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Archive for the ‘MMOs’ Category

Gone Adventuring

(…that awkward moment when you finally enjoy playing your MMOs even more than you enjoy writing about them)

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I apologize to those of my readers who are still around and who might have thought they’d get any sort of meaningful commentary from me about The Secret World’s release or the impending, almost anti-climactic (no, really, who am I kidding? It was always going to be climactic) FINALLY of Guild Wars 2. I’m still alive, though a number of real-world matters have pushed updating the blog and gaming itself to a bit of a backburner. Everyone’s fine and healthy, though, and I’m not pregnant, so I can’t really complain.

Mr. Randomessa and I have been enjoying our limited time in The Secret World, however. We’re lifetime subscribers, which makes the next few days blissfully decision-free since we don’t have to evaluate how much we’ve been playing or how much we intend to play. We play when we can, and we’ve been having a blast. We’re running with different factions so that we can read each other our respective factions’ responses to our mission status, and watch as we sabotage one another.

 

We steered relatively clear of the last Guild Wars 2 beta weekend event because we’re honestly just ready to play the real thing at this point. We spent just enough time tinkering with character creation and the Asura and Sylvari starting areas to develop a whole new appreciation for those arrogant little midgets. As someone who previously had my Sylvari main’s life journey planned out for the past two years, I can say that I for one welcome my new Asuran overlords.

It’s my hope that life settles down soon enough (and enough in general) that I can really sit back and enjoy playing these games and continue to post about them, because from what I can tell, this is going to be the best year for MMOs for me. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that after this I may very well be done with looking for the next Great Thing. These two seem to have us covered, and I hope they remain to for a good long time.

Hope you all are well, my friends in the computer. Ciao Ciao!

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Being the MMO junkie that I am, I have been following the development of The Secret World with some interest for the past few years, despite the fact that it seemed in many ways to be the polar opposite of the kind of MMO I thought I’d enjoy. I mean, it’s set in the present day when I love medieval fantasy settings, it’s got a horror theme when I avoid the horror genre like the plague, it’s an ARG when I dislike having to look up sources outside a game to progress, it’s gear-based when I’d rather bring my wits to a battle, and it’s got a raiding endgame when I’d rather gnaw off my own arm than partake. Oh, and it’ll have a monthly subscription fee, and I’ve all but sworn those off.

Still, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the ideas being put out there by Funcom, and I’ll be the first to admit that the first 30 or so levels of Age of Conan (yes, even the first few post-Tortage levels) were some of the best story and most memorable times I’ve had in an MMO. A level-less system appeals to the part of me that hates self-enforced leveling pacts, and Funcom’s eye for scenery, and gorgeously replicating such, can’t really be denied. So while I haven’t pre-ordered, I did get on over to Gamespot and nab a weekend beta key to try this out for myself. And even though I’d seen a ton of footage and read up on many of the game’s systems, I was still pleasantly surprised at how much I liked what I saw when I got to take the reins.

First, the bad, or maybe the “meh.” Character customization is limited. There weren’t very many female faces (or combinations of features) I could choose that made me feel I was looking at a real human, nevermind whether I felt they straddled a believable range of attractiveness. Skin color was inexplicably tied to base face shape. There were no varying ethnic hairstyles to correspond with the diverse (thank you!) ethnic facial features on display. No sliders makes a sad Randomessa. And I couldn’t see a way to alter my body size or shape, even to the degree that Age of Conan allowed it.

Let me choose this old lady face, Funcom!

Character animations are… not very good, in my opinion.  Running is pretty bad; jumping is quite awful. In-combat animations have no “oomph” to them; I never feel like I’m really hitting anything, just swinging my arms through mush. I couldn’t figure out how to emote, though in the case that I didn’t miss something obvious, beta is beta and that’s one thing I’m sure will be added in prior to launch. Quests, whenever they more closely resembled typical MMO quests, suffered from the same problems I have with them elsewhere: waiting in line for spawns, competing for interactable nodes, etc.

