansions, not only in EQ2, used to tend towards several overland areas which would accommodate all of whatever solo content there might be, often in tandem with some group or raid content as well. The rest of the new zones, whether instanced or open, would be "dungeons" scaled either for groups or raids.

Sentinel's Fate, for example, added fourteen zones to Norrath but even though EQ2 was at that time my main MMO and I had a number of characters at the level cap, when I bought and played the expansion at launch I was able to make use of only two of them. Kunark Ascending, by contrast, comes with just seven discrete zones - Obulus Frontier, Arcanna'se Spire, Crypt of Dalnir, Vaedenmoor, Kaesora, The Ruins of Cabilis and Lost City of Torsis - but all bar the raid zone Vaedenmoor are available for both solo and group play.

This sarcophagus is interactable but I couldn't figure out why. I do like an unresolved mystery.

The upshot of all this is that I find the newer expansions to be both much better value and a lot more fun than the old ones often were. EQ2 has become a very specific kind of MMO, very well-tailored to the players it has, playing to its strengths and making the most of its limited resources. Ironically, in doing so, the game has also become more accessible and better-suited to new players than it ever has been.

The expansion comes with a max-level character, geared appropriately to begin current solo content. I wouldn't necessarily recommend learning the ropes that way but if you want to cut to the chase you can. More usefully, the re-fitting of most of the existing dungeons in the game to a "Level Agnostic" format that allows almost all levels to group together has opened up a dozen years of co-operative content at a stroke.

Photo-bombed by a pony. Again.

Were it possible to send the current EQ2 back ten years, configured as it is now, I feel it would stand every chance of being a major success. Sadly, it took those ten years to get it to the point where it might have a hope in a very competitive market. The window of opportunity has closed. Few gamers are interested in giving older games a chance unless it's for a brief nostalgia hit. Especially games whose optimization and graphics can't help but show their age.

Fortunately I don't have to concern myself with how many new players EQ2 can attract. Not, at least, while the game retains enough old players to keep the lights on. For my $34.99, Kunark Ascending is shaping up to be a top notch expansion, one that I'm very happy indeed to have the pleasure of playing. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

In The Bleak Midwinter : GW2

It's round about twelve months since Heart of Thorns, the first and so far only expansion for Guild Wars 2. That landed with a dull thud last October. It seems much longer - so much longer indeed that I had to go check the wiki to make sure I wasn't missing a year.

Since then GW2 has undergone something of a revolution - or perhaps it's a reversion. The less-than-stellar performance of the franchise under Colin Johanson's direction led to his departure in March, after which came a period of retrenchment under Mike O'Brien.

Now, Mike O'Brien is, of course, no new broom brought in to sweep the stables clean. He's the President and Co-Founder of ArenaNet. He was there in the background the whole time Colin was skippering the ship as it yawed and pitched across the increasingly stormy post-launch seas.

His return to full, direct control was supposedly a temporary thing. When he stepped out of the shadows to take back the wheel Massively OP quoted him as saying he would "eventually be hiring someone else to fill the role" because "it takes a lot of work to run a company and [I'm] unable to do both jobs forever"

Forever is a long time but as we near the end of 2016 Mike O'Brien is still at the helm and no further mention has been made of anyone taking over. What this is doing for his personal circumstances only he can say but for the players his tenure in full charge appears to have been broadly welcomed and I'd guess the majority would be happy for him to continue as he has so far.

World vs World specialists may disagree. While the game mode has certainly enjoyed more attention in the last six months than the entire life of the game before that, it has arguably been more quantity than quality. We've had an avalanche of polls on what to do next, some involving serious, structural change, others offering utterly trivial options up for entirely unnecessary votes.

Despite the endless cavalcade of misery, doom and denial on the forums, there is some evidence that things are stabilizing. It's true fewer people visit The Mists than did so so before Heart of Thorns nearly drove a stake through WvW's heart and it's undeniable that Anet's current penchant for making direct amendments to the scores in order to get particular servers into the "correct" tiers has all but destroyed any vestige of "competition" from the Leagues. Nevertheless, you can find a good battle at almost any time of day on any server now and spirits in-game seem to be a lot heartier than you'd imagine from a  "dead game".

Since I neither play nor pay attention to GW2's would-be eSport offering, ranked and tournament sPvP, I'll refrain from commenting on how that leg of the tripod has fared under Mike O'Brien. When it comes to PvE, however, I think it would be fair to say a corner has been turned.

The basic tenets of the new (refurbished) leadership, at least when it came to PvE, seemed to revolve around returning the game to something closer to the original proposition, which was to be a more open, more inclusive kind of MMORPG. One which very much prioritized "play" over "work". Added to that there was to be more openness of communication, fewer promises and more delivery.

All of this has, by and large, been achieved. When unpopular decisions have been taken, like the postponement of development on Legendary Armor, explanations have been given rather than excuses. When targets have been given for new content, like the quarterly delivery schedule for Living Story 3, they have been met or exceeded. Perceived "grind", if it hasn't been removed, has at least been acknowledged and addressed.

Heart of Thorns was promised and got a difficulty pass. It may still seem like a step up for new players familiar only with Core Tyria but, as those of us with the scars from last October can attest, it's considerably more manageable than it was. I liked it from the start but I like it even more now it's been tuned for enjoyment.

