Thursday, December 1, 2011

Star Wars: The Old Republic II

This is another entry about Star Wars: The Old Republic, an up coming MMORPG set in the Star Wars Universe. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you can get a summary here. That is also where the first half of this review can be found. Once again, if you aren't a geek or a gamer this post will be entirely meaningless to you. Feel free to skip it.

With the launch of SWTOR fast approaching, I just have a few more things to address. One pertaining to the game itself, the others pertaining to the website and features contained therein. After the first two paragraphs, this is going to seem like one big long complaint, but it's more like me trying desperately to comprehend the thought process behind what's going on because it makes no logical sense.

First of all, this week the launch build went live for beta testers. This means, for the most part, this is what the game will be like on launch day. While several proposed ideas seem to yet be missing (the ability to match all of your armor to your chest piece for example), one thing you will notice immediately is that many of the framerate issues have been fixed. Developers finally acknowledged the severity of the game's memory leak (mentioned in my past review) and have been working to get it patched up before December 20th.

This means that those of you with lower end computers may not have to shell out as much for upgrades as beta originally lead you to believe. Like I said before, the game is not graphically intensive at all. Aside from the impressive scenematics you should be able to run everything on medium or high just fine so long as you meet the listed minimum requirements. That said, if your computer is older than three years it's about time for an upgrade anyway.

Another thing I wanted to talk about briefly is the website's pre-launch guild management. I hadn't bothered listing my guild until just this afternoon because the system is remarkably flawed. At a glance, it's a superb idea: let players who have preordered reserve their guildname and login day one already in their guild. Friends can easily find your guild in the registry and apply for membership so that you all wind up in the same place come launch day. That sounds amazing, how convenient and considerate! But there's a catch, a rather drastic one at that... you have absolutely zero control over where your guild is placed.

What's basically going to happen is that, come launch day, your guild will be ported onto a random server loosely associated with the interests your guild selected at the time of its registration. Not so bad if you selected that you want to be on a PVP or PVE server, as you'll undoubtedly be shuffled off to one of those. Pretty bad if you want to play on an RP server because there is no option to specify whether you want to play on an RP-PVP server or an RP-PVE server. So, chances are high that your entire guild could get dumped on the wrong server type.

This is also a nightmare if you have friends in guilds other than your own that you'd like to be on the same server as. If it doesn't manage to port you to the same server, you'll have to reroll anyway and hope your guild name isn't taken on the server you actually want to be on. Basically it nulls the entire point of having a preregistration feature.

While there is an ally/adversary feature which lets you select other guilds you'd like to play with/against and attempt to put you on the same server, even that isn't guaranteed and  you can only have three total. Not even three of each. Allies have to be the same faction as you are and adversaries have to be the opposite faction that you are. If you're like me, with several dozen friends in several dozen guilds, this only further makes preregistration almost entirely useless for anything other than the possible recruitment of strangers.

The only redeeming benefit to this feature was that it bestowed upon you your own guild site and forums. Which to most people is a great boon as otherwise they have no ability to get these sorts of things up and running themselves. Even this however is pointless. Two weeks post-launch this feature is going away. Which means that essentially whatever guild community you've been fostering on your nifty provided site is going to be gone too. You may as well have hosted your own to begin with.

Long story short: you're where you would've been had this feature never existed at all come launch. I can't complain too much, as I'm sure on paper this idea worked well, but in practice it just doesn't work at all and seems to lack any foresight whatsoever. Let's be frank, foresight is a pretty important skill in maintaining a functioning community, especially when that community is composed entirely of gamers.

Finally let's talk about account security. As I'm sure many of you have noticed over the last few months, Bioware seems freakishly obsessed with your account's security, to the point where they're ironically compromising it. Every week or so they send out a mass email telling us that our passwords have been voided and to visit their site to create a new one. Thing is, the more you have to input your account name and password, the more likely you are to have your account information compromised. Because let's face it, not many of you are creating entirely new passwords every time they prompt you to do so -- and I can't blame you. By the time the game has launched you'll have no idea what the frak your password is anymore.

Offer account authenticators, make us answer security questions upon login, submit us to email verification when we attempt to login from a foreign computer, but don't make us enter our account name and password every time we try to navigate to a new part of the website. If the keylogger you downloaded from that HOT SCHOOL GIRL WOMAN SEXY LADY link didn't snatch your info before, it will definitely have now.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Could benefit from AA.
With the NDA recently lifted, this is a blog about Star Wars: The Old Republic, commonly referred to as SWTOR. An up coming MMORPG set to release in December by Bioware, EA, and Lucas Arts. So if you don't know what I'm talking about, aren't a gamer, or aren't a geek... you can go ahead and skip to the next blog and save yourself a lot of time and confusion.