However:

Quests, whenever they did not closely resemble typical MMO quests, were a delight. Being able to put a random bit of knowledge to use in cracking a password was amusing. Having to decipher notes and apply recipes and talk to all manner of crazy people really mixed things up for me, and having quest icons let me know right off the bat if what I’d be asked to do involved wholesale slaughter or investigative work of some sort was just the kind of quest hint I appreciate. As with Age of Conan, NPCs are fun to talk to about a wide range of subjects, and they all are injected with quirky personalities that make them memorable after the fact (I still remember the guy in Tortage who hid the pearl in his… hidey place, for example, and I’ll remember Kingsmouth’s Deputy Andy for a long time as well). I greatly enjoyed all the voice acting and the varied accents involved (being neither a New or Old Englander, I have no idea how cringe-worthy they might have been for one from those regions. I did guffaw with recognition at the fortune-teller’s southern Californian nasal drawl, though).

Once I actually got down to fighting, I quickly stopped minding the combat animations so much. This is not to let Funcom off the hook for not making them more impressive, but I did find myself more interested in the effects I could apply and exploit, and combining the skills of two weapons to be more effective. There were plenty of circles of doom to step out of, and big monster wind-up tells, which meant that animations or no, I felt I constantly had to be on the move to get out of hairy situations alive.

Getting out of combat mode is hard!

Scenery-wise, I couldn’t have asked for more, and I did muse aloud that I think The Secret World may have the best-rendered trees I’ve seen in an MMO yet. Having the in-game clock displayed as a cell-phone HUD is ever so fitting, and made me use the in-game clock more readily than I have in other MMOs that provide the same – it probably helps that sunrise and sunset are done so well here, with the light playing off structures in a really believable way. I’m reminded of LOTRO and Fallen Earth, but I feel TSW takes it just that bit farther, which makes sense given the release year.

Not outdoor scenery, but I love this shot all the same.

Finally, I wasn’t sure how the “level-less” system was going to feel in practice, and I think it’s clear that you are still gated, in a sense, by how many skill/anima points you can put into building your skill trees; I’m sure you’ll need skills more than 2 points deep (and so on) to beat certain bosses in missions, etc. But from what I could tell, there was one very big gate missing for me as I progressed through the overarching storyline missions: at no time was it “suggested” to me that I be of a certain capability before proceeding, and I actually did skip most side missions just to see if I would be able to. Not only was I allowed to do this, I could also still keep pace with the monsters the game threw at me, even within story instances, which is more than I can say for the previous two heavily story-based MMOs I recently beta tested. I don’t know if this is indicative of the rest of the game or just a case of beta trying to make it easy on us, but I could not have been happier.

Oh, I’ll do the side missions – I have nothing against them – but being the story fiend that I am, if I had a common complaint to lodge against both SW:TOR and Guild Wars 2, it was that my major storyline was spread out over levels such that I had to engage in other activities before I could feasibly continue, and I hate being restricted in that way. Not having levels meant both that the early zombies were not quite trivialized, while still allowing me to see progress in my ability to take down harder enemies. Later I look forward to not facing down an exponential XP curve to acquire that next SP or AP (dare I hope?).

One  riddle I can’t seem to crack about The Secret World is that of audience; that is, what is the audience Funcom is going for, and how big is it? On the one hand, I welcome the changes from the standard MMO, both genre-, mechanics- and content-wise, and I think this could be a really strong niche title with an amazing, helpful, tight-knit community if it gets all the technical issues ironed out before launch. On the other hand, with EA backing it, how happy would they be with a “strong niche title?” I just don’t see this going over well with a lot of crowds, from the open-PvPers to the action combat fans to the sandbox aficionados to the rush-to-endgame crowd. Yet it has the raiding and the gear progression and a subscription fee that seems to imply they expect more than a few folks to cross over from other games and make a home here. I can’t quite figure it out. What would constitute a success for The Secret World?

So now I find myself wondering whether the things I feel TSW does so well – story, interesting world and characters, variety and complexity in gameplay, stunning graphics – really do trump the things that bug me like the odd old-school resource competition, a raiding end-game with gear progression, subscription fee, and my qualms about the audience and success it may or may not achieve. I don’t have an answer yet, but prior to this weekend, I thought there was no question at all. I’m not convinced there isn’t some Illuminati mind control involved.

Illuminati mind control and a soft-focus lens.

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*With regards to Katy Perry (though I prefer Karen Gillian‘s version myself).

