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Archive for the ‘MMOs’ Category

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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Despite the fact that premium member Mr. Randomessa shelled out for the Legendary pre-order of the Rise of Isengard package, as far as our characters are concerned, Isengard is that place far-off where some wizard sits and does … stuff. We are only level 26 and so still working our way through Volume 1, Book II, and so we’re hanging out with a different wizard these days.

Gotta catch 'em all

At our level we’re also trying to delve into skirmishes, a feature towards which I have had deeply hostile feelings given past experience with my Minstrel (subject to change post RoI class revision). It turns out that not only is skirmishing in a duo more fun than doing it solo (which I suspected), but being a Lore Master and Captain we are virtually invincible (which I didn’t count on). I taunt, he stuns, I heal, he cures disease, I Last Stand, he feeds me power. Moreso than in any other MMO we’ve tried, the classes of our choosing are complementary in a really exceptional way. We’re practically a small fellowship of our own.

We’re taking our time leveling, in part because we’re trying to keep our crafting levels current wherever we are. This is where LOTRO chafes a bit, because in contrast to Rift, where for mere minutes of work we were making items that were valuable or even higher level than we could use or wear, we can’t break down our work for materials in LOTRO and I’ve complained elsewhere about the amount of materials it takes to master each tier. Still, we’re muddling through somehow; it helps to have a partner to grind with, especially one who doesn’t seem to mind combing through ruins filled with half-Orcs in order to break open Antique Vases and see what’s inside. Especially when said partner then makes you delicious, power-granting potions and extra crafting crit-chance scrolls.

The fact that premium players are still locked off from playing any other Monster Play characters but the Reaver means that Mr. Randomessa still can’t access his Defiler, and is cause for much sadness. The 795 Turbine Points to unlock the class would near clean out his 1000TP from the RoI pre-order, which he’d wanted to hang on to for skirmishes and perhaps a quest area on sale; personally I think that MP character price is quite high. It may be that my husband will have to satisfy his PvP jollies in another game on the side, which is a real shame.

Still, we’re enjoying ourselves otherwise, which just goes to show that sometimes you have to let the wine age a bit before you can appreciate it. Or something like that, anyway.

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This was over the entranceway to the main Exhibition Hall. Boy, do I hope Casey Schreiner's words don't come back to haunt us all.

Well, I am finished with PAX Prime for the year as the exhibition halls have closed and I have returned to my temporary abode in WA, so my feedback on what I saw and experienced this weekend will be brief. Most of the news about Guild Wars 2 has been covered to death by those who attended Gamescom, so there’s very little to say.

One thing that was noteworthy for me was that Mr. Randomessa and I got to take on the ArenaNet devs in the PvP tournaments this weekend. We were part of team EGGS that played in the 3:00PM matches on Saturday. We are not in the picture because…. I’m not sure why. We probably wandered off immediately with our swag, excitedly gabbing and texting our friends about the experience. It was an honor to be insta-gibbed by ArenaNet, though I must toot my own horn and say that I held my ground with my necro 1v1 against Jon Peters’ guardian until he got reinforcements. I will, however, have nightmares about thieves and huge red numbers swarming about my head for many days to come. Feel free to hit me up in the comments if you want more details of our tournament adventures, since they were not livestreamed.

I’m extremely glad that I got to play the demo so many times at ComicCon, because PAX was a whole different story about the length of lines to play. The wait at any given station at the NCSoft booth was, at 5-6 people deep, 3-4 hours; at the Logitech booth it was 1-2 hours. Obviously we chose to wait at the Logitech booth when the line was shortest, which was for added benefit far away from the loud noises of the big displays and therefore excellent for actually hearing the game. Also, several ANet employees were stood around the booth and could just chat with you the whole time you were in line.

We talked the dev’s ears off about our pet subjects: me about character customization and variety, Mr. Randomessa about pets and skill acquisition, and anything else we could think of. As for GW1, we were told there are big plans for the next wave of Winds of Change and they are very excited to get it to us. My impressions after playing the new GW2 demo are pretty much in line with my thoughts after ComicCon, as this demo was again another strong showing, felt and handled great, and was gorgeous to behold. Mr. Randomessa, who got to play for the first time this weekend, is singing its praises (or would have been, if he weren’t already),

The asura are unbelievably adorable; when they are very low on health, or in downed state (I can’t remember which), they say “structural… integrity… failing!” You can tell that ANet loves the asura; it shows in every animation and voiceover. The new dodge button is a huge help to fumble-fingered folks like myself, and learning new skills through use was just fun (will it be fun with the 17th weapon on the nth new character? Hard to say, but neither would purchasing new skills and ranks of skills on that character, either, to be fair).