Lets start with character customization. This is a good foundation of any game review and all games. On a scale of one to ten, one being severely lacking (example: World of Warcraft) and ten being super fantastic (example: All Points Bulletin), I'd give this game a hopeful three. Hopeful in that it will improve before you get your hands on it. Both graphically and when it comes down to options.

At current your options are quite limited. There are nine races total all of which are basically human. Such as human with spikes (Zabrak), human who is blue (Chiss), human without eyes (Miraluka), human with cybernetic implants (Cyborg), human who is pale (Rattataki), human who is green (Mirialan), and human who is spiky but their spikes are covered in flesh (Sith). The most nonhuman you can achieve is tentacle-head human (Twi'lek). And not all races are created equal. Some have way more options than others, even if unnecessary or uncharacteristic. You can pick through fourty-seven shades of beige for a human, but only seven colors (way less if you remove choices which are the same color but a little duller) for Twi'lek -- a race renown for coming in every pigment in the universe. Um, what? That can't be right.

Not that you won't see other more alien-looking races as you're playing. You will. There are a number of Trandoshan, Rodians, Ithorians, and other such iconic Star Wars species peppering the world. You just cannot play them as a race. Why? I don't know. I would have loved to play an Ithorian, but oh well.

Once you've chosen your race you can change their hairstyle provided they have hair, their eye color provided they have eyes, their skin color and their face. Some races have tattoos, piercings, or various head-dress to select from, but often only if they lack another trait to customize (i.e. hair, eyes). There are about twelve faces total, four Caucasian-looking faces, four African-looking faces, and four Asian-looking faces. There are no sliders to further refine individual facial features such as your nose, or cheek bones. What you see is what you get. There are four body types total to choose from. The first is anorexic looking, the second is your standard build, the third is meathead and the fourth is rotund (which is not actually all that fat).

Also, for some unknown reason, all men have strangely protruding chests which, from a distance makes them all appear female. I have no idea why this is, but it's very off-putting and will undoubtedly cause more than a little confusion.

Class is restricted by race, which I dislike. If someone told me I couldn't be an astronaut because I'm part Irish, I'd be livid and probably become an astronaut just to prove a point. Not that I'm honestly comparing video game racism to real life racism; having dealt with both personally. It's also not that I dislike racial tension altogether. In a story arch it can actually add a lot of depth. But in character creation it's just mechanics and wholly unnecessary. There is no discernible reason why Jamie the Chiss shouldn't be able to do what Quinton the Mirialan can do. I don't care what thinly veiled excuse Bioware tries to sate us with. Quite simply it's bullshit, especially when race offers no benefit that would somehow make one choice superior to another. Choice of race is entirely aesthetic.

The character models themselves are somewhat dated. Similar to those found in Dark Age of Camelot: Catacombs, even if higher res. Which says a lot considering Catacombs was released in 2004. Of course I could also do the more obvious and compare them to Star Wars: Galaxies character models, but that isn't much better given those are dated even earlier at 2003. This is 2011; we expect more. But I can let a game slide by on has-been graphics so long as the mechanics are entertaining and the plot is good. While the mechanics aren't anything fabulous, average by all accounts, the story is entertaining enough.

I experienced a lot of framerate issues playing on a decent laptop even though the game is less graphically intensive than several others I play without incidence. So I don't know what's going on there. The likely culprit is a memory leak, even though you'd suspect that kind of thing to be fixed by now (during the final stages of beta). I had to turn all of my options to minimum for the game to even be playable, so to those of you playing with older computers (even if they function fine with other current games) will probably need to upgrade as well. If you normally play on a laptop, I'd recommend a desktop PC anyway. That said, even though every server was at cap population every day, the server lag wasn't bad at all. Hardly even noticeable at prime time.

The game world seems nice (if smaller than anticipated), at least on par with other titles on the market. I wouldn't consider the game particularly visually impressive by any means, but it isn't abysmal either. It can hold its own. The scenematics however are remarkable. Seriously. Graphically, musically, emotionally, it's all captured spot-on. Which is impressive for something completely computer animated. Most times animated people just come off as strange and unnatural looking, but not here. Mouth movement, facial expression, all very thoroughly thought out and executed. I would high five the animation team if I met them on the street.

The music is one of the things that really set SWTOR apart. It is far superior to that found in other games, particularly MMORPGs. Some you'll recognize, some you won't -- but all of it is suiting and helps to immerse you in the world you're adventuring in. At times it got stuck in a loop which quickly became annoying, but such bugs should be fixed well before 0 hour.

