MMOs Worth Playing – Everquest II

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Perforated Week

mmosworthplayingThis week was a strange one, because it essentially consisted of two Mondays and two Fridays since I was off Wednesday due to Veterans day.  This week also pretty much was completely lost to Fallout 4.  So I contemplated just doing another post about that and skipping the MWP feature for a week.  That said I decided to fall back on an “oldie but goodie” that I could write about without much prep work.  Once again the MMOs Worth Playing section by intent is to highlight some of the awesome games out there, that maybe don’t get as much love as I feel they should.  This has been the pattern other than last week when I did a special BlizzCon edition, and this week we are continuing that pattern with some talk about Everquest 2.

Launching Against a Juggernaut

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When it comes to underdog games… it would be near impossible to find one that more fits that title than Everquest II.  Back in 2004 there were two games vying for everyone’s attention… the sequel of sorts to the wildly popular Everquest and the newcomer with a strong pedigree World of Warcraft.  By the time we got to November of that year… there was quite literally one game on everyone’s minds…  and it wasn’t the return to a calamity stricken Norrath.  EQ2 had the misfortunate of launching sixteen days before the game that would for the most part change the landscape of MMOs.  I was pretty torn as to which game I would end up playing, and I even pre-ordered Everquest II and spent a good deal of time in the alpha and beta processes.  However when it came time to launch…  there were a few people from my EQ1 days that were going to be playing… but the vast majority of my friends were simply waiting for World of Warcraft.  So since money was very much a thing back then… I simply didn’t pick up my EQ2 pre-order and waited for the coming of Azeroth.

Roughly six months into that experience however I got a patch of wanderlust like I always do and drug a group of friends over into Norrath and found that I really liked the game.  Just as I know eventually I will be playing World of Warcraft again, I will also be doing the same for Everquest II.  The sort of experience it provides is just different than you would find in most games.  For me at least the magic is the setting.  Norrath is world I am deeply nostalgic of, and with it comes little references to the good times I had in Everquest.  I realize for many at launch this was a huge problem… because instead of continuing where Everquest left off they chose to reboot the world of sorts and bringing the players in after the moon Luclin had exploded raining down shards around the world.  This event sundered the world causing it to break apart into small islands, and much of the theme of Everquest 2 has been one of exploration and rediscovery.

Unearthing Greatness

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The players are helping to recover the lost grandeur of the past, and with that we are uncovering locations that I remember extremely well in the original Everquest.  The big thing that spoke to me about the game however was the epic scale.  These zones are huge… so huge that often times they are made up of several distinct sub zones that all exist together in one seamless area.  What makes them work so well is the fact that they are really content dense, with all sorts of hidden treasures and events stowed in between what would normally be something you simply rode past.  One of the things that made EQ interesting was their construct called a “Ring Event”, which involved fighting certain mobs… which would spawn other mobs… which would ultimately culminate in a boss.  So as you wander the world, you never quite know what thing you are killing might lead to something far more interesting spawning.  I remember one of these particular in Nektulos Forest, that ultimately lead to a rare named boss that was used for a quest.

Another aspect of the game that I have always loved that follows this exploration and recovery feeling, is the Heritage quest.  These are truly epic quest chains that tend to require twenty or so discreet steps to complete and often involve you spending a considerably about of time crawling through dungeons and catacombs to find bits.  Each of them represents the attempt to uncover an item of fabled power from the old world, and as a former Everquest player…  I know almost every single item referenced by heart.  What makes them even cooler is that they function dual fold when you complete one.  For starters you get a really nice piece of gear that at the level you can get it serves to be some of quite literally the best gear you can get.  However when you out level it, you can turn it into a trophy item that you can then put in your player housing to remember your journey.  So it feels really cool to walk into your house and see all of these past accomplishments displayed in physical form.  Each item you hang on your wall or stash on a shelf is a memory of an event that you did in game, which makes the whole thing feel more important than simply earning points or titles.

Rich Systems

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Everquest II is this impossible game, because quite literally I don’t think it could have ever been created in today’s climate.  So much time was spent on systems that feel casual and exploratory gameplay, that enrich the player…  but don’t really make up much of an “endgame” in the traditional sense.  I just mentioned housing and that is absolutely a crucial one.  Dark Age of Camelot was the first time I had experienced player housing, and I knew that I was absolutely hooked.  The problem there is it took up large tracts of physical real estate in the world.  That meant a limited number of players could ever have housing, because there were a limited number of deeds available.  EQ2 went in a completely different direction, and at first I was not terribly certain of it…  and later I have come to realize it was a stroke of genius.  Instead of making housing exclusive… they simply made it part of the base gameplay experience by giving you an Inn Room that serves as your first house while going through the early levels.  From there the player gets used to the notion of checking into their room periodically and quests giving them items that they might want to display there.

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As you progress you can keep getting cooler homes with significantly more expensive weekly upkeep costs.  While player housing is awesome… where the game really shines is the introduction of Guild Housing.  In each guild I have been in, the house became a hub of activity for its members.  Due to the ability to place crafting machines, bankers and brokers all in the hall… it means that there will be a constant flow of players coming in and out as they do their business around the game world.  While it might seem silly… because we already have an always on guild chat… but seeing players in their physical avatar form just feels different and almost magical.  There are tons of people in the game world that I might talk to on a nightly basis… but it could be weeks before I actually cross paths with their characters in game.  Having this nexus meant that the guilds were actually more communicative that they might have been were it just left to text only conversation.  There was also always the added benefit of having some shared goal that the guild as a whole could work towards.  I remember doing all sorts of things that could grant “status” in the guild, which then could be spent as a currency to help pay the expenses of owning the guild hall.  Contributing status made it feel like I was helping… even though what I was actually earning was just a drip in the bucket comparatively.