When one of my Guild Wars alliance mates offered up a SW:TOR buddy key a few weeks ago, I took her up on it since I have been curious about how things would play out given more time to explore other storylines in the world. Since I discovered during the SW:TOR beta weekends that I liked the Bounty Hunter playstyle best (but didn’t care for the story), I rolled a Trooper this time, and had a better time of it. Something about the fact that I was a soldier made it easier to accept the game’s conceits (and most quests) and “just go along” with whatever was going on – I have orders, after all – rather than playing a civilian where I always wonder why they don’t just decide to up and leave. This is true of most MMOs I play, by the way – I like my grunt status, thanks.

Look at Aric checking me out, there.

I liked playing a Trooper enough to get past many of the other niggling things that I already noted rub me the wrong way about Bioware and traditional MMO style games, and the sad fact is that since Mr. Randomessa refused to join me on this experiment, leveling was easier because I never had to wait on or catch up with him either. So it was with regret that I reached level 15 on my Trooper and the game informed me that I would no longer be able to progress, nor would I be able to continue my storyline to the point of getting to ride in the ship I’d just acquired, or travel to another planet. I’d have known that if I’d read all the fine print, of course. Well played, Bioware.

I then rolled a Jedi Consular and an Imperial Agent and hated the gameplay, and further ran into the complication of my Consular being sent to the same planet as my Trooper and therefore running into the exact same quests I’d just completed a day earlier. I also had the frustrating experience of my Consular outright stating in her quest dialogue that she would try to find a peaceable solution to the quests my Trooper had previously solved by “lighting it up,” only to be faced with the same sea of red names that my Trooper had. I think I got the option to use Force Persuade at one point, which I guess is the game’s way of letting you have a peaceable solution, but I was kind of hoping I could do things with actual diplomacy rather than Jedi Mind Tricks. I know, I know, I was asking for too much.

At any rate, I liked playing the Trooper the most, but I didn’t like it “price of the box at launch cost for 30 days of play” much. If and when there’s a nifty discount on the box price of SW:TOR I’d like to free up her leveling path and see where I can get her, but in the meantime, she’ll remain in the hangar, ineffectually trying to board and re-board her brand new ship. For what it’s worth – which is not much – I would have bought the game at full launch cost in a heartbeat if I could play my Trooper at my leisure, instead of trying to get her as far as possible in a month’s time. But it was not meant to be. This is much more an indictment of the subscription model than Bioware’s game at this point, so I feel I’ve come a long way since that beta weekend so many months ago.

In a week’s time I expect to be very very busy, but it would have been nice to at least see if I could put the moves on Aric in the meantime.

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Well,  I couldn’t let this one go by without comment.

Mike O’Brien on Microtransactions in Guild Wars 2

All right, we’ve all read it. We’ve seen the forum outrage (and encouragingly enough, some reasoned discussion about it in places like Reddit). Mike O’Brien cites EVE’s PLEX system as the most apt comparison to GW2′s gems, though I haven’t any experience with that system, so I will let more informed observers comment on that. Hunter notes the similarities to Runes of Magic’s Diamond currency, and raises what I think are valid concerns on that front.

I have a rather strong aversion to heavily speculating on things I don’t have much information on, so I can’t pretend to know how this will turn out when real players with real cash are let loose in GW2 at launch. I do strongly feel that the people who are most upset are forgetting a few things:

  • it’s impossible to buy power for the purposes of structured PvP
  • buying one’s way to max gear or even max level won’t be the I Win button it is in some other games due to level-scaling and the fact that the max-level continent of Orr is full of elite dynamic events that can’t be soloed.
  • further on the buying gear front, the most elite sets will still be those that are acquired in explorable-mode dungeons and not those purchased with either gold or karma. I would be surprised unto the point of hat-eating if you could trade explorable mode dungeon tokens or armor sets for gold.
  • even those items, such as siege weapon blueprints, which can be purchased with gold in WvWvW, require supply to build, which requires playing the game as intended. The worst thing that could happen is that a guild spends a ton of money to hold a keep for a little longer for one campaign after which two things will happen:
    • The rest of the servers will catch up in leveling to 80
    • The WvWvW campaign will end and they’ll be re-matched and lose their advantage

The other aspect that people are upset about is the idea that some will be able to buy their way past significant time investments. There are two parts to this:

  • The first is the stance that ANet will tune the game so that leveling without XP boosts will be tedious. I know the game is still in beta, so this is subject to change, but I think simply watching the videos that came out from the last press beta should put that worry to rest for the time being. Since the leveling curve plateaus, I don’t think it can reasonably be argued that we’ll hit a “grind wall” at this point.
  • The second part is that people fear that certain time-or-monetarily-gained rewards will lose their impact if players can buy the gold with gems. While I understand the sentiment behind this argument, I also think that ArenaNet never gave me the impression that this was a particular feature they were supporting. The emphasis on armor sets won in explorable-mode dungeons, for example, as a source of prestige, rather than extremely expensive armor sets, seems clear in retrospect. I think it’s safe to say that while there would be high respect given to a FOW equivalent type of armor in GW2, there won’t be as much value placed on the equivalent to Vabbian armor, which only involved a high monetary (and thus time, rather than skill) investment.

