Sunday, 7 February 2016

New, Shiny : Blade and Soul

Like Ironweakness I'm finding a lot more to like about Blade and Soul than I expected when I downloaded it on a whim last week. Kaozz promised in the comments to my first impressions post that "the game gets a bit more interesting as you move along past the initial zone" and it certainly does that.

After a few short sessions my Summoner has reached the heady heights of level 9. Leveling seems well-paced so far. Just killing things gives a not-insignificant amount of xp, which is something I always like to see, but the greater part comes from questing, as usual with every MMO since WoW.

There are quest hubs but thankfully the flow from one to another feels relatively natural. You can move back and forth between them quite freely although there do seem to be triggers that open new options, as you'd expect, so there is a degree of direction. The quests themselves are anything but original and some of the dialog, while efficiently translated, seems strangely stilted but I've seen much, much worse.

The bulk of the petty tasks I've been asked to carry out for guards, gravediggers and minor officials have verged on the believable. There's a peculiar meta-textual frisson hanging behind much of the action, partly encouraged by the thought-balloons in which NPCs counterpoint their own bluster and blow with self-doubts or self-delusion.

Sometimes, they also seem more acutely aware than the average questgiver of the ironies of their position. I can't recall having heard so many excuses and explanations and apologies in other quest-based MMOs as people apparently rooted to the spot send me to do jobs they could and should be doing for themselves. I'm finding it quite amusing.

Visually the game is beautiful yet weirdly artificial. There's a really great sense of space with the mountains looming at the back and the sky a great bowl overhead. The shoreline has a spritz of salt air about it and the bamboo jungle looks dense and deep.

Everything is so clean, though. The light glows, the trees look like someone comes out in the evening and polishes the trunks - it's like a managed park rather than farmland or wilderness. And the buildings still sometimes have a sense of movie flats about them.

There are some very odd transitions as you move from area to area. We're all used to the way that a snowy area in an MMO can slide unfeasibly into some lava-strewn badland but Blade and Soul slips from day to night at the turn of a graveyard path and then back again around the next corner. There's probably an explanation. I imagine magic has something to do with it.

Nevertheless I like it. It's intensely photogenic, which is handy because Blade and Soul categorically has the best screenshot UI I have ever used in an MMO. Not only does the game give written and spoken confirmation every time you take a picture but you get an in-game album in which you can open and inspect the shots you've just taken. It's fantastically useful for someone who not only takes screenshots obsessively for the fun of it but also to serve as illustrations for pieces like this.

Solo gameplay is solid. Fights are still easy and I still haven't needed to learn what most of my abilities do. There are solo dungeons from very early on in the game. I found myself half-way through one without even realizing that's where I was until I noticed the mobs weren't respawning.

They're decent dungeons, too, in that they look like actual places, where the inhabitants seem to have a reason to be holed up. They even have something to do that's superficially convincing. Mostly guarding boxes and patrolling paths but hey, it's better than literally just standing there in empty rooms.

Loot, rewards and skill progression is making my head hurt. Things I receive often seem to be locked and require keys, which I also have, although I'm not sure if they're the right ones. There are things called "Soul Shields" that drop in pieces that look uncannily like slices of pizza. You put them together to make complete sets with set bonuses or you can mix and match. You can have a spare one as well.

There's a lot of that sort of thing. The behind-the-scenes part is very busy. It feels like an MMO that's been around for a good while, which I guess it has. There's that sense of systems piled on top of systems that you get in games that have been running for a year or three. Odd to find such complexity in a supposedly brand new game but maybe it's an Eastern thing - I remember the much-missed Zentia, of which Blade and Soul sporadically reminds me, feeling much the same.

I know, though, that if I should end up playing B&S for a while, all this will come to seem like second nature. When I think of the insane complexities of systems in EQ2, for example, this really is nothing. When you become invested in these worlds and the games set within them, confusion gives way to welcome fascination.

And perhaps I might play Blade and Soul for a while, after all. It has a good vibe. Not only does it look good and feel good to play, the conversation in open chat has been refreshingly positive. There's a constant flurry of LFG requests for dungeons with intriguing names. Wouldn't you want to party up to go visit the Pot Dog Shelter?

When some poor inadequate who didn't get enough love as a child started up in chat about some trolling enterprise he had going with new players the reaction was particularly heartening. No-one was amused but neither did anyone call him names or swear at him. The reaction was one of bemused sadness. "Why would you do that? That's not nice!", someone said.

