Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A New Dawn : EQ2, GW2

I'm sitting here twiddling my thumbs right now as I wait to see who will be fastest off the mark - ArenaNet or Daybreak. As Telwyn has already observed, it never rains but it pours and today is launch day for both EQ2's 14th expansion, Planes of Power Prophecy and the first episode of GW2's fourth season of The Living World (or whatever they're calling it these days).

The EQ2 servers went down a while ago, advertising a scheduled downtime of five hours with license to add. If they hit their marks that would see the first incursion to The Plane of Magic, PoP's supposedly vast open-world map, beginning sometime around 8pm GMT - which by pure co-incidence is the time that 90% of GW2's patches land.

Once in a while someone at ANet will decide to come in early and we get an unexpected kick around the middle of the afternoon or tea-time. I'm logged in right now after doing my dailies hoping to get the old heave-ho but no joy so far. 

I'm in Tyria now but only because Norrath is closed. I spent all morning working through the solo quest-lines in Everfrost for no better reason than I wanted to. As I said in general chat to another player, who was waxing lyrical about how much fun he and his guild have been having, going through older content at their own pace, it's just nice to have all this great stuff to go back to, whenever the mood takes you.

It may not be a fair comparison because GW2 has just had a full expansion while EQ2's last one was a year ago but I'm far more excited about going to the Planes than I am about finding out what happens next in the God-Dragon War. It's that nostalgic feeling that DBG are so deft at tapping into.

Planes of Power was an epochal turning point for EverQuest. The game changed with the Shadows of Luclin expansion in 2001 but it was PoP a year later than spun the whole world on its axis. After PoP nothing was ever the same again. Many older players hated that but I'd left and come back once already and I was ready for something different.

Even though I was never a raider, and Planes of Power raised EQ's raiding culture to its zenith, I was fully and deeply engaged with the culture of the game at that time. I was in both an active guild and an even more active custom chat channel. The channel had half the guild in it as well as friends from several other guilds, including some very serious raiders looking for a more relaxed crew to kick back with on slow evenings.

It wasn't until much later, when the addition of Mercenaries and a lot more levels made duoing old raid content a fun thing to do, that Mrs Bhagpuss and I saw most of the higher Planes of Power. She'd seen quite a bit more of the expansion, while it was new, than I had because she applied and was eventually accepted into one of the larger raiding guilds, only to hate it there and leave almost immediately.

There were some parts of the Planes that we did come to know very well indeed, though, even when they were current content. We spent many evenings holed up in some corner of Plane of Nightmare or Plane of Disease, quaking as we waited to see if the puller was going to bring more than we could handle - which could be a single treant if it was a feisty one...

Later we spent long hours in Plane of Storms and Bastion of Thunder but probably my fondest planar memories are of the Sunday lunchtime runs through Plane of Innovation as a full guild group escorting our resident tinker to the vendors at the end of the zone. I can hear the whirring and clanking as I write...and the swearing...

Seeing screenshots of the upcoming EQ2 version of Innovation brings it all back. It won't be the same but it doesn't need to be. All it has to do is remind me of those good times. I might even have to level my tinkering up again.

I never got round to copying a character to the Beta servers so when the expansion finally goes live it will all be new to me. I have, however, been browsing the beta forums, where the tone has been relatively positive, for a change. Last year's Kunark Ascending, which I enjoyed, had a mixed reception at best but the feeling at the moment seems to be that lessons may have been learned.

As Kaozz, who didn't appreciate the direction DBG took last time, says "It sounds like a great expansion for those who have been gone, easy to jump in on any 100, easy access to get rolling not depending on gear."

I hope she's right. And I hope I get to find out for myself before it's time to go to bed!

Monday, November 27, 2017

Pushing Too Hard : SWL

Yesterday I happened to read something Telwyn posted about the new Anima Allocation system that was added to Secret World Legends as part of a recent "Quality of Life" update. Then I saw Syp talking about it too.

I had read about all this when it happened but at the time I didn't have a window of opportunity through which to look the changes over. Well, what better time than halfway through a lazy Sunday afternoon?

I logged in and went to check the new system, only to find that you need to be Level 20 to use it. I'd already forgotten that SWL, unlike TSW, has levels. I couldn't even have guessed with any conviction what mine might be.

It turned out that my one and only character was Level 18. That seemed close enough to fix so I pulled on my leveling pants (I don't actually have leveling pants although that's a merchandising idea right there...) and set to it.

I warmed up by doing The Black House. It was far shorter and easier than I remembered and yet I still managed to die somehow.

I'd logged out in the roadside store in Savage Coast. I thought I remembered a couple of simple kill quests there so I went to grab them...and they wouldn't give them to me! I conned a couple of mobs. They were only a handful of levels higher but the quests involving them were recommended for level 22 and hard-locked somewhere above 18.

Well. That's not fun. For all my droning on about "comfort gaming" and liking to do things the easy way, it's been my counter-intuitive practice of extremely long standing to push ahead of my level while leveling up.

Having developed most of my MMO habits in the five years before WoW appeared to reset the hobby I never acquired any innate feeling for "quest hubs" or "completing an area". To me, the only parameters to let me know if I should be where I am, doing what I'm doing, are whether anyone has anything they're willing to let me do and whether I can do it without dying. Much.

As a compulsive leveler, I am also always very aware of what constitutes good xp. That varies from game to game, be it questing, grinding, open world or dungeons, solo or group, PvE or PvP. It doesn't take me long to get a feel for it and in most cases you get better xp doing quests and killing mobs somewhat above your level.

I don't recall Innsmouth Academy even having a lacrosse court, let alone a quest for it. And my other Templar's an alumni!

On my run through The Secret World a few years ago the main limiting factor was gear. With no levels it was theoretically possible to push a long way ahead without scratching around for every last quest and as an explorer I am always eying the horizon.

I remember leaving Egypt, which had become a tad too tough to be fun, to go to Transylvania, which was harder still, because I found I could -just- kill the very first mobs (ghouls, I believe) inside the zone line. Those ghouls dropped gear that was a significant upgrade and with a few of those I was able to go back to Egypt and progress a little further.

That's how I have played MMOs since the end of the last century. That's my favorite gameplay - or my favorite solo gameplay, anyway.