(Bear with me, as I know you can “buy” runs to the FOW to pick up your armor set, but buying runs as they were in GW1 seems to be done with in GW2, so I doubt the same would be possible there.)

For my part, I do intend to use the cash shop, but I don’t see myself buying items of convenience. Give me shiny costumes, minipets, character slots and the like and I’ll show ArenaNet the money. And hey, if I happen to earn enough gold over time to get some of those shinies for the mere investment of my time, I’ll do that, too. It’s not like I need that XP bonus to play a 2×2 PvP match with my husband and a couple of friends, to vanquish the Shatterer, safely escort a caravan full of supply for the glory of my guild, or to put an end to Zhaitan’s reign of terror.

Could any of this change? Could ArenaNet really change the XP curve to make it tedious and grindy to level without the assistance of XP buffs and boosts? Could they sell armor and weapons through the cash shop that gives stats above and beyond what is ordinarily obtainable or affordable in-game? It all comes down to whether or not you believe Mike O’Brien:

it’s never OK for players to buy a game and not be able to enjoy what they paid for without additional purchases, and it’s never OK for players who spend money to have an unfair advantage over players who spend time.

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I think GuildMag has the take I agree most with regarding the very much talked about PvP armor post, which was supposed to be about PvP armor and somehow became a thousand-word dissertation on the place of women and their clothing in video games.

I’ve found the response to this very interesting, especially since most of the outcry seems to be coming from either people who feel everyone’s making too big a deal out of the matter (but are throwing in their two cents anyway) or those who are in defense of the right of women everywhere to have virtual avatars wear as little as the the game will let them. This, despite the fact that these two groups are the ones whose positions are being represented by default.

As someone who has written blog posts only semi-mocking the initial deluge of innocent questions newcomers have regarding Guild Wars 2, I’m familiar with the notion that someone can come across an article or picture and not know the history behind it; the famous (among GW2 fans) “six or none!” quote by Kristen Perry, the article in which ANet’s armor design philosophy is laid out, the examples of variety among even Elementalist armor art in Guild Wars 1. With TERA looming on the MMO landscape and the controversies regarding its portrayals of Castanic armor and caster gyrations, I’m not surprised when someone happens by late in the game and wonders if Guild Wars 2 is any different. It’s really no different from when someone asks if they can still be a healer, what the raiding endgame is like, or if, indeed, you can jump.

But this matter, this matter was somehow so different. Unlike the many fans of GW2 who remain confident that raids as we know them won’t be added to console the gear treadmill junkies (no offense, some of my best friends are gear treadmill junkies and they told me it was okay to call them that), or who confidently create Youtube videos explaining how GW2 can exist without dedicated healers, the responses to concerns expressed about the featured PvP armor seemed to take the position that any concern was an attempt to lobby for the removal of that and any other armor that exposed the delectable female form.

Oh, there were informative links posted about how transmutation stones can be used to customize armor looks as well, but while inquiries about raids are occasionally peppered with a suggestion to “go back to WoW (or insert MMO here),” an alarming number of these responses just wanted the concerned parties to go away entirely (because there really aren’t MMOs where female avatars don’t have skimpy armor at all. Not that anyone was really asking for that, of course – it was a strawman to be knocked down – but it’s worth noting that there isn’t an MMO for such proponents to go to, if those people existed).

And therein lay the amusement for me. So many people were so worried that their option to clothe their female avatars (person behind the screen’s gender not relevant) as skimpily as they like would be taken away, that the fact that there is no alternative vision made their arguments all the more absurd. In what universe has anyone ever successfully lobbied to have skimpy armors removed from a game? None? Then why so serious? Really, look at the percentage of arguments out there in favor and defense of the featured PvP armor (especially the ones accusing others of being sex-negative or white knights) and tell me the vehemence of that response is warranted.