I blocked him along with a couple of hyperactive gold sellers but that was the only disruption to the peaceful, casual, lighthearted mood as I went about my merry way poisoning bandits and setting their homes on fire while my disturbing black and white cat cheered me on. Good times.

There's something about Blade and Soul that makes me doubt whether I could ever become drawn into its world the way I fell into Tyria or even Telon. Something about the sheen and the glow and the oversized structures makes everything feel a little ephemeral, unreal. As Ironweakness says, though, who knows? Maybe I will end up with character at the cap and no real idea how or why I got there.

Wouldn't be the first time.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

H1Z1: Take 2

Yesterday Daybreak Games announced that H1Z1, their already-aging but still Early Access zombie survival game, will split in two. Reaction has been predictably negative, as reaction to just about anything with DBG's name attached tends to be. Thanks, Smed.

Keen sums up the general feeling with the very title of his post on the subject: WTF is Daybreak Doing? The very idea of marketing and selling the same game in discrete packages to different audiences is outrageous, desperate, just plain nuts.


I've thought for years - probably since around the time Planes of Power codified the raid end-game - that many MMOs could, very effectively and sensibly, be partitioned off into segments and sold and marketed separately. I used to say back then, often, usually to a thudding silence, that Raiding, just to take one example, is and should be a game in itself, not a whole second game bolted on to the end of a perfectly good existing one.

As a non-raider playing EverQuest at that time, I'd have jumped at the option to play on a non-raiding server with its own development team, dedicated to producing and maintaining non-raid content. Over the years we've all seen how MMOs have to try to provide entirely separate, unconnected, often mutually destructive progression ladders to satisfy cadres of players who have no time, respect or interest for each other. We've seen how well that works for everyone.

Balancing the whole game to meet the needs and requirements of Raiding, PvP, RvR, open world PvE, instanced group PvE, soloing, leveling, roleplaying, crafting, housing and decorating etc etc etc turns almost all long-lasting games into rats' nests of dirty compromise. Diminishing resources end up chasing increasing demands, serving legacy interest groups that frequently contain the game and the company's bitterest critics: players who profess to hate the game they're playing and what it's become, yet still won't leave.

It's not as if splitting a game into two parts (or three or a dozen) is even anything new. It's been happening ever since Ultima Online span off its consensual PvP/PvE shard,Trammel back at the turn of the millennium.  When it comes down to it, how different is having two versions of H1Z1 for sale in the digital store from a game having PvE and PvP servers? Or indeed, as EQ and EQ2 used to do, having four different PvP ruleset servers, half a dozen varying PvE ruleset servers, F2P servers, Premium servers and even a Pay-to-Win server (remember The Bazaar?).

Just about every MMO I've ever played that's been successful enough to hang around for a year or two has gone down this route. Almost the only exceptions are the few that operate on a single shard like EVE, and even that's a poor counterpoint, with CCP spinning their IP across multiple games on different platforms, while sharing the same universe.

The idea that having two versions of H1Z1 will negatively impact development resources is just fatuous. Development resources in MMOs are already fatally compromised and always have been. ArenaNet, operating what is unarguably one of the genres bigger and more successful MMOs right now, has a massive development team and yet they profess, perpetually, to be heavily stretched.

The current extensive and much-needed WvW revamp had to wait years beyond the point
at which everyone could clearly see it was urgently needed, simply because resources were not available. Each new, major game development, change or project cannibalizes resources from all the others, spawning anger and resentment in every group that, often rightly, feels its own needs are being ignored.

Splitting a game like H1Z1 into two entirely separate games may not alleviate any of that stress. It may not produce any additional resources or make anything happen any faster. It may not make players feel any happier that their chosen format is getting a fair shake compared to its mirror.

It may not, in other words, make anything better but I fail to see how it can make anything worse. At the very least it adds some clarity. If you want an open world zombie survival game, you can buy one and play it without having to work around a bunch of fight-to-the-death FPS crazies. And vice versa.

What if you want both? Well buy both. It's two games. You want two games? Buy two games. That, as we all know, is the point, because, as we've seen from Trion's recent inelegant (okay, ugly) revisions to their payment model, the latest in a lengthening line of attempts by MMO producers to row back from the supposed commitments they made to "Free To Play", a model whose mechanics and modes most of them seemingly didn't fully grasp at the time, getting MMO players to pay for anything is hard.

I'm the worst possible example. F2P has been fantastic for me. Hardly any MMO locks anything that interests me behind a paywall these days. All the bits of the game that I relish - exploring, leveling, pottering around in low level zones imagining I'm myself aged about eight, just after the last coat in the wardrobe gave way to snowy pine branches - they're all there waiting for me to enjoy them for nothing.