I had wanted to give other games a try, like SW:TOR, Rage, Skyrim, and Firefall, but without the added benefit of getting to chat with the devs themselves, waiting in line for 2 hours for anything else lost all of its charm, so I took the Secret World faction test instead and got to watch the final demo presentation of the con. The Secret World has interested me for some time (although I’m annoyed with Funcom’s decision to make the game subscription plus microtransactions), and I’m eager to see how the features they’ve been describing will actually play out in the live game.

They showed off some cool things like how the quests you get will pit you against the other factions, so you’ll be sabotaging each others’ missions and cleaning up one anothers’ messes. Remember how, in the Tortage storyline, if you played a healer you’d get word of how a warrior had done this or that, or how a rogue had managed to steal an item, and the warrior and rogue characters were the ones carrying out the duties you’d only hear about as another class? Pretty much like that. That spells “replayability” to me. They also demonstrated neat ways to use special items in the world such as flares or a headlamp to illuminate monsters in an area where the lights have gone out. I can’t wait to see if this stuff actually works as advertised.

Oh, and I mentioned Firefall earlier, it’s totally not my kind of game because it’s a shooter, but they were at PAX in force and had displays everywhere (even the ladies’ washroom mirrors – thanks for considering us in your shooter game promotions, Firefall – I mean that sincerely!). They also had this in the lobby:

It also thumped loudly and pulsed, vibrating the ground and everything. Very cool.

Finally, and unrelated to MMOs entirely, I got a pic and autograph of Steve Jackson, creator of Munchkin Games, because they – and he – are that awesome.

Now I think I’m going to bathe in hand sanitizer and sleep for 42 hours.

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One of the aspects of Guild Wars 2 that doesn’t get talked about or explored much during demos much is the personal story. ArenaNet makes sure to mention the Personal Story in their demo presentations, and the 10-step character creation touches on aspects that will affect the settings of the personal story, but for most people coming in with interest in GW2, it doesn’t seem immediately apparent that the Personal Story is indeed intended to be a drawing point for fans of putting the RPG back in MMORPG.

In this demo version from 2010, the character driver demonstrates some features of the personal story, then leaves off (3:25 through 4:50):

Is this because ArenaNet doesn’t want to get into story spoilers (one of the reasons they have given for not going in-depth into their story mode dungeons), or is it that this work is incomplete? Or perhaps some combination of the two? Wartower.de managed to get farther into the personal story during the 2010 demo, as illustrated in the oft-linked Ranger demo footage (25:51 through 29:10):

This year, Wartower has again managed to snag HD footage of a personal story, this time the charr (…all 28 minutes of it):

TalkTyria has a few items from the Norn personal story as well:

A few things we can see from this latest demo footage:

  • Personal story action items (my new corporate-speak term for “quests”) take place in the persistent world as well as within instances. You may well receive a task in an instance that requires you to travel through the persistent world to complete.
  • It’s possible to receive personal story action items via mail. It’s nice to know that a fantasy game like GW2 isn’t afraid to use what has worked so well in games like City of Heroes/Villains and Star Trek Online. I’ll note that LOTRO has also delivered quests via mail, IIRC, though I’m not sure how often this happens outside of seasonal festivals.
  • You’ll pass by numerous dynamic events and map hearts on your way between personal story action items, which might be why more people haven’t filmed more cutscenes – those dynamic events and overworld tasks are addictive. I will withhold judgement as to whether this will make me feel as though I need to “level up” between personal story instances or if hanging around in the persistent world will feel more organic than in other MMOs where I am told to return when I have “grown stronger” in order to proceed with a story arc.
  • There are plenty of characters we’ll be interacting with, NPCs we’ll love to hate, and our stalwart companion, chosen from character creation, will apparently be by our side for much of the goings-on.
  • Interesting that when the charr character is defeated within an instance, he is not thrown out (which is what happens if your party is defeated in a Guild Wars 1 mission): he can choose to leave, or try again from a waypoint within the instance.
  • Voicework and animations are obviously not yet complete, unless there is a charr voice option called Microsoft Text to Speech (if there were, I would absolutely pick it for one character).

One thing we haven’t seen yet in the personal story is where we will be able to make secondary choices, such as the oft-quoted hospital versus orphanage decision. What will that sort of choice look like? A dialog box such as the one that pops up when you are about to enter an instance? Will it be in the form of choosing which character to talk to given two NPCs who run up to you demanding attention? I would love to be able to get far enough into a demo personal story, any personal story, to see some sort of decision-making required.

