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Archive for November, 2009

It seems my suggestion that we try a Psionicist/Blood Mage duo for romping in Vanguard was the right decision, as we handily extinguished many a hobgoblin and stone dervish life in the Earth Den. My better half had a blast mind-bombing mobs into submission while sending off similacrums to fight others, with me giving a handful of hitpoints to top him up all the while. He’s even expressed interest in starting subscribing once our free trial is up, which is better than his opinion of four out of seven or so MMOs we have tried playing together, so I’ll take that and  run.

With just over a week left on our trial, and keeping in mind our gaming sessions run about 45 minutes to an hour per day and a half, we probably won’t get a chance to explore all three spheres to max level on the island. We’re both eager to try crafting and diplomacy, though, so we will probably take a break from adventuring and focus on those for the Thanksgiving weekend while our adventuring levels linger at 8. I got to craft an item for the first time last night, and I’m trying to find a way to compare it to Everquest II – where I loved the crafting -  because I’m not sure how I feel about it just yet. I just need more time to experiment with it, I suppose.

Unrelated to the above, my client has taken to freezing up on me while playing, requiring a force quit. It’s not annoying enough to keep me out of the game yet, but it does happen about once per gaming session, and usually just as we’re about to die, so it doesn’t keep me from the good stuff. I’ll need to check that out on the forums and see if there’s anything I can do about it, since I don’t remember the issue the last two times I played Vanguard.

Outlook: Hopeful

Happy Thanksgiving, Americans – and a happy Thursday to the rest of the world!

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It was an interesting weekend at Chez Casual Does as we worked through some character creation and the initial levels of Vanguard on the Isle of Dawn. Although initially elated by the ability to jump (after playing Dragon Age: Origins for the past week), my better half quickly tired of his Sorcerer. I suggested he try a Psionicist, because I know he loves crowd control, based on his Burglar in LOTRO and his Dominator in City of Villains.

He does seem to enjoy the Psionicist a great deal more, and is actually running around wanting to try out his new skills on various mobs instead of proclaiming the game is boring, so it looks like this choice will stick. Since he’s doing that, I opted to shelf my Cleric and roll a Blood Mage instead, so that we can both be ranged casters. He’s particularly good at playing characters with CC, while I’m rubbish at it. Meanwhile, I’m a bit terrified of what I’ve heard of the Blood Mage skillset, but I’m confident I can manage it with practice. At least I know I’ll have better luck with that than in trying to chase down mobs to hit with a hammer.

Chasing down mobs until they’re in melee range is a skill at which I will never excel. I can and have enjoyed melee characters in other games, but they have exclusively been those that allow auto-moving to your target, such as Guild Wars, or at least auto-facing targets like in LOTRO. I quickly get annoyed with all the “target not in range” or “must face target” messages and roll up a caster otherwise.

To me, the skill of moving to the target is one my character possesses, and not one I should have to hone as a player. An example of this is a Guild Wars assassin. The assassin has numerous skills that require certain placement to execute an attack. Once you select that skill, the assassin rushes, or teleports, to the target, and executes the attack (or fails if resisted). My assassin is the one who possesses that skill – I’m just the commander who tells her to. My skill as the player is in choosing to use that skill, and in knowing when to use it. Especially in Guild Wars, where you can only venture out into the world with 8 skills at a time, this is an important choice where my skills as a player matters and can make the difference between success and failure.

In other games, I’m expected to have the manual dexterity to place my character behind (or beside, etc.) my target in order to execute a backstab or other high-damage attack; all the more if I’m fighting another player. In this scenario, instead of my skill determining which attack to use at which time, I also must be faster than the AI, or more dexterous than the person I’m playing against. I have to teach my fingers how to execute a jump in mid-air, or how to run through an avatar to get behind it (neither are possible in Guild Wars, due to the missing z-axis and use of collision detection respectively).

I don’t like this type of play because, well, what does it have to do with my character’s abilities? Why should whether I keyboard turn or mouse turn, whether I jump around like a maniac in a game that has no keystroke for “block”, or whether I have perfected the jump-turn have anything to do with whether my character – the one actually trained in the arts of an assassin or warrior – can perform an attack?

