Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Guild Wars II

I beat this up at level 3. Yep, that's frost on my eyeballs.
Tonight I bring you a first look at Guild Wars II, having played the most recent beta build this last weekend.

I know a lot of you, much like myself, see NCSoft in any capacity and automatically go, "Oh yay, another Korean grinder." The term affectionately (or not so affectionately) tied to pretty much every game NCSoft has had its hand in (Lineage, Tabula Rasa, Aion, etc.), as well as all the others that fit the bill (Tera, Rift, etc.) You know the sort: remarkably pretty in the art department but also remarkably shallow in every other capacity, resulting in months after months of what equates to mind-numbing grinding of monsters with little to no actual content to compel you forward. Other MMO's at least try to mask the grind with fluff like quest-related stories and group activities.

But I digress, because much to my surprise that's not what Guild Wars II is like at all! You may not believe me at first because at a glance, the art direction makes it seem very, very much like that is what you can expect. Once you get into the game however you quickly realize this is not the case. In the course of three days I made it to level 15 without ever just having to senselessly kill wolves, or spiders, or bats.

Quests come in a few varieties and are voice acted, some better than others. There are personal story quests to advance your class/race/caste storyline which are somewhat unique. There are typical quests. Then there are area quests (much in the vein of Warhammer Online) where the overall goal is worked at by everyone nearby, not just you and whoever might be in your group. So long as you contribute, you get credit. Completing such quests earns a good portion of exp, whereas killing stuff just for the sake of killing it isn't half so rewarding.

Area quests may also have an actual impact on the environment, short term or not. Such as the entrance to a cave being blocked off, or a city being under attack. Which makes them somewhat more interesting than just things happening and then things no longer happening. If there aren't enough people around to finish a goal, there just might be consequences. You can "lose."

While it's all still questing it isn't a boring hassle.

You can also get a good amount of exp just from exploring, and there's plenty of unique locations around the world that are actually worth exploring. Kind of a win:win there. See cool shit and level up, why not do this?

Speaking of class/race/caste, I should probably explain what the hell that even means. During character creation you select your class as per usual and your race but you also select several other options that will later change the way your personal story progresses. Such as caste -- being a commoner rather than a noble (human) or being born in the dusk cycle rather than the dawn cycle (Sylvari). I have yet to play long enough to see the end outcome of these decisions, but I've seen far enough that I'm aware they have an impact on how the game will play out for you.

Character creation itself is nice. There are base faces from which to choose from and then sliders for things such as eyes, nose, lips, chin, jaw, etc., so that you may further refine these base options into something more unique to your character. There are also a variety of body types and a height slider. Hair options are currently tied into racial choice, but are quite detailed and numerous. And there are a ton of colors from which to choose for things such as eye color, hair color and skin tone. One of my personal favorites here is the attention to detail. If you choose to be dark skinned -- you will have light skinned palms.

Another way in which you can further customize your character's look is through armor dyes. Yes, you read that correctly. You could do this in DAoC way back when and since then it's a feature that has been largely absent in recent titles. It makes a reappearance here, starting you off with a few basic options and granting you more as you play through looting and perhaps other means I've simply not yet discovered.

There are a number of classes from which to choose, all pretty well explained on the game's official site, so I do not feel compelled to needlessly repeat that information. Same goes for the races at your disposal. One thing I will say, however, is that there is no stealth as stealth is traditionally presented in MMO's. Instead you have a number of abilities as a Thief that will put you into stealth, but only for a few seconds at a time. Some people will love this, other will hate it. I personally dislike it. During my playtime as a thief I had a number of survivability issues that would have easily been solved by being able to stealth for longer than 3 seconds at a time. It is beta however, I imagine these things will be taken into consideration before launch. Either increasing stealth time or improving innate survivability.

Artistically the game is beautiful. Character models, creature models, architecture, weather effects, and reflections are all lovely. Environments are large and spacious. The music is expressive and from what I've witnessed suiting to whatever situation you may be in at the time. There's also ambiance. People talking, birds chirping, foot steps in the distance, etc. All making you feel very much a part of the location you're in. Excellent for role-players, certainly.

Interestingly, despite being so damn pretty the game also runs well and loads quickly. I would say the graphics are easily above and beyond SWTOR in every perceptible way, but the game loads at least 4x quicker, with a more consistent frame rate to boot.

Mechanically the game is fun to play, with a combat system reminiscent of the original Guild Wars only more polished. WvWvW is a PVP mechanic similar to Dark Age of Camelot's 3 realm RvR system, so there is a lot of appeal to that. Three servers vie over a map, and the victors get special bonuses. Unlike Battlegroups in other MMO's these match-ups are not permanent and will alternate so that at no point are you gong to get stuck on the losing side as the under-dog forever. There are also quick match games, much like Battlegrounds in other games (DAoC, WOW, SWTOR, etc.).

The auction house is stable and you can check your mailbox from anywhere, which is nice. Though presently you cannot open trades with other players, the only way to transfer items or money from person A to person B is to mail it to them. Not a huge issue, just a little strange.