Like most people, so it seems, I don't spend anything in most MMOS. Not on premium perks nor in the cash shop. Great for me until the game closes down. And I don't want the game to close down. Any of the games. I understand that bills have to be paid and I sympathize with companies that need to come up with ways of making that happen. Especially unambiguous, straightforward ways, like selling me content in discrete packages - DLC, Expansions, Games.

So, if splitting MMOs into their component parts and selling only the bits that interest people to those people, separately, turns out to be more financially rewarding for the people making and maintaining those games then so be it. I don't have any ethical objections.

The big question, of course, is whether it will bring in more money. Maybe it will just split the same audience and make no difference. Maybe it will put some people off, who would like to play both styles but balk at paying twice for the privilege. We'll have to wait and see.

It seems to me, though, to be an experiment very well worth trying. If ANet announced tomorrow that they were going to split the revamped WvW from the base game when it launches and sell it as a standalone with separate development I'd be open-minded. If they announced they were going to spin off an open-world version of GW2 with one-time events, no raiding and no pseudo end-game I'd be ecstatic.

Harder, of course, to pull something like that off in a game that's up and running, which is why Early Access, that period when we players get to watch the band rehearsing before the real show starts, is a better time to try something like this, see how it flies.

Many MMO fans, particularly the more jaded, have been agitating for years for the genre to move to a tighter, more focused, niche-based approach. This is something of a move in that direction and worth encouraging for that reason alone. It probably won't change much but if it should turn out to be successful it may have influence. If there's one thing MMO companies do understand, after all, it's how to borrow each others' clothes.

So, good luck with your new twins, Daybreak. Now can we have some kind of update on EQNext?

Monday, 1 February 2016

Here We Go Again : Blade And Soul

Okay, I admit it. All I really wanted to do was post that screenshot. Now I suppose I'd better think of something to say about it.

I blame Kaozz. Her blog, ECTMMO, has a long history of nudging me into downloading MMOs I probably shouldn't. Perhaps I should say a Loong history. Of course, I'd heard about Blade and Soul before I read her moderately enthusiastic review earlier today but I'd never worked up much interest in it.

It looked pretty enough in pictures and those cats were...a thing...but Wuxia is not a genre that I have any history with, in or out of games and most of all it was another Action MMO. As I keep saying, I can play action MMOs if I really have to, but I prefer not. What's more, I already have a new no-cursors-allowed game on the go in Otherland.

Then Kaozz has to go and mention that if you hit shift-F2 the entire UI converts from action mode to a WoW-style hotbar clicker. Add to that the fact that, as I noticed a while ago, B&S is published by NCSoft, with whom I already have an account, so form filling would be at a minimum and my resolve, never strong at the best of times when it comes to resisting new MMOs, collapsed.

After a couple of hours play I'm scarcely in a position even to do a First Impressions piece but here are my first impressions:

  • Slick, smooth, fast installation process. Really top notch. I love the way the tiny installation download simply installs the game's regular patcher from which you patch the entire game. Elegant.
  • Character Creation is equally well-designed. Very easy to follow, plenty of choice, lots of presets, no sliders. Classes seem to be locked to races. Didn't notice if they're also loked to gender. I went Summoner because That Cat which means I am the cute, small race. Win!

  • Atmospheric opening cut scene leads into dull tutorial leads into extremely atmospheric, extended cut scene. This in turn leads to some tonal shifts that I found problematic and these continue in the starting area. Hardly an unusual problem for either Eastern or Western MMOs, that.
  •  Thought bubbles beside NPCs telling you what's going on in their mind as they talk to you is something I can't recall seeing before in an MMO. There's potential in that idea. Not sure it's going to get used for much more than comedy effect here but still...

  • The UI is awkward and ugly. It's moveable but the editor is cluttered and confusing so I left it as it is, mostly. Too much text in the center of the screen, which I guess is an action MMO thing. Functionally it's fine. 
  • Having to hold down shift to sprint is annoying. If there's a keybind for it I couldn't see it. I wouldn't bother sprinting at all but you need to sprint to get into the air and glide, which is fun. Also, pro tip, don't glide off the cliffs in the tutorial. I did and I couldn't get back. At least I know how to revive when I die now.
  • This game has the best screenshot function I have ever seen in an MMO! They take screenshots really seriously. There are multiple formats to choose from, the game prints the file location in chat so you know where they've gone and best of all a voiceover confirms you've taken the shot. Just brilliant. 

  • Visually Blade and Soul is okay. Sometimes it looks amazing, other times it looks flat and false like the set for a movie. Some things don't seem to have the weight or density or mass you'd expect. Not really seen enough to judge how much of a problem this might be. I felt the same in ArcheAge at the start but a few quest hubs the world started to look and feel much more solid. Maybe it's an acclimatization issue.
  • Quest translations are, largely, in good English. I only noticed one glaring error. Voiceovers are bland but competent. I'd already started reading ahead and cutting them off before they finished speaking by the time I was halfway through the tutorial.
  • The opening scenario is incredibly cliched but the writers know it is and play with it. Without spoiling much I can confirm that my character was woken up from a comatose state not once but four times with increasing ironic intent. It amused me and made me mildly optimistic for the storyline to come.

  • The quests did not. Not by a very, very long chalk. I don't think there's one in the first three or four locations that I literally haven't done before almost action for action in other MMOs. Anyone with a low tolerance for potboiler filler quests is going to be tearing their hair out in ten minutes. Fortunately my tolerance for that sort of thing is sky high.
  • If you think that cat looks creepy you should hear him talk. And he's the least creepy of the five you get to choose from. 
  • Fighting seems easy enough but then it always is at these levels. You'd hope. I'm just pressing keys at random. I didn't bother to read any of the spell descriptions. Everything so far has died in a couple of hits. If I start to struggle, then I'll look into what does what. Anyway, the cat can do the heavy lifting.

I don't get the feeling this is an MMO I'll pursue for long but I've thought that about a few Eastern conversions and ended up pottering around in them for a good while so who knows? It's certainly been worth the very small trouble it was to download and install. What more can you ask for free?

Musings On A Wet Monday Morning

A little while ago Azuriel posted some thought-provoking observations on the inherent structural problems facing the MMORPG genre. These boil down to the slipperiness of definitions and the willingness of the audience to be satisfied.

That post, which I found myself mulling over yesterday, after the sad and arguably unnecessary demise of City of Steam, was prompted by another from SynCaine, that infamous pillar of the Axis of Blogging Evil.  The Evil One was bouncing off yet another post, this time from Wilhelm at TAGN, which itself derived from what was probably no more than a routine space-filler for a slow starting year at PCGamer.

So the circle turns. Often lambasted for negativity, SynCaine is more an agent provocateur, a satirist even. Like Keen, who professed rather bizarrely only yesterday that "there’s nothing out right now except for EverQuest that comes even close to satisfying a TRUE MMORPG experience", the register is often closer to disappointment than contempt.

Theirs are the voices of gamers who are not easily satisfied. As Azuriel explains, that makes them a bad fit for MMORPGs in the first place: "I’d wager that most people that stick with the MMO genre long-term generally find one game and settle in. And why wouldn’t you?"

Sometimes you just have to find a new home.

SynCaine, in common with many other long-time bloggers and commenters and countless millions of players who choose not to share their opinions with the world, has drifted away from the genre altogether. Keen, after many, many attempts to find a home elsewhere, has ended up back where he began, or as close as he can get.

It seems most long-time MMO fans don't do that. They settle in. They settle down. They never leave.

The frenzied years of WoW tourism left us with a different impression: MMO players as a vast swarm, filling the virtual skies, whirring and scrabbling as it descends on each new, bright hope, stripping it clean and wheeling away, leaving the bones to bleach and crumble.

It happened. It still happens. Look at Blade and Soul. Game developers even expect and plan for it. People do like a new shiny. But when the swarm moves on do those bones really lie still and forgotten?

Another road to take.

It seems not. Mostly those MMOs pick themselves up and go on. Remember the hype trains of the last half-decade and change? Allods, Aion, Rift, SW:ToR, ESO, just to name a handful. All still with us. MMOs are very hard to kill (although Trion seems always to be working on new ways to test the boundaries of extinction).

Those that drop seem often to have been culled rather than to have met a natural end. Rubies of Eventide sits in someone's wardrobe, a ball taken home. Tabula Rasa and Helgate:London lost their nerve. Star Wars Galaxies didn't fit the portfolio. City of Heroes was making good money, well-populated and popular, just not enough for corporate targets. City of Steam was scuppered by technology and poor decisions.

WildStar may be the next big beast to fall. It probably won't make it, so everyone says. Missed its market, misjudged its targets, mismanaged its way to the cliff's edge. Take your pick. It's not gone yet, though. Nor is Firefall, another of those MMOs you wonder just who plays and which underwent many of the same trials and still does.

I played it for a while. I might again. I never gave Red 5 any money, though, because I am the problem not the solution. I pay money every month to Daybreak Games, whose games I don't play all that often because I'm busy playing every MMO that catches my attention for free. That great long list of installed MMOs I have, growing week by week, earns no-one anything much. I'm not a rational consumer. Don't survey me.

It's no good looking back.

And yet someone must be paying, somewhere. As I was thinking about this yesterday I remembered a few MMOs I played long ago. With sunsets in mind I thought perhaps I ought to revisit a few before the chance was past. Perhaps the chance was already past. That's happened to me before.

Not this time. Anyone remember Eden Eternal? I doubt it. I mostly remember it because it let me play a giant cartoon mouse. Well, it's still there if I feel like doing that again. It's only five years old though, a mere stripling. What about Regnum? Once also known as Realms Online and now known as Champions of Regnum but still the same game. I had a short and happy frolic there and look, here it is. Next year it will have been running for a decade. It's even on Steam.

Ah yes, Steam. There, perhaps, is a partial explanation for this fountain of youth the genre seems to have found. Only partial, of course. The core reason for the insane longevity of even the most apparently unappealing MMOs is surely, as Azuriel says, that some people never leave. Even so, attrition must wear them all down over time. An infusion of new blood is necessary if the corpse is to keep on shambling.

Even when it seems you're all alone.

I'm new to Steam but I'm fast beginning to see its attractions, both to players and producers alike. My Library, which stood at no games at all for years, then one for twelve months, now has three. Thanks to SynCaine (him again) I downloaded Sunless Sea, which is not an MMO, even by the broadest definition. Its predecessor, Echo Bazaar (later known as Fallen London), which I played for a while and for which I made my Twitter account, something then required, arguably was. Is. It, of course, is also still running.

I played 19 minutes. By the time I got around to playing again my free weekend pass had expired. I'm not sure I'll play Sunless Sea again - it's a bit more of a "game" than interests me and a bit less of a story - but I'm sold on the ease of access.

One of the annoying things about trying new MMOs is all the form filling, the registering, the passwords and so forth. Steam circumvents much of that and if for no other reason I will likely end up using it as a portal for MMOs that use it. Like, perhaps, Knight Online, a game I have never before considered trying, a game that launched in the same year as WoW but which has only arrived on Steam in 2016, a dozen years later.

And your past glories mean nothing.

This isn't going anywhere in particular. I'm just talking out loud, working things through. We'll come back to this, over and again, I'm sure.

There are all these MMOs, you see. Some people start playing them and never stop so the games keep rolling along and as they go they pick up more players as others drop off. Meanwhile game companies look at them, see them there, keeping on going, and think "we'd like some of that" and make more. And people start playing those and some of them keep playing...

There are a lot of people in the world. The internet is endlessly accommodating. There is no clear reason why any of this would stop unless the critical mass of people interested in playing this type of game falls below a viable threshold and who knows what that threshold might be? It's clearly not very large if Istaria and Ryzom can survive and even prosper.

There's always a new dawn just over that hill.

The whole thing clearly isn't going to come to an end just because a lot of people lose interest, get bored or disenchanted and wander off. There are, after all, as noted, a lot of people in the world, more every day, and most of them haven't even had the chance yet to be bored by an MMO. They still have that life-experience ahead of them.

So, yes, some MMOs will go under. As the years wear on more ghosts will walk. Changes in fashion, taste, technology and definition may slow the flow of newcomers from production and consumption both but will the stream be dammed entire? I wouldn't bet on that.

I'm thinking the trick is to attach to the genre and not become overly infatuated with the individual games but that, of course, is impossible. It's always going to hurt when one you love falls. It's comforting to know there are so many but there's always that one, isn't there?  Not to love isn't a response.

The more I consider this the less I understand. It's magic, after all. One morning I'll wake and like fairy gold it will all be gone. Until then, we're rich. Let's enjoy it.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

All Journeys End Here : City of Steam

Then came the last days. The slow groan as the gears wound down. The air dull and heavy, a miasma hanging in the tired air.

The great plazas of Arkadia thrummed with nervous frenzy, tall Aetherlords and Harbingers pacing back and forth, idling as their masters gamed the Transmute terminals, sifted through their storage.

Across the airwaves messages spat and crackled. A Golden Tortoise discovered, another amazing find, another. All worthless now. Futile. Done.

Few ventured further in these darkening hours. The Spire hung high above, unclimbed. The endless incursions of the Trow continued unopposed. Somewhere, Imraphel maintained his deceptions, as yet undiscovered.

The Nexus grinds on, its long creep to Neruvia still a quarter-century away around the Spiral. No-one living now will see its end.

Tiska had her plans. She'd come far and, lately, fast. So many sunken corridors ticking with clockroaches, so many dusted library halls, thick with unread books, unquiet dead. So many killings.

From those desperate days in Denton, where it all began, fleeing the Mythspikes, her hapless family clinging to her coat-tails. Through the great stations of the Railhauler down to Refuge, where the airships hung like iron clouds against a ragged sky, loudspeakers blaring their incessant warnings and commands.

On through the mazes and labyrinths of The Mechanism. Out across the blighted plains of The Ironwaste, The Broken Stair. To Heartland Road then on again, Meluan's Gate, The Vault, Founder's Annex and, at last, The Gardenworks. End of the line.

Each new discovery brought danger, disappointment, deception and despair. Imraphel cajoled, flattered, darkened. Tiska performed miracles, made broken promises whole, met lost legends, long thought dead. Above all, she survived.

No more. It all ends here. Imraphel revealed at last in his shining lie. The Progenitor Fey, Paragon Child, Nexus' doom. This tale is told.

Somewhere, in another world, another Tiska travels on, farther up the Spire, towards an inevitable confrontation with her tainted mentor. That Tiska's story goes untold, unseen.

This Tiska rests. In Refuge once again, with her family, Frella, Frezyl, Fizzgig and Fnort, her travails ended.

There will be fireworks in Arkadia later, a final, futile fist shaken against fate, lighting up the skies one last, one very last time. Tiska won't be watching.

Her journey is over. She did her part. Everything she set out to achieve, she achieved. Nothing lasts forever and nothing ever lasts. We all follow The Spiral.

Farewell, City of Steam. Farewell Tiska. Sweet dreams through the long night.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Other Side Of Steam : Otherland

Well it finally happened. I bought a game on Steam. I blame it on City of Steam and City of Steampuff. The rule of threes and all that.

I've had a Steam account for a long time. Years. I believe I used it to get a second pre-order  for an MMO once, when the provider I was using refused to accept more than a single purchase for the bizarre reason that no-one could possibly use two copies of an MMO.

Other than that the only time I used it was to authorize my physical copy of Broken Sword V, which I was given as a Christmas present last year and still haven't gotten around to playing. Occasionally I browse the Steam store in an idle moment but until now I've never seen anything that I both wanted to buy and couldn't get more easily and conveniently elsewhere (usually from Amazon).

Otherland is an MMO I've always kept an eye on. I read and enjoyed the Tad Williams novels that inspired it and I always meant to give it a try when it launched. Only it never did launch.

I even signed up for a beta at one point. Not sure what happened with that. I know I never played. Then the company making it went bust or gave up on it and that seemed to be that.

Except, of course, MMOs have more lives than a basket of cats. Otherland resurfaced in the hands of  Drago Entertainment, a Polish outfit, who proceeded to sand off the rough edges and polish the rusting hulk up a little until they had something presentable enough to commit to the the ever-open arms of Steam's Early Access section.

I'd been meaning to stump up the very reasonable $20 or so they were asking since I heard the news but it's one of those things you never quite seem to get around to doing. Finally Massively reported that the game was on a 75% off sale and that did it.

It's not that I bought it because it was super-cheap. I am not very price-sensitive. It was more that I knew I was definitely going to buy it at some point so the sale just acted as the final poke I needed to go through the unpleasant chore of filling out the forms. Also, since it was such a bargain, I bought the Deluxe edition, mainly for the extra character slot in case it turns out I like it.

And so far I do like it. Not that you can read much into an hour before bed hastily rushing through the tutorial and the first, post-tutorial but pre-real-game babies map.

It has the annoying center-screen cursor and mouse-button combat of supposed "action" MMOs but it falls solidly on the side of playable, giving me fair control over the mouse cursor when I need it and not demanding I play Finger-Twister every time I want to open my inventory.

The visuals are not bad. Hard to tell in the early stages, where we're supposed to be in areas of a graphical simulation that's breaking down, but I thought it felt promising. The quest text was moderately amusing in spots and at least it was all written in good, clear, grammatical English.

The problem for now is going to be finding time to play. All my bonus playtime after GW2 this week has to go to City of Steam, where I'm racing to get to level 40 and open The Gardenworks zone before the server shuts down. 38.3 as of this writing. Should make it, I hope.

Last night I stayed up later than I should have playing Otherland, though, and I'm keen to get back and see more, so that's an encouraging sign. Don't imagine for a second I'll stick around for any kind of long haul or serious progression but it looks ripe for some exploration and screenshotting at least.

More later. Maybe.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

It's Not The End Of The World Vs World : GW2

Of all the many and substantial changes brought about by Heart of Thorns, those that landed like an airburst on World vs World were arguably the most significant of all. Behind the curtain ANet may well be toiling away on the real WvW revamp but, when it comes, it can hardly be expected to have more of an impact than the arrival of the Desert Borderlands. It all but killed WvW.  

GW2's large-scale, open world, siege-based, three team PvPvE game mode, the wobbly third leg on the game's rickety tripod, had been limping in slow circles through the doldrums of neglect for the best part of year when HoT arrived. Never the success it was hoped, WvW had been intended to act as a kind of end-game for all; instead it had long ago settled, some would say slumped, into a specialist niche.

For a while the incursion of semi-regular "Seasons" into the endless, Valhallan cycle of weekly matches, succeeded in drawing the uncommitted, the curious and, especially, the acquisitive. The lure of Achievements and Titles and Stuff filled the Alpine Borderlands (then known only as The Borderlands) with nervous neophytes slumming it from PvE. Some of them even learned to like it and hung around.

Unravel the ancient mysteries of a lost civilization. Or just get a great tan.

Once Seasons fell into abeyance due to ANet's secret and as-yet unannounced plans, interest beyond the hardcore drained away fast. By the summer of '15 WvW was bumping along the bottom. Or so we imagined.

Only when Heart of Thorns arrived did we realize just how much further there was to fall. By then, Yaks Bend had been a Tier 1 server for a while. Even playing as we do just outside North American prime time, Mrs Bhagpuss and I had become used to seeing lengthy queues on two or three maps every evening. Come the weekend it was sometimes just too busy to bother and we tended to give WvW a miss until things quietened down.

The Desert Borderlands put paid to that little problem. It's been many weeks since I've seen a queue anywhere other than Eternal Battlegrounds. EBG, as it's known, was the only one of the four WvW maps not to be replaced. In one of the most striking examples I've ever seen of customers voting with their feet, almost the entire remaining population of WvW moved from their homelands to the contested but familiar territory of EBG.

What the heck is that thing?

The other three maps, featuring one of ANet's artists' finest ever creations, a stunningly beautiful, intricate, hauntingly mysterious landscape just begging to be explored, lay neglected, unused. Unused, at least, for their intended purpose, conflict. Instead they formed the backdrop for a desultory cavalcade of uncontested keep-takes as small zergs rotated the points.

That was in Tier 1. Several rungs down the ladder, as it bounces between Tiers 4 and 5, Ehmry Bay is home to my third account. Prior to Heart of Thorns, while we never had queues at the times of day I played, there was always a Commander organizing on the home Borderland and operations happening around the maps.

Now I had the place to myself. I could have been playing a single player game. Each day I trotted up to do my dailies - taking a sentry point and killing a dolyak, two of my favorites - secure in the knowledge that no-one from any other team was likely to try to stop me.

It's a desert, Jim, but not as we know it.

The silence and solitude were very useful. I was able to spend a lot of time learning the new layout, studying the mechanics, developing, testing and perfecting tactics for taking camps and smaller objectives on my own. It reminded me strongly of happy days spent scouting and clearing orc camps in the snows of Velious a decade and more ago.

It was, in other words, jolly good solo PvE. World vs World it paramountly was not.

Everyone seemed somewhat taken aback by the changes. Anet had chosen to trial the Desert Borderlands only in small, closed beta tests, before an invited audience. Although there was no NDA, surprisingly little information had filtered out. I tried to follow the discussion but, really, there wasn't one.

When the new maps and their significantly different mechanics finally arrived the reaction was hostile. Voices raised in favor were few and often qualified. The more, the most, common reaction was denial. These aren't the maps we want. We never asked for them. We're not going to use them.

And people left. For once, there was much else to do. A whole new expansion's worth. In retrospect, launching the new version of WvW at the same time as a large tranche of PvE progression, new sPvP content and the long-awaited (or dreaded) introduction of highly competitive raiding was not the cleverest of timing.

Oh, come on! Now you're just trolling.

Absolutely no-one who wasn't already playing WvW paid the changes even the slightest attention. Why would they? They were way down at the end of a long shopping list of far more interesting items, to be gotten to sometime, never.

Among the committed WvW core there was mostly consternation. There are people who only play WvW. They could hardly avoid the changes, although most wished they could and many tried. Some soldiered on but this was the demographic most disturbed by the upheaval.

We had players whose entire game-life revolved around sitting in keeps and towers watching for invaders. Every day. For hours. Overnight their entire purpose was removed. There were no invaders, not any more.

We had players who spent their mornings or afternoons building and maintaining siege, running supply and fortifying structures. Now no siege was needed and structures fortified themselves. Those players, for years among the most committed and appreciated, found themselves out of a job.

Most WvW players, however, also play other game modes. For them it was a very simple choice. They just gave up coming to the Borderlands at all.

Why would they? They didn't like the new maps, which were confusing, difficult to navigate, clearly designed with flight in mind and yet forbidden. The maps were empty so there was no-one to fight. Anyone who wanted fights was in EBG.

You want big fights? This is big fights.

The rest, which was almost everyone, was in Verdant Brink or Auric Basin, complaining about the grind or gosh-wowing about gliding or pushing through the story. Reports began to surface about the amazing final battle in Dragon's Stand, possibly the best large-scale event ANet had ever done and after that came the first Raid and of course there was Halloween and Wintersday, the two biggest holidays of Tyria's year and then the big money sPvP tournament started...

Well, with all that going on, no-one cared about WvW any more. The maps were horrible, no-one understood them, commanders didn't want to run them, and anyway the scoring system was as broken as it had always been so what was the point? WvW was as near to dead as it could be without actually being buried and forgotten.

Cue graphics: a gnarled, grasping hand thrusts up through the fresh-dug earth, clutching at a lowering, storm-filled sky. Three months on and the corpse begins to stir.

This last week or two has seen more activity than any time since before HoT landed. We had commanders with followings on three maps at once over the weekend. There have been big battles over keeps on home BLs. And this isn't just on Yaks Bend. I spent fifty minutes with an EBay commander last week, trying to take a single heavily-defended tower from Maguuma (and how good was it to be fighting Maguuma again? Boy, I've missed them).

I taunt you with my unplayable Tengu!

Gradually, very slowly, as people finish up their initial goals in the new maps and the last of the new car smell fades from the expansion, the WvW softcore is drifting back. Meanwhile the hardcore, particularly the command structure, has acclimatized. Commanders actually know how to lead a zerg from Impassive Rampart to Fire Keep without falling in the lava lake now. Players are beginning to get an inkling of how the Shrine buffs can change tactics, of when it's advisable to complete or counter the Oasis event, of where to place siege so it actually hits something.

It's been a steep learning curve and plenty have fallen off. Finally, though, some have made it to the top and others have picked themselves up and started to climb again. Just in time for today's Winter 2016 Quarterly Update to shake the ladder and send everyone flying in all directions.

Later today we'll get the first big, new content update since Heart of Thorns. It includes a major revamp to The Shatterer event, complete with a full set of achievements, the addition of gliding to all original open-world maps, the Lunar New Year holiday event and a bunch of smaller tweaks and changes.

It also includes some significant changes to the mechanics of WvW, almost all of which have been, perhaps for the first time in the history of the game, very warmly received by the people who actually play that game mode. Structures will still update automatically but only if the dolyaks get in, bringing purpose back to roaming and scouting. Player kills will increment war score, making skirmishing purposeful.

Last one to the Tower buys the drinks!

Most welcomed of all, only one opposing player will rally off the death of an opponent, down from five, and fully dead players will have to wait until combat around them has ended before they can expect to be rezzed. Those changes should significantly impact the ability of large, loose zergs to overpower smaller, more disciplined groups. Weight of numbers will still tell, but not in the overwhelming way it has until now.

Or so it's hoped. As always there may be unforeseen and unintended consequences. At the very least, though, these appear to be changes made in response to genuine concerns expressed by players who play WvW, not whipped up on the back of an envelope and dropped in on a whim to the mystification of all.

How long it will be before the full WvW revamp ANet aren't saying. What the game will look like after it comes, well they're not talking about that either. Rumor has it that Worlds themselves will be going away in favor of some as yet ill-explained Guild-based structure.

I had thought that, if that worst-case scenario did come true, the end of Yaks Bend would probably mean the end of WvW for me but, yet again, HoT threw me a swerve. In preparation for the changes to Guilds I joined a very large WvW focused guild, one that's synonomous with WvW on Yaks Bend and has been since the day the server opened.

It's a guild with absolute server loyalty, a guild that has never transferred servers and will never transfer servers. If ANet cut Yaks Bend away from under us, we will be Yaks Bend. In the meantime, the fight goes on. For The Yak! whatever the rules, whatever the map!
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