Sunday, December 17, 2017

Free Kittens! : EQ2

We're getting towards that time of year when awards get handed out and everyone talks about what they liked or didn't like over the last twelve months. I'm not going to do that.

Frankly, its a lot of work and I don't have the time or the energy. If Awards season rolled around at the end of the financial year, then maybe we could talk. I'll be sitting around doing not very much at all by then - with any luck.

What I am going to say is this: as of the end of 2017, my favorite MMORPG is EverQuest 2. What's more, I think that as things stand right now EQ2 is my favorite MMORPG of all time.

Talk about character...
My top three MMORPGs haven't changed in forever. Well, technically not since 2007, when Vanguard: Saga of Heroes launched.

The three games in question are, of course, EverQuest, EverQuest 2 and Vanguard. A very strong argument could be made that my favorite MMORPG is, in fact, just the one game. I like what I like, there's no getting around it.

Over the years the order of the top three has changed a few times. EQ has the prior claim, the history and the gravitas. Vanguard has the grandeur and the bittersweet feels. EQ2, though...EQ2 has everything.

It's not just the sweeping scale. Most MMOs that survive have that. They have to. It's grow or die.

Neither is it just the depth, the variety, the breadth: the sheer, insurmountable volume of content that's beyond overwhelming by now. There's so much to do the only way a new player can hope to cope is to take the free boost to 100 and pretend the tip of the iceberg they see at end-game is the entire world.

No, what clinches it for me is the character that shines from every surface. The graphics may be aging, the visual aesthetic may be uncertain but this is a place that's a true place from end to end.
Proud to be a two-gnomophone household.

And, what's more important, it's a friendly, welcoming place. No matter how dire the situation, how pressing the need, how near the end times, NPCs tend to speak in full, measured sentences, to address you by your given name and note your concerns.

Freeport may be a den of thieves ruled by a tyrant, Neriak a dark, forbidding underworld, but everyone somehow finds time to chat and life goes brightly on, hourly executions notwithstanding. Everywhere you travel you'll likely be working with boffins or brainiacs lost in the labyrinthine complexities of their genius, or with ancient masters who somehow find time to discuss the mysteries of the universe with you as an equal. There's none of that nonsense about making you the center of the story - you just are and it feels completely natural because the entire game has worked forever to make that make sense.

Aurora Frostfellearis.

Norrath is a world surprisingly filled with whimsy, particularly given the privations of the Cataclysm and the Shattering, not to mention the ever-present threat of imminent destruction from Dragons and Demi-Gods. There's a festival around every corner and a holiday bound to be coming along right after.

I know I'm not alone in finding Frostfell the most engaging of the MMO winter festivals but really it's just the frosting on EQ2's festival cake. And this year we get kittens! Kittens wearing hats!

Norrath is packed right now. The expansion is popular and so is Frostfell. People who play are playing and people who haven't played for a while are dropping by to see what they might be missing.

Stop looking at me!

After my Warlock picked up his kitten I tried to get a screenshot. I kept getting photobombed by passing players but when I found some white space it occurred to me that I'm never really alone in Norrath, not even when I'm the only player in the zone.

There's the Warlock, standing in a ring. Going clockwise there's his old, class-based familiar (some kind of tiny drake), good old Stamper Jeralf (the original ratonga healer Mercenary), a Wicked Gumdrop (vanity pet courtesy of Santa Glug) and the new Frostfell Merry Kitten (new-style Familiar, with stat boosts).

Being a ratonga and therefore something of a techie, the Warlock likes to ride a hover disc. Otherwise you could add some kind of riding animal to the party. And naturally if I'd chosen to take the screenshot with my Necro or my Beastlord there'd have been a combat pet or two somewhere in the mix.

I liked to sleep al fresco on these balmy desert nights. Plenty of rook for a kitten or two on the cushions.
When a solo player swings past in EQ2 it often looks like a full party going by - or maybe a small raid getting started. I love that. 

I also love that my Berserker's Maj'Dul mansion, once so huge I wondered how I'd ever furnish it, is now so full of keepsakes, curios and house-pets it looks like a cross between the British Museum storerooms and the Dearly household at the end of 101 Dalmatians.

Meandering through the latest, excellent expansion my Berserker is closing in on the new level cap of 110. With just half a level to go he's finished up the first four Planes on offer - Magic, Innovation, Disease and Storms. Just Sol Ro's Tower left to do although judging from the walkthrough that could take a while.

Everything in this expansion is huge. I guess this guy at least has the excuse of being an actual giant.
I haven't needed to touch two of the three factions for experience. I'm leaving those to give a little variety for whoever makes the run to 110 next. I did do the separate, standalone sequence of music-based quests though. That was...odd. And fun. And incomprehensible. And occasionally emotionally affecting.