Overwhelming Content

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I could literally write one of these posts a week, for the next few months and not have scratched the surface of talking about everything in this game.  The game is nearing the launch of expansion number Twelve Terrors of Thalumbra.   In the same time World of Warcraft has had six expansions, and this is not counting the mini adventure packs, which I believe there have been four or five of at this point.  The amount of content of all types that is available is just completely mind boggling, and at any given level you usually have multiple paths that you can take to get to your goal.  My favorite part about the game is that they still have public dungeons.  This is the aspect that made the original Everquest feel so vibrant to me, was that you could go into these super dangerous areas with your friends… that were huge NPC warrens that felt like working areas.  If you went into the kitchen, then you found a chef… if you went into the dungeon… then you found a jailer or a warden.  It felt like we were actually raiding bases, rather than taking a theme park ride where at the end we got loot for our trouble.

These big public dungeons were places you could just go and hang out with your friends… where the difficulty level was enough to make bringing friends along for the fun worth while.  All of which made it all the more enjoyable when you finally reached a level of gear where you could actually go into these places and survive by yourself.  I remember the amazement the first time I saw a friend soloing Sebilis for example in Everquest… and then was shocked when I reached the point where I could solo tough mobs like the Sand Giants in the Oasis of Marr.  Everquest even in its more modern version is really good at setting up these goals that you want to go back and achieve later.  If you can’t take on this monster now… then you will likely go back later and get revenge on it when you can.  I’ve talked before about how fear is missing from games… and wandering these public dungeons brought it back.  That if you were able to keep up with the spawn rate, you could stay in there in a tentative state of safety… however if one thing went wrong…  you were running back in after a death.  That era in games seems to be all but extinct at this point.

Dated But Good

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At this point Everquest 2 is feeling its age, and with recent Daybreak mess… it is unlikely that this is going to change at any point in the near future.  The engine is old, and has not had the benefit of having frequent face lifts in the same fashion that World of Warcraft has.  As a result the model detail is a little off, and the world building itself can feel a little cludgy in the early zones.  There however is an amazing artistry as each time they release an expansion they push this old engine beyond its limits and find new ways to keep this game interesting.  This is absolutely a game that I would suggest everyone play at least once, but in doing so you have to go into it knowing that you are essentially playing an artifact of a bygone era.  They simply do not make games like this one any more, and to some extent I am regretful of this fact.  The amount of detail that can be found between its cracks is enough to drive you completely mad if you try and assimilate it all.  If you do start an new character I highly suggest you either roll in the Neriak/Darklight Woods starting zone or Kelethin/Greater Faydark… because as the game went on they got significantly better at doing the starter experience.  If you do end up trying the game, I would love to hear your own impressions.

 

MMOs Worth Playing – World of Warcraft

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Changing Course

mmosworthplayingWhen I started this segment of my blog the original intent was to highlight games that are not getting a lot of press and talk about all of the things I like about them.  That said since the column is called “MMOs Worth Playing” I knew eventually I would have to get around to talking about some of the bigger names.  So as a result I am going to have a momentary lapse of purpose here… and go with serendipity.  Today’s is coming on the morning that BlizzCon 2015 starts, and as a result it just felt natural to talk about World of Warcraft.  There was never a point where I would not ultimately end up covering the game, given that in many of the discussions I end up talking about it.  So here we go… my attempt to create an overly positive discussion about the benefits of World of Warcraft.

The Standard

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In every industry there is a leader that for the most part everyone gets compared to.  In the MMO world this leader is World of Warcraft.  Even though this has become the stuff of internet memes… it is by no means the first MMO, or in truth did it invent many of the things that folks attribute to it.  That said it did manage to take the model that was burgeoning at the time of its release…  knock off the rough spots and sand it to a mirror shine.  Blizzard is really good at making games that appeal to the masses, and World of Warcraft is no exception.  The problem is… the “appealing to the masses” has been a moving target causing the game to shift and dodge numerous times along the path.  Each time it has changed course it has created a set of fans nostalgic for their imagined version of “the way things used to be”.  So here we are today, with a legion of fan…  some joyous, some in denial, and some begrudgingly along for the ride.  Everyone has a World of Warcraft story, and if they don’t…  they should.  Every so often a questionnaire circulates through the community asking what game you would suggest a person with zero experience in MMOs should play… and the only actual answer you can give is in fact World of Warcraft.

This is the game that takes the complex concepts of an MMO and feeds it to players in bite sized chunks at just the right times to convert them from a MMO gaming neophyte to a seasoned veteran.  The problem is that we have seen is that Warcraft is really good at creating Warcraft players, because many of these gamers never really venture out into other games.  This is in many ways a failing of the other companies to embrace the same sort of low level educational campaign that Warcraft has.  Sure to us long time players we see the Cataclysm revamp of the newbie zones as a travesty, but in each case they just work better… when you view them through the eyes of someone who has zero ancestral knowledge into the way that these games work.  Each blatant breadcrumb, or cheese quest designed only to deliver you to the next quest hub…  is honestly not for us, but instead for the players that NEED those clear indicators of what they should be doing next.  We recently saw the subscription numbers for Warcraft and in part that number is due to the fact that a decade later they can still manage to induct brand new players into the tribe of WoW.

The Paradox

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I am naming this section the Paradox because it highlights something odd in the game.  When people leave Warcraft it is generally stated that they are leaving because they have “run out of things to do”.  The problem that a game like WoW creates is that in order to keep the front edge of players happy, they have to keep cranking out content…  something that Blizzard has proven to find difficult in the massive lags between end of expansion patches and the new expansion.  The paradox comes in that one of the big reasons why I would suggest this game is that there is so damned much content to experience.  Sure it might not be anything a veteran player wants to do… but for a brand new player this is a smorgasbord of brand new experiences and over a decade worth of sights and vistas to experience.  World of Warcraft is by no means a gorgeous game at this point, because it feels a decade old at times… but there are still moments that are breath taking, like the first time you roll into Booty Bay and see the giant Goblin statue, or the first time you look down from the top of Thunderbluff onto the valleys below.  These are important experiences that I feel like no one should rob themselves of.