What I do find intriguing is the extent to which the much vaunted difficulty ramp that HoT introduced and which Mike O'Brien all but apologized for, has been maintained in much of the new content introduced under his rule. While the storyline instances of LS3 so far have been distinctly more solo-friendly and less arduous than those of LS2, all of the new open world maps could give any original Heart of Thorns areas a run for their money.

From the snipers in Bloodstone Fen, able to pick players out of the air at extreme range, to the return of the infamous Pocket Raptors in Ember Bay, the difficulty setting has raised the bar from anything seen in central Tyria before. The latest addition, Bitterfrost Frontier, turns the difficulty dial another notch. In some ways it has to be the most unforgiving environment we've experienced yet.

It's not merely the extreme density of highly aggressive mobs although that would be difficulty enough. The ice flows swarm with Svanir and their corrupted beasts. It's literally impossible to travel just a few meters without being shot at by cultists or savaged by wolves. Even a supposedly peaceful activity like foraging berries turns into a fight to the death with almost every bush the home of spiders or yet more wolves. And as for the psychotic mushrooms...

Still, the things you can kill are the least of your worries when you come to Bitterfrost. The real enemy is the environment. In the way of all the maps ANet have designed since Dry Top, there's a permanent meta-event cycle that runs inexorably in the background. It's studded with Dynamic Events, many of which turn the immediate area around them into virtual war zones but the dominant feature is weather.

The small, mobile, unkillable ice storms, long familiar from the Frozen Maw event in the Norn starting map, Wayfarer Foothills, may encase you in ice but that's a minor inconvenience. The real challenge are the blackouts and whiteouts that reduce visibility to a glimmer. There seem to be few areas immune to a sudden "lights out!" but the worst of all has to be the supposedly balmy quaggan swimming hole, Dragon's Teeth Hot Springs.

When the Svanir attack and the quaggans moo and chunter in despair, as seems to happen about every ten or fifteen minutes on a schedule that would make Disney World proud, the entire canyon turns to night. Since the jumping puzzle is directly above that can be somewhat inconvenient. It took me forty minutes to get a vista there the other night and most of that was because my charr ranger couldn't see his  paw in front of his muzzle.

That's not the worst of it, though. Not nearly. There's one part of the map that is literally unexplorable without protective equipment. Aptly named The Bitter Cold, entering this isolated canyon means swift and inevitable death for anyone without the requisite cold resistance buff.

That buff can only be obtained by means of a Thaw Elixir. You can't buy it. You have to make it. You can't buy all the ingredients. You have to hunt for some of them. You can't even get the recipe without doing the storyline to a certain stage. Once you do manage to make the elixir it's immediately applied to that character and that character alone so all your characters have to do it individually. And it only lasts until reset so next day you have to do it all over again.

If that's not hardcore I don't know what is. So much for casual convenience!

In practice it's not really that much of an issue, although you might not think so to hear people complaining about it. There's not much of interest in The Bitter Cold if you aren't doing the storyline. There's one Point of Interest needed for map completion but you can get to it for the necessary update in the brief few seconds you have before the cold kills you. There's a Mastery Point that does need the buff but mastery points that require some kind of pre-req are hardly anything new.

Last night I did map completion in Bitterfrost on my semi-glass Berserker Tempest, probably the least robust of all my characters and certainly the one who had the most difficulty in the early days of Heart of Thorns. She only died once and that was on the aforementioned PoI of certain death. It was a lot of fun.

For my tastes the difficulty is fine although I do think the annoyance factor could be tuned somewhat. There might be too many mobs and the storms might be a little too frequent. What's interesting to observe is the extent to which the developers are innovating on "challenge. There seem to be new twists and tricks in each release. Mobs behave more aggressively or in unexpected ways. Most especially, approaches from previous areas are nested in new ones.

What this portends for the second expansion is uncertain. At one point I expected a definite row back from HoT's failed "up hill in the snow both ways" approach but now I'm not so sure. It looks as though a general upping of the challenge level for routine, open world PvE play is still part of the agenda even if it's not the headline feature it once was. And it does seem that lessons have been learned in how to make such an incline feel approachable rather than precipitous.

So, on balance I'm enjoying Chapter Three. The story, which I haven't discussed and probably won't examine in any detail, is the weakest episode of this volume so far. Nevertheless it has its moments. The new map is, for my tastes, the best of the three we've seen.

Here's looking forward to the next one sometime around the beginning of February. Steady as she goes, Captain O'Brien.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Bitterfrost Symphony : GW2

Partly because it's IntPiPoMo but mostly because I don't have time to write a proper post, Inventory Full presents spoiler-free scenes from the great new map, Bitterfrost Frontier.

It's a good-sized map, around half as big as Frostgorge Sound, which lies immediately to the south.

Where Frostgorge is particularly bleak and barren, all icefields and glaring white. Bitterfrost, despite being further north and even colder, enjoys a much more varied environment.

There are forests on a scale not seen anywhere else in The Shiverpeaks. The storms are equally over-sized. White-out conditions are not uncommon.

Hot springs encourage bursts of green among the blue-white snow and dark pines. Rivers flow freely. This attracts quaggans but I guess you can't have everything.

The color palette is rich and varied, especially at night.

Or in the extensive cave systems.

As you would expect, the Kodan are a strong presence here.

And as they say, if you can't beat them...

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