Monday, 29 June 2015

She's Filled With Secrets : GW2

Lion's Arch continues to fascinate. There's a tour you can take but with amazing timing I joined the group just as the guide went on her break. She sent us all through the portal to Gendarran Fields and said she'd meet us on the other side. Then she stalked off in the opposite direction.

We all waited by the bridge for a few minutes. Then I took matters into my own hands. I decided to make up a tour of my own. Well, not entirely my own. While I was exploring I also filled out the formal Map Completion requirements. Map completion was always exploring by numbers but with the addition of the onscreen pointers now it's more like one of those "nature trails" beloved of infant school teachers the world over.

If I was any kind of efficient I'd have taken the trouble to pick up a rifle from Turl Sharptooth and potted a few Karka along the way. Mrs Bhagpuss has already bagged Princess for both of her accounts and I haven't even started. Must get on that before I drown in dragonite.

Reason I didn't bother with the rifle this time is that it'll be no trouble to go round again. Any reason to spend more time in this rich and strange city is welcome. There's so much to see and hear, so much to do, so many secrets to discover.

Oh yes, secrets. Lion's Arch is full of them. Sya has one. To be honest, it's not much of a secret, not any more. There's a twelve-page thread about it on the forums for one thing. If you happen on her, where she stands near Fort Mariner, she'll gladly tell you about it, if you ask.

Her secret. Sya used to have another name. She's changed. And more than just her name. She's not someone I know well, more an acquaintance, really. We met at the refugee camp a while back. He was Symon back then.

Wait, she tells it better than I can:

Tyria is becoming a new kind of world. Maybe having a clear and undeniable enemy helps us to focus on what's important. (The elder dragons. Remember? Big, lizardy, lots of teeth...) Makes it easier to understand what matters and what really doesn't. To make choices. Perhaps that's it.

Old Tyria was big on lines you wouldn't want to cross. Charrs and humans, that was one. Remember the big deal when Rytlock and Logan even got as far as not trying to kill each other on sight? That was progress, then. Now we have Jordyn and Leyah and their Asura Guardian, blurring all the lines.

Of course, those two always had vision. Let me remind you what Leyah told me when we bumped into each other a while back. She said "I'm teaching Jordyn how to be a soldier. She's going to be in my warband, and we're gonna be Ash legion, 'cause we're spooky".

I said I didn't think humans could be in a Legion but she already had that all worked out. She told me "They couldn't be before, but me and Jordyn are gonna change that when we're tribunes. Probably in a couple of years or so."

Grammar is not a high priority in the Fahrar curriculum
The way things are going will it even take that long? Look at Snikk and Scratch. Best friends forever, when they should be natural enemies, or at least experimenter and experiment. All over Lion's Arch you can find multi-racial groups of children at play. Human children and charr cubs seem to have a mutual attraction that rivals the bro-bonding of adult Charr and Norn. Or maybe those are Norn children. Whatever. When these kids grow up everything will change.

Already, though, Tyria in general, Lion's Arch in particular, looks to be in the vanguard of social change. Gender reassignment and sexual orientation (Hi, Jory! Hi, Kas!), racial harmony and who knows what else. It's heartening for sure. But let's not paint too bright a picture. There's a worm in the apple.

I ran into Inspector Lizzi on the beach. She'd found something. Something very bad. The twisted corpse of a sylvari on the sand. I stopped to see if I could help. What she told me brought a bitter chill to the bright day.

Blood speaks to blood as the sap runs thin. There will be an accounting.

Right now, Lion's Arch is at peace, or so it seems. Enjoy it while you can. It won't last. It never does. Remember, we all stand together or we fall.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Best Apples : GW2

This week's update to GW2 has made me think more about what I want from that game in particular and MMORPGs in general than almost anything in a long while. Which is a surprise, because, in all honesty, I wasn't expecting very much.

The whole thing was flagged up as a Big Deal of course, what with the pages and pages of patch notes and the press releases and so on, and we've been so starved of anything you might reasonably call new content for so long that you couldn't help but feel a frisson of anticipation. Even so, my personal hype meter wasn't registering off the scale anything like the way you'd think it might.