Secret World Legends doesn't really let you do that. For one thing there aren't any gear drops to speak of but more significantly, not only is there now some very strict level locking on the content but the mobs seem to have been adjusted accordingly.

At this point in the questline every mob is level 22 while I'm 19.
At level 18, anything below me presents no challenge at all. I can just barrel into clusters of Level 16s and mow them down. At even con it's still straightforward but let the mobs go to 20 or 21 and everything changes fast.

It seems as though, in the quest to make the game more accessible and, particularly, comprehensible for an audience that didn't appreciate TSW, Funcom have decided to funnel players into a very specific channel. The quests may not be linear but the options for your character are considerably more constricted than they used to be.

One quest that didn't appear to be locked was the main storyline. In the New England section of the game that's Dawning of an Endless Night. I was on step 11 so I cracked on with that.

It seemed a lot harder than I remember. Not the celebrated/infamous puzzles, which I either remembered or looked up on the wiki, but the fights. Everything was three or four levels above me and mostly came in pairs or groups. Worst of all were the mages that summon minions, which sometimes found me fighting half a dozen mobs before I'd realized where they were coming from.

I died a lot, which didn't seem to matter in any way other than annoying me. It took me a lot longer than I expected. I had to stop to upgrade my gear, spend my SP and AP and fiddle around with my build, all just to try and get ahead. 

Eventually I brute-forced my way to the end of the Savage Coast sequence, dinging 20 at the same time. My quest indicator pointed me to the third New England zone, Blue Mountain, which is unnerving, considering the game otherwise doesn't yet consider me ready for the second half of Savage Coast.

Was it worth it?

The run took over two hours, so an hour a level, which is laughably, even unimaginably, short by Golden Age standards. I remember I used to allow ten to fifteen hours for a level in the twenties when I was playing EverQuest in the early 2000s.

Even so, it seemed slow, hard work and not a huge amount of fun. The cut scenes weren't as impressive as I remember them, either, the writing not as sharp. Even the voice-work, which I have praised many times, seemed to be considerably more stilted and awkward than I expected.

Maybe that's familiarity, maybe exaggerated expectations or the disappointing false glow of nostalgia. Whatever the reason, I'd had enough. I didn't even stop to experiment with the Anima Allocator. Instead I logged out and went to play EQ2, where my Bruiser is also fighting above his weight class.

The difference there is that he's winning, easily, which I find to be a lot more fun. The only downside is that questing above your level gets you drops you can't equip, a sure sign that whoever designed the quest didn't expect you to get there that soon.

That's a problem I'd always rather have, though. After all, if I managed to finish the quest or kill the mob, wearing what I'm wearing, well, I obviously don't really need those upgrades yet, do I?

Sunday, November 26, 2017

They Got The Drugs I Could Use...

We're coming towards the end of this year's IntPiPoMo which gives me an excuse to bring out a few choice screenshots I've taken over the past few days. Otherwise they'd most likely molder in their folders since I didn't take them with any particular post in mind.

Not that I need a reason to take a shot. I can't pass a view without snapping at it. Never could. I don't recall exactly when I discovered the screenshot key in EverQuest and sadly my very earliest attempts at fantasy photo-journalism are lost to posterity but I do still have a few that pre-date the launch of EQ2 in 2004.

Taking screenshots costs nothing and with the seemingly endless, self-destructive nihilism of the lootbox war showing no signs of slowing down, far less fading away, this seems like as good time as any to remind ourselves of all the fun there is to have in an MMO without ever spending a single cent.

Oh, lootboxes...they really are the gift that never stops giving, aren't they? At least, when it comes to filling the internet with fury. If anything, further escalation of hostilities seems unavoidable. With that gloomy prospect in the background, how about we all just look at some pretty pictures and see if we can't remember why we came here in the first place...

I don't know about the rest of you but I came here for the virtual worlds and as far as I can see they're still here, in abundance. What's more, in these modern times I find myself free to visit more worlds than ever before and in every one I find yet more wonders and marvels.

But then, I'm just a virtual tourist. I point my imaginary camera and go click. And I'm an adventurer, too, let's not forget. Here to discover new lands, teeming with amazing creatures - then kill them, skin them and turn them into hats. But not before I've taken a few snaps for my album.

I never needed a lootbox for that and I don't now. No-one does. The only box that matters is wide open already: this richly furnished Skinner Box we like to call our hobby.

One thing's for certain, though: if games developers had to feed their children on the coins players like myself feed into the slot there'd be a lot of hungry children. And pretty soon no games.

It may be fatuous to suggest that the best things in life are free but it's equally simplistic to suggest there's no such thing as a free lunch. There's plenty of lunch to be had that you, yourself are never going to be asked to pay for, either in cash or favors. Whales pay for me, I let them, it ends there.

Except it doesn't because the flavor whales like best is crunchy lootbox and you can't catch a whale without throwing out the chum. If you don't like the taste you don't have to eat it but you're still swimming in the same ocean and it gets messy. There's blood and lootboxes in the water and I can't even hear the soundtrack for the wailing. Whaling. Whatever.

Where will it all end? SynCaine's still talking down the F2P revolution while Gevlon imagines a brave new world of equality and fairness but I prefer to go with Wilhelm's view that it's all a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing very much.

 At least I hope it is. If we ever really do reach a situation where national legislatures are seriously concerning themselves with creating the necessary legal framework that will allow you to bequeath your GW2 mount skin collection to your grandchildren, then I strongly suspect developers will call "Game Over" on MMOs.

Screenshots of your mount skins, though...now who owns those?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

View From The Long Grass: Upcoming MMOs 2018-2020

Syp posted a very useful checklist of upcoming MMOs. Forty-four of them, a lot more than I would have guessed were out there in development right now.

I'd heard of most of them but even so I'd have been hard put to bring some of the names to mind. The handful on my own watchlist would be New World, Ashes of Creation, Camelot Unchained, Crowfall, Pantheon, Project Gorgon and WoW Classic.

Of those, I kickstarted Project Gorgon for myself and Ashes of Creation for both myself and Mrs Bhagpuss, so I believe I pre-own at least the game and a month's sub for each of them. AoC I'm keen to play, eventually, but Project Gorgon has been around for so long already I'm struggling to retain much interest in its eventual launch.