So many of my good memories of this game however come from the interaction with the people.  Part of my nostalgic chagrin however is realizing that so many of those players are no longer playing the game.  Many of my best memories are tied to specific moments in the games history that will never come back.  That however is not to say that each and every night new memories are not being made.  People are still loving this game with all of their heart, and I have stated this before that I am more than a little jealous of them.  I miss the types of experiences I used to have in World of Warcraft, but since many of those were tied to my “first time” doing this or that… I realize those are experiences I will never be able to have again.  This is a game I was utterly devoted to for over half of that decade, and still have pangs of remorse when I think about those things I have lost.  This game is powerful, and the experiences you have through it are equally powerful.  Which is why I feel like everyone should step foot in the game and find their own version of those “first times”.

The Model

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As I said many of those moments were because of the other players, but one of the benefits about starting World of Warcraft at this point… is that essentially everything is available to you as a solo player.  That is not to say that I do not suggest that you find your way into a really good guild, because guilds make the entire experience better regardless of the game.  However there really should be nothing locked from you because you did not bring a legion of friends into it.  The game itself is subscription based, but you can get a free trial account to start and dip your toes into the water.  If you end up liking it, the base game is $19.99 and will carry you through level 90, with the latest expansion Warlords of Draenor costing $49.99 on top of that.  The later comes with a free boost to 90… which I highly suggest you don’t use at least not for your first character.  There is a bunch of really awesome content to experience, and part of my frustration in the past is that it feels like these boosts cheapen the older content.  Some of the best content in the game, is well below the level cap… so to skip over a Deadmines, Wailing Caverns, or Dire Maul would be a travesty.  Then to maintain your account it is an older monthly subscription model of $14.99.

Over the years I have said a lot of hurtful things on this blog about Blizzard and World of Warcraft, and in many case those were about specific problems I had…  that most players would never even care about.  If I were creating a Facebook profile about my relationship with Warcraft…  the only thing I could possibly pick is “complicated”.  Similar to my feelings about Star Wars, with all of the hype and disappointment… I also hold in my heart a lot of frustration and disappointment with all of the possibility that was squandered.  I’ve also come to realize that I wholeheartedly love Blizzard as a company, it is just one of there franchises that I have some issue with.  Diablo 3 and Heroes of the Storm are both amazing… and what I have played of Starcraft 2 was really fun… even though I am not really an RTS player.  I anxiously look forward to Overwatch and seeing how it does… and occasionally I break out a Hearthstone game even though that is not a regular occurrence.  With World of Warcraft… I know that eventually I will go back and resubscribe because I always do.  This game has a hold on my heart that even though I have tried to purge it so many times… it stays there clinging tightly.  No matter what my current feelings are for the game, that power cannot be denied.  So regardless of what the current hype cycle thinks…  this is a great game and has so many excellent experiences that you would be robbing yourself of it you did not experience them.  That is not to say that I don’t also think there are so many other amazing games out there…  but when creating a column called “MMOs Worth Playing”…  Warcraft had to be included among that number.

MMOs Worth Playing: Marvel Heroes

Costumed Madness

mmosworthplayingJust as a quick reminder, this series is about me highlighting games that I think are well worth the look.  This is by no means a complete list of games, and there are still a bunch more that I just have not gotten around to talking about.  These are largely titles that I feel like everyone should probably at least give a try once.  I am largely focused on games that don’t necessarily get the press or hype that some of the more prevalent titles like World of Warcraft do.  I figured in honor of Halloween I would talk about a game that is entirely about dressing up in costume and taking out bad guys.

A Tale of Improvement

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In 2013 when Marvel Heroes launched… it was plagued with problems.  Not the least of which was the fact that it was pretty much universally reviewed as a massive cash grab.  The game itself was not that terribly fun, and any heroes or costumes purchased on the store were oppressively over priced.  You can look at any of the reviews from 2013 and they all pretty much say the same thing, that the gameplay is lackluster at best… and that it is ridiculous to have to pay $20 to play as an A list hero like Ironman.  The game has since re-invented itself and gone through a number of changes… before eventually rebooting itself as Marvel Heroes 2015.  Rebranding is one of those fiddly things, but in this case the game that exists now is a very different gameplay experience than the one that launched.

During my time playing the game they have made constant incremental changes to the experience.  Originally the game asked you to essentially pick your free champion blindly, and now you can play any number of champions all to level 10 before finally choosing one to unlock all of the way to 60.  This gives you time to get in and experience the way a champion performs before finally committing to it.  In my case I have found that many of my favorite Comic Book heroes and anti-heroes…  are not necessarily something that I want to play.  For example I have always loved the Punisher, but the game play felt a little lacking since I am not a huge fan of ranged combat.  On the other side of the coin… I have never really liked Captain America as a comic book…  but playing as him is freaking amazing.  He is this massive shield slinging badass that I love playing, and my friend Grace has a similar experience with Iceman ending up being the character that she stuck with.

True to the Source

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Another thing I love about the game is just how integrated it is into the Marvel Universe.  There are so many characters, costumes and team-ups that come from the deep bowels of comic history.  Remember that one time Punisher was a Frankenstein-like monster?  Well Marvel Heroes does… and offers the costume as an option during Halloween.  Remember that time Wolverine was infected by the Brood?  Yup Marvel Heroes also offers that costume.  If there is a movie released, or a big comic event… you can fully expect Marvel Heroes to roll out a special event to mark it.  During the Avengers Age of Ultron release… you got bonus experience anytime you played an Avengers character or grouped with one for example.  Obviously at this same time they offered a brand new pack of costumes representing the way the characters looked in the movie at a “priced to own” value…  but none of it feels like something you have to have to keep playing the game.

My favorite aspect of the game is the way it handles gender swaps for characters.  For an increasing number of the champions in this game, they offer an alternate gender version.  What makes this awesome is the fact that they are once again mining the rich Marvel history to make it happen.  For example if you want to play a female Punisher, you instead end up playing Rachel Cole-Alves a character that has allied with the in comic Punisher a few times and even wore the costume.    Granted this is not the case for every character in the game…  like Lady Loki is just that… a female version of Loki.  However it is absolutely comic book canon that there was one time when Loki was brought back as a woman, so even then… it absolutely fits.  This works both ways…  so in addition to Scarlet Witch and her many female costumes… you can play as Wiccan, or among the many Captain Marvel Carol Danvers costumes… you also have an old school male Captain Marvel as well.