Perhaps that's why I'm so impressed. And make no bones about it, that's what I am. Impressed. And pleased. Impressed and pleased. A happy customer. After all the foot-shooting over the pre-purchase announcement ANet needed a win and they got one. With me, anyway.

Feeling blue?

The two big pillars of the patch were the root and branch revamp to traits, skills and the way the entire combat system works and the reveal of the rebuilt Lion's Arch. Either of those would be difficult enough to pull off separately. Plenty of MMOs have run off the road trying to negotiate tricky corners like changing the way people can play their characters or the look and feel of social hubs. Bundling them in together risked chaos and concern but I think they got away with it.

I have a strong antipathy to visual overhauls of familiar places but I especially dread class balancing, combat rewrites and major overhauls of opt-in points systems like traits and skills. Theorycrafting "builds" is not a part of the hobby that particularly interests me. I'm fine with doing it once, the first time, as I level my characters up, but once I have a build that works I'm more than happy to use it, unchanged, for the next decade or so. I am very firmly in the "good enough is good enough" camp when it comes to that kind of busywork.

Consequently I approach all of these Year Zero moments with a mixture of trepidation and annoyance. I would dearly love just to be able to log in and play and pretend these things weren't happening. And, miracle of miracles, this time that's exactly what I was able to do.

Thank you, Jeeves.

Oh, there was one of those warning pop-ups telling me everything had changed but instead of leaving me with the usual bucket-full of returned points and slew of empty slots it directed me to a new build with everything all filled in and ready to go.  All I had to do was give it the once-over to see if I approved my personal dresser's choices, which, for the most part, I did. I didn't even need to do that much, truth be told. I could have just closed the window and left it at that but curiosity got the better of me and I did mouseover a few things. It all looked fine so that was that.

It helps that the new trait and skill windows are a massive visual improvement on the originals. There wasn't anything particularly wrong with the last version and if you'd asked me I'd have said it was fine. It was fine. This is better, though. It's sleeker, simpler, clearer and more intuitive. The flow is much easier to follow and changing from one build to another is simple and elegant.

Apart from the slick new interface there's one great and as far as I can see entirely unheralded improvement; we now get a completely separate WvW build in the way we always had a discrete build for PvP. Unless I've misunderstood something, the traits and skills that you set when you're in any Mists map will lock and persist in all WvW maps until you change them again but when you drop back into a PvE map you'll autoswap to your pre-existing PvE build and vice versa.

Hardly shouting the news from the rooftops, are they?

I couldn't quite believe it when I noticed it, which I only did when I spotted the small text gloss as I looked at my build when I was standing around in Citadel. Surely this is the kind of major innovation everyone would be talking about? Apparently not. There it is, though, and it works. I tested it to be sure.

The thing is, had I not spotted it, it wouldn't have mattered much. ArenaNet managed to transition my old builds into the new system with sufficient accuracy that I was able to play several characters without changing anything. That's a real achievement - 10AP to whoever came up with the idea and 50AP to whoever made it work.

What's more, the new system is so user-friendly I feel confident and even inspired to play around with it to see if I can come up with something that suits me even better. My necromancer is going to need some re-writes, for sure - someone seems to have mistaken her for a Minion Master. That cannot stand.

Did they have to import all this sand?

So, that was the Great Trait Revamp out of the way, for now, at least. The aftershocks rumble on and things will take a while to settle but all's good for the time being. ANet's official position on a number of widely reported unexpected outcomes is that :

1) Conditions seem a bit strong
2) World bosses are currently too easy
3) There are some bugged skills and traits
4) There are some overpowered builds

We won’t fix it all at once but these are four large topics we are talking about.

They seem to be "talking" surprisingly fast because fixes are already coming in flurries but my main attention has been elsewhere.

I was planning to write this morning about the changes to Lion's Arch and the way they have caused me to revise and revisit my whole outlook on MMO gaming but it's too big a topic to rush and I'm still mulling it over so this is the short version, which I can sum up like this: background is more important than foreground. 