Camelot Unchained seems to be taking a lot longer than expected. I'm mildly curious to try it because Realm vs Realm is a great concept but I wasn't the greatest fan of DAOC, which had more longeurs than it ever had frissons, so I'm not over-excited. As a subscription-only title I can't imagine playing it for long.

Crowfall is in much the same basket but it has the benefit of being faster-paced and set in seasons, which appeals. It's buy to play, which is my preferred payment model, and I'm interested in the permanent world aspect. The competitive game not so much but I'm more than willing to give it a try.

Not having followed Crowfall's development particularly closely I'd missed that the game's currently available in Early Access, with a live server up 24/7. There's an announced launch price of $50 but the cheapest buy-in right now is $70.

In theory that doesn't get you in until Beta 1 and the game is currently way back at pre-alpha 5 but according to the official website "The following test groups have been activated for playtesting: Pre-Alpha 1 and 2, Alpha 1 – 3, Beta 1 and 2." Everybody, in other words.

Still, I'll pass for now. There will be an open beta prior to launch. I think I can wait for that, although it could be a while because Crowfall is already well behind schedule.

When we'll see WoW Classic/Vanilla is anyone's guess although I'd bet on it arriving before Amazon's New World, which I wouldn't expect to see this side of 2020. WoW Classic will be a short run affair, I imagine, but one that I might dip in and out of for years, while New World is a completely unknown quantity.

Pantheon, the one I most want to play, is currently in some kind of alpha. You can buy-in for $1000. I'll pass, thanks all the same, Brad. If it goes to a more reasonable Early Access though - say $50 or less - then I'll probably jump. All the videos I've seen make it look eminently playable already.

At launch (not before 2019 I'd guess) it will be either Buy To Play or Subscription. I'm surprised at that - I thought it had been nailed down as a sub game - but the FAQ currently reads: "We are considering either using the traditional subscription based model or a model where the player buys the game and then has the option of purchasing mini-expansions or ‘modules’ after launch." It will also have a permanent free trial so everyone can experience the first five or ten levels before making up their mind.

So, that's seven titles out of forty-four. Of the remaining thirty-seven there are plenty I'd try on a whim if they're free to play or have a free trial but none that I can imagine giving much more time than I'd need to take a few screenshots and gather material for a blog post or three.

And then there are the four Syp came up with that I'd never heard of: Caravan Stories, Freeman: Star's Edge, Soulworker Online and Tale of Toast. I went to take a look...

Caravan Stories looks interesting. It's gorgeous, for a start. It has a striking visual conceit with anime characters against what looks like (but presumably aren't) hand-drawn backgrounds. There's a lot of video on YouTube already, including plenty of gameplay, most of which seems to involve auto-running.

There are also several official Trailers, the first of which (above) gave me strong Zentia vibes, a very good thing. I can't see this being a regular game but I would expect to get a Twin Stories style month or so out of it once the English translated version appears. It's also cross-platform with Android, IoS and PC.

Soulworker Online has a premise that could have been designed to put me off: "In Soulworker Online, gamers play as psychic teenagers who use their emotions (or “soul”) to fuel their Soul Workers". Looking past the emo, though, I found a rather attractive game that's winning comparisons to the well-respected and much-missed  Rusty Hearts.

It sits extremely comfortably on a 9.3/10 rating from more than three thousand votes at one MMO site. Definitely worth a look since it will inevitably be free to play. Hardly like to be a stayer, though.

Freeman: Star's Edge appears to be yet another Star Citizen/EVE Online affair. Pass.

Which leaves by far the oddest of the bunch, Tale of Toast. The cuddly, quirky name is appropriately misleading for this unsettling offering, possibly the creepiest MMO I've come across since the skin-crawling Glitch. The disconnect between what this game looks like and how it plays is stunning.

Here's the Greenlight video - a bright, simple cartoon world full of loveably cute chibi characters...

and here's the gameplay pitch: "Tale of Toast is an open world MMORPG with hardcore PvP mechanics and where dying actually means something, and is inspired by old school MMORPGs and boardgames. Experience battles throughout the entire world against other players and guilds with the goal to take their items upon killing them, and risk losing your own upon your death."

Read the official description and yes, it does mean non-consensual PvP with full item loss, everywhere in the world. Pretty nearly, anyway.

So that's nice. It's free to play so if it ever launches, which I doubt, I'll probably give it a try. What have I got to lose? Apart from all my stuff, obviously.

And that's what we have to look forward to over the next two or three years. Unless anyone has any other suggestions?

Friday, November 24, 2017

Cake On My Birthday : Comfort Gaming

"Comfort gaming" is a phrase that crops up once in a while, often with an almost apologetic tone. It's not looked at with quite the same contempt as the "comfort zone", that awful place we're always being encouraged to get out of, but even so, anyone would think there was something inherently bad about wanting to feel comfortable.

I disagree. Comfort seems to me to be a hugely desirable condition: the deeper and more lasting, the better. If all my gaming were comfort gaming I'd be comfortable with that.

There is some work to be done around boundaries, for sure. To be comfortable does not forbid challenge. There's a sweet spot where the challenge is itself comfortable. A moment when the intellect is engaged while the body is relaxed; something to be relished.

Neither does comfort mandate stasis. There's comfortable change and comfortable surprise. Comfort doesn't have to be all settling back. It can be exciting and satisfying too.

Comfort gaming is doing what you like to do in a game and only you can tell what that might be. If having your nerves jangled is what you seek then maybe an adrenaline rush can be comfortable for you. Wouldn't be for me but I don't deny the theory.

Crushbone dropped gear is a little...orcy?

Comfort embraces a wide range of emotions. My comfort gaming varies with my moods but whatever shape it takes always exudes a sense of welcome. Whichever imaginary world I wash down into needs to open up and take me in with charm.

Familiarity helps. A lot. A prime reason I play MMORPGs is that they are all the same. Of course they're not all the same. They are, though. That they are and they aren't is why they've worked so well for so long and go on  doing so.

We complain about how hard it is to return to a world we left and yet we hop on each bright new shard as it appears, flocking like sparrows to the scattered crumbs of a feast we fear could end at any moment. There's comfort in seeing the old newly made even when it's not made well.

Mostly, though, the deepest, softest landing lies in a past that's present still. Those worlds that wander on with or without us, changing yet unchanged. Every time WoW announces another expansion, be it months or more likely years away, a flurry of posts appears as wanderers drift back home and settle in.