Cost of Being a Hero

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I realize I am not actually talking about the game-play much but really…  if playing a Diablo style game with Marvel Heroes is not enough of a hook for you… then you probably should play something else.  This game is all about the fantasy fulfillment of running around as a super hero and beating up cartoon bad guys to make the street explode into a shower of bright colored loot.  The challenge of the game should be mentioned… because if its default state that challenge is next to non-existent.  They have essentially started calling this base difficulty “Story Mode” and you play through it while finishing the main story.  After finishing the story you can ratchet up the difficulty as you see fit and visit any of the previous areas for leveling purposes.  These later difficulties feel more akin to the harder difficulties in Diablo 3, but it is somewhat sad that unlike D3 you cannot simply play on hard all of the time.  You have to finish the normal mode before you can start anything more aggressive.

The biggest change since the 2013 incarnation is the fact that the game really is “free” or can be pending you don’t just fall in love with anything in particular.  What I love the most about the game is that you can collect these items while roaming in the world called Eternity Splinters, and with them you can purchase specific champions… or do what I end up doing and simply gamble on one of the 100 spliter random hero boxes.  I’ve managed to pull several of the big name heroes that I have like Star Lord and X-23 through these random boxes, and it gives you the feeling of making some forward momentum without a ton of grinding.  When talking about the price of things, that too has changed significantly.  The blade pre-sale for example is happening right now and its $16.19 for the champion and an alternate costume, with a normal price around $20.  Still not the cheapest thing in the world… but not that insane either considering there are fairly easy in game ways to get all of the champions as well.

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Honestly I stayed away from this game for years… because of the bad press surrounding it’s launch.  It was only after seeing a good friend of mine playing it every single night on steam, that I finally decided to give it a chance.  I am extremely happy that I did, and even though I don’t play it all that often it is yet another in a long line of games that has re-invented itself for the better.  I seriously feel like the era of big AAA games is past us… or at least the era of “American” AAA MMOs that is.  I qualify that because it seems like South Korean is going through the same sort of period that we did during the big MMO boom.  In the meantime I am really enjoying watching these older titles figure out how to make their games work, and more than happy to support them finding a new niche.  The awesome thing about Marvel Heroes is the barrier of entry is non-existent.  If you are looking for a fun Diablo style game… head to steam and install it.  If you do, let me know what you think.

 

MMOS Worth Playing: Lord of the Rings Online

The Underdogs

mmosworthplayingThis is the third week of my MMOs Worth Playing series, and at some point I am probably going to stop doing this introduction.  My focus on the games I pick is to try and choose some of the awesome titles out there that may or may not be getting as much love as I think they deserve.  No one needs to do a post on the reasons why you should be playing World of Warcraft, because there are tons of sites currently covering WoW.  However there are a bunch of games that slip under the radar for one reason or another, and my goal is to pick some of those and talk about the things that interest me about the game.  So far I have covered The Secret World and Rift, and this week I am digging up a title that I have not spent nearly as much time as I would have liked playing.  I feel like I missed the boat with this title, and at this point there is just too much content for me to ever hope to catch up.  I am talking about Lord of the Rings Online, which honestly is a quiet juggernaut of available content and things to do.

The Hook

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Shortly after posting my last write-up, someone asked me what the hook for Lord of the Rings Online was…  and honestly if that title does not inspire magical tingly feelings down your spine then more than likely this is not a game for you.  The hook of this game is and will always be that you get to wander around in the Middle Earth Setting from the Tolkien novels.  That is perhaps the first distinction I should make.  While this game draws some on the visual styling of the movies… it is very much a product of the literary source.  As a result you are going to see more of the world than you ever saw in the movies.  For example the movies cut out the entire Tom Bombadil/Barrow Downs section of the books…  and here you get to experience them in all their glory.  The Barrow Downs area was seriously one of my favorite parts of the early game, and exploring the tombs felt just like reading about the Barrow Wights for the first time.  Rolling up on Weather Top, or Rivendell is just amazing… because here is this thing that you already know so much about… that you are seeing fleshed out and made far more real.

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The biggest take away from the setting that I can give you is that it is huge, and feels more like a real world than most MMOs do.  There are all sorts of little things that draw you into the world.  When you ride past this or that stand of trees… it might scare a flock of birds to take to the air..  making it feel like this living breathing world that you get to explore.  Travel is one of the frustrations most people have with this game, in that the it requires you to memorize a series of routes that remind me quite a bit of the way travel in Dark Age of Camelot felt.  That said this also makes the world feel like something that actual people are living in… because people are messy and chaotic and pretty much buck order.  Think of your own surroundings… is it actually laid out in a manner that is consistent from town to town?  The amount of distance that you have to cross ends up slowing your gameplay down, and putting you in a mode where you are really enjoying the setting as much as you are the game.  There are so many little nuggets of detail scattered through the land that you can only see if you are not passing over them at irrational speeds.

Completionists Dream

LOTROdeedsIn many ways this game was doomed at launch by being thrown in a bucket of “WoW Clones” because honestly… the interface does feel extremely similar to the World of Warcraft standard.  However the game has always felt like a bit of a throwback to an earlier time, and a much less arcade gameplay experience.  The game has one of the more intricate and rewarding crafting systems, and I found wandering the countryside looking for nodes to harvest a pretty enjoyable use of an afternoon.  Where the game gets really intricate however is the “Deed” system, which I realize is a proper use of the word…  but for some reason I always think of housing.  Essentially every action that you can take in the game more than likely has some sort of a deed associated with it.  These deeds however are largely invisible to the user until they go to a specific area or do a specific thing.  From there it starts a completion bar explaining what you need to do to complete the deed which then appears in your log.