There's an argument to be had over whether MMORPGs need a "story" at all. Plenty of people feel they do. There are companies, BioWare being only the most obvious example, that have predicated their entire business model on that belief. On the other side are the people who believe just the opposite; that the only stories that matter in MMORPGs are those told by the players themselves. Again there are businesses set up to cater first and foremost to that audience .

Who Is Data Dog? You may well ask.

I'm not happy with either extreme. I feel story both has its place and should know its place. It's not the be-all and end-all but neither is it entirely dispensable. What I consider to be more important than either is milieu. 

My deep and abiding affection for Norrath, Telon and now Tyria doesn't derive from the great adventures I've had there or the friends I've made, immensely important though those are. It derives from the sense that I've lived there. For a place to feel that real other people have to live there too. Players provide a lot of that life but the bedrock of belief comes from the real residents, the NPCs.

There would be, wouldn't there? How did we ever manage before reddit?

Right from when I first began playing Everquest I noticed that the world I'd stepped into was alive. Yes, some shopkeepers and guards might be at their posts twenty-four hours a day but a myriad of other characters were out and about, getting on with what appeared to be lives of their own. 

I spent hours in Freeport and Qeynos following NPCs about, trying to work out what they were up to and usually coming away little the wiser. There seemed to be half a dozen or more NPCs who had business between Qeynos Hills and West Karana. I'd see them jog to the zone line and disappear. They're still at it now, most of them. I saw it on Ragefire only the other day and it still puzzles me. What are they up to and how can I find out?

So am I! I was worried about you guys!

When GW2 began one of the most striking and laudable elements of its rich mix was the wealth and depth of quotidian narrative. For a while it was one of the big talking points: not how we could beat the Elder Dragons but how much fun we were having throwing snowballs and picking apples. 

It wasn't so much the vaunted Dynamic Events, whose promised gleam so quickly tarnished, although they certainly added some new texture we hadn't seen before. It was much more the sheer detail of the everyday lives that carried on around them that drew us in and made us feel part of the world. You could have spent many hours in Metrica Province just trying to unravel the Asuran intrigues going on there, without ever lifting a sword or completing an event. I did. I do. You still can. You should.


After a while, and really quite a short while at that, the perspective shifted to Orr and What Was Wrong With It and Was Zhaitan Really Dead and all that big picture stuff. All the little things faded into the background. When the first iteration of the Living Story arrived and we were asked to find lost toys in the snow and light fires to keep refugees from freezing there was something of a backlash

From then on Story had to come capitalized, in cut scenes and instances and Mysterious Letters, in sweeping sagas of adventure or family strife or social commentary, with Achievements and Rewards and Titles attached. And yet somehow a space was always found around the edge, out of the spotlight, for a score of smaller stories told in lower case. Every episode of the Living Story scattered a few seeds and there were some who cared more about what might spring up where they landed than they did about the latest installment of the Dragon of the Month club.

They better not have brought their bad luck with them.

It's been a long dry spell. I'd forgotten just how much those small stories meant. Since the patch landed I've spent almost all my gaming hours in the magnificent new Lion's Arch, exploring, watching and listening. From the Consortium's new HQ (just who is their mysterious, never-seen leader?) to the Dodgy House (as it's known Chez Bhagpuss) that only opens its doors at night to the spitting gourds that remind us all of lions lost there's a wonder around every corner.

Snikk and Scratch captured my attention first. I tried to follow them but they use the waypoints. And why not? Who's to stop them? With so many adults killed in the battles with Scarlet and her armies Lion's Arch is awash with unruly children. They go where they please. The lucky ones, like Jordyn and Leyah, have found a measure of safety and security but the rest, who can say? I fear some Fagin is already at work and, Lyssa knows, the Lionguard aren't going to do anything to stop him.

Trust me, Edward's slacking is the least of our worries.