Cloak and pixie courtesy /Claim
I have a list of comfort games. It's a long list. Almost any graphical 3D Diku-MUD clone is on it and that's a lot. Filling the top slots are the EverQuests in which I include Vanguard, aka EQ 2.5.

This week, as we ramp up towards Christmas, my energy levels as I get home from work are low. I don't have the energy for something like DCUO. That  was fine when I had the whole day to do nothing but sit and twitch my fingers but after a long day standing and walking and talking it's beyond me.

GW2 can be as comfortable as it gets when approached in a particular manner but Path of Fire is hard work and just now I don't have any more open character slots or low level characters to raise, while WvW is busy with less than comfortable Commanders doing things I'd rather they didn't and which I won't support.

I popped into the Vanguard Emu to see how it was getting along only to find my Raki Disciple back in his starter duds with his bags and bank empty. Complete item wipe and along with that his free Griffin so now he can't fly.

It's a good thing. It signifies progress. The item database had to be purged to allow progress on crafting. I took him out around Khal and killed scorpions and ksaravi ratmen for an hour so now he's dressed again, somewhat.

Doing that kicked up a fierce desire for simple progress. I wanted to play a young character with not very much and get stuff. I was sorely tempted to stay on and do it on Telon but the sheer void beneath me brought clarity.

I'll wait a little longer but let me say now - if and when the magnificent team behind the Vanguard Restoration Project confirm a stable build they're going to stick with then I'm going back. There's no better low-mid level game anywhere in MMOs.

I cast around for ideas. I would have liked a new fantasy diku-MUD I haven't played but I couldn't find one. Instead I went to EQ2's latest progression server, Fallen Gate, where I added a couple of levels to my Fey Conjurer.

Greetings from Telon!

That was fun but it didn't quite scratch the itch. I wanted something just a little warmer, more welcoming. Something that would be less about trudging up the hill in the snow, more about being pulled along on a sledge towards a hot drink waiting for me next to a crackling log fire.

That, it occurred to me, sums up the modern EQ2 so I looked through the collection of characters on my currently-subbed All Access account and found a ratonga Bruiser in the mid-teens. I woke him up and spent an hour or two going through various bank vaults. I logged in different characters, different accounts and by the time I'd worked out that I really didn't have an awful lot he could use it was time for bed.

That was Session One and it was comfort gaming to the max. So much so that I carried on the next night where I'd left off, only this time I strip-mined /Claim. I took boosts and buffs and mounts and vanity pets and set the little rat up. Then we went to Qeynos and spoke to all the Mercenaries.

I wanted an Inquisitor but Qeynos only has Bdorn the Dwarf Templar, who I know and distrust of old, so I gave the shilling to a Halfling Troubador, Bildli PieFlinger and she and the rat went on their merry way.

They carved a swathe through  Antonica into Blackburrow then on to Nektulos Forest. The fighting was fast and furious and deliciously easy but the loot wasn't quite hitting the spot. Thence to Greater Feydark, the orc menace and a chance for upgrades.

Mrs Bhagpuss, who hasn't played EQ2 in five years, was somewhat taken aback by the color scheme of my patchwork horse. Times have changed and all for the better.

Every evening this week, once my GW2 dailies are done, it's been back to Norrath. The Bruiser is now in his low thirties and deep in Crushbone. Progress has slowed a little. It takes fifteen or twenty minutes to do a level now. He's just beginning to get drops somewhere close to par but almost anything is an upgrade - he still has starting gear in a few slots.

It might be argued that, with upwards of fifty already on the go, I don't need another character in EQ2 but I do need a Ratonga Bruiser. One who isn't on the Test server, where my one-time "main" rests, retired at 90. One that's on the account I'm currently using.

On the other hand, I am sitting on two unused Level 100 boosts on that account so it could equally be argued that if I want a Ratonga Bruiser I should jump straight to the gate that's going to open next Tuesday, when the Planes of Prophecy expansion drops. It's not even as if I don't know how to play a Bruiser, after all. I don't need to level one up to learn. I already did that.

And maybe I will use a boost. Maybe I'll skip past the upper fifty and carry on from a hundred for the final ten.

If I do it will at least be with a character that's developing a little history. That matters. There's such comfort in the familiar and this is how familiarity begins.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Playing In The Big Leagues : DCUO

If you run around in just about any MMO without a guild tag up you can expect to get unsolicited invites. Sometimes it's a whisper asking if you're looking for a guild. Sometimes it's a drive-by pop-up.

Occasionally you run into that annoying recruiter who hears "I'm not looking for a guild right now" as a challenge to his recruiting skills but usually all you have to do is make the right polite demurral or simply not respond at all and you're on your way. Which is what I always do.

Except last night, playing DCUO, I didn't. I was in a Metropolis Police Station shopping for clothes (as you do), when a League Invite window popped. Leagues, naturally, being how guilds are known in the game.

And I accepted it. I don't know why. I liked the name - DC Bombshells - and I also liked the name of the person who'd sent the invite, both of which are always positive indicators, but mostly I was just in a mellow, "it's a grouping kind of game" frame of mind.

I said "thanks" and no-one replied so I guessed it was going to be one of those "we recruit the entire server" kind of organizations. Which is fine. Being in one of those is like still playing solo only now you have a tag so you're more anonymous than ever.

With that ice broken I was in for more socializing. Since returning to the game I'd taken a minimal amount of trouble to read my skills, check my loadouts, spend my Trait Points and grab a couple of upgrades so I was about as ready as I was going to be.

The next step of the Episode story arc was a four-person instance. I queued it and it popped in a matter of seconds. The Episode instances so far have been role agnostic so queuing as DPS isn't the drag anchor you'd expect.

The instance went very well. In keeping with modern practice no-one spoke as we followed the quest tracker instructions, which could largely have been condensed to "Kill everything and go through the next door that opens".

As battle progressed it occurred to me that, as DCUO has one of those rare, welcome, native screenshot functions that auto-hides the UI, I might be able to get some decent combat shots. Getting screen grabs of fights involving your character that don't look like an explosion in a firework factory is hard enough but doing it without dying can be next to impossible so I was surprised and delighted with the results.