I haven't touched the crafting levels yet. Plenty of crafters have ground their way to cap on writs but I'm content to wait for the New Year and the promised tradeskill questline. I'm quite glad it wasn't ready for inclusion in the expansion itself - I wouldn't have had time to do both that and the adventure line before Christmas anyway.

Crafting is another jewel in EQ2's crown, of course. By now it surely must be the most complete, full-featured tradeskill offer in MMOs. Is there anything even close? But then, in EQ2, even gathering gets its own series of multi-part questlines.

Proper sad, this bit was...

I can't think of any MMO that so richly rewards just wandering about picking things up off the floor. Yes, they all do it to some degree, or many of them, but not with such vigor and vim. Shiny hunting alone could keep a player occupied for months.

The older EQ2 becomes, the richer the experience gets, which is definitely not something I'd say about GW2, which was bizarrely - and entirely inappropriately in my opinion - voted Most Improved MMO by Massively OP this week. Improved, sure -  if by "improved" you mean "moved ever-closer to becoming exactly the kind of game it set out to replace", I guess.

Wilhelm was looking back at the list of upcoming MMOs of interest he made at the beginning of the year, observing how far we still are from being able to play any of them for real. I have decided I don't care any more. I'm not in the market for novelty right now.

A title might have been nice. Bird-whistler, maybe?
What I want is more of the same. Planes of Prophecy is more of the same and it feels really good.

But then, of course, I also remember how I was feeling six years ago, when GW2 was still not quite in open beta and I was playing EQ2 every day and had been for years. I felt enervated, exhausted, ready for something new.

Right now the polarities are reversed but that could always change. In this hobby its usually when you feel the most comfortable that you need to start worrying.

Oh well. If nothing else, at least I got a kitten.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Don't You Know There's A War On? : GW2

Wintersday in GW2 arrived a week later than Frostfell but it blew in on a blizzard of change. We didn't get much in the way of new content... actually, I don't think there was any...oh, wait, there was some charity drive to send cakes to Amnoon... but we got a flurry of tweaks and tucks intended to improve the general quality of the event.

You can have any color you like so long as it's blue.
The most controversial revision seems to have been the conversion of the umpteen different kinds of snowflake, used mostly for crafting, into a single, universal Snowflake. There's some kind of metaphysical morality tale going on here, I'm sure, colliding the whole "no two are alike" thing that underpins the "special snowflake" meme into a parable of utility and sameness.

The author and his wife as snowballs.
Don't look at me. I didn't buy it.

Mostly, people aren't arguing the philosophy, though, they're complaining about the exchange rate, which leaves everyone who condensed their simple flakes into more sophisticated ones heavily out of pocket, while the lazy hoarders who just stuffed the lot into a bank vault and forgot about them are making out like bandits. Or something.

I'm pretty sure that if you were studying Economics or Philosophy or Psychology you could get a final year dissertation out of the whole thing. Personally, I'm still waiting to find out if you can convert your Snow Diamonds back to Snowflakes because I converted a load of mine and now I can't find any use for them.

We may be missing John Smith, GW2's resident economist, whose departure from the company I completely missed, but the Art Department is still operating at full stretch. With no new instances or zones to occupy them for the holidays, ArenaNet's formidable art team addressed the longstanding issue of The Wrong Kind Of Snow.

Wedding dress, recolored and repurposed.

Ever since Wintersday first appeared, the
unfortunate lack of seasonal precipitation inside Divinity's Reach, where the all-year-round climate is clear and dry, has been handled by a heath-robinson arrangement, ostensibly provided by Toymaker Tixx. A bunch of hovering tin cans spew snow over the local area. Really, it doesn't look great.

Queen Jenna must have put her foot down this year because Tixx has upgraded. The snow-blowers are gone. Instead we have continual snowfall from an unspecified source and enough blue light to give all of Tyria insomnia. It does look fantastic.

 Meanwhile, up in the Mists, someone seems to be having a bit of a joke at World vs World's expense. We always put a few decorations up, wartime or not, but this year the whole place is starting to look more like a department store window display than a war zone.

The lights around the lamposts are all very well - although, come to think of it, did we even have lamp posts there before? The piles of presents in the corners and the strings of lights across the courtyarrds are fine, I guess.

And some people have the nerve to say WvW is turning into a bit of a joke...
The catapults loaded with gifts, though? Is that supposed to be ironic? And as for the larger-than-life-size cuddly quaggan...

There's always one who thinks he's too cool to join in, isn't there?