As I said, I'm still pondering all this. It's complex and fascinating and it will take a while to process but the return of Lion's Arch has reminded me of what was missing in my gaming world. It had slipped away almost unnoticed under a mass of dailies and achievements and loot runs. It's the wonder or being somewhere rich and strange, surrounded by mysteries you may never unravel; not the epic legends of dragons and gods but the small mysteries of everyday.

I'd like a whole expansion's worth of this stuff please.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

L.A. Noir : GW2

Yes, the new Lion's Arch is very pretty and all. But there's something ugly lurking just below that shiny, new surface.

We sent Agent Princess Doll to investigate.

After all, who could doubt such innocence?

 Such a sweet face?

That delightful giggle?

And anyway, who ever pays attention to minis?

 She was wearing a wire of course.

Professional, as always.

She kept her cool as the deal went down.

Sang quietly to herself.

 Dropped a curtsey once in a while.

Just to make things look good.

And then The Boss had to come in, didn't he?

Stomping all over Princess's fine work with his great, clawed size 19s.

How he imagined he wouldn't be recognized... well, let's just say he's not the sharpest card in the Pact.

Hard to imagine how Princess puts up with him really.

Let's just hope he keeps his fat, furry face out of the investigation next time, when we go after the big boys.

Ah, who am I kidding? He's never gonna learn.

Monday, 22 June 2015

You Got The Look: Villagers and Heroes

Villagers and Heroes is turning out to be one of those off-the-beaten-track MMOs that just clicks with me. In that respect it follows in a great tradition that goes all the way back to The Realm, which I used to play for some light relief between sessions back in Everquest's  Ruins of Kunark era.

Thinking back on other amuse-bouche MMOs that I ended up developing a taste for, there was Ferentus, one of the earlier Eastern imports, which never got out of beta, Endless Ages, Crowns of Power, NeoSteam, Argo and probably quite a few more I've forgotten. The king of them all was the very much-missed Rubies of Eventide, which closed down when one of the owners took umbrage with some of the players, powered down the server and locked the source code in a cupboard. Literally.

After they die many MMOs seem to slip into a ghostly half-life. Of the games listed above, Endless Ages had a couple of attempts at revival and still has people tinkering with the code trying to get something working, NeoSteam has now closed in all territories but appears to have an established "Private Server" scene and Argo was supposed to be returning under new management but now seems to have gone for good. Crowns of Power still has a website where you can download the game and even a "Server Status" page that suggests it's running but the forums tell another story.

I'm on a cart. I SAID I'M ON A CART!

The Realm, of course, just keeps on trucking. Next year will see the 20th anniversary of this venerable genre institution. That's twenty years as a subscription mmo, by the way; a 2D subscription MMO. Who said the sub model was dead?

Villagers and Heroes itself is, as I mentioned in the previous post, on its third iteration although it has continued to operate continuously through the various makeovers. This version really seems to have nailed it for me. It always seemed like a game I ought to enjoy more than I did and now I do.

Yesterday, while I was playing GW2 rather desultorily, as many people seem to be right now, what with the giant iceberg of Tuesday's update looming on the horizon, I found myself thinking, not about the new builds I'd have to be choosing, nor even about jumping ship to play my Necro on Ragefire or do my weeklies in EQ2. No, I was thinking about the plot in V&H and wondering what might happen next. And also about how nice it would be to do a bit of crafting and gathering in those bright, cartoon fields and orchards of that mystical land.

It's not always bright and colorful. Sometimes the world goes all watercolor pastel.

In the end I spent about five hours in V&H yesterday, following the plot, training up my Woodcrafting and my Bug Hunting, backtracking to complete and hand in some of the plethora of quests I seem to have acquired (and inevitably acquiring more in the process). It was a relaxing, involving and thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a Sunday.

I only stopped because I ran into an annoying bug where each NPC I approached would only reply to me with the dialog of the last person I spoke to. I'm hoping that will have fixed itself by  the next time I log in. If not I guess I'll find out how efficient the petition system is.