Now that I’ve seen more of the personal story in action, it has come farther to the forefront in my mind, nearer to dynamic events, as to what has me excited about Guild Wars 2. We’re only getting glimpses of immediate conflicts for the races in these opening cutscenes and events, hints of underlying mysteries, and I am really looking forward to seeing where the story goes from there. Oh, the broodmothers and ghosts of Ascalon will be exciting to battle as well, but as ArenaNet says, this is my story, and I hope that I have enough time in the demos this weekend to begin to explore it.

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Or, Sexual Dimorphism in Guild Wars 2

Now that the sylvari have made their grand re-entrance in numerous articles in gaming news, this is a question that has been popping up as those who haven’t been following GW2 (or simply not following as rabidly as others) get exposed to this new race. So, why is it, folks wonder, that a race of sentient plant people whose bodies are mere illusions of humanoid forms, have secondary sex characteristics such as breasts (or beards; nobody seems to ask why sylvari have beards)?

It begins with the story of a man and a centaur. The human Ronan, upon finding his village had been slaughtered by the White Mantle and their Mursaat, planted a seed on his family’s graves, vowing to live peacefully from that point onward. He was later befriended by a centaur named Ventari, who shared Ronan’s ideals despite the violent history shared between their respective peoples.

After Ronan died, Ventari tended to the sapling that grew upon the human graves, and wrote his thoughts and life lessons on a tablet that he laid at the base of the tree. The sylvari were later born from this Pale Tree, taking the human forms from the land that nurtured it. Hence, boobs. And beards.

If you remember that their "modesty flowers" are part of them, you realize they're actually naked.

While sylvari do have gender, they act entirely without regard to gender with respect to life, chivalry, and love.

…traditional human-style gender roles have no meaning to sylvari, either in their society or in their romantic relationships. Often, a sylvari’s ardor is expressed with courtly zeal—emotional, empathic, personal—and is not necessarily defined by gender.

Angel McCoy, ArenaNet

I think I can safely say, based on the above information, that the reason for the mammalian protrusions is not purely for titillation. First of all, ArenaNet can do better than that for titillation’s sake (see: Norn females, below). Second of all, the following races exist to show that ArenaNet does know what to do with races that have no good biological reason for D-cups:

Charr

Charr male (L), charr female (R)

As might be expected from our knowledge of cats, female charr do not have visible breasts.

I gave them a choice: either be subtle and downplay the breasts (it wasn’t a point of the race, anyway) or go full-on realistic. Yes, that’s right —none or six!!

-Kristen Perry, ArenaNet

Instead, they are distinguished from male charr by the size and placement of their horns and teeth, a slightly sleeker head shape and a bushier tail. More on the breast issue (and the other issues related to designing the charr) here.

Asura

Asura female (L), asura male (R)

Here is the final example of a race that does not slap breasts onto the female characters and call it a day. While more information might be forthcoming about whether asura have teats like charr, or simply lack that characteristic altogether, it is apparent that aside from a few variations in head shape and hairstyle – and perhaps clothing – there is no differentiation between male and female asura. There does not even appear to be a notable height difference between the two.

Now that we’ve covered two races without the typical fantasy sexual dimorphism, and one who act entirely without regard to gender and for whom such differences are mere outward forms, we turn to the familiar.

Norn

What were we saying about titillation?

Here we have possibly the most extreme case of sexual dimorphism in the form of bulk and body structure between the male and female norn. The males seem to be built with a particularly recognizable heft to them, and an allowance for an abundance of hair grooming options on nearly every exposed surface, while the females, unfortunately, venture very close to “large woman” status.

How much we will be able to modify the female norn build and bring it more in line with that of the male is something that I hope we will get to glimpse at the upcoming Gamescom convention. Right now this is probably the most obvious throwback to video game titillation to be found in Guild Wars 2. Fortunately, at least, these female norn can easily break your bones for commenting on their, well, titillation.

Human

Ah, there we go. Nice and reliable and wearing clothes that make sense at a Renaissance Faire. Here you can expect get your usual suspects and a variety of builds (we can hope): men with or without facial hair, slender such as the one above, or perhaps bulkier to a degree currently unknown. Whether women have a slider for their bodice area will be of great interest for those watching the convention footage coming in next week.

All in all, I think ArenaNet has done a good job avoiding many of the tropes and stereotypes about male/female appearance, dress, and behavior when it comes to their race design. We have breasted sylvari who engage in chivalry, asura and charr who don’t have breasts, norn females who drink and fight with the best of them, and humans who are led by a queen with no king in sight.

So the next time someone asks if female sylvari have breasts in order to satisfy the 14-year old male audience, simply challenge them to a duel with your female sylvari character; may the best sylvari win.

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