Much to my dismay there are not a ton of additions specifically for role-players. There is an extremely limited number of emotes presently in game, walk isn't a toggle, and you can't interact with the environment a whole lot (such as sitting in chairs). That said, people role-play anyway. It's rare to find in a game's beta, but I encountered more role-play in three days of GW2 beta than I have in most retail MMO's presently on the market.

There are chat bubbles and custom emoting is in game. Though, custom emotes have an excessively long range, sometimes carrying over almost the entire zone, which is a little weird. As a plus it means you can tell there's RP happening and go search for it. There was never a time where I dropped a custom emote and at least 5 people didn't show up soon after. Kind of nice.

There is also something of an appearance tab, though not in an incarnation you'll be overly familiar with. Rather than your combat armor/weapons tab taking stat precedence over your appearance tab, one replaces the other. Which I actually prefer. I have a strong issue with someone running around in a bikini only as it turns out it's actually got the magical stats of a full suit of plate armor. In Guild Wars II, if you have your Town Clothes on and leave the city to go try and quest... you are going to die miserably. As well it should be.

To wrap it up here, though I'll undoubtedly add more and amend things after future betas, the game has no monthly subscription fee, so you only need to pay for the base game. Which is $60.00 and can be preordered now despite that there is no set launch date at this time. This means even if you only play casually, it essentially pays for itself in the first few months (other MMO's charging $15.00 per month in addition to their base price). In essence, I don't see much of a reason at this point not to play.

Monday, July 30, 2012


From time to time I look back fondly on all the MMO's I've played. Even the ones that took an unforeseen turn for the worse -- I focus on the enjoyable experiences prior to whatever patch or bug destroyed the game and/or community. It's not quite nostalgia, because I do not long to return to any of the games I've stopped playing. I stopped playing them for a reason afterall. I just like to think back to the days of old, when each MMO actually had something that set it apart from whatever other game was on the market at the time. Not things that made it necessarily better, just things that set them apart. That's difficult to find now.

Most MMO's bank all of their effort toward repeating whatever worked for whichever game came before it based on popularity of said game. This ultimately fails because it provides gamers with absolutely no reason to switch from the game they're already playing to the new game. Why start over with no gear, friends, or money in a game that's basically exactly what you're playing anyway?

A lot of people incorrectly label this the WoW Effect. Since World of Warcraft was for many people their first MMO experience, every game which followed afterward that had similar features was dubbed a WOW clone. With even just the slightest amount of actual research however, you will realize that most of the features in WOW were actually completely ripped off from other MMOs before it. That's right, Warcraft was not innovative at all. For instance the beloved PVP battlegrounds everyone thinks are token WoW material were actually alive and well in DAoC long beforehand. Talent trees, classes specialties, and even PVE instancing were all present in games predating WoW by years.

I find it incredibly interesting that while I liked WoW the least, it was one of the longest games I ever played. The learning curve was nonexistent. You could effectively do most tasks by rolling your face back and forth across your keyboard and get by just fine. The expansions were always just more of the same, to the point where even the models and other art were simply copy pastas of previous content. World PVP did not exist once BGs were introduced which reduced all player v. player conflicts to mundane, preplanned events. The only thing WoW had was the people.

Don't misunderstand. The majority of the Warcraft community is akin to some sort of special gaming Olympics. Millions of invalids who can do nothing but regurgitate old memes at one another with the overall combined charisma of a rancid turnip. Every once in a great while though, you'd stumble upon a genuinely intelligent, reliable human being. And if you were really lucky, they will have already sought out other such individuals and combined themselves into a small tightly knit guild, making the game worth playing where otherwise it would not be.

It's amazing how one or two great people can keep you around when all else can't. Especially when you manage to find them in what is essentially the Mos Eisley of gaming communities. Looking at the other games I've played, the reasons I had for sticking around post-apocalypse were much simpler. They were fun. Dark Age of Camelot had amazing PVP in its youth. Anarchy Online had a truly imaginative PvE instancing system, catering your 'dungeon' to your specific desires. To this day I am unaware of any true MMO that allows that. Starwars Galaxies had astounding role-play. Matrix Online had a truly immersing environment, add in enjoyable combat and interactive locking emotes and you had the recipe for role-player bliss. Everquest 2 was just amusing to play, the mechanics were simple but efficient. Age of Conan had a seriously innovative combat system and an impressively loyal community. Warhammer Online was an entertaining foray into the living, breathing Warhammer universe.

Ironically their short-comings were somehow related to why they had been worth playing in the first place.

DAoC tried to out-do their own PVP experience and basically ruined what had kept people playing in the first place. Seeing the error of their ways they reintroduced 'classic' servers. Sadly it was too little too late for the game to make a complete recovery, resulting in the combining of servers to combat the ghost towns they had become.

AO didn't change. Which is both good and bad. The good is that the gameplay remained entertaining and unique. They never tried to over-do it. This is also bad though because it made the game stagnate. The graphics are more or less the same as they had been when the game came out ages ago, despite all of the vast advancements in computer capabilities. Funcom has had a graphical overhaul planned since 2007, but there has been no change and no set date as to when this change could be expected.