When I came to look them over, it wasn't just that I had a few nice pictures for the blog: I could actually see - for the first time ever - what my character does in a fight. I had no idea that when she uses her "Whirlwind" attack she flies around her enemies at ankle level, parallel to the floor, for example.

I'll be taking a lot more in-combat shots because they look great. I wouldn't go quite that far in describing what my character looks like but she certainly looks a lot better than she did in yesterday's illustrations. It was looking at the unseemly outfit she was embarrassing herself with in yesterday's post that made me open the Style tab and rethink.

DCUO may not match the legendary superhero fashion show that was City of Heroes but the Style system is a robust entry in the MMO appearance stakes. I don't have a whole lot of Styles earned and learned yet but I was able to put together something I'm a lot happier to be seen rescuing citizens in.

The instance proceeded efficiently and without drama until someone spoke up to question one member of the party who seemed to be in the wrong place doing nothing very much. There was no reply but a couple of minutes later I noticed the slacker had dropped from the group and been replaced by a new person. No "Vote to Kick" window popped so I guess he left of his own accord.

That was as awkward as it got. Well within my tolerance levels for pugging. We got to the final boss - Owlman - and knocked him around for a few minutes. Then we stood there like lemons while he and bad Commissioner Mayor Gordon played "pass the buck" for a while before Owlman pulled some trick from his Owlbelt (I'm guessing) and made his escape.

Fun times. The group broke up while I was reading my reviews in the window of shame that pops after an instance. I was, of course, lowest on every count - DPS, Healing, the other one. Well, I did beat the guy who left halfway through, but not his replacement. Still, no-one yelled at me and you could at least see I'd been doing something.

I went back to my Lair to go through my bags and sort out any upgrades that had dropped and I was standing around doing that when I heard voices. DCUO is a game with a lot of voiceover work so I just assumed it was Superman or someone nagging me to do more pro bono but gradually it dawned on me that DBG probably wouldn't pay voice actors to chat at length about their builds in some kind of simulated in-game version of a podcast.

I'd completely forgotten that DCUO has inbuilt VOIP. What I was hearing was a couple of people in my new League, chatting away. That was freaky. They sounded quite pleasant though so I turned the sound down a little and left them on like a radio station in the background.

That got me looking at the League tab. I don't think I've ever opened it before. I discovered that I've joined a League that only accepts female characters. Googling the League's name makes it clear why that is. Once upon a time I'd have known that without having to look it up but my obsessively detailed knowledge of the DC Universe stops dead in its tracks around 1989.

I don't know what counts as big in DCUO terms but DC Bombshells has over 400 members and there were twenty or twenty-five on the whole time I was playing. It looks as though I've joined an active organization at least.

Whether that's going to encourage me to log in more often or make me find something altogether different to do remains to be seen. Joining guilds has had both effects on me in the past. Whatever, it makes a change.

I'm not a fan of "getting out of your comfort zone" in principle. I've always held comfort to be aspirational not problematic. I do need reminding sometimes, though, that a comfort zone can stretch a fair old way and still stay pretty comfy.

I think I might be able to push this one a little further yet.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Old Dog, New Trick : DCUO

If there's one MMO I've played longer than any other yet never given the attention it deserves it could be... well, it could be quite a few of them, now I come to think about it, but the one I had in mind was DCUO.

I've been playing on and off - mostly "off" - since beta. I always enjoy myself a lot and yet I don't play very often. There are several reasons but the main one has to be that the game - as a game - is far too difficult.

Difficult in a couple of significant ways: first, it has an extremely intense and demanding endgame. Not that I've ever come within hailing distance of it. I wouldn't even know one existed had it not been for Tipa's long series of increasingly despairing posts detailing her failing attempts to keep up with her partners in Team Spode as they scaled the game's attritional progression, a "curve" that often looked more like a cliff face.

Someone's overcompensating.

If the prospect of a never-ending gear and stat ladder wasn't enough to put me off - and it was - there's also the simple matter of player skill: I don't have any. Not, at least, when it comes to ARPG mechanics. I don't play my keyboard like a concert pianist, I fail at reading tells even when they're telegraphed with gestures that would put a mime to shame (if such a thing is possible), and I get hand-cramps and shoulder pains from too much fast mouse-clicking.

Add to that the kind of relentless forced grouping that makes FFXIV's look like an introvert's daydream and it becomes apparent that DCUO was never going to be my ideal MMO. And yet, as I said, I have always enjoyed it anyway.

Mostly I enjoyed leveling up. The first 30 levels  - theoretically the only 30 levels since level cap is 30 - may be not much more than a very extended tutorial these days but they're good levels. DCUO always had a fun leveling game - it just didn't last long enough.

I never imagined Smallville so...industrialized.

I've mostly entertained myself in short bursts over the years by making new characters and leveling them towards that low cap. I began on a PvP server at launch and did it the hard way. Then I kicked back for a while on a PvE server.

Eventually SOE came up with an elegant mechanic that let Heroes and Villains all play together without having to fight unless they chose to do so (a mechanic which it looks as though Blizzard is about to emulate almost to the letter when it removes dedicated PvP servers from WoW). Around then I moved to a different account and started over yet again.

That's the character I usually turn to on the odd occasions when I remember to log in although I also have a Level 30 character that I've never played, courtesy of one of DBG's frequent free boost handouts. Once I do get the urge the problem isn't who to play, it's what to do. Yesterday I discovered to my amazement that DBG are not only aware of that problem but that, as with the PvP dilemma, they seem to have solved it.

I'd heard there was a new Chapter or Scenario or whatever they call them, this one featuring the Crime Syndicate of Earth 3 (don't bother trying to keep DC's Earth's straight - no-one can). I had a little time free so I thought I'd take a look.

I know very little about how these Episodes (that's the name!) work. Every time I've tried to get involved in one until now I've failed to work out how to join in before my energy and enthusiasm ran out. This time, though, I had read that there was an Open World element to the update and if there's one thing that motivates me beyond all else it's the chance to explore a new map.

When I logged in I found myself inside my Lair. Lairs are DCUO's version of housing and a rather good version at that. It was particularly handy finding myself at home because the game was telling me I had a batch of posters waiting for me in my Claim window.

I don't think any of those effects is from anything I'm doing.
As I was claiming them a mysterious voice began to harangue me. Something about collecting things. Then Superman chimed in to order me to Smallville, where a spaceship had crash-landed (I know! What are the chances?).