Essentially, the only skillset I want to have to bring to the table in any given online RPG I play is found in my brain. I can accept failing to out-tactic or outsmart my opponent, whether AI or real person – it happens all the time! But if I wanted to pit my reflexes and manual dexterity against others, I’d play an arcade game or FPS instead (this is one reason why it worries me that the trend in upcoming MMOs seems to be leading them in a more arcade-like direction. There is a time for Tekken, and for me, when I’m playing an MMO is not that time).

Either that, or I want the ability to take some of the points I put into “bookworm brainiac” as a child and put them into “Nintendo fingers” instead.

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Tonight, my better half and I will begin the Isle of Dawn trial for Vanguard (technically, I started last night because I couldn’t wait to play with the character creator). I have tried the game two times before, once before the Isle of Dawn and once since. I didn’t stick with it not because I was terribly unhappy with the game, but because both times I sensed I was in over my head, a themepark visitor gaping in a sandbox world, uneasy with the lack of direction given and the level of skill required otherwise. I always knew that if I had the right tools at hand I would be back, though, because I am intrigued by this world, having passed up Everquest the First (and Ultima Online, and Asheron’s Call, etc.) when it emerged on the scene.

I think the hardest part about this trial is going to be deciding what to play. Vanguard’s classes are not as straightforward as I’m used to, and even though I’ve been gaming for years, I still haven’t hammered out exactly what my chosen class is. There are a lot of things that worked when I was playing a text-based game that don’t work in 3d, and things that worked in Guild Wars where you always have a balanced team of NPCs that don’t work when you’re only playing with one other person.

In StrangeMUD I played a Cleric who remorted as a Paladin, then specced as Crusader. This gave me pets, heals, good armor, some combat ability, and plenty of utility spells and buffs. So when I started Guild Wars, I started a Warrior/Monk, only to find that my Monking was best relegated to a hard res instead of healing myself or others on a regular basis. My main turned out to be, of all things, an Elementalist, since always having a(n NPC) healer along means one can forget about one’s mortality.

Since then, no real pattern has emerged; in LOTRO I started a Minstrel and decided I hated it the first time I had to heal in a group (no health bars to watch when healing in a MUD!), tried a Guardian and found I couldn’t draw aggro to save anyone’s life (I’m not sure there even is a taunt in Guild Wars), learned I haven’t the patience for a Burglar, and settled on a Hunter that can fire and forget. In Warhammer I tried and soon discarded a Sorceress, fell in love with a Shadow Warrior and got by with a Magus.

I know certain things about my playstyle, but I’m not certain they scream out for a particular type of class. As the Hunter suggests, I don’t like complicated skillsets; point me to the thing and I’ll kill it. I played my Shadow Warrior in Assault stance, knowing I don’t like to be squishy if forced into close battle and I can’t manage kiting, but I prefer to avoid melee if possible. My Magus was so-so in durability and I liked the ranged aspect, but managing my pet and its placement was more of a pain than anything else. I don’t do strategy and so I’m lousy with crowd control; I’d rather make the pull and deal with it or run in with guns blazing, so I really like to have heals at my disposal… but in a group battle I’d rather watch the action than health bars, so those outcomes are never good.

My better half is all about casters, so he is likely to go with a Sorcerer or Druid, which tells me I should probably go for a Cleric since I hear it’s a very “forgiving” class and I really need that. But I so dislike melee and healing in a group! If I hadn’t heard that Blood Mages are tricky to play I would go for that, but I have, so I won’t. I’ve swung back on this issue for most of the week, reading forums and Silky Venom for any tidbits of value that could tip my inclination one way or the other, and I’m no closer to a final decision now than I was when we first started thinking of giving this a try.

Leveling multiple alts until I love/hate one or the other isn’t really an option in a two-week trial, so our first impressions of gameplay will really make or break this one. Decision-making is hard! This is why I don’t play sandbox games alone.