What makes this system interesting is that they are for all sorts of tasks.  They might involve you exploring an area and finding specific landmarks on the map and clicking on each of them, or they might involve you doing specific combat attacks a number of times.  Some of them involve you taking down a fixed number of mobs of a specific type.  Equally varied are the rewards.  This game is huge on handing out titles for damned near everything, which makes it really interesting as you roam the country side.  There are far fewer “Hand of Adal” type titles, and more intimate and custom ones.  I for example tend to rock the “Enemy of the Dead” title gained from slaying members of “The Dead” type… namely undead, wights and the sort which are one of the ancestral enemies of “man”.  The important bit from deeds is the ones that unlock your Class Traits.

This game is full of systems within systems, and the Traits are a talent point type system that falls into three categories:  Class, Racial and Virtues.  Class traits tend to increase the effectiveness of your class abilities.  Virtues are pure stat increases, and the type of stats increased vary based on the virtue you are choosing.  Finally the Racial traits are this odd mix of abilities and stat boosts that are designed to take the place of “racial bonuses” in most other games.  The end result makes them feel far more fleshed out, and gives every race in the game a specific flavor other than their visual characteristics.  The gotcha here is that in order to progress you really need to be paying attention to your deeds, because these traits end up giving you a huge boost to your effectiveness.  In theory you could probably level through the game without doing any… but it would be highly unlikely that you could actually complete any of the end game or likely even dungeon content without some focusing through these abilities.

 The Pricing Model

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Turbine with Lord of the Rings was one of the very first successful and even viable free to play pricing models.  It is a mixture of stick and carrot that no other game seems to have completely replicated.  Completely free to play characters are extremely limited in what they can do.  They are limited in their chat functionality, and the amount of money they can earn… and most importantly for me the number of bag slots they have access to.  All of the rich systems in the game are essentially on an adhoc basis forcing you to purchase wardrobe access, auction slots, and individual trait slots.  One of the interesting things about this system is that you transition from free to play status to “premium” the moment you purchase anything from the turbine store.  This unlocks a bunch of things including increasing your bag slots to five, and this essentially stays unlocked for the life of your account.  This means that once you have actually bought any of the unlocks it greatly upgrades your account making it pretty damned playable.  Granted when I have played this game actively I usually subscribe, but over the last few weeks I have been poking my head in to take screenshots and found the game play pretty viable in freemium mode.

The downside however is that I consider the Turbine store to be one of the more expensive to actually purchase anything on.  Horses are essentially $20 regardless of how you chop it by the time you factor in the mount and the actual riding skill.  Compare this to Rift where you can pick up a basic mount for only a few dollars worth of in store currency.  This was one of the first, but unfortunately it has not really taken into account the fact that other models are out there and are more equitable to the player.  They do however run a lot of store sales, and unlike most games you can actually earn turbine points by completing content in game.  Granted you are awarded them five to ten at a time.. and you need 2000 or so to unlock most of the things people would be interested in like new classes.  It does however give players the option to grind out content to earn cash shop currency to purchase things like trait unlocks and extra inventory and vault storage.  I file this system in the realm of not optimal but not nearly as “anti player” as the SWTOR free to play model.

The Community

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The game is extremely rich and interesting… but in truth you are not going to be playing Lord of the Rings Online for the game itself.  You are going to be playing this game for the amazing story that allows you to play a character in the background of this world as you mirror the events of the Fellowship.  It is like playing Star Wars but playing Wedge Antilles instead of Luke Skywalker.  You are doing super important things, but you aren’t ever going to get the kind of broad credit and fame that the stars of the show are getting.  This ends up making the quests feel all the more rich because you know a bit of back story already, and they are filling in details of the setting and giving you insider information on the world.  Even more importantly than this however… is that you will be playing Lord of the Rings online for the community.  Now I am a huge fan of communities that are active and vibrant and I tend to be drawn towards role-playing environments… even though I am not myself much of a role-player.  I currently play on the Landroval server and I have to say it is pretty amazing.

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This game has spent so much time on providing settings for the players to interact and mingle, and has quite possibly one of the coolest sub systems I have seen in any system.  There are instruments in game that can actually be played by the characters, or you can read in midi sequences from text files that then get interpreted with the in game instruments.  This allows the players to do really interesting things… like hold concerts and places like the Prancing Pony Inn in Bree are a hotbed of folks showing off.  I rolled in last night and saw the band from the first image above performing in a corner of the Inn.  Outside there is a full concert stage, and normally there is another group set up there playing songs for the passers by.  There is never a moment in any of the hubs where there is not some role-playing going on, and people have always been super open to answering questions from new comers.  In terms of friendliness I would put Landroval up there with Antonia Bayle in EQ2 and Entity in Wildstar, and that is saying a lot.  I have also heard that the Windfola server was pretty amazing… but unfortunately I believe it was a casualty of the server merges.  It seems like about half of the people I knew from Windfola are now on Landroval… and another batch ended up moving to Arkenstone.  I have a feeling that honestly whatever server you end up on, is going to be a great place to land.  The game is well worth a download and giving it some time to explore.  The biggest word of advice I will give you however is to take it slow.  This game is a much more gradual game than players are used to these days, and if given the proper amount of time to allow yourself to wander and inhabit the world… I have a feeling you will greatly enjoy your experience.

 

MMOs Worth Playing: Rift

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Why This Series

Happy Friday and welcome to the second part of my “MMOs Worth Playing” series where at the end of the week I try and talk about an MMO that I think is very much worth playing.  I thought this morning I would go into some of my thought processes as to why I am doing this.  Lately there has been a lot of angst floating around about various games and the state of them, and while I can very much get riled up just like the next person there is a thought that goes through my head.  Life is far too short to spend your leisure time playing something that makes you unhappy.  There was a time when if you wanted to play an MMO you were pretty much shackled to one of a handful of games in order to get your fix.  However now there are tons of really fun games out there, so it quite honestly would serve most people well to pop around and play several of them to see if any are a better fit.  The other part of this is the fact that we really have no major new AAA MMOs looming on the horizon.  It feels like the era of big releases is over, and instead we have a bunch of existing MMOs that are continuing to make awesome content.  Popping back into an existing MMO to see how it has progressed is a great experience, because there is almost always a huge mountain of content waiting for you to explore.