So, yes, check out the article. I really can’t recommend it enough.

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Last week, Mr. Randomessa’s excitement got the better of him and he, too, re-subscribed to Star Trek Online to join me in boldly getting ahead of the free-to-play launch.
Of course, then Cryptic opened up access to anyone who had previously held a subscription as of January 5th. D’oh! It would just be our luck.

Since then, my husband has gained a rank on his Klingon and he and I have quested together Fed-side, and even done a couple of the PvE scheduled events together Klingon-side. I have been going to bed earlier the past few nights, so my own gameplay has been spotty, but the wonderful thing is – no worries; I just match his rank when we group and all is well!

He is also very enamored of the Duty Officer system and is taking it extremely seriously. Tipa has referred to Doff management as Facebook-style “cow clicking,” and I have never played a FB game so I can’t comment on how close that comes to the mark, but at any rate, it’s helped me set a new criteria for what I’m looking for in any future MMOs I play. In fact, one of my only existing concerns about Guild Wars 2 is that all of the minigames I’ve heard about so far involve competitive gameplay of some sort (bar brawl, keg rugby, shooting gallery) and what I really want is something with a non-combat focus and in which I do not need to compete against other players, but can still advance my character. I don’t need it to be all of the time. Just some of the time.

More and more I’ve been thinking about the MMO features I prefer and how they affect my enjoyment of the games I play, such as how greatly world travel and level-gating has impacted my husband’s and my enjoyment in LOTRO. These are old issues, familiar enough to MMO players that we have our cute slogans and practices, our static groups and our spousal leveling contracts, but something about wanting to enjoy my time in Tolkein’s universe and feeling thwarted instead of welcome every time I tried to share my gameplay with someone outside of a PUG made me snap, and I have decided I just won’t put up with these kinds of things anymore, no matter how intriguing the subject matter or setting of an upcoming game. I think this is what made it so easy for me to pass on the launch of SW:TOR after one beta weekend, my other reservations notwithstanding.

If I were to have a New Year’s Resolution this year (I haven’t made any), it would be: I will not participate in another spousal leveling contract.

There was an excellent forum post put up at MMORPG.com recently, called The Tao of Arenanet, that explains Guild Wars 2′s features in light of ArenaNet’s design philosophy and thus attempts to show why GW2 is not merely a collection of features that may or may not be represented to some degree in other MMOs such that they are interchangeable. I have been arguing this in a more or less incoherent fashion, here and in forum and blog comments, for the past two years, but this post says it so much more eloquently that I now tip my hat and say, “QFT.”

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Still Trekking…

…across the universe, etc. etc.

I actually did the unthinkable this holiday season: I re-subscribed to STO to bridge the month before it goes free to play. Me! Re-subscribed! I’m not sure that I’ll spend any more money on STO past this subscription, but I was so impressed by the changes to the game that I wanted to throw some cash Cryptic’s way, and this way I get to keep playing prior to January 17th. Which I have been. I have even given running missions Klingon-side a try, trying to see how much I can level between PvE missions and Duty Officer management (which are so much more amusing than the Fed-side DOff missions) and no PvP whatsoever.

Despite the furor on the forums about the Star Wars-inspired glowing lirpas and bat’leths that Ferengi!Yoda was handing out until earlier this week, I was a bit disappointed that they didn’t look more like the lightsabers they were decried as. One of those “all this kerfuffle over this?” moments, to be sure, but I find that is often the case on the official STO forums, where if you aren’t angry about something, you’re a fanboy.

Obligatory Glowing Lirpa Shot

Aside from making Mr. Randomessa extremely jealous over being able to play the game while he waited until he couldn’t justify paying $15 for as many days of subscription, I have also dipped into the Foundry missions (a whole new level of fun) and have been catching up on STO podcasts. I have also found possibly the only Star Trek Online forum that isn’t full of bitter naysayers at the Trek BBS (my home on the internet when my husband and I were mainlining DS9 a couple of weeks ago).

Oh, and I’m trying out the diplomacy missions for the first time and am still running races in Q’s Winter Wonderland, which, again, goes to show how much I appreciate non-combat and non-competitive options for gameplay. I tried popping in to Guild Wars’ Wintersday celebrations and popped out again rather quickly for that very reason. Tis the season not to fight anything, for me.