However where the game really stands apart is in the questing. Each quest is completely voice acted and well done at that. When you talk to an NPC you are pulled into a cut-scene where you don't just mindlessly nod to everything the NPC is saying only to click an [accept quest] button at the end. You are presented with dialogue options. How you answer could effect the outcome of the quest, or even the tasks you are sent to do. You may even offend the NPC so much that they attack you or refuse to offer you a quest at all. It's entirely in your hands. Sometimes you may even encounter reactions to your dialogue that surprise you, which hasn't happened to me in a game since like 1999.

That, I found magical. There aren't many MMO's on the market where that sort of control is offered. In fact, I can't think of any other examples. While you are questing, the game feels very much a single player RPG, but you aren't sitting alone in the dark all by yourself like some recluse. You can play it with friends. Lots of them.

Much to my dismay, there doesn't seem to be a lot of role-play potential. As it exists right now, you cannot sit in chairs or lay down and many of the emotes do nothing at all. Interacting with the environment is exceptionally limited, and by limited I mean you cannot interact with it whatsoever. That said, WoW has existed as long as it has with those same faults and yet if you look hard enough, you can find role-play there. So, it's not without hope. It would certainly benefit from a couple official RP servers, if nothing else.

In regards to servers, during beta there were twenty US servers, nine of which were PVE and eleven of which were PVP. Two additional servers existed for UK players, both PVE. I'm not sure why European gamers didn't get a PVP server, your guess is as good as mine.

For veterans of Star Wars: Galaxies, you will encounter many familiar sounds and songs in the game. Particularly the chirping of mouse droids (MSE-6). Without noncombat professions however, the cantina scene will be nothing like you're used to. I hope cantinas will become social hubs, as they were in SWG, but without much reason to go there except to log out for rested experience, I somehow doubt they will be. There also doesn't seem to be any indication that there will be player housing. Especially not Open World player housing. This, in my opinion is a rather blatant mistake.

One of my larger concerns is that this game's longevity will rest largely in the hands of former SWG players (read: people who like Star Wars a lot). Bioware and EA should be attempting to offer more options than the game's predecessor. Not less. When you take a franchise license from one company and hand it over to a new one, you should really try to exceed previous expectations.

All in all, I would recommend the game, even if only to discover the stories therein and then cancel. If you've played a year, you've gotten your money's worth. I pre-ordered, but couldn't justify the added expense of the collector's edition or even the premium edition. Especially considering the collector's edition will burn a $179.99 hole in your pocket and in return you only get a handful of swag.

tl;dr: The good: cutscenes, quests, music. The bad: customization, graphics, features.

Friday, February 11, 2011

DC Universe Online

Meet Robot Teacher's Assistant!
DC Universe Online is an MMOAG (massively multi-player action game) centered around the DC Universe and iconic DC characters therein. Up until recently you had to purchase the base game itself and pay the typical MMO fee of $14.99 per month. It is now a FTP (free to play) game with perks for being a paying customer, either through buying items from the shop using real-world currency of $5.00 or more which grants you premium access, or you can opt to continue paying the monthly subscription of $14.99 which grants you legendary access.

So what's the difference? Well, for starters legendary access obviously nets you more perks. Such as additional character slots for a total of 16, all available DLC for free, 60 inventory slots, 48 bank slots, 20 auction slots, the ability to form Leagues, the ability to trade items and cash, unlimited in-game currency, 1 vault ticket per day, and the full range of social options.

Premium access is unlocked once you've spent a total of $5.00 or more on in-game items. Premium access nets you 6 total character slots, 42 inventory slots, 24 bank slots, 5 auction slots, the ability to join Leagues, the ability to trade items only, up to $2000 in-game currency, 1 vault ticket per 3 days, proximity voice chat, and up to 6 text messages per 30 seconds.

Free access is available to everyone and includes the base game as well (making the entire experience 100% absolutely free), but is pretty limiting. You only get 2 character slots, 28 inventory slots, 12 bank slots, no auction slots, the ability to join Leagues, cannot trade, up to $1500 in-game currency, 1 vault ticket per week, and 6 text messages per 30 seconds.

You can view a hand dandy chart here.

You can play as either a hero or a villain. The choice you make will drastically alter the story of the game as you play. If you are playing PVP, this will mean you can freely attack members of the opposite faction in the world when you come across them. Naturally, I made a villain.

Don't put too much thought into whether you really want to commit to possibly being ganked while questing or miss out on PVP entirely forever. You can freely switch between PVP and PVE at your factional headquarters at the Phase Shifter. It works like any other teleport pad in the game except it switches you from PVE to PVP or from PVP to PVE instead of physically changing your location.

This is handy if, say, you'd like to complete a quest but are finding it all but impossible due to an excessive amount of PVP. This usually isn't because people are just griefing twats though, fact of the matter is that most quests in the game share areas cross-faction. In example in one villain quest you are stealing civilian souls, but the hero version of that same quest line has them defending civilians in the same spot. You will run into PVP a lot, which makes questing more exciting, but at times may slow your progress since you're too busy fighting actual people to fight the NPCs you need.

You may also find yourself separate from friends if you login. Don't worry, you can play together. The game creates instances of areas and covertly dumps you into them based on population  at the time to make your play experience run more smoothly. If you and your pal can't see eachother, form a group and then sync phases.

Anyway, let's review things.

Character customization is a very precise process which will allow you to truly diversify your character's appearance. Unless you're copying a DC character, you're unlikely to come across another person who looks exactly as you do. You can also change your costume and color palette in-game after creation at any time. So if you later decide that bondage mask was a bad idea, you aren't stuck with it. You should also be aware that the options present at character creation are only the base of what will later be available to you. Throughout the game you will discover and unlock a plethora of new styles to further customize your ideal costume.

You start out with a series of choices. Gender, physical build, power type, transportation method, weapon specialization, and mentor. Some of these are obvious, the others I'll explain briefly. Transportation will dictate how you traverse the DC world. Your options are flight, super-speed and acrobatics. Power type defines your super powers. Things like telekinesis, gadgets, ice, fire, and magic can be expected. Lastly, your mentor will determine where in the world you start out and a bit of your story arch. Each has their own area of expertise. As a hero you can choose Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman. As a villain your choices are The Joker, Lex Luthor, or Circe.

There is a lot of controversy about the control set-up being too 'console' in the PC version of the game. Most of these complaints seem to be from people who expected DC Universe Online to be an MMORPG. But like I've already mentioned -- that's not what it is. Anyone who has ever played an action game on their computer will find the controls similar to that. WASD for movement, mouse look, 1-6 for actions, 7 uses consumables, and 8 fires your trinket if you have one equipped. Left mouse is used to perform melee attacks and right mouse is used to perform ranged attacks. Hitting them in various tapping and holding combinations will perform styles you've specced into. Tab cycles through nearby enemies, Ctrl loots, spacebar jumps, and Shift is used to break crowd control. Pretty basic stuff there.

The game itself is visually impressive. The environment is immersing, with locales such as Metropolis and Gotham City fully explorable. It's reminiscent of MxO's game world, which I gave a glowing review of back in the day. Unfortunately SoE has a difficult time maintaining IP licenses and The Matrix Online no longer exists, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

The soundtrack is fitting for the world and whatever you happen to be doing in it and it seems as though every NPC in the game is fully voice acted. For better or worse. Some of the voice acting is top notch. Some, not so much. That seems to often be the case, though.

The gameplay, once you're accustomed to it, is intuitive and entertaining. Keep in mind, once again, that it is not an MMORPG. It is an action game. So it will play differently than what you are used to if you're coming from the typical MMO background. No auto-attack and no sticky targetting (not to be confused with target lock, you can lock targets).

Stability is something of an issue currently as SoE merged all of the servers together. Why? I don't know. Merging them all together seems excessive no matter how poorly sales might have been. I guess they like making their playerbase angry (SWG, anyone?). But I digress.

You have EU-PVP and EU-PVE which is effectually a single server and US-PVP and US-PVE which is also a single server. Characters however cannot interact with eachother unless they choose the same server type. While those playing PVP are on the same server as those playing PVE, they're invisible to one another. This causes population problems during peak hours where you'll either find yourself waiting in a queue to login, or find yourself suddenly staring at your desktop when the server crashes. If you're playing for free though, you can't really complain too much. As a legendary access member you'd probably be livid though.

In addition to world PVP (if you play PVP) there are also battlegrounds you can queue up for. Be forewarned though, BGs were clearly an afterthought in this game. Once you die in a battleground you must wait upwards of 7 minutes to respawn, which means you basically lose if your team dies because the whole round only lasts about 15 minutes total. There also seems to be some issues with leaving a BG once you're inside of it. I got trapped for a good 4 additional minutes last night and then once I was finally able to leave my client crashed. So, queue at your own risk. They have fixed the BGs and they are now quite fun to partake in. Queue up while questing and it really breaks up the grind to 30 (level cap btw). Since the game is skill based and not so much level based, this means you can join the fight at any time and still stand toe-to-toe against even cap level players.

Summary? The game is definitely fun too play, even given the inconveniences caused by over-crowding. Since it's free, I see no reason why  you wouldn't play it, unless you're short on HD space. The game is large. 17 gigs off of steam and 14 gigs if you download it from the official website.

P.S. Don't judge the game based upon my screenshot. My laptop is atrocious and my graphical game settings reflect that.

Edit: I love it when I feel my review of something has been justified. DCUO was voted MMO of the Year shortly after this was written!