For the Ascended

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Rift holds a special place in my heart because it was the the game that first truly pulled me away from World of Warcraft.  There were a lot of games that were heralded as the “WoW Killer” and for a time for me at least, it absolutely was.  If there is a feature you have always wanted in an MMO, chances are Rift has it.  But it was more than just cloning features of other games, it also finally figured out how to do public events in a manner that felt both epic and beneficial in the form of Rifts and Invasions that spawn from them.  For a bit about the game setting I am going to draw directly from an early tidbit from the lore team.

Of all the worlds in the universe, only Telara was constructed entirely of sourcestone at an unprecedented nexus of the elemental planes. Elemental energies that come into contact with sourcestone become tangible, and Telara, so heavily influenced by every element, boasts incredible diversity and wealth. Telara’s resources are capable of providing its people endless prosperity, if only they could share the wealth and keep the world safe from those who would plunder it. Though Telara always knew its share of strife, the Blood Storm and the rifts brought entire new plateaus of horror, leading to the edge of oblivion.

Telara is a world that is constantly sieged by forces outside of itself.  Over the years this has taken the form of the elemental dragons, and even gone so far as to seeing parts of these planes of existence merging into Telara itself as the various denizens of these alternate realities set up footholds like that of Hammerknell.  The storytelling gets a little esoteric at times, but essentially you are thrust into this conflict on the brink of destruction.  Most games set up an artificial narrative of good versus evil, and this has pretty much become the standard trope for MMOs.  Rift however does something slightly different and gives you a conflict that feels very real and tangible to us… considering we too are constantly seeing the clash of Technology and Religion.  The Defiant faction relies on very steampunk feeling technology to tame the wilds of Telara.  The Guardian faction instead relies on the Vigil, a pantheon of gods that have long forsaken Telara but are now choosing to make their power known.  You the player takes the role of an ascended, which essentially is vessel for the souls of past warriors that ultimately end up giving you your abilities.  The opening scenes of the game take place on the eve of a final showdown with Regulos the Death Aspect, and you are sent back through time with the mission of trying to stop these events from unfolding.

Soul Keeper

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The most central game play mechanic is that of the souls that you have access to.  There were originally four callings in the game, and recently they added a fifth.  These callings provide the basic feel for what would ultimately be your “class” in another game.  Until the release of the Primalist these all had a clear division based on the armor type…  Warrior was Heavy, Cleric was Chain, Rogue was Leather, and Mage was Cloth.  The Primalist blends the lines a bit and uses Warrior like two handed weapons, but is a leather based calling.  Inside of each of these callings is a number of souls, for the original Callings they each have 11 total souls… with 10 of them available for free and 1 each coming from the two expansions to the game.  The Primalist class launched with 6 souls with more supposedly coming over the coming months.  Souls are essentially what “WoW like” games would refer to as a Talent tree.  The enjoyment of this game for me at least has always been that I get to mix and match any combination of these souls to craft a very personal feeling class out of it.  Traditionally in Talent tree based games, there is a lot of “illusion of choice”, meaning that while you have lots of options there are really only a handful that are ever viable at a given time.  While there are definitely flavor of the month builds in Rift, it seems like if you are dedicated enough to any given play style you can figure out a way to develop a character that has that feel.

The game has all sorts of trope that simply don’t exist in other games.  Want to play a Mage Tank…  Sure you can do that.  Want to play a Warrior Healer… sure you can do that too.  Want to play a brutal Smite Cleric…  yup that is a thing too.  The game gives you a template that allows you to carve out your own class.  Any given “class” is a combination of three Soul trees, and when you slot a given soul it gives you certain abilities by default.  You unlock additional abilities through spending points in that tree.  You could quickly see how this might become tedious, especially given all of the options you have at your finger tips.  It is absolutely possible to create a character with little to no synergy, and that does not play terribly well.  To solve this the game gives you a series of templates that essentially direct you down a path that should be good for this or that… and as you hover over these pre-built templates they tell you the skill level of the class and what sorts of roles they can fill.  Additionally the game has an extremely active player community, and unlike most games… there forums are actually a great place to find help and information.  There are class guide forums that are an awesome place to start for looking at different specs and builds.  I am not sure what the maximum is… but I have 8 different “roles” or specs that I can swap back and forth between freely allowing me to get super granular and create specific builds for very specific conditions.

Feature Rich

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Calling this game feature rich is a bit of an understatement.  Essentially if you can think of a feature that exists in any game… there is likely a version of this fine tuned and available inside of Rift.  For the things that don’t exist the game has a fairly robust mod system… though honestly not quite as complete as say World of Warcraft or Wildstar.  To keep players from “breaking” the game, you cannot override default features of the original game client.  This means that a lot of things don’t integrate fully, but if you really want to use it… the mods are available.  The game has quite possibly the best cosmetic gear system called “Wardrobes”.  This allows the players to save up to fourty different outfits and change between them freely.  Additionally the game uses an appearance collection system, freeing you from having to keep old gear just for the purpose of appearances.  Additionally the dye system allows you to collect certain dyes and then apply them at will to any of your wardrobes, allowing you to change things up whenever the mood suits you without an additional cash sink.  Similarly the game has an amazingly rich housing system in the form of pocket dimenions, allowing the players to customize area of the world.  For example our guild house is the Stone Flask Tavern at Granite Falls in Stonefield, and Rae did some crazy stuff even making a hidden path up the waterfall with a little temple area up there.  Essentially if you can dream it up, there are the tools inside of Rift to be able to create it, and the sorts of dimensions that are available are extremely wide and varied.  The only negative is that there is no way to put resources in your dimension like you can in other games… so you can’t bank, auction, or craft there…  which I realize is an effort to keep the capitol cities feeling vibrant.