I have to say that unlike most MMOs where I do like being in the thick of pre-orders and the surge of new players embarking on their first journeys together, STO was one of those games where you didn’t get a whole lot out of being an early adopter (unless you were a lifetime sub from the start) and coming in later means I have so many parallel paths of advancement that I don’t expect to run out of things to do for some time. Of course, this also means that all of my content stories will be old news to those who ranked up to Admiral last year. Oh well; time to delve deep into the Foundry, I suppose.

And then I jumped off.

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For the past 10 days I’ve been taking part in the Star Trek Online free key and item bundle offered here by Alienware. I already have my veteran account, of course, but I wanted to give the game a free once-over before it actually goes free-to-play, and this past week, with all the excitement of everyone else in the free world playing SW:TOR, seemed as good a time as any.

Mr. Randomessa and I stopped playing STO only a few months into our year-long subscriptions, citing several conflicts of interest, from my aversion to what I felt was excessive space gameplay, to his PvP burnout Klingon-side, to our disappointment with the crafting system, among other quality-of-life issues. We left just as the Episodic content was starting to get underway, but by that time our enthusiasm was spent and we didn’t delve too deeply into the weekly episodes. We didn’t write off the game completely, however, opting instead to wait and see how the next year would change or improve things.

Having ranked up to Lt. Commander on a new character, I think the wait has been well worth it. The most praise I have to offer is for the Duty Officer system, which adds a compelling means of non-combat advancement – something I’ve been wanting in MMOs for as long as I’ve been playing them (are you listening, ArenaNet?). Since usually this comes in the form of crafting in other MMOs, and crafting is generally on a separate XP bar than adventuring, the Doff system, for the first time in any MMO I’ve played so far, allows me to rank up even if I’m not actively completing missions or engaging in patrols. I cannot express how tickled this makes me; over the past week I leveled twice just from having completed Doff assignments. This also partially resolves the problems caused by having a singular leveling path for all Fed and KDF characters (which I have previously criticized), in combination with the ability to “skip” missions (which I should also mention is an awesome feature!). Combined with Squad Support putting an end to our need for our spousal leveling contract means that Mr. Randomessa’s and my leveling options were just blown wide open.

Second is the extra love being added here and there, from the occasional voiceover (Bioware has nothing to fear on that front, to be certain), to inserted cutscenes, to chairs you can sit on without using an emote (a feature I haven’t seen in any MMO I’ve played other than WoW). I’ve participated in Q’s Winter Wonderland, had a snowball thrown at me, fawned over other characters’ fashion choices (I’ve never been the type to ask “where did you get that outfit?” let alone spent much time trying to emulate them, but the new additions to wardrobe have unveiled this tendency in me and allowed me to indulge my love of the fantasy genre even within this universe), and remembered how cool it is that I can make a Cardassian given the character creation tools Cryptic has provided me. I even got a “boo, hiss” tell from another player for running a Cardie, which was surprisingly satisfying.

For the Republic! Er, wait, what game is this again?

I must also give bonus points to Cryptic for adding the ability to purchase Cryptic Points in-game through the exchange of refined dilithium. I feel this is Perfect World’s hand at work, since PWI’s other games also tend to feature the ability to exchange (exorbitant amounts of) in-game gold for cash-shop items. That the option is there is always a plus in my mind, just as I appreciate the means of acquiring Turbine Points through gameplay in LOTRO.

In short, STO has added or improved on a lot of features that Mr. Randomessa and I dreamed of from the start, and we’re more than ready to jump back in on the F2P launch date. We also can’t wait to check out the entries on the Foundry, which from the reviews I’ve read make even greater use of the engine than Cryptic does at times. There are only a couple more items remaining on our wishlists, including being able to see our Doffs on our ship when we explore the interior, and the ability to have quests and/or combat take place in ship interiors.

It remains to be seen how long I will be excited about STO before my love of fantasy settings begin to chafe again – costuming aside – but I still have my active LOTRO gaming sessions to scratch that particular itch. My free 10 days in STO ended yesterday, and I was loathe to log out that last time, hoping instead to see how just one more of my Doff assignments would end… and then another… and then another….

You know how it is, new shiny MMO experience and all.

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Having been playing mostly Skyrim for the past several days (with brief detours into LOTRO and a weekend beta for some other upcoming MMO for the heck of it), I find myself converted as a believer in the type of single-player world Mr. Randomessa has been trying to sell me on for years. I knew buying that copy of Oblivion for him would pay off someday.