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I have been enjoying my time in the Allods Online closed beta thus far, though I am still only level 5. I keep wavering between frustration at the server load of eager players hopping around, swarming quest mobs and nodes, and excitement of being among the first to experience the game in this way. Much like with the Warhammer Online preview weekend, I felt such a great camaraderie with everyone else asking where this or that mob was, or expressing wonder at this or that discovery.

It’s been interesting reading some of the impressions of the game so far: for some, it’s too much like WoW, while others offer suggestions for “improvements” that would make it even more so. My main problem is that I’m already nearing burnout; since I’ve been playing the Russian open beta, I’ve already gone through the same level 1-5 content roughly ten times now, and now I’ve got to stop before I ruin a good thing. I’ll just wait until the open beta when our characters will be allowed to continue to progress before I jump back in.

Between retiring Allods Online for the time being, and my decision not to re-up my Champions Online subscription, there has been a 100% increase in the amount of Dragon Age: Origins being played around these parts. Despite my loud protestations that I dislike single-player games, I managed to make it through at least one of the origins and the first little bit of the plot before taking an indefinite break. For me, the game is only enjoyable when I imagine myself playing alongside some other, real person (I admit to developing a crush on Alistair). My better half is still plowing his way through the story, though he’s adamant the story isn’t sandboxy enough for his satisfaction. Having watched him play through Oblivion and Fallout 3, I have to agree, though my experience in themepark MMOs have trained me not to run off the path so often and as a result I don’t brush up against the many invisible walls and impassable bridges in the DA:O landscape the way he does.

I’m not quite sure what exactly makes the difference between a more sandbox game like Oblivion, which allowed you to completely ignore the main quest and still have dozens of hours of enjoyment to milk out of the game, and something more linear, yet equally highly-rated, like Half Life 2 or Dragon Age, in which you cannot prevent major events from occurring and taking you along with them. I can’t imagine that these two types of games attract the same types of fans, judging from the muffled curses of “why can’t I kill this guy just to shut him up? Why can’t I go into this house? Why can’t I talk to this person? I could do this in Oblivion!” coming from next to me. I’ve been surprised to find that Syncaine has been enjoying the game as much as he has, and surprised again to agree with Tobold that I find DA:O’s replayability to be next to nil. After all, can you choose to become a Templar? Can you choose to be an apostate? These are questions my sandbox-loving partner asks, and he finds the answers wanting.

I don’t have an objection to this kind of sandbox play myself; I just find my imagination is lacking. I’m poor at setting my own goals in-game, so I’m happy to have someone set them for me. Meanwhile, we have tried about four MMOs together as a household and in every one I have started a new character, run up to the first quest-giving NPC, and turned around to find my better half stuck in a wall or having fallen off a cliff because he defied the straight and narrow path and wanted to do his own thing. With his vision and my MMO experience, we could be unstoppable, if only given the proper playground. Since he likes the fantasy genre and dislikes FFA PvP as much as I do, I’m left with one last option if we’re to find an MMO home as a duo:

We’re trying Vanguard: Saga of Heroes next.

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Well, I dusted off my Warhammer Online discs, patched the thing up, and raced to log in with my new trial account, only to find that…. the flight master is disabled for trial accounts.

That’s correct, not only do you start in the Empire vs. Chaos lands, you have no ability to leave them either. I have to say that deflates my desire to romp around in T1 by quite a lot; I was having fantasies of open RvR battles in all three starting lands, public quests in all three lands, Tome unlocks in all three lands…. in other words, I thought the wealth of content between the three would keep me interested for some time. One land will wear thin rather quickly.

I understand that this is meant to be a trial only and that Mythic/EA is not necessarily looking to cultivate a “community” of perma-T1 freeloaders, but encourage people to subscribe to “see” more of the game. I guess they’re not losing much if I reconsider whether or not I want to play, since I wasn’t planning to subscribe anyway, and if I don’t log on, they don’t have to maintain my avatar or its strain on the server. But I’m disappointed, because what I thought would be a fun, but limited, experience, turns out to be far more limited indeed.

It’s just as well, I suppose. Good luck to the Warhammer team and I hope they achieve their aim with this unlimited trial, whatever it may be.

(In the meantime, I have a closed beta key for Allods Online that starts Nov. 10, so I’ll be busy enough for the next little while!)