I suppose, now we're in a world where people dress up like Christmas trees (looking at you, Bero!) and ride around on Rudolph The Red-Nosed Jackal, we'll just have to get used to everything looking more than a little silly. I'd make some outdated shark-jumping reference here but honestly I think we pole-vaulted that fish a long time ago.

Oh well, it's only once a year, isn't it? Just remember - a mini is for life, not just for Wintersday!

Winter Seems Fine : EQ2

Frostfell arrived in Norrath a week ago. I have eight or nine characters parked next to Santa Glug  waiting to collect their daily present . It's such a tradition now. Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Frostfell. Even writing a post about it is becoming a tradition in itself.

As Kaozz says, EQ2's midwinter holiday is one of the best in a very competitive field. It was also one of the first. I remember when the Frostfell Wonderland Village first appeared, way back in 2006.

The Frostfell event itself began the year before but I don't remember much about that. The following year, though, I recall vividly.

By then, Mrs Bhagpuss and I were playing full-time on the Test server so we got to see the whole thing come to life in fits and starts. I remember the immense excitement that blew up around the very idea of an entire instanced zone dedicated to a holiday event.

Test was innundated with new characters coming to see what was going on and back then there was none of the automated creation of extra instances to handle population overload. The zone was crowded and laggy and there was huge competition over the crafting nodes. It was crazy, chaotic and everything MMORPGs should be.

One of the many oddities of playing Test was the length of time holidays hung around. Because SOE, like DBG after them, have always been so diligent in adding new content for every holiday they can't just flip a switch on the day. The whole thing needs to go before the dedicated community of volunteer testers ahead of time to bash the bugs out of it. Test's "Christmas" usually started in November and ran into January.

With something like six or even eight weeks of Frostfell every year I was sometimes glad to see the back of it. Even now, with it lasting over a month on Live, I feel we're occasionally in danger of having too much of a good thing, but I'm always excited when the wardrobe appears.

Frostfell got a major makeover in 2008 and another in 2013. After a dozen years of iteration there's a mind-boggling amount of things to do and I've done them all. Most of them several times.

There's a new quest for 2017. It takes place in in Plane of Magic, meaning you need to have both a level 100 character and the new expansion, which might be the first time that's happened. I hardly think anyone without the wherewithal could complain, especially since the quest is an add-on to the wonderfully-named existing questline "A Gigglegibber's Work Is Never Done (By A Gigglegibber)", which offers the same rewards from lower level zones.

Last year I made quite a run at the Icy Keep instance (one holiday instance at a time is nowhere near enough for EQ2 - I think Frostfell has at least five, maybe more) so I was going to skip it this year. Then I found out we're getting kittens!

I already have a pet kitten of course but this one's different, not just a cute vanity pet but a full-feature Familiar, with all the stats and gameplay benefits of EQ2's latest must-have accessory. If nothing changes between Test and Live, the Frostfell Merry Kitten, when it arrives, will cost fifty Frozen Tokens Of E'Ci.

My Berserker has 96 tokens in his wallet from last year so he's covered but almost everything in Norrath is character not account-based so if anyone else wants a kitten they're going to have to do the hard miles around the good old Icy Keep themselves. I'm kinda looking forward to it.

There's a bunch of new gifts in Glug's sack and a three new craft book to scribe if you'd rather make your own. I think I'm over Frostfell crafting now although I did plenty back in the day, when it was a great way to level up a tradeskill. Now there's no more discovery experience that's just a happy memory. More happy-sad, really. I miss the old crafting...

But the good times are far from over. EQ2 is really buzzing at the moment. There were nine instances of Plane of Magic up on the Skyfire server on Sunday afternoon and three Frostfell Villages last night. Everywhere I go I see people, at the banks and brokers, at the Wizard spires, and, of course, clustered around the badly-bearded goblin that hands out the gifties.

It's great to see the old place feeling so alive. A Merry Frostfell and a Happy New Year to all!

Monday, December 11, 2017

A Hall Of Mirrors : EQ2, GW2

Pushing on into the Plane of Disease last night, it occured to me how exceptionally reflexive MMORPG gameplay has become. In 1999, as I peered at the dim shapes in the small window at the center of my 15" CRT monitor, shapes that were supposed to be bats but which looked more like kites flapping in a strong wind, I could hardly have been expected to imagine that two decades later I'd still be there, still in that same imaginary world, still killing bats.

The bats look a lot more batlike these days and I can see them much more clearly but they are, nonetheless, bats. Not precisely the same bats, it's true, but one imaginary bat looks much like another, twenty years of technological progress notwithstanding.

Rallius Rattican, protected by bats. Overprotected, I'd say.

The unchanging wildlife, the immortal parade of bears, bats, rats and boars, that's the least of it. More, it's the places and the characters, a litany of familiar names. One of the most striking features of both EQ2's Planes of Prophecy expansion and GW2's Path of Fire is the way every opportunity has been taken to remind us of the past.

There's the nostalgia card being played, of course. As the MMO genre ages, increasingly developers have come to understand just what a strong suit that is. But it's more than that. These worlds have history.

Gryme. He still holds the key.

Tyria may have seen two hundred summers and Norrath half a millennium but time works diferently there and so does death. The dead rise and walk again and the lifespan of a lich or a vampire or a god isn't measured in years but in centuries or millennia or eons.

Even without the supernatural the scant few hundred years across iterations wouldn't be enough to erode all evidence of the old regime. The rise and fall of empires leaves behind a residue of history, statues and cities that even cataclysms cannot entirely obscure. Everywhere you turn you see a face, a shape, a suggestion of the past.

Cubes. Seen one, killed them all.
There's all that and there's so much more. For weeks I've been hearing veterans of the first Guild Wars reminisce not only about the stories they were told but the legends that they made. It's an alienating experience, like hearing tales of a homeland that was never yours.

Well, now I'm getting that feeling all of my own. It's not just that I know the names, nor that I remember the landscapes. I was there. And more than that, I was there not just in one other life but many.

Puslings. Still the same annoying little snots they always were.

MMORPGs, if they last, all become palimpsests, their own iterations overwritten endlessly, but there are layers on layers. From every era memories accrue, lying one atop another.

When Planes of Power was new I spent evening after evening edging along the polluted dunes with five nervous friends, barely able to kill a fly - literally, since Malarian mosquitoes were about all we could handle. As the expansion aged and we grew in confidence we roamed more widely until we opened the doors of the Crypt of Decay. Then we died.

The original Plane of Disease, courtesy of Allakhazam.
 But we came back and eventually we tamed the zone and made it ours. Some of it. A room at a time. 

A couple of years later, on a different server, the Planes became a playground. With levels and the welcome accumulation of power that both blesses and curses MMOs, Crypt of Decay turned into "that zone that drops all the gems", the place Mrs Bhagpuss and I duoed when we needed some quick cash.

The new version, unmistakeably the same place. Only with added horse-goats..

A while later there was only me. Me and my mercenary. Me and my mercenary and my pets, a lone player and a clutch of silent, obedient allies, roaming fearlessly where once a full group cowered and quaked. I had good times alone.

I have such history here. Not just in this plane or this zone but across the world, these worlds. Worlds whose metafictional existence has become so fractionated, so crystalline that every shock splits a shard that reflects the whole.

Crypt of Decay. Now it gets tricky.

The two MMORPGs I play the most right now are each the second generation that's neither a copy nor a continuation. The new exists in tandem with the old, each refelcting the other into infinity. I can see all of those refelctions at once and behind them all the ghosts of what they were and who I was and what we may become.

It's something rich and strange. It's oddly like life.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Give The People What They Want : EQ2

So far, Planes of Prophecy has been an absolute joy and it looks set to go on that way for a good while yet. My Berserker is currently just under halfway through level 107 but he's hardly begun. According to the timeline at the invaluable he's barely a third of the way through Legacy of Power, the Signature quest that forms the backbone of the expansion.

On the way to 107 he's maxed the first of the three factions, House Yrzu. That leaves most of the main questline plus two more faction lines to complete, not to mention repeatables, dailies, weeklies, timed key quests and a standalone sequence in The Amphitheater of Song. It would appear there must be far, far more quest experience available than the journey from 100 to 110 requires.

It's emblematic of the refreshing approach the Daybreak team have decided on for this expansion. Out goes almost every kind of roadblock, drag anchor and irritation: in comes convenience, user-friendliness and ease of access.

Mob models in Plane of Prophecy are really excellent. Full of wit and character.

In keeping with EQ2's complex hierarchy of systems things aren't always as obvious or self-explanatory as they might be but that's only relative. Compared to previous eras of Norrathian history this really is the smart, sleek, accessible version. From the Teleport pads in Plane of Magic through the Ascended Trainer in Coliseum of Valor (not to mention CoV itself) to the account-wide zone unlocks, no effort has been spared to make the whole experience as straightforwardly enjoyable as possible.

It's been a quiet revolution. The last two expansions, Terrors of Thalumbra and Kunark Ascending both cleaved in the opposition direction, removing a number of conveniences while adding a whole slew of qualifying conditions. I liked both ToT and KA but a lot of people weren't as happy about it all as I was.

There were continual rumblings of  dissatisfaction that occasionally rose to a dull roar and it very much seems as though someone was listening. Of course, not everyone is content. It wouldn't be EQ2 without a thread like this on the first page of the forum. Compared to most years, though, the number of positive voices chipping in to counter the gloom is noticeably higher:

" This is the best expansion in quite some time."

50k faction - that's the real achievement!
"The devs really listened to the problems with KA and have made it much easier to get started in PoP."

"I'm loving it so far."

"I feel like overall this is a very approachable expansion (unlike KA)."

"I feel it's a more accessible expansion than the prior one by a long shot."

"I like to say, this is a classical expansion, with increase of lvl, new armor, new quests and so on. We have seen this in the past many times and for sure it is much better than KA and much more alt and casual friendly."
"I am really impressed with this Xpac"
"I love how the dev's listened to feedback for this expansion."
"It's a great expansion. Great content"

There are a lot more like that, too, although there are some naysayers as well. The difference this time is that usually naysayers are all you get!

It's not just the great improvement in accessibility; the way you can get started on the meat of the expansion hour one, day one. It's also, as one of the comments above points out, that this is "a classical expansion".
Meldrath! Mith Marr! Druzzil Ro! All the nostalgia buttons Path of Fire didn't press for me are getting hammered hard here.

It's been a while since we last got new levels. Three years, in fact, in Altar of Malice, and that was only a five level increase. In fact - and I found it hard to believe this when I looked it up - the last time EQ2 players got a fix of a full ten level increase in a single expansion was all the way back in 2010, with Sentinel's Fate.

I remember the launch of Sentinel's Fate. It was so long ago it seems like another lifetime. Since then we've made do with AAs, Prestige Points, Ascension Levels and who can remember how many other quasi-leveling systems. We've had actual levels doled out in teaspoon-sized doses - two levels here, five levels there. We've had experience stretched out so that doing one 20% bubble of a level was meant to feel like doing the full thing.

Look out below!

We've had every kind of palliative and placebo but now we have the real thing and boy, does it feel good! I purely love having ten full levels to climb. I love the way that many new levels make my characters really very much more powerful. I love the way all my spells and combat arts get an upgrade. I love the way every new piece of gear is visibly superior to the last.

The whole thing feels solid, satisfying and right. This is the MMORPG gameplay I know, want and will stay around for as long as it keeps coming. I don't care about "power creep" or trivializing older content. I want to trivialize older content. If I want to play through the old content un-trivialized I'll make a new character and do just that. Meanwhile just give me those bigger numbers!

The difficulty level of Planes of Prophecy - the solo content at least - might as well have been tailor-made for me. It's nigh-on perfect. I would call it easy and I like easy. I come here for easy. That said, it's not remotely dull or tedious.

Several of the Bosses in Plane of Innovation are too big to get in a screenshot.
They're all fantastic to watch as they try to kill you!

There have been complaints about the number of "trash mobs" in the Heroic dungeons and there are certainly plenty in the solo instances of Plane of Innovation that I've done so far, but not too many for my tastes. I wish they'd drop a bit more loot - particularly some Adept spell books to upgrade my new abilities - but they die fast and they're fun to kill.

Thing is, I like that classic MMORPG gameplay. I like killing a lot of mobs before I get to see a Named or a Boss. I like stacking quests that ask me to kill five of this and eight of that and six of the other so I can roam around, pull everything and hear a lot of little dopamine bells chiming as they all die.

Is it my imagination or has Meldrath put his Frostfell lights up?
Plane of Prophecy gives me all that in spades. I'm playing every chance I get and I wish I could play more. I want to get the Berserker to 110 and finish the Signature quest but I'm already looking forward to taking my Inquisitor and my Warlock and my Necromancer through as well.

No convenience spared.
I have two Level 100 boosts to use, which I might give to my Beastlord and Channeler. My Bruiser is leveling up the hard way. I might even buy another character slot and roll someone new; there are plenty of classes I've not played at this level yet.

Overall I have to say I feel enthused. I have an order of magnitude more desire to play EQ2 right now than GW2, which isn't to say I'm not enjoying GW2 as well - I am, but it just feels like there's so much more to do in Norrath than in Tyria this winter.

In fact, if I could persuade Mrs Bhagpuss to make a return to EQ2 I would probably take a break from GW2 for a while. Far from that happening, though, she's just begun to make inroads on the Path of Fire storyline in preparation for starting Living Story 4 so it looks as though I'll be splitting my time between the two games for now.

Enough of all that. When I stopped to write this post I'd just finished up the storyline in Plane of Innovation. PoI was a real treat. It evoked the original wonderfully and Meldrath was a hoot. I'm itching to see what they've done with Plane of Disease.

Erm...maybe "itching" wasn't the best choice of words there...

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

How To Do More With Less : EQ2

When I wasn't slogging through GW2's Living Story yesterday I was ambling amiably around The Plane of Magic, getting some levels done while working on my Yrzu faction. For some reason the Daybreak Games team chose to gate most of EQ2's latest expansion, Planes of Prophecy behind a substantial faction grind. It's an odd move. I mean, I like a faction grind as much as the next twenty-year veteran but I wouldn't choose to start an expansion with one.

You might imagine this would be both an unpopular and a controversial decision, especially given the mixed reception given to last year's Kunark Ascending, which came with any number of pre-requisites and requirements - obscure languages, long-forgotten quest chains, several faction minimums. Apparently, it's not.

Far from it, in fact. If anything, the vibe around PoP has been noticeably less frosty than the usual stone-faced stare all new content engenders from EQ2's famously hostile home crowd. I'd go as far as to say that General Chat has been positively perky, with most of the tantrums reserved for family spats between long-timers over issues that have nothing to do with the expansion's quality or lack thereof. Certainly no-one seems to be complaining about the faction grind. From what I could glean, people seemed to be relishing it.

Among those giving PoP the benefit of the doubt is Kaozz at ECTMMO. She was less than impressed by Kunark Ascending but she's been covering her progress this time around with a good deal more enthusiasm than she did last year. I was taken aback at first by the speed at which she leveled to 105 because my own progress, while entirely enjoyable, was glacial by comparison.

Over the years SOE and DBG have experimented with any number of ways to stop players burning through new content, few of which have been well-received. This time they seem to have come up with something that hasn't driven the usual sales of tar and feathers through the roof.

What they've come up with is rather simple. They've made each new level from 100 to 110 cost many millions of experience points, while leaving the xp per kill just about where it was. Then they've added absolutely huge XP rewards to the main storyline and faction quests, most of which are very straightforward.

With full vitality and the pre-order bonus running, completing a single quest can award close to a third of a level in experience. Even the repeatable faction quests chime in with a large chunk. This approach would be all well and good if it wasn't for the exceptionally slow TTK (time to kill) which quite a few people have been bemoaning.

Quite a few but not everyone. General chat offered a number of discussions on this during the week and it was clear that not everyone was suffering the same slowdown. A common mistake turned out to be that some people hadn't taken advantage of the free armor, weapons and jewellery that lie around in a box at the zone-in just waiting to be picked up.

The lack of that major upgrade to efficiency explained many people's issues but not mine - I was wearing it all and had been from the beginning. Even so, after a couple of sessions, where it took me literally half an hour to kill the necessary eight mobs to finish each single, repeatable faction quest, while I could see other players ripping through the same mobs in seconds, I decided I must be making some other basic error. I was.

A few years back SOE realized that Berserkers were getting all the benefits of being both a DPS class and a Tank with none of the drawbacks of either, at which point they withdrew a number of the perks from the Offensive stance. Since that unhappy day my Berserker has soloed exclusively as a Tank, since even before that, although I may never have grouped with him, I always thought of him as a Tank and geared and specced him accordingly.

It's never been much of an issue. He's been able to kill quickly and take a beating all at the same time. Well, not in PoP, it seems. In Defensive stance he's so safe that fighting mobs five levels above him doesn't put a visible dent in his hit point bar but he doesn't do a lot more damage than that in return. When I swapped him into Offensive stance all that changed.

Boy, how it changed! Suddenly every attack was knocking chunks off the mobs and when I cast my big Ascended nuke for the first time after the refit I couldn't believe what I was seeing. A single cast reduced the target's health by the best part of 75%! No wonder people say the Ascension class system has turned everyone into Wizards.

Once I took my self-imposed brakes off everything sped up by an order of magnitude. Literally. I'd been timing my TTK and it went from three minutes to thirty seconds on the same mobs. With a few more refinements I improved on that some more. Now I'm back to the usual situation, where the limiting factor on progress is how fast I can get from the quest-giver to the target and back.

That can take a while. Plane of Magic is big. Or it seems big. I'm not sure it's actually any bigger than the open world maps from the last two expansions but it somehow manages to give the impression of vastness by being surrounded by the void. Actually, make that The Void. I think it used to be a zone in it's own right.

Compared to the Path of Fire maps in GW2, Plane of Magic is an absolute pleasure to explore. Mob density is nigh-on perfect: always enough to complete a quest, never so many they get in the way. What's even better is that most aren't aggressive, the ones that are have very small aggro ranges and nothing I've encountered so far snares  me, roots me, stuns me or knocks me down.

You wouldn't believe what a difference that makes. Or perhaps, if you've struggled to explore PoF, you would. DBG may not have either the engine or the artists to compete with ANet but with maybe a tenth as many developers (and that's being optimistic) they manage to make gorgeous environments that positively encourage exploration - and reward it richly, too.

Then there's the storyline. It's just as much cod-fantasy nonsense as GW2's but it's coherent, comprehensible, well-structured nonsense. It's the same plot as every other EQ2 expansion - some mysterious force/god/demon is messing with the natural order/rules of magic/structure of the universe and only you, the player, can help some very important NPCs Put a Stop To It. The difference is in the language.

EQ2 has an odd house style - there's a stiff formality to it that I love. Of late it's not as relentlessly polished as it once was - infelicities and colloquialisms do slip in form time to time - but it still rolls around the reader's palate like a rich Rioja.

I thoroughly enjoy reading EQ2's quest text. Every word. I also find the NPCs and their odd quirks and personality disorders endearing and amusing. As I quested through the storyline of the first of the three factions I'll need to complete I found myself not dreading the grind but looking forward to it. If I'm going to play a quest-based MMO then these are the kinds of quests and quest-givers I want.

After around four hours on Sunday I'd gone from level 101 to 105 but that only tells part of the story. In that time I also went back to Obulos Frontier in Kunark several times to visit Najena, my Elementalist Ascension Trainer and Miragul, who  looks after my Ethereal Ascension needs. Nothing like being trained by two of the greatest mages of all time.

I also spent a good while sorting my banks - not just for the fun of it this time but because I noticed that crafting mats now stack to 800, a fourfold increase. The entire session was an unalloyed pleasure. So far I've scarcely touched the content of the expansion - I'm not even out of the first zone - but I've enjoyed every moment.

As well as questing I flew all over the place, gawping. I took a lot of screenshots and I found a lot of shinies. I never once felt as though I was "playing a game"; I was in the world, immersed.

After all these years I still can't find an MMO to compete with EQ2 when it comes to settling down in a virtual world- at least not since Vanguard went dark. GW2 looked good for a while but now it just looks like a moderately fun game. Where else, after all, can you step out of your front door and walk into a party fighting a dragon on your doorstep?

I'm sure Planes of Prophecy won't be a perfect expansion. I doubt it will even match the extremely high standard set by SOE's swansong, Altar of Malice, which was twice the size - albeit the work of a much larger team.

But for an MMO in the autumn of its life, tended by a skeleton crew working for a company with an uncertain future? Given that background, Planes of Prophecy is a small miracle and I'm going to enjoy the heck out of it while I still can.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The GW2 Living Story 4 Review or "Just Die, Already!"

Working in a bookshop as I do, this is an awkward time of year for gaming. Longer hours, disrupted work patterns, not to mention my own preparations for Christmas all make it hard enough to find time to game without gaming companies deciding to release major updates on the same day.

Last week was frustrating. I came home late in the evening, tired, wanting to play but lacking either the hours or the energy to throw myself wholeheartedly into either EQ2's latest expansion Planes of Prophecy or Daybreak, GW2's fourth installment of the Living World storyline.

My frustration was evident in the short post I slapped up on Friday. It wasn't until Sunday that I finally found time to settle down and really dig in to the new content in both games. I was determined to make the most of the opportunity and in the end I managed to play for around eight hours, split roughly evenly between the two.

I thought of combining my impressions of the two very different sessions into a single post but there's more than enough to say about each of them separately. This is the GW2 post and I preface it with the above to set my reactions in some context. There will be spoilers so beware.

Met office amber warning for crystallization.

I was at home and playing when the GW2 update arrived, around tea-time on Tuesday. The EQ2 servers, down in preparation for the expansion, weren't due to come up again for three hours, so I was ready and able to give the fourth installment of The Living Story my full attention.

It began well, with a most impressive "Brandstorm" over the desert city of Amnoon. There was a very brief moment of calm at a farmstead and then all hell broke loose - lightning, screen shake, a road filled with terrified refugees - then action, action, action.

Once the fighting started it pretty much never stopped. ANet's new method with solo instances seems to be to throw every thing at the screen at once and keep on throwing until the player stumbles out the far side and collapses. The forum feedback thread is unusually positive about the chapter as a whole but the main negative criticism focuses on the extended boss battles and the long, tedious fights.

Canach? Rytlock? Where did you guys go?

My Friday post may have inadvertently given the impression that I found the first instance boss - a wyvern - difficult. Not so. Having now finished the whole of the Daybreak story I can confirm that nothing in it is "difficult", not even the final boss fight, which has drawn a lot of flak.

"Difficulty" would suggest a chance of failure. There is no chance that anyone, whatever their skill or gear level, will fail to complete any of these fights. Not, that is, unless they get so bored they quit before the end, which is an entirely possible outcome. Otherwise, providing you have the patience, if all else fails it's possible to death-rush any fight, re-spawning and running back as many times as required.

I was very, very far from needing to do anything of the kind. Playing as a druid, I didn't die once during the entire thing. Other than a single time in the wyvern fight, when I was standing around trying to figure out the mechanics,  I don't think I was even downed. In the final "epic" boss fight my health never went below about 80%.

Scruffy's just warming up. Wait til you see him at full stretch.

That fight, however, took around forty minutes and the instance of which it formed the climax, almost all of which was non-stop fighting, took about an hour and a half. The reason it took so long, other than my druid's low DPS, is that the whole thing is composed of set-piece fights that are either multiple waves of twenty to fifty trash mobs, always including a large number of high hit-point Veterans, or mini-boss Champions with repetitive phases and a shed-load of HP.

Fights that would be fun at maybe two or three minutes and bearable at five are stretched out to ten or fifteen. Even between the set pieces every step of the way involves clearing more trash. It is dull. It's also consistent with the relentless, unavoidable, tedious combat that characterizes Path of Fire in general, so there's that.

As a design ethos, giving every set-piece fight one or two specific mechanics, which then repeat two or three times at set intervals, stinks. Anet have been doing it for a long, long time and it's become utterly predictable.

As soon as we moved from the huge open world events of LS1 to instances that could be packaged and sold to latecomers through the Gem Store it became apparent that the problem would be length. Without these artificially extended borefests the average LS episode would probably last 90 minutes, tops. Padding was needed and padding is what we got.

Geez, that must have been some party.
This time, the whole story took me around five hours in total. Not counting the new map, which I still haven't fully explored. I enjoyed some of it. I would have enjoyed all of it if it had taken half as long. Even then, I wouldn't have believed any of it.

Combat aside, the story is just nonsense. There were a number of "Wait, what?!" moments, when I genuinely had no idea what was happening. The plot was so incoherent it seemed as though there might literally be scenes missing.

The sequence where the player-character, manacled, is knocked unconscious with a single blow is one of those "really?" moments. I suppose in a world where The Commander (that's you) can literally tell an NPC, from personal experience, that death is overrated, there can't be any genuine threat any more. Even so, this was pushing it.

Nothing makes much sense any more, though. If there's an explanation of how Taimi came to be captured, either before or after the fact, then I missed it  - and I talked to everyone.

Don't mind the traumatized teen on the floor there.
So, how have you been?

As for the part where Braham and Rox literally appear out of thin air, talking about an Awakened invasion of core Tyria, I felt I'd missed not just a plot point but an entire Living Story episode. Has this actually been happening? If so, why did no-one tell me? I wish they had. It must have been like one of the old, good, LS episodes.

The voice acting is a little hit or miss in GW2 but usually the main characters are solid. This time Taimi sounded so weirdly unlike herself that I seriously expected a denouement where, when we finally prized her out of her battle-cruiser-grade tin can, we'd find it wasn't her at all.

As far as I can tell that didn't happen, although given the bizarre coda, where everyone stands around chatting instead of rushing the traumatized child to intensive care, she may as well have been a disposable mesmer clone or a clever simulacrum. If she doesn't end up with PTSD then Asuran recuperative powers must be off the scale.

As for the rest, Rytlock and Canach managed one or two half-decent lines but in general the dialog throughout is uninspired. Too many weak one-liners and while I'm used to my own character sounding like an ineffectual afterthought, the addition of an irascible, sarcastic edge isn't helping.

The rewards for plowing through it all? I don't think there were any. Not material rewards, at least. With gear upgrades off the table and all the cosmetics attached to the new map the story instances seem curiously purposeless these days. If it wasn't that a certain degree of progress through the story was required to open the new maps I think I'd start skipping them - let someone else do the hard graft and catch up later on YouTube.

In the end I wouldn't say the story and related instances were terrible. It's just that none of it is very good. It seems ridiculous to say it would have been better if it was shorter, because even as it stands it amounts to just a couple of play sessions to tide us over for a couple of months. It would have been better if it was shorter, even so.

Thanks for your input, Rytlock.
Of course, the story is just a small part of the update. There was also a new Fractal and a new Raid, both big deals to their respective audiences. And a new map which includes a large, popular and much-needed meta-event for the PoF region.

What's more, my downbeat reaction is very much out of kilter with the wider response. The official feedback thread suggests this is the best-received LS chapter for a long while. It's an indicator that the game is, once again, moving in a direction that doesn't appeal to me as it chases a demographic of which I'm an outlier, at best.

I don't much like Path of Fire. I liked Heart of Thorns a lot. I guess I've had my fun. Now it's someone else's turn.

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