At low levels there seems to be an enormous amount to do and the pace of leveling is just about exactly as I like it. My new Wizard dinged level 8 last night. It took about eight hours to get there from character creation. Of course, she's also level 10 or more in almost all of the crafting and gathering disciplines, of which there are quite a few. I think she only has Cooking and Fishing left before she completes the introductory "get all these to ten and come back and see me quest" someone gave her right at the beginning.

I believethe level cap is 65 so there would seem to be a lot of mileage just in leveling up. What the end game is I have no idea and nor do I care very much. I'll think about that if I get there, which I don't imagine for a moment I will. A look at the map suggests a large and inviting world to explore, though, and if it's all as interesting and accessible as it has been so far, who knows?

Why do some MMOs feel inviting and fun to play while others can be such a struggle or feel so bland? There must be a whole raft of reasons but the look and feel is crucial. If that isn't right then whatever glories lie hidden beneath the surface are likely to stay there.

I knew an Eamon at university. He was studying architecture and talking to him taught me a lot about the relationship between form and function. If that's him he's really let himself go.

Appearances may be shallow but they have a big effect on whether I want to start playing something - if it looks delicious in screenshots it makes me want to dive in. Aesthetics aren't enough to hold the attention long-term though unless they come with  great sense of design to back them up.

Form follows function as the modernists used to say and the new UI is exemplary in that regard. Everything looks both crisp and modular and explains itself immediately by use. There's no fiddling about wondering what to press or where to click. It looks great and it works first time. Given that we spend so much of our "play" time operating the interface, to have doing so feel like a sensual pleasure in itself goes a long way towards encouraging a preference for one game over another.

Concretizing the sense of discovery.

Villagers and Heroes may not look spectacular but it's crisp and clear and charmingly stylized. When Mrs Bhagpuss peered over my shoulder and saw it for the first time she said "You're in a cartoon" and yes, it does have that look of a quality animation from the mid-late 80s about it. The typography reminds me of Wizard 101, another game whose style strongly enhanced and supported its gameplay. I really like that pseudo-brushstroke font.

The game also has solid sound direction and a really striking musical score. Unlike, say, Syp, I'm not a huge fan of video music in its own right. There are plenty of pieces and melodies that have a strong emotional effect on me but it's usually because of the memories they invoke rather than any intrinsic musicality of their own.

The music in fantasy MMOs tends to be of a type; sweeping synthesized orchestral pomp, blaring, brassy martial bombast, would-be wistful pastoral warbling and the like. Villagers and Heroes, at least in the few starting zones I've seen, is a little more sonically adventurous. It has, for example, some off-kilter, edgy, piano improvisations that nag uncomfortably in the background. Unsettling, particularly in a starting zone.

I stumble upon The Vinton Village Festival. Prancing Pony eat your heart out.

At one point I even stopped playing to listen, which is a very odd thing to find yourself doing. I'm not sure whether it's a good decision commercially but I certainly prefer it to the usual fantasy elevator music. I guess that jazz feel is all of a piece with the general maturity and sophistication of the aesthetic.

For a game that has a cartoonish look that would appear on the surface to be aimed at a younger audience Villagers and Heroes has an oddly adult feel. The main storyline is mostly the usual fantasy nonsense but there's a strong undertone of sexual jealousy and infidelity running through it. I seem to remember that the original launch of the game as A Mystical Land made reference to fairy tales and there's definitely some of that Germanic fairy tale darkness around the edges.

Let my light banish your darkness!

What with a very busy week at work and the fallout from tomorrow's giant patch bomb Villagers and Heroes probably won't get much play for a while now but it's done enough already to establish a firm position in the hierarchy of "MMOs I Might Play Quite Often", something the previous two versions never really achieved.

I was even looking at the cash shop, which looks very reasonably priced, especially to someone coming from ANet's outrageously expensive Gem Store, and there's a better than even chance I'll spend some money there if I carry on playing. I fancy a house and some sheep and the bags are really cheap. As Maldwiz pointed out to Tobold, we all have the same 24 hours in our days so what we do with them is our choice but the choice is far too hard.

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