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Anyone up for Perma-Tier 1?

I already said this in response to a comment on this post by the Ancient Gaming Noob, but I’d like to go on the record in support of a community of players who choose to stay and play indefinitely in Warhammer Online’s Tier 1 unlimited free trial. This reminds me of the community of Perma-Pre players in Guild Wars, and I can have an experience like that in Warhammer, I’m all for it!

I’m excited just thinking about it; constantly populated public quests, ongoing back-and-forth between battle objectives in all three pairings, maxed out Tomes of Knowledge without fear of out-leveling the content…. I know my better half and I will be back to test the waters, so here’s hoping there’s an injection of new, long-term blood in T1.

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Musings of a Care Bear on PvP

While I realize that the term “Care Bear” is usually an epithet used to deride those of us gamers who choose not to PvP or engage in player-killing – or, more importantly, only engage on our own terms — I embrace the term and wear it with pride. If it accurately describes my choice of playstyle absent perjoratives, then why not? I say, yes, I’m a care bear, and I have no regrets or shame about my playstyle.

I was introduced to the concept of player-killing in StrangeMUD, where people used the /pk flag to engage in duels but the whole exercised seemed rather pointless. In an environment where kiting, cover, or line of sight were not part of the equation, battles simply came down to whoever typed faster, had better shortcuts, more DPS and a better connection (this back when we were connecting using 9600 or 14.4k baud modems; good luck against someone with one of those new-fangled 56ks!). At the time, nobody seemed to take advantage of the ability to form up for group vs. group combat, so my early perspective is admittedly soured by unfair 1v1 battles.

My enjoyment of Guild Wars as a skill-based game was related to the amount of variety available to me in choosing what skills to venture forth with at any given time. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a high-skill player, so strategy and tactics and interrupt speed are never going to be abilities at which I excel. Nor will I ever be able or willing to keep up with the metagame of ‘this build counters that build’ and so on, so when it came to pitting my skillset against others in PvP, I opted to opt out. I did participate in a few Alliance Battles with my guild and emerged victorious more often than not, so there isn’t a complete aversion on my part; more a reticence due to my own lack of skill and the kind of trash-talking politics that pervade the PvP communities in every game world I’ve traveled.

So how is it that I bought and subscribed to Warhammer Online, and found myself enjoying it? I plead temporary insanity! Or perhaps I enjoyed it for the same reason that we carebears are said to: low-risk, no-commitment PvP. What I do know is that I was queueing for scenarios from level 4 onward, and answering the rally call to keep sieges whenever they went out. I appreciated Warhammer’s effort to make me feel involved at every step of my leveling journey, and encourage me not to feel demoralized at my realm’s defeats. Meanwhile, the isolation from the other realm via language barrier enabled me to avoid, well, the enemy.

I suppose my overarching opposition to PvP and player-killing in MMOs boils down to exclusion. Either players on the fence are turned away by the nature of interaction and conversation within the PvP community, or by the barriers to entry of high-level PvP – whether imposed by the game mechanics such as Aion, or player-imposed in games where arenas or open-world PvP simply lack participants until everyone is max-level, or knowledge of the metagame is required to be competitive. Players want to wait until they have access to every skill in their arsenal, every piece of armor that will give them the advantage, and they’re not wrong to. I just happen to be perfectly fine with not having the advantage. I just want to be able to play, with others more like me.

I’ve heard the PvP playstyle compared to sports more than once, using the analogy that it takes skill and dedication to become a professional athlete, and that to lower the barrier to entry to enable every amateur to play would be to distort the nature of the original game. Well, I don’t propose that we change the rules of high-skill/high-stakes PvP in as many words, but to allow for multiple venues for PvP. A group of friends who want to toss the football around will never play in a packed stadium, but they are still free to form teams and play in a park or backyard for the heck of it. In that vein, Warhammer’s ease of accessibility and lack of penalty enabled me to sample something I would never have given a serious try otherwise, and I even found I liked it, given those circumstances.