I was too busy to pay full attention because I was putting my posters up but once I was happy with the decor I saw from the UI that I was supposed to join a Duo and go to Smallville. This is how DCUO rolls. You aren't really supposed to do anything alone. You can go by twos, fours or eights but solo is no go.

Except surely not in "Open World"? Isn't that kind of what the term means? Which is how I ended up running aimlessly around The Watchtower for the umpteenth time, trying to find the Teleporter to Earth 3 Gotham, the new zone that comes with the Episode.

I have issues with The Watchtower, The Justice League's orbital base. I can never find anything there, ever. This time I only wasted a few minutes before I gave up and went to Google. And that's where I found this lengthy dev blog explaining some radical new thinking:

"We have enormous diversity in our player base - players of all types with all sorts of expectations - and in Episode 30, we wanted to have more freedom to design content specifically for more of these different kinds of players.

What does that mean? Earth 3 will have three different types or versions of content. You're used to seeing two versions - normal and elite. Additionally, this episode will also have an easier, stat-clamped version of all instances. The stat-clamped versions - essentially a Starro-sized major event - will launch alongside and in addition to the full episode, for all players over level 10, and will remain until Episode 31 launches next year....

The stat-clamped content is highly accessible (and of course open to players of any level), so it is a light, easy-going experience. The regular end-game version is more challenging, but still accessible to the majority of players...
We expect the player (or alt) who is not yet at end-game to enjoy the easy event content, the end-game player to enjoy the accessible end-game content as usual, and the elite player to rise to the challenge of the elite raids to get that improved elite gear, all while the increasing currency rewards and extended vendor discounts keep everything within reach. "

Wait? What! Everyone can play?! You don't need to be a Member - you don't even need to be at the baby "cap" of 30 let alone be an actual end-gamer? What is this? Communist Russia?

Seriously, how good an idea is this? A limited-time free-for-all after which the trainer-wheels version goes away, but gets replaced by new, equally accessible content. And, before the Welfare Epics contingent have a coronary, there are a whole set of different, playstyle-appropriate rewards too.

I'd quote all the good stuff but there's too much good stuff to fit. I just hope ANet are taking notes.

The devil is always in the detail but a quick scan of the forums suggests this is a popular move. It certainly motivates me to log in more frequently, not least because there are plenty of housing items in the mix and I'm becoming increasingly attached to my Lair.

My "partner" hovers impatiently at the zone-out while I listen to Supes and Lex yakking it up

I was so motivated I even queued up for and completed the Duo instance in Smallville. It went as well as could be expected considering I have quite literally no idea what any of my abilities do, don't have clue one as to how to play my character and am wearing gear I haven't upgraded for about ten levels.

Actually, it went better than that because my silent partner didn't yell at me even when I died for the third time. We eventually made it to the Gotham of Earth 3, where we promptly split up to do our own thing, which in my case was to skim up to the top of a skyscraper and start taking screenshots.

All of which bodes well for my continuing future in DCUO. It was always a good MMO but I do believe it just got significantly better.

Friday, November 17, 2017

What Time Do You Make it, Bero?

This is the clock Mrs Bhagpuss made me for my birthday.

On the left, in blue, is my Asura Elementalist. On the right, in pink, is Mrs Bhagpuss's Asura Elementalist. Fero and Bero for short (as if Asuras could be anything else).

The shape of the clock denotes their home city, Rata Sum, which is all angles. What the keys represent I'm not exactly sure...

There are also tiny lights that look like the stars around Rata Sum as it floats in space only lights are phenomenally difficult to photograph if you only have a digital camcorder that you don't really know how to use to take stills.

I hung the clock quite high on the wall directly behind my monitor where I can look up and see it. It looks fantastic. I tried to take a picture of it in situ but the result was... less than fantastic. I think I need a better camera. Or to learn how to use this one.

Anyway, terrible photos notwithstanding, it's an amazing present. All those hours at the crafting tables in Lion's Arch really paid off!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Remake, Remodel : Otherland

Was anyone waiting for another post about Otherland? Or expecting one? Safe bet no-one even wanted one. I know I didn't. All the same - incoming!

Last time I wrote about the ill-fated MMO based on Tad Williams' aging Science Fiction trilogy I thought it was Game Over - very nearly literally. By then Otherland had faltered and restarted several times already, lurching back to life each time like the serial killer in a straight-to-video slasher movie. It couldn't go on and even if it could, I couldn't.

When I said goodbye to my one and only character just over a year ago I left him stranded in Lambda Mall without a quest to his name. The main scenario had bugged out on me and I'd lost patience with the whole thing. The game was a laggy, bug-ridden shell that showed every sign of having been abandoned by its current owners.

Hey, barkeep!

It seemed inevitable the only news we'd hear after that would be when the thing finally went dark for good and that would be a mercy. My last words on the subject were: "Never say never. If I hear that anything's really changed - for the better - I'll always be open to taking another look but for now I think I'm done. On to the next world."

Well, I thought they were my last words. Guess what? Something did change and I heard about it.  I tried to ignore it but there the game was, still in my Steam Library (that's all of four games so hard not to notice one). What's more, not only was the game still up and running but it was getting patched. Regularly. Bugs were being stomped. Scraps of news filtered out. Some even suggested the game was improving.

I had a free afternoon. I was on Steam. My mouse pointer hovered. My finger clicked.

Gimme yer fastball. I'll knock the skin off it!

There was a 5GB patch but Steam is fast. In ten minutes I was looking at character select. It was blank. I logged out again.

If there's an MMO I've restarted from scratch more often than Otherland I don't want to remember what it might be. I played through the original tutorial at least twice, then a couple of times more through the revamped one. It was never a lot of fun and doing it over didn't make it any more so.

Still. Curiosity. I went to the forums and began flipping back through the update notes. There were a lot of them. Working my way back to the megapatch that landed in August, right after the game changed hands yet again, I read this:

Patch 5.6.49 introduces many changes to the current state of the game. Both the gameplay and class experience has been redesigned to provide a much more enjoyable experience.

Due to the number of changes implemented we had to remove all player characters.

Okay, so that's where my character went. What the heck, one more try for the gipper...

I have some cream that'll clear it right up.