Whether it’s because the technology has finally been able to catch up to the graphic quality I expect and envision in a fantasy world, with years of improvements on previous Elder Scrolls incarnations like viable 3rd person view and NPCs that don’t trigger my uncanny valley horror reflex, or some other factor, I don’t know. All I know is that Skyrim is the first single-player game I’ve truly enjoyed enough not to quit before the end of the first act.

So it’s the case that I enjoy the sandbox elements of Skyrim, the removal of rails, the ability to go spelunking without a care that I might run into an invisible wall, or that I can’t leave a town until I’ve sufficiently pleased enough inhabitants to obtain passage elsewhere. But I also enjoy the elements of convenience; that when someone mentions a town to me, it appears as a landmark on my map, and that once I’ve traveled there in person I can hop back at any time. I like that I can learn my skills by using my weapons, or I can find someone who excels at that ability and pay for them to train me.

I know that there are elements of these features in previous Elder Scrolls incarnations, but in the wistful talk of some gamers who would love to see something like Skyrim translated into MMO form, some of these, such as fast travel, are the kinds of features that would be shouted down on any gaming forum. I commented on my love of Skyrim’s fast travel on Keen’s blog, only somewhat facetiously, but it did get me thinking about the ways in which Skyrim has only served to make me more excited about Guild Wars 2.

Everyone acknowledges that GW2 is a themepark MMO, not a sandbox. Some have helpfully offered the term “sandpark” to describe the ways in which ArenaNet has blurred the edges of what we have come to think of as “themepark” play. Yet what people generally think of as sandbox when it comes to MMOs is far removed from what I experience in Skyrim. It sometimes seems to me that when people want an MMO to be more like a sandbox they want it to be more obtuse, explain less to the player, remove elements of convenience as though these are what make a game a themepark. Yet I keep seeing features in Skyrim that remind me of my time playing Guild Wars 2′s demo.

In Skyrim, huge text floats over my head when I discover a new location or obtain or complete a quest. I can track every single quest objective in my journal all at the same time. That I can choose which to complete, and in which order, is merely icing on the cake; I always know exactly where I can go to get something done, while still retaining the freedom to veer off and do something else entirely.

In my demo experience of Guild Wars 2, the UI is more prominent, with an event log keeping score in the corner of the screen. However, I rarely found myself having to talk to an NPC to contribute in some way to completing a task (although I could if I wanted to). As in Skyrim, sometimes I merely followed the shouts of NPCs to a place where something big was happening; more than once I just had to follow the smoke to a fire.

Is there a main storyline to Guild Wars 2? Yes, as there is in Skyrim. But do I have to do it at once, or even at all? As with Skyrim, the answer is no. I can ignore that green diamond as easily as the quest marker in Skyrim, and simply fill my roster with “Miscellaneous” (in Skyrim), or pick up eggs and place them in trees to please the Raven Spirit (in GW2)… and incidentally, when a dragon in Skyrim landed, breathing fire, I pummeled it with magic and sword alongside several screaming NPCs, and was reminded of doing the same in Guild Wars 2 at PAX Prime.

Scouts in GW2 serve the same purpose as that random person you meet in Skyrim’s towns who  “tell you more about” the inhabitants, unlocking the location of the mill, the market, the nearby farms, and the taverns so that you can talk to and help the inhabitants there. It’s just that GW2 circles those spots on the map for you and dots them with a heart. Even features such as learning skills based on weapon and magic use are features that ArenaNet has implemented in GW2 and “feel” similar to the way in which I get better at one-handed sword use in Skyrim.

I “learned” how to make specific alchemical potions by combining “optional, optional, and optional” in a similar manner to how we have seen crafting demonstrated in Guild Wars 2 as well.

I wish that rather than hard terms such as “themepark”, “sandbox,” or even “sandpark” we could recognize that such games run on more of a continuum. When we speak of sandbox MMOs providing player freedom, we are so often only referring to freedom to create content (which is not a bad thing depending on whom you ask and what the content is) but not freedom to explore existing content, which is what I happen to be much more interested in. Guild Wars 2 might not provide much of the former outside the WvWvW realm of the Mists, but in my opinion it does offer plenty of the latter, in a manner surprisingly similar to that of “vanilla” – sans mods – Skyrim.

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