Maybe I am the only one out there who feels this way; after all, I found the arenas in low-level Spellborn, City of Heroes, and Everquest II to be empty outside of organized events. Players looking to enjoy a cage match in Champions Online are at the mercy of min-maxers and powergamers, but would anyone even queue up if no xp points or perks were awarded? Is there room in more MMOs for, as an example, minigames like Guild Wars’ Costume Brawl or Snowball Fights where each player swaps out their skill bar for a pre-determined set of skills to compete with? Is there any way to encourage players to participate in PvP at low levels outside of offering xp and other rewards? I like what I’ve read about WoW’s recent changes to battlegrounds that match players based on gear and whether their xp is turned off, but I have no idea how this has affected the real landscape of queueing up for games at every level tier. Or is the secret to keeping queues going at every tier simply the result of the advantage that only WoW has: its massive player base?

I can’t wait until 2010 to see what the MMOs of! the! future! have planned in this respect. More of the same, inspired improvements, or something new altogether?

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Free to Play Boogaloo

The current financial situation at chez Casual Is As Casual Does has caused me to pull back for a time on my currently subscribed MMO: Champions Online, I barely knew you, but you were nearly perfect for me! /sad

I am now eagerly wading through the broad selection of quality free-to-play MMOs searching for the one, or several, that push my specific MMO-loving buttons.

Here is what I’m working with at the moment:

Allods Online (Russian OB)

I have hung a hat of high hopes on this upcoming title. I’m not in closed beta – though I’ve applied — but I’m so excited to play that I’ve downloaded the Russian Open Beta client and am doing the blind man’s tumble through the initial content.

If the advertising is to be believed, Allods Online will have most, if not all, of what it takes to satisfy me for months of MMO gaming. The character graphics are nice and detailed with plenty of armor variation of near the texture quality of Guild Wars (albeit with a little less variation: try finding a darker skin tone than “tan” for the human characters). The landscape graphics are a bit more stylized in the vein of WoW than I prefer, however.

There are two factions, which will allow me to get my Good vs. Evil on, and both open-world and arena-based PvP, which will allow me to choose if and when I want to get involved. Crafting is said to be a big part of the game as well, using mini-games (! oh, please be EQII-like!) to break up the monotony and increase the challenge, and with ship-based crafting requiring several different components that will likely necessitate a guild working together to create.

My first impressions of the game are good; you start out in a tutorial instance that immediately brings you up to speed on the state of the world and your place within it, and gives you a taste of battling on the ship-like Galleons that will become a huge part of the gameplay at higher levels.

Funnily enough, playing through the Russian version is more like playing a game that doesn’t have any quests at all; since I have no idea what the helpful text and map markers are asking me to do, I simply run around killing everything and trying to interact with every item I see. I wonder if I’ll miss that level of play when I have an English version carefully spelling out my objectives for me….

Jade Dynasty

I realize this game is more like Perfect World 2 than anything else, but hey, I enjoyed PW for 20-odd levels, so this might entertain me for a month or so at least. It’s amazing what throwing me a little nugget in the way of world lore will do to increase my interest in playing a game. Something as simple as introducing me to the background of the various factions in the game world and encouraging me to take a side is all the motivation I need to kill 10 wolves and collect 5 toad eggs for now. (You hear that, Runes of Magic? That’s why I can’t play you for more than half an hour without getting bored!)

The Chronicles of Spellborn

I still have this one on my hard drive after trying it out a few months ago, before it went free-to-play. I adore the artwork on this and found the quests to be engaging and interesting, while the combat is still a challenge to my hand-eye-coordination deficient self. I ended up wandering away from this one because of the shortage of balanced, arena-based PvP to break up the occasional questing doldrums, and when I found out that crafting consists of collecting materials and giving them to an NPC to create for you, a la Guild Wars.

Now that I’ve given up on looking for Mr. MMO Right, and am willing to accept Mr. MMO Right Now, The Chronicles of Spellborn warrants a second look. I do want to unravel that excellent storyline I’ve heard so much about from its devotees.

Hopefully between juggling these three games, I can get through the next few months (at least until the Allods English-language beta opens up), when more news of Guild Wars 2 starts coming out, or something entirely new comes over the horizon.

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