Character creation seems to be one of the "many changes". I don't remember it being this detailed before and certainly not this slick. A better first impression, for sure.

The tutorial/introduction seems to be mostly the same as last time. It's changed a few times since I first played and the current iteration is linear but none the worse for that. It zips along nicely, explaining what it needs to explain.

There are now pop-up "Hints" that I think must be new but the thing that's really changed is that there aren't any bugs. Well, other than the ones in Bug World but they're meant to be there.

I made it all the way from character creation to Lambda Mall, the game's hub zone, without encountering a single bug, major or minor. That was a first. A welcome first.

Paging Captain Obvious.

There was also barely a sign of lag, another big improvement. That said, there is a stickied post on the forum advising players on how to deal with lag so maybe I was just lucky.

Lambda Mall still looks great - just how a cybermall should look. Unlike last time I had no trouble at all continuing my quest. I got my uSpace apartment (amazing view) and did a couple more introductory tasks. This part of the tutorial has been heavily trimmed and it's all the better for it.

Then it was off to the first proper adventure zone, the starting area known as 5Isles. The mechanics for moving from zone to zone have been tidied up nicely. The portals throughout the tutorial are now very clear and easy to see, something they certainly haven't been in the past. There's a very user-friendly teleport gate in Lambda Mall with an immediately understandable drop-down menu. Much better all round.

My uSpace. I think Luc Besson used to live here.

The quests in the village where you first arrive didn't seem to have changed but everything seemed faster. Much faster. Combat has been tweaked to be a great deal less tedious. Otherland's combat isn't going to be winning any prizes for originality when it comes to mechanics but at least now it feels quick and crunchy.

Knocking down eight of this or fifteen of that took no time at all and the process was much enlivened by the new, flashy visual effects. Clouds of digital artifacts explode around every impact in a very 1990s style that feels quite appropriate if not exactly subtle.

I got as far as the Water City which, I seem to remember, is about as far as I've ever gotten in the game so far. Stopping to take stock I realized that nothing had gone wrong. Nothing at all. It's perhaps not much of a compliment to say that I didn't come across any bugs in the Tutorial or the first starter area but it's more of a compliment than I've been able to offer the game any other time I've posted about it.

And that's just auto-attack.

What the commercial future might be for an MMO based on a fairly obscure IP that's slipping further and further out of public consciousness, one that's been nigh on a decade in development without ever getting as far as an official launch date, I wouldn't like to say. I might be thinking something but I'll be polite and keep it to myself.

Be that as it may, for whatever reason - very, very much against the odds - this particular MMO is still plugging away. When you consider what's just happened to Marvel Heroes, which had both one of the entertainment industry's biggest IP's and the backing of one of it's largest companies behind it, you have to take off your hat to Poland's Drago Entertainment just for keeping on keeping on.

I'm not sure I'll be playing Otherland any more after this. There are a lot of MMOs and only so much time. On the other hand I'm definitely not saying I won't. I said that before and look where it got me.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

I Know My Way Down The Side Streets Now : GW2

I wasn't all that impressed with GW2's Living World Season Three and after Path of Fire's somewhat perfunctory narrative I'm not building my hopes up for Season Four either. The best thing I can say about the current central storyline is that at least the fighting's not as painful as it used to be.

That doesn't mean that I'm not invested in the storyline or the characters. It's a soap opera. I know it's rubbish but I still want to know what happens next.

I don't really care all that much about the ultimate fate of Tyria, but I do want to know if Jory and Kas are going to continue on their downward spiral towards some kind of abusive, dysfunctional personal hell. I want to find out whether Braham's ever going to grow up and, more than anything, I want to know whether Zoja's going to recover.

Forget Gods and Dragons. This is my GW2. I know those people. I've spent five years with them. I mourn and miss the ones who've gone. Well, some.

I miss Scarlet. When she appeared as a Memory in The Domain of the Lost it was like unexpectedly meeting an old friend. One you'd thought had died.

I miss her enough to imagine things. Enough to imagine that maybe she might not be dead after all. It's not such a stretch. As I expounded at length a while back, no-one ever really dies in Tyria. Why should Scarlet be the exception?

My fantasy didn't come from nothing. Not this time. There's something mysterious afoot.

For some while now GW2's best storytelling has been happening in the shadows, on the sidelines, left of center, off of the strip. The apologetically labelled "Side Stories" have given us more to chew on than the main course, at least if you're feasting on speculation and puzzlement. I still don't know what my Krait Oil's good for but I'm hanging on to it.

It was disappointing not to find one of the single line throwaway hints buried in the last Update Notes but it transpires that there are some stories too obscure even for that. It was by sheer chance, as I was idly flipping through the forums, that I came across this.

Naturally I dropped everything to investigate. First I went to Godlost Swamp and ran around. Didn't find anything new although I did have a number of post-ironic conversations with various god-botherers who don't seem to have updated their theology since launch day.

Tapping out in the swamp I waypointed to Lornar's Pass and flew my griffon down to Reaver's Gate. I had more luck there. The corpse was cold (and bald) but the trail was still warm.

I went through the dead priest's pockets and found a journal. Isn't there always a journal? In the interests of science and to scratch that itch I opened it.

A red lady, speaking in dreams, seeking allies...could that be...? Well, doesn't it fit the pattern? Wasn't she always about the alliances?

I knelt to Grenth's statue, which still seems able to dispense buffs even though Grenth himself has taken the last train to the coast. With some prompting from the forums I took several screenshots in which you can faintly see the shapes of New Krytan text but what it means or whether it's new I have no idea.

The forums also told me that what I wanted in Godslost I could only find when the Shadow Behemoth makes his two-hourly showing. He was near due so I ported back there and waited. And it might have been a long wait if I hadn't gone and done the pres myself - no-one else was bothering.

When he did arrive he brought with him several "Mysterious Skeletons". They weren't attackable. They just stood there, surrounded by black fuzz like fungus on a log. They are indisputably new but their inscrutability gives nothing away.

The Behemoth eventually fell. I was ready for what came next but had I not been pre-warned I doubt I'd have spotted it. A small, orange-red "Mysterious Spirit" spawned and shot off across the swamp. I gave chase, wildly snapping my camera in its general direction until it came to a halt beside another dead body.