 

The game also has one of the more robust mentoring systems allowing you to drop your level at will while wandering the world.  This allows you to vary the difficulty level of a lot of the encounters, but more importantly allows you to hang out freely with your lower level friends without simply steamrolling the content for them.  This mentoring system is also the core of one of the coolest features the game has called Instant Adventures.  I talked a bit about this concept yesterday in my blog post, but essentially you can pop into game… join the Instant Adventure queue and you will be fed a series of objectives for you and a group of players to complete.  What is awesome about this is it is a revisiting of a lot of quest objectives from a given area, but each sequence of objectives generally reaches a crescendo in the form of some sort of mini boss.  While doing this you are racking up planar currency and loot bags that usually contain nice relevant level gear.  When one sequence finishes you are teleported to a new area and the process begins again.   If an area becomes active with a planar invasion, then the instant adventure suddenly shifts purpose to defeating that.  It has been one of my favorite leveling means to go through early content, because you are constantly doing something… and at any point you can hop off the train and go do something a little less frantic.  It does a great job of breaking up the monotony of following quest chains, and like dungeons just gives you another way to mix things up a bit.

Monetization

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This is always the specter looming over a free to play game, is how exactly is it itemized and is it honestly playable for free… or do you really need to subscribe to enjoy it.  This is always a difficult question for me to answer since I never actually play these games in free to play mode.  From what I understand… if you play this game for free you get access to all 65 levels worth of content, the original four callings, and ten souls per calling.  Instead of penalizing the players… Rift took the path of rewarding them for becoming “patrons” because once a game goes free to play.. that is after all what it becomes… a patronage system.  As a Patron you get all sorts of perks, and don’t have to worry about any limitations to the number of dungeons you can run a day or anything of the sort.  You also get a number of extremely generous boosts to experience, gold gain, as well as daily and weekly rewards that guarantee you at least one cash shop lockbox for free.  The only thing that keeps it from being a perfect free to play implementation however is that you gain no monthly stipend of shop currency like you do in other games.  With no way of gaining the shop currency in game, it ends up actually making the prices on items feel more reasonable since the game is not having to dilute the price to make up for the fact that players can grind out the currency in game.

Like most cash shops, there are tons of chase items that offer rare and limited time things that you can only acquire through lockboxes.  Having these items that you want appear only in lockboxes can be an extremely frustrating proposition, especially if RNGesus is not on your side.  To combat this not they offer these super limited time sales that allow you to buy the various mounts outright, and if you regularly watch the Friday twitch stream they often times give away these goodies as well there.  So while there are a lot of trappings of the normal insidiousness of a cash shop…  I feel like for the most part it is fair, and in truth you can largely ignore it completely.  Honestly I would say this is one of the few games that you can literally play without spending a dime and be completely happy doing so.  I’ve been subscribed off and on since the release of Rift in 2011…  but there are also times where I have played this game for free here and there before picking back up my patronage.  I can say I noticed zero difference in the game other than the fact that I was obviously missing my experience boost buffs.  The game felt the same, and played the same…  and that is just about as high of praise as I can give for a free to play experience.  If you’ve never played Rift, you owe it to yourself to give it a try… especially since it can be played completely for free.  It is either going to click with you or not, but in any case there is a lot to experience… and I have to say I really enjoy the early leveling experience especially.  Storm Legion and Nightmare Tides…  is admittedly a bit of a slog, but I keep thinking I must be missing some path that I should be taking there.  In any case…  I said a bunch of stuff about Rift, and I still definitely burn a candle for this game.  Join me next Friday as I talk about another game.

MMOs Worth Playing: The Secret World

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The Games Pusher

One of my friends coined the term “Games Pusher” to represent the force I have when it comes to getting people to try a game.  She said she called me a drug dealer in the nicest possible way, but the term has stuck in my head.  It is true, I get super excited about games and enjoy trying to introduce people to ones they are not currently playing.  The thing is…  originally I thought this was just me vying to get more people to join me in the game I am currently playing.  However I feel like there are dozens of MMOs that are really good and that people should play all of them at least for a bit.  So we zoom to earlier this week when a friend of mine… one @zerena_hoofs made the innocuous comment that “I need a new mmo in my life”.  At which point I ended up flooding her with suggestions.  I jokingly said that I could keep it up for hours… and in truth I really could.  While I generally suck at sticking with “columns” I always have the desire to spawn them.  This time the idea is to do a short run of posts each Friday talking about the awesome things relating to one MMO that is “worth playing”.  Since it is October, I thought I would start things off with the most Halloweeny of all MMOs…  The Secret World.

The Plot

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The game is set essentially in an alternate reality version of our own world, and with that comes a lot of pop culture references.  When your character is awoken to your own latent abilities by a mysterious bee flying into your mouth while you are sleeping, you are recruited by one of three different secret organizations.  It seems while the world “slept” there has been a secret cold war going on between three ancient powers:  The Knights Templar, The Illuminati and a mysterious and relatively unknown organization called Dragon.  Each organization has its own agendas…  for the Templar based in London it tends to be to keep the order.  For the Illuminati based in New York it is all about hoarding knowledge and making a profit.  For Dragon based on Seoul it is about sowing the seeds of chaos throughout the world.  This secret back and forth between these clandestine entities would have remained like this for continued centuries were it not for the fact that something is changing.  A darkness is bubbling up from the bowels of the earth in the form of “The Filth” which is this black ichor that infects anyone who touches it with a sort of deliberate madness.  Now each organization is trying to get to the bottom of what is going on, while at the same time protecting their own assets and vying for supremacy over the other orders.

The game relies upon urban legends and myths to weave a tapestry of strange happenings throughout the world.  One moment you are investigating a small town in New England overrun by Lovecraftian horrors and zombies, and the next you might be uncovering a lost city in the Egyptian desert forgotten to time and filled with its own unknown dangers.  All the while you are trying to sort out what is happening to the world and what you and your chosen order can do to fix it.   What makes all of this work is the fact that this game has some of the best writing I have seen in any game, MMO or not.  The quests are interesting and actually require some pretty damned devious puzzle to solve.  There was one quest in Egypt that I remember vividly that actually provided data that you had to decode that was included in a number of real world encoding mechanisms.  Only after decrypting all of them could you get the clue needed to solve the riddle.  To make life easier on you, the game provides an in game browser and Funcom operates a number of “fake” websites for people and corporations in game that contain clues that are needed to solve certain quests.

The Mechanics

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The game claims to not have levels or classes but in truth… neither of these are absolutely correct.  What the game offers is a free form character creation system, but that freedom is actually fairly dangerous.  You can in theory build a character that is so screwed up that you cannot actually function in the game.  The game provides a few specific templates for each of the professions and earning all of the abilities for this template gets you a nifty costume.  These also serve as relatively functional builds for you to work towards, that will hopefully prevent the problems of absolute freedom.  The challenge here is the fact that there is no “respec” or skills reset system.  Doing things in the world gains you ability points and skill points, each with their own uses.  Ability points are spent learning new abilities in several different weapon based trees, and Skill points are used to level your ability to equip higher tiers of gear.  In its most basic form a “build” is a combination of up to seven active abilities on your hotbar, and up to seven passive abilities that hopefully interact with the actives you chose.  Later in the game they introduced new weapons that also take up space, but those won’t unlock until you have completed a quest.

The game itself feels almost like a card building game like Magic the Gathering or the Guild Wars 1 skill system… where you are trying to build a “deck” of abilities that interact in interesting ways together.  For example you might have a passive that does something really interesting when you push an enemy into a “hindered” state, and then you would want to use that with abilities on your hotbar that trigger that hindered state.  What makes this extremely interesting is the fact that you can swap your abilities at any time out in the world, and when we were running dungeons we often found ourselves swapping around what specifically we were using to better synergize with what other players were bringing to the table.  The biggest problem is that the game takes a lot of careful research to play well.  One of our challenges was the fact that we each had a specific idea of what we wanted our character to be… and some of those options simply were not viable when you got to the hardest content.  I have not played the game in some time, but one of the challenges was that there were certain required abilities and not every weapon tree could provide those.

The Style

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One of the best aspects of the game for me personally, were the awesome cosmetic gear options.  I am a huge fan of  transmogging or whatever a given game calls it, and if my character looks awesome I feel awesome about playing it.  One of the coolest things that The Secret World has going for it, is that essentially all visible gear is cosmetic by nature, and you can swap between looks freely while you are out in the field.  All items you pick up go into a dressing room and you can swap bits whenever you feel like it.  The actually “gear” that gives you statistics are your weapons and a number of talismans… necklaces, bracelets, rings etc… that are other than your weapon non-visible gear.  To make weapons cosmetic as well, they give you the ability to create a weapon mold that can chance the appearance of an item.  Combined this gives players extreme freedom in expressing their characters…  but sadly that means that the majority of players are going to be women running around with as little clothing on as humanly possible.  The above screenshot is one of my favorites, because my friend Tam and I essentially both arrived at super similar looks while doing a mission completely accidentally.  We jokingly dubbed this our Blues Brothers pose.

Another great thing about the game is that it is truly a mega server experience.  There are “servers” but they really don’t actually matter.  All of the characters span all of the servers, and you can group freely  with anyone regardless of faction.  This means that there is never a situation where two friends playing this game won’t be able to play together.  The only negative is that Cabals themselves aka Guilds… don’t span multiple factions.  I’ve spent most of my time playing for the Templar, but I know just as many diehard Illuminati and Dragon players.  The only problem is with the Cabals not spanning factions, it made it mildly frustrating for the folks who didn’t want to play Templar, since the guild was in that faction.  The workaround is that the game supports social channels and we used them prolifically when we were playing actively.  Another really cool thing about the game is that it has an extremely devoted and active role-playing population.  If you wander around London you are going to find pockets of players acting out their characters, and that adds a certain depth to the environment.

Expansion

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The growth of the game comes in the form of comic book like “Issues” where a batch of content is released with a common theme.  To date there have been twelve issues spanning from July 2012 to August 2015, each with their own themes and usually their own comic book cover to go along with it.

  • Issue 1: Carter Unleashed
  • Issue 2: Digging Deeper
  • Issue 3: The Cat God
  • Issue 4: Big Trouble in the Big Apple
  • Issue 5: The Vanishing of Tyler Freeborn
  • Issue 6: Last Train to Cairo
  • Issue 7: A Dream to Kill
  • Issue 8: The Venetian Agenda
  • Sidestories:  Further Analysis
  • Issue 9: The Black Signal
  • Sidestories:  Love & Loathing
  • Sidestories: The Last Pagan
  • Issue 10: Nightmares in the Dream Palace
  • Issue 11: Reaping the Wind
  • Issue 12: To the Dark Tower Below

Monetization for this game comes primarily in the form of purchasing these issues, and in the various cosmetic items that you can purchase only through the store.  They have a number of really cool themed outfits that you can pick up, and for subscribers they give you a unique batch of items each month.  I purchased a lifetime subscription when the game was released that converted when the game went free to play to one that gives me access to all the subscription content, and a stipend of cash shop currency each month to spend.  While we call this game “Free to Play” it is in truth “Buy to Play” meaning you have to purchase the base game in order to do anything.  From there to get these new stand alone issues you have to purchase them one by one.  Right now on Steam the game is running $29.99 but quite often it goes on sale for as little as $10.  Similarly there is an ultimate version available for $59.99 that includes all of the content as well as a custom costume and some other consumables.  I fully expect that as we get closer to Halloween we will see both of these versions get discounted heavily.  The long and short is.. this is one of the most enjoyable questing experiences I have ever had in any game.  The story content is amazingly well written and the quests themselves are extremely inventive.  That said occasionally the solutions are insanely difficult to figure out.  Thankfully there are plenty of awesome guide sides out there like Unfair.co for if you find yourself stuck.  This is one of those games that I think everyone should try, just be willing to devote some effort into sorting out just what kind of character you want to build.  Once you get into the game world however… it becomes extremely infectious…  just like the  Filth.