This means your playerbase is composed entirely of the especially die-hard fans of the game and no one else. New players won't join because they dislike the subpar graphics and many old players leave because they've grown bored. If a new player does get over how out-dated the entire game is, they feel lost and hopelessly too far behind as soon as they login and realize almost everyone they meet is 200 levels higher than they are.

You can play it for free, however, so there is no reason not to play it every once in a while.

SWG's role-play came to a grinding halt once they took a game with over 20 classes, that you could hybridize to endless possibility -- to a game with fewer than 10 starting professions that could not stray from the set path in any capacity whatsoever. One completely game-altering 'upgrade' was enough. The second effectively killed the game and it's now shutting down forever come December. Despite the communities outrage and disappointment, SOE decided not to heed them and refused to roll-back to how the game had been, or even provide a 'classic' server where people could get away from the NGE. This was such an enormous marketing disaster that a member of the staff who pushed the NGE forward actually killed himself.

It is to my knowledge one of the most devastating changes made to an MMO in history.

MxO had everything going for it, except that it was run by SOE. They couldn't leave well-enough alone and made change after change until the original player base had basically evaporated. It remained alive for a little while, attracting the occasional Matrix fan, but ultimately met a swift, timely end. The rate at which SOE is handed liscences to games that should have 0 chance of failure, that fail, is boggling.

EQ had a very easy-to-play gaming experience. Quests were easy to follow, combat was simply executed, and they offered an optional graphical upgrade to those who wished it. Meaning if you had a crappy computer, you could still play, but if you had a good computer you could play and not look like you were molded out of Playdoh. While a simple game is a nice get away from games that require some form of degree to play right, it also gives you little reason to stick around. By level 20, you really had nothing to do but continue leveling up. Money was easy to come by. Leveling was a breeze. PVP only existed on certain servers. The most fun I had after level 20 in EQ2 was decorating my character's apartment.

AoC had one of the most innovative combat experiences I've ever had the joy of playing with. Incidentally it also had the smoothest launch of any MMO I've played -- and I've suffered through a lot of game launches. Patch after patch however created bug after bug and Funcom was rather disinterested in fixing them in any timely manner. This created issues that completely broke the game. The fantastic combat system was now a method by which you could charge up and behead someone at 10 yards; before you'd normally even be in range to swing at them.

This bug also only effected melee characters, so before long all of the healers and mages disappeared and the world was filled with warriors running around trying to chop off eachother's heads. Combine that with Funcom going back on their no graveyard camping policy, this meant that if you beheaded someone and ran to the resurrection pad fast enough -- you could murder them repeatedly all day.

This obviously had several damaging effects on the game. Since all of the healers and mages rerolled as melee... you could no longer efficiently get any PVE done. Which meant your entire gameplay experience rested on the enjoyment of PVP. Which you also couldn't do because any time you logged on, someone would chop off your head from 10 yards away before you even loaded.

Now, before you think, "You're just upset because people were chopping off your head!" you should know that I was usually the one doing the head-chopping. I'm just not so much of an ass I can't admit that it was broken.

Warhammer Online was the purist disappointment when it came to games I had been looking forward to. It was developed by Mythic, who did magical things with DAoC back in the day, so I was expecting more of that. It was also set in the richly story driven Warhammer world. How could they go wrong? Well, basically they pushed the game out much too fast, meaning that while all of the races were present, only two of their cities had been included in the game. They also apparently forgot that at the essence of Warhammer is role-play... because there were absolutely no tools implemented within the game to make this possible. You could not walk, or sit, or write custom emotes; you could barely even customize your character (which is forgivable provided you can do all of those other things).

They decided to make the focus PVE and PVP, which is fine as a Mythic game. That's basically what DAoC had been, but as a Warhammer game this was unacceptable. You had this vast, rich world full of life... and no way to interact with it. It was surprisingly disappointing. World PVP was also kind of broken, which left you to do nothing but run BGs. In which case, you may as well have been playing any other MMO already out, like I mentioned above, and avoided starting over. Which is exactly what happened after the first month live.

I realize this turned into more of a rant than I had originally intended starting out. I could gripe about the cons until the cows come home, or alternatively fawn over the pros until I convinced you to play them, but I think I'll spare you this time.

In short, what I was getting at was this: why can't developers create something fun anymore? Something that takes what's right about the other games and combines it all together, leaving out the bad. I mean, that is what made WOW successful. To copy Warcraft's success you do not need to make a clone of WOW. You need to do as they did and steal every good idea from every other MMO currently on the market.

Then, while it would not be a completely unique idea, it would at least be worth switching to from whatever you're playing now. I don't want mind blowing innovation. In my experience that's always bad (Tabula Rasa, Mortal Online, DDO, GW, etc.). Also, why is it the new trend in MMO's that to be innovative you have to switch to first-person perspective? That's not innovative, especially when nothing else is any different mechanically. I swear if one more up-and-coming MMO decides to  broaden it's audience by being first-person, I'll punch them with a dolphin.

I like toast and butter. I do not like toast crumbs in my butter. In that light: I like first-person shooter games and I like role-playing games. I do not however enjoy FPS games in my RPG games. If I wanted to play an FPS, that's what I would've bought. ffs.