There's a necromancer who lives in a hut nearby so I went to ask him if he knew anything. He did, a little. More necromancy. Something about a call. It didn't help much.

For now that seems to be all there is but you can feel it in the wind. Something's coming.

I just hope it's Her.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

First World Problems: MMO Edition


Seriously, guys! Don't you ever talk to each other?

What's The Point? EQ2, GW2, WoW

I sat down at the PC this morning not sure what I was going to do. I have the week off work (yes, I do get a lot of vacation time, thank you very much) but I have no particular plans other than to enjoy myself.

The night before, I'd logged off  about two-thirds of the way towards the total number of Hero Points I need to complete Mirage, the Path of Fire elite specialization for the Mesmer. Contrary to my previously expressed doubts I'm finding PoF somewhat more sticky than expected. Partly this is because, after a full month's break, by far the longest she's ever taken from the game, Mrs Bhagpuss is playing again and we've been duoing on and off in the new maps.

I think it was Aywren who mentioned somewhere (I'd link it if I could find it) that the PoF open world content is a lot easier to handle in a duo or a group. I'm not at all convinced of that. It seems to be just as relentless with two - and "relentless" is definitely the word I most associate with this expansion.  I firmly believe PoF to be the most "hardcore" open world content ANet has released since the original Southsun - far more "hardcore" than anything I experienced in Heart of Thorns.

At one point in Desert Highlands, up around the plateau where the giants roam, we had the most intense fifteen-minute running battle I can ever remember outside of an instance in GW2. It all kicked off when Mrs Bhagpuss spotted a necklace near a nest of skelks and made a beeline to grab it.

Skelks were thick along the ramp up to their nests and much thicker still at the top. There were many veterans and the respawn rate was ferocious. Skelks have the annoying ability to stealth and teleport so it was impossible to tell which were respawns and which were just the ones already in play, flicking in and out of existence.

Tyrian Giants are proper big.

Added to that we had aggroed a Giant on the way up and he was hurling boulders at us. I'm sure there were other kinds of creatures mixed in as well but it was so hectic it was hard to tell. It also didn't stop or even slow down.

After a quarter of an hour of non-stop combat I called a retreat and we withdrew. At no point did it ever look as though we were going to get ahead of the game. We could still be there fighting skelks now.

This, I find, is entirely typical of the whole expansion. Bringing more people just seems to increase the number of mobs. Not that there aren't plenty to begin with. I soloed a Hero Point in Crystal Oasis last night, the one where you fight a Djinn of the Air. When I started it was just him and me. When I finished it was him (dead) me (2% health) a Veteran Hydra, a Veteran Sand Shark and a pack of hyenas. Probably some sand eels in there too - there usually are.

The big difference between fights like that in PoF and similar all-pile-ons in HoT is that you do feel you can win in the desert. I did win. It was flippin' hard going, there was a lot of dodging, I stealthed and reset a couple of times and once I kited the Djinn so far he leashed, but I always felt I could do it.

What people mostly didn't like about Heart of Thorns Hero Points was that some of them were intended not to be soloable. Putting a Champion instead of Veteran at a Hero Point will tend to give that impression.

That dam' HP's gotta be around here somewhere...

The PoF Hero Points are all soloable by intent but you still hear people asking for help with them in map chat because they're bloody hard. Whether you prefer the on-demand, manic chaos of PoF to the much more straightforward but by appointment only predictability of HoT seems to me to be largely a matter of taste. I'm fine with either.

The upshot of all that is that I very well might have sat down this morning ready to carry on where I left off. Only I didn't. First, I ummed and aahed over whether to re-sub to WoW. Had I read Stroeb's post on his belated Legion experience first, I almost certainly would have subbed up right away.

As it was, I didn't read that until after I'd finished adding a level to my Shadowknight on EQ2's Fallen Gate progression server. I ended up there because, while I was trying to make up my mind, I went to check if any new pre-expansion content had been patched into EQ2. It hadn't but I saw it was a double XP week for Prog servers.

So I logged in and did that. It's all so...random. I'm not in control of my own actions! Do I need an SK on a Progression Server? Do I need to to level him up? Does it make any frickin' difference if he's Level 30 or Level 31?

Mount skins? We don't need no stinkin' mount skins!

No, but it's fun and that's pretty much all you need to know about it. Syp was wondering why he grinds levels through the Dungeon Finder in WoW when he could be out there questing and seeing the world (again). I don't know. Don't look at me! I don't know why I do any thing in these games...other than it's what I feel like doing it when I do it.

My SK woke up in Butcherblock so that's where he leveled today. It's a really great leveling zone. I've done it many times, both end to end - every quest - and piecemeal as required. With full vitality, 100% server bonus and the 10% from boost from the Clockwork Calamity illusion (which is, surprisingly, usable on all servers) it still took me nearly two hours to do the whole of level 30.

It felt just about right. I'd hate to do it with no vitality and baseline xp though.

I hadn't seen a single other player in Butcherblock all morning. Out of curiosity I typed /who to see if I was alone in the zone. I was. Not unusual in a lower-level zone during the middle of the night by American clocks.

Both EQ games have a handy function few other MMOs offer: you can type /who and it will tell you the name of every character in the zone you happen to be in right now. Or you can type /who all and it will tell you the name of every character currently logged onto the server.

Claws off, birdie! That's my egg.

I guessed everyone must be wherever the level cap has gone. I've lost track of which expansions are active on Stormhold right now. I typed /who all, expecting the usual truncated list of 100 names, which is where the function caps, making it useless for guesstimating the current popularity of the game or your server.

Well, usually it's useless for that. Not so much when the result that's returned is four names. There were four people online on Stormhold.

I'd like to say it was at that point that I remembered the server is due to be closed and all remaining characters transferred to Ant. Bayle. I really should have twigged it when I logged in and the game gave me a free transfer token. I think I even mentioned it in a post a while back...

Embarrassing to admit but I only remembered it when I was halfway through writing this.

All of which makes the two hours I just spent even more completely pointless than I already thought. Except that I really enjoyed myself and I'd happily do it again. Maybe I'll go for Level 32 later today.

That's why, once again, I don't think Gevlon has it exactly right. Or, this time, Syp, whom he cites, either. Sometimes the sheer fun of doing something is all it takes to make something worth doing. When it comes to entertainment, maybe always.
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide