Mass Effected

I played the opening chapter of Mass Effect the other night, and it was superb. Terrific voice acting, nice cut scenes and story development, and an interesting plot. The NPCs are well designed, adhering to stereotypes but not in a /facepalm way. Channelling Helen Mirren as the ship Medic is a nice touch 🙂

The voice acting was the most surprising thing. Whenever I start a game I always turn subtitles on (in case of interruption or distraction) and normally end up turning down the voices in a game, but this was so well done that I listened to every word. The dialogue trees in particular are fun to explore – the choices you are given are more about the “feel” of your reply than the actual words. So for example the tree option will read “Do you agree Captain?”, but what you actually say will be more detailed, with interesting intonation and sometimes surprising emphasis. Which is far more satisfying than just hearing the avatar speak the exact words you just chose.

All of which gives me sudden new hope for the “all spoken dialogue all the time” approach that Star Wars: The Old Republic is taking. I had thought that this would be impossibly dull, and would instead become an “all skipping all the time” system. But if they can make it as interesting and well acted as ME, then maybe it will work. At least for the first toon 🙂

The combat was a bit chaotic to begin with, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was doing with the various weapon options. I ramped the difficulty down (is “ramping down” even a legitimate concept?) as I am more interested in the unfolding story than struggling with a 3rd person shooter. I even almost let go of the instinctive mix-max character levelling process, setting my squad to “auto-level”, and generally letting the game recommend my skill upgrades. I don’t think that will last (I want to max out my “charisma” settings to open up more dialogue trees for example), but it makes for a more relaxing game experience. No meta-gaming, no Gamefaqs, and the game is still entirely playable and enjoyable.

The huge advantage a single player game has over the MMO is that the designers have total control over the plot. Cut scenes and dialogue choices force you to pay attention and make decisions. The downfall can be that if those scenes and choices are poorly implemented, you’ll lose interest in the game pretty quickly. That’s definitely not the case with ME.

Compare this to Warcraft, where no matter how often I vow to read the quest text, it very rarely happens. The advent of TourGuide and the like means it’s more zen to just click accept, follow the TomTom arrow, stomp something, and hand in. Blizz’s own improved quest tracking only reinforces the “a-b-c” approach to levelling. The only time I stop and pay attention is if something about the quest is particularly lore relevant (Wrathgate being the obvious example), but even then I often miss it due to the incredible complexity of the WoW backstory. There’s very few quest chains I can recall with fondness, despite levelling many-a-toon. Mulgore is the only exception, because, well, it’s Mulgore.

ME is compelling, good looking, interesting to watch, with some nice direction and the feeling that the game universe is super solid. Being in space after spending all that Warcraft fantasy time is refreshing to say the least – Outland notwithstanding 😉

Endgame freedom?

Spinks the Wise has a nice rambling post up about hitting the level cap in LotRO, which reaches a surprising but very insightful conclusion: “It’s amazing how free you feel once you decide that you don’t want to get tied into the endgame grind.”

That made me rock back in my chair a little. What a concept: reaching the endgame and then…  enjoying the world. No badge grinds for gear, stat upgrades, LFD or PUG raiding.  Just fishing, crafting, noodling around.

For this approach to work, the game has to support that kind of play. And it sounds like LotRO does exactly that, with a combination of epic lore based book quests, virtues and deeds, and the well received skirmish system (that scales the same content from solo to raid groups).

“Go play a single player game” you might argue. But one of the attractions of an MMO is chatting away to friends online whilst you noodle. And MMOs have the huge advantage of being an ever (slowly) changing landscape – each new addition to the game gives new content to explore and share. This is especially true in LotRO, where the new content advances the Fellowship storyline.

If you’re not tied up in endgame progression and ‘keeping up’, MMOs allow you to  park your toon for a while then come back when some new content is offered up. DLC can offer some of that for single player games, but the sharing and social aspects aren’t there.

Between Spinks’ post and Syp’s re-entry into Middle Earth, LotRO sounds very tempting. My gamer group tried it briefly once, but quickly retreated back to Warcraft, mainly due to not having the energy to reinvest in a new MMO. But the Spinks perspective is enough to make me consider rolling around Hobbiton solo-MMO style. If it was free-to-play I’d be in there now, but committing to a sub takes a bit more consideration – and I can’t turn off WoW, I’ve got to keep up 😉

Numbers or Names?

Does anyone else find having a goal of reaching 542 defence rating less interesting than a goal of obtaining gear such that you become The Uncrittable? Or obsessing over a 164 Expertise rating instead of being The Finisher? I know I’d rather be aiming for an Undeniable set bonus than two pieces of something rated 264.

Surely it would be possible to design a game so that the numbers are more hidden, at least to the casual masses. EJs will still want to min-max based on figures, but I’d be surprised if the majority wouldn’t prefer titles or visual indicators once they reached certain milestones.

Achievements allow that in a way. You can see each step to Epic for example, so why not also have some non-numeric means of letting people see their progress toward key statistical milestones.

It could be something like the paper doll that shows when your gear is broken – but instead of showing damage, it shows how close each piece is to the magical goals. It would get pretty complicated with all the myriad stats, but with the coming Cataclysm stat simplification, surely it would be possible.

I’d bet the vast majority of the player base would have no idea that their are certain numeric goals for each stat. Which leads to fail PUGs and finger pointing. But if you could work it so that it was more obvious, and more intuitive, then more players would be at least equipped well enough to hold their own.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy crunching spreadsheets, working out gear rankings, and planning upgrades. But all of that work is a meta-game, and it’s all for the minority of players. Better to put the basics in game,  make it visual so people can see what they’re aiming for, and reward players for reaching those goals.

MMO Exclusivity

Since I started playing Warcraft, I don’t think I’ve played any other game in anger. Any. That is bizarre, given it’s been 2 years or so. Before WoW (WoW-BC) I would play games like NWN, KotoR, HL2, etc. Post WoW (WoW-AD) those kind of games are all languishing in my Steam queue unplayed. I still buy the occasional game (hello Dragon Age) with the intent to play them, but never seem to get around to it – the siren call of WoW always wins.

This is probably not a good thing.

And yet I can’t seem to find the time required to invest in a new game (which is not an FPS or something of similar pick-up-and-play simplicity) and also keep Warcraft chugging along. The only other game I play regularly is Civ4, and that is only as a participant in a PBEM game with a few friends – in other words, about 1 minute of play every few days.

This kind of MMO-obsession, or MMO-exclusivity, is nothing new. It’s probably even an official affliction these days, like being Tiger Woods. It is strange however that one game can absorb all your gaming time and needs. Sometimes I resent it, which is also not a good thing.

I’m not sure what the conclusion here is, and maybe one game is enough. But I can’t help feeling like I’m missing out on all that other gaming action that people rave about – Mass Effect 2 being the latest.

In fact, I’m going to fire up Steam right now, and download Mass Effect 1 (I’m a series completionist at heart). And I’m determined to actually play it. Lok’tar!

I believe there is something out there watching us

Deep thoughts from the week past:

For the aspiring wordsmiths out there, the Guardian polls authors for their Ten Rules for Writing Fiction – apparently the first 12 years are the worst…

Old skool PVP

There’s an interesting thread over at slashdot asking where are the Ultima Online style MMOs. Whilst the question is broad, the discussion revolves around the pros and cons of the Player Killer, aka PVP.

In UO, it sounds like everywhere was a PVP zone, other than the cities. So the minute you stepped outside a city, you were a target. That is pretty hardcore, and no doubt led to a lot of rage quitting by the more PVE oriented crowd before the non PK shard was created. There was even a feature which was meant to discourage PKers by eventually giving them a title so all could see what a horrible ganker they were. Which of course failed miserably as a discouragement, as what PKer wouldn’t want to the world to know just how nasty they are??

I played most of my WoW career on a PVP server (Barthilas), before transferring to Feathermoon (RP-PVE). I’m a poor excuse for a PVP player, and would just sit and take it when being ripped apart in Ganklethorn Vale or mining in Sholazar. Meeting outside dungeons was always a fraught experience, with places like Nexus and UK often dissolving into a PVP battle just to get in the door. Even after a 9 months on Feathermoon, I’m still surprised when I can compete in the STV fishing comp and not need a guild escort to keep the gankers away.

And whilst I never really participated in that kind of world PVP, it’s funny how I kind of miss it. It added an edge to the game that PVE realms simply don’t have. You never quite felt safe, and the cries for help on chat were often met with swift main-swapping to rid The Barrens of an Alliance camper destroying baby Horde toons. And of course you occasionally encountered famous gankers, who would always demand your immediate attention – one tormentor of our guild, who went by the handle lolpewpew (the name alone tells the story!) still has a standing kill order despite being on another realm 🙂

PVP realms are the minority, partly due to the Sheep/Wolf ratio discussed at Slashdot, and partly due to the almost guaranteed gear level difference in random PVP which means the target of the attack will most likely not be in a position to fight back. Even in gear-balanced controlled-duel environments such as RogueRogue sets up, it is very difficult for the non-fight-opener to recover for a victory.

Despite all of the balance issues and a general lack of PVP skill, most of our guild members sound almost wistful when they reflect on our days on Barthilas. It wasn’t the PVP itself, or the victory rush or red rage, it was the edge given by unpredictability – and unpredictability is something to be treasured in an MMO world which is otherwise so tightly controlled.

Starcraft Beta Marmot

I don’t play RTS. Despite trying again and again with Total War, I epic failed every time – there’s too much going on, especially for someone used to the sedate pace of Civilization. But Starcraft II is sorely tempting, mostly due to the Blizzard polish, the hype, and the beta raves. Lore has a great video review of the beta on Tankspot (of all places) if you’re tempted too.

Gear Checks

It’s interesting reading about hitting a hard limit on progress. Righteous Orbs has a lovely public service announcement for people complaining that fights are easy when they require 7k DPS average. 7k! Awesome. Our guild DPS tops out at 3.5k, so we’re a long way off. For we casuals, it’s handy to remember the fact that only the very minority of players are clearing ICC raids, but they are a vocal (blogging!) minority. We need more average mode bloggers 🙂

Even with 3.5k, we still have fun cranking through the 5 mans. We did sequential clears of normal PoS & FoS on the way to HoR the other night, the first time for a few of us. Hall of Reflection is just genius design. It was great hearing the reactions from the others who hadn’t seen it: Whoaaa, there’s Frostmourne! Epic…wait…ZOMG THE LICH KING!!!! It brings all that lore & story that we’ve been exposed to home to roost.

Unfortunately we didn’t get to actually ‘fight’ him, as we hit a healing gear limit. Our resident Shaman, having only recently specced Resto after a career as Enhancement, showed champion skills through the first two ‘wings’ but HoR stopped us . We could get to the first boss after 5 waves, but kept wiping on his Defiling Horror fear (when everyone takes damage whilst being unable to do anything about it). It was a hard mana/healing limit, so we only gave it a couple of tries before calling it a night. Though I’m pretty sure we could get through it with everyone on top of their game – it was late, and it was hard to muster the requisite focus.

I struggled mightily with my tanking too, being squashed in that tight corner in order to LoS the casters is counter to my normal Charge-Thunderstomp-Shockwave launch sequence. I kept forgetting to Bloodrage, leaving me rage starved at the beginning, or I’d leave one of the ranged mobs out in the middle of the room meaning we had to go chase it down out there. Confined fighting is not something I’ve had to do much, so practice-practice-practice is required.

So even normal modes have a gear check, and you’ll struggle to progress if you don’t have the right amount of stuff. Not necessarily purples, as Gevlon keeps proving, but at least the right blue drops.

They’re all smarter than you out there

After last week’s tank-parison, this week it’s tank-pug-hell:

And Devo are back! Fantastic Mark Mothersbaugh interview from 2008 on Phawker too, for those that want to dig deeper. Which is everyone, right?